Carole Lombard, cinema, Claude Chabrol, Douce Violence, Elke Sommers, Ernst Lubitsch, Extract, film, Fred Zinnemann, Gary Cooper, Grace Kelly, High Noon, Jack Benny, Jason Bateman, Joe Dante, Kristen Wiig, Les cousins, Max Pécas, Mike Judge, Mila Kunis, movies, Paul Brickman, Risky Business, Small Soldiers, Sweet Ecstasy, To Be Or Not To Be, Tom Cruise, western, WWII
Les cousins (dir. Claude Chabrol, 1959) – If only the title had “dangereux” tacked onto the end. The film has some very swirly moments, little celebrations of freedom that align the free-spiritedness of the filmmaker (who was helping inaugurate the nouvelle vague) and the characters, whose partying Parisian lifestyle opens up lots of new possibilities for them at the beginning and then closes them right up at the end. You appreciate the way the spaces end up co-mingling, as the two cousins start out with happily separate lives and move toward a weird enmeshment that overtakes spatial boundaries. Music accomplishes this powerfully. Near the beginning, when Charles goes into his room, we get a certain ambiance that corresponds to his mood and outlook. When we cut to Paul in the main living area of the apartment, we get Paul’s attitude, and the two personalities are distinguished largely by the different types of music that play in their respective rooms. Our attention is drawn to Mozart, then to Wagner records that become the diegetic soundtrack to the parties that Paul throws. This music overtakes any spatial boundary that gives Charles his own privacy, his own ability to recoil from the worldly pleasures surrounding him back to his own shell where, fittingly, he spends much time writing letters to his mother. His room is a kind of womb, originally, a place of quiet and comfort. As Paul (via Wagner) takes over Charles’ lifestyle, so also over his preoccupations. The lack of a boundary separating the two cousins plays out in tragic ways, of course most emphatically through a girl. There seems to be the suggestion that Paul and Charles are two sides of the same coin, a suggestion supported by the love triangle they compose with Florence. With Chabrol, it seems one needs to mention the Hitchcockian element. It’s odd here, present but very interspersed, playing out like a carefree New Wave movie with these moments of plot-driven suspense, features that New Wave films tend to discard in order to toy with the audience. The alarm-clock gun early in the film stands out enough that it’s clear to the viewer that it will feature importantly to the film’s climax, and sure enough it does. Once the climax subsides, however, we have something unlike Hitchcock and more akin to Renoir, circa The Rules of the Game. The hint that we’ve been watching a moral tale comes to the forefront, and we fade out on the curious image of the Wagner record concluding and the needle ascending from the turntable. As if to say, the enmeshment is over along with the party.
Small Soldiers (dir. Joe Dante, 1998) – What, you didn’t see this coming after the Chabrol? Revisited this, inspired by pleasant teenage memories back in the late nineties. The nineties, incidentally, had a cinematic style all their own, especially when it came to popular family fare. Watch something like this film, Tommy Boy, Dave, Mrs. Doubtfire, Home Alone, Liar Liar, they all have this utopian feel to them at the beginning that guarantees a happy ending. The “feel” comes from a pan-happy and ever-sweeping camera, lots of outdoor shots, and upbeat orchestral music on the soundtrack. It’s “utopian” in the sense that things are very well established and just fine overall, which sets the stage for fun and hilarity. A world like this can only give birth to adventure or comedy narratives. Perhaps some of the critical dislike for Small Soldiers stems from the unexpected disconnect between this happy beginning and the level of violence that ends of taking place in the story. But this isn’t what’s so interesting about Small Soldiers. What’s more interesting is the scathing indictment it launches on corporations. This was a minority voice in the nineties, by and large, and a particularly odd ideology to come out of a Hollywood studio. Although, granted, it was distributed in part by Dreamworks, which was still something of a fledgling at the time (even if Spielberg was a part-owner). In an early scene, Dennis Leary’s ultra-capitalistic CEO character takes the reigns and identifies himself with the