Month: July 2013

Can the Bad Fight Well?: Only God Forgives

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If Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive, the slow burning thriller that essentially made its director a household name in the United States and launched a plethora of cutesy memes of its leading man, is the “accessible art house appetizer”, then I think it would be appropriate to call Refn’s most recent project, and second collaboration with star Ryan Gosling the full buffet. Well, at least it looks like it. The problem is, however nice it the meal may look, you could not find a more impenetrable film that was more stuck in its own concept.

Julian’s brother is killed after raping and murdering another man’s daughter in Thailand. Julian’s mother comes to Bangkok to see the corpse of her son. Her sons were drug dealers, and, meanwhile, both harbored a unique relationship with their mother, both equally incestuous, though Julian’s from more of a distance. The chief of police and Julian’s mother are at war, though it’s never explained explicitly why that is.

Only God Forgives indulges in its slow, neon drenched cinematography, and the camera moves, much like its narrative pace, as If it is walking and meandering around the city of Bangkok. Everything is red and blue, presumably representing the clashing ideals of passion and repression, heat and cold, and life and death. Although Refn could be, to some extent, labeled a little bit of a visualist, particularly with a film like his experimental Valhalla Rising or even his earlier Pusher Trilogy and Fear X, the cinematography is both overt and opaque here, servicing no one but Refn himself. All the meaning in the world that Refn could elaborate on does not make up for the fact that the inherent coldness of the film and its cinematography very often undermines its beauty. The cinematography, however, is not without its charms. It is often haunting and hypnotic, putting the viewer under a trance, regardless of whether that trance or whether those shots mean anything other than a visual manifestation or representation of machismo.

Which might be part of the problem. A few days later and I am still not entirely sure what the film was trying to do, but I do know that masculinity was an important part nonetheless. What I do not know is whether the film is the mouth of Refn, flashing the audience his fascination with masculinity in any culture, or whether it is a commentary therein of masculinity. Almost like Tarantino’s own foot fetish, Refn admits to having a fascination, even a fetish for fists. So many of his films about masculinity and how it functions in society, and more often than not, there is a close up shot of someone clenching, or unclenching, their fists. Only God Forgives is not exception, but that fist clenching, and Goslings singular delivery of “Wanna fight?” do nothing to actually clear the waters as to what the film is attempting to do. Commentary or not, no one is nice or good or even pleasant in this film. They are all deeply masculine characters, inhabiting deeply masculine prejudices, overreactions, and desires for sex and violence. There is no hero.

Heroes and protagonists are, of course, not mutually exclusive, but one wonders who the protagonist is and what exactly they are trying to overcome. Yes, Ryan Gosling is the lead actor, but what exactly is he trying to do? He’s given orders from his overbearing and manipulative mother, and the two clearly have a very Oedipal tension between them, but what Gosling’s character actually does is very little, except for stare blankly from scene to scene, either at another character or into the lens of the camera. One could argue that the protagonist is the Thai cop, Lt. Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), but even his motives are fairly murky. Murky, but not ambiguous. The primary issue then is that the film is so bent on making all these characters (perhaps inadvertently) loathsome that there seems to be no depth to them at all. Where Drive’s main man at least had baggage and was not a good man through and through, Gosling’s Julian is nothing but a caricature or a badly drawn representation of male blood lust and misogyny.

As far as I can recall of Refn’s career, Refn has not worked in the area of provocation very much, at least not intentionally and not in the way his fellow Dane Lars von Trier has. Yes, Bronson got some criticism for Tom Hardy’s bizarre (and perfect) performance as a hyper violent, incredibly theatrical villain, but it fit and it made sense. But it was Drive’s head smashing scene that raised a few eyebrows, but even then, it wasn’t as if he was subjecting his characters to, say, the smashing of their “manhood” (which, to be honest, is kind of surprising what with the subject he often explores). But while I didn’t ostensibly have any issue with the violence in Only God Forgives, it is undeniable that it was over the top and provocative. Worse than that, it became redundant. Certainly, there were scenes where it felt necessary, such as a very On the Waterfront-esque fight scene, but like the Korean film I Saw the Devil, it simply became tiring and it reached a point where one would cross their legs, quickly roll their eyes, and say, “Okay, I get it, can we move on now?” In terms of a von Triersian brand of provocation, it’s not inherently successful. Extensive use of music is used in certain violent scenes, arguably to juxtapose the beauty and splendor of both/neither, but, at this point in the game, it feels too late and it feels desperate.

Gosling’s role is little more than a staring contest, which was charming and meaningful the first time (because there was a reason), but obnoxious and cold the second time around. Gosling is beautiful to look at, even to stare at, but if his character does almost nothing else, there’s little reason to care. Yes, I know, Driver did very little else, but his stares, while certainly more soulful, were often motivated by that of Irene. Here, he just looks like a loner, someone who you would be torn between avoiding on the subway and asking if he has Resting Asshole Face. You have to hand it to Gosling, though, for doing all that he can with what little he was given. Refn says it’s about the character channeling his impotence through violence, and while it is indeed conveyed by some sublime camerawork, it is little to actually sustain the character or the story of the film.

