M (dir. Fritz Lang): an ordinary film with sharp social comment

Fritz Lang, “M” (1931)

During the 1920’s and early 1930’s, Germany played unfortunate host to some extremely vicious serial killers, one of whom, Peter Kürten, inspired this psychological thriller drama by Fritz Lang. Kürten terrorised the city of Düsseldorf with his hideous murders of men, women and children that sometimes included drinking their blood; he was convicted of nine murders and was executed for his crimes in 1931. The reality that was Kürten is considerably toned down in “M”: the serial killer Beckert, played by Peter Lorre, preys on young schoolgirls in the city of Berlin and most of his crimes have already occurred when the film opens and he is seen buying a balloon and sweets for his latest victim. The movie concentrates on the search for Beckert by both police and organised crime gangs: the police believe Beckert is hiding among underworld criminals and put pressure on them to yield him; the criminals, feeling the heat and concerned for their reputation(!), try to find him and mete out their own justice.

The film does drag out during the search for Beckert who is captured by the criminals about 80 minutes into the movie: the pace is slow and leisurely and there’s no sense of rising tension as Beckert becomes aware of the pursuit and hides in an abandoned office building with both police and crooks on his trail. At least viewers can see how police in the 1920’s conducted their investigations into serial murders: finger-printing was still a new science then and forensic methods based on the use of DNA were in another universe altogether; all the police could do in those days was comb through known criminal networks and perhaps find out from psychiatric hospitals or prisons if they had released anyone or reported any escapes before the killings began. Naturally the police search is hardly scientific; indeed, it’s not even well co-ordinated as two police officers argue and fight over the case, and the inspector himself is sloppy in the way he oversees it. The criminals are faster and more efficient if more violent and thuggish in the way they find Beckert and promptly haul him before a kangaroo court baying for his blood.

Visually the film is a treat: the influence of 1920’s German Expressionism is strong in the use of shadows to suggest menace and suspense, and in one bizarre shot of the inspector talking on the telephone that forces audiences to look up his trouser legs at his face! There is one very good montage sequence of scenes in the disused office building where the criminals have rampaged looking for Beckert, with a voice-over of a police officer exclaiming at the destruction left behind. Another excellent montage sequence indirectly shows a victim’s assault: the montages show the empty place at a dining-table and a play area where the victim should have been had Beckert not attacked her. The mood throughout the film as suggested by the images is one of paranoia as Berlin is gripped in fear by the vicious murders and the police resort to intrusive searches through flop-houses and other places where underworld elements and society’s various down-and-outs and other outsiders frequent.

The film picks up during the mock trial scene in which Beckert confesses his guilt and admits to deep, primal instincts that drive him to kill even as he is revolted by them. Lorre delivers an incredible if hysterical and screechy performance of a man compelled by an inner sickness to carry out gruesome acts. Beckert is not entirely insane; he is lucid enough to remind his accusers that they exercise free will in carrying out their crimes while he is beholden to forces he can’t understand or fight.  His “defence lawyer” pleads on his behalf, arguing that Beckert can’t be held fully responsible for his crimes on the basis of his psychology. The mob, swept up in its hysteria and triumph at capturing Beckert, and not at all pleased at being told the plain truth about itself, proclaims the death sentence on him and prepares to carry it out. Astonishingly, viewers will find themselves in sympathy with Beckert, creepy and abhorrent he might be, having to face the fury of an emotional crowd locked in groupthink. Lorre’s acting virtually carries “M” from just another so-so cat-and-mouse chase to a movie that’s worth watching: there can’t be very many other films made since motion pictures began whose reputations rely so much on one actor’s performance in one scene. Unfortunately Lorre’s role as Beckert was to typecast the actor permanently as a sinister or creepy villain for the rest of his career.

As cinema, “M” doesn’t rate well in telling its story: the plot is self-explanatory yet surprisingly threadbare and so for most of its running time, the movie lacks direction, tension and pace. As a medium for social comment, the film makes pointed barbs about how the less privileged strata of society are targeted by the police for investigation and punishment whenever something out of the ordinary occurs, and how easy it is for the rights of individuals to be crushed totally, whether by institutions of law and order or by vigilante groups, especially in situations they can take advantage of and benefit from. The society as portrayed in “M” is one easily swayed by emotional frenzy and irrationality in a context of chronic stress, insecurity and fear for the future, and as a result is a society whose sympathies could be exploited and directed by an individual, an organisation and an ideology for more murderous gain than even Beckert and his demons can achieve. The parallels with the situation in the United States after the World Trade Center attacks in September 2001 are not at all hard to see.

Not long after making “M”, both director Lang and lead actor Lorre fled Germany for Paris (Lang in 1934, Lorre in 1933) when the society so portrayed in the movie became reality.

Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter … and Spring: lovely to look at but hollow

Kim Kiduk, “Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter … and Spring” (2003)

Presented in five episodes that mimic the yearly cycle of the seasons, this film follows a man’s path from his early childhood through adolescence and youth into middle age. Adopted by a hermit monk who lives at a Buddhist shrine on a tiny island in a lake in remote mountainous country, the man grows up close to nature and learns Buddhist doctrine and contemplation; his upbringing, worthy though it is, fails him when as a teenager he is confronted with sexual and other desires when a girl his age stays at the shrine temporarily to recover from an unknown illness. He elects to leave the srhine to follow the girl into the wider world. He marries her but she later deserts him for another man and he kills her. Returning to the shrine, he attempts suicide but is thwarted by the monk who forces him to repent of his sin. Detectives come to take the man to justice and prison and the monk himself then commits suicide.

The story is beguilingly simple and straightforward with very little dialogue and almost no conversation: nearly every utterance is a statement that underlines some aspect of the action on screen. The cinematography makes great use of fixed shots set at some distance from the actors to show their interactions with objects or the natural environment together with some close-ups, as though to show that, no matter how much humans isolate themselves, their environment and by extension the wider world of human society and relationships will encroach on them. By killing himself, the monk acknowledges perhaps that he has done as much for his disciple as he can and from now on the disciple must be his own teacher and learn from his experiences as well as remember his lessons. The world of the shrine and its surrounds, beautiful though it is – the cinematography emphasises the beauty, colour and vivids moods of nature throughout the year – can’t encapsulate all the man needs to know about life in order that he might more fully appreciate what the monk has tried to teach him.

The cyclical nature of life which  renews itself is emphasised in frequent shots of snakes (an age-old symbol of renewal) and fish, and in an unexpected twist towards the end of the movie when the man has returned to the shrine after serving time in prison: a woman visits him and leaves her baby son behind. She has an accident that is partly the man’s fault and the man is left alone to bring up the child. We can presume that the child as he grows up will repeat the man’s experiences; the challenge is whether the man might be a different teacher, perhaps more forgiving or less forgiving, more inclined to punish or less inclined, based on his experiences, than his teacher was.

