Thursday, December 1, 2016

"The Dark Knight" as Neoconservative War Propaganda

What follows is a transcript of a talk I gave in March 2010. In it, I argue that Christopher Nolan's 2008 blockbuster The Dark Knight is a form of mass-media pro-"War on Terror" propaganda, particularly in how it uses the tropes of melodrama to move audiences to sympathize with its vigilante hero. Since this was a live talk, it is somewhat unpolished -- even a bit melodramatic -- but the ideas are accurate and I stand by them.*

Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (2008) as Neoconservative War Propaganda

Christopher Nolan’s hugely successful blockbuster The Dark Knight (2008) deploys the imagery and rhetoric of the War on Terror melodramatically in order to emotionally justify the actions and ideologies of the Bush Administration post-9/11.  As Linda Williams argues, melodrama is best understood as an American cinematic mode rather than a genre, since its conventions can be found in nearly every genre of American film and in American public discourse writ large: “[The] basic vernacular of American moving pictures [and culture] consists of a story that generates sympathy for a hero who is also a victim and that leads to a climax that permits the audience, and usually other characters, to recognize that character’s moral value.” The Dark Knight is a melodrama dressed up as a superhero action film, communicating the moral value of its titular hero through his prolonged status as a victim.**

Batman is well-suited to this task, since his back story is itself couched in family melodrama -- innocent parents killed by a cold-blooded criminal, traumatized orphan son left to fend for himself -- which, according to melodramatic logic, justifies his adult vigilantism: as Jonathan Lethem puts it, "Batman’s losing his parents to violent crime forever renews his revenger’s passport." Further, as Will Brooker has documented, Batman is a shifting cultural signifier that takes on different meanings at different historical moments: a fighter of Nazis during WWII, a pop art/camp icon in the 1960s, a dark vigilante since the late 1980s.† The Dark Knight obviously plays upon this latter iteration of the character, emphasizing Batman's angst-ridden suffering as Gotham's protector and thereby valorizing his existence and deeds, which include unethical anti-terrorist practices such as lack of public accountability, violent torture, and widespread surveillance of U.S. citizens.

As I will demonstrate, by concluding with and melodramatically emphasizing scenes of Batman’s unjust persecution as a criminal by an ignorant yet morally indignant public, The Dark Knight ultimately apologizes for the deeds of George W. Bush, downplaying the importance of public dissent and generating viewer sympathy for the pain and struggles of a right-wing vigilante who gets the job done at all costs. Despite a few key scenes in which Batman’s morality is briefly called into question, and its strong suggestion that Batman and the Joker are far more alike than they are different, the film ultimately undermines legitimate critiques of the War on Terror by foregrounding that, in the face of “agents of chaos” like the disturbingly apoliticized Joker and the easily corruptible Harvey Dent, we need “silent protectors” like Batman who will save us even when we may feel uneasy about their tactics. 

Many critics and academics agree that The Dark Knight has strong neoconservative themes, depicting torture, vigilantism, and violation of international law as the price Batman pays for bringing justice to Gotham city, but few commentators agree on the exact implications of how those timely themes play out in the film. Was the film a critique of those ideas, a neutral meditation on them, or, as I felt in my gut each time I walked out of the theater, an endorsement of them?

Of all the published responses to The Dark Knight I read, the most clarifying was a September 2008 Op-Ed piece in the New York Times by fiction writer Jonathan Lethem, who comments that "a morbid incoherence was the movie’s real takeaway, chaotic form its ultimate content." Lethem sees the film as having no particular argument or cohesive "endorsement" at all, but rather as a "cognitively dissonant milkshake of rage, fear and, finally, absolving confusion." The fact that Lethem uses terms like these -- rage, fear, absolving confusion -- to pinpoint the nature of the film's lasting impact reminds us that this film, like all mainstream blockbusters and the majority of American public discourse, is first and foremost a melodrama, intent upon activating viewer emotions regardless of the logic or illogic of its narrative claims.†† Lethem's "absolving confusion" refers to the excessive, victimized catharsis of melodrama. Reading Lethem's piece I became convinced that trying to make sense of Nolan's film made no sense -- unless I approached it from the point of view of analyzing its emotional impact on audiences, highlighting its use of melodramatic tropes to generate viewer sympathy for its suffering protagonists and their causes.

Film scholar Linda Williams’ explanation of the melodramatic mode is crucial to analyzing the cultural logic of melodrama and its ubiquity in American popular and public culture. As Williams argues in "Melodrama Revised," melodrama is best understood as a mode or loose collection of tropes rather than a specific literary or filmic genre, though it has strong historical ties to sentimental fiction like Uncle Tom's Cabin and women's films (or "weepies") like Stella Dallas (1925, 1937) and Terms of Endearment (1983). As Williams explains, “the mode of melodrama [. . .]  [moves] us to pathos for protagonists beset by forces more powerful than they and who are perceived as victims” (42). This set of structures -- heightened pathos, clear oppositions between good and evil by which we are made to identify and empathize with a suffering victim, and thus to yearn for narrative closure via the defeat of the victim's oppressor(s), is common to all genres of American film and, as Williams argues, to American popular narratives writ large. As she states, “melodrama has always mattered and continues to matter in American culture [. . .]  the sexual, racial, and gender problems of American history have found their most powerful expression in melodrama” (82).

One has only to give a cursory look at the post-9/11 rhetoric of the Bush Administration to see these principles at work. The televised footage of the attacks and their aftermath showed the American public images of suffering families of World Trade Center victims, aided by heroic (and also suffering) New York firemen, all beset by faceless, evil terrorists whose motives were seemingly incomprehensible to us. Melodrama activates the emotions as a means to arouse moral indignation over the plight of its suffering victims. In the case of 9/11, the heightened feelings of righteous victimhood generated by the melodramatic narratives peddled by mainstream news and the Bush Administration were used to foment acceptance of the Iraq War and to foreclose nuanced analysis of the root causes of the actions and political views of the real-life "terrorists."

We can see a similar deployment of melodramatic tropes in The Dark Knight, particularly in two key montage sequences that strive for maximum emotional impact via juxtaposition of music, image, and pathos-laden speeches delivered in voice-over. Note that the montage has long been used to express emotional states and arouse emotional responses: e.g., the "falling in love" montage or the "preparing for climactic battle or contest" montage. Music, usually present in montage sequences, is the melos of melodrama and plays a significant role in influencing viewer sympathies, as we shall see. Through close analysis of these short montage sequences, I will demonstrate how The Dark Knight uses melodramatic conventions to arouse viewer emotions at key moments in its story, which is ultimately structured as a domestic melodrama centered upon the suffering Gordon family and their need for protection against unquestionably evil "terrorists" like the Joker and Two-Face. I argue that the film's emotional focus and final sequence attempt to respond to the question: What kind of hero or protector does Jim Gordon's family need? The answer, of course, is Batman.

The first sequence I want to analyze, just to lay the groundwork for my melodramatic interpretation of the film's ending, is the one in which images of Batman mourning over the crater of a destroyed building (an obvious reference to Ground Zero) are accompanied by a "Dear John" letter to Bruce Wayne read in voice-over by the now-dead Rachel. Note that this sequence is preceded by a quintessentially melodramatic "nick of time" chase sequence, wherein the Joker places two victims in two separate locales with two separate ticking time bombs -- a variant on the classic damsel in distress setup germane to the earliest theatrical and cinematic melodramas.

