Thursday, August 19, 2010

Secular Myths

This was originally published in a slightly different form at The Second Awakening.

"Cyril, the Archbishop of Alexandria, despised her because of her close friendship with the Roman governor, and because she was a symbol of learning and science, which were largely identified by the early Church with paganism. In great personal danger she continued to teach and publish, until, in the year 415, on her way to work she was set upon by a fanatical mob of Cyril's parishioners. They dragged her from her chariot, tore off her clothes, and, armed with abalone shells, flayed her flesh from her bones. Her remains were burned, her works obliterated, her name forgotten. Cyril was made a saint." --Carl Sagan, Cosmos

One of the things I've come to love about Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds is the sheer effrontery of the way it re-writes the end of World War II. All movies about history are fiction, Tarantino seems to be (truthfully) saying, so let's wallow in that freedom. Anyone who watches movies for history lessons deserves what they get. Or to quote another film by another filmmaker, "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend."

The Myth of Hypatia--and even though Hypatia was a real person, Carl Sagan relates a myth, not historical fact--is a kind of Rorschach test. Are you a bibliophile? Then this is a horror story. Are you a feminist? Then this is a portrait of the patriarchy at one of its lowest moments. Are you a scientist? Then this is a parable about academic freedom. Are you an atheist? Then this is your worst fears about religion made flesh. What you take from this is in large part what you bring to it. The atheist in me has a few problems with this, because one of the core questions an atheist needs to ask herself is this one: do you care that what you believe is true? As it turns out, this particular atheist does care, so The Myth of Hypatia is a bit of a disappointment to me. No matter how much I may want this story to arm me against the religious and the superstitious, it's bullshit and I can't in good conscience use bullshit as ammunition against bullshit.

This disappointment does not extend to Alejandro Amenabar's recounting of the myth in Agora (2009), however. Because, you know, it's a movie, and just like Tarantino, Amenabar is rewriting history for his own ends (though he rewrites considerably less than Sagan even as he adds romantic subplots). I don't have to care if a movie is true. I only care if it's good theater. By happy coincidence, one of the main themes of this particular movie involves the quest of Hypatia to determine if what she believes is indeed true. "Synesius, you don't question what you believe," she tells one of her disciples, "You cannot. I must." It's an interesting conundrum. Would a historically accurate depiction of the life and death of Hypatia allow the filmmakers to explore this theme? Probably not. Almost certainly not.

The word, "agora," has three meanings: 1. a popular political assembly. 2. the place where such an assembly met, originally a marketplace or public square. 3. the Agora, the chief marketplace of Athens, center of the city's civic life. Discarding the third definition, which is specific to a place and time, you can conflate the meanings thus: "A marketplace of ideas." The movie chooses this word for its title. Not "Hypatia" or "Alexandria" or "The Last Scientist" or somesuch, but "Agora," a word that's not in common usage these days (a choice that dismayed the film's marketers, I'm sure). The title is a tell-tale, indicative of a movie that wants to be about more than what it's literally about. The agora is an ideal, but it's also a pit for bloodsports. The movie mourns the latter.

Like the Myth of Hypatia, Agora touches on the pressure points of secular thought. It's a feminist film, an atheist film, and a paean to science. It's also a thriller and a spectacle. These last two are its qualities as a movie, but the themes and the form are inextricably linked.

As a thriller, the story is a freight train downhill. Anyone who knows the story will watch with mounting apprehension, because this comes to a bad, bad end. Its structure as a thriller encourages the viewer to become attached to its ideals even as it goes about the business of wrecking them. It's overt about its attack on fundamentalism and intolerance; it's crafty and subtle in the way it advocates for the opposite worldview. By the last act of the movie, the audience is so attached to these ideals that it can find thrills in the realization that the orbit of the sun is an ellipse as a ward against encroaching doom. As movie epiphanies go, this one is both esoteric and at the heart of the human experience at the same time. Among Agora's multifarious themes, its depiction of the march of human progress based on the solving of puzzles is its most subtle and most primal delight.

