Polo shirts and machine guns: mise-en-scene and British gangster films

Gangster movies are a genre obsessed with appearances. The key to success in cinematic representations of the criminal underworld is looking and acting powerful. It’s in the suits, the houses, the girlfriends, wives and gun molls, and in the violent ways crime bosses assert their power over enemies and underlings. In technical terms, this component of a film (the look, the sound and what it communicates about the setting and characters) is called mise-en-scene, and it’s a big part of understanding gangster movies beyond just pieces of gratuitous, violent entertainment. Some particularly good examples of how mise-en-scene can communicate deeper themes in the gangster genre come in the form of British gangster films, which deal not only with themes of power and success, but with class differences.  The 1980 movie “The Long Good Friday,” directed by John Mackenzie, and Matthew Vaughn’s 2004 movie “Layer Cake” use diverse elements of mise-en-scene like clothing, interior decoration and even characters’ accents to give audiences insight into understanding the backgrounds of the main characters, and to communicate the importance of appearance, and looking like legitimate members of the upper class.

“The Long Good Friday” is considered one of the more important British gangster movies. Its influence can be seen in pretty much every modern British gangster film, including “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels” and our other example, “Layer Cake.” The movie tells the story of Harold Shand, a gangster on the verge of making a big business deal with the American mafia that would “legitimize” his business. However, on the day two American representatives visit London to seal the deal, a series of violent events bring Harold’s empire crashing down around him. The rest of the film addresses Harold’s attempts to find out who’s behind the sabotage and get even with them. The movie uses accents and interior decoration to show the difference between how Harold wants to appear to others, versus the way he really is.

Perhaps the hardest mark of a person’s origin to erase is their accent. The way a person speaks is usually indicative of where they’re from. This proves to be very much the case in “The Long Good Friday.” In “Friday,” the early shots we see of Harold Shand (played in the film by Bob Hoskins) make him seem like an affluent man. He’s a jet-setter, flying around the world making business deals. He dresses nicely and gets picked up and driven around in nice cars. He even has a fancy yacht on the Thames. But as soon as he opens his mouth, his working-class accent makes it obvious that he wasn’t born into this situation. He’s had to work for it. He uses coarse language and phrases not often associated with the Oxford or Cambridge-educated businessmen he’s trying to emulate, such as this brilliant one-liner:

“No one’s heard nothing? That just ain’t natural. It’s like one of them silent, deadly farts. No clue, and then pow, you go cross-eyed.”

Harold’s efforts to cover up his accent become apparent when he’s speaking to business associates, or even to his classy girlfriend, Victoria, who has no such accent. He makes an attempt to seem well spoken. When he’s among the men who work for him, men who fear and respect him, Harold’s accent becomes much thicker, and his grammar much worse. This is because he doesn’t have to impress these men with status. Instead he has to use physical force to frighten them into obedience. Consequently, Harold’s change in accent is often accompanied with a change in demeanor. Among those he wants to impress, he uses charisma to get what he needs. Among his thugs and underworld associates, Harold’s methods are downright scary. In one scene, he rounds up a bunch of men he suspects and interrogates them by hanging them from their ankles in a meat locker. Later on, he loses his temper with his second-in-command and accidentally kills him when he smashes a bottle over the man’s head and slices his jugular vein. It’s in these moments when we see Harold for what he truly is: not a regular guy trying to charm his way into society, but a ruthless monster who has literally fought his way up from the gutter.

Interior decoration also plays a very telling role in the film. Harold and his girlfriend Victoria live in a Penthouse apartment that seems specifically designed to show off how much money they have. Unfortunately, money can’t buy taste, and the gaudiness of the furniture (even by 1980s standards) shows Harold to be a man who wants to look like he’s got a good aesthetic sense, but has had to guess for himself as to what that really looks like. The couch is covered in shiny, tacky-looking upholstery. The bed has a mirrored headboard. Harold wants to show that he can afford things that look like they belong to a rich person, even though they don’t look attractive. It’s not the attractiveness of an item, but its price that matters.

“Layer Cake” is another film that relies heavily on elements of mise-en-scene to show the true selves that the criminal characters try to hide. The plot centers on X, a drug dealer (referred to as X because he’s unnamed in the film) who considers himself a cut above the veteran gangsters he works with. His plans of retirement after one final drug deal for his boss, Jimmy Price, quickly become more complicated than he’d planned. The deal comes to involve stolen ecstasy pills, a psychotic Serbian hit man, and a colleague of Jimmy’s who decides to give X a lesson in business via the school of hard knocks.

