Thursday, February 26, 2009

Manic? Yes. Pixie Dream Girl? Maybe.

I don't know if I should admit this, but I was kind of surprised by how much I enjoyed Jules and Jim. By now, the love triangle plot is nothing new to me, but this film somehow still managed to come off as an original creation. Stylistically, it was different than anything I've ever seen before, and the story and characters were very compelling. Catherine especially brought the entire film together; like her or not, she made the movie.

The movie is called Jules and Jim, but I think we can all agree that the central character is Catherine. She is like the sun for both title characters; it is almost as if she is a celestial body with an insane gravitational pull that draws people into her orbit. Sometimes they are close and sometimes they are farther away, but Jules and Jim both always manage to revolve around Catherine. What quality does Catherine possess that makes her so appealing to men like Jules, Jim, and even Albert? Jules sort of explains things when he says to Jim of Catherine, "To be frank with you she's not especially beautiful, intelligent, nor sincere, but she's a real woman and she is the woman we love and all men desire..."

Jules' explanation is still rather vague, but I think that he's trying to say that Catherine has an inexplicable quality that draws people to her. Throughout the film there are scenes where Jules, Jim, and Catherine seem to be in perfect harmony and unity with one another. These moments are usually spontaneous, like when they are racing across the bridge and when they are wandering through the woods during their vacation to the sea. Is Catherine the secret ingredient to the best memories that Jules and Jim have? They both certainly seem to think so, and they quickly grow to rely on her for happiness as she relies on them for affirmation and attention.

In some ways Catherine is an archetypal Manic Pixie Dream Girl character, but in many ways she's pretty unique. Catherine traipses through life existing by her own bizarre moral code, living out whims that change with the wind. She does not exist within the bounds of reality but takes and leaves lovers and relationships based purely on feelings with very little logic, making her the most romantic character I've seen in a long time. Jim and Jules are both slightly more stable characters, but it is as if being around Catherine causes them to abandon logic and reason as well. One example of this type of behavior is Jim's longstanding relationship to a woman called Gilberte, who is the exact opposite of Catherine: stable, loyal, and a little dull. He loves Gilberte, but whenever Catherine gives him the slightest favor of her love, he abandons poor Gilberte to bask in Catherine's ethereal glow. In the end, this draw is fatal for Jim. Catherine drives both of them off of a bridge without any warning or second thought, apparently intent on doing things her way to the very end. Catherine may be one of the craziest women this side of the Seine, but the movie could not have been the same without the ending that she and Jim met.

I can definitely chalk Jules and Jim up as another major win for French cinema. Romantic, unique, and oddly optimistic, this movie is one of my new favorites that we've watched thus far.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

A Strange Fascination

When we watched Double Indemnity on Wednesday, I couldn't help but hope that Phyllis Dietrichson and Walter Neff would get away with their crime. It was so well thought-out, so well planned that I wanted to see them succeed. That got me thinking about instances of other movies and television shows that deal with elaborate criminal schemes and elements of noir. I noticed that there are many, many shows and movies that are about true crime or are based on it.

One of the more recent movies that comes to mind is Zodiac, Hollywood's latest incarnation of the tale of the Zodiac killer. Though the film focuses more on the lives and careers of two men who obsessively hunt the serial killer over several years, the draw for me (and I assume most people) wasn't Robert Graysmith and Paul Avery. No, it was the idea of the Zodiac killer himself, a man who terrorized California for years and to this day remains unidentified. There have been dozens of television specials, movies, and books based on this sociopath, and I have no doubt that there are dozens more to come. There is something inherently fascinating about our culture's ambivalence toward cases such as the Zodiac. Obviously no one is rooting for the serial killer, but subconsciously I think there is a certain draw to the tale that would not be there if his identity were known. This is indicative of a darkness in all of us; there is something inexplicably intriguing about the deep-running taboo of cold-blooded murder.

