Monthly Archives: September 2016

Walking Tall (1973)

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*. Ugh. As in “ugly.”
*. Or maybe not so much ugly as crude. But did being crude ever hurt a film like this? As Pauline Kael noted, “the picture’s crudeness and its crummy cinematography give it the illusion of honesty.” I’m not sure what Kael means by “honesty” but in any event it’s a movie that’s meant to whack you in the head like the hero’s big stick. It’s as crude as the professional wrasslin’ school of narrative, with Buford the Bull getting the shit kicked out of him but then rising from the near-dead and opening a massive can of whoop-ass on the evil-doers.
*. Basically what we’re getting here is a down-market and backwoods version of Dirty Harry. Instead of big-city bureaucrats and Italian gangsters we have sweaty, pettifogging lawyers and the Dixie mafia. Sheriff Buford Pusser doesn’t play by the rules — hell, he doesn’t even seem to have a uniform or a badge — but he gets results. The system can’t abide him (the only good line in the whole movie comes when the judge tells him to set a gang of moonshiners free for violations of their rights “or I’ll hold you in contempt, which I do anyway”). But even so, or perhaps for this very reason, the people have his back all the way.
*. I said down-market, which refers both to the target audience and the low budget. This movie was shot on the cheap ($500,000) and really looks it. Which means it looks like shit. The sets are crude jokes and equipment is clearly visible throughout. Honestly, they weren’t even trying very hard on this one.
*. It was directed by Phil Karlson and was one of his last films. Because he had invested in it personally and it was a ginormous box office hit he made bank big time. I don’t know much about Karlson. The film he did before this was Ben, the sequel to Willard. I really liked Kansas City Confidential, but that had been twenty years earlier.
*. I don’t think Karlson brings anything to the table here, and indeed aside from Baker’s performance I can’t think of anything good about this movie at all. The fight scenes have some of the worst choreography I’ve ever seen, and there’s no point to this movie aside from the ass-kicking.
*. Baker actually isn’t that big a man. He’s listed as being 6’2″ and he doesn’t appear to be very muscular. His arms in particular are pretty skinny. I doubt both of his biceps combined could stretch the sleeve of his t-shirt with the same girth as just one of the Rock’s guns. But then maybe this just the rear-view mirror effect, judging husky heroes by the same standards as action stars from the steroid era.
*. I guess you could call it a cult film, as it does have a following. There were a couple of sequels (with Joe Don Baker being replaced by Bo Svenson), a short-lived television series, and a remake in 2004 starring Dwayne Johnson (back when he was billed only as The Rock), a real-life (I mean, professional) wrestler. The Johnson movie was then followed by a couple of sequels of its own starring Kevin Sorbo. So there’s a franchise there, no question.
*. The appeal of such a story is pretty basic. The hero is a stern authoritarian redeemer who stands up for the little guy, family values, and the principles of “real” law and order, in opposition to crime, degeneracy and the corrupt system. Like Dirty Harry he is a law unto himself, carrying his warrant in his shoe (which means he just kicks down doors that are closed to him).
*. So you can view this as a movie with a social and cultural message that has some resonance, but overall it’s a dismal piece of filmmaking and I don’t see why it’s lasted. Sure, you could say the same thing about the Friday the 13th franchise, but the thing about Walking Tall is that it’s not very entertaining even at the most basic level. I found it a real chore just to sit through. When a genre film like this is crap you should still be able to have some fun with it. Or at least more fun than this.

Dirty Harry (1971)

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*. Talk about an opening shot setting the tone. After a quick pan down a memorial to fallen San Francisco police officers, there’s Scorpio’s black rifle barrel: almost a silhouette against a bright blue sky. Pointed right at our face. Then a cut to a girl in a swimsuit, targeted in the rifle’s crosshairs.
*. It’s a visual motif that will be repeated numerous times, especially with Harry behind his cannon-like Magnum .44, a gun so long it’s hard to keep in focus. Two things stand out: (1) We edit seamlessly from the killer’s to the victim’s point of view, as though they’re interchangeable. Does this tell us something about the relationship between Harry and Scorpio? The director and the audience? (2) Death almost always comes from above: Scorpio or Harry on a rooftop, or Harry looming above a wounded malefactor. The man with the gun is the scourge of God.

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*. Looking down the barrel of a gun (from either direction) is more than just a visual motif in this film and its sequels. They symbolize an entire world view. You either shoot or get shot at. In the first Dirty Harry sequel, Magnum Force, we’ll see Harry on a combat shooting course, a mock street with pop-up targets of bad guys, cops, and civilians. It might be the same street that hosts the bank robbery at the beginning of this film. It is Harry’s world. Hell, even the liquor store owner draws on us so we can look down another barrel. It never ends.

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*. A reductive world view leads to a reductive politics. Not surprisingly, this is the angle on the movie that has had the most purchase. It was most famously raised by Pauline Kael, who found Harry to be a fascist, but clearly this was conceived as a political film from the get-go. The backlash against the Summer of Love was under way, and Harry’s assault on liberal values wasn’t part of some subtle subtext. We’re in San Francisco, after all. Scorpio is a hippie gone bad, with a peace symbol for a belt buckle (that the camera zooms in on so we won’t miss it) and whining about his “rights.” Harry doesn’t care for pettifogging lawyers and constitutional clutter. He represents justice, not the law.
*. We can’t get away from that word “fascist” in a discussion of this film. Kael made the charge and Roger Ebert wholeheartedly endorsed it in his review: “The movie’s moral position is fascist. No doubt about it.” I’m reluctant to lean on this too heavily, but Harry does stand for a backlash against the excesses of liberalism and any talk of rights and freedom. Liberty leads to licence, licence leads to chaos, and chaos pleads for an end to liberty. So fascism, even just as a shorthand for authoritarianism, isn’t an inappropriate concept to introduce.

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*. Kael makes the point as part of a broader critique, saying that the “action genre has always had a fascist potential.” Why? Because it speaks a language of force and violence, but also because action films are impatient in their drive for closure. As Richard Schickel remarks in his DVD commentary, Dirty Harry proceeds by way of a “steady build-up of frustration,” but I think this is typical of the way a lot of action films work. Indeed, when you think about it, a steady build-up of frustration that is purged in an orgy of violence is a staple of the action genre going back to the Odyssey.
*. Eastwood/Harry would get his revenge on Kael, by the way, in The Dead Pool. A bit crude, but the best way to strike back at a critic.
*. What does it mean when Harry is accused by the men in the alley of being a “pie hawker”? I understand them calling him a peeping Tom, but a pie hawker is one of those guys (we see one of them earlier) who stands outside of strip clubs and XXX stores trying to entice passers-by to come in. It is also, however, listed in some slang dictionaries as a synonym for a peeping Tom, though I don’t know why. Where does the hawking come in?
*. An earlier film about a psycho-sniper terrorizing San Francisco was The Sniper. That movie was written by the husband-and-wife team of Edna and Edward Anhalt. Dirty Harry was written by the husband-and-wife team of of Harry and Rita Fink. Coincidence? Yes, but it’s interesting isn’t it?
*. The screenplay itself is simple to the point of being crude. According to John Milius (who did uncredited work on it) Eastwood didn’t want a lot of lines because he felt he didn’t say words as well as he stared. Reticence is a pretty consistent attribute of action heroes.

