Groundhog Day

©2017, SPHE.

(L-R) Phil Connors (Bill Murray), Rita (Andie MacDowell), Debbie (Hynden Walch) and Fred (Michael Shannon) in GROUNDHOG DAY.


What makes a movie great is not what it is about, but how it is about it.
– Roger Ebert

Sometimes, a movie is so light of foot that its brilliance goes unnoticed.  A decade before LOST IN TRANSLATION, Bill Murray made his journey from sketch comedian to absurdist existentialist as the choleric weather reporter, Phil Connors, in Harold Ramis’ GROUNDHOG DAY.  The film is named for the annual rite in which the townspeople of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, gather to see if a groundhog will see its own shadow—forecasting a six-week extension of winter into March or, as we North Dakotans call it, Still Winter.

Diverted by a snowstorm, Phil, his segment producer Rita (Andie MacDowell) on whom he has a brewing crush, and camera operator, Larry (Chris Elliott), find themselves stranded in Punxsutawney for the day until roads are cleared.  The day passes, not without irritation for Phil who finds tolerating the local flavor an exercise in willpower—”rustic” is not a concept he embraces.  Morning arrives; the next day does not.  Phil inexplicably repeats February 2nd, again and again.

As in GHOSTBUSTERS, Murray and writer/director Ramis (who cameos as that kind of doctor who knows your vices better than you do) work exceptionally well together.  Instead of milking every scene for gags, or keeping others from believing Phil purely to fabricate tension, they execute an honest story at face-value, laying in setups and payoffs where they intrinsically belong: At the end of the second act, Phil exposes the doubts of a newly engaged couple, Debbie (Hynden Walch) and Fred (a young Michael Shannon)—you’ll see them again.  Ramis and Murray achieve a harmony of wit and wisdom that works so effortlessly on you, on us all, the phrase “Groundhog Day” in American vernacular has become a synonym for déjà vu.

Re-living the same day ad nauseam, Phil’s amassed knowledge serves his interests—at first mundane, then selfish, then prurient.  When he runs out of amusements, he turns to desperation.  Like a walk-through of Kübler-Ross’ Five Stages of Grief, GROUNDHOG DAY takes us through Phil’s denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance, epitomized in Phil’s repeated encounters with the dreadfully-cheery Ned Ryerson (Stephen Tobolowsky).  An insurance salesman, Ned’s one of those classmates we all know, who inconveniently resurfaces with an utterly transparent motive—Amway zombies come to mind.  Phil attempts to ignore, run, and even punch out Ned.  Ultimately, Phil’s solution lies in embracing his fears.

In the depths of despair over his inescapable predicament, Phil invests so much time trying to die he doesn’t immediately see the lesson.  After Phil tries everything to no avail, including the always macabre, occasionally funny toaster-in-the-tub trick, he takes to learning the piano.  That he gains the skill of at least a good lounge tinkler suggests to us he’s re-lived February 2nd more than a few hundred times.  Eventually he exhausts the possibilities and free of the fear of both being alive and stuck or dead and gone, he starts to collect seemingly meaningless bits of knowledge that accumulate into wisdom.

Having conquered death, and Ned, the parlor tricks Phil accomplishes with infinite knowledge seem infinitesimally trivial.  Soon, his interests turn to Rita and her charms—whatever they are.  Since SAY ANYTHING, I’ve thought attempts to mythologize Andie Macdowell misplaced at best.  In his Great Movies review, Roger Ebert concluded, “There is a moment when Phil tells Rita, ‘When you stand in the snow, you look like an angel.’ The point is not that he has come to love Rita. It is that he has learned to see the angel.”

But the real revelation lies elsewhere, in an unusually-gripping scene for a comedy.  From his repeated attempts to save a dying, homeless man, Phil learns the most difficult lesson about time: Sooner or later, it just runs out.  He stops trying to game the system and the people he sees as unwitting pawns relative to his omniscience.

By evening, at the big shindig, we discover that Phil has used his infinite knowledge of how and why things work to make people’s lives better, whether he’s improving the quality of life of a dying man or buying Wrestlemania tickets for newlyweds—remember Fred and Debbie?

Finally, Phil discovers the virtue in re-living same day is not that it is the same day.  It could be a different day, but to treat each day as though time were no object, one pursues goals that have no immediate payoff.  Time is the most valuable commodity we have, and happiness the most prized outcome when time is invested wisely.  Phil’s profound triumph isn’t that he’s learned to see the angel in Rita.  It’s that he’s learned to see the past, present, and future in each of us and, most crucially, in himself.

GROUNDHOG DAY is being re-released in limited theatrical engagement for its twenty-fifth anniversary.


Jessica Harper as Suzy Bannion in Dario Argento’s SUSPIRIA.

Admittedly, my knowledge and experience with Italian horror is weak.  So I begin my education here, with Dario Argento’s SUSPIRIA, brilliantly restored for its fortieth anniversary.  As one colleague points out, however, SUSPIRIA is straight Italian horror and not Giallo (Italian for “yellow”, so named for the inexpensive pulp stock that dimestore novels were printed on).  The former is a supernatural thriller whereas Giallo, a genre established by Mario Bava in 1967 with the visually sumptuous KILL, BABY… KILL, may invoke the spirit but leans heavily toward the murder-mystery elements of noir.

American ballerina Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper) travels to Freiburg, Germany, to study at the prestigious Tanz Academy.  From the moment she arrives, however, something feels amiss.  A girl rushes out the entrance, frightened out of her wits.  When Suzy rings the intercom, a voice answers abruptly telling her to go away.  The following morning, the headmistress, Miss Tanner (Alida Valli) and Directress Madame Blanc (Joan Bennett) explain that the girl simply disappeared.  Not so.  What follows is a descent into occult madness and terror that’s part ONIBABA, part BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS… You’d swear that the blind pianist, Daniel (Flavio Bucci), was Z-Man in the flesh.

Writer/director Dario Argento’s SUSPIRIA returns to screens in a new 4K restoration print that is among the best I have ever seen.  Co-written by Daria Nicolodi, shot by Luciano Tovoli and scored by prog-rock group Goblin, the story itself is the genesis of Argento’s induction into the annals of cinema legend.

There are two ways to unpack the narrative:  One is as a fairly bigoted wives’ tale against Romanians who figure prominently in the occult ongoings at the ominously crimson Tanz Academy (the film is an admixture of an account told to Nicolodi by her maternal grandmother and several excerpts from Thomas De Quincey’s Suspiria de Profundis).  Another is as allegory to the ways in which unscrupulous women oppress other women to maintain some semblance of power in a patriarchy.  However, a lost opportunity lies in the character of Professor Verdegast.   A Mengele type played by Renato Scarpa, undoubtedly the inspiration for Daniel Schreber in Proyas’ DARK CITY, Verdegast could have been the mastermind of a psychotropic experiment only disguised as occult hysteria—ideas recently, albeit tangentially, explored by Ben Wheatley’s HIGH-RISE and Panos Cosmatos’ BEYOND THE BLACK RAINBOW.

The most terrifying character of all is not, as you would suspect, Verdegast.   It is not even The Black Queen whose aura casts dread throughout the third act.  Rather, it is Tovoli’s dynamic use of lighting as diegesis.  Late in the first act, Suzy passes by one of the Romanian housekeepers/cooks inexplicably brandishing a sharp-edged glass prism.  Suddenly, Suzy becomes delirious and disoriented.  Cutting back to the housekeeper, the hallway is now awash in diffuse light and a strange mist.  Bathed in a color best described as “angry pink”, accompanied by the swell of Goblin’s score, the scene telegraphs an evil omnipresence.

