Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Capsules: Chinatown (Polanski, 1974)/Rebel Without A Cause (Ray, 1955)/Escape From L.A. (Carpenter, 1996)

Chinatown (Polanski, 1974)
When I first saw Chinatown, I liked-it-not-loved-it. I saw it as a well crafted and executed plot, and not much else. To an extent, I was right: at the end of the day, what happens is sometimes more important than why it happens. However, Polanski's skill is readily apparent. The last scene, for example, is staged as well as any scene I can think of in any film.

"Chinatown" refers to a state in which, by striving to do good, everything goes wrong. Cops in Chinatown, Jake says, were told to do "as little as possible." By the end of the film, we understand why. Along the way, the audience is subjected to an unraveling plot of concealed intentions and motives, and audience involvement is required as each layer is peeled away. Meanwhile, the film's aesthetic subtly mimmicks (though in color) the noir genre from which it is a loving descendent.

At one point, Jake is in his room and he shuts the curtains hastily. Suddenly, the lights coming from inside the room shut off, signifying the lack of imagined light filtering in through the window. This is utterly transparent, and it must've been an intentional recognition of the film's construct, calling attention to it's shoutout to noir films of the past.

I was a bit hesitant to jump on the masterpiece bandwagon with this one, but when I think of all the Polanski films I've seen, this best showcases his skill in the medium, and he's no slouch in my book. An excellent film, 'tis.

Rebel Without A Cause (Ray, 1955)
Rebel Without A Cause is problematic in that much of its meaning can be discerned from its title alone. The film positively wallows in didacticism and melodrama, so that either you buy into the world portrayed or you don't. I buy in about half way.

The film portrays generational conflict and family upheaval within a society with a very conservative value system. The families and their surface surroundings are made clearly to represent picture-perfect, functioning units, yet the discord between parent and child is simulataneously made abundantly obvious. In a way, we have opposing forces of aesthetic and narrative that create a conflicted whole (intentionally and successfully).

There is a clear but overshadowed homoeroticism between one kid's fixation on Jim, and in that respect the film earns "ahead of its time" status. There's nothing terribly wrong with the film, and it's thematically relevent, it just doesn't attain sheer greatness.

Escape From L.A. (Carpenter, 1996)
Escape From L.A. is every bit the perfect blend of satire, kitsch, action, and atmosphere that Escape From New York is. Like its predecessor, it is essentially an extended, campy political cartoon with an overblown power struggle in which a single infamous convict is unbelievably enlisted by the government to save the nation by invading a walled-off criminal complex and obtaining a certain item in exchange for his own life. At the end of both films, there is a last-laugh switcheroo in which Snake maintains badassery and humilates the dystopian United States regime. Somehow, Carpenter and Russell make the "fuck it all" attitude work, and the films positively ooze this ambiguous rebellion, resulting in two movies that earn the title "guilty pleasure" for me not because they are not good films, but because of the extent to which I love them.

Escape From L.A. has terrible, terrible CGI. Who cares? The worst looking film shark ever tries unsuccessfully to bite Snake's submarine in a particularly unnecessary bout of computer generated indulgence. Awesome!

What makes the film work, though, is that it juggles many competing facets simultaneously. It's tongue in cheek, but it also successfully depicts a horrible, yet almost outlandishly believable future. As I've mentioned, it's a cartoon, but scarily reminiscent of deep seated fears that could very well be justified in the current political climate. Just as she begins a monologue about how great the freedom afforded by Los Angeles is, the woman (who we feel Snake may actually care about to some extent) that accompanies Snake briefly is shot down and dies immediately. There is a pang of injustice here, and Carpenter doesn't smooth it over. Unlike so many other films, there are implications and consequences to the actions here.

Though it or anything else in the film won't win any prizes for subtlety, the ending is fantastic. Snake refuses to aid either corrupt force, instead shutting down the entire world, setting human progress back centuries and leveling the playing field. Eventually, the circle will turn again, and ultimate progress leads to ultimate regression. This is, I would argue, very likely true, and though it's possible to gauge such matters, I used to (when I was, oh, fifteen or so) be convinced that the world would end in my lifetime. Now, I'm not so sure. I think the inevitable will just be prolonged for many years more... but I'm digressing.

This duo of films from John Carpenter are a pair of loud, obvious, and charged challenges to establishment. Any establishment, just pick one.


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