Friday, July 31, 2009


This article was written to cross-post with the Robot 6 comics blog, where I am the guest writer for a week, promoting my new comic book, You Have Killed Me.


"Yes, and her tears flowed like wine
She's a real sad tomato, she's a busted Valentine
Knows her mama done told her, that the man was darn unkind

When it came down to writing You Have Killed Me, style came before plot. Joëlle Jones and I knew we wanted to do a comic book that paid tribute to the private detective lore that we loved, but we had to decide how. No irony, no modern context, no gimmicks--we wanted to do it straight. But how straight was too straight? Where does homage become rip-off?

Before I sat down to type a word, I had what could be called "the Hollywood pitch." It's that thing they do in the picture business, where everything is broken down into two comparable things and, by their combination, we can believe the new thing will be twice as successful as the old. I want to make Movie C, and it's Movie A meets Movie B.

You Have Killed Me is Michelangelo Antonioni directing The Big Sleep.

That's how the pitch began, and it's the descriptive that has stuck with the book since. I've said it often, and it still holds true.

If The Big Sleep isn't the quintessential private detective movie, it's at least the quintessential Bogart and Bacall movie. Directed by Howard Hawks, based on a novel by Raymond Chandler and adapted by three writers, including William Faulkner and Leigh Brackett (the writer of Rio Bravo and later, the most non-quintessential Philip Marlowe picture, Robert Altman's The Long Goodbye), it was released in 1946. Though it has shades of film noir, it's not a snug fit in terms of that artistic movement. Not as dark, not as cynical, it's rooted more firmly in the pulpy traditions that spawned it. Humphrey Bogart stars as Marlowe, a PI that Chandler described as "a white knight in a trenchcoat," and indeed, he would come to embody the idea of the shamus as a sort of modern-day noble warrior whose armor has seen better days. Marlowe's outer shell can use a bit of a polish, but he essentially stands for something. Though The Maltese Falcon was the movie that made me fall for Bogie, over the years I've come to begrudgingly admit that The Big Sleep is the superior picture.

The plot of the film is anything but simple. Marlowe is hired by old man Sternwood (Charles Waldron) to take care of a blackmailer in possession of gambling notes owed by his youngest daughter, the petulant party girl Carmen (Martha Vickers). Turns out Carmen runs with a dangerous crowd, and on the first night of his trailing her, Marlowe ends up with two bodies on his hands and several more not long after. He also ends up trading barbs with Carmen's older sister, Vivian (Bacall). She's the one that Marlowe will fall in love with, and the one he hopes and prays isn't tangled up in this mess of gamblers, con artists, and wanton women any more than having a dizzy sister sitting in the middle of it.

Howard Hawks is a director who is as efficient as he is stylish. If there is anything that a visual storyteller should take away from his movies is his speed of delivery. There is hardly any time to pause for a breath in his best pictures. When he made His Girl Friday in 1940, he famously amped up the comedy by turning up the speed, instructing his actors to remove all the pauses after a line, for the first word of one bit of dialogue to come immediately on top of the punctuation of the preceding dialogue, resulting in two pages of script for every one minute of film, as opposed to the usual one-to-one ratio. He sticks to that kind of speed in The Big Sleep. It's particularly noticeable in the male/female dynamic, just as it was in Friday, though now it's Bogart and Bacall rather than Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell.

This keeps the story moving at a pace that keeps the audience as confused as the hero they are following, but since it's coming so rapidly, there's no time to pause and worry about it. Hawks and his writers expertly insert exposition throughout the movie, layering it naturally into the conversation so we don't realize we're playing catch-up. I also like how Marlowe moves his case along, usually by pretending to know more than he does and playing his hunches, letting his target's reaction confirm what he suspects. He can be rather playful and tricky about it. It's a trait that was even more obvious when Dick Powell played the snooper two years earlier in Murder, My Sweet, and a tactic I borrowed for Antonio Mercer in You Have Killed Me. Vivian asks Marlowe, "You like to play games, don't you?" In response, he smiles slyly and says he does.

Outside of the dialogue, Hawks used his mis en scene to drop clues on his audience, to tease the confusion and evoke intrigue. He often did this by hiding details, by only showing part of the picture. Watch the scene outside the house of the effete bookseller, when the first murder happens, and look at the details that both the moviegoer and Marlowe are privy to, thanks to Hawks and editor Christian Nyby. A flash of light, a gunshot, a scream, a door opening, feet running by, a speeding car. We don't yet know anything, but we know someone was killed, a girl saw it, and someone else got away. It's a very quick scene, and you could isolate each element into a single comic book panel to achieve the same effect. The details are specific. It's obfuscation through precision.

Conversely, Antonioni's 1960 film L'avventura is precise in its obfuscation. It explores, but it avoids discovering. The object is to go through the motions of looking for the answers while trying to eventually create as much distance between you and them as possible--though, whether the characters know that or not is up to interpretation. At one point, the main male figure refuses to tell his new lover he loves her. Why? Because she already knows!

