Call for Essays About Any Aspect of Popular Culture, Present or Past

 
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Tuesday, Feb 13, 2007


It’s a lesson in cultures to see how differently every country views and celebrates the crime thriller. Italy has its giallo, lurid details and sinful sexiness wrapped up in a mechanical shell. The Japanese bathe their tales of cops and robbers in age-old customs and the life or death notion of honor and pride. For those in China—and Hong Kong more specifically—mob bosses and assassins have been turned inside out, fueled by a hyperactive action style and belief that both sides, the legal and illegal, fight the same internal struggles with self and society. Oddly enough, it’s the West that seems to have taken a more caricatured approach to cops and robbers. A typical US gangster film sets up its parameters of bad versus badge, loads up the Tommy guns, and lets the reign of lead ensue.


Or other times, a sultry dame and a private dick try to sort out a case of minor intrigue while falling in and out of love and the web of the real killer. While it didn’t invent it outright, America sure made the mob movie operatic, turning it into Shakespearean tragedy of universal pain and pathos, be it Rico Bandello, Cody Jarrett, or Don Corleone. But leave it to the French to find a way of reinvigorating the crime and caper film. As pioneers (along with the Italians) of neo-realism and the experimental new wave, the filmmakers of Paris understood the nuances of the stateside immigrant epic and went about conceiving it through their own skewed perception. No one did it better than Jean-Pierre Melville. Over the course of a dozen or so films, Melville used the trench coat and hat of the Tinseltown thug/mug and turned him into a man of mystery, an enigma with a gun. And Le Cercle Rouge is one of his best examples.


Le Cercle Rouge (The Red Circle) is heist film as existentialism. It’s a character study told with events, not words. It’s a stellar work of implied understatement and a remarkably profound look at the rather pedestrian, plebian world of crime and crime fighting. In this seminal 1970 French film, there is no clear division between the under and real world. All segments of society are seen as devious and divisive. The police are intertwined so completely with the local criminal element that they cannot solve cases without their help. Likewise, when seeking accomplices and co-conspirators for their acts of fraud and theft, the street thugs and mafia brute find friends in the dishonored and corrupt ex-members of the force.


As an experiment in fracturing the felon formula, Le Cercle Rouge relies heavily on the nuances and knowledge of past pronouncements on the subject of criminality. It also relies on the classics of noir and gangland sagas of the 1930s thru ‘50s to fill in blanks that it would rather leave un-addressed. It gets us to root for felons and failures and then makes us reflect on why we would champion such scum. Brilliantly directed by Melville, it’s a movie that moves at a deliberate pace, never wasting a shot or shifting its tone. While it does play like a symphony to sin, it’s also a sad story of men without place, people without a part in the normal social structure. We are visiting a forgotten realm in Le Cercle Rouge, a place were everyone knows everybody, even if they didn’t know it before.


This is a film told in sections, three stylistically differing acts (think GoodFellas or Blow before its time). Each movement here adds to the suspense and complexity of the film’s plot and narrative themes. At first, the scenes are all subtle precision, slow and near static, building one on top of the other to lay foundations and create dynamics. Methodically, director Jean-Pierre Melville adds textures and characterization, all the while pushing our protagonists ever further into the story. The second section begins as the plans for the heist commence. The use of wipes and dissolves speeds up the sequencing of events, showing us that, while the devil may be in the details, those specific elements are going to be assumed here. We aren’t supposed to see everything. We are to be given the essence of the job, the concept of crime as a workaday element in these men’s lives.


The final portion of the film, after the deed has been done and a fence is sought, is far more swift and scattered. The interlinking storylines and characters converge and crash into one another in a chaotic attempt at breaking out of the fateful bonds, the ever-present ring of red that constrains and condemns them. We jump from the police station to the gangster bar to a quiet and serene Yves Montand and then back to the cops. All the while, the tension is wound tighter. After the pins and needle necessities of the jewelry store heist, this randomized approach throws the audience off its guard, tossing us into the aftermath where anything can happen, anyone can drop dime and well constructed plans fall apart.


