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.

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.

No Looking Back: Edward Burns and the Boss

No Looking Back is likely one of the strongest works in Edward Burns’ canon, yet it remains grossly underseen and was a massive box office failure. (Burns later said his friends nicknamed the film Nobody Saw It. After its poor commercial reception he did not write anything for two years.) Edward Burns is strong writer and director, and I highly recommend all of his works. While I may have a bias because I am a major Bruce Springsteen fan, I am particularly intrigued with No Looking Back‘s intertextual relationship to his work. Not only does the film include three Springsteen songs, it can also be read as a modern visual representation of “Born to Run” and “Thunder Road.”

The film focuses on blue-collar characters with escapist fantasies, unfulfilled hopes, and fragile, unrequited love. Charlie (played by Edward Burns) returns to his Long Island home to reengage with his ex-girlfriend. Burns constructs a dismal, dark and flat milieu drawn out of typical Springsteenian iconography. The isolated and cloudy town is filled with garbage in the streets, decrepit buildings, gas stations, scrubby bars, old cars, and a seaside town adjacent to an aging boardwalk. Burns breathes to life Springsteen’s lyrics:

Baby this town rips the bones from your back
It’s a death trap, it’s a suicide rap
We gotta get out while we’re young

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The female lead, Claudia, works at a dirty greasy spoon diner, but longs to escape the town and her low-class job. However, she feels bound to her fiancee. (Played by another famous New Jersey musican, Bon Jovi.)  Charlie, like the “Born to Run” narrator, wills Claudia to leave the town and move on with her life by romantically escaping with him.

We’re gonna get to that place
Where we really wanna go
and we’ll walk in the sun

Evoking these lyrics, Charlie dreams of running to travel someplace warm, like Florida. As in Springsteen’s song, the dreams of a sun-filled paradise directly juxtaposes their dismal small-town home.

However, Burns presents a unique twist to the song- these characters are not so young anymore. Both Charlie and Claudia have reached a crossrods in their lives. Society views them as too young to indulge in “childish” escapist daydreams. Rather, they should settle down into the adult aspirations of a nuclear family. The pair reflect the various small-town characters which populate Springsteen’s landscape. To quote “Badlands,” both Charlie and Claudia “spend their life waiting for a moment that just don’t come.” Too afraid to make a move, they remain complacent and static.

The lines:

The amusement park rises bold and stark
Kids are huddled on the beach in a mist
I wanna die with you Wendy on the street tonight
In an everlasting kiss

are evoked in one of the most unabashedly romantic sequences in the film. Charlie and Claudia share a passionate kiss on the beach shores, the bright sun filling the frame and illuminating their embrace. Wendy and her lover come to life in this angelic portrait of love.

Springsteen’s music makes its first diegetic appearance during a scene at the laundromat. “One Step Up” from the Tunnel of Love album plays softly on the radio. Charlie remarks on the song, and Claudia confirms: “You know I love all his stuff.”

Springsteen’s lyrics narrate her inner turmoil as the song abandons the quiet radio to overlay Claudia contemplating her relationship with Charlie. At this point, she begins negotiating her devotion to her fiancee and the unresolved feelings for Charlie.

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I’m the same old story same old act
One step up and two steps back

As in these lyrics, Claudia has been trapped in the monotony and repetition of her life. She works a the diner day in and day out and returns home to someone she is only with out of expectation rather than devotion. The step she longs to take- leaving her hometown- is forever on the horizion but one she fears to reach. Although Springsteen retains a male point-of view:

When I look at myself I don’t see
The man I wanted to be
Somewhere along the line I slipped off track
I’m caught movin’ one step up and two steps back

the lyrics are transferred onto Claudia. Now that Charlie is back in her life, she questions the view of her self and circumstances. She has always longed to be so much more than a housewive and a waitress.

