Saturday, November 29, 2008

the maltese falcon, by john huston

[Note: the following post contains some discussion of the resolution and closing scenes of the film.]

So last week, when Film Club looked at It Happened One Night, I presented a pair of screenshots and did a quick little analysis of the power dynamic reflected between the man and the woman depicted therein. This week, we watched The Maltese Falcon (1941), and if you wanted to play the same game, you could... try doing a read on this image:


It doesn't take a degree in semiotics to figure out which one appears to be in charge here. And yet the gender politics of Falcon are more complicated than this image might initially suggest.

The woman who Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) is haranguing here is Brigid O'Shaughnessy (Mary Astor), and she's a prime example of that quintessential noir figure, the femme fatale. The question of whether the noir fatales are progressive is a thorny one, but one thing that can be said in the affirmative is that O'Shaughnessy certainly possesses a certain autonomy, with goals that are, for lack of a better word, self-directed. (Specifically, she's one of a number of people in search of a priceless figurine, the falcon of the title.)

Now, to be sure, there's certain degree of self-directedness in last week's female lead, Ellie Andrews—the plot of It Happened One Night is set into motion by her active resistance of her father's wishes for her—but a lot of the "comedy" of that film actually involves the breaking-down of her will in a variety of humiliating and debasing ways. The Maltese Falcon also ultimately punishes O'Shaughnessy—she's shipped off to prison for her role in one of the film's murders—but it's hard to know, exactly, how to read that fact. If I were to read the film from a feminist perspective, I would argue that the film is built around the notion of masculine authority, and the presence of a sufficiently headstrong woman unsettles that authority—it is only once that "uncontrollable feminine" is safely contained that the film's equilibrium is restored, and the narrative can draw to a close.


It's a tempting read, and yet there's a way in which the film's ending seems more bittersweet, or even downright bleak, rather than triumphant. Part of this is complicated by the (improbable) romance that erupts between Spade and O'Shaughnessy:


...and part of it is complicated by the fact that the film and Spade both always seem to maintain a respect for this headstrong woman, even when she's at her most manipulative and dishonest. In fact, you could make the argument that the film respects her because she's manipulative and dishonest. (On more than one occasion, Spade catches her in some sort of lie, and he replies (ungrudgingly) "You're good.")

In order to really buy this as a read, however, one has to understand that, in the moral universe of The Maltese Falcon, the people with the greatest claim to authority are the people who are the most proficient in their ability to control and manipulate the truth. O'Shaughnessy lies, hedges, and omits key information throughout the entire film, but Spade himself does the same, and at least as frequently. Viewed through this lens, the film's narrative can be understood as being "about" various characters attempting to establish their version of the film's narrative as dominant. Half the fun as an audience member is attempting to keep on top of the ever-shifting narrative, which means managing an incessant flow of reversals, revisions, and reveals.

Spade and O'Shaughnessy, of course, are both experts here, as is Spade's "girl Friday," Effie Perine (Lee Patrick), another tough-headed female character held in high regard by the film. The process of watching them managing and responding to this flow of information is a delight—and we're listening as well as watching, given that so much of the information is deployed verbally, through dense, nearly impenetrably rapid patter. (This is a continuation, most likely, of the sound-enabled motion picture industry of this era being "drunk on speech"—and yet these characters also feel utterly contemporary in their way: they are, essentially, prototypes for the knowledge-workers and data-managers of our own current 21st century.)

Returning to the gender issue, however, it does have to be said that in the end Spade emerges as the one highest in this hierarchy—both Effie and Bridget, ultimately, are subordinated to his mastery (Effie is in Spade's employ, and Bridget's eventually loses control of the narrative and goes down in flames). Part of the reason that Spade maintains his enduring appeal as a character, of course, is because of his ability to think so effectively on his feet: to fast-talk his way through even the most dire circumstances until he works his way back into control. (Full disclosure: as a male viewer, it's hard for me not to want to be Spade, and I'm pretty sure I'm not the only man who has had this experience.)

And yet our director, John Huston, makes this process of identification a little more complicated than it might be in the hands of a less-ambitious director. Specifically, the film is full of little hints that Spade is kind of a creepy guy. At one point he grabs Effie's wrist and squeezes it, unconsciously, until she has to protest "Sam—you're hurting me."


And the film's closing moments don't exactly show Sam as the most noble fellow, either. This is compounded by the fact that he delivers much of his final monologue with a glassy, faraway look in his eye that makes him look sinister, almost sociopathic:


In a way, what Huston is doing in this film is sort of the reverse of what Hitchcock does in Psycho (Film Club XXXIX). In Psycho, we're introduced to a person who is obviously creepy and later forced into unsettling identification with him; here in The Maltese Falcon we're introduced to a character who's easy to identify with and only as the film proceeds are we made to question just exactly what we've gotten ourselves into by doing so. Genius stuff.

