A respite from respite films (coughHowToStealAMillion) brings one back to less confection-y, more complexity-works such as the archetypal “art film” by Francis Ford Coppola, The Conversation. Considered a masterwork of understatement, it is only so when put next to anything else Coppola has ever done. This should not be misunderstood to mean that Coppola has no gift for subtlety, or that subtlety is necessary for masterworks. Coppola likes making epics, and this film is simply not an epic. Its content, however, is huge, but Coppola keeps it reigned in like Siegfried & Roy reign in wild cats. And just like the tiger trainers, it would only be a matter of time before Coppola got eaten by one of his projects.
As discussed recently in Kieslowski’s Decalogue VI, the theme of voyeurism, the gaze, the spectacle is arguably the one most integral to cinema, since it deals with the very nature of cinema and the act of watching. This makes “small” films concerned with this theme, like Decalogue VI and The Conversation all the more delicate, since they can easily treat their subject matter naively. The Conversation could be seen as groundbreaking, in some sense, since it takes the visual theme of voyeurism and translates it to the aural: surveillance. Articles and essays on the film observe that historically, The Conversation is situated in close proximity to important cultural and political events that heightened national paranoia over surveillance. The Watergate scandal alone illustrated the impact that audio tapes could have on the highest office in the land, dwarfing Nixon to the status of a crooked, foul-mouthed liar with the push of a “play” button. Coppola takes advantage of this growing paranoia among his spectators and puts on display the cutting-edge technology that allows such surveillance and makes nearly impossible any attempt to discern it while it’s happening. Nowadays, however, the image of a wiretappers’ convention is almost comical, going as it does against the grain of the very notion of secret surveillance.
The film begins with a long take from the top of Union Square in San Francisco, which draws comparisons to scenes from The Third Man, Touch of Evil, Psycho and even Children of Men. Something about the notion of being watched demands the long take, the bird’s-eye view that slowly closes in on human ants and renders them unknowing persons. The camera eventually zooms in on Harry Caul (Gene Hackman), briefly deceiving the audience into thinking that he is the watched, when it turns out he is the watcher. Of course, this deception is itself an ironic deception, as the narrative will show. Shots in the film begin long and gradually shorten, until an effect of stifling interiority is achieved. Caul is the object of cinematic surveillance/voyeurism, a fact that becomes diegetically true, as well. Caul’s worst nightmare is that anyone know anything about him; he is consumed with such paranoia that he insists that he has no personal possessions of his own. His lack of subjective identity (restricted only to playing the saxophone and a brief fling with a woman) is transferred to his professed lack of subjective concern over his surveilled victims. He states that he cares not about those he is assigned to surveill, only that he gets a “nice fat recording.”
The Conversation reveals an ironic phenomenon within the act of watching or listening-in: that which would seem to be centripetal is in fact centrifugal. In surveillance, an image or frame would seem to capture that which is being sought or viewed. Attention would, presumably, be focused toward the center of the frame. In the same way, the cinematic image, it would seem, is no different than a painting. Painted art is known for its centripetality, drawing the eye of the viewer toward the center and often being constructed in such a way as to balance the various elements within the frame. In reality, however, and thanks to the observations of Andre Bazin and others, the cinematic image is centrifugal, always most interesting for what it does not show, always drawing attention past its own borders. These borders, classically, are blackness. The darkness of the cinema theater (or even the home theater!) gives a distinct border to the film frame, surrounding it with a nothingness, an abyss of aether that suggests literally infinite possibilities. This reality is, of course, what allows particularly for such genres as suspense, thriller, and horror. Anyone who has been frightened by a horror film knows that true terror occurs not at what is shown but at what might be shown. Hence why cheesey horror films are so bad: they put the horror image right out there, instantly disarming the spectacle of its ability to terrify.
As this is all true of the cinematic imaged, so it is with the surveilled image. The Hitchcockian suspense created by the recordings to which Caul listens lies not in what is said but rather in what what-is-said might mean or allude to; that which is beyond the aural scope or the visual frame. As words and images are signifiers, the signified is elsewhere, allusive, at some level even impossible. Caul’s disdain for the signified is both lazy and dishonest; lazy for his attempt to evade ethical concerns and dishonest because the human mind, like it or not, seems to strive after structure, order, rationality, meaning. Signifiers alone are naked, incomplete, even abject. They are the facade of a neither-nor, disturbing for what they may mean and for pretending to mean nothing. Caul would have them mean nothing or not worry over what they may signify. He is, however, as enslaved to the inevitability of the signified as anyone. This reality is evident in the technique of surveillance: stationary or swiveling cameras, automated, mindless and without prejudice for whoever or whatever might wander into their range. Haneke’s Caché brought this fact to new and more criminal levels.