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*. Then there is the plot. It’s hard to believe that Scorpio is out in broad daylight taking shots at people. Or that he will actually go back to the exact same building he was just caught on. As Roger Greenspun remarked in his contemporary New York Times review: “Dirty Harry fails in simple credibility so often and on so many levels that it cannot even succeed (as I think it wants to succeed) as a study in perversely complimentary psychoses.” I wonder if complimentary is the word he meant. I would have thought he meant “complementary,” like Batman and the Joker, but it’s possible he thought Harry and Scorpio were somehow complimenting each other.
*. Perhaps we’re just not meant to take the story very seriously. I don’t think it likely, for example, that Scorpio would be allowed to walk after being apprehended despite all of Harry’s rough-housing. A good D.A. would be able to get around a lot of that. What we’re presented with is really a caricature of the legal process.
*. There’s certainly a comic touch present throughout. I love the way Harry is chawing on a “lonely and ridiculous hot dog” (Schickel) during the bank robbery sequence. When he yells out “Halt!” you can even see pieces of it fly out of his mouth.
*. I wonder if there’s any significance to Harry being placed at the foot of the cross when he meets Scorpio with the money, or the base of the neon Jesus Saves sign when he stakes him out. Then, when Scorpio sees Harry waiting for him on the railway overpass the school bus has to drive under he exclaims “Jesus.” Was all this a conscious part of building Harry up as a martyr, suffering for our sins?
*. What a great score by Lalo Schifrin (a friend of Eastwood’s, but the logical choice anyway after scoring Bullitt). I’m not even a fan of the jazzy style, but it really works here. You can feel it setting an edge.

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*. Andy Robinson gives a terrific performance as Scorpio, making what must have seemed like a nothing character on the page instantly memorable. Siegel probably told him that he couldn’t overplay the part so he just dove in, all manic giggles and an unruly mop of hair. I also like that his leg injury has him skipping through the second half of the film like he’s some kind of demented imp. I wonder if he even cares at the end how many shots Harry has fired. He just crouches with his mouth hanging open like a guppy while Harry delivers his deathless lines, and then starts giggling again and going for his own pistol. It’s all part of the fun.

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*. There was some argument between Eastwood and Siegel about Harry throwing away his badge at the end. It’s a nod to High Noon, but I think Eastwood was right to object. Obviously it didn’t take because Harry was back in Magnum Force without any mention of this gesture, but more than that it just doesn’t seem like the kind of thing he’d do. He may be fed up with the system, but he’s a cop all the way through and isn’t going anywhere.
*. Even critics of its politics granted the film was an effective action vehicle. And remarkably it still holds up in this regard. There’s something in the way Harry and Scorpio play off against each other — the conflict between hot and cold, emotion and reserve, frantic movement and fluid grace — that keeps the energy high. More than anything else, it’s Scorpio I miss in the later films. Without him, Harry seemed to lose a part of himself.

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Bullitt (1968)

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*. Does anyone understand the plot of this movie on a first, or even a second or third viewing? Not because it’s so complex mind you, but just because nothing is explained.
*. Do you care? Peter Yates didn’t. On the DVD commentary he mentions how he is always being asked why the marked man unlocks the door to let his killers in. “My answer to that is that if he hadn’t then there wouldn’t have been a movie.” In other words, it’s not worth thinking about.
*. “Don’t worry,” David Thomson writes. “If you can’t follow the plot, the cars will soon be coming over the hills like seabirds looking for fish.”
*. There’s a lot more to Bullitt than the car chase, but the car chase is what it’s best known for and it is the film’s highlight. Originally, however, there was no chase in the script (and the story was set in Los Angeles). But both Yates and McQueen were really in to cars, so . . .
*. As an aside here, it’s worth noting that everyone (or at least the actors, and director Yates) knew going in that the script was junk. The movie was going to sink or swim based on the “car chase” (which is all the description it received).

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*. I love how the chase begins. After turning the tables on the bad guys and then appearing like a wraith in their rear-view mirror, McQueen closely tails them through traffic at slow speed. McQueen knows they’re going to make a break for it at some point, and we know it too. We’ve seen them buckle up. So the preliminary game of cat-and-mouse is a pregnant moment. The music ratchets up the tension (music that will abruptly stop when the chase begins). And then — in a squeal of smoking tires — it is on!
*. Surprisingly, much of it stands up pretty well. It didn’t hold the “greatest car chase” ever title for long, as only a couple of years later the chase in The French Connection challenged and (I think) outdid it, but you can still feel your stomach drop as we go bouncing down the hills of San Francisco, and the freeway jousting is Mad Max level.
*. Continuity, however, is another matter. I don’t mind that the geography is wrong (since I don’t know San Francisco), but that the same cars keep appearing (the green Volkswagen beetle, for example) is annoying. And there is also a problem with matching the weather. The scene was filmed over a two-week period and in one shot it’s bright and sunny and in the next it’s heavily overcast and looking like rain. So there’s no denying it’s a choppy bit of work.

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*. Yates has two predilections in making crime films that really define the kind of movie Bullitt is.
*. In the first place, he wanted verisimilitude. Bullitt is a pure police procedural, as Yates was aiming “for a documentary” look and feel so people would believe in what was happening. It’s a movie full of professional interest: in the business of offices, or the hospital, or the place Bissett works. Today we associate so much of police procedural work with CSI-style forensics that it’s actually kind of fun to spend a long scene with Bullitt and Del taking apart the luggage looking for clues.
*. Yates’s other predilection was for keeping the action muted and low key. “I have always liked ‘less is more’,” he declares on the commentary, and he even praises Lalo Schifrin’s score for its economy, for knowing not to exaggerate things or push the drama.
*. In keeping with this “less is more” aesthetic Yates found perfect leads in the cool McQueen and (later) the somnambulistic Robert Mitchum in The Friends of Eddie Coyle. These are two men not known for overacting.
*. McQueen, who had asked for Yates to direct after seeing Robbery, was very much sympathetic to this approach. He claimed to be not an actor but a reactor, hated dialogue, and thought the camera should do most of the work. It’s an ultra-minimalist method and really defined the nature of “cool” for a generation and set the standard for an action hero. Dirty Harry is very much a film beholden to Bullitt (both were self-consciously thought of as modern Westerns, for example), and perhaps nowhere more so than in the grim taciturnity of their eponymous heroes.
*. The supporting cast either fell into line (Bullitt’s fellow officers) or fell into an unhappy wasteland.

