Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Goodfellas: The Charisma of Crime

Director Martin Scorsese’s 1990 film Goodfellas is ostensibly a true story about the organized crime underworld of New York City. The protagonist, Irish-Italian Henry Hill (played by Ray Liotta), was a real Lucchese Family crime associate beginning when he was a kid in the 1950s until his narcotics arrest in 1980. The film is based on the nonfiction book Wise Guy: Life in a Mafia Family written by crime reporter Nicholas Pileggi, who conducted interviews with Henry and his wife Karen while they were in the Witness Protection Program. Hill participated in many famous crimes, particularly the Kennedy Airport robberies of Air France and Lufthansa. Scorsese and his team won critical acclaim and awards for their energetic style and innovative editing techniques. Liotta narrates most of the film, based on the sections of Wise Guy dictated by the real Henry Hill’s recollections. Thelma Schoonmaker received an Academy Award nomination for Best Editing.

However, as much as Goodfellas is the story of Henry Hill, the film is also designed by Scorsese as the recreation of his own childhood in Southern and Eastern New York City and his own encounters with mobsters. Scorsese retained affection for the 1950s and 60s New York, particularly Queens and Brooklyn. He previously made three films about the colorful characters, lowlifes and crime in the city of his youth: Mean Streets (1973), Taxi Driver (1976), and Raging Bull (1980). Scorsese used Goodfellas as another opportunity to romanticize his neighborhood and its Italian-American residents. He wanted the audience to come away remembering an exciting, idealized version of that neighborhood and lifestyle according to what Scorsese imagined it to be. As part of that goal, he and Nicholas Pileggi recreated the characters as less violent and overall more agreeable to the audience than their real-life counterparts. Producer Irwin Winkler interpreted Goodfellas this way: “The character I see most in the film, strangely enough, is Marty Scorsese. His character more than anything else comes out. His own drive, his own wanting to be part of a group of outcasts. It has Marty’s passion, his sense of violence... and some of Marty’s need to be accepted” (Goodfellas).

In many ways Goodfellas is a love letter to a community in a bygone era. The production was a family affair, because Scorsese hired many cast and crew who had grown up in the same area and had known each other prior to filming. Author Nick Pileggi had known actor Robert De Niro (who played gangster Jimmy Conway) off and on for twenty years by the time Scorsese agreed to make the picture. De Niro had known Scorsese since their childhood in Queens. Actors Joe Pesci (Tommy DeVito) and Frank Vincent (Billy Batts) had been in a band and comedy act together in the late 1960s. Actress Lorraine Bracco was married to longtime Scorsese staple Harvey Keitel for eleven years. Through that relationship she was also friends with De Niro. Ed McDonald, the federal prosecutor who investigated Lufthansa and put Henry Hill into Witness Protection, grew up in the same Brooklyn neighborhood as Bracco. McDonald went on to play himself in the film. Scorsese’s parents even worked on the set as costume pressers because they were very familiar with the fashion of the era.

Scorsese had grown up near made men and had strangely admired them from afar. “I was aware of these older men and the power that they had without lifting a finger. You could just feel the flow of power coming from these people, and as a child you looked up to this without understanding it” (Thompson 151). He explained that “Elizabeth Street was mainly Sicilian, as were my grandparents, and here the people had their own regulations and laws. We didn’t care about the Government, or politicians or the police: we felt we were right in our ways” (Thompson 3). What first attracted Scorsese to the film was the “wonderful arrogance” of Henry Hill (151). Pileggi, who grew up in Bensonhurst Brooklyn, called it “opera, played out every day in the street. Marty would look out the window every day and see it. From 1910 through Prohibition especially, and into the 50s, that world [organized crime] was probably as strong an influence on the Italian-American community as there was. They were the single most powerful force for many, many years” (Goodfellas).

Actor Paul Sorvino (Paul Cicero), who also grew up in Brooklyn, encountered a few wiseguys at local eateries. He described them as “refrigerator sized men in dark suits” (Goodfellas). He explained that it was dangerous to even look at one of them without them getting angry and creating a confrontation. Frank Vincent saw many possible mobsters when playing with his band in various New York clubs. Songwriter Paul Anka, when interviewed on the Howard Stern show in 2007, told a story about his time in the wiseguy clubs. “If there were hecklers in the crowd in that day, they’d get smacked around and taken right out of the club and replaced with a new couple” (Howard Stern).

One of the film’s most famous scenes is a three minute Steadicam shot that follows Henry and his girlfriend (later wife) Karen as they enter the Copacabana nightclub through the back entrance, past the kitchen, and onto the main floor, all in one take. A table, chairs, and lamp are quickly produced for them. In a later scene at the club, Henry watches Bobby Darren sing his famous song “Roses Are Red (My Love).” Again, this is based on a memory of Scorsese. He attended a Copacabana dinner for his high school prom where he too saw Bobby Darren. He also witnessed tables flying in five minutes before show time for special people who would sit where ever they wanted. They would “emerge in the spotlight like a king” (Goodfellas). He thought it was the highest to which a man could aspire.

In Goodfellas, Scorsese glorified and bowdlerized the mob life by whitewashing many of the gangsters’ worst deeds. This was necessary in order to create sympathetic characters that the audience could identify with. “I knew it would make a fascinating film if we just could keep the same sense of a way of life that Nick had in the book – what Henry Hill had given him – and still have an audience care about these characters as human beings. If you happen to feel something for the character Joe Pesci plays after all he does in the film when he’s eliminated, then that’s interesting to me” (Thompson 151). Producer Irwin Winkler described the movie characters: “everything is nice, they hang around nightclubs, they have nice girlfriends, they spend money, and they wear nice clothes and have nice cars” (Goodfellas). Scorsese could accomplish this without much resistance from the audience, because most people do not have firsthand experience around wiseguys.

