After another delay from work and real world anxieties, I’m back to getting back to the pop culture of a “simpler” time and will follow up next time with a look at some new stuff released this March. First, a visually arresting arrival into cinema du look.
Jean-Jacques Beineix, the director of this picture, is often credited as the man who began the cinema du look trend in French cinema. A trend that would last throughout the 80s and into the 90s, possibly culminating in one of the best known modern French movies, Leon the Professional. That film’s director, Luc Besson, is one of the best known living French filmmakers and contributed to cinema du look before Leon with titles that I will certainly be viewing down the road like Subway and La Femme Nikita.
Beineix passed away at 75 this January, shortly after I had seen Diva. It’s a shame he’s not more well known but that may be in part due to his small filmography with his first film here being his most significant contribution. Those that took after Beineix in turn took the attention, his legacy assured through influence.
Diva is an absolutely beautiful film, that takes its cold ,blue, dreamlike imagery and gives it, at least to me, a peculiar warmth, making it dare I say inviting. It is married to a riveting story that yet leaves me apprehensive as it’s central figure, Jules (Frederic Andrei), is both in places a sympathetic youthful Parisian and in others a obsessive creep.
Jules is completely enamored with the African-American soprano Cynthia Hawkins (Wilhelmina Fernandez, an actual Soprano and it shows), the titular diva. He constantly plays her music on his mobile tape player, both while out and about as an urban postman and while he is at his garage/parking lot hybrid that acts as his home. On the one hand, it is established that Jules has a true appreciation for Cynthia’s talent as a soprano.
On the other hand, Jules is so taken with her that he basically becomes a stalker. He hires a prostitute to imitate the look of Cynthia. He steals her gown from her dressing room after the concert. Even more concerning is that Jules actually strikes up a genuine relationship with Cynthia after meeting. It doesn’t get sexual( at least onscreen) but at the same time regardless of earnestness shared beneath the two in the end, it is very alarming this film is so okay with Jules’ obsessive interests and in how it ultimately rewards him for it by the end.
Keep in mind that the year Diva released in France, President Reagan was nearly killed by a celebrity obsessed figure called Charles Hinckley Jr, all to impress the one he was irrationally enamored with, Jodie Foster. A year before, Mark David Chapman murdered the man whom he obsessed over, John Lennon. I’m fairly certain people in France were aware of these incidents and the uncomfortable implications it brought to the table.
Jules, in spite of the extremes he is shown to do, never kills anyone for Cynthia and certainly not Cynthia herself. If anything, Jules is made into a victim as he finds himself ensnared in a criminal conspiracy involving a corrupt detective in the Paris Police and a prostitute. Ironically enough, Jules’ own time with a prostitute has him record an incident by accident that gets him stuck in that quite stressful predicament. A film to be covered later down the road, Brian DePalma’s Blow-Out, also has a similar premise of an unsuspecting person recording sound only to capture something audibly not meant for strangers. Also, Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation.
His attempts to both show his affection to Cynthia and to get around the Hitchcockian conspiracy gets him involved with Serge (Richard Bohringer), a very French Bohemian artiste and his Vietnamese-French teenage muse, Alba. Unlike with Jules and Cynthia, the implications between Serge and Alba are less…concerning. Or at least I damn well hope so. Otherwise, I might feel really shitty about appreciating this movie.
Serge’s lot is where most of Diva’s expertly filmed cinema du look feel comes around the best. Three moments that stick out at the lot is Serge showing Jules the proper way to cut a croissant, doing a giant picture puzzle with help from Alba all while discussing how to help Jules and him taking a bath in the middle of the room with a great spotlight on him, while intercutting with a moving lava lamp that looks like a level measurer. Great stuff and not really artsy-fartsy. Just soothing.
In spite of the French moodiness that you can already infer from everything I’ve mentioned, it is a film that can actually be thrilling as an action movie and even with some surprisingly deft comedic moments near the end. The header image here is that of Jules racing through a subway station on his moped while trying to outrun who he thinks are hired thugs relating to the conspiracy, which he had been evading at an arcade earlier.
It’s in fact a good detective who is trying to help Jules, but, hey, misunderstandings leads to great drama and by extension, a really well shot chase sequence that is just as mesmerizing as Serge just sitting and relaxing in his tub.
