Friday, March 20, 2009

Grizzly Man (2005)

There may be spoilers.

Director: Werner Herzog
Narration: Werner Herzog
Featuring: Timothy Treadwell

Images from the 2005 Lions Gate release.

5 Grizzly Man

"It is so weird though, when it sinks in just how alone you are."

Werner Herzog's Grizzly Man is a film filled with such unspeakable wonderment and horror, and I almost hesitate to call it a Werner Herzog film. It really is the work of two filmmakers, both with the unnerving ability to simultaneously express the beauty and indifference of the natural world. While it may be Herzog who interprets the images, it is Timothy Treadwell's footage that serves as the crux for contemplating not only the dichotomies of civilization and wilderness, but also how inexplicably nature can seem tranquil, chaotic, beautiful and ugly, all at once.

The film is a documentary chronicling the life of Timothy Treadwell, a man who, for 13 years, spent each summer living unprotected amongst wild Alaskan grizzly bears. In 2003, he was killed and eaten by a grizzly bear, along with his girlfriend, Amie Huguenard. 

Grizzly Man contains images of such overwhelming beauty, that it becomes difficult to remember that these are unplanned events that have not occurred, for the most part, under the meticulous eye of a film director. 

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There is always a vulnerability associated with the freeness of the open space, and as Herzog observes, the Alaskan wilderness becomes a sanctuary as well as a confessional for Treadwell. It's as if his conviction is borne out of a hidden, cathartic urge that threatens to boil over if he were confined to civilization. 

Timothy Treadwell is one of those rare individuals that skirts along the edge bordering society and nature, looking for order in the latter, while scorning it in the former. He is, in a way, a contradiction that wishes for an idealization that can never bear fruit. His self proclamation as "The Kind Warrior" reflects his own inner turmoil, and he seeks peace while filled with hate for civilization.

I think it would be too easy to label Treadwell as insane, and doing so would obscure the compassion and humanity in his convictions. In fact, I don't think I've seen very many people filled with as much compassion as Treadwell, and it irks me somewhat when I hear him being dismissed as a nutcase. Such is the case with Sam Egli, a helicopter pilot who helped transport Timothy's and Amie's remains. 

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He says that Treadwell got what he was asking for, and in terms of pragmatism, he is right. There is, however, this sense that rationality elevates and ennobles us to better people. A person like Timothy Treadwell, whose actions fly in the face of conventional common sense, is instantly scorned and shunned by society, who looks upon him with a smug sense of superiority. While I agree that Treadwell was indeed risking his life, I must respect his choice, since he lived amongst grizzly bears because he cared enough about them. I may disagree with his environmental practices, but I must acknowledge that his intentions were good. Compassion is something I feel is getting more and more difficult to find, and while my logistics may agree with Sam, I feel as if there is a certain satisfaction in his opinion of Treadwell that seems full of contempt.

I don't think a dispassionate speaker is a dispassionate person per se, it's just that film watching has conditioned us into believing that more melodramatic accounts of death are more realistic. To me, what fictional films capture is not the external reality, but the inner truth of emotions displayed expressionistically. 

Willy Fulton (Timothy Treadwell's pilot), for instance, doesn't carry the same air of theatricality that the coroner does in recounting the events of Timothy's and Amie's deaths. There is the sense of quiet contemplation, and this seems to be more in tune with what we would see in reality. 

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The coroner's narration is less muted than Willy Fulton's, and I can't help but notice that he witnessed Timothy's death through the audio portion of the video tape. Perhaps it goes back to Herzog speaking of the "inexplicable magic about cinema," which amplifies an emotional response.

I often think about death, and films that explore this issue are particularly interesting to me. When I see Grizzly Man, I am invariably struck by the reality of it. It takes some reminding that Treadwell was a real person and not a persona, and there is something about the film that is incredibly subdued. There are none of the melodramatic cues of a conventional story or graphic recreations of horrific events (although there are brief snapshots), yet it is one of the most horrifying films I've seen. Not in the way of The Silence of the Lambs, but rather a shocking realization that I am watching footage of a man who will be dead.

There is the moment when Herzog listens to the actual audio recording of Treadwell's death, fortunately not exploited.