The next two sequences features two Springsteen songs concurrently, “I’m on Fire” and “Valentine’s Day.” The pulsating sexuality of “I’m on Fire” subtextually conveys the lingering attraction they still share. The song plays as the two prepare for their date. They change and determine the merit of their looks in front of the mirror. This is not a simple or casual reunion of an ex-couple. “I’m on Fire” presents the seductive promise of their reunion, preluding their reconnection in the motel room.

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“Valentine’s Day” plays as their date continues.

One hand’s tremblin’ over my heart
It’s pounding baby like it’s gonna bust right on through
And it ain’t gonna stop till I’m alone again with you

The lyrics continue to subtextually convey the underlaying passion of their reunion and the electric chemstiry they share.

Ironically, the lyrics:

A friend of mine became a father last night
When we spoke in his voice I could hear the light

play as the characters discuss their aborted child. Edward Burns shares that he wants to be a father again, but Claudia reveals that she can no longer have children.The pair share a dance as the song continues. The simplicity of this sweet and romantic song conveys the power of their relationship, it is the beautiful center in their claustophobic small-town life. The song closes as their dance fades into a kiss in a motel room:

So hold me close honey say you’re forever mine
And tell me you’ll be my lonely valentine

No Looking Back reverts the male agency of Springsteen’s narrators to its female character. We can imagine Charlie singing the lines in “Thunder Road,”

All the redemption I can offer, girl, is beneath this dirty hood
With a chance to make it good somehow
Hey, what else can we do now?
Except roll down the window and let the wind blow back your hair
Well, the night’s busting open, these two lanes will take us anywhere
We got one last chance to make it real
To trade in these wings on some wheels
Climb in back, heaven’s waiting on down the tracks

promising Claudia paradise if only she will follow him. However, in No Looking Back, the Mary character leaves on her own. The film’s closing shot focuses on Claudia as she drives the car herself, leaving her small-town alone and on her own terms. This uniquely reverts the White Knight tropes in Springsteen’s work. Edward Burns, in one of his best films, manages to both mobilize and dismantle Springsteenian themes.

The Local Stigmatic: Fame is the First Sin

The Local Stigmatic is a pet project of Al Pacino’s, a one-act play he had performed in the 1960s and turned into a film during the late 80s. It was never released theatrically and finally saw the light of day in a 2007 DVD version. Written by an eloquent, young talent Heathcote Williams during the late 60s, The Local Stigmatic is a disturbing and acidly funny study of psychosis, fame, obsession and jealousy. In a way, it is a precursor to Scorcese’s The King of Comedy, which during the 1980s was already ahead of its time. Williams’ work  eerily foreshadows our modern culture’s hypnotic fascination with and envy of celebrities. The play is famous for its violent and harrowing climax, in which the lead characters deliver a severe beating on a man outside a pub.

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The film opens with Pacino’s character Graham monologuing in an epic angry tirade to his friend Ray (played by Paul Guilfoyle) about a supposedly bad tip he got for a greyhound dog race. Guilfoyle’s understated menace and Pacino’s manic energy clues the viewer in that something is very off-kilter about these men.  They share a symbiotic connection as their banter, laced with angry and dark humor, feels like a secret code that we are not wholly privy to. We watch them roam the London streets, playing mind games with passerby and spewing their unsettling doctrine to anyone who will listen. Director David F. Wheeler frequently uses dissolving cross-cuts during shot reverse shots to signify the strength and bond of their sociopathic behavior. They blur together, their two halves forming one dangerous whole.

Graham picks up a celebrity gossip paper,  taunting the newsstand seller by proclaiming “Fame is the first sin because God knows who you are,” incedientially the thesis of Williams’ piece. The pair are framed underneath an ad for The Elephant Man. Graham and Ray are the sick type to identify with the Elephant Man’s cruel taunters, getting pleasure in the abhorration and ridicule he endures. They are quick to view others as less than human, equating them to a lowly animal, much like the greyound dogs Graham loathed in his opening monologue. The Elephant Man also has concerns with the nature of fame and notoriety, Graham and Ray would likely condemn the film for lionizing a “disgusting” creature.

