[1940] The Great Dictator

On its surface, comedy seems apt for the present, because characterization is not an inherent responsibility of the author to ooze why her joke is funny; “funny” is largely a function of its setting. If the “high” goal of comedy is simply to encourage laughter, we, the audience, should tune our own understanding to the present laugh factor: is this joke funny or not, right here, right now? If not, can and do we find humor in comedy outside the immediacy of “comedy?” The Great Dictator, Charlie Chaplin’s most seminal work, proves that we do.

The Great Dictator, 1940’s tongue-in-cheek Nazi satire, is a comedy first and a pièce de triomphe second. Chaplin aims to leech the bad blood and the sadness of Adolf Hitler’s tyrannical and megalomaniacal Third Reich through a mish-mash of slapstick comedy and cartoonish caricature. Within the loose confines of a story of immediate relations, there’s Marx Brothers-esque pan-smashing and paint-throwing and lots of falling, sliding and slipping. Sure this comedy is easy – our natural schadenfreude loves to watch and relish in the misfortune of others – but its simplicity is essential to setting a mood. Because comedy has a foil – tragedy – that runs all too deeply through The Great Dictator. Chaplin plays two characters (an essential plot device): one, Chaplin is a Jewish merchant injured and amnesiac from The Great War; he conveniently revives and attempts to resume normality only to find that his normal activities are stymied by Adenoid Hynkel and his regime, “The Double Cross.” The humor is plentiful in this whole set up, ripe for a serious demolishing of the current regime and its antics. The other: in a likeness is purely coincidental, obviously, is Adenoid Hynkel himself. He is a more obvious allegory to the specific Führer and because his real-life counterpart is ubiquitous and completely characterized, the comedy is simpler, if not funnier. As with chess, comedy follows an important paradigm: simplify to exploit. Continue reading

[2000] Chocolat

Chocolat, upon a first watch, is a charming and relatively harmless love story, albeit slow to develop. Its overt themes, at times, come across as trite wolf-in-sheep’s clothing, and these developments follow oft-overused stereotypes. We’ll notice that Chocolat‘s characters don’t exhibit special traits: enhanced strength or intelligence, troubled exposition or abusive relationship history, exaggerated wealth or circumstance. 2000’s Chocolat earned its Best Picture nomination through strength of motif (mostly) and acting (somewhat). Further, the more one watches films looking for certain motif strains, the more obvious when one immediately and strikingly sticks out. For Chocolat, this motif is magical realism, the tendency for everyday, or inconspicuous, objects to exhibit supernatural properties. The author or auteur will (often) use this technique to foil, or exacerbate, a truly deeply seeded idea, usually one that has a negative connotation. In Chocolat, prescriptively, the use of chocolate is used to exacerbate the concept of hegemony, stasis and resistance to change, and it quite successfully succeeds.

The use of magical realism in a French context is both unexpected and cognitively dissonant. The French, historically, have been associated with amour and whimsy; we never read, see or hear about (or: our media and “history” doesn’t present) the relative orthodoxy of non-Parisian France, pre-telecommunication. A closer look, though, will demonstrate religious intensity skewed heavily toward Catholicism, and that this strain of Christianity overwhelmingly includes older generations: setting Chocolat during a modern reformation period reflected the tyrannical hegemony of stasis. Because overall mood had already begun to shift, Director Lassie Hallström, drawing from Joanie Harris’ 1999 novel of the same name, can cause enough of a “stir” without that “stir” being the sole cause of the action. In other words: Chocolat attempts to unpack a time when order and orthodoxy had been accepted (or forced-accepted) and any deviation was considered immoral. Magical realism attempts to deconstruct this theory and reject the hypothesis through absurdity and fanciful actions: because we, the audience know that the plot is technically impossible, we automatically shift to attempt to realize, “what does this mean?” When executed properly, this effect is powerful; when executed poorly, we get two sequels of The Expendables and four-plus of Transformers. For Chocolat, our beacon for magical realism is Vianne Rocher (Juliette Binoche), a woman with gypsy-like wanderlust and an uncanny ability to produce particular chocolate to suit particular tastes. The chocolat is, of course, a small metaphor within the realm of Chocolat‘s heady magical realism motif. Continue reading

[2013] 12 Years A Slave

12 Years A Slave will be a difficult film to tackle for no other reason than I’m a white person. I don’t pretend to “feel” the layered effects of slavery past any historical reference, nor do I take credit or blame for the misgivings of my white ancestors (technically I’m Jewish, so my family weren’t the Christian property holders) misgivings and horrific treatment of human life. That said, my whiteness does not preclude me from analyzing the plight of black people in the United States’ infancy and I will take shot at 12 Years A Slave (and Django Unchained). However, this review will be too brief to cover the history of slavery, just as the movie was; how slavery manifested in the US is a great opportunity to plug “A People’s History of the United States,” by Howard Zinn. Instead, this review will focus on the slippery slices of life that were Solomon Northrup’s and Django Freeman’s, how each film’s director decided to tell his story and how the Academy views films rooted in slavery.