For next week, we'll stick with Bogart, noir, and unstable narratives: we'll be looking at 1946's The Big Sleep, directed by Howard Hawks from a William Faulkner screenplay.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

it happened one night, by frank capra

This week, Film Club decided to continue our whirlwind tour through Early American Comedy, turning to the first of the "screwball" comedies, 1934's It Happened One Night.

Part of the enduring appeal of the screwball comedies derives from the fact that they essentially lay the groundwork for what will eventually become the contemporary romantic comedy. Anyone who has seen more than a couple romantic comedies will recognize the basic tropes on display here: a man and a woman who initially seem to dislike one another are thrown together by chance circumstances, have a series of escapades, and come to realize that through the course of their misadventures they have fallen in love with one another.

Devising a romance that works this way—one in which your two main characters intially don't like one another very much is a time-honored narrative device: it allows for the introduction of conflict every time your characters are on screen together. However, even as this device solves one problem—keeping the happy conclusion from feeling forgone too early—it does so only at the cost of creating another problem. Specifically, the more you emphasize the characters' opposition to one another, the more territory they need to traverse before the love that the genre demands can emerge. (A secondary double-bind: if your characters are likeable at the outset of the film, going through the process of learning or growing or whatever else they might need to do runs the risk of watering down or eliminating what we liked about them in the first place. On the other hand, if they aren't likeable at the outset of the film... well, the problems there are obvious.)

There are a number of fine romantic comedies out there that manage to satisfyingly resolve these problems, setting up situations in which all the elements are in balance. In the Platonic ideal of this type of romantic comedy, two likeable (yet flawed) people come together and clash, but then each of them grows a little, straightens out their flaws while preserving key elements of their individual selves, and learns something key about the other person, whereupon both of them can then meet in the middle, in a conclusion that's essentially egalitarian in spirit. It Happened One Night, however, is not that film.

The power dynamic in this film can probably best be indicated by a pair of screenshots. First this one:


These are our principal characters, Peter Warne (Clark Gable) and Ellie Andrews (Claudette Colbert), meeting up by chance one night the back of a bus. You can see that Ellie's a little reluctant to get too close. By morning, however, it's a different story:


The movie's telegraphing to us the idea that they might be able to get along after all (at least when one of them is unconscious). It's notable, however, the way the gender dynamic is set up here: that the only character who really has to change her tune is Ellie. There is no meeting in the middle: she's the one who has to "come around" to liking Peter, not vice versa.

Now, the plot of the film is arranged around her attempt to travel clandestinely (she's trying to avoid her powerful father's interference in her marriage to a celebrity aviator). Peter's a down-on-his-luck newspaperman, and the film suggests that he's sticking with her so that he can land a big scoop. So one could concievably argue that he has to overcome his own aversion to her. You could, for instance, point to the way he spends a good deal of the film's run-time insulting and correcting her, including on the finer points of donut-dunking:


However, he's also the one who repeatedly orchestrates the situation so that they can remain together, and his aversion never quite seems as pronounced as hers. He actually seems quite content to remain in her company—provided he can constantly belittle and control her. Over and over again, the movie is about bringing her down a peg. (She's high class to Warne's working-stiff, so this might have something to do with pandering to a nasty side of Depression-era class fantasy.) Regardless, by about a third of the way through the film, my Film Club companion Skunkcabbage was making comments about Foucault ("constant surveillance and correction") and I was starting to read their relationship as an early cinematic example of a BDSM relationship... this is less When Harry Met Sally and more, er, Secretary. I was so involved in this read that I wasn't actually surprised when Gable starts literally spanking her:


So, uh, yeah, unless she's got a submissive streak, it's not quite clear what Ellie is getting out of all this. At times there's a palpable disconnect between what she seems to want and what she's actually getting in Peter: at one point in the film, she lets her guard down and reveals that she's always felt trapped and stifled by her domineering father. One begins to wonder, at this juncture, whether the film is even aware that what Ellie appears to be doing is swapping out one domineering man for another. (The scene seems intended to be heartwarming, but it actually just struck me as tragic.)

The film's not without its strengths: it has a handful of charming moments, and the storyline is by far the strongest of the last four films we've watched (its three-act structure could be described as "classical"). But the dated gender attitudes really hobble the film. The tide, in some ways, is about to turn: the later, more engaging screwball comedies are not without their feminist qualities, and we're also on the cusp of the noir cycle, whose fatales represent some of the most strong-headed and autonomous female characters from this era. (Don't get me wrong: I'm not saying that the films from the noir cycle are all that progressive: certainly many of them also manifest a great interest in controlling the feminine. This'll be the lens we'll use to kick off our look at next week's pick, The Maltese Falcon (1941).)

