Saturday, September 29, 2007

rebel without a cause, by nicholas ray

I spent some time trying to think of a scene that was most representative of the mind-fuck that is Rebel Without A Cause, and I ended up picking this one:

Aside from the weird assortment of power objects on the left-hand side of the frame, the scene is innocuous enough: a father and a daughter enter a dining room. The impression of normality isn't entirely blown when she leans in and kisses Dad on the mouth:

Dad's reaction, however, which is to act appalled and say things like "We should have stopped doing that a long time ago" sounds a bit like "protesting too much"—and when the daughter protests the protestation, explaining the kiss away as just a girl "[loving] her daddy," the overall atmosphere has begun to sink into a squirm-inducing miasma of sexual tension.

"Girls your age don't do things like that," insists Dad, "You need an explanation?" It's probably fair to say that a more overt explanation isn't really necessary for most viewers: at this point the hidden incest subtext is pretty much threatening to burst out and become, well, the text. Not to be daunted, she goes in for another kiss (the addition of the young brother to the scene only compounding the Freudian dynamic here):

Dad's reaction, this time, is violent:

Judy storms out, and Mom makes the effort to rationalize the whole episode by saying that she—Judy—is at "the age where nothing fits." The little brother gives that age a label—"The atomic age!" and he fires sparks across the table:

—and that's the point where you really start saying "Did the film really go there? Did they really just draw some kind of unholy quadrangle joining up unconscious incest fantasy, domestic violence, the 1950's, and atomic technology? And what's all this doing in a film that I thought was supposed to be a piece of classic-Hollywood fluff about rebellious teens?"

OK, yeah, on one level Rebel Without A Cause is in fact about rebellious teens. It has some sequences—a knife fight, horseplay with cars on a dangerous bluff—which offer the old promise of revealing "what today's kids are really up to": the kind of prurient moralizing tease also engaged in by more recent films like Larry Clark's Kids (1995), or next week's pick, Thirteen (2003). But Rebel Without A Cause is about a much broader set of social anxieties, of which "out of control kids" is only a minor subset.

The film seems to be anxious about everything, ranging from psychosexual family dynamics (above) to the literal end of the world. The kids go on a school trip to the planetarium which culminates in a Scary As Fuck cosmic apocalypse:

Then there's also the major uneasiness about contested masculinity—best exemplified by Mr. Stark, James Dean's henpecked dad:

Speaking of"henpecked"—there's also a subtle but recurring hangup about the "animal other" going on here: Dean complains repeatedly that his family is a "zoo," and a few times in the film he's called a "chicken," an insult he seems to take literally, even before the film goes to the trouble of literalizing it for us:

Basically, the filmmakers stuff 20 pounds of cultural anxiety into a 10-pound bag, and the vision of the world that results is leaking enough dread that it borders on into the surreal. It's menacing enough to leave me thinking of it as a clear influence on fucked-up processing-the-baggage-of-the-50's films like John Waters' Female Trouble (1974) or David Lynch's Blue Velvet (1986). (Note that Rebel Without a Cause features a young Dennis Hopper as a rather beautiful thug who could easily turn into Frank Booth 30 years down the road.) These later films represent a full bursting-open of the overstuffed, oozing anxiety-bag that is Rebel Without a Cause, and in this regard seem practically therapeutic in comparison.

Unscrambled's write-up is here, and Skunkcabbage's is here.

Friday, September 21, 2007

cool hand luke, by stuart rosenberg

or, "strategies against architecture"

Picking up on a visual reference in last week's pick, 25th Hour, Skunkcabbage and I moved on this week to Cool Hand Luke (1967).

I wrote last week that 25th Hour is concerned with Impartial Law and its inherent abuses; Cool Hand Luke announces similar concern with its very opening shot:

The parking meter functions here as the perfect picture of Ultimate Impartiality, a kind of clockwork judge literally incapable of concern with ambiguity or context. And the very next thing we see is Paul Newman's Lucas Jackson wandering down the street, calm, determined, and drunk, slicing the tops off of those parking meters:

Needless to say, the episode doesn't end well:

This scene is the primary dramatic unit of Cool Hand Luke in microcosm: Luke, the charismatic rebel, engages in some gesture of resistance, which results in Authority moving on to the next level of punitive force, which in turn sets the stage for more resistance, beginning the cycle anew.

Luke's acts of resistance—along with the acts he uses to ingratiate himself with his fellow prisoners—are frequently anarchic and playful, situating him firmly in the American Trickster tradition, somewhere between Huck Finn and Bugs Bunny. Unfortunately, dudes like this guy here on the left aren't exactly Elmer Fudd:

That's the guard referred to by the prisoners as the Man With No Eyes, who functions even more memorably than the parking meters as an icon of cold impassivity, so much so that James Cameron cribbed the mirrorshades look for the T-1000 in Terminator II (1991). (In the interest of fairness, I should note also that Cool Hand Luke director Stuart Rosenberg has himself cribbed it from the equally impassive Eyeless Cop who pulls over Janet Leigh in Psycho (1960).)