As a spectacle, the film takes the grandiosity of its idiom and expands it. Sure, it has lots of fantastic sets and costumes and scenes with crowds of extras and horrifying conflicts between groups of people, but it uses these elements with a purpose. The film's costuming is of particular note. You can see a clear demarcation between the classical ideal of knowledge, incarnated in Roman-ish robes, and the Christianized Dark Ages, represented by darker robes of indeterminate design. As a matter of production design, the Alexandria depicted here is a cosmopolitan polyglot of classical, middle-eastern, and ancient Egyptian. As part of the plot, the classical is slowly swept from the table by the know-nothing Christians. But it's the movie's shot selection that is most important. Pay close attention to the repeated shots of circles at a slant; they presage Hypatia's epiphany late in the movie. The most flamboyant shot in the movie occurs while the Christians are ransacking the library: the camera looks up from the mayhem to the occula of the central chamber as scrolls are unfurled in the air, then it tilts back level with the horizon line, upside down:

This accomplishes two things: First, it represents the overturning of the old order. The world of the film is briefly and literally upside down. Second, it suggests that people aren't going to fall off the Earth just because they are on the "bottom side" of it. This is important, because it's a question that's explicitly asked during the course of the film, even though the visual shorthand of the film has already answered it. More than this, though, every so often, the movie pulls back its gaze to a broader viewpoint. There are numerous shots of the Earth and the city of Alexandria from space. In another movie, these shots might be superfluous, kind of like those plunging aerial shots in the Lord of the Rings movies. In THIS movie, however, the shots are deployed with a very specific purpose. It sets up this shot: which human beings are put in perspective. The scurrying of people in this shot resembles the scurrying of ants, an effect exaggerated by speeding up the film. In the grand scheme of things, we're all ephemeral and the whole lot of us will eventually be boiled from this rock by an aging sun. The last shot of the movie travels backwards to show us a planet that continues to hurtle through the void even after Hypatia meets her fate.

The movie isn't without its faults, of course. Prime among them is Hypatia's trio of suitors, Orestes, Davus, and Synesius, played respectively by Oscar Isaacs, Max Minghella, and Rupert Evans, who moon after her. None of them is her equal, and none of the performances is the equal of Rachel Weisz's Hypatia (when Hypatia rejects one of her suitors with a used menstrual cloth, it doesn't seem as harsh as it could, because the recipient is kind of a wet blanket). More cumbersome is the way the movie arranges to spare the audience from the horror of Hypatia's method of execution. The way the movie plays it out is an elaborate game of averting one's eyes. It seems a bit of a cheat, particularly given that it's folded into the romantic parts of the movie that just don't work that well. There are other nits I could pick, I suppose, but on balance Agora is splendid. And I'm not just saying that because I share its worldview.

A short addendum. My friend, Ali Smith (who is an academic, not a blogger), has a countervailing opinion, which she shared with me on the IMDb's message boards. I asked her if I could reprint it with my own opinion, and here it is, presented without further comment from me:

1) This is a feminist film? It has one female character. One. Count her. Plus a couple of ghostly figures who drift into a couple of shots as her ladies-in-waiting/maids/figures-in-background-kneeling-over-chests. This in a film with almost as many extras as an Italian 50s peplum, and the whole population of a classical city in its scope. And what does it do with that one female figure? It circles around her like a planet round its sun - if you want another of those cinematographic tricks of mimicking the cosmos and kicking us in the shins to look at the pretty diagram - , as she stands gazing up at it, practically inexpressive. Around her 15 or 20 years pass, and the years take their effect on her assorted suitors, while she remains untouchable in her marble perfection, unlined, ungreyed, impervious to crow's feet. That's not feminism, that's a Madonna.

2) As far as social hierarchies are concerned, at least, it's with the historical Hypatia all the way. Good slaves know their place, staking out the terrain for experiments, listening, keeping silent. A slave who looks beyond his slavery is at best impertinent and doomed to disappointment, at worst a potential public danger. As for taking an interest in the social injustice of such a vast and hierarchical city, it's a sure sign that those who take notice are opportunists and not to be trusted. As a piece of reactionary defence of privilege, I've rarely seen better.

3) Sorry, but it lays those cinematographic tricks on so heavy, it feels like a textbook collection of textbook diagrams, exaggerated a bit so that the beginner can understand. This is how you use low-angle shots to give a small person importance. This is how you use high-angle shots to make people look small. This is how you use circular camera movement to make one figure the centre of the world. No wonder it takes so long.

