Monday, August 22, 2016

Film Diary

Touchez pas au grisbi (1954)


August 20, 2016
Laptop

Jean Gabin's Max bumps into a woman from behind while manoeuvring the back hallway of a nightclub, busy with dancers changing costumes. The woman is facing away from Max, but she turns her head towards him. He grips her breasts with both hands and asks, "Do you need a hand carrying these?" After a beat or two, when I was shocked at this film's casual sexism, the film reveals these two know each other and have a sexual relationship. Obviously this does not obviate the sexism of the act, nor does it mediate any of the rest of the film's sexism, such as a woman getting slapped in the face for snorting some cocaine (or snuff, I'm not sure). Or later, when Max confronts the girlfriend of his partner-in-crime, he ruthlessly slaps her and her friend to extract information from them. Admittedly, Touchez pas au grisbi is a film noir and thus fairly misanthropic—but the casual violence seems specifically against women. Yes, people get gunned down, but none of the men seem to suffer the slaps of Max as women do (though I should admit an effeminate bellhop gets slapped a couple times; his crypto-queerness signals that his victimhood still fits in the logic of relaxed violence against people who aren't manly men).

Touchez pas au grisbi (don't touch the loot) has all the coolness and spontaneous charm of the best film noir: the dialogue is highly quotable, the camerawork is athletic and fun, and the overall structure of feeling is of bleakness. Though unsubtle in its thematic unfolding, the film even manages to do some interesting work in terms of ageism: Max berates Riton, his business partner and longtime friend (possibly even companion, if we wanted to do a first year student's queer reading) for running around with younger women and having jowls. Crime is a younger man's game, the protagonist suggests, though ultimately, Max survives over the younger men that seek to ruin him. And survives is the apt word, as the loot he's not to touch ends up slipping from his grasp, meaning he does not thrive or flourish. As with most of the great film noir, the ending packs the most amount of nihilism: Riton is dead, the loot is gone, and Max has nothing, only his public persona, to keep him company through his old age.

To the film's credit, though bothered by the relaxed misogyny, I was always invested in Max's journey, both the emotional one and the literal one. This is mostly due to Jean Gabin's exquisite layered performance: his wrinkled forehead, his tailored suits, his gruff voice and sparkling eyes. There should be no shock that this was the film that provided his career with a second wind; it's a fantastic performance. I've not seen other films with Gabin, but I'm certainly going to try now.

Leave Her To Heaven (1945)


August 21, 2016
Blu-ray (projected)

I couldn't get a handle on Leave Her To Heaven until the halfway point. I was expecting a traditional film noir, with elements of crime and perhaps even detection, but the film stymied my expectations. Closer to the halfway point, I couldn't help but wonder where the narrative was going; everything seemed so listless and unmotivated. However, the tumblers all clicked into place during Ellen and Dick's honeymoon at a secluded cabin. Dick's brother Danny and the house handyman have gone to town for supplies, leaving the two newlyweds alone for the first time. Though, Dick was too busy working on his novel to inform Ellen of their solitude. She expresses frustration that the novel has taken up so much of his attention, along with the other people. At this point I realized that Ellen wasn't a traditional femme fatale, the kind looking for wealth or thrills, but a woman struggling to express her sexual desires.

It's fairly old hat to read psycho-sexual subtexts into film noir, but I couldn't stop myself from seeing Ellen as just a woman being denied a fuck from her husband. One of feminism's many projects is to destigmatize female sexual desire and expression; women are sexual creatures too, full of wants and needs, but society has criminalized and stigmatized this aspect of female experience. Ellen is a person unable to express her own desires for sex (a separate thing from love, I might add) because of the classic patriarchal demonizing of female sexuality. She touches her husband, a loving gesture, and then a sound interrupts them before they can bang. She looks through binoculars at a surprise that Dick has set up: her sister and mother are visiting. Obviously, this couldn't be more of a boner killer, and she comes close to losing her temper. The rest of the film has Ellen slowly manipulate or murder people in order to get what she wants: sex without love. Of course this is all subtext, but it's not very subtle.