Here is the story: society girl Anna (Lea Massari), her fiancé Sandro (Gabriele Ferzetti), and her sister Claudia (Monica Vitti) go out on a daytime boat trip with their affluent friends to visit some rocky islands out in the middle of the ocean. When it comes time to leave--the visual/narrative symbolism: a shark sighting drove them out of the water and to shore, a weather change is forcing them back to the boat--Anna is nowhere to be found. Is she hiding? Did she fall off the cliff? Did she find another way off the island? There are no clues. Claudia knows that Anna and Sandro were fighting, so whatever measure her sister took, Claudia blames her future brother-in-law. Determined to prove his dedication, Sandro goes looking for Anna, and he eventually reconnects with Claudia. They follow some leads--a newspaper reporter points them to a druggist in a nearby town--but only end up in each other's arms. First Claudia denies Sandro, but she is drawn to him, perhaps drawn by the common bond of searching for Anna. Ultimately, though, she stops denying her desires, and as she does, not only does the search for the missing girl all but sputter out, but Claudia finds herself in her sister's same boring shoes.

I wanted to construct the dilemma of You Have Killed Me's missing debutante, Julie, to be like Antonioni's. Keeping the same two sisters device that both he and Chandler used, I had an older sister disappear from a locked bathroom. The younger sibling is in the bedroom outside of it, and to get out, Julie would conceivably have to pass Jennie. There are no other doors, no other windows, only a sheer cliff's drop to the ocean on the other side of the wall. Engaged just the way Anna was, about to be married, what made Julie run?

I was pretty conscious of the basic conceit I was lifting from Antonioni (who wrote the screenplay alongside Elio Bartolini and Tonino Guerra), but until I watched the movie again to write this column, I wasn't aware of how much the Italian filmmaker tapped in to the noirish tropes and how much I had really absorbed on my single viewing of the movie eight years ago. For a film that I've touted as one of my favorites, my memory of L'avventura was patchy, to say the least. For instance, I had no recollection of the overbearing father (Renzo Ricci) in L'avventura, and the conversation between he and Anna at the very start of the movie sets up a conflict that is similar to much of what is hinted at about Julie's past with the jilted detective, Antonio Mercer, in You Have Killed Me. Antonioni is establishing a conflict between old tradition and modernity, between the past generation and the present. Daddy wants Anna to marry someone that fits her station, Anna will marry Sandro just to spite him.

Because she clearly doesn't love him anymore. From what we see, Anna barely knows what she feels. As Antonioni sees them, people have become disconnected and out of touch with one another. Anna has cold feet, most likely because Sandro offers a marriage of convenience and a life that will trap her with its conformity. There is a scene where a distraught and lonely Claudia walks through an art gallery where baffled admirers look at abstract art. It appears to be leaping off the canvas, but yet confined by the square frame (not unlike a dynamic comic book panel). At the same time, the gallery building is crumbling and decomposing, and the stucco pattern on its walls could swallow the art into its own dying swirls if the barriers could be broken down. The threat of conformity is everywhere. Did Anna choose to run rather than be swallowed by it? Or did she choose the flux of the ocean, the ever-changing sea, as an escape? Is this the same choice Julie saw herself facing in You Have Killed Me?

There are signs of a certain age ending everywhere. The sisters talk of summer ending, inspired in this sad thinking, a rumination on carefree youth passing, by the shark that swims by, sniffing for blood. The encroaching modernity pops up again and again, often with a sexual or predatory guise, be it the foreign man who tries to trick the young girl on the train or the hungry pack of fellows making a spectacle out of a high-price hooker. Claudia will experience the same thing when left alone in one of the towns she and Sandro are searching, and she will also see the disrespect of lust up close when she meets the young artist who paints only nude pictures of women, and yet has no reverence for art. Anyone can pick up a brush, he says. Throughout, Antonioni uses motifs that suggest that his characters are at once pushing something old away and embracing something new, but that their eagerness to be free of puritanical restrictions has caused them to leap before they look. They are running to embrace new values, but they don't know what they are. There is a recurring image of Claudia closing a door on infidelity, first with Anna and Sandro and then with her friend (Dominique Blanchar) and the painter, and it's both her trying to keep these indiscretions a secret and to outrun them.

Antonioni also uses various touches straight out of crime stories to mark the path Claudia and Sandro are searching. Dishonest smugglers, disinterested police, rendezvous by train, and, of course, doppelgangers. The expensive prostitute looks like Anna, a more mature brunette to Claudia's younger-looking blonde. There is even some confusion with the druggist--was the girl he saw a blonde or brunette? A customer or his mistress? In addition to trying on her sister's boyfriend, Claudia tries out being her, wearing a shirt Anna gave her, and even once donning a brown wig. These sisterly entanglements are all basically variations on a theme, and though they may end up in different places, the Sternwood girls in The Big Sleep and the Roman girls in You Have Killed Me are all part of the same sorority.

