28 September 2008

Film Journal: Mickey One (1965)

There is an inherent didacticism in the existential themes of Mickey One in which large ideas – such as the human condition, questions of God and fate, etc. – are very directly addressed. As Robin Wood notes in his review, it seems these more abstract thoughts and ideas displace the concrete elements of the film – plot, character, setting – so that meaning feels heavy-handed and forced rather than implied. The result is something of a na├»ve statement rather than an artful exploration. This didactic quality is easy to come off as unpleasant for those viewing (as it seems to have for Mr. Wood) because it starts to feel preachy and maybe even pretentious. While I can certainly agree to a large extent, certain parts of the film leave me to wonder how seriously Penn really takes himself and his message. There is a bit of comic absurdity in the film which I could not help but notice and which really struck me as something significant in conveying Penn’s intentions.

A major question for me is why Penn chose to make Mickey a comedian. I feel it is fitting for the world and situation of the film that the main character is a performer or an artist (if only for that single scene with the black stage and the spotlight), but there are plenty of other possibilities – musician, actor, singer, etc. I believe Penn’s choice in having Mickey be a comedian is reflective of the way in which Penn’s message is to be taken, or maybe even the way in which Penn approaches life’s big questions: with a smile. It seems that the absurdity of life is at times so absurd that it is funny, the only appropriate reaction to which is laughter. Instead of being strictly somber, as Kafka’s The Trial may be taken (especially in Welles’s hands), Penn’s existential dilemma is one that he seems to take less seriously; he may even be laughing at himself.

A few examples of comic absurdity in the film stick out rather obviously, much like the other separate pieces of the film. The first that comes to mind is a sequence in which Mickey cleans up his apartment room in sped-up time, possibly citing the silent film speed of 18 frames-per-second. The camera trick comes out of nowhere and is never repeated in the film – it takes us by surprise and comes off as so unnecessary and unexpected that it warrants a laugh. There is also a scene in which Mickey is trying to escape and sees a chance out of the window where a man with a shirt that reads “TRAMPOLINE INSTRUCTOR” is jumping on a trampoline. This nonsensical mechanism is the way in which Mickey finds his way to escape and get free, possibly an emblematic moment in which Penn is suggesting that the silly thing is that which offers man freedom. This thought could certainly be reinforced by the nameless clown who continues to follow and beckon to Mickey throughout the film and who makes a show out of a mechanical contraption titled “YES.” The show demonstrates a machine that serves no real purpose other than to amuse. The clown happily grins and even after the machine is destroyed by fire, when a sole joint of the machine still functions, the clown still smiles with delight. It seems that the clown and his contraption are a vehicle through which Mickey is able to rediscover the humor and comedy which offer him transcendence from an otherwise miserable existence. When Mickey goes with the clown, the clown does not ride away from the world, but in fact returns Mickey to it, guiding him to a path in which he ultimately finds meaning.

What I am suggesting through pointing out these moments of comedy and their importance in the film is that Penn’s intention in making the film may not have been as didactic or somberly existential as it seems. Penn may not take the film he is presenting to us as seriously as we do. If the way in which Mickey finds transcendence is through a laugh, then maybe we as an audience would appreciate the film more if we lightened up a little? I can’t say for sure, but I think it is certainly possible to find comedy in the absurd and to then derive meaning from that comedy – to me, that’s what watching Woody Allen films are about. That is not to say I think Mickey One is a comedy, but rather that Penn’s approach to the existential dilemma of the absurd is to laugh at it a bit. I feel this is heavily contrasted to a film such as Welles’s The Trial which is just as absurd and densely symbolic and insistent on visual elements as Mickey One is, but which seems to deliver its message with a straight face.

