Thursday, August 25, 2011

Thoughts on "The Big Sleep"

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This is my reaction paper from a college film noir class. Originally written in 2003.


The Big Sleep (1946), is another example of the cynical detective genre. Once again Humphrey Bogart plays the straight-as-an-arrow wise-cracking detective that seems to only exist for three things: his work, making witty banter with women, and drinking.

Marlowe (Bogart) is hired by an old man to do something or other, it really doesn’t matter, the plot makes no sense. The important part is that Marlowe meets the old man’s two daughters Vivian and Carmen (Lauren Bacall and Martha Vickers). Carmen is young and oozes sex appeal in her short skirt. She falls into Marlowe’s arms and calls him cute, but also insults him saying, “you’re not very tall are you?” Vivian on the other hand is cold and aloof, she insults his manners, but Marlowe as always has a witty retort, “I don’t like my manners either, they’re pretty bad.”

In the next sequence Marlowe goes into a bookstore with big glasses on and speaks in a really phony sounding accent to a secretary. The secretary says he doesn’t look like a man interested in first editions, to which he replies, “I collect blonds in bottles too.” Since Marlowe’s less than brilliant disguise fails to fool even the secretary, he goes over to the book store across the street and meets a very sexy book store proprietress (Dorothy Malone). Marlowe understands that’s she’s the intellectual type so he appeals to her intelligence to get what he wants from her. Later, he uses a great pick-up line, when she asks if he wants to stay for a drink, “you know it just so happens I’ve got a pretty good bottle of rye in my pocket.”

After this it starts to rain and Bogart follows someone to a house that turns out to be the main location for most of the film’s action. Serious, dramatic sounding music starts to play and you know something is about to happen. Sure enough, Marlowe hears a woman screaming, gun shots and a car driving away. He runs into the house and finds a man dead and Carmen who he describes as, “high as a kite.” I guess that managed to slip by the Hollywood code somehow, though it is quite clear that she had been smoking some marijuana.

I found myself to be very distracted by the scenes that took place in this mysterious house because there were these very ugly Japanese porcelain lamps that were all over the house and seemed very out of place. I just kept wondering if the lamps were somehow significant to the story or were they just all the set designer had lying around that week.

The film kind of muddles around for a while after this. Vivian and Marlowe exchange more witty repartee and prank call someone. Later when they talk about sex, it’s thinly disguised as a discussion about horses.

Next, we meet the movie’s main villain Eddie Mars (John Ridgely) and his two inept and ambiguously gay henchman who are named Sidney and Pete, a tribute to Bogart’s frequent costars Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre.

The next good scene involves Marlowe turning the tables on Joe Brody, a blackmailer, the secretary from the bookstore, and Carmen who comes into an apartment with a tiny little gun. Marlowe has a great line when Carmen is on the floor reaching for a gun, “Get up, you look like a Pekinese.”

After this, the film kind of muddles around again only this time for a lot longer. The next great scene is when Bogart has been tied up by the bad guys, but has been left alone with Vivian. Before she helps him escape he insists on smoking a cigarette.

The rest of the movie was kind of silly. Mars’ only scary henchman falls for the oldest trick in the book when Bacall distracts him by shouting, “Look over there!” Then back at the house with the ugly lamps, Mars is shot by his own henchman because they were told to shoot whoever came through the front door. Don’t ask me why they were told this.

The Big Sleep had some good moments, but I thought that this film badly needed another session in the editing room, it was too long and the plot was overly convoluted.

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Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Thoughts on "Detour"

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This is my reaction paper from a college film noir class. Originally written in 2003.


Detour has all of the elements that make up a great film noir movie: the action unfolds entirely through narration, the movie is dark in tone, and the movie skillfully uses shadows and darkness to create meaning (mostly because they couldn’t afford lights, but that’s another matter). The protagonist was a good man undone by forces he could not control. There is the good woman and the spidery femme fatale.

Like I hinted to, the film is not perfect. The acting is only passable, the editing is poor, and the lighting is at times, atrociously bad. I remember an early scene in the movie where Al Roberts (Tom Neal), the main character, is walking outside and narrating, and from what I could tell it was not lit at all. However, in a sense, its shortcomings are also what give this movie its strange kind of charm. Roberts finds himself trapped in a kind of seedy and gritty underworld and the film succeeds because this underworld seems genuine. A bigger budget would only have made this world seem more artificial and destroy the very things the film had going for itself.

A lot has been said about the fact that since the whole story is told through Robert’s narration you can’t know for sure how things really happened. However, I feel it is futile to think about that too much, because we can only make judgments about what information the movie chooses to tell us. Also, if the movie’s message was really about how Robert is exaggerating his story because he is bitter, then this point would have somehow been hinted to. This is clearly not the case, so I feel we should take the information as is and accept what he says as truth.

I am somewhat confused as to why the Hollywood code forced the additional scene where Robert gets into a cop car at the end of the film. Technically, Robert is not guilty of any crime so why did they feel that he had to be punished? I suppose they felt that dragging a body to the side of the road rather than facing the music was a wrong choice. Personally, I would probably make the same choice if I was sure I would be wrongly convicted unless I covered things up. And, I’ll take it one step further and say that this movie is so good because everyone can see how tempting it would be to make the same choice as Roberts.

