2010s, Action-Adventure, Comedy, Crime/Detective, Thriller

Baby Driver (2017)

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Director/ Screenwriter: Edgar Wright

By Roderick Heath

A heist scene, both in life and in movies, is traditionally a scene of fear, ferocity, chaos, and sometimes bloodshed. Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver kicks off on the other hand with a sequence of startling formal artistry and glib humour as its hero, who remains for nearly the entire film known purely by the sobriquet of Baby (Ansel Elgort), sits behind the wheel, waiting in a car whilst criminal associates pillage a bank, bopping and miming along to the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion’s thunderous rocker “Bellbottoms.” Once the proper bandits, Buddy (Jon Hamm) and his wife Darling (Eiza Gonzalez), and ally Griff (Jon Bernthal), dash back to the car and cry for Baby to step on it, the young ace takes off and leads the cops on a merry chase through downtown Atlanta, wreaking choreographed mayhem, the raucous yet fleet and graceful action carefully interwoven with frenetic music. Pile-ups are neatly contrived, a row of tyre spikes neatly flicked from under Baby’s wheels under the the tyres of a pursuit vehicle like a soccer player flicking a ball off their heel, rules of man and physics casually subverted in a car chase that exploits the layout of Atlanta’s streets to turn them into a zone akin to Pac Man’s classically boxy, labyrinthine field of action.
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Baby eventually delivers himself and his charges in safe, slick fashion to their rendezvous with fence and heist planner Doc (Kevin Spacey). When performing his usual post-job ritual of fetching coffee for all, Baby strides down the street, now to the swing-and-slide saunter of Bob and Earl’s “Harlem Shuffle.” The streetscape snaps into the groove filling Baby’s ears, the whole world taking on a funkified rhythm, the actions of the pedestrians and the variegated colourings of the street suggesting the choreography in a Vincent Minnelli or Jacques Demy movie without quite bursting out into proper song and dance. It’s more as if Baby’s immersion instead helps him see the natural music of life about him, keen to the manifold forms expression intersecting in metropolitan life. Baby halts for a moment to mimic the pose on a sprawling work of public art, and the lyrics to the song he’s listening to are written on street lamps. All setting the scene for a moment that will change Baby’s life, as he sees the girl of his lifetime, Debora (Lily James) striding past the coffee shop.
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Edgar Wright’s directorial feature oeuvre to date – A Fistful of Fingers (1995), Shaun of the Dead (2004), Hot Fuzz (2007), Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World (2011), and The World’s End (2014) – testifies to a talent whose gifts emerge in a devious fashion, realised best when taking seriously things many other people would never pause to think too hard about. On top of formidable visual skill, his films have been thus far both burlesques upon and valentines to beloved movies, music, games, and comics, but are also case studies of people caught in varying stages of development, often arrested but not always unhappily or unproductively, commenting with a good–natured humour that often belies the concision of his satiric streak on the state of modern being in which the tests of character and fortitude that come our way in contemporary life tend to be random, even surreal. Shaun of the Dead reprocessed the basic notions of George Romero’s zombie movies but critiqued their critique, negating the appealing edge of macho fantasy and stern, straighten-up-and-fly-right tenor of most such survivalist horror tales, to celebrate our right to be slouchy slackers when life offers little else that’s more satisfying. Hot Fuzz, the most overt spoof amongst Wright’s films, walked cop and horror clichés through the anxieties of characters who feel stymied in their careers and cheated of the best uses of their gifts, whilst Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World described the problems of trying to reconcile the drug-like power of romanticism with hard truths and the hunt for authenticity via a series of gaudy comic book situations and virtual reality adventures. The World’s End introduced an edge of middle-aged hysteria to his template as it mocked Invasion of the Body Snatchers-style tales but also analysed its heroes’ bilious refusal to change in the face of their own abused and decaying flesh and intractable natures.
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Wright is one of the few filmmakers to take heart Quentin Tarantino’s most interesting facet, the one intrigued by the tension between lived experience and the cheering embrace of our cultural touchstones and obsessions, icons in a life journey that lend coherence to the way we see ourselves and orchestrate our days. Wright’s comedic touch has native aspects too, however, in such diverse fields as the sardonic, parochial touch of the Ealing comedy styles, the neurotic potency of the British sci-fi and horror schools, and the puckish, kinetic buoyancy of Richard Lester’s early swinging London adventures. For me, The World’s End failed to quite bring Wright to a new threshold of maturity, as it was also his most curiously misshapen and tonally indecisive work to date. Baby Driver, named for the saucy Simon and Garfunkel song that plays over the end credits, declares with its title an intention to conjure a legend of youthful vivacity, and sees Wright returning to North America for what is in part a romp through a landscape of cultural canards, and like Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World, his last foray there, focuses on a hero in the awkward space between childhood and manhood. One difference between Baby Driver and Wright’s earlier work however is its new approach to genre storytelling; Baby Driver is a tale of crime and revenge given a day-glo paint job, but still one that takes its pulp imperatives seriously.
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Baby Driver’s antecedents are fairly obvious, as the film belongs to a subgenre of crime film that owes many of its tenets and essential ideas to Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samourai (1967), which essentially created the modern archetype of the stoic and emotionally uninvolved crime professional who is pushed at last into a personal struggle. Wright’s more immediate touchstone here, like Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive (2011), is Walter Hill’s The Driver (1978), which retranslated Melville’s precepts back into native American noir traditions (Wright gives Hill a cameo late in the film), and which owed a debt itself to Richard Fleischer’s first attempt to meld these styles, The Last Run (1971). Wright gives this a distinctive twist, of course, in his approach to Baby, whose veneer of detachment is not that of a world-weary pro but a happy-go-lucky kid who’s somehow gotten himself into a deadly line of work. The gimmick at the heart of the film revolves around Baby’s love for music, a love that has practical, even therapeutic aspects. He’s dogged by tinnitus and haunted by the death of his parents, particularly his chanteuse mother, both the result of a car accident that occurred during one of their many, often violent arguments. But music is also his way of keeping a clamouring, insistent, rather evil world at bay, of ordering and structuring his day, of imposing coherent limitations on jostling chaos and impositions. As long as the music is playing, Baby’s universe makes sense.
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It’s very plain what Wright actually has in mind with Baby even as he conveys his experience through the trappings of thrills and spills: the experience of being a creative young man trying urgently to maintain equilibrium and a bubble of personal space when surrounded by thugs, bullies, and other energy vampires. Other criminals look askance at Baby’s habits. Griff takes on the role of schoolyard creep in trying to break into Baby’s private world, harassing him, tugging out his earbuds, slapping off his sunglasses, and trying to make him flinch with false punches. Baby successfully maintains his glaze of cool in the face of such predations, however, as he always has another pair of sunglasses and another iPod stocked up with killer tunes to retreat into. Wright contextualises Baby’s strange life as the film unfolds, revealing him as orphaned at a young age, placed into foster care with a deaf and elderly black man, Joseph (C.J. Jones), whom he now cares for in response. Baby grew up with a predilection for stealing cars, and developed his miraculous driving gifts eluding the cops that way. The notion of a white boy brought up by a black man has an overtone of cultural inference in addition to servicing character development. As well as evoking a sense of natural empathy between outcasts, as an avatar of pop culture in general, Baby is son of a rich and fecund sprawl of cosmopolitan artistic heritage, rejecting the brutal inheritance of his biological father, who beat his mother, in favour of celebrating his mother’s creativity and his adoptive father’s soul, making literal Jim Morrison’s comedic boasts about being the son of an old blues man. Baby has obtained his second, rather more Fagin-ish patriarch in the shape of Doc, who deliberately allowed Baby to jack a car of his with some valuable property aboard simply to admire his form and then announced to him he was going to work for him until he’d paid off what he cost him.
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Baby expects to go his merry way once he’s finished working off the debt, and even confidently takes a job driving pizzas to please Joseph, who detests Baby’s involvement with crime. Meanwhile Baby sublimates his way of interacting with the world into fashioning pieces of artisanal, purely personal art: he records conversations and uses a pile of dated machinery to create brief, groovy mixes that turn the stuff of his life into art. Baby also mediates his own social dysfunction by utilising the same methods of sampling and remixing to fake his way through conversations, as when he uses some dialogue out of Monsters, Inc. (2001) to mollify Doc. Baby of course soon learns Doc has no intention of letting such an asset go, as Doc delivers threats to his person and loved-ones unless he keeps driving for him, a pivot that seems to render Doc’s status as his defender and arbiter entirely false. Baby’s emotional imperative to find a way out of his predicament gains new impetus as he falls under the spell of Debora, when he encounters her working at the diner he frequents because his mother once worked there too – from the moment Debora walks in singing the refrain of Carla Thomas’ “B-A-B-Y” it’s plain Debora is the woman for our hero, and it helps she’s a charming chatterbox who readily falls into a rhythm with the usually silent young man. Wright offers a vision of Debora hovering before a mural depicting a couple in a car racing for the sunset in a vintage roadster and Baby begins to experience faintly David Lynchian fantasies in black and white involving realising the moment with Debora. Wright conjures idealised girlfriends better than any director since Cameron Crowe, and some of the pictures he offers of Baby and Debora’s romancing, their feet bopping in sublime accord to the tune they’re listening to through shared earbuds and their fingers making music with the glasses on a restaurant table, are both expert pieces of observed behaviour with an added lustre of romanticism that plugs into the film’s almost religious sense of musicality.
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The idea of making an action film that works like a dance film has an obvious magnificence to it, and the best and most frustrating aspects of Baby Driver are wound in with this idea, as Wright sets up the conceit but never follows through on it in quite the kind of mighty, silent movie, Keystone Kops-esque set-piece it seems to demand. Wright instead keeps the musical motif more like a metronomic pulse for the action, in keeping with Baby’s specific use for the music to structure and time his escapades. Baby gains what seems to be an exact polar opposite and natural adversary in the form of Bats (Jamie Foxx), a flashy hard-ass who quickly reveals a paranoid and ruthless, murderous streak. Bats commands a crew on the heist that marks what Baby thinks will be his last, also consisting of Eddie No-Nose (formerly Eddie Big-Nose; played by Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea) and hapless JD (Lanny Joon). JD’s various screw-ups on the job, including leaving his shotgun in a car they flee and accidentally buying Austin Powers masks instead of Michael Myers of Halloween fame masks to wear in their robbery (“This is Mike Myers!”) earn him a brutal death at the hands of Bats (can anyone whose nerd lexicon is so poor survive long today?). Baby is handed the job of disposing of body and car in a junkyard press. Baby’s unavoidable humanity is the one roadblock he can’t navigate, natch.
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Wright’s method of developing emotional involvement in Baby Driver is relatively smart and supple: Baby keeps gaining short, judicious glimpses of obscene violence, the stuff he’s so urgently trying to tune out whilst taking care of business. And yet he also shares with his director a quick and lucid eye for the stuff of everyday life that puts no-one in contempt until they earn it. His world is essentially one that’s kindly, filled with beaming cashiers, mothers with children, and other, casual passers-by, the people who tend to be knocked over, if they’re lucky, by careening and careless criminals. Baby is even so decent that in one scene when his life’s depending on it he delays his getaway a few moments to give the old lady whose car he’s stealing her purse. Even JD’s pathos is noted as Baby asks him about a tattoo that’s been altered from “hate” to “hat” to increase his chances of employment (“How’s that working for you?” “Who doesn’t like hats?”). Baby is left standing staring at the metal beast chewing up JD and the car, with nothing to do except drift away into the day, turn up the Commodores (has any other film ever wrung such poetic grace from the easy-listening manifesto that is “I’m Easy”?), and get on with the business of being alive.
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Baby Driver is of course at heart a fun and carefree entertainment, but it’s not one that’s mindless. In fact it often struck me as having more to say about how many live now than quite a few more serious films, in its blithe and zipless fashion, faithful to the ephemera of behaviour – who hasn’t sat behind the wheel of their car bopping to a favourite song? The modern world offers a peculiar ability to us now, to be at once at large in the world but also to keep it at bay, something an invention like the iPod made easier, more freewheeling, less tethered than ever, and Wright plainly reveals a great affection for this invention (one whose era already seems to be ending) that at last realised the audiophile’s dream of carrying their record collection with them and never having to submit to the indignities of muzak and muffle the abuse of the world to a dull rumble. Wright even seems to gleefully court the diverse reaction people in the audience will have to Baby’s affectations, which will strike some as like self-portrait and others life a mass of infuriating tics and traits, reactions that might depend, perhaps, on one’s age and life experience – anyone who’s been ticked off at a teen relative who won’t divest themselves of their headphones or sniffs at hipster affectations like Baby’s craft-art collection of outmoded technologies might well react in a phobic manner to him. But Baby Driver isn’t merely about such cloistered pleasures. It’s most fundamentally about the moment that comes, or should come, in every life, when you have to turn the music off and abandon the personalised survival mechanisms that one develops when young, and pay proper attention to what’s happening in front of you. This even seems to me to be a general existential state at the moment.
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As Doc forces him to continue with his life of crime, Baby nonetheless finds himself plunged back into the company of an all-star team of Doc’s pet badasses, including grizzled and wary Buddy, bombshell-in-both-senses Darling, and batshit Bats. Doc assembles this crew as he intends a robbery of a downtown post office to get hold of blank money orders, and gets Baby to scout the post office in the company of Doc’s young but already canny nephew Samm (Brogan Hall). Where the bullish and impatient Bats can barely restrain his contempt for Baby, Buddy seems to feel a certain affection for him, asking him about his tunes and revealing a similar youthful love for cars, a love that always has to be accompanied by a lucky driving song, which Baby reveals to him is Queen’s theatrical epic “Brighton Rock.” Bats puts the crew through a multiplicity of ordeals, seeming to kill a service station worker to make a robbery, snidely grilling Buddy about what he presumes is a yuppie lifestyle that’s slid into less dignified crimes (“Y’all do crimes to support a drug habit, I do drugs to support a crime habit.”), and threatening to shoot Debora when the crew visit the diner when she’s working there, an act Baby forestalls at risk to himself. Bats has already forced Buddy, Darling, and Baby to aid him in massacring an outfit of gun sellers they meet in an abandoned warehouse, upon the realisation they’re cops, without also realising they’re crooked lawmen in league with Doc (Paul Williams plays the showy frontman of this team, a character dubbed the Butcher, which could be the most unlikely match-up of actor to role since, well, Williams played the Mephistophelian Swan in Phantom of the Paradise, 1974).
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The dichotomy of Buddy and Bats as they relate to Baby proves a miscue, at least to the extent that Buddy eventually proves far more dangerous to Baby. Although nominally a shift of ground into a less fantastical style than Wright has offered to date, Baby Driver picks up the running idea of all of his films, in which the adventure offers a coherent metaphor for the maturation, or lack of it, for the heroes, and even presents a variation on the essence of Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World where he must face and defeat a doppelganger, and Buddy is Baby’s, with similar background and loves, but one hardened into an underworld swashbuckler. Buddy’s potently carnal relationship with the younger but more than equally loco Darling sits in stark contrast with Baby’s tentative flirtations with Debora whilst also suggesting what they both might become a few years down the track if they are given up to a seedy and destructive world and lose all moral compass. Trapped between varieties of threat, Baby has to run a gauntlet as his beloved, utterly private hobby is exposed and subjected to merciless inspection by his confederates, as when he tries to sneak home to see Joseph he’s caught by Buddy and Bats, who also finds his tape recorder, and enlarge upon their roles as schoolyard bullies engaging in a glorified game of keep-away as they raid Baby’s apartment, steal his tapes and Joseph’s wheelchair, and force Baby to play his tapes and prove they’re merely harmless fodder for composition.
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Baby’s attempts to be true to his own code even whilst swimming with sharks eventually forces crisis, as he warns away a pleasant cashier he spoke to whilst casing the post office. The cashier promptly fetches a cop, who arrives by Baby’s car just as Bats, Buddy, and Darling emerge with their haul. Bats shoots the cop dead, and the appalled and enraged Baby for a long moment refuses to move the car even as Bats points his shotgun in his face. When Baby does finally gun the motor, he slams the car into the back of a truck, impaling Bats upon steel poles and setting all hell loose. Police cars arrive and Buddy and Darling start a gunfight in the street, machine guns blazing in downtown as Baby flees on foot, desperately attempting to elude the pursuing cops in a parkour-tinged sequence that readily finds the same electric sense of motion and staging as the car chases. Baby inadvertently prevents Buddy and Darling’s escape again when they both try to steal cars in the same parking lot, and Baby rams the couple’s car, an accident that results in Darling being gunned down as she turns her own weapons on the approaching cops again. Buddy blames Baby for her death, and even though both manage to elude the law at last, Baby finds himself outcast and hunted with no-one to turn to but Debora, and finally Doc reveals his truest colours by melting in the face of true love. It’s more than faintly amazing to me that Wright manages to get such an effective lead performance out of Elgort, who had seemed like the biggest hunk of white dough not yet even baked in the first couple of parts I saw him, whilst the rest of the cast about him delivers superlative work, particularly Foxx in all his character’s supine aggression and Gonzalez as a pocket full of crazy, plus Hamm finally unleashing that long-suppressed edge of the maniacal he constantly hinted but kept buttoned down in his Mad Men days.
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It would be fair to say that Baby Driver starts to run out of ideas in its last twenty minutes, and like The World’s End it betrays Wright’s uncertainty about where exactly to draw a line with his narratives, as he insists on following through to a coda that eventually delivers a happy ending after making Baby (whose real name is finally revealed) jump through hoops of law and prison. And yet the finale proper manages to build up such a note of frenetic, maniacal confrontation that subsequent hesitations don’t matter too much. Buddy and Baby battle in an increasingly pathological manner, Hamm’s glowering visage of vengeance bathed in red light, lethal blue stare glaring through shattered glass and flecks of water. Although still nominally in noir-action territory, Wright’s staging here is reminiscent in its colouring and plumes of steam and smoke of sci-fi works, including THX 1138 (1971) and Aliens (1986), whilst also reminding me of a near-forgotten film, Metal Skin (1994), the ill-fated second feature of Romper Stomper director Geoffrey Wright, which similarly resolved its tale of freedom-seeking hotrodders in increasingly gladiatorial surrounds. Although villain is defeated and heroes left to lick their wounds and find a future, Wright delivers a moment of exacting and totemic punishment, as Buddy robs Baby of his hearing by shooting off his gun on either side of his head. This cruel exacting recalls some of the film’s less noted antecedents, particularly two other tales young hotshots going up against the world only to pay a harsh price in physical coin, Marlon Brando’s One Eyed Jacks (1960) and Robert Rossen’s The Hustler (1961). Here, in this vision of youth and age in conflict and the spectacle of losing something you love but learning how to live with it, Wright signals that he might be finding his way through to a new maturity with more elegance than he managed with The World’s End. But it’s finally most apt that Wright’s final image returns to fantasy realised as a reunited Baby and Debora drive off in a roadster, pop cinema and pop music rediscovering their place of birth, out on some dusty southern back road. It might not prove the best film of the year, and yet Baby Driver left me with the feeling that it might well be the only one they’ll be teaching in film schools in twenty years.

