Tuesday, June 27, 2023

Film History #2 - Two Sides of Rebellion

Even with the dominance of classical style filmmaking for much of the 20th century, certain dissident approaches were able to break out from the all too polished, slick, and sometimes overly professional output coming from Hollywood. 

One such piece is the film noir, Force of Evil, which would be considered a mid-level production, but the final product is polished and professional, and the storytelling goes deeper than just another gangster film. The story plays out like a Faustian pact for the lead, Joe Morse, who stands to make his first million by helping rig the city lottery on July 4th: http://www.imagesjournal.com/issue02/infocus/force.htm.

You could argue that is part of the American capitalist spirit, and the filmmaker Polonsky would have agreed. That’s why the film feels so present even though it’s more than 70 years old. 

We have two brothers: one is a powerful lawyer working for the crime boss. Joe Morse plays the game of getting everything he can by any means necessary. The other brother, Leo, is not an angel, but his own personal racket of providing funds for the lottery appears more noble in the film. “I’m an honest man here,” he says. “Not a gangster with that gangster Tucker… I do my business honest and respectable.” https://www.sensesofcinema.com/2005/cteq/force_of_evil/ 

Part of this way of thinking comes down to how capitalism competes with communism. While one approach favors growth at all costs by consuming every available resource (even people), the other is more concerned with modest means and growth. Joe sums up his philosophy early in the film when talking to the woman he wants: “To go to great expense for something you want – that’s natural. To reach out and take it – that’s human, that’s natural. But to get pleasure from not taking, by cheating yourself deliberately, like my brother did today, from not getting, not taking – don’t you see what a black thing that is for a man to do?” https://www.sensesofcinema.com/2005/cteq/force_of_evil/
Joe wants it all, but Leo just wants enough for himself and his small band of workers. In the film this can be seen how Joe dresses so slick and refined while Leo looks working class.

If the ideas in the film play out like competing economic and politicl philosophies, the images are striking and provide another subtle layer of rebellion against the studio system. 

 Yes, this production looks clean and is filmed with a steady hand, with Polonsky clearing evoking different moods and feelings with how and where camera is set up and how scenes are lit. 

But note, the spiral staircase, where Joe is and his boss either ascend or descend like it’s a citadel. It’s like a tower or place of worship and the idol is money and power.
Also, in the film after Joe observes all the suckers below walking the streets of New York, we find him out late in the evening or early morning walking the empty streets of the city. He’s in a canyon of buildings and the one striking image in the background like a beacon of hope is a catherdral and its spire. Does this hint at salvation or a possible redemption?
There is also the many images at the end of the film when Joe descends several steps to find his dead brother and “must fully face his guilt and descend deep into the darkness to be reborn.” http://www.imagesjournal.com/issue02/infocus/force.htm. That is a fitting idea, but the image that strikes me first is the one early when we see the bridge. It extends out across the water like the road to reckoning, which Joe appears to take.
What also makes the film subversive is how Polonsky masks messages in the stortelling and images. They pop up on a regular basis. Of course, at the end Joe seems to repent and his voiceover suggests he will turn himself in. This was probably done to satisfy the Hollywood standards of the time. But still, the film works on many levels of meaning leading up to that point. 

Ultimately, it does something unique and becomes “an American movie that dissected capitalism.” https://newrepublic.com/article/105544/david-thomson-force-of-evil 

Now, if a film noir from 1948 subtly managed to weave into a story ideas and opinions that were not popular in its day, something like Faces rips off the bandaid of careful concealment and goes all out to assault the audience. 

This film from 1968, shows the studio system revealing cracks in the armor. It might be better to say Hollywood was under assault by one of its own who bravely produced a film that plays like an exposed nerve much of the time. 

What’s most impactful about the film is how its “anti-Hollywood style…boasts of being too real for the movies.” https://www.criterion.com/current/posts/578-masks-and-faces 

 It is raw in every way, shot in black and white with harsh lighting and tight closeups revealing the ugliness and awkwardness and beauty (at times) within its characters. Watching a film like this showcases how fake Hollywood films can be. Force of Evil for all its craft and message and conviction of purpose feels artificial compared to Faces, which doesn’t hold back its honesty even in the quiet moments of the film.
Even by today’s standards, decades removed Hollywood’s censorship, Faces feels like an assault on the senses. The opening scene is disorienting and uncomfortable. Aside from Gena Rowlands whose beauty cannot be stopped by the grainy images on film, the other two men in the scene are a study in defects. Little about them is appealing. They have bad skin, poor posture, and for anyone who thought the 1960s was like the television show Madmen, these two will make you reconsider your position. They are the representation of real life, and reveal the slick art of deception Hollywood feeds its audiences.
Another exciting development in the film is how it is shot in a ‘documentary-style’ before it becamse popularized and known as “a shortcut for indie filmmakers seeking ‘authenticity.’” https://www.bfi.org.uk/features/john-cassavetes-faces-indie-filmmaking 

 The handheld camera effects and jarring position of shots creates almost frantic pace and uneasiness for the viewer as in this video clip at the start of the film. Additionally, the sound seems to come and go, as if the boom mic was being moved randomly or some things were recorded in post-production: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wTvXKF6nOgg


Even with this jarring opening of the film, later the viewer is getting the haunting image of a woman who just tried to commit suicide after a night of passion. She’s taken some pills and is forced to vomit them up and here is the image she portrays.
There is no makeup here, just a sense of raw unadorned nakedness on the part of the actor playing the part. It’s difficult to look at and take in. 

So, what we have is two films that go about their effects in different ways. One is much more smooth and subtle about it, while the other is outwardly aggressive and doesn’t give the viewer a conventional ending. That is because censorship was at its end in 1968. It’s because the filmmaker, Cassavetes, worked out of his home and edited his own and financed his own projects. He was free to work the way he wanted. Polonsky was trying to navigate a system that was suffocating. But both created something daring and dangerous. 

If there is one thing that makes Faces challenging to watch is how it doesn’t follow a traditional narrative structure. The viewer is dropped into something unfamiliar and must work out what is going on and process all the unfiltered emotion. 

With Force of Evil, there is a structure, one might say a track, the film follows throughout. That helps the viewer follow along. And the emotion is also still very much a safe Hollywood creation. So, the film-noir while dark, is really a very bright film compared to the true darkness in Faces

 Both films effectively broke new ground and found ways to break the mold and creatively make something new. They offer a refreshing alternative to the standard way films were presented back in those days.

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