soldiers, which the geeky designer (David Cross!) had not intended to be “good guys.” Leary’s character then vilifies the Gorgonite action figures, which the designer intended to be a noble race of otherworldly creatures. The battle that follows, ostensibly between the soldiers and the Gorgonites, is clearly between corporate American and small-business America. The battleground is on domestic turf, starting in, literally, a small business being shut out by large companies and moving to the home of the small business owner. (A disgruntled delivery man even makes a gripe about the lack of homebrew or microbrew beer available!) Nowadays, this message is so common that Hollywood does its best to avoid it. More often, despite the commonplace that small business is better than big business, Hollywood cranks out movies that perpetuate the strikingly conservative idea that bigger is better. After all, we wouldn’t have spectacular movies without the “bigger.” The fact that the soldiers in Small Soldiers clearly align themselves with the US military is also telling. The character that Tommy Lee Jones voices screws up all of the famous quotes from military history (“Damn the torpedoes or give me death!”), relying on history even as he revises it. This is a common problem with conservatives; just as many progressives refuse to learn from the past, many conservatives fail to get the past right. The film displays an ideology and a strong critique of its counter-ideology. The Gorgonites, despite being programmed to lose and believing they will, nevertheless participate in combat for the ultimate goal of peace. This seems less to be a statement about warfare than about capitalism and entrepreneurship. The powers-that-be seem to make it impossible for the little guys–pre-determined to fail–to thrive. When they somehow do thrive, things are better off. A last note: the casting of the toys further supports the subversion of established powers. The soldiers are voiced mostly by old cast members from The Dirty Dozen, sort-of heroes who were better known for being convicts locked up for life. The Gorgonites are mostly voiced by the cast of Spinal Tap, known for being an unpopular band with a very strong cult following. So while the soldiers have “criminals” voicing them, the Gorgonites are voiced by a nearly-forgotten but beloved rock band.
High Noon (dir. Fred Zinnemann, 1952) – Without knowing much about Westerns, we’ll give this a go. (Always good to break out of genre criticism, anyway.) High Noon is done in real time, something that has since become gimmicky but that is done to great effect here. The casting here is right on, just as it was to have Gary Cooper as Sergeant York a little over a decade earlier. Here he plays a town marshal who desperately needs backup before a vengeful showdown with an old enemy and his posse takes place, you guessed it, right around midday. The resurgence of the past is the main source of suspense here. The above description of Small Soldiers, for example, discusses how that film (and others like it) sets its stage at the beginning be creating a paradisical world in which not much could go that wrong. There is no past of real consequence like there is in High Noon. The viewer gets the impression of reading an epilogue without having read the main novel on which it’s based. So much back story is filled in as we slowly understand why the marshal is up against so much and why the town won’t help him. Makes one think of the noir film Out of the Past, minus the flashbacks. Other elements are also great. When the judge gets ready to leave town near the beginning, he takes down the American flag hanging in his office (removing the sense of national belonging and isolating the town to its own, lone entity) as well as the symbolic scales of justice that had been on display there (removing, well, justice). Details like these render the image of the lone marshal standing on the main drag of town, awaiting his enemy, all the more supported and meaningful. Also, and again without knowing a ton about Westerns, it seems significant and unusual that the marshal’s wife has such an important role to play. Women often seem sidelined in Western narratives, useful mainly as mise-en-scene that the hero leaves behind to get the job done and hysterical voices that cry out for someone to “remember the children!” Here she helps…but is it important that she stands by her man by shooting another in the back?
