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Key Films #26

American Gigolo [Paul Schrader, 1980]:

The first images of the film establish a world of surfaces; reflections.  The car, the clothes, the storefronts and houses, each suggest a particular mentality.  Excess, or the aspiration to excess, as symptomatic of this elite world of wealth and privilege.  It's less a part of the lifestyle than a requirement to conform; a uniform, not just physical but psychological, that is adopted to gain access to this private playground of hotels, nightclubs and restaurants.  A hidden world, off-limits and unattainable to someone lacking the proper connections.  The character Julian - the 'gigolo' of the title - moves through this world with confidence and ease.  It doesn't matter that he's selling sex or companionship to bored housewives and ailing widows, he looks the part; he fits into this backdrop of style and surface; just another object - a commodity, like the cars and fancy furnishings - defining space.  But Julian doesn't belong to this world.  His persona is a facade; a constructed exterior with nothing beneath the plane.  Through Schrader's depiction of Julian, the character becomes more like an actor than a fully functioning personality.  A prop, there to be used by those around him.  A poor player, cast in this dual role of both killer and victim, in a scenario beyond his control.

Through this, Schrader introduces the notion of the gigolo as 'performer'; an actor playing a part.  This deconstructs the very foundation of the narrative, reinforcing the idea of Julian as an object - a commodity - as the filmmaker transforms his star, Richard Gere, into a kind of Bressonian 'model', to be manipulated by the director and by the characters on-screen.  The gigolo styles his personality to suit the needs of his respective clients, acting suave and sophisticated with one woman, then boyish and naive with the next.  We never know the real Julian - the genuine persona behind the expensive clothes, the hairstyle; this image of designer man - only the image of what the gigolo wants us to see.  Later in the film, when the character has become embroiled in a murder investigation (the victim, one of his former clients) it is this same uncertainty - the inability of the audience to perceive the 'real' from the pretend - that provides the dramatic conflict.  As a viewer, we want to believe the character's protestations of innocence, to side with those closest to him, but our inability to understand Julian, or to see through this stylised self-image, makes it impossible.  Throughout the film he remains distant, vacant, still acting, still playing a part.  As the film develops, the violence of the gigolo becomes more obsessive and pronounced.  As an audience, we're again unsure of the cause of this violence, the justification of it.  Is it the strain and the stress of the investigation and the rising paranoia that leads Julian to express himself through anger and frustration, or is this violence an inherent part of the character's identity and as such a clue to solving the crime?  Again, we're never entirely certain.

However, Schrader isn't especially interested in the murder mystery, or in the identity of his killer.  The machinations of the narrative are there to force the character to examine where this life of excess - this "performance" - has taken him.  It becomes a test, both spiritual and psychological, that is intended to strip away the surface layers of the gigolo, exposing the dark heart beneath.  Although presented as a combination of baroque modern noir and sweltering character study - the spirit of Bressonian transcendence colliding with New Hollywood excess, made possible by a Bertoluccian stylisation care of the film's visual consultant, Ferdinando Scarfiotti - the film, in truth, is a morality tale; the story of a man lost in a world of decadence, unable to escape.  In the presentation of this, as an idea, the similarities to an earlier film - one also written by Schrader, but directed by Martin Scorsese - become self-evident.  Like Scorsese's Taxi Driver (1976), Schrader's own masterpiece is again about a young man trapped by his chosen profession.  An outsider by nature, Julian - like Travis before him - is overwhelmed by the dirt and decay that he encounters on a daily basis; the corruption of the modern-world again leading to the corruption of innocence and redemption through a violent act.

Elephant [Alan Clarke, 1989]:

After watching the film, Clarke's contemporary David Leland wrote: "I remember lying in bed, watching it, thinking, 'Stop, Alan, you can't keep doing this.'  And the cumulative effect is that you say, 'It's got to stop.  The killing has got to stop.'  Instinctively, without an intellectual process, it becomes a gut reaction."  This particular comment from Leland explains the impact of the film and its intentions completely.  By concentrating on the same repetition of scenes, actions and events, Clarke is suggesting that the cycle of violence is unending.  That it will continue - on and on - beyond the running time, long after the credits have rolled and the audience have switched off or gone to bed.  The same anonymous streets, the same angry, misguided young men, the same violence and reaction will continue to play out, over and over again, until someone, somewhere, has the logic to say "enough!"  Beyond this, we don't need to know the context of Northern Ireland or to know who these characters are for the murders to make any more sense.  Although this is very much a film about the conflict in Northern Ireland - 'The Troubles' - and about the campaign of brutal assassinations that escalated in response to the 1985 Anglo-Irish agreement, Clarke's deliberately unspecified presentation of events seems to suggest that these scenes of violence could just have easily been taken from any place where political allegiances are strained.

