Archive for category Movies
I occasionally moonlight over at the fun Atlanta site ATLRetro, and I recently had the chance to interview Dwayne Epstein about his new biography on Lee Marvin. Anyone who knows me knows that I consider Marvin and his late 60s contemporaries (Charles Bronson, Clint Eastwood) to be part of the first and best wave of action movies. Everything they did by changing the rules on screen violence aided and abetted those 1980s muscleheads that followed. (Although The Last Stand is pretty great–go see it!)
Anyway, I read Mr. Epstein’s book and learned to appreciate an entirely new perspective on the man kind of hilariously nicknamed “The Merchant of Menace.” CLICK HERE to check out the interview, and don’t forget to track down the book. It’s a great read if you’re a fan.
Kathryn Bigelow and Monty Montgomery’s The Loveless is one of those movies for which the term barely applies. Movies are supposed to, you know, move, and large portions of this one are devoted to staring at characters who are staring at something else. And since the film takes place in a tiny rural haven, there’s not even very much to stare at. The movie has little dialogue and even less action. (Put aside any hope of an actual plot.) But it’s a film that’s surprisingly squirrelly, capable of working its way under your skin and nesting in your brain. It’s a failed, mostly-forgotten student film, but it lingers like a haze.
The film concerns the “story,” such as it is of Vance (Willem Dafoe), a top dog in a small biker gang traveling from Detroit to the Deep South for a stock car race. Along the way, a bike breaks down and the gang stops for repairs in a deeply rural community, where the locals don’t warm to pompadours and rock music. Cultures clash over the course of one long, lazy day, culminating in a violent, deadly confrontation. The story is straight pulp, a near-clone of the famous Marlon Brando flick, The Wild One. But where Brando’s film is mannered and alarmist, The Loveless ducks biker movie tropes and abandons cheap thrills in search of a more profound truth.
The film began life in New York at Columbia University as a joint idea between fellow students Bigelow and Montgomery. They spent months hammering out the sparse screenplay with a goal to make a movie that felt like cheap exploitation, but that had more on its mind, something in the wheelhouse of Kenneth Anger’s experimental biker short, Scorpio Rising, which likewise favored image and ignored narrative to give its fierce personalities room to exist. Although The Wild One was certainly an influence, Bigelow and Montgomery’s script changed directions. For comparison, look at the first part of the clip below. Brando’s Black Rebels are a roaming party, and when they motor into town, they wield thick accents and kooky lingo like a biker-minstrel show, taking pride in needling the terrified locals.
Stick with that video and you’ll see a scene where the bikers dance with their ladies while avoiding physical contact with one another. Both traits are directly reversed in The Loveless. The bikers have little interest in mingling with the locals and keep to themselves at a garage for the bulk of the film, while the women are relegated to sub-second class, barely acknowledged as the men fix their bikes and play macho games, like flicking knives at one another’s feet. (To test their boot strength, one presumes.) The rebels in The Loveless aren’t acting out or putting on a show. They face inward, only interested in their own dynamics, their own bikes, camaraderie, and maleness. If The Wild One’s message is “don’t let this happen to you,” then The Loveless says “this is happening, with or without you, so you’d better just get out of the way.”
Montgomery and Bigelow conceived the movie in the style of Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West (which explains those long gazes into nowhere), and even planned an Ennio Morricone-esque score before spending the entire music budget on one calypso song. As a student production, money was a constant concern. On the prowl for cheap sets, Montgomery–today a Hollywood society icon and a close friend of David Lynch; he appeared as The Cowboy in Lynch’s Mulholland Drive— booked the shoot in Hinesville, Georgia, a tiny speck of a town outside of Savannah on US-17. Montgomery spent a lot of time in the area as a kid and knew how to make the location work for cheap, as the road was largely abandoned in that stretch, and empty gas stations, hotels, and garages were just standing around waiting to be used. These shelled out sets help give the film its empty, lonely tone, as does the film’s score, provided by another Montgomery addition to the production, Rockabilly musician Robert Gordon. Gordon not only provided music, but also agreed to play Davis, another leader of the biker gang, and to help the struggling production perfect its 50s style and motorcycle lingo. The rest of the cast was filled out with local Atlanta talent, save the lead role of Vance, who went to a young, hungry New York theater actor named Willem Dafoe for a whopping $20,000. The Loveless became Dafoe’s film debut, and if he regretted agreeing to spend the 100-degree Georgia summer in thick biker leathers, he likely didn’t for long. Thanks largely to his role in The Loveless, action director Walter Hill agreed to cast Dafoe in Streets of Fire, kicking off his Hollywood career.
