Blow

Blow (2001)

Dir. Ted Demme

Written by: David McKenna, Nick Cassavetes (from the book by Bruce Porter)

Starring: Johnny Depp, Penelope Cruz, Jordi Molla, Paul Reubens, Ray Liotta

 

The late 1990s and early 2000s saw a glut of movies about the illicit drug trade hitting American theaters. From harrowing looks at heroin addiction like Requiem For A Dream, to thoughtful examinations of the intricacies and failures of the “war on drugs” like Traffic, to gritty police procedurals such as Narc, the subject matter of these films was as varied as their overall quality. It would seem, however, that Hollywood was addicted to drugs, and that audiences were looking for a fix as well. Looking at my shelf, I certainly tended toward enjoying these types of movies it seems. I owned all three of the aforementioned films, plus other druggy classics from the 90s like Trainspotting and New Jack City. Blow slotted in nicely alongside some of these other films, it wasn’t as gritty or real as something like Traffic, but it made for a slick, entertaining movie about the life of one of the biggest cocaine traffickers in history. I remember enjoying the film a lot as a teen, but watching it for this post for the first time in a decade, Blow mostly felt hollow and definitely doesn’t stand up with the rest of the movies mentioned here.

Blow is a biopic about the life of George Jung (Depp), America’s biggest cocaine trafficker in the 1970s and 1980s. Jung was a part of the infamous Medellin cartel, headed by Pablo Escobar, and he is almost single-handedly responsible for the cocaine craze of the 1980s. It was once estimated that some 85% of the cocaine imported in that decade was brought across the border by Jung. The film opens with Jung’s childhood in Massachusetts, where his hard-working but poor father, Fred (Liotta), teaches him the lesson that money is not important, despite the materialistic instincts of his mother. It would seem that the lesson didn’t stick, because as soon as Jung is able, he and his friend Tuna (Ethan Suplee) move to California to pursue bigger and better things, and end up becoming local celebrities selling high-grade marijuana. Jung’s ambition lands him in prison when he is busted with over 600 pounds of marijuana, and it is here that he meets Diego (Molla) who offers to introduce him to his Columbian friends after they get out of prison. Diego makes the introduction to Escobar, and the rest, as they say, is history. Jung becomes a bigger trafficker than ever, making millions in the cocaine trade, until the birth of his daughter causes him to have an epiphany and a change of heart, and he promises his wife Mertha (Cruz) that he will get out of the life. However, Jung is unable to fly straight, and his continued dalliances with cocaine end up robbing him of his life and his family, and putting him in prison for a 60-year sentence. Jung was released from prison in 2014, but the film ends with him still locked up, having never reconciled with his daughter.

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As crime films go, Blow follows a fairly standard arc. The protagonist comes up from nothing, is introduced to the criminal underworld, finds that he has a particular knack for criminality, and, ultimately, flies too close to the Sun and must pay the consequences. It borrows heavily from established classics of the genre, in particular Scorsese’s Goodfellas. The casting of Liotta as Jung’s father only serves as a constant reminder of that other, better film. It isn’t that Blow is a bad film, necessarily. Most films would pale in comparison to Goodfellas, as it’s universally recognized as one of the best crime movies ever made. It’s just that Blow lacks the depth of some of the better films in the genre. It is perfectly fine entertainment, but its over-reliance on voice over narration and montage makes the audience feel like we’re never really getting close to the real George Jung. Too often the film opts to tell, rather than show, causing it to feel light and insubstantial, like a cheap knock off. Rarely does the film deviate from the standard path set for it by the generic conventions of storytelling, and even its more inspired sequences feel predictable because it is a story that’s been told so many times before. I think a big problem might just be that George Jung is not an inherently interesting subject for a biopic. There’s no attempt to portray him as morally conflicted, or even a suggestion that the toll that his product can take on lives has ever even occurred to him. In the film, Jung seems purely interested in acquiring money and possessions, and he’s motivated by little else. He’s a largely influential and notorious figure, but he doesn’t seem to have any particular personality traits or quirks that make him a noteworthy subject.

Johnny Depp tries to breathe some life into Jung, and he does a nice job in the film of making Jung somewhat relatable and interesting. This film was released just a couple of years before the first Pirates of the Caribbean film would propel Depp into absolute mega-stardom and divert the direction of his acting career, and it’s one of the last movies where he isn’t playing “Johnny Depp playing Character X.” I’m not a huge fan of Depp as an actor, particularly not his post-Pirates work, but he does good work as Jung. The part doesn’t require him to do much dramatic heavy lifting, as it doesn’t really delve much into Jung’s psychology or emotion, but he feels genuine towards the end of the film when he is attempting to resolve the broken relationship with his daughter. By this point, Jung has lost everything, and Depp plays him with a kind of calm acceptance, rather than desperation. The film’s final scene is supposed to be the emotional climax, when it’s revealed that an aging Jung, sentenced to 60 years in prison, has never received a visit from his daughter. It’s a shame that the script didn’t provide enough opportunity for Depp to fully flesh out the character or his relationships, because this emotional payoff falls flat entirely.

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The rest of the cast performs admirably, for the most part. I like Ethan Suplee in just about everything he’s done, but he is largely used as wallpaper in the film, dropping out of the story entirely by the middle. Paul Reubens is great as a flamboyantly gay hairdresser who introduces Jung to the world of marijuana sales. The role was a big comeback for Reubens after his popularity had declined in the 1990s following his arrest for indecent exposure. He brings the same manic energy to the role of Derek Foreal that he brought to his signature role as Pee Wee, although for a much different audience. The biggest disappointment in the movie is probably Cruz, as Jung’s wife. She isn’t really on screen much, as her character isn’t introduced until over halfway through the film. She plays a bigger role towards the end of the film, but her performance is largely forgettable. She rebounds for a scene late in the film where reconciles with her former husband, but her role is otherwise too light.

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The film doubles down on its lead actor and protagonist, to the detriment of its overall success. It chooses to highlight style over substance, with multiple showy montages set to classic rock staples. These sequences are fun, and they’re probably the best parts of the movie, but, like I mentioned before, they feel preordained and derivative. Watching Jung and Diego do blow and try to find places in their apartment to stash boxes upon boxes of money while “Blinded by the Light” by ELO plays in the background is fun, but it isn’t particularly inspired, nor is “That Smell” by Lynyrd Skynyrd underlining Jung’s descent into full-blown cocaine addiction. Scorsese is probably the best when it comes to taking iconic classic rock songs and pairing them with memorable filmic images. He’s been doing it his whole career. It’s obvious that Ted Demme is borrowing heavily from that style, but in being so literal with his song choices, he misses a lot of the point of the exercise.

Ultimately, Blow is a fine movie. It is entertaining, it’s well shot, and generally well-acted, to boot. It’s just tough to want to watch Blow when there are so many other films from the same time period that deal with similar subject matter in a more interesting or more in-depth manner. Blow was only modestly successful at the box office, and it currently has an approval rating of just over 50% on Rotten Tomatoes, which feels about right. It’s certainly not a bad movie, but it isn’t very good either, or very memorable. Honestly, I think that the experience of watching Blow is pretty similar to the experience of using its namesake drug. It’s fun while you’re doing it, but whenever the effects wears off, you’re really not left with a whole lot.

Blood Simple

Blood Simple (1984)

Dir. Joel Coen

Written by: Joel & Ethan Coen

Starring: Frances McDormand, John Getz, Dan Hedaya, Samm-Art Williams, M. Emmet Walsh

 

I’ve written before about the breadth and depth of Coen Brothers’ filmography. Blood Simple is a perfect example of that depth. Their debut film, it serves as an artistic statement that would define the scope of their career. It finds the brothers arriving on the cinematic scene, nearly fully formed. Though later works would achieve more popularity or prestige, Blood Simple stands out as one of the great debuts in all of film, resembling more the work of an established filmmaker at the height of his or her powers than the first offering from a couple of neophytes. It establishes their interest in genre filmmaking, and many of their trademark cinematic devices appear in the film, at least in rudimentary forms. Far from serving as a still-developing sketch, or an indicator of potential artistry, Blood Simple is a fully formed near-masterpiece in its own right. It’s a dark tale of murder, adultery, and deception set against the backdrop of the Texas desert that winds itself up to a frenzy by the third act and maintains a breakneck pace towards disaster. An unyielding thriller that can keep an audience on the edge of their seat for the duration, the film stands up among the best work that the Coen Brothers have done in their long and fruitful career, despite still being somewhat underseen when compared to their more popular works.

The film opens with Ray (Getz) and Abby (McDormand) driving down a Texas highway at night. Their conversation concerns Abby’s failing marriage to Marty (Hedaya), who also happens to own the bar that Ray works at. Though their stated destination is Houston, the two pull into a motel and spend the night. Marty, suspecting their affair, has hired a private investigator, Loren Visser, (Walsh) to follow them, and he snaps a few photos of them in their hotel room as proof of the affair. When he provides this proof to Marty, the detective implies that for the right price he’d be willing to eliminate Marty’s problem, though Marty initially turns him down. Eventually, though, Marty seeks out Visser, hiring him to kill both Ray and Abby for $10,000. Rather than go through with the hit, Visser breaks into Ray’s home and steals Abby’s gun, then takes photos of them sleeping again. He returns to Marty with doctored photos, depicting the sleeping couple as corpses riddled with bullet holes, and after receiving his payment he double-crosses Marty, shooting him in the chest with Abby’s gun and leaving him to bleed out. Later, Ray returns to the bar to find an unresponsive Marty and Abby’s gun. Thinking that she has killed Marty, he decides to cover up the murder. The ensuing cover up leads to miscommunications between Ray and Abby, with each thinking that the other is responsible for the killing of Marty, while Visser engages in a deadly pursuit of the couple, hoping to erase any link to his crime.

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Blood Simple is a master class in economical storytelling. At its core, it’s a straightforward revenge story, and even as its narrative gets more complex with the added double-crosses and misunderstandings, it doesn’t lose any focus or narrative momentum. The film essentially has only five characters, the previously mentioned four, plus Meurice (Williams), the other bartender at Marty’s bar, who finds himself tangentially caught up in the murder plot. Largely though, the film revolves around the principals in the love triangle and the murderous Visser, as they play out a savage game of cat and mouse in the Texas back country. With a few notable exceptions, the Coens eschew narrative ambiguity or overarching mystery as drivers of tension in the film, instead letting the audience in on all of the details of the story. Watching the characters make questionable decisions and wrong assumptions about one another heightens the tension for the audience, as the spectators are able to see the Greek tragedy unfolding in front of them, even as the characters are blind to their surroundings. In fact, the title comes from a turn of phrase in which someone is said to be “blood simple” after being rendered incapable of higher thought or decision making in the face of violent surroundings. The film makes the viewer want to reach through the screen and shake Ray and Abby, warning them of the impending doom that’s closing in.

The Coens also heighten narrative tension through the film’s masterful appropriation of classical noir visual style. The Coens have transported their crime drama from its usual urban setting to the middle of nowhere in the Texas desert, but they otherwise retain many of the stylistic cues of the genre. Aside from a few sunbaked exteriors, the film is dark, scenes often employing contrasting chiaroscuro lighting. Shadows are extreme, with characters’ faces often partially or totally obscured by darkness as they issue straightforward, hardboiled dialogue. There is more than enough visual information in the frame to make up for the paucity of verbal context. The shadows reflect both the dubious nature of the characters’ morality, and their duality. In this film, there are no true heroes; everyone is kissed by darkness in some way. Borrowing a trick from Sergio Leone, the Coens frame their characters in claustrophobic close-up, highlighting every pore and bead of sweat. At times, lazy flies are allowed to buzz in and out of the frame, crawling along Visser’s brow while he meets with Marty to discuss their dirty deals. To say the film is atmospheric would be an understatement, as its mise-en-scene does more than suggest the seediness of its environs, it insists upon the palpability of the griminess of this universe. At times, the desperation practically leaps from the screen.

