Gone Girl (US, 2014)

Feminist or not feminist? That is the question

Feminist or not feminist? That is the question

I enjoyed Gillian Flynn’s novel and she has adeptly written the screenplay, directed by David Fincher. I didn’t bother with the film in the cinema because Fincher’s movies have disappointed me since Fight Club (US, 1999) and I didn’t fancy two and a half hours of a narrative I knew. However, primarily through the power of Rosamund Pike’s femme fatale, this is an adaptation well worth watching. Fincher’s mise en scene, with his characteristic flat, antiseptic shooting of bourgeois modernity, is ideal for the film and Ben Affleck, as the slightly vacant hunk, is perfectly cast.

Although I’ve tagged the film ‘feminist’ I’m not sure it is; the debates are well summarised on Bitchflicks. I think the film is an exceptionally ‘open’ (or writerly in Barthes’ terms) text and so what follows is my reading although I’m conscious that this is exceptionally personal (by that I mean, although all readings we make are ‘personal’, with open texts our understanding of the world is likely to have a greater impact on the reading).

As Megan Kearns points out, on the Bitchflicks site, the ‘cool girl’ speech that Amy makes is key:

“The cool girl. The cool girl is hot. Cool girl doesn’t get angry. … And she presents her mouth for fucking.”

This is accompanied by shots of women (chosen by Fincher) and so suggests women are complicit (which they are) in allowing the ‘cool girl’ trope to be exploited by men. However, men are more complicit because of patriarchy, and Fincher should at least have included men within the mise en scene for this speech. Spoiler alert: also, the use of rape by Amy (Pike) to frame a man is contentious however I read her psychopathology as being the result of being pressured to be the ‘perfect woman’ (which began with her parents cannibalising her life as Amazing Amy). So although her murder of controlling millionaire Desi Collins isn’t justifiable in moral terms, I felt it was the right thing for Amy to do in her circumstances (that is, in the plot of a film and not reality). Amy does what it takes to take control of her life in a patriarchal world and, as such, is a feminist character.

This is a femme fatale that destroys the man who falls for her without destroying herself; although that was her original intention.

Flynn’s work is also a brilliant takedown of the romance of marriage; the roles and games we play that are not sustainable. This brings us back to Fight Club (which was a very faithful adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk’s novel) which similarly excoriated 21st century, bourgeois existence and Gone Girl is Fincher’s best film since then. His ‘cool’ visual style is a perfect accompaniment for the soullessness of modern existence.

Blade Runner (US, 1982, 1991, 2007)

Getting better all the time?

Getting better all the time?

The rerelease of ‘the final cut’ of Blade Runner charted in the UK top ten last weekend; not many 33 year old films do that; although this cut is only eight years old. I’ve extracted the introduction to the Film Note I wrote before the final version was released:

Blade Runner, based on a novel by Philip K. Dick and directed by Ridley Scott, was originally released in 1982 to general critical derision and was a box office failure. However it became a cult movie (see Part Four: Contexts – Audience) and was eventually re-released as Blade Runner – the Director’s Cut in 1992. Critical reception was again mixed but the box office, on a restricted release, was relatively good. In 1982 most viewers were impressed by the astounding vision of the future presented by the film but many were confused by the narrative and assumed it to be incoherent.

Now the film is ‘canonised’ by York Film Notes and the British Film Institute’s ‘modern classics’ series, it is seen to be an endlessly fascinating movie and one of the few great science fiction films of the twentieth century.

In Britain at least, science fiction (SF) remains in the literary ghetto inhabited by pulp fiction. In bookshops the genre is corralled on its own – like Crime – and the glaring, lurid, Day-Glo colours of the books seem to ‘warn off’ non-anoraks. In North America, however, the genre thrives in academic journals and is recognised as one of the most vibrant areas of literature.

It is probably the ‘fantasy’ element of SF that puts many off the genre: the belief that it has nothing to say about contemporary life and that its narrative worlds are unbelievable. Certainly much of SF, like all genres, is essentially escapist and, as such, performs an important function. However we must distinguish between these SF texts which are ‘non-genre’, or ‘soft’, SF, and those which deal with issues concerning what it means to be human which are ‘genre’, or ‘hard’, SF. Far from escaping everyday life, these texts often lead us into the mire of contemporary existence. Genre SF is never about the future, it is about now.

Blade Runner is ‘genre’ SF and deals with questions of humanity through a comparison between the replicants – particularly Roy Batty – and their hunter, Deckard. Although the replicants are machines the film suggests that, in the characters of Batty and Rachel, they have much to teach us about acting like a human being. Although Deckard appears to be the central character, he verges on being an anti-hero in his attitude and actions.

