Bushido Code – Drive and Le Samouraï

Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive was enormously popular and influential among critics, audiences, and filmmakers when first released. It presented itself as an art house film that could be enjoyed by the common cinemagoer, made all the more accessible by its in-the-moment star Ryan Gosling, probably one of the most bankable actors in Hollywood. Audiences going to see the film expected a car-chasing thriller from the trailers, but were instead treated to a somber study of  human relationships and the consequences of bad choices.

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Choices were made.

Because of the film’s popularity, comparisons have been made to many previous works that may have influenced Refn. Jean-Pierre Melville’s masterpiece Le Samouraï  is another early example of this kind of “accessible art house” filmmaking. The film also stars an actor that would have resonated with a wide range of people at the time, Alain Delon. Roger Ebert, in his review of the film, went as far to say that Delon was “an actor so improbably handsome that his best strategy for dealing with his looks was to use a poker face.”

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Improbably Handsome.

However, neither of these films are classics because of their attractive male leads. Like Drive, Le Samouraï starts off with the protagonist, in some way or another, committing a crime while driving a car. With such memorable opening sequences, audiences could expect both of these films to be full-fledged crime thrillers, complete with car chases and gun battles. However, in both cases we are treated to a reflective character study of two men who speak only when spoken to, who live a life devoid of pleasures, and most importantly, who live by a code.

The opening of Le Samouraï begins, much as Drive does, in a sparsely furnished apartment. After the opening titles end, a quote appears on screen:

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“There is no greater solitude than that of the samurai unless it is that of the tiger in the jungle… Perhaps…”
-Bushido (Book of the Samurai)

Despite the Book of the Samurai being a fictional invention (I’m sure Melville didn’t worry about audiences doing any research on Bushido) this quote allows the viewer to understand Delon’s character: he is a man who will do what he needs to without compromising his moral fiber. Gosling’s character in Drive is the same, though he lives by no explicit code other than his own. At the end of both films, the protagonists sacrifice themselves for a greater cause: the safety and welfare of the women they love.

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Diane, if you ever get up this way that cherry pie is worth a stop.

 

Both of these films say something about the human experience in that the only occurrence that can change man is the act of falling in love. Fifty years later, this truth no doubt continues to resonate with audiences today. It is easy to simplify these films as faux-thrillers where an attractive lead does not say much. However, the continued legacy of these films is in their protagonists, men that live by a code in a world that does not allow for morality.

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Real Human Being.
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The Literal Male Gaze in The Silence of the Lambs

I’ve been sitting on this blog post for a while now, and in light of Jonathan Demme’s passing yesterday, it seemed only right to finish it. I really feel that this sort of piece would work better in the form of a video blog, but for now screenshots will have to do.

The Silence of the Lambs is a film about the eyes: what the eyes see, what they choose to avoid, windows to the soul. Demme’s penchant for full-frame and centered closeups on actors is used to maximum effect in this film, often having their eyes looking directly at the camera. There are so many levels to the ways eyes and voyeurism are used in this film, but one example stuck out at me.

The film serves as a commentary on feminist issues and the struggle of being female in a male-dominated field of work. Clarice Starling is framed in ways that emphasize her juxtaposition against a patriarchal world throughout the film.

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This framing is powerful, but never used in an exploitative way. By this I mean she is never framed in a way that presents her as a sexual object of male pleasure for the audience; the concept of the male gaze, coined by feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey.

The interesting thing about The Silence of the Lambs is that is uses a more literal male gaze in the film, in which we can see various characters examining Starling in a sexual or demeaning way. Throughout the film, male characters make flirtatious or debasing comments towards Starling while looking her right in the eyes, causing her to break eye contact, if only momentarily.

First with Dr. Chilton commenting on how attractive he finds Starling:

Then with Hannibal Lecter examining the various fragrances she wears:

And again, when Sherrif Perkins examines Starling in light of Jack Crawford’s comments about her being unable to stomach sexual violence:

In each of these scenarios, the male character and Starling are making eye contact, but she is made to look away.

It is only after examining these instances that the significance of Starling’s interaction with the cross-eyed entomologist Pilcher becomes apparent. At the start of their examination of the death’s-head hawkmoth, Starling is focused on the insect cocoon. However, as Pilcher’s comments becoming increasingly flirtatious, Starling looks away from the procedure and maintains eye contact until Pilcher is the one to break it, rather than her.

