Archive for Basic Instinct

The Sunday Intertitle: Vile Bodies

Posted in Dance, FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , on July 14, 2013 by dcairns

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Too hot to write… two hot to read… too hot to watch… we didn’t get a summer in Scotland last year, but this year we seem to have two piled on top of each other like sweaty wrestlers.

Finally caught up with Steven Soderbergh’s MAGIC MIKE, and incidentally also saw BEHIND THE CANDELABRA at the Cameo. It holds up pretty well on the big screen, and was very enjoyable — more so than MM, which is diverting, and moves in a surprising way, its wonders to perform, which is very refreshing, but does it add up to a whole lot? I dunno. I guess it needn’t.

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The male stripper movie is mainly enjoyable for the insight it offers, fictitious though it may be, into a closed world. It’s almost like a Howard Hughes movie, only with penis pump and buttockless trousers. I was fascinated to learn that male strippers are all heterosexual. Surprising, in a way. Maybe it’s like the US army’s “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy? Show, don’t tell, or something. And all that stuff about steroid abuse? Not true, according to this.

The movie has the most unforgiving sound mix of any film I’ve seen recently — I’d say that if we had been even slightly hard of hearing we’d have been turning on the subtitles — as it is, it took fifteen minutes for us to adjust to the very low volume dialogue (with Channing Tatum a king mumbler), with very loud background noise and music too. It was interesting the way Soderbergh kept the crowd noise way up during the various stripshow acts, with the music heavily distorted, so the scenes play as verité rather than as production numbers. Maybe that made some of it less enjoyable than it might have been, but it integrated the style.

Not so keen on the yellow filtered Floridian exteriors, though, which looked kinda toxic. Reminds me of how he made Mexico orange in TRAFFIC.

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BEHIND THE CANDELABRA has more emotion and more nerve, and slightly more gayness — though there isn’t a lot of mad passionate love — the two leads kiss each other but all too deliberately miss the mouths. The “courageous” aspect of Michael Douglas’s performance is the physical self-exposure. After his ass got very badly reviewed in BASIC INSTINCT, he swore never to unleash it (onscreen) again, but here it is, along with skinny limbs and a rotund abdomen. Respect is due for the abandonment of vanity, especially after the man had just gotten over a life-threatening illness. And I’m very glad that WALL STREET thing wasn’t his last movie.

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Douglas and Damon and Bakula and Rob Lowe and Debbie Reynolds are all excellent. One worries about a straight cast and production team (Soderbergh as director, editor and cinematographer) tackling a subject which inherently presents a grotesque parody of an already stereotyped vision of a homosexual lifestyle — but the film seemed confident enough to be able to say “This is what it was like” — it’s not a comment on anything other than the facts in the case (as presented by one participant’s memoir).

I worry that Soderbergh is now to Douglas and Zeta-Jones as Joseph Losey was to the Burtons. But none of Soderbergh’s films misfire as magnificently as BOOM! — they don’t have the grandiloquence. Soderbergh is too smart and self-aware to commit a howler of that magnitude, but that’s a little sad too — he’d never let himself go, to that extent, either. His best work seems to focus his wit and intelligence onto small subjects, illuminating them until they sparkle.

I think THE INFORMANT! is still my favourite Soderbergh joint.

Still, very glad that Soderbergh’s retirement is essentially in name only — his TV show The Knick will deal with an early twentieth century hospital in New York — Fiona will watch regularly as anything to do with historic medicine is catnip to her. Will I be watching too? I think so.

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Worst Case

Posted in FILM, Politics, Science with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on May 23, 2013 by dcairns

Before Fiona decided to write about SIDE EFFECTS, I had written my own piece, covering some similar ground. In the spirit of waste-not-want-not, I present it here. Due to the nature of the film, it is hard to write about meaningfully without spoilers, so those still considering seeing it probably shouldn’t read the following —

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So, SIDE EFFECTS is announced at Steven Soderbergh’s last theatrical feature, and yes, he will be missed. Fiona and I went because of a keen personal interest in what we took to be the subject matter, but the film’s big plot twist, about which much more later (and those thinking of seeing the movie, who have not yet done so, should avoid this whole article like the plague, or the latest Uwe Boll movie) reveals that the subject of the movie is not what it seemed to be.

I’ve just read Bad Pharma, by doctor and journalist Ben Goldacre, which is an impassioned takedown of the way the pharmaceutical industry conspires to prevent doctors and patients from knowing the true effects of the medication available to them. Opinions are bought up, dissenting voices are intimidated and silenced, and we the public, by buying marked-up drugs, pay for the advertising campaigns which mislead us (and the big companies spend far more on ads than they do on r&d).

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All of which seeps nicely into the first act of Soderbergh and Scott Z. Burns’ film. In addition, the treatment of mental illness is impressively restrained and sensitive, and the filmmaking typically assured. Rooney Mara evokes the deadening low-affect despair of depression without overplaying it, or boring the audience, or sleepwalking through the role like Nicole Kidman as Virginia Woolf, say.