Le Cercle Rouge is all about planning and plotting, about time spent in jail cells or dingy hostiles bidding and trading on the minutes and hours. It is a film about disgraced men, about the lost lone male within society as the ultimate expression of freedom, depression and the anti-hero. We never see any women of substance in Le Cercle Rouge. When Alain Delon’s Corey confronts his old mob boss at home, we see a blousy red head, completely nude, wander up to a closed bedroom door to listen in on the exchange of words. She has some vague connection to Corey (he carries her picture in his wallet). But after robbing the Don, he places her photo in the now empty vault. He is giving her up—whoever she is—for the next phase of his life. Then there is the unsung bachelor amongst the underworld brutes: the dapper, determined police officer Mattei. A methodical man of habits (we see him coming home twice in the movie, and both times he goes through the same routine, even addressing his cats in a practiced fashion), he doesn’t have a wife (though we do see a photo of a woman on his desk) nor does he seem to need one.


Le Cercle Rouge is a movie ridding itself systematically of females once and for all. Certainly they make up a background element to the film: dancers in clubs, hookers, and hat check girls. But there is never a balancing feminine presence within the movie the way there is in standard Hollywood fare: no girlfriend with a heart of gold or accidental sex partner who grows into something more important. No, Le Cercle Rouge denies the obvious sexual representations in its title from the feminine perspective (lips, nipples, etcetera) and instead returns the focus to the guys: hard-hearted and psychologically lone rogues. It gives the story a decidedly tough exterior.


This doesn’t mean that the movie is not ripe with other, overt symbolism. Indeed, Le Cercle Rouge is constantly cluing in the audience as to the meaning behind the seemingly vague confrontations going on. When Corey discovers Vogel hiding out in the trunk of his car, the confrontation takes place in a horrible, muddy field. Corey is getting “dirty” again and Vogel is back to the “filth” he is known for (his exact crimes are never explained). The train taking Vogel to justice never enters its “tunnel” like most other extensions of “manhood.” It merely moves along the track, continually drifting further off into the distance. Montand’s alcoholic ex-policeman Jansen lives in a disheveled flat with a secret doorway in the wall that magically opens and disappears. It leads into a black void, much like his life. We have seen his detoxification hallucinations come pouring out of it, and we see him dread approaching it. Whatever he has done to have himself thrown off the force obviously hides in that closet/alcove, waiting and hungry, but we never discover the sinister source.


Indeed, we do not know what anyone is guilty of in Le Cercle Rouge. It’s as if the past crimes committed by these wayward men are no longer important. They are not beyond some manner of redemption, but they are beyond the grasp of innocence. They will never be pure again, no matter how straight they now walk or how hidden they become. They are forever tainted. As the Chief Inspector says to his lead detective on the case, everyone is guilty. We may be born without sin, but that quickly changes. And that is true about the trio of troublemakers in Le Cercle Rouge. They are men marked by their past and also by their destiny—their fate as part of the red circle.


All the acting here is first rate. Alain Delon confirms why he was such a stellar leading man of French cinema in the ‘60s and ‘70s with his portrayal of Corey. Silent but sinister, there is a strength born of resilience in this ex-con. Similarly, Gian Maria Volenté simmers with a sinister stare as the ticking time bomb Vogel. But just like the dualistic nature of all the characters in the film (working both sides of the law for their own ends, living one way but believing another), he is a valuable asset in the controlled environment of the heist. Yves Montand probably has the showiest role (he gets to give the DTs a good primal scream or two), but he is also the most memorable, a man of principles who is trying to escape the deadening paralysis of alcoholism. While he is a disgraced cop and a pathetic rum head, he is also a dignified dandy, a suave showman with a sauced secret.


Even Bourvil, noted French comedian and songwriter, gives a remarkable performance as Mattei. Asked to essay the role of investigator, instigator, and calm center to a whirlwind of crime and corruption, this small, specific man with the funny hair and wicked smile makes his officer an example of duty torn by practice to forever walk the fine line between the legal and the illicit. These are the men who will be forever defined by the events in Le Cercle Rouge, the members of the sphere of violence and blood.


