Film Is Lit Fam
Good morning, afternoon or night. This is where I will be making my thoughts and critiques known. I hope you enjoy my responses.
Gaslight is the story about a women named Paula Alquist, the niece of a famous murdered opera star. Paula was living with her until her murder. Paula then moves to Italy to study under her aunt’s teacher. After her time there, she realizes she is not a singer like her aunt, but has instead fallen in love with a man named Gregory Anton. They go away together to be married and move in to Paula’s Aunt’s old home in London, the same place she was murdered. Immediately Paula is reminded of the gruesome time there. Gregory assures her that they will make new memories there to help her forget about her past. Time passes and Paula begins to slowly lose what she thinks is her memory. Gregory convinces her that she has been taking things unknowingly. She also seems to have a habit of losing small items. This seems to concern both her and Gregory who is becoming increasingly short tempered, even aggressive. When on a walk in the park, Paula is noticed by Brian Cameron, a man who used to know her and happens to work for the police. Paula does not recognize him, but it seems to alarm Gregory. More time passes and Paula can swear that she hears footsteps when no one is home and that the gaslight continues to turn up or down. Paula decides she wants to go out for a night to see a concert at an old friend’s house, but Gregory insists she is not well enough to go out. When she decides to go out anyway, Gregory joins her. When at the concert they run in to Brian again, who seems to be staring at Gregory the majority of the time. Paula has a small manic episode in the middle of the concert and Gregory takes her home. It is at this point Gregory tells her that she is going insane, just like her mother. After Gregory leaves, Brian shows up at the home to help. He assures Paula that she is not insane and that Gregory is nothing more than a jewel thief after her Aunt’s priceless hidden gems. After a confrontation, Gregory is tied up and taken away.
Sorry, Wrong Number
Leona Stevenson is a sickly woman who seems to be bound to her bed. Her husband, Henry, is working late and so she tries to get a hold of him. When the operator is attempting to connect them, Leona overhears a terrible phone call that involves the details of a woman’s murder. Panicked, Leona calls the police and tries to save the woman’s life. The police are unable to help due to the vague information, and Leona then tries to go back to contacting her husband. We are then taken through a series of flashbacks. We learn that Leona is an heiress of a pharmaceutical company owned by her father J.B. Cotterell. When she meets Henry for the first time, he is a poor working class man. After the two are married, Henry goes to work for Leona’s father. Henry then starts to feel that he has little self-worth, all of his money belonging to his wife, his job belonging to her company, and living with her father. After engaging in a fight about him finding a new job to become independent, he learns that she has a heart condition. Leona then contacts a doctor that Henry had seen about her condition. The doctor reveals that he told Henry that Leona does not have a heart condition, but instead has a mental illness that causes her physical problems. Leona then gets a call from Waldo Evans, a man who works in the pharmaceutical development of the Cotterell empire. Henry convinces him to help scheme and steal chemicals for a third party, Morano. When Henry decides to go and do things on his own, Morano decides to threaten him and Waldo. Eventually Morano convinces Henry that he owes him 200,000 dollars for “hurt feelings,” to which Henry admits that he doesn’t have the money. Morano insists to get it from his wife one way or another, the easiest way from her life insurance policy. This led to a plot to kill Leona. She was the woman that the men were talking about killing. After the flashback ends, Leona gets a call from Henry. She had figured out part of the story after a call from Sally Hunt, and had Henry confess everything. Henry at the last minute regrets his decision to kill his wife, but it is too late and the assassin comes in to kill her while she is on the phone with Henry.
The Reverse Femme-Fatale
These two films stand in stark contrast to Stella Dallas and Wendy and Lucy. Where the former films were about strong women in hard times, both Gaslight and Sorry, Wrong Number are about weak or vulnerable women who have fairly well-to-do lives. Of course there are still hardships, Leona having trouble with her mental health and Paula witnessing the murder of her aunt. Both of these films depict women who seem to be subject to what life throws at them, rather than defining their fate. “The American films, which not only responded to their British counterparts but helped shape the Gothic genre in their own right, tended towards three themes in particular (often combining them): doomed romance, dark family inheritances often connected to greed and madness, and the supernatural melodrama. Certainly, these film borrowed horror tropes, like the fear of the dark, nightmares, haunted houses, thick cobwebs, and fog-drenched cemeteries. The home was often set as the central location, a site of both domesticity and terror — speaking to the genre’s overall themes of social order, repressed sexuality, and death — and this location was of course of equal importance to horror films and the “woman’s film” of the ‘40s and ‘50s. Like the latter, these Gothic films often featured female protagonists and plots that revolved around a troubled romantic relationship or domestic turmoil” (diaboliquemagazine.com).
These women are additionally subject to abuse or mistreatment. It is a strange thing to note that in the movies we viewed where the women tend to be strong, assertive, or independent, they are subject to being a product of their own destruction. Although they wind up happy for the one they love, the women are left hurt and alone. In the case of Gaslight and Sorry, Wrong Number, the women are portrayed as fragile and weak, both times needing men to save them, even if one of them does not wind up being saved. These films are very clearly a product of their times, demonstrating what a woman was capable of and what she ought to be. “The gothic, noirish and effective melodrama, with the theme of a menaced, terrorized, sheltered or threatened woman (or wife) by a deranged man (often a husband), was one of a number of similar films made in the 1940s” (filmsite.org).
The fact that this is the prototypical film formula of the World War II era demonstrates that the progression of film and film plot has shifted dramatically. If a movie like the upcoming Black Widow starring Scarlett Johansen were to be pitched in that time period I have high doubts that it would be produced. In fact I think that it is far more likely that the writer would be laughed out of the production room.
