Monday, June 15, 2009

Some Like It Hot

Dir. Billy Wilder

Risque. Now there's a word I like. Duly indentured to the bygone and “olden days”, it is a word that no longer contains much meaning in a society and film world driven by violence, sex, and one-upmanship. There are certainly still a handful of censorship rules in place although they are largely nominal as the MPAA attempts to ensure that (most) children and adolescents are kept out of (most) overtly graphic films, except of course those films whose physical terror is manageable but whose psychological brutality is particularly scarring. Still there was a time when a conservative attitude toward what could be shown in cinemas was not so largely undermined by the industry itself. This liberalization of cinema has resulted in an inborn viewer desire for spectacle. Where a director like Alfred Hitchcock (whose anecdotal ideal of suspense ran something like: "there's two people having breakfast and there's a bomb under the table. If it explodes, that's a surprise. But if it doesn't...") held his audience in rapt attention because of their ebullient desire for resolution of tension, it is now frequently found that tension and suspense, if not played up to an absurd degree, bore rather than stimulate. It would seem the modern film going audience would prefer the bomb to explode...over and over again. This is not to say that modern cinema is void of dramatic suspense or temperance, or that otiose and otherwise banal action based films were not made prior to 1960. This is not even to imply that the quality of film has declined overall since the Golden Age of Cinema (Citizen Kane through Vertigo). What it does suggest, however, is a change in standards. Fifty years before Katy Perry's “I Kissed A Girl” single shot up the Billboard charts, Billy Wilder made the adulterous and provocative comedy Some Like It Hot. It is likely the most exciting and hysterical film of its time and, ironically, may have paved the way for the debaucherous period in which we live.

Starting out as action thriller based in Chicago during prohibition, the film rapidly switches over from rum running mobsters to two broke musicians, Joe and Jerry (Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon respectively). After witnessing a particular brutal massacre the two recognize that the only way to escape persecution by the mob is to flee Chicago. Standing in their way is their lack of transportation and funds. They quickly devise a most ingenious solution: the two will cross dress in order to join a traveling girls band on their tour of Florida. It is here they meet obtuse but gorgeous Sugar Kane (Marilyn Monroe) and the farce to end all farces begins. With overt themes of sexuality, infidelity, alcohol abuse, and gender roles in combination with Wilder's immaculate sense of comedic timing the film plows forth with towering wit and superb drama. One only needs to dream of the infinite permutations of potential comic scenarios and it is guaranteed that Wilder not only seizes but in many instances improves upon them.

Wilder is perhaps known best not for the enchanting pace and timing of his films but rather for the progressive topical matter with which he deals. In the span of his career he has dealt with suicide (The Apartment), alcohol addiction (The Lost Weekend), pre-meditated murder (Double Indemnity), intense disillusionment (Sunset Boulevard), incarceration (Stalag 17) as well as a host of other difficult topics, including most notably: love. His screenplays are eloquent and his actors (especially Lemmon and William Holden, who are both recurring in his films) take on his roles with miraculous ease as if his characters, so original and well designed, transcend the confines of film and find something analogous with all human beings. They touch on our personal weaknesses and dormant strengths. Some Like It Hot studies the paradox of wishing to help someone while knowing you must first and foremost help yourself. While being brilliantly funny it is also touchingly romantic, balancing the two in perfect symbiosis.

While all this is going on the film still manages to be insatiably irreverent. Some Like It Hot is wonderfully satirical of the very institutions that keep it from being dull. Wilder effectively insinuates what, by the content limitations of the time, he was essentially restricted from showing. It was these very constraints, these hazards to the insipid and innocuous, that encouraged if not enforced creativity in Wilder and other directors. These same barriers simply do not exist in the 21st century. A director can bypass artistry and inventiveness in favor of having their film receive an R or NC-17 rating. If Some Like It Hot communicates any one thing with particular clarity 50 years later it's that intelligent and inspiring comedy and drama must take place on all developmental levels.

With modern resources there is certainly a time and place for action, but without counterbalance this action becomes cessation in and of itself. This laissez-faire attitude and general acceptance by the viewing public is at the bottom of modern cinema's gross dependence on a constant visual impetus. This action driven content is never going to disappear. There will always be a market for Rambo, James Bond, John McClane, and Jack Bauer. Like pop music these action heroes and their respective films exist to progress the technical side of the medium, to enhance the grandeur and visual opulence of cinema. But that cannot be all. Without a rich and thoughtful implicity to balance the corporeal weight of style, film may fall so far left of the dial that it becomes simply something to talk over at a party. There is only the hope that the function of these stimuli-laden films will evolve from mere exploitation to critical examination of values. Objectification. Now there's a word I like.

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