September 27, 2009

Positive byproducts of the Production Code

As evidenced by my frequent ramblings about it and the fact that it was my chosen topic for a 17-page research paper, I am obsessed with the Production Code. (If you don't know what that is, it was a doctrine that governed what could and couldn't be shown on screen in the Golden Age of Hollywood - Like Lars von Trier’s The Five Obstructions, it was a 30ish-year experiment in how art conforms to, works around, or readjusts to restrictions. Seeing its heavy imprint on everything from gangster movies to romantic comedies is always fascinating and sometimes even consuming – at the end of Code-era crime movies, I always find myself wondering in the last ten minutes if the criminal will meet his or her mandatory fate by imprisonment, murder, execution or suicide. Sometimes the Code influence is so obvious and awkward that it becomes laughable. I recently saw Kubrick’s Lolita for the first time, which was made in the waning days of the Code but nonetheless features a clumsily-added one-sentence epilogue declaring, as if at gunpoint, that the immoral protagonist died while in prison. But lately a thought has started to tickle my brain…did the Code produce any positive byproducts or outcomes? I think it did.

First off, let me say where the Code absolutely did not work. Its most glaring intrusion was the aforementioned wrist-slapping of any character who had breached its moral standard. History indicates that this did not even produce the desired effect – audiences wound up cheering for Scarface or Little Caesar anyway. The limitations on violence were less problematic – however, if crime movies were allowed to be more grisly instead of the strangely bloodless affairs that they were, perhaps then the harsh dissuasion against this lifestyle wouldn’t be necessary. There are a handful of other silly quirks, like the obligation to fast forward nine months after a woman announces she’s pregnant to avoid having to show the ghastly horror of an expecting woman. This left filmmakers with two options – twist the restrictions to the film’s advantage, or make them stick out like a sore thumb to express that you’re not happy about it and that it’s not really a part of your film. Basically, in these arenas, I can think of very few examples where the film was benefitted (except in some cases where the writer/director incorporated the rules creatively).

So on what did the Code have positive effects?


The most obvious positive byproduct of the Code was the invention of the beloved cinematic treasure that is screwball comedy. It’s 1934, and although a Barbara Stanwyck film called Baby Face came out a year earlier and features a woman literally and unabashedly sleeping her way to the top, suddenly men and woman can barely touch each other. What to do? Make a romantic comedy where the characters despise each other until the very end, or, as the psychologist in Bringing Up Baby put it, “The love impulses in men…reveals itself as conflict.” Frank Capra did this in 1934 with It Happened One Night, and after the film won five Oscars the screwball style reigned the comedy scene for almost a decade. There’s really no reason that this style would have developed had it not been for the Code. It was a creative response to limitations that benefitted audiences and film history.

Now let’s move into the 40s and 50s. Suddenly there are some really sexy movies on the scene, like The Big Sleep, To Have and Have Not, Gone With the Wind, To Catch a Thief, and North by Northwest. Again, in these films, the characters cannot touch each other outside of a single kiss, so where is this heat coming from? Dialogue.

In all of these films, it’s nothing but words that create chemistry that sizzles off the screen. Their discourse serves as intercourse. Would Bogie and Bacall have been any hotter if they flat-out banged? I don’t think so. In comedies like The Seven Year Itch or The Girl Can’t Help It, the Code is made fun of in a way that juxtaposes sexuality and comedy. In the latter, for instance, there’s a scene where Jayne Mansfield is talking about how she wants to be a perfect housewife someday, while her enormous breasts fill the screen.

Nowadays you can show virtually anything sex-related onscreen. Well, almost – the current line actually exists in a rather unfortunate place where you can have oral sex but you can’t show a woman’s face in the throes of pleasure for too long (true story – that was a censorship battle in Boys Don’t Cry). That’s intrinsically good – artists should be allowed to express themselves however they please. But is this good for cinematic stories? If people can show anything, they will – few see the point of exercising restraint. Personally, I find myself reacting rather indifferently to steamy sex scenes, but getting chills from the sexiness of the studio-era films I listed above. Why? Think of it this way. Which is sexier: a woman doing a striptease in which she ultimately doesn’t remove much clothing, or a naked woman just sitting there? I think we can all agree it’s the former. That’s the difference between sex and violence in film: with violence, I believe, there’s no real benefit to holding back. Someone getting shot offscreen is not going to have more impact than someone getting shot in frame; in fact, it might have less. On the other hand, I find sex to be more effective when it’s about the tease. Hell, in Gilda, Rita Hayworth does a “striptease” in which she only removes one glove, but it’s still extremely hot and memorable. It’s all about leaving things to the imagination.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t endorse censorship. If it was 1934 and Will Hays himself asked me if I supported the Production Code, he’d get a hearty “hell, no!” But I’m not talking about belief systems here, I’m talking about history. It’s like how WWII was not an awesome fun bonanza, but somewhat accidentally lifted the United States out of the Depression. Side effects. And while it’s easily to vilify the Code, I’d argue that it had some pretty great side effects.

