Posts Tagged ‘Cinema’

Cat People belongs to a rare breed of horror films. Even with seven decades’ worth of similarly genred pictures to choose from since its initial release, you would be hard pressed to find as thoughtful and engaging a horror film as Cat People. Director Jacques Tourneur and producer Val Lewton’s achievement is made all the more remarkable when considering the film’s utterly absurd premise. Indeed, as far as preposterous premises go, Cat People takes the cake. The story follows Irena Dubrovna (Simone Simon), a woman who believes she is the descendant of a cursed line of humans who turn into felids when sexually aroused (or in the grips of caustic emotional states, like anger or jealousy). While sketching a black panther at the Central Park Zoo, Irena meets Oliver (Kent Smith), a genial and handsome architect. The two begin to fall for each other, a bittersweet development for Irena given her, shall we say, predicament. Luckily for Irena, Oliver remains interested even though she refuses to sleep with him. Enter Alice (Jane Randolph), Oliver’s friendly and attractive assistant. Perhaps sensibly, Irena comes to perceive Alice as a threat, a woman able to offer Oliver what she cannot.

Clocking in at just around 70 minutes, Cat People achieves a number of feats in its short runtime. Despite the film weaving a totally outrageous tale, watching it does not test one’s credulity as much as it probably should. This is achieved mainly thanks to the understated treatment of Irena’s supernatural dilemma. We are never told or shown too much—additional details or sights that might cause us to unsuspend disbelief—a move that keeps our tenuous acceptance of Irena’s fears close to intact.

Suspension of disbelief is also kept uninterrupted thanks to a meticulously fashioned atmosphere within which we are brought to accept the existence of cat people as vaguely plausible. Indeed, a nebulous, yet unyielding, sense of implicit danger and supernatural enchantment pervades the film, an impression that weighs down on our critical judgment and unfetters the imagination. On two occasions, Tourneur dips into this hazy sense of eeriness and gathers it into a palpably terrifying scene, the emotional fallout of these moments subsequently feeding back into the film’s overall ambiance.

The first such scene sees Alice walking down a deserted street late at night. Hearing footsteps tailing hers, Alice keeps turning around to see whom they belong to. But because she is walking along a curved stone wall bordering (what appears to be) Central Park, she can only see up to a few meters behind her. Although we are privy to the fact that it is, in fact, Irena who is following Alice, we sense that something—and almost certainly not someone—is lurking just around the bend in the road, right out of eyeshot. It is almost as if Alice is being stalked. And not by a human predator. Because Alice just cannot catch a break, Cat People’s second hair-raising scene also happens to feature the young architectural assistant. In it, Alice goes for a swim in the basement pool of her health club. While undressing in the empty locker room, she hears something (definitely not someone this time) coming down the stairs. Frightened, she runs to the pool and jumps in. Since only the pool lights have been turned on, Alice is trapped in a glowing rectangle, surrounded by darkness broken only by the billowing reflections from the water upon the walls and ceiling. Within the shadows, a growling presence appears to be pacing back and forth. It is almost as if Alice has been cornered.

Incredibly adept at suggestively creating and maintaining tension, Cat People looks and feels like an A movie. Some of its dialogue, however, occasionally drags it down to B-level territory. While willfully clever at times, the film’s screenplay (penned by DeWitt Bodeen) is also speckled with unintentionally comical lines. The hardest scene to get through without cracking up involves Oliver expressing how sincerely confused he is by Irena’s emotional troubles, how utterly incapable he is of helping her through them, because he himself, either as a child or as an adult, has never known genuine sorrow: “You know, it’s a funny thing: I’ve never been unhappy before. Things have always gone swell for me. I had a grand time as a kid, lots of fun at school, here at the office with you and the Commodore and Doc. That’s why I don’t know what to do about all this. I’ve just never been unhappy…”

Verbalized in a slow and labored fashion, Oliver’s dawning realization that Irena may require the services of a shrink is also hard to remain straight-faced at: “Irena, I’ve been trying to kid you out of it. Maybe that’s wrong… I’ve tried to make you realize all these stories that worry you are so much nonsense, but now I see it’s not the stories. It’s the fact that you believe them. We’ve got to have help, Irena. (She glances at a religious effigy.) Not that sort of help. There’s something wrong and we have to face it in an intelligent way. We don’t need a King John with fire and sword. We need someone who can find the reason for your belief and cure it. That’s what we need… a psychiatrist.”

While the screenplay to Cat People sometimes has its characters say funny things, it takes the time to endow each individual with a distinct and relatively developed personality. Never does anyone come across as simply a “joke on legs.” And so, despite the funny things that sometimes cross Irena, Oliver, and Alice’s lips, we remain able to accept them as real, feeling persons—most of all Irena, whose agonizing sense of exclusion from normalcy and deep longing for acceptance is quite affecting.

Only two years after its release, Cat People spawned a sequel, titled The Curse of the Cat People. Directed by Gunther von Fritsch and Robert Wise (who would go on to direct such varied classics as The Day the Earth Stood Still, 1951, West Side Story, 1961, and The Sound of Music, 1965), and again produced by Lewton, Curse of the Cat People is a curious sequel, in that its story feels very little like a formal continuation of its predecessors’ and more like an altogether independent one.

To be sure, the two chapters of the Cat People saga share some common elements. Most obviously, both feature the same central characters: Irena, Oliver, and Alice. In addition, four particular motifs repeat themselves. The two films center around social misfits who, not yet having found their place in the world, are struggling with a sense of loneliness. Both films build rich atmospheres, one emphasizing terror and the other childlike wonder. Both films include a side-character who happens to be a professional on some type of human behavior: a psychoanalytic psychiatrist in the first outing, and a schoolteacher in the second. Lastly, both films make use of modern vehicular technology to convey natural, animal sounds: in Cat People, a breaking bus screeches like a panther’s roar, and in Curse of the Cat People, an approaching truck clip-clops like a set of horses pulling a carriage. While the two films boast common elements, however, these are not enough to override the sense of “disconnect” between the two plots.

The lack of formal continuity between the two films’ stories is so striking that movie critic Bosley Crowther, writing for The New York Times, ventures in his 1944 review of Curse of the Cat People: “[Its] RKO producers have injected some horror elements and have tried to pretend that it is a sequel to their Cat People of a year or so back.” Even the summary on the back cover of the Curse of the Cat People DVD case describes the film as “a sequel in title” (as opposed to, presumably, “in story”). Instead of building on the story set forth in Cat People—by, for instance, choosing to explore some of the less developed elements found within it—Curse of the Cat People veers into a completely different narrative direction. Indeed, the sequel could very well have worked as a standalone picture, featuring another, “feline-free” title, as well as other, equivalent characters in the place of the original’s trio.

That being said, Bodeen (returning as screenwriter) should be commended for—in his attempt to fashion a follow-up to his own Cat People—doing more than simply replicating “what worked the first time around,” something most franchise extensions often, rather lazily, limit themselves to. Bodeen uses Curse of the Cat People as an opportunity to explore the psychological and relational aftermath which might naturally ensue from directly experiencing the supernatural. This is an interesting idea, which could have securely connected the continuing story to that of the original. But because Bodeen’s “study” unfolds along a narrative that, concretely, has very little to do with the events of Cat People, it, in the end, manages to forge only a tenuous bond between the two tales.

While Curse of the Cat People does not very much work as a sequel to Cat People, it is important to note that, experienced not as a continuation of a prior story but as an original one, it is an excellent film. The story follows the adventures of Oliver and Alice’s young daughter, Amy (Ann Carter). To Oliver’s dismay, Amy has a very active imagination. The child’s penchant for living in a fantasy world is, however, rendered more worrisome when she confesses the name of her latest imaginary friend: Irena. The fact that Amy does have one real friend is no consolation: Mrs. Julia Farren (Julia Dean) is an elderly widow who lives in a sinister looking house with her daughter Barbara (Elizabeth Russell). Convinced Barbara is an imposter, Mrs. Farren begins to offer Amy the affection she has (as a result of her Capgras delusion) long stopped offering her own daughter. Fearing a widening of the chasm separating her from her confused mother, Barbara becomes increasingly jealous of her surrogate.

Curse of the Cat People’s main achievement lies in how it gives life to Amy’s fantasy world. In many ways, the alternate dimension experienced by Amy is similar to the underworld visited by Ofelia in El laberinto del fauno (del Toro, 2006). In both films, the protagonist’s fantasy world is simultaneously developed, on the one hand, as a shelter from reality and, on the other, as a genuine realm beyond it. We are also, in both cases, left in doubt regarding the authenticity of the protagonist’s visions. It is true there is nothing inherently scary about blurring the line between fact and fiction (although this can be a little unsettling). But if Curse of the Cat People fails at horror, it is only because of its title and the expectations it raises. Taken on its own terms, it more than succeeds as both a portrait of a child and a mindset. Indeed, the film (best described as of the fantasy variety) successfully evokes the feeling of being a child, of having such an open mind that anything becomes possible—and, as one interpretation of the story suggests, that “higher truths” suddenly become available to us.

My first encounter with Alfred Hitchcock’s work took place when I was only a child, back when the name “Hitchcock” didn’t yet mean anything to me. Each summer when I was young, my parents would send me to arts and crafts day camp. Although I probably tackled hundreds of projects during these summers, one stands out in my memory. It involved the erection of a model haunted-house out of various materials. For inspiration, our camp instructor had the class watch an excerpt from (what I now know to be) Psycho (1960). She warned us that this was a very scary movie she was showing us, and so she could only show us a very short scene. I remember watching the eerie image of the famed Psycho house on the small television box. Although it was safely contained within the four walls of the screen, it appeared to insidiously encroach upon the bright and fun-filled room around it. Further, whatever movie it was I was being shown, I knew it to be a grownup movie, and that made it forbidden. Yet, here I was at day camp being made to watch just a few minutes from it by adults I trusted. An uncomfortable feeling of disobedience soon settled over me—uncomfortable because it felt like I was breaking a rule, yet, at the same time, the breach appeared sanctioned somehow. (It will not surprise you to learn I was a very nervous child!) Suffice it to say, Psycho left quite an impression on me; this, before I ever got to watch it in its entirety, something that wouldn’t happen until many years later.

I can trace my passion for film back to early adolescence. During this time, I would often walk to my neighborhood library to rent videotapes of various classics. In fact, I can vividly recall me picking All Quiet on the Western Front (Milestone, 1930) off a rotating VHS stand. (My grandfather being an avid consumer of war films, I felt I was doing him proud by watching Milestone’s quintessential entry into the genre.) While I don’t quite remember how exactly I came to watch my very first Hitchcock film, I am fairly certain it was rented during one of those many trips to the library. In any case, my introduction to his work began with his most famous titles: Rear Window (1954), the 1956 remake of his own The Man Who Knew Too Much, Vertigo (1958), North By Northwest (1959), The Birds (1963), and, of course, Psycho. Thoroughly entertained (I wouldn’t begin to appreciate Hitchcock’s technical genius until I registered for an Introduction to Film Studies course in university), I eagerly moved on to his more obscure titles, including his very first, silent films. During his career, Alfred Hitchcock directed over 50 pictures. Since most of them weren’t readily available at the library or even in stores, I took to the Internet. My father’s trusty credit card in hand, I ordered more than 30 of Hitchcock’s movies on DVD. Of course, this was all done without his permission, since he would have (understandably) never agreed to it. Once my father recovered from the initial shock of what probably amounted to a 500$ charge on his credit card bill, he quickly fashioned the incident into what is now the most often told family story bearing my name. The story is particularly amusing since it embodies one of the rare instances of willful disobedience on my part. While I was rarely willing to break the rules, apparently breaking them in the name of culture was more than acceptable to teenage-me!

