Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Securing an Excellent Future: Time Traveling Teens of the 80s

Over the four-year span between 1985 and 1989, two films were released revolving around the innovative concept of male teenagers traveling through time to better the future. The two films in discussion are Back to the Future (1985) and Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989), both comedy/teen-film/science fiction/fantasy hybrids whose unconventional protagonists are ‘slackers’ given the efficacy to travel through time and alter history. The title characters of Bill & Ted are considerably more dimwitted and stereotypically slackers of the wasted adolescence sense than Marty McFly, the lead of Back to the Future. Bill & Ted also exhibits a satirical and goofy tone in comparison to Back to the Future’s earnestness and endearing sentimentality. In Back to the Future, Marty is flung back to 1955 and unintentionally embarks on a quest to rectify the mistakes of his parents’ youth, thus ensuring a more favorable future for his family; whereas Bill & Ted are sent hurtling through different periods of time in an effort to pass their history final enabling them to one day create the rock music that will save the world.

Both films proved to be enormous hits spawning franchises comprised of sequels, animated series and video games. Considering the immediate and immense popularity of Back to the Future, it is easy to contest that Bill & Ted is merely piggybacking on its success with an easy cash-in formula. While it is no question that surely Back to the Future influenced Bill & Ted’s creation (in addition to the success of Fast Times at Ridgemont High’s star slacker Jeff Spicoli) there is the unavoidable issue of the two films being birthed during the specific time period of the mid-to-late 1980’s. From a teleological standpoint, three predominant themes can be discerned within both texts: slacker sub-culture, 1980s politics, and rock-and-roll.

The character of the ‘slacker’ has come to be associated with the Generation X culture, an image fostered by Douglas Coupland’s novel, “Generation X,” (1991) and Richard Linklater’s film, Slacker (1991). Generation X has often been distinguished as a generation raised more out of publicity than actual cultural behavior and it is difficult to determine exactly when this generation was established, much less what it should be called. The members of this generation have long been characterized as struggling to find an identity. Not surprisingly there have been numerous terms used to define the cultural movement including: the “13th Generation,” the “Why Bother? Generation,” the “Cocktail Generation,” the “Invisible Generation,” and the “Baby Bust Generation,” in response to the Baby Boomers and the subsequent and surprising decrease in birth rate in the mid-to-late 1960s.[1] There has also been much debate over what years define the applicable period for the birth of Gen Xers but most will concede that the years between 1960 and 1975 are approximate enough. Geoffrey Holtz cites the advancements in birth control, abortion and surgical sterilization as some of the prime factors in the downward trend in child birth: “During the seventies 10 million people made sure that they would never have another child. America’s love affair with its children was, at least for now, a thing of the past.”[2]

Generation X has come to represent the pinnacle in the broken-home movement, “1975 saw a million married couples split up, with more than 1.1 million children touched by the social phenomenon.”[3] The theme of divorce and family dysfunction is extremely prevalent in Back to the Future and more obliquely so in Bill & Ted. In the latter, both Bill and Ted appear to have been raised in single-father households. The absence of their birth mothers is never explained but divorce and parental apathy is assumed. While Ted has only his stern and distant father who threatens to exile Ted to military school, Bill has to deal with his father’s new wife, a fresh-out-of-high school beauty who used to share a class with the boys. The familial disharmony presented here is never remarked upon and hardly rectified by the film’s end as the two fathers’ appear at Bill & Ted’s history presentation and smile approvingly amidst their shock, but the only implied effect this will have on their paternal relationship is Ted escaping the murky depths of military school.

Back to the Future considers the role of family more optimistically and secularly. Initially, Marty accidentally ruptures his parents meeting and subsequent falling in love, causing the potential finality of his being “erased from existence” as a result. Ultimately, Marty’s dabbling with fate turns out favorably as he is given the supreme ability of teaching his father (as a teenager) some important life lessons that result in a more pleasant existence for his entire family when he manages to return to 1985. In a moment of supreme irony, Marty’s father in 1955 says goodbye to his son with, “I want to thank you for all your good advice. I’ll never forget it.”

In contrast to the film’s frivolous nature, Bill & Ted are delivered a more serious mission than Marty considering the fate of all mankind rests in their unlikely hands. While Marty’s journey is one of parental-discovery and contained improvement, Bill & Ted are sentenced on the path of self-discovery so that they can eventually instill peace and tranquility upon the world. In both situations, none of the time-traveling teens consider their mission with as much magnitude as the situation should dictate.

Ambivalence and disregard for society are two frequently used characteristics to describe the slacker. The term ‘slacker’ had existed in the vernacular long before it became associated so intricately with the Generation Xers. In fact, “it was used primarily to describe soldiers who put forth the minimum effort or conspired to do even less than that.”[4] Lynnea Chapman King cites a look at the term from a more applicable viewpoint:
The dictionary defines slackers as people who evade duties and responsibilities. A more modern notion would be people who are ultimately being more responsible to themselves and not wasting their time in a realm of activity that has nothing to do with who they are or what they might ultimately be striving for.[5]
This definition marks the eventual actions of Bill, Ted and Marty McFly as very problematic within this context of slackerdom. As a result, we can look at the three teenagers as reformed slackers as both films begin with them embodying the slacker mold by virtue of their almost exclusive interest in making rock-and-roll music contrasted with their minimal concern for the institutions of school and family. Within the first ten minutes of Back to the Future, Marty is immediately belittled by his principle for being a slacker who will never amount to anything.

This is a sentiment that has been constantly shoved upon the Generation Xers whose experience with futility has been accentuated by their holding witness to the growing divorce rates, failure of Vietnam and subordination of the position of Presidency by way of scandal, ineffectiveness and assassination. It is no surprise that the Generation Xers have adopted the strategy of “always hedge one’s bets, hold back a little... It’s all right to invest oneself in something as long as you realize that there is nothing really to invest.”[6] Marty and Bill & Ted embody this notion through their lackadaisical approach to music production. When Marty’s girlfriend urges him to send a demo tape of his band to record companies, Marty whines, “What if they say I’m no good? What if they say get out of here kid, you’ve got no future. I just don’t think I could handle that type of rejection.” Bill & Ted echo an even more defeatist approach by not even attempting to learn to play their guitars. For the majority of the film, they are more than content playing “air guitar,” a facetious act that will always yield favorable results and completely eliminates the possibility of failure.

When it comes to altering history, these slackers do not always act as safely as one might hope they would. Bill & Ted consistently goof off throughout the many time periods, whether it be indulging in an old-fashioned barroom brawl or dressing up in knight’s armor and emulating Star Wars. Not to mention that they entrust Ted’s 10-year old brother to watch over Napoleon while they continue gathering up other historical personalities. Marty exercises more understanding of the situation’s severity but nevertheless makes questionable decisions like jeopardizing the possibility of making it to the town square on time by letting himself get goaded into playing one more rock-and-roll song at the high school dance. That marks the first in a series of questionable decisions concerning his extremely finite chance to return home to 1985: not only does he play one more song but he takes the time to change his clothes before making it to the meeting point, “What, did you think I was gonna go back in that zoot suit?” Lastly, Marty awards himself only ten extra minutes to go back and attempt to save Doc’s life. Even though he prefaces with the insightful statement “I got all the time I want, I got a time machine,” he still decides that a mere ten minutes should suffice.

Carelessness aside, Marty does manage to save Doc’s life and once again we see the influence of youth on his elder. In 1955, Doc expresses a similar sense of gratitude as Marty’s father did regarding the impact Marty has had on the past, “You’ve really made a difference on my life. You’ve given me something to shoot for.” Here we return to the contradictory prospect of the slacker being given, and accepting, the ability to exact change on the community. This idea of the everyman being elevated to a position more esteemed than would be expected of him and managing to make a distinct impact on society is comparable to figures that could be found in both American politics and rock-and-roll cultures of the time period these films were released: most precisely, Ronald Reagan and Bruce Springsteen.

Ted V. McAllister has compared Reagan’s surprising ascension to the role of presidency to the plot of the Hollywood film Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), “we find a hard-working, patriotic citizen, called out of private life to serve in the far-off capital.”[7] This can be directly related to the role of Marty McFly, who is an average teenager temporarily called into the role of time traveler to make some minor changes to history before being returned home to reap the benefits of his labors. The image of Ronald Reagan even plays a role within the film. First we see that the local movie theater is playing Cattle Queen of Montana (1954) and his name is displayed predominantly on the marquee. His name is mentioned again, this time verbally, when the skeptical Doc Brown of 1955 asks for the president of 1985 as proof of the future: “Ha! Ronald Reagan! The Actor! Then who’s vice president? Jerry Lewis?”

