Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Kick the Habit

I went to see The Black Dahlia on Sunday. I don't really have that much to say in way of a review. It's not good but not particuluarly terrible. Certainly it won't be the worst movie you've ever seen. If you like movies in general you probably won't feel you've wasted your time, though you're unlikely to be truly impressed. If you're the kind that's highly allergic to art flicks, this probably isn't for you. Either way, I don't see any point in paying the theater price.

So much for the review - on to the nitpicking! Two things, really. First, I couldn't figure out what was going on with all the smoking. All I know is that there was a LOT of it, and they seemed to want to impress you with how "authentic" the cigarettes were. I remember one scene where someone (see, I can't even remember who anymore - either Bucky or Lee) lights a cigarette and the camera watches it slowburn. We're meant to notice here, I think, that it's burning faster than it should be - i.e. it's more loosely wrapped and the paper is different!!! Impressed? And it's on and on like that through the movie. Anyway - I could never really figure it out. Granted, I think smoking in the male American population was probably at some kind of a statistical peak in the late 1940s. (I couldn't find specific numbers, but the rate from 1955 to the early 60s was over 50% for men.) But this was a little too "in-your-face" to be explained by a slavish devotion to authenticity (which, by the way, is not one of the movie's flaws - see next point). Or so it seemed to me. Lots of the more contrived moments seemed to involve cigarettes. For example, there is one scene where Lee puts a cigarette in his mouth just as the phone rings. Not really having a free hand to look for a match, he snaps his fingers in some kind of self-consciously 1940s gesture (it reminded me instantly of that scene in The Manchurian Candidate where Frank Sinatra asks one of his underlings for a pack of cards - and either claps his hands or snaps his fingers or something. Someone instantly throws him one, and he palms it neatly with a loud slap.) and Bucky throws him a book of matches. This turns out to be a plot point - Bucky had earlier written a crucial name and license number on the inside flap. Well, the gesture was out of place: no other care was taken in the rest of the movie to make the actors seem authentically "40s" in this manner. So it was either meant to call our attention to the plot point, or possibly to the fact that Lee is smoking. I really couldn't tell you which. Probably it's both. Another example happens in the morgue. One cop asks the doctor if his men can smoke, and the doctor replies that the dead girl on the table won't mind. It's a stale joke - only funny here because of his strange accent and huge glasses. The camera pans out to show us that the two cops in question already have cigarettes in their mouths. And in another scene, the camera drops down in an unusual motion to show us Bucky's foot crushing out a cigarette on an otherwise clean doormat. And so on and so on. Just when you think they're done, something comes up to remind you that there's a lot of smoking going on, and I really don't know why. Maybe it's an honest attempt at film noir ethos. Maybe they're just trying to remind you it's the 40s. Or maybe there's a statement being made here - one that the director can pass off as a stab at political correctness in the right circles, but one that seems more likely to be a reminder of how much intrusive smoking there used to be before all the lung cancer campaigns. I'm really not sure, but I do know it was heavy-handed.

As for the other point, I thought their attempts at 1940s authenticity were lopsided, and that got on my nerves. Like with the smoking, so with many other details of the "atmosphere." I couldn't figure out whether it was just an honest but clumsy attempt, or if we were in the presence of the fabled Artistic License in terms of which details got attention and which didn't, or if maybe the movie actually looks like a convincing portrait of the 40s to most people and just didn't to me. As to this last possiblity, I certainly wouldn't rule it out because indeed the main thing that was annoying to me (I am a Linguist, after all) about the lopsided authenticity was that almost no attention was paid to speech patterns whatever. And that really ruined the illusion (if that's what they were going for) for me. We saw a bunch of people walking around in 1940s clothes doing 1940s sorts of things, but they talked just like we do. The same sort of Canada-tinged movie accent that's been ubiquitous on TV and in the movies since the early 90s. Sure, they threw in a "golly" or a "baby" here and there, but only as much as required, really. I get really annoyed with this stuff. Language is always the first casualty of most people's suspension of disbelief. Professional curse on my part, I guess - the same way I'm sure doctors routinely slap their foreheads in many thrillers as autopsies are done without proper procedure, or the explanation for the poisoning just can't be or whatever else. When language mistakes are made, I notice. Star Trek regularly used to drive me up a wall on this point. Either there is a universal translator or there isn't, and they need to make up their minds. Or like that annoying scene in Return of the Jedi where C3PO, the robot that is "fluent in over 6 million forms of communication," can only just manage to talk to the guard at the door to Jabba's palace - and speaks with an accent besides!!! It was too much. Well, that was going on here too. Every time someone made one of those demi-Canadian open-/o/ sounds I cringed. However - I will go ahead and take a guess at what was going on - and that's that I think the "artistic license" explanation is correct. One too many times (and not just with the smoking) they seemed to be throwing their attention to detail in our faces. Other times, it was like they just didn't care. I have a feeling that DePalma is setting himself up to be studied in film school as giving "selective attention to historical detail" - and I'm sorry I don't really have the energy to fill in all the deconstructionist Newspeak about the edifice of disbelief or the metacontext of dramatic framing or whatever else it is - but you get the point.

As it turns out, there was a real Black Dahlia. I didn't know going into the film, and only just found out looking for a review to link for this post. Well, cool, I guess. I can't say I'm all that interested in it compared to other famous killings, but then I'm not generally interested in unsolved murders as a rule. Not that the mystery part of it isn't interesting - just that real-life killers usually aren't. They tend to seem like mere sickos without Hollywood or some writer to glam it up. It takes an artist's touch to make it creepy as opposed to banal.


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