Dead Women Walking 2018

Written and directed by: Hagar Ben-Asher

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I knew I had to see the final film of the Montréal Black film festival because of its subject matter. I’ve long been deeply disturbed by the death penalty and this film: a series of vignettes about women on death row, clearly shared my disturbance. I knew little else about the film going in however, and it’s unclear what exactly its future is.

Dead Women Walking is structured around time: ie each one of its vignettes features characters at moments closer and closer to their executions. Each vignette has a plot arc, but the arcs can be said to be structured more around a feeling than an action. Therefore, as I watched the vignettes I felt they had something to be desired. Occasionally their dialogue felt overly expository, but I don’t think this was their main problem. Rather, the core shortcoming of the vignettes was their lack of ability to manipulate audience emotions. Because we know each scene is about death row, the fact that the film’s characters are there is not shocking. And because each vignette is short, rarely do they raise the stakes for the character much beyond where they were when the scene started. The result is vignettes that in theory should be very compelling, yet offer little in the way of a dramatic roller coaster.

That was my reaction at least as I watched the movie. As I sit to write this, my view has changed somewhat. As I went to sleep after seeing the movie the names of the fictional condemned women: Donna, Wendy, Helen, Ruth, Dorothy, Celine, and Beck haunted me. I saw them cry, speak to their child-like vulnerability, mother, yearn with love, and walk with the indignity of having their legs manacled. The thought that these women would shortly be strapped down and willingly killed by prison staff (regardless of the fact that they were fictional characters) disturbed me to no end. And as I had these thoughts I realized that Hagar Ben-Asher had succeeded in creating vivid, individualized figures and haunting scenarios (particularly the Wizard of Oz bits and the Nina Simone scene), even if at first glance they seemed unsatisfyingly short and repetitive.

The film also deserves credit for advocating for its subjects while almost entirely avoiding the “they might be innocent argument.” Only one character’s innocence is hinted at in a non-committal way. Some characters are presented as victims of abuse and addiction, while others are presented with their motives entirely under-analyzed. While I’m not sure I buy the view of one Rotten Tomatoes critic that this film “opens the mind through sight”(I think a painstakingly nuanced movie about a single character rather than a selection of vignettes is necessary to do that), it is a great example of a work that advocates for the view that all human beings are loveable and deserve love.

A final point of note with this film is its exploration of the concept of the banality of evil. While it features stereotypical southern champions of the death penalty and a couple of bullying corrections officials, it largely presents workers in the correction system as borderline-friends of the inmates, making it all the more disturbing that they are employed to escort these people to their deaths. Also featured in the film are members of a parole board who reaffirm one character’s death sentence: the speakers on the board are a white (but not southern) woman and a black man: again not who you imagine when you think of upholders of the death penalty.

Dead Women Walking is haunting and as such I’m not sure whether to recommend it or not. For opponents of the death penalty it can be a touching and tragic experience, but I’m not convinced it offers enough in the way of character development to show tough-on-crime-type-thinkers the limits and cruelty of their perspective. To my fellow bleeding hearts, I guess the most honest thing I can say is “watch at your own risk.”

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We the Animals (2018)

Directed by: Jeremiah Zagar Written by: Zagar and Dan Kitrosser 

We_the_Animals.pngI was deeply frustrated with the closing shot of We the Animals. I also found it very beautiful. One school of thinking on such a reaction would say that I should defer to the positive reaction: something that is frustrating but beautiful can be understood as a beauty that just takes thinking to appreciate. I’m open to the possibility that I simply haven’t thought enough about We the Animals (and admittedly I haven’t read the Justin Torres novel it is based on), but I would say I’m fairly confident in my ambivalence about that scene, a reaction that sums up my relationship to the film.

One of We the Animals’ strengths is that it is a deeply sensorial movie. We hear pencil scratches as red bursts onto a child’s page. The camera often aims down showing the soil and water the characters’ feet traverse, while also taking care to show the technologies of their world. As a film based on a semi-autobiographical story this approach makes sense: nothing quite spells nostalgia like a careful recreation of the colors and textures of one’s life.

