Léon Morin, Prêtre & Existentialism

Léon Morin, Prêtre (1961), even though not explicitly a noir film, displays a lot of the director’s influences about the perception of character and the misuse of someone’s position. The film seems so contradictory to itself and in the end resembles L’Année dernière à Marienbad (1961) in that nothing is definite. Whether the narrative is this or that, it does not change, completely uninterested and unaffected by what is applied to it. This is reflective of the noir convention of the blurred line between the good and the bad in that it adds to the confusion between the characters’ behaviours and their desires. Melville does not give us any directions to what the characters’ intentions are. He just allows us a peak into their lives for what seem like brief two-minute scenes, quickly changing from the office to the church to Barney’s daughter to Morin’s apartment and to Barney’s place. This style only adds to the anxiety and uncertainty that Barney experiences throughout the film.

This brings us to existentialism, which is tied to other film noir qualities like its distinct visual style, the presence of crime, the sense of nostalgia, and pessimism. “As a philosophical school of thought it has included both Christian and atheist, conservative and Marxist.” (Porfirio, 213) Melville used this dilemma of spiritualty and politics and placed it in the setting of a war, more specifically the German Occupation. Barney embodies this dilemma. Her questions about God and how one should live their life according to the teachings of Christ partly come from her communist identity and her experiences with Catholicism as a child. She unknowingly seeks those who share her feelings and doubts. She desires understanding. When Léon Morin tells her that God is an experimental, individual reality and therefore incommunicable she repeats the last word and says, “how awful.” The thought that God is never definite, which is reflected in the style of the film, only adds to her anxiety about existence.

She learns, however, a priest, Morin, sympathizes with these doubts. He shares some of her communist thoughts about the church. For example, he mentions that he does not believe that a man needs three priests to burry him. After all, priests are not morticians.

She took comfort in his apartment, a place that’s only defining features were the piano, the bookshelf, and his desk; a place that seems to breed isolation. “I felt more at home there than I ever had anywhere, in that parlor that looked like an abandoned laundry and whose floor shone like a mirror.”

As all her doubts and thoughts were shared with Morin, or at least understood, one thing was not, her sexual desire. The film starts out with her voice over telling the viewer about her infatuation with Sabine Levy who is higher in ranking than her at work. This infatuation later moves onto her coworker, later friend, Christine. This infatuation only lasts in three interactions between them and then quickly forgotten. First, Barney slaps Christine then Christine kisses her on the forehead then Barney caresses Christine’s cheek. As for the rest of the film, the attention is shifted onto Morin.

Traditionally, there is something duplicitous about a woman who is attracted to both men and women. In the case of Barney, she is considered almost ill. She is ill to the point where her attraction to women specifically is completely disregarded by the halfway mark of the film. As Morin says to her right after she tries to touch him, “its no longer mademoiselle Sabine. That’s progress.” At that point, she is considered sexually deviant as someone who masturbates with a stick, as she mentions to Morin, and as someone who seems to be attracted to anyone with superiority over her. Her attraction to woman is only a symptom to this illness. The world of the noir protagonist is “capable of any action, without regard to conventional morality, and this is as amoral . . . as his antagonists.” (Porfirio, 214) Worried about her place in the world, Barney’s morality concerns her. She considers herself a confused and sick woman for having these impure thoughts.

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What is different in this film than in American film noirs is Melville, with his fragmented narrative that seems to lack a beginning, middle, and end with the random order of scenes, managed to undermine these binary sexual identities. It did not matter who she liked. All that mattered was her stability and self-control. Except, there is still this awareness of gender in terms of authority. There is something telling about how Barney acts on her desires for Léon and not Sabine even though both actions are looked down on. He is a priest and Sabine is a woman. Even in the beginning of the film, Barney refers to Sabine as someone who reminds her of a young man. Note that Barney is her subordinate. However, that statement seems to imply that Sabine is somehow incomplete to Barney.