Kristen Scott Thomas is an interesting trifle in the film. She’s seductive, but repulsive; sexy, yet terrifying. Despite these attempts at dualities, her character remains one of the shallowest. Many of compared her to Lady Macbeth, but that technically doesn’t make sense. Although both she and Lady Macbeth are ruefully manipulative, Lady Macbeth actually felt remorse and guilt (“Out damn spot!”). Maybe it was incredibly selfish, but Lady Macbeth felt these emotions nonetheless. It’s certainly intriguing to watch Gosling do her bidding, but the Oedipal tension between the two actually goes almost nowhere. It seems to be more of a play on Oedipal tension than an actually well sketched out, primal, dangerous, even taboo relationship. Instead, Refn just sort of spells the whole thing out, especially over a dinner sequence. The masculine power that Thomas has, though, is interestingly offensive. Again, I refer back to the other Danish auteur Lars von Trier: he has, throughout his career, from the Golden Heart Trilogy to Antichrist, been accused of misogyny. Regardless of whether these allegations are true, his female character are, at least, noble in their own way. Perhaps condescendingly so, but noble nonetheless. They’re not one dimensional or even two dimensional. They may not inhabit dualities or paradoxes like Julian’s mother, but they are consistent and admirable. Thomas is the Dragon Lady, someone who is out only for herself, obsessed with power in a way that isn’t shown through exposition but through body language and action. She drapes her arms around a couch “like a man”, owning everyone and everything in the room she’s in. She approaches everyone with aggression, not like a lioness, but like a lion. She could easily be the Devil or the God of Carnage. She looks like Donatella Versace, but she hones the masculinity to a point where her character, so shallow and evil, becomes inherently misogynistic. I’m not saying female characters must be admirable, I’m saying that they should be able to oscillate between different dimensions, feelings, and be written with depth. Thomas is flat, but intriguing nonetheless. She’s one of the most fascinating, most repulsive characters that Refn has ever produced.

But there’s a running problem throughout the film and it’s never fully resolved as to whether the misogyny depicted is simply there, something a part of the film, or a criticism of machismo’s penchant for misogyny in general. The violence towards women, the demeaning language towards Julian’s hook-cum-faux-lover Mai, etc. Generally, an ambiguity of this sort would intrigue, much like the ambiguity of whether Harmony Korine was treating his subjects in Gummo as sideshow freaks or merely observing them. But here, it feels gross and wrong.

What did appeal to me, however, was the obvious Lynchian influence (as well as the influence of Alejandro Jodorowsky, to whom the film is dedicated) on the film. The soundscapes in this film were as refined, if not more so, than in Drive, not merely because the sound was filled with the ambiance of the city. ON the contrary, it was selectively beautiful, channeling in on the perceived silence and light fuzz and atmosphere of rooms and emotions. The sound could manifest itself as a series of louder noises, clangs that, with composer Cliff Martinez’s music, make your blood run cold, or scenes that could stop your heart altogether from the tension of “nothingness”. If there’s one thing that Refn can kind of do well, it’s the ability to hold tension via music and/or sound, which, as aforementioned, is something he definitely learned from Lynch.

Refn doesn’t just take from Lynch in the sound department: He also includes some Lynchian influences in the editing. The most interesting aspect of the film, besides the look I suppose, is the editing. Not “tight” per se, nor outwardly “non-linear”, but the narrative structure (for what little narrative there is, oops around sometimes and flashes back to different scenes fluidly and without being intrusive. The editing and the sound elevate this film from disaster in some ways. It is an attempt, if not a successful one, to be engaging and to keep the audience on its toes. Nothing else in the film seems to really do that.

What does the title mean? I’m still not sure. I suppose, on the plus side for Refn, I’m still thinking about the film, but the more I think about it, the less I like it and the more I think of its flaws and how they negate any of the film’s positive qualities (of which there are very few). Who exactly is God? Is it the cop? Would he be the representation of God’s carnage, as seen in the Old Testament, since he seems to have vendettas of his own? Is it Julian’s mother, for she gave birth to a killer of man (one who is also impotent) and she herself is blood thirsty? Kind of like Mother of the Earth but, you know, vindictive. Is it Gosling’s Julian, a man who lacks control of a set of events he did not create or put into motion? And if the tagline is “It’s Time to Meet the Devil”, who is the Devil? I won’t go into that, as it would basically be a reiteration of the whole paragraph, which is in itself a problem. I do not have an issue with films being opaque in order to convey certain ideas, but when those ideas don’t go anywhere or even clearly understand what they are, then I have a problem.

While I don’t think it’s nearly as awful as the boos as the Cannes Film Festival suggested, I definitely understand why one would be prone to do that. Whether it’s a commentary of modern masculinity in society or merely a projection of it, Refn’s film gets stuck in redundancy and fails to move anywhere totally interesting. There are moments where the sublime photography, where the combination of image and music are totally haunting and hypnotic, but not enough to forgive the errors and flaws of the rest of the film. It’s a shame, though, because there are some genuinely interesting ideas here but a majority of them are sort of left hanging in the air for the audience to try to reach and explore, but are left dangling. Refn responded to critics by saying that “Silence is cinema!” Yeah, but that doesn’t mean it’s inherently good cinema.

(Note: For an intriguing alternate take on the film, check out Simon Abrams’s essay here.)

The Men Who Weren’t There: The Unreliable Narrator and His Effect on Audience’s Perception of Reality and Truth in Neo-Noir

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Author’s Note: This was the Extended Essay I write in my junior year in IB.
Research Question: How does the presentation of unreliable narration within neo-noir affect the audience’s perception of reality and truth, specifically in the films Memento and American Psycho?

Abstract

This essay asks how first person narration in the genre of neo-noir affects the audience’s perception of reality, particularly in the films Memento and American Psycho. In both films, the narrator plays a pivotal role in influencing the structure of the story. With a brief examination of film noir, its aesthetic origins, (the classic cycle beginning with The Maltese Falcon [John Huston, 1941]), and the transition to neo-noir. I then examine the films Memento and American Psycho and briefly justify their place in the neo-noir canon.

Memento’s protagonist has anterograde amnesia, and his inability to create new memories thrusts the film’s structure into a uniquely non-linear format. Writer/director Christopher Nolan employs a technique where the film is told in reverse, while the protagonist attempts to make sense of the world around him, identify himself as a person, and find his wife’s killer, and all the while narrating his own tragic story.  American Psycho’s protagonist is a product of his environment, where decadence and greed reign supreme. Unable to withstand the pressures of the yuppie society, his insanity leads him to murder. The protagonist’s self-awareness presents a nihilistic narrator, whose insanity skews every event in the film to an extent where the audience cannot differentiate between reality and fantasy.

The essay then compares the two protagonists, both in their style of narration and their awareness of their flaws. A certain amount of psychoanalysis is applied to examine the two characters. Through analysis of key scenes in each film and quotations from their screenplays, this essay asserts that first person narration in neo-noir is the driving force in how the audience perceives the way the story unravels and that there is a clear manipulation and exploitation of events within it.