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This is an odd but extremely effective visual metaphor. Starling is not intimidated by Pilcher’s comments because he is literally incapable of exercising the male gaze due to his crossed eyes. It could be that Demme was using this scene to represent growth for Starling’s character, or some other meaning I am unaware of. Even if I don’t fully understand why this symbolism is being used here, it’s clever as hell. Jonathan Demme, you will be sorely missed.

Logan’s (Final) Run

As this is my first time writing about a contemporary movie, please be warned that spoilers follow below.

I really like Logan.

Against all odds and personal expectations, Logan succeeds in being an excellent comic book adaptation and a very good film. Perhaps I just have a soft spot for films which try to elevate themselves above genre conventions, such as Skyfall, but this film is an excellent character study. The economic storytelling in Logan is the perfect tonic for the bloated CGI fests that we have accepted as normal in theatres.

I actually have no idea how this came from the same guy who directed 2013’s The Wolverine (or: Wolverine Goes To Japan). Perhaps the studios finally realized after Deadpool that there was a demand for superhero films outwith the usual “bunch of heroes tell jokes in a room for 2 hours then save the world from blowing up” formula (not that I don’t enjoy quite a few of Marvel’s films).

What first impressed me in the film was the believable world of story. Logan takes place in 2029, but this is revealed in such subtle ways that one of my friends watching the film assumed the events took place in present day. You immediately feel that there is a world beyond what is taking place in the frame, and the combination of advanced tech and a tired, lived-in world reminded me much of the original Star Wars.

(The combination of the film taking place in 2029, the presence of augmented limbs, and Logan saying “I never asked for this.” also reminded me of Eidos Montreal’s recent Deus Ex games. Someone on the Logan team is obviously a fan.)

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“My vision is augmented.”

The weakest part of the film for me is also one where they made a lot of improvement compared to others in the series: the fight sequences. From the opening scene, it is clear that this Logan is not the unstoppable badass of previous films, but runs the risk of being seriously injured every time he enters the fray. Unfortunately, the film devolves into the standard third act showdown that most comic book films are guilty of (although it was quite refreshing to see the scientist villain of the film, Richard E. Grant, murdered mid-monologue instead of allowing him to finish his grandiose speech).

I’ve been a huge fan of Grant every since seeing him in BBC’s Posh Nosh, and I delight anytime he pops up in a film. The main antagonist here is obviously Boyd Holbrook’s engaging portrayal of the augmented Donald Pierce, but Grant holds his own as the man pulling the strings. One thing I couldn’t help but notice: Grant wears a safari jacket, a fairly uncommon item of clothing, in both Logan and the last film I saw him in, the tonally confused Dom Hemingway. What are the odds of this? Does Grant have a contract clause that lets him choose his own clothing? Does anyone have further information on this safari conspiracy?

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Richard E. Grant as Zander Rice in Logan.
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Richard E. Grant as Dickie in Dom Hemingway. (Wait a second, Jude Law played a character called Dickie in The Talented Mr. RipleyHow deep does this rabbit hole go?)

Rounding out the film’s villains is X-24, a young clone of Logan with no instinct other than to kill. Jackman plays this character as well, de-aged about 20 years. I’m not sure if they used makeup, CGI, or both, but X-24 effectively contrasts with Logan to further drive home the film’s themes of new vs. old and technology vs. nature. Where was this tech for Jeff Bridges when Tron: Legacy was being made?

One thing that bothers me, in both Logan and many other films, is inconsistency when it comes to the speaker of a foreign language. Dafne Keen delivers a great first-time film performance as Laura, but I don’t understand why the writers keep trying to convince us that the character can only speak Spanish when she clearly understands and speaks English whenever it is appropriate for the plot.

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No entiendo.

To me, this film is the best entry in the series since X-Men: First Class (which I am apparently a monster for liking more than Days of Future Past). Even if Logan isn’t groundbreaking cinema, it entertains, affects, and raises the bar for comic book adaptations. Similar to how the original X-Men started Hollywood’s fascination with superheroes which continues to this day, we may one day look back on Logan as the film that finally proved that audiences were hungry for mature and human stories starring their favourite supers.

He Sold His Soul for Rock ‘n’ Roll

I really like The Phantom of the Paradise.