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I often wonder what's more potent, a dramatized version of a death, or a record of an actual death. For instance, I wonder what the footage of Steve Irwin's death is like, as well as the audio of Timothy Treadwell's camera, and if they contain the inexplicable magic Herzog speaks of. Personally, I don't think it's possible to say one is a better representation of death more than the other, because in spite of the similarities in subject matter, they are really two completely different things.

With a fictional death, I think various aspects are dramatized and amplified, which leads me to believe that much of cinema is expressionistic. When I think about a real death, I see it as something much more introverted. 

I think Timothy Treadwell was a man who stood at the great divide of civilization and wilderness, and could not, in the end, adapt to either one. I see the film in part as a contemplation on the extremes, as well as the middle. For instance, Herzog sees nature as something that is vile and base, and full of fornication, whereas Treadwell sees it in a much more harmonious and compassionate light. There are the instances of him mourning the death that must invariably come to all creatures.

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While I do share Herzog's sentiments, I can also understand Treadwell's concern and distress over protecting wilderness. Yet my own opinions do not lie at either extreme, but in the middle. I see nature as something that is both wild and ugly, yet tranquil and beautiful. It is the yin and yang that the film explores, which is why I hesitate to call it a Werner Herzog film. That is, while Herzog may be the director, I do not see it as a film built upon his agenda. Treadwell's monologues serve to counterbalance Herzog's narration. 

The most intriguing aspect of the film is Treadwell's footage, and the way it conveys not only Treadwell the person, but also Treadwell the filmmaker. 

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It's easy to see what interested Herzog. Here is a subject that not only stands upon the edge of society, but also a man who produces miraculous images. 

I find myself hesitating to analyze a documentary from a filmic perspective, in part because it tends not to carry the same sense of craft that a fictionalized film does. There is, however, a narrative buried beneath the subject matter. The film serves as a sort of posthumous autobiography, through which we are revealed insights into Treadwell.

I must emphasize the notion that Treadwell is a contradiction, a man who could not bear society, yet could not cope with nature's overwhelming indifference. He was a man who wanted to live in an idealized and romantic world that erased the line between civilization and nature. He was a man who forged the persona of a lone sentinel, yet he was also a victim of that loneliness and yearned for friendship wherever he could seek it, even if it be with a wild fox.

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While I think Treadwell planned quite a few of his shots into a narrative, I think some of the best ones are among the most spontaneous and unaware. There are the segments where Treadwell plays with his fox friends, and they seem to garner a supernatural meaning. When he is running with the foxes amidst a vast plain, there is a joy and freedom in the camera movement. And then, when he is chasing a fox that stole his hat, there is a frustration and angst that stems from his inability to fully reject civilized materialism.

Another sequence that I like a lot is when Treadwell is in his tent cursing the gods because it has not rained. Through his tirades, there is something likable about him, and while I do not admire his actions, I do admire his spirit.

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This is a remarkable shot, both beautifully composed and full of meaning. Timothy is a man caught between two worlds, and his inability to have one without the other rends him in turmoil.

There is a poeticism to his speech that I don't think he was fully aware of. Watching and listening to him, we can see his insecurity, both through his filmmaking as well as his rants. He often repeats a phrase, as he repeats a take, as if to further reinforce the cohesiveness he thinks he sees in nature. 

As he speaks about his past, he talks of his drinking:

"I drank to the point where I was going to die from it... or break free from it."

There is something about him that is tranquil, yet violent. I feel his angst stems from both his hate of society, as well as his unfailing ability to see the beauty of the wild, while rejecting its savagery. 

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These moments of anger set against backdrops of grandeur and tranquility are disquieting. Timothy Treadwell was a man of highs and lows and could not accept the middle ground, which hearkens back to the old tale of Daedalus and Icarus. His voice has such a gentle, child-like playfulness that it comes as a shock to listen to his violent ranting. 

No matter how strange Timothy Treadwell may seem, we mustn't forget the most basic fact about Grizzly Man: he is dead. It is a film borne out of his death, and serves as an elegy of sorts, as well as a contemplation on life and death, nature and civilization, and chaos and tranquility.

The film also conveys the power of the camera, and its ability to capture seemingly unplanned moments that are filled with meaning.