RIP Paul Newman

RIP Paul Newman
(Jan. 26, 1925 - Sep. 26, 2008)

Paul Newman died Friday in Connecticut, due to cancer. Newman is an actor whose presence on screen instantly draws me in. He is exceptionally handsome, but also a serious and incredibly talented actor, not unlike his method acting peers Brando, Dean, and Clift. When he got older, he seemed to be able to reinvent himself as an actor, with a whole new look and presence on screen, the wrinkle of wisdom and know-how deeply imprinted in his forehead. I particularly remember him as the big business mogul in Hudsucker Proxy. Apart from that he was a great activist and humanitarian, a person you couldn't help but love on screen as well as off. Hearing about his death made me realize I have all these films of his on my Netflix queue that I have had on there for a long time. I think now is the time to watch them, maybe a mini-Newman festival. As for now, I will always have my first impression of Newman that continues to stay with me as Cool Hand Luke, someone who taught me that "sometimes nothing can be a pretty cool hand."

24 September 2008

Film Jounal: The Left Handed Gun (1958)

I want to discuss the use of visual elements, specifically close-ups, and their effect in conveying meaning in The Left Handed Gun. The film seems to focus largely on Billy’s internal state and his psychological/emotional turmoil. Penn expresses this internal state through techniques in framing certain key shots a particular way and paying special attention to moments alone with Billy rather than action sequences.

When we are first introduced to Billy, we see him staring in a spaced out way, not really looking at anything, possibly deep in thought. Penn pays particular attention to this aimless gaze, giving Billy several key close-ups. The first one I noted came after his employer dies and Billy tells his plan of avenging his death to McSween. The camera dollies in on Billy’s face to a close-up. The room is dark and there are shadows on Billy’s face. In the same frame on the bottom we see a magnifying glass or some sort of glass object through which the image is distorted. This key close-up marks a transition towards darkness in Billy’s character, which is also reinforced through other stylistic elements such as the changing of Billy’s wardrobe from light to black. This scene has weighted significance given the symbolic meaning of glass in the Bible quote Billy has learned from Tunstall – “through a glass darkly” – conveying the distorted view through which Billy views life from that moment on.

Other key close-ups I noted express Billy’s fear of death and his eventual destruction. In one scene, before Charlie is shot, Billy is approached (I forget by whom and unfortunately didn’t note it – I believe it is Pat Garret) at his hideout shack. Penn has another close-up on Billy here as he talks and does his undirected stare. As he talks, Billy supports himself by a short rope that is hanging off the porch frame, his hands meeting the rope next to his neck. I believe that this is Penn’s way of showing what Billy is both destined for and afraid of: being hanged. Later, after Charlie is shot and Billy is alone, we have a scene in which he plays Charlie’s(?) old recorder then looks out a broken glass pane on the door. The close-up frames the hard angles of the shattered glass in the center of Billy’s face, signifying both his inner turmoil and his imminent doom.

Between these key close-ups, Penn gives us other clues as to Billy’s tragedy and to his internal state. In a scene in which Joe Grant draws on Billy, Penn frames a particular shot with Grant and Pat Garret in the foreground, looming large, and Billy in the background, small in comparison. This reflects Billy’s fear of being outdrawn and killed by larger, older men, and his insecurity in not being able to draw fast enough. Right afterward we see Billy practicing his draw with his left arm. In another shot towards the end, as Billy enters the town that he will eventually die in, the camera frames a shot of him coming into the town on his horse with the structures of the gate largely encroaching on Billy’s space in the frame. This suggests the way in which the forces that are to bring about Billy’s death are encroaching on him and suffocating him.

Another thing I wanted to point out about the film was the violence. For the most part, the violence was rather tame – people got shot, they covered the wound with their hand, and they fall down and die with no blood – but there are two scenes in which the violence, for me, was exceptional. The first instance is in the death of Charlie. When Charlie gets shot at first, he does not die instantly. When he is first shot, he lies on the ground paralyzed from being shot in the spine. He then tells Billy, “I feel my blood,” which I thought was particular since it brings attention to the actual physical and horrific nature of being shot and it also prolongs the death so that we as viewers really have to take it in and watch him die slowly. After Billy throws a type of tantrum, he throws Charlie out the door and he is shot again, this time flying through the door, and dies. The seemingly exaggerated way in which Charlie flies through the door from the shotgun is seen again in the most violent scene in which Billy shoots a pursuer with a shotgun from the roof of the building he was held prisoner. This particular shot very much reminded me of the violence to come in The Wild Bunch, particularly the opening scene. When Billy shoots the shotgun, the camera captures it in slow motion – again, we are told to examine the violence. Not only do we see the impact of the shot slow motion – he victim also flies back – but we see the exit wound and all the blood in it, the bullets tearing the flesh in the most explicit way seen in the film. When the townspeople come to the scene of the shooting a little later, we see that the victim was literally shot out of his boot. This seems like a very symbolic gesture on Penn’s part, to suggest possibly that the new revisionist Westerns and their violence to come will knock the traditions and conventions out of the boots of the old Westerns.