CLIP: "BURNED DOWN" SEQUENCE (DVD Ch. 25, 1:36:48 - 1:37:54)

The death of Rachel and fall of Dent = unconsummated love, the "too little too late" of melodrama. The two bombs scene even includes a classically melodramatic last-minute confession of love from Rachel. This was the "proper" marriage that could have symbolically restored order to Gotham -- its "white knight" fulfilling his domestic / romantic goals. Of course, this same theme of suffering over lost opportunities applies to Bruce Wayne / Batman, and even more so, since he not only loved Rachel but could have done something to stop Rachel's death, but fails. In the "Burned Down" montage sequence, Batman's failure to stop the bombs in time is rendered in extremely personal terms -- he loved Rachel and is getting a classic "Dear Bruce" rejection letter, and also considered the now-disfigured Harvey his friend. Yet Bruce/Batman's personal suffering and grief are powerfully linked to the destruction of the building itself and the public efforts of the firefighters -- an obvious echo of post-9/11 images of the area around the WTC. Batman's grief is not just over his personal relations but his failure to protect Gotham City, and the deep bass drone of the music, suggestive of a dirge, accompanied by the late Rachel's voice reading the letter, connotes tragic loss, and heightens viewer sympathy for Batman, who suffers horribly (note his bowed posture in the montage) for his perceived failure to thwart the Joker's plans.

Now to move to the film's concluding montage, which unfolds to a voice over by Jim Gordon, recently returned from the "dead" after faking his death in order not to "risk my family's safety."  [Note that Gordon's wife has two lines in whole film but we see her weep plenty.] Indeed it is Gordon's family that takes center stage in the final act of The Dark Knight. The now homicidally insane Harvey Dent takes his revenge on Gordon's family, kidnapping and threatening to kill James Gordon Jr. (Nathan Gamble). Like Rachel, Gordon (and his family) directly suffers at the hands of a madman -- until luckily Batman shows up in time to save Gordon's son and defeat Dent. Immediately following this rescue, Gordon delivers the film's final soliloquy, which is framed as an explanation to his now-safe son about why Batman is necessary.

CLIP (start at 01:11): "DARK KNIGHT" SEQUENCE (DVD Ch. 38, 2:22:23 - 2:23:24)

Whatever questions the film may fleetingly raise about the morality of Batman's actions are swept away -- at least in the emotional register -- by the tenor of this closing sequence. Viewers like me, who are used to maintaining a certain critical distance even when we are to some extent being swept in by the film's emotional siren song, may still feel uneasiness at a moment like this. We may not respond in the exact way the film seems to want us to. Nevertheless, at the formal level, the last few minutes of The Dark Knight are a rousing battle cry to forgive and forget the specifics of what Batman has done, and to feel deep sympathy for this noble, suffering loner who agrees to be persecuted in order to maintain the facade that Harvey Dent was a good man. He and Gordon conspire to lie to the public to keep them safe, and this closing sequence diverts our attention from the political implications of these deeds and instead frames the issue in terms of lone white heroes doing what must be done to keep our children and families safe. That is melodrama: The Dark Knight’s conclusion celebrates Batman’s actions and melodramatically restores him to a place of heroism via his internal suffering and public victimhood.

It is on these grounds that I conclude that The Dark Knight is neoconservative war propaganda, for like all the most effective propaganda, its most potent sequences directly trigger the emotions without necessarily arousing too much critical thought -- perhaps even confounding some forms of critical analysis due to their seemingly deliberate obtuseness. As Lethem concludes, "In its narrative gaps, its false depths leading nowhere in particular, its bogus grief over stakeless destruction and faked death, “The Dark Knight” echoes a civil discourse strained to helplessness by panic, overreaction and cultivated grievance" (2). Like me, Lethem fears the power of melodramatic tropes to overwhelm viewer emotions at the expense of critical analysis and further discussion. He fears the "helplessness" of a public used to being swayed by gut feelings, used to knowing who the good guys and bad guys are, and used to accepting melodramatic self-sacrifice as a barometer of moral value. I fear these things and that is why I fear the overwhelming popularity of blockbusters like The Dark Knight, for it only affirms Slavoj Zizek's contention that "we feel free because we lack the very language to articulate our unfreedom.  [. . .]  [All] the main terms we use to designate the present conflict -- 'war on terrorism', 'democracy and freedom', 'human rights', and so on -- are false terms, mystifying our perception of the situation instead of allowing us to think it."‡ Think it, no. But feel it, yes.

* When I give live presentations I am a big improviser and digresser -- I feel that a certain amount of unplanned, spontaneous side talk helps me keep things lively and engaging for everyone. Therefore my written talks usually contain rough, bullet-pointy sections for which I "fill in the blanks" in the moment. This is especially true for clip analysis -- sometimes I will chat a little over the clip, etc.
** Linda Williams, “Melodrama Revised.” Refiguring American Film Genres: History and Theory.  Ed. Nick Browne. U California Press, 1998. p. 58.
† Will Brooker,  Batman Unmasked: Analysing a Cultural Icon.  London: Continuum, 2000.
†† If indeed the Gotham City of Nolan's Dark Knight is a version of the "closed world" of melodrama, then Batman's Batpod flight past the camera at the end of the film parallels Stella Dallas' purposeful stride away from the site of her daughter's wedding or Julie's march off to the yellow fever camp at the end of Jezebel. It is an act of self-sacrifice that is meant (in the film's melodramatic logic) to ennoble the victim-protagonist. See Thomas Elsaesser, "Tales of Sound and Fury" in Imitations of Life (Ed. Marcia Landy, Wayne State UP, 1995) pp. 78-9.
‡ Zizek, Welcome to the Desert of the Real!  Five Essays on September 11 and Related Dates. Verso, 2002. p. 2.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Review: Doctor Strange (2016)

I saw Marvel's Doctor Strange last weekend. With its focus on magic, astral projection, and alternate dimensions, I figured it would be visually impressive and might deviate from the usual, standardized Marvel movie look and feel. On that front I was pleased; despite its obvious visual redundancies with Batman Begins and Inception, I basically enjoyed Doctor Strange, especially visually. However, I found its Euro-American imperialism and white-male-centeredness to be so bald-faced as to be, at times, unfavorably distracting.

This is not new news -- well in advance of Doctor Strange's release, many commentators expressed concern over the whitewashing of Doctor Strange's the Ancient One, that is, casting a white woman to play a role established in the comics as Tibetan. Sadly, the film's Orientalism runs even deeper than Tilda Swinton's casting. As Charles Pulliam-Moore writes in his essential and insightful article about Doctor Strange the character,
While no reference is made to Strange’s race or ethnicity in his early stories, he’s consistently drawn with slanted eyes and dramatic, convex eyebrows . . . to argue that Strange was always white is to willfully ignore the visual language that comics use to tell their stories.
Pulliam-Moore concludes that "There’s no reason that this character has to be white and if canon is really as important as hostile fanboys make it out to be, then Strange should have simply been portrayed by an Asian actor." That is hard to imagine in today's Hollywood, but it's a compelling idea and a missed opportunity to diversify (rather than further whitewash) the MCU.

The Hollywood Reporter's Graeme McMillan notes that "the Ancient One role really could've/probably should've gone to an Asian actor" and much as I love Swinton, I must agree. Making the Ancient One white is an act of racism, just like Christopher Nolan's revealing the "real" Ra's al Ghul to be white in Batman Begins. This shit really needs to stop, as do the disingenuous, economically motivated protests of innocence

The other weird racial thing going on that Chiwetel Ejiofor's Mordo is yet another magical negro of the Morpheus variety here to assist and mentor his white Neo-figure to world fame. Interesting to note -- my girlfriend spotted this -- that the only other time Ejiofor and Strange star Benedict Cumberbatch appear onscreen together is as slave and master in 12 Years a Slave (2013). Yikes!

