No Country for Old Men: all the right stuff and still not a great movie

Joel Cohen, “No Country for Old Men” (2007)

Is it possible for a movie to have all the “right stuff” – you know, good acting performances, great cinematography that emphasises the desolate mood of the Texan semi-desert landscapes, a tight screenplay, a plot with a steady pace that ratchets the tension up to a tremendous, heart-breaking climax – and still stop short of greatness? In the case of Ethan and Joel Coen’s “No Country for Old Men”, based on the Cormac McCarthy novel of the same name, the answer is actually “Yes”.  The problem relates to the themes and ideas the film focusses on, in particular the nature of the universe where the film is set: a universe where randomness and unpredictability rule. Good and bad people alike have things done to them for no reason other than that there is a vicious cosmic joker at work, and having good moral principles or ethics is the same as having bad ones or none at all.  It becomes difficult for characters in this world, especially a fragmented one with little sense of community, where hyper-individualism and extreme self-reliance are valued, to understand and learn to deal with the problem of evil if it strikes swiftly and unexpectedly with no logic to it at all. A kind of complacency can result with people becoming resigned to the continuing and increasing level of evil and violence in their lives.

Unemployed welder and former Vietnam war veteran Llewelyn Moss (Brolin) is hunting game when he stumbles upon the aftermath of a shoot-out of a drug deal gone wrong, and he finds a suitcase of money. He takes the money (it happens to be bugged) and leaves the scene; later, feeling guilty that he didn’t help a survivor at that scene, he returns there with aid but is caught by various drug gang members and barely escapes with his life but must abandon his ute. Knowing that the drug gang will have checked the ute for ID papers so they can go after him, Moss bundles his wife Carla Jean (Kelly Macdonald) off to safety with her mother and himself goes on the run from one motel to the next. Meanwhile two gang leaders hire a professional killer, Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), to get the money back; Chigurh clinches his side of the deal by killing the leaders. The next day, Bell finds the gang leaders’ bodies and identifies Moss’s ute; he contacts Carla Jean later to offer police protection.

The rest of the film involves Chigurh hounding Moss and leaving mayhem in his wake while Bell becomes ever more perplexed at the level and intensity of the violence Chigurh commits. The tension steadily grows as Chigurh gets ever so close to Moss yet remains ever so far away and Moss comes close to danger but escapes in the nick of time by sheer luck (Chigurh picks the wrong room at one motel, Moss finds the electronic bug in the suitcase just in time in another motel). Ultimately both men fail in their objectives as they move in  a capricious world that’s indifferent to the fate of its inhabitants; a world where people must make sense of their circumstances and create their own rules of morality on the hop simply to survive. Innocent people die and even Chigurh himself, the bringer of death, is felled by a random act of very trite and unintended violence – a commonplace car accident! – that he can’t deal with on his own and which makes his future, even his survival, uncertain. If one assumes that he’s managed to get the money but not Moss – and there are clues in the film that that’s what happened – then the gang that the money “belongs to” will certainly be on his trail.

The grim justice of Chigurh’s fate would be more blackly comic if the Coens had identified the people who caused the accident and kept them alive. Chigurh would be faced with this dilemma: follow his inner logic and kill the persons responsible when he gets the chance; or acknowledge the fortuitous nature of the situation and let the people go. This would be the film’s climax and its best moment: Chigurh in a position to exercise free will by breaking out of old habits and ways of thinking.  If he follows the advice that he gave to a shopowner early in the film – the one where the guy followed a rule all his life and the rule put him into a rut so should he still follow that rule? – he might redeem himself in a small way. In spite of living in an uncaring and even malevolent universe, as long as people can exercise free will, they have the potential to be more than what life, experience and knowledge have made them so far, and can create some order in the universe. If Chigurh could do this, an irony comes into play: he finally becomes a human being, no longer the Grim Reaper’s right-hand man or an angel of death. The universe itself doesn’t change – it stays an amoral place – but one inhabitant makes his own peace with it.

One character likely to appeal to viewers is Carla Jean who, though the ultimate victim through no fault of her own, shows some inner steel. In refusing to stoop to Chigurh’s level by arguing that he has free will and more control over his decisions and fate than he knows (“… the coin don’t have no say …”), she seals her own fate but in a way that diminishes Chigurh. She shows him a way out of his implacable code of “honour” but he fails to seize it.

The other appealing character is Sheriff Bell, invested with warmth and feeling by Jones, who laments at what he believes is the passing of a more civilised world where the good guys and the bad guys alike abided by an unspoken etiquette and a code of honour. I should think a world like that would be a closeted world of bribery, manipulation and corruption if everyone understands the same language and knows one another well, perhaps too well, and it might not be less violent than the one portrayed in the film. Faced with a series of crimes his training, knowledge and experience haven’t prepared him for, Bell feels overwhelmed by their senseless and cruel nature and eventually retires from the police force, admitting defeat. There’s a parallel with Chigurh here: Chigurh sticks to a rigid code of self-reliance and not owing anyone anything, and Bell believes in a different code that implies a certain insularity and insider knowledge. Both men remain diminished as characters by not being able to open up to other possibilities in their world.

The practical viewer might inquire why Bell doesn’t call for police back-up from other parts of Texas or contact the United States Marshals Service for assistance to pursue Chigurh and understand his type of criminality. Even in the period the film is set in (1980), when the FBI hadn’t yet developed methods of serial killer profiling and predicting serial killer behaviour, violent crime of that nature was not common but did occur often enough in the US that law enforcement agencies were devoting resources to studying it so help was available then. It’s significant that the male characters in the film don’t ask for or seek help when they should and this refusal together with extreme self-reliance ends up being the undoing of some characters. In a society like this, it’s possible for people like Chigurh and the people he works for to cut a swathe of destruction without meeting much resistance while those left to pick up the pieces scratch their heads and wonder.

The Coens obviously enjoy creating a world of grim black humour where characters, good, bad and evil ones alike, flail about trying to make sense of everything that happens and to control people and events around them – only for it all to rebound and leave them forlorn, isolated, angry, violent – or stone-cold dead. Unfortunately the Coens’ perspective is likely to leave a lot of viewers, expecting to see Chigurh and Moss confront each other and one of them winning, dumbfounded and feeling cheated. Parts of the narrative are deliberately left opaque at critical points which will infuriate some viewers even more.

Here is a movie that boasts great craftsmanship and good performances but which falls short of saying something unique and significant that would make it a great film. What’s unique about saying that individuals can’t overcome evil when it is vague, lacks sense, logic or intelligence and strikes randomly and without warning, and leaving the message at that? This is a message of hopelessness, one that makes people fearful and likely to hand power over to institutions (government, mercenaries perhaps) that might abuse it. We may not be able to understand evil or combat and defeat it fully but there’s a difference between throwing our hands up in despair and perhaps giving our power over to others, and recognising and resisting evil in ourselves as individuals and as members of groups.

Dark City (dir. Alex Proyas): thought-provoking ideas and issues trapped in a prison

Alex Proyas, “Dark City” (1998)

An attractive film that combines elements of film noir, mystery, science fiction and (regrettably) action thriller, “Dark City” is a quest into the role that memories play in shaping people’s identities and individualities with a darker message about how a person’s memories – and his or her identity as a result – can be changed and moulded by others pursuing a secret agenda. This sinister message can apply to whole communities and societies as well with the result that even a country might exist only on the basis of lies and myths concocted by an elite group and believed by the country’s entire population.

