Archive for October, 2008


Burn After Reading

The fairly recent Cohen brothers’ movie, Burn After Reading is quite a strange one. Characters are introduced at a rapid-fire pace, each managing to be hilariously quirky without seeming quite real. John Malkovich plays an extremely irritable ex-CIA employee who quits in a huff after being moved to a less important department. Tilda Swenson plays his coldly deceptive wife, who is engaged in an affair with George Clooney, another CIA employee who is about equally obsessed with jogging and sex. Frances McDormand and Brad Pitt play two workers at a fitness club who stumble upon a CD full of what appears to be classified government “shit.” If these descriptions of the characters seem to you more like humorous sketches than people, you might just be a redneck. Or you might just be right. They are characters in the most basic sense of the word, possessing certain characteristics and quirks, but no real depth or history. It’s not really possible to empathize with a single one. This is tolerable partly because it seems intentional, and partly because the actors playing these characters do such an entertaining job. The movie itself is sort of like the Big Lebowski in its meandering plotline, one so unpredictable that it makes little sense to say that it has “twists.” The difference is that this film picks up where “No Country for Old Men” left off in its unadorned and often unexpected displays of graphic violence that seem to be the Coen Brothers’ calling card. The stark violence doesn’t really add to the comedy of the film, but it manages not to take away from it either. It’s kind of just there. Ultimately the problem lies not with the comedy or the violence, but the shallowness of the story these elements are used to express. Burn After Reading doesn’t have the joyous, dreamlike quality of The Big Lebowski nor the excruciating suspense of No Country for Old Men. In fact, without a central engrossing character or message, Burn After Reading doesn’t seem like a movie so much as a writing exercise that accidentally made it to the screen.

All this makes the film seem bad, but it wasn’t really bad at all, just disappointing. At the end of the movie, the director of the CIA advises the assistant who has been reporting all the crazy goings-on to just “try and forget all this ever happened.” This advice is clearly meant for the audience as well, to assure them that the directors knew this film was utterly mediocre and it’s ok to forget it. As much as I appreciate the gesture, I’d appreciate it more if they’d said that to themselves earlier, and burnt after writing.



Lady in the Lake & Dark Passage

I saw Lady in the Lake last night, a noir based on the Raymond Chandler novel. I rented it because I saw Dark Passage for the first time a few months ago and thought the use of first person camera work in it was fantastic. Both of these movies use the camera as the main character and the audience sees what he sees, as he sees it. It’s the kind of gimmick I’m a sucker for, because it provides that little special twist that makes a genre movie suddenly feel surprising and new.

Dark Passage was released several months after Lady in the Lake, in the same year, 1947, after Robert Montgomery first pioneered the technique. Unfortunately, Lady in the Lake is clearly the inferior of the two, even though it commits more fully to the technique by adopting it for almost the entire length and was the first to use it. Most importantly, the difference in acting quality and style is dramatic. Admittedly, Bogart and Bacall would be stiff competition for anybody, but the acting in Lady in the Lake drowns on its own merits. Montgomery’s Marlowe is decent enough considering we do not see his face for a good 90% of the film, but Audrey Totter’s Ms. Fromsett is one of the most affected, jumpy, unlikeable performances I’ve ever seen. Just check out this still:

Shooting in the first person means that the actors have to direct their performances straight at the camera and not only do an effective job of portraying their own characters, but also somehow evoke the reactions of the other character they are speaking to. A real dose of nuance and subtlety is required to really pull this off and the hammy, overacted performance of Totter demolishes your ability to sympathize with her at all. This is a serious problem for the movie considering that Totter is supposed to have a significant amount of romantic tension with Montgomery. While the character of Adrianne Fromsett is certainly intended to be ambiguous and not quite trust-worthy, there also has to be something genuinely and obviously alluring about her. The combination of Marlowe’s frosty dialogue giving away little of his true feelings and Totter’s definition-of-harpie performance, adds up to a love story that literally comes out of nowhere. And the romantic subplot is a big enough distraction from the murders which should be the rightful focus of the film, that it basically ruins the whole movie.

In contrast, Dark Passage is a dynamite little noir where everything works just right and the real potential of this unusual camera technique is fully realized. The movie begins with Bogart daringly escaping from prison, getting involved in a violent scuffle, and then having the unbelievably good fortune of getting picked up by Bacall. Daves uses the first-person camera in these scenes to create the same kind of effect we see so commonly now in IMAX movies; it’s like when they put the camera on a roller coaster and your brain is tricked into feeling just like you’re on the ride. The technique must have been mind-blowing for audiences when it first came out and it’s still pretty thrilling.

