Sunday, 31 January 2016

Douglas Trumbull and the Art of Special Effects

Among his many accomplishments, French critic and filmmaker Francois Truffaut was known for pioneering what would become known as the auteur theory; one that still stands today. He and his contemporaries, such as Andrew Sarris, were noticing that when a director's work is examined, patterns begin to emerge that characterize their films. To bring in the types of filmmakers they would have been looking at, there are characteristics that make it easy to distinguish a film directed by Howard Hawks from one directed by Alfred Hitchcock. The conclusion reached by Truffaut was that a director was the "author" of their film.
This is of course not a perfect theory, especially in its original context. Truffaut's original concept of auteur theory was very different from its modern incarnation. Among other things, he attempts to claim that only some directors (i.e. Alfred Hitchcock) are "auteurs" while others (John Huston) are not. Andrew Sarris later attempted to set up a series of criteria for what qualifies a given person to be considered an auteur, which claimed that a true auteur could not make a bad film and ignored the worst directors have a distinct style that characterizes their films. It is not an invalid theory; there is much that can be learned about a director by studying their films, but it is not the only way of looking at film.
Film production is a team effort. The director is an important part, but the basic principles of auteur theory can still be applied to other roles. For instance, one can find patterns looking at the work of screenwriters, producers, and special effects artists. That last category in particular is often a crucial part to the success of a feature film. Special effects have been an important part of filmmaking since the works of Georges Méliès, though they have changed a lot from what he used. They can also occur in a variety of forms. Visual effects can be created through the use of editing, models, computer animation, or in many cases a combination thereof.

One of the most effective special effects artists in the business was a man who worked primarily in the realms of science fiction. This was a man who would work with several big-name directors including Stanley Kubrick, Ridley Scott, Steven Spielberg, Robert Wise, and Terrence Malick, and he would do so on some of their most famous projects. This man was Douglas Trumbull, an artist who provided effects for a number of science fiction classics including 2001: A Space Odyssey, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Blade Runner. He has even taken over the director's chair in some cases, most famously in his 1971 environmentalist film Silent Running for which he also provided the effects.

Trumbull's work is based primarily on models. Much of his work was made before the advent of computer technology, though his effects still look impressive today. 2001: A Space Odyssey is in many ways Kubrick's film, but it was Trumbull who was responsible for the ground breaking visuals. He was the man who designed the models used throughout the film, from the orbiting nuclear satellites to Discovery 1 to the Star Gate that carries Dave Bowman "Beyond the Infinite" to the "Star Child" that symbolizes the next stage of evolution.

This was of course not without its challenges. Kubrick had a reputation as a reputation for being a perfectionist with high standards. This was after all a man who was known to do hundreds of takes for a single shot before finally getting what he wanted. The same can be said for the visuals, for which Trumbull displayed an extraordinary attention to detail. He had a very specific vision, and would do anything to bring it to the screen, even doing some of the paint and camerawork himself. Trumbull would have had to work very hard to create effects that satisfied Kubrick, which ranged from small models to the elaborate rotating set pieces designed to simulate weightlessness.
One particularly interesting story, however, comes from one of Trumbull's own shortcomings. In the original script, as well as Arthur C. Clarke's novelization, the story was supposed to take place near Saturn. Trumbull tried his hardest to meet this end, but even for Kubrick there were limitations to what could be done. In the end, a combination of technical problems and limited knowledge made it impossible for him to accurately represent the planet's distinct rings. As a result, the script had to be changed, and he instead produced a (very effective) model of Jupiter. However, Trumbull was hardly one to accept defeat.
Only three years after the release of 2001: A Space Odyssey Trumbull would again return to the science fiction genre with Silent Running, this time directing it as well. Like 2001, the final product ended up being in many ways different from its original script. The environmental themes were not originally as prominent, with the protagonist depicted instead as an old man who went rogue out of a desire to avoid forced retirement, rather than anything directly connected to the forests. There was also a sub-plot involving him making contact with an alien species, and had this remained in the final cut the movie would have ended with "first contact" between them and one of the drones.
Silent Running proved to be a much simpler and less ambitious project than Kubrick's science fiction epic. Trumbull worked with a much lower budget, and focused on a much more linear story set entirely on one spaceship, using only a few sets, and focusing the majority of its runtime on a single actor. Still, this does not stop Trumbull from drawing on his experiences in making 2001: A Space Odyssey, as is still evidenced by the model work that is incorporated throughout. Outside of the attention to detail in the various rooms of the ship (though he was unable to depict weightlessness this time), he also constructed the robot "drones" that serve as the protagonist's only companions. Trumbull used an unusual tactic to create these robots: constructing them around amputee actors, who would walk on their hands to simulate the Drones' walking. This same tactic would be copied only a decade later for portions of E.T.: The Extraterrestrial.
Most notable of these skills was that Trumbull managed to succeed on his own where he had failed under Kubrick. Trumbull's smaller-budget film allowed him to try once again to depict Saturn. Where he had previously the complicated rings had forced the production crew to replace it with Jupiter, here Trumbull managed to capture the planet. The planet itself is only seen in a few isolated shots, but it is incorporated into the narrative, particularly in one early sequence where the spaceship enters its rings. Trumbull also uses shadows to add a level of realism, keeping portions of Saturn darker when it is facing away from the sun.

After doing such an effective job of capturing outer space, it is fitting that Trumbull's later work would be more grounded. Six years after Silent Running, Trumbull would be recruited by yet another high-profile director: Steven Spielberg (who was also close friends with Kubrick), who had just started to establish himself as a prominent figure. Now he was making what would be the first of his several iconic science fiction films: Close Encounters of the Third Kind. This time, the focus was more on the disruptions of everyday life by an alien encounter. Much of the film was simply about the question of whether it is possible to understand an alien civilization, as well as themes of communication (which in this case, is accomplished through music).

Instead of visualizing the future of humanity, Trumbull was given a new challenge: his job was to design the aliens' spacecraft. Once again, he put his experience in model design to impressive use, but did so very differently. He had to design an advanced spacecraft of unknown origin. This time, the models also interacted more directly with the actors, most notably at the very end when everyone gathers around the spaceship. Ultimately, Trumbull's final design was reminiscent of the flying saucers that dominated 50's science fiction films, but this was merely the last of numerous special effects he designed for the film, which also included Roy and Jillian's "close encounters."

Blade Runner ultimately proved to be the last feature film to use Trumbull's effects, at least until he worked on The Tree of Life in 2011. Fittingly, Blade Runner's noir atmosphere would make it one of the most intense and complicated projects Trumbull would work on during his career. In addition to building a number of models for the numerous vehicles seen throughout the film, Trumbull also had to design the city itself. Scott may have proven effective on the ground and working with the cast, but Trumbull built the world they inhabited. He designed the city and each of its individual buildings, as well as all the action within it. By this point, Trumbull has gone from designing spaceships to designing entire worlds.

Scott had a vision of Blade Runner and ultimately oversaw its production, but it was Trumbull who brought it to life. Indeed, this is the case for many of the films he has worked on. 2001: A Space Odyssey, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Blade Runner can both be seen as products of their directors. If one is to adopt Truffaut's ideas of auteur theory, they all contain patterns that are consistent with other films by Kubrick, Spielberg, and Scott, respectively. This is not to say that auteur theory is invalid, merely that it is not the director alone who is responsible for their film. While each of them had their own creative ideas, none would have worked without the assistance of a person like Trumbull.

Douglas Trumbull's work has proven crucial to these four science fiction classics and allowing them to achieve their critical acclaim. His various models have provided some of the greatest special effects ever put on screen, and even while working through a series of drastically different productions, his style is unmistakable. There is something to the way he constructs the visuals of these different films, and his style becomes increasingly sophisticated. Trumbull has proven to be one of the great masters of visual effects, and might just be someone every bit as worthy of academic analysis as Kubrick or Spielberg.

Monday, 25 January 2016

The Mental Labyrinth

On the surface, it is not hard to see why a film like Labyrinth has developed such a huge following. At first glance, it appears to simply be nothing more than a surreal (if very campy) fantasy adventure with a variety of bizarre and humorous characters designed by Jim Henson. As ridiculous as the film's story might be, one cannot deny the imagination that has gone into its narrative both in terms of the world depicted and those who inhabit it. This creativity is more or less the main draw of the film. The actual story is very simplistic, and is more or less taken straight from The Wizard of Oz: a teenage girl gets transported to a mystical world where she is joined by three strange companions on a quest to return home while a powerful magician pulls every trick at their disposal to stop her. One could argue that Sarah is a somewhat stronger character than Dorothy, but the parallels are undeniable.