Vera (Ann Savage) is one of the great femme fatale characters. The movie portrays her as a woman who is so ugly on the inside that it can’t help but be seen on the surface. Robert thinks to himself when he first meets her, “She looked as if she just fell off the worst freight train in the world.” Also, I think it is significant that when Vera falls asleep Robert starts to feel differently about her. He says she doesn’t look so bad when she’s asleep. Meaning, it is not her physical appearance that makes Vera so unattractive to Robert, but it is the spider woman within her. Also, I enjoyed the fact that Vera wasn’t portrayed as some evil entity with no depth. When Vera gets drunk and continually submits Robert to sexual advances, it is clear that the spider woman personality is a defense mechanism that she has created for herself, because she suffers from low self-worth. She has put herself in a continuous loop in which she is doomed to never break free of. Guys reject her because they see she is a spider woman, and she becomes more of a spider woman because guys keep rejecting her.


Sunday, August 21, 2011

Thoughts on "Life of Pi"



I liked "Life of Pi" by Yann Martel (2001) a lot while I was reading it. I enjoyed reading about Pi’s childhood. I thought the insights into running a zoo were fascinating. My brother is a great advocate for environmentalism, vegetarianism, and animal rights. He has talked on many occasions about the cruelty of zoos and I was starting to agree with him. I went to the Philadelphia Zoo and thought the polar bear must be miserable in the summer and the lions were always asleep no matter what time of day I visited and the gorillas looked like they wanted everyone to stop staring at them. So these insights about how an animal wouldn’t think of an enclosure as small they’d think of it as convenient were interesting food for thought. I do disagree with some of the points made though. I don’t believe that animals like cheetah can be happy in an enclosure because there isn’t enough room for them to run and a cheetah was born to run. Also, I think some apes like gorillas are higher functioning than we give them credit, no matter what anyone says they seem to know that they are captives; uplifting may be happening naturally.

It was also interesting to see Pi learning about Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism. I grew up in the diverse community of Queens, NY, but I was never exposed to any religions other than Christianity, so to this day I just don’t know all that much about them. Also, like others have mentioned it was a very funny scene when all three religious leaders met.

Parts of the religious sections spoke to me personally. “These people fail to realize that it is on the inside that God must be defended, not on the outside. They should direct their anger at themselves. For evil in the open is but evil from within that has been let out. The main battlefield for good is not the open ground of the public arena, but the small clearing of each heart. Meanwhile, the lot of widows and homeless children is very hard, and it is to their defense, not God’s that the self-righteous should rush.” (p89-90) Wow, that’s what I’m talking about! This is Christianity in a nutshell. A religious journey is a personal journey of self-reflection and when you have your own self in order you’ll want to help other people.

I also enjoyed all the many, many details (200 pages worth) about being on the lifeboat and having to survive. I grew up on books like “Robinson Crusoe” and have always been fascinated with survival stories. One detail I remember smiling at is that Pi is so worried about running out of paper that he writes tiny, tiny on the pages and then, his pen runs out of ink way before he runs out of paper.

I felt like the religious aspects of the book dropped off in the middle part of the book. Pi clearly still felt religious and talked about it from time to time, but it didn’t seem to be the focus of the book and I wondered how this was going to be a story to “make you believe in God.”

As I was reading it, I saw the story as a fable. Fables always had animals, this book had a tiger in it. I figured there would be a moral at the end of the story and that would tie it together to religion somehow.

I read the last part of the novel and instead of a moral we had an alternate take on the story. Instead of a tiger, and hyena, a zebra and a boy in the lifeboat, we had a boy, mother, cook and sailor in the lifeboat. This story was only given a few pages so of course it does not seem as vivid or as real as the 200-page story.

I took the second story as a spur of the moment thing Pi came up with to appease the Japanese men. I had a grandfather that would do this.

There is a picture in my parent’s house of my great-grandfather and his children. It must have been taken in the 20s. In the picture you can see that my great-grandfather is missing the tip of the middle finger on his left hand.

When I was in kindergarten the same finger on my left hand got caught in a door at school and was cut off. It was re-attached with microsurgery. However, I could never get over the coincidence that something similar had happened to my great-grandfather in the exact same finger. But my dad didn’t know what had happened.

So one time when the family visited my grandfather (he lived many states over in Ohio) I asked him what had happened and he told me an amazing story that my great- grandfather was picking wild berries and a venomous snake bit him on the finger and he knew that he would die from the poison so he had to hack his own finger off with a knife. Of course my grandfather had made this story up for my entertainment. There are no venomous snakes in Pennsylvania.

So we asked my cousin Leonard what happened and he told us a daring story that my great-grandfather worked in the coal mines of Pennsylvania when he first came to America and that one day an accident happened in the mines and he lost the finger and he came home and said that he wasn’t going to die in a mine shaft and that’s why the family moved from Pennsylvania to Ohio.

This was also a good story and also not true. Finally we asked my Great-Aunt Mary. She was the oldest of my great-grandfather’s children, Leonard was her son, and my grandfather was the youngest of my great-grandfather’s children. So she was the one mostly likely to actually know the truth and she said that my great-grandfather worked for the railroads in Pennsylvania as a switch operator and lost the finger in a switch.

So anyway, after that long story, the point is that to me all Pi was doing with this second story was telling the Japanese guys what they wanted to hear. I did not believe that the second story was the true story and that the first story was just a flight of fancy.

Now, after I read the story I started to catch up on the discussion of the novel at the Classic Science Fiction Message Board (even though this book isn't a science fiction book at all really) and that it when it really started to get weird for me! Someone was saying that the point of the story is that Richard Parker the tiger was a metaphor for God and that by believing the first story over the second you are believing in God.



It doesn’t say that in the book itself ANYWHERE. You’d think if that was the point of the story it might be worth mentioning once of twice. I read the book and that didn’t cross by mind at all. If not for the Classic Science Fiction Message Board I would have read the book, put it down and never considered that. So in my mind if that was the point, the author did a piss poor job of it.