These satirical jabs at Reagan’s public image can be taken a number of ways. If they are to be construed as playful, they can be correlated to Reagan’s image of populism. Around the time of Marty’s age, it has been purported that the youth “were quick to embrace the stability that Ronald Reagan represented… Reagan was hailed as a return to normalcy after a decade and a half of turmoil.”[8] Marty might be proud to say that Reagan is his president and find it disheartening that the future president has not been taken seriously yet. There is also the element of Reagan’s pro-family relations agenda and the similar theme to the film. One of Reagan’s desires was to rectify what he believed were assaults on the family created by past governments, “not so much because they had espoused cultural or moral values but because they had caused inflation and bracket creep.”[9] Economics is certainly an element in Back to the Future, particularly displayed by the ending’s refurnished view of the present. Andrew Gordon illustrates this notion: “Marty’s story overcomes, through fantasy, the 1980’s fear of the loss of upward mobility in a period when the middle-class family was losing ground after twenty-five years of almost unbroken economic improvement.”[10]

It could also be construed as a more subversive reference to Reagan’s initial call for a return to fundamentals by his repeatedly referencing Puritan values and John Winthrop’s “City on a Hill,” ideology.[11] Back to the Future suggests that a simple return to fundamentals is not remedy enough; instead the youth of the generation must physically go back and redefine the fundamentals if the country is destined to survive. While these readings can border on the tangential, politics is certainly present as a sub-text within the film. Aside from the references to Reagan, there is an ongoing, background sub-plot involving an African-American elevating from waiter to mayor of Hill Valley. Once again an ordinary man being called up to duty, however this time he is an African-American emerging out of an unforgiving time period.

Similarly, Bill & Ted are average teenagers who are destined to save the world with rock-and-roll and therefore align themselves slightly more with Bruce Springsteen than Reagan (interestingly enough Springsteen’s saxophonist, Clarence Clemons has an uncredited cameo as one of the leaders of the future, providing a direct connection to the musician). Grossberg explains, “the site of Springsteen’s popularity: to celebrate simultaneously one’s ordinariness and to assert one’s fantastic (and even fantasmatic) difference – the ordinary becomes extraordinary.”[12] Although it can be criticized that Bill & Ted are below-average Americans, they still emulate the Reagan formula of being called up to duty by a higher power in order to change things for the better. There is no mention of Reagan in the film but his timely education budget cuts in 1987 may have some influence of the depiction of high school and its dim-witted students. Although the ultimate message may suggest that the youth of America will be able to find alternate ways of learning, even if the school institution is not adequate enough. Interestingly, Marty describes his trip as “educational” when he bids farewell to his parents in 1955.

The appreciation and distribution of rock-and-roll music plays an integral role in defining the personalities of Bill & Ted and Marty McFly. Both films introduce their lead characters in strikingly similar fashion: playing guitar so loudly that their amplifiers explode. It is explicitly reiterated that Bill & Ted change the world because of their rock-and-roll music but it is also suggested obliquely that one of Marty’s great contributions to history changing is jump-starting the rock-and-roll movement of the 1950s. On stage at the dance, Marty takes the opportunity to introduce everyone to “Johnny B. Good” causing a blowout of celebration on the dance floor and inspiring much livelier and athletic dance moves than during the previous song. Ultimately he goes overboard with 1980s style heavy metal guitar moves and showboating which eventually frightens the initially enthusiastic audience. Before this happens, there is a brief shot of the band leader, Marvin Berry, calling his cousin “Chuck” to make sure he hears the music. The inference here is that Marty inadvertently inspires Chuck Berry to write his classic rock-and-roll song. However, what, if any, sort of repercussions this has on the future is never explored. While Marty wisely decides to play a song that would be written relatively close to the time period he is currently residing in, one could assume that Chuck Berry might not wait the full three years until 1958 to write it if he is directly inspired enough in 1955. There is the distinct possibility that Marty must have changed the face of rock-and-roll music, however slightly, by introducing the song prematurely.

Bill & Ted’s contribution to rock-and-roll is given considerably more weight. We are told that their music will bring about universal harmony and turn the world into a much better place but the one scene in which Bill & Ted visit the future, the image is not necessarily as reassuring as it has been prophesied to be. The future is presented as robotic and innocuous. While there is certainly a mellow atmosphere and ethnic diversity is represented favorably, the location seems somewhat suffocating and cold. More disconcerting are the hoards of inarticulate people lined around the cave expressionlessly playing air guitar in synchronization and wearing nearly identical futuristic outfits giving the future a Fascist tone. “Ironically, this undermines the subversive appeal of rock music, which is no longer individualistic in the future but soulless.”[13]

This returns to the fundamentally different tones regarding the outlook of the future within the two films. Bill & Ted is politically charged in that it addresses the growing concerns about dumb youth and the growing power of rock-and-roll music by making light of these concerns and creating a sardonic future in which the conservatives’ worst nightmare is realized. Back to the Future is sociologically charged in that it responds to growing divorce rates and the apathetic youth image by presenting an optimistic and fairy-tale like representation in which the mistakes of the past can be amended in order to bolster the sacrament of family and make way for an encouraging future. A cynical view could still construe the ending of Back to the Future as a grim warning against the preceding actions since Marty is whisked away to the future to rectify the problems that his own children will be facing. Here we have the problematic image of Marty having to save his family again, including the implicit message that he is responsible for this by turning into a lousy parent himself. However, the film presents the scene in a largely comedic way giving the impression that this should be construed more as another exciting adventure that can be solved as easily as the first. While the family may not be entirely immune at the film’s conclusion, the McFly family is represented considerably more stable than those of Bill & Ted. Both films clearly respond to a time in American history when the future of the world was very much uncertain due to war, family breakdown, school reform and an overwhelming sense that things were getting worse, not better.

Bimes, Teri. “Reagan: The Soft-Sell Populist,” in The Reagan Presidency: Pragmatic
Conservativism and Its Legacies, edited by W. Elliot Brownlee and Hugh Davis Graham. Kansas: University Press of Kansas, 2003.
Gordon, Andrew. “You’ll Never Get Out of Bedford Falls: The Inescapable Family in
American Science Fiction and Fantasy Films.” Journal of Popular Film & Television 20, no. 2 (Summer 1992) 2-11.
Grossberg, Lawrence. “Rockin' with Reagan or the Mainstreaming of Post-modernity.”
Cultural Critique 10 (Fall, 1988): 123-49.
Hanson, Peter. The Cinema of Generation X: A Critical Study of Films and Directors.
Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2002.
Heclo, Hugh. “Reagan and American Public Philosophy,” in The Reagan Presidency:
Pragmatic Conservativism and Its Legacies, edited by W. Elliot Brownlee and Hugh Davis Graham. Kansas: University Press of Kansas, 2003.
Holtz, Geoffrey T. Welcome to the Jungle: The Why Behind “Generation X”. New York:
St. Martin’s Griffen, 1995.
Hunter, IQ. “Banality as Saviour: Bill & Ted and The Matrix,” Filmhäftet 121 (May
2002) . (5/3/05)
King, Lynnea Chapman. “Generation X: Searching for an Identity?” Post Script – Essays
in Film and the Humanities 19, no. 2 (2000): 8-16.
McAllister, Ted V. “Reagan and the Transformation of American Conservatism,” in The
Reagan Presidency: Pragmatic Conservativism and Its Legacies, edited by W. Elliot Brownlee and Hugh Davis Graham. Kansas: University Press of Kansas, 2003.
[1] Lynnea Chapman King, “Generation X: Searching for an Identity?” Post Script – Essays in Film and the Humanities 19, no. 2 (2000): 8.
[2] Geoffrey T. Holtz, Welcome to the Jungle: The Why Behind “Generation X” (New York : St. Martin’s Griffen, 1995), 19.
[3] Holtz, 26.
[4] Peter Hanson, The Cinema of Generation X (Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2002), 61.
[5] King, 13.
[6] Lawrence Grossberg, "Rockin' with Reagan or the Mainstreaming of Post-modernity," Cultural Critique 10 (Fall, 1988): 138.
[7] Ted V. McAllister, “Reagan and the Transformation of American Conservatism,” in The Reagan Presidency: Pragmatic Conservativism and Its Legacies, eds. W. Elliot Brownlee and Hugh Davis Graham (Kansas: University Press of Kansas, 2003), 49.
[8] Holtz, 194.
[9] Terri Bimes, “Reagan: The Soft-Sell Populist,” in The Reagan Presidency: Pragmatic Conservativism and Its Legacies, eds. W. Elliot Brownlee and Hugh Davis Graham (Kansas: University Press of Kansas, 2003), 70.
[10] Andrew Gordon, “You’ll Never Get Out of Bedford Falls: The inescapable family in American Science Fiction and Fantasy Films,” Journal of Popular Film & Television 20, no. 2 (Summer 1992): 8.
[11] Hugh Heclo, “Reagan and American Public Philosophy,” in The Reagan Presidency: Pragmatic Conservativism and Its Legacies, eds. W. Elliot Brownlee and Hugh Davis Graham (Kansas: University Press of Kansas, 2003), 21.
[12] Grossberg, 133.
[13] IQ Hunter, “Banality as Saviour: Bill & Ted and The Matrix,” Filmhäftet 121 (May 2002).

