Thursday, July 02, 2015

From the Archive: Pretty Poison (1968)

In 1967, Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde immediately proved a counter-culture sensation by portraying its stylishly-dressed youth heroes as violent, hip, sexy and absolutely righteous. The protagonists’ mantra of “we rob banks” was deemed heroic in the Great Depression of the film’s setting, and a statement of Robin Hood-styled virtues to boot.  

In 1968, Noel Black’s film noir Pretty Poison, however, turned Bonnie and Clyde’s romanticism about crime and violence on its head.

Indeed, such flights of romantic fantasy about crime and violence are explicitly critiqued in the Black film, the story of a young man and immovable object, Dennis (Anthony Perkins) who lives in a day-dream world until that day-dream runs smack into an irresistible force: “all American” high school student, Sue Ann Stepenek (Tuesday Weld). 

Sue Ann is, as we eventually discover, a stone-cold sociopath, and Dennis learns the hard way what his caring parole officer Azenauer (John Randolph) has been attempting to tell him all along about life:

You’re going outside into a very real, very tough world. It has no place for fantasies.”

Pretty Poison concerns Dennis’s persistent inability to step out of his fantasy land, and then dramatically permits him a final, memorable moment of grace regarding it. In an instant of clarity, Dennis offers a staggeringly insightful coda about people like his femme-fatale lover, and the world that nurtures them.

Additionally, Pretty Poison muses on what kind of society could give rise to a person like Sue Ann, and through association with all-American symbols -- like the aforementioned high school marching band  (waving an American flag, no less) -- suggests a spiritual sickness sprouting like a weed inside our borders.

Unremittingly dark and at times extremely suspenseful, Pretty Poison wonders, essentially, what happens when Bonnie and Clyde get together but aren’t exactly on the same page regarding their violent exploits. 

One of them, Pretty Poison informs us, is going to take the fall. Hard.

“Would you like me if I weren’t a CIA agent?”

Young Dennis Pitt (Perkins) is released from incarceration, and is told by his kindly parole officer, Azenauer (Randolph) that a job at Lowell Lumber and Supply has been arranged for him. Pitt moves into a trailer at Bronson’s Garage, and begins working at the job.

Bored of the mundane and highly-repetitive work, the fantasy-prone boy begins to confabulate stories about being a secret agent on top secret assignment.  When Dennis is drawn to a beautiful high school girl, Sue Ann Stepenek (Weld), he pulls her into his fantastic stories too. Together, they plot to sabotage the Lumber and Supply building, which Dennis insists will be used to contaminate the town’s drinking water.

But on the night of the raid, Sue Ann wantonly commits murder and steals a loaded gun. More and more uncomfortable with her behavior, Dennis feels “the pressures closing in.”  Eventually, Sue Ann arranges for Dennis to be a patsy in the murder of her mother (Garland), promising him that they will flee to Mexico together once the deed is done.

Dennis is arrested for the crime of murder, after turning himself in at a phone booth, and sent to jail.  Meanwhile, Sue Ann -- reveling in her freedom and power -- meets another man whom she can use for her own sinister purposes.

“You know, when grown-ups do it, it’s kind of dirty.”

Dennis Pitt did a very bad thing in his youth. He started a fire that killed someone he loved, his aunt. And yet Dennis weeps when he speaks of his crime, and seems truthful when he claims that he never knew his aunt was at home during the arson attempt. He never meant to hurt anybody. Perhaps because he is unable to reckon fully with how his actions caused the death of another human being, Dennis dwells in a perpetual fantasy world. It is a safer place, he seems to understand.

I’ve been taking a secret course in interplanetary navigation,” Dennis tells Azenauer at one point. “I had hoped to be appointed to the first Venus rocket.”  The comment is a joke, of course, but it reveals the truth about Dennis. He can’t remain tethered in a dull, mundane world where his talents, he believes, are wasted.  

Other worlds, other fantasies, seem to beckon him.

When Azenauer gets him a job in a lumber yard, Dennis blows it. He causes an accident on the assembly line because he is day-dreaming while doing his work. In particular, he is day-dreaming of Sue Anne, remembering her performance in the marching band.

These scenes are especially important in terms of visual presentation. Dennis’s job in the mill requires him to gaze through an over-sized square scope that enlarges the bottles passing before his eyes, thus making inspection easy. 

Yet the scope looks completely distorted, and therefore functions as a symbol of Dennis’s distorted perspective or vision.  Like the scope which enlarges some items at the expense of others, Dennis’s vision doesn’t reveal the world as it is, but in a tricky, untrue way.

