Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Fido: Racism, (Hetero)sexism, and Zombie-ism

Isn’t Willard a perfect town? The houses are big, the lawns are immaculate, and the zombies hardly ever kill anyone. This is the setting for Andrew Currie’s 2006 film, Fido, the story of a little boy named Timmy and his trusty zombie. In this world, America (or perhaps Canada, as the film is Canadian) has emerged victorious from the apocalyptic 1940s Zombie Wars, giving rise to a booming new era of suburban 1950s wholesomeness, with the zombie population safely contained and controlled to be used as unpaid labor.

The film has been described as hitting “an authentic sociopolitical nerve,” and in her essay “Imitations of Life: Zombies and the Suburban Gothic,” Bernice Murphy argues that the Fido makes “pertinent points about the containment culture of both [the ‘50s] and our own [era].” Indeed, there is no ignoring the strong racial overtones and prominent presence of ‘50s values in the way the world of Fido is portrayed. And yet, in many ways, these questionable values are left unchallenged. The film fully embraces the tradition of simplistic ‘50s family films, and when examining parallels to social issues in the film, one quickly sees inconsistency of symbolism, leading to a confusing and unsatisfying resolution for an audience member hoping for the characters to challenge their culture. Is this a case of a good premise poorly developed? Or, by presenting the skewed values of the 1950s unchallenged, are the filmmakers pushing us to do what the film and its characters never quite do, and challenge society? Whichever is the case, Fido presents a grotesque reflection of our own society, bringing to light our culture’s deep-rooted injustice through an unusual mixture of two very different genres.

Perhaps most obvious among the film’s social parallels are the significant racial undertones. In a community of all-white, upper-class suburbanites exploiting a population of gray-skinned zombie laborers, it isn’t a far leap to suggest that the zombies represent a racial minority. The divide between these two groups echoes both 1950s segregation and the treatment of the “cheap migrant labor” (as Murphy puts it) which is relied upon to support modern-day suburbia. This latter comparison can be extended further; the zombies’ inability to speak could be seen as mirroring the language barrier obstructing many recent immigrants from achieving the legendary American Dream. More than anything, what ties the zombies’ treatment to that of a racial minority is the overwhelming sense of being the Other; fences, physical restraints, and social taboos are firmly in place to prevent the gray-skinned second-class citizens from mixing with the wholesome white humans.

However, beyond this point, racial parallels become more ambiguous. Murphy mentions “containment culture” and the Bush administration’s “much criticized” obsession with security as subjects of commentary by the film, yet here is a fundamental difference between our world and the world of Fido: whereas in the real world, the social justice-minded person would oppose discrimination in the name of security, in Willard, it’s a necessity. This is because a zombie is truly not quite human. Even though a handful of zombies in the film are presented as emotional, humanlike individuals, if they escape their electric collars, they are monsters, ruled by animalistic bloodlust. Even at the end, after Fido has proven himself capable of restraining his urge to bite, the electric collars must remain. This seeming injustice combined with the film’s tonally sugary happy ending suggest that the “containment culture” is, in fact, necessary to somehow protect the white suburban community, creating a thematically muddled ending.

Another antiquated ideology that found its way into Fido is the 1950s’ patriarchal, heterosexist idea of gender roles and what a family should be. In keeping with the film’s fifties-ish style, any story element that would have been considered unsuitable under the Motion Picture Production Code is dealt with subtextually. While watching, I felt the film was hinting (as would’ve been done under the Production Code) that the father was secretly gay. He never responds to his wife’s amorous advances (in fact, they make him very uncomfortable), enjoys spending time with his close male friend far more than with his family, is squeamish about violence, and talks about being Timmy’s age and having had a lot of feelings that needed to be controlled and suppressed. With the film’s already established theme of restrictive “containment culture,” I was expecting the father to at some point challenge the confines of the heterosexist society, or at least for the film to acknowledge the issue in some way. Instead, the father’s implied queerness is never explored, and all the ways in which he doesn’t fit society’s gender expectations are treated as character flaws to be overcome. His final action—to protect Timmy—redeems him as a character for his poor parenting, but it is also is a restoration of conventional gender roles. He asserts dominance over his wife (who’s been in charge of the family throughout the film), and violently protects his family (displaying aggression, the lack of which previously made others consider him less of a man). The conflation of his redemption as a father and his reassertion of traditional gender roles equates goodness with heteronormativity and patriarchy, adding to the thematic confusion of the film’s resolution.

