Category Archives: american films

The Beguiled

The Beguiled

When I saw Sofia Coppola’s latest film The Beguiled (2017) at the County Theater in Doylestown I was actually really surprised by it. I know it really wasn’t very much akin to its source material, A Painted Devil by Thomas P. Cullinan, and it certainly stood in sociological opposition to the Don Siegel adaptation of 1971. And yet, I found the film to be boring.

Coppola’s style appears to have opened up to prioritize geographical location and setting at a higher value since The Bling Ring (2013), often times reminding me of David Gordon Green’s more recent independent film dramas. But this sudden value she appears to have found in locale is overwhelmed by how cloistered the narrative scope is (a sharp contrast to her 2003 feature Lost In Translation). It is almost as if by adapting Cullinan’s novel into a film and reconstructing it as a feminist work that Coppola has repressed all of the other links to the political, sociological, and historical contexts that should have shaped the narrative and given it greater value.

The Beguiled, very early on, severs all of its ties with the American institution of slavery. If memory serves it is Nicole Kidman, as Miss Farnsworth, who observes that “about a year ago all of our slaves left”. Then later, Colin Farrell, as Corporal McBurney, relates to his hosts that he is a “mercenary”, and that he does not believe in either the Union nor the Confederate causes in one of the most blatant pieces of expositional dialogue I have heard in awhile. Both of these moments “whitewash” the narrative. Coppola denies her audience the context of these characters’ very existence in order to keep the viewer’s focus solely on the sexual politics of The Beguiled. In so doing, I hardly see the purpose of even keeping the narrative of The Beguiled situated during the American Civil War. These events could just as easily have happened if they were set in Bosnia, Iran, Chile, or Vietnam.

The Beguiled’s most glaring narrative omission is its inability to articulate the generational divide between the seminary’s instructors and their charges. That Sofia Coppola has proven quite adept at depicting the nuances of such conflicts in her debut feature The Virgin Suicides (1999) and yet would rather not address these issues in The Beguiled is disappointing. A good deal about all of the leads could have been shown/learned by allowing the film the time to expand upon these interrelationships.

The sexual politics of The Beguiled (an eye for an eye so to speak) themselves, though superficially interesting, aren’t anything new. When walking out of the theater I thought about how much the narrative structure of The Beguiled reminded me of Andrea Arnold’s film Fish Tank (2009). Both films’ narrative structure begins and hinges upon the introduction of a male into a unit of women (a single mother and her two daughters in Fish Tank). In as much as for control as for a bid for power, these male characters (Farrell and Michael Fassbender) attach themselves openly to the older female characters while intending to sexually exploit the younger. But where in The Beguiled the unit of women combines to seek retribution for the male’s offenses, in Fish Tank, it is only the eldest daughter Mia (Katie Jarvis) who takes up the task (her mother and little sister prefer denial). By focusing only on Mia’s journey through the narrative Arnold gives her audience a strong portrait of womanhood in the early 21st century while also bypassing a broad allegorical form that the seminary represents in The Beguiled.

Andrea Arnold’s specificity of character, time and place as well as her employment of minor details in character and setting ground her realist narrative in a very contemporary setting, relying on the emotional vitality of the performers (Fassbender and Jarvis) to give the film enough “truth”, as Cassavetes would call it, to be transcendent. Sofia Coppola, on the other hand, appears to have designed her film to be “timeless” in terms dictated by its omissions as much as its inclusions. For me this makes Fish Tank a far more relevant and engaging piece of cinematic art than The Beguiled.

Fish Tank
Sofia Coppola’s brand of cinematic feminism is then only existent in conditions similar to a vacuum. The trappings of moment and setting must be made superfluous to propagate any meaningful dialogue exchange with an audience regarding feminist discourse. This doesn’t mean that The Beguiled is a bad film. In many respects I believe there is something of value in what Coppola gives audiences with her film by simply sustaining such a discourse at all. The issue for me is that the film doesn’t live up to its own potential as a means for both strengthening and widening the discourse that concerns Sofia Coppola so much.

-Robert Curry

Leave a comment

Filed under american films

Wonder Woman

Warner Bros. owns Wonder Woman and they need permission for every little thing you do,…Unfortunately, they didn’t want them stepping on the character that they own. – Lynda Carter

tdngn8g0bu3f9jglg6zi.png

In October, 2016, the character Wonder Woman was designated by the United Nations to be the Honorary Ambassador For The Empowerment Of Women And Girls. This was months before Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman (2017) had its domestic release, but this gesture on the part of the UN is clearly indicative of both the strength of Warner Brothers/DC Comics’ publicity machine as well as the discourse surrounding the film that this publicity machine perpetuated.

When Wonder Woman was released a couple of weeks ago social networks exploded with enthusiasm. Adjectives that have long been foreign to Warner Brothers’ productions were being bandied about right and left; “queer friendly”, “feminist”, “empowering”, “progressive”, “non-binary”, and so on and so forth. Words such as these are obviously befitting Patty Jenkins’ achievement with the commercial success of her film. Women directors rarely find themselves selected to helm these kinds of summer blockbusters, let alone open with the astronomical grosses of Wonder Woman. Even more incredible is that Patty Jenkins is returning to the commercial film format for the first time since her 2003 film Monster after a long spell directing for television. Though such a transition may be far more conceivable today it is still rather difficult for directors to move back into feature films from television that it is to do the opposite. But does the praise afforded to the film Wonder Woman on social media itself actually befit accolades the likes of “progressive”?

Wonder Woman is a film about a heroic, super powered woman whose strengths and determination single-handedly bring about the end of WWI. Wonder Woman is the first film of the “superhero” genre with a female lead since 2005. Wonder Woman is also a film that abounds in casual racism. Wonder Woman propagates social stereotypes concerning beauty. These points considered, does the progression of a female lead character necessarily excuse the racism and superficiality that color the narrative world of that character? What if one also considers the classically heteronormative relationship and attraction between Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman and Chris Pine’s Captain Steve?