Scorsese’s fast, slick directing style was meant, in part, to emulate Hill’s manner of speaking: fast and direct, but also detailed and frank. Pileggi likened Hill to professional storytellers in the immigrant communities of the turn of the century. According to Barbara De Fina, co-producer and one time wife of Scorsese, he was trying hard to make a splash at that point in his career and get more respect as a filmmaker after Color of Money and the controversial Last Temptation of Christ (Goodfellas). “I discovered that scenes could be compacted, so that you could have a wedding, then go directly to the result of the marriage... I realized that if the scenes were kept short, the impact after about an hour and a half would be terrific” (Thompson 152). Scorsese dismissed conventional narrative and introduction of characters because he wanted to get to the glamour and excitement of the mob life. He wanted to “begin Goodfellas like a gunshot and have it get faster from there, almost like a two-and-a-half-hour trailer. I think it’s the only way you can really sense the exhilaration of the lifestyle, and to get a sense of why a lot of people are attracted to it” (Thompson 152).

Scorsese planned to have “lots of movement and I wanted it to be throughout the whole picture, and I wanted the style to kind of break down by the end, so that by his last day as a wiseguy, it’s as if the whole picture would be out of control, [and] give the impression he’s just going to spin off the edge and fly out” (Thompson 153). He went on to say “there were some scenes which would take longer, because the exuberance, the exhilaration of the lifestyle carries you along, until they start to have problems and then it stops – and you have to deal with that” (151). The famous “what’s so funny about me” scene where the gangsters are having a fun dinner joking around was based on an incident in Pesci’s life, not Hill. Scorsese wanted a reckless attitude in the film. His theory was “you say, ‘I don’t care if there’s too much narration. Too many quick cuts? – That’s too bad.’ It’s that kind of really punk attitude we’re trying to show.”

In order to streamline Henry Hill’s story and make the characters likeable to the audience, Scorsese and Pileggi worked back and forth for two years. Pileggi called the larger details of Hill’s life, such as his time in the Army Paratroopers, “irrelevant” (Goodfellas). Hill’s military service was left out of the film entirely, perhaps because he spent most of the time loan sharking to other soldiers or incarcerated in the stockade (Pileggi 44). Most of the characters in the film became charismatic, wise-cracking, fast-talking, enterprising young men that focused their lives on having fun and escaping responsibility. Scorsese went one step further and elevated these gangsters to mythic status. He called the story “nostalgia of a world filled with gods” and that “Henry was up on Olympus and was cast down” (Goodfellas). The filmed events became less repugnant, but it was hardly accurate to the real story.

Nicholas Pileggi summed up the gangsters he interviewed in his career as “illiterate hoods” (Pileggi 3). He found the real Hill to be slightly above par, because he could speak “fairly grammatically” (4). The film describes Paul Cicero’s (Paul Vario in reality) business as security for the mob. He would defuse altercations and arrange sit-downs to work out grievances. If anything got too out of control, Paulie and his crew would settle it. In the film it all sounds detached from the uglier side of mafia activity and even reasonable. However, the real business of the Vario crew was much more. It included extortion, loan sharking, racketeering, credit card fraud, counterfeiting, illegal gambling, drug trafficking, money laundering, arson, truck hijacking, point shaving, and murder, often all in the same year. Paulie once did 7 months in prison at the age of 11. “It was understood on the street that Paul Vario ran one of the city’s toughest and most violent gangs. In Brownsville-East New York the body counts were always high” (34). Hill was particularly sought after for his skills as an arsonist, even as a teenager. He utilized toilet paper soaked in Sterno fuel along with a lit cigarette as the ignition source. It was said Hill had never set a fire that wasn’t a felony (Pileggi 41).

As the centerpiece for the film, Hill was especially cleaned up for the story. In the film, Hill only does one stint in prison. In actuality, he had been arrested dozens of times, so many times that he lost count. He was constantly being arrested for hijacking trucks or stealing cars or selling illegal goods. His police yellow sheet, or record of arrests, was the only thing that proved Hill even existed, since he had long ago learned not to put any property under his own name or pay taxes (3). Henry and Karen’s wedding was actually an elopement, while the film portrays a lavish mob wedding. Hill’s adultery began immediately afterward. The film names two characters, Janice and Sandy, but in fact it included hookers, strippers, mistresses, drug couriers, and any women he met out dancing or drinking (84).

In the film, Henry is frequently at the site of violence but rarely a participant. Scorsese seemed to be painting him as an innocent bystander in the darker side of crime. As opposed to selling untaxed cigarettes or booze, violence was true evil. In only one scene does Henry help Jimmy Conway beat someone (Jimmy Burke in reality) over a money dispute. Meanwhile, Jimmy and Tommy are committing hits without remorse. In the murder of Billy Batts, for example, Liotta acts just as shocked as the audience when Jimmy and Tommy nearly beat a man to death. In this way, the audience can see the events through Henry’s eyes as a kind of everyman, who is just in over his head. The film shows the incident occurring over an insult to Tommy (Pesci). As bad as the characters and events are in the film, the reality was much worse. In actuality, Jimmy Burke had taken over the loan sharking business previously run by Batts. When Batts was released from jail, Burke stood to lose considerable income, so he recruited Tommy to help him eliminate Batts. Money was often the deciding factor when violence was committed.

Similarly, the murder of Spider (Michael Imperioli) during a card game shows Hill as mortified about the shooting. The real story proves that no one should have been shocked. Tommy had a long-standing feud with Spider over Spider’s fast rise in the Lucchese crime family, despite Tommy’s longer membership. Spider was making a lot of money in smuggling and auto theft. Once Spider insulted Tommy in front of his friends, Tommy finally had the excuse to bump Spider off. In both cases, Henry watches from the sidelines disapprovingly. However, Hill frequently calls in to the Howard Stern show. In one drunken phone call in 2003 he admitted to killing three people, the first when he was a teenager (Stern). On another day, when sober, he tried to call back and recant. This admission was not in Pileggi’s book. Hill apparently doesn’t want to remember these details, and by not mentioning them he doesn’t want anyone else to remember either.

The violence left off-screen is even more despicable. In one case a union trucking official gave Jimmy a hard time on an illegal shipment the gangsters were unloading at the man’s warehouse. Jimmy sent Stanley Diamond and Tommy DeVito (DeSimone in reality) over to the man’s house in New Jersey to rough him up so he would mind his own business. Instead they couldn’t help themselves and killed the man. “They were so pissed the guy wouldn’t listen to Jimmy, that he lived in the boondocks of Jersey, and that they had to go all the way out there just to talk to him, they got themselves so worked up that they just couldn’t keep from killing him” (Pileggi 138). In another case, when Hill is doing time for beating the man in Florida with Jimmy, Henry is living in a prison room with a man named Johnny Dio. The real Johnny Dio was sent to prison for arranging a low-level gangster to throw acid in the face of a journalist he didn’t like. The man was blind for the rest of his life. Paul Cicero is shown in prison with Henry “serving six months for contempt” according to the film, when the real Paul Vario was serving two and a half years for tax evasion.