15 September 2008

Visions of Lynch

I just finished my David Lynch mini-retrospective which included Elephant Man, Eraserhead, Mulholland Drive, Wild at Heart, Lost Highway, Twin Peaks, and some short films. I decided to go through with this because I've always been interested in David Lynch but had only seen Blue Velvet. After watching the pilot for Twin Peaks I knew I needed to see more. I'll share my thoughts in the chronology of Lynch's output and not the sequence in which I saw the films.

Eraserhead (1977)

Lynch's first full-length feature and many people's favorite of his. It's now a midnight movie cult classic. I had no idea what to expect going into this film, only being familiar with the wild-eyed Jack Nance (who appears in all the other films except Elephant Man) and his crazy hairdo. Watching the film is like entering the dark areas of a person's mind, the unknown subconscious, in its dreaming state. The surreal mixes nightmarish imagery and awkward comic absurdity. These are key elements to the world of David Lynch. Key thematic elements are present that Lynch will manipulate and build upon throughout the other films: dreams/nigthmares, sexual desires, the grotesque, secrets, freaks, music/songs, and velvet curtained rooms. The last of these isn't a theme really, but certainly an element of production design that manages to be in every Lynch film. In this film it is the background of the stage in which the Lady in the Radiator sings. More about the curtains later. Anyway, I liked the film very much because it made me feel so strange and confused and uncomfortable in a way that truly evoked a surreal nightmare. I feel other Lynch films attempt to give the same feelings but don't work as effectively. Certain images in this movie will never leave me.

Elephant Man

When I first watched Elephant Man I was struck by how emotionally compelling it was. At times I felt very sad and even misty-eyed. Pulling myself away from the movie, however, I felt as if maybe I was insincerely manipulated. The way in which John Merrick utters his polite remarks and the severity of the cruelty he got from the people outside the hospital seemed almost exaggerated. Was Merrick really so polite, so instantly genteel and literate when shown kindness? Were people really so blindly cruel? It seemed almost like exaggerated melodramatic cliches. I started to suspect that this was a satire. After looking up John Merrick and actual photos of the historical person, I was a little reassured as the accuracy of his actual deformity. Even so, I feel that this is still very Lynch, even when restricted by the demands of a big studio production. Certain elements of the Lynch world find themselves in the film such as the extreme cruelty and dementia of people that we pass everyday - their own secret worlds - such as those of the freakshow proprietor and the people who come to see Merrick at night. The grotesque also seems to fascinate Lynch - grotesque ways in which one can get mutilated or killed or even just plain appearance. The Elephant Man himself is exceptionally grotesque and it's understandable that Lynch would be intrigued by such a project. In the end, this was the most "conventional" film of Lynch's that I watched.

Blue Velvet (1986)

My favorite David Lynch film, hands down, and arguably his best. I didn't rewatch this movie as part of the retrospective (though I probably should have), but its imprint still feels fresh in my mind despite the time that has passed since I last watched it. The film is an obvious satire, but the way in which Lynch uncovers the darkness of Lumberton layer by layer until it becomes so twisted and so bizarre is both seductive and frightening and we are pulled along into it along with Jeffrey (Kyle MacLachlan). The prototypical image in this film is that of the voyeur, specifically of Jeffrey behind the blinds of the closet, looking in on Frank (Dennis Hopper) and his sexual perversions being taken out on Dorothy (Isabella Rosellini). This image is preceded and set up by Sandy's claim that she can't tell if Jeffrey is a detective or a pervert, a perfect summation of the themes and motifs of the film as well as Jeffrey's character. Sometimes in Lynch's later work (which I'll touch upon) I ask myself the same thing about Lynch - is he being artful or is he just perverted? Is my reaction to the images more telling of myself than of Lynch? Anyway, that's for later.