However, while on the surface, this appears to be the basic narrative, the movie might just be more complex than one will initially realize. Far from a surreal adventure with strange Muppets (even for Jim Henson), it is actually a very detailed character study. Many aspects of the film become much more sense when one realizes that, much like The Wizard of Oz, most if not all of the central narrative actually happens in the mind of its heroine, played by Jennifer Connelly. What the audience experiences is not in fact a physical journey but a mental one. It is really a story about conflicting emotions, and her struggle to accept herself.

When Sarah is introduced, the film immediately begins by way of a strange sequence which sets up an important detail about her character. In this scene, Sarah appears in a suspiciously medieval-looking environment. She is in an open field near a stone bridge, wearing an old-fashioned dress while reading her book. At first glance, it appears that she is in a medieval fantasy world, creating a jarring affect when the next scene reveals a modern neighborhood. This contrast is also emphasized by the composition of both scenes. When she is at the bridge, it is bright and sunny with a strong use of high-key lighting, while low-key lighting is used for her running through the neighborhood in the rain. These touches allow a glimpse into Sarah's imagination.

The opening scene represents how she imagines herself, while the following sequence shows that image being shattered by reality. She tries to enter a fantasy world, but keeps getting pulled out of it by her real-world responsibilities. The only thing that she is able to cling to of the world she longs for is her soaked and antiquated looking dress, and even this is revealed to be nothing more than a costume. Once at home, Sarah removes a large portion of the dress, revealing underneath a pair of jeans and running shoes. This sets up the movie's prominent theme of fantasy and reality, and the conflict between childlike imagination and adult responsibility. The tension between these two extremes drives much of the film.

At the beginning, Sarah's imaginary world is shattered by her adult responsibilities. When she returns home, she finds out that she has to look after her baby brother Toby. While she does not appear to have any specific plans, Sarah is frustrated about being given responsibility without a choice in the matter. She feels as if Toby is taking over her personal life, represented when she enters her room filled with fantasy characters and costume accessories. She also upset when her teddy bear, fittingly named Lancelot, is found in Toby's room. Sarah finds Toby crying, and drawing on her imagination begins to taunt him, though less out of any intentional abuse and more her not thinking straight due to her frustration.

Eventually, Sarah unwittingly summons the goblins, including their King Jareth, played by the late David Bowie. It is the moment Sarah coldly says "I wish the goblins would come and take you away" that reality ends, and her mind takes over, drawing on her imaginary worlds. In addition to the title of the movie, Labyrinth is also the title of a book she is seen reading several times. It is presumably from this book that she draws her "story" that describes her feelings about having to babysit Toby, which includes a "goblin king." It therefore seems strange that a film until now grounded in reality should suddenly incorporate these fantastical elements with no logical explanation.

This makes more sense when one realizes that Jareth as a person does not actually exist in the world of the story, nor does the labyrinth. The conflict is not one between two people so much as between the protagonist and her own consciousness. Sarah's personality is broken up into two roles, and the movie is the tension and eventual reconciliation between these two sides of her personality. Sarah casts herself as the responsible and mature side, while the frustration and desire to get rid of Toby that she has displayed becomes personified in Jareth.

Immediately before he appears, Sarah steps out of the bedroom, pauses, and re-enters, presumably feeling guilty about her momentary outburst. It is fittingly timed that this is when Jareth makes his first appearance, as he represents this side of Sarah's personality. As he does not actually exist, he probably never abducted Toby, but he does act as Sarah's darker side. Upon taking the child, he opts to try to pursued Sarah to ignore her responsibilities, to go back to her room. Sarah refuses to accept this, but this other part of her mind is persistent. These two sides clash together, represented when she finds herself in the titular labyrinth.

The labyrinth is less a physical location than it is a mental state. This is why Sarah appears to simply teleport into the area outside its entrance, rather than any travel actually taking place. Jareth challenges Sarah to "solve the labyrinth" in order to retrieve her brother. The labyrinth, however, is symbolic of the tension between both sides of Sarah's own mind. At the moment, it is the irresponsible side, represented by Jareth, that remains in control. This is evidenced by the increasing obsession that he develops with Sarah. He never shows any real concern for his actual responsibilities as the supposed King of the Goblins, symbolizing his role as her irresponsible side.

This is shown by Sarah's initial struggles to begin navigating the maze. She has trouble even finding the door, and upon entering is easily motivated to give up whenever it gets too complicated. She breaks down upon entering the first passage. Later on, she tries to use lipstick to mark her routes, only to find someone has been moving the tiles she drew on. "It's not fair," she childishly yells several times throughout the first act. It is only as she metaphorically grows up that she makes any real progress. With her progression into the maze, her responsible side slowly becomes more powerful, while Jareth becomes weaker and increasingly desperate to maintain control.

The strange Muppet dwarf Hoggle also serves as a bridge between these two sides of Sarah's personality. Throughout the movie, he is constantly torn between serving both sides. On one side, there is the pressure brought on by the irresponsible side, and yet he also has a consciousness that tells him Sarah is trying to do the right thing (even if he refuses to admit it). Hoggle's good intentions but apparent cowardice symbolize Sarah's own feelings as she struggles through a difficult evening. He constantly tries to offer assistance to Sarah, while also being easily scared or pressured by Jareth into doing the wrong thing, yet whenever he gives in, he also must face the guilt of his actions; just as Sarah struggles with the immediate guilt of her own actions.
When Sarah first enters the labyrinth, Hoggle asks her a simple question: "would you go left or go right?" and when asked which way he would go simply replies "I wouldn't go either." Sarah immediately dismisses him as being useless, completely failing to understand the meaning of his advice. It sounds at first as though he is merely expressing his reluctance to go through the labyrinth, but he actually says he would not go "either way" because neither way is correct. At this point, Sarah is still overwhelmed by her guilt and frustration, and subsequently remains unable to see the actual passage forward.
As Sarah continues through the labyrinth, she displays an increasing strength in overcoming its obstacles even as Jareth throws various tricks at her. This is symbolized by the various strange challenges she faces in the labyrinth, during which she displays intelligence and resourcefulness that gets her into the oubliette, far enough to make Jareth worried that she might actually succeed. These changes occur as Sarah herself "grows up" and begins to take responsibility. The responsible side of her personality is now taking control, while Jareth grows weaker.
With these newfound resources, Sarah also develops two new allies in the form of gentle giant Ludo and a strange fox named Sir Didymus (whose "trusty steed" is a dog that looks very much like Sarah's own dog Merlin, a cue that this is still in her mind). Both of them are obtained through challenges that require Sarah to act responsibly. Ludo is first found tied up by goblins, and freed through an act of strength when Sarah manages to scare off his goblin captors. Didymus is won over when Sarah uses her intelligence to resolve a simple (if very petty) dispute. This development of a party, rather than Sarah alone, represents the growing power of her own mind.
Jareth is able to bring out one last trick against Sarah, which almost works, but it is ultimately a test of will. This occurs when she is tricked into eat a berry that eliminates her memories. Sarah finds herself in a strange garbage dump occupied by people who carry bundles of objects on their backs. This offers a possible opportunity for her irresponsible side to take over, to reject her adult responsibilities in favor of a childish obsession with toys. However, she also shows her strength when she manages to remind herself of her responsibility, refuses to lose control, and breaks free.
This in turn leads the party to the goblin city, where the guards prove ineffective against dealing with them. Eventually, they reach Jareth's castle, where Sarah insists on facing him alone. Her companions agree to this, and tell her to "call" them if she needs them. She claims that she must do this because "that is how it is done," but in fact it is far more complicated. Everything up to this point has been Sarah's own imagination, and the struggles of her personality. She has used her great strength, her imagination, to deal with an emotional period, but in the end she must face her fears directly.
The confrontation between the two central characters becomes separated from the rest of the world. Jareth and Sarah both find themselves on a floating platform where the confrontation happens, but more interesting is the way it plays out. Rather than any type of fight, Sarah uses her voice as a source of power. In doing so, Sarah is able to accept her responsibilities reject the urges represented by Jareth, who now remains unable to control her. This is explained through the passage Sarah refers to, which ends with the phrase "You have no power over me." It is her speaking this phrase that finally ends the fantasy and brings Sarah back into the real world.
A few hours have passed, and Sarah has calmed down. The labyrinth has been nothing more than her mix of feelings over the course of the evening. She willingly checks on Toby, even letting him keep her teddy bear, and still manages to find time for herself. However, at the end, she finds herself "missing" her friends from the labyrinth. This in turn suggests that she is not ready to give up her imaginary worlds, but she has also learned from her experiences. The ending, during which a party breaks out in her room with her companions as well as several of the strange figures encountered in the maze, represents a new realization. Childhood fantasies and adult responsibilities are not mutually exclusive. It is simply a matter of learning to balance both sides.
Underneath its campy production, strange characters, and imaginative landscapes, Labyrinth is really nothing more than a simple (if very unusual) coming of age story centered around the thought processes of a single protagonist. It's all about growing up and accepting responsibility, but in the end also being able to do so without leaving everything behind. The whole movie a single teenager's struggle to deal with a mix of emotions over the course of a single evening, but what makes this unusual is the decision to enter her mind and to explore her thought processes rather than to see it from the outside.