The presence of Hollywood royalty like Bigelow and Dafoe on the marquee is likely why The Loveless still persists today, despite its molasses-pacing and its uneven quality, a side-effect of Bigelow and Montgomery’s process. Like many student films, The Loveless was a training canvas on which its makers could experiment, and the co-directors rethought the process from the ground up, ignoring traditional notions of film authorship to share all duties. The pair literally alternated days as the lead director on set. Montgomery would be the director one day, and Bigelow would sit in the chair the next. On their off days, each director would be close by in case the lead had a question, but otherwise, it was a purely split production.
(It’s tempting to identify shots and scenes that remind me of Bigelow’s later work, such as the gunfight finale, where Gordon fires his weapon with the same kind of sadistic, sexual glee that Ron Silver uses in Bigelow’s Blue Steel, but there’s just no way of knowing who shot which scene.)
Although The Loveless has a cult following, it isn’t much of a crowd-pleaser, and it doesn’t really reward mining for deeper layers. Audiences seem to enjoy just getting drunk on its liquid cool. But there is a message in the film about clinging too closely to those who share your values, about circling the wagons too tightly. The bikers are a clique, an isolated group with their own rules, uniforms, and patterns of behavior, and the film throws them with all of their machismo and hostility up against another closed, insular, and violent group—the town—and the two mix like dynamite and a crowded room. The groups attempt to coexist in isolation, but eventually the clash of values proves to be too much for either to stand and the result is violence. To the people in town, the bikers aren’t just outsiders, they represent the outside, and the town’s secrets can only last on the outskirts. I’m thinking in particular of the young woman (Marin Kanter) who attaches herself to Vance, a girl who carries an ugly secret. If the bikers hadn’t entered town that day, how long would she have lived with her problems, unchanging and helpless? For a long time, I’d imagine.
The Loveless had its American premiere early in 1982, but by then it had already become something of a darling on the festival circuit, and today the Modern Museum of Art in New York boasts a copy as part of its film collection. The film is largely attributed to Bigelow, but that might be because she’s a much more famous name than Montgomery. I’ve always felt like the movie pulses more with his southern rebel blood than with Bigelow’s cool detachment, but who knows? It’s a true collaboration, and kind of a weird, cool, problem child of a film. The Loveless is outsider art about people living and shitting inside their own spheres, rejecting anything else that comes along, but it’s also occasionally a cheap and surface riff on the dangers of rednecks. The irony is that a group of well-educated New York students invaded a small Georgia town to make a movie about northerners invading a small Georgia town, and both the real and fictional groups left damage in their wake. The Loveless unfairly presents the Deep South as a place that’s going nowhere (“Fast,” according to the film’s tagline.) The bikers who ride through don’t know and don’t care about why the town is this way. It’s just another stop for them on their existential ride, and they deliver Northern wrath on their way out.
Only Vance seems to be genuinely touched by the human tragedy that he encounters and the little girl whose life changes because a bike broke down. But earlier in the film, we see Vance’s true colors when he casually molests a woman who asks for his help changing a tire. He makes friends with sociopaths and has little love for the world. We come to realize that there’s nothing moral about any human being in this film. The original title of the film named it after the dead road, US-17, and that title seems even more appropriate, because on that road there is nothing and nobody, just a lost moment in history rotting in the sun.
The Kathryn Bigelow Project
Bonus: The Loveless
The 2010 Academy Awards took place on a Sunday, as per usual. The jokes were just as bad, hosts Steve Martin and Alex Baldwin just as hit-and-miss, but something was different. The tone felt self-congratulatory. Faces in the crowd lit up with the expectation of history. People at home fidgeted on their couches, called their children to the TV with pride, and practiced their excuses for skipping work the following day. Crowds in Times Square huddled together in the cold, crossed their mittenned fingers, and prayed.
A woman was about to win Best Director.