To Be Or Not To Be (dir. Ernst Lubitsch, 1942) – As has been discussed elsewhere here, there is a commonly accepted attitude toward WWII and the Holocaust that few mainstream media outlets transgress. This posture, in general, is one of deep reverence, seriousness, and even ritualistic homage toward those who either worked toward Europe’s liberation or died as a result of Nazism. Despite apparently violating the attitude toward the beginning and intermittently throughout, Lubitsch’s film clearly does not. Instead, it stands as one of a number of really interesting comedy-drama films made during the war but just early enough that the huge atrocities of the Holocaust weren’t yet widely known. (Chaplin famously said he wouldn’t have made The Great Dictator in 1941 had he known fully what Hitler was up to.) It’s fascinating how a film like this one, or even the much more recent Roberto Benigni film Life Is Beautiful pendulates between the poles of comedy and melodrama. The tone in To Be Or Not To Be noticeably changes when war breaks out. The announcement of the news that German forces have invaded Poland without a declaration of war is chilling, even after the players in the film try to stage a theatrical farce about Hitler and company. Still, there’s that pretty distinct Lubitsch-style of comedy throughout the movie that pokes fun at the Nazis as a bunch of warmongering nincompoops. If only. Lubitsch, as a Berlin-born German-American director, had the guts to offer his traditional antidote to the silliness of human existence (humor) in a way that also envisioned Allied victory, offering a narrative that has the Polish/British joint effort winning the battle, one step closer to winning the war. It’s also noteworthy how the film bounces back and forth from foregrounding the war narrative and that of the unconsummated marital infidelity. That’s how the film begins and ends, and much of the drama in between is peppered with grumblings from Jack Benny’s character and nervous glances from Carole Lombard’s character. In so doing, the film renders the silly melodrama of mundane life intermingled with the (also sometimes silly) drama of the war. This sense of sober perspective avoids both problematic ends of the spectrum: the sappy schmaltz of amping up viewer emotions about the war and, on the other end, the flippant refusal to stop joking and take seriously a grim situation. Life is rarely so one-sided, and even when it seems to be so, wisdom demands balance.
Extract (dir. Mike Judge, 2010) – Judge’s stuff is made for laughs and audience enjoyment, but then, a lot of stuff is. Extract switches the Office Space formula around, this time helping you sympathize with the boss instead of the employees. Lots of funny moments, some holes in the story, but hey. What stands out so much in Judge’s work is the very male universe he constructs. Granted, most people are some form of idiot other than the main character (who’s at least idiotic, and also always male), but the roles of women are really small and limited. Even the stupid male gigolo in the movie seems more interesting than the most interesting woman, probably Kristen Wiig’s character. Just when you think Mila Kunis’ character might be getting interesting, the movie totally rolls over for the male viewer’s fantasy, and she up and sleeps with Jason Bateman’s character. (This was one of the plot holes, which was a hinge that could have been exploited for something interesting.) Anyway, that’s it.
Douce violence (dir. Max Pécas, 1962) – Thankfully, the second and final outing from Pécas has now been fulfilled, according to the list. These feel made for MST3K, which goes to show the mode in which I’m watching them. This one differs from Daniella By Night in being set chiefly on or near the water. Elke Sommers again headlines the film, which is a celebration of her physique, insofar as the 16mm-grain print allows it. And again, we’re in the early years of the nouvelle vague, but it hardly shows here aside from the content of the film; formally, someone’s still learning his craft, it seems. Possible inspiration for Dr. No is here in a beach scene. Other than that, and although it seems unfair to generalize it so, it screens a lot like a textbook teenage party movie. There’s the obligatory fire on a boat during a wannabe orgy, and when everyone escapes in life rafts, they realize they left Elke behind all tied up in a bikini. The heroism that follows is the stuff of dime-a-dozen adolescent fantasies. Slightly of interest, the guy doesn’t get Girl A. He has to settle for Girl B, but that makes him happy. Can figure out no real reason why this happens, except possibly to maintain the image of Elke Sommers as out of reach from regular guys.
Risky Business (dir. Paul Brickman, 1983) – Although it makes movements away from satire, it’s probably fairly called a satire. It isn’t The Graduate, but it wants to be. The absurdity of the situations demands some kind of label, and even though the film seems to celebrate its main character’s moments of vice and depravity, it also highlights the sheer impossibility of it all by amplifying it to insane levels. A high school senior becoming a pimp, and right out of his parents’ own high suburban home while they’re away on vacation? Certainly you have to love the violation of urban-suburban boundaries and all the moral transgressions that go along with it. Havoc is wreaked when we disrespect society’s arbitrary (that is, economically-driven) borders. And leave it to a sexually frustrated, repressed, white high school boy to make the phone call that gets it all started.