Tag Archives: 1970s

Fear City: Abel Ferrara In Transition

Fear City

Abel Ferrara’s career, and more importantly his influence upon the American cinema, has almost exclusively been within the vernacular of the genre film.  Most consistently, he has worked within the crime film or neo-noir genre.  In the 1990s he found his greatest critical and commercial successes with the films King Of New York (1990), Bad Lieutenant (1992), and The Addiction (1995).  If one considers that, with the exception of The Addiction, all of these films are crime films, one begins to understand how important the aesthetic milieu of the genre is to his work.  For although The Addiction is more specifically a horror film, it too cannot escape many of the aesthetic trappings of his neo-noir works, a significant fact since this case of aesthetic appropriation occurs in virtually all of his non-crime films in one form or another.

It’s also important to note that Ferrara’s contemporaries, as varied as Jim Jarmusch, Michael Mann, and Sara Driver, are all essentially postmodernists as well as minimalists, though the latter is often only true out of budgetary necessity.  That said, Ferrara and Mann are the only two who are principally concerned with finding a means by which to align classic genres toward more contemporary political concerns as well as to contemporary aesthetic tastes.  Mann does this with an uncanny aptness for “updating” what is essentially old material (1986’s Manhunter), while Ferrara subverts and deconstructs his genre films in the process of discovering new possibilities for characters that appear to initially be archetypal in many respects.

However, what can never be stressed enough, particularly during the phase of Ferrara’s career between the pornographic 9 Lives Of A Wet Pussy (1976) and the intimate epic The Funeral (1996), is the impact of Nicholas St. John as screenwriter.  St. John and Ferrara are both equally the authors of the films made within this twenty year span and any discussion of these films should consider both men’s contributions.  We know from the extensive supplemental features on the Artisan DVD release of King Of New York that the Catholic guilt, self-sabotaging machismo, and sexual ineptness of many of these films’ protagonists is the product of St. John’s own neuroses.  Similarly, the strong visual rhymes in these films, as well as the extensive use of shadows and quick pans are the product of Ferrara’s visual sensibilities.

Of the films Ferrara directed that Nicholas St. John wrote between 1976 and 1996, perhaps one of the most unusual is Fear City (1984).  Though in many respects Fear City represents a failure of sorts, it is still a highly compelling failure that is worth considering more than once.  What sets Fear City apart from the work that preceded it is that it moves away from the grindhouse style of The Driller Killer (1979) and Ms. 45 (1982) in favor of the  mainstream neo-noir with an ensemble cast.  

Noir lighting in Fear City

1984 was the year for neo-noir.  The stage had been set in 1982 by Paul Schrader’s Cat People and Lawrence Kasdan’s Body Heat (both films homages to director Jacques Tourneur).  1984 saw not only the release of Fear City, but also Brian DePalma’s Body Double, and the Coen Brother’s Blood Simple.  Body Double and Blood Simple would popularize the neo-noir, giving it enough commercial longevity to see the genre through the mid-1990s.  What Body Double, Body Heat, and Blood Simple all set out to do is to make a forties style thriller, or film noir if you like, with a contemporary setting and photographed in color.  The success of these films is therefore not on their ability to adapt a forties aesthetic for the eighties, but to succeed as postmodernist constructs, paradoxically critical of the mechanics of the genre even whilst those mechanics are being employed for the perpetuation of the genre itself.

Fear City’s influences are only generally those of Jacques Tourneur in so far as Out Of The Past (1947), Cat People (1942), and I Walked With A Zombie (1943) represent some of the most potent and disturbing fantasies about American identity crisis ever shot in black and white.  Tourneur’s influence is therefore inextricably tied up in any dialogue concerning a film whose aesthetic concerns are those of film noir.  More specifically, Fear City appears indebted to Joseph H. Lewis’ Gun Crazy (1949), Robert Wise’s The Set-Up (1949), and Nicholas Ray’s largely underappreciated On Dangerous Ground (1951).  

The manner in which Nicholas Ray depicts the squalor, immorality and sleaze of the big city in the opening of On Dangerous Ground seems to have set a precedent for Ferrara’s Fear City.  Both films open with a bang, bringing the audience face to face with some of the more unpleasant aspects of urban living.  This sets the tone for each film.  Fear City idealizes the trappings and dressings of early 80s Times Square, and is happy to challenge its audience to accept this locale as the heart of the film’s narrative thrust whilst On Dangerous Ground uses this device as a means to ground the protagonist of the film in a space more closely associated with thrillers than the space the protagonist ultimately ends up spending most of his time in; the snowy countryside.  