The ethical takeaways of Diva are split down the middle. The film is certainly anti-police corruption( as you would hope it would be) and the characters meant to be good are mostly actually really good. But when you factor in how unquestioning the movie is with Jules’ obsessive desire for Cynthia and how it doesn’t really punish him outside of him accidentally getting stuck in a Hitchcock plot by way of French aesthetic, it’s makes Diva a must see experience with one very stark asterisk.
Jules’ behavior would be very troubling in 1981. It would be a humongous red flag in 2022. I will not chalk it up to cultural differences between America and France here. Obsession and its actual ramifications are universal. No amount of expert, genre defining film-making can absolve that.
Deathtrap is one of two Sidney Lumet films to be covered in this installment of 80s Retrospective. Lumet is considered an important contributor to American cinema, starting off with his cinematic adaptation of 12 Angry Men. Aside from that, I had also seen Network, a film about 70s TV executives which has become alarmingly more relevant in the 21st century than it was then. Starting in the 80s, Lumet started to have a string of rough patches for the rest of his career, which ended with the ultimately well received Before the Devil knows you’re Dead from 2007.
Before the “rough patches” began in earnest, he opened up the decade with Prince of the City to be discussed right after and Deathtrap, a film that is both tribute to Michael Caine’s earlier picture Sleuth and the French classic Les Diaboliques. I haven’t seen Sleuth, nor its needless 2007 remake also starring Caine, but after I saw Deathtrap I saw Les Diaboliques and well, seeing that after put the former film in a new context.
Both films have one insane twist, one that is so good it’s not worth spoiling despite the age of both features. Just mentioning that there is a twist will perhaps ruin it somewhat as I was completely not expecting one in Deathtrap’s case. I did know Les Diaboliques had one but knew no specifics about it. The French classic’s take on a twist that Deathtrap essentially copies or reinterprets more like does involve suspending some amount of disbelief due to the circumstances surrounding what exactly happens. It’s still a real shock and does give the movie considerable rewatch quality if only to notice the clues that validates it.
Deathtrap centers on a British-American playwright (Michael Caine, but you already figured that out) who is suffering from a low point in his Broadway career. One of his students (Christopher Reeve) is plagiarizing his work and decides to invite him over at the behest of his wife (Dyan Cannon) to their residence in Montauk on Long Island’s eastern edge. That residence has a windmill because of course a theatre writer would have one.
In a moment that does make me think Rian Johnson definitely saw this and used it to inspire Knives Out, the playwright conceives of a plot to get revenge on his upstart student. Like Knives Out, the house is filled with stage props of various weapons, all sharp enough for, say it with me, MURDER.
I honestly struggle to think of what else to say about Deathtrap without giving up the game so to speak. While Les Diaboliques’ twist happens at the climax, Lumet distinguishes his version by having the twist happen midway through. Half of the film I can’t really talk about sadly, as I do think it’s something you have to see fresh to get the most out of it.
I suppose I could bring up that Lumet has a proven talent for making the most of a limited setting. Like his debut masterpiece from 1957, 12 Angry Men, the majority of the film occurs in a somewhat small jury room where as promised, there are 12 male jurors and due to a combination of it being a sweltering hot Summer with no A/C and frustration over the complicated case presented to them, get kinda angry.
In spite of most of it occurring in a generally claustrophobic environment, you never get bored or distracted by the limited scope. If anything, it makes it even more focused, more stressful, being stuck in this place with a bunch of guys who don’t really want to be there for the most part but have to, all while deciding if some teenager gets a guilty or innocent verdict.
The majority of Deathtrap is within the playwright’s house, but due to its peculiar setup, again with an honest to God windmill whose inside is the bedroom and a low-key Tudor feel, helps make it a not boring environment for the proceedings on top of the merit of the actual proceedings. Go ahead and see it, especially so you can see a pre-accident Christopher Reeves and pre-Alfred Michael Caine share the screen together, all so you can make jokes about their DC comics connection.
Prince of the City (1981)
Prince of the City is inspired by an actual internal affairs case by NYPD detective Robert Leuci, who opened a boatload of corrupt worms when he turned state’s evidence against his fellow drug-busting team, who had taken too much money off of the crooks they took down, among other things.