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In addition to successfully adapting the tropes of the noir film, the Coens begin to establish their own unique visual and narrative style in Blood Simple. The slow burning tension of later films like Fargo and No Country For Old Men is on display here, with the brothers already proving to be masters of pace and timing. The film’s first two acts are languorously paced. Scenes of dialogue are allowed to play out slowly, either unexpectedly erupting into acts of violence, or, rather, expected violence is denied. The Coens punctuate their shot/reverse shot with stylish tracking shots and rapid zooms that force the viewer to take notice. The final third of the film boils over with tension as Visser closes in on Abby and Ray, stalking them through her apartment. The characters have all gotten on a runaway train, and they’re forced to pursue the ride to its logical end. The violence in the film, as in most of the brothers’ later films, is matter-of-fact, an unfortunate consequence of the corrupted world in which these characters live. It seems that the Coens enjoy spinning yarns about everyday people who find themselves embroiled in larger schemes, and the roots of that narrative preoccupation are in Blood Simple.

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The performances in the film are all top notch, with the Coens already showing a deft hand at directing actors. In what was her first ever film role, McDormand is perfect as Abby. Her performance gives the character just enough subtle edge to keep her true nature in the dark until the film’s end. It’s hinted that Abby might be some sort of femme fatale, but her actual level of duplicity is hard to pin down. She’s a woman torn between a man she loves and one she fears, but McDormand never plays her as a dependent. She has steely resolve, and agency, that grows to a lethal capacity in the film’s final showdown with Visser. She’s able to balance manic outbursts of emotion and quietly determined acts of violence, and remain convincing in both circumstances. Neither Getz nor Hedaya are given much dialogue to work with, but they embody both of their roles with a lived-in physicality. Hedaya’s Marty haunts most of the film as a dead or dying presence, his body often visible on the edges of the frame as a reminder of the murder that has embroiled all of these characters. Getz plays Ray as a working stiff who’s simply in over his head, but his workmanlike approach belies a darker side to the character. When it comes time to dispose of Marty’s body, Ray drives him out to the desert where he finds out that Marty is mortally wounded, but not dead yet. He proceeds to bury him alive in a harrowing, slowly-paced scene that escalates the stakes and the tension in the film. There is no dialogue, but both actors give memorable performances, with Hedaya struggling mightily to stay alive while Getz slowly, steadily shovels dirt into his face.

It’s Walsh, however, who steals the film with his unhinged portrayal of the sleazy detective, Visser. Unlike the other characters in the film, there is little duality to Visser. Walsh plays him as purely evil, and in fact, he seems to enjoy and revel in his impurity. He breathes malice and corruption into his words, and his physical performance is palpably slimy. Visser seems to ooze into locked apartments, snapping his covert photographs and stealing bits of evidence, his stealth belied by the actor’s large stature. When it is time for him to pursue his quarry in earnest, Walsh plays Visser as a ruthless, efficient hunter, stalking Abby through her apartment until she is finally able to get the drop on him. Walsh’s performance is similar to John Goodman’s performance as Charlie Mundt in Barton Fink. Both characters come to symbolize evil incarnate in their filmic worlds, but unlike Mundt, Visser is rotten to the core. Where Goodman’s good-natured charm shines through some of Mundt’s cracks, Walsh never allows any light to permeate Visser’s dark patina. Even his humor is black as the Texas asphalt over which he tracks Ray and Abby.

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In lesser hands, a movie like Blood Simple might add up to just another paint-by-numbers pot boiler. The familiar elements are all present here: a spurned lover spurred to murderous rage, cases of double-cross and mistaken identity, a Chekhov’s gun which fulfills its narrative promise. However, the Coens routinely elevate basic subject matter and genre filmmaking to the level of complex, high art, and that streak is begun with their debut. They take a very straightforward story in Blood Simple and filter it through excellently realized character work and impeccable visual style to produce an end result that is engaging and visionary. Most of their films are genre experiments, but rarely are they as pure as Blood Simple. The film sets out to deliver a compelling tale of murder and do it in a suspenseful manner, despite removing narrative ambiguity, and it succeeds entirely. Like the characters in the film, once things start to break bad, the audience is simply along for the ride, hoping to survive to the end. When that end arrives, the audience has been taken on a sickening ride that explores the depths of moral depravity and human capacity for malice. Many of the Coen Brothers’ narrative and stylistic obsessions are on display here, so it is a must watch for any fan of their corpus, as well as any fan of well-realized suspense and crime films.

Blazing Saddles

Blazing Saddles (1974)

Dir. Mel Brooks

Written by: Mel Brooks, Norman Steinberg, Andrew Bergman, Richard Pryor, Alan Uger

Starring: Cleavon Little, Gene Wilder, Harvey Korman, Slim Pickens

 

Mel Brooks is one of the great masters of film comedy, and I was a fan from early in childhood. I don’t know if I saw Young Frankenstein first or Robin Hood: Men in Tights, but those were the movies that introduced me to Brooks’s brand of humor, both broad and witty, high- and low-brow, verbal and slapstick. Half of the jokes went right over my young head, but it didn’t matter because there were so many jokes. Some of the simplest jokes in Mel Brooks’s movies are the best, and thinking back on it, I think my love of comedy probably came from the “walk this way” gag in Young Frankenstein. It’s such a simple, stupid sight gag, but it works perfectly and it’s laugh out loud funny. From there, I started getting really into comedy. I became interested in comedy as a type of art, and in what really made certain things funny. Sometime in the mid-90s, Comedy Central was added to our cable package and I started watching stand-up and tons of classic comedies. Somewhere along the line, I must have encountered Blazing Saddles, but I can’t remember the first time specifically. I’m sure it was on some lazy morning or afternoon during my summer vacation from school while my parents were at work, but I don’t really remember watching Blazing Saddles until I was a little older, probably 14 or 15 and going into high school. It wasn’t until that age that I was really able to appreciate the movie for the kind of masterpiece that it was, anyways.

I know that I watched the movie at least a few times during high school, but it wasn’t until it was screened in a film class that I took my senior year of high school that the real comic genius of Blazing Saddles sank in for me. The class helped to put the movie into a proper context for me. It introduced me to some of the classic Westerns that Blazing Saddles was sending up, and also to some early classic comedies to help put the film into a historical context in that sense. Thinking back on it, it was pretty amazing that my public high school in West Virginia offered a film class at all, but I was lucky that it did because it would be a very formative experience for me. I have that class to thank for introducing me to so many great American films, as well as a handful of foreign classics, and for cementing my desire to pursue an education and a career in film. The class was a senior-only elective that was taught by an English teacher with a particular interest in movies, and she varied the curriculum, including silent films, art house, and classics both new and old from all genres. It was great.

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The film stars Cleavon Little as Bart, a railroad laborer who becomes the first black sheriff in the West. Bart is installed in his position by the corrupt Hedley Lamar (Korman), who is hoping to undermine the town of Rock Ridge and drive out its citizens so that he can buy up their property and profit in a land deal when the railroad passes through the town. Bart is in the unenviable position of being a black man in a frontier town full of white people (who all seem to be related), but he eventually is able to win them over just in time to defend Rock Ridge from Lamar’s schemes. Unable to shake the town’s confidence in Bart, Lamar decides to recruit an army and take Rock Ridge by force. With the help of Jim (Wilder), a once-famous gunfighter who is now Rock Ridge’s resident drunk, and his old friends on the railroad, Bart is able to conceive of a plan to save Rock Ridge from Lamar and his minions. In classic Western fashion, they construct a fake town, rig it with dynamite, and when the army attacks, they blow men and horses alike sky high. A chaotic brawl ensues with the characters spilling out of the film, over the fourth wall, and into the “real world.” Eventually, Bart and the Kid meet back up in the world of the film (after taking a break to watch a bit of it in the movie theater), and, in a closing act fitting for Western heroes, ride off into the sunset…in a limousine.

The film’s humor is all over the place, and it is one of the most jam-packed comedies that I’ve ever seen, with only Airplane! possibly packing more jokes into its scant runtime. Blazing Saddles, and nearly all of Brooks’s comedies, acts as a catchall for 20th century comedy. It embraces the shtick and musicality of Brooks’s roots as a Borscht Belt comedian, the physicality of slapstick, high-brow conceptual humor, and pointed social satire. It’s the kind of movie that can surprise you on repeat viewings with new jokes, because you missed them while you were busy laughing at the other jokes. In addition to acting as a repository of American comedic tradition, Blazing Saddles also acts as a deconstructive tool for traditional myths of Americana in general. Brooks takes the traditional American Western film and turns many of its tropes on their heads to provide a commentary on the false nature of those American creation myths. For him, the frontier was not a promised land, peopled by cowboy heroes conquering nature through sheer force of will and determination. It was, instead, peopled by white men too boorish or corrupt to recognize the basic human decency of another man simply because his skin is a different shade.

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Watching Blazing Saddles in school, in particular, felt somehow subversive. Not only was the film’s humor too cutting edge for a classroom setting, even thirty years after the fact, its social and political commentary felt progressive in a modern setting as well. The film’s take on race relations in America felt as fresh and accurate in 2004 as it must have felt in 1974, unfortunately. The film’s treatment of racism, while humorous, is rightfully complex. In Blazing Saddles, as in real life, bigotry is the mindset of the ignorant and the crass. The townsfolk of Rock Ridge, aren’t painted as cruel or unsympathetic people, but more as simpletons. They are uneducated, likely inbred, and fearful of anyone different than themselves because they have been fed a steady stream of misinformation about other groups of people. After they realize that Bart is a just, kind, and capable sheriff, they begin to warm to him, although only inasmuch as he is able to help them out of their own bad situation. For his own part, Bart has to prove himself doubly capable, just as many minorities today find that they have to work twice as hard in order to gain the same achievements as their white counterparts due to false biases against them.

I think that the great achievement of Blazing Saddles, however, is in pointing out the roots of bigotry and intolerance. While the townsfolk are ugly and crass, their racial hatred is stoked by the desires of the film’s true villain, Hedley Lamar. He attempts to use racism as a tool to help him achieve his political and capitalist goals, installing Bart as the sheriff in an attempt to destabilize the status quo of Rock Ridge enough that he can swoop in and profit from others’ losses. Bigotry is a tool that has been used by the upper class to fragment the working class for centuries, and Blazing Saddles depicts this truth subtly and perfectly. Race is a social construct used to divide people who should otherwise be working together for mutual benefit, and keeping people of different ethnicities and skin colors fighting amongst themselves has been key to maintaining a status quo in which the same wealthy land and business owners reap the most benefit. There is no room for equality in capitalism. While people are all, obviously, biologically the same, it is in the benefit of the ruling class to uphold the myth of racial difference.

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One of the best and easiest ways for people to step outside of their comfort zones, racially speaking, is to engage with art that is made by and about the lives of people who may come from a different ethnic, racial, or socioeconomic background than themselves. One of the greatest things a movie can do for an audience is introduce them to a new way of thinking or open their eyes to a different way of life than they might be accustomed to. I was lucky to grow up in an open-minded household where people of all shapes, sizes, skin colors, and walks of life were welcomed and celebrated. I had and have friends from many different backgrounds. I am happy to live in a world that is diverse and multicultural, because I think that experiencing other cultures and other types of people inherently makes me a better and better-rounded person. But for someone who is not as sold on the values of inclusivity and equality, seeing a movie with a strong or relatable black protagonist might be the first step to some sort of understanding. I’m in no way making apologies or excuses for people who hold racist or bigoted beliefs, because I don’t think there is any place for that sickness in a modern free society, but I do know that there are people who eagerly accept the information that is provided for them without seeking out counterpoint or clarification because they simply don’t know any better. Vitriol can be persuasive, but so can humor. Sometimes the easiest way to someone’s heart is through their funny bone. I think that maybe Mel Brooks had this in mind when he made Blazing Saddles.

