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I, Tonya

I happen to agree with a number of critics that Craig Gillespie’s I, Tonya (2017) owes a remarkable amount to Martin Scorsese’s film Goodfellas (1990). I, Tonya is, in many respects, an echo of the earlier film, copying its narrative structure as well as its employment of multiple witnesses/storytellers within that narrative complex. In broad terms one could even say that I, Tonya represents a remake of Goodfellas. So what becomes interesting about Gillespie’s film are its differences from Goodfellas.

Tonya

First off, I, Tonya is set within a matriarchal as opposed to a patriarchal sociological structure where it is the relationship between Tonya and her mother that is employed as a means of explaining and justifying the various repetitions of domestic events within the narrative. The lone figure of the mother in I, Tonya replaces the myriad of father figures in Goodfellas, drastically simplifying the situation to a degree where nuance becomes forfeit. This simplification (under developing Tonya’s relationships with her trainers and other women) speaks to a broader simplification whose design is to keep the audience at a moral remove. This tactic puts I, Tonya at odds with another film to which is has been compared, Frank Perry’s Mommie Dearest (1981), whose strength was to so immerse viewers within the “campy” world of a half-imagined Joan Crawford that the stakes, no matter how absurd, remained inexplicably “real”.

I, Tonya seems to be all about different kinds of removes in terms of audience participation. The direct address scenes bookending the flashbacks reiterate that these events are past-tense, thus negating the kind of suspense both Goodfellas and Mommie Dearest nurtured. Then there is the issue of class. Repeatedly within the film Tonya rebels against the class snobbery of professional figure skating. This kind of rebellion in American films is often, and this is the case with I, Tonya too, portrayed as the most American kind of “underdog” story (see any of the Rocky films for proof of this). However, the efforts to keep the audience at a distance from the characters renders their working class idiosyncrasies as a series of jokes. The filmmakers invite us to laugh at the characters not because they are witty, but because they are poorly educated, come from difficult and underprivileged backgrounds, and have tastes that are vastly different from those who will be seeing I, Tonya at urban art houses. In this way the filmmakers align themselves and their audience with the condescending judges at the ice skating competitions rather than with Tonya, even though her disdain for these same judges is valorized.

While audiences are laughing at rather than with Tonya, I, Tonya shifts its narrative from “sports biography” into the “true crime” genre, closing in even more on the parallels with Goodfellas. But this isn’t the kind of hybrid genre film represented by Mark Robson’s Champion or Robert Wise’s The Set-Up (both released in 1949), but a new kind of hybrid more akin to Lee Daniels’ The Paperboy (2012) or The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story (2016). I, Tonya takes this newer trend and combines it successfully with Scorsese’s Goodfellas aesthetic by playing up the absurdity of the real life events much in the same way the Cohen Brothers treat violence as slapstick in Fargo (1996) and No Country For Old Men (2007).

But how is this useful? The Paperboy addressed and critiqued race relations in the south during the sixties while The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story critiqued racial politics and policies in the less distant nineties; and both films treated violence with genuine horror and saw wealth as a kind of corrupting circumstance. I, Tonya similarly addresses relevent issues of class distinction and violence but in place of critique there is either endorsement (as I have examined above) or exploitation (the moments of violence are brief on screen, but the moments after, the moments of pain and vulnerability are drawn out from a distance to comical effect).

Julianne Nicholson

At one point in I, Tonya the character of Tonya says directly to the camera “They loved me, then they hated me”. And I wonder if she was speaking about the public at large or more specifically the filmmakers and their audience? I, Tonya is an enjoyable film, there is no easy way around that fact. But we must ask ourselves, at what cost are we enjoying this film? For me, this enjoyment came at the cost of the characters themselves. Despite Margot Robbie’s, Sebastian Stan’s, Allison Janney’s, and Julianne Nicholson’s performances none of the characters are allowed to exist beyond the immediacy of I, Tonya’s spectacle in human terms. Unlike Goodfellas, I, Tonya doesn’t have a century old myth within the cinema to dispel and subvert.

