Sunday, February 27, 2011

Codes and silences

At the very least, The Town (2010) settles the issue: Ben Affleck is a real movie director, not just an actor who takes an occasional flyer behind the lens. Gone, Baby Gone was extremely accomplished, but whether because of its modest scale and star (Affleck's brother Casey) or its downbeat and somewhat ambiguous tone, it did not make a big impression in the film business community. Still, every talented actor probably has one pretty good film in them. Affleck came roaring back with another entry in the evolving sub-genre of films set in Eastern Massachusetts, wrapping his drama of growth, loyalty and betrayal in a hard boiled heist-move coating.

Frankly, the coating is more convincing than the gooey center of the film, which tries to suggest that a career criminal can win the love and loyalty of a Good Woman and then completely quit being a thief. But although that premise is hard to take, Affleck's depiction of what FBI man Jon Hamm's character calls "Irish omerta" is utterly persuasive, especially the strong ties between Affleck's character and that of Jeremy Remmer (Hurt Locker) a probable sociopath who is nonetheless fiercely loyal and, in his own way, trustworthy.

Most impressive is Affleck's handling of an urban car chase midway through the film reminiscent of the best aspects of John Frankenheimer's Ronin. Shot and edited with an economy, lightness and realistic scale that make it more convincing than many more hyperbolic sequences (e.g. The Matrix Reloaded). The light, swift style in which all the crime-action scenes are put together heighten their plausibility, even though the premise of the climactic sequence, an attempted heist of Fenway is prima facie ridiculous.

The economy of the shooting is mirrored in the elliptical dialogue (Affleck is also co-writer of the final shooting script with Aaron Stockard). Here's how we learn of the loyalty of Remmer's character (James) to Affleck's character (Doug):
Doug MacRay: I need your help. I can't tell you what it is, you can never ask me about it later, and we're gonna hurt some people.
James Coughlin: Whose car are we gonna take?
And later they discuss the big job that could set them for life, either as wealthy men or permanent prisoners:
Doug MacRay: You know if this thing goes right, could be your turn to step away, too.
James Coughlin: Yeah. Sure. What am I gonna do? Dougy, huh? Go down to Margaritaville, drink half a yard and fall off the [bleep]in' bar stools?
Doug MacRay: Do me a favor, the weight of this thing...pack a parachute at least.
James Coughlin: You know the funniest thing about being in prison guys pretending they wanna get out. I can't do any more time, Dougy. So if we get jammed up, we're holding court on the street.
The criminal mastermind in The Town runs a flower shop as a front, as does one of the rival gang leaders in what is often cited as the film that kicked off the gangster film cycle of the early '30s, the romantic Underworld (1927).

Journalist and future screenwriter Ben Hecht concocted a hard-boiled story, is first for the movies, of a gangster's rise coupled with a bit of romantic rivalry, trying to be as true as he could be to the real Chicago gangsters he new personally. Paramount assigned the story to the struggling young Josef von Sternberg, who had established two reputations, one as an efficient technician and "movie doctor" and the other as a visual poet with less interest in narrative than in pictures. Luckily, this was a perfect qualification for a director of silent film, in which the best stories were the simplest ones which could be explored in purely pictorial terms.

Von Sternberg took Hecht's gritty story and made it an operatic love triangle, a competition between two spiritual brothers, one "Rolls Royce", representing Mind, and the other, "Bull" representing Body, for the possession of the sensual yet ethereal woman, evocatively called "Feathers" (and covered in them most of the time). Von Sternberg's reputation rests on his exploration and exploitation of actor's faces, of subtle details of eyes and corners of mouths. But he is also the master of light and shadow and the moving camera. The sequence below begins with what is quite clearly an attempted rape, without showing anything which could seriously disturb a censor.

If you don't want to take the time for this entire clip, start at about 4:00 and see how von Sternberg absorbs the lessons of German cinema in staging and lighting, and how he allows his audience thrill to grotesque violence without showing it directly (yet without cutting away). Then von Sternberg exercises a superb economy, cutting straight from the murder of Buck in his flower ship (just like The Town) to Bull's sentencing; from one kind of justice to another.

One of the toughest things about watching dramatic silent films today can be the long focus on faces which seem to be barely changing. In sound film, a silent reflective moment can be effective, but when all the action is silent, long close-ups can seem really languorous. But von Sternberg keeps the story alive even as we see thought flicker over the characters' faces. I don't know of a silent feature which is so consistently engaging and absorbing, even with its simple characters and symbols. (Look, for instance, at the confetti which covers the floor of the Criminal's Ball like a thick soup of moral squalor.)

But powerful as it is, Underworld doesn't really feel like a true ancestor of those rise-to-the-top gangster films like Little Caesar, The Public Enemy and the original Scarface. (And incidentally, every fan of The Godfather, Wiseguys, the Scarface remake and The Sopranos owe it to themselves to see those primitive antecedents, many sequences of which are still blood-chilling.) Bull Weed is a well-established success at the beginning of the film, and Underworld has more to do with choices and loyalty than about the role of the gangster in society and the manner in which he gathers power, which is at the heart of the 30s cycle.

That trope is, however, central to the latest remake of The Public Enemy, the South African crime epic Gangster's Paradise: Jerusalema (released theatrically here in 2010). Although it incorporates real-life story elements such as the collapse of apertheid and the use of rent strike law to acquire title to real estate, the film still feels like a long-distance echo of the old Warner Bros. classics, for which black skin stands in for Irish heritage and cocaine substitutes for illegal booze. The central character even dies of a fatal gun show surrounded by cops exactly like Jimmy Cagney in The Roaring Twenties and Edward G. Robinson in Little Caesar. All that is needed was for Kunene to gasp out, "Mother of Mercy, is this the end of Lucky?" Jerusalema is even directly derivative of Michael Mann's Heat, as Joburg gangsters imitate one of the key MOs in that film, plowing tractor-trailers into armored trucks.

The one truly original. element is the first half-hour of the film, depicting the future gangsters as clueless and inept youngsters, stealing trucks they don't even know how to drive, and planning to hijack drivers while standing under a sign warning drivers that they are likely to be hijacked in this area. The mix of English, Zulu, Afrikaans and pidgin is also quite interesting and illustrates the slippery social distinctions of the South African criminal world (specifically, the depredations of the refugees from Ghana).

But for all the trappings, the elements of gangster films remain the same: poverty, lack of opportunity, violence, family, loyalty and betrayal. I don't think any of this is going away soon.

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