Treat Williams, who I only recently learned did stuff before a silly ocean based horror movie I’d heard of offhand from the late 90s called Deep Rising, plays Daniel Ciello, based off of Leuci. Initially, Ciello is all too happy to bend the rules to have him and his fellow NY Blues enjoy a little something more off of their drug busts.
They also use junkies as informants to successfully pull off their busts. Buuut, doing so involves suppling those same junkies with heroin and on one fateful night involving a meetup to give his informant some drugs, that same junkie beats up his girlfriend and Ciello forces himself to let it happen, all because of the process he and his buddies use to get information.
Eventually, Ciello realizes he’s had enough and wants to bring evidence to the District Attorney of New York to end his drug squad’s operation. Hopefully in a way that won’t incriminate his friends too severely. Of course, you already know it won’t, it couldn’t be that simple and Ciello was probably fooling himself thinking that way.
With a runtime that approaches 3 hours, you know by that alone that this won’t be a simple task for Ciello. Having to put on a wire, obfuscate what he’s doing to men that, dirty or not, he does consider his brothers. But, the conscience he has grown forces him to go deeper and deeper and deeper into how big a hole his team had actually dug for themselves. It disrupts his life and the lives of his family, especially over those “Witness protection” woes to consider and eventually, he sees members of his team not just turn against them, betrayed by Daniel, some commit suicide either out of guilt or because they can’t bring themselves to turn evidence like him.
As you have already recognized, Prince of the City is a quite dark journey into the often subtle corruption those in law enforcement engage in to the point where they feel more loyalty to each other than you know, the law they’re supposed to be upholding. A war between two different loyalties or as they say in Samurai movies, two different masters. One cannot serve both if both do not serve each other.
Keep this in mind as a product of an actual internal affairs case that happened in the late 1970s and was adapted and abridged into a Sidney Lumet picture in 1981. Consider how even though the behavior Ciello’s squad is called out on is immoral and something that cannot continue, consider how sympathetic the portrayal of Ciello and those criminal cops still remain.
Sure, there’s like a couple of crooked cop figures that aren’t in Ciello’s team that are framed far less sympathetically, particularly an overweight one (that also resembles Uncle Vernon sortof) that Ciello goes to town on in one heated sequence at a Chinese restaurant.
You can either view this through the lens of not so much Lumet but Ciello’s perspective and the naturally pro-cop attitude he would still cling to or you can view it as an American cultural approach to how we broadly view the boys and girls in blue. One that is often idealistic, more willing to begrudgingly concede to when genuine corruption or outright breaking of the law is exposed or made clear but always with the understanding that it’s an aberration of a system that ultimately does more good than bad. Maybe that is easier to believe if you’re white like me.
In light of the past decade, what with how social media and portable cameras make it so easy to so how much brazenly awful stuff the American police get up to regularly, Prince of the City’s framing of the police and their nature, while not wholly untrue even now, feels more pernicious today to me. We get regular reminders of police brutality on minorities and occasionally even on Caucasian Americans. Some of these abuses extend to either manslaughter due to disregard for subject’s safety or blatant murder, as made evident to all who would see through George Floyd.
Even worse is how often, beyond these criminal even authoritarian uses of force against American citizens, there is the mountains of evidence proving how often the police protect their own in defiance of justice or what the will of the people actually expect or assume they do anyway. For those who decry the calls for defunding or abolishing the police, consider that they say this not in the heat of the moment through righteous rage alone, but through the understanding that for incidents like Floyd, Breanna Taylor and countless others to be prevented as much as possible in the future, the structure and function of the police must change.
Money should be redirected to other areas of our institutions perhaps to make fewer the number of criminal situations police would have to face in the first place. Maybe a cop is not best equipped to help with every domestic disturbance like say a mentally ill person who needs psychiatric care rather than a police officer for which force is the first thing that comes to mind in response. If all you have is a hammer….
In spite of my “controversial” statements made over the past several statements, Prince of the City does end on a note that I found rather profound. It’s almost the inverse of the scene in The Martian where Matt Damon’s astronaut survivor of Mars is telling a classroom about his experiences and all the questions they are eager to give him.