This sensorial quality goes well with the films title. The movie is “animalistic” in that it asks up to appreciate places and events but not words. The film’s title, however, is also where my criticism stems from. An easy way to understand the title is that it refers to the film’s protagonist, 10 year old Jonah (Evan Rosado) and his two slightly older brothers, Manny (Isaiah Kristian) and Joel (Josiah Gabriel). The boys often walk around shirtless and find ways to survive in their unstable household. Once the movie really gets underway events take place that plainly make this interpretation come to fruition, but these events are then reversed with plenty of film left to run.

Once Jonah, Joel and Manny’s animalistic state is interrupted the film never quite picks up again. This is not to say it doesn’t have memorable moments (it has plenty), but they stop feeling like they add up to something. At this point the story is no longer one that pits the three “animals” against their parents (Raúl Castillo and Sheila Vand), but rather Jonah, to varying degrees against the world. This feels an odd decision in a story called We the Animals: at best it’s a tale of We the Animal. And this is a problem even before the film moves away from Jonah’s brothers, for while the film does feature important brother bonding moments, it makes no effort to define Manny and Joel as individuals. When they stop being relevant in their role as Jonah’s brothers, their status as titular animals becomes entirely forgettable.

The closing shot of We the Animals depicts the forest surrounding the family’s house from the air. As I said, it’s striking, but I also don’t get it. It could be said to represent Jonah’s smallness in a big world, yet given that his family’s lives are not restricted to their immediate, forested surroundings, this imagery does not feel particularly fitting. It’s beautiful, but I don’t get it: and I can’t help but assume that We the Animals offers a kind of indie realism (coupled with a little magical realism) where there really is nothing to get.

BlacKkKlansman (2018)

Directed by: Spike Lee Written by: Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, Kevin Wilmott and Lee, 

BlacKkKlansmanGoing into BlacKkKlansman I knew the film had been the subject of a public exchange between Sorry to Bother You director Boots Riley, and the film’s own director Spike Lee. I opted not to read the exchange before seeing the movie and I think that was the the right decision. I’ll elaborate on that later.

BlacKkKlansman opens with a depiction of a southern political figure filming a racist rant (with stylistic reference to Bill O’Reilly’s “fuck it we’ll do it live” clip). The film’s main story than begins with the caption “this joint is some fo’ real, fo’ real shit.”

I should clarify that while I’m glad I didn’t read the Boots Riley-Spike Lee exchange before seeing the movie, I’m glad I knew it happened. BlacKkKlansman’s (second) opening scene is one of its strongest, and it bears decent resemblance to the opening of Sorry to Bother You. Both scenes depict job interviews, border on fourth-wall breaking and address social issues. Furthermore, the characters in both scenes do not suppress themselves, instead cooly acknowledging the social dynamics at play. In the context of BlacKkKlansman, this sets up a quasi-cartoonish affect (the cartoonishness of Sorry to Bother You isn’t subtle).

The film’s protagonist, Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) does not come across as your typical cop. Rarely seen in a uniform, his out-of-placeness is immistakable. This is one of the reasons why the “this is some fo’ real, fo’ real shit” tagline is important. Through this seemingly cartoonish depiction, Lee and Washington portray just how out of place a black cop can feel and how subversive hiring a black cop in Colorado Springs in the 1970s was (or at least could have been).

The film quickly depicts Stallworth’s emergence on the force. He is seen working in a files room where he expresses discomfort with the dehumanizing way his fellow officers talk about (black) convicts. He eventually works his way up into the intelligence unit, only to find out that this line of work involves spying on black activists. Black KkKlansman however is merciful to its protagonist, giving him the conviction and luck to work his way out of these assignments and into a position where he can do what he wants (and what he seemingly joined the police to do): to spy on the Klan.

The middle of the film introduces Ron to Black Panther-inspired Black Student Association leader Patrice (Laura Harrier) and a number of Klan members (Jasper Pääkkönen, Ryan Eggold and Paul Walter Hauser). Patrice is a bit of caricature, and the Klan members, while not caricatures, can feel cartoonish, especially from the perspective of a naïve liberal viewer. The Klan cast is further embellished by the presence of one of their folksy but equally racist wives, Connie (Ashlie Atkinson). As Lee builds the universe of 1970s Colorado Springs, we are introduced to one larger-than-life event after another and again it is all “fo’ real.”

