Thursday, February 26, 2009

Jules and Jim

I thought Jules and Jim (1962) was a very strange film, and I didn’t like it that much. However, it did manage to make me think quite a bit. The first thing that I found completely foreign was the style of the French New Wave. All of the jarring edits and freeze frames jerk you out of the film. Truffaut makes you realize that you are watching a movie, by not allowing you to become lost within the story. I had never seen a film put together like this before. I can appreciate all the techniques that were used, but I didn’t really like the style at all. I think part of the magic of movies is to be transported to a different time and place through the screen.

Catherine is the original “manic pixie dream girl.” She is the first cool female character that we have seen this semester. She’s not cool because she takes on typically male characteristics, such as dominance, but because she has complete freedom from gender stereotypes and pre-conceptions. Catherine’s coolest moment is when she races Jules and Jim across the bridge. In that perfect moment she is cool because she is free, spontaneous, and just living in the moment. I don’t think her cool in that moment has anything to do with the fact that she was dressed like a man. Later in the film when Catherine is shown knitting with her daughter, she loses her cool because she is fulfilling the traditional gender role of women. When she shows her dominance over Jules, by repeatedly cheating on him, she starts to fulfill a typically masculine role. I don’t find her cool in that sense either. She is only cool in the moments of complete spontaneity.

Since Catherine is only cool in brief moments, this film made me wonder if it is possible to make cool last. In nearly all of the movies we’ve watched, it seems that at least one character has lost cool by the end. Cool seems to happen in perfect ephemeral moments, for example when Rick says, “Here’s looking at you, kid” in Casablanca. In our first class, we discussed that dissident cool could never be lasting, but that transcendent cool could be. Noir, criminality, imitation, and even the cool that Catherine gains from breaking out of the constraints of gender roles are all forms of dissident cool. Rick’s cool sacrifice seems to be lasting because it’s an example of transcendent cool. Or could it be because it occurs at the end of the movie and that is the lasting impression that we have of him?

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Noir: Before and After the 40s and 50s

The style of film noir focuses on darkness, subdued tones and a lack of morality. While watching Double Indemnity, I couldn’t help, but think of the disturbing crime drama Se7en (1995). Se7en does not have all the characteristics of classic noir, such as the femme fatale, but it is completely dark, and almost mocks morality. The serial killer, John Doe, devises an evil plan to kill seven people that are guilty of one of the seven deadly sins. John Doe, played by Kevin Spacey, is trying to make a statement about the poor morality of the urban area, but in doing so he causes seven murders. The film also displays the inherent evil inside of everyone because detectives Somerset (Morgan Freeman) and Mills (Brad Pitt) use corrupt methods such as bribery to catch the killer. The end to the movie is extremely dark. Detective Mills becomes the final deadly sin, wrath, when he kills John Doe over the murder of his wife. This was the ultimate plan of John Doe to prove that everyone has evil within them, even those who are fighting for good.

Se7en also quotes Ernest Hemmingway, who wrote literature and a noir-like style. Most of Hemmingway’s writings are very dark and depressing. My favorite is The Sun Also Rises (1926). The novel describes the lives of ex-patriots living in France after World War I. Although it was published before the film noir movement in America, it has similar themes that resulted from the devastation of war. The book displays a total disregard for morality with constant alcohol abuse and sexual deviancy. Lady Ashley or Brett is the perfect femme fatale. She is completely selfish and repeatedly hurts the main character Jake Barnes, along with several other men. The book is a perfect example of how the lack of optimism that rises in the years after the war leads to the style of noir.

It is difficult to consider whether these characters are cool or not. In Se7en, Detective Mills starts out cool by fighting crime in the most desolate urban situation, but by the end of the movie he falls into the trap John Doe and loses his cool. This is very similar to how the characters of Double Indemnity lose their cool by the end of the film. In The Sun Also Rises the characters may appear cool on the surface, by drinking lots of alcohol and having an ambiguous morality. It seems that as the dark secrets and problems are revealed the less cool all the characters become. I think that film noir is great at revealing true, inner evil that is not apparent on the surface. It is this disclosure that causes the characters of noir to not be cool.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Is Noir Cool?