Let’s address these concerns in their narrative sequence. The story of Wonder Woman’s youth on the Amazon isle of Themyscira is rather standard in its construction. This portion of the film moves with the grace and sentimentality of a Disney cartoon. Images Jenkins presents us with during this portion of sword and sandal bearing warrior women manages to just barely negate any visual reference to the Italian sexploitation films of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s (a film like Terence Young’s War Goddess for instance)  while also never intentionally suggesting that there is any lesbianism on an island of women (an island de-eroticized by familial affections). Then, when Chris Pine arrives and the narrative of the film truly begins to move beyond the expositional un-ease of Themyscira a new aesthetic is introduced.

The romance between Wonder Woman, the naive do-gooder, and Steve, the charming but world-weary patriot, is derived from the classic heteronormative odd couple pairings found in the best romantic comedies, be it The Thin Man (1934), His Girl Friday (1940), Adam’s Rib (1949), The African Queen (1951) or Pillow Talk (1959). The tropes from these older films that have been appropriated over the years by action blockbusters, to great effect (beginning with Spielberg’s Raiders Of The Lost Ark in 1981), seem only to be acceptable if the film sets itself prior to 1960. The elements preserved in the case of Wonder Woman are the opposition of the character’s world views, their degree of sexual experience, and their differing approaches to conflict (in the case of Wonder Woman, these conflicts are primarily physical) which are all indicated in the witty banter that Wonder Woman and Steve share.

The argument that Wonder Woman is a work of feminist cinema first runs aground soon after Pine and Gadot have linked up, when the film introduces its two main villains. Danny Huston has his traditionally campy turn as General Ludendorff and Elena Anaya as Dr. Poison is exactly everything one can find endearing in a villain out of a Hammer Horror film. However, the juxtaposition between beauty/good and ugly/evil is problematic in so far as it is a cliché that has been the source of perpetuating some unhealthy assumptions regarding beauty. Gal Gadot is classically beautiful as Wonder Woman while Elena Anaya is made to appear disfigured by cyanide (in the comic Dr. Poison is Japanese and is not disfigured). This implies, as I am sure most readers already know, that traditionally western views of beauty are inherently good, while all others are inherently bad or, at best, comical (Lucy Davis’ character Etta Candy also supports this antiquated view within the film). Wonder Woman goes so far as to state this explicitly in a scene where an undercover Chris Pine is flirting with Anaya to retrieve valuable information when Gadot’s entrance foils Pine’s sexual maneuvering.

Wonder Woman’s treatment of Pine’s ragtag team of “outsider” mercenaries is equally problematic. Eugene Brave Rock, Saïd Taghmaoui, and Ewen Bremner are never permitted to develop their characters beyond their function as signifiers, nor are they taken at all seriously by either Wonder Woman or Steve. This international “dirty dozen” exists for comic relief, and every member belongs to a singular racial stereotype (an approach better suited to the satirical works of Richard F. Outcault). The casual racism here does little service to the film, continuing to oppress presumably Middle Eastern, Native American and Scottish characters for the benefit of Pine and Gadot. This element of the film gets to the very heart of the hypocrisy of the argument that Wonder Woman is either a “progressive” or an “inclusive” work in mainstream cinema.

This brings us to an interesting issue regarding the choice to relocate Wonder Woman’s narrative from WWII (the comic book timeline) to WWI (the film). The possibilities offered by such a temporal relocation would have allowed the narrative to focus on the Eastern Front of WWI just as easily as the Western. Wonder Woman could have explored the theme of war from the perspective of the deconstruction of the Ottoman Empire by European Imperialist powers, telling a story that is more relevant today and also a more likely place to find Aries the God of War. But Wonder Woman prefers to continue the American tradition of killing multitudes of faceless German soldiers instead.

829413967.jpg

By the time David Thewlis reveals himself to be Aries, audiences are primed for a white-knuckle showdown. It is to Jenkins’ credit, and that of the screenwriter Allan Heinberg, that we get something just a bit more cerebral instead. Cross-cutting from Pine’s sacrifice to Wonder Woman’s battle makes it clear that it is the power of “belief” or “love” in and for the human race that is ultimately Aries undoing. Regretfully, the moment after this climax the film cuts to dazed soldiers awaking in the rubble and embracing one another. This about-face in the film’s attitude to war as a grizzly, politically complicated affair smacks of late-sixties anti-war idealism, the kind associated with the cartoon Yellow Submarine (1969).

Despite all of this, I would not say that Wonder Woman is a bad film. It is just like any other PG-13 blockbuster of this last decade. I have a tremendous amount of respect for Patty Jenkins and what her role in Wonder Woman clearly means to women working in the film industry. The issue here is that Wonder Woman is being bought and sold as something it is not. Maybe it is a small baby-step towards a more inclusive mainstream, but it does not represent feminism as anything other than a superficial means to a capitalist minded end, nor does it do any service to the LGBTQ communities. The character of Wonder Woman, by simply existing, empowers women, and the LGBTQ communities seemed to never have appeared at all in the Wonder Woman film universe. Warner Bros’ promotion of the film and the ensuing debates surrounding the film put it into the contexts of feminist and queer discourses while the film itself has the same priorities as any multi-million dollar spectacle; to turn a profit.

