Monday, August 31, 2009

Revisiting 1999: The Top 10 Films of the Year, #9 --- Affliction (Paul Schrader)

Paul Schrader loves making films about men who have complexes. These Schrader protagonists are never likable characters – oh, they try to be, but they try so hard to be pleasant that they come off as repugnant or annoying. And I mean that as a compliment to Schrader’s writing and directing skills. Schrader is one of my ten favorite American directors…probably of all time. His films have a hypnotic pull to them that suck you into their themes of loneliness and discomfort. He’s created marginalized and pathetic, eager-to-please characters before, but maybe none more uncomfortable to watch than Wade (a brilliant performance by Nick Nolte) in his 1999 film Affliction (adapted from the novel by Russell Banks). Wade is a ferociously inept man, a sheriff of a small New Hampshire town, who instead of standing tall behind his badge and gun shrinks back – slumping throughout his day from mundane project to mundane project – and he’s always teetering between being the overly-apologetic do-gooder or exploding in fits of physical and verbal rage. It’s what makes Schrader’s film so memorable; a perfect mixture of Schrader’s experience with male characters like Wade, and a performance for the ages by Nick Nolte.

Affliction takes place in one of those isolated snow-drenched Russell Banks towns (he also wrote the haunting The Sweet Hereafter which also focuses its attention on a small town) that aptly supply the metaphorical setting for these characters. Wade is cold and detached, and his father Glenn (the great James Coburn) is icy – his skin almost looking frozen over from all the hard years of drinking. Wade and his brother Rolf (played by Schrader regular Willem Dafoe, who supplies the opening and closing narration, giving the film an appropriate feel of family lore or mythology) were abused as children. Their father was a brute (we’re privy to this through town gossip and flashbacks filmed in 8mm), an abuser who drank too much and thought little of his wife. Their mother has died (unbeknownst to Glenn, another example of how little attention he paid to her) and thus brings Rolf to town to deal with the situation alongside Wade.

Prior to the death of their mother is another subplot that I dare not give too much information about. There is a murder in the town, an action that revitalizes Wade and briefly wakes him up from his reverie of loathsomeness and ineptitude. Instead of trying too hard to please his young daughter and not piss off his ex-wife (like anyone who has been abused or is an abuser Wade always make a public show about how he’s not hurting their daughter, despite the fact that he is verbally abusing her by being so abrasive and smothering) he focuses his attention away from his familial problems (his father included) – and a bugger of a toothache – and tries to solve the murder that has taken place in town. For the first time Wade stands tall, but unfortunately it all devolves into an orgy of paranoia and rage as the more Wade uncovers the mystery, the closer he becomes a brute like his father. That’s all I really want to divulge about the subplot because in a bit of inspired storytelling we learn a lot about Wade, his brother, and the town through the procedural parts of the film.

Nolte plays Wade as a man always on edge. There are countless scenes in the film (and really we notice it form the onset in a conversation with his daughter) where we are never quite sure if this is the moment where Wade loses it. There’s a horribly sad scene where Wade is having a really bad day, but is hanging out with his young daughter. He forces her to have lunch with him, and when they get to the bar to eat he is smothering her and mispronouncing the word “grilled cheese”. The bartender, aware of Wade and his family’s history with alcoholism, corrects him in a snide way and pays the price for it as Wade snaps and pulls the bartender from behind the counter and onto the bar…right in front of his daughter. It’s a scary scene that shows Wade’s imbalance.

And what better actor to portray the unpredictable Wade than Nick Nolte? Nolte has had a great career with characters that are kind of dumpy and always teetering on the edge of sanity, but I really think that Affliction, and his role as Wade, has been the acme of his esteemed career. It’s the perfect character for Nolte: Wade is a balance of a guy you want to root for because he’s so inept and clueless, but he just won’t let you because he makes stupid move after stupid move. In one scene of impressive acting Nolte brusquely walks into his father’s house right as Wade’s girlfriend Margie, played by Sissy Spacek, storms out. Wade doesn’t ask Margie what’s wrong, instead he grabs a bottle of alcohol from his father and proceeds to remove an achy tooth that has been driving him crazy throughout the film. It’s a repulsive scene because he repeatedly ignored his friends and Margie’s requests to get the tooth checked out, but Nolte plays it in the middle: he’s both maniacal in actions (I mean who the hell would do that?) and shows a bit of tenderness in the scene – the only way, it seems, he can feel anything is to inflict pain upon himself.

The reason why he is so numb and left to feel worthless is because of his alcoholic father Glenn. In an inspired piece of casting Schrader decided to go with B-movie actor James Coburn as Glenn. Schrader liked Coburn because he wanted someone who could tower over the already impressive presence of Nolte. Coburn plays Glenn with a detached eeriness, and we see signs of him in Wade as the film progresses. There is a moment where nothing has gone right for Wade, and we slowly begin to see him devolve into his father (though, he never makes the full transformation) as he witnesses Margie gathering her things from his house in an attempt to move away from the sickness that is Wade’s family. Wade has just returned from the botched lunch effort with his daughter and begins to forcefully hug Margie in a lame attempt to get her to stay. Wade’s daughter sees this as him “hurting” her, so she begins to attack Wade until he pushes her off, bloodying her nose in the process. After Margie leaves with Wade’s daughter Glenn comes out and smiles with approval as he claims that he always knew Wade “had it in him”.

Affliction is a haunting film that shows Wade’s inability to break the cycle of abuse. Banks’ other novel The Sweet Hereafter was also about parental abuse, although more cerebral than the bluntly portrayed alcoholic Glenn. Both stories show the ramifications of abuse on the victims and how they get their payback. In The Sweet Hereafter the daughter’s payback to her father was just as cerebral as his acts on her. In Affliction, though, the final act is fitting for someone like Wade. There is nothing subtle about Wade or Glenn, so it’s befitting that the ending to their story (as told by Rolf through the narration) is more obvious than in Banks’ other famous novel.

Schrader had a great year in 1999 with the release of Affliction and Bringing Out the Dead which brought him and Scorsese together again as collaborators. I’ve always had a special affinity for Affliction. It’s a haunting, contemplative film with a great sense of place. The small New Hampshire town feels authentic, and the actions of Wade (thanks to the acting by Nolte) never seem too “out there”. Schrader always has a way of basing his films in an uncomfortable realty that forces the viewer to really look at the character of these people we’re watching and wait until the end until we decide whether or not they’re bad people and are to blame for their actions.

There aren’t a lot of filmmakers who take the time to cover such heavy themes as Schrader does. He reminds me of Bergman in a lot of ways: he has a subdued aesthetic, he loves loftier themes that deal with the religious or existential, and he loves simple establishing shots with a static camera where the mise-en-scene tells us everything we need to know about what the characters are feeling. Obviously I don’t think Schrader has put out the amount of quality that Bergman has, but their films seem akin in certain aspects, and I fully embrace that type of patient and subdued filmmaking in this A.D.D. era of filmmaking. Affliction is a small masterpiece. There’s nothing flashy about it, but boy does it sneak up on you and knock you out with its power. It’s one of Schrader’s best films.

Extra stills:

Friday, August 28, 2009

Alright...let's talk about these Basterds...

Artists and entertainers have always re-worked history. I don't understand some of these objections, either -- especially when the movie is so heavily stylized -- so clearly NOT "real" -- in every particular. Besides, Spielberg's "1941" (based on a real incident!) probably has more to do with the particulars of WWII than "IB" does. The fact that, say, "Mississippi Burning" made two white FBI agents the heroes of the investigation into the actual murders of three real civil rights workers (James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner) is pretty damned offensive -- but not nearly as offensive as the cartoon racism in every frame of Alan Parker's film. But that film was just a straight-out Hollywood "prestige picture," a "historical drama," not a movie-movie fable full of devices that emphasize its MOVIEness. It took itself dead seriously, and expected its audience to. I can understand that some people think "Inglourious Basterds" is frivolous or isn't worth doing, but "Holocaust denial"? Now who's trivializing?

Jim Emerson from his Scanners blog

I avoid writing reviews of new movies for many reasons, not the least of which is that everyone writes about the same movies at the same time. Would a blogger rather be one of a hundred reviews for the latest blockbuster or the only guy putting down his thoughts on Floods of Fear? I'll take the latter almost every time.

Greg from Cinema Styles

The above quotes by two of my favorite bloggers Jim Emerson and Greg get at the heart of what will be more an example of stream of consciousness than a traditional “review”. Because like Greg I feel like the film needs to be talked about. Not the subtexts (that Emerson so wonderfully refutes in his quote above), which are fascinating, but the “MOVIEness” as Emerson calls it, about Inglourious Basterds. I know I will see it again – in fact I know I must see it again – but for now I will simply list some of things that I found fascinating about the film (since there are SO many reviews out there discussing plot points, characters’ motivations, subtexts, etc. I just want to hit on a couple crucial things).

Again, I agree with Greg’s sentiments towards writing about new films right when they come out, although I do write about new movies sometimes, I prefer to say something about a movie that people haven’t talked about in a while. I mean what can I possibly say that already hasn’t been said by people more articulate than me? We’ll give it a go…

References and Motifs:

But that's what makes Quentin Tarantino the man he is: there's not a single new idea in any of his films, but something about the way he puts them all together is bracing and original. He is a singular talent: the cinema's reigning lord of pop culture post-modernism. And he's just released the most challenging and intellectually engaging film of his deceptively intelligent career.

Tim from Antagony & Ecstasy

Well you can’t talk about Tarantino without talking about how referential he is. Like the well revered Brian DePalma (who I admittedly have problems with, but see his talent) Tarantino is a director obsessed with making the movies he wants to make. Not only that, he, like DePalma (a man QT often cites as an idol) are always making the viewer aware that you’re watching a movie. Whether it be through split screens, title cards, flashbacks, voice over explanations on the how flammable film is…the list goes on. There’s nothing “real” going on here; which is why I don’t understand the backlash against the films “inaccuracies”. But I don’t want to get into that…

Jim Emerson posted a great website on his blog the other day that ran through almost all the references imaginable in Inglourious Basterds. I would say I was good on spotting about 25 of those references (I was never a fan of war movies). Some of my favorites were:

The obvious reference to Hitchcock’s Sabotage at the end of the film (and Tarantino even uses footage from that movie in one scene) as the theater full of Nazi’s are completely unaware that the highly flammable nitrite film that Shosanna has piled up behind the theater screen is going to kill them. You also have Hitler and German Film guru Joseph Goebbels sit in a balcony completely unaware that there is a bomb underneath their seats…which for some reason I’m attributing to something Hitch once said…but for the life of me I can’t remember.