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Timothy Treadwell was clearly an unstable individual. But to dismiss him as that alone is to obscure his humanity. He seems to be filled with such emotion that he often just stops dead in his speech, incapable of expressing the flood of anger, sadness, and elatedness in what he considered his home. There is so much turmoil in his character that watching him becomes frightening. Not because of his insanity, so much as a fear for him.

I can't help be see similarities in Grizzly Man to that of the western. There is something about Timothy Treadwell's idealizations and his inability to cope with nature's hositility that are not too far off from the simultaneous beauty and harshness of the west. Like the outlaws in Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West, he is just that: outside the law. Yet while he rejected the conventions of civilization, it seems he did not want to abolish them so much as take the best parts of them (compassion and friendship) and introduce them to a world of immense physical beauty.

I do not agree with Treadwell's environmental practices, but as I've stated before, I admire his spirit and I can understand his anguish. There is such an attraction about the real wilderness, and unfortunately, these areas are being colonized and exploited for tourism. They are the last frontiers and Timothy Treadwell was a man who needed to be along that razor's edge.

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Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Playtime (1967)

There may be spoilers... but I don't believe this film can ever be ruined by spoilers.

Director: Jacques Tati
Screenplay: Jacques Tati and Jacques Lagrange
Starring: Lots of people!

Images from the 2006 Criterion Collection release.

4 Playtime

I think Jacques Tati's Playtime comes as close to Pure Cinema as any Alfred Hitchcock thriller does, but unlike the Master of Suspense, Tati does not use his abilities to tell a story. There are little scenarios, of course, but they are more akin to Charlie Chaplin's silent shorts than to Vertigo, for instance. Playtime is a film where I can watch the scenes in any order and they still work. Or I can start watching in the middle and still become engaged. I like to think of the film as an anthology of short films or episodes, each location populated by familiar faces that skirt around the edges and only occasionally come to center stage.

I have heard of it being called inaccessible and difficult, but I think the problem is that people are so used to having a story, it comes as a bit of a shock to have virtually no story and no main characters. Tati wanted to reduce the role of the star, almost to that of an extra. That is, everyone, including his beloved Monsieur Hulot is leveled to an even playing field in his fictitious Paris. If we come to terms with this radical difference and let images come to us rather than seek them out, Playtime changes from a difficult puzzle that requires lots of work, to play, as the title suggests. I don't see Playtime as a puzzle that needs to be solved, but rather a playground that my mind is free to wander through and explore the space of the frame.

23 Playtime

One of the things that Playtime doesn't do is move the camera very much. Very often, it will just hold a long take bustling with activity. Unlike the films of Hitchcock, the shots themselves tend to be objective and do not tell the viewer what he or she should be looking at. Instead, the viewer will stare blankly at the screen until... eureka! Something is pinpointed as interesting. For me, this shooting style (almost akin to Kurosawa's Ran now that I think about it) is absolutely necessary for the tone of Playtime and one of its most understandable techniques.

For instance, the opening shots almost feel like we're in a hospital, with the nuns, the sterile environment, and the dialogue between man and wife that is really misleading (in fact, I feel the best way to watch the film is without the subtitles). Only slowly is it revealed that we are at an airport.

In this shot, a dog is wimpering and I instantly tried to pinpoint it. After a while, I realized it was coming from the old woman's bag, as Barbara's gaze drew us to it.

1 Playtime

Alienation in the Age of Modernity

The easiest and most apparent theme to pinpoint in Playtime is the sense of social alienation in the age of modernity. Tati expresses these notions through vast interiors that generate distance from person to person. 

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That's Mr. Hulot waiting to meet with the businessman walking in a wonderful deep focus shot that stretches the wait to an eternity. To be honest, I still don't know the name of the character Hulot is trying to meet, what they're meeting for, or why. The fact that it doesn't really matter proves just how unimportant story is in this case, because it makes their situation in no way less engaging or amusing. 

The central motifs for alienation, I think, are the innumerable plate glass windows that line virtually every wall. There is a moment where the businessman thinks he sees Mr. Hulot out in the street, runs towards him, and crashes his nose into a window. Another one that I like even more because it's not pointed at as explicitly is where Mr. Hulot thinks he sees the businessman when he's actually looking at a reflection:

5 Playtime

I actually missed this for the first minute or so it was playing and then I suddenly got that eureka! moment and understood what was so funny. It is paramount that Playtime rarely uses music, particularly as a means of reaching a point or catering to the audience's comprehension. What Tati wanted to do with Playtime is to convey that humor is something universal. Nobody, I think, is expected to get every joke, but there is something special about discovering it for yourself rather than have musical cues telling you when to laugh.