The difference may be that in L'avventura, neither Anna nor Claudia is aggressor or victim, there is no crime or jealousy that passes between them, except for maybe a little early jealousy on Claudia's part. I suppose some argue that Anna gets out of Claudia's way and makes room for the romance, but Claudia might do better to interpret Anna's actions as a warning rather than opening any doors (the ones you keep closing, Claudia! Yeesh!). Once Sandro and Claudia fully embrace their passion, Claudia starts to regret it, starts to see that Sandro is just a man who goes through the motions. He laments that modern buildings aren't built to last--another case of where modern ideas are fleeting compared to the solid structures of yore--yet refuses to be an architect and design his own; instead, he prices out the ones others design. So, when Claudia wants to retreat to a new life, to stay indoors and avoid social obligation, Sandro returns to it, he doesn't change at all. Now that he changes his tactic and tells her he loves her, he's pretty much said the romance is dead. Claudia can choose to crawl in the casket with him, to accept the ennui and sadness, or she can follow Anna.

I made mention of how Howard Hawks and his editor used their cutting technique to tease out the information, to make scenes more exciting and heighten the mystery. Given that this is an article that is also comparing comics to film, I'd be remiss not to note that both directors would be nothing without their cinematographers, just as a comics writer would be nothing without his artist. In The Big Sleep, Hawks uses Sid Hickox's sense of shadow and his expert maneuvering of a confined place to create sinister scenes where the room often seemed to close in on the two people trapped inside it, leaving them alone with their secrets. On the flip, Aldo Scavarda creates a world for Antonioni that is expansive and alienating, gritty with its own detritus. The hallways of the estate at the end of L'avventura dwarf Claudia, and her smallness emphasizes her shame (compare the hotel hallways and spatial grounds Sacha Vierny shot for Alain Resnais a year later in Last Year at Marienbad; last year at Antonioni's?); when Scavarda moves away from these wide shots and in for a close-up, the effect is that the subject appears to be giant, once again emphasizing their singularity in a world that does not fit them. Both understand the variables of black-and-white, even if Hickox is more starkly defined and Scavarda is trying to smudge the very air into gray.

Joëlle Jones is my cinematographer for You Have Killed Me, and though I am fairly certain that she has never seen either The Big Sleep or L'avventura, she might find kindred spirits in both of their cameramen. Like them, she carves out space with an expert eye, whether it be the cramped basement where Mercer gets the daylights beat out of him or the wide shots of cliffside houses and racetracks, the scary hallways of abandoned hotels or the glitz of a jazz club. Her main tool is pure ink, and so she has more in common with Hickox's clearly defined shadows, but her use of tones gives her some of the ambiguity of Scavarda. The pattern on a man's suit, the sparkle of a woman's dress--these things smudge the lines between good and bad, ugly and beautiful, moral and immoral. That's why the auteur theory always breaks down, be it comics or cinema--unless you do it all exactly yourself, there is a shared vision at work. From the novel to the screen, through a director's suggestion and out a camera lens, off my script page to Joëlle's bristol board--it's all interconnected.



* Departures, the Academy Award-winner for Best Foreign Language movie this year is good, but not great.

* Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Pirnce, an uneven bridge between films 5 and 7. Spirited direction can't save the slow-moving icky bits. Kissing is gross!

* The Hurt Locker, Kathryn Bigelow's down and dirty drama about members of the bomb squad in the Iraq War. No politics, just soldiers doing a job. Prepare to spend two hours fully clenched.

* Moon, Duncan Jones sends Sam Rockwell to our orbiting satellite, and oh, what he finds there!

* Tetro, the new Francis Ford Coppola effort is written and directed by the maestro. Gorgeous to look at, but overambitious and frustratingly empty.

* Whatever Works confirms that Larry David and Woody Allen belong together. A light comedy from a master of light comedies.


* The 10th Victim, a 1960s Italian mod sci-fi grandpappy to Running Man and reality TV. With Marcello Mastroianni reading comic books and Ursula Andress watching him.

* The Diary of Anne Frank: 50th Anniversary Edition proves that just because something is a classic, doesn't mean it's great.

* Grey Gardens (2009), the dramatic adaptation of the 1970s documentary is pretty good and definitely better than expected. Starring Drew Barrymore and Jessica Lange, both turning in exceptional performances.

* Mad Men: Season 2, in which the much-hyped show finally rises to its reputation. Brilliant.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

EQUINOX - #338

I'm off to Comic Con International in San Diego, CA, where Joëlle Jones and I will be hanging out at the Oni Press booth to celebrate the debut of our new comic book, a little crime novel called You Have Killed Me. Two years in the making, an indie effort from our two pairs of hands, and I couldn't be more proud. (See more here and here.)