Léon is a complete male figure to her and seems to hold all the answers to all the questions she has. He makes her feel ashamed for her feelings and succeeds in converting her even though not for the right reasons. She does it out of shame and guilt. As he tells her in one scene, “if only you called to God as you call to a man.” However, we should note, there is a scene where an American soldier threatens her by not returning her daughter’s bag to her and says he will return it when she goes upstairs with him. She refuses to the point where she tells him to take her daughter’s bag. This shows that she does not submit to any kind of offer out there and that she does in fact have self-control.

Léon, however, is aware of his authority and power over Barney and seems to take advantage of his license, his license to touch her or even talk to her bluntly. He only has women come to his apartment for discussions on religion, which can be viewed as an exercise of power over women for him. It is fair to assume that is derived from his childhood, which he spoke of briefly in the film, where his mother beat him. He operates with barely any tact to the point where Léon can even be considered the femme fatale of the film. The last lingering shot of him standing there in the top of the stairs and then cut to Barney breaking down in the street shows his ever lasting and damaging effect on her.

FILM HOUSE: Colossal a social commentary

colossal1FILM HOUSE: Colossal a social commentary

I’ve a written a review for Colossal on The Standard. Check it out

Double Indemnity & Femme Fatales

It is an interesting lens to look through having watched weeks of Westerns and then switching to Film Noir. Specifically with a film like Double Identity and a femme fatale like Barbara Stanwyck’s Phyllis. Women in noir are such a contrast to women in Westerns. Even if they are treated less than, they are still central to the story and are a key characteristic without which the story would be nonexistent. Their actions matter unlike in Westerns. They are not treated like obstacles. They are not treated like they are in the way because they are the way. Western female characters were there to try to stop the male protagonists from going on the adventure, from being the hero like Laurie trying to convince Ethan in The Searchers to stay home and marry her.

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Of course this treatment of women in noir can be attributed to Modernism and how, at the time, people in the art world had become self-reflexive. This meant that Americanism started to be criticized. Its traditional standards and values that were once held so highly are now doubted for their unjustifiable consequences.

One difference I noticed is that Noir treats femininity like it matters and is as strong as masculinity. It is not a weakness like it can be depicted in Westerns. Whether it is a strength used for the good or bad is another discussion all on it’s own. However, it should be acknowledged that this was the first step to treating femininity as equal to masculinity in a way. It can twist a plot if not as much then more as an act of masculinity can. We see this right away in the beginning of Double Indemnity. Walter, an insurance salesman, just doing his job, drives to a house to discuss an auto-renewal with a man named Mr. Dietrichson. Once he enters the house though and sees Mrs. Dietrichson, a blonde young woman covered only with a bath towel, he forgets entirely about the auto-renewal and Mr. Dietrichson. He only has one thing in mind now and it is Phyllis Dietrichson and she realizes this power she has almost instantly once she sits with him. By just deciding to cross her legs and show off her tightly worn anklet, she has him under her influence. From then on, every action she makes, everything she says counts to get him to do what she wants, which is to kill her husband – the plot goal.

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There is something undeniably fascinating about how women are depicted in film noirs. Even when Walter annoyingly refers to Phyllis with pet names repeatedly like ‘baby,’ she is unfazed by it, even the audience, because we know that she ultimately has the power over him. She still affects him and what is around him even after her death and it is only with her feminine wiles that she does this, proving that she could do so much by just being stereotypically a woman. The only difference is she is not objectified for it, and she does not symbolize only that. She has a story and reasons. She is not there for someone to get back home to something waiting for him because she would not wait. She has her own needs and desires, whether it be money, or revenge. Interestingly enough these two things are masculine pursuits.

To conclude this, it seems that Hollywood, at the time of film noir, had gone from one extreme to the other. When at one time, it celebrated what American stood for and its “purity” and then at another time it criticized exactly with how fake it was. It showed it for what it was; a consumerist, sexist culture.