Blade Runner

Blade Runner (1982)

Dir. Ridley Scott

Written by: Hampton Fancher & David Peoples (from the novel “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” by Philip K. Dick)

Starring: Harrison Ford, Rutger Hauer, Daryl Hannah, Sean Young, Edward James Olmos

 

Blade Runner is, without doubt, my favorite film that I have so far reviewed for this project. By now, my affinity for science fiction is probably apparent, and I believe that Blade Runner is the finest modern science fiction film ever made. It carries on the traditions of genre classics, both in its style and in its themes, while also breaking new ground and introducing new tropes that would become staples of the sci-fi film for years to come. The film introduced the trappings of cyberpunk to the screen, and its dystopic vision of a future in which advanced cybernetic technology and artificial intelligence exist alongside the crumbling ruins of a once-proud earthbound 20th century society has informed the style of science fiction ever since. Without Blade Runner there is no Robocop, no Matrix, no Ghost in the Shell. Its importance in the history of the genre can’t be understated, and, to me, it is a perfect film.

The film’s opening title roll succinctly and directly introduces the film’s themes, as well as the future world of 2019 in which it is set:

“Early in the 21st century, the Tyrell Corporation advanced Robot evolution into the NEXUS phase – a being virtually identical to a human – known as a Replicant. The NEXUS 6 Replicants were superior in strength and agility, and at least equal in intelligence, to the genetic engineers who created them. Replicants were used Off-world as slave labor, in the hazardous exploration and colonization of other planets. After a bloody mutiny by a NEXUS 6 combat team in an Off-world colony, Replicants were declared illegal on earth – under penalty of death. Special police squads – Blade Runner Units – had orders to shoot to kill, upon detection, any trespassing Replicant. This was not called execution. It was called retirement.”

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Rick Deckard (Ford) is the titular Blade Runner, who is coerced to take one final assignment before his own retirement. A group of Replicants have escaped from one of the Off-world colonies, murdering over two dozen humans in the process, and Deckard is tasked with finding and retiring them. While tracking Pris (Hannah), Batty (Hauer), and the other Replicants, Deckard meets and falls in love with Rachael (Young), an advanced prototype Replicant who has been implanted with a human’s memories. Deckard’s relationship with Rachael causes him to question the nature of humanity as well as the moral implications of his hunt for the Replicants.

The film’s premise is simple, but its presentation is incredibly complex. Scott packs the frame with visual information, introducing details about this world through a unique and unmistakable aesthetic. The film is unrelentingly dark, borrowing and updating the aesthetic of the noir film. This dark, gray color palette is reflective of the fact that though Blade Runner presents a high-tech future, this is no age of enlightenment. It seems that society has regressed rather than progressed in spite of the strides of science and technology, with all but a few people living in relative squalor, scraping just to get by. The benefits of technology are reserved for the wealthy, like Dr. Eldon Tyrell (Joe Turkel) who lives in a penthouse atop the massive Tyrell Building, which houses his corporation and which towers over the slums where most of the film’s action takes place. The shadowy streets below the Tyrell Building are lit up by crisscrossing search lights, and characters’ faces are illuminated by the flashing lights of the omnipresent flying police cruisers, giving the world a paranoid sense of constant surveillance. The only steady sources of light are the glowing neon billboards, advertising products like Coca-Cola and Atari. In the future that Blade Runner imagines, it would seem that traditional nation-states have been abandoned in favor of an overarching corporate hegemony.

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Blade Runner is as dense symbolically and textually as it is visually, with Scott drawing on a history of literary and filmic influences to further his film’s themes. One of the most obvious parallels in the film can be drawn from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Arguably one of the first works of science fiction, the tale of man’s quest to play God and create life has its fingerprints all over Blade Runner. All of the Replicants are, in a way, spiritual cousins to the famous Monster. His body, constructed as it was from corpse parts, was a reminder of man’s mortality, just as the Replicants’ built-in four year life span is a constant reminder of the fleeting nature of life on earth. And just like the Monster, the Replicants never asked to be created, but now that they have been given the gift of life, they naturally begin to seek out meaning in their existence. Theirs is a tragic case of an unfortunate being that was given all of the capacities to question their existence, but none of the means to truly enjoy it or make it meaningful. The film also takes several cues from Fritz Lang’s sci-fi classic, Metropolis, which concerns itself with widening class inequality in a seemingly Utopian future. In both its themes and its art design, Blade Runner owes a deep debt of gratitude to the earlier film. These literary and cinematic callbacks help to align Blade Runner in the larger history of science-fiction, and align its themes with the ur-questions that sci-fi has been asking since its inception: “What is Man’s place in the Universe?” “What, if any, is the will of our Creator?” and, ultimately, “What does it mean to be Man?”

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These questions are most directly brought up in the character of Roy Batty, leader of the rogue Replicants, and his quest to meet his maker. Religious symbolism is prevalent throughout the film, but the most obvious religious motifs and iconography are associated with the character of Roy Batty. His character is the most fleshed out of all the Replicants, and he seems to be the only one with a concrete goal in mind after their mutiny and escape to Earth. He is on a quest to meet Dr. Tyrell and inquire as to the purpose of his short life. Batty is the prodigal son, returned to his father to be celebrated as a crowning achievement, but he’s also the avenging angel, bringing Tyrell his comeuppance in the form of a swift and brutal death. Later in the film, Scott makes a more direct religious allusion when he has Batty drive a nail through his palm while he is chasing Deckard through the abandoned hotel at the end of the film. The gesture has major significance in the context of the larger scene – Batty uses the nail to stabilize his malfunctioning hand as it becomes apparent that he is shutting down – but when coupled with Batty cradling a dove while he gives his final soliloquy, the symbolic meaning is even more apparent. All of the Replicants, but particularly Batty, are Christ figures. They were created to save humanity from the hardships of labor and war, but most importantly, like Christ, they were created to die. They were also created as an Other, something for their human counterparts to hold up as an example of non-life, non-humanity. However, unlike Christ, their suffering and death is as robbed of meaning and permanence as their short lives. Like Batty says before he dies, all of the wonderful things that he has seen, things that no human will ever experience, will be washed away, “like tears in rain.” If the measure of humanity is one’s capacity to empathize and value the experience and the life of one less fortunate that oneself, then the humans in Blade Runner have failed the test spectacularly.

Of course, it is really the tragic figure of the doomed Replicants that the audience is meant to pity by the film’s end. Their circumstances, being brought into a cruel world that seeks to use them for slave labor and then discard them after four years of life, is naturally pitiable enough, but the performances of the actors portraying the Replicants, particularly Hannah and Hauer, breathe humanity into these robots and give them an emotional depth often unseen in films about androids. Brion James and Joanna Cassidy are both good in their roles as Leon and Zhora, respectively, but these two Replicants aren’t given nearly as much screentime as Pris and Batty. All of the actors play the Replicants with a kind of savagery that’s bubbling just underneath the surface. Hannah plays Pris like a wounded dog in her first appearance in the film. She beds down under some trash outside Tyrell Corporation geneticist, J.F. Sebastian’s (William Sanderson) home. When he discovers her, she’s initially frightened, shying away from his gaze before she reluctantly agrees to come inside and be his friend. Of course this is all a canny set up, a ruse to gain Batty access to Dr. Tyrell, but Pris is convincing enough for the naïve, lonely Sebastian. To this point, it seems that the Replicants are prone to lash out violently when backed into a corner, programmed to focus on short term survival, but when Batty and Pris are reunited at Sebastian’s, they exchange a series of small glances that make the audience aware that this was all a part of their cunning plan.

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Eventually Deckard tracks Pris down at the dilapidated hotel that Sebastian has taken over as his home. Pris gets the better of Deckard, getting the drop on him by pretending to be one of Sebastian’s harmless animatronic creations and then showing off her advanced athletic prowess as she does back handsprings across the room, grabbing Deckard in a choke hold with her legs. Rather than killing Deckard, she goes back for another gymnastic run across the room, giving him time to recover. Deckard shoots Pris down and she dies, screaming and writhing on the floor. There’s both a mechanical and an animalistic quality to the way that she twitches on the floor before dying. In one sense, she seems to be malfunctioning, but in another she seems to be a panicked animal, caught in a trap, trying desperately to free itself when it’s already too late. In this brief scene, Pris encapsulates the experience of being a Replicant so well. She lures Deckard in with her cunning, and overpowers him with her superior physicality, but her downfall is her innate desire to show off. She could have easily killed Deckard, but Pris instead opts to give another display of her power and it ultimately costs her her life.

The most advanced Replicant, of course, is Batty. He’s the oldest of the four, only a few months away from the end of his four-year life span, and he has had the most lived experience and learned the most about mankind and what it means to be human. Rutger Hauer is a tour de force in the film’s final scenes, playing Batty as both Id and Ego as he pursues Deckard to the rooftop of the hotel. The hunter has become the hunted, as Batty attempts to give Deckard a taste of the fear that the Replicants must feel every day. Batty, like Pris, displays animalistic qualities, howling and barking after Deckard and running lithely through the crumbling building. This is, of course, only one side of his personality, as he also repeatedly goads Deckard with quips about fairness, competence, and humanity. He seems omnipresent as his voice projects from the walls, crashing through the plaster on occasion to remind Deckard that his pursuer is just on his heels. Batty’s manic pursuit of Deckard is one of the film’s most memorable sequences, with Hauer’s intensely blue eyes and menacing smile popping off the screen. He plays the doomed Replicant with malice, but never lets the audience forget that Batty is a tragic figure.

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Batty’s final soliloquy, which Hauer wrote himself on set, gets to the crux of the film’s argument about humanity. In just the four years that he was given to live, Batty has experienced and seen things that no human ever will. He has developed a personality, emotions, and, most importantly, a set of memories that are uniquely his and a bit of life experience from which he can draw. These are the qualities that make Batty a human being, even though he is not designated as such. When he is no more, all of those experiences will be lost. Being granted life, Batty’s desire was to live it, freely, to gain experience and knowledge, but his creators had another plan for him. When Batty saves Deckard from falling off the roof, he passes the ultimate test of his humanity, ironically a test that none of the film’s human characters seems possible of passing. Batty has developed empathy, and by allowing Deckard to live, and explaining to him that the fear that he is feeling at that moment is akin to the fear that the Replicants feel every day of their existence, Batty is passing that lesson on. Before he dies, Batty releases a dove which flies skyward. The camera follows it up and gives the first glimpse of a blue sky beyond the smokestacks and fog of Los Angeles.

I haven’t even touched on so many things that I love about Blade Runner, but to try to fit everything in to one post would be a fool’s errand. I called it a perfect film, and I feel it is that because it’s more than the sum of its parts. It works on both an ethical level and on a strictly narrative level, leaving the audience with questions to ponder about both. The film contains great performances, a fantastic score, a visual aesthetic that helped to influence and define an era of science-fiction filmmaking. It asks heavy philosophical questions and largely lets the audience fill in their own answers. The basic question that viewers of the film tend to ask, namely “Is Deckard a Replicant?”, can be answered by posing another, more important question: “What does it mean to be a human when the most humane characters in the film are the Replicants?” It ultimately doesn’t matter whether or not Deckard is a man or a machine, because in Blade Runner humanity is not strictly defined by the presence or absence of mechanical parts. It’s defined by what the characters do with the life they’re given. It’s defined by their desire for “More life, fucker/father.” It’s defined by a striving to be and do more, to consume experience with a voraciousness and to give meaning to that experience.

