Port of Shadows: Behind the Beauty

Port of Shadows can be read as an allegory for France wavering on the edge of disaster. Much like the fog and imminent storm the barkeep’s fixed barometer represses, the threat of fascism lingered over pre-war France. Mussolini established a fascist dictatorship in Italy while both the Nazi Party and Communist groups were rising. Jean embodies the wounded spirit of pre-war France and the gangsters represent the emergent fascist powers. France longs to avoid the fearsome future of oppressive rule, just as Jean plans to escape via the ship.

However, Port of Shadows considers the nation’s failure to armor itself against incoming threats. Collective and national forces against the rising powers are viewed as fruitless. Jean (France) is ultimately shot dead by the gangsters (fascists). Panama serves as a supposed refuge from the stormy weather and communal space but ultimately offers no protection against the storm outside and the gangster’s destruction.

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Port of Shadows aptly encapsulates the characteristics of French Poetic Realism. The moody, soft-focus cinematography shrouds each scene with a dismal gloom. Even the fairground scene has a lingering melancholy. Atmospheric locales define the mise-en-scene: a rundown seaside tavern surrounded by a grimy and gravelly pier, pitch-black roads surrounded by stark trees and filled with fog and narrow cobblestone streets.

Port of Shadows employs French Poetic Realism’s focus on characters from a low social milieu. Jean is a runaway war deserter with no money to speak of, and he faces off against petty crooks, gangsters, and meager drifters. The pessimistic tone of French Poetic Realism is signaled by the characters’ tortured psyche and oppressive circumstances. Jean subtly indicates that he has disturbed wartime memories and Nelly is trapped by her lecherous guardian. Characters frequently express their distaste for living. Jean indicates that life has “been pretty beastly to me so far.”

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This pessimistic tone is encapsulated in the bar occupants’ exchange with a suicidal artist. He admits that he cannot paint anything beautiful without seeing the crime behind it, “I’d seen crime in a rose” and “To me a swimmer is already a drowned man.” This cynical exchange concludes that there is always something malevolent lurking underneath our daily lives. (This also functions as another allegory for the surrender to rising fascist powers) Port of Shadows fulfills the sad endings of French Poetic realism when Jean dies in Nelly’s arms. Just as the painter professed, the beauty of love is thwarted by the crime lurking underneath. Port of Shadows concludes that happiness is fleeting and corruption always wins out in the end.

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Gold Diggers of 1933: Cinema’s Great Escape

The economic catastrophe of The Great Depression compelled audiences to seek solace in the darkened theatre.  The opulence of the musical genre provided such a cultural salve with their bright musical numbers, witty jokes, and bow-tie endings of romantic unions.  However, I believe Gold Diggers of 1933 critiques cinematic fantastical escapism. The film rejects the passivism of its generic trends to expose, rather than repress, Depression-era realities for its spectators. Such critiques are found within the binaries of the “We’re in the Money” sequence. Ginger Rogers, the pinnacle of American goodness, fills the screen with her shining face as the camera reveals a bevy of glittering chorines. The reassuring and spectacular images of an American musical are undercut as the police rush the stage to confiscate the theatre’s property for its unpaid debts. Their stark black uniforms harshly juxtapose the women’s sequined beauty. They bring forth the mundane reality of the Depression for both the diegetic characters and the film’s spectators.

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The following scene in the apartment exposes the Depression-era life of young actresses. The camera zooms in on a note passed through under the door, the landlady asking for the rent. The camera pans over the women sleeping side by side in the tiny beds of a ramshackle apartment. The actresses lament about their economic circumstances, complaining of scarce jobs and their perpetual hunger. We then see them consuming stale bread and stealing milk. They dream of their pre-Depression life visiting Park Avenue and going on Havana vacations. These conditions are not far removed from the lives of Depression-era spectators. These girls fantasize about inhabiting of the most luxurious and potentially prosperous professions in the world: the actress. Yet, it is a difficult one to pursue, and the Depression only exacerbated the problems of pursuing it. Acting is also an escapist profession. The women of Gold Diggers of 1933 long to pretend to be other people in order to forget about their economic standing, the same reasoning for spectators viewing this film.

The final musical sequence, “Remember My Forgotten Man,” confirms the film’s critique of escapism. The Busby Berkeley numbers preceding it enrapture the spectator with their stark Expressionistic graphics, hypnotic patterns and surreal construction of the female body. The elongated sequences play back-to-back until the abrubt disruption of this number, like a splash of cold water onto the spectator’s face. This number criticizes America’s involvement in World War I, depicting the war as tragic and senseless. The number also reveals the ramifications of Depression economics on our soldiers. “Remember my forgotten man?/You put a rifle in his hand/You sent him far away/You shouted ‘Hip hooray!/But look at him today.” Soldiers are considered a universal symbol of American pride and honor, failing them means that we have failed as a nation.

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The lyrics: And once he used to love me/I was happy then/He used to take care of me/Won’t you bring him back again? / ‘Cause ever since the world began/A woman’s got to have a man/Forgetting him, you see/Means you’re forgetting me/Like my forgotten man brings forth the female perspective of this dilemma and asserts that the Great Depression has ripped the very fabric of America, the family unit. Images of wounded soldiers marching and carrying hospital gurneys through a harsh storm infuse this sequence with a meditative horror. The camera tracks down close-ups of soldiers waiting on a never-ending breadline. This image assaults the spectator with an overwhelming impression of the sheer amount of victims the Depression has claimed.  Gold Diggers of 1933 ends with this number, leaving the spectator to walk out of the theatre not with the dreamy Busby Berkeley sequences on their mind, but rather a haunting reminder of their current circumstances, thus circumventing any predisposed ideas of a backstage musical’s typical blissful ending.

The film ultimately calls into question the cinematic practices of the American public. Gold Diggers of 1933 refuses to pacify its audience by directly confronting Depression-era circumstances. Though it does not provide any explicit answers to the economic devastation, it urges Americans to question how they can resolve this, a resolution that will never come when one shelters themselves within cinema’s escapist fantasies.