Standard
1960s, Auteurs, Comedy

The Ladies Man (1961)

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Director/Screenwriter/Actor: Jerry Lewis

By Roderick Heath

Jerry Lewis’ partnership with Dean Martin had terminated in 1956 as Lewis increasingly dominated their movie collaborations. For every filmgoer who found Lewis a testing presence, there seemed to be another who adored him, and his slapstick talents were so spectacular, so percussive in their cinematic impact that Martin, for all his suave, romantic stature, was increasingly out of place beside Lewis’ one-man-band vibrancy. Herein lay an irony, a strange victory for a man seemingly cast by life as ridiculous second-fiddle, as the Jewish impersonator of male America’s neurotic, semi-infantile Atom-age id outpaced the slick Italianate mouthpiece of its ego. Lewis gave the classic figure of the farceur an added, potent dose of modernist mania, but was nonetheless obviously in the screen tradition of film comedy heroes like Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Jacques Tati, so it might have seemed logical that soon enough Lewis would follow them and begin making his own movies. Lewis the director made his first foray with The Bellboy (1960), a modestly crafted debut shot in black and white, that allowed him nonetheless to articulate his abilities both behind and before the camera through a basic premise, casting himself as a bellboy romping through the halls of the Fontainebleau Hotel, the manifold rooms and jobs presenting him with a gallery of types to monkey with, from sexpots to celebrities. For his second project, Lewis exploited a higher budget and his own swiftly developing skills to attempt a similar concept in a radically different fashion. A script initially penned by Mel Brooks was mostly thrown out and rewritten by Lewis himself. Rather than utilise a real location, Lewis built a vast set to exploit, and The Ladies Man arrived as a monumental act of vaudevillian chutzpah mating with authentic cinematic vision in weird and intricate ways.
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Lewis’ comedy style of course was never for everyone. Rather than the unflappable everymen Chaplin and Keaton played or the bewildered outsider trying to be sociable Tati affected, Lewis’ characters were usually closer in mould to the persona of Harpo Marx, if representing a slightly later stage of development, having achieved verbal facility. The opening scenes of The Ladies Man work as both a challenge and a sensitising process to the meaning of Lewis’ sense of comedy, as he portrays his hero Herbert Heebert, a young man just graduating from college, who is broken-hearted by the spectacle of seeing his girlfriend in the arms of another man, and so vows to his parents that from now on he’s going to entirely give up on women and love. The expenditure of jokes and precepts here comes on with such speed and dexterity it’s hard to process. The short, gangly, excitable nerd finds himself outpaced by a towering, anonymous jock – Lewis cuts off the man’s head in his framing, reducing him to a body that says all – in a basic riff on Lewis’ familiar persona as a man all too aware he hasn’t been cast by nature or society as the star. Lewis mediates this through the acting and film styles he quotes, as Herbert’s distraught reaction mocks the hammy affectations of Yiddish melodrama and silent film, whilst also converting them into a strange kind of android body language. This collides with a third level of referencing as Herbert runs to his mother, who is played by Lewis himself in drag: the stock figure of the Yiddisher mamma is given a Freudian makeover and a dose of drag chic as Herbert’s instantly born neurosis sees him turning inwards in a hall of psychological mirrors.
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The very first shot of the film depicts the sign outside Herbert’s home burg of Milltown, with a hand reaching into frame to shakily revise the population count, and a statement underneath that describes the town as “a very nervous little community.” Lewis segues into a tracking shot moving through the quiet streets of Milltown, following a little old lady as she makes a morning promenade, only to stumble and set off a chain of accidents amongst her townsfolk, all laid out in their tight little boxes, the shops and stalls and vehicles on the main street. Lewis here offers both a kind of explanatory history not only for Herbert but his persona in general, the product of a cordoned little society defined by nerve-induced clumsiness – there really are more like him at home – whilst also hinting this is now an existential state of being. The slightest nervous tic and misplaced motion can disturb a delicately poised equilibrium and set this entire little universe in chaos. Although The Ladies Man eschews overt social satire, it’s not so hard to see why many commentators since have seen him as a true poet laureates of the Cold War’s first phase. The Ladies Man somehow manages to point the way forward to the way Dr. Strangelove, or; How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) would take up the idea of marrying the banana peel gag to unstoppable exigencies of nuclear war to illustrate the psychic landscape of the age. Lewis deals with the symptoms as well as the cause, and mixes in other aspects of cool mockery played as harum-scarum farce too, especially the constantly arousing and frustrating tease of mass media evolving in the era of television.
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Lewis also finds a way here of giving his perversity as a performer, the total stylisation of his comedy method, a quality of depth gained precisely by rejecting depth, like a Japanese painter – an aspect of Lewis’ art echoed by the way he utilises the massive set that will soon be the playground for Herbert’s gradual recovery, which opens before Lewis’s camera in a manner reminiscent at various points of the theatrical stage and ukiyo-e-like illustrative sprawl. Herbert is presented for the early part of the film as a series of totally contrived and excessive gestures, screaming and running off from women, curling up in a foetal ball when someone advises him there’s “always hope,” and generally reacting like a man-sized mass of hysterical tension. The basic concept of The Ladies Man offers up a ripe male fantasy – a hapless nebbish finds himself in the centre of a veritable harem of lovelies – that’s the basic stuff of sex farce, whilst also making such sarcastic sport of it, the fantasy borders on cruel instead. Lewis takes on another stock character, that of the spiky, lovelorn woman who’s sworn off men, and inverts the gender expectations. Herbert’s anxiety and mistrust of women leads him to constantly attempt to leave what’s supposed to be the average Joe’s idea of dream gig.
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After answering a number of job advertisements that see prospective female employers seeing him instantly as a potential love object, Herbert is attracted by a sign in a window of a boarding house calling for a “young bachelor” to apply within. Venturing inside, he’s put at ease to see this time the woman interviewing him, Katie (Kathleen Freeman) is middle-aged and matronly, and when he makes Katie teary with his tale of woe, she presents him as an ideal candidate to be the new houseboy to the owner of the house, retired operatic star Helen Wellenmellen (Helen Traubel). Both Helen and Katie suppress the truth about their establishment out of a peculiar brand of therapeutic intent, for the boarding house is filled to the brim with comely young ladies. Herbert’s arrival in the boarding house sees him installed in a bedroom where appearances are deceiving. A bunk bed proves to be a magnet for the boyish savant, but the top tier proves to be false, and then the lower one also gives out on him, resulting in Herbert slowly sinking into the bed frame in a manner at once utterly hilarious and curiously heartbreaking. By morning he’s glimpsed simply as a blunt posterior jutting out of the frame. Around his obliviously sleeping self, the boarding house comes to life to the tune of a swinging jazz trombone, played by one of the resident girls, who provides musical accompaniment to the morning rituals of her housemates.
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Although Lewis’ famous vanity as a performer-director is often evinced throughout The Ladies Man, this sequence is the core set-piece of the film and doesn’t involve him at all except in negative inference, as Herbert sleeps in blissful ignorance that his greatest nightmare is looming all about him. The awakening household is choreographed in sinuous and slippery fashion, the women riding from bed and doing their morning routines of exercise and make-up before slipping out into the halls in jive-hipped ranks, a sultry radio voice rapping out cool missives to get the day started. This sequence is reminiscent of the musical accumulation of street sounds at the outset of Rouben Mamoulian’s Love Me Tonight (1932), whilst also playing out in manner that can only be likened to a hip be-bop artist’s deconstruction of a big band tune in relation to the flashy, filled-out musical sequences of rival directors of the time like Vincente Minnelli. Indeed, the comedy of The Ladies Man always feels like bebop, skipping when you expect it to stride and ambling when you expect it to gallop, hitting a sour note and then pivoting into a passage of delirium on a dime.
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Lewis extends the musical motif as Helen leads the girls in choral greeting of Herbert when he first claps eyes on the dining room crammed with breakfasting tenants. Helen’s background as a singer helps explain the boarding house’s rich trove, as it’s plainly a natural way-station for girls chasing performing careers. Herbert is put through a training process that sees his natural bafflement by the physical world given free and calamitous reign as he shatters priceless décor and accidentally unleashes a prize collection of butterflies – a priceless joke of pure surrealism (one of Brooks’ few touches left in the film, apparently) as the pinioned and seemingly very dead insects spring out of their frame when Herbert opens the glass over them, only to then return and snap back into place at a whistle. But the ladies are still eager to have Herbert around because they’re desperate to keep someone in the houseboy job, and at Helen’s encouragement in the belief Herbert only wants to be wanted and will be cured of his misogyny this way, the tenants weigh him down with requests to perform odd tasks and chores, which Herbert works up all his pluck and nerve to fulfil. Such tasks include play-acting opposite one perpetually rehearsing actress who pivots from seductive to friendly to face-slapping abusiveness within seconds, and trying to feed the house’s unseen but apparently monstrous pet Baby. Herbert’s attempts to feed Baby, which releases the roars of a lion from its private room, see him try and feed it first with a tub full of milk that gets spat back in his face in a torrent of white, and then with a huge leg of beef that gets swiftly gnawed to the bone. Baby not so subtly represents Herbert’s terror of, well, the pussy, a ravening monster hidden behind a door that he can only satisfy with spectacular and abasing effort.
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Throughout his life, over and above his sometimes prickly nature and gauche public statements, Lewis was dogged by accusations of egocentrism and self-indulgence, qualities that seemed to stand in stark contrast to his officially boyish, even self-demeaning comedy act. And yet it’s hard to deny The Ladies Man gives its auteur scope to show off in highly impressive fashion, particularly when you consider some of the people who call themselves comic actors today. To watch The Ladies Man is chiefly to watch Lewis working hard throughout, trying to show off every facet of himself and his talent, whether it be hanging upside-down from a door-frame or balancing on a mantelpiece whilst trying to clean or managing to totally destroy a collection of precious glassware, and to watch this is to see a great comic actor at the top of his game. The motif of work is a telling obsession of Lewis, his interest in what his characters work at and his love of building his comedy around it. This topic became the central motif one his later films, Hardly Working (1981), where life takes him through a series of brief spells of employment constantly stymied by clumsiness and happenstance – a film that was also a sour charting of his own waning career and obligation to find new ways to make things happen, looking forward to a last decade of his directing career mostly expended on random TV episodes. His interest in the job of work as locus of comedy was also once again clearly following Chaplin and Keaton, whose heroes were also similarly defined by their travails in trying to hold down employment and stumbling from life phase to life phase in such a manner. Ironically for an artist who so often enjoyed burning natural orders to the ground, Lewis celebrates the work ethic in many dimensions, whilst also exploiting it for the ore of his comedy, noting like Chaplin and Keaton how such shifting scenes provoke new and ingenious problems and solutions from a nimble protagonist.
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Lewis’ approach combines elements of both comics, but also defines itself against them. Like Chaplin’s Little Tramp, Herbert is a stranger in a strange land. Lewis’ approach couldn’t be more different to Keaton’s even as both were sublime physical performers who knew how to direct themselves. Keaton’s stoicism in the face of a universe constantly attempting to destroy him cast him as the perfect American, whilst Lewis is his perverse and impish twin, constantly close to tearing apart a settled order by dint of his discomfort within it. Lewis’s sarcastic disavowal of both men’s variations on the sad clown persona is also constantly evinced throughout, as is his contempt for a certain brand of gooey, platitudinous sentiment, one that contextualises his approach to comedy, for he constantly pushes his sarcasm into the realm of physically enacted hyperbole. Lewis pushes his cheek and joker’s license to the point of ending the film with a title card reading, “We wish to thank the United States Armed Forces…(But only if they came to see the picture.)” And yet Lewis zeroes in on the quality that defines his understanding his characterisation when Herbert converses with one character on the subject of loneliness, a state that can subsist even in the midst of many others, to be “alone with noise.” The interludes of outright earnestness that usually punctuate his works, like an underlining of the moral of the story delivered towards the end of The Ladies Man, seem jarring in their contrast to this cynical streak, but really work in adjunct to the hyperbolic quality, a winnowing down of the point to a basic epigram even as the true energies of life explode every which way. Lewis’ work with Frank Tashlin had also left a powerful imprint on his method. Like Tashlin, Lewis’ engagement with the artifice of cinema in the context of comedy, where any disrespect of otherwise rigid rules of popular narrative cinema was permissible, found ebullient release in its sense of freedom and delight in ignoring traditional narrative flow. The lack of a developed story structure in The Ladies Man is an aspect that might strike some as a flaw and others as one of its most mischievous and subversive qualities. Although it stumbles through a kind of story to a form of conclusion, The Ladies Man is more a series of blackout comedy sketches strung together by a central conceit.
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In the same mode as its grand central set, the dramatic architecture is more psychological and emblematic than traditionally narrative, and aspects of the boarding house’s random access portals that make a new form of sense in the age of computing and the internet. Many saw Lewis’ most famous work as director, The Nutty Professor (1963), as a travesty of Lewis’ relationship with Martin. Whilst that was probably an aspect of Lewis’ intentions, it misses the degree to which the two performers’ act had always been a purposefully dichotomous creation, two halves of a functioning human being split into two bodies, an idea The Nutty Professor simply made more literal. The Ladies Man uses the same essential idea whilst commenting less on the shape of the male ego than the bewildering threat of woman to it, fragmenting many possible images of femininity, all given designations like Vitality, Hypochondriac, Intellect, and Sexy Pot. Herbert is repeatedly warned not to venture into the innermost sanctum of the kind, the room of Miss Cartilage (Sylvia Lewis), and just like the bride of Bluebeard Herbert is afflicted with the kind of curiosity that must eventually take him across the fateful threshold.
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Pierrot finds his perfect Pierrette in the form of Fay (Pat Stanley), a wannabe actress who’s a comparatively shy and unschooled figure amongst all these other flashy and accomplished ladies, one who unveils an empathic look when Helen explains Herbert’s hang-up, and connects with him as another lonely and outmatched outsider in the big city who daily has to face the rejection Herbert conscientiously avoids. Not only does Fay bring out Herbert’s calmer side but also offers him a human project, and the otherwise frantically clumsy man suddenly finds his mojo helping Fay master various arts like playing the trombone and jive dancing. Fay eventually gives her fellow tenants a chewing out over their rather too ready willingness to exploit Helen’s advice and make Herbert a flunky. Meanwhile the household around Herbert offers not merely a bounty he’s incapable of taking advantage of but a psychological landscape of compartmentalised hang-ups mediated through pop cultural images, as Lewis’ deconstruction of his own hysterical sexism as matched to an exploration of his own ways of looking. Lewis’ greatest coup in depicting this aspect of himself comes when Herbert is confronted the by the massed ladies in the boarding house dining room. Where Martin would’ve grinned like all his Christmases had come at once, Herbert runs screaming from the room, and Lewis cuts to a long shot that sees Herbert seeming to split apart into multiple, madcap incarnations running up and down the stairs and corridors of the house, his character split into pieces, his being literally disintegrating in the face of all that taunts him and tantalises.
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The elaborate set that Lewis spent a great deal of time, effort, and money on fashioning – at a reputed $1 million cost – is as much a player in the film as any of the actors, a multi-tiered, multi-dimensional stage for Lewis and his cast romp around in. Lewis constantly reminds the viewer this is a creation of theatrical artifice, even contriving, as a television crew invades it, to let the viewer see the elaborate, messy, cacophonous business that goes into creating the façade of well-oiled entertainment. In his next film, The Errand Boy, peeking behind the scenes of Hollywood infrastructure became the overt theme. Here, much as the windows in Rear Window (1954) project the hero’s hopes and anxieties for a looming life of marriage and commitment, the boarding house becomes an open gallery, bedrooms without walls and mirrors without glass. All of Lewis’s actress crushes are actualised, and a panoply of Hollywood stars processed into a certain set of codified behaviours, in various impersonations, as performers offer jokey impressions of the likes of Marilyn Monroe, Marlene Dietrich, and Carol Channing. Traubel’s Helen maintains an obvious sense of connection with type of dowager dames Margaret Dumont played for the Marx Brothers, only Lewis offers her the foil not of Groucho’s patented demimonde shysters but a gawky man-boy thrilled by rather than disaffected towards the apparatus of pop culture. Other women in the house offer various types and traits, from rowdy rock-‘n’-rollers to glamour pusses to bespectacled intellectuals. Lewis’s worst nightmare of being infantalised before such a bevy is swiftly fulfilled as, after protesting he never eats breakfast, is stuck in a high chair and spoon-fed by Katie.
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Lewis extends the game of emasculation as Herbert in the course of his job encounters the boyfriends of some of the women in the house, including a scarred and fearsome heavy, Willard C. Gainsborough (Buddy Lester), and a man famous for playing the same types, George Raft. Herbert is intimidated by Gainsborough, who bosses him about and warns him off paying any attentions to his girl. But when Herbert sits on his hat and he awkwardly attempts to restore it to shape, he steadily ruins Gainsborough’s sharp façade and his hyper-macho persona dissolves into delirious pathos, tough guy utterly defeated by a few swift and efficient revisions to his appearance. This casually brilliant piece of physical business also serves as a master class in comedy costuming, as Lewis shows the audience here a key part of his art even in the course of making hilarious comic capital from it. Raft meanwhile finds himself frustrated when he can’t convince Herbert he’s really himself, failing the crucial test of reproducing his own coin-spinning trick from Scarface (1932). Instead obliged to prove his identity by demonstrating his dancing skills, takes several turns around the parlour with Herbert in his arms, their turns lit with a spotlight. Lewis’ nods to movie history and the complications of a movie star’s projected persona here pivot on Raft’s willing conspiracy to mock his own aura of bulletproof machismo and readiness to show off his gift for dance, a gift he shared with James Cagney and was perhaps long frustrated not to utilise more on screen, now pressed into service in Lewis’ games with gender, offered not with overt mockery but instead as interlude of witty, oddly romantic grace.
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As if to let the viewer know that he’s well aware of his own absurd streak even if he can’t quite conquer it, Lewis makes his tendency towards attention-hogging becomes a major component of the film’s last third, worked out with peerless comedic invention. The boarding house is invaded by a TV crew for an episode of a show called Up Your Street – a spoof of Ed Murrow’s roving interview show Person to Person, complete with a gaunt and intensely serious host constantly hidden behind a cloud of his own cigarette smoke. Herbert turns into an instant camera hog who desperately tries to stay in the camera frame whilst Helen is interviewed, at first hovering by her side and then scampering into the rear of the shot. Lewis makes fun of his own reputation for loudness as he blows a TV sound man out of his seat whilst helping him test his microphone setting, inspiring the sound technician to avenge himself only to soon be subjected to the same aural pummelling from one of his colleagues. Herbert also appears in a selection of pre-recorded performances he and the tenants have thrown together to show off their talents and celebrate the ethic of show business, the common cause of most of the people in the boarding house. Herbert’s antic enthusiasm and sparked desire to get in the spotlight also has the positive effect of giving some exposure to the women as well, even as they find they’ve bitten off just a little more than they can chew, like a frantic tap-dance and a prissy ballet routine.
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The film’s apotheosis of strangeness, and of Lewis’ unique blend of the farcical, metaphorical, and aesthetic, comes when Herbert finally ventures into Miss Cartilage’s room, a surreal space with melting white walls and a veiled bed. Here Miss Cartilage dangles from the ceiling in a black cocoon sack, and greets Herbert with a lusty, “Hi, honey!” as he tugs down the covering on her face, revealing a deathly white pancake of make-up and a pair of yawing, red-lined lips. Suddenly The Ladies Man is skirting the edges of a horror film with Miss Cartilage as man-eating spider-woman whilst Lewis also somehow weaves this into a setting more like a Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers art deco musical fantasy. Lewis tips a nod to Edgar Ulmer’s The Black Cat (1934) in the sight of Cartilage withdrawing behind the veiling curtains of her bed and reclining stiffly in mimicry of Boris Karloff’s mate-mesmerising villain in that film. Cartilage pursues Herbert around in a chase that is also a dance, to the blaring strains of Harry James’ big-band orchestra which magically manifests on her balcony. Here Lewis and the film make ultimate entry into a rhapsody of sickly erotic delirium under cover of spry absurdist effrontery. The film’s twinned punch-lines must inevitably involve Baby, as the monstrous beast is released only to prove a small dog with a mighty roar. But just as he’s convinced to stay at the boarding house and give up his attempts to leave, Herbert is confronted by a real lion strutting through the dining room, one that sets all the women scurrying in panic and which drives Herbert to scream for his mother again. Though he may finally be regaining his ease around women and even have love in his future, Herbert will still have to learn to tame the beast one day.