The Robert Ryan police detective of On Dangerous Ground, one could argue, also informs St. Johns’ writing of the Billy Dee Williams character in Fear City.  Both characters are tough on crime, immorality, and those who choose to keep the company of either.  Yet Williams’ character is written to be more by the book than Ryan’s, but only just so.  In either case, both characters are clearly the product of the archetypal “honest cop” first glimpsed in Robert Siodmak The Killers (1946) as portrayed by Sam Levene.   There they diverge.  In Fear City the only black character of note is Williams’ hard-nosed good cop.  This stands in opposition to the typical delegation of black characters to the peripherals of the narrative, mostly in roles of henchman or drug dealers.  Ferrara and St. John prefer to privilege Williams’ character with authority.  This subversive act turns the race politics on its head, and would be echoed again in the Lawrence Fishburne/Wesley Snipes relationship in their later King Of New York.

Billy Dee Williams

The Set-Up also seems to have influenced the means by which Ferrara and St. John articulate the dregs of society in Fear City.  Fear City shares The Set-Up’s penchant for brief ensemble scenes whose relevance to the narrative is unclear, more motivated by ambiance.  There is an explicit connection between how Robert Wise stages and photographs the boxing match in The Set-Up and how Ferrara echoes that approach in Fear City.  Neither prefers the stark approach of Mark Robson’s The Champion (1949), favoring an inclusiveness where, even if the audience for the fight is not shown, they are certainly heard.

There is also a strong correlation between how Wise depicts and treats the Robert Ryan/Audrey Totter relationship and how Ferrara and St. John depict the Tom Berenger/Melanie Griffith relationship.  In both The Set-Up and Fear City each character in a relationship is allowed an autonomy and an acceptance of that autonomy by their partner.  This is not typical of American cinema in the forties, film noir, nor neo noir.  One of the fundamental narrative tropes of the genre is a character of one sex’s desire for control or possession of a character of the opposite sex (Out Of The Past, Gun Crazy, The Killers, On Dangerous Ground, Body Heat, Body Double, Cat People).  St. John and Ferrara embrace this anomaly as a means by which to modernize their interpretation of the genre.  It also enables them the chance to further counter the inherently misogynistic aspects of Fear City along the same lines as they had done prior in Ms. 45, though that will be discussed later.

Finally, Gun Crazy provides St. John and Ferrara with a rough sketch of their protagonist (Tom Berenger) in Fear City.  Gun Crazy’s Bart (John Dall) is an expert marksman who cannot bring himself to hurt another living thing because of a childhood trauma, much in the same way that Berenger’s Matt Rossi gives up boxing and violence in general after he inadvertently kills a man in the ring.  In Gun Crazy and Fear City each man must navigate their own moral code, only to forsake it at the climax as a kind of redemption.  It’s important to note that Rossi, unlike Bart, does not forsake his code in either a sacrifice nor as a form of self-martyrdom.  Rossi’s abandonment of his moral code is motivated by his love for Loretta (Melanie Griffith) and his desire to protect her.  When Rossi boxes again, it is to defend Loretta and kill the maniac who has been assaulting strippers.  Bart’s death and his moral break is unusually Christ-like, which seems more fitting within the context of Fear City and/or Rossi, since Rossi’s Catholicism figures largely in how he views his own morality as well as the ramifications of his own actions.  Before Rossi sets out to confront the murderous maniac, he goes to confession with the intent of procuring God’s forgiveness and salvation before the murder even occurs.  The dividing factor between Bart’s behavior and Rossi’s, which St. John stresses, is Rossi’s own fear of himself, of God, and his fear for his own soul.

Though these aesthetic threads link Fear City with film noir explicitly, these aesthetic tropes have, themselves, been so integrated with St. John’s own private concerns that they carry through, connecting with the later films such as Bad Lieutenant and The Funeral.  In terms of auteurist theory, Fear City functions as a conduit for textual exchange.  Fear City can, however, only be defined as such by the means with which Abel Ferrara and Nicholas St. John mutate and pervert their cinematic inheritance to serve their own subjective interests as filmmakers.

These mutations and perversions of genre mechanics by Ferrara and St. John go beyond the inverted racial politics of Fear City.  One of the most attractive aspects of the film is its treatment of women.  What may be the strongest sequence in Fear City occurs early on in the film and is indicative of Ferrara’s treatment of women in his films as much as it is a compression of the entirety of his previous film Ms. 45.  The sequence begins with an opening credit sequence of topless girls and strippers at work in Times Square.  From there Ferrara cuts to Berenger arriving at the strip joint where Melanie Griffith (one of the “models” employed by Berenger) is performing.  Berenger and his partner go into an office to negotiate with the facility’s manager.  From here, Ferrara cross cuts to Griffith’s performance, her cheering male audience, and the serial killer’s first murder (his victim is a stripper as well).  This dynamic use of montage equates the masculine gaze with acts of sexual violence, voyeurism with sadism.  

Melanie Griffith

More importantly, the women in Fear City are not the women of film noir.  They are neither victims nor predators.  They are autonomous units with fully realized and complex relationships.  The candor with which the filmmakers address Melanie Griffith’s character’s sexual fluidity immediately allows her character to transcend the audience’s assumptions that she is merely an object of desire and sexual fulfillment.  So although women are sexualized in the film, that sexualization is consistently undermined much in the same way as the sequence I cited above.  This jockeying back and forth between the polemics of sexual representation within the narrative milieu of Fear City represents the foundation for Ferrara’s interpretation of sexual politics in all of his films to follow.

