Monday, May 13, 2013

Bugsy, oh Bugsy

To be honest, I can't claim to understand why Bugsy Malone is enacted entirely by children. To be even more honest, I also don't understand the appeal of having a child-acted movie sung by adults. It's definitely creepy, whether intentionally or not.

The class struggles, while addressed, aren't necessarily a main theme in the film. The plight of the janitor, who wants to be a dancer, is dramatized in a brief song and dance number. However, it never comes back, and he never gets to realize his dream-- he simply remains complacent with the status quo and fades into the background as the gangsters descend into chaos.

The Depression Era economic hardships are only mentioned once, and they're coated with the same candy glaze as everything else. When Bugsy and Sam are looking for new talent, they're able to find willing and able men (boys) at the soup kitchen. After the hungry sing and tap dance about the condition on the table (knocking off their soup and bread), they proceed to be eagerly recruited by gangsters. Now, this could be seen as poor plot development, or as some sort of social commentary on how crime is bred by necessity. The second one is more interesting and gives more credit to the writer, so let's go with that one.

Meanwhile, the individual that capitalizes on human desires and the weakness of others is, in the end, "splurged" like everybody else. However, he or she is, according to the optimistic refrain at the end, just as valuable a human being and completely redeemable. His or her (mostly his) actions in this world were driven by the same need as everyone else's were, and his wrongdoings were simply a result of being born to the wrong circumstances never having access to support, love, or understanding. In this, the fact that all the characters are children becomes important. They're all children, and this entire movie was a play. They didn't die, but adults who act like them do. They, like the future of humankind, have hope if they learn how to treat each other well and how to satisfy their own needs without hurting others.

Of course, there's still the issue of the singing voices being dubbed by adults. I thought that this was incredibly jarring, because most of the dubbing jobs seemed only partly synchronized with the images on the screen. Whether this was because of a bold philosophical choice, or because they weren't able to find child actors who could sing, I don't know. While I give credit to the writers for the social commentary, I can't say that the singing dub-job had any thematic effects. Even the director and composer later doubted this choice, which was more of a production-related decision than an artistic one. However, if one wants to be incredibly generous to the creators of Bugsy Malone, one can argue that the use of adult voices was a method for tying the action in the film, acted out by children, to the adult world.

Bugsy Malone is a unique film. But whether by choice or by accident, the effect of the movie's casting choices and musical numbers is one that leaves you thinking: "Whaaaaaaaaaaaaat?"

Monday, April 29, 2013

Little Orphan Annie

Like all films, realistic or not, Annie reflects the mentality of the time period in which it was made. And in the case of Annie, which was made in the Reagan Era of nationalism and excess, this mentality manifested itself in the form of the glorified glitz and glam of the capitalist icon, Daddy Warbucks. Of course, Little Orphan Annie was written in the Gilded Era, before the dusty Hoovervilles of the Great Depression rose up after the worst failure of the American capitalist system in history. After a series of economic trials and triumphs, and the advent of the Cold War, it became plausible to tout Daddy Warbucks as literal "proof that the capitalist system works".

This is actually from the original Little Orphan Annie comic strip.

The clues to the time period in which Annie takes place are as on-the-nose as it gets, yet the film still somehow has a distinct 1980s feel. It's very heavily implied that Carol Burnett makes alcohol in her bathtub, which alludes to the Prohibition Era. Alcohol is also a major theme in Prohibition-Era gangster films-- like Scarface, which begins with a run to a speakeasy. However, in Annie, it becomes purely a comedic device. The costumes, setting, and mise-en-scène loudly blare, in the way only an 80's film could, LOOK AT HOW MARVELOUS AND IDYLLIC THE 1920s WERE!!!!!!!!!!! Only a film made in a conservative era would dare to make a conservative Republican billionaire businessman a protagonist.