Interestingly enough, noir during the 1940s and 50s was not only found in movies. Dark themes of violence and horror stories were also found in the entertainment medium of the comic book. Since the 1980s, comic noir has once again resurfaced, and this time looks like it is here to stay. One specific example of darkness in comics has recently been generating quite a bit of hype due to its upcoming film adaptation. I am talking about Watchmen, DC Comics 1980s series that is set in a gritty alternate reality where superheroes are not so super. Watchmen, from what I gather so far (I'm about halfway through the graphic novel) makes the point that superheroes are not always a good idea. Most of the characters have pretty major flaws and oftentimes use their status for personal gain. Characters like Edward Blake and Rorschach express a kind of gritty realism that shows us that the idea of the superhero is unrealistic and ultimately deeply flawed. Like in film noir, moral ambiguity surrounds all of the characters and keeps us from the delusion that there are supermen who can save the world. Depressing? Maybe, but knowing that the world is probably ultimately better off with plain old humans is kind of cool.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

And He Would Have Gotten Away With It, Too . . .

Minor chords, murder, characters with questionable morals--I have to admit that I really enjoy film noir. This is the first time that I've seen Double Indemnity, but after reading Paul Schafer's essay and watching a good deal of similar movies, I felt like I knew what to expect. Sure enough, Double Indemnity was a very cynical, gritty, corrupt look at life. Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray are two of my favorite actors from the 1940s, the writing and storyline were both intriguing, and stylistically the movie was shot very well. As much as I enjoyed the film, though, I really don't know if I could call any of the characters cool. At the beginning of the movie, they all had coolness potential, but in the end I can't say that I thought they pulled it off.

Now, don't get me wrong, they are good characters. Barbara Stanwyck as Phyllis Dietrichson was an excellent femme fatale, and was kind of refreshing after all of the lovely sweet leading ladies in some of our previous movies. Fred MacMurray's portrayal of Walter Neff, the insurance man who takes the plunge and crosses over to the dark(er) side is pretty spot on as far as dashing villians go. The character of Barton Keyes was definitely the icing on top of the arsenic-spiked cake; he may not have been bad, but he most certainly was not the picture of just goodness that may have been found outside of the noir genre. Put all together, these three characters, along with the supporting cast, make for a pretty nasty situation.

From the beginning of the story right around until Phyllis and Walter start falling apart, Walter Neff is kind of cool. He had always considered different ways to play the system, and I think that meeting Phyllis Dietrichson really just gave him an excuse to test his skills at getting away with, well, murder. I found it interesting that it was Neff instead of the femme fatale to suggest actually going through with the murder, and I found it interesting that he took it one step further to get paid double the claim. As someone who watches movies like this and always spends the entire film finding ways that they could have gotten away with it, I rather enjoyed Neff's plotting, conniving mindset. However, he didn't pull the murder off, when I was really hoping that he would. Like Jerry mentioned in class, he would have been much cooler if he had gotten away with murder.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

That's What She Said--Imitating Cool

When I gave a long and hard eight seconds of thought (I feel that it shouldn't have been that easy; I watch way too much t.v.) to what examples of imitating cool there were in popular culture, one particular person immediately jumped to mind. This guy has Allan Felix beat in the looks and perhaps the mental stability department, but that's about it. I know I stated previously that cool is mainly about the attitude, but this character may be the exception. Although he thinks he is very well-liked and cool, he often proves to be burdensome and obnoxious. He believes himself to be exceptionally smart, but in reality he's just not that bright. I am, of course, talking about The Office's Michael Scott, who is played by Steve Carell (incidentally, a pretty cool dude). Since the first season aired in 2005, Michael has been trying and failing to imitate all kinds of cool. From Chris Rock to Meryl Streep, Michael idolizes and mimics all sorts of celebrities, and each and every time he fails to emulate their brand of cool. Much like Allan, Michael never realizes that when he is being himself he is at his most likeable--I still think the word "cool" would be a stretch for this dude--and that in spite of his generally obnoxious behavior, he is still somehow endearing.