The film is upfront about the nature of its nameless Dark City in the opening voice-over narrative supplied by an important character, Dr Schreber (Kiefer Sutherland): a group of aliens known as the Strangers, whose original world and civilisation are destroyed, and who themselves are on the verge of dying out, nab a whole bunch of people from Earth – how many isn’t said – and pop them into a floating prison space-ship reconstructed in the style of American cities as they might have appeared in mystery or crime thriller movies of the 1940’s. The purpose is to study the humans in order to find out what makes them “individual” and to use that knowledge to save the Strangers from extinction. Quite how the Strangers found out about human civilisation and how they conducted their research – they must have plundered film libraries throughout the world for information on how to build cities – isn’t explained but they end up producing a claustrophobic and grim brutalist metropolis with some Art Deco and German Expressionist flourishes that is a homage to Fritz Lang’s famous dystopian flick “Metropolis”. Into this world is “born” a man (Rufus Sewell) in a bath-tub full of water: he wakes up and realises he has no name, not many childhood memories and certainly no idea as to why the woman in the room outside the bathroom should be a bloodied mess with knife wounds all over and weird spirals painted in red on her naked body. He stumbles into some clothes, out of the hotel and into the streets, working out that he’s called John Murdoch and that he spent some time in an idyllic seaside place called Shell Beach. While he’s busy reconstructing who and what he’s supposed to be, others are hunting for him: the police, led by Detective Bumstead (William Hurt), believe him to be the woman’s murderer; and the Strangers together with Dr Schreber want him so they can fix up their botched experiment in creating a serial killer.

Since the Strangers abhor sunlight and moisture, they keep their prison city in perpetual night and allow no rivers or other bodies of water near it. At “midnight” every day, they put all the human inhabitants to sleep and modify the city’s environment and the people in a process called “tuning”: new buildings sprout from the ground like vegies on Viagra and Schreber, allowed to stay awake, goes around injecting individual folks (using alarming-looking heavy-duty syringes) with new identities and memories that he’s cooked up in his laboratory deep underground where the Strangers live. For some lucky humans, upward social mobility is achieved in the space of 15 minutes or roughly the time it takes for a table to morph three times its length. Murdoch discovers that he too can stay awake during the tuning periods and moreover can tune buildings by mind power; he uses this ability to evade the police and the Strangers on several occasions while trying to make his way to Shell Beach. He discovers though that while people “know” the place, they can’t give him the directions. He locates a relative, Uncle Karl (John Bluthal) who happily tells him about his childhood but Murdoch discerns glaring holes in the reminiscences and exposes the stories and the uncle himself as deliberate artificial constructs.

Later surrendering himself to the police, Murdoch meets Bumstead who himself has been troubled about what’s happening in the city and he convinces the detective that there’s something not right about the place. They both track down Schreber and force him to take them to the farthest outskirts of the city in the direction of Shell Beach. The threesome come up against a brick wall (literally) and what they find behind the illusion of Shell Beach confirms Murdoch’s suspicions about the artificial world they live in …

The speedy and straightforward nature of the plot and the ease with which Murdoch deconstructs the nature of everything around him give the film and its concerns an air of superficiality which is unfortunate. Needed are a few lingering bird’s-eye point-of-view shots of the city sprinkled throughout the film to emphasise its alien atmosphere and artificiality and to let people savour its idiosyncratic appearance while thinking about the events they’ve just seen; such moments can also serve to heighten or reduce tension, depending on what point in the plot they appear. Though early shots of the cityscape look moody and glamorous enough, later the city starts to look generic and more prison-like and becomes less of a character than it should be as the film slips into action-thriller mode. The result is that the movie ends up looking like a budget version of “Metropolis” and there’s very little sense of the city as a multi-layered Gothic creature harbouring secrets and conspiracies in its alley-ways, tunnels, labyrinths and stairwells. If a film is going to use CGI processes to create a city, it should go the whole hog and beyond to create something that looks as if it took decades, even centuries, to develop and mature. Seems it’s not only the Strangers who need to learn that surface style is no substitute for substance.

Acting excellence and character development aren’t very important in a film like “Dark City” where everyone bar Schreber is supposed to be one-dimensional and if people show any signs of personality, the Strangers will subject them to a cerebral clean-out. Sewell and Hurt play their parts straight and acquit themselves well though Proyas could have included more close-ups of Sewell’s face; this actor has wide soulful eyes with a clear colour that could reflect the progress his character makes in reconstructing his identity. Jennifer Connelly as Murdoch’s wife Emma has little to do and her part could have been dispensed with entirely. Sutherland plays Schreber as a campy mad scientist: his role as collaborator who switches sides is admittedly a difficult one and perhaps his obsequious little creep is the only way to play a duplicitous character bouncing off Sewell’s straight-man role.

Where the film really slumps is in its last fifteen minutes where Murdoch faces off against the Strangers’ leader (Ian Richardson), again literally, and rocks and bodies get thrown around in a boring pyrotechnics display. A film with some aspirations to being cerebral and concerned with investigating artificiality-versus-reality could do much better and more, and include a scenario where the Strangers and humans agree that truth ultimately trumps lies and they should live together as equals: the strangers would then discover that it’s only by allowing humans the freedom to construct their own identities over time that individuality is achieved. In this way the Strangers discover the remedy to their past mistakes and save themselves from extinction. Instead we end up with a scenario where the dark city could end up living another lie, only this time a lie created by a human with the potential to rule as tyrant. Individuality and memory would be used to prop up the new lie and enforce a new kind of conformity.

It’s a real pity when a movie with its heart in the right place and an ingenious concept investigating memory, identity and the nature and role of artifice gets stuck at a level simply to please what commercial interests perceive to be the lowest common denominator in movie-going audiences and a potentially good, thought-provoking story ends up marooned within.

Easy Rider: film holds a mirror to mainstream US society in 1969 – and beyond

Dennis Hopper, “Easy Rider” (1969)

Stripped of the hype that has grown around it over the years, “Easy Rider” is a well-made if loose low-budget flick about two drug dealers Wyatt and Billy (Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper respectively) who, having come into a big sum of money from supplying smuggled cocaine to a man (Phil Spector) in a Rolls Royce, decide to ride from Los Angeles to New Orleans on their chopper bikes to see Mardi Gras, and then on to Florida where they plan to retire and live off the proceeds of the drug sale. Although the movie draws inspiration from the hippie counter-culture of the period and features a music soundtrack of songs from various American pop and rock acts of the time, in a way it’s not really so much an investigation into the alternative culture as it is into mainstream American culture at the time seen through the mirror of the hippie culture, and what it reveals about mainstream culture, or mainstream culture in the US Deep South, is not a pretty sight at all.

Their money stuffed into the petrol tank of Wyatt’s chopper, the two ride through spectacular desert scenery in Arizona, New Mexico and Texas, meeting various folks along the way and encountering all manner of reactions to their appearance and apparently free life-style: a hospitable rancher whose down-to-earth way of life is admired by Wyatt; a hitch-hiker who directs the travellers to take him to his commune that practises free love and tries to eke a living by growing crops in the harsh desert conditions; various small-town folks in Louisiana who deeply disapprove of the strangers in their midst and want to run them out of town; a drunken lawyer, George Hansen (Jack Nicholson), who frees the bikers from jail; two prostitutes called Mary and Karen (Toni Basil and Karen Black respectively); and two trigger-happy hillbillies. The narrative is tightly bound: the hitch-hiker gives Wyatt and Billy some LSD which they later share with Mary and Karen, and all of them experiencing a bad hallucination; the hippies and Hansen embody aspects of an alternative way of living and thinking to what most Americans in the late 1960’s believed was “normal” or conventional; and the hippies’ precarious life-style and Hansen’s violent beating and murder presage an ugly end for the bikers themselves.

For me the surprise is that Wyatt and Billy are much less “rebellious” than everybody has believed them to be: Wyatt appears to yearn for a simple, less materialist and more spiritual life and has more confidence in the hippies’ ability to survive in the desert than his more worldly companion; and Billy is really a conventional guy at heart who lives for the moment and connects being rich with living it up and having lots of girls fawning over him for his wealth. The guys are “rebellious” only in the sense that they take the values of freedom and individuality that American culture supposedly prizes at face value and practise them in real life. Perhaps the really rebellious character is Hansen, the spoilt geek son of a big-fish rich lawyer in their small-pond part of Louisiana, who expresses his desire for a more equal and socialistic society when, drawing on a marijuana reefer, he waxes very lyrically about a UFO Billy saw some time ago and says it is part of a fleet of UFOs operated by aliens whose technology and culture are far more advanced and humane than those of humans. Nicholson plays Hansen in a deliberately over-the-top zonked-out performance that endears him to viewers and makes his opinions less extreme than they would be had they come from a more conventional and restrained character; it also makes his death more horrific and affecting, as he is the one character in the movie who genuinely believes in democracy and equality for everyone regardless of their skin colour or early background, and practises what he preaches (he works for the American Civil Liberties Union).

