It has been so long since I’ve not had a movie to review that I kind of forget what other things I write about on here. I don’t think I’m going to weatherproof my apartment this year, because I seriously think it doesn’t do a bit of good. All of the drafts come from where the walls don’t square to the wood floors. I’ve been going to Civ consistently enough that they now know what I’m going to get based on the weather outside. Large Mexican Hot Chocolate and a toasted wheat bagel if it is cold. Something from the fridge if it is warm. Eventually I suppose I’ll just be able to walk in and say “peanut butter!” or “cream cheese!” since that will be the only variable.
You can find more information on my Forbidden Zone obsession here. While this mask looks more like an alligator than a frog, I was limited by the amount of cardboard at my disposal, and couldn’t make the mouth any wider. My eventual goal is to make a nearly exact replica of the mask from the movie, but that will involve cheesecloth, chickenwire, and more time than I currently have at my disposal.
Some folks actually knew who I was this year, which is better than last year when no one realized that I was Teen Wolf. [Damn kids.]
Ever since I first saw this film a few years ago its cheery theme song comes back as an earworm at least once a month. “À nous, à nous, la li-ber-té!” While it is no longer roll-on-the-floor hilarious, it is still a light-hearted and enjoyable jaunt through an idealized, not-yet-cynical 20th century industrial environment. I promise not to fill this review with hyphens, although it might already be too late. Even if Clair made the film today it still might be bereft of the cynicism, so potent is the joie de vivre of the main characters. The plot is relatively simple, two friends attempt to escape from the pen, but only one makes it, and becomes a successful industrialist. Years later his yurodivy friend ends up working in the same factory, even though he’d rather be napping in a field of wildflowers. They rekindle their friendship, by accident, but the center cannot hold as other criminals try to blackmail the escaped con/industrialist.
He manages to stave off this doom long enough to bequeath his entire corporation to the workers and escapes with his friend in the ensuing windstorm/riot. In a reprise of the theme song at the end, both friends are happy as wandering bums, free as the wind and with as few cares.
While the core of the plot requires little to think about [as the core of the film is comedy] its appendages are open to many readings. Throughout the film, comparisons are made between prison life and factory life, which you can see in the first two screen shots I’ve provided. Initially all the references to freedom are made by people who are, in some way, not free at all. The song is yearning and motivational at these points as opposed to its function as a hymn of rejoicing in the end. While the film has an unmissable socialist flavor to it, it is less a critique of authority than a document of man’s tendency to obsess about order, even unto the loss of freedom.
Even as an industrialist, Louis, is restricted by the expectations of his sycophants, the need to conform to the behavior that other wealthy people expect, and his past. He has managed to drug himself with his wealth and it takes the return of Emilé to remind him that life is not about being important, but about being happy and free. This recognition likely provides the inspiration he has to give the newly automated factory over to the workers, who can now spend their days bowling, playing cards, fishing or dancing instead of making phonographs. Despite its focus on freedom, the film isn’t really existentialist, since it equates freedom with a lack of responsibility instead of freedom as responsibility itself.
It is claimed and debated that this film was the inspiration/plagiarized for Chaplin’s Modern Times, but I think that whole discussion is missing the point; that in the context of the age, there was a need for films as specifically similar as these to be made. Socialism and the assembly line were relatively new and fresh ideas, ripe with promise and expectation. What René Clair creates in À nous la liberté is an alloy of the two, where automation leads to utopia and freedom for all. Despite the now-obvious errors in his idea, À nous la liberté’s hope for the future and zest for freedom remain inspiring even 75 years later.
• Criterion Essay by Michael Atkinson.
• DVD Journal essay by Mark Bourne.
• Senses of Cinema article by John Flaus.
• DVD Verdict essay by Barrie Maxwell.
• YouTube clip [a bit sketchy at the beginning, but settles out].
I would like to preface this review by saying that Marian Keane’s Criterion Essay linked at the end is going to be much better than anything I will write here. The 39 Steps is my favorite Hitchcock film, made when he was still in Great Britain. In many respects his later work in The Lady Vanishes is related to this film. I have provided more than my usual number of screenshots because there were so many striking ones in this film. Some of the best cannot be reproduced in still photos, because the camera movement is the real star. I’m an unabashed fan of Hitchcock’s earlier works, possibly because of their quality in spite of budget and the British Board of Film Censors.