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*. Robert Vaughn is hopeless as the oily politician Chalmers. Pauline Kael found him “a slimy Mr. Big whose technique of bribery is so blatantly insulting he couldn’t give away a lollipop.” True, but the thing is Vaughn has nothing to do. Without any function he is left impotent, making quiet threats that are routinely ignored and which begin to seem silly after a while. Perhaps under Yates’s direction he is also drawn into a battle of understated cool with McQueen, which he is doomed to lose.
*. As shocking as it seems, Jaqueline Bisset is in an even worse position. She is, quite simply, the entirely irrelevant love interest. According to Yates nobody was sure what to do with her character or how to fit her into the story. According to Yates they were puzzled as to “what one can get the girl to do that doesn’t hold up the action.”
*. I guess they couldn’t think of anything, as she has nothing to do, or say, and apparently she was just supposed to be a foil for Bullitt, to show his “sympathetic side and his reality” (whatever that means). I think they just needed to give the stud star a babe to go to bed with. I mean, Frank Bullitt can’t sleep alone, can he?
*. Trivia challenge: Do you know what the name of Bisset’s character was? I didn’t, even right after re-watching the movie, and had to look it up. I wasn’t even sure if it was ever mentioned, or if she’d just be credited as “The Girl.” Well, the correct answer is “Cathy.”

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*. You can hear how desperate things had become with Cathy by listening to her big speech to Bullitt after the discovery of the murdered woman at the hotel. Poor Jacqueline. What could she have been thinking when she read this: “Do you let anything reach you? I mean, really reach you? . . . With you living with violence is a way of life. Living with violence and death. . . . Your world is so far from the one I know. What will happen to us in time?”
*. On the commentary track Yates (who liked dialogue about as much as McQueen did) says that in this “scene I wish we had no dialogue.” He thought that if it had just been done visually it would have said everything. As it was they had a lot of trouble writing it because no one could think of anything for Cathy to say.
*. About the only thing to like about Bisset’s character are her outfits, which are designed to make you guess if she’s wearing any underwear.
*. Speaking of clothes, what’s not to like about McQueen’s wardrobe? Those pyjamas! That turtleneck! That sweater jacket! Some styles are timeless.

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*. The “professional” mafia hit men don’t do a very good job do they? Shooting the cop in the leg (we’re told he’ll be fine) and then hitting their main victim in the shoulder, at point blank range, with a shotgun?
*. Part of the problem may have been because squibs were new and they couldn’t really show the guy’s head exploding. When we see his body later his head is all covered in blood so I think we’re meant to think it was a better shot.

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*. I really like the credits, but they seem a little out of place in a movie like this. Then again, that opening sequence is out of place as well, and you’re left guessing for most of the movie as to what was even going on.
*. “Bullitt” is a pretty weird last name, isn’t it? I couldn’t find any listed in my local phone book.
*. I guess bobblehead dolls have been around for a long time, but I was still surprised to see one in the back of Robert Duvall’s cab.
*. They wouldn’t let McQueen do that jump from the plane onto the tarmac at the end “because of his legs.” And can you blame them? That really was a “hell of a jump” (in Yates’s words). Just looking at the first guy do it made me wince. That would destroy your knees.
*. We often think of stunts as being spectacular things, like bursting into flame or falling from the top of a tall building, but the airplane jump is a good example of something that may not seem special but which is really very difficult. They let McQueen do his own driving (he insisted on that), and duck under taxiing jets, but that leap from the plane was going too far.

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*. The business at the airport is OK, but I couldn’t understand why Ross was giving himself away by taking such a long shot with a pistol at McQueen.
*. When he is gunned down later, I like how his death gets absorbed into the random voices of the crowd and the routine business of the police (and a priest) wrapping things up. There really is nothing to see here any more folks. Move along.

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*. This sense of routine feeds into the ending, which I love. It’s perfectly fitting that we get to see Bullitt return to his apartment in silence and proceed through a series of still-life studies: Bisset in bed (to be enjoyed later); McQueen staring into the mirror; his gun and holster lying on the table. There’s both a sense of closure as well as an affirmation of routine. How many times has Bullitt come home like this? And tomorrow he’ll get up and do it all over again.

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The Sniper (1952)

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*. Eddie Muller, providing the DVD commentary for The Sniper, nicely summarizes two of its main claims to fame. It’s “really one of the very first serial killer movies and it’s interesting to note that it was a very empathetic and sympathetic portrayal of the subject.”
*. While I’m at, I’ll give its other source of special interest, which is the location photography in San Francisco.
*. I’ve mentioned before (in my notes on Where Danger Lives) that I don’t think of San Francisco as a noir town. Muller, who wrote a book on noir and grew up there, would probably have a different opinion. My feeling, however, is that The Sniper isn’t really a noir picture. This has less to do with its subject matter or the way that it’s shot as it does with its message. It’s an idealistic movie, with little of the engrained cynicism of noir. The scene in the mayor’s office is really the only flash of cynicism, and it’s presented in a judgmental, negative light.
*. That idealism is sincere, but I think it works against the movie. In 1952 a serial killer was still seen as a social problem, making The Sniper into a message picture. It was produced by Stanley Kramer (who specialized in this sort of thing), and the husband-and-wife screenwriting team of Edward and Edna Anhalt. The Anhalts had just won a screenplay Oscar for Panic in the Streets and would be nominated for this film, but I think their script here is deeply flawed.

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*. Some of its flaws are excusable. At the time this was quite a daring film, but they couldn’t have a sex killer enjoying killing people and we’re finally left in the dark as to Eddie’s motivations for declaring war on “womankind.” Muller can’t figure out the “incredible leap” that the homicide chief makes in even determining that these are sex crimes. But of course they couldn’t say or show much more than they did. I assume Eddie is lustful but impotent in some way, but beyond demonstrating how inept he is at picking up girls that’s as far as things could go.
*. The rest of the screenplay is quite stiff. The psychiatrist (Richard Kiley) is a righteous blowhard, and Muller says he “might as well be wearing a sign saying ‘I am the conscience of the screenwriters and the producers’ around his neck.”
*. The psychiatrist as hero, however, was big in the 1950s. He’d show up again in movies like The Three Faces of Eve and Suddenly Last Summer. I think this is a profession that has fallen off its pedestal in our own time. Today a psychiatrist is more likely to be presented as an irresponsible pill pusher.
*. For all their research, however, I also had problems with the big speech the Anhalts give the psychiatrist in the mayor’s office. In the first place, he says the “legal definition of insanity” goes back to “an old English law, a law passed when they were still burning witches.” The laws he is referring to are known as the M’Naghten rules, which arose from a British case of 1843. They were not still burning witches in 1843.
*. Then there is the matter of Albert Fish. Apparently the Anhalts were inspired to write the screenplay based on their research into the crimes of Fish, but Fish was a totally depraved old man whose crimes (including cannibalism) had almost nothing in common with those of Eddie Miller in this film. Furthermore, the psychiatrist says that a judge of the supreme court held that Fish “undoubtedly killed at least fifteen” victims: “He was executed for one but sixteen were dead.” I don’t know where this information is coming from. Fish is known to have had three victims, and is suspected in the deaths of a half-dozen more. Yet Muller on the commentary piles on, saying that the psychiatrist is “soft-pedalling” Fish’s crimes because “there are stories that his victims numbered in the hundreds.”
*. In all of this Muller has to admit that director Dmytryk “couldn’t find a way around the pedantic nature of the screenplay.” In particular, the police-procedural stuff (the police chief lecturing his team, the meeting with the mayor at his office, the speech by the psychiatrist during the same) is deadly dull.
*. There are a few great sequences in here — Eddie burning his hand on the stove, going crazy at the amusement park, and shooting the man on the tower — but these all involve the killer. The rest of the movie drags.