In honor of that, I thought I'd review another indie effort, though this one in a different field and a different genre. The low-budget, self-made Equinox is perhaps another of those cult classics with a back story that is more interesting than the film itself. (But then, if you stop and think about the term, we usually associate the term "cult" with blind believers that have been duped, don't we?) In this case, Equinox, or as the original version was called The Equinox…A Journey Into the Supernatural, is a late '60s monster movie put together by a group of guys who loved monster movies. The effort was spearheaded by Dennis Muren, who would later go on to work on Star Wars and change the way special effects were done at Industrial Light and Magic. This 1967 picture, written and codirected by Mark McGee, was more in line with old school effects as pioneered by Ray Harryhausen, far from the more refined tricks Muren would later develop. So, a heaping amount of the love for Equinox comes from the fact that the monster effects were done in stop-motion using clay figurines designed by Muren and largely animated by David Allen. And indeed, these make for the best parts of the movie, my favorite effect being the tentacled monster that destroys the house of Dr. Waterman (Fritz Leiber). Colorful and malleable, it's exciting in its almost innocent primitivism. The very fakeness of it suggests a world beyond our imagination.

Though, truth be told, the animation is where most of the imagination went. The Equinox borrows heavily from monster flicks of drive-ins past, but most obviously from Jacques Tourneur's Curse of the Demon. (Good choice. Tourneur's film noir past also influenced me when writing You Have Killed Me, and eagle-eyed readers will note he gets a shout-out in the book.) The main version here, its title truncated to Equinox and released theatrically in 1970, actually beefs up the story some (if you can believe it), with producer Jack H. Harris (The Blob) hiring director Jack Woods (writer of Son of the Blob) to shoot a new version with the same actors and working around Duren's stop-motion sequences.

The Equinox story focuses on four college kids who go into the woods for a picnic and to meet Dr. Waterman, the professor of David Fielding (Edward Connell a.k.a. Skip Shimer), ostensibly the hero of this piece. They arrive to find Waterman's house destroyed, a strange cop named Asmodeus (Woods doubling as an actor), and an old man hiding in a cave (Louis Clayton). The old man gives them a demonic tome that is then stolen by Waterman, and all kinds of weird monsters start showing up--a kind of half lizard/half ape, a flying devil, a green Neanderthal. Orchestrated by Asmodeus (like his name wasn't a tip-off!), the gang manage to hold off this hellish army with crucifixes, rocks, and sticks for a while, but soon their numbers start dwindling. David escapes, but only just--and he takes a terrible death curse with him.

Equinox isn't very scary, nor is it even all that exciting. The closest we get to a real fright are the close-ups of Asmodeus attempting some malformed version of a French kiss when he tries to force himself on David's date for the day, the hot blonde Susan (Barbara Hewitt). Woods, being either an egomaniac or a genius, seemed to know this shot was gold, because he keeps going back to it, the horrifying memory of her near defilement haunting Susan. Given the breakneck pace of the movie (it's practically in real time), no other romantic subplot develops, so don't expect exploitative sexiness either. The closest we get is Dave pulling a crucifix out the front of Susan's pants. I guess she doesn't have any pockets…so to speak.

From a script standpoint, you pretty much get what you might expect from an amateur movie with a bunch of kids running around in the forest talking about a milquetoast devil and screaming. If that's your idea of fun, then you will probably dig Equinox. Its backyard vibe has a certain infectious charm. There are no hidden layers to it, however, no deep message, nothing to offset the fact that it's not too frightening or, really, very good at all. I mean, when your best actor is Frank Bonner, he who would be Herb Tarlek of WKRP, I guess you take what you can get.

Still, even more than 40 years later, it's plain to see Duren's skill at stop motion, and his enthusiasm lights up the screen whenever the effects shots take over. His creatures, especially the big simian known as Taurus, have cool designs, and the ambition of putting these clay creations in with real humans is pretty impressive. The lack of sophistication just reminds you that some guy made this, he carved it and made it move with his own two hands, and he did it back when hardly anyone else could. Equinox survives by and large because of that, because it's a quality you just can't get in the digital age. Even when people go old school, it's a gimmick, a conceit, no matter how genuine; it can never be the same kind of genuine.

Included here, and serving as an even bigger testimony to Duren and McGee's DIY ethos, is the original The Equinox…A Journey Into the Supernatural. Shot on a cheap camera and with a skeleton crew, the difference between the productions is immediately obvious. The 16 mm Bolex camera they used only allowed for 30 second shots, and so there is a faster pace to it, even as the amateur acting slows the movie down. (It's interesting how much younger the cast looks despite not that much time really having passed). In a way, it adds to the verite feeling of the production (the disc's liner notes make a point out of quoting New Wave directors in relation to their praise of amateurs). There is a natural, unmannered look to the cinematography that I think actually helps the action scenes to be a little scarier. The short shots don't allow for any lingering. Likewise, despite the more labored set-up--the explanation that gets Susan along on the trip is totally unnecessary--we get our first glimpse of the Lovecraftian monster destroying Waterman's house before we even reach the 20-minute mark.