Introduction

title

“We all need mirrors to remind ourselves who we are” (Nolan 226). The closing lines of the complex neo-noir film Memento present the thesis of this essay, with our protagonist questioning his own reliability as a narrator. As Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce) narrates his own story, we are presented with the elements of first person narration and the audience’s perception of reality. The presentation of first person narration or internal monologue within neo-noir has a drastic effect on this understanding of truth, altering sequences and twisting the audience’s perception of the story to an extent where all is manipulated. It is narration that drives these stories and thus affects the audience’s perception of truth and reality. Combining the elements of traditional film noir and postmodernism, the “problem” of narration in neo-noir adds complexity to a genre which already explores the intricacy of human nature and the nihilism of American popular culture. Narration plays a critical part in the two films that will be examined. With Memento, due to the character’s own memory fallacies, the narration is not only self-aware but provides a map for the audience as to what is occurring within the film. In American Psycho, the narration allows the protagonist, Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale) to reveal his own narcissism. Thus, his perception of events within the film shape the entire story, his method being his madness. Within these scenarios, the audience is at the will of the narrator. However, this is noir, a genre that is a nucleus of anti-heroes and human monsters. Both of these films make the same comment on American nihilism and retain the same themes of classic noir: pessimism, corruption, desire, and, of course, darkness.

ap title

What is Film Noir?

The cyclical nature of the debates about film noir’s classification within cinema history and its nature as a style or otherwise is as maddening and perplexing as the noir films themselves. Their inherent cynicism and narrative complexity are what make these films fascinating. The very argument, as simplistic as it seems, is whether noir is a style, genre, or movement. “Film noir [….] is a fabrication” (Bould 2), its very existence an enigmatic odyssey into the bleakness of the American soul. Because much of the debate around noir is whether or not it qualifies as a genre, it is best that genre be defined within a cinematic context. Genre is defined as “semantic approaches that catalogue ‘common traits, attitudes, characters, shots locations, […]’” (Bould 6, Altman 1999:219). Trying to define noir may be futile, as Bould concludes: “Film noir, like the femme fatale, is an elusive phenomenon: a projection of desire, always out of reach” (Bould 13). Regardless of what noir actually is, its elements are instantly recognizable.

Coming from the term Série noire, a series of Marcel Duhamel crime novels from 1945, noir was coined to describe these kinds of hardboiled novels in pre-WWII France in “right wing press vs. left wing culture” periodicals (Bould 15). This term would then be used to describe the novels of Dashiell Hammett, used by Nono Frank in 1946. The first film critic to use the term film noir was Jean–Pierre Chartier, labeling Double Indemnity (Wilder, 1944) and Lost Weekend (Wilder, 1945)) as film noirs. He described them as “pessimistic, misanthropic US films” that were “driven by a logic of sexual desire that the public simultaneously required them to suppress” (Bould 15).

The genre’s aesthetic roots are in the German Expressionism movement with The Cabinet of Dr. Cagliari (Wiene, 1919) (Bould 26) with its tilted angles, oneiric set design and chiaroscuro and its realism taken from the French, from such films as La Bête Humaine (Renoir, 1945), where “poetic realism diffuses such energy […]” (Bould 35). Its sinister stories are taken from the hardboiled crime novels and Hollywood gangster movies of the 1930’s. In essence, aesthetically and stylistically, noir is an amalgam of established genres that revitalized certain elements to wipe off the shiny veneer of truth and sanity in American cinema and culture.

While noir began with The Maltese Falcon (1941), the last film of the noir cycle is Touch of Evil (Welles, 1956). Shock Corridor (Fuller, 1963), would launch the sub-genre of neo-noir. The clearest difference between classic noir and neo-noir is that the latter is completely self-aware and self-reflexive in its nature. However, the classic elements noir have made classifying a film as neo-noir overly simplistic. While there would be more authentic neo-noir films like Chinatown (Polanski, 1974), other films would be too easily defined as neo-noir when they were only distantly related to the genre, like Kill Bill (Tarantino, 2003).

Neo-noir takes the themes established by classic noir and builds upon them, exemplifying post-modernism. In classic noir, there is the protagonist that suffers from the problem of identity. Neo-noir adds a twist, like a temporal memory problem, making the character deeper and, in a way, more representational of the American male in the modern world. With neo-noir, the same American nihilism that was prevalent in classic noir is thrust into the contemporary culture filled with materialism, consumerism, technology, and a post-modern use of the styles that influenced today’s cinema. Neo-noir literally means new blackness, the kind of darkness audiences cannot help but explore.

Memento: Telling the Story Backwards

Christopher Nolan’s Memento revolves around a man in search for his wife’s rapist and murderer. However, when the film begins, it seems that he has already found the perpetrator. The immediate beginning, however, reveals the unique and iconic structure of the film. The protagonist, thus far unnamed, is holding a photograph as it undevelops and fades into bleak whiteness. His environment rolls backwards, as if the film were played in reverse. With this minimal amount of information, the audience begins its journey to truth and the murky state of what is real with the protagonist, Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce).

The film cuts to Leonard sitting on his bed in a hotel room. Unlike the previous scene, which was in color, this scene is saturated black and white. It is in this scene that the narration begins and Leonard starts to establish himself and, less reliably, identify himself as a person. With noir and neo-noir’s themes of identity, Nolan’s protagonist, it seems, must start from scratch, as he begins, “So, where are you? You’re in some motel room” (Nolan 106). This is not explained, keeping the viewer in the dark as to why Leonard must explain and establish himself with such anonymity. The anonymity of the person is articulated metaphorically when Leonard says, in respect to the room, “It’s just some anonymous room” (Nolan 109). Leonard then begins to explicitly speak of himself: “You know who you are and you know kind of all about yourself” (Nolan 2:37).