The postmodern impulse of Fear City to subvert the very genre to which it aligns itself is not just the singular fancy of Abel Ferrara, it is inherently implied by  the very notion of neo-noir.  It is still of consequence to note a significant aesthetic shift that heavily informs the postmodern renderings of the genre.  Consider that by the eighties American cinematic tastes and sensibilities had shifted dramatically since the forties.  The idealization of heroes who are as good as they are corrupt, but nonetheless heroic, as epitomized by Robert Mitchum in Out Of The Past, had given way to heroes that were even more flawed, and thusly far less heroic.  Gene Hackman seems to have best captured this post-sixties shift in sensibilities with his roles in Friedkin’s The French Connection (1971), Penn’s Night Moves (1975), and Schatzberg’s Scarecrow (1973).  In each of these three films Hackman is the “any man” in a quite literal sense.  As the seventies unfolded as the “me” decade, so did a new romantic notion of heroism.  It is from here that the neo-noir of American cinema adopted its new archetypal hero, the burnt out cousin of Robert Mitchum (played by Tom Berenger in Fear City).

Currency is not the exclusive motivation behind Ferrara and St. John’s post-modernist approach towards their material.  Films with an explicit relationship to what is commonly considered film noir had never really stopped being in vogue, nor did their production ever cease.  In the decade prior to Fear City’s release three of the most notable films to have an affiliation, if not an interest, in noir were released; Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist (1970), Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s The American Soldier (1970) and Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye (1973).  None of these three films is neo-noir, each attempts a far more ambitious deconstruction of noir than what the more complacent neo-noir genre can attempt without becoming branded as “art-house”.  The significance of these three films and the manner with which they engage in a dialogue of noir aesthetics is that through the demystification and deconstruction of noir within the complexes of each of these three films one finds the very distillation that enables neo-noir to exist as a viable commercial genre.  Bertolucci appropriates a noir lighting scheme to lend psychological colorings to his images within a historical drama; Fassbinder breaks the narrative and visual tropes of noir down to a Brechtian minimalism to find the heart of noir’s allure as a romanticized fantasy; Altman denies every aspect of noir in his film except the promise of a nostalgia for film noir to be fulfilled, even though he has no interest in keeping that promise.

Tom Berenger

Fear City, as most neo-noir films do, implements each of these three tactics to a degree.  But Fear City, along with Body Heat, Blood Simple, Pulp Fiction, etc., is different from The Conformist, The American Soldier and The Long Goodbye mainly because the authors of these later films earnestly believe in the fantasy of film noir.  

Abel Ferrara and Nicholas St. John see film noir as a quintessential narrative construct in which to work.  Fear City represents an honest conviction and belief in the power of that genre.  That said, what is even more important about Fear City is that the genre of film noir/neo-noir is employed, distorted and manipulated in the search for an emotional truth.  This is Fear City’s greatest success.  The film may not live up to the superficial genre delights of Kasdan’s and Tarantino’s films, nor the analytical complexes of Fassbinder, Altman and Bertolucci, but it does find a filmmaker successfully mapping an approach to genre that is wholly unique and will be put to practice for the rest of his career.

-Robert Curry

 

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What Does Robert De Niro Have To Say About The Vietnam War?

This film is much more radical than Greetings.  It deals with the obscenity of the white middle class.  And we are white middle class, Chuck and I and everybody we know.  So we’re making a movie about the white middle class.  And we’re using the blacks to reflect the white culture.  Because the blacks stand outside the system and they see what we are.

-Brian De Palma, 1970

Much of Taxi Driver arose from my feeling that movies are really a kind of dream-state, or like taking dope.

-Martin Scorsese, 1988

Perhaps by the 90s a sufficient time gap will have elapsed to allow filmmakers to approach the subject of Vietnam in a more detached, balanced, and analytical manner.

-Jonathan Rosenbaum, 1980s

still from Milestones (1975)

still from Milestones (1975)

for Dan Dickerson

The Vietnam War remains a difficult subject for the United States.  It is an ambiguous anomaly, devoid of any easy label or justification from the stand-point of a contemporary American perspective.  The most popular American films about the war, Oliver Stone’s Platoon (1986), John Irvin’s Hamburger Hill (1987), Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter (1978), and Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket (1987) avoid the political aspects of the conflict as well as the Vietnamese experience.  These films prefer the traditional heroism of the G.I. action-drama popularized by the first two World Wars.  This prefered model mandates that the reality of Vietnam, the way it truly did happen and what it meant, undergo a severe filtering process so that it may accommodate the binary model of black and white, good and bad.  To say the least this is an irresponsible approach to history, even if that history is particularly ugly and embarrassing.