Big Trouble in Little China

Big Trouble in Little China (1986)

Dir. John Carpenter

Written by: Gary Goldman, David Z. Weinstein, W.D. Richter

Starring: Kurt Russell, Kim Cattrall, Dennis Dun, James Hong, Victor Wong

 

Action films have been a popular genre throughout the history of cinema. Some of early cinema’s most widely-known and well-loved films could fall into the action genre in some form, whether they be crime films, Westerns, or chase films. As the genre developed, however, a certain type of pure action style started to develop. Westerns began to cede popularity in the 1970s to these more modern action films, and by the 1980s, the blueprint for the action film as we now know it was largely set in stone. Classic action franchises were born in this decade, including Rambo, The Terminator, and Predator, and those films would go on to influence the next generation of action filmmakers who would continue to evolve and grow the genre. A direct line can be traced from our modern action blockbusters to the over-the-top, bombastic thrill rides featuring Arnold and Stallone that were ubiquitous in the 1980s. During that decade, however, there was an alternative style of action film being developed, one that sought to blend genres in interesting ways, that borrowed from international influences, and one that depended more on its star’s charisma than his physique (although that wasn’t so bad, either). I’m referring to the action films created by the pairing of John Carpenter and Kurt Russell. These films, including Big Trouble in Little China, provide an interesting counterpoint to the more familiar action franchises of the time.

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The duo teamed up for three movies in the 1980s and, though they weren’t all commercially successful on their initial release, Carpenter’s and Russell’s films have proved enduring. While their earlier films, Escape From New York and The Thing, were modest box office successes, Big Trouble in Little China had trouble connecting with audiences. Perhaps its blending of science fiction and action with traditional Chinese fantasy and folklore was too exotic for audiences in 1986. Maybe Kurt Russel’s performance, combining the lone hero of the action film with the wise-cracking leading man of the screwball comedy, was too unfamiliar. Whatever it may have been, Big Trouble in Little China had to wait to reach the level of appreciation that its director and star’s previous efforts had enjoyed. I saw all of these movies at different times in my childhood. They were staples on cable television on the weekends, edited for content and to run in the time allotted. When I was young, the gritty apocalyptic dystopia of Escape From New York was my favorite, but as an adult, I’ve become more and more fond of Big Trouble in Little China and all of its B-movie charm.

In the film, Russell plays Jack Burton, a fast-talking, fast-driving trucker, who finds himself embroiled in a gang war in San Francisco’s Chinatown. When his friend Wang’s (Dun) betrothed, Miao Yin (Suzee Pai) is kidnapped by one of the local street gangs, Jack agrees to help him rescue her. Along with the help of their friends Gracie Law (Cattrall) and Egg Shen (Wong), they set out to retrieve Miao Yin from the Lords of Death street gang. Their search takes them first to a brothel where they believe Miao Yin is being held, and Jack is successful in freeing many of the women being held there, but the rescue is interrupted by the Three Storms, three supernatural ninjas who take off with Miao Yin and take her to their master, David Lo Pan (Hong). Jack and Wang are again tasked with infiltrating a building to rescue Miao Yin, this time Lo Pan’s office front. When they get inside, they are again waylaid by the Storms and are introduced to Lo Pan’s sinister plan. Though he appears to be an old man, he is actually an incredibly powerful undead sorcerer, who is thousands of years old. He was robbed of his true physical body by the first emperor of China who placed a curse on him. In order to break the curse and regain his true form and his full power, Lo Pan must marry and then sacrifice a Chinese girl with green eyes, which Miao Yin has. From there, multiple rescue attempts must be made by everyone in the group as Jack, Wang, and Gracie all keep getting captured and escaping, all while trying to locate Miao Yin and prevent the wedding ceremony from taking place. The film’s final battle is a combination of traditional kung-fu, Wuxia, and slapstick comedy, as the heroes fight off the Storms and Lo Pan, rescuing Miao Yin. After everything settles down, Jack chooses to hitch up the Porkchop Express and return to the open road rather than staying in Chinatown with Gracie. However, just as Egg Shen says he will always have China in his heart, it seems that a piece of Chinatown is staying with Jack as the film’s final shot reveals that one of Lo Pan’s supernatural monsters has stowed away on his truck.

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I didn’t know it at the time, but I likely have Big Trouble in Little China to thank for some of my later filmic obsessions. It was probably the first movie I saw that heavily featured Asian influences, despite having grown up in the ninja-obsessed early 1990s. I had seen shows like Power Rangers and even some Japanese anime when I was younger, but Big Trouble in Little China was probably the film that first introduced me to kung-fu and Wuxia, two genres that I would get into more seriously in my teenage years. I remember when I saw the movie for the first time, around the age of 11 or 12, thinking that it reminded me a lot of Indiana Jones, but more authentic and more exotic. The film was set in America, but it felt more immersed in Chinese culture. It seemed like a celebration of its influences, where the Indiana Jones trilogy felt more sensationalistic and exploitative. I probably didn’t give this a whole lot of thought at the time, but I now realize that the main reason the film feels so authentic is that it has an almost entirely Asian cast. Also, rather than relegating minorities to supporting and sidekick roles to a white hero, Carpenter places Wang and Egg Shen in the more traditionally heroic roles, while portraying Jack as, at best, a fish out of a water, but more often as a bit of a boob.

That’s another thing that I really appreciate about Big Trouble in Little China. While Jack Burton is definitely the main character of the film, he is far from the film’s hero. Carpenter deftly plays with Russell’s star persona, repeatedly placing Jack in positions where the other characters in the film have to come to his rescue. Russell plays Jack Burton as a swaggering man of action, modeling his performance on vintage John Wayne, but the film’s narrative often undercuts his heroism. Though he can more than handle his own in the film’s many fight scenes, Jack is frequently on the receiving end of punches that Wang is able to easily duck under or around. He’s inventive and unorthodox in his fighting style, but he’s also often a scene’s comic relief. This only works because of Kurt Russell’s natural charisma. He’s totally believable as an action star, but he also has a roguish sense of humor that is constantly on display in this film. Jack Burton is the ultimate cool guy, tough in a fight, but also able to be self-deprecating when the tilt doesn’t go his way. The wise-cracking tough guy was certainly a genre staple by this point, but mostly in the form of witty asides or scripted catchphrases. Jack Burton’s humor is inherent in his coolness, and it’s hard to see Schwarzenegger or Stallone being able to pull off the natural charm that Russell brings to the role.

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Russell and the rest of the cast are aided by some great dialogue. The script went through several phases and rewrites, beginning life as a period Western, but as I mentioned earlier, the final product bears a strong resemblance to a screwball comedy with regards to its dialogue. Particularly in the interactions of Jack and Gracie, but throughout the film, the dialogue is snappy and articulate. The verbal sparring in the film is as entertaining as the fight scenes, with Russell and Cattrall displaying good on-screen chemistry. It’s one of the few action movies that is also genuinely funny throughout, without resorting to the aforementioned witty asides. Its humor isn’t nudging or winking, it’s subtly woven through the action, helping to establish these characters. Even a character like Egg Shen, whose role is almost strictly expository early in the film, gets some great lines. When discussing the hodgepodge of various mysticisms that influence Chinese spiritual belief, he says, “There’s Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoist alchemy and sorcery…We take what we want and leave the rest, just like your salad bar.” It’s a genuinely funny line, but it’s also a window into Egg Shen as a character. He’s obviously wise and worldly, but who knew that he had been to a Sizzler? It would have been easy for Egg Shen to have been a stereotype, as many other action films of the time probably would have portrayed him, but Victor Wong plays him with a mirthful sort of mysteriousness and the script gives him several opportunities to step out of his box.

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I didn’t own a copy of Big Trouble in Little China until my late 20s. I grabbed it out of a bargain bin at a Best Buy one afternoon, and I’m really glad that I did. I hadn’t seen it in at least five years at that point, and I think I had forgotten just what a cool movie it really is. I think that all of the things that I really enjoy about Big Trouble in Little China are exactly the things that made it a flop upon its initial release. Mainstream American audiences just weren’t ready for an American movie that borrowed so heavily from Chinese culture. Obviously, Enter the Dragon had become a crossover hit in 1973, but martial arts pictures were still largely relegated to the grindhouse. Even the presence of emerging stars like Russell and Cattrall wasn’t enough to make the film bankable, as its deep dive into Chinese mysticism proved to be too confounding for its audiences. It wasn’t until home video really became a force in the late 1980s and 1990s that these types of films began to find an audience. Not surprisingly, Big Trouble in Little China found renewed interest in the home video market and has become one of the ultimate cult classics. It is the type of film that you can show a half-dozen different friends and each can come away enjoying something different about the film. Carpenter takes its series of disparate influences and mixes them up in a cauldron of 1980s action sensibility, churning out a wholly unique product that is more than the sum of its parts.

The Big Lebowski

The Big Lebowski (1998)

Dir. Joel & Ethan Coen

Written by: Joel & Ethan Coen

Starring: Jeff Bridges, John Goodman, Steve Buscemi, Julianne Moore

 

I wrote a good bit about how much I enjoy the Coen Brothers in general when I was writing about Barton Fink last month, so I’ll keep this post more limited directly to The Big Lebowski. However, I will say that the movie’s immense mainstream popularity undercuts the fact that it’s one of the brothers’ deepest dives into filmic nostalgia. Lebowski is a celebration of old Hollywood, a deconstruction of the detective genre and film noir mode of storytelling, with shout outs to classical Hollywood pictures throughout. The nuances of the film are probably overshadowed for a lot of audiences by the story of what has become one of the classic characters in all of cinema. The Big Lebowski is a film that is equally as quotable as it is esoteric, a film with many layers, and standing tall above them all is Jeff Daniels’s iconic portrayal of Jeffrey Lebowski, the Dude, an armchair philosopher and hero for the slacker generation, one of God’s own prototypes, too weird to live and too rare to die, out there taking it easy for all us sinners.

For those who may have not seen the film yet, The Big Lebowski centers on a case of mistaken identity, in which The Dude (Bridges) is mistaken for the identically-named Jeffrey Lebowski (the titular Big Lebowski, played by David Huddleston) an aging millionaire whose trophy wife, Bunny (Tara Reid), owes money all over town, including to pornographer Jackie Treehorn (Ben Gazzara) who sends two thugs to beat the money out of The Dude. When The Dude fails to produce any money, pointing out that it’s fairly obvious a millionaire would not live in his tiny one bedroom apartment, one of the thugs proceeds to pee on The Dude’s rug. The Dude seeks out The Big Lebowski hoping for recompense for the soiled rug, which really tied the room together, and this sets the events of the plot into motion. After their initial meeting, The Big Lebowski contacts The Dude, telling him that Bunny has been kidnapped, and he needs The Dude to get her back. In turn, The Dude enlists the help of his buddies Walter Sobchak (Goodman) and Donny Kerabatsos (Buscemi), who are happy to help out in between games of bowling. Along the way, The Dude encounters German nihilists, a militant feminist artist who wants him for his seed, and is forced to abide countless acts of aggression. The film takes a lot of its cues from The Big Sleep, a famously inscrutable noir, and The Big Lebowski certainly doesn’t disappoint when it comes to weaving a tangled narrative web of deceit and double cross.

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If that narrative seems somewhat complicated, that’s because it is. Raymond Chandler, who wrote the novel upon which The Big Sleep is based on, famously said that even he wasn’t sure who committed one of the murders in his book. The Coens take this idea and run with it in Lebowski, creating a stylized, contemporary noir in which the detective is constantly travelling through the world in a fog, unsure of which side of each uneasy alliance he finds himself at any given moment. The film is packed with subtle allusions to the films of the 1940s, containing oblique references to Double Indemnity and The Maltese Falcon, but also to 42nd Street and other Busby Berkeley musicals. As much as they are filmmakers, the Coens are also film historians, with their films often referencing favorite classic filmmakers such as Howard Hawks or Billy Wilder. All of their films dabble in this kind of pastiche, using film references as a shorthand language, but Lebowski is probably the most overt. As in Barton Fink, the Coens suture a fantastical version of Hollywood onto an actual time and place, in this case the immediate aftermath of the first Gulf War. In both films, the real life setting only serves as an anchor, and the action of the film is largely contained in its own world. The characters in the films occasionally reference actual events, but the Coens are largely free to create a universe of their own definition, and in The Big Lebowski, that universe is heavily filtered through the experience of American cinema of the 1940s.

