Posts Tagged ‘Classic

02
Jan
12

The Sound of Music

We’ve been watching a lot of movies as we pack everything away for the move, mostly old favorites (Dirty Dancing!) or things you can leave playing in the background without losing too much (Mega Piranha!), since moving is a sad, stressful, lonely time when everything fun is getting packed away and the apartment looks terrible and I need all the help I can get. But we’ve also been watching a lot of things in general, including old standards that Vicky or I somehow haven’t gotten around to seeing yet. So: The Sound of Music.

Let me just say right at the beginning that I don’t particularly care for Rodgers and Hammerstein. Neither their lyrics nor their music are anything more than workmanlike, without the complicated, challenging syncopation of Sondheim or the anything-goes lyricism of Menken and Ash. Still, though, they’ve got a knack for putting together beautiful projects that transcend the rumpty-tum material they write: there’s no question that the Sound of Music absolutely deserves its place at the table, despite an opening act so saccharine it causes cancer in lab rats.

It’s such a filmic movie — we watched it on a tiny little laptop screen, and I found myself longing mightily to see it in a proper movie theater, even as I groaned my way through the glurge of My Favorite Things and Do-Re-Mi. Director Robert Wise captures the sheer dazzling space of his mountain vistas in a way I’ve never seen before. And then the script is fantastic, and underplayed magnificently by the supporting cast. Eleanor Parker and Richard Haydn especially, as the Baroness and Uncle Max, do amazing things with very small roles. Peggy Wood got the Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress, which doesn’t make any sense to me; her abbess is solid, certainly, but it’s a fairly standard role played in a fairly standard way, while Parker as Julie Andrews’s romantic rival takes a traditionally misogynistic and one-dimensional villain role and makes it immensely human. And not just human, but actually adult: she respects Maria enough to actually talk to her about her intentions and interests in Captain von Trapp, and very visibly understands what it costs Maria to congratulate her on her engagement. She makes the simple line “Thank you,” sad, respectful and triumphant all at once, and by such little gestures makes her character empathetic and even a little tragic (very slightly, since she is, after all, immensely wealthy and self-sufficient).

And everything after the wedding is so absolutely perfect: moving, tense and funny all at the same time, and crammed to the gills with beautiful shots, rotating between German Expressionism, mid-century Impressionism and the very beginnings of that wonderful seventies silence that you never see anymore. Anyway. You’ve probably seen it, and if you haven’t, you should. Feel free to roll your eyes at the sentiment that bloats the beginning, but trust that things will settle down at last. If you’re absolutely allergic to sweetness, just jump ahead to the last half hour, and prepare to be schooled.

31
Jul
09

The General

buster_keaton_general

Just a quickie review today. I saw The General yesterday and it is, of course, fantastic. It’s kind of amazing to watch Buster Keaton act, since he actually has a really dour, long face, huge, soulful eyes, and he naturally wears a rather serious expression. Check him out in this close-up for example:

BusterKeaton

He looks more like a poet than a virtuosic, daredevil comedian. But when I really think about it,  I guess this deadpan is actually part of what makes him funny. The true magic of The General comes from the way Buster Keaton floats through the obstacles around him half-unaware, half-blase. Just like his other famed contemporary, Charlie Chaplin, the real dynamite quality of his performance is how effortless he makes pretty unbelievable stunts look. His odd, sullen face sets this off all the more. The other thing I like about The General is how it is a perfect marriage between action and comedy and, as I’d already mentioned in an earlier review, these genres come together all too rarely these days. This one is definitely worth checking out. Particularly, if you are lucky enough to live in a city with an amazing silent movie house with a real working organ like I used to.