What do you think? Am I a censorship-loving Nazi, or am I on to something here?

September 13, 2009

Why I don't get James Cameron

Recently, my boyfriend took it upon himself to give me an early blockbuster education of sorts, exposing me to all the big and beloved 70s, 80s and 90s movies that were integral parts of everyone's childhood except, for some reason, mine. The primary figure of study has been James Cameron. In a short period I've seen Aliens, The Abyss, The Terminator and T2 all for the first time. And what I'm about to say might prove very controversial.
I just don't get James Cameron.

I don't get why his movies are so loved - and note my word choice here - loved as opposed to just admired or widely enjoyed. I don't know why he's acclaimed so much as a director. I don't know why his films crack lists of bests along with undisputed classics. I will attempt to explain why.

First of all, while sci-fi and action are not the primary genres I'm drawn to, I have favorites in each - from Invasion of the Body Snatchers to the Bourne movies - and I'm always open to seeing these films when they're allegedly good. So this isn't a genre bias thing.

His primary motive seems to be not "I have this great story to tell," or "I have a creative vision to share with the world," but "fuck you, yes I can make this movie." I imagine that the reason he made The Abyss was that he was in a bar one day and someone mumbled something incomprehensible, at which point Cameron jumped up and yelled "Fuck you, I can too make a whole movie underwater!" and then stormed out and spent eight kerwillion dollars. This attitude seems better suited to a scientist or inventor - when I watch Cameron's films I always kind of feel like he's trying to prove things instead of entertain or inspire.

But my main problem is the technology issue. Cameron's films often seem like character and plot are secondary annoyances that are begrudgingly included. My thoughts on the frontiers of technology and cinema - and ergo, my beef with Cameron - were beautifully summed up by Andrew Tracy at Reverse Shot in his review of Public Enemies:

"As with directors of such disparate inclinations and scale as Steven Soderbergh, David Fincher, James Cameron, and Robert Zemeckis, [Michael] Mann’s films increasingly feel like vehicles for technological test-running and problem-solving—a preoccupation which is at least partially understandable, as filmmaking is a more or less ceaseless confrontation with technical decisions and challenges. However, the corresponding critical efforts to enshrine these endeavors as the most important content of the films that surround them—to pass over Benjamin Button’s inherent Gump-ishness or Che’s dramatic lifelessness or Miami Vice’s silly solemnity— willfully ignore the fundamentally mainstream (and often hopelessly vapid) tropes on which they are built. To claim that these technological adventures are broaching bold new cinematic frontiers is to pretend that these films aren’t the hobbled, intrinsically unbalanced works that they are." (You can read the whole thing

Yes. This is it exactly. I was never in the habit of "excusing" or "overlooking" elements of films, particularly the story/script. After I saw The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, I noted how the dialogue (and the over-abundance of it) made me throw up in my mouth. This seemed to be the elephant in the room that critics didn't seem to mind because the effects were amazing, the cinematography beautiful, etc. I have two problems with this. Number one is that I always hold every element accountable, unless it was a decision that the filmmaker had no control of and even objected to (i.e. Production Code censorship and story mutilation). Number two is that if an element is so bad that it is taking me out of the movie, the movie as a whole is failing. If the dialogue is distractingly bad, I cannot just "forgive" that. The same would be true if I could see the zipper on the monster costume, or there are a glut of glaring historical inaccuracies, etc.

But this trend that Tracy is observing as a result of effects advancement and the digital revolution has, in my opinion, been the mindset that gave Cameron a career. No one talks about the ludicrous storylines, the storytelling cliches, the oft-flat characters (not all of them, don't kill me), the unironic saturation of 80s and 90s-ness that makes the movies age badly. They take the technological advancements in his films as evidence that the movie as a whole is great. That's like saying that fruit tastes good just because it was grown in space without soil or water. It's impressive, sure, but the evaluation of how it tastes is (and should be) completely separate. When I saw the making-of documentary for the The Abyss, it knocked my socks off. They had done things that seemed impossible, had worked around challenges I hadn't even considered when watching it. It made me appreciate it, but just because something is technically impressive does not make it enjoyable.