Standard
1960s, Comedy, French cinema, Thriller

Shoot the Piano Player (1960)

Tirez sur les Pianiste

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Director/Coscreenwriter: François Truffaut

By Roderick Heath

The evergreen lustre the early films of the French New Wave still retain stems in part from a tangible quality inseparable from the moment and place of their making. That sense of fleet-footed adventure encoded in their frames, captured by a bunch of ragged young men and women spilling out into the streets, informed by a sense of lawless enthusiasm, both in taking advantage of an urban space teeming with life usually edited out of films, not yet gentrified and legally corralled into sterility as so many big modern cities are becoming, and excited by the very idea of tactile communion with an art they had previously only worshipped from the theatre seats, theory and aesthetic, cliché and revolt suddenly fusing into new forms, art as a form of obsidian ore. One vital element that connected most of the early films the movement churned out was Raoul Coutard’s photography. Somehow raw and stripped of the usual cinematic gloss and yet also humming with a sense of quicksilver beauty and poise all at once, Coutard’s work was a great part of that mystique, with Paris as his set decorator, as if Cartier-Bresson or Capa had taken up shooting low-budget movies. Amongst the critics turned filmmaker who formed the core of the New Wave, François Truffaut had earned himself a measure of infamy as a reviewer for his harshness, to the point where he was refused an invitation to the Cannes festival in 1958. He took all the chances inherent in putting his money where his mouth was when he made his first film, The 400 Blows (1959), only to stun everyone with his dynamic, intimate, alternately gruelling and beguilingly autobiographical debut. Truffaut quickly followed that success by helping write the script for his friend and fellow Cahiers du Cinema critic Jean-Luc-Godard’s debut as director, Breathless (1960).

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Faced with the question of what to offer as his own sophomore feature, and with most people expecting him to continue in the vein of serious, evocative cinema he had forged, Truffaut balked at the idea of repeating his breakthrough and the kind of praise he received for it. Choosing instead to perform a seemingly radical swivel from personal artist to entertainer, and make a work purely to please himself and other film lovers, he next set out to make the kind of gamy, dynamic genre cinema fare he loved, particularly American gangster films. He chose as his basis the novel Down There by oft-filmed American hardboiled writer David Goodis. Shoot the Piano Player, as the film is generally known, nonetheless proved if anything an even more radically free-form, eccentric, wildly energetic exploration of cinema’s raw textures and testing ground for the peculiar way theoretically trashy material can mesh with personal perspective and creative audaciousness and come out as something entirely new. Shoot the Piano Player has at once the breezy, cheeky flavour of a Parisian bar-room joke and an ultimately lacerating edge of the genuinely mournful, as well as a certain wry, distanced, but substantial perspective on Truffaut’s coming of age as a filmmaker of repute.

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Goodis’ novel, depicting a fallen piano prodigy and his ne’er-do-well brothers who inadvertently draw him back into their seamy criminal world, has a fascinating key-note that Truffaut latched onto, the disparity between the way we understand art as a zone of yearning, disciplined, transcendent reach, and crime, a grimy, degrading world, by offering a character trapped between both spheres. Truffaut, who had dropped out of school and taught himself whilst contending with authorities of all stripes and living by his wits before finding new grounding in the world of film, surely could understand such a schismatic worldview. Trouble was, Truffaut supposedly realised during the shoot how much he detested gangsters and found it stymied his commitment to the story, so he turned increasingly towards comedy and burlesque to defuse his discomfort. Right from the film’s frantic opening shots, it’s instantly obvious that Truffaut had no interest in emulating the poised, technically imperious art associated with Hollywood’s noir masters, however. Basic rules of cinema as largely practiced up to that date are instantly, brazenly ignored, as shots hosepipe dizzyingly, focus drifts in and out, and Coutard’s handheld camerawork records blurry car headlights and scantly-lit nightscapes in impressionist smears.

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Such rudely chaotic beauty and evocation of vertiginous urban menace seems to set the scene for some wildly paranoid flight, as it becomes clear a man is running from a car trying to run him down. But the plunge into action resolves when the man, Chico Saroyan (Albert Rémy), collides with a lamppost, a comic diminuendo to an opening that comes on with such nourish menace. Chico is helped up by a passing stranger (Alex Joffé) who then regales him happily about his life with his wife in a scene of ribald conversation: the urgency of a life-and-death chase, the essence of genre storytelling, gives way to its ambling, contemplative, gently humorous dissection. Only when it’s done and they part ways does Chico take off in a madcap sprint once more, as if remembering what movie he’s supposed to be in. Chico’s flight brings him to a bar thrumming with evening life, thanks to the combo playing there, led by the pianist Charlie Koller (Charles Aznavour) whose poster is on the wall outside. Chico proves to have a distinct motive for coming here: Charlie is in fact his brother, the once-famous Edouard Saroyan, now leading a determinedly modest workaday life entertaining the flotsam of the night. The two heavies who have been dogging his trail, Momo (Claude Mansard) and Ernest (Daniel Boulanger), enter the bar, and Charlie helps stall their pursuit as Chico flees out the back door.

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This early sequence in the bar, run by the leather-skinned Plyne (Serge Davri), is a marvel of swift-serve incidents and character sketches, quickly establishing the terse, closed-off nature of Charlie, so different to his criminal yet gabby, friendly brother, and the people Charlie works with or entertains. Such folk include the sleazy but perversely sympathetic Plyne, the wary Mammy (Catherine Lutz), Plyne’s estranged wife still working the bar, and roaming waitress Léna (Marie Dubois), the gorgeous but cagey object of Plyne’s desire. Around them flit vignettes and oddball characters. Two gawky onlookers mull the quality of flesh in the bar (“The other night it was first class quality!”). A man assures his dancing partner he’s interested in her chest because he’s a doctor. Chico chats up Mammy with gaudy patter: “You’re desirable—that’s why I desire you…I’m planning on getting married tonight.” A young man dancing with lovely prostitute Clarisse (Michèle Mercier) gets tired of her teasing way and gives her a slap, only to earn himself gentlemanly retaliation from Chico. Charlie leaps back onto the piano to distract the audience from the sudden invasion by the two heavies chasing Chico, inspiring the singing waiter (singer-songwriter Boby Lapointe) to jump up and regale the audience with his bouncy, cheerfully bawdy song about a man driven to distraction by his wife’s breast enlargements, with lyrics spelt out on screen singalong-fashion. The way Truffaut shoots Lapointe’s performance, momentarily pausing the frantic pace of his images only to focus on a performer who throws out words and vibrates with rapid-fire energy to equal the director’s.

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Here Truffaut calls back to the Hollywood tradition of shoehorning a musical performance into movies for the sake of broadening appeal, and establishes his own work’s intense feel for the local, street-level cultural life, whilst also offering the director’s own spin on the same phenomenon Godard would later pursue more intently: investigating the synergy of art forms purveyed within art forms, giving the movie over to a performer’s use of space and sound to recalibrate how we react to such elements. Charlie lives in a drab apartment with his youngest brother, Fido (Richard Kanayan), with Clarisse his upstairs neighbour and friend with benefits. Clarisse sleeps with Charlie after both get home from their exertions that night, in a funny scene where Clarisse’s pop sponge of a mind lends proceedings a mode of cultural burlesque as she recites jingles and gives critical opinions of a John Wayne film (“It proves America wants peace.”), and stirs Charlie to make his own joke at the expense of film convention, as he covers Clarisse’s bare breasts with a sheet: “In the movies it’s always like this.” His zipless, pay-as-you-go relationship with Clarisse suits Charlie’s disengaged approach to life, but he soon finds the contracts of identity are about to snap into effect

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Ernest and Momo start tracking him, hoping to find a way to use him to track down Chico, who, along with the fourth Saroyan sibling Richard (Jean-Jacques Aslanian), has ripped them off after a robbery they staged together. Léna alerts Charlie to the fact they’re following him, and she walks with him through the night as Charlie grapples more with his unspoken attraction to Léna than with the dogging hoods. The next morning, Fido spots the two gangsters lurking outside their apartment block and drops a milk container on their bonnet from the third floor. When Charlie emerges from his apartment block, Ernest and Momo swoop on him and drag him into their car at gunpoint, and they soon pick up Léna the same way, intending to pressure Charlie into leading them to his brothers, and Léna realises that Plyne let himself be bribed into giving the hoods their addresses. Léna’s quick wits see her contriving to attract a policeman’s attention, giving her and Charlie a chance to slip away from their kidnappers. Léna then leads Charlie to her apartment where he discovers that, far from being indifferent to him, Léna has been worshipping him from afar, aware of his real name and former identity as a famous concert pianist.

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Charlie doesn’t bear much apparent resemblance to the gutsy, inquisitive, often exasperating Antoine Doinel as introduced in The 400 Blows. Fido evokes Antoine more, with his pranks, quips, mop of Presley-esque hair and finger-snapping pursuit of the right jive rhythm, every inch the natural-born Parisian rascal. Charlie nonetheless offers Truffaut’s first grown-up hero with a sense of linkage to his young alter ego, grown up and offered a taste of paradise only to be defeated by life. Charlie is alternately defined by his cool, detached manner and his almost crippling fear of human interaction, a fear that predates the various traumas that define his life and seem rooted in the act of distinction that cleaved him away from his brothers and set him on a path to refined artistry and success. He recalls young Chico and Richard tossing stones at the car that whisked away to his piano lessons, their mocking reminder, still resonating with Charlie, that in the end he’s still their brother. Charlie’s seemingly stoic, deadpan approach to most situations life throws his way, from gangsters chasing after his brother to the topless prostitute teasing him in bed, belies a deep-set sensitivity, and the voiceover narration Truffaut allows him affects a Bogartian cool but also reveals his timorousness in the face of challenges like whether or not he should try to seduce Léna, and the mantra of noncommittal he repeats to himself when situation get too emotionally charged.

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Charlie has been forged by a form of survivor’s guilt, a trait bolstered by the grim fate of his wife and former career, described in a lengthy flashback halfway through the film. The former Edouard, a struggling musician, had nonetheless been happily married to Thérèse (Nicole Berger), who worked as a waitress whilst he tried to kick-start his career: their daily games of “customer and waitress” in the café where she worked attracted the attention of impresario Lars Schmeel (Claude Heymann), a seemingly fortuitous meeting that resulted in Edouard’s big break, leading to huge fame as a concert performer under Schmeel’s guidance. But the Saroyans’ marriage started to founder as Edouard finally grew more successful, and eventually Thérèse admitted that Schmeel gave Edouard his chance because she agreed to sleep with him. Thérèse then threw herself to her death after Edouard walked out on her, and he completely left behind his former existence, taking refuge for years in anonymous jobs until one day he worked up the courage to tickle the ivories in Plyne’s café again. Finally, the man reborn as Charlie seems to complete his degradation when he and Léna confront Plyne over his betrayal. Plyne, equally steamed as he realises Charlie has “soiled” the lovely Léna, starts a fight that turns deadly as he tries to choke Charlie, forcing the pianist to stab him in the back.

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The greatest quality of Shoot the Piano Player is also the most difficult to fully describe — the blithe way it steps between postures of raucous humour and wistfully earnest feeling, metafictional wiseacrey and waylaying emotional directness. Shoot the Piano Player, amidst the pile-up of jokes, genre touchstones, and romantic ephemera, probes what artistic success means in terms of personal identity, a notion that also extends the attitude of investigation as to what forces define us from childhood to adulthood and what happens to the self when its foundations collapse. This preoccupation would continue to bob up throughout Truffaut’s oeuvre, essayed on an epic scale with his subsequent Doinel films but also evident in works like L’Enfant Sauvage (1969) and The Story of Adele H. (1975). Comedy and tragedy here are wound together like the disparate halves of Charlie/Edouard, right from the opening scene in which thriller canards suddenly swerve into a stranger’s wry but poignant story about how he and his wife got married, had kids, and fell in love in that order, and so has the kind of existence everyone else in the film yearns for but fails at. Even the jokey use of Charlie’s dissonant narration leads in with supple force to a sudden swerve in the way this device is employed, when, during the flashback, Edouard tells himself not to walk out on Therese. His conscious, rational self tries to retain command of his instinctual, emotional self, and fails with terrible consequences. Charlie tries to dispose of the disparity, but such traits remain integral to all human experience, even if some, like Charlie’s brothers and their gangster enemies, operate purely on the level of sensual instinct. This idea is illustrated with bawdy gusto when Ernest raves with wild-eyed glee about erotic wonts and consumerist delights when he and Momo have kidnapped Charlie and Léna. They’re like embodiments of the side of Truffaut’s mind that’s a magpie attracted by shiny objects of all kinds, complete with a watch that rings out the score of Lola Montes (1956).

