Quai des Orfèvres

Quai des Orfèvres (1947) movie poster

(1947) dir. Henri-Georges Clouzot
viewed: 02/18/03 at Castro Theater, SF, CA

I really don’t take advantage of some of the real perks of living in San Francisco as much as I should. We have such fantastic repertory cinemas that play such cool and interesting movies that I should never have to find myself standing in some megaplex theater debating which of the latest Hollywood crap to see. It’s a crying shame. And it’s a shame that I feel this most poignently when I do actually make my way to the likes of the Red Vic, the Roxie, or jewel of the city’s cinemas, the Castro Theater. Its well-noted beauty and excellent slate of films really should entice me more frequently. It makes me want to alter my viewing habits entirely.

I hadn’t actually heard of Quai des Orfèvres before reading about it in the paper last week when the film debuted at the Castro. It sounded cool, especially since I have liked director Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Les Diaboliques (1955) and had also been interested in seeing his 1953 film The Wages of Fear. The paper described it roughly as a sort of French noir film, shot on location in Paris only shortly after the end of WWII.

The world of the film is indeed shadowy and suspicious and is filmed with a polish not unlike its contemporary Hollywood B-fare of the time. Its style and look sort of accentuate the ribald and explicit nature of the language of the film, something one might expect in pre-code Hollywood perhaps, but certainly not in a post-war film. I don’t know how much of a misnomer it is to dub this film as noir.

It features an interesting, world-weary Inspector character, played by Louis Jouvet, back from his tour of duty in Africa with an adoptive son (which seems potentially quite metaphorical) and an colorful portrait of the operations of the the French police. There is a lot of interesting stuff here: the wonderful burlesque theater backdrop (with innumerable amusing background goings-on), the lesbian photographer/family friend (and her portrayal, which was both more explicit and sympathetic than one might expect from the time period), and the nighttime shots of the wet Paris streets, only a couple of years after the occupation (as noted by the SF Chronicle, as I mentioned above). The world of the film, which is replete with such interesting details, seems to address itself to the nature of post-war France through this tale of folks who are presumably not living on the right side of the tracks, so to speak.

The bigger picture seems less concrete to me than many of the smaller details. It’s one of those kind of things where I think that I will remember images and things from this film, down the road, while I might forget most aspects of the narrative itself. That is pure supposition on my part, of course.

The Hours

The Hours (2002) movie poster

(2002) dir. Stephen Daldry
viewed: 02/22/03 at Park Cinemas, Paso Robles, CA

Chick flick par excellence…or maybe Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood for intellectuals.

I just wanted to make a few stupid jokes before really addressing this film, which is actually quite good. And while the preceding comments have a somewhat derrogatory flavor, they are not utterly inaccurate if one views them less subjectively. The Hours is essentially a literary melodrama, focused on three connected stories about three primary female leads. The film pivots around Virginia Woolf’s 1925 novel Mrs. Dalloway, to which each of the storylines has some connection to, including the “main” story that features Woolf writing the novel. The literary thread also harkens back to the novel (by Michael Cunningham) from which this film was adapted (by noted playwright David Hare).

Each sequence features depression, suicide, and a kiss between two women. And, in essence, these are the roots of some of the film’s themes. Though the film doesn’t explicitly explore the roots of Woolf’s mental illness, there is a sense of repression tied to her confinement as well as an aspect of repression and depression regarding her feelings toward her sister whom she passionately kisses in a desperate, clandestine way. Not knowing enough history about Woolf, I can only go on what the film offers in terms of narrative here, and so, though there is implication of something more than traditionally sisterly love, it’s never foregrounded and explained. One can easily imagine that an incestuous relationship could be a site of repressed feeling and potential sadness, though the film does not imply this as the sole impetus behind her general depression and ultimate suicide.

There is a sense of evolution in the stories in this regard. In the storyline set in the 1950’s Julianne Moore plays a woman not at all at ease with her life as a homemaker and mother. In a sudden, empathetic kiss to her family friend, a potential glimpse of the reality that she is repressing comes suddenly to light. Though her friend ignores the action as though it hadn’t happened, it seems to spark some realization for Moore, and she is driven to suicidal thoughts. Moore’s character ultimately overcomes her situation by running from it and starting anew. She survives, but presumably at some cost, alienating her children, friends, and family, but not dying. The viewer can only speculate on the life she is implied to have lived.

