Archives for the month of: August, 2012

At the 2012 Independent Spirit Awards, Seth Rogen’s opening monologue had a few jokes about Drive, including one that hinged on the incongruity not just of Jewish gangsters, but of Albert Brooks as a Jewish gangster: “Albert Brooks and Ron Perlman were like horrifying in that movie, which was awesome. Seriously, that movie made Jews look so scary I thought Mel Gibson directed it.”

On the one hand, this is a fairly easy trick to pull, because Nicolas Winding Refn shoots Albert in the standard low angle badass framing with an extra dash of Obvious Lighting:

This approach is standard across Drive, with Refn going whole hog for framing that rubs our noses in relationships, such as when Driver goes to Irene’s house:

and when Driver takes Irene and Benicio for a ride, with a before-and-after sense of togetherness made painfully obvious in the one-thing-changed framing that moves Benicio from the back seat to right there with Irene and Driver (in much softer light) in an ersatz family that ramps up the pathos when Standard gets back from prison:

But in the end what makes the violence in Drive so shocking rests in its suddenness and unexpectedness. I can’t think of an Albert Brooks film in which he does anything more physically taxing than jogging. At the end of Defending Your Life he runs to catch the soul/people-mover. Brooks’s star persona guarantees a presence that is intellectual, not physical, which make his killings even more shocking. Refn handles this disconnect in two fascinating ways. In the first killing, Brooks/Bernie goes full Homicide ghetto fork, and the film’s otherwise-careful and studied framing can’t quite “keep up” with the speed of the violence.

Later, when Bernie kills Shannon, he moves quickly and quietly, and even speaks soothingly as Shannon bleeds out. The shot of the fastidious way in which Bernie cleans the murder weapon, and its lack of low angle framing, returns Brooks to his usual role of middle-class professional.

In the climactic showdown between Bernie and Driver, Bernie gets the first stab in, but Driver strikes the killing blow in a scene cut quite similar to the opening pizza-shop murder.

What makes Bernie so scary isn’t that he’s a gangster – Ron Perlman‘s a gangster too, and for all his hulking mass he’s not particularly frightening in a visceral way, Bernie/Brooks is the killer-muscle – it’s that he’s Albert Brooks as a gangster. What would Beatrice Henderson think?

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Albert Brooks does failure better than anyone. To go chronologically through his films is to see failure every step of the way. In the first twenty years of his film career — Taxi Driver (1976), Real Life (1979), Modern Romance (1981), Lost in America (1985), Defending Your Life (1991), I’ll Do Anything (1994), The Scout (1994), and Mother (1996) — he plays a loser more often than not. Part of the pathos of watching Brooks is that he gets older, but his star persona doesn’t learn anything.

His on-air sweat meltdown in Broadcast News is exhibit A, but one image captures the incredible gap between what Aaron Altman could be and what he actually is – and it’s a little piece of set dressing:

Of course he would have a photo from Richard Nixon’s resignation – he fancies himself an important crusading journalist. But Brooks doesn’t take down Nixon or anyone of his ilk in Broadcast New, mostly because he is Nixon. RN, after all, even as the President of the United States of America, felt like he wasn’t at the top of the heap, like enemies were holding him down. That’s Aaron Altman. That’s the Albert Brooks star persona. To be fair, Aaron Altman tracks down stories worth pursuing like central American revolutions. Aaron Altman is scucessful – but he himself cannot believe it. In spite of his achievements he considers himself a complete failure. Broadcast News nudges into thinking that’s because he and Jane Craig (Holly Hunter) never couple off.

The question of “having it all” – job/financial success and a heteronormative life in suburbia – is almost universally applied to women. Albert Brooks may be one of the few male figures who not only confronts the question, but also answers it: No.

As an aside, the new incarnation of this problem is Steve Coogan, most notably in Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, Hamlet 2, and The Trip. I could be convinced about Tropic Thunder and even his cameo-ish appearance in In the Loop.

Part of me ought to be a little upset about Topkapi, the film version of Eric Ambler’s Light of Day. First of all, the ending is completely different. So different that I thought that it was a fantasy sequence before the “real” ending. Second of all, I don’t see what whitewashing Arthur Abdel Simpson into Arthur Simon Simpson really accomplishes, especially since Arthur’s statelessness as an Egyptian-English living on the edges of legality in Greece still haunts the film. And third of all, I can understand why you’d turn Simpson into a supporting role – he comes on, screws up, gets the laughs, and then exits so we can get back to the caper business that he’ll soon screw up – for a straight ahead caper picture, but why bother with a character as compelling as Arthur Abdel Simpson unless you’re going to do something a little different with the film as a whole? All those changes to a book that does so much interesting shit on its own seems to be the sure way to ruin what good there is in Light of Day.* But formally it’s not a straight ahead caper picture.

It’s hard not to love Peter Ustinov’s performance as Simpson. But I was well and truly won over by the film’s style: the lens flares in the title sequence, the overloaded post-title sequence at the fair, the intensely strange I-can-feel-the-acid-coming-on blotches of colour as Melina Mercouri narrates the opening, and Jules Dassin’s visualization of Simpson’s fear of heights, for example, all frame the film as something other than a simple caper. Which is not to say that Jules Rififi Dassin doesn’t deliver on that score. Topkapi doesn’t go for the self-aware smugness of a caper picture that doesn’t care about the caper. Instead, the visuals repeatedly remind us that there’s something excessive in the caper. Or, perhaps more to the point, The International Caper Big Heist Picture.