Saturday, November 8, 2008

a day at the races, by sam wood

This week, we here at Film Club continue our examination of Early American Comedy. We're moving from the quasi-silent films embodied by the two Chaplin films we looked at, and moving instead firmly into the sound era: taking on 1937's A Day At the Races, a Marx Brothers film from their MGM era, directed by Sam Wood.

It should be obvious that one effect of the "unlocking" of sound is that the motion picture industry is immediately going to get drunk on the pleasures of speech, and certainly some of the appeal of the Marx Bros. is that they manifest this drunkenness so plainly. The average person on the street, asked to "name a Marx Brother," is likely to name this one:


...and, aside from the sheer iconicity of his appearance, the thing that most people remember about Groucho is his patter: the term incorporates both the dense mix of insults, one-liners, and blatant absurdities he delivers but also the unique (and endlessly imitated) manner in which he delivers them. Part of the reason Groucho is remembered so fondly is undoubtedly because he has so fully perfected patter only a decade after it becomes available as a filmic resource.


Chico is a little less well-remembered, but it's worth noting that his brand of comedy, too, is relentlessly centered around the delight we take in his quasi-ethnic verbal manglings.

It's a mistake, however, to recall the Marx Bros. as essentially a verbal act, as they're also extraordinarily gifted physical comics. Nowhere is this more evident than in the antics of the third brother, Harpo, who does his entire performance in this film (as well as their others) entirely in pantomime. In my opinion, he's a worthy rival to Chaplin: not only because of his amazingly kinetic body and in part because of his uncanny, weirdly expressive face, which is just funny to look at all by itself:


But the other brothers are no slouches in the physical comedy arena, either. Groucho in particular is prodigously gifted in this dimension, bringing an incredibly fluid grace to his signature silly walk:


And... well, screenshots can't really do it justice, but he's also actually a remarkably good dancer:



The physical and the verbal types of comedy on display here do have something in common, however: they both seem drawn from the tradition of the old-style vaudeville hall or variety show, a tradition which the Brothers themselves, indeed, emerge from. This sense is compounded by the narrative structure, which is essentially a series of comic skits: a manner of presentation which would have been familiar to vaudeville audiences. (There is a plot to this movie—something to do with a racehorse and a sanitarium on the verge of going broke—and it does function as a means of linking the skits into an actual story arc, allegedly at the urging of MGM producer Irving Thalberg. That said, one could enjoy the film just fine if they ignored the plot entirely and simply experienced the skits as discrete episodes.)

Film as a medium has always been one with something of a parasitic relationship to other media, and so it makes sense that once film acquires sound it would attempt (successfully, one might add) to devour the "form" of the vaudeville show. And once you start thinking of the film in these terms, the performance that the Bros. are putting on becomes all the more astonishing, because you realize that what you are watching is essentially a vaudeville show in which the Marx Bros. are doing all the parts. They do the witty repartee! They do the funny voices! They do the pantomime clowning! They do the slapstick-y physical comedy! They dance! Chico plays a killer comic tune on the piano!


Harpo actually plays the harp! (This is where his name, in fact, derives from.)


They do a bit in blackface!


Hmm, whoops, might want to overlook that one. Or, you might not—although to do a full read on the function of race in A Day At The Races would really require a full additional essay. In short, it's worth nothing that the blackface sequence is actually part of a much longer sequence in which the narrative is almost totally yielded to a group of African-American singers, musicians, and dancers (including both jazz singer Ivie Anderson and the Savoy Ballroom dance troupe known as Whitey's Lindy Hoppers). It's also clearly intended to be one of the most exuberant and life-affirming sequences in the film:


...and filmmaker Wood is clearly in awe of some of the spectacular acrobatics on display among the dancers:


Now, of course, none of this is free of the taint of mintrelsy, which often involves depicting African-Americans as joyous and musical... but the more negative aspects of minstrel stereotype, the depiction of blacks as ignorant and lazy, are absent (or at least downplayed). Also interestingly, the film attempts to draw lines of alignment between the Marx Bros. and this group of dirt-poor African-Americans. In the final scene, the film offers them an escape from poverty, by having them participate in the long-shot jackpot that the Brothers and friends orchestrate during the eponymous "day at the races." Here they are, waving cash as a part of the victory parade:


...but, on the other hand, it's not un-notable that they have to fill out the back ranks, with the front row assigned to the film's real [white] protagonists. Hmm.