Director Kim Kiduk’s narrow focus on the story, with all the action centred in the shrine and its surrounds, leaves out a great deal about the hermit monk and his disciple which audiences have to assume for themselves. The two actually have some interaction with the outside world: they acquire a rooster and a cat during the course of the film and the monk does get supplies from the outside world. During one such shopping trip, he learns about his disciple’s crime from the newspaper wrapping around some food. This narrowed focus, while intended to relay a story of change and renewal (and with it, faith, hope and the possibility of reincarnation), gives very little insight into the motivations and behaviour of the monk, disciple and other characters; in particular, we have no idea why the old monk commits suicide and we are left to speculate on possible reasons ranging from despair to resignation at the disciple’s behaviour.

As a result, there is something empty and unsatisfying about this film and there is an underlying misogyny that is disturbing as well. Though the film offers hope in the form of a new acolyte, it also suggests that the youngster might well follow the man a little too closely in his ways and the man may offer much the same advice to the young ‘un about love, lust and life as his mentor did. The same mistakes may be repeated, the cycle of life and renewal may continue but do humans, can humans, learn from others’ mistakes so as not to repeat them, or not to repeat them the same way?

Thin plot and unsympathetic characters invite contempt for “Contempt”

Jean-Luc Godard, “Contempt” (1963)

Partly set among some stunningly postcard-perfect islands rising out of the Mediterranean Sea, “Contempt” is a great-looking film that showcases the young Brigitte Bardot as a serious actor but that’s about all it has going for it. It struggles under the weight of being at once a psychological portrait of a marriage breaking down, a commentary on film-making and film culture, a re-interpretation of ancient Greek myth and an investigation of the position of artists and intellectuals torn between devotion to their art and living in a society that doesn’t share their beliefs but values art as a mere commodity. The movie’s major focus centres on the married couple Paul (Michel Piccoli) and Camille (Bardot) in their apartment misunderstanding each other and bickering, and then escalating their fight to the point of separation without ever really understanding why and making themselves miserable. This follows earlier scenes in which Paul, a struggling playwright, is employed by a rich playboy American movie producer Jerry Prokosch (Jack Palance) to rewrite a script for a movie based on the ancient Greek epic “The Odyssey”, with Fritz Lang (Lang as himself) directing, into something more racy and juicy. Paul agrees and takes the money, and Prokosch invites him and Camille to his estate for afternoon drinks. There, the American brazenly flirts with Camille yet Paul barely flickers an eyelid in reaction.

In their arguments, Camille and Paul expose their insecurities and prejudices that suggest their marriage had always been doomed from the start: Camille is sensitive about her lack of education and culture and believes that Paul thinks she’s stupid; Paul persists in arguing in an intellectual way, failing to see Camille might be testing him and setting little traps for him, ignoring her little gestures of conciliation, and bullying her by calling her jealous; she accuses him of selling out to a “film crowd” (which he has done, by taking Prokosch’s cheque); he, for all his belief in his intellectual superiority over Camille, misinterprets her statements, lashes out at her emotionally and never acknowledges that she might be right in some of what she says and that he might be wrong or have done her an injustice. The contempt that Camille develops for Paul is the result of a head-on collision between two mismatched people, one insecure about her new place in a self-absorbed world and feeling unwanted, the other having dragged her into it with no thought for how they can both cope individually and together in that world with its contradictory demands. The tragedy for them both is that, having fought and fallen apart, they become vulnerable to the desires of that world which separates them, forever as it turns out.

A parallel sub-plot in which various characters re-interpret “The Odyssey” as a story in which Odysseus has left his wife Penelope to fight in the Trojan war and then to travel for several years because they no longer love each other, or Penelope has been unfaithful, or Odysseus simply wishes to avoid Penelope, as a counter-weight to Paul and Camille’s marital problems, runs through the movie. The “Odyssey” movie production serves as a convenient coat-hanger for Prokosch, Paul and Camille to offload their feelings and opinions about human relationships without admitting them directly to one another. At the same time they appear to have no great enthusiasm for the movie and only Lang seems to care, even to the extent of continuing and finishing filming after Prokosch and Camille become decidedly “off-screen”. Paul is left alone without any anchor after filming finishes and silence is called for.

The artist having to choose between self-integrity and self-betrayal; people who should be united tearing themselves apart and becoming easy victims of a rapacious world; the idea of a film within a film that mirrors and comments on thoughts, feelings and behaviour expressed outside it; the film world as a meat market where script-writers and directors prostitute themselves before producers: these are hardly original ideas though the easy and subtle way in which they have been combined is original. Bardot and Piccoli are good in the way they bring out their characters’ fears, beliefs, prejudices and misunderstandings of each other and their relationship without over-acting or emotional histrionics. It could be said though that by letting one person (Prokosch) upset their relationship so much, Camille and Paul already aren’t sure of each other’s loyalty: the movie’s opening bedroom scene in which Camille demands total love from Paul and he replies glibly suggests as much.

Palance does a fine turn as the brash, crass American producer Prokosch, throwing his weight around and seducing Camille; he may be evil in the sense of preying on and exploiting Camille’s weaknesses to pull her away from Paul though there is just a suggestion in the petrol station scene that he might be more sensitive and sympathetic to her than her husband has been so far. Had Godard played up this aspect of Prokosch putting on an “ugly American” act to cover up his own fears about being an uncultured outsider in a supposedly more cultured and artistic environment, and shown him to be a potentially better person than Paul, the movie’s themes would have had an emotional fillip that would intrigue audiences, and Camille’s choice might have said something about Camille’s own values. Is Camille as much a sell-out on her integrity as she accuses Paul of being on his?

The structure of “Contempt”, divided in the main between the suffocating insular reality of the married couple’s apartment and the open natural spaces of Capri island, promising freedom and opportunties that Camille grabs, seems lopsided between the minutiae of the couple’s private lives which they pick over like scabs and the real dangers that face them once they are on the film set. On Capri, Paul sees Prokosch and Camille kissing each other but seems not to care; his reaction and behaviour will appear inexplicable to most viewers as at the same time he seems smug or resigned about having sold out on his artistic ideals and isn’t losing sleep over the harm he’s done to them and Camille’s view of him as a sell-out. While Camille, who originally hadn’t wanted to go to Capri, spends time sunbathing and swimming, Paul does nothing. By the end of the film, Paul may still be unaware of what’s happened to Camille and Prokosch but even if he did know, he may not care anyway. Like Odysseus in “The Odyssey”, trying to find his home, Paul is doomed to find a “home” in the film world without values or someone who can provide an anchor.

Colourful with some great visual scenery in both the apartment, adorned in a modern style at the time (early 1960’s), and in the scenes set on the islands, the film is worth seeing once but perhaps no more. The plot is thin and scrappy and doesn’t allow much character development in Camille, Paul and Prokosch who remain archetypes representing aspects of the film’s themes. Viewers won’t feel much connection with the male characters but might feel sympathy and pity for Camille who on the whole is treated badly by the men. As Paul does very little apart from mouthing off at Camille, the theme of the artist’s place in a society not sympathetic to ideals such as artistic integrity is superficially explored. If the film’s opinion is that the values of Hollywood aren’t to be trusted compared to those of art, then Paul is a poor choice of champion for art and the possibility that the film world can be reformed or improved in any way remains remote.

