Naked Lunch: Adapting the Unadaptable

It had been nearly four years since I watched David Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch (1991) for the first time. I remember, upon finishing watching this film, high school me had been so enamored with what I just experienced that the next day I tried to read William S. Burroughs’ novel. I gave dozens of pages a shot, but since this was my first foray into postmodern literature, I was just puzzled with the scattershot and free-form prose of Burroughs. My takeaway though, was that it was incredible that Cronenberg was able to adapt something so unadaptable to film and pull it off so well in the way he did. 

In what starts out as most films do, through the establishment of main characters and a free-form jazz score coupled with art-deco aesthetics; this then morphs into a film about a slew of autobiographical problems that Burroughs faced in real life, that are thrust upon the protagonist, Bill Lee (Peter Weller). Drug use, homosexuality, and the creative process as a writer are the main themes that the film eventually manages to hone in on. The strange, Cronenbergian staples start with the introduction of an insect that talks through the mouth of an anus telling Lee to kill his wife, Joan Lee (Judy Davis) because she is a “secret agent”. It becomes such a Kafka-esque work that Kafka is even mentioned by Joan Lee. Also through Cronenbergian fashion, these various bugs and creatures are given an oozing and hyper-sexualized style and voice to them. This collaboration between Burroughs and Cronenberg was a perfect creative pairing for that reason. Videodrome took the idea of James Woods having moments of intimacy with pulsating Betamax tapes and televisions with faces on them and with Shivers (1975) he had already used the template of tying bugs in with sexuality. 

However, Naked Lunch doesn’t just make the bugs out to be these strange creatures just looking at trying to burrow their way into the minds of as many humans as possible, but as a creative companion, a writer can discuss their work with. The bugs, later on in the film are portrayed as typewriters for that reason, a product of Lee’s hallucinations on his drug-infused fantasies at some points, dictating to Lee what to write. The personal connection to typewriters humanizes these inanimate objects through the names that they are referred to throughout Naked Lunch. Tom Frost (Ian Holm) talks about how much he loves his “mujahideen”, the name given to his favorite typewriter. Burroughs himself was a heroin user and it is quite obvious that the insecticide in the film is a reference to that. The way that the insecticide is shot up intravenously and as the film progresses characters move onto harder drugs. The hardest drug coming from the secretions of the fictional reptilian creatures, Mugwumps. Their scaly and bony mien being one of the more impactful things from the film.

The film also has one of the most unreliable narrators I’ve seen in cinema. It is challenging to decipher which pieces of the film are actually tied to reality and which are inside the head of a drug-addict suffering from writer’s block, needing a fix in order to continue to construct. The far off city of Interzone (Joy Division were a fan of Burroughs’ work) that Lee flees to is when it fully becomes an unhinged meditation in the surreal. What Lee believes are smashed-up typewriter parts in a bag are seen by other characters to be just a collage of various pill bottles. During a discussion with Tom Frost, the synchronized sound coming from his mouth is dubbed over by other dialogue also spoken by Frost where he proclaims: “If you look carefully at my lips, you’ll realize that I’m actually saying something else. I’m not actually telling you about the several ways I’m gradually murdering Joan [Lee]”. The openness of the interpretation between fiction and reality makes Naked Lunch all the better, constantly throwing curveballs and depicting addiction as a sad, puzzling dimension of the human psyche. 

Cronenberg’s adaptation of Burroughs’ work attempts to be a transgressive and provocative work the same way the 1959 novel was. Unfortunately, there was not nearly as much discussion about the film compared to the novel. But for people that enjoy postmodern narratives that deconstruct the creative process such as Spike Jonze’s Adaptation (2002), then this is an enjoyable, Kafkaesque meditation in that wheelhouse.               

Blog Retrospectives

Specula-tion: A Twin’s Take on Dead Ringers

I am an identical twin. I weighed about three pounds at birth, my brother weighing five. Together, we constituted the birth weight of an average child. I was sickly, hemorrhaging in the brain and suffering with a heart murmur, so despite coming first in the birth order, I would not be home for another two weeks. The doctors found that some of my complications in birth came from malnutrition as a result of twin-to-twin transfusion: my brother was draining me of my nutrients. From that moment on, I was always a bit stunted, always weight class below him when we wrestled, always a few inches shorter, always a bit more sickly. We had times of resonance, freakishly speaking at the same time saying the same thing in debate tournaments, where we were partners, or accidentally dressing the same without meaning to. Despite those brief moments of overlap, though, we were always just off, similar, but not congruent.

Dead Ringers hyperbolizes these moments of symmetry and difference. Beverly and Elliot (both played to perfection by the lovely Jeremy Irons) embody this leading and lagging fraternity in a perverse thriller that you have to see to believe. It has all of Cronenberg’s most notable traits: body horror, fetishism, and an unparalleled mise-en-scène that draws you into the mutant worlds and pathological minds of the characters in the film. A bit uneven at times, slogging in its back half, the film is somewhat lower on the totem pole of David Cronenberg’s work, but it’s an alluring and upsetting watch to add to your October horror rotation.