OK, so I’m exaggerating a bit about the national anticipation, but it’s true that Kathryn Bigelow’s big moment had a bit of that old weight of history about it. Even Bigelow’s ex-husband, James Cameron, against whom she competed for the Oscar, beamed with pride and leaped to his feet when her name was called, just moments after presenter Barbara Streisand issued a dramatic pause and a button before the announcement—“the time has come.” But when Bigelow stepped on to the stage and became the first woman in history to accept the Best Director Oscar, her acceptance speech dumped that history and cut to the chase. No long polemics about her struggles, no messages to the little girls watching at home. In fact, beyond the usual thanks, Bigelow didn’t say very much at all.
It’s almost as if Bigelow shrugged her shoulders at history and decided that, really, it’s not that big a deal. After all, Bigelow may be the first female Best Director winner, but it’s not like women had been completely shut out of consideration throughout the history of the award, right? I mean, literally dozens and dozens of women must have been nominated over the years, and—
Um, OK, Mr. Skeptic, I’ll check my figures, but I’m sure—
Only four? That can’t be right. There has to be way more than four women ever nominated for—
Huh. Four. That’s… that’s actually not a lot at all.
OK, but this is Hollywood. It was an old boy’s club until, like, last Wednesday. Until the 1960s, nobody even got a job directing pictures unless they were male, white, and 80-dead. One time, somebody walked an urn full of ashes onto a Hollywood golf course, introduced it as Roger, and got it a three-picture deal. So it’s not like women really even had opportunities until—
Dorothy Arzner, huh? Directed throughout 1920s and 30s. Alice Guy-Blache directed over 400 films and may have shot the first ever narrative film on the planet. Oh my. Hundreds of other names? Well, this is just embarrassing.
Yeah, it turns out women have been integral, vital, and vibrant voices in cinema since the very beginning, which is a statement that falls right into the category of “no fucking shit,” and Kathryn Bigelow, only the fourth ever female nominee for Best Director, and only the second American woman, was the very first ever to win the biggest award. In 2010. That matters. It really, really matters, and Bigelow left the moment on the table.
But is that such a surprise? Bigelow has never been one for speeches in her work, either. Her earliest films are almost anti-dialogue, carrying the weight of the story in symbolism, mood, and environment, and even her most obvious message movie, The Hurt Locker, avoids actually stating the message. Bigelow frequently deflects questions about her gender and what it means for her work, even as critics and pundits refuse to talk about anything else, primarily because of the types of films she likes to make.
Bigelow works almost exclusively in the action-adventure genre, and her films primarily draw young men and boys to their violence and sexually-charged intensity. That pop you’re hearing is the cognitive dissonance in a world of critics who see Bigelow’s types of films as adolescent, juvenile, male nonsense but see Bigelow as a careful, thoughtful filmmaker. She so obviously thinks through her meaning, so how can she shoot and promote films with such outrageous violence, especially when it’s so often directed towards women?
In other words, why doesn’t she make lady movies?
After her Oscar win, I became briefly preoccupied with the question, wondering about what her win really meant—not for Bigelow, but for the Academy. I don’t care what Bigelow chooses to make, but I found it insulting that it took a woman working in a traditionally male genre to break through with the Academy. Was her win a victory for women (yes), or a sad mark on the Academy for needing a female director to cater to them a little more before finally handing out a statue. Bigelow had to put on masculine camouflage before finally being allowed into the circle of men, and she did so by making male movies and OH MY CRAP, I’M DOING IT TOO!
See, gender can become a very thorny issue down here in the trenches. You have to take as your premise that there is no such thing as “male” and “female” subject matter, regardless of what audience shows up to watch the movie, otherwise you risk discrediting Bigelow’s win in some way. (Thank goodness The Hurt Locker is actually pretty great, for history’s sake.) Gender matters, but it also doesn’t matter at all. I can’t ignore, say, the way Bigelow intentionally confuses sex and violence, or the somewhat-androgynous female leads that love her male heroes, but who’s to say that Bigelow’s gender played a part in those choices? It’s a question that I’ve decided to make an attempt to answer here.
Kathryn Ann Bigelow
November 27, 1951, in San Carlos, California to Ronald Bigelow (a factory manager) and Gertrude Larson (a librarian).