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*. And it’s the script that’s at fault. Nothing the police do is of much use. When they show up at the murder scene in the park we’re given a background chorus of voice meant to show us how upset the public is getting at the fact that the killer hasn’t been caught. The voices say: “Why don’t you do something, earn your money!” “Ah, they’re always there after it happens.” “Getting so you can’t even go to a park on a Sunday.” “Some police force!” This sounds every bit as tired and generic typing it as it does listening to it in the film.
*. How cute is it that the owner of Alpine Cleaners & Dyers is a guy named Mr. Alpine?
*. How cute is it that the lead detective, played by Adolphe Menjou, is Lieutenant Frank Kafka? Though note that in one scene he is clearly addressed as Tom Kafka. I wonder if they changed it during shooting at some point — figuring Kafka was bad enough without calling him Frank too — and then didn’t fix the continuity error.
*. There are a some things to like. The scenes I listed earlier stand out as memorable. The use of the San Francisco locations to emphasize the city’s verticality is also very effective, with numerous shots of people going up and down steps and countless overhead shots as Eddie looks down on his prey (later reversed as the police adopt the sniper positions on rooftops to hunt him).

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*. I also found it interesting how much development the script puts into the antagonism between the sexes. Though I wasn’t sure what the point of it all was. I mean things like the women coming out of the theatre and complaining about men, the doctor bandaging Eddie’s hand while telling him about the proper division of labour in a household (stoves are “strictly a woman’s business” so they can “do all the cooking”) and how they get you “coming and going,” the people arguing outside of Darr’s apartment (women can’t trust men any more, men can’t trust women), the landlady telling Eddie that she thinks mothers should teach boys to cook just as well as girls, the guys working at the cleaners complaining about their wives, and satirically suggesting they could provide a few names of “dames” the sniper could kill.
*. Is this meant to show that Eddie is only a more extreme representation of the eternal conflict between men and women? Does that make him more sympathetic, or less?
*. I like how Muller points out that twenty years later “Dirty” Harry Callahan would be hunting down another crazy sniper terrorizing the streets of San Francisco, and showing far less concern for the killer’s mental health. Does anything date like a message picture? I do feel sorry for Eddie at the end, but those tears look so fake.

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I Spit on Your Grave (2010)

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*. Admit it, of all the ’70s horror film remakes that started popping up like mushrooms in the twenty-first century, this had to be the one you least expected.
*. And yet, why not? It’s a project that came with a widely recognized name, and the original was widely (if not always fairly) considered to be so bad it would be hard to imagine making a film that was any worse.
*. Speaking of the title, it’s funny to see Meir Zarchi still in there pitching for Day of the Woman. This movie had originally been planned to be called Night of the Woman. Yeah. No. The title is most of what this franchise has going for it, and what made it a success the first time around.
*. The taboo on full frontal nudity is back in place. The guys hide their penises and we only get one brief glimpse of bush. Of course we can see people having their eyes torn out or dipped into tubs of acid, but that’s not so bad as seeing human genitals.
*. There are none of the (few, and all too brief) grace notes of style from the original. Instead it’s just the same torture porn done in washed-out colours as became familiar during this period.

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*. As with so many body-count horror films, in the end you’re just watching people being tortured and killed. This is done in a gruesome, and highly improbable, series of mousetrap-style executions. Sarah Butler is not a big or very athletic-looking woman. In fact she strikes me as dangerously thin. So how is she lugging all these heavy guys around after knocking them out?
*. Butler is better than the material, but that is saying absolutely nothing at all. She’s not really convincing as the hard-ass avenging angel because she doesn’t seem psycho enough, or fully motivated. It’s like she’s going through the motions of vengeance. Maybe something was lost by cutting the scenes of her surviving on rats and bugs and stuff. But then again, probably not.

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*. There’s a nice shot where Matthew imagines seeing Jennifer as a wraith rising out of the swamp and she seems like a demon from a J-horror thriller. Unfortunately, this look isn’t followed up and the next time we see Jennifer she’s cleaned herself up nicely. She has some hair hanging down over her face but that’s it. Director Steven Monroe calls this her “Kubrick look,” though I’m not sure why.
*. Why cast a Welshman as a Louisiana sheriff? Andrew Howard does a decent job, but were there no Southern actors available? I’m always curious when casting decisions like this are made.
*. I thought the corrupt sheriff may have been included to make some kind of point about the inability or unwillingness of the police to take complaints of sexual assault seriously, or the way they blame the victim in such cases, but we find the same betrayal of authority in the remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003) with the Lee Ermey character. There seems to be a general lack of confidence in, if not outright suspicion of, authority in the twenty-first century.
*. For what it’s worth, producer Lisa Hansen justifies the introduction of the sheriff as being a way of explaining the lack of police presence in the original, which I actually didn’t see as a problem. In the original film Jennifer makes a conscious decision not to contact the police, so their absence needs no explanation.
*. I like how Monroe, on the commentary, says that Jennifer’s dropping her cell phone in the water solves “that age-old thing, how do you get rid of the cell phone in the movie?” Of course it’s not that old a problem, but it has become fundamental, especially in horror films. Usually it’s just explained by low batteries or finding oneself in an area where there’s “no signal.” Being out of cell phone range is just one more problem with going to the country. Why do city people even bother?
*. Maybe it’s only the passage of time, but where I found the original film disturbing the remake just got me down. Of course it’s very unpleasant to watch, but it’s depressing as well. There’s rarely anything cathartic about the violence in these rape-revenge films, which may have some deeper psychological significance but which in any event left me not caring what the end was so long as some end might be.