This abstruseness in structure and narration makes this film qualify as neo-noir. The film’s protagonist, Leonard Shelby, suffers from a condition where he is unable to make new memories called anterograde amnesia, this having been caused by the same assailants guilty of his wife’s murder. There are now two factors that skew the way the story unfolds, as told subjectively from Leonard’s perspective: first, the story is subjectively told from Leonard’s point of view, and second, he has the “condition” he refers to innumerable times. However, Nolan utilizes another element: Memento is told in reverse. Memento is iconic for its unique non-linear narrative, in that all of the color sequences are edited in reverse with the black and white sequences working as interstitials. Similarly from Leonard’s perspective, the black and white sequences are seen in a linear format. With these three obstacles, astute attention paid to the film is paramount.

While a subjective and non-linear/linear narrative is uncommon, the viewer is not distanced from Leonard at all. Leonard’s narration makes the film a personal diary for himself. The narration brings in the audience closer to the character and the film, making it so that his journey to self-identification and exploration into his wife’s murder is just as much our passage.

The narration is not always present, but is included in key moments. For a while it is included primarily in the black and white scenes, but once Leonard begins speaking on the phone with someone shrouded in anonymity, that conversation narrates his background for us, explaining who Sammy Jenkis is. Thus, the narration switches to that of the uncertain temporality and is called into action when an instinct berates Leonard’s consciousness during the color sequences. When he reads the back of a Polaroid photograph (which acts as a clue) it is as if he is reading this evidence to himself. The film’s climax is technically its beginning, and just before Leonard kills the man he thinks killed his wife, he tries to make sure he is right by reading the back of the polaroid of the man is he is about to kill: “Don’t believe his lies. He is the one. Kill him” (Nolan 107). The cold tonality of those words reflects the complete conviction of Leonard, who does not always understand he cannot trust himself. Nor can he trust anyone else, including the film’s femme fatale Natalie (Carrie-Ann Moss), who uses Leonard for her own bidding. He cannot remember, even when she is perfectly explicit about her intentions. He cannot trust anyone, not even himself.

The film’s real climax is where it is revealed that Leonard has already avenged his wife’s death, and that Teddy, the most suspicious man in the film, is actually a cop. Narration plays a critical role in this climax. Teddy tells Leonard his entire history, that Sammy Jenkis never existed, that his wife’s assailants were caught, and that he has been going around town killing other people because Teddy is a corrupt cop who pitied him, and decided, with Leonard’s condition, he could make some money on it. Leonard is shocked, and in his madness, writes on the photograph of the man who just told him the truth: “Don’t believe his lies. He is the one. Kill him”. He slumps into denial, and Leonard performs his monologue:

“I have to believe in the world outside my own mind. I have to believe that my actions still have meaning, even if I can’t remember them. I have to believe that when my eyes are closed, the world’s still there. But do I? Do I believe the world’s still there? Is it still out there?! Yes.  We all need mirrors to remind ourselves who we are. I’m no different.” (Nolan 225-226).

This monologue is critical, as it explores the ideas of identity and its main purpose in the film noir genre. It taps into the existential layers of the genre, deconstructing the American antihero in a species of film which is known for its crimes and misdemeanors. The film’s philosophical aspect relates to Locke’s Problem of Identity, or whether memories actively create a person (Smith 2007, 35-44). Because Leonard is only left with the memory of his wife, he has transformed into a monster. Every time he closes his eyes, it will be as if he has to wake up from something else, with no memory of what just occurred. Leonard, as much as he knows that “we all need mirrors”, has no mirror he can  use.

The way the film unfurls, the story’s structure is reliant on Leonard. Though the narration may flow in and out, the audience is always at his bidding. Nolan compared the narrative structure to a “Mobius strip”, the impossible shape that twists and turns in a serpentine way, with no discernible beginning (Spicer 2007, 59). Like the Mobius strip, Leonard cannot discern his own beginning; only what he thinks is his inception. His narration, personable\ and worthy of empathy, seems to be completely responsible for the audience’s trust in him. Even at the genesis of the film, while he is narrating a montage of his routine, he says, “You kinda have to learn to trust your own handwriting” (Nolan 110). He says this as a way to establish a system, some sort of semblance of sanity. But he cannot. He cannot even trust his own handwriting.

 American Psycho: Vanity and Insanity

Based on the novel by Bret Easton Ellis, the equally divisive American Psycho does not immediately strike one as neo-noir. It is less of a noir pastiche compared to Nolan’s Memento, but the film is able to attain a certain naturalistic feeling of film noir without the distracting self-awareness. American Psycho is deadly satirical of the yuppie consumerist culture of the 1980s. Instead of the Red Scare being the source of social anxiety, it is rather failure and alienation in yuppie culture. The social anxiety is less of a political motivation, but the motivation of a generation to be greedy, vain, and self-indulgent. This consumerist point of view is stressed throughout the film, and mirrors the American nihilism and apathy the same way that classic noir did, but with the appropriation of materialism. Its dark, cunning protagonist would make this film classified as “criminal noir”.

Patrick Bateman is a man who, underneath the layers of “Valentino Couture”, “water-activated gel cleanser” and “exfoliating gel scrub” is no human being (Harron/Turner 8). He is a mad man, one whose insanity drives the entire film and its plot. His internal monologue shares his apathetic and vain personality, revealing the paltry depth of his humanity.

A product of the 1980’s culture, Patrick Bateman is fully aware of his “flaws”. He fully admits that he may or may not be sane. Over a montage of his daily routine, focused on physical beauty, he says, “There is an idea of a Patrick Bateman, some kind of abstraction, but there is no real me, only an entity, something illusory, and though I can hide my cold gaze and you can shake my hand and feel flesh gripping you […] I simply am not there” (Harron/Turner 8). With this in mind, the film progresses, with Bateman intermittently commenting on his life, like a stream of consciousness.