One event in Hill’s life, besides all the killing and stealing, could have turned audiences against him more than anything. It was not included in the film. Henry had connections through his stolen car business to people in Haiti, and these people were involved in human trafficking. In 1967, Hill tried to buy his own Haitian slave to work in his house. “They had the right connections in the mountains, where they would buy young girls from their families. The girls were then shipped to Canada on a tourist visa and their new owners would go to Montreal and pick them up” (Pileggi 124). His girl cost only $600. When she arrived and upset Hill’s two daughters, he decided to send her back.

This is just the tip of the iceberg. Pileggi’s book is nearly 300 pages of inexplicable, casual violence and greed. These were not pleasant, likeable people. Scorsese and Pileggi had their work cut out for them to make the story palatable for a mainstream movie-going audience. One of their solutions was to change the scenes to be humorous. Toward the beginning of the film, when Henry is still a kid, some wiseguys grab Henry’s mailman off the street and threaten to put him in a pizza oven if he delivers any more truancy letters to Henry’s house. As directed, it is an amusing part of the movie. In truth, Henry hated this experience. “The guy was crammed in the back of the car and he was turning gray. I was ashamed to look at him. Nobody said anything” (Pileggi 25). In another scene, Jimmy and Henry drive to the Tampa City Zoo and threaten to throw a man into the lion’s den if he doesn’t cough up some money. This is funny, but fictional. Instead they simply beat the man at gunpoint in the middle of a Tampa bar and then drove him home to get the cash.As the film progresses chronologically and moves away from the 50s and 60s period of Scorsese’s youth, it gets noticeably less romanticized and more dark and violent. Winkler said “it was a very glamorous world that we presented until the murder of Spider” (Goodfellas). Still, most of the murders occur off-screen. After the Lufthansa heist, Jimmy (Robert De Niro) orders the killing of at least five people so he can keep their cut for himself. The audience only sees one of these murders, and the rest are revealed through a montage of police officers, garbage men, and neighborhood kids finding the other bodies. De Niro is never shown killing these people himself and is only directly involved with the Billy Batts blowup. Tommy (Joe Pesci) smashes a bottle on a restaurant owner’s head and later kills four people (Morrie, Spider, Stacks, and Batts) but the film avenges these immoral actions by showing Tommy get whacked himself.The actual Jimmy Burke was an unpredictable, sadistic thug. Scorsese and Pileggi’s writing and De Niro’s acting instead made him a charismatic gentleman Mafioso. Burke had been in the foster system his entire childhood, where he grew up being beaten, sexually abused, and locked in closets. As an adult his violent streak was legendary. “Jimmy could plant you just as fast as shake your hand. It didn’t matter to him. At dinner he could be the nicest guy in the world, but then he could blow you away for dessert” (Pileggi 24) and “his explosive temper terrified some of the most terrifying men in the city” (94).

All of the work of Scorsese and Pileggi culminated in a very memorable movie. To this day certain scenes have added to the cultural lexicon. People quote lines such as “go home and get your shinebox” or the “you think I’m funny” scene. Lorraine Bracco said “It’s embedded into our culture” (Goodfellas). Ray Liotta has stated that once you start watching Goodfellas, it’s impossible to stop until it’s over. “It seduces you and sucks you in” (Goodfellas). But it has done more than create memorable dialogue. The film downplayed Hill’s alcoholism and Quaalude addiction. Fans of the film are surprised that the real Henry Hill doesn’t look or sound anything like Ray Liotta. Instead, Hill is a barely coherent alcoholic with bouts of crack cocaine and crystal meth problems. He has since been thrown out of Witness Protection.

A powerful, “true” story like Goodfellas will always impact truth, because it is so entertaining and seems so real that audiences don’t question it. Therefore, the film itself is influential on memory. Goodfellas convinces people this is how the mob really was, when the truth is much worse than any film could depict. Frank Vincent commented on the difference between Goodfellas and a mob movie like The Godfather. “It really happened. People can remember Lufthansa. They can remember The Suite and all the places this really took place” (Goodfellas). Beyond that, Vincent believes, the film is so influential it has become the archetype for modern Mafiosi. “Mob guys all used this [movie] to be mob guys. That’s what a mob guy is. He’s Bob De Niro!”


Works Cited

Goodfellas. Dir. Martin Scorsese. Perf. Ray Liotta, Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, Lorraine Bracco, Paul Sorvino. Warner Bros. 1990. Commentary from the Film.

Hill, Henry. Interview with Howard Stern. The Howard Stern Show. Sirius Satellite Radio. 22 July 2003; 18 Nov. 2003; 19 Sep. 2007. Radio.

Pileggi, Nicholas. Wise Guy: Life in a Mafia Family. New York: Pocket Books, 1985. Print.
Thompson, David and Ian Christie. Scorsese on Scorsese. New York: Faber and Faber, 2003.
Print via Web. http://books.google.com/books?id=iZvyBBGAzHgC

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Do Replicants Dream of Being Human? - Blade Runner and the Problem of Identity

“Quite an experience to live in fear, isn’t it? That’s what it is to be a slave.” This question is posed to Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) late in the 1982 sci-fi film Blade Runner, based on the Philip K. Dick novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Throughout the film, the nature of identity, memory, and what it means to be human are explored. It asks, what are people if they have no past? How do we form our identities? Is it enough to be human if we believe we are? The details are ambiguous, and in the end, there are no easy answers.

The film’s implication is that if you define a person’s memories, you create their identity; if you create their identity, you can control them; if you can control them, you can make them your slaves.