Young Kathryn Bigelow wanted to be a painter, discovering art from her father, a factory manager who had aspirations of being a cartoonist. She attended the Art Institute of San Francisco, but her obvious talent propelled her across the country to a full scholarship at the Whitney Museum of Art in New York City, where she improved her craft under the tutelage of artists like Vito Acconi and Richard Serra. Somewhere along the line, Bigelow became attracted to the wider audience of feature filmmaking and turned her focus towards painting with a camera instead of (or sometimes in addition to) a brush. Collecting prestigious universities like some folks collect baseball cards, Bigelow moved on to Columbia University where she earned a master’s degree in film theory and criticism, and where she shot her first short film, an experimental piece contrasting violence and scholarly dialogue called The Set-Up (1978).
Bigelow teamed with fellow student Monty Montgomery to produce her first feature, the moody and meandering biker film The Loveless (1982), a film most notable today for introducing a very young Willem Dafoe. It would be five years before Bigelow made her solo directing debut with the redneck vampire tale Near Dark (1987), which she quickly followed with a string of violent, sexually charged studio thrillers, including the megahit Point Break (1991). During her rise, Bigelow met, collaborated with, and in 1989 finally married another wonderkid of the system, James Cameron, and the pair remained an influence on each other’s work for years, even after their divorce in two years later.
After the failure of Strange Days in the 1995, Bigelow diversified. She moved into television projects (Homicide: Life on the Street) while searching for new film opportunities. After a few more misfires, Bigelow met writer Mark Boal and became interested in his stories of shadowing a real bomb squad unit in the war zone of Iraq. Bigelow and Boal adapted his stories into what would become the defining project of Bigelow’s career, The Hurt Locker. The film brought Bigelow widespread acclaim and, as you may have caught earlier, the Best Director Oscar, as well as the award for Best Picture of 2009. Both awards for Bigelow’s tiny film were won at the expense of her ex-husband James Cameron’s mega-budgeted Avatar. There’s a headline in there somewhere, I’m sure.
• Works almost exclusively in genre cinema, but looks for fresh and unexpected angles
• Makes films that explore violence, adrenaline, and the addictive nature of combining the two
• Uses mostly male protagonists, with sexually ambiguous relationships or love interests
• Combines visual trickery (first person cameras, etc.) with painterly eye for color, especially deep blues or dusty oranges.
A painting Bigelow made for The Hurt Locker.
7, with two special additions(see below)
Bigelow dabbled in a lot of fields while building her career. She’s directed short films, music videos, hours and hours of TV, and, I can safely say, will be the only director ever featured on this site to have modeled for The Gap. I’m not going to cover her TV work or her short projects like The Set-Up or Mission Zero. Her debut feature, The Loveless, is technically ineligible for the countdown because she worked with a co-director who, from all accounts, was heavily involved. That makes it difficult to parse out who did what work, but the film is so interesting that I feel like I have to write about it, so I’ll include it as a side article but not for the countdown.
Also, I’m going to completely skip her newest film, Zero Dark Thirty, during the initial pass at this project. Once the film is out on DVD and has had a few months to sink in, I’ll decide where I’d rank it and add it to the list.
Connection to Previous Project?
A huge one. Bigelow was married to James Cameron for a few years and their careers are heavily tangled up together.
Oh, and it seems likely that both Bigelow and the Hughes Brothers turned down Rise of the Planet of the Apes. There’s no deeper meaning behind that, it’s just weird.
I’m doing away with my categories for this project as an experiment. I think I might have more freedom to write in my style and, just maybe, that might help me complete articles in a more timely fashion. Or maybe it’ll make things worse. No way to know until I try. Please stop on by next week for The Loveless before we kick off this countdown for real.
I’m hosting another Hollywood Projects screening with the help of Tugg.com on October 30 at the Plaza Atlanta, and I’m very proud to be presenting, for what I believe is the very first time in Atlanta, a theatrical screening of Michael Dougherty’s cult Halloween film, Trick ‘r Treat!
Tickets are on sale HERE. But since you may be skeptical, here are a handful of reasons why you should be there!
1.) The Date
Trick ‘r Treat may be the best film ever made about the holiday of Halloween. Sure, some movies use Halloween as a setting or a backdrop for a horror scene, but Trick ‘r Treat is a movie takes a step back and looks at the feeling of the scariest night of the year, from the Jack o’ Lanterns to the candy to the silly superstitions that may just save your life. A night out with Trick ‘r Treat is the perfect way to pre-game the big night itself.
