A surgeon, guilt-stricken over the disfiguring of his daughter Christiane, sequesters himself in the French countryside trying to restore her beauty. How? How else. He and his nurse abduct women, surgically remove the face of their victim, and attempt to graft each face onto Christiane. With each failed surgery, Christiane is left to wander the chateau in a ghostly white mask, as her father descends into obsession and madness.
Franju was one of the founders of the Cinematheque Francaise — i.e. he’s no rookie — he helped define the rules that govern Film Noir for the French New Wave. I could not find a trailer to accompany this note, but once you’ve seen the photography of EYES WITHOUT A FACE, you will not forget it. While Franju acknowledges a debt to silent horror and the Surrealist movement, his style here is nonetheless way ahead of it’s time. Opting for black & white to avoid censorship of his surgery sequences, Franju refined a shadowy gothic tone that has influenced supernatural and other horror movies ever since.
It’ll finish Wednesday,
AFTER THOUGHT from October 16th, 2014
Evidently, trailers have become available online for EYES WITHOUT A FACE in the recent years since I wrote the above announcement for my west coast coworkers. Other developments have taken place as well. Other genre films over the years have borrowed elements from this film, including the knowing allusion of Jerry Hall wearing a strikingly similar mask to Christiane’s, under similar circumstances, in Tim Burton‘s BATMAN. More recently Pedro Almodóvar‘s THE SKIN I LIVE IN offers a bold-faced and loving tribute to this chilling masterpiece, fully borrowing the story and central conceit, albeit as a vehicle for Almodóvar’s trademark darkly comic ironic melodrama rather than as a straight forward horror film.
On a personal note, it’s heartening to see vanguards of celebrating unsung classics like The Cinefamily in Los Angeles or the Church of Film in Portland, OR embracing this film. When I initially shared the above announcement in my talent agency gig, my worthy adversary (and wet behind the ears whippersnapper) Evan dismissed it as “a B-movie.” Without hyperbole, dismissing EYES WITHOUT A FACE as a B-movie is like dismissing The Archer’s PEEPING TOM as a B-movie. While both may have had their controversial histories, both were ambitious, insightful, soulful, and as impeccably crafted as any Oscar-baiting prestige film. As occasionally happened in the ol’ lunch movie days, Evan and others busied themselves elsewhere and mocked what they had not experienced, while a small squad of the faithful were riveted the first day. The same friends showed up the second day, having read up on Franju and Valli, and found themselves a whole new corner of filmdom that they were excited to explore.
Yes, this is a mad scientist movie. And yes, William Friedkin’s THE EXORCIST was just a supernatural movie. And yes, Jim Henson’s THE DARK CRYSTAL was just another Muppet movie. Dig a little deeper, friends. Long before the irony generation of the 90’s appropriated the trappings of genre to make personal statements, Georges Franju welcomed you into a dark house, and used the mechanics of horror to show you that human regret and sorrow can be the greatest sources of terror.
A few false starts notwithstanding, it has been 5 years since The Lunch Movie has been a regularly scheduled ritual of salvation at 24 frames per second. In my previous talent agency jobs in Los Angeles we screened movies in the conference room every day during our lunch hour. We watched movies that many of my younger coworkers felt remiss for having gotten through college in general, or film school in particular, without having seen. We fostered a climate that rejected “How can you work in the movie business without seeing (fill in the blank)?!” elitism in favor of “Here’s your chance to share this experience with friends” inclusiveness. And then it ended when I left those jobs and moved across the country.
In the interim, The Lunch Movie has become a blog that is part film criticism and part autobiography. Some films, the ones that move me to write, have impacted my life as much as family or close friends or personal heroes. Some films introduce me to personal heroes … but let’s come back to that in a moment. Through this blog I met as many international movie fans as my former legion of conference room coworkers, including the coolest pen-pal a nerd could ever hope for, Craig Jamison from The GullCottage/Sandlot and the driving force behind The Grindhouse With Craig & Jim podcast. In my current job in the Visual & Media Arts Department at Boston’s Emerson College, we have spent the past few summers testing the waters for returning to my old ritual, during what is typically the slowest work period for academia. This summer, these seeds have taken root: this fall semester we will test drive the return of The Lunch Movie on Mondays & Fridays.
This Friday, September 12th, we will begin watching the movie that was responsible for my enrolling in Emerson in the summer of 1988: Jonathan Demme‘s SWIMMING TO CAMBODIA. This is Demme’s record of Spalding Gray‘s stage performance wherein Gray discusses his experiences in Thailand acting in Roland Joffe‘s 1984 film THE KILLING FIELDS. Joffe’s film told the true story of New York Times reporters investigating covert American operations in Vietnam who become swept up in the rise of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. I expected SWIMMING TO CAMBODIA to be a predominately making-of documentary, with Gray talking about the day to day process behind Joffe’s Oscar winning production. My expectation turned out to be the frame around a much larger picture. Gray ponders everything from CIA black-ops, to his own misadventures everywhere from Manhattan to Bangkok, to the legacy of the Khmer Rouge and imperialist sexual tourism, to the search for “a prefect moment” where all of these experiences might crystallize into a moment of clarity.
I saw SWIMMING TO CAMBODIA at the Cedar Lee Theater, alone, because it wasn’t something any high school classmates were interested in. I was driven purely by the respect I felt for THE KILLING FIELDS and a strong recommendation from the Wall St. Journal’s Julie Salamon, paired with a manic version of The Journal’s pointillism portraits featuring Gray in the throws of what looked like an epileptic fit. Within the first few minutes I was grateful that I was alone. Demme’s coverage and Gray’s monologue style are so intimate and confessional that at times I felt like I was watching Gray live in SoHo’s Performance Garage. I was immediately fascinated by him; I imagined the difference between my high school teachers and college professors would be that higher education would expose me to faculty with Gray’s lucid perspective, emotional honesty, intellectual inquisitiveness, and command of both the subjects that he knows as well as the questions that he pursues.
The year after I saw SWIMMING TO CAMBODIA, I was enrolled in and weeks away from attending Ohio State University, when my Dad accepted a new job that would move our family from Cleveland to Boston. My Mom asked if I wanted to look at Boston area schools so I could study closer to home, which is when I discovered Spalding Gray’s alma mater Emerson College. Roger Ebert‘s review provided me, way before I realized it, a glimpse at why Spalding Gray is the quintessential Emersonian. From a liberal arts school with concentrations in literature, theater, film, performance, and communication disorders comes a man who wrote monologues, essays and novels, performed them in theaters around the world, acted in film and on stage, and whose work in all media reflected and chronicled a lifelong struggle with depression and a family history of suicide.