Fans of ‘genre’ SF are used to considering such issues, just as they are used to creating – through their reading – alien worlds. The critics who complained that they could not make sense of the world of L.A. 2019 were simply not working hard enough. For example, it is quite easy to infer the answers to the following questions:

  • Question: Why is it always dark? Answer: There has been an ecological disaster that has polluted the atmosphere, virtually obliterating the sun.
  • Why is the city full of ‘foreigners’? A. Everyone who can has gone Off-world and the races left behind are those who have been economically discriminated against.
  • Why is the language spoken on the street unlike our own? A. Language is constantly changing and the cityspeak of LA 2019 is a melange of Japanese, German and Spanish. This evokes the future by combining languages to make the familiar different.
  • Why are some parts of the city overcrowded and others deserted? A. The over-crowding is seen in the market sector; Sebastian’s apartment is deserted but who would want to live there?

And so on.

The film’s fascination does not simply reside in its philosophy; the extraordinary nature of its visual conception provides virtually endless visual pleasure and presents a well rounded, convincing view of our future.

Because the film became a cult, obsessive fans have analysed the film frame by frame and shared their conclusions on the internet. In addition, the ‘false’ ending in the original version provided fuel for much debate during the 1980s which the release of the ‘director’s cut’ in 1991 only partially dampened. Discussion of Blade Runner is encouraged because it is an open text that allows a wide range of interpretation to be justified from a close reading.

To enjoy Blade Runner you do not have to be a fan of SF you simply have to be interested in what it means to be human in the twenty-first century.

If that whetted your appetite you can buy the kindle edition: Film Notes: Blade Runner

Klute (US, 1971)

Typically misogynist noir

Typically misogynist noir

Klute is one of the feted films from New, or Renaissance, Hollywood; the fews years at the start of the ’70s when the studios backed films ‘with something to say’ as well as making entertainment. I recently watched the same director’s, Alan J. Pakula, The Parallax View (US, 1974), and found it had dated badly though its paranoia about large corporations is extremely sane now. Klute stands up far better with brilliant cinematography from Gordon Willis and Jane Fonda’s exceptional performance in the lead. Fonda plays Bree Daniels, a would-be actor and part-time prostitute, who is investigated by Donald Sutherland’s (exceptionally wooden) John Klute who’s looking for a missing friend. To be fair Klute is meant to be ‘a straight’, hippy for ‘boring’, but Sutherland’s usual charisma is severely lacking. Fonda’s high powered performance, however, is sufficient to make the film to be worth watching. Klute was an important film for feminists at the time, Diane Giddis, for example, in ‘The Divided Woman: Bree Daniels in Klute’, argued that it that it foregrounded women in a way that was new to Hollywood. Others, such as Christine Gledhill in ‘Klute 2: Feminism and Klute‘, pointed out that the film wasn’t quite as progressive as feminists hoped. Gledhill is right. For a start the film isn’t called Daniels, making Klute the supposed centre of the narrative suggests the primacy of the male experience and he does get to play the usual Hollywood knight rescuing the damsel. However, I think it is better to think of Daniels as the true protagonist, in a way that Giddis meant even if she misread the film, because it makes the film far more interesting. It is a psychological portrait of a ‘liberated’ woman of the time who is anything but liberated as she has to sell her body to get control over her life and requires a ‘good’ man to save her. Although the film seems to think it is being progressive it is mired in the misogyny of the time and does not free itself of patriarchy. There’s an excellent Senses of Cinema article here. Pakula offers us striking widescreen compositions and the dark heart of 1970s  America  is caustically exposed.

Bastards (Les salauds, France-Germany, 2013)

Tortured, and torturing, men

Tortured, and torturing, men

It’s 40 years since Chinatown reinvigorated film noir with more explicit representations of violence and cynicism. Claire Denis’ contribution to neo noir, based in part on William Faulkner’s Sanctuary, foregrounds male complicity with the darkness of the genre. If, in classic noir, the femme was the ‘mame to blame’, here men are – in the main – scumbags of the highest order. This is even mostly true of our protagonist, moodily played by Vincent Lindon who, at least, seems to be motivated by goodness.

I found the plot typically noirish, it had me peering into the dark to fathom what was going on; my viewing partner, however, had no such problem. But then maybe her gender, female, meant it made sense to her. I’ll try not to ‘spoil’ but my first reaction was the the depraved coda was unnecessary as we already knew what had happened. In retrospect I think Denis was right to include it; it was more, I think, I just didn’t want to see it at the time having been mired in the darkness of Bastards for 100-odd minutes. Now, it makes sense to have done so.

