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Revisiting Reservoir Dogs

13 Aug

Once in a while, I use a selection from Philip DeFranco‘s “Like Totally Awesome” Film Club to do a review.  Mostly because he offers three movies a week, all available for streaming on Netflix.  Sometimes these are films I’ve seen and loved.  Sometimes these are films I never bothered with.  Sometimes they’re films I hate.  And, at times like this, they are films I definitely liked but I had issues with.

Okay, I’m just going to say it.  I have issues with Quentin Tarantino.  I also have issues with other directors, probably Steven Spielberg, more so.   But I will not dissolve into a diatribe about why I dislike Spielberg’s directing in a post about Tarantino.  I will say this:  on the whole, I think Quentin Tarantino actually has some talent.  I say ‘some’ because he tends to let the fact that he’s a man get into the way of being a truly great director.  Some might say this is a harsh criticism.  I am simply saying, “Quentin, could you not be such a blatant sexist?  Especially in the opening of Reservoir Dogs?”  Because the scene in question, which I will discuss in a moment, I believe sets the tone of Tarantino’s arrogance in general.

This criticism, about being a blatant sexist probably would never have struck me so severely if if hadn’t been Tarantino’s character (played by Tarantino himself), Mr. Brown, saying the words.  It is powerful enough to have a character deliver your words, but when you as the write and director play that character and say those words, in the opening of your film, you’re delivering a message.  Maybe you don’t realize it but you are.  You’re saying, this sentiment is so important to me that I’m not letting another person say it.  I want to give the message to you, my audience.  Me!  So, I find it rather humorous (sad?  ironic?  just plain weird?) that this great message Tarantino decides to relay to us, his audience, is about the lyrics for Madonna’sLike A Virgin.”  Now the first time I listened to this opening, I was in my early 20s and didn’t pay much attention.  The subsequent times I’ve watched the film, it still didn’t strike me as anything, in fact, I almost tuned out their lyric discussion.  But this time, for the very first time, I actually listened to what he said.  All I could think was:  Is Quentin Tarantino an idiot?

In this particular scene, the opening scene, we are in a diner and a group of gangsters are finishing their meal, going through the final discussion of a heist and discussing songs.  They all have fake names, hence, Mr. Brown (Quentin Tarantino).  Mr. Brown talks on and on about what Madonna’s song really means.  Apparently, his astute analysis is that the woman in the song has had a lot of sex.  Okay, I agree with that assessment.  But here is where Mr. Tarantino and I diverge on our analysis of the song.  He claims that she feels like a virgin because her new love interest’s penis is so long that it hurts her, ‘like the first time’, hence, like a virgin.  Only there is no discussion of penis size or allusion to penises in the lyrics of the song.  Yes, I spent some time going through it.  The song is simply about a woman who is jaded who has actually fallen in love with someone and rediscovers what it is like to have feelings.  This makes me worried about Mr. Tarantino.  If he is so dense about feelings, can he not even properly interpret a simple song from the mid 1980s?  And if his ability to analyze something as straightforward as a Madonna song from her early years is impaired, what does that say about the messages he’s sending in his films?  Is he actually saying anything?  Or, is his thinking flawed?  I would say, in this instance, thank goodness this film isn’t a love story or I would have to walk out.  I know one thing, I’m going to have to re-watch True Romance now that I’ve made this discovery about his inability to understand females.  Maybe that’s why I’m always struck that the women in his films tend to be more masculine in their approach.  And no, it isn’t a bad thing if that’s the case, but I’m wondering if it is because he cannot relate to women — normally.  Or at all.  Just a thought.

Right after the lyrics debacle, one of the most famous scenes from the film appears:  the tipping of waitresses debate.  Mr. Pink (Steve Buscemi) doesn’t believe in tipping.  The rest of the guys yell at him that this is how waitresses make a living.  We suddenly get a lecture on uneducated women’s socio-economic status in the US.  I feel as if I’m being lectured at from an article in TIME magazine.  Now, suddenly, Tarantino ‘cares’ about women?  If they are in subserviant positions where they know their place and are dependent on men’s kindness?  Isn’t how they ended up in those waitress positions in the first place?  Either they or their mother’s made a bad choice?  Of course that’s not to say every waitress is from some uneducated background.  Plenty of women going to school or needing second jobs waitress.  But that isn’t the message that’s delivered in the film.  Which makes me think, before Tarantino decides to educate the audience, perhaps he needs a bit more of an education himself.

