Dogtooth (Yorgos Lanthimos, 2009)
Posts tagged films in 2011.
Films in 2011 #I’veLostCountWhoCares — Super 8 (JJ Abrams, 2011)
From TV-to-feature director wunderkind JJ Abrams and producer Steven Spielberg comes Super 8, a summer tentpole that’s not strictly speaking a sequel, prequel or $200 million dollar action figure commercial. Huzzah! But, no. Super 8 is something of a sequel (re-imagining? adaptation?) of Spielberg’s pre-Schindler’s List whiz-bang summer sci-fi blockbusters (you know, you good stuff). I guess “unofficial,” although when Abrams is so genuine in his enthusiasm to make a Spielberg movie circa 1982, it’s hard not to just go with it. I’ll admit, as hard as I am, I got a certain thrill from seeing the old Amblin logo in the film’s opening credits. And that’s where this film gets you—just inject that sugary sweet nostalgia straight into my veins, baby. If you’re anything like me, that damned Amblin logo was stamped on the back of 50% of your childhood entertainment (when Disney wasn’t co-opting the other half). But, beware. Just because something feels good, doesn’t mean it is good.
Here’s the plot: it’s 1979, Joe’s (Joel Courtney) mom has just died (conveniently off-screen), and his hard-ass cop dad (Kyle Chandler, Mr. America) totally can’t deal. Smash cut to five months later and Joe is sort of happy again, helping his pudgy buddy Charles (Riley Griffiths) finish their monster movie over the summer holiday. In tow are some other kids from the school, and a new addition to the crew, Alice Dainard (Elle Fanning), the unapproachable 8th grade hottie of Joe’s dreams. Filming a crucial scene one night by the train station, the kids are witness to the most spectacularly unbelievable train derailment in cinema history (seriously, no train could possibly explode for as long as this one fucking does). It’s all kinds of crazy. There are these weird, white Rubik’s cube things that spill out everywhere—and, oh yeah, there was totally a giant, gnarly alien on board the train that escapes into the small town Ohio night. Dazed and tripping, the kids stumble upon the cause of the crash, their local science teacher. Whaaaat? Mr, Woodward, what are you doing here, so bloody and dying?! It turns out that Mr. Woodward was doing some extracurriculars keeping tabs on Nefarious Military Experiments, speaking of which, here comes the black helicopters now. Thus: the kids have to 1) get their film developed/finished, 2) solve the mystery of what the heck just happened; and Joe has to 1) deal with his dead mom and bummer dad, 2) figure out how to talk to a girl. Coming of age!
Perhaps it’s my intrinsic knee-jerk reaction to glare skeptically at bright, shining faces alit with wonder and optimism (withered, bitter old thing that I am), but most things that seem to work—that seem to invoke a fondness and good-humor in Super 8—are invoking them for the wrong reasons; the “fondness” is really just overt familiarity. Almost everything that works in Super 8 was done before, by Spielberg himself. Charles’ hectic household is straight out of E.T. (Super 8 is probably 80% E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial, while other 20% is a cocktail of various Spielbergian DNA). Even the most basic plot points (Dead mother! Alcoholic and/or distant fathers!) were warmed-over cliches thirty years ago. Abrams seems to think that by setting the film in 1979, they may attain a relevance (or in retrospect, a universality), but the result is just boring. Just damned dull.
One of the main problems lies in the structure of the screenplay, which, while it seems like it’s pining to be a straight-up character piece focused on these kids and their dinky monster movie, box office dictates Super 8 must actually be a big budget, blow ‘em up, razzle-dazzle monster movie. And so: we abandon Joe & co.’s amateur adventures, the daddy issues grow ever more serious, and just as I was on the fence about what kind of movie Super 8 might be and whether I might like it, Super 8 showed me what kind of movie it is: Alice gets abducted by the monster. Heretofore Alice Dainard had kind of been the film’s most interesting character (and Elle Fanning by far the most magnetic screen presence). Intrigued by Joe and his quiet intensity (building train models is sexy, okay), Alice is our entre into both the adolescent world (It’s 1979! We’re 13! Let’s make a movie!) and the adult world (See Alice drive her dad’s smokin’ muscle car!). And then she get snatched away from the film, in an infuriating action sequence where Abrams deliberately obscures our view of Le Creature behind every possible obstacle.