The contemporary sequence, which features Meryl Streep as a possible embodiment of character of Mrs. Dalloway, shows a further evolution of similar themes. For Streep’s character, the repression and sadness are embodied in the figure of the dying poet (played by Ed Harris), her one true love. Comparatively, her repression is almost inverted in that her long term open relationship is with a woman and her repressed longing and love is for a man. Streep’s character, though tormented by her poet friend’s long illness and depression, is ultimately never pushed to the brink of suicide. Comparatively, her problems are managed.

I am not totally sure of what the film was intended to express entirely. It is interestingly structured and seems quite intelligently written. Nicole Kidman is excellent, as is Meryl Streep. I am sure that under further analysis, something coherent could be extrapolated, though I won’t do that here.

Sunshine State

Sunshine State (2002) movie poster

(2002) dir. John Sayles
viewed: 02/17/03

John Sayles is doubtlessly a significant figure in American independent cinema and one who has some truly excellent work on his resume. Sayles is noted for his integrity and for strong “social consciousness” themes in his work, often leaning sympathetically toward the working class. And, shamefully, like many significant filmmakers, I have seen only smatterings of his work and not necessarily his most important, interesting films.

My guess is that having seen Sunshine State won’t change the latter fact for me in and of itself. The film is a decent piece, with intelligent dialogue and a well-meaning anti-development slant, but it wasn’t particularly engaging or exciting.

The film bears some “theatrical” qualities. With opening, central, and closing sections focusing on some wealthy golfers whose contrived conversation opens up some of the issues of discourse, a lot of the film’s dialogue felt much more expository, like Theater more than Cinema. Other points in the film, characters get on monologues that have a similar theatrical flavor, I would say. Is this a common Sayles style? I am not familiar enough with his work to say.

The film is also somewhat Altman-esque, interweaving multiple characters and storylines, some of which connect up and others that seem to exist independently. It’s an “ensemble”-style picture, one that has several focal points and tries to ultimately paint a broader image (in this case, of the Florida community in which the story is located).

I enjoyed it pretty much, but I don’t have a lot more to say about it.

24 Hour Party People

24 Hour Party People (2002) movie poster

(2002) dir. Michael Winterbottom
viewed: 02/08/03

24 Hour Party People is an interpretive document of the music scene in Manchester, England, spanning the “birth of punk” to the “death of rave culture.” The film’s approach is largely narrative, with actors embodying the “roles” of most of the key figures, but the film utilizes its primary subject, Tony Wilson, producer/promoter/personality (played by Steve Coogan), as both a central figure in the narrative and also as non-narrative commentator on the events depicted. The narrative isn’t particularly cohesive, as the film was conceived originally as being more a series of vignettes or something, focusing on two major groups, Joy Division and the Happy Mondays. The film’s use of direct address and narrative disjunctures adds to its lack of continuity and attempts for a pseudo-avant-garde aesthetic.

To its credit, I don’t think that the film attempts to give anything but a highly subjective, “interpreted” version of events. It’s sort of Tony Wilson’s almost stream-of-consciousness rant in semi-narrative form, which might be an admirable acknowledgement of the impossibility of a “definitive” film on such a subject.

For my money, though the film was entertaining, its lack of cohesion seemed a weakness. But that is my opinion. I also was more interested in the earlier story about Ian Curtis and Joy Division than about the Happy Mondays.

It’s funny that I have seen such a number of films that attempt to digest this time period, even though they focus on different parallel sub-cultures (The Clash: Westway to the World (2000) with its eponymous subject, Dogtown and Z-Boys (2001) regarding the skate scene in 1970’s Los Angeles, and The Filth and the Fury (2000)). I guess that middle age is settling in on this generation, and the retrospect has engendered a need to document and contextualize the significance of their energetic youth.