The film deploys maps to great effect – they are the province of the security services and the police. Whereas the novel’s endpapers feature a map of the Mediterranean, the first time we see a map in the film, Simpson is undergoing an interrogation shot on the edges of parody (with one interrogator up close, and another few across the room):

At the end of the interrogation, the sunglasses-inside intelligence chief points to the map with a gun in a comically menacing gesture which translates Ambler’s usual approach to police authority fairly well.

When the thieves are caught, once again, a map hovers in the background as testament to the ways in which the police and secret services control space, in spite of what the smugly unified thieves might think:

Finally, the travelogue-style shots of Istanbul feature a number of interesting shots of shanty settlements, which once again places Topkapi outside the 007-style tourist vision of exotic foreign locales. At no point does the film get into overt politics, but Jules Dassin (who has it over Ambler as a committed and active lefty), even in his second-unit establishing shots, places his film in something closer to a lived-in world, rather than the world of the International Location Shoot Picture.

*I have an article (that may some day get published, Karen Elizabeth Bishop I’m rooting for you) about stateless cartography in Light of Day and Dirty Story, Ambler’s Simpson novels. In the article, I see Simpson as a stateless person who sees the future. That is, the solution that Simpson finds to the problem of post-War statelessness is an ironic embrace of the multinational corporate model: establishing a fictional personhood wherever the greatest financial and regulatory advantages are at the moment, through incorpoation documents (passports, forged of course).

While I’m not particularly interested in the geography of Norwegian cinema – unless and until my Fulbright application to University of Bergen is successful – Troll Hunter finds room for three Tom Conley in Cartographic Cinema style scenes featuring maps that drive my reading of the film.

First of all, the film is a wonderful through-the-windscreen travelogue of Norway.

Then there’s the film’s eminently sensible way of explaining why Hans would open up to the student film crew: a troll hunter’s working conditions are for shit. And even the non-dangerous stuff is soul-crushing in a Scandinavian bureaucracy run amok kind of way.

For my purposes, Troll Hunter’s use of maps rhymes nicely with the film’s Cloverfield Troll Project aesthetic. Going back into the fairy-tale past – Troll Hunter frequently returns to questions of fairy tales not matching the real nature of trolls – demands reference to an older sort of map.As Mike Peterson explained to me recently, the vast majority of topographical maps that we use today are the product of hand-tracing in the pre-digital cartography era. Accordingly, in the build up to the film’s final showdown, Hans busts out a standard-issue paper topographical map of Dovre:

On their way to Dovre, Hans and the film crew visit a power station, where they are shown a map of the area the station powers, once again on a paper topographical map:

All of this makes sense, because the maps that Hans has already shown the film crew are similarly paper-based topographical maps:

This may seem hardly worth noting, but Troll Hunter is set in the present day of its release, 2010. Student journalists have digital cameras; Hans texts his supervisor at TSS. It is a world with google earth. For a film with a shady government agency, cross-country tracking of prey, and a bunch of Big Scary Monsters that threaten Our Way of Life, Troll Hunter assiduously avoids the usual Hollywood genre conventions of, most notably, lots of CGI, but also of the high-tech HQ full of digital maps, like in the Bourne movies (which still feel compelled to include a paper map, like a security blanket).

But instead, like the film itself, something more self-consciously “hand-made” appears most powerfully not as the CG trolls, but in Hans’ obsessively annotated troll maps.

During the domestic hullabaloo that opens Sixteen Candles, suburban dad Jim Baker (Paul Dooley) gets shut out of the bathroom by his getting-married-tomorrow daughter, who tells him, “I happen to have a serious problem.” Enter twelve-or-so year old Mike (Justin Henry) to explain things to his father.

Mike: She’s got her period. Should make for an interesting honeymoon, huh?

Jim: Where are you learning that stuff?

Mike: [with a smirk] School. [exit]

Jim: Good. Getting my money’s worth.

Sixteen Candles tells us quite a lot about the town where the Bakers live – Evanston, Illinois – through this line. While we can ascribe some of Mike’s worldliness to the pedagogical power of hierloom issues of Playboy, Penthouse, and Hustler, that information isn’t in the movie. What we do have is a line of dialog that says “sex ed in middle school.” And Jim Baker, suburban dad, is totally cool with it. In fact, he’s satisfied that his kid is learning something in school.

I find it difficult to imagine this scene in a film made in the last fifteen years, mostly because American public education decisions are one of the last holdouts in the move toward greater inclusion.

This more or less tossed-off dialog exchange led me to think about what high school looked like for 80s teen dramas. To look at John Hughes’ other high school films: Sixteen Candles also has study hall, mentions of a class called “independent development,” and gym class (including a scene that lingers over a headless nude female torso while still managing to retain a PG rating). For all the group therapy in Breakfast Club, the classes they talk about are gym (Andrew), shop (Brian and Bender), and physics (Brian). Ferris Bueller’s Day Off feature’s Ben Stein’s economics/history class. And Weird Science has science and gym class. Curiously, there’s no literature class in any of these.

Nor is there in Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, which orbits around a hodgepodge world history class. Say Anything opens with Diane Court (Ione Skye) being introduced as excelling in “history…oceanography…creative writing…and biochemistry” as a way to drive home how smart she is, but there’s no classroom for creative writing, although we do get to see Corey (Lili Taylor) workshop her songs. Better Off Dead mines French class for some of its jokes. Finally, in a more serious vein, Stand and Deliver is about a calculus class.

And here an article is a waitin to be born. Of Reagan’s Secretaries of Education — Terrel Bell, Bill Bennett, and Lauro Cavasos — Bennett seems to be the person to look at for a sense of what the national conversation about education policy looked like. The other figure to consider is ED Hirsch, who published Cultural Literacy in 1987. After I refamiliarize myself with these two gents and their contributions to the debate, I’ll have more to say.