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The New Wave directors were often driven to comment sarcastically on the fame they had been granted by their anarchic, rule-breaking impulses, which edged in some cases into genuinely revolutionary sensibilities, as suddenly a bunch of café bums and movie geeks found themselves media celebrities. Part and parcel with this was their study of their own schismatic sensibilities, their simultaneous immersion in the modes of cinema and self-conscious distrust for it, the critic-intellectual’s unease with the instinctively profligate method of art and the needs of the entertainment-seeking audience. Here Truffaut found a sly way to wrestle with the question of whether such a charmed life could continue, or if selling out would be inevitable. Cleverly, Schmeel, the devil who consumed Edouard’s life, is presented not as a charming playboy but a kindly, fatherly type to Edouard, one who enjoys his pet pianist so much he puts his portrait on his office wall. Charlie’s shyness is initially funny, but we learn Edouard’s anxiety and discomfort in the public eye harmed his personality, as he felt a need to boast and feed on acclaim, and fuelled the mounting sense of crisis in his private life even before that calamitous revelation. Success demands a price, the kind of price that hacks into the presumptions and recompenses of ordinary life. Léna’s adoption of Charlie as lover also identifies him unapologetically as potential gold mine, as she admits to him she wants him to return to his old life to give her a better one. This signals the possibility of a rebirth for Edouard, but also puts Charlie on a collision course with every fact of his identity he’s been ignoring. The bleak side to Shoot the Piano Player is rooted in one basic irony: the reawakening that life demands from Charlie promises rewards but instead simply replays bitter experience. To be alive is to be open to pain as well as joy, and whilst for some that very alternation can be a drug-like habit, for others shutdown is the only option to weather it.

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Although general audiences initially met it with bemusement, Shoot the Piano Player became a fetish object for movie lovers in itself for Truffaut’s ebullient cinematic stunts, building upon the remarkable camera freeness and willingness to utilise seemingly antiquated or merely functional effects like the iris shot and the freeze frame with definitive authorial intent. It’s still very easy to see what the fuss was about, as even the following decade or so of pop cinema that would relentlessly mine Truffaut and Godard’s works would rarely recreate the pace and bravura ingenuity with which they’re offered. The rough-hewn, almost home-movie-like crudeness apparent in the film’s earliest shots resolves when Chico enters Plyne’s bar into sudden professional precision, mapping out vignettes with Hawksian concision, but offered with a machine-gun pace that flies far ahead of the more measured studio style. Truffaut’s more ostentatious flourishes come on with real wit and bratty showiness, like a triptych shot of Plyne in negotiation with the gangsters revealing him in different postures ranging from noble stonewalling to money-grubbing treachery. Or, most famously, a sudden cutaway after Ernest swears a story he’s told is true on his mother’s life, only to offer a glimpse an old woman suddenly keeling over from a heart attack. As opposed to Godard’s increasingly studious preoccupation with the semantics of expression through cinema, Truffaut remained far more intuitive, catching ideas and whims and condensing them into visual motifs with intelligence but also carefree zest. One of Truffaut’s greatest stylistic pirouettes comes during the flashback sequence, recounting Charlie’s journey to give an audition for Schmeel: his finger hovers for a moment in giant close-up over the doorbell button, the momentousness of the act for the young, talented, but fatally uneasy man captured in all its epic intimacy.

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Truffaut, instead of following Charlie within for the moment of truth, instead tracks the glum-faced violinist who was auditioning before him as she leaves Schmeel’s apartment. The sounds of Charlie’s thunderous romantic strains momentarily make her pause, and continue to resound on the soundtrack as she leaves the building and heads out into the streets, presumably, to a life of anonymity, whilst Charlie has been anointed, with the suggestion, ever so ethereal, that something is wrong. The hints of machinating fate Truffaut offers in this disorientating interlude soon takes shape but offers in its moment an islet of mysterious beauty that suggests another level to Charlie’s journey, the power of music, celebrated again by Truffaut in parentheses with his film. Truffaut returns to the musical interlude motif late in the film, during Charlie and Léna’s flight from the law, shots of the car’s progress along misty highways and into snowy alpine hills set to a languorously romantic song about two lovers who signify their continuing ardour with signs like going bareheaded. Similarly dreamy is a bedroom sequence, as Charlie and Léna make love and sleep peacefully together, counterpointed in aching dissolves with the images of Edouard’s old concert posters on the walls – past, present, and future all in flux. The soft edges of such sequences stand in contrast with the violent filmic syntax elsewhere, as in the rush of shots depicting Edouard’s plunge back into his hotel room and out to the veranda only to see Therese dead far below on the pavement, a moment that communicates the suddenness and horror of such a loss in volubly immediate terms. Truffaut even displays outright contempt for standard movie grammar, as in the concluding moments when the criminal Saroyans and their nemeses flee in cars, Truffaut hacking up the action into summary shots, as if contemptuously farewelling these halfwits and bad seeds who leave human wreckage in their wake.

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Truffaut’s admiration for Hitchcock, which he would later try to work out in more belaboured terms in his fascinating misfire The Bride Wore Black (1968), is first sighted here during Charlie’s fight with Plyne, drawing on Dial M For Murder (1953) as a desperate fight for life sees a blade sunk into a spine, in a moment charged with perverse intimacy. But Hitchcockian erotic overtones are swapped for the weird spectacle of apparent masculine bonhomie, as Plyne affects to embrace Charlie after their hot heads have cooled, only to then start throttling him, a spasm of sexual-nihilistic disappointment turning the bar owner deadly as Plyne grunts out his fury for Charlie despoiling his idealised, virginal version of Léna. Earlier on Charlie had given Plyne a sympathetic ear when he confessed his crush on the waitress, revealed in his gruff pathos as he readily admitted he was far too ugly to charm her (“Perhaps it’s glands,” Charlie suggests; Plyne replies, “No, it’s my face.”). Charlie’s defensive killing is witnessed by neighbours, but he thinks he won’t be able to prove the circumstances, so Léna and Mammy hide him in the café cellar and then help him flee to his parents’ house in the Alps, which has already been taken over by Chico and Richard as their hideout. Meanwhile Ernest and Momo kidnap Fido, and force him to take them to the same place.

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Aznavour’s lead performance was one Shoot the Piano Player’s great coups, bringing to the part surprising physical wit, his weirdly charming molten-plasticine face, and definite comfort with playing the instrument central to the character’s life and way of mediating the world. Although not at the time an experienced actor, he perfectly embodies Charlie’s bipolar nature and wears his sad-sack suppliance as assuredly as one of the trench coats he wears. Some of his best moments come during his first walk with Lena, counting off steps with his fingers behind his back as he tries to work up the courage to take her arm, before starting to suggest they get a drink together, only to find she’s already flitted off into the night. But the whole cast is excellent, particularly the uncanny trio of ladies around him, Mercier, Berger, and Dubois, each a study in a diverse types demarcating different classes and ways of looking at female archetypes. Mercier the black-haired gamine, Berger the classical cool, continental blonde, and Dubois the fresh-faced, brightly smiling urchin: Berger is particularly effective delivering Helene’s long, confessional monologue, prowling around the hotel room in an inescapable shot, pinioned like a butterfly in a collection. Mercier, who would later find great fame playing the cult heroine Angelique in French films, brings an insouciant delight to her role as a featherlight character happy to play bedmate to Charlie and part-time mother to Fido, but who hits the bottle out of guilt after the hoods snatch Fido from under her nose in a vignette of throwaway pathos.

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Dubois, who was Truffaut’s discovery for the film (her real name was Christine Herze), has her finest moments breezily handing Charlie the mission of giving her a better life, which Charlie seems to accept with his familiar deadpan stoicism, only for her then to state, with a show of lancing vulnerability as she farewells him to work, that the only thing she really asks of a man is to tell her when things are over. Later, when Lena drops him off at his parents’ mountain house, Charlie is stricken as he tries to work out how to cast her out of his life now that he seems to have been claimed by the family curse, Aznavour’s face calcified by the conflicting desires to cut himself off from her as he’s sure he’ll bring her doom, and the urge to not let her go, resolving with the unspoken wish, “I wish she’d let me finish drinking that bottle.” The drive into the mountains shifts the film’s gear into a more rarefied realm, charged with an ironically dissonant sense of romanticism and melancholia that cuts across the grain of madcap energy seen in the rest of the film, as Charlie settles down to wait out the night with cigarettes and weltschmerz as his brothers crow that their brother has finally joined them. The dawn brings good news, as Lena returns to tell Charlie he’s been vindicated by the witnesses and can return to the world. But it also brings the two hoods, with the canny Fido snatching a chance to give them the slip.

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A gunfight between the two gangs breaks out, with Lena, sprinting through the snow to try and reach Charlie’s side, gunned down accidentally. In spite of Truffaut’s improvisatory shooting style, Shoot the Piano Player manages to coherently encompass its manifold impulses, starting off with shots of Chico running and building to the climactic moment when Lena dashes through the falling snow. The film is offered as an embodiment of perpetual motion until suddenly it doesn’t – the gun cracks, Lena falls, and slides down the snow-crusted hillside like a pathetic toboggan, coming to a halt in anaesthetising snowfall, the streetwise yet innocent young lady finding an unexpected fate worthy of some Thomas Hardy heroine. Charlie and Fido dash to find her, but recover only an ice-caked corpse, whilst the battling nitwits speed away to whatever end they deserve. As for Charlie, Truffaut reveals in his final, delicately poignant last shots, he returns to his former place behind the piano with fingers dabbing the keys robotically, playing with stone-faced detachment, hovering again in a place outside of life’s regular flow. Truffaut’s peculiar faith that cinema could be anything that he wanted it to be allowed him to dare offer a film so expansive and unruly in its sense of life and death and how the two sometimes overlap, affirming even in the midst of tragedy a romantic’s conviction that life without love is meaningless, be it human or artistic.

Standard
1930s, Comedy, Horror/Eerie, Scifi

Bride of Frankenstein (1935)

