I Know Where I'm Going

Category: Film

Film snippets, pt. 2

 

 

From yesterday’s glorious black and white to today’s delirious technicolor. Dizzying levels of narrative complexity, and bizarre excesses of artificial decor and saturated color characterize the Michael Powell – Emeric Pressburger masterpiece The Tales of Hoffmann (1951). It is unlike any other film – and, possibly, unlike the medium itself. An opera/ballet within a ballet within an opera within a film (and that’s not counting the puppet scenes within the opera/ballet), it has rightly been called hallucinatory. Its famous admirers include Martin Scorsese (who offers the audio commentary in the Criterion edition) and George Romero – but I suspect Christopher Nolan must be green with envy over this. There is a scene involving eyes, mirrors and illusions, that should be right up his alley. And as if the film itself wasn’t enough, the end credits include a surreal “meeting” between the opera singer and the ballet dancer that jointly interpret each character. Delicious!

[watched on February 12, 2016, at the Cinemateca Portuguesa]

 

 

Film snippets, pt. 1

 

 

Such heights and depths of depravity, cynicism and perversion have rarely been captured on film. A dark, vicious masterpiece, shot exquisitely in black and white by James Wong Howe, directed to perfection by Alexander Mackendrick, scored superbly by Elmer Bernstein and with crisp, unforgettable dialogues by Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehman; it is the kind of film that not only lives up to its hype, but manages to surpass it. It was well worth the anticipation of several years to finally be able to catch it on the big screen. The night imagery of New York is stunning – and the performances of Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis unsettling to a remarkable degree. The kind of film that alone would suffice to immortalize all its contributors.

[Sweet Smell of Success (1957), watched on February 11, 2016, at the Cinemateca Portuguesa]

 

 

Eyes wide open, pt. 3

Johnny Guitar (1954, Nicholas Ray)

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Eyes wide open, pt. 2

Swing Time (1936, George Stevens)

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Eyes wide open, pt. 1

I Know Where I’m Going! (1945, Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger )

 

 

 

Dancing and Shooting: The Cotton Club (1984)

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It is a truism that lesser works by interesting artists are preferable than interesting works by lesser artists, and this definitely applies to Francis Ford Coppola and The Cotton Club (1984). The movie straddles various genres (gangster film, musical, period piece), while focusing on two couples (Richard Gere and Diane Lane as Dixie and Vera, Gregory Hines and Lonette McKee as Sandman and Lila). The genre-crossing impulse, however, clashes with the rhythm and overall development of the film. In the wake of his most famous mob films (if one can possibly classify the Godfathers as such), Coppola operatically portrays the period, using numerous figures (fictional and non-fictional) such as Dutch Schultz, the petty criminal Vincent Dwyer (Nicolas Cage, playing Dixie’s younger brother), the marginal gang leader Bumpy Rhodes, and even Lucky Luciano makes a late appearance in the game.

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Most of these storylines do not come together at all, or when they do, they lack a sense of integral relationship with the core of the film, however that may be defined.It seems like Coppola tried to fashion a history of the Club as representative of many of the issues of the day, such as race and mob violence, including a satirical jab at movies as creating the very clichés we use to refer to mob violence (Dixie turning from a petty criminal aide to a movie star). While not formally a history of the Cotton Club, the director lavished attention on the staging of the musical numbers, and the recreation of the period, and it is a joy to watch Gregory Hines dance (he even recreates Bill “Bojangles” Robinson’s legendary step dance). These numbers though seem oddly disconnected from the rest of the film.

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Intertwined with the period themes is the subject of race and racial identity and discrimination. Now as timely as in 1984 (depressingly so), there are several scenes that address racial relationships and the tensions that arise from them. Lawrence Fishburne, for example, explaining his only option in life (“I only gotta stay black and die”) rings true even in contemporary America, especially after the wave of killings of black people by the United States police. There is also Lila and Sandman’s relationship, and the exploration of the limits of racial identity (“biological nonsense”, as Kwame Anthony Appiah rightly puts it): when they are trying to get a room in a hotel that does not accept interracial couples (Lila looks white), the receptionist asks her what color she is. She replies that one parent was black, the other was white. “What color does that make me?” Even Sandman criticizes her, later in bed, for passing off as white, and she gets mad – rightfully so. If that makes her life easier, who is he to judge?