The style of film-making is unusual for a Hollywood movie of its time: there’s not much dialogue in early scenes and the camera often rests its gaze on objects or passes over scenes at unusual angles without anyone saying anything in the background; and in one scene when the bikers visit the hippie commune, the camera pans right around the circle of hippies to capture the feeling of a community. The part where the bikers and the prostitutes experience the bad effects of an LSD trip is a highly experimental sequence of quick camera shots and editing, juxtaposing religious pictures and symbols and a recitation of the Lord’s Prayer with scenes of the foursome stumbling about in a cemetery, Karen stuck howling in a narrow passage between walls and Mary stripping for Wyatt. The camera sometimes spins about as if in a panic and sunlight appears to stream down so much it hurts the eyes.

If the film makes a comment on the hippie counter-culture, it is that taking drugs isn’t necessarily a release from dreary, everyday life and can have frightening psychological effects on people, and that idealism has to be tempered with realism. The hippies encountered don’t seem all that happy with their lot, the men listlessly scattering seed over barren ground, and the women labouring in the kitchen and caring for the children; they may have longer hair and more colourful clothes than regular folks did in their time but their sexual politics are just as conservative, unequal and taken for granted. The overall opinion of “Easy Rider” to aspects of the counter-culture is quite conservative and not necessarily the correct one: when Hansen initially hesitates to take the reefer and suggests it might lead him to “harder stuff”, the bikers’ reaction is silence, as if confirming that point of view. The idea that using marijuana serves as a gateway to using other more dangerous drugs is a highly controversial one with a history of medical research that produces contradictory results, depending on how the study or experiment is designed. It may well be that in many countries the illegal status of marijuana itself makes it a gateway drug if it is supplied by the same people who supply harder drugs.

The meaning of freedom is explored in the film somewhat: Billy seeks materialistic freedom, Wyatt is after a more abstract and spiritual freedom and Hansen wishes for the freedom of a fuller, richer life experience that he so far hasn’t had. One irony of “Easy Rider” is that neither Billy, Wyatt or Hansen finds the freedom he yearns for, or in the case of Wyatt and Hansen, they experience the downside of the freedom they seek, Hansen in particular paying the price for breaking out of his conventional Southern upbringing by being beaten up by small-minded and prejudiced Southern white men. The second irony is that the freedom the bikers enjoy in the film was always going to be short-lived – it would only last as long as their last penny. Even as “rebels”, Wyatt and Billy are still dependent on the capitalist economy to support them and so in that sense they are not really free.

The surprising thing is that the film isn’t more dated than it is, especially in its themes and ideas. Part of the reason is that in the last 30 years, US society has gone back on much of the social progress it made during the 1960’s and 1970’s. Hansen’s remark about the place of freedom in US society – that it’s fine for people to talk about freedom and about being free, but living it is what frightens people (and by implication the authorities) – finds its uncomfortable echo in the US government’s increasingly neo-fascist treatment of its citizens in so many areas of life, society and culture as the country continues to bog down in wars in western Asia with no clear exit strategy in sight.

Citizen Kane: interesting film but it privileges style over substance

Orson Welles, “Citizen Kane” (1941)

Notwithstanding its tag as America’s greatest film or the world’s greatest film – usually bestowed by American film critics, of course! – “Citizen Kane” is actually an interesting film that challenges its audiences to think about how one man may easily become corrupted into arrogance, greed and self-importance to the extent that he makes errors of judgement and crashes into humiliation and ruin spectacularly. I daresay that while the film is about just one individual, its tale of the American Dream of rising from obscurity with perhaps an innocent or idealistic goal to success, fame and influence, only to fall into ignominy and oblivion with a loss of the original ideal or ideals, could apply to organisations and even entire countries as it does to people generally. However as a study of a man’s life and character, while it does a great job demonstrating the anti-hero’s faults and errors, “Citizen Kane” actually has little to say about how the man came to be so cynical about and nasty towards his fellow human beings.

The film’s narrative structure is very unusual for a Hollywood product of its time. It begins with a series of ghostly Gothic images appropriate to a horror movie – a bit of black humour on director Welles’s part perhaps – featuring a huge building and its surrounds, with the camera focussing closer and closer with each succeeding shot on a light behind a window. The window eventually takes up most of the screen, there’s a black-out, suggestive of a terrible event within, the light comes back on and suddenly the camera thrusts the viewer behind the window, inside the room. A close-up shot of a man’s lips whispering “Rosebud” appears, then the camera zips to a hand releasing a snow globe that shatters on the floor and there’s a mirror image of a nurse coming into the man’s room; the nurse moves to lay a sheet over the dead man. This artfully sequenced series of montages alerts us that the story to come will be in flashbacks or reminiscences and may not be conventionally laid out. Sure enough an obituary of media magnate Charles Foster Kane (Orson Welles) is presented by a news service “News on the March”, detailing Kane’s achievements and failures in full in a style typical of filmed news articles of the time (early 20th century) and even going so far as to feature blurry film footage of Kane in his wheelchair dotage. After the obituary ends, a group of journalists discusses Kane’s late word “Rosebud” and one reporter Jerry Thompson (William Alland) determines to locate and interview significant people in Kane’s life including Kane’s second wife Susan (Dorothy Comingore) and best friend cum Kane’s conscience Jedediah Leland (Joseph Cotten) about their opinions of and experiences with Kane and what they think “Rosebud” means.

Through the interviewees’ recollections and Thompson’s research at the private library of Kane’s guardian Walter Parks Thatcher (George Coulouris), we learn that Kane came into a considerable inheritance when very young. At the age of 25, he enters the newspaper business by buying The New York Inquirer, hires the best reporters he can find and uses the paper to create and spread sensationalist news, and mould public opinion. The paper also criticises political and economic elites and their exploitation of the public with sharp business practices. A first marriage links him to influential people in politics and Kane prepares for a political career by campaigning for State governor. Both his campaign and marriage derail when his opponent discovers and publicises a secret love affair with singer Susan Alexander. Kane marries the singer after a quick divorce but from this moment on, he makes one blunder after another: he attempts to mould Susan into an opera singer but bad reviews and her suicide attempt kill off that ambition; he builds his extravagant home Xanadu complete with private zoo but fortunately for good taste the Great Depression hits the United States in 1929 and ruins Kane’s media empire utterly. Trustees take over what’s left of his fortune. Susan leaves him and Kane withdraws completely into seclusion.

The film’s not too clear on how and at what moment Kane becomes so consumed with his own success, power and influence that they sap any idealism he might have had and lead to gross errors of judgement. It’s plain though that Kane’s moral compass from young adulthood on is quite shaky and he eagerly exploits the yearnings of ordinary people to give them what he thinks they want – populist crusading on their behalf, based on a set of socialistic principles which Kane later repudiates – and to grow rich from fulfilling what other newspapers consider tacky and base desires. How Kane managed to avoid a solid grounding in ethics at home, school and college is not explained in the film and this might be considered its major failing. Although Kane’s character is based partly on the character and personality of William Randolph Hearst, the major US media magnate of Welles’s day, it’s not difficult for us seventy years later to imagine parallels between Kane and the current global media magnate Rupert Murdoch and many of his media industry peers around the world. However as the film relies on unreliable and often biased points of view, the picture of Kane that emerges is vague and fragmented and viewers may be forgiven for thinking, well how did such a man get to be so rich, so famous and so powerful if he made so many mistakes and did such stupid things? Thompson’s choice of interviewees itself is strange: second wife, a former best friend, a loyal business manager, a butler – these are people a trashy sensationalist biography might rely on. What about Kane’s business and political rivals and allies, why aren’t they interviewed? Is it because they might not offer juicy titbits worthy of celebrity gossip magazines? Hmm, that in itself isn’t a good reflection on Welles’s opinion of what movie-goers want to see!

