Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Poster posture: Women with six-guns

The Bushwhackers (1951)
One style of poster repeatedly used for westerns featuring women shows the women illustrated, not photographed, standing head to toe, looking and pointing two 6-guns straight at us. A typical example is the artwork currently associated with a 1951 film called The Bushwhackers (at right), though it is unclear to me if this is original poster art or something affiliated only with the Synergy Entertainment DVD release of the film. In any case, several authentic examples follow, ordered by how well I think they meet the ideal form of the style, with the strongest examples first, followed by slight variations: photographic art, women with a single gun, and women not entirely shown. I couldn't help but conclude with a French poster for the film noir Gun Crazy (aka Deadly Is the Female), whose leading woman is first introduced wearing a western outfit, twin six-shooters in hand.

Some of these posters make a promise that isn't kept by the film — I don't recall Patricia Medina, for example, doing much shooting in The Buckskin Lady, nor Babrbara Stanwyck having as much gunplay as Ronald Reagan in Cattle Queen of Montana. Conversely, the poster for Johnny Guitar, while featuring Joan Crawford as the dominant element, does not depict her showdown with Mercedes McCambridge in a rare example of a western whose climactic gunfight is between two women.

Finally, note the taglines on some of these posters, which sexualize the women through innuendo despite their apparent mastery of a traditionally male (and Freudianly phallic) weapon. My favorites are from The Buckskin Lady ("She hid her past behind a pair of silver .45's!") and Cattle Queen of Montana ("She strips off her petticoats . . . and straps on her guns!"). The posters further fetishize these women through costume, with prominent gun belts offset by tight or low-cut clothing.

The Buckskin Lady (1957)

Montana Belle (1952)

Woman They Almost Lynched (1953)

Johnny Guitar (1954)

Rose of Cimarron (1952)

Cattle Queen of Montana (1954)

Dakota Lil (1950)

The Paleface (1948)

Belle Starr (1941)

Gunslinger (1956)

Gun Crazy (aka Deadly is the Female, 1950)

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Poster posture: The fantasy mound

There's a recurring motif in posters from fantasy movies of the late 1970's and continuing through the 80's: the (almost always) male hero posing on top of a mound, surrounded by images of the characters and landscapes of his adventure, weapon raised, with a woman placed next to him — sometimes seemingly submissive and dependent upon him for protection, at all times sexualized and occupying a lower space in the composition.

Below are examples of this motif from several movie posters. Some of the films were probably lower-budget attempts to cash in on the sword-and-sandal craze ostensibly set off by Conan the Barbarian (1982). Others were almost certainly sex-and-violence exploitation films (I admit there are a few on this list I have not seen). But this poster style was used by more successful mainstream films as well, as early as 1977's Star Wars. The style was used outside of the fantasy genre (though perhaps just barely) in the Clint Eastwood cop adventure The Gauntlet, parodied by two of National Lampoon's Vacation comedies, given a female hero variation for Barbarian Queen (1985) and Warrior Queen (1987), and echoed decades later in the poster for Tron Legacy (2010), the sequel to Tron (1982), which also used the style.

This motif reflects the concerns of a genre often aimed — accurately or not — at a young male audience: weapons (frequently phallic), life's challenges made physical and solvable by battle, and the role of women as the hero's reward.

Star Wars (1977)

The Gauntlet (1977)

The Norseman (1978)

Conan the Barbarian (1982)

Tron (1982)

The Beastmaster (1982)

National Lampoon's Vacation (1983)

Fire and Ice (1983)

Sword of the Barbarians (Sangraal, the Sword of Fire, 1983)

Warriors of the Wasteland (The New Barbarians, 1983)

The Blade Master (Ator 2 - L'invincibile Orion, 1984)

The Warrior and the Sorceress (1984)

National Lampoon's European Vacation (1985)

Barbarian Queen (1985)

Warrior Queen (1987)

Tron Legacy (2010)

Monday, February 10, 2014

Winter games, Bond-style

The Winter Olympics always make me want to watch James Bond, probably because Bond himself has always had an affinity for winter sports. While the athletes at Sochi face the true dangers inherent to such competition, Bond's winter games entail more outlandish challenges. Here's a look at some of 007's best events.

Skiing

For Bond, skiing includes threats even more sinister than a biased Olympic judge. The danger could be in the form of gunmen on skis . . .

On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969)

The Spy Who Loved Me (1977)

. . . gunmen shooting from the villain's lair . . .

On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969)

. . . gunmen on motorcycles . . .

For Your Eyes Only (1981)

. . . gunmen in snowmobile propeller parachute things . . .

The World Is Not Enough (1999)

. . . or an avalanche.

On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969)

Bond doesn't always ski with traditional equipment; spiked tires and outrigger skids make even his Aston Martin suitable for the slopes.

The Living Daylights (1987)

Ski Jumping

Bond's ski runs sometimes include a jump motivated more by the need for escape than by the thrill of victory.

For Your Eyes Only (1981)

Though a traditional hill is often passed over in favor of a cliff . . .

The World Is Not Enough (1999)

. . . a helicopter . . .

The World Is Not Enough (1999)

. . . a roof . . .

For Your Eyes Only (1981)

. . . or a picnic table . . .

For Your Eyes Only (1981)

Some jumps require special equipment . . .

The Spy Who Loved Me (1977)

. . . and all look better with explosions.

The World Is Not Enough (1999)

Snowboarding

You know, while being shot at by gunmen on skis.

A View to a Kill (1985)

Ice Skating

Skating makes Bond nervous, especially when he needs to fend off an awkward infatuation.

For Your Eyes Only (1981)

Hockey

Bond's hockey is a contact sport with badly unbalanced teams.

