In Which I Get Busy and Wind Up Three Weeks Behind On My Updates and Oh God There Are So Many Movies To Talk About Why Do I Do This to Myself
Uh, yeah. Whoops. My American Film History class that started with my last post is done now, so here’s what we talked about the rest of the month. I’ll try and keep it brief, but I have six writing assignments and eight films to talk about, so it’s probably going to be long and you’re just going to have to come to terms with that reality. If you don’t like it, just scroll past it, you lazy bum.
For assignment two, we talked about two very different Depression-era films: Mervyn Leroy and Busby Berkeley’s Gold Diggers of 1933 (which was a better film than I remembered; if you haven’t seen it, you should at least find the “Petting in the Park” musical number, which is the cheeriest song about touching someone’s genitals in public that you’ll ever hear) and Frank Capra’s Meet John Doe. Most of the class talked about the films in terms of escapism and the ways in which they did and did not fit that classification. I didn’t feel like talking about escapism, however, so I talked about how the two films show the change in Hollywood trends from 1933 to 1941. Gold Diggers falls into what’s commonly referred to as the pre-Code era, years when Hollywood films dealt openly with topics, particularly of related to sexuality, that would become taboo once the Production Code began to be enforced. A major reason these films showed used soon-to-be-taboo topics and imagery, such as the brazenly sexual and scantily-clad women of Gold Diggers, was because those were what theaters hoped could draw audiences even in the midst of economic disaster. Although the film does discuss the Depression and its painful effects on America and in particular its war veterans (“Remember My Forgotten Man”), these are only a small portion of the film compared to the sexually-charged majority of Gold Diggers. As such, the film doesn’t seem as interested in making any moral statement as it is in selling sex.
Meet John Doe, on the other hand, is a very moralist film, which fits the time it was made in, where the Depression was past its worst days and World War II was on the horizon. The Depression had shaken American confidence, so many films of the late ’30s and early ’40s sought to rebuild the cultural mythology of American greatness. Capra’s film extols populist ideals of good-neighborliness that fit well with the policies of FDR and the New Deal, and it warns of the dangers of creeping fascism in America and the world at large. Unlike Gold Diggers of 1933, it is almost entirely sexless (save for one weirdly Freudian recounting of John’s [Gary Cooper] dream of spanking Ann [Barbara Stanwyck] while being both himself and her father), so instead of selling sex, it sells moral idealism and a confirmation of the greatness of the common, middle American man and woman. It is the cynicism of the Depression giving way to the patriotism of the Second World War. Of course, Capra’s films have far more cynicism and criticism of America than his reputation might have you believe, but that’s a whole essay in itself.
Next, we talked about Citizen Kane and On the Waterfront, which are of course two of the best and most highly-regarded films in American cinema. I talked about how both films use distance to signify the isolation of the film’s protagonists through literal spatial distance within the mise-en-scène or the use of symbolic boundaries - fences, gates, cages, etc. The opening of Citizen Kane repeatedly emphasizes this distance through such symbols and through the layered editing as the camera slowly moves closer to the bedroom of Charles Foster Kane (Orson Welles), past a large iron gate, a “No Trespassing” sign, animal cages, a moat, and even a golf course sign stating how long a hole is. Immediately, the audience is told that Kane died a lonely and isolated man. The film’s extensive use of deep-focus also serves to often put space between Kane and other characters, and editing at times emphasizes this distance as well. Two well-known sequences in the film serve as strong examples: first, there’s the scene of Kane in his childhood, seen in the far background of the shot outside his family’s cabin as his parents in the foreground sign the papers that will forever separate them from him; at one point in the scene, his father even shuts the window through which we see the young Kane playing, creating another boundary between Kane and the world. Second, there’s the breakfast table scene in which we see Kane’s first marriage crumble, an effect achieved by highlighting how close they sit to one another early in the marriage and how far apart they are near its end, using newspapers as boundaries to block themselves off from each other. Although Kane is, in certain short-lived moments, able to temporarily find closeness with others, he ultimately fails to overcome his physical and emotional isolation.
Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando), on the other hand, does manage to overcome his self-imposed isolation. As in Citizen Kane, On the Waterfront employs boundary images, particularly fences and cages, to show how Malloy shields himself from the world and the reality of his involvement in the local union’s shady practices. Brando is often positioned behind fences or behind the mesh wire of his pigeon coop so as to keep a distance from the world, and even when he isn’t separated by a fence, at times he’ll have conversations or move near fences, maintaining their visual symbolism. He finally overcomes these boundaries with the help of Edie (Eva Marie Saint) and Father Barry (Karl Malden), who both show a willingness to get close to him, and at the end of the film, the dockworkers who he kept his physical distance from join him in his final stand, surrounding him and making him a part of the group, even as the final image of a garage door shutting behind them, another physical boundary, suggests that perhaps there is more work for them to do in fighting corruption.