-Robert Curry

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Blade Runner 2049

Blade Runner (1982) has gotten a sequel. Anyone who has seen Ridley Scott’s film is probably wondering why or even how a sequel could have been made. Oddly, Blade Runner 2049 (2017) does work as a sequel, surprisingly so in many respects, though what problems it runs into stem what seem to be the portions of the narrative designed to launch a franchise off of this film, presumably with a focus on the Ryan Gosling character K/Joe.

Joi & K

What works in the film is its pacing. Director Denis Villeneuve’s direction allows a lot of time for the characters to just exist in a space. This tactic not only serves to permit the audience time to invest in the humanity of a character (and thus play into one of the central themes of the film), but also gives the audience a chance to immerse themselves in the world of the film with all of its grandiose science fiction imagery. Regretfully, and I am unsure who is responsible for this, there is a good deal of replaying previous scenes and previously heard dialogue in voice over that creates a series of flashbacks which give the impression that the filmmakers do not trust or even believe in the intelligence of their audience. The character of Joi (Ana de Armas), Ryan Gosling’s hologram girlfriend, is also enlisted to articulate K/Joe’s character subtext in just as many scenes. Together, these two tactics successfully subvert Villeneuve’s pacing, betraying the aesthetic he is clearly trying to preserve from Scott’s Blade Runner for his sequel.

Joi, though often just a device for exposition, does feature centrally in the most provocative and, I think, successful sequence of Blade Runner 2049; the sex scene. This scene realizes, visually, more concepts and motifs inherent not only in the works of Philip K. Dick (whose novel inspired the first Blade Runner film), but science fiction in general than the entirety of the rest of the picture. Here, Joi has hired, though it is unclear how a hologram can do so, a hooker named Mariette (Mackenzie Davis) to be an avatar of sorts to enable Joi to approximate intercourse with Gosling’s K/Joe. Visually, the double exposure effect of Joi and Mariette competing to inhabit the same female form is astonishing. The fact that their forms are, in effect, interchangeable as sexual objects speaks volumes to the commodification of the female form in cinema and society. This is taken further within the overall conception of Blade Runner 2049 by the fact that neither K/Joe nor Mariette are human in the traditional biological sense. Thus the entire exchange between the three characters is an act of artificial approximation whose very impulse is at work today in online avatar communities and dating sites. One could also assume that Joi, given the evidence provided later in the film, is mass-produced while K/Joe and Mariette each represent a singular production, thus reflecting the precarious assumptions we as a society make about ourselves as individuals in terms of our uniqueness, importance, and our sense of entitlement.

hologram as mass production

The worst parts of Blade Runner 2049 are those which ignore, or should I say that they do not even pretend to address, the philosophical questions investigated by the scene described above. These scenes favor instead genre mechanics whose familiarity to the audience and whose use as signifiers do little else than to suggest that another Blade Runner film will be in the works shortly. Of course these are the scenes of the “replicant resistance”. Villeneuve’s blocking during the scene in which the “resistance” is introduced has been so overdone, is so old hat, that it bordered on the comical. Upon reflecting on this subplot, which seems like it was shoehorned in, I couldn’t help but feel that Paul Verhoeven’s classic Total Recall (1990) had somehow snuck into Blade Runner 2049 to create a terrifying Philip K. Dick narrative fusion.

The real question that Blade Runner 2049 asks despite its success as a sequel film, and it has nothing to do with science fiction, is: what is the necessity of the sequel? Could Hampton Fancher and Michael Green have written this film without mentioning blade runners at all? Does Ryan Gosling need Harrison Ford as a sidekick to attract an audience? The answer is simple: Blade Runner 2049 does not need to be a Blade Runner sequel for any other reason than to exist.

