Brokedown Palace, Perfect Blue

Written by Matt Zoller Seitz on . Posted in Arts & Film, Posts.

Prison Dames

always had trouble getting into movies about beautiful Americans being brutalized
by evil, faceless governments overseas because the movies rarely acknowledge
that the Americans aren’t just individuals, but emblems of a rich country’s
arrogance, and that their punishment has as much to do wrvation is that while
Hollywood likes innocent-American-in-trouble-overseas movies, it usually can’t
be bothered to tell stories about miscarriages of justice in the United States,
unless it’s in the context of a wholly unbelievable, mushhead-liberal legal
thriller like A Time to Kill or Murder in the First, or a mushhead-conservative
equivalent like Just Cause.

Not that these personal
prejudices have anything to do with my hatred of Brokedown Palace, a
film about two teenage American girls rotting in prison in Thailand after being
framed as drug couriers. The film has enough trouble simply telling a story,
developing characters in believable ways and resisting the urge to pander to
its stars or to the audience. Claire Danes and Kate Beckinsale are kids from
Ohio who graduate from high school and tell their parents they’re going
on vacation to Hawaii but head off to Thailand instead, where they behave like
arrogant American tourist snots, then are framed by a handsome young Australian
drug smuggler and sentenced to hard time in a women’s prison.

Actually, though we’re
told the place is a hell pit, and we are treated to a few closeups of bugs wriggling
in a toilet and an off-camera incident involving a cockroach getting stuck in
one girl’s ear, the place looks like a Hollywood set. (That the prison
scenes were shot on location in a Philippine prison is no defense.) The women
are mostly young and lusciously beautiful, and many of them are outfitted with
sleek yet shaggy bob cuts, apparently maintained with just a dab of mousse.
Say what you want about Thai prison authorities and their corrupt brutality,
at least they keep a stylist on staff–though their refusal to construct
a runway for these beautiful inmates is a human rights violation Amnesty International
might want to look into.

Director Jonathan Kaplan
is a capable, unfussy filmmaker–Unlawful Entry and The Accused
were excellent B-movies made on A-movie budgets–but he’s only
as good as his material, and this isn’t worth his time. The film treats
Thailand as a music-video vacation paradise, giving us nary a hint of the region’s
culture or attitudes, then seems outraged and surprised, along with the dim-bulb
heroines, when the country turns out to be a Third World backwater that has
very strong laws regarding drug smuggling and a court system where defendants
are considered guilty and can’t be bothered to let them prove otherwise.
(“Why would you want to come here anyway?” whines Beckinsale’s
distraught, accusatory dad, one of the few characters who talks sense.) Bill
Pullman plays an American practicing law in Thailand who is hired to spring
the girls; he exudes decency, yet the film has so little faith in the audience
that it lets us see him representing a couple of Burmese refugees pro bono,
then has the girls compliment him on his kindness and remark that he’s
not the ambulance-chaser they thought he was. When he and his wife and law partner
realize their work on the case will entail a trip to Hong Kong, Pullman asks,
“So which one of the firm is going to go to Hong Kong?” The answer,
delivered in a wholly unsurprising cut, might as well have been verbal: “The
member of the firm who starred in Independence Day.”

Like the flawed but much
gutsier Return to Paradise, which is superficially similar, Brokedown
seems to be about characters learning to face their own mistakes
and frailties and confront an unfair destiny with courage. But the details are
phony as can be, from the heroines’ constant bickering over who betrayed
who and which of them slept with the Australian to the weirdly unmotivated finale,
which asks us to be moved by one young woman’s act of sacrifice without
giving any indication that she loves her friend enough (or feels guilty enough)
to martyr herself. We are invited to be horrified by the leering and arrogant
Thai bureaucrats’ refusal to be moved by American tourists’ pluck
and beauty. The script shows signs of having been softened to make Danes’
character–and perhaps young American tourists in general–more sympathetic.
Afterward, an aghast friend who saw the movie with me said, “As an American
who holds a passport and has used it, I’m offended by the thought that
this movie is going to be exported around the globe.” No kidding.