Whenever there is contrast between poverty and extreme wealth, there is great dramatic potential. At the start of the film, we see the lamentable conditions in which the orphans live. One might have assumed that Annie, with such a lighthearted tone, would have solved the plight of these orphans by the end of the movie. However, instead, Annie rises above all the other orphans and lifts herself out of poverty by simply being lovable and finding a sugar 'Daddy'. Even though all of her friends basically make sure that Annie gets to live in the lap of luxury, they end up where they began: in the orphanage, with the same rags and the same nasty living conditions. Yes, they get to attend a lovely and extravagant party (which is also a musical number) at Annie's new crib, but after that, they all presumably go back to scrubbing floors and eating hot mush for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. All this is swept under the rug, and the potential is completely wasted.

Oh gosh, being poor, lonely, and abused is just SO FUN!

Of course, Annie is supposed to be a heartwarming, family-friendly comedy, so its lack of drama is compensated with cutesy and funny musical numbers, which, of course, are somewhat integrated into the film. However, they're somewhat indicative of the non-existent thematic unity of the film. The blatantly free-market political themes in the original comic strip were toned down in the musical-- evident only in the background action. The right-wing and the left-wing mesh uncomfortably in Annie. While an attempt on Warbucks's life is made by a "Bolshevik", Warbucks also happens to be good friends with Franklin Roosevelt, who was as left as presidents get.

For a film that actually deals with poverty and child abandonment, Annie is all too eager to ignore the problems of its circumstance in favor of celebrating a culture of personal wealth and happy endings. Although, considering how things turned out for everybody but Annie and her new foster parents, this film doesn't really have a happy ending.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Miller's Crossing and Scarface

The Coen brothers are known for their heavily stylized takes on genre films that somehow maintain the integrity of the genre. From western to gangster, they not only maintain the thematic heart of the genre by retaining archetypal characters, they also prolifically utilize visual identifiers. In the case of Miller's Crossing, the main genre identifier is the gangster hat. All of the trappings associated with the 1920s Prohibition Era can be found in Miller's Crossing-- the big boss's lavish liquor-laden house, the uneasy speakeasy, and, of course, the drive-by shooting from the big black car.

Many of these staples were established by Scarface and other gangster films from the not-so-post-Prohibition Era. While both films have morally ambiguous main characters-- it would be too far to call either Tony or Tom a protagonist-- they use these staples in different ways. The Coen Brothers' work is reflective of the ideals and disillusionment of a progressive society while Howard Hawks was a supporter of very traditional values. Therefore, the gray moral area in Howard Hawks's Scarface is very small-- Tony commits bad deeds, and is on the wrong side of society; therefore he must die. In Miller's Crossing, Tom commits bad deeds, but so does everyone else; therefore he isn't morally inferior to anyone-- in fact, like many modern anti-heroes, he has some sort of unspoken moral code that makes his actions seem more justifiable to the audience.

Although its producer Howard Hughes likely would disagree, Scarface can be packaged as as a moral tale that uses counterexamples of good, law-abiding citizenry in order to promote an orderly and traditional society. In the film, those who use violence to satisfy their greed or lust for power meet an unhappy demise at the hollow end of a gun barrel. And those on the other side of the line of fire-- the police-- triumph in the end, the paragon of justice and virtue. At one point, the police chief even goes on a somewhat irrelevant and self-indulgent rant about how young men were being tainted into evildoers and as a result of their upbringing turn to a life of crime.

In contrast, in Miller's Crossing, the police are complicit in the activities of organized crime. They know the leader, Leo, by name, and regularly pay chummy visits to him. Instead of chasing the big black machine gun cars, the police help them acquire their targets-- unless, of course, they're working for the side that's not paying off the police. Miller's Crossing is no morality tale. There are no prosocial people, only selfish people who kill others for an extra pint of liquor or an extra hour of life. The audience roots for Tom, but only because we follow him and identify with his moral code-- not because he's actually morally superior to any of the other thugs in the gang.

