The 400 Blows (1959)

Directed by: François Truffaut Written by: Truffaut and Marcel Moussy

Quatre_coups2Historically the concept of the child did not always exist everywhere. Children were seen as little adults, and treated as such as much as physically possible. They were castigated, overworked, and at times executed. Such cruelty is a key characteristic of Dickensian fiction.

My first instinct upon seeing Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, a story of childhood and punishment was to describe it as a Dickensian work: albeit a less harsh one. I soon came to realize, however, that such a desciptor, without appropriate nuance, fails to capture what makes The 400 Blows so engaging. The film is not Dickensian: rather, it depicts an evolutionary link between Dickensian times and the present.

Loosely based on the adolescent experience of writer-director François Truffaut, The 400 Blows tells the story of Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud) a pre-teen boy with a penchant for mischief. Antoine’s teacher (Guy Decomble) is strict and derogatory and employs corporal punishment. His mother (Claire Maurier) seems to regret his existence, while his father (Albert Rémy) is affectionate but not beyond period-strictness, issuing some of the 400 blows himself.

There are strong grounds to describe The 400 Blows as a realist work. It is aesthetically striking, as are many black and white works seen through contemporary eyes, yet it also embraces the limits on the beauty of black and white film. In a scene in which Antonie skips school he is seen spinning around on a carnival ride. The spinning piece of metal is about as plain-industrial as it gets. It’s as if this scene is saying: there is no truly magical space to escape to, hard as Antoine may try.

The film is also realistic when it comes to character development. Antoine’s teacher is no one I’d want teaching me, but he’s no Dickensian villain either. His parents have a combination of pleasant and unpleasant traits. Antoine, most importantly, is not innocent. He does commit petty wrong. The 400 Blows thematic success, however, comes through in that it makes plain to viewers that they should sympathize with over-disciplined children even when they are not little angels.

Finally, the film’s ending contributes to its realist air. Without being specific, I’ll say it’s a non-ending ending, one that reminds us that in real-life, over-punished children are not subjects of Dickensian misery waiting to be saved by Mr. Brownlow’s, but rather subjects of a subtler injustice that they will simply have to escape with age. The film’s may very well have influenced one of my favourite recent film, Sean Baker’s The Florida Project. There is a tonal difference, however, in that Truffaut’s work and ending reinforces his realism, whereas Baker’s tows the line between gritty and magical-realism (is this difference largely the result of shooting in black and white vs color, you be the judge?).

It would be inaccurate to entirely label The 400 Blows’ affect as realism driven. Another key part of the film’s aesthetic is shots that feature a crisp images of characters’ heads with little in the way of background. These shots reinforce the fact that this is a film with relatively few characters, and with the exception perhaps of Antonie’s friend René (Patrick Auffay), the characters are stand ins for ideas: the troubled boy, the strict teacher, and unprotective parents.

The 400 Blows manages to be a number of things at once, and that is why it is so satisfying despite being a simple, some might say incomplete, story. Antoine is both an everyboy and a well defined character (as illustrated in the scenes when he gets to talk about himself). It is a film about human coldness that nonetheless maintains a constant airs of mundanity and escapism. It is a film that can be widely enjoyed, just maybe don’t show it to those you don’t want to set a bad example for: you don’t want your preteen to go around stealing typewriters!


Thelma and Louise (1991)

Written by: Callie Khourie Directed by: Ridley Scot

  Thelma_&_Louiseposter                It’s a sign of my still amateurish relationship to film, that until taking it out of the library the other day I had barely heard of Thelma and Louise. Perhaps I had, but had simply confused it in my head with the numerous other “duo things” I hadn’t seen: Cheech and Chong, Starsky and Hutch, etc. I trust that these works are not very apt comparisons to the film I just saw, but part of me wonders if that’s not a problem. Thelma and Louise is a serious, political movie, yet its character perhaps comes from the fact that it is in fact disguised as something else.

Thelma and Louise is a buddy movie, a roadtrip movie. This setup implies comedy, as did the film’s trailer. I would not say it’s not a comic film: it has its share of light, and comedically shocking lines. But to call the film a comedy, even a black comedy, would miss that it’s a story not focused around its jokes, but around its core theme.