The Joy of Pre-Code, 1930-33
In the 1933 melodrama Baby
Face, Barbara Stanwyck makes an entrance so startling it practically burns a
hole through the screen. Her character, a waitress in her loutish father’s
run-down Erie, PA, speakeasy, walks into the kitchen to find the old man threatening
to fire her coworker and best pal, a young black woman. With coiled fury, she
tells him that if her friend goes, she goes, so the old man might as well just
stick a sock in it. What’s remarkable about the moment is not just the
suppressed rage in Stanwyck’s delivery, but the situation–and, more
specifically, the unspoken assumptions around it. Stanwyck’s action expresses
a solidarity between women–poor women–that transcends race without
making a big, self-congratulatory deal of it. The women are united because they
work in the same dump during the Depression and take guff from the same abusive
saphead of an owner. Stanwyck’s rage is about a lot of things–sexism,
racism, economic deprivation–and none of them is presented in a preachy,
phony, grandstanding liberal way.

This is movie populism as
it was always meant to be: earthy, natural. It grows out of circumstance. It
tells the truth. It is a moment that is best appreciated by regular moviegoers
who have to work for their meager wages. And it was written and filmed during
a brief, shining period when filmmakers could get rough bits of life onscreen
without resorting to censor-diverting subterfuge.

You will experience many
similar shocks of recognition watching movies in Film Forum’s series “The
Joy of Pre-Code, 1930-33,” which starts this Friday, Aug. 20, and runs
through Sept. 14. This collection of features was made between the time that
Hollywood adopted stringent self-censorship measures and actually began enforcing
them (out of fear that the government, under pressure from public morals activists,
might do the job for them). The series is organized by programmer Bruce Goldstein,
who assembled Film Forum’s first pre-code series 11 years ago, and is tied
into a marvelous new book about the topic, Brandeis film professor Thomas Doherty’s
Pre-Code Hollywood
(Columbia University Press).

As Doherty observes, once
the production code started to be stringently followed around 1934, “the
fractures of American life, still less the open embrace of sex, did not close
up… No matter how rigid the body cast, Hollywood cinema is too supple and
expressive an art to constrain what Walt Whitman celebrated as ‘nature
without check with original energy’… In the hidden recesses of the cinematic
subtext, under the surface of avowed morality and happy endings, Hollywood under
the Code is fraught with defiance of Code authority.

“But in pre-Code Hollywood
the fissures crack open with rougher edges and sharper points. What is concealed,
subterranean and repressed in Hollywood under the Code leaps out exposed, on
the surface, and unbound in Hollywood before the Code. Often what is seen and
heard in pre-Code Hollywood is not so much as glimpsed or whispered in Codified
Hollywood. Images, language, ideas and implications are projected on screen
with blunt force and unmistakable meaning.”

As Doherty cleverly observes,
this was a period when the melancholy glamour of The Great Gatsby could
be plagiarized in Howard Hawks’ Scarface (in the billboard signifying
unrealized ambition, and in an image of gangster hero Paul Muni caressing silk
shirts) and audiences could be trusted to understand that assumptions about
the American dream were being rethought for the out-of-work masses. It was an
era when “the camera (seemed) to linger lovingly over full course meals
and bountiful spreads,” treating starved Depression audiences to a different
kind of pornography–food porn. It was a time when a whole string of films
could quote the popular song “Happy Days Are Here Again,” always with
bitter irony.

Consider Baby Face,
which kicks off the series (Aug. 20-21), on a double bill with the Edward G.
Robinson thriller Two Seconds. Stanwyck’s speakeasy waitress soon
decides she can’t keep living in a dump and heads off to the big city to
seek her fortune. This is how maybe three-quarters of boozing, brawling, sexy,
salacious pre-code movies start–with a greedy (or simply starry-eyed) poor
boy or girl, either from the city slums or a nowhere rural burg, heading for
Park Avenue or midtown or Hollywood or some other high-rent, high-stakes neighborhood
to make it on their own terms.

Taking full advantage of
the pre-code era’s tough realism about the realities of class in this country,
the heroes and heroines are shown to be sorely limited by circumstance. They
aren’t as well-off, genteel, connected or educated as the rich folk, but
they’re scrappy and resilient, and they’re possessed of a certain
animal cunning and know how to deploy it. In short, they know what they have
to do and how to use what they’ve got. For men, this means pulling scams,
talking fast, working the angles and using their fists when necessary–the
attributes of a budding hoodlum shark, a Cagney specialty. For women, that means
selling their God-given sex appeal wherever and whenever possible.