Come to think of it, with all due respect for Godard’s ideals, if Hollywood had made “Contempt”, the story might push a stronger line on the artist’s place in society: it might not reflect the reality in the Hollywood film industry itself but it would put more backbone and integrity into Paul. For a start, he’d tell Prokosch to shove his cheque up his butt …

The Rules of the Game: a good if dated satire of French high society

Jean Renoir, “The Rules of the Game” (1939)

When you hear that a rich French marquis decides to have a huge party at his country estate and invites, among other people, a man who’s in love with the marquis’s wife and a woman who’s been having an affair with the marquis himself, and on top of that hires a rabbit poacher as a new servant who flirts with the wife of the gamekeeper who gets jealous every time another man even looks at her, you know that marquis is just asking for trouble. And trouble galore is what the Marquis Robert de la Chesnaye (Marcel Dalio) gets in this movie “The Rules of the Game” by Jean Renoir which is a clever satire on the mores and values of the French upper classes on the eve of the Second World War when this film was made. For people reared on films sticking to their genre conventions, this might be a confusing movie: heavily driven by its dialogue and the comings and goings of its various characters, “The Rules …” goes from straightforward drama to comedy of manners to straight-out slapstick in the film’s first climax, and then to tragedy in its second climax, for the film’s purpose of detailing the various upper class social hypocrisies which make up the rules of the “game” and how well people conform or don’t conform  to them – and the price they pay if they don’t.

The movie gets off to a slow start, establishing its main personalities in its first hour: Robert’s wife Christine (Nora Gregor) is adored by hero aviator Andre Jurieux (Roland Toutain) and in secret by his friend Octave (Renoir himself) while her husband dallies with Genevieve (Mila Parely) behind her back. Robert tries to ditch Genevieve but ends up inviting her to his chateau, La Coliniere, for the weekend. Octave encourages Robert to invite Andre as well. Other significant characters like Christine’s maid Lisette (Paulette Dubost), her husband and Robert’s gamekeeper Schumacher (Gaston Modot) and Marceau (Julien Carette) are introduced early in the film. The camera moves around the sets like a roving eye, looking in at various people who go about their business as if unaware they are being watched. Audiences see significant actors and action in the background as well as in the foreground thanks to Renoir’s use of deep focus cinematography which at the time (1930’s) was unusual in filming.

Once all the invited guests including an army general arrive at La Coliniere for the weekend retreat, the pace picks up quickly and the action becomes live with little room for more character development: various entertainments that include shooting pheasants and hares for sport, walks, a masquerade party, some amateur theatre and games fill people’s time. As afternoon turns into evening and the masquerade gets under way, guests get drunk and exchange spouses and lovers casually, and tempers flare up. Upstairs, Robert and Andre fight over Christine and, in a comic turn that comments on how lower classes regard the upper classes as role models and leaders, Schumacher chases Marceau around the mansion for flirting with his wife Lisette (Paulette Dubost). Both Schumacher and Marceau are sacked and thrown off the estate so they venture out to the estate greenhouse where they see Christine, wearing Lisette’s cape, and Octave planning to run away together. Schumacher, mistaking Christine for Lisette, swears to kill Octave. Octave returns to the house where Lisette talks him out of running away with Christine because of the age difference between them and he sends Andre to the greenhouse instead. Once there, Andre is mistaken for Octave by Schumacher who shoots him.

The way Robert deals with Andre’s shooting (or rather, dismisses it casually) and Christine’s own reaction to it symbolise the rot that pervades French society and its morality as a result of its corrupted leadership that they exemplify. Andre is hardly an attractive figure either: when viewers first see him, he behaves very petulantly when informed on arriving in Paris after a long solo flight that his former love Christine hasn’t arrived at the airport to greet him. So audiences discover early that Andre, perhaps a bright hope and talent for a new France, has been seduced by and into high society. Little does he realise that he’ll be treated like a toy and tossed aside by such people. Robert, Christine, Octave, Genevieve and Lisette, all vacillating between one extreme and another, all unsure who or what they most love and want to stay with, are people who want, or think they deserve, everything both ways, however incompatible these are. They treat love, marriage and human relationships in a cavalier way. Lisette is married but is ready to throw over Schumacher to stay with Christine and be close to luxury and wealth. Robert wants his marriage, his mistress, his property and collection of gadgets, not necessarily in that order, and not caring that the women in his life each want him to give up at least one of the four wants mentioned. Only Andre and Schumacher attach notions of loyalty and morality to love and marriage and they’re the ones who pay dearly for “transgressing” the rules of the “game”.

Renoir’s direction and matter-of-fact narrative which relies on the characters to drive the plot and action force viewers to decide for themselves if the characters are worthy of their sympathy. All these people have some attractive and unattractive qualities. The camera never settles on one particular person who might serve as the “hero” of the film; it moves through the labyrinthine mansion with its corridors, staircases and rooms leading into more rooms to focus on the characters, all players in the “game”. Viewers who have no PC or video-gaming experience might be distracted trying to watch actions in the foreground when there is activity in the background or nearly off-screen demanding attention. The easy camera flow moves through establishing the characters in the film’s first half without inducing boredom while the plot is yet to get off the ground; once the plot’s course is set, the camera then takes in nearly everything that happens at La Coliniere so the place becomes a synecdoche for French society.

Aside from the use of deep focus cameras, “The Rules …” looks dated with a style of acting that varies between natural and theatrical, and a plot heavy with symbolism. With computer games so prevalent now, any experimental edge the film might have had once in positing the mansion as a proto-type “computer game” with its different levels, and the hosts and guests as “players” symbolic of their class, is lost. Particular scenes, such as the hunting scenes, filmed documentary-style, in which peasants flush out prey for the shooters and scenes in which characters express prejudice against Jewish people, refer to issues of historic significance for which modern audiences may need to know some early and mid-20th century French and European history to understand fully. People living in societies where social class is still important in determining a person’s place and how far he or she can advance socially and economically will respond more positively to what the film says about social hypocrisy and in that respect the film still has value as social criticism.

Since “The Rules …” was made, other more recent films based on its plot, ideas or themes such as Alan Bridges’s “The Shooting Party” and Robert Altman’s “Gosford Park” have been made so it’s no longer even the definitive film of its type – a country estate as microcosm of its society – to see. Still, if you like mysteries, dramas or comedies set in rich country houses that focus on both the wealthy and their servants, “The Rules …” is a well-made movie with characters that are at once vivid, comic and serious.

The War You Don’t See: an incisive and passionate John Pilger documentary

Alan Lowery and John Pilger, “The War You Don’t See” (2010)

Last night (Sunday, 10 April 2011), I caught this documentary presented by veteran Australian journalist John Pilger on the way the news media has presented war to Western audiences on television and in print for much of the 20th century and in the first decade of the 21st. There’s a particular focus on the UK and US news media’s responsibility in reporting war events and the conduct of war accurately and without bias, particularly if the war is a heavily one-sided war which the US, the UK and their allies have instigated against much weaker countries like Iraq and Afghanistan. Through interviews with various journalists from the US mainstream news media outlets and the BBC, Pilger shows how far too frequently the news media in these countries have reported the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in ways that prejudice Western audiences against the Iraqi and Afghan civilians and minimise or make invisibile the suffering these people undergo. The reporting also serves to hide and advance the agendas of the governments and the interests of the individuals, corpoations and other institutions that politicians rely on for election campaign money and support.