This incomplete line of thinking made me lean towards wanting to revisit Spike Lee's assault on [contemporary] minstrelsy, Bamboozled, and as fun as that film would be to write about, I decided, in the end, to pass. I'm interested instead in continuing to round out my understanding of different types of 30s comedy, so next week we'll be doing one of the earliest "screwball" comedies, Frank Capra's It Happened One Night.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

city lights, by charlie chaplin

So after last week's dip into Chaplin's body of work, by way of Modern Times, Film Club opted to try contrasting it against what many consider to be his masterpiece, City Lights (1931).

Just to give you some idea of the degree of reverence City Lights has generated, this master list of the top 1,000 films of all time—generated by aggregating a wide variety of "best lists" made by different critics—ranks it as No. 21. (In the year and a half that Film Club has been convening, we've only watched one film more highly ranked on that list: Carl Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc, checking in at No. 16.)

It's easy to see why people are fond of City Lights: it's a very charming early example of the romantic comedy. Essentially, you have Chaplin's tramp falling in love with a blind flower-girl:


Due to an accident of circumstance, she comes to believe that he's actually incredibly wealthy. The Tramp spends much of the film maintaining this illusion, plying her with gifts and cash, and eventually working to finance an operation which will restore her sight.

Part of the reason he can keep this up is because he's saved the life of an eccentric (bipolar?) millionaire. Out of gratitude, the millionaire assumes a sort of patron role in the Tramp's life, loading him up with ample cash, and even taking him out on the town on occasion, which leads to a whole series of fish-out-of-water gags:


Those gags are often quite winning, and some of them are essentially cornerstones in the physical comedy playbook. At a formal party, for instance, the Tramp accidentally swallows a whistle just as some musicians are about to begin a performance. A screenshot doesn't really do the sequence justice:


...but you don't need a screenshot to tell you how it plays out: eighty years of follow-up comedy make the gag obvious, possibly even a little bit tired. (In fairness we should remember that for its time it's technically inventive—the gag hinges on the use of synchronized sound effects, which only break into motion picture history around five years earlier (with 1926's Don Juan)).

So there's a sweet love story in it, and everybody loves a good gag. But is there more to like about this film? The narrative is set up in such a way that it could, if it wanted, add some dramatic tension to this situation. For one thing, the millionaire's memory is unreliable, so sometimes he can't remember that he's supposed to be pals with the Tramp; for another thing, if the eye operation goes as planned, the blind girl will learn that the Tramp isn't wealthy. These are elegant narrative devices, but Chaplin isn't Hitchcock, and by and large he seems disinterested in exploiting these devices for anything resembling suspense. (The millionaire always eventually remembers, and even when he's out of the country for a spell the Tramp can still find a more-or-less effortless ways to keep the flow of gifts going.)

Modern Times, the companion piece we're working with, isn't exactly a masterpiece of taut narrative tension either, but it's rewarding to think about deeply because of its thematic complexity and interesting ambiguities. Those signs of a mature filmmaker, however, are almost completely absent from City Lights. Ask what City Lights is "about," in a thematic sense, and one comes up weirdly blank.

The title gives us a potential clue, suggesting that the film might have something to say about Depression-era urban life... and the opening scene of the film, in which a couple of nabobs unveil a statue dedicated to "Peace and Prosperity," suggest that the film may have a few satirical cards up its sleeve:


...but the film doesn't really have any interesting observations to make about urbanism, peace, or prosperity. Class is present in the film, obviously, but it's tough to glean a coherent stance on the topic from the unsustained way that Chaplin uses it. The Tramp is out of work, then he finds work, then he's out of work again: it sounds like commentary, but it doesn't really carry any narrative or conceptual weight. He's a poor person who befriends a millionaire, but the film uses this relationship only as a way to generate gags (see above), and in this way is no more "interested" in class than, say, a Three Stooges routine.

This even carries over to color the relationship between our two primary characters: there's a very real way in which you could say that the film isn't even really "about" the relationship between the Tramp and the flower-girl. Their scenes together often generate considerable pathos (fledgling Blade Runners out there might consider using the final scene as part of your Voigt-Kampff tests), but they're both essentially ciphers. We love the blind flower-girl because she is a Noble Poor Person, straight from central casting, not because we think of her as a real human being. (When you think about it in that light, some of the pathos begins to curdle into sentimentality.)

So is this film about? At its core, this film is about one thing, and one thing only: Chaplin himself. It's his prodigious physical gifts that carry the film, in scene after scene after scene. And it's easy to decide that that's OK. Who needs fleshed-out characters, or complicated thematic observations, when we can just go and enjoy the spectacle of Chaplin, say, running rings around some palooka in the boxing ring?


The sequence has next to nothing to do with the narrative, but in terms of the pleasure it yields, it's pure gold. And yet... well, let me put it this way. It's a maxim of Film Club that a film we watch doesn't have to be good, it only has to be interesting. And, indeed, we've watched our share of films that are interesting, but ultimately pretty bad. (Hell, we just watched Showgirls a few weeks ago.) City Lights, however, may be the first movie we've watched that gets the honor of being good, but... not interesting.

