The Aimless Bullet (1961) in Post-War Korea

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The film sets a precedent when a group of men is tossed out of a bar. They lack the funds to pay their tab and they’re wasted, singing the old war songs they used to know in the military. One refrain goes like this, “We march over the bodies of dead soldiers.”

One of their company is a crippled former commander who bemoans the fact he’s a has-been — a broken bowl of a human being — resigned to a life on crutches. It’s a telling annunciation of the South Korean experience after the war.

It positions itself as an important film on par with The Best Years of Our Lives, The Bicycle Thief, The Third Man, or Floating Clouds. Because it shows a Korea racked with post-war degradation, depression, and economic disparity comparable to the manner these other films provided a lens to their respective cultures.

This is vitally important. Especially for those of us from the western world. It’s difficult to understand the Korean War’s total effects because we were not altogether present to see them out. The U.S. often has the privilege of leaving the battlefields of other countries behind. Even with monetary aid, it’s usually others who are forced to pick up the pieces.

Let’s face it. You can only glean so much about the wartime circumstances from MASH episodes shot in Malibu Creek State Park 20 years after the fact. Rigid historical accuracy was never the crux of those stories anyway.

Once we’ve sorted out our setting, the story is really about two brothers. The older one is Cheolho, and he’s ended up as an accountant of all things. It doesn’t seem like a bad job, but it’s also not terribly lucrative working away on an abacus all day.

After the daily grind, he lives in a glorified shack with his wife, who’s nearly catatonic, a babbling mother with PTSD, a sister struggling to get work, and a little girl always coveting pretty things she can never have. His own private pain is the toothache he’s been living with because he doesn’t have the money to get it checked. It plagues him ceaselessly.

But there’s also his little brother. Yeongho is the handsome one drifting along, trying to find himself a living so he can come through on all the grand promises he makes to his niece. It never seems to pan out.

However, there are a couple of high points in an otherwise dreary and oppressive reality. For one, he rekindles an old flame with a nurse (Hye-ran Mun) he knew during the war. It’s nothing too passionate at first, but sweet and affectionate — the kind of romance that people go to the movies to watch. And it feels like a much-appreciated digression from the rest of the film as Yeongho gets back with the alluring Seolhui, who has a smile to light up the screen.

But even her life is far from idyllic. She manages to get by living in a humble apartment way up high and spends her nights unnerved by her next-door neighbor — an unsettled teen boy smitten with unrequited love — who bursts into her room after hours. Peace is nowhere to be found.

Even in one distinctly self-reflexive moment showcasing the nature of movies, our protagonist makes a go at being a movie actor for a brief stint. He finds himself called upon to play a soldier, not unlike his reality in real life. However, the mention of his real wounds — a pair of bullet scars in his side — literally cut to his core wound as a character.

It absolutely scalds him to be forced to dwell on them in any manner. He’s not about to take part in a film trying to capitalize on his hurt, and he stomps out in a rage. Thus, he still has no job, and he’s still disaffected.

What’s so compelling about Aimless Bullet comes with its brand of Korean neorealism because within my own limited grasp of world cinema, it’s something I’ve never been fortunate enough to witness outside of documentary. But the images, matched with the story, tell us so much about the society — what it was still going through — and honestly, how these types of issues feel universal wherever they take place.

While the metaphors are different, the implications are very much the same between Floating Clouds and Aimless Bullets, and they draw on a similar dynamic. Ironically, whether they’re considered enemies or allies, on the ground level, the world feels very much the same.

People are poor, and they can’t get work. Women scrounge for anything they can get and that means picking up American servicemen who are looking for a one-night stand and a good time. There’s nothing more to it than a business transaction.

Meanwhile, the individual and also their related communities are impacted in the most adverse ways possible. One of the characters bemoans the fact people have become burdens for one another these days.

There’s yet another heartwrenching scene on the streetcar. Two strangers are looking down below, grinning at a Korean woman who is romancing an American G.I. Cheolho cuts between them having experienced something much the same with his sister.

Whether or not he heard them entirely, he’s experienced his share of familial shame, and the moments are instantly linked in our minds. In the very same moment, there’s this conflicting duel going on between some bouncy American tune and a more somber Korean song providing another piece of complementary audio commentary. It’s a devastating reminder of what we have observed with this cultural clash.

Ultimately, the brothers have it out because they are prone to two different philosophies — two different ways of life — and yet neither one seems satisfied. Cheolho questions why they have to forget about their conscience and morality to be rich. Because that’s how the contemporary world around them seems to function.

However, Yeongho decides to take matters into his own hands. He gets one of his old war buddies to keep the engine running for him, an acquaintance Miri can vouch for his alibi, and then he proceeds to slip under the shutters of the local bank as it closes. His intentions are made clear enough even as a procession of Christian passerby sing “Nearer My God to Thee” in a highly ironic touch.

How we get from here to our other protagonist eventually bleeding out is anybody’s guess. I won’t pretend to understand everything. However, it underlines the bitter, persistent adversity that proves the bedrock of this story. One brother on the outside wandering like a zombie and the other wounded to his core.

When the film purportedly got banned in some form because of its finale, this feels like a slight misnomer; it got banned because the entire third act is weighed down by tragedy upon tragedy in relentless, pulverizing succession. Don’t expect any relief.

4/5 Stars

The Housemaid (1960) and a Living Hell

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The opening credits are more self-assured and breezy than I was expecting as the brass sounds off against a pair of kids playing cat’s cradle in the family living. Even with the rain outside, it somehow feels like a fitting depiction of postwar modernity in the 1960s. Films like Ohayo and When a Woman Ascends The Stairs capture a similar cross-section of life.

But this is simply the initial feel — the artistic flourishes being implemented. The most obvious element is the opening conceit between a husband and wife. He reads in the newspaper how a man had an affair with his maid. His wife scoffs at the news. Disgusted that such filth would desecrate the home she’s worked so hard to cultivate. Instantly we have the inkling of tension.

By day Dong-sik Kim is a music teacher. It feels like an all-girls dormitory, although it is actually a factory. He’s fairly straight-laced in his work, but it doesn’t stop the girls from having crushes on him. One in particular. It’s another seed of drama the film sows early on. Because if we learn nothing else, The Housemaid‘s forte is draining the reservoirs of theatricality for all they are worth.

If it’s not already apparent, the film has unabashed tinges of melodrama end to end. I know next to nothing about modern K dramas — apart from their reputation — but could they perchance have roots in films like these? Because we have brazen jumps in narrative and scenes where the story changes almost instantaneously from a sudden tragedy or a paradigmatic shift of some sort.

Of course, the vivacious Cho can’t have the composer, but she does something else instead. She starts getting lessons from him and then another idea comes into her head. You see, the family needs a new maid. It’s almost nonchalant how she offers her roommate the position because she knows the girl will be accepted almost without question. Here the film really begins as a kind of domestic thriller.