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Cotton Club’s most notable achievement (and failure) is the attempt to organically combine the musical and gangster film genres, coming together only at the glorious last sequence. It is signaled by Dixie standing next to his movie poster, Mob Boss – the film about gangsters, within the film about gangsters – as the sublimely melancholic score by John Barry swells. After that, a parallel montage commences, alternating between a musical number at the Club and various characters at the train station where they (not subtly) move on to the next chapters in their lives: Bob Hoskins is being seen off to jail by his partner, Frenchy, who behaves like a long-suffering wife, Sandman marries Lila, Dixie unites at last with Vera. Quite inexplicably, but tellingly of Coppola’s half-materialized project to combine the two genres, the musical number ‘spills’ onto the setting of the train station. As dancers in the character of bell boys dance on top of suitcases, and the various characters pause and pose theatrically, the film speaks of life as spectacle and the two merging to the point that one cannot tell reality apart from movie making anymore. In the end, Dixie and Vera go off on a set train that has a lit sign in the front saying “20-th century limited”. The last shot, of one of the patrons at the club waking up just in time to applaud the end of the stage number, further stresses how the whole movie has been staged, a performance for the audience’s sake. It is as if the director gently nudges us from our cinematic slumber, to realize how it was all a dream.

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Elle?

 

[major plot details will be discussed; please refrain from reading unless you’ve seen the film]

 

Although misleadingly structured as a suspense thriller, Paul Verhoeven’s latest film is a subdued character study of one woman and her relations with the people around her. One of them happens to be her rapist, and although the film begins with a deliberately ambiguous soundscape (only later revealed as Michèle’s first rape), it is not a film about rape, although it is in the representation of rape and its aftermath that it becomes the most problematic.

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The first part of the film revolves around the discovery of the identity of Michèle’s rapist, while at the same time establishing her various interactions with the people in her life (her son, her mother, her ex-husband etc). The first crucial piece of information on Michèle herself comes via her reaction to the traumatic event at the beginning of the film: she sweeps the broken china off the floor, takes a bubble bath (where a red stain suggests that she has been menstruating), and then orders takeaway for her dinner.

The viewer is initially perplexed by this calm, seemingly cold exterior: why doesn’t she call the police? It is gradually revealed that her choices are determined as much by her character as they are by her past: she is the daughter of an infamous, convicted serial killer, and her childhood was stigmatized by public scrutiny and humiliation. Although it is only cursorily referred to as the reason of not notifying the police, there is no doubt that she would rather avoid any contact with the police no matter what the reason.

Her reaction, however, is neither incomprehensible nor unjustifiable. People respond to trauma in myriad different ways, and dismissing it, or rushing to resume the normal course of one’s life as if nothing had happened, are all coping strategies, no matter what their effectiveness. That is why it is difficult to accept some critics’ enthusiasm for Elle as “the smartest, most honest and empowering film about rape”, while at the same time taking the moral high ground over the supposed feminists who might “denounce it for showing a rape victim refusing to report her rapist” or for the fact that Michèle “doesn’t show sufficient rage”. Neither reporting nor sufficient rage are the exclusive valid reactions to trauma, however.

Michèle only discusses the event, or rather announces it, in a matter-of-fact tone, during a dinner date with her ex-husband, her best friend Anna and her husband, who is also Michèle’s lover. None of these relations are simple or straightforward. Michèle has a lover, an ex-husband of whom she is extremely jealous and possessive (going as far as to meet his new lover, a much younger yoga instructor, at her work), and a married neighbor she lusts after, and masturbates while secretly watching from her window.

Michèle may come across as heartless (the caracter has been described as intransigeant and pitiless, for example, at least when it comes to business), and Isabelle Huppert brings her usual cold demeanor to the part. She is, nevertheless, an anxious mother and daughter, that supports financially both her son and mother, even though she disagrees (very vocally, too) with their life choices. She is fiercely protective of the son who does not seem able to control his own life, and shows exasperation towards her mother’s antics who insists on dating (and marrying) a much younger man who is obviously after her daughter’s money. She also refuses to see her father, whom she hates, until it is too late – a fact she revels in, since the monster has dominated her entire existence (there are hints that she and her mother have been the targets of various attacks over the years, just because they were related to him).

Michèle is also, curiously perhaps, loyal to Anna, her best friend and partner, with whom she owns a videogame company. This might seem contradictory, as she is sleeping with her husband behind her back, but Huppert manages to bring all the meaninglessness and banality of the affair to the fore. The affair does not damage, as one might expect, but rather strengthens the friendship between the two women, suggesting that their bond goes much deeper than an unfaithful spouse (the last scene should not be construed as tilting towards lesbianism or even suggesting that men are unnecessary).