Aw, who am I kidding. The Equinox…A Journey Into the Supernatural is pretty much unwatchable. Every time a conversation comes along, the movie stops dead. Without the Asmodeus character, there is also a lot less drive to the plot, less of a presence of an immediate threat; the expedition into the woods is more meandering, more random. Despite his own hammy performance, at least Jack Woods also had a better sense of how to work with his actors. If you're watching this DVD for the effects, you might as well stick to Woods' redo, as the picture is better preserved and the image more clear.

I realize that in these kind of situations, it can be rather dreary to have an old fart like me hanging about complaining about the quality of the production. Kind of like were someone to unearth new high school-era skiffle recordings of the Beatles and I spent more time complaining about the audio quality and their inability to play rather than fully appreciating that I am listening to/looking at where so many things started. The spirit of how Equinox came together is probably best exemplified by the eight-minute short included on disc 2 here, Zorgon: The H-Bomb Beast from Hell. A lot of the same folks who worked on the main feature reteamed in 1972 for this goofy little movie, covering a lot of the same territory, proving that monster movies are in their blood--and apparently that they'd been watching a lot of Scooby-Doo. The closing shots of all the folks who took part, standing together and mugging for the camera, shows off the kind of heart that goes into these sorts of things.

Also buried on disc 2 is the real surprise of this set: The Magic Treasure, a 20-minute solo film by effects animator David Allen. This claymation short is a lovingly realized fairy tale about a giant, an evil magician, and a much coveted treasure chest that is said to hold the secret of humanity's true specialness. Allen has created an entire storybook world, and though the message is simple, it still has meaning. This is a child's fable, after all, without the pretensions of adulthood, without the need for long explanations that go on for pages.

The Magic Treasure is interesting in comparison to Equinox, as both involve secrets that can change man's life and the giants who protect them. It's just a topsy-turvy version, where here the secret is positive and the giant is good. The scenes where the giant confronts the evil magician who steals the box--a kind of Asmodeus, if you will, and just in like the bigger movie, his actions suggest that man brings ill upon himself when he only desires selfish gain--are not dissimilar to some of the scenes we've seen in Equinox. Compare the still below to the one above where Skip Shimer is being chased by the shade.

Saturday, July 18, 2009


Mark Coale, proprietor of Odessa Steps Magazine has posted an older interview he did with me over on his Earth Three blog. The occasion is this week's release of my new comic book with Joëlle Jones, the hardboiled noir-homage You Have Killed Me, as well as San Diego Comic Con International, which Joëlle and I will be attending. You can see our signing schedule here. The above In the Mood for Love inspired drawing was done for Mark's publication, and the line art is being used as a con-exclusive bookplate, as well.

You can read the piece in its entirety on Mark's blog. He and I share a magnificent Criterion obsession, and he asks me a few question about that, as well.

Q: As of this writing [Summer 2008], what's the best Criterion you've watched lately?

A: I had a weekend where I watched Yukio Mishima's Patriotism and then Mishima, Paul Schrader's biopic of the Japanese author, back to back. In terms of packaging and content, both were excellent, and though I'd had some limited contact with Mishima in years past, these films made me realize I probably should delve deeper into his library. As a person and as a writer, he had a lot of similar concerns to what shows up in my work, including a romantic yearning to stand against the tide and to, essentially, stand for something rather than caving in to modernity. He was also preoccupied with suicide, as are many of my characters. If you watch Patriotism, which he wrote, directed, and starred in, and you see him playing a Japanese solider disemboweling himself, it's quite powerful, particularly when you chase it with the Schrader picture and all the extras that come with it and hear about how he ended his own life the same way. It's easy to see why his widow demanded the movie be buried while she was alive. The scene in Patriotism where he slices his belly open is gruesome, and not just by 1960s standards, but any standards.

Q: Here's the obligatory Desert Island question. What five Criterions would you take with you? Feel free to cheat and name box sets as one entry.

A: In the Mood For Love, dir. Wong Kar-Wai
The Cranes are Flying, dir. Mikhail Kalatozov
Days of Heaven, dir. Terrence Malick
Contempt, dir. Jean-Luc Godard
Sullivan's Travels, dir. Preston Sturges

The first three are pretty rock solid. Godard would also always take
the fourth slot, though there are a couple of others I might debate
over. I'd also be able to change the last slot a million times before
walking out the door, but I figure I needed a comedy in there.

I can't believe I've only reviewed one of those five. I'll have to do something about that!

Read a large preview of You Have Killed Me.

Friday, July 17, 2009


"Language is the house man lives in."