At its core, Le Cercle Rouge is all about fortune, about how it cannot be forced nor can it be avoided. It’s the answer to the question of why some people are destined to fail while others seem to glide to ever-higher accolades. It’s about place in the pecking order and how choice de-evolves into chance. It’s a story of three men hoping to make one final multi-million dollar score to salvage their otherwise wasted existences. But they learn a lesson that so many of us never even begin to comprehend. They are not meant to be profitable or pious. They are men of a certain trait, of the caliber of crime. And by using the very instrument for freedom that trapped them into a world of vice and lack of virtue, they are completing that bloody cycle, that red circle, that keeps dragging them over and over back into and around each other.


Perhaps we are not all evil, like the police chief thinks. Or maybe we can repent and wash ourselves clean of past mistakes. But once we have taken the steps into the looking glass, once we’ve entered the crimson realm of crime and punishment, we are forever linked to it. Like the social stigma of conviction (Corey), the public outcry of escape (Vogel), or the human misery of deflated hero worship (Jansen), everyone in Le Cercle Rouge wears a scarlet letter on their very soul. That letter is a circle, an “O,” which stands for too many things—outsider, offender, outcast. Certainly this is an entertaining, exceptional crime thriller, but it is philosophically and psychologically so much more.


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Monday, Feb 12, 2007


It’s a gloriously mixed bag this week – a certified Oscar contender, an interesting independent Academy wannabe, a collection of revamped classics, and an overlooked effort that had the unfortunate luck of being the second in the Truman Capote/In Cold Blood sweepstakes. Toss in another failed Hollywood comedy (someone should keep a running total on the number of these lackluster laughfests the industry releases each year) and an unusual documentary, and you’ve got a nice selection of cinema to choose from. So break open the piggy bank, plan your purchase strategy carefully, and choose between these 13 February releases:


The Departed


As the illustrious LL Cool J once warned, don’t call it a comeback. Indeed, Martin Scorsese has not been hiding along the fringes of cinema, waiting for another certified gangster blockbuster to resurrect his implied lagging artistic credibility. Since his last film, The Aviator, was nominated for several Oscars, it seems silly to suggest that the certified American auteur is arriving from anywhere but the top. Besides, some of his best films – Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, The King of Comedy, The Last Temptation of Christ – have nothing to do with mean streets and goodfellas. This does not lesson the impact or import of this brilliant Boston crime drama – no one does operatic brutality better – but Scorsese is much more than movie mob boss. He doesn’t deserve such stereotyping.

Other Titles of Interest


Bicycle Thieves: Criterion Collection


It’s the height of post-War desperation in Italy. Citizens are still in shock over how Fascism has failed them. Then light comedy filmmaker Vittorio De Sica decides to explore the devastation from the inside out. The result was this seminal example of neo-realism, made even more important by the new presentation from the preservation experts.

Half Nelson


Inner city school teacher Dan Dunne (Ryan Gosling) leads a lamentable double life. By day he enthralls his lower income students. By night he’s a raging crackhead. When the two worlds collide, an unusual sort of relationship is the result. What could be a sappy After School special is saved by brilliant acting and a no holds barred approach to its subject.


Infamous


Writer/Director Douglas McGrath and his wonderful all star cast deserved better than to be considered a Capote afterthought. Indeed, this far sunnier look at the author behind In Cold Blood and the crime that would alter his life forever is more playful – and powerful – than the more sober, somber Oscar winner.

Paul Robeson – Portrait of the Artist: Criterion Collection


He was Ivy League educated, sang opera as well as popular songs, and was considered a real Renaissance man. An amazing triumph for a member of a beleaguered race at the turn of the century. Thanks to Criterion, Robeson’s career as an actor (which he ended early, arguing that there were no good roles for blacks) can now be reviewed for all to see and celebrate.

School for Scoundrels


Proving that it will be tough to overcome his pitch perfect performance as Napoleon Dynamite, Jon Herder follows up his equally unimpressive turn in The Benchwarmers with this dopey relationships comedy. While Billy Bob Thorton obviously enjoys doing these kind of over the top slop comedies, we expect better from the man who made geeks groovy. Sadly, there is more horror than humor here.