Michèle’s social position is intriguing. She is clearly where she’s at as a result of hard work, and not family privilege. That is why she is protective of her work, and her insistence on money is not venal, but comes from an instinct of self preservation. She is competent at work, steering like a captain, and unperturbed by personal attacks and criticism. The film, refreshingly, refrains from depicting her with all the negative stereotypes associated with businesswomen. Her no fuss, hands-on attitude even earns her an antagonist early on in the film, that serves to mislead the viewer as to the possible identity of her rapist.

The nature of Michèle’s work has been changed from a screenwriting agency in the book (Philippe Djian’s Oh…) to a videogame company in the film. This choice of profession is particularly significant given that the gaming industry (and its fans) are, to a certain degree at least, thoroughly misogynistic. Recent cases of rape and death threats against female video game developers or the backlash following Anita Sarkeesian’s video “Women as Background Decoration” demonstrate this amply. This is where the film’s stance towards sexual assault becomes deliberately provocative. When Michèle, during a meeting on the progress of a videogame her company is about to launch, reviews a rape scene worrying only that the orgasm sounds the female victim is making are not convincing enough, Verhoeven stretches both the protagonist’s and the film’s credibility. Is this jarring scene meant as some sort of satire of the ways sexual violence is casually represented in videogames? It seems rather to serve as a perverse clin d’œil towards the viewer, operating a parallel between Michèle-as-viewer of the fictional, videogame rape scene and the actual viewer of the film since Michèle’s rape is as fictional to us as the cartoon’s rape is to Michèle, the film suggests.

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The film starts to tread on dangerous ground with the revelation of the rapist’s identity. When Michèle, during the second attack, manages to pull the ski mask off his face, the fact that it’s Patrick, the neighbor she’s been attracted to, shocks her as much as the viewer – it also, unmistakably, suggests that she has been subconsciously fantasizing about her rapist all along and her subsequent behavior only offers further confirmation. She actively seeks out her attacker and a third encounter ensues, where she lets herself be lured into a trap that – outrageously – culminates into sadomasochistic sexual intercourse. The real problem here lies in the conflation of the identity of rapist and male object of desire. We live in a culture that still, and to a great extent, confuses rape fantasies with actual rape. The film portrays Michèle as a woman who willingly steps into a situation where she has to relive her assault, despite previously fantasizing about bludgeoning her rapist to death. How is it then possible to affirm that the film does not fall into the trap of presenting women as “secretly dreaming of being raped“, or that Michèle takes control and turns from “victim to predator” in the process?

Even though her rapist eventually dies, the director takes pains to stage this as deliberately ambiguous (the scene starts as if the viewer interrupts it by his presence, only to be interrupted later by Patrick’s murderer): did she orchestrate it? was it accidental? was it what she really wanted? We shall never know. Instead of the ambiguity transforming the film into a richer viewing experience, it leaves the heroine dangling. Even the out of the blue comment by the supra-religious wife of the deceased at the end of the film, implying she has been privy to her husband’s ‘proclivities’ from the get go, does not add much to the narrative or significantly alter its meaning. The film seems content at having toyed with the viewer, perhaps not taking itself too seriously. It’s just that the issues it tackles are deathly serious, and sitting on the fence serves them ill.

 

In Control/Without

 

In control.

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Without.

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[Grace Kelly and Cary Grant in the car scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief, 1955]

 

Sully (2016)

 

Coming off from an impressive series of roles, following Greengrass’s Captain Phillips and Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies, Tom Hanks plays Sully, the title character, in Clint Eastwood’s latest film. Hanks brings to his portrayal of the pilot, who successfully landed an Airbus A320-214 in the Hudson river in January 2009, a remarkable subtlety, with frowns and restrained gestures that convey the inner world of a man who is suddenly thrust in the center of a nation’s attention. This is a man not used of getting noticed for simply doing his job, and doing it well. In the scene where Sully is interviewed by Katie Couric, Hanks communicates the character’s tension and uncomfortableness, with the way he places his hands on his knees, facing inwards, and his stiff upper body. It is a fleeting moment, but one gets a vivid impression of Hanks’s tremendous and understated experience as an actor. His body language is more eloquent than words.

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Hanks’s performance is not the only thing standing out however. Terrifically shot and directed, the film handles suspense masterfully even though the final outcome is well known (a feat also accomplished by Affleck’s Argo some years ago). There are some false notes, but they are few and far between: the character of Charles Porter who comes across more of a villain than need be (the committee analyzing the proceedings was, after all, also doing their job); and the end title scene with the real Sully greeting the survivors, reminiscent (although in a lesser extent) of the last scene from Schindler’s List, which I personally loathe for its sentimentality.