According to some of the promotion for this doco, the emphasis was on the practice of embedding in which journalists travel with the military on assignments and report incidents from the military point of view. The opportunity this gives the military to shape the reporter’s view to the extent that it can decide what the reporter can see or not see, and report in a way that favours the military and its understanding and interpretation of an incident, is pretty obvious. My impression though was that the documentary didn’t spend very much time examining this practice, both from a historical point of view (as in tracing the history of embedment from the First World War or the American Civil War or when it first started) and from a current viewpoint of someone who actually did go on a mission with soldiers, reported on what the soldiers did or were supposed to do, and then had the report vetted by the soldiers or their senior officers before giving it to the news editor.

The documentary did rather better looking at the collusion between the US armed forces and the Hollywood film industry in making war movies since the 1940’s that emphasise American heroism, self-sacrifice, suffering and soldier camaraderie while ignoring the equivalent, often much greater, among the enemy gooks and ragheads; even here though, while the documentary did good work trashing movies like “The Hurt Locker”, it just didn’t go far enough to examine how so close the collusion is that Hollywood film-makers now routinely consult US armed forces personnel in making war movies and tailor scripts to suit the Pentagon’s tastes. Hollywood also must submit all war movies for pre-screening by top Pentagon officials who can order late changes to the movie even at the expense of historical accuracy before the movies can go into cinemas: if this practice were widely known among the public, there would be a huge outcry but Pilger makes no mention of it.

Likewise Pilger’s examination of the heavy bombing of Fallujah in 2004 doesn’t include a brief look at the almost tragicomic series of events, beginning with US troops’ take-over of a school and their refusal to negotiate with the parents of the schoolchildren, escalating through the lynching of four Blackwater mercenaries who might have been set up by their employer to the US army’s decision to attack twice, first in August and then in November in 2004. How these events were covered in Western media, particularly the lynching incident which generated fury among the US public, isn’t mentioned. The aftermath of the bombings which include recent reports of an astonishing rise in birth defects in children born in Fallujah after 2004, together with doctors’ warnings to all female residents never to have children, and how these were reported by the BBC and other news outlets is also ignored.

I’m not sure how the Israeli commando attacks on the Gaza flotilla in 2010 merit mention in a documentary like this; the whole drama itself deserves a separate documentary treatment. There was much about the BBC’s reporting of the Gaza flotilla’s adventures that Pilger could have raked the organisation over – the BBC only started taking an interest in the flotilla when it was intercepted by Israeli forces – but the documentary’s focus was mainly on the film released by the Israeli Defense Forces showing the activists on the Mavi Marmara purportedly attacking the commandos before they reached the ferry. The murders of nine Mavi Marmara passengers (one of whom was a US citizen whose death was ignored by US mainstream news media), done execution-style, were mentioned briefly. No mention though of the Israelis’ treatment of all the surviving flotilla passengers, once they were on dry land, which included people being beaten (a Greek man got a broken leg) and being forced to parade before baying crowds: that was very much off everyone’s radar here.

The documentary is very good and Pilger’s interviews of various talking heads are incisive but the film’s organisation, especially in its latter half, should have been tightened and restricted more to investigating the reporting of the conduct of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and how news journalists and their employers are under considerable pressure from both governments and armed forces to report war events in a particular way that favours continued prosecution of war. At nearly 100 minutes in length, the documentary seems very long (it’s quite dry and heavy on interviews) and the Mavi Marmara incident really should have been cut out as its particular focus on the IDF propaganda clip is irrelevant to the overall subject.

I’m disappointed that Pilger neglected to examine the possible effects of news reporting that favours a pro-war agenda on people and societies. I imagine the effects of such biased reporting can be very far-reaching: among other things, the sufferings of both Iraqi and Afghan civilians on one side, and of the soldiers and their families, are minimised and ignored to the extent that both governments and the public end up trivialising them, especially if some Iraqis and Afghans escape their hell and try to claim asylum overseas; and the reporting itself may encourage governments and the military to believe in their own invincibility and to spread war and destruction into neighbouring countries as is currently happening in Pakistan from Afghanistan under US President Obama’s watch. War becomes a self-perpetuating activity that individuals, the armed forces, corporations and governments come to rely on to justify the money and resources spent.

Vertigo: a beautiful film with disturbing themes of obsession and control

Alfred Hitchcock, “Vertigo” (1958)

For a mainstream Hollywood drama, this famous film by Alfred Hitchcock, regarded by some as his greatest work, features some very disturbing themes of which some are applicable to the Hollywood film industry and even to the man himself. In an age when romantic love, marriage and family life were held to be worthy ideals for the public and it was usual for film studios and even directors to mould actors, and especially female actors, into particular stereotypes that emphasised physical attractiveness, a healthy heterosexuality and availability for marriage within the limits of a sexually puritanical society, “Vertigo” subtly undercuts these notions and exposes their sinister implications while blandly appearing to uphold them. Revisiting and idealising the past, bringing it into the present to determine the future, converting a real object or person into its ideal, and that notion’s dark twin of fearing something and trying to suppress it yet being drawn to it and allowing it to define your life and dominate your thoughts and behaviour: these two polarisations form the basis of the vertigo that engulfs former police detective turned private investigator John “Scotty” Ferguson (James Stewart) and the women Madeleine and Judy (both played by Kim Novak) whom he loves.

Scotty has recently retired from the police force after his partner’s death from a roof-top fall has left him with a morbid fear of heights. An old college friend, Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore), commiserates with him and hires him to follow his wife Madeleine who’s been behaving oddly and may be suicidal. Scotty follows the woman closely in his car as she visits a florist, a museum, an art gallery and other landmarks around San Francisco city. He discovers she is obsessed with the life of a young 19th century woman, Carlotta Valdes, Madeleine’s great-grandmother, who suicided when young. After he saves Madeleine from suicide herself, they fall in love but Madeleine continues to be haunted by Valdes and a recurring dream of a Spanish mission church with a bell-tower. Scotty identifies the building as one just on the city outskirts and takes Madeleine there, hoping this encounter will stop the nightmares. The visit ends tragically when Madeleine climbs to the top of the bell-tower and falls to her death while Scotty, crippled by his phobia, watches helplessly.

He is cleared of murder by a court which declares Madeleine’s death to be a suicide. Scotty becomes depressed and his friend Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes) cares for him for a while. After he recovers, he revisits places that Madeleine had frequented and meets a young woman called Judy. Scotty becomes obsessed with recreating Judy in the image of Madeleine despite the girl’s protestations and when he has made her over, takes her to the church to retrace Madeleine’s death scene. In this way, he hopes to cure his acrophobia and to confirm whether Elster has taken advantage of his illness to stage a suicide scenario to mask his murder of the real Madeleine.