Phyllis Dietrichson and Walter Neff certainly look cool in the above picture, but in Double Indemnity(1944) they may not be as cool as they appear. At the beginning of the film, the dim lighting with lots of shadows is quite compelling. Even the plan to beat the establishment by committing murder and filing a fraudulent insurance claim is cool and appealing in the same fashion as heist movies. However, the purpose of film noir is not to be cool. Darkness, evil, and no happy endings are the main characteristics of film noir.

One aspect that almost all noir films contain is the femme fatale character. The femme fatale is a stronger woman that has the ability to pull the trigger, unlike Ilsa from Casablanca. Phyllis’ criminal side is first revealed when she suggests that she wants to kill her husband and cash in on an insurance claim. By the end of the movie, it is obvious that Phyllis is pure evil. She also killed the first Mrs. Dietrichson, and planned to kill Lola, Walter, and Nino. Phyllis’ only motivation is money and the joy that she finds in being evil. Such wickedness is not cool. The character of the femme fatale is quite different from the typical female role in earlier movies.

Walter Neff has his own inner evil that allows him to be convinced to murder Mr. Dietrichson. Walter has been an insurance salesman for several years and has seen how many people have failed in the attempt to file fraudulent claims. Walter thinks that he has a perfect plan to reach success with a false claim. Walter loses his cool in the end because his plan fails.

In the end, Phyllis and Walter have lost their cool, and the only remaining cool character is Mr. Keyes. Mr. Keyes plays the role of a detective in the form of the claims manager for the insurance company. Mr. Keyes is determined to solve the mystery of what really happened to Mr. Dietrichson, in order to keep up his reputation and to save the company money. Although Mr. Keyes is essentially the good guy in this film, he is not motivated by justice or morals, which adds to the hopelessness and lack of morality. The film noir style revolves around the darkness not only in lighting, but in theme. Mr. Keyes’ face is lit much brighter than the other characters, but if was a truly good and moral character, it would ruin the noir style.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The Failure of Imitation

In the pursuit of coolness and women, Allan Felix is constantly trying to be someone his is not. Allan’s red hair and neurotic behavior limit him from becoming his idol, Humphrey Bogart. Although this is a rare movie because it relates so directly to Casablanca, I think that the imitation of cool is extremely common. People from every social classification try to imitate cool to a certain extent, but it is most dramatic in teenagers, especially teenage girls. There are many teenage girls that will do or wear just about anything to be seen as cool by her peers.

This phenomenon is portrayed perfectly in Mean Girls (2004), a movie I have seen at least 10 times. Near the beginning of the movie the cafeteria is outlined with every group of people having their own table. At the center, a group of girls sit that everyone else refers to as the Plastics because they are like Barbie. The majority of the rest of the girls in the school want to be a cool as the Plastics. They all attempt to dress and act like the Plastics, in a similar way to Allan trying to act and talk like Bogart. It seems like there is a theme to imitation; it always fails. Allan never got any women when trying to be Bogart, but when he was just being himself he got his best friends wife to have an affair with him. Cady Heron, played by Lindsay Lohan, succeeds at becoming cool, but fails to get the boy when she pretends that she is not good at math. In the end when she stops acting like a Plastic, she is still cool and she gets the boy. The lesson seems to be that cool cannot be successfully imitated. It seems that imitating cool is usually shown through comedies. I guess because it is funny to watch someone else try extremely hard to be cool, and yet fail miserably.