I can also appreciate that he goes all the way with his ideas, but there are plenty of other examples of filmmakers who do that to a better effect. That's because their visions are more cohesive, and I'm more willing to take a wild ride on something that's not just a self-indulgent display of technology. Additionally, sometimes directors with their wings clipped produce better results, so the "go all the way" approach shouldn't necessarily be praised as the purest form of filmmaking.

Furthermore, Cameron doesn't understand that if you don't have all the resources to do something, DON'T. For me, Aliens suffered from a visible effort to conceal that they didn't have the money to do everything they wanted to do. In many shots, there's supposed to be a lot of aliens, but they shoot it tight and shaky to hide the fact that there's not. It showed. If you don't have the money or resources to show a lot of aliens, don't create several situations where there's supposed to be. I understand that you need to up the ante from the first film, but maybe focus on one big alien that would be in your budget to construct and show, or several alien babies, or a meaner alien, or hell, wait several years until you can get more money. Similarly, in The Terminator, a lot of the effects are really good, but some, like the stripped-to-metal Terminator walking through the warehouse at the end look bad. With a mix of bad and good effects, you can't write off the bad ones as "well, they didn't have the technology then." They obviously had the technology to make some things look good, but they didn't know when to stop and overstepped their bounds. I'm not arguing for Cameron to become a minimalist - he directs action blockbusters, which are over the top in their nature. I get that. But if he learned to scale back in the right places, he could offer a tighter product that doesn't have spots which scream AND THIS IS WHERE WE RAN OUT OF MONEY AND/OR STAN WINSTON COULDN'T FIGURE IT OUT.

I think Cameron's bombastic audaciousness might have overtaken him to a point where it could be damaging. His new film, Avatar, comes out this December, and his method of creating hype is one of the most phenomenally stupid and self-defeating campaigns I've ever seen. He's spreading the word that the effects are so incredible and revolutionary that they can cure cancer and AIDS while raping your mind and changing your life. Usually, the biggest claim a blockbuster will make is "the best thrill ride of the summer" or something. That's very reasonable. It's not too outrageous to award that title to a movie. But what Cameron has created here is a situation where the movie cannot actually exceed expectations. It will either meet them, or, more likely, be lower. This very well could be a mind-blowing film, but the way Cameron has set it up will probably make it a disappointment. Already many critics and audience members at preview screenings are saying that the footage doesn't live up to this insane hype. Furthermore, it seems Cameron is under the impression that the entire world is waiting for this movie with bated breath - whereas in reality, no one outside of the film geek world knows about it. The trailer has only just debuted, and while "Avatar Day" - a worldwide screening of a 16-minute trailer - played to packed audiences, the verdict was very mixed. So to recap, virtually no one knows, and those that do know have expectations that are almost impossible to meet. What hath Cameron wrought? Is he actively trying to lose a lot of money?

If Avatar fails, that might dismantle the mighty Cameron, or at least put his ego in check and cause him to reevaluate his strategy. (Already he's dialing back the hype a bit - maybe he's catching on.) He's allegedly said before that he'd like to try his hand at an intimate drama - and I'd be interested to see what a James Cameron movie looks like without all the special effects and flash. Would there be anything left?

Beyond the essentials: Hitchcock

This is my new feature Beyond the Essentials, where I use my vast and utterly impressive film knowledge to help you figure out which lesser-known movies by your favorite actors and directors are worth your time. Or maybe I'll never write another one again. We'll see.

So I assume you've all dutifully seen the mandatory Hitchcock viewing like good little film lovers - which, for the sake of argument, consists of Psycho, Vertigo, and Rear Window, possibly North by Northwest. The way I arrived at this conclusion was by completing the following sentence: "You call yourself a film buff and you HAVEN'T SEEN ________ ?!?" I don't think any of his other works would induce that same level of hysteria if you hadn't gotten around to them yet. If you had any kind of formal film education, you undoubtedly saw Rope, at least in part, because GET THIS, GUYS, I DON'T KNOW IF YOU KNEW THIS, BUT THE MOVIE HAS A LOT OF REALLY LONG TAKES. Then there are the second-tier essentials, like Strangers on a Train and The Birds, which are logical next steps in your Hitchcock exploration.

But then you see that his IMDB page is a big muck of stuff you've never heard of, or maybe you've heard of it but not about it. Where to begin? While I'm hardly a scholar on the subject, I think I've delved a bit deeper into his filmography than the average bear, so allow me to share my findings. This is by no means a complete report, of course, but just a selection of highlights (and lowlights).