Thursday, 21 January 2016

Thursday Movie Picks: Airplane Movies

This week, the theme for Wanderer's Thursday Movie Picks Meme is airplanes. This one makes sense, we have to find movies that prominently feature airplanes. That's simple enough. I've seen several of those. In fact, I wrote an entire essay about how Hollywood's representation of airplanes has been affected by 9/11. Airplanes make a good setting for a variety of reasons. The naturally cramped environment of the pressurized cabin alone makes for a very effective way to build up tension, not to mention that danger of being trapped thousands of miles above the ground. There was a reason Samuel L. Jackson was so angry about those Motherflipping snakes on that motherflipping plane.

So with that out of the way, here is my hastily assembled last-minute exciting entry that is being submitted early. Let's see what we can come up with.

Airplane! (1980)

This might have been an obvious choice, but who can argue with it? Even without the context of the 70's airplane disaster movies it was making fun of, it's still a hilariously surreal film with some good characters and a lot of strange wordplay. Surely, this one had to appear somewhere on somebody's list, and don't call me Shirley! Of course there are also some high stakes and a bizarre plot involving a Vietnam veteran with a literal drinking problem (as in he has trouble drinking) trying to win back his stewardess girlfriend while also having to save the passengers who have all eaten spoiled fish, but that's beside the point. It's the weird humor that makes this film so memorable.

Red Eye (2005)

Now for something a bit calmer, or not. The tension in this film is more psychological, coming from the interactions between the two central characters, rather than anything to do with the plane itself. Rachel McAdams plays a hotel manager who finds herself mixed up with a man who wants to use her for an assassination plot, and a lot of the movie is simply about how she has to figure out how to outsmart her would-be abductor. In that sense, it works as a surprisingly effective commentary on gender stereotypes, with Rachel McAdams constantly proving smart and resourceful while her male-co-star becomes increasingly emotional and irrational.

Non-Stop (2014)

This is sort of a more modern interpretation of the "Die Hard on a plane" films that were common in the 90's. What makes this particular film interesting, however, is that it actually incorporates a lot of the ways in which airports have changed. Instead of the terrorists revealing themselves early on, they frame the protagonist as the hijacker (exploiting the security counter-measures towards this type of situation) in order to manipulate everyone. This naturally leads to a tough situation, as the hero must identify the bad guys among a large number of people trapped in a plane miles above the ground with no idea of who will be their next victim. It also has a really good performance from Julianne Moore.

Bonus: The Terminal (2004)

So this week is all about airplanes, so it naturally makes sense to touch on some related ground; namely the subject of airports. Spielberg's The Terminal does just that, placing all the action in a single airport. To put it mildly, it turns out that what goes on in the airport can be just as intense and exciting as what happens on the planes. There are a lot of different people with their own issues and goals whose stories all cross over with each other, and there is still plenty of drama to be found.

Monday, 18 January 2016

The Consequences of First Contact

In Steven Spielberg's 1977 science fiction movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind, we see an ordinary man, Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfus), whose "close encounter" with an alien spacecraft changes his life forever. It is seemingly by total chance that he encounters the craft when he does. Once it has happened, he becomes alienated from his wife, Ronnie, and determined to seek answers, yet when he finds them, it only opens a greater mystery. Who are these aliens? Where did they come from? All we can tell is that they seem to be benevolent, and have apparently made it their custom to take specific people on interstellar voyages, though even that brings up a few more questions, such as how they decide who gets to go. Is there a logical process or do they just choose people at random?

Roy's story represents a much broader idea that has long intrigued writers of science fiction: the question of whether, if we were to make contact, we could truly understand an alien race. It's a perplexing question that has been entertained by numerous writers. Arthur C. Clarke explored this idea in his novel Rendezvous With Rama, in which an alien spaceship of unknown origin enters the Sun's orbit. The expedition into the spaceship, which drives the story, leads to a variety of different theories about who constructed it, what its purpose was, and what happened to the original owners, none of which are ever confirmed or denied.

On film, however, Close Encounters of the Third Kind remains one of the earliest movies to keep the aliens enigmatic. This was not a common trend in 1950's science fiction movies, many of which tried to explain the aliens. The Thing From Another World alludes to these questions with the titular creature, but ultimately it is decided that information on how to kill the Thing is more important. In Forbidden Planet, some mystery is preserved in that the aliens are never seen, but the viewer is still given their history in great detail. Of course, this history ends up mainly being important because it finally explains the nature of the film's antagonist and provides incentive for destroying the city.

Even in The Day The Earth Stood Still, one of the few non-invasion science fiction films of the period, refrains from keeping anything ambiguous. Klaatu does not explicitly name where he is from, but he makes his goals and intentions perfectly clear. He interacts with humans openly, offers valuable information and technology, and in the end makes an entire speech in which he clearly states that he wants the Cold War to stop. One could argue that Gort is a more mysterious character, though he appears to be merely a robot programmed to follow orders.

The film that changed this was undoubtedly Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. When making this classic science fiction film, Kubrick struggled with how to depict the aliens. In the final product, they remain unseen. Only their presence is felt. The novelization provides some insight into their evolutionary past, but beyond that says little more. The only possible appearance they make is in the final act, when Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea) finds himself in a strange hotel room. Throughout this sequence, strange voices can be heard, possibly from the aliens (this interpretation is supported by the book, which suggests that Dave has been put into a sort of extra-terrestrial zoo). Still, much like everything else in the film, nothing is known. The only visual representation of their presence is the Monolith, which itself is never definitively explained even in the sequel film 2010: The Year We Make Contact.

Spielberg popularized this idea with Close Encounters of the Third Kind by bringing it into the mainstream and making it more easily accessible. Unlike Kubrick's more abstract film, which leaves much of the story to interpretation, Spielberg produced his take on this material in a more linear and straight forward fashion. The only truly subjective parts of the narrative are in the aliens themselves, while the overall narrative is still reasonably coherent. However, doing so is not without its purposes. By making the story more linear, while keeping the aliens themselves ambiguous, Spielberg is able to explore the consequences of their arrival in more detail.

Another important detail to this narrative is the impact that comes from the aliens' arrival. Whether it is ultimately positive (The Day the Earth Stood Still, Close Encounters of the Third KindStarmanThe Abyss) or negative (Forbidden Planet, The Thing, Battle: Los Angeles, Edge of Tomorrow), the world is drastically changed by making contact. This can occur on an small scale with a focus on indvididuals, such as Jenny Hayden becoming a mother or Elliot bringing his estranged family together. In other cases, it can involve a much larger situation, from major political consequences to either the destruction or evolution of humanity as a whole.

This aspect is only alluded to in Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. When Dr. Heywood Floyd (William Sylvester) visits the site of the Monolith's discovery, he tells the astronauts that absolute secrecy must be maintained until the government can determine the best way of revealing it to the public. This however, remains the extent of such discussion, with the rest of the film focusing more on the mystery of the aliens and the technological progress of the future. Spielberg is more character-minded in his film, putting a heavy emphasis on how the two central characters are affected by their "close encounters" with the aliens.

Though it is indicated that there were others with similar experiences, the focus is placed on two specific characters. Roy is the first person in the film to experience a "close encounter" by total chance. He sees what appears to be a spacecraft flying over him while he is driving to work. Roy becomes increasingly alienated from his family. He struggles to maintain his old life, but this becomes impossible to balance with his desire to understand what he saw. He does make a genuine attempt to forget about the extraterrestrial presence, but ultimately there is no ignoring the constant images that go through his head of a strange triangular shape he constantly feels the urge to construct.

