2013 Summer Reading Classic Film Book Challenge (Book 3) Killer Kaiju Monsters

The previous two texts for this wonderful Classic Film Book Challenge have been decidedly academic, focusing on theoretical readings of a historical and cultural nature.  Admittedly this is my ideal point of film reading, but since it is the summer and I needed a bit of a breather, I decided to chase down a copy of Killer Kaiju Monsters, which may not seem to fit within the parameters of the Classic Film Book guidelines, but considering that much of the classic kaiju works exist within the years 1956-1968 it does indeed suffice, and the book focuses precisely on these years, while also looking at the extensive cultural influences of the unique genre.  For those of you who are uncertain about what exactly a kaiju is, might have caught the name in this summer's big blockbuster Pacific Rim and now associate it with huge sea monsters.  To a considerable degree this is precisely what they are, although they include the likes of Godzilla and his various frenemies.  In essence a kaiju is any sort of large monster that has its eyes set on destroying things, although in recent years it has evolved to be post-genre and highly revisionist.  Nonetheless, it still proves to be one of the more adored genres for many cinephiles, who either love the works in all their nonsensical glory, or simply, like myself, have a major nostalgia for the works.  The kaiju film is distinct, bizarre and in some cases quite trippy, so it should be no surprise that what one finds in Ivan Vartanian's Killer Kaiju Monsters is nothing short of unusual.  The film is split into various sections some introducing new readers to the genre, while others focus on the various creatures that occupy the screens of the still lively genre, but Vartanian also incorporates posters and screenshots as a means to push the visual elements of the genre as well.  In fact, one could almost argue that Killer Kaiju Monsters is far more a coffee table book than a piece of academic writing, but  the same argument could be made working in the opposite direction, because somebody just expecting to look at cool pictures and sketches, will come away with a great understanding of the cinematic history of kaiju and a whole new compendium of monsters with which to impress their nerdy friends.  Also, if all of these elements fail to draw out your curiosity, the text also includes a cutout to make your very own kaiju paper doll, which is one of many cool asides in this highly engaging text.

I know that this is a highly specialized read and one that is not wholly academic, but being somebody who has read, or is either currently working through the other texts available on this topic, I can attest to  the simplicity of Killer Kaiju Monsters as being its selling point.  Indeed, it will be somewhat impossible to learn the minutia of production or the nuclear warfare implications latent within the films, particularly the first Godzilla film, but it is not also preachy and absurdly personalized like say Godzilla on My Mind, which to date is my biggest disappointment in film based reading.  Other kaiju texts, make foolish assumptions that since they are working within a distinct field that their personal opinion suffices for academic grounding.  Between the humorous images of cartoon Godzilla offspring and full page spreads of Mothra shooting beams upon Tokyo, one has a better time coming to watch the evolution of kaiju cinema through Vartanian's work than any other text availabe on the subject.  Again, I will admit that some of my adoration for this particular book comes from its quirkiness, but that is not intended to dismiss its value.  Considering that many of the major kaiju films have yet to make their American release in any format, some of the research done for this text is the first of its kind, yet avoids all the pretense of more high-minded approaches to the same subject.  Yet, I still feel it necessary to remind readers that this work is anything but distancing, Vartanian wants both the newcomers to kaiju as well as the diehard fanatics to take something away from his book, which perhaps helps explain its decidedly post-modern structure, wherein a fully academic text would be derailed by a drawn-out description of Gidorah's special powers and theoretical weight versus that of Rodan, it is well at home in Killer Kaiju Monsters.  Similarly, if this text were solely a coffee table book the extensive looks at political themes in the films would be off-putting to the casual reader.  Much like the kaiju films themselves, Killer Kaiju Monsters exists in a perfect space between low culture schlock and high theory cinema.

Best Film Discovery of the Book: While it lists all of the films in the genre, it decides to give some discussion to more than others, particularly when they relate to Godzilla.  One such film was Godzilla vs. Megalon, which also featured the first onscreen presence of Jet Jaguar, whose theme song is enough to make the entire movie worth viewing.  I suggest it as a discovery, because I had avoided it under the misguidance of it being a lesser kaiju work, indeed it is one of my favorites, now third only to the original Godzilla movie and the psychedelic Godzilla vs. The Smog Monster.  For what this book offers, it is insanely cheap.  If you find yourself in the market for something to flip through or have as a conversation piece, I would suggest looking no further than this wonderful text.


Fear Takes The Shape We Are Willing To Give It: Mind Game (2004)

Here I was, post viewing of Fantastic Planet, rather certain that I had explored all the possibilities and corners of the animated film, and was entirely sold that Satoshi Kon would be the height of Japan's particular anime leanings, however, when I discovered that the late director had championed a work I should have expected it to at the very best rival his films and at the very least explore some of the same territory.  While I will always respect Akira as the seminal work in anime, consider Paprika the point of absolute deconstruction of linear narrative expectations, while adoring Howl's Moving Castle as the classicist anime, what is at work in Masaaki Yuasa's Mind Game is one of the most revelatory, celebratory and outright challenging works in the canon of animated films, comparing perhaps even with the great works of spatial and temporal reconsideration in all of cinema.  I found myself constant shifting my viewing expectations throughout the film, sometimes being lulled into the sensuous colors of certain scenes, only to have them slashed into black and white dreariness, or in most instances taken to an even higher hallucinatory level.  In a couple of the film's moments I found myself changing expectations and understanding relative to each frame within a montage, whose juxtaposition was so clearly considered and organized as to work on a psychological level equitable to that of the Soviet montage.  It is glaringly obvious that Yuasa is not merely a filmmaker who knows how to make a cool looking film, but one that desires to engage with as much of cinematic theory and history as possible, both as it relates to his field of animation, as well as its larger place within the framework of cinema as a reflection of the mind's eye or in a French New Wave approach, an absolute truth that reflects the disillusions of society.  Mind Game is a ton of things, none of which are misguided, half-boiled or poorly delivered, in fact, this movie begs to be carefully considered frame-by-frame, so much so that I found myself pausing, hoping that some degree of osmosis would allow for the bombardment of imagery, commentary and overall visceral pleasure to properly wash over me, instead, what I am left with post viewing is a wild desire to simply press play again and see where the connections emerge in a film that takes the idea of enigmatic narrative to a whole new place.

Attacking the narrative of Mind Game is daunting, considering that to a considerable degree it is a series of cyclical events interweaving together, or perhaps a dream sequence bookended between two parallel visions, that are possibly within their own diagetic vision, it is tough to say.  There are, however, moments that tie together to at least glean some possibility of a protagonist in the character of Nishi, a soft-spoken manga artist whose chance reencounter with a former crush Myon results in his being dragged to Myon's family restaurant where he meets up with Myon's sister Jiisan and their less than likable father who only seems concerned with his own sexual conquest.  Within moments of being there, Nishi who is trying to outshine Myon's romantic interest, becomes, along with the other members of the restaurant part of a stick up as a mysterious man in black and brutish enraged soccer player begin making a mess of the place, violently attacking those in the restaurant.  At one point, Nishi is shot by the soccer player, leading to his own near death experience, before assumedly being reincarnated and afforded a second chance to stifle the attack, this time successfully killing the soccer player and stealing the man in black's car taking the sisters along with him as he proceeds to flee the city, the lackeys of a mob boss chasing him along in the process.  This second chance at life leads to Nishi throwing caution to the wind in this chase, ramping of truck beds and speeding much to the frustration of the pursuers.  Eventually, trapped by an insurmountable roadblock, Nishi ramps the car off of a bridge which will lead to his and the sisters' certain death, yet as though by divine intervention, a whale leaps out of the water and swallows the car, with its passenger.  Confused initially by their survival, the group finds themselves in a Jonah like situation eventually running into a large boat, occupied by an old man who has been living in the belly of the beast for thirty plus years.  He explains that it is a futile effort to escape from the whale, because the nature of his feeding and breathing cause waves to push boats backwards.  The desperation felt by the group, leads into a series of hallucinatory spirals and visions that become the narrative framing for the remainder of the film and their style is so non-normative and transcendent that to even provide a vague explanation would be to betrays its unfolding intensity.

I was mesmerized by a variety of elements in this film, particularly the suggestion that identity is something that is constantly evolving and reshaping itself to afforded the most ideal presence in a situation.  Indeed, one could call Mind Game the cinematic equivalent of a chameleon, but even that would be a false moniker, because it suggest an evolutionary necessity of survival.  The narrative that Yuasa provides viewers with is far from concerned with safety and survival of the fittest, indeed the film almost seems certain that it is only through reckless behavior that any notion of survival is afforded.  The characters who fair well in this film are in a incessant state of motion, which allows for them to move through the boundaries of the living and the dead, while in other moments defying physics for extended periods of time.  Yet, the film seems to also suggest that while much of this dynamic presence exists in the physical, it is more often a result of allowing one to free themselves from the mental constraints of a singular experiential frame of reference.  Indeed, this is where Yuasa manages to extend even beyond the wild visions of Kon.  I would never suggest that Kon did not push the images that occupied his films to their farthest parameters, but it is worth noting that in even his best work Paprika the bodies that occupy the space remain visually the same, even when their space movies between two dimensions.  In Mind Game both the characters and the spaces move about from live-action stop motion as the most grounded visuals, to highly impressionist works that are would be nearly indistinguishable were it not for the preceding or following images to add a shade of context.  Yet even these styles betray a possibility of grounded identity, because they constantly shift from the memories and daydreams of the various characters, to the point that even in the closing moments of the film, it is unclear as to whose story the viewer has just watched, or if it was indeed any story at all.  While they are stylistically as opposite as possible, I can only think to compare Mind Game to Chris Marker's La Jetee, in so much as both seem to posit a world where things are in constant motion, and it is rare, if not near impossible for things to ever coalesce into perfect harmony, but when they do it proves to be nothing short of beautiful.

