Mad Max: Fury Road

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Why bother writing a review when IMDB’s plot keywords beats you to the punch?

australia | tyranny | guitar | woman kills a man | dystopia

Anyway, bother I will. The film is very much set in a dystopian Australia, there is tyranny, and a guitar. And a woman does kills a man (yeah, bloody thought police).

Fury Road slots perfectly into the Mad Max series. This is Mad Max in its purist form: a 2 hour car chase through a desert. Dialogue is an unwanted distraction in George Miller’s script, which must be almost entirely stage direction. Max gets captured by the War boys clan headed by the villainous Immortan Joe who hordes supplies of water from the parched populace of the wastelands. Imperator Furiosa, who is trusted with some kind of war lorry, goes rogue and smuggles out Immortan Joe’s concubines, in a bid to escape to the fabled ‘green land’. Mad Max escapes in the first bout of motor madness and aides Furiosa’s mission.

The cast plays true to one of the franchise’s greatest strengths: a goofy 2000 AD-style collection of grotesques. Everyone is covered in war paints, and scars of self-mutilation to mark past misdeeds on the highway. Although this is by far the biggest budget for the series, Miller and the cast still manage to encapsulate the threatening persona of a pack of marauding workshop theatre types from the first film.

Hardy is great as Max, and provides a performance, which alongside the motor/crash fetishism, ties the film most strongly to the original trilogy. Hardy isn’t just playing a tough nut with a heart and an Australian accent: his focus on the character of Max has led him to many of the same acting decisions as Mel Gibson. His Max is very much the same character, but one who has been in the wasteland a bit longer, and has become a bit more deranged. Charlize Theron plays Imperator Furiosa, matching Max for madness but exceeding in morality. That is not to say that she is reduced to the gooey soft heart of the film: she very convincingly will not tolerate any sort of nonsense. (The fact that she’s a woman who gets SHIT DUNN has somewhat overshadowed the fact that she is a character who is disabled. I don’t think there is any mention of this in the film, and although her prosthetic arm is ‘gear-an- cogs-kewl’, it is never used gratuitously to punch through someone’s chest or double up as a desert moped. Here is a lovely blog from nospockdasgay who puts it much better). Nicholas Hoult plays Nux, a naïve War Boy of Immortan Joe’s clan, who achieves a sweetness through his worship and desperate need to impress Joe with an all-encompassing death wish on the “roadway to Valhalla”.

For a film as visually spectacular as this it is amazing to consider how little CGI was incorporated. For a film that was at one stage being set up as a CGI animation, it is refreshing to see CGI being employed in such a considered way. The policy seems to be that if it can be done in front of camera a car is going to get mashed for real. Nothing less should be expected from a director who worked outside of certain health and safety laws when filming in the early 80s. The visceral force of what I was seeing conveyed a sense of actual danger that is absent from any of Michael Bay’s floaty CGI extravaganzas. I saw a 2D screening and there is no way that the 3D effect could have made the film any more immersive: I felt that I left the cinema stinking of oil, and there was sand bloody everywhere.

Anyone interested in Fury Road is probably aware of the manufactured outrage in the media concerning its gender politics. Most prominent is the criticisms coming from men’s rights activists, who are displeased with the prominence of Charlize Theron’s character in the film. As I’ve already said, the film is undeniably a Mad Max film, but I don’t think that the sanctity of the franchise is the primary concern of these commentators. The franchise as a whole suffers from a mistreatment of women in a way that is common in any exploitation genre. It’s a bit weird (and creepy) to think of this an imperative ingredient of a Mad Max film. Anyway, there are undeniably strong women in the series who display true agency who are free of condescension in their construction. Lest we forget, the one person who bested Gibson’s Max was Tina Turner, who was (and still is) a bloody woman (!) (and Swiss citizen) (FACT) (CHOON).

A great film which plays well as part of the franchise, but also on its own terms. Mad Max distilled into its most clear form. Brum! Brum BRRum!