At this point, I was long past the point of caring about the film’s most crucial aspects: 1) the kids’ super 8mm movie, a project now abandoned in favor Joe becoming the de facto leader of the now all-male group & action hero/resucuer of the damsel in distress (le sigh); 2) the creature itself (Abrams defers our view of the monster too long, instead relying on perfunctory dialogue to tell us what a sensitive prisoner of military cruelty & ignorance—Don’t tell, show!).
What are the stakes here? As the action set-pieces mount, it becomes increasingly apparent that everything will work out for the best (shocker!). After the film, I sent out a bitchy Tweet about how I would have rather all the characters kicked the bucket at the end—but I mean it sincerely. Super 8 is set-up like an urban legend in the making: a bunch of kids in small town Ohio capture evidence of alien life on their 8mm camera, the military comes in and wipes out any evidence, rocks fall, everyone dies. It’s got everything: conspiracies, cute moppets, and footage to be dissected and disputed by Internet nerds for decades to come. There should be a Snopes entry on this shit. How much cooler would it have been if everyone died (or disappeared) and the film itself served as the singular document of the event (not found footage-y, we don’t need another faux-documentary Cloverfield), but just so that there would be something to
Because, at the end of it, there really isn’t much to mull over. Super 8 is a very neatly packaged little entertainment, that goes exactly where you know it will and ends happily (and improbably), with little concern given to the preceding events (especially how many people actually die at the hands of this monster). The only life in the film comes from a couple of the performances, especially the interplay between the boys (though at times their period-specific bonding is eye-rollingly overwritten). As Joe, Joel Courtney has natural watchability: he makes for a nice and boring lead: now a little baffled, now a little wounded, now a little charming. Elle Fanning is a preternaturally gifted little freak and although it’s a bit distressing how Abrams thrusts her into full Dream Girl status (all backlit, flowing blonde locks and big, wet eyes), the actresses’ grounded performance is a nice anchor to reality when everything starts getting sci-fi, action epic-y.
It isn’t the absolute worst thing you could watch, but it isn’t particularly necessary either. And there’s a shocking lack of life in it. I believe JJ Abrams (writing as well as directing) really does mean this as a personal statement, half autobiography, half wide-eyed tribute (Yo, dawg, I heard you like Spielberg movies, so got Spielberg to produce your Spielberg movie so you can Spielberg while you Spielberg!) Ultimately, Super 8 peaks too early and fails to deliver on the promise of its youthful exuberance. The low-fi zombie flick the kids are shooting only makes the glossy, blockbuster-y proceedings of the actual Super 8 that less appealing. I didn’t care about the monster/alien or his tired, predictable computer generated money shot—I just wanted those goofy kids to finish their movie.
Films in 2011 #80or90somethingIDK — Bridesmaids (Paul Feig, 2011)
There seemed to have been a rising tide of expectation surrounding this film. It is the inevitable yoke of WOMEN IN FILM (Capital letters! Exclamation point!), that every movie where women are anything besides vapid fuck objects or protagonist girlfriends (often one in the same), there absolutely must be a cultural revolution at hand. Huzzah, ladies! I hesitate to even bring this up because I don’t want to give any impression that I am not 100% on board with WOMEN IN FILM or feminism or ladies or comedy or movies that are geared towards/starring/written by women. I am 110% on board with that all that. And the fact that Bridesmaids is fairing so well at the box office is a comfort to those of us who were oh-so anxious it do well.
Of course, it’s no great revelation that when funny people get together to make a movie—and they actually give a shit about it—it will turn out well. The recent (or is it decades-long?) downturn in the women-centric romantic comedy is a byproduct of lots of people just not giving a fuck about what they create because they know there will always be a market for escapist, consumerist wish fulfillment that caters to single, upwardly mobile white womens’ desires (culturally determined & internalized) for men and shoes (and nothing else). The insidious rise of “chick lit” as a genre of literature that we’ve somehow allowed to exist (shame on us) has provided an endless stream of easily adaptable, marketable material for these stories (see: Something Borrowed—or, actually, please don’t).