One thing I notice about the Lynch world is the way in which all the small things are exaggerated and made more bizarre. A small example comes from within the first few moments of the film in which Jeffrey's father gets falls over in the lawn. The way in which he falls and holds his neck, twisting the hose and making noises, is almost farcical, approaching something somewhat frightening and yet humorous. The same thing happens when we see the father in the hospital and the extremity of his condition when seen at first is so absurd it almost warrants a laugh, but we see it is supposed to be taken as serious (which is what makes it funny, really). The point is that in a more traditional Hollywood film the way in which the father falls and his physical state in the hospital would not be so exaggerated. These are just small examples which only reflect what Lynch does with other aspects of the film in an even more absurd way.

Wild at Heart (1990)

This film plays with the road movie genre, which made me very eager to see how Lynch would handle it. Starring Nicolas Cage as Elvis in a snakeskin blazer under the name of Sailor and incredibly sexual Laura Dern as Lulu on the run from the law and from Lulu's mother, the film brought to mind the Bonnie and Clyde storyline of lovers on the run. What happens as they take off, however, is a grotesque display of odd violence, sexuality, and daydreams. This sound like typical adjectives for a Lynch film, but it manages to go a step too far, losing any kind of humor or meaning along the way. There are a couple of good characters, such as Willem Dafoe's Bobby Peru, but they are not enough to really save the car wreck of a film this becomes. It feels like all style that is so labored over in its framing and production that it ultimately feels empty. The way in which Bobby Peru's head explodes from his own shotgun, for example, goes a step too far unnecessarily. It's odd and disorienting, which we expect from Lynch, but it doesn't connect for me and it left me feeling a bit annoyed. The sexuality also started to become questionable to me, leaving me unsure if it really served the story in anyway other than to scorch the screen with Laura Dern's body. Nevertheless, there were some good use of Elvis songs in the film. And, on top of everything else, Nicolas Cage kept reminding me of Raising Arizona and his H.I. character more than Elvis.

Lost Highway (1997)

The first half hour or so of this film was incredibly intriguing and genuinely pulled me in. The set up is like a horror film - Bill Pullman and his wife are left videotapes of someone filming the exterior of their house and eventually their interior. The fear and paranoia it causes distorts the house into the belly of some hellish beast where the shadowed hallways seem to swallow the characters and where nightmares can breed. Once that part of the film ends and Bill Pullman disappears, however, the film rolls steadily downhill. The Pullman character is displaced by another body who is supposed to be the same person in a story that seems to go backwards and forward at the same time. After a great set up I feel a little betrayed by the film, almost as if I had been abandoned or that Lynch had given up. The story that develops for the rest of the film involves a young guy and his interaction with an incredibly sexed up Patricia Arquette. This film made me feel very uncomfortable at some points with the consistent sex scenes and more than the other films I feel manipulated into feeling like a pervert and a voyeur. This film seems to be popular with younger kids my age or younger and I think a lot of it has to do with placing themselves in this young protagonist's shoes, living through him in a sexual fantasy in which he gets to have his way with more than one beautiful woman and to be buddied up with the mafia. I did not understand this film and I'm not sure if there is way to understand it beyond what the screen shows us, which left me feeling empty and swindled. The creepy man with the white face that moves in and out of dreams was a genuinely creepy character, though; Lynch has a talent for envisioning freakish beings.