19
Jul
09

In A Lonely Place

in a lonely placeThis weekend I also saw In a Lonely Place, directed by Nicholas Ray and starring Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame, which is a classic noir about a reclusive screenwriter with an anger management problem and a potential murder rap haunting him. It’s an interesting bit of IMDB trivia to learn that Ray was married to Grahame at the time and they ultimately broke up during the filming of the movie. Apparently the producer was worried enough about the situation to force Gloria Grahame to sign a contract stating “my husband shall be entitled to direct, control, advise, instruct and even command my actions during the hours from 9 AM to 6 PM, every day except Sunday…I acknowledge that in every conceivable situation his will and judgment shall be considered superior to mine and shall prevail.” Grahame was also forbidden to “nag, cajole, tease or in any other feminine fashion seek to distract or influence him.” One has to wonder how much the tension between Ray and Grahame may have contributed to the tension in the film as Grahame’s character, Laurel Gray, grows more and more uneasy about her boyfriend’s violent temperament.

The script is packed full of wry, lightning-quick dialogue and there is well-balanced chemistry between Bogey and Grahame, who is more droll and less va va voom than Bacall would have been in the role. In comparison to the protagonists in so many modern movies, there is a crackling intellect about both leads here that is very enjoyable to watch. Like any noir though, the movie takes a much darker turn and does so fairly abruptly.

Although I enjoyed the movie and I do recommend it, I thought a few things might have enhanced it’s underlying themes. For one thing, I found it curious that as Bogart begins to lean toward the Mr. Hyde half of his personality, we become more distanced from his character and it is left ambiguous whether he really recognizes how inappropriate his behavior is and how scary he must be to the people around him, despite his supposed genius-level intelligence. In fact, the movie gradually shifts from following Bogart’s character to following Grahame’s character in a somewhat awkward dodge, meant to ramp up the doubts of the audience. After Bogart wounds his agent and oldest friend he only hesitantly, barely apologizes to him and he is unwilling to directly address how his erratic behavior is effecting Grahame after another major episode. I wonder how different the film would be if the narrative stuck with Bogart instead and his character more directly engaged with this demon inside himself. I was half-expecting something like this to come through in a closer view of the script Bogart is working on in the movie, but nothing like that ever actually materializes.

dvdlonelyhands

SPOILERS AHEAD. Apparently, in the movie’s original ending Bogart actually kills Grahame instead of almost killing her, but Ray felt that ending made the picture too bleak and Bogart’s character too monstrous. I wish that it had ended as it was originally intended because it would have brought out the full dramatic irony of Bogart’s former innocence and it would also have made more of a statement about how violence can lead to more violence and what kind of atrocities we may be capable of against our better natures depending on the circumstances.

Instead, the parting message of the film is murkier, with the ironic weight being placed on the relationship’s seemingly unnecessary demise. After seeing what happens when Bogart loses his temper, it’s hard to be satisfied by that ending. Whether or not Grahame suspected he could be capable of murder, his character did in fact seriously injure a former girlfriend and it seems inevitable that she was bound to become afraid of him when something else she did set him off later on. The audience is supposed to see this ending, where the two lovers are torn asunder, as unhappy and we’re given the oil tanker of a parting line: “I was born when he kissed me, I died when he left me, and I lived in a few weeks while he loved me.” In reality though, this ending is only truly unhappy if your sympathies rest primarily with Bogart. It actually seems like fairly good fortune to me that Grahame ultimately gets out of the relationship with her life and her freedom.

When looked at in this sense, the movie is almost a time capsule of societal attitudes of domestic violence at the time, with a subtle implication that if Grahame could have just trusted Bogart and stood by her man, things wouldn’t have escalated into the messy violent breakdown of the climax. Instead, Bogart is provoked again and again by the white lies she makes while she tries to extricate herself from the powder keg she finds herself in. From a modern perspective, it’s hard to really go along with the reading the film draws the audience into since it is so clear that most of the problems in their relationship are not about the unsolved murder hanging over their heads, but about Bogart’s inability to express his emotions in healthier ways and Grahame’s inability to talk openly with him out of fear for her own safety and her traditional feminine position in the relationship. Considering that Ray also directed several movies which perhaps more effectively questioned gender roles and sexuality like Rebel Without A Cause and Johnny Guitar, it’s interesting that Ray did not more directly question the crisis of masculinity that Bogart’s character somewhat embodies in In A Lonely Place.

