Thursday, February 26, 2009

The Tragedy of Jules and Jim

Jules and Jim was an entirely new film experience for me in a lot of ways. The style Truffaut used in making it was one that’s not seen very often in American film to my knowledge. It was a lot like what I’d imagine real-life to be if you tried to go back and relive your life through memories—
some parts seem ideal and unrealistic, others are marred by images seen on film or TV, some pass slowly and blissfully, while much of life is a hurried blur. But the core of all these memories is the people that were most important to you and the complex relationships you formed along the way.

Jules and Jim were the best of friends, and even when their lives were entirely interrupted by the crazy, whimsical, free spirit Catherine, their ties remained close and loving. Characters like Catherine are seen a lot in movies, but I’ve never seen one draw two people in so close and then destroy them both the way she did. Catherine seemed so free and independent all throughout the movie, but her unwillingness to let Jim marry another woman and move on proved that she had grown as dependent on the two men as they had on her. Once I realized that when she pulled a gun on Jim, I wasn’t surprised at all that she killed them both in the end just to prove she was still in control. What shocked me was that she didn’t kill Jules too, because although they weren’t still lovers in the end, they still had rather close ties that couldn’t be shaken off. I guess she was at least a good enough mother to spare his life for the sake of their daughter, even if she was radical and uncaring towards everything else in life.

What really got be about this movie was the way poor Jim kept going back to Catherine even though he knew it would never work and that she was completely unstable. I’m not sure that it was really her that made him do it each time, but rather it was the hope he had for those ideal moments they all shared to be relieved just once more. I guess no one ever told him that things are rarely as good as you remember them to be. It’s like when you love a TV show as a kid, but then watch reruns later and it just seems dumb to you then. All your fun memories of it are tarnished by the new realization that it just wasn’t that funny. What broke my heart most about the sad ending of this movie was thinking about Jules having to live without either of his close friends. Not only will he miss them being around, but after seeing Catherine drive them off a bridge, how will even be able to think of them the same way again? All of those wonderful memories the three of them shared will be ruined by the thought that Catherine was really crazy enough to kill them all along. At least for me that would be the case; an image that horrifying would undoubtedly be burned in my memory forever.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Maybe Darkness Isn't So Cool

In our tour of film noir last week, the movie Double Indemnity showed us a new side to cool— darkness. Darkness of course is the overriding theme of all noir movies, but I’m not sure how “cool” it actually is. Darkness seems to imply a lot of typically “uncool” ideas such as crime, lies, and shadowy pasts. And that’s exactly how all of the characters in Double Indemnity were too. There were a couple of movies that came to mind while we were watching it last week, and the characters in those movies followed those same ideas of darkness.

The first movie that Double Indemnity reminded me of was a remake of a Hitchcock’s film Dial M for Murder which I’ve never seen all the way through, but seems to have a very noir tone. The remake came out about ten years ago, and it’s called A Perfect Murder. In this movie everyone is always backstabbing someone else, much as the Neff and Phyllis were. In A Perfect Murder, Gwyneth Paltrow’s character is having an affair with an artist played by Viggo Mortensen. Of course the two secret lovers want to be able to live together in peace though, so rather than a divorce they plan to kill her husband. The plot can’t be that simple though because the husband is greedy fellow worth millions who suspects his wife’s plan and wants to kill her and her lover in return. As you can see, in this movie no one is innocent, no one is trying to do what’s right, and in my opinion, no one is cool. What’s cool about movies such as this are the intricate plots people actually construct to meet their needs— the plots are evil and wrong, but they require so much work and attention to detail that you can’t help but admire them. Much like Keyes in Double Indemnity, the only cool part to either movie was the competency showed by certain characters when it came to getting a job done.