Of course, this being a Coen Brothers film, those influences are scattered throughout The Big Lebowski, but they’re turned on their head, repurposed for a new generation and skewed in the process. The film uses many of the familiar tropes of the noir. It offers up two femmes fatales in Bunny and in The Big Lebowski’s daughter, Maude (Moore). It’s Bunny’s disappearance that kickstarts the film, but Maude is certainly the more interesting character. She appears halfway through the film, introducing herself to the dude by having her henchmen knock him out and take the rug that he had chosen to replace his originally soiled rug. She asserts that her interest is in preserving the Lebowski Foundation’s money, one million dollars of which her father has put up as ransom money for his missing wife. However, in classic femme fatale fashion, Maude’s motives are more duplicitous than they might seem on the surface. Her real interest in The Dude is procreative. While most classic femme fatales attempt to ensnare the detective using their sexuality, Maude enlists the Dude to the case before seducing him. After gaining The Dude’s trust, Maude beds him and makes known her desire to have a child with a man who will have no interest in raising it, or in being a partner to her. She’s fingered The Dude as just the deadbeat for the job, interested in him not for his bravado or his cunning, but for his biological ability to help her conceive. While I do think that a lot of classic femmes fatales could be seen as feminist characters, or at least female characters with agency in an era during which there weren’t so many such roles, I think that Maude’s overall character in Lebowski very deliberately marks her as a feminist. The shift in power dynamics marks one of the ways that the Coens are playing with the tropes of the noir mode.

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Another modal shift takes place in the film’s style. Though its narrative is decidedly noir-influenced, the film’s visual style rarely quotes from film noir. They had already explored the visual aesthetic of noir in their debut Blood Simple and would return to the genre with a very explicitly noir-influenced aesthetic in The Man Who Wasn’t There, but The Big Lebowski is a much brighter, color-saturated film. Its hallmark visual sequence, the dream sequence that The Dude experiences after being drugged at Jackie Treehorn’s party, is an homage to the classic Hollywood musicals of the 1930s and 40s. The sequence is choreographed just like a Busby Berkeley musical number, with The Dude descending a black-and-white checked staircase to be greeted by a dozen beautiful dancers with tiaras made of bowling pins. He shares a dance with Maude and then floats down a bowling lane through the straddled legs of the dancers. The dream devolves into a nightmare after The Dude crashes through the pins at the end of the lane and cascades into blackness where he meets the three German nihilists, who are wearing red form-fitting suits, and who chase him through the nothingness with oversized scissors, presumably hoping to “cut off his johnson.” While this sequence marks just the most striking departure from the established visual style of noir, the film’s style overall is a bit more dreamy and subjective than a typical noir. That mode established the use of evocative chiaroscuro lighting and adopted the subjectivity of the canted angle, but the Los Angeles of Lebowski is characterized by bright lights, loud noises, and a slow-moving camera that often takes in the world through a gauzy filter.

The biggest departure of the film from a traditional noir detective story, of course, is in the character of The Dude. The prototypical noir detective is personified by Humphrey Bogart: serious, square-jawed, able to take and deliver a punch. The Dude is decidedly none of these things. He is a self-described pacifist who only gets caught up in this whole mess through a case of mistaken identity and a desire to get back a rug that really tied the room together. The Dude trades in Bogart’s ever-present scotch and cigarette for a white russian and a joint. He has reached a level of Zen that Bogart’s restless men of action could never hope to achieve. He treats the whole caper involving Bunny, the nihilists, his missing rug, and his perpetually battered car, as a cosmic inconvenience rather than a case to be solved or a mission to accomplish. The Dude would rather be left alone to listen to his tapes and bowl in the next round robin. If Bogart was the masculine ideal for a post-war generation, then Bridges’s performance as The Dude served as an inspiration and a rallying point for a certain type of counter cultural slacker in the late 90s and early 2000s. He is the Coens most enduring and endearing creation.

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I first watched Lebowski around 1999 or 2000, a couple of years after it was released in theaters. I was instantly taken in by the characters and the dialogue. The film is simply hilarious and Bridges, Goodman, and Buscemi have unbelievable chemistry as The Dude, Walter, and Donny. Their lines are delivered lightning quick, one on top of the other, just like the conversation of real-life friends who know each other intimately. The film is endlessly quotable, with many of its turns of phrase having entered the cultural lexicon, but it is so densely written that it’s also easy to miss off-the-cuff lines on the first couple of viewings. The humor and the characters were what initially drew me into Lebowski. The interplay between Walter and Donny was so funny, and The Dude was one of the coolest characters I’d yet to encounter. Over time and additional viewings, I found new things to enjoy about The Big Lebowski and if you had asked me 15, or even ten years ago, it might have ranked up in my favorite movies of all time. It isn’t up there for me anymore, but it’s still a film that I love and probably one that I watch more frequently than some that might be in my “top ten favorite” films.

Though it started out as a cult film, the influence of Lebowski has spread far into the mainstream. As I mentioned, many of its lines have become instantly recognizable lingo, and you’d be hard pressed to find someone in 2017 who hasn’t seen the film. Bridges’s performance is now iconic, and many people would probably most readily associate Goodman with his portrayal of the bombastic, Vietnam vet Walter Sobchak. Screenings of the film have taken on a Rocky Horror Picture Show sort of tenor, with audiences often attending in costume and bringing props with them. An entire religion has sprung up centered on The Dude as a spiritual figure, with proponents of Dudeism embracing The Dude’s laissez-faire attitude and rebel shrug. Over the last 20 years, The Big Lebowski has graduated from film to full blown cultural phenomenon and while I’m happy that a great film is getting the attention and fanfare that it deserves, I would still rather appreciate it as a film text, devoid of any of the larger cultural trappings that it has come to be associated with. As a progressively-leaning, cannabis-advocating bartender who can often be found wearing a robe until mid-afternoon, and who is trying his hardest to take a “first do no harm” approach to life, I understand that the Dudeist lifestyle is probably perfectly suited to me. However, I still watch The Big Lebowski once or twice a year because it is a film that I really love, not because I hope to emulate its style or glean life wisdom from it. It never fails to make me laugh and pick up my spirits, and every time I watch it I seem to find some new little homage or hear a throwaway line that I had forgotten about. I can understand why someone might choose The Big Lebowski as the cultural artifact upon which they model their personal ethos, but even for those who choose to just enjoy it as a film, it’s an undeniable classic.

Big

Big (1988)

Dir. Penny Marshall

Written by: Gary Ross, Anne Spielberg

Starring: Tom Hanks, Elizabeth Perkins, Robert Loggia, John Heard, Jared Rushton

 

No pun intended, but this is a big one for me. Big is the first live-action film that I can remember ever seeing as a child. I had definitely seen cartoons up to this point, and I had probably seen some other live-action movies, but I first saw Big when I was probably six or seven years old, and it’s definitely the first live-action movie to have made an impression on my memory. If my memory serves me correctly, my parents had recorded Big on VHS at some point and it was this copy that first introduced me to the movie. I also think that my mother had reservations about letting me watch the movie due to its abbreviated sex scene, but I was ultimately allowed to see the film, and it totally enthralled me. I understood the difference between movies and reality at that point, of course. My favorite film up to that point was a cartoon called Fluppy Dogs, in which a boy adopts a magical dog who can make his master’s bed fly when he gets scratched behind the ears. I watched the movie every day for an entire year, but solely because I thought it was cute and entertaining. I understood that it was divorced from any semblance of reality. Big was the first film that I saw that showed me how movies can bridge the gap between fantasy and reality, and open up the imagination to the possibilities of magic and wonder existing in the real world.

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Big is probably the perfect movie to introduce children to the magic of movies because its plot about wish fulfillment and childhood magic is so relatable to children. What child hasn’t, like Josh Baskin (David Moscow/Hanks), wished to be bigger? The movie takes that premise and explores its ramifications as 13-year-old Josh makes a wish on a carnival machine that he could be bigger, and then actually wakes up the next morning in the body of a 30-year-old man. With the help of his best friend, Billy (Rushton), Josh heads to New York City in search of the magical machine that turned him into an adult, hoping that it can also reverse the process. While in New York, Josh takes a job at a toy company, and is quickly promoted due to his unique insight into toys and games. He experiences life as an adult, meets a woman whom he falls in love with, and, ultimately, must make the decision to remain an adult or make another wish and become a child, returning to his life with his family in New Jersey. It’s an urban fairy tale that’s perfect for children and adults, alike.

I watched Big a ton when I was a kid. Until I was about 10 years old, there were several movies that I watched over and over again on rotation and Big was among them, along with The Flight of the Navigator, Newsies, and Hook. I stopped watching those other movies as I got a little older, but Big continued to be a movie that I would always stop to watch if I came across it while I was scrolling through channels. Even more than its wish fulfillment fantasies, I started to become really interested in the movie’s New York City setting. When I was an early teen, I was very taken with the idea of moving to New York and leaving the sleepy, small town that I grew up in behind me. I can certainly chalk a lot of that urge up to simply getting the itchy feet that become so common to those who grow up in a small town and strive to see the bigger world, but I think that watching Big as much as I did probably fed into some of those desires as well. I can remember thinking that the loft apartment (really a warehouse) that Josh moves into after he becomes a VP at the toy company was the coolest place I’d ever seen someone live. An apartment like that couldn’t exist in my town, it was reserved for denizens of the big city. I was equally as enamored, however, with the flophouse hotel that Josh lives in when he first moves to the city. It seemed dangerous and edgy in a way that my habitations certainly were not. In fact, when I finally got to travel to New York City, I was a bit disappointed that many of its pointy edges that I had seen in movies had been smoothed over.

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The other big draw for the film, of course, is Tom Hanks’s performance as Josh Baskin. Hanks is probably the most universally well-liked actor ever. He quickly became a mega-star, and by the 1990s, his presence in a film was a signature of a certain type of prestige and quality. Early in his career, however, Hanks was known mostly for his work in comedies, not big budget Oscar hopefuls. After transitioning from television and a co-starring role on Bosom Buddies, Hanks became a household name with 1984’s Splash and starred in other popular comedies throughout the mid-80s. Big is the culmination of this run, with Hanks providing both laughs and an emotional depth to his character. He slips seamlessly into the character of a 13-year-old boy, and watching Hanks react to the adult world with the enthusiasm, and also confusion, of a child is great. The party scene towards the end of the film always stuck out as one of the funniest in the movie. Josh shows up to the office holiday party dressed in a ridiculous white sequined tuxedo, which is funny in its own right, but his nibbling of baby corn on the cob and riotous reaction to trying caviar are the moments that I always lose it in the scene. It’s ridiculous, laugh out loud funny, and endearing all at the same time, and all because of Hanks’s wide-eyed, innocent portrayal of Josh. It’s also impossible to picture any other actor nailing the “chopsticks” scene at F.A.O. Schwarz the way that Hanks does. He and Robert Loggia jumping from note to note on the life-size keyboard while a crowd gathers around to watch has become an iconic scene in all of cinema.

As the film goes on, Hanks adjusts the way he portrays Josh as the character becomes more and more adjusted to his adult life. Early on, Hanks plays Josh as a naïve kid, scared, and often alone in the world. However, as he gains the acceptance of his peers and begins to spend more time with Susan (Perkins) and his other coworkers, and less time with Billy, Josh starts to act more and more like an adult himself. Hanks loses the pensive line delivery, modifies his body language, and becomes more assertive in general. The changes are subtle, but they come to a head when Billy confronts Josh late in the film after having found the Zoltar machine. After Josh is dismissive of Billy, telling him that he has work to do and he’s too busy to spend time with a child, Billy yells at him, “I’m your best friend!” and the illusion of Josh as an adult is shattered. He soon after makes the decision to go to the machine and wish to return himself to his natural state.