And for the rest similarly. It's so un-nuanced that credibility withers. Which is not the same thing as complaining that it's not historically accurate - I agree that no film is, and that it's probably best not to make any pretence, and I wholeheartedly agree with your incidental assessment of Inglourious Basterds. But Inglourious Basterds doesn't mess up history in order to make it digestible; all its major characters are complicated and their motivations are mischievously confused, and the audience's allegiance and their approval don't necessarily always go together, whether they like it or not, and it's carefully so engineered. Result, you may be exasperated with them or horrified by them, but you never feel browbeaten by them, you're free to go with your loves or your hates. Agora on the other hand doesn't think it possible that it may be ambiguous in any detail, and by the time it ended I was heartily sick of Hypatia, something I would never have imagined I ever could have been, at least in imagination. In real life possibly yes, but then in real life she would have been, precisely, ambiguous.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

The World is Not Enough

Edgar Wright's adaptation of Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (2010) has charm to burn and a boundless energy. Of the films released this summer that are intended to be "fun," it's the one that delivers on its promise. The premise is fun: Slacker Scott Pilgrim falls for new girl in town Ramona Flowers and has to contend with her seven evil exes. The notion that someone has a League of Evil Exes is pretty funny. The execution is fun, too, a collision of special effects, clever editing, animation, music videos, and video games. It's a coming out party for an entire cadre of up and coming young actors. This is the next generation of filmmaking.

It's also kind of exhausting, but that comes from exhilaration rather than abuse.

Surprisingly, the two lead characters aren't exactly the most likable people on the planet. Scott is a congenial freeloader and indifferent boyfriend when we meet him. He's dating Knives Chau, a Chinese teenager who is still attending a Catholic high school. He lives with his gay friend, Wallace, in a tiny fleabag apartment. He doesn't have a job, but he does play in a band. He's the bassist for Sex Bob Omb, and garage band culture gives the movie an excuse to mount an absolutely killer soundtrack. Ramona, for herself, is gorgeous, but indifferent and aloof, the kind of girl who always does the dumping. The people around Scott are all finely drawn characters: His impatient younger sister is exasperated that he's still an arrested adolescent. His bandmates, Stephen Stills (an eager sellout of a lead guitarist/singer), Young Neil (Scott's understudy on bass), and Kim Pine (formerly one of Scott's girlfriends and completely sarcastic about their band and their lifestyle). Wallace turns the gay best friend on its head, in so far as he actually gets laid--frequently--while the rest of the cast languishes. And then there are the evil exes: Matthew Patel, gets his own Bollywood number complete with demonic hipster chicks for backup (did I mention that the film is a mash-up? Oh, yeah). Lucas Lee is the epitome of the clueless action actor who lets his stunt team do the heavy lifting. Todd Ingram derives his evil powers from his insufferable veganism (which proves his undoing). Roxy Richter is the living avatar of a woman scorned, surprising Scott with Ramona's bi-curious phase (Roxy is "bi-furious"). The Katayangi twins are Scott's nemeses at a battle of the bands. And the big boss at the end--to use video game parlance--is Gideon Graves, a smarmy music promoter who corrupts everything he touches and everything that Scott loves. This all almost too much for the movie to hold, given that it's condensed down from six graphic novels.

One wishes that Michael Cera would have overreached himself for this movie, but he's more or less playing the Michael Cera character, though he's less passive than usual. It helps that Scott Pilgrim is an action hero. It's a credit to the filmmakers that they're able to more or less effortlessly convince the audience that, yes, Cera can actually be an action hero. This is possibly the filmmaker's best sleight of hand. Everyone else in the cast is pitch perfect, though. Allison Pill provides my favorite performance as Kim Pine, but only slightly behind her is Brandon Routh, looking all superheroic as Todd Ingram. I suppose it befits an actor who made a splash playing superman. He gets the insufferable veganism right, too. Hell, there's not really a bad performance in the bunch, and not really a bad character, either. The villains all get to chew scenery with abandon, but the movie is so outlandish that it would see wrong if they DID dial it back.