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Director: James Whale

By Roderick Heath

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or, The Modern Prometheus is a foundation text of both the science fiction and horror genres. Born of a dull, rainy summer by Lake Geneva by the brilliant young bride in the company of her famous husband Percy, his even more famous friend George Gordon, Lord Byron, and his physician Dr John Polidori, Frankenstein still makes Mary’s name familiar to people for whom Romantic poetry might as well be Klingon. Frankenstein, a text that referenced ancient mythology, was destined to be the legend of an age still busy bring born, the industrial and scientific eras. Shelley was herself product of a revolutionary age, daughter to the feminist theorist Mary Wollstonecraft and immersed in the burgeoning Romantic movement’s spiritual and symbolic conceptualism as well as radical thinking. Many both thrilled at and recoiled from the consequences of that time, the ancient regimes falling and new concepts and hierarchies rifling their way through every familiarity, as the French Revolution had devolved from florid optimism to a grim and concerted mobile slaughter consuming Europe, and that happy, elegant party in Switzerland were contemplating what it all meant via art. Ninety-four years after it was written, Frankenstein was filmed for the first time, by Thomas Edison’s film company. But it was another film version that was to permanently transform Frankenstein into a byword, and throw up an image of the monstrous still instantly recognisable to most people, eighty years after it was made.
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This famous transposition came in 1931, when Universal Studios wanted an appropriate property to follow up a smash hit, Tod Browning’s Dracula. As with that success, they chose an intermediary work, Peggy Webling’s theatrical adaptation, and hired a director who had proven himself gifted at traversing the gap between stage and screen, James Whale. Whale had come to Hollywood to adapt R.C. Sheriff’s play about the fatalism of World War I aviators Journey’s End for the movies. That film’s substantial success made Whale a major director, and he followed it up with the wartime melodrama Waterloo Road (1931). Dracula had suddenly made gothic horror popular after years when, in spite of the genre’s popularity in Europe, both Broadway and Hollywood had largely preferred jokey horrors like the semi-satirical The Cat and the Canary (1928): several years of the Depression and the harsh mood attendant in the early ‘30s had suddenly transformed the zeitgeist. With Frankenstein Whale, in spite of his comparative newness to the medium, fashioned a far more powerful work of cinema than Browning had managed, a dark fairy-tale painted in shades of grey and dusty light. Whale cast his Journey’s End star Colin Clive as the monomaniacal scientist, rechristened Henry rather than the novel’s Victor, and cast a relatively unknown English actor as his creation: the one-time William Pratt, who had rechristened himself Boris Karloff for an aura of the exotic and the sinister.
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Whale’s Frankenstein emerged as a rather different beast to Shelley’s, however. Updated to around the turn of the twentieth century, Whale’s film stepped back from the poetic grandiosity of Shelley’s concepts, which traversed the distance from Alpine peaks to frozen Arctic and pitted creator and creation against each-other each as mutually tortured poet-kings, to present a tight morality play with an atmosphere derived not from the elemental reaches of high Romanticism but from the fetid, id-like realms of Expressionism in art. The monster was conceived not as Shelley’s misbegotten but entirely articulate demi-titan, but a mute, hulking, ugly, instinctual being, both childlike and animalistic in its simplicity, even innocence, and its savagery. This choice, disloyal as it was to Shelley, was the key to the nigh-unshakeable impact Whale’s take has had on popular culture. The monster, in being rendered something less nobly post-human, had become more relevant, a being onto which so much could be projected. Everything different, troubled, outcast, reviled—other—lay behind Karloff’s limpid eyes and misshapen brow. Whale’s fulminating anger at his poverty-stricken childhood, status as a gay man in a hostile world, and the trauma of his wartime service, found just as much accord in the monster as the audience who, suffering through the Depression, surely saw so many of themselves, cast off by a system that had pretended to care for them only to leave them stranded and bewildered by forces beyond control. Any black man scared for his life in Jim Crow south or migrating Oakie trying to find a place of refuge would recognise the mob that chases down and annihilates the hapless creature for its supposed sins, some of which were only the sin of circumstance and others natural response to mistreatment and cold regard.
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Frankenstein’s stark seriousness as a parable had defined it, but Whale’s own sensibility was distinctly less solemn when let off the leash, particularly when it came to generic material he would resist being ghettoised in. With his next ventures into fantastic material, The Old Dark House (1932) and The Invisible Man (1933), he revealed that mischievous streak, interpolating overt humour and eccentricities of style in a way that still feels unexpected and bizarre, offering flashes of a new cultural argot that didn’t have a name then – camp. As Universal clamoured for a sequel to Frankenstein, Whale eventually caved in and agreed to helm it, and produced a film more suited to his personal humour. In spite of its eventual classic status, Bride of Frankenstein was beset by a troubled production, with endless revisions of plot and intent that lasted from initial story proposals to post-production edits designed to pacify the new production code. Whale ran through several screenwriters in searching for a persuasive concept and eventually found one when John L. Balderston, the dramatist who had written Dracula’s source play, hit upon the idea of using a vignette from Shelley’s novel, in which Frankenstein starts building a bride for his monster, and taking this to the logical end Shelley shied away from. The result is almost certainly the greatest of the storied Universal horror films, and also perhaps the strangest, a freewheeling romp through the landscape Whale had created for the first film that manages at once to mock and enlarge that landscape, and the already quickly calcifying clichés of the style Whale helped define.
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Aptly for a film whose title promises new frontiers of sexuality, Bride of Frankenstein grazes downright perverse invocations of the erotic and the abnormal, one that actually gathers impetus and power from Whale’s pitch-black humour and self-satirising impulses. Laughter and dread have long been twinned opposites but are also notoriously difficult to combine effectively. Whale pulled it off in part by rendering the vividly stylised, eerie, shadow-sodden landscapes he had created for Frankenstein even more bleakly beautiful and momentous: Bride of Frankenstein is the height of the gothic horror style on the visual level. Yet Whale populates it with characters who seem rather bewildered to realise they’re in a horror film, like Una O’Connor’s screeching, teetering servant Minnie, and Ernest Thesiger’s villainous Dr Pretorious, who, in spite of his repulsive practices and sinister ends, is also a perversely cheerful bon vivant. Whale’s sensibility is in play right from the opening frames as he segues from a classic horror landscape of a fearsome storm raging above a grim Swiss castle to his take on the pretensions of Byron (Gavin Gordon) and the Shelleys, with Mary (Elsa Lanchester) characterise as a delicate drawing room darner who writes tales about unfathomable horrors but can’t stand the sight of her own blood when she pricks herself with a needle, and Byron as a prototypical fanboy who delights in recounting her own nightmares to Mary’s protest that no-one can see she was trying to tell a serious metaphysical parable.
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The metafictional aspect to this opening – another idea that hadn’t been codified yet – ingeniously allows Whale to continue his narrative under the guise of a natural expansion on Shelley’s idea and lend it a quality rooted in a knowing sense of being told for its own sake, an extension of the parlour game roots of the original story. The scenes of Shelley’s story Byron recounts are also not those of the book but Whale’s film, allowing a recapitulation of that film in a manner close to a highlights reel before a new TV episode. Meanwhile the deliberately artificial acting of the three actors signals Whale’s wry approach to the effete aristocratic fantasies he’s engaging with and his smirking take on the heightened essence of melodrama, taken soon to extremes in Valerie Hobson’s hilarious overacting as Elizabeth, Frankenstein’s fiancé, and Clive’s own raw-nerved performance, which nudges the scientist from thoughtful rebel towards hysterical patsy. Frankenstein, left gravely injured after being thrown from the top of the windmill where the monster apparently met its end at the climax of the first film, is taken home, believed to be dying, but he shows signs of pulling through. Meanwhile at the scorched and crumbled ruins of the mill the Burgomaster (E.E. Clive, splendidly pompous) tries to assert authority over the flocking villagers proud of their handiwork and hoping the monster is dead, including the Frankensteins’ servant Minnie and the parents of the girl the monster drowned, Hans (Reginald Barlow) and his wife (Mary Gordon). Hans, in his distraught desire to see the monster’s body, accidentally falls into the mill’s flooded cellar, and finds the monster scorched and wounded but still very much alive and vengeful. The monster throttles Hans and climbs out, and the near-sighted hausfrau doesn’t realise she’s helping the monster out of the pit until it’s too late: he pitches her down after her husband, before encountering Minnie, whose squawking panic bewilders even him.
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Minnie finds herself frustrated when no-one believes her about the monster’s survival, and the misshapen creature subsists in the forest, terrifying unfortunates he encounters even as he repeatedly tries to reach out to them, including a shepherdess (Ann Darling) who faints and falls into a pond. Although he saves her from drowning, she believes he’s attacking her, and a passing hunter wings him with a bullet. The monster finally finds refuge and fellowship with a blind hermit (O.P. Heggie), whose melancholy violin playing entices and pacifies the creature’s pained ferocity. Meanwhile, as he recovers, Frankenstein is visited by Pretorius, a former teacher at Frankenstein’s university who was “booted out” for pursuing similar forbidden pursuits in trying to create life. Pretorius talks Frankenstein, who has become a Baron since his father’s death during his convalescence, into taking a look at his creations. The Baron is revolted by Pretorius’s pint-sized homunculi, which he grows “like cultures” rather than stitches together and keeps living in jars, but Pretorius does pique Frankenstein’s curiosity when he proposes creating a second, female creature with a combination of their techniques. When a pair of lost hikers walks in upon the creature and the hermit, they spark a fight that results in the burning down of the hermit’s house, leaving the creature homeless and hunted again. Taking refuge in a graveyard, he encounters Pretorius who, with his murderous fugitive helpmates Karl (Dwight Frye) and Ludwig (Ted Billings), is robbing the tombs for body parts. Pretorius takes the monster under his wing and uses him to force the reluctant Frankenstein to complete their project, finally having the creature kidnap Elizabeth to force his hand.
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One of the trickiest aspects of Bride of Frankenstein to appreciate is the blithe way it steps between outright absurdity and total sincerity in treating its themes. Whale’s insistent religious imagery correlates the monster’s suffering with Christ’s, tethered to a pole and raised up as if on the cross, and the eerily highlighted crucifix on the hermit’s wall that lingers in a glowing image even after a fade to black. Whale pushes this element with fervent clarity, like a blazing insight into a core of real, irate, transcendental feeling that is otherwise purposefully contrasted with the absurdity of most human behaviour when backed up by feelings of security and self-satisfaction. At the same time, there’s also a hint of lampooning of the parochial side of this value system, particularly in the down-home church organ that drones under the same scene where the hermit and monster find each-other like a pair of hapless lovers. Minnie embodies this idea most directly for Whale, acting like a firebrand when she thinks the monster is down and screaming and running off when he proves impossible to suppress for long. In the first film Whale portrayed the monster as embittered and reactive after being tormented by Frankenstein’s assistant; here this element becomes something close to behavioural theory, as the reactions of the ostracised and the differentiated result in maladaptation in the face of the ignorant reflexes of others, often forming a tragic roundelay of victimhood. The reactions of people to the monster usually create situations that result in violence and harm. This idea is most vividly illustrated in the sequence when he saves the shepherdess, as he tries to suppress her panicky screams only to make things worse, Whale alternating between viewpoints with electric intensity conveying both the fear of the girl and the alarm of the monster, erasing the apparent line between appeal and assault.
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For a film as long-hailed as it is, Bride of Frankenstein is nonetheless nearly as stitched-together as the monster itself, chiefly because the new, strict censorship regime just gaining traction in Hollywood at the time, added to the tumultuous development, meant that aspects of the film were left choppy and unclear. These include a midsection in which a number of dead bodies are found scattered around town, killings for which the monster is blamed but which were supposed to have been committed by Fritz and Hans on Pretorius’s business. Whale changed the finale at the last minute, letting Frankenstein escape the final conflagration, although he’s still visible amidst tumbling rubble at the end. Despite this raggedness, the film comes on with astonishing pace and power. One bravura sequence follows another, but perhaps the two most brilliantly composed come half-way through and right at the end. The first sees the monster chased down once more by torch-wielding, pitchfork-trusting villagers through a forest until he’s captured by the mass, in a sequence that represents nigh-perfect interplay of editing, music, camerawork, and directorial thrust. The monster is bound, carted back to town, and trussed up in the old dungeon below the police station, held down with chains and bonds. The threat has been contained completely and utterly, the Burgomaster is happy to get back to work (“And leave us to ours,” mutters one of the gendarmes in bolshy manner), assuring the townsfolk everything is now taken care off. Except that the monster tears himself free and smashes his way out again with ludicrous ease once the weight of society is off him – the tormented alien has grown too strong to be held by such forces, and can henceforth only be destroyed by his own yearnings.
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Karloff initially objected to one of the biggest changes to his role, which had made him one of horror cinema’s most everlasting stars, was that the creature learns to speak in the course of the movie. Karloff’s brilliant mime work had given the creature qualities of pathos and terror more intense than most actors could manage with pages of dialogue. But the monster’s halting, grunting vocal deliveries, built around the basic words the hermit and Pretorius teach him, is one of the most memorable aspects of Bride of Frankenstein. His speech quickly evolves in spite of his small vocabulary from identification and association (“Bread!”) to value judgement (“Bad!”) to philosophy (“Love dead. Hate living.”). The two films form a tale of the creature moving from newborn to nihilistic experience, with stages of bratty, tantrum-throwing murderousness and clasping adolescent neediness in between, leading to a finale when he apportions life and death according to his own will. The moment of ultimate confrontation comes when Pretorius opens a door and lets the monster into Frankenstein’s parlour, the baleful gaze of the rejected creation above a mouth that now has mastered the broken syllables of his creator’s name – an act in legend that gives mortals powers over gods. Appropriately, from this point on the creature controls Frankenstein’s fate.
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The note of mutual fulfilment that sparks under the monster’s relationship with the hermit (“A friend – to be a light to mine eyes and a comfort in time of trouble – amen!”) is cunning for the way Whale universalises it, a perfect picture of Christian fellowship that can also be read as an idealised gay relationship, in a way that shoots for the cosmic by way of the purely personal, all we misbegotten creations of a dubiously competent deity clinging to each-other in the night. If the hermit is the angel on the monster’s shoulder, Pretorius is presented as a jaunty yet phthisic, queeny devil on the shoulder of Frankenstein, who spends most of the film clinging to his bed, bride, and Baronetcy as a desperate closet, trying to resist the thrill of creating life in forbidden rites. Pretorius, whose unlikely name baffles Minnie (“There ain’t no such name!”), struts into the film providing both its arsenic heart and its impudent instant critique, contrasting both the stricken conscientiousness of Frankenstein and the haplessness of the monster with his eager embrace of his own immorality. He plays the puppet-master creator mischievously arranging the world according to his acerbic understanding of the way it works and the stories it tells itself to make sense of its perversity, as he outfits his homunculi as travesties of social roles and essential identities – a king, a queen, an archbishop, a ballerina, a devil. He encourages Frankenstein to follow “the lead of nature – or God if you like your Bible stories,” although he also happily quotes the Bible when enticing the good doctor to join in his project: “Male and female created he them – be fruitful and multiply.” Pretorius is a happy inhabitant of the twilight world. When he leads his assistants in breaking into the tomb looking for harvestable bodies, he eyes a girl’s corpse with an assessing, physiologically and erotically incisive eye. “Pretty little thing in her way wasn’t she?” Karl notes with hesitant ghoulish interest, but Pretorius more directly states with gleaming eyes, “I hope her bones are firm!”
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Pretorius arranges bones as a centrepiece for an impromptu party he holds for himself, toasting monsters until the real thing lurches out of the shadows: “Oh – I thought I was alone,” he notes unflappably. Thesiger’s inimitable delivery and persona had already been exploited brilliantly by Whale on The Old Dark House, but Pretorius gave him an even more perfect vehicle, with his gift for lending any line the quality of some alien and malignant invocation, down to his “only weakness,” of which there are at least two. By comparison, Clive’s Frankenstein is marginalised for much of the film, perhaps a result of Whale working around Clive’s worsening drinking problem which would claim his life within two years, and also more definitely a by-product of the film’s waggish take on the pivotal myth, which makes Pretorius the core figure illustrating what Frankenstein would act like if every remnant trace of humanism was removed, the Baron stuck as wishy-washy moderate in the face of Pretorius’ embraced extremism. Still, although bullied and blackmailed against all his best impulses throughout the film, and appalled by realisation that Pretorius has his minions happily murder women to furnish their laboratory-born chimera with body parts, Frankenstein also falls under the spell of the promethean act again as the project gathers pace: what greater drug than the thrill of defying natural law and creating life, without any fussy intermediaries? The orgasmic charge of the final creation scenes, where Whale cuts loose in a riot of canted camera angles, vertiginous shots and sparking machines and faces turned to chiaroscuro death masks as the great phallic tower lifted to sky awaits electric insemination, pays off in new birth.
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The original film, like many early sound films, lacked an incidental music score. By 1935 that was quickly changing and Whale hired recent immigrant Franz Waxman to write music for the sequel. Waxman responded with a work of oversized bravado that instantly made his name in Hollywood and also expanded concepts of what a film score could do at the time. It also showed how much he understood Whale’s oddball sensibility by interpolating, amidst the rollicking drums and deep-throbbing strings that invoke the crepuscular epic, a faux-Polynesian love theme, a whine of sardonic yet plaintive feeling constantly nudging the film towards perverse romanticism even as the chiaroscuro visuals sketch out dread spaces of the mind. Whale, like a vast number of filmmakers in Hollywood and elsewhere, was a great admirer of the recent trend of German Expressionist filmmaking and its core creators, and took direct license from them. Their ranks included Paul Leni, Robert Wiene, Fritz Lang, and Paul Wegener, whose Der Golem: Wie er in der Welt Kam (1920) had offered an obvious template for the concept of the daemonic creation as limpid-eyed yet glowering monstrosity pulverising the human world yet beset by simple and childlike things, whilst Leni’s gift for weaving in humour with horror undoubtedly appealed to Whale.
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Whale took this a step further as he tested the idea that the comedy of manners could exist within the heightened removes of such bizarre fare, and his understanding that the root of both the comedy and the horror was the fear and desire for others, with society as monster in its own right that torments and afflicts what appals it. Like Frankenstein and The Invisible Man’s Frank Griffin, Pretorius crosses the invisible but all too consequential barrier of what’s done and finds the thrill of transgressive power even as the forces of reaction snap into action and begin to fence them back in. The monster on the other hand is always unwillingly trapped beyond the fringes of the human world. The search for companionship, in all its forms, preoccupies all the characters, particularly the creature, whose train of thought, set in motion by Pretorius, moves inexorably through stages of relation – “Woman. Friend. Wife.” The film’s final, most ingenious and ruthless touch takes the comedy of manners theme to its logical end with the bride’s rejection of the monster as hideous, a punch-line that cynically splices the theme of the search for perfection and for fellowship – the human brain Pretorius grew, the perfect tabula rasa of social behaviour, still knows instinctively what is beautiful and what is ugly.
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Like Orson Welles who would similarly make a leap from stage to screen, Whale’s style was at once floridly theatrical and inimitably cinematic, compensating for the lack of open space he was used to in the theatre with energetic, sweeping camerawork and jagged cutting. His work here came with invaluable aid from the team of technical experts at Universal, including the inimitable work of makeup man Jack Pierce, special effects maestro Jack Fulton, and John J. Mescall’s photography. The evocations of cavernous ancient chambers and rude stonework, the dense forests of jutting trees, the soaring battlements of castles and old mills where creativity unfolds jealously guarded from the snooping hoi polloi (both the scientists and the poets), the glowing homey windows of the hermit’s hut, the stark statuary and blasted loneliness of the cemetery, the frosty sprawl of Hobson’s nightgown across the Frankenstein’s plush bed – all come close to the platonic ideal of this wing of the genre. One great technical and expressive moment comes when the monster watches from a hiding place as Pretorius and his goons invade the tomb where he’s hiding, their lanterns appearing in the distance and then advancing in an intricate play of light, the three gruesome intruders squabbling and fussing all the way whilst the alienated creature recoils in bewildered fear. Another, truly spectacular and visually ambitious moment comes later when the infuriated monster stalks Karl on the mill roof, the monster assaulting up the sleazy henchmen and throwing him from the roof amidst a wild survey of thunderous clouds, roaring winds, guttering fires, and the wind-rocked cradle of the bride’s body about to be fired with life. And this is just one vignette in the riot of images that is the climax. Such trappings still pack their oneiric power even when Whale makes sport of it, or perhaps especially when he does so, as when Frankenstein, Pretorius and his crew enter the old mill where Frankenstein does his experiments, all twisted, mimetic proto-Escher shapes and grimy hues, the Baron advising “Mind the steps” whist Pretorius noting, “I think it’s a charming house.”
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If Frankenstein still readily springs to mind when it comes to any variation on the misbegotten creation myth today, Bride’s imprint could be subtler, but just as definite, as it asked a question about such creations about where the lines can be drawn between life and technology and what we can invent to sate our needs. Recent films like Her (2013) and Ex Machina (2015) are similarly dedicated to exactly the same unpredictable notion of synthetic consciousnesses becoming erotically and emotionally enticing only to reject their would-be creator-controllers. Whilst the notion of a synthetic love object had been mooted in cinema before the Bride, particularly in Lang’s Metropolis (1926) and Henrik Galeen’s Alraune (1928), those tale posited the ancient figure of the demon temptress, where the Bride that Frankenstein and Pretorius make is actually the opposite, a creature that naturally refuses to be a mere passive creation and recoils from being objectified. Many years later when the film as partly remade by Franc Roddam in 1985 as The Bride, things had changed enough that the monster and mate find each-other whilst the creator goes mad and dies trying to rape his creation. Under Whale’s gaze this element takes on an extra dimension of bizarreness as he turns Pretorius and Frankenstein into mad makeover artists, swathing the bride with her jutting mane of frizzed Egyptian-styled hair in gown of white. This is Whale’s piece de resistance in mocking social and mating rituals and the game of love and the eternal conflict between flesh and soul: the bride’s hissing horror is a most normal reaction but also is rooted in something primal, something alien to the empathic self that defines humanism – and is thus anti-human. The bride’s rejection her proposed mate sets in motion the monster’s final, enraged auto-da-fe as he cordons off himself, the bride and Pretorius whilst, moved by the escaped Elizabeth’s show of loyalty to Frankenstein, commands them to depart before blowing up the mill. Whale’s last, most sublime irony is there in the spectacle of the weeping monster. Too human to cope with the world, he is finally gifted the power of the gods his own creator snatched but could never bear, deciding who should live and who belong dead.

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1970s, Comedy, Horror/Eerie, Musical, Scifi

The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)

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Director: Jim Sharman

By Roderick Heath

Incredible as this will sound, this week I watched The Rocky Horror Picture Show from beginning to end for the first time. Oh, sure, I’d seen most of it in bits and pieces before going right back to when I was a kid. Thanks to growing up in a pop-culture world inflected with its legacy, I was long familiar with its characters, plot, and, of course, its soundtrack—who hasn’t heard “The Time Warp” or “Sweet Transvestite” in our day and age? This very familiarity made seeing the whole thing seem a bit superfluous, but finally, I made myself sit down and take it all in.
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Rocky Horror was, of course, struggling British-born, New Zealand-raised actor Richard O’Brien’s brainchild, composed, he said, to keep himself busy on long winter evenings of unemployment. O’Brien’s off-the-wall musical play mashed up his fetish for classic scifi and B horror movies, the trappings of the faded ethos of showmanship and glitzy-tacky Hollywood pizzazz, and the milieu of post-Swinging London and the age of sexual liberation—all entirely in keeping with a music scene ruled over by Mick Jagger and Ziggy Stardust. Australian theatrical director Jim Sharman, who had gained some respect for his staging of Jesus Christ Superstar, knew O’Brien from his one-night stint playing Herod in the show, and O’Brien snagged his interest with his kooky project.
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Sharman’s showbiz pedigree was unquestionable. His father had been famous in Oz for running a travelling boxing show and carnival, and he grasped the potential in O’Brien’s project. He had already directed a film in Australia, 1972’s Shirley Thompson vs. the Aliens, built around much the same mix of nostalgia, camp, music, and satirical reference. Sharman staged O’Brien’s show in the 64-seat Royal Court Upstairs Theatre with a cast of virtual unknowns, including star Tim Curry, an actor O’Brien knew from around his neighbourhood, and Sharman’s pal from down under, “Little” Nell Campbell. The show was an instant success, and soon became the fixture it essentially still is. Two years later, Sharman brought it to the big screen for 20th Century Fox, importing for the sake of a larger budget two American actors, Susan Sarandon and Barry Bostwick, to play the nominal leads, as well as one talent who had made an impression in the LA production, Marvin “Meat Loaf” Aday. The film version initially failed to find an audience, and was written off as a misbegotten flop, but this was the golden age of cult films, with midnight screenings of cinematic oddities attracting large audiences of college kids and hipsters. An enterprising distributor saw the potential in marketing the film to the same audience, and soon a whole subculture formed around the movie, with audiences creating a ritualised script of comment and response and live performers mimicking onscreen action.
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It’s easy to see Rocky Horror’s specific appeal, particularly in the milieu of the mid-1970s. Above all, the rock ’n’ roll score accomplished something nothing, not even Hair or Jesus Christ Superstar, had quite pulled off so effervescently and effectively before (or, really, since, perhaps not until the recent Hamilton)—contextualising the stage musical in the pop era in a way that made it fit. O’Brien tapped into an audience steeped in both a love of flimsy fantasy and New Age mores, creating a variation on a niche of gay culture just acceptable enough to lodge itself in the mainstream. The plotline, whilst strutting through a mocking pastiche of B movies, essentially describes a mass cultural experience, portraying a pair of hopeless squares being exposed to the stranger side of life and finding themselves, if not necessarily better off, certainly wiser—a Sadean narrative rendered in a light, fun, mostly harmless manner. At the same time, Rocky Horror has undoubtedly helped a lot of gay, bisexual, and just plain fabulous people come out of the closet and wield its fantasy as a weapon.