A pretty recent gangster movie called A History of Violence was the other movie Double Indemnity reminded me of. In my opinion, A History of Violence is a pretty good example of film noir in a lot of ways. Although the film is in color, it is still very dark because there is nothing bright, shiny, or happy about the way the colors were shot. It always seems cloudy and gloomy in this small Indiana town it’s set in. Another aspect of noir this film depicts is the idea that no one is ever who they seem to be. The main character, Tom Stall, also played by Viggo Mortensen, is anything but the easy-going restaurant owner his family thinks he is. He actually fled a life of crime and violence in Philadelphia to assume a new identity, but he didn’t even share his past with his wife and kids. So when he kills the men who try to rob his cafĂ© and becomes a national hero, he also says goodbye to his new life when the mob comes to find the man he used to be. This movie is full of the darkness we saw with characters in Double Indemnity because once the truth comes out, Tom’s family falls apart, and murder becomes the center of his life. So much like his dark counterparts in Double Indemnity, Tom Stall’s life is ruined and many around him died because of the supposed coolness surrounding his dark lifestyle.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Noir: Not All It's Cracked Up To Be

Prior to watching Double Indemnity, I had no idea what film noir even was. After watching the movie, I’m not sure I see the full appeal of the noir movement. I enjoyed the movie and liked certain aspects of it, but for me it lacked the creativity and depth to keep me on the edge of my seat. It’s definitely not something I’ll rush to see again although I completely understand why it was such a revolutionary film type when it first emerged.

My favorite part of the film was the way it was actually shot. The darkness and shadows gave it a gritty, creepy feeling that I liked. I also really enjoy the flashback sequences we saw the plot through. Although it gives away most of the ending first, it is a unique technique that isn’t seen often enough. Other than the filming style though, I didn’t such much about noir that appeals to me. I like movies with deep plots that slowly unravel and keep you guessing—this was not one of those films. From the start it was apparent that all of the characters were crooked and it was soon apparent who was going to try to kill who. There honestly wasn’t a single point in the film when I was wondering what would happen next. The fem fatal was another critical part of noir that I did not find appealing. Phyllis was just annoying to me. She was transparent with her intent towards all the men around her, and although she was an independent figure, she seemed incapable of reaching her desires without dragging someone else down.

The one part of the movie I really did like, in fact that the only part of it that kept me interested, was Keyes. His character was the only one that showed true competence and personality; he wasn’t just another bad guy. Keyes was an expert detective even though insurance was his true business, and he was the only character with wit enough to realize the schemes of those around him. Keyes was the only “cool” in this film in my opinion. He redeemed the overly simple plot line and kept the story interesting. I’m not saying that Keyes was innocent or an entirely upstanding man, but he was the one man who stood out amongst his fellow characters. He wasn’t acting out of desire for money or power; he was seeking truth because he didn’t like people trying to outsmart the system he had spent his life working with. That’s what makes Keyes worth while for me; I admire anyone who is willing to fight for something the way he fought to solve the mystery surrounding murder of Phyllis’ husband.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Childlike Imitation

In last week’s movie, Play It Again, Sam, Woody Allen aspired to be as cool, classy, and suave as Humphrey Bogart was in Casablanca, but it just wasn’t working for him. In the end he was still the same nerdy little man he was to start with, however, he did learn that it wasn’t necessary to imitate someone else’s cool because somewhere in all of us is our own potential for cool. What he really reminded me of was a little kid who lacked to the maturity to realize such a thing without torturing himself in the process of self-discovery. As I was watching the movie a couple of examples of this came to my mind, one from a great Disney/Pixar movie, and the other from a popular country song.