The creeping paranoia and the excellent setups that make you suspect various players until the true story starts to unfold creates an unsettling feeling of dread, absent from American horror cinema which shifted quite a bit to gore and body horror for a good couple of decades until, probably, THE SIXTH SENSE… but even thereafter, what most filmmakers took from Shyamalan’s film was not the buildup of dread, but rather the mystery box and the twist, weakening the emphasis on narrative and suspense.

The colors are absolutely brilliant and the film looks exactly as it should have. The restoration of picture is true to the three-strip Technicolor process and color timing of the original.  The Technovision anamorphic aspect isn’t corrected or altered in any way… the optical barrel distortion toward the far left and far right of the frame (common for many anamorphic lenses outside of Panavision) adds to the disorienting mood.  True to the original, the oddly unbalanced 4 track re-acquaints us with the ungodly loud score and looped dialogue with no modification.

Having inspired so many other horror films, SUSPIRIA is terrifying in ways many American horror films simply aren’t. The score, by Goblin, isn’t used to punch up the film’s few jump scares. Instead, the wailing, screeching and bells, casts an aura of horror over each buildup, punctuated by silence when the evil actually strikes.

The creeping paranoia and the excellent setups that make you suspect various players, until the true story starts to unfold, creates an unsettling feeling of dread absent from American horror cinema which shifted quite a bit to gore and body horror for a good couple of decades until, probably, THE SIXTH SENSE… but even thereafter, what most filmmakers took from Shyamalan’s film was not the buildup of dread, but rather the mystery box and the twist, diminishing the emphasis on narrative and suspense. The closest I’ve seen in recent memory is probably THE BABADOOK, borrowing from Argento as much as it borrows from Kanedo Shindo.

Overall, SUSPIRIA ranks as my favorite 4K restoration from Kino Lorber, bringing back to the screen (this week at the Landmark Inwood in  Dallas) in pristine form one of the most harrowing horror films ever produced.

RoboCop (1987)

(L-R) Nancy Allen as as Officer Ann Lewis and Peter Weller as Murphy in MGM/Orion Pictures’ ROBOCOP.

Metro police officer Frank Fredrickson identifies criminal mastermind, Clarence Boddicker (Kurtwood Smith), who orchestrated the killings of three other officers.  In response, the police force in Detroit is being privatized by conglomerate Omni Consumer Products.  The police union reacts, threatening a strike.

OCP wants to commoditize law enforcement purely so they can gentrify urban areas.  Of course, they will assume the commercial real estate development as well.  Sound familiar?

This is the backdrop of Paul Verhoeven’s shrewd satire disguised as action/sci-fi.

“209 is currently programmed for urban pacification, but that is only the beginning,” says OCP President Dick Jones (Ronny Cox).

ED-209, a heavily-armed robot resembling a cross between a minotaur and a helicopter, is a visual gag of comical genius from effects supervisor Rob Bottin, bookended by a cleverly poetic reference to Theseus with a staircase standing in for the labyrinth.  Filmed in stop-motion, the sentry’s hulking mass moves clumsily, like a Harryhausen miniature in CLASH OF THE TITANS.  ED is unveiled in one of those corporate demos that takes place in a sprawling, ornate boardroom larger than you’ll ever see in any Fortune 500 company.  There’s also an entire wall of monitors directly behind a podium, oddly placed perpendicular to the backs of half of the Board.

Granted, neither the podium nor the monitors serve any explicit purpose in the presentation, except as aesthetic embodiments of corporate excess—and a stretch of a setup for the film’s denouement.  This is Verhoeven’s reductive genius at work, part of a weapons demonstration that: a. Should never take place in any office setting, ever.  b. Does a better job of satirizing presentations gone awry than would a Q&A with PowerPoint slides.

“You call this a GLITCH?” barks the Chairman of the Board (Dan O’Herlihy turning a mean streak completely opposite his jolly alien Grigg from THE LAST STARFIGHTER), right before hearing out Vice President Bob Morton’s (Miguel Ferrer) proposal to temper the program with a cybernetic mind—ideally recruited from the best officers Detroit PD has to offer.

Enter Alex Murphy (Peter Weller).  Assigned to Metro PD South precinct, Murphy is paired with Officer Ann Lewis (De Palma favorite Nancy Allen; DRESSED TO KILL, BLOW OUT).  Eventually, Murphy and Lewis are cornered in a steel mill (the ideal location to dispose of bodies, according to Apple’s Siri™).  To Verhoeven’s credit, Lewis never falls for RoboCop.  She’s her own woman and an equal partner aligned with Murphy’s relentless pursuit of justice.

Riddled by bullets from Boddicker’s gang, Murphy is airlifted to a hospital where OCP reconstructs him into a cyborg.  In one draft of the story, Murphy was to retain some of his flesh but Verhoeven instead chose, wisely, to conceal his humanity behind a cowl, like Batman.  Only Peter Weller’s prettyboy lips remain, droning mindlessly in monotone until the climactic return to the gangsters’ steel mill hideout where the reveal of his humanity is so meticulously and deliberately mirrored on Yul Brynner’s striking gaze as the Gunslinger in WESTWORLD.

Weller reportedly studied ballet to inform the way RoboCop moved—unlike C3PO, he emulated the graceful and fluid movements of, rather appropriately, an industrial robot from an automotive plant.  While many sequences in the film are too tightly shot to appreciate Weller’s physicality, you can see these influences in the wider-angle cinematography of Boddicker’s takedown at a cocaine distribution center run by the local drug lord, Sal.  Rather than the conventional narcotics slime-ball, Sal is played by the venerable character actor Lee de Broux, whose credits span television (Mannix, Baretta) and film (CHINATOWN).  He resembles Robert Duvall, as if Tom Hagen had left Staten Island to branch into his own criminal enterprise.

Writer Edward Neumeier and Director of Photogaphy Jost Vacano worked together on Verhoeven’s Riefenstahl-meets-Republicans pastiche, STARSHIP TROOPERS.  The result: A scathing social commentary loaded with layers of metaphor not immediately recognizable to my twelve-year old self, I’ve been digesting thirty years hence.

“Madam, you have suffered an emotional shock.  I will notify a rape crisis center,” says RoboCop to a sexual assault victim he rescued with his “Big Fuckin’ Gun” (A Beretta M93R dressed to look like a coffin).  Aside from the obvious poetry of RoboCop’s shiny metal ass facing the camera under a smug OCP Billboard touting its Delta City project (“The future has a silver lining”), the deeper subtext here is a commentary on privatization.  Displaying no emotion or concern, RoboCop’s utterance carries the blithe tone of a faceless customer service representative’s apology for “inconveniencing” one of Corporation XYZ’s millions of customers.

As with Bob Gale and Bob Zemeckis’ BACK TO THE FUTURE, Verhoeven’s sociopolitical introspection is everywhere, especially in the Reagan-era ads for everything from brand-name artificial hearts (“By Jensen! Yamaha! You pick the heart!”) to belligerently large sedans with horrible gas mileage (the 6000 SUX, or, as my wife points out, presciently one letter away from “SUV”), and 30 second soundbite-driven news.  Executives live in high-tech mansions while homeless men wander the streets and there’s seemingly no middle ground.  Incidentally, the heedlessness and hedonism of the upper class would have its comeuppance six months after ROBOCOP’s release, culminating in Black Monday—the largest single-day decline in the stock market since the Crash of 1929.  Nonetheless, the catastrophe trickled down to us all.

Basil Poledouris’ score punctuates this cynical burlesque with clank and bombast reminiscent of his Anvil of Crom from CONAN: THE BARBARIAN.  Like Milius’ and Howard’s titular hero, RoboCop has a code of honor, in the form of three Prime Directives:  1. Serve the public trust.  2. Protect the innocent.  3. Uphold the law.  Murphy becomes the property of OCP brainwashed by a set of rules that serve his corporate masters. Not himself.  In a theme common to Verhoeven’s fictions (TOTAL RECALL, STARSHIP TROOPERS), the protagonist wrests himself away from external ideology in deference to his own innate understanding of right and wrong.