All that said, though, is The Rocky Horror Picture Show any good?
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As a record of this peculiar cultural artefact, certainly. The movie, like the stage version, opens with the song “Science Fiction/Double Feature,” an ode to the pleasures of cinema from yesteryear, the stuff of O’Brien’s youth, referencing the likes of Tarantula (1955) and Day of the Triffids (1962). The film is littered with references to the glory days of Hollywood filmmaking, and there’s an interesting contradiction in there somewhere, this creation of fringe art celebrating a lost Eden of commercial art—although in the context of the mid-’70s, that legacy had faded and the same studios were trying to reinvent themselves by making stuff like, well, stuff like Rocky Horror. Moreover, such referential gambits feel like a miscue to me, as the project never really settles for pastiche or lampooning, and, least of all, for straight-up genre thrills, but instead subjects those tropes to a transmutation, turning subtext inside out and exploring less the ideas of classic genre cinema than camp culture’s take on it. Sharman’s expanded cinematic scope and the production circumstances allowed him to directly evoke the glory days of British cinefantastique, particularly Hammer horror, which was in its death throes at the time. Much of the film was shot around the decaying Oakley Court mansion, a popular location for horror film shoots. The central scene of monstrous creation directly references the laboratory scenes of Fisher’s Frankenstein films.
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One of the cleverest touches of the film adaptation was casting Charles Gray, consummate player of villains in such films as Terence Fisher’s The Devil Rides Out (1967) and the James Bond film Diamonds Are Forever (1971), as a “Criminologist” whose introductions and narration evoke the likes of Edgar Lustgarden, the crime writer famous for hosting true crime TV series in the ’50s, and Boris Karloff’s hosting of the anthology show Thriller. Some of the film’s truly killer vignettes include the cutaways to him lecturing on how to do the Time Warp, and casting away his dryly portentous dignity to dance on a table top. Drive-in movie fare isn’t the only subject for satirical mirth: Brad and Janet overhear Richard Nixon’s resignation speech, symbolic fall of the establishment about to be mirrored by the young couple’s impending date with subversive elements.
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An early sight gag unsubtly, but pertinently lampoons the couple representing middle American values, as Grant Wood’s famous “American Gothic” painting looms over protagonists Brad Majors (Barry Bostwick) and Janet Weiss (Susan Sarandon) and their friends at a wedding. The inference is obvious, the lurking spectre of parched, repressed, cheerless conformity the legacy behind their white-bread, upright, uptightness, and several of the church congregants watching the wedding revels with parsimonious intensity are, in fact, the very same perverts who will later turn the couple’s lives upside down. Brad and Janet are citizens of the Texas town of Denton. After they bid farewell to their just-married friends, Brad finally confesses his love for Janet via the song “Dammit Janet,” and they set off for a night of celebrating their smouldering blandness. But the couple’s journey is complicated by a storm and strange motorcyclists, and their car busts a tyre after they take a wrong turn. Luckily for them, there’s a castle nearby where they can ask for help.
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Brad and Janet immediately stumble into an asylum of weirdness, greeted by a cabal of partying oddballs attending the “Annual Transylvanian Convention,” overlorded by pansexual, transvestite scientist Frank-N-Furter (Curry) and his fake servants, hunchbacked butler Riff Raff (O’Brien) and his sister and maid Magenta (Patricia Quinn), as well as hanger-on and former lover Columbia (Campbell). Frank has gathered the cabal together to celebrate the culmination of a great experiment: he is about to bring life to a man he’s constructed, dubbed Rocky (Peter Hinwood). Frank’s creation emerges from the vat as a perfect Aryan vision, ready and willing to flex his physique to the amazement of the audience even as he wonders what strange situation he’s been plunged into. But Frank’s road to triumph has been paved with his sins, including frozen biker Eddie (Meat Loaf), who busts out of cold storage in a dizzy rage. A delivery boy who was ensnared by Frank’s lustful attentions but who gravitated to Columbia, Eddie’s been partly harvested to provide Rocky’s brain, and he careens through Frank’s lab on his motorcycle until the vengeful host dispatches him gorily with an ice pick. Having disposed of this momentary distraction, Frank sets Rocky to building up his body to ever greater heights of masculine glory before chaining him to his bed. Rocky Horror revolves around this one central, inarguably brilliant premise—though the film doesn’t do much interesting with it—turning the classic Frankenstein figure into a freak who wants to create not just a human being, but a perfect male love object and then doubling down on this joke by having the monster’s traditional rebellion be that he is resolutely and helplessly heterosexual.
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Curry inhabits the role of Frank-N-Furter with such total ease and charismatic verve that it seems like he was born in his lofty stilettoes and garters, credibly locating jolts of pathos and flickers of melancholy under the surface of a creature otherwise defined by totally shameless hedonism and dedication to his own outsized talent and ego. From the moment he enters the film dressed like Dracula, only to throw off his cape and reveal his very masculine body swathed in burlesque-ready underwear, Frank-N-Furter commands the proceedings. Later, as he acts as impresario mad scientist at Rocky’s revival, he sports the pink triangle of gay pride (adapted and reversed from a Nazi designation), but doesn’t stop at any polite or merely political limits of gender orientation. The figuration of Frank and Rocky could well have been originally inspired by Z-Man and his lust object, Lance Rocke, in another hugely popular camp relic, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970); Frank very strongly recalls Z-Man as the imperious host of debauched revels and jealous creator with not-so-secret peccadilloes. There’s also a strong whiff of Cabaret’s (1972) Emcee to him, and Bob Fosse’s sleazy-sexy sensibility pervades the film as an influence.
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Sharman’s theatrical talent mostly works once Brad and Janet reach Frank’s castle and are confronted by an the alternate-universe rock’n’roll party as a moment of revelation. The Transylvanians line-dance, and Riff-Raff, Magenta, and Columbia regale them with “The Time Warp,” that most insistently catchy and seemingly nonsensical of songs with lyrics that bespeak a defining obsession with nihilism countered with a sense of freedom and release found in remembered pleasures. Frank enters from a cage elevator and struts through the scene with carelessly convivial enthusiasm laced with erotic potency. The movements here obey their own warped logic, the mood of having stumbled through veil into a strange zone of reality, true in its way to many a classic horror film with the twist of discovering not horror and madness—although there is some of that—but rather the strangely alluring invite of a secret society dedicated entirely to making life a trifle less dull. Of course, it’s the songs here that tie this act together: “The Time Warp” segues into “Sweet Transvestite,” and, a little later, “Hot Patootie,” all musical bits that roll on with driving force, the first and the last perfect floor-fillers and the middle song an impudently sexy declaration of Frank’s wont that burrows deeply into the ear.
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The stage is set for wild and shaggy times, and some do actually happen. Very much the pivotal sequence of Rocky Horror and its mystique comes at the halfway mark in a sequence that plays as an omnivorous replay of the health clinic scenes in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969), except whereas James Bond was fox in the henhouse with a bunch of horny ladies, here Frank-N-Furter revels in having a couple of ripe, young dweebs to make a tilt at. Frank first pretends to be Brad visiting Janet and then Janet visiting Brad, with both squares letting him have his way with them on the assurance the other won’t find out about it, climaxing, literally and figuratively, with the silhouetted, but still declarative shot of Frank fellating Brad, a moment that does still feel gutsy and unique in the context of such a work of broad appeal.
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Riff Raff and Magenta’s general program of torment and sabotage sees them drive Rocky crazy with fire and cause him to escape, and then make sure Janet can see through the house’s TV monitors that Brad and Frank are together. Janet stumbles out in an anguished delirium and meets Rocky. She succumbs immediately to his boy-man virility, a spectacle that, in turn, shocks both Frank and Brad. Eddie’s father, a scientist named Everett Scott (Jonathan Adams) and a rival of Frank’s, reaches the castle in search of his son, necessitating a very uncomfortable dinner that climaxes with Eddie’s dismembered body being revealed in a glass coffin under the banquet table.
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Unfortunately, Rocky Horror leaves itself no particular place to go after Frank’s bout of bed-hopping, and in the above-described scenes, retreats into shtick that, frankly, could be in any average dinner theatre show (“Or should I say Von Scott?” Gimme a break). The odd witty line does drop throughout the film—I got a good laugh from Brad’s question, “So, do you any of you guys know how to do the Madison?” after “The Time Warp”—but too often there’s a surfeit of true wit or even good wisecracks. A late swerve for a note of pseudo-pathos as Frank-N-Furter faces his downfall doesn’t come off in part because his divaish final song is the dullest tune in the film, and besides, who wants to take Frank seriously? His wonderful line, “It’s not easy having a good time—even smiling makes my face ache,” gives the character a signature facet that doesn’t need underlining. Such flailing probably didn’t matter so much on the stage, where the compulsive energy of the performers and the tunes can carry the material along, but the film finally suffers from a lack of a real cinematic invention. Part of this surely stems from the general decision to make the film as a road-show version of the stage production rather than striking out as a genuinely expanded vision. It’s tempting to wonder what a real filmmaker would make of the material. Ken Russell, who had made The Boy Friend (1971) a genuine cornucopia out of the same kind of material, and released Tommy (1975) the same year as Rocky Horror, could perhaps have conjured something really extraordinary. Ditto Fosse or Richard Lester, filmmakers who might have developed a real visual counterpoint to the material’s obsession with movie history. Brian De Palma’s Phantom of the Paradise (1974), which the film was paired with on a double bill for a time, lacks Rocky Horror’s hoofer bravado, but far excels it for originality and vigour in filmmaking.
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In this regard, Rocky Horror ran upon a reef that often lies in wait for stage-to-screen adaptations: how far can you go in revising a project before it ceases to be the thing people liked in the first place? Not that the film lacks cinematic values. Cinematographer Peter Suschitsky, who had worked with Kevin Brownlow early in both their careers and would go on to shoot The Empire Strikes Back (1980), gives the film a rich, vivid palette of colour and lensing, one that cranks up the loopy garishness of the material to 11 in places, particularly during Eddie’s madcap terrorisation of the assembled on his motorcycle, and gives the sequence when Brad and Janet approach the castle singing “Over at the Frankenstein Place” a strange, elegiac beauty. But frankly Sharman, whatever his gifts as a stage director and his real hand in creating Rocky Horror as a theatrical entity, was an annoying filmmaker. A couple of years later he tried to film Nobel Prize-winning author Patrick White’s The Night, The Prowler, a story with a not-dissimilar theme to Rocky Horror of a repressed young women being assaulted and finding a certain sick liberation in the experience, but the film is just as leeringly overacted and unsubtle as this one. At least here, overacting and unsubtlety are part of the point. But the superficial energy of the filmmaking and performing can’t ultimately cover up the fact that Rocky Horror loses its mojo badly by the end. Scott’s arrival at the castle sets the scene for some really lame slapstick comedy, with Scott’s wheelchair being attracted up a staircase with a giant magnet and the rebellious guests and flesh toys being zapped with a “Medusa” ray that turns them to stone. The finale is particularly weak and feels like a missed opportunity, as Frank forces his posse of lovers to join in a kick-line chorus in front of the old RKO Radio Pictures logo.
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Here Sharman could have gone nuts and expanded the staging and conceptualism, but settles merely for replaying the stage show’s climax with Rocky going nuts and carrying Frank on his back in a limp King Kong (1933) spoof. In spite of the overt desire to pay tribute to the cheesy glories of classic scifi and horror, Rocky Horror never really gets a chance to engage with them. Maybe it’s because the previous year’s Young Frankenstein had already beat it to the punch on so many jokes. At least there is a gaudy nod to Busby Berkeley as the camera surveys Frank floating in a life ring from the Titanic in a swimming pool with Michelangelo’s “Creation of Adam” at the bottom. Moreover—and now we’re edging into the realm of pure personal taste here, I admit—Sharman’s work presented a blueprint of freaky style not just to the burgeoning Punk and New Wave scenes (particularly Sue Blane’s costuming), but also to every terrible fringe theatre group and art-pop wanker around for the next two decades, and what was fresh was quickly beaten into the ground; just looking at the chorus line of Transylvanians makes me feel a little stabby as a result. Of course, it’s churlish to critique such a project for a lack of story cohesion or dramatic heft; in fact, the lack of both probably explains the popularity of Rocky Horror, its ultimate rejection of deep meaning as well as the kind of rigour that might have made for a more genuinely funny, tighter experience, which then wouldn’t have allowed the same room for an audience of adherents to write in their own amusement.
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Admirably, too, Rocky Horror never backs down from its joy in transgression even as it tries half-heartedly to locate a deeper meaning. The shots of Frank, Rocky, Columbia, Brad, and Janet exulting in a moment of orgiastic sexuality in the pool weirdly echoes the climax of David Cronenberg’s Shivers, also released that year, purveying a similar sense of the blurred distinction between the elatedly liberated and the genuinely freakish. Frank-N-Furter is soon delivered a comeuppance by Riff Raff and Magenta, two fellow aliens who have been oppressed playing his servants and now take command, but far from being representatives of any controlling order, they’re an incestuous couple who just want Frank’s foot off their necks. Curry’s extravagance, matched to his character, tends to drown out rivals, but just about everyone still brings something great to the table: O’Brien’s bug-eyed, yawing-lipped rock’n’roll face, Quinn’s plummy pseudo-Lugosi accent, Campbell’s look of irritation after falling over at the end of her “Time Warp” tap dance, Bostwick’s shows of facetious charm, and Sarandon right at the beginning of her career, with her big eyes and ditzy-lustful smile suggesting Betty Boop before she reached for the hair dye and went to the dark side. By its end, it must be said, I was left frustrated, even disappointed by Rocky Horror, as its moments of invention, even genius, are balanced by just as many that don’t work or run in circles. Yet I’m still glad I finally watched it, and moreover, I’m glad that it exists, if just for the sake of the fabulous.

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2000s, Comedy, Erotic, French cinema

How Much Do You Love Me? (2005)

Combien tu m’aimes?

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Director/Screenwriter: Bertrand Blier

The White Elephant Blogathon

By Roderick Heath

Bertrand Blier was for a long time a strong commercial and creative presence in French cinema, thanks to his reputation as a maker of droll, lippy, often outrageous films about that eternal French topic, l’amour. His work evoked prime-era Woody Allen’s fascination for urban manners and morals, but also blended with a delight, reminiscent of Louis Malle and Pedro Almodovar, in officially transgressive but actually commonplace human behaviours. He often took on taboo topics, like an affair between a married woman and teenage boy in his Best Foreign Film Oscar winner Get Out Your Handkerchiefs (1978) and a widowed man negotiating his young stepdaughter’s crush on him in Beau Pere (1981). Going Places (1974), depicting a pair of male buddies who share women and go queer with each other when there’s no other recourse, was the cornerstone of his career and the film that made Gérard Depardieu a star. Later, he started to gaze back in at the nature of cinema and audience expectations—expectations he had become famous and feted for meeting. Les Acteurs (2000) sported just about every major French movie actor playing a version of themselves in a game of filtered insider self-regard. How Much Do You Love Me? takes a different tack in turning the sign-play of cinematic genres inside out, but it still certainly represents Blier playing a jolly game with his viewers in a way that recalls Jean-Luc Godard’s Une Femme est une Femme (1961) rather strongly. Although it won the Best Director prize at the Moscow Film Festival, How Much Do You Love Me? was received by many as a severe disappointment, even a disaster, to an extent that almost ended the director’s career: it took Blier five years to make another movie, and I presume therein lies the reason it came my way in this blogathon.

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One of Blier’s recurring topics was the macho bluster of French masculinity constantly found wanting in the face of randy, liberated femininity. Here he partly inverts the theme, as he offers a hero who has been emasculated by life making a play for erotic fulfilment beyond his usual means, a notion usually reserved for Blier’s female characters and eventually asserted here as his heroine makes a similar play to meet him halfway. François Baron (Bernard Campan) is first glimpsed on cold, empty Pigalle streets gazing in on Daniela (Monica Bellucci), a pricey, drop-dead gorgeous Italian courtesan who sits in the window of a hooker bar surrounded by neon light and red velvet. François, a luckless and lovelorn office worker, goes inside and has Daniela sent to his table. He informs her that he has recently won the lottery and has nearly €4 million to waste. He makes her a proposition: he will pay her €100,000 a month to live with him until he’s broke. Daniela accepts with some conditions, including that he’s not allowed to abuse her, and he accompanies her to her apartment where she’ll pack some clothes and belongings. François folds up on the staircase and Daniela calls a doctor. François admits that he has a heart condition, and his organ is being stimulated to a dangerous pace by mere proximity to Daniela. Once ensconced in François’ apartment, Daniela promises to “go slow” with him so as not to kill him, but still operates according to her presumed brief as hired pleasure object, laced with ironic role-playing, as Daniela plays the lusty lady trying to keep her man from going off to work. When she asks what François’ actual profession is, he replies confusedly, “I don’t know. I’m an office worker…I contribute to my country’s economy.” Daniela groans to herself after he leaves, “This will be a barrel of laughs.”