Perhaps the best film about the Vietnam War ever made in America is Robert Kramer and John Douglas’ Milestones (1975).  Unlike the other films I mentioned, Milestones does not take the battlefield unto its purview.  In total contrast the film never ventures outside the United States themselves, focusing exclusively on the experience of the Vietnam War in America.  Over the course of an epic 195 minute running time Kramer and Douglas construct a series of interwoven narratives with over a dozen characters, touching on every subject on the national conscious in 1975.  That is to say by not focusing attention on the Vietnam War, Kramer and Douglas have been able to paint the most accurate portrait of the United States and life therein during that traumatic conflict.

To juxtapose the American experience of Milestones is Chris Marker’s monumental anthology film, made in collaboration with Alain Resnais, Claude Lelouch, William Klein, Joris Ivens, and Jean-Luc Godard, Far From Vietnam (1967).  Far more cinematic than Milestones, Far From Vietnam pits the left of the French avant-garde against the Imperialist Western powers, creating a film whose sympathies and varying perspectives are aligned with those of the Vietnamese themselves.  In a sociological and political context what is so iconic about Far From Vietnam is that the film dared show in detail what Peter Davis’ Hearts & Minds (1974) only dared to allude to; the celebratory nature of American violence against the Vietnamese people.  In the American cinema the closest element to such depictions we have come from Marlon Brando’s Col. Kurtz in the form of monologues during the third act of Francis Ford Coppola’s post-Vietnam spectacle Apocalypse Now (1979).  But Coppola’s film is far more concerned with the literary motifs of Joseph Conrad and the conventions of the “war film” genre to delve to the political depths of Far From Vietnam.

Robert De Niro as Jon Rubin, 1968

Robert De Niro as Jon Rubin, 1968

Now one may be beginning to wonder where Robert De Niro comes into all of this.  Well, it is not my intention to discuss The Deer Hunter any further than I already have.  It’s Gilgamesh classicism and deceptive visual realism have little to do with Vietnam as far as I am concerned other than as a tool by which one can begin to gauge how the generation that experienced the war first hand began to censor its history in the media.  No, my focus will not be on The Deer Hunter.  Instead, I prefer two early Brian De Palma films, Greetings (1968) and Hi, Mom! (1970).

Be it an aesthetic choice or a necessity, De Palma, like Kramer and Douglas, focuses his two films on the American people during the Vietnam war.  Yet, where Kramer and Douglas have constructed a somber narrative film deeply rooted in the realist tradition of American independent film, De Palma has gone instead for the madcap satirical stylings of Jerry Lewis.  The same fundamental truths about America at this time can be discerned from either Milestones, Greetings or Hi, Mom!, De Palma simply exaggerates these truths to comedic effect, taking the stance that Vietnam,  and all of its ramifications included, is an absolutely absurd venture.  De Palma is also not so heavily rooted in the cinematic traditions Robert Kramer represents, who is strictly concerned with inciting political reaction in his audience, evidenced by his film Ice (1968), which, coincidently, came out the same year as Greetings.  What De Palma sees in his approach is the possibility to play with the physical medium of film, manipulating the form to achieve effects that will only accentuate the humor and meanings in his two films, an ideology Lewis had demonstrated in his films since the late fifties.

What links Greetings and Hi, Mom! is not exclusively De Palma’s filmic sensibilities of the time, but the character of Jon Rubin played by Robert De Niro.  In the first film, Greetings, Rubin and his friends are determined to do three things.  The first is seduce young women, a trope of the underground film comedy.  The second is to uncover who is responsible for the assassination of John F. Kennedy, though they never get further than reading countless books on a variety of conspiracy theories.  The third objective is to dodge the draft.  For all of De Palma’s innovative POV shots and handheld camera work the film never escapes the innocence of its comedy.  The film’s approach to draft dodging is so light and comedic that it becomes indicative of the severity of the issue.  De Palma is simply unsure of how to parody the subject successfully so that his satire would truly mean anything, so the entire sequence becomes imbued with a suffocating paranoia.

Robert De Niro as Jon Rubin, 1970

Robert De Niro as Jon Rubin, 1970

Hi, Mom!, the sequel to Greetings, is a far more mature and darker piece of filmmaking.  Robert De Niro returns as De Palma’s protagonist Jon Rubin, though this time Rubin has recently returned from a tour of duty in Vietnam.  Thus Hi, Mom! is a dark comedy concerned with how a man reassimilates into a society from which he has been absent for two years.  Firstly, De Palma pits Rubin against the sexual revolution.  Never succesful with women in Greetings, it becomes doubly comedic in Hi, Mom! that Rubin choses to be a pornographer by profession.  Rubin’s scheme is to film on a cheap 16mm camera the sexual antics of the residents in the apartment building across from his squat.  So at once De Palma parodies the fetishism of James Stewart’s lens in Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954) and alludes to Rubin’s role as a sniper in Vietnam, tampering with the POV shots of what Rubin sees through his camera to look like the view through a sniper rifle scope.  For De Palma the two signifiers are synonymous, indicating the degree of Rubin’s perversion.