Playtime is entirely filmed on one gigantic set, a city dubbed Tativille. I think there are two reasons for this, which embody the two most important ideas I take away from Playtime. The first is the idea of alienation in the modern world. Here, we are presented with a near black-and-white Paris of skyscrapers, displaying only slight remnants of the Paris we know.

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7 Playtime

These images are perhaps the darkest Playtime will get. In a way, this is the more fully fleshed out vision of a city that Tati hinted at in Mon Oncle, where we were still given the balanced dichotomy of old tradition and new modernity. 

Playtime acknowledges that there is no such thing as repetition, only insistence, with its use of wonderful props. The chairs, for instance, make whooshing sounds when they are sat in, and Tati makes sure we know of it. 

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Little details like the chairs support the most valuable idea I personally take away from Playtime. The idea is: Even in the most mundane, sterile, and seemingly boring of worlds, there are delights, or playtimes, to be had. To me, this idea is much more important than that of alienation and loss of culture because it's not so apparent. The other themes I've seen before in countless science fiction films and even films like The Apartment (alienation) and Burden of Dreams (loss of culture).

I certainly enjoy bleak films of our future like Brazil or Blade Runner, because they ask us to question our place and purpose in the world. Are we required to make order out of everything? And if so, what are the possible repercussions? I would not say, however, that I enjoy things that are overtly bleak and pessimistic to the point of no return. That is, while I enjoy thinking about the dangers... I like a film to acknowledge the silver lining to anything.

That silver lining is the humor (and the heart) of Playtime. Little details, I think, make a film elevated to something special. I've acknowledged this before in films like Roman Holiday and Three Colors: Blue, White, and Red. For me, details are what make life special, and they should be noticed rather than ignored. Like when Mr. Hulot gets on the bus, you'll notice he is kind enough to see that the man's lamp post is not something he should hang onto. But when the bus drives away, he lives up to his kindness by holding it in place: 

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Tourism: The Other Central Motif of Playtime

These notions of looking at the world in a new light are symbolized by the idea of tourism, more than anything else. Playtime opens and closes at the airport, and much like the vacation aspect of Roman Holiday, Playtime is a delightful escape into a clean and new world. The viewers are the tourists, and Tati emphasizes this through the tour group, which forms the connective tissue throughout Playtime.

Whenever I go to a new city, I feel like everything I look at has a kind of magic to it. For instance, visiting New York City is exciting because it's so different from any other city. Things that are quotidian to New Yorkers like riding the subway, walking through Greenwich Village, or  seeing iconic buildings become an adventure for me. I almost want to go up to someone who lives there and say: "Wow, I can't believe you live here!" Then I realize that they would probably say something like: "Wow, I can't believe you live so close to the mountains!" if they visited Colorado. There is something about living in your city that seems to turn you off from what makes it great and exciting for tourists, and it's a bit sad when we can't seem to look at our own city in awe.

Consider this brief, yet magical shot, where the tour bus passes a building, and on cue, the building lights up before the tourist's eyes.

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I feel that anyone living in Tati's Paris wouldn't have even noticed. A simple building lighting up is so commonplace to them that they never would've imagined how wonderful it can be to a group of tourists. 

This brings me to the second reason that Playtime is completely shot on a set. It seems Tati wanted to ensure that the world we see on the screen is completely novel to audiences. That is, regardless of whether it is sterile or black-and-white, it's a Paris that has never been seen before. Because of this, everyone watching Playtime is a tourist. The film is so engaging and fresh because it's new and unexpected. What this proves, I think, is that tourism need not be confined to going to iconic locations and "seeing the sights." Just walking along the street, riding from the airport, or looking at something that is commonplace to the residents is enough. 