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The opening scenes are reminiscent of Leos Carax’s Lovers on the Pont-Neuf (1991), Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut (1999), or Claire Denis’ Friday Night (2002), films replete with themes and images of romantic-erotic melancholy: François gazing in at Daniela from chill, deserted streets, painted in clashing hues of cold blue and uterine warmth and chic textures; silk stockings and high heels and crisp business suit trousers are isolated in one framing in a synopsis of high-class sex business. But this quickly gives way to broad sexual satire a la Friz Freleng or Frank Tashlin, for example, the latter’s The Girl Can’t Help It (1956). François’ best friend, similarly weary, middle-aged, clapped-out doctor André Migot (Jean-Pierre Darroussin), keeps tabs on his pal’s state of health with suspiciously cocked brows and eyes all too ready to drift over Daniela’s form. At one point, whilst lecturing Daniela to be careful of François’ ailments, André slips into a near-trance and imagines gripping and caressing her breasts.

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Occasionally, when his characters slip into moments of charged intimacy or act on internal desires, Blier suddenly changes his visual texture, turning low-lit, lushly coloured scenes bright and pastel, as if suddenly swerving into Tim Burton’s celebrations of kitschy nostalgia. Airy opera is suddenly heard on the soundtrack, as if mocking the traditional affectations of European art cinema. How Much Do You Love Me? continues to unfold in this manner, alternating moods and modes of filmmaking even as Blier’s story proceeds in a relatively straightforward, even archetypal manner. The basic plot has evident similarities to Pretty Woman (1990) and Something Wild (1987), but tonally seems at first to be heading into the same territory as Anne Fontaine’s Nathalie… (2003) and other Frenchified studies in erotic disaffection. Blier doesn’t subvert his film to make it a merely playful lark: How Much Do You Love Me? slips and slides between tones and styles with Brecthian attitude, trying to highlight the way an audience understands a movie through an accumulation of cues, and then suddenly, wilfully changing those cues.

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Dining with the couple after they return from erotic adventures by the North Sea, André interrogates them for exact details of what they’ve been up to that could have upset François’s heart, so they report in detail whilst André tests François’ blood pressure. Finally, André is called to their apartment; he assumes it’s to treat François, but finds upon arriving that Daniela is the one feeling ill. When she slips off her nightgown so he can examine her, André promptly drops dead from a heart attack. André’s sudden demise comes as tragicomic antistrophe after his own peculiar romantic crucifixion has been described: filmed against a blank, grey background addressing the camera as if suddenly segueing into one of Alan Bennett’s talking-head TV plays, he tells François and Daniela about his own girlfriend, a nurse name Gisèle who’s dying of breast cancer. Soon after, Blier reveals André in his apartment speaking to the empty bed that was hers, the indentation of her head still in the pillow. François and Daniela learn at André’s funeral that Gisèle died five years before. François sits in a stunned and saddened contemplation of mortality, bereft of his only friend. Daniela, stirred by the spectacle, strips down in the background and invites him to come take a “trip to Italy.” Blier could well be commenting on his own sense of impending mortality—he was 66 when this was released, the age when death’s impermeable nature often becomes an immediate anxiety to be coped with, and unsurprisingly for a director obsessed with the way sexuality asserts itself against all barriers, the potency of the sex drive becomes the binary opposite and compensating force in the face of decline.

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François blooms with Daniela: Blier offers the image of the man admiring himself in the camera/mirror, alight with sensual satisfaction and renewed vitality. Daniela comes up behind and joining him in a magazine ad pose, asks, “See how beautiful you are with me?” The film veers back to screwball comedy as Blier depicts François at his workplace where his coworkers, fascinated by his changed disposition, gather in a mass at his desk and then follow him back to his apartment to get a gander at his new woman like a comic chorus out of a Frank Capra or Preston Sturges movie. At their mass insistence, François takes them to his place to see Daniela for themselves, only to find she’s left the apartment, and when she doesn’t come back he sinks into a funk. He goes back to the bar where he found her, and sees she’s returned to her old place in the window, looking as disconsolately sphinxlike as she did before. When François confronts her, she tells him there is another man in her life, her pimp Charly (Depardieu), and that he should forget her. A younger prostitute in the bar, Muguet (Sara Forestier), swiftly attaches herself to François when she hears about his fortune and tries to convince him to take her to the Caribbean. Daniela encourages him to do just that, stating, in her forlorn and defeated fashion, “She’s young…she’s not damaged yet. I’m damaged.” François leaves with Muguet and ignores Daniela as she cries out to him from the door of the bar, but he soon returns, his reflection hovering ethereally in the glass of the window, and Daniela leans forward until her image and his conjoin.

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The clean, graceful, occasionally oblique stylistic lustre in which Blier wraps the film pays off in some intensely affecting visualisations like this, and moments of strong pictorial concision recur throughout, with Blier often using his widescreen frame in multiple planes, suggesting unheard conversations and internal sensations as he cuts Bellucci off from her cast mates. Blier’s capacity to consider and render subtle emotions is constantly evident. Such artful crystallisations sit at odds with the overall tenor of the film, with its skitlike segues and narrative self-sabotage; the more traditional method seems to sit far better with Blier’s abilities than his gestures toward Godardian deconstruction. Yet the messiness of form and intent is part of the charge of weird élan I got from the project as a whole, which finds Blier anything but lazy or clapped out. Blier melds familiar, simple narrative precepts and sentimental characterisations—the put-upon man rejuvenated by the love of a woman who would usually seem beyond his reach and the whore redeemed by a good lover. The very familiarity of these essentials seems to intrigue Blier. At times he wavers toward the almost spiritual aura of Frank Borzage or the classic French poetic realists, filmmakers who often told such tales, and the piss-elegant, ultra-refined late work of Claude Sautet, whose A Heart in Winter (1992) and Nelly and Monsieur Arnaud (1996) defined a certain internationally held ideal of what sophisticated French filmmaking should look and sound like. But then he swings back to sex farce and on into New Wave-esque modal games. How Much Do You Love Me? is at once intensely romantic and deeply sarcastic, and Blier seems to be trying to say something about himself and his own sensibility as much as he commenting on genre conventions. It’s possible that Blier, who had been a risk-taker in the ’70s but had become a respectable, well-liked mainstream artist by the time he made this, wanted to regain a cutting-edge lustre by borrowing the work-in-progress fragmentation of something like Charlie Kauffman’s script for Adaptation. (2002). But his guiding idea here seems closer to what fired much of Luis Buñuel’s filmmaking: just as the protean force of human need and affection bends people out of shape, Blier tries to capture that same lawlessness in the very texture of his cinema.

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The cast expertly bridges the chasm of conceptualism. Bellucci, in particular, plays both the walking sex-ed film and the anguished, fracturing demimondaine, rendering both coherent facets of the same persona, her moony beauty a canvas of dexterity, whilst Depardieu is characteristically excellent, spitting out Blier’s rapid-fire lines with wicked force. The notion that matters of sexuality have long been subsumed into a capitalist hierarchy, with female attractiveness mere coin of the realm, is not a new one. Blier’s basic story conceit could be a metaphor for everyday exchanges, the male anxiety that they must busily construct a nest of prosperity to attract and keep a desirable mate, with the added dimension of aspiration fostered in a world filled with celebrity constructs that stir a constant sense of dissatisfaction with the everyday. Either way, the film is built around Bellucci in the same way La Dolce Vita (1960) revolved around Anita Ekberg, not only capturing her physical beauty, but also making it the very linchpin of all this business, presenting her as the essence of desirable femininity. Blier wrote the film specifically with Bellucci in mind, and Blier’s “prostitute” could be relabelled “movie star” and make nearly the same point, as sexuality is commodified and used to entice and frustrate the audience.

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But what does desirable femininity desire? As How Much Do You Love Me? unfolds, it shifts from being François’ tale to Daniela’s, explicating her transfer of allegiance to François. When Daniela returns to his apartment after their encounter at the bar, it’s with a new understanding, but Daniela’s noisy love-making brings down the ire of François’ neighbour (Farida Rahouadj), a book translator, who bangs on their door and angrily suggests any woman making such a racket in the sack must be faking it. François has to hold Daniela from attacking the translator in anger, during a funny scene where the two trade insults based on their mutual lustiness (“I’m from the south!” “I’m from even farther south!”) and the translator recreates her own “earthquake” orgasms. François subsequently confronts Daniela and tells her to stop faking.

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Problem is, once Daniela turns off her practiced act, she can’t turn it back on again when Charly reclaims her. Charly, who also proves to be her husband as well as pimp, visits François’ apartment along with two goons and tells François he should make him an offer, like handing over all of his lottery winnings, if he wants to keep Daniela. Charly is “a man who counts” in François’ parlance—a rich and powerful person, not to mention a scary one, except that he constantly needs to assert his aptness for the role he plays as bringer of bad tidings. “I’m a bad man,” he tells François, and, with his heavy physical presence and clipped, businesslike manner, drops hints about the Sadean extremes he can he go to; he starts to tell a story involving his last, unfaithful girlfriend and some rats that drives Daniela, who’s already heard the tale, to demand he stop talking, frantic with anxious loathing. Charly himself is as utterly defeated by his affection for Daniela as the other men. François seems to choose his money over Daniela, telling Charly he’ll buy a house in Provence instead, an idea Charly likes, too (and suggesting an in-joke aimed at Depardieu’s role in Jean de Florette, 1986), and Daniela leaves quietly with the gangster. Blier dissects another fond pop culture canard here, the image of the gangster as sexually potent overlord: in spite of his imperious posturing, Charly is actually a terrible lay, and as lovelorn in his way as François ever was. With Daniela returned to his swank apartment, and after he escorts her into his private bedroom and instructs her to “make it a boudoir,” Charly has sex with her, but his own sensuality-free humping style pathetically fails to revive Daniela’s professional courtesy. She describes François as having “grazed” her, and reflects that he did the greatest thing a woman in her profession could imagine: “He gave me back my modesty.”

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Charly is so confounded by such statements that first he ushers his goons in to entertain themselves with her, but then shepherds them out again when she screams, “Try to understand instead of playing Godfather— can’t you see I’m losing it?” and he realises what he’s up against: the same force of unruly human will to which he is equally subject. So Charly lets her make up her own mind in a fit of “generosity” whilst warning “it won’t last.” Daniela is free, but when she returns to her new home, she finds François already rutting furiously with the translator. Having unleashed the great lover in François, now he’s become community property just like her (“We’re just being neighbourly.”). Daniela orders him to take a shower and wash off her smell, reclaiming him. But François has one more curve ball to throw at her, revealing that he never actually won the lottery and has simply been using his wages to pass momentarily as a high-roller, never imagining things would play out as they had—he couldn’t have bought Daniela off Charly even if he wanted to. François can barely even keep a straight face as he admits this, knowing it makes no difference between them now anyway, even as Daniela accosts him in anger. He’s right. The couple spend two weeks locked up in the apartment making love until finally François’ coworkers show up at the door, wondering what’s happened to him. Finding him fortified in his pleasure, they invade his apartment at Daniela’s urging and start an impromptu house party.

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This party forms the last chapter of Blier’s creation, and here he veers even more wildly between attitudes as he ends the film four or five different ways according to the viewpoints of different characters. At first, Blier seems to commit the film to the realm of joie de vivre comedy, as Daniela dances in her newly liberated happiness. She’s even delighted by François scuffling with his ogling pals in defending her honour even though she’s happy to acknowledge what they already know, that she’s a prostitute, because it’s all so utterly normal. And yet the line, “Beware of parties, they often end in tears” drops from a character’s lips. François has already signed off without concern to her state and the idea that she might still retain her wantonness. Charly turns up halfway through the party to sink into a chair and gaze wistfully at Daniela, and the translator slips in amongst the dancers, immediately gathering all of the unattached males close to her in interest, including Charly, who flirts with her: “What’s under your pants?” “A thong.” “And under your tight sweater?” “A push-up bra.” “And in your head?” “Turmoil.” Blier takes a poke at national cliché as one of the men protests when the translator slaps him for touching her derrière: “Asses are meant to be touched—this is France.” Charly gets angry and pulls out his gun, declaring he has evil inside him and could kill everyone, but then joins in lockstep with the others as they begin deadpan boogying to the music. The movie breaks down as the characters move swiftly through islets of action from different genres, from stage farce to melodrama, the settings becoming overtly theatrical.

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François catches Daniela making out with one of his pals along with the rest of the partyers, one of whom notes, “He’s taking his punishment” in confronting the inevitable result of his acquiescence, whereupon Charly guns down Daniela, before looking to the camera and saying “I could have done it, if I wanted to.” This is one ending, the tragicomic one, the one that others seem to want, the one where Daniela is an untrustworthy tart after all. Blier reboots: Daniela merely wanders the party in seeming detachment from her surroundings, maybe having absconded to make out with someone else and maybe not, perhaps doomed to feel separate from everyone except her boding, tolerant lover, and settling down for a cigarette of sisterly conciliation with the translator. Choose your own reality. Blier chooses his, not quite losing his wry smirk as he depicts Daniela and François planted in some neorealist’s idea of connubial bliss, the stairwell of the apartment block strung with flapping laundry and Daniela transformed into a flat-soled, polka-dot-dressed housewife, with François’ heart healed. Any or all of these endings might come on, because in storytelling Blier seems to think the same thing as he has one character say of la femme: “There is no never with women.” Is it all just a put-on on Blier’s part, a jivey recourse into po-mo postures to cover creative crisis, or a smart and witty and rebuttal to the idea a film can’t be both ironic and emotionally direct at the same time? Perhaps, again, it’s all of these. To answer the title’s question, though: I loved it, just a little.

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2010s, Comedy, Crime/Detective, Film Noir

Inherent Vice (2014)

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Director/Screenwriter: Paul Thomas Anderson

By Roderick Heath

Thomas Pynchon has long been considered an unfilmable author. The celebrity-averse writer’s absurdist, metastasizing narratives and quintessentially postmodern, metafictional conceits, wrap the reader in material wrought from a heated blend of cultural detritus. Pulp novels, B-movies, history books, philosophy volumes, underground comedy skits, comic books, urban legends, paranoid nightmares—anything that gives off a strange and lively psychic radioactivity helps build his byzantine worldview and heady conceptual universes. Such tales usually prove too dense, too eccentric to wrangle within the acceptable demarcations of a feature film. Enter Paul Thomas Anderson, unafraid of a challenge.

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Anderson’s only other proper novel adaptation was his revision of Upton Sinclair’s Oil! for There Will Be Blood (2007), a radical variation on a theme that allowed him free space to construct his own vision. With Inherent Vice, Anderson faced a more difficult task, not the least of which is satisfying Pynchon’s cult, though the novel was greeted as one of Pynchon’s less complex and most accessible works, if also one of his less powerful. The invocation of the hectic, distrustful, whirlwind energy of hippie-era SoCal offered Anderson a landscape to lose himself in and another stage of modern American history to infiltrate and anatomise. The decline and decay of the 1960s counterculture fits between the ’50s imperial flimflam of The Master (2012) and the devolved hedonism of the ’70s in Boogie Nights (1997). But Inherent Vice allows Anderson to go one better, because Pynchon’s tale is a pop cultural core sample that presents a host of subterranean connections between modes of Americana.

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Rather than return to the balletic ebullience of Boogie Nights or channel the frenetic pop-art accent of much ’60s cinema, Anderson takes a different tack, adopting his hero Larry “Doc” Sportello’s frazzled, spacey, mesmeric rhythm of perception, enforced by his steady diet of strong weed, as the aesthetic key. Anderson breaks up the world not into pop fantasias but into free-floating surveys that occasionally resolve in startling moments of revelation and visions of clarity. Doc is essentially a professional hippie, but he’s also a licenced private eye who got into the business tracking down criminals who skipped out on their bail and found himself adept enough at it to make a tolerable living while living in a hash haze. One day, his ex-girlfriend, would-be actress and former surfer chick Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston), turns up at his beachfront shack looking urbane and trendy. She appeals for Doc’s aid with a moral conundrum on the verge of becoming a dangerous situation. Shasta is the kept woman of wealthy property developer Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts) and is worried Mickey’s wife, Sloane (Serena Scott Thomas), and her personal trainer/boyfriend are plotting to shanghai Mickey into a funny farm and annex his fortune. Shasta wants Doc to try to head off the plot before she is forced to make an unpleasant choice between survival and collusion.

