Alfred Hitchcock, bioethics, Cary Grant, cinema, Days of Heaven, film, Gene Wilder, genetics, James Stewart, Jeremy Renner, Kim Novak, Madeline Kahn, Marc Forster, Mel Brooks, movies, North By Northwest, Terrence Malick, The Bourne Legacy, The Kite Runner, Tony Gilroy, Vertigo, Young Frankenstein
The Bourne Legacy (dir. Tony Gilroy, 2012) – It rewards fluency in the first three, although not in a deeply satisfying way. It shows itself as something different not just in terms of the main character being replaced/absent. The camera work is wholly different, losing much of the shaky, handheld style for something much more firmly grounded. We even get a lot of those swirly establishing shots at the beginning that offer a sense of space and orientation. Pacing is slower, scenes are drawn out, but above all: drugs. After his thriller/satire on the drug industry in Duplicity, Gilroy’s back at it here, injecting a drug element into the whole Bourne series in a pretty bold way. Turns out these guys are genetically engineered to be physically and mentally superior. While this might seem to add a science-fiction element to the series, it’s employed in Bourne‘s typically realist style. And aside from the fact that it feels like a cheap way to up the ante in this fourth installment of the series, it takes the plot in a pretty different direction. We end up rooting for the rogue agent–not who just wants to get away, or get revenge, or get justice, or whatever–but who wants to enhance his DNA in such a way that he’ll no longer be dependent on mind- and body-altering drugs. This makes him slightly more than a junkie. Very interestingly from a bioethical point of view, the film embraces the pragmatic goal of the agent genetically and artificially amping himself up. In terms of bioethics, no questions are asked other than, “Can it be done?” And so, once again Hollywood provides the ultra-fictional narratives that subliminally inform these debates, outrageously implying that genetic enhancements are a necessity of the modern world. The films fail to note that this is our equivalent of Cold War angst and the response: building a bigger bomb than the other guy. (Incidentally, this attitude is alive and well: see Iron Man.) And since seeing a movie in a theater seems to demand a more evaluative assessment: this was pretty weak. All those whoa-awesome moments in the first three Bourne films, they don’t happen here at all. Surprised they couldn’t do better than this.
The Kite Runner (dir. Marc Forster, 2007) – A story about stories and storytelling. The immigrant experience, particularly from the far east, is worthy of exploration and has been done well by the likes of Mira Nair (see Monsoon Wedding). This one avoids a lot of the problems of Hollywood films made in/about Asian cultures (see Slumdog Millionaire) by presenting a main character who is complex, and by acknowledging but not over-politicizing very political issues (in that quintessentially Western kind of way). Like that incredibly over-appreciated piece of colonialist cinema (Slumdog), this one does focus (at first) on children, to the point of displaying unspeakable carnage committed against children. This, likely, is a trope. The best way to convince Western audiences that the Asian continent has some serious darkness is to show children getting raped or getting their eyes gauged out. Is that normative in those parts of Asia? Perhaps. (If it is normative, it’s doubtful that Hollywood movies are going to do the best job of telling us it is.) Is that type of experience depicted in an honest way toward worthy goals? Perhaps sometimes. It seems less likely that this is a trope within films local to those parts of the world. The probably absence of child rape scenes in those films, too, may be noble or not. Anyway, it’s worth observing. As for The Kite Runner, it does lots of stuff well: a solid sense of political and social context before and after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, a good supporting cast of characters who function as concrete archetypes against which the main character can establish a deeper complexity, and a redemptive narrative that brings things full circle while taking the life of its main character into a brave new world. Most of all, it’s great to see a Hollywood film directed by a Westerner about an Afghan immigrant to the US that actually addresses aspects of the immigrant experience in a sympathetic and complex way.
Young Frankenstein (dir. Mel Brooks, 1974) – It would be best to watch the original Frankenstein and then watch this one more closely, since it’s got nods to the first film all over the place. Love how this film mocks psychoanalysis. It’s so much about sexuality and repression and death that it’s not about those things. Frederick is engaged to his fiancée who won’t let him touch her, and by the end all the characters are half-mad (except for the monster) and in bed together. In so doing, Brooks shows how easy it is to show how much of human madness is associated with an animal-like sex drive. (If only it were merely animal-like.) Maybe it’s noteworthy that the two more monstrous characters in the film — the monster (Peter Boyle) and Eyegor (Marty Feldman) — are the only two who seem to acknowledge the presence of the camera. Lots of winks, as if the only characters we can really sympathize with in this insane world are the established weirdos. The “regular” humans are the real nuts. It’s good that Young Frankenstein rarely gets lined up as just another one of Mel Brooks’ genre spoofs, since it’s better than that.