I’m not sure how I first came across Brian De Palma’s musical satire of the record industry, but I have a feeling it was around the time Daft Punk’s new album Random Access Memories was released. The band claimed that the centrepiece of the album was the song Touch by Paul Williams. Doing a bit of research into this campy voice, I found that Williams had starred in and wrote the music for a film called Phantom of the Paradise. Watching a clip from the movie, I was astounded at the costume design of the titular spectre. With a silver mask, electronic voice, and all-leather outfit, it was easy to connect the dots when I read that this was one of Daft Punk’s all time favourite films.

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“Lose Yourself to Dance”

It makes sense that Daft Punk would have watched this film in their youth, since Phantom bombed on release worldwide save for two places: Winnipeg (that’s in Canada by the way) and Paris. Why it failed when The Rocky Horror Picture Show exploded in popularity one year later is a mystery to me, as the films share similar themes and subject matter. Regardless, this is one of the few De Palma films I actually enjoy, and I’m glad to see it being recognized more in recent years.

It’s hard to put into words what makes this film special – as difficult as it would be to track the countless cinematic influences that De Palma pilfered in making it (though rest assured, it’s loaded with Hitchcock references). The film itself is a mix of The Phantom of the Opera, Faust, and The Picture of Dorian Gray, to name just a few examples. At the very least, the soundtrack is excellent, jumping from one musical genre to another with ease. The film begins with a catchy 1950’s-inspired musical number before we are introduced to head-henchman Philbin, played by George Memmoli.

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Hey, weren’t you in Mean Streets?

This is an interesting scene. Philbin appears to address the audience for over a minute before music tycoon Swan (Paul Williams!) finally responds. I’m not sure why De Palma decided it was a good idea for the audience (or at least the camera) to assume the perspective of the film’s villain in the first scene, but somehow it works. Swan and Philbin discuss the need for truly remarkable music to open up Swan’s rock palace, The Paradise. In the background of this shot we see our protagonist Winslow Leach, played by the other-worldly William Finley, setting up to perform. As he begins to play, Swan pays attention: he has finally found the perfect music.

Winslow continues to sing, and the scene plays out in a circular tracking movement around him. This is an effective way, at least in this instance, to keep the scene dynamic while focusing on a static subject. I’m not sure if De Palma is referencing Hitchcock or something out of the silent era of filmmaking here. Curiously, I was most reminded of the Nazi propaganda film Triumph of the Will when watching this shot.

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Bad hair, great music.

Thus begins Swan’s goal of stealing Winslow’s music for The Paradise. After being framed, put into prison, having his teeth replaced with metal (for a reason the film barely bothers to explain) and his face and vocal chords ruined, Winslow seeks revenge for having his music stolen from him.

Assuming the identity of a…Phantom? Winslow begins his vengeance by planting a bomb in the prop car of Swan’s band during a performance. I’m not sure I can call this a reference to Touch of Evil so much as an enthusiastic recreation of its opening scene. The key difference here is De Palma’s use of split screen, which I can only hope was inspired by the excellent The Boston Stangler. Unfortunately it doesn’t quite work here, as the sound design problems of having characters speaking and a full musical performance at the same time leads to the audience being unable to understand either.

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Touch of Paradise or The Phantom Strangler.

Swan confronts The Phantom, who is unable to kill Swan because…well, we’re not quite sure. Either way, Swan convinces The Phantom to write him one last rock cantata. He agrees, under the condition that the only person who can sing his music is Phoenix, played by Jessica Harper.

Their deal is altered when Swan decides to go with the androgynous Beef (Gerrit Graham) as his lead singer instead of Phoenix. This culminates with The Phantom issuing a warning with a brilliant reference to Psycho. Beef enters the shower. The Phantom approaches with a knife. This is a De Palma film. We just know that this is going to be another Hitchcock reference. The strings squeal, the knife tears through the curtain, and just as Beef catches a glimpse of his attacker, he is silenced by a toilet plunger. For what it’s worth, this is an excellent subversion of audience expectation.

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It’s silly, but this is Phantom.

