There’s a tradition among purveyors of BDSM pornography to append a coda to their project in which the participants in various potentially alarming scenarios are finally glimpsed, all smiles, reveling in the afterglow of a clearly consensual exercise. I assume this practice has very practical benefits — for one thing, it might help stave off prosecution for obscenity or sex-trafficking. But it’s also a signal from the community making the videos to the community watching them that the performances are undertaken with high spirits, lest there’s any misunderstanding about the actual circumstances of their making. Despite any apparent unpleasantness, dear viewer, all involved (top and bottom, dominant and submissive) are working toward the ultimate goal of pleasure, not pain.
One of the most powerful moments in Scarface is the culmination of a violent, perfectly judged sequence of events crafted for maximum impact by screenwriter Oliver Stone and staged with ferocious efficiency by director Brian De Palma. It takes place at the end of a night when Al Pacino’s Cuban gangster, a feisty little hard-on named Tony Montana, has survived an attempt on his life that left him with a bullet in his shoulder. He has overseen the execution of his boss, who was behind the hit. He has shot dead a corrupt cop who was extorting his cash and favours. And he has just been upstairs to collect from between satin sheets his boss’s woman, a sleek blonde dressed in white who is his prize. The camera zooms out from a medium close-up on Pacino’s face as, still bleeding, arm in a sling, exhaustion writ large across his face, Tony Montana peers through 20-foot-tall glass windows, staring dumbly into a Giorgio Moroder sunrise as an advertising blimp floats over the water, its pithy slogan an empty promise of greatness yet to come: “The World Is Yours….”
Hey, peoples of the world: white guys are awesome! Suppose a white guy–a pasty English lord, let’s say–were kidnapped by a bunch of Lakota Sioux. Sure, he might try to escape from captivity once or twice, but after a while he’d be totally cool with it. Instead of whining like a paleface, he’d go out and kill some other Native American people, maybe grab him a scalp or two, and then finally prove himself to his tribe by undergoing a bizarre physical ritual and fucking the chief’s sister. Eventually, he’ll be the leader of the tribe, rocking a tomahawk and a headband and showing them how to skirmish, English-style.
In the late 1930s, as a little man named Adolf Hitler prepared the fearsome German army to run roughshod over the country’s European neighbours, Charles Chaplin, one of the greatest of all film artists, responded to the threat of war in the only way that made sense: He prepared a new comedy, The Great Dictator, that mocked Hitler directly. In some ways, it’s hard to imagine Chaplin could have done anything else. Ignoring Hitler was already out of the question. The similarities between Chaplin and the Nazi leader were often remarked upon, including by Chaplin himself. For one thing, they obviously shared the same moustache. (More than coincidence?) They were born within the same four-day period in April 1889. They both grew up in poverty, and there were superficial similarities in their sensibility–Hitler was a frustrated artist and, like Chaplin, a fan of Wagner. Chaplin’s son famously remembered his father saying, “Just think, he’s the madman, I’m the comic. But it could have been the other way around.”
Andrei Tarkovsky’s adaptation of Solaris, a novel by the Polish science-fiction writer Stanislaw Lem, betrays the director’s general disinterest in conventional SF tropes. His film does honour the mind-blowing outlines of Lem’s concept, which deals with a manned mission to investigate a planet-sized extra-terrestrial consciousness. But where Lem speculated about the practical boundaries of human intellect in the shadow of the universe, Tarkovsky opts to explore human feelings of loss and insecurity in the face of mortality. For Lem, the failed Solaris mission is emblematic of the difficulties we humans would have comprehending and communicating with a radically different form of life. For Tarkovsky, the mission re-opens old psychic wounds, flooding us with regret that we weren’t better to the people we loved. “Shame [is] the feeling that will save mankind,” murmurs protagonist Kris Kelvin near the end of the film. In Tarkovsky’s Solaris, we have made contact with the aliens, and they want you to call your mom.
Blow Out begins with a broadly visual joke, nearly four minutes long, about filmmaking. It ends with a second joke on the same subject, this one more complex, pointed, and black as tar. Over the course of the narrative, the material has turned rancid, so discoloured and malodorous that it’s hardly funny. That’s because, between the two grand gestures that bookend the film, writer-director Brian De Palma has traced a hero’s journey from idealism and optimism to disillusionment and despair. If cynicism were a superhero franchise, Blow Out would be its origin story.
This prototypical _film noir_, which saw rookie director John Huston adapting Dashiell Hammett’s only Sam Spade detective novel, was the last movie I watched in 2010. Warner Home Video’s recently released Blu-ray version had been calling to me from the depths of my to-watch stack, and anyway it’s always been one of my favorite movies — immaculately designed, evocatively photographed, and easy to watch but also spiky, morally complex, and ultimately unsettling. Humphrey Bogart is so beloved a figure in American film history that it always catches me a little off-guard to realize that the superficially charming character he’s portraying here isn’t the dedicated moral crusader that convention might lead one to suspect. Arguably, he’s rather a glad-handing sociopath.
More than 20 years ago, I sat in Stan Brakhage’s office at the University of Colorado, handling original frames of 65mm IMAX film stock that the avant-garde filmmaker had hand-painted with swirling layers of colour. He explained that IMAX had commissioned him to create an abstract film specifically for presentation on the huge screens of their theatres. It was a great idea, and I wondered when the film had screened. Never, Brakhage told me. The IMAX people eventually lost interest in the idea, and “Night Music” was shown instead in 16mm prints, drastically reduced from the large-gauge film stock. Although IMAX were bold enough to approach Brakhage in the first place, the company got cold feet when it came time to actually exhibit non-narrative cinema—even for only 30 seconds!—for a paying audience.