My other criticism of this film is that I don’t feel like there is anything redeeming about any of the characters.  Nothing.  And while that dislikability of characters became a somewhat popular trope with crime/violent films in the 1990s, especially the early 1990s (think The Last Seduction, 1994), I was less impressed than I felt I should have been with all the critical praise the film got at the time.  I remember going to the cinema in anticipation of greatness.  I was expecting a commercial Godard.  Instead, I just got a violent commercial with a good torture scene, some good music and, the one thing I will give Tarantino credit for, a new signature flashback/cicular narrative style.

The narrative of the film is straight forward.  There’s been a botched diamond heist.  The surviving members all suspect each other.  There are three main things that happen in the narrative after the diner scene:  Mr. Orange (Tim Roth) is shot and Mr. White (Harvey Keitel) is trying to get a doctor but these are the days before cell phones.  Mr. Pink arrives at the warehouse and essentially tells Mr. White that Mr. Orange is a liability.  Mr. Pink shouts.  A lot.  Soon Mr. Blonde (Michael Madsen) arrives and he has a surprise, a cop he’s kidnapped during the robbery.  SPOILER ALERT IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN THE FILM.

Mr. Blonde tells Mr. White and Mr. Pink to ditch their cars.  Mr. Blonde then proceeds to torture the rookie cop he’s kidnapped in a now famous scene to the Stealer’s Wheel song “Stuck In the Middle With You”.  It is a great scene and as far as torture goes, Tarantino builds up the tension between an alternation of long shots, medium shots, close ups of objects, like the razor that will cut off the cop’s ear, the radio that will play the music that is a counterpoint to the terrifying scene unfolding, and finally, the surprise end of the scene which I will not divulge.

While the present narrative plays out, it is intercut with flashbacks informing us how the members of the team met and revealing how the undercover cop got on the crew.  Tarantino’s use of flashbacks intercut with the present is perhaps the most clever part of his narrative trope.  Instead of a linear story, we start before the robbery, jump to the aftermath of the robbery, jump back to the past as the crew is formed, jump to the present, etc.  This jars the viewer which in turn places them in a position of slight confusion as to where they are in the story, what’s happening, and who is responsible for the narrative itself.  Perhaps it is because we get multiple POVs that we feel as alienated as some of the cons.

This alienation also plays a key role in the final scene, in the shootout involving Mr. White, Nice Guy Eddie (Chris Penn) and Joe Cabot (Lawrence Tierney).   I believe, what made this film such a sensation, besides the torture scene involving Mr. Blonde and the cop, is the fact that they all shoot each other and even our undercover cop is killed.  Usually someone survives.  In this case, from what we can tell, the obnoxious Mr. Pink is the sole survivor but he gets picked up by the police as he makes his escape (from what we hear offscreen).  So, in one sense, Mr. Orange has accomplished his goal.  All the bad guys are caught.  He just didn’t live to see it.  And herein lies my problem, I don’t actually feel bad that Mr. Orange has been killed.  Instead, the triple shooting death that comes as a result of Joe shooting Mr. Orange, trumps Mr. Orange’s death, as an individual.  But then again, this movie was about a dysfunctional group of gangsters working together and it ended  as a dysfunctional group of gangsters dying together.  I just believe the whole thing would have been more poignant if there had been some humanity.  Somewhere.  When I finish watching a film and don’t care that they all died, I start to question why.  And it goes back to character, or lack of character, in the film.  Yes, these characters were ‘characters’ but they weren’t human.  Tony Soprano is human.  That’s the difference between a great character and a bunch of mediocre ones that stand alone for shock value.

Watch my Vlog Review on YouTube.