The beginning has a shot of the escaping Shosanna through a door frame that immediately sprang to mind John Ford’s The Searchers.

The entire film reminded me of John Milius’ Red Dawn, another re-imagining of historical events where a rowdy group of teenagers take on the Russian army. Red Dawn was one of my favorite films growing up…so…I smiled when I saw John Milius being thanked in the credits.

Shosanna’s quest to kill the man who killed her family (the “Jew Hunter” Hans Landa, played to perfection by Christoph Waltz, but more on him later) reminded me of Verhoeven’s Black Book, another film about a Jewish woman, who despite her disgust for those she has to cozy up to, aides the Dutch resistance by dying her hair and pretending to be someone she despises. Verhoeven’s film is another extremely entertaining piece of revisionist history through the genre of the action film, and quite honestly I’m a little surprised there aren’t more comparisons between the two films and their style in approaching the subject of WWII.

References to Leni Riefenstahl’s films made me think of a documentary I saw in a film class (The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl) where Riefenstahl talks about the “ice” films she made (The White Hell of Pitz Palu is showing at Shosanna’s cinema) that were directed by Pabst, who is mentioned numerous times throughout the film.

In the film within a film Nation’s Pride starring the character Frederick Zoller, there are numerous references…some self-reflexive (the excessiveness of the violence) and some more obvious like someone getting shot in the eye (Potemkin) or just the storyline of a sniper during WWII (Enemy at the Gates).

The end of the film had references galore, which seems appropriate since it takes place in a movie house. The first reference I thought of was of Raiders of the Lost Ark as the flickering of Shosanna’s maniacal laugh can be seen through the smoke and debris of the burnt theater screen. This creates an eerie illusion of her projected face mixing with the fire and the smoke showing her to be ghostlike. This made me think of Spielberg’s film where the swirling spirits from the Ark moan and make creepy noises before killing the Nazi’s. Which leads me to the next scene that reminded me of Spielberg’s film: Hitler getting his face shot off. It seemed to have melted under the excessive gunfire, and this immediately made me think of the Nazi torturer in Raiders who gets his face melted off.

The other film that I was reminded of at the end was DePalma’s Carrie. DePalma’s film, like Tarantino’s latest, also ends in an orgy of violence where people are trapped and can’t get out. The fire surrounding the Nazi’s and the bloodied face of Eli Roth made me think of that famous scene from Carrie. There are also a couple of moments where Tarantino uses split screen – a device, that when done well, one cannot help but think of DePalma.

Of course there is the reference to this blogs namesake. I remember a year ago or so reading that Tarantino was going to have a character named Hugo Stiglitz. I’m just glad I named my blog before then so that people wouldn’t think I was making a reference to the film instead of the actor. Seeing those big letters on the screen filled me with so much glee…naturally my friend Brandon and I were the only ones laughing.

And of course the very end is such an obvious homage to one of the Coen Brothers most underrated movies Miller’s Crossing, that I couldn’t help but immediately think of that once I saw them standing out in the forest.

Of course recognizing these references doesn’t make the film any better or worse – it just gives geeks like me something more to talk about. So if you’re an astute film buff I’m sure you’ll savor all of the references in the film…some of which, admittedly, went right over my head (like a lot of the soundtrack stuff).

There are countless allusions that I am missing; however, like a DePalma film, Tarantino’s films are able to succeed whether or not you get all of the references or not. The films success does not rely on whether or not the audience “gets” it. This proves to me that Tarantino is a considerable talent (duh, right) and always has been. He makes the movies he wants to make for movie nerds like himself; however, these films are able to transcend any references and succeed at the most basic requirement for a movie: it’s entertaining as hell. Inglourious Basterds is one of the most exhilarating experiences I’ve had in the theater since Tarantino’s Kill Bill Vol. 2 which I saw twice in the same day. It has so many scenes that know exactly what they’re doing and never step wrong…despite the fact that there are, like all of Tarantino’s films, multiple layers to each scene.

Some of the motifs can be found throughout Tarantino’s films. Almost all of Tarantino’s films begin with a conversation. This is definitely an unorthodox way to “rope” viewers into a major film, but Tarantino succeeds with perhaps his best opening ever in Inglourious Basterds. It reminded me of the way the conversation in Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill Vol. 2 set up a lot of what we’re about to see in those movies. Another motif that Tarantino loves is the use of nicknames in his films. All throughout his career Tarantino has loved to mythologize his characters by giving them catchy nicknames. Another motif that fits within the mythology discussion is the fact that Tarantino loves to slice up his films in chapters, with sometimes-sardonic and sometimes-straight-to-the-point title cards. These title cards let us know what we’re in store for, and often times Tarantino delights in taking little detours that explain the origin of certain characters or situations.

I want to end this section by referring to the quote above. I agree with Tim that Tarantino’s career, for as lauded as it has been, seems to be “deceptively intelligent”. A lot of people give QT credit for being savvy and cool with his films, but not a lot of people talk about the skill that goes into the look of his films, or the way that he can take a subject that is wholly unappealing to the masses (WWII films, Kung-Fu films, Blaxploitation) but deeply personal to him, and make them into successful, enthralling, and viscerally entertaining pieces of art. I, oddly enough, don’t think Tarantino gets praised enough.

Two Great Scenes:

Always make the audience suffer as much as possible.

Alfred Hitchcock

There are really two major scenes that deserve special attention: the tavern scene and the ending in the cinema.

The tavern scene is a perfect example of what Hitchcock is talking about in the quote I’ve placed above. The scene is nearly 30 minutes long, and all I could think about was this it ended too soon. I suffered alright, but it was the greatest suffering of all. There's tension in the tavern scene that I haven't felt watching a movie in ages.

Tarantino sets the scene masterfully by having the one person not originally a part of the Basterds platoon screw the whole thing up. I have to say, when the SS officer makes his appearance from around the corner, I was genuinely surprised, and my nerves were at a fever pitch as to what would happen. The acting in the scene (as well as the whole film) was spot-on, and Tarantino uses that “rubber band” philosophy of ratcheting up suspense with this movie-stealing scene.

The scene stretches and stretches until the viewer can only think that something bad is bound to happen because we’ve been sitting on the scene for so long (much like the masterful opening interrogation scene). The way Tarantino patiently allows the scene to unfold shows restraint that a lot of modern directors are incapable of displaying. When the rubber band finally bends as far as it can go, and the guns are pulled under the table (a nice subdued variation on Tarantino’s famous Mexican standoff scene from Reservoir Dogs) I remember thinking that I literally hadn’t sat back in my seat the entire scene. I mean I wasn’t, as the cliché goes, on the edge of my seat, but I was sitting upright…not relaxed at all. When the rubber band finally breaks (after nearly a half hour of bated-breath-anxiety on whether or not the rubber band can withstand the tension being put on it) and the guns go off in a quick burst of bloody violence the crowd I saw the film with let out a collective sigh (granted there were only about 15 of us in the theater…but still it could be heard).

This scene reminded me a lot of the beneath-the-surface tension that was on display in those brilliant final moments of Kill Bill Vol. 2 where Bill is talking to Beatrix about his theories on the superheroes, specifically the Superman/Clark Kent dichotomy. This spill out into a conversation with the two at a table outside of Bill’s house…and the tension is palpable as we know that the two must meet and that Bill must die (after all, like Inglourious Basterds it’s your basic revenge story…plus the film is called Kill Bill), so for Tarantino to be able to get to the conclusion he wanted without it feeling boring or stale shows just how much skill this man has directing scenes of tension where nothing is really “happening” in the conventional Hollywood way.

It’s one of the most masterfully executed scenes I’ve seen in any movie. And when I say that I don’t mean in a hyperbolic “this is 30th best film of all time according to IMDB” kind of way…this isn’t some brash reaction from a Tarantino fanboy (or maybe it is who the hell cares), but I’m genuine when I say that the movie is worth seeing for the tavern scene alone.

The other great scene is of course the ending, which I’ve already talked about a little bit. The scene in the cinema begins with some of the Basterds out of their element, and it’s one of the rare moments in the film where Tarantino goes for real laughs – and fails. It’s not that the actors aren’t up to it; it’s just that the jokes aren’t that good and feel really played out. It’s almost as if I was left saying “really Quentin…jokes about people not being able to speak a language?” However, once a crucial character is taken away from the Basterds the final 30 minutes of the film or so (I really don’t how long the end is because the film felt like a breezy 90 minutes despite its 150 minute run time) well crafted that all of the aforementioned directors that Tarantino alludes to would be proud to call the finale of this film their own.

This is also where the only bit of imagery from the concentration camps comes in as Eli Roth gleefully unloads his machine gun on piles of Nazi’s as the scratch and claw for a way out of the locked theater. Again, though, I don’t want to delve into that here (although the comments section is fair game), but the ending is something to behold. For any lover of film it’s an orgy of allusions and visual nods to film geeks everywhere. It’s also one of the most assured pieces of direction Tarantino has ever shown. I felt like I was watching a Hitchcock espionage movie like Notorious the way the camera beautifully pans through the crowds of characters, momentarily being intercepted by important characters making their arrival and Tarantino’s helpful animated arrows telling who a certain someone is. The movement of Tarantino’s camera in this scene and the blocking of action is something that is normally not attributed to Tarantino.

The acting/characters:

Inglourious Basterds has been hyped as a Dirty Dozen-ish WWII flick; yet with typical perversity, Tarantino has made a war movie wherein its warriors are along the periphery rather than at the center.

Craig from The Man From Porlock

I like Craig’s point about the movie, because Tarantino does something interesting here. Most of his film isn’t in English, and yet the theater I saw the film in was still totally invested in the film. I wouldn’t call my hometown of Salem a Podunk town, but we’re definitely the little brother to the real big city in our state, Portland. I’ve seen subtitled films in theaters here before, and it almost always induces groans from the audience. So, I was pleasantly surprised that the crowd I saw Inglourious Basterds with was so into the film that they didn’t notice the subtitles. Or maybe they just didn’t care and I’m not giving them enough credit…could be a little of both.

