Monday, May 11, 2015

Class Struggles: Bonus Round

Surprise! It turns out that I had other classes along with Russian Cinema! Here's my thoughts on two screenings culled from additional schoolwork.

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes

Year: 1953
Director: Howard Hawks
Cast: Marilyn Monroe, Jane Russell, Charles Coburn
Run Time: 1 hour 31 minutes

Two showgirls, one a romantic and the other a gold digger, take a trip across the ocean.

It was a great treat to be required to watch Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, because I've seen barely enough Marilyn Monroe movies to qualify as a legitimate film blogger or gay man. I loved Some Like It Hot and tolerated The Seven Year Itch, but Gentlemen Prefer Blondes displays the star in full, unadulterated Marilyn mode alongside a less iconic but perhaps even more talented co-lead.

Director Howard Hawks is well-known for his predilection for strong female characters, and in this regard Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is his zenith. Depicting two independent women who value their friendship above their relationships with men wasn't exactly a common theme in 1950's cinema. And despite Monroe's character mostly playing into the expected tropes of a shallow, bubbly gold digger, it is soon revealed that there's more to her than meets the eye.

In addition to treating a stock character as an actual human being, co-star Jane Russell's character is... How can I put this delicately? Unbelievably horny. Her character is a regular Lotharia, making great use of the Olympic team that has joined the duo for the journey across the Atlantic.

As an adaptation of a stage musical, the film's plot and dialogue are fairly set in stone, but the film is so packed with interesting subtext that I'm pretty sure it gave my Film Theory professor an aneurism. It's easily possible to read a dozen different messages about sexuality, gender representation, commodification of women's bodies, and on and on, and that is all thanks to Hawks, who was the master of slipping important themes into otherwise shallow-seeming works, like his sci-fi classic from the same year, The Thing From Another World.

But if I were to go in depth on the cavalcade of theories surrounding Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, this mini-review would be large enough to destroy Tokyo. The bottom line is that, subtext or no, GPB is a slightly daffy but utterly fun 50's musical with a sprightly sense of comedy, inimitable chemistry between its two stars, and two of the best musical numbers committed to celluloid during the decade.

Popular opinion would swerve toward the sumptuous, opulent "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend" number as the film's high-water mark, but Marilyn's sultry crooning meets its match in the razzle dazzle panache of Jane Russell's "Anyone Here For Love?" which melds top notch musical pastiche songwriting with a stunning display of scenery almost entirely created by muscular men's bodies as they work out. Not only is it a treat for the gentlemanly-inclined, it's an inspired and invigorating number that ties in with the film's ruminations on gender and sexuality and propels it out of one of its occasional funks.

For it does have a few. Funks, I mean. As musicals from the time period are wont to do, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes sometimes stops dead in its tracks for some dreadfully dull bit of extended comic business or an archive number that just had to be included. But aside from the occasional dry spot, the film is a gem, worthy of pursuing by any fan of the decade, the bombshell, or musical comedy bonanzas.

Rating: 7/10

The 400 Blows

Year: 1959
Director: François Truffaut
Cast: Jean-Pierre Léaud, Albert Rémy, Claire Maurier
Run Time: 1 hour 39 minutes

Again, I'm going to have to wave my white flag and admit my inferiority as a film major. Out of the supremely influential French New Wave period, I had only seen Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless. I loved Breathless, but up until now I couldn't be sure if I was a fan of French New Wave or if I was just a fan of Breathless. So far the point goes to Godard.

François Truffaut's The 400 Blows is an equally influential New Wave film, but it lacks the kinetic, feverish love for its own creation that I find in Godard's magnum opus. Telling the story of a young boy who turns to petty crime due to a lack of attention from his parents or teachers, it's an interesting treatise on the problems of lower-middle class families, no matter what time period or country you hear from.

But the whole tale is presented in a style a great deal more neorealist than what I would consider New Wave. Despite the artistic merits of the movement's long takes and amateur performances promoting reality and allowing the viewer to actively shift their own focus and analysis, it never really makes for films that are tremendously interesting on a narrative or aesthetic level. The sub-narrative here is pristine, but films of such little incident will be challenging for any but the least casual of audiences.

Lead child actor Jean-Pierre Léaud is a treasure, grounding the film in a delightful earthy performance, but the film's narrative meanderings don't find much to do with him. The 400 Blows is a little too content to merely document reality instead of shaping it, a style which I admit is more suited for a participant other than myself.

I will rightly admit that I hardly have a leg to stand on, considering the fact that I'm listening to John Mayer as I write this, but The 400 Blows is not for me, and if you consider yourself anything but the highest class of viewing audience, it is not for you.

Rating: 6/10

PS: I'm now listening to George Harrison as I post this. Does that change anything? I'm doubtful.
Word Count: 963
Reviews In This Series
Class Struggles: Part One (March 29, 2015)
Class Struggles: Part Two (April 9, 2015)
Class Struggles: Part Three (April 22, 2015)
Class Struggles: Part Four (April 24, 2015)
Class Struggles: Part Five (May 6, 2015)
Class Struggles: Bonus Round (May 11, 2015)

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