Add to these dim factors the extreme financial conservatism of studios, which dictates that romantic comedies must have famous female and male leads (or, at least, the female lead must be well-known). The phenomenon has lead to a handful of actresses appearing in the same kind of films (Kate Hudson, Sarah Jessica Parker, Sandra Bullock). And importantly, these are movie stars, not comedians. Sometimes you’ll get a genuinely funny women in a supporting role (the Judy Greer effect), but the material is usually so neutered there’s nothing even the most gifted can do. Studios won’t build a comedy around funny women because funny women aren’t movie stars. (Television has been the domain of talented ladies, has been since the technology’s inception, and probably always will be.)
With this in mind, it’s all the more satisfying that Bridesmaids has flipped the strategy, casting a funny woman (Kristen Wiig) with the potential to be a movie star. Of course, it’s the sway of producer Judd Apatow that allows this to happen. Apatow has a history of pulling actors from television, casting them in his films and making them stars (Seth Rogen being the best example).
It’s no surprise that of the ensemble of women, only one, Rose Byrne, is more well-known from films than from television. Byrne plays “the pretty one,” Wiig’s rich, conceited rival for maid of honor in Maya Rudolph’s wedding. In a scene that would rival the best of “The Office (UK)” for painful awkwardness, Wiig and Byrne try to one-up each other giving a congratulatory speech during the engagement party. As soon as you think the scene will end, Wiig grabs the mic from Byrne and rattles off a passive aggressive plea for “best friend” status. Neither woman is willing, at this early point in the film, to come out and blast the other women—they are essentially strangers. Their faux-politeness and the social construction of the engagement party makes for an odd comedy of manners.
Director Paul Feig has a simple directing style, allowing the performers (almost all of whom were trained in improv comedy) to play the scene in its entirety. Feig cuts back and forth between Wiig and Byrne battling it out and the engagement party guests, with each reaction shot becoming more and more confused. Rudolph’s reactions especially are naturalist and strike a chord of realism: she is at first amused by her friends’ antics, then slightly embarrassed, then disbelieving, then annoyed (but never really upset). One of the highlights of the picture is how Rudolph and Wiig play off each other, creating a believable history between their characters, lifelong friends.
Amid all the hype around the film (“Women are funny? Whaaaat?”), the traditionalism of the picture has gone under-noticed. The linearity of the wedding itself, with all the attendant pomp and circumstance, allows for a cleanly constructed screenplay: the characters move from engagement party, to bridesmaids’ lunch & dress fitting, to bachelorette party, to bridal shower, to the wedding itself. In some ways, a wedding allows many more opportunities for comedy from a women’s perspective than a man’s simply because of the insane amount of maneuvering necessary to get the thing done. Many films have been made of bachelor parties (The Hangover), but these types of films risk wringing out too many jokes from a single event, often suffering from riffing fatigue as the screenwriters try desperately to get laughs from a limited supply of “getting drunk before getting married” humor.
Bridesmaids actually manages to subvert audience expectations when the ladies’ planned trip to Vegas gets derailed by an accidentally intoxicated Wiig causing havoc mid-air. The scene is another showcase for the comedian’s manifold talents. Wiig is physically adept at all manner of silliness and funny voices (evident every week on “Saturday Night Live”), but in this film, she manages to combine the surprising pathos she displayed in the criminally under-seen Whip It! (another strong film for women). All the supporting characters are well-developed (especially Melissa McCarthy, in what should be a star-making role, but won’t be because Hollywood is horrible), but Bridesmaids is fully Wiig’s film. It’s your simple “my life is a mess” premise: she’s saddled with boorish douchebag of a boyfriend (Jon Hamm, making it very difficult to concentrate), a failed bakery business, horrifying British roommates, and pretty much zero money. There’s a nice romance weaved into the proceedings with an adorable policeman played by “The IT Crowd”’s Chris O’Dowd. Their courtship is probably the most traditionally romcom element of the film. He’s the quintessential Nice Guy; they flirt, they fight, she dumps the asshole and they get together. Everybody goes home happy.