The film opens with one of the best expository scenes I’ve ever seen. Over black, we see the time and location of the twins as young children, opening with them very scientifically discussing sex. Fish have it differently because they live underwater, one explains to the other, the other preferring it that way as you don’t have to touch another person to do it. The conversation is quite clinical, unsettling out of the mouths of babes, but plainly a mark of their precocity more than anything else. Not a moment later do the twins collude: “Are you thinking what I’m thinking?” It’s something I’ve said to my own twin many times, our adolescence spent playing tricks on our teachers by pretending to be the other in class. Of course, what follows is decidedly less innocuous, the twins approaching a girl their age and asking her to have sex with them both in their bathtub as “an experiment.” She understandably responds in shock and threatens to tell her father, but not before responding with a street-smart that contrasts their veneer of scholarly interest: “Fuck off you freaks… Besides, I know for a fact you don’t even know what fuck is!” The whole sequence is less than three minutes but clearly establishes our characters’ relationship with each other, aptitude for all things biological, the perverse way in which they use it.

The film quickly hits its stride with the two precocious scientists subbing in for each other to maximize the use of their time, this questionable act becoming especially upsetting when used for its sexual component as Elliot passes women off to the meek Beverly. An archetypal virgin and Chad meme if there ever was one, the contours of their difference begin here, the film presenting Beverly in bookish glasses and non-threatening sweater/button-down combinations that starkly contrast Elliot’s proto-Patrick Bateman suits (Will Graham and Hannibal Lecter’s respective wardrobes in Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal certainly find touchstones here). The film’s unsettling atmosphere continues pretty constantly for a while until Beverly’s depressive state sees him go the way of Sheriff Truman in season two of Twin Peaks, killing the film’s momentum for a few beats, but setting up the fascinating disequilibrium between the twins that ushers in the third act. Stay for Irons’ unsettling performance(s), some nightmarish surgical garb that resembles some kind of occult ritual more than actual medical procedures, and one of Cronenberg’s purest images of fetishism in the form of Beverly’s made-to-measure, unsettling gynecological tools, a simple use of a phallic image to respond in kind for Beverly’s sense of emasculation and castration fears.

The film’s minor pacing problems aside, it’s really a treat. It’s perversion manifested in a cinematic space, the grotesque unconscious made visible through a dream screen that uses the horror/thriller genre’s conventions to discuss taboo topics, from quasi-incestuous pairings to medical fetishism. Put simply, the vibes are off, and the film offers a hole in the wall that puts on display all kinds of nasty thoughts. The film is at once erotic and contemptible, using visual spectacle in the mise-en-scène and striking imagery to seduce while the narrative’s sexual neuroses and unhealthy twin dynamic repulse. Forget about The Shining or Sisters for your twinsploitation horror this October; Dead Ringers doubles down on the subject with a clarity of perspective that milks the image of identical twins for all its strangeness while still giving it the gravity it deserves.

Blog Retrospectives

New York, New York – at the Intersection of Cocaine and Jazz

New York, New York is Martin Scorsese’s most interesting picture. Maybe not his best, and certainly an outlier in his filmography. You’ll probably have a hard time finding it, seeing as it’s been almost scrubbed clean off of streaming services, even for rental. The film was a box-office bomb at the time of its release (Scorsese’s cocaine addiction during production led to some of the film’s more peculiar moments and its negative reception pushed Scorsese deeper into drugs and a depressive slump), but I truly believe it’s one of the most special things Scorsese has ever put to celluloid.

The film follows saxophonist Jimmy Doyle (Robert De Niro) and singer Francine Evans (Liza Minnelli) as they grow as a couple and musical act, both relationships complicated by Doyle’s possessiveness and volatility. Doyle courts Evans at a V-J Day celebration, insistent against her protesting, pestering her for her number after his rejection by the other women at the party. He’s unbelievably sleazy, reflecting archetypal masculine pathology of the time, more Humphrey Bogart in In a Lonely Place than the anodyne Gene Kelly. Francine is staunch in her disapproval, roped into his affairs by a string of coincidences until the two happen to be hired as a musical duo, with Doyle on the sax and Francine singing standards. Their respective musical talents are complementary enough to have them work together, but varied enough to provide them with entirely different career paths and benchmarks for success, branching paths catalyzed by Francine’s pregnancy.

Fully a love letter to The Red Shoes, but quintessentially a Scorsese film, the movie is animated by the twin polarities of glossy artifice and gritty realism. This leads to some discomfort in the beginning of the film, with the musical signifiers starkly discordant against Robert De Niro’s portrait of archetypal and possessive masculinity. Liza Minnelli’s character is more indicative of the melodramatic and classical musical picture; De Niro’s masculinity has a pull over the narrative while Minnelli’s idealism overwhelms the mise-en-scène and set design. The film is in constant tonal conflict between these two registers, pulled in either direction in a tense stasis that finally gives way, oscillating to both extremes in the film’s final act.