And Now for Something Completely Different


The US vs. John Lennon


In one of the strangest cases in the history of the Federal Government, the Nixon Administration, in connection with Hoover’s hated FBI, conspired to deport ex-Beatle John Lennon over his pronounced peacenik views. Along with his obvious influence amongst the youth, and his ability to continuously capture the attention of the media, Lennon was the loose cannon the ebbing pro-Vietnam Establishment couldn’t control. The way they went about their plan, however, failed to do anything but further damage an already reeling leadership. Now, thanks to the Freedom of Information act and a decision to contextualize Lennon’s cultural import, filmmakers David Leaf and John Scheinfeld have created a composite of one man, and his undeniable impact on the society that surrounded him. While his death remains the biggest disgrace to his legacy, this chapter is equally embarrassing.

 


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Sunday, Feb 11, 2007


If the Internet is responsible for anything – and there are many divergent (and slightly seedy) concepts it can claim – perhaps the most seismic shock has come in the realm of movie marketing. It used to be that, when a film wanted to tout its potential as either a stellar drama, hilarious comedy, heart-pumping actioner or nail-biting thriller, studios and producers set up carefully considered publicity campaigns, playing to their products strengths while downplaying its potential problems. When the print media made early pronouncements of troubled talent or less than successful results, the mighty Hollywood spin machine was right there, ready to twist the tales in their favor.


Take the films opening in the next few weeks. The Nicholas Cage comic book saga Ghost Rider has been almost omnipresent since production began. Within months, photos of the phantom biker, skull aflame with meticulous CGI conflagration, were “leaked” to fan-favorable sites all along the web. It wasn’t long after that a genre-defining trailer was released, a jump cut driven example of minor exposition mixed with major money shots. By the time the film actually opens on 16 February, audiences will know of Cage’s deal with the Devil, the impressive images of the main character racing up the side of a skyscraper, and the lack of emotional heft possessed by supposed romantic interest Eva Mendes. No wonder the final film won’t be screened for critics prior to release. You can practically review it from the ads alone.


Or what about 300. Ever since it was announced that Zack Snyder was taking on Frank Miller’s graphic novel about the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 B.C. (when tens of thousands of Persians challenged – you guessed it – 300 Spartans), the nerd network went into hyperdrive. Snyder, instrumental in jumpstarting the whole horror remake craze with his excellent work in updating George Romero’s classic Dawn of the Dead, promised a Sin City like respect for the author’s work, and as if to accentuate that fact, early teasers featured signature stylized shots of buff men making war in drama-defining slow motion. Understanding inherently that the new adolescent audience is as devoted to its own idiosyncratic interests as it is with the current pop culture landscape, 300 decided to avoid the standard marketing mechanism and simply go geek.


That’s right, in between online discussions of Doctor Doom’s new look for the Fantastic Four sequel (along with quips about the Silver Surfer’s metallic ‘package’) and the constant consideration of Spider-man 3‘s villain viability (where are those images of Venom!?), dork nation now determines the imagined achievement of a soon to be released film. While it may seem unfair to toss around terms like ‘geek’, ‘nerd’, or ‘dweeb’, the truth is that the web has made the obsessive instrumental in creating the momentum that will make or break a movie. Where once this social stigmatization illustrated one’s unacceptability as a perceived member of the inevitable in-crowd, it’s now a badge of honor, a recognized symbol of status inside the film business’s new advertising strategy.


While consensus has it that Harry Knowles and his Ain’t It Cool News website is the main purveyor of this armchair analyst conceit, the fact remains that, no matter who started it, the new wired mindset is setting the agenda for motion picture marketing. It’s no longer necessary to fashion extensive ad campaigns, hoping your coverage creates the kind of universal interest that generates major box office. No, movies are now like any other prepackaged product from a shrewd and sharp multinational conglomerate. It’s rare that a title will see a theatrical release without international rights, TV and cable contracts, and multiple DVD release strategies sewn up in advance. For a film to actually lose money in this safety net style approach, it has to really be awful – or better yet, lacking a legitimate online champion.