Key Scene:  The last twenty minutes of this film will cause you to reconsider everything you have previously understood about film.  Trust me, I swear by this statement.

So I had to use creative methods to hunt down this film, but I am seriously considering selling a kidney to get hyper-rare this DVD.


Don't Forget...Stay Out Of The Adult Bookstore: Blast From The Past (1999)

Here I sit again contextualizing a film from 1999, which is proving to be one of the most profoundly important years in cinema, post-New Hollywood.  I was originally turned onto this year as being key cinematically by the dynamic duo over at Battleship Pretension, and was a bit hesitant to fully embrace their argument, particularly considering that at one point they delved pretty deeply into the genre films of the year, I realized there was likely some legitimacy to the argument.  Especially considering that it was the year that established The Wachowski's, as well as David Fincher as important directors with The Matrix and Fight Club respectively.  However, it was also a year where more cult heavy directors took stabs at new cinematic engagements, with David Lynch offering the Disney produced masterpiece The Straight Story while David Cronenberg reworked the themes of his classic Videodrome to consider game based virtual realities in the criminally under appreciated  Existenz.  With a decided push towards the dark the occurred this year, highlighted by Takishi Miike's Audition, it is a bit surprising that I would consider completely altering my top ten list to include a comedy, particularly one whose critical reputation is far less established than all the previously mentioned films.  Yet, when I watched Blast from the Past earlier today I found myself genuinely laughing and engaging with a satire of such excellent composition as to remind me of my previous love for Clueless.  There is a lot to like about Blast from the Past, so much so that I was initially hesitant to praise the film since it appeared to purely be a result of my loving of minor parts and not the collective whole of the film, but given a few hours to let it sink in I am certain that it is a justifiable feeling one that I am certain would find a consensus were people who initially dismissed the film to revisit it with a decades detachment.  Indeed, it came out in a year of cerebral and mentally challenging films, therefore, it is no surprise that a highly idyllic, bright, yet no less critical film would be pushed to the wayside.  Blast from the Past is both highly nostalgic for a simpler time culturally, while also being incredibly forward looking in thematic issues and considerations of who can occupy cinematic space.  Also, it has Christopher Walken, which means it is elevated by default.

Blast from the Past begins in a kitschy version of the 1960's where the real fears of the Cold War linger over America proving particularly dire for Calvin Weber (Christopher Walken) and his wife Helen (Sissy Spacek) who have, under the paranoid direction of Calvin, built a whole fallout shelter their home, one that essentially doubles as a recreation of their home.  During a party, an announcement of possible threats from Cuba lead Calvin and Helen underground to wait out the night, hoping to avoid an imminent bomb drop, yet when a helicopter crashes within the vicinity of their home, a mechanism locks the couple inside their shelter, programed to remain closed for 35 years, wherein any threat of radiation poisoning would be avoided.  This would not be that large of a problem, were Helen not expecting a child within days.  Trapped underground, Helen gives birth to Adam (Brendan Fraser) who proceeds to spend the next thirty five years of his life living completely detached from the world.  When the seal is finally broken, Calvin ventures forth into an America that is far from what he remembers, riddled with crime, transvestites and an adult book store.  Panicking he returns underground and suggest that the family reseal the shelter, but Helen disagrees noting that they need supplies and that Adam needs to be able to experience a world outside of the fabricated domestic space, one of skies and oceans.  The desire is met indirectly when Calvin falls ill and Adam is sent to the surface for supplies.  Hoping also to find a girlfriend while above ground, Adam moves into mid-nineties California hyper-idealistic and wide-eyed.  Within moments he attempts to dump off a ton of rare baseball cards hoping that the money will afford him the ability to purchase the far more expensive items on his mother's shopping list, which includes alcohol and pipe tobacco amongst other things.  While on his quest he meets Eve (Alicia Silverstone) a young woman whose desultory lifestyle runs counter to Adam's idealism, however, their seemingly impossible bond forms an immediate friendship, one that is navigated by Adam's hopes of finding a partner and her assurance that she is anything but what he is looking for, particularly since she fears he is mentally unstable, not realizing their is validity to his seemingly being stuck in a time capsule.  As things unwind, it is clear that Eve cares for Adam and that his wild stories are all but so, leading to their undertaking of bringing aid to Adam's parents, while also delicately dealing with the fact that the two are not ready to move into a post-Cold War world.

The movie plays up on cultural divisions with such restrain and focus it is a surprise that this did not fair better in the cult comedy circles.  While it does jump through some of the clear racial and gender issues a person from the era would face, it plays more on cultural cues and social etiquette differences, both as a means to suggest that the contemporary American society is far from ideal, while also reminding viewers that the fifties were rife with their own issues, clear nods to "the problem that has no name" occurring with the character of Helen.  Similarly, it paints a future where non-normative bodies are excepted, a reality that is still yet to exist, perhaps director Hugh Wilson using this a a mirror to cause viewers to consider how far their personal views on "otherness" stand from the wildly conservative Calvin.  Indeed, because it realizes that to fall too heavily on a single cultural difference, Blast from the Past approaches many cultural differences within a relatively short film, dealing with the state of religion and self-understanding in regards to the fifties, where Adam's mind frame places unquestioned value on the lord's name with blind faith, while on the surface people are so lost and disillusioned as to believe that the Weber's are some sort of second coming and thus spiritual gurus.  More humorous than this, however, are the suggestions that perhaps many of the issues an individual navigates in the world half a century apart are really not too different.  Both Adam and Eve are attempting to navigate their worlds to find the ideal other, momentarily assuming that this shared bond cannot occur between one another.  Characters like Eve's friend Troy (Dave Foley) exist as cultural commentators who possess on the spot observations of the individuals within the film who lack an understanding of their own feelings and inhibitions, perhaps playing somewhat problematically into the "gay character as magical conscience," but no less so that Sex in the City would have been doing at the time.  The closing moments become heavily idealistic, but given that the film does not possess hefty stakes or high intensity action this is fine and helps to make the closing conversation between Adam and Calvin, paired with the sudden invasion of Eve's voiceover not absurd, but appropriate, because it suggest that while the present is not perfect, it is certainly more productive than living in the past or fearing for the future.

Key Scene:  Brendan Fraiser and Nathan Fillion fight in this movie, it may not be the best scene, but it was certainly my favorite.

This DVD is super cheap, it is worth blindly buying.  I am fairly certain you will not be disappointed.


Want To Play A Game Of Hide And Clap?: The Conjuring (2013)

A legitimate question arises when asked what the future of the horror genre will look like cinematically.  A case could be made for two extremes, the first being a completely deconstructionist and visceral cinematic form influenced by the anthology style films of the past few years or the particular rebirth of the found footage genre (which I have gone on record as adoring).  The second possibility is a complete return to the classic style, at least in namesakes, evidence by gorier and less-campy remakes of cult classics like Evil Dead or the impending Carrie remake, whose trailer gives the entire plot away in its quickly paced trailer.  While I am a fan of the former, I would bet that the most likely result will be a hybrid of the two, at times resting more heavily on the visceral post-modern style and in other scenarios going for the classicist approach.  The truly great films of the next couple of decades will be the ones that perfectly mesh the two together to provide a movie going experience that can prove favorable to both the traditionalist horror fan and the young moviegoer who favors a barrage of intense and challenging imagery.  While I am still hesitant to give it my full support, what James Wan's recent The Conjuring does manage to do is create the perfect hybrid of the two possibilities.  By first situating his film within the era of the seventies, a high point for horror films, it becomes clear that Wan demands his offering be taken seriously cinematically, yet his continual breaking of the cinematic barrier to turn the camera upside down or move to digital handheld to keep a sense of the point of view action so necessary to newer horror films, show a sense of the new and unseen within the genre prior.  In fact, if I were to focus on this film from a purely cinematic structuralist frame of reference I would unapologetically call  it the most important work of horror in the 2010's so far, however, it is not entirely a work of structuralism, wherein both V/H/S and Cabin in the Wood are, therefore, things like narrative and character performance come into play and, tragically, it is precisely these elements that prevent The Conjuring from being great, but it appears as though I am somewhat alone in this criticism, because as it currently stands it has an IMDB rating that would place it at 188 on the sites top 250 movie list.  Admittedly it is a fresh vision of horror that could evolve in the upcoming years into something brilliant, I just wonder if it will not lose some of its appeal once people step back and realize that narratively it is far from revolutionary.