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Baise-moi (2000)

*. Let’s pump the brakes. Get off the fan train. This movie is crap.
*. It’s usually described as a feminist rape-revenge picture, with a nod to Thelma & Louise, but it’s really just a porn picture with primitive amateur photography and some lame action sequences (and lame porn too, come to think of it).
*. The porn part isn’t an accident. The co-directors and two leads were all porn vets (I don’t think Virginie Despentes actually appeared in porn, but she was a sex worker who became a porn film critic). And so this is a movie that’s unafraid to go “hardcore.” Plus it’s French, which helps in that regard.
*. I’m not knocking porn. I have nothing against it. And Karine Lancaume (credited as Karine Bach) as Nadine and Raffaëla Anderson as Manu are actually both really good here (though too attractive to be believable in their parts). But is the porn look what Despentes and co-director Coralie Trinh Thi (credited as Coralie) really wanted?
*. If you’re going for a gritty, raw look, why all the cheesecake shots? Why the slow camera pan up from Nadine’s high heels in her first assignation scene? Why the booty-shaking dance scene with the girls in their underwear? Why all the lingerie? This movie leers more than the tawdriest sleaze-fest of the exploitation era. And that was forty years ago!
*. In rejecting the charge of having made a porn film, Trinh Thi said in an interview that “This movie is not for masturbation, [thus it] is not porn.” Despentes agreed, saying their film “was not erotic.” I don’t buy it. The rape scenes in I Spit On Your Grave are not erotic. In fact they’re anti-erotic. But the sex in this film, including the rapes, is presented as at least partially erotic. If you want to watch Baise-moi online go to one of the big porn streaming sites. They all have it.
*. Then there is the feminist line. Here, for example, is Ernest Mathijs writing on Baise-moi in 100 Cult Films (a book it has absolutely no place in, but that’s another story): “Baise-moi tells the tale of two women, both victims of abuse, and the revenge they take on men and on the world at large. . . . Along the way they pick up men, have sex with them and kill them. A home invasion and a raid on a swinger’s club too form part of their revenge on patriarchy.”
*. Where to begin? In the first place, is Nadine a victim of abuse? Because she has a bitchy roommate?
*. Then there’s the matter of revenge against men and the patriarchy. Is this a rape-revenge film? I don’t think so. Only Manu is raped and it doesn’t seem to bother her in the slightest (and indeed she even says so). Later she doesn’t consider going after the men who did it to her but instead kills her brother.
*. We have to also look at their victims, the first of which is a woman who they kill for her money. Unlike, say, Thana in Ms. 45, they have no trouble killing women, and don’t seem to have any particular gender preference in who they kill.
*. Meanwhile, who is it they don’t kill? Mainly the men they have sex with. They don’t kill sleazy men, they fuck them, and Nadine gets off on watching porn, she doesn’t feel victimized by it. The men they choose to kill are the limp, bourgeois bastards they meet. That rich “asshole in a suit” they run over. The creep who picks them up at the slot machine and then can’t get hard back in their hotel room. The oily rich fellow whose safe they rob. If anything, they are class not gender warriors, though even that’s a stretch.
*. Bodies won’t just burn, even if Nadine has wrapped Manu in a blanket that I’m guessing has been soaked in gasoline.
*. Lancaume killed herself by overdose in 2005, which has given Baise-moi a tragic backlight. But I don’t think that this redeems the film in any way. This is just crude and derivative filmmaking that doesn’t make any kind of point, even of the most obvious kind.

Ms. 45 (1981)

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*. If you’ve read my notes on The Driller Killer then you know that I didn’t think very much of Abel Ferrara’s debut feature. And yet next up he directed this film, which transcends the exploitation genre and has gone on to achieve a well-deserved cult status. What happened?
*. The obvious first answer would be nineteen-year-old Zoë Tamerlis (later Lund). Not that this is a great performance. It doesn’t have to be.
*. The mute Thana isn’t a character, she’s a presence. All she has to do is project the part: vulnerable, erotic, poisonous, otherworldly. Those lips seem foreboding enough even before she paints them up to a lurid pitch. As the ad line from The Rocky Horror Picture Show put it, these are a different set of jaws.
*. I said that Thana is an iconic presence, and in this regard she’s very much a figure in the same vein as Madeleine/Frigga, the mute rape-avenger from Thriller: A Cruel Picture. Both have remarkable faces and are fashion plates: Madeleine with her eyepatch and trench coat, Thana with her beret, leather pants, hooded cape, or slutty nun costume that is all lingerie and heavy make-up.
*. But there’s more to Ms. 45 than Thana, and only two years on from The Driller Killer Ferrara had grown immensely. That movie was just a dirty mess. Ms. 45 has style.
*. If you say the word “style” today what it usually means is an ability to make a movie look slick and expensive, flashy and/or pretty. It means high production values and art direction that ravishes the eye.
*. But for a while, at least among a certain cadre of filmmakers in a certain place (New York), style meant grungy and guerilla. It’s a different aesthetic, but it’s still a style. You don’t see as much of it any more. I miss it.
*. Ms. 45 is also a very stylized film. Though the setting is realistic, it plays like a fantasy. Thana gets a gun that never runs out of ammo, and she’s a crack shot too. When her gun fires it makes a sound like rolling thunder. When she goes out on the prowl she dresses to impress. When the lecherous photographer invites Thana up to his studio she makes him into a work of art, splattering his backdrop screens with blood. In the final orgy of violence we’re tripping into a slow-motion bedlam of freaky costumes and a distorted soundtrack, culminating in Laurie standing behind Thana, holding the knife at her crotch with her dress slit up to her underwear. That’s one good phallic symbol getting ready to trump another.
*. These are all quite obvious, in-your-face touches. As is, for example, the gruesome homage to Repulsion, with Thana turning her bathroom into an abattoir (a scene that Darling would try to one-up). But there are some great subtle touches as well. For example look at how, in the second rape scene, we see the rapist’s fist with the pistol looking like it’s pounding into Thana’s head. That’s not an accident.

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*. I’ve mentioned the obvious debts to Thriller and Repulsion, which ground the movie in the rape-revenge genre. Does it present a new wrinkle on this old tale (which, in film at least, goes back to the very old tale resurrected by Bergman in The Virgin Spring)?
*. It’s an American film, for one thing, which means it draws on the poison pool of America’s equation of sex and violence (or love and death, to borrow Fiedler’s genteel terms from his study of the nineteenth-century American novel). In some respects Thana (whose name suggests death) is a serial killer in the usual slasher mold, which has it that even a hint of promiscuity is grounds for capital punishment. In this respect it may be worth nothing how the American slasher film and the American rape-revenge film arguably have their birth in the same picture, Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left.
*. The movie begins with Thana being raped by Abel Ferrara himself. What makes this interesting is not the role the director casts himself in (after all, he did play the Driller Killer), but the fact that Thana’s rape is never avenged against her specific perpetrator. Within the rape-revenge genre this is rare. I guess in Death Wish Bronson never gets revenge on the gang that attacked his family. At the end (or beginning) of Irresistible the rapist gets away, but that is intentionally ironic. But those are a couple of exceptions to the rule and they are among the only ones I can think of.
*. In this movie payback doesn’t seem to be the point. Thana’s vengeance paints Manhattan blood red with a very broad brush. She is out to exterminate all men, regardless of what they’ve done. It’s the fact that the “bride” at the Halloween party is cross-dressed that confuses her so much, leading to a fatal hesitation. It’s also significant that she can only be stopped by a masculinized female with a penis-knife. I don’t agree with Joe Bob Briggs’s assertion in his commentary on I Spit on Your Grave that all the men in rape-revenge films are evil, but in that movie and this one his point stands.
*. The sexual politics of such films is a tricky game. In slasher films we see scantily-clad women hunted down from the point of view of the male gaze. So are they misogynistic? When the rape-revenge films turn the tables, is this empowering? Meir Zarchi tried to make that case for I Spit On Your Grave (which he insisted on calling Day of the Woman), though some people remain unconvinced of his sincerity. Is Ms. 45 just a stylish exploitation film or is it really making a statement about empowerment?
*. I lean toward the former opinion, and the only thing that would make me think otherwise is Zoë Tamerlis. I can’t see her as Ferrara’s victim, but rather his partner in crime.