2.) Michael Dougherty
The writer-director graduated from the school of Bryan Singer having written one of the most acclaimed superhero movies ever made (X2) and one of the most controversial (Superman Returns). Given a chance to direct his own screenplay, Dougherty jumped all over a live-action feature version of his animated short film, Season’s Greetings. This guy LOVES Halloween and loves genre horror films, and he just directed the hell out of his feature debut, making perhaps THE definitive Halloween holiday movie.
3.) The Cult
Somebody, somwhere got Trick ‘r Treat way wrong. The studio got scared of it and chose to hold it back to keep it from competing with the Saw sequel of 2007 (and The Orphanage, which featured another scary kid in a burlap sack mask). They kept audiences from the film for two years before finally dumping it on DVD in 2009. Unlike most direct-to-DVD movies, Trick ‘r Treat found its audience almost immediately, and in just three short years has already become the new Halloween standard. Trick ‘r Treat toys are hot collector items and some channels run all-day marathons of the film on Halloween. The cult of the movie is growing, and you can get in on the ground floor.
4.) Anna Paquin
All right, True Blood fans. You can see Anna Paquin do the sexy supernatural thing in a role… well, I promise you haven’t seen Sooki do anything like this. That’s her in a Red Riding Hood costume, ’nuff said.
5.) Spooky Door Prizes
We’re going to give away Halloween prizes, from ghoulish toys to scary movies for your Halloween-viewing pleasure. If tickets move quickly, there may be a super special raffle prize to give away.
6.) Brian Cox
Brian Cox is the guy you see in the big-budget political thriller with Oscar-credentials. You don’t see him with crazy hair in a house of horrors every day. That happens here. Trick ‘r Treat.
7.) The Plaza
The best movie theater in Atlanta, GA., needs your help! In this day of chain theaters and declining film prints, come out to support the oldest operating theater in Atlanta with the coolest crowd of movie lovers in the city. It’s the night before Halloween and the crowd is going to be buzzing for a good scare. Trick ‘r Treat deserves to be seen with a screaming audience, and that can’t happen without you!
8.) Dylan Baker
People who love Dylan Baker’s work in everything from Happiness to Spider-Man 2 don’t need to be reminded of how he’s one of the best character actors working today. Trick ‘r Treat is a showcase for his talent and he’s never been better.
Aw, just look at the widdle guy. How can you say no to him? He’s the iconic figure at the center of the film, and I promise after seeing the movie, you’ll never forget him.
10.) What’s Helo Screaming About?
Run, Helo! It’s not a Cylon!
11.) 4 Scary Stories
Trick ‘r Treat is an anthology film made up of different scary stories. Nothing like this gets made anymore, and it’s a lost art. Trick ‘r Treat is like a Cat’s Eye or Trilogy of Terror or Black Sabbath for a new generation, and if one story doesn’t thrill you, there’s another right around the corner.
12.) A New Halloween Tradition
Every year, Trick ‘r Treat grows its audience, and it seems destined to be THE Halloween movie experience for years to come. Why settle for another Saw or Paranormal Activity clone when you see ORIGINAL horror that’s better?
13.) Because Halloween is Supposed to Be Fun
Trick ‘r Treat isn’t some grim and gritty snuff film. It’s a fun time at the movies featuring safe scares and fun characters. Sure there’s blood. Sure there are murders, but it’s the fun kind. You’ll be smiling and scared all at the same time. What better way to spend the night before Halloween than by remembering what it is you love about the holiday?
So that’s it: 13 reasons to come see Trick ‘r Treat with The Hollywood Projects and the Plaza Atlanta and be a part of the fun for only $10 per ticket.
Wait. You’re still not convinced?
14.) Hot Monster Chicks
Trick ‘r Treat is playing for one night only at the Plaza Atlanta on October 30, 2012 at 7:30 PM! Tickets are available at http://www.tugg.com/events/1764!!!
When I chose The Hughes Brothers for the site I knew it wouldn’t be an easy project, but nobody ever said that writing about movies in my underwear from the warm embrace of deeply comfy chair would be easy. Now that the hardship is at an end, however, I’m left with the belief that this project has been absolutely vital to accomplishing the mission of this site. What good does yet another movie website do anybody by clinging to the accepted classics? Anybody can do Stanley Kubrick (and I did!) but film is about so much more than the winners and the gods.
