Full Metal Jacket – dir.Stanley Kubrick, 1987

This film ostensibly obliterates any political sense, any socialistic sense, any sense at all of the Vietnam War, if there was any even there to begin with. The ascetic regimented lives of the marines are portrayed primarily.  The slow overweight one (Vincent D’Onofrio) is bullied, taunted, abused, verbally and physically, he is torn apart.  Barely able to recognise his own moniker, he finally goes ‘Section A,’ and, after first shooting his tyrannical taunting Sergeant (R. Lee Ermey), he blows his brains out over the bathroom wall.  Here is a glimpse of actual madness and of homicide, here in the confines of this bathroom, but what separates this act of an unhinged reality with that of the seemingly berserk American shooting down from a helicopter at the paddy fields below? Private Joker (Matthew Modine), our nominally punning protesting protagonist wears a peace badge, simultaneously his helmet is adorned with the bold scribble ‘Born to kill.’  Joker acknowledges in himself a Jungian Duality, as both an objector and willing participant.  Joker stands for America, unable to divorce a peaceful yet passive personal stance from the active governmental invasion.  He is a strange one, gently mocking, subtly loyal, rarely does he offer likability until, ironically, he shoots dead the writhing sniper girl, after she pleads and prays to be killed.  The others jeer, ‘hardcore man,’ but they misunderstand his action, it was not one of vengeance, but of mercy.  He acknowledges the pointless destruction of a culture, of a civilisation.  He witnesses the interchangeable identity of both the American soldiers and Vietnamese civilians, once victim, then enemy sniper, then back to victim, writhing on the floor, flapping around, praying for herself, for her country.  The soundtrack is intrusive at times, as though it were an active involvement of pop cultural relief in an otherwise hellish harrowing and unfamiliar world.  The real strength of the film comes in Joker’s wry perception of reality, he came here to kill, he says, but we know this bespectacled man is a writer, a thinker, he didn’t come here to kill, but to see, to witness things. He has no apparent threshold. He’s seen a man blow his brains out, kill in cold blood, and he’s seen virile beefy grown men die, shot at from a distance, by a little girl.  After he’s left, his narrative reflection says he’s glad to be alive, but after the things we’ve seem him see, we wonder if he’s joking.

★★★★☆

The Conversation – dir.Francis Ford Coppola, 1974

This film is about a conversation. The conversation takes place in a busy San Francisco square, between two people that we never meet, never know, as unfamiliar as two strangers that pass us for a moment and then disappear back into the world.  The words exchanged between the couple is tapped by Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) and relayed repetitively back to us throughout, each time the conversation supposedly becomes a little clearer and more loaded, we must be listening to future victims of something, but what?  Harry has some blood on his hands, in that some tapes he made some time ago resulted in a family massacre.  That’s quite some load to carry around with you. He repents, he prays, he seeks absolution.  What we have here is a man of faith, in a god-forsaken career.  So consumed is he by the reality of human nature, with all the bloody murder, all the bad parts of it, that he lives in paranoid asceticism.  His flat is empty and stark, his relationships are fleeting, meaningless.  Harry snaps at a practical joke, which has him temporarily bugged.  The tapes of the conversation play on, the words flood the room, they become heavy, intrusive even, seemingly plastering themselves onto the lips of whomsoever is around.  The words, strangely dismembered from the mouths from which they came, become something unforgivably sinister for Harry, who seeks to save the couple so inevitably in danger.   For a film so dependent on words, it is in the silence that the drama truly explodes.  The spooky cheap hotel room, silent and proper, until the toilet seat gushes out blood.  This is the evidence stuffed, repressed, until the horrible unbearable truth comes flooding out in this fantastical way.  It is biblical even, the blood red water gushing out like the parting of the seas. Harry is Moses, clutching his case folder as though it were the two tablets, only has he delivered the wrong people? The quiet silent disappointed look, Harry gives the young woman he thought dead, that he had hoped to save, when all along had it been the wrong way round?