The Conjuring sets itself decidedly in the past, focusing first on the emergence of two paranormal experts Ed (Patrick Wilson) and Lorraine Warren (Vera Farmiga) whose work with exorcisms and demonology have afforded them clout within the Catholic church, as well as considerable press from skeptics and believers alike.  The film focuses on the allegedly real life couples encounter with a particularly nasty demon of whose story they had refused to tell until recently.  At this point the narrative shifts to focus on the Perron family of Roger (Ron Livingston) and Carolyn (Lili Taylor) who along with their five daughters have moved to a rural home in hopes of getting a fresh start on life.  However, within a day of moving into their new place it becomes clear that their new house is anything but ideal, and is indeed a place susceptible to what is later referred to as a paranormal infestation.  Initially hesitant to acknowledge it as anything threatening Roger and Carolyn attempt to go about their daily lives and hope for a promising future.  Yet, when their children and eventually Roger and Carolyn are directly confronted by ghosts, Carolyn reaches out to the Warren's in a last minute act of desperation.  It is during this moment that Lorraine senses the depth of Carolyn's troubles and agrees to immediately meet the family where she instantly discovers the grim presence overseeing their home.  Upon further research, the Warrens find out that the Perron's new home is a breeding ground for a particularly nasty demon that is the result of a vengeful witch that takes it upon herself to make mother's kill their children.  Hoping to prove the presence of demonic spirits and obtain permission for an exorcism to be performed, the Warrens set up surveillance in the Perrons' home and begin camping out to confront the demons, or at the very least prove their presence.  What unfolds over the next few nights defies all explanation, even for the season veterans in Ed and Lorraine, as the notions of spatial presence are completely deconstructed when the demon moves not only through the house but seemingly transferring itself long distances without any explanation.  Realizing the impending harm that could come from continued demonic infiltration, Ed eventually takes matters into his own hands and performs the exorcism himself, despite not being a man of the cloth proper.  The results while favorable for all involved, seem to suggests a temporary fix as the demons linger, awaiting to infiltrate another susceptible being at a moments notice.

This film does so many things right and I really understand the praise it is receive for such choices, I myself am completely on board with its praise visually.  The choice to use digital to add the layer of fabricated blackness to the films really made me lean forward, or more often backwards, wondering what was just beyond the veneer of absolute darkness, only to be shown not a creature jumping out but one that is present through a jump cut or something of a non-tradtional reveal.  In fact, one could almost say by lingering on the darkness and at times not ending in a jump scare, the film forces viewers to will the demonic presence into the work.  Indeed, it is in this stylistic choice that The Conjuring is most similar to its clear inspiration The Exorcist.  A film that has ghastly images infiltrate the screen, or superimpose themselves into unlikely situations, The Conjuring, at times does the same, cutting to white noise or revealing a sheet thats composition is quite similar to that of a dangling corpse not as a means to blatantly scare viewers, but to subtly reinforce the constant presence of the non-human entity something almost ordained by the film itself, more so than the diagetic world.  This decided fabrication is doubled through the degree of metacinema that runs throughout.  I would argue that there are at least three layers going on within the film, the first being the documentary-like establishment of the Warren's, the second being the narrative proper focusing on the Perron family haunting and the third being the filming of the paranormal activity occurring in the house.  Indeed then, a fourth possible layer exists wherein the film viewed is its own presence, again like The Exorcist willing its presence into the narrative at times, in moments of POV shots and bizarre angles.  All of this is absolutely astounding and visually challenging and would be flawless if it had a narrative to match, but what I can only assume to be a result of studio executives concerns, leads to a cookie cutter narrative whose strings are seen throughout, whether it be a vague (on at least one occasion glaringly direct) suggestion of Lorraine's previous loss of a child or the forced relationship between a white cop and an Asian paranormal investigator it seems sickeningly forced, much like moments of acting.  I guess this is to be expected in boundary pushing genre films though.  I am sure if I were to revisit the major game changers in horror, I would find similar occurrences.  Nonetheless, this is a solid work and understandably worth checking out.

Key Scene:  There is a scene where a demonic attack occurs in a house that is not that of the Perron's.  It is the most intense moment in the film and clearly owes its existence to The Exorcist, however, it adds a freshness to it that has been long needed in the genre.

Go to a movie theater and see this, while I was initially hesitant about adoring it, just writing this blog made me affirm my adoration of it fully.


Deprived Of Lessons, I Decided To Run Away: Fantastic Planet (1973)

Some amazing films I come to the way of multiple suggestions from prolific and reliable sources, whether they be dear friends or noted critics.  Other wonderful experiences with films come from picking up a previously unknown film as part of a package or at a flea market both that probably lifted their merchandise from questionable sources to begin with.  I am fond of the results that come from both of these avenues of discover, however, there is a third set of discoveries that seem to be my personal favorite, those being the movies that I unearth during occasional bouts of insomnia or a general inability to sleep.  Usually hoping to find something with an ambiance or simplicity that will lull me into drowsiness and eventually sleep, I end up finding works whose surreal leanings and captivating narratives challenge my pseudo sleep state to its very core.  In the past movies of this vein have included the surprisingly poignant look at mental illness and online gaming through Ben-X, or jarringly, yet critically realized experimental films like Damned If You Don't.  Last night I found myself facing the rare moment of lethargic awareness and was hesitant to commit to anything lengthy and decided that the cult classic French animated film Fantastic Planet would serve as my point of viewing, because I assumed that it would be easily paused should my weariness overcome me, however, I realized almost seconds into the film, with a shrill opening and freaky aesthetic, that Rene Laloux's animated statement on the nature of human existence, would be stealing the next hour of my possible sleep and I was completely fine with that outcome.  Fantastic Planet, is as its name suggests very fantastical.  In the animation style made known by Terry Gilliam and famous by The Beatles Yellow Submarine, Fantastic Planet takes on a bizarre quality, full of humanoid figures whose blank stares and robotic movements both captivating and disconcerting.  The visuals alone could have been enough for me to completely embrace this work, but the fact that it makes very focused and astute statements about the existential being only add to its importance.  Honestly, I am surprised that I did not find myself completely haunted by nightmares when the film finally, and abruptly ended, its exhaustive nature proving the perfect dose to my quest for rest that happened immediately.

Forbidden Planet begins with the frantic fleeing of an unnamed woman who darts back and forth with her child in hand as objects inexplicably fall from the sky blocking her path of escape, suddenly and very intensely blue fingers and hands begin flying towards her, eventually grabbing her and lifting her into the air and immediately dropping her.  The pressure of the fall causing the woman to die as her young child looks on in a state of confusion.  The blue beings are known as Traags and tower over the small humanoid creature that they refer to as Oms, and aside from existing in a tribe-like state, the Oms are primarily seen as playthings for the Traag children, who are not yet capable of existing in a state of constant meditation like the adults.  One young Traag named Tiva decides to save the small child of the recently deceased woman Om, naming him Terr and teaching him the ways and world of the Traags.  Terr, realizing the wealth of knowledge in front of him, laps up everything that Tiva has to teach, in the process becoming a sentient creature aware of the relationship he possesses as a creature in relation to the Traags.  This leads to Terr fleeing in fear of his ultimate demise, bringing along with him a device used by the Traags in the hope that he can share the knowledge with other Om tribes living on the outskirts of the Traag fortress.  Now possessing the information most dear to the Traags the Oms mount a revolt, led by Terr that results in the first death of a Traag at the hands of Oms.  The Traags baffled by such a possible occurrence, up their "extermination" of the Oms in a stroke of genocide by poison gas.  Terr and a handful of other Oms escape the ordeal.  Eventually, with his expansive knowledge of Traag culture, Terr is able to take control of one of their devices, a laser that interferes in the Traags copulation thus breaking their hereditary line.  The Traags are forced then to acknowledge the presence of the Oms as something far more than playthings, but as a group equal to them in power and resilience, despite their relatively diminutive stature.  The film ends with a suggestion that the feuding between both groups has ended and that a peaceful coexistence has emerged between the Traags and Oms, one that is assumedly to last forever.

Fantastic Planet is one of those films whose true meaning, like its animation style is something familiar and identifiable, yet terribly intangible and clearly a simulacra of what a viewer would assume to be reality.  Leave it to a French animator to create such a film.  However, in its seemingly impossible nature, one can grasp multiple possibilities, ranging from realized statements on colonization and French guilt, to far reach introspective considerations on metaphysical identity as it relates to an insurmountable and endless universe.  I realize that to attack this film from any direction is to ultimately rely on reading specific moments or interactions and to invariably ignore others, but it is truly rare for a piece of film theory or criticism to appropriate every single frame and interaction into the larger theory.  As such, I want to touch upon the highly existential nature of this work, one that posits a world so left up to contingency, chance and an impossible control over things as to suggest that they are part of a game in which the Oms, an appropriate allusion to Hommes, the French term for humans.  I have talked about game theory in the past on the blog as it relates to a work like The Cooler, wherein the casino setting doubles as a metaphor for a person being subject to contingency and chance, even in the most seemingly assured of situations.  In Fantastic Planet this notion that a human is subjected to some game played by an unseen force, is placed in the metaphorical hands of the Traags who literally use Oms as their playthings.  Of course, the question then becomes what meaning arises from Terr's discovery of the cogs at work.  This is either a moment where he submits to the existential understanding that all is meaningless, aside from what he deems his own, in his case a quest for knowledge.  Another possibility is that the film is intended to depict a push toward enlightenment after being stuck in an existential malaise, in this the dreary and haunting presence of the Traags double as that constant woe resulting from meaninglessness.  Indeed, it is probably appropriate to read the work as a work about achieving enlightenment, at least in this case it makes the quite out of nowhere ending highly positive.