It’s all because of this peculiar girl who offers none of the warmth or instant charisma of Cho. She looks rather forlorn and dowdy, hardly the domestic type nor personable. Yet sure enough, she’s enlisted as the newest occupant of the Kim’s impressive two-story abode.

Much like some of Hitchcock’s great achievements (ie. Suspicion, Shadow of a Doubt, and Pyscho) or even Bong’s recent success Parasite (paying a great homage to the Housemaid), the domestic space becomes such a lethal vessel for dramatic tension.

If used effectively, there’s an inherent claustrophobia, constriction, and isolation such spaces can bring out. And the directors are able to make it a character unto itself, ripe with all sorts of thematic ideas and visual cues to act as an extension of their story.

Instead of a luminescent glass of milk, it is rat poison stuck away in a cupboard proving a deadly fulcrum within the movie. Packed in that tiny canister of household goods is so much threat and menace.

Director Kim ki-young augments his already contentious dynamics through sheer visual motifs. The stairwells become the most prominent piece of the home — a symbol of wealth — certainly but also social mobility and the seesawing power struggle.

Meanwhile, the sliding doors keep the space tight and confined such that you begin to expect the conflict and then feel it in turn. What’s being developed before us is a kind of cinematic language to go with the raging plonking on the piano taken up by several characters, all disposed to releasing their emotions on the keys. The music alone packs enough rage to pump up the blood pressure.

It succeeds in lending a continual fire to this overwhelming even crippling intensity. It reaches the point of being taxing. We are privy to the duplicity of illicit love that feels like two sides of the same coin. Cho’s puppy-like love for the teacher is forbidden but still youthful and a touch of naive.

However, the other is pernicious in a totally destructive manner as is made plainly evident. One day the wife must go off, leaving her husband with the maid in the house. What’s been alluded to the entire movie finally comes into being. She throws herself at him and he does very little to resist. In the heat of the moment, he’s not about to put up a fight. It’s the repercussions that will come to destroy him and cripple his family.

One must acknowledge all of their indiscretions would come to nothing if not for the fact his new “mistress” is now pregnant with his son even as his wife is about to have his child as well. It plays as a salacious piece of scandal and the maid can willfully wave it around as her bargaining chip — a mode in which to blackmail them.

Because she’s running scared even as she jealousy hangs onto the man who wants nothing more than to cast her off. Now he feels shackled by her. In some harrowing way, the film makes it apparent he is all but powerless to stop her as she ruthlessly scraps for herself. It’s the urban nightmare: held hostage in their own middle-class lifestyle with their kids, their TV, and new home, and it all means next to nothing. It becomes this futile trap they’re perpetually stuck in.

The commentary is so closely tied to the persistent intrigue and there’s the key — how this pursuit of upward mobility, of social status in a vertical society, winds up being their very downfall. They are strangled and then undone by the very tokens of wealth they have craved their entire lives. First, it begins with wifely ambitions and then the unseated desires of her husband compounding the situation.

However, there would be no picture without the self-seeking, crazed intentions of the maid. In her own right, she rivals Ellen Harland (Gene Tierney’s character) in Leave Her to Heaven. She’s so possessive, obsessive in her love, it threatens to tear up every relationship in its wake. There is no peace while she’s alive and her unwavering envy only sows chaos before jumping off the deep end entirely.

Because she haunts them — staring at the children through the sliding glass doors, rain pouring down, even as she harries their dejected father to the point of helplessness.

I mentioned the blackmail — the threat of being social pariahs — as being a kind of force holding them where they are. In this manner, one cannot help but think at Luis Bunuel’s Exterminating Angel where some unnamed force keeps a group of aristocrats trapped in a room.

In the Housemaid the narrative devolves into its own form of living hell. You have to see it in order to understand how insidious it really feels. Because this prison (or noose) is not of a supernatural variety — it is very much implemented by the social structure on hand. And ultimately, no stabilizing cop-out ending can neutralize the frankness behind the nightmare.

One only needs to recall the wife’s desperate assertion to her husband. “My corpse may be silent, but my will won’t be!” In the end, Kim ki-young delivers a shocking portrait boldly mechanizing the multifaceted underpinnings of melodrama as all things romance, thriller, and satire. To this day, it remains an unflinching touchstone of Korean cinema at a time when the world was rapidly changing and still coming to terms with its gains.

4/5 Stars

Drive a Crooked Road (1954): A Malibu Sunshine Noir

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“On a clear day, you can see Catalina.”

Drive a Crooked Road might best be labeled as a So-Cal sunshine noir, and it easily has a place at the counter next to Shack Out on 101 and equally grubby fare.

Because under the right circumstances, it’s easy to see how Mickey Rooney could make a darn good noir protagonist. Like one of the genre stalwarts — Elisha Cook Jr. — he’s small in stature. Visually, he’s a bit of a pipsqueak and if you strip away his typical magnetism, the confidence, and charisma of a lifelong entertainer, there’s something quite fragile and forlorn there.

Rooney, for all his successes and the serpentine nature of his career, does himself credit here, reinventing his image once more. Eddie Shannon is the kind of guy who gets stepped on his entire life and takes it. He’s a lowly mechanic with far-off dreams of racing a European job at Le Mans. His other prominent feature is the scar on his forehead as if to mark him as a kind of social outcast.

Admittedly, his life is nothing more than fixing cars by day and going back home at night to a mantle lined with childhood trophies. It’s as if they’re compensation, a way of telling himself he is a big deal after all as he kicks back on his bed.

I won’t make any claims that the actor-turned-director Richard Quine is a virtuoso hand, but I do enjoy a handful of his films with varying themes. What draws together some of the better ones are his collaborators. Kim Novak made a startling debut in another sordid noir of the same year Pushover. Then, he had a good many collaborations with both Bill Holden and Jack Lemmon, just to name a few.

What Drive The Crooked Road shows off is his substantial collaborations with future mainstream directing giant Blake Edwards. Rooney, a fellow youth actor, was a holdover from their days together working on the screen as some of the industry’s promising talent. The greatest joy is how it shuns the prevailing song-and-dance, happy-go-lucky entertainment they normally stuck their name to and gladly takes a divergent path.

As good a place as any to start is with a femme fatale (Dianne Foster). She comes by the repair shop one day to get her car fixed up. That could be the end of it, but she has other plans. So Eddie pays the good-looking dame Matthews a house call.

It’s immediately apparent she’s shamelessly flaunting herself. First, on the lawn then, hanging over the side of her convertible, and finally, right next to him as he digs under the hood. Barbara makes her presence known, as it were, and she has total command of the scene.

This perceptible dynamic is so crucial as is Rooney’s diffident performance if the story’s to come off. How visibly uncomfortable he feels being around her — making eye contact with her flirtations — as she chats him up on the way to sunbathing above Malibu. It implicitly coaxes him out to the water’s edge.

Because even as his whole existence is uncomfortable in her very presence, he desperately wants someone as beautiful as her to give him the time of day. The fact she actually paid him notice gives him hope.

