Last week, we began a conversation with Brandon Ryan, founder of Man Alone Productions (which produces plays and themed trivia nights) and the curator of the Night and Day Film Noir Series at the Central Cinema. The series is designed to feature two noir genre movies a month, a classic entry to be followed the subsequent week by a modern film; for fans of the genre, the series serves as an opportunity to see some of the established works in the canon, new and old, on a decently sized screen–for newcomers, the series is intended as a primer of the genre.
These conversations are comprised of general impressions and arcana attached to the movies in question, in order to whet the appetite and set some low key expectations going into a viewing. The Star will continue publishing the conversations as the series is running. This week, we pick up where we left off at the end of Part 1, after a viewing of Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep.
Seattle Star: It seems like last week was a success, congratulations!
Brandon Ryan: It was, thanks, and in many ways. As I gleaned when I asked during my quick curtain speech, about two-thirds of the audience had never seen the movie before. That is so incredible to me, it was very gratifying.
SStar: Last week was my first viewing after having read Chandler’s book a few times, and it was interesting to see the very minute changes they had done to the story. We never really establish what Geiger’s business was really about, for example, or what the picture of the younger sis was. The ending trimmed off Chandler’s original, which provided a much more precise answer as to who was responsible for the main mystery in the film.
BR: Well, yeah, due to the Hays’ Code we couldn’t really talk about Geiger’s porn business, or his gay affair with Carol, or delve into the further details of the sister’s drug and nympho tendencies. Just the way of the times.
SStar: All right, let’s talk about this week: Why did you want to pair Brick with The Big Sleep?
BR: I paired up Brick with Sleep for two reasons: Bogart and style.
Rian Johnson’s Brick is steeped in the archetypes of 40’s hard boiled films. The unrelenting private dick, the tramp, the sympathetic villain, the femme fatale–except for that it is transposed into a high school setting. Which makes all of these characters seem unreal due to their actions and the way they speak. While that might seem to be a flaw, it actually impresses me even more with the commitment and determination that Johnson entrusted his actors with, in order to achieve his vision.
There is no winking to the camera or any sense of farce here. These characters are acting and talking in an archaic language that doesn’t belong to them; but they are fully committed to this world and it gives the film an incredibly interesting style that is fully accepted and justified by the director’s approach to the material. Which, by the way, Johnson also wrote.
As for the Bogart factor, Joseph Gordon Levitt is clearly emulating the tough, no nonsense, insolent attitude made famous by Bogart, and with wonderful effect. You have two spectrums of age within the two characters, late teens and early 40’s. They share the same characteristics but coming from the different perspectives of a cocky youth and a beaten down, middle aged man. Both are fascinating and realistic.
They both share the effortless ability for cleverness. They both have their own moral code. Their loyalties are well defined and firm. Their bravado stems from a similar aged-based source, whether it’s brass youth or a seen-it-all older age. They completely share all of the exact same elements and traits that go into a typical film noir anti-hero, but it’s lovely to see it portrayed through a teenager’s perspective. You could see how in 20 years’ time, the Gordon Levitt character would become Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe. He’ll act exactly the same way he did in his youth, but for completely different reasons.
SStar: The thing that strikes me most about Brick is how the high school setting lends itself to a sort of the Hays’ Code-esque restraint you were talking about last week. Sure, you could have ultra-violence and aggro boobs all over the place, but that would disrupt the idea that this is supposed to be set in high school. The dated and ancient language and codes do all of the explicit groundwork for us.
BR: True. The entire structure of the film and its elements are incredibly simple, which lends itself incredibly well to noir films of the past. Noir films themselves were simply B-movies put out by the studios as a reaction to the limited budgets and resources that World War II engendered. Hence, the dirty urban settings, and actual on set locations. It was expensive to shoot on the backlots or have sets made, so they had to operate guerrilla-style and shoot very quickly on real locations.
Brick is a wonderful throw back to that sort of mentality. It’s not cluttered up with a lot of big studio touches. It just centers the story around lovely performances, amazing dialouge and a very simple yet incredibly effective score that really helps establish the mood and atmosphere of this cold high school world.
SStar: It’s also pretty surreal for a mainstream film.
BR: Yep. It definitely has a haunting dreamlike quality going for it. Again the score emphasizes that immensely.
SStar: You know the scene I’m thinking about? It’s probably the scene everyone thinks about, come to that.
BR: The party scene?
SStar: No–wait, maybe–it’s been a while…the scene I’m thinking about takes place in a kitchen.
BR: Oh, yeah. The tete-a-tete in the kitchen is a great example. The party scene has a strange hallucinatory thing going for it, though. Very off kilter. Another great example of keeping us and our protagonist completely off-balance.