Denis’ films are always worth seeing and can be one of the view directors that can be considered an auteur; a point made by Roy Stafford in his introduction to the film. Roy was launching his excellent The Global Film Book which I can recommend to anyone interested in cinema.

For cineastes

For cineastes

Se7en (US, 1995) – kindle extract: film noir

Classic neo noir

Classic neo noir

The below is extracted from Film Note: Se7en, available for the next six days for less than half price here!

FILM NOIR

It was during the summer of 1946 that French moviegoers discovered a new type of American film … movies which shared a strange and violent tone, tinged with a unique kind of eroticism: … The Maltese Falcon, … Laura, … Murder, My Sweet, Double Indemnity, and … The Woman in the Window. (Borde and Chaumeton, 1999, p. 17; first published in 1955)

Deprived of Hollywood movies during the German occupation of the Second World War, French critics had the opportunity, after the war’s end, to view a glut of movies made during the war years. They saw a group of films that had a visual style in common and narratives that shared the mood of serie noire novels. They dubbed these film noir and a new genre was born.

The fact that the makers of these movies were not aware of the existence of film noir is not important. The zeitgeist (‘spirit of the times’) of 1940s America, plus changing conditions of film production and of many German emigres, laid the foundation for the new genre. Although there are disputes as to which film qualifies as the first film noir critics cite the John Huston-directed The Maltese Falcon (1941) as the ground-breaking movie. Based on Dashiel Hammett’s novel, featuring private detective Sam Spade, The Maltese Falcon had the hard-boiled detective narrative that was characteristic of pulp fiction thrived, in the 1920s, as serials in magazines such as Black Mask. It was not until three years later, with the arrival of the other films cited by Borde and Chaumeton, that the classic film noir cycle got into ‘full-flow, culminating with Touch of Evil in 1958. The hiatus, between and 1944, was probably a result of Hollywood responding to the War effort.

Unsurprisingly, the Second World War caused massive social upheaval, possibly most lastingly felt in the changing role of women. As men fought on the front line, women were drafted into factories to take on ‘men’s’ work. This gave women a sense of independence and helped fuel their husbands’/boyfriends’ fantasies about what ‘their’ women might be up to. In addition, at the war’s end, men wanted ‘their’ jobs back and women were forced back into the home or the menial employment they had ‘enjoyed’ before the war. This eruption of gender identity was expressed in the film noir character of the femme fatale.

In addition, many soldiers were traumatised by their wartime experiences. They had spent up to five years fighting in the company of men and killing in terrifying conditions, so the return to civilian life was anything but easy. Many suffered from the then largely unrecognised post-traumatic stress syndrome. Hence many film noir characters are veterans, suspicious of women, psychologically scarred by their experiences and capable of psychotic violence.

Also during the 1940s, the theories of psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud became fashionable in North America. His belief that human beings’ civilised nature was barely skin deep and our ‘animal side’, the id, was never far away can be seen in film noir‘s narratives that investigate the dark side of humanity.

Paul Kerr (1999) has suggested that industrial constraints helped fuel the film noir genre. These films were made as B pictures (as distinct from the prestigious and expensive A pictures) and were made on tight schedules with little interference from the studio producer. This relative independence meant experimentation was possible in both visual style and narrative. With the time constraints (Edgar Ulmer’s classic Detour, 1945, was made in six days), night and location shooting were required, which helped in the development of filmnoir‘s look.

The influx of German directors, who were fleeing the Nazis, was probably most influential. During the early 1920s, a number of German films drew upon the Expressionist visual style that emphasised characters’ state of mind by exaggerating and distorting the exterior world. In film noir, this mutated into lighting patterns that used shadows to distort people and objects, and camera angles that made the ‘normal’ grotesque. This visual style can be considered to be the iconography of film noir; indeed some critics argue that film noir is not a genre at all but a film movement characterised by its visual style (see Place, 1980). Westerns, such as Rancho Notorious (1952), have been shot as film noir. Rancho Notorious was directed by Fritz Lang, who made his name in Germany with films like Metropolis (1927) and M (1931). Lang made many classic films noir, including Woman in the Window and The Big Heat (1953). As we saw in Background: Director as auteur, Lang has influenced David Fincher.