If it’s not obvious already, this bit of come-hither interplay devolves into a not so unfamiliar ploy used most definitively in Scarlet Street. Edward G. Robinson’s Christopher Cross was a suffocating nobody as well with nothing but his art. Kitty (Joan Bennet) exploits him for all he’s worth on the behest of her boyfriend (Dan Duryea).

In Barbara Matthews’s case, she’s operating on behalf of her major love interest, the dashing and charismatic, if generally despicable cad, Steve Norris (Kevin McCarthy). He and his smart-aleck buddy (Jack Kelly), don’t immediately strike one as a criminal types. And yet their high-living, bon vivant ways, and impatience with the normal tenets of capitalism cause them to buck the system.

They’re looking to rob a bank, a handy joint they scoped out while spending their summer vacation in Palm Springs. You could say the crime fits the criminals. The only problem is a driver. They need someone to navigate the windy backroads from Palm Springs to San Diego. Someone with handles who can help them make a quick getaway since time is of the essence. That’s why they called on Barbara to reel Eddie in.

However, she’s the only one to realize what is really happening. They label him like all the rest as an ugly little guy, a lonesome little animal; and it’s true by the world’s prognostications. But Matthews sees more being around him. There’s an earnestness, a candor in how he interacts with her.

She calls it devotion, a terrible kind of worship because he’s fallen for her irrevocably hook, line, and sinker. It’s pretty much instantaneous since the first moment she ever gave him the time of day. He’s not a normal mark; he’s completely given himself over to him, totally vulnerable. One can only imagine what he might do if he finds out he’s just a sucker.

Of course, her conspirators fail to heed her warnings. After all, what could a born loser do to them? So Eddie comes aboard, brought into their confidence, initially hesitant until Barbara leverages everything so he thinks he’s doing this for her. 15,000 smackers could do a lot for them. He studies their home movies religiously in an effort to gain a lay of the land in preparation for game day. Once more, he’s devoted because he thinks she wants this. It’s not for himself but to earn her affections.

Again, Barbara is overcome by misgivings about the entire operation. In her own way, she tries to give him a way out — knowing where they are headed listening to Eddie’s big talk about driving better than he ever has, doing the job so he can get the money she wants. He couldn’t see he’s being played unless he was hit in the head with it. That’s what it takes.

One of the greatest investments of the film really comes with Foster’s performance. Because at first, she feels like a prototypical noir vamp, merciless in how she uses her feminine wiles, and yet, if we can coin the phrase, she is a tender femme fatale.

Take, for instance, one scene where Eddie makes an impromptu house call to see her. They’re supposed to stay apart for the good of the mission and still, he cannot bear to be away from her. She comes out into the living room, closing the bedroom door to meet him.

At first, I thought she closed her door behind her to cover up something — maybe a male visitor lurking behind. But it’s simpler than that, even more innocent. Finally, Eddie leaves and she goes into her bedroom and cries. Whereas Kitty’s laughter was mistaken for tears in Scarlet Street, here the tears are real, there’s this conflicted tenderness present.

But of course, all this must be put on hold as the day of the bank robbery arrives. They make their best-laid plans, intercepting the route of the usual bank employee. In another quality creative decision a la Gun Crazy, we are forced to wait out the job from the getaway car with Eddie and Steve. It comes off without a hitch because it’s not primarily a heist film at all.

If that were the case, everything would need to go awry at this point. The question remains, Why do we hold off? Because the true pearl in the oyster is how the story is not solely about the tension of the bank robbery and whether they will succeed, though that becomes of great interest. Encompassing all of these genre elements is really the underlying character piece.

What will Eddie do? What will happen to him at the end of said crooked road when reality sets in and he finds out he’s been used. Because it’s not a question of if but when it will happen; eventually it does.

There’s the confrontation, the reveal, the turn of events. You’ll have to witness them for yourself. The images resonate most deeply with me. A car overturned on the beach, the tide lapping up against the shore in the background. There’s not a more fitting summation of the film’s juxtaposition of elements — that is sun-soaked, Malibu beachfront noir.

The final interludes bring to mind another paranoia piece of the atomic age, Kiss Me Deadly, and far from jumping off the deep end, Quine’s picture has its own misanthropic edge. Where the beach, shrouded in shadows, provides the perfect landscape for a devastating capitulation. It’s a testament to his core players, Rooney and Foster in particular. I’ll never look at Mickey Rooney the same way again.

3.5/5 Stars

Middle of the Night (1959): Chayefsky Does May-December Romance

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Middle of The Night proves instantly placeable thanks to its black-and-white, New York streets aesthetic. Although the name Paddy Chayefsky, emblazoned over the credits, gives us as much of an inclination of the story we are about to experience.

Because to this day, his name carries with it a hallowed note of reverence and a few distinctives. Not only did he garner the unprecedented acclaim of The Academy, his films were also always centered on characters in their individual spaces and mundane lives. His prose propelled the script into a place of primacy and his words were a form of gospel to center the story around.

While he did time in the nascent days of television where the lines between stage, screen, and theater were relatively thin, he ultimately propelled himself into the movies by maintaining his personal ethos and letting his words speak for themselves.

You might term them kitchen sink dramas, but whatever the phrase, they tackle issues of life as they happen in unfiltered ways. Analogous examples might be Marty, A Catered Affair, even a non-Chayesfy piece like Love With The Proper Stranger.

These roles were delivered on the stage by stalwarts E.G. Marshall and Eva Marie Saint, then another illustrious pair: Edward G. Robinson and Gena Rowlands. In the film, they fall to Frederic March and Kim Novak. Who you like most might fall to personal preference.

Far from having ice in her veins, Novak is nervous and skittish in all circumstances. It almost takes some getting used to and yet when you do, she feels more relatable than any other point in her career. Because she’s given up her self-assured cool and husky tones for a voice of a far more timorous nature.

March is always a splendid performer — he has a likability and an innate honesty to his characterizations. In principle, the same can be said of his overall performance here, but the element getting in the way at times is his lapses into an ethnic patois. Authentic backstory or not, it doesn’t quite suit him nor does he need it. But then my feelings started to evolve.

Because I became aware he seems to change how he speaks depending on who he’s talking to. After all, it’s not too farfetched as I have friends who lapse back into shorthand and slang to accommodate certain friends or family from a certain cultural subset. Whether or not this holds true in Middle of The Night, it hints at the complicated patchwork of interpersonal relationships human beings are constantly grappling with.

Recently I watched another Kim Novak romance, Strangers When We Meet, and its strengths fall to its extravagant Technicolor and a certain Hollywood opulence augmenting the middle-class romantic drama burning between Novak and Kirk Douglas. It is a West Coast counterpart to Middle of The Night because they are poles apart, both thematically and in the environments they take time depicting.