14
Jul
09

At the Movies

Siskel and Ebert

Since I was a very, very young kid, every single weekend my family and I would go to at least one movie, if not three or four after a marathon Saturday. My parents always went to those movies that got three or more stars in the local paper and occasionally a two star one that was getting some buzz or tickled my mom or dad’s particular interest.

We didn’t always watch “At the Movies,” because it was on at weird times during the weekend, but anytime we did happen to catch it I remember really loving it. I also remember how, whether we watched a particular episode or not, there was always such a huge mystique about Siskel & Ebert and their all-knowing thumbs. There was a time when any movie that managed to get the elusive “Two Thumbs Up” undoubtedly wrote that in huge letters on the box when it was released to video. It’s very weird to me to think of a younger generation growing up now who has no idea who Siskel was and no memory of their show in its glory days, since together they were the most prominent movie critics in America.

Anyway, I happened to Google Ebert recently because I randomly remembered him being very ill with cancer a few months ago and wondered how he was doing. I was pleased to learn not only is he recovering, he has a ridiculously active and extensive blog which not only includes reviews of all the latest movies that have come out, but a lot of feature articles about great movies of the past and a write-in movie trivia column that fans send in questions to. Even better, I learned that all of the old tapes of Siskel & Ebert have now been archived at: http://bventertainment.go.com/tv/buenavista/atm/.

Unfortunately, there’s no way to actually watch the full episodes. Instead, the reviews are listed by film titles and you can also browse through by year. I have been really enjoying going back and watching some of their old reviews lately, especially considering that when I first watched them I was 14 years old or younger and I have a much greater appreciation for the nuances of their opinions these days.

I love all things nerdy and there’s nothing that scratches that itch in a more intense way than to watch two ridiculously nerdy guys like Siskel and Ebert, who are both ultra opinionated and obsessively into film, spar like maniacs about whether a movie was a total train wreck or just barely worth watching. It’s nice to know that even though Siskel is no longer with us and Ebert has stopped doing the show, you can still go back and see what they thought of a ton of the older movies and enjoy their total vigor for hating it, loving it, even just vehemently meh-ing it.

I was also very touched to find out just how passionately they both went about their job as film critics. Siskel actually did a few shows via telephone while he was hospitalized and apparently, after being put out of commission for a while due to health problems a few years ago, Ebert is now actually going back and reviewing every movie that he missed. For all their often inflammatory debates, both reviewers shared a real zealotry about the art of having a strong opinion about a movie that I still find intensely great.

11
Jul
09

Princes and Princesses & The Adventures of Prince Achmed

princesses_1

I came down with a terrible cold over the 4th of July weekend, which definitely put a damper on my celebration, although it did have the upside of causing me to seek out a good, old-fashioned comfort movie to take my mind off my misery. Whenever I have a bad cold for as far back into my childhood as I can remember, the only positive thing about being sick was getting to stay in bed watching the most charming, soothing movies possible. The Princess Bride, any of the Muppet movies, Mystery Science Theater 3000, you know the kind. This time around I was restricted to what was available via the internets, and since I am a late hold-out against the onslaught that is Netflix (I could write a whole ridiculous, curmudgeonly post about that), I did not have a ton of options with the caveat that I recently found out about the glorious website: The Auteurs, which allows you to watch a ton of old, foreign, arty type movies on the internet for a mere $5 a pop.  Princes and Princesses by Michel Ocelot was one of the few animated and non-Svankmajer films available on the site, so I gave it a whirl and it was exactly what I needed. Compared to the whizz flash of most modern American animated films, it’s sort of mind-blowing to me that Princes and Princesses was made as recently as 2000. It feels like a much older movie from a more innocent cinematic time, way before 3d and digital color and talking sidekicks, a time when kids were satisfied with straight-forward fairy tales.  The stories in the movies are wonderfully crafted, with fantastic twists and funny dialogue, with a silhouette-visual style which lends an elegance often lacking in animation. I also think the silhouette format is brilliant because in a world of constant  stimuli bombardment, this is one movie where the children watching have space to imagine the details for themselves. They can create the character’s expressions, the colors of the clothes, the fantastic settings in their own minds for once.

