Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Lesbian Noir



This is part of the LBGT Blogathon hosted by YAM Magazine. It's also a prelude to next week's Queer Film Blogathon hosted by Caroline over at Garbo Laughs.


It's so tempting to use the queerness of Bound (1996, directed by Andrew and Lana Wachowski) to psychoanalyze one of its directors that it's all I can do to restrain myself. It's unfair to the movie, really, and it's unfair to Andy Wachowski because no one can say which of the Wachowskis contributed what and as far as I know, Andy is a straight cis dude. It's very unfair to Lana Wachowski, because it reduces her worth as a director to her gender identity. In fact, I'd rather celebrate the fact that a director of huge blockbusters is trans. That needs to be celebrated rather than analyzed. Bound, it should be noted, is much more a product of keen cinematic intelligence and a voracious appetite for cinematic influences than it is a Rorschach test. Its worthiness as a movie (rather than as tea leaves) comes from the fact that it's sexy, taut, and expertly made. It's one of the best films noir of the last twenty years, possibly the best noir film from the 1990s noir revival. It might be an unfulfilled promise--it remains The Wachowski's best film--but there are plenty of directors whose first films are their best. Just ask Orson Welles or Tobe Hooper.





The Plot: Corky is a recently paroled criminal who lands a job remodeling an apartment for a shady landlord. The next door neighbors are Caesar and Violet, Caesar is a mid-level wiseguy. Violet is a trophy, but not so dumb as her bombshell exterior and whispery little girl voice would have you believe. She is, in fact, formidably shrewd. Corky catches Violet's eye during an elevator ride early in the movie and she contrives a meeting. Corky, just out of prison and on the prowl, allows Violet to seduce her. She knows that Violet might be bad news, but as Mitchum once said to Jane Greer, "Baby, I don't care..." Violet has her hooks in one of Caesar's subordinates, a nerdy mob money man named Shelly, who has been embezzling "The Business" to the tune of two million dollars. Caesar and his boss, Johnny, brutally extract the money from Shelly and Caesar is tasked with laundering it. Literally. It's covered with Shelly's blood. Violet conspires with Corky to steal the money. Corky comes up with a foolproof plan to lay their hands on it and put the finger on Caesar, but as foolproof plans so often do, it goes awry in its execution.




This is a classic film noir set-up with a queer twist and an arresting choice of visual sensibilities. It forgoes the "neo-noir" neon in favor of a sleek, object-obsessed style that owes more to Dario Argento than it does to John Alton or Nicolas Musuraca. The film is well-appointed with visually striking macro shots of significant objects: gun, money, writhing bodies, pruning shears. It's a monochrome film that provides plenty of white surfaces on which to splatter blood and deep shadows to highlight the white. There's a hint of fetish, too, though not to the extent you see showing up in The Matrix. Just enough to flavor the sexuality of the film and give the surfaces of the film a gleaming hardness.




In years past, Corky, the role played by Gina Gershon, would have been played by Robert Mitchum. It's an ideal Mitchum kind of part. She's just dumb enough to get suckered into the plan by a well turned heel, and just smart enough to pull it off. This film re-imagines the type as an easygoing soft butch, which works surprisingly well. It doesn't hurt that Gershon has the same kind of side-eyed ease that Mitchum had. Corky was originally supposed to be played by Jennifer Tilly, but recasting Tilly as Violet seems inevitable. There's nothing of a film noir hero in Tilly's film presence, but there's plenty of femme fatale. The triangle of characters--and it has to be a triangle--is completed by Joe Pantoliano's Caesar, who is a weird kind of conflation of Elisha Cook Jr. and Richard Widmark's Tommy Udo and/or Harry Fabian. He's alternately callow, weak, crazy, menacing, and ruthless. In any other movie, Pantoliano would walk away with the thing. It's his best-ever performance. But that's where the film's queerness becomes an asset. By inserting the lesbian love story, it wrenches the spotlight away from the film's men, and not just because its love scenes are particularly erotic (they are), but because it's a complete scrambling of the universe of traditional noir. If you turn it on its head, Caesar is actually the doomed sap that would be at the center of a traditional noir and Violet and Corky are both femmes fatale, but that's not how this film's viewpoint plays out. By making them queer, this diffuses the essential misogyny of the femme fatale archetype by recasting them as women trying to get out from under the thumb of monstrous patriarchy (and the mob, as depicted here, is thoroughly monstrous). When Caesar ultimately realizes what's going on, his first response is to deride them for being queer rather than to rage at them for stealing from him (the film makes a point of emphasizing Caesar's essential homophobia in Joe Pantoliano's delivery of the word "dyke"). The fact that Violet doesn't ultimately view Corky as a patsy and fall girl is significant in this regard, because that's TOTALLY the way this would play out if it was a more normative movie. For that matter, Bound elides the idea that Violet set the unfortunate Shelly up as a proper patsy, which makes her trustworthiness through the second half of the movie something that the audience must always suspect. That they don't go there is to the film's credit, though that may be the romantic in me speaking.




And, oh, my, does this thing hum along like a finely oiled machine! The plotting of this film is diabolical. It sets up a perfect crime and disassembles it into bloodstained gobbets. The finale, in which an increasingly desperate Caesar must extract the location of the money from Corky and Violet while simultaneously concealing its absence from his superiors turns the screws tight. Portions of this--the scene where the police show up to investigate gunshots, the scene where Caesar walks in on Corky and Violet en flagrante, the scene where Caesar uses the redial button to great effect--are a masterclass in suspense filmmaking, in which the Wachowski's demonstrate not just a thorough knowledge the history of film, but an ability to recombine what they've learned in novel ways. It's thrilling to watch.









9 comments:

Zelda Rose said...

I agree that this is the Wachowski's best film. It's certainly Tilly and Pantoliano's best performances. It made Gershon's career-and Showgirls destroied it. As film noir, it's art, but it also transcends queer cinema. I remember the first time I saw it and I thought it was a classic.

Vulnavia Morbius said...

Hey, Z. You've got it backwards. Bound came out after Showgirls. Gershon went on to make a few interesting movies afterward, too. If anything, Bound was redemption.

Day Al-Mohamed said...

One of Renee's favorite movies. She DEMANDED I see it after I admitted to her I never had. It was in the VCR within MINUTES!!

Timothy Brannan said...

I rather enjoyed Bound. I'll second that it was one of the best performances from Pantoliano and Gershon.

Lasso The Movies said...

I have always loved this movie. It was just a great crime drama that I never expected to be any good. Just another treasure that more people should see.

Caroline said...

I've always wanted to see this movie but never have. I've mostly just heard that it was hella sexy, but I'm glad to know it's also a good film! :)

Vulnavia Morbius said...

Hi, Caroline.

It's a VERY good movie, which is awesome given that most GLBT movies tend NOT to be good movies, regardless of their other qualities. You should definitely watch it.

Joseph said...

Every time I watch the "redial" scene, my blood goes cold. You describe Corky as just dumb enough yet just smart enough, and that's exactly what I think when I wait impatiently for her to rip the phone from the wall.

Vulnavia Morbius said...

Hi, Joseph. I know, right? That scene turns the screws hard. I love it.