However, Rubin is unable to capture any worthy sexual acts.  So, having chose a particularly lonely woman across the way(Judy, played by Jennifer Salt) as a victim, he poses as a suitor selected by a computerized dating service to take her out and, hopefully, seduce her.  To capture his plan on film, he has set his camera to begin running via a timer so that, after he has wined and dined her, his intercourse with her will be captured on film.  Needless to say Rubin fails at this.  The only result of his scheme is that he has acquired a rather needy girlfriend.

Rubin, now living with his girlfriend Judy, is still an outsider in American society.  In an effort to belong he joins a group of Black Power activists as an actor cast as a cop, thus beginning the most controversial section of De Palma’s film.  The “Be Black Baby” segment is visually different from either the primary narrative of Jon Rubin or the attempts at pornography Rubin has photographed.  In this segment De Palm shot handheld on black and white 8mm blown up later to 35mm.  In this way he employs the visual aesthetic of late sixties “social action” documentaries to capture his satirical indictment of Black militarism and the white yuppies who claim to sympathize and understand the Black Power movement.  “Be Black Baby” follows a group of upper middle class white people who, eager to undergo the “black” experience, submit themselves to a piece of avant-garde living theater.  The white audience is physically beaten, painted black, and then beaten again by Jon Rubin.  Then, after all of this violence, each comments how wonderful it was to finally understand what it means to be “black”.  As offensive as it is funny, the “Be Black Baby” segment scandalized audiences during Hi, Mom!‘s original release.

After his turn with “Be Black Baby”, Rubin is still a man isolated in a society he no longer understands.  This is when De Palma begins to hint at Rubin’s Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.  Every attempt at normalcy Rubin has made thus far has either been perverted or simply perverse to begin with.  Thus, for De Palma, PTSD is the catalyst for Rubin’s comedic exploits.  Rubin, seen at this point in the film reading militant literature and being inundated by media slogans, both for the Left and the Right, reading “take action”, begins to snap.  And snap he does.  Filling the laundry room in his apartment building with plastic explosives, he demolishes the building, killing Judy and countless others.  Now, De Palma cuts to the POV of a television camera as a reporter interviews witnesses and survivors of the “act of terrorism”.  Rubin appears in his army uniform, faces the camera and says “hi, mom!”.

Robert De Niro as Travis Bickle, 1976

Robert De Niro as Travis Bickle, 1976

Again, one must stress that De Palma has exaggerated the conditions of both veterans of the Vietnam war and the state of things in America for comedic effect.  However, these exaggerations are born out of a real truth, because if they were not, then Hi, Mom! would not have been funny or successful.  It also bares pointing out that the trajectory of Jon Rubin, particularly in Hi, Mom!, mirrors that of another Robert De Niro character, Travis Bickle of Taxi Driver (1976).  Rubin and Bickle are both veterans of Vietnam unable to find a place in their society after the war.  Each has a penchant for pornography and violence.  Where they differ is simple, in the execution of their narratives by the filmmakers who have authored them.  For Martin Scorsese and Paul Schrader Travis Bickle’s story is one of loneliness and pain.  Rubin, though suffering the same symptoms, has more unorthodox ventures in his attempts at being proactive.  This unorthodoxy to Rubin’s narrative is what makes it comedic.  That both Taxi Driver and Hi, Mom! follow the same logic indicates a moral truth that America, during and immediately after the Vietnam war, was struggling to grapple with; how does one atone for what one has done?

The issue of atonement is not unique to the Vietnam war in the American experience.  Literature by the major players of every military conflict have reflected such sentiments as far back as the American Civil War and still further.  Even, at times, these sentiments have been articulated in satire similar to De Palma’s two films, consider Shaw’s The Devil’s Disciple.  What is incredible about Greetings and Hi, Mom! is that, of all the films either Brian De Palma or Robert De Niro have made, neither have ever been as sociologically relevant again.

-Robert Curry

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Agony

Shot between 1973 and 1975, and released in 1982, Elem Klimov’s film of the life of Grigori Rasputin, titled Agony, is one of the watershed films with regard to the decline of Soviet Censorship.  Like the films of Sergei Paradjanov, Klimov intended his film to be an expressionistic recreation of a particular chapter in Russian history.  However, Klimov’s film would differ considerably, utilizing filmic techniques derivative of documentary filmmaking and a contemporary approach to psychological profiling.  It was Klimov’s interest in illusory realism that prevented Agony from being released in the seventies.

agoniyaThe principle reason why Agony was not allowed distribution in 1975 was because of Klimov’s portrayal of Tsar Nicholas II (Anatoli Romashin).  Klimov does not depict Russia’s final Tsar as a tyrant not as a buffoon.  Instead, Klimov favors a portrayal that is far more naturalistic.  The problems facing the Imperial family are not solely the fault of Nicholas II in Klimov’s film.  Klimov attributes the conflicts and difficulties facing the Imperial Cabinet to corruption throughout, and to the Tsar’s distracted behavior that is often the result of his son’s illness.