What the author does say is that in the second story Pi is the tiger. So in that interpretation in the first story it is just Pi on the ship, but the tiger represents a different part of himself, a part of himself that is stronger, and more confident. Pi says many times in the story that he could not have survived without Richard Parker. It does add another layer to the story to think that rather than a flesh and blood being Pi is referring to an actual aspect of himself in which he was able to find the strength to carry on.

Now I won’t deny that invoking the metaphor of Richard Parker as God is an interesting exercise, for example, you have Pi providing food for Richard Parker and in the metaphor it becomes equivalent to giving sacrifices to a God. But the metaphor fits a couple of times but mostly there are just too many details with that that don’t jive. Why the details of training Richard Parker with a whistle? In no religion do the humans train the God. Pi takes Richard Parker’s feces and openly smells it in order to dominate the tiger. Explain that one in terms of religion? Richard Parker marks his territory with urine. I missed the part of the bible where Jesus does that. I doubt that’s in other faiths either.

Pi just seemed to have the kind of personality that craved order that craved religion. He wanted to believe in some sort of order to the universe. “I am a person who believes in form, in the harmony of order. Where we can we must give things meaningful shape.” p 360. However, Pi does not think believing in religion excludes him from believing in science. The Japanese men do not believe the story about the island that was a tremendously large carnivorous plant. They say they do not believe in plants that contradict the laws of nature. Then Pi says that Darwin and Copernicus were not accepted at first. Later he says, “If you stumble at mere believability, what are you living for? Isn’t love hard to believe?…Reason is excellent for getting food, clothing and shelter. Reason is the very best tool kit. Nothing beats reason for keeping tigers way. But be excessively reasonable and you risk throwing out the universe with the bathwater.” p375. In other words, he is saying there is more to life then is found in your philosophy. In Pi’s mind it is science that is limited because it excludes that which is not yet understood. Of course a scientist would come back and say that science will catch up while religion explains away the unknown by saying it's supernatural.

To sum up I enjoyed the book and would have rated it as an entertaining read though I wasn’t sure what the point of the ending was. But I became more frustrated with the book after starting to read interpretations about the book because I felt like either people were looking too far into it and/or the author failed to actually say what his point was.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Thoughts on "Phantom Lady"

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This is my reaction paper from a college film noir class. Originally written in 2003.


"Phantom Lady" (1944) was directed by my favorite noir director, Robert Siodmak. It further enforces the film noir theme of the country woman saving the urban man from the city which has corrupted or wronged him.

The movie opens with some light music and smoky credits. Scott Henderson, morose, and cynical, but still likeable, walks into a bar and asks for a “pack of cigarettes, any brand.” This is our first clue that he is deeply troubled. Come on, everyone has a favorite brand. Scott immediately starts hitting on the even more morose looking woman sitting next to him. The two of them go out to the theater even though she doesn’t seem too happy about anything. Plus, she doesn’t want to smoke. What’s she doing in a film noir movie?

Scott returns home to an apartment full of silent police officers. He runs around screaming his wife’s name and finally decides to look for her in the bedroom. It is an interesting shot because the camera jumps into the bedroom so we can see Scott’s face when he opens the door. Thankfully there is no gratuitous shot of a dead body; the audience gets the idea. The cops treat Scott pretty badly because they’re sure he did it. Scott doesn’t help things by not showing the slightest bit of emotion.

The cops drag Scott to the places where the audience just saw him, but the bartender, the cabbie, and the actress all lie and say they don’t remember seeing a woman with Scott. There’s a random scene with two cops fighting over which ice cream flavor is superior and then the action jumps straight to Scott’s trial. This sequence is noteworthy because the people conducting the trial are heard but not seen. The camera never leaves the gallery except to see the stenographer's note which is indistinguishable because it is in short hand. When Scott’s sentence is read, Carol, Scott’s personal secretary and the audience miss the verdict because of an old woman chewing on a crisp apple.

From this point on Carol is the protagonist of the movie. She tortures the bartender by just staring at him and willing him to repent like some unholy angel of truth. When he gets run over she turns her attention to Cliff the drummer. For this sequence Carol dresses quite provocatively and the jam session in a jazz club is the most cathartic and overtly sexual sequence I’ve seen in a 40’s film.

Jack Marrow, the villain in this film was excellently portrayed by Francot Tone. He managed to be utterly creepy and somehow vaguely sympathetic due to the fact that he was obviously quite mad. We know from the busts in his apartment that Jack was at one time a brilliant artist, but when Scott’s wife, who he was having an affair with, insulted him, it made something within him snap; his tremendous ego was never the same again. And yet at the same time, Jack thinks that he is somehow superior to all other humans. He says, "I’m fond of Scott, we’re friends, but what’s his life compared to mine, compared to anybody’s." When Carol tells Jack to cross his fingers, he looks at his hands and sees that they no longer seem the same to him because of the murders he has committed. Jack is aware that he has been changed, he feels this change has made him stronger, but in reality it has made him weaker because he has lost his basic humanity.

This film is unfortunately currently hard to find in the US where it is only available on VHS. A DVD is available on Region 2, so if you live Europe, Japan, or the Middle East it's not a problem. Or, if you own a region free DVD player.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

"Casablanca" Sketch


One of these days I’ll review the movie “Casablanca.” It will be a loving exploration of what I consider to be one of the greatest movies ever made. It never ceases to amaze me that it just got everything right. Not a wasted scene, character, line, or moment. All the more remarkable since the movie was being rewritten as they were shooting (and not just little polishes here and there. Ingrid Bergman wanted to know who she’d end up with so she’d know how to play her scenes and the writers told her they weren’t sure yet so she better play it ambiguous).