I’ve often said that if I were to teach film history I would open the class with a showing of James Isaac’s Jason X, because I think that movie tells you everything you need to know about why you should love film. Jason X is a terrible film, natch, but even the least film is like a time capsule telling us about when it was made, why it was made, and about the people who made it (Jason X also has moments of sincere, intentional hilarity). Jason X may fail as a horror film, but it fails upward. The film is a prime example of an entire decade of horror—the 90s and its post-Scream, post-Buffy self-reference—and it lampoons a horror icon that had lost his edge in much the same way Universal once combined its fading, classic monsters into a duet with Abbot and Costello. You can tie a thread through decades of movie history down into that one movie, which, you know, fascinates the holy hell out of me. Jason X, in a way, represents why I love cinema.
Likewise, The Hughes Brothers represent why I love studying filmmakers, and for similar reasons. They’ve never made a film as shoddy as Jason X, and their links to the past are less clear (although Scorsese is a huge influence on their work, and Scorsese’s influence was everything else), but there they are, living on the margins, no longer the celebrated newcomers they once were but cresting with talent and producing deeply personal films for broad audiences. They don’t make masterpieces, but every one of their movies is worthy of discussion and analysis, and with every film, they contribute to the present culture and lay a little pavestone pointing the way to the future. There are only a handful of accomplished film masters in the world, and every one of them is standing on the backs of a dozen gifted, anonymous artists producing the bulk of the medium’s best work, the films that keep tickets ripping while the pantheon wander into the wilderness to find inspiration.
In a time where genre film has been consumed by the marketers and all goods are pre-packaged and cross-promoted, The Hughes Brothers (at least for now) resist. They deliver original material that has something new to say, and there’s just not enough of that going around these days. As I’ve said, I don’t really love any of their films, but I’m definitely excited to see what both Albert and Allen come up with next.
The Hughes Brothers Project
1. American Pimp (1999)
2. Menace II Society (1993)
3. The Book of Eli (2010)
4. From Hell (2001)
5. Dead Presidents (1995)
Who is and who isn’t an auteur is a surprisingly testy subject among critics at all levels, from the aging newspaper jockeys to the cowboy elite of the internet. The entire auteur theory is out of favor these days as the other gajillion crew members behind the scenes stand up against it, and it’s becoming a lot harder to get the critical support it takes to be considered a true film author. As we’ve discussed here before, I tend to think of the auteur theory as basically correct, albeit in a backwards way, because the auteur theory actually created the auteur system, and in that system, I would certainly call the Hughes Brothers auteurs. They have a strong, recognizable visual aesthetic that carries from film to film, and a consistent theme to their work. The Hughes Brothers make films about class war from the point of view of the people who lost, the people who live in urban poverty and turn to crime to survive. But it takes more than that to make the canon these days. For example, one of the requirements of a true auteur, at least as far as the theory goes, is that their personal history factors into the formula somehow. Movies, the theory goes, are about the person making them.
(Digression: I’m not totally on board with this. Of course directors choose films because something in the script speaks to them, and so you may follow a director’s interests by following their work, but there’s a huge difference in making a film that’s about your passions and making a film about yourself. It can happen—Fellini, Woody Allen—but it’s by no means a requirement. Having said that, critics love narratives and that’s a popular one.)
It would be easy to slam the Hughes Brothers as macho filmmakers who make movies for adolescent males. Their two biggest financial successes are a Jack the Ripper fantasy and a post-apocalyptic beat-‘em-up featuring big stars and high concepts. The women of their films are often marginalized or occasionally objectified as a pretty object to save (Mary Kelly in From Hell; Solara and her mother in The Book of Eli), an unfortunate symptom of genre filmmaking aimed at a demographic that’s particularly sensitive to emasculation and reacts positively to the lionizing of male roles. A deeper look at how the Hughes Brothers position the female characters in their films, however, suggests a truth that’s a bit more complicated and ties directly to their background to strengthen the case for the Hughes Brothers as auteurs.
The Hughes Brothers storyline is well-known. Aida, their mother, moved them from Detroit to Pomona, California, to escape their street hustler father, but the Brothers fell in with a rough crowd in their new home. Aida bought them a secondhand film camera, which changed their course and set them onto a different path. The brothers had a choice and chose to follow their mother’s advice. It saved them, and It’s this exact narrative that appears in their films again and again, playing out in slightly modified ways, beginning with their very first feature, Menace II Society.