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I Spit on Your Grave (1978)

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*. This may be the most notorious and controversial film ever made, and is still one of the most despised.
*. For a long time I think it was despised by a lot of people who hadn’t seen it. It wasn’t easy to see. It never played on TV and was banned as one of the infamous “video nasties” in the U.K. But with its release on DVD, in a special edition no less, and then a remake followed by sequels to the remake, it’s now a cult phenomenon that has gone mainstream.
*. Nevertheless, some people did see it (at least on its re-release) and really didn’t like it. Roger Ebert’s review was one of the more memorable, calling it “so sick, reprehensible and contemptible that I can hardly believe it’s playing in respectable theaters . . . Attending it was one of the most depressing experiences of, my life.” And even years later Kim Newman, in his essential Nightmare Movies, was claiming it had “the distinction of being among the most loathsome films of all time.”

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*. Criticism, when it hasn’t been simple outrage, has taken two forms: political (it’s a hateful, exploitive movie) and aesthetic (it’s a crudely made piece of junk).
*. The political critique doesn’t hold up very well. The essential question, as Joe Bob Briggs identifies it in his DVD commentary, can be stated as “Is this the most disgusting movie ever made? Or is it the most feminist movie ever made?” Or, to put it in slightly different terms, is it just a sleazy exploitation flick, or does it take the rape-revenge theme and turn it into a statement of female empowerment in a particularly forceful and gritty way? And if we do think it’s a feminist film, does that mean that it hates men? Why is it, Briggs wonders, that all the men in these rape-revenge films are violent, slavering beasts?
*. I think that while it certainly has some of the odour of an exploitation film — which is to say, it’s sensational in a deliberate attempt to turn a fast buck — it’s not a film that promotes sexual violence in any way. Though I will admit having some concern over the similarity the opening credits have to Deep Throat (1972).
*. The multiple rapes of Jennifer are still disturbing to watch and are among the most un-erotic scenes I’ve ever witnessed. Nor is this accidental. When she is first grabbed by Johnny she is streaked with mud and later she will be covered in swampy river slime and blood, with her tangled hair covering her face. Nobody could find this a turn-on. As Briggs says, Johnny “rips off her bikini like he’s skinning an animal.” Compare these scenes to the sexual content in Baise-moi, which is far more strongly identified as a “feminist” rape-revenge film but which is also far more pornographic in its look.
*. I said “multiple rapes,” by the way, because I don’t see this as a single rape scene that goes on for twenty-five minutes and fourteen seconds, as is often claimed. There are three separate rape events.

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*. Then there is the aesthetic critique. Here we can borrow from Ebert again: “This is a film without a shred of artistic distinction. It lacks even simple craftsmanship.” Is this true?
*. There’s no denying it was very cheaply made, and there wasn’t a lot of high-level talent involved. Parts of it are downright embarrassing, like the dialogue as the boys are out night fishing (and asking questions like “Do women shit?”). The character of Matthew (played by Richard Pace) is a total misfire: a mistake to begin with who is then inappropriately turned into a comic figure. He looks less like someone who is mentally challenged than a reject from the Revenge of the Nerds franchise. Though in 1978 maybe people thought nerds were retarded. In any event, there’s no place for comic relief in a film like this.
*. That said, Camille Keaton is credible and even sympathetic as Jennifer and Eron Tabor (looking suspiciously like David Hess’s Krug in The Last House on the Left) gives a professional performance.
*. As for Merhi’s direction, I don’t think he’s capable of suspense. He didn’t use storyboards, for one thing, which probably didn’t help. He does, however, strike a few grace notes with his photography. When you least expect it — and, to be honest, you’re never really expecting it — you get that shot where the guys in the motorboat circle above Jennifer’s head as she lies in her hammock, or a nice set-up where she leaves the house at night, or her lying spread out on top of the rock she’s been raped on like some kind of primitive human sacrifice, or her crawl across that angry red carpet toward the phone, or the way she appears as a wood nymph to seduce Matthew to his death, and of course her final appearance motoring toward Andy with axe aloft. These are memorable, almost iconic images and they’re clear indications that Merhi was at least trying.

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*. I don’t want to give the impression that I think I Spit on Your Grave is a good movie. I just don’t think that a lot of the most extreme criticism that has been leveled against it is deserved. It doesn’t seek to glorify, eroticize, or otherwise promote sexual violence against women. And while undeniably crude, it still has some elegant and effective moments.
*. One of the boldest things about the film was, to give it the industry term, “full frontal nudity.” What this means is bush. You do not see cock. Is that a double standard? Well, yes. And it’s ridiculous. Not just ridiculous for being a double standard but ridiculous because it makes several scenes laughable as the male talent have to go through all kinds of weird contortions to keep their genitals hidden from the camera.

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*. But it’s not just a double standard. According to Merhi the actors playing the rapists were all comfortable with going fully nude for the camera. The problem is, if a man is going to play in a sex scene he has to clearly indicate that he is ready for action. He has to have an erection. This is not easy for many actors. For one thing, said erection has to be maintained for as long as it takes to finish filming an entire sequence, which can be a very long time. Anyway, it’s clear from the glimpses we do see here that none of the men was up to the task, which means that their flaccid genitals have to be concealed.
*. If you want to see a funny example of what can go wrong in this regard, check out the scene in Pink Flamingos where Divine is trying to give a blowjob to Crackers (her son in the film). The actor who plays Crackers (Danny Mills) can’t even come close to getting hard (how could he?) but he tries to sell the scene nonetheless with the famous line “Do my balls, mama!”
*. There are plenty of moments that are unconvincing. There is no way in hell, for example, that Jennifer would have been able to lift Matthew up and hang him like that. A tree trunk isn’t a pulley. According to Zarchi it took “two muscled crew men” to hoist Richard Pace into the air. Apparently Zarchi was warned about the improbability of this scene from the start, with people telling him that he was asking audiences “to work too hard on the credibility scale.” He responded by saying that her fury had given her super strength.
*. It also makes no sense that Stan, who obviously can swim, doesn’t just head to shore on his own instead of treading water helplessly. Then, when he is duly eviscerated by the outboard motor, it’s clearly nowhere near him. Not that I can blame the actor for keeping his distance.
*. A couple of miscues really stand out. The first of these, flagged by Briggs in his commentary, is the absurdity of Johnny giving Matthew the job of finishing Jennifer off. This is one of those stupidities that is only introduced in order to get the plot to work.
*. The other miscue is the simulated sex. This is so bad it almost turns the rape scenes into comedy. Particularly awful is Andy’s performance when he has Jennifer bent over the rock. His head twitches from side to side like a short-circuiting robot but he doesn’t even move his hips. That’s not what sex, or orgasm, looks like.
*. How hard is it to simulate sex? Could anything be more natural? If the actors really had no idea what it looked like they could have just watched a couple of dogs in the park going at it.

