Posts Tagged ‘femme fatale’

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Editing in Memento

04/27/2012

Christopher Nolan’s sophomore film, Memento, is arguably a giant experiment in editing.   It re-invents the needs of montage editing for its own narrative purposes.  By opening the film in reverse, then playing subsequent scenes in not only the wrong order, but in the reverse order, Memento forces the viewer to reevaluate everything previously established in montage technique.

The editor of the film, Doty Dorn, has said in interviews that her first responsibility as editor was to read the script several times.  This is not normally the case with editors, who are more concerned with daily footage than over-arching plot.  It is up to the director to decide the plot, the editor just assembles the cuts . . . normally.  But in this film there is a special relationship between the editing and the story.  The editing, more than the camera even, is what puts the viewer inside the character.  There are aids, like Guy Pierce’s voice-over, but really it is in the pieces of information that are given at the beginning and end of each scene that helps us to find our footing.

Each scene opens on some clearly identifiable object, a memento, if you will, that we must immediately observe and interpret to acquaint ourselves with our surroundings.  It makes the viewer hyper-conscious of visual exposition.  Our brains focus on the seemingly mundane aspects of these characters lives – what sort of drinks they have, or how they’ve done their hair.  This creates an inner feeling of intensity, and contributes to an overall sense of paranoia.  Anyone could be a liar; anyone could be a friend or a foe.

Within each scene, there is a clear aim to direct the audience’s attention to specific things.  For instance, during the sequence where Guy Pierce’s character is burning his wife’s possessions, there are frequent close-ups specifically of these things.  Following the “Hitchcock Rule” that says the largest object in the frame is the most important, it cues the audience to place value on those otherwise insignificant objects.

What we can take from this is that Nolan has placed within us a sense of Persistent Reveal, where we are ever conscious of the revelations being given.  This expositional technique is also used in shows like Lost, and Nolan’s other film, Inception.  By opening on mystery and maintaining a progression of revelation, Nolan makes us feel as if we are detectives, investigating correctly and putting the pieces together based on new pieces of evidence.

If the story were told in chronological order, the movie would show its flaws quite readily.  For instance, played in order, there is no real character arc.  Guy Pierce’s character is just floating along on a vendetta that he’s barely invested in, having only assumptions based on tattoos.  If played chronologically, the film has no resolution in relationships between characters.  You would see Carrie Ann Moss be mean to Guy Pierce, then sleep with him, then help him, then nothing.  There is no real resolution.  In fact, and I’m sure this is deliberate, Carrie Ann Moss’ character only fits the “femme fatale” archetype when played in reverse, because if you play the film in order, she fits more the romantic interest type.

As a whole, the editing in Memento does a good job of taking you through the paces and energies of a traditional noir narrative, but the fact that it does so in reverse demonstrates an understanding of the relationship between structure and the audience rather than structure and the character arc.  In a traditional narrative of any genre, the character arc is directly tied to the structure.  As inner conflict increases, so does outer conflict.  But Memento plays these things against each other.  Guy Pierce’s character has very little growth from scene to scene, as he must identify himself anew, each time.  This allows him to explain his “memory problem” to characters at the end of the story, but at the beginning of the plot.

As the outer intensity increases (shootouts with drug dealers, etc) the editing gets faster and more intense.  But in the more meditative parts of the film, the cutting is slower.  This is a story where all the most intense parts happen toward the beginning, and the less intense parts happen at the end.  But with the plot showing this backwards, it creates the growing intensity we’re used to experiencing in these types of films.

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Femme Fatales in the Work of Billy Wilder

04/05/2012

The movies Double Indemnity and Sunset Blvd. are two of the most notable examples of classic Film Noir archetypes.  They have all the major pieces associated with the genre, voice-over narration, sassy dialog, contrasting visuals, and the femme fatales.  The hero is led into a murderous plot, thanks to a manipulative woman.