Meanwhile, Jillian Guiler (Melinda Dillon), watches her only son get taken by the same aliens. Her motivation subsequently becomes very much the opposite of Roy's. She sees that her son has been affected by the aliens in some way, apparently being compelled to go with them. After he is taken, Julian becomes determined to find him. Like Roy, she also becomes obsessed with the strange triangular shape, which she begins compulsively drawing. It is now clear that, like Roy, she has been affected by her own close encounter, and determined to find her own answers.

Both subsequently find their life changed as a result. The mysterious shape eventually turns out to be an important clue, as well as a map. It is in fact a mountain, and more specifically it indicates precisely where the spaceship is going to land at the end of the film. Julian and Roy are the only civilians to make it to the landing site and witness the arrival of the aliens. Here their lives diverge, as they both react differently to this final encounter. Roy moves closer to the spaceship, and ultimately is taken with the aliens, presumably on an interstellar voyage. Jillian prefers to watch from a distance, and after finding her son, stays home to resume her old life. However, while perhaps not as drastically, Julian's future will presumably be affected by everything she has been through, as is evidenced by her taking pictures of the spaceship. She may continue to live a somewhat normal life, but she will never truly leave her experiences behind.

The theme of the aliens' subjectivity also returns in this final sequence, and it is shown in large part through the American government's interference. "Close Encounters" appear to be happening around the world, including one such incident happening in India, yet the American Government tries to take full control. They keep the visitation secret, covering up the entire event by staging a non-existent train accident and using intimidation to bully civilians into staying away. The few people who do make it past the roadblocks simply end up being "evacuated" even after the scientist Lacombe (François Truffaut) pleads for them to be permitted entry. While the aliens ultimately land in the heavily-guarded airfield, they ultimately choose to take Roy with them, rather than any of the government-sponsored candidates. This is a small detail, but it serves a simple message: the aliens do not recognize human boundaries.

Contact, based on a book by Carl Sagan, presents a large-scale version of the events depicted in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The "close encounter" is replaced by an extra-terrestrial signal, though there is a slight parallel in the way it is structured. In this case, it is based on mathematics, which Dr. Ellie Arroway (Jodie Foster) identifies as "the only truly universal language." This is obviously meant to be a way of figuring out how to communicate despite an obvious language barrier, not unlike the use of lights and music depicted in Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

Like Spielberg's film, Contact also emphasizes the way the characters are affected by their experiences. Ellie is changed as a person over the course of the story. She remains a scientifically-minded astronomer but also finds herself enlightened when she gets a chance to meet an extra-terrestrial. Like Close Encounters of The Third Kind, the nature of the aliens is ambiguous, and she is ultimately left with nothing more than her word to share with her skeptical peers. Still, this encounter has presented her with a newfound determination, though it has also changed the world around her.

But these ideas can in fact go both ways. It is not only through the perspectives of humanity that an extra-terrestrial can appear truly alien, and it is not always humanity alone that is changed. It can also happen through the eyes of the aliens themselves, and they too can be affected by their encounters with humanity. Nowhere is this clearer than in Jonathan Glazer's 2014 drama Under the Skin. This particular film offers a subjective narrative centered around an unnamed alien visitor (Scarlett Johansson), who arrives in Scotland and tries to blend in with humanity. This leads to a strange paradox: she is depicted as an alien being, yet she is also the most human character in the film.

To achieve this affect, Glazer takes steps to align the viewer with his unnamed protagonist. He makes her a relatable character while also drawing attention to her discomfort and her uncertainty. Little details often serve to remind the viewer that they are merely looking at a mask, such as the awkward smiles she gives passing travelers. She performs small actions that draw attention to her lack of understanding of human emotions, such as her inability to enjoy comedy or going to a restaurant and ordering cake as a main course (an act which ends with her getting sick).

Much like how Roy, Jillian, or Ellie are affected by their experiences in confronting aliens, the mysterious tragic heroine of Under the Skin is also changed by her time spent among humans. Whereas Roy went off with the aliens, the protagonist here instead finds herself trying to live among humanity. She eventually finds herself changing to the point where she wants to become human herself, even trying to have a relationship. Unfortunately, she remains an outsider, unable to fully comprehend the people around her the same way the viewer cannot fully understand her alien mind.

This ambiguity has proven over time to be an effective way of depicting aliens. It logically makes sense that a species from another planet would be drastically different from humanity, and that first contact would not be without its consequences. This in turn leads back to that very simple question: is it possible to understand something that is truly alien? The answer has long been debated, and likely will continue to be discussed at length until such a time when and if contact is ever made. Nonetheless, it is interesting to look at how this subject has influenced so many filmmakers to explore it in drastically different ways.

Wednesday, 13 January 2016

The Groupe Dziga Vertov: Proof that Godard is Insane!

Jean-Luc Godard has something of a long-standing rivalry with me. It is no secret that I can't stand his work. I would be tempted to label him as nothing short of a hack filmmaker who makes lazy poorly-directed films and then tries to pass them off as high art. However, most of what I have criticized is his early work. Breathless is a pointless crime film, and he could not even bother to watch his own movie while editing it, instead just cutting random segments and hoping they didn't disrupt anything. Alphaville has got to be the most pathetic vision of the future that has ever been put on film. However, these movies, both made in the 1960's, barely hold a candle to his truly insane material beginning in the 1970's with movies like Tu Va Bien. It is here that I will expose just how absurd and insane a director Godard truly is.

Somewhere around the turn from the 1960's to the 70's, Godard became an extreme Marxist. He also became obsessed with defying Hollywood to degrees that would even shock a Fellini, Antonioni, or Bergman. This led to the formation of the "Groupe Dziga Vertov," though aside from Godard himself, this group only consisted of one other member, Jean-Pierre Gorin. Together, these two men would attempt to revolutionize filmmaking... in the most absurd and idiotic way imaginable. When one understands just what they felt was the most logical option, it seems insane that anyone would even think this was a good idea.

The two of them concluded that there were seven major problems with Hollywood filmmaking. The labels they gave for these supposed issues were narrative transitivity, identification, transparency, single diegesis, closure, and pleasure. In other words, Godard and Gorin basically objected to the standard classical model of filmmaking that still dominates the medium today. This would not be a huge issue, were it not for their countermethods which consisted of attempting to make the exact opposite. Instead of telling coherent stories, they wanted to make disjointed and nonsensical films. Instead of letting the viewer identify with the film, they wanted to alienate them.

In other words, Godard and Gorin basically created a philosophy that, in its simplest form, literally claims the best way to construct a film is to make it as frustrating to watch as possible. According to them, alienating the viewer and irritating them them with a disjointed and incoherent feature is the most effective way to make an ingenious work of art. As you can see, this line of reasoning is absurd, and it is hard to imagine anyone would think this is even remotely a good idea. Making a movie frustrating to watch is not an effective way to make a good film, all it does is anger those who have to watch it and makes them less inclined to see anything else you might have made.

Still, this has not stopped Godard from trying this tactic, as can be seen with films he made in this period such as Tu Va Bien or even more unsubtly, Le Vent D'est. The latter is barely even a film. It is more accurately a lecture about Marxist philosophies framed around a series of disjointed and mostly pointless vignettes. Even more bizarre, when the movie was dubbed, Godard refused to allow the narration to be removed, forcing an unfortunate viewer of the English version to hear two simultaneous narrators at once. The whole film is structured around bizarre and incoherent imagery that completely loses whatever meaning Godard had tried to convey.

Ironically, there is one scene of Le Vent D'est that actually does lend itself to an interesting reading, though one that works against Godard. There is a scene in the film where a man prances around with a record and says "I'm learning how to play" before doing so very badly. An unseen audience begins booing him but he refuses to accept that his music is terrible. He simply stands around claiming that his music is genius. This is fitting as it provides a perfect allegory for the experience of watching a Godard film. All he does is produce lazy incoherent films and when called out on it, stubbornly tries to pretend he has somehow made something worthy of Stanley Kubrick or David Lynch.

It is this chapter of Godard's career, this one segment where he becomes so wrapped up in an pointless quest to break free of Hollywood that provides the final conclusive proof that Godard is far from a genius. He is an incompetent, lazy, and insane filmmaker who has no idea what he is talking about and has somehow managed to come up with the most ridiculous philosophies of filmmaking imaginable. This is not someone worthy of being ranked alongside Kubrick, Hitchcock, or Lynch. This is a man who should be ranked alongside Irwin Allen, Michael Bay, and Ed Wood as one of the worst.

