Shack Out on 101

November 2, 2013

Are you a traitor?

Thanks to the savage guy, I have another cinema oddity to savor and comment on – Shack Out on 101 from 1955.  Everyone who comments on this film, including me, agrees that it is bizarre.  And strangely entertaining, despite the incredible stuff it contains.  Most call it a red-scare noir, but I don’t quite see the noir aspects of it, except in a very watered-down state.  I can say, however, I know of nothing else like it!

Nearly the entire action takes place in a run down diner on Highway 101 – once again I find myself thinking of the classical dramatic unities!  Anything on the beach of southern California gives me a nostalgic tug, but there are precious few outside shots in this film:  just a few scenes on the beach, including the opening which is much talked about.

We see a woman in a bathing suit lying in the sun at the surf’s edge; then we see Slob (Lee Marvin), talking into a cellphone…oops, that’s a shell-phone!  No, he’s just listening to the sea in a shell, with the coastal bluffs as a backdrop.

shell phone

Then he swoops onto the woman and kisses her as she violently resists him.  It’s all in “fun,” they know each other, and he’s just giving her a major hard time and tease.  He runs off laughing as she fumes.  When he reaches the porch of the shack where they live and work slinging hash, he takes her underwear off the clothes line and grinds it into the dirt.  This will occasion much talk indoors about how he is now obligated to buy her, Kotty, a new petticoat, the meanie!

violence0

Slob’s faux assault on Kotty prefigures some brutally real violence between them later on, but for now, the movie moves on between comedy, farce, and absurd Cold War espionage.  Slob is part of a spy network, passing on secrets gleaned from fellow travelers at the nuclear research lab up the road.  His boss, George (Keenan Wynn) is not part of the ring.  Nor is George’s friend Eddie, a traumatized WWII vet who can’t get over his experience on D-Day.  The two of them actually have some pretty affecting straight talk about what that’s all about.  Through it all, some mighty strange stuff plays out on stage at the beanery.

George and Slob get into comparing their physiques during a work-out.

pecs

Marvin is all over the place in this film, really hamming it up at times.  Here he reveals to George that what he really desires is a “nice, big neck.”

want a big neck

They go on to comparing their legs, and ask an impartial judgment. Didn’t that sort of thing start a long war in the old days?

best legs

Kotty knows better than to pick a winner, and besides, nobody has better legs than she does.  That’s that!

winner

George is determined to get Eddie to beat his fears of blood, violence, adventure, and even killing of fish (!) that the war left him with.  He’s planning a snorkeling adventure in Mexico which they act out in front of everyone present.  Yes, they do look like aliens…

frogmen

Meanwhile, Kotty has a romance going on with the professor from the nuke lab.  At first, it seems that he is in with the spies, but of course, that’s a cover.  He tenderly supports Kotty’s ambitions to take a civil service exam so that she can get a desk job in the government doing something important.  Boy, have ideas changed!

Being sort of noir, there’s a mirror, a double-identity.  And that hand! All the passion of Venus is there!

Cut from the love scene to Slob and his courier in the kitchen.  Right after the kiss, the guy shoves a fish at Slob’s mouth.

from kiss to fish

Here’s where it get’s pretty weird.  We are definitely into homo-erotic territory here – look at the grins on their faces as they agree to start up their favorite game…

Nothing these guys enjoy more than a little dance with a rag while they take turns pummeling each other.

loving it1

About this time, Kotty realizes that something is going on around here. These “truck drivers,” always teasing and coming on to her, have awfully soft hand for working slobs.

truck drivers with soft hands

Eventually, she has a confrontation with Slob when he realizes his cover is blown.   Now the violence is for real.  First he threatens her repeatedly with a nasty knife, but she’s tough – she doesn’t blink. Then – incredible! – he throttles her and smashes her head out of the window.  Then he starts garroting her with some underwear!  After all the kooky stuff in this film, this scene is genuinely shocking.

violence

violence2

violence3

Of course, the good guys win in the end.  You knew that already, right?

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Is the war over?

