7 May 2012
She used to be friends with them, a long time ago, but they hardly think of her lately except to hurl a couple of those old accusations at her. It all fell apart when Veronica Mars’ best friend was murdered. Not long after, Veronica lost her place among the anointed super-rich of Neptune and she went back to being just another lower-middle-class kid – one of many who live in the shadow of (or who provide services to) those extravagantly arrogant one-percenters.
The fact that she’s had a foot on either side of that fence makes her the perfect observer of both worlds. Veronica is cynical, sure, but she’s still capable of being shocked by the depths of sordid ugliness she witnesses in her crepuscular investigations. Moving back and forth between those different worlds of social rank – and between the brilliant SoCal daylight and its nighttime neon crappiness — makes her a liminal figure, prickly and slightly nostalgic about the naïf she used to be, about the love she used to feel for her lock-jawed, troubled ex-boyfriend, Duncan Kane, and her murdered best friend (Duncan’s sister) Lilly.
What’s not to love about Veronica Mars, at least seasons 1 and 2? Its skewering of the 1%, the diminutive Kristen Bell in the lead role (and the excellent Enrico Colantoni as her gumshoe father, an actor who raises the quality of every scene), the wisecracking dialogue. But what I love best is the cross-cutting of genres between film noir with the high school teen dramedy. Veronica is a modern-day Sam Spade/ Philip Marlowe, whose hard nose is pretty hard, yet still allows for a few sensitive spots where she can still be offended, hurt, disgusted, or maybe swept off her feet. (I maintain that Rian Johnson’s Brick, which won the Special Jury Prize for Originality of Vision at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival, must’ve been indebted to Veronica Mars as an influence.)
It’s those California noir night scenes I love best – the ones in which she sits in her crappy car on a stakeout, or in her father’s private detective office with the glow of a computer screen. The cinematographer never missed an opportunity to give us more of that vivid noir texture: the nighttime ripples of an apartment-building swimming pool, the shadows and grime of the Camelot Motel under the harsh glow of streetlights. Those places where she’s alone and lets the melancholy move in, like coastal fog. Where she’s not performing those publicly-acceptable versions of herself. Where she’s allowed to think.
It’s such a good emotional escape — to hunt down one or two of those episodes at TheWB.com (despite all the ads; sorry ’bout that) and let yourself dive in. It’s a kind of noir you don’t get to see enough of, and which hits a wide range of pleasure centers. Why don’t any other teen shows opt for noir rather than melodrama?
22 February 2011
I’m writing this for the Film Noir Blogathon, put together for the benefit of preserving important film noir by the Self-Styled Siren and Ferdy on Film. I realize I’m late to this party — it took me a while to find an appropriate film because noir women often aren’t very interesting (and women are, after all, my thing on this blog). Lucky, then, that Otto Preminger’s Laura came to mind. Gene Tierney was at the perfect height of her perfect beauty; we believe she’s been murdered for half the film, yet somehow she becomes nearly our protagonist by the end; she wavers between possibly murderous suspect and perfect wish-fulfillment fantasy girl. Most of all, she’s a strikingly sympathetic character for female viewers because of she’s a version of a self-made woman, yet she’s got only bad choices when it comes to men. In fact, I think one of the most fascinating subjects of this great film is class — hers, theirs, and what class does in relationships between men and women.At first, Laura Hunt (Tierney) is only the murdered girl, the one remembered by the other suspects because during her life she was fought over by two men: the middle-aged, imperious, deliciously venomous columnist Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb) and Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price), a slippery, smooth-tongued Southern gentleman down on his luck. Fought over for good reason. Laura was smart and beautiful, came up through the ranks at her advertising agency, was beloved for her gentleness and elegance. They speak of her in reverent terms. No wonder the detective assigned to the case, Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews), falls a little bit in love with her himself, and falls asleep in her apartment underneath her lovely portrait — raising the question why a 22-year-old career woman in 1940s New York would have her own portrait above the fireplace. It’s such a lovely picture, however, that we don’t wonder for long.