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The Zoltar machine has been stashed on a forgotten pier, left there after a carnival has obviously closed up for the season. When Josh arrives on the pier, his transformation back into a child begins even before he approaches the machine and makes a wish. Josh runs to the boardwalk, looking for the machine, and when he sees it, his posture changes. Hanks starts to crumble in on himself, folding his hands in front of him and shifting his weight from one foot to the other, when he sees the machine. The camera zooms in on his pensive face as he weighs the decision that he’s about to make. Taking tiny steps, Josh approaches the Zoltar machine and pulls out a quarter. He unplugs the machine to recreate the exact scenario from the beginning of the film, slapping and kicking the machine until it magically comes to life. Susan arrives on the boardwalk just as Josh makes his wish and drops the quarter into Zoltar’s gaping mouth. Although she can’t comprehend his decision, and doesn’t want to believe his story about the Zoltar machine, Josh shows an emotional purity and depth of understanding that belie his years when he tells Susan that he has “a million reasons to go home, and only one reason to stay.” She’s fallen for him because he is so unlike the professional men that she usually dates, but the innocence that sets him apart is precisely the reason that they can’t be together. Susan gives Josh a ride home and, in a great sequence, watches as he transforms from a man to a boy over the span of one shot/reverse-shot. Josh turns to wave, giving Susan one last glimpse over his shoulder. She looks down to hide a tear, and when she raises her head, she’s astounded to see the child Josh Baskin walking away from her in an over-sized suit. Josh gives her a sheepish smile, which she returns, and then runs into the house to greet his worried mother, leaving his adult-sized shoes on the sidewalk as the film ends.

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The ending of Big ranks up there with the ending of The Third Man and Casablanca as one of my favorites in all of film. In general, the movie is a favorite. I’ve seen it, literally, dozens of times but I still get caught up in the magic of it. Some movies I like to watch over and over again because I feel that there are nuances that I will discover with each renewed viewing. Some movies I like to watch over and over again because I know that they won’t offer me any surprises. Big is one of the latter. It’s a movie that feels like a well-worn baseball glove; it fits just right and it’s full of familiar seams and cracks. I often wonder how movies from my childhood will hold up, not just for my own personal viewing, but for new audiences estranged from the subject matter by time and distance. I really hope that there are new audiences discovering Big now, nearly 30 years after its release. As I said before, it’s a perfect fairy tale for the young and the young at heart. The universality of its themes and the performance of a young Tom Hanks coming into his full powers as a dramatic actor should keep Big fresh for the young viewers of today.

Better Off Dead

Better Off Dead (1985)

Dir. Savage Steve Holland

Written by: Savage Steve Holland

Starring: John Cusack, Diane Franklin, Amanda Wyss, Curtis Armstrong

 

It’s probably not surprising, as I did most of my collecting of movies as a teenager, but a good portion of my collection was, at one time, teen movies and teen romantic comedies. I was a devotee of John Hughes, even going so far as proudly displaying a Breakfast Club poster in my bedroom when I was in high school. I think it’s natural when a person is young and still trying to develop their identity to look to the teen archetypes that Hughes often traffics in and feel a kind of kinship. I also think that it’s natural that once one is a bit older they can look back at some of those characters and recognize that they’re fairly empty tropes. This isn’t to disparage Hughes’s output, as he’s made some classic films and I still enjoy watching many of them, but I don’t feel the sort of kinship to any of the young protagonists that I used to. The only Hughes-directed movie that I still own is Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, copies of The Breakfast Club and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off having been lost or left behind somewhere along the line. Better Off Dead, however, is the one teen comedy from that era that I can still relate to as an adult, and it’s one of the few of its genre that have remained in my collection. I feel that Better Off Dead is such an essential part of my collection that, upon the initiation of this project, when I discovered that the disc for the movie was missing from the case, I felt that I had to purchase it again on Bluray, just so I could watch it again and write about it.

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The film’s plot is fairly generic at its core, but Better Off Dead has a pitch dark and quasi-surreal sense of humor that most other teen films lack. Lane Meyer (Cusack) has two great loves in his life entering senior year of high school, downhill skiing and his girlfriend, Beth (Wyss). Lane loses out on both at the beginning of the film, as Beth cruelly dumps him for the captain of the ski team, Roy (Aaron Dozier), at the ski team tryouts. Seeing his high school social life crumbling, Lane decides that he is probably better off dead, but finds himself hilariously inept, even at suicide. Since he’s unable to off himself, and encouraged by his friend Charles (Armstrong), Lane decides to ski the K-12, a treacherous, possibly even lethal, run, in hopes of winning back Beth’s affections. Predictably, Lane fails miserably at his attempt to conquer the mountain, and his life continues to be a cycle of disappointment and adolescent frustration. That all starts to change when Lane meets Monique (Franklin), a French foreign exchange student who is living with the Meyer’s neighbors. Monique agrees to train Lane to ski the K-12 and the two develop a friendship. The film ends with a climactic race between Roy and Lane, in which Lane finally triumphs over his rival. When he crosses the finish line on one ski, Beth rushes to greet Lane, but he brushes past her, choosing Monique instead.

If you take out the failed suicide attempts, the plot to Better Off Dead reads like a fairly typical teen comedy of its time. It even slots in to a strange subgenre of the teen movie that was popular in the mid-late 1980s that featured skiing and partying as a pretext for hijinks and romance to ensue. However, Savage Steve Holland’s unique comedic sensibilities make this film stand out from others of its era. Better Off Dead was Holland’s first feature, and it is based on an actual breakup that led him to a hilariously botched suicide attempt, a la Lane Meyer. In real life, Holland was able to see the absurdity of his situation as he was sitting under a broken pipe, from which he had tried and failed to hang himself, water cascading onto his head as his mother yelled at him for damaging the pipe. He took that experience and began collecting other humorously bad ways to try to kill yourself, as the concept for Better Off Dead germinated. The end result is a film that is darkly hilarious and that feels emotionally genuine without employing the types of schmaltz that teen films sometimes resort to. The film features memorably absurd side plots and a cast of characters too whacky to truly be real, but just barely so. The film’s unique humor and the perpetually set upon Lane’s struggle to cope in the face of the insanity that surrounds him are the reasons that the film still resonates with me when others of its genre have faded off.

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As I’ve mentioned before on this site, I was a big John Cusack fan in high school. High Fidelity and Say Anything were staples in my rotation, but I was unaware of the early Cusack film Better Off Dead until my friend Bill played it for me on VHS when we were probably about 16 years old. The film wasn’t as contemporary or as commercially successful as those others, but it’s the Cusack movie that I’ve watched the most as an adult by far. I was instantly enamored with the movie’s offbeat sense of humor. It was a totally different type of comedy than I was accustomed to at the time and I loved the unrepentant absurdity of the film. Better Off Dead is one of the few comedies that I’ve found to retain its humor despite at least a dozen repeated viewings. The film’s central comedic conceit, that Lane is so unbelievably inept that he cannot even find a way to properly end his own life, is funny, but the side plots and the supporting characters are probably the film’s most memorable comedic elements. Who can forget Lane’s younger brother Badger (Scooter Stevens), a deviant genius who constructs working lasers and rocket ships and seduces older women, despite never speaking in the film, or Lane’s mother (Kim Darby) who, throughout the film, makes creations from Better Housekeeping magazine recipes that look increasingly less and less edible? These characters, grounded as they are in recognizable reality, but spun out to the limits of plausibility, give the film its unique and memorable tone.

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Cusack, himself a teen when the film was shot, is solid as Lane Meyer. The charisma and chops that would help him become one of Hollywood’s most consistent and successful leading men of the last 30 years are on display here. Anyone watching the film as an adult can recognize the world-weariness that Cusack displays as Lane is humorous in its desperation, but to a teenage viewer it can feel relatable and real. Lane’s only beginning to experience life, but he feels he’s already seen its pinnacle. The maudlin, mopey performance that Cusack turns in feels like a template for many of the characters he would portray over the next decade, which isn’t really a criticism. Cusack was better at playing that sort of lovelorn sadsack than anyone else at the time, and Better Off Dead allows him to do so in a film that points a self-reflexive lens on that character and chooses to laugh. Lane may be a precursor to the more iconic Lloyd Dobler who Cusack would later portray in Say Anything, but he’s also a more interesting and realistic character.

Better Off Dead and its follow up, One Crazy Summer, would be the only features that Holland would direct. He has enjoyed a long career directing in television, mostly in children’s programming, with his animated series Eek! The Cat enjoying mainstream success in the mid-1990s. I do wonder if Holland wouldn’t have had a longer career in Hollywood had he not run afoul of John Cusack after they finished working on Better Off Dead. Reportedly, the two had a falling out after Cusack saw the final cut of the film which he felt made him look ridiculous, and the relationship has never been repaired and the film has enjoyed cult-classic status, but it has never garnered the mainstream recognition it deserves. I often find that there seems to be a generational quality to appreciating Better Off Dead. Most people my age or slightly older recognize and appreciate the film’s iconic quotes and characterizations, while I haven’t encountered many people younger than myself who seem familiar with the film. While it is almost universally fondly remembered by those who have seen it, Better Off Dead falls outside the pantheon of classic 1980s teen comedies. Despite that, it is well worth tracking down and checking out if you haven’t seen it.

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Addendum:

As I wrote, I felt so compelled to rewatch and write about Better Off Dead that I purchased a new copy of the movie to replace the DVD disc that had somehow gone missing from its case. That hasn’t been the case with every disc that has turned up missing in my collection. Since starting this project, I found out that my copy of American Psycho was missing. I had the case, but no disc in it. I decided that I wasn’t as interested in revisiting and writing about that movie, however, so I decided not to replace it, especially since the case that was on my shelf didn’t correspond with the original copy of the movie that I had bought on DVD in high school. Somehow, I had gotten my original copy switched up with a former roommate’s “Unrated Edition” copy. I don’t know why, but for some reason that made me much less inclined to include American Psycho as a part of this project. I loved the movie 15 years ago, and I still like it a lot. It’s an interesting satire and it features a star-making performance by Christian Bale, but it isn’t included in this project. Here are some films that I have owned in the past that I have since parted ways with that I wish I still owned so I could include them in this project. I will not be repurchasing any of these for inclusion.

A.I.

A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001)

I am one of the few proponents of this film that I know. I was probably just young enough to be taken in by this fairytale. Had I been any older, or had my cynicism been as fully developed as it is now, I likely would have scoffed at the film, but I saw it in the theater and loved it immediately. I bought it on DVD and I watched it a lot. A.I. is so stylish, and even if it doesn’t fulfill on all of its promise, it’s at least interesting as a historical artifact as it’s the last film that Stanley Kubrick ever worked on. He and Spielberg share directing credits on the film, and the blend of their unique visual and narrative styles is fascinating, even if Spielberg’s influence is the dominant mode. I haven’t seen this movie since probably 2005 and I wish I could reevaluate it.

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The Godfather (1972)/The Godfather II (1974)

The Godfather and its sequel are obvious classics of American cinema, and they’ll be noticeably absent from my reviews. I first saw The Godfather when I was 12-years-old on a double VHS copy that I borrowed from the library. I watched it three times in the week that I was allowed to keep it. Eventually, when I decided I wanted to more seriously pursue an education and, hopefully, a career in film, I often told people that it was the influence of The Godfather that had led me in that direction. I was obsessed with the movie as a teen to the point that I had memorized large chunks of dialogue from the film and could recite them on command as a sort of pathetic, nerdy party trick. I owned the DVD box set of all three films in high school, but I didn’t take it to college with me and it doesn’t seem to be at my parents’ house anymore. I suspect that my younger sister took over possession of it sometime after I moved out.