That being said, the film really isn’t so much about the Basterds as it is about Shosanna. She’s the heart of this film. Her journey of revenge is more personal than that of the Basterds, so I think it’s wise that Tarantino spends a good portion of the middle of the film on her attempts to kill the man that killed her family.

That man is known as the “Jew Hunter”. He’s Col. Hans Landa and he is played by Christoph Waltz who is getting accolades from everyone, and deservingly so. He plays Landa with a smoothness that is evident in investigators we see in other films. Because after all, Lans justifies his actions by thinking of himself as only an investigator, and not a murder of Jews. He sees himself as being the best at his job because he can think like a Jewish person, something that his peers cannot (or will not) do. He’s a weasel, and one of the best villains I’ve seen in a movie in a long, long tine. Waltz deserves every award he’s bound to win for this role.

Some of the other performances are just as memorable. Mélanie Laurent plays Shosanna as vulnerable heroine. She’s not the Bride, that’s for sure, and there is a great scene where Land pays a surprise visit to a lunch that Shosanna (under the guise of Emmanuel) and her “love interest” (read: way of getting to the Nazi’s) Zoller (a young soldier who is an admirer of film, and is a war hero who has starred in a film about his exploits) are attending. Shosanna plays it cool throughout the interrogation (Land can’t help himself, he’s always asking questions) but once Land leaves Tarantino stays on Shosanna for just a bit longer and she begins to exhale nervously and cry. It’s a telling scene that shows that even though she is willing to go all the way to avenger her family’s death (and in the process kill herself) she is still human. She’s not the icy femme fatale that she pretends to be later in the film when she dons the red dress, black veil, and red lipstick. It’s a nice little moments that really humanizes her character even more.

And then there’s the Basterds. There’s not much to say here. I wasn’t as annoyed with Eli Roth as I thought I would be, and he’s actually a pretty good description of his nickname in the film “the Jew bear”. Brad Pitt plays Aldo “the Apache” Raine (he’s called the Apache because he wants 100 Nazi scalps from each of his men) with a funny Coen-esque southern drawl. He’s also adding in a little Clint Eastwood (the squinting) and what I thought was a hint of Michael Parks (the way he hesitates between words), the grindhouse actor who Tarantino loves and cast in his From Dusk Till Dawn and Kill Bill movies. Of course, I’m sure there are others I’m missing.

And of course everyone who was involved in the tavern scene was just phenomenal.

Final Thoughts:

To say it is “meta” and “about the movies” is akin to saying that the sky is blue, but that it sometimes gets gray when it rains, and oh yes — it’s black at night unless there’s a full moon.

Rick Olson from Coosa Creek Cinema

I like what Rick says here, even though he didn’t like the movie. The movie, as you can tell from some of the other quotes above, is nothing more than a revenge tale set in an alternate universe where Tarantino simply says “what if…” The film even opens with the words “Once upon a time…” evoking the very fairy tale feeling that Tarantino wants. It’s like all of the WWII films he watched or the comics he read growing up that used WWII as a backdrop for revisionist history to tell tales of revenge.

That being said: Rick is right...the "meta" aspects of this film are worn on its sleeve. He's done this before and been able to shape extremely absorbing stories around these more sophisticated, film geeky meta moments. To me this "meta" aspect is nothing new with QT. Inglourious Basterds at its core is nothing more than a movie about a rag tag platoon not unlike the Dirty Dozen or Kelly’s Heroes who are good at killing Nazi’s. It’s as simple a story as there can be, and I don’t understand really all of the deeper anti-Holocaust readings that some critics are applying to the film. It’s a simple revenge tale directed by a man who is good at directing revenge tales (I think Kill Bill Vol. 2 is one of the best films of the decade) that, as I've stated already, have these more postmodern, meta moments swirling around the very basic premise of his films.

Inglourious Basterds is also a film made by as sure a director as we may have here in America. The audacity for someone to continually make the movies that only he would want to watch – but to be so brash in knowing that others will love it despite the possibilities of not “getting it” – this is something that is found in only the most audacious of artists. Tarantino is unlike any filmmaker making movies today. There’s a reason why he changed the way we look at movies when he made his masterwork Pulp Fiction in 1994…it’s because he’s that damn good. It’s the same reason why we look at music within the last 40 years differently post-Dylan or read late 20th/ early 21st century literature differently post (fill in the blank…there are numerous authors you could mention here…Salman Rushdie, Martin Amis, David Foster Wallace, et al)…despite their popularity and the fact that people have praised their work to death, it doesn’t make it any less impactful or important. And this is how I feel about Tarantino. Yes, he’s caused there to be many copycats; and yes he’s been praised to the heavens already; however, I don’t think we’ve praised him enough for the one thing he’s really good at and that is on display for the entire 150 minute run time of Inglourious Basterds: the man knows how to make one helluva a good movie.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Initial Thoughts on Inglourious Basterds

I don't want to get into a big thing about it now because I am only about 5 hours removed from seeing it. But, the movie was effing fantastic. It reminded me of Red Dawn. Wolverines!!!! Anyway (obviously it's better than the Milius film, but that was my initial reaction to the film as varying scenes of visceral fantasy unfolded) . The Hugo Stiglitz moment made me smile...obviously, and my God that tavern scene is one of the most tense things I have seen in a movie. When the credits finally rolled I just let out a deep sigh and finally sat back in my seat. That's not an exaggeration. Like the end of Kill Bill Vol.2 Tarantino has created scenes of dialogue that are more intense than any kind of action scene could hope to be. I read somewhere that he describes it as a rubber band...and you just keep stretching it and stretching it and the tension is whether or not it will snap. And with the tavern scene he stretches that rubber band for about 20 minutes until it breaks in rapid burst of bloody violence that's over before you know it.

Anyway, tomorrow I plan on posting something more substantial about the film. Which leads me to this post. There are a lot of great conversations going on right now about the film and its many subtexts. I, however, do not wish to talk about those in my write up for the movie. Why? Well, because so many others are doing it better already and I don't want to be yet another voice saying the same things as these other fine bloggers. I'm coming to the party too late with this one. The other reason is that I really just want to talk about the film...because that's what Tarantino has made: a masterpiece of film. Not a historically accurate retelling of WWII...but a film -- films that take place in historical times don't have to be literal/factual retellings people! There's this thing called mythology -- and somehow people have taken myth and metaphor out of stories about "the way things were" because we've become a movie-going audience that is so concerned with credibility and realism. I mean how many times do you hear people complain about movies because "that would never happen" or "It's so fake".

The film even opens with the words "Once upon a time..." and is divided into chapters like the rest of Tarantino's films (his attempt at mythology, no doubt). So...after the jump there will be links. Please click on them and join the conversations. There are some great one's out there. I'll be back tomorrow with more thoughts. Onto the links...

Bill R.
and Dennis Cozzalio have a brilliant three part series on the film. Many interesting things being discussed in those threads. Check it out. It's essential reading if you've seen the movie.

Ryan Kelly
has a great write-up at his blog.

Andrew of the always fantastic Gateway Cinephiles gives the film an "A".

Greg of Cinema Styles shares the same sentiments as me in regards to reviewing a movie that EVERYONE will be talking about...which is why I just want to talk about what was on the screen.

Craig over at The Man From Porlock has a great review up.

As always Jim Emerson puts to shame what I could ever hope to say about the picture (or any movie for that matter).

Tim's review is up

Tony of the superb Cinema Viewfinder has a great, great review of the film.

I'll be back tomorrow with thoughts on the film. Until then...

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Revisiting 1999: The Top 10 Films of the Year, #10 --- The Limey (Steven Soderbergh)

Steven Soderbergh’s neo noir-revenge tale The Limey is about as ordinary a story as you will likely see. You have a man named Wilson (Terrence Stamp) fresh out of prison and seeking revenge on the man who was responsible for his daughters death, a hipster 60’s record producer Valentine (played by Peter Fonda, in a bit of perfect casting) who “tapped into the 60’s zeitgeist and ran with it.” Along the way Wilson gathers information from new-found friends who aide him in finding out the truth about his daughter (great supporting roles by Luis Guzman and Leslie Ann Warren). All of this sounds rather ordinary and banal, however, Soderbergh and his editor Sarah Flack dice up the films events in a way that makes it feel fresh, and surprisingly, free from all contrivances.

The aesthetic isn’t simply a distraction from Lem Dobbs’ rather ho-hum attempt at neo-noir; it serves as a perfect coda for these icons of 60’s cinema. The film plays out like the long awaited final showdown between two aging gunslingers. Wilson is a machine in the way he goes about getting information, and Valentine is a man who is content hiring out for people to do his dirty work. Valentine still (like Fonda) evokes that certain quality about the 60’s that makes him almost likable – he just can’t seem to separate himself from the era that made him so much money (and yes we’re talking about Valentine the character and Fonda the actor, here).

I also like how Soderbergh splices in footage from Stamp’s films from the 60’s (especially a beautiful piece of footage that ends the film in a poetic, elegiac way) to act his memories of his daughter when she was younger. Soderbergh also appropriately opens the film with The Who’s “The Seeker” – the perfect song to be playing in the background as Wilson begins his search for the truth. All of the elements are here, presented in a way that gives a fitting send off to these recognizable stars from the 60’s. The film even feels free from all hindrances associated with modern filmmaking…it has that 60’s “free and easy” attitude about filmmaking – the vibe found in the films that made Fonda a star of that decade.

At a brusque 88 minutes there’s nothing superlative in The Limey. It’s one of Soderbergh’s best films, and the one film where he shows the most restraint. There’s a great scene where Wilson is approached by a bodyguard at Valentine’s place, and in a botched attempt to throw Wilson out of the party the bodyguard ends up getting head-butted and tossed over the railing. The scene is made all the more interesting by the fact that the action doesn’t appear in the foreground. Instead the viewer is listening to Valentine talk about the horrible parking situation on Venice Beach, and in the background we see Wilson toss the bodyguard over the rail. It’s a perfectly executed scene because of Soderbergh’s restraint.