Sometimes venue does matter: watching La Piscine in Central Park

9 Jun

La Piscine starring Romy Schneider and Alain Delon

I’ve been living on the East Coast for two years now, but only at the beginning of this year did I really begin to appreciate New York City as a place to enjoy films.  I cannot believe the availability of films there are and the choice of venues I now have at my disposal.  I had almost fallen out of love with why I loved film in the first place but thanks to New York, I have a whole new appreciation of film.  Now that isn’t to say watching films at home, on Netflix, or at your local multiplex isn’t fine because it truly is; I just feel guilty that I wasted an entire year with so many resources only a short train-ride away.  Obviously, a great film, or even just an okay film stands on its own wherever you watch it.  If you’re stuck in a trailer park in New Mexico, then you can still be transported away to wherever you’d like by inserting a DVD or turning on your television or streaming a film from the internet.  But if you have the opportunity to experience film in a special setting, there is something slightly magical that happens, it adds to the entire cinematic experience.  Why do you think all those old dream palaces were built in the 1920s and 1930s?  While many of them have been demolished, and film culture changes as technology evolves, there is still something to be said for leaving your dwelling and going out to watch films in a group of people.

A friend of mine posted a “Films on the Green Festival” on her Facebook page which I happened to see and I noticed the first film screened would be the Romy Schneider/Alain Delon film La Piscine (Jacques Deray, 1969).  I am a huge Romy Schneider fan, not only because I’m named after her (yes, I’m aware my name is spelled with an “i” instead of a “y” because my mother forgot how to spell her name when I was born), but because she’s a great actress and she’s gorgeous.  I used to actually stay home from school to watch old Romy Schneider films when they were on.  Thankfully, my mother was willing to call in to school for me and claim illness for the sake of my cinematic education (those were the days before VCRs and DVRs when things could not be so easily recorded).  So most of my Romy Schneider film viewing experience took place on television screens with bad dubbing and atrocious film editing for television.  So, for me, to see a Romy Schneider movie in French (with English subtitles since my French isn’t that great), on a big screen, is a rare treat.  To see it in Central Park at night was actually almost — magical.

I’m not going to pretend La Piscine is a cinematic masterpiece.  Honestly, it isn’t.  It’s a bit long.  It’s a bit… cheesy.  And quite frankly, the first time I watched it, which was dubbed on DVD, I was unimpressed and a bit bored.  Jacques Deray has been called the French Hitchcock, and I’m honestly not familiar enough with his work to agree with or contest that label but I can say that La Piscine is certainly no Vertigo.  It might be more like Hitchcock’s  Marnie in that on the surface the film feels a bit clunky and forced but the ending is about – twisted love and affection.

The main question for the film is:  how far would you go for someone you love.  For Marianne (Romy Schneider), that would be covering up the murder of Harry (Maurice Ronet) by Jean-Paul (Alain Delon).  On some level, it’s hard to understand why Marianne loves Jean-Paul, but if you gaze at Alain Delon long enough, that honestly seems like enough reason.  It helps to know that Romy Schneider and Alain Delon were a real life couple.  They never did marry but had a very popular relationship in the 1960s.  Think Natalie Wood and Robert Wagner.  As in real life, Alain Delon’s character cannot keep it in his pants and sets out to seduce, Penelope, an 18 year old virgin, the daughter of Harry, Marianne’s former lover.  As an aside, to view Maurice Ronet at his finest, watch Louis Malle’s early effort, one of my favorite films, Elevator to the Gallows.

The narrative of this film certainly is not fast-paced.  It drags a bit, but in defense of the overall feel of the film, it reflects the setting, a lazy summer holiday in France.  Just like the days at a villa, all actions are drawn out and amplified since a trip into town to get provisions might be the highlight of one’s day, that is, after having a great deal of sex in and directly next to the swimming pool, which Marianne and Jean-Paul seem to do, daily.  As they hit a rough patch in their sex life and also their relationship, Harry appears on the scene, with his very strange daughter, Penelope, who nobody seems to know existed before this particular visit.