Anyway, this is not that day and this is not that post. Rather this is a sketch I wrote years ago that explores a more negative take on “Casablanca,” it gives credence to the tiny voice inside your head (or for some maybe not so tiny) that screams during the ending of the movie, “Don’t do it Rick. Don’t let her go!”

John- Did you know that Humphrey Bogart was shorter than Ingrid Bergman so they made him wear lifts or stand on boxes in Casablanca?

Stefan- Okay, am I a bad friend if I don’t pretend to care?

John- I’m not surprised, God forbid you like something mainstream.

Stefan- I don’t hate it because it’s popular, that would be pointless and stupid. I hate it because it’s dated and inaccurate.

John- It’s a classic story of love and sacrifice.

Stefan- It’s the sacrifice part that’s wrong. If he had the girl why would he give her up?

John- It was the right thing to do.

Stefan- No, no, no. It was the “right” thing to do. It was the thing society tells us to do. But it wasn’t the correct thing to do. Ingrid got on that plane and sure the other guy was happy, but what about Bogart. You can’t tell me that he didn’t give himself the short end of the stick and the saddest thing about it is that he’s actually proud of himself. He’s assured himself a lifetime of regret and jealousy as he pines for the love he’ll never find again and from his face you’d think he’d just struck the Daily Double.

John- Your world is a sad, lonely place to visit isn’t it?

Stefan- I don’t know why you find realism so depressing.

John- Real life isn’t as bad as you think.

Stefan- You think I don’t know that? Real life is even worse than I think it is. I’ll be the first to admit that.

"Particle Man" by They Might Be Giants and the Meaning of Life

I wrote this sketch at least 7 years ago, but something made me think of it today. To appreciate the sketch you have to know the song "Particle Man" by They Might Be Giants. Here's a video of the song from the cartoon "Tiny Toon Adventures"

Stanley- Well if that’s not it then what is it about?

Dave- I don’t know what it’s about, but it sure as hell isn’t the answer to the meaning of life.

Stanley- That’s where you’re wrong it’s all there I know it is. I just can’t quite put my finger on it, but I know it’s there.

Dave- It’s a nonsense little song about a Particle Man and a Triangle Man.

Stanley- Don’t speak of it so lightly, this may be my religion.

Dave- “Hit on the head with a frying pan. Lives his life in a garbage can, Person Man.”

Stanley- Don’t you see that means we all live our life in the proverbial garbage can. It’s a call to us to rise up and break the chains that bind us.

Dave- What have you got for, “When he’s under water does he get wet? Or does the water get him instead?”

Stanley- It’s a clear challenge against the scientific community. How can we believe any of the things they tell us when they are based on preconceived assumptions?

Dave- Don’t you think you’re looking too much into this?

Stanley- I think maybe I’m not looking deep enough.

Man cartoons can get inside your head. I hadn't seen this video for years, but it was still buried somewhere deep inside my brain as was another "Tiny Toon" video, "Istanbul (not Constantinople)" (also by They Might Be Giants).

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Thoughts on "The Maltese Falcon"


This is my reaction paper from a college film noir class. Originally written in 2003.


The Maltese Falcon (1941) directed by John Huston is a true film noir classic and my personal favorite. If you haven’t seen it in a while, you‘ll find yourself wondering for the first few minutes, “What’s so great about this movie again? This writing is kind of bad.” Brigid O'Shaughnessy (Mary Astor) says she was recommended to Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) by her hotel. What kind of a crummy hotel would recommend her to this guy? Plus, Spade delivers the corniest line in the movie during this first scene when he coaxes O‘Shaughnessy to talk, “Why don’t you tell me about it?” Thankfully things pick up quickly, Spade’s partner Archer comes inside and can’t hide how attracted he is to O’Shaughnessy. It is interesting to note that O’Shaughnessy never takes her eyes off of Spade and doesn’t even seem to see Archer. In the next scene Archer is shot and killed without warning and it is in that second that you remember what’s so great about this movie. Unlike typical Hollywood fluff, the tone of this film is as dark as real life is sometimes. Also, this isn’t one of those films where you can get popcorn and soda and not miss anything. This is one of those films that you can watch over and over again and still not understand.

The Maltese Falcon is a movie of lies. Sometimes I don’t think any of the main characters said one true thing throughout this whole movie. O’Shaughnessy sums it up nicely when Spade asks her, “Is there any truth in that?” She replies, “Some, not much.” If you listen and watch closely, Astor and Bogart seem to say their lines differently when they’re lying to each other. There is a hollow ring to them, like they‘re sure the other person doesn‘t believe a word of it. Spade even says as much when he tells Kasper Gutman (Sydney Greenstreet), “I took it for granted that she was lying.” In fact the lies are so thick that we never really learn the truth about a great many things. For instance, who murdered the much mentioned, but never seen Floyd Thursby and Captain Jacobi, whose other scene seems to have been mysteriously cut from the movie? Gutman offers a very long explanation which slowly becomes less and less believable. He says, “Wilmer shot Jacobi as he was coming down the fire escape. Shot him more than once. Jacobi was too tough to fall or drop the falcon. He climbed down the rest of the way, knocked Wilmer over, and ran off."

It’s also a film about obsession. Gutman, Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre), and O’Shaugnessy are willing to go to any lengths for the falcon. Nowhere is this more evident than when Gutman betrays Wilmer, who he claimed was like a son to him. He offers Wilmer this chilling explanation, “Well, if you lose a son, it's possible to get another. There's only one Maltese Falcon.”