★★★★★

Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore – dir.Martin Scorsese, 1974

When we begin with a young Alice, the screen is soaking red. The opening titles suggest a silky smooth fifties romp, something involving whisky swigging cigar smoking men, and teary loose lipped broads running away from the hell of it all.  Then out comes Alice, just like Dorothy Gale, swathed in her ruby red. So intense is the colour it’s as though a sunset is fit to burst. It’s a pretty emotive beginning and it lets us know that this Alice is both a charming little dreamer and someone who clings to song. Song is as much the identity of Alice the outsider on her bridge, as the Prairie home on the hill is America’s, and she will never let it go.  When we next meet her, the red has faded and the screen widens to birth America. This is New Mexico, its hot and sticky with seductively sprawling highways, screaming at her to exit.  Alice has an irascible distant husband (Billy Green Bush), and a mischievous bespectacled boy (Alfred Lutter).  Pretty soon her husband is killed in a freak accident.  Its not clear whether what happens next is born from quiet relief or grief, but Alice (Ellen Burstyn) is spurred to move on, she takes to the road with her boy, bound for Monterey, California.  On the road with Alice, the scene cuts a little quickly, a little awkwardly, but it fits somehow with her nerves, after all, she’s leaving home.  The photography and music flood, gushing into scenes of sprawling dusty highways, mountain topped Americana at its most fleeting and nonchalant. We’re unsure whether to like this place or that as Alice and her son check into some cheap motels along the way. She soon meets a smooth talking low-life wife beater  (Harvey Keitel) who scares her and her son back onto the road again.  All the while we fleetingly glimpse her life ambition, she has a voice, she wants to sing, and so Robert Getchell gives her a shot at the American songbook.  With her fingers on the piano her quiet voice lets us know, ‘the clothes you’re wearing were the clothes you wore’, and from then on we know she is awaiting her deliverance.  When Alice gets a job as a waitress and can’t sing anymore, her frustrations become apparent, and the whole world seems to be a diner full of short-fused poor-tippers.  She meets David (Kris Kristofferson) who for the first time offers her a man seemingly without wife beating inclinations and perhaps even, akin to her, a musician’s soul.  She befriends Flo (Diane Ladd) a woman as fraught as she, with a dirty mouth to boot.  At one point Flo shows Alice her necklace, a cross, made of safety pins, that’s what holds me together, she says. This is a piece of the Scorsese oeuvre unlike any other.  One could almost call this film a musical, its protagonist after all has gotta’ do what she’s gotta’ do, and that is sing.  All the while her son brandishes a guitar like it’s an extension of his arm. The film is a funny and glorious thing, a joyous portrayal of starting over, moving on, ultimately it is something that will never leave you.

★★★★★

Women, Film Won’t Protect You Anymore

The woman on screen, in our western patriarchal society, is, outrageously, still little more than an object. She is love interest, muse, femme fatale, she is familial, a sister or a mother.  Rarely is she portrayed anywhere near an equal, rationally or intellectually, even in integrity, which is a position reserved for another male, someone not dissimilar to the protagonist. A woman is too much the other, too subordinate and too different, for this role, besides her desirability and her lack of masculinity, proves the protagonist’s machismo, and thus worth.  This notion may seem extreme, trite, or dated even, but in an industry where actresses have blurred into little more than wide-eyed, insipient, and undernourished commodities, passed around by the fat cat male bastions of the industry, we are yet to truly experience the medium of film through the female gaze, regardless of how earth shattering a female winning the academy award for best director is.  Hollywood after all, is a spin machine, though not to detract from Katherine Bigelow’s deserved win, she is the exception that proves the rule.  At the dawn of Hollywood, men and woman were treated similarly, as property, owned by the studios, stuffed with pills, their imperfections public and private smoothed over, at some point men broke away from their clutches, but the women stayed behind.  If the philosopher Judith Butler’s idea of gender performance is to be applied to film, actresses perform not once, but twice for the cameras. Butler’s credo is that gender is a performance played out by woman and men, a social patriarchal indoctrination to ultimately result in ‘breeding,’ or the procreation of man.  The female gender, historically certainly the subordinate one, is manipulated by the patriarchy, their performance is secured from birth so as to procure a mate, to be mother.  The female is defunct and passive, whereas the male is active, assertive, and empowered.  In many films the female part is an object of desire, the holy grail of the chase, she is constantly being observed, rarely is she actively perusing or pursuing.  Woody Allen’s Annie Hall is an example of the male gaze, capturing the female performance.  It is a subversive film, yet it maintains the classic Hollywood prescription, boy meets girl, and girl breaks away.  Annie (Diane Keaton) herself dresses so as to deflect from gender stereotype, she wears mannish trousers and blazers, she toys with her femininity, however it is inherently her character that divulges her gendered insecurity.  At one point she plays on her gender to get what she wants, she calls Alvy (Woody Allen) over to her appartment when she sees a spider, a definitive effeminate phobia.  What is most concerning in surmising the female gaze, is the reality of the overwhelming omnipresence of the male gaze, woman have, in truth, learnt only to look at themselves from the male perspective.  A film like Barbara Loden’s Wanda is so revelatory, and so important in the western film cannon, because it offers a female director portraying a female character, and one so strange and fragile, that the film is as though the pretence of gender has been stripped away, leaving just the core of the character.  Woman need more Wandas.