These films are part of our history. They demonstrate and communicate moments in time. They reflect philosophies of a certain people that give us insight into how life was lived and what people valued most. These films are representations of who we were. They are also the building blocks of what we have become. Even though so many of these movies values stand in contrast to what we do or believe now, it is important that we do not become overly critical of what these movies have told us. Rather we should study, listen, and learn, in order that we can continue to produce material that shapes the future of not just the film industry, but also a future that helps communicate our values and philosophies with others.
Stella Dallas is the story of a woman named Stella Dallas, formerly Stella Martin. Stella meets Stephen Dallas, a former millionaire who lost his fortune and is trying to rebuild. Stella dreams of a high society life, the glitz and glam of mingling with the cream of the crop, and she sees Stephen as a fast track to this end. Although their love might be real, Stella still has a goal to accomplish. One year later they have a young daughter, Laurel. Stella is sick of being cooped up at home and wants to go out once more to hobnob with high society again. It is after unrelenting pleas that Stephen finally agrees to take the new mother to a dance where Stella meets Ed Munn. Ed bets on horses and has a loud, forceful personality. Stephen notices Stella’s motives and promptly takes her home. This is the first time we see a confrontation between Stephen and Stella, and the first time that we are introduced to the idea of Stella trying to “dress to impress.” This is not just in her fashion choices (including fake jewelry) but also in her attitude around others. Stephen says he is taking a job in New York, but Stella chooses to stay where she is, with Laurel. Flash forward a few years, Laurel is starting to grow up and Stephen has run into his old fiancée, Helen Morris. There is clearly a toxic relationship between Ed Munn and Laurel, but he plays it off as jovial. Stephen invites Laurel to start staying with him and the Morris family periodically. Although continuing to be separated, Stephen and Stella are still not divorced. Things start to change when Stella notices the impact of her choices which begin to affect her daughter. Ed is becoming increasingly rowdy and Stella’s continued desire to impress the rich with no sense of propriety is causing her to become an embarrassment to Laurel. Laurel remains loyal to Stella after being made fun of for Stella’s choice in clothing. Stella begins to realize the best life that she can give Laurel is to remove herself from the family dynamic. A divorce from Stephen and an intentionally destructive moment with Laurel later solidifies Laurel’s desire to stay at the Morris house. Laurel marries the young boy that she likes as Stella looks on in the rain outside of the building, knowing that she has done the best thing for her daughter.
Wendy and Lucy
This film is about a traveling woman named Wendy who is heading for Alaska with her dog Lucy. The two are somewhere in Oregon when they begin to run low on funds and food, which very quickly drives Wendy to stealing from a convenience store to feed Lucy. Wendy is caught and sent to the local jail where she is charged with petty theft, pays a fifty dollar fine and is let go. The major problem is that Wendy left Lucy tied up to a pole outside the convenience store and after several hours is able to return to find her gone. Wendy begins looking frantically for Lucy, learning that the pound is closed and will not open until the next day. Wendy goes to the pound first thing in the morning, looking for her dog. When the pound tells her that there is no dog there by that description, they look in the back anyway but to no avail. Distraught, Wendy simply begins her journey looking for Lucy with no resources or transportation. She cannot afford to repair her car, so she begins to travel without any real means. Wendy then finds out where Lucy resides, having been adopted, and jumps on a train as a stowaway to go visit her. Waiting for the home to be empty, Wendy goes and visits Lucy in a nice backyard, playing fetch and speaking to her through the metal fence that physically separates them. Realizing that Lucy’s new family can give her a better life, Wendy chooses to leave Lucy and continue on her wandering way.
Strong Female Roles
Both films are meant to portray women, both effectively mothers, torn between what they want and what they want for their children. This is a kind of “ultimate sacrifice” for the mother, as they realize what is best for their daughter is to get out of their lives. The flourishing of daughters is the highest priority for both Stella and Wendy. For Stella she wants to see her daughter unashamedly in high society, free from the shackles of Stella’s lower class attitude that bleeds out in her daily life. As one author puts it, “Laurel, though initially hurt, moves on and eventually marries up. On the night of Laurel’s wedding, Helen intentionally leaves open the curtains so that Stella can watch her daughter marry from outside of the house. Barbara Stanwyck magnificently portrays Stella’s supreme moment of triumph. Don’t mistake her tears as tears of sadness; Stella cries tears of joy. Stella is not a beaten down figure. She is a hero who has accomplished her purpose, whose plans have turned out just as she planned. Her story reflects the struggle of countless unsung heroic women” (senseofcinema.com).
Wendy takes on a much grittier role, demonstrating the life of a drifter during the 2008 economic recession. Wendy never marries rich and instead tries to do the best she can with what she has left. Although the films are similar, the characters differ in economic opportunity. Stella marries a wealthy man with ambition in order to get out of her economic circumstances. By contrast, Wendy continues to search for work and drift towards opportunity. As far as we know, Wendy never actually finds that opportunity. One of the things that sets Wendy apart is the seemingly never ending barrage of problems that are thrown at her. Including her obviously poor economic circumstance, her family life seems to be on the ropes as well. She calls her sister and brother-in-law simply to talk, and while her brother-in-law seems sympathetic, her sister seems skeptical, assuming that Wendy is calling for money. “Wendy’s ordeal in the film is comprised of just a few days in a longer journey; but that short time slowly develops into systemic uncertainty with increasingly intense vulnerability to invasions by unknown others and explores the bitter circumstances involved in negotiating the mundane details of a marginalized life. In the middle of the film, that pan evokes a sense of alienation and suggests Wendy’s lonely departure alongside an empty space. By the end of the film, Wendy has no safety net, no social network, no clarity of purpose” (btchflks.com).