Key Scene:  People who have read many of my blog posts know I am a sucker for openings that immediately establish the mood and precedent for a film.  Fantastic Planet very much has such an opening and I promise you it will yank you into its world quickly.

Relatively cheap DVD's are available for this film, but since I intend to go region free with my bluray player in the upcoming months, I intend to get the French bluray that is available.  Should you be in that market, I would suggest doing the same.


2013 Summer Reading Classic Film Book Challenge (Book 2) British Cinema and the Cold War: The State, Propaganda and Consensus

I recall earlier on in my academic career giving a presentation on the image of Latin America in Hollywood from the forties through the seventies, which meant that I had to discuss the effect of Cold War ideology on a particular set of films released from the fifties through the sixties.  After I had completed my presentation a former professor of mine asked my thoughts on what "caused the Cold War" to which I do not recall my exact response, but I am certain it was something along the lines of suggesting that is impossible to pinpoint all the complexities of what started and to another degree what ended the war of ideals.  I figured that by entrenching myself behind the purely filmic I would never have to deal with such analysis, or could at least pass it off with vague indifference.  I used to think that, but then I read Tony Shaw's magnificent study of British cinema during the era titled British Cinema and the Cold War: The State, Propaganda and Consensus.  Where many historians will occasionally throw a piece of culture or two into their political breakdowns as a means to show that they are not stuffy intellectuals, Shaw does not bend under the pressures of historical exactitude and manages to draw out the necessary information about British involvement between East and West opposition.  Furthermore, when doing histories of cinema, it is often the case that the film historian working on the piece will make sweeping brush strokes about rather detailed historical moments, hoping that by doing so the reader will glean only enough to make their argument worthwhile.  Shaw does neither, he works with intimate care to assure that both the history and the cultural product receive an equal degree of mention, making sure to acknowledge the moments when an event led to a cultural product, just as he notes moments when a film, or a series of films lead to a political movement or were used in a propagandistic manner to affirm or discredit a cause.  I can say with absolute certainty that there is not a better text written about Cold War culture available and would even argue that Shaw's text stands to be one of the best works on history of film in general, holding such importance as Haskell's From Reverence to Rape or pretty much any text released by the late Roger Ebert.  Simply put, there are few texts with such cohesion as Shaw's, and it only helps that he choses absolutely enthralling films to discuss.

The Cold War and cinema does, admittedly, seem like a highly specialized topic and one that would be relevant to only those doing research.  Indeed, I came to it by the way of looking for information about masculinity in the era and while Shaw's book does not provide much in the way of that topic, it did prove quite informative in my understanding of studio systems, production and the process of British filmmaking that will invariably help me undertake at least two different imminent projects.  As noted earlier, this serves a hybrid text that intersects two areas of academia flawlessly allowing for unison to form.  When this is unsuccessful the result can be unflattering, as is the case with Jeremy Black's incredibly well-researched buy dry and unreadable The Politics of James Bond.  I would go so far as to suggest that Shaw's book is the ideal place to start if a person were interested in looking at the way in which politics influence film, regardless of era or locale.  Similarly, Shaw handles the equally complex topic of propaganda with such grace and poise that were it not for the seminal text by Edward Bernays I would say that this would be the place to begin such a quest for understanding.  Fortunately, even with his ability to attract the most general of readership, Shaw's text provides moments of insight and hidden gems for the more seasoned reader, tackling more experimental and non-mainstream texts alongside the important franchise works of the time, given brief but necessary credit to both the Carry On series, as well as James Bond.  Furthermore, in his understanding of the global nature of Cold War cinema, Shaw occasionally taps into the wealth of American films made during the time to draw upon ones that would extend metaphorically to Britain as well.  His reading of Dr. Strangelove is spot on and refreshing in comparison to its usual entrenchment within the psychoanalytic.  For those who have a preconceived notion of British cinema existing in a stuffy vaccuum of period piece melodramas and quip heavy comedies should take a glance at British Cinema and the Cold War, it will cause you not only to reconsider an entire nationhood's film history, but it will inspire you to branch your research beyond just the cinematic texts.

Best film discovery of the book:  While it is technically a rediscovery, because I know I watched it at least once as a kid, Shaw's discussion of the 1954 animated version of Animal Farm speaks to it as being one of the highlights of Cold War cinema, despite its seemingly specified audience.  A bit baffled by its inclusion, I decided to catch up with it only to realize that it is a creepy and thematically dark text that does wonders to metaphorically comment upon the Cold War, as well as existing as a solid adaptation.  You can find relatively cheap copies of the text readily available on Amazon, for which the cool cover helps.


Fortune Favors The Brave, Dude: Pacific Rim (2013)

If this proves to be the only summer blockbuster I upon its release in 2013 I will be more than content, because to be honest it is the perfect escapist big budget film, one that is greatly aided by its 3D option, not to mention including fully realized and expertly executed CGI, something that would seem second nature at this point in movie technology, but is sadly often lacking.  I could have gotten behind this film were it solely a movie about big ass robots fighting equally large sea monsters, because I am a burgeoning kaiju-fanatic who will consume pretty much any piece of media that involves large monsters both within its traditional Japanese framework, as well as outside of this into the more "non-traditional" types of kaiju.  Hell, the fact that Guillermo Del Toro directed this movie only added an extra layer of enjoyability, one that is at times completely noticeable (so many nosebleeds in this movie) while at other times the directors hand seems decidedly absent.  I want to be quite careful, however, in separating this film from what I would decidedly call cinema, because even with its ties to the cinematic tradition of kaiju and a director who has certainly made works deserved of the moniker, Pacific Rim is a summer movie, one that does not take itself too seriously nor should it, because it exists primarily to rake in the money of moviegoers hoping to escape the sweltering heat in exchange for gratuitous amounts of damage.  The acting in this movie is exceptionally awful, and I recently caught up with Sharknado, and there are moments of dialogue so on-the-nose that it is almost cringeworthy.  Indeed were it not for the saving presence of Clifton Collins, Jr., Charlie Day and Ron Perlman I would be inclined to write the cast off completely.  Furthermore, despite being a movie that clocks in well past two hours, Pacific Rim avoids delving too deeply into some of the more philosophical and societal issues in which its entire narrative rests, again indicative not of it being a bad movie, but one whose primary focus is to entertain, admittedly, however, my hyper-analytical mind desperately hoped for more to pull from for not only my critical analysis as it relates to this blog post, but for prospective academic papers in the future.  Ultimately, Pacific Rim stands in a homage to all that is kaiju, a genre Del Toro, undoubtedly, adores, and takes very seriously.  It will not go down as a great film, but over the years, I would not be surprised to see it gain second wind as a piece of underrated science fiction.

Pacific Rim is set in the near future, a time when the world is under the constant attack of a group of sea monsters known as kaiju, whose namesake literally means giant beast.  While the global community initially attempted to fight the incessant attacks of the beast with traditional military power, their continual attacks lead to the jaegar (the German word for hunter) initiative, involving the building of large mechanized humanoid machines co-piloted by two or more individuals.  A particularly adept piloting duo being Raleigh (Charlie Hunnam) and Yancey Becket (Diego Klattenhoff) set out to continue their reign as the world's most respected jaegar pilots.  Tragedy strikes, however, when during a fight with a particularly brutal kaiju, Yancey is ripped from the cockpit and killed, leading to a traumatic experience on the part of Raleigh, who has not only lost his brother, but is mentally scarred considering that in order to successfully co-pilot the persons involved must engage in what is known as drifting, or sharing memories to create a symbiotic fusion.  Needless to say this loss drives Raleigh into retirement for years, during which the scale and frequency of kaiju attacks increase until it becomes quite obvious that the global community will eventually fall under the pressure.  Years later, Raleigh finds himself employed as a construction worker building a wall of hope in Alaska one that the world's political leaders believe will keep the monsters at bay, a foolish notion that is quickly dismissed when a monster breaks through the wall of Sydney in a matter of an hour.  Desperate to end the problem Jaeger leader and former pilot Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba) reenlists Raleigh into the program, knowing that his unmatched skills are necessary as the kaiju attacks continue to strengthen.  Initially hesitant to join the cause, Raleigh, nonetheless, agrees to helping knowing that he would rather die inside a jaeger than on the scaffolding of a futile wall.  It is at this point that Raleigh is introduced to the last vestiges of the global jaeger program, including only four functioning robots, one from China, one from Russia, another from Great Britain and his own former machine Gipsy Danger.  Of course, training must commence for a new co-pilot for Raleigh, which is found in a Chinese woman named Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi).  All the while two scientists Newton Geizler (Charlie Day) and Gottlieb (Burn Gorman) attempt to discover the larger reasons for the kaiju attacks.  The discovery so large and unprecedented as to seem impossible, ultimately, taking every last effort and possible body/jaeger scrap to take down the attacks.