Although critics suggest the classic film noir cycle ended in 1958, films noir continued to be made: Odds Against Tomorrow was released in 1959 and Cape Fear three years later. However, it was not until the 1980s that there appeared a large number of films that shared film noir characteristics and these have been dubbed neo noir. Body Heat (1981) possibly heralded this return to favour of the convoluted narrative dealing with corrupt individuals. As a 1980s’ remake of Double Indemnity, the sex scenes in Body Heat could be as explicit as those in the earlier films noir had been implicit.

A number of neo-noirs, including Chinatown (1974) and L.A. Confidential (1997), can be considered as pastiches that knowingly, and lovingly, recreate the style of earlier films, albeit in colour and with a modern sensibility. Other neo noirs, such as Se7en, move the genre forward and so avoid pastiche. Se7en‘s unmitigated tale of woe (most classic films noir did at least gesture toward a happy ending), suggests there is little, or no hope for modern society (see Critical Responses).

There is not enough space here to do justice to the variations and complexity of film noir; for a more in-depth, though still relatively brief survey, see Lacey (2000) or any of the following books dedicated to the genre: Cameron (1992), Hirsch (1999), Kaplan (1980) or Krutnik (1991).

 

Body Heat (US, 1981)

Too hot to handle

Too hot to handle

There was a series of neo noirs in the eighties and nineties where the femme fatale not only seduced the hapless male protagonist but was allowed to get away with her ill-gotten gains. Unlike during the classic noir period where the Production Code’s ‘law of compensating values’ meant that they had to be punished for their sins. The Last Seduction‘s (US, 1994) femme could be the hardest of them all but Kathleen Turner’s (above) Maddie Walker certainly isn’t far behind.

I won’t give the plot away (though it is a remake of the brilliant Double Indemnity, 1944), suffice to say Lawrence Kasdan’s atmospheric (he also scripted) direction superbly conveys the sultry Florida atmosphere aided by great performances from all involved; William Hurt remains one of my favourite actors, he was great in this year’s The Challenger – a TV movie.

Some writer’s speculated that the resurrection of noir at the time was a reflection of male anxiety, just as it was in the post-war period when men were suspicious of their woman’s fidelity during the war. In addition, at that time women were being put back into the home having done ‘man’s’ work as part of the war effort. In the latter years’ of the 20th century anxiety was occasioned by feminists’ gains in the workplace and home. Looking at the ‘gender wars’ landscape now, however, it’s clear that men continue to win.

Se7en (US, 1995)

This is not going to end well

This is not going to end well

Once upon a time a young idealistic cop, and his wife, moves to the big city because he thinks he can do some good. He’s teamed with a cynical partner who is about to retire. Together they seek a serial killer who’s using the seven deadly sins as his inspiration. The killer is captured and the young cop, and his wife, lives happily ever after. Imagine Se7en concluding in such a way, something studio executives desired. The film would have remained stylish, exciting and depressing. Fortunately we have Se7en as it is, Se7en a film of contradictions: downbeat ending but popular; entertaining and bleak; genre and art house; European and American.

Virtually all Hollywood narratives are structured as fairy tales and so offer a happy ending. Se7en managed to be both subversive in its ending – people do not live ‘happily ever after’ – and popular: it grossed over $100 million at the North American (USA and Canada) box office. The downbeat ending (to understate the case) is not entirely absent in Hollywood’s output, indeed during the ‘New Hollywood’ of the early 1970s it was not exceptional (The Godfather, 1971, for example). However after Jaws (1975), the High Concept (see Contexts: Hollywood) summer blockbuster’ became the studios’ preferred method of making money and films conceived as blockbusters generally do not have unhappy endings.

Most people watch Hollywood cinema in order to be entertained. The biggest box office films of the year are invariably ‘popcorn movies’ whose ambition is to do no more than make money by entertaining as many people as possible. In North America, the world’s biggest market, recent top grossing movies have included: Independence Day (1996); Titanic (1997); Armageddon (1998); Star Wars: The Phantom Menace (1999) and Dr Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2000). With the exception of Titanic, which dealt with social class and gender, these films have little, or no, pretensions about making significant statements about the human condition. Se7en, on the other hand, offers a vision that is bleak with virtually no possibility of redemption.

Se7en cover

Se7en, like most entertaining films, is a genre movie; or rather a mix of a number of genres including film noir, serial killer and horror, It is also, in many ways, an art movie where ideas predominate over visceral pleasure. In this it has a European sensibility rather an optimistic brashness that typifies North American product. Despite this all its main creative personnel, cinematographer aside, are American. Many deride Hollywood for producing formulaic and banal films. This it does, but Hollywood also produces masterpieces like Se7en.

Extracted from Film Note: Se7en (available on kindle here)