The repetition of anonymous retribution so central to Clarke's critique of 'The Troubles' and of the violence in Northern Ireland, could easily enough be in response to the night of broken glass, Berlin 1938; the Tet Offensive, Saigon 1968; the German Autumn of 1977; Sarajevo '92 to '95; the invasion of Iraq, 2003; or indeed, as director Gus Van Sant suggested in his own film inspired by the one in question; an everyday high school in Colorado, North America, 1999.  By following these people at length and in long, unbroken takes that exaggerate the natural course of time and seem to linger on the dead and lifeless bodies as if to emphasise the nature of this violence, we're left to question, incessantly, the thoughts and feelings running through the minds' of these characters, as they murder (or are murdered) for reasons beyond belief.  If Clarke had chosen to flesh out these vignettes with political history, personal background and character development, then the film would have become manipulative and prejudicial.  We would have been free to take sides; to choose the 'good guys' from the 'bad guys' and to justify each murder on the basis of who was killed and for whatever reason.  This clearly wasn't the intention.  So, the visual associations to previous atrocities remind us that the struggle goes on, and will continue to go on, for as long as the world is spinning.

How I Won the War [Richard Lester, 1967]:

Through the presentation of the film - its sense of anarchy, its outrage and its ideological stance - the director Richard Lester and his screenwriter Charles Wood are able to cut through the hypocrisy and the moral pretence of the "anti-war movie", as both a sub-genre and approach.  Those films that attempt, through credible scenes of dramatisation, to show the true cost of war - the violence and destruction - while simultaneously turning such horror into entertainment for the viewing audience, seem to reduce war - as a concept - to something very trivial, while disingenuously maintaining an attitude of serious reverence and handwringing sincerity.  These are films that exaggerate spectacle in an effort to thrill an audience through scenes of action and adventure; the violence as empty sensation, where the inherent 'truth' of what these conflicts represent is distorted; manipulated so that every war has its heroes and villains, and where every defeat becomes a moral victory; a triumph for "our side."  Films that strive to denounce war - to show it as something rotten, insidious, fraught with danger and death - but at the same time present it as something both visceral and highly sensory.  The atrocity of war as something that manipulates our emotions; providing stimulation and emotional release.

In this respect, Lester's film rejects such convention and condemns it, as an idea.  There is no glory to this battle; no battle at all, in fact.  The depiction of war, as it is seen in the film in question, is one of boredom leading to insanity; the endless waiting, the marching into the abyss, the anticipation of violence and death are all more terrifying - more unnerving even - than the shadow of death itself.  As his characters make their way across a hostile desert landscape and through into an almost post-apocalyptic setting that seems to herald the scorched vistas of the director's later film, the equally cynical and no less brilliant The Bed Sitting Room (1969), the backdrop of conflict is frequently seen as something of a bizarre lampoon.  The "madness of war" cliché taken to its literal, Pythonesque conclusion, wherein the director has his actors break the fourth wall to provide a wry commentary; acknowledging the artificiality of the film, their performances and even the manipulation of the form, as well as creating several set-pieces that expose not only the inherent absurdity of war (the tragedy of these young people forced to become tyrannical in an attempt to fulfil some perceived duty to the place of their birth) but the absurdity of the war film, as both a critique and an illustration.

When we do see the conflict - the more conventional "action" of soldiers shooting guns and explosions decimating the landscape - it is intercut with genuine WWII stock-footage that becomes a recorded memory of the things at stake.  Here, the documentary camera (its black & white footage tinted a variety of garish colours to heighten the sense of surrealism) lingers, voyeuristically, over the corpses of these young men killed in battle; left alone to die in the trenches and fields.  This is the reality of war.   Unforgiving and unsentimental.  The documentation of a very real atrocity to give weight to the film's blistering burlesque of war and those that wage.  While the film is very much intended to be seen as an anti "anti-war film" - the implication being that the humour is derived from the seriousness and also the pretentiousness of 'war films', as a genre, and not from the sacrifice of war itself - the later scenes nonetheless feature a more scathing denunciation of the British government, with the filmmakers questioning the mentality of the exclusively upper-class English generals as being no better than that of their Nazi opponents; where both sides cynically exploit the position of the working classes as little more than cannon fodder in an effort to control the world.


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