Daves also understood that since the first-person camera could make the audience feel like they were actually experiencing all of this, there was not the usual need for the audience to identify with the character’s personality or motives. We have no context for Bogart’s character when the movie begins. For all we know, the person whose eyes we see through is a dangerous and evil man and we are committing criminal acts right along with him. But we identify with him because we have to, we literally see through his perspective. This is especially brilliant because of the nature of the noir genre, which is built so heavily around anti-heroes. James M. Cain’s novels are all about playing off the reader’s natural voyeurism and getting you to be sympathetic to the criminals in his books, even if you don’t entirely forgive them. He draws you into an understanding that there is no easy barrier between those who are innocent and those who are guilty. The victims of the murders are almost always unlikeable and the murderers themselves often become entangled in circumstances that they are incapable of resisting.

In Dark Passage, Daves uses the camera to play off the audience’s voyeuristic fascination with crime and refuses to allow the audience to separate themselves from the character in the usual way. The fact that you have such an instant identification with the main character without the usual acting or dialogue clues that he’s really a good guy, challenges the ethical myth that there is a clean line between good people and bad people, us and them. There is a mingled horror and pleasure in taking on the perspective of someone beating another person and you feel the terror of being captured by the police in an extremely visceral way. To me, the moral ambiguity noir creates is the whole essence and appeal of the genre and this is an example of it at it’s best.

Next, Lauren Bacall, isn’t necessarily the most subtle actress of all time, but her chemistry with Bogart is legendary and she uses the first-person camera work in Dark Passage all to her advantage. When she looks at the audience straight on with that devastating sharpness of hers, it’s hard to look away. Indeed, having someone as smoldering and sexy as Bacall looking straight at you and taking care of you is at least as emotionally affecting as feeling like you’re punching someone in the face. There is zero need to see Bogart’s face to know how he must be feeling about Bacall in the film; the audience feels the same way. Admittedly, her character does not have the mingling of good and bad character traits of Totter’s and lacks some complexity, but her motivation for helping this escaped convict is enough of a mystery early in the film to create the necessary tension.

Daves’ other inventive and effective choice is to switch out of the first person camera work after Bogart gets plastic surgery. As Bogart’s face is changed, the audience is pushed out of their ability to have an immediate identification with his character and see as he sees. Suddenly, we are outside and can look to the character’s expression and mannerisms and read the subtler cues underneath the lines he delivers. Yet, since we are aware that the face we see is a false reconstruction, a mask designed to hide the true identity and age of Bogart’s character, our ability to make the kinds of straightforward, basic judgments movies normally encourage remains uncertain.

After the forced, visceral identification of the audience with the violent, criminal main character in the first half of the movie, we are forced outside the character, through the camera work and our knowledge of his facial reconstruction, after we are more reassured of his innocence and goodness. This means a certain sense of unease remains, even when our doubts about the character should be resolved. Having these two mirrored halves in the film is an amazingly masterful way to directly challenge the quick moral assumptions we make on a daily basis. In a very literal way, it undermines the audience’s basic confidence that we know who a person is and what their experience is just by looking at them.

At the time it came out, Dark Passage was a tremendous box office failure- ironically due to the fact that you don’t actually see Bogart’s face for the whole first half of the movie. Sadly, this has obscured what a classic this movie should be. It is certainly one of the most intriguing, complex, and genuinely entertaining noir films I’ve ever seen.

-Vicky Vengeance


Little Caesar

So a few days ago I watched Little Caesar, the gangster movie that started it all, and the thing that struck me the most was how very, very gay Caesar Rico seems. I’m sure there have been a thousand film school essays written on exactly how gay he is, and whether or not he’s actually supposed to be gay, but whatever, I’m writing this thing and I want to talk about it.

First of all, let’s talk about characters and relationships. Little Caesar Rico (Edward G. Robinson) has two major relationships over the course of the movie, one with longtime pal Joe Massara (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.), who wants to go straight and tries to pull Rico with him, and one with fellow gang member Otero (George Stone), who wants nothing more for Rico than that he make it all the way to the top of the racket. Everyone else in the movie is either an antagonist or a stooge; either somebody trying to smack Rico back down or somebody for Rico to exploit. The one exception – and the only major female character in the movie – is Olga Stassoff (Glenda Farrell), Massara’s lover and dancing partner, who doesn’t like gangsters and especially doesn’t like Rico.