Watching this film is an extremely strange experience. It is a Scorsese picture in its honest portrayal of toxic masculinity, but that message is ensconced by the MGM musical artificiality: polar opposites that make for strange moments. Its biggest draw is its spectacular mise-en-scène and cinematography, with inarguably Scorsese’s greatest production design. The overt constructedness of the sets gives the film a Sirkian quality that critiques the spectacle of the Hollywood movie-musical, but like all the best critiques of popular genres in that vein, it delivers on the promises of spectacle.

 De Niro’s improvisations lead to moments of awkwardness, leaden lines and passes at humor that go over poorly despite Minelli’s best efforts at recovering the moment. Most of these are mercifully relegated to the beginning, but the rocky start can make identification and interest more difficult in the middle. If you trudge through this, however, the film opens itself up in a series of extremely compelling vignettes as the film barrels toward its climax. One scene of De Niro and Minnelli in their apartment together, shortly after De Niro’s character returns from touring, is almost unbearably tender, a brief respite from the instability of their relationship that passes almost as quickly as it comes about. The film makes a jarring tonal shift when the couple gives birth to their child, as De Niro’s masculine insecurities and neuroses reach a breaking point and he rejects the family he’s created. He was displeased with the idea of children from the start, irritated by the stalling of his work, and his refusal to be a father in the traditional sense is motivated by those career ambitions during Francine’s pregnancy, but more animated by a nebulous masculine interiority when his son is born, his abnegation of fatherhood feeling like a desire to avoid recreating conditions he himself experienced. The film then careens into its musical within a musical within a musical, diegetically justifying an obscene display of spectacle and reaching the height of the film’s outward face, just before collapsing into a distilled realism that doesn’t feel cynical or negating of the spectacle that preceded it, but instead shows its subjects with a maturity and growth that they desperately needed for a long time. The melodrama works to heighten the emotional stakes of the previous portion of the film, while its comedown serves as a deeply moving reality check. It is neither cruel nor rose-colored, presaging The Irishman’s thesis: it is what it is.

The ending isn’t without its antecedents in the film musical genre, though. The Red Shoes famously ends without the happy ending for which Francine’s musical is named. Similarly, An American in Paris’ ending gives a similar denial of narrative closure after the film’s most stunning musical number. Nor is New York, New York without films it has influenced, most notably La La Land, which draws significant influence from the structure of New York, New York and the films from which it draws inspiration, reskinned for the West Coast. I’m going to prefer Scorsese’s somewhat flawed picture over Chazelle’s film for the simple fact that New York, New York is stylistically and thematically ambitious, constantly in conflict with itself, and significantly experimenting with Scorsese’s specific fixations while paying homage to a series of films he loves. It’s a significant work within his filmography partially because of its poor reception and variation from Scorsese’s gangster auteur project, yet that uniqueness makes it feel like a breath of fresh air within the director’s oeuvre. Like a less stiffly mannered version of The Age of Innocence, it’s Scorsese’s ideological project circumscribed by genre signifiers from a mode of filmmaking almost diametrically opposed to his at the time. Ultimately, it’s a bold film that’s tragically unavailable for viewers reliant upon streaming; Scorsese’s play with genre has never been more moving and more creatively inspiring, warts and all.

Blog Retrospectives

On Kundun – Scorsese’s Forgotten Spiritual Journey

To start this month’s retrospective analysis of Martin Scorsese’s films, I decided to watch a smaller project in the director’s seven-decade long portfolio. In 1997, Scorsese released Kundun with minimal fanfare, not even making back one-fourth of the twenty-eight million dollars it cost to make. Marty’s follow-up to the violent and corrupted world of Las Vegas was a film about the story of the early life of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama as well as the persecution of the Tibetan people by Mao Zedong.

What makes Kundun at home with other films that Scorsese has made is the religious themes. Scorsese, a Catholic has made movies distinctly about Christian beliefs and morality, the most obvious two being Silence (2016) and The Last Temptation of Christ (1988). However, in Kundun, Scorsese acts as a respectful messenger to the trials, tribulations, and culture of the Tibetan Buddhist people.

The documentary In Search of Kundun (Wilson, 1998)provides a lot of background for why this film works so well, while it had so much going against it on paper. The Dalai Lama had a hand in the story and the production of the film. Even though Kundun was shot in Morocco, the Dalai Lama was able to re-create a lot of past home of the Tibetans. While promoting the film on Late Night with Conan O’Brien, Scorsese talked about how he wanted to make sure only Tibetan Buddhists were cast in the film and no major Hollywood actors were used to avoid the white savior complex. (Ironically, the film was released a few months before the Brad Pitt/Dalai Lama film Seven Years in Tibet.) On the BBC program, The Film Show, Scorsese described Kundun as “nonaction” in the way the story was presented, giving it a “spiritual rhythm”. The film’s structure feels poetic in a way, considering the way that it tells the story of the life of the Dalai Lama, skipping ahead through history, to important parts of the Dalai Lama’s life or the people of Tibet. The Dalai Lama is depicted as a strong and brave leader but also humanizes him as a character. Not going the easy route and making him infallible.   