On a whim, Stanwyck’s
character gets an entry-level job at a Manhattan bank and quickly begins sleeping
her way to the top. This is not implied; it’s stated by the hilariously
unsubtle dialogue about experience and training, and in the transition sequences–exterior
shots of the bank building that start on a window labeled, say, “Mailroom”
and rise up a couple of floors to “New Accounts” or “Loans.”
The heroine is not condemned for her ambition or the means by which she realizes
it; on the contrary, the film sides with her throughout, letting us know this
is the only way somebody of her social stratum could advance quickly. This kind
of grotty, no-illusions realism, presented in the guise of lascivious poor-girl-in-the-big-city
melodrama, with the understanding that adults live in this kind of world and
could handle seeing it depicted onscreen, would have been unthinkable only a
few years later. It’s hard to imagine that just six years after Baby
, Gone With the Wind producer David O. Selznick would be reduced
to haggling with censors over the use of the word “damn.”

To greater or lesser degrees,
this frankness is present in most of the pre-code features on Film Forum’s
schedule. In Victor Fleming’s Red Dust (1932, Aug. 29), rubber baron
(or is that robber baron?) Clark Gable tries to decide between red-hot Mary
Astor and red-hotter Jean Harlow, and the appeal of sleeping around is acknowledged
without an 11th-hour bout of finger-wagging. Quadruple-stacked sensual peahen
Mae West in I’m No Angel asks a young, fresh-faced Cary Grant to
“come up and see me sometime,” and even a blind and deaf nun would
know she wasn’t talking about having a drink or playing Fish.

In Virtue (1932,
Aug. 26), Carole Lombard is a hooker on the run from a prostitution charge who
gets mixed up in a con game. We’re encouraged to second-guess her for getting
in over her head, but not to pass judgment on her avocation. Josef von Sternberg’s
Blonde Venus (1932, Aug. 27-28) has sex and self-sacrifice all mixed
up–how could it not with Marlene Dietrich playing the va-va-voom nightclub
singer wife of an unappreciative jerk husband–but it also acknowledges
the influence of black culture on the decadent white nightclub world, as evidenced
by her performance of “Hot Voodoo” in a white-girl fro. In Red
Headed Woman
, (1932, Aug. 29), Jean Harlow plays a small-town girl who goes
to New York, vamps her way into her boss’ bed and struggles to stay there.
“I love my wife,” the man says, in a clinch with the lusty blonde
hick fatale. “We’ve been sweethearts since we were kids.” “She
doesn’t have to know about us,” Harlow replies.

It must have been an amazing
sensation for working people (and poor people) to go to the movies during this
period and see stories like these onscreen. Sure, a lot of them–most of
them–were wish-fulfillment fantasies about persons of limited means making
it big on guts, sex and heart, and it was infinitely more common to see tales
of poor people in rich surroundings than the reverse. But the characters’
slang and I’ll-do-what-I-gotta-do attitude must have made a great deal
of sense. In a world of bread lines, only moralistic pieties would have seemed
a sin.

My favorite selection by
far, however, is Lady Killer (1933, Aug. 25), a truly strange wish-fulfillment
adventure in which slum hood Cagney starts out as a badly behaved usher at a
movie theater and then remakes himself as, in rapid succession, a petty crook,
the leader of a gang of thieves, a fugitive, a movie extra and an international
film star. (Could this film be an unacknowledged influence on Elmore Leonard’s
Chili Palmer character?) His only qualification for any of these jobs is his
insolent sense of invulnerability. It’s like he’s been knocked down
so often by so many people that he can’t feel pain or fear anymore. He’s
always looking for an angle, sizing people up for weaknesses they don’t
know they have–especially guys who think they can put one over on him.

In the opening of Lady
, the ushers at the movie theater are assembled like troops for inspection
by their blowhard manager, who tells them a lot of patrons have been complaining
about their rudeness, especially their nasty habit of chewing gum. Of course
Cagney is chewing gum and has to spit it out. But he doesn’t do it surreptitiously;
he just spits it out, with a malicious grin that says, “One of these days
I’ll either own you or kill you.” Later, a member of his gang asks
a stupid question, and Cagney takes the toothpick out of the guy’s mouth
and flicks it away before answering. He’s impatient with the world’s
inability to out-think him–and its inability to serve up any underlings,
dames or nemeses worth rousing himself to compete with.