Similarly, Denis first gets close to Sue Ann after watching a parade involving her marching band by pretending to be a secret agent. He asks her to hold onto something important -- a bottle of that red liquid from the mill (mercury?) -- because he is allegedly under surveillance. Sue Ann is tantalized by this game and does as Dennis asks. Their first date afterwards, importantly is in a movie theater: a place of fantasies come true.

Little-by-little, Sue Ann appears to be drawn into Dennis’s web of fantastic lies involving his life as a secret agent, and his plan to raid the paper mill factory before the drinking water can be contaminated.

Yet a close watching of the film reveals another truth.

From the very beginning, Sue Ann wants to be rid of her bossy, controlling mother (Beverly Garland), and no matter the flight of fancy that Dennis engages in, he is used by Sue Ann to make that plan become a reality.

Sue Ann pulls the trigger, but Dennis is her patsy, the man with a criminal record who goes to jail for the crime she commits. Thus Pretty Poison pulls a nifty little dramatic trick on the viewer.  We believe, for the longest time, that Dennis is deceiving Sue Ann about who he is, and what he is really doing with her. In fact, it is Sue Ann who is the great deceiver, leading Dennis down a road which will see him charged for murder and jailed. Sue Ann puts the thought in Dennis’s head of fleeing to Mexico, and before long, Dennis is mindlessly dreaming of a Mexican beach, as we see in several brief cuts.

It is clear that Sue Ann wishes to be free, and that she uses Dennis for that purpose, to procure her freedom.  It is also clear that though she knows she wants her mother dead, Sue Ann isn’t certain, even, that her mother’s death will make her truly happy.  “I feel empty,” she notes at one important juncture, and it seems like an important admission. Sue Ann may not be able to feel empathy, or any emotions for others. She may only feel that emptiness, and so resorts to violence to alleviate it. She looks like a normal person, but is something else, a truth revealed by compositions in which Sue Ann appears upside down in the frame.

Twice in the film, Sue Ann shows real enthusiasm and excitement during the act of murder. First she bludgeons and then drowns a guard at the lumber mill. In this scene, she mounts the dying man (who is face down in the water) and rides him in a perverse mockery of the sexual act. In the second case, she shoots her mother at point blank range, and even that isn’t enough to sate her desire.  She fires again and again, over and over, as if trying to recapture the thrill of murder repeatedly. To put it indelicately, the only thing that seems to get Sue off is killing.

So where Dennis – perpetually playing at being a secret agent -- notes in mock-heroic dialogue that “emotions can be fatal in times like this,” Sue Ann seems, in reality, unable to express emotions except in the prosecution of murder or other violent acts.

Importantly, Pretty Poison also suggests, albeit obliquely, that Sue Ann has done something like this before.

On the dresser in her bedroom is a photograph of a mysterious soldier. Dennis looks at the photo and asks who it is. Sue Ann lies and claims she doesn’t remember. It seems entirely likely that this mystery man was the last victim who fell for her charms (and is now conspicuously absent). This seems especially likely given that after Dennis goes to jail she picks up with another mark, planning to lead him into trouble as well.

Contrarily, the photo could be of Sue Ann’s absent father (as a young man), who she reports died in Korea.  Perhaps she lied to Dennis, and she had him killed, just as she plans to have her mother killer.
Either way, the photograph exposes Sue Ann, which is why she refuses to explain it in any detail.

Dennis realizes too late what Sue Ann is, but refuses to testify against her because, in his experience, people “pay attention” only those things they notice themselves. This means that society at large will have to determine what Sue Ann really is. Dennis, oddly enough, seems to feel safe in jail, away from the “pretty poison” he encountered in the outside world. He is reflecting on his own lesson in a way when he makes this important remark. He didn’t believe Azenauer that the world is cruel and tough place, with no room for fantasy.  Now, after his experience with Sue Ann, he believes it.

What remains so shocking about Pretty Poison is the way that Sue Ann’s pathology slowly comes to the surface. She is a beautiful, blonde, All-American high school girl, ensconced in the marching band, and curious about life, and what the future holds. Scratch the surface a little, however, and one detects that seething appetite for violence, and her slick, seductive way of operating. She uses her youth, her appearance and her very sex to cow those around her.

Eventually someone will notice, right?

Pretty Poison is a smart, stunningly-performed film noir because it suggests that some people -- not unlike Dennis -- are drawn to romantic visions of rebellion and forbidden love; very much like the imagery featured in the (great) Bonnie and Clyde.