The first time Maria & I saw Gray live was at Emerson’s then newly acquired Majestic Theater with his MONSTER IN A BOX monologue. Since then I saw him perform on stage and hold literary readings nearly a dozen times in Boston, New York, and Los Angeles. Usually Maria was with me, but even when I went alone, I didn’t feel alone. That is a power and a skill possessed by a rare breed of performers. Spalding’s own passing occurred within weeks of my Dad’s; the two are somewhat synonymous in my mind. Spalding Gray literally altered the direction of my life, and for better or worse (personally, I feel for the better) helped me become the person I decided to be. To watch Spalding Gray perform is to become aware of the lies you tell yourself to get by one more day, the truth that is busting to be released from you, and the power that both have to change your life and the lives of everyone you touch. To distill that powerful a potion into an 85 minute film is a testament to the artistic symbiosis between Gray & Demme.
Montgomery Clift plays Father Michael Logan, a Catholic priest who hears the confession of a killer. When Father Logan is accused of murder, the sacrament forbids him to reveal the truth, even to protect himself.
Hitchcock is famous for celebrating the landmarks and lesser-known areas of San Francisco, London, and other great cities. I CONFESS was shot almost entirely in Quebec City. Since Quebec has not been featured in nearly as many films as some of Hitchcock’s favorite cities, he had free reign to explore and use the city as a character.
It’ll finish Thursday
AFTER THOUGHT from July 5th, 2014
I was baptized Catholic but I fell away from the church when I was fairly young. As a movie fan, themes if faith and doubt and sacrifice and redemption appeal to me, as much in films with a religious focus as in more secular films. I have read The Bible, and I have paid a reasonable amount of attention to what separates one denomination from another, because I am often fascinated by how these issues and themes come into play in storytelling. I am no longer a Catholic but some of my favorite movies either would have been very different, or simply would not have existed, without Catholicism and/or Christianity.
Alfred Hitchcock was raised Catholic. He was also a master storyteller who could wring maximum dramatic intensity from a scene while still playing within the rules of his faith. Watching a religiously themed movie like I CONFESS with the lunch movie crowd was always amusing. I could count on most of the audience to be aware of the suits and trappings of faith even if it was not their particular denomination. But there were always those uninformed few who needed concepts like Catholic confession, the Passover Seder, or the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama explained to them. This film was no exception; thankfully the 95 minute running time permitted us to fit I CONFESS into 2 consecutive lunch hours, while still having time to pause it early at the end of the first day to address all the questions of the uninitiated. The film raised questions ranging from adorably naive to defiantly provoking, with some seeking to understand the confessional process, and others looking for loopholes either in the Catholic ritual or Hitchcock’s film. If you think this is funny, ya shoulda been there for THE EXORCIST!
With all this dogmatic debate aside, we were able to get down to the core of this unique little thriller. This is not a standard whodunit, since the murderer confesses his crime in the first reel, and much of Hitch’s trademark gallows humor is also missing. What you’re left with is a sombre character study of a well meaning man caught in an impossible situation. Montgomery Clift is perfectly understated as Father Logan; in a standard murder mystery a man in this situation could desperately pursue his own ends, but the bonds of the priesthood create a layer of complexity here that would challenge a lessor actor. In a similar situation in a very different movie, Bob Hoskins rages indignantly against a murder taking advantage of the confessional in the underrated A PRAYER FOR THE DYING. Hoskins’ reaction worked for that story, but I CONFESS needed a performer who would go the opposite direction, drawing ever inward and feeling more trapped.
Montgomery Clift was 32 years old when he played Father Logan. He was nominated for the Best Actor Oscar later that year for his heartbreakingly nuanced portrayal of the bugling pugilist Pvt. Robert E. Lee Prewitt in FROM HERE TO ETERNITY. We see him here at the dawn of an exemplary and tragically brief career of playing wounded men caught between the devil and the deep blue sea. Father Logan has not only heard the confession of a murderer, but he stands to benefit, as the victim was aware of a potentially compromising secret about the Father. If this film were remade today, studio development execs would almost certainly make this secret far more lascivious, which would be a mistake. Part of what makes Father Logan a riveting hero is precisely that he is a good and honest man, and no matter which course of action he takes, he will be mistaken for the wrongdoing of another person.
As I mentioned to my coworkers in 2007, Hitchcock makes wonderful use of the city of Quebec, which had rarely been portrayed previously on film. He uses locations that would be familiar to tourists, or a draw to those considering visiting, such as the Parliament Building, the Old Quarter, and Hôtel Le Château Frontenac. Frontenac sits overlooking the St. Lawrence River like a glorious medieval castle, a hearty stone’s throw from La Citadelle de Québec. Hitch also follows Father Logan through parts of town that would not be found in your Michelin Guide: Eglise Saint-Zéphirin de Stadacona, where Father Logan hears the inciting confession, the Hall of Justice where Karl Malden’s Inspector Larrue questions Logan, and yet again the Frontenac Hotel, where a climactic chase takes us through areas of the hotel that no guest would see. This is an aspect of the rarely sung artistry of Hitchcock: he takes a location you have heard about, and makes you want to see it, or he takes a location you know, and shows you something unexpected.
I CONFESS is not regarded as one of Hitchcock’s high art masterpieces. Its initial release was a little contentious, with Hitch even joking that an alternate cut may be required to appease the Quebec Catholic community, and another cut for the rest of the world. This may be solely my agnostic point of view, but I find movies that feature spirituality tested by doubt far more faith affirming that movies about blind faith. This is a timeless story set in one of the oldest standing cities in the western hemisphere. The elements of I CONFESS that may upset some Catholics are exactly what makes this story resonate 60 years after the film’s release, and 110 years after the French play on which it was based.
Times are tough at the Premiere Properties real estate office in Chicago. A sales challenge comes down from the main office — the winner gets a Cadillac El Dorado, the loser gets fired. Back-biting, in-fighting and crossed loyalties explode in the most incendiary dialog Mamet has ever offered.
It’ll finish Monday,
AFTER THOUGHT from June 30,2014
I have gotten significantly off track with the original purpose of this blog in the past coupla years. What started with articles about movies that I love, with an emphasis on the movies that I used to show in the conference room at my old talent agency job in the mid-2000’s, has become co-opted by longer pieces on this site and shorter blurbs on socialmedia. Time to get back to basics: an open conversation between you & I about a single film that I love, and hopefully that you either love, or that I can at least convince you is worth your time.
GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS was one of the recurring classics of the ol’ Lunch Movie days. Aside from this 2007 blurb above when we showed it on DVD in ICM, I showed it on DVD as well as VHS on my previous agency job at BKWU / BWCS, which merged with ICM in 2006. The parallels between this film and the talent agency business might be lost on the casual movie fan, but to those agent assistants, temp pool floaters, and other administrative pals who often joined me at lunch, there was a compelling similarity.