The ingenious plot with its surprising twist may be too clever to take seriously and perhaps there should have been a few clues thrown to viewers early on that Madeleine isn’t all she appears to be. Perhaps the clues are in plain view and repeated viewings of the film are needed to find them all. For one thing, Madeleine should have been aware of someone following her by car and on foot and she should have been afraid – but if she’s acting out a prescribed role, then her lack of concern becomes understandable. Scotty’s discovery of Judy’s dual nature seems hurried and forced as well: how, apart from seeing Judy wearing jewels similar to what he saw in a painting of Carlotta Valdes, does he know he’s been duped? One scene where he’s waiting for Judy to come back from the beautician and the hair salon, during which he could have ruffled through her wardrobe and discovered an incriminating grey suit or gone through her wastepaper basket and pieced together scraps of her confession note, is all that’s needed to give the plot more credibility. On the whole though the plot is spare and easy to follow and it allows for considerable character development and investigation of the movie’s themes of obsession, control of women, and the ease with which fantasy and ideal notions of love can interfere with and harm reality.

Both Stewart and Novak readily identified with some of the film’s themes and threw themselves enthusiastically into their roles; their acting which encompasses some of the noblest and worst of human behaviours is among the best audiences will see in Hollywood films of the 1950’s and brings some credibility to what is a far-fetched story. Viewers will sympathise readily with Scotty’s attempts to deal with his phobia and rebuild his life after Madeleine’s death but will find his intense obsession with Madeleine and his control of Judy’s appearance creepy and repellent. Stewart as both romantic hero and monstrous anti-hero brings the polarities of his role together with ease. Is Scotty any better than his manipulative friend who murdered the real Madeleine? For that matter, can Judy still retain Scotty’s love once he realises she has manipulated him emotionally as he has manipulated her physically?

Geddes’s character Midge who secretly loves Scotty but rejected a past marriage proposal and who acts as his confidante is an interesting person and a counterpoint to the remote Madeleine. She disappears after the movie’s halfway point when Judy enters Scotty’s life and while her absence is much missed and gives “Vertigo” a top-heavy feel, it highlights the extent to which Scotty is unhealthily consumed with draping Madeleine’s image over Judy.

The film’s bright colours and the San Francisco cityscape that includes the bay and the city’s surrounding natural environment where the sea meets land and a church is perched on wide lawns provide a beautiful backdrop to the film’s events. A softening filter is often placed over most scenes in a way reminiscent of romance films of the 1950’s and 1960’s and gives the movie a dreamy fantasy look. The musical score by Bernard Herrmann is by turns dramatic, suspenseful, highly emotional and romantic; it heightens tension in long stretches of the movie where there is no talk. The real and the unreal co-exist and bleed into each other, boundaries between reality and fantasy collapse and the imagined becomes more real than reality. This is illustrated in particular in Scotty’s remarkable dream sequence which includes a cartoon animation of a bouquet falling apart and other animated montages in which Scotty falls into an open grave or falls into the centre of the screen. Another very strange scene where the real intersects with fantasy occurs when Scotty follows Madeleine into a deserted alley and into a shabby backroom of a rundown building. He opens a door and sees Madeleine in a surreal, plush world of flowers, polished floors and wealthy shoppers; the door he is holding happens to be a mirror support. It is as if he has opened a portal into Wonderland.

The film’s structure more or less divides into two, with Madeline dominant in the first half and Judy in the second, yet the second half of the film echoes the first half: landmarks and places visited in the first half of the film are revisited in the second, and even Scotty’s viewing of Judy opening a window in her hotel echoes his sighting of Madeleine opening a window in the McKittrick hotel. Even the manipulation and duplicity of the film is duplicated: Scotty is maniulated by Elster and Madeleine in the film’s first half; in the second half, Scotty himself manipulates Judy. The circularity motif echoes also in the hairstyles of Madeleine and Carlotta in her portrait, and in the flower bouquet which Madeleine buys and which appears again and again in the film.

The film’s pace can be glacial, at least until the second bell-tower scene where, as audiences realise the extent of Scotty’s derangement and start to fear for Judy’s life, the tension skyrockets but otherwise “Vertigo” is well-made with excellent performances. On the plus side it’s beautiful and intriguing to watch with many surprising and innovative technical flourishes.  For a movie with a spare plot and small cast, it lends itself to many interpretations and touches on many aspects of human psychology that will continue to intrigue audiences.

Vampyr: vampire horror film explores issues of human existence

Carl Theodor Dreyer, “Vampyr” (1932)

Made originally as a silent movie with a voice and musical soundtrack added later, this film boasts very creative if contrary ideas and perceptions about film-making as an art-form in its own right as opposed to telling moving stories, and about the story-telling process itself. Loosely based on a collection of short stories by Irish writer Sheridan le Fanu, “Vampyr” follows a young man David Gray (Nicolas de Gunzburg under the alias of Julian West, who helped finance the film) who does research on Satanism and folk superstitions. His research takes him to a French town called Courtempierre where, while staying at an inn, he is visited by an elderly stranger (Maurice Schutz) who appeals for help and leaves a book package for him. Gray follows the stranger to a mansion where the old man is the owner and father of two sisters living there. The man dies from gunshot wounds just as Gray arrives. He is introduced to the two young sisters, of whom one is bedridden with a wasting disease. Viewers quickly see that the girl, Leone (Sybille Schmitz), has suffered bites to the neck and Gray and a servant (Albert Bras) learn from the father’s book brought by Gray that she may be the vicitm of a vampire.

The film looks badly made with flickering backgrounds but the washed-out effect is deliberate; Dreyer had been seeking a particular “look” to the film and discovered it by accident when a can of film was exposed. The bleached appearance makes interiors of rooms come “alive”, vibrating with a sinister, hidden force and outdoor scenes look unnaturally bright and animated. Even grass and leaves on tree branches swaying with the breeze look fearsomely alive as though inhabited by demon spirits. Lighting contrasts appear stronger than they should be and areas that are lit up burn with intensity. This creates an atmosphere where emotions override reason and intellect, and either lethargy or irrationality governs people’s actions. In those parts of the film where a storm occurs, windows and glass panes in doors light up and pulse with bright ferocity as though just behind them Hell has just erupted with volcanic ire.

The narrative doesn’t flow the way viewers might expect: the film often presents montages of “still life” shots or moving dioramas of shadow play. Most scenes have a very static quality even when actual actors are moving or the camera is panning around or back-tracking. A few figures are introduced quite early in the film whom audiences assume will play significant roles but these characters are never seen again. In one memorable shot, a soldier is sits on a bench quietly while his shadow comes by and sits on the bench’s shadow; later when the soldier gets up and walks off, the shadow walks away in the opposite direction. Are the person and the shadow important to the movie? As it turns out, no. There is also a sequence of dancing shadows on a wall which the camera follows while dance music is interspersed with the main musical soundtrack: a very unusual and quite creepy piece of filming which heightens the sense of dread and enclosed paranoia. The “show, don’t tell” approach to advance the plot is abandoned: various titled card insertions, meant as pages in the book the servant reads, not only give information on how to destroy vampires but, in the absence of dialogue, alerts the audience to what Gray or the servant will do.