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Through some eerie conjunction of unlucky stars, Doc quickly finds himself embroiled in other cases that all seem connected by mysterious threads and cross-currents of coincidence and conspiracy in the covert Los Angeles social war. Black power tough Tariq Khalil (Michael K. Williams) hires Doc to seek out a prison friend of his, Glen Charlock (Christopher Allen Nelson), who’s a member of the White Power motorcycle club Wolfmann uses as bodyguards, to help get weapons for the revolution. When Doc is knocked unconscious whilst visiting a brothel on the fringes of LA, he awakens in a car park next to Charlock’s corpse and Det. Christian “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (Josh Brolin), with a mass of coppers itching to pin the murder on him. Hope Harlingen (Jena Malone) hires Doc because she was married to one of Shasta’s friends, Coy Harlingen (Owen Wilson), a surf rock saxophonist who supposedly overdosed, to investigate rumours Coy isn’t as dead as he’s supposed to be. Bigfoot, Doc’s police persecutor/contact, has personal reasons to be interested in one of Charlock’s fellow Nazi thugs, Puck Beaverton (Keith Jardine), who works as muscle for professional assassin Adrian Prussia (Peter McRobbie) and may have facilitated Mickey’s disappearance for various colluding forces. Doc has found a new part-time squeeze in Penny Kimball (Reese Witherspoon), uptight deputy D.A. by day and pot-smoking cool cat by night, though that relationship isn’t going far even before Penny hands him over to the FBI, which might have played a part in Mickey’s disappearance. One of the prostitutes from the brothel, Jade (Hong Chau), alerts Doc to the danger of the Golden Fang, the name of a mysterious schooner often seen off the coast. Or it might also be a drug cartel dug as deep as a tick into the fabric of the new, groovy American life. Or it might just be the tax dodge of a bunch of dentists. Or it might be…

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The hilariously convoluted plot does in the end make a kind of sense, the mimicry of forms and protocols from decades’ worth of private eye fiction ingeniously sarcastic. A femme fatale breezing in and out of reality like a conjured dream calling the hero into the netherworld. Down these mean streets stumbles a man who is himself not mean. Dense and mysterious connections between the seedy back alley and the mansion on the hill. A plethora of come-ons from exotic lovelies and sneak-peeks into the sordid delights of fame and power. Friendly antagonism with the respectable forces of law and order. A double-cross and a fight for survival. A host of oddball foes and friends, alliances and chance encounters. The P.I. genre was always popular because it offered the chance of ennobling justice pursued by nonofficial forces, gratifying the courage of the everyday rather than the occupation of the state. On another level, the story is mere mass distraction, a random free-for-all of worldly nonsense that impedes Doc’s ability (and desire) to recognise crucial facts, immediate dangers, and the reality of the relationships that define his life.

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Doc is no Mike Hammer, but he isn’t clueless either, constantly revealing a streak of native wiliness and survival instinct that seems to have been honed rather than dulled by his druggy lifestyle. His perpetually fazed state usually synchronises functionally with the surreal barrage of events he’s faced with. Indeed, as presented, the landscape Doc inhabits might only be tolerable whilst stoned and make sense only when filtered with the specific mix of detachment and the preternatural powers of perception imbued by heavy cannabis input. His tale is narrated by his astrologer and soothsayer friend Sortilege (played, in a genius stroke of casting, by folk singer Joanna Newsom), whose drawling, blowsy voice weaves soft as smoke through the tale, matching Anderson’s recurring use of wide master shots gently prodded toward focal points in creating a sense of blasé estrangement. Inherent Vice elides ramming home points about the decline of the counterculture but does so through inferences that are bitterly amusing, particularly in the inevitable corruption of the drug scene, which is indeed the deepest, truest satiric target and essential theme of Inherent Vice, formulating too much of then-modern American life as “something to be run away from,” but also depicting the very thing you want to flee ready to meet you on the far side of the rabbit hole.

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Rather than subdivide the realities presented through Doc’s fuzzy-headed narrative, the film keeps them all connected literally or spiritually in a roundelay of perversity. This refrain is perfectly in keeping with Anderson’s fascination with the manifold and defining ways of life in a modern western state, refusing the simple division of the ’60s landscape into one of squares and longhairs—a division that suited both camps—and contemplating the woozy, iniquitous nature behind much of the “liberation.” Pynchon’s tale, readily understood by Anderson, comprehends the foul meeting place of haute capitalism and hapless counterculture in the perfect enterprise—illegal drug retail. The Golden Fang, or whatever it is, deals out both addiction and redemption, financing rehabilitation facilities where junkies can dry out, tune back in, and start their journey back toward the point where they want to get high, in perfect tune with the circadian rhythms of the nation.

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The doppelganger aspect of this is drawn out by Doc’s love-hate relationship with Bigfoot, a policeman who wants to be Joe Friday and also wants to be a media star, and is constantly caught short of his many all-American ambitions. He torments Doc, going so far as to bash and kick him when he catches him trying to speak to Sloane Wolfmann and taunting him with the suggestion that Shasta might be dead, but then admitting she’s only missing. But Bigfoot also seems to desperately rely on Doc in some fashion as his alter ego, his smothered conscience or unconscious, his drop-out double, calling him up in the middle of the night essentially to hear the voice of someone he doesn’t owe anything to. Ironically, the first glimpse of Bigfoot comes when he, in his half-assed acting career, plays a hippie with a giant fake afro flogging Wolfmann’s tacky new real estate (“…and best of all, a view of the Dominguez Flood Control Channel that can best be described in two words—right on!”). As if in obedience to the mysterious cue in the coincidence, Doc is already making himself over by sporting an afro.

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Doc’s first stop on his mission is the brothel, lazily disguised as a massage parlour, set up in a demountable on the fringes of Wolfmann’s latest crime against the landscape overlooking LA, building an unbearable future through which a mysterious army of men scuttle and dive to the dirt avoiding Doc’s gaze. Within, Doc encounters Jade, who starts casually making out with coworker Bambi, ignoring Doc’s status as private eye. A hidden assailant clops him on the head with a baseball bat, and he awakens sprawled on the dust of the estate next to Charlock’s dead body, amidst fluttering, red plastic flags and a row of cops aiming guns at him. All this is scored sublimely by Lex Baxter’s “Simba,” one of the composer’s popular “exotica” recordings that evoke communing with the wild and tribal via the hi-fi in plastic suburbia. Anderson’s ear for music to pervade his work is just as clever and telling elsewhere, particularly in the use of German psychedelic band Can’s throbbing, percussive, alien music rather than the sound of a more familiar band from a nearby scene, like The Doors, Love, or Jefferson Airplane.

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Inherent Vice shudders with rattled nerves. Doc’s segue into searching for Coy Harlingen evokes the most fervently paranoid side of the era’s fantasies, probably the most famous of which is the “Paul’s dead” rumour communicated through signs and symbols permeating the Beatles’ output that Paul McCartney, despite all signs to the contrary, was actually dead and had been replaced by a lookalike. Funny thing is, Coy really does turn out to be alive, having faked his death to end his destructive relationship with Hope. Coy took an offer from a morals crusade group that wanted him as an agent to infiltrate the hippie scene, but has been forced onto a treadmill of fake identities and ridiculous assignments, like pretending to be a hippie scum protestor at a Nixon speech. Of course, the morals crusade is actually the Golden Fang’s public face, and Coy is trapped with no way back to his personal reality.

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Doc’s first meeting with Coy comes at a classic noir location, a fog-shrouded pier, perfect for swapping mythologies of the night and anguished personal lessons, for ghost ships to cruise the harbour, for men returning from the dead and melting back into the murk. Later, Doc has to track Coy down to where he’s currently operating undercover: Coy has slotted himself back into a band he used to play in—they’re too drug-addled to recognise him—for the sake of an investigation, living in a record exec’s rented house that’s become a kind of commune for bohemian brethren who divvy up pizzas in a burlesque of Last Supper art. Coy has been nominated as hipster Jesus, seeking his return to life after his sacrifice. Anderson tips his hat most explicitly to long-time influence Robert Altman here, who used the same joke in MASH (1970). The atmosphere and essential conceit of Inherent Vice recalls Altman’s similar defloration of the Marlowe myth in his flaky take on Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye (1974), whilst the visual language often recalls early ’70s Altman’s love of wide shots and slow zooms.

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It would be easy to overstate the Altman imprint on the film, however, as Anderson seems to have other models equally in mind. Anderson fashions the film in complete opposition to the hallucinatory, chiaroscuro approach to the Californian alternative scene Oliver Stone wrought so well in The Doors (1991), though that style would have seemed apt for adapting Pynchon’s novel. Pynchon’s writing has long shared the antic, near-cartoonish quality that was popular in much ’60s culture, sharing that quality in common with figures like MAD Magazine artist Mort Drucker, the early films of Richard Lester, and Pynchon’s fellow black-comedy writer Terry Southern, who penned the novel Candy and cowrote Dr. Strangelove, or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) and Easy Rider (1969). Anderson tweaks Bigfoot in a fashion that recalls Easy Rider’s tragic character George Hanson, portrait of trapped America, a man so busy playing parts demanded of him that he doesn’t quite know who he is anymore.

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Anderson generally takes his cues from a different strand of moviemaking from the period, particularly Arthur Penn, whose Alice’s Restaurant (1969) was the first post-counterculture film that came out when the movement was cresting, and Penn’s revisionist take on the private eye flick in the light of shifting modern mores, Night Moves (1975), as well as Lester’s radical turnabout Petulia (1968). The inner thesis of the film also invokes the famous “high and beautiful wave” passage of Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Wim Wenders’ early works also feel like powerful influences on the film’s serious substrata, particularly his American debuts Hammett (1982) and Paris, Texas (1984). The former film walked the detective drama through reverent genre pastiche, but also adopted a similarly opiated, abstracted sense of time and sad learning as well, studying the distance between the odd comfort found in the terse, distorted world created on page and the actual spectacle of a deeply corrupt world, and the latter’s intimate, emotionally gnarled anatomisation of formerly happy, wayfaring lovers wrecked on the shoals of an unforgiving land. Anderson, whose jesting, yet penetrating vantage on his native land has defined his work to date, seems to want to adopt the same stranger’s-eye view. And indeed, that suits Doc’s status as self-imposed exile in his own land.

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Doc is presented as a classic kind of comic character on the surface, the guy who stumbles blithely through danger, a figure that threads through the history of movie comedy from Harold Lloyd to Inspector Clouseau and Frank Drebin, with just a little of Groucho Marx’s shyster ingenuity, and, of course, his name pays tribute to Groucho’s progeny Bugs Bunny. But Anderson, via Phoenix’s dextrous performing, confirms there’s a real person buried under the shaggy hair and patchouli cloud, a man trying to fly over petty abuses and major heartbreaks inflicted by the ways of the world, from losing Shasta to a rich man to getting knocked over by cops like schoolyard bullies. Late in the film, when Doc converses with smooth, cold-blooded lawyer Crocker Fenway (Martin Donovan), who may be connected to the Golden Fang and have arranged the murder of his wayward daughter’s lover, Doc meets Fenway’s sneering depreciation of his worth with, “Well I might not be as well connected, and for sure not as much into revenge as you folks are, but if you jive with me, my man—’ and makes a clicking sound as if cocking a gun. Phoenix expertly twists this line, eyes bugging out like Jack Elam after a bender, so that it comes out as both punch line and exact character signature.

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Inherent Vice neglects Anderson’s theme of master-pupil relationships, perhaps because The Master signalled a natural end to them, all the better to concentrate on his twinned rivals and doppelgangers, another constant refrain in his work. Equally, Inherent Vice’s official status as comedy, however uneasy, suddenly gives new dimension to the farcical impulses throughout his films, like There Will Be Blood’s invocations of Tom and Jerry, Coyote and Roadrunner, and the Three Stooges. Turning Coy into hippie Jesus readily evokes the many profane temples constructed by Anderson’s characters in their searchings, his pilgrims in a land without holy places, and evokes the purest side of the counterculture in its search for things worth honouring distinct from the interests of commerce and state. Woven throughout all the dope and derring-do is a meditation on Doc and Shasta’s relationship, tethered to the drama overtly and spiritually. A flashback depicts the couple in their happiest moment, when, strung out during a weed famine, they consulted Sortilege who made them try a Ouija board; the board immediately gave them a street number to what seemed to be a connection, only to belong to an empty lot. Doc heads to the same spot on an impulse and finds an oddball modernist building now in the space.

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Moreover, the building proves to house the Golden Fang, or at least a Golden Fang, a collective of dentists headed by depraved Dr. Rudy Blatnoyd (Martin Short, bless him) who has a massive stash of heroin under his desk he shares happily with Doc before dashing off for a quickie with his vinyl-clad secretary Xandra (Elaine Tan). Then Fenway’s professionally maladjusted daughter Japonica (Sasha Pieterse) turns up, having just escaped from the institution her father exiled her to after Doc tracked her down on an earlier case, to resume her corrupt ways with boyfriend Blatnoyd. Somehow Doc finishes up in a car with this twisted duo and his pal and protégé Denis (Jordan Christian Hearn), stopped by cops who have been told, post-Manson family, to look out for cults. But the invisible hand of some defender stops them all getting busted. Blatnoyd turns up dead shortly thereafter, having fallen off a trampoline and then been mauled on the neck; Doc suggests to Bigfoot that he investigate to see if Blatnoyd was killed with actual golden fangs. The scenes with Blatnoyd mark the most overtly rompish passage in the film, whilst the subplot of the boat that also bears the name of the Golden Fang, upon which Doc suspects Wolfmann, Shasta, or both may have been borne across the seas, provides a host of connections with pulp fiction, particularly the otherworldly junk bearing human cargo in Albert Zugsmith’s proto-psychedelic epic Confessions of an Opium Eater (1962).

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The voyaging motif that popped up throughout The Master returns here, postcards from far off places touched with hints of enigmatic benediction and longing. Doc’s marine lawyer pal Sauncho Smilax (Benicio Del Toro, in a marvellously dry performance) clues Doc in on the Golden Fang’s mysterious past, including a sojourn into the Bermuda Triangle when owned by once-blacklisted, now anti-communist movie star Burke Stodger (Jack Kelly). Meanwhile, Sauncho happily gives advice with equanimity to Doc and Bigfoot, because Doc never pays him and, well, he’s a marine lawyer. Doc eventually does track down Mickey, finding him installed in a Golden Fang front, a rehab facility, where Coy is also installed on one of his missions. Mickey is a wreck painful to behold, mumbling through the haze of detox about his epiphany that his business depredations were evil, a portrait of cynic turned loopy, drug-fuelled idealist now being forcibly transformed back into his previous condition because too many people, from his wife to the U.S. government, require it. Anderson abruptly and disorientingly has Doc’s seemingly all-consuming investigation fold in upon itself in tragicomic diminuendo, as Mickey returns to business and Shasta suddenly appears again as she did at the beginning, fetching beer and questioning Doc about his requirements in women.

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Here, crucially, the underlying tone of something darker, rawer, in Anderson’s enquiry leaps to the fore, hinted at throughout the early scenes with a cheeky sensibility, as he notes that the sexual liberation surveyed in the LA scene is too often rather an elaborate form of prostitution, particularly around Wolfmann’s house, where Anderson places his camera at Doc’s sitting eye line, so both sexy housemaid Luz (Yvette Yates) and Sloane’s trainer and lover Riggs (Andrew Simpson) are both objectivised as bodies. Upon her return to Doc, Shasta strips off and lays herself across his lap, taunting him with a long story of being reduced to Wolfmann’s concubine, brought in as if she ought to be on a leash in secret dens where plutocrats meet and shared around as common property. Shasta’s long monologue, delivered in a slurred testimony replete with disquieting, simultaneous urges to be chastised and purified but also have stirred masochistic, anti-human impulses sated, drives Doc to spank her and fuck her in a spasm of powerful anger and desire.

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This astounding vignette drives the film into radically different territory, Waterston’s quake-inducing performance evoking Nastassja Kinski’s haunted reverie in Paris, Texas and Last Tango in Paris (1972) in grazing the edges of sexuality’s intense, troubling ambivalence, and also a hint of Olivier Assayas’ Boarding Gate (2007), which similarly explored the problems of love interwoven with hate through a prism of pulp fiction. The notion that too much of human life is, under all the flashy surfaces and propaganda, a case of people seeking power over others and the strange, contorted ways the dominated react proves a secret thesis of Inherent Vice, and the throughline of the entire affair, Doc’s attempt to bury and forget the plain fact that his girlfriend left him for a rich man and now comes back to the better man only to test him, is simplicity itself. But, of course, the encounter concludes with Shasta’s reminder that “This doesn’t mean we’re getting back together.”

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Shasta’s mysterious return begs as many questions as it answers, but it’s Coy who then haunts Doc; just as Bigfoot is Doc’s doppelganger, Coy is Shasta’s, another free spirit similarly erased from reality by the forces of iniquity. This drives Doc to foolishly brave the lair of the one definite (and perhaps, in the end, only) spider in the Golden Fang tree, Adrian Prussia (Peter McRobbie), who seems to have killed Bigfoot’s partner and is perfectly willing to get rid of Doc’s pestering presence by having Puck take him captive and arrange his death by forced overdose. Doc battles for his life with the kind of streetwise skill that’s always been lurking under his ridiculous exterior. The sense of threat Anderson has managed to infuse amidst all of these antics pay in off in a sudden burst of real and thrilling violence—except Doc, in his peerless fashion, cries out, “Did I hit you?” moments after unloading a load of bullets into a man’s face. This sequence would have made an old-school noir filmmaker proud, proving Anderson’s gift with nuts-and-bolts cinema is still tuned whilst still defiantly maintaining his chosen style, via an oblique framing of captive Doc and Puck through a window.

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Inherent Vice ultimately belongs in a genre that is infamously difficult to pull off and even harder to sell: profound farce, a vision of hapless humans entrapped by their own unruly impulses within a society defined by the same impulses, shot through an ironic, but still correct sense of the unity of opposites. Even in Bigfoot’s final, near-fatal betrayal of Doc we find the opposite, a gesture of desperation and hunt for comradeship that the cop can’t quite acknowledge. Inherent Vice is a thoroughly immersed period piece, but sustains a peculiar blend of the hazily remembered with the immediate: Anderson knows that Doc’s desire to excise himself from the pains of living in the world is an ancient and immediate ambition. Anderson cuts him a little more slack than Pynchon. Where Boogie Nights wrapped up with the Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows” as it elegy to happy endings after nightmares, Anderson leaves off with Doc and Shasta adrift on the highway, Doc keeping one suspicious eye on trailing headlights, knowing evil is always lurking, but feeling that a puce knight like him stands a chance of fighting it off.

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