Without giving too much away, Thelma and Louise is a story about gendered violence and how women who fall victim to it are not believed in their accounts of what happened. This is a problem Louise (Susan Sarandon) and Thelma (Geena Davis) decide to deal with by escaping into the power and hedonistic thrill of an outlaw lifestyle. The film’s “comedic” story is thus not unlike that of Life is Beautiful: it can be appreciated as comedy, but only if one acknowledges that that comedy is an act of rebellion.

The film’s feminism is made obvious by its political premise: one that is explicitly, though not unnaturally, stated in the script. When a movie passes the Bechdel test, however, there will likely be more feminism to it than meets the eye. When we meet Louise and Thelma they fill somewhat familiar roles: Louise the grizzled veteran who knows what she’s talking about, Thelma the naïve sidekick. The film, however, is called Thelma and Louise not Louise and Thelma. This is perhaps because it is Thelma who suffers and transforms more in the period of time depicted on camera; and her transformation eventually allows her to upstage Louise. Thelma thus breaks what one might expect from a character in a buddy comedy: she can be naïve, but this is not her defining feature: in the right situation, she can be the strong, daring and articulate character. The film thus takes a transformative and not a mere reformist approach to the “ditz stereotype,” allowing Thelma to break free from its chains, while not denying her the chance to also show off her naïve side.

To elaborate on the Bechedelian point, the film’s unique feminist status can be seen in how its depicts men. Yes, one man stands out as an antagonist, but there are other problematic men along the way, including cops, who are like enemy robots, in their inability to look beyond the law and empathize with Thelma and Louise’ situation. An other male still is rendered fodder for one of the film’s road comedy scenes. Just as the film is feminist in its depictions of various male dangers, it also finds feminism in its strategic depiction of (sort of) good men (Harvey Keitel, Michael Madsen and Brad Pitt). These characters enter the script providing color and additional layers of emotional complexity in the plot. Their greatest significance, however, is their inability to help the protagonists. Thelma and Louise only have each other, or at least, they come to see it that way.

Thelma and Louise find liberation, but that liberation relies on illusion and carpe diem (again, not unlike Life is Beautiful). This is a powerful image, one beautifully nailed in the film’s classic final scene. Perhaps you’ll spend some moments disappointed about the low ratio of gags to screen time in a film that you may expect to be a buddy comedy in Thelma and Louise, but ultimately it’s the kind of work where its thematic cohesiveness leaves one thoroughly satisfied.

Dazed and Confused (1993): A Mild Dystopia

Written and directed by: Richard Linklater

Dazed_and_Confused_(1993)_posterI was drawn to Dazed and Confused for two reasons. Firstly, in TV drama Rectified, teenager Jared shows his much older half-brother Daniel the film in order to catch Daniel up on the movies he has missed while in prison. Secondly, the film was directed by Richard Linklater, and I’ve enjoyed what I’ve seen of his works so far. Modern film viewers may see Dazed and Confused as a predecessor to teenage-drinking comedies like SuperBad. Indeed, the film can be appreciated on that level; it’s a chance to watch kids revelling in their bad decisions, laugh at low-brow humour and at times, sympathize with them when they are faced with bullying.

However, as someone who spent high school thinking beer was a disgusting concoction that you learned to like somewhere in the distance of adulthood, and that getting drunk was something people only did if when really down on their luck, needless to say, I struggled to relate to films like SuperBad. To me they aren’t comic representations of a universal experience, but depictions of a group of kids I was dis-included from and may not have wanted to have been part of anyway.

Dazed and Confused, however, is fundamentally different from SuperBad. Unlike the 2007 film, it doesn’t consistently follow a small group of protagonists, and doesn’t have much of a plot arc. Dazed and Confused therefore does not encourage viewers to identify with its characters to the same degree that SuperBad does and therefore, has the potential to appeal to a broader audience (that is if much of that audience is not alienated by slightly-experimental, loosely-plotted cinema).