In any case, he and the other "bosses" aren't simple rubes, so Luke's attempts at clever subversion, although symbolic successes, often result in violence being visited upon him. Any time you start emphasizing the vulnerability of a male hero's body, you're only half a step away from dusting off the old Christ metaphor, and Cool Hand Luke fully indulges this impulse in some man-interrogates-God sequences and some pretty shameless shots:

That said, it's also worth noting that Luke demonstrates a detachment from his own schemes that's more Buddhist than Judeo-Christian: he plans none of them in advance, and he consistently downplays any praise that comes his way afterwards. So that's Luke in a nutshell: part Huck Finn, part Bugs Bunny, part Jesus Christ, part Buddha. It's no wonder that he's taken on something of the status of folk hero by the end of the film. (It's also no wonder that Paul Newman's easy charisma and charm here gave him star power that lasted him a generation.)

The film's thematic richness provided me with a lot of possible avenues to pursue—penal institutions, vulnerable bodies, male camraderie, martyrdom: you could follow it up with anything from Down By Law to 300. But ultimately it's the theme of the "charismatic outsider" that carries the day, so next week we'll be watching Rebel Without A Cause (1955).

Skunkcabbage's write-up is here.

Friday, September 14, 2007

25th hour, by spike lee

After a brief hiatus, film club was able to resume this week, and we picked up where we left off, specifically with Spike Lee. Our choice this week was 25th Hour (2002).

Like Do the Right Thing before it, 25th Hour can be read as a long exercise in the practice of empathy. The two take pretty different approaches, though. Do the Right Thing introduces a wide variety of characters and places them in interpersonal conflict—since all of them, on one level or another, can be thought of sympathetically, we (can) watch these conflicts with a degree of empathy towards all parties involved. 25th Hour avoids this method: opting instead to work with a smaller palette of characters, and to ratchet the interpersonal conflicts way down—the main characters are not individuals forced to interact by the dictates of neighborhood geography but rather a set of old friends. (It's true that their long-running friendship is accompanied by the usual long-running suppressed resentments, and also true that these resentments bubble over into outright hostility at times, but this is still a far cry from the screaming-fights-in-the-street that punctuate Do the Right Thing.)

The primary way Lee elicits our empathy here, then, is through showing us sympathetic characters in conflict not with one another but in conflict with an impartial State. It's not for no reason that our protagonist, Edward Norton's Montgomery Brogan, has a Cool Hand Luke poster up in his apartment:

Monty, we learn fairly early, is a drug dealer, and although he's got a whole set of fairly reasonable—or at least symapthetic—reasons for getting into the drug dealing business, he learns pretty quickly (once nabbed by the DEA), that there's a whole set of Statist mechanisms in place, the Rockefeller Laws, that are designed to render these motivations pretty much meaningless, in the pursuit of impartiality. He learns about these laws in this room, production-designed to be the very picture of Impartial Objectivity in action:

The other primary character who's up against Impartial Law is high school English teacher Jacob Elinksy, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman in Grade A squirrelly repressed weirdo mode. What Elinsky wants / doesn't want, is to sleep with his student, Mary D'Annunzio:

She's 17, so sleeping with her would be statutory rape, but the film takes pains to make the point that Mary is not exactly the portrait of untrammeled innocence:

Of course, that doesn't matter, in the eyes of the Law (whether it should or should not is another question all together). Point is, the film rather daringly asks us, for over two hours, to extend our sympathies to what we'd traditionally think of as the lowest of society's lows: a (convicted) drug dealer and a (potential) statutory rapist. An exercise in empathy indeed. It helps, of course, not only that Lee provides them with motivating backstories (Brogan more so than Elinsky) but also that they are articulate, intelligent white dudes... whether this is intended as subtle commentary by Lee is anybody's guess.

So the film wants us to expand our own empathy, to get it broad enough to the point where it can include these two. This transition is mirrored by an expansion of empathy taking place in Monty's own sensorium over the course of the film. On his last night of freedom, Monty is inspired by a piece of bathroom graffiti ("Fuck You") to embark upon a monologue reminiscent of both the inflammatory invective in Do the Right Thing and Travis Bickle's diary-rants in Taxi Driver (1976). Monty's monologue is surprisingly completist; stereotyping nearly every ethnic group in the city:

This is significant, because it's precisely this crazy-diverse panoply of New Yorkers who Monty will be separated from when he's imprisoned the next morning: the hell of imprisonment is precisely the hell of being separated from the richness of an everyday experience involving others. Monty eventually learns this, towards the film's final moments, but not before he's gone through a set of transformative experiences. As Monty suffers, he learns. (My film club compatriot, Skunkcabbage, argues that this is the key to the 9/11 imagery that circulates within this film: that Monty's suffering is an allegory for America's, and that Monty's epiphany—that the world contains others, and that his comfort is predicated at least partially on the suffering of others—could be the same epiphany that a post-9/11 America could, optimistically, reach.)

Two final notes:

1. This film may represent part of Lee's effort to increase his own personal empathy: there are times when he seems to have set himself a project of making at least one film about every ethnic subculture in New York. Summer of Sam (1999) is Lee's "Italian" film; this one is his "Irish" film.... [?]

2. All this empathy-building aside, there's still a Monstrous Other in this film, specifically the other convicts that presumably lie in wait for Edward Norton to join them. The specter of homosexual jail-rape is evoked about every ten minutes in this film, with both suicide and disfigurement being raised as potentially desirable alternatives. The film's moving final sequence presents a narrative bifurcation—two possible paths—were I to cynically reduce this bifurcation to a formula it would be "Americana Vs. Male Rape."