Two thoughts I had about these films, unrelated to my class writing: it’s been oft-noted as a “plot hole” in Citizen Kane that no one hears him say “Rosebud” when he dies, so nobody should have known it was his last words…but the butler (Paul Stewart) specifically says he heard him say “Rosebud” when he dropped the snow globe and died. The answer is right there in the movie. The butler heard him. You can’t see Kane’s entire room in the opening scene, because it’s very dark and the shot is relatively close, so yes, it’s entirely conceivable that the butler was in there. He may have even been the one who called the nurse in the room. Regardless, it’s not a plot hole. If you’re not satisfied with that answer, that’s fine, but that doesn’t make it a plot hole. That’s not how it works. Also, for On the Waterfront, a more general point: does anybody else find it interesting how ingrained the idea of “never snitch” and “never be a rat” is in American culture? Even in a situation like Terry’s, where he’s testifying against murderers, we still have the cultural awareness to understand why he would be nervous about it and why everyone else on the docks initially ostracizes him for it. Look, if you murder somebody and someone else “snitches” on you, guess what? That’s your fault, because you murdered somebody. If you don’t want people snitching on you, maybe don’t murder people. It’s just fascinating and sort of strange to me how well spread that concept is to middle America even though it has no real application in the lives of a majority of Americans. Maybe that’s a worthy essay topic to keep in mind for the future.
The rest of the class units dealt with one film each, so for Unit 4, we only discussed Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus, particularly in regards to its relation to the HUAC trials and the Hollywood blacklist (which was also a topic of interest with On the Waterfront). With that issue in mind, I discussed how the film’s subtext of homoeroticism plays a role in its themes of class and power. The film’s main antagonist Crassus (Laurence Olivier) is strongly suggested to be bisexual, as revealed in the “oysters and snails” scene that was originally removed from the film due to censors’ concerns but was added back in for the film’s 1991 restoration. The unease of the scene and the obvious discomfort of Antoninus (Tony Curtis) at Crassus’s sexual advances can easily be read as a negative portrayal of homosexuality, but that’s a simplification of what actually happens in the film. What’s key with this scene as with all of Crassus’s scenes of sexual advances, such as with Varinia (Jean Simmons), or suggestive scenes such as in the bathhouse with Julius Caesar (John Gavin) is how Crassus employs his sexuality. For Crassus, sexuality is equated with power, and he tries to exercise his power and what he sees as his “given birthright” of dominance over the lower classes through sexuality, and when his advances are denied, he becomes more desperate to dominate Rome and stop Spartacus (Kirk Douglas). There are actually hints of homoeroticism with Spartacus in his relationship with Antoninus, especially in their final moments together when forced to fight one another, which helps show how Spartacus is Crassus’s opposite. Spartacus does not force himself on Varinia or Antoninus; both come to love him willingly, which is only more infuriating to Crassus. Just as the film as a whole serves as writer Dalton Trumbo’s allegory for the folly of McCarthyism and the HUAC trials, the subtext of sexuality in the film helps create the division between Crassus as the representation of tyranny and elitism and Spartacus as the representation of liberty, populism, and true democracy.
Next, we discussed Blue Velvet with particular regard to Surrealism in American film. I chose to highlight the specific echoes of Surrealism in the film. The most obvious is the film’s repeated references to dreams, which are central to Surrealist ideas. For example, there’s Sandy’s (Laura Dern) recounting of her dream about robins to Jeffrey (Kyle MacLachlan), and the repeated use of Roy Orbison’s “In Dreams,” as well as several scenes that seem to represent Jeffrey’s dreams as he’s haunted by his experiences with Dorothy Vallens (Isabelle Rossellini) and Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper). Another echo is seen with the severed ear that Jeffrey finds early in the film, and the zoom-in and zoom-out of ears that appear near the beginning and end of the film. It turns out that in Surrealist art ears represent desire, which is fitting, given that Blue Velvet deals largely with sexual desire. When Jeffrey finds the ear, it is swarming with ants in a manner reminiscent of the ants coming out of the palm in Dalí and Buñuel’s Un Chien Andalou or the ants swarming a pocket watch in Dalí’s famous painting The Persistence of Memory. In these instances, ants seem to represent decay, which fits with the use of ants and insects throughout Blue Velvet as symbols of the decay lying beneath middle-class American society. Finally, Lynch’s employment of slow motion to give scenes such as the film’s opening a dream-like quality is similarly employed in other famous Surrealist films, such as Cocteau’s The Blood of a Poet, Vigo’s “Zéro de conduite”, and Buñuel’s Los Olvidados. These examples help to show that calling Lynch’s films surreal is more than just a generic label or a fancy synonym for weird, but actually has basis in art history. On an unrelated note, Frank Booth is right. Pabst Blue Ribbon is way better than Heineken.