Sam Spade seems to be nearly infallible. Much like James Bond, Spade is never seen out of his element. This is most evident when during a scuffle with Cairo in his office, Spade manages to keep his cigarette in his mouth at all times. Spade always knows exactly what to do or say, and his orders are always followed without question. Even the cops are like putty in his hands. Who else could ask a cop, “what’s your boyfriend trying to say,” and not get run in? To Spade, being a private eye is like a stage performance. Spade plays a man who thinks only of money, but in his final exchanges with O’Shaugnessy he hints to his true nature, “Don't be too sure I'm as crooked as I'm supposed to be. That sort of reputation might be good business, bringing high-priced jobs and making it easier to deal with the enemy.” Spade, in essence is again just like Bond, a man who does not exist outside of his job, which is his one true passion. The only times Spade smiles is when he catches someone lying or knows he’s fooled someone.

It’s no secret that Spade didn’t like his partner Archer much. He doesn’t react at all when he finds out he’s been killed. He just goes through the motions, his greatest concern is keeping his distance from Archer’s widow Iva. The detail that Spade and Iva had an affair is an interesting one. We are left to wonder what happened. The one thing we can be sure of is that to Spade it is long forgotten. He says, “Don’t be silly, I wish I’d never laid eyes on her.” Everything continues to point to Spade not caring about his partner’s murder. He immediately changes “Spade and Archer,” the name of his business, to “Samuel Spade.” However, at the end of the movie Spade reveals that all along he was acting for his dead partner. He says, “When a man's partner's killed, he's supposed to do something about it. It doesn't make any difference what you thought of him, he was your partner, and you're supposed to do something about it. And it happens we're in the detective business. Well, when one of your organization gets killed, it's - it's bad business to let the killer get away with it. Bad all around. Bad for every detective everywhere.” Here, Spade has given two very different motivations. Did Spade act because of his sense of duty to his partner or did he act to preserve his business and the reputation of detectives at large? We can’t know for sure.

Did Spade have any real feelings for O’Shaugnessy? In the end it doesn’t matter because Spade knows that he could never really trust her. She tries to argue that if his love was true that he could forget everything else. Spade looks at the situation logically and sees that their are too many strikes against her and decides that no matter how he feels, he’d be an idiot to believe anything she says.


Thoughts on "Stranger on the Third Floor"


This is my reaction paper from a college film noir class. Originally written in 2003.


"Stranger on the Third Floor" (1940) is not a true film noir movie. It has many of the elements associated with film noir (heavy use of shadow, narration) and yet the mood of the picture is all wrong. I feel that this is a proto noir film. In other words, if noir films were a long running TV series, this film should be thought of as the pilot of the series. It is a pilot that is so different from the series that it could never be aired. Film noir is bleak and gritty. This movie has a kind of light and peppy mood. It even has a “gosh isn’t everything swell” happy ending.

The most noir part of this movie was the dream sequence in the middle of the film. While not exactly on par with the famous Salvador Dali designed dream sequence from Hitchcock’s "Spellbound," this sequence did have some notable aspects: the jail cell which seemed to be a kind of stage which was surrounded by darkness. The courtroom scenes during this sequence were much darker, the courtroom was empty, and the jury made no attempt to mask their indifference. After his sentencing, the electric chair was seen only as a gigantic imposing shadow. When the judge becomes the statue of justice, it is clear that this movie is hitting the audience over the head with its imagery and moving at a pace that is slow enough that you can go get popcorn and a soda and not really miss anything. To make matters worse, the image of the statue and the cheesy dramatic music that accompanies it are repeated just a few minutes after their first appearance.

The main theme of the movie: bad things can happen to anyone, is very noir. Michael would be a quintessential example of a noir hero, except for the fact that it is his girlfriend Jane ends up being the main focus of the action by the end of the movie. A secondary theme, and the one that resonated most deeply with me was, what responsibility do people have to each other? At first Michael feels he has a responsibility to testify against Briggs, but after he realizes how easily events can be misconstrued, he understands how easily duty and ethics can be misused. In Michael’s dream sequence, Jane throws right back at Michael the ethical argument he hid behind after testifying against Briggs, when she testifies against him and then tells him, “I had to tell the truth.”

This film is actually very pro-woman. Jane and women at large are made fun of for the majority of the film. Even her own boyfriend thinks of Jane as little more than a child. When Michael thinks about Jane’s reaction to Briggs’ trial he says, “she’ll forget about it in a couple of days.” He also asks her “What do you know about law and trials and such things?” However, by the end of the movie Jane emerges as the hero of the film when she tracks down the killer and gets him to confess.

This movie also shares the film noir theme of the city as corrupt. Every character in the film has been changed by the city into an uncompassionate sort of existentialist. Even the police are seen as indifferent. This is clear when Michael speaks to Jane about the police saying, “They wouldn’t listen to me if that’s what you want me to do.” However, the best example of the city’s utter indifference is the truck driver who kills Peter Lorre’s character. His defense for running over a man is, “I honked.” Jane is the only exception to the city’s indifference. Because she has not yet lost her compassion, Jane is a tortured figure. This is evident when Michael calls her after Briggs’ trial and she is hidden in shadows that represent her inner-struggles.

The voice-over/narration device starts off well. Michael asks himself, “Why do people live in Brooklyn? Why couldn’t I?” However, the device is soon so over used that it becomes comical. In general, this device is severely misused when it reveals character’s emotions that can more easily be revealed by his or her actions. As a screenwriter, one of the first lessons they teach you is “Show don’t tell.” In other words, if your character is shot you don’t write a voice over that says “Ow, I’ve been shot,” because it would be superfluous and silly.