In the 2004 movie The Incredibles, there’s a little boy named Buddy who is absolutely obsessed with Mr. Incredible. He follows him around the city as he saves people trying to a faithful sidekick in hopes of becoming just as cool and heroic as the superhero is. Buddy efforts at imitation fail miserably though and he turns to other methods to gain power and get revenge as the all-mighty Syndrome. Aside from his evil plots to kill the superheroes, the way Buddy mimics Mr. Incredible’s every move is a lot like what we saw with Woody Allen. Buddy was desperate to be cool and thought he could achieve it by acting like someone he was not. In fact, both Buddy and Woody Allen were pretty much the polar opposites of what most people would consider cool, but maybe they should get some props for trying so incredibly hard.
The other example of “cool imitation” that came to mind for me was a country song called “Watching You” by Rodney Atkins. I know some may consider me un-cool for listening to country, but it’s actually a pretty cute song if you listen to the words. It’s a song about a little boy who wants to be just like his dad. Just as most young boys do, he wants to be just as strong as his dad, dress like him, and copy everything he says and does. That sounds a lot like Woody Allen’s idolization of Humphrey Bogart to me. Woody used all of Bogart’s lines and moves hoping they’d work as well for him. Similarly, the boy in the song idolized his dad and thought he was the coolest man alive so he imitated everything he saw his dad do hoping he could grow up to be just like him. Something tells me the boy’s endeavor to imitate his dad’s cool would work a little better than Woody Allen’s methods.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

James Hetfield: A Cool Icon

Over the years, I’ve idolized many people and thought that they were the ultimate definitions of cool. When I was really young that person was my older brother, when I was around nine or ten it was any given Backstreet Boy, and then a couple of years later my idol became James Hetfield of Metallica. Granted, I’ve never thought any of these guys were quite as cool as Woody Allen apparently thought Bogart was— I never have hallucinations involving them or carried on complete conversations with them like they were right next to me when in fact they weren’t.

I suppose James Hetfield would still be the ultimate cool for me. I first discovered him when my brother brought home Metallica’s seventh cd, ReLoad, in 1997. It was instant love for me; all Backstreet Boys cds went out the window and were soon replaced by a complete collection of Metallica albums which I’ve cherished ever since. I loved the powerful lyrics Hetfield wrote, the amazing guitar, and I loved the passion he put into his live performances. When my family drove out to Denver, CO for my brother and I to attend our first Metallica concert I was in 8th grade and I thought I had died and gone to heaven. I was in awe the entire night because James Hetfield was the single coolest person alive and I was standing less than 200 feet from him.

Outside the schoolgirl obsession with this rather rough and tumble looking metal star, I realized that Hetfield had a lot of merit as a “real” person too, not just as a star. He had a hard life growing up in a strict religious environment that isolated him from the world, he lost his mom at a young age to cancer because she refused treatment, and after leaving home to pursue music his father refused to acknowledge his existence for a time. For me the fact that he overcame such a childhood was incredible because my family is a huge part of my life. He was also a cool idol for me because of what he did after gaining such fame. At first alcohol ruined his life and almost killed him, but after getting married and starting a family he changed completely. He made the band switch from “Alcoholica” to a truly respectable group of men. Whereas most rock bands never mature past the sex, drugs, and rock and roll of their younger years, Hetfield lead his band of family men on to even greater heights. That spoke wonders to me and made me respect this man for more than just his brilliant lyrics and music.

So while Metallica’s frontman isn’t actually a voice in my head that I confide in often, he has had an impact on my life that I can never forget. And in fact his lyrics do pop into my head at random times to provide insight about situations or information I’m mulling over. He doesn’t walk down the street talking to me as Bogart did for Woody Allen, but he is a childhood idol that still has great significance for me. His music and his life story have always inspired me, and Metallica will always hold a special place in my heart, mind, and iTunes library.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Cool Sacrifice

This weekend I watched the movie John Q for the first time. I’ve always heard that it’s a really great movie, but it’s one of those I just never thought to rent. Thankfully it was on TV this weekend, and I put off my homework long enough to watch it. And I must say, it was well worth my time. Denzel Washington is an amazing actor, and that movie really showcased his abilities. The reason I’m bringing it up now, though, is that Denzel’s role as John Q Archibald is a definite example of the “cool sacrifice” we discussed in class last week. In Casablanca, Humphrey Bogart’s character showed people not only how cool he could be as a tough guy, but also how cool he could be when making the toughest sacrifice of his entire life. He gave up the woman he loved and watched her walk away, knowing he’d never see her again. In John Q, Denzel Washington’s character is faced with the death of his only son because he can’t afford to pay for the heart transplant the boy needs. In order to save his son he holds the patients and doctors at the hospital hostage. So not only is he cool for being 100% devoted to his son and willing to face prison for him, but he was also willing to die. John put a loaded gun to his head and was more than willing to take his own life to give his son the heart he needed. That’s a truly cool dad in my opinion. He put his life and freedom on the line because he loved his little boy and wanted to give him a chance at a full life, and at the same time he was taking a stand for those everywhere who can’t afford healthcare when they really need it most.