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Later at a pub, Graham recognizes a famous actor at the bar. The pair walk up to him and zealously stroke his ego. Pacino delivers yet another incredible monologue, filled with vigorous smiles and his trademark intense stare. Graham showers the actor with praise, buying him a drink, complimenting his films, and acting as if they were old friends. The actor, meanwhile, is so enraptured with this hungry seduction that he is blind to who they really are. He drinks in their compliments without seeing them as real live human beings., looking beyond them and not truly listening or responding to their exact words.

capture3 Graham and Ray loathe celebrities for acting this very way. In their eyes, celebrities pompously regard themselves as better than everyone else, modern day Greek gods occasionally forced to slum amongst the common folk. They turn to violence in order to reign supreme over these modern deities. The pair offer to walk the actor home, resulting in the famed terrifying climax. It is important to consider the

Graham and Ray loathe celebrities for acting this very way. In their eyes, celebrities pompously regard themselves as better than everyone else, modern day Greek gods occasionally forced to slum amongst the common folk. They turn to violence in order to reign supreme over these modern deities. The pair offer to walk the actor home, resulting in the famed terrifying climax. It is important to consider the filmic changes to this scene, as discussed by Pacino in the DVD commentary. Due to the theatrical setting of the play, the audience’s distanciation to the scene rendered a misconnection. The theatre audiences would often concentrate on the physical blocking of the fight as opposed to hearing or concentrating on Graham’s incredible monologue.

The film uses subjective POV shots, with Graham staring into the camera/the actor’s face, arresting the spectator with the victim’s tensions and fear. This submerges the film audience into the beating in a closely felt way simply not possible in theatre. The film spectator is overcome with the oppressiveness of this moment, as Pacino stares too close for comfort with the harsh sounds of Ray’s pummeling fists and kicks in the background. Through these close-ups, the viewer can also concentrate on the eloquent and poetic beauty of the monologue. Pacino’s delivery of this soliloquy is impeccable, the words trip fluidly off his tongue with dynamic and terrifying energy.

Pacino specifically made the decision to dilute the violence, removing excessive views of blood or bruises in order to concentrate on the words. However, I feel that seeing stronger visceral ramifications of the beating would render this sequence more horrifying than it already is.

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Pacino and Guilfolye are incredible as this pair of domestic terrorists. Their characters share a feral bond forged and sustained by ritualistic violence. One gets the sense that this is not the first-or last-time these characters will commit this kind of crime. I highly recommend this film if you are a fan of Al Pacino, it is possibly one of his greatest performances. Plus, it’s only 50 minutes. Heathcote Williams’ sharply written work is a dark manifesto on the toxicity of fame. He wrote this during the 1960s, and one can only imagine what his opinions would be of celebrity culture today. The film is actually available on YouTube, link below:

Scene Sound Off: Anomalisa

Anomalisa is a story that cinema has seen time and time again: a self-centered middle-aged man finds himself disillusioned with his existence and seeks salvation through a woman. But Charlie Kaufman’s uniquely uses stop-motion puppets and two metaphorical devices: a single voice actor voices every other character who all share the same face. Michael, a self-help expert who fosters productivity in businesses worldwide but not for himself, can find no joy or connection with anyone he meets, they are all the same to him and he is presumably doomed to live a loveless and lonely existence. Until he meets Lisa- the one character who has a different face and voice.

This subjective viewpoint of Michael’s world aligns the viewer with his discontent, and we are likewise relieved when Lisa finally enters the story, her soothing voice like music to our ears. Michael is smitten with Lisa, who soon becomes the object of his salvation.   There is one scene, however, that complicates Anamolisa’s subjective visions. Michael asks Lisa to come to his hotel room and after sharing drinks he asks her to sing. Lisa chooses Cyndi Lauper’s 1983 hit “Girls Just Want to Have Fun.” It is important to consider the implications in Kaufman’s choice of this song- what it means for the film as a whole and particularly for Lisa’s character to choose what was described as a “strong feminist statement” and an “anthem of female solidarity.”