*SCHINK* “Wha-?” *THUD*

One of my most favorite things that can happen in a film is when a character is all, like, minding their own business when something goes *SLIKT* across the screen, and the character looks all startled going “hey what was-” and then they fall into bits.

I don’t think I explained myself very well just there. Hey! Here are some examples!

Shogun Assassin (1980)

Taking it back to 1980, and rocking one of the best soundtracks ever made, Shogun Assassin was a heavily edited compilation of the Lone Wolf and Cub series for western audiences. Amongst this veritable smorgasbord of martial arts and explicit violence, there is one particular scene where Lone Wolf (Tomisaburô Wakayama) makes time amongst his villain-dispatchment to make sure he definitely cut this guy in the head, because he thinks he did, and the guys hat fell apart, but the guys still just standing there… like he’s fine… did he definitely… I thought he did… oh, there it is.

Underworld (2003)

Proving that a rrrrubbish film can be saved by an act of well timed violence, Underworld left me with one memory, and that was the top half of Billy Nighy’s head sliding diagonally off his jaw.  In this scene, Selene (Kate Beckinsale) seems to to gain the upper hand in what appears to be an impossible situation. I can’t remember exactly what that situation is exactly because I scrubbed the film from my mind with steel wool and bleach. She flies at ol’ Bill (*SCHPLIK*) and lands several feet away from him to turn and witness the damage. But hold on; ol’ Bill’s fine. He’s more than fine, he’s really pissy! (didn’t she stab him in the head?) Oh my days he’s getting out some knives! He’s going to fight her with knives! (maybe I was wrong, but I definitely thought she stabbed him in the head?) Oh wait… he doesn’t seem too sure of himself all of a sudden. Oh, there it is.

 Final Destination 2 (2003)

Sometimes they don’t fall into 2 bits. SOMETIMES THEY FALL INTO 3 BITS!!!

Oh wait – 4 bits.

Resident Evil  (2002)

Sometimes they don’t fall into some bits. Sometimes they fall into MANY BITS!!!!!! Here’s Resident Evil proving once again that sometimes the value of a film can be condensed into the time it takes for a ‘something’ to happen to the time it takes for ‘something’ to cause a person to flopple apart in different directions.

The Cube (1997)

Pulling this stunt pre-title eh? Did Orson Welles reveal what Rosebud was before the titles in Citizen Kane? I feel that this is basically the same thing.

 Dragonball Z (1989-1996)

Courtesy of my girlfriend, this is particularly notable for the point of view shot. And it sure is a long time coming. In this scene Trunks (brother of Bra and also male heir of the Briefs dynasty) slices Frieza (son of King Cold) in 2. Please do wiki confirm that last sentence.

 Ghost Ship (2002)

And then there’s this.

Grand.

The Miserable, Miserable George Romero Zombie Film

 

Sad Bub

**For the purposes of this blog I am only focusing on the first three films Of Romero’s Living Dead franchise. Also SPOILERS**

“You’ve got to see this film! A guy’s head gets pulled off!” This was the kind of recommendation from my older brother that lead to me watching all sorts of excellent schlocky films in the pre-DVD era, when video servings of the grotesque were like precious treasures hidden in rental shops and car boot sales. Oh the great opportunities to indulge in the muck and mire of a teenage imagination: Evil Dead  1+2 (1980, 1987), Brain Dead (1992), and the entire John carpenter oeuvre amongst others. However, There was one series of films amongst this morbid bunch that didn’t allow for the unmitigated glee that should come with violent obscenities.

George A. Romero’s Living Dead franchise (not to be mistaken for The Return of the Living Dead Franchise of course – guffaw) left me with that Sunday feeling:  emotionally exhausted; in serious doubt over the ability of humanity to achieve any good in this world; and knowledge that the only thing on TV evening is Time Team with an over enthusiastic Tony Robinson. Romero provided ample levels of violence, certainly on par, if not more so than his peers. (check out Private Torez’s demise in Day of the Dead (1985)! His head gets pulled off!! Right off!!!). But the violence in Romero’s franchise sits atop a foundation of social commentary which reflects some very, very low opinions of the walking living.

