Sunday, March 29, 2015
SPOILER ALERT! The plot will be discussed.
Cages. Humans are the only beings that put other living creatures in them. Alfred Hitchcock in his youth was truant from school once, and was placed in a jail cell for a period of time by a policeman who wanted to teach him a lesson. It certainly did. Hitchcock has used the theme of the threat of incarceration in several films. Confinement symbolizes how we selfishly wish to control the world, sometimes at the world’s expense.
Hitchcock's The Birds starts in a pet store, where all types of animals are in cages. Mitch (Rod Taylor) is looking for love birds for his young sister (Veronica Cartwright). Melanie (Tippi Hedrin) wants a mynah bird. Melanie is supposedly mistaken by Mitch for the sales lady, but he realizes she is the daughter of a big time newspaper publisher. She has led a rather reckless life, consorting with people who like to party. He mentions how she lives in a "gilded cage." It is difficult even for her to escape confinement, although hers is an affluent cell. He is a lawyer and admits to wanting to put people in jail. The theme of the human desire for confinement has been immediately established.
Melanie wears a fur coat (animal cruelty?) and invades Mitch's privacy by using sources to find out where he lives (
When she gets there, the man who helps her rent a boat to surprise the sister
with love birds looks like he works behind a cage-like structure. Melanie is a
predator, a bird of prey perhaps, hunting Mitch down, possibly wanting to cage
him for herself. She invades his "nest" – his hometown and his
family, which includes Mitch's mother played by Jessica Tandy. Melanie drives
recklessly, too. She does not care about the harm she may inflict, but only wants
self-gratification. When Mitch's ex-girlfriend, Annie (Suzanne Pleshette), asks
who is knocking at her door, Melanie’s self-centered answer is "Me." She
is sexually aggressive even in front of the ex-girlfriend, lies to Mitch about
previously knowing Annie, and pushes Annie into letting her stay at her house. A
bird slams into the door, as if to punctuate Melanie's self-involved audacity. At
least in the beginning of the film she is representative of the selfish aspect
of humanity that doesn't consider the disastrous repercussions of that
self-centeredness. Bodega Bay
Melanie's actions seem to set off the subsequent bird attacks. The ones involving children are especially chilling. First, there is one at the sister's birthday party. Then, there is an assault at the school, a place of innocence, where the students are singing a sweet, sing-song tune as the crows gather on the monkey bars where the children would normally play at recess. The placement of this attack is, thus, ironic. The school is a place where we should learn, but it emphasizes that we have not learned how to respect the world around us, and nature in particular, as we satisfy our wants.
As the birds continue their attacks, it is the people who are now confined, hiding to protect themselves. Melanie and the children are cornered in a car. She is trapped in a claustrophobic phone booth as the birds ram into it. Townspeople and visitors huddle in the diner. When a woman confronts Melanie as the prime mover of these events, she stares right into the camera, basically accusing the audience of causing this horror, and calling us evil. In this scene, Hitchcock is indicting us all.
In the shot where the camera pulls back and looks down at the burning gas station, and the birds come into view as they fly down for an attack, it looks as if God is sending angels of death down as a punishment. The story is a bleak one. It is "the end of the world" as the scripture quoting character in the diner says. The only hope given us at the end as Mitch drives his family away from the house, is that Melanie, in her fragile state, is now part of the family, and the mother appears to be ready to resume her role as a nurturer, taking the young woman under her wing. But, they take the lovebirds with them, as pets still in a cage, implying that the humans have learned nothing.
Next week’s movie is The Road to Perdition.
Sunday, March 22, 2015
SPOILER ALERT! The plot will be discussed.
Children of men? Why not children of women? I’m just asking. I guess I would have to put the question to P.D. James, since the movie is based on the mystery writer’s book. Of course, it may refer to the Bible, specifically “Ecclesiastes.” In that book, humans are often referred to as “sons of men.” But, could it be that in the world of this film, set in 2027
women are not capable of becoming pregnant, that the blame for female sterility
is the fault of men? That the offspring of men and their failed policies is a
barren Earth, and thus the ironic title? Like I said, I’m just asking. If you’ve
seen this film, I’d like to know what you think of the title.