Comedy is a very personal thing. You laugh at truth, but truth is subjective. There’s a thriving market for raunchy, male-oriented comedies, and no wonder since anyone who has a brother or a boyfriend or ever went to college (or a bar, or Las Vegas…) is familiar with the wonderfully 21st century phenomenon of delayed masculine adolescence. There are many fewer films, no less comedies, whose treatment of women is anything outside of Madonna/whore paradigm entrenched in American cinema. I don’t know about you, but I fucking love cursing, I’m a totally impoverished hot mess, occasionally enjoy an alcoholic beverage, probably wouldn’t turn down casual sex with Jon Hamm (sorry, Gertrude Stein), and am fiercely loyal to my best friends. Even if it is a cliché, it’s just nice to see a movie that has at least one character that resonates with me personally. It’s not a requirement to identify with movie characters (in fact, I would prefer if Hollywood didn’t condescend to its audience with demographic surrogates), but once in a while, it’s refreshing.
#76 — Source Code (Duncan Jones, 2011)
There’s an episode of The X-Files called “Monday” where Mulder relives the same day over and over again until he corrects the mistake—a bank heist gone wrong where he and Scully, along with the robber and his girlfriend are killed—that’s causing the event to repeat. I only mention The X-Files instead of Groundhog’s Day because, well, 1) I’m an X-Files nerd, and 2) Groundhog’s Day is the go-to analogy to deja vu movies like Source Code, but the X-Files comparison is more apt. Like the show, Source Code's repeated event is violent—a terrorist's bomb explosion on a commuter train—and experiencing that event over and over again, as Mulder does, is inherently traumatic to the main character and the viewer.
Captain Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) is no stranger to trauma, having flown helicopters in Afghanistan as a soldier in the U.S. Army. Assigned to the mysterious Source Code program, he’s fated to relive the events of the commuter train attack again and again until he can find the bomb and apprehend the bomber. To do so, he “enters” the body of a passenger on the train named Sean Fentress. Via some synaptic neural science and time travel-y mumbo jumbo, the Source Code program allows for Stevens to “become” Fentress for the last eight minutes of his life, reliving the events to alter them. With each unsuccessful venture into Fentress’ life, Capt. Stevens is wrenched back to reality, shaken, sweaty and very confused, where he must report his findings to an Air Force Capt. Goodwin (Vera Farmiga) and the program’s shadowy mad scientist creator (Jeffrey Wright).
Stevens spends his non-train time in an dankly indistinguishable, black pod, his superiors visible only on a closed circuit television screen. From there, Goodwin dishes out platitudes, bland procedural instructions, and tries her darnedest to divert all of Stevens’ probing questions. The poor man has no idea where he is, why he’s there, or how the Source Code even works. Gyllenhaal solving the mystery of what’s going on in that realm is mystery number two in Source Code.
The primary directive is finding the bomb. On board the train, we see Stevens as Gyllenhaal, but the other passengers see him as Fentress (in the bathroom mirror, we see another actor). Stevens is initially unnerved but adapts quickly to his strange surroundings, including another passenger played by Michelle Monaghan, for whom Fentress obviously has a history. Gyllenhaal and Monaghan have fun playing the same scene over and over, finding little quirks in their delivery and new physical business to play with as their relationship grows. Eventually, Stevens becomes convinced that he can actually save these people, who, you’ll recall, are already dead. He becomes obsessed with the idea that if he can somehow disable the bomb, apprehend the bomber, and alert the military brass running the Source Code before his eight minutes are up, he can change the morning’s course.
For a spry and fast-paced sci-fi film, Source Code indulges in a lot of trite, carpe diem moralizing, and I can’t decide if Jones and scripter Ben Ripley get away with it. Part of the reason it didn’t ruin the film for me is Gyllenhaal’s earnest performance. He’s just so pretty; when his saucer eyes get red-rimmed with tears of frustration, it’s hard not to believe his pain. He gets to play weak, manic, charming, action hero-y and bumbling, and he’s believable in all aspects. The performance’s greatest success is in convincing us that Colter Stevens is an honest-to-goodness American hero, not in a cliched bravado type way, but in a noble self-sacrificing way. Stevens doesn’t want to die, but he recognizes that the completion of the mission is his duty as a soldier. It’s a showcase in bravery that doesn’t stem from the barrel of a gun, but from internal grit and integrity.
But back to that moralizing…the plot essentially boils down to fate vs. free will. Strong science fiction bona fides to be sure. But the final five minutes of the movie reveal too much to the audience, hammering home the lesson to the point of redundancy. It also makes no damn sense. Throughout the film, the “logic” (if you can call it that) of the Source Code program—how it works, who it works with, and it’s national security implications—are made clear, both in dialogue and action. There’s a pretty strong rationale for the film ending one way, and then it does a 180 degree spin and goes in another, lazier, more crowd-friendly way.