Mulholland Drive (2001)

In many ways I feel like Mulholland Drive takes the ideas and themes Wild at Heart and Lost Highway had and realizes their full potential in a way that is incredibly effective. works as a satire of Hollywood as hinted right away by the title as well as by Naomi Watts character, Betty, whose bright-eyed giddiness and naievete deserve a chuckle. Lynch makes this a satire of Hollywood not just through a plot or through characters, but with more subtle techniques and through messing with the film itself and our expectations as viewers. One of my favorite examples comes through Betty's rehearsal for a bit part in a film. When she rehearses her lines with Rita she gives them in a forceful way, with a clenched jaw and practiced rage. We are introduced to these lines before we are aware that it is even a rehearsal, taken aback at her sudden anger towards Rita. But oh! it's not anger, it's a rehearsal! We are smart enough now not to get fooled by her acting, though Watts delivers in a way that is powerful enough for us to forget for a moment. Later, when we see the actual audition Watts auditions the scene in a completely different way, saying the same lines with intense sexuality and femme fatale sultriness. Lynch does not explain why this happens (of course!) but its effect is powerful in a couple of ways: 1) we realize how we have been manipulated by Betty's acting in both of her deliveries of the script. 2) we realize how we have been manipulated by Naomi Watts as an actress playing Betty playing an actress. 3) we become self-conscious of us viewing a film again, a construction of lighting, camera, acting, set, direction and Lynch's overseeing hand. This is the kind of clever manipulation and addressing of the stuff of cinema that fills the film. When Lynch switches characters with actors the effect returns in an even more confusing and frustrating way. Either way, unlike Lost Highway, you stay engaged. This mostly has to do with the totality of Lynch's vision and how well made the film is - it doesn't let you go even though you don't understand it. This kind of effect can be analyzed in its contraptions but ultimately in looking back it's almost an X-factor. I certainly need to go back and watch this film again.

Well, that's it for the individual films. I suppose I could make an entry for the "Twin Peaks" pilot as a self-contained film or for the series as a whole, but I think it would be too much. It is probably my favorite thing Lynch has given me other than Blue Velvet, but writing about it would be too much. What I want to conclude with are some elements of Lynch's films that I've noticed repeating and being reused.

Red velvet curtains - There is usually an isolated room with dim lighting, maybe with a single piece of furtniture in it, whose walls are made of red velvet drapes or curtains. This usually sets the scene for some kind of strange dream-like encounter, character, or performance. In Mullholland Drive we have the studio executive who sits in his recliner as well as a stirring rendition of Roy Orbison's "Crying." In "Twin Peaks" it is the place in Cooper's dreams in which he is visited by characters such as the giant who give him clues. In Blue Velvet the curtains are blue instead of red (obviously), but they are still there. There are other examples in the other films and in the ones I mentioned, but I won't go through them all. I think this is an effective setting that Lynch makes use of in creating a surreal mood/environment. What it means other than that is really beyond me.

Music - I have heard that Lynch is a musician as well as a filmmaker (among other things?) and I would already have guessed that from his movies if no one had told me. If not a musician, then at least a heavy music appreciator. Mostly all of the films I've seen have great uses of music and little codas of musical performances within the films. Part of this is the choice of Angelo Badalamenti to score his film (his "Twin Peaks" soundtrack is remarkable!) but I'm more talking about his choice of pop music. He seems to have a big thing for Orbison, who he uses unforgettably in Blue Velvet, but also in Mullholland Drive. Then of course there is the song "Blue Velvet" itself, a '50s tune that I will never hear the same way again. Wild at Heart has some great Elvis song scenes. Lost Highway, on top of all the other things I don't like about it, has the least memorable soundtrack, featuring Rammstein and Marilyn Manson. Also, there always seems to be a musician cast in his movies, even for a brief cameo appearance. There's been John Lurie, Henry Rollins, Billy Ray Cyrus, Marilyn Manson, and composer Angelo Badalamenti (this must have been my favorite one). Also, though I haven't seen the film yet, David Bowie and Chris Isaak are in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me.

Dreams - This may seem like an obvious one, especially since I've talked about it in several of the films, but dreams play a major role in Lynch's films. They allow a surrealistic quality to exist in the films and often allows the film (or TV show) to escape the entrapments of a linear storyline or even logic. Often times we are not even sure if what Lynch is presenting is a dream or reality or a mixture of the two.