Another great scene sees Wilson entering a garage of sorts where a bunch of toughs work. He’s looking for some information about his daughter but gets beat up for his troubles and thrown out on the pavement. Soderbergh keeps his camera at bay, as we watch Wilson walk back into the garage and the next thing we hear are gunshots and men screaming. Then a man comes running out past the camera. The static camera begins to move in to get a closer look at a bloodied Wilson as he screams: “You tell him I’m coming!” The fact that Soderbergh shot the scene in long shot makes it much funnier and a better effect as opposed to if he would have followed Wilson in and shot all of the bloody action. The scene reminded me of the end of William Wellman’s brilliant noir The Public Enemies where the viewer is deprived of the final shoot-out as the camera sits outside in the rain and all we hear are gunshots from inside a building.

There’s no doubt that the editing is the star of the film here, but Terrence Stamp is pretty damn brilliant, too. He plays Wilson with a head-to-the-ground intensity that reminded me of the robot from Westworld. Soderbergh trusts his audiences to know why the characters – Stamp playing an ex-con and Fonda playing a man who profited off the 60’s zeitgeist – need no fleshing out. It allows him to pace his film effectively at 88 minuets, a perfect time for the audience to be swept away by the interesting editing technique (obviously influenced by one of Soderbergh’s favorite movements The French New Wave) and great performances before realizing that this story is old hat.

Today filmmakers employ all kinds of editing trickery to try and make their films appear like they are saying something, when in reality they are just annoying attempts at distracting the viewer from what’s really going on: no storytelling ability. Soderbergh is seemingly doing the same thing here, but by showing scenes out of order, and context – mixing in dialogue from one scene with multiple locations – he is giving us the recollection of events through Wilson’s memory as he thinks back on his trip to the States while aboard a plane.

In addition to the editing, Soderbergh really shows his chops in the way he wisely uses the hand-held format. Any filmmaker who wants to know how to effectively use the hand-held format should watch this film (and others by Soderbergh) because Soderbergh is a master at it. Nothing feels shaky for the sake of being shaky – every camera bump or unsteady movement is the perfect accompaniment to what is going on in Wilson’s quest for answers about his dead daughter.

This film was kind of the jumping off point for Soderbergh’s recent success. Sure he made it big with his Sundance smash Sex, Lies, and Videotape; but, The Limey, and the film that came out the year before Out of Sight, reaffirmed his skill (in the public eye...I've always loved his work...even his failures are interesting failures) as a director after a few flops: Kafka was an experimental failure (even though I quite like the film), King of the Hill was a brilliant film but failed to get him recognized by a wider audience, The Underneath was a filed attempt at noir, and Schizopolis was clearly a personal film with no intention of making money. All of these films failed to get him the same recognition his debut Sundance hit did.

However, after the critical success of Out of Sight and The Limey Soderbergh made financial headlines with his underdog film Erin Brokavich, and in the same year his interpolated masterpiece Traffic – which kind of set the trend for the hyper-link films that would follow (Syriana, Babel, Crash, et al). Since Soderbergh has gone the Frank Capra route: one personal film and one for the studio. In between the Ocean movies Soderbergh has made the brilliant Bubble, the not-so-brilliant Full Frontal, the criminally underrated Solaris, Che, and The Girlfriend Experience. Soderbergh is a director of astonishing talent, and lost in his oeuvre is this small classic from 1999. The Limey may not be the sexiest film on Soderbergh’s resume, but there’s no denying that it’s one of his most interesting and successful experiments.

A special shout-out to one of my favorite character actors Bill Duke who has a small role as a DEA agent. Hence the picture of him below. Hehe.

Monday, August 24, 2009

...And We're Back

Well…I’m back from the honeymoon and ready to get back to this whole blogging thing. That picture above was taken at the Canadian Iron Chef's restaurant (for all you Food Network fans) The Cactus Grill (or something like that...the food and beer were delicious. They have some good breweries there in Victoria, not as good as here in the Northwest...but I digress) However, I don’t have a review of The Limey ready yet because…well I just haven’t had the time. It’s funny – when you get married how things change. I don’t mean in a bad way, though, I mean in an “I have to go to the store and buy a plunger” kind of way. Therefore any momentum I may have had watching a film or attempting to write about one as been stunted as my wife and I try to get settled into the apartment and acclimated to married life. Here, though, is a brief recap of some of the films my wife and I watched while on the honeymoon:

500 Days of Summer:

My wife and I went to Victoria, B.C. for our honeymoon…it’s one of the most beautiful cities I’ve ever visited…anyway…they have a pretty decent theater there that was playing The Hurt Locker and 500 Days of Summer. The former proved to be too intense for my wife so we decided to see 500 Days of Summer, a film I have been looking forward to. I wasn’t too disappointed, either. The film was harmless enough and definitely delivered on some genuine laughs. I liked the way the film poked fun at these emo guys who bitch and moan about every little detail of a conversation, and read way too much into things. They are no better than the blabbering idiots on "Sex and the City". I liked that the filmmakers were willing to celebrate the brooding nature of its main character (played wonderfully by Joseph Gordon-Levitt who reminded me a lot of myself when I was about 18-23, hehe) and poke fun at him for doing more talking about the situation than acting. I also liked the detours into whimsy that the film takes. There’s a great moment where Levitt’s character breaks into a dance number and little cartoon birds fly by. I also liked when Levitt’s character is all dour and the film breaks off into a parody of French New Wave and Bergman films.

The female lead, Zoey Deschanel, was good enough – however she seemed to be playing that same type of role she’s been in other films like All the Real Girls and Elf. And I think it’s a given now that she has to sing in every film. But she does have an aura about her that makes it easy for the male viewer to empathize with Levitt’s dilemma. It’s a tricky performance because her sprite-like nature teeters on adorable to really effing annoying.

I really enjoyed the way the film shifted its narrative to represent how we all think upon things in an unordered manner. I also really enjoyed the way one scene plays out where we get a split screen of what a characters expectations are, which plays out on the left side of the screen, versus the reality of the situation, which plays out on the right side of the screen. It’s a nice effect that leads to a pretty good dramatic moment.

Levitt has been on a role lately. He’s really good in this, and he’s been showing his acting chops in films like Brick and The Lookout. I’m excited to see what he keeps doing in the future as I think he’s one of the more interesting young actors out there.

I thought 500 Days of Summer was a good film…made even better by the fact that two 18-year old girls were boozin’ it up in the front of the theater. I mean they were really, really drunk. They didn’t ruin too much of the movie, but they were a huge distraction for part of it. But I didn’t really care. I was on vacation. And they proved to be more entertaining than parts of the movie. I’m sure 500 Days of Summer will atop a lot of peoples list as the “indie hit of the year”.

Across the Universe:

My wife and I watched this one in the hotel. I hadn’t seen it, and she really liked it. I ended up reading through most of it. I really hated this movie. Julie Taymor is a talent. That’s for sure. But man did she need to be reined in on this one. Across the Universe is sensory overload. I don’t mind films that are beautiful to look at and nothing more (I really like Tarsem’s films, and I enjoyed Taymor’s debut the 1999 film Titus), but between the hyperkinetic visuals and the constant music and the total lack of narrative (not to mention a poor attempt to string together these classic songs by The Beatles…I mean seriously…another movie about the 60’s, ugh.) I completely lost interest in this film. Some of the musical numbers were really nice, but that was only when the film slowed down enough to let you realize you were listening to great music. And dear God that Bono sequence almost made me completely give up Beatles songs. Not a good movie experience for me.

17 Again:

Ha. Yes my wife and I watched this the other night. So sue me…I wanted something light for the evening as we had just gotten home from the honeymoon and I wasn’t in the mood for anything besides a dorky comedy. I will say that I can see why all the girls like Zac Efron. He has a charm about it him that seems lost on most new Hollywood stars. He reminds me of a less annoying version of the young Tom Cruise. And Leslie Mann is pretty funny in this movie. The film did manage to pull some actual laughs out of me, but it’s a completely predictable and forgettable film. But I didn’t regret watching it, and it was what it was: harmless. There are so many more movies that deserve being ripped apart. I’m glad that there are still people out there who can make these simple body-switch movies. Oh, and to my surprise it was directed by the guy who made Igby Goes Down. Huh.

The Wrestler:

I talked about this movie a lot here last year. My wife hadn’t seen it so I decided to watch it again. I still really like the movie for all the obvious reasons (Rourke’s performance, the metaphor of wrestlers as family, the parallels between Cassidy and Randy’s performances, etc.), but the stuff with Randy’s daughter (horribly played by Evan Rachel Wood) almost sinks the film. There are scenes that are so predictable and cringe worthy that it’s almost like they are being played as parody. Evan Rachel Wood is clearly not an actress who can do drama because she knows not of nuance. Overacting like that only shows up on Lifetime movies. Still I didn't mind watching it again. Just not the blow-away-movie that a lot of people thought it was last year.

Well that’s all I watched while on the honeymoon. I’m ready to get back in the swing of things here at Hugo Stiglitz. I will be seeing The Hurt Locker and Inglorious Basterds (I like that a character is named Hugo Stiglitz in the film) sometime this week. So I’ll be back with reviews of those films and a review of The Limey for my Revisiting 1999 project.

I just wanted to say thanks again everyone for your kind words of congratulations and for wishing my wife and me your best. It means a lot. I look forward to getting back to normal and talking film with all of you. Until then…

Monday, August 10, 2009

A Brief Intermission

The picture above is my fiance and me last year at the coast. If you're wondering why we're at the beach and all bundled up it's because it's Oregon, and the beach doesn't get warmer than 70 degrees here. Oh, and I'm the one with the pseudo-beard. So, why the picture? I'm getting married this Friday so there will be a short sabbatical from the blog starting today and lasting until I return August 24 where I will be posting the first entry for my top 10 films of 1999 for my Revisiting 1999 project. I didn't just put a picture of myself up here for fun...I don't like myself that much, hehe. But as you can tell, despite the wind almost blowing us off the patio where we took that picture, I am quite happy about this new journey in my life (ugh...journey, sounds so lame, plus it makes me think of Steven Perry), but I suppose that's what it is, and I am really excited for this. And since I consider all of you who read this blog friends (despite being faceless, still...friends I hope), I didn't mind exposing my identity and posting the reason behind why I'm going to be gone for a few weeks. Oh, and I wanted to prove that my fiance was real and not created by a computer.