Having now watched most of Hitchcock’s films, I can definitively say my favorite film of his to be Rope, adapted from Patrick Hamilton’s 1929 play of the same name. The story is that of Phillip Morgan (Farley Granger) and Brandon Shaw (John Dall). They have just murdered their former classmate, David, and are getting ready to celebrate their “perfect crime” over dinner at their place. The guests: their victim’s closest friends and relatives. The evening’s most anticipated invité, however, is Phillip and Brandon’s old prep-school master, Rupert Cadell, played by James Stewart (Rope marked the first of four collaborations between the actor and Hitchcock). Rupert, you see, made quite an impression on our two first-time murderers back in university: he used to argue that murder is sometimes warranted, when a superior being commits it to rid the world of an inferior one. David, Phillip and Brandon apparently came to reason, fit the “inferior being” bill. Particularly proud of his accomplishment and bent on passively gloating, Phillip decides to set dinner over the chest hiding David’s body. But minutes before the guests start arriving, Bandon’s conscience starts acting up. Although he is the one who physically caused David to expel his last breath, Phillip is evidently the mastermind behind the deed. He attempts to calm Brandon down, but Brandon cannot be comforted: Phillip’s arrogant coolness unnerves him. As the evening wears on, tensions between the two men begin to rise. Noticing the discord, Rupert starts to suspect something is awry.

Rope is pure, character-driven story. There is no sense of events happening to the characters, but of characters instigating events. Indeed, Rope represents one of the more modest Hitchcock pictures, with no elaborate set pieces or unexpected plot twists. Its scope is of personal magnitude: Rope is about a man whose life is lost on account of philosophical recklessness. (Notice how the cast credits at the end are organized: characters are named according to their relationship to David, who heads the list. Indeed, Rope is less about Phillip and Brandon than it is about their victim and those ideas that led to his premature death.) Lest we forget this, Hitchcock adopts a minimalist approach that focuses all of our attention on the characters and their actions and reactions (which for the most part centre around David, figuratively and literally). Firstly, Rope is contained in both time and place: with the exception of an opening shot from Phillip and Brandon’s balcony, the film takes place entirely over the course of one evening, inside the protagonists’ apartment. (Akira Kurosawa would adopt a similar approach for the first act of his excellent thriller Tengoku to jigoku, 1963. Although, according to Labuza, 2012, the director never formally acknowledged having been influenced by the Master of Suspense, his film remains undeniably Hitchcockian.) Secondly, Rope feels very fluid, filmed to play like one long scene: to achieve this, the film counts a grand total of ten cuts. (To put this in perspective, most modern Hollywood films outnumber 5,000 cuts; Apple, 2004.) While half of these cuts consist of traditional, overt visual breaks, half of them are masked using different panning and tracking techniques.

When editors do not want cuts to call attention to themselves, they resort to what is called “continuity editing,” which seeks to unite otherwise disparate shots in a coherent manner, thereby simulating continuity between the shots. In Rope, continuity is achieved simply by keeping cuts to a bare minimum. Researching the film for this review, I was surprised to learn that it does not fare well with movie critics, who deride its (you would think sacrilegious) lack of traditional editing. In my opinion, however, the relative absence of cuts in Rope suits the emotional purposes of its sharply written screenplay, which attempts to prop audiences on the edge of their seats by rendering Phillip and Brandon’s crime less and less perfect, and their apprehension by the authorities more and more likely, as the evening progresses. Because events escalate for the most part uninterrupted visually, it is harder to pinpoint, while watching the film, exactly when each of the nails in Phillip and Brandon’s coffins are first hammered. This is slightly disorienting, creating a palatable sense of dread in the audience, who is quite ingeniously made to root for the murderers. Rope achieves this rather unlikely psychological feat by surreptitiously appealing to our morbid sensibilities, our asocial but devilishly tantalizing desire to see a wicked plan carried through with definite success. To be fair to critics, however, Hitchcock himself came to agree with them regarding Rope’s unique visual style.

Regarding why he decided to film Rope in one fell, visual swoop, Hitchcock confesses in his famous book-length interview with fellow director François Truffaut: “I undertook Rope as a stunt; that’s the only way I can describe it. I really don’t know how I came to indulge in it” (Truffaut, 1985, p. 179). He later concedes that he actually wanted to emulate the play, which plays out in real time from beginning to end, without interruptions. Hitchcock, however, eventually admits to second-guessing this decision: “When I look back, I realize that it was quite nonsensical because I was breaking with my own theories on the importance of cutting and montage for the visual narration of a story. On the other hand, this film was, in a sense, precut. The mobility of the camera and the movement of the players closely followed my usual cutting practice. In other words, I maintained the rule of varying the size of the image in relation to its emotional importance within a given episode” (p. 180). Despite this creative compromise, Hitchcock ultimately concludes, with Truffaut lightly nudging him in that direction, “films must be cut” (p. 184). At the same time, however, Hitchcock does not fully interpret his decision to film Rope the way he did as a mistake, stating that “[as] an experiment, Rope may be forgiven” (p. 184).

Truffaut, in agreement with Hitchcock’s conclusion that films must be cut, claims that because “the classical cutting techniques dating back to D. W. Griffith have stood the test of time and still prevail today” (1985, p. 184), there is no reason to do away with them. I am not in a position to argue with the man behind Les 400 coups (1959), but I will go ahead and disagree nonetheless. (If it makes me sound more credible, just imagine Truffaut’s best film was Fahrenheit 451, 1966!) To be sure, Rope is an experiment that has seldom been replicated. (Contemporary examples include Timecode, Figgis, 2000, and Russian Ark, Sokurov, 2003.) The fact that Rope does not respect tried-and-true filmmaking techniques, however, does not make it any less of a film. As I have argued, it appears to me to actually benefit from the absence of cuts. One may still rightfully wonder, however: if you’re not going to cut, why not just direct a play instead? Indeed, some have accused Rope of not being a film at all, but merely a film of a play. Stewart himself reportedly suggested to Hitchcock: “Since we [are] filming a play, we ought to bring bleachers into the soundstage, and sell tickets” (as cited in Ebert, 1984). This accusation, that Rope is more theatrical than it is cinematic, is, as I intend to show next, unfair. To understand why, we must first see how exactly films and plays differ from one another.

The Difference Between Cinema and Theater

Granted, the accusation Stewart (among others) levels against Rope is not that it essentially amounts to a play, but to a film of a play. Having said this, Stewart’s remark nevertheless begs the following question: had Hitchcock taken him up on his suggestion to bring a live audience into the soundstage, would that audience’s experience of Rope: Live have been any different from our experience of Rope: The Film? In order to answer this question, we must first examine what it is about plays that make them feel different from films, and vice-versa. In the following section, I identify those aspects of plays and films that render the experience of sitting in a theater or a cinema different. Through this examination, I hope to demonstrate that the experience of watching Rope has ultimately more in common with that of watching a movie than it does with that of watching a play.

To be sure, the distinction between cinema and theater is, in many ways, arbitrary (for a surprising argument in favor of this statement, see Sontag, 1966). Having said this, one cannot deny the fact that each of the two art forms possesses its own strengths, strengths that can thus, for all practical purposes, be considered defining characteristics. That is, what distinguishes films from plays isn’t that which either do the other cannot, but that which either do the other cannot as effectively.

In plays, time and space are not very flexible. (This may sound like an admonishment, but it is not. This characteristic of plays confers upon them a sense of immediacy and intimacy films struggle to replicate as effortlessly.) While different scenes in a play can certainly take place at different points in time and space, transitions between such points are not as seamless as in film, oftentimes calling attention to themselves. That is why playwrights generally tend to keep the number of temporal transitions and locations to a minimum. Conversely, films can easily, say, intercut scenes taking place at different points in both time and space. In that Rope takes place during one evening, in one apartment, without ever taking us out to other moments or places, it resembles a play.

While Rope only features one single space, it uses that space in a way I believe is distinctly cinematic. Films, you see, can do more than simply take audiences from one location to another in a matter of microseconds. They can also allow audiences to experience one single space in ways that would be physically impossible at the theater. In his seminal essay on Style and Medium in the Motion Pictures (1934/1995), art historian and film theorist Erwan Panofsky explains: in the theater, “space is static, that is, the space represented on the stage, as well as the spatial relation of the beholder to the spectacle, is unalterably fixed” (p. 96). Film Studies professor and author Richard Barsam (2004) expands on Panofsky’s description of the theater experience: in the theater, “your perspective […] is determined by the locations of your seat, and everything on the stage remains the same size in relation to the entire stage” (p. 4). To be sure, the spectator also “occupies a fixed seat” at the cinema, but he remains “in permanent motion as his eye identifies with the lens of the camera, which permanently shifts in distance and direction. And as movable as the spectator is, as movable is, for the same reason, the space presented to him. Not only bodies move in space, but space itself does, approaching, receding, turning, dissolving and re-crystallizing” (Panofsky, p. 96-98). Further, movies so manipulate space “in such a way as to distort, transform, and heighten a scene” (Barsam, p. 4).

This “repurposing” of reality is traditionally achieved through framing, by varying the distance, angle and movement of the camera relative to objects and actors within a given shot. For example, an extreme long shot (to be distinguished from a long take), distancing the space between the audience and a character, might on its own inspire a sense of isolation, whereas an extreme close-up, narrowing the space between the audience and the character, might on its own inspire a sense of intimacy (and perhaps even a feeling of “spacelessness”). Reality may also be “repurposed” through editing, by cutting from one shot to another and, most importantly, varying the spatial relationships between the different shots. For example, follow a long shot of two characters, say, on a date at a restaurant, with succeeding and increasingly tighter close-ups of each individual, and you might, collapsing the (physical and metaphorical) space between the two, create a developing sense of mutual intimacy.

While Rope hardly ever relies on cutting, it does take full (and varied) advantage of framing, as Hitchcock himself acknowledges in a previous quote. Indeed, the lens of Rope’s camera is able to perceive space very unlike the eyes of a spectator at the theater. (To complicate matters, even the camera in films of plays does not “see” like a spectator sitting in a theater! I will return to this later, however.) As a result, space is rendered and thus experienced in a uniquely cinematic fashion.