Better luck next week? We'll be sticking with Early American Comedy, but turning to the Marx Brothers. A Day at the Races (1937), coming right up!

Friday, October 24, 2008

my 100 favorite films

As some of you might know, I've been maintaining a complicated Film Viewing database which contains an incomplete (but growing) list of basically every film I've ever seen. One of the fun aspects of doing this is that I've set up a filtered view of this database which selects the films that I've given a rating of 9 or 10 to... thus auto-deriving a list of my "favorite" films.

As of today, when I added Jane Campion's The Piano (1993) to the database, the number of films on the "favorites" page hit exactly 100. Check it out.

It's organized chronologically, and you'll notice that it skews a bit towards recent films, in part because the 2000s have been a pretty good decade for film and in part because this database primarily (although not exclusively) reflects films I've watched or re-watched in the past two years. That said, there are definitely some blind spots: I'm sure there were some masterpieces produced between 1944 and 1954, but I'm not sure I've seen them.

This list reflects my personal favorites, and not necessarily the films I'd consider "canonical," although there is some overlap. (My 100 canonical films list, which could use some revision around now, can be found here.)

Comments and suggestions are welcome...

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

modern times, by charlie chaplin

When Film Club last convened, it was to watch (of all things) Paul Verhoeven's Showgirls. Viewed through a certain lens, Showgirls is "about" the way that modern centers of capitalism (Las Vegas and Los Angeles, specifically) seek to transform the human body into a commodity to be consumed.

This week we move to Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times, a film which is also very interested in the human body, and the transformations that capitalism enacts upon it.

Unlike Showgirls, however, Modern Times is not really interested in the body as an object for consumption. What is is interested in, however-- and these are, of course, related --is the body as an agent of production, contemporary industrialized mass production in particular.


As the film opens, we're treated to the sight of Chaplin's Tramp working as a bolt-tightener on an assembly line. In this early sequence, the film explores, to great effect, the spectacle of working bodies synchronizing or de-synchronizing with the unvarying industrial pace of the belt. This shot, from late in the sequence, should give you the basic idea:


OK, so this is used for grand comic effect, but the underlying point—about the relationship between man and machine—is deadly serious. The machine is unvarying, which means that the component in the industrial production process that needs to be "corrected" is the worker. In effect, the worker needs to become more machine-like.

The assembly line ends up warping the Tramp in precisely this way: in these early scenes, he's been so hard-wired to tighten bolts that even when he's not working on the line he continues to automatically seek bolts to tighten, coming to resemble nothing quite so much as a robot run amok.


This is fairly prescient, given that the very concept of the robot was only given a name for the first time in 1921 (in Karel ńĆapek's play R.U.R.), and is presented in film for the first time in 1927, by Fritz Lang's Metropolis.

The film grows even more prescient if you consider the Tramp-and-machine system less as an early cinematic example of the robot and more as an early cinematic example of the human-robot hybrid, the cyborg (a concept that wasn't even named until 1960). The film does feature some pretty arresting images of human-machine hybrids, which, divorced from their comedic contexts, border on the nightmarish:


Thinking about Modern Times's prescient aspects in this way leads one to consider the possibility that the opening twenty minutes of Modern Times fit squarely within the tradition of the science-fiction dystopia. If that sounds odd, check out some of these shots, which seem, to me, like they could be slotted comfortably into Metropolis, Alphaville, A Clockwork Orange, or Brazil...




Oddly, despite all its futuristic trappings, it's worth noting that at the time Modern Times was likely experienced by audiences as something that was engaged in a bit of looking backwards as well as a bit of looking forwards. The Tramp had long been a mainstay of silent cinema, making appearances as early as 1914: by 1936, when Modern Times is released, he's a figure with a twenty-year history. Furthermore, he's a figure largely associated with the silent era, which, by 1936, is definitively over—as sound had debuted in 1927 and been largely embraced by the industry by 1929.

Modern Times is not, strictly speaking, a silent film—it utilizes synchronized sound effects, and delivers some lines of dialogue through loudspeakers, radios, and song—but it delivers the majority of its dialogue through intertitles, and is still shot at the silent rate (19 frames per second). These choices are interesting, given that as early as 1931, when Chaplin released City Lights (next week's pick, btw), he was allegedly worrying about whether audiences would still be open to silent films (at least that's what this Wikipedia article says).