The final shot of The Conversation features an optical change from the rest of the film. Heretofore, most shots within Caul’s apartment have been stationary, not unlike a hidden camera. Caul blends in perfectly with his domestic surroundings, moving through the spaces of his apartment in a chameleon-like manner. The camera cuts to different rooms like a closed-circuit television. An irony here is that what appears to be objective surveillance is in fact Caul’s own paranoia. He imagines himself always being watched, even with his apartment’s multi-deadbolts. So, throughout the film we see Caul through a series of calm, unmoving camera shots. As Caul descends into complete myopic paranoia, so nearsighted that even amateur cinematic spectators want to talk some sense to him, he tears his apartment apart. He externalized his interior state and, as others have noted, reverts to a primal state. This was already hinted at in the hotel bathroom when Caul’s toilet flushing led to a regurgitation, an abject vomiting of blood in reverse-Psycho manner. Instead of the primal subsiding as the blood goes down the drain for Norman Bates, Harry Caul’s primal state returns and is visualized by that none-more-primal appliance: the toilet. Finally, back in his apartment, Caul returns to his saxophone (a nursing baby?), and now the camera moves – slowly swiveling, automated, unbiased – but more active, more concerned than it has been throughout the film, consistent with Caul’s state of mind.
The result is an effect that has already made numerous appearances in the film: visual and aural abstraction. Earlier, Caul’s primal descent included waking up in the hotel room after an attack to an extreme closeup of a distorted television image. What appears at first to be inspiration for later Kieslowski films turns out to be an episode of The Flintstones, a primal image if there ever was one. The image begins at the level of abstraction, effectively correlating the cinematic image with Caul’s own half-conscious subjectivity. Aurally, a piano forte soundtrack throughout the film has hinted at a state of simplicity, perhaps deceptively so, since the narrative itself is headed into a most foggy direction. Between and within these piano pieces, Caul’s audio surveillance provides the soudtrack with sounds qualitatively equal to the extreme closeup of the distorted television screen. They are incomprehensible, alien to the senses, and noetically vacuous. The act of surveillance is first of all passive; information only becomes knowledge at the stage of activity. Until facts become truth, until phenomenology becomes epistemology, sensual data is an abstraction. Coppola dwells on these visual and aural images much in the same way that Kieslowski later will, perhaps especially in another film about surveillance, Red. That The Conversation finishes on a visual note of abstraction reflects Caul’s primal subjectivity, his inability to translate date into knowledge, to render a signified out of the innumerable signifiers that now surround him.
Another case-in-point of the feelgood romantic-heist-comedy genre not unlike its many predecessors and imitations, How To Steal A Million commits that infamously Hollywood cheat by inserting two gorgeous and charming leads (Peter O’Toole and Audrey Hepburn) as distractions from what would otherwise be undoubtedly a predictable hash of daddy’s little girl going after a charming bad guy who, of course, isn’t really bad at all, vindicating not only dear Audrey but countless adorers who would have gone to the nether regions and back just to watch her.
A paragon of the formulaic comedy film and hilarious “remake” of Kurosawa’s Kagemusha that can’t be besmirched, Dave proves through the comic genius of Kevin Kline and a refreshingly simple take on the political realm that formulas are followed so often because sometimes they’re just that dang good.
Fast Times At Ridgemont High is apparently the proverbial teen pic, the go-to example of that lewd and crude genre of films especially popularized in the late 70s and early 80s. Perhaps the most popular icon of the film is Sean Penn’s Spicoli, the surfer dude who exaggerates everything dense and lazy about the stereotypical Californian beach bum. Expectations will be dashed on the rocks, however, if one goes into Fast Times expecting Spicoli to be the central character of the film. Watching this movie consecutively with American Graffiti is a helpful exercise, since it does well to hold Fast Times in perspective. It may have been an important film for what it was, but its originality fades a bit when viewed next to that earlier teen movie that also aimed to depict the raucous frivolities of youth next to its harsh, all-too non-nostalgic realities. Both films, of course, end with on-screen postscripts of “where are they now?” updates. These bytes are curious, since neither film was a “true story” in any meaning of the term.