This is evident when the camera is active. Take, for example, the scene at the end of the movie when Rupert hypothesizes how he would lure David to his death without getting caught, were he to at that moment step into the apartment. As Rupert walks us along each step of his imaginary plan, the camera acts as if he were actually carrying out every one of them. Panofsky (1995) eloquently refers to such uniquely cinematic tactics as “substituting […] the eye of the beholder for the consciousness of the character” (p. 98). This could presumably be replicated in a play, say, using a dimmed stage and a beam of light, but I doubt the effect would be as powerful. Even when the camera stops moving and settles on a static shot, it offers a unique point-of-view that a pair of eyes “sitting” anywhere in a theater would be hard-pressed to replicate. Take, for example, the static shot of Phillip and Brandon’s housekeeper clearing the dinnerware, tablecloth and candlesticks off the chest hiding David’s body. This suspenseful, low-angle shot is masterfully composed for maximum effect: the chest and Rupert’s back stand on opposite sides of the foreground, while the dining room and kitchen occupy the mid- and back-grounds. As Rupert and the other dinner guests discuss what could possibly have kept David from attending the party, the housekeeper walks from the chest to the kitchen and back, each time taking a few more items off the chest, until it is completely bare and exposed.

Critics of Rope (not to mention one of its own actors) claim that because it does not contain many cuts, it basically amounts to a film of a play. A closer look at actual films of plays, however, helps undermine this argument. Indeed, films of plays (e.g., Hughes, 1986) actually often cut between differently framed shots: contrary to what you may imagine, they are not filmed in one static, extended long shot from a visual “sweet spot” somewhere in the theater’s main seating area. Does that mean films of plays should be considered full-fledged films? Not at all. The reason for that is intentionality in framing and cutting. In films of plays, shots are framed and cut together in no specific fashion. As we have seen, Rope may not (often) make use of cutting, but it does very much make use of framing; most importantly, it makes deliberate and meaningful use of it. In so doing, Rope remains a full-fledged film, while films of plays, despite the presence of framing and cutting, still cannot be considered actual films.

In his essay, Panofsky (1995) warns: “[The] imitation of a theater performance with a set stage, fixed entries and exits, and distinctly literary ambitions is the one thing the film must avoid” (p. 96). Films, he suggests, must instead take full advantage of that which only films can achieve: Panofsky dubs one such uniquely cinematic faculty the dynamization of space, or the dynamic conveyance of space to an audience. As demonstrated in the above examples, whether Rope’s camera is being active or static, it is always telling the audience, via variations in framing, how to look at the space inhabited by its characters, in the hopes that we think or feel certain intended thoughts or feelings. Thus, despite the fact that it does very well resemble theater in terms of content (i.e., limited samplings of time and space), Rope employs the camera in such a way as to convey at least part of that content (i.e., space) to its audience in a uniquely cinematic fashion, thereby providing us with a uniquely cinematic experience. And it is this very accomplishment that, in my opinion, elevates Rope beyond a mere play rendered on celluloid to the level of legitimate film.

The Difference Between Evil Movies and Bad Movies

Aside from its unique visual style, Rope also captured my attention because it obviously features two romantically attached gay characters, in the form of Phillip and Brandon. To be sure, homosexuality is never verbally acknowledged in the actual film. Despite this seeming wariness to even speak the word “homosexuality,” the fact that Rope was a “homosexual movie” was well known to everyone involved: in fact, during production, people reportedly took to calling same-sex sexual interest “it” (Bouzereau, 2001). In the fascinating documentary Celluloid in the Closet (Epstein & Friedman, 1995; see also the more straightforwardly titled companion essay Homosexuality in Film, Sony Pictures Classics, 1995), Granger (who was bisexual) claims both him and Dall were very well aware they were playing gay characters. According to screenwriter Arthur Laurents (who was gay), the only ones out of the loop would have been the censors, which explains why Rope was able to get past them.

To be sure, Rope’s depiction of homosexuality isn’t particularly flattering, despite the involvement of queer talent. (In fact, it would take another 13 years before the first mainstream film depicting homosexual men in a compassionate light—the remarkable British thriller Victim, 1961, directed by Basil Dearden—would be released.) Both Phillip and Brandon are dislikeable, antisocial men caught in a pitiably asymmetrical relationship. Following in the footsteps of Mrs. Danvers—the seemingly lesbian antagonist from Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940), who also comes across as deranged—the couple also meets a gruesome end: however, while Mrs. Danvers’ demise evokes religious retribution (she dies engulfed in flames), Phillip and Brandon’s demise evokes legal retribution (they are presumably tried and sentenced to death). In a sense, Mrs. Danvers’ character embodies a better indictment of homosexuality, since her malevolence directly flows from her affection for another woman. Phillip and Brandon, on the other hand, are criminals deserving of punishment, who also happen to be gay.

One could certainly make the case that Rope’s portrayal of gay people is an improvement over that of previous films. Phillip and Brandon are not bad because they are gay; they are simply bad in addition to being gay. Further, they no longer represent an offense to Religious Law, but simply to Secular Law. (It has been suggested that Norman Bates, from Hitchcock’s subsequent Psycho, is a repressed homosexual. In that he ends up, following his arrest, in the hands of a forensic psychiatrist, Bates is also portrayed as an offense to Psychiatric Law. In this way, Hitchcock’s films mirror the evolution of society’s view of the homosexual: first as a sinner, then as a criminal, and finally as a madman.) But while homosexuality and malevolence are portrayed as existing separately in the persons of Phillip and Brandon, an indirect relation between the two attributes is nevertheless implicitly suggested. Phillip and Brandon each embody certain stereotypically gay character traits, which could be interpreted as causal to the crime committed by the couple. In that he is impressionable, submissive and weak, Brandon evokes stereotypically feminine qualities, which presumably caused him to fall under Phillip’s spell and be talked into murder. While Brandon is portrayed as just short of a “real” man, Phillip gives off a more masculine vibe: he is confident, independently-minded and assertive. However, he is also highly narcissistic, thinking himself and his partner to be superior beings.

The accusation that gay people are narcissistic has been leveled against us time and again, especially in psychoanalytical circles. (Incidentally, Freud and psychoanalysis are mentioned twice in Laurents’ screenplay.) Freud (1914/1991) himself hypothesized that male homosexual interest results from, among other possible causes, narcissistic object-choice. According to the theory of narcissistic object-choice, men become gay by being so self-possessed they only seek out partners who remind them entirely of themselves. To be fair, Freud (1930/2001) later conceded that even male heterosexual interest is “a problem requiring an explanation” (p. 10), although he never, to my knowledge, ended up fashioning one (for a modern attempt, see Chodorow, 1994), or at least one that also involved unflattering causes. Freud’s (1923/1960) Oedipal complex theory comes close, because men who “successfully” resolve it become straight, while those who do not become, among other possible “pathological” outcomes, gay. Still, the theory assumes, without explaining why, that all male children begin life as straight: first for their mother, then—via, for example, anaclitic object-choice—for another woman. In fact, the complex is, in a way, more about “surviving” this period of conflict without “losing” one’s heterosexuality than it is about actually laying the behavioral foundations for it.

You may think such blatant homophobia masquerading as science is a thing of the past. Well, I regret to inform you that this is unfortunately not the case. Just three years ago, my Abnormal Psychology professor—a psychoanalytic psychiatrist—claimed that cutting-edge research had finally empirically shown that homosexual men are more narcissistic than their heterosexual counterparts. Freud’s narcissistic object-choice theory was correct: gay men love themselves so much they wish to find partners who embody every bit—and I mean every bit—of their towering greatness. (The professor conveniently omitted the reference for this supposedly game-changing study.) In a valiant and well-meaning effort to carry outdated psychoanalytic theories of homosexuality into the 21rst century, author Tim Dean (2001) attempts taking the narcissism out of narcissism: homosexual narcissism, he claims, entails not only “a commitment to sameness,” as in your run-of-the-mill narcissism, but also one to “otherness” (p. 122). Suffice it to say, Dean’s essay is an exercise in linguistic manipulation: instead of simply finally dropping the narcissism hypothesis, he opts to change the very meaning of the word “narcissism.” Gays remain full of themselves, but, you know, in a good way…

Why am I such a fan of Hitchcock’s Rope given its less than ideal treatment of gay people? I rely on film critic Roger Ebert to help me explain myself. In his 2003 review of D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915)—a cinematically revolutionary film that is also steeped in overt racism—Ebert claims: “To understand The Birth of a Nation we must first understand the difference between what we bring to the film, and what the film brings to us. All serious moviegoers must sooner or later arrive at a point where they see a film for what it is, and not simply for what they feel about it. The Birth of a Nation is not a bad film because it argues for evil. Like Riefenstahl’s The Triumph of the Will, it is a great film that argues for evil. To understand how it does so is to learn a great deal about film, and even something about evil.” Art, Ebert continues, does not only serve Beauty and Truth, and neither does it need to in order to be considered great. Of course, Hitchcock’s film is nowhere near as offensive as Griffith’s. Still, it may be helpful to view Rope from a similar perspective: while it perhaps reinforced mid-century social intolerance, it did so with undeniable style. Rope might be morally misguided, but, as I sought to convey earlier, it is right on target cinematically speaking.

What do great films with questionable values teach us about film? I believe they teach us that films can transcend whatever messages happen to permeate their narrative. You could even say that films exist beyond good and evil. Indeed, the value of a film is not based on what a film advocates, but on how it advocates it. By “how,” I do not refer to whether an argument is cogently advanced, but to whether an argument (however fallacious) is woven into a skillfully written, acted, lighted, shot, edited, and scored film. For example, while I may wholeheartedly disagree with M’s (Lang, 1931) conclusion regarding criminal responsibility in the mentally ill, I would be hard-pressed to describe the film as anything but brilliant. Likewise, while I may wholeheartedly agree with American History X’s (Kaye, 1998) conclusion regarding the fallacies and perils of racism, I nevertheless regard the film as mediocre at best. Now, what do great films with questionable values teach us about evil? Well, insofar as a film’s value is immune to evil, it follows that the reach of evil is limited. Contrary to popular belief, evil does not contaminate everything it touches. Unfortunately, the same applies to good, in that the best of philosophical intentions will never, on their own a least, prevent a film from failing to impress.

References

Apple, W. (Director). (2004). The cutting edge: The magic of movie editing [Documentary]. United States: A.C.E., British Broadcasting Corporation, NHK Enterprises, & TCEP, Inc. 

Barsam, R. (2004). Looking at movies: An introduction to film. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company.

Bouzereau, L. (Director). (2001). ‘Rope’ unleashed. United States: Universal Pictures. (Available on the 2001 DVD of Rope.)

Chodorow, N. (1994). Femininities, masculinities, sexualities: Freud and beyond. Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky.

Dean, T. (2001). Homosexuality and the problem of otherness. In T. Dean & C. Lane (Eds.), Homosexuality and psychoanalysis (pp. 120-143). Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press.

Ebert, R. (1984). Rope. RogerEbert.com. Retrieved October 1, 2012, from here.

Ebert, R. (2003). The birth of a nation. RogerEbert.com. Retrieved October 1, 2012, from here.