If the use of silent film conventions might have seemed dated in 1931, then by 1936--nearly a decade into the development of sound film --it must have seemed willfully anachronistic, nostalgic even. By approaching a movie very much about the future with this sort of determined focus backwards, Chaplin makes an interesting point about "the present"—the "modern times" of the film's title. He seems, in essence, to be saying that the present is always the sum total of our memories and experience of the past and our thoughts, feelings, hopes and fears about the future. That is as true today as it was in 1936, and Modern Times, in its best moments, still works to capture that peculiar ambiguity.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

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My Film Club collaborator, Skunkcabbage, has been on the road for the last few weeks, so that's the main reason why this blog has been quiet for a while. We should be watching our next pick (Modern Times) this weekend, and the semi-weekly routine should pick up shortly thereafter.

Also: as part of my redesign thinking, I'm considering porting this whole blog over to Wordpress.com. In fact I've already done it, just to see: take a look. Is there any good reason, beyond aesthetics, that I should choose one over the other?

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

pardon our dust

In the midst of making some design tweaks to this site, and (to a degree) rethinking its relationship to its parent blog, Raccoon. Things look a bit janked-up here at the moment, but tweaks in the forseeable future are likely to improve that state of affairs, and hopefully we'll end up with a better-looking blog at the end of it.

Friday, September 26, 2008

showgirls, by paul verhoeven

So going into this week's Film Club pick, Showgirls, I was theorizing that its director, Dutch filmmaker Paul Verhoeven, might serve as an analogue to Humbert Humbert (from last week's pick, Lolita). Both Verhoeven and Humbert, it seemed to me, are Europeans who are deeply fascinated with America, specifically America's crass, impulsive, trashy, and shallow aspects—in essence, the aspects of America that are the most distinctly non-European.

If you're interested in those aspects of America, there are two places that might prove especially fascinating, and Showgirls not only calls out those places by name, but it bookends itself with them. Here's a still taken from the first shot of the film:


...and here's a still from the final shot of the film, which you can hopefully read at this resolution if you squint:


So. If you start to think about Showgirls as something that's a commentary on America rather than a cynical exercise in audience titillation, it begins to become more interesting. Although if you want to do this, it might behoove you to ask: what kind of commentary is it, exactly? Is it a satire? Is it a critique? Certainly there are elements of the film that suggest this. It works, at times, as a cataloging of American grotesquerie and tackiness:





And our protag, Nomi Malone (Elizabeth Berkley), is definitely a Dolores-Haze-like bundle of raw impulses and poorly-thought-out gestures. (Sometimes it seems like every encounter in the entire film ends up with her either storming off in a rage or wreaking some kind of violence upon someone.) Inasmuch as she is functioning a stand-in for American values more largely, there's unmistakably some element of critique there. But Verhoeven's critical interest seems to circulate more around the relationship between entertainment (particularly entertainment that features the use of the body) and prostitution.

We can see this if we look at how much of the film's narrative energy is spent examining the rivalry between the naive and impulsive Nomi and a more seasoned and worldly-wise showgirl, Cristal (played by Gena Gershon). This rivalry, at least initially, hinges less upon professional jealousy and more upon a difference in world-view: Cristal sees the spectacular display of her own body at a high-end casino (the Stardust) and Nomi's topless dancing at a low-rent club (the Cheetah) as basically different points on the larger continuum of prostitution, whereas Nomi sees dancing as a more noble pursuit, categorically different. In the end, it turns out that Nomi doth protest too much, and the film expends a lot of narrative energy repeatedly complicating or violating the distinction between entertaining-through-one's-body and whoring.

Along these lines, it should not surprise us that the character who is perhaps the most effectively satirized in the film is the representative Serious Artist, James. James is a young black dancer who sees dance as a Legitimate Art Form (he trained with Alvin Ailey, we're told), and who naively wants to use Vegas as the forum in which to put on a personal, avant-garde dance piece. In the end, his piece does get its premiere, but ultimately it's little more than a dressed-up version of the same old bump-and-grind:


Thought of thusly, the avant-garde or personal elements in James's piece are essentially forms of inefficiency—noise in the channel, slowing down the transmission of what is important (and saleable), namely, erotic content. If Nomi is a whore who won't admit she's a whore, then James is a pimp who doesn't know he's a pimp, making him the least effective and most strongly ironized character in the entire film.

So, ultimately, the film is critiquing Vegas as a machine that turns people into commodities, and there is a sharply-pointed implication that LA, the city towards which the film gazes in its final moments, operates in precisely the same way. (It's not hard to imagine Verhoeven thinking of acting as simply another point on the "prostitution" continuum, and (it would follow) locating filmmaking as simply another point on the "pimping" continuum.) The film's reaction to this is not rage, but rather a nearly nihilistic resignation: the fools of the film, the ones being satirized, are James and Nomi, the ones who believe that they're not implicated in this sorry state of affairs. If everyone in Vegas and LA is either a pimp or a whore, the film seems to be saying, then the only wise thing to do is admit it and carry on.