Zombie films have been around for about as long as the talkie picture. White Zombie (1932) is an early contender for the first entry in the genre, which was primarily a star vehicle for Bela Lugosi as a witch doctor using Haitian Voodoo to control an army of shuffling minions. The Zombie film’s emphasis on a leading villain with a power over the walking dead wasn’t shaken off until decades later with the introduction of George A. Romero’s Living Dead Franchise. Romero dismissed the diabolical antagonist figure as a means of projecting horror onto cinema screens. Instead, he replaced it with an apocalyptic setting where zombies were serving no-one but their own appetites for human flesh. In doing so the charge of malicious intent was cut out of the picture. Why the zombies were attacking became irrelevant. Romero looked for horror elsewhere: by shrinking down American society and putting it under attack in confined under siege spaces he and removed the thin layers of civility that held the social contract together to uncover the ghoulishness of the living.

Night of the Living Dead (1968) reflects heavily on the race relations of late ’60s America. A cross-section of American society converges on a country house to seek refuge from the zombie onslaught: urban and rural, blue and white-collar, black and white. The only black character in the film (Ben, played by Duane Jones) has all the makings of a leader but his authority is consistently undermined by a white-collar Harry, who insists on staying locked in the basement with his family and refuses to aid the struggle going on upstairs. Harry puts this microcosm of American society under threat through his unwillingness to engage with a very clear and present danger, and instead puts his efforts toward ensuring that a Black minority doesn’t hold any sway over him or his family. The power struggle between Ben and Harry ultimately leads to the downfall of all of the protagonists when Harry finally gets hold of the rifle that has been in Ben’s possession throughout the film with disastrous consequences.

Throughout the film we see emergency TV broadcasts following the home guard clearing out the zombie threat. These men are presented as trigger happy hillbillies, who are taking too much satisfaction in the gun-play that the occasion warrants. When they make an appearance at the film’s conclusion they gleefully gun down the remaining zombies and shoot Ben, the remaining survivor, in the head as he peers out of the slats of a barricaded window. In startlingly reminiscent images of a lynching, the credits roll over grainy freeze frames of the home guard dragging the body of Ben with meat hooks onto a pyre of zombies. Romero has commentated that the film was built on the foundations of the social climate arising from events surrounding the civil rights movement, and has observed himself that the first he heard about the murder of Martin Luther King was over the radio as he packed the last cans of film into his car to find an investor.

With Dawn of the Dead (1978) Romero placed mass-consumerism in his sights. The film is set in a shopping mall, which was a a fairly new curiosity when the film was made. Initially identifying the Mall as an ideal point of defence, the characters begin to lock themselves into a materialistic nightmare of their own design, displaying a greed that is only matched by the gormless hunger of the zombie hordes. As the characters increasingly lose sight of their survival in the face of unadulterated consumerism, the soundtrack reflects the absurdity of the situation by juxtaposing footage of the marauding zombies with a jaunty muzak number titled The Gonk. The Director’s Cut accentuates the pointlessness of human greed by stretching out montages of the survivors searching for the perfect wardrobe, kitchen wares, guns, and DIY tools to the point of empty tedium. Their lives increasingly appear shallower throughout the film, and less worthy of saving.

Dawn… supposedly offers a happy ending: two survivors rid themselves of the mall and board a helicopter to seek pastures new. But where are they going?! This always troubled me, and left Romero slightly unsure himself. He filmed an alternative ending where one of the survivors shoots himself as the mall is overrun by zombies, and the last remaining survivor jumps up into the rotors of a helicopter (Watermelon SFX appaz). THEN, as the credits rolled the helicopter would putter out to show that they wouldn’t have had enough fuel to escape anyway.