Unlike Hitchcock's form of Pure Cinema, Playtime does not manipulate the camera to point the viewer in a certain direction. Instead, it will hold a shot for a while, then cut to a new one. These different perspectives are another ingenious way of showing how delightful it can be to look at something as simple as a family watching television:

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And then a cut to here:

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Now the two rooms look like one, and it looks like they are all having a conversation together. The genius of a cut like this is that it is completely visual. There are no sound cues to signal the observation being made. And of course, the scene is finished off with a drive-by of the omnipresent tour bus:

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I find the best films about escape, such as The Purple Rose of Cairo and Roman Holiday, convey the joys of fiction/fantasy/vacations while not neglecting the realities. Playtime is among these, and in one of my favorite shots, we see a fresh set of tourists ready for a night on the town, while a tired, withered group is ready for a night of rest.

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What's so great about this shot? I'll leave it to you to see ;).

Some of my favorite gags

I originally had a lot more pictures to show, since I find so many of the gags delightful, but I'll just share a couple of my favorites from the latter half of the film, since I think it's best that they be discovered on your own.

The restaurant is finishing its madcap repairs just minutes before the guests arrive, and the maitre d steps on a floor tile and it sticks to his foot. A waiter is ordered to replace it, and as he's applying paste onto the floor, a waiter in the foreground describes a dish with the same motion:


Gags like this are my favorite kind, because it requires some realization, or epiphany, on the part of the viewer. I don't really think the best way to view the film is to actively search out the images but let them come to you. For me, at least, it's more fun and just as satisfying... Eureka! 

This one is not so subtle but I think it's point is rather brilliantly made:

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16 Playtime

Playtime is a film that is more relevant today than it has probably ever been, in this age of privatization of public space. It is Jonathon Rosenbaum's favorite film, and in the essay he wrote, he describes how the film is about treasuring the public spaces and areas for stranger to stranger interaction. Nowadays, I feel we are losing that. 

Playtime speaks to me because I feel it is a utopia... an idealization of how we can look at the world through a tourist's lens. I enjoy taking the bus because it is such a colorful experience. There are so many types of people there and many of them are still willing to interact constructively with complete strangers. However, I've noticed an epidemic in which this atmosphere is being blocked out by iPods and cell phones. It's as if the allegory of glass in Playtime has now manifested itself in the forms of technology that alienate people from one another. 

These social barriers, I think, will be the death of our cultures and homogenize and dilute their potency in the process. Which is while I smiled when I see Mr. Hulot break that barrier.

Another gag I enjoy is when Mr. Hulot explodes the supposed formalities of the restaurant (I'm still not sure why he jumped up there, but who really cares?).

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24 Playtime

The manager, while at first irate, later praises Mr. Hulot for creating something new. This makes me smile, because it shows that the upper class people are not confined to their conventions but willing to accept innovations. I love how the little space becomes a private club, where you have to have been branded by the chairs to be admitted.

Another subtle one is this shot of the tourists:

22 Playtime

This is a shot that works on more than one level. Consider how the formally dressed people scoffed at the "tourists," as if it were a derogatory label. Here, we are shown how colorful the tourists are, especially since this is the point of Playtime: That tourists are special because they are able to see the wonderful in the banal. Also, it's as if the waiter is watering these lovely ladies as one waters a tropical flower.

There aren't many close-ups in Playtime, because Tati is trying to keep things objective. This is perhaps the closest we get to Mr. Hulot, and it works because it is in this moment that strangers become friends and it wholeheartedly deserves a "close-up."

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Another one I really enjoy, in part because it's fitting with the eureka! way in which I approach Playtime is of the priest in early morning:

27 Playtime

And Now Comes the Departure

29 Playtime

Playtime is my kind of film, because it is so reliant on its visuals. I've always considered visuals to be my favorite element of cinema (if I were forced to pick a favorite) because pictures transcend words and shatter language barriers. The beauty of Playtime is that anyone in the world can watch it and be delighted by its various gags. What Playtime asks of us is nothing too daunting and I don't see the film as intimidating. We are not tied down to the story and we are free to roam the space of the frame. We are tourists in the film, and its inherently visual nature should speak to people of all languages.

If we can be tourists in our own home, town, or city, we will realize how many delightful details there are. The final scenes of Playtime, for instance, are like a wonderful farewell to the tourists. It's as if the city is begging them to stay and enjoy their carnival for just a little longer (and the traffic circle is decidedly like a merry-go-round).