-Robert Curry

Leave a comment

Filed under american films

The Square Peg

“Why make it sad to be gay? Doing your thing is O.K. Our bodies are our own so leave us alone. Go play with yourself-today.” – John Lennon, The Gay Liberation Book, 1972

German film poster

The subject of homosexuality had arrived at a watershed moment by 1967. The mainstream of Hollywood could no longer repress depictions of homosexuality into the niche of lesbianism in accordance with heterosexual male fantasy. Successes like Andy Warhol’s My Hustler (1965), Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures (1963), and Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising (1963) in the underground cinemas of New York and other urban centers had paved the way for new characterizations of queerness in the American cinema at large. Until 1967, depictions of male homosexuality had been limited to Tony Randall and Rock Hudson’s relationship in a slew of films with Doris Day or to foreign film markets. Anyone familiar with the works of such critics and film essayists as Rob Epstein, Jeffrey Friedman, Richard Dyer, Andrea Weiss, and Mark Rappaport knows at this point how brutally closeted Hollywood was (and still is). That is to say that there exists a large body of film criticism dedicated solely to deciphering the coded messages of queerness in the cinema.

Homosexuality in the novel is an entirely different matter. Gay characters were not as restricted as their Hollywood counterparts by the mid twentieth century. Though still a controversial “subject” from the perspective of the American mainstream, homosexuality in the novel enjoyed a rare degree of liberty. It is important to note that depictions of homosexual love that were the least bit explicit were bound to get an author’s work branded as the worst kind of debauched pornography (such was the case with Jean Genet for instance). It was into this milieu that Carson McCullers unleashed her novel of longing and repressed desires Reflections In A Golden Eye in 1941.

When, in 1967, Warner Brothers released their film version of McCullers’ novel, the film bombed terribly. In part this was due to the general conservatism of America as a whole, and partly because Reflections In A Golden Eye wasn’t released in the same manner of distribution as the films of Warhol, Smith, and Anger. The presumed target audience for such a film was not going to be interested in a John Huston film, nor were they going to rush to some “square” theater if a hip and happening alternative theater is showing something more in line with the times (Warhol, Smith and Anger). Or even worse, they wouldn’t want to be seen attending a screening of such a film for fear of being outed.

It does make sense for a Hollywood major to select material like McCullers’ novel to adapt into a film. This is primarily because the novel is so adept at articulating its character’s sense of repression and guilt that it would be easy, while adapting the work, to imbue it with enough heterosexual paranoia as to negate any realistic depiction of queerness, thus continuing to vilify and deride homosexual characters. So where the novel’s focus is clearly the existential crises of identities distorted through social repression, the film recasts the circumstances of the novel to focus instead upon the theme of queerness as subterfuge of traditional heteronormative marriage.

The Penderton stables

Of all of John Huston’s films, Reflections In A Golden Eye is by far the most unusual. He certainly doesn’t appear at first to have been the director most suitable for the material either. Huston’s name, and indeed his legend, centers on the kind of machismo one associates with Ernest Hemingway or Norman Mailer. Huston’s reputation as an auteur had only recently been established by Andrew Sarris in the early sixties. When he made Reflections In A Golden Eye most audiences knew Huston better as a larger than life adventurer who directed such beloved films as The Maltese Falcon (1941) and The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre (1948). What was perhaps Huston’s greatest gift, however, were his abilities as a screenwriter. A talent that Warner Brothers neglected to enlist when adapting McCullers’ novel. The screenplay was penned by Huston’s close friend Gladys Hill (who would work again with Huston on The Man Who Would Be King) and Chapman Mortimer (an alias of Scottish author W.C. Mortimer).

The film Reflections In A Golden Eye centers upon two couples which provide the center of its narrative complex. There is on the one hand Major Weldon Penderton (Marlon Brando) and his wife Leonora Penderton (Elizabeth Taylor) and on the other hand there is Lt. Colonel Morris Langdon (Brian Keith) and his wife Alison Langdon (Julie Harris). Within this primary complex the couples are intimately linked, not by friendship, but sexually; Leonora and Lt. Colonel Langdon are having an affair. Which leads to the next outer ring of the complex. Both Major Penderton and Alison Langdon have found new outlets for their affections that are impossible to physically, and therefore sexually, obtain. Major Penderton longs for Private Williams (Robert Forster) just as Alison longs for Anacleto (Zorro David), her servant.

Alison’s relationship with Anacleto is the most unusual in the film. Her servant is depicted as extremely feminine yet retains a gender ambiguity. However, with blocking Huston conveys another level in the relationship. The compositions of Alison and Anacleto together recall classic depictions of Sapphic love. This suggests that Anacleto, due to his inherent degree of intimacy and his constant proximity as well as his androgyny, is merely a substitute or surrogate for Alison’s lesbian impulses. This relationship goes undetected in the narrative, for Lt. Colonel Langdon is so hostile and homophobic toward Anacleto that he never truly observes his wife’s companion. These are all details concerning Anacleto that are never actually articulated by the character himself. As both Langdons project their unique concepts of Anacleto’s identity on to him, he is destined to remain relatively neglected in the film.

This can also be said with regards to the character of Private Williams. When we are first introduced to Williams in the film he is observed nude, voyeuristically watching the Penderton’s house. As he becomes more daring, eventually breaking in to watch Leonora sleep and steal a kiss, he provokes the attentions of Major Penderton. Williams, like Anacleto, remains relatively abstract and unknown to the audience. Instead we are left only with the reactionary sense of fear provided by both Pendertons and the sexual longing provided only by Major Penderton.

Brando & Keith

This complex, akin to a planet and it’s satellites in orbit, clearly places the idea that it is the queerness of Alison and Major Penderton that has undermined their marriages to the point where their spouses have no recourse other than to have an affair. The result of this chain of cause and effect is brutal and sadistic towards the films queer characters. Alison, with the aid of Anacleto, commits suicide in a sanitarium to which her husband has had her committed as they await their divorce. Likewise, Major Penderton, once exposed, is unable to reaffirm the necessary masculinity to retain either his wife’s respect nor the regard of his fellow officers. Major Penderton, at the end of the film, has been emasculated by his wife, scorned by his fellow officers, and rejected by the object that he desires. In both characters’ cases it is essential to, as with most people practicing a queer or alternative lifestyle during that time, to remain in the closet. This unjust circumstance has the effect of Stockholm Syndrome, where the emotional ties in marriages like the ones depicted in Reflections In A Golden Eye are very real, as is the sense of self-identity that is born out of such emotional intimacy. The film Reflections In A Golden Eye, unlike the novel, casts queerness as a tragedy.