The music in Phantom, as I’ve mentioned before, is excellent. Throughout the film, Swan hears music written by Winslow, steals it, and uses it in his own work. In a film about the record industry stealing from musicians made by a filmmaker who steals ideas from other films, this is just brilliant. Listen here to a segment of Swan’s Life at Last which steals from Winslow’s Old Souls being played side by side (30 seconds):

And again, with Winslow’s Faust and Swan’s Upholstery (52 seconds):

Speaking of stealing, there is a long-standing rumour that the band KISS was inspired by the Somebody Super Like You sequence in this film. Both Phantom and KISS entered existence at roughly the same time so there’s never been a concrete answer, though I find it unlikely that the band would have even been exposed to the film. On De Palma’s end, the makeup and set design used in this scene is an obvious reference to The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.

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We get it, you like other films!

As for the rumour that De Palma’s friend George Lucas was inspired by The Phantom’s outfit and electronic voice box when creating Darth Vader, that’s up for audiences to decide.

Phantom of the Paradise is an incredibly dense work for its 91 minute runtime, and I could honestly talk about it for hours. Rather than subject you to my rambling love for this film, I would recommend checking out The Swan Archives if you’d like to learn more about it. It’s a well-researched fan website for all things related to the film, so much so that they were involved in the recent Blu-ray version of Phantom (as was I, to the extent of correcting a typo on the front cover before it was publicly released).

Thank you for reading, and Happy Halloween!

The Razor’s Edge or: how I learned to stop worrying and love dramatic Bill Murray

I like The Razor’s Edge.

I have always enjoyed Bill Murray as a dramatic actor, from Rushmore to Broken Flowers. He just has that something that no amount of training or practice can muster in any other actor. The Razor’s Edge claims to be to Murray’s first starring role in a dramatic film (although perhaps a case can be made for Where The Buffalo Roam being a drama). However, it was not this tidbit that brought the film to my attention. Rather, like many films I end up watching, it was because of its excellent poster.

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Glorious.

Indeed, I am a sucker for beautifully illustrated posters, and the way the light is hitting Murray’s chin in this is just sublime. Reading the poster’s text, we are treated to all sorts of mysterious and impressive sounding sentences that reveal nothing concerning what the film is actually about. The official plot description of this film is this:

“He had everything and wanted nothing. He learned that he had nothing and wanted everything. He saved the world and then it shattered. The path to enlightenment is as sharp and narrow as a razor’s edge.”

Oh boy, was I hooked.

It turns out this film is an adaptation of a novel by W. Somerset Maugham. Something of a passion project for Murray, he agreed to star in Ghostbusters only if Columbia agreed to finance this film. He also co-wrote the screenplay, and although most critics were quick to point out that the dialogue was incongruous to the 1920’s time period, I felt it gave the characters a relatable edge in a more eloquent way than, say, using rap music in the 1920’s as in 2013’s The Great Gatsby. On that note, the film reminded me in many ways of an F. Scott Fitzgerald story, which I am always drawn towards.

The first thing I noticed watching this film was its pacing. This film moves fast. I’m not sure if they had a hell of a lot to squeeze into 129 minutes or if they just didn’t realize how much they were going to have to cut in the editing room. I swear, we have only just met Larry, our protagonist, before he is off saving lives in a world war and back to his pool within the span of 20 minutes.

This is not to say that the pacing of this film is not effective, just awkward. We are treated to an excellent Brian Doyle-Murray as the ill-fated Commanding Officer Piedmont, whose habit of giving scathing eulogies to fallen comrades is repeated by Larry in a near-touching moment when Piedmont himself is killed in battle.

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Low angle BDM.

I say near-touching because we have only just met these characters, and Larry’s eulogy for his fallen comrade loses its impact since we have just heard the same thing 5 minutes earlier. Still, this tragedy is a believable set up for Larry questioning his life’s meaning, and travelling around the world in search of different philosophies.

Along with Doyle-Murray, the film gives us another actor who is a treat to watch, Marcus from Raiders of the Lost Ark (or Denholm Elliott, to use his real name)! Playing a man whose goals in life are status and opulence, Elliot is an uncanny force in the film, and I was never quite sure whether I admired him, disliked him, or pitied him. He serves as a glimpse of the fate for those who seek material comfort in life, as opposed to Larry’s noble and isolating goal of knowledge for the sake of understanding.

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Marcus!