Here our main tension builds out of a May-December romance between an aging widower (March) and his beautiful young secretary (Novak). But while it gives the pretense of a superficial affair on the page, the brilliance of Chayefsky’s script is how he’s able to tease out the warm and tentative love budding between two people.

Lee Grant and Martin Balsam’s screentime might only accumulate to a few scenes each. However, even on the outskirts of the drama like they are, they still manage to leave a lasting impact on the story. It’s a testament to the scripting and the veteran caliber of the performers.

One scene, in particular, feels like a masterclass in stringing conversations together through overlapping ideas, cut-off sentences, and the types of asides that dot real-life conversation. Jack (Balsam) is talking about getting a sitter so they can take a vacation before tax season hits him. His wife Marilyn (Grant) — Jerry’s daughter — is preoccupied with her father’s romances. They are mismatched and going off on their own separate tangents.

Jerry doesn’t want to end up like his contemporary, the ostentatious shell-of a man (Albert Dekker), who talks a big talk about his romantic exploits while feeling generally regretful of the life he’s led. Jerry’s far from envious, especially as his live-in sister constantly tries to subtly influence his love life in unwanted ways.

Despite their mutual affinity, the disparate couple has their share of reservations. Because for the here and now, they are happy; they need each other and they love each other. But they can’t help but consider the obvious barriers around them.

If I’m remembering the underlying themes of Marty, the same elements hold true here too: the imprint of family and related peer pressure shape our decisions and ultimately our happiness. Since the days of Romeo & Juliet oftentimes family influence only serves to make matters all the more confusing. If romance happened in a vacuum, it might be a lot more manageable.

Because Betty and Jerry get away together and have a grand ol’ time at a rambunctious New Year’s party where everyone and their wife seems to be their new best friend. The age gap feels inconsequential when you’re full up on bubbly and at the top of the world.

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Still, they must return home to reality and with their mutual feelings not quite sorted out. They tell themselves the only thing that matters is them, and yet that’s a fallacy because there are so many strings attached. It’s a reminder of how serious relationships make those involved come to terms with everything. Because every person brings with them a plethora of familial relationships they must navigate.

Mother raises hell yelling down the stairwell at her daughter’s suitor with all her nosy neighbors crammed in the hallway to get a good look at Betty’s Spencer Tracy. And that’s not the end of it. Everyone else is agitated and high-strung, compounded by their own problems, and it’s these prolonged scenes providing a platform for the talents of Grant and Balsam.

My heart really breaks for Novak when her scuzzy ex-husband stops by from the Vegas circuit to try and win her back along with the “half hours” she used to give him. But she’s tired of it. Tired of being desired or more exactly objectified in this manner. She deserves better.

With Jerry momentarily out of the picture, it gives us the time and space to realize the gravity of her individual predicament and the struggles of her own life. She desperately needs Jerry. Constantly clinging to him, wringing her hands, biting her thumb as signs of her constant uncertainty and distress. Because there has never been any type of stability in her life.

Meanwhile, he’s continually obsessed with her but also about how others perceive her — jealous of any younger man who might have eyes for her. His fits of temper become exacerbated over time as he’s overcome by chippiness on the turn of a dime. It’s inconsequential until it totally blinds him, almost crippling their relationship. You could call these neuroses or you could simply acknowledge them as traits of two frightened little people.

Later, they share a fateful exchange in the snow. It looks like what they have has finally imploded. Can it be salvaged? We can’t be sure. He says, “It’s a lousy kind of love.” She replies tearfully, “It’s the only kind I know.” It’s pitiful and real and honest. Sometimes I feel like Chayefsky is on a soapbox — in a movie like The Americanization of Emily — here he just seems human.

This sums it up, doesn’t it? None of us are perfect at love. We have our own hangups, issues, and idiosyncracies getting in the way of loving our spouses and the significant people in our lives well. Whatever the outcome of The Middle of The Night, surely we can agree it intersects with all of us on some primeval level. This is the brilliance of Chayesky at his best. Because the humble origins allow him to shine through.

3.5.5 Stars

Strangers When We Meet (1960): Kim Novak and Kirk Douglas

Screenshot 2020-02-10 at 90848 PMRichard Quine’s Strangers When We Meet proves to be a Technicolor feast on par with much of what Nicholas Ray, Douglas Sirk, and Vincente Minnelli were putting out at the same time. A lot of the immediate joy comes with getting a feel for life at the time.

Certainly, it’s done up and made into a polished Hollywood middle class, but this serves the motives of the picture. In the meantime, we can busy ourselves taking in all the sights from the bus stops to the grocery stores, the cars, and all the mundane accents of life circa 1960. These would be all too easy to take for granted if not for the fact we are so far removed from that generation.

Kirk Douglas (who we just lost last week at age 103*) is an architect of some repute and though he doesn’t quite have 2.5 kids, he’s living the American Dream. He has a good job, a beautiful wife (Barbara Rush), and his latest project is being drawn up as we speak. Being a product of Douglas himself, Larry Coe is not about to have his vision compromised, and he’s imbued with a dogged bullheadedness evident in all facets of his life.

Kim Novak, in one respect, feels out of place as a suburban housewife and a mother. It’s not her obvious character type with that husky voice and golden allure of hers. And yet this dissonance serves her quite well as a woman who feels trapped and unfulfilled. The stoic aloofness she could always propagate says everything we need to know about her.

In her day, Kim Novak was seen as the answer to frisky and enticing Marilyn Monroe because while still alluring, she is also the antithesis. While neither is particularly far-ranging in their parts, their fundamental approaches are so very different.

Novak’s register is so low and, in a word, reserved. It’s nothing compared to Marilyn’s sing-song quality, but in a film like Strangers When We Meet one must wager it works far better. Even as she hardly feels like the domestic stereotype — as Marilyn does not — it somehow fits her prevailing qualities.

As Strangers When We Meet sets up its world and the relationships orbiting throughout the story, it becomes apparent the movie exhibits another facet of suburbia that complements Bigger Than Life, No Down Payment, or even Rebel Without a Cause. It’s this idea that even within these perceived oases of middle-class comfort, there is still a myriad of anxietieties and discontentments causing fractures at the seams.

Whereas Novak’s husband comes off as a loveless prude, Barbara Rush does her best to make the most of her marriage, romance, and all. She’s the one we feel the most sympathetic towards as it becomes all too obvious she might very well become collateral damage.

Because with two pretty faces as renowned as Kirk Douglas and Kim Novak — no matter who their spouses might be — we have a premonition that they will be getting together in some way, shape, or form. These are the unwritten rules of Hollywood moviegoing. 

I wasn’t considering it at the time, but they first cross paths at the bus stop because their boys are friends. It’s Innocent enough. Then, it’s the aisle of the grocery store. Larry stirs up the courage (or the brashness) to invite Maggie to see his latest work project.

If we wanted to be purely critical of the man, we could say he is taken first and foremost by her extraordinary beauty. Though I feel like his wife is lovely in her own way. The movie suggests there is a bit more to their affair.