Freud. S. (1960). The ego and the id. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company. (Original work published 1923)

Freud, S. (1991). On narcissism: An introduction. In J. Sandler, E. S. Person, & P. Fonagy (Eds.), Freud’s “On narcissism: An introduction” (pp. 3-32). New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. (Original work published 1914)

Freud, S. (2001). Three contributions to the theory of sex. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications. (Original work published 1930)

Hughes, T. (Director). (1986). Stephen Sondheim’s “Sunday in the park with George” [Theatrical Recording]. United States: Image Entertainment.

Labuza, P. (2012). Dial K for Kurosawa. Indiewire. Retrieved October 1, 2012, from here.

Panofsky, E. (1995). Style and medium in the motion pictures. In L. Irving (Ed.), Three essays on style (pp. 91-128). Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press. (Original work published 1934)

Sontag, S. (1966). Film and theatre. The Tulane Drama Review, 11, 24-37.

Sony Pictures Classics. (1995). Homosexuality in film. Author. Retrieved October 1, 2012, from here.

Truffaut, F. (1985). Hitchcock (revised ed.). Toronto, ON: Simon & Schuster.

Film theorist David Bordwell, author of such notable books as Narration in the Fiction Film (1985) and Inference and Rhetoric in the Interpretation of Cinema (1987), identifies four key features of film criticism: description, analysis, interpretation, and evaluation. Of the fourth critical activity, he asks that we consider the following slight, yet consequential, distinction:

[Evaluation] encompasses both judgment and taste. Taste is what gives you a buzz. There’s no accounting for it, we’re told, and a person’s tastes can be wholly unsystematic and logically inconsistent. Among my favorite movies are The Hunt for Red October, How Green Was My Valley, Choose Me, Back to the Future, Song of the South, Passing Fancy, Advise and Consent, Zorns Lemma, and Sanshiro Sugata. I’ll also watch June Allyson, Sandra Bullock, Henry Fonda, and Chishu Ryu in almost anything. I’m hard-pressed to find a logical principle here. (2011, p. 57; italics in original)

Judgment, on the other hand, operates beyond the subjective realm of personal preference, and within the (comparatively) objective realm of technical and artistic criteria. To have a productive discussion about film, Bordwell explains, that exchange must mainly (but not necessarily exclusively) base itself on “intersubjective standards and discernible things going on in [a] movie” (e.g., technical ability, thematic depth, creativity, emotional structure), as opposed to “whether you got a buzz from it and I didn’t” (p. 58). Indeed, “I liked it” or “I didn’t like it at all” won’t get you very far conversation-wise.

Films we enjoy but that aren’t considered particularly good when measured against higher-order criteria are collectively referred to as “guilty pleasures.” Many of us have them; few of us admit to having them. But if someone as distinguished as David Bordwell can say he’ll watch almost anything with Sandra Bullock in it, the rest of us can certainly do the same without shame. And so, in this spirit, I dedicate this post to my favorite guilty pleasure of all time. The question is: which one to choose? I could go with Miner’s delightfully kitschy Lake Placid (1999), or even Meyer’s delightfully corny The Holiday (2006). Or how about Hill’s equally silly Muppet vehicle Muppets from Space (1999)? No, if I’m going to do this, I’m going to do it right. So let’s go with my granddaddy of all guilty pleasures: Wolf’s The House Bunny (2008). You must understand: this is difficult for me to confess. While I’ve never shied away from, say, admitting I’ve watched pornography in my life, I’ve purposefully avoided ever talking about watching (not to mention *gasp* owning) Wolf’s irresistibly terrible film about a Playboy Bunny with a good heart. What movies have I seen recently, you ask? Why, I’ve just gone through all ten films from Kieslowski’s Dekalog (1989), being such a fan of his subsequent Trois couleurs trilogy (1993-1994). Oh, and what else? Um… OK, ok: The House Bunny. For the seventh time.

For reasons that will become clear shortly, The House Bunny doesn’t really lend itself to interpretation. Thus, I instead focus my review of the film on description, a bit of analysis, and, save for a few ventures into judgment, the “taste” component of evaluation. First, though, how did The House Bunny fare with critics? The comedy currently holds a 42% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. What do my two favorite film reviewers have to say about it, specifically? Roger Ebert didn’t even bother seeing it. As for James Berardinelli, who awarded the film one star out of four, his review starts like so:

The House Bunny has a screenplay written with ten-year olds in mind about a subject that deserves an R-rating. The resulting hodgepodge of unfunny, sophomoric humor and PG-13 T&A, frosted by a sheen of appallingly nauseous “drama,” makes for such a noxious brew that it’s amazing viewers stay in their seats for the entire production. Then again, it takes absorption of the full 100 minutes for the movie’s vomit-inducing power to become evident. (Berardinelli, 2008)

There you have it. This is the film that somehow managed past my quality filters.

The screenplay to The House Bunny, which Berardinelli so voraciously tears into, was penned by screenwriting duo Kirsten Smith and Karen McCullah Lutz. (Incidentally, this is also the pair behind the lawmedy Legally Blonde, Luketic, 2001, which spawned Legally Blonde: The Musical, Mitchell, 2007, my top theatrical guilty pleasure). It tells the tale of Shelley Darlington (Anna Faris), who is living the good life in the Playboy Mansion. While she is only now a lowly Playboy Bunny, she dreams of one day becoming a full-fledged Playboy Playmate. One morning, she is rather inexplicably ordered to leave the Mansion. At first devastated, she eventually finds a new home in a sorority house, where she must act as “house mother” to a bunch of socially awkward and drab-looking sisters. Being so unpopular, the sisters have brought their sorority to the edge of extinction: their university is threatening to shut them down if they don’t find more pledges. With her knowledge of what it takes to be cool and throw awesome parties, Darlington vows to help her new family find new members and save their home.

The House Bunny features an absurd storyline that unfolds in an entirely standard way: girl is happy, first obstacle takes happiness away from girl, girl finds new and better source of happiness, second obstacle takes happiness away from girl, girl is happy again. What else can be said of The House Bunny? Its soundtrack is laden with popular tunes, one of which plays over, of all aberrations, a makeover montage. And its message is borderline sexist: if you’re a woman and want people to pay attention to you, perhaps even respect you as a person, you better be pretty and wear sexy clothes.

And yet, despite all this, I keep coming back to it. Why? Because of how the film makes me feel. Whatever its faults—and I am the first to admit there are many—The House Bunny is a friendly and good-natured movie. It means so well, it is hard to blame it for being so bland and misguided. There is also one scene in The House Bunny that makes me laugh, and laugh hard. (I’m not kidding: harder even than the kitten that thinks of nothing but murder all day.) Every time I watch it, I end up rolling on the floor. I won’t say anything more about the scene, except that it involves a guttural mnemonic device Darlington uses to remember the names of people she meets for the first time.

I cannot guarantee The House Bunny will make you feel the way it makes me feel. Given this, is there anything observable about the film that makes it worth seeing? Most of what is on display within The House Bunny makes it very difficult to recommend as a worthwhile rental. That is, except for one thing: Anna Faris’ performance as Shelley Darlington. Ultimately, I don’t think I would keep returning to The House Bunny if Faris weren’t in it. She infuses Darlington with such bubbly optimism and genuinely good intentions, it is hard not to fall for both actress and character. (While she is not the only aspect responsible for the film’s affable quality, she remains a major source of it.) A welcome bonus, the cast also features another delightful actress, the striking Emma Stone. While Stone has gone on to play in much better films, like The Scarlett Letter-inspired Easy A (Gluck, 2010), Faris has unfortunately not been so lucky. Still, she can always count on me to watch any title carrying her name.

Just in case you think less of me now—and I wouldn’t blame you if you did—I am going to conclude this post by saying smart-sounding things, things which will hopefully boost your brain’s newly adjusted measure of my IQ. In Act II of The House Bunny, Darlington undergoes an intellectual makeover to impress a boy she fancies. By the end of my conclusion, I hope to have salvaged your impression of me to the point you think me at least as smart as Darlington, v.2.0! So here we go…

We have so far encountered in this post two sorts of films: a) films that we like but aren’t good (otherwise known as “guilty pleasures”) and b) films that are good (often referred to as “masterpieces” or, in time, “classics”). But, what of the role of enjoyment in that second category? I submit that this second class of film can further be divided into two subordinate categories: a) films that are good and we like, and b) films that are good and we don’t like (either at all or enough to revisit).

The second, mixed experience can occur when a good film provokes within us an unpleasant experience, like disorientation, frustration, or emotional pain. (While there is nothing wrong with not liking a film because it made us feel unpleasant things, this outcome should never bear on whether we judge the film to be good or bad. For those who are turned off by films which create uncomfortable states of feeling, and who wonder whether they can distinguish how a movie made them feel from how good or bad it is, Solondz’s brilliant, but challenging, dark comedy Happiness, 1998, happens to provide a perfect test of this ability.) For me, however, this second, mixed experience occurs for one reason only, and a nebulous one at that: I just didn’t “connect” with the material, however good it may be. Feelings of disorientation, frustration, or emotional pain will usually not prevent a sense of connection; in fact, they may very well promote it. Thus, by “connect,” I suppose I mean I feel like I have been impacted in some meaningful and seemingly permanent way.

Generally, the extent to which a film appeals to my aesthetic sensibilities (i.e., to which its many disparate, but interconnected, components are dispassionately perceived as technically and artistically accomplished) will determine whether I believe it to be good, and the extent to which a film appeals to my emotional sensibilities (i.e., to which it causes me to feel, or even think, passionately) will determine whether I like it. Films that only accomplish the former task are usually films I believe to be good, but do not like; films that only accomplish the latter task are usually “guilty pleasures”; and films that accomplish both tasks are usually films I both believe are good and that I like.

Of course, failings relating to the first task may overwhelm successes relating to the second: for example, while certain moments within Hadashi no Gen (Nakazawa, 1983) successfully compel the audience to consider what it was like to live in the aftermath of the Hiroshima atomic bombing, these deeply affecting moments are regrettably embedded within an overall clumsy narrative that ultimately diminishes their post-credits resonance (and certainly renders any comparisons to Hotaru no Haka, Takahata, 1988, absolutely moot). How the first task is carried out may also directly impact the success of the second: for example, the carefully constructed eerie mood of the gothic chiller The Innocents (Clayton, 1964) results in a more textured and ultimately satisfying sense of dread than the cheap scare tactics of most modern horror flicks. (The House Bunny’s infectious cheerfulness, on the other hand, appears miraculously immune to the contrived workings of a worn-out plot.)

An additional complication: because what speaks to us often varies depending on what is happening in our lives at the moment, films I don’t connect with now, I may connect with later. I predict, however, that films I connect with now, I will always connect with in some way or another. Even if a film stops speaking to me like it once did, the nostalgic memory that this film once left an impression on me will forever remain, indirectly satisfying my emotional sensibilities when re-watching it.