For his part, Wright has more or less put whatever he's wanted on screen. The trope whereby the evil exes turn into piles of coins when they're defeated comes right from video games and it's silly as hell, but Wright charges on with it with a Godardian "fuck it." The matching edits are almost all unexpected and witty. Wright doesn't feel constrained by naturalism, and bully for him. One of the mistakes that a lot of movies based on comic books make is to try to shoehorn themselves into some kind of realistic presentation. This movie doesn't even pay that approach lip service, and it still manages to get to the core of its characters (and, for that matter, to the core of comics), and it still manages to approximate a longing for love that's entirely beyond many more conventional romantic comedies. I mean, while it's all really silly, its take no prisoners love conquers all narrative is unstoppable.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

The Woman in Full

It took a long time for filmmakers to recognize the droll comedy in Elmore Leonard's novels. They were always in love with his plots, but lacking the comedy, most movies based on Leonard are but pale shadows. For Leonard himself, the plots are an excuse to study his characters. Once asked about his top five crime novels, Leonard listed George V. Higgins's The Friends of Eddie Coyle five times. That book is ALL character study. In any event, sometime in the mid-1990s, someone discovered the comedy, but it wasn't until Quentin Tarantino's 1997 adaptation of Rum Punch, retitled Jackie Brown, that anyone discovered the character study. Perversely, this breakthrough came from Tarantino's decompression of the book's plot, which he films from multiple angles (both chronologically and from points of view). The plot is still there, but the plot is secondary to watching the characters interact and it grows from these interactions. This is the kind of movie that takes time out to watch its characters have dinner or shop for clothes (this last in the midst of its most difficult plot points). A lot of movies tell us what its characters do for a living. This one tells us how much they make and even how much money they have saved in their 401k plan. It's rich with details, a fact that surely contributes to complaints about its length, though not from me. I wouldn't want this to be any shorter. Hell, I could spend another hour with these characters without noticing the time.

Of Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds, I wrote: "and Shoshanna, as played by Melanie Laurent, is basically Marlene Dietrich to Tarantino's Von Sternberg." In retrospect, that honor properly belongs to Pam Grier as the title character in Jackie Brown. Tarantino is in love with all of his actresses, to be sure, but I think he held a special fondness for Grier, the action star and baddest mother fucker of his fondest imaginings. When he read Elmore Leonard's book, in which the character is a blond white woman, he imagined it for Grier. She responded in kind with the best performance of her career. She's Foxy Brown and Coffey fading into middle age, still holding her looks, but having to rely increasingly on her brains. Fortunately, she's also smarter than anyone around her. She's smarter than Ordell Robie, played with amiable menace by Samuel L. Jackson, for whom she smuggles money from Mexico. She's smarter than Ray Nicolette (Michael Keaton), the ATF agent on Robie's trail who views Jackie as an instrument to trap him. She's probably smarter than Max Cherry (Robert Forster), her bail bondsman, but she never has to match wits with him given that he's smitten with her from the moment she walks out of jail and into his life. This is something pretty rare, actually. It's a movie about a 44 year old black woman and a 56 year white old man who have a relationship and plan a caper. I mean, has there ever been another character like Jackie Brown holding the center of a movie? Honestly, I can't think of one. Tarantino's willingness to stop long enough to really look at his actors enhances their performances. It doesn't hurt that all of them have interesting faces, none more so than Robert Forster, who, like Grier, also does career-best work here.

As cinema, this is Tarantino's most assured movie. He's not trying too much. He no longer needs to make a splash--he did that with his prior two films--so he doesn't have to overreach himself. One wishes that he had learned something from this experience, because in his subsequent films, he loads his palette almost to the point of bursting. In Jackie Brown, he's content to observe. A director noted for scenes of graphic violence, he keeps all of the violence in this film out of the frame or at such a distance as to cushion the blow. More than that, though, he's willing to let his lead characters fall in love. This is the only one of Tarantino's films in which the characters realistically relate to each other in the ways that adult men and women relate to each other, and he does it independently of the plot, too. Oh, the plot uses this, sure, but it doesn't depend on it. It also slows down to let its characters think things out. Action, in this movie, is no substitute for thought. The actions that occur without thinking--the scene where Robert DeNiro's character shoots motormouthed Bridget Fonda after she nags him a couple of words too far, for instance--precipitate disaster.

This is also the least "meta" of Tarantino's movies. Oh, the meta level is still there--it makes me smile every time I see Sid Haig play a judge sending Pam Grier to jail, for instance--but the director elides most of it, as if it doesn't matter to the movie. Most of it is in soundtrack cues. Oh, and my, heavens, does this have a killer soundtrack, from the opening shot scored with Bobby Womack's "Across 110th Street" to the diegetic appearance of The Delphonics to a catalogue of heavy soul from soul's golden era. Some of the soundtrack cues come from Pam Grier's other movies. None of this really advertises itself the way that, say, the red light and soundtrack cue from Ironside mark the Kill Bills.