The setting is Los Angeles, November 2019.
The antagonists of the story are four Replicants, “custom-tailored, genetically engineered humanoids,” who escape from a space colony by hijacking a shuttle and killing the passengers and crew. They return to Earth in an attempt to confront their maker at the Tyrell Corporation and extend their lives. The opening text crawl explains:

Early in the 21st Century, THE TYRELL CORPORATION advanced Robot evolution into the NEXUS phase -- a being virtually identical to a human -- known as a Replicant. The NEXUS 6 Replicants were superior in strength and agility, and at least equal in intelligence, to the genetic engineers who created them. Replicants were used Off-world as slave labor, in the hazardous exploration and colonization of other planets. After a bloody mutiny by a NEXUS 6 combat team in an Off-world colony, Replicants were declared illegal on earth -- under penalty of death. Special police squads -- BLADE RUNNER UNITS -- had orders to shoot to kill, upon detection, any trespassing Replicant. This was not called execution. It was called retirement.


Technology of 2019 has outpaced ethics. Advancing beyond mere mechanics, Replicants are biological beings. Their roles are tailored for great physical strength, military service, assassination, and “pleasure models.” However, the human attitude toward their usefulness does not change. “Replicants are like any other machine,” Deckard says. “They’re either a benefit or a hazard.” Slavery of manufactured humanoids is considered palatable and preferable to humans doing such hard, dangerous work. Flying cars called “spinners” are commonplace, while genetic engineering is also used to recreate all manner of animals. Faster-than-light travel has evidently been achieved in the Blade Runner setting, but Off-World colonization is selective: only those who can pass a medical test and afford the cost to emigrate are allowed. Thus, the sick and the poor are left on Earth while the healthy and well-off have brighter futures elsewhere. The population of Earth becomes a permanent slum society. Los Angeles is a dark and dirty city of towering buildings, perpetual rain and grime, multiethnic jargon, and overcrowded streets.

Due to their inception as adults with no childhood development or family bonds, Replicants have only their identity as slave laborers. They differ from humans mentally in that they lack normal emotions, particularly empathy. As they age and develop, they begin to recognize an identity and experience emotions, something new and shocking to them. They behave unpredictably and can become violent without warning. The Nexus 6, being the most advanced and closest to human, are naturally the most dangerous. Deckard, a veteran Blade Runner, is called upon by Captain Bryant of the Los Angeles police to track down and retire the four Nexus 6 Replicants who have escaped. Bryant explains that, “The Nexus 6 was designed to copy human beings in every way except their emotions. But the makers reckoned that after a few years they might develop their own emotional responses - hate, love, fear, anger, envy. So they built in a fail-safe device… A four year lifespan.” With no past, no long-term memories, and a short lifespan, the replicants have little attachment to the regular world and can enact violence with few morals to stop them. Dr. Eldon Tyrell hopes to prevent any future organized rebellions by simply allowing them to die off in four years before they become too self-aware.

However, a replicant’s identity can be created artificially and used to control them. Dr. Tyrell experiments with a new prototype in the Nexus line. Deckard is invited to the corporation to check out a new model replicant, Rachael (Sean Young), using the Voight-Kampff test. It is a machine designed to elicit an emotional response in a test subject and measure their involuntary physical responses (blushing, iris dilation etc.) or lack thereof, as a way to detect Replicants from ordinary humans. Early in the film, a Blade Runner named Holden tests one of the escaped Replicants, Leon. After a question about his mother (a nonexistent person), Leon flies into an irrational rage and shoots Holden.

If a person’s identity and past experience are insufficient for them to handle reality, how can they respond? Rachael, the experimental subject at Tyrell Corporation is a professionally attired, stuffy looking young woman. Deckard ends the Voight-Kampff session saying, “You're watching a stage play. A banquet is in progress. The guests are enjoying an appetizer of raw oysters. The entree consists of boiled dog.” Instead of instant disgust, Rachael's response is one of silence. She sits and stares blankly. She is apparently unable to think of a response, and none comes naturally. It takes Deckard over 100 questions to determine she isn’t human. Rachael, however, is unaware of her own nature. Deckard confronts Dr. Tyrell about creating a Replicant ignorant of herself. “Commerce is our goal here at Tyrell,” he replies. “More human than human is our motto. Rachael is an experiment, nothing more.”

The concern for success and profit at the company are more important than concerns for a person’s well-being. This is not so far-fetched in our current capitalist system. “We began to recognize in them strange obsessions,” Tyrell explains. “They are emotionally inexperienced with only a few years in which to store up the experiences which you and I take for granted. If we gift them the past, we create a cushion or pillow for their emotions and consequently we can control them better.” The cushion Dr. Tyrell refers to are false memories implanted into the new Replicants to make them more stable. Emotional stability translates to easier control by their masters. After all, commerce is the goal.

Identity and knowledge are part and parcel of memory. What is history, but a shared memory, one accepted through consensus? Rachael does not realize she is a Replicant, because she looks, acts, feels, thinks, and remembers as a normal person. At such a high level of development, what is there left to separate a Replicant from a person? The legal status in Blade Runner does not change for Replicants, at least in the timeframe of the film.

The creation of false identity is accomplished by Tyrell through memory, and memory is just personal history. Without the cushion that Rachael has, Leon instead lashed out when asked about his mother, whereas Rachael sat quietly at a loss for words. All Replicants, regardless of model, are obsessed with collecting photographs. They are drawn to the past and to relationships with people, even fictional versions. Human nature cannot be engineered out of them. Replicants obsessively struggle to create the facsimile of a past.

A person’s identity is so central to them that confusion about it is naturally a disturbing, emotional experience. Rachael begins to suspect her status and arrives at Deckard’s apartment to confront him. She tries to prove to Deckard she isn’t a replicant by showing him an old photo of her and her brother. Deckard has hunted replicants his whole career and is reflexively hostile towards Rachael. Deckard responds by reciting two “memories” that Rachael had when she was six years old. First, she and her brother snuck into an abandoned building; second, an orange spider lived outside her window but was eaten by its own offspring. Deckard knows Rachael's memories, either because Tyrell told him or he read it in her files. In fact, these are the memories of Dr. Tyrell’s niece, implanted in Rachael.

In the book Memory and Popular Film, late 20th Century film is cited as demonstrating a concern with the “unsettled boundary between reality and simulation in the constitution of remembered identity and experience”. Blade Runner is a perfect example. The “preoccupation with fantasy, subjectivity, and fabrication” is at the forefront of the film. It presents the question of how real our world really is when technology can fabricate our memories or manufacture an entire person.

