Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The Apartment (1960)

  When using the medium of film to explore an idea or to tell a story an obstacle that can trip up many directors and screenwriters is how to not get stuck in cliches and to capture something as transitory as the truth. Billy Wilder built a career as a dissector of American social norms and taboos, and in the process gained a reputation for making entertaining films that had an acerbic bite.
  After challenging the censors with his gender-bending comedy, Some Like It Hot, Wilder decided to take on corporate culture with The Apartment. Combining comedy with drama Wilder not only makes the bittersweet film more palatable to an audience not accustomed to his brand of cynicism, but he also upturns the ingrained belief that the main prerogative of getting ahead supersedes our duty to be a mensch.
  The genesis for the movie can be credited to a one-act play by Noel Coward entitled Still Life which was later made into a film, Brief Encounter, by David Lean. Wilder took a minor character from the story, a man who loans out his apartment to the couple in the film so that they can continue their affair, and builds his own unique story from it.
  Like many of Billy Wilder's best films The Apartment opens with a voice-over narration by C.C. Baxter, played by Jack Lemmon, who rattles off a few facts about his job, his life, and more importantly his apartment. This narration plays over a beautiful aerial shot of Manhattan which is eventually interrupted when the camera cuts to the offices of Consolidated Life.
  The first image we get of C.C. Baxter is that of a worker bee trapped in a cold, cavernous, and antiseptic hive. This shot was done in homage to King Vidor's silent film The Crowd, which is also about an ambitious office worker that struggles to not get swallowed up by his soul crushing job.
  Throughout most of the film Jack Lemmon portrays Baxter as a quiet unassuming milquetoast. You can't help but feel bad for a character who lives the bachelor lifestyle but enjoys none of its amenities. The office managers on his floor dangle the executive wash room key in front of him as a way to gain access to his place for their sexual dalliances but all Baxter is ever left with is an apartment littered with empty liquor bottles and neighbors who look upon him with an equal measure of disgust and jealousy, believing that Baxter is some sort of playboy bedding a new woman every night.
  As pathetic as Baxter is, it is impossible to ignore the fact that he is a willing accomplice to upper management's abuse of power. His shortcut to the executive wash room may yield him a few pats on the back, but ultimately he is the main culprit for all his misery. The main reason why the character escapes complete derision from the audience is because of Jack Lemmon's performance. Billy Wilder looked to Lemmon to play the role of C.C. Baxter because he exuded an "average but mischievous" vibe. When you watch Jack Lemmon on screen as C.C. Baxter you aren't seeing an actor plying his trade but rather a man just being.
  Another very important element to the film's success is Shirley MacLaine who plays Fran Kubelik, an elevator operator and love interest for C.C. Baxter. Described by I.A.L. Diamond, Wilder's co-writer on the film, as being "sexy, funny, sad" MacLaine never takes the easy route by portraying Fran as a victim. Unlike most of the female characters in the film Fran is not a caricature. You don't objectify her like you do the women that Baxter's bosses bring to his apartment. Both Fran and Baxter suffer from the pangs of loneliness. While Baxter tries to fill that void with delusions of corporate advancement Fran hitches her wagon to Jeff D. Sheldrake, portrayed by Fred MacMurray, who she engages in an illicit affair with before the start of the film.
  By the start of the film though their relationship is already at its death throes. Fran's later suicide attempt is incited not so much by her relationship with Sheldrake being over, but by her realization that she allowed somebody to exploit her need for sincere human contact.
  As Fran recuperates at Baxter's apartment they unwittingly start to play house. They fall into their roles quite easily and both characters seem to finally let down their guard. Their game of house shatters Baxter's misplaced belief that attaining the props of success, e.g. a big office, access to the executive wash room, will guarantee him happiness. This epiphany of course comes at a very big price. Although Wilder gives us what we want at the end, Fran and Baxter together, the last line of the film leaves a bitter taste in our mouths. Since happiness in all its forms is fragile their future together is uncertain, but maybe they can make it work. 