Yet, there is more to Reflections In A Golden Eye than just the dramatic complex of its relationships. Like so many of Huston’s films during his late and most provocative period (commencing in 1964 with Night Of The Iguana and concluding with The Dead in 1987), there exist moments of such truthful visual poetry that entire sequences appear to transcend or entirely re-contextualize the rest of the film. From the start Huston has employed a wide variety of powerful signifiers. First, there are the Penderton’s horses which come to represent fertility, then the Privates’ uniform which represents the facelessness of the unknown, and finally, a thicket that comes to represent crucifixion. Still, the most moving sequence in the film occurs the second time Major Penderton goes riding on his wife’s favorite steed, hoping to catch a glimpse of Private Williams sunbathing in the nude atop a boulder.

The sequence unfolds in a series of long takes, panning with Major Penderton through the woods. Soon, shots of Williams are interspersed, but the framing stays wide. Then, the close up on Penderton’s face. Brando, seemingly doing nothing at all, conveys in a few briefly sustained shots a wellspring of emotions. In Brando’s eyes one can feel the carnal desire, the fear of these desires, and even more the fear of one’s self realized, confronted. What follows is the most disturbing but effective sequence in John Huston’s career: the rebuff, and the thicket in which Penderton becomes terribly scratched, then the beating Penderton administers to his wife’s horse. All these elements provide a climactic and nightmarish catharsis. All of Penderton’s repressed emotions, beautifully communicated by Brando using just his face, come pouring forth powerfully in a violent stream of frustration.

It is tempting to credit the powerful sequence addressed above and its sense of atmosphere that permeates the rest of Reflections In A Golden Eye solely to John Huston, given his adeptness for psychologically intense character investigations as evidenced by Fat City (1972), Wise Blood (1979), and Under The Volcano (1984). But the uniqueness of this moment in the careers of both Marlon Brando and John Huston indicates otherwise. Not to mention the contributions made by cinematographer Aldo Tonti, whose previous credits include films by Roberto Rossellini and Federico Fellini.

Keith, Taylor & Brando

All of Brando’s subsequent scenes in Reflections In A Golden Eye are replete with the same emotional intensity. This enables the film to transcend the script’s queer shaming agenda to become what is probably the most impactful portrait of closeted homosexuality in the mainstream of American cinema until the 1990s. But this makes Reflections In A Golden Eye all the more problematic. The audience has the opportunity to emote with Major Penderton in a way that is denied to Alison and Anacleto. Similarly, Leonora and Lt. Colonel Langdon come of progressively more and more elitist, sleazy, and bigoted. Such characterizations are hardly out of place in a drama set on a military base, but it does signify an obvious preference on Huston’s part for the character of Major Penderton. Essentially, it is a matter of Huston and his collaborators working against the script to do two things. First, to humanize an outsider character that typically would not be allowed to appear so sympathetic and realistic. Secondly, to showcase a major star and celebrity as a means to get away with a sympathetic portrayal of a homosexual.

Brando himself is a major part of the visual complex employed by Huston in Reflections In A Golden Eye. It is uncertain if John Huston was aware of Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising or if he ever saw it. Regardless, the film Jonas Mekas described as “brilliant” upon its premiere provides an association or reference point for the visual schema of Reflections In A Golden Eye. Anger’s sordid tales of biker boy debauchery and satanic euphoria that compose Scorpio Rising employs an image of Marlon Brando, taken from László Benedek’s The Wild One (1953), of the star decked out in tight black leather. The mirror images of Anger’s own biker beauties with that of their idol/ideal metamorphoses the Brando image from The Wild One beyond its original context and into a signifier and fetish item. This fetishized image of Brando is recalled, intentionally or not, in a brief scene in Reflections In A Golden Eye where Brando, wearing an under shirt similar to that which he wore in The Wild One, ogles his biceps in a mirror. So in one instant, Huston is able to re-orient Brando/Penderton as a fellow spectator, idolizing and fetishizing his own image while also re-enforcing, beyond a doubt, the queer potential of the Penderton character.

It should be noted that not only were most homosexuals being oppressed or living closeted lives in 1967, but that even in the wake of Reflections In A Golden Eye filmic depictions of queerness within the mainstream still struggled to escape vilification (or heterosexual male fetishization in the case of lesbian depictions). One of the few depictions of homosexuality in the sixties that was not designed to shame or vilify came two years later; Stanley Donen’s Staircase (1969). Staircase could get away with a more “truthful” or sympathetic depiction of homosexuality than Reflections In A Golden Eye because the two stars (Rex Harrison and Richard Burton) were notorious womanizers that no one could take seriously in the parts of homosexuals (something that couldn’t be said for Brando), the source material had been a hit show for playwright Charles Dyer, and its ad campaign trivialized the subject matter to the point of farce (needless to say, Staircase met with the same fate as Reflections In A Golden Eye at the box office). Filmic depictions of queerness from the sixties that have become popular now like Paul Morrissey’s Flesh (1968) and Shirley Clarke’s Portrait Of Jason (1967) had a severely limited run in American art-houses, thus negating any national exposure and remaining completely inaccessible to most of the gay community. In this way the explicit depictions of homosexuality remained exactly where most of America wanted them in the sixties; in the margins of our society.

-Robert Curry

Leave a comment

Filed under american films

Alien: Covenant

The best part of Ridley Scott’s latest offering, Alien: Covenant (2017), is when Michael Fassbender kisses Michael Fassbender. The film features Fassbender in dual roles as the androids David and Walter and, of course, they kiss. This is bound to be great fun for fans of the actor, but it pinpoints a troubling side to Scott’s cinema. If one considers that it is the film’s villain, David, who kisses his double Walter, one cannot escape the legacy of villainizing characters who do not conform to heteronormative sexual practice. The stand-out representative of this trend in Scott’s films is Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) in 2000’s Gladiator.