Gray himself isn’t an active character: throughout the film he seems aimless and reacts to people and events around him in an almost robotic way. He allows a doctor (Jan Hieronimko) to siphon blood from him, not realising the doctor is an ally of the vampire who has bitten Leone. Though viewers assume Gray to be the film’s hero in a conventional sense, and the film initially points that way with the old man handing him the package, he ends up superfluous to the “plot” and merely assists the servant “hero”. The servant later appears a “villain” in the way he cruelly despatches the doctor in a flour mill.

There are passages in the film which may or may not be diversions from the main plot: most notably, in the second half of “Vampyr”, Gray has an out-of-body dream experience while at a cemetery, follows the doctor and sees his body in a coffin; the point of view switches to the body itself, as though Gray’s soul has re-entered the body there and then, and the coffin is then taken away for burial with the camera pointing up at the blank sky and town buildings passing on either side of the screen. At the moment the coffin arrives at the burial plot, Gray wakes up on his cemetery seat and sees the servant opening the coffin. This is perhaps the most memorable and terrifying part of the film which might not necessarily have anything to do with the plot but seems to be a meditation on death and what happens to the soul after death. Seen from a psychological viewpoint, Gray’s astral trip may serve as a metaphor for mental fragmentation and the dissolving of identity, exemplified by his soul following the doctor, and the entire film itself has the look of a terrifying dream. Other “irrelevant” parts include Gray meeting the doctor before he arrives at the mansion and a part near the end where Gray and Leone’s sister Gisele (Rena Mandel) row a boat on a lake.

In all of this, the vampire itself never appears: a corpse said to be the vampire is impaled with an iron stake and Leone seems to recover but this could be a suggestion implanted in viewers’ minds by the pages of the book the servant has read. The vampire seems an elemental force that is nowhere and yet everywhere in the film, hidden in natural phenomena, in the lurid interiors of the mansion, the shadows that appear, even in the medium of the film itself as demonstrated by its bleached look. Perhaps in that aforementioned dream experience that Gray has, the blank sky that his dead face was gazing at was or held the vampire being?

“Vampyr” certainly makes no attempt to appeal to a wide audience: all elements integral to a story on film are turned on their head in some way. Acting as such is natural, most of the actors being amateurs whom Dreyer knew personally. Schmitz (the only trained actor) as Leone gives quite a performance with her face going from pained and agonised to smirking malevolence as she appears to transform into a vampire herself. Events appear disconnected from one another, there’s no sense of cause and effect or any similar sequencing, and viewers must assume everything they see is either important or irrelevant. Even the plot itself barely holds the film together and is merely a medium for themes Dreyer may have wanted to explore: what it must mean to die and to be dead, the vampire as metaphor for disease and sexuality, and blood as metaphor for the life-force which sustains identity and wholeness.

For those who are open to watching visual media in ways beyond a strict story-telling or linear narrative structure, this film is highly recommended as a lesson in how the vampire horror genre can be used to explore issues of human existence in an original and experimental way.

Borat movie tells more about film-makers’ biases and prejudices than those of its subjects

Larry Charles, “Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan” (2006)

Using the narrative form of a naif travelling in a foreign land, investigating and commenting on its customs, to satirise your own society or another society has been a tradition in English-speaking societies at least since Jonathan Swift published “Gulliver’s Travels” around 1726. The form gets a post-modern workout in Sacha Baron Cohen’s mock-documentary “Borat …” in which one of his alter-egos, Borat Sagdiyev, a Kazakhstani TV news reporter made famous on Cohen’s TV show “Da Ali G Show”, takes a small crew with him across the United States to film a government-sponsored documentary explaining the society and culture of American people to the folks back home in Kazakhstan. Initially landing in New York City and content just to stay there, Borat is watching TV one night when he sees Pamela Anderson as CJ in an episode of “Baywatch” and promptly falls in love with her. Learning from a group of feminists that Anderson lives in California, Borat becomes determined to find and marry her. He persuades his producer Azamat (Ken Davitian) to go to California with him on the pretext that this trip is necessary for the documentary. Azamat’s not keen to go by plane so they buy an ancient ice-cream van and drive across the country instead.

The film splices together a road movie and a series of scenarios for the documentary in which Borat investigates various customs, rituals and issues in American society and elicits a range of reactions from mildly embarrassed to openly hostile and aggressive, depending on the topic being satirised. This is usually American attitudes on social and cultural issues such as homosexuality, religion and the status of minority groups. The road movie adds pranks and incidents in which Borat either makes assumptions, behaves in certain ways or reacts to what he sees and hears around him based on his Kazakhstani values and prejudices which are nearly always socially backwards from a modern Western cultural point of view. All the reactions Borat gets suggest that Americans are nowhere near as tolerant, egalitarian or culturally, socially or politically aware as they might think they are; some people he meets even glory in their ignorance and extreme prejudices. The two interwoven strands of the plot take place within a third narrative which describes Borat’s family and village background and the conditions in which he grew up and still lives in. This information primes viewers for the culture shock Borat and Azamat are certain to get, not to mention the culture shock his interviewees and hosts get from meeting him!

The satire works best and is at its funniest when Borat throws people’s pomposity or stupidity back at them as in the scene where he “converts” to Christianity by speaking in tongues or invites an under-dressed prostitute to a genteel dinner party. It does not work so well where the film-makers take for granted that certain groups of people are prejudiced against Jews, Muslims, gays or other minorities and by baiting such groups, Cohen and company simply have their assumptions confirmed, as in the rodeo scene where Borat sings the Kazakhstani national anthem to the tune of the US national anthem. There are pranks done seemingly for cheap and cruel laughs at their victims, as in the scenes that take place in Borat’s home village. The village scenes are meant to mock viewers’ own prejudices about people living in remote and impoverished post-Communist countries but may have the unintended opposite effect of reinforcing such views. Audiences may have the impression that some gags were deliberately stage-managed, with participants like Pamela Anderson in her autograph-signing session and the actor playing the prostitute Luenell knowing ahead what’s going to happen. Most of Borat’s trek across the US takes place through the so-called Deep South, an area often stereotyped in mainstream US culture and elsewhere as culturally backward, racist, homophobic and hostile to all who are not Protestant Christians. The film’s bias is obvious: people in Los Angeles and southern California should be just as ripe for ridicule as are the Southerners, Washington DC politicians and New Yorkers yet curiously there are no interviews or incidents set up with the Angelenos once Borat arrives at his destination.