At first look, Ronnie, played by Jada Pinkett-Smith, is a troubling character. A single mother forced to survive alone in the hood when her baby’s father is sent to prison, she begins a friendship with Caine more or less on the absent father’s orders. Caine and Ronnie don’t initiate their friendship, and they fall sort of sideways into a romantic relationship of their own. There’s no shocking reveal, no conflicted loyalty for Caine. Ronnie and Caine’s relationship is passionless, and the uncomfortable implication is that she was basically gifted to Caine. For her part, Ronnie accepts the arrangement and genuinely likes Caine, but she might simply be choosing survival. When Ronnie tells her child’s father that she’ll be leaving with Caine, it’s more of a business transaction than an apology or a request for a blessing. After all, he’s in prison and Ronnie must do what she must do.
It’s hard not to draw a line from Ronnie to Aida, who left the father of her twins to move across the country to seek a better life. Ronnie also seeks a fresh start in Atlanta, a city with a majority African-American population, and where discrimination is (in theory, at least) less of an everyday problem. Ronnie seeks a chance for her son, and she invites Caine to move with her as the child’s father figure. Atlanta is the promised land that she sees, but that Caine is too blind and dug-in to accept. If the Hughes Brothers were saved by their mother’s intervention, Caine represents the other side of the coin, the kid who turns away the boat because he doesn’t know he’s drowning. Atlanta is a gateway to another life, provided by Ronnie, and swung shut by Caine’s decisions. When Caine dies, he does so defending Ronnie’s baby so that at least one bright light can make it out of Watts.
A pair of sisters drive the action in Dead Presidents, offering two paths to salvation for Anthony (Larenz Tate), the damaged Vietnam veteran at the story’s center. Before he leaves for action in Vietnam, Anthony courts and wins the heart of Juanita (Rose Jackson), the older of two sisters from his poverty-stricken neighborhood. While in the jungle, Anthony learns that Juanita has given birth to his child, and when he returns to the States, Anthony faces his responsibilities and marries Juanita despite his battle with nightmares and depression. The path Juanita offers is traditional and safe, but collapses as Anthony struggles to adjust to married life. Juanita disappears into the shadow of another man who had come around to “protect” her while Anthony was gone (a nightmare version of the noble Caine and his inherited responsibility).When his family falls apart, Anthony becomes truly lost and, without a clear path of salvation, turns to crime, represented by Delilah (N’Bushe Wright), Juanita’s radicalized sister. Through the planning and execution of the botched robbery, Anthony loses everything he has, but finds his moral center, speaking out loudly and strongly against the government system that, as he sees it, forced him into a criminal act. Delilah’s path is a dark mirror of Juanita’s; Delilah’s is a path of dignity with loss, while Juanita offers stability with humiliation. A sucker’s choice, but one that Anthony must face head on before being destroyed.
When women are present at all in American Pimp, it’s from a position of weakness. The pimps hold total sway over the proceedings, and the women who work for them exist primarily to corroborate their legends. Only occasionally does a woman speak out against the system. It’s a winner’s game, and yet—without digging too deeply into the balance of power between pimps and prostitutes, because that’s a subject to itself—if we analyze the pimps in this piece as characters in a story being constructed by the Hughes Brothers, we see that the position of the women in the film is one of relative power. Yes, there is a lot of ugly talk about the proper way to beat your hos, but the pimps universally tell a story about growing up poor and ultimately deciding that pimping was a path out of the hood and into wealth, success, and status.
One pimp tells a story about how he suggested pimping to a girl he knew, who gladly offered to be his girl. Nervous, he tried to back out of the deal, but she pushed him along and started him down a successful career. Maybe he’s remembering the facts with crystal clarity and maybe he’s not, but the story’s power as a story—especially taking place so early in the film—position the image of the willing prostitute as a way out for the poor, black boys who are out of answers. These decisions show in the way the Hughes Brothers chose to edit their film, and consciously or not, they’ve created another world in which the very image of the woman serves as a pathway to salvation for their male protagonists.