40 Days and 40 Nights

40 Days and 40 Nights (2002) movie poster

(2002) dir. Michael Lehmann
viewed: 02/07/03

In referring to Rob Cohen’s The Fast and the Furious in a very recent diary entry, I noted the film’s potential reading as something of a very contemporary anachronism. Not to repeat myself too widely here in the film diary, but director Michael Lehmann’s 40 Days and 40 Nights is a film set among a very recently departed period in American culture, the dot-com “boom,” and as a result purely reeks of anachronistic cliches. This film is much less a product of its period, as I might suggest that The Fast and the Furious might be, but rather simply a weak comedy that attempts to situate itself in a “contemporary” world, but merely missed the boat.

I have maintained a soft spot for Lehmann’s film Heathers (1989), though judging by his other output, one might surmise if there is anything still worthwhile in that late 1980’s teen film, it may just be a coincidence that he directed it. I didn’t even realize when watching 40 Days and 40 Nights that he was the director. In fact, the main reasont that I wanted to see this film was that I had once seen a picture of Shannyn Sossamon, the film’s female lead, in a magazine and had thought that she was pretty cute.

If a diary demands brutal honesty, there you have it.

The movie itself has a heavy religious undertone that seems to critique the characters and the world of the film (their “meaningless” sexual obsessions) and at other times seems to endorse it. Inspired by his brother who is training to become a Catholic priest, an over-sexed web designer decides to forsake all forms of intimate pleasure for the duration of Lent. Visions of doom during his casual sexual encounters trigger the psychic crisis that leads him to his fast. At the height of his “test,” the protagonist, Matt (played by Josh Hartnett), literally figures himself in a Christ-like pose. There is even a strange “immaculate orgasm” sequence that could even seem to suggest some bizarre sort of abstinence-related non-physical sexual epiphany.

In this sense, the film seems to want its abstinence and have its sex, too. Purporting Matt’s experience as some sort of “spiritual” journey, the journey teaches him the evils of casual sex (more or less). And though the film seems to lampoon this notion at times, its narrative certainly seems to ultimately endorse the goodness of his abstinence. Oddly though, the film is essentially a sex farce, a comedy whose major humor is derived from its sexual content, and so this attitude seems somewhat ironic.

The film is set in San Francisco, and though it’s not set in a specific time period (other than the implied “present”), the internet design company that Matt works for truly seems to be a figment of a very recent past, as I mentioned before. The city is nicely used in the film. In catching some familiar locations, I probably warmed to the film somewhat through seeing my beloved town in a recognizable image.

As for Shannyn Sossamon, who lured me to this film, she was neither good nor bad (as a screen personality/actor) in my opinion, though still quite attractive to my way of thinking.

About Schmidt

About Schmidt (2002) movie poster

(2002) dir. Alexander Payne
viewed: 02/01/03 at Park Cinemas, Paso Robles, CA

Alexander Payne’s depressing critique of American life that plays out in his new film About Schmidt is less purely absurdist and comical than in his 1999 feature, Election. Both films are set in the American “heartland,” Omaha, Nebraska to be exact, and address themselves to an occasionally sympathetic, but otherwise striking criticism of the film’s characters and the world that they inhabit. Whereas Election employed a broader humor, giving it a sense of satire, About Schmidt has a more muted tone, one that seems more obviously downbeat.

Now I feel that I must preface this by saying that there may be some “generational” difference of interpretation on this; my step-mother found the movie hilarious, and recommended it strongly. And I think that finding the humor in it might make it seem less of a “downer”. But at the same time, I think that Election had a really negative, sort of depressing side to it that was merely masked by its light humor, so maybe my read of the film may seem apt. Still, I want to throw that out there.

(I don’t want to give away too many plot details, but if you are afraid of me spoiling it for you, maybe you should read no further.)

Schmidt, played by Jack Nicholson, upon retiring, comes to realize that the life that he built, his relationship with his wife and daughter, his job, his place in the community, his Republican values, are nothing more than a sham. His realizations isolate him from those with whom he wants to connect. The film’s point of view is rather sympathetic to Schmidt’s mindset, but there are moments of distancing him from the audience as well. For instance, his in-laws are cheesy and obnoxious, but well-meaning and not mean-spirited, yet he fails to warm to them. Perhaps someone who identified more closely with Schmidt’s background would see them as detestable. Perhaps then, the film is actually criticizing Schmidt himself, his inability to cope with the changes and realizations in his life.

