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The Films of Gore Verbinski Part IV: Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003)

Continuing a limited series of articles exploring the stylistic development of director Gore Verbinski, beginning with Mouse Hunt (1997) and ending with A Cure for Wellness (2016).

If you didn’t know Gore Verbinski’s name after 2002’s smash horror hit The Ring broke box office records, you certainly knew his work the following year when Captain Jack Sparrow and his crew stumbled, swam, and swung their way to critical and commercial success in 2003’s Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. Another of Verbinski’s film history-laden forays into one of cinema’s classic genres, Curse of the Black Pearl revived the swashbuckling adventure picture and brought it into the 21st century. Incorporating influences ranging from classic films starring the likes of Errol Flynn and Douglas Fairbanks, to a Disneyland attraction, to exhaustively researched pirate history (and more than a pinch of pirate myth), Curse of the Black Pearl saw Verbinski reaching new heights of mainstream success while managing to stay mostly true to the style he had developed in his previous work.
The film-historical basis for Curse of the Black Pearl bears discussing first, not only for movie buffs but because the swashbuckler genre itself was somewhat outdated, even in 2003. Films falling in this category generally feature swordfighting, large-scale action set pieces, and a virtuous central character who often must operate outside the law to fight for True Justice. The screenwriters of the Pirates franchise, Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio, had previously had success in the genre, with The Mask of Zorro (1998, dir. Martin Campbell) grossing a robust $250 million; other examples might include the earlier Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991), starring Kevin Costner, and Errol Flynn’s final film The Master of Ballantrae (1953), on which Curse of the Black Pearl‘s sword master Bob Anderson got his start. Overall, however, the high costs and difficult shooting conditions often associated with such productions meant that swashbucklers had been few and far between after the mid-1950s.
Since The Mask of Zorro fell in a long line of films featuring the masked vigilante that stretches all the way back to 1920’s The Mark of Zorro (dir. Fred Niblo, starring Fairbanks), it can be helpful to view the swashbuckler genre through today’s lens of superhero film franchises; the continuing adventures of known heroes like Zorro, Robin Hood, and Captain America have inspired audiences throughout the century-plus of film history to return to the cinema again and again, hungry to see how their favorite protagonist handles his (almost always his) latest peril. As these series continue, we see time and again that the dangers get bigger, the locations get more exotic, and the stunts and visual effects consistently push the boundaries of both the human body and filmmaking technology. Curse of the Black Pearl then functions as a kind of bridge between the old and new, setting the stage for a now decades-long wave of franchise filmmaking that has altered the landscape of cinema for the foreseeable future.
Curse of the Black Pearl follows young lovers Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley) and Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) as they are swept up in the adventures of (in)famous pirate Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp). When the film begins, Sparrow has been deposed as captain of the titular ship by his first mate, Hector Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush), and is attempting to reclaim his position. This early portion of the story takes place in sun-drenched Port Royal, Jamaica, essentially the polar opposite of the steel-gray Seattle of Verbinski’s previous film The Ring. While it lacks the color palette that characterizes much of the director’s visual style, multiple scenes throughout the first quarter or so of Curse of the Black Pearl utilize another of Verbinski’s favored techniques: syncing up character movements with the film’s score, which provides both auditory emphasis for the image and a real sense of playfulness; Curse of the Black Pearl may be a PG-13 action epic but it remains a bloodless family film based on a Disney ride, and in no way does Verbinski appear ashamed of that fact. The prime example of this stylistic idiosyncrasy comes in the complex and half-comic dance of the first sword duel between Will Turner and Jack Sparrow, which harkens all the way back to Mouse Hunt as each in a sequence of nimble steps corresponds to the staccato strings of the soundtrack.
Verbinski’s moody, almost sickly color palette from The Ring does start to creep into Curse of the Black Pearl around the one hour mark when the story takes a supernatural turn. Barbossa reveals that he and the crew have been cursed with immortality after stealing Aztec gold and, when exposed to moonlight, they transform into frightful, skeletal versions of themselves. As the aesthetics begin to fall in line with Verbinski’s previous work, so too do the story and its philosophical underpinnings. His characteristic concern for the issues surrounding familial relations becomes central to the Pirates trilogy when Will learns that his father was himself a pirate who also sailed on the Black Pearl. Having been raised to hate pirates, this revelation forces Will to try to reconcile the principles of the so-called honest society he has been a part of with his apparently innate attraction to the perceived freedom and adventure of the pirate lifestyle. While the curse of immortality laid on the pirates by stolen Aztec gold is not passed down through generations, the rapacious inclination that led them down such a path certainly appears to be.
These stylistic elements aligned well with what producer Jerry Bruckheimer was looking for when he took over the project; as Bruckheimer tells it in an interview included on the film’s blu-ray release, he saw the deft humor that Verbinski brought to the darker parts of Mouse Hunt and The Mexican and knew that he would capture the right tone on Curse of the Black Pearl. His faith in the director may have been somewhat overstated, as other video featurettes on the blu-ray show that Bruckheimer was consistently on-location with the production team and often literally, it appears, breathing down Verbinski’s neck as he directed the picture. In fairness to Bruckheimer, the massive risk of a budget nearly triple that of the director’s previous film coupled with a leading man who until that point had mainly acted in small-scale dramas was likely the driving force behind this hands-on approach. Given these circumstances and what we see in the final product, it’s clear that, while Verbinski’s style was what got him the job in the first place, he was still somewhat penned in creatively. It comes as no surprise then that his next project, the darkly comic character study The Weather Man (2005), was his most personal yet.

Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl is currently streaming on Disney+

The Films of Gore Verbinski Part III: The Ring (2002)

Continuing a limited series of articles exploring the stylistic development of director Gore Verbinski, beginning with Mouse Hunt (1997) and ending with A Cure for Wellness (2016).