Theseus conquers the minotaur.

ROBOCOP is currently in limited re-release for its thirtieth anniversary.

Blade Runner: The Final Cut

© Warner Bros. Pictures

© Warner Bros. Pictures

What makes us human?  Adapted by Hampton Fancher and David Peoples from Phillip K. Dick’s novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?,  Ridley Scott’s BLADE RUNNER (originally released in 1982; now in its fourth incarnation) explores this question through the story of Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), a police officer who “retires” synthetically engineered beings called Replicants.  Four Nexus-6 Replicants have escaped from an off-world colony, where their kind are used as disposable labor in harsh conditions unsuitable to humans.  Zhora (Joanna Cassidy), Leon (Brion James) and Pris (Darryl Hannah) are led by the calculating Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer).  Either the studio did not afford Scott the time, or he didn’t care enough to show us, so everything I’ve just described is relayed in an expository opening crawl.

Saturated with images establishing the decrepit future of Los Angeles, 2019, Scott’s picture revels in postwar dystopian slang, a crumbling world wrought by specific oppression rather than benign negligence—the dilapidated Bradbury, impoverished Asian-American commoners muttering Esperanto or the like, and off in the distance, gleaming pyramids representing the monolithic Tyrell Corp, manufacturers of the Replicants—all suffocated in smoggy, diffuse light flashing through window shades as if we didn’t already know from the hammy Hammett dialogue that this a film noir.

Deckard uses a standardized psychological test, called the Voight-Kampff, to profile suspected Replicants and identify them on the basis of their lack of memories or normal emotional responses to provocation.  Invited to meet the founder, Mr. Tyrell (Joe Turkel), Deckard’s asked to administer the test to Rachel (Sean Young), a next-generation Replicant with memories implanted in the hope of fostering better emotional stability and human interaction.  Replicants have been given a four-year lifespan to prevent stunted emotions—a consequence of not having memories.  Rachel has both memories and a limited lifespan, and she shows up in an alley precisely when Deckard needs her to, but never mind.

The only characterizations that work for me are Cassidy’s Zhora and Hauer’s Batty.  Zhora, an assassin from a “kick murder squad” (whatever the hell that is), survives as a dancer in a seedy bar run by a stereotypically loathsome owner, Taffey Lewis (Hy Pike).  Zhora’s intensity and desperation followed by her public execution gains our empathy; did Deckard really have to kill her if she was going to die anyway?

If I were to ask anyone what defines the characters of Rachel or Pris, they might answer, “shoulder pads and cartwheels”.  All the detail is focused on how these women look—window dressing without the window.  Only Rutger Hauer is afforded the opportunity to chew scenery, figuratively and literally as he bashes his head through a wall and takes a nail through his palm.  Can Christ metaphors be any more sophomoric than that?

Scott’s story makes less sense than its individual images.  He attempts to connect the world visually through Mayan and Egyptian architectural motifs, occasionally stumbling his way into beautiful static triumphs of set and costume design, yet never connects them into a whole as Deckard trundles about the city hunting down the four Replicants.  A descendant of BLADE RUNNER, Alex Proyas’ sci-noir, DARK CITY, at least followed through with the question it begged about the core of humanity and the seemingly constructed nature of its contiguous world drowned in perpetual darkness.  Deckard (which my computer, apropos, keeps auto-correcting to “dickered”) is too busy chasing Replicants.

BLADE RUNNER doesn’t engage you directly; it forces passivity on you.  It sets you down in this lopsided maze of a city, with its post-human feeling, and keeps you persuaded that something bad is about to happen.   Some of the scenes seem to have six subtexts but no text, and no context either.  – Pauline Kael

Like Nolan’s INCEPTION and Kubrick’s 2001, Scott’s works are really shallow, action set pieces masquerading as profound science fiction.  His films are themed, generally, in simplistic terms for broad consumption: David vs. Goliath, man vs. industry, good vs. evil, us vs. them.  Only in subsequent re-edits did Scott reverse engineer the character study, but in the wrong direction.  The Director’s Cut and Final Cut versions of the film show Deckard dreaming of unicorns.  Later, his sidekick Gaff (Edward James Olmos) leaves an origami unicorn at Deckard’s doorstep, implying that the dream or memory is implanted.  Various writers including Frank Darabont, have argued that the change, and Scott’s concrete confirmation in interviews, undermines the film’s morality.  As a human, it’s transformational for Deckard to gain empathy for Roy who ultimately accepts his own fate in a stunning, existential soliloquy that Hauer crafted on set.  As a Replicant, Deckard’s just looking out for his own kind.  It upends the entire meaning of the story, not that there’s a coherent one to begin with.

BLADE RUNNER is excessively praised for its visuals as well as its score by Vangelis, shallow compared to the Maestro’s other compositions and riffing heavily off the mood pieces in his homage to film noir, The Friends of Mr. Cairo, released a year earlier.  As much I am a fan of Vangelis’ work, I agree with Kael that, like his accompaniment of Scott’s dreadful 1492: CONQUEST OF PARADISE, the electro-orchestral score overwhelms the imagery and dialogue, or perhaps Scott isn’t skilled enough to keep up with Vangelis’ grandiosity.  I don’t know if that’s a compliment or an insult.


BLADE RUNNER: THE FINAL CUT is playing in a limited run at the Texas Theater.

The Breakfast Club

@1985, Universal Pictures.

@1985, Universal Pictures.

 Richard Vernon: You think about this: when you get old, these kids – when I get old – they’re going to be running the country.
Carl: Yeah.
Richard Vernon: Now this is the thought that wakes me up in the middle of the night. That when I get older, these kids are going to take care of me.
Carl: I wouldn’t count on it.

The Breakfast Club is perhaps John Hughes’ most coherent vision.  It focuses narrowly on one premise: five students from different cliques in an affluent suburban high school spend a Saturday in detention.  Their revelation is summarized in a letter written to address their detention supervisor, Richard Vernon’s (Paul Gleason) question: Who do you think you are?  The evolved response bookends the film.

If Hughes’ directorial debut, Sixteen Candles, was a muddled effort featuring the most nauseating racial stereotype since Mickey Rooney’s Mr. Yunioshi (Breakfast at Tiffany’s), this picture benefits from remaining narrowly focused on the universality of the five archetypes as laid out by the film’s protagonist, Brian (Anthony Michael Hall),  “A brain, and an athlete, and a basket case, a princess and a criminal.”

Hughes was a generation removed from the problems of children of the 80’s.  Quoted in the title card, Bowie’s “Changes” was released in 1971.  My brother, who graduated Class of 1985, would have been four years old; Hughes had by that time dropped out of University of Arizona to work as a copywriter.  In retrospect, I’m not sure if Hughes “got” us or avoided the specifics of our experiences so deftly, working like Michael Mann around the edges to create a look and feel that we, in turn, emulated:  I went to school with a carbon copy of John Bender—flannel, jeans, unlaced boots and all.  Years later, I married my girlfriend from Canada.  Addendum: The truth is that Hughes went through numerous script revisions and relied a lot on the actors’ sensibilities to imbue the story with topical pop culture.

Enter Claire Standish (Molly Ringwald), clearly a descendant of Cpt. Myles Standish of the Plymouth Colony.  Hers seems the most conscientiously-engineered image in the film.  Consider, if you will, the Jeopardy-like theme of her family’s sense of style: Burberry, BMW, Bento.  (What are “Things That Begin With the Letter ‘b’?”).