The zombie genre is known for using the zombie symbolically to critique society, while films of the 1950s are notorious for being worthy of critique for their political incorrectness. By mixing these two genres and playing with sociopolitically charged imagery and storytelling conventions without offering a clear commentary, Fido is overall ambiguous.

Bugsy Malone

Bugsy Malone is a unique mélange of disparate components. Not only is it a gangster-film / musical hybrid, but the film blends childhood and adulthood, creating a hard-boiled adult world inhabited solely by singing children. All the typical gangster genre themes of greed, violence, and power are present, but the unique twists on the style and world infuse the themes with hope; these are children, they’re not actually killing each other, and it isn’t too late for them to change.

One thematically notable scene is when Bugsy goes to a soup kitchen in search of people to aid him in his gun-stealing mission. This scene combines the gangster genre’s  economic/class themes with the film’s overall hopeful message. Bugsy exhorts the downtrodden people to not give up just because they’re down on their luck, but to persevere and make changes in their lives. “You don’t have to sit around complaining ‘bout the way your life has wound up,” he says. It’s a questionable assertion that those at a soup kitchen are sitting around and complaining, and Bugsy’s proposed solution—becoming involved in crime—is even more dubious, but the song does fit with the idea that it isn’t too late to change your life. It can be understood as an exhortation to adults who feel their lives have reached a dead end, encouraging them to reject whatever misfortune or stasis plagues them, and not be afraid to start anew. In this way, we can begin to understand the full significance of an all-child cast playing adult roles; children are constantly growing and changing and full of hope for the future, so by making a world inhabited by children, the film seems to be saying that everyone is capable of hope and change, a significant departure from gangster films in which criminal characters (including protagonists) do not change for the better, letting their greed and violence ultimately destroy them.

Bugsy Malone clearly plays with the time period of the classical era gangster movies, but by including “backstage” musical numbers, it also makes reference to the spectacular escapist musicals of the same era. The dancing girls in the speakeasy evoke the iconic choreography of Busby Berkeley which offered Depression-era audiences relief from their troubles. The fact that cynical gangster films and hopeful musicals had their golden ages at the same time, and the way that Bugsy Malone presents both genres in one filmic world suggests that it isn’t a question of circumstance so much as outlook which determines the course of an individual’s life, supporting the film’s overall themes of choice and change.

 In a story with two battling ideologies or mindsets, the overall theme can be thought of as whichever idea wins. In Bugsy Malone, the two opposing thematic forces are cynicism about a seemingly insurmountably corrupt present (represented by the gangster genre), and childlike hope for the future and capacity to change (represented by the musical genre). By ending the film with an upbeat, hopeful song, hope is the clear winner. Indeed, the spine which has been present throughout the film is overtly articulated in the final song’s lyrics: “We could’ve been anything that we wanted to be. And it isn’t too late to change. … You give a little love and it all comes back to you.”

Monday, April 29, 2013

Hard-Knock to Easy Street: Money, Music, and Annie

Adapted straight from the Depression-era Little Orphan Annie comics, the 1977 musical Annie and its 1982 film version are chalk full of ideas about wealth and poverty, the American Dream, and good versus greed, which would have resonated with audiences in the Great Depression as well as the recession of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. Through the manipulation of the conventions of the musical genre, these themes are accentuated and deepened.

The economically divided world of Annie is established in one of the musical’s first and most iconic songs: “Hard Knock Life.” Beyond expressing the orphans’ unhappiness at the hands of tyrannical Miss Hannigan, the song could be seen as an anthem of the downtrodden in general, voicing frustration with an uncaring world and a life that isn’t easy. Along with “Maybe”—the girls’ song of hope for a better future—“Hard Knock Life” is very much in the tradition of integrated musicals, where songs stem from the characters’ emotion (in this case, unhappiness). While there is definitely a certain amount of spectacle in “Hard Knock Life”’s choreography (This isn’t Les Misérables, after all.), the orphans are not dancing for the sake of dancing; all choreography and spectacle is rooted in the endless chores the girls must undertake.