Kundun’s strongest aspect is the visual component. Roger Deakins’ cinematography, with a red and gold color palette, makes for an exquisite looking film. Phillip Glass scores Kundun and there were moments where the music, paired with Deakins’ cinematography reminded me of Koyaanisqatsi (Reggio, 1982); Glass’ seminal work. Unfortunately, Melissa Mathison’s script is what holds the film back from being in the higher echelon of the Scorsese canon. A lot of the dialogue seems overly simplistic or unnecessary, like the need for moments of obvious foreshadowing. This is not to say that there are no standout moments in the script, however, the aiding of Glass, Scorsese, and Deakins can not be understated.

“The Dalai Lama has not yet returned to Tibet. He hopes one day to make the journey.” are spelled out on the screen at the end of Kundun; as the Dalai Lama looks towards the Himalayas from his new home of India. It is heartbreaking that he and the people of Tibet have still not been able to make that journey almost twenty-five years later. Scorsese’s passion for telling the story of the oppression of the Tibetan people in a respectable manner is also a testament to him as a director and why he is revered by many.  

Blog Retrospectives

No Lion in Winter: Sidney Lumet’s Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead

Sidney Lumet often gets short shrift in the canon of great American directors. Even after a 60-year career in moviemaking, he is not quite a household name for the non-cinephiles among us, certainly not on the level of a Spielberg or a Hitchcock. Though, on the flip side, happily enough, many pieces of his prodigious body of work have instant name-recognition. 12 Angry Men. Dog Day Afternoon. Serpico. Network. These four films alone form a significant part of the American cinematic fabric. And, contrary to popular opinion, up until his death, Lumet kept churning out masterful works. His final film, 2007’s Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead is a late-period masterpiece à la Billy Friedkin’s Killer Joe. Fitting that it also serves as another installment in the most classic thread of Lumet’s career: the morality play. 

For Sidney was our most muscular moralist; the films themselves tell this story. In them, we see the rage against institutional evil & cultural detritus, humanity’s failure to communicate, greed & avarice; these are the thematics Lumet knew and loved. Whenever he could, he would focus the camera-eye on society’s moral rot. In a career-spanning interview, Lumet recounts one formative event in his youth when he witnessed a young girl kidnapped and raped by a group of American GIs. The spectre of this horrific crime and his own complicity by inaction has haunted his entire filmography which in its own insufficient way is a gesture at atonement.

With Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead, the Lumet tradition is continued. Though the script, written tersely by Kelly Masterson, is ostensibly about a crime and its immediate aftermath, Lumet’s treatment probes at the lingering moral question buried within, in effect rendering the actual minutiae of the plot as (admittedly compelling) genre trimmings. The details of the crime, how it’s committed, how it falls apart, etc. are besides the point. What matters to Lumet is that the two who commit it, Andy (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Hank (Ethan Hawke), made the conscious decision to go through with it. And in his classic fatalistic attitude, Lumet lets the cards fall as they will.

One intriguing aspect of the film is its palpably grim mood. There’s an almost farcical nature to the bungling of the central crime which in the hands of other directors, say the Coen Brothers who have made “crime go bad” a cornerstone of their oeuvre, could be played for dark humor. But Lumet refuses any levity. Not because he’s not capable; sprightly films like his 1974 Murder on the Orient Express (also starring the wonderful Albert Finney) prove he has those notes within him. A lack of humor can often be mistaken as pretension, but for Lumet, this material is equivalent to a Greek tragedy. It’s life or death. Heaven or hell. And by God (or the Devil), he will treat it as such.

Regarding affectation, Lumet had no truck for stylism. It was said that he would redo shots that looked “too arty.” Indeed, without prior knowledge, one could not pick out a shot from a Lumet film and identify it as such, in the way one could with a Godard or Antonioni. So what marks a Sidney Lumet picture? For one, I’d venture to say professionalism. It only takes one look at his essential primer Making Movies to know that the man knew, respected, and adored his craft. He was unfussy; he tended to gather the best around him in order to tell a great story, an endeavor in which he often succeeded. He worked in a classical studio style but without being dogmatic; the fact that Before The Devil was shot on digital proves that. He was famous for shooting few takes, finishing on time and on budget, and having dedicated rehearsals. 

Which brings us to what makes a Lumet picture truly distinctive: the performances. He was above all an actor’s director. While other directors painted with camera movements or vibrant mise en scène, Lumet painted with performance more than any other tool in the director’s repertoire. He always had an aim for verisimilitude which he would achieve partly through location shooting, New York becoming his de facto stomping grounds, but mostly through rigorous casting. Think of the great performances in Lumet films. Al Pacino in Dog Day Afternoon . . . and Serpico. Paul Newman in The Verdict. Practically everyone in Network.