At the end of the film, he states rather unequivocally that he is essentially just waiting to die, that the life that he has led has been utterly meaningless and will be totally eradicated in time. In the final scene he recieves a letter from an African orphan that he has been sponsoring, which encloses a simple drawing, which moves him to tears. This ending seems a bit open for reading: has he found some simplistic joy in having made some small positive action in the world or is it tragic that the only way that he can feel that way is through some artificial process, initiated via television, and completely removed from his daily reality?

Schmidt’s situation is only tragic from his own somewhat selfish standpoint. The reality in which he finds himself may be far from ideal to his perspective and certainly a letdown, considering his aspirations and life’s work, but the sadness, in which the audience is meant to share to some extent, seems steeped in self-pity.

I can easily imagine that someone might sympathize with him to a greater extent than I did, though I would be pressed to try and suggest the director’s intent in this regard. The film does seem open for reading, which may be to its merit. I don’t know.

Blue Crush

Blue Crush (2002) movie poster

(2002) dir. John Stockwell
viewed: 01/26/03

Kind of interesting watching this tepid Hollywood surf movie after watching the vibrant, autobiographical documentary of a genuine surf culture. This is perhaps especially so since Dogtown and Z-Boys (2001) director Stacy Peralta suggested that his inspiration for his documentary process was that some Hollywood studio was considering filming a narrative film of their story, and he wanted to make sure that the “true” story was available. This, of course, suggests the artifice and “airbrushing” that any subject goes under before coming out as a major studio movie.

Blue Crush attempts to show Hawaiian surf culture through a story about female surfers competing on the biggest, most dangerous waves. There is a pretense at “realism,” believe it or not, in that the filmmakers truly felt as though they were “documenting” a culture in this film as well. They hired a number of Hawaiian locals and professional surfers to try and add some of the flavor of the world that they are attempting to portray. To the extent of their success or failure on this note, I would be hazarding a guess, having never been to Hawaii nor having been on a surfboard anywhere. Still, I think it would be hardly radical to suggest that this film seems clearly the more inauthentic of the two.

That said, it’s a relatively fun piece of pure confection/garbage, with lots of surf footage, girls in bikinis, and a fairly pervasive hip-hop beat. The highlight of this film for me was Sanoe Lake, one of the main trio of girl surfers (and the only one of the three who was actually a surfer before she landed the job). Sanoe has the comic relief role in the film and (perhaps therefore) seems the most real and natural thing in the film. The rest of it is almost how you would imagine it from looking at the movie poster.

I did find it interesting that this film strayed from some genre conventions (the competitive sports genre, if that is a genre) in that there were no villains or antagonists in the film. The film focuses on Anne Marie (Kate Bosworth)’s fears of the dangers of surfing as the challenge that she must overcome rather than some nasty counterpart who always competes against her. The film overplays this a bit, I would say though, and it almost seems like she doesn’t actually enjoy surfing or desire to ride the pipeline, but actually has a well-founded and pervasive fear of death.

Blade II

Blade II (2002) movie poster

(2002) dir. Guillermo del Toro
viewed: 01/29/03

The first Blade (1998) film, directed by Stephen Norrington, was a fun B-horror/action film, which featured some amusing CGI death sequences for the vampires dispatched by Blade (Wesley Snipes), the half-human, half-vampire vampire hunter. Since Blade II was directed by Guillermo del Toro, whose 2001 film The Devil’s Backbone I had liked so well, I had some hopes that despite its rather lackluster reviews that the film would be worthwhile, maybe even another B-movie gem.

A gem it is not. A moderately satisfying B-movie it is.

The Matrix (1999), as I have mentioned before, seems to have infused its aesthetic into the action genre quite verily, and it is well on display here. The production values aren’t quite as high and some of the action seems even more ambitious, which results in some fun but cheapish looking attempts at the slick and cool that the Wachowski brothers achieved more successfully in their film. The whole production is so serious and sexy, heavy on the slick, post-Matrix leather/goth style, that there are many moments that resemble camp and feel somewhat arch.