Everyone points to Snakes on a Plane as a perfect example of how the Internet is not that successful a shill, and for that film in particular, those critics have a point. Trying to take an old fashioned action film, highly reminiscent of the 1970s style of disaster and death, and selling it as a slick campy cult classic to a post post-modern audience was the height of salesmanship stupidity. What the geek audience was identifying with – the memory of dateless mid ‘80s evenings sitting in front of the tube with a stack of VHS hackwork – was not actually what the movie was prepared to deliver. Imagine their surprise when New Line actually offered something good. Like expecting something stupid and getting its serious substitute, Snakes of a Plane died because of improper public perception and deadly word of mouth.


Yet this is the very tactic that the new web-based bait and switch approach is hoping to achieve. Certainly there are those movies working on the hope of previously successful formulas (Eddie Murphy + Rick Baker’s amazing make-up = Norbit) and more than a few believing a “don’t ask, don’t tell, don’t preview” conceit will confuse a few dollars out of the demographic (The Hitcher, The Messengers). But what the new breed of cinematic carnival barkers are really counting on is the feeb’s fascination with the unknown. When Michael Bay announced his 2007 Summer blockbuster wannabe The Transformers, online speculation went nuclear. It wasn’t long before the base had weighed in on must-have characters, feared directorial missteps, and a genuine curiosity over whether this material would play in a live action format.


Then the first teaser trailer was delivered – adding fuel to the already blazing interest inferno. Prior to the full fledged ad which answered a lot of questions and appeased a lot of panic, the momentary glimpse of the title robots sent messageboards into a tantalized tizzy, which in turn generates the kind of MySpace interest that movie marketers murder for. If a studio can expertly control the release of such iconic information, if they can prevent the kind of collaborative overkill that sunk Snakes chances at wider acceptance, it can guarantee a huge opening weekend and not have to worry about the ultimate value of the product.


Of course, this strategy can backfire – sometimes, tragically – when misapplied. You just know that Cartoon Network and the suits at Time-Warner were wetting themselves when their proposed promotional campaign for the Aqua Teen Hunger Force film (utilizing black boxes that featured a light up illustration of the show’s symbolic Mooninite character) turned into an imagined terrorist plot. Had our post-9/11 mania not kicked in, and the populace panic over something that ‘sort of, could of’ looked like a bomb (in the right light), it would have been fairly obvious what the unusual animated project was attempting. By slyly placing these series symbols around cities in the US, nerds in the know would have their own public private joke. While others looked on at the blocky image, trying to decipher its Atari throwback design, the fanatical would have a shared chuckle and move along.


Indeed that’s the whole point of this new geekdom strategy. Don’t worry what professional critics have to say, don’t screen a movie in advance to allow newspapers and other media sources to set the agenda. Instead, tap into the online cosmos of specific genre categories and hope the devoted fans pull you along. Back when television was the reigning cultural watchdog, such a tactic worked. Shows like Star Trek and Firefly discovered a long life beyond cancellation, while recent efforts like Family Guy and Futurama used the newly discovered populist power of DVD to revive their fortunes. And as the sole significant force setting the agenda for Internet discussion, the wired now work overtime doing the same sort of selling that a carefully choreographed marketing campaign would.


So as the next few months drag on, as film after film arrives without preview press coverage and advanced critical consideration, simply sign on to your favorite world wide website and get the good geek word. Why, even now you can discover how Chow Yun-Fat looks in Pirates of the Caribbean 3: At Worlds End, read a breakdown of how successful a recent focus group screening of the new Simon Pegg and Nick Frost comedy Hot Fuzz was, or just bask in the glow of an onset visit to the still in pre-production Iron Man. And if you don’t think these all knowing nerds matter, consider this: recent reports have Rob Zombie putting a temporary halt on his remake of the John Carpenter classic Halloween. Why? Because early reviews of the script have been brutal in their unified hatred of the project.


What this means for the future of the motion picture marketing machine and its compatriots in the legitimate press may be insignificant – or insurgent. For decades, fans have complained about the lack of a voice in the way in which films are created. They’ve wanted more heart, more head, more meaning; basically, more substance. How letting a bunch of individuals with way too much free time on their hands dictate what does and does not make money (and therefore, catches the eye of those who make the creative decisions) as well as the dialogue on how it is received by the like minded public, doesn’t sound like a sane business practice. But for now, the geek zeitgeist controls the conversation, and there’s not much anyone outside the clique can do about it. 