In addition to working as a compelling aesthetic, Lee’s “you wouldn’t believe this shit”-realism also sheds an interesting light on the present. The film makes numerous unsubtle allusions to the Trump era, and while that in itself may not make for original satire, what  the script cleverly does is expose the evolution of racism from the over the top rhetoric of the Klan do the dog-whistles of Trump: in other words it shows how shit you wouldn’t believe becomes shit that’s all too believeable.

Overall BlacKkKlansman is an enjoyable work, though I believe it wavers a bit in what its vision is. Unlike some of Lee’s other works it follows a dramatic and conventional plot arc. Given its topic one might think its writers had an Oscar-esque vision(it’s worth noting Lee did not write the original pitch). This clashes a bit with what I see as BlacKkKlansman’s more Sorry to Bother You-like (perhaps Brechtian) vision. Lee’s version of Ron Stallworth is a black man who joins a police force, despite knowing all to well that that is a bad idea. On top of that, this character seems to do so with the sole vision of using his police powers to fight racism, trying to avoid less comfortable police assignments like narcotics and spying on radicals Stallworth, in other words, is an amusing, though topical, comic-book hero. This part of his character is undermined by the Oscar-y side of BlacKkKlansman. Near the end of the film, Stallworth confesses that he’s always wanted to be a cop. With this line we’re robbed of an understanding of Stallworth as a gutsy activist who uses a police job to achieve his own heroic ends. Instead we’re told what we’ve watched is the liberal feel-good story of a cop who made his dreams come true and made a police department a little better.

Not all of BlacKkKlansman’s more Oscarish elements are for the worst. The film’s secondary protagonist, Officer Phillip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) forms an unlikely bond with Stallworth as he comes to realize the ways he is both white and not-white in the eyes of the Klan. While his moral development is subtle, he is undoubtedly one of the film’s most compelling characters. Also interesting is the Klan member who ends up being the leading villain: a character driven not so much by the Klan’s ideology but by a search for validation from one of its members.

I said at the beginning of this review that I’m glad I knew about the Riley-Lee debate but hadn’t read it before seeing the movie. I knew that Riley was unhappy that an anti-racist film could portray police in a heroic light, and in some ways I found that to be a valid criticism. The film includes a minor subplot about a “bad apple” cop, arguably distracting from the view that police department racism extends beyond individuals. Otherwise, however, I came up with what felt like a satisfying defence of Lee’s approach. There’s a scene in BlacKkKlansman in which Patrice says she is ok with black cops in blacksploitation films because these characters are “fantasies.” I read this scene as a wink to the audience about BlacKkKlansman’s intent: to create a serious movie, but one with a cartoonish hero whose tale is not representative of cops in general.

When I looked up Lee’s reaction to Riley’s comment, however, I was disappointed. The reaction was seemingly a single line in an interview in which he said “look at my films, they’ve been very critical of the police, but on the other hand I’m never going to say all police are corrupt.” This kind of response misses the point as to why many see the police as an innately racist institution. The systemic racism of police forces is based on the following premises:

  • The police are an institution whose mandate is to enforce laws and security and therefore they spy on (often racialized) organizations they suspect are too critical of the status quo.
  • Police forces largely developed to control protestors, enforce slavery in America, etc, rather than to “serve and protect” the public. This mandate may have evolved over time but its hard to think it does not continue to (consciously or not) influence the collective mentality of police forces.
  • Cops are hired to arrest people and occasionally exercise other forms of violence. Therefore, even if they aren’t all consciously racist, they aren’t likely to be hippies either.
  • Certain kinds of crime (eg theft) may flourish in marginalized communities since marginalization creates need. Therefore, police who regularly patrol these communities aren’t “bad apples” per se, but they nonetheless re-enforce the alienation of marginalized people from society.
  • Finally, police forces as currently constructed are key actors in an incarceration based justice system. Incarcerating people, again, further alienates them from society and traps them in cycles of poverty and violence.

 

In short, Lee’s argument that not all police are corrupt may in a way be true, but it dodges the deeper ideological issue that Riley hints at in his criticism.