I didn't love the film but I did like it. Gene Tierney's fiery performance as Ellen struck me as more of a Katherine Hepburn impression than a fully formed character, but I still found her struggles to get fucked to be sympathetic. The film very carefully straddles a line of sympathy and vilification of her, perhaps its strongest suit. Dick seems a fairly inert and boring husband, which strikes me as a purposeful choice on the film's part. The audience is meant to waver in their sympathies for the characters. Depicting Dick as bland and without passion helps the audience vacillate. Similarly, casting Vincent Price as the other suitor was a masterful move, as his drab effeminate attorney character, one of Price's excellent modes of performance, contrasts eventually with his other mode: bombastic full bodied acting. Hilariously, the case that the prosecution mounts might be the absolute worst case I've ever seen depicted on the screen: not only did Price's character not recuse himself from the trial, but he badgers the witnesses with hostile questions about love, all without a single objection from the defence. Though, Price's boom and fury was mesmerizing and made the final twenty minutes simply fly by. Perhaps not the best film noir or melodrama I've seen from this era but still very enjoyable.

I noted that I saw this projected. My friend set up a projector in his house and had me and another friend over for our "cinema club." It was my pick and I had heard great things about this film. Watching this projected in high definition was a fantastic experience: the colours were vibrant, the image was crisp, and the screen was large enough that I could discern details I would have missed at home on the TV setup we have right now. It was a treat and I look forward to seeing more this way.

Scorch Trials (2015)


August 22, 2016
Netflix

I wish I had seen this film when I was 15: I would have loved it. I'm such a fan of many of the tropes and visuals in the film: the urban space turned desert, with the hulking husks of building looming over the deserted streets; the dank dark cavern covered in the tentacles of branches; the cool blue of laboratories that hint at abominations and crimes against science. On top of these images that I would have devoured at a tender age, the director, Wes Ball, has an incredible talent for action choreography and editing. His command of visual grammar is impeccable in its efficiency and competency. Any setpiece in the film was guaranteed to be wonderfully coherent and exhilarating.

Alas, I found the narrative painfully boring and a hodgepodge of YA clich├ęs such as the adult authority figure intoning that he knows best for the young goodlooking protagonist or the pleasingly ethnic diversity of the cast, though with white people as the romantic leads. There's oblique or vague foreshadowing references to the lead's father, as what is boy's YA literature but wrestling with the spectre of adulthood as manifested by the Father? I'm reminded of one of Adam Roberts' stellar blog posts on the preponderance of neo-Victorianism in YA literature. He writes:
the real focus of all these YA fantasies is the absence of, or failings of, the parents. Books either, like Percy Jackson, style themselves as explicitly about the absent but divine parent figure; or, like Potter, they dramatize the peril in which the children find themselves (and from which they must extricate themselves) as the consequences of what their parents’ generation were unable to finish
His argument is that magic in neo-Victorianist YA is a way of negotiating the complex conflicts inherent in the semantic space of maturity. In The Scorch Trials, magic is replaced by the dogmatism of scientism, that ruthless ideology that rationality and the scientific methods are the only legitimate ways of apprehending the laws of the universe. The film posits a post-apocalyptic North America in which a disease known as The Flare (groan; I loathe the jargon of YA) that cannot be defeated through traditional medicine—the affliction can only be forestalled by injections but never beaten. In other words, it's magic ("Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic"). Roberts continues:
This business, the appalling strangeness and glory of coming into individuality that we call ‘growing up’, is tangled up with the origin-points of that individuality—parents as people, and parental culture as authority and ‘the past’—in fantastically powerful and dialectical ways. These ways cannot be well captured by ‘mimesis’, I think; and because the psychological forces at work as so immanently forceful ‘magic’ is the symbolism that most writers have lighted upon, to articulate it
Magic then is the force which the protagonists use to grapple with their impending entry into adulthood. The psychic pain of growing up is so powerful that realism cannot do it justice; rather, the protagonists must navigate a horribly distorted mirror of reality and they must navigate it violently and spectacularly. The film is a breathless series of chases, with most of the dialogue consisting of constant urgings to "come on! run! hurry! go!" as if the narrative itself is exhorting the characters to move past pubescence into maturity. The Scorch Trials, though visually impressive, never really rises above the classic young adult themes that pervade so much of the field: fathers, unrequited love, calls to and refusals of adventure, etc. I'm excited enough by Wes Ball's direction that I look forward to his work outside of the strict confines of YA literature.

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