The third installment of the franchise, Day of the Dead (1985), is a big old commentary on the militarisation of society. The film is set within a military silo staffed by a small group of soldiers and scientists, where the soldiers are most definitely the bad guys, bullying the scientists with threats of violence if they don’t find a cure quick. However, it isn’t just the scientists who are subjugated by the army. By this point in the franchise zombies are representative of a global underclass who outnumber humans four million to one, and are treated horrifically by the small minority of humans that remain.

The scientists perform grueling acts of vivisection on the zombies in an attempt to find a cure, a task which seems especially cruel in the face of its hopelessness. The cruelty aimed at the zombies is accentuated by the character of Bub (Howard Sherman), a zombie who shows signs of remembering being a human. His ability to recognise faces, appreciate music, and even attempt speech suggests at a humanity that will be gained by the zombie race whilst it is depletes amongst the dwindling race of human survivors. In the face of this the cruelty inflicted upon the zombies the inevitable zombie showdown resemble more of an uprising than an unwarranted act of violence, with the zombies identifying that they have a greater case for survival than the last remains of humanity.

Romero’s biting (you know, like a zombie? What a zombie does?) social commentaries are one of the few things that the current zombie revival has not taken up – at least not with the same zeal that it has adopted the tongue-in-cheek absurdity of slapstick violence inherent in the zombie genre. Whilst Romero’s trilogy certainly comes with a healthy smattering of violence, what makes it so distinctive are the subtexts which hide within the splatter, providing the films’ true horror. How dare he. I just wanted was to see a guy’s head get pulled off.

 

Sad Dawn

 

 

Boob to Willy Ratio

“Everywhere I look, something reminds me of her” Naked Gun (1987)

When I watched the first episode of Game of Thrones, years ago, I couldn’t believe that I had just seen a penis on my telly.  In a sex scene of all places!  I pointed at the screen.  At the penis.  On my telly.  Extraordinary.  It got me thinking about male nudity in tv and film.  I ran my eyes through my film collection and realised that I didn’t own a single title with a visible penis in it, and all the more pertinently I knew this for a fact because I would most certainly remember if I did.  But, with the lightening quick speed of cold treacle, my brain also made the association with female nudity.  Yes there is more female nudity than male nudity in tv and film. Duh. But the imbalance is staggering.  My film collection is full to the brim with boobs.  Subtle boob, gratuitous boob, gritty boob, realism boob, exploitation boob, partial boob, demon boob, multiple lots of boob, lady with triple boob; these are just some examples from a small book case of DVDs.  One might say that is a great thing that the boob has been so expressive in cinema and TV.  Forlone Masculinists may well look at their crotch and despair that cultural depicications of the penis on screen are either for hilarity or a signpost that things have gotten seriously serious (SHAAAAAAAAME, 2011): Poor masculinists.  However, the omnipresience of boob in anything rated 15 or above is not about a celebration of the expressive boob, but something more lazy and lame.

No industry has a better understanding of the spectrum of taboo than cinema and tv.  It’s not just an understanding of what must be avoided to appease censors, but what what the fringes of a taboo are, how far they can be pushed, and what associations a taboo may carry; these understandings are just as important in the construction of a good narrative, in which controversy is just one part.

TV and filmakers have such a good understanding of the taboo of nudity that they categorise its use with a Victorian precision.  The human anatomy is broken down into a list of acceptability and is displayed strategically to prevoke particular reactions from the audience.  TV and film makers place the boob on the spectrum of cinematic taboo between the bum and genitalia.  Is this why there is more boob than penis on my telly?  Could it be that the male anatomy lacks this middle ground in the taboo spectrum and therefore the boob is used as a convenient shorthand for titilation?  In visual culture the man bum is, in theory, on equal pegging as the lady bum; the man chest has nipples, but lacks the oomph of the lady boob; and the penis has nuclear properties that are equally – if not more – controversial than the vagina.  If it is the filmaker’s desire to get a reaction from an audience the bum simply doesn’t carry the impact desired for a nude scene and the penis is just too much in the other direction.  But if this were true there should be way more man arse than there is lady boob on my telly.