January 20, 2013

LA-GUERRE-EST-FINIE-1966
Yves Montand stars in the Alain Resnais film, La guerre est finie, from 1966.  It takes place a year or two before that, and is a portrait of a professional revolutionary who is getting worn out by it all.  Montand is Carlos, or Domingo, or any one of a bunch of different alias, a dedicated communist in the anti-Franco resistance.  He’s been hiding his own Spanish identity for so long, moving back and forth across the border with Spain, that he says he sometimes he forgets himself that he is a Spaniard.

Spain was a fascist state in those days – Franco didn’t die for another ten years or so.  People resisting his rule are killed, imprisoned, and harassed. Meanwhile, millions of Europeans and Americans see Spain as the perfect summer vacation spot.  Carlos is wondering if times have changed so much that the old strategies need an update.

Unfortunately, being a member of a communist underground means he has to discuss, theorize, and justify everything in terms of the approved catechism of The Party.  In the image above, he is learning that his controlling committee no longer trusts his judgement: how could he doubt that organizing, yet again, for a general strike is the correct strategy?  He has been in Madrid too long, too close to the day to day struggles.  He has lost site of the bigger picture, the true state of ‘historical conditions.’  He needs a rest for six months, or longer.  Time to reacquaint himself with the timeless truths of Lenin and The Party.  Of course, when the man picked to replace him in Madrid has a heart attack, Carlos is suddenly suitable for work ‘on the ground’ and is told to return immediately.

While all this is going on, Carlos meets Nadine, a young student who with quick thinking, gets him out of a fix with the authorities.  She’s in the anti-Franco movement too, and she involves him in a meeting with her committee.  They are all very young, and they are scornful of the fuddy-duddy Marxists in Carlos’ group who continually use the same old tactics.  He has to admit, they have a point – exactly his criticisms.  But what do they plan to do?  Detonate plastic explosives in a terrorist action to disrupt tourism in Spain.  Carlos walks out in disgust.

What’s a thinking man to do?  He follows orders, and returns to Spain, but Nadine finds out at the last minute that he will be trapped.  The committee taps Carlos’ lover to rush to Spain to try to head him off and warn him.  The film ends without us knowing if she succeeds.  Seems either way, the war is over for him.

Resnais uses his signature editing techniques to disrupt the viewers normal sense of narrative.  It effectively raises the level of suspense while allowing us to follow Carlos’ plight with intense interest.


Berlin – 1920s

February 6, 2010

Jason Lutes’ first of his trilogy, Berlin – City of Stones is a brilliant effort.  If anything deserves the moniker of graphic novel, it is this.  He writes with the sensitivity and scope of a novelist, and tells the story panel by panel with a wonderful ligne claire style – think the “clear-line” style of Tin Tin. We follow several plots lines in the turbulent Berlin of the late 1920s:  some poor, Red workers struggling to survive, and sometimes dying in street fights; a bohemian but bourgeois couple who are trying to figure out what’s happening…what will happen;  and a hard-bitten policeman who did his time in the trenches and informs his partner, a young ‘un attracted to the Nazis, that “those Jews” fought and died like the rest of the soldiers, dying for Germany.

Lutes must have done a ton of pictorial research on Berlin at that time, because his images ring true, from street scenes, to the clothing in crowds, to parties, to interior decoration.  The terrifying chaos of the period is palapable:  poverty and urban decay are widespread; the moderate governing forces are weak, vacillating, and uncommitted to anything but their own perpetuation; and the extreme parties don’t shrink from, indeed, they embrace street violence.  At the time, the National Socialists were just one of a few contending for influence...who knew?  Better to throw in your lot with them in order to stop the Bolsheviks, eh?  After all, they can be controlled, they’re just thugs…

A powerful aspect of the multiple plot threads is Lutes’ skill at evoking the state of mind of the various characters in different social strata.  How did they perceive the chaos?  What did they fear, want, hope for?   Why on earth would a working class stiff be attracted to the street gangs of the National Socialists?

But it’s not all politics.  The love story between the older, nearly burned-out journalist, and the younger art student, struggling to find her way outside the sphere of her military father in “small town” Cologne is handled with tenderness and subtlety.