But by the same token, Pretty Poison suggests that such fairy tales have little practical use in reality, and those who believe them will be “poisoned”, in a sense, by their expectations that such stories represent how the real world really works. They can offer only a distorted lens.

So if Bonnie and Clyde, an icon of the counter-culture youth of the day, raises important questions about violence, crime and love, Pretty Poison voices a somber, frightening answer.

Movie Trailer: Pretty Poison (1968)

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Lost in Space 50th Anniversary Blogging: "All that Glitters" (April 6, 1966)

In “All that Glitters” the men of the Robinson party, save for Dr. Smith (Jonathan Harris), have left the encampment in the chariot in search of drinking water for the settlement.

Back at the base, Smith and Penny (Angela Cartwright) encounter a fugitive from the law, Ohan (Larry Ward), who is being chased by a galactic law enforcement officer, Bolix (Werner Klemperer).   
Bolix reports that Ohan has stolen the universe’s greatest treasure, and that he has been sent to retrieve it.

Smith finds the treasure and quickly uses it.  It is a ring he wears around his neck that can turn any object he touches into platinum…

Well, I believe the writers of Lost in Space knew, without a doubt, that they had descended into the trash heap with this episode: “All that Glitters.”  

Why?  One of the guest characters is named Bolix (pronounced “bollocks”).  And this episode -- the fourth in a row to highlight a blundering Dr. Smith in a central role -- is absolute bollocks indeed.

Let’s just take the episode apart a piece at a time.

First, we learn that Officer Bolix is a representative of a galactic law enforcement agency.  He shows a badge, and has two guard-dog wookie creatures as companions. He reports that he has been watching the Robinsons for some time, and is familiar with all of them, including Smith. He has files on them all, apparently.

Okay, then why doesn’t he offer to transport them to safety, to another world that is part of his civilization?  

Even more importantly, why don’t the Robinsons -- when confronted with a police officer -- ask to be taken to his home world, so they can either return to Earth or continue on their original journey? 

 In short, how come they don’t ask for any help at all, when they so clearly need help?  

Here’s an officer sworn to protect and serve the community…and that includes them! He's a representative of a highly-advanced, galactic civilization!

At the very least, the Robinsons might ask the police officer to send another ship for them, or a supply ship to bring them water, or to know their actual "address" (local star-group, etc.) so they can become a part of the galactic civilization.

But no, “All that Glitters” sees the Robinsons ask no such thing, for no such help.

Secondly, the greatest treasure in the universe is…platinum? 

Once more, “All that Glitters” reveals the series' pervasive unimaginative thinking.  Yes, platinum is valuable here on Earth, but why it would be so valuable out in the galactic culture?  What about star-stuff, for instance?  What about anti-matter? 

There are so many “sci-fi” ideas that could have been used here instead of platinum, but Lost in Space is unnecessarily Earth-centric in its thinking. All aliens we encounter are mere variations of people we know on Earth (pirates, hillbillies, cops and robbers, traders, etc.), and anything of value is something we already know about on Earth. It’s disappointing to say the least.

Still, there are aspects of “All that Glitters” that are worth lauding.  

A certain percentage of Lost in Space episodes play not as science fiction, but as fairy-tale based/fantasy morality plays.  Certainly -- at least in its use of the legend of King Midas -- “All that Glitters” falls into that category. It substitutes Smith for Midas, and platinum for gold, but we absolutely get the idea.  Be careful what you wish for.  Wealth isn't all it is cracked up to be. You can't eat platinum.

Smith promises to learn this lesson, and is as desperate here as we've ever seen him in "All that Glitters."  But by the very next episode, he is acting selfishly again.  There ("Lost Civilization") he steals the chariot's air conditioning unit so he can remain cool! 

Other Lost in Space stories also feature elements of fairy tales and fantasy (consider the Sleeping Beauty angles of “Lost Civilization, for example), and are entertaining to a degree based on their re-use of fantasy or fairy tale tropes.  But the veneer of plausibility, especially in this story, is corrupted to the point that it's difficult to enjoy these creative elements.

Suffice it to say that after four episodes in a row of Smith getting into trouble with aliens and alien artifacts, the series is feeling very old.

"Bolix" indeed!

Next week: “Lost Civilization.”

Cult-Movie Review: Chappie (2015)

Thus far, director Neil Blomkamp’s directing career has followed a predictable pattern.

He had his break-out, wildly imaginative first picture: District 9 (2009). 

Then he experienced a sophomore slump, the two-dimensional Elysium (2012). 

Now he comes roaring back with another imaginative and brawny science fiction vision, Chappie (2015), but critics and audiences still aren’t sold on him, or his world view, and the film has earned mixed reviews.