Prior to Hughes’ work, the teen comedies of the 1970’s, like Porky’s and Animal House, banked on slapstick and softcore rather than meaningful dialogues.  Ignore for a moment the glaring consent issues rampant in Sixteen Candles, intensely unsettling to watch after the first time you notice them.  Universal Pictures supposedly pressed Hughes to do the bankable thing and work nudity into the movie.  Over-emphasizing Molly Ringwald to the detriment of the other characters’ development was perhaps the concession: if they couldn’t have another Haviland Morris body double to finance the picture, by god they would at least have Ms. Ringwald dancing spastically in slouch boots to hip 45’s that somehow found their way into the office of a man who raids Barry Manilow’s wardrobe.  Sidenote: That I never noticed the RIDGID calendar on Vernon’s wall until now tells you I’ve hit middle age with a resounding thud.

One by one, we learn that Allison Reynolds (Ally Sheedy) is an attention-seeking kleptomaniac, Brian Johnson (Hall) is a suicidal flare gun-wielding academe who can’t make an elephant lamp to save his life, John Bender is Judd Nelson, and Andrew Clark (Emilio Estevez) can get high and tape everybody’s buns together.  Like Lumet’s 12 Angry Men, the film is a tight ensemble stage play but operates more free-form: Lumet and his cinematographer, Boris Kaufman, sequentially changed focal lengths so the jury room looks smaller and smaller as the drama progresses.  Club isn’t a morality play, it’s a character study of faultless children and the parental transgressions under which they’ve incubated.

While Andrew’s mind is still stuck in the microeconomics of weekend parties, Bender breaks the ice first asking Claire whether she prefers her father or mother.  This scene is preceded by a dialogue in which he pretends to give not one shit about the works of Molière, mispronouncing the author’s name almost too deliberately, but then he establishes that he’s smarter than he looks:  Molière’s most famous work, Tartuffe, is about a pious fraud who turns out to be a criminal.  The joke isn’t merely that Bender then turns his energy to proving Claire isn’t the virgin she claims to be—she is.  The joke is that Bender is a criminal fraud who turns out to be pious, albeit deeply wounded by an abusive father.  His internalized anger froths to the top at exactly the midpoint of the film.  Pay close attention to Molly Ringwald’s acting masterclass as her lip curls are positively correlated with the burgeoning cracks in Bender’s armor.

Andrew: Parents?
Allison: Yeah.
Andrew: What’d they do to you?
Allison: They ignore me.

Aside from the confusing message sent by Allison’s makeover, an unnecessary element, the Andrew-Allison dichotomy is that his parents have an image of who they want him to be, and Allison’s parents are too self-involved to care who she wants to be.  He’s in detention because he was trying to impress his father with a fratboy prank.  She’s desperate for attention but couldn’t get it from her parents if she set herself on fire.   We don’t ever meet Allison’s parents, so we’re just as lost about their role in her life as she is.

Despite this, Allison is the worldly center of the film.  Even though she’s completely bullshitting Claire about her sexual exploits, her take on relationships and human dynamics in general is mysteriously a decade or two ahead of that of her peers.  Clearly a latchkey kid, Allison’s conclusions are a matter of necessity.

The second act connects to the third in the filing room.  Note the change in expression on Vernon’s face when he realizes that Carl’s observation is spot-on: The entire reason Vernon began teaching twenty-two years ago has become completely lost on himself.  The curtains pull back with the coerced admission from Claire, and Andrew’s observation in response, “We’re all pretty bizarre.  Some of us are just better at hiding it, that’s all.”   It’s been said that the Larry Lester story was ad-libbed by Estevez.  Given the history of his acting family, their successes and failures, it’s a feat of courage on Emilio’s part to take on the role of Andrew.  After rounding out their stories, he contemplates, “My god, are we gonna be like our parents?”

Apropos, Anthony Michael Hall grew up to play Bill Gates in the televised film Pirates of Silicon Valley, but in 1985 the geek was still outcast.  He is obviously Hughes’ favorite character and the one to whom the geek in Hughes relates most closely. I don’t have many upbeat stories about my connection to Brian, and it’s not my intention to overemphasize his role in the film, but I’ll give you two relevant ones.

The first story takes place in eighth grade:  What happens when you throw a paper airplane in study hall?  The teacher demands a 250 word essay on airplanes.  What happens when that assignment is given to an aviation geek?  The teacher gets back a one thousand word essay on the history of aviation dating back to the Montgolfier brothers first manned balloon flight in 1783.

The second story: A couple of years after I graduated the hell that was high school, I happened upon a classmate who we could describe as a popular cheerleader.  She was a sweetheart, always kind to me and everybody else.  I was studying in college and she was a single mother at 22, working two minimum wage jobs to make ends meet.  The central lesson of The Breakfast Club is that we enter into this world through a set of circumstances that aren’t entirely of our own doing, trying to figure out who we are while others try to define us.   We each think the other is more put together than we are.  Our problems are relative to our immediate circumstances.

Social media today has put an interesting lens on the never-ending exercise of forging your own identity, or “building your brand” as the charlatan self-help gurus like to call it.  At thirty, you’re still improvising and learning.  At forty, you’re the same vehicle you were at 15 only the warranty has expired and you wind up in the shop more often.

“Maybe you’ll learn a little something about yourself,” says Vernon.  I like the way the film compartmentalizes the characters’ ideas of themselves.  When Vernon interacts with the kids, his patter suggests a wannabe drill sergeant.  He sees himself as the wise leader they will never be.  But when schmoozing with Carl the janitor (John Kapelos, probably the most versatile in Hughes’ teen comedy pantheon of actors), Vernon appears immature.  It’s the cleverness of Hughes’ writing and Gleason’s acting that Vernon is often mistaken for the school’s principal—like many teachers conveying more authority in the teenager’s narrow world than they actually inhabit among the rest of us grown adults.

To every Brian, Claire, Andrew, John and Allison, past, present and future, know this: Nobody can tell you who you are but you.  In this life in which we’re all winging it, trying to figure out who we are, Mr. Vernon somehow stumbled his way into a position of minuscule, inconsequential authority.  What keeps him up at night is not the thought that these kids will some day be running the world he retires in.  What keeps him up at night is that he’s just a taller, older version of them.  But unlike them, he’s still stuck in that god forsaken high school thirty years later.

For its thirtieth anniversary, The Breakfast Club is being theatrically re-released on March 26 in select theaters nationwide.

RESERVOIR DOGS: The Power of its Homoerotic Subtext 20 Years Later

Author’s note: the content of this editorial contains numerous “spoilers”.

“Gay subtext always makes every movie better.” – Quentin Tarantino

The brilliance of Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs is exemplified by the profound and intimate relationship portrayed between “Mr. Orange” (aka Freddy Newendyke) and “Mr. White” (aka Larry Dimmick). Through the lens of their interactions, the film explores our cultural perception of masculinity and how male sexuality is intimately entwined with violence. In fact, violence becomes the vehicle that gives these two characters permission to be physically and emotionally demonstrative with each other in a way that our machismo-obsessed culture wouldn’t otherwise allow. The ultimate irony is that violence permits them to explore their (sublimated) feminine impulses and/or homoerotic urges.

The narrative possesses a play-like structure that intermittently deviates from the “stage” of an abandoned warehouse to enhance the complexity of its various characters in the form of flashbacks. Through these flashbacks, it is established that the events of the film span over the course of a few weeks, from the time of Mr. Orange’s acceptance into crime boss Joe Cabot’s fold, to the powerful and tragic denouement after the botched heist. In that short span of time, Mr. White and Mr. Orange form a connection so powerful that in order to preserve it, one man betrays his long-time friend and business partner, and the other tells a secret so devastating it will mean his certain death, even when salvation is mere moments away.

Mr. White winks at Mr. Orange.