Further orientalizing Doctor Strange is its climactic third act battle, which takes place in Hong Kong, depicted, like Beijing in the Transformers 4 finale, in a mode I call "developing nation poverty porn." I knew we were in trouble as soon as one of the sorcerers training Strange revealed that the three magic portals in their Tibetan base lead to London, New York, and Hong Kong. "In these three cities lie the strongest concentrations of magical energy on Earth or whatever," explains Wong (Benedict Wong). I instantly noticed that these cities are the seat of the British Empire, the seat of the American Empire, and one of the greatest Asian colonies England ever possessed. Hubs of global commerce that speak more to the politics of the real world this minute than they do any narratively explicable layout of magical lay lines. Why do globally significant events only ever happen in the same four or five highly developed world cities in movies?

Of course, I know the real-world answer: money. Global box office. China and East Asia are huge market these days, so influential they can prevent some domestic "flops" from losing money, so by featuring Hong Kong in the climactic sequence and giving sorcerer Wong some of the movie's goddamn funniest lines, Disney (who owns and runs Marvel Studios) hopes to draw in that audience. But these are token gestures -- delightful though it is, Wong's speaking part is quite small, and Doctor Strange is a story about an American white man who learns magic from a Tibetan white woman and uses his newfound powers to defeat another white man.*

Doctor Strange also hedges its financial bets by going mainly where other popular movies have gone before. Its Tibetan mise-en-scene (especially the Kamar-Taj training facility) is identical to that seen in the first act of Batman Begins (2005), and the movie's overall look and visual effects bear striking similarities to Inception -- the sorcery in Strange is basically the same as the dreaming sequences in Inception.** Buildings and landscapes bend and warp, gravity and orientation flips around constantly, character walk (and run, and chase, and fight) on walls and ceilings, and then they use special rings to "wake up" and transport back to their home dimension (or elsewhere). I am not the only critic to notice Doctor Strange's highly derivative visuals.

"Hi, I'm Ducard -- I mean, the Ancient One -- dang, I mean, Ra's al Ghul."

That said, I appreciate that Doctor Strange keeps the number of principal characters low so we are able to (at least minimally) care about each the participants. Mads Mikkelsen's Kaecilius is a bit boilerplate, and his followers just anonymous goons without personalities, but the main "good guys" are fairly distinct and generally likeable. And it is fun to see effects like these and characters like these in a Marvel film, making jokes and having a good time (not usually Nolan's strong suit).

Sadly, Rachel McAdams' Christine is hardly worth mentioning because she is given so little to do in the movie. As Stephen Strange's medical colleague and ambiguously not-quite-love interest, Christine's main job is to stand around gawking amazedly once the titular doctor starts manifesting his magical powers. She performs one crucial surgery, but even then she is being directed by Strange himself. Like Natalie Portman in Thor, she is essentially a "babe scientist" who cannot influence events in the movie since
The extermination of the threat depends not upon scientific knowledge, which the babe scientist has in spades, but rather on brute physical force -- quick reflexes, and combat skills, characteristics only male protagonists possess.†
McAdams' Christine represents a variation on this formula since her medical prowess is found wanting next to Stephen Strange's magical powers rather than his raw brawn -- though magic in this universe seems to be used mainly for manipulating physical reality and for sorcerers to blast and stab each other with. That is, it could aptly be called "brute magical force" and substituted into the above quotation. Thus, Christine is yet another example of a female sidekick character who starts out seeming narratively significant but who is shoved into the background by the film's last act.

Christine sez: "Don't mind me, I'm just here to make you look more awesome." 

There are no other significant female characters in Doctor Strange besides the gender-ambiguous Ancient One played by Tilda Swinton.

David Palmer's well-written Doctor Strange review convincingly exposes several plot and character-development problems that ruin the film for him. I didn't mind these problems so much because I wasn't that deeply invested in the film or its characters to begin with. My expectations for Marvel Studios films aren't high these days so this was a low-stakes game for me and I got my entertainment dollar's worth out of Doctor Strange.

Palmer writes near the end of the review that his distaste for Doctor Strange aligns with his preference for what he terms Marvel's more "ambitious" films, by which he means Captain America: Winter Soldier and Age of Ultron. Curious though I am about James Spader as the (voice of the) villain, I am not interested in the superhero movie-as-baroque clusterfuck that Ultron is rumored to be.   

So I guess I don't really like the "ambitious" Marvel movies, but then again I don't see Winter Soldier as being very ambitious, just well-scripted and well-made. It's like the first Bourne movie: it strikes a very good downbeat tone and introduces a lived-in, contemporary-feeling world in which "the Captain's very goodness has given him the edge of an antihero," as Owen Gleiberman puts it. I agree with Gleiberman's and Peter Debruge's comments on their Variety ranking of the first fourteen Marvel Cinematic Universe movies (including Doctor Strange), for while I haven't seen enough MCU films to weigh in on their whole list, I surely agree with their top five picks: AvengersIron ManCaptain America: Winter SoldierDoctor Strange, and Guardians of the Galaxy.

As for Doctor Strange, I did enjoy it as entertainment. I would probably watch it again just to see the world-bendy visuals, enjoy the jokes, and see Mads Mikkelsen threaten Benedict Cumberbatch while wearing weird eye makeup. Strange's spectacular visuals and lively performances raise it a wee bit above the usual predictability of MCU films these days. However, despite its fine execution, Doctor Strange is not really all that innovative in any way, and certainly continues Marvel's / Hollywood's traditions of racism (see this and this), sexism (see this, thisthis, and this), and, of course, pro-American imperialism. I didn't expect the film to surprise me on these fronts but I do feel, as other critics and advocacy groups do, that there was a missed opportunity here.

* Whiteys still get all the plum roles in Hollywood because the domestic U.S. market is still quite crucial, especially in creating an initial perception of (the economic viability of) the film. White stars and actors also benefit (relative to, say, Asian ones) from the global economic and cultural dominance of Hollywood since the early twentieth century -- due to Hollywood's economic leverage, and through sheer momentum, whiteness continues to sell well worldwide.
** Of course, Inception itself borrows most of its visual ideas from the superior anime film Paprika (2006), which I highly recommend.
† Holly Hassel, "The 'Babe Scientist' Phenomenon" in Chick Flicks (Ed. Suzanne Ferriss and Mallory Young, Routledge 2008) p. 196.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Review: Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp (2015)

Distributed by Netflix as an eight-episode limited series, Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp is a delightfully funny romp that gently parodies teen summer camp movies of the 1980s. It's also a prequel to the cult classic film Wet Hot American Summer (2001), written and directed by David Wain and Michael Showalter, who also co-helm the series.

It is hard for me to judge this film and follow-up prequel series with any pretense at objectivity. As a teen of the 1980s, I grew up on John Hughes films like Sixteen Candles (1984) and The Breakfast Club (1985) and raunchy teen comedies like Animal House, Meatballs (both 1979) and Porky's (1981) that the Wet Hot franchise so lovingly and wittily spoofs. I am the perfect target audience for Wain and Showalter's creations and enjoy both the film and show enormously.

What makes this series (and the original film) most special is its dynamite troupe of actors. What a treat it is to see the film's stellar cast -- Marguerite Moreau, Janeane Garofalo, Bradley Cooper, Amy Poehler, Christopher Meloni, Molly Shannon, Elizabeth Banks, Paul Rudd, Michael Ian Black, Zak Orth, David Hyde Pierce, Ken Marino, and Joe Lo Truglio -- back together and doing their knowingly over-the-top thing again. Like its filmic predecessor, First Day of Camp intentionally camps it up (ha, ha), perfectly executing its warm yet ribald tone due to the earnestness with which it commits to the cliches of 80's teen movies. As other reviewers have noted, the prequel series is at least as funny as the 2001 film, so if you like the one, you should like the other.