By contrast, Mr. Warbucks’s house has nothing “hard-knock” about it. His opulent displays of wealth create a world where everything is wonderful. The song “I think I’m Gonna Like It Here” is the first time when spectacle really begins to take over, and indeed, it’s a song about spectacle: the spectacular lifestyle of the wealthy, where everything is beautiful, but beauty is shallow. Annie is dazzled by all the nice things in her temporary new home, but we quickly learn that for all his wealth, Mr. Warbucks lacks the human beauty that Annie shows when she sings the integrated, emotion-based song “Maybe” to comfort a younger orphan. This idea that wealth is worthless without someone to share it with is a theme central to the film and is reflected by the use of integrated versus spectacle-driven music in the show’s first few songs.

Antagonists in Annie come in the form of Miss Hannigan, her crook brother Rooster, and his floozy girlfriend Lily. They’re not depraved killers, nor driven by revenge or malice, or generic “evil”. Instead, their greed is what makes them villains. They are ambitious, but lack the work ethic to make their money honestly. This illuminates one way in which the American Dream pervades the story: it’s revealed that Warbucks started out poor and worked his way up, so the assumption is that if Rooster and Lily had worked harder, they wouldn’t be so poor. Their greed and laziness are spotlighted in the song “Easy Street,” in which they dream about being rich. Here, the connection between wealth and spectacle is twisted; the song lapses into an extended dance sequence, but it’s decidedly shabbier (and more drunken, in the case of Miss Hannigan) than “Let’s Go To the Movies,” the most extravagantly spectacular and least story-related song in the film, another display of wealth on the part of Mr. Warbucks.

The biggest character arc in the film is that of Mr. Warbucks. As he begins to feel genuine love for Annie, his growth and departure from superficial materialism is demonstrated by the reprise he sings of “Maybe.” The connection between his growth and singing is accentuated when, in the final song, he tells Annie, “You’ve made life a song. You’ve made me the singer.” Finally, in a Hollywood ending typical of escapist films of the 1930s, the rich man realizes the value of love, and all the good guys get the money they deserve, both reassuring the audience that you needn’t be rich to be happy, and keeping out hope alive that maybe “Tomorrow” our luck will take a turn for the better.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Gangsters Through the Ages: From Scarface to Miller's Crossing

The 1932 film Scarface makes up one third of what’s been described as the shortest classical period of any Hollywood genre: the gangster movie. Scarface and others established many of the conventions that became the codified genre we know today. Miller’s Crossing (1990) is part of the revival of this genre, bringing back these conventions and presenting them through the revisionist lens of the 1990s.

The world and tone of Scarface exemplify trends of the pre-revival gangster film. Our reading described the typical gangster film world as flattened-out and reminiscent of a comic book. Many of the characters in Scarface are very two-dimensional, including Tony. Although he does show a glimmer of humanity near the end when his sister is killed, overall his character is very broadly drawn, reaching the peak of cartoonish flatness when he laughs wildly while shooting the police below his window. The whole ending sequence of Scarface is extremely pushed and operatic—this is a world in which characters are motivated by powerful, simple emotions. Even the events of the plot are very simple. We see a montage of Tony’s ruthlessness and rise to power, but don’t get any specifics as to why he’s killing these people or even who they are.

Miller’s Crossing, on the other hand, has a very complex and fully explained plot of intrigue and multiple double-crossings that require careful audience attention to fully understand. Although emotion in Miller’s Crossing is definitely pushed to the extreme by the end of the film, characters are much more complex than those in Scarface. Villainous Casper has some honor, refusing to betray others’ trust. Alluring “gun moll” Verna is protecting her brother. The protagonist, Tom, is especially different from his Scarface counterpart. While Tony is flat, somewhat unintelligent, and serves as a cautionary figure, Tom is a smart, enigmatic character with an arc—beginning as someone who is merciful and concerned with keeping peace, and ending by killing his former friend.

As the reading noted, the gangster film is the only major genre named for its protagonist; much like the Western is defined by its setting, the gangster film is defined by character, and Tony Camonte is a prime example of the classical-era hollywood gangster. Because of the moral climate in which early gangster films were made, criminals were not often portrayed as the protagonist. When they were, as in Scarface, they were depicted unfavorably, warning the audience of the dark fate awaiting wrongdoers. Miller’s Crossing takes a much more ambivalent view of crime, and Tom’s defining characteristic is not his badness, but his cleverness—one of the traits that causes an audience to empathize with a character, as opposed to something despicable.