Here's some links to keep ya busy while I'm gone:

Judd Apatow's Funny People is now out...and to lukewarm reactions, too. I will still see the film of course, but for now here are two great reviews of the film. The first review is courtesy of Ed Howard of the brilliant Only the Cinema. He talks about the film getting derailed in its final, long (which is typical Apatow...despite my love for the man he doesn't know how to edit his movies) act. The second review comes from one of my favorite blogs that I don't pimp enough: Ryan Kelly's Medfly Quarantine. His reaction was little more negative than Ed's. Great reads. Check 'em out.

Bill at the infectious (well...infectious in a good way) The Kind of Face You Hate has a great post up about background movies. Check it out and see if you agree with Bill on what constitutes a background. I usually go with any action channel that can offer me up an array qualities that range from being so-bad-it's-good (but not too bad, as Bill explains in his post) like Tango and Cash or Road House, or great action movies that I've seen a million times that are really violent like Robocop or The Rock or Aliens. If this hasn't been enough to entice you...then let me just say...he does mention Krull. And away you go...seriously it's one of the best blogs out there. Check it out.

Sadly, due to wedding plans, I haven't had the opportunity to comment the way I would like on one of the best pieces written over at The House Next Door. Jason Bellamy and Ed Howard have this great series called The Conversations, and this month they really hit out of the park with their discussion on Mann's oeuvre. Frequenters of this blog know my love for Mann's films and where I place him on the list of best American directors, so it saddens me that I haven't the time to properly respond to all of the great work Jason and Ed put into that piece. It's long, and like a fine dessert, better digested and appreciated in sections. It's really worth the time to read it. Sorry guys...someday I may get to commenting on it.

TOERIFC is in a few days, and entry this month looks to be a good one: Fassbinder's The Merchant of the Four Seasons. I have only seen a few Fassbinder films (the most recognizable title probably being Ali: Fear Eats the Soul), and I was really looking forward to this one, but I'll be out of town for the discussion. Google Fassbinder if you're unfamiliar with his work...he was an interesting figure in Germany's version of the French New Wave...I think it was called The New German Cinema...but I could be wrong about that. the movie, or if you've seen it recently and think you can contribute something to the discussion, then by all means this film club is open to anyone and everyone. Just head over to Tractor Facts where our gracious host Fox will be getting things started August 17. It usually gets going early for us West Coast people, so get yourself amply prepared and enjoy what is sure to be a great film discussion.

Jason Bellamy of The Cooler has written a wonderfully entertaining piece called Falling Out of Love at the Movies. It's about the things we talk about when we talk about movies with those that we love...or are trying to like at least (and yes I blatantly ripped of Raymond Carver, there). It's a fun read. Check it out, I'm sure we've all had instances where we were shocked by what a female or male date said about a movie we absolutely loved.

Finally I would like to point everyone to Wonders in the Dark. I did so in the post below me, but I wanted to do it again. The fine film blog ran by Sam Juliano and Allan Fish ask all bloggers to submit their top 25 films for each decade, and this month we're onto the 80's. My list is here. Check out the other lists here. As I said in my post below, I always walk away from these things with 30 or more ideas for DVD rentals. Just a lot of fun, too. Participate if you haven't before...the threads are incredibly addicting and will wipe away about half of your work day, hehe.

I hope everyone has a great couple of weeks. See ya then.

Wondering About the Top FIlms of the 1980's?

Yep -- It's that time again. Head on over to the wonderful Wonders in the Dark and submit your top 25 films of the 80's. The lists are sure to be eclectic and full of great DVD ideas. I always walk away from the wonderful lists submitted there in awe of how much there is out there I still have to see. My list comes after jump...

My top ten consists of some of the best films to come out of American cinema in the 80's, one of the best films by a cinematic god (Bergman), a documentary, and a flashy French thriller that has one of the best action scenes I have ever seen. However, after those ten films I struggled to fill out the rest of my list. Oh, the films are all great movies -- I hate quantifying years of cinema, after all any year that gets me to talk about the movies is a good year for me -- but my secondary 25 show that as an era the 80's were maybe the worst in cinematic history. There are a lot of films from around the world that I have to see from the 80's (evidenced by the sheer amount of action and horror films to round out the list), but I don't think that necessarily cheapens the skill that went into action films like The Road Warrior or Aliens...for their respective genres, they are masterfully executed films.'s my list:

1.) Raging Bull (Scorsese)
2.) Fanny and Alexander (Bergman)
3.) Blade Runner (Scott)
4.) Crimes and Misdemeanors (Allen)
5.) Blue Velvet (Lynch)
6.) Ran (Kurosawa)
7.) Thief (Mann)
8.) The Thin Blue Line (Morris)
9.) The Right Stuff (Kaufman)
10.) Diva (Beineix)
11.) Kagemusha (Kurosawa)
12.) Lost in America (A. Brooks)
13.) The Fly (Cronenberg)
14.) Witness (Weir)
15.) Stranger Than Paradise (Jarmusch)
16.) Dekalog (Kieslowski)
17.) Raising Arizona (Coen)
18.) Robocop (Verhoeven)
19.) Manhunter (Mann)
20.) Fitzcarraldo (Herzog)
21.) This is Spinal Tap (Reiner)
22.) House of Games (Mamet)
23.) Broadcast News (J. Brooks)
24.) The Killer (Woo)
25.) Once Upon a Time in America (Leone)

Here's the second 25:

26.) Hannah and Her Sisters (Allen)
27.) Body Heat (Kasdan)
28.) The Dead Zone (Cronenberg)
29.) Under the Volcano (Huston)
30.) The Last Temptation of Christ (Scorsese)
31.) Raiders of the Lost Ark (Spielberg)
32.) Another Woman (Allen)
33.) Au revoir les enfants (Malle)
34.) Wings of Desire (Wenders)
35.) The Dead (Huston)
36.) Blood Simple (Coen)
37.) Stage Fright (Soavi)
38.) The King of Comedy (Scorsese)
39.) Matewan (Sayles)
40.) Opera (Argento)
41.) Do the Right Thing (Lee)
42.) American Gigolo (Schrader)
43.) Das Boot (Peterson)
44.) The Beyond (Fulci)
45.) Aliens (Cameron)
46.) A Nightmare on Elm Street (Craven)
47.) Bull Durham (Shelton)
48.) The Company of Wolves (Jordan)
49.) The Terminator (Cameron)
50.) The Road Warrior (Miller)

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Lazy Blogger Repost: Neo, Cyber, and Postmodern Noir: A Look at Film Noir as an Evolving Genre

Here is the final Lazy Blogger Re-post that I will toss up here. I'm really proud of this piece, which I published a few years ago for a film class and then posted it on the blog in February of last year. I love film noir, and this project gave me the opportunity to really look closely at some of my favorite neo-noir films and the particular elements that make the following films under examination neo, cyber, or postmodern noir. When I initially posted this piece on my blog I received a lot of linkage, however, I feel like I have a lot of new readers now who were never introduced to it, so I thought I would toss it up here again. I hope you enjoy reading this as much as I enjoyed writing it.

Many critics suggest that Touch of Evil (1958) was the last true noir, not because the studios stopped making hard-boiled noir films, but because it seemed that as a society, as a culture, America was moving towards something different and was unable to associate themselves with the ambiguous morals of the genre (it’s ironic that postmodernism would base itself on this idea). However, the genre has actually evolved – it has elevated itself – into new, more controversial, more sophisticated realms. Beginning in the uncertain times of post-war America in the 1970’s (Chinatown), moving towards Reagan’s America in the 1980’s with films like Blue Velvet and Blade Runner there seemed to be a new kind of noir that was being labeled as “neo-noir.” These films were representations of how the genre was moving outside the boundaries of noir only being films about seedy gangsters, femme fatales, and cops and robbers; these classic elements of the genre were now being replaced by greedy water companies, and corrupt politicians or policemen who were representations of the evil America never thought could exist in the people they trusted.

Fredric Jameson states that neo-noir represents some kind of nostalgic look into the past, it attempts to “see the present as (past) history; the classical nostalgia film, while evading its present altogether, registered its historicist deficiency by losing itself in mesmerized fascination in lavish images of specific generational pasts” . This idea is especially evident through the films Chinatown, Blue Velvet, and Blade Runner, films that show how the genre has evolved and adopted the themes of postmodernism to make smart, creative comments about the state of the present by looking into the past.

The modern noir (Chinatown and beyond), uses the genre differently as a means to comment on the instability and ambiguity of the modern world. Not all modern noir films can be classified as “neo-noir” or “postmodern-noir,” they are labeled that in the sense that they came after what many refer to as the last true film noir, Touch of Evil. After Touch of Evil was released in 1958, the genre was reduced to an “at home viewing” type of entertainment, as the studios felt they had to do something to rival the convenience of television. This meant the creation of cinemascope and the widescreen film, which meant bigger budgets, lots of sets, and even more extras. The film-going experience now was merely an excuse to see just how much money the studious were willing to spend to show the average moviegoer just why cinema was better than television. So, just like the characters in film noir, the genre was marginalized, living on television and existing within a medium that many people did not take seriously. Critics saw the genre as nothing more than cops and robbers, gangsters, and femme fatales, located in world that the general public was not interested in seeing anymore. Filmmakers saw it as a way to make serious films for little money, with big themes that lay underneath its style.