Scarface sets the tone and theme for classical-era gangster films with a dramatic finger wag at the same unwholesome subjects with which it showcases a morbid fascination. We are familiarized with the icons of gangster culture-- the speakeasy, the car shootout, and most importantly, the swanky evening dress so often and suddenly splattered with blood. With its incestuous undertones and gratuitous violence, Scarface almost certainly would have been boxed had it not been halfheartedly wrapped as a cautionary tale against these things. However, depicting "sin" without accosting it was difficult, even pre-Code. The difference is that Scarface was actually made during the Prohibition Era, so the social issues addressed in the film were real at the time it was made.

Miller's Crossing, though it addresses the same era as Scarface, has the advantage of posterity. Now we know that Prohibition was ineffective and only conducive to organized crime. Now we know that the cops weren't always champions of sobriety and safety, and that no job or role defines a person as "good" or "bad"-- only their actions do that. The symbols and themes that are used in Scarface are turned against themselves. The hat, which is used as a device to relate Tom to gangsterhood throughout the film, eventually becomes just a hat when Tom decides to give up his life of crime. However, unlike in Scarface, there is no concept of redemption or retribution. Tom gets away scot-free for his actions, and there is no higher power that condemns or helps him in any way.

Although both films focus heavily on the glamour and power that is often associated with the leaders of organized crime, neither film glorifies the American gangster. Both Scarface and Miller's Crossing depict organized crime as an ugly, unpleasant business. Scarface openly condemns what it depicts, while Miller's Crossing has its main character choose eventually to leave. The heart of the genre remains the same, but unlike ScarfaceMiller's Crossing is no cautionary tale. It's got no illusions about human nature, and that is the main difference between classical and revisionist gangster films.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Shaun of the Dead Tired

Recently, many movies have attempted to be simultaneously funny and scary. For the most part, these movies fail and end up being neither. Scary Movie, Scary Movie 4, and the whole host of ABC Family and Disney made-for-tv Halloween movies. However, Shaun of the Dead manages to strike a perfect funny-scary chord.

Shaun of the Dead uses the very traditional screwball comedy device of throwing its hero into a situation for which to navigate he has none of the necessary skills. Shaun is a slacker whose life is falling apart-- he's irresponsible, non-athletic, and anything but a leader. However, when zombies overrun his town, he's forced to take charge in order to save his mother and girlfriend.

Because of his bumbling ineptitude, Shaun often runs into comedic situations that still manage to be scary. He chooses the Winchester, the pub he frequents, as a fortress. After he thinks he's given the zombies "the slip", he goes to a dark back room to figure out the lights. He opens some curtains to discover a whole host of ravenous zombies. He immediately runs back, shuts the door, and admits to his group of survivors that he did not, in fact, give the zombies the slip.

Shaun of the Dead also manages to combine little editing and directing details to the effect of being both funny and comedic. Earlier in the movie, since we know that zombies will appear eventually, the directors give us false alarms. There intense, heart-rattling sound followed by quick, confusing cuts, followed by shuffling feet and moaning-- "That must be a zombie!" the audience thinks, and we wonder where it came from, where it is, and if it's about to consume any human friend. Pan up, and surprise! It's just a very tired Shaun, not quite ready for the day.

Something contributes both to the suspense and comedy of the film is the blurring of lines between the living and the "mobile dead". Even before the zombie outbreak, the people on the street are zombie-like. They are dispassionate, slow-moving, mildly hungry and clockwork predictable. Therefore, when zombies do start appearing, Shaun and Ed are unable to distinguish them from normal townsfolk. They even have a particularly close encounter with one when a zombie girl stumbles into their backyard.

When Ed and Shaun play with the zombie girl, the audience knows-- even if the protagonists don't-- that the girl is a zombie, and not "a drunk girl", as Ed and Shaun assume she is. This adds to the suspense of "Oh my god, is one of them going to get bitten?" However, the way they interact with her, being contradictory to the way they should, is undeniably humorous. When the girl tries to eat Ed, the duo assumes that she is simply drunk and wants to dance. There are some jabs at English culture, and Ed and Shaun only realize that there is something slightly off about the girl after she's impaled on a pole and doesn't react.