While Marianne is self-assured and sexual, Penelope is demure and chaste.  If Marianne inspires lust and desire in both Jean-Paul and Harry, Penelope serves to remind everyone that Marianne might somehow be damaged goods and both men, Harry and Jean-Paul, tend to gravitate equally toward lust with Marianne and pureness with Penelope.  And it is the coupling of Jean-Paul and Penelope that leads to the eventual breakdown of the foursome having any chance at a harmonious holiday together.  This is ironic since Harry and Penelope are the interlopers, they don’t belong at the villa, they show up and because Marianne is annoyed with Jean-Paul, she invites them to stay.  Marianne’s sexual and emotional frustration with Jean-Paul at that moment in the narrative, touches off a chain of events which will eventually lead to Harry’s death at Jean-Paul’s hands — in the swimming pool.

The swimming pool itself is the center of sexual desire and death, the water being the main symbolic attribute that attracts swimming, sex and murder.  Marianne is constantly dressed for swimming or wearing clothes that signal she’s just been in the pool.  We all know what happens in that pool as the opening scene illustrates what Marianne and Jean-Paul’s days most likely entail lounging about, having sex, eating, fighting, existing.  The dynamics of the pool change once Harry and Penelope arrive.  Suddenly, the pool is no longer intimate.  It’s not only a place where Jean-Paul and Harry tend to challenge one another for dominance (they even have a race), it’s a place where Penelope refuses to enter.  When Penelope does sleep with Jean-Paul, it occurs, ‘in the sea,’ a more natural place, less streamlined and constructed.  This hard-edged, man-made creation, the swimming pool, also reflects Marianne’s character (she is a former mistress of Harry’s, a former lover of many, she isn’t daunted by any man or situation in the film).  Marianne’s edges are hard, she won’t be intimidated, not even when she knows her lover sleeps with Penelope.  And Penelope, who is linked with the sea and the natural, is the one whose inability to control her emotions after sex brings down the entire party’s ability to function on an adult, civilized level.  It is also Jean-Paul’s inability to chose between the women and their natures that leads to disaster.  His character is stuck between his desire for the whore (Marianne) and the virgin (Penelope).  This is symbolically illustrated in the shot above, his body is squarely between the swimming pool, associated with Marianne in the foreground, and the sea, associated with Penelope in the background.

Instead of controlling their emotions, all the characters, especially the men, lose control on some level.  Harry goes out drinking and comes home so drunk he can’t properly fight off Jean-Paul’s fury.  The drowning scene is one of the most protracted death-scenes I’ve ever witnessed.  At times, you can’t be sure that Harry’s really going to drown as he makes many attempts to exit the pool; however, just as Harry allows himself to be lost in his desire for Marianne, he eventually succumbs to Jean-Paul’s murderous embrace of death.

Had I not seen this film in Central Park, I honestly probably wouldn’t have thought so much more about it.  I wouldn’t have delved deeper into the narrative and characters, the desires and downfalls, and thanks to one chilly evening, I actually ended up enjoying a film I had been initially unimpressed with.  So, the moral of this post:  sometimes venue does matter.

Body Heat, Part 2: Analyzing Matty Walker

27 May

Matty Walker:  what makes her a new femme fatale in the 1980s?

Obviously it is the fact that she gets away with her crime on a level that we have not seen in  the American Studio Film before.  What could possibly be the reason?  First, the change in the Production Code in the 1960s, from studio self-censorship to the ratings we know today (G, PG, PG-13, R, NC-17, etc.) allowed the writer to create a story where the femme fatale does not have to be punished in order to fulfill a moral code.  In addition, women’s position in society had evolved since the era of classic noir.  More women were in the work force and the second wave of feminism was in full force (and some might say, initially beginning its decline with the stirrings of third wave feminism at its heels).  It is at this point, where women are viable consumers even more than they may have been in the past, that film studios and producers are beginning to target women as a validated audience member. What I mean by this is that women’s position in the narrative will begin to change. Up until this point, most of the female desires that are reflected onscreen will result in death, ruin, or shame for female characters.

Matty Walker’s character does not fit into the old confines of what constitutes female desire. She is no longer the weaker sex; the male, Ned Racine (William Hurt), replaces her. His lack of ambition is the first indicator he is fallible. We learn he’s a two-bit lawyer who doesn’t have half the command of the law that Matty has – and she’s a legal secretary. We also see he has no scruples, the judge berates the class of client Ned represents in court. Ned’s desires drive him and don’t always allow him to see clearly, which is pointed out by two of his best friends, both on the correct side of the law.