In “Layer Cake,” the way characters’ homes look plays an even larger role than in “The Long Good Friday.” X, the main character, admits that he deals in illegal substances, but he makes the distinction early on that he’s not a gangster. He’s “a businessman whose commodity happens to be cocaine.” To reflect that, X’s sleek, modern apartment reinforces the idea that he’s “a deadpan yuppie of the streets,” as Owen Gleiberman writes in his review of the film for Entertainment Weekly. Everything in the place looks like it comes from Ikea. This apartment reflects the way X sees himself, and the way he wants other people to see him. We come to know, through the course of the film, that X has his personal weaknesses, but they’re private, never put on display for others to see. Likewise, his apartment reflects a strong sense of professionalism.

This is contrasted with the apartment of Gene, Jimmy’s right-hand man, who X visits about a quarter of the way into the film. In all other respects, Gene seems like a trustworthy, well-put-together man. He’s smart, and he’s good at what he does. But his apartment doesn’t reflect that. It’s tacky and poorly decorated, with curtains that don’t match the decor and framed photos of naked women on the walls. This could be interpreted either of two ways: Gene’s apartment is only shown once, which might give the feeling that it’s meant to be more of a personal sanctuary than a place where people gather, like X’s apartment, which sees a lot of the action. The other is that Gene just has a very skewed idea of what good art looks like, and he thinks the naked ladies are modern and classy-looking. In either scenario, Gene is shown to be something other than what he first appears.

Clothing is another component of the mise-en-scene in “Layer Cake.” Like the interior decoration, the clothes worn by the characters, particularly Jimmy, X’s boss, express a disconnection between the image they want to project and the way others see them. Jimmy starts out the film fairly reputably. He’s a little loud, a little rough around the edges, but he exerts a certain amount of authority. All that changes after X is introduced to Eddie Temple, a well-off longtime acquaintance of Jimmy’s. Eddie informs X that he thinks Jimmy is an annoying hanger-on, little more than a joke to Eddie and his high-society friends. He talks about how he invites Jimmy to a yearly charity golf tournament he holds, basically so Eddie’s friends can laugh at him. The scene cuts to a shot of Jimmy winning the tournament, lifting his trophy and acting like a crass idiot. To make sure the audience loses all respect they may have had for Jimmy up until now, his outfit, a bright red polo shirt and loud checkered golf pants, clashes starkly with the pastel and khaki outfits of the people around him. From that point on, Jimmy seems weaker, less respectable and more annoying.

It’s easy to write gangster movies off as violent, indulgent entertainment. Certainly, there are plenty of movies that would seem to reflect that idea, for example, the films of Guy Ritchie, which glorify a down-and-dirty criminal lifestyle. But some films, like “The Long Good Friday” and “Layer Cake” go beyond the violent exterior, to show the psychology of the characters they portray. Because the characters in these films care so much about looking rich, classy and professional, mise-en-scene is the mode of choice Matthew Vaughn and John Mackenzie use to communicate the difference between appearance and reality. Through accents, clothing and interior decoration, audiences get an image of how men like Harold Shand, X and Jimmy Price want to look, contrasted with how their actions behind closed doors, their lack of taste and inability to cover up their accents betray their background to others.

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Do the Zombie: The Social Politics of the Undead

So, last week I blogged about the lack of imagination and message in franchise horror movies. I said that, essentially, franchise horror is the “safe choice,” which is what makes it so popular. I also claimed that I don’t really “get” the appeal of franchise horror movies. For the most part, this is true. While, like many horror fans, I enjoy the “ride” predictable horror movies provide, I still require some kind of moral question, or a good reason behind the violence on screen. Otherwise, I feel like the movie just isn’t worth my time.

Perhaps that’s why, in the entirety of my experience watching horror movies, there is one particular subgenre that, although it’s one of the most formulaic, manages to consistently present a message along with massive amounts of gore. That subgenre is the zombie movie.

Ever since George Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead” kicked everything into messy high gear in 1968, the zombie has come to represent more than just an undead cannibal corpse lusting after brains. The zombie is the perfect blank slate for horror movie symbolism. It can represent just about anything you want. The zombie has been used to represent consumerism (“Dawn of the Dead,”) suburban complacency, (“Shaun of the Dead,”) racism and fear of the other (“Night of the Living Dead,” “Land of the Dead”). Romero has said of his films, “My movies are about other things, and zombies are just an annoyance.” In a zombie movie, it’s not the zombies that are actually the important thing. What’s important is the human drama created by their presence.