-Robert Curry

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It

When I was growing up our family doctor had something of an obsession with clowns. All over his office were little oil paintings of clowns, dolls of clowns, decorative plates of clowns, etc. I found all of this to be unnerving as a kid. But when did I become scared of clowns? I don’t know for certain if It scared me because I already feared clowns or if I was frieghtened of clowns because I had seen It.

Stephen King's It (2017)

Andy Muschietti’s film of Stephen King’s novel It (2017) is reportedly the highest grossing horror film of all time. The likely reason for this is that It, since its first publication in 1986, has become not only a legitimate cult item, but a major referencing point in our popular culture. The Tommy Lee Wallace television adaptation of 1990, which I saw as a boy, helped solidify the novel’s status in our popular imagination, perpetuating a number of signifiers tied with the horror genre for three generations. Though Kubrick’s film of The Shining (1980) may be more infamous now than the novel on which it is based, It’s infamy has stayed tied closely to the original novel; at least till now.

Muschietti’s film differs from King’s text in two pivotal ways. The first is that Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga, and Gary Dauberman have re-structured King’s non-linear narrative for two separate films. The film currently in release represents the “childhood” narrative of the novel while the sequel film, no doubt, will focus upon the “adult” narrative. This prevents the film from drawing on parallels, both visually and conceptually, between the timelines while also depriving the spectator of truly coming to grips with the relay of cause and effect. That is to say that the novel It functioned as a kind of narrative circuit whose complex has been disassembled for the film.

There has also been an updating of the timeline by thirty years. In the novel, the chapters concerned with the character’s childhood are set in 1958, while in the film these events are set in 1988. This removes a tremendous amount of allegory from the narrative pertaining to Cold War paranoia as well as some of the historical urgency of the Mike Hanlon narrative (though it remains particularly relevant in the 1980s as it does today). 

By dispensing with these two narrative strategies the film of It becomes transformed into a rather standard horror film with a “coming-of-age” story thrown in for good measures. As such, its weaknesses as a film are relatively standard. The special effects are poor, the scares come cheap, and the suspense is ill earned. Yet Muschietti’s sense of shot design and strong empathy for the irrationality of childhood fear yield some effective moments. For the most part these moments come in anticipation of Pennywise the clown. It is enough to suggest a character’s fear, to see the horrific imaginings on their face. Hence it is in the “fake-out” moments that It finds emotional truth in its material.

-Robert Curry

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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

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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

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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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Two Short Reviews

Given that it is the holiday season and that post-production is just now concluding on four productions simultaneously there just has not been very much time to dedicate to writing.  However, I have recently seen two films, one new and one slightly older, that I would like to discuss to some measure.  That said, I believe I should note that neither film is meant to really be discussed in conjunction with the other.  The grouping of these two films is circumstantial, though if one sheds some light onto the other through these brief critical appraisals so much the better.

Spotlight

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from left to right: Rachel McAdams, Michael Keaton, & Mark Ruffalo in Spotlight

Spotlight (2015), despite all of the hype, is not the first film to deal with the sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests and the institution that protects them, nor is it the first film to dramatize the actual events surrounding the story as it broke at the Boston Globe.  In anticipation of Spotlight I watched Dan Curtis’ (best known as the man behind the show Dark Shadows) film Our Fathers (2005), a Showtime original movie.  Each film represents a different approach to the same story and coincidentally both are rather effective ensemble pieces.  The primary difference is actually quite simple, and that is that Our Fathers focuses on characters within the church and Spotlight restricts itself exclusively to the perspective of the journalists who first broke the story.  Considering how that sounds, one may be surprised that each film remains relatively objective in its treatment of characters (each film does, in one manner or another, condemn the Catholic Church).  McCarthy’s Spotlight redeems characters complacent to the cover-ups just as it also allows protagonist Michael Keaton to be subject to very human errors and mis-judgements.  Likewise, Curtis’ Our Fathers goes to great lengths to humanize Cardinal Law’s (Christopher Plummer) crisis of faith as the cover-ups become public.  This is even more astounding to a degree due to the fact that Our Fathers, unlike Spotlight, was aired only four years after the Boston Globe exposed the Catholic Church.