From the slapstick comedy Mouse Hunt to the crime caper The Mexican (2001) and now the horror film The Ring, the story of the early part of Gore Verbinski’s directing career has been one of stylistic experimentation across several of the most important genres in the history of American cinema, each with a rich past and its own cinematic language established over the last century-plus. Such history always surrounds us in a Verbinski film in one way or another, from the dilapidated locales of both previous features to the ancient lore of the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy that followed The Ring, to the wrecked marriage and parent-child relationships of The Weather Man, characters are often haunted or even oppressed by familial legacies, their own fears and weaknesses manifested in actual curses, or a dark past; nearing the 20th anniversary of its release, The Ring stands for us today as a relic of its time, distilling modern concerns like the ever-more-rapid advance of technology and age-old questions such as what it truly means to be a parent (another favored theme in Verbinski’s work) into an improbably perfect metaphor: the story of a killer videotape.
Remaking a 1998 Japanese film of the same title, usually transliterated as Ringu, from director Hideo Nakata (who also directed the original Dark Water [2002] and both the Japanese [1999] and English [2005] versions of The Ring 2), The Ring broke new ground in the horror genre, not to mention box office records, on both sides of the Pacific. The opening scene of Verbinski’s version runs almost shot-for-shot with its Japanese counterpart, with the addition of a brief speech by Katie (Amber Tamblyn, of Joan of Arcadia fame), the tape’s first victim, in which she explains how over-the-air TV signals and other “electro-rays” are scrambling our brains. Concerns about technology and its potentially-insalubrious influence on modern life are present from the outset in The Ring, but are generally confined to subtext for the rest of the film.
After Katie dies mysteriously, her aunt Rachel (Naomi Watts) takes an interest in the urban legend of a killer videotape in her capacity as an investigative reporter for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Rachel’s son Aidan, whom she apparently adopted straight from Children of the Corn, evinces some sort of supernatural link to the tape and its curse, as in one early scene his concerned teacher shows Rachel pictures he drew of Katie buried in the ground a week before her actual death. Soon after, he relates to Rachel his feeling that we never have enough time before we die, which makes it clear from the outset that The Ring, like all of Verbinski’s work, is deeply concerned with how we spend our short lives, and how we will be remembered after we’re gone. His psychic connection to the tape becomes the driving force of Rachel’s investigation, which sees her becoming less and less concerned for her own safety as she realizes she needs to save the boy as well.
When Rachel brings her ex (and Aidan’s father) Noah into the investigation we are introduced to a partial caricature of Verbinski himself: a punk rocker-turned-filmmaker whose loft apartment is scattered with video equipment and adorned with band stickers, including one from L.A. legends Bad Religion for whom Verbinski directed four music videos in the early ’90s. Meta-referential personal touches like this litter Verbinski’s filmography and point to the fact that, within the confines of generally mainstream work, he is talented enough as a director to bring a sense of stylistic vivacity, ingenuity, and personality to every project.
With Noah’s help, Rachel continues her investigation. Utilizing the specialist video editing equipment at the newspaper offices, she discovers images on the tape that lead her to the home of Anna Morgan, a horse breeder on a (fictional) remote island in Seattle’s Elliott Bay who had committed suicide some years before after several of her animals had done the same. Rachel’s ferry ride out to the island perfectly encapsulates the appeal of The Ring and much of Verbinski’s work overall, as extraordinarily beautiful shots of the Bay in classic overcast Seattle weather contrast sharply with a horrifying incident in which a horse breaks free from its trailer and hurls itself from the ferry, with a slowly-spreading pool of red in the boat’s wake announcing the animal’s grisly fate. Arriving on the island, Rachel finds Anna’s husband Richard, played to cantankerous perfection by Brian Cox (most famous at the present moment for his role in HBO’s Succession). Bitter and isolated, he responds to Rachel’s probing questions with curt suspicion and even denies the existence of Samara, his adopted daughter. The girl is soon revealed to be not only very real but the true monster of the story: with the power to psychically implant images into the minds of people and animals alike, she tormented her adoptive mother’s beloved horses to suicide, jealous of the affection Anna lavished on the beasts. Further torture of her surviving parents then led Anna to kill both Samara and herself.
The film’s technological synecdoche of a cursed video tape can here be pushed to its logical conclusion in the way it speaks on art as a whole. Taking Samara as the “artist” expressing her inner feelings in the physical form of the killer videotape and the Morgan household as the society/culture that produced her, it’s possible to interpret The Ring as a nightmarish vision of the negative impact art can have on an uncaring society when the artist feels neglected and abandoned, their uniqueness un-nurtured and their personal growth stunted. The way new technologies allow such malformed sensibilities to spread more easily, the film appears to say, can infect the world just as the tape’s curse is passed from one person to the next, leaving bodies and souls alike grotesquely mangled.
The commentary on technology and culture early on in the film coupled with its treatment of Samara as a character may point to or suggest this thread, but it is to Verbinski’s great credit as a storyteller and film craftsman that he does not take it up. His previous film, The Mexican, suffered greatly from a loss of focus as it got bogged down in hackneyed, repetitive discussions of the idea that when two people love each other, they can bear any hardship; The Ring allows no time for such philosophical digressions, and they are nowhere near Verbinski’s story-driven purview.
When Rachel visits the only doctor on the island, she learns that the Morgans were desperate for a child (after many miscarriages, as Noah discovers while snooping in Anna’s medical records) and loved Samara dearly, right up until it became clear that killing her was the only way to stop her from psychically torturing them. The doctor somewhat obliquely informs Rachel that Samara was simply evil, claiming the girl brought disease and even crop failure to the island long before the incident with the horses. Such details conjure up associations with classic horror films like Nosferatu (1922) and Halloween (1978), and it is to these less philosophical models that Verbinski adheres for most of the remaining 40-ish minutes of The Ring. After a further suicide, this time of Richard Morgan, Rachel and Noah follow a series of clues that leads them to a well under the floorboards of a rural inn, the site of Samara’s death at the hands of her mother.
The scene that takes place at the inn represents one of the most significant changes from the Japanese original. In that earlier version, it is the character analogous to Noah, not Rachel, who enters the well seeking to liberate the spirit of the Samara character from her watery grave. Up to that point, he has been shown to have some sort of psychic connection to the girl’s spirit, just as Rachel’s son Aiden does in Verbinski’s version, which makes him the obvious choice to perform the rescue. The Japanese Rachel, on the other hand, has shown much more ambivalence toward her motherly role, until this crucial moment when her concern for her son’s safety finally helps her find the strength she needs to overcome both psychological terror and physical exhaustion and lift the curse. While fraught parent-child relationships form the basis or at least the background of most of the inter(and intra-)personal strife in the rest of Verbinski’s work, he chose not to lean on those issues heavily in The Ring.
Rachel’s motherly protectiveness of Aiden remains uncomplicated and even extends to Samara, whom Rachel, disregarding the island doctor’s warnings, still views as a murdered innocent. When Aiden finally confirms that, rather than laying a soul to rest, Rachel has done something more akin to letting a monster out of its cage, she can only embrace her son fearfully. With due credit to Watts’s performance, we see Rachel wordlessly realize that the road to hell, whether through exorcism or artistic catharsis, is indeed paved with good intentions.