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Saturday, Feb 10, 2007


On an isolated island in the middle of the Caribbean, Dr. Jake Terrell has made a breakthrough in the study of dolphins and interspecies language. His star pupil Fa has not only learned to understand English but he also has a rudimentary ability to speak it. Hoping to avoid exploitation of his special savant sea creatures, he shuns any press and avoids the in-depth inquiries from the Bland Foundation, who is funding his work. But when a seedy reporter named Curtis Mahoney threatens to blow the cover off the experiments, Terrell feels he has no choice but to bring Fa, and his female companion Be, out into the open. The revelation of the mammals’ special skill only makes matters worse, since it turns out that a shadow organization within the government has planted a spy in Terrell’s own staff.


As Fa and Be are being prepared for introduction to the world, they inadvertently become part of a conspiracy to use trained dolphins as assassins. It’s up to Terrrell and his remaining loyal staff, along with an unsuspected ally, to save the salt water sophisticates and prevent the porpoise murder of the President. And without a Jackal in sight, international terrorism has obviously entered a new era. Step aside all you candidates from Manchuria, it’s time for The Day of the Dolphin.


At the time, there was probably no perceived writing/directing team hotter than Mike Nichols and Buck Henry. Their prior two films together (The Graduate and Catch-22) had been embraced as counter culture calling cards, reel responses to bourgeoisie society and the war in Vietnam, respectively. Nichols alone was a wunderkind, having created such additional cinematic benchmarks as the acting triumphs Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Carnal Knowledge. So when Joseph E. Levine came looking to enforce his contract with Nichols (he was required to do one more movie for the producer), the young filmmaker approached his old friend about doing something completely different, something the two had never tried before. And then they went and made this movie instead. Part science fiction, part political thriller, with some ‘Earth First’ environmentalism thrown in for good measure, The Day of the Dolphin became a highly anticipated collaboration between the creative team.


It also complemented the early ‘70s fascination with the future, technology, earth, and the supposedly intelligent sea mammal species. It was considered quite topical, as it was based on an immensely popular bestseller that capitalized on the current craze for studies of dolphin and porpoise behavior. Scientists were, at the time, making advances in the very subject area, both pro (language) and con (mine recovery) the movie addressed. Add the notorious box office sideshow of George C. Scott and his young trophy wife Trish “Who’s Linda McCartney” Van Devere, and it seemed that a can’t-miss combination of talent and material had been discovered. There was no way it could fail. But remember, this is also what Franz Liebkind and Roger De Bris thought about Springtime for Hitler.


Seen in the far more sophisticated light of this new millennium’s mega-technical binary computer complicatedness, this simple underwater weirdness has definitely lost a lot of its sea legs. By today’s standards, The Day of the Dolphin is a goofy premise, made even goofier by the eventual thriller plot and, in the frenzied final moments, is rendered totally and completely into one of the goofiest movies ever made. But this is meant in a good way. Sort of. Like Darwin in SeaQuest DSV or the cyberpunk sea creature in Johnny Mnemonic, the inherent intelligence of the faux Flippers here becomes part of a campy car crash that, while not an all out disaster, plays more like a nonsensical National Geographic Special with ornery Oscar winners.


It’s hard to pinpoint just what does this movie in. Perhaps it’s the notion of the rather barrel-chested and city-slicked C. Scott donning a wet suit and doing the dead man’s float with his creature cast members while he channels Patton’s more “feminine” side. Or how about the substantial lack of lines for any other member of the cast, save for the scene-stealing slimeball Paul Sorvino as the single greasiest black ops agent in the covert government of America. Maybe the rest of the cast was as seemingly pissed as Fritz Weaver, all watching as the blow-holed, fish eating egomaniacs hogged all the single syllabled dialogue? (F.W. would get his revenge though. He went on to act alongside a megalomaniac motherboard in the computer bore Satan’s spawn silliness from 1977 called Demon Seed). Or possibly it was too many days in the tropics, allowing the baking and stroking rays of the Bermuda sun to confuse an otherwise sound and gifted filmmaker and his cinematic choices. Whatever it was, it turned his cautionary tale about tampering in God’s aquatic domain into Hooked on Phonics with Fa and Be.