The film opens during an extended dialogue scene involving the main players: Mr. White, Mr. Orange, Mr. Brown, Mr. Blue, Mr. Pink, Mr. Blonde, Joe Cabot and his son/heir-apparent, Nice Guy Eddie. The obvious pseudonyms are names given by Cabot to maintain plausible deniability among his for-hire thieves in the event that their jewelry heist doesn’t go as planned.

Already Mr. Orange and Mr. White’s closeness is represented by their physical proximity; throughout the scene they lean towards each other, exchange amused glances, and take turns draping an arm over the back of the other’s chair. Perhaps the most blatant moment comes when Mr. White turns and winks at Mr. Orange before saying something particularly cheeky to Joe Cabot. It’s full of playfulness and bravado, and emphasises Mr. White’s fondness for Mr. Orange, as well as a need to gain his approval.

Mr. White begins to lose his composure.

After the title card sequence, we’re thrust into a moment of crisis. Mr. Orange is shot, bleeding out onto the back seat of a car, while Mr. White frantically drives them to the rendezvous point. White is clutching his hand, coaxing Orange through his excruciating pain with words of encouragement. He makes Orange repeat his words like a mantra, as if the act itself will somehow be the man’s salvation. White then repeats “correct!”, almost to himself, and his voice cracks with emotion. He is on the verge of tears, but reins it back in. In his mind, he is Orange’s protector and he must not show any weakness, yet it is obvious that he is devastated by the other man’s injury.

Mr. White wipes away tears as he cares for Mr. Orange.

Orange is an incoherent dead-weight in White’s arms as they enter the mortuary/warehouse. White tenderly lays him down on a service ramp and carefully undoes Orange’s fly to release pressure on his bullet wound. At this point, Orange is referring to him by his Christian name, “Larry”, thus demonstrating that at some point, one or both men broke Cabot’s firm rule of anonymity. Orange begs White to hold him, and White obliges, aligning his body next to the injured man’s, cradling his head on his arm. He gently combs Orange’s hair, wipes his brow.

Mr. White whispers to Mr. Orange.

Then, in perhaps the most intimate moment of the entire film, White leans down and whispers something in Orange’s ear. We, the audience, are not made privy to the words he says; only Orange’s giggling reaction. In truth, what White says to him is unimportant. What matters is that we weren’t meant to know; it is a secret that belongs to these two men alone.

At this point, Mr. Pink arrives at the rendezvous, rattled and declaring that the heist was a set-up from the beginning. White takes him into a side room (much to Orange’s protestation), where the two have a conversation about the events that transpired at the diamond wholesalers, dissecting how and why the police evidently knew they were going to be there. White reluctantly admits that the signs point to a rat; he tells a story about how an undercover cop had infiltrated the ranks of a job he’d recently worked on. It is apparent that both he and Pink view police with hatred and disdain, even classifying them as sub-human.

Mr. White reflects about Alabama with Joe Cabot.

In a flashback sequence, we are given a quick glimpse of Mr. White and Joe Cabot before the heist. It is the single most revealing sequence in terms of establishing Mr. White’s character and motivation in the entire film. Not only are we made aware of his long-standing professional history with Cabot, but also the near-familial nature of their relationship (White calls him “papa”, Cabot affectionately returns with “junior”).

In the course of their conversation, Cabot asks after Alabama, a former partner-in-crime and flame of White’s. White reveals that he and Alabama broke it off: “you push that man/woman thing too long and it gets to you after a while.” Put in simplest terms, White reveals that he has trouble maintaining a clear separation between his personal and professional lives. He becomes too emotionally attached; it is a weakness he recognized in himself, which is why he severed ties with Alabama. Once that attachment forms, all his other allegiances become blurred.

Flash-forward to the warehouse. Pink and White heatedly debate what to do with Orange; Pink argues that Cabot will likely wash his hands of the situation, leaving them on their own. White discloses that Orange had begged to be taken to the hospital, willing to risk jail in order to get medical attention. Pink agrees that it’s his choice to make, as the rest of them won’t be implicated if Orange doesn’t know any of their personal information. This is when White ruefully admits that he told Orange where he was from (“in natural conversation”) and his first name.

Pink balks at this, demanding to know why White would make such a hot-headed blunder. White becomes enraged and defensive, arguing that Orange was his responsibility, and he wasn’t going to deny a dying man the knowledge of his name. Pink shuts him down (“I’m sure it was a beautiful scene”), declaring that they can’t risk a trip to the hospital; White has essentially doomed Orange by sharing too much sensitive information with him. White loses his mind, punching and kicking Pink to the ground. He is obviously emotionally compromised.

Mr. White loses his composure while discussing Mr. Orange with Mr. Pink.

Events unfold to reveal that the rat is none other than Mr. Orange, an undercover LAPD cop. White isn’t present when the audience is made aware of the revelation. We are treated to a flashback; Mr. Orange, aka Detective Freddy Newendyke, meeting with his superior at a diner. He explains that Joe Cabot wants to talk to him about doing a high-risk job; a diamond heist with five other men.

Freddy expresses fondness for the LAPD’s informant, Long Beach Mike, who put in a good word for him with Cabot. Like White, Freddy has difficulty compartmentalizing. With this off-hand comment, we are made aware of his tendency to humanize the men he’s been sent in to bring down. He is the type of cop that gets in too deep when he goes undercover; he is at high risk of “going native”.

In a subsequent scene, Freddy (Mr. Orange) is waiting to catch a ride with Nice Guy Eddie, White, and Pink to a pre-heist meeting held by Joe Cabot. As part of his preparation (which involves a motivational speech to himself in the mirror), we see him pull a prop wedding ring from its hiding place in a jar of change. What Freddy is attempting to add to the fake persona of “Mr. Orange” with this wedding ring is a point hotly debated by film aficionados. In my opinion, it acts as an emotional barrier between him and the other men. The ring signals that he is domesticated, settled, unavailable. It gives him the illusion of responsibility to counter his youthful appearance and habits. (In the words of The Departed’s Captain Ellerby: “Marriage is an important part of getting ahead. It lets people know you’re not a homo. A married guy seems more stable.”) It is a detail that undoubtedly gets noticed by Mr. White.

Mr. White and Mr. Orange relax together while casing Katrina’s Diamond Wholesalers.

The pre-heist casing scene involving Orange and White together in White’s idling car is very interesting. The two men are relaxed, at-ease; dressed in everyday clothing. White is quizzing Orange on the details of the job, and casually points to a woman crossing the street in front of them, asking: “that girl’s ass?”

What was he attempting to glean from Orange with this flippant question? Orange’s immediate and hyper-heterosexual response (“sitting right here on my dick”) elicits a sharp and almost surprised bark of laughter from White. He’s learned two things: Orange was quick to establish his masculinity, and inadvertently revealed that perhaps he isn’t the type to remain faithful to his (supposed) wife.

White then goes into “old hand” mode, describing in detail which violent acts can be utilized with greatest efficacy if they are met with resistance during the hold-up. Orange listens with a mix of awe and disgust; it is apparent he is starting to like White, against all better judgment.

Detective Newendyke (aka Mr. Orange) is conflicted as he watches Mr. White shoot the police.

Orange’s escalating inner-conflict about his feelings for White is brought to a head in the post-heist getaway scene. Their driver, Mr. Brown, has suffered a gunshot wound to the head, crashing their car. Orange and White get out of the vehicle, only to be boxed in by an approaching squad car. White positions himself in front of Orange and shoots at the officers behind the windshield, killing them. He is ignorant of the expression of sorrow and desperation on Orange’s face.

Mr. White throws a protective arm around Mr. Orange as they leave the crime scene.

If Detective Freddy Newendyke had been uncompromised, he would have shot White while his back was turned to him, commandeered a vehicle to the rendezvous point, and told the rest of Cabot’s thieves that White had been killed by the police. None of them would have been the wiser; Mr. Brown was already dead and wouldn’t have contradicted his story.

