31 March 2011

Cop (1988)

Joanie Pratt (Randi Brooks): Have you had breakfast yet?
Lloyd Hopkins (James Woods): I haven't been to bed yet.
Joanie: If you come over you can have a little of both.
Lloyd: I thought you didn't like to talk to cops.
Joanie: Who said anything about talking?
Lloyd: What's your address?
Policeworkprivatelife, where's the line? When not having sex with his wife, which he often doesn't, Lloyd has sex with women on the periphery of his detective work, as a time saving measure. He's a work obsessed cop, the type who develops an unprofessional monomania and bends the law when necessary. He has a very high arrest record, so people respect him, including higher-up Dutch Peltz (Charles Durning). Lloyd is just so damn good (or is he, if you know what I mean).

I'd like to know the roots of this type of film and character, but I'm not sure how to investigate its history. Touch of Evil, Orson Welles 1958, is a very important and early example in the film world, and Jim Thompson's 1952 novel The Killer Inside Me is a remarkable development in shaded cop figures (though not the same; I'd have dinner with Lloyd, but not Lou). I'm not sure if those are the earliest or ground-laying examples because I'm not an aficionado of crime films or novels. There are people who are experts in this field, and I'd like to meet one and ask them. I will look for the loner in the bar, wearing a fedora, and ask that person. If that person happens to be James Ellroy, he'll ask me if I know that Cop is an adaptation of his 1984 novel Blood on the Moon, and I'll say yes. The film is adapted and written by James B. Harris, who was a producer for Stanley Kubrick on The Killing (and Paths of Glory and Lolita). The Killing has a corrupt cop but not a questionably corrupt cop.

Although I believe cops like this exist in real life, and Michael Mann told me they take purer forms, I don't believe they exist like depicted in Cop, which is very sensationalistic and even kind of goofy. For example, the killer is a poet who leaves notes like "Next class - phys ed/Then you'll be dead." Movies like this can be a lot of fun, but also some of the goofiness is poorly done and perhaps unintentional. More than anything else, more than the clich├ęs, the cardboard characters, the cheap dramatics, the easy laughs, more than anything it bothers me that a major dramatic moment takes place in a phone booth.
The above depicts the revelation of the true identity of the killer. It's in a fucking phone booth, over the phone. The scene may have been taken directly from the book, but it shouldn't have been, because even if it works in the book there's no way this is a good movie scene. If anticlimax is its intention it comes off as disingenuous given the loud dramatic notes that ring throughout the movie. How a movie with lines like "I don't give a shit if you two were fucking each other in a bathtub of cocaine" can come to make such a bad decision is beyond me.

29 March 2011

Mogambo

Linda Nordley (Grace Kelly): Feeling down darling? It must be those shots we took. The doctor said they sometimes cause a reaction.
Victor Marswell (Clark Gable): What shots?
Donald Nordley (Donald Sinden): Yesterday, at the settlement, the tsetse fly injections.
Victor: Tsetse fly? Your letter didn't say anything about going up into tsetse fly country.
Linda: We understood we had to go through that territory to get to the gorillas.
Victor: Not necessarily. And why gorillas?
Donald: It's a pet theory of mine. I want to study gorillas, their family life and so on. Even get some of their vocal sounds on a tape recorder I brought with me. It's a theory on the derivative evolution -
Victor (interrupting): I'm sorry, I wouldn't understand, and again, to be quite frank, it's a long and difficult safari. It doesn't fit in with my schedule.

Victor Marswell isn't interested in much more than his manliness, and Mogambo presumes that women, for example Ava Gardener and Grace Kelly, when confronted with this man, are unable to resist him. Contemporary social and cultural norms of manliness and man beauty are substituted for believable development of sexual tension, and a then-popular, widespread conception of Gable as attractive is necessary in order to understand the romantic triangle.

John Ford's Mogambo, 1953, is a remake of Victor Fleming's Red Dust, 1932; John Lee Mahin worked as a writer on both, from an earlier play by Wilson Collison. Clark Gable, somewhat ridiculously, stars in both films. Red Dust is a lean 83 minute film that still holds up, last time I checked, last year on my birthday for a rubber plantation double-feature with White Woman. Red Dust is pre-code and pre-manners, the kind of early Hollywood movie run by lunatics and preposterous behavior (the kind that's a lot of fun in my opinion).