And though everyone in Before The Devil is quite excellent from Albert Finney’s constantly exasperated patriarch to Ethan Hawke’s boyish slacker, Philip Seymour Hoffman’s characterization of Andy Hanson is nothing short of miraculous. One scene involving a car freakout is astonishing in its sheer rawness. It is the sort of performance that is typically relegated to European art films; Isabelle Huppert in The Piano Teacher or Charlotte Gainsbourg in Antichrist. Performances that dig into the recess of human nature in search of some ecstatic truth. It may be slightly facetious to posit these performances against each other; the Hoffman one is contained in a more vulgar context, but this is simply to illustrate what great latitude Lumet grants Hoffman here. 
Before The Devil is, as a Lumet film necessitates, not without any social critique. There are some sly comments on upwards mobility to be made here; for example, the delicious irony of the drug dealer having a more lavish apartment than Hoffman’s executive character is not lost on the viewer. Without delving into dreaded spoiler territory, the overall cynicism of the film particularly by third act’s end can lead one to wonder “what’s to take away from the film?” It is not my belief that Lumet wished to make any grand statements. Rather, it’s a simple adage at the heart of most of his films: you reap what you sow. Hopefully, in death, Mr. Lumet is held to that same point. He’d have it no other way.

Blog Retrospectives

Hot Boy Summer – On Lumet’s 12 Angry Men

As legendary as a debut could be, Sidney Lumet’s instant classic 12 Angry Men feels as though it is a tale as old as cinema itself. Lumet is able to translate the teleplay into a work of cinematic genius through camera techniques, something unavailable in the theater medium. Lumet also puts to screen a heartbreaking portrait of how toxic masculinity in heightened circumstances can lead to the direst of circumstances.

When addressing Lumet’s directorial prowess in 12 Angry Men, two different styles of shot composition are employed with wildly different effects while still holding a cohesive and consistent artistic voice. The first style of camera work which Lumet employs is the use of long takes to preserve the theatrical vision of the original text. Where Lumet elevates this style of camera work is with his framing. Lumet frames the courtroom masterfully, withholding the face of the accused until the very end of the time spent in the courtroom and instead emphasizing both the apathy of the judge and the jurors themselves. The first shot in the deliberation room ranges wildly in what Lumet shows the viewer, with action constantly being squeezed in and out of the frame to beautifully set the stage for the hectic environment the room will eventually devolve into. Each character is given a unique function in this shot, with brilliant foreshadowing and characterization of nearly every juror. This six and a half minute continuous shot wouldn’t be any kind of achievement in an actual play, but Lumet elevates the material through shifting the framing over a dozen times, always revealing some kind of new aspect about each character and sowing the seeds of conflict which will eventually be reaped as the deliberation goes on. Although there are plenty of other lengthy takes in 12 Angry Men, none quite reach the impact and deliver so much as this first shot in the deliberation room.   

The second visual style which Lumet uses to take the film beyond its theatrical origins is the use of closeups. Lumet is able to bring the audience face to face with every bead of sweat dripping off of each of the jurors and allow them to see every nuanced expression of internalized pain, prejudice, and guilt which eats at every juror upon their eventual confrontation. Lumet gives every actor a chance to display their talents with these closeups, bringing distinct depth and character to each juror. Lumet’s first true genius use of the closeup is of the accused. Eyes welling with water, fear-stricken, ethnically different from most of the characters previously seen who will decide his fate, and shockingly young.

Another close up from the film which explodes with narrative relevance and shocks the audience just as much as the actual jurors is Juror 8’s reveal of the identical knife. An iconic shot for all the right reasons and never fails to elicit chills upon watching. Lumet uses the medium of film to emphasize details which would be lost or completely unseen if witnessed on the stage.

The first juror to change their vote to “not guilty” is Juror 9, a wise old man who through many years of life has accumulated enough experience to understand both the situation of the accused and Juror 8’s arguments.

Juror 5 changes his vote next, as he grew up in a lower-income area and displays sensitivity to the subject as the other wealthier jurors use the accused’s environment as enough reason to call him a murderer.

Juror 11, a European immigrant who has become fully Americanized faces turmoil in his decision due to his Americanization. Juror 11 wants to believe in the U.S. Justice System but as the case unravels and different angles to the story are presented he realizes that if he truly wants to adhere to justice as an institution he doesn’t have to side with the red-blooded Americans surrounding him and instead vote for what he perceives is just.

Juror 2 is riddled with beta energy, submitting to the stronger will and conviction of the louder and more alpha. Juror 2 exhibits a follower type behavior that allows for him to be easily swayed by the loud-mouthed brutes advocating for the verdict of guilty, however after being trampled over for most of the deliberation Juror 2 asserts his own manhood and through his empathetic tendencies sides with the constantly attacked accused.

Juror 6, a blue-collar house painter switches his vote due to a combination of effective arguments about the logistics of the witnesses along with the classism rooted in the guilty advocates arguments.

Juror 7, the funny guy of the group, changes his vote next. Juror 7’s position feels incredibly important as he serves as a representative of the indifferent everyman who couldn’t care less about the life of a man as long as he gets to watch the Yankees play. When Juror 7 switches to “not guilty,” it feels quite momentous, as the man who has delivered nothing but apathy and a lack of serious or meaningful contributions to the conversation has come to recognize what the right thing to do is in this situation. Juror 7 feels like he may be representing the widest group of Americans, as consumerism and capitalism has reduced their empathy to the point where everything that doesn’t strike them as entertainment can simply be deflected through a joke.