Monday, January 19, 2009

Some Like It Hot (1959)

  Marilyn Monroe was the preeminent sex symbol of an America where any hint of sexuality was stamped out by so-called decency groups that regularly condemned people or work that did not tow the group's initiative of protecting society from salacious subject matter. When she was alive many in the press reduced her to the dumb blonde stereotype and after she died Marilyn couldn't escape from the public's need to turn her into a martyr, an angelic beauty struck down by the harsh realities of the film business. Many cling to the myth of Marilyn; they relish the less savory aspects of her life and pour through all sorts of material that they can find, looking for a juicy piece of gossip not yet mined by the tabloids or the press. In truth it is the public's failure to give her career some serious thought that contributed to her death. The characters Marilyn played were rarely dumb blonde stereotypes, but because she was beautiful and not ashamed of her body she became a threat to respectable society and as such was denounced as indecent.
  Over the decades, since it was first released, Some Like It Hot has gained a reputation for being one of the greatest film comedies of all time. Yet to label it merely as a comedy does the film a great disservice. Billy Wilder, the director of the film, takes elements of the Prohibition Era gangster picture and uses it as the foundation to build the comedic story from.
  Wilder opens the picture in Chicago 1929 right in the middle of a police chase. Bullets fly as a police car catches up with a fleeing hearse. The hearse gets away, but the casket inside seems to be leaking. When the casket's lid is lifted open there is no body to be found though; rather we, the audience, are shocked to discover that it is a coffin filled with bootleg whiskey.
  One remarkable thing about the film is how Wilder takes his time to establish the story and most of the characters before he gives us the very first joke. For the first thirty minutes we are basically watching a story about two down on their luck musicians, Joe and Jerry, played by Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon. And unlike what many directors would probably do today he punctuates the end of the first act not with a big laugh, but rather a mass murder; a reenactment of the St. Valentine's Day Massacre, in itself an event which marked the end of the Roaring Twenties.
  After this grisly event we cut to a train station with both male leads already dressed as women, Joe becoming Josephine and Jerry changing his name to Daphne. It is a testament to Wilder's abilities as a screenwriter and director that he never underestimates the audience's intelligence. Where most director's would have placed a montage sequence showing how Joe and Jerry transform into women Wilder wastes no time and just shows us the end result. Instead of completely relying on the one-note joke of two men dressing in drag he makes the movie into a sex comedy; exploring what was then mostly unchallenged ideas about gender roles, sexual identity, and attitudes about sex.
  The scene at the train station is also important because it introduces the third major character in the story; Sugar Kane, played by Marilyn Monroe. Like many films which feature Marilyn, various parts of her body are called attention to; at the train station Lemmon's character refers to her rear as "Jell-O on springs", when Josephine and Daphne formally introduce themselves to Sugar the camera is carefully framed to show Marilyn's exposed thigh and garter belt, and during the scene where Marilyn sings "I Wanna Be Loved By You" she wears a sheer see-through gown that teases the viewer as to what might lay underneath.
  Although there has never been a shortage of horror stories about working with Marilyn, especially during this movie's production, she is without a doubt at the top of her game in this film. The part of Sugar could have been easily played as a cliche gold digger type or as the usual victim of circumstances, but Marilyn doesn't allow the character to fall into simple generalizations. In the film Sugar Kane is a gold digger, but Marilyn charms us and we root for her to break from her usual role as an emotional punching bag. When she appears onscreen we practically forget about Joe and Jerry.
  With a story about two men who dress in drag it is practically mandatory to address the issue of gender roles. The film does this in several ways. First is Sugar's preference for men who aren't just millionaires but also wear glasses because to her they seem "much more gentle, and sweet, and helpless." Her character, unlike many typical female characters in movies then and now, rejects the usual protector type and opts for security instead. Sugar wants a man to depend on her instead of being dependent on them. Joe, believing he now has all the information he needs to win Sugar over, invents a new identity for himself as an effeminate millionaire who speaks with a Cary Grant affectation. All of this culminates with a seduction scene where it is Sugar who plays the aggressor and Joe is the passive one; pretending not to react to all of Sugar's attention.
  Of course the comical side of the gender role issue is explored by Jerry who gradually blurs the line of gender itself. At first when Jerry puts on her Daphne costume he relishes the idea of being in an all girl band, thinking of himself as a kid in a candy store, but he eventually starts to fit in as "one of the girls." A reason for this maybe due to how Wilder establishes that Jerry is more weak willed than Joe is; the scenes in Chicago clearly show that Joe is the dominant one in their friendship. And so it is quite believable that Jerry would begin to buckle under the strain of having to maintain a completely unfamiliar identity. A perfect example of the battle between Jerry's male and female side is during the tango-dance sequence between Jerry as Daphne and Osgood Fielding, a millionaire himself who tries to seduce Daphne. Throughout the scene Osgood complains to Daphne to stop leading and although the look on Daphne's face is that of annoyance they continue to dance and with each step and spin she takes Daphne sinks deeper into her new identity till finally all that is practically left is Daphne.
  Some Like It Hot has rightfully earned its place as one of the greatest film comedies of all time by never opting to go for the easy joke. Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond took the time to create a well crafted story and interesting characters and so they didn't need to bombard an audience with joke after joke to keep their attention. They realized that the best jokes come from the situations that characters get themselves into. To sustain laughter you cannot always cater to audience expectations, instead you must peel away the layers of a scene and find the unexpected areas where no one thought laughter could come from.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Dracula (1931)