The supposed “innocence” of early 1960s youth that George Lucas was shooting for actually works when one sees Fast Times just prior to American Graffiti. Still, nostalgia never exists without naivete, or worse, a fundamentally voluntary ignorance (memory-murder, really) of the past. Lucas effectively balances his nostalgia with the pathetic realities of youth. Amy Heckerling also attempts this, but her attempts feel confused and regressive. She was attacked, it turns out, for her depictions of female nudity in the film; being a woman, how could she? Her lame defense is that her attempt to include a man in all his glory was rejected by the studio. (This is bizarre logic on Heckerling’s part, though obviously the studio as well.) Certainly as a woman, Heckerling had an opportunity her to do something more innovative with a traditionally mindless genre. Most critics believe she did move things forward with an abnormally intelligent film. Fast Times is cohesive, consistent, and funny; it has the right ingredients to be a good movie. Her appeal, however, to the male fantasy blisters the film just as consistently as its humor sustains it. When she positions the spectator to a female character, the camera moves all too quickly back to a distinctly male position, a la Mulvey. At the encounter that leads later to an abortion, Jennifer Jason Leigh’s character is the focus, but she is framed from a male point-of-view. Judge Reinhold’s fantasy of Phoebe Cates is even more shameless, and even following his humiliation, she is ignored and he is vindicated. Fast Times: one step forward, three back.
A fascinating congruity between Fast Times and its predecessor American Graffiti is the cetripetal space of youth culture. In Graffiti, the kids cruise, picking up and being picked up. Mel’s Drive-In is the meeting point and the strip is where the kids race, trash-talk, and ritualistically seek their mates for the evening. In Fast Times, the mall is the strip and the diner inside is the meeting point. An evolution takes place in the twenty years separating the eras of the two films, which gives birth to the mall, that extraordinary social space and the commercialism that keeps people together. It was inevitable that something more efficient than “the strip” come to be, and it is (and still is) the mall. Though these spaces are centripetal, there is a slingshot effect to centripetal youth spaces to which both films must concede: graduation and college. Eventually, high school ends and the next step must be taken, a step which, thanks to the educational system, means centrifugal movement. Naturally, in Graffiti this means moving to school on the east coast. Ron Howard’s and Richard Dreyfuss’ characters wrestle with this fate and come out on different ends. The slingshot effect can be resisted, and at times beaten. In these films and the world that they depict, “home” is a centrality that the youth both love and hate, embrace and reject. There is the unspoken understanding inherent in nostalgia that once the center is left, return is impossible; the centripetal gives birth to a permanent cetrifugal.
The second, and probably second-best James Bond film, From Russia With Love has a charming pizazz that compensates for fairly weak choreography and what is apparently a notable departure from Ian Fleming’s novel of the same name. It’s difficult to observe major motifs in this film, probably for a lack thereof. All that stand out are various superficial progressions that signal franchise conventions and a couple notable exceptions. A theme of vicious doubling seems to be present, first seen in the opening sequence. SPECTRE bad-guy Red Grant (Charles Shaw) hunts and is hunted by Bond, strangles him, then reveals to the audience that it wasn’t actually Bond but a lookalike. Later, “Number One” illustrates a point by showing his underlings a fish that deceives its prey by appearance, then exhausts it and eats it. Later still, two Gypsy women are forced to fight hand-to-hand for the right to marry a particular man. It almost seems that this theme is coincidental or present for its own sake rather than for a larger idea. More significantly, this film is self-consciously a film. The opening scene ends with a sort of curtain-dropping. What had seemed to be a man-on-man hunt was a theatrical dress-rehearsal; the lights come on and the audience applauds. When Bond first goes to bed with Tatiana, it turns out that they are being filmed, peeping-tom style through a one-way glass behind the bed. (The way this scene is shot, and its historical proximity to Powell/Pressburger’s film admit its debt.) It’s later revealed to Bond that they were visually violated, and the film’s last scene has Bond holding the film reel in his hand and throwing it from the Venetian gondola into the Adriatic. The Bond films all tend to cut and run, cinematically speaking, when Bond beds his woman. This early film sets the stage for such subsequent veilings, insisting that even a womanizer like 007 deserves his privacy.
“Death comes unexpectedly.” This is what I first think of when I think of Karl Malden. Reason being, as a little tyke with sisters, one ends up watching Pollyanna (with Hayley Mills) many times over. Malden stood out in that film as a timid pastor/priest whose support from the town matraiarchs gave him a boldness at the pulpit to proclaim lots of bad news to his congregants, such as the statement above. That character’s transformation into a less timid but “gladder” person, affected positively by Mills’ Pollyanna, felt inevitable in light of Malden’s always loveable persona. Incidentally, his role as a priest again in Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront was subtly nuanced enough to keep the poor guy from being stereotyped. That, along with playing sexually frustrated characters in Kazan’s other films A Streetcar Named Desire and Baby Doll. Dying at the ripe old age of 97, Malden represents one of the last traces of old Hollywood, of the just-post-golden years of American cinema. He was sort of an antithesis to the like of Robert Mitchum, Glenn Ford, and Kirk Douglas. A humble supporting actor who always forced the stars to work harder, his presence was assuring to the audience and instantly redeeming, no matter how Kazan-esque the film might be.