Another example of this cool sacrifice comes from Bruce Willis. He, like Humphrey Bogart, has that rough exterior that makes him come off as the classic cool tough guy. That was the role he played in his action packed movie Armageddon. At first he wanted to act cool and distant towards his daughter’s boyfriend— the same emotional detachment Humphrey Bogart tried to show in Casablanca. In the end though, when the world was about to be destroyed by a asteroid, he makes the ultimate sacrifice to save Earth and ensure his daughter’s happiness. Rather than letting Ben Affleck’s character die to save the planet by staying behind to blow up the asteroid, Bruce Willis trades places with him. He gave his own life not just to complete the mission and save Earth, but to save the life of the man his daughter loved. All he wanted was to see his girl happy, and he knew that she would never be truly happy if the love of her life was dead. So much as Humphrey Bogart let his love walk away and John Q was willing to sacrifice himself, Bruce Willis did the ultimate in cool by giving his own life for the betterment of others.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Here's looking at you, Rick

I’ve always heard what a legendary and wonderful movie Casablanca was, so when I saw it for the first time, my expectations of it were rather high. And I must say that I was not disappointed. The storyline was intriguing, but the characters struck me more than anything. They all had so many layers to their pasts and personalities that it kept me always wondering what they would do next. Of course the most fascinating of these characters is the lead man, Humphrey Bogart as Rick Blaine.

At first glance Rick seems like a rock— he’s hardened towards almost everyone and everything. The only functional relationships in his life are with his employees such as Sam. So in the first portion of the movie I was thinking that he was just that kind of man by nature, the typical stoic male character who won’t even act human enough to have a drink with his customers. In this part of the movie the audience begins to see the parallels the writers were making between Rick and America. During the beginning of WWII the US was practicing isolationism. The US was there for support is someone really needed us, but as a general rule we weren’t getting involved with anyone or anything. It was perhaps because we were able to stand on our own so well that the rest of the world saw the US as a symbol of hope. People were flocking to us for a new home, safe from the German’s reach, and Rick was the exact same way. He was isolating himself from the world outside of his saloon, but at the same time his saloon brought hope and happiness to those trying to escape the war and the bleakness of Casablanca. It doesn’t take long for Rick’s whole world to be shaken though, and that’s when his character became the most interesting to me.

When Ilsa Lund arrives in Casablanca, Rick’s whole world changes. It was exciting to watch the transformations he underwent as his whole shadowy past came rolling back in to catch him off guard. Suddenly this tough guy had emotions, and we knew he really did care about the world. He began acting more human and actually having contact with the world around him because Ilso stirred up the emotions he had been hiding inside for so long. I think Rick would have ended up a lot like Victor Laszlo if Isla hadn’t broken his heart and made him untrusting of the world. In his earlier life he apparently was quite the risk-taker, sticking his neck out for everyone he thought needed his help. And had things worked out differently with Ilsa in Paris, Rick might have become the world renowned hero that Victor was when he came to Casablanca. Instead, Ilsa returned to her husband and left Rick to wallow in his own misery. He took Sam and left for Africa, never to return to the outside world or even care about it again. It seemed like such a waste for someone with such potential and passion to end up running a saloon and letting officers cheat at roulette every night. And it wasn’t until Ilsa returned that the audience saw any glimmer of that other person Rick had been. She brought back his haunting past and made him face the world again. And while Ilsa still loved him dearly and was leaving to her husband to be with him forever, Rick had returned to old self somehow and knew he couldn’t let her do that.