This shift demonstrates one major difference between the classical era of gangster films and the genre’s revival: the cultural attitudes toward crime present in the films. In the classical era, the organized crime and gang wars depicted were current events. Prohibition was still in place, and the Hollywood Production Code imposed strict standards of morality on films being produced. Production Code censors worried that gangster films glorified crime, and as a result, classical-era gangster films were required to be blatantly (and often inelegantly) moralistic. This can be seen most plainly in Scarface in the title cards at the film’s opening, exhorting the audience to demand government intervention in organized crime, as well as a narratively-irrelevant scene inserted in the middle of the film in which a newspaperman and a law official discuss the serious problem of gangsters. The film’s ending is also illustrative of the prevailing societal viewpoint; Tony has lived a bad life, and so he must pay the price in the end.

This zeitgeist of moral panic that so greatly affected the short classical era of the genre was not present during the revival, and so the moralistic portrayal of crime is absent from Miller’s Crossing and other revisionist gangster films. In Miller’s Crossing, corruption is everywhere; the police are just as violent as the gangsters, the mayor is a willing puppet, and even when mercy is given, “friends” betray one another for their own gain. There is not a single moral character, and so morality becomes a non-issue.

Uncontrolled avarice and ambition are common themes in many gangster films, and both are driving forces in Scarface. As the reading said, money is not a way of getting something desired so much as it is an abstract goal to be pursued for its own sake. Tony is motivated not by need but by greed for the sake of greed, and this is what brings about his downfall. This good-versus-evil dichotomy is absent from Miller’s Crossing, or at least less clear. Instead there is a morally ambiguous web of mercy, betrayal, loyalty, and power.

This distinction between simplicity and complexity is a fundamental difference between these two films and the classical and revival eras as a whole.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Bringing Up Zombie: Screwball Comedy and the Undead

A country in chaos. Nightmarish throngs of bloodthirsty undead. A desperate group of survivors fighting for their lives, against zombies and one another. Blood, destruction, and… laughs?

Edgar Wright’s 2004 film Shaun of the Dead has all of these, combining conventions of the beloved zombie-horror genre with hilarious dialogue and situations descended from the tradition of 1940s Screwball Comedy. Much like Some Like It Hot, Shaun of the Dead doesn’t fit into the category of “pure” screwball. Besides obviously being outside the time frame of the golden age of screwball comedy (30s and 40s), Shaun of the Dead lacks many key screwball elements. Still, ties to screwball can definitely be seen.

In its broadest sense, “screwball comedy” in the 30s and 40s meant a comedy that was unpredictable (like a “screwball” pitch in baseball). By that definition, Shaun of the Dead is very much in the spirit of screwball, because its comedy comes from the unpredictability of blending of two genres.

Though it doesn’t have the witty banter and oddball characters generally associated with screwball comedy, Shaun of the Dead does have its romantic storyline in common with many screwballs. The divorce-remarriage storyline was made popular by screwballs like The Philadelphia Story and His Girl Friday, and  can be seen in Shaun of the Dead as well, in the plot thread of Shaun’s breakup and reconciliation with his girlfriend.
divorce at the beginning of The Philadelphia Story
In addition to elements of romantic comedy, the plot of Shaun of the Dead follows the conventions of the zombie movie genre in many ways. Warning signs of the oncoming epidemic, a group of survivors that is gradually built up and then killed off, TV reports, and a climactic siege of some sort of stronghold are all tropes of the zombie genre. By building on a framework of well-known conventions, the filmmakers were able to twist our expectations for comedic effect.

An example of this is the use of the news. In traditional zombie movies, the news is the source of exposition—what the zombies are, how they came to be, and how to deal with them. In Shaun of the Dead, however, the TV becomes a joke. Shaun’s channel skimming skips over all the important information about the onset and cause of the epidemic, and even when he and his friend to hear the official advice, they ignore it.