Naturally this movie reminded me of one of my favorite animated features of all time, which also happens to be credited by many as the first animated film ever made, The Adventures of Prince Achmed by Lotte Reiniger:

PrinceAchmed

This movie was also done in the silhouette style, but if you can believe it, each and every character, every set, every frame in the hour-long masterwork was painstakingly cut out by hand by the director back in 1926. On a pure, visual level, I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a more artistic, stunningly detailed, mindblowingly-intricate piece of film-making. Even if you had to watch the film without any of the dialogue, it would be completely worthwhile to see it. Even better though, it’s based on stringing together various stories in The Arabian Nights into one, long beautiful tale that includes everything you could want in a fantasy movie. Needless to say, I recommend you go rent it if you ever get the chance, although it can be a little tricky to find. If you can’t, Princes and Princesses is a fitting modern tribute 74 years later.

09
Jul
09

The Tales of Hoffmann

Tales of Hoffmann

So, I realize it has been a really long time since anyone posted on this little movie blog and all of the readers are gone. I’m still watching great movies and I’m still wanting to motivate myself to write more often though, so I thought I would try to revive it again. Not sure how sustained the effort will be, but it’s worth a try.

A couple weeks ago I rented The Tales of Hoffmann by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, one of the best films from their glory period of working together. Apparently it is a favorite of both Martin Scorsese and George Romero, who used to constantly compete to rent the single copy out from their local movie rental shop in Manhattan. For a movie that’s based on an unfinished, nineteenth-century opera, it definitely packs a surprisingly powerful visual punch and draws on a lot of the best elements of the horror, fantasy, and adventure genres in weaving its spell.

The narrative is simple enough, built around a retelling of the romantic exploits of the titular main character and includes a lot of recycled bits and pieces which are suspiciously reminiscent of The Odyssey, Faust, and Dante. You’re drawn in less by the characters and the plot and more by the fantastical dreamscapes Powell and Pressburger created for each story, orchestrated in the old-time movie magic style that similarly captivates us in other, more famous musicals from this era. It’s too bad there aren’t more screencaps floating around online, because the technicolor sets and costumes are truly amazing. Here’s the only other good shot I could find:

Tales of Hoffman Screencap 2

Powell and Pressburger play off the sets through a lot of very clever cinematic tricks which heightens, and sometimes gently satirizes, the melodrama of the story.  For example, the lines on the floor in the photo above create the perfect illusion of stairs when shot from above, but are obviously painted on from the angle in the screencap. It’s certainly a movie that rewards those with sharp eyes who can catch the little details and I can see why Romero was so inspired by it, since it shows you not just the magic trick, but how the trick was done.  And the overall effect created lends the movie a very surreal air and invites the viewer to be more reflective on what’s going on at the edges of the performances and the film.

During the first story, Hoffmann shows us puppets that charmingly fool him into thinking they are alive. While watching, we are simultaneously dazzled by the display and fully aware of the foolishness of being dazzled since it’s all an elaborate illusion. To take it even deeper, while watching the movie we’re aware of how the directors manipulate all the elements before us to effect our thoughts and emotions. For once, we are conscious of the strings and tapes and shadows that allow them to get away with it. Even with that consciousness however, we still somehow take a great melancholy pleasure in the spectacle and perhaps appreciate it more than we would if it was seamless and clean like so many of the other movies we see.