Monday, August 15, 2005

Grizzly Weekend

Over the weekend I saw one of the best films released in 2005 and I’d dare say one of the best documentaries in recent years. The film is Grizzly Man, a brilliant documentary that takes full use of the medium and creates a “video essay” that asserts how powerful a technique this can be. The film gives us a view into the life of the late Timothy Treadwell, an animal rights activist who spent 13 summers living in the Alaskan wilderness with Grizzly Bears until his tragic death at the hands of a grizzly bear in 2003. Treadwell filmed himself during his later summers and left over 100 hours of footage behind with him. Prestigious German director, Werner Herzog, has sifted through this footage and compiled it along with newly created interviews to create an intimate character study at a depth unobtainable by fictional narrative filmmaking. I was initially concerned the documentary might vulgarly take advantage of his death but to my great relief it chooses not to sensationalize his demise but rather explores his life. Despite having evident respect for Treadwell, Herzog is not afraid to portray the darker side of his life and does not shy away from Treadwell’s many weaknesses. We also learn a lot about Herzog himself, as he narrates the documentary and injects his personal beliefs on a couple of occasions creating a very personal piece of work.

In related news, I also rented two recent, rather mediocre films made by talented writer/directors: Bright Young Things (2003) – Stephen Frye and Silver City (2004) – John Sayles. Bright Young Things was entertaining but slight, with a charismatic lead and fun supporting roles by a horde of celebrated British actors. It proved to be mildly interesting in terms of its role as a British “Heritage” film – literary adaptation, verdant landscapes, upper class social comedy, episodic narrative, familiar British actors, painstaking detail in recreating early 40s time period and an emphasis on spectacle.

Silver City was sadly a disappointing bore, made all the worse in comparison to Sayles’ strong work in films like Sunshine State and Lone Star. The most glaring problem is the incredibly poorly chosen lead character played by Danny Huston (The Aviator). Huston could make a good smarmy journalist as a side character but having him elevated to lead is just too much responsibility for this type of character. A much more palatable choice would have been to switch his character with the brief role played enthusiastically by Tim Roth. However all the blame can’t be rested solely on Huston’s misused shoulders, there are a few other major flaws, particularly the meager editing, done by Sayles himself, who lets scenes run on far longer than they should. There are also some issues with tone, the film can never decide if it wants to be a satire, a political indictment on the Bush office or a modern day All the President’s Men-type mystery. While I am often a big fan of genre distortion, as my Brian De Palma love attests, the dissonance between scenes in Silver City is more annoying than enticing.

Erotic Noir

The genre known as film noir came into being during the 1940’s and 1950’s and is largely regarded as an American genre in spite of its title donated by French critics. Thomas Schatz describes the progenitors of this genre as displaying two distinct styles: “visually, these films were darker and compositionally more abstract than most Hollywood films; thematically, they were considerably more pessimistic and brutal in their presentation of American life.”[1] Brian De Palma’s Femme Fatale (2002) immediately evokes the film noir genre, not only by way of its title but also in the fact that the initial sound and image comes from a clip of Double Indemnity (1944), one of the seminal works in the genre featuring cinema’s most memorable femme fatale. However, De Palma does not adhere to either of the elements that Schatz supplies for the genre. Instead it appears more in line with what the genre has come to generally (but not exclusively) represent: the plethora of hard-boiled detective mysteries that were being produced during the late 1940s and ‘50s. Films that often center on a morally ambiguous protagonist called in to work on a case that leads into society’s seedy underbelly where he must struggle against the social system to do what he believes to be right. The protagonist is usually drawn deeper into this world by a “femme fatale”, a woman who seduces him with her supposed innocence and naiveness but later is revealed to be a savvy and genuine threat possessing ulterior motives.

On the matter of genre, Schatz also says that “as one sees more genre films, one tends to negotiate the genre less by its individual films than by its deep structure, those rules and conventions which render” the genre.[2] This is one aspect that makes Brian De Palma’s Femme Fatale (2002) an invigorating cinematic experience. As an auteur, De Palma’s two prominent characteristics are scrambling of genres and mimicry of his favorite directors (Hitchcock in particular).

After the introductory nods to the genre, the first act of Femme Fatale proceeds more like an erotic thriller, a genre De Palma has more experience in with works like Dressed to Kill (1980), Blow Out (1981) and Body Double (1984). The film begins with a diamond heist sequence in which the femme fatale, Laure (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos), seduces a female model by guiding her to the bathroom for an erotic encounter that echoes the opening shower sequence of Dressed to Kill. It is not until the second act in which the male protagonist, Nicolas Bardo (Antonio Banderas), takes on a larger role that it turns into typical film noir. Bardo is an updated version of the cynical gumshoe from the late 1940s; the 21st century version has morphed into a cynical paparazzo. Laure, the target he is ordered to photograph, comes to fully embody the femme fatale role that was only hinted at during the first act.

First, she intellectually seduces Bardo by playing the battered, damsel in distress role, dressed in a virginal white outfit complete with scarf and black sunglasses, to capture his interest. Second, she physically seduces him in order to frame him for her supposed kidnapping. Lastly, she emotionally seduces him through jealousy in order to ensure him going through with the final stage of her plan. As the evidence mounts, Bardo sinks deeper and deeper into trouble with no apparent refuge. Similar to his film noir forefather in Double Indemnity, Bardo eventually meets his fate at the hands of the femme fatale’s bullet - although this is not where De Palma chooses to end his film. Instead, the third act transforms into a sort of fairy tale where the film noir segment is revealed to have been a prophetic dream on the part of Laure. Completely going against the generic conventions, Laure chooses a path of redemption and romance instead of greed and murder. This change of heart is accepted because De Palma has transmuted his characterization of the femme fatale, most notably by promoting her to primary character as well as visually representing her more vibrantly than the shadowy women of the classical Hollywood noir.

De Palma also voices an underlying subtext that could never be made explicit during the heyday of Hollywood cinema: homosexuality. In what can initially be taken as a throw-away scene, Bardo impersonates a homosexual in order to gain Laure’s trust. It is easy to ignore the implications of this scene because Banderas has played a similar version of this homosexual persona before, both for laughs and sincerity. However, if one is to look at the film through the classical auteur theory, we must question why De Palma would include the scene. One can conjecture it is commentary on the subliminal message sent in some of the old films where the male detective is better off on his own and his problems are all caused by the presence of a woman. It is also intriguing that De Palma comments on the genre itself by making the film noir segment the only portion to exist entirely outside the realm of reality.

Classical auteur theorist, Andrew Sarris believes that the criteria for being considered an auteur is that “a director must exhibit certain recurrent characteristics of style, which serve as his signature” as well as an interior meaning being “extrapolated from the tension between a director’s personality and his material.”[3] Both thematically and technically, Femme Fatale shares many similarities with the rest of De Palma’s oeuvre. While his allusions to Hitchcock do not feature as blatantly as say the presence of Rear Window (1954) in Sisters (1973) or Psycho (1960) in Dressed to Kill, some subtle Hitchcockian tendencies can be discerned. The clearest visual similarity is the duality of the hair colors Laure wears in correlation to the Kim Novak character in Vertigo (1958). Thematically he utilizes the “wrong man” scenario during the Bardo being framed segment, a subject Hitchcock was very fond of using in films such as The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) and North by Northwest (1959).

Another affinity to Hitchcock is De Palma’s obsession with voyeurism. This motif can be found in virtually all of his films, and Femme Fatale is no exception. Intrinsically there is the decision to have Bardo a voyeur by livelihood and by nature. The medium of photography takes precedent during key scenes in the story: Laure herself posing as a member of the paparazzi during the diamond heist, the numerous shots of the wedding photographer waiting for the sun to come out during the truck sequence as well as the film ending on a freeze frame emulating a snapshot followed by the collage of photographs that Bardo was compiling. Some of the most heavily voyeuristic sequences include Laure’s security guard secretly watching Bardo while negotiating the sale of the picture, Bardo watching Laure purchase a hand gun and the last seduction scene in which Laure performs a strip tease for another man while Bardo watches from the stairs. In these scenes, Laure’s knowledge of Bardo’s voyeurism fuels her actions; Bardo on the other hand is unaware that he is being examined; both by the direct action of the security guard and the reflexive manner of Laure watching him watch her.