Movies concerning slavery pack a larger punch when the film follows a character with purpose, depth, clarity, flaws and foil characteristics – like those that demonstrate the horrific slavery conditions. For example, Solomon Northrup, a free and learned northern man, spends the titular 12 years as a slave in the deep south after he’s literally stolen, stripped of everything and sold to the highest bidder. We, as an audience, care because we want him to find a way to earn his freedom back; we want to root for him to fight for dignity and uphold honor even within the most horrifying circumstances. We also know, through Director Steve McQueen’s clever exposition that he is a kind man – though too proud for practicality. Solomon’s perseverance mirrors our own desires to be free and nested in the overt and still prescient topic of slavery. As a companion piece to 12 Years A Slave, Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained explores slavery through the surreal and hyperdramatization, in a similar fashion to McQueen’s gritty native truisms and blurred timeline. Our eponymous Django, given last name Freeman, earns freedom through a semi-realistic chain of events, until Tarantino eschews realism in favor of a Hamlet-esque ending, wherein everybody dies. Also connecting the two films are both directors’ fancy to make temporal jumps, smoothing out somewhat long periods of time over just two hours. It helps to mirror the reality of how long both men were enslaved as well as the absurd length of time the land of the free and home of the brave treated people like objects. Beyond the obvious connections of two men enslaved, what earned 12 Years A Slave a Best Picture win and Django Unchained a mere nomination? Continue reading

{Second Take} [1973] The Exorcist

Few things have been so distorted by popular culture quite like The Exorcist.  The ooze-like vomit and crucifix masturbation that the film is famous for are but details meant to enhance the grand and traumatizing struggle of good versus evil personified by each character.  Originally, a particularly horrific scene involved the possessed Regan MacNeil (Linda Blair) crab-walking down a flight of stairs, coming to a halt only to howl and vomit blood.

This scene was cut from the 1973 release because director William Friedkin felt the effect was “too much” and the wires used to harness the contortionist stunt-double were too obvious. In the 2000 extended release, the wires were digitally removed and the importance of the effect was finally realized.  Right before Regan descends the stairs, her mother, Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) is told that her director and close friend Burke Dennings (Jack MacGowran) was found dead at the bottom of the steps outside her house with a broken neck.  With doctors unable to help her daughter and her career and sanity threatened, this is the precise moment that her life unravels completely.  The effects of a young girl doing these terrifying things isn’t to incite a simple shock, they are crucial moments in which the other pivotal characters are broken down and forced to question their very existence.  What is overlooked by almost everything that has ever mentioned the film is that Regan’s character is not only a vessel for evil but is a tool used to force everyone in contact with her to confront the evil they feel inside themselves; whether it’s her own mother questioning what she has done to allow this to happen to her daughter despite the ‘ideal’ life she has provided or the rouge priest, Father Karras (Jason Miller), who questions his own faith and blames himself for his own mother’s neglected condition and even her eventual death.  Every character has something for the true evil inside of Regan to exploit. Continue reading

[1973] The Exorcist


(That will be the only time I get to quote that in a semi-academic paper)

The Exorcist hits home as a shattered reality for the millions of religious folk who fear God and the Devil in (almost) equal amounts. While this quote is not a summation of The Exorcist thematically, it is the most overt method that director William Friedkin used to disarm his audience. The Exorcist stunned, and continues to stun, audiences through a plausible disconnect from reality because a religious man or woman does believe and fear the devil; he or she does believe in demons and exorcisms to remove them; and, he or she does want to believe that God is the answer.  For Father Karras, whose faith wanes as his mother dies, Pazuzu, the demon who possesses the young Reagan MacNeil, is the manifestation of his guilt and faith, two factions that almost exclusively define Christianity. The horror doesn’t lie in the devil or in the details but in the harsh reality that this movie is really made for children.