Much of Mogambo has lost its flavor over time. For a number of reasons it was tough for me to think of Victor as heroically manly. First, he flirts with women using corny, transparent sexual innuendos. Coded sexual language is a familiar Hollywood device, but here the dialogue is strained and uninspired. It's just not sexy. Red Dust's famous Jean Harlow bath scene is fun, sexy, and surprising; in Mogambo, Ava Gardner's shower scene is pretend turn-on. Second, his Africa is both real and fake, on-set and on-location, a mixture of rear projections and cut-aways.
It's only real when it's safe, like when it's baby elephants. It feels like Victor lives in safety, which he does. Perhaps Mogambo's 116 min running time is a result of so much Africa documentary footage. Exciting on its own, it doesn't manage to add truthfulness to the movie's love story, and the worlds never converge, even when they're supposed to, for example when the gorilla charges. Third, the fiftyish Clark Gable did not win my heart, personally.

Ford's intention must have been to use the exotic as an intensifying backdrop. This would have worked if the love story itself had reached exotic heights. It remains standard love story fair, if not worse. I felt bad at the end, for everyone. Linda's husband's smartness and manners aren't enough to keep her, he isn't exciting enough, and when she wants to enjoy dirty hut sex with Victor she does. When Victor feels bad for Donald and gives Linda back, he decides to marry Eloise (Gardner), and Eloise is more than happy to be asked back.

There's a reality to the outcome that I respect Ford for observing, and the story and its consequences are basically the same as Red Dust. The difference is the bloated running time, and the visions and sounds of Africa (Ford used tribal music in place of a studio score). These are efforts to make the story something it's not, to transform it to a larger scale.
Overall it's a melodramatic vision of a standard drama, but maybe because it's Ford, there are also inspired moments. Like when Eloise first leaves on the boat, seen above, filled with nice little details, including the leopard in the box. In the next scene Eloise paces back and forth in front of the leopard, and the leopard paces along with her. That's charming. The moment Donald approaches Linda and wraps a scarf around her neck, clutching it, and the only noise is the wind, is a sexy thirty second scene. The shining moments are nice, and I wish there had been more.

27 March 2011

Waterloo Bridge (1931) and Red-Headed Woman

Roy (on the right): It's about a girl.
Roy's stepfather, Major Wetherby: About a what?
Roy: Well, about a girl.
Major Wetherby (to mother): I don't know what he's talking about.
Roy's mother (o.s.): A girl, darling, you know, a girl. A girl.
Major Wetherby: Yeah, yeah, yes, I know, a girl is. Well, what about it, boy?

Roy (Douglass Montgomery) meets Myra (Mae Clark) on Waterloo Bridge during an air raid, each helping an elderly lady recover potatoes fallen from her basket. Fourteen days before he returns to the trenches, Roy, nineteen years old, falls for Myra, a sometimes chorus girl and hooker. He intends to marry.

"Identification...not only connects us to the protagonist onscreen but, at a deeper level, through our implicit understanding of cinematic language, to a basic sense of ourselves as cohesive subjects." - Todd Haynes introducing his book of screenplays for Far From Heaven, Safe, and Superstar.

Waterloo Bridge, a 1931 pre-code hyperdrama, is an early film by the forty-one year old James Whale. He directs with an eye for behavioral nuance, exhibiting an unusually prominent and sincere quest for the truth about his characters. There's more than mischief to the film.
There's mischief too. The narrative sometimes makes sharp-turns, or perhaps even performs a figure-8. It moves with surprising speed, passing through bouts of comedy, stretches of sympathetic character observation, and bursts of cinematic jubilance. When I watch pre-code films I wonder about the logic of the audience members' lives, so near the center of the depression. This is a narrative of hope struggle and strength, still questioning and being hurt by malevolent interior forces, not yet arrived at the cynicism of film noir, but headed for it, headed for worse, unaware.
Roy, if you can believe it, doesn't suspect Myra's "private income." He's unspoiled by reckless living, somewhat innocent. He's brave, but knows little of his enemy's nature. Myra knows the enemy well.

Whale shows deep concern for the nature of her dignity. She knows Roy's money comes from sweetness, which makes it different, but she wonders how to have a pure relationship with Roy.

Whale's characters, even when reciting pat, over-written lines, or under-performing as actors, maybe especially then, are connected with a pulsing sense of life. Curiosity in the true emotions of his characters brings him to explore the fringe details of their lives.
Backgrounds are often animated by gardeners pruning trees, or passing milk carts, everywhere the sense of the film opening into the lives of the living.
Were the lives of Waterloo Bridge's contemporaries as capricious and turbulent as the film, torn by internal and external forces, and are our lives now? The movie ends as it must, as truthfully as it could for its time. It might surprise you to know its final moment. I'd like to watch the 1940 post-code remake, and 1956's Gaby, to see how they handle some of the same questions Whales does here.
Myra's reluctance to legitimize the fiscal-sexual power of her femininity adds another layer to her determination. She wants to believe it's possible to preserve her personal integrity, and to establish customized boundaries based on life experiences and realistic expectations. The second time Roy offered her free money, and she attempted to refuse him, reminded me of a scene in the recent My Joy, a film separated by 70 years from this one.