Adapted by David Mamet from his pressure cooker of a stage play, this film focuses on an office of real estate salesmen who specialize in barely legal semi-swindles. Though it was shot and edited with precision and style, and written with Mamet’s trademark gusto, this is an actor’s movie. This story lives or dies on its performances. Jack Lemmon as poor old Shelley “the Machine” Levene is the sort of keep-your-head-down-do-your-best-hope-The-Powers-That-Be-grace-you-with-their-notice fellow who has been a staple of salary-man stories since Arthur Miller‘s DEATH OF A SALESMAN and Rod Serling‘s Kraft Television Theatre classic PATTERNS. Al Pacino’s Ricky Roma is the sort of unreachable master of puppets that the movies hadn’t seen since Paul Newman as Frank Gallagher. Alec Baldwin threatens to steal the entire film with the most riveting monologue since George C. Scott in PATTON.
That Baldwin’s single scene probably rivals Gordon Gecko‘s business philosophy for quotability amongst Ivy League MBAs in the past generation speaks to the lasting impact of this film. We could argue that GLENGARRY created this Princes Of The Universe legion of greedy bloodsucking @$$holes in the halls of corporate power, or we could acknowledge that they were created by legal permissions, and this film merely galvanized them and made them easier for the rest of us to spot. Ed Harris, Adam Arkin, and Kevin Spacey play the sort of characters who embody truisms that predate 1980’s yuppie Successory posters: “There are no second acts in American lives” and “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation.”
So what does real estate have to do with the talent agency business? The administrative staff folks who used to spend their sunny Beverly Hills lunch hour with me in a dark conference room all understood the lives of the Premiere Properties gents to be a cautionary tale for their own chosen vocation. In Baldwin’s opening monologue, he makes it quite clear that Lemmon, Pacino, and company work in a satellite office, and thus not as valuable to the company or generally cool as the boys in the downtown office. Pacino’s Ricky Roma may be the big fish, but he’s in a small pond. These middle-aged and older men are pitted against each other for their jobs. My admin compadres all had the dream of being an agent, a showrunner, a development exec, or God forbid a few even had their own stories to tell and aspired to writing and/or directing. But how do they get there? The same way the salesman in Premiere Properties do: work hard, work smart, keep your friends close and your enemies closer, never say die, or some wannabe Lombardi-ism to that effect. The guys in the film hope to earn “the Glengarry leads,” sales leads that Baldwin dangles in front of them like the carrot before the whip, leads that are likely a ticket to a job in the downtown office. The folks in my office were either floaters hoping to get hired onto an agent’s desk, or agent assistants hoping to get hired onto a partner’s desk, or partner’s assistants hoping to become Coordinator during the next TV staffing season.
“I used to be a salesman, it’s a tough racket,” Baldwin berates the crew, right before miming a shot to drown his sorrows. Many of my coworkers went on to bigger and better things. Just as many gave up and moved back to whatever town they had moved from a few years earlier. One such agent assistant had worked previously selling used cars and in a similar real estate office; he promised me that the parallels were no great leap. That guy in particular was cut out perfectly for this work, and is doing quite well these days. I’ve seen hard asses give up and decent folks hang in and thrive, and vice versa, which also speaks to what makes GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS special: everyone has surprises in them. Each respond unexpectedly when truly challenged.
This is not a film with a lot of time for backstory, which is what makes it such a perfect actors’ film. The cast are called upon to flesh their characters out via the subtlety of mannerism and inflection to show us when they are in control versus when they are desperate versus when they are manipulating the game. An aspect of this film that has always fascinated me is that, while audiences have loved or hated it, they all seem to agree what it is. The backstory of these characters may be open to interpretation, but the rest of it is pretty damn cut and dry. Some people are repulsed by these characters, others are fascinated. It is my theory that anyone who has ever worked a year trying to sell something, whether it be million dollar homes to those aforementioned Princes of the Universes or t-shirts to tourists, will grasp what makes GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS resonate. Your job is to try to create a need in a person who may have been only wanting, or merely curious, at the moment you met them. It is that unique quality of confidence coupled with a defect of manipulation that makes these characters and this story compelling.
Written & Directed by Peter Hyams, starring Sean Connery, Frances Sternhagen, Peter Boyle and James B. Sikking, and featuring a score by Jerry Goldsmith.
Connery is Marshal William T. O’Niel, the “one good space-cop” protecting a mining colony on a moon orbiting Jupiter. Previous marshals had accepted bribes to ignore crime and corruption (and a nasty drug ring), but we wouldn’t have much of a story if O’Niel continued the status quo. It’s essentially HIGH NOON in space, but if yer gonna steal, steal from the good stuff!
It’ll finish Thursday,
AFTER THOUGHT from 3.26.2012
OUTLAND is, in short, one of those movies that makes me an old fashioned nerd. It is flawed, and dated, and yet I have great affection for it. If you want to focus more on the science part than the fiction in “science fiction” you could fault OUTLAND for inaccuracies of physics, like the depressurization conditions required for a human body to explode inside a space suit, or what direction blood would flow in zero gravity. If you are one of those ironic hipster nerds who think Ray Harryhausen’s work looks cheap, and the CGI Yoda trumps Frank Oz’s muppet Yoda, you might fault OUTLAND for its model and matte work. If however you’re an old fashioned nerd, a nerd who values precedent as well as innovation, you can see this movie for its unique and exciting strengths.
I suspect the same poindexters who have a problem with the liberties OUTLAND takes with gravity would also take issue with Buster Crabbe’s flame-sparking, chainsaw-sounding rocket in the 1930’s FLASH GORDON serials. “Bursts of flame could not occur in space where there is no oxygen for the fire to consume,” the disciples of THE SIMPSONS’ Comic Book Guy would declare, “nor would we hear that buzzing exhaust in a vacuum.” This is where I need to break with some of my nerd counterparts; if it makes for a more exciting story then I don’t care about that other stuff. Flash Gordon’s rocket looks and sounds cool, and when I was in 6th grade, blood floating upwards from OUTLAND’s dead body in a zero-gravity prison cell was one of the most disturbing murders I had ever seen in a movie. OUTLAND opened two years after ALIEN defined what grunt labor in space would look like, and a mere six weeks after the first mission of the Space Shuttle Columbia reignited a generation’s collective interest in space exploration. This movie may have not nailed every technical aspect, but it should be credited with imagining functions of working in space that few movies had done before, and even fewer as vividly.
#IDontHaveFactsToBackThisUp, but I suspect that no genre in film is subject to as precise scrutiny as science fiction. In romances we accept the rarity of mutual orgasm in love scenes because hell, who doesn’t aspire to that, even if it’s about as likely as the pressure conditions required to crush a body in a space suit. Cop movies and legal thrillers rarely get called out for authentic police or courtroom procedures. Word to the wise: if you’ve ever cheered for the “surprise witness” in a court movie, then you need to relinquish your credentials to criticize an imaginative movie like OUTLAND over a few technical indiscretions.