Another example of imitation cool that I thought of this weekend was the character of Eve Harrington from the 1950 Bette Davis film All About Eve. In the film, Davis plays Margo Channing, a Broadway superstar who is approaching middle age. Margo is approached by "her biggest fan" one night and, touched by the girl's story of acting aspirations, takes the young woman under her wing. Unbeknownst to Margo, her fan Eve is out to become her biggest rival not only for fame and admiration but for her family and friends. Throughout the movie, Eve attempts to replace Margo by practically becoming her: she becomes Margo's understudy and steals a major performance and she attempts to seduce Margo's longtime director and lover. Eve eventually succeeds in becoming a Broadway star by ruthlessly using Margo Channing's connections and goodwill, though Margo manages to remain somewhat irreplacable.

Eve's imitation of cool is much, much different from that of Allan Felix or Michael Scott, but I still believe it to be one of the best examples I've come across. She imitates Margo Channing not because Margo is really her idol, but because Margo has the career and fame that she herself wants. She is not content to be cool alongside or after Margo like most other imitators of coolness, but instead wants to replace her. Eve even manages to become cool (at least to the public within the film, though the movie's audience sees her as cold and vicious) by the end of the movie, kind of at the expense of Margo Channing. All About Eve is an interesting example of the darker side of imitating cool, for Eve Harrington shows that imitation is not always the sincerest form of flattery, nor is it always innocent and well-intentioned.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

I have mixed feelings about this . . .

Unlike Woody Allen's character in Play It Again, Sam, I can't confess to having an incredibly distinct voice of cool helping me to operate smoothly on a day-to-day basis. In fact, I rather wish I did have something of the sort (even though Bogart didn't really make Allan Felix any cooler) because most of the time, I have a tendency to say and do painfully uncool things. On the rare occasions when I manage a witty remark or a suave mannerism, I like to think that it is somewhat original. However, while watching Woody Allen stumble around and make a general idiot out of himself I realized that I do tend to be a lot like Allan Felix, though perhaps not as neurotic, in that I way overanalyze everything and play out extensive scenarios in my head. This realization really made me consider just who is running the internal monologue that plays endlessly in my head. After consulting said voice, I realized that my "inner cool" seems to consist more of a cabinet of advisors rather than one specific person, like Allan's imaginary Humphrey Bogart.

Jerry Seinfeld is a pretty predominant presence in my head, as I've been a huge Seinfeld fan for most of my post-adolescent life. Jerry definitely relates to my slightly neurotic, kind of postmodern, self-obsessed side. Though during Woody Allen's heyday in the 1970s, being a neurotic Jew from New York City may not have been cool, Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David somehow managed to turn this characature into something hip. Since the rise of "the show about nothing", it is almost as if our culture is a little weirded out by normalcy ("What do you mean you don't have problems? What's wrong with you!?"). Nowadays one is seen as slightly quirky and interesting for having some form of social awkwardness and/or neurosis instead of being percieved as a little off.

Another regular commentator in my life is none other than my favorite animated character of all time, Daria Morgandorffer. For my entire high school career and on into college, more than one person has compared me to Miss Morgendorffer. To be honest, there's something in me that absolutely does not mind being likened to the dry, sarcastic, and acerbic character that Daria so well embodies. She may not be one of the cool kids, but she is most definitely cool (and I am not nearly so cool as she). I've always liked Daria and related to her because like me, she tends to sit back and watch the world around her; she is an observer and a commentator, rather than an active participant. I myself have never been much of a joiner, but unlike Allan Felix, I don't really have much of a desire to change my personality. I'm okay with not being the most popular person in the room or the life of the party. I'm fairly content with just being me, which is why I think Daria is the voice for my inner cool.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The Coolness of Sacrifice

I know that for most people a major theme in Casablanca is sacrificing love for the greater good, but I just don't know if I buy it. Does Rick really love Ilsa? Personally, I have to say that I don't think he does. I think that for Rick, he idealizes Ilsa as the embodiment of his past when he fought definitively on the side of good, before France fell to the Nazis, before the war got real. However cynical I may be about the subject of Rick and Ilsa's love, I do still believe that Rick makes some pretty big sacrifices.