A Different Kind of Masterpiece: Rob Reiner’s Misery (1990)

          With a larger-than-life screen presence and her recent resurgence in the television series American Horror Story, it’s easy to forget that Kathy Bates was essentially unknown to film audiences when she was cast as former nurse Annie Wilkes in Misery (1990), Rob Reiner’s adaptation of Stephen King’s 1987 novel; her performance earned her the Academy Award for Best Actress, beating out Anjelica Huston (who had also been offered the Wilkes role) in The Grifters, Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman, and even Meryl Streep in Postcards from the Edge. For James Caan, too, who co-starred as incapacitated romance writer Paul Sheldon, Misery represented newfound stardom, kicking off a career renaissance for the former Hollywood Bad Boy of The Godfather (1972) and Thief (1981) fame who had been labeled “difficult,” and had taken a voluntary hiatus from professional acting after his beloved sister died of leukemia in November of 1981. Former All in the Family (1971-79) star Rob Reiner, conversely, had been on an extraordinary hot streak since turning from acting to directing: cult classics like This is Spinal Tap (1984) and The Princess Bride (1987), as well as regular classics like Stand by Me (1986, also adapted from one of King’s writings) and When Harry Met Sally (1989) had shown Reiner’s talent across a variety of genres, and his foray into the horror-thriller with Misery was no different.
Set mostly in the wilds near Silver Creek, Colorado, Misery‘s plot is relatively simple: a famous writer crashes his car during a snowstorm and is rescued by a passer-by, only to discover that his “number one fan” has imprisoned him in her house under the guise of nursing him back to health. Her obsession with him and his work leads to a series of encounters between the two that escalates slowly from a disagreement over the profanity in the author’s latest novel to full-blown mortal struggle, and the pacing of this escalation is one of Misery‘s greatest strengths. This exemplary “slow burn” reveals director Reiner to be smart enough as a storyteller to allow Bates and Caan ample expressive space in a cramped physical one; his squarely mainstream style adapts well to each successive genre he works in, and while he will never be ranked among the esteemed “master” directors whose work comprises the rest of our series, Reiner’s handling of the material utilizes the unspoken language of Hollywood Cinema to its fullest effect with no pretensions towards reinventing the wheel.
Comparing it to last week’s film, Stanley Kubrick’s version of King’s The Shining (1980), throws Reiner’s subtle hand into even greater relief: Kubrick’s unmistakable directorial stamp is on every frame of The Shining, while Reiner chooses to let content to take precedence over form. Like Hitchcock before him, Reiner evinces throughout his filmography a knack for bringing out the best in his stars, albeit not without the assistance of strong writing. Never a stunning aesthetic experience like The Shining despite several visual quotes from Psycho (1960) that show Hitchock’s lasting influence, Misery‘s own brand of greatness begins, fittingly for a movie about books and based on a book, with the words.
Novelist William Goldman, with whom Reiner had already worked on The Princess Bride (itself based on Goldman’s own book), penned a screenplay that was generally faithful to King’s novel and garnered praise from both critics and King himself, with many calling it the best King adaptation that had yet come out of Hollywood. The infamous “hobbling” scene, in which Annie tries to thwart Paul’s continued escape attempts by breaking his ankles with a sledgehammer, represents one of the few major changes from the novel insisted upon by Reiner; the director decided King’s version, with Annie fully chopping off one of Paul’s feet with an ax, needed to be toned down, however slightly. According to the autobiography Goldman published through Pantheon Books in 2000, he originally was strongly in favor of King’s version but, upon viewing the finished film, came around to Reiner’s point of view and felt that the change somehow made Annie a more sympathetic character. A less magnanimous eye might see no real difference, as she still comes across overall as more of a stout, strident, hot-tempered Nurse Ratched than some poor soul driven mad by loneliness and isolation.
Regardless, the hobbling scene remains an iconic one in the history of the horror genre and it cemented Annie Wilkes as one of modern American cinema’s greatest antagonists. If Misery was somewhat overshadowed in the popular consciousness during the month of its release by huge films like Home Alone and Dances with Wolves, not to mention another Stephen King adaptation in the television mini-series It, we have all the more reason today to revisit it and appreciate the gripping performances, the terrifying yet unassuming villain, and the arresting storytelling that make Misery a different kind of masterpiece.

You’ve Always Been Here: Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980)

Some directors excel in a genre and stick to it for life; our last two in this series, Alfred Hitchcock in suspense and Dario Argento in the uniquely Italian slasher/mystery hybrid known as giallo, chose such a path. Others, like this week’s featured director Stanley Kubrick, find genres to be constrictive, in a certain sense, and seek to embrace the rules they impose only to wind up breaking them. Still others attempt to innovate while remaining squarely within generic confines, consciously toying with the audience’s own expectations and by turns satisfying and subverting them. But that’s for Rob Reiner next week.
Kubrick and crew took over 200 days to film The Shining, more than double the original production schedule; in that time they are said to have taken and retaken nearly every shot in the film dozens, if not hundreds of times until Kubrick, ever the perfectionist, was satisfied. A typical work day on the set lasted at least 12 hours, and star Jack Nicholson was known to have taken script changes directly from courier to garbage can, knowing that his dialogue was likely to change again by the time he had memorized it. Production difficulties aside, Kubrick, at this point over 25 years into his filmmaking career, proved himself able to transcend his source material and create something wholly unique; just as Soviet master Andrei Tarkovsky had transformed Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s simple and quick sci-fi parable Roadside Picnic into the most trenchant, poignant cross-examination of humanity ever committed to celluloid with Stalker the year before, Kubrick made over Stephen King’s simple ghost story into one of the English-speaking world’s greatest and most profound tales of isolation, familial relations, and eternal recurrence.
Having acquitted himself admirably in every genre from the sports drama (Killer’s Kiss [1955]), to the heist film (The Killing [1956]), to the sci-fi epic (2001: A Space Odyssey [1968]), and the darkly comic political satire (Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb [1964] and A Clockwork Orange [1971]), Kubrick’s shot at horror was a logical next step in the trailblazing director’s heterogeneous career. In a meta-referential context, author Stephen King objected to the casting of Jack Nicholson as struggling writer Jack Torrance, fearing that the actor, just a few years removed from an Oscar win for Milos Forman’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), would lend his character an air of instability from the outset and transform the Overlook Hotel from a haunted house that could drive crazy anyone unlucky enough to enter it into a cranked-up amplifier of our worst natures, a cinematic oracle that challenges the viewer to “know thyself,” and explore the dark parts where “all work and no play,” truly, “makes Jack a dull boy.”
While King may have been proven right, changing Jack from a corrupted innocent to a full-fledged deviant finally given the space to display his true nature gave Kubrick the latitude to comment on the extremes of a variety of topics, from fatherhood and American machismo, to celebrity, to death itself; the brilliance and endurance of The Shining lies not in its universality, especially in our current pandemic era when many have been closed off with loved ones for longer than is comfortable, but in its specificity, with Kubrick demanding that we see beyond what is physically on the screen and into the depths of our own souls. The Shining remains required viewing over 40 years after its release because, eschewing the confines of the literary genre from which it sprang, the horror of this cinematic experience comes not from the metaphorical ghosts that seek to drag us into the abyss of the past, but the very real phantoms of fear, trauma, and doubt that would conspire to hold us in one place forever and kill anything that offered the chance to move past them.