De Palma’s dependence on homage is not to say he does not possess stylistic tendencies of his own, namely his revolutionary work using split-screen to show parallel action. His elaborate split-screen scenes in Femme Fatale are direct descendents of Sisters while the complicated overhead shots panning over walls of ceiling-less rooms in Snake Eyes is echoed during Bardo’s interrogation scene. There is also the reoccurring use of dream sequences in practically all his films, two of the most elaborate dreams being found in Femme Fatale and Dressed to Kill. The juxtaposition of dreams in these two is of importance in that Femme Fatale’s structure is one very lengthy dream book-ended by two reality segments while Dressed to Kill’s reality is book-ended by two lengthy dreams.

In response to Andrew Sarris’ definition of the auteur, Peter Wollen says that it is not enough to simply have recurring themes; the director “must be defined in terms of shifting relations, in their singularity as well as their uniformity.”[4] For more than twenty years, De Palma has been accomplishing variety by playing with genre conventions and invoking established auteurs within a spectrum of stories. While his creative stamp may lie most firmly in the erotic thriller, his career has encompassed war, spy/espionage, horror, comedy, psychological thriller, gangster and even science fiction. Wollen went on to describe a valuable work as being “one which challenges codes, overthrows established ways of reading or looking, not simply to establish new ones, but to compel an unending dialogue.”[5] This is certainly a fit description for Femme Fatale, a film that takes the obvious generic conventions of film noir and mixes them so thoroughly with DePalma’s auteur tendencies that it creates an amalgam that can no longer be described conclusively as a film noir, or even an erotic thriller for that matter.

Sarris, Andrew. “Notes on the Auteur Theory in 1962.” In Film Theory and Criticism, edited by Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.
Schatz, Thomas. “Film Genre and the Genre Film.” In Film Theory and Criticism, edited by Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.
Schatz, Thomas. Hollywood Genres. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1981.
Wollen, Peter. “The Auteur Theory.” In Film Theory and Criticism, edited by Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.
[1] Thomas Schatz, Hollywood Genres, (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1981), 112.
[2] Thomas Schatz, “Film Genre and the Genre Film,” in Film Theory and Criticism, ed. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 692.
[3] Andrew Sarris, “Notes on the Auteur Theory in 1962,” in Film Theory and Criticism, ed. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 562.
[4] Peter Wollen, “The Auteur Theory,” in Film Theory and Criticism, ed. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 575.
[5] Peter Wollen, “The Auteur Theory,” in Film Theory and Criticism, ed. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 580.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Genre Identification: Linda Williams and the “Gross-Out” Comedy

In Linda Williams’ article, “Film Bodies: Gender, Genre, and Excess,” Williams utilizes the identification theories of Christian Metz and Jean-Louis Baudry in conjunction with genre theory to craft an analysis of the physical reactions the viewer has to three specific “body genres”: horror, melodrama and pornography. Two theorists that must be considered in relation to discussions on genre theory are Rick Altman and Thomas Schatz. Altman’s writing discusses genres through a semantic/syntactic scope or more simply as vocabulary versus context: the semantic approach covers the similar traits that appear predominantly in a specific genre while syntax acknowledges a similar story type to define a genre. Altman suggests that in order for a genre to be successful, “either a relatively stable set of semantic givens is developed through syntactic experimentation…or an already existing syntax adopts a new set of semantic elements.”[1] He uses the example of the science fiction genre, suggesting it exists on a foundation of science fiction semantics, but borrows heavily from the syntax of the horror and western genres. This hints at a cross-pollination between genres that has proved to be quite provocative in the field of genre theory.

Thomas Schatz explores another difficult distinction: the film genre versus the genre film. The vehicle he uses to explore this idea is that of semiotics, the study of signs and symbols as elements of language and communication. Schatz defines three areas for genre analysis: characteristics shared by basically all genre films, characteristics shared by all films within a given genre and characteristics that isolate one genre film from all others. In addition, he explores the separation of genre in terms of social context, “the determining, identifying feature of a film genre is its cultural context, its community of interrelated character types whose attitudes, values, and actions flesh out dramatic conflicts inherent within that community.”[2] From this we get the stereotypical characters that are symbols or placeholders that serve a specific function within the genre as well as the particular social problems that are inherent to certain genres. Schatz acknowledges that vital elements of one genre can still be found in other genres but in a different context (he addresses the presence of musical numbers in many westerns and gangster films that are certainly not considered musicals). Instead, we identify a genre through the conflict situation and the types of characters found in the story as established by the grammar of the film genre.

Linda Williams synthesizes these modes of genre distinction in order to examine their physical effects on the spectator. She writes on three genres that she describes as so excessive and overwhelming in a specific emotion that they produce a bodily sensation in the viewer. This effect is achieved visually through spasms induced by overwhelming sadness from the melodrama, fear and terror from the horror film and sexual pleasure from pornography as well as aurally through tears, screams and moans. Williams does not attempt to claim these are the only genres that evoke such sensations on the viewer, rather she isolates these three because she feels they have especially low cultural status and “the success of these genres is often measured by the degree to which the audience sensation mimics what is seen on screen.”[3] This mimicry is what Metz would refer to as the secondary identification with the characters on screen.

In terms of melodrama, Williams grounds her analysis in “women’s weepies,” such as Stella Dallas (1937) or Steel Magnolias (1989) that are characterized by an element of overwhelming pathos, often spurred by a terminal illness or an accidental death. She does not confine her examination to this gender-exclusive genre however. She makes note of an evolving trend that has created the male version of the weepie; Ordinary People (1980) is a prime example. These observations highlight a Laura Mulvey type of distinction between the male and female identification that Williams explores at great length throughout her article.
What Williams does not do is interrogate the possibility of a film belonging to more than one of these “body genres.” One of the examples she lists under contemporary horror films is a perfect subject to explore this notion, Brian DePalma’s Dressed to Kill (1980). If we are to look at it in terms of a horror, it is arguable that we can just as easily look at it in terms of pornography. Dressed to Kill certainly goes to excess in both regards: the gruesome violence of the murder scenes makes the viewer jump and scream out of repulsion while the film’s sexual scenes and dialogue are as explicit as many of the sequences found in what is considered to be traditional pornography.

If we are to look at this film through Altman’s semantic/syntactic approach, we can propose that the film is not genuine pornography because even though it utilizes semantic elements of pornography, the context of the events is within the investigation of a potential serial killer. We can also use Schatz to further dispel the idea of a pornography if we incorporate his idea that “the most significant feature of any generic narrative may be its resolution – that is, its efforts to solve, even if only temporarily, the conflicts that have disturbed the community welfare.”[4] With this in mind we can more accurately classify Dressed to Kill in the genre of horror or thriller since it concludes with the killer’s identity being revealed and being apprehended by the police, instead of a sexual activity as would be expected in pornography. Williams’ classification process enforces a more rigid structure that is not well equipped for such hybridization and films like Dressed to Kill prove to be a challenge to dissect.

Schatz proposes that “the sustained success of any genre depends upon at least two factors: the thematic appeal and significance of the conflicts it repeatedly addresses and its flexibility in adjusting to the audience’s and filmmaker’s changing attitudes toward those conflicts.”[5] One subgenre that is slowly emerging over time that fits in well with Williams’ other body genres is the gross-out comedy, or films that derive their humor primarily from bodily functions that cause the viewer to cringe out of disgust while also evoking laughter.

The gross-out comedy has long been considered as a genre primarily geared toward a teenage-male audience, thanks to teen-sex-comedies like Porky’s (1982), The Last American Virgin (1982) and Losin’ It (1983). These films all feature scenes in which sexual situations are mostly played for laughs as they frequently result in mishap and embarrassment. However, the release of There’s Something About Mary in 1998 helped expand the genre to appeal to an older audience of both males and females. Instead of the horny teenagers of the ‘80s, the lead characters are now lovelorn 30-somethings and the title character is a strong, independent female played by Cameron Diaz. The semantics were still the same (masturbation, voyeurism, embarrassment, genital pain) but the syntax was elevated to a more (theoretically) mature level.

Due to the overwhelming success of the film, an onslaught of gross-out comedies was released in the following years. However, the genre was now expanded to films that included “toilet humor” featuring scenes of excrement and urination, but sidestepping the explicit sexual element like Big Daddy (1999). That same year American Pie (1999) popularized a synthesis of sex humor and toilet humor by having characters unknowingly consume bodily fluids beginning with semen and progressing to urine and dog feces in the sequels. This trend was continued in other imitators like Tomcats (2001), Van Wilder (2002), and perhaps the ultimate example of gross-out humor, Jackass: The Movie (2002).