Then comes the killing. At this point it becomes quite clear that, in addition to throwing in topical bits like the insider trading that landed Channing Tatum’s character in prison and triggered Mara’s depression, the movie is going to push things towards a kind of melodrama. A crisp, shiny, chilly melodrama, but still a worst-case version of its scenario that pushes events further than they would be likely to go in a typical case. This seems a shame: the film has already shown the ability to find dramatic interest and value in plausible, low-key situations that brim over with natural emotion. But by taking things to such an extreme the film does not lose the ability to make meaningful comment on medicine and mental illness and society and the law. It’s the next plot twist that rules out meaningful comment, as the film stops being about mental illness altogether, and becomes about killer lesbians. From KEANE to BASIC INSTINCT in one reveal.

Soderbergh himself disagrees with me, as you’d expect ~

“So I think Scott’s great idea was to use psychopharmacology in the same way that “Double Indemnity” uses the insurance business. That then becomes the Trojan horse to hide a thriller in. He’s very good at that, at identifying sticky ideas and then stuffing them with other things that make them more, that make them not completely disposable when you leave the theater.”

And he could argue that, since here I am discussing the issues raised in the first half of the film, he’s right — the movie does raise these issues in such a way that we do at least remember them. But rather than taking them to a meaningful conclusion, the movie veers off into thriller territory — Soderbergh cited FATAL ATTRACTION as an influence — so that the questions of depression and treatment become just a smokescreen. nobody’s really mentally ill in the film, and nobody really suffers side effects from their treatment, so it can’t say anything about that. The only issue that remains relevant in part two is insider trading, and that’s tied up in a conspiracy that’s so unlikely you can’t really take it seriously. I mean, it works fine as a wacky plot twist, it just doesn’t have any real-world implications because, although technically it’s all within the range of the possible, it’s not something anyone would ever DO.

The point about the Trojan Horse was it was an innocent-looking wooden horse, but the contents were armed to the teeth. Soderbergh’s film is more like a pack of Greek soldiers which charges on then cracks open to reveal an inert and trivial sculpted stallion.

A woman I met at some social function once asked me over the sausage and mash if I could name a film featuring lesbians in major roles where they didn’t murder somebody or get murdered themselves. My mind went blank. It’s still blank. There are things like GO FISH, for sure, but it’s hard to think of anything in the mainstream which doesn’t marry same-sex female inclinations to homicide, not usually to make any deliberate point but as a function of plot. OK, thrillers tend to swarm with killers and victims, so you could argue that it would be over-optimistic to expect them to buck this stereotype, but consider —

If BASIC INSTINCT ended a couple of shots earlier, the killer would be a straight woman, not a bisexual.

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And if SIDE EFFECTS were re-cast with Jude Law and Catherine Zeta-Jones in one another’s roles, we’d be spared the revelation that Mara and Zeta-Jones are not only (gasp!) murderers but (double gasp!) gay. And we’d be spared the dodgy image of CJZ being led off in handcuffs with her shirt gaping open. Soderbergh treats that moment with discretion, it’s framed in a non-gloating way, but it feels like a gloating scene (paralleled in his distinguished only by the rather distasteful treatment of Ellen Barkin in OCEAN’S 13).

It didn’t have to be about killer lesbians.

Of course, in objecting to the whole thrust of the film’s second half, I’m essentially complaining that Soderbergh didn’t make the film I’d like to see made. Which is arguably unfair, and I’ll admit that — my screenwriter self should probably stay away from my critic self. But I’d still like to see somebody make that other SIDE EFFECTS, the one which has actual side effects in it.

Myth World

Posted in FILM, Mythology, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 9, 2008 by dcairns

Castle in the Sky 

Had a great, apocalyptic time watching the Kino DVD of Fritz Lang and Thea Von Harbou’s DIE NIBELUNGEN lately, which I’d only ever seen on bad VHS, in cut form. Once we got over the difficulty of the preposterous Gothic script intertitles, we settled in to enjoying the films in a highly improper way — watching them episodically, in segments; doing all the voices (it was necessary for one or other of us to read each title card aloud to make sure we’d both understood it, so unclear was the lettering); re-enacting battle scenes with the cat.

It would be great to have a proper bigscreen encounter with Lang’s two-part, four-hour-plus masterpiece and treat it with the respect it deserves, but this was had more the qualities of an informal browse — no TV viewing is going to be adequate to this epic experience.

Still, apart from the high entertainment value, the experience brought many stimulating insights, so much so that I’m thinking of about three blog posts inspired by this movie / movies / way of life. DIE NIB seemed to function on a level of pure plot, augmented by powerful imagery, with little in the manner of characterisation to invest in. The characters are typed by their roles in the narrative, their various appearances, their relationships to each other, and nothing else. Harbou’s script and her partner’s direction give no clues as to how we should regard these figures. A story is being told, and that is all. Some characters, by their actions, might seem unsympathetic — particularly Hagen Tronje, who plays key roles in most of the disastrous decisions that lead his countrymen towards eventual destruction — but we are not encouraged to condemn anybody. Where some characters, particularly Attila the Hun, are presented as grotesque monsters, their actions are in fact relatively reasonable (by the standards of this storyline, anyway).