When I first saw this movie, directed by Oscar-winner Alfonso Cuaròn (for Gravity), I felt let down. I expected a more traditional looking sci-fi motion picture with futuristic trimmings, and instead saw a film with a lot of violent motion sequences. After a couple of subsequent viewings I now appreciate that Cuaròn gave us something different. The action scenes are virtuoso long shots without cuts. Because we see what is going on from the perspective of Theo (Clive Owen), we are immersed in the action and experience the violence viscerally with Theo as he sees it in the background, as an explosion while he walks with his cup of coffee, or witnesses the abuses of refugees from a passing car or bus. He sees a smashed baby carriage in the corner of a rail stop, a powerful image of the current state of this world. In another take, we see an abandoned and trashed school, with a sculpture of a dinosaur outside it – another effective picture of the loss of innocence, and an impending end of days. It’s like watching a panoramic horror show flash by our field of vision.
Let’s get back to the plot. The movie opens with a news story that the youngest person on earth, a young boy who was a celebrity because of this fact, was killed. Right away you know what is the problem with this world. The news stories show that the social order in other countries has collapsed after eighteen years of no births. Without a future for the human race, there is despair, since there is no feeling of purpose to current actions. With the death of each successive individual, the world’s population is heading toward extinction. Religious cult groups have emerged such as the Renouncers, who flagellate themselves since they see the curse of infertility as a punishment from God for the evil ways of humans.
England, however, has held on to a
semblance of civilization. Because of this fact, many third world people try to
enter the country. The government is vicious in clamping down on illegal
aliens, herding them into detainment camps, and violently dealing with any who
help them. These actions have spawned resistance groups. Julian (Julianne Moore)
is a leader of one of these cells. She kidnaps Theo and asks him to get transit
papers from a powerful friend for a young woman.
We see a photo of Theo and Julian with a child early on in the story. We later learn that the two were romantically involved and had a child, Dylan. The boy died in a flu pandemic. Theo and Julian were both politically active, but after the child’s death, Theo became cynical and apathetic, and the lovers separated. He visits with his friend, Jaspar (Michael Caine), who is an aging hippy and has a catatonic wife. The film track contains songs from Jaspar’s time, as if hearkening back to a more idealistic life. But, Jaspar is an anachronism in this current world that needs its own type of solutions.
Theo (whose name means “god”) is the main character, but he is hardly a divine person. He is sullen, alienated, and intimidated (he cringes and flees from violence and cowers when he is kidnapped). In a later scene he appears clumsy, running in flip-flops. But, he seems to find his “religion” so to speak. At first it appears he is helping Julian for money. But her reemergence in his life energizes him, gives him purpose. When he can only get joint transit papers, he almost seems elated that he will have to accompany the young woman, Kee (Clare-Hope Ashitey). While traveling in a car, Theo, Kee, Julian, Miriam (Pam Ferris) (who was a midwife), and Luke (Chiwetel Ejiofor), (one of the revolutionaries), are ambushed. Earlier in the scene, Theo and Julian are playful, shooting ping pong balls into each others mouths. This is now followed by bullets “shooting” at them. Julian is killed, and the others escape and go to a “safe house” which turns out to be a farm. It is here that Kee reveals to Theo that she is pregnant, with birth quickly approaching. It is appropriate that this reverse annunciation is made at a farm (a place of fertility where things grow) and specifically in a barn among cows, who provide milk for nourishment as does a lactating mother. Her name is Kee, and she is the “key” to the world’s survival.
Cows are not the only animals in the movie. In fact, the film has enough critters to fill a zoo. All the people have pets, mostly dogs, but there is a zebra in one scene, and a flock of sheep in another. The person who gives Theo the transit papers has a huge pig balloon floating outside his penthouse window. When we see Theo wake up in a room, the walls are wallpapered with bears. It’s as if the animals are surrogates for the absence of children, and these non-humans will be the ones to inherit the earth. Or, maybe, as the book in the Bible says, the lives of people and animals are intertwined: “For the fate of the sons of men and the fate of beasts is the same: as one dies, so dies the other.”
There is talk of how the future child will be needed by the revolutionaries because the mother is an illegal alien, which would be an affront to the refugee repressive government. Kee does not want her child taken from her for a political cause, and Theo just says make the pregnancy public. He sees the “miracle” as a way to restore hope to all. He is looking beyond partisan agendas, and it emphasizes the rebirth of his optimism. Julian, too, before her death, had voiced a desire to move away from violence. Theo overhears that Luke had her killed because of her resistance to the tactics of the resistance. He plans to have Theo killed and the baby taken from Kee. She, Theo, and Miriam escape from the farm and head to Jaspar’s home. There is talk of getting Kee to The Human Project, a group working toward solving the problem of sterility. Jaspar tries to give the three time to escape, but is killed by the military, which sees Theo as part of the rebellious terrorists. Jaspar’s plan was to get Kee to a refugee camp near the coast, get her on a boat, and meet with a ship that would lead to The Human Project. On the way to the camp, Miriam sacrifices herself to the military so Kee will survive.