It begins because Maggie seems to understand him; she seems to encourage him in his work — to be genuinely impressed and interested in what he does. Maybe it strokes his ego, makes him feel more important, more heard than he’s felt in a long time. If it’s true of Larry, the same holds for Maggie as well. This coalescing of passion is what brings them together.

Walter Matthau is initially underused and yet with his telling look and a few words, he can insinuate even more into this story. I’m thinking in particular of the moment he tells his neighbor, “We’re like furniture in our own homes. Next door we’re heroes.” He senses the angst on the surface and no doubt suspects the fire burning between Larry and Maggie.

It comes to a head during a dinner party Larry’s wife puts on. There’s a sense this is her admirable attempt to win her husband back, in their social spheres with their friends, and then later, behind closed bedroom doors. Because she’s not blind; she can see her man drifting away from her, and she’s not going down without a fight.

These inferences remain out on the fringes suggesting the wants and desires of the men and women even as guests drone about crabgrass and how all women dress the same these days. You have to look beyond all the obfuscation to appreciate the sequences for what they are.

Take, for instance, the striking scene where Novak goes into the bedroom to pick up her coat only to see the intimate space, her face in the mirror — and wish it was hers — wish she could be sharing it with Larry. In the same sequence, she happens upon his inquisitive young son. When he asks her name she responds with “Maggie” — the name his father calls her — that’s somehow more intimate and more a measure of who she is as a human being.

Ed Mcbain’s script is not at all squeamish about melodrama. The apogee comes when the sleazy Matthau gives Larry a taste of his own medicine charging into his home while he’s away and making clear advances toward his wife. His actions seem to defy logic.

Is he merely doing this to stir up Coe or is it a genuine play for Eve’s affections? I’m led to believe it’s the latter because as it happens, it’s a devastating confrontation, even as it teeters on this unnerving precipice. We feel for Rush, victimized like she is really for the entire movie, but here it all stands right there in her living room. Even for an instant, she feels so completely vulnerable.

The rain pouring down outside acts as a sympathetic indicator if not only a torrent of renewed drama. The overstimulated soundtrack doesn’t do the performances any favors, but they leave a melting impression; we must ponder the outcomes.

Because affairs can rarely maintain the status quo. Their very definition makes them into this novel entity in one’s life breaking through the presumed drudgery of the everyday. But there comes a point — a slip-up or a guilty conscience — where they must be brought to light.

Douglas spends the majority of the movie constructing his latest cutting-edge home for a gabby author played by Ernie Kovacs. It’s apparent this yet-to-be-finished structure is a metaphor for his life — his hopes and aspirations outside of the conventional suburban life he leads.

He finishes it too, fully realized in all its glory, and still, we watch Kim Novak drive off on her own. This isn’t Picnic. There is not even a faint flicker of hope of a reunion some miles off in the distance. This feels like a permanent departure. Where the characters have chosen the so-called “noble thing,” to preserve their families in lieu of their own private and clandestine fantasies.

The completed space is a bit like Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House except it’s for a life (and a woman) he can never hope to have. It’s heartbreaking for any number of reasons. Not merely because they cannot be together. The layers go further. You wonder if their families can ever heal. How will this affect their children? What about their spouses? Is this just a temporary salve that will fail years down the road? We have no way of knowing. They are the ones who have to live with their choices.

3.5/5 Stars

*Note: I originally wrote this review soon after the passing of Kirk Douglas on February 5, 2020.

Classic Movie Beginner’s Guide: Kim Novak

In our ongoing series of guides for up-and-coming classic movie fans, we turn our attention to one of the most alluring and iconic actresses from the Classic Hollywood period.

Kim Novak, who is still alive and well today, started out in her early 20s as an answer to Marilyn Monroe, while soon developing her own image as a husky-voiced, sultry siren. She played opposite some of the biggest stars of her day. Unfortunately, her own talents are often dismissed in light of her looks, and she eventually left Hollywood to live a far more secluded life.

Picnic (1955)

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Kim Novak garnered attention for her self-assured work in the film noir Pushover and a playful bit in Pfft. However, one of her most iconic roles thereafter came with Picnic opposite William Holden. The Kansas heat whips up a passionate romance between a teenage prom queen and an out-of-town drifter. Their dance together to “Moonglow” is one of the movie’s magical moments.

The Man With The Golden Arm (1955)

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There’s no doubt this is Frank Sinatra’s picture and a darn good one too as he plays a relapsing druggie struggling to get the monkey off his back. As all the street graft enable him and his disabled wife nags him, it’s the local waitress in Novak who gives him the tough love he genuinely deserves. They would costar again in Pal Joey with more tepid results.

Vertigo (1958)

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This is the big one. The one that will cement Kim Novak’s legacy for the ages thanks to Alfred Hitchcock’s obsessive vision and Bernard Hermann’s mesmerizing score, turning her into a spectral beauty haunting the streets of San Francisco. Everything from her wardrobe to her posturing makes her dual role as Madeleine and Judy pitch-perfect. If you want something lighter, try Bell, Book, and Candle from the same year, also starring James Stewart

Middle of The Night (1959)

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Kim Novak’s performances are generally overshadowed if not completely neglected. She is, after all, remembered as a glamour girl. However, in a film like Middle of The Night with a heart-wrenching premise and a craftsman like Paddy Chayefsky, she stretches herself opposite Frederic March playing an unorthodox couple trying to weather societal peer pressure. It’s probably her most vulnerable, most devastating performance.

Worth Watching

Strangers When We Meet, Boys Night Out, Kiss Me Stupid, etc.

 

Down By Law (1986): An Offbeat Jarmusch Noir

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A raspy vocal emanates from the screen verging on spoken word as it sings to a mambo-infused rhythm. Casual tracking shots lead us by the local architecture at the pace of a car ambling along on a Sunday afternoon. I only confirmed after the fact this is Tom Waits singing his tune “Jockey Full of Bourbon” from an earlier album.

These are the streets of Louisana, and the man helping to capture these glorious, sweeping shots is none other than Robby Muller (probably most famous for his work with Wim Wenders). His partnership with Jim Jarmusch was just being established and it would continue well into the ’90s.

This is the opening prelude of Down by Law if you will. Because the real intimate stretches of humanity — at least the ones dwelling in this story — can be found in the dirty, dilapidated interiors and on the sketchy street corners. It’s these bombed-out, grungy aesthetics giving the film its layers of instant character.

Muller’s cinematography is an immediate asset and no matter the subject matter within the frame, he makes it feel captivating and strikingly beautiful, whether it’s a street corner, a jail cell, or a boggy bayou. We’re drawn to keep watching and relishing his images.

John Lurie is a pimp who feels like a nobody. He tries to act big only to get sucked into the shadiest of business deals. Tom Waits isn’t much better off as a disgraced disc jockey. His girl walks out of him in a fit of rage, and he proceeds to go drown his sorrows.