Technically the film is excellent with every shot and series of shots set up, framed and presented carefully for maximum impact and to influence viewers’ impressions of Kane and the monster he became. A series of montages of Kane and his first wife sitting at breakfast demonstrates perfectly how their marriage deteriorates over the years: at the beginning of the montage, the two are sitting close together; each succeeding shot shows them ageing and talking at each other rather than to each other; eventually one shot shows them reading rival newspapers; and the end shot shows them at opposite ends of a long table. The placement of certain background props creates optical illusions – in some scenes, characters walk towards the background and end up being dwarfed by the backdrops (often paintings rather than actual built backgrounds) which may show how much their reputations have diminished – or establishes a mood or characters’ relationships to one another – when Susan walks out on Kane, she does so through a series of doors which shows beyond doubt that their marriage is finished and done with. Physical settings and clever framing of the actors and the action – in many shots, three actors are placed in such a way that their heads form points of a triangle and the lighting in the scene will focus on one actor and make that person the centre of attention – often indicate more than action and dialogue alone and together can do what is happening in the plot, how the actors’ characters relate to one another and even give a hint of what is to happen next.

The sequencing of the shots that move the plot back and forth in time can be very smooth and clever: in the segment of the film in which Jedediah Leland is being interviewed, the change in time is signalled by the background changing behind Leland while he is speaking and then Leland himself gradually darkens and disappears into the scene being remembered; when the film comes back to Leland in the present day, the foreground of a previous scene in which Kane is typing Leland’s last review becomes the background to Leland and the interviewer. The background darkens and Leland’s nurses later emerge from it.

The final shots of the film are amazing to behold, showing off the hundreds of art objects, furniture pieces, office equipment, toys and other bric-a-brac Kane accumulated in his life. These inanimate items perhaps reveal more about Kane and his desire to control and possess everything, everyone and every situation around him than all the interviewees have been able to say. We finally learn that the one thing Kane could not control was that moment in his childhood when his destiny changed – when he learned of his inheritance while he was mucking about on his sled – and his carefree and happy days were over: this is the apparently profound yet also very ordinary and hardly earth-shattering(?) secret behind “Rosebud”. The very last shot of the film of Xanadu behind the gate with its “No Trespassing” sign, the mansion’s chimney smoking furiously, the fires within its furnace erasing all memory of Kane, is more sinister than sad; Welles couldn’t have known while making the movie that Nazi Germany was about to move Jews, Roma and other groups of people to concentration and death camp complexes hidden deep in remote country areas in Poland.

Welles introduced a number of technical innovations in “Citizen Kane” including the use of unusual camera angles, strong contrasts of light and shadow, and deep focus shots (in which backgrounds are contrasted with foregrounds) and on these innovations the film’s reputation as America’s greatest film or the world’s greatest film lies. Much credit must go to the cinematographer Gregg Toland as to Welles himself. The acting varies from efficient to hammy and some individual performances (Cotten as Leland, Everett Sloane as the business manager) are better than others. The film’s narrative conceals or misses more than it shows and makes demands on the audience to fill in the missing gaps. We end up knowing that Kane most definitely is an arsehole but how he came to be such a miserable bastard and how the “Rosebud” sled ties into such a development, the film never comes close to even hinting at. Hate to say it but even with Orson Welles and “Citizen Kane”, style wins over substance. Kane himself might well be smiling (and Leland grimacing) at the irony.

Still there’s a valuable lesson in “Citizen Kane” in that it demonstrates how early success can be the ruin of people if they’re not sufficiently grounded in a moral code and are easily swayed by flattery and immediate though short-term fame and fortune about how important and influential they are.

To Catch A Thief: there’s fluff and then there’s fluff, Hitchcock-style

Alfred Hitchcock, “To Catch A Thief” (1955)

A clever light-hearted comedy crime caper set in southern France, this was one of Grace Kelly’s last films before she married Prince Rainier of Monaco and settled permanently in that part of the world, and Cary Grant’s “comeback” movie after he had declared his retirement from making films in 1953. Grant plays retired cat burglar John Robie aka the Cat, enjoying life as a vineyard owner on the Cote d’Azur. Enjoyment is short-lived though as a series of jewellery burglaries with the hallmarks of the Cat’s style lead the local gendarmes to suspect Robie’s gone back to his old occupation. He calls on his old friends with whom he fought in the French Resistance in the 1940’s (and with whom he swore never to return to crime) to pull in some favours but they’re suspicious and upset that he’s apparently gone back to his old ways.  He escapes the police only with the help of Danielle (Brigitte Auber), the daughter of his friend Foussard. Danielle is infatuated with Robie and suggests they flee to South America together but Robie refuses.

His reputation under a shade, Robie decides to clear his name by catching the copy-cat (ha!) in action so he enlists insurance agent Hughson (John Williams) to help him. Hughson introduces him to rich American socialite Mrs Stevens (Jessie Royce Landis) and her daughter Frances (Grace Kelly) who happen to be top of a list of likely victims for the thief. Initially Frances is attracted to Robie (and eventually falls in love with him), guesses his identity and becomes enthralled with his presumed life-style, at least until mother loses her jewels to the thief.

Robie stakes out the roof-tops to try to catch the thief but ends up struggling with an attacker who turns out to be Foussard. Foussard falls from the roofs into the harbour and drowns. The police later announce that Foussard was the copy-cat thief but Robie points out to Hughson in his office that Foussard had a prosthetic leg and couldn’t be the thief. Later at Foussard’s funeral, Danielle sees Robie in attendance and accuses him of murdering her father so he has to leave. On exiting the cemetery, Robie meets Frances who has read about Foussard’s death in the papers. She apologises to Robie and confesses that she loves him.

In the evening Robie attends a masquerade ball with Frances and by doing a costume swap with Hughson, manages to evade the police and stakes out his position again on the roof-tops, determined to catch the real copy-cat thief …

The film is beautifully shot in what was called VistaVision at the time: Hitchcock revels in bird’s-eye view and aeroplane shots of colourful French Riviera coastal scenes with picturesque villages, long snaking roads through mountains and luxurious holiday resorts for the rich. The rich colour of the setting is echoed in the lavish masquerade ball in the last quarter of the film. Even the roof-tops at night exude an eerie, almost radioactive-bright green colour. The most colourful highlight of the film though – and the most overtly sexual – is the fireworks scene, interspersed with scenes of Robie and Frances alone together in a darkened room, trading witty sexualised repartee and doing more besides while the camera concentrates on the pyrotechnics.

There is a lot of sexual innuendo in the film and much of it, like the fireworks display, isn’t necessarily verbal: even the car-chase scene, where Frances hits the gas to escape the cops and Robie is forced to be her unwilling passenger, could be construed as a kind of “seduction” (read: rape, sort of) scene. Then there are obvious gags like Danielle showing off her legs to a police plane on the floating jetty. The physical setting itself carries cultural baggage as a place for holiday romance and seduction – no doubt fictional British spy James Bond spent many days and nights on the Cote d’Azur and in Monaco with gal pals too numerous to mention – and the colours of the masquerade, and the masquerade itself with its late 18th-century costume theme, recall the sensual decadence of the period of French queen Marie Antoinette’s court.

It becomes clear that the film’s crime caper plot is secondary to its raison d’etre which is the romance between Grant and Kelly’s characters. Robie may be the thief trying to catch a thief but the real thief is Frances who catches him and steals his heart. The denouement in which Frances gazes around Robie’s property and comments on how her mother will love the place, Robie’s priceless expression at the comment and the doomy sound of the church bell tolling at the same time is a hilarious Hitchcock piece of black humour and a small showcase of how well Grant and Kelly worked together despite the huge difference in their ages (at the time, he was at least twice her age). I haven’t seen Cary Grant in a movie before but his acting here suggests that “To Catch A Thief” was a cakewalk for him: he glides well-dressed through his scenes, seems very relaxed and barely creases his forehead even when danger threatens. No wonder he was an early candidate to play James Bond. Kelly, playing an assertive and intelligent young socialite who, uncharacteristically in a 1950’s film, is the active suitor to Grant’s character who plays hard-to-get, would have made an ideal Bond girl if she had been born half a century later. It’s likely that Kelly and Grant improvised a lot of the sexual banter within the scene paramaters set up by Hitchcock. The ad-libbing would highlight how well they clicked together on the screen. The predictable screen romance becomes more interesting and I can truly believe Frances will be more than a match for the lounge-lizard Robie.