Love in the Afternoon – dir.Eric Rohmer, 1972

Fredric (Bernard Verley) has a nice house and a charming and clever wife, with whom he has a cherubic child, with another on the way. Frederic is unable at present to objectively appreciate his domestic situation as he is faltering in the midst of a somewhat premature seven-year itch.  When he takes the morning train his intense gaze at a young woman, sitting ripe and deliciously mysterious in the morning sun, could smoulder the meanest of young hearts. Fredric, whilst sitting in a café on a bustling Parisian street, reveries of controlling the crowds of woman, that pour out from nowhere, to be gone in an instant, never to be known by him. As the last of Rohmer’s ‘six moral tales’ this film has a narrative clout to it that engages with the protagonists own moral quandary, on reacquainting himself with the enigmatic Chloe (Zouzou).  Chloe is the anathema to Frederic’s marriage.  Chloe is loose, free and cool, she flits from job to job, and man-to-man, a totemic temptress, offering Fredric an opportunity to take action and nullify his otherwise meandering passive café-sitting placidity.  She is an alluring thing that Fredric finds a place for in the afternoons.  Chloe’s character is oppositional to Frederic, who is comforted by domestic security.  Chloe is spontaneous and unreliable, which offers excitement yet she never displays any notion of needing anyone, what she offers Frederic fits perfectly for his marriage.  Chloe’s face and body is utilised by Rohmer to bestow a sense of her fragility.  Waiflike and girlish, topped off with high cheek bones and sad eyes, Zouzou’s own mischievousness is an undeniable factor in much of Chloe’s allure. The film is an exploration of the male gaze, the power it has over woman in its objectification, yet there is a warm heart to the story.  Frederic epiphanies that he is in love with his wife, from his crisis has arisen the realisation that he loves her more than ever.  It is a tender seen when he tells her this, as though a light has come on from in the darkness, her reaction is to cry, can’t you see I’m laughing, she tells him.