They are helped by a foreign woman who speaks no English, named Marichka (Oana Pellea). In an isolated room, Theo helps Kee give birth to her child. In order to get to the boat, Theo has to kill Syd (Peter Mullan), who initially helped them, but who now looks for a monetary reward. Luke and his band show up at the camp, and grab Kee and her baby in the middle of a refugee uprising. Theo finds her and the baby as a battle rages on and bullets fly. Luke is killed. For a brief period, as the revolutionaries and soldiers see Theo and Kee escort the baby away, there is a truce in the presence of new life. But, this transcendent moment is short, and the “Men” of the title resume their fight for their causes.
The two make it to a boat, but they float into a fog, implying that the future is unclear. They see the ship, whose name is “Tomorrow.” Okay, a little heavy-handed, but it provides what direction society can now look toward. But, Theo, just like Christ, needs to be sacrificed for future salvation. He was wounded in the earlier crossfire, and dies on the boat. The ship floating freely signifies that The Human Project is not tied to any one country or belief system, and is thus a symbol of life for all. It is through fear of others (the immigration issue) that the world was led to paralysis, which is impotence. The factions wanted to use the baby as a pawn in their power plays, and this action would subvert motherhood itself.
Theo at one point asks Kee who is the father. She says, kiddingly, that she is a virgin. She then says she is not sure who is the father. Theo plays a couple of religious roles in this film and one is almost like Joseph escorting his Mary and child. Kee says she will call her daughter the unisex name of Dylan, to honor Theo’s lost son. In this desert of a world, Theo’s sacrifice has symbolically allowed his bloodline, and with it, hope, to flourish.
The film analyzed next week is The Birds.
Sunday, March 15, 2015
SPOILER ALERT! The plot will be discussed.
Most of these films were just lavish spectacles that emphasized flash over substance, (although Ben Hur does use symbolism by making water represent the grace and charity of God). Spartacus, however, despite its Cecil B. DeMille cast-of-thousands look, focuses not on religion (although it makes Christian allusions) or the nobility. Its story extols the importance of individual freedom and the need for self-sacrifice to gain that independence from oppressors.
The director, the great Stanley Kubrick, addressed this theme in a different great anti-war movie, also with Kirk Douglas, Paths of Glory. Spartacus was born a slave, but even though that life is all he knows, he is defiant. When we first see him, he risks punishment by trying to help another slave who has collapsed from working in the rock quarry. There is meaningful symbolism in the scene because Spartacus, before attending to the slave, throws off the load of rocks he is carrying, as if wanting to literally and figuratively unburden himself of his servitude. Even though he has not known freedom, the idea of liberty is in his mind.
Sexual oppression is seen elsewhere in the film. When Crassus (Laurence Olivier) arrives at the school and forces arena fights that result in deaths, the royal women he brings with him choose the combatants. They smirk and whisper to each other as they objectify the men, wanting them to appear in scant outfits. One chooses "the big black one," the Ethiopian, who fights Spartacus, and they vicariously are thrilled by watching the men thrust at each other with swords and tridents. Later, Crassus, in the bath scene notorious for its time, tells Antoninus (Tony Curtis) that he enjoys "oysters and snails," implying that he likes sex with women and men. After his bath, Crassus, while looking out at the majesty of
Spartacus uses the self-sacrifice of the Ethiopian who spared him in the arena as a way to unite the gladiators, and they rebel and free themselves from their captors. But, he convinces his followers not to act like the Romans. He can be seen as a Christ figure, who believes in self-sacrifice for the good of others. When his army is defeated and he is captured, the survivors refuse to give him up, each one saying, "I am Spartacus." In a way, they all are him, as they are disciples who now share the essence of their teacher's soul. Crassus discovers his identity and makes him fight Antoninus to the death like a gladiator. But, Spartacus kills his friend out of mercy, so that he will not suffer a slow death. Spartacus is crucified, but he lives long enough to see his son in the arms of Varinia. His wife and child are free and will continue the fight because of his sacrifice.