However, first, he must gather up his shoes from the street below where they have been unceremoniously tossed. The inhumanity of Gene Pitney’s record (I think that’s him) cast out into the street says it all — both the mood and the crispness of the photography.

I’m not sure if Tom Waits is an actor as much as he’s an enigmatic personality exuding something we can latch onto as an audience. Lurie’s not altogether intriguing to me, but with Waits there’s something different — something we want to find out more about.

The manner of this off-beat noir is now fully established because the mood is the key when plot feels almost secondary even tertiary in importance. The dialogue is laughable, but somehow it fits into this world gladly mixing both style and sendup of the past. And yet it’s only the most affectionate homage to bygone years with its chiaroscuro, smoky street corners, and fedoras to fill out a modern underworld.

It’s the kind of movie where a guy will just walk up to you on a deserted street corner and offer you keys to a Jaguar and a wad of Franklins to do his dirty work for him. Sometimes the dirty work has strings attached.

Pretty soon Zack’s in the can and Jack’s with him. What a sorry pair they turn out to be. But there is eventually a saving grace. Enter Bob. Aside from being another tribute to Jarmusch’s wildly diverse casting tendencies, Roberto Benigni holds the film together with his charming personality.

He single-handedly redefines the tone of the movie making it into a kind of reluctant buddy movie. Because his instant good nature, loquaciousness, and limitations with the English language give him the powers to add something radically different to the film’s cocktail.

If he’s ever the butt of the jokes as the foreigner, more often he’s the movie’s champion, a force of joy and goodwill bringing together two bunkmates of the most cynical and standoffish sort. When they start their giddy tirade — yelling at the top of their lungs — You scream, we scream, we all scream for ice cream, it feels like “Moses Suposes” antics taking over the jailhouse.

Even with the introduction of Benigni, there is this sense Jarmusch is once more working in these near-stagnant scenes involving shooting the bull or playing cards much like Stranger Than Paradise. It’s once more observational and altogether content in the idiosyncratic. The elliptical sense of filling the spaces in between is also surprisingly prevalent. The biggest example being, of course, the prison escape.

Tarantino would choose to not show the heist 6 years later in Reservoir Dogs. To some degree, Jarmusch beat him to the punch as far as genre deconstruction with a jailbreak movie missing its most crucial lynchpin. But for what he’s going for, it works wonders. It works far better by throwing away convention because he never rested on it, to begin with.

Soon they are fleeing through the bayou, then canoeing, then getting left adrift without any inclination where they are going. Thankfully, they find a bunkhouse in which to recalibrate (though it looks eerily similar to their cell). However, the real prize is when they happen upon Luigi’s Tin Top. In its own way, the restaurant is an oasis.

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We had been through so much already, it completely slipped my mind that this moment was coming. It feels like a slice of serendipity. Here we have Roberto Benigni playing opposite Nicoletta Braschi as two Italians madly in love in the middle of nowhere. Again, they somehow operate outside the pervasive tone — the underlying stench — of the movie and its other characters.

However, what makes it feel fortuitous comes with context. They would wind up getting married 5 years later and remain so to this day as far as I know. Over a decade later, they would star in their most renowned foray Life is Beautiful, which pretty much bottled up everything disarming and magical about Benigni and enchanted the world over with its abundant good cheer and tenderness.

For now, they dance cheek to cheek in a lonely restaurant out in the boonies. It’s inauspicious while signifying something so much more. We leave them knowing they have a rewarding life ahead.

In the final moments as Lurie and Waits walk down the path, trees on either side, I couldn’t help but think of one of the greatest, most atmospheric noirs: The Third Man. Except as Jack and Zack split off at the fork in the road to forge their own paths, we can’t help but be reminded of Robert Frost.

Because Jim Jarmusch might as well be summed up as such. A noir aficionado with the sentiments of a poet. Down By Law is not quite bombastic pop culture pulp in the mode of Tarantino. There’s a distinct artfulness there that still never quite loses its idiosyncratic yearnings and inclinations.

4/5 Stars

Stranger Than Paradise (1984) and Jim Jarmusch

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One of the most revelatory aspects about becoming more familiar with Jim Jarmusch is how international his films are. At the very least, there’s this sense of them putting a lens to a broader cross-section of society.

He is unequivocally American, but whether it’s because he’s a cineaste or driven to a global perspective through music or other interests, he paints with a canvass broader than simply the American experience. He also seems to understand the American experience is framed and colored by those who come to us. In fact, we are a melting pot, as Alexis de Tocqueville once noted, made up of all nations.

As a storyteller, Jarmusch seems drawn to what I’ve heard termed the “mearcstapa” — the border walkers — people on the outskirts. They could be expatriates, foreigners, or people who simply conceive of the world in a different manner than you and me. Although the term is recontextualized from its Medieval connotations, it does take on renewed meaning. In the case of Stranger Than Paradise, it’s a visitor from Hungary.

But if any of this dialogue runs the risk of making the story sound too rarified, rest assured, it is far from that. It’s a picture content in the simplest of moments. The plot as it were is born out of a statement. Eddie (John Lurie) has a cousin arriving and visiting him from Hungary. That’s it right there.

He feels put upon having her stay with him. He doesn’t show her the town. He doesn’t give her food. He’s the most inhospitable person in the world. But then again look at his life. He subsists off TV dinners and beer.

His only friend is Eddie, a shifty-eyed, flighty fellow who’s half-witted in a lovable kind of way. They spend time watching football, playing cards, drinking beer, or going to the races. That’s just about all they ever do. And it hardly changes with the addition of Eva.

Still, what the movie exudes resolutely is a style and an aesthetic, forming something more substantial than the sum of its modest parts. Because it’s certainly humble, and the antithesis of flamboyant production values, and yet it manages to supersede the simple nature of what is happening onscreen.

Take, for instance, the sequence where Eva is walking down the streets with her suitcases in hand to the tune of “I Put a Spell on You.” Screamin’ Jay Hawkins rumbles across the pavement, and it’s oddly mesmerizing.

Pairing this with the black and white cinematography, dominating the film with a dreary, dilapidatedness leaves a startling impression. It’s both the prevailing sense of the world and somehow complementary to the budget and resources he’s working with.

I am reminded of the early films of Rainer Werner Fassbinder because there is the sense of almost two-dimensional space in many of the scenes — simple but purposefully done. In the case of Jarmusch, there are hardly any cuts, with the shots put end-to-end and void of any other type of true editing. It’s the simplest form, really, cut together by way of black inserted between the sequences.

You could point out Jarmusch is making a kind of glorified short film, and that’s how the narrative began sticking the footage together in three segments. But the black in-between the visuals also function as a kind of ellipsis.

Because pretty soon Willie and Eddy get up and go from Brooklyn and road trip it out to Cleveland. Why? Because Eva’s there. She is a fellow sojourner, and so they take to the road in order to catch up with her. In one of his typically dorky observations, Eddie tells his buddy, “Before I met your cousin, I didn’t know you were from Hungary or Budapest or any of those places. I thought you were an American.”