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Manderlay (2005)

The second in Lars von Trier’s still incomplete “Land of Opportunities” trilogy. Manderlay follows up Dogville, and continues with that film’s experimental, spare visual style. It also explores similar themes as the earlier film. I have a love/hate relationship with von Trier, and Manderlay was one of his more difficult films for me to wrap my head around. I first saw it with my friend, Ben, at the Regent Theater when it was released. Shortly after giving a presentation on Dogville in a class in college, I lent my copy of Manderlay to a classmate who hadn’t seen it, and I never saw it again. This is one that I’d really like to write about as I’ll be covering several von Trier films over the next few months.

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Say Anything (1989)

I don’t need to watch Say Anything again to be able to remember it perfectly. I watched this movie probably two dozen times while I was in high school. It perfectly intersected my filmic interests as a teen, and would have likely ranked up in my top five or ten movies at that time. I imagine my copy ended up with some girlfriend or another at that time, and that’s ok. It would be fun to go back and watch this movie as an adult, but it isn’t necessary.

upstream color

Upstream Color (2013)

Shane Carruth is one of my favorite newer filmmakers. Both of his features, Primer and Upstream Color have been favorites of mine, particularly Primer. When I first saw that movie, I watched it three times in one day, and insisted that each of my roommates sit down to experience it with me when they got home from work. Obviously, I was eagerly awaiting Carruth’s follow-up, Upstream Color, which took several years to materialize. I saw the movie twice in the theater and purchased it on Bluray as soon as it was released. It was one of my favorite movies of 2013, and I tried several times to write a short essay about the film, but I never got it right. I still have several pages of screening notes from that time, but I let a friend borrow the movie and he lost it.

Belly

Belly (1998)

Dir. Hype Williams

Written by: Hype Williams

Starring: DMX, Nas, Taral Hicks, T-Boz

 

Belly is probably the worst movie, objectively speaking, that I have written about for this project to this point. The first and, to date, only feature film from acclaimed music video director Hype Williams is a bit of a mess, but it also serves as a showcase for Williams’s distinct visual aesthetic. Belly is a stylish crime drama that follows childhood friends Tommy (DMX) and Sincere (Nas) as they pursue fortune and street rep through drug deals and armed robbery until their lives ultimately diverge following Sincere’s decision to get away from his life of crime. The premise is simple to the point of being derivative, but the film’s kaleidoscopic visual style makes it memorable and gives the typical gangster narrative a new coat of high gloss paint. I find myself watching Belly more frequently than many other, better, movies in my collection because I enjoy its frenetic editing, moody color palette, and memorable visual style. It’s a fun movie in spite of its many glaring flaws, and for hip hop fans of a certain age, it’s a certified classic.

Starting with the good, Belly is full of visually interesting and memorable scenes. As I mentioned, Williams rose to prominence as a filmmaker by becoming one of the most prolific and acclaimed music video directors in hip hop in the 1990s. In many ways, Williams defined the visual aesthetic of hip hop during the mid- to late-1990s, a period in which the style fully crossed over into the mainstream. Over the course of his early music video career, Williams developed an eclectic but recognizable style while directing some of the most memorable videos in hip hop history. That style is fully developed and stretched out over the course of a feature film, and Belly is a natural extension of Williams’s music video work, portraying both the gritty street-level realities of its protagonists’ lives of crime and the opulence that that lifestyle has afforded them. Williams captures the drama with technical proficiency and visual flair, opting for dramatic, evocative lighting choices, and employing a restless, moving camera to reflect his characters’ mindsets.

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The film’s opening heist scene is a perfect example of this stylistic virtuosity. The scene, in which Tommy, Sincere, and Mark (Hassan Johnson) murder several people while robbing a strip club, sets the narrative and visual tone for the film. The men approach the club in slow motion, though the pace of the editing is quick, with the camera changing angles and distance from its subjects frequently. The quick cuts continue as the three step into the club, but the film’s color palette shifts to an eerie blue, with the black lights of the club causing a negative effect. The close up shots of Tommy and Sincere’s faces are striking and otherworldly, with their eyes glowing hot-white under the black lights. The camera’s constantly shifting perspective, the reversed color palette, and the frequent lens flare from the club’s strobe lights all combine to create a disorienting feeling and a fragmented sense of place. The action shifts upstairs to the club’s office, where the owners are counting cash. The shots lengthen and the camera moves in short, smooth pans and tilts, exploring the room and the cash within it slowly, in contrast to the choppy snapshots of the club floor. Williams continues the longer shot durations as Tommy and Sincere step into the club’s bathrooms where they’ve stashed their guns, a la The Godfather, but he also maintains the disorienting effect and creates visual tension by intensifying the strobe. As Sincere and Tommy approach and ascend the stairway to the office, the strobe is diminished, allowing for more visual clarity. Sincere nonchalantly shoots a bouncer in the chest and after he and Tommy throw him over the stairs, they and Mark charge up the stairs pulling white masks that glow in the black light over their faces. Panic breaks out in the club, and the strobes return, matched by the flashes of the robbers’ guns as they burst into the office and shoot everyone inside. One of the owners falls backwards through the wall-length window overlooking the club floor, descending in slow motion into the blue-lit depths as glittering shards of glass cascade after her like a diamond rain. As she smashes through a table, the beat to “However Do You Want Me” by Soul II Soul, the a cappella intro to which has been seething quietly under the scene up to this point, kicks in, and the film shifts back to a naturalistic color pattern as the men grab the cash and make their getaway. This scene establishes the visual and narrative themes that the film will explore in less than three minutes, and is one of my favorite credit sequences ever.

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Belly is a film of visual contrasts. Williams associates characters with different colors throughout the film, using blue lights to establish a cold, menacing aesthetic for Tommy, reflecting his ruthlessness and predatory nature. Sincere is visually linked with warmer reds and yellows. He will eventually break with Tommy, rejecting the life of crime for Afrocentrism and attempts at self-improvement. Williams also employs contrast within the same shot by pairing slow motion with quick edits, as he does in the opening robbery scene. These are recognizable music video techniques, and it is obvious at times that Williams’s background is in music video. Often the film seems to be constructed of vignettes, moving from set piece to set piece, and often these vignettes are tied to memorable use of music. These aren’t criticisms, necessarily, as Williams’s experience matching sound to image creates some perfect scenes that almost act as music videos within the film. “However Do You Want Me” is integral to the success of the film’s opening, with the edits syncing perfectly to the music, and the music helping to inform the images. Williams is playing to his strengths in Belly, and while they don’t necessarily lend themselves perfectly to coherent narrative filmmaking, they are enough to keep the film interesting and entertaining.

I think that most of Belly’s shortcomings are a result of Williams wanting to squeeze too much into his first feature. Williams brings a laundry list of influences to the project, many of which he borrows from liberally, resulting in a film that is jumbled and incoherent. There are too many narrative threads, all of which are underdeveloped. This kitchen sink mentality makes the film’s narrative difficult to navigate, as the action shifts from New York to Omaha to Jamaica, following Tommy as he continues to involve himself deeper and deeper in the criminal underworld. Williams too often relies on voice over narration from Sincere to provide context and exposition. For a filmmaker who is so prodigiously gifted visually, Williams often opts to tell rather than show in Belly. With more focus and character development, Belly could be a very good crime film, but as it stands the film only scrapes the surface of its potential, choosing to emulate other, better gangster films and trade in clichés and heavy-handed symbolism rather than developing complex characters and original narrative arcs.

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The film also suffers from the performances of its leads. Across the board, the acting in Belly is pretty bad. DMX and Nas aren’t asked to do dramatic heavy lifting in the film, still neither is up to the task. Belly marked the onscreen debut for both rappers, and they are essentially each extending their brands in the film, playing characters who closely resemble their on-record personae. DMX’s physicality lends Tommy’s air of menace credibility, but his line delivery is wooden and he is incapable of registering any facsimile of genuine emotion. Nas seems to be a somewhat more natural actor, but he has to contend with bad dialogue and with the film’s overreliance on his voice over. When he’s not asked to be the film’s narrator, his performance is decent. The lone bright spot in the film, performance wise, is Method Man’s turn as Shameek, a hitman who is sent to Omaha to dispatch of the local drug dealers who reported on Tommy’s drug trafficking operation. In this early role, Method Man displays the charisma and acting chops that helped him cross over into a successful film and television career. He plays Shameek as a joker whose easy charm belies his underlying penchant for violence. He has made a career playing these sorts of lovable, relatable criminals and he shines through in what is essentially an extended cameo. In fact, aside from Tommy and Sincere, the roles in the film all feel like cameos. None of the other characters are given enough screen time to develop any real motivations or character arcs. Sincere’s girlfriend Tionne (T-Boz) serves no actual narrative purpose in the film, while Keisha, Tommy’s girlfriend, is ostensibly a femme fatale, but Taral Hicks’s performance is more sultry than sinister.

Despite these legitimate criticisms of it, I will still continue to enjoy watching Belly. I’m sure it’s obvious by now but I am a big fan of the visuals of this film. Williams’s stylish direction helps to elevate what could otherwise have been a derivative and uninspired gangster film. Even when Williams is shamelessly ripping off his influences, as he does with de Palma’s Scarface for Jamaican kingpin Lennox’s (Louie Rankin) death scene, he makes the homage distinctive and memorable. The female assassin Chiquita who slits Lennox’s throat is memorable despite having less than 30 seconds of total screen time because of the way that Williams frames her visually. As I mentioned, Williams’s skillset doesn’t necessarily lend itself to crafting a complex narrative film, but they are perfect for creating intensely memorable images and translating simple bits of information through visual cues. The audience feels like they know Chiquita despite her limited screen time because her appearance, wearing a spiked collar-style necklace with dermal piercings adorning her face like war paint, conveys simple visual information so well. This is a skill that Williams has translated from music video where meaning must be conveyed simply and easily through the image, or through its relationship to the underlying song.

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I think Belly’s reliance on music video tropes actually enhances my enjoyment of the film, because it reminds me of a time in my life when I was beginning to really immerse myself in hip hop culture, around the time that the film came out. Belly was only a modest box office success in 1998, but hip hop in general was experiencing one of its biggest boom periods. I really discovered hip hop as an early teen through Puff Daddy, Ma$e, Master P, Nelly and other popular rappers of the day. Hip hop culture was the dominant culture when I was growing up, and I have fond memories of sitting in my friend Ryan’s bedroom and listening to rap CDs on his oversized stereo. His older brother would pack their multi disc stereo with all the newest rap albums and we would soak them all in. Although I gravitated more and more towards punk rock and heavy metal music as I got older, I never lost my love for hip hop, and in particular the rappers who were popular when I was aged 12-15. This nostalgic attachment to that time period certainly helps to overlook some of the flaws in Belly. It’s a movie that is inextricably tied to that time period, and I like to pull it out when I want to turn my brain off and enjoy a well shot action movie that reminds me of one of the passions of my youth.

 

I apologize for the quality of the stills in this post. I couldn’t find too many great quality screen caps from the film, and the few that I did choose to use were automatically compressed to a smaller size. I’ll try to find a way to fix this and avoid the problem in the future.

 

Belle de Jour

Belle de Jour (1967)

Dir. Luis Bunuel

Written by: Luis Bunuel and Jean-Claude Carrière (from the novel by Joseph Kessel)

Starring: Catherine Deneuve, Jean Sorel, Pierre Clémenti

 

I was introduced to the cinema of Luis Bunuel towards the end of my academic study of film. I had seen Bunuel’s early films, Un Chien Andalou and L’Age D’Or, in high school and early college, respectively, but it wasn’t until my senior year of college that I began to familiarize myself with the rest of the prolific surrealist’s cinematic output. My final semester, I took a class on surrealism in the cinema of Bunuel and David Lynch. I was already very familiar with the work of Lynch as he was, and is, one of my favorite directors, but I knew far less about Bunuel, and it was the introduction to his work that I really treasure about having taken that course. It opened my eyes up to some wonderful films, but also to a new way to engage critically with the medium. Discovering surrealist film theory and beginning to apply it to my own criticism was a freeing experience for me, and it helped to give a framework to some of the attitudes towards cinema and some of the theories that I had been developing over the course of my formal film education.