Another key difference between Dazed and Confused and SuperBad, is that the former is a period piece: filmed in the 90s but set in the 1976. Hippy-culture is still a force in the Dazed and Confused universe. The boy characters’ don free-flowing-hair , and sex and drugs are still (unsurprisingly) in vogue. Absent, however, from the world of these high-schoolers is any sort of hippy-politics. Dazed and Confused thus envisions a world of teenage counterculture, but without counter-cultural idealism: quite the opposite in fact as the school’s seniors participate in a ritualized campaign of bullying against freshman. 12th grade boys chase their freshman counterparts with spanking paddles, while the girls participate in an insult-and-degradation-routine that is most disturbing in that involves a degree of willing participation from its 9th grade victims.

So what makes Dazed and Confused an arguable classic, and not just some other teens-getting-drunk comedy? I would argue its success lies in that it depicts a veritable dystopia. I call it a dystopia, and not just a film in which some bad things happen, as Dazed and Confused, depicts a suburban-teenage world of-itself, with its own dystopian set of laws. Yes there are adults in the film, but they operate on its periphery, seemingly powerless to infringe on tyrannical, teenage sovereignty and the culture of hazing it produces.

Dazed and Confused can also be said to depict a cohesive, dystopian world because none of its characters are able to articulate just how absurd the ways of their world are (much as a fish would theoretically be unable to identify what water is). The film’s (sort of) “nerdy” friend group features two guys, Mike and Tony (Adam Goldberg and Anthony Rapp) who operate awkwardly within the logic of the Dazed and Confused world. When, as part of a hazing ritual, 9th grader Sabrina (Christina Hinjosa) is told to propose to Tony and promise she’ll do anything he wants, Tony half heartedly participates, before telling Sabrina he thinks the whole thing is silly. Tony, and Mike later appear, trying to fitting in at a high school party. They don’t quite cut it, but much like the characters in SuperBad, their nerdiness only goes as far as struggling to fit in with mainstream culture, rather than living outside of it. Mike and Tony are not bullies; they are seemingly idealistic figures, yet they are unable to seriously-question or escape the basic rituals of the Dazed and Confused universe.

Sabrina, like Mike and Tony, shows a degree of resistance to the dystopia’s culture. She is never seen getting drunk, and in a brief exchange with fellow beleaguered freshman Mitch (Wiley Wiggins), comments on the absurdity of what they are going through. On the other hand, Sabrina’s most striking feature is her quietness, and she is introduced to the plot as willing (as far as we know) victim of the 12th-grade-girls’ hazing ritual. Like Tony and Mike, she is unable to think or exist fully outside the parameters of the dystopia she lives within.

There are numerous other examples of characters in the film failing to deconstruct its universe. Mitch’s older sister Jody (Michelle Burke), knowing full well he will be beaten by 12th graders, warns his attackers in advance that they should be gentle with him. Apparently telling a teacher that your brother is being bullied, you know, the common sense approach, isn’t an option in the world of Dazed and Confused (again, in this dystopia, teenagers are sovereign). Mitch’s bullies, meanwhile are lead by football player Randall “Pink” Floyd (Jason London) who refuses on principle to sign a form saying he won’t take drugs during football season (as meaningless as such a signature would be), explaining that in principle he can’t give in to such McCarthyism. Again, the logic of Dazed and Confused is expressed: 70s hippyism is present just enough for the character to rail against McCarthyism, yet not enough for the character to see the evident cruelty of his beating up on those smaller than him.

In other moments, the film’s title feels like an apt description for the film’s universe:the characters behave absurdly, as if in a daze. The film is largely devoid of the kind of intellectual conversation seen in Linklater’s other works (eg the “Before” trilogy). The closest a character comes to articulating something interesting is a rant by Slater (Rory Cochrane), the film’s leading stoner, about George Washington. The rant unsurprisingly is a conspiracy theory about the historical importance of weed. In a film in which all the characters are in a daze; unable to see moral logic outside the rules of their universe, such a rant is well placed.

But perhaps no scene represents dazedness better than when the film’s main female antagonist, Michelle (Milla Jovovich) very-drunkenly threatens Sabrina. Her cruelty is absurd, and her dazed-delivery is equally absurd too match.

