Johnny Guitar (1954, Nicholas Ray)
To get some things out of the way from the start, Champion is a masterpiece and one of Kirk Douglas’s best roles. Directed by Mark Robson, Champion opens with a scene that immediately sets the mood for the rise-and-fall story that is about to follow, and definitely constitutes one of the most remarkable, non-verbal character introductions in cinema. Walking down a long corridor, surrounded by his crew, a boxer, his name emblazoned on the back of his robe, enters the stadium. The crowd breaks out in cheers – without ever seeing his face, the viewer already understands the importance of this man. Followed by the journalist’s comment on how wildly the crowd applauds, the boxer approaches the ring, enters and sits in his corner. Then, with the camera placed at a low angle, Kirk Douglas for the first time turns towards the viewer, revealing his face, as the journalist utters the word ‘Champion’.
This is the beginning of the telling of Midge Kelly’s story which takes up most of the film’s narrative, that, in a stroke of structural brilliance, ends back in the present after the match, with Midge beaten to a bloody pulp, repeating, as if hallucinating, the speech he had given his coach and agent years before becoming famous. And although Champion is, on the surface at least, the story of an individual, it accomplishes so much more. Its unflinching portrayal of the world of boxing and the ugly corruption it entails is unforgettable, with a terrific overhead shot (among other instances) of Kirk Douglas battling alone the thugs that attack him after he wins the title in a game he was supposed to throw. When Arthur Kennedy, playing Connie, Midge’s brother (and moral counterbalance), exclaims ‘Oh, this rotten business!’, Midge cynically replies: ‘Awww, lay off the business. It’s like any other business, only here the blood shows.’ There is also the opposite aspect, the lifelong devotion of the people who love the sport (and get nothing in return, except betrayal), such as Paul Stewart’s Tommy Haley, the stoic, world-wise and bemused manager who first spots Midge’s talent and stays with him through thick and thin.
What is perhaps more surprising in the context of Champion is the representation of degrading, unadorned poverty (that serves as the character’s motivation for upward social mobility and to justify his implacable ambition), as well as the depiction of sexual relations, which strike the viewer as bold and unusually honest (even blunt), considering the period the film was made.
From his first lover Emma (and their rather explicit ‘shall we get wet’ beach scene), to the shrewd, greedy femme fatale he obsessively chases after, to the elegant Palmer he seems to fall genuinely in love with, only to ditch later when he has to choose between her and her husband’s money, Midge moves from woman to woman with a carnal lust that can barely be contained and is only matched by his ambition. The film’s view of romantic love is bleak, to put it mildly: Midge seduces a girl he never intends to be tied down to (although his brother is clearly smitten with her), ending up marrying her after being blackmailed by her father. He then abandons her and focuses his attention on Grace, his boxing rival’s lover who is something of a veteran in choosing her partners from the ring and makes it no secret that money is what she’s after. He steals Palmer from her husband (who compliments him on his ‘wonderful body’), and then reaches perhaps his lowest point when he seduces Emma again, after she has announced that she is going to divorce him and marry his brother.
Rather than straightforwardly illustrating Midge’s moral downfall, the expendable nature of his relationships with women serves to reveal what drives him from the start: a desire to escape poverty and never be poor again (not that different from Scarlett O’Hara’s drive, manifested in the oath she takes upon returning to a desolate Tara). This is showcased in early scenes, such as the beach scene referred to above, when he asks Emma whether she knows what it is to be really poor, cold poor, hungry poor – Emma, the daughter of a local diner owner, appearing removed from that reality.
Champion catapulted Kirk Douglas to stardom, and one only has to watch it to understand why. It would even be tempting, albeit misleading, to identify too closely character and actor (the son of impoverished Russian immigrants) in their unrelenting search for fame and success. When Douglas was honored by the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in 1987, Hume Cronyn, upon presenting him with his award at the end of the ceremony, even used a line spoken by Midge in the film: ‘I don’t want to be a “hey you” anymore. I want people to call me Mister. I want to amount to something.’
* In honor of Kirk Douglas’s 100th anniversary.
ANYA: Willow thinks she’s in love with my boyfriend, R.J.
BUFFY: Willow, you’re a gay woman—and he isn’t.
WILLOW: This isn’t about his physical presence. It’s about his heart.
ANYA: His physical presence has a penis!
WILLOW: I can work around it!
season 7, episode 6, Him (written by Drew Z. Greenberg, created by Joss Whedon)
(artwork: Cherubino Alberti, A naked man [Ignudo], twisting towards the right, holding drapery, after Michelangelo’s ‘The Last Judgment’ fresco in the Sistine Chapel, 1580–90, engraving, 31.6 x 20.5 cm, The Metropolitan Museum, New York)
I Know Where I’m Going! (1945, Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger )
“By a paradox of pictorial thought, the average lowland North-American countryside had at first seemed to me something I accepted with a shock of amused recognition because of those painted oilcloths which were imported from America in the old days to be hung above washstands in Central-European nurseries, and which fascinated a drowsy child at bed time with the rustic green views they depicted – opaque curly trees, a barn, cattle, a brook, the dull white of vague orchards in bloom, and perhaps a stone fence or hills of greenish gouache. But gradually the models of those elementary rusticities became stranger and stranger to the eye, the nearer I came to know them. Beyond the tilled plain, beyond the toy roofs, there would be a slow suffusion of inutile loveliness, a low sun in a platinum haze with a warm, peeled-peach tinge pervading the upper edge of a two-dimensional, dove-gray cloud fusing with the distant amorous mist. There might be a line of spaced trees silhouetted against the horizon, and hot still noons above a wilderness of clover, and Claude Lorrain clouds inscribed remotely into misty azure with only their cumulus part conspicuous against the neutral swoon of the background. Or again, it might be a stern El Greco horizon, pregnant with inky rain, and a passing glimpse of some mummy-necked farmer, and all around alternating strips of quick-silverish water and harsh green corn, the whole arrangement opening like a fan, somewhere in Kansas.”
* From the 2006 Penguin Red Classic edition of Lolita (pp. 171-172).
PS. And the “mummy-necked farmer”.
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.
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.
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?
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.
DRUSILLA: Your face is a poem. I can read it.
XANDER: Really? It doesn’t say ‘spare me’ by any chance?
DRUSILLA: Shhh. How do you feel about eternal life?
XANDER: We couldn’t just start with a coffee? A movie, maybe?
season 2, episode 16, Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered (written by Joss Whedon and Marti Noxon, created by Joss Whedon)
(artwork: Giorgio Ghisi, Venus and Adonis, ca. 1570, engraving, 32 x 22.5 cm, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)
[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.
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.
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.