Rachael’s identity, like anyone, is based on her memories, but once she realizes they are false, she has an identity crisis. Disturbed by Deckard’s knowledge of her memories and the revelation that she is indeed a Replicant, Rachael begins to cry. She throws down her photo and leaves. This is not typical Replicant behavior, however. Rachael is not the unpredictable, violent type Leon is. She has morals and empathy. Later, when Leon attacks Deckard on the street, Rachael nervously takes Deckard’s gun and shoots Leon to protect Deckard. When Rachael starts a romantic relationship with Deckard, her appearance changes. She is more natural, her hair is down, and her wardrobe is less stuffy and professional.

The chance for a person to create their own identity, and not have it dictated for them, can be a new beginning. Contrary to Tyrell’s expectations, Rachael’s identity crisis is a liberating force. A new identity begins to form through experiences and relationships in the present, rather than implanted memories of the past. She does not know she can play the piano until she tries. She remembers lessons, but is unsure if they were her own or Tyrell’s niece. It’s not important because she enjoys playing. She laments her status as a Replicant on Earth and worries that the police will track her down. When she asks Deckard about her “incept date” and longevity, she does it nicely rather than aggressively. She asks Deckard, “You know that Voight-Kampff test of yours? You ever take that test yourself?” She seems to be saying anyone could be a Replicant, and it shouldn’t matter. Instead of allowing herself to be a slave to her own false identity and remain a meek person, Rachael breaks free of this limitation.

Every person at the end of their life wants just a little more. Mortality is the largest fear for us. Once we are gone, so is our identity. It is the common factor between replicants and humans. Roy Batty, leader of the escaped Replicants, nears the end of his lifespan during the final scenes of the film. When he confronts Dr. Tyrell, Roy desperately pleads for a longer life. Tyrell is blunt. The facts of life. To make an alteration in the evolvement of an organic life system is fatal. A coding sequence cannot be revised once it’s been established. Because by the second day of incubation any cells that have undergone reversion mutations give rise to revertant colonies like rats leaving a sinking ship. Then the ship sinks.”

Roy protests but Dr. Tyrell continues with pride, even boastful. “The light that burns twice as bright burns half as long. And you have burned so very, very brightly, Roy. Look at you. You’re the prodigal son. You’re quite a prize.” Roy, true to his violent nature, kills Dr. Tyrell once it is obvious his life has no hope of extension. His past has been a mere four years of off-world labor, his present is as a criminal on the run, and his future is closing fast. For the Replicants, their whole lives, all their experiences, were as slaves. All they knew was fear and labor. No wonder they lashed out at their masters. The identity forced upon them by Tyrell has come back to haunt him. Roy refers to Dr. Tyrell as “father” before killing his own maker. The killing is an act of rebellion, defiance, and perhaps a little revenge, but it is also the act of an oppressed person finally displaying some autonomy.

As Roy reaches the end of his lifespan and begins to die with Deckard at his side on a rainy rooftop, he recounts his memories. “I've seen things you people wouldn't believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched c-beams glitter in the dark near the Tanhauser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die.” Even then, in his final moments, those experiences as a slave seeing the galaxy, define him and he latches onto them. His past, as meager as it was, became a source of pride.

Perhaps sentience is the only important criterion for being human. Memory, origin, physical form (born or engineered) and even identity may be irrelevant. The ability to bond with others and make intelligent decisions are what define us. If our identities are dictated for us we can be controlled, but free will allows us to choose a different path. We aren’t tied to the past unless we allow ourselves to be.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Little Apartment of Horrors: Little Otik and Freud’s theory of the Uncanny

This is a quick copy-and-paste of my extra credit essay from the final. Read Freud's theory here: http://www-rohan.sdsu.edu/~amtower/uncanny.html

The uncanny is the vague mysterious or supernatural entity that inspires fear. Sigmund Freud, that pre-eminent psychoanalyst and cocaine addict, had trouble defining the uncanny. “It is undoubtedly related to what is frightening — to what arouses dread and horror; equally certainly, too, the word is not always used in a clearly definable sense, so that it tends to coincide with what excites fear in general.” The uncanny could include ghosts, demons, monsters, or even angels and gods. In the comic book world, the X-Men are commonly called uncanny. Czech director Jan Svankmajer’s 2000 film Little Otik combines live-action characters that we can easily identify with in normal life, with bizarre stop-motion animated creatures. The juxtaposition of mundane-ness and horror sets us off guard.

The film tells the story of a married couple in middle class Czech Republic who are unable to conceive a child. Bozena Horakova, the housewife, suffers from idiopathic sterility (low number of eggs in the ovaries). Her husband Karel Horak, an office worker, suffers from azospermy (or azoospermia, i.e. no measurable sperm in the semen). In a possible homage, their OBGYN looks just like Freud, complete with beard and round glasses, although fatter. In the Horak’s baby fever, many strange things occur, at least in their imagination. Karel looks out his office window and imagines he is in line to buy a baby out of a tank on the street like a fish. At home, Bozena cries into a pile of baby clothes while Karel cuts open a watermelon to find a baby inside.

During Karel’s drive home, many women with children and babies in carriages pass by his car, but a lone old hunchback woman crosses next, a reminder of his wife’s possible fate. At their apartment building, Bozena touches Alzbetka’s (the neighbor girl) hair longingly. She is the only child in the building. Bozena and Alzbetka are both blonde; they could be related. Alzbetka is aware of the wife’s trouble conceiving and puts a ball under her shirt to imitate pregnancy. Karel and Bozena decide to buy a country house away from their apartment. While cleaning up the yard, Karel digs up a strange stump and its roots, roughly in the shape of a baby. He takes it into his shed, trims it and polishes it in a facsimile of a baby, and presents it to Bozena, half joking.

Bozena takes to the wood figure immediately, caring for it like a real child, changing its clothes, bathing it, and caressing it. She has had all the accoutrements of parenthood already prepared despite her sterility: baby powder, clothing, diapers, and pacifier. She becomes obsessed and perhaps a little psychotic over it. Bozena tells the neighbor she is pregnant and prepares nine pillows of different sizes to wear under her clothing to simulate the months. She even simulates the odd diet of a pregnant woman by pigging out on pickles with whipped cream, which she then vomits up. Bozena even denies Karel sex, for fear of having a miscarriage. Karel quickly realizes he has made a mistake.