That’s the thing, you see: Laura’s class is unclear, as she’s not exactly a self-made woman. Sure, she started out as a low-level copywriter in her firm, but it was Waldo’s mentorship, influence, and assistance in gaining attention and prestigious endorsements that led to her professional rise. He also helped decorate her apartment — even going so far as to loan her beautiful objects d’art for display, thereby imprinting her flat with his rococo/queer sense of feminine taste. In return, she showered him with appreciation, admiration, and a feminine gift for listening to him read his own columns aloud. As far as Waldo is concerned, her only shortcoming was her tendency to fall in love with men who didn’t deserve her; he wanted her to remain the ever-dedicated, supplicant woman who made him look good. As Waldo explains in a long conversation with Mark:
Laura had innate breeding, but she deferred to my judgment and taste. I selected a more attractive hairdress for her. I taught her what clothes were more becoming to her. Through me, she met everyone. The famous and the infamous. Her youth and beauty, her poise and charm of manner captivated them all. She had warmth, vitality. She had authentic magnetism. Wherever we went, she stood out: men admired her, women envied her. She became as well known as Waldo Lydecker’s walking stick and his white carnation. But Tuesday and Friday nights we stayed home, dining quietly, listening to my records. I read my articles to her. The way she listened was more eloquent than speech. These were the best nights. Then one Tuesday, she phoned and said she couldn’t come.
Shelby’s motives are even less attractive: having come into Laura’s life after her professional and social successes, he wants to ride her coattails — she’s already given him a job at the firm — and, probably, milk her for cash. In short, for Shelby Laura is a guarantor of status and income, while for Waldo she’s the perpetually grateful recipient of a hand up. Nor are we viewers confident things would be different with Mark. Waldo’s right: Mark calls women “dames” and “dolls,” laments the time a “doll in Washington Heights got a fox fur out of me,” and seems partly impressed with Laura because she’s just so exotic to his gritty life. Sitting in her crazily feminine apartment he seems almost creepy, even as we forgive him his awkwardness. Who is this Laura, really, with all these different views of her?
Complicating this smoky view of the film’s central figure is its propensity to shift protagonists. At first it would appear Waldo is our man, with his snarky narration and terrific gift with one-liners (the screenplay is perfect, most of all when a good line is handed to the brilliant Clifton Webb). Mark McPherson is a laconic, unassuming character with the questionable habit of toying with a little pocket puzzle rather than look anyone in the eye. But suddenly 30 minutes in, a long shot of Mark signals that things have shifted; we start following his investigation and privileging his view of the case, especially as he thumbs through Laura’s diary and letters or interviews her devoted maid, Bessie. Yet even as we watch Mark become obsessed with the dead girl, he’s more of a mystery than a full-fledged protagonist — so when Laura reappears in her apartment demanding to know what he’s doing there, we might be ready to shift our loyalties to her. Except for the fact that if she’s not the victim, she might be the murderer.
According to old-movie and film-noir logic, it’s natural that Laura would fall in love with Mark — our damaged protagonists should always get the girl in the end. But female viewers might view this narrative progression sideways. She clearly makes more money than this down-in-the-mouth detective and lives a more glamorous life with that money. When we see her deal gracefully, effortlessly with the maid Bessie as if she’d had hired maids all her life, we get an indication not just of that “innate grace” Waldo described; but we also see that Mark shares more in common with Bessie than with Laura. With his clenched-jaw lack of conversation, he won’t just fit in to her life, which means that perhaps she’ll be the one to sacrifice it to be his wife. Or will this be yet another of her brief, unsatisfying relationships with inappropriate men? That’s the most likely scenario; we won’t arrive at the answer, of course, because the film ends too soon. But we can speculate and think about how Laura‘s shifting protagonists begs female viewers to perceive a different narrative emerging from the film. Maybe I’m reading the film anachronistically — maybe we’re supposed to see Laura as a woman who makes do with the inadequate men presented to her. But somehow I don’t think so. I think one of the reasons this film still works so well is that nagging feeling one still has at the end, even after the murder mystery has been cleared up, that there’s still more misery in store for our heroine.