Whichever character you pick, both Stella and Wendy represent a rarely seen archetype in cinema. Women in these kinds of circumstances are seldom portrayed on screen. Their stories are not glamorous, they are not rags to riches, and they don’t really bring awareness to anything that is necessarily commonplace (although it does happen). There is no feel good ending for these women, who make the toughest choice alone. Unfortunately for these stories they are rarely shown because of the lack of interest at the theater for such a sad and dramatic story with no real redemption. These types of stories do not grow the box office, so their time on screen is rare and short, limited to a handful of movies and now primarily indie films, such as Wendy and Lucy.
I think it is important to ask questions and try and find a takeaway from these movies and figure out the lesson that the directors are trying to teach us. One of the first questions we ought to ask is if the directors intention is to venerated these women or not. Should we applaud the choices of these women? It was hard, yes, but was it right, was it moral? I do not seek to answer the question, but it is important to note that the answer is not so black and white. Sure the children may have better opportunities now, a better life financially and opportunistically, but is that worth the separation of the mother and daughter or in Wendy’s case, a dog. Again I wish to emphasize that I do not have an answer to the question, but it is important to state that the point the directors are trying to drive home may not be as simple as it is at first glance. Is Stella a hero for shipping her daughter away or was she still acting with a subconscious level of selfish interest? Is Wendy right in giving her dog to a new home, or is she continually running away from responsibility, just as she seems to be running away from other problems? I don’t think these issues are black and white, so it is important to consider. Both movies give us insight and information to help us appropriately judge these situations. It is left to the audience to decide what is right and what is wrong, whether or not you come to hate Stella and Wendy or if you come to respect them immensely.
The 1956 version of The Fly begins with one of the main characters, Helene, confessing to killing her husband, Andre, to her brother-in-law, Francois. Francois arrives to the grisly scene of his brother’s head and arm crushed in an industrial press. After questioning Helene, the inspector Charas determines that she murdered her husband, but is insane. Francois, who is in love with her, disagrees and tries to clear her name. Francois convinces Helene to tell her lucid story to himself and Charas, giving us the backstory of Andre. Andre had been experimenting with teleportation, the breaking down of matter into atoms and sending it to another destination. After a few troubles with the process, Andre finally attempts a human experiment; himself. Unbeknownst to Andre, a fly had worked its way into the cabin that housed Andre. This combined their molecules and Andre teleported with the head and arm of a fly. Sending notes to his wife because he is no longer able to speak, Andre tries to fix the problem as Helene looks for the fly that has Andre’s head and arm. Unable to find it and beginning to feel the mental debilitation, he tells Helene to kill him. She makes her way to the press with him to end his life. Charas now believes that Helene is truly insane and declares that she must be committed to an insane asylum; Francois attempts to find the fused fly to clear Helene’s name. Both Francois and Charas find the fly and Charas kills it out of fear. They agree to concoct a story that clears Helene of murder, and the story ends with Francois and Helene and Helene’s son Philippe living happily ever after.
The Fly (1986)
In the 1986 adaptation of The Fly, we open up on scientist Dr. Seth Brundle, an eccentric and enthusiastic scientist trying to speak to a journalist Ronnie. After explaining his project that he believes can change the world, Seth convinces Ronnie to come to his apartment. After a few more meetings the two become a couple where they begin to care for each other. After a small fight during a celebratory moment for Brundle, Ronnie walks away to take care of problems with her ex. Brundle decides at that point that it would be ideal to be a human test subject for his teleportation machine. Brundle does not notice, but the camera pans to a fly that landed inside his machine. Brundle emerges from the other side, seemingly unharmed. After Ronnie returns she begins to notice some differences in Seth’s behavior. At first they are subtle, but then both physical and emotional traits are evident. Seth has begun a type of metamorphosis, and not for the better. In a turn of events, Ronnie realizes that she is pregnant with Brundle’s child. Fearing that it might be a monster, she opts for an abortion. Brundle overhears this and proceeds to kidnap her, taking her back to his lab. Ronnie’s ex attempts a rescue at the cost of a hand and a foot, but after another struggle and Brundle’s final transformation into a fly, they manage to severely wound him. In this moment, Brundle asks for Ronnie to end his life.
Because this is an adaptation, there are many similarities. One of the main similarities is the framework of the story, a scientist attempting to teleport matter. Of course in the 1986 version there are a few updates to help modernize the concept, but they are roughly the same thing. There is also a type of love triangle between two men and one woman, the main protagonists being in a relationship with each other while one other male protagonist looks on from the outside. Another strong similarity is the romance interest from the perspective of the wife or girlfriend to the husband or boyfriend, respectively. There is a kind of beauty and the beast romance at play where the woman is in love with a man who is transformed into something hideous. Despite these deformations, the women are both still in love with the man that they know is underneath. They attempt to help and rehabilitate their significant others, but unlike a Disney ending these movies end with a woman killing the man she loves, unable to bring him back from the creature he has become.