This is a shame. I thought Duncan Jones’ debut film Moon was overpraised as a masterpiece by quality-starved sci-fi fans looking for any decent effort on which to heap accolades. It was pretty good, but not great. Source Code is considerably less unique than Moon and doesn’t have Sam Rockwell’s compelling one-man show cache. Source Code, to its credit, at least tries to do something original in a pretty dismal mainstream Hollywood landscape. Jones, for his part, knows how to deliver snappy action utilizing minimal locations and cramped spaces to convey tension while no doubt keeping the film’s budget in check. But the film ultimately failed to grab me on an emotional level, a pretty significant failure given its emphasis on humanity amid cold, militaristic technology. It’s a nice, diverting 94 minutes but a forgettable experience come the next morning.
#026 — Bluebeard (Catherine Breillat, 2009)
Bluebeard is my first Catherine Breillat film, a rather embarrassing admission compounded by the fact that I fell instantly, head-over-heels in love with it. Breillat has a lot of international baggage as one of those auteur-provacateur(euse) of which it seems Europe is never in short supply. A feminist icon, she’s been demonized and exalted in equal measure for her preoccupation with female sexuality (Quelle horreur! Quelle scandale!), a topic which seems only to gain disdainful attentions when its depicter is also female. (But let’s not even get me started on that.) With that in mind, it’s difficult to get a fair hold on Bluebeard, her latest film, without the coloring of several decades of past controversies. It is best, in my opinion, to go in cold. Don’t read up on Breillat. And don’t, whatever you do, Google the story of Bluebeard.
This film is a modern interpretation of that French fairy tale, generally credited to Charles Perrault, who is sort of the French equivalent of the Brothers Grimm. I was unfamiliar with the story so all the points were fresh to me. Obviously, it’s a not a spoiler to reveal the plot twists of a 300-year old folk tale, but I won’t do it because if you’re reading this, you probably don’t know the story of Bluebeard either. Here it is in broad strokes: Bluebeard is the wealthy but monstrously ugly boogeyman of a rural French town whom its inhabitants fear and revile. You see, Bluebeard (and yes, his beard really is blue—a product [or reflection?] of his bilious internal evil) is always on the prowl for local young women; his marital recidivism rate is worse than Henry VIII’s and allegedly for the same reason. Whatever the motive, the wives have all disappeared, never to be seen or heard from again.
Breillat takes you inside the fairy tale, stripping it of its reductive moral lessons (Ugly is evil! Sex is bad!), letting us see the players as real people instead of archetypes. At the center of the story are two sets of sisters. The first, younger sister Marie-Catherine (Lola Creton) and older sister Anne (Daphne Baiwar), are the girls of the fairy tale. After their father dies, they’re shipped back home from a private Catholic school, totally destitute. Belongings reposed and absent a dowry, their prospects are bleak; what man would have them, save the ogre Bluebeard? The second set of sisters narrate the fairy tale and this framework lends the film a magical quality. Like Marie-Catherine, the younger sister Catherine (Marilou Lopes-Benites) is the dominant of the two, reading the entire story to Marie-Anne (Lola Giovannetti), several years her senior. Of course, the interchangeability of the two sets of sisters’ names is no accident. The film draws out the parallels between them, cutting freely between the two time periods which can be dated loosely as the 17th and the mid-20th century.
Like all on-screen fairy tales (when they’re told truthfully), Bluebeard is a sly and surreptitiously vicious little movie. In at a scant 80 minutes, Breillat packs in enough uncomfortable eroticism, abrupt violence and sadomasochistic psychological manipulation to slake the average art house connoisseur’s high-minded bloodlust for perversity. And a perverse film it is, one which delights in denying its viewer easy pleasures. Breillat makes the most of elliptical editing, especially in the last twenty minutes of the film in which crucial characters are banished to off-screen margins and major time lapses create a maddening effect. Which, if you are me, you find delightfully depraved; it’s an approach befitting a film whose chief interests are anti-Catholic/anti-capitalist vitriol, pathological sibling rivalry, the absurdly unjust antiquities of a patriarchal society, and—ah yes—child murder.