Thursday Movie Picks Meme: Post-Apocalyptic World

Okay, so I'm trying to get back into writing things on a somewhat regular basis, so it makes sense to revisit the Thursday Movie Picks Meme, something I used to participate in all the time. I can't make any promises on how frequently I'll be joining in, but I would like to do at least a few of them this year. The theme of this particular week is Post-Apocalyptic World. This one is a bit trickier because there is the catch that we can only use post-apocalyptic films, as opposed to movies that depict an apocalyptic event. For some reason, the end of the world has long been a source of interest for storytellers, and so I should be able to come up with a few options for post-apocalyptic films.

Silent Running (1971)

Okay, so it's somewhat debatable whether this truly counts as an apocalypse since some semblance of social order still appears to exist. However, the environment has pretty much been destroyed so it might as well be as far as the protagonist is concerned. Silent Running is hardly an optimistic view of the future. It's a world where the natural environment is gone, reduced to a handful of spaceships containing the last remaining specimens, run by people who don't really care. As far as the film is concerned, it might as well be the end of the world if nothing is going to be done to replenish the old forests.

Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome (1995)

The original Mad Max was more of a dystopian film that tried to show a decaying society, but the sequels quickly went into the realm of the post-apocalyptic. I'm in the minority of people who would argue that Beyond Thunderdome is actually a much better film than The Road Warrior, but it is also a great example of the post-apocalyptic tone of the films. This is a world in which society has collapsed, and the world is reduced to people killing each other for fuel. We even see the vanishing memories of the old world in the form of a colony of children who only understand an extremely distorted account of what happened.

The Road (2008)

I know I used this one previously when discussing father-son relationships, but it was just too perfect to omit from this list. We might not ever find out precisely what caused the apocalypse, but it hardly matters. There are few movies that manage to convey the very essence of a post-apocalyptic world quite like this bleak drama of a father and son as they struggle to hold on to what is left of themselves even when all hope is lost. This might just be one of the most depressing visions of the apocalypse that has been shown on film, given that it offers next to nothing in the way of hope for the future beyond a few isolated occurrences, and instead seems to suggest that humanity is slowly dying out. When it comes to post-apocalyptic worlds, few can match this one.

Monday, 11 January 2016


Have you ever wanted to see Christine played by an 18-wheeler? No? Well, it's funny how big directors get started because it just so happens that such a film was made in 1971 by none other than Steven Spielberg. Yes, this is the same Steven Spielberg who later went on to make classics such as Jaws and Saving Private Ryan. Originally released as a television movie, Duel proved to be so popular that Universal Studios decided to give it a theatrical release. In this process, they unwittingly launched Spielberg's career and opened the door for him to make a variety of very different films from this one.

David Mann (Dennis Weaver) is an ordinary person going about a normal day. He is driving out to meet a colleague when he finds himself blocked by an old truck carrying ammonia. Out of frustration, he passes the truck, only to find himself being passed again. Initially, Mann dismisses this frustrating but seemingly brief encounter. That is until he begins to see the truck reappear everywhere he goes. After some time, it starts to become clear that the driver (who is never seen) has apparently developed a grudge against Mann, and will stop at nothing to kill him. Mann now realizes he is locked in a motorized duel, as he desperately tries to evade his attacker while the driver pulls every trick to mess with him and drive him off the road. To make matters worse, nobody believes him, and his attempts to find assistance only endanger the bystanders he comes across. So basically, it's like a feature-length version of the biplane sequence from North by Northwest.

Funnily enough, this one is actually better than you would expect from a film with this kind of premise. The narrative is fast-paced and straight forward, and while there might not be much to the central character he does manage to carry the audience through. It is definitely a simplistic film. Outside of the people he occasionally runs into, Mann is pretty much the only character of significance, and a lot of the action is focused purely on the chase. Even the film's treatment of Mann himself, rather than detailing his personal life beyond a brief telephone conversation, is primarily about his emotions and his reactions to the unusual situation he has found himself caught in.

The decision to hide the truck driver is also an interesting touch. We never get a clear glimpse of his (or her?) face. All we see is a pair of boots that indicate little about the driver's appearance. Aside from eliminating the emotional repercussions of killing the driver at the end, it does have the effect of making this person a lot more intimidating. We never know quite what is going through their head, or why they have become so determined to kill this one man. As a result, the truck itself becomes a character in its own right. This creates an interesting dynamic of man vs. machine that continues throughout the film.

Spielberg's Duel makes for an interesting experience, especially for one who is familiar with his later work. Compared to the types of films he is known for, Duel is a strange experience. Like many directors' early work, it does not easily show the trademarks that they would develop later in their career. Even disregarding the later films, Duel still remains an adrenaline-packed thriller that creates constant tension and suspense, even if it can be described as simply as "Christine meets the cropduster scene from North by Northwest." It's an unusual movie, but still an interesting one to see if only for a glimpse into Spielberg's early career. 

Saturday, 9 January 2016

G.I. Jane and the Navy SEALs

It is surprisingly difficult to find media dealing with modern warfare that actually shows female soldiers, even in an era where that is perfectly normal. One notable exception to the rule is Ridley Scott's 1997 action film G.I. Jane. However, on some level this particular film, while an excellent thrill-ride with a strong female lead, is a curious film to see in light of its subject matter. The story focuses on Jordan O'Neal, an athlete and military analyst who finds herself becoming the first female Navy SEAL. Much of the film naturally deals with sexism in the military (she is being deliberately put with the SEALs on the assumption that she will easily fail), but it is also curious to watch in light of how society has developed since G.I. Jane's release.

It is fitting to discuss this film right now, since is just happens that this year the real-life Navy SEALs are hoping to begin opening their doors towards women, almost twenty years later. Of course, the reality is not as dramatic as Scott's vision. Quite a few of the top SEAL commanders are on board with the idea (if still getting accustomed to it), far from the vision Scott had of a sexist military pulling every trick it could to prevent integration. Unlike the film, in which the SEALs are depicted responding to political pressure, they seem to be doing this willingly, and the only reason the change has not already been implemented is government bureaucracy. Some of the officers have even gone on the record to state that women will be held to the same standards as men (a right O'Neal had to fight for). The movie was also made while Don't Ask, Don't Tell was still in effect; the trick of forging evidence that O'Neal was homosexual would not cause anywhere near as much of a scandal today.

Also ironically, the film is about the SEALs being used as a test case to see if gender integration is possible in the military as a whole, when in fact they have proven to be one of the last branches to begin accepting women. In Canada, women can serve in any position, including submarines. In America, women are now being accepted as marines and rangers. If anything, much of what really happened has been the exact opposite of what is shown in G.I. Jane.  This is not, however, to say that the film is irrelevant to today's world. In fact, very much the opposite.

G.I. Jane is not just a story about a female SEAL, but one about intolerance as a whole. Throughout the movie, attention is drawn to the ignorance and prejudices in the military. Homosexuality is also brought up (though not given much focus), including a subplot where O'Neal is almost reduced to a desk job because someone took a picture of her sitting on a beach with a female officer.  There are a variety of claims brought up early on about how women are weaker than men and therefore not fit to serve. Sadly, these same arguments still persist today. The subject of whether women should meet the same standards

At one point, she also speaks to an African-American recruit, Lt. McCool (Morris Chestnut), who draws a parallel between O'Neal's situation and his grandfather. In his anecdote, McCool explains that his grandfather enlisted in World War II as a gunner in the Navy, only to be told that the only position he could take was the cook. According to McCool, the rationale for not letting a man fight for his country was that blacks supposedly cannot see at night. This is an absurd and blatantly racist claim today, perhaps just as absurd as saying women cannot meet the same physical standards as men, or discharging people for the sole reason that their commanding officer thinks they might be gay, even if that has no impact on their performance.

G.I. Jane is very much about deconstructing these absurd prejudices. From the moment Jordan first appears, she is obviously a good choice. She already works in intelligence, and despite having years of experience got rejected from one post in the Gulf War simply because the submarine lacked women's wash rooms (this itself an absurd claim, given the restroom was probably a single toilet that could easily have been shared). She is smart and quick-thinking, as well as being extremely fit.

Still, everyone maintains that she should not be present, yet the film constantly presents evidence to the contrary. During a training exercise, O'Neal deliberately knocks over the steps used to get over a wall and instead crouches down herself. Several men climb onto her back and she is still able to keep moving afterwards, yet even after she has helped the last man over the wall, he still refuses to help her get over in return. Even the senator responsible for all this happening in the first place (Anne Bancroft) admits she expected O'Neal to fail and only did it for publicity. Early on, she is given special treatment. She has her own room, an officer she can personally consult about any issues, and is required to go through dumbed down versions of the physical exercises. She also proves on multiple occasions to be good at handling stress, including several situations where the recruits are deprived of sleep.