The film is akin to as if we were sitting on a park bench or in a crowded market and just observing whatever comes our way. We may zone out, but something is bound to capture our eye. It's the little things that are so delightful and make life worth living (I'm repeating myself, I know), and many of the films I like acknowledge this. Sometimes, we may lose sight of this, which is precisely why a vacation can be so invigorating and refresh our view of the world and its wonderful details and coincidences.

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Friday, March 6, 2009

Out of the Past (1947)

There are spoilers.

Director: Jacques Tourneur
Screenplay: Geoffrey Homes
Starring: Robert Mitchum, Jane Greer, and Kirk Douglas

Images from the 2004 WHV release.

17 Out of the Past

"You're no good and neither am I. That's why we deserve each other."
-Kathy Moffat

Out of the Past is quintessential film noir, containing all the important elements that are typical of the style and utilizing them to create a film that not only engrosses the viewer, but examines the nature of temptation, regret, retribution, and redemption. It tells the story of Jeff Bailey, a former detective who wishes to escape the mistakes of his past and live a quiet, normal life. However, he is soon drawn back into the folds of murder, lies, deceit, high stakes, and one hell of a vicious femme fatale.

The opening scenes with Jeff Bailey and Ann Miller fishing at the lake are decisively placid and in complete isolation from the world. Jeff is a man with a hidden past, and it is here that he finds a sanctuary from it. Ann is idyllic and romanticizes about the world as one big, beautiful place. She is drawn to this mysterious man who seems to have been everywhere, whereas he would like nothing more than to forget where he's been and think only of being with her. When I see Out of the Past, I am always struck by the contrast in the film. It's hard to believe the darkness and coercion later in the film begins so peacefully. It is through this contrast of ideal simplistic living and the convoluted world of film noir that Out of the Past attempts to explore the depths of the human soul and how far it can be corrupted before being beyond salvation.

1 Out of the Past

The title for Out of the Past is perfectly suited for its subject matter. Jeff is a man who channels his regrets inward. Robert Mitchum's deadpan demeanor is particularly well suited for the noir hero, who expresses his ambivalence through lack of overt emotion. Jeff attempts to stamp out his past failures, only the more he hides, the more apparent it becomes that facing these demons is inevitable. The fatalistic manner in which this encounter is approached reminds us of film noir's focus on death. Death is the common denominator and belaying the inevitable is as impossible as perpetual happiness. The bliss of sitting by that pond is so short lived that it is all but forgotten about when we are plunged into the convolutions of Jeff's past.

2 Out of the Past

I have stated that plot isn't something that interests me a great deal. Film noirs often have such convoluted plots that even after viewing them 4-5 times, I'm still not clear what's going on. Fleshing out all these details isn't important, however, I wouldn't dismiss plot as lacking in meaning. What I do glean from the story of Out of the Past, in particular, is that amidst the chaos, it is Jeff that attempts to gain some sort of redemption for his actions. He is plagued by regret and it is this that drives him to seek out justice outside the law, which is distant and powerless in the film.

I am particularly aware of the idea of fate in Out of the Past. It's as if Jeff is acting on a will that is his own, but paradoxically one that he cannot change or shy away from. As Joe Stephanos tells him to go to Whit Sterling's house on Lake Tahoe:

"You won't miss it... you can't."

As Jeff recounts his past to Ann, the film already becomes enveloped in the darkness of film noir's world.

3 Out of the Past

Perhaps I have watched too many pessimistic films, but Ann Miller seems to have an unusual amount of trust borderlining naivete to the point of ignorance. It's odd, and I am always surprised by how calm and understanding she is hearing of Jeff's flaws and his affair with Kathy Moffat. Give credit to Virginia Huston for imbuing Ann with a gaze that expresses a willingness to accept a man regardless of what he's done. She even earnestly encourages him to decide whether he still loves Kathy, a woman she has heard nothing but rotten things about. Somehow, I doubt Ann would have been so understanding if she had grown up in the city. Out of the Past attributes this trustfulness with small town virtues and contrasts it with Jeff's world weary disillusionment.

To counterpoint Ann, Kathy Moffat is the archetypal femme fatale. I've rarely had such a polarizing view of a character and it becomes difficult to decide just how much I should like, or be repulsed by, Kathy. There are moments that seem genuinely romantic and sincere and I can't help but like her. The music helps convey her subjectively through Jeff's eyes, as it succumbs to her beauty with romantic melodies.