As long as I’m showing my age stripes, I need to go on record about something more expansive than model and matte work. I like any art that shows evidence of human contact: little flaws that bespeak individual experience. Some folks like seeing crystal clear digital projection of CGI generated images. Me, I just saw a print of Bela Tarr’s DAMNATION at the Harvard Film Archive. It was loaded with the kind of smudges, sound pops and platter scratches that Tarantino and Rodriguez faked to lend authenticity to GRINDHOUSE. I love that stuff, just as I love being able to spot finger imprints in the fur of Willis O’Brien’s stop-motion model for the 1933 KING KONG. I love OUTLAND’s opening sequence where we first learn about the mining operation on Io. Of course that model work will never fool anyone into thinking that Hyams & Co. actually went on location in space, but that model perfectly orients the audience for the finale.
Oops, I’ve mentioned the finale, and without making a ***Spolier Alert***! Well nevermind finale spoilers; I’m not going to tell you what happens, I’m more focused on how it happens. There is an amazing chase sequence that occurs midway through OUTLAND. Marshal O’Niel runs down one of his suspects through a multi-leveled industrial labyrinth. The editing in this chase is so intense, and the set is such a feat of production design, that some have said it undercuts the finale. I can see that point of view, but I think the finale takes a bold reversal of expectation by going in a thoroughly different direction than that chase in the middle. Rather than going bigger and bolder, they went eerier and quieter, and yes they even adhered to a few laws of gravity.
So there you have it: OUTLAND — cool cop story, thrillingly imaginative space opera, state of the art film experience of a bygone era. If you’re the moviegoer who does not fault PLANET OF THE APES for dated make-up (which was itself state of the art, once upon a time) or METROPOLIS for damn near literally wearing its heart on its sleeve (what with all that chest-clutching) then you might also be the fan who can recognize OUTLAND for its place in the nerd canon.
In French w/ English subtitles
Written & Directed by Jean-Luc Godard, starring Jean Belmondo, Jean Seberg and Jean-Pierre Melville.
Michel is a small-time car thief who becomes a big-time criminal when he murders a policeman. No master felon, Michel is an impetuous young man more focused on presenting a Bogart-style tough guy image than in actually learning the ropes of being a tough guy. His Hollywood dream wouldn’t be complete without a girl on his arm, so rather than fleeing the country after the murder, Michel sticks around to convince a young woman to fall for him and escape with him to Italy.
The French New Wave directors of the 1950’s and 60’s began as a group of critics who deconstructed Hollywood film style, helped define it as an art and a science, and coined the phrase “Film Noir.” Several New Wave luminaries helped create BREATHLESS: Godard adapted his script from a treatment by Francois Truffaut, and Claude Chabrol is credited as “technical advisor.” Jean-Pierre Melville, playing Pavulesco in BREATHLESS, directed some of the best French noir thrillers of the 1950’s. BREATHLESS was the end of French emulation of Hollywood, and the beginning of challenging new shooting styles and story structures that would have a lasting effect on America’s Film School Generation — Coppola, Lucas, Spielberg and all their 70’s pals.
It’ll finish Thursday.
AFTER THOUGHT (with Spoilers!) from 12.31.2011
The moment we meet Michel, he introduces himself as “an asshole,” and then spends a significant portion of BREATHLESS proving it. Michel enjoys presenting his Bogart-style image, endlessly repeating Bogey’s pensive Sam Spade gesture of rubbing his lip with his thumb. What his Bogey impression lacks is Sam Spade’s control of a situation, Rick Blaine’s calculating foresight, or Philip Marlowe’s confidence with women. Had Michel studied THE MALTESE FALCON, he would have known when in his own story to cut his losses and get out alive. Bogey’s Rick in CASABLANCA might have taught Michel who he can really trust, who would double cross him, and how to play both.
A closer read of Bogart’s persona in THE BIG SLEEP might have encouraged Michel not to whine and plead with his former lover Patricia to escape with him to Italy. He would have been decisive rather than manipulating, which would have made him the Bogey he wants to be, as well as the Romeo she longed for. Indecisiveness is Michel’s fatal flaw. He doesn’t know what he wants or who he wants, and even if he did, he doesn’t know from one moment to the next what he is willing to do to get it. He wants to avoid being caught with a stolen car enough to kill a policeman, but when the dragnet is closing in around him, he is incapable of making the choices required by his man-of-action front.
Within the first few minutes of BREATHLESS Godard turns crime movies, and the very idea of a movie, inside out. Voiceovers are a staple of the Film Noir genre. After Michel steals a car, he drives around describing what he enjoys about France, but before long we realize this is no ordinary voiceover. He is not simply thinking out loud for the sake of exposition; he turns and addresses the audience, as if we are riding shotgun. This would be a standard breaking of the fourth wall, but BREATHLESS doesn’t stop there. Michel both addresses the camera and directs its gaze along the Pontoise road, pointing out hitchhikers, farm houses, annoying drivers, and highway police. Further, Godard allows interaction between the camera and passersby that would cause most other directors to cut and reset their shot. In scenes where Michel and Patricia walk through Paris, people stop and turn to watch the filming, some looking into the camera as well. Godard requests no suspension of disbelief; his story is fiction, but it coexists with and occasionally collides with reality.
Inasmuch as Michel is a vicious brat disguised as a dangerous man, BREATHLESS cloaks its examination and inversion of the tools of cinematic storytelling in the suits and trappings of crime drama. Michel’s desire to live like he is in a movie virtually wills into being a movie of his life and death, but he has no more control over Godard’s film than he does over his own story. Michel would love it if you had bought a ticket to see him outgun the cops and out-con the cons and drive off into the sunset with plenty of money and Tinkerbell incarnate. Godard will have none of it. He will allow you to visit with Michel just long enough to feel like you got the story of guns and glory you paid for; and he’ll allow you just enough time with Patricia to get a sense of romantic intrigue. In between teasing those expectations Godard may test your attention span with protracted conversational sequences, which do very little to further the story, but greatly reveal his characters. Moments like these were virtually unheard of in Hollywood films before the France’s La Nouvelle Vague movement; later their influence could be seen in American films by Hal Ashby and Robert Altman. When Godard is not exploring his characters, or allowing Michel to explore his personal Film Noir, he is just as likely to use BREATHLESS to wander Paris like a painter, equipped with a camera in lieu of a canvass. He photographs Paris not as a tourist showing us what we have already seen in countless other films, but as a patriot in love with his city and seeking to share its sidestreets as much as its landmarks, the way Woody Allen and Martin Scorsese would do with New York in ensuing decades.
My earliest encounter with BREATHLESS made me think it was an art film disguised as a crime drama. Now that “art film” strikes me as vague and generic a term as “action film,” I come to realize the BREATHLESS is a fully realized artistic happening disguised as a movie. It is opening night at a photography exhibit, a jazz session on a rainy afternoon, a staged actors’ reading, and a heated debate amongst coffeehouse poets all tied up in a celluloid bow.
Written & Directed by Spike Lee, starring Danny Aiello, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Richard Edson, Giancarlo Esposito, Samuel L. Jackson, Joie Lee, Spike Lee, Bill Nunn, Rosie Perez, and John Turturro.