This is the first of only three films that Boris Ingster would direct. This isn’t surprising because the film invokes a feeling of a boy experimenting with a new camera. This was most evident in the first scene at the diner where Michael and Jane are seen from their reflections in a mirror.

Worth mentioning is the sexual "dance" that Jane and Michael perform when she comes up to his apartment and light, airy music begins playing in the background. She’s all wet from the rain and begins to explore his apartment and talk. No matter what she says to him, Michael keeps asking her to take off her clothes and even starts taking them off for her. Then she starts playing along and asks him if he talks in his sleep, implying that they’ll be sharing a bed sometime soon. However, their good time is thwarted by Michael’s landlady and his milk obsessed, and ill-fated neighbor.

I also found this to be a hilarious dark comedy with many great one liners and some classic characters. The defense lawyer who seems to be on autopilot, the neighbor who imposes the virtues of milk on his neighbor, and the ill fated diner owner Nick who hits on the women sitting at his counter by revealing his “big” secret, a raisin in every cup of coffee. My favorite scene was during Briggs’ trial where both a jury member and the judge are asleep. One of the lawyers hears a jury member snoring, and wakes the judge. The judge immediately reprimands the juror for doing the exact same thing he himself was doing.

Despite it’s shortcomings this film was enjoyable and it is a great example of an intermediate step between the glossy themed Hollywood pictures of the 30’s and the gritty noir films of the 40’s.


Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Thoughts on "Double Indemnity"


This is my reaction paper from a college film noir class. Originally written in 2003.


The first reason why "Double Indemnity" (1944), directed by Billy Wilder, is a classic film noir is the soundtrack, the music is tense and dark, and there is a common thread of it throughout the film. Every time Walter (Fred MacMurray) and Phyllis’ (Barbara Stanwyck) web of evil grows larger, the same theme starts playing in the background, almost like the ominous voice of some sort of inner conscience.

The second reason is the lighting in this movie is top notch noir lighting. Plot point number one, where Phyllis first comes over to Walter’s apartment and the seeds of their evil are sown by their first adulterous kiss, is the first scene that is only lit from outside of the room. The crisis/climax scene is another scene lit the same way. This time the only light is through a Venetian blind in Phyllis’ study.

The third reason why this is classic noir is the actor’s performances. Edward G. Robinson‘s Keyes, was the perfect foil for the intellectual machinations of Walter. Everything about Keyes’ physical presence was non-threatening; he can’t even seem to ever light his own cigar, and yet the wheels were always turning in his mind and it was clear from the first scene that he prized truth above emotions. You almost feel sorry for the man who got caught by Keyes for sabotaging his own truck, but Keyes shows him no mercy.

Walter has some great noir lines at the beginning of the movie. He says, “I killed him for money and a woman. I didn’t get the money or the woman.” Soon after that he says, “I never knew that honeysuckle could smell like murder.” He knows that Phyllis can only be bad for him, but he is drawn to her. He tries to keep his mind off her by bowling and drinking, but his thoughts never stray far from her ankles and her mysterious allure.

The writing of this screenplay was very tight. There isn’t a single wasted character or scene in the whole film. For a while I thought that the daughter Lola and her somewhat bizarre boyfriend Nino were nothing but filler, but by the end of the movie Lola manages to humanize Walter’s character and give him a little sympathy. While the revelation that Phyllis is having a relationship with Nino seems to make her that much more evil and inhuman. After Walter murders Phyllis, he stops Nino from going inside the house and possibly getting blamed for Phyllis‘ murder, which was Walter’s original plan. This is the resolution of the tension of the movie and the turning point of Walter’s character. We are left to wonder what changed in Walter’s character, did he give up? Did his love for Lola make him blindly act towards her happiness alone? We will never know.

The murder plan in this movie struck me as kind of dumb. I have no clue how someone who dies by falling off a train and someone who dies from being strangled can look at all similar. Another thing that bothered me was the fact that Walter and Phyllis always met in the same grocery store. If anyone with half a brain was watching either of them, I think they would have caught on really fast.

My final thought is of the slight homoerotic element that existed between Keyes and Walter. Whenever Walter says he loves Keyes, Keyes reacts by expressing his masculinity, almost as if he is afraid of such feelings. For instance he says, “Get out of here before I throw my desk at you.” Throughout the film Keyes dismisses Walter’s sexual conquests as robbing the cradle, he says, “I bet she drinks from the bottle.” Does Keyes unconsciously do this because he can’t accept the fact that Walter would have any real feeling for anyone but him? When at the end of the film Walter tells Keyes that he couldn’t find out the truth because, “the guy you were looking for was too close,” Keyes replies, “more close then you’ll ever know.” Then Keyes lights a match in the same way that Walter always did in the past as if to say that Keyes could have done it himself all along if he had wanted to, but it filled some kind of unconscious sexual desire.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Thoughts on "The Cosmic Puppets"


"The Cosmic Puppets," by Philip K. Dick


I liked the earliest parts of the story when Ted Barton comes into Millgate and he's been telling his wife all these stories on the way there and probably boring her half to death. Then he gets there and he knows something isn't right. My memory has never been as good as Barton's seems to be in this novel, but there are definitely certain towns that I knew as a child that I'd still know quite well today.