Despite being an adaption some of the points of difference are fairly substantial. One of the main differences is certainly a product of its time. The male protagonist in the 1986 version stands in stark contrast to the original 1958 version. In 1958 most male characters were romantic and charming. Jeff Goldblum’s interpretation moves in a completely different direction. Instead of being a caring, hardworking and rich scientist with a family, Seth Brundle is a bit awkward, poor, and eccentric. One of the most important differences is the transformation process. In the 1958 version of The Fly, the transformation is immediate. Andre is immediately part fly, hiding his head and arm from his wife Helene. In contrast Seth Brundle’s transformation happens gradually. He begins to notice small things, fingernails falling off and extra thick hairs, until eventually his transformation becomes far more obvious. “There are clear parallels to the pop psychological stages of grief, but Cronenberg and screenwriter Charles Edward Pogue add another wrinkle to the mix in the form of the encroaching influence of the fly DNA. It’s one of the few ideas borrowed from the 1958 original (itself an adaptation of a 1957 short story by George Langelaan), but here made immeasurably more interesting. In the ’50s version, the fly mind makes itself known through controlling the scientist’s one entirely insectile arm, leaving poor actor David Hedison wrestling with himself on set. Cronenberg reimagines it as a subtler influence, creeping into Brundle’s decision-making, blurring the lines between compassionate human thought and the ruthless insect mind. As the Brundlefly becomes increasingly erratic during the film’s finale, it becomes harder and harder to tell where Brundle ends and the fly begins, which is exactly Cronenberg’s point. By the film’s end, there’s no point looking for Brundle – he’s long gone. So’s the fly, and all that’s left now is the Brundlefly hybrid” (lwlies.com).
Historical References and Inspiration
One of the most notable things about The Fly is to understand where its inspiration comes from. Frankenstein has an enormous impact on both versions of the film, evidenced in a variety of ways. “The Fly is a classic sci-fi B Movie about the hubris of a brilliant scientist, with psychological chills akin to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and themes that echo William Blake’s “The Fly”. I first saw it as a teenager on late-night television, and loved its Gothic chills and classy interpretation of future technology, juxtaposed with 1950s elegance. It posed familiar questions for the genre: does man have the right to tame the universe for his own ends? Is man at the mercy of nature? But it managed to become more cautionary tale than pure dystopian sci-fi; reflecting the aspirations as well as the pitfalls of the nuclear age”(framerated.co.uk).
It is impossible to talk about this film without talking about Frankenstein. Frankenstein is one of the most popular stories ever told and redefined the way the world looked at storytelling as a whole. Mary Shelley challenged the world with her dark stories and gruesome content. Unsurprisingly the daughter of philosophers, Mary Shelley asked important questions about science, life, death, and morality. As Jeff Goldblum says in another cult favorite “Yeah, but your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should.” This truth is echoed through the Frankenstein archetype and adaptations. How far should we push the limit of humanity? In the 1958 version Andre himself asks the same question, driving home to point that Mary Shelley was making years ago.
To end with another quote, “The Fly remains absorbing and entertaining, and it’s easy to see why such a mind-bending story could become one of 1958’s biggest box office hits. Although its theme of “there are some things that man should leave alone” was well-worn even back then, The Fly humanizes the story more successfully than many other sci-fi films of the time” (denofgeek.com).
Clockers is the story of a young man named Strike, living in Brooklyn New York. Strike is a small time drug dealer working for a small time drug lord named Rodney. Working up the ranks of Rodney’s drug ring, Strike is coerced into killing a man for Rodney, but before he is able to go through with it he talks to his brother Darryl. Darryl is drinking at a bar. We clearly see his wedding ring and we hear about his kids as well. Without telling him about the plot to murder, Strike tells Darryl many things about the mark that we presume to be false. Darryl, a seemingly straight-laced guy, says that he’ll get him a man to take care of it. Strike’s target is then murdered, and two detectives are left to figure out who did it after Darryl confesses. The detectives don’t believe it, and they continue to pressure Strike to find the true identity of the murderer. With Rodney scared that Strike is snitching, Strike is pressured on all sides to make a decision to either get out of town or confess to a murder. A young boy named Tyrone gets involved and winds up shooting a would-be assassin hired by Rodney, saving Strike’s life. With the pressure at its peak, Strike talks to the detectives, truly confessing that he does not know who killed the mark. We learn from Strike’s mom that it was indeed Darryl who killed him, that he wasn’t in a right state of mind and that he ought to claim self-defense. The movie ends with Darryl posting bail and Strike leaving town.
Spike Lee chooses to highlight inner city life, artistically drawing out the struggles of black folk in certain times and places, most often in the inner city. Initially under the direction of Martin Scorcese, this film was later given to Spike Lee. “Under Scorsese’s auspices as executive producer, the studio offered the film to Lee, who felt the project was a perfect fit with his own sensibilities, concerns and aesthetics. “I read the novel and looked at the various scripts that Marty and Richard Price had worked on,” says Lee. “But as I did, I started getting ideas about how to add my own vision while still being true to the book” (https://ascmag.com/articles/clockers-lee-sayeed). These problems are highlighted in a dramatic fashion, mainly to try and characterize the struggles on many into one or two characters. Spike is Lee’s muse in this case, demonstrating the pressures of a man who seemed to have no roads in life. Spike Lee’s hand in the film is evident as we see the themes of black struggle and cop abuse in the life of inner city life abundant throughout the film.
Focusing in on the seemingly “one road” problem, Strike appears to have run out of options. If he decides to snitch, Rodney will go after him. If he doesn’t, the detectives pressure him and influence his drug ring so deeply that they believe he was a snitch anyway. Low on resources and opportunities, there are no truly good options for Strike apart from starting an entirely new life elsewhere. The other very clearly evident problem displayed in the movie is the problem of the abuse of power by police. What I find most interesting about Spike Lee’s depiction of the abuse by police is the fact that it is bi-racial. Where I think most people would be tempted to make a more obvious, racially charged statement about white folks in power and the oppression of black folks, the point was more about the abuse of power as a problem of the human condition rather than a simple black or white problem.