Another film showing the dangers of imitation is The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993). Tim Burton’s creativity shows that imitation fails without using humor. When Jack Skellington, bored of Halloween, ventures out of Halloween-town, he finds Christmas-town with Santa Claus. Santa is cool because everyone loves him. Jack decides to have Santa kidnapped in order to take his place as the coolest man in Christmas-town. Although Jack is trying to spread joy, he has no understanding of Christmas and ends up scaring the whole town. Similarly, Allan tries to impersonate Bogart, but isn’t able to and ends up worse off than if he would have just been himself.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Imitating Cool

Many young Christians used to wear their motto on their wrist with the somewhat cheesy W.W.J.D. bracelets. In Play it again, Sam (1972) Woody Allen’s character, Allan Felix, bases everything he does on one motto: What would Bogart do? In his never ending quest to be cool, Allan tries to imitate Bogart’s swagger in order to impress other women. It seems childish for Allan to have this obsession with Bogart, but I think that everyone tries to emulate someone or a group of people at some point in life. For most people, I would say that high school consists of trying to fit in with a certain group or multiple groups.

There are many people that I have looked to for advice on cool in my life. From as far back as I can remember until I was about 14, I wanted to be just like my older sister. In my eyes, she was super cool. I wanted to play all the same sports, wear the same clothes, and listen to the same music that she did. Eventually, I realized that I lack the coordination to be a good athlete, I don’t really care about fashion, and I definitely don’t like rap music. At this point, I gave up on being like my sister and started to follow other examples of cool.

Fortunately (or unfortunately), Hollywood today doesn’t allow for actors/actresses and the roles they play to be inseparable. For this reason, it is very difficult to pick any stars that are worth looking up to for cool advice. I can’t think of one person or character that I have ever thought man that is so cool that is what I want to be just like that person. For a while, I would just follow the latest trends. Wearing whatever clothes and saying whatever things were popular at the time.

More recently (probably within the last two years) I have come to realization that I honestly do not have a great desire to be “cool.” I still have people I look up to for advice, but not when it comes to being cool. Maybe it’s because I have been in a relationship for a long time and I’m no longer trying to impress anyone or maybe I have given up on the idea of ever reaching a cool status, but becoming cool is not something that is a concern for me anymore. I think that from the movie it is obvious that cool cannot be learned or imitated, so maybe we're better off just being ourselves.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Is Sacrifice Cool?

Although the topic of this week is cool sacrifice, it is not the act of sacrifice that makes Rick Blaine cool, at first. Rick is cool from the moment his character enters the film. Humphrey Bogart perfectly plays the emotionless tough guy that has been recognized as classically cool. In the beginning of the film Rick is cool because he never “sticks his neck out for anyone” and is not impressed by the social status of others. As the plot progresses, Rick gradually loses these qualities and begins drinking with customers and lending a helping hand. In the final scene, Rick makes sacrifices his happiness, by making Ilsa go with Laszlo to continue the anti-German cause. At this point, it seems that Rick’s attitude is completely opposite from the beginning of the film. Did Rick lose his cool or does this sacrifice make him cool in a different way?

Self- sacrifice alone does not make a person cool. For example, in Titanic (1997), Jack Dawson sacrifices his life to save his true love, Rose. Although Titanic is the number one box office hit worldwide of all time, I don’t think there are many people that would argue that Titanic is a cool movie. Jack, played by the Leonardo DiCaprio, does have some attitude, but he is not a cool character. Jack was a lower class artist that fell hopelessly in love. The sacrifice he made was simply to save Rose’s life. Is sacrifice for the greater cause cooler than sacrifice for a single person? Sacrifice obviously adds intrigue to a film, but does it add coolness?

Tom Powers, played by James Cagney in The Public Enemy (1931), has a similar cool to Rick’s at the beginning of Casablanca. They both fill the role of the selfish cool guy. Tom and Rick both take part in illegal activities and are unconcerned about the local authorities. Although Casablanca turns into a romance, Rick has that gangster cool attitude. You can see the pictures below Tom and Rick produce the same aura of cool. These two stories differ in the end. Rick goes soft, but fights for what he believes in, while Tom remains a hardened criminal until the abrupt end to his life. Which character is cooler in the end? Does cool criminality have limits because it is dissident in nature? Is self-sacrifice transcendent cool?

