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.