Martin Scorsese and his
stable of volatile Method actors must have learned a lot from Cagney, and from
other Warner Bros. stars who brought a whiff of the streets with them to the
big screen. In this film, you get an early sense of Cagney’s no-bullshit
precision as an actor, his refusal to do aristocratic voices or otherwise put
on airs. His very presence calls the unreality of Hollywood stories into question
and challenges them to be more real. And before his arrival, you never really
saw explosions of raw slum violence onscreen–the grapefruit in the face
in Public Enemy, for example. That was Cagney’s specialty, and it
shook movies up as much as Brando’s brooding, ambisexual, Method introspection
in the 50s–maybe more.

Late in Lady Killer,
after he’s made it as a movie star, Cagney’s visited by his old girlfriend
and gang mate (Mae Clarke, the grapefruit girl from Public Enemy) who’s
setting him up for a shakedown. The girl lets herself in just as he’s coming
home with his new girlfriend, a movie star; the movie star leaves in a huff
and Cagney expunges Clarke from the apartment as if she were a sewer rat who
came in through a grate, pushing her out the door and booting her in the ass
to send her down the hallway faster, then throwing her suitcase out after her.
It slams against the wall over her head and pops open, and she screams. You
don’t just recoil in horror at the suddenness of Cagney’s violence;
for a second, you forget you’re watching actors in a movie. Cagney is frightening–a
thug who made good, but still a thug. He reminds you of reality; he puts you
in fear of your life.

When is the last time a
contemporary movie star evoked that kind of terrified fascination? Certainly
not recently: We now live in a period when the ratings board allows greater
freedom of expression (though not total freedom), yet the stars protect themselves
much more carefully than Cagney ever did. It is difficult to imagine Tom Cruise,
Tom Hanks, even Al Pacino and Robert De Niro these days, allowing themselves
to express such helpless rage onscreen. They’re too worried about alienating
the audience; they don’t want to jeopardize their investments. Perhaps
self-protective glamour–as carefully practiced by the wealthiest and most
powerful movie stars in the medium’s history–is the new production
code, keeping life out of movies.

Perfect Blue
directed by Satoshi Kon

As a technical advance in
the art of anime, Perfect Blue is a milestone–a comic-bookish, proudly
ridiculous melodrama about an imperiled celebrity that’s rendered in a
nearly photorealistic style, with some of the most credible textures and body
movements I’ve ever seen in an animated feature. Ralph Bakshi didn’t
replicate human facial expressions and body language this precisely in his 70s
epics, and he was rotoscoping real actors. But technical mastery only gets you
so far. This tale of a bubblegum pop singer named Mima Kirigoe, who leaves her
puffy pop group to make a career as an actress only to be stalked by a mysterious
fan (or fans), goes all out to impress, fracturing its narrative and reassembling
the pieces so that they straddle the border separating reality from the heroine’s
increasingly distressed and paranoid fantasies.

But despite the slick surface
and breathtaking bursts of nightmare violence, it’s a pretty thin movie.
It seems interested in its heroine mainly as a plot device–or perhaps as
a spool around which to weave ever more elaborate set pieces–rather than
in exploring the emotional distress of a threatened woman in ways that encourage
audience identification. Much of the time, she’s objectified in one way
or another, either as a cutesy-poo ingenue or as a sex object ripe for violation
(concretely, by her stalker, or metaphorically, by the male-dominated entertainment
industry). An ugly movie-within-a-movie gang rape scene makes the whole thing
even more unsavory; it’s filmed in a way that divides viewer identification
between the screaming heroine and the piggish, adrenaline-jacked rapists. Like
so many anime masters, Satoshi’s genius is primarily mechanical and sadly
inhumane. If Perfect Blue were a live-action film instead of a heavily
hyped Japanimation import (“If Alfred Hitchcock partnered with Walt Disney,
they’d make a picture like this!” proclaims Roger Corman in the press
notes), it would probably play after midnight on Showtime and star a cute, no-named
young model-actress with plastic breasts.