This sort of thing is played off of over and over again throughout the film. There are other aspects that create tension and humor-- Shaun's family situation, his relationship with his girlfriend, and his roommate situation-- all of which are typical screwball comedy elements that, juxtaposed with the post-apocalyptic setting, gain new meaning and effects.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Night of the Living Dead

Released at the end of a turbulent decade of war and change, Night of the Living Dead embodies the ideology counter to the revolutionary fervor that permeated 1960s America.

Night of the Living Dead begins with the dissolution of a family and the sacrifice of a brother to save his sister. Because the brother, Jimmy died to save the sister, Barba, the audience puts a stake on her survival. We are with Barbra for the first part of the film-- rooting for her to survive and for her brother's death to have meant something. Barbra survives for most of the film. She even changes and takes a stand to defend herself and the other people in the house. However, when she sees an undead Jimmy in a crowd of zombies, she loses her newly found determination and allows herself to be consumed by zombies in exchange for an embrace with her brother.

The other character the audience identifies with primarily is Ben, the film's protagonist. Throughout the film, he is the only person who is consistently rational, practical, and active in his defense against the living dead. He's also one of the only compassionate characters. He is likable and capable; therefore, the audience identifies with him. We don't just root for his survival, we assume it-- to us, his survival is everything. However, at the very end of the film, when the massive swarm of the living dead is finally under control and things look bright, he is shot and killed by a member of the rescue party.

The unnamed zombies of Night of the Living Dead, like the zombies so popular in today's pop culture, represent a destructive mass mentality in an era of social progress. In the 1960s, anti-war riots, the Vietnam war, and prolific social activism as well as social backlash pulled the nation apart. Although the 1960s was marked by progress, the progress came slowly and with great sacrifice, as those who supported it had to fight against a faceless mass of people insistent on keeping traditions.

In the 1960s, social progress came at a huge sacrifice and nationalism was consumed by the fervor of opposing ideological camps. Much in the way America tore itself apart from the inside out, the zombies of Romeros 1968 masterpiece consumed the living. However, in the end, it was not a zombie that destroyed the house's last vestige of humanity-- it was a human.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Most Like It Hot

Billy Wilder's Some Like it Hot is Hollywood's most famous and most critically acclaimed movie that features men in drag. Despite having been made in the ultra-conservative 1950s, while the MPAA Code was still in place, Some Like it Hot blurs the boundaries between genders. Even if in jest, it refers, sometimes explicitly, to homosexuality. Marylyn Monroe's character, Sugar Kane, shares an on-stage kiss with whom everyone else presumes is a woman: Josephine or Joe.

When the movie begins, the lines between the genders isn't very stiffly drawn. Joe is a womanizing man's man who connives and cajoles his friend and roommate Jerry to attempt a gig 100 miles away. However, from the beginning, Jerry is portrayed as a more feminine character than Joe. Unlike Joe, he doesn't freely woo women, gamble, or insist on keeping his manliness for survival. Jerry is much more practical and frettish-- two traits that were commonly associated with femininity at the time. When the two men are presented an opportunity to survive, but as women, Jerry eagerly leaps for it while Joe insists on maintaining his masculine persona.

The movie ends with the main three on a boat driven by the Daphnephilic millionaire Oswald III. Jerry (as Daphne) comes up with increasingly outrageous (and false) reasons why Oswald and Daphne should not get married. Finally, in frustration, Jerry takes off his wig and declares "I'm a man!" The unperturbed Oswald simply replied "Nobody's perfect."

Despite this blurring of gender lines, Some Like it Hot simultaneously totes and parodies a patriarchal, marriage-centered societal ideology. Sugar, the main leading actress, is a combination of very stereotypical, sexualized female characteristics. Her walk is described by Jerry as being "like Jell-O on springs", and she even describes herself as not being very bright. At the end of the day, all Sugar really cares about is love-- and therefore, men. Despite being a mildly successful band singer, Sugar is instead like women in the kind of society idolized by screwball comedies: a mindless sexual object with purely domestic aspirations. Yet, like in most screwball comedies, she is placed on equal (and sometimes superior) romantic footing to her male counterpart.