It’s almost as though the industry has sleepwalked into a paradoxical comfort zone when it comes to nudity; a predominantly male industry that has fought censorship from the Hays code onward to show what it wants to see (mostly boobs).  And now the censors have become more lenient the industry is left with a bulldozed and protected form of nudity in the boob, and lacks the will to fight the cause for other less marketable forms of nudity.  But this denies a certain responsibility on the part of the industry.  The industry isn’t ignorant to the impact of the boob; an actress’s contract can pivot on nudity clauses.  Every boob we have seen on telly and in cinemas has a small history of a very considered approach from the film maker.  As gratuitous as some of the displays of boobs may seem, in terms of a nude scene the boob has to have some context, even if it is to be gratuitous.  Every boob that is seen is meant to be seen, and at every level of the film making process – from the script, to set, to editing suite – the boob has been considered and given the green light. No boob has ever found its way onto the screen by mistake.  It is this evident awareness that makes the imbalance of the boob:willy ratio so weird, and frankly a bit creepy on an industrial level.

There is a new trend in particular that bothers me. When the boob isn’t being used to display a medieval subjugation of women (GoT) or background distraction for scenes of prolonged dialogue (I’m looking at you The Sopranos), the most recent and oft repeated use of the boob is to display it in a bedroom as a projection of ‘disarming honesty’ between a man and a woman in a private context. Gone are the days when everyone on TV shared beds fully clothed (Friends), and we now move on to a new dawn when a wee flash of a boob is shorthand for cajj romance.  I call bullshit.  I desire – nay DEMAND-to see more penises within the context of the bedroom on TV and film to level this imbalance.  I’m not denying the use of taboo to tell stories, and I have to acknowledge that – by design or no – the penis is more confrontational than the boob. Also, I am aware that when it comes to finding solutions to any gender issue it is rarely a case of flipping gender expectations because constructions of gender are less dichotomous and more complex than they may seem. But fuck it, this skew is too much, and I’m nowhere mature enough to find an adult solution. So I reckon… I dunno… 3:1?

Until then:

Predator Minigun 2 terminator 2

Storytelling, Videogames, and Cinematic Imitation

Vinewood

Have you ever noticed how film adaptations of video games are mostly rubbish? Of course you have. And so has everyone else. In fact, a quick google search will show an extensive list of people making just that point. That is not what I am here to say (wait, where am I?). It is largely accepted that the video game industry has been treated poorly by the movie business, to the point of callousness. Where else but this hellish misunderstanding of the two mediums could give such prosperity to the likes of Uwe Boll? No. I am here to say that the video game industry has to take a step away from the great works of the film industry. Take a step right back I say, get over the terrible things that have been done to you in the name of film and grow up.

The relationship between these two industries has always been a bit testy. It would be fair to say that there is a longer history of film makers damaging the reputation of video gaming. Videogames have risen in an age of entertainment when cinema ROOLED. Coupled with gaming’s appeal to geek culture, the video game industry’s insecurities (amongst its fans at least) were often provoked by the world of film. In 1978, when Richard Donner was showing the world that a man could fly, the gaming industry hadn’t advanced much further than two lines knocking a square ball at each other. And when film moguls finally acknowledged the appeal (financially anyway) of gaming culture, they wasted most opportunities to achieve the visual spectacle that gamers yearned for, and made rubbish films instead. The list of casualties is extensive, and often held up as crimes against the gaming industry: Super Mario Bros, Street Fighter 2, Resident Evil, Doom amongst others. But now the gaming industry has the tools and skills to compete visually with the world of film and tell the stories that they have been desperate to tell for 40 years. Well-earned I say. Problem is that the stories they want to tell are rubbish.