Alien: Covenant

Repetition is the theme of Alien: Covenant in more respects than just the one stated above. For it seems that the narrative of Alien: Covenant is born out of a fusion between James Cameron’s Aliens (1986) and Erle C. Kenton’s The Island Of Lost Souls (1932). Thus, Alien: Covenant is as predictable as 2012’s Prometheus was subversive. There is now, more than ever, a sense of formula to 20th Century Fox’s Alien franchise. Not only does Alien: Covenant rehash familiar narratives, it also recycles it’s characters. By casting Katherine Waterston as the protagonist Daniels in a position within the narrative not dissimilar to that of Ripley in the original films, Scott has diminished the subversive potential of a female protagonist within a science fiction film.

Ridley Scott’s strengths as a filmmaker are, however, very much present in Alien: Covenant. The attention to detail in the set design and the pervading sense of atmosphere render this mediocre film far more visceral than it has a right to be. This does not redeem the series of special effects and stunts that send us blundering through Alien: Covenant’s narrative though. A criticism that seems applicable to almost all of Scott’s work.

Interestingly, this pattern of repetition or doubling appears to have extended beyond the confines of Scott’s work on its own terms. Just as Ridley Scott began his career by emulating Stanley Kubrick in his underappreciated first feature The Duelists (1977), so has Denis Villeneuve been emulating Scott since 2013’s Prisoners. This aesthetic intersection only occurred to me when the latest trailer for Blade Runner 2049 played before Alien: Covenant. Villeneuve is quite literally replacing Scott as he helms the sequel to the acclaimed 1982 film into the world of the franchise. My impressions of Blade Runner 2049 are actually quite similar to those I had of Alien: Covenant upon first seeing the latter’s trailer; haven’t I already seen this? Within this complex of subtle codification it is entertaining to ponder if Ryan Gosling really is to a generation of viewers what Harrison Ford was before him.

-Robert Curry

Leave a comment

Filed under american films

Wolverine’s Swan Song

Logan & Laura

“This repression of the ‘non-serious’ aspects of pleasure, of a discourse of fun, is not, of course, a total exclusion. Notions of distraction, diversion, and entertainment have appeared with regularity in the academic discourse on cinematic pleasure. Yet, within that discourse, they are almost invariably positioned as negative terms. They are often figured as decadent – betrayals of truth, morally corrupt, politically incorrect – or, at best, as escapist or trivial. Indeed, it seems that the vast majority of the academic ‘discourse on pleasure’ has been calculated to distinguish between these ‘corrupt’ pleasures and more acceptable, ‘serious’ pleasures.”

-R.L. Rutsky & Justin Wyatt, Serious Pleasures: Cinematic Pleasure And The Notion Of Fun, 1990

Most of the films that American audiences see or hear about are designed to maximize public appeal, to gross highly, and to entertain. With this set of priorities, the mainstream, the most commercial of American cinema, cannot afford much in the way of serious artistic expression. If we accept Rutsky and Wyatt’s arguments, then the films that come out of the major studios enter into critical discourse as “corrupt pleasures” insofar as these films primarily represent distractions, diversions and entertainment.

James Mangold’s Logan (2017) fits within this niche easily. It’s a major blockbuster and an installment within a well proven franchise of movies that has been turning a healthy profit in cinemas for seventeen years now. However, unlike most films within a franchise, Logan dares to challenge the genre to which it was born (so to speak).  J.J. Abrams’ Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015) is a far more typical representation of how a franchise functions, evidencing how best to keep the grosses consistent: more of the same, again and again. Logan is not just alone in the X-Men movie franchise because of its rating, Logan is also a character study, and a film whose narrative devices have been absent from the superhero genre. In fact Logan has more in common narratively with Clint Eastwood’s A Perfect World (1993), Luc Besson’s The Professional (1994), Takashi Miike’s Rainy Dog (1997), James Cameron’s Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991), and John Cassavetes’ Gloria (1980) than it does with any of the Batman, X-Men, Avengers, Spiderman, Superman, Ironman, or Guardians Of The Galaxy movies that have come out in the last twenty years or more.

Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart

The primary reason Logan does not fit within the aesthetic blueprint of the superhero genre is because the film prioritizes its three lead characters over the spectacle of violence. Mangold’s film is interested in the frailties of his superpowered characters, and populates his film with moments that allow these frailties to function as a direct counterpoint to the sequences of action-violence that the audience is expecting. The narrative of Logan is designed for this kind of investigation into character much in the same way as A Perfect World, Rainy Dog, The Professional and Gloria are. Every time the audience finds comfort in the familiar heroic antics of Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), Professor X (Patrick Stewart), and X-23/Laura (Dafne Keen) that comfort is in turn subverted. The scenes of Wolverine caring for Professor X are particularly adept at subverting the standards of superhero fare.

Logan is also unique for assuming that its target audience, comic book fans, will be in tune with the characters introduced in the narrative to a degree that Mangold can forgo the usual scenes of expository action. Besides, one does not need an in depth working knowledge of The Reavers, Dr. Rice or Albert within the context of the Wolverine comics to understand their narrative function. If one is familiar with this set of Wolverine #40, June, 1991characters, that is simply just another layer of pleasure that Logan has to offer. One of the great drawbacks to the superhero genre in film is that the authors of these films assume that the films will not work if they are not “all inclusive” in terms of their narrative accessibility. The best superhero films, Tim Burton’s Batman (1989), Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie (1978), and Bryan Singer’s X-Men: Days Of Future Past (2014) all operate on the assumption that an audience even vaguely familiar with the characters will be able to glean from the film an understanding of these characters and their respective narrative complexes in other media forms.