Our next film was another from Kubrick, Full Metal Jacket, which served to initiate discussion of the depiction of war in American cinema. Long-time readers know that I’m a big Kubrick fan, so I happily discussed the film in relation to two previous Kubrick films, Paths of Glory and Dr. Strangelove, which share a visual dichotomy between the order of military bureaucracy and the chaotic realities of actual battle. In Full Metal Jacket, there is consistent order and symmetry in the film’s first section set on Parris Island as the Marine recruits are positioned in such a manner that they become almost indistinguishable from one another and become part of the geometry and architecture of the setting. The symmetry and clean lines of this first section sharply contrast with the chaos of the urban setting and the movements of characters once the film moves to Vietnam. The idea created by this dichotomy is that the orderly training by the bureaucracy failed to prepare Marines for the physical and, more importantly, mental and emotional toll of war. Paths of Glory similarly connects the military bureaucracy to symmetry and order with their setting in the palatial chapeau that serves as the generals’ headquarters and the site of military executions, while the actual trench warfare where the soldiers fight and die for generals who consider their lives meaningless are, naturally, chaotic and disordered, revealing the soldiers to be individuals, not merely props of war. In Dr. Strangelove, the dichotomy is created by the chaotic action of Gen. Ripper (Sterling Hayden) as he insanely tries to restore order by stopping the “Communist conspiracy” of flouridation by starting nuclear war, which only causes him to fall into greater visual chaos as his base comes under attack. There is also the precisely designed and symmetrical War Room in comparison to the cramped interior of the plane carrying the nuclear weapon that threatens to bring about global destruction. In all cases, symmetrical order and unsymmetrical chaos are juxtaposed to show how the military bureaucracy is out of touch with the realities of fighting on the front lines of war and oblivious to the destructive consequences of their actions.
Finally, with Unit 7 we talked about Oliver Stone’s Nixon. Ebert and other critics have noted the quality of Shakespearean tragedy to the film. Starting from that point, I noted that, much like Shakespeare’s tragedies, the film seems to utilize elements of the supernatural, particularly omens. I pointed out three specific examples, moments in the film that seem like unremarkable details but are conspicuous by their inclusion. The first occurs after the Kent State shootings. In a meeting, Nixon (Anthony Hopkins) discusses the shootings and the continuing Vietnam War, showing little sympathy for the shooting victims and even suggesting a willingness to use nuclear weapons. As the meeting ends, Nixon cuts into a steak that releases an unusually large amount of blood. This blood is clearly meant to evoke the blood on his hands because of the continuation of the war under his administration. Later, while on Air Force One, Nixon talks to his aides about the Watergate investigation, still in its early stages. After being assured by his counsel John Dean (David Hyde Pierce) that there’s nothing for him to lose sleep over, the plane suddenly hits an air pocket, causing the plane to lurch violently. This small moment of turbulence foreshadows the turbulent days that lay ahead for Nixon and his administration as the Watergate investigation heats up. The final omen occurs as Nixon winds up a meeting in the Oval Office with Dean as the Watergate investigation has become more serious. After assuring Dean that no loyal member of his administration will go to jail and that he has complete confidence in Dean, Nixon grabs the door handle to leave, but the handle comes off in his hand. The metaphor here is that Nixon’s White House is falling apart - the very next scene reveals the forced resignations of his closest aides and of Dean, who eventually becomes a key witness for the prosecution, testifying against Nixon. These omens all help contribute to the Shakespearean aspect of the film’s tragedy, as well as suggesting the reason that the Watergate scandal happened: Nixon’s inability to see the warning signs or move beyond his stubborn, untrusting personality to address the scandal directly.
Whew. There it is, kids. If you made it this far, congratulations. Hopefully I won’t get so backed up with my August class, for which I should have a post up very soon to talk about the first film of that class, as well as a couple newer movies. It’s tough to find the time and energy for Tumblr updates, but on the bright side, I think I’ll be able to write much better reviews and essays for you guys once this class is all done and life settles down a little bit. Until next time, be good everyone.