To say nothing of the manifold pleasures of the production, among them a gorgeous, dream-like production and costume design which mixes historical time periods with cheerfully anachronistic abandon. Marie-Catherine and Anne play the harpsichord and dance medieval-style dances; Bluebeard lives in a spiral tower and rides a gigantic white steed; but this is not a historical fiction—the man’s beard is blue for God’s sake. It takes place very much in the mind of little Catherine whose wide-eyed enthusiasm for the gruesome tale is both endearing (Lopes-Benites is cute as a button) and vaguely terrifying. Catherine and Marie-Anne interrupt the folk tale several times to present their own comments and opinions on the action, lending another layer of interpretation to a common story. An argument about the meaning of marriage—from two girls so young—is rife with confusion of the adorable, unintentionally hilarious sort, but manages, via director’s commentary, to strike at the heart of the Bluebeard myth. Breillat’s film constructs and deconstructs simultaneously; lent such natural charm by her actors, Breillat’s more didactic intentions are submerged in favor of character and style.
Although perverse, the film is hardly lurid. It’s actually quite a beguiling experience, sanguine in both the modern and archaic sense. The tone is probably best embodied in Bluebeard himself (played by Dominique Thomas), a swarthy giant of a man whose sheer mass next to the tiny Lola Creton in the same frame is a visually unsettling juxtaposition. He looks like a whale poised to swallow a minnow. But Bluebeard could not be more benign, a man whose quiet self-loathing, brought on by buying into his own monstrous legend, dampens what once must have been a fearsome bluster. Thomas plays him as a gentle and attentive husband who delights in teaching his young (and still virginal) bride astronomy, feeding her figs and basking in her youthful rays of energy. Their quaint and unusual marriage lulls you into a stupor; hell, I was even kind of rooting for everything to work out! Alas, no happily ever after.
Bluebeard is available on Netflix Instant which means you have no excuses.
#023 — Inland Empire (David Lynch, 2006)
I gave a muddled attempt to deconstruct this film here, but Inland Empire is not as complicated as it first appears to be. It is, as I have said, a David Lynch film about David Lynch films. It is the ultimate expression of the Lynchian universe that is at once horrific, humorous, satirically dark and sincerely optimistic. Its themes—identity, fame, madness, paranoia—and purposefully elliptical and hallucinatory timescape, should be familiar to anyone with a passing knowledge of Lynch’s work.
Which is all well and good if your primary interest is with the storyteller and not the story. Laura Dern’s Nicki is a blond actress dealing with an identity crisis—sound familiar? Mulholland Dr. bests Inland Empire in almost every aspect. And although it’s usually no fair pitting film against film, Lynch invites the comparisons to his ouevre; every inch of the picture is alive with past triumphs. Lynch revisits actors, settings, footage (his own online film Rabbits), themes and obsessions.
Which leaves me wondering, what’s next? Where can David Lynch possibly go from here? He’s vowed allegiance to digital video; I think its grit affirms the Lynchian theme of the inherent ugliness of expressing one’s self on film. Inland Empire is an excruciatingly ugly film, the ultimate example of inner turmoil seeping into the medium of its own expression. But now that he’s said his piece with the camera (and apparently said all he can say about Hollywood), David Lynch’s next move is a bit of a question mark. It’s been nearly five years since Inland Empire. What next?
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the special features on the Inland Empire DVD. One feature in particular, just twenty minutes of David Lynch teaching us how to cook the South American rice dish quinoa, is an unexpected delight and a testament to the man’s magnetism as storyteller and postmodern mage. It really has to be seen to be believed.
Perhaps the quinoa cooking lesson is the future of David Lynch. He seems preoccupied in exploring his own celebrity, how he can manipulate an audience in front of the camera as much as behind. Certainly, he has an in-born cult. Branching out to music and Twitter seems to support this hypothesis. Lynch and Kevin Smith make for strange bedfellows but both men are interesting examples of the auteurist cult, the director as celebrity. Whether David Lynch will see fit to explore this concept on film is yet to be seen.