In From Hell, this Hughes woman leaps off the screen, transitioning from the background portrayal seen in the Brothers’ early work to an arch, explicit depiction that matches the rest of the film’s outsized style and tone. Mary Kelly, as played by Heather Graham, is an almost literal symbol of hope. Lilly-white, strawberry, and angelic, no amount of faux dirt can mask the fact that she doesn’t fit into her grimy, soot-colored surroundings or, indeed, even with the ladies that form her circle of friends. She’s otherworldly, and as Johnny Depp’s Detective Abberline realizes that she is to be one of the Ripper’s victims, he begins to fantasize about her in lush, green locations, far away from the urban blight. It’s important to note that Abberline wasn’t psychic in the original novel, and that his visions are entirely a creation of the Hughes adaptation. Abberline becomes obsessed with saving Mary—specifically her, which is a bit odd considering other victims are alive at their first meeting—and with fulfilling his own vision. Abberline knows that he cannot journey to the island with Mary, and in fact he dies in London without ever seeing the promised land, but Mary’s salvation and, significantly, the salvation of the hunted child, redeems Abberline and his opium sins.
The situation is a bit more complicated in The Book of Eli, partly because there’s a relative glut of major female characters. Our primary concern is Solara, played by Mila Kunis, but we’ll return to her in a moment. Twice in the film, Eli meets a con woman on the road who lowers the guard of her victims to lure them in to a trap. The first time Eli meets her, he kills her entire entourage. When Eli and Solara meet her again later in the film, she’s running the same scam with a new crew. This is her idea; these are her crews. She’s the one who has found a way to survive, and she’s offering that survival to the men strong enough to carry it out. The film is full of characters like her, pulling strings and exploiting weakness. Martha, the old cannibal woman Eli and Solara meet on the farm, appears to run the household over her husband, George. It’s easy to imagine that eating their guests was all her idea.
Solara is a different matter altogether. Like the con woman on the street, Solara manipulates to survive, but that doesn’t appear to be a strictly evil trait in a world run dry of resources by the villain Carnegie. Her character remains unsullied. Unlike the other women we’ve looked at who offer a bright path in the darkness, Solara attempts to walk Eli’s path to a destination he’s already chosen, a tag-along. Solara is capable of taking care of herself, but she also falls into trouble and must be rescued. In many ways, Solara is a more typical heroine in the modern action movie—a no-nonsense tough girl who still needs a masculine hero to save her.
But there’s more to Solara than what we first see. She ends the film not as a path to saving Eli, but as a path to saving the rest of the world or, at the very least, those still enslaved in whatever will be left of Carnegie’s shanty village. Solara represents the hope for us, the audience, to take out of the theater; she’s a hope for the future, for her saintly mother, and for (of course) the sequel. In a way, Solara is the ultimate culmination of the Hughes woman. She’s not there to save a man, but to save every man. Her success and survival is the path of redemption for the world.
I’ve only scratched the surface here. There’s a lot more to explore, such as how the Hughes balance their female characters’ needs to be both sexual and sacrament, or their complex relationship to how women are portrayed in the hip hop culture with which the Hughes Brothers have deep ties. My main point here is that there’s more to the Hughes Brothers films than just macho heroes and glamorized women. They work within the bounds of their genre choices, but they stretch the archetype to place their male heroes at a crossroads of choice, pretty much always presented by a redemptive woman. Mostly, the male character botches the choice, and the surrounding violence swallows them up. The Hughes Brothers are attracted to stories that resonate with them, and their particular history invites a certain kind of narrative, a narrative that has thus far played out very clearly in their films. I’d be very interested to see a Hughes film featuring a female protagonist in a role that doesn’t immediately read as redemptive. So far, that hasn’t seemed to interest them. Maybe that will change one day. In any case, I’ll be watching because their films are sometimes flawed and awkward, but they are never flat, they never adhere to formula, and they allow their female characters to hold all the keys to a better life.
The headline kind of says it all, but this is the spot where we elaborate. I mentioned our huge new screening of the horror movie SINISTER last week, and that’s awesome, but it just gets better and better. We just confirmed that director Scott Derrickson (The Exorcism of Emily Rose) and screenwriter C. Robert Cargill (Massawyrm from Ain’t it Cool News) will be in the house at the screening to answer questions after the show. This event just went from “special” to “totally fucking awesome,” so click the link below and reserve your seats if you’re in the Atlanta area. If you’re not… well, you might consider being a kind soul and helping a horde of movie geeks get to see this show, but it’s your conversation with the devil that you’re going to have to endure one day, so I can’t tell you how to balance the scales. But this would help.
GET TICKETS HERE: http://www.tugg.com/events/1440