What better way to spend my birthday than to write about one of the most joyful movies I have ever seen?
Amélie is a joyous explosion, a candy coated love letter to life. From its surreal beginning until its dreamlike sigh of an ending, the movie celebrates a love of life and people that is rare, especially in this age of cynicism. It could easily fall into the trap of being overly sweet and come off as fake and cloying; however, Amélie weaves its magic well, partly due to the offbeat style of its director, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, and partly due to the addicting charisma of its star, Audrey Tautou.
The movie begins by telling of the early life of its young heroine, Amélie Poulain (Tautou). This sequence deserves to be seen unspoiled; I will say only that Amélie grows up a relatively lonely child who develops an active imagination. By the age of 22, Amélie has moved away from home and become a waitress at a small cafe in Montmartre. After finding something hidden in her apartment, Amélie unexpectedly helps a man and decides to dedicate her life to helping others.
Through her adventures, Amélie eventually finds a strange young man, Nino Quincampoix (Mathieu Kassovitz), who collects discarded photos from passport photo booths. She plays games with him from afar; she realizes she has fallen for him, but she is too shy to approach him. Amélie has helps many people throughout the movie -- will she be able to gather the courage to help herself?
What is immediately noticeable about Amélie is its amazing, thrilling visual style. For one, the camera itself seems to be full of energy. It swoops in and out, encircling Amélie and scanning the picaresque French land- and cityscape. And what it captures is beautiful, indeed -- the city sparkles with happiness and delight, and its residents are the kind of strange, wonderful people we all know on our best days.
The visuals also enhance the otherworldly atmosphere of the movie. For instance, when Amélie sees Nino in the cafe one day, she dissolves -- literally, she dissolves into a puddle of water. In another scene, when Amélie's heart races with excitement, the movie switches to an X-Ray view, and the audience can see Amélie's heart beat faster and faster. Strange touches like that fit in perfectly with the mood of the movie and always present something new and fascinating to watch onscreen.
But, of course, the movie would not succeed if its performances did not work. The cast of supporting characters all fit in perfectly. Serge Merlin is good as an old painter who becomes a mentor of sorts to Amélie. Rufus (this is seriously his stage name) is funny as Amélie's serious, withdrawn father, who learns to open up a bit due to his daughter's influence. Kassovitz plays a good, interesting man who is a worthy love interest for Amélie.
However, Tautou rightfully owns the movie -- this is the role that made her an international star (although she was already well known in France for her supporting role in Venus Beauty Institute). Tautou hits every note perfectly and embodies Amélie like very few people could. She approaches life loving every new day, with a grin on her face that suggests she has something wonderful planned and may break into hysterics at the sheer happiness of it. The way she carries herself, the way she interacts with others and the way she addresses the audience is absolutely perfect.
What I think really makes the movie work is the rare gift Tautou possesses -- the ability to make an audience's collective heart leap with rapture with but the slightest movement, look or gesture. There is something in her eyes that suggests the playful joy Amélie feels at every moment, something in the way she moves that suggests the confidence Amélie feels in her mission to help people and something in the way she smiles that could melt the heart of even the most horrible person. She is a special actress who has the opportunity to play a special role, and she nails it from the first moment she appears onscreen. I could imagine no other person playing Amélie.
Here is a great scene from the movie. In it, Amélie has just finished helping her first person and has decided to help others. She finds a blind man, helps him cross the street and paints a picture of words that has him seeing the city for the first time in years.
When Psycho was released in 1960, it was met with a mixed reaction from critics, but audiences were fascinated. The depravity of the subject matter and the shocking violence were amazingly controversial at the time; however, I imagine it was accepted because 1) People expected strange, twisted movies from Alfred Hitchcock and 2) The movie had a brilliant marketing campaign that played off its genre and the feeling Hitchcock wanted from the audience.
Peeping Tom is a movie released a few months beforePsycho with similar subject matter, and just about as well made, that did not receive the same fate. Critics loathed it, and audiences were repelled by it. It destroyed the career of its director, Michael Powell, until the 1970s, when Martin Scorsese led the charge to get people to recognize Peeping Tom as the brilliant psychological horror movie it is.