If we recall the predictable trajectory of Verhoeven's own pre-Showgirls career, which starts off with him making small art-house films like The Fourth Man (1984) and ends up with him making big-budget Hollywood films like Basic Instinct and Total Recall, it becomes easy to think that maybe Verhoeven had come to think of himself as something of Hollywood' pimp at this point in his career—a line of thought which makes it easy to read Showgirls as a very public way of "admitting it and carrying on." "Admitting it" and "carrying on" might not be the two wisest things to do in the span of a single film, however: although the film is totally willing to give the audience the erotic content that they presumably crave, it asks, in return, that the audience acknowledge Verhoeven as a pimp, Elizabeth Berkley and Gina Gershon as whores, and (it would follow) the audience themselves as willing johns. Many filmgoers understandably might feel discomfited by this bargain, which may go part of the way towards explaining why the film failed at the box office. (There are also other, more obvious reasons, of course, many of which have to do with Showgirls simply not being a very well-made film, but these have been discussed amply elsewhere and don't require recounting here.)

Thursday, September 18, 2008

recent film stills


I just put around 15 film stills from Woman in the Dunes (1964) up at the LiveJournal film_stills community. It's a beautifully-composed movie; hope you check 'em out.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

lolita, by stanley kubrick

And now a few words about the necrophile community.

If you look closely at any group of people who appear, at first glance, to be unified by creed, interest, or fetish, you will inevitably learn that there is some issue or point of order that divides members of that community. And, indeed, so it is with necrophiles. According to a necrophile FAQ that's circulating around out there, the issue that divides necrophiles above all others is the question of how, er, "recent" the remains should be, with some necrophiles preferring freshly deceased remains, and others preferring older, more skeletal remains. Apparently, the rift between these two groups is severe enough that it's devolved into name-calling, with members of the first group referring to members of the second group as "dust-fuckers."

This was all brought to my attention by my good friend A., who claimed that she was going to start using "dust-fuckers" as her new favorite put-down, because she could think of no phrase more pejorative than the one a necrophile would use to describe an even worse necrophile.

So how does all this relate to this week's Film Club pick, Stanley Kubrick's Lolita (1962)? Well, as we've been going through our tour of cinematic sociopaths these past few weeks, I've been thinking a lot about how filmmakers build audience sympathy with twisted characters. Lolita, as you probably know, tells the story of Humbert Humbert, a pedophile who spends nearly the entire film pursuing (and eventually consummating) a sexual relationship with Dolores "Lolita" Haze, a 14-year old girl (she's 12 in the novel). Pedophiles are probably even lower than serial killers in the big catalog of American Enemies, so how do you get the audience to swallow their distaste and accept one as the protagonist of a two-and-a-half-hour-long film?


By using the Dust-Fucker Principle, of course, and squaring him off against an even worse pedophile.


In the case of Lolita, that Even Worse Pedophile is Clare Quilty, played memorably by the great Peter Sellers. Quilty dabbles in a wide variety of perversions: he's a pedophile; he's an aspiring pornographer; he organizes orgies; he gets off on being slapped around by exotic-looking Judo practicioner Vivian Darkbloom; he hangs out with submissives who themselves get off by being used as furniture. ("I know one guy, looks just like a bookshelf," Quilty quips, early in the film.) By contrast, Humbert's own (blunderingly direct) focus on non-polymorphous fucking seems practically old-fashioned, nearly wholesome.


If we buy into the setup that the Dust-Fucker Principle provides for us, however, we fall into a typically Kubrickian moral trap: although the movie takes advantage of the parallels between pedophilia and standard-issue heteronormative romance to gloss over the former's more repulsive aspects, Humbert is still a monster, and an ultimately unrepentant one at that. In this way, Lolita fits with the rest of Stanley Kubrick's body of work, which almost to a film has a notoriously problematic relationship to the whole concept of a sympathetic protagonist to begin with. (Quick quiz: who is the protagonist in Dr. Strangelove? In Eyes Wide Shut? In A Clockwork Orange? In The Shining? How many of the characters you came up with are good or likeable people?)

So Kubrick joins Romero, perhaps, in Film Club's annals of misanthropic directors. The parallel is more apt than it might first appear: not only do both directors share a focus on monstrous beings, but each of them reach further, observing trenchantly that the society that the monsters inhabit itself fails to succeed in its bid for "non-monstrous" status. The end result is that their respective bodies of work end up depicting a social moral schema in total confusion, with the distinction between [amoral] figure and [moral] ground completely collapsed. Lolita illustrates this as well as any of Kubrick's films: take, for instance, Charlotte Haze, Lolita's mother. She's the character who the film could most easily cast as a martyr, but she is instead presented as deeply predatory in her own right, forcing herself on Humbert sexually despite his marked disinterest:


This tendency towards violation is reflected in the film again and again, as many of the film's minor characters also engage in some form of inappropriate boundary-crossing—whether they solicit Humbert and Charlotte to participate in a round of "progressive" partner-swapping or simply cross the threshold of Humbert's home uninvited. In this way, even a concerned neighbor can become a Kubrickian grotestque:


Everyone who isn't a simpleton is a transgressor, in Lolita's moral universe, and the Dust-Fuckers in the bunch are simply the transgressors who have come more fully into bloom.