The Wild Hun

(Without any clear attitude to the dramatis personae, or none we can relate to, the film also lacks an explicit theme, although there’s plenty of ideas in there to latch onto if you’re so inclined, particularly that old Langian favourite, the power of destiny.)

A perfect example of this approach occurs right at the start of the tale, when nominal “hero” Siegfried — who is heroic only because he is strong and fearless, not because he’s a nice guy — encounters the dragon, which is drinking peacefully from a stream. The mighty saurian (constructed life-size and staffed by a crew of sweltering technicians who laboured to move its body parts about from within, while hoping to avoid being incinerated by its authentic fiery breath, not the last time Health & Safety Issues will arise in the modern viewer’s mind) looks about as hostile as Flounder from ANIMAL HOUSE, mainly because unlike most reptiles, he has his eyes front instead of at the sides, giving him a sympathetic, human gaze, just like Flounder from ANIMAL HOUSE.

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Seized with Teutonic bloodlust at the sight of this mild cousin of the terrapin, whom I will from here on refer to as Flounder, Siegfried forgets the job in hand (sword delivery boy) and sets about Flounder with lethal force, culminating in the literal bloodbath that sets the story in motion. The supposed monster is perfectly nice, the supposed hero is a brute.

Shortly after the dragonslaying, Siegfried acquires a treasure and a curse, and now the film has a real force of destiny driving it, so that questions of psychology and motivation can be almost ignored. Whether or not Lang believed in fate (he expressed some resistance to the idea in later interviews) I suspect he greatly appreciated it as a plot device. Lang has a unique relationship to characterisation, and sometimes used the iconic qualities of movie stars and genre types in ways that bear some relation to the puppet-like figures moving about within DIE NIBELUNGEN’S plot.

(Lang’s exacting methods of directing — which here involved the numbering of each piece of micro-body-language, so that the actors simply perform their movements as Lang yells the numbers, which could go up to 50 — have been accused of stiffening the actors, but that’s certainly just the effect he’s after here. The cast strike poses while looking unhappy – hey, it’s a style.)

Oh Brunhilda, you're so lovely...

The third character type, apart from brutish heroes and tender-hearted monsters (I feel the wicked dwarf is in some obscure way a maligned fellow too), is the scheming woman, embodied by both Brunhild and Kriemhild. Both women are undoubtedly wronged, conned and betrayed and abused by the “noble” Nibelungen chaps, and both retaliate with underhanded femme fatale tricks which brilliantly manoeuvre their enemies into disastrous and fatal situations. They’re like Catherine Tramell in BASIC INSTINCT.

Hair colour, casting, and sheer velocity of performance (B is manic, K languid) is all that really distinguishes the two vixens from each other, and Fiona refused to accept that anybody could be called Kriemhild (that impenetrable font made it hard to convince her). The name derives from “Grimheld”, but as Lang types his heroines as brunette and blonde, it became impossible not to think of the names translating as Brownhead and Creamhead. Brownhead is amazingly vivacious and more fun than anybody else in part one, while Creamhead seems a bit of a platted yawn, until part two where she takes over the narrative driver’s seat and her constant rigid fury acquires a hypnotic magnetism.

So, as character psychology plays only the most limited role in this epic, we are left with the brute force of plot and the power of Lang and his cohorts’ extraordinary visuals. Meaning is left open, though there are many intriguing avenues there to explore. The dedication, “To the German people,” and Lang’s own comments that he wanted to give Germany an uplifting myth, suggest some heroic interpretation is required. But what kind of heroism is this? The only decision any of the Nibelungen take which is not motivated by pure self-interest comes right at the end, where they refuse to save their skins by hanging over the extraordinarily guilty Hagen Tronje. So loyalty must be a big deal. Also courage, however foolhardy, and the strength to implement it. You can see where the idea comes from that these films went over well in the Third Reich — but in fact, Part Two seems not to have been re-released under the Nazi regime. So presumably what was popular was the spectacle and action, which can certainly be related to the imagery of Nuremberg but which, just by themselves, don’t seem especially political. In fact, in its according of (some) dignity and moral values to the non-Aryan characters, the films appear less racist and fascistic than modern fantasy epics like Peter Jackson’s LORD OF THE RINGS or KING KONG.

In summary: a bit like a really expensive, well-designed FLASH GORDON movie serial, but without the moral compass. That good-versus-evil paradigm may be a big part of what makes fantasy fiction popular, but Lang and Von Harbou’s work here suggests it’s also what keeps such stories in the nursery.

Orc calling Orson

Next up, some thoughts on Lang’s influence, and the Woody Woodpecker connection.