The Grotesque - Lynch likes to stretch what can happen with the human body in the way it can be destroyed or mutilated. It is not enough that Bobby Peru gets shot in the head, but his head must fly off in a gory explosion. It is not enough that someone trip and hit their head on the corner of the coffee table, but their head slice into the head between the eyes deep enough to keep the stuck onto the table like grape on a razor blade. I think Lynch is very interested in how horrifying the human body can be and our fragile mortality. He also like to cast some very strange looking human beings - midgets, giants, incredibly ugly people, etc. - or make up humans to look like some horrifying human-like thing. Examples are abundant. When it is not the human body, he likes to imagine grotesque flesh-like creations that nearly invoke gag reflexes. A couple of examples are the infected baby thing in Eraserhead or the fleshy plant that gives birth to a grandmother in his short film Grandmother.

Reflexivity - There is a great deal of reflexive elements in Lynch's films which have the film bring attention to itself or to how its made or what its referencing. He does this by playing with genres, referencing some conventions and then twisting them, or by having us pay attention to the elements of filmmaking. Sometimes it is unclear whether Lynch's intention is to do so. For example, some of the acting on "Twin Peaks" is so stinted and self-conscious, bordering on soap cliche, that it's hard to take as earnest. The main reflexive element for me is the way Lynch likes to manipulate us as his viewers and then make us realize that we have been manipulated. I noted on this with Mulholland Drive.

Sexuality - This is something that I think is present in some way, shape, or form in all of the films I listed. Sometimes the sexuality is straightforward, such as in Wild at Heart (though I would argue that in this case it is exaggerated and emphasized), and other times it is hinted such as in the freak show curator's obsession with the elephant man. In Blue Velvet the intense cruelty and strangeness of the sexuality is the center of attention. In this case it is the type of sexuality that hides behind closed doors, which also appears in "Twin Peaks" in the case of the Laura Palmer sadomasochism, her rape, and the goings-on at One-Eyed Jacks. The sexuality of Mulholland Drive between Betty and Rita is made confusing, strange, and twisted when the characters start changing names. The sexuality of Lost Highway is so overt it makes us self-conscious as viewers.

Anyway, there is a ton more to say and discover - lots of other repeated elements I haven't even touched on, lots of other themes, analyses to be made - but I think my responsibility as a blogger is satisfied with this much, ha. Books, after all, are written about Lynch and he remains a director to be studies, scrutinized, and admired. My experience in his world was both frustrating and elating and in the end I am glad I entered and took a look around.

14 September 2008

Film Journal: The Catered Affair (1956)

The Catered Affair (1956) dir. by Richard Brooks

The issue I want to explore in The Catered Affair is whether the film works as a social critique or simply as a morality tale. The film’s drama is tightly centered around Aggie Hurley, who is the one that insists on having a big wedding for her daughter and who responds to both the Halloran family and to the gossip of neighborhood friends. It seems that she is the vehicle through which a lesson is ultimately learned. But what exactly is that lesson? What does she represent and what do the different characters – namely her husband Tom, her daughter Jane, and the Hallorans – represent?

The first obvious distinction between the two families is that of class. The Hurleys are poor, lower-class, city people who barely scrape by on Tom’s job as a cab driver. The Hallorans, on the other hand, are well-to-do who live comfortably. We see this in the brief glimpse of their home in which they sit comfortably on a large couch watching television, a symbol of comfortable, modern living. We also learn more through the conversation the Hallorans have with the Hurleys during dinner in which they tell of their expenses on the weddings of their other children and their travels. It is clear that they could easily afford a big wedding for their son, but from the old-fashioned ideas that the Hallorans seem to be attached to, Mrs. Halloran insists that the bride’s family must pay for the wedding.

Another distinction between characters in the film is a generational gap between parents and children. Jane and Rod intend to have a simple wedding without a big celebration and want to rush off to a honeymoon because it is convenient. This idea of a simple wedding causes gossip among the housewives who think that there must be something wrong. I am not sure if the idea of a simple wedding is necessarily a radical idea in the 1950s, but it certainly represents an ideological split between the generations. The children can thus be said to represent a new generation free from the baggage and restrictions of the values and conventions of their parents’ generation.