Easy Rider & What America is

There seems to be this never-ending debate on what can be considered American, and what would be considered a patriotic act. Can killing a man the John Wayne way be considered American, or dying for your country the Easy Rider way be considered American? Of course it is only American until it is no longer a dominant ideology and that is what Easy Rider strives for. It strives to show the many faults in the dominant ideology of American nationality, the ideology that was once held so sacred in the classical Western.

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With that in mind, Easy Rider can be considered a counter-Western for many reasons. Mainly, Westerns take pride in what they have accomplished and the obstacles they have overcome. Their approach is usually outward. There is never really any self-criticism. Easy Rider opposes that approach. It is inward. It is as much about the individual as it is about society. It is personal. It criticizes the “self-serving hypocrisy” (BFI, 40) that America seems to have built it’s nation on. It shows that it is not actually the land of the free, it is controlled and materialistic and therefore not liberated at all. We see this with Wyatt’s attempt in freeing himself from the materialistic concept that is time; he takes off his watch and throws it away on the side of the road.

Materialism is the classic tale of the American psycho. What can the average American man be driven to madness for, or even death, in the case of Easy Rider, when it is not for materialism? As Bill says in the end of the film, “You go for the big money, then you’re free,” they use America’s weapon for freedom but before you know it their weapon buys you a seat in their house where the never-ending journey to the American dream is. The money in the tank of Wyatt’s chopper with the American flag on it represents America, the land that promises liberation but instead offers the feeling of endless anticipation and those who are ‘different’ are obstacles in the way. This money is what distracts them; it is what forces them to keep on moving so they can stay in close reach for that ambivalent American dream. Something that clearly becomes symbolic of instant gratification, which means there is never really satisfaction, there will always be a search for more.

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From this, we can see how the film is political. It shows the repressed among the dominant. Unlike Westerns where the repressed is depicted as rightfully inferior, Easy Rider talks about fear within the repressed, justified fear because as we see the good guy never wins. Money always conquers. George Hanson is that man who does not fight with his appearance but fights with his words for the freedom of speech and individuality. His acceptance of those unlike him is what killed him. He understood that fear in America was a fear of that which is not controlled by the American man. With that, there is a realization in the film that some people’s ideals directly clash with the reality that is America, ideals that are harmless but somehow threatening. Some may argue that the travelling shots are unnecessarily long and lack information. I disagree. Easy Rider does not have to be literal and direct like a classical Western. These travelling shots are what freedom feels like and looks like, it exemplifies just the simplicity and harmlessness of what freedom is to those two.

Berlin: Symphony of a Great City & Subjectivity

Reading Kracauer’s negative review on Ruttmann’s Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (1927) and then David Macrae’s response to it made me question how we can determine if specificity, in a medium like film, exists.

Kracauer seems convinced that Ruttmann’s “rhythmic ‘montage’ reveals that he actually tends to avoid any comment on the reality with which he is faced,” that he made the film with a rather “surface approach.” Interestingly enough he used candid photography as an example and quoted Karl Freund when he was asked whether it is an art. To that he said, “It is the only type of photography that really is art. Why? Because with it one is able to portray life.”

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Macrae realizes that Kracauer regards “the viewer… as a hollow recipient of data emerging from the screen with no conception of the nature of medium, creator, or construction.” He argues that subjective is objective, that “the viewer’s processes of witnessing ‘formal qualities,’ ‘dynamic displays,’ ‘striking analogies’ between movements or forms’ exist as much in ‘reality’ as do the various component objects of their construction.

When I say that subjectivity is objective, i mean that I don’t think it’s ever realism for realism’s sake. It’s realism with a message in the end. And saying that poetics does not hold any realism is an argument against history. It’s insinuating that the arts had no part in revolutionary moments, that nina simone’s music did nothing for the civil rights movement.

It is usually with exaggeration that reality is understood. Like Bertolt Brecht said, “Less than at any time does a simple reproduction of reality tell anything about reality.”