Hayley pointed out in her blog that before Ilsa left him, Rick seemed poised to become the quintessential hero: before Casablanca, he's the guy who doesn't get his hands dirty, who always lives up to his ideals. Rick does not end up in this role, though. Instead, he ends up in Casablanca dealing with corrupt Vichy French officers and Nazis, breaking laws right and left, all the while maintaining a cool as a cucumber persona and helping his customers get to America. For me, it is this sacrifice that makes Rick so cool. Rick Blaine is not a conventional hero, but he is a hero nonetheless.

Strangely enough, this morally ambiguous type of heroism and sacrifice has become a major icon of coolness in pop culture, especially in the realm of superheroes. The biggest example of cool sacrifice we've seen recently in the movies has to be the Caped Crusader himself, Batman. The most recent incarnation of Gotham City's favorite vigilante is in Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight, which puts a dark and deeply existential spin on a classic superhero. By the end of the film, Batman is faced with taking the blame for all of the chaos in Gotham City caused by the actions of the Joker and later Harvey Dent. He has two choices: either let the citizens of Gotham know that their beloved face of justice (Dent) has become a villain, thereby destroying any hope for a better Gotham, or take the blame for everything gone wrong himself. Whether or not you have seen the film, I think you can guess which course of action Batman decides to take. He sacrifices his own potential for heroism and happiness for the greater good, much like Rick Blaine does when he lets Ilsa go.

Rick Blaine and Bruce Wayne may not have much else in common, but they are both prime examples of sacrificing things--women, reputation, maybe even life--to further the greater good. They both understand that not everyone gets to be the poster boy for the side of right and that in any battle, against the Nazis or against madmen in clown makeup, someone is going to get dirty. This requires a sacrifice which is, in the end, supremely cool.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

As Time Goes By

"Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship." Humphrey Bogart's famous exit line has always been one of my favorites, but I have never really thought about the line in context to the rest of the movie. To me, this line is very indicative of how Rick changes throughout the film, and how his personal changes affect the people around him. At the beginning of Casablanca, Rick Blaine doesn't seem to be the type of guy who has a whole lot of beautiful friendships, does he? He is the supreme cynical observer, never drinking or interacting with his customers, a grab-bag of nationalities stuck in the purgatory of Casablanca and Nazi and Vichy French officers. Though Rick claims to be completely neutral, he has in the past fought against the Nationalists in the Spanish Civil War and allows illegal exit visas to be sold in his nightclub. This neutral, cynical shell begins to crack, however, from the moment Ilsa Lund walks into Rick's club and back into his life.

Upon Ilsa's arrival, we learn that she and Rick were lovers in Paris up until the German occupation. We also learn that Rick is not nearly as cynical or disattached as he wants his Casablanca cohorts to believe. A few days after Ilsa and Victor's arrival, Rick seriously breeches his modus operandi by helping a young couple obtain the money for exit visas so the woman could escape to America and still remain loyal to her husband. It is at this moment that we realize loyalty means something to Rick, no matter the opportunist personal philosophy he expounds. As the story progresses and Ilsa finally gives Rick the reason she never met him to escape Paris, Rick once again respects her loyalty to her husband, Victor. Though no one in the film overtly mentions loyalty as an important theme, it seems to surround Rick. His friends and employees are endlessly loyal to him, Ugarte trusts Rick to by loyal to the Underground cause by entrusting him with the letters of transit, and in the end even the morally unscrupulous Renault expresses loyalty towards Rick by choosing not to narc on him when he shoots a German officer. Rick himself is in the end loyal to the cause of fighting the Nazis, expressing this sentiment in his sacrifice of his relationship with Ilsa so Victor's work can continue.