Pretty bleak stuff, and yet, the film's not without its sense of humor. Humbert is a representative of European high-mindedness, which makes him a great straight-man figure. It seems like Humbert spends half his screen-time trying to maintain his dignity in various humiliating situations that Kubrick and Nabokov have devised for him:


It was these reflections, on Humbert's Old World nature, that led me to think that Humbert might be so uncontrollably attracted to Lolita less because of her nubile winsomeness and more because she's a walking embodiment of ahistorical slangy New World crassitude. Note the way she eats junk food right out of the bag:


Anyway, anytime I get thinking about the European take on "ahistorical slangy New World crassitude," I start thinking about Paul Verhoeven's infamous Showgirls, which brings us to next week's pick. Brace yourself.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

the vanishing (spoorloos), by george sluizer

So, this week, Film Club continued our investigation into cinematic sociopaths by looking at George Sluizer's The Vanishing (the 1998 original).

The setup of The Vanishing is relatively simple: a Dutch couple, Rex and Saskia, are on a roadtrip together...


They stop at a roadside service plaza and Saskia goes in for a Coke and a beer while Rex waits outside. Rex, waits, and waits, and waits... but Saskia never returns to the car.


Like Psycho, then, The Vanishing uses a woman's disappearance as an early turning point in its narrative, and it spends the later part of its narrative following the lover of that woman as he searches for her. Both films also spend large chunks of narrative time following the psychotic or sociopathic individual to blame for the woman's disappearance.

Unlike Psycho, however, which spends its time following Norman Bates in the aftermath of his murders, The Vanishing's narrative attention goes to the sociopathic individual, Raymond Lemorne, in advance of his act: we see a number of flashbacks which show him planning out the abduction, working out key details, revising and re-revising elements of it. Here, for instance, we see him rehearsing exactly how he might chloroform someone:


This is interesting because it presents an alternate view of the psychology of sociopathy. In Psycho, Norman Bates' psychology is driven completely by emotion and impulse— grief, jealousy, arousal, rage— emotions which clash inchoately until they find form in violent outburst. Raymond functions as the exact opposite: his actions are methodical, pre-meditated, and even (we learn) in line with an internal philosophy and morality which retains integrity even as it leads him to do evil things.

Watching a character work out a plan like this tends to generate a desire to see the plan play out, although we never quite identify with Raymond the way we did (momentarily, horrifyingly) with Norman (discussed in full last week). Part of the reason for this is that this film, unlike Psycho, has the investigating male, Rex, serve as a stable protagonist throughout the entire run-time. So the (potentially troubling) desire to see Raymond's plan come to fruition is neatly folded into Rex's more socially-acceptable desire to learn exactly what happened to Saskia.


This keeps us in a "safer" space, psychologically-speaking: having Rex as the point of audience identification allows us to maintain a comfortable distance from Raymond. However, Sluizer is a canny enough director to exploit this "safe" identification to great effect. Late in the proceedings, the narrative presents Rex (and, by extension, us) with something of a diabolical choice. I won't spoil it for those who haven't seen the film, but suffice it to say that Rex is given the opportunity to learn what really transpired, although taking advantage of this opportunity will put him in the path of real danger; in fact, even at the outset of the decision it is almost certain that he will be killed, or possibly something worse (earlier on, Raymond casually makes mention that he doesn't consider killing someone to be the worst thing you can do to them).

Rex wants the knowledge of Saskia's fate, however horrible. He wants it badly enough that he's willing to risk self-annihilation. And in effect, we are presented with the exact same bargain: do we want to know what happened, enough to be willing to risk our protagonist / self-analogue? Even though we know it will be horrible? Only the most sensitive viewer could decline such a bargain. But why? What do we gain from taking in disturbing knowledge? Why would the film feel so emotionally disappointing were Rex to decide he had learned enough, and to walk away at the last second? In these final scenes, The Vanishing looks nakedly at the core offer that is at the root of horror / shock films from Psycho to Hostel II: I have something terrible to show you. Do you want to see it?

Next week: more sociopathic abduction narratives: we'll be watching Skunkcabbage's pick, Stanley Kubrick's Lolita (1962).