Pretty soon they’re staying with the Aunt and back to watching TV and playing card games. Shooting the bull and chewing the fat like they always do wherever they go. Even miles away in the icy tundra of the Midwest they realize, “You come someplace new and everything looks the same.” Restless for some meaningful experience, they head off to sun-soaked Florida to seek something else.

Finally, there’s some action, albeit off-screen and pretty much only alluded to. The boys lose all their dough at the dog races. In her own absurd turn of events, Eva winds up with a mother lode in drugs. That could be a whole rabbit hole all to its own. Instead, they take a trip to the airport to set up another adventure…undoubtedly just as absurd as the last.

It might not seem like much, but that’s the entire charm of Jarmusch’s movie; he’s so very comfortable bending away from Hollywood convention. Where location shooting becomes more of an in-joke than of a particular commodity and characters and story are more likely conduits of style. In fact, to this day, he’s made a career out of it.

Now, Stranger Than Paradise feels a bit like Richard Linklater’s Slacker. They played as important catalysts for subsequent generations of filmmakers because they were unique and of their own time with their own vision. And part of their merit is having done it first — using the world at their disposal and creating something that stays with us however mundane and unadorned.

Part of the paradoxical charm of Stranger Than Paradise is how you could conceivably make a movie like it, and yet you couldn’t ever match its essence because Jim Jarmusch made it just so — distinctly individual and measured to his own personal liking. That’s what it has going for it even to this day. It’s unmistakably him.

3.5/5 Stars

Midnight Special (2016): A Story of Parenthood

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“These are words of the Lord…or the federal government.”

Derek Webb has a song called “Spirit.” For anyone with a religious upbringing, it might conjure up the “Holy Ghost” — the Helper meant to fill up Christian faithful as they worship God in their sanctuaries.

Webb is banking on these presuppositions when he turns the tables. Because of course, he’s talking about alcohol, and the gathering — the sanctuary he’s worshipping in — is a bar.

Watching Jef Nichols Midnight Special relates to this example for one very simple reason. It has the environment, even the rhetoric or liturgy many might recall from Sunday church services, and yet it’s been given an entirely new context. It suggests what a nefarious and deceptive thing cults and other dubious institutions might be by taking something so familiar and giving it their own tilt.

In this case, “The Ranch” is such a consortium of people; they feel like Luddites or Amish but given a bad name. Their head minister is Sam Shepard. His presence alone brings with it a bevy of connotations and previous traditions. Of course, he was famously featured in Terrence Malick’s naturalistic masterwork Days of Heaven. Shepard also helped conceive of Wim Wenders’s Paris, Texas, another catalyzing portrait of the near-mystical American mythos.

At least for me, there’s this implicit hope Midnight Special might be out to do much the same, having received the torch from its predecessors and then preparing to pass it on. Also because Jeff Nichols feels like one of the modern chroniclers of Middle America steeped in these same deep traditions of the past.

After all, we open in a roadside hotel room with an amber alert playing on the television. A little boy has been kidnapped and taken by two fugitives. Nichols uses these talking heads throughout the movie to do much of the expositional heavy lifting for him. Just about everything else he leaves oblique, and he seems satisfied with the overall vagueness.

In fact, the plot keeps the details purposefully obscured. Whether they are too obscured might be up for contention. All we know is this boy is being sought by a myriad of parties. He is in the care of a pair of fugitives with a conscience; it provides an inkling of who is really on the side of virtue in this muddled world.

Their names are Roy (Michael Shannon) and his faithful buddy Lucas (Joel Egerton). They can be characterized by their slow-walking, slow-talking demeanors — almost painfully so, but, again, maybe that’s the point. It’s excruciating to watch them.

They’re the ones being tracked by not only all manner of government agencies but members of the same cult that they used to be associated with. Their young charge is the prized possession of “The Ranch,” functioning as their presumed Messiah. March 6th is when they believe Judgment will come once and for all, and the day is fast approaching.

Meanwhile, the FBI swoops in on one of the religious commune’s meetings, only to clear the premises entirely. They conduct their own investigations of this extraordinary young boy, Alton, who seems to have transmitted government secrets. The NSA joins them in their search represented by a nerdy numbers-cruncher Paul Sevier (Adam Driver).

As played by Driver, he feels like a surprisingly average guy and if we are to understand anything about tropes, this is what makes him the key to the story. Because everyone else is clouded by protocol, rules, and regulations. The fact he is brilliant but also a lot like you and me, gives him the tools to understand other people and connect with them.

In some ways, they play on analogous themes to Arrival — simply wanting to understand those who are different than us. Leading with curiosity instead of fear. But he’s also a character who seems to function outside of everyone else in society. Rather like Truffaut in Close Encounters. It  almost feels like he has a higher calling altogether superseding convention.

To go with these other themes is a central idea of parenthood reminiscent of other stories bursting with all sorts of religious archetypes in their own right. Abraham loving his son dearly and yet being willing to give him up. Mary realizing her son was made for something far more than a temporal world. Even the Christian God who is acknowledged as giving up his only son for the sake of the entire world.

Roy is just a simple sort of fellow but he’s devoted to this boy believing his son has a purpose if only he can be protected. As Lucas muses, “Good people die every day believing in things.” Kirsten Dunst is the mentally exhausted mother who has been starved of the opportunity to love her son. It’s telling to watch her get him back only to struggle with the impending conclusion of the arc.

These elements are the most provocative of what the film has to offer, although they feel slightly underexplored in favor of a far more conventional Spielbergian homage. These are the tried and true even overfamiliar rhythms of sci-fi seen through the lens of Nichols. From the child-like perspective down to the government involvement, it’s a tale fit to the scale of an E.T. or Close Encounters.

Even as the performances of Midnight Special feel head and shoulders above Super 8, the other film somehow captures a bit more of the nostalgia and, dare I say, the childhood wonder of the Spielberg films — at least until Midnight Special‘s very last moments. Here it exterts itself as a bleak, bare-boned reimagination of the genre.

At the end of the day, maybe Jeff Nichols wasn’t entirely interested in any of these things. If anything, they all serve as part of his meditation on parenthood. Because when you take away all the dressings — the religious undertones and layerings of science fiction — what you’re left with is a fairly straightforward narrative.

It’s about knowing your child is special and wanting to protect them and hold on while slowly coming to grips with reality. You cannot always be there. You cannot always keep them from being hurt. And sometimes you have to let them go. Sometimes that’s the most loving thing you can do.

I’m still trying to decide if Midnight Special does an adequate job articulating all its things or if it’s merely me projecting my thoughts and feelings onto it. They might be one and the same. Regardless, I wasn’t fully satiated by Midnight Special, but does that really matter? Perhaps it is a litmus test of whether or not we have the true perspective to appreciate it. Who’s to say I’m not already too jaded to latch onto what it has to offer. I’ll let you be the judge.