Pacific Rim is about the big ideas of a cause, focusing on the actions that will have the greatest effect for the largest amount of people, indicated in the opening moments of the film when while on assignment Gipsy Danger is told to ignore the presence of a small boating ship of ten people, because their main concern is preventing large scale damage by an impending kaiju attack.  Yet, favoring the safety of even a singular person, Raleigh and Yancey save the vessel, thus leading to Yancey's demise. This sacrifice for the lesser in the name of doing what is right comes to serve as the metaphor for the film as a whole, the problem being that while Del Toro is clearly trying to play upon this idea it usually gets lost in the battle sequences and cinematic layers of the film, or when called upon seems so highly-stylized as to be part of the idea of the gradiose as opposed to the small.  This is most obvious in the super over-the-top moment when the fight between a jaeger and kaiju leads to zooming in on a Newton's Cradle to show it being slightly affected by the attack.  The moment is assumedly intended to carry the metaphor of the "butterfly affect" theory suggesting that even the slightest of movements play into a larger outcome and to alter them in the slightest could change the course of time.  Pairing this with the act of drifting is rather intriguing, because the result is a shared mental bond between two persons, one that leads to their complete understanding of even the most internal and oppressed of thoughts.  Again the film could deal with these implications in rather intriguing and engaging ways, but, particularly with the father son relationship of one jaeger, or the burgeoning relationship between Raleigh and Mako.  Hell, there is even the possibility of a unison between the humans and the extra-terrestrial/subterranean kaiju monsters.  The problem is that the concern for the spectacle gets in the way of the metaphysical considerations of the film, because while the fight sequences are tight, well-edited and highly engaging, the drifting sequences might well be the most cinematic moments in the film, even when they exist in moments of complete CGI fabrication.  I feel as though the initial film asked a lot more questions, which were quickly muffled by studio execs whose only concern was audience response.  The film also deals with some fascinating masculinity issues, perhaps on accident, but it is something I hope to cover in the future via an academic piece.

Key Scene:  There is a moment when Geizler and a kaiju come face-to-face that could on its own justify the entire existence of 3D films.

This will likely be the peak of summer blockbusters and I would strongly encourage you to seek it out, because I am quite certain its awe will fail to transfer to the home entertainment setting.


Time Heals Everything -- Except Wounds: Sans Soleil (1983)

There are only a handful of films that one could argue certifiably changed the language, idea or very nature of film both in its cultural and theoretical context.  The obvious examples rarely receive anything but glowing praise and are, as I have noted on many occasions, works like Breathless, Citizen Kane and 2001: A Space Odyssey.  In other instances, it is far more likely to be works that are so very deconstructionist or philosophical as to be more artistic manifesto than necessarily a piece of film, some would indeed label these entirely as works of art, often removing their filmic element in some bizarre act of shaming, think of the discussions that center around works like Un Chien Andalou or Dog Star Man...the canine connection being something I only now noticed.  What is even less prevalent is the work that manages to navigate between these two stratospheres, as though to be perfectly pulled by both sides in a gravitational free floating  space, where everything is predicated on the understanding that the perfect serenity evoked by its presence, could just as easily shatter into the chaotic with the faintest of alterations.  I can only think of three works to which this applies, the first being Maya Deren's Meshes of the Afternoon, and the other two being by jack-of-all artistic trades Chris Marker.  La Jetee is a film I have frequently viewed and could catch myself waxing poetic about at a moments notice, whereas the other is his lesser known, but profoundly more prolific Sans Soleil.  From the onset of this visionary movie, viewers are informed about it being a quest for the idea of memory in every sensorial possibility, but Marker does not simply allow words to speak to his curiosity, but, necessarily, demands that the work have a visual element as well, one that always relates to the subject matter being discussed, even if the images are purposefully a point of juxtaposition, or exact simulacra of the memory being recollected.  Marker is, of course, no fool and realizes that even a filmic notion of memory has a fleeting temporality and extends his film into the otherworldly, often blowing the images into contrast or freezing the frame to suggest that like personal reflection all is up for fabrication, or mechanical failure, yet, as the opening shot of the film suggest, perhaps there is something as real, or dare I say reel, as the perfect moment of beauty.

Sans Soleil could be called a documentary of sorts, in that it is very much in the vein of a travelogue focusing on the writings of a man named Sandor Krasna about his travels between Japan and Africa.  The letters are then read by a female narrator, voiced by Alexandra Stewart in the English version, as they are overlaid upon this experiences between the two spaces specifically, whether it be the recollection of talking with an elderly Japanese couple as they say a prayer for their lost cat at a local shrine, or with a group of rebels in Africa as they reflect upon a past ousted rebel fighter turned leader.  Yet, even as the film clearly sets up the space of the narrative between the experiences in both rural and urban Japan, as well as multiple locations within Africa, it is not the only point of reference heavily considered.  In fact, images are shown from multiple Scandinavian countries, as well as an extended scene in San Francisco as Krasna speaks of his fondness for Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo, which he argues shares similarities with what he hopes these images will express as well as a fourth wall tip-of-the-hat to this previous work in La Jetee, where he denotes the similarities to it and Vertigo involving a sequoia tree and location in space and time.  These images all intersect together, rarely taking anything remotely close to a cohesive linear narrative, but even with that considered, Krasna's letters begin to focus on found images he has encountered during his travels, making for particularly interesting moments when the screen is filled with meta-cinematic images, including slides from Japanese horror films, as well as colonial era newsreel footage.  Yet even this is extended to its most logical plausibilities when Krasna makes deep considerations about the nature of video game imagery and video alteration, or the creation of what he refers to, in an open homage to Tarkovsky as "the zone."  In a quest that takes the disembodied narrator through multiple spaces it is, ultimately, suggested that he/she cannot say for certain the tangibility of all memories shown, but seems to suggest that when all collide together in perfect harmony a person can capture a moment of perfected transcendence in 1/24th of a frame, and to do so is to possess all understanding of past, present and future.

Tangibility and ephemerality are central to the idea of Sans Soleil, much as they are to all discussions of the metaphysical and in many senses Marker seems to argue that at once both are achievable, while it is also quite possible that neither can ever coexist.  Nonetheless, he endeavors to find out the answer, by employing a reconsideration of montage, taking the rapid juxtaposition of the Soviet style and playing into the serenity and paced American style, the resulting often breaking into, as noted earlier, moments of cinematic distress, whether it be contrasting or freeze frames.  To the untrained eye, and even to many season cinephiles, this might seem like bad filmmaking, but Marker, who proved with La Jetee that an image need not necessarily move to prove poignant, nor must it exist within the positive to prove captivating or within the same cinematic space, other examples of this occurring in film, include Godard's use of the negative image in Alphaville, or the freeze frame that iconically closes Truffaut's The 400 Blows.  These moments, like all of Sans Soleil consider temporality as something that only cinema could hope to discuss, but not entirely make certain.  The other element to Marker's vision involves the elements of imagery that require completely emotional responses, indeed as Krasna argues in one narration movie images have power to make visceral responses, just as Japanese horror films, to Krasna, evoke the sense of seeing a "corpse."  The images can be serene as is the case with Icelandic children walking in a field, or absolutely sickening as when the camera rests unapologetically an the gunning down of a giraffe by a hunter, which is immediately followed by its being taken out of its misery by a shot to the head.  Even in this quest for emotive highs, Marker seems to suggest that these feelings can switch instantly, the absolute point of joy can only be followed by an immediate moment that leads back to despair, but it is worth considering that the opposite remains true.  Yet, the question still remains as to whether or not an absolute memory of despair or joy can, ultimately, exist beyond its initial encounter.  Marker seems to say yes in the closing moments of the film, but to encounter it necessarily requires the viewer to step outside of not only their understanding of experience, but a reconsideration of how one is physically affected, or to borrow a term from the film "wounded" by memory.

Key Scene:  Um....it is one sweeping scene, every bit of it is perfect.

Criterion has a bluray, I am upgrading within the next few weeks.  You are more than welcome to buy my DVD copy when I post it on Amazon.