In the center of these two gaps between class and generation is Aggie, who wants to cater to the expectations of the Hallorans and her society, insisting that it is also what the children should really want. Her ultimate decision to forgo the big ceremony ultimately leads to the happiness of the children and to her husband Tom, who gets the cab he’s been working hard to get and to whom she becomes closer in the symbolic gesture of his arm around her shoulders.

To me it seems that Aggie’s decision is a moral lesson in which she learns to think of others before herself and to let go of the societal expectations which suffocate her. Though she insists that the wedding would be good for Jane, it is ultimately for herself. Her abandoning that idea and accepting her daughter’s plea for a simple wedding can be seen as a symbolic surrender to the new generation and a new progressive age which allows her and her family to live freely.

Alternately, Aggie’s decision to forgo the big wedding ceremony can be seen as a submission not only to her daughter’s pleas, but to the pleas of her husband Tom. It is Tom, after all, that has a confrontational scene with Aggie in the bedroom in which he insists that she never appreciated the hard work he did for the sake of the family. In fact, when Jane tries to come into that scene she is told to leave, possibly signifying that the real confrontation and resolution of the film comes not between Aggie and Jane but Aggie and Tom. This is reinforced through the final scene in which we see Tom’s big smile in having his new cab pull up and in which he embraces Aggie. If this is the case, then what does Tom represent? As a blue-collar working man just scraping by in the city, he could certainly represent the proletariat, to whom the ultimate recognition and respect should ultimately be given. The film could be suggesting that in recognizing and appreciating Tom and allowing him to earn the fruit of his labors as a working man while simultaneously rejecting bourgeois values, Aggie makes the right choice – the working man should be the one valued and not the bourgeois.

Ultimately, I think the lesson of the film could swing either way, though I’m partial to the latter. That is not to say, however, that it has to be so black and white or so much one displacing the other. Indeed, Aggie’s decision can be a lesson in both morality and in socialist ideals, both of which can go very much arm in arm. Though the children seem to be out of the picture in the second hypothesis, I would argue that ultimately the film is not really about the bridging of the generational gap, but the bridging of an emotional gap between Aggie and Tom, which bring about the multi-faceted realizations and lessons.

07 September 2008

Film Journal: Blackboard Jungle (1955)

(I am currently taking a class called "Three Directors" focusing on Richard Brooks, Mike Nichols, and Arthur Penn and their films from the late fifties to early seventies to see how their work reflects changing attitudes in American society. Every week I am assigned to write a journal reflecting on the film viewed. I figured I'd share it here as a weekly update.)

Glenn Ford in Blackboard Jungle (1955) dir. by Richard Brooks

Though I have never seen Blackboard Jungle before, I was familiar with its movie poster and DVD cover featuring the floating head of a tough-looking Glenn Ford between two women with their hips to the side and their faces towards him. Under Ford's name and to the right there is a line up of people including Ford in a trench coat. The whole feel of the poster is that of a noir film, with Ford as the P.I. and his two femme fatales on either side of him. I was then surprised to find that while the film did have a sort of grittiness to it - with backalleys, slang-talking hoods, and even some street fog at night - the film is atypical to the more dark and macho noir.

Firstly, there is the central character, Dadier. When he is first introduced to the movie he is nervous, soft-spoken, and clutches his briefcase to his chest as if it were a lifesaver. We then learn that he is familiar with Shakespeare, has a background in drama, and is ready to have a baby with his wife, to whom he is especially sweet and affectionate. These traits are completely opposite of the typical tough guy male lead of the '40s noir films such as Bogart's Sam Spade or even Ford's earlier role as Sgt. Bannion in Lang's The Big Heat. These men typically take law into their own hands, are usually loners (I suppose Bannion is an exception since he is married at first), and are sexually charged. Not only is Dadier gentle, he almost seems asexual. He loves his wife with a type of purity that seems devoid of lusty sexual desire and there is almost no sexual tension between himself and the attractive female teacher who aggressively flirts with him. Had it been Bogart I feel it would have been a different story.