Touch of Evil

In Orson Welles’ last great film he constructed an influential crime film with all of the greatest elements of noir thrown in. We have the corrupt and seedy Sheriff Quinlan (played by Welles) and Vargas (Charlton Heston), the DEA agent who is committed to bringing the corruption of Quinlan’s town to an end. The interesting thing about Touch of Evil is that is doesn’t simply rest on its beautiful cinematography for it to warrant serious consideration as a great film, it is in the obtrusive and effective framing and blocking techniques, and the way the cinematography acts as dialogue that Welles best explains the themes of the film. The best example is in the virtuoso opening tracking shot that lasts for minutes. It is not as if Welles and his cinematographer, Russell Metty, are showing off, this is not style for style’s sake; it’s that Welles is saying this film (and his filmmaking style; Welles never made another film for the Hollywood machine) does not move in the traditional, linear sense. As Roger Ebert states in his brilliant essay , the film “is a series of loops and coils”. The film is edited together in a jarring, sometimes disruptive fashion (in particular the torment scene of Janet Leigh in a hotel room) suggesting that the film and its characters and morals also do not move in a linear fashion. Rather, as the opening shot suggests, the film moves in loops and coils, and Welles and Metty trap their characters within the same shot. The effect is two-fold: we, as the audience, are introduced to all of the characters, and all of the characters intertwined in the scene to show how jumbled and disjointed things are going to be in this town. Like the picture of Vargas above, we are strangers in this town, and ironically Vargas, a Mexican, is a stranger too, in his homeland. The theme of displacement and disorientation fit perfectly with what Welles is trying to visually say with his famous opening shot.

Quinlan is a nasty character who embodies many of the traditional stereotypes and clichés that are attributed to Mexican lawmen, while Vargas has many of the attributes of the stereotypical gringo. This ironical flip is another way we feel like Vargas is lost in his hometown. In one scene Vargas tails Quinlan with a radio as his partner is asking him questions. Now, watching this one cannot help but think that there had to be an easier way to go about doing this, but what is suggested again through the brilliant blocking and set design is a sense of uncertainty: things are askew. Vargas weaves his way through the tangled metal of oil rigs and scrap yards and as the angles take us from high-up, from Vargas’ view suggesting authority and righteousness, to low-down angles, in which we see from Quinlan’s point of view, giving us the visual affirmation that he is the dirtiest of cops. The “tailing” scene is almost as masterful as the opening tracking shot. It is here that Welles has tremendous fun with dutch angles, obtrusive blocking and framing, set design, and lighting. Welles is using the camera to tell us what we cannot hear from Quinlan as Vargas is following him. The audio is so bad on the wire that Vargas’ partner is wearing that we have to rely on the visual language of the film to let us know what is going on. And how perfect, that the scene end with Quinlan in the mud.

And then there is Welles himself, playing Quinlan like a director of a movie. Orchestrating the investigation like a director orchestrates the filming of his movie. Roger Ebert makes the same correlations about Welles playing Quinlan like a director (but he says it much better) in his essay:

Much of Welles’ work was autobiographical, and the characters he chose to play (Kane, Macbeth, Othello) were giants destroyed by hubris. Now consider Quinlan, who nurses old hurts and tries to orchestrate this scenario like a director, assigning dialogue and roles. There is a sense in which Quinlan wants final cut in the plot of this movie, and doesn’t get it. He’s running down after years of indulgence and self-abuse, and his ego leads him into trouble.

There is a sense, as Ebert states, that with most of Welles’ characters, that this role is autobiographical. This is where Touch of Evil becomes something more than a beautifully shot, stylish film noir. It is in this character that we catch a glimpse of Welles himself. When one sees Quinlan the sheriff as Welles the filmmaker, the film takes on a whole new self-reflexive meaning. Welles was not that fat when he made the film; he donned tons of make-up and put pillows in his suit to make him appear bigger than he was. When Quinlan enters a room, you are aware of it because of how obtrusive his presence is – and it is not just his presence, but also his attitude – which is all captured beautifully by the framing of every shot Quinlan appears in. He is larger than life. He is the only, and often the loudest, authoritative voice in the room. Much like Welles, he is often misunderstood as a brute, and this is seen through the sympathetic loyalties of Quinlan’s cronies. Yes, maybe he is doing things the wrong way, but the result in Touch of Evil is always ambiguous. You are never quite sure if Quinlan was on to something or not, regardless of how unconventional his methods were (again used to show how he clashed with the culture of Vargas) he just might have been right.

Welles often called himself an actor of kings, an apt description for roles he chose to play; larger than life characters that, again invoking Ebert, were brought down by hubris. In Touch of Evil we see Welles portray Quinlan as a once brilliant detective, who is haunted by his past and has allowed his ego to bring him down. And that could be said about Welles himself.



Loneliness is at the heart of Roman Polanski’s Chinatown. At one point Detective J.J. Gittes (Jack Nicholson) is asked “Are you alone?” by a voice on the phone; “aren’t we all?” he replies. Chinatown is a film noir in the traditional sense (the nostalgic opening credit sequence reminds you of that fact) with its private eye, femme fatale, hidden truths, and shadow lands; however Polanski takes these classic noir tropes and plays with them. The shadows of alleyways and seedy locations have been replaced by stark, glossy 1940 Los Angeles business buildings -- seedlings for what would grow into the metropolis we recognize today. Polanski also removes the traditional femme fatale role from his film, as Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) is the victim, not the seductive siren. Gittes is a private detective, but Polanski has some fun with this particular trope as he has his Tec’s nose sliced in half. Gittes even says at one point that he is a snoop, and what good is a snoop with only half a nose.

But what makes Chinatown stand apart from the “traditional” noir film is its study of human isolation. It didn’t mark the dawn of what we now call “neo-noir” (that distinction goes to John Boorman’s more cynical, hard-boiled noir Point Blank), but it did popularize it, and again elevated the genre into a higher art form. It was the first film to take the limitations studios wanted to place on the genre and break through them. So, if Touch of Evil was the last classic noir to be made, then Chinatown is definitely the first “neo-noir”.

If someone were to ask me what the film represents, I would simply say: loneliness. Loneliness for the J.J. Gittes character, and loneliness as seen through the lens of the camera as it pans across the empty spaces of Los Angeles with almost a weeping eye, as it knows what is about to come: the industrialization of the desert area. The loneliness at the heart of a lot of noir heroes from the 40’s, is represented by the private detective, the idea of the loneliest of men rummaging though the despair and secrets of others lives while running away from their own problems. Like Sam Spade and the characters of Raymond Chandler stories, Chinatown reintroduces the audience to a fundamental film type – the private detective – a man who occupies human tragedy for a living. But this is different, Gittes hates his job, and through the eye of Polanski and his cinematographer John Alonzo, we see a desolate Los Angeles landscape that is the perfect representation of how Gittes feels: empty. After the nostalgic and traditional opening credit sequence, Chinatown turns into an existential noir, a subject that seeks to understand and wrestle with the very idea of loneliness.

We also see Polanski using lighting, colors, and the vastness of what once was Los Angeles to show that he too is aware of the influence of noir on his film. His framing of shots is also a call back to the classic noir films, especially Touch of Evil, and how each shot is framed to give one the sense of claustrophobia, this is juxtaposed with the widescreen cinematography of the landscape of Los Angeles: “L.A. is a small town,” Gittes says at one point, and Chinatown is very much concerned with the process by which Los Angeles was transformed from desert community to giant metropolis. Claustrophobia is a hallmark of any classic film noir. Polanski and Alonzo are embracing the widescreen format, unlike earlier noir that was pushed to the side for bigger epics and cinemascope, Chinatown is using the widescreen to comment on the vastness that once was L.A. It creates a landscape that reminds the viewer of something out of Camus, an existential void where Gittes pans across the desert community, from Los Angeles until the Pacific, pondering his loneliness. The film creates an almost unbearable tension between the width of its frame and the ways in which the camera seems to be bearing down on the characters and their environment. Joe McElhaney states that the film:

Is intensified by the shallow sense of space, activities placed front and slightly off center, occasionally broken by shots of extreme and narrow depth […] The dominant colors of Chinatown are brown, gray, and black — barely colors at all, an indication of the film’s debt to the noir tradition of black-and-white, and of its attempts to render this drought-ridden environment as completely closed in on itself. The various hues of brown and gold (associated with the parched, sunbeaten desert earth surrounding Los Angeles) seep into every corner of the characters' lives, from clothing to homes to work environments. Evelyn’s clothing often represents her state of mind.

Yet, behind it all is the investigation of the drought. The screenplay explains, "Either you bring the water to L.A. or you bring L.A. to the water." Alonzo's cinematography evokes the L.A. you can glimpse in the backgrounds of old movies, where the sun beats down on streets that are too wide, and buildings seem more defiant than proud. (Notice the shot where the bright sun falls on the fedoras of Gittes and two cops, casting their eyes into shadows like black masks.) Tim Dirks in his essay hits on one of the key ideas behind the film being “neo-noir”

The film's claustrophobic, cyclical, bleak mood surrounding the heroic quest of the detective struck a responsive chord after the scandalous Watergate era of the early 1970s. The film's two puzzling mysteries and tragedies – family-related and water-related – are beautifully interwoven together. The water-rights scandal at the heart of the film expresses how ecological rape of the land has occurred in outrageous land-development schemes that redirect the water's flow. It reminds viewers that the days of abundant natural resources (and life-giving water that turns a forbidden wilderness into a plentiful garden) are past - the land has become barren due to the selfish manipulations of rich and powerful businessmen.

The businessman has replaced the goon with a fedora and gun; men in suits who work in skyscrapers and work for the government have replaced these classic noir villains. This fed the uncertainty of the time that Dirks talks about, and this is where I invoke Jameson once again: Polanski is using the “nostalgic” to represent his issues with the present. There’s a scene in Chinatown that gets to the very core of this idea -- when Gittes asks Noah Cross (John Huston) what more he could possibly want, Cross replies: “The future, Mr. Gittes.” Gone are the villains who are looking to rob banks or pull off heists, Chinatown is the seminal “neo-noir” film where the villains look for something much more than money, they want control. This can be seen in later noir pictures like Blade Runner and Dark City, futuristic or cyber-punk versions of the same themes. By the end of Chinatown, when the mystery is finally solved, the metaphor is clear enough: America is not the innocent place it once was. Like Polanski’s vision of Los Angeles, it too has been transformed into something much bigger, creating more places for the seediness to hide. These thoughts were becoming more permanent in the 1970’s. Polanski sets up these themes, but it is Ridley Scott and David Lynch who slam them home in 1980’s with Blade Runner and Blue Velvet.