That human drama is the characteristic that, in my mind, makes the zombie movie so cool, as well as easy to replicate. Zombie movies follow a formula that is tailor-made to create moral dilemmas and human tension. Generally what happens is this: Zombies attack. The main character, in an attempt to escape the carnage, falls in with another survivor, or a group of survivors. After barricading themselves into a makeshift stronghold, the group tentatively starts forming connections. But there’s always at least one jerk that ruins it for everyone else. Arguments and accusations start flying, someone gets bitten, everyone gets conflicted over whether or not they should kill said bite victim. After waiting too long to make a decision (they always wait too long, instead choosing to discuss the ethical implications), the bitten friend or relative comes back to life, at which point all the outside zombies somehow find a way to infiltrate the stronghold, where there is the Final Showdown. At this point, there are usually two outcomes: a) everyone dies, b) the two characters with romantic chemistry survive to (we can only assume) repopulate the earth.

See what I mean? Yes, you can probably figure out from moment one of a zombie movie what’s going to happen and how, but the dynamic that emerges when anxious people with differing points of view are boarded up in one room and asked to work together or die can be just fascinating to watch.

Whenever I’m asked to convince people as to what makes zombie movies a genre worthy of attention, I give two examples: “Dawn of the Dead” (Romero’s original), and “28 Days Later.” Both are excellent representations of zombie movies at their political and morally thoughtful best.

“Dawn of the Dead” strikes me as the most politicized of Romero’s catalog. The consumerist tone is clearly presented from the moment the protagonists set up camp in the shopping mall. At one point, looking over the undead mob congregating outside the mall, one character, Peter, muses, “They’re after the place. They don’t know why, they just remember. Remember that they want to be in here.” Romero is presenting his audience with the notion that, as consumers, people are sheep. We want stuff, and lots of it. We don’t know why, we just know that we want it. In another scene, the whole group of survivors goes hog wild in a department store, excited that they can now appropriate anything they could possibly need or want for free. The mall is their haven. After a while, of course, as is the fashion with zombie movies, everything falls apart. But while it lasts, the situation seems pretty nice.

“28 Days Later” is, in my opinion, about as good a movie as you can find in either the zombie subgenre, or the horror genre as a whole. Generally speaking, director Danny Boyle’s movies can be pretty hit-or-miss, but his horror movies and psychological thrillers tend to be right on the money. His first film, “Shallow Grave,” presented audiences with a moral dilemma if ever there was one, and “28 Days Later” does exactly the same thing. Essentially, the audience is given this horrible apocalyptic situation, and two different ways that people choose to survive in that situation. We could take the moral high ground, with Cillian Murphy and Brendan Gleeson, and realize the importance of maintaining human connection in a mostly-abandoned world. Or, if straight-up ruthless survival sounds better, we can side with Christopher Eccleston and his sexually frustrated soldiers. Of course, Boyle sends the message that the way of Eccleston and co. is basically the road to self-destruction, but you can’t help but feel a little bad for the guy. He may have acted horribly but, in the end, he was only doing what he thought was right.

Zombie movies may be formulaic. They may be easy to set up. But, unlike so many other subgenres, they have the potential to make an audience think. We laugh at the zombies trying to force their way into the mall in “Dawn of the Dead,” or the zombie carnival in “Land of the Dead” because these things are absurd. But, if we consider what these characterizations are meant to represent, how absurd do they make us look? Zombie movies are, at their most basic level, an opportunity for a director to turn the camera back on his audience and say “Look. These guys are us. They are what we have become.” If they want to throw a gallon or two of red corn syrup around for emphasis, then so much the better.

Safety in Formula: Franchise Horror and “Torture Porn”

I consider myself a fairly avid horror fan. Ever since watching “Shaun of the Dead” in high school, I’ve slowly learned to enjoy the genre more and more. I love movies from every subgenre, from slashers to zombies (my personal favorite) to good old-fashioned ghost stories. I love ‘em all.

But one thing that’s always baffled me is franchise movies, particularly those of the “torture porn” variety. I was inspired to start doing some research after noticing the release of “Saw VI” a couple of weeks ago. I remember pretty vividly seeing “Saw II” and the remake of “The Hills Have Eyes” in high school, and realizing (with some relief) that, in fact, I did have a standard when it came to horror. I don’t stand for mindless stuff. If something horrific is going to happen to someone, as a viewer (and, I think, as a human being) I need to have some kind of justification for it. Otherwise, it just isn’t worth my time. I need a moral dilemma, a killer with a background, something other than random acts of violence that don’t send a message.

From my perspective, it seems like franchise horror movies are the epitome of what I consider “the wrong kind” of horror movie. The original films, the ones that start off the franchise, like “A Nightmare on Elm Street” or “Halloween,” even the original “Saw,” have some kind of message or some creative spark that stokes the interest of audiences enough to keep them coming. But whatever the original movies had going for them, it gets lost with every subsequent sequel or remake.

