The Films of 2017: Beauty and the Beast

Bill Condon’s Beauty and the Beast is the latest in a series of live-action remakes of animated Disney classics, following last year’s The Jungle Book (unseen by me) and 2015’s Cinderella.  The source material for these films, especially the fairy tales, is resilient enough to have survived countless adaptations and retellings over the centuries—maybe because there is, after all, no “original” version of “Cinderella,” variations of which exist in just about every world culture, or of “Beauty and the Beast,” the French lineage of which is attributable to as many as three different authors.  So I’m disinclined to get too bent out of shape over this latest film version, which is manic, overstuffed, and exhausting, and which buries most of the charms of the 1991 version under two tons of ugly-looking CGI.  (Even Howard Ashman and Alan Menken’s award-winning songs don’t get away unscathed—they’re pimped out and auto-tuned almost beyond recognition.)  I remind myself that it is simply one more version of a story the legs of which are long enough to outpace any Hollywood blockbuster.


The moment(s) of "Brokeback"

Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger in Brokeback Mountain (2005).

When it was announced in 2004 that Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain had gone into production it was already being called the “gay cowboy movie,” and it seemed impossible to believe that it could be anything but a gimmick.  Then the movie opened at the end of 2005, and it became something else entirely—a critics’ darling and an Oscar hopeful, hyped up and buzzed about.  Within certain circles it was being hailed as a watershed film, while for others it was a novelty item with a premise too ripe to resist mocking.  And so it became impossible to see the film for the controversy that attended it.  Brokeback was more than a movie; it was a cultural phenomenon, a sacred cow, a cause célèbre, and a punchline, something on which everyone, myself included, felt the need to weigh in. 

Ennis cradles Jack's shirt: Brokeback as tear-jerker.

After seeing the movie in January of 2006 at Rochester, New York’s Little Theatre (I still remember the male couple seated several rows ahead of me, one with his arm around the shoulders of the other, dressed in army fatigues) I wrote a journal entry in which I decried the film for making its characters into tragic victims: “Brokeback Mountain’s ending locates homosexuality within a stranglehold of impossibility, danger, shame, and secrecy.”  I was a senior in college at the time and heavily into Six Feet Under, which seemed to me a more progressive cultural text.  These sorts of questions were important to me then.  All in all, Brokeback had left me somewhat cold, and I was not among those who were left heartbroken by its loss at the Oscars that March.  I later went on to publish an academic journal article on the film in which I made a sort of peace with it.  The complexity of the film’s relationship to the Western genre, and its playing with notions of space and landscape, insides and outsides, seemed to me more interesting and more valuable than its politics, whatever those could be said to be.  That was in 2009. 

A film about landscapes.

Now that Brokeback Mountain is more than eleven years old it has become easier to see it for what it is, without the distraction of the punditry and the noise of the winter of 2006.  Re-watching it this weekend (I’m teaching it this semester in a course on films about love and sexuality) Brokeback struck me as better made and more emotionally powerful than I had remembered, and its love story infinitely more wrenching.  If my 2006 journal entry is to be believed, I “was moved and even teared up a little” when I first saw it.  This time I found myself crying nearly all the way through.  I cried at things that I didn’t understand back then—at things I couldn’t have understood as a 21-year-old college student just out of the closet, knowing nothing about love or loss or sex, or what it meant to be gay in the world.  I cried to see Ennis cradling that blood-stained shirt, of course (one of the great tear-jerking scenes in movies, it now seems), but I also cried at the moment that Ennis decides, with no little effort, that he will attend his daughter’s wedding, and presumably begin the work of making a bond with the children from which his closeted psyche has kept him alienated.  (The movie also now strikes me as an extraordinary representation of the effects of sexual repression and fear on mental and emotional health; Ennis’ entire self is poisoned by his closetedness.)  I was moved to remember the loss of Heath Ledger, and by the brilliance of Jake Gyllenhaal’s crystal-blue eyes, so full of yearning and desire.   

Gazes of longing: Jake Gyllenhaal as Jack.

The moment that affected me most strongly, though, is one of the loveliest and most poignant in the film—the first of its scenes that can truly be called a love scene, in which Jack draws Ennis to him with the tenderest of embraces, and you see Ennis’ defenses, which are so hardened, stream off him like water.  It’s the purest, most radiantly innocent moment in Jack and Ennis’ love affair, before any outside threat has intruded upon them.  And yet already they have fallen into something that will mean great pain for both of them.  So many of the things about Brokeback that seemed so important in 2005/2006 don’t matter much anymore; what’s left is the love story, raw and urgent and as full of yearning as Jake Gyllenhaal’s eyes.