Next up for Blomkamp is Alien 5, wherein, presumably, he will re-connect with more mainstream tastes.  Blomkamp will thus be afforded the opportunity -- like Colin Trevorrow with Jurassic World -- to revive a once-beloved but dormant franchise, and thereby showcase his ability to send it in fresh and challenging directions.

But Chappie seems the most undeserving of victims in this paradigm because it features more imagination, energy, and heart than most genre films produced during the Age of Superheroes and CGI, excepting, perhaps, the rebooted Planet of the Apes pictures (Rise [2011] and Dawn [2014]). 

Even when Chappie was released earlier this year, virtually all talk of it in the genre and mainstream press was centered on Sigourney Weaver and Alien 5, not the merits or virtues of the film itself.

Yet much like District 9, Chappie is wildly unfettered and anarchic in terms of its visual action. And unlike Elysium, it doesn’t preach about its world view. That world view is substantive and valuable, of course, but you can watch and enjoy the film without it feeling like a lecture on social justice.

Chappie commences, actually, as a metaphor for child-rearing, or parenting, but then, in an ambitious and unexpected turn detour, transforms into a meditation on the very nature of consciousness, of life itself.

In meaningful ways, the narrative concerns the ways that a child who knows love cannot only save or redeem his parents, but change the world too. 

Despite the film’s violence and dystopian imagery, there’s a strong element of hope underlining the often-violent Chappie. Too many science fiction films these days mindlessly accept the status quo, or cynically imagine that nothing will ever change, except for the worse. 

By contrast, Blomkamp’s Chappie reminds us that our everyday actions -- as parents and people -- can alter the shape of destiny, and make the world a better place for future generations. 

Perhaps that description sounds cheesy, or broad, but Chappie moves with such dynamic, determined energy that the audience doesn’t feel talked down to but rather invested -- emotionally and viscerally -- in the details of the story and character.

“He’s not stupid. He’s just a kid.”

In near-future Johannesburg, the tech company Tetravaal has created a robot police force to combat out-of-control crime.  That robot police force is safe from third-party hacking because it takes a special “guard key” to update robot programming.  That guard key is zealously guarded, available to a select few.

Inside the company, two designers report to Michelle Bradley (Sigourney Weaver).

One, Deon Wilson (Dev Patel) wishes to update the robot police, known as Scouts, with a form of artificial intelligence.  She denies him permission. 

The other man, Vincent Moore (Hugh Jackman), desires to push his own civil control program, giant remote-controlled gun platforms called MOOSE.

Both men violate orders and proceed with their own agendas. Deon takes the guard key and a broken robot, Scout 22, giving it artificial intelligence, and therefore consciousness.

Moore hatches a plan to sabotage the scouts, and get MOOSE on the city streets.

But Deon’s robot, 22, is captured by a trio of small-time criminals, Ninja (Himself), Yolandi (Yolandi Visser), and Amerika (Jose Pablo Cantillo).  These crooks intend to use the machine, renamed Chappie, in a heist.  They have no choice, really.  They owe a local warlord, Hippo (Brandon Auret) 20 million dollars, and he will kill them if they don’t pay up.

But something unusual happens between Chappie and the criminals. Yolandi begins to see -- as Deon does -- that Chappie is a child, and one who needs nurturing and teaching.  She teaches him about death and the soul, even as Ninja seeks to make him a “cool” gun-slinging force for destruction. 

Chappie must chart his own path, and that path is affected by a terrible discovery.  He is mortal, and will only live for a few more days…

“Anything you want to do in your life, you can do.”

It’s easy to gaze at Chappie and judge it the bastard child of several genre movie influences.

The giant MOOSE assault weapon looks uncomfortably like RoboCop’s (1987) ED-209, and Chappie’s child-like nature and human “soul” may recall, for some, elements of Short Circuit (1985). Chappie’s discovery of impending mortality might be seen, in a way, as an allusion to the replicants in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982). Beyond those surface values, however, the film charts its own compelling and unique course, much like Chappie himself.

For instance, consider the development of the human characters.  The movie essentially positions two criminals, Ninja and Volandi, as parents, but instead of diagramming these characters in predictable, cookie-cutter ways, the movie actually allows them to grow, just as real parents would in the same situation. Yolandi takes to motherhood quicker and more successfully than Ninja takes to fatherhood, but even he gets there…after a fashion. 

Some of their arguments about their unusual child, Chappie, eerily echo real life conversations I’ve witnessed and participated in. 