Blade Runner

Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner reverses this notion I have been discussing with Chinatown, the idea of what Jameson introduces that to look into the past, filmmakers are saying something about the present. With Blade Runner, we get the opposite, a look into the future to show the over consumerism and consumption of mass commercialism. Scott’s version of L.A. is filled with digitized billboards, and skyscrapers with advertisements being projected onto them, and the constant advertising heard over a loud speaker (the film is based on a Philip K. Dick story, and this is seen in another one of his stories, “Minority Report” where the advertisements address you personally), it’s a carnivalesque atmosphere, like that of Vegas; characters going about their business in a dehumanized city. This Los Angeles is nothing more than an absent center, something that Fredric Jameson touches on in his book Postmodernism: Or the Culture Logic of Late Capitalism when he mentions the Bonaventure Hotel in Los Angeles:

[B]uilt in the new Los Angeles downtown by the architect and developer John Portman, whose other works include the various Hyatt Regencies, the Peachtree Center in Atlanta, and the Renaissance Center in Detroit….they [these postmodern buildings] no longer attempt, as did the masterworks and monuments of high modernism, to insert a difference, a distinct, an elevated, a new Utopian language into the tawdry and commercial sign system if the surrounding city, but rather they seek to speak that very language, using the lexicon and syntax as that has been emblematically “learned from Las Vegas”.

The aping of Las Vegas in modern day Los Angeles is eerily similar to Scott’s take on the giant metropolis lacking distinction, following the rules of the commercialized game. When Jameson reports in further detail about his journey through the hotel it’s as if he’s describing a labyrinth of compartmentalization; shops and various merchants are displayed in a dizzying array of high-class advertisement all offering a better life within so that you don’t have to think about the dirty Los Angeles that’s outside of the reflective glass walls (the hotel reflects the image of the streets so that one can not see inside the hotel, the inside acts as its own sheltered world, truly a Utopia or Disneyland, which I’ll explain later). This correlates with a theme that Scott broaches quite early in the film, the idea of the “off world” existence; but more on that later.

So is Blade Runner a film noir? I would call it a cyber-noir, or postmodern-noir, with stylish elements that allow the viewer to think deeper about some of postmodernism's key ideas. Many critics like Roger Ebert, simply say that it is all style and no substance, a film that is only interested in its grandiose set design, and not in explaining or elaborating on the rich and complex storyline created by Philip K. Dick. I disagree with Ebert though; I think that if one looks at the film hard enough they can see the noir elements that are there as well as the ideas of one of postmodernism’s most influential thinkers, Jean Baudrillard. Baudrillard introduces in his book Simulations the idea of a “hyperreality” (2) and the “loss of the real” (25), copies become what we associate with real and Blade Runner seeks to explore these deep questions in two ways: one is through the idea of escaping this world and living a better life on the “off world” a kind of hyperreal existence, it also examines the characters of Roy (Rutger Hauer) and Pris (Daryl Hannah) replicants created by the Tyrell Corporation, to see if we as a society can rise up against the corporations that look to control us through commercialism. The other way which the film explores Baudrillard’s thinking is through the relationship between Deckard and Rachel. Baudrillard’s claim can best represent all of the films discussed when he says: “when the real is no longer what it used to be, nostalgia assumes its full meaning” (12).

One of the first shots of the film, and one of its most famous, is of the city with its towering digitized billboards and a voice that can be heard telling people to escape to the “off world” where there are no problems and you can start you life over, away from “reality.” This is a place where your “dreams can come true.” These are the sounds of an, “easy money,” get rich quick mentality that was rampant in the 1980’s. All of life’s problems go away if you run away from them. The voice is head over the city, a city that has turned into a large scale, run-down Chinatown. This “off world” idea is what Baudrillard is getting at with his idea of the simulacrum, the copy without an original: life is good and life is easy if you leave the “real” world for your own that you can create. This “reality” is the idea behind Baudrillard’s mention (and what Jameson is getting at with his summation of the Bonaventure Hotel) of the “reality” of Disneyland:

Disneyland is there to conceal the fact that it is the ‘real’ country, all of ‘real’ America, which is Disneyland (just as prisons are there to conceal the fact that it is the social in its entirety, in its banal omnipresence, which is carceral). Disneyland is presented as imaginary in order to make us believe that the rest is real, when in fact all of Los Angeles and the America surrounding it are no longer real, but of the order of the hyperreal and of simulation.

So, this “off world” vacation that is offered to those who live in the Los Angeles of 2012, is the same that is being offered to those who live in the present of 1982. This loss of the real, and the hyperreality, shows how Blade Runner is unlike any other noir; it is dealing with the questions of consumerism through the realm of cyber-noir. And even though the noirish qualities of the film best represent the relationship between Deckard and Rachel one cannot ignore the films main point: that through commercialism and over-consumption we can alleviate all of our problems, we can let the replicants, or Others, that look so much like us, “expire” while we buy and consume anything we can to make ourselves feel more like men or women, and we equate this commercialism to happiness, when in reality we are just as the replicants are, products off an assembly line. The film asks us if we can be like Roy and Pris and rebel against the Tyrell corporations of our lives, if we can rebel against the commercialism that plagues our society that is turning humans into indefinite, unidentifiable consumerist robots. This leads me to my next point about the film, the “reality” of its characters, especially as it is seen through the relationship between Deckard and Rachel.

When the film was initially released in 1982 it had Ford’s narration guiding the viewer through the story, also providing a traditional nostalgic homage to the great noir films of 40’s and 50’s. Whether or not Deckard was a replicant was left ambiguous, creating an even bigger dilemma with him having to “expire” Roy and Rachel and the other replicants; however, in the 1982 version there was a completely superfluous happy ending tacked on. When the film was released years later in a “Director’s Cut” the narration was axed and the ambiguity was gone with the addition of the famous “unicorn dream” sequence – which more than suggests that Deckard is a replicant. The ending, though, was much improved upon as the happy ending was axed. The Director’s Cut really neuters the ambiguity of Deckard and Rachel’s relationship and the uncertainty surrounding Deckard’s status as a blade runner. Does he not want to kill them because he is one? He is just as much a slave to his boss as the androids to the Tyrell Corporation. It is this reason that the original 1982 version (the newest “Final Cut” version is pretty good too, much better than the Director’s Cut) stands as the best example of the film as “neo-noir”.

I’d like to talk about the scene where Deckard kisses Rachel -- before this moment happens he keeps her from leaving his apartment and traps her by the window. The way Deckard moves is robotic, and when they kiss, Rachel shows more emotion than Deckard. In another scene we see Rachel crying, where Deckard, it seems, is incapable of emoting anything. Of course the problematic 'signs' of humanity are the crux of the film, built into the very images used to forward the story. I think it very telling that it was the aspects of Blade Runner that most challenged ideas of humanity that were cut or altered. With the Director’s Cut version you no longer get the great line from Deckard's voice-over telling us "Rachel was special - no termination date”. This omission changes the impact of Gaff's final line: "Too bad she won't live. But then again, who does?” In the original release Gaff is seen as outsmarted, as opposed to philosophically correct in the Director's Cut. I think these changes give the film less impact at the end. The themes/meaning behind the film changes, the ambiguity is gone, and all of the mystery of the replicant/human dilemma seems to be removed. That haunting last line loses all of its power.

In the newest cut of the film (the version Scott supposedly wanted to release to begin with) the ending is perfect. Rachel and Deckard are leaving his apartment, Deckard scared that someone might be there not just terminate Rachel, but him also for not getting the job done. As they leave, Deckard sees one of Graff’s origami animals (a unicorn, suggesting that they know about Deckard's implanted dreams, that he is indeed a replicant), he picks it up, hears the final line echo in his memory (“It’s too bad she won’t live. But then again, who does?”), clinches the origami in his hand, and gets onto the elevator with Rachel. The end. No happy ending to the off world, no final showdown either, but the viewer gets the sense that Deckard knows Graff is now after them both and they will always be hunted; further evidence that Deckard himself may in fact be a replicant.

Regardless of which version you are watching, the form/techniques used to introduce these themes are as strong as ever. Especially the lighting in the film, the heavy use of backlighting, hard lighting and light coming through moving objects (like fans) make the film's grim future alive. The lighting also adds to the feeling of film noir. Many science fiction movies are shot in an unnaturally hard light, as if they were shot in a hospital (for example Stanley Kubrick's 2001: Space Odyssey). In Blade Runner we have a vivid feeling of dark alleys, sinister rooms and chambers, which is essential to old detective stories. These lighting techniques also introduce us to the ambiguous love affair between Deckard and Rachel. Notice how Rachel and Ray are usually lit in bright light, and how Deckard and the other humans are always in darkness. The opposite is used in most film noir. Ridley Scott’s idea to light the film this way is brilliant as one can see in the picture above; Deckard looks no more “alive” than Rachel.

By looking into the future, the film questions the state of the world in 1982, a time when this kind of postmodern thinking was starting to be embraced. Simulations was published a year after this film was released, but already the short stories of Philip K. Dick were introducing people to these postmodern ideas. All of this to say: Blade Runner is the quintessential neo-noir. It has been called neo-noir, cyber-punk, and postmodern, but it is the perfect example of how a filmmaker can take a genre like film noir, and create something completely new, something that is completely elevated above every other kind of noir picture. As was the case with Chinatown, Blade Runner and David Lynch’s Blue Velvet succeed in taking noir elements and breaking free from the confines of genre labeling to create films that aren’t just simply noir, but noir as high art.


Blue Velvet

If Chinatown uses the style of noir to create an atmosphere of loneliness and despair – revealing the corrupt truths of America the way Gittes reveals the corruption of the Cross case; and if Blade Runner uses noir's style to look into the future to raise the level of awareness about a kind of hyperreality we live in; then David Lynch’s Blue Velvet is an attack on the ideological nostalgic 1950’s America filtered through Lynch's twisted, microscopic lens. Lynch’s film peers into the secrecy of our lives in order to see what lies underneath the façade of “everytown” USA. Blue Velvet involves families, strokes, teenagers in love, severed ears, murder, drugs, and yes, sadomasochism. And yet Lynch does in deed bring all of these elements together in noir fashion to create an ethereal experience, something so surreal and so bizarre, it is as if the viewer is taking hits from Frank Booth's gas tank.