#010 — Little Women (Gillian Armstrong, 1994)
Ah, good old Little Women. This was the first movie I watched post-surgery and it soothed like chicken soup. We all have childhood favorites and this is one of mine. In fact, the tale of Jo March and her sisters is so beloved among the Sales family, we still watch it on our well-worn VHS copy. Outdated technologies moor us ever closer to fond nostalgias. Physical media carries with it the weight of years and VHS more so than DVD: there’s actual work involved, pausing, rewinding and fast-forwarding that aged tape. A proper film collection is like an archeological dig—you find the treasures buried deep in layers of sediment.
Little Women is a movie well-suited to such nostalgic rhapsodizing: nostalgia and warm family memories are the crux of its story.
I was actually watching this movie when I had to go to the ER and then shortly thereafter was admitted for surgery. I had hoped a well-worn favorite would ease my suffering. Silly me to expect Melville’s chilly, minimalist masterpiece would soothe. What follows then are stray observations and random ~musings.
#009 — Le Samourai (Jean-Pierre Melville, 1967)
Close your eyes and picture Jef Costello/Alain Delon from Le Samourai. What do you see? A cigarette and a hat? Indelible images, seemingly pre-conscious, sprung forth from collective memories. The trench coat—obviously Bogart, most probably (and memorably) from Casablanca, a strange choice upon reflection for it’s not a noir film (some may argue—some may be wrong), but a romance. The coat lends Jef an implied air of romanticism, the tragic/romantic hero? Maybe unconsciously.
I was bored and interested so I took to counting the number of cigarettes Jef smokes in the film. I was sure it would be a dozen at least. Nope. Five. A measly five! Ah, but an important front-loaded count. Four occur in the first fifteen minutes of the film. That’s nearly a cigarette every four minutes! And regard the spaces in which they’re smoked:
- the opening scene—Jef reclines in his bedroom
- the first time he’s seen driving in a stole car
- the first time he visits the garage and waits for the mechanic to change the plates and supply him with gun and fake I.D.s
- the first time he walks up to the club
These four spaces—bedroom (or apartment, broadly), car, garage, and club (inside/outside will be compounded as one general area) are the primary environments in Jef’s world. He will visit them all again; the film has a Mobius strip structure wherein the events at the beginning are folded back on themselves and revisited with slight alterations.
The fifth cigarette does not occur until nearly the end: after Jef has been shot, he lights up again in his bedroom. It is the first time a cigarette signals any kind of insecurity or dependance on the nicotine (or the routine) of smoking. In the beginning of the film, the cigarette is an extension of Jef’s body, lithe and clipped and controlled perfectly. He lights up and makes the space his. Not so in the second bedroom scene, where the space has been invaded by the presence of a bleeding wound; no longer hermetically sealed.
The front-loaded cigarettes serve a narrative purpose but also set the stage visually. Jef does so close to nothing that even the tiniest movement (say, lighting a cigarette) makes a huge impression on the viewer. If I recall correctly, no one else in the film smokes (clearly an artistic choice because if Mad Men has taught us anything, it’s that everyone smoked in the ’60s). Of course, the genius of compounding the cigarette (and eliminating any other smokers) is in adding to our ingrained expectation of its presence. Think Bogie again, this time via Belmondo in Breathless. Obvious, expected; we fill in our own blanks.
There is some debate on the precise type of hat worn by Costello. It is his only hat; he changes coats, but not hats. It’s clearly a fedora, gray felt with a wide dark gray or black hat band and a single bow. The brim is rather precisely smoothed and pinched repeatedly in the film. A repetitive action; the last check of the armor before battle. The hat is, most likely, a Stetson brand.
Which is interesting—and perhaps this connection means nothing and occurred only to me because I seem to be always thinking of him—because if you reshaped Jef’s hat and flattened the crown, you’d exactly have Buster Keaton’s porkpie. And taking a regular Stetson fedora and soaking and reshaping it is exactly how Buster made his own signature headwear for fifty years.
I made a New Year’s Resolution that I’d keep track on this blog all the films I watched this year with a numbered count and a review. Well, it’s April and I’ve posted exactly four “Films in 2011,” and lost count around number 50 or so. So, failure. I have a couple reviews posted in Drafts and I just finally threw up my hands in self-disgust and said, “Fuck it!” So, some reviews are getting posted. Some probably won’t. They’ll all be out of order. This blog will continue to be slovenly, slapdash, and of general ill quality.