It is Matty who takes control of the narrative of the film when she walks past Ned at the outdoor concert. This planned ‘meet’ seems like a lucky coincidence to Ned Racine. He has no idea he was the bait in an elaborate plan hatched by Matty. Unlike his male counterparts in classic noir, Ned can never quite get the upper hand with Matty. Even when she is exposed at the end of the film, Ned is still stuck in prison. And, although we see Matty sipping cocktails on the beach with her new “love interest” it is hard to wonder if she hasn’t created a different sort of prison for herself – but she doesn’t seem to worry about that much as she takes a cool sip from her cocktail and gets on with her life.

Matty controls everything about her existence. The “pre-narrative” or backstory of the film explains through bits of dialogue that Matty was a legal secretary and that she’s married a wealthy man who doesn’t show that much interest in her. She is a possession, just as she desires to have “freedom” to acquire possessions on her terms, not her husband’s. She controls whom she seduces because sex is about power, although we get the distinct impression she also desires Ned at some level. The problem for Ned, in this narrative, is that for Matty, desire can be compartmentalized and she refuses to allow emotion to overpower her intellect, as Ned has.

Matty Walker is one of the first femmes fatales to accomplish this – conquering the male sphere – especially the Law (which tends to be aligned with patriarchy) and manipulating it for her own benefit. This isn’t to say that Matty is a morally good character; she’s left a string of dead bodies in her wake, including her former best friend whose identity she assumed – another level of deception so nobody could actually ‘know’ her. Which leaves me wondering, can Matty even have known herself? Or, was that what she was searching for?

Body Heat or A Few Historical Points to Understand Positioning

23 May

Body Heat (Lawrence Kasdan, 1981) is unique in that not only does it have a new beginning postmodern form of the femme fatale, it’s also one of the first films that falls into the neo-noir category.  This film also harkens back to old noir while attempting to embody slightly more modern sensibilities.   It tends to be a mixed bag of narrative elements that while on the surface make the entire story feel traditional, but, surprises the viewer by updating the ending for a modern audience and, for the first time, allows a mainstream Hollywood female lead get away with murder.

A few years ago, I interviewed Mr. Kasdan about his creation, Matty Walker, the ‘new’ femme fatale for neo-noir. It wasn’t hard to see what inspired him – he had a giant one-sheet (movie poster for any of you not in the film business) of Double Indemnity. We had an interesting discussion about why his femme fatale got away with murder – which was…she’s a modern woman in a modern noir world. In my estimation: the rules had changed. But why???

I would argue, there are several reasons why. First, the disintegration of the ratings system in the 1960s changed the rules for film content. Once the Production Code Authority was obliterated, and the Ratings System we know today was instituted, film studios were free (to a much larger extent) to make films which included sex and violence (two of my personal favorites!); unfortunately, taste didn’t always come into play.

Another reason there was an opening for the more ‘evolved’ femme fatale was the type of film distribution setup in place in the early 1980s.  The studios were having a hard time in the 1980s. They were competing with home video and cable television. The studios were scared – the audience was evolving and they (the studios) were not necessarily keeping up with the pace. The studios tried to keep a handle on home video and cable/film rights, but they were dealing with increasing costs for production. While studios struggled, the home video and cable markets allowed for small, independent production/distribution companies to emerge that served niche markets such as art house cinema (think Orion). Even the studios were allowing some of their independent producers more leeway with their film choices, which is how Body Heat came into being. Alan Ladd Jr. who had a fresh new deal at Warner Bros. choose this film to be one of the first projects to be released for his independent production company, The Ladd Company. He wanted a film that appealed to women.

And although this is a bit more in depth than I meant to go, and I haven’t even begun to analyze how Matty Walker functions in the film, I feel it is important for you to understand the context in which this particular film was made because from this point on, whenever I discuss film noir in the 1980s, you can know that this was really the first ‘noir’ film of the 1980s that has embraces and celebrates the new femme fatale, one that gets away with her crimes.

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