One of the greatest pleasures to be had watching the new Wet Hot prequels is how amusingly they play with the experienced viewer's expectations of what comes "next" in the original movie. The best example of this is the revelation that Gail's ex- ex- husband "Jonas," presumably just a random name given to a character we never see in the original film, is revealed in the prequels to be the former name of Gene (Meloni), Camp Firewood's lunatic camp cook. Indeed, Jonas/Gene's storyline is one of the best parts of the prequel series, involving as it does Gene's military past and an amazing climactic showdown with The Falcon, Ronald Reagan's assassin (Jon Hamm).

Newcomers Jason Schwartzman, John Slattery, Lake Bell, Jon Hamm, Kristen Wiig, and Michael Cera all add much zaniness to the proceedings, with Schwartzman's Greg and Hamm's Falcon particular standouts. However, the heart of the series lies more so with old favorites like Beth (Garofalo), Katie (Moreau), Andy (Rudd), and Coop (Showalter). Of special note is the work of Elizabeth Banks, a comedienne I have long felt is somewhat under-deployed in many of her film appearances (e.g., The 40 Year Old Virgin, Role Models). I find Banks' work, especially in these Wet Hot prequels, hilarious. Lindsay's introduction in the cold open of episode 3 is a series high point -- really spot-on, campy stuff. I am quite pleased that the prequel series gives Lindsay (and Banks) more of a central role than the original film does.

In this same vein, First Day of Camp gives us back the Paul Rudd we know and love from comedies like CluelessForgetting Sarah Marshall, I Love You, Man, and Role Models: the dimwitted fuckup with the heart of gold. Laughing at him chew scenery as disaffected slacker Andy is one of the great pleasures of Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp. Paul Rudd belongs in comedy.*

One could surely watch and enjoy the prequel series without having seen the original film. Still, one of the most pleasurable aspects of the series is how it sets up certain jokes in the film, giving them whole new layers of meaning. For example, when Beth is nervous in front of Henry the first time she meets him in the film, she offers an excuse about needing to meet "Jim Stansel," surely a throwaway name when first written and uttered. Yet the prequels bring Stansel to life and depict his dramatic exit from the series, making Beth's excuse extra-funny in retrospect. Another moment that is given additional weight by the existence of the prequels is Victor admitting to Neil he's a virgin near the end of the movie -- having seen his earlier braggadocio, this moment is even more meaningful now.

While less entertaining than the antics of the older counselors, the prequel series' (younger camper) Kevin storyline foreshadows Coop's in the film: each awkward guy ultimately fails to win the affection of a popular girl he desires. These two story arcs accurately deconstruct the fantasy of geeky men attracting women vastly out of their league --  a pernicious and damaging trope that haunts much geek-centered cinema.

I find the whole Wet Hot prequel series to be of roughly equal quality, but Episode 3 "Activities" reveals Lindsay's background and introduces a hilarious Chris Pine as has-been rocker Eric. Next to the Jonas/Gene origin story, I think the Lindsay - Eric arc is the next best in the series. The very soul of the camp is at stake, and it takes these two relative outsiders to save everyone in the end. Along the way, the show has lots of fun sending up Pine's overwrought rocker persona and playing to the hilt Lindsay's obsession with the man and his unfinished masterpiece. (More on that shortly.)

The next episode, "Auditions," is really top-notch as well, and in some ways this is where the series really gets rolling. We meet a key antagonist, the Falcon (Hamm), whose scenes are brilliant send-ups of 1980s spy thrillers like War Games (1983). Sorry Mad Men fans --  Jon Hamm is another guy I enjoy most in comedies. I believe this is also the first of two appearances by Showalter in a cameo as President Ronald Reagan. As a youth of the Reagan era I appreciate his take, and I like how the Reagan cameo "rhymes" with Showalter's appearance as talent show emcee Alan Shemper in the 2001 movie.

Susie and Claude share an intimate moment. 

Episode 5 "Dinner" parodies slasher horror (especially in JJ and Lindsay's adventure to the spooky abandoned cabin) and some action movie Rambo-ish business with Jonas versus Victor. Victor runs again! This episode also depicts Susie's tryst with Claude Dumet, a very amusing and well-handled situation somewhat reminiscent of Aaron and Gail's May - December relationship from the movie. Yet unline the Aaron - Gail pairing, the Susie - Claude romance does not lead to marriage and instead depicts Susie as a self-aware young woman making her own (somewhat taboo) choices.

Eps 6 and 7, "Electro/City" and "Staff Party" are, for me, most memorable for their wonderful depiction of the flowering of Ben and McKinley's relationship. As AV Club's Erik Adams says, Bradley Cooper’s most important scenes are with Michael Ian Black.

The Eric storyline culminates in an amazing rock finale in Episode 8 "End of Day," which concludes the series. Eric's show-stopping performance, an homage to similar teen-movie musical finales like those in Footloose and Revenge of the Nerds, is an amazing feat of earnest parody that provides an exciting climax for the series. Eric's performance of his musical magnum opus also reveals the source of the song we hear in the original film when Gene is training Coop -- it's "Higher and Higher":
Show me the fever / Into the fire / Takin' it higher and higher 
Nothing to fear / It's only desire / Takin' it higher and higher
Yeah! This is one of my favorite reveals of the whole series.

I'll conclude my review by saying spoiler-free that the final post-credits sequence of the eighth and final First Day of Camp episode is an absolutely perfect, emotionally satisfying way to end the episode and the series.

P.S. Great news, folks! Another entry in the Wet Hot American Summer franchise is on the way, an 8-episode sequel series set Ten Years Later.  

Neil sez: "Victor Pulak, you're okay by me!"

* Also deserving of mention are Rudd's turn as lamaze instructor Guy Gerricault in the late seasons of Reno 911! and his dramatic co-lead performance in Prince Avalanche. Despite my love of Paul Rudd, I do not enjoy the dumb, maddeningly boring Ant-Man (2015), a movie that half-assedly tries to be funny but fails.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Horror Film Class Required Movie List

A still from Frankenstein's beautifully shot opening sequence. 

I usually don't blog about academic or teaching-related subjects but I've been blogging about my love of the horror film for some time now. elucidating its roots in German Expressionism, exploring its defining classics, profiling its greatest monster movies, extolling its immortal masterpieces, calling attention to its best recent iterations, effusing about its Gothic incarnations, and even having fun reviewing some of its mid-range entries. So it seems timely and interesting to jot down the list of films I plan to screen in the horror film class I'm teaching this coming spring, with some brief commentary about my inclusions (and exclusions).* Here goes:

The Phantom of the Opera (1925, dir. Rupert Julian). While there is a large body of silent horror cinema I would have liked to include, in the end I narrowed it down to this one towering, influential classic. Would I have liked to show at least one German Expressionist film like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), Nosferatu (1922), or The Golem (1920)? Yes, for sure.