Just a few months ago, I compiled a list of films I both think are good and enjoy enough to revisit in the future. While I’ve never judged a film to be good and also not liked it at all, I’ve judged many films to be good and also not liked them enough to revisit them. For example, while watching Godard’s Bande à part (1964), my knowledge of standards regarding what constitutes competent filmmaking told me this film was impressively close to perfection. While I now fantasize about running through the Louvre in less than 9 minutes and 43 seconds, the film however didn’t speak to me on a deeper, more personal level. And so, I decided not to include it in my list of “good films that I also like.” The same reasoning excluded Lang’s Metropolis (1927), Truffaut’s Les 400 coups (1959), Fellini’s (1963), Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show (1971), Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris (1972), Coppola’s The Conversation (1974), Malle’s My Dinner With Andre (1984), etc.

While each of these films was undeniably aesthetically satisfying, I didn’t, as Bordwell puts it in an earlier quote, get a buzz from them. Of course, I still believe that a life lived without having once experienced each of these films has, in some small way, been wasted. According to my records, however, I watch over 100 new films a year, which leaves very little time for repeated viewings. And so, when I do find time in my schedule to watch films again, I typically prefer to revisit those I have so far connected with. The visceral sense of satisfaction these films provide compels me to choose them over films I am only able to appreciate on a cerebral level. And because I’ve connected with both good and bad films, these return visits may very well include anything from Haneke’s Der siebente Kontinent (1989), a powerfully cogent indictment of modern living, to, well, The House Bunny.

Reference

Bordwell, D. (2011). In critical condition. In D. Bordwell & K. Thompson (Eds.), Minding movies: Observations on the art, craft, and business of filmmaking (pp. 53-62). Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press. (Chapter also available on David Bordwell’s Website on Cinema.)

For the past seventeen years now, summer has—with a few exceptions during the venerable dream factory’s early years—meant one thing, and one thing only: the release of a new Pixar Animation Studios film. For the past three years, I have been able to share this annual occasion with my boyfriend. In fact, the very first film we ever saw together in theaters was Pete Docter and Bob Petersen’s incredibly charming Up (2009). Earlier this summer, the studio released Brave, directed by Brenda Chapman before being handed over to Mark Andrews. Taking place in Middle Age Scotland, Brave centers on Merida (Kelly Macdonald), a young princess who is expected to marry one of three possible suitors from her father King Fergus’ (Billy Connolly) allied clans. Unfortunately, Merida is intent on remaining single, a personal choice her mother, Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson), cannot understand and refuses to accept. As a result, the two are constantly bickering over the impending betrothal. Seeing no other possible solution to the disagreement, Merida purchases a magical spell from a mysterious, wood-dwelling witch—a spell designed to “change” her mother. Unfortunately, Elinor transforms not into a more indulgent parent, but into a brown bear. Once Elinor composes herself, she and her daughter escape into the forest, where they attempt to reverse the witch’s spell, all the while evading Mor’du, a ferocious black bear who prowls the Highlands.

A few evenings after watching Brave at our local cineplex, my boyfriend and I sat down—in our living room this time—to revisit Walt Disney Feature Animation’s Treasure Planet, directed by Ron Clements and John Musker, of The Little Mermaid (1989) and Aladdin (1992) fame. As you may gather from the title, Treasure Planet transposes the action from Robert Louis Stevenson’s earthbound classic into space. In Clements and Musker’s reimagining of the tale, Jim Hawkins (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a delinquent who comes into possession of a mysterious sphere. Toying around with it, the sphere projects a holographic map appearing to point the way to Treasure Planet, the purported hiding place of legendary pirate Captain Flint’s “loot of a thousand worlds.” Dr. Delbert Doppler (David Hyde Pierce), a dog-like friend of Hawkins’ mother, decides to finance an expedition to the planet. He hires Captain Amelia (Emma Thompson), a feline-esque alien, to man a spaceship christened the RLS Legacy, and a crew led by John Silver (Brian Murray), a cyborg cook. Sent down to work in the galleys during the interplanetary trip, Hawkins begins to bond with Silver. Little does Hawkins know, however, Silver and his crew are conspiring to commit mutiny, bent on stealing Flint’s treasure for themselves.

While watching Treasure Planet, it dawned on me that it and Brave share several similarities. Both films are considered by critics to be two of Disney and Pixar’s (respectively) weakest efforts. Further, both films feature at their core a relationship between a child and a parent or parental figure, and present the audience with a backstory that either informs or fuels the principle storyline. (Incidentally, the two films also feature voice-work by the talented Emma Thompson.) Comparing the two films, however, it becomes evident that Treasure Planet succeeds where Brave fails: that is, in the all-important areas of character and backstory development. Indeed, I believe that Treasure Planet, whatever its shortcomings, is undeservedly underappreciated. While Brave is not nearly as incompetent as critics have made it out to be (see, for example, Berardinelli, 2012), it nevertheless remains artistically wanting, due perhaps to the controversial mid-production directorial swap.

Some critics have noted similarities between the plot of Brave and that of Disney’s Brother Bear (Blaise & Walker, 2003). While it is true that both stories bear superficial resemblance to each other—pun half-intended!—Brave and Treasure Planet share similar foundations, as previously explained. As such, I choose to compare these two particular films, to explore some of the many elements that contribute to not only competent, but also satisfying character and backstory development.

Character Development

Having escaped their castle following Elinor’s nighttime transformation from an elegant royal into a giant animal, Merida and her mother take shelter under a boulder in a nearby forest. At this point in the film, the mother-daughter pair have two issues to resolve. The first issue is the one that brought Merida to inadvertently turn her mother into a giant animal in the first place: Merida and Elinor must learn to communicate. Neither has ever listened to the other, and been willing to do so without judging or attempting to change the other’s opinion. This is conveyed in an especially clever sequence at the beginning of the film, which cuts between the two characters as they express their frustration with one another. The second issue directly results from Merida’s actions: Elinor must learn to trust her daughter again. The mother-daughter relationship has suffered a serious breach: Merida knowingly put her mother’s safety in danger by purchasing a spell from a strange woman, and casting it upon her. Along with learning to trust her daughter again, Elinor may even have to accept some level of responsibility for bringing her to commit such a desperate act.

Under the boulder in the forest, Merida tentatively attempts to extricate a smile from her mother. A forlorn look in her eyes, Elinor turns around, resting her head on the ground before presumably falling asleep. What is she feeling? Disappointment and hurt, probably. I would assume some sadness and anger as well, however deeply buried. Unfortunately, this is the last we encounter of Elinor’s subjective experience. In contrast, we are able to infer from Merida’s persistent efforts to reverse the spell that she is guilt-ridden, that she deeply regrets what she has done to her mother.

Merida and Elinor’s relationship begins to be mended the following day, before any of the aforementioned issues start to be addressed. (If you think no “family film” could ever successfully deal with such complex matters, see how Pixar’s existentially astute Toy Story trilogy handles the prospect of death.) The best that can be said of Merida and Elinor’s reconciliation is that it begins to happen over one of two lovely songs by Scottish folk-singer Julie Fowlis. Once the song is over, however, Merida and Elinor’s relationship, apparently considered salvaged, takes second place to the spell’s urgent reversal. The key to Merida and Elinor’s relational troubles was to learn to communicate, to listen to their frustrations regarding each other without any attempt at contradicting, and to become more flexible, to genuinely want to address the other’s concerns. Yet, the two fail to have an honest and heartfelt conversation at any point in the film. Indeed, we never get a sense that Merida and Elinor have actively worked through their relational troubles. Sure, they manage to overcome a magical spell together, but unencumbered teamwork is not the same as open communication. Because of this, the resolution at the end of the film comes across as premature, and rings somewhat false. Because Merida and Elinor do not deserve their reconciliation, so to say, we are not convinced it will last.

Hawkins’ father left him and his mother when he was a boy. His dedicated mother has been raising him since, but not without difficulty: Hawkins tends to misbehave and get into trouble with the law. He has stagnated: something is holding him back from living a rewarding, prosocial life. When he meets Silver, he is at first suspicious: the creature that handed him the projecting sphere outside his mother’s tavern warned him to “beware of the cyborg.” Hawkins also comes to resent Silver, who is given authority over him by Captain Amelia. As time goes by, however, the boy begins to invest in the cyborg as a son would his father. Silver encourages him to map his own course, and tells him that he is confident he will grow up to achieve great things. We sense this is the first time Hawkins hears anything of the sort. When Hawkins learns that Silver is a manipulative crook that will say and do anything to get what he wants, he is crushed. The cyborg subsequently attempts to make amends, but the boy refuses to make peace. Quite likely, Hawkins’ disappointment is similar to that felt the day his father left. Angered, he seeks to find the treasure before Silver can get his hands on it.

In the end, Hawkins comes to terms with the person of Silver: he may be imperfect, but, despite his limitations, he remains a good person. Through his relationship with Silver, we feel Hawkins has been able to process his unresolved feelings toward his father. Although the film chooses not to explore this, it is even possible he has forgiven him. Regardless, it appears Hawkins is now at peace with the memory of his father, and that his complicated feelings toward him will, we can rest assured, no longer hinder his progress toward a more satisfying existence.

As is evident in my summary of Hawkins and Silver’s relationship, we see a lot of it. We are not left with too many questions regarding its nature or progression, allowing us to invest in it fully. Indeed, there are at least four meaningful conversations between Hawkins and Silver inserted into the story, including one that evolves into a refreshingly inspired musical montage showing the two characters bonding. (As alluded to previously, Brave also resorts to a musical montage to illustrate the budding relationship between its protagonists; this sequence, however, simply comes across as a lazy shortcut.) These interactions are the pillars of Treasure Planet: when all else fails to impress, it is Hawkins and Silver’s relationship that allows the film to remain aloft. At the same time, the two characters’ experiences regarding each other retain some vagueness, so that there is enough room left onscreen for our own interpretations, a tactic that further promotes audience investment. (Ridley Scott’s Prometheus, 2012, pulls its audience in using similar means, only to achieve a more cerebral kind of investment, by proposing religious and philosophical questions to ponder, without ever telling us how the characters are themselves answering these.)

Backstory Development

In Brave, Elinor attempts to convince Merida to conform with what is expected of her by telling her daughter the story of four princes who were to have their kingdom evenly split between them. Wanting the kingdom all to himself, one of them ultimately plunges it into chaos. Later in the film, we learn that this story is more than mere didactic fiction: Mor’du’s very origins can be traced back to the events relayed within it. Because we are not told enough about the princes and the fall of their kingdom, and because Mor’du is so rarely talked about and makes so few appearances, the legend feels appended to Merida’s story more than an integral part of it. During the film’s climax, we are even asked to empathize with the insurgent prince. Given we have been told so little about his past, not to mention his evolution since the rampage of his own kingdom, this is asking too much.

In Treasure Planet, the legend of Captain Flint and his loot of a thousand worlds is seamlessly integrated into the main narrative. Not only does the legend propel the main narrative, the main narrative also elucidates some of the legend’s mysteries in ways that further the requirements of the plot. It is this mutual relation between backstory and principal storyline that contributes to the successful integration of the former into the latter. It is not for nothing the movie is titled after the treasure’s mythical location!