The Italian Hitchcock: The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970) and the Influence of Psycho (1960)

From one director’s fiftieth film to another’s first, this week we’ll turn from Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) to Dario Argento’s stunningly assured debut, 1970’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage. With this first film and throughout his career, Argento’s work evinced a clear influence from that of Hitchcock, so much so that he became known to critics and audiences as the “Master of Horror” (mirroring Hitchcock’s own “Master of Suspense” moniker) and even “The Italian Hitchcock”. Though he is perhaps better known for his later, more graphically violent and sexual films like Deep Red (1975) and the highly-influential Suspiria (1977, remade in 2018 by Call Me By Your Name [2017] director Luca Guadagnino), Argento’s work on The Bird with the Crystal Plumage stands as a more subtle, nuanced variation on the themes and aesthetics he would explore throughout his career.
Viewers familiar with Hitchcock’s Psycho will recognize its influence in all 96 minutes of The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, with the former film’s meta-referential preoccupation with the voyeuristic aspects of cinema also in evidence right from the start of the latter. After two short introductory sequences, the film’s story proper begins as a black-leather-clad figure stabs a woman in an art gallery after a struggle; Sam Dalmas (Tony Musante), a writer from the U.S. living in Rome, witnesses the attack but, in his rush to offer assistance, gets trapped between the gallery’s two sliding glass doors and can only watch as the wounded woman writhes in agony; with the help of another passerby, he summons the police and they are able to save her life. Here Argento turns Hitchcock’s treatment of voyeurism on its head, pointedly changing the voyeur from villain, Norman Bates leering at Marion Crane through a hole in the wall as she undresses, to hero as Dalmas is horrified by the crime and (as evidenced by his actions the rest of the film) inspired to try and prevent the attacker from hurting anyone else. Argento makes the audience share the pain and fear of both victim and witness as his unflinching camera records every bit of their reactions; where Hitchcock’s celebrated shower scene in Psycho had succeeded in creating a pure thrill with its quick cutting and emphatic score, Argento here presents a more complex portrayal of (attempted) murder focused less on aesthetics and more on feeling.
That is not to say that content always takes precedence over form in an Argento film – even throughout the rest of The Bird with the Crystal Plumage the violence is aestheticized to a considerable degree. Just as Hitchcock had done in Psycho, Argento’s film utilizes stylistic devices brought to cinema by the German Expressionist directors of the 1920s and 30s such as chiaroscuro lighting (emphasizing differences between light and shadow) and Dutch angles (where the camera is tilted off its regular horizontal orientation) to express on-screen both the inner torment of deranged killers and the overwhelming fear of their victims. Though Argento claimed in an interview that his stylistic experimentation in The Bird with the Crystal Plumage caused confusion among the executives at Titanus, the company producing the film, and nearly got him fired from his own project (as he was also co-producer and writer), the film was a hit with audiences and critics, with box office receipts doubling its production budget and garnering praise throughout Europe and the U.S.. Argento has since produced an influential, unique filmography of nearly 20 films in the last 50 years that, though they vary widely in quality, audience reception, and box office success, all grow from seeds planted in The Bird with the Crystal Plumage.

Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) and the Lasting Legacy of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)

Although Psycho (1960) is likely the first film that comes to mind when one hears the name Alfred Hitchcock, it was actually the director’s fiftieth. Shot in less than three months with a tight budget and the less-than-prestige crew of Hitchcock’s television series Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Psycho was nevertheless his most successful film at the box office: an innovative promotional campaign (requiring theaters not to allow patrons to enter after the show started, keeping the film’s stars out of the public spotlight for fear they might let a spoiler slip) and shocking subject matter were key factors that brought about record attendance for the film’s New York premiere and led to lines around the block as the release expanded.
Adapted from Robert Bloch’s 1959 novel of the same name, Psycho starts out as the story of a young woman, Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) who steals $40,000 from her employer, hoping to pay off her boyfriend’s debts so the pair can marry. This relatively uncomplicated dramatic thread breaks at the end of the film’s first act as she stops at an out-of-the-way roadside motel and is murdered by its deranged proprietor, Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins), in perhaps the most famous death scene in all of film history. Hitchcock’s attention then turns from horror to mystery as Marion’s sister and boyfriend team up to solve her disappearance.
Certainly not the first nor the last film to run afoul of Hollywood’s self-censorship apparatus in its myriad forms (the Hays Code, the MPAA, etc.), Psycho rang in a new era of moral transgression in mainstream American film, paving the way for increasingly explicit depictions of sexuality and violence throughout the decade and beyond. With this in mind, it is no surprise that the film is often cited by critics as the prototype of the “slasher” subgenre of horror film, which includes franchises like Halloween, Friday the 13th, and Nightmare on Elm Street. Digging a few decades farther back into the history of film, however, leads us to what could more rightly be called the “grandfather” of slasher flicks: Robert Wiene’s silent masterpiece The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920). A prime example of the Expressionist movement in German cinema during the interwar years, the film served as the origin of much of the aesthetic still seen in horror films to this day.
Hitchcock himself was no stranger to Expressionism: his early work, especially films like The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog (1927), shows a clear influence in terms of both form and content from Caligari and those that followed; nearly 35 years later, Psycho is no exception. While shooting in black-and-white for Psycho was mainly a budgetary decision after he had been making color films for over a decade (beginning with 1948’s Rope), Hitchcock utilized the medium to such great effect that it’s difficult to even imagine Psycho in color. The constant interplay of bright light and dark shadow throughout the film serves to externalize the inner dichotomy of the characters – Norman Bates’s internal version of his domineering mother, Marion Crane’s moral turmoil – and recalls the hand-painted sets and unnatural lighting effects Wiene and his team had achieved on Caligari.
The camera placement and angles Hitchcock chooses too, often shooting at what is known as a “Dutch” angle, also common in German Expressionist film, where the camera is tilted such that it is not parallel with the horizon, serves to lend a sense of uneasiness and even dread to the picture as a whole; this again shows Caligari‘s influence as Wiene, restricted by the enormous weight and bulk of early film cameras, tilted the sets themselves instead of the camera. Doing so created an effect where buildings loomed over his characters to visualize their sense of dread of the killer.
Finally, while the film’s treatment of mental illness will seem outdated and even problematic to us in 2021, its use of certain aesthetics to draw the audience in to what could indelicately be called the “mind of a madman” synthesized Caligari‘s influence and contemporary trends in psychoanalytic theory into a portrayal that is more nuanced than might be expected from a 60-plus-year-old film. The psychiatrist’s explanation of Norman’s illness that comprises Psycho‘s final scene, perhaps a disappointingly blunt narrative instrument in a film that had previously left so much else to the viewer’s imagination, echoes a similar twist at the end of Caligari – the narrator is revealed to be the inmate of an asylum and the titular Doctor not an evil mastermind but his psychiatrist, who has finally understood the narrator’s illness enough to cure him. In both films, and in dozens upon dozens of horror movies since, the true terror comes not from knife-wielding killers but from within ourselves and the fact that, as Norman Bates himself sums it up, “we all go a little mad sometimes”.