  The resurrection of the dead is a well-mined topic utilized by countless storytellers from every society on the planet. It may well be that stories of the undead were told to explain phenomena that they observed yet did not have full comprehension of, either way these stories eventually moved away from being credible explanations for external phenomena, due to the elevation of the scientific method, and evolved predominantly as social tools to educate people on various social norms and taboos.
  Tod Browning's Dracula is not merely the first supernatural horror film of the sound era but it also has the reputation of establishing many of the cliches of the horror film. Browning, a director of silent pictures who earned the reputation of being a man who made movies about the dark side of humanity, treats the supernatural in an understated way. He cuts away from any violent action allowing the audience to fill in the missing shot with an even more gruesome scene then what Browning could have come up with or the censors allowed him to shoot. A good example of this is during the sequence where Renfield and the Count get onboard a ship and travel from Transylvania all the way back to England. We are never witness to Count Dracula's carnage rather we are only allowed to see the aftermath, a ship filled with corpses, the captain lashed to the wheel, and finally the only survivor being a cackling lunatic. 
  With the help of his cinematographer, Karl Freund, Browning creates a very atmospheric film about vampires that never veers to far from reality. An example of this is the Count's introduction in his castle cellar, which begins with the camera moving towards several coffins on the ground. Followed by a cut of a hand slowly reaching out of a coffin lid. Then Browning cuts between several shots of rats crawling on the cellar floor, possums creeping around on the dirt, and even a bug which emerges from its own coffin. Finally the Count appears standing upright, his black cape draped over his body, and then Browning pushes the camera towards the Count's face, drawing the audience's attention to his eyes which appear to be looking right at us as we sit and watch him. With this short and relatively simple introduction the viewer quickly understands that Count Dracula is one of the "Children of the night" who, like the vermin that scurry on the floor, hunts his prey in a cold and calculating manner so that he may feed on them.
  Much of the film's popularity is due to Bela Lugosi's performance. Lugosi, a Hungarian expatriate, had played the role on Broadway and although the film's producer thought him ill-suited for the part, all the reasons why Lugosi shouldn't have played the role contributed to creating the most well-known portrayal of Count Dracula. Unlike Bram Stoker's Dracula, Lugosi is suave and good looking. Although he knew very little English Lugosi learned his lines phonetically and combined with his thick accent gave a concentrated performance. He spoke his lines in an elongated manner, stretching syllables as he spoke them. The gestures he made did not just terrify the audience and his victims but also exuded a sexual charge that attracted and repelled those unfortunate enough to get in his way.
  When Dracula was first released the Great Depression had just begun and its box office success may be due in part to the public's desire for entertaining distractions, but even if that was the case it is not such a stretch to read the film as an indirect comment of what was going on in the country at that time. Count Dracula representing the corrupt and gluttonous mass of people, denizens of the Prohibition era nightlife, had become less than human after spending an entire decade indulging in the short term pleasures of the flesh. With their fangs stuck deep into the country's jugular they bled the nation just as the Count does his victims in the film.
  The undead are the last vestiges of the superstitious world that many still cling on to. Tod Browning understood that the reasons why we fear these monsters is that they played on our basest fears of death and the otherworldly. None of us are sure what waits for us after we die but a simple glance at the mirror can be a reminder for many that death is always at work. By not completing the transition into the afterlife Count Dracula has regressed into an animal that lurks in the dark, incapable of seeing what he has become. The film doesn't treat the monsters as a separate species, but rather a possible offshoot of humanity; those tainted by a fear of letting go. They skulk waiting for the right time to strike their victims, but what few battles they win are bitter sweet for they are resigned to live in cold damp earth separated from many of the things that had made life worth living.