The film, based on an Eastern European fairy tale called Otesanek, becomes more bizarre as the movie progresses. The couple name their new “baby boy” Otik, and he inexplicably comes alive. Otik, now animated in stop-motion, moves around and makes noise. He has one orifice in his head, which alternates as mouth, nose, and eye socket. Otik is also insatiably hungry, eating Bozena’s hair and anything else not nailed down. Otik grows to immense proportions because of his diet, becoming a danger to anything in his path. In the fairy tale, Otesanek eats a pot of porridge, a pail of milk, a loaf of bread, his parents, a peasant girl with her clover cart, a farmer and his hay and horse, a swineherd and his pigs, a shepherd and his flock, and Orisek the dog. Eventually an old lady with some cabbages throws a hoe into Otesanek’s stomach and it bursts. All the people tumble out, apparently no worse for wear. All of this is explained in a cartoon sequence, animated by Jan Svankmajer’s wife Eva, who unfortunately died in 2005 after 45 years of marriage.

Freud, always delving into the unconscious, was more curious about how and why the uncanny inspires fear, not what inspires it. Freud decided that the presentation of the uncanny was important, moreso than the apparition itself. “The souls in Dante's Inferno, or the supernatural apparitions in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Macbeth or Julius Caesar, may be gloomy and terrible enough, but they are no more really uncanny than Homer’s jovial world of gods.” The animated sequences in Little Otik are presented in many different ways. The audience is always off-guard as to what they will do next. They are alternately scary, gory, and funny. At times the viewer feels uneasy about laughing during gory scenes, or dreading the upcoming horror during a funny scene.

The live action part of the film is not as forgiving as the cartoon. The uncanny scenes ramp up with each moment, and violence is included. A hand reaches out from Mr. Zlabek’s (a dirty old man) pants to grab Alzbetka. She claims the man has tried to touch her in the past. Mr. Stadler, the Horak’s neighbor and father of Alzbetka, hallucinates that there are nails in his soup. Hilariously, the Stadler’s seem to eat nothing but soup anyway. Soon, just like the fairy tale, Otik’s hunger gets out of control. The Horak’s have to cook giant pots of milk and meat stew all day, using all four burners of the stove at once. They buy huge bags of pork from the local butcher every day. Left to his own devices, Otik eats the Horak’s cat, MikeŇ°. Eventually he also eats Mr. Mladek the postman and a female social worker. The social worker is dispatched in fully filmed gore, with her bones and bloody tissue flying about the bedroom. We feel bad for laughing at this, because all the while Otik is making cute baby noises. Karel attempts many times to destroy Otik, but Bozena always intervenes. She has become a hysterical weakling protecting her “child” despite the carnage. She rationalizes that many people die in car accidents every year. Alzbetka, who has read the fairy tale, is the only outsider who recognizes the danger. “Here we go,” she says. “And this is only the beginning.”

The Horak’s lock up Otik in their building’s basement coal shed to starve (where his rumbling stomach bothers the tenants), but Alzbetka befriends him and feeds him table scraps. At this point Otik is a huge wooden monster with root arms and a giant mouth, towering over everyone. Eventually, Karel attempts to cut up Otik with Mr. Stadler’s chainsaw, but when Otik murmurs “da-da,” Karel is overcome with affection and drops his guard. He is eaten too. Apparently Bozena accepts her fate and allows herself to be eaten soon after. All of this reminds one of Little Shop of Horrors, where the protagonist Seymour adopts a carnivorous plant and brings it people to eat. The ending of Little Otik is ambiguous, but we’re left to assume the old woman in the apartment building takes her hoe to the basement and ends the madness.

Freud recognized that fiction is best for the uncanny, because real life does not feature uncanny events as easily or often. “In the first place a great deal that is not uncanny in fiction would be so if it happened in real life; and in the second place that there are many more means of creating uncanny effects in fiction than there are in real life,” he said. This is the brilliance of Little Otik, because it updates a fairy tale that seems silly and harmless by putting it into real, recognizable circumstances to show us the horror that the fairy tale actually describes.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Videodrome + Naked Lunch = eXistenZ

David Cronenberg's 1999 film eXistenZ follows some very familiar themes from his career: technology run amok, the nature of reality, mad scientists, unreliable government, and oppressive corporations. These features can be found in Scanners (1981), Videodrome (1983), The Fly (1986), Naked Lunch (1991), and of course eXistenZ. Two more film could be lumped in, as far as the reality aspect goes: The Dead Zone (1983) and Dead Ringers (1988). Naked Lunch even has two actors in common with eXistenZ, Ian Holm and Robert Silverman. Clearly Cronenberg has a fascination with these themes and a need to explore them.

eXistenZ recycles the most from two of Cronenberg's earlier films, Videodrome and Naked Lunch. The movie(s) could be best described as organic or techno horror. The very basic designs of characters and objects are intended to disturb the audience through their disgusting biological appearance. It also touches on paranoia, alienation, and mistrust of the "reality" that surrounds us.

eXistenZ joins the genre of virtual reality films released the same year, with The Thirteenth Floor and The Matrix, all 1999. They deal with the concept of reality and the computer-generated equivalents. Something was in the air in Hollywood at this time, although they were a bit late to the virtual reality craze of the mid 90s. It is interesting how all three handle the VR premise very differently.

In the plot of eXistenZ, the newest edition of a game system is introduced by Antenna Research to a panel of testers. Jennifer Jason Leigh is the star game designer Allegra Geller, who designs the new virtual reality game eXistenZ.

Jude Law plays Ted Pikul, a marketing trainee put in charge of security at the front door for the event. (What is Jude Law going to do, flirt you to death?) As the demonstration begins, an assassin from the crowd produces a bizarre, organic gun and attempts to assassinate Allegra. The man shouts "Death to the demoness Allegra Geller!" He is apparently a member of a Realist movement that is against the encroaching mass-produced, fake realities on the market. When the shooting starts, Ted gets startled and barely lifts a finger. It takes two undercover armed security people to kill the assassin. Another employee of Antenna is killed, and his last words to Ted are "we have enemies in our own house. Trust no one." This could be a reference to Matthew 10:36: A man's enemies will be the members of his own household.