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Cool Sacrifice

Humphrey Bogart was the perfect actor for the role of Rick Blaine in Casablanca (1942). He was able to represent American politics of early World War II through his isolationist personality. From the beginning of the movie, Rick does not seem to have emotional attachments to anyone. He sits back and watches the people that come to his café in Casablanca, Morocco. This portrayal of Humphrey Bogart matches the other tough guy roles that he had played. There is a certain mystery about Rick that plays into his coolness. It is mentioned that he was forced to leave America, but no one knows what happened in his past.

The introduction of Rick’s past with Ilsa Lund reveals his heartache, which is the reason for his current attitude. From the moment Ilsa arrives, it is obvious that there is something different about her. The lighting around her face makes her appear flawless and almost angelic. It is ironic that such a perfect character has caused Rick so much pain. It is this pain that triggered Rick put off the tough guy attitude that makes him so cool. Through his staff, especially Sam, it slowly becomes clear that he still cares about other people. Rick’s sentimental side becomes obvious to Captain Renault when he helps the young Bulgarian couple win enough money to purchase letters of transit to make it to America. Rick’s attitude changes rapidly, and he no longer represents isolationism, but the complete opposite.

I think that Rick decision in the end was one of self-sacrifice for the cause. In a few places it was mentioned that Rick had fought against the Fascists in France; he was supportive of the cause. Victor Laszlo dedicated his whole life to bringing down Germany, after he escaped from a concentration camp. Rick realized that Laszlo truly loved Ilsa, possibly as much as he did, and knew that in order for Laszlo to keep the fight alive he would need the support of his wife. Given this opportunity Rick’s idealistic side could not give up the chance to help bring Germany’s expansion to an end. Although he would be forced to let Ilsa go, he felt better now that he knew that she still loved him and always would. I believe that the choice Rick made was a selfless act for what he cared about most all along, not Ilsa, but the anti-fascist cause.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Cool Criminality

The Public Enemy (1931) was one of the first gangster movies. The basic plot line of the gangster film has since been repeated in many American classics, such as Scarface, Goodfellas, and American Gangster. Nearly all gangster films follow the story of a charismatic character to the top and then end in tragic death. The fascination with gangsters is related to the mass amounts of money and power that they can accumulate in such a short period of time. As good capitalists, Americans crave and glorify money and power, hence, the appeal of the gangster. The fact that these movies end in death in destruction doesn’t seem to stop people from fantasizing about the life of a criminal, but hopefully it prevents some from choosing to live their lives in that way.

It seems that some aspects of this lifestyle have crossed over into the lives of professional athletes. Some players like Terrell Owens take on the bad boy attitude, and many get caught up in criminal activities, such as drug use and illegal firearms. Plaxico Burress and Adam “Pacman” Jones are two of the most famous examples from the NFL. Most recently this trend has reached the less publicized sport of swimming with Michael Phelps admitting to using marijuana. The commonality of crime among the rich and famous leads me to question if crime leads to fame and fortune or if it is a result of the wealthy making an attempt at cool.

I personally do not find criminal action to be cool. In last night’s episode of The Big Bang Theory, gangster cool was shown in comparison with a more positive type of cool. Penny’s ex-boyfriend Kurt plays a similar role to the gangster cool. He is a typical tough guy with a criminal record. In contrast, Leonard plays the role of nerdy cool. Leonard is a geeky scientist, but he truly cares about Penny. In the episode, Sheldon states that Leonard is the true hero and that he is the one who “minstrels will write songs about.” Initially, it seems like the benefits of being gangster cool outweigh the benefits of nerdy cool. For example, the bad guy always gets the girl. At the end of the episode, Penny gets back together with Kurt. The question is who will triumph in the end.

Who do you think is cooler?