The Films of Gore Verbinski Part II: The Mexican (2001)

Continuing a limited series of articles exploring the stylistic development of director Gore Verbinski, beginning with Mouse Hunt (1997) and ending with A Cure for Wellness (2016).

This awkward, saccharine poster, which led the Dreamworks advertising campaign for Gore Verbinski’s The Mexican (2001), encapsulates everything that makes the film a chore to sit through for over two hours: the cringe-inducing, toxic “romance” between Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts (we can skip character names for this one since the A-list stars completely overshadow anything the film itself accomplishes), the cutesy groaner of a tagline (“love with the safety off”) that provides a rough approximation of the film’s lack of humor, and a complete obliteration of the characters’ actual surroundings that presages in negative the reality-effacing exoticism Verbinski indulges in throughout, albeit self-consciously. With Pitt and Roberts appearing on-screen together for the first time, it was a sure-fire box office success to follow up Verbinski’s auspicious debut, Mouse Hunt (1997); while this success was enough to keep getting its director work, The Mexican, more importantly, also served as a stylistic step forward in his transition from commercials and music videos to feature films.
If in Mouse Hunt we saw a storyteller already with a sense of his craft and flashes of a unique, though nascent, visual style to match, the best we can take away from the poorly-aged, soggy cheese that is The Mexican is that we see Verbinski coming more into his own as a filmmaker of style, even if the substance leaves much to be desired. The film’s opening credits are unfortunately one of its best moments: choosing to merely hint at the fateful traffic accident that sets the events of the film proper in motion (we hear it take place off-screen as the camera focuses on a traffic light with a brilliantly blue Southern California sky as the backdrop), Verbinski and screenwriter J. H. Wyman set the stage for what critics usually call in marketing pull-quotes a “stylish, off-beat thriller,” but instead went the direction of some sort of road movie that is dialogue-heavy but not snappy, and all about love but not in the least romantic. It’s unfortunate that Verbinski’s visual style doesn’t get a chance to save the film, as it barrels through set piece after set piece with Alan Silvestri’s score doing the majority of the heavy lifting when it comes to the film’s conveyance of tone and mood; the few moments when we do see his aesthetic sensibility work its way into the picture are decidedly brief, but they point to further refinement in Verbinski’s expression of his artistic influences.
One such moment comes after we are introduced to Beck (David Krumholtz) in a seedy dive bar in a small Mexican town, the inside of which is tinged with a sickly green light that will come to symbolize death in its many forms in most of Verbinski’s later works, especially the horror films The Ring (2002) and A Cure for Wellness (2016). The heavily silent film-inspired sequence through which Beck relates the story of the gun bearing the titular sobriquet to Brad Pitt is designed and shot with Verbinski’s trademark narrow color palette that we have already glimpsed several times in Mouse Hunt; various shades of brown and gray in costuming and set design create the effect of something akin to an old black-and-white film.
The Mexican, Beck tells us as a film projector whirs to life, was a weapon crafted by a poor gunsmith for a nobleman in the hopes that his son would marry the gunsmith’s daughter. After the gun misfires and kills the first man who handles it, a legend grows that it is cursed for eternity. Pitt’s character, charged with bringing the gun and Beck back to the U. S., soon becomes unwittingly bound to the fate of the mythical firearm; the cursed pistol here provides the first real instance of the thematic element to which Verbinski will return in almost every future film: the influence of fate.
Whether it’s literal curses like the killer videotape in The Ring or the curse on the pirates of the Black Pearl in the first Pirates of the Caribbean film (2003), or more mundane concepts like societal pressure in The Weather Man (2005), characters in Gore Verbinski’s films, Brad Pitt in The Mexican among them, are nearly always shown acting and reacting against forces beyond their control or even understanding. While Nicolas Cage’s inner monologue in The Weather Man becomes increasingly aware of how society has warped him, we are given no such insight into the price the events of The Mexican exact from its protagonist. For most of the film Pitt is helplessly buffeted from one unlucky happenstance to the next by the winds of fate: when Beck is killed by stray gunfire, Pitt barely has time to realize what has happened and report it to his superior in the criminal organization he is forced to serve before his car is stolen with both the dead body and the cursed pistol inside; no sooner does he recover the stolen vehicle and bury the body than a police officer notices Beck’s blood on his car seat and arrests him; and on and on until the credits roll.
While other Verbinski protagonists are similarly dragged along by bigger events of which they have very little understanding, nowhere else but The Mexican is our hero so impotent. He escapes death multiple times through sheer luck, and his triumph in the end (precipitated by Roberts’ actions, not his own) comes to feel as if it were preordained through his mere presence as the protagonist of the story at hand; the multiple tellings of the legend of The Mexican seen throughout the film emphasize this, their inconsistencies highlighting as they do the unreality of all stories told for entertainment and showing a preoccupation with the concept of storytelling itself that marks all of Verbinski’s directorial output. The myth-making explicitly present in his later films like Rango (2011) and The Lone Ranger (2013) and, less self-consciously so, in the three Pirates of the Caribbean films (2003-07) has its seed here as characters face the past to redefine their present and, hopefully, control their future.

The Films of Gore Verbinski Part I: Mouse Hunt (1997)

Starting something new here, a series of articles on the films of American director Gore Verbinski. Starting with 1997’s Mouse Hunt and concluding (for now) with 2013’s A Cure for Wellness, I intend to explore the evolution of his style and the different ways in which his directorial vision manifests, depending on such factors as genre, budget, studio influence, and more.