Vertigo (dir. Alfred Hitchcock, 1958) – I had a pretty long, halfway decent paragraph here with lots of thoughts I wish I still had access to. A family member closed my browser and deleted it all.
North By Northwest (dir. Alfred Hitchcock, 1959) – It’s clear that Hitch set out to do something different with this one, something spectacular (i.e., pure spectacle) dodging a lot of the theory-laden material that preceded it (e.g., Vertigo). The Cold War element jumped out this time, with a wealthy everyman (Cary Grant) insisting that a single life is worth more than the moral sacrifices the US government might have been making in order to win the Cold War. To this the CIA “professor” responds that “we” (the US) are in fact losing the Cold War, a funny little example of the paranoia that pervaded the culture at the time. As for the Mount Rushmore scene, it’s really hard not to close-read Mount Rushmore itself. What in the world? If Barthes had anything right about death in the photograph, then the manipulation of a massive piece of rock into the likeness of national figures, glorifying a legacy of presidential figures, is bound to do nothing if not cement the inevitability of the nation’s demise. It’s not hard to look at Rushmore with the eyes of the future, in the way that we now look at the ruins of Rome. But enough of that. The chase that takes place in North By Northwest across the heads and faces of these likenesses is at least as interesting as the likenesses themselves. Considering the faces as already-dead, forced memorializations upon a natural landscape, the threat the nation faced through the Cold War is rendered truly terrifying as expert spies attempt to steal valuable national secrets from an (ostensibly) average American man who was yanked into a world of lies and danger against his will and fundamentally violating his worldview. To say that this happens against the background of US nationalism couldn’t be rendered more literal. By making it so literal, it becomes almost the stuff of satire or black comedy, perhaps foreshadowing Dr. Strangelove a few years later. Further, the cropdusting scene maintains the paranoia. In the middle of nowhere, in Middle America, in the heartland where the most American of Americans do their grunt labor (or so they say), we have the Reds infiltrating a quintessential vehicle (a cropdusting plane) of American labor and ingenuity. If you’re not safe in this context, or on Mount Rushmore, where in America, let alone in the world, are you safe? A few years earlier in The Trouble With Harry, Hitchcock already pulled back the veil to reveal the dark underbelly of American angst, festering in our own backyard during the optimistic Ike years. Here, he exposes the national vulnerability of our own excess and willful ignorance, but in such a way as to make the whole thing rather silly.
Days of Heaven (dir. Terrence Malick, 1978) – In this film, images happen to you. They point at you and are at you. Wide landscapes are everywhere, with characters scattered throughout the fields and the sky looming overhead, often with giant clouds spanning all horizons. A house juts up from among the fields, bearing over them with might and grandeur and authority. The wind is a powerful force, but unable to relocate the fields like the seasons relocate the workers. The landscape and the sky dominate everything, with the workers peppered in the middle trying to tame the earth’s wildness. The world is in a constant state of flux, which is what the seasons bring about. Human beings try to negotiate this flux but are far more fickle than the earth. Their passions destroy the fields worse than the locusts could do. Even human efforts to subdue the earth, these raging machines that till up the harvest, rule over the people and mechanize their labor. The machines create a violent rhythm with a chain gang effect. But Days of Heaven is never so simple as that, still allowing the beauty of the earth and even the labor to break through the monotony. A pause: these descriptions fall far, far short of the highly saturated images of Days of Heaven. So, something along more narrative lines: we have elements from the story of Cain (a murder followed by a relocation), Abraham and Sarah (a man telling an authority figure, “she is my sister”), Abraham and Lot (Abraham telling a family member they needed to part ways), and the fairly popular (for the 1970s) couple-on-the-lam narrative (see also: Bonnie and Clyde and Malick’s earlier Badlands).