24 hours on one block in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, NY.
On the hottest day of the summer, racial tensions simmer between residents of a predominately African American and Puerto Rican neighborhood, and the Italian American owners of a pizza parlor. And then they explode.
Spike Lee had touched on racism earlier in SHE’S GOTTA HAVE IT and SCHOOL DAZE, but following what became know as The Howard Beach Incident, he decided the gloves needed to come off. This is the script than earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay, and the film that earned him a Palm D’or nomination at Cannes. It also earned him the fear of critics like newspaper columnist Joe Klein, who wrote “Spike Lee’s reckless new movie DO THE RIGHT THING … opens June 30 (in not too many theaters near you, one hopes).” The controversy surrounding DO THE RIGHT THING in the summer of 1989 cemented Spike’s reputation as a voice who demands to be heard.
It’ll finish Friday.
P.S. Come early, or you’ll miss Rosie fightin’ the power with Public Enemy!
AFTER THOUGHT from 11.20.2011
I don’t know if Spike Lee still does this, but in the early days of his feature directing career, he used to do college tours with his films in the weeks before they opened. My brother Ed & I used our Emerson College IDs to see him present DO THE RIGHT THING at a theater in M.I.T. This was just a few months after MISSISSIPPI BURNING, a fictionalized story lacking any significant African American characters despite its civil rights themes, received 7 Oscar nominations. Ed and I arrived fairly early; we were among the first 100 people into the theater, in what turned out to be a packed house with many people turned away. Waiting for the movie to start, I spotted a young man with a t-shirt featuring a parody of the MISSISSIPPI BURNING logo: “Brooklyn Burning.” I approached this guy to ask him where he got this shirt, and I realized it was Spike Lee! I immediately forgot the shirt and became tongue-tied. I managed to introduce myself and thank him for this screening; he shook my hand and thanked me for coming out to see the movie. During his introduction to the film, Spike acknowledged early critics who predicted DO THE RIGHT THING would incite racial violence, balancing their concerns with his personal mandate that “the gloves come off” following the aforementioned Howard Beach incident. In aspiring to directly address an elephant in the room that had been ignored for years by mainstream films, he calmly and humbly set the bar very high for himself and an ensuing generation of film makers.
I rolled DO THE RIGHT THING nearly two decades later in our agency conference room. It was generally well received, but to my younger coworkers who were raised on the generation of filmmakers who followed in Spike’s footsteps, they found the story overly episodic without enough of a narrative through-line. While that is a fairly accurate point, I submit that it is irrelevant, as DO THE RIGHT THING is not a standard three act structure with a protagonist and an antagonist. Oh, it’s very well disguised as one, enough so to make it marketable. If you want to pick a “good guy” and a “bad guy” out of this bunch, Spike’s pizza deliverer Mookie is a funny and likable enough hero, and Danny Aiello’s pizzeria owner Sal is frequently bombastic enough to be a villain. You can even find a story arc over the course of the single day storyline in that Mookie begins the film as an apathetic quasi-irresponsible kid, and through a sequence of events beyond his control, emerges as a man who makes a stand and takes control with an irreversible decision that affects his entire neighborhood.
Yes, you can say that DO THE RIGHT THING is about Mookie and Sal, and the general racial tension that I used to pitch this film to my coworkers. On further analysis though, I don’t think this is that kind of movie, and I submit that the title alone tells you what type of movie this is. Let’s look at two other titles: TOMBSTONE (1993) and WYATT EARP (1994). I like both, I am in the minority that prefers WYATT EARP, but I think it is notable that their titles alone tell us that these are very different movies. TOMBSTONE is about one event, the infamous Gunfight at the OK Corral, and its effect on the lives of many people. It begins shortly before October 26, 1881 and ends shortly after, padding its running time with some fun western cliches, plus a level of historical inaccuracy required to make These Guys heroes and Those Guys villains. WYATT EARP is about many events in the life of one man, who lived from 1848 to 1929. Since it follows this one man’s life, WYATT EARP is able to give us a more nuanced portrait of Wyatt Earp than TOMBSTONE, examining positive and negative aspects of Earp’s life and personality. DO THE RIGHT THING does not belong to any one character, but there is also more at work than a single event in the lives of many people.
A title like DO THE RIGHT THING has less similarity to TOMBSTONE or WYATT EARP, and more to do with an intangible like THE RIGHT STUFF (1983). It’s probably no coincidence that when I screened THE RIGHT STUFF, some viewers preferred APOLLO 13, again because of its strong central characters an singular story arc. THE RIGHT STUFF and DO THE RIGHT THING are titles that tell you that this is a movie about a specific idea or value. As a pilot you either have THE RIGHT STUFF or you don’t, and only fellow pilots can really discern who possesses that quality. On a sweltering day in Bed-Stuy, with a continuing heatwave expected the following day, you can either DO THE RIGHT THING or not. Da Mayor (Ossie Davis) pointedly admonishes Mookie to “always to the right thing. That’s it.” He does not tell Mookie what the right thing is, or how to do it, only when to do it (always). This is a film about each character’s decision to do right or not, and what happens when one person’s decision collides with that of another. ***SPOLIER ALERT — skip to the next paragraph if you have not seen the film*** — Spike Lee has observed that more have criticized Mookie’s decision to through a garbage can through the window of Sal’s Pizzeria than have objected to the N.Y.P.D. character’s decision to use a lethal (and now illegal) choke hold on Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn).***
To some of my former coworkers, and maybe to some who read this, DO THE RIGHT THING plays as a little outdated. If this is so, it is because we do not make as many films these days about intangibles like the Right Stuff, the Right Thing to do, or faith and doubt. [Spike Lee addressed faith and doubt in THE MIRACLE AT ST. ANA in a manner rarely seen since THE MISSION (1986) and other films written by Robert Bolt.] Because DO THE RIGHT THING wrangles that quality of a single person with the inequality of races in a neighborhood and a nation, the story is able to show examples of each across its spectrum of characters. Sal is not a villain through and through; early in the film he treats Mookie with the same stern affection as he does his own two sons, and embraces his position in this neighborhood, even over the objections of one of those sons. Mookie is not a hero through and through, but don’t take my word for it, ask his girlfriend Tina (Rosie Perez). Da Mayor tries to live by his own advice, and be a good guy, but he is mostly seen as a bum by those around him. Good intentions go wrong. Decisions are often hard to make, and often have unintended consequences. Inaction comes with its own consequences. As long as these things are true, DO THE RIGHT THING will be one for the ages.
Written & Directed by George Lucas, produced by Francis Ford Coppola, starring Robert Duvall, Maggie McOmie, Donald Pleasance, and Sid Haig.