Born in Tennessee in 1964 to parents of Irish and Polish extraction, Gore Verbinski got into show business first as a musician before and during his time in film school at UCLA. After graduation, he eventually found work directing music videos for L.A. punk bands such as NOFX and Bad Religion, and commercials, most famously the original Budweiser Frogs TV spot from Super Bowl XXIX in 1995. Flashes of what would later become some of his signature stylistic traits as a director, from an absurd sense of humor to a muted, earth-tone color palette, abound in these early efforts; Verbinski’s punk pedigree, dynamic presentation, and mainstream sensibility led DreamWorks Pictures to give him his first chance to direct a feature film with Mouse Hunt in 1997.
Led by frantic, suitably broad performances from Nathan Lane (The Producers, The Lion King) and Lee Evans (The Fifth Element) as a pair of hapless brothers who inherit both a failing string factory and a decrepit mansion when their father (William Hickey, best known to Millennial viewers as the voice of the mad scientist Dr. Finklestein in The Nightmare Before Christmas [1993]) passes away, Mouse Hunt is the modern era’s prime example of the slapstick comedy, one of Classic Hollywood’s most beloved and enduring genres. Here from the very beginning (literally the first two scenes) of his feature film-directing career we see Verbinski’s cinephilic tendencies come to the surface, as Mouse Hunt is littered with references to multiple eras of film history: after opening on a funeral during a rainy day so dreary it may as well be in black and white, mimicking the aesthetics of old silent movies, the film proceeds immediately to a scene in a bustling restaurant (owned by Lane’s character Ernie, who is also the head chef) with dialogue that references Bicycle Thieves, Vittorio De Sica’s 1948 classic of Italian Neorealism, and Au revoir les enfants (1987), Louis Malle’s devastating World War II drama that won the Golden Lion, top prize of the prestigious Venice Film Festival.
As we will see time and again throughout Verbinski’s work this second scene, while intertextually rich, is actually very straightforward from a dramatic perspective: the mayor of the brothers’ unspecified hometown accidentally consumes a cockroach at Ernie’s restaurant, the realization of which causes a heart attack that kills him on the spot. This scene also originates Verbinski’s career-long affinity for the grotesque, with the gruesome beheading and subsequent squirming of the fully CG cockroach that is surprisingly well-executed for the mid-90s, when computer-generated imagery in movies was still in its formative stages. Throughout the rest of his career, and the rest of this series, we will see in Verbinski’s camera-eye a tendency to push in close on the hideous and unsightly; while the dramatic implications of this tendency do vary, I think it always stems from a desire to present brief glimpses of harsh reality in films that often exist on something of a plane of unreality. Verbinski’s films, even the ones ostensibly more grounded in our “normal” reality like The Weather Man (2005), always carry with them a sense of the metaphorical; they are all legends, or myths, or fables in one way or another and they often impart their moral lesson with an admirable lack of pedantry. Still, though, they tend to flirt dangerously with the line between the sense of wonderment appropriate to their mythologizing bent and an overwrought seriousness of purpose that, at its worst, comes off as downright silly. It is one of Verbinski’s major failings as a director that he can’t seem to decide on which side of this line he wishes to reside.
The brothers soon discover that their father’s mansion, while extremely valuable, is also home to a mouse, and their ensuing mortal struggle with the vermin provides the rest of the film’s action. Each of their schemes to catch and kill him proves more and more destructive to everything and everyone but the mouse himself. Verbinski presents one such scheme in an especially impressive sequence about 35 minutes in: the brothers rig their entire kitchen floor with a series of mousetraps, betting with “the law of averages” in mind that at least one of the traps must kill the beast. Here we see another of the director’s throwbacks to the era of silent films when the hungry mouse emerges from his hole and weaves his way through the traps, eventually using his apparently supernatural intelligence to catapult a cherry onto the floor and spring the traps. As he does so, prolific composer Alan Silvestri’s score follows and emphasizes the mouse’s every move in the manner of the original slapstick comedies of the 1920s (the piece is even titled “Silent Movie” on the film’s soundtrack album), lending the scene a whimsical touch that highlights its unreality without detracting from its entertainment value or sincerity. It is important to note the film’s sincerity here, as Verbinski consistently shows he is happy to work within the conventions of his chosen genre; he has his own style and sensibility, certainly, but he can never be accused of favoring his own tastes over audience expectations.
The limits of sincerity are pushed to the breaking point in the next major set piece, as the brothers venture to the local pound in search of a cat savage enough to hunt down and kill the elusive mouse. Apparently acting as both surgeon and executioner, the pound employee, who guides them to a frightfully feral beast ridiculously nicknamed “Catzilla”, is played by none other than Ernie Sabella, the Pumbaa to Nathan Lane’s Timon in Disney’s The Lion King (1994); Seinfeld fans may also recognize him as the naked man who accompanies Jerry to Coney Island in the season 3 episode “The Subway”. A literal game of cat and mouse ensues, but here the film digresses briefly (and somewhat illogically) to a scene of the string factory workers rebelling against the brothers’ announcement that their salaries will be deferred to help pay for the mortgage on the mansion. Returning to Catzilla and the mouse, what follows can only be described as a live-action take on Tom & Jerry, but completely lacking the wit and charm of the beloved cartoon. From this low point the film is immediately rescued by Caesar the Exterminator, played by Christopher Walken at the height of a run of brilliantly unnerving performances including Batman Returns (1992), Pulp Fiction (1994), The Prophecy (1995), and Things to do in Denver When You’re Dead (1995).
When the brothers leave Walken’s character to grapple with the mouse, we digress again to an extended homage to Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936), providing Evans ample space to flex his physical comedy muscles as his attempt to run the string factory by himself results in the machinery unraveling his clothing piece by piece. After the mouse brutalizes Caesar just as he did Catzilla, the brothers take matters into their own hands, destroying more and more of the house they originally set out to restore with each attempt on the mouse’s life. As the film departs progressively further from reality, including a moment when Ernie survives being blasted out of the chimney like a rocket, the power of the brothers’ greed to override all logic comes into ever sharper focus. The auction of the mansion at the film’s climax, of course, leads to the house’s total destruction and, when their father’s lucky string floats down to them from the heavens, we are left wondering if they may have been better off sticking with string.
The film’s resolution bears out this notion as the mouse, finally taking pity on the defeated brothers, fires up the string factory’s machinery and adds his own special ingredient: cheese. In an ending that recalls one of silent cinema’s great masterpieces, Fritz Lang’s The Last Laugh (1924), in which an aging hotel porter’s humiliating forced retirement is suddenly canceled when he himself becomes the owner of the hotel, the fusion of string and cheese is a smashing success, breathing new life into the dying factory. The mouse continues to help the brothers too, acting as the factory’s quality control in a little mouse-sized chef hat that certainly must have been a source of inspiration for Pixar’s Ratatouille (2007). The closing lines of the film also wink at Disney, with Ernie suggesting that the mouse should be the new spokesperson for the string factory and noting, “I know some guys who used a mouse as a spokesperson, seemed to work out quite well.” Verbinski, of course, would go on to make Disney a couple billion dollars as the director of the first three films in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. But more on that later.