I even seriously considered showing Carl Theodor Dreyer's Vampyr (1932), which, despite its oddball, art-film tendencies, is one of the most unnerving and uncanny horror films I can think of. (It is also one of two films -- the other one is The Student of Prague [1913] -- which would most help me teach the concepts in Sigmund Freud's famous essay "The Uncanny," an early required reading selection.)**

Yet in the end I went with Phantom, for two reasons: (1) It is familiar and easy to follow on the story level, anticipating as it does so many of the monster movies that get made in its wake, and (2) Lon Chaney, its amazing star. With all due respect to German stars Max Schreck and Conrad Veidt, Chaney gets my nod for the most important and talented horror film actor of the silent cinema. He more or less sets the standard for what a truly terrifying yet sympathetic monster should be, paving the way for stars like Boris Karloff . . .

Frankenstein (1931, dir. James Whale) and Dracula (1931, dir. Tod Browning). Of these two, I think Frankenstein is the better movie -- it's pretty much the best of the early Universal horror films -- but I could not imagine a syllabus without both. Hell, without Nosferatu in the mix, the Tod Browning / Bela Lugosi Dracula is one of only two bona fide vampire movies I've got!

Cat People (1942, dir. Jacques Tourneur) is a low-budget masterpiece produced by the legendary Val Lewton and directed by noir / horror master Jacques Tourneur (Out of the PastNight of the Demon). I love the psychosexual dynamics of this film -- it makes the connection between sexuality, ethnicity, and horror quite clear. An exotic (and exoticized / fetishized / animalized) foreign woman (Simone Simon) believes that if she is ever sexually intimate with a man, she will turn into a cat and kill her would-be lover. Nevertheless she falls in love with and marries an over-confident, too-rational American man (Kent Smith) who doubts the reality of her ominous beliefs. Insane erotic-horrific antics ensue.

Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954, dir. Jack Arnold) is my 1950s creature feature selection. As with Cat People, I chose Creature mainly for its unnerving psychosexual and gender(-ed) dynamics. Although I am personally more partial to 1950s entries Gojira and Invasion of the Body Snatchers, there is something tonally and visually special about Creature from the Black Lagoon. The underwater photography sequences in particular are haunting, spooky, and magical -- they get to the heart of the creepy sexuality that drives the whole film. Interspecies lust and sexual terror set in a primeval jungle = thematically rich horror film fun.

Dracula (a.k.a. Horror of Dracula, 1958, dir. Terence Fisher). Great Britain's Hammer Film Productions is such an interesting studio, a scrappy little operation that accomplished much on the strength of tight scripts, economically cheap yet aesthetically bold set design, consistent direction, and the prodigious star talents of Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. Hammer Films reimagined many key Gothic and horror film staples -- Frankenstein's monster, Count Dracula, the Mummy -- for the late 1950s and 1960s and beyond.

Specifically, Hammer's version of Dracula lends the vampire tale a lurid, feverish edge via full color cinematography and simmering sexuality. It is, simply put, a really fun Gothic horror film. Plus it can be used to discuss remakes and adaptations: after F.W. Murnau's Nosferatu (1922) and the 1931 Browning/Lugosi Dracula, the Hammer version is probably the next most influential (and best) filmic iteration of Bram Stoker's novel.

I couldn't eliminate either Peeping Tom (1960, dir. Michael Powell) or Psycho (1960, dir. Alfred Hitchcock) from the course's required viewing list, so I am making my students watch both of these landmark thrillers over the course of one week (two class meetings).

Obviously, Psycho is the more well-known, canonical choice, a truly great film that every cinema lover should see -- more than once. Although there are certain Hitchcock films (Strangers on a TrainThe Birds) I like equally to Psycho and some (Shadow of a Doubt, Vertigo) I like even better, Hitchcock's 1960 masterpiece clearly holds a well-deserved place at the forefront of his impressive oeuvre. Psycho is also traditionally viewed as an important precursor to the rise of the slasher film in the 1970s.

But Peeping Tom is fucking amazing and I could not imagine leaving it off of this course's film list. So it stays too.

This Psycho - Peeping Tom split decision exemplifies what I call "the Godfather conundrum." A few years back when I was designing a course on 1970s Hollywood cinema, I really wanted to show the students Francis Ford Coppola's overlooked masterwork The Conversation (1974). I also knew that they needed to see The Godfather, because the idea of a 1970s Hollywood cinema class without The Godfather is absurd. And while maybe a third to a half of the students came into the class having seen The Godfather before, the remainder hadn't, so I felt I had to ensure that everybody saw the historically more significant film that time around. And due to The Godfather's extraordinary length, I didn't feel right asking the students to watch both Coppola pictures in one week. But for this horror class I'm doubling down on Psycho and the less-seen yet holistically better Peeping Tom.

Night of the Living Dead (1968, dir. George A. Romero). This is not only one of my all-time favorite horror movies, it is without a doubt the single most important and influential horror movie of the 1960s. More than any other film, Romero and company's Night of the Living Dead is responsible for raising the acceptable level of onscreen gore, bringing on the nihilism, and showing a whole generation of North American horror auteurs what could be done on a low budget.

As low-budget maestro John Carpenter says of Night of the Living Dead in a 2002 interview, "Everybody who made a low-budget film has been influenced by that movie, every person. Each and every one of us. We’d be lying if we said we weren’t."†

Suspiria (1977, dir. Dario Argento). Really, my whole syllabus is too English-language-o-centric, and omitting influential works by German Expressionists like F.W. Murnau, New Japanese Horror auteurs like Kurosawa Kiyoshi, and even recent "New French Extremity" mind-benders like High Tension and Martyrs really disappoints me. But in the end I chose to favor the North American horror film tradition, so as to foreground interpretive issues (like gender and sexuality) over a more historical account noting lines of directorial influence, etc.

Yet at no point could I ever imagine a horror film class that omitted Dario Argento, the Italian director whose work, along with Mario Bava's, exerted enormous influence on the post-1960s horror movie.†† The only difficult decision was "which film?" In the end I went with Suspiria because, while something like Deep Red speaks more directly to the development of the English-language slasher, Suspiria is more creepy and interesting and supernatural and Gothic. Its stands out from the pack. And its provocatively ambiguous use of point-of-view camera is unsurpassed in global horror cinema.

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974, dir. Tobe Hooper). I've already written about how the original Texas Chain Saw is my favorite movie, ever. So let me confine my comments here to the film's role in my class: as a representative of the "slasher" subgenre.

Many critics and film historians contend that Psycho set the basic template for the slasher film, though the work of the Italian giallo directors is probably even more directly germane to the development of this popular subgenre. I like Texas Chain Saw because, along with Black Christmas (dir. Bob Clark), it essentially launched the North American slasher film proper in 1974. So I am focusing on the origins here, rather than the commercial heyday, which comes later, at the very end of the 1970s and the first several years of the '80s.

Yes, screening Chain Saw means I'm not showing other classic slashers like Black Christmas, The Hills Have Eyes (1977, dir. Wes Craven), Halloween (1978, dir. John Carpenter), Friday the 13th (1980, dir. Sean S. Cunningham), Prom Night (1980, dir. Paul Lynch), Friday the 13th Part 2 (1981, dir. Steve Miner), or A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984, dir. Wes Craven). So many great movies, so little time . . .

The Fly's Seth Brundle sez: "Help me, I'm masticating!"
Videodrome's Max Renn sez: "Long live the new flesh, muthafucka!"

Videodrome (1983, dir. David Cronenberg) is included because Cronenberg is the most inventive and original North American horror director and his work all but defines what it means to do "body horror." I have on-again off-again considered screening his remake of The Fly (1986) instead, but there is going to be a Cronenberg film and it will be hard to pry me away from Videodrome.

I have been occasionally conflicted about this choice. Videodrome is one of my personal favorite films, period. In the context of my class, I really love its depiction of how violence and eroticism get easily combined and tangled up with each other. Plus the whole premise of the in-movie "Videodrome" show (or signal, ee hee hee) is brilliant -- sexuality as (technologically induced) virus, a theme Cronenberg has been mulling over since his early short films in 1969.