There has been a tremendous amount of hype surrounding Logan. If one were to read Kevin P. Sullivan’s article in the March 10th issue of Entertainment Weekly, one may very well assume that Logan was the greatest film of its kind ever made. However, Logan can never escape what it is, a “distraction, diversion, and entertainment”. And, for me at least, this isn’t a bad thing at all. 

-Robert Curry

Leave a comment

Filed under american films

La La Land

La La Land

Damien Chazelle’s La La Land (2016) is in Oscar heaven with fourteen nominations total. This is equally remarkable as it is unremarkable. The Best Picture winners for the past five years can easily be categorized as either serious sociological documents (Spotlight, 12 Years A Slave, Argo) or as technological gimmicks (Birdman, The Artist). La La Land, being a traditional musical of sorts, falls into the latter category. However it possesses traits that set it apart from these other Best Picture winners of recent years. La La Land is a film for the millennial generation in its approach to love, friendship, sexuality, and ambition. The nostalgia of the musical genre and its traditional structure are all subservient to the chemistry of Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, to their ill fated love affair and their anxieties. Though Spotlight (2016), 12 Years A Slave (2014), Argo (2013), Birdman (2015) and The Artist (2012) may all be films sold to the same generation as La La Land, none of them ring with the honesty of truth that defines the mechanisms of La La Land’s love story or even its most superficial trappings.

In marketing La La Land to the public a great deal of attention has been drawn to the genre of the film and its heritage. Comparisons to Billy Wilder, Jacques Demy and the Arthur Freed unit at MGM have abounded. I don’t mean to say that the works of Freed, Wilder and Demy do not enter the discourse surrounding La La Land, simply that there are a small network of other films that have paved the way for La La Land. The two most obvious being Francis Ford Coppola’s One From The Heart (1982) and Jacques Rivette’s Haut bas fragile (1995).

One From The Heart

One From The Heart is a fantasy or marital strife and redemption set in an imaginary Las Vegas.  La La Land and One From The Heart both stress the correlation between character and environment whilst drawing heavily from a strong (and often similar) lighting design. More striking than the visual similarities is Chazelle’s success in adopting Coppola’s direction of the numbers in One From The Heart. One can see in Coppola’s staging short moments of just “being” where the actors are given a moment to exist with one another in the time between dialogue and number. This approach is not entirely successful in One From The Heart simply because it does not exist as a traditional musical, it’s hampered by its own post-modern tendencies. La La Land makes use of this approach superbly by employing it as a break in narrative thrust for the audience to reinvest in the actors. This break also makes the shift from text (dialogue) to subtext (musical number) far more fluid and believable.

Haut bas fragile, like so many films by Rivette, obsesses over the fundamentals of improvisation in the mundane. Rivette’s musical numbers leap from what feel like spontaneous interactions with a heightened emotionality. Rivette’s realism combined with the improvisatory nature of the performances make the numbers remarkable in how grounded they are in the reality of Haut bas fragile. La La Land attempts this but cannot forgo its dependence on the Freed tradition long enough to sustain it as an aesthetic choice. In fact Chazelle seems to accomplish Rivette’s sense of spontaneity only twice, and even then if feels almost accidental as a directing choice since the strength of these moments is born out of the Stone/Gosling chemistry within the context of more traditional framing and editing (Rivette always privileged a wider shot). Both these moments ground the number within the traditionally diegetic and occur with Stone finding Gosling at the piano, first in a club and then at their apartment, and each builds on the film’s main musical motif.

The Girls From Rochefort

The tendency for nostalgia is inevitable within the musical genre simply because it is largely neglected and rarely attempted.  Most of this nostalgia can be found in the sequences that compose the “inner fantasies” of the Emma Stone character. MGM classics such as Lili (1953), Gigi (1958), An American In Paris (1951), On The Town (1949), and Singing In The Rain (1952) are all referenced. So are The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg (1964), The Young Girls Of Rochefort (1967) and The Red Balloon (1956), diversifying the element of fantasy and signifying an intellectual refinement essential to auteurist theory in cinema.

The potency of these two fantastic reveries in La La Land are not born out of Chazelle’s filmic references, but rather in placing La La Land within a unique Hollywood tradition wherein Paris represents fulfilment. This idea of Paris as a dream world is at the heart of countless films from the aforementioned Lili  to Sabrina (1954) to Midnight In Paris (2011). This distinctly post-war fantasy is indicative of both nostalgia and the potential promise of the future simultaneously. La La Land, much like Woody Allen’s recent films, exploits the millennials’ preoccupation with Paris culture in the twenties, thirties and forties by using visual signifiers within these sequences as cues for a precise emotional response akin to the image of Mickey Mouse.

One of the best moments in La La Land actually subverts this nostalgic impulse. After a screening of Nicolas Ray’s Rebel Without A Cause (1955) goes awry, Stone and Gosling retreat to the planetarium featured in Ray’s film. Gazelle then releases the sexual and romantic frustrations that were the subtext of the planetarium sequence in Rebel Without A Cause by bringing his protagonists together within the same physical space. Stone and Gosling literally transcend the frustrations of Ray’s film by lifting off into the air, then the stars, in a ballet of courtship.

The sequence in the planetarium presents a duality within La La Land. At one turn it prefers the Romantic to the realistic, though inevitably the film’s protagonists do not live happily ever after. This romantic nihilism and the gradual breakdown of communication within the characters’ relationship is part of a contemporary trend within dramatic romances. La La Land sees Ryan Gosling going about the same rise and fall with a partner as he did in Blue Valentine (2010) and The Place Beyond The Pines (2012) more or less. The inevitable division within the relationship also has its roots in the tradition of “jazz dramas” turned out by Hollywood in the fifties and sixties. Michael Curtiz’s Young Man With A Horn (1950) and John Cassavetes’ Too Late Blues (1962) both focus on the male’s inability to love a woman and follow a career as a musician and represent but two of so many films with such a stance.