Perhaps the film tells us more about its creators’ biases and attitudes than it does about American people’s prejudices: as a university student, Baron Cohen did research on Jewish involvement in the civil rights movement in the US in the 1960’s and wrote a thesis on the murders of three civil rights activists, two of whom were Jewish, in Mississippi state in that period. Perhaps in the guise of Borat he was curious to see if people’s attitudes toward race and religion had changed. However, mocking attitudes does have a flaw as a form of “reserach”: it tends to over-inflate their importance and gives the impression such views are widespread and deeply entrenched when perhaps only a very small minority of people still hold them. So the picture the film-makers and the audience get of racial and anti-Jewish prejudice may be the complete opposite of what actually exists. There is also the possibility that when Borat expresses extreme views, his victims politely try to ignore him or just go along with him, hoping that he’ll drop the topic if they say nothing. Their silence or apparent acquiescence tends to encourage him more and, when filmed in certain ways so viewers can’t see because of editing whether they can defend themselves or not, makes the victims look foolish.

The genuinely funny moments include spoofs of various movies like “The Blair Witch Project” and scenes where Borat’s innocence and prejudices get the better of him as in his first encounter with a tortoise and his purchase of a bear. The scene where Borat and Azamat stop at a bed-and-breakfast place for rest and discover that the couple who run it is Jewish is hilarious because the joke is on the guests themselves with their fears and beliefs about the supposed malevolent powers of Jews. Two scenes where Borat meets some gay activists and a group of black teenage boys are funny for the same reason. Though if Borat had asked the gay men or the teenagers the same questions about women that he posed to the white college boys in their holiday van later in the movie, their answers and opinions might have been just as depressing. Borat’s friendship with Luenell the prostitute is very touching and underlines the film’s message that, beneath surface appearances and differences in social class, everyone is human and deserves to be treated fairly. Though Baron Cohen’s choice of targets – overwhelmingly white Anglo-American and politically conservative – might suggest that he still views American society as it was in the 1960’s when Jews, blacks and other disadvantaged minorities more or less worked together to combat the prejudices white Anglo-Americans had against them and were prepared to overlook their political, social and cultural differences. This situation may not exist now.

This is the kind of movie you see once as it relies heavily on surprising and confronting viewers with their own prejudices, and much of the comedy arises from people not knowing what Borat will do in the situations presented. After that, the appeal fades and the genuinely funny comedy moments are few and far between in contrast to the comedy that sticks in your craw because it exploits people’s ignorance.

Blade Runner: movie remarkable chiefly for visual impact and theme

Ridley Scott, “Blade Runner” (1982)

The curious thing with this movie is that as it recedes back in time – 2012 will be its 30th anniversary! – it appears less science fiction and more film noir in spite of its subject matter: a specialist police officer known as a blade runner comes out of retirement and is given a mission to hunt down and execute four half-human / half-machine beings or “replicants” that have hijacked a space-ship in and returned to Earth. Certainly the emphasis on atmosphere and a dark, downbeat mood throughout the film has always been very strong but now even little details like ceiling fans in rooms, derelict buildings in crowded cities and people puffing away on cigarettes, which to some viewers might seem quaint or contradictory, add an extra touch to the pessimistic mood. As the science fiction appears less incredible and more possible, “Blade Runner” now emerges as a futuristic film noir piece with a distinctive visual style. Once viewers become accustomed to the movie’s look and the backgrounds, the movie’s plot appears as threadbare with dialogue so spare the storyline nearly collapses. The characters are not nearly as fleshed out as they should be as a result. All that is left is a long movie with a pace so slow that any sense of tension drags away. The pivotal confrontation between the blade runner cop Deckard (Harrison Ford) and the rogue replicant leader Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) seems very drawn out and its climax is too brief by comparison.

The movie does look beautiful with its vision of a futuristic Los Angeles as a chaotic, crowded city where different and often contradictory, even retrogressive ways of life co-exist with sophisticated technology. Scenes often appear in a hazy blue light and there is plenty of interplay between intense light and dark shadowy interiors in various parts of the movie which encourages a sense of paranoia and dread. Society as it appears in “Blade Runner” is highly stratified: the wealthy have moved to colonies in outer space where their needs are attended to by replicant slaves, the poor eke out a living as best as they can on Earth but mind their own business and aren’t bothered much by the authorities who carry out regular aerial patrols. The suggestion is of an all-seeing police state, confident in its stability to the extent that it feels no need to regiment and order the little people who scurry about like rats. The rebel replicants are able to insinuate themselves among the population as circus performers or beggars, all the while trying to gain entry into the massive Tyrell Corporation building and to beg their creator to give them more life before their 4-year guarantee wears out.

And why do the replicants only have a lifespan of four years? As police supervisor Bryant (M Emmett Walsh) explains to Deckard, this is to prevent the replicants from acquiring emotions and a desire for independence. What is implied is that if beings that are half-human and half-machine can rebel, then full human beings might be inspired to rebel as well. Bryant’s threat to Deckard if he refuses his mission suggests Deckard is as much a slave of his society as the replicants are. When viewers first meet Deckard, he seems lethargic and burnt-out in his retirement, with no enthusiasm for life; we presume his work as a blade runner has disgusted him and dehumanised him in some way. Indeed, later in the film when he flushes out replicant Zhora (Joanna Cassidy) and kills her, the experience exhausts him as Bryant comments when he comes to see the corpse. The point made here, which many fans of “Blade Runner” may have missed, is that the police state has made humans like Deckard less than human and reduced them to the level of replicants; the irony is that the replicants, in seeking more life, are seeking to be more human than humans themselves are allowed to be.

An even greater irony is that it is the replicants themselves, in particular Batty and Rachel (Sean Young), modelled on the niece of the head (Joe Turkel) of Tyrell Corporation, who restore humanity to Deckard. The subplot in which Deckard falls in love with Rachel and teaches her to love him (an idea likely borrowed from Jean-Luc Godard’s “Alphaville”, also a dystopian sci-fi / noir film) is important to Deckard’s reawakening as a human as it is for Rachel in learning how to be human. The division between replicant and human becomes irrelevant but in teaching love and trust to Rachel, Deckard puts her life in danger and so in the film’s coda, they flee his apartment. (In the original cinema release in the United States and Australia, the coda was a happy one that provided definite closure to the film’s events and was ironically closer to the “Alphaville” ending.) Deckard’s love for Rachel is paralleled by the open affection and love the replicants Batty and Pris (Daryl Hannah) express in their brief time together on screen.

Ford underplays his role as Deckard, as is appropriate for a character long out of touch with his emotions and what it means to be human; he rediscovers his humanity gradually through his encounters with Rachel and Batty. Rachel reawakens his capacity for love and Batty teaches him how to feel physical pain again and how to fear for his life. By film’s end, with his humanity restored, Deckard is finally able to crack a smile when he finds the origami unicorn left behind at his apartment by his police minder Gaff (Edward James Olmos) to indicate that the police know that Rachel is hiding inside and that they know that when he dreams, his mental processes are being monitored by the authorities. The conventional interpretation of the origami unicorn scene and its relation to the unicorn dream that Deckard has had earlier in the film – and this is supported by director Ridley Scott himself – has been that Deckard himself must be a replicant and the dream was implanted into his brain just as Rachel’s childhood memories are implants. If that’s so, then Gaff himself might also be a replicant – how else would he know of Deckard’s dream? – and by implication, so must Bryant. The whole rationale for “Blade Runner” falls over: if replicants aren’t allowed to be on Earth, then why is Deckard working there as a blade runner in the first place if he’s a replicant too? An alternative explanation is that the all-pervasive surveillance technology is sophisticated enough that the regular aerial patrols are “reading” people’s mental processes when they are asleep and able to capture any images generated and relay them to the police. This explanation reinforces the view of “Blade Runner” that society in the future will be ruled by a police state highly dependent on technology that not only spies on people but moulds them physically and mentally; it also continues the paranoid ambience of the film right to the end.