This is the second time I've seen Jean-Luc Godard's 1967 film 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her, and I still am not entirely sure what to do with it. It's a complicated movie, obtusely structured, full of ideas and jarring storytelling conceits, but also aesthetically pleasing, glowing with bright colors and full of beautiful girls. At the end of the film Godard shot alongside this one, the (by comparison) more conventional Made in U.S.A., he made a declaration with a double meaning, "Left, Year Zero." Being as Anna Karina and Philippe Labro were discussing politics, it leads one to believe that it's a call to the radical thinkers to get back to basics, but since they are also in a car, it's a direction, turn left to get back to square one.

That declaration is also tied to the belief that language is dead, we need to redefine how we classify and communicate. These were ideas that were very much on Godard's mind as he headed for the death of cinema that was his kiss-off to the 1960s, Weekend. He was looking for a way to put cinema back at its reset point, to understand further how language transcends image, how both can push ideas across. In 2 or 3 Things, comic strips are mentioned as a prime example of the disparity between what is written and what is seen, between explanation and perception, form and function.

Though this twitchy film rarely sits still for long, we could break it down to two narrative lines. In one, Godard shows us construction and the changing Parisian landscape, as he speaks to us in hushed voiceover about progress, capitalism, and the way modern man being pushed to constantly go forward becomes a means for holding him back. In the other, he follows Juliette Janson (Marina Vlady) through her day, from doting mother and wife to prostitute and back home again. This idea came from a newspaper article Godard had read that detailed how life in newfangled high-rise projects demanded more money than most families could afford, and so women were turning tricks to make ends meet. Intrigued by this idea, how having a less personal space ended up costing people more money and encouraged drastic solutions, Godard made it the subject of this picture.

Juliette--or, as it were, Marina, since our introductions to the actress and the character are presented back to back, with little change to the description--is not the only working girl Godard's camera settles on. He and his regular cinematographer, Raoul Coutard, shoot 2 or 3 Things like a documentary, and each woman they meet speaks directly to the camera and the unseen maestro conducting her interview. In reality, Godard was speaking to these actresses through an ear piece, so that they could hear his questions and respond, or even parrot the lines he fed them. This is why they are often looking at the camera expectantly, not entirely in the moment. They are actually more present than most actresses, the façade having been wiped away, waiting for their prompt.

Though many of the elements Godard displays--construction, mechanics, commercials, fashion magazines, shopping, beauty parlors, Vietnam--seem disparate, in his theorizing, they are all combined. Progress demands consumption, consumption in turn has certain economic demands, and these economic demands lead to more oppressive politics, a way for the governing powers to further control the populace. In an early exchange, when Juliette's husband (Roger Montsoret) is listening to Lyndon Johnson talk about attacking North Vietnam, Juliette reads to him from a fashion magazine, wondering what stockings to buy. He can't believe she is concerned with such trivial things, she insists he has no culture. Godard wants us to see that it's in the interest of the powers that be to keep Juliette concerned about such superficialities, it keeps us from acknowledging the horrors that are occurring all around us.

Typing it out, I realize that this sounds vaguely like a crazy conspiracy theory, and there is something almost conspiratorial about this film. By whispering his narration, it's like Godard is inviting us into a huddle where he is sharing these volatile secrets. It also fits the faux documentary aesthetic, sometimes coming off like he doesn't want to disturb the characters onscreen or alert them to his presence. Some Godard theorists also think it's because he's grown less detached and more personal, that this is him confessing and telling his audience how he really feels. In Made in U.S.A., the taped confession was of a character and based on real-life political testimonies; in this case, it's all JLG.

There is an interesting line of inquiry to be followed in this film in terms of the sexual politics. It would actually be easy to paint Godard as a sexist himself. In Made in U.S.A., his last film with ex-wife Anna Karina, one interpretation sees him as portraying her as killing off his innocence. At the time of this film, Godard was nursing a broken heart and bruised ego after his new star, Marina Vlady, rejected his marriage proposal. Hence, it could be dirty editing room trickery to say she and her role are one and the same, to suggest all actresses are whores. This would mean the scene between husband and wife where Vietnam is considered less relevant by the woman than her leggings is Godard belittling women intellectually (and, indeed, the bespectacled Robert character, the mechanic who builds things while also clinging to his ideas and ideals, often looks like the director). I think this would be a false assumption, however, that it misses Godard's larger argument about capitalism vs. communism, and that all work is prostitution in its way. Robert doesn't own his own garage, after all, he toils for someone else the way a film director may toil for a producer or a studio.

If we're to accept a more positive view of the women in 2 or 3 Things, then it's a sympathetic ear Godard lends when he lets them tell their stories. He is also exposing the institutional crime that not only condones their subjugation, but perpetuates it; he prefaces many of their tales by pointing out how they are really just the same old stories we've heard before. Again, it comes down to our use of language and to communication. Near the end of the movie, he depicts two conversations in a café. One is between Robert and an unknown girl (Juliet Berto), and though it starts innocently enough, the man soon turns the topic to sex. Across the way, a student (Blandine Jeanson) talks to what is supposed to be a Nobel Prize-winning author (Jean-Pierre Laverne), but what begins as an exchange of theory turns into another chat about the banal. No one knows how to talk with one another anymore, especially not in the movies (or so says Robert).