The method of introduction, sentient of his insanity, obtrudes the viewer into a world where there is no strict dichotomy of reality and fantasy. The viewer thus shares the inability to discern reality with Bateman. Only in a few moments is there a hint of some boundary between reality and fantasy that is demonstrated to the audience. While at a night club, Bateman tries to pay for a drink with a ticket, but the bartender says that they are not valid anymore and asks him to pay the price for his beverage. When she turns away, Bateman, talking to her but facing a mirror, he says, “You are a fucking ugly bitch, I want to stab you to death and then play around with your blood” (Harron/Turner 8). She does not notice this and it is as if the disclosure had never happened. However, in terms of definite contrasts into Bateman’s ability to perceive reality, this is the only pronounced indication that the audience is given until the end of the film.

The comments that Bateman makes about his coworkers and life are the same kind of mundane and pedestrian remarks others make. From being deathly envious of a coworker and his ability to get reservations at an expensive restaurant to his irritation at his betrothed’s insistence on getting married, Bateman’s internal monologue epitomizes the subjectivity of narrative storytelling. Everything he says is from his perspective and influences the way the audience perceives the world around him.

Bateman, though, seems to show some vulnerability in the film, which suggests a social commentary relevant to the era. Already driven by madness, the pressures of society seem to drive him insane. When asked by his fiancée why he cannot simply quit his job, he answers honestly, not only for himself, but for everyone around him: “I… want… to… fit… in” (Harron/Turner 13). His vain mentality is explained by the culture that surrounds him, in that the standards and expectations are unattainable without extreme stress.

American Psycho is not a proto-typical neo-noir, and seems more characteristic of horror, with its sadistic violence and generous amount of gore. However, the film’s inherent pessimism, satirical cynicism towards yuppie culture, and fatalism for its protagonist makes it a veritable qualifier for the sub-genre. After murdering Paul Allen, Bateman goes to his apartment to create his alibi. The narration in the scene begins like the archetypal criminal in classic noir. However, it regresses to Bateman’s typically narcissistic thought process. He says, “When I get to Paul Allen’s place, I use the keys I took from his pocket before the disposing of the body. There is a moment of sheer panic when I realize that Paul’s apartment overlooks the park and it’s obviously more expensive than mine” (Harron/Turner 30:14). Bateman is so blinded by greed that he can barely keep his focus on the murder. His purblind attitude towards everything is essential to understanding the plot of the entire film.

Patrick Bateman has not killed anyone. He has not even killed Paul Allen. It was all in his imagination. That does not mean he is sane. He manifests his blood lust in books with drawings of the murders he thinks he has committed. His sanguineous fantasies are just as much as ours as they are his. His blood lust is an addiction one that layers itself so that Bateman’s world is then deemed incomprehensible.

The morbidity of the film is one defined by the world that the protagonist lives in, an amalgamation of fear, desire, lust, and greed. Bateman’s awareness of his mental state is clear from his formal introduction, making his apathy for it all the more terrifying. Even if the film works as a confession, he admits “[…] there is no catharsis” (Harron/Turner 94). His entire perspective is non-compos mentis, poisoned to where he is unable to discern between reality and fantasy. This juxtaposition of self-awareness and lack of awareness of one’s environment deliberately misleads the audience’s understanding of what is happening. Bateman’s character is illustrated with complexity; his madness is imbued with every frame of the film. After all the events of the film, even he admits, “I gain no deeper knowledge about myself, no new knowledge can be extracted from my telling. There has been no reason for me to tell you any of this. This confession has meant nothing…” (Harron/Turner 94). Everything that has happened has only opened a door into his mind, even though, it really has not happened at all.

Leonard Shelby and Patrick Bateman: Two Narrators, Two Problems

Memento and American Psycho explore the noir-esque element of first person narration and its unreliability and effect on audience perception of truth. The methods of narration that Leonard Shelby and Patrick Bateman employ are similar, yet different.  While both films are considered examples of neo-noir, they do not utilize narration the way that classic noir did. Generally, classic noir featured a narrator who told his story with narration and flashback, as the narrator himself tried to make sense of the events to make a coherent story. However, both Leonard and Bateman’s narration is more in the style of stream-of-consciousness, narrating what is occurring to them at that moment, as opposed to what has happened in the past. (Hollinger 1996, 243). Classic noir “[…] most often contain weak, powerless narrators who tell a story of their past failures or of their inability to shape the vents of their lives to their own design” (Hollinger 1996, 243-44).

Both narrators continue the tradition in that they are unreliable, but the difference between Leonard and Patrick is in the why. Leonard is a man who cannot trust himself because of his inability to do so. His ability to lie to himself and change the progression of the story is increased by his mental condition. Patrick Bateman, however, is just insane. He has the full mental capacity to tell the truth to himself, but refuses to, because he is completely blinded by the yuppie culture he thrives in. His insanity is not only a product of his own perversions, but also of the culture. At times, the consequence is that Bateman at times can be honest and objective about certain scenes, where Leonard is living a lie to the extent where it completely affects the entire film. Despite his temporal limitations, Leonard remains just as guilty as Bateman, as the self-delusion he creates is an act of deliberation rather than an accident of his condition. This aspect is where the two characters relate to one another in an unusual way; both are able to lie to themselves and to continue to live their lives, where they have no qualms with their actions.

However, both men make the choices to lie to themselves, and thus remain unreliable narrators. Leonard asks himself, “Do I lie to keep myself happy?” (Nolan 224) This is a true statement for both Leonard and Bateman, but the latter does it deliberately in a sociopathic way. Leonard’s motivations are for solace and personal fulfillment. Memento is an example of a “neo-noirish revenge film” (Schmidt 13), where its main narrative purpose is for the protagonist to seek revenge. American Psycho is what one could consider a “criminal noir film”, where its protagonist is less of an antihero and more deliberately a villain. The film’s main goal seems to seek the opposite of redemption, and acts as a seduction of the viewer to the dark side. With narration, this allows Bateman to almost personally entice and seduce the viewer. The styles and uses of narration intensify the film, making each moment seem more personal and intimate. Whereas American Psycho deals with the identity of a generation, Memento deals with the identity of one man. This affects the viewer’s empathy for the character, in both positive and negative ways, and sends the narrative structure, and viewer’s ability to perceive reality, careening off the edge of conventionality to a point of no return.