The distribution of guilt and its humanizing effect is reinforced by Klimov’s employment of title cards that bear the name of a character when said character first appears.  This is an approach more closely associated with documentary filmmaking, though in this instance appears almost Brechtian.  Klimov adopts the mechanism to give his film the illusion of being a legitimate account of history.  The tactic is only an illusion in Agony designed to convince the audience to accept Klimov’s narrative as recreated fact, that on close inspection is undermined by the films own expressionistic visual tendencies.

The naturalism of the actor’s performances in Agony and its fusion of narrative realism and documentary filmmaking is given a counter point in a number of more fantastic sequences that either occur within a character’s dream or in a location of surreal design.  All of Agony’s more expressionist sequences coincide with the character of Rasputin (Aleksey Petrenko).  Rasputin was a mystic and Holy healer, and these fantasy images work as illustrative interpretations of the popular Russian idea of Rasputin as well as psychological manifestations of Rasputin’s own madness.  For instance, there is one horrific dream sequence in which Rasputin appears among pine trees, illuminated by flashing lights with small gold coins placed over his eyes.  The soundtrack that accompanies this sequence is equally aggressive and coincides with the images to create a decontextualized sequence designed to emote the prophetic nature of Rasputin’s teachings.

agonyOddly enough, Rasputin is no more villainized in Agony than Nicholas II.  Klimov’s depiction of Rasputin is almost objective, and never once plays into the clichés of the character that have been propagated in Western Cinema.  If one compares the Rasputin of Agony to Lionel Barrymore’s Rasputin in Rasputin & The Empress (1932), one is inevitably struck by how sympathetic Klimov’s Rasputincan be one moment and not the next.  That Aleksey Petrenko was able to negate the two dimensionality of Barrymore’s Rasputin is one of the film’s greatest blessings.

The sum of the parts of Agony is what makes the film the landmark in Soviet Cinema that it is.  Unlike the works of Tarkovsky or Paradjanov, Klimov’s Agony is not entirely invested in fantasy or neo-expressionism as a means of filmic story telling.  Nor is Agony exclusively tied to the quiet socialist realism that marks the trend in the films of Larisa Shepitko (Klimov’s wife).  Klimov fuses both styles together, aligning every sequence to utilize the power of either style to its full potential without ever isolating the audience in the process.

-Robert Curry

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Jubilee

Jubilee (1978) was Derek Jarman’s much anticipated follow-up to Sebastiane (1976), and like Sebastiane, Jubilee was shot on a low-grade color film stock with shots composed to evoke the classic paintings of the Renaissance and the portraits of the Dutch Masters.  But Jubilee, a natural progression in visual style, is a much more explicitly political film than Sebastiane, not only satirizing post modern interpretations of the necessity of art, but also political institutions such as the London Police Force, media moguls, and Fascism.  With the “punk” movement in full swing across Britain, Jarman sets about scrutinizing contemporary London from the vantage point of Queen Elizabeth I (Jenny Runacre), the representative of all the traditional English values and morals.

The plot, episodic in nature, begins with Queen Elizabeth I summoning the angel Ariel, with the aid of her occultist John Dee (played by Rocky Horror Show writer Richard O’Brien), to see into Britain’s future.   In the future, the film follows the exploits and interactions of Bod (Jenny Runacre), Crabs (Nell Campbell), Mad (Toyah Wilcox), Amyl Nitrite (Jordan), Chaos (Hermine Demoriane), Angel (Ian Charleson), Sphinx (Karl Johnson), and Kid (Adam Ant).  This cast of characters epitomizes Britain’s “punk” generation, from their need for destructive rebellion to their Warhol-like ambitions for super stardom.  The character who exercises the most power in this nightmare is media mogul Borgia Ginz (Jack Birkett), whose very name is a “punkish” pun.

Presumably, the “future” action of Jubilee is a comic prediction on how things will turn out unabated; the end of “merry” England.  The “future” action seems to take place only a few years in the future from the start of the film’s production in 1977.  In this hostile environment of murderous policemen and punk rockers, Jarman manages to photograph London to look like Hiroshima after the bomb, a decaying landscape of urban development and decay.  Aesthetically, Jarman is setting the stage for his greatest cinematic achievement, The Last Of England (1986), that will consist exclusively of such visuals, employed again to juxtapose the contemporary Britain of Thatcher with the “England Of Old”.