It’s interesting that in this film and “Rear Window” at least, Kelly plays a sophisticated, wealthy ice-queen socialite with nerves of steel and daring who will defend and preserve not only her own life but the lives of others, with the aim of snaring a man who’s less of a “man” than she is. I’ve not yet seen “Dial M for Murder” but I understand that in that film, Kelly plays the same kind of character. Like Lisa in “Rear Window”, Frances assumes characteristics associated with male heroes of 1950’s films while the male co-star is forced to adopt a passive feminine role or the characteristics associated with such a role: she saves Robie from being detained or shot by the police on two occasions while he is either helpless or trapped. In a period when most movies portrayed blonde women as empty-headed, ditzy sex bombshells, Kelly and other blonde actresses who featured in Hitchcock’s films must have been thanking their lucky stars to have come across a director consistently offering them challenging work. The popular conception of Hitchcock has always been that he was a misogynist and treated his actresses badly, but this conception could be based on his complicated relationship with Tippi Hedren, star of “The Birds” and “Marnie”. I’d say Hitchcock’s relationship to his lead actresses must at least have been as complicated as, say, Danish director Lars von Trier’s relationship to the lead actresses in the films he directs: von Trier draws performances from his lead actresses that can be great as well as emotionally draining for them in films that have been construed as demonstrating a misogynist viewpoint. But I suspect von Trier  likes turning traditional (or maybe not-so-very traditional) Western views of women on their head in ways that challenge and confront audiences about their own beliefs and the possibility that at some level, we are still influenced by old notions about how “good” women should behave versus how “bad” women usually behave. In like manner, Hitchcock may have enjoyed turning ideas about “good ” women and “bad” women on their head. I’m sure modern audiences watching Kelly in “To Catch A Thief” might be just as amused or surprised as audiences were 50-plus years ago seeing her character pursue Robie aggressively and flaunt her sexuality at him in the darkened hotel room during the fireworks display.

For a film that’s regarded as Hitchcock at his fluffiest, I managed to write a fair amount but this demonstrates that even fluff, when done by Hitchcock, still retains a lot of the rich, subversive and layered quality of the Hitchcock universe. Deception is everywhere in this film wherever viewers look and might be considered a major theme. Perhaps Robie’s look of horror at the end of the film is its real climax: he realises the depth of Frances’s deception and that her “love” for him was really a way of snaring more real estate and wealth for her family. Who’s the real thief? Yep, there’s fluff and then there’s fluff, Hitchcock-style.

Fair Game: Naomi Watts wastes her time as an unappealing good-girl CIA agent

Doug Liman, “Fair Game” (2010)

Facing Off: Naomi Watts as Valerie Plame and Sean Penn as Joe Wilson in ‘Fair Game’
Picture Source: Melinda Sue Gordon for Warner Bros Pictures, www.hollywoodchicago.com

A few weeks ago (early December 2010), I went to a talk at an adult education centre in Sydney and the speaker there, Keith Suter, who is a consultant and lecturer on international affairs, recommended to the audience that they see this film so out of curiosity I did. I had heard of Valerie Plame some years ago and knew the events surrounding her exposure as a CIA agent by Wall Street Journal columnist Robert Novak in July 2003, and her connection to former US ambassador Joseph Wilson (he’s her husband) who published an article “What I didn’t find in Africa”, detailing his fact-finding trip to Niger to see if Iraq had sought and bought uranium from that country, and finding no evidence that Iraq had done so, for the New York Times a week before her outing. The movie concentrates mainly on Wilson’s belligerent and energetic attempts to expose the US government’s deliberate use of information to lie to the public and lead the country into an unwanted war, and the toll his actions and the media circus take on his marriage and on Plame herself, with a message about how democracy depends on the individual’s willingness to stand up for truth and fight for what is right.

Sean Penn as Wilson is passionate and preachy and the actor really throws himself into the role. As for Plame herself, the figure around which everything supposedly revolves, Naomi Watts does a competent multi-tasking job: the adoring wife who throws dinner parties (even if dinner is Chinese takeaway) and keeps her opinions to herself, the devoted mother of twin preschoolers, and the ultra-loyal CIA agent who manages several teams of operatives, convinces a doctor to go to Iraq to get information off her nuclear scientist brother and who, during training, was the last of a group of recruits to break down under psychological and physical pressure and torture. Yep, she’s an all-round brainy blonde. Wikileaks main man Julian Assange would definitely fall in love with her. Strip the roles away from Plame though and she turns out an unappealing character who, strangely, refuses to defend herself even though the government and the corporate media are spreading lies about her and her husband. I can’t see any passion or other distinctive personality trait in Watts’s Plame that attracted Penn’s Wilson in the first place. I see a good actor wasting her time playing yet another good-girl role – being loyal to her employer, being loyal to the government, not making waves, trying to be all goodie-two-shoes things to all people – in a long line of good-girl roles. Maybe Lars von Trier should be prevailed upon to throw Watts a line and draw her in to play one of his anti-heroines in yet another crazy von Trier creation?

The only people in the film I really feel anything for are the doctor (Liraz Charhi) who fled Iraq years ago and who risked her life to return there and make contact with her brother Hammad (Khaled Nabawy) under Plame’s direction and promises, and the brother himself and his family. When US forces begin bombing Baghdad, Hammad tries to get his wife and three children out of the country but the family is ultimately stranded on the verge of escape once Plame is outed and all her work allocated and dispersed among unseen paper-shufflers. The doctor loses all contact with the family and confronts Plame personally about their disappearance. Of course Plame has no answer – she can’t even say sorry (which must say something about how brainwashed she’s been by years of working for the CIA) – and the doctor leaves her in tears. The film never reveals what happened to Hammad and his family but from what I have been able to find out from reading various blogs and websites, the intellectual, artistic and professional classes in Iraq have been subjected to cultural genocide by Shi’ite militants and others, and many of these people have fled the country to avoid kidnapping and murder. I imagine a fair few of these people have attempted to make hazardous voyages on flimsy Indonesian fishing boats across the Timor Sea to Australia and drowned on the way; and if they didn’t drown, they’re wasting away in detention centres while politicians and the media in Australia denounce them as queue-jumpers. As of late 2010, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimated that Iraqis formed the second largest group of refugees in the world with over 1.8 million people living outside Iraq alone and a total of 4.7 million having been displaced as a result of the US invasion.

The CIA is presented as a typical faceless and bureaucratic organisation rent by office politics; it’s an organisation that demands a great deal from its employees but spits them out and hangs them out to twist and turn helplessly under the harsh media spotlight when it suits. All the “good” work Plame does for the organisation vanishes once she goes. Yes, I put the word in inverted commas because some of that work must have included blackmail and bribery, running guns to shifty and unreliable allies, and the odd “disappearance” of a wanted person, among other things. It’s not for nothing that in some countries, the CIA is synonymous with murder and corruption in high places.

Did I like the movie? Well, yes and no: I liked the acting but the family life stuff is so-so Hollywood and the script ultimately plumps for a lame up-beat ending in which Wilson harangues an audience about standing up for democracy when all the way through the film it’s apparent that it will take more than just lots and lots of individuals to stand up to the lies, misrepresentation and endemic corruption in the White House that didn’t end once George W Bush left the presidency.

The Kite Runner: tear-jerker with weak plot and unappealing hero

Marc Forster, “The Kite Runner” (2006)

Based on a best-selling novel by Afghan writer Khaled Hosseini, this is a picturesque film of childhood friendship that for a brief time transcends class and ethnic barriers but is torn apart permanently by rape, politics and war. The two young friends are Amir (Zekeria Ebrahimi) and Hassan (Ahmad Khan Mahmidzada) who spend time together playing kites and reading stories in an idyllic pre-1979 Afghanistan. Amir is an only child who lives with his stern upper-class father or Baba (Homayoun Ershadi) in a large house and Hassan is the son of Baba’s servant Ali. Early scenes of Kabul (actually Kashgar in western China) are very picturesque with stunning blue skies and mountain scenery which set off the colourful kite-fighting scenes perfectly. Unfortunately the boys run into a gang of teenagers led by Assef (Elham Ehsas) who reminds the two that they are ethnically separate and prepares to attack Amir for associating with Hassan; Hassan prepares to defend Amir and Assef backs off. Not for long though – the next time the boys run into Assef and his lot is during a kite-fighting festival with Hassan running after Amir’s winning kite and into Assef’s clutches. Assef rapes the boy and Amir looks on, unseen, but becomes filled with guilt for not defending Hassan the way Hassan would if he’d been attacked. Because of his guilt, Amir frames Hassan as a thief; Hassan confesses to protect Amir and Baba, perhaps understanding Hassan’s motive, forgives the boy. Ali decides to leave Baba’s employ out of shame at what the child has supposedly done and takes Hassan with him.