Dazed and Confused is an enduring work for a number of reasons. Viewers can play spot the star looking for young versions of Matthew McConaughey, Parker Posey, Ben Affleck and Renée Zellwegger. Other viewers may appreciate the film as yet another party comedy. Perhaps I’m alone in seeing the film as dystopian. That’s the impression I get when one of the story’s victims, Mitch, ends the film with a smile on his face after an early-morning return home. Nevertheless, the ingredients are certainly there for viewing the film as a scathing imaginary of 1970s high school life. Dazed and Confused is not a traditional film, but it is not slow or confusing either, meaning viewers with a range of perspectives and tastes will continue to appreciate it.

The Sunshine Boys (1975)

DirectedSunshine_boys.jpeg by: Herbert Ross. Written by: Neil Simon

They’re perfect for each other and they can’t stand each other: that’s the premise of Neil Simon’s comedic play The Sunshine Boys. The 1975 film version is remembered for the performances of its stars Walter Matthau and George Burns as two Vaudeville Comedians, reuniting for a TV special. Burns, aged 79, won an Oscar for his performance, re-launching a career that would last until his death at the age of 100.

The film was updated somewhat from the play, featuring opening scenes about Willie Clark’s (Matthau) audition for a Frumpy’s potato chips commercial. The appeal of The Sunshine Boys is its well-written humour about how humour is made. In the audition scenes, we laugh at two actors’ attempts to do intentionally-over-the-top acting for the chips commercial. Shortly thereafter, Clark explains-to-excess what makes words funny (he blames his poor audition on “Frumpy’s not being a funny word).

The film like the play, unfortunately peaks a bit too early. Willie Clark, anxious about his mortality and nostalgic for an acting career that he has grown sick of, engages in ridiculous antics. His counterpart, Al Lewis (Burns), is hard of hearing and irritable in his own right, but is rather pedestrian in comparison to Clark. Despite being named for a duo, The Sunshine Boys, is essentially Clark’s story, with Lewis serving as a sort-of-straight man.

The problem with this structure is not that having a straight man is a bad thing, but rather that by the time Lewis is introduced into the story, the film already has an established straight-man: Clark’s nephew and agent, Ben (Richard Benjamin). Ben functions as a more effective straight-man than Lewis. Ben’s straight-man patiently attempts to engage with Clark’s absurdity. Lewis, however, is in-conflict with Clark, meaning rather than engaging with and subsequently highlighting Clark’s absurdity, he fights it with his own irateness. Lewis’ persona thus sits in an awkward middleground: he is too finicky to be the straight-man, but not finicky enough to be absurd.

The Sunshine Boys’ humor relies on exploiting the formula of pairing a straight man (Ben) with a ridiculous one (Clark). The comedy stems from the straight man having to bear the burden of his companion’s absurdity, while the companion, being absurd, cannot appreciate the consequences of his actions. This formula is seen, for instance, in the paring of Sheldon and Leonard on The Big Bang Theory, David and Woody in Nebraska, and Michael Bluth and his entire family in Arrested Development. While this technique can produce hilarity, it can at times feel like a bit of a short cut. In Nebraska, I wondered how David’s straight-man-level-headedness could exist in a world entirely populated by absurd figures. Straight-men can seem more like tools than real characters: they represent what the “reasonable viewer” wants to see in a “reasonable” person, rather than what a person in that character’s situation would actually be like. Ben, however, cannot be subject to this critique, for while he absolutely serves the function of a straight-man, he is a flawed character in his own right. Ben is not simply a nephew doing his uncle a favour. He’s an agent looking to establish himself, and this means over-investing in the seemingly doomed project of reuniting a comedy duo whose members are hopelessly at odds. Ben is simultaneously the voice of reasonability, and mildly-swindling travelling salesman trying to sell to old men on a reunion that they are fated to ruin.

The Sunshine Boys is an enjoyable comedic work, and I have no wish to dispute its status as a classic. It nonetheless fails to live up to the potential that exists within its own confines: the potential to use Ben’s character just a bit more, rather than over-estimating the potential of the film’s titular comedy duo.