In a bizarre future, the last remnants of humanity survive in a subterranean city. To keep the population from exceeding the limits of the city, everyone takes a regimen of drugs to control their thoughts and emotions. Keep the people doped up and thinking they’re happy and they’ll keep working rather than making more babies than resources can provide for. Wouldn’t ya know it, THX (Duvall) goes off his meds, and experiences love and sex for the first time in his life. In doing so be becomes a fugitive from an army of RoboCops.
An expansion of Lucas’s thesis film, THX-1138 was the first feature made under Coppola’s American Zoetrope banner. Coppola and Lucas created Zoetrope to counter the corporate take-over of the studio system. They made THX-1138 to counter what they saw as an impending and dehumanizing commercialization of society.
It’ll finish Wednesday.
AFTER THOUGHT from 8.22.2011
The Cold War provided no shortage of post apocalyptic survival movies, from Robert Altman’s beguiling QUINTET to George Miller’s visceral MAD MAX trilogy, with a legion of forgettable exploitation movies in between. H.G. Welles’ screen adaptation of his novel THINGS TO COME remind us that tales of who would survive, and how survival would look, have been around nearly as long as the movies themselves. Modern audiences regard the epic scale modest proposal of LOGAN’S RUN as seminal. How closely these films mirror reality, when the future in which the film is set comes to pass, often becomes a chief barometer of their quality. I hesitate to support this theory since we tend to focus on minutiae rather than the soul of a story: Atari may be long gone, and I doubt we’ll have flying police cars by the end of the decade, but these minor points don’t make BLADE RUNNER any less impressive.
We are certainly not living in the underground maze in which THX-1138 is set. We are also, as recent bedbug infestations and E.coli food recalls illustrate, not living in the antiseptic environment Lucas imagined. This film is prescient however, in areas pertaining less to production design, and more to Lucas’ aspiration to examine the steady homogenizing of our existence. THX-1138 has more to say about language, how we will interact with each other and how we will see ourselves, than the vast majority of speculative fiction films. I don’t mean we are there yet, but we are on our way.
BRAVE NEW WORLD introduced us to SOMA in 1932 and the Rolling Stones outed Mother and her Little Helper in ’66. THX-1138 foresaw widespread use of stimulants and sedatives, fertility drugs and chemical castration, and anti-depressants. Lucas also imagined a society where criminal prosecution is used to enforce a drug regimen. We may be heading in that direction when paroles and probation have hinged on citizens being court ordered to accept prescriptions. Sometimes we say this practice is necessary. Sometimes we hear about drug recalls when unexpected complications arise. Daily we see drugs advertized with side effects that sound as bad or worse than the ailment which they are marketed to cure. A handful of multinational conglomerates make money faster than we can print it by selling us drugs designed to help us achieve some elusive zone of normalcy. We have not only stepped knee deep in the dehumanizing commercialization of society we are co-paying for the privilege.
The inhabitants of this particular city are know by a sequence of letters and numbers rather than traditional names. Robert Duvall is THX 1138, his lover is LUH 3417 (Maggie McOmie), and LUH’s coworker is SEN 5241 (Donald Pleasance). For years I accepted fan speculation that these designations were an extension of the numbers tattooed in Nazi concentration camps. Co-writer Walter Murch has suggested that THX was chosen for is resemblance to “sex,” SEN to “sin,” and of course LUH to “love.” Lucas offers an even more mundane interpretation: THX-1138 was his phone number.
Over the last generation we have seen varying phenomena relating to names echoing those in THX-1138. The music world has given us KRS-One, O(+> and J-Lo. Supermarket tabloids attempt to make conventional names similarly unusual: K-fed, Brangelina, Bennifer. (Why is the guy’s name always first? JenniBen has a ring to it!) I didn’t pay this much mind until news reporters got into the act. Pundits hoping to appear the least bit hip will now refer to The President and the First Lady as POTUS and FLOTUS. For years the terrorist with the dialysis issues has been known simply by his last name but recently he has become OBL. If I mentioned bin Laden you would have no doubt who I am talking about; OBL sounds like a large tampon or an airport code. The final straw for me was the recent hotel sex scandal involving DSK, a French financier whose born name is far less known than POTUS or OBL. Ask someone in the street six months ago who Dominique Gaston André Strauss-Kahn was and a significant percentage would probably guess he’s a guest judge on PROJECT: RUNWAY. We’ve gone beyond hip to flat out laziness.
THX-1138 saw all of this coming, not only the manipulation of identity via the maximization of controlled moods and the minimization of our names, but even the reclassification of where we live. In the film we hear that THX works in “operating cell 94107” which is coincidentally the zip code of Zoetrope’s offices during production. People around the world recognize the zip code 90210 and the area code 212. We can identify where in our neighborhood, city or nation we live by a hand signal of three fingers representing a single letter. We live in a world that has seen borders fall by the power of LAN, 386, 486, 2.0, DSL, 3G and 4G all as fewer and fewer of us actually like to read. THX-1138 saw this all coming as far back as when IBM became HAL.
Directed by Wim Winders, featuring Steven Spielberg, Jean-Luc Godard, Werner Herzog, Susan Seidelman, Monte Hellman & Michaelangelo Antonioni.
During the 1982 Cannes Film Festival, Wim Wenders rented out a hotel room and set up a camera inside. He invited a crowd of directors to go into the room one at a time and ponder the question “What is the future of cinema?” For each guest, one reel of film was in the camera, giving them about 8 minutes to answer. It was a neat idea in 1982, and it’s more fun now a generation later, to see who came closest to reality.
Wenders is as well known for documentaries (BUENA VISTA SOCIAL CLUB, LIGHTNING OVER WATER) as he is for narrative films (WINGS OF DESIRE, UNTIL THE END OF THE WORLD). Not much “film making” going on here, but the idea to do this experiment almost in the manner of a Confessional booth is pretty cool.
It’ll finish Friday,
AFTER THOUGHT from 7.31.11
As intriguing as this film continues to be, watching the 2006 Anchor Bay DVD affords the benefit of Wenders’ own commentary, which itself has already become something of a look into past expectations of the future. The term “visionary” gets tossed around by any critic who admires a director’s pretty compositions. Wenders’ brief list of questions becomes a litmus test for artists truly worthy of “visionary” praise, versus those who have made themselves a perfectly respectable career, but who have not yet reflected on that career and their place in the film medium.
We see for ourselves why certain directors who visit Room 666 do not fall into the visionary category through their limited stumbling answers; in a few cases Wenders corroborates that assessment by expressing his own disappointment on the DVD commentary track. There are directors whom he had clearly hoped would offer greater insight, though in fairness to those less eloquent, Wenders acknowledges difficulty sitting alone in a room pondering the questions he himself posed.
Wenders comments on his calculated design for the experiment, not only in his sheet of questions, but his preparation of the room. He left the TV on in case its presence might spur conversation, and provided a chair and table, yet set the camera far enough back to allow one to pace the room should they choose. The more interesting directors react with at least one aspect of Wenders preparations.