The most interesting advancement in the genre is the advent of the female-led gross-out comedy that appeals specifically to teenage girls with limited cross-over appeal. This can best be seen in The Sweetest Thing (2002), which also stars Cameron Diaz who has begun to serve as an identifier of the genre film. The film is headed by three female leads who realize they need to reexamine their approaches to dating in order to obtain a desirable husband, all the while featuring numerous and extensive jokes about oral sex, fecal matters and on-screen female regurgitation. Another example of the genre reaching broader appeal can be found in Meet the Parents (2000). In this case, the film is a family comedy focusing on middle-aged adults in which the topic of marriage and other mature subject matter has been injected with gross-out humor involving faulty septic tanks and feline urination.

This genre expansion in terms of gender and age relates back to Williams’ inclusion of the “male weepie.” This is part of a larger discussion about female identification that Williams explores through this as well as the emergence of bisexual pornography in which the classic rules of sexual identification have been morphed. Williams feels that these advancements are important in that they acknowledge a feminine viewing pleasure that was purported not to exist in classical gender theory such as Laura Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Mulvey expanded upon Metz’s idea of primary identification by using psychoanalysis to suggest that the cinematic identification is exclusively male. Later works by Tania Modleski and Jackie Stacey have given examples similar to Williams that strongly persuade for the existence of a female identification. Due to films like There’s Something About Mary and The Sweetest Thing, we can firmly campaign for the presence of the female gaze in the gross-out comedy.

In order to properly define the gross-out comedy as a stable genre we must examine it according to both Altman and Schatz’s theoretical requirements. Considering the inherent role that sex plays in the majority of the bodily functions of the genre, it is equitable to say that all films of this nature must also be considered romantic comedies or at least feature key romantic subplots. Without an object of desire to lust after, the range of bodily functions available to create comedic set-pieces is greatly diminished. We can propose that the semantics of the genre frequently include sex, masturbation, teenagers, vomit, excretion, urination and bodily pain while the syntax is that of the classical Hollywood romantic comedy. The Schatzian approach would consider the films in terms of social conflict and narrative resolution: Boy meets girl, Boy loses girl, Boy needs to learn how to recover girl, and Boy wins back girl (or vice-versa as the identification oscillates).[6]

Sadly, there is a potential futility to be found within the genre. We can return to Altman’s theory of semantic/syntactic synthesis in constituting a successful genre which states that to achieve durability a genre must possess both a coherent and stable syntax and not just recurring semantics.[7] In these terms, the gross-out comedy appears more as a fad than as a genre all of its own. Seeing as its roots lie so intricately in the firmly established romantic comedy genre, the semantics of the gross-out can be perceived as responding to a popular interest during a particular period of time. With this we enter back into Schatz’s theory about the discourse between the audience and the studios suggesting the films of the late 1990’s and early 2000’s appear to be answering to some cultural desire to be grossed-out or disgusted. However, as Schatz suggests, it is likely this interest will quickly dissipate much like it did after the spout of raunchy teenage-sex-comedies of the early 1980’s.

If the genre is (conceivably) destined to last only for sporadic, brief periods of time, one must question the significance of investigating it so thoroughly. There are a number of answers to this. Most provocatively, it opens discussion on the much broader topic of laughter in general. The psychological and psychoanalytical discourse required to properly tackle a query such as how a physical reaction like the cringe that is characterized by disgust or fear can somehow be the impetus of laughter is too immense to be covered here. This field harkens back to the question of spectatorship in relation to genre.

The return to spectatorship marks the return to the central text of Williams’ “body genres.” One of the many important aspects of her article is the new approach to genre distinction: the physical effect on the viewer. In this sense, the gross-out comedy must be taken into account within a contemporary revision of her theory. The genre not only satisfies the visual, aural and low-culture requirements of her body genre criterion, the genre’s existence is fundamentally based on the act of bodily secretion and therefore must be considered as an integral member within this analysis.

[1] Rick Altman, “A Semantic/Syntactic Approach to Film Genre,” in Film Theory and Criticism, ed. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 686.
[2] Thomas Schatz, “Film Genre and the Genre Film,” in Film Theory and Criticism, ed. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 695.
[3] Linda Williams, “Film Bodies: Gender, Genre, and Excess,” in Film Theory and Criticism, ed. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 730.
[4] Thomas Schatz, “Film Genre and the Genre Film,” in Film Theory and Criticism, ed. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 699.
[5] Thomas Schatz, “Film Genre and the Genre Film,” in Film Theory and Criticism, ed. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 700.
[6] Linda Williams, “Film Bodies: Gender, Genre, and Excess,” in Film Theory and Criticism, ed. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 736.
[7] Rick Altman, “A Semantic/Syntactic Approach to Film Genre,” in Film Theory and Criticism, ed. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 690.


Altman, Rick. “A Semantic/Syntactic Approach to Film Genre.” In Film Theory and Criticism, edited by Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.
Schatz, Thomas. “Film Genre and the Genre Film.” In Film Theory and Criticism, edited by Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.
Williams, Linda. “Film Bodies: Gender, Genre, and Excess.” In Film Theory and Criticism, edited by Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Evening the Score

I am overjoyed to report that in a 24 hour-period I was fortunate enough to make three visits to the movie theater, matching the amount of visits in the past 6 weeks. The action started out at 9:20 on Monday night with a trip to the local New Jersey multiplex with for March of the Penguins, picked back up the next morning at 10:40 with an Angelika excursion for Broken Flowers and concluded the event with the good fortune of seeing a 6:00 advanced screening of The 40 Year-Old Virgin. Days like this don’t grow on trees.

March of the Penguins had a few nice qualities: it moves at an extremely brisk pace, is commendable for not shying away from the grimmer aspects of the journey, and most importantly, it is unquestionably a great thrill to watch penguins slowly waddle around. However, this cute and cuddly documentary ultimately didn’t feel like anything that can’t be saved for PBS, I can think of more impressive bird-related documentaries I’ve seen in theaters. It’s about on par with the uninformative but majestic Winged Migration but doesn’t compete with the accessibility and warm-heartedness of The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill.

Broken Flowers on the other hand is a very nicely presented little story that has one or two things in common with About Schmidt, most favorably, its episodic narrative that so easily emulates the feeling of reading an engrossing novel. The story is that of an aged Don Juan-type character played by Bill Murray and his cathartic odyssey of traveling to ex-girlfriends after receiving an anonymous letter saying he is the uninformed father of a 20-year-old child. The film is careful to make the distinction between casting the character as a Don Juan and not as a womanizer. He rarely says anything more than he has to and uses this to make any slight compliment or pleasantry seem all the more important. Unlike his overdone ironic detachment in the obnoxious The Life Aquatic, Murray’s performance here conveys an underlying sense of feeling obstructed by an emotionally impotent exterior. The film also benefits from some marvelous albeit brief supporting performances, particularly an unrecognizable Tilda Swinton and a positively radiant Sharon Stone. I was reminded of a play I saw at the beginning of my London stay on the West End called Some Girl(s) starring sitcom favorite David Schwimmer and written by hard-working and hard-biting playwright/filmmaker Neil Labute. Schwimmer played an indecisive man about to get married who decides to fly across America and visit four girls that he wronged in the past in hope of making amends. His oblivious insensitivity makes the spree painful for all involved and the play articulates a type of male character that can be incredibly damaging. Casting someone like David Schwimmer in this role makes the message all the more effective in that someone of his nature comes off as so completely non-threatening to men yet has the ability to be so irreparably damaging to numerous women. Broken Flowers does not cast its lead character negatively but rather observes the sustained results of years of romantic entanglements.