La La Land

the Paris fantasy

The trajectory of the female protagonist as played by Emma Stone is also born out of a strong Hollywood tradition.  Stone’s character is a contemporary Sabrina Fairchild. Like Audrey Hepburn or Julia Ormond, Stone finds herself in Paris and is able to return to the states and find the love of her life and a purpose. What changes is that the narrative of La La Land focuses on Stone prior to her metamorphosing trip to Paris.
The weakness of La La Land is that, perhaps, it embraces too readily too many of the aesthetic values familiar to us from the Arthur Freed productions. The characters are beautiful idealists and dreamers living in a beautiful world. Haut bas fragile did not gloss over the urbanness of Paris, and John Turturro’s Romance & Cigarettes (2005) is a musical that found an unprecedented amount of beauty in the everyday of an American blue collar existence. La La Land is, however, the most worthy contender for Best Picture that the academy has nominated in a long time.

-Robert Curry

Leave a comment

Filed under american films

Putting A Year To Rest

“Cinema also made the power of America abroad, its conquest of the world since the Second World War being due not only to military, technical and economic supremacy but also to the power of its cinema.” – Jean-Luc Godard, CINEMA: the archaeology of film and the memory of a century, 2000

“In other words, the validity and vibrancy of this important cinematic tradition depends upon a workable compromise between art cinema and popular cinema; between generic tradition and formal innovation; between political intentions and social fantasies; between private investment and public funding; and between a real appreciation for the local and regional and a critical examination of the national as a new/old  category of cultural identity within an increasingly streamlined global media landscape.” – Sabine Hake, German National Cinema, 2002

Andrew Garfield in Hacksaw Ridge

Introduction & Hacksaw Ridge

I have seen a number of blockbusters this Autumn.  Some were decent, some were terrible.  But each was indicative of the state of American cinema today in its own way.  Together these films provide a survey of the strategies and tactics employed by producers, directors, and studio executives in the effort to fill seats and entertain.

Of all of the films I have seen this Autumn, Hacksaw Ridge (2016) is by far the most indicative of America’s mass consciousness and how Hollywood chooses to address that mass conciousness.  Hacksaw Ridge is a return to form for director Mel Gibson.  Again he addresses the horrors of war, the morality of Christian duty and the circumstances that prompt Christian men to question their beliefs.  As always, Gibson does all of this at a fast pace, fast enough so that we the audience don’t have time to question nor ponder the significance of Gibson’s images.  Gibson’s film succeeds only in so far as it conveys his own Christian beliefs as well as serving up a violent spectacle so tantalizing to fans of Saving Private Ryan (1998) and video games that nothing else really does matter anymore.

That’s the issue at hand in American cinema today.  If a film conveys one articulate moral platitude and provides enough spectacle then nothing else really does matter.  This has been true of American mainstream cinema for sometime, though it has never seemed so blatant to me before.  The pretense of artfulness seems to have died in the wake of J.J. Abrams and Michael Bay.  Arguably the last really compelling mainstream commercial release with wide distribution in this country was Lee Daniels’ The Paper Boy (2012).  Since then, aside from some films released on the  “art-house circuit” (if one really can call it that), the best work available to American audiences is happening on television or online streaming platforms.  The cause of this jockeying in power and quality is inevitably born out of a competition between film, television and online streaming as well as a competition between the major entertainment conglomerates for successful branding or franchises (Star Wars vs. Star Trek, Marvel vs. DC, Harry Potter vs. Pixar, etc.).  Given this atmosphere  it isn’t any wonder why American media as a whole has stooped to pandering, placating and generally condescending to their audiences.

Blake Lively in The Shallows

Fede Alvarez’s Don’t Breathe & Jaume Collet-Serra’s The Shallows

In studying film history one tends to take it for granted that there can be innovation and controversy in B-Movies and exploitation films.  In the vein of exploitation films a number of remarkable filmmakers have cut their teeth.  One can often see evidence of this remarkability in the early exploitation films of such filmmakers as Jonathan Demme, Monte Hellman, Joe Dante, Robert Wise, and Abel Ferrara.  Regrettably, there is no evidence, as far as I can see, of any innovation or invention in either Don’t Breathe or The Shallows.

I saw both films at The Rave just off of UPenn’s campus with my friends Stephen and Virginia.  Virginia chose these films with our consent under the assumption that these films would somehow represent a contemporary manifestation of the kind of exploitative cinema that the three of us love (my expectations being set more specifically along the lines of Roger Corman’s productions in the eighties).

The experience of The Shallows certainly came closest to this.  As Virginia put it The Shallows was the first “serious shark movie” in a long time.  The Shallows was rather preposterous, a drawn out battle between Blake Lively and a CGI shark.  That was the film’s narrative; escape the shark.  The subtext of the film was that the love that Blake Lively’s character had for her deceased mother (a victim of cancer) could enable her to do anything.  This sentimental detail, designed to raise the stakes for the audience, really did nothing more than elicit a rather comical commentary from our fellow theater goers.

The true purpose of The Shallows though was to give the audience the opportunity to drink in Blake Lively’s body with our eyes for upwards of ninety minutes.  Don’t Breathe represents a similar impulse, though Alvarez seems to have run amok in creating images that sexually tantalize to the point that, due to the sheer volume and the inherent violence of these images, they become repulsive.

Don’t Breathe plays itself out as a sort of aesthetic marriage between Meir Zarchi’s I Spit On Your Grave (1978) and Wes Craven’s The People Under The Stairs (1991) with a sprinkling of Terence Young’s Wait Until Dark (1967) for good measure.  The narrative premise is wholly indebted to Craven’s film while the approach to sexual violence and retribution is that of Zarchi’s film.  However, unlike either film, though particularly I Spit On Your Grave, the phallic, and images representing the phallic, remain the brunt instrument of pain and sexual power.  The inverting of sexual dominance via castration that is the climax of I Spit On Your Grave is substituted in Don’t Breathe for a phallus in the control of a once female victim.  This is what was most troubling about Don’t Breathe.  The film lacked the audacity to empower the female protagonist on her own terms, thus subverting and disqualifying any claims to a feminist reading.