For Your Eyes Only (1981)

Bobsledding

A sled is not always required. Chasing a sled while on skis still gets points, provided Bond is himself being chased by a henchman on a motorbike.

For Your Eyes Only (1981)

Sleds can also be improvised, as from a cello case.

The Living Daylights (1987)

An actual bobsled is preferable, however, because it offers more room for grappling with archenemy Blofeld.

On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969)

See also: Bonding Ritual

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

This is not an apple

Citizen Kane (1941)
Someone once complained to me that Orson Welles wasn't as great as his reputation, citing the shot of the eyeless cockatoo from Citizen Kane — whose transparent eye was apparently an unintended effect of the imposition process — as evidence that Welles received praise for such accidents as if they were intentional and meaningful moments of his own design. The cockatoo shot is ripe for such debate between people who may wonder what the bird's transparent eye signifies and those who would dismiss any such search for "meaning" due to the effect's unintentional origin. Filmmaker and Welles confidant Peter Bogdanovich, on a commentary track on the Citizen Kane DVD, explains that Welles told him the shot was only inserted to reclaim the audience's potentially waning attention at a late point in the film. Accepting anything Welles said about his own work at face value is risky, but refusing to allow that the shot could have any effect beyond Welles' own imagining is more so.

In a 2013 blog post about Room 237, a documentary in which fans of The Shining explain their theories about the Kubrick film, David Bordwell, addressing one theory that The Shining is Kubrick's apology for helping fake the Apollo 11 landing, wrote:

The Apollo 11 argument illustrates the risk of appeals to intention: they tend to substitute causal explanations for functional ones. That is, they tend to look for how something got into the film rather than what it's doing in the film. But that's a risk that professional critics run as well when they appeal to intention. The problem is just more apparent when the causal story that's put forward seems tenuous.


While the technical explanation of the transparent bird eye is perhaps easier to accept than the claim about Kubrick and Apollo 11, the problem of "appeals to attention" is applicable to debate over the Kane shot as well. Regardless of how the transparent eye came to be, it nonetheless ended up in the final film, and can therefore influence the viewer's response. All meaning in a film — or in any work of art — rests with the viewer. Filmmakers can do their best to shape an intended meaning or effect, and they can explain their intentions forever after; still, meaning is in the mind of the beholder.

Ceci n'est pas une pomme
Rene Magritte, 1964
The Magritte painting Ceci n'est pas une pomme ("This is not an apple") demonstrates the disparity possible between an artist's intentions and the end effect on a viewer. At first, the discrepancy between what the painting depicts (an apple) seems to be at odds with the inscription above it ("This is not an apple"). By one interpretation, this can be resolved by realizing that the apple is merely a depiction of an apple; thus, "this is not an apple." But there is something more at work. Magritte has included above a very recognizable image of an apple an equally unambiguous statement, "This is not an apple." In doing so, he has given us conflicting information about what we see and what we are told. Specifically, between what he is showing us and what he is telling us. To resolve this intellectual conflict, we must decide for ourselves what we are looking at. Thus, the painting is also a demonstration of the audience's relationship to the artist; more precisely, of the relationship between the artist's intentions and the audience's perception.

What if Magritte had inscribed something else, like "This apple is hanging from a tree" or "This apple has been poisoned"? Our decision would then be to decide if we accept this extra information about the apple, to determine if what the artist tells us about his own thoughts and intentions are relevant to our perception or "interpretation" of the apple. There would be nothing requiring us to accept such statements, and there is nothing requiring us to accept, or accept in a specific and predetermined way, the statement "This is not an apple." It is not incorrect for us to reject that statement in favor of what we believe we see, nor is it incorrect to reject a filmmaker's stated intentions in favor of what we interpret from the final film.*

I'll close with a few movie moments that came to mind when writing this.

Opening title card from Fargo

Fargo (1996)

I wouldn't necessarily fault anyone who accepted this statement without question, though claims such as this beg examination. When I first saw Fargo, I assumed this statement was false (it is a movie, after all) and wondered why it was included; what I accepted without question was that the Coen brothers thought it contributed somehow to the film. (For insight on this, see an interview snippet with Joel Coen in Karl Heitmueller's Rewind: What Part Of 'Based On' Don't You Understand?)

Jesus confronts Paul in The Last Temptation of Christ



When Jesus, saved from the cross and living a regular life, tells Paul that Paul's stories of Jesus' death are not true, Paul tells Jesus that the reality of Jesus' life does not matter to him when compared to what the people need to believe. If he, as storyteller, needs to interpret the details of Jesus' life in order to make his point, he will. (Hopefully, he's prepared for his audience to do the same and interpret his stories as they see fit.)

Marshall McLuhan stifles a know-it-all in Annie Hall



McLuhan appears in order to back up Alvy's assertion that a man in line knows nothing about McLuhan's work. Alvy wishes, "Boy, if life were only like this." Maybe to Allen the filmmaker, who could then assert more control over how his films were perceived, this is an appealing fantasy. Still, it would be impossible. Even if he inserted himself into all of his films in order to explain his intentions, or magically appeared in person at every screening of his movies, it wouldn't prevent viewers from thinking what they want. In fact, it would probably prompt more questions about what his explanations really mean.


*I am using the Magritte painting in my own way for example. While I feel that this particular "reading" could be as valid as any, I admit that it depends upon splitting two equally important elements (the written phrase and the depiction of the apple) of a unified work (the painting "Ceci n'est pas une pomme") in order to demonstrate the relationship between two separate things. A director's intentions, and the discussion thereof, are external to a film, while Magritte's phrase and apple are both integral parts of a single work, one which appears to have been designed to prompt this very discussion.