A love scene.


The Films of 2017: Staying Vertical

Alain Guiraudie’s Stranger by the Lake (2014) was a film in which erotic fantasies kept edging into the stuff of nightmares; his new film Staying Vertical is governed by the same dream logic, and by a similar penchant for the slippage between fantasy and reality, fantasy and terror.  It’s too scattershot to be really great, I think, and it feels like a step backward for Guiraudie.  But its surprises are so unexpected and its plot so unpredictable that it’s never uninteresting.  It’s enough to make you wish that Guiraudie had the discipline to do more careful work—or perhaps the ballsiness to be less careful. 


The Films of 2017: Kedi

In the new documentary Kedi, directed by Turkish filmmaker Ceyda Torun, cats roam the streets of Istanbul like urchins in a Dickens novel, darting down alleyways and clambering up drainpipes, hunting for food scraps and occasionally brushing against the legs of the local vendors and shopkeepers who have become their adoptive caretakers.  The cats make up part of the lifeblood of the city; far from constituting a public nuisance, they are met with warmth and affection by just about everyone who encounters them.  In this urban version of the peaceable kingdom humans and animals live side by side, sharing resources and looking out for one another selflessly.  A generous reading of Kedi would describe it as a portrait not just of the cats but also the people who tend to them, and the urban space they jointly occupy.  


Liberty, equality, fraternity, and "Casablanca"

Casablanca: Laszlo leads "La Marseillaise."

Is Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid) in Casablanca supposed to be Jewish?  We know that he’s Czech, and that he has spent time in a concentration camp before escaping to Morocco with his Norwegian wife Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman).  (Henreid was of Austrian heritage, born in Trieste.)  Laszlo is coded as Jewish in the screenplay but is characterized in such a way that his Jewishness is effaced; it acts as a signifier for his resistance to Nazism and little more.  That is to say that Laszlo’s Jewishness is implied but also ultimately irrelevant.  I got thinking about this question upon re-watching Casablanca this week, because it’s a film in which the figuration of nationality and ethnicity epitomizes classical Hollywood at its most ideologically left-of-center: it recognizes and smiles upon what today would be called “diversity of representation,” so long as everyone, whatever their racial or ethnic stripes, can get behind the values of liberal democracy.  Casablanca is a film both aware/respectful of cultural difference and invested in the idea that Western values can and should cut across cultural lines.      

Laszlo (note facial scar) with Rick (Humphrey Bogart).

Cosmopolitanism becomes a useful word when talking about this film, which takes place in a port city filled with transients from all corners of the globe.  Rick’s Café Americain is presented as a motley place of vagabonds and refugees where there is no official language, only a patois of German, French, English.  Typically, classical Hollywood films reflect America’s long-standing suspicion of cosmopolitanism, a fear of the outsider as other.  At first, then, it seems surprising to realize that Casablanca is relatively un-hysterical—if not necessarily “woke”—in its attitude toward a place where people of so many different cultures have been thrown together like discarded objects in a jumble sale.  Cosmopolitanism is romanticized at points in Casablanca, but more often than not the film adopts the same non-judgmental, matter-of-fact tone that Our Guy Rick (Humphrey Bogart) takes, or seems to take, toward everything and everyone around him.   
"Everybody comes to Rick's": the bar as cosmopolitan hub.

Eventually it becomes clear that Casablanca’s ideology doesn’t break down along the lines of domestic vs. foreign (in a place like Casablanca, everyone is a foreigner).  Rather, it’s about those who are fighting the good fight in the name of liberal democratic values, whether those people be white Americans or Czech Jews or liberal Germans and Russians like the minor characters Carl and Sascha, versus the fascists.  The film continually, and movingly, stages scenes of cross-cultural unity in the name of those liberal democratic values, as in the famous bit when Laszlo strikes up the house band to play an impromptu rendition of “La Marseillaise,” and virtually the whole bar joins in, regardless of their nationality.  (The French national anthem becomes a symbol for the whole Allied cause.)  In other words, the movie doesn’t seem to care who you are or where you come from, as long as you’re on the right side of the fight.  The Americanness of Rick’s Café Americain (which bears no resemblance to any real American nightclub of its time) may have to do with this particular type of of conditional inclusion.  Everyone can come to Rick’s if they agree to play by the house rules.