Of the other actors, Hauer plays his role as Batty subtly, sometimes child-like and sometimes authoritative and menacing, in the manner of a fallen angel, a motif used frequently with variations in connection with the character throughout the film. Emotions flit across his face and sometimes he inclines his head shyly as if playing at being an innocent, which in some respects he is. His final soliloquy at the film’s climax is very moving though viewers do have to pinch themselves to remember that the speech might be an implant. Young perhaps seems one-dimensional as a femme fatale stereotype who is also an innocent victim of the corporate police state created and sustained by her uncle in part and who needs to be saved and freed from that state to become “human”.

The background texture of the movie, against which the anti-hero Deckard chases the replicants, is the most outstanding feature: the society seems more fully realised here than in most other science fiction movies set in a future dystopia and the theme of what it means to be human and when does someone become human or non-human plays out well. The flimsy plot does allow the background to protrude into viewers’ awareness more than a complicated story with many twists  would. The dialogue could have been bulked a bit more to make Deckard and Rachel’s romance more credible. “Blade Runner” remains a standard by which science fiction film and television should be judged for visual impact and the way it portrays a police state in operation; it’s a pity that the plot doesn’t quite meet the standard of its background context.

L.A. Confidential: well-made with convoluted plot about deception and illusion

Curtis Hanson, “L.A. Confidential” (1997)

Based on the novel by James Ellroy and named after an actual 1950’s magazine which focussed on celebrity scandal, “L.A. Confidential” is a well-made retro noir movie set in early 1950’s Los Angeles about three police officers investigating a horrific mass murder shooting at the Nite Owl coffee shop which draws them into a bigger scandal of police and political corruption, drug-trafficking, pornography and prostitution, racial prejudice and chequebook journalism. The three officers who are the focus of the movie deal with the case in particular ways that reflect their personalities and values, and which bring them into conflict with one another and then with their real enemy with tragic consequences. The plot is convoluted and layered, and viewed from different angles can say different things about the world these men live and work in.

Sergeant Ed Exley (Guy Pearce) is an ambitious stickler for rules who is conscious of his father’s legacy as a police officer and is determined to prove that he is better. The other officers in the force dislike him for having testified in a case of police brutality against a group of Mexican prisoners and forcing the dismissal of officer Stensland as a result. Stensland was the partner of Bud White (Russell Crowe), a hard-man plainclothes officer with a penchant for violence against wife-beaters, who vows revenge against Exley. White accepts a job from the police head Dudley Smith (James Cromwell) to intimidate criminals wanting to set up shop in Los Angeles. Sergeant Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey) is an easy-going detective who gives technical advice to a TV crime show and feeds information to the editor Sid Hudgens (Danny de Vito) of Hush-Hush magazine. The magazine gives kickbacks to Vincennes for staging arrests of famous people caught with drugs or in flagrante delicto. All three men are drawn into the Nite Owl coffee shop incident in different ways: Exley is the first to receive the call of the shooting and goes out to investigate; White discovers the murder victims include his old partner Stensland and a woman, Susan Lefferts, whom he has met before; and Vincennes investigates a pornography racket linked to the Fleur-de-Lis prostitution service that supplies girls altered by plastic surgery to resemble famous Hollywood movie stars. The officers’ independent investigations bring them in contact with call-girl Lynn Bracken (Kim Basinger) and her employer Pierce Patchett (David Strathairn) who runs Fleur-de-Lis. Eventually Exley and White realise their investigations have brought them together in a set-up manipulated by powerful forces to get Exley out of the way and in spite of their differences the two officers agree to co-operate to rid the police department and city government of the true corruption they realise exists.

The film recreates and captures the colourful glamour of Los Angeles and Hollywood during their Golden Age, enhanced by the smoky jazz music soundtrack and Hudgens’s voice-over narration which presents the city as a paradise where little crime occurs and the police are always clean. The exotic atmosphere fades about halfway through the movie as the plot becomes more complicated with the officers often doubling up on one another’s investigations to the exasperation of some suspects and the body count begins to pile up quickly. Hudgens dies so there is no more voice-over and the music starts sounding like generic soundtrack music. Los Angeles is not such an unspoiled, gleaming “Garden of Eden” after all where people can reinvent themselves and start with a clean slate.

What character development exists is restricted to the three officers Exley, White and Vincennes. The fact that viewers see them changing their views about one another and the world around them is testament to the actors’ abilities as well as the screenplay. Crowe is believable as a thug with a soft spot in his heart for vulnerable women threatened by violence and it’s possible that the character of White is close to the actor’s own personality. Exley undergoes the biggest transformation of all three characters, starting as a rookie detective who sees the world in black and white, prepared to play politics and disdainful of White’s violence but later realising that surface appearances don’t necessarily reflect the true nature of people and events. He comes to appreciate White as a loyal friend who responds in like manner. Pearce pulls off a career-defining performance going from bookish and cold to a warmer, more fully rounded character. Spacey has limited time on screen as Vincennes who undergoes a mini-transformation from corrupt cop to determined crusader after a minor character dies; he pays the price for his change of conscience when he comes too close too quickly to the real centre of corruption. Of the support cast, Basinger stands out for playing a stock stereotype blonde babe of blemished background who needs saving; Basinger invests a basically passive character with more emotional substance than it needs.

There’s perhaps too much plot for audiences to digest in one sitting and repeated viewings are needed though Exley does provide a quick potted explanation of events starting with the Nite Owl cafe shoot-out all the way to the bullet-ballet climax at a deserted motel near the end. It’s clear that deception and illusion are at the heart of the plot of “L.A. Confidential”: the city as paradise where dreams come true; the police as always moral, clean and fair; Bud White as thuggish and thick; Jack Vincennes as easy to buy off and corrupt but coming round to fulfilling his duty as police officer. Black people and organised crime gangs are implicated in the Nite Owl massacre case but the three investigating officers discover their findings lead to their own force. Exley, White and Vincennes learn something about themselves and one another and rise beyond their differences, dislike of one another and their separate police jurisdictions to combat the real evil.

The ending is Hollywood-style happy which is a major let-down in an otherwise credible noir film: some of the city’s corruption has been cleaned up but nowhere near enough. The city officials’ reaction to the death of a crooked police officer is to portray him as a hero in his newspaper obituary. The final scene could be changed slightly to two characters fleeing Los Angeles forever (in the manner of the science fiction movie “Blade Runner”) instead of going on a holiday. Even so, “L.A. Confidential” is a good film in the style of retro noir.