The movie follows Mark Lewis (Carl Boehm), a focus puller for a local film studio who aspires to be a filmmaker himself. However, the types of movies he films are not normal. Lewis takes women to places where they can be alone and puts all the focus on the women. He then takes out his camera and films them; while they sit in confusion, he slips a cover off one of the legs of his tripod, which hides a knife.
Mark films the reactions of his victims as they die. They twist and turn, and their faces contort in terror, and he films every second of it. After he finishes, he retreats to a viewing room in his home, where he watches the movies in the darkness and compiles them into a "documentary" he refers to every so often.
Perhaps what really struck at the core of audiences who viewed this movie at the time was how it explicitly turns the audience into a voyeur for Mark's murders. As moviewatchers, we are voyeurs, peeking into the lives of characters onscreen, but there is always the sense that we are off to the side -- that we have no real effect on what happens onscreen. Not so with Peeping Tom.
Similar to Hitchcock's Rear Window, it makes certain the audience sees what the protagonist sees, that the audience feels what the protagonist feels as Lewis manipulates the emotions of his victims so that he can get exactly the reaction he desires on camera. The audience is one with Mark as he kills these young women. It can hear the soft whir of the gears in Mark's camera, see the violence of Mark's knife plunging into his victim's throats and feel the rush and fear he does when the dead are in the last throes of life, all through the claustrophobic view of Mark's camera.
One of the most fascinating things about Peeping Tom is that it never lets the audience forget that it is watching. When people die in most horror movies, we see it, but we don't really see it -- there is that filter between the audience and what happens onscreen, the fourth wall. That wall exists in Peeping Tom, but it becomes frighteningly close to being broken. That is where much of its horror comes from. Never before, or since, has a movie so brutally presented the audience with the consequences of watching something unfold.
Mark's buried sexuality is another Hitchcock theme Peeping Tom makes full use of. The tripod leg that hides the knife is unmistakably phallic; before he pulls off the cover, Lewis strokes the leg up and down gently, caressing it softly with his fingertips. The camera itself is like a part of him he cannot live without -- when someone borrows his camera for a few moments simply to look at it, one can see the yearning in Lewis' eyes as he desires to have that part of him returned. And when he sits in his viewing room to watch movies, there is a kinky manner to the way Mark rests in the darkness and watches what he filmed.
In fact, the one time in the movie Lewis does not have his camera with him is when he is on a date with someone who can possibly cure his, er, misguided urges -- Helen Stephens (Anna Massey), an innocent, kind author of children's short stories who lives on the bottom floor of the building Lewis owns and lives in, which he inherited from his father.
Helen can tell there is something deeply wrong with Mark. Soon after they meet, she becomes curious about Mark's hobbies, and he shows her movies from his childhood -- movies his father, a biologist, filmed showing a young Mark being awakened by flashing lights in his eyes, whereupon his father drops a large lizard onto Mark's bed. There is another movie of Mark seeing his mother for the first time after she dies, and another of Mark during his mother's funeral. Mark's father was interested in fear and the nervous system, and Mark was his greatest subject.
Instead of being repulsed by Mark, although she does not know what exactly he films, Helen reaches out to him tenderly and tries to show him the love that has been missing from his life from day one. But the damage to Mark is nearly irrepairable. He knows nothing but watching and being watched. A psychologist and colleague of Mark's father who casually chats up Mark on the set of a movie notes that Mark has, "his father's eyes."
What brings it all together is the way Boehm characterizes Mark. In a way, he is similar to Norman Bates -- capable of being somewhat charming, but he is also quite shy and guarded (and there is an uncomfortably voyeuristic moment in Psycho where Bates watches Marion Crane undress). What separates them, however, is the way Boehm forms Mark into someone who is always aware of his crimes. He knows his urges, and he knows he cannot avoid giving in to them. From the beginning of the movie, he is fully prepared to be caught by the police.