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*. You don’t often see suspenders worn with blue jeans, do you? They give Andy an unfortunate sort of Mork-from-Ork look.
*. No, this is not the title it was originally released under. I Spit on Your Grave was only used a couple of years later when it was re-released by another distributor. As had happened with It’s Alive (1974), it was the new release and ad campaign that did the trick. It’s a better title, that’s for sure, even though it did not appeal to Zarchi at all (“I instantly hated it, and still do to this day”). Zarchi insisted that on DVDs it be known as I Spit on Your Grave a.k.a Day of the Woman.
*. It’s interesting how they frustrate Chekhov here. When we’re shown that Jennifer has a gun, however improbable its appearance, so early in the movie then we think she has to use it later. But she doesn’t, except to threaten Johnny.
*. Ebert found the church scene “unbelievably grotesque and inappropriate.” Hm. An odd thing to get upset about, it seems to me. Did he not think Jennifer might want to justify herself to some higher power? She’s not a bad person.

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*. Is there something about female killers and bathtubs? Repulsion had its imitators in Ms. 45 and Darling, but I don’t think Polanski’s film is being directly referenced here. Is the idea that women naturally know all the places in a house that are the easiest to clean up?
*. These avenging angels always have to look so damn fashionable. Madeleine in Thriller: A Cruel Picture with her eyepatch, Thana from Ms. 45 in her beret, and Jennifer here in all black with dark glasses and a head scarf as she begins her hunt.

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*. The reveal that Johnny is married with children was quite unexpected. It also injects one of the few notes of a realistic world outside the nightmare of the main plot.
*. Briggs points out how the movie adopts the motif of the city slicker who is way out of her comfort (or safety) zone in the country. Even if the country here is the genteel cottage country of Connecticut.
*. I wonder what the source of this particular anxiety is. That we’ve become so de-natured by urban existence that any return to the farm, however Edenic, is seen as having taken a wrong turn straight to hell?
*. So is this the most loathsome film ever made? No. Nor is it a powerful political statement. It’s a crude but occasionally effective exploitation film whose very crudeness and general disagreeableness works to its advantage, much as those same qualities do for the original Texas Chain Saw Massacre.
*. It is a Meir Zarchi film. He wrote, directed, and edited it (the editing being an eight-month process). For a while he even tried to distribute it himself. So whatever you think of it, it’s very much an indie project, part of the cinema of personal expression, made without compromise. Zarchi claims “I did it for myself” and that it was inspired by an encounter with a rape survivor. He also says that directing the rape scenes made him feel as though he was possessed by a force.
*. Should we accept all of this at face value? Can we? Critics of I Spit on Your Grave don’t buy it. Zarchi’s defence of his motives sounds scripted on the commentary — as does all of the commentary, actually — though he’s probably been saying the same things for a very long time. Perhaps he’s sincere. He only went on to make one other film (Don’t Mess with My Sister), which may be taken as evidence for either his lack of talent in the first place or his having expressed himself completely. As with all such either-or choices I think it’s probably a case of a bit of both.
*. I don’t like it much, but for various reasons it is a landmark, albeit not ground-breaking, movie. It was a chore watching it again this time (though the commentary by Briggs is entertaining). I have a feeling I won’t be watching it again. God knows it didn’t need to be remade thirty years later, but it was.

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Norte, the End of History (2013)

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*. This first shot pretty much sets the tone for what’s to come. Not because of anything that’s being said — Fabian is a stereotypical undergrad philosopher trying to be provocative — but because of the way it’s presented: a single long take with no camera movement, no editing, and no score. Welcome to “slow cinema.”
*. Director Lav Diaz isn’t going to stray very far from this approach, and at just over four hours, Norte is one of Diaz’s shorter films. We get long shots of a road, then someone starts walking or driving toward us, and the camera just sits and watches them until they pass out of the frame. There’s even a scene where Joaquin is on crutches peddling DVDs and we might hope for some mercy but we have to watch him run the same course. And the final shot of the film repeats this movement twice, once with a boy walking into and out of the frame and then with the remnants of Eliza’s family.
*. The question this raises is “What’s the point?” What’s the point of just letting the camera sit on the road like one of those video speed traps the police use, waiting for cars to go by going over the limit and snapping pictures of their licence plate? And what’s the point of making a four-hour movie? Does Norte need to be that long?
*. You could say that the road is a symbol of life or fate, from which there are no detours or digressions. The same message is probably behind the cruel running time as well: this is a film that’s meant to be endured more than enjoyed. That’s really the best I can do.
*. Critics ate it up. It was a foreign film without any prospects of being a commercial hit. I don’t mean that to sound flip, but aside from some nice photography, which actually manages to overstay its welcome, there really isn’t much to recommend about this film.

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*. Neil Young, writing in the Hollywood Reporter, was one of the few negative voices, and his comments are hard to refute. “There’s little in the way of genuine depth, complexity or nuance here [but only] . . . the illusion of profundity.” There are only three characters we spend any time with in the whole film, and “Joaquin and Eliza are little more than plaster saints from beginning to end in a film which simplistically equates poverty with spiritual purity and fortitude.”
*. That final point could be expanded on. Not only is poverty equated with spiritual purity and fortitude, but wealth is equated with meanness (the grotesquely obese pawnbroker) and decadence. There’s almost a sense of Philippines Gothic adhering to the plantation big house that Fabian’s sister lives in and the Faulknerian “curse” their family suffers under. It’s sort of interesting, but as Young notes it’s without complexity or nuance. And yet the class angle is exactly what Diaz has most often been praised for focusing on in this film.

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*. The performances are hard to praise very much, as only a few characters are given much to do and they’re kept at such a distance it’s maddening. Would a single close-up have killed Diaz? I have nothing against a film that believes in long shots, and at times these can be effective, but you have to work in a bit of variety.
*. I felt the same way about the violence. That the pawnbroker and her daughter are killed off-camera was fine, though I couldn’t help thinking Diaz was saving money more than making an aesthetic decision. Then, when the rape scene is played the same way (just off camera beyond an open door) I figured it was meant as a deliberate echo of the earlier murders and thought it could be justified. But then when Fabian kills the dog behind a bush I thought there was a problem. Not that I wanted to see any of these terrible acts, but just that in a movie like this you have to show something, at least once, to make us believe in it.

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*. Crime and Punishment, or at least the Punishment part of it, is a very Russian novel. I don’t know how well it translates to other cultures, especially Philippine culture (about which I know next to nothing). In any event, nothing but the initial incident here comes from Dostoyevsky. Norte isn’t a movie about redemption because Joaquin and Eliza have no need to be redeemed and Fabian isn’t. Indeed, the whole notion of punishment is finally disposed of ironically. Is Eliza’s bus in an accident, or blown up by a bomb? Neither. It’s been struck by the hand of God.