After he is confronted with this differentness, he leaves the town and drops his wife off somewhere. I thought this was really interesting because especially in such a short novel it kind of broke the building of tension. The story might have been more effective if he had tried to leave the town with his wife and found that he couldn't. However, I was just as happy to see the wife character go, because she would have been annoying, since she was written without any redeeming qualities. I also thought it was significant that he dropped her off, because he knew on some level that he was going on some kind of "spiritual" or "hero's" journey and that's a journey a man must go on alone. My wife and I often take separate weekend trips. It always feels like I'm reconnecting with myself, like I forget what it was like to be on my own.

I really enjoyed the first interaction between Peter and Barton. Barton plays it cool and Peter ends up giving away more of his secrets than he probably intended to.

The next scene that stuck with me was the moment the Wanderers first appear and Barton says, “Did you see them?" and Doctor Meade says, "It’s perfectly natural. What’s so strange about that?” That was the first place in the book where I really began to wonder what the heck was going on.

I really liked the scene where Barton tries to get past the barrier. Someone should make it into a short film, Barton jumping from log to log while time and space changes all around him.

The scene with Christopher and his spell remover was memorable. I liked the detail that the device itself did nothing, the real power was in Barton and Christopher's minds. However, it was at this point in the novel when I began to question how much one could rely on their memories from 18 years ago and/or childhood memories.

My memory for everyday things has always been pretty poor. I can sing every song I used to sing at summer camp when I was a kid, but my memories of my friends or camp counselors at that time is almost nonexistent. I could tell you about some of the cartoons I used to watch as a kid, but I doubt I could tell you much about my neighborhood or the park near my house.

So anyway, I was more than a little bit skeptical that Barton's memory could be as accurate as he thought he needed it to be. Though the scene when Mary comes upon Barton and Christopher in the park and they are "yelling and gesturing" like mad men is priceless.

When the novel reaches it's climax and the two Zoroastrianism Gods take their true form and start to duke it out in the spatial or spiritual realm is where I got kind of lost. First off, I don't know if my education is just lacking, but I'd never even heard of Ahriman or Ormazd let alone understand their significance in a cultural context. Maybe all we needed to understand was that Ormazd was good and Ahriman was bad?

One odd part of the novel was p. 86 when pre-pubescent Mary takes all her clothes off and rubs oil all over her body to appease a golem she had captured. Then when you get to the ending and Mary turns out to be a God, Barton suddenly has the hots for her. Before she even takes an adult human form he's asking her if she can stay on Earth. I'd understand these kinds of feeling after he'd seen her as a woman, but at that point she'd only been a pre-teen girl and a golem. Was Dick trying to put uncomfortable subject matter in the novel or did he do so unconsciously? I don’t know which answer is worse.

It wasn't fantastic, but it wasn't bad either, I'd have to give it some sort of neutral score like 6 or 7 out of 10.


On p 102. Meade mentions the bible verse from 1 Corinthians 13 "Through a glass darkly." That same verse would inspire the title of Dick's 1977 novel "A Scanner Darkly." I guess it was a concept that stuck with him for a while huh?

I read a copy from the library; it was the Vintage Books, November 2003 paperback. One of the earlier editions of Cosmic Puppets was a sewn edition. I know this because this edition used the original typeset which included gathering markers or signatures. They were labeled C.P.-B through C.P.-F and they appear approximately every 25 pages. When books were sewn together the pages were first formed into gatherings and those gatherings where sewn together to form the text block.

"The Cosmic Puppets" art work is by Chris Moore.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Thoughts on "Planetary"

 photo 4d51bdd0-3e84-44d2-a847-b525ff259759_zpsd4d5d5ce.jpg

Planetary is a near perfect synergy of art and story. That’s really the secret to a good comic, I think too many of the comics of today attempt to treat a comic as if it were a movie rather than treating a comic as a unique art form.

All 26 issues of Planetary were written by Warren Ellis and drawn by John Cassaday. Planetary is about a group of historian adventurers who attempt to uncover the secrets of the past. Think Indiana Jones, but with super powers. The universe of the story is a pastiche in which every pulp novel character and every superhero character appear to have inhabited this same universe in one form or another. For example in this universe there was a 30’s era superhero team made up of Doc Savage, the Shadow, Tarzan and other pulp-era heroes. At one point, the Planetary team scientifically examines a mysterious hammer that bears more than a passing resemblance to Thor’s hammer Mjolnir. Another issue focuses on versions of Superman, the Green Lantern and Wonder Woman.

Because of this aspect of examination, Planetary is a sort of thesis paper on the history of comics. In a way the heroes even acknowledge that they are in a comicbook. It is mentioned more than once that scientists in their universe have discovered that they are three-dimensional objects in a two dimensional world.

Many issues pay homage to a specific genre, there’s the fifties monster movie issue (one issue for American and one for Japanese) and, another issue is a tribute to “Rendevous with Rama” by Arthur C. Clarke.

If Planetary has perpetrated any crimes it’s that in some issues Ellis steps back and just lets Cassaday go for broke on the visuals. The first that comes to mind is the issue in which Elijah Snow (the main character of the series, an old man who has lost his memories) views the world on a molecular level. However, one can definitely argue that Cassaday’s art is worth showcasing.

Planetary is a great example of terse story telling. It’s 26 issues (plus 3 special crossovers that I unfortunately haven’t read yet). And that’s it. It reminds me of those handful of great TV series that were one and done like The Prisoner in the 60’s; Fawlty Towers in the 70’s (okay that had 2 British seasons but only 12 episodes total) and in recent times Firefly, or Strange Luck.