If the editing in this film is rough around the edges, then the cinematography can be marked under the banner of “passable”. The camera treats us to some interesting angles, especially around the film’s Parisian apartments, but overall not much is happening here out of the ordinary. What is extraordinary is how bad the DP (Peter Hannan) is at lighting locations at night. Seeing one grainy scene with its exposure pushed past the limit is one thing, but for it to happen twice in one film is a faux pas right up there with the soft close ups in Interstellar and Spectre (come on Hoyte!). Perhaps the decision to push these exposures was a studio one, and I’m sure a couple of grainy shots don’t take audiences out of their immersion, so I’m willing to accept personal bias on this one.

This is all to say that one shot in the film is absolutely brilliant, the moment where Isabel leaves a bottle of vodka with her butler, and the camera tracks and pans to reveal her recovering alcoholic frenemy Sophie in the other room. I love this shot, because we are shown in blunt terms Isabel’s two choices: warn the butler not to serve Sophie, or leave the vodka allowing Sophie to inevitably self-destruct. Heavy-handed it may be, but it perfectly illustrates the character’s frame of mind in a way that doesn’t rely on dialogue.

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Trust me, it’s even better in motion.

The film caused me to think about my life, and life in general, and I think any work that causes its consumer to reflect on questions outside of itself could be classified as some kind of art. I loved how dark the film’s characters could get, and although Murray is something of a passive protagonist, it’s a part of the film’s plot, and the magnetism the actor brings is enough to keep us invested.

Despite the journey of the film, I still cannot answer the one question I shouldn’t be asking after a film ends: what was the point of it all? Yes, Larry learns important things about life and happiness and suffering. But at the end of the film, when he has no friends left and his fiancée is murdered, he decides to go “home”. “But where is your home, Larry?” the butler asks. “America.” is the reply.

America? What does that even mean? Is the point of this film to show that, after reaching enlightenment, one has no choice but to turn towards nihilism and return to the country of their birth? I just don’t get it, and a majestic shot of Murray ascending a set of stairs doesn’t do much to fool me that that the end of this film has a purpose other than to see the credits roll. It just feels like a wasted opportunity.

I have it on some authority that Wes Anderson is an enormous fan of this film. Seeing Larry, dressed in a white suit, running away from children upon travelling to India, I’m certain that Murray’s character in The Darjeeling Limited is some sort of homage to this film. Do The Razor’s Edge and The Darjeeling Limited both exist within some weird Andersonian multiverse timeline? At the very least, without The Razor’s Edge, we may never have enjoyed the dramatic talents Murray brings to his roles in Anderson’s films.

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It can’t be a coincidence!

Thank you for reading what has been my first film “review”. I hope you have enjoyed this piece, and if you have any suggestions on format or any films you would like me to talk about, please leave a comment.

 

Script Draft 2: Script Harder

Last night (this morning) at 3 AM, I completed the second draft of my script. It is quite different in that we’re playing with themes of the role of the women in a family as well as in society. It’s written rather poorly at the moment, but after a few more editing sessions, I’ll definitely be sure to elaborate on plot points here.

All this being said, it may be good to watch some films/do some research regarding female traditions in western families. Not just things like gender stereotypes, but traditions as well, like passing on heirlooms and the like. Won’t have time today though-I have a presentation due tomorrow that demands my complete attention…it’s gonna be a late one. I’m thankful though, as this project is meant to narrow down my research topics and methods, so my blog posts should get a whole lot more intelligent come this Wednesday.

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Until then, let the kettle boil and the instant coffee be at hand.

Phantom Reflections

Just a quick post about my thoughts on Beef…the character from Phantom of the Paradise, not the delicious meat. I think the person who told me Beef represents trans equality in the film may have been a little misled. I think the character is supposed to have an androgynous quality to him, so that he is sexually appealing to members of both sexes. I’m not sure the film is even meant to be analyzed in this way.

This train of thought did get me thinking however; I must be careful not to sexualize certain scenes in the film I am writing. After seeing our protagonist, Kyle, dressed as a man, another scene sees him nearly naked in front of his mirror, revealing his woman’s body. I think it will also be necessary for me to research films and photography that expose the female form without hyper-sexualizing it. For the actress playing the trans man in the film, the greatest insult I can do to the story is to try and take advantage of Kyle’s vulnerable moments for the sake of using “artistic” nudity. Think on this I must.

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“I’m the evil that you created, gettin’ horny and damn frustrated!”