Instead, Orange allows White to shoot his colleagues and lead him away from the scene (hand held protectively against his back). They try to strong-arm a random civilian out of her vehicle, but she unexpectedly draws a weapon from her glove compartment and shoots. Orange is hit in the gut; he fires back without thinking, killing her instantly. In that moment, the cop has completely lost himself to his undercover persona. He’s now no better than the men he led into a trap.

Mr. White threatens his long-time friend Joe Cabot to protect Mr. Orange.

Fast-forward to the warehouse. Orange knows that the LAPD is waiting for the boss, Joe Cabot, to arrive before they move in from where they are waiting a few blocks away. When Cabot does finally make his entrance it is with accusations; he knows that Orange is the rat, the one that tipped off the LAPD to the heist. Orange is almost delirious with blood loss and pain, but he maintains his innocence.

White is aghast at Cabot’s claims. He refuses to believe the man he’s come to care so deeply for is a cop. He demands proof from Cabot, who replies: “with instinct, you don’t need proof.” White draws his weapon on Cabot, his old friend and business associate, and threatens: “Joe, if you kill that man, you die next. Repeat: you kill him, you die next.” In one moment, he’s thrown years of loyalty and allegiance into the wind for a young man he’s only known for a few weeks. Cabot fires, hitting Orange. White shoots back, killing both Cabot and his son Eddie, but not before taking a few bullets himself.

Mr. White pulls himself over to Mr. Orange, cradling the other man in his arms.

In the gutwrenching final scene, White pulls himself, bloody and moaning with pain, over to where Orange is lying. Both men are drenched in blood, wheezing through their injuries. White lifts Orange’s head and tenderly places it in his lap, caressing his face. Orange reaches up, enveloping White with his arms. Their faces are inches from each other as they form a perfect Pietà.

Sirens blare in the background; Orange knows that his salvation has arrived. White looks down at him, resigned: “I’m sorry kid, it looks like we’re gonna do a bit of time.” Unspoken is the word “together”. (Aside: if Orange hadn’t signalled his unavailability with the wedding ring, I am positive that White would have asked him to replace Alabama as his new partner. His emotional attachment to Orange was that intense.)

Still holding Mr. White, Mr. Orange reveals his true identity.

Up to this point, it has been a matter of debate whether Orange’s feelings mirror White’s. His job is now essentially complete; all he has to do is wait for the LAPD to burst through the door and take him to a hospital. Instead, he does the unthinkable: he confesses his true identity to the man he has betrayed. As Orange sobs, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry”, White continues to stroke his face, then howls like an animal, as if his heart has been cleaved in two. White pulls his gun and places it against Orange’s jaw. The police burst into the warehouse; White is now crying, almost hysterical. He pulls the trigger, knowing it will mean his own death; that he and Orange will die together.

Mr. White sobs as the police enter the warehouse to witness a veritable “Liebestod.”

Many of the underlying themes of Orange and White’s relationship can be likened to tenets established by Japanese culture. Orange’s confession was the equivalent of “jingy”; essentially, honor and humanity. It is the thing you know you must do, even if you don’t want to. In his heart, he knew he owed it to White to tell him the truth, regardless of his own safety. He preferred to die with a clean soul than survive knowing that he’d lied to a man who loved him.

White was an individual who strove to live according to a kind of thieves’ “bushido”, a chivalric code that emphasized loyalty and professionalism. Orange knew that in White’s eyes, death was preferable to dishonor, and he was willing to make that sacrifice. It is also a valid interpretation to see White and Orange’s relationship as a modern-day representation of “wakashudo” (a practice engaged in by all members of the Samurai class; when a seasoned warrior took a younger male as a lover who was apprenticed to him in warrior etiquette, martial arts, and the Samurai code).

Throughout the film, White constantly declares himself Orange’s protector and mentor. He feels responsible for Orange’s injuries even though his actions didn’t cause them in any way. They share a level of physical intimacy onscreen that is undeniable; holding hands, caressing, embracing. But most telling is their almost mutual decision to die together on that warehouse floor, when survival was so easily within their reach.

Miramax Film Corp. is re-releasing Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction in theatres to celebrate the 20 year anniversary of Tarantino’s career. Click HERE to find a participating cinema near you.

Back To The Future

©1985, Universal Pictures

(L-R) Christopher Lloyd as Doc Brown and Michael J. Fox as Marty McFly in Universal Pictures’ BACK TO THE FUTURE.

As the quintessential buzz-cut bully, Biff Hannen, Thomas F. Wilson’s utterance of “Think, McFly! Think!” is as iconic as Sylvester Stallone’s “Yo, Adrian!” or James Earl Jones’ “I am your father!”  While it may not have ingrained itself in American culture in quite the same way as the others, it’s a memorable line of dialogue.  Twenty-five years since its original release, a digitally-restored edition of Back To The Future has made its way into theaters.  Thankfully, no alterations have been made.  There are no CG characters, no dance numbers, no flashbacks to Marty at age eight when he sets fire to the living room rug.

To review the film itself would be superfluous.  By now, hundreds of film critics have dissected the story and at least a third of the world if not more has some idea of Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) and his adventures through time with Doctor Emmett E. “Doc” Brown (Christopher Lloyd).  Instead, as someone who has viewed the film hundreds of times and memorized, by now, every single line of dialogue—as have countless others in my generation, I would imagine—I think it’s important to elaborate upon the numerous factors that made this film a flawless, instant classic, and not by accident.

There’s a lot happening in every scene.  The introduction to the McFly family, gathered at the dinner table, establishes every character and manages to slip in a commentary on marital disconnect.  Watch the luster in actor Lea Thompson’s eyes turn to a lacquer of resignation as she reminisces, “It was then that I knew that I was going to spend the rest of my life with him.”  Then, not a beat later, George McFly (Crispin Glover) is laughing at Jackie Gleason on TV.  The camera cuts abruptly back to the family, and Lorraine’s expression, unchanged, takes on a bittersweet yet almost comical tone.

Christopher Lloyd’s crazed scientist, Doc Brown, is part Leopold Stokowski, part Einstein, all nuts.  To wit: The only invention of his that ever works is a time machine.  Watch Lloyd’s pause and then emphasis in his speech when he says, “Old Man Peabody owned all of this.  He had this crazy idea about breeding… pine trees.”

The entire film is stocked with pitch-perfect performances.  Note the subtle change in Lea Thompson’s gaze after the skateboard chase.  Her friends ask of Marty McFly, “Who is he? Where does he live?”  She replies determinedly, “I don’t know, but I’m gonna find out.”  Her facial expression seamlessly transforms from delight to obsessive predation.

There’s a good deal of social commentary in the film that might be easily overlooked because the story wisely focuses on Marty’s temporal troubles.  There’s no ham-fisted exposition that would bog down the narrative.  But pay close attention:  The film jokes about former actor, Ronald Reagan being elected President.  In 1955, the movie theater is running Cattle Queen of Montana, starring Reagan and Barbara Stanwyck.  In 1985, the same theater is showing a porno.  Downtown Hill Valley is a sign of the times: Storefronts are boarded up, a Goodwill shop sells used clothes to the poor, and even the Hill Valley Courthouse (a famous Universal backlot facade used in To Kill A Mockingbird and countless other films) is now the Department of Social Services.   By contrast, 1955 seems an optimistic time.  The American dream is epitomized by the introduction of suburban tract housing as we see the billboard for Lyon Estates, the gates of which are scrawled with graffiti thirty years later.    Yet, as we soon see, this is a thin veneer cast over not-so-innocent times as our parents or grandparents would have us believe: Lorraine swipes booze from her mother’s liquor cabinet.  Lou, of Lou’s Diner, can’t believe that the world would ever see a “colored mayor.”  Biff’s gang foolishly slurs a group of black musicians.  The film’s climax is preceded by an incident in which the otherwise merely annoying Biff transforms into an implied, yet unsuccessful, rapist.