Silk: Nine and a Half Weeks

Have you ever brought up a film and mentally compared it to a type of fabric? We do watch films with relateability in mind. We relate a feeling we get from a film to a feeling we have had before. A simple example of this can be how, for me, a non-lover of superhero/tent-pole movies, when watching a superhero movie I think of polyester, a safe, cheap and short-lived fabric.

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I mention this because of a specific film I have watched multiple times, Nine and a Half Weeks (1986), directed by Adrian Lyne and stars Kim Basinger and Mickey Rourke. I thought I’ve seen this film too many times to properly articulate what I think. The first time I saw it, it did more than take over my thoughts. It affected my movement. I treated every object with the same care Rourke gave Basinger. Everything felt like silk, delicate, a fabric that seems effortless however difficult to obtain. I think when you’re completely encapsulated by a film, the colour tones, the music, the shades of the places and clothes the characters wore, you can’t help but find some difficulty to completely shake off the film even after it’s finished.

Gender Roles in the X-Files

Television shows have the ability to bring up social and cultural issues as part of their content and as a result it generates discussion among their viewers. They are, after all, a unique vessel of information that reaches audiences at their most comfortable and intimate spaces, their homes. What makes them unique is that they are disguised in fictional narratives. With this in effect, audiences develop empathetic relationships with the characters they watch and therefore become encapsulated and drawn to the subject matter being discussed. This interest becomes a way of introducing the before and after of a television show in terms of what is being discussed. Many shows have been used to shed light on an issue that has not been looked at before or at least not from a certain perspective, shows like The Cosby Show and even The Twilight Zone’s The Shelter. What will be focused on in this essay, however, is The X-Files from the first season to the fifth. It is a show that has generated discussion around many topics, which can explain it’s massive fan-base. Devoted viewers have been motivated to question what is being questioned in the show. That includes the government and it’s intentions, and science and where it’s limitations are. However, what will be focused on in this essay is how The X-Files can be considered genderless. This does not mean that the show does not realize the issues that surround gender, but this awareness only happens when encountering temporary characters and storylines. It is within the main storyline and the relationship between the main characters that it is genderless. Both Mulder and Scully, the main two characters, have a blur with what would make them considered strictly feminine or strictly masculine. They are both FBI Agents and both have expert knowledge on separate fields. They are both capable of defending themselves and are extremely independent but are aware of their need for each other’s different capabilities.

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By examining both characters’ beliefs, their roles in their lives and jobs, and their romantic relationships, we will establish how uniquely different The X-Files is than other shows in terms of gender roles.

Historically, because of gender norms, we know that if Mulder were female and Scully were male, stereotypically it would make more sense. Mulder is the believer. He goes against the system, a system that would benefit him a lot as he is a white male, which will be touched on later in the essay. However, because of his distrust of the system, he is, what would be called, an alternative thinker. He relies on information that includes the word ‘unexplained’ a lot. He believes in the spiritual which means he believes in ghosts, and in supernatural and paranormal activities. With the idea that alternative thinking is usually regarded as frivolous, which can be considered a female quality, we see that Mulder possesses this quality and Scully does not. She is actually the complete opposite, a skeptic, one who questions everything. She needs evidence to believe, which is a more practical approach and practicality is usually associated with a man’s character. As she says in one episode explaining her involvement with the X-files,

Many of the things I have seen have challenged my faith and my belief in an ordered universe….. but this uncertainty has only strengthened my to need to know, to understand, to apply reason to those things which seem to defy it. (Bellon, 1999, p. 10)

Scully finds that the range of unexplained phenomena that offer up so many possibilities should only motivate her to find answers, rational answers. From this we can see that their motivations are different. She seeks the truth to understand while Mulder seeks it for more personal reasons, for the loss of his sister. He is regarded as sensitive, more so than Scully, because of his motives behind pursuing the X-Files. He acts on instinct with no justifiable reason behind it and he is driven by the victims’ situations because of how he sympathizes with them. Every step closer to the answer only motivates him more to knowing that all these years in the X-files and the defying against his superiors were not a waste. He has made every aspect of his job personal. These are all features usually assigned to women. They are known to be the most emotional and sensitive, except Scully is not like that. Unlike Mulder, Scully is capable of separating her job from her personal life. For example, when her father died, she did not see that as a reason to not continue with her work.