4 Out of the Past

One thing Out of the Past does particularly well is to question the nature of temptation. What is it that drives us to go against all rationality and embrace what we know is no good? Why is it that Jeff feels the desire to whisk Kathy away from Whit, when he is perfectly aware of Whit's reach? There aren't any definitive answers, other than to say that such things are inherent to the human psyche, and it is these flaws that define us.

As an allegory for these temptations, Out of the Past frequently presents the motif of gambling. Whether it be the race tracks, Whit playing poker, or Jeff and Kathy at the roulette table, games of chance come to define the aspirations of these characters: the desire to risk everything for a slim chance at happiness.

5 Out of the Past

The roulette table, I think, is a particularly strong image. Not only does it convey the ridiculous odds stacked against Jeff, but it also works to define Kathy. She is a woman forever associated with the revolver, both for "jumping from gutter to gutter," as well as for killing the most people in the film. Not only does she kill Jack Fisher, Whit Sterling (who she had shot on a previous occasion), and Jeff Bailey, but in a way, she is responsible for Joe Stephanos' death as well.

Kathy Moffat comes to define the femme fatale so completely, that even the most romantic scenes are undercut by an impending sense that nothing real or lasting can ever happen between them. He knows there's little future to be had, but he's so swept up in the moment that it becomes impossible for him to resist temptation. There is something incredibly alluring about a woman from whom no good can come. The idea of the femme fatale is not new, either. In The Odyssey, the Sirens were bird-like women who would lure men to their deaths, much as a mirage can lead one to chase an illusion. In fact, Kathy's entrance is very much like a woman coming out of a mirage, and she eventually ensnares Jeff.

6 Out of the Past

The beach scenes serve as a turning point in Jeff's character, especially considering the roulette scene came immediately prior. It is when he kisses Kathy on the beach that there is no turning back. He's a fish caught in that net. For him, it's as if once he's begun, there is no out. This notion is also expressed in Billy Wilder's Double Indemnity, reminding us of the fatalistic way in which film noir colors the world.

There are really some terrific bits of dialogue throughout Out of the Past that perfectly convey the disillusionment present in film noir:

Kathy: "I'm sorry he didn't die."
Jeff: "Give him time."


Kathy: "I didn't take [the $40,000]... you have to believe me."
Jeff: "Baby, I don't care."

Kathy is so deceptive, that it is easy for the viewer to fall under her spell. It's quite clear, however, that she relishes nothing more than to catalyze the primal urges in the males around her. Just as Pandora released chaos unto the world, so does the femme fatale, only in this case, her motives are not out of curiosity or ignorance, but out of a desire to be the object of men's desires. I think Jane Greer effectively captured what makes the femme fatale malicious and there is a wonderful smirk on her face and glint in her eye as Jeff and Jack Fisher fight before her:

8 Out of the Past

Maybe it's just me, but I seem to notice that film noir often references "the movies." In Out of the Past, there is a theater across from El Mar Azul, where Jeff first meets Kathy. Others such as Nicolas Ray's In a Lonely Place and Billy Wilder's Sunset Blvd. directly situate themselves amongst the Hollywood atmosphere. Perhaps it has to do with the very fleeting nature of a movie. As in The Purple Rose of Cairo, a movie used as a means of escape from reality can work wonders as a temporary reprieve. Just as escape through film provides momentary happiness, the bliss of Jeff's meetings with Kathy (and Ann, for that matter) have no permanence.

11 Out of Past

In keeping with the self reflexive spirit, I don't think it's much of a stretch to compare the femme fatale to the screen actor either. Consider how easily Kathy is capable of inspiring pity, or how perfectly she can imitate Mita Carson's voice. The femme fatale embodies many things, but it's impossible to pin her down to a single entity. She is a doppelganger that can inspire pity, woo the hearts of men, or suddenly turn on them if it's to her advantage. And after spinning these men around, she can repeat it again and again. 

7 Out of the Past

It'd probably be worthwhile to discuss Whit Sterling, who is a character I still haven't quite figured out yet. I almost want to say he and Jeff form the same dichotomy I discussed earlier between Sam Spade and Miles Archer in The Maltese Falcon. Whit does seem more extroverted than Jeff, and while he seems to express his thoughts more openly, it's almost as if he's divorced himself from any real emotions. It's like he's operating completely on his wealth:

Whit: Ten years ago, I hid my feelings away somewhere and I haven't been able to find them."
Jeff: "Where'd you look?"
Whit: "In my pocketbook."