My only critique of the film would be the old, niggling feminist one that seems to always tug at me. All of the female characters in the film are based on not particularly enlightened feminine archetypes. The first woman is literally a living doll (aka virgin) and the second is a courtesan literally in league with the devil (aka whore). The third woman, a frustrated singer, is more complex than the first two, but is ultimately destroyed by the choice between her ambition/career and love/domestic bliss.  And, of course, the real victim at the end of the day is Hoffmann, his hopes for true love crushed by all these goddamn, fundamentally flawed Eve types running around.

Of course, there is one slight counterbalance to all this ho hum patriarchy stuff in the form of Hoffmann’s best friend and the wisest character, Nicklaus. Although the character is obviously supposed to be male, Powell and Pressburger decided to cast the part with a female actor. This is an absolutely brilliant masterstroke in my mind since it further underscores the theme of illusion/reality for the audience, while also building a lovely sense of irony to the gender dynamics in the film.

Through the whole movie, Nicklaus is the one who sees through the women Hoffman swoons over and warns him to seek out the substance underneath the showy exterior. While Hoffman’s stories endlessly blast apart the mystique of the feminine in it’s various  incarnations, the audience’s sympathies stay most in line with Nicklaus, who becomes a true foil to the other female characters when played by a woman. In a convoluted way, the movie establishes her as embodying the hidden feminine and romantic ideal, a true friend who is loyal and wise, not to mention certainly not the kind of woman who is into the overt, performative display of  her gender.  Whether you take the implications as honest-to-god feminist or just vaguely homoerotic, it adds another layer to the film that I found really fascinating.

16
Oct
08

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

16
Oct
08

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

09
Oct
08

THEM!

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

29
Sep
08

Rosemary’s Baby

Behold! This blog lives! Not only does it live, it has gained another member, the always elucidatory Mr. Gleicherd.  Soon we will be co-blogging a post about the new Coen Brothers movie, Burn After Reading, but for now, I thought I would review Rosemary’s Baby, which I saw for the first time last Sunday.

I’m definitely a fan of Roman Polanski’s directorial work. Despite the bizarre goings-on in his personal life, many of his films definitely open the door for a feminist reading and there is a consistent theme in his work surrounding the deep complications of gender and gender roles. Rosemary’s Baby could be read to have certain feminist interpretations. Interestingly, Polanski’s co-screenwriter Ira Levin also wrote another film considered by some to be an early feminist classic, The Stepford Wives. Ultimately though, I think Rosemary’s Baby does not have the full radical import present in some of Polanski’s other films, such as Repulsion and Knife in the Water. Beware, spoilers follow.

On one hand, there are many potentially feminist moments in the film. One of these few bright spots appears when she strikes up a friendship with another young woman living in the apartment complex early on in the film. Up to this point, the movie still has an optimistic, albeit slightly unsettled tone. The breaking of Rosemary’s tentative friendship with her neighbor when she supposedly “commits suicide” is ultimately the catalyst for the film’s first major shift into darkness, as it presents the only blatantly gory image in the whole movie and leads to the Woodhouse’s introduction to the creepy couple next door. It’s a stretch, but arguable, that losing this friendly female acquaintance was an important turning point toward the darkness Rosemary becomes fully entangled in soon after. Further, when Rosemary inherits the necklace that this woman was wearing, it represents a clear identification between her and this other woman. I believe her friend’s suicide is doing more work than foreshadowing the path Rosemary will ultimately go down in building an interesting early link between her and another woman facing similar perils.