And yet the movie somehow manages to squeak out an overall entertaining evening at the motion picture aquarium. Nichols has always been a uniquely skilled visual director, and his gorgeous tropical tableaus are wonderful. He does frame the majority of the film in medium two shots, as if to distance his audience from much of the laughable lunacy going on. But that’s only because there’s a lot to loll your head holes over in The Day of the Dolphin. When Georgie C. forces Fa to speak English and request a repast with his Caribbean Queen Be, he initiates the first interspecies booty call, compelling the horny mammal to mouth “Pa. Fa. Want. Be. Now.” Hell, these precognizant porpoises even get all freaked out when some suit suggests there’s a shark in their personal pool (anticipating the reaction to Steven Spielberg’s Jaws by a full two years). There are many scenes of Scottie in short pants, and musical montages of dolphins attempting the Venus Butterfly. By the time we get to the plot to eliminate the President (which comes so completely out of left field you expect Ted Williams to appear chasing after it), we are ready for anything.


But nothing can quite prepare us for the final moments of the movie where the fraught Fa tries to get his portly “Pa” to look back at him, just once more for one last father/fish fin wave. Indeed, the star speak-and-say sea creatures here give better performances than many of their land-lubbing counterparts. The Day of the Dolphin may long be remembered as the first chink in Nichol’s seemingly indestructible suit of creative armor, but all it really represents is a failed experiment in that most difficult of future shock filmmaking: the intelligent animal adventure.


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Friday, Feb 9, 2007


Henri Danglard is a famous Paris nightclub owner known for his fabulous shows and relatively poor business acumen. When he loses at his latest ventures, Henri stumbles upon a brilliant idea for a revival. He will bring back the traditional, risqué dance the Cancan, and build an entire upper-class club to feature this lower-class concept. But first, Henri needs dancers, and his sometimes girlfriend / always headliner Lola De Castro refuses to comply. So Danglard finds a young lady working in a laundry and grooms her to be his next star. Nini is very flattered by all the attention and soon falls in love with her mentor.


As the new theater, the Moulin Rouge, is being constructed, Lola tries to find ways to undermine her wayward lover. She uses her sexuality to lure the backers into pulling out of the deal. But then, a depressed prince, completely infatuated with Nini, comes to the rescue. It’s not long before it’s opening night, and the Moulin Rogue is ready to reintroduce the Cancan to the French people. Only problem is, Danglard is no longer paying attention to his star. And Nini refuses to take the stage, lest she understand where her relationship stands with the showman.


As comparable a color masterpiece as Renoir’s black and white wonder The Rules of the Game, French Cancan is an old-fashioned kiosk poster come to life—a love letter to a Paris of long ago, forged by a remarkable artist with the skill of a painter in the frame of a filmmaker. Simply stunning to look at, engaging from opening snake dance to extravagant stage show finale, this is Renoir at his best. Forged from a foundation of old-style Hollywood movie musicals (the plot borrows heavily from 42nd Street, while the look is pure MGM spectacle) with several inventive strokes that are pure Renoir, French Cancan mixes history and hyper-reality to create a singular story of human devotion and theatrical dedication.


While there are some elements of truth in the tale of how the Moulin Rouge came into existence (Renoir admits borrowing from the real story to create his film), French Cancan is yet another brilliant example of his mastery of the art of cinema. Hilarious and heartwarming with a wicked cynical core about the life of a performer, it is the stuff of mythology in the making. More so than An American in Paris, or any other Tinsel Town take on the fantasy that is France, French Cancan is a countryman’s compliment to the memory of his once-magnificent homeland. Renoir, driven from Paris by World War II (he worked in America for almost a decade), wanted to return to native soil and make an “apology” of sorts for his poorly received criticism of the French bourgeoisie (the aforementioned Game). The result is a movie that celebrates as it sentimentalizes the wild, wounded world of entertainers and their trade.