3.5/5 Stars

BlacKkKlansman (2018) and Historical Dissonance

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Spike Lee is an incredibly intelligent and perceptive director so he probably knew what he was doing. However, when I see Alec Baldwin playing a virulent racist, spewing out slurs, there’s this odd contradiction. Somehow it loses its import if that is what it was meant to have. Because I know the man behind the mask is an avowed progressive. However, this dissonance, thanks to the extratextual association, might be equally compelling for different reasons.

Our actual narrative is based on a true story, albeit delivered in Spike Lee’s own definitive way. We open at Colorado Springs Police Department. Confident and ambitious Ron Stalworth (John David Washington), with a fly Afro, is looking to make a name for himself as a detective. Even in a place like Colorado, it’s a fairly big deal as they’ve never had another African-American police officer.

He will be the precincts Jackie Robinson, and he doesn’t bear the responsibility lightly. Still, he has the youthful entergy to take to the opportunity quickly. For one thing, he’s not looking to be stuck behind the records counter his entire life. He wants action.

His first taste — and his first real assignment — is infiltrating the rally held at the local college for Kwame Ture in order to keep tabs on local “subversives.” These are the days of Angela Davis, mobilization of university movements, and certainly The Black Panther Party. As such, it places Stallworth at a consequential crossroads of history. He plays peacekeeper on the side of law and order, while also looking to change the world from the inside for his “Brothers” who are rebelling against “The Man.”

It strikes me that the conservatives look at something like this with fear. Nixon catalyzed this very same silent majority with his exhortations. But both sides aren’t altogether different — at least how Lee manages to capture them. It feels like Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier) and other ardent activists, with all their yelling and the raising of their hands in black power salutes, ultimately comes out of a place of restlessness, even helplessness.

Because out on the freeway, they get pulled over, berated, and harassed in the most denigrating of ways. Where whites are given unchecked authority over blacks and thusly abuse their power and the frameworks of society. This is what Ron Stallworth is at war with.

Lee composes the scene in such a telling manner. Because it opens with a song — one I know well and love for its cool vocality — and it’s set against the soft hues of a California panorama only to quickly evolve into the roadside confrontation between white cops and black citizens. Once more the director is working in formalistic contrasts that only help to deepen the disparate ties of his story.

However, he’s also a consummate world builder and not merely in creating a fantastical space, but also by taking us back somewhere we feel like we formerly knew. Looking Glass’s “Brandy” underscores another scene where Ron and Patrice are having dinner together, continuing the vibes, and for me personally, helping to accentuate this sense we are being transported into the ’70s.

All this lays the groundwork for what is at the core of Blackklansman. This is the next phase: infiltration of a different sort. Ron Stallworth will get inside the Ku Klux Klan. Of course, there are a few logistical barriers. Namely, the fact he is very much a black man. It’s an easy enough solution.

He builds up a rapport with none other than the Grand Wizard, David Duke (Topher Grace), on the phone using his “white voice,” while one of his Caucasian colleagues (Adam Driver) plays a version of him in person.

Again, the wink-wink parallels between Donald Trump and David Duke are put right there in case anyone should absent-mindedly miss them. Duke too wants to make America great again. It is what it is.

Still, one of the film’s best dynamics is built between the trio of Washington, Driver, and Steve Buscemi because, in spite of their differences, it helps them drum up an electric camaraderie. Aided by Zimmerman (Driver), Ron goes deeper, gaining the confidence of the white supremacists’ gradually, even as incessantly mistrusting types like Felix (Jasper Paakonen) always seems to be testing not only his loyalty but his mettle. It has the seeds of tense drama.

Certainly compared to the timeless visceral nature of Do The Right Thing as a human, social, and political indictment, Blackkklansman is no match. But despite his reputation and political bent, Spike Lee does ponder the dichotomy here as well. You have those striving for militant black power. You have those trying to hold onto the egregious relics of white supremacy. There are the complacent who see the bigotry and fail to do anything about it, even within law enforcement.

Ron is easy to gravitate toward as a hero because he is an African-American man looking to revitalize the police force and their often tarnished reputation. But thanks to Washington, he’s a genuinely charismatic, mostly not-threatening lead. Meanwhile, Duke embodies the ideas of white supremacism going mainstream and somehow becoming palatable, which is a far scarier thought.

But this is equally a story about identity. How we as human beings can be so blinded and narrow-minded. We are a people devoted to rituals and heritage — the way things have been. Where passing as white is seen as a superior outcome and many of us, no matter our background, are juggling identities. For instance, how do you reconcile being African-American and a police officer? It’s just one of the many questions. 

One of Lee’s other evocative exhibitions in crosscutting starts with Harry Belafonte as an old man recounting the horrible lynching of his youth to a rapt audience of mortified onlookers. Then, on the other side of the spectrum, we have the KKK assembly where David Duke makes his grand entrance to install “Ron” as a Klansman.

It’s a visual clash once again between White Power and Black Power. As a caveat, D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation is a movie I have avoided for so long out of sheer apprehension. Not that I would succumb to it, but rather that it would repulse me. Not because I’m some enlightened being; it might actually force me to contend with complicated history. Because Nation as well as Gone with The Wind reflect how cinema itself is so firmly enmeshed with the ignominious prejudices of our nation.

And as such a powerful medium, it can be used to propagate and promote all sorts of messages. I’m not naive enough to believe Spike Lee is the universal soothsayer, and yet I appreciate how he’s willing to confront the issues that run generations deep in the very medium he calls his own.

My mind instead drifts to the very poignant and purposeful inclusion of Belafonte. Here was a man who acted as a cornerstone of the civil rights movement. Here is the man who fought tirelessly for greater, more complex representation for African Americans in movies along with compatriots like Sidney Poitier and Ruby Dee.

Here is a man at the center of a controversy in the 1960s because, Petula Clark, a white woman caught up in the raptures of their duet, touched his arm on live television. What an unfathomable world we live in. Again, we must question: how can this be?

It galls me there could be people who equate Christianity and “Men of God” to purely a white faith. However, it’s imperative to differentiate that the themes are not solely about holding white people accountable for past sins but actually ousting evil for what it is, then and now. It’s so easy for early-onset complacency to set in. The film’s line in the sand between the then and now isn’t exactly perfect, even as the presence of the real David Duke in the present bids us to take heed and consider soberly.

Blackkklansman is the kind of film you have to consider in light of all the many hallmarks we can laud Spike Lee for. It’s dynamic, boasting its share of humor; at times it’s brutal and trenchant in all manner of ways, slicing and dicing through its material to present us a singular vision and with that an ensuing message.

The story itself makes a brilliant punchline. Imagine. A black cop infiltrating the KKK! The final images are all but a living nightmare.  What makes the film is the continuously startling juxtaposition on display. This is what Lee offers us.The heavy lifting must be done by the audience, working to reconcile and wrestle with the space in-between.

4/5 Stars