Hark! Jungle Sounds: Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? (1966)

I have seen a lot of films that could be describe as brutal, whether it be the commentary on fascist oppression through sexual violence in Passolini's Salo, or the biting commentary on middle American economic entrapment through the humping of trash, in Harmony Korine's eponymous Trash Humpers.  Yet, never would I have imagined that one of my most viscerally challenging and jarringly brutal cinematic experiences would ever come in the way of a film starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.  However, I can say with high degrees of certainty that Who's Afraid of Viriginia Woolf? is by far one of the most challenging, troubling and unsettling works of fiction ever realized.  That, of course, is not to say that I did not absolutely enjoy the film, but going into it somewhat blindly, I was not prepared for it to be so dark and liable to erupt in its own heated passion at a moments notice.  Indeed I had come to understand that the film was a classic, what I had not come to learn prior to viewing was just how much of an indictment it was to a certain class of American's in Sixties America, both young and old alike.  As the movie unfolded in front of me I had to do a bit of research to see why it was striking me in such a way, only to discover that it was directed by none other than Mike Nichol's whose well-regarded The Graduate is one of my favorite films, and knowing that I began drawing some through lines between moments within that work, as well as this one, not to mention other films by Nichols, his adaptation of Catch-22 coming to mind specifically.  What is perhaps the most amazing element of this film though is that it was critically, and to a degree, culturally well-received.  Usually movies with such an unsettling aesthetic fall the way of the films mentioned earlier, in that they end up only being appreciated by a handful of the artistically inclined or those in favor of politically and socially engaged counter-cinema.  Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? manages not only to exist as both of these things, but also proves to be a brilliantly acted, perfectly shot and might well break into discussions of the greatest film adaptations to date.  Despite clearly being a product of 1966, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is, undoubtedly, one of the most prolific pieces of cinema in the American consciousness.

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? centers on the life inside a small New England college, particularly focusing on the relationship between aged history professor George (Richard Burton) and his wife Martha (Elizabeth Taylor), who just happens to be the daughter of the college's president.  To describe the relationship between George and Martha as tense would be a decided understatement, particularly considering that both not only leap at one another's throats at the slightest hint of verbal dismissiveness, but once they have engaged in an argument stop at nothing to defile their individual self-respect.  Despite clearly being aware of their tense relationship, Martha, nonetheless, invites one of the new biology professors Nick (George Segal) and his wife Honey (Sandy Dennis) over for a nightcap at their house.  Upon arriving to the house Nick and Honey immediately discover the old couple in a heated argument, wherein they attempt to extract themselves, only to be coyly welcomed by George and Martha, who begin shoveling booze down the couples throat.  George and Martha in their particularly vindictive natures begin pulling and prodding at the couple using them as veritable chess pieces in their larger argument, one that appears to stem from a unseen son, who viewers, as well as Honey and Nick are led to believe exists somewhere in the world.  Furthermore, the young couple represent to George and Martha extensions of their own unsuccessful lives, Nick being the up-and-coming young professor whose desire to do well by his name will invariably lead to his being stuck in a dead end position at a college that refuses to value his presence.  To Martha, Honey represents her own latching to the idea of a career that is not her own, which takes on an added layer of frustration when she cannot fulfill a maternal desire to bare a child.  Thing throughout the late hours of the night always threaten to breach into violence, particularly when George and Nick begin to text one another's masculinity, yet after the group takes an unnecessary trip to a roadside bar things blow out of proportion, when upon their drunken return home, Martha and Nick attempt to engage in intercourse, only to have Nick fail due to his drunkenness.  This leads George into a level of fury that drives him to call to attention not only all of Nick's failures and his terrible future prospects, but the illusions that Martha has been living as well, all swirling back together regarding a traumatic story which George had shared earlier in the film.

While many a possibilities could emerge from critically reading a work like Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, it is worth seriously considering what makes it such a visceral and challenging movie going experience by breaking down exactly what choices Nichols makes as a director that allow for his film to be successful.  Considering that I am looking at it filmically, the dialogue, while a key factor in the nature of this film, is to be credited to the play's author Edward Albee, therefore, it will receive less acknowledgement.  Instead, one must begin by noting the way Nichol's situates the film in a seeming melodramatic setting, with an opening shot of a couple walking home while the idyllic swell of violins plays in the background.  Hearing and seeing this would lead one to assume that they are in for a romance of sorts, with its fair share of tragic moments, instead, one could argue you receive the exact opposite in the film, wherein the possibility, let alone plausibility, of a romantic bond between Martha and George is not posited until the absolute last shot of the film.  Another layer of the visceral nature of the film comes in the decided use of evasive close-ups and extreme angles, paired with intense lighting to make the characters seem far less ethereal and grand than they would in a more traditional melodrama.  Indeed, even the choice of black and white cinematography allows for icons like Burton and Taylor to become grotesque and void of any endearing or likable qualities.  Yet, what seems to be the most telling sign for the alienating qualities of this film come in its seemingly detached sense of time and space.  While Albee's play is set entirely within the confines of a house, Nichol's moves the action outside of the house and even into another building entirely, yet all of this seems to take place within a single moment, never really moving into the daybreak that is always threatening to end the maniacal performance put on by Martha and George.  It is as though they are navigating a feverish nightmare on par with Eraserhead, yet the hope to wake up seems far worse than the disconcerting reality.  Indeed, it is not until the inexplicable emergence of the sun in the closing moments of the film that any respite is afforded, but viewers feel, as the narrative clearly suggests, this is far from an end to the couple's larger angst and suffering.

Key Scene:  Umbrellas and guns.

As it stands there is not bluray for this film, I would suggest patiently holding out until this is not the case.  It is certainly worth seeing in the highest quality possible.


2013 Summer Reading Classic Film Book Challenge (Book 1) Shadows of Doubt: Negotiations of Masculinity in American Genre Films

When an author sets out to compose a text that concerns itself with as complex of themes as how gender is performed within cinema, particularly genre films no less, which come with their own set of contested definitions, a reader might be hesitant to follow the complex threads argued by the author.  However, Barry Keith Grant's Shadows of Doubt: Negotiations of Masculinity in American Genre Films is an exception to such a rule.  While, at times it reads much more like a genre revisionist piece than a critique of how masculinity has evolved, altered and deconstructed itself within American film, Grant infuses the piece with such realized close readings of both prolific films and lesser known classics that both the casual reader and the die-hard film theorist can find points of intrigue.  While the text does expand beyond the seventies briefly, more as a point of conclusion than study, Shadows of Doubt takes into consideration the elements of masculinity at play both in front of and behind the camera, discussing everything from D.W. Griffith's important work Broken Blossoms, to a gendered analysis of Stanley Kubrick's enigmatic ending in 2001: A Space Odyssey.  At no point during his varied analysis does Grant become self-agrandizing in his argument, although he is not above dismissing what he feels to be ill-conceived analysis, taking a particular stance in his defense of horror as not only a genre of films worth critical discussion, but, perhaps, the ideal point of criticism both in their mass appeal to moviegoers and in their inherent counter-cinema nature.  In particular, Grant tackles George A. Romero's early zombie classic Night of the Living Dead, a film I have written about critically in the past, and, where I thought I had pulled and prodded at all its gendered commentaries, Grant manages to strip away the layers of gory cult status, to truly paint a picture of not only a film genre (and arguably larger industry) on its last breaths of classic life, but a society crumbling under its own foolish clutching to antiquated ideals of culture.

The text is highly valuable to film theory, because while it does entrench itself within American film entirely, some of the themes are somewhat universal, affording the same argument to be applied to Red River (for which Grant's write-up is a revelation) that could be extended to something like Kurosawa's Seven Samurai, with a minor altering of archetypes here and there.  Indeed, masculinity in film has been discussed ad nauseum since film theory moved away from a purely structuralist frame of referecne, however, it has not been delivered with such poise and diligence has it occurs here in Shadows of Doubt.  In fact, Grant is keen enough to avoid the trap that befalls many film theorist, myself included, where once you make the decision to include particular work in your narrative, you convince yourself of it being a masterpiece, as to justify its continual acknowledgement.  Grant is above such frivolous approachs, instead, when he is aware that the film proves only a cultural or critical value he mentions its less than stellar cinematic value, this is evident in his extended discussion of The Delicate Delinquents, for which, he seems to only enjoy on a moderate cinematic level, but, nonetheless, deconstructs for its seminal place in the discussion of an evolving masculinity in the work of American genre filmmaking.  Another benefit of Grant's work is that while he is considerably critical of misguided opinions about work, he does seem willing to the keep the dialogue open, neither claiming the final say in a matter, nor a single answer to any one cinematic masculine presence, indeed I found myself wonder, what his thought were on some of the more complex male figures in the history of American film, such as Robert Mitchum's maniacal priest in The Night of the Hunter or the tense, yet relatively humorous engagements of The Rat Pack.  At times, Grant purposefully chooses lesser known, or critically dismissed movies as a point of reference to their gender dynamics, in some cases, arguing that their unique portrayal of new versions of masculinity, in some ways led to their timely demise (refer to his magnficent analysis of Elvis, rock'n'roll and a reconsideration of the musical for the best example).  Ultimately, Grant lays a groundwork for the hybrid discussion of genre and gender, one that has, as mentioned before, existed in varying degrees prior, but never with this much tenacity and possibility.

Best film discovery of the book:  Being a huge fan of counter-cinema, Grant's entire chapter devoted to Shirley Clarke's The Cool World opened my eyes up to a film that I was unaware of prior, and one made by an African-American woman no less.  It is a stellar work in cinema verite and a clear through line to the hip works of Jarmusch and Tarantino, which is yet another reason to check out Shadows of Doubt, available here.


