Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Color Noir

By Eric Jessen 3/24/2010

Watching the end of Roman Polanski's new movie The Ghost Writer this past weekend, seeing a car abruptly accelerate as our ghost crosses the street carrying a 600 page manuscript, suddenly hearing screeching brakes, seeing nothing but an empty street then a flurry of papers scattering in the wind, I was immediately reminded of Chinatown. In particular its ending, seeing the two police detectives fire at Mrs. Mulwray's car then hearing the sound of the car horn.
It kept beeping and beeping. Finally we were told it was all just Chinatown. But what do I ask is it today? Is it Cape Cod, Tony Blair and George Bush, the American government and the CIA, all of which seemed to play a part in killing our ghost?
Maybe Polanski is living in the past. With Chinatown was it really Nixon, the Vietnam war, the assassination of JFK...? Is he living in our country's past? The ending to Chinatown could be seen as a reflection of the times - like Bonnie and Clyde bouncing about to the dozens of bullets piercing their skin, Michael Corleone closing the door on his wife, and Howard Beale being killed for having lousy ratings all rolled-up into one.
Or is it instead that Polanski is still dragging around his own checkered past? And his movies are a reflection of his tainted view of the world. With the personal tragedies he's suffered can we even blame him?
Whether it be Polanski's inner demons or a sign of overall disillusionment with government in America during the late 1960's and early 70's, it is important to note that Chinatown wasn't always supposed to have such a bleak ending. Robert Towne, who wrote the screenplay, originally intended to end the movie with Jake killing the sadistic Noah Cross then helping Mrs. Mulwray escape to Mexico with her daughter. It was in fact Roman Polanski who suggested the change in ending – as with The Ghost Writer, Rosemary's Baby, or any other he had to add his ghoulish macabre touch.
Then again that's crucial to its charm – its tawny varnished, morbid, mythic lyricism. Chinatown will always be an essential film noir of the color age.
Times sure change fast. At one point not long before Chinatown was released morbid film noirs were black and white, and blood a dark gray. They usually ended with the good guys and bad guys aligned, fitting the “crime doesn't pay” message. Another classic The Big Sleep might be an example of this. However can you even dare to say Howard Hawks' film is about good guys and bad guys? Is there really anything important on the screen but Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall's steaming chemistry? The Big Sleep is just an extension of To Have and Have Not spiced up by Raymond Chandlers' feel for the burlesque and salacious and biting dialogue by an all-star cast of writers – William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett and Jules Furthman. Who among even Chandler himself can shuffle the plot enough to differentiate the good from the bad – as long as Bogart and Bacall are the last ones left standing, as Hawks probably thought to himself when he made the film.
Can you imagine Bogart as Philip Marlowe tussling with Faye Dunaway's Evelyn Mulwray or Jack Nicholson's Jake Gittes with Lauren Bacall and the thumb sucking Carmen (Martha Vickers)? I'm sure they could both hold their own. Who knows, maybe Bogey could have given Polanski his first film with a happy ending.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Notes on Up (2009)

By Eric Jessen 3/5/2010

I watched Up and I must say I was a little disappointed. Sure it had some nice effects, the flying house makes for a nice visual. But overall it seemed bogged down by kid-movie cliches. The characters, the voices, the plot devices and even much of the humor felt more in the DreamWorks variety - I mean talking dog jokes, please. And the opening montage about the old guys life, which probably got a lot praise from critics, stole its view of marriage from a hallmark card. I think any series of colorful "wondrous" images cut together and put to classical music by Pixar will automatically be called brilliant by critics.

Dreams of Death

By Eric Jessen 3/5/2010 (Photograph by Weegee)

Confessions of a Killer from "The Naked City"