Little Caesar builds parallels between the Good Partner and the Bad Partner. The Good Partner represents the conventional, the legitimate, the social; the Bad Partner the freedom and danger of antisocial individuality. Olga and Rico vie for Massara and Massara and Otero vie for Rico. Massara pulls Rico towards legitimacy and Otero pushes him further into lawlessness; Rico tries to force Massara to stay in the gang and Olga woos him into marriage, employment, conventionality – heterosexuality. As the movie views Massara as essentially lawful and Rico as essentially lawless, the choice for Massara is between homosexuality and heterosexuality instead of Rico’s more damning limited choice of homosexual partners. Rico cannot choose heterosexuality; the movie offers him no potential female partners. Rico himself is aware of this, and declares several times that “dames aren’t for me.” Even the scenes between the pairs of new lovers – Olga/Massara and Rico/Otero – are filmed in a similarly stylized way. Olga teases Massara: “Have you had a lot of steady girls before?” He responds carelessly, “Oh, sure, but what does that matter? We’re going to make this real, aren’t we?” It’s a stock scene and might have come from any other light romantic comedy; replace Douglas Fairbanks with Leslie Howard, Ralph Bellamy, or Zeppo Marx. On the other side, Rico is going up the Hill to meet “The Big Boy” and Otero is watching him get fitted for a tuxedo. “You look good, Rico, real good,” he purrs. Rico coughs and frowns then looks at himself in the mirror. “Maybe I don’t look half-bad after all,” he says. Make Rico and Otero female and you’ve got any of a dozen similar scenes in the same romantic comedies – Rico as stand-in for Sister Carrie or Scarlet O’Hara. Rico gets shot and there’s a scene with him and Otero in bed together – Rico in a bathrobe and sling and Otero fully dressed, of course – that would play nearly the same between a traditional heterosexual couple. The scene ends with a tight shot of Rico and Otero’s faces: Rico is sneering out at the camera and Otero is gazing worshipfully at Rico.

Rico’s downfall is directly due to his inability to let go of Massara. Rico reaches the top of the gangland pile and Massara tells him that he’s out, he’s through, he’s getting married to Olga and going straight as a professional dancer. Rico flares while Otero looks on: “No one ever quits me! It’s got to be me or her, and it’s not going to be me!” Later, Olga offers Massara the same choice: turn State’s Evidence and betray Rico or lose her. Massara twists and turns and eventually gives in just as Rico and Otero show up. Rico can’t bring himself to shoot Massara in spite of everything – his torment is underlined with an extreme closeup of his suffering, teary eyes – and it’s up to Otero, the new lover, to kill the old one.

Massara doesn’t die, of course, for the same reason that Otero and Rico do, later on. Little Caesar is firmly on the side of society, marriage and heterosexuality despite its fascination with the alternatives, and everyone who breaks out of those norms has to be, must be punished. The more the character refuses to knuckle under to society, the worse the punishment. Massara is shot – karmic retribution for his earlier assertion of antisocial individuality/homosexuality – but survives to get married and re-enter the society he repudiated. Rico’s old gang boss, who was against murder, gunplay, and antagonizing the police for all that he’s a gangster, gets off with a clearly pro forma jail sentence. Most tellingly, Otero dies immediately after trying to kill Massara in his role as the Good Partner. Otero is guilty of the worst sin – the active renunciation of society as represented by the affianced, testifying Massara – so his punishment is swift and severe. He is shot while fleeing with Rico from Massara’s apartment, and the lovers share one final embrace before Rico scurries into an ultimately futile obscurity/repression.

The important thing to remember about all this is that Rico’s arc is essentially that of the Girl Gone Wrong, with gunplay standing in for sex. Rico comes from a Small Town and moves to the Big City, where he is led down a glittering and decadent path that finally ends in his destruction. His advancement in the gang, trading on his willingness to use his guns (read: have sex), and his steady adoption by increasingly powerful male figures parallels that of any stock heroine of the late nineteenth or early twentieth century. Of course, the question is whether or not Little Caesar was actually supposed to be gay, and it’s hard to say for certain. There’s a long tradition of homosexuality associated with gangsters and gunslingers in American fiction – see the tailors in The Public Enemy, for example, and every single one of the villains in The Maltese Falcon – and there’s plenty of evidence for the idea in Little Caesar, but there’s been enough cultural drift in the last half-century that what might have passed for purely heterosexual banter or relationships can look just the tiniest bit queer to modern eyes. I doubt that Captain Renault and Rick in Casablanca were intended to be lovers, but it’s hard to take the line “If I were a woman, I should be in love with Monsieur Rick,” and not read it in a homoerotic light; the same sort of crosscultural static surrounds Little Caesar.