It’s a bit rich to criticise the films listed above when one looks at the source material. The stories are unimaginative, the characterisation is very limited, and the script often particularly bad. There’s very little to build an actual story from. Let’s go through the list:

Street_Fighter_Movie_13

Street Fighter 2 (1991)– the only reason story even comes into this game is to imitate narrative closure at the game’s end, as well as providing some scantily clad characterisation in the form of the heroes motivation. The script serves as an early example of the problems in translation in video games. The film, Street Fighter (1994) was filing in a lot of gaps to make a cohesive story, and ultimately stretched the storytelling qualities of video games too far.


Super Mario Bros. (1993) does have the makings of a great story, which I think the filmmakers had a good crack at. I mean, how did two Italian plumber siblings find themselves in this eternal struggle against a world of dinosaurs and sentient mushrooms in a bid to save a princess from a giant spiky turtle dragon? Interesting premise, no? And Bob Hoskins (RIP). While the film was a big swing and a miss, it’s not as though any of the games in the Mario universe were ever telling a better story. The game follows the template of the maiden in distress story with no deviations, which works well for a medium that is not primarily aimed at telling a story. The game hardly provided the filmmakers with a cohesive story that only required pointing a camera at. The production of the film is a well-documented disaster with the budget exceeding millions before a final draft of the script had been submitted. But Hollywood egos and money chasing studios aside this failure can be put down to the fact that the Mario Bros was trying to retell a story that didn’t exist in the first place.

super-mario-bros-movie

The filmmakers of Doom (2005) seem to have identified the lack of a story in the source material from the start and instead tried to imitate the game as a game and resulted in a curiously uncinematic experience. It tried to tell the story using The POV device that is used in the game as a first person shooter.

 This managed to displace the viewer as a film watcher and also as a game player. It is not a criticism when I say that gaming is a more selfish medium than film. Gaming has a stronger emphasis on allowing the player to control a characters reaction rather than films emphasis on an understanding of the characters motivations; one seeks total immersion and the other aims to invoke empathy. This film didn’t achieve either of these things, because it fell in the chasm that separates the storytelling abilities of the two mediums that this scene thoroughly highlights.

Now that games have the technology to imitate the look of film the game industry has taken what appears to be a no-brainer decision, and focused more on cinematic storytelling. Now it isn’t uncommon to find 2 hours of a game’s running time that is taken out of the control of the player and replaced with cut scenes; boring, predictable, and largely rehashed scenes from rubbish 90s/00s films. Some games have even reduced the players involvement by telling them what buttons to press to progress through a cut scene in the form of quick time events.

The counter argument I’ve heard is that the spectacle is enough. In fact, it is possible to watch the game like a film! How lovely! Thing is, that is complete bollocks. And if you agree with that premise, you are hogging the controller and should give someone else a go

Jason Melvin, you are a shit boyfriend. And why aren’t women playing games in these ads?.

If we are to apply Sturgeon’s law (that 90% of everything is crap) I would say that the 90% of films that are bad tell a story better than the leading 10% of video game titles. I’m not saying that games shouldn’t tell stories, because all art forms, to a degree, say something about the human experience. Instead I’m being critical of the gaming industry’s obsession with telling cinematic stories.  My favourite games have terrible stories, flat characters, and terrible scripts. Christ, Watch this. Watch all of it! The world of gaming is a billion dollar industry but is incapable of showing a realistic development of character over the course of a games running time, which can be in excess of 10 hours. Listening to Max moan and MOAN over the hours it takes to complete the game’s storyline is grating to say the least. I wasn’t rooting for him, and the games completion (like almost all games) was set on his survival to progress through the game. And in terms of visual aesthetic, the developers have just taken Tony Scott’s Man On Fire (2004) hook line and sinker. It’s not a great film, but cinematically it achieved everything it set out to do 7 years before Max Payne 3 came out, and did it considerably better.