This leads us to the roles that they carry with their jobs and personal lives. As a way to understand how female and male employees’ work ethic can be perceived differently, “Soft Light” from season 2 is an ideal example to be used. Mulder refers to Scully’s female ex-student, who is trying to do a good job on her first case, as ambitious. Scully says, “Ambition? She is a woman trying to survive the boys’ club Mulder. Believe me, I know how she feels.” The fact that Mulder can go against authority and still be employed offers the audience some kind of understanding on what a man can do and a woman cannot. There is irony in that a white male only trusts those who lack authority like the Lone Gunman. He “seems to regard their lack of authority as a badge of honor.” (Bellon, 1999, p. 11) Scully, on the other hand, acts like a representative of authority as she does join the X-files in the beginning of the show because she was ordered to do so to report on Mulder’s findings. However, different they are, they depend on each other equally and realize each other’s capabilities and their knowledge. Mulder often asks Scully what she thinks about a certain case or autopsy she just performed. Which is another thing that was an interesting choice for Christ Carter, the creator of the show, to have the female detective as a medical doctor as well. A notable mention of her performing an autopsy is in the episode “Sleepless” in season two where Mulder’s new partner, Alex Kryzek, a man, is unable to participate in a conversation while standing by the autopsy table which Scully happens to be performing on. Another phrase that is commonly used in the show is when Scully asks Mulder where he is going. Even though she is a skeptic, she has respect for Mulder and his intentions. This shows how she counts on his intensive knowledge on the history of phenomena and the X-files. If we look at The X-Files as a finished show, we can see that to find the truth, there must be a balance with everything. Nothing can be exclusive; Mulder and Scully included therefore both genders included.

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Another aspect that makes The X-Files unique is that there is rarely any sexual or romantic content in it. We mainly see our main characters in their professional suits with the knowledge that their guns and FBI badges are on them. Motivations behind their actions are usually to do with the search for the truth, and their families/friends protection. This is quite unusual for a show to have no lasting love interests. They both have comically been infatuated with temporary characters but this would only start and end within one episode. Examples of this would be when Mulder became involved with a vampire in 3 and Scully became involved with a man haunted by his tattoo in Never Again. In terms of nudity, whenever they appeared shirtless which was rare, it was usually not sexual, it was more them being in captivity or finding them in the comfort of their own homes. There is even one episode called Humbug where they are investigating a murder at a circus. Scully is caught staring at one of the circus performer’s deformities but he is also caught staring at her exposed cleavage. This was a sort of commentary on staring and how all human beings do it, just differently. In short, they are both basically subject to the same kind of attractions to other characters and to the same kind of objectification. From that, we understand that they are treated the same.

In conclusion, by only examining the characters’ beliefs, how they operate so differently with their jobs and personal lives, but at the end treating each other equally and with respect, we see that the show is essentially genderless. A member of the David Duchovny Estrogen Brigades (DDEBs), three women-only electronic mailing lists named after the actor that played Mulder, described Scully as “the most intelligent, competent woman I had ever seen on a television show and her partner treated her as an equal.” (Bury, 2003, p. 223) We do see this equal treatment throughout the show. As a viewer, we never feel that Scully is treated less than or Mulder greater than. It would be difficult to find another show that only focuses on its main issues which is the cases it is set around and simply treats it’s characters like mere characters and nothing else, hence genderless. The X-Files, making the issues of gender seem almost trivial, is an example of how much simpler it would be and easier to get on to examine more important issues.