Informers Inform, Burglars Burgle, Murderers Murder, Lovers Love: Breathless (1960)

I am once again in the throes of a blogathon, this time hosted by the excellent blogs Once upon a screen... and Classic Movie Hub Blog.  The topic: "Dynamic Duos in Classic Film."  I was a bit late to the sign-up for this blogathon, so missed the chance to jump on some of the real classic duos, both in terms of romance and comedy, which is fine, because I have read the work of many of the bloggers involved and I am certain that they will more than do justice to the topics.  As such, I decided a bit of creativity could not hurt in the endeavor and I began to think of a dynamic duo within the context of classic film, pre-1970, that managed to hearken back to an earlier period, while still remaining within the confines of "classic."  I realize that this may have seemed like an absurd endeavor, but considering that the collective of the sixties were a watershed moment in history, it by extension assumes that the same rings true for movies as well.  With that in mind, I realized that I had the perfect offering for this blogathon with what may well be the most important work to come out of the 1960's in Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless.  The now well-established classic was by many accounts, the premier film in the French New Wave movement and invariably changed the language one uses to describe cinema.  This masterwork in European filmmaking, is a rare treasure that offers many varied and legitimate critical levels, while also proving and fresh and unique viewing experience.  Trust me, I have seen the film countless times and it only proves more engaging, the more my cinematic language and consumption matures.  In fact, the current Criterion bluray available only helps to add layers to the film's conceptual framework.  I say all this to set up how it is very much a work that exists within the important film's involving dynamic duos.  Part romantic comedy, part crime thriller there is, excluding Tarantino, perhaps not a more cinematically referential work than Godard's 1960 breakout hit and one of its many points of reference come in the duos of classic noir thrillers, wherein Godard borrows the dynamism of the genre and its gendered duos, using its tropes to push his hip, wild and fast-paced narrative, while also completely calling attention to the frailty of the structure of such an assumedly dynamic pairing.  If some of the other works mentioned during this blogathon embrace the lasting nature of the romantic dynamic duo, it is fair to say that Breathless makes viewers aware of both the performance involved in such duality, while also suggesting that at some point the differences in the duo will result in a collision of fatal proportions.

While the film is about a romantic coupling to a degree, it does begin focusing primarily on the film's "protagonist" Michel (Jean-Paul Belmondo) a part-time thief and full-time woman admirer, who is constantly on a quest to make money, while spouting his own frustrations and problems with the opposite sex.  Indeed, Michel makes it quite clear that women, in his eyes, are incapable of functioning on any legitimate societal level, taking particular disdain in their always being broke and their being terrible drivers, never mind that he himself is constantly without money and certainly is not the most sane or logical of automobile operators.  When an auto theft goes awry and Michel murders a cop to save his own life, he moves into a constant state of paranoia and flight from authorities, which seems to be fine, until he runs into Patricia (Jean Seberg) an American living in Paris while working as a correspondent/salesperson for the European branch of The New York Herald-Tribune.  While the narrative does not outright express it as fact, it is assumed that Patricia and Michel have had some intimate past together, indeed, Michel admits to returning to visit her, almost entirely on a desire to have sex.  Patricia who is initially dismissive of Michel due to his one-track mind and his flippant attitude towards her and most women, nonetheless, agrees to spend time with him, when he seeks shelter from the authorities in her apartment.  At this point the two spend an entire afternoon, evening and morning discussing the ethics of love, lust and humanity, while engaging in intercourse.  In the process, the two become more romantically entwined than before, admitting their deep affection for one another and while they would enjoy the possibility of staying in the moment, Patricia must return to work, while Michel must accrue the necessary funds to flee from his imminent arrest.  It is while Patricia is at work that French police approach her with information regarding Michel, threatening her livelihood and visa status should she not help their investigation.  At first, Patricia is committed to her affections for Michel and stays by his side, yet when it becomes clear that he is still occupied with his criminal life, Patricia breaks down and reports his location to the police, an act she clearly regrets immediately.  Irony arises when the two are driving and the police finally catch up with Michel, only moments after he obtains the money he as been seeking since the onset of the film.  Realizing the futility of the entire endeavor he flees down the street, only to be gunned down by officers.  Patricia distraught runs to Michel's aide and stares at him as he slowly fades into death.  Michel simply dismisses her and her foolishness, claiming that her betrayal makes him want to puke, although a language barrier causes Patricia, in the closing moments of the film, to wonder exactly what "puke" means.

It is precisely this closing moment of Patricia being "lost in translation" as it were, that speaks to the particular dynamism of the duo of Michel and Patricia.  Language being the first obvious difference between the two, lays out a duality of difference that is often challenged, ignored and undermined in the hopes that the two can create some degree of a lasting and meaningful romance together.  Many of the classic Hollywood comedic duos play upon this difference, while, ultimately, noting that the pair can overcome adversity and find a powerful force in love, and Breathless, certainly borrows from that tradition.  However, Godard has over the years been very expressive of the major influence the genre of film noir had on his works, particularly this and Alphaville.  In as much, Michel and Patricia are as much a hapless hero and femme fatale, as they are a romantic comedic pairing.  However, even this is revisionist to a heavy degree, because Michel, while misogynist and a criminal, does not exude the same hardboiled chiseled nature of his idol Humphrey Bogart, in fact, when his absurdly effeminate mugshot appears in the papers, one cannot help but laugh at how non-threatening he looks, despite having committed a murder earlier in the film.  He is not the traditional masculine figure of the genre, just as Patricia is not truly a femme fatale.  Sure it is her betrayal that causes his downfall, but there is not the sense of remorselessness that comes with a Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity.  The duo is not a pair of drifting individuals who come together for a fleeting moment, but instead to opposing forces, that find themselves so magnetically drawn to each other that their cohesion factors heavily into the film.  The hotel room scene, where they consummate their love for one another, lasts roughly thirty plus minutes, nearly constituting half of the film, which is deservedly so, because what happens prior is their movement at a high speed towards one another, while the post-apartment moments represent the aftermath of their collision, which has a very fatal result for Michel.  The ignorance of Patricia at the films closing could be read as demeaning to her character, but I think it simply speaks to a larger issue of duality in love, where ideologies never truly mesh and because of such inherent miscommunication one partner is always far less aware of the damage done to the other, so while it is literal in the film, it plays into a much larger metaphorical statement.  In the end, Godard is clearly claiming that love can arise between even the most unusual of duos, and while it can certainly burst through barriers of language, ideology and personal desire, doing so also runs the risk of one or both of the people involved being trampled in the process, or in the case of this film being shot in the streets of Paris.

Key Scene:  While it is quite an extended bit to consider a scene, I do thing the entirety of the dialogue and interactions occurring within the apartment, might be the single greatest moment in modern cinema.

Criterion Bluray.  Buy it...for your health.


There's A Rope Around My Neck Now And They Only Hang You Once: Little Caesar (1931)

If it were not for the western being probably the most identifiable in terms of recurring tropes, it would be easy to point to stylistic choices and narrative methodologies within films that one could define to be within the confines of the film noir genre.  Of course, there are some decidedly unique elements that arise almost entirely out of the genre, whether it be the femme fatale of the story, or the heavy use of shadows and other expressionist techniques to play upon the alienation and existential angst of the films less than ethical protagonists.  Yet, I am also aware that the label of "noir" can be attached to quite a few works that themselves, are not entirely of the genre, because as a friend of mine has stated, despite my constant attempts to explain to him the common tropes of noir, noir films are the one's where the guns always represent a penis.  Reductive I know, but rather poignant if I do say so myself.  Needless to say, while the film noir genre does owe its entirety to the hardboiled detective novel, it would not be the cinematic staple it has become in the film canon were it not for the decidedly engaging work of directors like Fritz Lang, who himself was making noir before the genre truly existed.  This is very much the case for director Mervyn LeRoy who directed Little Caesar along side six other films in 1931 alone.  While it is not entirely derivative of the genre, because the genre was not established, an individual with even a cursory understanding of the genre can easily pinpoint all of the tropes that would emerge within the genre, excluding one or two key elements that simply did not work within the crime thriller proper.  Indeed the moments of back alley chases and vague ethical frameworks, much like the shadows that have come to signify the noir film, creep into Little Caesar, consuming the ethical frameworks of the characters and the world they inhabit, and should anybody find themselves uncertain as to the genre making its name loudly in this film, I would only ask that you refer to every line of dialogue delivered and scowl directed by Edward G. Robinson.  In some ways, he is more the face of film noir than Humphrey Bogart could ever hope to be.