Final Thoughts

While Treasure Planet handles character development and the device of backstory with a deft hand, Brave falters in both areas. From a technical standpoint, however, Brave upstages Treasure Planet in many respects. Pixar’s latest effort features beautifully rendered scenery of the Scottish countryside, and richly immersive environments. Character animation is also detailed and fluid. That being said, some of the character designs (e.g., the housemaid) come across as a little generic and could have benefited from further development. I did nonetheless appreciate the Miyazaki-esque quality of the more original designs: indeed, the wisps, the witch and her crow could very well have escaped from the parallel world in Studio Ghibli’s Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi (2001). (Enrico Casarosa’s short La Luna, which plays before Brave, also draws from the Miyazaki universe: for example, the sequence where the boy is suspended in midair.)

Despite making some appealing use of Deep Canvas technology, which allows background artists to “paint” moving sets, Treasure Planet features a more often than not distracting combination of hand-drawn and computer-generated technology, taking one’s focus away from the story. Still, the film manages to fashion a unique and imaginative world blending futuristic elements with old-world ones. Take, for example, the RLS Legacy, a rocket-propelled galleon. (This blending of styles was used to similar effect in Joss Whedon’s Firefly (2002-2003), a fantasy television series with a western motif.)

While definitely showing strengths in both areas, Treasure Planet does not handle everything to do with characters and narrative perfectly. For example, the progression of the story is at times encumbered by an overreliance on sight gags, and a reluctance to slow down during moments that do not involve Hawkins and Silver. Treasure Planet also appears to fear silence, as evinced by a crewmember that speaks “Flatula” (i.e., in farts) and the loud-mouthed robot B.E.N. (Martin short). Still, the film at least feels complete. Conversely, because Brave weaves, but never fully brings together, various character arcs and narrative strands, the film feels somewhat unfinished. In a way, viewing Brave is akin to watching an early, in-progress reel bound for further reworking.

Brave can be forgiven for mishandling its backstory. In fact, I can forgive a movie a lot, even a generally awkwardly told story or substandard dialogue. Poor visuals, even. I am only able to do this, however, if I am brought to care about the characters and their relationships. For me to care, I must be given the opportunity to eavesdrop, as an audience member, on private moments that reveal to me the inner landscape of each character, or, to keep the metaphor going, the border where two characters’ inner lands meet. But because Brave fails to provide its audience with such moments, I am less inclined to revisit it, despite other aspects of the film mostly meeting my expectations. Treasure Planet, on the other hand, successfully integrates such moments into its narrative. Thus, despite its many problems, the film remains, at the very least, emotionally satisfying. And so, I cut it some slack and willingly revisit it with pleasure.

The first Happy Feet (2006) told the story of Mumble (Elijah Wood), an Emperor penguin who, because of in vitro trauma, could not sing like the rest of his kind. He could, however, dance like a pro, an ability that—initially at least—invited only contempt from his colony. When the Penguin Nation’s food supply finds itself threatened by industrial overfishing, Mumble, thanks to his unusual gift, is able to attract the attention of the human world, which eventually comes to the penguins’ rescue. In Happy Feet Two, another environmental catastrophe, this time prompted by global warming, assails Mumble’s people: a mobile iceberg has trapped the penguins inside their mating grounds. It is up to Mumble, off retrieving his wandering son Erik (Ava Acres) when disaster struck, to help them escape. Erik, it should be mentioned, cannot dance. While all of Emperor Land has, since the original film’s events, taken a liking to dancing, the young chick confesses he does not know why to dance, that he has no reason to. Along with Erik, we learn by the end of the story that while solo dancing to one’s personal tune may definitely have value, dancing together to the tune of the public good can sometimes be just as satisfying…

In Happy Feet and Happy Feet Two, director George Miller has created something undeniably unique: a two-part animated jukebox musical featuring Antarctica as a principle location, photorealistic penguins who sing and dance to everything from Stevie Wonder’s Tell Me Something Good to Giacomo Puccini’s E lucevan le stelle, live-action humans, and an explicit environmental message. The involvement of “lifelike” characters that are neither fully good nor fully bad is also refreshing. Whether this strange combination of elements comes together is a matter of opinion. I, for one, think it does. But whatever you may think of the Happy Feet recipe, you cannot fault Miller for offering us something totally different that, storytelling polish aside, rivals any title from the Pixar canon. (To wit, Happy Feet beat out Cars, Lasseter, 2006, for the 2007 Best Animated Feature Oscar.)

While Happy Feet brought to light the problem of environmental degradation, Happy Feet Two asks how we can resolve the situation, as symbolized by the Emperor penguins’ confinement. More specifically, the sequel focuses (through a collection of subplots featuring a bevy of characters from various species) on the behaviors that stand in the way of environmental conservation. Some of the behavioral barriers scrutinized in the film are: magical thinking, apathy, false promises and selfishness.

Early in the film, we meet Sven (Hank Azaria), a charismatic Atlantic puffin with thousands of fanatical Adélie penguin followers. He professes that willing can make anything come true: “Will it, and it will be” is his motivational motto. As illustrated by the film’s conclusion, however, saving our planet will not only take good intentions, but also collective effort, concrete and sustained actions in the direction of our intentions. Bryan (Richard Carter), an elephant seal, refuses to move backwards when he bumps into Mumble and Erik on a narrow bridge of ice. Reversing the damage we have inflicted on our planet may, in fact, require us to revert to less indulgent and resource-demanding lifestyles. When Mumble helps save Bryan, whose stubbornness has caused him to fall from the bridge into a precipice, the grateful colossus promises his diminutive rescuer a favor. As soon as Mumble calls upon Bryan to fulfill his promise (by joining an interspecies effort to save his people by causing a section of the aforementioned iceberg to yield), Bryan backs down claiming he is too busy with other matters. Needless to say, empty promises will get us nowhere, and saving our planet will involve some level of sacrifice.

Happy Feet Two relegates the theme of environmental degradation that so permeated the original film’s second act to the background, to focus on our individual attitudes toward environmental change, and the impact our behaviors can have. (Besides the catastrophic event that sets the story into motion, the most we see of global warming’s effects during the film is a brief glimpse of a polar bear teetering in the middle of the ocean on a small chunk of ice as a killer whale approaches in the distance.) This is a sensible choice, conferring a sense of urgency upon the proceedings: if we do not wise up soon, what seems for now to only be happening in the background of our lives—on newspaper headlines and such—will eventually come to bear on us in ways that are inescapably prominent. To avoid this fate, Happy Feet Two suggests we band together: communal solidarity, in service of our planet’s (and ultimately all its inhabitants’) survival, and unencumbered by individuals’ tendencies toward behaviors that slow down or downright halt progress toward this goal, will in the end save the day.

However well intentioned, Happy Feet Two is not without problems. As in the original film, the animation is a mixed bag, being at its weakest when relying on motion capture to convey movement. (To be fair, animated penguins moving like real humans are not nearly as strange and distracting as animated humans moving like real humans; see, for example, The Polar Express, Zemeckis, 2004). That being said, the environments within which the characters interact are gorgeously rendered, making effective use of lighting to give scenes texture. There is not one location in the Happy Feet universe that does not feel like an actual place, as opposed to simply an extraordinarily detailed digital rendition of an actual place. Further, in trying to accomplish its principally didactic purpose, the film’s structure somewhat suffers: the film has an episodic feel to it, focusing on a character facing a particular challenge meant to make us consider the legitimacy of a particular environmental attitude, then on another, and on and on until the conclusion. Thanks to swift editing, however, the pacing remains even, which serves to mitigate the broken up quality. Despite the preceding problems, Happy Feet Two features one of the most satisfying endings to an animated musical. And so, while the sum total of the film may leave you a little disappointed, the rousing, inspirational climax will make sure you step out of your living room with at least a pleasingly warm feeling in your heart.

Now, of the seeming contradiction between the first and second chapters of the Happy Feet saga… A.V. Club reviewer Tasha Robinson (2011) writes in her review of the latter: “[Where] Happy Feet touted the importance of confident individualism, Happy Feet Two laughs that attitude off at every turn in favor of messages about the value of community.” It is true that, at first sight, the first film’s message stands at odds with that of the second. Assuming that individualism and collectivism are not mutually exclusive philosophies, it seems to me the sequel simply builds upon its predecessor’s themes, acknowledging the limits of individualism, however valuable at times, and the potential benefits of collectivism, however detrimental at times. I think what both films together are trying to tell us is that, to be sure, change is more often than not prompted by the individual: that is, the individual may realize that something about the way the collective thinks or behaves is wrong, begin to alert others that change is required, and mobilize others to enact change. But however powerful the individual may be in sparking a movement, movements, by definition, require masses. In other words, only the community, as enticed by the individual, can ultimately give life to and sustain change.

The subplot of Will (Brad Pitt), a krill who has separated from its swarm, nicely ties the two films’ themes together. Will has grown tired of being “one in a krillion.” Because he feels his community has prevented him from fulfilling his true potential, he decides to pave his own path. He escapes his swarm with his nervous friend Bill (Matt Damon), and begins to search the (sea)world for opportunities to be who he is truly meant to be. His independence of spirit is ultimately rewarded when he realizes, thanks to his outside vantage point, that his community is inadvertently destroying itself by going about business as usual. In the end, Will realizes that his true purpose might actually lie within the very confines of the community that initially constrained his ability to self-fulfill. That is, the most meaningful difference he can make may just be to rejoin his people and contribute to their newfound effort (which he instigated as a rebellious and freethinking individual) to collectively carry on and flourish in less self-destructive ways.

Happy Feet Two argues that when individuals assemble into communities that decide to act as one toward a common goal, they should be driven not by irrationality and narrow self-interest, but by Love. Trying to comfort an angry Erik, his mother Gloria (P!nk) sings to him: “Love can build us a bridge of light.” The film even ends with these lyrics from Queen and David Bowie’s Under Pressure: “Love dares you to care for the people on the edge of the night, and love dares you to change our way of caring about ourselves.” As philosopher Bertrand Russell acknowledges in his easily accessible, counter-religious essay What I Believe (1925/1957), Love is indeed a crucial ingredient in the recipe for the Good Life, or a life lived responsibly. Because Love on its own can easily become harmful, however, he recommends it be restrained using Knowledge. Likewise, Knowledge, being neutral, requires direction when applied, direction which Love can appropriately provide. Since Love and Knowledge make such effective bedfellows, I thus recommend adding Knowledge (derived, here, from Environmental Science) to the Love Happy Feet Two wants us to elect as our guide in the quest to save our planet, our fellow animals, and ourselves.

Reference

Bertrand, R. (1957). What I believe. In P. Edwards (Ed.), “Why I am not a Christian” and other essays on religion and related subjects (pp. 48-87). New York, NY: Touchstone. (Original work published 1925)

 

On July 20th, an armed man walked into a midnight screening of the just released The Dark Knight Rises, and opened fire into the crowded theater, killing 12 people and wounding 58 others. In the wake of the massacre, the film’s director, Christopher Nolan, expressed “sorrow at the senseless tragedy,” adding: “I believe movies are one of the great American art forms and the shared experience of watching a story unfold on screen is an important and joyful pastime. The movie theatre is my home, and the idea that someone would violate that innocent and hopeful place in such an unbearably savage way is devastating to me.” That someone turned out to be named James Holmes. While his identity is now known to the world, his motive remains a mystery. (And it is likely to remain so, even after many “experts” inevitably begin to pronounce themselves on the matter with apparent finality.) So, why would anyone commit such a vicious act against fellow humans? In The Dark Knight (2008), Alfred educates his master: “Some men just want to see the world burn.” Should that be the case, this is hardly a reassuring thought.