The streets were rough in those days, but aren't they always. That's just one of those things people say. Only until you've licked the pavement do you know it's true.
I never thought it would end this way: lying in a pool of my own blood, eating cement, gunned down by a cop. Death, sure I saw it coming, and not of natural causes. I wasn't that thick. I wasn't one of those hot-shit hit-men, reckless punks who think they're in the wild west. But not by a cop, never aced by a dirty pig. What a horrible way to go. I always wished a boss ordered my death. That's more dignified.
I had it all mapped-out in my head, like a teenage girl planning her wedding. I would start out committing a few petty crimes: hold up a liquor store, a drug store. Maybe I'd meet a few hoods along the way. I knew the right places to hang out. Eventually I might drive for a bank job. I'd do some time, sure. The pen's where you meet the big shots. To earn the mob's respect I'd have to bump off some middle-ranking hood – just enough to get their attention. Then I'd take one in the back.
Everyone remembers you if you're killed by the mob. I tried my best, made it pretty far. Blackmail, that's where I went wrong – pinned the wrong people in a corner, the wrong cops. The DA always told me I'd end up a stain on the asphalt – called me “scum.” I hate that I proved him right. He's probably standing over my body right now, shaking his head. It makes me sick. He's one of those high-and-mighty pricks who talks about “cleaning-up the streets.”
Standing over my body, I bet he thinks the streets are cleaner now that I'm dead. He doesn't know the half of it. I've tasted them, they're filthy.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Shutter Island (2010)

By Eric Jessen 3/1/2010

Martin Scorsese's new film Shutter Island is like a great jumble or crossword from the newspaper: fun to twiddle over while waiting for your flight at the airport. And for at least the first hour-and-a-half to two hours it was hard to put down. But as with all puzzles the solution pales in comparison to the fun of unscrambling. Although the solution is quite tantalizing. (When it's finally time to board I always peak at the up-side-down fine print on the jumble.) Reading the Dennis Lehane novel that inspired the movie it must be almost impossible to resist flipping to the final chapter.
Shutter Island certainly has all the elements of a great spellbinder. Scribbled notes, misnomers and anagrams turn our brain to mush. The story twists and turns with seemingly no regard for retracing its steps. And what better setting for a mind-bender than an asylum for the criminally insane. Ghostly crazies creep around ward A, whispering to themselves. In ward C scarred and battered faced maniacs, some with body parts held together by what look like zippers, dangle their arms through cell bars, grasping at air. Muffled screams and the thumps and screeches of the soundtrack underline the tension.
To open we see two U.S. Marshals, Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo), investigating the disappearance of a convicted killer riding a ferry. From the thick fog that covers the strangely 2D looking Boston Harbor we know there's something odd in the works on Shutter Island.
Deputy Warden McPherson (John Carrol Lynch) greets the marshals at the shore with few words and a skeptical look in his eyes. At the gate when McPherson asks for the marshals' firearms Chuck has trouble getting his gun out of his holster – the first little piece of the puzzle to put in our memory bank. The marshals meet the head Doc John Cawley (played by Sir Ben Kingsley) who shows them to the escaped “patient” Rachel Solando's room. Under a broken floor board Teddy finds a note that says “Who is 67” - another puzzle piece, this one a corner.
A white haired German doctor played by Max Von Sydow gives us chills. A hurricane hits Shutter Island leaving the marshals stranded in a cemetery. From there as the story unfolds it becomes apparent that Teddy has fallen into an elaborate trap. We learn Daniels has his own agenda aside from finding Rachel Solando. He suspects Shutter Island is not just an asylum for the criminally insane but a secret government laboratory for gruesome psychological experimentation, and he's determined to prove it. But it seems the doctors and the warden are always one step ahead of him.
Questions in our mind mount. Although the movie is almost half finished our puzzle seems barely started, as if we had a mix of pieces from two different puzzles. What are we to make of Teddy's flashbacks of storming Dachau – numerous close-ups of frozen emaciated corpses seem gratuitous – as well as dreams of his late wife smoldering into ash? Were these flashbacks and dreams along with strange conversations actually hallucinations caused by a spiked aspirin or cigarette? Is Teddy in fact slowly going insane?
A vital document Teddy refuses to acknowledge and a cigarette delicately placed at the edge of a cliff – two more pieces to the puzzle which only add to our confusion. The most compelling question becomes how is this possibly going to end? Only in hindsight did it seem possible. Surprisingly almost all loose ends are tied. I can say at least the end is logically satisfying. Unfortunately the fun of the whirlwind dissipates. Teddy finds himself blabbing on and on through fire in a cave, wasting a dozen matches to light a conversation in a prison cell, then finally storming ward B, the infamous lighthouse, and learning the truth from Dr. Cawley. I guess the game has to end somehow.