I wanted to get a professional opinion on this, so I turned to Eric Melin, who runs the movie review site Scene-Stealers.com. He told me the popularity of franchises comes from, in the case of Freddy, Jason and Michael Myers, a cult of personality and audiences who want to be scared, but don’t want to have to think about it too much.

“I worked in a video store for a while, and I used to see this every Halloween, when people would come in, because they’re so desperate for scary movies, and they want a new scary movie, so they go straight to the franchises,” Melin told me. “It’s just easier for people to say ‘This weekend we’re going to watch all the Children of the Corns.’ Why not watch something else?”

Why not watch something else, indeed? Why would people willingly choose a formulaic, predictable, meaningless horror movie when there are so many other great ones out there? Why watch “Freddy Vs. Jason” when you can see “The Orphanage?” According to Mark Kermode, a movie critic for BBC Radio 5, it’s precisely because of the formula that franchises are so popular.

In an essay he wrote for the Independent, called “Horror Will Eat Itself,” Kermode writes that familiar elements are exactly what many people like about horror movies. He uses Wes Craven’s “Scream” movies as an example, noting that the director’s simultaneous celebration and skewering of horror tropes were what made that particular franchise so popular.

Taking these opinions into consideration, what I’ve come to decide is this: familiarity is popular in horror, as in many other genres, but it’s popular for a unique reason, which is fear of the unknown. Consider the way you feel going into a horror movie you know nothing about: the uneasiness, the idea that you don’t know what to expect. All you know is that it’s going to be scary, and it’s going to be uncomfortable. Say the first “Nightmare on Elm Street” movie really scared you. Then, a while later, the second one comes out. You decide you want to go to a scary movie, and that’s the one you pick because now you know what to expect. Most of the uneasiness that you had with the original movie is now gone. You know how the killer operates, how and why he chooses his victims. Thanks to that formula, you can satisfy that bloodlust without having to be bothered by it.

Without the unpredictability, the only factor franchise horror movies have left to impress their audiences is what Melin refers to as “the creativity of the kill,” which is where torture porn comes in. With that, the movie loses its soul.

“I’ve had a lot of horror enthusiasts tell me that I can’t review horror movies the way I review another movie, in other words, I can’t apply the same criteria of wanting well-developed characters and story and stuff like that,” Melin said. “And to a certain extent, I kind of agree with that…But when there’s movies out there like Drag Me to Hell, and Slither and Frailty that do everything so well and also manage to be campy and fun at the same time, I think that I’m not really going to want to forgive a movie like the Hills Have Eyes remakes…I’m just not interested in what they’re doing, because they’re not doing anything interesting.”

Horror isn’t an easy genre to love. Fans probably get disappointments and cookie-cutter studio releases more often than legitimately good, creative movies. And it takes a certain kind of psychological toughness to go for the unfamiliar stuff over the movies you already know. But, in my mind, it’s worth it. “Jason Goes to Hell” might be fun, but “Shallow Grave” has meaning and thrills. That, to me, is more valuable than any number of Leatherfaces, Freddy Kruegers or Jigsaws.

Related Link:

Mark Kermode’s essay, “Horror Will Eat Itself”

Revenge of the Powerless: Hannah Arendt, “The Battle of Algiers” and “Inglourious Basterds”

Inglourious Basterds

Note: This post contains some spoilers. If you haven’t already seen “Inglourious Basterds,” you may want to be careful.

In Hannah Arendt’s On Violence, the author makes an interesting claim. She writes that, on a political level, violence is a tool of power, but not equal to it. In fact, when violence is used as a main force of power rather than diplomacy, it seems to represent a lack of power. A political regime that has stability doesn’t need to use force against its own citizens in order to stay that way. On the flipside, revolutionary violence usually represents an outcry from people who consider themselves powerless; people who are ostracized, exploited or endangered by those in charge.

A really solid example of Arendt’s point is the movie “The Battle of Algiers,” a 1967 film directed by Gillo Pontecorvo. Filmed in a documentary style, it’s a dramatic re-enactment of the titular battle between French colonial forces in Algiers, and the National Liberation Front of Algeria that tells the story from both sides of the war (although I think it tends to be more sympathetic to the NLF than the French, who come off looking none too good). All in all, it’s a really thought-provoking movie from both an anthropological and cinematic standpoint.

The goal of the film was to show the effect of this violent situation on both the French and the Algerians, and I think it was pulled off pretty well. There are scenes of NLF members blowing up restaurants and bars, many of which contain, as we’re shown through close-ups, innocent people who have no stake in the larger conflict. The non-NLF Algerians, too, are shown to suffer at the hands of the French government, who eventually stick them in one quarter of the city that’s kept under close watch by soldiers day and night. They kill with very little regard for the larger native population.