In any event, it's disappointing to me that Tarantino hasn't gone back to this mode of filmmaking. He's gone back to being a provocateur, which is fine, I guess, but on the evidence of Jackie Brown, that impulse squanders an immense reservoir of talent. For Jackie Brown's part, it remains the director's best film, even if it's the one that fans of his more outre films tend to ignore.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Shameless Self-Promotion #4

I have a new post up over at the Wild Claw Theater Blog, in which I wish Fright Night a happy 25th birthday. It begins like this:

Fright Night turned 25 last week. I didn't see anyone mark the anniversary, so I thought I'd raise my own glass. You don't look a day over 20.

Well, that's a lie, actually. Fright Night hasn't aged particularly well. The combination of eighties fashions, Spielbergian idiom (horror comes to suburbia), comedy relief, and gooey special effects is very much of its time. More than that, it's a kind of nostalgia piece in itself, one that pines for the late-night horror show and the classical horror movie (in reaction, I suspect, to the shasher films that were dominating the genre at the time of its release). All of that is receding in time.

Read the rest over there. They're good folks and they deserve the traffic.

Monday, August 09, 2010


Once upon a time, Pedro Almodovar was an enfant terrible. His early films were exercises in provocation and stylistic excess. Sometimes, they were pretty hard to put up with. A case in point is Matador, from 1986, which starts with a man masturbating to the violence in Mario Bava's Blood and Black Lace, then proceeds to tell a story of psychos in love. Diego has a problem: forcibly retired from the bullring after being gored by a bull, he still hungers for the kill. He satisfies this urge by murdering women after he's had sex with them. One of his students, Angel, has been driven mad by both crippling vertigo and his overly religious mother. After attempting to rape Eva, Diego's girlfriend, he claims responsibility fo the murders. Maria, the lawyer who takes Angel's case, has similar appetites as Diego, only her taste is for murdering matadors after having sex with them. Soon, Diego and Maria are circling each other in a deadly mutual attraction.

Early in his career, Almodovar took a LOT of heat for his cavalier approach to rape imagery, and this film is one of the ones that fuels that criticism. Angel's attempted rape in this movie is kinda sorta played for laughs. The character further faints at the sight of blood and is ridiculed by his victim for premature ejaculation. Still, this is all of a piece with this movie, in which every character has some kind of destructive sexual peccadillo. I think it's more destructive to the movie that it occasionally seems to pull elements out of its ass. For example: Late in the movie, Angel is shown to be psychic, which is how he knows the details of Diego's crimes. When this started to play out, all I could think was: "Wrote yourselves into a corner, did you?"

Still and all, Almodovar always mounts attractive films, whether through the design elements or through his choice of actors. You get both here, although the design of the film is very much of its time. Very 1980s. This movie is very much in love Antonio Banderas, who seems impossibly young (he was 26 at the time), but it's Asumpta Serna who walks away with the movie as the predatory Maria. The nominal lead, Nacho Martinez, kind of gets overwhelmed by this, but Almodovar has never had a lot of interest in middle-aged straight guys, so this might be inevitable.

Almodovar is also totally in love with movies, and like many of his other movies, this one is appointed with cinematic points of reference. I mentioned Bava already. There's also the scene where Diego first pursues Maria: they end up in a movie theater that's showing the end of Duel in the Sun, an equally deranged portrait of sexual obsession that foreshadows the end of this movie.

Sunday, August 08, 2010

A Fractured Fairy Tale

This originally appeared on the trans feminist blog, The Second Awakening.

While it doesn't indulge in the same kind of thematic miserablism of other movies about transgender sex workers, Olaf de Fleur Johannesson's The Amazing Truth About Queen Raquela (2008) still can't avoid the fact that at least part of its narrative--arguably the dominant part--is constructed from a cisgender man's preconceptions of who transgender people are. The conceit of the movie is that it's half documentary and half fiction, mixed together in such a way as to obscure the lines between the real and the fake. The director himself calls this shambolic portmanteau structure a "visiomentary." You can probably see the flaws in this approach without even seeing the movie, but I'll elaborate anyway.