–DJ Lamont Cranston



This weekend I saw the movie THEM! for the first time. Many reviewers have commented that this is the best of the 50’s era creature features, which could very well be true. The premise is that nuclear tests in the New Mexico desert have caused tiny regular ass ants to genetically mutant into giant super freaky ants. Terror ensues. For as hokey a concept as that may sound, the film does a great job of creating some genuinely creepy moments. The director, Gordon Douglas, was well aware of one of the cardinal rules of any good horror movie: what you cannot see is often much more frightening than what you can. For the first half hour of the film we see only the haunting after-effects of the creatures: a little girl wandering the desert who refuses to speak, a devastated empty store, a dead body. The only clue to the identity of the culprits is the eerie, cicada-like noise they make.

The other thing that makes this an entertaining movie is the charismatic acting of Edmund Gwenn as Dr. Medford. I wasn’t sure who he was while I was watching it, but turns out he won an Oscar for his role as Kris Kringle himself in Miracle on 34th St. and he worked a ton back in the day as a character actor.  As the scientist advising the military personnel in their attempts to contain THEM!, he projects the same sort of charm and wisdom that makes him so lovable in his more famous role. He adds a lot to the movie, making the outlandish creatures seem more believable and keeping the audience engaged.

Lastly, because I am a nerd I also like how I learned a lot of stuff about ants I didn’t know before from the movie. Apparently, ants breathe through their sides. If that isn’t terrifying, I don’t know what is.

–Vicky Vengeance



WHAT: Videodrome
WHO: James Woods, Sonja Smits, Deborah Harry, d. David Cronenberg
WHEN: 28 September 2008
WHICH: DJ Lamont Cranston


Man, is TV producer Max Renn having a weird time. His head of piracy has tapped into a Malaysian feed of a half hour of torture and murder called Videodrome and Max can’t tear his eyes off of it. It’s the new thing, just what he’s been looking for, the perfect addition to Channel 87’s roster of “softcore pornography and hardcore violence,” but the more he learns about Videodrome the stranger things get. His masochistic girlfriend runs off to audition for the show and never comes back; she shows up on a tape of the show and swallows him through the TV screen. He wakes up to find the director he sent to investigate the show dead and tied up in his bed. He tracks down the creator of the show and he’s dead, his brain blown apart by an enormous brain tumor, but immortalized on thousands of hours of prerecorded videotape watched over by his creepy, creepy daughter. The show’s producers contact him and try to record his hallucinations, then decide they’d rather use him as a video-programmed assassin. He grows an enormous video slot in his stomach that really looks a LOT like a vagina. THEN things start to get weird.

There are a lot of similarities here with Cronenberg’s other films, especially Naked Lunch. James Woods and Peter Weller might be the same character, baffled and frustrated by their decaying and fragmentary perception of the world; both Max Renn and Bill Lee are forced into subversive, destructive roles by conspiracies that may or may not exist, and both eventually break away through their own destruction. The same body horror fills both films, Naked Lunch‘s sphincter-beetles prefigured by Videodrome‘s enormous VCR vagina. Videodrome oozes style and weird cult cachet – which is great – but it’s kind of unsatisfying in a way that, say, Naked Lunch isn’t. Naked Lunch keeps up a jittery feeling of unreality all the way to the end by always suggesting an outside viewpoint, but Videodrome doesn’t. Once the movie commits to Max’s version of reality – once the paranoia becomes justified and factual and Max’s hallucinations become more and more the dominant viewpoint – a lot of the ambiguity and interest leaks away, or anyway I got less interested. I liked the paranoia, the sense that there was no way of knowing what was true and what wasn’t, and once that took off it was all giant vaginas and bloody death.

Which, you know, is cool and all, it just wasn’t as cool.

–DJ Lamont Cranston


The Ten

Last weekend, I finally rented the movie, The Ten,  by David Wain who also brought us Wet Hot American SummerStella Shorts, and the 90’s era obscure, but brilliant sketch comedy TV show, The State, which I was introduced to by our own Gleicherd. In college, Gleicherd and our friends used to watch and quote from old episodes of The State all the time. The best thing about the sense of humor of The State is their willingness to take absurdity to the extreme, until it borders on the surreal and purgatory-esque. The best sketches in The Ten, which is built around 10 skits that are loosely based on each of the ten commandments,  go off the same principles of humor that made The State a great show and there is definitely some funny stuff in the movie. Admittedly, it does not really capture the pure lovable goofiness that makes Wet Hot American Summer amazing and it is probably more on the level of a mediocre episode of The State, without nearly enough Michael Ian Black and Michael Showalter and way too much Jessica Alba. With that said, since you still can’t get episodes of The State on DVD, The Ten is probably worth watching instead.

–Vicky Vengeance