July 30th, 2004

Guy smiling

Movie Night: The Maltese Falcon and Requiem for a Dream

Wednesday night was Laura night. For a change of pace, we opted to rent a couple of videos. I have long wanted to share with her some of my favourite old movies - was thinking The Philadelphia Story would be a good one, but it wasn't it stock, so chose The Maltese Falcon, with Humphrey Bogart as hard-nosed private detective Sam Spade. Laura spotted Requiem for a Dream and so we picked that up as well.

The Maltese Falcon has been on my "A" list ever since I crutched down to the Bloor Cinema from my then-home at Saint-Claire and Bathurst more years ago then I care to remember2. Classic noire, it reaks of surface cynicism, dark humour, a convoluted plot and the fast-paced dialogue typical of the better movies from Hollywood's early talkie years.

Watching it with Laura,1 though, was a rather different experience, like taking an out-of-town visitor on a tour of your own city. Suddenly, the familiar is less so, as you re-view it all through the eyes of a newcomer.

In this instance, the ol' hometown wasn't quite the sophisticated metropolis I had so comfortably known it to be. It seems that my out-of-towner was from New York, or Paris, the the lights of my burg no longer gleam so bright, nor my skyscrapers stand so tall.

Obviously, the black-and-white takes some getting used to - ditto the dated styles; the score is of its era, far from subtle and has been parodied for decades; the slang - and I had forgotten just how much of it there is! - 60 years later is dated ("You're a doll," "I won't play the sap for you!"); and the acting itself seems stiff if not stilted, as if the actors are not yet convinced that a sound stage is not a theatre's stage.

Still, I enjoyed seeing the picture again and I believe Laura did too, despite her frequent, "inappropriate", giggles. But it was clear that - for her - The Maltese Falcon is more interesting as a period-piece - a cultural curio - than it is was for me.

With the benefit of fresh vision, the film has changed for me. No longer a vital, present work of art (as it was when I last rented it, no more than 2 or 3 years ago), it has become instead a sort of time capsule, a faded image of a time long since passed into the dusty twilight of memory.

Which brings us to Wednesday's second feature, a far more recent film - Requiem for a Dream, a movie that is "about" something (the perils of addiction) in a way that Falcon is not "about" anything, except perhaps the virtue of loyalty.

Laura said it was a great movie, that it left some of her friends devastated for days after seeing it.3 I knew that I had read about it when it came out, was vaguelly aware it had something to do with drugs, but was essentially coming to without conscious pre-conceptions.

Requiem for a Dream left me cold. I was annoyed by the faux-world-weary bleakness of the film's vision and frustrated that its characters did not have the depth to justify it (to the limited extent that I cared about them, I was wondered why they were all so intent on self-destruction); I was offended by the superficially flashy cinematography; and insulted by what I saw as a blatant attempt, first, to manipulate my sense of tragedy and, second, by a simplistic anti-drug story-line that goes back at least as far as Reefer Madness.4

It didn't take long before I knew exactly where the movie was going, that all 4 major characters were doomed to very bad ends indeed (prison; amputation; indefinite hospitalization in a psych ward; being gang-banged for a fix). Since I knew where the movie was going, the fact I didn't care how they all got there made for an uninteresting ride.

What struck me, finally, was the realization that Requiem for a Dream is as much a product of its own time as The Maltese Falcon and at least as stylized in its own way.

The performances are more naturalistic and the camera is far more fluid but below the surface sheen, it is no more than a product of a paranoid, neo-puritan era in the United States, in which it is okay to show drug use, so long as the behaviour is punished - and punished severely.

I need a little more complexity in my tragedies, thank you very much.

*     *     *     

In other news, I am a little nervous about the next couple of days. My not-quite 14 year-old niece proposed that she visit me for a couple of days. "Why don't you pick me up on Friday and I'll stay over Friday and Saturday?"

I am wonderfully pleased, of course, but also a little nervous as I wonder whether I'll be able to keep her entertained for what is - to me - such an extended period. Mostly, I'm pleased - but if any of you closer to that age than I am have any suggestions, feel free to offer 'em up.

All right, time to grab some breakfast, empty the dryer and have a shower before heading back out into the grown-up world.

P.S. For those keeping track, my little experiment in sobriety is still on track. Tuesday I'll be allowed to drink again, but I don't - at this point - find myself counting down the minutes until that time.

  • 1 Who, of course, will jump in and correct me if I mis-represent her views in this post - right, darlin'?

  • 2 All right, you vipers: call it 20 years ago.

  • 3 Last night after work I went out with Heath for dinner and drinks (yes, club soda in my case). He told me Requiem left him depressed for 2 days.

  • 4 As the Globe's Johanna Schneller pointed out some time ago (possibly while discussing Requiem for a Dream (though maybe not), Hollywood's take on drug-use almost always neglects what is probably the most important element on the road to addiction: fun. People enjoy getting stoned and, typically, Requiem doesn't spend a lot of time showing that.
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