This gives Mark an even more frightening quality -- especially as the audience is right there with him -- but strangely enough, it also makes him a bit more sympathetic. He recognizes that he is damaged, and he also recognizes that he is doomed to never repair that damage. It never excuses his actions and the brutality of his murders, but it is difficult to not feel pity for Mark on some level when he ventures out with Helen sans camera for the first time in his life and appears to have formed a genuine connection with a person.
Now for a scene from the movie! This shows the very first murder Mark commits, which happens at the very beginning of the movie. I apologize for the crappy audio quality of the video, but every other scene I saw on YouTube is of the very end of the movie, and I am obviously not going to show that.
One of the great things about satire is it aims to go all the way in tearing apart its subject. There is no middle ground. Satires often present the strangest, most fascinating stories imaginable, because they pick up on something that affects us all and amplify it to the hilt. In The Manchurian Candidate, that something is paranoia -- specifically, the paranoia that permeated the Cold War.
The movie begins with the kidnapping of an American infantry patrol during the Korean War. Communists -- Chinese, Soviets and North Koreans -- falsify the memories of these infantrymen via hypnosis and provide a subconscious trigger in one, Sgt. Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey), that will force him to follow any order. Upon arrival back home, Shaw is honored as a war hero.
However, Capt. Bennett Marco (Frank Sinatra) is suspicious -- something about his memories just do not seem right with him. He works to unravel the mystery of what happened to his infantry in North Korea, while a McCarthyesque senator, John Yerkes Iselin (James Gregory), and his vicious, brutal wife, Mrs. Iselin (Angela Lansbury), who is also Shaw's mother, rise to power by exposing Communists in the American government.
Trust is something major in the movie. Marco cannot trust Shaw because he suspects something is wrong with Shaw; however, Marco also cannot trust himself because his memories have lied to him. Shaw, meanwhile, does not trust Iselin, his stepfather, because his hates him, or his mother, because he hates her too. And, eventually, Marco cannot trust his environment, because anything could be the visual trigger that makes Shaw susceptible to orders.
This leads to a palpable sense of paranoia -- you feel it almost every second you watch the movie. The Communist plot is so pervasive that it seems to have permeated every level of American government; Marco has nobody to turn to, because it appears as if everyone around Shaw is someone how involved in the conspiracy. Even those who are in league with each other are eventually suspicious of their comrades.
All the paranoia feeds a feeling of utter insanity throughout the movie, although the bizarre story born from satire has much to do with that insanity. The plot is somehow played completely straight -- which makes it even blacker and funnier -- while the strangest plot elements are introduced. One of these is the story of how Shaw meets and falls in love with Jocelyn Jordan (Leslie Parrish), the daughter of a liberal senator (John McGiver). The details are mind-boggling and nonsensical, and yet the feelings the two have for each other are real.
However, the nuttiest person in the movie has to be Eugenie Rose Cheney (Janet Leigh), who meets Marco on a train, falls in love with him and abandons her fiance to be with him after a surreal conversation between her and Marco. Some people -- I personally have no idea where I fall on this -- believe Cheney is actually Marco's "handler" (the person who gives the orders after the subconscious trigger is activated), and the conversation in a train is actually a complex series of codes. Either that, or she really is a complete nutter whose behavior conforms to no known human norms. (For what it is worth, the director, John Frankenheimer, and the screenwriter, George Axelrod, have admitted they don't know if Cheney is a sleeper agent; they lifted the conversation from the novel by Richard Condon, in which she is apparently not an agent of anyone in particular.)
A close second is easily Mrs. Iselin. She is a powerful, dominating woman who runs her husband's political career from behind the scenes. (Sen. Iselin is the kind of guy who decides on how many politicians he will accuse of being communists by reading ketchup bottles.) Lansbury is utterly ruthless in how she plays the role. Mrs. Iselin's ambition is absolute, and she does not let anyone or anything stand in her way. The only person she truly loves is her son, which is not apparent when the movie begins, but it will be disturbingly apparent once the movie comes to a close.