He's a strange fellow, to say the least, however I suspect his desire for control stems from compensation for impotence. After all, he did get shot by Kathy (and later murdered by her). He seems to gain a smug sense of superiority by having Kathy living under his thumb after she'd run off with Jeff. Of course, such feelings of superiority don't really give him any authority, merely the illusion thereof. 

14 Out of the Past

One of my favorite scenes in the film is where Jeff visits the home of Leonard Eels, a lawyer who is in the position to expose Whit's tax fraud. Unbeknownst to Jeff, he is being framed for Leonard's murder:

"I think I'm in a frame..."

As Leonard tells Jeff so fittingly:

"All women are wonders... because they reduce all men to the obvious."

There is something visual about the scene that I feel works quite well, and it's only recently that I think I've figured it out:

9 Out of the Past

I think it's the line of car lights moving slowly across the bridge that completes the scene. It reminds me of another one of my favorite films, Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth. That film touched briefly on the idea that the world does not end with one man's death, regardless of who that man is. That is, a man is killed and the crickets will still chirp, oblivious to the loss of life. Likewise, it is strangely disquieting to see a line of cars perpetually moving in the distance, and that it will keep moving no matter how horribly this man is to be killed.

This part of the film is where I feel knowing the plot to some degree can give a greater appreciation to understanding Jeff's motives. Still, his motives are never completely clear and there is always some ambivalence. I wonder just what he's trying to do. Is he trying to save Eels to save his life? Or perhaps he's more interested in not getting framed. Personally, I feel he is searching for some sort of salvation by his own personal form of justice. 

For me, I think his guilt is best expressed upon his failure to prevent Leonard's death here:

10 Out of the Past

It's interesting to think about what Jeff believes is retribution/redemption for his sins. My belief is that he feels the only way he can gain any real forgiveness is by bringing Kathy to justice. And yet, the very fatalistic nature of this world prevents him from gaining anything other than an eye for an eye. That is, he will never gain an "upper hand" over his enemies. The best he can do is to break even. 

I do not believe that Jeff feels there is any other way for salvation. He does not accept the brand of forgiveness that Ann gives him. 

15 Out of the Past

16 Out of the Past

Ann Miller is as much a fabrication as Kathy Moffat. They can be seen as an idealization of a woman, both of which form two sides of the same coin. Whereas Kathy embodies the summation of all male desire and temptation, Ann represents a benevolent and understanding woman that above all else, is willing to accept a man's flaws, no matter how deep. In a way, they form the idea of the goddess-whore complex that Martin Scorsese frequently touches on in works such as Raging Bull.

I suppose it could be argued that ignorance is bliss. Ann definitely seems as though she lives in a bubble of idealism and undying hope for humanity. In some ways, I wonder whether she is too far removed from harsh reality. She's the one who says:

Ann: "She [Kathy] can't be all bad..."
Jeff: "She comes the closest."

This faith in humanity seems to have a naivete that is all but absent from the disillusioned noir hero. Ann lives on an island amidst a sea of all that is base and carnal.

12 Out of the Past

She is not, however, entirely selfless or pious. During the final scene, she asks:

"Was he going away with her? I have to know."

To which the deaf and mute kid replies with a nod. I feel like Jeff would've wanted it that way. It's as if it was his one last act to reach some sort of salvation. He realized that if she thought he had died for her, the rest of her life may  have been wasted in mourning. While this ending stings (and you can see her heart break, just a little), he has essentially saved Ann's life by severing his ties with her.

19 Out of the Past

I almost want to think of Ann and the deaf and mute kid as an allegory for the audience. Ann presents a forgiving nature that would be uncommon in reality. I feel as if a movie audience is more forgiving to a morally questionable celluloid persona as opposed to a real criminal. I wonder if the Hays production code in a way, helped to elicit morally fascinating characters through its restrictions. By creating rules like Criminals Must Get Their Comeuppances, interesting stories could be created by looking from the noir hero and femme fatale's perspectives.

18 Out of the Past