As Nolan implies in his statement, Holmes has infringed upon our sense of safety. By turning a movie theater—a place where we usually feel secure—into a death trap, he has reminded us we are never really totally out of harm’s way. In the cruelest way possible, he has reminded us of our inherent vulnerability. Through his senseless deed, perhaps Holmes has achieved something even more deplorable. Faced with actions such as those committed by men like him, we begin to question the current state of our society. We wonder: Is the world going to shit? In this way, Holmes has caused us to lose not only perspective, but also pride in ourselves and faith in our ongoing achievements. While we cannot reclaim the lives of those fellow humans Holmes stole from us, we still have the power to reclaim from him our self-image. We must contemplate with awe (and even respect) the destructive power of Homo sapiens, our ability to wreak so much havoc and pain. Still, we must never forget: since our humble beginnings as prehistoric cavemen, we have, from century to century, managed to slowly strip violence away from the fabric of our lives. When we decide to destroy, we can be darn good at it. Still, growing up as a species, we have been resisting this “talent” of ours more and more.

The fact of the matter is: while there certainly remains ample room for improvement, we live in the least violent century since man first became man. For a timely and ultimately comforting argument that supports this conclusion, see psychologist Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (2011). It is, of course, impossible to predict whether this downward trend in violence will continue to progress. If our past is any indication, however, our future looks rather promising. At 696 pages, Pinker’s book is a voluminous document amounting to a lengthy read. To restore your faith in humanity in a fraction of the time it would take to make your way through Better Angels, however, you cannot do better than watching director Aki Kaurismäki’s Le Havre, an endearing film about good people doing good things. I do not mean to be dismissive here: Le Havre is not a run-of-the-mill feel-good movie. There is absolutely nothing trite or corny about it, and I mean absolutely nothing at all. Le Havre does not revel in the goodness of humans, at least in a sickly sweet sort of way: it merely seeks to showcase it, for our benefit, and, in light of current events, our reassurance.

Le Havre is a modern-day fairy-tale. Our hero is Marcel Marx (André Wilms), an old bohemian who wanders the streets of the titular city, offering his services as a shoe-shiner. His wife, Arletty (Kati Outinen), tends to their home while he is away during the day, until she falls deathly ill and must be hospitalized for intensive treatment. On one fateful day, Marcel meets Idrissa (Blondin Miguel), a young illegal immigrant from Gabon, on the run from authorities seeking to deport him. With the help of his devoted neighbors, Marcel attempts to help Idrissa make his way to London, where his family waits for him.

Stylistically, Le Havre resembles the films of Wes Anderson, in that most of its characters display little affect. Anderson’s films, however, can be alienating: not only do his characters act as if little is happening inside of them, it is rarely clear whether something is actually happening inside of them. As a result, it is hard to feel connected to his characters. Marcel and company, on the other hand, are fully engaging. Under the sentimentally flat surface of Le Havre writhes a wellspring of tender emotion: its principle characters, while not emotionally demonstrative, are men and women of palpable integrity who evidently love and respect each other, as demonstrated by their willingness to stand together in the face of social adversity. And because each character in Le Havre feels they are undeserving of the affection they have been graced with, their lives seem to burn with good fortune. While the visual content of each frame may feature little warmth, these frames manage to soothe and replenish the heart. Indeed, there is something undeniably invigorating about Le Havre: I felt intoxicated after watching it, as if fully enveloped by a warm, pulsating glow.

As humans, we are sensitive to facial expressions, since they carry so much meaningful information. Typically, when watching a film, a significant portion of our attention is allocated to interpreting characters’ faces. This process often results in an emotional reaction in the audience that is either in line or discordant with an emoting character’s inner experience. In fact, to facilitate this reaction, directors often resort to close-ups, which invite us to inspect faces with greater precision. Le Havre allows us to deduce its characters’ psychical experiences in other ways, almost exclusively through easily interpretable words and gestures. By flattening characters’ affect, the film also allows us to deviate some of the attention we usually allocate to the interpretation of faces toward how these words and gestures are making us feel, thereby amplifying the feeling (that of being touched) in the process.

Le Havre will almost surely nurse your faith in humanity back to health, or at the very least give it a small, meaningful boost. Such faith, however, is not blind. It is based on an empirically demonstrable reality: under the right circumstances, humans can be a kind and gentle species. In fact, as we are carried forward in time, and conditions become more and more conducive to the development of our moral character, we appear to take the bait and grow even kinder and gentler. In these concerning times, when ruinous human action brings us to doubt and question our own value, without actual cause, we should all be thankful for and seek out films like Kaurismäki’s Le Havre: watching them allows us to escape and free ourselves, at least only for a moment, from the rapacious tyranny of unwarranted moral self-castigation.

Critics did not take kindly to Mark Pellington’s Arlington Road when it hit theaters in the summer of 1999. This maligned psychological thriller breaks no conventions of the genre, but even that is not its core problem. In fact, I probably would have enjoyed a simple, well-made, by-the-book thriller. However, instead of paying homage to or simply borrowing elements from the best entries into the genre, the film too often resorts to cheap tactics to draw its audience in. Still, I give some credit: despite its lack of technical substance, Arlington Road had me on the edge of my seat for most of its tightly wound, 117-minute length. I even had to take a breather at the halfway point. And so, whatever its shortcomings, Arlington Road works on some superficial level.

Michael Faraday (Jeff Bridges) is a history professor teaching a university course on terrorism. His wife, an FBI agent, was recently murdered while on duty. Although Faraday is now dating another woman (Hope Davis), he and his son are evidently still grieving. On his way home from work one afternoon, Faraday happens upon an injured child. He brings him to the hospital, where he meets his parents, Oliver (Tim Robbins) and Cheryl (Joan Cusack) Lang. The two families, which happen to be neighbors, become quick friends. As Michael gets to know Oliver, however, he comes to suspect the worst: a membership to some homegrown terrorist organization. Bridges breathes emotional depth into his character, enlisting us onto his paranoid quest, while Robbins plays suburban evil with precision. Cusack and Davis deliver equally capable performances.

One of Arlington Road’s strong points is its seamless editing. Scenes blend into one another, conferring a continuous quality to the events unfolding on screen, which contrasts the traditional, “choppy” feel. Mostly uninterrupted by discernable transitions, the film’s brisk and steady pace effectively pulls you into the onscreen drama. Surprisingly, not even the inclusion of a flashback—which, next to dream sequences, is one of the hardest devices to pull off competently—disrupts the film’s flawless tempo. It is all the more impressive that the sequence additionally manages to be affecting.

Another element I appreciated about Arlington Road is plot timing. Lang discovers Faraday’s investigation at the halfway point in the film. Any earlier, we would have been deprived the thrill of sneaking behind Lang’s back, unraveling the mystery of his past. Any later, we would have been deprived the thrill of witnessing both men attempting to outsmart one another. Through the second half, the film is enhanced by a complex protagonist-antagonist dynamic. I especially liked how Lang feels he owes Faraday for saving his son’s life, despite wanting his nosy neighbor out of the way. That Lang manages to return the favor in the end, but in a way that may not satisfy audiences, shows the film is attempting to be cleverer than your run-of-the-mill thriller.

But, much does not work within Arlington Road. Like many (subpar) thrillers, it asks too much of its audience. Fiction is an opportunity to suspend disbelief, indulge in the implausible, and experience the impossible. While critical faculties never slip away altogether, the point of the exercise is to allow imagination to occupy more conscious space than usual. But first pestering and then exasperating our awareness of how things work in reality, the details of Arlington Road push the boundaries of our capacity to suspend disbelief: artificial twists and turns veer the plot into unexpected directions, and characters manifest sudden and convenient changes of heart. (Yet, however hard to accept, these inconsistent aspects remain at the detail-level. And so, the film avoids creating an overpowering sense of incredulity.)

A cinematic pet peeve of mine, which I have previously written about, is the mishandling of intent. Sometimes, the camera tries a little too hard, purposefully directing the audience’s attention to something it feels is noteworthy, instead of simply observing and letting the audience draw meaning from the frame. This is especially common in thrillers, where storytellers need their audience to get things, and get them fast. Take, for example, an early scene in which Faraday’s students flip through an illustrated history book. While we are unaware of how the pictures connect with the unfolding story, the camera begs us to consider a possible connection. Of course, it is appropriate—if not essential—for a director to have something to say; what I appreciate, though, is when a director trusts me enough to let me come to his or her conclusions on my own, instead of forcing them. Another quibble: Angelo Badalamenti’s score feels too didactic at times, instruments almost barking suggested feelings at the audience. See what just happened there? I should think you are shocked right about now, or ought to be!

Arlington Road also features one scene that does not work on a stylistic level. The film becomes madcap, resorting to tilted-angle shots and supernatural red lighting to provoke unease in the audience. The effect is successful, but this almost dream-like sequence does not belong. Similarly, Martin Scorsese’s unnecessary but still enjoyable remake (1991) of John Lee Thompson’s pitch-perfect Cape Fear (1962) introduces whimsical elements into its otherwise realistic universe—for example, time-lapsed, crimson-colored storm clouds atop immobile, naturally-colored landscapes. In contrast to Arlington Road, these elements belong within the Cape Fear remake because they signal the arrival of Evil incarnate. [In fact, notice how Scorcese’s conceptualization of Max Cady bears a striking resemblance to Reverend Harry Powell in Charles Laughton’s excellent The Night of the Hunter (1955).] Although Oliver Lang is evil, he does not stand in for the Devil himself, as do Reverend Powell and Cady, Redux. Also, Scorsese’s entire approach is aimed at drawing attention to and countering audience expectations—for example, coupling an adaptation of the graceful 1962 score with kinetic (but still traditional) cinematography—whereas Pellington only incorporates such unusual elements on one occasion.

Although these limitations prevent Arlington Road from being considered a top-notch thriller, this does not mean that the film is not worth a low-expectation viewing. It still makes for a fun ride. I simply wish Pellington had chosen to embrace or emulate the best thrillers of the past even if that meant giving us something we have seen before. Instead, he misfires by limiting himself to the ineffectual conventions of second-rate thrillers—although, there are enough clever elements that could allow one to consider Arlington Road a good second-rate film. If you do choose to watch Arlington Road, a word of warning: it is difficult to be fully immune to cheap thrills. In fact, you might respect yourself a little bit less once the credits start rolling. Realizing your emotions were manipulated via clumsy techniques might provoke some embarrassment once you begin thinking about the film. You might even feel a little dirty as you turn on the lights and face the harsh reality that your self-proclaimed acculturation to the fine arts does not stop you from sometimes wearing the trashy garb of a promiscuous cinephile…

Goodbye Solo is a singular kind of film. Although not without flaw, it hits every emotional note perfectly, which is more than enough to forgive the few missteps that occur along the way. More unique was its unexpected quality; I did not predict Goodbye Solo would bring me where it did emotionally. I would not say it is heart-wrenching, because the act of wrenching implies intentionality. Conversely, with a few small exceptions, there is nothing forced about Goodbye Solo. It is the sort of film that takes its time, slowly and inconspicuously making its way into your heart, without blatantly tugging at its strings.