Soon after the Soviets invade Afghanistan and Baba, having long been critical of Communism, takes Amir and flees the country. While crossing the border, Baba, Amir and some refugees are accosted by Soviet soldiers who threaten to rape a female refugee. Baba risks his life defending the woman’s honour and the soldiers back down. Baba and Amir eventually end up in the United States where they are holed up in a tiny apartment and Baba takes a job as an attendant at a petrol station. The years pass and Amir (Khalid Abdalla) achieves his ambition of becoming a writer and marries Soraya (Atossa Leoni), the daughter of a former Afghan general.

Not longer after Baba dies, at least in the film anyway, an old friend of Baba’s, Rahim Khan (Shaun Toub), who has long known of Amir’s difficult relationship with his dad, contacts Amir to come to Pakistan where he tells Amir of what befell Hassan and Ali after the Soviet invasion and then after the warlord period and the Taliban’s ascent to power, and reveals a secret about Hassan’s paternity. Amir goes to Kabul to find Hassan’s son Sohrab (Ali Danish Bakhtiyari) and discovers the child being used as a dancing boy by a Taliban official who is none other than his old childhood nemesis Assef (Abdul Salaam Yusoufzai). In a slapstick scene, Assef beats up Amir and Sohrab defends Amir; the two then escape Assef and Amir takes Sohrab back to the United States where he and Atossa adopt him.

The first pre-1980’s half of the film is not bad with the emphasis on the two small boys who share a close bond and look as though they were made to be pals. The kite-flying scenes, enhanced with CGI technology, can be spectacular though they wear very thin on plausibility. Ershadi as Baba strikes a fine balance between being stern, austere and patriarchal on the one hand, and being a man of integrity and loving father on the other. One feels for Baba when he has to take a low-paying, low-status job once the father and son are safe in America but Baba retains his quiet dignity right to his dying day. Once Ershadi’s out of the way, the film becomes seriously unhinged and degenerates into Hollywood B-grade action-thriller mode. The scenes where Amir, with the help of his guide Farid, finds and rescues Sohrab are beyond farce: they re-enact Amir’s first meeting with Assef when both were children and Hassan then threatened to hit Assef with his slingshot if he hurt Amir. Except this time Assef doesn’t back off and the spirit of Hassan in Sohrab carries out the slingshot threat. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry for the film’s integrity, and cheering for Amir and Sohrab was out of the question. I know that, to paraphrase Anton Chekhov, if a slingshot is presented early on, it has to be used later in the drama but Chekhov didn’t have a whole scene re-enactment in mind, much less the weapon as heirloom. Freudian psychoanalysts watching “The Kite Runner” will be having a field day analysing this film and pronouncing that someone’s imagination has gone into Moebius-strip overdrive.

The major problem with the film is not so much what happens once Baba is out of the way but with the development of Amir’s character as he grows up. The film establishes early on that Amir lacks moral fortitude and maintains Amir’s character weakness right up to the rescue scene. Opportunities for Amir to grow up morally during his teenage years are missed: the film could have featured a scene or two where Baba is treated badly or discriminated against and Amir, remembering his father’s defence of the refugee woman and the danger he put himself in, defends him in turn. At least by the time Amir graduates from college, we might see the beginnings of someone with a moral backbone, someone ready to be tested. Unfortunately the film persists in giving Amir an unchanging character so he ends up a rather unremarkable novelist and not really the kind of heroic man who’d travel all the way to Kabul just to rescue some unknown kid related to someone he’s probably tried to forget over the years.

I found the happy ending of Amir teaching Sohrab how to fly kites smug and not at all satisfying. Now that they’re father and son and Amir has “atoned” for his sins against Hassan, he, Sohrab and Soraya can sink into middle-class happy-family complacency and presumably forget all about Afghanistan. This points to another big problem with the film: that much of what happens in “The Kite Runner” is presented in a way that makes no attempt to relate the plot’s twists and turns to their specific political and cultural context. The second half of the film in which Amir travels back to Kabul fits into a pre-determined template about rescuing an innocent from a hell and the hero somehow becoming blessed or excused for past wrongs by doing so. The Taliban simply appear in the second half of the film and hey-ho Assef turns up as a card-carrying member. Nothing to say how the Taliban and Assef found each other and why they should be a perfect fit other than they’re just “bad”. There’s no background information as to how the Soviets left Afghanistan and how the Taliban became top dogs, necessitating Sohrab’s rescue: anything that might suggest the United States or anyone else had anything to do with the Taliban’s rise to power is avoided.

With a plot that falls into an infantile good-versus-evil scenario and the main character lacking appeal due to a script that doesn’t encourage his moral development, the film wastes a good cast and good locations and turns into just a tear-jerker about a broken friendship that must be repaired somehow. An opportunity to educate the public a little about the plight of orphans in Afghanistan and the political and social developments in that country since 1979 is missed. The film didn’t inspire me to find the book to read.

Rear Window: clever Hitchcock suspense film turns the tables on viewers as passive spectators

Alfred Hitchcock, “Rear Window” (1954)
 
From the days when Hollywood occasionally made films that featured rich sub-text and challenged audiences to question their role as viewers comes this enjoyably suspenseful Hitchcock thriller featuring James Stewart and Grace Kelly. Stewart plays Jeff, a photojournalist laid up for several weeks at home with his leg in plaster due to an accident while on duty; Kelly plays his wealthy socialite girlfriend Lisa. Home is an apartment with large windows overlooking a central courtyard in a block of apartments, all of which feature large windows through which Jeff watches his neighbours at work and play to pass the long boring hours of recuperation.
 
The viewers come to know the neighbours well too: there is the long-married couple (Sara Berner and Frank Cady) in the top-most unit who sleep out on the balcony when the weather gets too hot and who have a little pulley system to lower their terrier in a basket down to the courtyard so he can run about; in one of the middle units is a young dancer (Georgine Darcy) who does exercises in her underwear during the day and in the evenings is courted by numerous suitors; on the ground floor is a middle-aged woman (Judith Evelyn) who lives alone and wishes for a boyfriend. Elsewhere in the apartments is a newly married couple, a woman sculptor working on a project and a songwriter (Rob Bagdassarian) who belts out new tunes on his piano but can’t get a career break. Then there’s Mr Thorwald (Raymond Burr), a travelling salesman who cares for his fussy invalid wife. Jeff spies on all of them with his binoculars and telescope camera, enjoying secret voyeuristic thrills while watching the dancer, sympathising with the single woman (he dubs her “Miss Lonelyhearts”) and the songwriter, and comparing himself and Lisa with some of the married couples. Lately Lisa’s been thumping him to commit to their relationship: she wants to go steady and eventually marry Jeff; he all but breaks out into a cold sweat thinking about how marriage will restrict his freedom and put a brake on his careening about the world as a photographer, and how it presumably will turn Lisa into a nagging old hag as well.
 
Over time, observing the residents, Jeff has a fantasy that Mr Thorwald has murdered his wife and disposed of her during one hot sleepless night. From then on, strange things occur in the Thorwalds’ home: porters take away an unusually large suitcase bound with ropes; Mr Thorwald is viewed through his kitchen window cleaning a saw and a large knife; Mrs Thorwald’s handbag frequently appears in the company of her husband but she is never seen at all; the little terrier starts sniffing around the flowers in the communal courtyard garden and Mr Thorwald urges it on. Jeff develops his hunch with Lisa and his nurse Stella (Thelma Ritter) that something’s amiss with the Thorwalds; less convinced is police detective Doyle (Wendell Corey) so Jeff, Lisa and Stella must collect evidence to prove that Mr Thorwald has been up to no good and their combined endeavour puts both Lisa and Jeff in grave danger.
 