What Lynch does so brilliantly, and the reason why people refer to Blue Velvet as a neo or postmodern-noir, is through an ideological lens he paints a picture of how we wished the small American town actually were so squeaky-clean and upheld the ideals of Americana. At the time Lynch was making the film, 1986, this was a powerful response to Reagan’s America. The film has two kinds of scenes: (1) The everyday small-town scenes, in which people go out on dates to the soda fountain and drive around town in shiny cars, and (2) the subterranean scenes in which the most unspeakable acts take place behind closed doors (i.e. the reasoning for the severed ear…not only are we blind to such things existing around us, now we have become deaf). We see this common thread running through both Chinatown and Blade Runner but something new comes into play with Blue Velvet: The theme of exhibitionism, and how no matter how badly we may want to turn away, we cannot help but look; and that if we look hard enough there is corruption and perversion underneath every seemingly perfect small town.

Lynch offers two key visuals to guide the viewer as they wade through these troublesome postmodern waters. The first symbol is at the beginning of the film in the form of a severed ear. We come to find later that the ear does indeed belong to someone important to the story; however, more than mere foreshadowing and plot device, Lynch is asking the audience to remember the visual throughout the film. It is a reminder that drugs and sadomasochism are protruding this small quiet town and that if you look hard enough, you can find just about anything in your seemingly contented existence. The other meaning behind the ear seems to be more politically charged. Through Lynch’s own warped and darkly comedic way (Blue Velvet is both comedy and noir) he is reminding us that we have turned a deaf ear to the things we choose not to listen or look for in our own small town America’s. Notice how the films opening is in slow motion, people smiling, white picket fences, firemen, dogs, and friendly neighbors waving at the camera. Lynch juxtaposes this ideological world with the ear, the representation of the outside world that is about to assault this small town.

The other key visual is more of a technique, and one that is crucial to any good noir film: lighting. Lynch uses many of the techniques of noir, but the film isn’t as toned down with drab colors or shadows like those in Chinatown and Blade Runner. Lynch uses specific, vibrant colors, focusing them on one part of the screen creating an almost uber-glossy rendition of noir, with its night clubs and nightmare sequences being drenched in spotlight, where the lighting seems non-existent – this is a dark world where there is rarely any room for light to enter – there is also an emphasis on disorientating color schemes (Lynch is a painter in addition to a filmmaker) to create a world of both illusion and allusion. The film is both dreamy and grotesquely real, there is almost a hazy feel throughout the film, the feeling between being asleep and being awake throughout the nightclub scenes and especially the nightmarish scene where Jeffery and Dorothy are taken to the strange house of Ben (Dean Stockwell), the man holding Dorothy’s child. And yet, the film is beautiful to look at, an allusion to some of the great noir films like Double Indemnity, T-Men, White Heat, and Touch of Evil; Lynch is obviously aware that pastiche is the ultimate postmodern trope.

Even some of the films most uncomfortable scenes (i.e. Frank coming by for his “required” sex with Dorothy) are lit with beautiful soft light and framed with a kind of innocence that would exist in the 1940’s era Lynch is definitely mimicking (or mocking). For example, the scene where Jeffery is witnessing Frank torture Dorothy is seen through his point of through the blinds of a closet. The scene is framed and portrayed in way where Jeffery is almost like a child, witnessing for the first time the uncertainties of sexuality. He’s peering through the blinds of the closet, what he is witnessing is cut-up, fragmented. Lynch uses this visual to create a sense of confusion. Is what he’s seeing erotic or unlawful? Jeffery’s thoughts are ambiguous at first, but when he is caught the scene plays out like that of twelve-year-old boys being caught “experimenting” with their mother's Cosmo magazines. Thus begins the journey of Blue Velvet, it is from that point on that Jeffery just keeps going down, further and further into the abyss bringing everyone “innocent” with him.

Another way Lynch comments on the small town is through the visitation of Jeffery. Jeffery used to live in the town and is visiting from college because his father had a stroke. Once he left for college, one can see how Lynch suggests that he became “wise” to the world, he is no longer deaf or blind to what is happening around him. This is why in one of the films most uncomfortable scenes, when Dorothy stands on Jeffery’s front lawn naked, he is seemingly unfazed by the event and hurries to cover her up and save her, leaving his girlfriend Sandy (Laura Dern) to wonder what is happening. She doesn’t understand and begins crying, storming home angry at Jeffery. The next scene, Jeffery has taken Dorothy home and is seen speaking with the angered Sandy on the phone, and to hammer the point home, Lynch has Jeffery say very little and has Sandy forgiving him for everything, even though Jeffery has in fact continuously rendezvoused with Dorothy for sex. Sandy, still blinded by teenage romance and unable to see the big picture because she is trapped by the ideals of her small town, is willing to exculpate the problems of her and Jeffery’s relationship caused by Dorothy. She is blind to the possibilities of Jeffery even having a sexual relationship with Dorothy. This is another reason why in the first scene that we are introduced to Frank and Dorothy (the closet scene mentioned earlier), Lynch has Jeffery in the closet and not Sandy. He represents that outer world; he’s rightly placed amidst the other outsiders of the story.

And finally Lynch’s film is cyclical, it ends the same way it begins, minus the stroke victim, but added is the reconciliation of Dorothy and her son. Throughout the film, as is the case with Blade Runner, there is a plot revolving around an absent center. Lynch gives us this de-centered, de-stabilized universe while keeping the main themes circling around this absent center; this is the vortex that Jeffery finds himself pulled down into the more he discovers about Dorothy and her situation. The last shot of the film suggests that even though we see Dorothy with her son, the film remains cyclical in the sense that there will always be corruption (in our towns, in politics, etc.) and that even though there may be these outsiders that invade these small towns – invaders that come in and try to help the ideological small town open their eyes to the “real” world – there is no point, there will always be corruption (this is the nihilistic Lynch kicking in, here) and America will forever remain deaf to the cries of the Dorothy’s of America.

Why is Blue Velvet considered a great neo-noir? Because it takes some of the classic elements of the genre, just as the other films have, and Lynch makes it his own. In film noir ordinary people find out that evil lurks just beneath the surfaces of their lives; they inevitably get caught up in the shadow worlds, they find themselves capable of committing unspeakable acts. A proper film noir is, contrary to the limitations of genre labeling, not usually a gangster or crime film, but the story of how evil enters everyday lives. The genre is profoundly pessimistic; it does not show bad people doing bad things, but average people doing bad things. This complicates things and makes it all the more ambiguous because the implication is that we are all capable of evil.


Misc. Films and End Notes

Film noir is still being used effectively today. I have given three examples of how the genre has been elevated to heights it was unable to reach in the past. This is not to say that the genre is bad. I love film noir, and some of my favorite films are the classic noir’s of the 40’s and 50’s (Scarlet Street, Detour, Kiss Me Deadly, T-Men, and White Heat are just a few of my favorites), but with the addition of cyber and postmodern elements to the genre, one can see how these “neo-noir” films (Chinatown, Blade Runner, and Blue Velvet) are noir at the highest form. They have elevated the genre to high art by dealing with issues of the absent center (Blue Velvet) and the dehumanized (Blade Runner); by using the style of the classic film noir seen in Touch of Evil and Chinatown. These three films were all influenced by Touch of Evil and even more films since are emulating the successes of Welles’ vision by using the noir genre themselves to speak about the depravity of society (Blood Simple); the lust the government has for control of our thoughts (Dark City); how through the medium of celebrity magazines, hookers are “replicated” to look like movie stars (a kind of simulacra) where nothing is what it seems in “La La Land” (L.A. Confidential); and the use of classic postmodern tropes like pastiche and the unreliable narrator (Memento).

The truth is that the genre is still full of great ideas in addition to the genre being more than capable of still churning out stylish films. The point remains the same: Many films could qualify as “noir:” films by such great filmmakers as David Mamet (The Spanish Prisoner, Glengarry Glen Ross), Quentin Tarantino (Pulp Fiction, Reservoir Dogs, and True Romance), Martin Scorsese (Taxi Driver, Goodfellas), and films like Heat or Collateral by Michael Mann. Below are what I think represents decent companion lists for some of the quintessential films and texts that will give the viewer (and reader) a sense of what “neo-noir” is. Just because a film has cops and robbers and an ambiguous “good” guy versus “bad” guy storyline doesn’t immediately make it a “noir” film. In fact the best noir films are usually not gangster films, they are films about the evil that creeps into our daily lives and causes us to either: do the evil we never thought we were capable of, or witness such an evil we never thought could exist in our comfortable lifestyles.

Recommended Neo-Noir Viewing:

• Samuel Fuller’s, The Naked Kiss (1964)
• John Boorman’s hilariously violent, Point Blank (1967)
• Robert Altman’s, The Long Goodbye (1973)
• Arthur Penn’s, Night Moves (1974)
• Lawrence Kasdan’s, Body Heat (1981)
• Brian DePalma’s homage to Hitchcock, Body Double (1984)
• The Coen Brothers’, Blood Simple (1985)
• David Mamet’s masterpiece, House of Games (1987)
• Stephen Frears’, The Grifters (1990)
• John Dahl’s, The Last Seduction (1993)
• Kathryn Bigelow’s extremely underrated, Strange Days (1995)
• Curtis Hanson’s masterful look at the seedy side of L.A., L.A. Confidential (1997)
• Alex Proyas’ brilliant mix of German Expressionism and Noir, Dark City (1997)
• The Coen’s again with, The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001)
• Christopher Nolan’s postmodern noir, Memento (2001)
• David Lynch’s beautiful, labyrinthine, Mulholland Drive (2001)
• Steven Spielberg’s masterful adaptation of Philip Dick’s, Minority Report (2002)
• Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller’s “green screen” noir, Sin City (2005)

Books and Essays I’ve cited throughout:

You can take a look at a number of the essays by clicking on the authors’ name, which I hyperlinked, throughout my piece.

For Fredric Jameson’s thoughts read, Postmodernism: Or the Culture Logic of Late Capitalism

For essential postmodern reading check out Jean Baudrillard’s, Simulations

Also recommended is the fantastic book that takes a philosophical approach to the genre, The Philosophy of Neo-Noir, edited by Mark T. Conrad.