Zoe Saldana is the real deal. Anyone who’s seen the split screen demo for Avatar that reveals how precise James Cameron’s “performance capture” actually is knows that Saldana’s portrayal of a sexy blue alien in Avatar was so raw, so physical, and so precise that it managed to burst through said alien blueness into a genuinely affecting performance. And then there’s that salcious little look that passed between Saldana’s Uhuru and Zachary Quinto’s Spock in J.J. Abram’s breakneck reboot of Star Trek.
Do I love Zoe Saldana? Yes I do. I’ll tell you who else I love: Luc Besson. Besson exploded into the international film scene with two arsty films called Subway and Big Blue, but once he got his French street cred out of the way he got down to business with a string of wild genre pictures: La Femme Nikita, The Professional, and my good friend Mackenzie Firgens' fave The Fifth Element. Luc Besson slowly developed a film industry in France that churned out genre movies like District B13, The Transporter, Taxi, and Taken – all produced and written by Besson. He’s doing what he does best: guns and revenge. Besson’s latest is Columbiana starring Zoe Saldana. All you need to know is that she’s a badass and she’s got revenge on her mind.
Although I must admit, and I know you’re waiting for this, the trailer’s left me a little cold, hankering for some revenge served up as cold as it gets. And when it comes to ladies taking revenge on the world, there’s nothing like 1978’s legendary I Spit on Your Grave.
The category of film is “rape-revenge.” It’s both awful and affirming, in a way. Rape is a horribile thing, and the power-fantasy involved in the idea that revenge or violence can heal the wounds of sexual assault has driven a lot of films: Straw Dogs, Thelma & Louise, Sudden Impact, Death Wish. I hope that we all know revenge isn’t the same thing as healing, but in the world of genre fiction, everything internal is dramatized. In other words, for genre fiction, healing tends to require ass-kicking and graphic killshots.
I Spit on Your Grave is the grandmomma of rape-revenge films. Over the years it has been criticized for the graphic and extended scenes of sexual assault. This is absolutely not a PG-13 movie. It is solidly R and your young children shouldn’t see it. That said, the sheer brutiality of the rape scenes in this movie have a strange kind of ethicality about them. Would we rather that rape scenes were palatable? There is nothing palatable about rape, nothing artistic or aesthetically pleasing about the act of rape, nor should there be. Why should the depictions of rape be criticized for being brutal? I should say that in the much more subtle and intellectualized rape-revenge movie The Accused, starring Jodie Foster, the rather brutal rape scene has never been criticized. But standards are different when it comes to genre.
And yet I Spit on Your Grave needs the initial scenes to be awful in order to push the rest of the story. Jennifer, the victim of the first act of the film, feels as if she’s done something wrong and heads to church to pray to God for a forgiveness that does not come. That’s when she turns to revenge. Like the brutality of the earlier film, there’s a kind of ethicality to Jennifer’s actions, or at least a kind of aesthetic imperative. If the pain of being assaulted could be turned into a purging anger, this is what it would look like. It believe that one of the reasons people turn away from I Spit on Your Grave is exactly because it doesn’t pull its punches when dramatizing the pain and self-negation that often follows sexual assault.
On a sheer storytelling level, the brutality of the first half of the film allows for the genre follow-through of the second half. Does revenge bring Jennifer the salvation she so desperately desires? I’ll let you decide. But I will say that it’s often possible for genre stories to be just as emotionally subtle as their more artsy fartsy bretheren.
I grew up in the East Bay of the San Francisco Bay Area, which makes me an Oakland A’s fan. When I was young Al Davis’s folly was still in effect and the Raiders played down in Los Angeles. This was the heyday of Joe Montana, Ronnie Lott and the advent of Bill Walsh’s West Coast offense which at the time confused the Hell out of suddenly dated defenses around the NFL. All of which makes me a rare though totally legit fan of both the Oakland A’s and the San Francisco 49ers, neither of which have been very good of late.
If you didn’t understand anything in that last paragraph, that’s okay. When my Guatemalan roommate talks soccer or my other boss talks electronics I tend to go glassy as well. The point is that I like sports and I’m from the Bay Area and therefore it is impossible right now to not love the San Francisco Giants. They’re entirely wacky. Their closer – the guy who pitches in the last inning when they have a slim lead and the opponent’s batters need to be shut down – has a brown Mohawk and a big beard died jet black, they’ve got a big fat guy they call 'Kung Fu Panda', and one of their own commentators called watching them play “torture.” I’m in.
Which led me right into the question: what are some classic movies set in, or at least filmed in San Francisco? There’s a lot to choose from: The Maltese Falcon, The Lady from Shangai, The Conversation, Basic Instinct, Groove (starring this columnist's favorite indie kid, Mackenzie Firgens), Zodiac and many other. For me, though, it all boils down to one of my favorite movies ever and a perfect example of what story does best. This week’s classic movie: 1958’s Vertigo.
Vertigo has a long and odd history in terms of criticism. Initially rejected as too long, too detailed, boring, cynical and too much of a jump from the romantic thrillers on which Alfred Hitchcock had staked his name, Vertigo eventually grew to somewhere near the top of critics best-of lists, due in no small part to the French film analysis of the 50s.
I didn’t know any of that when I saw the movie. All I knew was that James Stewart was a bit stiff and Kim Novak was super hot. The movie astonished and overwhelmed me.
When I’m talking to my writing students about their approach to content, I use the phrase “memoir to metaphor” to indicate the magic one can wreak when turning all those roiling emotions and day to day disasters of life into big metaphors. I ask them to do a compare and contrast on two people they successively went out with. We talk about how we tend to dress up every new person we date in the garb of our expectations, hopes, dreams, and how terrible it can be when the real person breaks through those projections.
Then I show them Vertigo.
Hitchcock, more than any other filmmaker I can name except Hayao Miyazaki, turns interiors into exteriors. In Rear Window, every window Jimmy Stewart looks into is a different riff on his fears surrounding relationships. Rear Window replicates the cinematic effect in the way the thriller unfolds visually; Stewart is watching the “screens” of these windows, each one a little movie that expresses his anxiety with regards to intimate relationships. That’s why movie buffs love the thing so much: it’s a metaphor for film itself.
I’m purposefully avoiding talking about the plot of Vertigo because I want you to experience it in its narrative purity as much as you can. Suffice to say: it starts with a mystery, but it ends up being all about a woman. Treat yourself. Check it out.
Oh, and Go Giants!
It’s Saturday night and Groove is on. An all-night underground rave
where kids converge at an abandoned San Francisco warehouse this is
where they let it all loose where anything can happen. Berkeley student
Colin plans to propose to girlfriend Harmony at Groove and asks
reluctant roomie David to join them. Once there the scene intimidates
David but after he takes ecstasy with his pals hey the kids are all
A collection of unknowns one step above film school friends comprise the
cast of this ultra-low budget production with the exception of a
woefully underused Rachel True (from "The Craft " the only recognizable
face). There is no thorough intro to this large collection of
characters thus little empathy for them. Still Hamish Linklater
(David) gives a nice performance as the identifiable amateur and Lola
Glaudini (as raver Leyla) shows true charisma and comfort in front of
Though he starts off on shaky ground first-time helmer Greg Harrison
does an excellent job capturing the energy and vibe of the underground
rave scene. The plot on the other hand is as memorable as your average
techno/trance single. What’s important here is the vibe and
Harrison delivers it with minimal conflict (given that your local
theater has great speakers) showing all aspects of the scene from the
top secret warehouse location and orgiastic "chill room" to the
adrenaline rush of the dance floor and the superstar DJ’s point of view
(building the perfect mix).