Juror 12, who is constantly flip-flopping throughout the film, is technically the next juror to vote “not guilty.” Juror 12 is representative of the young men who before they even realize it have been corralled into the capitalistic businessman and begin to lose all semblance of their personality. Juror 12 is constantly seen reconciling with his newfound success by trying to seek approval from the older jurors. As Juror 12 deals with this internal struggle he outwardly expresses it through his indecision as a juror but eventually allows for his youthful tendencies to guide him to vote “not guilty.”

Juror 1, an assistant high school football coach who appoints himself to be the jury foreman. Juror 1 is clearly vexed with insecurities due to his occupation and therefore desires to take control over the situation and make himself the “coach” as quickly as possible. Once he senses the tides are shifting to the “not guilty’ party, Juror 9 attempts to continue his guiding role and switches his vote.

Juror 10 is a sickly bigot whose two forms of communication include coughing and ethnically insensitive comments. It is only upon the confrontation of his own mortality that Juror 10 is able to see past his prejudices and recognize that bigotry and assumptions about a group of people are useless and can never play a role in someone’s decision-making or else logic and justice be sacrificed.

Juror 4, a man who doesn’t sweat, represents the stoic businessman type which men attempt to use as their façade in order to hide any semblance of emotion or human attributes. He submits a vote for “not guilty” second to last after all of the evidence of the case has been thoroughly poured through and extensively deliberated, finally breaking through Juror 4’s wall of logical defense.

This leaves Juror 3, the final juror who still votes that the accused is guilty. Although the classism, consumerism, and racism are all present within Juror 3, after all of those issues were conquered, he still believes that the young man is guilty. Lumet has stacked all of the odds against the accused and has now masterfully moved them all to the other side with the exception of one man whose connection to the case goes down to his deepest issue, his falling out with his son. Juror 3 comes face to face with the realization that he could be the one dying at the hands of his son for the way he treated him, but through the goodness of his son he comes to realize that there is no way the accused would kill his father even in light of the years of abuse, and ultimately making Juror 3 realize he has to mend the relationship he shattered with his son.

Lumet’s iconic debut is nothing short of remarkable in every aspect and will always stand as a brilliant tale of both the good and evil which resides in every man.

Blog Retrospectives

Plan B for the A Bomb – On Sidney Lumet’s Fail Safe

How did we let it get this far? Released just years after the Cuban Missile Crisis, Sidney Lumet’s Atomic-Era thriller Fail Safe (1964; Colombia Pictures) offers a grim foreshadowing of what may happen to humanity’s capacity for self-preservation and symbiotic evolution in the hands of shady, closed-door, technology-fueled geopolitics and its growing penchant and reliance on machine logic over empathetic human understanding and decision-making. The film dares to ask why in an age where communication is so possibly instant is peace being held together by a thin atomic line? In 1945 George Orwell mused that the atomic bomb “is likelier to put an end to large-scale wars at the cost of prolonging indefinitely a ‘peace that is no peace.'” However, was he even right to label it “peace” if that peace is so fraught? What happens to our humanism when thought and discussion is held together by a line of insurmountable mechanical confidence? More so, what happens when our grasps on that line entangle and tighten to the point of snapping, threatening to destroy the peace and way of life that it claimed to uphold?

Fail Safe, based off a book of the same name by Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler, documents the moments after an ‘infallible’ technological system triggers a fail-safe commanding a squadron of US bombers carrying 20-megaton bombs to attack Moscow and the hopeless attempts to recall the bombers before inevitable destruction ensues. The film cuts back and forth from one secure government bunker to another as cogs in the bureaucratic machine bicker, squabble, and negotiate the best plan of action – or if any action should be taken at all. Is it okay to kill millions if they threaten your very way of life or if doing so in theory could save millions more? There is a noticeable lack of citizen presence and public space in the film as the viewer is forced to watch government employees and contractors in claustrophobic spaces argue over a situation that will scar humanity’s collective conscious for good. It is a terrifying position the viewer is placed in. Without any approximation of the average person and without any vessel for the audience to communicate through, we become more entwined and engaged with the tragedy at hand. With an intentional lack of score, Lumet encourages the viewer’s mind to fill the quiet and empty moments with paranoid thoughts, projecting ourselves into the dramatic spaces off screen that fill out the parallel diegetic world we are presented. We become just as helpless to the coming catastrophe as the population of this world is.

It is no less tragic to watch the irony of the soldiers heroically carry out their mission. They are doing everything correctly, following a strict set of orders that could only be triggered by a machine. They have been trained that the enemy could imitate the president’s voice, build identical replicas of American planes, and to not turn around for anything or anyone if that code is triggered. In their minds, that code means nuclear war has already begun. They are good, if not great, soldiers just doing their job. Still, the first thing the Soviet Chairman asks the president over the phone after being detailed on the situation is if the planes are being flown by crazy men. There must be someone else at blame; how could our leaders be so short sighted in overconfidence? The film ultimately does not blame them nor should it. They, like the viewer and the persons we represent, are victims beholden to the actions and processes of a bureaucratic leadership attempting to play and fill the void of God in a society that has technologically passed the need for one.