Lip prints in my coffee...

This adds more meaning to when Juliette and the other working girls talk to the camera about the ideas in their heads, about their descartesian philosophical conundrums. Then again, if they think and therefore are, Godard gives us another troubling irony here. These girls aren't sharing their innermost thoughts, they are sharing what the writer/director tells them to share. Are we back to him saying women have no mind of their own? Let's not forget, he's also letting us ogle them, admiring their beauty with and without clothes, all for the price of a ticket (or, as it were, a DVD). Again, I don't think so, but one would hope it's not a contradiction lost on the director. The Bertold Brecht quote Juliette recites at the outset is another piece of evidence working in Godard's favor.

Godard's awareness is important becaue, ultimately, one of the main conclusions that the movie comes to, and one uttered by Juliette/Marina, is that what we see and experience and how we describe it not only effects us, but the world around us. And vice versa. When we build these cheaply made but overly priced commercial spaces that have no individual personality beyond the advertising that pushes us toward further consumption, it's no wonder we end up in an endless cycle of drudgery, unable to express ourselves, disinterested and shallow. In the final image of the film, Godard places an idyllic drawing of a loving couple in the middle of an arrangement of commercial products, a diorama of our materialistic lives. There we are, lost amongst the laundry detergent. These things take us back to zero, he moans, and we have to start over from there. Hit the button and go back to the start, or you'll end up so clean, scrubbed so sparkling white, you just might disappear.

"If by chance you can't afford LSD, then buy a color TV."

* The first time, it was because I was prompted by writer Matt Fraction. I told him I was working on a book called 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and he replied, "Oh, like 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her?" I had to check and make sure they weren't alike; happily, they are not. Not that I couldn't steal from worse, but you know what I mean....

For a full rundown on the special features, read the full article at DVD Talk.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

MADE IN U.S.A. - #481

"I understood very quickly. This affair had to remain murky for everyone, and my life was on the line."

Donald Westlake's Parker is the kind of guy who can never get a break. A bad dude who cleans many a house in all corners of the underworld, he starred in twenty-three novels, but you'd almost never know he had a movie career, too. Maybe it's some strange karma that, since Westlake wrote this crook's stories under the nom de plume Richard Stark, Parker's most famous cinema adaptations have changed his name to something else. The John Boorman flick Point Blank has Lee Marvin playing Walker, whereas Brian Helgeland's Payback cast Mel Gibson as Porter. Never mind that they were both based on the same novel, The Hunter, which was the start of the series. By all reports, poor Parker is faring better now that he's branching out into comic books. Darwyn Cooke's adaptation Parker: The Hunter is due to be released any day now, and by all advance reports, it's brilliant. (Read a preview at the publisher's website.)

In 1966, Jean-Luc Godard adapted a different novel, turning The Jugger into Made in U.S.A. and Parker into a woman in the process. Such are the things you can get away with when you don't bother to get the author's permission to turn his novel into a movie. Made in U.S.A. was reportedly barred from lighting up screens on this side of the Atlantic thanks to successful litigation by Westlake. I can't say I blame him, and from the looks of things, Made in U.S.A. is so far away from its alleged source material, I am not sure why Godard didn't just pretend he came up with it on his own.

In The Jugger, Parker travels to small-town Nebraska to silence an old heistman who knows too much about his past, only to find someone else has done the silencing for him. The question is, how much had the geriatric crook talked before the end came? In Made in U.S.A., Parker's stand-in is Paula Nelson, played by Anna Karina. She is visiting Atlantic-Cité to dig up the dirt on why her ex-fiancé, Richard P… (voiced by Godard on tape, but never actually seen) was put in that selfsame dirt. Paula is some kind of sexy secret agent, a smuggler perhaps, a sort of veteran of various wars. Richard was a communist, and though everyone involved with the murder and the cover-up act like gangsters, it's all political. It's the 1960s, and when looking through Godard's dark sunglasses, politics are the new criminal activity.

As with most Godard films, "plot" is of little importance in Made in U.S.A.. Paula has come to town, she's approached by a little man named Typhus (Ernest Menzer) who claims to have worked with Richard, she beats him with a shoe, she meets his novelist nephew (Yves Afonso) and his Japanese girlfriend (Kyoko Kosaka), hangs out in a café, hears an a cappella performance of "As Tears Go By" by Marianne Faithfull, eventually gets around to asking some questions. It's all rather loose and off-the-cuff, the driving force of the story coming back around almost like an afterthought. There are plenty of messages even when there is no story--advertising is overtaking everything, war is immoral, the times they are a-changin'--but as usual, they are so entwined within the medium, sorting it all out can seem both daunting and silly. The standard modus operandi of any private detective movie is that the more the shamus explains, the more obscured the facts become; Made in U.S.A. subverts this by never bothering to explain, it's only obfuscation. There is a little bit of voiceover, but it has a meta hue. Sometimes, it's not voiceover at all, but Paula or Widmark (Laszlo Szabo) turning to the camera and describing their conversation rather than having it. Likewise, a tape recording of Richard takes over the role of "narrator" once it surfaces, and in the final switch, Paula makes her own tape.