Myra prostitutes herself for a degree of independence, and draws lines between her profession and romantic love, while Jean Harlow, in Red-Headed Woman, and Barbara Stanwyck, in Baby Face, each play a secretary who enters the pants of the man in the top floor office, in order to climb rungs on a social ladder from which they're otherwise excluded. They seek not nights with the men, not only a month's rent, but full lives of luxury and class.
There's mischief too, and open enjoyment of fulfilled desires. Harlow's journey in particular seems entirely joy-focused, as Red-Headed Woman deviates from the other two movies by never forcing the protagonist to change or learn from conflict. She jumps from one bed to the next without a glance back, either because she chooses not to confront the inner toll, or because for her there isn't an inner toll; it's an easy choice between gutter and glamor, and Harlow's Lil has freed herself from the social responsibilities of love and sex.

In this way Lil reminds me of Boudu from Jean Renoir's Boudu Saved from Drowning, 1932. Homeless Boudu was taken in by the wealthy but rejected the prospect of change, and the film rejected the idea that Boudu must undergo a transformation or epiphany because of his contact with high society and comfort. Boudu, in the end, is Boudu, and Lil, in the end, is Lil.

09 March 2011

District B13, District 13: Ultimatum, and Taken

Sometimes, while watching Pierre Morel's Taken, I felt a sense of magic. Not about the movie, but about me. I felt like a soothsayer, because I knew what was going to happen next and what was going to be said next (most people will), especially in those beginning thirty minutes, before the daughter is kidnapped, when the characters and their relationships are being set up. I'm not just being an asshole, I'm also being sincere: there was truly an instance in which I mouthed the dialogue along with the actress (Famke Janssen), despite never having seen the film or read the script.

It's clear that Besson now concocts whole films around a handful of attractive and sensational elements, and then hires a screenwriter to attach bullshit and perfunctory story formulas. That's too bad, on the one hand, because I'm speaking about the same Besson who once gave us better films like Le Dernier Combat (which had the courage to be what these films should be - without dialogue; some action movies in the future, I hope, will be more like silent films), The Big Blue, La Femme Nikita ... well you know who Besson is. In District 13: Ultimatum's blu-ray special features there's an interview with Cyril Raffaelli, who had a starring role in both District B13 movies and also served as fight choreographer. In this interview he's describing a moment in which he discussed his idea for a fight scene with Besson, who seemed pleased with what he was hearing. "Just so you know," Besson told him, "in this scene you're going to be holding a Van Gogh."

It's pretty great, on the other hand, because Besson still wants to create cinematic special-worlds, engineered for the delight of an appreciative audience. The action moments of Taken are when Morel shines the most, naturally, and I don't mind the way he emphasizes cinematic propulsion over continuity and logic. He edits purely for the sensational delight of the audience, and a late car chase and fight scene were expressionistic and thrilling rather than realistic and detailed. I don't mind that at all. He succeeds in engaging the audience because he thinks as an audience member seeking escapism, exaggerated emotions ("I don't like realistic movies," a friend once told me, "no, real life is boring enough.") and heightened experiences.

But in my opinion if you're going to exaggerate, and I've said this before, exaggerate all the fucking way. District B13, for example, is indeed a better movie than Taken. Not because it's smarter, no no no, but because it succeeds in capturing the bliss of decadent fantasy. It's as if the French found an abandoned Escape from New York narrative vehicle, hot-wired the thing, and drove it into 21st century Paris. Glorious! The extent of the liberation you allow your imagination is the difference between a low or high-brow film and a middle-brow film, and middle-brow films are worthless in every way except generating ticket sales and quickly becoming forgotten.

This is also why I think District 13: Ultimatum is better than District B13, even though I fell asleep three times while watching it(?!). District B13 used actor Bibi Naceri (who plays the crime lord in the movie) as co-screenwriter, and he and Besson designed some story about, um, revenge and valor, things like that. No co-screenwriter is listed for Ultimatum, and themes are borrowed from the original. Based on the Raffaelli story about the Van Gogh, and the experience of having watched the movie, I'd speculate they made the shit up while they went along, i.e. action took precedence over story. That's how they sometimes work in Hong Kong too, and I've come to appreciate the method. It allows for the superficial elements of the movie to shine, as it should.

General opinion seems to be that District B13 is the better movie. That's probably because its narrative makes more sense, relatively, and so its action has more meaning or impact. Get out of town. The meaning of the District B13 movies is action, and its true themes are punches, kicks, and parkour. Ultimatum clearly better develops these themes. The story, as it is, is ten times more confounding, outrageous, and unbelievable; as it should be. If I'm going to have a conversation with a crazy person, I want to have a conversation with the craziest goddamn person in the city, personally.