There is a false note in the film in the performance of Curtis. It is hard to get past the
accent when he speaks, such as when he says he is a "singar of
sawngs" or that he "tawt da classacs."
Are there any of these tales about the glory of
Rome and early
Christianity that you enjoy?
Sunday, March 8, 2015
(A version of this post first appeared on the Bryn Mawr Film Institute Blog)
SPOILER ALERT! The plot will be discussed.
No, this is not a story about conservatives. There were many memorable films in 1983, including The Big Chill and Terms of Endearment, the eventual Oscar winner despite its meandering plot and drawn out melodramatic death of Debra Winger's character. For my money, The Right Stuff, directed by Philip Kaufman, based on the book by Tom Wolfe, was the best movie that year. One thing this film, about the Mercury astronauts, is so successful at doing is showing heroes as real people with definable character traits. It accomplishes this feat without diminishing what these men achieved, or undermining the courage needed to face the unknown obstacles confronting them. The opening tone is set by the voiceover describing test pilots in epic hero terms as they chase the "demon" out there in the sky. The quest to break the sound barrier emphasizes the theme that people must break through the boundaries that try to contain them. That is why the pilots are urged to "punch a hole in the sky."
John Glenn comes off like a squeaky clean Marine. Ed Harris even looks like Mr. Clean from the TV commercials. He can't curse when he is angry, and leaves it to the other pilots to fill in the profanities when he speaks. He is admirable as he backs up his wife, who has a speech impediment, so that she doesn't have to let in the press and the grandstanding Lyndon Johnson camping out on her front lawn. Alan Shepard, played by Scott Glenn, is a mischievous prankster, who does inappropriate Hispanic impersonations of then comic Bill Dana's politically incorrect persona. Gordon Cooper is a bragging charmer, played by Dennis Quaid, who keeps asking "Who is the best pilot you ever saw? – You're looking at him." He is so cool that he has to be awakened after falling asleep in the space capsule just before his launch. His pal, Fred Ward's Gus Grissom, calls him a "hot dog," and there is a chilling scene as Cooper holds up a burnt-to-a-crisp frankfurter at a barbecue, which strikes his wife as a bad omen.
Grissom is a man of few words, and is stoical most of the time. But he knows how to get the other astronauts to unite and take control of their missions. He shows their superiors that the astronauts run the Mercury program, and they are not just the equivalents of chimpanzees. He makes it clear that they generate the funding when he says "no bucks, no Buck Rogers." There are bad omens relating to his flight, when Cooper drops a miniature souvenir capsule into a glass of water, and tells Gus, make sure you don't "screw the pooch." It is also telling that it is Grissom who insists on explosive safety bolts on the capsule. At the end of his mission, he is shown as claustrophobic, wanting to get out of the capsule after touchdown in the
Atlantic Ocean. The bolts explode,
water gets in, and the capsule is lost. He says the bolts just blew, despite
the scientists saying that couldn't happen. His extreme disappointment at the
outcome of his flight is painfully portrayed by Ward, as his character is
shunned by the White House.
Sam Shepherd's Chuck Yeager, the test pilot who first broke the sound barrier, and who refused to become an astronaut, is the most iconic character portrayed. After breaking the barrier, he howls at the moon, presaging the time when man would land on earth's satellite. He is the essence of cool, quiet manliness. But, he gets knocked off his horse after hitting a tree branch while galloping after his wife, played by Barbara Hershey. And, he tells her, "I'm a fearless man, but I'm scared to death of you." One of the last scenes in the film has Yeager ejecting from a doomed test plane. You can't help but be moved when Yeager, his face greasy and looking burned, strides away from the wreckage. One of the rescue soldiers asks, "Is that a man?" Another says, "Yeah, you're damn right it is!" Machismo in the most dignified sense of the term. When the bar where the first test pilots congregated burns down, it symbolizes the passing of an era, as Yeager figuratively passes the baton to the next generation of "star voyagers."
These men are supported by their long suffering wives, who shudder every time the "man in black" appears to give one of them the bad news that one of their pilot husbands crashed. Mrs. Cooper leaves at first but later returns to back up her husband. Mrs. Grissom rails against the military because they owe her for her sacrifices. As one of the wives says, the armed forces spent a lot of money to train their men, but nothing to prepare them to be fearless wives. But, these women obviously were attracted to their husbands. As Mrs. Yeager says she must have been drawn to a man who "pushed the outside of the envelope."