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Conclusion 

The medium of film has always been able to reflect social atmosphere through characters and stories, film noir and neo-noir often acting exemplary models. The genres reflect the seedy darkness of American humanity. However, what make noir and neo-noir unique is the ambiguity that illustrates the classic archetypes: the antihero, femme fatale, and villain. Often, no character is the de facto good guy. As classic noir transitioned to neo-noir, the ambiguity was intensified with more graphic depictions of the sinister stratum of fear and loathing in the United States. The films Memento and American Psycho continue the neo-noir aesthetic and utilize voiceover to critically affect the narrative structure. The films exploit the subjectivity of the narrator with the interpretation of events. With Memento, the film’s protagonist is unable to create new memories, thrusting the viewer into a spiral as the film is told in reverse. This narrator is unlike any other, one who cannot even trust himself. In American Psycho, a film satirizing yuppie culture, Patrick Bateman views the world in a deathly nihilistic lens. His narration is able to portray his abilities to see the world in both an objective way, in observing his culture, as well as one blinded by madness and consumerism, the culture he so astutely observes. Narration is the driving force of both films, shaping the audience’s perception so that each film is understood as entirely subjective from the protagonist’s point of view, thus shaping the audience’s perception of reality. There seems to be no clear dichotomy between fantasy and reality, especially when both narrative styles seem to be a stream of consciousness. What is critical to both of these films is the audience’s ability to separate reality from fiction. Narration adds a very personal element to the films, in that the audience can never truly distance themselves from the characters. Thus, trusting the protagonist is vital, but proves almost foolhardy by the end.

While one character may inspire empathy, the other inspires repulsion. Yet both of these characters, holding the audience at their mercy, reflect the nihilistic American soul, presenting an unsatisfied and disturbed persona of a post-WWII people, all executed with a sinister framework.. In neo-noir, there is no light; there is only darkness.

 

Bibliography

American Psycho. Dir. Mary Harron. Perf. Christian Bale. LionsGate, 2000. Blu-ray.

Bould, Mark. Film Noir: from Berlin to Sin City. London: Wallflower, 2005. Print.

Bould, Mark, Kathrina Glitre, and Greg Tuck. Neo-noir. London: Wallflower P., 2009. Print.

Conard, Mark T. The Philosophy of Neo-noir. Lexington, KY: University of Kentucky, 2007. Print.

Harron, Mary, Guinevere Turner, and Bret Easton. Ellis. American Psycho. Los Angeles, CA: Lions Gate, 1998. Print.

Hollinger, Karen. “Film Noir, Voice-Over, and the Femme Fatale.” Film Noir Reader. By Alain Silver and James Ursini. New York: Limelight Editions, 1996. 243-44. Print.

Hinkson, Jake. “Retro versus Neo-Noir.” Original Crime Stories, Exclusive Excerpts, Blog Posts, Giveaways | CriminalElement.com. Criminal Element, 25 May 2011. Web. 28 Nov. 2011. <http://www.criminalelement.com/blogs/2011/05/retro-versus-neo-noir&gt;.

Hurd, Dr. Robert. “Christopher Nolan’s Memento – Analysis of the narrative structure of a noirish revenge film.” Diss. Johann Wolfang Goethe-University, 2002/2003. Print. <http://www.christophernolan.net/files/narrativeMementoSchmidt.pdf>.

Memento. Dir. Christopher Nolan. Perf. Guy Pearce. Summit Entertainment, 2001. DVD.

Nolan, Christopher, and Christopher Nolan. Memento ; & Following. London: Faber and Faber, 2001. Print.

“Not Yet Fully Consumed: The Effects of Consumerism in Neo-Noir.” OoCities – Geocities Archive / Geocities Mirror. Web. 31 Jan. 2012. <http://www.oocities.org/digitally_obsessed/mcgill/term1/ENG390_neo_noir.html>.

Schrader, Paul. “Notes on Film Noir.” Film Noir Reader. By Alain Silver and James Ursini. New York: Limelight Editions, 1996. 53-63. Print.

Silver, Alain, and James Ursini. Film Noir Reader. New York: Limelight Editions, 2006. Print.

Smith, Basil. “John Locke, Personal Identity, and “Memento”” The Philosophy of Neo-noir. By Mark T. Conard. Lexington, KY: University of Kentucky, 2007. 35-44. Print.

Spicer, Andrew. “Problems of Memory and Identity in Neo-Noir’s Existentialist Antihero.”The Philosophy of Neo-noir. By Mark T. Conard. Lexington, KY: University of Kentucky, 2007. 58. Print.

Pictures

American Psycho. Dir. Mary Harron. Perf. Christian Bale. LionsGate, 2000. Blu-ray.

“American Psycho Movie Poster #3 – Internet Movie Poster Awards Gallery.” American Psycho Movie Poster #3 – Internet Movie Poster Awards Gallery. Web. 20 May 2012. <http://www.impawards.com/2000/american_psycho_ver3.html&gt;.

“Chinatown Blu-ray – Faye Dunaway.” Chinatown Blu-ray – Faye Dunaway. Web. 20 May 2012. <http://www.dvdbeaver.com/film3/blu-ray_reviews56/chinatown_blu-ray.htm&gt;.

Memento. Dir. Christopher Nolan. Perf. Guy Pearce. Summit Entertainment, 2001. DVD.

“True Classics.” True Classics. Web. 20 May 2012. <http://trueclassics.wordpress.com/2011/09/08/i-dont-mind-a-reasonable-amount-of-trouble/&gt;.

“US Poster for Memento.” MoviePosterDB.com. Web. 20 May 2012. <http://www.movieposterdb.com/poster/803da9d2&gt;.