Continuing on the topic of the power of sexual relations but switching gears thematically, we have The 40 Year-Old Virgin, a peculiar studio film that manages to be conventional yet unconventional at the same time. The film doesn’t entirely work but there are a lot of very funny and unexpected scenes that make it worth a casual viewing. As far as gross-out comedies go, The 40 Year-Old Virgin is more interested in being There’s Something About Mary than Anchorman but it doesn’t quite succeed at reaching that level of widely accessible sex and fart jokes. Unlike Mary which had the ability to connect with audiences of different ages pretty unanimously, this is very much targeted toward the late teens-early 20’s demographic. Co-written and directed by Judd Apatow, the brains behind the brilliant television shows Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared, the film similarly walks the tightrope between mean-spiritedness and genuine heart but doesn’t obtain the precise balance that he mastered in the television world. The first half gets bogged down with extremely vulgar material featuring throwaway ethnic and homosexual jabs and unnecessarily excessive cursing. There is one incredibly long sequence of gay jokes that never pays off thematically. While the scene is undeniably funny, the fact that it serves no purpose plot-wise initially confounded me. I later found myself appreciating the film being scattered with completely superfluous scenes as it is one of its most charming traits. While the camaraderie between the four males isn’t as effective as it was on Undeclared, we do get a sense of real-life conversations and natural dialogue that is surely an effect of a very loose and improvisation-heavy set. Another clear by-product of the ad-libbing is the plethora of obscure and pointed pop-culture references (Beautician and the Beast?) that alternate between misfires and uproariously funny because of their completely out-of-left-field nature. Then the second half arrives and we get blindsided by some genuinely touching scenes thanks principally to Steve Carrell’s surprisingly deep performance. Shedding his trilogy of newscaster-based roles entirely, he gives a meaningful and empathetic performance that skillfully elevates the character out of what could have so easily been a one-dimensional sketch character. His performance in the Planned Parenthood clinic scene is the stand out comedic set-piece, not the heavily publicized and spectacle heavy chest waxing scene.

The film borrows from There’s Something About Mary in a couple of ways, not least in its out-of-place but ultimately enjoyable conclusion, but also by filling the background with eccentric and imperfect supporting characters. Even the Paul Rudd character that starts out as the requisite amicable, hopeless romantic becomes more and more unbalanced as the film progresses. Paul Rudd is an actor who has always impressed me with his ability to easily alternate between independent and mainstream work in all sorts of various roles ranging from Clueless, The Cider House Rules, The Shape of Things, Anchorman, and even a recurring role on the final two seasons of Friends. I’ve always admired his willingness to make himself look absolutely ridiculous while being able to maintain his meek and mild-mannered characterization. My only complaint here is a bit too much Ron Burgundy seems to have rubbed off on him at times, particularly the porn delivery scene.

The way the film manages to incorporate emotion into its core without becoming too hokey is also worthy of recognition. Although there is one incredibly cheesy line toward the film’s climax that would have benefited most from the film’s established sardonic humor. We keep waiting for something biting to undercut it but instead the filmmakers simply let it hang which is disappointing at such a crucial moment as this. Still the scene is prefaced with a classic 80s rock song so I guess it can be forgiven. Unevenness and excessive politically incorrect jokes aside, Carrell’s performance and some very funny and unexpected situations constitute a viewing.

Next I’ll continue posting some film theory essays, as was prefaced with the brief dissection of a sequence from A Clockwork Orange and in spirit of The 40 Year-Old Virgin, an investigation into gross-out comedy using genre theory should be up shortly.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Clockwork Formalism

During the course of Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, the viewer is repeatedly forced to acknowledge the medium. This primary emphasis on presentation rather than content exemplifies the film as Formalist filmmaking. Even the sequences within the film that veer close to Realism are always earmarked with a formalist touch. Two such instances include long takes during the 360° shot in the record store that ends with a cut that crosses the 180° line making the edit apparent, as well as the twanging sound effects in accordance with the baton hits during the drowning.

According to Sergei Eisenstein (one of the founding fathers of Formalism) the most important tool of cinema is montage, “which may be roughly defined as the reinforcing of the meaning of one image by association with another image not necessarily part of the same episode.” (Bazin) In this regard, one of the film’s most formalist sequences occurs around the twenty-minute mark. Upon returning home from his boundless night of immoral debauchery, Alex plops down on his bed in a childlike manner and through voice-over narration, declares all he needed to give the night the perfect ending was “a bit of the old Ludwig Van.” Here the viewer enters into a sequence that employs Eisenstein’s primary requirement for montage to create meaning: collision. (Eisenstein) In fact, Kubrick achieves a type of montage prior to splicing shots together. In a single shot, the camera starts on the naked woman in the painting hanging in Alex’s room and slowly tilts down, revealing Alex’s pet snake slithering on a tree branch directly in front of the woman’s genitals and concludes on a display of four porcelain Jesus statues. The iconography appears biblical as the snake’s relation to the naked woman harkens to the Adam and Eve mythology. Furthermore, the multiple Jesus figures are depicted without cross and raising a clenched fist heavenward in a “celebration of pleasure” to the fall of Eve. (Nelson)

Following this shot is a rapid succession of extreme close-ups of different body parts of the Christ interrupted by an approximately 20 second close-up of Alex, whose arm movement and facial expression imply he is gratifying himself. This long shot (in relation to the preceding and following edits) segues into the classical Eisenstein montage sequence. Alex prefaces “As I slooshied, I knew such lovely pictures.” The viewer receives a quick shot of Beethoven’s eyes followed by a series of non-diegetic inserts juxtaposed with a recurring shot of Alex dressed like a vampire. First a shot of a woman being hanged; followed by Vampire Alex with fangs and blood on his mouth; an explosion with dirt and rocks flying toward the camera; return to Vampire Alex; train car exploding; Vampire Alex; clip from One Million Years B.C. of an avalanche of boulders; Vampire Alex; and finally a volcano erupting and spewing out lava. This final shot clearly symbolizes ejaculation and henceforth concludes the sequence. The constant repetition of the Vampire Alex shot suggests that like a vampire, Alex’s sustenance and vitality depend on feeding off violence and savagery.

The physical construction of the film is impossible to ignore. Kubrick achieves this formalist state by employing a medley of visual and aural techniques that consistently reveal the filmmaker’s orchestration. In effect, Kubrick embraces the conventions of Formalism while grounding the film in Realism by way of long takes and elaborate sets that create an alternate world; a world able to be manipulated as the director deems worthy.

Works Cited
Andre Bazin, “The Evolution of the Language of Cinema,” in Film Theory and Criticism, ed. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 42.
Sergei Eisenstein, “Beyond the Shot,” in Film Theory and Criticism, ed. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 19.
Thomas Allen Nelson, Kubrick: Inside a Film Artist’s Maze (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1982), 152.

Monday, August 08, 2005

Romanticizing and Americanizing: The Dueling Richard Curtis Romantic Comedy Trilogies

In recent years, the most popular British exports to America have largely been romantic comedies, many of which are written by Richard Curtis. Curtis first got a name for himself working in television on BBC programs like Black Adder with frequent collaborator Rowan Atkinson. Since Four Weddings and a Funeral (Mike Newell, 1994) connected so strongly with American audiences (bringing in over $50 Million dollars at the US box office, as well as being nominated for 2 Academy Awards, screenplay and Best Picture) Curtis has become a symbol for consistently successful romantic comedies causing Nick James to go as far as dub him “Britain’s most successful screenwriter.”

However, there seems to be a departure developing from his work in the late ‘90s and his most recent 2000 entries. His three early romantic comedies [Four Weddings, Notting Hill (Roger Michell, 1999), and Bridget Jones’ Diary (Sharon Maguire, 2001)] deal with very similar central depictions of love: initially unattainable, fraught with back-and-forth crises culminating in profession and union of “true love” at the film’s conclusion. Whereas his three later romantic comedies [Love Actually (Richard Curtis, 2003), Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason (Beeban Kidron, 2004) and The Girl in the Café (David Yates, 2005)] take a slightly more skewed portrayal of love as well as incorporate a burgeoning interest in politics on a scale unseen in his earlier films. These later films mark a deviation from his earlier work in thematic view points, quality, and reception.

Curtis’ three early romantic comedies can be collectively classified as “Urban Fairy-tales,” a term Robert Murphy institutes to investigate the spate of British romantic comedies being produced since the late ‘90s. Frustratingly, Murphy excludes Bridget Jones from the list insisting that it should not qualify because the protagonists “hardly suffer at all and blunder undeservedly into happiness.” Immediately one has to approach this article with hesitation because the supposed distinction between the suffering of Bridget Jones (Renée Zellwegger) and the suffering of Charles (Hugh Grant) in Four Weddings and a Funeral does not seem readily apparent. While it is true that Charles has to deal with the death of a close friend, his overall distress comes from the inability to obtain his image of true love, a subject Bridget Jones can certainly understand. In fact, the entire comedic impetus of the two Bridget Jones films relies on Bridget being put into humiliating situations as a spring board for eliciting laughter. Aside from the comedic scenes that can perhaps be written off by her ultimate perseverance and charm, Bridget unquestionably suffers at the hands of her boss Daniel Cleaver (Hugh Grant – once again), who maliciously lies to her about his past and has no qualms about using her for sex despite her obviously stronger desires toward him.