Little Caesar focuses on the movement from low-profile criminal to mob boss of one Rico (Edward G. Robinson) who would be referred to as Little Caesar, a name that gives much away in regards to plot.  Rico, a man who clearly expects to get his way, navigates the world with such a sense of guile and tenacity as to make a name for himself almost instantaneously.  Rico is very careful with who he trust in his life, placing almost all of his value in his mob pal Joe Massara (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.), yet when Joe leaves the racket to pursue his passion in dancing, what little restraint Rico had concerning his ethics are thrown out the window.  Indeed, before Joe can leave Rico demands that he help stick up the club at where he works as a last gesture of friendship and as a means for Rico to make a considerable power grab within his own gang.  With Joe out of the picture, the other members of Rico's gang begin to question his supremacy and even take plan a hit on him, an action that Joe catches wind of and attempts to inform Rico before it occurs, but fails to do so in time.  Despite the hit still occurring, the men hired to take out Rico are less than proficient at their job and only manage to graze Rico, a mistake that leads to his immediate quest for revenge.  Of course, Rico realizes that the world of gangsterdom does have a degree of rules and responsibilities, therefore, instead of outright destroying his attackers, he decides to afford them a chance to flee in the night with an understanding that they will never step foot in the streets of Chicago again.  However, just because Rico feels it in his heart to adhere to the laws of the underworld, does not mean the same for those around him and when Joe's girlfriend comes to discover the tricky situation her lover has been placed in, she jumps at the chance to tell the police.  Rico realizing that Joe is a danger to his survival invades his home, planning to shoot him and escape himself, yet when given the opportunity, his years of friendship block his murderous intent.  Rico, now on the run from the cops fails to escape in time, instead being gunned down in a dockside warehouse, perhaps the most film noir death imaginable.

So since, I am positing this as being one of the first film noir works it is probably necessary to draw upon the ways it works within the context of the genre and the ways it counters it as well.  Firstly, the film is highly critical of moral certainty, indeed, going so far as to depict Rico not as a man who exploits the weaker in the world, an act that would become prevalent in later film noir works, perhaps most infamously involving an old woman and some stairs in Kiss of Death.  Rico does kill and harm people, but it is worth considering that the people who he attacks exist within the same seedy criminal world as he, and to a degree have forfeited a world of moral goodness involving an agreement that nobody is murdered.  As such, viewers are forced to accept Rico as the protagonist despite being a less than morally sound person, although, as noted, his bad traits are tame compared to some of the later noir works.  This moral ambiguity extends rather perfectly into another trope that emerges within Little Caesar, which is the existentialist nature of Rico as a character.  Existentialism posits that the world has no meaning, aside from that which you attach to it, therefore you are responsible only for your actions and how you navigate the world.  Rico is a prime figure in his existential outlook, indeed he navigates the world with a notable consideration for his own safety and self-advancement, so much so that his understanding of relationships all predicate themselves upon his desires.  He understands that to move through the world with a concern for the meaning others apply to their lives would mean making him weaker and less proficient in his crime boss role.  It is then interesting to consider that his ultimate demise comes when he fails to act on his own meaning and listens to the begging of Joe, whose life Rico spares in a moment of emotional shift.  These tropes are the highlights of this pre-noir masterwork,  as mentioned, it does lack a considerable femme fatale role, as does it miss a lot of the expressionist flare and psychoanalytic moments of later noir works, yet it is very much the precursor to one of the wildest of genres in all of cinema history.

Key Scene:  The close-ups during Rico's failure to murder Joe are astounding, the expressions Robinson delivers are jarringly haunting.

I was unaware that this was part of a larger box set upon my viewing of this.  I intend to grab up a copy in the upcoming weeks, it should prove well worth the investment.


Everytime You Say Cheap And Vulgar I'm Going To Kiss You: Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933)

It is really hard to fathom and era where the Hays code did not exist, or has, subsequently, influenced what is allowed in mainstream film.  Sure a lot of contemporary films through caution to the wind and deliver base jokes and bawdy humor with little concern for structure or delivery, yet this has not always been the case and in the earlier decades of film, particularly in the musical and comedy genres pushing the barriers of the  moment before strict censorship, which led to punning and backdoor sexual innuendos that simply are too wise and informed to play well on contemporary audiences.  This is one of many things that manages to make Gold Diggers of 1933 a standout work of cinema, one that is entirely a product of the escapist cinema of The Great Depression, while also being revolutionary and ahead of its time.  While I have been on record as say that the success and watchability of most of these early thirties studio films is directly a result of Busby Berkeley's mesmerizing choreography and its sumptuously engaging cinematography, there is a rather watchable, albeit, simple story involved.  Performers like Ginger Rogers and Dick Powell are electrifying, delivering a presence on celluloid that would not be replicated until Gene Kelly and and Debbie Reynolds took flight in the equally moving Singin' In The Rain.  Again, what makes a work like Gold Diggers of 1933 stand out in comparison to its later variations on the genre is that these films are referencing, if not directly commenting on their predecessor.  Between the singing in pig latin to prove that the sound was indeed synched to the image and stories of wild dreams of Broadway success, everything that has made the musical one of the staples of American cinema owes its success to this film, as well as 42nd Street which was released the same year.  As I mentioned, Gold Diggers of 1933 in all its cinematic glory is rather indicative of the era, to some degree, because I have seen a lot of films, ones with decidedly dark endings, yet the manner with which this film executes itself results in that closing number being a stark contrast so lathered in a chiaroscuro madness as to result in being one of the darker closing sequences I have seen in film, standing right up there with Godzilla's death.

Gold Diggers of 1933 focuses on a group of aspiring Broadway performers, who happen to all be women, therefore, leading to their being colloquially known by society as a group of gold diggers.  The group is led by the young and optimistic Polly (Ruby Keeler) who seems content with any role as long as she can live out her passion.  Included in the mix is the comedically inclined Trixie (Aline MacMahon) and group's torch singer Carol (Joan Blondell), as well as the member by association Fay (Ginger Rogers) who is so fixated on her success that she has no qualms stepping on the toes of those around her.  The group is disheartened when they discover that their recent Broadway revue has been cancelled due to lack of funds, almost entirely a result of the depression.  The women, defeated, return to their New York flat, hungry and hoping they can shy away from having to pay rent for yet another month.  It is not until Polly overhears the harmonic singing and piano playing from a complex across the street, where she discovers a songwriter named Brad (Dick Powell).  His talent is blatant, and, indeed, quite infectious, so much so that the girls' manager Barney Hopkins (Ned Sparks) suggest that he serve as the sole songwriter for his upcoming revue.  Brad is, at first, reluctant, due to the possibility of being seen publicly, but eventually agrees to the proposition on the grounds that Polly be allowed the female lead.  Yet, the issue of money emerges, when Barney explains that he cannot fund the endeavor fully, at which point, Brad offers a considerable amount of money should there be no questions asked about how it was obtained.  Blind with the possibilities the group agrees, although Trixie is rather suspicious and believes Brad to be a robber who has been making the rounds through the United States.  During dress rehearsals Brad is continually critical of the male lead, at which point Barney suggest that he step in, but he is still hesitant for inexplicable reasons, but on opening night when the lead falls sick, Brad steps in to save the show and the financial stability of all involved.  What unwinds is a series of revelations concerning Brad's coming from wealth and the "disgrace" of him lowering himself to the world of musical theater.  Yet, through determination and a will to prove their value the girls and Brad trick his relatives into accepting their world by default, allowing for the show to succeed without any notable hitches.  Yet, realizing the realities of war and depression in America the film closes with the sobering "Remember My Forgotten Man" as if to suggest escapism is a foolish and unhealthy endeavor.

While it would be more than feasible to talk about the censorship and degrees of escapism that are involved within this film, I am more drawn to consider the communal relationship involved with the "gold diggers" who navigate the narrative space of the work.  I choose the word commune, because there is a decided embracing of their own otherness as a result of being feminine.  Indeed, when Brad's relatives suggest that both Trixie and Carol are nothing more than lowly gold diggers who are attempting to use their looks and feminine charm to grab up men, they certainly react critically, but also use it as a moment to appropriate the situation into something that will allow them to advance by exploiting the foolish and ignorant assumptions of two white men. This is best evidenced in the hat buying scene, wherein both Trixie and Carol exploit the fears of the men for the dastardly doings of such lower-class women, while also using their sexuality to attain items.  It is a communal action that results in their self-protection from the lechery of the men while also advancing their cause as career women.  It should be noted that much of what ties the women together, aside from their gender is their equal lack in regards to economic privilege, indeed they share a communal space because it is a necessity in the high-end pricey neighborhoods of New York City.  A layer of issues do emerge then when one considers Brad's entrance (invasion) of their communal space, while it might be assumed that he is doing so on a shared class oppression, the revelation that he is indeed quite wealthy betrays this notion considerably, although his acceptance of the women's struggles and his genuine admiration for the business and, more importantly, Polly, allow him some leeway to be a progressive character.  In this reading of the community of women that are the "gold diggers" one must necessarily consider Trixie as a unique stand alone character.  In fact, I would even go so far as to suggest her to be a lesbian character, one that desires the companionship of other women on a level far more than platonic.  Indeed, masking the lesbian character in the comedic is not something unusual in media, another famous example being Sally Rogers from The Dick Van Dyke show, whose defeatist quest for a man took on layers of implications.  Considering Trixie as a lesbian figure allows for a further explanation of her defensive attitude towards the women and their engagements to the outside world, especially when Polly expresses interest in Brad, as does it explain her detached attitude towards the advances of the elderly gentlemen caller she picks up later in the film.

Key Scene:  All of the Shadow Waltz sequence, water dolly shots and neon violins alike.

This is a marvelous film, I intend to nab the entire Berkeley box set, although it is available as a stand alone DVD.