Spike Lee utilizes some very interesting filming methods to highlight important points in his film. Spike Lee utilizes the double dolly shot for important ethereal moments. This film style breaks away from the rest of the film, telling us that this is a moment that we need to pay attention. One of the times we see this clearly is toward the end of the movie when Strike sees Tyrone biking up the Errol, who proceeds to shoot him. This tells us that Strike has reached his mental and emotional capacity, and he needs to talk to the police. Another time this technique is used is when one detective is doctoring up Tyrone’s backstory in order to help him avoid serious charges. The detective is inserted into the memory, but he is telling the story with some of the details intentionally wrong. The film style gives us a feeling of being off-kilter, so we don’t really know what to believe. Presumably the fuzzy details are what will help Tyrone.
Chi-Raq is the retelling of the classic Greek comedy, Lysistrata. In the film we open up with a small rap show, the performer being Chi-Raq himself, an aspiring artist and leader of the Spartan gang. A man in an orange shirt attempts to assassinate him. This man is sent by the rival Chicago gang, the Trojans. After the incredibly intense intro, we hear a monologue from Dolemedes again, who will continue to narrate throughout the film. Later that night at Chi-Raq’s house, there is another attempt made on his life in a moment that his is trying to be intimate with his girlfriend, Lysistrata. The next morning Lysistrata is out walking, presumably to work, and she sees a young girl who has been killed, caught in the crossfire of the gangs. This is enough for Lys, and she recruits the women of Chicago to withhold sex from the men until the violence stops. After a series of both serious and silly events, the women achieve their goal as the gangs reconcile, both internally and externally, and the violence is no more.
Remembering Clockers, Spike Lee continues his heavy influence as a writer and director, directing the flow and artistic expression to show the things that he is passionate about, namely pointing out the struggles of inner city folk, particularly in Chicago. “Amazingly, Lee creates such a work of art, not by tamping down his style, suppressing his personal impulses, or subordinating his intuitions to principles, but by heightening and extending his style. He renders it inseparable from the ideas that he offers and the ideals he exalts—and fuses those analyses with a fierce, tender, overwhelming emotional power. With the burden of incommensurable pain that suffuses the movie from start to finish—a burden that the movie helps to bear with its own flamboyant fury—Lee has created a raucously joyful yet howlingly haunted jazz requiem for a ravaged city and a ravaged generation” (https://www.newyorker.com/culture/richard-brody/spike-lees-necessary-overwhelming-chi-raq).
Chi-Raq focuses almost exclusively on the violence that plagues the city of Chicago. Some of the words that are consistently brought up are things like “we are killing each other.” What appears to be the plight in Lee’s mind is not just the fact that there is violence, but the fact that black folks are killing black folks. The violence is needless and has consequences beyond a war of the gangs. Kids are caught in the crossfire and innocent blood is shed. We can tell how important this is to Lee by how much time is spent on the artistic shots dealing with this dark material compared to the expositional scenes explaining the plot of the movie. One example of this is the scene when Jennifer Hudson’s character is cleaning up the blood of her daughter that was spilled on the streets. No citizen would need to clean up the scene of a murder, but the long scene of cleaning with no dialogue and intense color emphasizes several philosophical and moral points for Lee.
Chi-Raq has come a long way from Clockers. He has demonstrated his skills as an auteur, growing in his ability to demonstrate his beliefs and artistic views as a director and a writer. His shots are cleaner, the dialogue is simpler, and yet the point comes across just as clear, if not more so.
Pain and Gain
Pain and Gain is set in the year 1995, focusing on three members of the “Sun Gym Gang.” Daniel Lugo, as played my Mark Wahlberg, is a fitness trainer at the sun gym in Miami and had already served time in prison. Sick and tired of living large in the gym but small at home, Daniel Lugo decides it is time to live out his own version of the American Dream. He recruits two associates at the gym in the form of Adrain Doorbal, played by Anthony Mackie, and Paul Doyle, played by Dwayne Johnson. The trio decides to kidnap and extort a wealthy and scummy business owner that is a new member of the gym. Eventually the kidnapping turns to an attempted murder, but even after a series of attempts to end the life of the rich man Kershaw, they fail. Kershaw escapes and tells the police everything, but the story is so unbelievable that they do not believe him and do not investigate. This prompts Kershaw to hire a private investigator that initially declines but shortly after accepts. All the members of the gang extinguish their funds in short order and are now willing to commit another kidnaping in order to keep up with their newfound lifestyles. After a poorly executed con-turned-murder, the gang is finally arrested and convicted after a confession from Doyle.
The movie Pain and Gain is an extreme dramatization, bordering on complete fiction, of true events that occurred in the early 1990’s. One of the only seemingly consistent details upon further inspection is the name of Daniel Lugo. He was seemingly the leader and the originator of the plot for the Sun Gym Gang. This extreme dramatization demonstrates the liberties that Hollywood takes in order to make entertainment. Although reporting has the ability to be entertaining, there is still a definitional difference between reports and entertainment. A report has a moral obligation to be as freed from bias as possible, to try and initially observe facts and statistics in a straightforward manner. How those facts and statistics are interpreted is left up to the reporter. For instance, A and B can be true, but A + B might yield different answers to people looking at the problem from different perspectives.
In the case of Michael Bay he seems to completely ignore the algorithm of A + B and instead chooses to take as little facts as possible and embellish the story entirely. One simple example is that the character portrayed by Dwayne Johnson is actually meant to encapsulate three separate characters. That is the most obvious liberty in a series of extremities that make up a Hollywood blockbuster. A writer at Slate.com puts things into perspective.
“At the opening of Pain & Gain, the new Michael Bay movie starring Mark Wahlberg, we are told that, “unfortunately,” what follows is a true story. It’s meant as a joke, of course, but it calls your attention to the movie’s supposed fidelity to the facts. Later, during an outlandishly gruesome scene, some superimposed text says, “This is still a true story.” During the credits, we get where-are-they-now photos of the principals, reminding us that these are all real people. And the movie’s poster declares flatly, in all caps, “THIS IS A TRUE STORY.”