Nonetheless, Murphy instills an interesting lens to view Curtis’ early films, saying, “they show life in Britain as exciting, glamorous and full of romantic possibilities, and are constructed like fairy-tales.” It is not difficult to tell that these films choose to depict a fantasy-world view of London lifestyle that glamorizes and idealizes the location and its inhabitants to a considerably cinematic degree. One can equate Curtis’ style to Woody Allen’s repeated unabashedly beautified depictions of New York City locales. Like Allen, Curtis has been criticized for excluding minorities from his stories. Interestingly, both filmmakers attempt to rectify this by casting the actor Chiwetel Ejiofor as an affluent and refined ethnic character in their respective recent comedies, Love Actually and Melinda and Melinda (2005).

This heavily romanticized depiction of the world, despite occasionally being derided for its selective realism, is one of the integral appealing factors of the Curtis comedies: “The re-creation of London as an enchanted village where lovers are able to find each other among the city’s teeming millions and chance encounters and coincidental meetings are to be expected.” The vision of Four Weddings and a Funeral appears particularly liberal in depiction of social class. There is a prevalent feeling of affluence floating leisurely throughout the events, yet there is virtually no reference to actual work making the social class standings all the more incredible. Charles in particular has no explanation for his implied wealth; one can perhaps surmise that he is a writer due to his free time, verbose nature, and a facetious remark about him researching pubs with the word boat in the title. Out of his friends, the only one to explicitly mention work is his offbeat roommate Scarlet, who says on a Saturday that she might go look for a job but does not seem too concerned about the situation. While another friend, Tom, is purported to be the 7th richest man in England. This constant air of unwarranted wealth further intensifies the idealized view of Britain.

Notting Hill takes its economic situation a little more seriously. William (Grant), runs a humble, not entirely successful book shop and his relationship with movie star, Anna Scott (Julia Roberts) repeatedly makes note of him feeling inferior and out of his social class. Robert Murphy also touches upon a sort of Thatcher reactionary element in that “Bernie the stockbroker and Tony the restaurateur are both redeemed by their failure to succeed in the material world (Bernie loses his job and Tony’s restaurant goes bankrupt).” It is still important to note that these actions are not portrayed with dire consequences. Like Notting Hill, Bridget Jones’ Diary begins to acknowledge class structure more realistically with Bridget’s desire to elevate her social status by advancing her career in addition to her romance with high-profile lawyer Mark Darcy (Colin Firth), a subject further explored in the sequel.

All three of these early romantic comedies deal with the chance relationship between the protagonist and an object of desire that remains out of reach through various complications until the climax. In Four Weddings and Notting Hill, the love interest is an American woman whose exoticism and unobtainable nature prove to be irresistible for the meek and inexperienced Hugh Grant character. In Bridget Jones, the American woman is still physically present in the form of Renée Zellwegger but her nationality has been masked by a flawless British accent. All three love interests rely on a series of coincidental, chance encounters. Bridget’s relationship with Mark is at first played for ridicule at the characters’ disdain for repeatedly running into each other. The other two relationships are depicted in a more contrived manner, with Notting Hill making more effort to create believable encounters than Four Weddings which takes a very haphazard approach to the recurring bump-ins managing to make Charles’ relationship with Carrie (Andie MacDowell) even less believable than William’s brush with celebrity.

All of Curtis’ romantic comedies have been joint ventures with US production companies and the need for the films to succeed in America is more important than in its native England. Nick James points out that “the problem of wanting ‘a sustainable British film industry’ is that the domestic market alone may never be hungry enough to support it.” In this respect, Curtis can clearly and reasonably be accused of watering-down his image of London in order to pander to American Hollywood audiences. James suggests Curtis is fully aware of this fact and commends him for making the most of it: “Curtis is brilliant enough to have built British film industry defeatism into the plot of Notting Hill, his romance between an insignificant British bookseller and a world-famous Hollywood movie star.” If Notting Hill can be conceived as a concession to the overarching American influence, then Love Actually appears to be a subversive and cheeky form of retaliation.

Billed on its tagline as “The Ultimate Romantic Comedy,” Richard Curtis’ directorial debut focuses on an ensemble of love stories and running at 135 minutes, it is certainly ultimate in the sense that it is one of the longest romantic comedies in film history. More importantly, Love Actually is a deviation from past work in both its depiction of Americans and of love itself. There are three particularly provocative images of Americans in the film: a group of 5 beautiful girls from Wisconsin, the President of The United States (Billy Bob Thornton), and Sarah (Laura Linney), a pleasant office worker whose mentally challenged brother takes a toll on her social life. The first case featuring the beautiful Americans revolves around a brash young man named Colin (Kris Marshall) whose character balances carefully between unappealing and charismatic. After getting fed up with the uptight British women, he journeys to America in search of beautiful women with loose morals. Colin hastily departs for Wisconsin, a Mid-Western state whose connotation does not readily evoke images of beautiful women in the minds of American audience members. No sooner does Colin walk into an American bar that he immediately meets three beautiful American women, all played by up-and-coming American actresses in a series of cameos that escalate in star grandeur. The women do not seem swayed by Colin’s goofy physical attributes and instantly fall for his British accent before inviting him back to their apartment for an orgy, furthering the image of overly amorous American women first depicted by Carrie in Four Weddings.

The second American enters the film through the plot strand focusing on the newly elected, bachelor Prime Minister, David (naturally played by Curtis’ stalwart, Hugh Grant). From the instant the President of the United States appears on screen, it is immediately evident that this is a thinly veiled caricature of Bill Clinton. Any thought of the similarities ending with physical attribute is completely wiped away when David walks in on the President mildly fondling his secretary. The scene sets the stage for David’s defiant press meeting where he boldly and unexpectedly declares that England is not going to be bullied by the United States any more. In this sequence, the music swells, the crowd cheers and the image of England flexing its backbone is Curtis’ first moment of politically charged cinema. However, reflection on the expository scene reveals that in true Richard Curtis manner, David’s act of rebellion is based just as largely on the personal transgression of the President inappropriately encroaching on David’s love interest as it is politically motivated.

The third American image is more problematic. Contrasted to the previous examples of amicability and pointed ridicule, Sarah is not played for laughs and appears as one of the film’s most tragic characters. She is depicted as caring, friendly and attractive yet she is one of the few characters to be denied romantic love by the film’s end. Unless Sarah can alleviate her love of her mentally handicapped brother enough to ignore his incessant phone calls, she can never achieve romantic love within the film’s diegesis.

This returns to Curtis’ depiction of love and how it has changed from his early romantic comedies. Four Weddings, Notting Hill and Bridget Jones all conclude with the idea of the couple embracing in an everlasting love. Love Actually takes a slightly different approach with the focus on new relationships blossoming in every story; this is very much a film about new love and impermanence. In the film’s opening, love literally dies in the form of recent widower Daniel (Liam Neeson) performing the eulogy at his wife’s funeral. At the film’s end, Daniel finds hope of a new love in the form of a beautiful woman played by Claudia Schiffer who happens to be a single mother at his stepson’s school. Even more improbably, the stepson embraces and promotes this relationship for his step-dad.

Two of the central stories focus on married couples, neither of which symbolizes the idyllic image of marital bliss. The film begins with the marriage of two young people, the smug Peter (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and the angelic Juliet (Keira Knightly). As the narrative progresses, it is revealed that Peter’s best friend Mark (Andrew Lincoln) is secretly harboring a considerable crush on Juliet. When Mark finally professes his love, Juliet rushes into the street and gives him a small but passionate kiss before returning to her husband causing Mark to respond in an aside, “Enough for now.” While this particular relationship concludes ambiguously at the film’s end, if anything it is suggested Mark has gotten over his crush, a marriage that begins with the bride kissing her husband’s best friend is surely not symbolic of a sturdy foundation.

The second married couple subplot is even more distressing. Harry (Alan Rickman) and Karen (Emma Thompson) have been married for a number of years and have two young children together. However, Harry develops an office romance with his secretary. When Karen discovers her husband’s transgressions, she stoically stays with Harry in order to keep up the appearance of loving mother and wife for her children’s sake. In this instance, familial love is represented as stronger and more important than romantic love between husband and wife.

While it is true that Four Weddings and a Funeral did not represent the institution of marriage with the utmost reverence, it concludes with the end credits epilogue of all the main characters’ wedding photos suggesting a final harmony to the subject. Conversely, Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason explores what happens after Bridget and Mark’s climactic kissing in the snow, suggesting that things are not tied up as neatly as they appear in the end of the first film. Sadly, the feckless sequel denotes a low-point in Curtis’ career as it is merely a retread of the original’s plot without the charm and heart of the former. Of course, the two Bridget Jones films must be studied under a weary eye as they are ultimately accredited as predominately products of the literary author, Helen Fielding.