the news in Night of the Living Dead
Stylistically, the film also plays with our expectations and mixes zombie conventions with screwball comedy. At times, the style is that of exaggerated horror, with terrifying sound design accompanying innocuous and mundane actions. At other times, dialogue is used for comedy in a very screwball-esque way. Quotes like “You’ve got red on you,” and Shaun’s repeated exchange with Yvonne become comedic motifs that build throughout the film (much in the same way “type O blood” is used in Some Like It Hot), often put in terrifying contexts for heightened humor. Because the film works so well in both genres, the audience’s two sets of expectations can be played against one another, making for very strong comedy.
Yvonne and her counterpart group.
One aspect of early constituents of the screwball genre that would seem to set Shaun of the Dead apart is the theme of money and class issues. During the Depression, when the genre was first picking up steam, screwball comedies often focused on socioeconomic factors as the obstacle between romantic leads, with working-class characters dropped into the world of the wealthy. While Shaun of the Dead has no trace of the stark rich-poor dichotomy explored in early screwballs, money does play a role. As Lynne Pifer points out in her essay “Slacker Bites Back: Shaun of the Dead Finds New Life for Deadbeats,” it is the pressure to get a job and buy into the capitalistic system of endless work that turns middle-class suburbanites into figurative zombies. By being a slacker, Pifer argues, Shaun defies the societal pressure to let mindless work consume him.

A similar theme can be seen in the 1938 screwball You Can’t Take It With You, in which an eccentric family defies the greedy corporate tycoon—symbol of capitalism—who is trying to buy their house. The lesson is that it isn’t worth it to waste your life for money. I’m not sure I agree with all of Pifer’s argument, but her interpretation definitely connects Shaun of the Dead to screwball comedy in a way that might not be obvious at first.



The reason Shaun of the Dead is funny and memorable isn’t because it’s unlike anything we've seen before. It’s because it plays with things we have seen, combining two familiar genres into something unique and surprising.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

American Apocalypse 1968: Night of the Living Dead


One idea that has come up again and again in our discussion and research on zombies is that the monster in a story is a reflection of the societal fears at that time. During the 1960s, during the Vietnam War, and in the wake of the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther KIng Jr., Americans were losing faith in America and the notion of justice—that death had meaning and happened for a reason, to serve some greater cause. This widespread disillusionment is strongly reflected in George Romero’s  1968 film Night of the Living Dead. Romero’s new version of the zombie and revolutionary new brand of horror make it difficult to imagine Night of the Living Dead classified in the same genre as something like Dracula. With Romero, there is no personification of evil preying upon the innocent (as in pre-sixties Gothic horror films), only a country in chaos, preying upon itself. Throughout the film, Night of the Living Dead portrays a dark outlook on American society—one which resonated with the disillusioned audience of the 1960s.
The Museum of Modern Art identifies one theme of Night of the Living Dead as, “Death is random and without purpose,” never “for the greater good or to further the survival of others.” It’s true: throughout the film, death is constant, and never does it serve any good. The first death, Johnny’s, is completely unexpected and undeserved, beginning what we learn is a widespread trend of sudden, inexplicable murders (the beginning of a zombie apocalypse). The societal fear illuminated by this monster is not fear of the Forces of Evil as something external and malevolent, but fear of senseless destruction of life, rooted in society itself—a reflection of Americans’ feelings about the Vietnam War. The new mistrust in the government and questioning of Vietnam is best illustrated by the films final death, when Ben is assumed to be a zombie and shot casually by the posse of zombie hunters who should be rescuing him. This death at the hands of those supposed to be protectors hit close to home with an audience who had for ten years lost friends and family drafted against their will and killed in a war they didn’t agree with.
Tom and Judy’s deaths are equally in vain; they die frantically attempting to escape a car they’v accidentally lit on fire while attempting to ward off zombies. Here, there is not even an intentional killer; the characters lose control of the weapon they use to frighten their enemies, and it destroys them. This mirrors the precarious situation of the Cold War, in which both the US and Soviet Union had nuclear weapons, and were one mistaken warning signal away from utterly annihilating one another. This connection to the threat of nuclear technology is accentuated by the fact that the zombie phenomenon is caused by a rare form of radiation. The explosion of the car and Judy and Tom’s deaths seem to ask, “Can we escape this before our own weapons destroy us?”


The events of the ‘60s shattered the picture-perfect, 1950s image of what domestic life in America was supposed to be. This is illustrated in Night of the Living Dead in what the Museum of Modern Art calls “the desecration of the wholesome American family.” The wholesome family in question consists of two traditional parents with their injured daughter (who, unbeknownst to them, has become a zombie). Possibly the most disturbing death in the film is when the little girl brutally stabs and kills her own mother. The murder of a parent echoes the assassinations of two beloved leaders (JFK and MLK) which changed America forever.