1. The 39 Steps (1935)
A kindred spirit to North by Northwest, this is a similar tale of a rogueish lad getting wrapped up in a big mess and going on an adventure to deal with it. It has some great twists as well as some genuinely shocking moments, and great screwball chemistry (attraction masked by antagonism) between the two leads. It's kind of a leaner, scrappier version of NbNW, and a lot of fun.

2. Lifeboat (1944)
This movie hardly reads like a Hitchcock at all. And that's not a bad thing. I think we can all agree that Hitch was more concerned with plot than with characters (and there's nothing wrong with that), so it was a neat surprise to see this character-driven piece from him. It's a handful of strangers stuck in a lifeboat, trying to survive and figuring out who they can trust. The performances are incredible, and while it's not exactly suspenseful per se, it's definitely gripping. This movie needs to be discovered. Also: look for the clever way Hitch manages his cameo.

3. I Confess (1953)
This film is called one of the more “noir-ish” in Hitchcock’s filmography, and I’m inclined to agree. Very dark and shadowy. Montgomery Clift is a perfect lead for this film, adding a lot of pathos and gravitas as a conflicted priest. Shot on location (which Hitchcock absolutely hated to do), this is a tight little piece of everything that’s good about Hitch.


1. Stage Fright (1950)
Amicable enough, it's a standard whodunit. I happen to be quite fond of films set in the backstage world. But two things make it stand out: the scenery-chewing of Marlene Dietrich, and the mind-blowing twist that, at the risk of being hyperbolic, challenges one of the conventions we take for granted in cinema (particularly in films of that time).

2. Marnie (1964)
One of the interesting things about following Hitchcock's career into his later years is seeing what he did with the increasing on-screen permissiveness in movies. Well, in 1964, he made a movie about sexual psychosis. Really. With the added subtext of Hitchcock's real-life obsession with star Tippi Hedren, there's a lot going on here. It's not perfect, and some parts are a bit silly, but it's an interesting and gutsy move from a director who was always pushing the envelope. And Sean Connery is at the height of his dashing-ness here.

3. Suspicion (1941)
Joan Fontaine stars in the only Hitch-directed role ever to win an Oscar, which baffles me. Maybe I was missing some hidden depths or something, but her performance was pretty bland. It's like a diluted version of her role in the vastly superior Rebecca a year earlier. The real draw here is for Cary Grant fans, who want to see him do something different. And by different, I mean sinister. He doesn't play a Joker type or anything, but rather subverts his classic charm into that kind of charm that a lot of murderers seem to have. If you do see this movie, though, go in knowing that the ending is very much not what Hitchcock wanted, and read what the original ending was and why it didn't make the cut.


1. Torn Curtain (1966)
This was the only Hitchcock movie I really never got much out of. Very meh, and it randomly stars Paul Newman and Julie Andrews. Unfortunately, watching Cassidy and Mary Poppins outwit Soviet spies is not nearly as fun as it sounds.

In conclusion, though, every film by a great director has at least something to offer. Whether that potentially brief something is worth two hours of your time, however, is another matter.

What other obscure Hitchcock films can you recommend / advise against?

September 1, 2009

Soundtrack September

I was invited to participate in "Soundtrack September" over at Film Babble, and it got my wheels a-turning. The task was just to discuss some favorite soundtracks - easy enough. But I didn't want my choices to be too obvious. Like, of course I could mention The Graduate or Singin' in the Rain, but that's not really breaking any new ground, now is it? So I thought I'd use this space to highlight some of my more obscure or unappreciated faves. What was supposed to be a couple of blurbs spiraled quickly out of control! I have broken my picks into three categories, with three selections each: preexisting songs, scores, and musicals.


I started to see a theme emerging in the picks for this category - all of them were preexisting songs that had new versions recorded for a film. It's not that I don't love mix-tape soundtracks (looking at you, Garden State), but it's always interesting to see beloved songs re-appropriated for a new context.

1. De-Lovely
The move itself is kind of lame. Skip it. You're allowed to. But the soundtrack is, in a word, ravishing. The film is a biopic of Cole Porter, which attempts to right the wrongs of earlier biopics such as Night and Day by painting a more thorough portrait of Porter that includes his homosexuality. Along the way, his famous songs get new life breathed into them by artists such as Sheryl Crow, Elvis Costello, Robbie Williams, and Alanis Morrissette. Now, I know this seems odd. Like isn't Morrissette really angsty and a peculiar choice to be singing such happy songs? Not so. Her version of "Let's Do It" is super perky and I actually choreographed a super perky dance to it in high school. They also don't try to modernize the songs at all - they record them in a way that's true to the originals, but with a fresh feel. It's the ultimate primer on 30s/40s music. Download. Now.