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After Michael’s request, Lisa says that she will sing “just a little,” but she is so overcome by her connection to the song that she sings over half of it. Her rendition is slow and quiet, turning effervescent pop into a mournful dirge for the marginalized woman. This approach highlights the song’s subtext, its protestations against the dominant society that continually silences and oppresses women to remain in their “rightful” roles. The song’s narrator takes control of her own life by going out at night, as she reminds her mother that girls are “not the fortunate ones.” What begins as a close up of Lisa then pans out to include Michael’s shoulder as he watches her- signaling his interruption and the film’s continual focus on his experience. The reverse shot pictures Michael taking this all in.

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In the verse “Some boys take a beautiful girl/And hide her away from the rest of the world/I want to be the one to walk in the sun/Oh girls, they want to have fun” Lauper critiques the dominant ideologies of male saviors, the ideology that Michael adheres to. To Michael, Lisa is the ultimate victim and damsel in distress waiting to be rescued and be kept all to himself. This is exacerbated by Kaufman’s characterization of Lisa. She is an extremely shy and self-loathing woman. She has a scar on the side of her face, which she continually hides by downcasting her hair. Lisa has only had one previous romantic relationship, has not had sex in eight years, constantly talks down about her appearance and manner of speech.

Lisa confesses that she most identifies with the line,  “I want be the one to walk in the sun.” Michael believes that he is the one to give her sexual and personal self-confidence, to achieve that feeling. This line also foreshadows the final shot of Lisa- the sun shines on her face riding back home in a convertible, the wind blowing her hair to reveal her scar. In the car, she writes Michael a letter thanking him for the wonderful time- even though he leaves her quite coldly. While this sequence is seemingly out of Michael’s subjectivity, it could be read from his imagination. He imagines that he helped her achieve fulfillment and find her place in the sun.

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As Lisa finishes the first verse, Michael interrupts and says “That’s beautiful,” but she continues to sing. The female character in this film is fighting for her voice even though the male lead wants to situate himself back as the focus. When she finishes, Michael once again expresses how beautiful it was and begins crying. “It’s your voice, Lisa,” Michael reiterates. Lisa is extraordinary in Michael’s eyes only because she so harshly juxtaposes his dull, repetitive world, as exemplified by the film’s metaphorical visual and auditory devices. He is swept away with the beauty of her voice but not necessarily the power of her words themselves. Michael does not register the message or meaning Lauper’s song has for Lisa, but only how it works for him. Michael perpetuates everything the song is against- eliminating the female perspective and sublimating her as an object for his own self-actualization with little consideration into her personhood.

As Lisa’s mournfully repeats the lines, “That’s all they really want, some fun,” she is subtextually begging Michael to truly consider what she goes through. In this scene, the film almost side-steps into a rich perspective of Lisa’s female experiences. This is her one moment of truth, as she fights for proper representation. But Michael’s subjectivity ultimately interrupts and positions Lisa as his fulfillment object. This is further reiterated by the film’s parallel to the Japanese sex toy doll that Michael purchases for his son. The doll has a scar in the same place as Lisa’s. When Michael’s wife points out that the doll has semen on it, we can read Lisa as just another doll receptacle for Michael’s sexual frustrations- he slept with her and promptly tosses her when she no longer serves a self-fulfilment function. Anomalisa depicts her voice slowly being drowned by the singular voice that Michael hears from everyone else, as if she is a mechanical robot that has begun to break down.

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For Lauper, “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” wanted to express that “girls want to have the same damn experience that any man could have,” or the same equality and recognition that men have in society. The character of Lisa mournfully expresses this in her slow rendition of the song. Within this scene, we have a female character trying to burst out of the male-centric narrative. While Anamolisa is intriguing and well-done, one wishes that the disillusioned middle-aged male  and woman as his savior narrative could take a rest. The compelling underwritten female characters, like Lisa, deserve to have their moment in the sun. Girls just want to have fun, but Anamolisa proves there is no room for them.