Besides showing the challenges that these men face, the film is notable for its humor. Jeff Goldblum and Harry Shearer are very funny as they show films of potential astronauts to the President and his top officials. They say surfers would be good for splashdowns, and car racers even have their own helmets. Eisenhower comes off pretty good as he rejects the outrageous nominees and insists on test pilots, whom his advisers consider to be uncontrollable. Since the Russians are the first to send up an orbiting satellite our technical ability is questioned by these advisers. But they are assured by rocket scientist Werner Van Braun that "our German scientists are better than their German scientists." To the film's detriment, many government officials seem buffoonish, particularly Johnson.
The best comic scenes center on the tests the men must undergo. You have to laugh when Scott Glenn can't remove his arm off of the table when a needle has overstimulated his muscles. The scene where he has a balloon inflated in his rectum and he must run to the bathroom to relieve himself is also hysterical. The men need to provide sperm samples. Quaid's Cooper knows Glenn's Shepard is in the next bathroom stall masturbating because he is humming the Marine Corps theme song. Cooper tries to drown it out with the Air Force counterpart, and the sounds get louder as they race toward their respective climaxes. Of course, the scene that shows Mission Control having no contingency for going to the bathroom in space for the first flight overflows with humor. We roar as Shepard, who had drunk numerous cups of coffee, grimaces and must request permission to relieve his bladder into his spacesuit.
By the way, the scene in Texas where the men listen to music as the dancer performs, and they look at each other in silence with smiles on their faces as they reflect on their accomplishments, is repeated with the same music at the end of the remake of Oceans 11 in front of the Bellagio's dancing fountains.
This film expertly shows the bravery and failings of these space pioneers, and it, along with Apollo 13, remind us of a "can do"
where "failure is not an option."
Sunday, March 1, 2015
SPOILER ALERT! The plot will be discussed.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (the quote is from an Alexander Pope poem about two unconsummated lovers dwelling apart in monastic cells) deals with the importance of memories. This theme is taken up big time by Memento (I definitely have to talk about that movie in the future), and the films based on Philip K. Dick’s fiction: Total Recall; Blade Runner; Paycheck. In the Oscar-winning script by Charlie Kaufman, we are asked would we hold onto the memories of someone we loved if the relationship went bad, or would we, if we could, be better off if we could delete painful recollections of the lost love.
The film then switches into the past to show us the back story. We see Joel crying because of how unhappy he and Clementine have become. He tells his married friends, another embattled couple, that when he visited the Barnes and Noble where Clem works, she acted like she didn’t recognize him and kissed a man there (whose face we do not see). Joel learns from his friends that Clem had this procedure which erased Joel from her mind. He goes to the facility where he meets the doctor who perfected the treatment, Harold (Tom Wilkinson), the tech assistant, Stan (Mark Ruffalo), and receptionist, Mary (Kirsten Dunst). Joel wants the procedure, too. He must surrender all objects that refer to Clementine. He is sedated that evening and Stan and another assistant, Patrick (Elijah Wood, who is the man at the Barnes and Noble) arrive to do the treatment. Mary is involved with Stan, but worships Harold. Patrick says he has a new girlfriend who calls him because she is distraught. The girlfriend, of course, is Clem, since the deceptive Patrick used his knowledge of her through the clinic to pursue her. He then uses what he has learned from Joel, when he became a patient, to win over Clem. He even presents her with a piece of jewelry that Joel bought for her. In his subconscious state Joel realizes that Patrick is stealing his identity. Clem realizes intuitively that there is something not genuine about Patrick.
Stan calls in Harold to help with the procedure. An ingenious chase scene occurs as Joel tries to hide Clementine by grafting her onto childhood memories. Around them objects and places disappear, and people’s facial features are lost. At the end of Harold’s work, Mary kisses Harold, and we discover that the two had an affair. But, Harold is married. Mary decided to have the procedure to wipe out the memory of the relationship.
The last “memory” of Clementine, before erasure, is her saying to Joel to meet her at Montauk. And, that’s where we came in at the beginning of the movie. It looks like the two will start again, but Mary has sent files to the patients to divulge what happened to them because she now believes that all should live with the truth about themselves. Clem and Joel hear tapes of themselves saying awful things about each other. But, Joel says so what? Relationships are struggles. Forewarned is now forearmed, and they now look to move forward together in love with their eyes open.
Jim Carrey was passed over for Oscar nominations in other films. Why do you think this actor can’t be taken seriously even though he has not limited himself to just comic roles?
Next week’s movie is The Right Stuff.