Jean-Luc Godard opens the conversation with a philosophical bang. He almost immediately notes the television in the room, on which a tennis match is being played, and pouts that the position of his chair impedes his ability to watch the match. He does not bemoan this issue, but rather quickly launches into a matter of fact comparison of the film aesthetic versus the television aesthetic, without ever again acknowledging the TV. Wenders notes with awe and some affection that as stream of conscious as Godard’s thoughts seemed to be, he was instinctually cognizant of how much time he had to answer. Godard ties his spider web of an answer up with enough time to light a cigar, rise, and limp on an injured left leg out of the frame.
Rainer Werner Fassbinder gives a similar but far more succinct answer compared to Godard’s. On a personal note, I enjoyed the juxtaposition of the original enfant terrible of 70’s European cinema answering questions posed by a fellow German, while the goofy Filmation animated TARZAN Saturday morning cartoon plays on TV behind him. Fassbinder’s answer does not expand much beyond Godard’s, however being as this was among Fassbinder’s final interviews before his untimely death by overdose, Wenders reveals a hint of soul within this intellectual exercise by including all of Fassbinder’s comments. We continue to hear Fassbinder’s voice and read his subtitles as Wenders fades to a Lebanon cedar tree near the Paris airport and then back to room 666. That tree, which also opens and closes the film, is presented to us as a reminder of humanity’s existence long before and hopefully long after film’s relevance as an artistic medium. Wenders’ treatment of Fassbinder’s answer, including his commentary on the relentless and reckless pace under which Fassbinder worked, suggest that an artist purely giving their absolute best for as long as they are physically capable may prove a detriment to the artist and the medium if that artist burns out before his or her time.
Werner Herzog’s interview is a personal delight for me. Before responding to Wenders’ list, Herzog says that one must take their shoes off to answer these sort of questions. He not only takes off his shoes, but his socks, and also is the only director to turn off the TV. Before Herzog even begins to answer, he alters factors of the experiment to suit himself. This is a visionary. If making himself comfortable regarding his shoes and socks are not enough evidence of his uniqueness, Herzog’s observations take two transcending steps, one of which was too far sighted to even be acknowledged by Wenders in 2006. Herzog presages the rise of the internet, which Wenders addresses by commenting to the effect that Herzog in ’82 would be impressed by how far technology had advanced by 2006. But here’s where Herzog’s vision goes a step beyond: he even suggests that we will be shopping for vegetables with our phones. Herzog foresaw 4G smartphones in 1982, which as recently as 2006 was not yet assumed to be the next phase beyond the internet. Herzog also ruminates on how film itself as a medium may soon come to pass, but he regards the tools of filmmaking as vital to whichever of these new media will drive the final nail in film’s coffin. If you know Herzog, you know this is about as close as he comes to being optimistic.
The rental on Room 666 wraps up with Michelangelo Antonioni. We hear from the tone of Wenders’ commentary that he has as great affection of Antonioni as he does Godard. It is easy to see why. Antonioni is equally as profound as Godard, but focused in an entirely different direction; where Godard’s concern is the evolution of his chosen means of expression, Antonioni considers his responsibility to an audience to be of primary concern. Antonioni was also among the few who did not feel threated by TV and video, even suggesting the rise of “high definition video,” a foresight so ahead of its time yet so casually delivered that it barely registers in 1982. Antonioni is such a warm and intelligent gent that watching him here makes me want to re-watch all of his films immediately.
ROOM 666 concludes with Wenders reading a prepared statement from Yilmaz Güney. Güney was a Turkish writer/director whose film YOL won the Cannes Film Festival that year, but who remained in hiding outside of Cannes throughout the festival, as he was wanted in Turkey as an escaped political prisoner. This vital conclusion reminds us that even as film changes to video, and then to hi-def internet, the true visionaries of the form will always find a way to get into trouble with their stories. That’s a lot to pack a 46 minute running time, huh?
Directed by Ridley Scott, starring Harrison Ford, Rutger Hauer, Sean Young, Daryl Hannah, William Sanderson, James Hong, Joe Turkel and M. Emmet Walsh, featuring a score by the mad Greek, Vangelis.
Los Angeles, 2019: Androids, herein called Replicants, have taken the place of humans performing hazardous occupations. Among those occupations is the colonization of space. Four replicants mutiny in space, return to Los Angeles seeking their creator, and leave a path of violence in their quest. Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), a burnt out detective who specializes in hunting down rogue androids, leaves his own pretty grim wake trying to keep the mutineers from their goal.
While BLADE RUNNER is stylistically the most fully realized dystopian nightmare sci-fi movie this side of METROPOLIS (1927), its story is pure Film Noir. It took me several viewings to get past the stunning visuals and understand that Deckard is following up real clues like a proper detective, and not merely stumbling from cool action moment to cooler action moment. After I noticed that, I started noticing other colorful subtleties (like the fact that Deckard is an alcoholic) that a lesser movie that didn’t trust its audience would have beaten them over the head with.
Why are we watching this, haven’t we all seen it already? I missed this new Ridley “Final Cut” when it played at The Landmark last November, and I dunno about you guys, but my TV at home is nowhere near as big as the one in the 8North conference room. If this version contains differences from the 1982 Theatrical and 1992 Director’s Cut versions, I want to be able to spot them on the best screen available! If you’ve wondered whether this new DVD is worth buying, come check it out.
It’ll finish Wednesday.
AFTER THOUGHT from 7.26.11
I tend to prefer movies that attempt multiple levels, even if they are not entirely successful on all of them, to movies that attempt and succeed on only one level. BLADE RUNNER is a favorite among science fiction movies plus it resonates as an existential quest film. In addition to this being one of my favorite film noir detective movies it is, at least in my estimation, the quintessential Los Angeles movie. This movie fires on all burners and the end result is delicious.
I was fortunate enough to be born within the wake of 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY where suddenly it was no longer enough for science fiction movies to simply be about robots and rayguns. Movies like SILENT RUNNING and LOGAN’S RUN and Charlton Heston’s trilogy of doom (PLANET OF THE APES, THE OMEGA MAN, SOYLENT GREEN) used science fiction as a framework to explore political instability, environmental degradation and nuclear annihilation. Though STAR WARS proved that it was more profitable to turn that frown upside down, this did not spell the end of future fear; 1982 blessed us with THE ROAD WARRIOR and BLADE RUNNER. BLADE RUNNER envisioned a future of of haves and have-nots where a few live in fantastic opulence, like Replicant creator Dr. Eldon Tyrell (Joe Turkel), and the rest exist in squalor.
This is a cautionary tale at its most pointed; virtually every promise of a “brighter tomorrow” is balanced by a glimpse at the failure of that promise. Replicants are not the only technology having the reverse effect of their intended design. Plumes of fire shoot into a permanently sooty sky as a by-product of generating the power necessary to run the city’s massive high rises. Modern conveniences in Deckard’s home, including a lightning fast elevator and voice activated amenities, do not make the place any less of a dump. Sure there are flying cars, but seemingly few for a city this crowded; most are exclusively for police surveillance.