Night of the Living Dead marked a huge shift in the horror genre in cinema, to match the momentous shift that was happening culturally in this country. Romero was able to express the countries fears, offering “a release for the country's repressed trauma” (Museum of Modern Art), and making a comment on the state of society and the direction America was headed.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Screwball Scrambled


Breakneck witty banter, battling lovers, poor heroes stumbling into the lap of luxury, and general madcap shenanigans are the telltale signs of the Screwball Comedy. In its golden age, spanning the Depression and post-war years, this zany genre gave the world cinematic gems like It Happened One Night, His Girl Friday, Bringing Up Baby, The Philadelphia Story, and a plethora of other eccentric romantic comedies. As popular culture evolved and America’s tastes changed, the Screwball Comedy’s heyday came to an end, but though the “screwball formula” that had codified in the ‘30s and ‘40s dissolved, the signature elements of the genre can still be seen in a long line of kooky comedies descended from classical screwball. Some Like It Hot (1959) is a prime example of this, incorporating many typical screwball ingredients, while maintaining certain fundamental differences that set it apart from what could be considered “pure” Screwball Comedy.


The tone and style of Some Like it Hot are very much in line with many Screwball Comedies. The subject matter is ridiculous (two male musicians forced to dress as women to escape some angry gangsters), and the dialogue writing has the snappy repartee. Jerry (Jack Lemmon) is very much a goofball in the tradition of wacky “screwball” characters for which the genre is named. The world of Some Like It Hot, like those of classical screwball comedies, is a pushed reality, in which the absurd runs rampant.

Sugar: the antithesis of the Screwball heroine
Another essential aspect of Screwball Comedy is the subversion of gender roles and courtship rituals. Some Like It Hot does this also, but in a different way. In many classic screwballs, the female characters are self-reliant, sharp, and just as quirky as their male counterparts. Sugar (Marilyn Monroe), the love interest of Joe (Tony Curtis), is the complete opposite of this; she’s naive, speaks in a perpetually breathy simper (demonstrating her overly sexualized role in the story), and repeatedly describes herself as “not very bright.” The way Some Like It Hot does thwart gender expectations is through the two men’s experiences in drag, particularly Gerry’s. Though at first he needs to be reminded that Sugar and the other women are off limits, he soon gets caught up in his female persona “Daphne,” and when Osgood Fielding III, a wealthy older playboy proposes to “her,” Jerry is quite content with the idea of marrying him (for his money, anyway.) Still more surprising is Osgood’s reaction when it’s finally revealed that Daphne is a man: “Nobody’s perfect.” This subversion of gender roles—a staple of Screwball Comedy—is the primary source of comedy in Some Like It Hot.
"Nobody's perfect."
The themes and dramatic focus of screwball comedies shifted over the course of the golden age, and this is one aspect that definitely sets Some Like It Hot apart from early screwballs like It Happened One Night. In the early days (during the Depression), Screwball had a strong thematic element of socioeconomic issues, where class disparities were obstacles between the romantic leads. While Some Like It Hot has elements of class and monetary motivation (Joe and Jerry need work, Joe tricks Sugar into thinking he’s a millionaire, etc.), thematically, money is irrelevant.
Joe poses as a millionaire.

In the middle years of the reign of the Screwball, writers and directors discovered that it wasn’t the happily-ever-after romantic resolution that kept audience’s interested, but the romantic tension and antagonism between the leads, and so the focus shifted from economic barriers to battles of the sexes, in which the leads would banter and bicker throughout the film then abruptly reconcile at the very end, in hasty and often illogical final scenes. Though Some Like It Hot doesn’t feature this kind of romantic/antagonistic dynamic, the ending scene does follow the Screwball tradition of abrupt resolution. The main conflict of Some Like It Hot comes from the outlandish circumstances, tying it more to later screwballs when the “situation comedy” was on the rise. This similarity can be seen strikingly in I Was a Male War Bride, in which incredible circumstances force Cary Grant to dress in drag to pose as his own wife.
I Was a Male War Bride (1949)

The days of the “pure” Screwball Comedy formula are over, but the genre’s zany legacy still lives on. Though they may be rearranged, inverted, reframed, or scrambled, the core elements of the Screwball Comedy can be found in films spanning the decades.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Firefly: Sci-fi or Western?