How could you do this? He’s just a child!” Yolandi complains at one point, when Ninja pushes Chappie too far.

I didn’t know what would happen,” Ninja answers, defensively.

Ninja keeps making fathering mistakes, and there’s one scene, even, when he scolds his mechanical son for playing with dolls instead of guns. The idea is that Yolandi accepts Chappie without question, looking to nurture and care for him. Ninja, by contrast, wants the robot to grow up in his image: “cool” and a BMF.  At one point, he even gives him bling and spray-paint tats.

But, finally, after lies and set-backs, Ninja also accepts who Chappie is, and comes to love him on those terms. Yolandi helps him get there, but the capacity is inside him, as it is within all of us. Indeed, Ninja makes a valorous last act attempt to sacrifice himself for his family, though it goes terribly wrong. 

In that moment of selflessness, however, Ninja thinks of his own family and its well-being first, not about himself, what he wants, or how Chappie should “be.”

A more typical Hollywood film would not showcase such sympathy and humanity in the development of Ninja, a character who is, after all, also a bloody criminal. The point, nicely left oblique, is that criminals love their children too, and want the best for them. That’s a universal human trait, isn't it?  The same idea comes through, as well, in Chappie’s relationship to his actual maker, Deon.

Deon tries to be a good father as well.  He gives Chappie a book and a painting easel, and tells him he can be whatever he chooses to be.  But Deon also wants to impose roles (don’t commit crimes; don’t hurt anybody), but yet doesn’t provide Chappie the underlying moral reasons for obeying those rules. Chappie discovers those for himself after he wounds a police officer during the heist, and sees the blood and injuries.

One of the most touching scenes in the film involves the growing relationship between Chappie and Deon. Chappie learns that he is fated to die, the victim of a low battery that can’t be replaced. He asks Deon why he made him “just to die,” and Deon replies “How was I supposed to know that you would become you?”

He also shares with Chappie a fundamental fact of existence: we’re all born to die, essentially.  

We can’t move our consciousness from one body to another.  When our body fails, our consciousness dies with it. 

For Chappie this is a terrible fact, but powered by the love of Yolandi -- who explains the soul to him -- he changes the world.  He determines to understand consciousness, not just for him, but for human beings too. 

Although it’s a mighty big leap moving human consciousness into robots, I admired the underlying point of Chappie’s discovery.  His love of his parents -- Deon and Ninja included -- and the utter unacceptability of mortality enable him to think in a new, innovative way.

I believe in my heart that this is the story of human generations.  

Each one is a little more evolved, a little better than the last. Our responsibility to the next generation is to start it off right, with love and respect, with safety and understanding.  Then, as that younger grows and matures, those gifts will be returned tenfold as the children we love push the human race another step forward in terms of technological and moral progress.

The fact that Chappie’s consciousness, and human consciousness as well, can both be moved around, in the film’s final act, suggests something else. 

The soul, or consciousness, isn’t limited to human life. We should know this, already, but somehow we don’t. Look into the eyes of your cat, or dog, and tell me it doesn’t possess a soul.

By extension, the same will be true of inorganic life. Chappie discovers that he has a consciousness, and by implication, a soul.  Watching the film, I felt -- for perhaps the first time, perhaps -- that we will see a discovery like this in our life-times. 

If so, how we treat that artificial life, or consciousness, will prove one of the most important tests of human nature, and human decency. 

Will we treat artificial life like children that we must nurture and teach? Or will we, like Vincent Moore, double-down on outdated religious dogma about life, and dismiss the new life in our midst as somehow being second class?

Moore’s character, actually, reflect the hypocritical nature of many prominent religious men.  He claims to be of deep faith, and yet what he really wants to do is to kill people. He’s psychotic, and that’s why he wants the MOOSE operational; so he can commit murder from a safe distance.

When you see so many professed “faithful” people, either in the Middle East, or here in the States arguing for bloody pre-emptive violence against others, you realize that Chappie isn’t far off the mark in its depiction of spiritual hypocrisy. Vincent Moore lives by a fallacy that too many people live by; the appeal to tradition.  Just because something has always been one way -- man is the believed to be the only creature with a soul, for instance -- that doesn’t mean that belief is good, or accurate.

In two hours, Chappie takes viewers through the whole "human" process of growing up...with a robot. Chappie is born, is loved, and matures into an individual who will make his stamp on the world. The film’s amazing virtue, however, is that it shows us how a person with the right start in life can overcome fallacies, defeat hatred, and make things better.

“How was I supposed to know that you would become you?”

Well, when you get right down to it, isn’t that what all parents are supposed to know, or hope for?