As far as ongoing storylines, the world of comicbooks is even worse than television. Superman and Batman have been fighting crime for 70 years. Spider-man and the rest of the Marvel universe have been at it for over 40 years. We love all of those characters because their adventures have thrilled us for many years, but how many of their adventures are fresh or completely original? Probably only a handful.

Unfortunately the price you pay for having a terse story is that there are unanswered questions or the story never goes the way you wanted it to. An example of this is, there was an important event in Snow’s life that took place on a submarine called the Nautilus. William Palmer, (a super villain and member of main baddies the Four, super villain versions of the Fantastic Four) destroyed the ship and a woman whom Snow loved was killed, but we never learn more than that. [My own theory is that it hints to Captain Nemo and The League of Extraordinary Gentleman. Snow had previously met Sherlock Holmes and Dracula].

One thing that’s great about Planetary is that its fight scenes are more realistic then in most comics. Ellis understands that most fights are more like a knife fight then a boxing match so his battles are quick and dirty. Also, the characters use their super powers very sparingly, but when they do use them they are accurately portrayed. One of the things that drives me nuts is that in comics when the Hulk hits a brick wall it crumbles, but when the Hulk hits a villain in the face it just knocks him out. The truth is the Hulk would probably literally punch his brains out. So it made me smile when at one point in Planetary the super-strong Jakita Wagner punches a villain and his head and spinal cord goes flying.

In the end, even though I appreciated the concise story telling, I wanted to read more Planetary adventures. The villains aren’t supposed to stay beaten the first time. They always come back for more, right?

Thoughts on "A Dance With Dragons" part 3

Part 3 of my Thoughts on “A Dance With Dragons” by George R. R. Martin.


House Greyjoy

The Greyjoys and all of the Ironborn get hit pretty hard in “Dance.” In “A Feast For Crows” you really started to get to know these people a little bit. You saw the Kingsmoot and got a feel for their culture (they are clearly based on the Vikings), they are a proud people who have always lived by the sword and they live on this one tiny archipelago. Since the rule of the Targaryens, the Ironborn have been handcuffed. Their islands can’t contain and sustain their numbers and yet when they raid in order to survive they face the wrath of a unified Westeros. Imagine what would have happened to the Vikings if there had been a European union in the Viking era.

Of course, I feel less sorry for the Ironborn when I realize that for the most part they’re a bunch of vain and arrogant pricks. Theon, Victorian and Euron all think they are God’s gift to women and believe it is their destiny to be great men, when in reality they are merely pawns in the game of thrones.

At the end of “Feast” I was convinced that the Ironborn were on an upswing, I didn’t imagine they’d conquer Westeros, but I thought they’d manage to eek out and hold onto some limited amount of territory. Instead, the Greyjoy’s conquests of Moat Catlin and Deepwood Motte were left without resupplies. Euron was more interested in fighting the Tyrells at the Shield Islands and sending 100 ships to impress Daenarys than protecting the toehold his brother Balon had envisioned.

My favorite chapter in the entire book was Asha Greyjoy’s first chapter. She holds Deepwood Motte, but she realizes that she can’t hold it forever without reinforcements. She knows her glory will be short lived, but she doesn’t care, she’s living the warrior life she was raised for. But, when the castle is attacked, she realizes it would be better to live than die fighting a losing battle. Her men feel the same way. They retreat into the forest hoping to get to their ships and just when they’re sure they’ve gotten away, they are ambushed in the darkness. But, her men seem determined to fight to their last breaths. Asha cuts down several men, but she is eventually overwhelmed. I read this and thought it was the perfect end for her character. The Ironborn or the Vikings both would have called her death glorious. I was kind of disappointed to see that she was still alive as Stannis’ prisoner.

Not Surprising Enough?!

I want to respond to the people that are criticizing Martin for not surprising us. Personally, I thought there were a lot of surprises in “A Dance with Dragons,” but these critic’s chief argument is “Well, people on the internet have been saying maybe Aegons alive for years.”

People on the internet have been saying it…So what! Does that mean Martin should
re-envision his story? “Oh, I’m not fooling them,” he thinks. “Instead of Aegon being alive, I’ll raise Baelor the Blessed from the dead. No one’s thought of that.”

People on the Internet have had years to think about this series. In that time they have come up with any number of theories. Ever hear the phase if you throw enough shit at the wall eventually something sticks? I’ve seen perfectly reasonable theories suggesting that Jon Snow, and/or Sam Tarly, and/or Tyrion Lannister are all Targaryens. [The last one is actually less far fetched after this novel because Barristan Selmy told Daenarys that Aerys II had the hots for Tyrion’s mom] But just because fans thought of it, it doesn’t mean it wouldn’t be surprising. I mean, I could say I think Theon Greyjoy is secretly a Targaryen. If that turned out to be true, I’d still be quite surprised. Is Martin’s job to tell an exciting and consistent story or is his job to razzle-dazzle us?

If the answer is surprise, here are two Martin hasn’t thought of:

1) Bran’s next vision is of a burly bearded man sitting at a computer typing his family’s adventures.

2) Edric Storm is brought to King’s Landing and stands before Tommen’s small council in the throne room. They ask him where Stannis hid the Dragon Eggs that were rumored to have been on Dragonstone. Storm breaks down under the pressure and admits, “Stannis made me smuggle one of them up my butt.”

Oh, wait, Martin’s out of luck, he can’t use either of those ideas anymore, because I already thought of them; They’d not longer be a surprise.

Here is Part 2 of my review of "A Dance With Dragons"
Here is Part 1 of my review of "A Dance With Dragons"
Asha Greyjoy and Edric Storm artwork are from an Italian Game of Thrones site Terra-di-Mezzo