25 August 2009

DVD ROUND UP 2: Future Noir, Bigelow and The Other

DARK CITY (Dir. Alex Proyas, 1998, US/Australia)
‘First there was darkness, then came the strangers…’

With ‘The Crow’ and ‘Dark City’, both wildly inventive future noirs, music video director turned film maker Alex Proyas thought it best to solicit his promising talents to the inherently frivolous nature of mainstream inclinations, resulting in the thoroughly average ‘I Robot’ and ‘Knowing’. Funnily enough, a film like ‘Dark City’ is kind of embarrassing for the Wachowski Brothers who were unduly credited with the originality and depth that they brought to the science fiction genre with a film like ‘The Matrix’. The cataclysmic failure of the two Matrix sequels and most recently the wacky ‘Speed Racer’ was enough for critics to throw the towel in and declare the Wachowski Brothers as post modern charlatans, amputating the essence of films like ‘Dark City’, Oshi’s ‘Ghost in the Shell’ and not forgetting the greatest story ever told – the Bible!

Made a year before ‘The Matrix’, I’m guessing The Wachowski Brothers must have had a peep at ‘Dark City’ as the film’s ultra moody future noir vision (which in turn is a pastiche of the cinematic architecture of the American science fiction genre) and idea of reality controlled by a master race of well dressed Aliens seemed to determine the aesthetic trajectories of ‘The Matrix’, another film that also finds its roots in film noir conventions and cyberpunk literature. Though it lacks a proper narrative and involving characterisation, ‘Dark City’ is a stunning film to look at it, referencing most vividly the sensibilities of a painter like Edward Hopper and returning to that most revered and imitated of paintings, ‘Nighthawks’, an image that seems to have provided the inspiration for an endless cycle of contemporary neo noir films including ‘Lost Highway’, ‘LA Confidential’ and Wim Wenders often overlooked ode to Los Angeles, ‘The End of Violence’. As for this idea of shadow play, well, we have Plato and his myth of the cave to thank for that. Once again, the high and low of culture cross breed in the most unlikely of cinematic places.

BLUE STEEL (Dir. Kathryn Bigelow, 1990, US)
‘I want you to see it... the light... then nothing…’

Only a film maker with a feminist approach to cinema could have possibly conceived of an inspired opening title sequence in which the gun becomes a symbol of fetishist proportions. I guess it is a pretty obvious way to open a film that is going to be very much about the psychology of gun culture, and in this case, how it acts as an addiction for those who are consider them selves to be invincible in society. Kathryn Bigelow’s fourth film, ‘Blue Steel’ was released in 1990, produced by Oliver Stone when he still had a career as a notable film maker and starred Jamie Lee Curtis in the lead role of a New York rookie cop, Megan Turner. On the first night of her job, Megan Turner heroically or stupidly intervenes (depending on how you read it) in a robbery at a local store, shooting dead the assailant. What transpires is that when the assailant drops his gun, one of the bemused customers, a New York stock broker, Eugene Hunt (Ron Silver) picks it up and leaves. Called in for questioning in regards to her apparent lack of restraint, Megan discovers that a gun was not retrieved from the scene of the crime. This immediately makes her into a suspect and virtual pariah amongst her fellow peers. Spurred on by the voice of God, Eugene begins killing innocent New Yorkers with the missing gun and also dedicates his cold blooded murders to that of Megan Turner by inscribing her name into the bullet casings. Megan is unaware that the man she has been dating is none other than Eugene Hunt – what ensues is an incredibly fascinating psychological mind game between Megan and Eugene.

Bigelow’s new film ‘The Hurt Locker’ has been garnering her some of the best reviews of her career. Though more critics and audiences are discovering her work, it’s not hard to explain why it has taken so long. She is one of the few women directors who have managed to subvert the conventions of traditional male dominated genres, producing arguably some of the best examples of the mainstream Hollywood action film including ‘Point Break’ and ‘Strange Days’. ‘Blue Steel’ is one of the few films that Bigelow was involved in writing and the character of Megan Turner is perhaps the most personal female character in her oeuvre. I keep returning to this film because it works considerably well on a number of levels and in my opinion is one of the most interesting American films of the 90s. At the same time, like the brilliant madness that inhabits Bigelow’s classic vampire tale ‘Near Dark’, ‘Blue Steel’ is a gripping mood piece which has the troubled protagonist and urban shadow of the city menacingly situated in the kingdom of film noir.

Between 1989 and 1991, Bigelow was married to James Cameron. You might find it odd that I have chosen to mention what appears to a trivial observation, however, it’s hard not to trace the autobiographical elements of a film maker’s personal life through the kinds of films they have made over their career. Film continues to act as a source of exorcism, a means of coming to terms with personal dilemmas and even working out such dilemmas in cinematic terms. Therefore, it’s hard not to see the bearded, egocentric character of Eugene Hunt as a direct reflection of Bigelow’s partner at the time and the fact that for Megan to reclaim her self respect, she has to inevitably gun down Eugene. Metaphorically speaking then, would it be right to read to the on screen termination of Eugene by Megan as a thinly veiled allusion to Bigelow’s stormy relationship with James Cameron? It certainly imbues the film with an added personal, authorial resonance. One thing’s for sure, the sexism Megan faces fitting into the male dominated culture of the New York police department can most definitely be interpreted as Bigelow vs. Hollywood.

Recommended Reading:

Yuppie devil: villainy in Kathryn Bigelow’s Blue Steel by Kevin L. Ferguson

Kathryn Bigelow: Director with a different take

Blurring the Boundaries: Auteurism & Kathryn Bigelow Brenda Wilson

Kathryn Bigelow’s Gen(d)re by Katherine Barscay

STARMAN (Dir. John Carpenter, 1984, US)
‘I send greetings…’

Kent Jones likes to say that John Carpenter is American cinema’s last genre film maker. It might actually be true. Lately Carpenter’s currency as a cultural commentator has been compromised by a lack of notable output and Hollywood’s over enthusiasm for grotesquely remaking his back catalogue of classic horror films like ‘Halloween’ and ‘The Fog’. Carpenter’s films make the idea of cultural trash and exploitation sound respectable. ‘Starman’ arrived in 1984, cashing in on the phenomenon of Spielberg’s syrupy fairy tale in suburbia ‘E.T’, a film that sentimentalised the alien whilst obliterating the allegorical notion of ‘the other’. Starring Jeff Bridges and Karen Allen, ‘Starman’ is warm, affectionate and affable science fiction cinema that recalls the cautionary alien of ‘The Day the Earth Stood Still’, faithfully working through genre conventions and suggesting that following an orthodoxy need not lead to accusations concerning competency. Needless to say that the establishment is depicted in a characteristically authoritarian radiance, complete with an ascendant general and a destructive military rule. The cold war subtext is none too subtle here, with Carpenter far more interested in charting the journey of the alien visitor so that the first contact scenario abruptly shifts into the road movie territory. Naturally exhibiting all the hallmarks of a John Carpenter genre special, ‘Star man’ is an exercise in narrative economy that juggles authorial expression with one eye clearly on emotional conviction. The final result is an understated, timid and unsentimental science fiction film.

Recommended Reading:

American Movie Classic: John Carpenter By Kent Jones

Senses of Cinema: John Carpenter Profile

Stalled auteurism: John Carpenter's Ghosts of Mars by Gabe Klinger


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