Arendt’s two representations of political violence are on full display here, too. With the French army, we see the presence of violence as a tool of power. The French government colonizes Algeria mostly because it can, and the military is its long arm, making sure everything stays under control. The NLF represents the powerless masses, spurred to action through a mix of nationalism and frustration.

All of this makes a pretty good argument, I think, for Arendt’s points. But does it work outside of political docu-dramas? Can it, in fact, apply to fictional storytelling, too?

As it turns out, yes, it can. On the very same day that I started watching “The Battle of Algiers” with my class, I went to the theater and saw “Inglourious Basterds.” Now, while violence in Tarantino movies (and most other fictional films, for that matter) tends to be campy and there mostly for entertainment value, when examining the motivations of the characters in “Inglourious Basterds,” some interesting parallels between Tarantino’s movie and the situation depicted in “Algiers” start to show up. It turns out that many of the characters in “Basterds” fall under Arendt’s classifications, too.

From the outset, let’s just look at this from a general perspective. Since, like “Algiers,” “Basterds” is a war movie, the idea of violence as a tool of power is pretty obvious. The Nazis, of course, represent Hitler’s power over Europe. The allies represent their respective countries demonstrating their respective power. Where it gets interesting is when we examine characters like the Basterds and Shosanna Dreyfus, who could easily represent Arendt’s “violence as a lack of power” argument.

Up until the start of the movie, the Basterds (or at least most of them) were acting, we assume, as part of a larger army, powerless to do anything individually. Sure, there’s a greater cause at hand, but the fighting isn’t very fulfilling. It doesn’t feel personal or specific. Being a tool of power doesn’t really allow for much personal satisfaction. As part of the smaller, more independent Basterds, these characters are able to get away with a lot more. The victories may not be huge (excepting, of course, the movie’s ending), but they are satisfying. These men get to smash, scalp and scar the villains responsible for the genocide of their own people. Their acts of revenge make it feel as if they finally have some control over the direction of the war. It doesn’t really give them any diplomatic authority, but the fear they instill in their enemies gives them a feeling of dominance.

Shosanna’s violent behavior completely originates from a lack of power. She’s been in hiding for years from the Nazis, assuming a false identity so she wouldn’t be found out. The opportunity to get back at the people who killed her family, and have made life a living hell for her, gives Shosanna the chance to step out of her “hiding” mode and take the upper hand. It is (spoiler alert) her plan that effectively ends the war in Tarantino’s plot. Again, Shosanna’s behavior does not represent power or influence (in the grand scale of things, she’s got none of either), but acting from a lack of it.

The fact that “Inglourious Basterds” is, essentially, a revenge movie makes Arendt’s argument seem all the more applicable to its characters and message. Arendt’s ideas could even apply to Tarantino himself (spoiler alert). He kills off Hitler and his advisors at the end of the movie, something he himself could never have done, having been born in 1963. The director’s alternative view of history gives victims of World War II an ending they might have wished for, but didn’t get.

So, what can movies like “Inglorious Basterds” teach us? It’s pretty obvious that this movie exists almost purely for entertainment value. But, with the help of folks like Hannah Arendt and Gillo Pontecorvo, along with a closer reading of the events of a film, it’s possible for cinema violence to become something more than gratuitous. In the case of “Basterds,” this perspective changes a campy revisionist epic into a movie about power and revenge, and the effects they have on those who seek it.

Related Links:

Women and revolutionary violence in “The Battle of Algiers” and “Inglourious Basterds.”

A short summary of Hannah Arendt’s “On Violence.”

A video review of “Inglourious Basterds” by me and my friend Elliot

Welcome

Hello everyone! So, here’s the story:

I had the interesting experience recently of seeing “The Battle of Algiers” in an anthropology class on violence on the same day that I watched Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds.” Seeing these two movies in tandem provided some pretty interesting food for thought (more on that in a later post).

Basically what emerged was the idea that violence in films serves a lot of different purposes. Some films use it in small amounts; in others, it plays the dominant role. But in every situation, violence in a film carries with it a message. As a discerning filmgoer, it’s important to be able to recognize that message and to decide whether or not it’s one you find acceptable. For me as an (amateur) film critic and general movie enthusiast, it’s important to understand what a movie, director or genre adds to the medium.

The goal of this blog is for me (to the best of my ability) to examine violent movies in a way that evaluates the message it sends to audiences, and what place that message has in our society.

That’s it! I’m looking forward to the project, and I hope you’ll come along for the ride.

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