Something Wicked This Way Comes: Stoker and the Image Dependent Coming of Age Thriller

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India is suspicious of her family’s new house guest. She has been on her guard since he arrived. All the while, she’s been slowly transforming into a new person. A stronger, more cunning, more powerful person. Since the arrival of the new house guest, she’s been able to hone in on her talents and utilize them to deal with the other things going on in her life. Since the arrival of her new houseguest, someone by the name of Uncle Charlie, she’s been able to transform from a girl to a woman. Park Chan-wook’s Stoker is a curious film, and by far one of the stylish, sexiest thrillers to come in a while. But its uniqueness lies in the way it is, as Director Park mentions in the film’s EPK, “subvert the coming of age film”. Yes, India certainly develops as a character, but certainly not the way one would initially expect. And everything Director Park does reinforces that theme of “coming of age”. But it’s the images, not the dialogue, that hammer these ideas home. Director Park is stoking his own ideas through each frame. And it’s a work of diabolical genius.

SPOILERS AHEAD

There are only, in my experience, a few directors, or, for the sake of argument, auteurs that can use image, theme, and dialogue to reinforce one another and to essentially create a symbiotic relationship, though theoretically, between the three elements. Each one, when used, reinforces the other and makes the other stronger and more artful, even more precise. Every image strengthens the dialogue, every word fuels theme, and each theme intensifies image. What is important here is the potency of all three. Terrence Malick’s beautiful tone poems, from Days of Heaven to The Tree of Life, are perfect examples of this, and other directors, such as Michael Haneke, Lars von Trier, Andrei Tarkovsky, and Chris Marker are able to infuse these elements to create true works of art. I would also include Director Park Chan-wook in this group of directors so in control of their craft they are able to create some stunning pieces using such elements.

Chan-wook is best known for being the creator of the extreme Vengeance Trilogy, comprised of three films related (almost) only by theme: Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002), the most “European” of the trilogy; Oldboy  (2003), inarguably the most famous of the trilogy; and Lady Vengeance (2005), arguably the best of the trilogy. His other notable films include Thirst (2009), a bizarre, vampiric spin on Therese Raquin, and I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK (2006), which is exactly what it sounds like. But what these films all have in common is their reliance on image. I cannot be for certain, but perhaps the mark of a true master is their ability not only to image build, but to infuse their images with meaning and context. You can take any still from Lady Vengeance and know that that still belongs to that film, that without the film’s context, it is not nearly as beautiful. However, Chan-wook isn’t so cruel as to create images that aren’t beautiful without the “needed” context: that same still will still be heartbreakingly gorgeous and will make you want to see the film.

A better example might come from Oldboy: there’s a series of extended scenes, maybe it qualifies as a montage, where the protagonist Oh Dae-Su, stuck in his room, or cell rather, eats dumplings. He gets sick of them quickly, as he’s locked in that room for years to come, but those dumplings return later in the film as a memory and as a map. Were it not for their distinctive taste, their greasy texture, Oh Dae-su might have nowhere to run. So, there are essentially two scenes, two montages where the images are so important that they call back one another. Another example, for the sake of understanding image building and context, takes place at the same time where Oh Dae-su is trapped in the room; he watches as the world changes through his television. You could argue that there’s a certain amount of political subtext in the film judging from this sequence, but for now, it merely represents the passage of time. As the world transforms and becomes at once more wondrous than one could imagine and more horrible than one could imagine, Oh Dae-su himself changes in the room. He becomes filled with rage, hunger, and revenge. It’s that which sets the Bergmanesque neo-noir into motion.

Back to Stoker: purposefully, we are given very little information about India and her family. Actually, we’re given almost no exposition at all in the film. Even sequences that seem like they qualify as exposition or explanation aren’t because they technically a) don’t explain much at all and b) don’t really spell things out, at least not in words. Because, unlike, Director Park’s previous efforts, his first foray into English language filmmaking was not reliant on dialogue. Stoker was a way for Director Park to be skilled as he was previously using the Three Symbiotic Elements of Film and drop one and come out with the same effect. You could argue that the images are the exposition, but while that would be correct, things still aren’t exactly spelled out explicitly in the film. Part of its brilliance is its ability to oscillate between the subtle and the overt, to create something that sends chills down your back.

Thus, there is an extreme importance on the image in the film and not as much on dialogue. Every frame fuels the story and the ideas behind the story, especially in terms of its subverted coming of age theme. But Director Park starts us off with words to show that the least important thing is words. The soliloquy that Mia Wasikowska’s India gives in a mildly Malickian way don’t matter the way we initially think they do. Everything she says is eventually conveyed by the camera, without the need for explanation. If anything, the words that start off the film, and that play over a stylish scene of India walking across the street and looking into the grass, serve as a transition for the audience, perhaps a necessary preparation for them. But we don’t need this explanation. Because we will eventually be seeing the film from her eyes. Yes, friends, Stoker could be a brilliant subversion of the coming of age thriller and yet still retain the subjective perspective of that genre’s storytelling. This fact is so important that one could watch the film only listening to the isolated score (brilliantly composed by Clint Mansell) and still understand each frame. And like many of those films, the protagonist wants to introduce themselves, even though, as aforementioned, it’s not inherently essential:

My ears hear what others cannot hear; small faraway things people cannot normally see are visible to me. These senses are the fruits of a lifetime of longing, longing to be rescued, to be completed. Just as the skirt needs the wind to billow, I’m not formed by things that are of myself alone. I wear my father’s belt tied around my mother’s blouse, and shoes which are from my uncle. This is me. Just as a flower does not choose its color, we are not responsible for what we have come to be. Only once you realize this do you become free, and to become adult is to become free.

These lines, said in something slightly above of a whisper, are certainly poetic and they spell out the theme, but they do not actually explain anything. They are no more than a young woman’s description of herself, and one that only scratches the surface. (What these lines do reveal, besides the fact that we won’t need to hear much later in the film, is that the young woman who has finally honed who she is and accepted it, is a narcissist. This is perfectly in league with what these kinds of films can be, but Director Park soon throws that out the window. Narcissism is important.)

Uncle Charlie makes his auspicious debut at the funeral of India’s father, but off in the distance. He will be the one who stokes. But even then, when she knows nothing about him, she seems to know almost everything about him. Shrouded in only silhouette could not only describe how that shot looks, but how Matthew Goode’s Uncle Charlie is, and how India perceives him. He’s not completely in the dark and neither is she. She’s suspicious of him and yet she seems to know what he wants and why he is there. There’s a careful balance between the known and the unknown in this film, as well as the careful balance between adolescence and adulthood.