The plot of The 39 Steps is centered around a Canadian in Great Britain who becomes embroiled in a spy ring and is wrongly accused of murder. With only one clue and a talent for on-the-spot story-telling, he flees to Scotland from the cronies of a man with a shortened pinky finger in order to track down a Professor who turns out to have a shortened pinky finger. You see, they are trying to transport a government secret about a new plane out of the country to an unnamed foreign power. Of course, you don’t find out about this until the last minute or two of the film, in typical Hitchcockian suspense mode.
Along the way, the Canadian Richard Hannay keeps bumping in to this blonde woman who keeps turning him over to the police/spies from which he keeps escaping. Even in the most serious of scenes Hitchcock manages to place little bits of humor such as this to lighten the intensity of the action. And it isn’t the same sort of humor at every point, some is low-brow, some comes from awkward situation comedy and there is plenty of wry wit from the protagonist himself.
Most people think horror when they think Hitchcock, but it is mystery and suspense that are the bread and butter of his films. The deftness with which these traits are meted out in The 39 Steps, coupled with Hitchcock’s ability to add a twist right when we think the suspense is going to be suspended make the film interesting at every moment. The characters we meet, though only briefly, have lasting impacts throughout the film, and the most innocuous of items or actions create a similar ripple effect. It takes a special sort of director to so easily roughen the waters and subsequently still them and have a good time while doing it. Thankfully Hitchcock is that man.
Here is the link to the ballot [PDF] I’ll be voting on in the upcoming election. Here is how I’ll be voting on the issues and why:
Issue 1: Referendum on Workers’ Compensation:
Although I might be missing some nuances to this legislation, especially in light of Bill Peirce’s stance against BWC, it appears to me that Issue 1 is providing some sensible amendments to current Workers’ Compensation law. As of now, I’ll be voting for Issue 1.
Issue 2: Minimum Wage Rate Increase:
I am voting for Issue 2. Having felt the pinch of minimum wage labor myself, I know how difficult it can be survive on a minimum wage job.
Issue 3: Allow in-state gambling/casinos:
I am voting against Issue 3. The reasoning behind this is simple. Everything I’ve seen about their campaign strategy is a three-card monte game, often gambling isn’t even mentioned in the ads, only an appeal to emotion, “Please think of the children!” Also, following much of the discussion at BrewedFreshDaily on the issue, I am convinced that gambling as an economic initiative is fundamentally flawed.
Issue 4: Smoking Issue #1:
This proposal would amend the Ohio Constitution to allow indoor smoking in a variety of public places and would counteract or create a loophole in any other law that would ban indoor smoking in public places. This bill is sponsored by tobacco companies. Voting Yes in Issue 4 would mean you would want to vote No on Issue 5, which is in direct opposition to this Issue. I’m voting against Issue 4, because although everyone talks about how it will be bad for business, I think people like beer more than cigarettes, and people who currently don’t go out to bars and other places because of the smoke [like me] will be more likely to do so if smoking in enclosed public places is restricted. Also, I don’t think an amendment about smoking belongs anywhere near the constitution.
Issue 5: Smoking Issue #2:
So I guess that means I’m voting for Issue 5, which is just a law and not a constitutional amendment. I grew up in a two-smoker household and my asthma and the chunks of yellow phlegm I used to cough up when I first started running are testament to the ill effects of second-hand smoke. I liken smoking in enclosed public places to any other sort of disturbance. Take it outside. Voting Yes on 5 means you want to vote No on 4, otherwise your votes will cancel each other out.