16 April 2010
I was compelled to see “Rough Magic” (1995) again last night — and not because I remembered it being terribly good. There’s something haunting about it despite the fact that it’s just not a very good movie. I think it’s so promising — and therefore disappointing — because the combination of magical realism and film noir is so full of possibility. It’s truly too bad the film doesn’t manage to make it work.
It helps that Bridget Fonda channels such a terrific Lauren Bacall vibe playing Myra, a magician’s assistant, and that most of the film’s action takes place in a sunny postwar Mexico rather than the familiar darkened streets, alleys, and dives of Southern California. Myra’s on the lam because back in LA, she saw her slick wannabe-politician fiancé murder her magician boss; and as she drives her gorgeous convertible into rural Mexico, her increasingly sinister fiancé arranges for a freelance private eye, Ross (Russell Crowe, using a ham-fisted New York accent in one of his earliest American roles) to find her and bring her back. Instead, Ross falls for her and the two get caught up in the possibility that Myra might really possess magical abilities, skills that can be enhanced if she can find an ancient shaman woman.
The movie has a terrific opening, which puts you exactly in the mood for what it’s about to sell you. Dressed in a memorable stage outfit, Myra chases a white rabbit into an elevator filled with three businessmen. Instead of picking up the rabbit right away, she extracts three little bunnies from the men’s suit coat pockets, pops them into her top hat, tips the hat onto her head (and Bridget Fonda looks fantastic in a top hat), and leaves while the men’s mouths are still open. It’s a great movie opening: I was sold.
The two actors offered a lot of promise, too. Fonda seemed to be a perpetual B actor, mostly memorable for being out-acted by Jennifer Jason Leigh in “Single White Female” (1992). Still, she always had a kind of hopeful, nervous appeal — maybe even like Jean Arthur, one of my favorites — that made me watch for her. And when I first saw this film, I’d only seen Crowe in the great Australian film “Proof” (1991); by 1995 he’d bulked up to a pugilist’s body, which seemed odd at the time and yet appears somehow endearing, even ideal for his version of a WWII vet-cum-private dick with more than just a layer of post-traumatic stress. Neither seems wholly comfortable in his own skin, as if the director compiled the entire film with first takes. This isn’t to say they do a bad job; the actors’ jitteriness, their slight discomfort with their tough-guy, wise-cracking lines … all this still made me hope the film would turn out to be one of those modest but magically sweet films.
But by the time Myra and Ross set off together on the run, the film takes a dive. Although it was written and directed by the same woman, Clare Peploe, who apparently had experience in both fields, the film’s unevenness made me wonder if it had been made by two or three people who spent the production period at one another’s throats — perhaps a noir writer and a magical realism writer who ceased to get along at some point, or maybe there was a diva-like editor who chopped out all the parts of the story that might have given it smooth transitions and sustained the mood. Even more disappointing is the fact that it comes up with a comical Latino (Paul Rodriguez) for no good reason at all (what happened to political correctness in the mid-90s?). The film eventually loses track of its own tale and drops a few of the balls it has in the air, making it very rough magic indeed. More than anything, by the end it’s merely become a farce, not entirely intentionally.
Despite the missed chances of “Rough Magic,” I hope someone else tries this formula. The magical realism makes for such a great twist on the cynical, fast-talking noir trope. I love the idea that, rather than simply find again that a grisly crime was motivated by sex and greed, our hard-bitten protagonist might find love and/or transformation at work in the universe.
It’s just too bad. We could use some magic at this point. At my university we’re staggering and yet are still a few weeks away from the end of the semester, and I seem to be surrounded by cynicism and exhaustion. At least I know better why this film has haunted me — and why we could use a film that dilutes gritty noir with hope.