Riley argues that contrary to the film’s claim BlacKkKlansman is not “fo’ real.” He notes that the real Ron Stallworth appears to have been less critical of mainstream police work than his fictional counterpart and that Phillip Zimmerman didn’t exist, amongst other things (I’ll link to Riley’s criticism here, but note that it contains spoilers). To me the question of whether this matters depends on whether you chose to separate the art from the artist (or at least the artist’s recent, presumably oversimplified, portrayal of his belief). BlacKkKlansman, judged as a film in isolation is not nearly as pro-cop as Riley suggests. Its hero crew (Stallworth, Zimmerman and Jimmy Creek) often hang out in a side room of their own, dressed in street clothes, reducing the degree to which you think of them as cops.  Additionally, through characters like Patrice and Kwame Ture aka Stokley Carmichael (Corey Hawkins), BlacKkKlansman undoubtedly portrays radical critiques of the police in a sympathetic light.

            BlacKkKlansman has funny moments, Where’s-Waldo-moments (spot the brothers of two famous Hollywood actors, and Eric Forman from That 70s Show) and ends with a powerful illustration of the Klan’s contemporary legacy. It’s absolute worth seeing, just remember to have a nuanced view of when it’s “fo’ real” and when it’s “a fantasy.”

 

Shoot the Piano Player (1960)

Written and directed by: François Truffaut

Tirez_sur_le_pianisteIf I had not taken on the project of watching the films of Truffaut and Godard side by side, I might not have found things to say about Shoot the Piano Player. A critic at the time of its release said it would only please “true lovers of movies, ” and as someone not even watching Truffaut’s homage to American noir and comedy films in its proper historical context I am more removed from it than lay-viewers of the 60s. Nonetheless, there’s an interesting trait in both Shoot the Piano Player and The Little Soldier (Godard’s sophmore release from the same year) that is a bit more universal in nature.

The implication of the film’s title, an implication better spelled out by Elton John’s album title Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only the Piano Player, is that the piano player is an innocent figure. All the pianist does is make music, and life happens around them. Moral philosophers can debate whether such a figure is truly innocent (how can one be passive in a world of injustice, they ask), but such a debate is not what this film is about. Charlie Kohler (Charles Aznavour) begins the film as such a pianist, but quickly becomes a slightly-modified version of the figure.

The film pulls a bit of a bait and switch, opening with an appearance by a character named Chico (Albert Rémy—the father from The 400 Blows) a comedic, likeable-criminal. Chico, it turns out, is not the film’s focus, his brother (Charlie) is. We are introduced to Charlie when Edward tells him he needs help evading a pair of mildly goofy, but ultimately still dangerous gangsters. While Charlie initially expresses his refusal to get enmeshed in Chico’s world, it soon becomes apparent he has little other option.

Charlie’s story then essentially follows a cynical path: one of finding and losing love, and one of trying to maintain a family that doesn’t exactly help itself. He exists on the cusp of having a fine-to-easy life as a pianist, but misfortune keeps him from finding such a life. He is a calm figure a rocky world. This is where Shoot the Pianist and The Little Soldier overlap. These protagonists are not mischief-makers like Antoine Doinel or reality-denying rebels like Michel Poicard but neutral figures, undone by the mischief and tragedy of others. Of course, in ways they are very different characters. For Charlie Kohler, neutrality is a very natural way to be, whereas Bruno Forestier is someone who has come to adopt a more neutral existence via philosophizing. This difference also highlights the unique ways in which the two films may fall short at pleasing audiences.

As I noted in my review, The Little Soldier, quite simply is a very philosophical film, its not everyone’s cup of tea. Shoot the Piano Player has no such problem. It is accessible, has funny moments and good lines and establishes a simple but effective backstory for its protagonist. It’s featuring a mild-mannered protagonist is an idea with great potential. When agreeable people are exposed to a cruel, unreasonable world, there agreeableness stands out, nicely highlighting the silliness, absurdity and/or cruelty of how others treat them. Shoot the Piano Player achieves this objective, but barely.