From the archives: "Working the room"

When I wrote the following review of Gosford Park sometime in early winter, 2002, I had only seen a couple of other Robert Altman films: Nashville, Cookie’s Fortune, and maybe also Short Cuts and The Player, all on smeary VHS tapes that cropped most of the actors out of frame and suffered from such muddy sound mixing that it was impossible to catch the nuances of the dialogue.  In spite of that, I was already an Altman fan.  But seeing Gosford Park in the theater, projected on a big screen in its proper aspect ratio, with decent speakers, I was finally able to see and hear what made his films so special: the vast canvases of people circling each other, and the steady stream of talk—dumb talk, witty talk, come-ons and insults and awkward stammers and barbed quips and subtle evasions.  I loved Gosford Park immediately.  It’s still one of my favorite of Altman’s films; putting in the DVD to take screen captures for this post, I was tempted to re-watch the whole thing.  As I mentioned previously, I was a die-hard “Paulette” at this point in my life, and that shows in the writing here (I still am, of course, but I like to think I no longer ape the style of Ms. Kael’s prose so obviously):

“Altman divides the action between the wealthy guests ‘above stairs’ (refined, quietly loathing one another, gossiping to no end) and the crew of servants below (tireless, embittered, gossiping to no end)—the result is largely comical, and Altman is right to see it all as one big circus, despite the adultery and the murder and the secrets.  He’s too smart to get preachy or even serious now, and too smart to think that we would fall for it, especially coming from him.  It was thirty years ago that he tripped the country music business flat on its face, and now he’s still busy finding farce in the communion of group activities, taking down the pretty masks to unveil the ghouls.  The intimate scenes in his movies are no match for his crowds, because he’s more of a people person than an artist tortured with introversion.  Altman’s genius has always been working the room to catch the silliness, the great stupid irony of it all; he lost in his last films [e.g. Cookie’s Fortune], and now he’s found it again.  He’s in control, and we can feel it. […]

Gosford Park (dir. Robert Altman, 2001).

“It’s strongest in the first half, which culminates in a stunning dinner sequence…As the camera reveals an elegant dining table laid out with all the trimmings, it’s enough to make our mouths water with anticipation, imagining just what will happen when the table fills up with the guests.  And while the lords and their ladies are ambling in with their dinner jackets and gowns, whispering and smoking and shooting glances, sneaking away for affairs in the hallway, the army of servants are cooking and polishing and washing, measuring the distances of the silverware at each place setting.  Thankfully, Altman doesn’t pile on the usual froth about the slaves being nobler than the masters—here, everyone is just as catty and shitty as everyone else.”

Three women: Kirsten Scott-Thomas, Maggie Smith, Kelly MacDonald.


"Potemkin" and its legacies

Battleship Potemkin: the Odessa steps sequence.

Pauline Kael once referred to Battleship Potemkin (1925) as a “cartoon”; we can assume that she was referring not only to this great film’s rudimentary Marxist characterizations (virile, heroic proles vs. grotesque, corrupt figures of authority) but also to its kinetic visual energy.  It’s a polemical film of cartoon heroes and villains cut together at breakneck speed, one in which action and motion are used as tools of cinematic as well as ideological rhetoric.  For all its reputation as a classroom movie—a staple of Intro-to-Film-Studies courses around the world—Potemkin is compulsively watchable, lean and punchy, perhaps because it was designed as a piece of agit-prop made to engage mass audiences.  Woodrow Wilson is alleged to have said that The Birth of a Nation was like “writing history with lightning,” a claim that could just as easily be applied to Potemkin, the violent shorthand rhythms of which resemble other forms of modern discourse: the clackings of the telegraph and the newspaper press, the screaming capital letters of a broadside, the jagged, stabbing repetitions of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring.     

The plate-smashing sequence: broken crockery and montage editing, a shower of fragments.

Potemkin is an action movie organized around three action set pieces: the mutiny, the massacre on the Odessa steps, and the rendezvous with the squadron.  In these set pieces we can see not only the seeds of the modern action thriller but the creation of an entire language for generating cinematic tension.  The visual vocabulary of something like Game of Thrones’ “Battle of the Bastards,” with its elaborate clashings of individuals and groups, owes everything to Eisenstein (Potemkin as well as Alexander Nevsky); the battle sequences in Peter Jackson’s The Return of the King are structured as a series of miniature narratives much in the same way that Potemkin’s mutiny and massacre are big stories made up of many smaller ones; and one can’t help but think of Hitchcock’s use of close-ups when, during the finale of Potemkin, the barrels of the cannons stare down the eye of the camera like the assassin’s gun in the Albert Hall sequence of The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956 version).  Is it too much of a stretch to see the half-second-long, almost subliminal close-up of the Union soldier being shot in the face by Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind as bearing the influence of Eisenstein’s famous close-up of the bloody woman with the pince-nez?  Perhaps; though the reach of Eisenstein’s influence has been so vast that who can say where it stops?