The humor of the film makes it easy to write these moments off, but such characterizations and settings don’t appear in a film by accident.  Granted, Mr. Gale and Mr. Zemeckis may not have made a conscious effort to make a statement, but their interpretation of the 1950’s and 1980’s arises out of certain social mores that undoubtedly influenced their story.  Mr. Zemeckis’ further commentary on the turbulent 60’s and 70’s in Forrest Gump is good evidence of a social awareness in his work.  Gump‘s message, however, was far more forced.

Many past reviews focused heavily on the film’s astonishing visual effects and science-fiction concepts, including consultant Ron Cobb’s and production illustrator Andrew Probert’s legendary time machine, based on the DeLorean DMC-12.  However, the breadth of the film’s technical achievements isn’t always fully appreciated.  Cinematographer Dean Cundey made incredible use of the frame, frequently pulling characters into the foreground, as if stepping outside the proscenium arch for asides before the Thousand Yard Stare became cliché.  The editor, Harry Keramidas, employed formal composition at a fast pace—sudden close-up inserts to a facial reaction, then to a hand to imply action, abruptly cycling back to the primary shot for the follow-through.

If the technique is informed by Welles, then the storytelling is informed by Capra.  There’s a sensibility at work here that’s missing from modern teen comedies which fail to demonstrate any respect or comprehension of their teenage protagonists.  The film’s greatest achievement is not merely its bridging of the generation gap, which in today’s cinema is confused for tiresome product placements disguised as glib references to popular culture.  Rather, Bob Gale’s and Robert Zemeckis’ ultimate genius was the creation of a genuinely likable, optimistic teenage protagonist whom parents and their children could appreciate for the same reason.  It’s a timeless joke that never gets old: One day you will grow up to be your parents and they’ll have the last laugh.  The innovation here was in telling the joke backwards.

Footnote: A funny side-effect of bringing back this movie is that, much of the 1985 culture yet unknown to the people of Hill Valley in 1955 is again unknown to the teenagers of today.  Take sodas, for instance: Tab has been resurrected in some fashion but I guarantee a teenager working at the movie theater would express puzzlement if you asked for a Pepsi Free.  Most certainly, the pay phone at Lou’s Diner would be a complete novelty to them.  Perhaps most striking, and rather scary if you think about it: Marty writes a letter to Doc… by hand.

The digitally-restored edition of Back To The Future is playing tonight at select AMC Theatres in the United States for a limited engagement, and will be released in a trilogy box set tomorrow on DVD and Blu-Ray.

Back To The Future • Dolby® Digital surround sound in select theatres • Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1 • Running Time: 116 minutes • MPAA Rating: PG. • Distributed by Universal Pictures

Dolby and the double-D symbol are registered trademarks of Dolby Laboratories.

À Bout de Souffle (Breathless)

©2010, Rialto Pictures

(L-R) Jean Seberg as Patricia Franchini and Jean-Paul Belmondo as Michel Poiccard in Jean-Luc Godard’s À BOUT DE SOUFFLE. Photo courtesy Rialto Pictures/StudioCanal

“After all, I’m a jerk,” says the heedless Michel Poiccard (Jean-Paul Belmondo). The film, regarded as a seminal work of the French New Wave of cinema, is a character study in misogynistic brutishness or, as Pauline Kael called it, “Indifference to human values.” Much has been made of director Jean-Luc Godard’s innovative pacing and Raoul Coutard’s fast and loose cinematography. A fresh perspective is almost impossible; the film has been dissected and deconstructed from every conceivable angle in the past five decades since it came ashore and irrevocably transformed American filmmaking.

On the banks of the Seine, Mr. Coutard’s camera catches up with Michel just as we do. Our theater projectionist was still adjusting focus, adding quite literally to the sense of being a step behind. The original hipster, Michel sports a fedora, disastrously mixes silk socks with tweed, mimics Humphrey Bogart’s facial expressions and frequently breaks the fourth wall, “If you don’t like the sea… or the mountains… or the big city… then get stuffed!” On his way to collect debts owed to him by his Italian friend, Antonio Berrutti (Henri-Jacques Huett), a female accomplice in white helps Michel steal a sedan belonging to a military officer. The officer’s revolver happens to be hidden in the glove compartment.

Mr. Godard famously said, “All you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun.” Having dispatched an officer with the gun, after foolishly speeding through a construction zone in the French countryside, Michel ditches his car and returns to Paris, to sanctuary with the girl, Patricia Franchini (Jean Seberg, of whom the French press were unfairly critical following Otto Preminger’s Bonjour Tristesse and St. Joan). A naif in stripes, she sells issues of the New York Herald-Tribune on the Champs-Élysées. Patricia is a paradox. She seems too naïve to leave the oaf, periodically sleeping with him, yet aware enough to tell him, “I’m trying to decide what it is I like about you.”

In her KPFA broadcast (1961), Pauline Kael described the characters as “carefree, moral idiots.” They live moment to moment. Their words and actions are superficial and unconnected to anything meaningful. “When we talked, I talked about me, you talked about you, when we should have talked about each other.” The film is riddled with such circular dialogue, not by mistake. “I wanted to see you to see if I’d want to see you,” says Michel. The characters reside in a tautological delusion, lacking any concept of an external purpose for which one might live. Laments Patricia in another scene, “”I don’t know if I’m unhappy because I’m not free, or if I’m not free because I’m unhappy.” Or perhaps because she hasn’t yet a clue what brings happiness or freedom? It fits. Patricia quotes Faulkner, “Between grief and nothing, I’d choose grief.” She has little, if any appreciation for Faulkner’s work. Rather, out-of-context quotes are convenient, encapsulated axioms for people in need of a world view—and a great way of sounding intelligent at parties. Patricia’s journalist friend reminds her what tragedy befell Henry and Charlotte. Clearly, she never actually read The Wild Palms.

To call Michel a narcissist would imply that he’s a conscious participant. More likely that Michel’s world is narrowly guided by his fascination, and Mr. Godard’s, with the facile characters in American gangster movies; the film is dedicated to Monogram Pictures, producers of low-budget gangster flicks in the 1930’s and 1940’s. Director Quentin Tarantino would later emulate his hero, Mr. Godard, by shamelessly plugging the Shaw Bros., producers of low-budget Hong Kong martial arts shlock—inserting “Shaw Scope” title cards before his features.

Michel hasn’t the ability to process anything outside his immediate sphere of action. Perhaps, to the young student cinephiles of the day, that was Michel’s appeal. Naturally, shooting the officer was an accident easily averted if only he had noticed that the construction zone, not firing the gun into the air, was the reason he’d been pulled over in the first place.

Patricia, as Ms. Kael points out, is a much bigger narcissist. To be sure, she tolerates Michel as long as it’s convenient. She tips off Inspector Vital (Daniel Boulanger) only after she’s unable to settle on any reason why she likes him. In other words, she finally tires of him. Many viewers and filmmakers since have attempted to emulate the detachment of Michel and Patricia, probably failing to realize that Mr. Godard is satirizing vacuous pretense as much as he’s celebrating it. Indeed, whenever such characters are seriously portrayed as virtuous champions of bohemian principles, a film immediately falls apart under the crushing mass of its own hubris. To wit, Patricia’s grasp of French (and of Paris) is as superficial as she is. When Michel asks, “Are you going up or down the Champs,” Patricia replies, “What’s the Champs?” She has no idea she’s standing right in the middle of it.