Although Joss Whedon’s sci-fi series Firefly draws heavily from John Ford’s classic Western Stagecoach, and is very much a Western in many respects, elements of science fiction set it apart from traditional Westerns, not only in setting and iconography, but in the way it approaches technology and civilization.

One obvious distinction between the genres of science fiction and Western is the difference in technology. In a traditional Western, the filmmaker and audience look back to a time before modern technology, when the only machines around were the pistol on our hero’s hip and that newfangled railroad signaling the the taming of the west. In a science fiction world like that of Firefly, we’re looking ahead to a high-tech future, and there are certain plot elements that would not be possible in a story set in the Old West. Early in the episode we see the threat of the Alliance electronically ID-ing and tracking the Serenity—not something Western outlaws had to contend with. Communication is another threat to the crew; the undercover law-man is able to pass information directly and instantly to the Alliance, which would never be possible on the frontier of the Old West. An even more sinister effect of futuristic science is River’s condition. Though we don’t know exactly what happened to her, we know it was a brain experiment of some sort.


The setting is another very prominent difference between a classical Western and a Space Western. The geographical/temporal setting of the Old West is the most defining feature of the Western genre, and the way it functions is more or less consistent, with contrasting forces of wildness vs. the civilizing influence of the East. In Firefly, setting functions much more in the tradition of science fiction. By setting the story in the future, Joss Whedon makes Firefly not a nostalgic picture of a bygone era, but a dark look ahead at a possible future, and by extension, a reflection of our current path. This view on civilization is another aspect that aligns Firefly more with science fiction than the Western. Although some Westerns depict the Union unfavorably, or question the morals of mainstream civilization, there is also the theme of civilization taming the West, and there is never the absolute, dystopian post-civilization common to many sci-fi stories, usually brought about by technology. Though the world of Firefly isn’t a total dystopia, it has some elements in common with dystopian sci-fi stories. It takes place in the aftermath of a world war, leaving only two nations, with space in the control of an ineffectual and unjust government. Much like in Outland, technology in Firefly has allowed people to set up lives on the outskirts of civilization, where corruption rules and morals have eroded. The most striking example of this is the Reavers, men who ventured to the edge of the galaxy and turned savage. In Firefly it isn’t that civilization hasn’t arrived yet, but that it’s already fallen apart.

Though Firefly might be characterized as a Western set in space by some, I would argue that the story and its themes are a true blend of two genres, and couldn’t exist as solely Western or the science fiction.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Frontier Justice ...in Space!



A lone law-man is stationed in a rowdy mining town on outskirts of civilization. He’s the only person brave enough to uphold justice in the face of danger and corruption, the only one who can stop those dastardly villains. It sounds like a pure, classic Western— except for the fact that it’s set in outer space. Outland (1981) blends elements of the Western and science fiction genres to tell a story about right and wrong, justice, bravery, and people’s heads exploding from exposure to the vacuum of space.


There are many identifiable characteristics of the Western throughout Outland. The Western’s most defining feature is it’s setting (the Old West), and though it may seem like a futuristic space colony is about as different as it could be, the setting in Outland in fact has significant similarities to that of a Western. The industrial mining settlement on the frontier of space is strongly reminiscent of the kind of Wild West town that sprang up as settlers rushed west looking for gold and silver. It even has a revamped saloon, where the final confrontation and shoot-out takes place. Unlike in a Western (where a cowboy can ride out of town at any time), everyone in Outland is trapped within the mining facility, dependent on its pressurization and breathable air, and yet even the natural environment plays a similar role as that of a Western—space could be compared to a harsh inhospitable desert. One article we’ve read stated how in Westerns, the railroad has consistent meaning—representing the taming of the West and the link back to civilization—whereas a space ship in a science fiction story can be assigned any number of meanings. In Outland we see the shuttle back to the space station (and subsequently Earth) function much like a railroad in a Western, as the single tie to civilization. Western character types can also be identified in Outland; there is the idealistic sheriff (Sean Connery’s chief of security character, “O’Neil”), the frontier doctor (gruff company doctor, “Lazarus”), the corrupt moneybags (chief administrator “Shepard”), and the hero’s devoted wife and child (who are less important to the hero than his ideals). Though the iconography and setting associated with the Western are absent, characters and themes make Outland very much a Western in spirit, if not technically a pure Western.