With his feature film debut, we can see Gore Verbinski already developing his own visual style, borrowing freely from a diverse array of eras in the history of film. His worldview, too, is on display from the beginning as Mouse Hunt establishes the conflicts between greed and gratitude, the importance of family, and a belief in the influence of fate that would mark all of his subsequent work.

Scary Stories to Tell in the Wax Museum: Paul Leni’s Waxworks and the Transition Away from Expressionism

The style of film known as German Expressionism was fashionable in the medium for less than five years in the late teens and early twenties of last century, but its influence is still felt today. Beginning with the release of the first true horror film, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, in 1919, the Expressionist mode of filmmaking leaned heavily on stylization, projecting the twisted interior worlds of characters onto their surroundings. These worlds often involved painted backdrops standing in for real sets, with buildings leaning at impossible angles, looming over tortuous city streets and dark alleys; the acting style seen in such films may look overly histrionic to our eyes today, but it is intentionally so: each emotion a character has is felt to the highest degree, and is expressed with commensurate ardor. Georgia Tech professor JP Telotte reminds us too that Expressionism is not limited to the visual, as, on a narrative level, themes of disaffection, mendacity, and insanity abound in these films and their predecessors in other arts (Telotte 16). The brief Expressionist wave that began with the end of the War to End All Wars crashed as all waves must, and in spectacular fashion with Paul Leni’s 1924 film Waxworks.
A classic example of an Expressionist tendency towards narratives revolving around some sort of show, Waxworks presents a sort of dark inversion of the old Shakespearean adage “all the world’s a stage”; often in Expressionist films, and especially in Waxworks, we are seeing the interior made exterior, a subject’s mind (generally carrying trauma from the First World War and its aftermath) is usually the only point of view the audience shares. Our protagonist’s world becomes a “stage” only through our intrusion into their mind, laying bare all the ugly truths about their inner life. But unlike the ambiguous mental illness for which the protagonist is locked away in the earlier The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, the writer’s mind in Waxworks is presented as not only perfectly sane but brimming with imagination: he even fancies that one of the wax figures comes to life and (in the most visually-stunning sequence of the film) attacks! Telotte’s interpretation of Waxworks leans heavily on principles of spectatorship. He treats each episode in turn, noting how the subjects (in each case one of the wax figures and a couple played, in the writer’s imagination, by the writer himself and the daughter of the wax museum’s proprietor) all attempt to take up and maintain positions where they are observing others, rather than being observed. For the powerful men depicted in the first two episodes, Caliph of ancient Baghdad Haroun Al-Raschid and Russian Czar Ivan the Terrible, the reversals of power that take place are especially harrowing, dragging those despots down to the level of commoners as they are overtaken by their darkest fears and desires (Telotte 21-4). Their stories have the potential to thrill and instruct both the fairgoers in the wax museum and us as the audience in the theater as they explore the corrupting nature of power; it is the only major failing of Leni’s film that he chose to turn this setup into a purely aesthetic exercise.
From this perspective, Waxworks represents a rejection of certain ideologies shared by earlier Expressionist artists, who used the interiority inherent to the aesthetic to essentially X-ray society, using those darkest fears and desires to show the world its own true face. Leni’s film holds no such seriousness of purpose, instead using the principles of the Expressionist mode in what German critic Jürgen Kasten calls a purely “decorative” manner. He continues: “This comes as no surprise in view of the aesthetic development of German cinema and other art forms until 1923. The late completion of the film, and a further one-year delay until its première in 1924, would have all but destroyed any chance for a purely expressionistic film to have a commercial impact” (Kasten 183). Further, the several exotic locales of the story were certainly attractive to Leni, who cut his teeth in the film industry designing sets (Elsaesser 234). By 1924, Expressionism was already becoming passé as it had before WWI in other arts. German film historian Thomas Elsaesser contends that films like Waxworks and Ernst Lubitsch’s earlier The Wild Cat (1921) should be seen as parodies of the form and its rapidly desiccating tendency toward over-stylization (Elsaesser 63-4). Especially given the satirical elements in the first episode presented in Waxworks, we can see that Leni was less influenced by the social commentary of his contemporaries than he was by the visual freedom of the genre.
Waxworks is unevenly split into three different episodes, each presenting a wildly different aesthetic and anchored by bombastic, idiosyncratic performances by three different leads. The film opens on a young writer who, after finding his way through a crowded fairground, enters a wax museum with a classified ad in hand, seeking employment. Engaged to write stories to go along with the museum’s displays of some of history’s most evil personalities, he imagines himself first as a baker, living with his beautiful wife in Ancient Baghdad near the residence of Caliph Haroun Al-Raschid, the first model in the wax museum; a rare “comedic” role for larger-than-life actor Emil Jannings (who later became a Nazi and here represents the whitewashing common to early film history, German or otherwise), the Caliph passes his days with women, food, and a game of chess. With set design that reflects both the Caliph’s portly frame and the fluffy breads produced by the baker, Leni’s vision of Ancient Baghdad succeeds much more in representing the fruit of our protagonist-writer’s imagination than it does in any sense of accurate historical depiction.
The film’s second episode takes on a more somber tone, shifting to Medieval Russia during the reign of Ivan IV, the first Russian Czar and better known as Ivan the Terrible (played by Conrad Veidt, who had starred previously in the above-mentioned The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari). The airy interiors of Baghdad are gone, replaced with low ceilings in claustrophobia-inducing chambers that provide a visual echo to the Czar’s ever-increasing paranoia; while the rounded buildings of the previous episode are nowhere to be seen, we can glimpse their echoes in the opulent cupolas of the Czar’s palace and, more ominously, in the over-sized hourglasses Ivan forces his torture victims to stare at, the falling grains of sand representing the slow draining of their lives as his poison does its work. Such continuity subtly reflects Leni’s visual genius as he seamlessly incorporates Expressionism with other stylistic elements in multiple ways throughout the film, pointing to the future of the dying genre: “the future of both the conventional and the artistic film,” Kasten writes, “was a realistic or near-realistic design to which, occasionally, fantastic elements would be added through special preparation or camera work” (Kasten 184). Kasten’s use of the word “fantastic” here is particularly apt, as most of Waxworks does take place in a world of fantasy, only mixing the real and the unreal in its unfortunately short final episode.
When the writer dozes off over his compositions, the final wax figure, called Spring-Heeled Jack or Jack the Ripper depending on the version of the film (in either case played by the other star of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Werner Krauss), comes to life to terrorize the writer and the museum proprietor’s daughter once again. As Jack chases the lovers through the streets we see the entire fairground come to life at once, with several different attractions superimposed over each other. What this kaleidoscopic flurry of images ends up evoking, as the writer wakes up just before Jack strikes a killing blow, is the last exuberant gasp of Expressionism proper; the legacy of Kaiser Wilhelm II and the war that inspired the movement’s transition from the other arts to film, though interesting fodder for both dramatic and aesthetic practice, is (naively) treated as a thing of the past, the stuff of nightmares and scary stories. As Kasten sums it up: “Not only have the tyrants lost their potential to evoke fear and terror in a kind of ironic alienation effect, but also the night, a frightening symbol of horror where psychopathic tyrants populate the narrow alleyways, has once more been reclaimed by lovers and their activities – even if they only entertain each other with scary tales of horror” (Kasten 182). With Waxworks, Leni produced a masterwork of an Art Film but his commitment to aesthetics over politics prevented a truly good film from being great.