What adds to the craziness is the way the movie breezily weaves between the real and the surreal. During the scene where the Communists hypnotize the infantry, for example, the movie shifts back and forth between the point of view of the Communists, who see the room as the ordinary classroom it is, and the infantrymen, who are ordered to see the room as a tea party with old women. It is quite a sight to see nice old ladies speak about overthrowing capitalism, let me tell you.
All the insanity swirling around perfectly satirizes the feeling in the world during the Cold War -- two years before Dr. Strangelove (my favorite movie), I might add. What works the most about the movie is it cuts to a chilling truth: The bumblers, such as Sen. Iselin, are running the show, and as much as we might like to think we are in control of ourselves, we have less control than we believe.
And now a video! In this scene, Shaw receives a phone call that leads to his subconscious trigger being activated:
Journalism is not what it used to be. Many argue that it has lost its bite; others believe it has become mired in bias. The real reasons probably run much deeper than that. Whatever the reasons, however, Good Night and Good Luck. shows how journalism can and should function for the benefit of the people.
The plot follows CBS journalist Edward R. Murrow's (David Strathairn) battle against Wisconsin senator Joseph McCarthy (represented by actual footage of the senator), who waged a frightening battle against suspected American communists and who also gained a horrifying amount of power and influence due to this battle. Murrow follows McCarthy's actions and sees them for what they are -- an affront against the freedoms of Americans (freedom of assembly, freedom of speech and so on). To Murrow, there is only one response to McCarthy -- use the facts to expose McCarthy for what he really is.
It is not an easy road. Sponsors pull away from CBS in droves. McCarthy flings vicious insults at Murrow and accuses him of being a member of an antiquated workers union. But Murrow does have support at CBS. His producer, Fred Friendly (George Clooney, who also directed and co-wrote the movie), believes as strongly in what Murrow is doing as the man himself. Fellow reporter Joseph Wershba (Robert Downey Jr.) is also a supporter. Amidst an enormous amount of pressure, Murrow and his news team work to take down McCarthy.
One of the arguments made against Murrow concerns the issue of bias -- because he is arguing so strongly against McCarthy, it means Murrow has lost his objectivity and is not presenting "both sides of the story." (Which is really one of the biggest problems with the theory of objectivity in journalism -- that stories have two sides to present.) Murrow's counterargument is that he is telling the facts and nothing more; if the facts run counter to McCarthy's delusions, then so be it. There is no worth in reporting the delusions of a mad man as if they were fact.
This is a complex problem the movie deals with. Who decides which facts are the facts and which are not? When is right to tell just one side of the story, and when is it not? Good Night, and Good Luck. seems to me to be an argument against "pure" objectivity in journalism. Murrow sees a problem -- one he believes affects the rights of every American -- and he reports on it in a strong way. Some believe this is unfair; Murrow believes the unfairness of what McCarthy does far overrides the supposed unfairness of Murrow's reporting.
As it always is when journalism is the subject, freedom of speech is a strong theme throughout the movie. Murrow defends this right and uses it often -- and how he uses it! Strathairn is about as powerful as it gets when he launches into Murrow's famous speeches. Listening to him makes me want to stand up and spend every second of the rest of my existence stridently defending every right outlined in the American Constitution. Good Night, and Good Luck. shows why we have freedom of speech in the first place -- so that we can think and challenge our leaders and protect our rights as human beings and American citizens.
This should be obvious to anyone who sees the movie, but Clooney's reasoning for making the movie is directly connected to the current political climate: "I thought it was a good time to raise the idea of using fear to stifle political debate." How many times were people who opposed the Iraq War chastised as being "un-American"? How much has xenophobia been used to justify egregious trespasses into the privacy of American citizens? How many of our politicians -- Democrats and Republicans alike -- stood back and watched while America blundered its way into an ongoing war because we were afraid of another attack on our soil? Fear and paranoia never fuel intelligent political discourse and rational action. They simply drive our primal instincts to lash out at what irritates our prejudices.
Good Night, and Good Luck. is like great journalism -- it tells its story straight and true, with no frills, and cuts right to the heart of the matter. Experiencing it gives one the sense of knowing exactly what is happening and why, and why what is being experienced is worth believing.