It is only when O'Neal manages to get herself on the same ground as the other recruits, to the point of even sharing her sleeping quarters with them, that any progress is made. This is reflected in her appearance. O'Neal begins as an attractive young woman, with long dark hair tied back into a ponytail and a formal suit. In her early days of training, she sheds the suit in favour of combat fatigues, but her long hair remains as a visual symbol of the inequality that still exists. Once she is facing the same standards, O'Neal visits a barbershop and proceeds to shave her own head; now looking like one of the guys. After this change, O'Neal begins to show more of her body, particularly her muscles, a visual indicator of her full potential.

These skills also prove useful once field training begins. O'Neal eventually becomes a team leader, though not entirely by choice (the original guy kept trying to sabotage her efforts, proving that he was unqualified seeing as teamwork is an essential part of SEAL operations). This includes and exercise where the SEALs are faced with a simulation of a combat situation. They are brought to an island and given a practice mission. O'Neal is put in charge of her team and quickly proves she knows what she is doing. Her experience as an analyst allows her to easily locate their target. The mission likely would have proven a success had it not been for the former team leader, who outright ignores her orders and gets everyone "captured."

Of course, even after being caught, and finding herself in a simulation of such an experience, O'Neil still remains strong. Her instructor beats her repeatedly and yells sexist remarks in an attempt at discouragement. He even goes as far as to attempt to rape her, which ends with O'Neal defending herself appropriately. Despite the constant pressure, she never gives in to the simulated interrogation, and proves, just as was indicated in training, that she is good at taking pressure, a crucial component to SEAL training. By this point, O'Neal is finally accepted as an equal, even being cheered on by her male comrades as she fights back against the instructor. 

This in turn leads to the climax of the film, where the recruits are unexpectedly faced with an actual mission to recover a fallen satellite. The task is a dangerous one, as it involves entering territory owned by Muammar Gaddafi. By this point, the SEALs are coordinating together. O'Neal herself is even given the task of acting as a spotter for her instructor. He ends up being separated and it is once again O'Neal who has to take charge. She is the one who plans their strategy both for recovering the satellite and rescuing the instructor, and it is because of her the mission is a success. She is obviously deserving of the badge she receives at the end that indicates her acceptance as a SEAL.

The whole point has essentially been that women can in fact meet the same standards as men. They are not physically weaker, as some would like to claim. Any such claim is nothing more than futile attempt to justify prejudice and bigotry, no different from McCool's anecdote about his grandfather not being allowed to serve because people claimed blacks had bad eyesight. Just as that absurd World War II-era theory was eventually disproven, so is the claim that women are unfit for military service. The same could be said of any group that has been barred from active duty, be it race, gender, or sexual orientation. 

Friday, 8 January 2016

Crime Week: O Brother, Where Art Thou? (Prisonbreak!)

The Coen Brothers have some strange movies under their name, but O Brother, Where Art Thou stands out as one of their more bizarre creations. There have been a number of fictional stories that have tried to capture the experience of living in the middle of The Great Depression. John Steinbeck practically made a career out of writing depressing stories such as Of Mice and Men and The Grapes of Wrath, both of which centred around the everyday struggles to find work. Unsurprisingly, both the aforementioned books have been made into movies that also try to capture the same feelings.

What most people probably would not think of using as the base for a Depression-era story is an Ancient Greek Poem. Naturally, this is exactly what the Coen Brothers did when making O Brother, Where Art Thou, based in part on Homer's The Odyssey. Updating that poem to take place in the Depression is certainly a strange choice, and much of the narrative is subsequently changed to accommodate it. There are still distinct parallels, though, perhaps most notably the appearance of Siren-like figures (who are apparently bounty hunters) and a "cyclops" (John Goodman) who frequently causes harm to the protagonists. The movie is also made as more of a dark surreal comedy than the original poem, but this might just make more sense than one would think. It is through this strange narrative that the Coen Brothers highlight the experiences of living in the Depression.

The movie begins with a shot of a chain gang, a group of prisoners are forced into rows on both sides of a road, performing the seemingly useless task of smashing rocks with pickaxes while surrounded by mounted guards. This is hardly an optimistic moment. They are obviously sweating, exhausted, and probably experiencing muscle pains. This shot is followed by the opening credits, where the three main characters are first revealed. These include Ulysses Everett McGill (George Clooney), Pete Hogwallop (John Turturro), and Delmer O'Donnel (Tim Blake Nelson).

These opening credits happen over a series of silent era-style title cards juxtaposed with long shots of the three protagonists running. The tone is also set by the choice to play this over Harry McClintock's The Big Rock Candy Mountain. a song about a homeless person's idea of utopia. The lyrics describe a fantastical environment where the hardships of life are left behind and a person can have everything they ever wanted. This is quite fitting to the mindset that would have been common among those impoverished by the Depression. There was often an idea that life would get better after that one job, when the reality was a bleak world of false hopes, broken promises, and injustices.

This is reflected in the film's depiction of its three main characters. Throughout the movie, they occasionally find a bright spot where it appears that things are starting to work out, only for a new unforeseen challenge to present itself. The three of them escape hoping to recover a treasure, but this also turns out to be a lie made up by McGill, making the entire setup based on one big false hope for a promising future. Even McGill, who initiated the breakout hoping to reconnect with his family, keeps trying to restart his old life only to be met with disappointment.

As the convicts try to run, they are constantly exploited by nearly everyone they meet. During the initial breakout, the most helpful person they encounter is the strange old man pushing a handcart (who gives them a means to escape). They then reach the safety of Pete's cousin Wash, who ends up turning them in for money. Later on, they encounter the "Cyclops" who is not only extorting money out of uneducated workers, but who also lures McGill and O'Donnel into an isolated patch of ground under the pretence of discussing a "business proposition" only to mug them and steal their cash, even though he probably does not actually need it.

Even the people that do not outright take advantage of the main characters often end up complicating their escape. The only real exception to this rule is Tommy (Chris Thomas King), the guitarist with whom they form the "Soggy Bottom Boys." Tommy more or less becomes one of them, though he is absent for a large stretch of the film after their initial encounter. He is similarly exploited, manipulated, and left at the mercy of others; allowing him to fall on similar ground to the leads. The only trouble is that Tommy is black, which in the racist environment of the Depression makes it hard for them to travel together.

However, the movie is not just about the jailbreak alone. There is also a side plot that further advances these ideas. This part of the film focuses on an upcoming election for the new governor. Both candidates are rich men in shiny suits, and neither one is perfect. The more popular candidate is Homer Stokes  (Wayne Duvall), a man who likes to gloss his speeches with drama and simply tells people what they want to hear. He claims to want to "sweep the state clean", has a dwarf actor play the role of the "little man" and even hires his own personal marching band. It is obvious from the start that he is too good to be true, though it is not until late in the film the nature of the facade is revealed.

Towards the end, the protagonists find themselves accidentally stumbling across a Klu Klux Klan rally, where Tommy is to be lynched. The rally is sabotaged by the three convicts (who are mistakenly identified as black because of the dim lighting and the dirt on their faces) and in the ensuing chaos the leader unmasks himself. It turns out to be none other than Stokes and his dwarf actor who are underneath. By choosing this moment to remove the mask, Stokes is ironically removing his other mask (that which he uses to appeal to the audiences) and revealing his true nature as an extreme bigot. Throughout the remainder of his screentime, Stokes proceeds to try to destroy the protagonists and accuses them of "miscegenation" (mixed-race, a controversial topic for the era).

His opponent, Pappy O'Daniel (Charles Durning) is comparatively more sympathetic in that he seems to have some concern for helping people and ultimately pardons the Soggy Bottom Boys, though he is hardly perfect either. While O'Daniel himself has an interest in change, it is complicated by his incompetent staff, all of whom are rich men whose only ideas amount to copying whatever Stokes does in his campaign. However, O'Daniel himself is not immune to exploiting others; he does after all take advantage of the Soggy Bottom Boys' popularity to boost his own image, as well as hiring them to perform at his rallies.

One could argue that it does work out in that he pardons them, but this is only a temporary victory and, in a way, another false hope. This is shown when they return to the McGill's family farm only to find the cops waiting for him. Even though they have received an official pardon, the Sheriff is still planning to execute them, and Tommy. It is only the fortunate timing of their arrival (the area gets flooded moments later) that saves them. The final scene of the movie involves McGill presents what he thinks is his wife's wedding ring, only to find out it was the wrong one. This once again interferes with the promising life he had hoped for. In the end, the message is simple: no matter what he does, or what happens, there is always some new challenge waiting just a little further ahead.