Adults, no matter their religious faith, have lived long enough for certain adolescent sheen to have been ripped off. We learn the harsh truths that our elders aren’t necessarily wise simply ‘because,’ and that relationships are complicated: with oneself, with our families and loves ones, with strangers and with God. The Exorcist seems a farce to the adult freed from the dogmatic belief in the supernatural and the impossible. As kids, we’ll believe in anything, because why not? There’s no inherent context built into our brains about what’s real and what’s not. The time before youth start questioning their beliefs is the best time to indoctrinate them. You, the adult, tell the child that God exists and that Hell is real and that demons exist to torture their souls towards God as Savior. And the youth fully believes and so it’s easy for the child to just believe that he or she is possessed by a demon, or that the divorce is his or her fault. That’s the horror and that’s where The Exorcist succeeds.

‘Overt horror’ is an attempt to impress its audience through incredible situations, copious amounts of shock and awe and mostly gore. To the untrained eye or to the easily impressionable, the overt horror films seem frightening or scary – we’ll make a mental connection to the actor or situation and channel his or her own survival instinct; we don’t like to see other humans hurt as a species (save for misanthropes and sociopaths). These films, including the Saw series, the Final Destination series and all the precedents and descendants (the Scream series, the Paranormal Activity series, the Human Centipede series, Keeping Up With The Kardashians) use almost comically overt tropes to scare the audience; but it’s an ephemeral fright. In no way do these films linger past a few seconds of decapitation or buttocks-to-manticle embroidery; they offer a quick shock, or in the case of some a final twist or shock that is (usually) a let down. The exception to this rule is die Kinder, who don’t yet have the mental bank or the defense mechanisms to process the trope and move on to the next one. Thus is the appeal of the horror film, both the overt and the more psychological or occult thriller, for the young.

Father Damien Karras: Why her? Why this girl?

Father Merrin: I think the point is to make us despair. To see ourselves as… animal and ugly. To make us reject the possibility that God could love us.

Depending on perspective, then, children are either an ideal audience for horror, or the exact opposite. If we look at horror (any manifestation) from a director’s lens or a playwright’s pen, the impressionable may as well be sitting ducks for the snipe of a rifle or the twist of a head. The effort needed to achieve horror’s main goal – uncomfortable fear – is minimal, which either leads to nightmares (The Exorcist) or lazy writing (any sequel to a movie with an original idea – SawScream, Paranormal Activity, etc.). On the contrary, because the ideal audience doesn’t have (m)any accessible reference points, the thrill to scare might lead to the manifestation of a mental scar (seeing Event Horizon when I was 9 was….not a good idea). As far as appropriateness goes, the parent or guardian should decide if he or she wants to either, a. expose the child to the genre early and often to systematically numb the effect of horror, or b. avoid the situation and put on a more ‘age-approrpriate’ film. I’m sure there’s a risk/reward system in there somewhere.

The Exorcist has critics foaming with praise and the reason the film continues to endure and age gracefully into the annals of film lore (and Oscar nominations) is the overreaching script and understated acting. The dialogue (see above, as well as, “Let Jesus fuck you, let Jesus fuck you. Let him fuck you,” while Reagan/Pazuzu masturbates with a crucifix) is still shocking, especially in an age of never-ending profanity and violent gestures. The cast of (relative) unknowns kept this film from ‘becoming a Brando picture’ or a Nicholson film, though we do get a wonderful performance from Lee J. Cobb, in one of his last films. This practice is common in horror, keeping casts relatively unknown, and it’s to keep the human connections to a minimum. Seeing a well-traveled actor brutally murdered elicits an unwanted sympathy from a director’s viewpoint, except in the case of The Shining, which is the most horrifying film ever made. That film, which is a Nicholson film, digs deeper than The Exorcist because the most innocuous of details keep the audience off kilter the whole length of the film and Kubrick intentionally grabs the audience and mirrors Jack Torrance’s dissolution into insanity. The Exorcist‘s director, William Friedkin, chose to scare through direct confrontation and a worsening ‘condition’ and thus Reagan’s experience with the supernatural is told linearly and obviously. We, the audience, see the overtness and it’s our inability to affect the outcome that’s uncomfortable, but fleeting. The Shining‘s director, Stanley Kubrick, however, knew that there’s no escaping the horror of one’s own thoughts. He chose to prod the human mind through a series of left-turns and mind-melts and he knows, just like we know, that it’s horrifying, being left alone with one’s own mind. Don’t take your kids to that one.

I’m relatively clueless about 1973’s Oscar nominees: The Exorcist is the first of the five that I’ve seen. I’m intrigued by the others: The Sting (winner), American Graffiti, Cries And Whispers and A Touch Of Class. In terms of recognition, The Exorcist has certainly entered more conversations, but I’ll hold judgement until I’ve seen a few of the others, whether this fact is highly justified.