The film is made almost completely from Jeff’s point of view and is based entirely in his apartment: this clever and effortless approach puts viewers completely in sympathy with Jeff to the point where, like Jeff, they become unaware of how far entangled Jeff becomes in the affairs of the Thorwalds and the danger he puts himself, Lisa and Stella into until Lisa breaks into the Thorwalds’ home to find his wife’s jewellery and is attacked by Thorwald himself. (The approach also slyly lets Lisa off the hook for persuading Jeff that his version of events is correct and worth pursuing.) Even when Doyle reasonably questions Jeff’s very subjective and limited version of events and ultimately rejects everything Jeff says, viewers may still side with Jeff’s opinion as the only one that best explains what’s happened to Mrs Thorwald. The limited first-person point-of-view approach puts viewers in guilty collusion with Jeff: when Thorwald decides to pay a visit to Jeff, we can’t help but stay with Jeff, trying as best he can to defend himself and thwart Thorwald, to the bitter end so that we “share” some of the punishment Thorwald dishes out to him.
 
Just as masterly is the constant but subtle sub-plot that anchors Jeff’s beliefs about the Thorwalds: all the neighbours, both married, attached or single, mirror and comment on Jeff and Lisa’s relationship in some way. The Thorwalds’ marriage is a reversal of the main character’s relationship: Thorwald cares for his invalid wife who nags at him; Lisa looks after Jeff while he frets about not being able to travel and work, and they argue about their relationship. The couple with the terrier have the kind of snug, self-absorbed relationship Jeff fears he might have if he were married. The songwriter and Miss Lonelyhearts are frustrated with their lives; Lisa and Jeff are dissatisfied with aspects of their relationship. Throughout the film, the neighbours’ relationships change: the newly wed couple at the beginning of the film start to argue and nag each other; the long-married couple lose their terrier and perhaps go through a period of grief and evaluation of their relationship before acquiring a new puppy; the dancer all along has been waiting for her soldier boyfriend to return home; and the songwriter, who at last has a hit song, and Miss Lonelyhearts strike up a friendship.
 
In tandem, Jeff and Lisa’s relationship changes during the course of the film and this change is mirrored in Lisa’s clothes: first we see her in extravagant evening dress which resembles a bridal gown, initially confirming Jeff’s opinion of her as too upper-class for him; over time her clothes change to business wear, a sun-frock and finally casual blouse and jeans, representing her accommodation of Jeff’s preferences and desires. Then by climbing over a balcony and into Thorwald’s home, confronting and resisting the man, and getting hold of the evidence of Thorwald’s wrong-doing, she proves she is willing to get her hands dirty and is capable of changing and becoming the wife Jeff desires. Jeff is forced by circumstances into helplessness and unconsciously mimics the actions of traditionally helpless women in Hollywood movies (for example, putting his hands to his mouth) while watching Thorwald accost Lisa roughly. As a result of Lisa’s actions, Jeff and Lisa finally commit to each other in the wordless coda where they are settled together in his apartment, Jeff able to sleep and no longer interested in watching his neighbours, and Lisa keeping watch over him. By changing her reading material from an adventure novel to a fashion magazine, Lisa signals to viewers that role change is easy for her and is something she can use to get what she needs and wants from Jeff and remain true to herself.
 
Superficially a caper about a photojournalist used to being the observer and chronicler of events, reinforced by the use of limited first-person point-of-view, “Rear Window” is a clever inversion of the audience as voyeur and an interrogation of the film-viewing habit: we identify early on with Jeff as passive spectators (but able to switch on and off our viewing of the neighbours’ antics at will) and with him are dragged into the crime scenario by Lisa and Stella. Thorwald completes Jeff’s integration into that scenario (and by implication, into the life of the apartment block community): he attacks him and then drags him onto the balcony, attracting the attention of the neighbours; Jeff ironically becomes the main spectacle when he falls and from then on, can never be just a passive observer who can withdraw from the scene whenever he wants. He has to appeal to the neighbours for help and by doing so, he alerts them of his existence; now that they know him, he’s now part of their community and his antics are theirs. The film perhaps is asking us: can viewers just be passive observers and, by observing something happening, aren’t we also influencing the course of events and bringing them to us? After all, Thorwald only attacks Jeff when he discovers Jeff observing him. This is something well worth remembering in our current age where news becomes “news” thanks mainly to media like Youtube, Twitter and Wikileaks: “news” doesn’t exist, or something hasn’t “happened”, if there are no observers to spread it and start off a chain of actions and reactions that involve both observers and the observed.
 
One observation I might make at this point is that a couple of years after “Rear Window” was released, Grace Kelly had married Prince Rainier of Monaco and was forced to give up her film career; at the same time, she remained an object of tabloid gossip and rumour about her love life, which began at the start of her acting career, right up to and beyond her death in a car crash in 1982. After the sheen of Kelly’s tragic death faded away, the tabloids’ voyeuristic, prurient gaze turned to her children’s various romantic foibles and has followed them to the present day. Kelly attempted to resume her acting career at least once; Hitchcock offered her the lead role in his film “Marnie” but Rainier forced her to turn it down. The contrast between what possibilities marriage implies for Lisa, as demonstrated by Jeff’s neighbours and the film’s closing scene, and what actually worked out for Kelly in her marriage couldn’t have been much greater.
 

Let Me In: Reeves “lets the right one in” to smother his version’s potential

Matt Reeves, “Let Me In”, Hammer Films / Overture Films (2010)

Once upon a time about 25 years ago in a small town somewhere in Reagan-era America, there was a lonely 12 year old boy called Owen (Kodi Smit-McPhee) living in an apartment block with his mom. Mom had just broken up with Owen’s Dad and was trying to cope with the trials of being a single parent in that particular historical period by imbibing equal and large amounts of alcohol and religion. Owen had problems too: his parents were too wrapped up in their issues and inability to cope, shouting at each other over the phone; everyone else in the block kept to themselves; and at school, there were these teenage bullies, Kenny (Dylan Minnette) and his friends, all older than Owen, who bothered the other kids some but reserved their bile for Owen, on one occasion nearly raping him, and most of the time mocking him about being a little girl.

Little girl? One night Owen sees new neighbours – a girl his age and her Dad – moving into the apartment next door to his. Over the next several days – or nights, rather – Owen gets acquainted with this girl, Abby (Chloe Grace Moretz), and though at first they don’t want to be friends – Abby actually warns him off, and he thinks she smells bad – they each discover they have lots in common: they’re lonely outsiders and they need an ally to cope with modern life. So Owen helps Abby adjust to her new life in town and Abby advises owen on how to deal with Kenny and his pals.

Meanwhile the town – Los Alamos, by the way – is hit by a series of gruesome murders in which victims get strung up on trees and poles and drained of their blood by a serial killer so the local police detective (Elias Koteas) investigates and links the murders to Abby’s “Dad” (Richard Jenkins) who winds up in hospital with injuries sustained in a car crash and his face disfigured by acid. The police officer tries to interview the patient but gets called away to the phone by the ward sister; while the fellow’s gone, Abby visits “Dad” through the window, he offers his neck as apology for his recent failures, she drinks his blood and he falls to his death ten storeys down.

Yes, by now you’ve guessed: “Let Me In” is the American version of the Swedish movie “Let the Right One In” and in parts is a remake of the latter movie. Not surprising really, seeing that it’s based on both the novel and the Swedish screenplay, both written by John Ajvide Lindquist. You’d think the US movie would benefit from the best of both worlds, the direct and the indirect approaches, along with some original American touches and details. The result though is a movie that is both weaker and more powerful than its Swedish predecessor: the weakest parts are where it copies the Swedish movie scene for scene, shot for shot, or waters it or the novel down; the strongest parts are the original ideas that are absent from the Swedish film and novel.