Tom Hanks & Aaron Eckhart in Sully

Cookie Cutter Perfection: Gavin O’Connor’s The Accountant & Clint Eastwood’s Sully

The Accountant is a troubling film.  It’s first act reads as the kind of genre-centric character study epitomized by Francis Coppola’s The Conversation (1974) while the second and third acts are dreadfully typical post-John Woo action spectacles.  The protagonist’s autism, initially treated with a sensitive humanism, metamorphoses into a kind of superpower or mutant ability with regards to how the script treats this condition.  In this respect the narrative design of the film implodes upon itself.  The latter half of the film eclipses the former, wiping away all of the nuance and subtlety.  In fact, the highlight of the film is right before this aesthetic shift in a short dialogue exchange between Ben Affleck and Anna Kendrick concerning painted portraits of dogs playing poker.  

Equally as generic, Sully represents the latest in a long line of films by Eastwood centering on a man fighting the system, though this time that man is played by Tom Hanks.  Hanks himself is no stranger to the “underdog” hero narrative as evidenced by last year’s Bridge Of Spies and The Terminal in 2004.  But Sully lacks the arbitrary whimsy and racism of Hanks’ collaborations with Steven Spielberg.  In the place of that whimsy Eastwood substitutes character.  The issue is that the script never really allows for the title character to exhibit more than one facet of himself, opting to play the same note over and over again.  The film can’t even bring itself to flirt with America’s post-9/11 paranoia or trauma concerning urban plane crashes, nor does it allow for the bureaucratic corruption to expand beyond three short sequences.

Fantastic Beasts & Where To Find Them

 Derrickson’s Doctor Strange & Yates’ Fantastic Beasts & Where To Find Them

I mentioned earlier how instrumental the successful franchise is to contemporary Hollywood marketing.  As a motivating factor as well as an aesthetic trend setter the franchise cannot be underestimated.  Consider the revival of the Star Trek, Star Wars, Transformers, and Power Rangers franchises.  Hollywood is franchise happy.

One such revived franchise is the Harry Potter franchise.  I have never read Rowling’s novels nor have I seen all of the original films.  However, I have been told that should not stop me from comprehending Yates’ Fantastic Beasts & Where To Find Them.

Immediately I was struck by a number of things in this film that are indicative of the Harry Potter franchise’s bankruptcy.  Firstly, another in a long line of nightmarishly awful performances by the acting atrocity Eddie Redmayne.  Secondly, the overwhelming number of jokes made at the expense of an overweight character.  Then finally the appropriation of the Marilyn Monroe type and of the early twentieth century period.  These first two issues speak for themselves.  The last two, at least in my perspective, represent an effort to establish familiar and marketable signifiers as well as lazy screenwriting on Rowling’s part.  New York of the twenties, as well as the twenties in general, have great currency with millennial audiences as they continue to fetishize the flapper era and its look.  The Monroe element is more elusive.  Typically an archetypally Monroe character is a sort of Janus.  The character will, to serve narrative needs, go from ditsy blonde sex object to an assertive and intelligent woman of the modern world.  This device has its root in the dispelling of the stereotype that Monroe was somewhere short of intelligence in the wake of her death and the thousands of ensuing biographies.  Popular films from the mid-sixties onward make use of this contradiction in a number of ways.  Rowling’s just doesn’t happen to be very interesting.

The construction of Rowling’s plot is a little less troubling in that it is generally so formulaic.  The hero is lost in a strange environment where he makes friends who can help him accomplish his task, save the world, and improve their own moral character.  The base approach to this structure and its literally magical charms allow Fantastic Beasts & Where To Find Them to fill the void left by Don Bluth so many years ago in the children’s film market (Fantastic Beasts & Where To Find Them is a remake of An American Tale right?).

Unlike the world of Harry Potter, the world of Doctor Strange is one that I know and love.  Rintrah is by far one of my favorite supporting characters in all of comic books.  I have two copies of the Amy Grant issue in my collection, as well as original trading cards of Kylian and Irish Wolfhound.  Not to mention my admiration for Steve Englehart’s groundbreaking run.  That said, I could rip Derrickson’s film apart from a fanboy perspective in a prolonged diatribe.  But I won’t.  I will stick to the film itself, dealing exclusively with it on its own terms.

Marvel/Disney has set out to create a universe in film that mirrors that in the comics; and it has.  The studio has produced about a dozen films that cross-reference and relate to one another at an alarming rate.  And it is into this universe that they have, with this film, introduced Benedict Cumberbatch as Doctor Strange.

Doctor Strange strives to inject hip and cool into the world of this often overlooked comic book character in the guise of visual effects lifted from Christopher Nolan’s Inception and the casting of Tilda Swinton.  Oddly, the film retains some of the jingoism of the comic.  The film’s structure itself is typical of the “origin story”.  The film is so remarkably mundane and familiar that there isn’t much to say other than that it looked better than Captain America: Civil War.

La La Land

Out Of The Theater And Back At Home

I opened this piece with two quotes.  One by Jean-Luc Godard and one by Sabine Hake.  I find both of their points to be valid and certainly true to an extent.  But are their ideas, their notions of what the cinema is and should be, applicable to the mainstream of Hollywood productions?  I don’t think so.  In the films I have discussed here there has been no evidence of a “workable compromise between art cinema and popular cinema” nor has the American cinema exhibited “power” as Godard puts it.  But I have seen such elements, components, and evidence in American films.  Though these films tend to be small, underground films playing regional film festivals.  Or, as is the case with Damien Chazelle’s La La Land, an rare exception that proves the rule.  

-Robert Curry

Leave a comment

Filed under american films