Is it? By Hollywood standards, perhaps. In late 1994 and early ’95, a crew of thugs led by bodybuilder Daniel Lugo (Wahlberg) did kidnap a Miami businessman and get him to sign over all his worldly possessions. What follows in the film more or less adheres to a very rough outline provided by the novella-length, three-part, highly detailed series written by Pete Collins and published in the Miami New Times over a decade ago.” (Slate.com)
Bug focuses on a woman named Agnes. Agnes is living in a rural town, a waitress at a lesbian bar, and seems to have a problem with both alcohol and cocaine. She very quickly falls in love with a drifter who her friend brings over to her house one night. The man shows her kindness simply for the sake of being kind, to which Agnes takes on with first nerves, and then gratitude. This drifter’s name is Peter. Peter is the second main character of the film, and when he is introduced he brings much of the plot. Peter learns that Agnes has a past, consisting of an ex-husband, recently paroled and a lost young son. Agnes opens up about her pain to Peter and the two begin a relationship. Once this relationship is started, Peter breaks down, worrying for Agnes’s safety. As Peter explains, he believes he is a government experiment that has gone AWOL and there are dangerous people looking for him. He believes that his blood is infested with bugs and soon Agnes believes that she is infected as well. The pair’s behavior becomes increasingly erratic, feeding into each-others fears. A doctor visits the home toward the end of the movie, claiming to be some sort of psychologist from a ward that Peter had escaped. Agnes does not believe him, and Peter emerges and stabs the man to death. Believing that they both carry the ability to keep producing the governmentally engineered bugs, Agnes and Peter decide to douse themselves with gasoline and set themselves ablaze.
The thrust of Bug’s psychological pull is two-fold; the first being that even though the claims of Peter are outlandish, we as the audience cannot verify that they are in fact false. The second tier that makes the movie so suspenseful is that Agnes completely falls into the same headspace as Peter. This could either be because the things that Peter says are true, or due to her trauma she could be suffering from a shared psychotic disorder. This disposition is generally unknown to the affected person, as they tend to continue in their daily life and function as a normal person would, apart from the delusion that they take on from the other person.
Bug is adapted from the play by Tracy Letts. The movie adaptation stays incredibly true to the stage play, all the way down to the miniscule cast. If you discount the extras at the bar for one scene, the movie is carried entirely by five cast members. This is true to stage play form, which is often carried by very small casts, and even in some instances is entirely monologue. In this particular case, Michael Shannon, the man who plays Peter in the movie, was also the same role in the original cast which premiered in London. Interestingly enough the rehearsals were held in Chicago.
Needless to say, Michael Shannon’s performance is beyond incredible. The depth, dynamic, and intensity he brings to the role are crucial to driving the story, especially considering he was in most of the movie. Michael’s stage background and familiarity with the story is obvious with his shining performance.
“Of course, getting the actor cast in the movie was a challenge, but Letts explained how Friedkin championed for him.
“Billy fought really hard for him,” Letts said. “The people who were financing the film had no interest in using Mike, but Billy just insisted. He had seen Mike do the play live, he knew how powerful Mike was in the role, and he knew the role was written for Mike. And Billy actually had a lot of experience casting a lot of unknowns in movies: William L. Petersen in ‘To Live and Die in LA’ was his first big break, Linda Blair and Jason Miller in ‘The Exorcist.” I’m really glad he did (fight for Mike) because among the many pleasures of the film is the fact that Mike’s extraordinary stage performance was preserved on film. The freak out scene where he’s flopping and having a seizure on the bed, he used to do that on stage eight times a week.”” (theultimaterabbit.com)
Bug is a brilliant film that leaves you confused as to what is reality and what is delusion. It confuses the viewer in the best way possible as to whether psychosis drives delusion or if there is strong validity to conspiracy.
It is important to note some of the changes from the narrative poem to the film. The biggest change was in regards to the character of the protagonist, who was changed from an African-American to a white man. In addition, the gang killed the protagonist in the short story while only injuring Stoker in the movie. These alterations are not small or meaningless differences. In fact, it has the ability to completely change the impact of the story and the meaning of it. For instance, the poem is about racism or racial inequality. The movie is about a simple crime taking advantage of a man down on his luck. The difference between death and injury is also large. Death conveys many different things, including mortality and finality. However, the injury tends to be more typical of a Hollywood ending. This does not mean that these movies are any better or worse than the written works they were based on, but certainly it changes what we think about and how we are thinking about it.
“The Set-Up is absolutely marvellous to behold, for its visual style, the script and the acting. While Audrey Totter, an inimitable noir staple, is not given as much to do as one would hope (her presence is mostly felt in the first few scenes and the final one), Robert Ryan exudes the sad charisma of a man practically down on his luck, weathered but still kicking with everything he has left, boasting his confidence while most don’t believe it and others even want him to lose. He’s happy about his odds yet oblivious of the evil forces working against him, not to mention that crowds that mock him” (popoptique.com).
In The Indian Runner we focus on a man named Joe Roberts. He is a man who is also seemingly down on his luck, but doing ok. His younger brother Frank is home from Vietnam. It is quickly discovered that, although cleaned up, he is still very much a restless man. His father also confirms as much. Early in the film, the two brothers lose their mother. This sends the father into a depression, causing him to take his own life. Frank, who was in prison at the time of his mother’s passing, learns of the suicide and is seemingly calm with what has happened. As we will see later, these moments hit him harder than he initially let on. We now start to see how truly unstable Frank is and how his decisions impact the small town. Joe, who is trying to be a caring brother, continues to pursue Frank in all of his mistakes, using his power as an officer of the law to help him in times of severe trouble. Eventually, when all seems to be going well, Frank kills a bartender for seemingly no reason other than to break the status quo and ease his restless spirit. Joe pursues him in a squad car to the state line, stopping at the border to let him go, signifying that Joe must let his little brother go both physically and emotionally.