At the very end, after Daniel Ciello has done all that is needed of him to get his squad properly indicted and brought to justice, he is at a classroom for up and coming NYPD officers. As he goes about how he would operate as a police officer, one of the students contemptuously leaves the classroom upon realizing who the speaker is: the guy who ratted out his friends, screw the reasons.
In spite of what Ciello did being the absolute right thing and dare I say it a real necessity for a police officer to follow on principle, he is dismissed by some due to the whole idea that doing the right thing involves going against your supposed friends. Ciello, like perhaps the real life Leuci, looks utterly alone, despondent once the student storms out. Here is his reward, for trying to be as good an officer of the law as he once thought he was.
For a dude like myself who often feels completely alone, isolated on a political level to those in my immediate circle of family and friends, that ending moment was the most relatable that Treat Williams’ Ciello got. An important lesson, doing the capital letter right thing will lose you respect, it will lose you friends. Should you still do it? How you answer that question will say more about yourself than almost anything else in life.
Capping off this latest installment of 80s’ retrospective is a 1984 Bollywood crime thriller that combines political corruption, journalism ethics, youthful free spirited street gangs and shady underworld crime into a fun, typically complex Bolly-blender.
Vinod the moderately pudgy but upstanding man of the law who runs an independent newspaper business, the titular Mashaal, in downtown Mumbai is trying to bring down the head of organized crime in India’s then largest city. S.K. Vardhan, who kinda resembles an Indian Christopher Lee, wants to stop this change-minded rabble rouser and will stop at no sordid end to bring down around his ears Vinod’s life.
In the meantime, while blowing off all of Vardhan’s threats which become increasingly more extreme, Vinod befriends a vagabond of the Mumbai mean streets, Raja. Despite engaging in criminal behavior, all for a livelihood, Raja and his gang of friends are all nice guys, who due to the societal standards of life in 1980s India, don’t see any alternative. As you are conditioned to expect, they express their lot in life through song! The musical beat that punctuates their musical montage honestly sounds like it is from West Side Story, particularly a portion of “Maria”. If you see this movie and have heard that song from WSS, you will know immediately what I’m talking about.
Eventually Vinod and Raja come to meet each other and the former believes wholeheartedly that Raja can turn his life around, get a real job, go to College, actually achieve what I guess you could call the “Indian dream”. Raja of course initially blows off Vinod’s claims that that is possible for him, but a certain camaraderie between the two blossoms where eventually of course he does start to go down that better path.
However, Vardhan eventually pushes far enough that Vinod’s life becomes utterly ruined. He loses his home, his business, his wife becomes ill and dies on the streets, Vinod pleading in vain to the surrounding people of Mumbai to help him. After her passing, Vinod decides the only to stop Vardhan, get true justice is to start his own criminal enterprise, taking over all of Vardhan’s rackets to take him out of the picture. Vinod’s transition to becoming a mob boss on par with Vardhan happens hilariously fast through montage, once again showcasing how as long and longwinded a Bollywood plot structure can be, there are moments where suddenly everything zooms a bit in the proceedings.
What punctuates Vinod’s rise to a new vengeful power in the Mumbai underworld is that the manner of fighting he uses to personally take down the liquor and gambling dens is this kind of funny looking martial arts where they zoom up close to our hero in a manner that makes him look silly rather than threatening. It doesn’t help that again, he is a pudgy looking middle aged man to boot. On that same note, he does resemble an Indian Charles Bronson, and everyone knows he was an out and out badass middle aged dude if there ever was one. Basically, Vinod is believable in the role he is given around half the time for the Bronson factor alone.
More than the prior Bollywood films I’ve covered, Mashaal really focuses on Indian morality or at least Indian standards of personal morality in a way that can come across as a bit too morally puritan for I imagine even the average American viewer from the 80s, let alone 2020s. As mentioned earlier, Vinod singlehandedly battles his way through a bunch of liquor and gambling dens.
Obviously, America has had moral grief with liquor before (Prohibition, baby) and we still to some extent get flustered over the topic of gambling and how legal or defensible it is on not so much a legal but ethical level.
However, America drinks freely with basically no chance of a roll-back to the prohibition era on the horizon at all and gambling remains legal as can be attested by several major vacation destinations, Atlantic City and Las Vegas most significantly.