But adulthood is not all that it seems. None of the major adults in this film are very good and the ones that are get quickly polished off by Uncle Charlie. Adulthood, as true as India said it, may be a kind of freedom, but how one exerts that freedom and how one uses it defines the kind of person that they are. India may have already been struck by fate, as a curious brown spider (what looks like to be a brown recluse spider to me), crawls up her India’s leg towards the beginning of the film as she sits and plays the piano. She is infused with the poison of adulthood.

It isn’t only imagery of spiders that pervades this film. So much of it is reliant on the transition from adolescence to adulthood, so, various symbolic images are piled on in the film. In a Hitchcockian manner (more of which I will get to later), birds frequent the frames of the film. A striking example of this is ostensibly unimportant. India cracks a deviled egg by rolling it around on the table, but we hear the cracks amplified dozens of times so it shatters our eardrums. It’s a sound so subtle that normally no one would notice it, but it becomes of enormous importance when one realizes that the force she’s putting on breaking the egg I similar to the force she puts on trying to mature to womanhood. She rolls it around with apathy; she dislikes the frivolity of her age.

Her suspicion of Uncle Charlie continues, and Director Park creates a fascinating dynamic between the two, constantly at odds but also attuned to one another. While both characters may seem unpredictable to the audience, neither is unpredictable to the other. Both, at heart, know what the other is capable of, though India is only learning what she is capable of. This power play, though, is fairly explicitly shown as height: the stairs in the lavish house she lives in serve as an explicit reminder of who can maintain power the longest in the film. But there’s a desire for the playing field to be level. Although the power does shift throughout the film, it is often shown that one wants to level it: the stare into one another’s faces as they both reach the same height, the stare across the table at one another, and they sit on the same piano bench.

It is this scene which is both the highlight of the film and the best example that India’s maturation process is not only mental but sexual. Yes, it sounds somewhat incestuous, but the connection between India and Uncle Charlie transcends sex. It’s a bizarre, almost telepathic relationship (one that is, thankfully, never fully explained). The scene I am talking about involves India sitting down to play at the piano. Soon, her Uncle Charlie joins her, he who had feigned amateur piano skills for India’s mother, and the two play in harmony with one another. They play a dark, swelling theme, the theme to their connection. The camera is precise, able to capture the big picture of what is occurring, and the minute details of the piano hammers, India closing her eyes in ecstasy, and her shoes. It is, by far, one of the sexiest scenes from film in 2013.

Uncle Charlie is as much of a slick hunter as India, but he’s also a sexual creature. He lures and manipulates India’s mother (Nicole Kidman). As the dance to “Summer Wine” in the dining room, the camera switches back and forth between POV shots and medium shots of the couple dancing. This brief romance though, is to no avail. Soon, Kidman will spit out words worthy of an award: “I can’t wait to watch life tear you apart.” But her mother doesn’t even know the true nature of her daughter.

But her sexual maturity manifests itself in other ways. After an attempted rape on the train tracks by her house (yet another Hitchcockian flourish), she is seen weeping and masturbating in the shower, an exhibition of the pains of “growing up”, but also proof that is clearly indicative of her nature. She is aroused by violence and by killing. Killing, hunting is in her blood. And it proves that the romantic tryst was only an experiment in two ways: an experiment in her own sexuality and an experiment in her ability to kill.

This hunting was abstractly explained in the first lines of the film, but the attention to detail that Director Park puts on this is astounding, as is India’s own attention to detail. She can hear things from a mile away. She can see things and know what they are and what they mean from an equally great distance. In art class, she is seen drawing the fine details of the interior of a flower pot. It is almost as if she can slow her heartbeat down so that she doesn’t scare off prey. She is the ultimate hunter, and her father knew this. At the end, we can see her eye through the scope of a rifle. It’s in her blood.

Its Hitchcockian flourishes are not without reason though. The film is “heavily inspired by Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt” but I think the film, written by Wentworth Miller, takes it a step further. It’s an inverted thematic remake. It isn’t merely that there’s a suspicious Uncle Charlie in both films and that the admiration of the young girl upon Uncle Charlie is fraught with sexual tension; both young women mature but do so in vastly different ways. Shadow of a Doubt Is as cynical as Stoker and they both concern the “nuclear family”, but Charlie Newton of Shadow (1943) is one who realizes the world isn’t all it’s cracked up to be early in the film. The events that follow just cement her cynical outlook. IN Shadow, the development is a general progression of one mindset, but she is, in essence, “still a good person”. Similarly, Stoker does, ostensibly, the same thing by having India progress through one real mindset and character and just develop further as the film goes on. But Stoker is an inherently inverted version of this. Charlie of Shadow rejects the evil that incarnated itself as her Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotton); India embraces the evil that is has always been in her blood, a supernatural connection between she and her Uncle Charlie. Not only has Park Chan-wook subverted the coming of age film, but he has inverted the inspiration for the film. Evil comes full circle.

Park Chan-wook’s Stoker is a bizarre, stylish, and sexy thriller. Upon its release at Sundance, it was met with mixed to positive reviews, many accusing the film of being style over substance. But what may have not been understood at the time (something I hate having to say, because I think it is unfair to regress into “my work isn’t bad, you just don’t get it” mentality) is that the style was the substance. Everything about the film was about appearance: how evil can look so appealing and so entrancing. For, undoubtedly Stoker has some of the most intoxicating cinematography in quite a while. Both India and Uncle Charlie are attractive people, and they are able to do what they do in a slick, effortless way. Director Park is able to convey this through some of the most incredible image building in a film this year, where every frame is critical to understanding the theme of the film. Stoker isn’t just a film that subverts the coming of age film, it’s a film that reveals how attracted we are to evil itself. Evil is indeed appealing. As Nietzsche once said, “Man is the cruelest animal.”