I would thus conclude that its weakness as a film is not reducable to any one of its traits: its more a matter of fine tuning. Perhaps Chico and the gangsters should have been given bigger roles to play up the film’s black-comic side. Perhaps Charlie’s back-story sequence should have been more extended to play him up as an innocent-but tragic figure. These too are criticisms I raise with caution. Shoot the piano player is an economical film, and that too I think is a trait worth praising. Is Shoot the Piano Player my favourite Truffaut film, no? Does it offer excellent source material for other stories to spring from? Absolutely

The Little Soldier (1960)

Written and directed by: Jean-Luc Godard

Le_Petit_Soldat“Ethics are the aesthetic of the future,” is perhaps the most memorable line of Godard’s The Little Soldier: a line that begs to be viewed in context. The Little Soldier is Godard’s second feature film and his first as writer-director. While Godard undoubtedly left his artistic stamp on his first film, Breathless, it was written by François Truffaut, and as such, lacked Godard’s signature pastiche of political references.

The Little Soldier is not a complete break from Breathless as a story. It’s protagonist, like the star of Breathless tries to escape a life of violence by throwing himself into romance: a romance that is at once sleazily-superficial and full of ideas. At times this similarity does not reflect well on The Little Soldier. Whereas female protagonist of Breathless is a journalist who challenges her male counterpart in more ways than one, her counterpart in The Little Soldier is presented as comparatively quiet and devoid of critical thought, at least in the first part of the movie.

One of Godard’s motifs is characters making comments about political (often leftist) ideology. The Little Soldier consciously introduces this theme. Early in the film some characters are listening to a radio broadcast. One comments wryly: “This show’s called a neutral person talks. That kills me.” This foreshadows the development of the film’s protagonist and perhaps numerous other figures in Godardian cinema. The world is full of beautiful and important ideas, worthy of articulation. Articulating them and knowing how to act on them are very different things, however.

Another way to explain The Little Soldier is as a film of genre transition. While Breathless was already an offbeat noir, The Little Soldier turns from a noir into something else: a story of a political moment. Godard would go on to challenge conventions of cinema seeing much of established film as incongruent with political progress. The Little Soldier is reflective of such a criticism, but in a far subtler fashion. It subverts expectations, but not in a way that will leave viewers flabbergasted.

The Little Soldier is perhaps less well known than the film proceeded it because, while weird it is not “quirky.” While I do not want to say its characters are not memorable, I am comfortable saying its characters are not memorable unless one reflects on them. Love-interest Veronica Dreyer (Anna Karina) is subtle in every line she delivers, a trait that perhaps takes away from her potential legacy as distinct, an politically important new imagining of the heroine.

The protagonist, Bruno Forestier (Michel Subor) meanwhile, is similarly subtle, and is even harder than Dreyer to remember as an individual persona. Granted, I say this in a deeply contextual light. At the time of the film’s release it was banned in France as it implicates the French for their use of torture as a means to suppress the Algerian independence movement, and the film indeed includes graphic (though somehow not emotionally high-strung) depictions of torture. Nonetheless, Godard’s writing style is so ideas driven, its easy for viewers to miss what is right before their eyes.

The Little Soldier offers viewers a lot to talk about. It doesn’t have the straightforward appeal of Breathless, but that doesn’t make it any less fascinating.

Skate Kitchen (2018)

 Directed by: Crystal Moselle Written by: Moselle, Jen Silverman and Aslıhan Ünaldı

263825R1Genre-wise Skate Kitchen is a film in the same vein as another recent release, The Rider. Both are the products of directors who immersed themselves in communities, recreated those communities on camera, and cast actual community members as stars. On top of that, both are stories of riding (horses/skateboards), and both feature characters who try to forbid the riding. In Skate Kitchen the rider is Camille (Rachelle Vinberg), a high school senior(/recent graduate (?)) and passionate skateboarder, and the “forbidder” is her mother, who after Camille suffers what appears to be a relatively minor injury tells her she is forbidden to skate. Camille subsequently takes a train to Manhattan where she quickly befriends an all-girl group of skaters she discovered through Instagram.