There are two themes present that could have lifted “Let Me In” to greatness beyond the Swedish film: to take the first, the relationship between Owen and Abby is more heartfelt and emotional than what Oskar and Eli had; and Abby, at once more girly and more obviously feral than Eli, appears a more complex character than Eli which adds poignancy to Owen’s dilemma when he realises too late that she’s a vampire. Early scenes between Abby and her “Dad” suggest she’s a bully too and a photograph of them that Owen sees suggests she’s been using her “Dad” since he was a young boy. Unfortunately Reeves doesn’t pursue the suggestion of Abby as both sweetheart and cruel mistress hard to the very end so the film’s coda, which could have been the film’s real climax, powerful and ambiguous yet “true” to the novel and the film – Owen only needs to fish out that photo of Abby and “Dad” after tapping out Morse code on the box where Abby’s hiding and start crying – remains an enervated imitation of the Swedish film’s feel-good fairy-tale ending.

The second theme not present in “Let the Right One In” (novel and film) is the notion of escape: Los Alamos seems an uninteresting, generic American small-town where locals apparently care little about its history as a centre of nuclear energy and weapons research and development, and Owen tells Abby that he plans on leaving the place forever one day. If Reeves only realised what a goldmine this is, he would have made Abby the one chance Owen has of escaping to a richer, more fulfilling world, and so Owen’s dilemma of whether to stay with a dangerous friend or not becomes more multi-layered. We would also have seen the attraction Abby held for her “Dad”, holding out a similar promise of freedom. The train trip Owen and Abby take at the film’s end would become a flight to freedom. The escape theme is a distinctively American culture motif and it is hard to understand why Reeves doesn’t make anything much out of it.

Child actors Smit-McPhee and Moretz are excellent in their roles – Smit-McPhee in particular reveals considerable emotional depth in what must be his first lead role. Moretz balances the light and dark aspects of her role well but rather than just being resigned to a monotonous salty liquid diet, she could have been directed to feel conflicted about what she has to do to stay alive, maybe even dislike the taste of blood. The adult characters are under-developed but three should have stood out, even as one-dimensional stock figures: Koteas’s prying police officer should have been a framing device for the whole film right to the very end – the novel itself has such a character – and perhaps he would have provided an objective viewpoint on everything that happens and some comment on the nature of US small-town society and how it deals with violence, crime and social problems. The other two potential stand-out characters are Owen’s apartment block neighbours Virginia and Larry: a couple of early unspoken scenes with them, perhaps detailing their fighting and making up while Owen spies on them with his telescope, could have established them as a counterpoint to Owen’s battling parents. Larry could have provided fodder for Abby as his Swedish twin Lacke did for Eli, freeing the police officer (spoiler alert) to investigate the strange incidents at the swimming pool centre and deal with a missing child report, as in the novel.

Ah yeah, the climactic swimming pool showdown: Reeves relies heavily on the Swedish film for inspiration, using Owen’s viewpoint underwater, and this is a big mistake. For thugs such as Kenny and Co, the way that Reeves deals with them is unsatisfactory, given that this is a Hammer film where subtlety is a foreign concept and we’ve already seen Abby get stuck into several previous victims. I’m of the view that the audience should see Abby rip into the boys with suitable amounts of relish, gore and violence without Reeves’s jumpy cuts and quick edits: this would have been a cathartic moment, good for the audience if too good for the bullies themselves.

Ultimately in trying to make a film that meets the cool Europeam sensibility of “Let the Right One In” and at the same time fulfil commercial expectations and values, Reeves loses the chance to make a great film with a distinctive style, informed by layers of myths and history of midwestern Americana, and melding horror and violence with loss of childhood innocence and the minutiae of everyday life. In its own way “Let Me In” could have been a comment on American social conditions of the 1980’s, some of which still exist today.

Rosemary’s Baby: does it reflect women’s oppression by modern life?

Roman Polanski, “Rosemary’s Baby” (1968)

Who doesn’t envy young couples these days who dream of having a nice 3-bedroom house or apartment in the city close to work, shops and various cultural attractions, and of being able to rely on one or two incomes with steady and reliable weekly pay-packets that can cope with paying off a mortgage on low interest rates over 25 years and accommodate a major holiday every year and unforeseen expenses? Unfortunately too many such couples are being squeezed by some combination of miserly employers, governments hacking into health, education and social services to pay for expensive overseas wars, and greedy unforgiving banks wanting to maintain their profits in a depressed economy, among other things. Understandable then that some people might be willing to sell their souls or their first-born kids to the Devil or, in the case of this movie, hire out the missus as surrogate mum to the Anti-Christ if they thought such sacrifices were necessary to achieve their goals and dreams. Put yourselves in the shoes of Guy Woodhouse (played by John Cassavetes), husband of Rosemary (Mia Farrow), and ask yourselves: if I’d been a struggling actor for several years and now my one big chance of getting a career break and going to Hollywood depends on one actor, to whom I’m understudy, not being able to perform his role in a play, and that chance will never come again, wouldn’t I want to sell my wife to Satan if he agreed to toss that chance to me?

Over forty years ago when the movie was first released, the premise of a woman impregnated with the seed of Satan was so scary to many people that they spoke of the movie in hushed tones. Since then, the “horror”, which was probably talked up and exaggerated by the media at the time, has dissipated and what we have is a clever movie that starts out as a soap opera and turns into psychological thriller in which naivety, gender politics and isolation combine with fear of the unknown as a young woman experiences a major life transition (becoming pregnant, being a first-time mother) into paranoia and potential mental breakdown, and this is where much of the film’s “horror” actually derives. The fact that Rosemary’s fears and beliefs about her baby’s conception and identity come true is really neither here nor there; the baby, once born, is not so horrible after Rosemary has seen him and her memory of her difficult and painful pregnancy and the frustrations that came with it fades away.

Employing actors with proven track records on stage and screen in carefully selected or recreated urban settings and following the original novel closely result in a polished and carefully crafted film for the horror genre in which cheap sets, inexperienced starlets, hackneyed and melodramatic plots and sometimes slapdash direction used to be the norm in those days. In common with many of Polanski’s movies, a strange sense of humour is always present and this movie could be viewed as a black comedy. That perhaps is an injustice to Rosemary who is a naive though intelligent young woman whose fault is to have been born and brought up in a world where a married woman’s place is in the home tending to her babies and trusting in her husband, doctor and neighbours to look out for her safety. As Rosemary fears, these are the very people who give her up to Satan and endanger her health and life. (Interesting therefore, that the movie is based on the novel of the same name written by the same fellow, Ira Levin, who wrote “The Stepford Wives” which itself has been made into two movies. Levin obviously hit onto something about women’s oppression by modern life that university academics took up later.)

As investigations into being an outsider, paranoia, isolation and mental breakdown go, “Rosemary’s Baby” is not nearly as good or intense as some other movies Polanski made in the 1960’s and 1970’s – “Repulsion” and “The Tenant” spring to mind – but this is still a good movie about how even the most mundane and ordinary aspects of life that people take for granted can harbour evil. In a time when marriage and community still counted for something and kids were free to ride their bikes on the streets from sunrise to sundown and only show up for dinner and bed-time, the notion that your spouse and neighbours, and even the building you live in, could be part of an evil conspiracy must have been breathtaking. Unless you happen to be US-Japanese artist Yoko Ono whose husband John Lennon was shot dead in 1980 in front of the building, the Dakota Hotel, that appears in the opening and closing shots of “Rosemary’s Baby” and which viewers may assume is the building where the Woodhouses own their apartment. The apartment itself though consists of recreated sets as filming has never been allowed inside the hotel.

It’s perhaps also significant that at the time “Rosemary’s Baby” was first released, the civil rights movement in the US was on the rise and receiving much media publicity. The Black Panthers movement was also in the spotlight. The more governments granted equal rights to racial and other minorities, the more emboldened people became to raise issues of past discrimination and correcting history about how people had been treated in the past. With equal rights and the breakdown of racial barriers come racial inter-mixing and the possibility of white women having children with … non-white men? EEEEE-AAAAHHH-OOOHHH!!! … racial miscegenation, maybe that’s the real horror  “Rosemary’s Baby” hints at!