Carrying over from the political undertones of Love Actually, Girl in the Café tells the story of a civil servant (Bill Nighy), his attraction to a young woman (Kelly Macdonald) and how their relationship stirs political controversy when he brings her to the G8 Summit. The main cast eschews the American celebrity from his past five romantic comedies and not surprisingly, the film did not see an American theatrical release, debuting on HBO instead. It is important to note that the main selling point on the DVD cover is “Written by Richard Curtis”, displayed predominantly above the actors’ and the director’s names.

With the advertising clout of his name and his promotion to director on Love Actually and its international success, Curtis appears to becoming a more and more powerful and influential filmmaking voice as the years have progressed. However, the dull, insincere and money hungry, Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason in combination with the limited exposure of Girl in the Café reveals that Curtis has not achieved a flawless romantic comedy track record nor is he immune to the desires of the American market. While he can get away with playfully nibbling at the hand that feeds him in Love Actually, the negative response to Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason and the general apathy toward The Girl in the Café prove there are certain levels of quality and Americanization that audiences expect from his films.

James, Nick. “They Think It’s All Over: British Cinema’s US Surrender,” in The British Cinema Book [second edition], edited by Robert Murphy. London: British Film Institute, 2001.
Murphy, Robert. “Citylife: Urban Fairy-tales in Late 90s British Cinema,” in The British Cinema Book [second edition], edited by Robert Murphy. London: British Film Institute, 2001.

Sunday, August 07, 2005

London Called

Despite a rather late entry into the game, I have finally got around to jumping on the cinema studies blogspot bandwagon, a prospering field thanks to the impressively furtive work by Jeff and Cullen this summer. My belated initiation is based on three extenuating factors: initial skepticism against the blog community, the past 6 weeks of the summer being spent out of the country and general laziness. Of course the latter being the main stumbling block but now that the first two excuses no longer hold water, I’ll be doing my best to overcome the always problematic tendency toward inactivity.

Today marks my first day back in America after 6 weeks spent in London studying British Cinema and Shakespeare, two fields I have come to revere greatly. At the program’s start it would have been a generous overstatement to say that I had a very limited background in Shakespeare, Macbeth being the only play I truly paid attention to during my regrettably apathetic high school years; although in my defense the curriculum was not overly supportive of the Bard. Fortunately I had a few filmic interpretations floating around the back of the memory bank to help access the plays, in addition to the ever trusty Sparknotes of course. It must be said that after doing the required extracurricular research to acquaint myself with the initially seeming impenetrable text, I found the material to be quite rewarding and important. If nothing else it has opened up so many more pop culture references. Take for example the scene in Reality Bites when Ethan Hawke answers the phone with “Hello, you’ve reached the winter of our discontent,” which I now know to originate from the opening line of Richard III (although I probably should have known that beforehand). Or the immortal lines from Rush’s 1981 rockin’ ode to celebrity, Limelight, where lead singer Geddy Lee liberally quotes As You Like It’s “All the world’s a stage/ and we are merely players.” Or better yet, all the interesting pieces of verse not instantly familiar to contemporary audiences.
“I am sure my love’s more ponderous than my tongue.” (King Lear)
“The shadow of your sorrow hath destroyed the shadow of your face.” (Richard II)
“Friendship is constant in all other things save the office and affairs of love.” (Much Ado About Nothing)
“I am a great eater of beef and I believe that does harm to my wit.” (Twelfth Night) or my personal favorite,
-“But what’s his offense?”
-“Groping for trouts in a peculiar river.” (Measure for Measure) – being a close second for my blog title.

Switching over to the British Cinema class, a welcome return to film, as that is the ostensible aim of this blog. The screening list consisted of The 39 Steps (Hitchcock), A Canterbury Tale (Powell and Pressburger), Brief Encounter (David Lean), The Ladykillers (Alex Mackendrick), Billy Liar (John Schlesinger), Kes (Ken Loach), Life is Sweet (Mike Leigh), Four Weddings and a Funeral (Mike Newell), Trainspotting (Danny Boyle) and In This World (Michael Winterbottom). As you see, the list covers a wide gamut of the top British directors and I found all these films to be especially interesting, save Ladykillers which ran a little dark for my taste. Four Weddings and a Funeral being a perennial favorite of mine, I chose to write my paper on the fluffy subject of Richard Curtis penned romantic comedies, e.g. Bridget Jones’ Diary, Notting Hill and Love Actually. While this does not necessarily make for cutting edge, high art, cinematic study it was a subject close to my heart with plenty of previous research. A key factor as my access to film was rather restricted while being in London due to the different region encodings. With the overall film inaccessibility, the Shakespeare immersion and overall time required for soaking up London atmosphere, my movie watching took a great toll throughout the month of July. Although after the mad frenzy of film watching in May and June, this was a welcome reprieve. So while I slowly begin to catch up on outside movie watching and report on my findings, I’ll coast by for a few days posting archival material of papers written over the past two years of collegiate study, starting with the recent Richard Curtis dossier.

In the meantime I’ll begin with a brief summation of my London based cinema excursions. If you think going to the movies in New York is expensive, try London. Most tickets run somewhere between 6 pounds and 12 pounds, an exorbitant amount in itself but an absolutely ludicrous amount when converted to dollars. I knew I would have to choose wisely on my scarce theater trips. The lucky three films that I deemed worthy of my precious pounds were Wedding Crashers, The Skeleton Key and Mr. and Mrs. Smith. As you can see, I ignored my choosing wisely strategy. The one choice I make no concession about is Wedding Crashers. An enormous hit back in the states, the film cured any unwelcome thoughts of homesickness and gave me immediate conversation set-ups with friends back home. Owen Wilson’s style of humor has been a favorite of mine over the past few years and while I am not always an ardent Vince Vaughn fan (he sleepwalked through Dodgeball) his rapid-fire dialogue spewing can be very funny as long as it’s not overdone, i.e. Made. Thanks in large to its charismatic leads, Wedding Crashers proved to be raunchy summer fun despite the occasional foray into Meet the Parents apeing.

The Skeleton Key was my major misstep. I don’t completely regret the decision since it opened in London two weeks before America and the pre-release knowledge of the final product is always fun to flaunt at every trailer or poster opportunity. I was also tantalized by the credit, “From the writer of The Ring.” While some might scoff, I found The Ring to be one of the scarier and deeper horror films to come out in recent years so I figured Ehren Kruger should be reputable enough to make this worth a decent scare or two. Now I know to transfer all credit for The Ring to Gore Verbinski and any other member of the production crew aside from Kruger. His screenplay for The Skeleton Key is absolutely horrendous and lathers on obvious exposition scenes without mercy. The Kate Hudson character makes an exceptionally poor lead. She’s virtually the same character that Naomi Watts played but Hudson doesn’t have the charm to pull off the “determined to find out the truth” trait in spite of being a completely unlikable, abrasively confrontational jerk. The strong Peter Skarsgaard is also wasted behind a shaky southern drawl and lifeless screen time. The only actor who gets away unscathed is the prestigious John Hurt who wisely plays a stroke victim with no coherent lines of dialogue.

As for Mr. and Mrs. Smith, well what can I say, I couldn’t resist. I didn’t get the chance to see it before leaving America and I knew it wouldn’t be easy to see by the time I got returned so I figured why not. As luck would have it, I found it to be a light summer entertainment foray in the same spirit as Wedding Crashers. While it is noisy and excessively frenetic on the one hand; the off-beat humor, quirky casting decisions and tongue-in-cheek bravado pay off handsomely. While Doug Liman is certainly not portrayed to be the easiest director to work with, he sure seems to know how to sculpt an entertaining studio product that manages to remain safe while not appearing completely mindless. In this instance, he brilliantly turns the film into a romantic dilemma with a professional assassin background rather than vice versa. The relationship between the leads is given genuine weight and the action revolves around their inability to connect emotionally and the being hired to kill each other plot is merely a device to investigate their marital situation, a point brilliantly illustrated by the book-ending group therapy scenes. The frivolity with which the action plot is resolved, and by that I mean there is virtually no resolution, harkens back to Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps (thank you British Cinema) where the ludicrous Mr. Memory sub-plot is arguably just a means for the two lead characters to meet and fall in love. Even though there isn’t much connection between Liman’s Mr. and Mrs. Smith and Hitchcock’s Mr. and Mrs. Smith, I think there is room for an interesting investigation into Hitchcockian tendencies, mainly 39 Steps and North by Northwest, could be carried out quite fruitfully here. Then again this is a flashy summer blockbuster and it’s generally a safe assumption that explorations remain at surface level in these situations. Of course, I am no stranger to frothy examinations as my impending postings on the relevance of late ‘90s Gross-Out Comedies and the political and cultural undertones of Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure will make alarmingly clear.