Issue 18: Cigarette Tax to fund the Arts in Cleveland:
Issue 18 would impose a 30¢ per pack cigarette tax on cigarettes purchased in the Cuyahoga County. The money from this tax would go to fund arts and cultural organizations throughout the county. At a Neighborhood Connections meeting I heard from a woman in favor of the Issue on the current state of Arts and Cultural funding in the county. Apparently all of the money to fund these institutions is private, from the Cleveland Foundation, or the Gund Foundation mainly. Other cities typically fund their arts and culture through the hotel tax, but in Cleveland that revenue goes to the Conventions and Visitor’s Bureau and to pay bond obligations on public buildings. Also, their campaign slogan is “It’s NOT a property tax.” which is the stupidest way to convince someone to vote for something as I’ve ever seen. I am voting against Issue 18, because while funding Arts and Cultural institutions and events is important, the problem in Cleveland is institutional, something a tax will only appear to fix.
Issue 19: Levy Adjustment to fund Health and Human Services in Cleveland:
Issue 19 will reapportion 1-thousandth of a cent from an existing levy for four years to fund health and human services organizations. As this is a tax-payer directed reapportionment of funding I will vote for Issue 19. The League of Women Voters offers the pros and cons [pdf] of this issue.
Issue 42: Should a local gas station be allowed to sell beer on Sundays:
There is a gas station down the street that wants to amend their liquor license to sell beer on Sundays. That’s fine with me. I will vote for Issue 42.
It might be a bit reductive to compare Spike Lee and Jane Campion [An Angel at My Table] in terms of minority filmmaking, but it is interesting to see how their films exert themselves in that sort of space. I think they can be called “minority films” because the directors’ engagement and identification with their minority status informs and directs what takes place on the screen.
I think Spike Lee is ultimately more successful at this. Do The Right Thing is still effective and contemporary because nothing in the film is contained; the experience of watching the film, and the action itself are just as messy as real life, while still presented in Lee’s unique subjectivity. Because of this, any person who watches Do The Right Thing has a point of access that is not alienating.
Violence as a way of achieving racial justice is both impractical and immoral. It is impractical because it is a descending spiral ending in destruction for all. The old law of an eye for an eye leaves everybody blind. It is immoral because it seeks to humiliate the opponent rather than win his understanding; it seeks to annihilate rather than to convert. Violence is immoral because it thrives on hatred rather than love. It destroys a community and makes brotherhood impossible. It leaves society in monologue rather than dialogue. Violence ends by defeating itself. It creates bitterness in the survivors and brutality in the destroyers.
-Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
They key point in the previous quote, as it seems to me, is: “it seeks to humiliate the opponent rather than win his understanding.” By providing such a varied and non-judgmental setting, Spike Lee enables King, Jr.’s words a chance to take effect. Whereas, in my experience of Campion’s films, points of access for understanding are much more difficult to discern due to her focus on a single protagonist’s subjectivity. In the Cut is a perfect example of this, but it is also present in Angel at My Table and to a lesser extent in The Piano.
Bamboozled [if only I could find my Film Theory paper on it] is another Spike Lee Joint where multiple perspectives mesh together into a real-world mess of authenticity and subjectivity. It adds another facet to the milieu of Do The Right Thing. Everyone in Do The Right Thing is authentic, but in Bamboozled the characters have to confront the consequences of soul-selling and being considered a race traitor. I like Bamboozled more than Do The Right Thing, even if it is a less perfect and more troubling film.
I always seem to get to production values at the end. Do The Right Thing is a perfect film in this regard. Colors and film stock make the spectator feel the Bed-Stuy summer heat, increasingly prevalent dutch angles reinforce the precarious fire watch atmosphere, and when the confrontation finally comes it is still surprising how hot the conflagration gets. The aftermath is just as surprising. While Spike Lee is deliberately not specific with a Jerry Springer “Final Thought” the whole construction of the film is such that it encourages anyone with two neurons to rub together to think about what it means to do the right thing.
• Criterion Essay by Roger Ebert
• Spike Lee Interview
• Salon article on the effects of Public Enemy’s Fight the Power. [Uncut and Uncensored YouTube music video]
• YouTube clip
The title I sent in was “Woodland Creatures.” The paper is slightly warped because it was folded in my mailbox during the whole damp weekend. I’m pretty sure framing will flatten it out nicely though.
Plus free sticker! [Already on my laptop]. You can see the rest of the submissions here.