The traits that make Spotlight at worst an “interesting” viewing experience are clearly the product of Tom McCarthy’s talents.  Tom McCarthy who has written (with Josh Singer) and directed Spotlight seems to have been groomed to tackle this material.  His background as an actor on The Wire and Law & Order has certainly colored his approach to recreating the story, bringing recognizable narrative arcs and character types of the “true crime” genre into the film.  McCarthy’s recent work as a director on a series of character driven independent films is also certainly at work in Spotlight, particularly when one considers the strong performances of the film’s ensemble cast.

This leads us to what is the most impressive aspect of Spotlight; its lack of a proper villain.  Yes, the Catholic Church and its lawyers represent the obstacle to the journalists’ justice, yet is left, as it would be to the journalists’ perspective, a vast and faceless entity.  Faceless in that the multitude responsible for the cover-ups of child molestation by priests is too great to be summed up by one character (a component that is not shared by Our Fathers).  This gives Spotlight a kind of ambiguity that is effective in persuading viewers that are of the thinking that these cover-ups are the result of a few “bad apples”.  The audience must make the journey, with the journalists, to uncover the facts of the case and thus come to a moral conclusion.  In most films an alternative perspective to that of the protagonists would be manifest in a single character representative of this alternate perspective who would be given scenes that demonstrate the immorality of this conflicting position.  Singer and McCarthy’s script has none of this, opting instead to repackage the prestigious “message film” as an effective and engaging piece of persuasion.

Serena

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Bradley Cooper & Jennifer Lawrence as the Pembertons in Serena

Lumber barons have, believe it or not, been a staple in American cinema for a long time.  I am prompted to say this because I have heard a number of people react to the premise of Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence starring in a lumber drama as if it were a quaint novelty.  Granted, it is a sub-genre that is not often employed in this day and age, with the exception of Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood (2007), so is the genre of the oil baron drama.  Yet each sub-genre shares a singular conceptual thread; the disillusion of morality in the face of capitalist gain.  This is the very crux of Written On The Wind (dir. Douglas Sirk, 1956), Giant (dir. George Stevens, 1956), The Strange Woman (dir. Edgar G. Ulmer, 1946) and Come & Get It (dirs. Howard Hawks & William Wyler, 1936).

But unlike the dramas of oil barons and their industry, the lumber baron drama has a visual allegiance to an entirely unrelated film genre, the western.  Like westerns, these films about logging in the wilderness are so rooted in the visual textures of nature that they adorn, intentionally or not, the romanticism of the western genre, the idealistic certainty of the Westward expansion.  With Serena (2014) director Susanne Bier wisely embraces this element of the genre, utilizing a number of cutaways and establishing shots of the North Carolina mountain ranges to give an expressionistic reflection of the protagonists’ psychological and emotional states at any given time.  The manner in which these nature shots linger owe a debt to films by Werner Herzog and Terrence Malick, though Bier appears to have some difficulty wedding this aesthetic with the performances of her lead actors.

Cooper and Lawrence’s portrayals of the Pembertons are melodramatic to the point of camp, a fact that isn’t at all odd when one considers the supernatural (second sight) and all together gothic elements of the narrative.  This union of camp with the gothic can also be seen in Ulmer’s lumber baron drama The Strange Woman, supporting the relative success this combination of filmic elements is capable of.  However the style in which Bier captures her characters, an intensely realist approach to the visual language of these scenes, does much to undermine both the camp and the gothic elements entreanched in the films material.  Ulmer, representing the opposition to social realism and therefore Bier’s aesthetic, preferred The Strange Woman to be theatrical in its visual language, capturing the performances of Heddy Lamarr and George Sanders through a gloss of obvious artifice indebted to the theories of Bertolt Brecht.  Bier, on the other hand, is rooted in the contemporary trends of realism best exemplified in the films of Steve McQueen and Andrea Arnold.

-Robert Curry

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Filed under american films