The principal character in Double Indemnity is Walter Neff, an insurance salesman who lustfully falls for Phyllis Dietrichson, and plots with her to come up with an insurance scheme where they kill her husband and make off with all the life-insurance money.  In Sunset Blvd. the lead is a down-on-his luck screenwriter who ducks into what he thinks is an old abandoned mansion, only to find out that it is still lived in by one of the classic silent film stars.

 

The women are basically simple.  The first is Phyllis Dietrichson, a wife and stepmother.  She has dreamt of her husband’s murder for some time, but it is only when she meets this new man that she thinks her dream can become a reality.  And with the Gloria Swanson character, the woman has a goal (to return to the cinema) that she is unable to achieve until the male protagonist enters her life.

In both these cases, these women are, in a way, classically dependent upon their male partners.  But there is stark contrast here between this sort of dependency and the traditional damsel in distress scenario.  These women are trapped by their own ambitions.  It is the inner foe that enslaves them.

This reversion of dependency has garnered widely different reactions amongst feminist commentators.  Some see this as a growth in female independence and identity.  Others consider the femme fatale archetype to be the epitome of chauvinistic sexism.  But no one can deny that the women in these films are the strongest motivators of plot.  These women are assertive.  They are pushers, movers, and shakers.  They will overcome a man’s will and conform it to their own.

There’s a certain sexual subtext here that one cannot ignore.  In traditional male-based protagonism, the woman’s role is supportive to the male’s more dominant desires.  But in any story with a femme fatale, it is the man who becomes dependent on the woman.  In the case of Double Indemnity, it is lust that keeps him tethered to her.

But in Sunset Boulevard, the appeal is something else.  He does not appear to be attracted to her physically, and in his voice-over he even describes being repulsed by her.  But he stays with her, and is even mothered by her.  She dresses him and feeds him.  She daily proclaims her love for him.  And despite his shame, a part of him sort of likes it.  Joe Gillis, the screenwriter, has always dreamed of Hollywood success.  Now, through his relationship to the femme fatale, he can experience it.

 

The relationships between the men and women in these films is toxic, to say the least.  These films are not nearly so much about murderous plots as they are cautionary tales about poisonous relationships.  They demonstrate the step-by-step process of falling head over heels for a girl, only to realize that she’s gotten you killed.

Are these roles sexist, as some have suggested?  The question really lies in whether or not a negative archetype is the same thing as a prejudicial stereotype.  Femme Fatales are powerful to a fault.  They could represent Wilder’s view of how a relationship might be distorted if a woman is in control.  On the other hand, they could also represent the general negatives of a dangerous attraction.  The roles could easily be reversed to produce a commentary on battered women.

In Sunset Boulevard, the unhealthy relationship with Norma Desmond is contrasted with a growing healthy relationship with a young script reader named Betty.  This is an evolution of the archetype from Double Indemnity, where the hero was exclusive to the woman.  It’s an incredible contrast, comparable to a prostitute falling in love.  He has allowed himself to become Norma’s pet.  She feeds him and tells him where to sleep.  She adores him, but belittles him.

Betty on the other hand looks up to him.  She can’t provide for his material needs, but she loves him.  She represents a choice in Joe’s life: a choice between the body and the soul.  Norma Desmond may have his body, but she’ll never have his soul.  And when he makes this plain by leaving her, she demonstrates her power over him by separating his soul from his body.  We do not really see Betty’s reaction to the murder, but we do know that she is now one of the offended parties.

 

Double Indemnity is similar.  Walter’s body and soul both belong to Phyllis and when he tries to separate from her, he is killed.  Though in Phyllis’ defense, Walter had become a genuine threat to her, whereas Joe Gillis was only a perceived threat to Norma.

As we examine these characters more fully, they produce more depth.  It is for this reason that I am inclined to disregard claims of sexism in Wilder’s noirs.  These characters have more psychological baggage than most other movie villains.  Though I suppose that is in part because being a villain and being an antagonist is not necessarily the same thing.  The women here are not technically antagonists; since they do their best to enable the men they’re with.  But they are most definitely villains.