Something I have never really noticed in watching Casablanca that I picked up on this time is the parallel between the film characters and the countries participating in World War II. Rick and his pianist Sam are the only Americans in the film, and are representations of the United States itself. Rick seems to embody the neutral, isolationist side of America, while Sam and his music represent the hope offered by America to all of the people who come to Rick's club in hopes of eventually reaching the United States. Rick's actions also reflect the actions of the U.S. during the course of the war. At the beginning of the film, Rick takes care of his customers but does not get directly involved with them, much like the U.S. took measures to help the Allied side while maintaining neutrality in the beginning of the war. At the end of the film, Rick's involvement saves the day, just like the American troops' entrance into Europe changed the tide drastically (at least according to the American point of view).

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

We've Got It Bad, And That Ain't Good (or is it?)

While watching The Public Enemy, my idea of cool was once again conflicted. Looking at the film objectively, there is a lot of evidence to point to the coolness of Tom Powers. From his confident swagger to the self-assured way he treats his women to his sharp sense of style, Tom is the epitome of ironic detachment. And then there's the booze. Like it or not, the guy with the drinks is always at least a little cool. On the flip side, when I view the film according to my own ideas of cool, Tom seems like less of a paragon of awesomeness and more and more like a jerky loser. He's got a serious case of youngest child syndrome and some major sibling rivalry issues with his older and more glorified brother, Mike. As the movie went on and Tom's personality came to light, I saw Tom's confident swagger as an arrogant strut that did more to hide a weak character than to emulate actual confidence. His self-assured womanizing ways came off as controlling, and his petty temper tantrums revealed a definite reaction to being spoiled by his mom and brother his whole life. Added up, all of these things make for a most uncool individual.

While in the end Tom Powers as a person didn't come off as cool to me, his job occupation--ruthless, bad-ass Mafia member--still has a certain appeal. I think this begs the question: what makes criminality so cool? Dissidence is definitely a factor; rebellious movie characters from A to Zuko are highly indicative of America's fascination with dissident cool. I think that everyone, at least once in a while, wishes that he or she could be that Rebel Without a Cause who isn't bound by conventional social obligations. When people automatically expect you to operate in a way that rejects social standards, you are released from the kind of social pressures and rules that can be overly demanding on a day-to-day basis. Watching someone else defy society is for me a kind of vicarious release, which is one of the reasons I think criminality has a certain coolness.

Another aspect of cool criminality has to do with moral ambiguity, as we discussed after the movie. In Mafia movies, we often see morally corrupt drug runners and murderers expressing social virtues like loyalty, kindness, and generosity (at least to those who show respect). The movie that this kind of paradox brings to mind immediately is The Godfather, probably the best-known mob movie of all time. At the beginning of the film Michael Corleone, the son of prominent mob boss Don Vito Corleone, is much like the character of Mike in The Public Enemy. He is a war vet and even though he is surrounded by criminal activity, he vows that he will not participate in Mafia activity. However, when another Mafia family kills Don Corleone for refusing to involve the Corleone family in drug running (another example of the moral paradox of the Mafia), Michael is thrust into the position of Don Vito's heir and avenger. It throws me for a loop every time I watch it, because even though socially we know that killing people is wrong, when Michael Corleone shoots a guy in the face to avenge his father, it somehow seems justified. In fact, for some reason or another it seems disloyal for him not to get involved upon his father's death. I really don't know what makes moral ambiguity so cool, but it there is something about the uncertainty that makes it both a fascinating and desirable trait in characters.

From The Public Enemy to more recent crime movies such as The Departed, criminality has remained cool for decades. Characters like those played by James Cagney, Robert DiNiro, and Leonardo DiCaprio have become cultural icons of cool, but that is what they are and what they will remain: characters. Is criminality only cool in movies? What would we think about these guys in real life? Criminality is cool when we can distance ourselves from it, but what do we think when it hits too close to home? Like the beginning and end notes of The Public Enemy point out, criminality is real, and rarely really cool.