uncharted-3-wallpaper-elena-love-646x325

Let’s focus on one of the gaming industry’s most often cited examples of how gaming is overtaking cinema in its storytelling: The Uncharted series. It was playing these games, which I enjoy very much, when I realised that naggling irritation I felt when I played the biggest releases of the gaming industry was a reaction to the rubbish films I was being made to watch rather than play. When the cut scenes are edited together to make a narrative without gameplay the story is a mash-up of Sahara (2005), Vertical Limit (2000), and Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (2001). All of which are not remembered too fondly (I actually quite like Vertical limit. shut up.), but I think it is fair to say that when each of these titles is directly compared cinematically to the Uncharted series, they win every time on the charge of best dramatically told cinematic story. And when the crème de la crème of any entertainment or art form cannot hold up against bloody Sahara, it’s time to take stock.

sahara_poster_1024

KITCHENS IN FILM NOIR: Domestic Topsy Turvy

Blue dahlia

The Blue Dahlia (1946)

I first came to the idea of writing this blog because of a scene in Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (1982), an excellent homage to the film noir genre that seamlessly edits Steve Martin into the classic titles of the genre. In one scene Martin makes Burt Lancaster a pick me up of his own recipe (“you need a cup of my Java”) on the set of The Killers (1946). The small kitchen that Martin slips into, behind a curtain, was so well realised that when I came to watch The Killers a few years later I got disoriented: where was the kitchen? Bizarrely, Dead Men changed the scene for me, and I couldn’t shake the thought for the rest of the film. In its immense attention to detail (the score was by Miklos Rozsa of Double Indemnity, and costumes were also Edith Head’s last credit), Dead Men had inserted an extra level of noirish authenticity. As the kitchen is the heart of the home, was it in some way at the heart of the film noir genre?

Dead

Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (1982)

A story follows many arcs, and can take characters on many journeys. Where these journeys may take characters, and the audience with them, is as unlimited as the writer’s imagination. But more often than not our characters return from these journeys and, invariably, they return to the kitchen. When this story is told in the film noir genre, the kitchen has been turned on its head.

America had gone through the journey of living out a world war. Whether it was men physically returning from the battlefields of Europe, or the home front awaiting their return, America was a changed place and was, as a nation, anxious to see if it could return home to the kitchen. The kitchen was the heart of the nuclear family; a radiated core of motherly care. With the aid of more sophisticated and more affordable gadgetry the mother in the kitchen was marketed as an aspirational role to counter balance the father’s place at work, where a man had earned the right to improve his family’s situation after defending his country. The film noir genre often smashed the finest china at the feet of these gendered norms and fuelled its narratives with the domestic topsy-turvydom that resulted.

 A sparse bachelor’s pad makes a common appearance in the film noir genre. The bachelor’s kitchen is presented as a place of compromise and emasculation. There is little association with the bachelor’s kitchen and the independent male; the ‘man’s’ kitchen did not achieve an aspirational status until years later, with the resourcefulness of CC Baxter and his tennis racket/colander in The Apartment (1960)or Harry Palmer’s seductive cooking in The Ipcress File (1965). The only exception that comes to my mind is the men’s men in the form of Mitchum and Bogart; I don’t think either of them prepares food in their films. Instead, the kitchen is reduced to a space fit for function, devoid of mothers. There is no kindness, just a place to get some grub in ya – or a place to mix a drink. The bachelor’s kitchen shows how the life of a man (more often than not) has been reduced to day-to-day living, passing the time in-between meals. In Double Indemnity (1944), we see Walter Neff filling his day with meaningless lonely activities when he isn’t in the office such as getting a beer at a drive-in café, or going bowling. He avoids his kitchen because he knows what awaits him there. He inevitably returns home, and awaits the presence of the films femme fatale, Phyllis Dietrichson, whereupon they mix drinks in the kitchen and hatch plans to murder her husband. In the light of the living room that they kiss for the first time – signifying the collapse of Neff’s masculine control of the situation – and then move through into the darkness of the kitchen, where Miss Dietrichson begins to get the upper hand. It is an unglamorous kitchen, where the absence of a mother/wife figure is keenly felt. This is a role that Dietrichson fulfils, but in the terms of the femme fatale: a twisted femininity that corrupts Neff’s morality by corrupting the kitchen space.