One more interesting point in contrast to The Set-Up is the lack of censorship. All throughout the movie there is heavy violence, language, drug use, and excessive nudity. This extends all the way to a very visual birthing scene that is shot alongside the final car chase. The seeming lack of care for what the audience might think of these excessive scenes tells the viewer exactly what Penn is trying to achieve. Life is gritty, it is hard, things happen, and sometimes you’re just going to have to bear it. There is no other way through life than to understand that hard things happen and you must continue to look at the things that are worth living for. To end on a quote about Penn’s debut, “However, as his first film behind the camera, “The Indian Runner” is hardly a work of mischievous youngster, a moody meditation on the bond of blood the two men share even if they no longer have the same perspective on the world after one returns from war” (Moveablefeast.com).
The Killers, the titles of the 1946 and 1964 versions, share a similar plot in its most basic form. A young man is assassinated as he refuses to run away from his fate. Through flashbacks we learn of a once successful young man in a high risk career, who later is wounded, leaving him unable to perform. He falls in love with a woman who bamboozles him into performing a high stakes robbery while unwittingly involved in a double cross that costs him his life. Although at first this may sound like a very specific plot with little interpretation, both film adaptations are wildly different in both story and style.
When comparing and contrasting these two works it is very important to draw distinctions and similarities. One of the first things I would like to do is to name our characters. The protagonist is the man who is murdered and whom we see flashbacks portraying. The killers are the men who kill the protagonist. The love interest is the one who feigns love for and double crosses the protagonist. All of these characters have different names in the two versions of the movie, and so therefore can be hard to keep track of when discussing the stories closely.
The introduction to the 1946 version of the story stays true the story told by Hemingway. “The 1946 “Killers” uses its brilliant opening scenes to dramatize the complete Hemingway story almost verbatim, with the hit men terrorizing the diner, and the Swede (Burt Lancaster, making an impressive movie debut) awaiting death. The rest is largely invented back story, as the movie veers into the land of noir with a hard-bitten insurance investigator (Edmond O’Brien) researching the murdered man’s life to solve the mystery of his fatalism” (New York Times 2015). Although the introduction is certainly a concession to the brilliance of Hemingway’s writings, a short story cannot be turned into a feature length film without more material.
Characters and plot points were added to the 1946 film. The driving storytelling force in this film was an Insurance Investigator. The protagonist had taken out a life insurance policy and the recipient was surprised to be the one receiving the money. This strange occurrence led to more investigation, leading all the way up to a big heist and a double cross.
The film is classic noir, set in bold black and white with very intentional shadowy shots in order to convey ominous feelings. Noir’s use of light and shadow gives us less than subtle hints about how we ought to be feeling about a specific situation or character and this movie is no exception. The investigator is another keystone of the Noir film style, giving us an excuse to exposit the story in a way that might have otherwise made making a mystery movie more difficult. Flashbacks are another classic noir tool to help with this expository dilemma. The 1946 film lasted a little over an hour and half, but the pacing was done in such a way that I could have easily watched another forty-five minutes.
In contrast, the 1964 version has some major changes made to it. One of the first changes is to the film style. Although some people might call it “neo-noir,” largely for its content, it strays far from the cinematic styles that brought actors like Humphrey Bogart to the spotlight. One of the biggest mood changes from the old version to this version is the shift away from murder mystery into crime thriller. Because of this, much of the character development fell short of what the original had masterfully brought to life. One quote summarizes this well:
“Our recollections of Robert Siodmak’s 1946 movie The Killers are apt to center on three primary elements: Ernest Hemingway’s story, so literally brought to the screen in the film’s opening scenes; Ava Gardner, carrying the full weight of that late-forties sense of female sexuality as enveloping power, pervasively narcotic if not downright supernatural; and finally, the impression of dreamy spectral density evoked by Siodmak’s Germanic camera play and the luminosity of Woody Bredell’s black-and-white cinematography. All these elements are notably missing from Don Siegel’s remake.
The 1964 incarnation of The Killers—or, to give it its somewhat inappropriate official title, Ernest Hemingway’s “The Killers”—appears to jettison everything that made for the suggestiveness of the original. Of Hemingway’s story only the faintest traces survive; Angie Dickinson conveys not so much the myth of the femme fatale as the early sixties ideal of very high-priced arm candy; and where Siodmak’s film conjured up nocturnal shadows and emotional depths, Siegel brings us into the harsh light of a casually violent and unrelievedly mercenary day. All the gestures and situations that the forties made poetic and mysterious are here stripped of whatever made them glisten” (Criterion.com 2015).
Too many things had undergone a “modernist” surgical extraction. In order to try and update the story with thrilling car chases and a higher stakes robbery, the dynamic of mystery is lost and character development is sacrificed. This is truly unfortunate when you have stars such as Ronald Reagan who seems to carry the movie and is sadly not even a very large part as the mob boss.
I believe that the director of the 1964 remake on the classic “The Killers” became too ambitious with his use of new technology. The ability to film quality high speed car chases was certainly the thrust of the action and thrill in the remake. Until around this time period, most scenes in movies that took place in cars looked like a child put a picture of their home road in from of a bouncing windshield. Although charming in old films like “It’s a Wonderful Life,” those filming styles can distract from the hyper-realistic feel of the newer film technology. I reiterate that I believe that the director and producers of the movie were too fascinated by their ability to shoot these types of scenes that they neglected some of the script writing.