2. Good Night and Good Luck
For this film, director George Clooney opted for short interludes of jazz singer Dianne Reeves singing 50s classics. Brilliant. Much more effective than a swelling score, this classy approach really roots you in the era. She covers artists like Nat King Cole and Dinah Washington, but having one singer do all of the songs provides a nice sense of cohesion. This soundtrack makes a great gift - I gave it to my ex-boyfriend's parents for Christmas and it was a huge hit. Very warm and sophisticated.

3. Across the Universe
I love the Beatles, I really do, and in loving them I don't feel it's blasphemous to cover them. I have a CD of soul covers of the Beatles, by artists like Aretha Franklin and Marvin Gaye. It's totally sweet, and I'm not ashamed to admit that I prefer some of those versions to the originals. Similarly, for this soundtrack, a smattering of young stars and some special guests breathe a new vivaciousness into the hits we all know and love. It really energizes the songs to have them in the context of a narrative - such as "I Want to Hold Your Hand" being used to express a forbidden lesbian desire or "I Want You (She's So Heavy)" being about the military draft. The vocal talent is great - even Bono is tolerable with his rendition of "I Am the Walrus."


To be honest, movie soundtracks/scores don't often jump out at me. In fact, in the world of symphonic scores, I find 95% of them to be interchangeable in any given decade. So when a film score actually rises above the droning buzz and catches my attention, it's definitely something special

1. Atonement
The Academy handed over the Oscar for this one. They were right. Like in Peter and the Wolf, where each character is represented by a different instrument, Composer Dario Marianelli expresses the ferocious and cold determination of Briony through the clacking of a typewriter. It's genius. It's organic to the story and conveys its intensity.

2. Broken Flowers
Technically, there are some preexisting songs on this album, but what I'm really focusing on here is the three-song contribution of Mulatu Astatke. I had the pleasure of seeing Astatke live in concert and his music is like nothing you've ever heard. He calls it "Ethio-jazz," and it's kind of - well, it's Ethiopian jazz. Kind of an indigenous jazz/trance thing? I really can't describe it. Weaving into the film in the form of a CD that the protagonist's friend gives him, it's the perfect embodiment of Bill Murray's Don - cool and relaxed without trying, but on a mission.

3. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
Just like the film itself is a re-imagining of the Western, the soundtrack is a re-imagining of what music is like for Westerns. "Haunting" would be an understatement - Nick Cave's music helps to build tension and unease for a movie where you already know the ending. An unexpected array of instruments also elevates this above the typical Oscar-bait soundtrack.



1. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg / The Young Girls of Rochefort
Yes, I can count - I know that's two. But they're both directed by Jacques Demy, they both star Catherine Deneuve, and both have music by Michel Legrand. So they're kindred spirits. Legrand's jazz scores are phenomenal, enhanced only by the light and sweet voices of talented casts (although most of them are dubbed). In the latter, you even get to hear Gene Kelly singing in French!

2. Sweet Charity
For some reason, Sweet Charity doesn't get its due when discussing classic movie musicals. I don't know why - it has sleek direction by Bob Fosse, one of Shirley MacLaine's best roles and some fantastic songs. There's the dryly sardonic "Hey Big Spender" and the jubilant "If My Friends Could See Me Now," but my personal favorite is Sammy Davis Jr's unexpected contribution "The Rhythm of Life" where he preaches a wild hippie religion.

3. Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007 version)
I really really liked this movie, and I think it was seriously underrated. Sure, it got some polite award season nods, but I felt like people didn't really warm up to it like they should have. Maybe in time it will get the respect it deserves. I loved Johnny Depp's growly Bowie-esque singing, goddammit, especially on "My Friends" (friends=blades). It's not what you're used to hearing in a musical, and that's what makes it unique and captivating. Helena Bonham Carter came off a bit shrill, but mix it in with the lush gothic orchestrations and overall you have something pretty awesome.


-Any of the scores Alberto Iglesias did for Pedro Almodovar's films
I realize this could be a whole list in and of itself, so I'm keeping it simple by saying "all." This has been one of the more fruitful director/composer collaborations that I can think of. Iglesias produces sensuous and innovative Spanish music that defies the cartoon cliche. Choice track: "Dedicatoria" from All About My Mother.

At the risk of unleashing a torrent in the comments section - what are your faves (beyond the obvious)?