As one article stated, a key aspect of a science-fiction world is that it strives to make the viewers really believe, rather than asking them to suspend their disbelief (as with fantasy), and this requires a blend of the familiar and the alien. Outland manages this balance skillfully, limiting the futuristic (“alien”) technology to advanced computers, interplanetary travel, synthetic drugs, and a light-up racquet-ball court, leaving it with a strong basis in reality. A theme common to many sci-fi stories is technology as the downfall of humanity, which I definitely see reflected in Outland. Technology’s negative connotations are clearly apparent from the detrimental side-effects of a synthetic drug, which are central to the story. We also see that space travel has allowed a world where corrupt industry rules, and a boy can grow up never having set foot on Earth. The mining facility itself is an example of the negative power of technology. As mentioned earlier, a space ship (or in this case, a space station) can be presented as positive, negative, or neutral, and in Outland it is definitely negative. Both visually (with long dark corridors and claustrophobic spaces) and in terms of story (trapping O’Neil as assassins close in on him, the space colony is an ominous force. This feeling of being trapped (one of the film’s biggest narrative departures from the Western) is a major source of suspense. In the tradition of sci-fi thrillers, O’Neil is trapped with his attackers, searching and hiding in the dark, labyrinthine space station, creating a kind of suspense very different from the Western-style standoff suspense of who will shoot first?

Outland is a true blend of genres, uniting disparate traditions of storytelling to create a film that is intriguing and compelling.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Showdown: Ethan Edwards vs. Josey Wales


Ethan Edwards and Josey Wales: two rugged heroes seeking vengeance in the vast, untamed landscape of the Hollywood Western. One a grief-stricken family-man, the other a racist, sexist pig. 



The Searchers (1956)—following the story of Ethan Edwards’s quest for vengeance—is considered one of John Ford’s finest films, an idol of the Western Genre. Twenty years later marked the release of Clint Eastwood's The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976), a film which follows a remarkably similar plot, but which is significantly different in theme and cultural outlook. In an essay about America’s changing social views as seen through the lens of the Western genre in film, Robert C. Sickles compares these two films, drawing parallels between plot elements and contrasting protagonist and treatment of race and gender to illustrate the major shift in ideology in America between the 1950s and '70s. In my opinion, Sickles’s conclusion is very astute, especially with regards to Ethan’s (and the film’s) racism—a topic not really addressed by the other reading we did. The 70s’ more liberal zeitgeist is clearly apparent in Josey Wales, with sensitive portrayal of Native Americans (an extended monologue about the injustice of the Trail of Tears, as well as multiple sympathetic, realistic Indian characters) and the founding of a multicultural family at the end, rising above the various characters’ biases. 

Comedy in The Searchers is very insensitive and mean-spirited. On the few occasions when Ethan shows any emotion other than anger and actually laughs, it’s always at somebody else’s expense. The socially unaware 1950s audience is meant to laugh along with Ethan at the humiliation of Martin and Look (a grotesque, clownish caricature of a Native American woman). As Sickles notes, Look’s Josey-Wales counterpart is not a source for cheap laughs, but a real, active character—a capable young Navajo woman who becomes a valuable member of Josey’s band of travelers, without whom he would have died. Filling the role of clown in Josey Wales is not a buffoonish Indian, but a white sham-elixir salesman; the film mocks American consumerism and foolishness, not the culture of a colonized and exploited people. The two films' comedic elements support Sickles's thesis about changing cultural values.

One convention of the Western that sets these films apart is the white villain figure. In The Searchers, Ethan and Martin run into a few white robbers, but they are dispensed with quite easily, and the true villain  Our reading and discussion of the Western have identified the theme of wildness vs. civilization as one common to many Westerns, but I didn’t see it in either of these two films, at least not in the context of settling the wild west. Though it begins and ends with the motif of looking out a door, highlighting the division between domesticity and wildness, The Searchers is much more focused on revenge than it is on the civilizing influence of the railroad, for example, as the previous reading discussed. In Josey Wales, I see this dichotomy, but reframed in a more personal way—instead of being split between the free, solitary life of a cowboy and the more proper life in town, Josey is pulled between angry revenge and the true happiness of family.