Surrealism provided a context for a cinema that was attacking and subversive. André Breton and others theorized of the cinema as the art form most suited to disrupt the status quo, and most readily equipped to depict the imagery of the psyche. The experience of watching a film has often been likened to having ones’ dreams projected for viewing, but it was the surrealists who took this idea and ran with it, creating films that tapped into the strange and sometimes sinister workings of the unconscious mind. Bunuel was a part of the original group of surrealists, and along with his collaborator Salvador Dali, he created in Un Chien Andalou perhaps the first truly surrealist film. With that film, and with its follow up L’Age D’Or, the pair sought to create a pair of anti-narrative films that would tap into the subconscious, and bring to the surface the repressed instincts and desires of their subjects and their audience. The pair would split during the production of L’Age D’Or over increasingly differing ideologies, with Dali beginning to embrace the rising dictator, Francisco Franco, in their native Spain, while Bunuel’s political leanings remained decidedly leftist and his explicit artistic goal was to create films that undermined the institutions of the bourgeoisie and the state. With L’Age D’Or he succeeded in creating a film that did just that, expanding on the style and content of his earlier work, while tying the dreamlike aesthetic to a specific political and ideological critique, scathingly critiquing the Catholic Church and religious faith. The film was subsequently banned from public viewings for nearly 40 years.

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After the scandal and success of L’Age D’Or, Bunuel officially broke from the French surrealists, beginning a film career that would span nearly 50 years in which he would direct over 30 features on two continents, establishing himself as a distinctive cinematic voice, and one of the great directors of all time. Bunuel spent the bulk of the next three decades bouncing between the United States, Mexico, France, and Spain, often taking work for hire in the studio system, particularly in Mexico. Though he was often working with material not of his own choosing, Bunuel’s distinctive vision often shown through as bits of surreal imagery would surface in even the most mundane of his films. By the 1960s, the burgeoning European art film scene and its critics began to take notice of the idiosyncratic style that was on display in Bunuel’s studio work, and elevated the director to a level of prestige. This sparked a late period career resurgence, as Bunuel returned both to making European films, and to making more overtly surrealist films, and it is during this period that he received his most consistent critical and commercial success.

Belle de Jour arrived in 1967, during the height of this cultural reevaluation of the filmmaker. Though it was a studio project, adapted from a pulp novel that Bunuel was often openly dismissive of, the film would go on to become his most commercially successful project and one of his most critically beloved, if vexing, films. Belle de Jour follows Severine (Deneuve), a frigid Parisian housewife, as she begins to seek satisfaction outside of her marriage to an uptight surgeon, Pierre (Sorel). Though she does love Pierre, it is revealed through Severine’s dreams and sexual fantasies, that she needs more than he can offer her, sexually, to be truly satisfied in their marriage. After she hears that a friend has been prostituting herself outside of her marriage, Severine seeks out a madam and begins her transformation into Belle de Jour, the beauty of the afternoon. She is able to be sexually fulfilled through her afternoon rendezvouses with her johns, while maintaining the façade of bourgeois normality in her marriage with Pierre. Ultimately, the two worlds collide in predictably tragic fashion towards the end of the film, as Severine lets a john get too close to her, and his presence threatens to upend the stability of her life with Pierre.

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I have to admit that Belle de Jour has never ranked among my favorite Bunuel films. When I first watched it for the aforementioned class, I enjoyed it and certainly could see why it was one of the more commercially successful of his films, but it didn’t push the envelope far enough for me. I was more in favor of late classics such as The Milky Way, which he would direct next, or The Phantom of Liberty, Bunuel’s final film. These films fully embraced Bunuelian surrealism and satire as I understood it at the time. I felt Belle de Jour’s surrealism was too restricted, either constrained to only certain corners of the film, or if it was present the entire time, it was present as a lens through which to view the film rather than the operating mode. Over time and with a few more viewings, I’ve come to appreciate Belle de Jour more, and I think I’ve come to understand it better as a film as I’ve matured.

I added Belle de Jour and Viridiana to my collection at the same time after going to a public screening of Un Chien Andalou and L’age D’or renewed my interest in Bunuel around 2013. I went back and watched what I could find available through streaming services, including a couple of films that I hadn’t seen before, and I took advantage of a 50% off sale at Barnes & Noble to add a couple of Bunuel discs to the collection. I had hoped that I would be able to find the Criterion releases of The Milky Way or The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, but neither were available at my local store, so I settled for Belle de Jour and Viridiana, which are similar in some interesting ways, but neither of which were films which had particularly caught my interest on my first viewings for class. Over the ensuing four years, I think I’ve watched Belle de Jour three times, including for this post, and while it has grown on me, the film still doesn’t capture my attention in the same way as some of the director’s other work.

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As I mentioned, my initial disappointment with the film was that it did not push the envelope far enough in terms of its overt surrealism. After watching it several times, however, I think that the film does have much akin with some of Bunuel’s most surrealist works. It may not feature the sorts of absurd situations or jarring imagery that he has become known for, but its subject matter and its treatment of sexuality are certainly the type of subversion that his outwardly surrealist films seek to achieve. The film also explores its protagonist’s subconscious, giving the audience full access to Severine’s dreams and sexual fantasies. Its focus on hidden or obscured objects as important symbolic devices is also a key trait of Bunuelian surrealism.

Released in 1967, Belle de Jour’s frank depiction of Severine’s sexuality and her position as a sexual being with desire and agency certainly ran counter to the prevailing depiction of women and their sexuality in the cinema. Even in the more “progressive” art cinema of the 1960s, women were still most frequently presented as objects of male desire, as muses, or as ingénues, all vessels for male fulfillment. Severine certainly does not fall into any of those types, as she is a complex and fully formed female character, who is certainly acutely aware of her own sexual desires, even if she may not always be able to express them. By the film’s end she is capable of both seeking out her own fulfillment, and separating her need for sexual fulfillment from the romantic love that she seems to feel for Pierre. Severine and Pierre’s relationship is also atypical in this way. On the surface their marriage is representative of the sorts of bourgeois values of monogamy, strict gender roles, and capitalist patriarchy that Bunuel is critical of, and it seems obvious that Severine must look outside of this relationship for sexual fulfillment. However, as Severine’s particular sexual fantasies are contingent upon masochism and shame, the strictures of her marriage must remain in place for her to gain that satisfaction. In fact, it seems that her capacity to feel romantic love towards Pierre increases as she continues to work in the brothel, as Severine seems genuine when she insists that she is warming to the idea of being able to be intimate with Pierre every day. Though she can only be satisfied sexually outside of her marriage, Severine recognizes and acknowledges that her love for Pierre is something separate, and also necessary to her overall satisfaction. Bunuel may be critiquing marriage as an institution, but he does not seem to be indicting romantic love, in general. This is a very surrealist line of thought that puts primacy towards the irrational or the fleetingly emotional, rather than staid institutions.

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It could be tempting to read Severine’s masochistic fantasies as the creation of a male filmmaker who wishes to explore his own fantasies of female subjugation, but the film never presents them as such. Though her fantasy is to “give up” control, Severine is the author of her own fantasies and the beneficiary of any pleasure that is derived from them. When she articulates these fantasies in the real world in the brothel as Belle de Jour, Severine is still able to maintain control. When she is at the brothel, Severine is playing the role of Belle de Jour, which gives her a distance from her encounters with the johns, and maintains something of a veil of fantasy. She also maintains control through the professional nature of the encounters, in which she is financially empowered through the transactional nature of the sex act, and in which she can (and does) remove herself from the situation if she is uncomfortable. I’ll stop short of calling Belle de Jour a feminist film, because I do think that Deneuve is fetishized during certain portions of the film, and I think that Bunuel is really less interested in creating a film about liberating female sexuality than one that explores the themes of desire and fantasy, in general, however its depiction of a female protagonist as a knowing and active participant in the accomplishment of her own sexual fulfillment is a totally subversive idea for the time.

So the film is thematically subversive and surrealist, but it also has many of the trace elements of Bunuel’s style that are not as readily apparent upon just a single viewing. From the famous opening shot of Un Chien Andalou which depicts a woman’s eye being sliced open with a razor, Bunuel has had a fascination with eyes and vision, and Belle de Jour carries on this theme in an interesting way. The film is more interested in seeing and vision than in eyes, particularly. The most obvious example of this is in a scene in which Belle is instructed by Madame Anais (Geneviève Page) to watch through a peephole as one of the other prostitutes humiliates a male submissive. After Belle is rejected by the submissive for not being assertive enough, Anais takes her into an adjacent room and instructs her to watch the more seasoned prostitute, Charlotte (Francoise Fabian) as she indulges The Professor’s (Marcel Charvey) fantasy. Belle watches as The Professor is kicked and berated, but turns away in disgust when Charlotte begins to walk on his face at his request, but she returns to the peephole, guiltily, to sneak another peek. When Madame Anais asks her if she learned anything from her voyeuristic session, Belle feigns disgust and wonders how anyone can stoop so low, but her furtive second glance through the peephole and Deneuve’s pensive line delivery belie her recognition of a similar desire to her own. If eyes are the window to the soul, then the peephole acts as a window for Severine into her own subconscious and her own sexual desire.

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This scene is immediately followed by another that shows off another Bunuelian cinematic staple, the obscured object. There are many instances in the cinema of Bunuel where objects are hidden, either literally in boxes, or figuratively where their meaning may be distorted or undercut by a mismatch with the soundtrack and image, or an unfamiliar juxtaposition. In the scene in Belle de Jour, after failing to please The Professor, Belle is presented with an Asian john who is carrying a mysterious buzzing box. Boxes and containers are important to Bunuel for their ability to conceal, but also as a symbol. The box itself is representative of the hidden depths of the subconscious, and of the potential for self-discovery for characters willing to open the box. Tellingly, Belle is willing to accept this client and his ominous box when the other prostitutes are fearful. At first she seems startled when she looks into the box, and hears the buzzing emanating from within, but she quickly finds her confidence. After their session, the john leaves, satisfied, with his strange box under his arm, while the brothel’s housekeeper, Pallas (Muni), enters the room to find it a mess, with a bloodied sheet on the floor. Belle is lying face-down on the bed, looking exhausted and unkempt, which causes Pallas to remark, “It must be hard.” To which Belle replies, lifting her head to reveal her smile of pleasure, “What would you know, Pallas?” This scene and the one immediately preceding it with the peephole depict Severine’s recognition and acceptance of her sexual desires in a decidedly Bunuelian fashion.

There were always things that I appreciated about Belle de Jour from the first time I saw it ten years ago. I think that it’s one of Bunuel’s most visually beautiful films, shot in rich Technicolor, the reds and oranges in the film pop off the screen. Catherine Deneuve’s performance has also always stood out to me. Though she was a professional actress with several high profile roles to her name already, Deneuve was only 22 when Belle de Jour was filmed, and she turns in a performance that belies her age. She deftly manages the subtle differences in personality while bouncing between her time as Severine and Belle de Jour. Although she later complained about the shoot, claiming that the final film showed more of her body than she was initially comfortable with, her unease doesn’t show in the final cut. The mixture of vulnerability and complicity that she exhibits is perfect.

With each subsequent viewing, I find more and more to enjoy about the film. Belle de Jour has many layers, and with each viewing I feel like I’m opening another layer of a nesting doll. As a more mature viewer, I can appreciate the sexual politics at play in the film, and as I’ve become more familiar with Bunuel’s cinema, I find more similarities in the film with the rest of his work. Despite this, I still don’t see Belle de Jour climbing into the ranks of my favorite Bunuel. It isn’t cutting enough for me, and it lacks some of the sinister undertones of my favorite of his films. However, it is never not an enjoyable watch, and I always come away with a new impression of the film, or a small detail that I hadn’t noticed previously, and really that should be enough to warrant continued viewings every few years.