At Orly Airport a celebrity figure, Parvulesco (Jean-Pierre Melville, one of the fathers of the New Wave; the other being Jean Cocteau), opines on the difference between American and French women, “French are totally unlike Americans. The American woman dominates the man. The French doesn’t dominate him yet.” Many critics have fallen over themselves with praise for Jean-Pierre Melville’s comically-blithe chauvinist, but the scene serves another purpose. It cleverly upends one’s perception of Michel and Patricia. For all Michel’s dictates to and about the other sex, it is he who is dependent. He steals money from a girl friend’s purse. He seeks refuge at Patricia’s apartment. He chases them. They don’t seem to be chasing him very often. There’s a criticism at work here, though one can’t be too sure how sincere Godard was as his camera lens leers at the backsides of women as often as Michel does.

In a 1960 interview with Frederic Rossif’s Cinépanorama, Ms. Seberg states she first fell in love with acting upon seeing Marlon Brando in The Men (1950) at the age of 12. By 17 she was studying film. Critics skewered her and Preminger for St. Joan. She handled the candid, brutal interview with grace, openly admitting her camera shyness, “To me, the camera was like a gun!” Godard, however, found his Patricia…reportedly loving Ms. Seberg’s performance in Preminger’s next film, Bonjour Tristesse, or perhaps because the Marshalltown, Iowa, girl with the horrible French accent was Patricia Franchini—an inexperienced American barely fluent in the language. Another possible explanation: Several New Wave directors, including Godard, started as critics at Andre Bazin’s Cahiers du Cinéma. It was, in her words, “a young, radical film critic” named François Truffaut who gave one of the only rave reviews of Tristesse, calling it “Preminger’s great love letter to Seberg.” Mr. Truffaut, of course, went on to write the script for Breathless.

Punctuating the film’s infamously restless pacing and editing is Martial Solal’s seemingly schizophrenic score, but listen carefully. A jazz pianist by trade, Mr. Solal’s score shifts back and forth between Michel’s theme—percussive bebop phrasing, emphasizing his improvisational, scattershot lifestyle—and Patricia’s, slowly ambling strings in the same five-note asymmetric meter, notes transposed into an opposite, descending progression—carefree yet without urgency. Michel and Patricia are attracted to and repulsed by one another—he vacillating between Patricia and other women who are less lovers than they are financial crutches, she ambivalently waffling from Michel to journalists and celebrities. At breath’s end (the literal translation of the French title), they reconnect. Michel takes a last puff of his cigarette before hurling one last jab at Patricia, “You make me want to puke.” This, however, is a mistranslation—one of several. Hate would at least be preceded by some kind of active interest in women.

In fact, the best explanation I’ve uncovered thus far comes from, of all places, the Internet Movie Database. Over the years, Michel’s final line, “Ch’uis vraiment dégueulasse,” has been misheard, mistranslated and confused. While dégueuler means “vomit,” the specific form used means either “disgusting” or, worse, “Scumbag.” But his first word, often misheard as “C’est” renders a sentence that makes no sense in context, “It’s a real scumbag.” But Belmondo, the entry argues, utters, “Ch’uis,” the informal form of je suis. In other words, he concedes, “I’m a real scumbag.” Michel’s words slightly slurred, Patricia asks Inspector Vital what he said. Vital replies, “He says you’re a real scumbag.” In the final shot, Patricia turns abruptly toward the camera and posits, “What is dégueulasse?” as if she doesn’t know. But her eyes and flat, declarative tone suggest otherwise. Together, like their countermelodies, Michel and Patricia form a zero-sum game—nothing matters. But with Michel’s death, she is left behind to ponder the consequences of their indifference.

Breathless opens Friday, August 20, at the Angelika Theater at Mockingbird Station, Dallas.

À Bout de Souffle • Dolby® Digital surround sound in select theatres • Aspect Ratio: 1.37:1 • Running Time: 90 minutes • MPAA Rating: Not Rated. • Distributed by Rialto Pictures

Tales From The Future

In 1972, while studying film at University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts, Robert Zemeckis (a classmate of George Lucas and John Milius) filmed an eight-minute short, titled “The Lift.” Filmed at the iconic Bradbury in Los Angeles, the project required Zemeckis to use angles, lighting and music to heighten the tension with no dialogue. In the process, the young prodigy brought an inanimate, mundane object to life.

The talented Mr. Zemeckis went on to direct his first feature, I Wanna Hold Your Hand, in 1978, starring Nancy Allen (Robocop), Marc McClure and the late Wendie Jo Sperber.  The latter two later co-starred as Marty McFly’s (Michael J.Fox) siblings in Back to the Future in 1985. The film, co-written by Bob Gale (his production assistant on “The Lift”), has become a staple of pop sci-fi, and 80’s nostalgia. As concept designer and production illustrator Andrew Probert explained to me in a 2003 interview, the filmmakers scratched the idea of a refrigerator as time machine (partly for legal reasons; imagine the lawsuits from parents with kids who locked themselves inside appliances). The story idea, however, came from Mr. Gale and Mr. Zemeckis imagining going back in time and meeting their parents; would they be the chaste, studious teenagers as most parents claim to have been when discussing with their kids the finer points of growing up?

It was brilliant, not because it was the umpteenth film to tackle the idea of time travel. The late 1960’s and early 1970’s saw serious drama influenced heavily by the French New Wave. Well before the smug, and unclever, self-awareness of today’s hipster flicks, the 1980’s were arguably the decade of the teen comedy. From Cameron Crowe and Amy Heckerling’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High to the entirely absurd but entertaining and eminently quotable Better Off Dead (referencing, of all things, Tatum O’Neal’s refrain about money to Ryan O’Neal in Paper Moon), to the social commentaries of the sainted John Hughes, most films of the genre dealt only with the teenager’s immediate surroundings—classroom settings, bullies, and the like. But Mr. Zemeckis offered simultaneous fantasy, science fiction and Freudian analysis. At the center of the conundrum, Lorraine Baines (Lea Thompson) infatuation with future son Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox).

I submit there are two or three films from my childhood that are so quotable that I and my best friend of fifteen years, Ken Metzger (also a writer for Cinemalogue), have memorized almost every line of dialogue. Today’s ADHD generation, and even many among my generation, may have missed little gems scattered throughout Christopher Lloyd’s lines, “Old man Peabody had this crazy idea about breeding… pine trees.” Don’t ask me why I recall it from memory, or why it’s funny, but Mr. Lloyd’s delivery, and following cockeyed glance are thoughtful touches that add something to the eccentric, mad scientist—part Albert Einstein, part Leopold Stokowski.

Why did this MTV-generation film become part of Americana? I think, in similar fashion to John Hughes’ films such as The Breakfast Club and Sixteen Candles, it created a world that respected teenagers, however seemingly absurd the context may have been. If at the age of sixteen you could have gone back in time, would you panic or look at the situation at face value? You’ve just met your mother in 1955, and she has the hots for you. What do you do? Do you wallow in existential angst or do you ask your mad scientist friend—the only one who takes you seriously because the townspeople think he’s a kook—to help keep you from unraveling the fabric of the space-time continuum. Says Marty, ” …if there’s no music, they can’t dance. If they can’t dance, they can’t kiss. If they can’t kiss they can’t fall in love, and I’m history.”

Thank god for the Marvin Berrys of the world, stoned enough to see Marty’s point… or we’d all be frozen in some kind of cosmic limbo—a David Lynch nightmare. And who wants that? Maybe a hipster.

Bonus: Mr. Probert’s cover design for the “Tales From Space” comic book featured in the movie was duplicated in more than one episode of the NBC series, “Heroes.” His work can be seen here.

Back To The Future is showing at 12:30 a.m. Friday, November 27, and Saturday, November 28, at the Inwood Theatre’s screening lounge in Dallas.