SStar: You’ve already mentioned Joseph Gordon Levitt, who was at the beginning of his break out streak during this film, anyone else we’ll be surprised to find acting opposite him?
BR: I hope you’re talking about Shaft-shut-yo-mouth-José, as the principal. I haven’t seen much of the cast in many follow up projects, actually. Some TV work by most, but not much of notice, really.
I was super excited when Nora Zehetner was in the first season of Heroes. I can’t believe how much I dug that show during its first year.
SStar: Friends keep telling me I have to check out the first season of Heroes, which I missed the first time through. At the time it was on, I was too engrossed by Lost which featured Emilie De Ravin, also in Brick.
BR: I was also massively into Lost until mid-way through season 4, then I had to break up with it for good.
Anyways, I also enjoyed the quiet performance of The Pin, in the film, which is played by another child actor, Lucas Haas. He also only pops up on my radar sporadically, but the small detail work and quiet presence of his portrayal was a lovely counterpoint to the bull-in-a-china-shop mentality of Levitt’s character. A nice reversal of stereotypes.
SStar: For the record, I was talking about Richard “Shaft” Roundtree earlier; which is a nice shout out to that film.
BR: What’s a shame about things like the Roundtree cameo, and the entire essence of the film, is that it is somewhat lost on the majority of the generation that Brick was made for.
I’m not saying that it doesn’t have a wonderful cult following, but the film plays better if you have a sense of history about the movie’s inspiration. Again, this is one of my main selling points for doing the series; if you watched The Big Sleep with us last week and then watch Brick, you will have a much greater appreciation of what the latter is trying to do and how succesful it is at doing it. It makes watching Levitt that much more exciting to watch when you see him spouting off hard boiled sounding dialog and lends a fantastic grounding to his performance, if you know where it stems from.
SStar: Do you think the current generation was Johnson’s target with Brick?
I suppose it does feature young actors in the main roles, but I think all of the stuff you’re talking about is there for the film buffs to pick up on…
BR: Actors of that age. A high school setting–It’s a much broader audience than that generation. It’s definitely a niche crowd film, it isn’t pitched to the typical high school age film goer; but it is without a doubt covering a few bases. Of course it speaks to much larger crowds, but if you look at his setting and actor demographic, it’s pretty clear who he was hoping to reach.
I’ve been excited to follow Johnson’s career after this movie. His followup film, The Brothers Bloom, was another exercise in style and genre. It has a The Sting/Ocean’s 11 quality disguised in a quirky Wes Anderson setting. I thought it was very effective.
His next film is the sci-fi time travel film, Looper, starring Levitt and Bruce Willis. I’m a huge nerd for any time travel film. As long as you establish the rules to your world I’m pretty much gonna dig it.
SStar: It’d be hilarious if the Bruce Willis character is the same one he played in 12 Monkeys, but no, it looks like he’s playing a future Levitt, which has its own kind of sense.
BR: Shane Regan and I were just discussing that movie on our podcast, The Thrilling Adventures of Brandon & Shane. We did our top 10 films of all time, which in itself is a massively loaded and difficult question, But we somehow managed to narrow it down.
I think 12 Monkeys was my 7th or 8th film; Bruce Willis is beyond amazing in that flick. He has mastered his cool-steely-action-hero-quipping-guy and his soft-spoken-tortured-M-Night-Shyamalan guy, but he is a complete revelation in this film. Such a lovely raw and innocent performance. Shame we never see that as often. Ditto Brad Pitt, whom I’ve always contended that he’s a wonderful character actor trapped in a leading man’s body. While his performance in 12 Monkeys now seems slightly dated and a bit labored in the tic deptartment, it is still a great characterization, for which he was nominated for an Oscar.
SStar: Speaking of time travel movies, have you seen Primer?
BR: Only the one time, so I obviously need to see it at least two more times in order to grasp what the frick is going on. Insane.
SStar: What’s coming next month for Night and Day? What about the coming months?
BR: Next month is Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil and Christopher Nolan’s Memento. Right now, I have something like the next seven months of films locked down. Hopefully, if they are as successful as The Big Sleep last week, then I could continue with Night and Day, and then either integrate a new series on a different night, or just replace this series with a new one after a year.
It really just depends on what Central Cinema lets me do. Thankfully, they really like me and I’ve had some luck with our trivia nights there. With the positive start of this series, I can keep going and help them program different film cycles on off nights.
Brick, tonight at 9:30p.m. // Central Cinema, 1411 21st Avenue // $6 in advance, $8 at the door