Yet I have a feeling that my students might enjoy The Fly more. Videodrome is like a fervent, macabre manifesto whereas The Fly is more polished and plot-driven.‡ In The Fly, the passion is there but it is sublimated into the love affair between Seth (Jeff Goldblum) and Veronica (Geena Davis). Videodrome assaults its viewer with fourth-wall-breaking scenes of grotesque yet metaphorical sexviolence -- and shows us its depraved dystopia though the eyes of Max Renn (James Woods), a misogynistic, perverted, profiteering scumbag.

Alternatively, The Fly presents us with the slow, horrifying bodily disintegration of a basically decent if overreaching man. The horror consists of seeing him lose his humanity and become a vile insect-monster. The Fly's production values are much higher, and the plot way less twisty and ambiguous, than Videodrome's. While Videodrome may actually be the more cerebral (that is, thematically opaque) of the two, it nevertheless possesses a dark, nihilistic psychosexual streak that makes it more horrifying, if a bit puzzling and confusing as well. (I think I just talked myself back into sticking with Videodrome.)

Ringu (1998, dir. Hideo Nakata) and The Blair Witch Project (1999, dir. Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez) show that 1999 was a big year for horror. That year, Ringu started a global craze for New Japanese Horror films and consequently, despite the high quality of The Ring (2002) itself, spawned a ton of dull-assed English-language remakes of said films. Meanwhile, Blair Witch made a squillion dollars as a result of its canny, viral internet marketing craze and launched the found-footage subgenre that thrives to the present day.

Ginger Snaps (2000, dir. John Fawcett) is just a great teen horror movie, comedically and postmodernistically self-aware (like Scream etc.) but more interesting in part because of its focus on female sexuality. Brian De Palma's Carrie (1976) would be another strong contender with which to explore this theme, but Ginger Snaps is more contemporary and clever and hip. A solid, intelligent, entertainingly gory horror movie.

The excellent The Babadook (2014, dir. Jennifer Kent) is a personal favorite of mine and should pair well with the previous week's Ginger Snaps, dealing as they both do with issues of coming of age and family melodrama. I like that both films tell female-centered stories. The Babadook is my course's only female-directed film.

Horror often vilifies mothers and maternity by making them monstrous: most mothers who appear in horror movies (like Mrs. Bates and Mrs. Voorhees) are evil to the core. The Babadook reverses that trend, giving us a heroic, brave, determined mother who nevertheless must come to terms with her (family's) dark side. The Babadook fuses horror with melodrama to achieve something really special and interesting and cathartic. A must-see.

The Cabin in the Woods (2012, dir. Drew Goddard). This is not a personal favorite though I've enjoyed it both times I've seen it. It's my example of a postmodern hybrid horror-comedy thing -- that is, a "horror film" in quotes. Also, in large part due to the vigorous cult of Joss Whedon fandom, there has been much recent critical ink spilled on the film, some of which I will use to my advantage in teaching the film to students. It's a fun movie with which to conclude the semester.

Films I most regret leaving out:

  • Gojira (1954, dir. Ishiro Honda). Though I wrestled mightily between this and King Kong for my representative of a "classic" monster movie, I was leaning pretty heavily toward Gojira when a colleague helped me see that Creature from the Black Lagoon would be the best "creature feature" I could show. Creature speaks to U.S. imperialism and sexual repression from the inside, whereas Gojira grapples with nuclear-age guilt and trauma from the point of view of its real-world victims (the Japanese). Creature also pairs better with Val Lewton's Cat People in representing Golden Age monster movies. Sorry Gojira!
  • Alien (1979, dir. Ridley Scott), a truly great monster movie that, like Gojira, I had to cut for space reasons. Alien is well-executed on every level and stands as one of the best horror / science fiction movies ever made. Furthermore, this is a film I want to expose more students to because I want to weaken or debunk the myth that James Cameron's Aliens is superior to -- or even quite as good as -- its influential predecessor. Alien is much written about in film criticism so I have good analytical essays on it. But I ran out of room, so no Alien.
  • The Witch (2015, dir. Robert Eggers). I love this movie, perhaps too passionately and somewhat irrationally. And while screening it could open up interesting discussions about horror film fandom and historical verisimilitude, its main plotline is too similar to Ginger Snaps to warrant its inclusion. (Cue sad trombone.)
  • The Thing from Another World (1951, dir. Christian Nyby) and The Thing (1982, dir. John Carpenter). Fuck yeah! Need I even explain why showing these back-to-back in the same week would be cool? Let me add that I am a big John Carpenter fan and it is disappointing not to have Halloween or especially The Thing on this syllabus. 
  • Eyes Without a Face (1959, dir. Georges Franju). After Gojira, this is the exclusion that pains me the most personally. As an instructor, I would say that my omission of any German Expressionist films or more J-Horror films or even Wes Craven's Nightmare on Elm Street is more egregious, but as a fan, the absence of Franju's chilling masterpiece really hurts. I just love this movie a lot and it images stick with me and haunt me like few films' do. 
  • The Shining (1980, dir. Stanley Kubrick). Regular readers know that I am a major Kubrick fiend, and while in the early 2000s I considered The Shining to be one of the master director's lesser works, I am currently of the opinion that the Stephen King adaptation stands as one of Kubrick's best, most enduring efforts. It is also the absolutely perfect film for teaching about the cinematic Gothic (described here). But alas, I will instead ask Cat People, Suspiria, and both Draculas to perform that function in a course too crowded to incorporate The Shining or other great Gothic outings like The Innocents or Crimson Peak.   
  • Something -- anything -- by director Wes Craven. Sadly, his early shockers Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes got bumped by Texas Chain Saw for slasher week, Scream was superseded by The Cabin in the Woods for postmodern "horror" week, Freddy Kreuger just got fucked over, and even The People Under the Stairs, which works well (alongside the brilliant Candyman) for teaching about horror movies that explicitly depict racial conflict, got nixed for space reasons. I am so sorry Mr. Craven! 
Candyman sez: "What about me, you white devil?"

Count Orlok sez: "What about me, you dummkopf??"

* This is a list (and a course syllabus) I have labored over mightily. It has been difficult for me to winnow down the film choices to fit a roughly fourteen-week semester. Ultimately, there are seventeen required-viewing films included -- I couldn't even trim this thing down to my usual one film per week.
** So deep runs my love for Vampyr and so convinced am I that it makes the perfect companion-piece to Freud's "The Uncanny" that in all the early versions of my horror film class outline, Vampyr figured as the first film. But then last spring I had dinner with film studies colleague Dr. Sid Rosenzweig, who asked me if I was starting off my class with Phantom of the Opera. Once he said it aloud, it seemed startlingly obvious to me that Phantom was indeed the best film with which to launch the course. Thanks Sid!
† From "Interview with John Carpenter and Austin Stoker" videorecorded at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood, 25 Jan. 2002. Available as a special feature on the Assault on Precinct 13 "New Special Edition" DVD (Image Entertainment, 2003).
†† Jason Zinoman discusses Bava's and Argento's work and importance in his enthusiastic and informative book Shock Value (Penguin, 2011) pp. 35, 38, 123.
Videodrome is among my top four or five Cronenberg films alongside Shivers, The Brood, Dead Ringers, and Crash.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Double Review: The Blob (1958) and The Wolf Man (1941)

Young "Steven" McQueen plays protagonist Steve in The Blob

I am a self-proclaimed horror movie fan. As a devotee of the genre, I love its towering canonical classics (the 1930s Universal horror films, GojiraNight of the Living Dead, John Carpenter's The Thing), its overlooked but easy to defend hidden gems (MartinThe Descent, Candyman), and even its schlocky fringe entries (Haxan, Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers, Mountain of the Cannibal God) on the border between horror and comedy.

