Thursday, September 26, 2013

Looking back at Bogie and Huston's "The Maltese Falcon"

"hmm, Bogie". That's what Jean-Paul Belmondo's character in Breathless silently utters to himself as he spots a Humphrey Bogart movie poster on his way out of the movies. That pretty much explains in a nutshell the influence that Bogart had on screen acting. Godard's French New Wave masterpiece is known as the first "modern" movie in the history of cinema. No coincidence it is heavily influenced by Bogart's movies, specifically The Maltese Falcon. Directed by John Huston, this 1940 masterpiece features an astonishing performance from Bogart as Samuel Spade, a private detective that enters a case that involves three eccentric criminals, a gorgeous pathological liar and a golden statuette that everybody wants a piece of.

 Huston and Bogart put plot in the backseat for character. What we get is the story of a man that isn't your typical hero, in fact he isn't a hero at all. Spade is a man that has his own moral code. His own rules of the game. The whodunit becomes less important than how we respond to the strong screen presence of Bogart and his co-stars. That's what makes `The Maltese Falcon' a classic. We see more and appreciate more each time we watch it. Huston invented what the French called film noir, in honor of Hollywood films (often `B' movies, cheap to make, second movies in double features) that took no-name stars into city streets to pit tough guys, often with a vulnerable streak, against dangerous dames.  Bogart was luckier than most noir heroes, but it cost him. Struggling to maintain his own independence – against the claims of love or his own penchant towards dishonesty – the Bogart hero can do little better than surrender, with a rueful shrug, to the irony his survival depends on.  

For Huston, telling this story posed a different problem. Telling it straight wasn't possible – too many twists.Plot is irrelevant here. Small, unique touches are of the upmost importance instead.
 Huston chose to focus on characters. One way to appreciate Huston's choices is to LISTEN to the movie. Hear the voices. Notice how Huston relies on the exotic accents of his characters to keep us interested. Could we endure the scene in which main villain Kasper Guttman explains the history of the Maltese falcon unless his clipped, somewhat prissy English accent held our attention? Same with Joe Cairo, his criminal associate and a man with almost indescribable accent. There are clues throughout that the 3 male villains of the piece might also be gay, Cairo is mocked by Spade for having a "perfumed Handkerchief" and we all know what that meant back in 1941. 

 All of this leads to the ending, minutes of screen time in which more goes on, gesture by gesture, than a million words could summarize. He loves her, maybe, but he won't be a sucker. After the film, we're left with Spade, whom we like and loathe, a man whose sense of justice squares, just this once, with our own, maybe but who's moral code conflicts with our own. At least he follows that moral code. Take this for example: Spade didn't much like his murdered partner to begin with, after all he had an affair with his partner's wife. But he wanted to find the person that ousted him. "When a man's partner is killed, he's supposed to do something about it.” It seems to be a street code, a rule of the game for Spade, even if it means bringing the woman he loves to jail. With all the harsh things Spade is capable of doing we still respect him for sticking by the set of rules he has chosen to live by. He seems to be living in his own world of ethics and scenery. Bogart plays Spade rough, playful and with more than his fair share of demons stirring up inside him. That we never see these demons make's Huston's film all the more haunting.

Action movies since Die hard ..

John McTiernan’s action masterpiece Die Hard was released into theaters, and it's not an understatement to say that we're still reeling from the impact. The film turned one Bruce Willis — until then thought of primarily as a comic actor and harmonica player — into a Hollywood action star, a position he's still convincingly holding down 25 years later. It also unleashed armies of imitators: There was Die Hard on a Ship (a.k.a. Under Siege), Die Hard on a Mountain (a.k.a. Cliffhanger), Die Hard at the Stanley Cup Finals (a.k.a. Sudden Death), and so on, all the way up to this year's double dose of Die Hard at the White House movies (a.k.a. Olympus Has Fallen andWhite House Down), not to mention Die Hard Beating a Dead Horse (a.k.a. A Good Day to Die Hard, a.k.a. Die Hard 5). It is, in fact, partly thanks to these imitators (as well as the Willis franchise's lesser sequels) that we often forget how expertly made the original Die Hard is: It's as much a perfectly calibrated character piece as it is a kick-ass action flick. So what has the action landscape looked like since that fateful day in 1988 when we first met John McClane en route to Nakatomi Plaza? For the past few months, I’ve been watching and/or rewatching almost every major action movie made since then in an attempt to come up with the best ones. The good news is that a lot of awesome action movies have been made over the past 25 years. The bad news? Not all of your favorites will be on this list.

(1) Die hard
(2) Terminator 2: Judgement day
(3) Speed
(4) The Fugitive
(5) The Bourne Identity
(6) The Matrix
(7) Spider-Man 2
(8) Minority Report
(9) The Dark Knight
(10) La Femme Nikita
(11) Predator

Monday, September 23, 2013

How "Deep Throat" changed cinema

Watching a 35mm copy of Deep Throat over at Visual Arts Building here in Montreal, I couldn't help but be reminded of just how important snuff cinema truly was. Forget about how important it was to porn, and how it has basically shaped, molded -sadly- the 21st century woman as we know of it. This 1972 film a starring Linda Lovelace as a woman that finds out she has a clitoris in her throat and gains deepened pleasure from performing fellatio to her men is a kind of "opened door" to the way women would get treated in mainstream Hollywood cinema. "Director" Gerard Damiano's film was almost a kind of "OK" for the female to get looked down upon in mainstream cinema. After watching Deep Throat and subsequent Porno films that followed it, Hollywood had a reaction that was almost akin to them saying "Hey we can write these female roles whichever way we want them to be written and not many will complain about the downgrade cause they're over there shocked at what Lovelace is doing".

I know many people that would say Deep Throat was important to the advancement of feminism given the fact that the film actually promotes Female Orgasm! A far cry from today's porn where -unless shot by an amateur- will not even come close to showing us a woman climaxing. In fact these days only the guy has an orgasm and, in doing so, also degrades the girl by abusing her face with his semen. Deep Throat made Linda Lovelace a sort of celebrity and had many people imitating what they were seeing onscreen - and still do to this day. It's a film that is probably as influential as any from the 70's. Going back to this feminist angle that I was just talking about, yea I see what people mean by its role in female empowerment but at the same time I don't think it's very empowering to have the idea of a woman with a clitoris in her throat, ingenious, but demeaning.

Lovelace was actually featured in a recent "bio-pic" which had Amanda Seyfried playing the porn star. Lovelace's life was not a walk in the park. She claims she was held at gun point in making the film. She eventually starred in a number of soft-core films that didn't really come to much else but a quick buck for her career. She was being slapped around by her "bosses" while making "Deep Throat" and you could clearly see the bruises on her arms and legs in the film.

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