The movie begins with its central character, a trans sex worker in Cebu City, The Philippines, speaking directly to the camera and swearing to tell the truth and the whole truth. This is Raquela Rios, essentially playing herself. The filmmakers spend a good deal of time following Rios through her life, which includes interactions with her family, attempts to find employment outside of the sex trade, clubbing with her friends, and generally walking around the city. This is where the film is heavy on the documentary and while it's letting Raquela speak for herself, the movie is on pretty firm ground. Raquela is bright, funny, optimistic, and gregarious. Were she in different circumstances, she would undoubtedly be a success at whatever she did. The same might be said for her friends, Aubrey and Olivia, who also make their livings as "ladyboy" sex workers. Unfortunately, the filmmakers can't leave well enough alone. They also start the film with a title card that says, "Raquela is transsexual. A chick with a dick," and once the movie acquires a narrative, the attitude behind that pronouncement seeps into the whole enterprise.

Slowly but surely, it becomes the task of cis white men to explain the lot of the ladyboy, and with that shift in focus, the movie begins to patronize its subject. The mouthpiece for all of this is Mike, an internet pornographer who makes his living with ladyboy porn from places like The Philippines and Brazil. In a memorable pronouncement on how trans women live their lives, he compares them to cicadas, dormant for the early parts of their lives only to bloom for a short and intense period in which their longing to be something they can never be leads them into risky behaviors. There's a troubling essentialism to the pronouncements the film puts in this guy's mouth, and the filmmakers wisely make it clear that he's a douchebag, but he also carries himself like an authority figure (there's that white male privilege asserting itself) and the movie doesn't quite shake that off.

In the movie's defense, some of the individual scenes here bring Raquela to life as a living, breathing human being just like the rest of them. The audience is invited to share her heartbreak at being denied entrance into nursing school and to share her mounting apprehension as she waits for the results of an AIDS test. Her defense of the kinds of risky sex she uses to validate her gender identity surely comes from the actress rather than the filmmakers. Her candor in sharing these moments gives her performance in the fictional portions of the film a degree of verisimilitude. When she concludes that Mike the Pornographer is kind of an asshole after he regales her with ugly Americanisms all through Paris, it rings true even though Mike himself is a part and she's talking about someone who doesn't really exist.

The sex trade hangs over all of this, though. It's the elephant in the room, and the movie plays to it rather than offering a critique. As a counterpart to Raquela's failure to get into nursing school, for one example, is a scene shortly afterward that dresses her in a latex nurse outfit for the benefit of her webcam chat business. This seems almost cruel in context, and there's definitely a fetishistic gaze involved in the director's choice to make the film in the first place that makes me wonder if he's not a chaser himself. Meanwhile, there's no real acknowledgement of the human cost of the sex trade and its attendant relationship with human trafficking. The movie itself bills itself as a kind of Cinderella tale, in which Raquela is given the chance to live her dream of visiting Paris, but the film blithely creates this plot without realizing that the scenario it constructs is disturbingly similar to the modus operandi of slavers: provide the money to travel, indenture the victim to the money. The movie omits the indenture. One of the film's more unbelievable elements is the notion that Mike the Pornographer takes Raquela to Paris out of the goodness of his heart, especially once the movie establishes that he's kind of a prick. This casts a sinister pall over the director's assertion that the film is about globalization and the commodification of human beings, because he seems to be oblivious to what he's portraying.

Marginally less troubling is the persistent enforcement of a gender binary worldview and the fixed social roles it portends. The movie already indicates that it thinks that Raquela will never inhabit her desired gender (never mind that the movie categorically depicts her doing exactly that). There's a shot--surely staged--of Raquela and her two friends standing at urinals with their skirts hiked up; this is obviously a shot that enforces the film's essentialist ideas of gender identity. The world of this film is also a world without social mobility, where in spite of Raquela's jaunt to Europe, she still winds up back home with no prospects, walking arm and arm down the street with her girlfriends. While there's an inherently humane element to this shot, friends being friends and all, it indicates that Raquela has been running in place. She's never going to move out of her current social role, the movie suggests, and the shadow of dangerous sex, crushing poverty, and (perceived) self-delusion looms large in the end.

As a postscript, I would be remiss if I didn't mention the packaging for this film. Here's the DVD cover:

THAT'S not a prejudicial image. Not at all. Sheesh.

The Amazing Truth About Queen Raquela is available on DVD from E1 Entertainment for purchase or rent from the usual suspects. Also, I need to give a shout out to Gina over at Skip the Makeup, who pointed me at the movie in the first place.