Of course I don't love every horror film I watch (e.g., most of the recent remakes of 1970s classics), and there are horror films I deliberately avoid (e.g., Human Centipede).

But I really enjoyed The Blob. I was aware of it, of course, but never got around to seeing it until a couple weekends ago -- as part of the Criterion Collection, it streams on Hulu Plus. It is a fun, well-constructed monster movie combined with a teen exploitation melodrama. It is infused with 1950s Cold War paranoia (the titular Blob is red after all) and sublimated teen sexuality. The movie maintains a fast clip and uses its studio-set mise-en-scene evocatively.

Check out the spooky meat locker!

A very young "Steven" McQueen plays protagonist Steve, a morally upstanding "good kid" who nevertheless pals around with his small town's group of resident juvenile delinquents. While out on a date with his girlfriend Jane (Aneta Corseaut), Steve sees a strange object drop out of the night sky and rushes to investigate. The object is a small meteorite containing the titular blob -- before Steve arrives, a local farmer finds the meteorite and gets attacked by the slimy, gelatinous entity.

Despite its predictable plot and some hamfisted B-movie acting, The Blob's built-in schlockiness saves it, as do its cool, visceral blob effects. The two go hand-in hand. For example, I laughed more than I got scared during the scene when Steve sees the doctor being attacked by the blob through the window. But that's okay: The Blob is a film that needn't be scary to be pleasurable. In some ways, the film does credit to fans of the monster movie genre by faithfully honoring its conventions and keeping the pace brisk.

God help me, the first time I saw this well-made scene I laughed at poor Dr. Hallen's violent death. 

McQueen is a treat to watch, as is Earl Rowe as Lieutenant Dave, the one cop on the local police force who takes Steve seriously and believes his claims about the monster before anyone else (besides Jane) does.

The Blob may not be a first-ranker as far as monster movies go -- it is no King Kong or Gojira or Them! nor does it have the frightening, paranoid power of Don Siegel's brilliant Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956). But it is great fun for its unintentionally campy performances and its cleverly executed (if cheap-looking) effects. The Blob is scrappy, low-budget, schlock-horror cinema at its finest.

Sadly, Universal's The Wolf Man does not hold up quite so well, in part because it is tonally darker, taking itself more seriously than The Blob does. The Wolf Man is hard to laugh at yet isn't as scary or compelling as its studio cousins Dracula, Frankenstein (both 1931), or The Mummy (1932). In the end, despite my general love and admiration for the 1930s Universal horror film cycle, I enjoyed Universal's The Wolf Man quite a bit less than I do those other Universal films or The Blob.

Lon Chaney Jr. is The Wolf Man's star and its weakest link. Unfortunately for him and Universal Studios, leaving the "Jr." off of his screen credit does not grant him the substantial talent and acting chops of his late father.  

The Wolf Man's major problems boil down to its combination of

(1) Predictable, boilerplate plot elements you can see coming from miles away,

and, even more devastating,

(2) The lackluster lead performance of Lon Chaney, Jr. as Larry / The Wolf Man.

It is easiest to talk about these two elements together.

In the opening shot of The Wolf Man, an encyclopedia entry on lycanthropy mentions Talbot Castle as a site of ongoing werewolf occurrences, then seconds later Larry shows up at -- you guessed it -- Talbot Castle. Badly written expository dialogue between Larry and his father (Claude Rains) follows.

It's not that I expect innovative plotting in horror genre fare like this -- it's just that if the plot and dialogue are going to be so canned, then the film needs either really good actors (like, say, Rains, who plays Larry's father Sir John Talbot) or terribly bad or stiff ones so you can laugh at them.* Chaney Jr. is just good enough to be mediocre but not bad enough to be hilarious. He's not colossally bad, especially when playing the Wolf Man, i. e., Larry in werewolf form. But as Larry, he comes off as the kind of one-dimensional, good-ol' American gladhander we usually see Chaney's Wolf Man costar Ralph Bellamy play in films like His Girl Friday or Rock Hudson play knowingly and parodically in Pillow Talk. One has the feeling that Chaney Jr. is not in on the joke here. Rather, his limited acting chops make his Larry unintentionally buffoonish.

To take a contrasting example, Bela Lugosi surely lacks range as an actor -- his portentious mugging as The Wolf Man's gypsy fortune-teller Bela is essentially the same schtick he used to play Count Dracula in 1931 -- but at least he works quite well in the (small) role he is given.

The same cannot be said of Chaney, Jr., who is simply not up to the task of carrying a genre film like this on his hulking shoulders. I should be able to feel more pathos for Larry as the terrible, supernatural disease of lycanthropy afflicts him -- instead, I root for the boring townspeople who want him dead. He comes off especially flat next to nuanced performers like Rains and Maria Ouspenskaya, who plays the gypsy woman Maleva and who steals every scene she's in.

Remember how I mentioned Universal's Frankenstein and The Mummy earlier? The main point of connection between those two films is star Boris Karloff, a world-class film actor who brings that special something -- screen presence, gravitas, charisma -- to every role he plays. Sure, one could argue that Frankenstein, at least, has a slightly better script than most of the Universal films that followed it, and that it benefits from the "freshness factor," being only the second film of the Universal horror cycle after Dracula. Furthermore, both Frankenstein and The Mummy also benefit from the abilities and inventiveness of their respective directors, James Whale and Karl Freund.

Yet the point I'm making here is that good stars make a big difference, especially in genre movies, where other elements are often (by design) formulaic. Even in the present day, there is a reason Tom Cruise action movies tend to perform well, and why big-budget blockbusters that eschew stars often face grim prospects. While I enjoy many of the Universal horror films of the 1930s and early '40s, the cycle's best entries are the ones with really charismatic and talented star actors: Karloff in Frankenstein and The Mummy, Karloff and Charles Laughton in The Old, Dark House (1932), and Claude Rains in The Invisible Man (1933).

So consider skipping The Wolf Man in favor of any of these other, better Universal horror films. Or watch it as an historical curiosity, as an example of what happens when a studio tries in vain to substitute one Chaney for another.

The great Boris Karloff as Imhotep in Karl Freund's The Mummy

* Rains also plays the title role in Universal's excellent The Invisible Man (1933), the nurturing psychiatrist who brings Bette Davis out of her shell in Now, Voyager (1942), and of course the evil yet ultimately pathetic villain in Hitchcock's Notorious (1946).

Saturday, July 30, 2016

Review: Chimes at Midnight (1966)

Jeanne Moreau and Orson Welles in Chimes at Midnight (aka Falstaff). 

I was very fortunate to get to see Orson Welles' late-career masterpiece Chimes at Midnight (a.k.a. Falstaff) at the Dryden Theater on Saturday July 9th. This great film has been hard to see in the United States until this recently restored version started touring select cities this year. Like many of the films Welles made post-1947, copyright issues and distribution problems have kept Chimes from ever getting a Region 1 (North American) DVD release. My hope is that this recently restored Janus Films version will change that.