★★★★☆

Cache – dir.Michael Haneke, 2005

Cache is a superbly unsettling film and stirs in the viewer an explicit sense of discomfort and confusion. The very theme of the film, voyeurism, is a practice human beings deplore as victims, and yet are guilty of, in the very action of watching this film. Similarly, the notion of blurred innocence with guilt is an affliction we come to surmise of the protagonist Georges (Daniel Auteuil).  Georges, who has recently received some primarily nonthreatening yet suspicious surveillance tapes showing the exterior to his Parisian home, eventually associates the source of the threat with a childhood incident.  Georges’ wife Anne (Juliette Binoche), confused by the tapes and the accompanying crude crayon scribbles, is both a passive observer and yet quietly threatened by this domestic disturbance.  Watching the events unfold, the subject of the threats, it transpires, is her husband.  Haneke plunges the viewer into the dark with the opening scene.  Are we watching a still or a moving image?  Who is filming, victim or perpetrator? We are from the onset unclear of where the malevolence lies. Surely though, to warrant such animosity Georges must be guilty, but of what?  Before purging his soul to an unsuspecting Anne, Georges tracks down the conditional culprit.  One could read the film, and the terrible sadness at the heart, as an application to approach the French guilt for the Paris massacre of 1961.  Indeed Georges’ bourgeois persona, most definitely receives a little light ridicule, if only in dichotomising his intellectual pomp with the tragedy and asceticism of the Algerian Majid (Maurice Benichou).  This film however is not wholly concerned with retribution, for neither Mijad nor Georges is offered any comfort or replenishment from either’s predicament.  The end subtly induces the plot to hang on, the final scene adding another layer of complexity to the story.  Ultimately the viewer  does not feel to have found any moralistic culmination or otherwise to the story. Cache is a little too enigmatic and harbours too much uncertainty to be a political stance. It is a little too complex, fragile, and loaded to be an out and out thriller.  The story Haneke weaves is a murkier narrative than most, combined with clever scenes that we witness fast-forward, rewind, fast-forward, at a giddying pace.  The viewer becomes the eyes of Georges, someone desperately searching for clues, pointers, anything, whilst truly anxious and afraid.  Training our astuteness for the one final clue that could just as easily slip past as the credits roll.   Georges’ guilt is ostensibly born from the actions of human weakness. It is the consequences of his actions that we are asked to judge. The questions stack up as the sprawling tragic story unveils, for all the answers to ultimately remain hidden.

★★★★★

Wild Strawberries – dir.Ingmar Bergman, 1957

Isak Borg (Victor Sjostrom) is a curmudgeonly old man. After a long successful career in medicine, he is awarded an honorary degree from his alma mater, and takes to the road, daughter in law Marianne (Ingrid Thulin) in tow, to receive it.  On the way they stop at Isak’s childhood home. Dizzy with nostalgia, he comes across a patch of wild strawberries. Half aware of the improbability of the metaphysical experience, he is transported back to the days of his youth.  We then bear witness to several painful episodes in Isak’s life, involving the love of his life Sara (Bibi Andersson) and her obvious preference to his brother, whom she would later marry. Present also is Isak’s mother, a stern forbidding woman, whose relationship with her children mirrors Isak’s own later relationship with his son.  His son, it later transpires, is so embittered by life, that he forbids his wife to bear him a child.  The car, in which Isak and Marianne travel, is a literal and metaphoric vessel through which human-form mementoes penetrate Isak’s consciousness.  They pick up some hitchhikers, snapping Isak out of his reverie, one of them, Sara (Bibi Andersson), has not only a nominal affiliation, but also a striking and tantalising resemblance to Isak’s past Sara.  Further mirroring Isak’s story, the Sara-a-like sits in the back between two male companions, gently teasing them, both evidently in love with her. The girl serves as a human embodiment of the momento-mori.  At one point apologising for having insinuated Isak’s old age, she emanates youth, free will, and choice and by doing so illuminates the inevitability  and closeness of Isak’s death.  She sits in the back of the car, like Boadicea at her chariot, an empowered woman, with the reigns of several people’s future in her hands, who will she chose?  Years before Sara didn’t chose Isak.  As if to tantalise with this fact, on first meeting Isak, the second Sara mistakes the biblical Isaac for having married her namesake, no, Isak corrects her, unfortunately he didn’t.  The scenes are seeped in haze and mystery. In one nightmarish vision Sara runs to  an elaborate cradle, around which trees hang like ghosts, and a house appears through the thickets, wooden, stark, and fantastical.  When Marianne finally confronts Isak with the sad truth of her marital situation, we see Isak, sincerely affected and saddened by the prospect he may be somewhat to blame for his son’s unhappiness.  Bergman’s film is a gentle masterpiece at not telling one, but a lifetimes worth of stories. The man facing death must ultimately reflect back on the people and things he has, in bad faith, affected, to ultimately be awarded not just an honorary degree, but absolution.

★★★★★