The conflict of the past versus the present is one of the mainstays of British counterculture as well as the “punk” movement.  Jubilee epitomizes “punk” in film, and became the blueprint for a dozen like-minded films such as Jack Hazan and David Mingay’s pseudo-documentary on The Clash, Rude Boy (1980), and Ulli Lommel’s films with Andy Warhol Cocaine Cowboys (1979) and The Blank Generation (1980).  Episodic narratives about media corruption and rebellion were the mainstays of Jarman’s imitators, of which the only film that seems to be moving in a new direction is The Blank Generation, which exhibits Lommel and R.W. Fassbinder’s affections for melodrama and Hollywood classicism.  Rather quickly this approach to youth targeted underground filmmaking was commercialized by MTV, and would manifest itself later in a distilled version as Julien Temple’s Absolute Beginners (1987).

In its moment, Jubilee was shocking and controversial, not just for Jarman’s visual comparisons of British authorities with Nazis, but also for the frank depictions of homosexual intercourse and police violence.  Of all the “punk” films that followed, Jubilee is the only film with a clear political perspective and filmic style that can claim to form one cohesive aesthetic whole.  Jubilee’s suppression at the time of its release is not surprising given the political turmoil in England at the time. But such blatant censorship only strengthened the resolve of the counter-culture, propelling Derek Jarman into a sort of messiah position in Britain’s underground and queer cultures.

In order to better understand the context and significance of Jubilee, one must take into account a number of influential figures upon both Derek Jarman and the British underground in general.  Figures as diverse as William S. Burroughs, David Bowie, Andy Warhol, and Nicholas Ray all figure into the cinema of Derek Jarman rather heavily.  Consider William S. Burrough’s Nova Trilogy (The Ticket That Exploded, Nova Express and The Soft Machine), whose primary focus is the corruption of man by a vast influx of new information and technology, that gives way to a grim future akin to an orgiastic homosexual reinterpretation of Orwell’s 1984.  These texts are indispensable to Jarman, who will employ Brion Gysin’s cut-up technique on the soundtrack of The Last Of England.  Through all three of Burroughs’ novels, the television set is an object of menace, just as it is a means for Borgia Ginz to control the youth population in Jubilee.

David Bowie’s influence on the “punk” movement is immeasurable, but to Jubilee more exclusively, Bowie’s influence can be pinpointed to the years 1972 and 1973 of his career when he assumed the persona of Ziggy Stardust.  Bowie’s invented character embodies campy high fashion and a fame seeking self-destruction.  These two character traits outline the trajectory and concerns of the characters Kid, Crabs, and Mad in Jubilee, just as they coincide with every struggling musician’s ambitions to some degree.  The difference here is the “camp” that Jarman pushes to excess in his performers, so that each becomes a terribly funny and self-aware parody of themselves.

The “campy” quality of the performances is indicative also of the circumstances surrounding the performers themselves.  Like Andy Warhol, Derek Jarman (also a painter) surrounded himself with a group of outlandish individuals who would hang around his studio space.  From this collection of individuals, Jarman cast many of his short films, and a number of roles in Jubilee.  The influence of Warhol in this fashion is typical; underground filmmakers, without many professional connections, are reliant upon Warhol’s tactics of casting his friends and hangers-on in his films.

The final major influence on Jubilee is the least expected, Nicholas Ray.  Jarman infuses his film with the devices in Ray’s Rebel Without A Cause (1955) to evoke the “youth in trouble” sub-genre.  Slow panning shots that build tension are a mainstay in each film, as is the adoption of a family unit by a group of friends.  Bod and her gang of girlfriends are an appropriate “punk” perversion of the James Dean, Natalie Wood and Sal Mineo family unit in Rebel Without A Cause.  Jarman repeatedly calls the audience’s attention to the parallel with his use of the color “red” in interior shots, recalling the deep Technicolor red of Dean’s jacket in Ray’s film.

Color and form themselves are exciting components that are essential to Jarman’s visual style.  A painter first and foremost, Jarman’s obsession with the human form in the work of Caravaggio is infamous.  Beyond Jarman’s biopic on the painter, Caravaggio (1986), Jarman implements Caravaggio’s compositional style into many of the shots in his films.  Most often, Jarman will employ Caravaggio’s strategy of highlighting the human form by lighting them against a black backdrop.  The effect not only directs the viewer’s focus, but also conveys a sensuous longing and desire.  The tactic described above is used numerous times in Jubilee; most notably during the first interior at the castle of Queen Elizabeth I.

All these stylistic influences from the counterculture and Jarman’s passion for the Baroque represent individual signifiers that run throughout Jubilee to form a post-modernist cinematographic complex.  This allows not just for a diverse sensory experience, but also an intellectual one.  The prowess with which Jarman addresses each component is often overlooked by audiences and critics alike; the “camp” and violence overshadow the heavier themes at work in the film.  Yet, this appears to be the precise mode that Derek Jarman wishes Jubilee to function in.  Consider Dick Hebdige’s observation in his book Subcultue: The Meaning Of Style: “the ‘working classness’, the scruffiness and earthiness of punk ran directly counter to the arrogance, elegance and verbosity of the glam rock superstar”.  Hebdige has described glam rock as “extreme foppishness, incipient elitism”, the exact connotations Jarman tries so hard to avoid in his filmmaking style.  The “camp” and violence in Jubilee is simply a means to reach the British “every man”.  The loftier issues Jarman addresses are meant to linger in the background, working subliminally on the film’s audience so as not to isolate or condescend.  I would therefore argue that such a device is not a detractor from the film, but a necessity.