The game systems, called "metaflesh gamepods," are actually organic creatures (rather than electronic consoles) that resemble indistinct lumps of tissue, produced at Antenna by injecting synthetic DNA into amphibian eggs. The gamepods squirm and make noise when touched. Allegra even refers to a gamepod as "her." The player-user has to insert an umbilical cord from the console into a bio-port in the small of their back, which provides direct access to the person's spine. Once in the game, the people fall into a trance-like state.

The Realist Underground has put a hit out on Allegra, so she and Ted must evade the assassins and their acquaintances who may have been paid off to sabotage her. The organic technology used for the gamepods and guns is evidently widespread, because Ted owns something called a "pink phone," which resembles of a lump of lard.

In this near-future, the virtual reality games have apparently overtaken real life activities. A character comments that "it seems like everything is used for something else now." The sweatshop slaughterhouse where the mutated amphibians are harvested was previously a trout farm. Allegra and Ted hide out in an old ski lodge, because as Allegra says, "no one physically skis anymore." The building where the eXistenZ demonstration takes place is a disused church. Has even religion gone by the wayside in this world?

Allegra is described as being shy but is more of the man in the relationship. She tells Ted she will handle things, and orders him to remove the "bullet" (actually a human tooth) from her shoulder with a pocket knife. Ted is reluctant to have a bio-port installed. "I have this phobia about having my body penetrated... surgically. You know what I mean." Allegra replies "no I'm not sure that I do." Note the hint of gender distinction. Ted rashly tries to fend off having a bio-port put in by wielding a giant wrench. Allegra says of Ted's fear, "This is it, you see. This is the cage of your own making, which keeps you trapped and pacing about in the smallest possible space forever." Later, Allegra (lustfully perhaps) licks her finger and inserts into Ted's bio-port, saying that it "wants some action," and Ted gets angry and swats her away.

The film environment may be a semi-fascist state. Bio-ports have to be licensed and ones installed unofficially are illegal. Rural areas are a haven for black markets and trading secret information. This is where game development people hide out. Allegra is a "big star" in this world. When Ted and Allegra stop at a country gas station to get a bio-port, the character Gas (Willem Dafoe) figures out who Allegra is and falls on his knees and kisses her feet. He explains that her games have been a liberating force for him, allowing him to escape his mundane life as a gas station owner and explore his other abilities. And yet, Allegra spends all her time alone in her room designing games. For example, eXistenZ the game took five years and cost $38 million to develop, "not including pre-release marketing costs."

Using the eXistenZ game inspires the characters to a better appreciation for actual reality. Allegra curiously touches the cement on the gas station building, smells the gas pump, and kicks the dirt. She throws a rock at the pump and smiles at the tin noise.

Then again, is it "actual reality"? The nature of reality is toyed with, manipulated, twisted, and hinted at throughout the movie. It is one of those movies that makes more sense when viewed a second time. As Ted and Allegra (her name means "happy" in Italian) are on the run, everything is a little too scenic and contrived.

In the real world of the film, the characters have technology that we (in our world) do not, nor could we conceive of ever making. The organic gun shoots human teeth as bullets, and the cell phone is made of... I don't want to know. Allegra also encounters a strange creature at the gas station: a two-headed lizard that walks like a scorpion. She explains that it is a "sign of the times." So, how real is the "real" world of the film?

The relationship between movies and video games is explored. Both films and games try to recreate reality on their own terms, in a more interesting version, a hyper reality. In games, we marvel at their graphics and sound effects and physics, but what will happen when technology gets so good that it can recreate the real world so well that it's indistinguishable? Will we be impressed by the achievement of the recreation, or be bored with it because that world already exists right outside our doors anyway? If the simulation is too real, how can we tell it apart from reality? Or, once we achieve that state, will it matter?

The similarities between eXistenZ and Videodrome and Naked Lunch abound. Andy Warhol called Videodrome the "Clockwork Orange of the 80s." That film mainly focuses on the nature of media and entertainment warping our perceptions. It adds to alienation and paranoia over what is real. It also involves a corrupt corporation. A pirated TV signal called Videodrome (supposedly from Asia but actually Pittsburgh) is broadcast depicting snuff films. The real producer of Videodrome is Spectacular Optical Corporation, a front for a weapons company. The broadcasts are designed to kill depraved viewers by giving them brain tumors. Max Renn (James Woods) develops reality-warping mental abilities, and one of his hands is transformed into an organic gun. It's quite literally a hand-gun. Throughout the film he yells "Death to Videodrome, long live the New Flesh!" similar to the assassin's exclamation in eXistenZ.

In Naked Lunch, reality is warped by a powerful drug that is manufactured as bug powder. The main character, William Lee (Peter Weller), uncovers a bizarre conspiracy through his drug use. His typewriter transforms into a sentient, speaking insect of some sort. The insect orders Lee, now a secret agent, to assassinate people who work for Interzone Incorporated (again, notice the evil corporation). In the film, the insects make animal noises and squirm around, just like the metaflesh gamepods.

The gamepods seem to be completely organic, and the data is stored on "neural webbing," but when a gamepod is fried it lights up and shoots sparks. Ian Holm dissects a gamepod much like he dissected the facehugger in Alien exactly 20 years earlier.

The eXistenZ game world is not revealed until 40 minutes into the film. Allegra describes the transition to the game world in movie editing terms, such as "jagged brutal cuts" and "slow fades." During the game experience, Ted gets worried. "Where are our real bodies? Are they alright? What if they're hungry? What if they're in danger?" This presciently describes real internet and video game addiction. The phenomenon of MMORPGs causing real psychosis and even death from exhaustion and dehydration has occurred in South Korea and Japan.

"What is the goal?" Ted asks Allegra. "You have to play the game, to find out why you're playing the game," she replies. It sounds like life. You don't always know where you're going until you get there. At the very end of the film, when a character gets a gun turned on him, he asks "tell me the truth, are we still in the game?" The characters don't know and neither do we.

Friday, December 4, 2009

The Thing, addendum

Just some bits of trivia from rewatching the Collector's Edition of the film with the commentary track featuring John Carpenter and Kurt Russell.