It is rare that an existential quest is handled as directly as it is in BLADE RUNNER. Films where human characters confront their perception of their deity or search for meaning in their life tend to be ponderous, what supporters would call deliberately paced, and detractors dismiss as tedious or boring. The search of the Replicants, led by Nietzcshian superman Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer), is somewhat less complicated in that they know where they were manufactured. They only need to find their chief designer, the aforementioned Dr. Tyrell. Deckard’s hardboiled voiceover in the original theatrical release explains that Batty and his crew simply want the same answers the rest of us want from life. Where human characters questioning their existence struggle to define the questions they wish to pose to their chosen higher power, the Replicants have precisely defined questions, but face the task of locating the intellect who designed their minds to find their answers.
***SPOILER: Please skip to the next paragraph if you have not seen the film*** A debate has raged among fans as to whether Rick Deckard himself is a Replicant. In Philip K. Dick’s “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” the novel on which BLADE RUNNER was based, Deckard is revealed to be artifical. Ridley Scott has been cagey over the years, but his answer tends to support Dick’s novel. Harrison Ford and Rutger Hauer prefer to believe that Deckard is human. Such a conflict of ideologies could have wrecked the story, and allegedly did cause considerable tension between Scott and Ford, but I think it makes for a better film. Since nothing is implicitly revealed as to Deckhard’s humanity, his own spiritual identity becomes a more gnawing mystery than that of the known Replicants. The Replicants may hunt, fight, and kill their way to their maker. Deckard continues to search for the vocabulary to even question his existence, or else quiet his soul with that great melodramatic indicator of human weakness and suffering: booze.
Deckard’s alcoholism is one of the time honored traits of a Film Noir antihero but it also humanizes him compared to his virtually flawless Replicant opponents. Deckard is not one of the MAD MEN drinkers who make viewers nostalgic for frequently slurred-speaking, occasionally falling-down drunks, who barely manage to do their jobs. He is more the alcoholic typified by Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) in DOUBLE INDEMNITY; return home from work? Pour a drink. Saying goodbye? One for the road. Shot a Replicant woman in the back on a crowded street? Don’t bother phoning it in promptly like a good cop, go buy a bottle first. The very notion that the hero cop is, in his own warped way, as twisted as those he pursues makes BLADE RUNNER stand shoulder to shoulder with other 80’s noir like Kasdan’s BODY HEAT or Eastwood’s TIGHTROPE.
The production and costume design take their cues from film noir of the late 1930’s to 1950’s. Before exaggerated shoulder pads became a staple of power suits for executive women in the mid 80’s, Sean Young sported classic Joan Crawford hair and Lauren Bacall / Katherine Hepburn style as a Replicant so perfectly constructed that she does not know she is artificial. The smudged makeup, spiked hair and fetish clothing of the renegade Replicants suggests a trajectory where the L.A. punk scene, pioneered by The Circle Jerks and Dead Kennedys during BLADE RUNNER’S late 70’s early 80’s development, had continued to spawn among an angry proletariat. Beneath Roy Batty’s punk surface we find an unexpected collision of two noir archetypes: the cold and calculating villain, and the wronged man seeking revenge. While Batty toggles between punk and noir, existential and visceral, everything about Rick Deckard’s world clings wholeheartedly to noir ethos. His shadowy Frank Llyod Wright tiled apartment, the dilapidated Blade Runner department (filmed in the Art Deco former splendor of L.A.’s Union Station), and the easy going unguarded racism of Deckard’s boss Captain Bryant belie the unsupressable decay of those clinging to a buttoned up 1950’s normalcy.
The finale of BLADE RUNNER plays out within the Bradbury Building, a downtown L.A. icon that has been featured in noir classics from D.O.A. to CHINATOWN as well as multiple episodes of THE OUTER LIMITS. The Bradbury has such a signature look and name that its mere inclusion becomes shorthand for the world we have entered. When I saw BLADE RUNNER in Westport, CT on opening weekend, you could spot the true sci-fi fans in the audience by who reacted when Captain Bryant informs Deckard to continue his investigation “at the Bradbury apartments.” I had not yet visited Los Angeles, didn’t know this was a real building, nor do I expect most of the audience did either. We simply took it as an invocation of sci-fi saint Ray Bradbury. As much as a nod to Ray elicits credibility in the fantasy realm of the incredible, it also enables the film to establish its L.A. reputation, Ray’s position being as solid as Chandler’s in the pantheon of L.A. writers. The very use of the Bradbury building and its name confirms that this is not New York or Chicago, San Francisco or Off-World, this is the City of the Angels.
BLADE RUNNER is a like a snow-globe representation of the past, present and future of Los Angeles, violently shaken so that 100 years of the city collide at once. Past Los Angeles is referenced via architecture and a shared history with film noir, with the present acknowledged by massive neon advertising for Atari, RCA, and Pan-Am, which in 1982 seemed like corporations capable of global dominance. The future of Los Angeles is evinced by more than Replicants and flying cars, more than electronic music and punk rock fashion. No less than the language of the people has evolved. Early in the film we were introduced to what Deckard’s voiceover in the original cut described as “city speak, gutter talk. A mishmash of Japanese, Spanish, German, what have you.” I remember thinking this prediction of racial and ethnic mingling must strike your average Klansmen as the scariest vision of the future any movie has ever created. In 2019 there is no Chinatown or South Central or Beverly Hills, no Boyle Heights or Koreatown or Little Tokyo; every community has overflowed its banks such that the language of Los Angeles encompasses elements of every ethnicity.
BLADE RUNNER is most often regarded as science fiction, but as with the sociological implications within METROPOLIS or the spiritual secrets of 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, science fiction provides the foundation on which the rest of this experience was built. Is it an existential quandary with gunplay? A pulp mystery with a Kraftwerk style groove? One of the eight million stories in the cybernetic city? It hits me differently each time I revisit it. The one constant is that the words “BladeRunner” have become as loaded as the name “Bradbury” was in 1982, summoning immeasurably more than a film that was coldly received by critics and ticket buyers, to stand for the the kind of story for which you are not prepared but should have seen coming.
In the spring of 1996, a few nerds working in a Los Angeles talent agency began spending our lunch hour watching movies. For the next 12 years we watched 1 or 2 movies per week, starting with the STAR WARS Trilogy, before that term required an "old or new" clarification. Thanks to imported DVDs, we watched Lars von Trier's DOGVILLE before it opened in the U.S. and Wong Kar Wai's 2046 the week before it secured U.S. distribution.
We watched old & new, black-n-white & color, documentaries & silents, epics & the occasional short, dubbed foreign & subtitled, high art, low art and no art. We watched everything we could get our hands on, looking for that spark that made some writer, some producer, some director, some performer say "I gotta make this movie."