Works Cited

Elsaesser, Thomas. Weimar Cinema and After: Germany’s Historical Imaginary. Routledge, 2000.

Kasten, Jürgen. “Episodic Patchwork: The Bric-à-Brac Principle in Paul Leni’s Waxworks.” Expressionist Film – New Perspectives, edited by Dietrich Scheunemann, Camden House, 2003, 173-186.

Telotte, J.P. “German Expressionism: A cinematic/cultural problem.” Traditions in World Cinema, edited by Linda Badley, R. Barton Palmer, and Steven Jay Schneider, Rutgers University Press, 2006, 15-28.

Three or Four Harveys: Formal Experimentation in American Splendor (2003)

Over ten years after its protagonist’s death and nearly 20 after its initial release, Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini’s American Splendor remains a stunning achievement in balance. Both a dizzying formal experiment combining fiction film with documentary and a deeply-affecting, yet sardonic, portrait of an artist (and a portrait of that artist’s portraits of himself), the film tells the story of Cleveland native Harvey Pekar (Paul Giamatti, in a career-defining role) and his meteoric rise from broke file clerk struggling to get anywhere in life to broke file clerk who writes comics about struggling to get anywhere in life. If this sounds like fodder for a weird, existential art film, it is: Springer Berman and Pulcini (who also wrote the screenplay) have crafted Blue Collar America’s answer to European art house giants like Godard and Bergman, injecting a suitably meandering, quotidian narrative with all the ennui and alienation one might find in the bleakest work of those two venerable iconoclasts.

But American Splendor is no mere knockoff or pastiche: anchored by a virtuoso performance from Giamatti (who had only found work as a character actor up to that point), it balances the crushing weight of daily life with a cynical, acerbic sense of humor and a certain looseness in the documentary scenes that completely erases any hint of pretentiousness. The film accomplishes this by casting its main character in triplicate: Giamatti as a young(-er) Harvey Pekar, figuring out life and love, Pekar himself as both narrator and documentary interviewee, looking back on his past with his trademark candor, and an Animated Harvey, who appears as both a stand-in and internal monologue for Giamatti’s character. American Splendor begins (after a brief prologue with a fourth Harvey, 11 years old and refusing to dress up for Halloween) with Giamatti stuck in a dead-end job and heading for a second divorce. The Real Harvey is shown recording his narration, with a backdrop of folding chairs, recording equipment, and a young actor standing in for a recording engineer, all against a jarringly stark white background reminiscent of the construct program in The Matrix (1999). Then we see him discussing the script with the (off-screen) directors, admitting he is more concerned with whether his voice will hold up against the demands of narrating a feature film than whether the film’s screenplay (which he has barely skimmed) will reveal any uncomfortable truths about his life. The Real Harvey’s indifference is perhaps predictable, as the film soon divulges that the comics which brought him recognition are all drawn from his own experiences – anything the movie might say about him he has already said about himself.

The next documentary interview sees The Real Harvey sitting in the middle of a yard sale reconstructed on the same white backdrop and discussing his time collecting and selling used records. In the succeeding flashback, he meets fellow “underground comix” author R. Crumb, noting, “they made a movie about him too,” referring to Terry Zwigoff’s 1995 documentary Crumb. This throwaway line carries a double meaning that is actually highly significant to the experimental aspects of American Splendor, connecting Crumb the artist’s assistance in starting Pekar’s career (he illustrated many of The Real Harvey’s early stories and helped get them published) with Crumb the film’s trailblazing in the documentary world; the massive critical success of Crumb, along with that of Hoop Dreams the year before, was a watershed moment for the form, triggering an overhaul of the Academy’s Oscar nomination process that gave a bigger voice to independent productions, an achievement of which the veteran documentarians Pulcini and Springer Berman certainly would have been well aware, though American Splendor marked their transition into other forms of filmmaking. Additionally, the at-times-uncomfortable intimacy and frankness of Crumb clearly influenced American Splendor, as we see all of its main subjects (including Pekar’s third wife Joyce and his work friend Toby) asked for their feelings on the film and Pekar’s portrayal of them in his comics in real time. To my knowledge, this level of direct access has not been seen before or since actually DURING a film; outside of making-of featurettes and DVD commentary, I don’t know where else you would even see anything even similar.

This cycle of interview and staged flashback continues throughout the film, with other minimalistic “sets” and the real-life counterparts to its characters filtering in and out around The Real Harvey, all against the infinite white backdrop. Is this room The Real Harvey’s brain, shifting its focus constantly as he processes his memories? Is it an empty panel of a comic strip, waiting to be filled with his life? Or is it just a convenient dramatic device, a liminal space between our protagonist’s idiosyncratic mind and the filmmakers’ interpretation? In a traditional documentary the so-called “talking head” setup is used ostensibly to allow the subject to tell their own story. It completely effaces the off-screen presence of the documentarian(s); we almost never see them in-person or hear their actual questions, only the subject’s answers, implying an unmediated presentation of objective Truth. In American Splendor on the other hand, there is no such pretension to objectivity, only The Real Harvey’s perspective. His often freewheeling recollections of his past, accented by a jazzy score from Mark Suozzo (Metropolitan [1990], The Notorious Bettie Page [2005]), are the only point of view we are given, and really the only one that matters. With three or four Harveys on-screen reflecting the many different illustrators he collaborated with over the years to bring his comic persona to life, we see a sharp contrast between the form and content of the film: all we hear from The Real Harvey is that he’s just being honest, that he’s not a phony, but the true brilliance of what Pulcini and Springer Berman have accomplished here is that American Splendor, as it was in comic book form, is not reality as the documentary elements of the film imply. It is no more and no less than his reality, and we the audience are invited to take a look regardless of whether we’ll like what we see.

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