Naturally, the Soviet chairman does not believe – or cannot believe – our President (Henry Fonda) that this situation is merely an accident. It’s hard to blame him when that fact is coming from someone whose sole connection to him has been a competition to see whose technology could destroy the other more efficiently. To avoid all-out nuclear war and mutually assured destruction, the President offers to destroy New York in the same manner as Moscow if the time comes, causing a riot from many of the officers we have come to know over the film. But can we as the viewer blame him for doing this? It makes us ask ourselves the very question the film has been asking over and over; is it okay to kill millions to save millions more? When you have backed yourself this far into a corner, what else can you do?

“No human being did wrong. No one here is to be blamed.”

“All I know is that men are responsible. We’re responsible for what happens to us.”

These two quotes from the Soviet chairman and president in the final conversations of the film finally sees someone in charge take blame for the situation at hand. This conversation neatly packs the ethos of the rest of the film inside of it. However, it feels as if Lumet is giving the viewer a call to action. Choosing Henry Fonda for the role of president was no accident as he embodies the look and charisma of a stable and sturdy American leader, the role he plays most of the film. In these final moments we finally see his slowly cracking professionalism crumble, expressing and sharing true human emotion, regret, and shame with who is supposed to be his greatest enemy. We are finally allowed to look at the person locked inside the president’s persona. Lumet opens the character up and shows us that he, like us, is human. We can finally relate to him. Coupling this with the use of “we’re” in his above quote is a powerful way to express that while we may not create the powers and cultures that govern our world, we are complicit in propagating them. However, unlike the naive people we see flashed out of existence in the last shot of the film, it is not too late for us to change paths. In these times, the film’s message remains maybe more pertinent than it ever has.

Blog Retrospectives

Stonewall and Stagflation – On Dog Day Afternoon and its post-mortem of the New Left

In a career plagued with anti-establishment screeds, from the hysterical prophecy of Network to the pre-Watergate deep state paranoia of The Anderson Tapes, Sidney Lumet’s most resonant statement may very well be 1975’s Dog Day Afternoon. Ostensibly a heist film based on a true story, centered on Sonny Wortzik (Al Pacino) staging a bank hold-up that gradually unravels until reaching a full-blown hostage situation, its archetypal setup hides a much thornier statement within. However, it is not the breadth of insight that separates Dog Day apart from the rest of the Lumet auteur project. Instead, it is its complete flip of perspective. In 1975, a year in which the American public was foaming at the mouth after huffing the fumes of Watergate paranoia, the rise of Thatcher across the pond, the official end of conflict in Vietnam, an all-time high of anti-establishment sentiment, Lumet turned the tables. Dog Day Afternoon serves up a scathing indictment of the American counterculture, pointing the finger at the inefficacy of liberalized activist movements, the lack of material discourse within them, and the scourge of middle class kids role playing revolutionary within the ranks of the American left.

Within its primary narrative, Dog Day positions its characters as sociological ciphers, representing a demographic struggle more than a personal one. At its most basic level, the story is three of the forgotten people: the economically destitute in Sonny, the degenerate in Stevie, and the dullard in Sal, taking up arms against the personification of institutional squareness: the bank. However, as soon as the armed revolt begins, it is the curly-haired, plimsoll wearing Stevie who cannot take the heat, citing “bad vibes” as overwhelming his disposition. The film begins to show its hand. The oxymoronic mainstream counterculture, the cute kids in neat outfits will not save us with clouds of stale pot smoke and surgically straightened teeth, this is not the make of a revolutionary vanguard. Dog Day Afternoon is a vision of the revolution as it may actually be, not the telegenic idealists at the front of the phalanx, but instead the invisible, the aggrieved, the written-off, channeling their rage into action.

While the shrewd setup provides a neat statement of its own, the film’s ideology does not coalesce within the bank, but rather outside of it. Later, with the heist now degenerated into a hostage situation, a series of dispatches from Sonny to police handlers, more negotiation than tent revival is when it comes into focus. Reminiscent of the stained-glass framed tirades that would make up the bulk of his magnum opus Network, Pacino’s proselytizing zeal winding up growing crowds with the caterwaul of “Attica! Attica!”, invoking the prison uprising that left 42 dead at the hands of Governor Nelson Rockefeller. With this one chant, a river of imagery arises — attacks on institutional wealth (personified in Rockefeller as well as the bank), an indictment of police brutality, the collective action of the proletarian body politic. When interviewed by the news not long after, Sonny confesses there is no ideological engine, purely material pressures. Faced with the question of “Couldn’t you get a job?”, he expounds on the grim economic prospects of the working class, the evaporation of union opportunities and the crunch of stagnating wages in non-union settings, spelling out the inertia that would come to characterize neoliberal labor markets. However, this material focus does not last long. Once news of the underlying motivation behind the robbery to finance the gender confirmation surgery of Sonny’s mistress, the crowd changes. It becomes a demonstration for queer liberation, chanting “Out of the closet, into the streets!”, championing representation and visibility over the prime mover of the caper, economic anxiety. The media narrative shifts, emphasizing the scandalous concept of “two homosexuals” holding up the bank, throwing an intersectional view by the wayside in favor of divisive essentialism, forecasting the discourse to come. His suffering and pressures are forgotten, and instead he becomes a mascot, his voice now harder to hear over the growing crowd jeering on, awaiting an impending martyrdom.