Some Like it Hot is arguably progressive for its time. It's also arguably a reflection of the era in which it was made. It most definitely is simply one of the funniest movies ever made.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Take My Love, Take My Land, Take My Genre, Too, That'll Be Fine

Everyone who is anyone knows and loves Firefly. But until I truly understood the western elements of the series, I never fully appreciated it. Having avoided westerns my whole life as a "Dad genre", I missed out on the full meaning of the series. However, after having given the genre a chance, I finally understood the appeal of the western aesthetic.
The science fiction and western genres work incredibly well together. With a science fiction that involves surviving in deep space, it's impossible not to have any western elements. Firefly may be known as mostly a sci fi, but at its core are the libertarian underpinnings of the classic western combined with Joss Whedon's very socially liberal and humanistic philosophy. However, the true genius of Firefly is how the western conventions that are usually employed in the Western to glorify conservative social values and a family-centered society are used with a twist in Firefly to emphasize the importance of family in a completely untraditional liberal context.

Many of the characters in Firefly are Western archetypes. Malcolm Reynolds, the captain of the ship, is the Fordian community leader- an outlaw and an outcast of society whose moral compass holds the entire crew together. Wanted by the government, Mal is willing to kill in order to protect those he holds under his command. In the pilot episode, when River is held at gunpoint by the Alliance lawman, Mal shoots him without hesitation. When Adelai Niska's man swears to hunt down the crew and kill them, Mal kicks him nonchalantly into the engine. He is in love with his tenant, Inara Serra, but like the Western hero, is unable to give up his lifestyle in order to become a part of society. Like Ethan from The Searchers and Josey Wales from The Outlaw Josey Wales, Mal centers his life around a community and commits to protecting it, but cannot join it himself.

Inara Serra is the archetypical prostitute with the heart of gold. This lantern is even lit in the episode "Heart of Gold". Like Mrs. McBain in Once Upon a Time in the West and like Dallas in Stagecoach, Inara exhibits a greater spiritual calm and sense of self and morality than the other characters despite her profession. She serves as a spiritual mentor to the Shepherd Book, the religious man that is lost in the woods. Book, like many of the other Firefly characters, has a counterpart in Stagecoach. Behind his godly countenance, Book hides dark secrets that, due to the premature death of the series, are never revealed to the audience or the crew.

The most interesting aspect of Firefly in relation to the western genre is the Reavers. Their role can be compared to that of the Native American in the classic western. They are perceived as savages and attack and brutalize at random. The presence of Reavers is a constant possible threat to the crew of Serenity, and there is no way to rationalize with them-- they are a separate entity from any sort of human in the verse. However, unlike the Natives in westerns, who are savages because they are uncivilized, the Reavers are savages because they are over-civilized.

Moreover, Firefly's spine is ultimately antithetical to that typical of the western genre. Westerns usually tout the triumph of civilization over the uncivilized, of the Christian over the indigenous, of order over chaos and the masculine over the feminine. However, in Firefly, while the federal government remains the villain, the uncivilized are the victims of forced civilization, Christianity is a dark vestigial presence that suffocates progress rather than advancing it, chaos is valued and women break traditional gender roles and are treated as people.

Firefly's setting allows for its large cast of characters to fully develop on their own and for its community to bond. Aside from being aesthetically appealing, the setting removes the story from our historical timeline and allows for futuristic speculation and gender equality. Half the crew is women-- but they aren't treated as sexual or domestic objects as they are in most Westerns, because the time period and setting in which they live affords them a more equal place in society. Technology in Firefly represents not only freedom, but the threat of over-civilization and the socio-economic inequality present in society.

Firefly is ultimately not a story that could be told in the Old West, because its themes and morals contradict those that fueled Manifest Destiny. While Westerns advocate expansion, progress, and civilization, Firefly illustrates that expansion can lead to suffering, civilization can be oppressive and destructive, and progress might not be as progressive as one may think.