For being based on (and according to Akira Kurosawa, the same movie as) Yojimbo, A Fistful of Dollars contrasts with Kurosawa’s film in important ways. It is no The Magnificent Seven, thankfully. Fistful can be lauded for at least “doing its own thing” in a respectable way instead of simply catering to the Hollywood formula as The Magnificent Seven did, obliterating Seven Samurai in the process. The samurai banded together cohesively and fought for honor, while the cowboys begrudgingly fought together to build up their egos – especially those of the actors playing them. What goes around comes around, presumably, as John Ford’s American Western traversed the Pacific to Japan where Kurosawa reinvented it, and before it could be called a “noodle Western,” Sergio Leone snatched it away to Italy, stuck Clint Eastwood in it, Anglicized the names of all the Italians involved (including himself), and somehow walked away with a new genre: the “spaghetti Western.” This is both fair and unfair: “fair” in that Leone’s film is not Kurosawa’s and needs to be differentiated; “unfair” in that it had appeared to be Leone’s invention, and no one would have suspected that an Italian film set in the American West could have a Japanese samurai movie as its main source. Perhaps no one would have, had Kurosawa not sued Leone. What goes around comes around.
Various social, ethnic, and cultural identities set “the man with no name” apart from “Sanjuro.” (For the sake of clarity, Eastwood’s character will henceforth be named “Eastwood” and Mifune’s character “Mifune.”) Consider Mifune in Yojimbo. He is a ronin, a wandering, masterless samurai who happens to enter the warring town after tossing a stick into the air to decide which fork in the road he should take. This action immediately defines Mifune’s character as unafraid to submit himself to chance. The camera identifies him with the towering mountains behind him and his posture is likened to that of a ferocious cat; his playfulness comes out when he throws the stick into the air and follows its direction. As he enters the town, his status is that of a ronin. The townspeople know this and therefore know, at least generally, his abilities. Ethnically, there’s no difference. Even culturally, all Mifune need do is understand the context of this town, which he is able to do quickly, thanks to the man who feeds him rice and sake.
Eastwood, on the other hand, is not only the man with no name but with no identity other than the ethnic. He is an American in Mexico, a fact that demarcates him on more than a merely local level with the townspeople. Westerns have utilized a particular social identity many times over for its protagonists, one that gives them power and authority not unlike that of Mifune in Yojimbo. This identity is that of the retired sheriff, and the most famous example is probably Wyatt Earp. Leone sets up Eastwood with little discernible background. All we discover at one point is that Eastwood’s altruism toward an unfortunate woman is fueled by a woman in his past. Leone’s insistence at having an American star as the main character may have been motivated chiefly for financial gain, but the effect within the film is ethnic superiority as Eastwood becomes a new kind of figure: an American nomad, not a settler but unsettled, not at home in American territory (presumably because of a seedy past?) or in Mexico. His garb is hybrid, wearing many of the marks of an American Western character but with a poncho covering most of it. It’s as if he’s adopted a new non-American identity, albeit temporarily – the poncho is conveniently removable. On top of that, there’s the hair. While it may seem a trite point to make, the significance of hair in the cinema has finally been demonstrated relatively recently (see Travolta’s and Jackson’s characters in Pulp Fiction). In a land of black mustaches, Eastwood bears a half-beard, another neither-nor aspect of his person/a. At some point in many Westerns (even noir-Westerns such as Treasure of the Sierra Madre), main characters get a much-needed shave. Eastwood’s beard doesn’t seem to grow in this film, however, remaining at that in-between stage.
Eastwood isn’t the only character in Fistful with contempt for the past; his enemies demonstrate their own rejection of the ways of the classical warrior by taking target practice on an old suit of armor. In this regard, Fistful and Yojimbo are fundamentally similar. The antagonist in the latter film introduces a pistol for the first time, rejecting the traditional sword as weapon of choice. Mifune’s prowess with blades (samurai sword and throwing knives) overcomes the Modernism signified by the gun-wielding bad buy. Agility and skill defeat the much lazier though more technologically advanced weapon of the handgun. In Fistful, Eastwood is able to approach his enemy at a sashay pace, fearlessly demanding that his opponent aim for the chest with his more advanced and lethal Winchester rifle. Once out of bullets, Eastwood reveals a plate of iron under his poncho, identifying him with the classical knight in a suit of armor. Though not as agile as Mifune, both of these characters, heretofore having no past, embrace their heritage in order to triumph over their foes. Interestingly, however, Mifune utilizes traditional combat offensively while Eastwood uses it defensively. Watching both films next to each other renders Mifune’s victor impressive and Eastwood’s a bit of a cheat, though a resourceful one.