The experience of watching The Rider and Skate Kitchen is similar. Both are celebrations of landscapes and feel particularly fit for viewing on the big screen. What differentiates the two films, however, is that Skate Kitchen is a piece with two acts. While the plot of the film’s first act has some qualities in common with The Rider, the film’s second act takes it into entirely different territory. Having glanced at other reviews before seeing Skate Kitchen, I’d noticed that some labelled it a feminist movie. Unless these critics were really taken in by the one scene in which the skaters discuss the concept of gas-lighting (a good reflection of how political vocabulary has taken a foundation in otherwise apolitical millennial and generation-z spaces) I imagine the film really garnered its feminist label from the fact that it is a Bechdel-test-passing, serious movie in which a group of girls form a community and engage in athletic activity.

With that in mind, I couldn’t help but begin to draw mental parallels between Skate Sandlot_posterKitchen and The Sandlot. The latter is a popular kid’s movie in which a group of 11-year old boys bond over their pickup baseball league. The Sandlot is certainly no feminist-flick: its female cast is limited to a generic mom-figure, and a lifeguard who one of the boys tricks into kissing him. The Sandlot also tried to improve its gender-politics with a sequel (The Sandlot 2) that featured three girl players, but unfortunately, two of them were background characters, and the film as a whole felt so contrived that the one who wasn’t a background character was not exactly memorable either.

Nonetheless, the idea of a good-version of The Sandlot aimed at girls feels like an important idea. Despite the film’s flaws, The Sandlot manages to be a pleasant celebration of comradery, immaturity, urban legend and passion-for-a-sport. Skate Kitchen is all of those things (albeit for an older audience), and on top of that, it manages to be socially conscious and thematically serious.

But there’s one strong quality that the The Sandlot has, that Skate Kitchen lacks. Cleverly mirroring the experience of baseball fandom, The Sandlot has two heroes: an everyman narrator who many viewers can relate to (Scotty Smalls), and another character who Scotty emulates and who ultimately completes the film’s heroic objective (Benny “The Jet” Rodriguez). The Sandlot may celebrate comradery within a flawed boy-community, but a big reason it makes this work is that Benny is the exception to this community’s rules. While the other boys bully Scotty for his lack of athletic skills, Benny, the best player of them all, helps coach him. And while Benny never does anything explicitly feminist in the movie, he at very least doesn’t come across as someone who, like his teammate Ham Porter, would scream “you play like a girl!”

Skate Kitchen does not have a Benny-figure. Instead, it features Camille both as its vulnerable narrator and its moral decision maker. This is not in and of itself a problem: again, the Scotty-Benny dynamic in The Sandlot is a unique one, and furthermore, the girls of Skate Kitchen are generally speaking far nicer than the boys of The Sandlot. Nonetheless, as Camille comes into conflict with her crew members toward the end of Skate Kitchen, the lack of a Benny-figure (or some other solution) felt like a real shortcoming.

Camille is defined by having a lot of dualistic traits. She is poor, but she lives in suburbia. She is the well-behaved, soft-spoken member of her friend group yet her story is defined by her rebellious streak. Similarly, she comes across as reasonable and agreeable, yet she constantly feels inclined to flee the people in her life all-together. All in all she is sympathetic and vulnerable, but most importantly feels like the only member of her crew who has three-dimensional thoughts and emotions. In the film’s most heartbreaking moments, she feels like the one reasonable character in a sea of immaturity and un-nuanced anger. Yet somehow, because Skate Kitchen is a celebration of comradery, it is not her group-members or other characters, but Camille who is ultimately compelled to grow at the end of the film. Messaging-wise, this didn’t sit right with me..

Skate Kitchen has a lot going for it. It’s lively, colourful, realistic, dark and funny. Similar to The Florida Project it features a cast of largely amateur actors teamed up with a single star (Jaden Smith) in a memorable, but supporting role. I suppose my one issue with it is how it holds up as an inspirational piece (whether it aspired to be one, I can’t say). On the one hand, it envisions how variously marginalized youth can escape into their own solidaristic communities, but on the other hand it also shows the degree to which membership in such communities can require unpleasant conformity. Of course it’s good and right for filmmaker’s to depict imperfect realities: the problem is when they seem to want us to accept them.

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!