Double Indemnity

Double Indemnity (1944)

big

The Big Heat (1953)

 The kitchen is also used as the light reflection of the criminal underworld. The Big Heat (1953) we see the hero enjoying a happy family life in scenes largely set in the kitchen a domestic bliss that is ruthlessly taken from him when his wife is blown up in a booby-trapped car meant for him. In these kitchen scenes we see a man and wife clear dishes, talk about their hopes and fears, and even get a bit frisky before their idyllic daughter interrupts them so that they will tuck her into bed. The criminal flipside of this is shown in a gangster’s apartment, where the family is replaced by hoodlums and corrupt officials, and the kitchen table is replaced with a poker table. Kitchenware is shown in the form of a coffee pot boiling on a hotplate, but this is only there for a display of unspeakable violence. Lee Marvin’s antagonist throws this coffee over his lover, who is disfigured for life.

jhj

The Big Heat (1953)

Big Heat Poker Table

The Big Heat (1953)

 The film noir genre of the period was constantly preoccupied with the difficulties of being a man in modern America. It shows masculinity under attack from a lack of employment, loan sharks, and – most significantly – women. In these films the most dangerous women are the ones you would never find in a kitchen. The femme fatale character is the anti-mother figure, and would most likely have gained their heightened social status through their sexual prowess over powerful men; she would leave the kitchen work to a maid.

Mildred Divorce

Mildred Pierce (1945) “I was always in the kitchen. I felt as though I’d been born in a kitchen and lived there all my life, except for the few hours it took to get married”

The most notable film noir that is from the point of view of a woman (along with her own foreboding noirish narration) is Mildred Pierce (1945), which puts a spin on the trope of the woman in the kitchen. Although she is tied to her kitchen, Pierce identifies the culinary skills she holds in the kitchen as a means of achieving her own success. Living within a broken home, Pierce seeks to control her life first by working in a restaurant, and then by making moves to start up her own café and successful franchise. This infraction of domestic norms results in numerous power struggles with men, and ultimately results in murder.

Early in the story she does away with her philandering husband, demanding he leaves the home; she does this within the kitchen whilst cooking over a stove. Whilst inverting the domestic comfort that is expected of the kitchen environment should come with the kitchen environment, the scene also associates Pierce with the power that comes from owning the kitchen space. Monte Beragon is another man who takes part in this power struggle. A socialite, his inherited wealth is diminishing whilst Mildred’s financial situation improves through hard graft. When he doesn’t get his way he talks down to Mildred about her experience with kitchen work, targeting the strongest source of power she has over him. Then there is Wally Fay, whose sexual advances are rebuked throughout the film. His character is mocked in the film’s portrayal, peaking with a scene where Mildred ties an apron on him in the kitchen to help on the opening night of one of her cafes. Although the mantle of ‘femme fatale’ doesn’t fall on her shoulders (that is reserved for her rather nasty daughter Veda), she rocks the accepted forms of femininity to the perceived anxiety of the male characters. Even her ex-husband comes to the opening night of her café to humbly acknowledge that had expected her to fail but is now mostly redundant due to her successes.

Mildred cafe

Mildred Pierce (1945)

 It’s safe to say that America was going through changes at the high water mark of the film noir genre. The changes had gone right through from the public to the private, and into the heart of the home. This wasn’t the kitchen that the war had been fought for, but it was the one that you were stuck with… unless you made a play for something different. While waiting for the coffee to brew, husbands and wives across the nation sat at the kitchen table and considered their insurance policies. Straight down the line.

Coffee Pot