Jean Gabin, one of France’s all-time great actors, turns nightclub manager Danglard into perhaps the most charismatic cad in his long lineage of such roles. Relying far more on his entire body than just his matinee-idol features (Gabin was only 51 when the movie was made, but he looks and plays it much older), he brings grace and gaiety to a character that is, more or less, a celebration of a life in show business. Though we see Danglard suffer both highs and lows at the hands of the insular world’s backstabbing and competitive nature, we also understand completely why he stays in the game. For Danglard, the real world is a farce, a self-perpetuating cycle of cruelty with no real passion or presence. In the world of the theater, however, it is human endeavor that makes up the market, and as a result, dictates the level of personal commitment. Nothing is more tactile than the stage, according to Renoir, and Gabin is its chief celebrant.


As Nini, Françoise Arnoul is the picture-perfect embodiment of the ingénue: a seemingly helpless young lady who secretly hides a wealth of worldly wisdom—and desires. She matches magnificently with Gabin and holds her own throughout all the strenuous dance material. Other standouts include the walking wantonness of exotic beauty Maria Felix. As the star attraction in Danglard’s productions, she combines unbelievable sensuality with the necessary arrogance of a headliner to create a love/hate relationship with the audience. With Giani Esposito as perhaps the most sullen, depressed nobleman ever to darken a movie screen (his whole ambiance is one of gloom and sadness) and Philippe Clay as the tax collector-turned-clown Casimir (always the center of attention with his commentary style songs), French Cancan rides on the backs of some of the most amazing performances and characters ever created for the French cinema.


Fans of Renoir’s work will also be taken aback by the abject sexuality the director tosses into French Cancan. There are several sequences (Gabin and the fetching Maria Felix in bed, a dancer changing in a back room) that definitely push the limits of skin and the inference of nudity by 1955 standards. Also, Nini is a woman who enjoys many trysts outside the wedding bed (with baker boyfriend Paolo and Gabin) in blatant contravention of the morals of the day. Some could argue that this is merely the filmmaker falling into the trap of cliché, claiming that show people are far more brash in their proclivities and loose in their ethics than the stuffed shirts who come to their performances. But the truth is, Renoir is really celebrating the embracing of life that individuals ensconced in the arts seem to enjoy. Instead of denouncing the bed-hopping and suggestions of flesh, Renoir seems to be saying that those who give their souls to an audience night after night are rewarded with a more free and open spirit, an advantageous ability to see the elemental, emotional aspects of life (of which, of course, sex and sexuality are part and parcel).


Indeed, the distinction between the life of a performer and the world of the average man or woman is at the heart of French Cancan. Nini is given a choice near the end of the film: She can have the “normal” life of a laundry girl, or she can become a trouper, a member of the performing profession who casts off all concepts of normalcy for the chance to strut and fret upon the stage. Her eventual choice is then channeled through a celebratory dance, a 10-minute masterwork of music and maneuvers that ends French Cancan on an amazingly upbeat and infectious note.


Perhaps the slyest bit of direction by Renoir ever, French Cancan is a movie that sneaks up on you with its overwhelming likeability. The director constantly circumvents your expectations, allowing the film to flummox and fool you time and time again. Characters consistently break into song, using the moment to add an exclamation point to a person or problem. Minor, telling details undercut broad strokes of sentiment, and the sets suggest reality while invoking the canvases of the great masters (including Renoir’s own father). Proving he can make even the most anarchic of dances into a true statement of the sublime, Renoir uses the Cancan, with its racy nature and skirt-raising ramifications, as an expression of freedom and joi de vivre. Indeed, the entire film is like a sharpened bottle of champagne just waiting for the cork to pop, releasing its exuberant effervescence. When the ladies dance the French Cancan in a frenzy of glorious gymnastics, the movie finally fulfills its promise.


An amazing film to look at as well as a stirring tribute to the essence of Renoir’s native land, French Cancan represents one of the finest examples of cinematic experimentation ever attempted. Renoir creates his own concept of France in the early 19th century and, with the help of some remarkable and memorable characters, invites us on this glorious trip down the Ruelle De Mémoire. It is, without a doubt, one of the great films in the lexicon of motion pictures.


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