Secondly, there is a humanistic optimism and idealism in Blackboard Jungle that usually disappears into the shadows of the streets in most noirs. This optimism is played out mostly through the ending in which Miller, a black, rebellious youth, and Dadier, the white, adult authority figure, are united in friendship and understanding. The ending suggests a union that transcends generational, racial, and social gaps to issue in a new age. It would be hard to imagine a noir detective restoring order in the crime underground in such a way or finding humanity and kindness in a crook. In the end of Blackboard Jungle it seems the problem of the rebellious youth could be rooted out simply by picking out the bad apples and investing with love and patience.

Unlike the grim conditions and feeling of despair of the World War II expressed in noir films, the social issues of the ‘50s seem to suggest that there are certainly solutions. I wish I knew more about or have seen more social problem films to be able to compare with Blackboard Jungle, but I suppose the suggestion at least through this film is that the problems of the post-war age are in our means to remedy. It seems that Sidney Potier always has a part to play in that remedy – in the Blackboard Jungle, The Defiant Ones, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?, etc. Even earlier social problem films such as Crossfire seem bleaker than this. Is this part of a new era of hopefulness or a cover up of the lack of substantial solutions to persisting problems? The youth delinquency in this film was portrayed through acts of violence, theft, rape, racism, lack of regard for authority, and a general nihilism. In the film the and the microcosm of that particular school, the problem seems to have been solved and the suggestion of the solution made through Dadier and Miller, but how much of this reflects America in 1955 and how much of it reflects Hollywood or even just Richard Brooks?

02 September 2008

The Big Freeze

Courtney Hunt's Frozen River starts with an tilted long shot of a frozen river, starting with ambiguous shapes and colors then coming up to show a small town along the horizon of blue, white, and gray. Next we are shown a penetrating close up of Ray Eddy (Melissa Leo), weathered and tired, as she takes a drag of her cigarette - her fingernails dirty, the lines in her face fully visible and without makeup. Immediately you notice two things: the beauty of the images and their cold, harsh realism. Those characteristics last through the next hour and thirty-seven minutes as the intense drama unfolds, twists, and crashes.

Ray Eddy, a mother of two sons, lives in a tin trailer and barely making it with her part-time work at the local dollar store. Her husband has left the family a few days before Christmas to feed a gambling addiction, only this time it is not clear whether he will come back. The money he takes was supposed to pay for a down payment on a larger trailer, but now Ray cannot afford to keep her rented television or even her buy her son Christmas presents. The premise right off the bat sounds like a weepy, sentimentalist Christmas drama, but the low-budget film digs way deeper. Its below-freezing setting and situation drains the warmth of the holidays and we are only reminded of Christmas in the cheap decorations adorning the cupboards of their trailer or the empty Christmas tree in the living room/doorway/kitchen.

As the story progresses we are introduced to Lila, a Mohawk Native American, who smuggles illegal immigrants over the Canadian border for cash. Her character is big, dominating, and puts up a front which we eventually see is only hiding her pain in being alone, prejudiced against, without her son, and far-sighted. After eventually pointing the same pistol at each other and making threats, they become partners in the human trafficking, each desperate for money.

When the pistol is introduced the film starts to become a sort of neo-noir-like thriller, dealing with similar themes of life in the underground crime, desperation, and isolation from both society and individuals. The frozen river that crosses the border over which Ray has to drive becomes a dark and deadly alleyway where the ambiguous morality of crime and necessity mix. Instead of the typically shadowy black and white urban streets, however, we have the white snow and gray slush, the black cold and frozen ice. Even though the narrow streets are replaced by wide open spaces, the extremity of Ray's situation is claustrophically intense, sometimes making it difficult to breathe. The low-budget qualities of the film - the DV camera mostly - add a realism to the film that at times resembles home movie footage and adds a believability to the film that only makes it more effective. Melissa Leo's acting was also fantastic. Where the heck did she come from?

It was very exciting to me to see such a powerful film from a new director and on such a low budget. It refreshes me to see where film can go and how individual visions can offer something new, something a little different. The film is heart-wrenching and at times reaches a grimness that is almost unbearable, but Hunt, and, consequently, we, manage to keep a gleam of hope without abandoning realism or consequence. I am excited to see what this writer/director does next.