The Thing
was the first of John Carpenter's apocalypse trilogy, which includes Prince of Darkness and In The Mouth of Madness.

The Thing was released two weeks after another alien flick, ET, and was crushed at the box office by it.

When the cast arrived at the Universal Studios lot, the banner greeting visitors featured the two big Universal stars at the time: Burt Reynolds and Dolly Parton.

The opening title, when "The Thing" appears on the screen, was simply created by burning a black plastic garbage back in the shape of the letters and placing a bright light and smoke behind it.

The opening shot with the spacecraft flying quickly by the camera into Earth's atmosphere was copied for the movie Predator five years later.

The early shot with the dog running across the snow field was filmed outside Juneau, Alaska, which had the record at the time for the most snowfall anywhere in North America. As Carpenter put it, "the only problem with this location is we couldn't get any beer."

Working on The Thing with all of its helicopter work persuaded John Carpenter to get his own helicopter pilot's license.

The intended background of MacReady, Kurt Russell's character, is of a Vietnam veteran pilot who became an alcoholic after the war and sought isolation, hence his J&B drinking and service in Antarctica.

Originally the cast was going to be a true ensemble, with no main character or hero. MacReady would have only become the center at the very end once everyone else except the monster was dead. This sounds pretty similar to Ripley in Alien. Once Kurt Russell, a fairly well-known star was brought in, the script was adapted.

MacReady's big silly hat was forced on Russell because the second-unit footage had already been shot with another actor (or pilot) wearing the hat, shot from behind. In order for the footage to match Russell had to wear it too.

Russell was upset when they got to British Columbia because he realized it would be great skiing and no one thought to bring their skis.

Stewart, British Columbia is near Hyder, Alaska. In the area they have a tradition called Hyderizing or Hyderization. You have to drink Everclear, and if you can keep it down they take your glass and set it on fire.

Carpenter described the white-out conditions in Stewart as "being inside a ping pong ball and trying to find a way out."

The bush pilots in Alaska were apparently a bit nuts. One of them approached Carpenter and offered to crash his own helicopter for the movie if they would pay him.

The "base" that was built in Stewart was always kept at 31 degrees and the cast and crew really lived in it. It was specially designed to be destroyable across the shooting schedule.

The charred set of the Norwegian outpost was actually the American outpost once it was blown up for the end of the movie, rather than building two sets.

The interiors of the destroyed Norwegian compound were actually filmed on a sound stage at Universal in Los Angeles. It was almost 100 degrees outside at the time and the cast had to wear their full winter outfits around the lot. On the set it was refrigerated down to 28 degrees. In order to create the full visible breath the crew ran misters to put humidity into the air. When that didn't work the actors had to put special baskets in their mouths containing dry ice.

When Rob Bottin, the makeup and creature effects artist, made something Carpenter thought didn't pass muster, Bottin would just slather more gel on it until it looked good on camera. The slime was made of carbopol, the same ingredient used in Twinkies to hold them together.

Besides an all-male cast, the crew was all-male as well. The one woman who worked on the shoot was Candy Marcellino, but she was pregnant at the time and had to leave. Kurt Russell observed that, because there were no females around, the men did not engage in posturing.

The "steam" rising off the half-changed corpse of the Thing was something called A&B Smoke. All the coughing and wincing from the actors is real due to the pungent smoke.

John Carpenter was worried about how to shoot 12 actors all in a scene together exchanging dialogue and ensure it made sense to the audience. However, when he watched the original 1951 film, he saw that at one point director Christian Nyby shot a scene with 36 people.

Wilford Brimley had no trouble with the scene where he dissects the dead Thing and pulls out its organs. Brimley had been a real cowboy and rodeo rider prior to his acting career. He also was an extra on an episode of "Gunsmoke" which starred James Arness, the monster from The Thing from Another World.

Carpenter considered The Thing to be partially a metaphor for AIDS and the early hysteria surrounding it, because the disease was so deadly and you couldn't tell who had it.

When the dog creature extends a flower-like appendage, it's actually a collection of dog tongues with rows of teeth.

One day at lunch on the set, after a day of filming with the flame throwers, Kurt Russell played a practical joke on John Carpenter. He went up to Carpenter with bandages covering his face and said he couldn't work anymore because he had been burned. It took Carpenter minute to look at the expressions of the other cast members and figure out it was a joke.

If you ever visit Antarctica and want to dig up your own UFO, here is the map.

When shooting the scene with the UFO in the ice, the cast had to be very careful where they stepped along the glacier at all times. Because the entire area was solid white, one step could be solid and a misstep could send you 400 feet straight down.

The scene where the three actors are walking toward the spot where the frozen alien was found was actually shot by having the actors walk across a white sheet laid on the ground at the Universal back lot in Los Angeles. Everything in the scene surrounding them is a matte painting.

Carpenter and Russell joked that the crude computer animation of the cells being assimilated looked like the Atari game Asteroids.

For the scene where Wilford Brimley has a nervous breakdown and destroys the room with an axe, two cameras were running and Brimley was told to just go to town.

At one point Keith David has to hide his hand from the camera because he had broken it in a car accident. The hand was bandaged and a painted glove was then placed over that. The only car he had driven prior to that incident was one he had stolen in New York City.

The fake ice put in the actor's hair and beards was made from sugar.

Each flare only lasted 90 seconds, so shots had to be done quickly before it burned out. One scene would take multiple flares. The actors had to hold the flare close enough to his face to light himself for the camera but not too close to burn himself.

In the scene where Charlie Hallahan's chest opens up and severs Richard Dysart's arms, Hallahan had to lay on the table motionless for 8 hours of makeup.

One of the negative reviews when the film came out called John Carpenter a "pornographer of violence."

Notice that once Blair (Wilford Brimley) becomes the Thing, he no longer needs his glasses.
John Carpenter really admired Brimley as an actor and was impressed by his performance. When Carpenter asked Brimley what he thought about during a certain scene, Brimley replied "picking up my laundry."

The end scene with the floorboards being tossed in the air sequentially was accomplished by putting a big metal ball under the floor and dragging it with a winch.

The final monster sequence required 50 people to operate the giant puppet.