The most notable feminist moment happens when Rosemary finally reaches out to her female friends for help after months of experiencing pain that her well-regarded, vaguely menacing physician repeatedly tells her is no big deal. The women shut her meddling husband out of the room and explain to her that she needs to listen to what her body is telling her.  As second-wave feminist catchphrases go, “listen to your body” has to be in the top ten. It is after this moment in the film when Rosemary finally gains the courage to directly go against her husband’s wishes, something that does not happen again in the movie until it is already too late. It is this fight with her husband which makes his participation in what has caused her suffering the most clear and signifies another important turning point in the film. I believe it is at this point that the audience fully believes what is happening to Rosemary is abnormal, after the slow building up of doubt before this point. Also, it is an interesting scene in the sense that her husband’s interests are clearly aligned with the male authority symbolic in the doctor’s position rather than with his wife. The fact that the audience is led to side with Rosemary in this exchange gives that feminist idea “listen to your body” a lot of subconscious weight in the minds of the viewers. Also, it is notable that at the very end, her final resort is to call one of her female friends, albeit far too late. It is crucial that she reaches out at this moment and is unable to speak with her female friend during this climactic scene, because it especially emphasizes the sense that if Rosemary had trusted in her female friends over the masculine authority symbolized by her husband and her doctor she may have been able to escape her situation.

On the other hand, this feminist reading is complicated by the fact that one of the major villains in the film is female: Rosemary’s neighbor Minnie, played by Ruth Gordon of Harold and Maude. A momentary digression from the feminist analysis: although Harold and Maude was released a few years after Rosemary’s Baby, I have to say she plays the character with the same eccentric, buzzy energy which is ultimately what’s so lovable about Maude. It is very odd to see her play a villain and it is the kind of casting choice that really effects the whole tenor of the film in a really unexpected way. Anyhow, Minnie is definitely one of the most essential instruments of evil in the film. She mixes the drugged chocolate “mouse” which allows Rosemary to fall prey in the first place and then she goes on to mix Rosemary’s poisonous vitamin drink every morning. Further, she also actively participates in the constant monitoring of Rosemary’s daily activities and precludes Rosemary’s efforts to escape. On the other hand, when we add in the idea that Rosemary’s plight is meant to mirror not just a woman’s entrapment within an evil, patriarchy-driven scheme, but as a young woman facing these perils, Minnie’s role in the film becomes clearer. As young women emerged into second wave feminist consciousness in America some of the loudest and most active opposition came in the form of women of the older generation who felt deeply wedded to the patriarchal culture and ideas they were raised in. Minnie’s role in Rosemary’s life is as a mothering figure, which syncs up nicely with this reading of Rosemary as a young woman resisting the role her mother played in the household, subordinated to and an instrument of a larger patriarchal regime.

On the other hand, the primary impediment to me being able to read it as a truly feminist film comes through precisely the element that makes the psychological drama so compelling. The movie really gets the lion’s share of tension from the juxtaposition of the innocent, almost child-like quality of Mia Farrow against the darker forces that menacingly surround her in the form of her too-friendly neighbors, her ambitious husband, her stodgy physician, and even the ancient apartment building. Mia Farrow’s waifish cheerfulness in the beginning and her extreme vulnerability and naivity throughout the film really emphasizes how, despite the fact that she is about to have child, she herself has the childlike qualities that are classic to the historic, sexist modeling of femininity. Her childishness is emphasized by the parental quality of the role the Castavet’s play in her life, her relationship with the male authority represented by Dr. Saperstein, and the often condescending way her own husband interacts with her. Rosemary rarely transcends the role of the victim and it is clear that the movie plays up her childlike qualities in order to gain maximum sympathy from the audience. Relying on this childishness and victimhood to establish the essential tension in the film ultimately means relying on stereotypes of passive, innocent femininity that do more to re-establish sexist stereotypes than challenge them. While much of the film can be read through a feminist lens, her childishness seems problematic to me. I believe the fact that Rosemary never quite transcends the role of victim makes Rosemary’s Baby have a much less compelling read than a film like Repulsion where those boundaries are much more readily crossed.

With that said, it’s definitely a horror movie worth watching, as you’d expect from Polanski. And for more on the feminist implications of the movie, I also recommend the following:

Rosemary’s Baby: A Fountain of Feminism

Spinster Aunt

Rosemary’s Baby, Gothic Pregnancy, and Fetal Subjects

– Posted by VickyVengeance