Critical consensus places Chimes at Midnight high in the running for one of Welles' best films -- it's considered a top-tier Welles entry alongside his debut Citizen Kane (1941), his brutally truncated follow-up The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), and his brilliant film noir Touch of Evil (1958).* Calling Chimes "the story that [Welles] had to tell," Simon Callow writes that
Nothing stirred him, moved him or grieved him more, and he strove, over more than thirty years, to find the perfect form in which to tell that story, a form that could encompass both the personal and the universal. The circumstances in which he filmed were almost perversely difficult and yet for once everything, or nearly everything, worked in his favour. Heart and mind, form and content, casting and location, technology and manpower -- all meshed perfectly.** 
I agree with this assessment. Along with Kane and Touch of Evil, Chimes at Midnight is the Welles film that feels most complete, the most consistent and harmonious. Okay, sure, his Macbeth (1948) and The Trial (1962) are also quite consistent and unified, yet maybe not quite so impactful or heartfelt as Chimes is for me.

Despite its visual brilliance, Welles' Macbeth in particular reveals its low budget and difficult production circumstances in ways that, at times, feel claustrophobic and limiting -- for example, its over-use of vertiginous low-angle shots and extremely high-contrast lighting to make its single set feel more varied and cinematic.

Chimes, by contrast, benefits from its limited locations: the lively pub where Falstaff dwells, the barren halls of King Henry IV, the muddy battlefield, the woods where Hal tricks Falstaff. Chimes' world is only a degree or two more physically expansive than Macbeth's, but it makes all the difference. The world of Chimes is, like all of Welles' film-worlds, exaggerated and hyper-real, yet it is one of the most organic and lived-in film-worlds Welles has ever brought to the screen.

In sum, Chimes at Midnight is the most holistically satisfying and emotionally resonant Orson Welles film I've seen.

Furthermore, Falstaff is the role Welles was truly destined to play. Even more so than Citizen Kane or Touch of Evil or even Carol Reed's The Third Man, Chimes at Midnight shows off the pathos and power of Welles the actor. It is one of the few performances of Welles' in which I really believe the whole time that I am watching a character live his life onscreen, rather than watching Welles winkingly portray a character onscreen.† Falstaff is probably my favorite Welles performance, tied with The Third Man's Harry Lime and besting Charles Foster Kane and even (personal fave) Hank Quinlan in Touch of Evil.

While the entire cast of Chimes (including Welles) is superb, Shakespearian stalwart John Gielgud is a complete standout here. He essentially steals every scene he is in, which is appropriate given that he plays the King. He is also one of the few characters in the film who delivers his Shakespearian dialogue in a measured, formal way -- this allows his speeches to really land, because the viewer can comprehend and take in everything he says. Callow says that "Gielgud inhabits the part with a seething inner energy, extraordinary emotional intensity and a flawless command of the King's volatility; it was -- of all people -- Lee Strasberg who said that when he saw Gielgud acting, he heard Shakespeare think" (One Man Band p. 384).

The brilliant John Gielgud as King Henry IV. 

Perhaps it goes without saying that one should have at least a passing interest in Shakespeare to really enjoy and absorb what makes Chimes at Midnight so great. Welles and most of his cast, Gielgud excepted, tend to speak their lines quickly and naturalistically, so some of the intricacies of the language can be hard to catch, especially on a first viewing. Yet that hardly matters. As with much Shakespeare, one can let the words wash over oneself and simply enjoy the rhythm and the poetry of the lines, deriving the meaning from the context, which isn't hard to do.

Chimes' real draw is its brilliant shooting and blocking and use of settings, perhaps particularly in its knockout battle sequence, which must be seen to be believed. This is Welles in top form, and no small detail goes unnoticed. In Chimes -- a film Welles completed to his satisfaction -- each shot lends something important and resonant to the whole.

The steam cloud emitting from this man's helmet is one of the best visual gags 
in Chimes at Midnight

Callow concludes that the process of filming Chimes brought out the very best in Welles, justifying his inspired, seat-of-the-pants directorial methods. As Callow writes,
This is what Welles adored: the gallant, the democratic, the all-in-it together, the romantic way, which he had tried to create in the theatre (with sometimes inspired results) and hoped to be able to bring to film-making, a medium which, because of the large sums of money involved, almost immediately lost its playfulness, its innocence. The idea of innocence is at the heart of Chimes at Midnight, and innocence is what Welles was trying to restore to the process of making movies. For that to happen, everyone had to go along with it, willingly endorsing his assumption of the role of the crazy captain of a mad enterprise. (One Man Band p, 389) 
This is precisely what happened on the set of Chimes: nearly everyone, by all accounts, embraced the process, putting Welles at ease and turning the finished film into something vibrant, alive, and special.
With his strong musical instinct, Welles rearranges the [original Shakespeare] text into an endlessly varying pattern of ensembles, arias, duets, trios and quartets, which form a through-composed whole. It is also quintessentially filmic, never still, ever-moving, breathing, changing direction. (One Man Band p. 384)
Indeed. If you have an interest in (or at least a tolerance of) Shakespeare and/or any interest at all in Orson Welles, you simply must see Chimes at Midnight.

Bonus Afterthought: The very day after I saw Chimes at the Dryden, my girlfriend and I headed north to the Stratford Festival in Stratford, Ontario to see Breath of Kings, a six-hour, two-part theatrical adaptation of four Shakespeare history plays: Richard II, Part One of Henry IV, Part Two of Henry IV, and Henry V. These are the same plays that form the basis for Welles' Chimes, so it was quite a head trip to see two very different versions of similar source material in the space of twenty four hours. The two halves of Breath of Kings -- which we saw in one day, with supper in between -- were really superb.

Seeing these plays abridged and smooshed all together in this form made me realize what an imperialist dickhead Shakespeare's Henry V is. It also lent credence to Callow's claim that
Henry IV is, line for line and scene for scene, is one of the greatest of Shakepearian roles, but it is rarely attempted by a great actor because the King disappears from the play for long sections of the action; this is to be regretted (p. 384)
As performed by lead actor (and Breath of Kings script adapter) Graham Abbey, the Stratford Festival production lives up to Callow's expectation of greatness. In Breath of Kings, the initially heroic, subsequently conflicted, and ultimately morose Henry IV is much more interesting and complex than the brave, wide-eyed Henry V. Maybe, as Welles' film seems to argue, Hal is only interesting when he's slumming it with Falstaff.

In the end, seeing these two so similar yet so different versions of the Henry IV plays was an enormous treat and was very interesting. My memory of Chimes was quite fresh as I watched similar scenes played in front of me on the Stratford stage.†† Comparisons arose. For example, I liked Welles's version of the eulogizing of Falstaff much better than the play's, but I liked Breath of Kings' physicalizing of King Henry IV's wounds -- Chimes' Gielgud seems physically frail but Breath of Kings' Graham Abbey used double-canes and, by the end, could barely walk. He crawls painfully to his litter and is carried offstage to die. Great stuff!

* I have a hard time watching Ambersons -- it is a film in which, for me, the "could have beens" haunt the extant text too much. Oddly, I don't have that problem with the similarly butchered The Lady From Shanghai (1947), whose original soundtrack was replaced with a schmaltzy love theme over Welles' objections and whose climactic funhouse sequence was severely shortened by the studio. Maybe it's because it is a film noir that the weird shifts in tone and extremely repetitious love theme work okay for me in this case.
** Callow, One Man Band (Jonathan Cape, 2015) p. 379.
† There is, of course, much ribald winking and tomfoolery in Chimes, attributable to Falstaff and friends. But none of it feels like Welles peeking through and commenting on the character while he's playing him. In Chimes, for once, he just is the character he's playing.
†† For aficionados, Breath of Kings was performed in the round, a new innovation this year at the Stratford Festival's Tom Patterson Theater.