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*. As far as the title goes, the “Norte” refers to the story being set in Ilocos Norte, the Philippines’ northernmost province. I didn’t know that until I looked it up online. The end of history? I don’t think in Nietzsche’s sense of the last man (that’s not a direction Fabian is heading in), but in Fukuyama’s argument for liberal capitalism marking an end of political progress. Once the rich (people, or nations) rise above any moral or legal law, what happens to them? They must degenerate.
*. There are good things in Norte, but they are too few and far between. In the intervening spaces I spent too much time wondering what the point was, or if the point was as simple as it seemed. Like with the message that rich families are decadent and cursed while poor families abide and endure. Or the way it always seems to be Christmas time. Or the use of fire as a symbol of . . . something in the film’s second half.

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*. What are we to make of Joaquin’s levitation? It make me think of Tarkovsky, but seems totally out of keeping with the rest of the film’s dour realism. I’ve heard it said that it represents Joaquin’s having killed himself and his soul floating free. I don’t see that, but I guess it’s possible. I think he’s just having a dream. Diaz seems to want to show and not tell, but he isn’t showing that much either.
*. Fabian’s character is sometimes criticized for slipping off the deep end into psychopathy too suddenly, but this is something I didn’t object to. As I understand it, his deviancy is just the inevitable flowering of long-repressed genetic or childhood deviancies going back to his messed-up family. In that sense he’s not really a character that’s meant to be understood so much as a test case to be observed.
*. It should be a depressing ending, but to be honest I just didn’t feel involved enough with any of the characters to care. The most moving scene, I felt, was Fabian’s sister calling him back to dinner. As an interpretation of Dostoyevsky relocated to the twenty-first century and the other side of the world it’s certainly not without interest, but if ever there were a case of too much and not enough, this film is it.

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House of Games (1987)

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*. I like how Kent Jones begins his Criterion essay on this film by saying “In 1987, nothing else looked or sounded quite like House of Games.” I can second that, as the impression it made when it came out really was striking. It seemed like quite the smartest thing around and I can remember friends quoting lines from it for weeks.
*. But then along came Tarantino. Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction. Dialogue that had seemed to set a standard for colloquial naturalness and native intelligence came to seem staged and artificial. Mamet made us feel like we were listening to a play: lines being delivered as though they were being read in front of an audience rather than bickering, arguing, or trying to make a point in the up-close, intense immediacy of film.
*. In addition, and at roughly the same time, neo-noir and thriller plots started picking up speed and became ever more complex, piling twists upon twists. In the rear-view mirror, the cons in House of Games seemed crude and obvious. How could Margaret not see through Mike’s simple scheme?
*. The fact that his game was so quickly overtaken is not Mamet’s fault. And to be fair I think a lot of his stuff holds up well. But coming back to this one after many years I found it had lost a lot of its edge.

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*. It’s a film with a basic conceit, which Mamet explains throughout his DVD commentary. That conceit is the equivalence of drama, magic, the con game, and psychotherapy.
*. In each case the author/director/con man’s mission is to fool someone who, consciously or not, wants to play along and be fooled. As Mamet puts it, “what do you do to get someone to suspend their disbelief?” “The central question of drama” is also the central question of the con and the magic trick, it’s all about manipulating one’s audience or “mark” by controlling what people see.
*. The psychiatrist is in the same business, a magician and confidence trickster who holds out the (false) hope of changing people’s lives, making them better, through suggestion. The trick is in getting people to believe there’s a cure/answer to their problems, and who doesn’t want to believe that?
*. The mythic role of the director in this magician/con-man role was best exemplified by Hitchcock. He was the master manipulator, the one who would play his audience like a piano. And, in films like Vertigo, he even made that manipulation his theme. Mamet (and, later, David Fincher) would make it an obsession. Behind the film is the Magus, who is really the director as God.

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*. The director as God is something different, and I would say something less, than the director as artist. What I mean is that in films like this you’re watching a mousetrap. It may be wonderfully conceived and constructed, and do a great job catching mice (hooking and playing the audience), but it’s all artifice and doesn’t engage the feelings that much. I think this is what David Thomson means when he says that “Mamet has not established a character in movies as more than a cold, skilled mechanic.  The films he has directed are games, or intrigues, but neither playful nor absorbing.” Which sounds like a lesser Hitchcock to me.

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*. Another thing Thomson (and almost every other critic) has to say about Mamet is that “Women are not quite [his] subject.” His is a man’s world. More than because she’s a professional entering an underworld of shady, criminal types, this is why Margaret doesn’t belong in the House of Games. In her real life she is surrounded by women: her mentor, her students, even her one patient at the prison, are all female. That is her proper sphere.
*. Though she does try her best to fit in, and Mamet does his best to help her. For starters, Lindsay Crouse is, as Jones puts it, “one of the least ‘girly’ actresses in movies,” and she’s deliberately made to seem downright mannish with her short hair, pantsuits, and smoking her cigarettes like a noir hero. (Mamet was conscious of this being a noir film, defining noir as “a conjunction of violence and irony”, meaning that there is no final justice and the world is just a cold, heartless place.)

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*. That Crouse isn’t presented in a sexual way makes Mantegna’s easy seduction of her more believable. There’s no mention of her having a boyfriend or being divorced. She’s a career woman, and romance has been put on the back burner. When awakened, however, a woman played with turns out to be worse than a woman scorned.
*. Mamet says that he wanted Margaret to be “a person who has a problem who happens to be a woman” and not a stereotypical woman’s role. I think this is disingenuous. There’s clearly a point being made about gender here. As he also says, “arguably the times when she feels strongest are when she’s wearing a skirt, the times she’s being taken advantage of is when she wants to put on the slacks.” Keeping this in mind, note how she appears at her girliest at the end, with earrings like lifesaver rings and wearing an open-back floral-print dress. Mamet will, however, leave matters of “feminist literary theory” to the viewers.
*. There are matters of interpretation here that can’t be that easily dismissed, however, and they even go outside the frame of the film. Crouse was married to Mamet at the time and though hers was clearly the leading role he only mentions her name once in his entire commentary and says nothing about her performance.
*. When Crouse took the part she was concerned that the character of Margaret wasn’t the hero. Her fears on this score were assuaged but I think her first impression was correct. At the end of the film she clearly is a villain, while Mike redeems his heel behaviour by refusing to beg for his life. He has played the game fairly, by his own code, while she is being a spectacularly poor loser.

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*. There’s a final point that relates to the ending. Mike’s defence is in a great tradition of such criminal types: arguing that there was nothing personal in the con and that it was all just business. This is a line that goes back to The Godfather (at least) and it makes me wonder how ironic it’s meant to be.
*. It seems to me a very American sentiment. Not for these hoods the argument that they were just following orders. That wouldn’t fly. But making money? Pursuing their self-interest? Since when is that a crime? Since when is that wrong? It’s business, which is beyond good and evil. They’re just playing the game.

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