I do not want to be too bleak, as there were some good notes for the new version. One of those pieces of good news that I noticed was the increased budget and ability to make areas or situations seem more likely and realistic. In the 1964 version when our protagonist and the love interest decide to go out, they go go-karting among other things. The bigger budget for films also allowed for some large movie stars and realistic effects, such as the car roll scene.
If I had to pick a winner between these two, I would not hesitate to choose the version made in 1946. I find the film style more appealing in several ways, and in addition to that I also find that the film style fits the mood and type of script that was used. My negative feelings towards the later version are mostly held in the liberal application of Hemingway’s story and lack of any kind of character development. The Killers are not meant to be the story driving force, attempting to solve a mystery that has no bearing on their paycheck.
If this movie were made today, I could see a version being adapted by Quinten Tarantino. The 1964 version having the narrative driven by the killers themselves had a type of “Reservoir Dogs” feeling to it. Although I don’t think anything will touch the original, I do think the story and added plot of the original 1946 version of the movie are compelling and definitely entertaining by today’s standards. Certainly it was worth watching.
The Pit and the Pendulum begins with a young Francis Barnard entering the castle of Nicholas Medina in Spain. He is there to investigate the death of his sister, Elizabeth, who passed away young and suddenly. After inquiring for a short while Mr. Barnard appears to find what he believes is the truth, that Elizabeth was haunted by memories of the house, and in a mentally unstable position had accidentally killed herself. It is later revealed that she has been buried alive, which drives Nicholas to extreme grief, having witnessed his mother also buried alive by his father. Nicholas believes he hears Elizabeth’s voice and chases after her. He exhumes her casket once again to find her very much alive. She arises to chase him into his father’s torture chamber, where he falls and hits his head. In this moment Elizabeth explains to him that she had been having an affair with his best friend and they were going to leave together. Nicholas snaps and believes himself to be his father, and proceeds to attempt to torture and kill both Elizabeth and his best friend. Lastly, he captures his brother-in-law, Francis Barnard. Barnard escapes with the help of Nicholas’ sister, and they leave the castle, three bodies deeper.
Unlike The House of Usher, which was a semi-faithful adaptation of the short story in form and function, The Pit and the Pendulum takes almost only the objects of a pit and pendulum and then writes an entirely new story. The adaptation here was exceptionally vague, and a large amount of liberties were taken. It was almost as if The Pit and the Pendulum was a sequel or redux of The House of Usher. The same basic concepts are all there, the cursed house and a deceased lover. There is also a sort of love triangle in both, but in The House of Usher it is between a brother and sister in a non-romantic way, while the brother fights with his sisters betrothed.
The film style in The Pit and the Pendulum is exceptionally gothic. One of the first things that gave this away is the lighting style. Mr. Corman loves the use of candles for lighting areas, rather than subjects. This creates a classic gothic ambiance where we have a constant vignette around the edges of the frame and the lights flicker in and out artificially to mimic the candlelight. We also have classic gothic artifacts and imagery, including scenery such as torture devices and castles.
The imagery transcends what most people could have conceived. Just like Edgar Allen Poe, Corman was ahead of his time in terms of translating the macabre. “Through his aesthetic and practical decisions as a director, Corman created his own brand of cinematic universe in the Poe films, a place of lurid color, fog-enveloped castles and labyrinthian dungeons. With a limited budget and boundless imagination, Corman masterfully evoked Poe’s themes of metaphysical angst: the creeping dread as the boundaries between life and death, sanity and psychosis, self and other begin to erode. It’s a gothic landscape where supernatural and human horrors are far removed from one another” (2017).
There is something to be said for the setting and film style of gothic horror. There are a few differences between the film and the short story by author Edgar Allen Poe, some of which contribute to the array of storytelling elements. The first and most obvious one is the subtraction of narration in the film adaptation. The original story by Poe includes first person narration, allowing us into the mind of the protagonist. This is an important element to the story, because the elements are described through a perspective, not objectively as a movie normallly would do. In contrast, viewers are not privy to the protagonist’s private thoughts, unless stated directly in the dialogue.
Dialogue is something that translates much differently on the screen. We don’t have a formulation of thoughts that we can read about, as in a narrated story. We are forced to do one of two things: either overdub dialogue of the protagonist narrating to allow us into their thoughts, or have additional expositional dialogue. Most of the time it seems that films will use the latter, opting for expositional dialogue to explain situations and feelings. This is especially true of stories that are translated into film. The House of Usher is no exception, as more dialogue is needed to explain the longer plot that Mr. Corman took liberties with.
We run into more problems as we expand the story, adding to the character development and expanding the relationships between the main characters. Unfortunately this leads to some emotional and developmental differences between the book and the movie. As an article in the New York Times states, “but even when Mr. Corman is being reasonably faithful to the stories, the rhythms seem all wrong, too stately and deliberate for the hurtling, breathless narrative style that makes Poe’s tales such intense, even deranging, reading experiences” (2012). Truly it is a different kind of story, focusing more on deep visual impact to move the audience emotionally, rather than the vaguery and darkness Poe uses to keep the audience off-kilter. “This fault isn’t unique to Mr. Corman. Poe’s work, full of murder, madness, ghosts and febrile passion, is irresistible to filmmakers because of its bold imagery and powerful emotional impact. But despite these sensational qualities Poe is not nearly as movie ready as his writing seems. The big problem is that he wrote almost exclusively in short forms, and his stories’ effects are highly concentrated” (2012).