As for my personal take, I obviously believe liquor should continue to be legal and gambling should be allowed too. I am much more morally opposed to gambling due to how much it can screw you over either through poor luck or addiction.
Considering the to put it extremely lightly not-great economic standard of my generation, I find gambling much harder to swallow as something to partake in. If you’re rich, well, I see no pragmatic concern of course, but for a guy like me it comes off as an insult to those poor or at least not well off to promote gambling to those who have every reason not to play with their money. That doesn’t mean it should be banned. I mean, just the black market factor alone makes banning pointless and honestly a legal and regulated system better curbs chances of someone really getting screwed.
Of course, Indian standards of morality are not American standards. Due to what I am assuming is ethical guidelines inspired by the Hindu faith, the act of drinking alcohol and gambling is seen as quite bad, though the depiction of the acts are not censored at all to Mashaal’s credit. It’s not that hardline I guess. One of the most famous examples of self-censorship in Indian cinema and I doubt it’s only in Bollywood( India is home to quite a few major film industries due to the many prominent languages for a nation of over 1 billion people): refraining from couples kissing. At all.
While kissing became acceptable in American cinema by the 1920s, and even more pronounced with the overly grandiose style seen in the Golden Age of Hollywood, what with the swell of music, kissing for any reason is just not done in Indian filmmaking, even now. There have been some exceptions like the extremely controversial Kama Sutra: A Tale of Two Lovers starring a future Game of Thrones actress of all people, but yes, you are not likely to see locking of lips for any reason in this side of World Cinema.
Mashaal makes a blatant joke about the enduring practice where Raja tells his love interest that he wants to kiss her like it’s an American movie. Breaking the fourth wall, she responds back this ain’t an American movie now isn’t it and cue romantic Bollywood dance number in its stead. This continuous practice I’ve always found more fascinating than frustrating for myself considering that as Raja all but states, the Indian public is exposed to non-Indian movies regularly.
One of the earlier Bollywood films I’ve reviewed, 1980’s Shaan, becomes a Bond movie out of nowhere at the midpoint. Last I checked, the Bond series is known for having kissing scenes…..among other things. Clearly, Indian audiences and Indian filmmakers appreciate the Bond series in spite of all those taboo things 007’s filmography features. I have now way of knowing if India censors 007 films for those moments but that would cutting up quite a bit since the “taboo” stuff can also contain plot details that are important.
Take the moment where in From Russia with Love where Bond beds the Russian agent Tatiana in her bedroom (one of the key seduction moments in the series, a moment that is actually used during casting of new James Bond actors in fact). This moment which eventually leads to sex offscreen contains a key plot element that is needed for the audience to know. Do Indian audiences just turn their noses up at these scenes and enjoy the rest? Bond sure does imbibe in gambling and drinking too, but I guess it shouldn’t come as that big a surprise that James Bond 007, the most significant heroic seducer in cinematic history, found a way to seduce the Indian moviegoer into liking his movies.
The film ultimately culminates in a really violent but engaging final battle at a newspaper printing factory with Vinod and Raja on one side and Vardhan and his men on the other. On the topic of what is permissible for the Indian viewer, surprisingly harsh violence, stuff that would warrant either a hard PG-13 or R rating in America is viewed as “acceptable for all viewing audiences”, based on the rating disclaimer at the start of the movie. Considering how pacifist Hindu teachings in my readings have been, it is rather curious that bloody violence gets the thumbs up but banal if romantic kissing is given the thumbs down.
Obviously the history of India, like all human history, is filled with violence, sometimes borne out of necessity through self defense, often not because Indians are ever human like us. It’s just that I find it humorous the priorities the fictional representation of adult subject matter other cultures can showcase. America most certainly has and maintains certain hang-ups about various subject matters (select responses to the recently released Pixar film Turning Red for example). I would love to hear out the rationale from an Indian filmmaker about why X is fine but Y isn’t.
If you have the spare time and this is almost a given for the average Indian film, Bollywood or not, give Mashaal a shot. It’s melodramatic but fun take on a morality play which is actually a common trend with the 80s Bollywood films I’ve viewed so far, is worth the price of admission. No other culture I can think of makes long films worth it like India’s. Considering the sheer number of movies they produce, more than I can ever see, it is an art they got down pat.
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Love this! Signed, Jerry Orbach
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