Friday, August 06, 2010

Opening Shots #1: Contact

This is the opening shot of Robert Zemeckis's 1997 movie, Contact. I have a LOT of issues with this movie, but the opening shot is one of the best I've ever seen. It's initially cold and dispassionate and incomparably vast, but it ends up with a striking note of humanity. I wish the rest of the movie were up to it. Alas.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Shameless Self-promotion #3

Aaron Christensen was my editor for Horror 101. In addition to being a super nice (and super handsome, grrowl) guy, he is also involved with Chicago's Wild Claw Theater. He asked a handful of 101 contributors, including yours truly, if we would contribute to the Wild Claw blog about all things horror. He asked so nicely that I couldn't refuse. My initial offering is online now. It begins:

"The seminal item in question for today's symposium is Stephen King's Danse Macabre, originally published in 1981. Technically, I'm a little bit early with this, but as it so happens there's a new edition this year for which King has added a new essay called "What's Scary," so this turns out to be topical. People have been calling for King to write a follow-up to Danse Macabre for years, given the explosion of the genre since its publication. I doubt that this new essay is going to quiet those demands."

Read the rest there.

Currently on my iTunes shuffle: "I'm Waiting for The Man" by The Velvet Underground

Monday, August 02, 2010

Wicked City

The Phenix City Story (1955, directed by Phil Karlson) makes a strong first impression. I originally saw it on some fly by night cable channel in the 1980s and I've never forgotten it. It's one of the most hard boiled crime films of the 1950s, a period not short on hard boiled crime films. It's also a true exploitation film, one rushed to theaters on the strength of a topical story where the principle actors were still going through the legal system. It's also brutal as hell.

The movie follows the inhabitants of the titular city, which is across the river from Columbus, Georgia. On the evidence of the film, Phenix City seems like it was Columbus's secret sharer, the id where all of its darkest impulse are lived out. It's a cesspit of rigged gambling dens, quick loan joints, dope peddlers, and whores. The city's vice is run by a network of good ol' boy crime lords, and enforced by good ol' boy thugs. Into this mix is thrown lawyer Albert Patterson and his family. His son, John, has returned from Germany in search of a nice place to raise his children. John is a crusader and a war hero, and he slowly but surely draws his father into opposition to the "syndicate" that runs the town. Patterson embarks to run for Attorney General to clean up the town, but it all ends badly.

The structure of the movie is awkward at first, prefaced by interview material with the real people of Phenix City. Everyone is awkward in documentary footage, so this section of the film is not promising. Once the actual movie starts, things improve. It still has a documentary structure along the lines of the other pseudo-documentary crime films of the period, but as the film progresses, the shadows grow longer and the compositions get more stylized until we're smack in the middle of the film noir dark city. The cast is an excellent assortment of familiar faces. John McIntyre is probably the most recognizable actor, promoted from the character ranks into the forefront of the movie. Richard Kiley is ostensibly the lead. The smiling Edward Andrews, a familiar face from a generation of TV guest appearances and commercial roles and cast against type here, makes for a dandy villain. All well and good. There are other similar films littering the noir period. Director Phil Karlson even made a couple of them.

What really distinguishes this film is its willingness to take the next awful step. It's not squeamish about throwing the good and virtuous characters it has into the meat grinder. It has its villains abduct a black child in order to throw her corpse on the lawn of our heroes as a warning. It has young lovers who never get together and wind up dead. It has a jaundiced view of human nature. It gets away with it all under cover of its documentary pedigree, in the best tradition of exploitation filmmaking. Karlson would go to this well again twenty years later with the very similar Walking Tall. It works there, too.

One sour note, though: this has a certain veneer of Hollywood liberal guilt. It presents a relatively noble black character, shows our heroes being friendly and upright in their friendship with him, and lies through its teeth about it. It's a whitewash, of course. The "real" story is suggested on the IMDB's trivia page for the movie:

In the film, John Patterson (Richard Kiley) is depicted as supportive of African-American Zeke Ward (James Edwards) and his family. In real life, following his term as Alabama attorney general (1954-1958), he ran for governor in 1958, ran an openly racist campaign and won. One of his opponents, George Wallace, had run as a racial moderate and told his friends after the election, "John Patterson out-niggered me, and I'm never gonna be out-niggered again." Four years later, in 1962, Wallace won the governorship of Alabama as an open racist.

Hollywood can't tarnish its heroes with racism. Nope. John Patterson can't be Ethan Edwards. Pity.