Now for a video! This scene shows Murrow giving one of his speeches about freedom of speech. I hope it resonates strongly with everyone who watches it.
John Wayne is most often seen as the king of westerns, but for my money, nobody has made more interesting contributions to the genre than Clint Eastwood.
Throughout the '60s and '70s, Eastwood made his mark by playing the same basic type of character -- a hard man of few words with steely eyes, muddy morality and gunslinging skills that could break anyone. But what makes Eastwood's westerns interesting is he approaches that character from numerous angles, constructing wholly different men from the same template.
In Sergio Leone's Dollars Trilogy, The Man With No Name is someone who will bend the rules and occasionally use people to get ahead, but at heart he is also a man who will help those who truly need it. In Unforgiven, he is an over the hill cowboy struggling to sever ties with his bloody, evil past. In High Plains Drifter, Eastwood's Stranger has goals of a sort beyond the ability of good people to understand.
High Plains Drifter opens with The Stranger (Eastwood) seemingly materializing out of thin air as he rides his horse on a short trip through the town of Lago. Everyone watches as he makes his way through; nobody can keep their eyes off him. Three gunslingers hired by the town to protect them from three criminals who are to be released from the Yuma Territorial Prison accost The Stranger. He responds by brutally killing them.
With the town's protection gone, Lago's sheriff (Walter Barnes) pleads with The Stranger to help protect Lago. The Stranger initially refuses but relents when Lago's citizens allow him free reign through the town. He then trains the townspeople in the art of killing, turns the town's power structure upside down and makes a series of bizarre requests, all the while fulfilling his mysterious agenda while the three released convicts make their way back to Lago to seek vengeance.
What makes The Stranger interesting, first of all, is he is possibly the most hateful character Eastwood has ever played, and yet there are definite reasons why he does what he does. He is a killer; he is a rapist; and he milks Lago for all it is worth. However, the movie's ending puts these actions into perspective -- it does not make them right, by any means, but it does provide a clear reasoning for The Stranger's atrocities.
However, while the thoughts behind The Stranger's actions, can be understood, the man himself is more like a demon than a human. The movie plays off this in several ways. During one scene, The Stranger is attacked while bathing, and he sinks into the water to avoid gunshots. The shots clearly go into the water, but after the attack, The Stranger floats to the surface, unscathed. A normal human would surely have died in that attack. In other scenes, The Stranger moves through his environment like a wraith, appearing in places nobody expects.
The movie's mood also reinforces The Stranger's demon-like nature. High Plains Drifter is mainly a western, but in a very subtle way it is also part horror. The most obvious occurrence of this is in the musical cues. There are occasional flashbacks, and these are accompanied by a dreamy, cutting synthesizer bit that heightens the tension and violence of the scene. This same cue is used in some of the more violent parts of the movie and also during the movie's penultimate sequence, which is legitimately terrifying.
One other thing that fascinated me is how Eastwood, as the movie's director, uses some classic types of western shots to further boost the feeling of horror and dread. There is of course the movie's initial shot of The Stranger appearing like a mirage in the middle of the desert. Western heroes often walk alone across barren, heated landscapes, but the way the shot is set up makes The Stranger seem distinctly ghost-like. The first time the viewer sees Lago is also vaguely unsettling. Eastwood has the shot far away, which shows Lago as a collection of random buildings in the middle of nowhere, a pit of nothing that is almost trying to bury itself away from civilization. Like the rest of the movie, it is an interesting, subtle subversion of how most people see westerns.
High Plains Drifter is an excellent part of the Revisionist Western movement that started with movies like High Noon and Shane in the '50s and continues sporadically to this day. For those who tired quickly of the traditional, black-and-white western morality tales, High Plains Drifter is worth watching to see the genre's potential.
Now here's a new feature I am adding to this World. At the end of the movie posts, I'll add scenes from the movies so that people can watch them and perhaps pique their interest. I will be going back to all the other posts in this World and adding scenes where I can.
This scene from High Plains Drifter shows The Stranger being harassed by the gunslingers hired by Lago and the consequences of their actions.