The fundamental rope-a-dope of the film is that despite Sonny’s ostensibly leftist actions throughout: engaging in material redistribution of wealth, anti-cop sentiments, and queer identity — his personal ideological outlook is quite reactionary. A Vietnam veteran who makes his desire for a military funeral known, a Goldwater supporter, and virulent misogynist who acts abusively toward his intimate partners. When asked where he wants to flee after the heist, he joyfully states his intent to flee for the tropics, Algeria, every single one of them colonial lands spoken by colonial names. When a cutaway to his childhood home reveals not a scourge of poverty but instead the trappings of the middle class, a mother hysterically proclaiming “if he needed money he should’ve come to me”, it all starts to come into focus. Sonny is not the great emancipator, nor is he the true underclass — his alienation is an expression of agency, and his holdup histrionics a cynical performance. 

Dog Day Afternoon, while remarkably biting and humorous in moments, is a work created from a place of mourning. The radicalism of the 60s had come and gone, promising American emancipation, but what came of it? Abbie Hoffman bloviated in front of angered crowds, he became an outlaw figure, but at the end of the day he was still a middle class kid who wanted to role play guerrilla revolutionary. When the party was over, when the collateral damage made itself clear, it was those just like Sonny who made it out clean. And in the last moments of Dog Day, with a tasteful zoom and hold on Pacino’s pained face, the failure of the American revolutionary project makes itself clear. Those who needed it to succeed the most were the first ones to fall, and its failure will hold the gaze of survivors for decades to come, the suffering reverberating throughout the decades, finding new names with each cycle, but the players seem to remain the same. 

Blog Retrospectives

Lumet’s Serpico – An anti-policing polemic

Mild spoilers for Serpico below

            In Sidney Lumet’s Serpico (1973), the titular character is seen as the moral center of the film. A cop who ends up becoming entrenched in controversy among his colleagues for upholding the oath taken at the beginning of the film. The films of Sidney Lumet stress the recurring theme of the importance of ethics and morality in American society. Whether it be a fair jurisprudential system in 12 Angry Men (1957) or ethical journalism in Network (1976). All three of these Lumet films are connected through the integrity of the characters to uphold their responsibility to others to do the right thing. It is no more obvious of a motif however than in the true story of the rogue New York cop.

            At a vending machine in a subway station in Serpico,the phrase “God wants you in church often” is written in graffiti. Its prominence is shown by the framing of the expression taking up one-fifth of the screen. Vandalism is frowned upon in society, some may even call it “sinful”, but yet the usage of graffiti is contradictory in the sense that it encourages the reader to go to church. In a way, this play on morality mirrors Frank Serpico’s (Al Pacino) clashes with fellow law enforcement. NYPD officers in Serpico are supposed to be arbiters of “justice” but as shown throughout the film, most of the cops do not care much about what criminals do as long as the compensation is decent enough to look the other way. Serpico however, does not fall for it. “Don’t tell anybody I’m a cop” he tells his girlfriend, Leslie (Cornelia Sharpe) at a party, “Frank, let’s face it. Who can trust a cop who don’t take money?” Tom Keough (Jack Kehoe) asks Serpico. These negative attitudes are reflective of what the NYPD had become. Serpico however, strives to change that. The sense of dualism in the film is shown through the two worlds that Serpico lives in: one being the counter-cultural epicenter of Greenwich Village and the other, working on the force. Serpico is ridiculed by fellow officers for reading books on ballet and even accused of being gay for not falling in line with the hyper-masculine culture of the NYPD. Although, Serpico does not let these pressures from work interfere with his livelihood in Greenwich Village, at first at least. However, as time progresses the state of his employment also affects other things in Serpico’s life, most notably the relationship between his girlfriend, Laurie (Barbara Eda-Young). This creates a rift between these two worlds eventually leading to the police force becoming the exclusive focus of his life.      

Serpico is a grimy and dirty film that reflects the authenticity of the era that it was made. New York, looks like an urban hellscape, with many abandoned buildings and litter-filled streets. Two years later, Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon (1975) also gave a similar feeling of desperation to the Big Apple. Built into Lumet’s portrayal of New York, is the concept of “The American Dream” the emblematic belief “that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement.” (James Truslow Adams, 1931). Both Sonny Wortzik (Al Pacino) and Frank Serpico are products of the idyllic belief in this dream, however, they both are pushed to the brink of hopelessness in different ways. With Sonny robbing a bank and Frank nearly being shot and nearly killed by another cop. Two sides of the same coin, Sonny as the criminal and Frank as law enforcement. But, when organized crime is given a pass by the police, who is there to turn to for the unjust and unfair problems of these institutions? In the beginning, Serpico truly believes that he can fix the NYPD from the inside until, near the end of the film when he reaches the conclusion that “The whole fuckin’ system is corrupt!”. A poignant truth that rings true to law enforcement nearly fifty years later.