There a million and one possible explanations for why Rick made the love of his life walk away at the end of the movie, but I prefer to think that it was because he had gotten his spark back. He knew they both had other callings and so they would have to be content with their memories of Paris. Glimpses of that attitude had been peaking out throughout the latter part of the movie— letting the young couple win at roulette to buy their way to America, raising Sam’s wages when he was planning to leave, paying his staff even when the saloon was closed down, etc. All of those small deeds lead me to believe that Rick’s passion for helping the underdogs in need had returned, and that belief was confirmed at the end of the movie when Rick told Captain Renault that “this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.” Rick was back in action and ready to take on the world again.

Monday, February 2, 2009

The "Bad Guys" of Cool

In last week’s movie, The Public Enemy, we attempted to dissect what made James Cagney’s character, Tom Powers, cool despite his crimes and eminent self-destruction. Almost everyone accept Tom’s overly affectionate mother knew that he was a delinquent from the time he was a young boy, yet most people couldn’t help but like him and admire his charm and style. Tom was a lot like James Dean in the respect that he was so casual and walked with such ease and swagger all the time that people’s heads automatically turned when he walked by. As a child, his situation at home made Tom become the smooth, collected man we saw in the movie. His father was a law officer who was emotionally detached from the family and his mother lived in a fantasy world where everything was joyous and her children never made mistakes. From that background came the dissident figure of Tom Powers, and while it made him unique among the other characters in the movie, he is not entirely unique as a “cool” icon.

I’ve never watched many gangster movies, although I’ve been told I’m missing out on a huge chunk of American culture by not watching The Godfather. But despite my failures in that respect, from the few I have seen such as Eastern Promises, Tom was pretty much your typical gangster. He was rebellious and heartless when it came to getting the job done, but both the audience and the characters around him were drawn to him. Another, rather obscure, example of that type of cool is a character named Frank Roberts from Sean Penn’s movie The Indian Runner, which is loosely based on Bruce Springsteen’s song “Highway Patrolman.” Frank was much like Tom in that he was always in trouble, but his brother (a law officer much like Tom’s father in The Public Enemy) and those around him couldn’t help but love him just because of his magnetic personality. These men somehow manage to make people look past their crimes against society and see only their compelling smiles and charm.

On a different note though, another character that reminds me of Tom Powers’ cool is the Joker from The Dark Knight. While the Joker is slightly more insane than Tom, the two have a lot in common. Their scared backgrounds have lead them into lives of crime and misery that should have driven everyone away from them, but it hasn’t. Heath Ledger’s version of the Joker has been an icon in pop culture since that movie came out last summer even though he is one of the most horrific “bad guys” ever created. Why? Because he’s so cool that he can murder countless people and never even flinch— he’s about as detached and dissident as cool can possibly be. The Joker doesn’t have the winning personality of Tom Powers going for him, but he is a magnet for attention. Both characters seem to initiate chaos and destruction to get the recognition they would be lacking otherwise.

There are also a few television characters who strikingly reminded me of Tom Powers and his detached, laid back form of cool criminality. One would be the infamous Dr. Gregory House from the USA Network’s show House. While Dr. House is not a hardened criminal like Tom Powers, he does not like to follow proper protocol in his practice, and he does commit numerous social crimes every time he opens his mouth. Dr. House is quite possibly more nonchalant than Tom ever thought of being, because while Tom tries to make people like him, House just doesn’t care who he offends. So the two men display different but extreme versions of the dissident cool we talked about in class. Another example that came to mind from TV was the infamous Roman Grant from the HBO drama Big Love. Roman certainly doesn’t have the good looks that Tom had going for him, but he’s just as much of a burden on those around him. Roman is the “prophet” for a Mormon compound that practices polygamy. While his family loves him and those around him practically worship him, Roman is a dirty businessman who will do anything to get his way. He has a coarse personality and would do almost anything to ruin the life of the show’s main character Bill Henrickson, even though Bill is married to Roman’s own daughter. So much like Tom Powers, Roman doesn’t care for many of those around him, but those people love and admire him anyway. So in his own way Roman is just as cool as Tom. He’s a horrible person, but most of those around him think he hung the moon, and that makes him the ultimate “cool” to those people.