Thursday, 7 January 2016

Crime Week: Rear Window (Murder!)

Alfred Hitchcock's iconic thriller Rear Window is most often remembered for its unusual structure. The majority of the film's action is set in one apartment, with any action outside only observed through the titular rear window. This makes sense from a narrative standpoint, seeing as it aligns the viewer with L.B. Jeffries (Jimmy Stewart), a photographer trapped in a wheelchair. It has also been frequently the subject of academic discussion. One of the most popular interpretations of the film involves the idea that the windows Jeff looks into are meant to resemble screens, and that he is watching them like one would watch a movie.

Still, there is a deeper meaning towards this seemingly straight forward thriller that often goes unnoticed. Beneath the usual Hitchcock trademarks and experimental editing, the film also serves as a critique of 1950's society. In fact, it is through the use of the central murder itself that Hitchcock draws attention to the flaws of 1950's social attitudes, especially with regards to women. This is reflected in large part through two of its central characters: the protagonist, Jeff,  and the main antagonist, Lars Thorwald (Raymond Burr), who both represent different sides of 1950's ideals.

Both men live opposite lifestyles. Thorwald struggles to take care of his bed-ridden "invalid" wife, while Jeff is confined to a wheelchair and cared for by Lisa Fremont (Grace Kelly). The early scenes present a darker vision of the ideal conformist lifestyle of the 1950's, with Jeff and Thorwald struggling to maintain control. Thorwald is attending to the constant demands of his wife, and seems to be losing control. It gets to the point where the wife, supposedly an invalid, actually gets out of bed only to be intimidated by him into getting back in. Thorwald is determined to avoid having his control lost to a woman, and in the end the only way to prevent it is murder.

Jeff also displays what might have seemed an ideal life for the 1950's. He is bound to a wheelchair with two women who tend to his every need. This would not have been too unusual as a male fantasy. Federico Fellini famously imagined such a situation on a larger scale during the harem sequence of , during which the protagonist imagines all the women he has known in his life living with him in a farmhouse and showing constant affection. They even go as far as to stage rebellions so the main character and feel like he has total control.

By placing Jeff in a wheelchair, Hitchcock is creating a cynical version of this same fantasy, but one where it is dull. He is a photographer trapped in a single apartment with nothing to do but look out the window. He is a working-class man with a beautiful socialite girlfriend (a relationship between classes, something not easy at the time) and he wants to break up with her. According to Jeff, Lisa is not fit to live the same kind of life as he does, but from the moment she appears there is evidence to the contrary. Lisa proves to be loyal, but not submissive (she actually does take action when Jeff hurts her feelings). She is also mentioned to be a businesswoman (though probably in the fashion industry), already establishing that she is a lot more intelligent than Jeff might realize.

It is during these early scenes that Jeff also makes an effort to take control. He is the one who wants to break up with Lisa at first. When he talks to her about this issue later, her tries to explain that she is not meant for a life of travelling while obviously making assumptions about who she is. He is basically trying to rationalize his decision despite being in many ways a poor judge of character. This is evidenced by his early observations of the neighbours, several of whom add to this critique.

One notable example is the attractive ballet dancer "Ms. Torso" (Georgine Darcy), who throughout the film is seen interacting with various men who only seem interested in her beauty. Jeff assumes she is the kind of person to drink, have sex, and marry fast. In fact, she outright stands up to a man who has been sexually abusing her (locking him out of her apartment), and at the end of the film is revealed to be waiting for her (short and spectacled) husband to come home from military service. Jeff also claims on numerous occasions that Thorwald's wife was "an invalid" even though she is clearly shown standing up and walking out of her bedroom. Thorwald's subsequent attempt to scare her back into bed suggests an abusive relationship that goes unnoticed by Jeff.

It is on these grounds that the two men cross paths. Both are struggling to maintain control, and both face it differently. Because of his assumptions, Jeff's credibility upon seeing an actual is brought into question. He no longer has any control over what others think. Lars is similarly determined to silence his wife. The difference is in their ultimate decision. Jeff gradually chooses to relinquish his control, allowing himself to step onto equal ground with Lisa, while Lars becomes determined to maintain absolute power as a man over the woman. It is only when Lisa, as a fellow detective, also joins the investigation that Jeff is able to make any real progress. Lisa even alludes to this in one of her conversations with Jeff, when she comments on how in the "detective stories" it is the girl who is always saving the hero.

Jeff also enlists the assistance of another woman, his nurse Stella (Thelma Ritter). She and Lisa ultimately prove the only ones who are any real assistance to Jeff. He tries to turn to police detective Thomas J. Doyle (Wendell Corey), but he ends up being mostly useless. Doyle constantly refuses to believe that a murder has been committed (though not without good reason) and is bound by police regulations preventing him from taking any major action, while also getting easily distracted by Ms. Torso. He dismisses Lisa's observations as nothing more than "female intuition" and in doing so comes dangerously close to letting Thorwald get away.

Being in a wheelchair, Jeff has no choice but to depend heavily on Stella and Lisa, thus challenging the old idea that a women should depend on a man. The three have to be a team, using their combined skills to outwit Thorwald. It is through his discussions with Lisa that Jeff manages to uncover several holes in Thorwald's alibi claiming that he put his wife on the train. While Jeff himself is the one to figure out that Thorwald buried something in the garden outside his apartment, it is Lisa and Stella who figure out its significance and decide to investigate, while Jeff is forced to stay behind and create a distraction for Thorwald.

Finally, it is Lisa who makes a daring move during this sequence. She voluntarily breaks into Thorwald's apartment. She also uses a risky method of doing so, by climbing over the fire escape into his second-story window. The fact that she is even willing to attempt such a move is an obvious clue that there is more to her character than her socialite status would suggest. Clearly she is a lot more daring and cut out for an adventurous life than Jeff initially assumed.

Thorwald, being confronted by a smart, resourceful young woman, once again finds himself determined to maintain his power. Just like he did to his wife, Thorwald tries again to scare Lisa into submission. This time, he fails. Lisa continues to resist his advances and when she is finally taken by the police, she manages to sneak out the one piece of evidence (a wedding ring) that finally confirms Thorwald's guilt. Thorwald has now lost his control as a man, having been outsmarted by a woman. His efforts have ultimately done nothing but make his situation worse, and he has no choice but to confront Jeff himself.

In this final confrontation, Jeff is faced by Thorwald, who tries to push him out his own rear window, but just like the detective stories Lisa referred to earlier, she is ultimately the one to save the hero. She is the first to see him being attacked, and immediately notifies the police (who were about to enter an empty apartment). The process is now completed. Thorwald, who has attempted to maintain absolute male authority, has now lost all control of those around him. Jeff, meanwhile has managed to accept Lisa as a human being, and a whole new world has opened up to him as a result.

This is seen at the very end. In the movie's final scene, Jeff is lying in his wheelchair with both legs in plaster. This forces him to be more prepared to remain in one place, as Lisa tried to tell him to do earlier. Lisa, however, has also changed. She has abandoned her fancy dresses in favour of a simple shirt and pants. She is also seen reading a book about the Himalayas, indicating a readiness to travel, but she then abruptly shifts to a fashion magazine. The implication is simple. Lisa is more complicated than Jeff realized, and there are many sides to her. Her socialite and adventurous personalities are not mutually exclusive. By realizing this, she has become an equal to Jeff.

Wednesday, 6 January 2016

Crime Week: Reservoir Dogs (Heists)

Quentin Tarantino has something of a longstanding association with crime, one that goes back to his first feature film Reservoir Dogs. While this low-budget early film displays a lot of the trademarks that easily define Tarantino's later films, such as the rapid-fire dialogue and non-linear storytelling, it often stands out due to the curious way he approaches its subject matter. The story centres around a botched heist, specifically an organized attempt to steal diamonds which does not go quite as planned because one of the people involved is an undercover cop. Tarantino's approach to making a heist film, however remains somewhat unusual.

In the hands of any other director, the plot would likely be much more linear. Most likely, the heist would be the climax of the film. The story would focus on Joe (Lawrence Tierney) finding out about the diamonds and his efforts to recruit a team of professionals to pull off the heist, as well as their efforts to learn about the bank's security systems and to devise the appropriate countermeasures for each. Then at the climax, the actual heist would be shown, where the viewer would see how everything comes together. Then it might be played as a twist when the cops turn out to be ready for them, with the ending focusing on the attempted getaway that leads to them double-crossing each other and everything falling apart. This would be a conventional narrative for a heist film.