Made in U.S.A. begins with a dedication to Nicholas Ray and Samuel Fuller, and it's the Hollywood tradition that they represent that is more important to Godard than the Westlake novel (and also likely where the title comes from). A Walt Disney film starring Humphrey Bogart is how Paula self-reflexively describes it, suggesting it's Bogie's presence that makes it a meaningful gangster picture. The gangsters played by Jean-Pierre Leaud and Laszlo Szabo are named for the director Donald Siegel and the great film noir villain, Richard Widmark. Jean-Claude Bouillon's police inspector takes his surname from Robert Aldrich. Most of the streets mentioned are also names of famous writers and directors--Ben Hecht, Otto Preminger, etc.* Daisy Kenyon and Ruby Gentry are women paged at a spa. Leaud's tic of shaking up a puzzle as he walks is like an overly complicated version of George Raft flipping a coin in Hawks' Scarface (which Raft would parody himself a year later in Casino Royale). In this film, perhaps more than any other, Godard is placing himself in the American cinematic milieu, letting it enfold him, and then kicking the crap out of it on his way out.

Given the political bend of the film, in addition to the American criminal mythology, American politics are also going to come up. Though Godard is none too thrilled with the conservative leanings of the French government, the war in Vietnam and the new rule of Richard Nixon has already taken the mark at the center of the world stage. The director's weariness over war is transferred to two hoods who are tired of the fighting, tired of chasing Paula. They are played by Sylvain Godet and Jean-Pierre Biesse, who are christened Robert McNamara and Richard Nixon, respectively. Maintaining a course of human misery requires a certain fortitude. Leaud's Siegel can't take it, only Widmark and Paula have the intestinal mettle to see this thing through.

Anna Karina wouldn't make a very convincing tough guy, and she doesn't really try for it. Her main weapons are her beautiful, smoky eyes, which are always watching, and her killer mod wardrobe, which is regularly commented on, its practical use being to distract. Though she seems indifferent at times, that is really unflappable persistence. At one point, she is clocked on the head and wakes up in Widmark's auto garage, and she's not really affected. She gets up and begins asking her questions right where she left off. Godard dresses her in bright colors, and he and his regular cinematographer, Raoul Coutard, give the rest of Atlantic-Cité a matching neon glare. Billboards and posters are everywhere, advertising something or other, but they are also starting to crack, peel, and fade. They are interchangeable props, often being changed and/or dumped as Paula watches. American values based on commercialism don't take long to go out of date.

Perhaps this is what Paula has really come to kill off, the creeping influence of American thinking. There must have been a bitter irony for Godard that the country that gave him his beloved art was seeking to mold the world to its capitalist ways through that same art. (I am sure the global market has made that all the worse for him; I can't imagine him enjoying a Starbucks and a Big Mac.) If we choose to see Paula as a stand-in for Godard rather than one for Westlake's anti-hero, then once she has avenged Richard, there is no choice but to retreat from this strange American amalgam to something more European. Having political-minded journalist and filmmaker Philippe Labro--who himself studied and traveled in the United States before returning to France and serving in the military in the Algerian war, a path that likely inspired much of Paula's backstory--pick her up at the border in a car with the word Europe painted on the side* is the kind of deliberate agitprop symbol that was becoming increasingly attractive to Godard at the time. The film ends with them in the car discussing how the two-way thinking of right and left has become outmoded. Yet, typical of a movie that has gone out of its way to avoid clear answers, so too are no solutions offered before cutting to black. Paula asks, "How then?" and the only reply: FIN.

"About Richard…I think it had to do with revenge. But this whole business of yours is not very clear."

So, Parker may not get his due in Made in U.S.A., but maybe he couldn't have handled it, anyway. This world is not black-and-white enough for most gangsters. There is no putting it right, one must be comfortable with the imbalance remaining. Crime pictures often end with realizations that all this running around robbing and killing is pointless, but there are still clear roles being played, and the underworld remains self-contained. In Godard's version, the pointlessness has spread, and it requires a disaffected Anna Karina and her deadly shoes to make her way through it. The usual toughs are too tired and too overwhelmed to get out.

* This reminds me of current practices in the Batman comics where they name Gotham streets after famous Bat writers and artists.

** The car logo is actually for Europe 1, the radio service Labro works for in real life.

For a full rundown on the special features, read the full article at DVD Talk.

More Parker images inspired by the new graphic novel:

* Colleen Coover

* J. Bone