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 MisĂ©rables, 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.