The vampires, who are largely villains in the film’s world, have a rather fully developed cultural infrastructure, hidden and codified, underground like a criminal empire and run quite like a monarchy. The vampire elite are developing (spoiler alert) this whole genetic engineering/cloning scheme which the film clearly depicts as associated with the really, really bad guys and whose results are calamitous.

While most of the vampires are depicted as evil, or clearly as the villains, Leonor Varela, who plays the daughter of the Overlord of the vampires, turns out to be a vampire with a conscience, a “good” vampire. I wasn’t trying to make too much headway through the significance of exactly what the vampires’ social structures were meant to represent, but for some reason I feel compelled to say that Leonor Varela struck me as very attractive.

Now that this commentary has devolved to such “insights,” I will terminate it.

The Fast and the Furious

The Fast and the Furious (2001) movie poster

(2001) dir. Rob Cohen
viewed: 01/27/03

This film almost already seems anachronistic. If that’s possible.

Stylized with slick, flashy editing and a soundtrack with a pumping beat, The Fast and the Furious was a surprise hit at the box office when it came out two summers ago. The film is about street racing, another youth culture movement that is both clandestine and illegal. Featuring a contemporary slew of the “hottest” cars of the period (the period being 2001, already by pop culture standards something of an anachronism), this is a cultural product with a short hipness shelf-life.

The film is fast-paced, energetic, and pretty entertaining, but it’s also cliché and clumsy. Star Vin Diesel’s key speech about the death of his father is almost hilarious, though it’s intended to posit him as emotionally tender. But it’s one of those films in which its glitzy visual flash and it’s almost campy badness merge into a “guilty pleasure” level of badness.

In this sense, despite the fact of its overall low level of mediocrity, it seems like such a product of its time that it might be a classic symbol of this quickly dating contemporary pop culture. A typical film from 2001. Not a stunning example, but a good sample of what people were going to see at the turn of the century, featuring “hip” pop aesthetic and top-of-the-line special effects of the day.

There is something almost explicitly homoerotic in the male relationships in this film, perhaps not unlike many macho “guy” fantasies films in which male bonding is a key element of the represented culture. The film also strives to present a multi-ethnic cast, but does so in fairly stereotypical manner.

Speaking of anachronism, during the beginning of the directorial commentary track on the DVD, the 53 year old director, Rob Cohen, describes the look of the cars as “off the hook.” When a middle aged Hollywood director co-opts (or tries to co-opt) street culture and its slang that the whole thing has clearly become the unspeakably passé.

Dogtown and Z-Boys

Dogtown and Z-Boys (2001) movie poster

(2001) dir. Stacy Peralta
viewed: 01/24/03

Dogtown and Z-Boys is a surprisingly cool documentary about the rise of modern skateboarding in and around Venice, CA during the 1970’s. Directed by Stacy Peralta, one of the subjects of Dogtown, the film offers intimate detail and suggests a strong social context for the birth of this suburban underground scene and its development.

It’s an interesting though obscure history, one that isn’t really all that old. But in light of the mass culture popularity of the X-Games and extreme sports in general, it’s interesting to see the “invention” of some of these forms. There is a sense of self-egrandizement that accompanies this film, such as treating the first time that Tony Alva caught air while pool skating as though it was the discovery of plutonium,…though for these guys, whose world is wholly comprised of skateboarding, the invention may well have been just that explosive. This highly subjective slant is part of the film’s character and charm. Narrated by Sean Penn as well as via interviews with all of the main skateboarders in their present stage of early middle age, the film is very much a document of their vision and their interpretation of events.

Peralta situates the birth of the skate culture in the fiscal, societal, and political malaise of the period and at times even suggests a social criticism embodied in the activity. While this might truly portray the subjective sensation and attitude that was the boredom-laced tinderbox of their youth, they do seem to share some marginilization that inspired the punk music scene around the same time. However, they don’t become chagrined to see the underground culture of their invention and youth co-opted and turned into a product of mass culture, which might call into question some of their “political” reads.

The time period of the 1970’s is evoked quite colorfully, perhaps in its largely incidental reference.

All in all, it was fun movie to watch and interesting piece of cultural historical minutiae.