The kind of manipulation and cultural understanding to execute a seemingly simple yet infinitely complex film like Jubilee speaks to a maturity critics were not willing to recognize in Jarman when Jubilee was first released.  Perhaps the campy violence made it a film that was easy to dismiss, or perhaps it was Jarman’s open homosexuality that prevented serious critical evaluation..

-Robert Curry

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Mildred Pierce

Todd Haynes has tried his hand at a variety of styles and narrative approaches.  From Poison (1991) to I’m Not There (2007) his cinematic style has proven to be as versatile and as challenging as any filmmaker working in America today.  Last year he tackled the melodrama head-on in a six-hour miniseries for HBO, Mildred Pierce.  Borrowing heavily from the cinema of Douglas Sirk, as he did with Far From Heaven (2002), and Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Haynes invigorates the genre by implementing the old and tried conventions within the context of a sprawling, character driven narrative.

First, I would like to point out how far HBO has allowed the television miniseries to come since its conception.  HBO encourages established and decidedly cinematic filmmakers to create what are essentially epic films that need not be inhibited by running time.  The funny thing is, such an approach has been the standard in Europe since the early seventies.  Why it took so long to catch on in the U.S. I do not know.

Working with this medium of epic story telling, Haynes and his co-writer Jon Raymond have crafted a script that remains much more faithful to James M. Cain’s novel than Michael Curtiz’s film.  Utilizing the scope of the miniseries, they have crafted a film that progresses at a slow pace, allowing performance to exist at the forefront of the film. Here, at the center of the film is Kate Winslet in the title role.  She doesn’t play Mildred for sympathy, preferring instead an organically objective approach that show cases both the good and the bad in her character with a visceral sense of the everyday, the mundane.  Evan Rachel Wood plays her daughter Veda, a spoiled and sociopathic upstart who serves as the catalyst for nearly every evil that befalls Mildred.  Guy Pearce plays Mildred’s second husband Monty, a charming opportunist and rake.  In the narrative, it is Veda and Monty who present the obstacles and betrayals which prevent Mildred from enjoying that which she has achieved (when her first husband leaves her, she starts a chain of restaurants).

Cain’s novel has all the trappings of classic Hollywood melodrama, and Haynes doesn’t shy away from incorporating old Hollywood styles into the film to reflect that.   Haynes doesn’t cut his shots to maximize narrative exposition.  The shots in Mildred Pierce linger, inviting the spectator into the world of the film, impressing upon us the smallest details of the lives of the characters.

Like Douglas Sirk, Haynes often frames his characters reflected in mirrors or seen through a window or some sort of glass.  As Sirk once did, Haynes carefully picks his shots in which he wishes to distort the audience’s view of the character.  Haynes also permits his actors to play their parts a little too “big” at times, pushing for a Wagnerian effect right out of the “weepies” of the 1930s and 1940s as much as for Brechtian impact.  The mood of these “big” moments, given their duration and the exaggerated posturing of the actors, at times feels less like Sirk and more like Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s interpretation of Sirk.  Perhaps that is because, unlike Sirk, Fassbinder’s work made allowances for depictions of womanhood that were not predicated on the tastes of a Hollywood studio.

But Haynes does more than just imitate style and convention.  Mildred Pierce is a decidedly Todd Haynes film.  His obsession with sexual subversion is ever present and factors heavily into the lives of the film’s characters.  Even before Mildred discovers Eva’s affair with Monty, sex is used to manipulate and undermine different characters.  Monty is essentially Mildred’s gigolo after all.  The complex that exists in Mildred Pierce, in terms of sex and power, is derived from Fassbinder’s dramas post-The Merchant Of Four Seasons (1971). In combining Fassbinder’s strategies for “power-plays” within a narrative with Cain’s original novel Haynes is able to reincorporate the aesthetic of the classic melodrama into the contemporary character study as well as into the stylistic vernacular of the episodic television drama.

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Consider now the level of grief and shame Haynes gets from Winslet when she confronts Veda about faking her pregnancy to black mail a film director’s son is disturbing.  Winslet’s face twists and bursts with tears.  In the hands of another director, moments such as these would not be played quite so over the top for quite so long. In a scene where Mildred catches Veda in bed with Monty, there is a long 18 second shot of Veda naked, combing her hair after sex.  Haynes then cuts back to Mildred as her face slowly reveals her emotional pain.  The audience doesn’t need to see the sex act.  The perverse nature of the sex is clear enough in this juxtaposition of these shots that it would have been less effective to show it.

It’s rare to find a balance of convention and innovation in any film let alone a film that runs over three hundred and sixty minutes long.  But that’s what makes this Todd Haynes’ most provocative film.

-Robert Curry

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