Instead, Tarantino opts for something very different. He begins the movie just before the heist is to occur, and then moves straight into its immediate aftermath. In fact, the heist itself goes entirely unseen. All information about what happened comes from what is described by the characters afterwards, many of whom have conflicting accounts of the precise chain of events such as when the cops showed up. Tarantino could have made Reservoir Dogs a more conventional heist film, but he chose not to because he was not interested in the heist itself. What he was clearly more interested in is the characters and their interactions. 

The cast is in general very minimalist, with few other characters besides the central thieves. This group contains a total of six men: Mr. White (Harvey Keitel), Mr. Orange (Tim Roth), Mr. Brown (Quentin Tarantino), Mr. Blonde (Michael Madsen), Mr. Pink (Steve Buschemi), and Mr. Blue (Eddie Bunker), as well as their employers Joe Cabot (Lawrence Tierney) and "Nice Guy" Eddie (Chris Penn). Most of the film focuses purely on these individuals. Their association is also marked by the choice of wardrobe: all six of the thieves wear an identical suit, with slicked-back hair and similar pairs of sunglasses. 

This wardrobe serves to mark their association with one another. The only ones to deviate from this pattern are Joe and Eddie, both of whom are dressed casually. This creates an obvious contrast between the two different levels of the crime business, and separates the employers from those who are actually performing the theft. However, this is also deconstructed as the movie progresses. After the heist, each of the characters begin to shed parts of their uniform. The sunglasses come off almost immediately, hair becomes messy, and suits become dirty, torn, or altered (such as Mr. Blonde removing his jacket). These changes give each man a more distinct appearance, and with it a distinct personality.

There are next to no female characters in Reservoir Dogs, which may seem like a strange move given Tarantino's later films, and only one black character in a supporting role (Randy Brooks). The only women who make an appearance are the girl Mr. Pink pulls out of her car and the woman who shoots Mr. Orange (Tarantino actually shot a scene with a female cop, but it was removed because he felt it revealed too much about Mr. White too early). Of course, only six of the responding officers are actually seen: Marvin Nash (Kirk Baltz), the three who chase Mr. Pink, and the two that are shot by Mr. White. Considering that it was heavily implied that there were a bunch of other cops besides these, it is entirely possible that there were female officers present offscreen. 

This may not be totally unjustified, however, as it fits the personalities of the main characters. These guys are anti-heroes, and are hardly treated as nice people. Joe in particular is shown to be a very old-fashioned criminal, and makes several remarks that indicate he is racist, sexist, and homophobic, and the others are not much better. At one point, Mr. Pink outright states that black and white women "ain't the same" and relies on stereotypes to justify this. The film even draws attention to this at times, with details such as Mr. White's anecdote about working with "Alabama" (who according to him is an exceptional thief), not to mention that the woman confronted by Mr. White and Mr. Orange actually makes an effort to defend herself (and ends up shooting the latter). 

It is likely that Joe, being a closed-minded old man, simply would not hire a woman. This would be consistent with much of the rest of the film, which highlights flaws in the criminal lifestyle. Joe is not exactly an effective planner. He is stubborn and refuses to accept any way other than his own (as is shown when he refuses to refer to Mr. Pink as anything other than his assigned nickname). This was after all the same guy who considered a complete psycho to be a good addition to the team, and the other guys involved do not exactly fit together.

This is established in the film's opening scene, where the thieves are eating breakfast and talking. This particular moment establishes each of the central characters through their dialogue. This particular scene marks the only appearance of Mr. Blue, and is one of only two scenes (not including the credits) to show Mr. Brown. Neither of these two are given a huge amount of focus. Mr. Blue only speaks two lines in the entire scene, while Mr. Brown is given a supporting role in the conversation. Both of these men die during the heist, so by reducing their role, Tarantino is singling out the four who will be given the most focus: Mr. White, Mr. Orange, Mr. Pink, and Mr. Blonde.

During this scene, Joe remains distracted from the other guys. While most of them engage in a discussion about the sexual themes of pop music, Joe spends the entire time going through an old address book he apparently found. He seems to be more concerned with remembering the names he finds in the aforementioned book than the heist he is supposed to overseeing later. Mr. White, is quick to recognize this and takes the book. Mr. White is starting to show a sense of responsibility, as he feels the group is disorganized. He even comments on how he feels he is hearing two separate conversations, foreshadowing the inevitable incompatibility of the group. Joe simply responds by stubbornly asking for his book to be returned. This exchange alone is setting up aspects of both characters: Joe's stubbornness and the responsibility Mr. White claims trying to keep everyone organized and looking after Mr. Orange.

Mr. Orange remains very quiet during this scene. This makes sense, foreshadowing his role as the undercover cop, or the odd man out. When Mr. White takes Joe's book, Mr. Blonde jokingly offers to shoot the former. Not only does this foreshadow Blonde's role as a psychopath, but the fact that he directly asks Joe also alludes to the close relationship between them that is later revealed. Mr. Pink then refuses to contribute to the waitress's tip, an act which angers the other guys. When Mr. Pink explains it, there is a cold logic to his reasoning. He makes a perfectly valid point when he comments on how society expects some people to get tips and others not to. This sets up his attitude after the heist, when he is the first person to figure out that one of his partners was a cop and tries to figure out logically who it was.

This scene also establishes an interesting motif that recurs throughout the film, especially in the scenes set prior to the heist. This group of people is acting very casual. They are discussing popular music for much of it, not to mention everybody gets mad at Mr. Pink for refusing to tip the waitress. It would appear less like a robbery and more like a group of office workers going to lunch. Crime is treated as a workplace. The suits worn by the thieves even look like something they would wear to an office.

Two of the flashback sequences, those of Mr. White and Mr. Blonde, both play out very much like job interviews, with them each being seated in Joe's office and questioned about their most recent experiences. Mr. Orange even mentions getting a "reference" to convince Joe that he was a good thief. The planning sequence that is shown is basically organized as a seminar. Joe stands at the front of the room dressed in a business suit and displays charts illustrating his business plan. All these details go to emphasize one simple idea: that while these guys might not be the most pleasant of individuals, in the end they are all just doing their job.

Still, there is that final idea that crime doesn't pay. Everything comes down on top of the main characters in the end. Ultimately, their undoing is that the thieves are incompatible and unable to work together. They are all interested only in their own ends. Mr. White is too concerned about Mr. Orange, Mr. Pink is too determined to find the undercover cop, and Mr. Blonde's psychotic tendencies not only endanger his partners during the heist, but also causes distrust from Mr. White. All of the men are wrapped in their own perspectives so much that when Joe finally does show up, the thieves end up shooting each other before the cops can get to them.

It is fitting that Mr. Pink is the one person to avoid getting shot, being the one person rational enough to stay out of the Mexican Stand-off. He then makes the seemingly logical choice of taking the diamonds (which he might still be able to make money off of and thus get something out of all this), though he is presumably caught when the police show up moments later. The only other possible survivors are Mr. Orange and Mr. White, both of whom are badly injured (the film ends with a final gunshot, though it is hard to tell precisely who fired it and where). Mr. White is then faced with the ironic reveal that the man he has tried to protect and comfort the whole time was in fact the undercover cop.

In the final moments, a group of police officers break into the warehouse offscreen. Only their voices are heard, so it is unclear how many are present. The voices heard are all male, though given how many cops were implied to be involved in this operation, it is not unlikely that there are female officers present outside. What makes this scene curious is the ambiguity of the ending. Tarantino could have shown the cops entering, but instead he focuses purely on Mr. White's face and his reaction. There is final gunshot, but the audience is left to question where it came from and who was hit. Mr. White is seen collapsing, but this could be just from his injuries.

Once again, this ties into the simple idea that Tarantino is not interested in the heist itself. In another filmmaker's hands, the central plot of Reservoir Dogs would only make up the final act of the film, after the heist has been shown. There would be a shot of a group of cops entering the building and surrounding Mr. White (or possibly shooting him when he refuses to put down his gun, but it would be a lot more obvious). This would make sense; one normally watches a conventional heist film with an interest in seeing how the heist is pulled off, but Reservoir Dogs is not a conventional heist movie.

Tarantino is not so much interested in the heist itself as he is in the people involved. It is a character study, an attempt to get into the minds of the criminals. The actual crime is irrelevant. Tarantino could have said anything about what the protagonists were trying to do. The diamonds have almost nothing to do with the overall story. It is all about how the main characters play off of each other, and the mounting tensions that ultimately lead to their undoing. This is why Reservoir Dogs stands out among crime films.