The story wastes no time getting started. William, an elderly white man, offers his cabdriver, a Senegalese immigrant named Solo, a deal: he is to drive him to Blowing Rock National Park in 10 days, without bringing him back, in exchange for 1,000$. Solo reluctantly agrees. The abrupt beginning feels a tad jarring. Taking place entirely inside a taxicab, with no establishing shot preceding it, the scene also inspires a sense of claustrophobia. However destabilizing, this is all very appropriate: William and Solo have just met, and they have entered a pact that has effectively tied their futures together. When you think about it, meeting someone new often happens suddenly and without warning. Indeed, there is something undeniably abrupt about the genesis of relationships, be they friendships or romances. Also, consider all the potential residing in that single moment when two paths meet. If you have been in any sort of meaningful relationship for a long time, think back to that first moment. Is it not hard to conceive how it managed to contain all that came afterward? All that experiential matter, in that tiny little space in time; enough to make any claustrophobic hyperventilate!

William, played by Red West, has been visibly worn by life. Everything about him, from his face to his voice, testifies to that. We get the sense that beneath his weathered exterior lies not so much pain as disappointment. He is now tired and feels the time has come to bring his life to a close. West embodies his character. We do not feel we are watching two people—a character being played, an actor playing him—but one completely real person. In Solo, William has met an unlikely partner in what could be his last days. Played by Souleymané Sy Savané, he is youthful and optimistic, and dreams of becoming a flight attendant. He wishes to dissuade William from committing suicide, by inspiring him to persist. Savané infuses his performance with such vitality, it is hard not to fall for his character. In fact, I was surprised to find myself genuinely happy for Solo when he announces to William that he aced his flight attendant test.

Wanting to show him there is still much worth living for, Solo begins to infiltrate himself into William’s life. William is at first reluctant, but eventually succumbs; that is, until he can no longer bear the intrusion, however much it might enrich his existence. Therein lies the tragedy of the two men’s real but ultimately doomed friendship: what Solo so desperately wants to offer, William has absolutely no interest in. At its core, Roger Ebert observes, Goodbye Solo “is about the desire to help and the desire to not be helped.” It is also about learning to respect the desire to not be helped, even if the result is death.

For the most part, director Ramin Bahrani has produced a work of honest subtlety, carefully developing his characters without making anyone say or do anything that feels unnatural or out of place. In Solo’s case, for example, we are thankfully spared an “I want to go places” type of speech, explaining why he wishes to abandon his earthbound taxi and travel the skies instead. Bahrani trusts his audience. He tells us just enough about his characters, letting us fill in the gaps when needed. This is a wise choice. In this way, we are able to unwittingly project some of our own selves into the characters’ very fabric, thereby making their story all the more personal, without our ever really knowing why.

So much of Goodbye Solo works very well. Sadly, this makes the moments where things do not quite come together not only more noticeable, but disappointing as well. There are a few sequences in the film that feel contrived. During these moments, we sense the camera wants to tell us something, and meaning ceases to organically emanate from the frame. There is a jarringly deliberate quality to these scenes. They remind us we are watching a film, effectively removing us from the otherwise free-flowing sequence of events. At one point, for example, Solo consults a local map his daughter happens to be studying for school, to determine where Blowing Rock National Park exactly is. Later in the film, a calendar spread across his lap, Solo slowly slides his finger down the number of days left until William’s contractual ride. While both scenes may be seen as fostering a sense of intimacy (we are literally peaking over Solo’s shoulder in both shots), there remains something tactless and synthetic about them. They belong in another, much less nuanced film than Goodbye Solo.

Regarding the subject of slow films, film critic Dan Kois opines: “Part of being a civilized watcher of films, I doggedly believe, is seeing movies that care little for my short attention span—movies that find ways to burrow underneath my boredom to create a lasting impression.” While Goodbye Solo certainly takes its time building its story and characters, none of it ever feels drawn out; and so, I was never bored. In taking its time, however, the film managed to sidestep some of my defences. In fact, in response to the events unravelling before me, an experience beneath my direct experience of the film was, unbeknown to me, taking shape…

Once the credits started rolling, I thought to myself, “This was not bad. A bit slow at times, but certainly not bad…” I retrieved the film from the DVD player and placed it back into its case. As I reached for my coat before stepping out to return the film, I started to cry. The film had struck a cord, dislodging something that apparently took a while to surface. I reacted similarly to Sylvain Chomet’s The Illusionist (2010). I knew I had seen a great film when I walked out of the theatre; I simply did not realize how much it had affected me until a few hours later. Both films end with a parting between two unlikely friends. Also, if one of the characters had it their way, the relationship would never come to an end at all. Still, we understand both characters are better off taking separate paths. There is something beautiful and tragic about both endings, a bittersweet quality that is terribly hard to bear. They are existentially unsettling, reminding us that all good things must come to an end, be it life or the very things that make life worth living in the first place: each other.

With Mother’s Day soon approaching, I thought I would review a film about the relationship between mother and child. Which film, though? Finding a suitable candidate shouldn’t be too much trouble; after all, there are countless memorable screen mothers to choose from. I could write about Bambi’s mom… but she meets an untimely end that managed to traumatize an entire generation of children. I could write about Kevin McCallister’s mom… but she misplaces her son when she goes on vacation, twice. I could write about Norman Bates’ mom… but he murders her and dresses up in her clothes when he kills women he likes. I guess there is no perfect mother-child relationship. So how about we go with an exceedingly unusual one, the relationship between living child and zombie mother, as featured in the cult favorite Dead Alive (originally titled Braindead)?

Set in 1950s New Zealand, Dead Alive centers on the blossoming romance between a gentle young man, Lionel Cosgrove (Timothy Balme), and the exotic woman he fancies, Paquita (Diana Peñalver). Lionel’s mother (Elizabeth Moody), however, is displeased with the relationship. No relationship will ever do, really, as she selfishly wishes to keep her son all to herself. Unfortunately for Paquita, Lionel appears content wriggling about the few millimeters between the ground and his heavy-handed mother’s weighty thumb. Things are further complicated when Lionel’s mother is accidentally bitten by a Sumatran rat-monkey (yes, you read that right) and develops a nasty case of zombititus. Lionel, the loving son that he is, ultimately decides to tend to his zombie mother and her exponentially growing number of flesh-chomping victims, while simultaneously continuing to woo an oblivious Paquita.

Quirky premise? By golly, yes. Outlandish situations? Most certainly. Too much nonsense for one film? I suppose it would have been, had it not proved to be so many buckets of fun! And blood. Lots of blood. To be sure, Dead Alive is a gory, gory romp. Still, director Peter Jackson, of The Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001-2003) fame, makes it work because he is fully cognizant of the material he’s working with, masterfully harnessing its utter preposterousness. With its tongue firmly in cheek, Dead Alive is stylishly reminiscent of Sam Raimi’s earlier, yet equally enjoyable, The Evil Dead trilogy (1981-1992). A word of warning, though: packing an unholy amount of gore, Dead Alive is not for those who get woozy at the sight of a single drop of blood. However, special effects remain delightfully shoddy, so queasy stomachs shouldn’t be too bothered. Another plus: unlike most of its horror kin, Dead Alive has the decency to avoid ending with a sequel-setting cliffhanger.

According to psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud (in Three Contributions to the Theory of Sex, 1930), overbearing mothers mess up their children by rousing within them an insatiable appetite for affection. Despite this dire prediction, Lionel appears to have survived his mother’s suffocating approach to parenting, at least to a certain extent. He has been dominated by his mother his entire life, even throughout adulthood. During the film’s over-the-top crescendo, he is literally consumed by her. But with a few swift and cathartic waves of a knife, Lionel manages to escape his mother’s entrails for the second time in his life (this time definitively leaving the proverbial umbilical cord behind). He emerges a new, independent man. Now, what is Mother’s Day if not the celebration of mothers who have successfully raised self-reliant children who would, if brought to it, viciously slay their zombified carcasses in self-affirmation?

Paul comes to us from the minds of Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, the comedic duo at the heart of the riotous Shawn of the Dead (2004) and Hot Fuzz (2007). Like these two preceding adventures, it does not disappoint. Directed by Greg Mottola, Paul is a particular sort of comedy. In an age when comedies try so hard to elicit nonstop laughs from their audiences, its ambitions prove, surprisingly, a little more modest: while Paul may not make you laugh out loud more than a few times, it will definitely put a smile on your face from opening to closing credits. A most welcome thing.

Graeme Willy (Pegg) and Clive Collings (Frost) are two sci-fi enamored gentlemen from England, who travel to America to attend Comic-Con, the renowned comic book convention, and afterward travel from town to town in a rented RV, exploring famous UFO sites. On their way, they expectedly cross paths with an actual alien named Paul (voiced by Seth Rogen), on the run from men-in-black type agents. The agents’ mission: capture and return Paul to the military base where he has been kept captive since he crash-landed on Earth several decades ago. Moved by Paul’s story, Graeme and Clive vow to help him return home. The trio is eventually joined by Ruth Buggs (played by the consistently hilarious Kristen Wiig), the daughter of a trailer-park owner. While Graeme, Clive and Paul are perfectly likeable characters, Buggs effectively steals the show and the big laughs, undergoing an amusing transformation from fundamentalist Christian to levelheaded agnostic on the journey.

While the story is fairly standard, the execution is flawless. Paul is a road movie, following its characters from point A to point B. To be sure, this has been done and redone. But Paul doesn’t attempt to reinvent the wheel here, opting instead to do the road movie justice. I remember watching an episode of Cupcake Wars on the Food Network where the judges told the contestants: if you insist on baking us a vanilla cupcake, go right ahead, but in this competition, it better be the best vanilla cupcake we’ve ever tasted. I believe this philosophy applies to most artistic endeavors: if you’re going to do something that’s already been done, go ahead, but make it the best it’s ever been done. And Paul does this with the road movie. It takes the generic here to there formula, throws in a couple of amiable characters that slowly but steadily grow on you, thus making it a unique pleasure to hop on for the ride from A to B.

Like Shawn of the Dead and Hot Fuzz before it, Paul pays homage to its genre, in this case, science-fiction and fantasy films and television shows. According to a website I used as a post-film reference, the film is brimming with allusions, some less obscure than others. I was proud of myself for recognizing a few, but certainly not the majority. Still, this shouldn’t affect your enjoyment of the film. Paul is not a parody, where the laughs are contingent upon the audience “getting it.” No, Paul is its own interstellar thing, giving a few reverent nods to all those other interstellar things that came before it.

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