What is perhaps more interesting in Sully (and Ilias Dimopoulos has offered, in Greek, an insightful reading of the film as an allegory of artistic creation), is how it fits in Eastwood’s cinematic universe. For a man of few words, Eastwood has been quite explicit about his artistic motives and themes through his films. His latest is neither, simply, a biopic (portrait of an event would be a more accurate description, despite the film bearing the name of its main character), nor, simply, a drama. It is also a manifesto of sorts. Unlike White Hunter Black Heart, which can rightly be considered his artistic manifesto, Sully is a manifesto of morality, and that is truly not as tedious or didactic as it sounds. Eastwood uses the story to talk about some of the central themes in his work, like the nature of the hero (here benefiting by the most un-heroic hero of American cinema) and individual sense of duty. The extra-filmic narrative of Eastwood’s political leanings (which he has never concealed) is not much relevant here. The film’s morality (and morale) is that what matters are the people who know how to get the job done, and who get it done with no fuss and without seeking attention or compensation for merely doing what they do. It propounds a certain work ethic that is certainly old-fashioned, but not necessarily conservative – although Eastwood has remained a fierce individualist throughout his career, with an unwavering faith in the power of work to advance society.

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This is why the alternative title of the film in some countries (Portugal included), Miracle on Hudson River, is misleading: although the event did get immortalized in popular culture and conscience as a miracle, there is nothing miraculous about what happened, the film seems to argue – just a man who, in a matter of seconds, took the right decision, as well as the burden of responsibility for it. Even so, Eastwood, through his direction and the repeated sequences of the event from different viewpoints, manages to transmit how incredible it all was. Perhaps a sense of marvel is still needed in a world where people perform their duty, even if they do it exceptionally well.

 

Nabokov on film genre

 

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Nabokov’s powers of description and his eloquence were, indeed, formidable, and if Lolita somewhat loses its narrative thrust after its two main characters take flight through a vast America whose imaginary geography is constituted by the writer, the reader is rewarded by the abundance of evocative passages and descriptions. Such is the one where Nabokov discusses Lolita’s ‘veritable passion’ for cinema. An irony verging on disdain seeps through the lines that detail the various genres, and although it is more than likely that Nabokov jumbled together scenes from different films, the way he writes suggests he might refer to actual genre b-movies from the late 1940s, the period when he started his novel.

Musicals: “In the first, real singers and dancers had unreal stage careers in an essentially grief-proof sphere of existence wherefrom death and truth were banned, and where, at the end, white-haired, dewy-eyed, technically deathless, the initially reluctant father of a show-crazy girl always finished by applauding her apotheosis on fabulous Broadway.”

This seems too generic on the one hand, and too specific on the other, but despite much google searching I have come up empty-handed.

Gangster films/noir (Nabokov calls this category ‘the underworlders’): “The underworld was a world apart: there, heroic newspapermen were tortured, telephone bills ran to billions, and, in a robust atmosphere of incompetent marksmanship, villains were chased through sewers and storehouses by pathologically fearless cops.”

It might very well be the b-genre documentary-style noir He Walked by Night (1948), directed by Alfred Werker and the uncredited Anthony Mann, that prominently features a chase through sewers (the sewer scene from The Third Man also comes to mind, but I consider it a less likely candidate – it would hardly qualify as ‘genre’).

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Westerns: “Finally there was the mahogany landscape, the florid-faced, blue-eyed roughriders, the prim pretty schoolteacher arriving in Roaring Gulch, the rearing horse, the spectacular stampede, the pistol thrust through the shivered windowpane, the stupendous fist fight, the crashing mountain of dusty old-fashioned furniture, the table used as a weapon, the timely somersault, the pinned hand still groping for the dropped bowie knife, the grunt, the sweet crash of fist again chin, the kick in the belly, the flying tackle; and immediately after a plethora of pain that would have hospitalized a Hercules…, nothing to show but the rather becoming bruise on the bronzed cheek of the warmed-up hero embracing his gorgeous frontier bride.”

I am almost certain that this refers to The Virginian (1946), based on Owen Wister’s popular novel and directed by Stuart Gilmore, probably more well known as Preston Sturges’s editor. Gilmore even got his protagonist, blue-eyed Joel McCrea, from Sullivan’s Travels. The film features a rearing horse, a stampede, and Barbara Britton as the prim pretty schoolteacher.

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An exercise in futility? Perhaps – but an entertaining one, at the very least.

 

* All references are from the 2006 Penguin Red Classic edition.

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