Prison Dames I've always had trouble getting into movies about beautiful Americans being brutalized by evil, faceless governments overseas because the movies rarely acknowledge that the Americans aren't just individuals, but emblems of a rich country's arrogance, and that their punishment has as much to do wrvation is that while Hollywood likes innocent-American-in-trouble-overseas movies, it usually can't be bothered to tell stories about miscarriages of justice in the United States, unless it's in the context of a wholly unbelievable, mushhead-liberal legal thriller like A Time to Kill or Murder in the First, or a mushhead-conservative equivalent like Just Cause. Not that these personal prejudices have anything to do with my hatred of Brokedown Palace, a film about two teenage American girls rotting in prison in Thailand after being framed as drug couriers. The film has enough trouble simply telling a story, developing characters in believable ways and resisting the urge to pander to its stars or to the audience. Claire Danes and Kate Beckinsale are kids from Ohio who graduate from high school and tell their parents they're going on vacation to Hawaii but head off to Thailand instead, where they behave like arrogant American tourist snots, then are framed by a handsome young Australian drug smuggler and sentenced to hard time in a women's prison. Actually, though we're told the place is a hell pit, and we are treated to a few closeups of bugs wriggling in a toilet and an off-camera incident involving a cockroach getting stuck in one girl's ear, the place looks like a Hollywood set. (That the prison scenes were shot on location in a Philippine prison is no defense.) The women are mostly young and lusciously beautiful, and many of them are outfitted with sleek yet shaggy bob cuts, apparently maintained with just a dab of mousse. Say what you want about Thai prison authorities and their corrupt brutality, at least they keep a stylist on staff?though their refusal to construct a runway for these beautiful inmates is a human rights violation Amnesty International might want to look into. Director Jonathan Kaplan is a capable, unfussy filmmaker?Unlawful Entry and The Accused were excellent B-movies made on A-movie budgets?but he's only as good as his material, and this isn't worth his time. The film treats Thailand as a music-video vacation paradise, giving us nary a hint of the region's culture or attitudes, then seems outraged and surprised, along with the dim-bulb heroines, when the country turns out to be a Third World backwater that has very strong laws regarding drug smuggling and a court system where defendants are considered guilty and can't be bothered to let them prove otherwise. ("Why would you want to come here anyway?" whines Beckinsale's distraught, accusatory dad, one of the few characters who talks sense.) Bill Pullman plays an American practicing law in Thailand who is hired to spring the girls; he exudes decency, yet the film has so little faith in the audience that it lets us see him representing a couple of Burmese refugees pro bono, then has the girls compliment him on his kindness and remark that he's not the ambulance-chaser they thought he was. When he and his wife and law partner realize their work on the case will entail a trip to Hong Kong, Pullman asks, "So which one of the firm is going to go to Hong Kong?" The answer, delivered in a wholly unsurprising cut, might as well have been verbal: "The member of the firm who starred in Independence Day." Like the flawed but much gutsier Return to Paradise, which is superficially similar, Brokedown Palace seems to be about characters learning to face their own mistakes and frailties and confront an unfair destiny with courage. But the details are phony as can be, from the heroines' constant bickering over who betrayed who and which of them slept with the Australian to the weirdly unmotivated finale, which asks us to be moved by one young woman's act of sacrifice without giving any indication that she loves her friend enough (or feels guilty enough) to martyr herself. We are invited to be horrified by the leering and arrogant Thai bureaucrats' refusal to be moved by American tourists' pluck and beauty. The script shows signs of having been softened to make Danes' character?and perhaps young American tourists in general?more sympathetic. Afterward, an aghast friend who saw the movie with me said, "As an American who holds a passport and has used it, I'm offended by the thought that this movie is going to be exported around the globe." No kidding. The Joy of Pre-Code, 1930-33 In the 1933 melodrama Baby Face, Barbara Stanwyck makes an entrance so startling it practically burns a hole through the screen. Her character, a waitress in her loutish father's run-down Erie, PA, speakeasy, walks into the kitchen to find the old man threatening to fire her coworker and best pal, a young black woman. With coiled fury, she tells him that if her friend goes, she goes, so the old man might as well just stick a sock in it. What's remarkable about the moment is not just the suppressed rage in Stanwyck's delivery, but the situation?and, more specifically, the unspoken assumptions around it. Stanwyck's action expresses a solidarity between women?poor women?that transcends race without making a big, self-congratulatory deal of it. The women are united because they work in the same dump during the Depression and take guff from the same abusive saphead of an owner. Stanwyck's rage is about a lot of things?sexism, racism, economic deprivation?and none of them is presented in a preachy, phony, grandstanding liberal way. This is movie populism as it was always meant to be: earthy, natural. It grows out of circumstance. It tells the truth. It is a moment that is best appreciated by regular moviegoers who have to work for their meager wages. And it was written and filmed during a brief, shining period when filmmakers could get rough bits of life onscreen without resorting to censor-diverting subterfuge. You will experience many similar shocks of recognition watching movies in Film Forum's series "The Joy of Pre-Code, 1930-33," which starts this Friday, Aug. 20, and runs through Sept. 14. This collection of features was made between the time that Hollywood adopted stringent self-censorship measures and actually began enforcing them (out of fear that the government, under pressure from public morals activists, might do the job for them). The series is organized by programmer Bruce Goldstein, who assembled Film Forum's first pre-code series 11 years ago, and is tied into a marvelous new book about the topic, Brandeis film professor Thomas Doherty's Pre-Code Hollywood (Columbia University Press). As Doherty observes, once the production code started to be stringently followed around 1934, "the fractures of American life, still less the open embrace of sex, did not close up... No matter how rigid the body cast, Hollywood cinema is too supple and expressive an art to constrain what Walt Whitman celebrated as 'nature without check with original energy'... In the hidden recesses of the cinematic subtext, under the surface of avowed morality and happy endings, Hollywood under the Code is fraught with defiance of Code authority. "But in pre-Code Hollywood the fissures crack open with rougher edges and sharper points. What is concealed, subterranean and repressed in Hollywood under the Code leaps out exposed, on the surface, and unbound in Hollywood before the Code. Often what is seen and heard in pre-Code Hollywood is not so much as glimpsed or whispered in Codified Hollywood. Images, language, ideas and implications are projected on screen with blunt force and unmistakable meaning." As Doherty cleverly observes, this was a period when the melancholy glamour of The Great Gatsby could be plagiarized in Howard Hawks' Scarface (in the billboard signifying unrealized ambition, and in an image of gangster hero Paul Muni caressing silk shirts) and audiences could be trusted to understand that assumptions about the American dream were being rethought for the out-of-work masses. It was an era when "the camera (seemed) to linger lovingly over full course meals and bountiful spreads," treating starved Depression audiences to a different kind of pornography?food porn. It was a time when a whole string of films could quote the popular song "Happy Days Are Here Again," always with bitter irony. Consider Baby Face, which kicks off the series (Aug. 20-21), on a double bill with the Edward G. Robinson thriller Two Seconds. Stanwyck's speakeasy waitress soon decides she can't keep living in a dump and heads off to the big city to seek her fortune. This is how maybe three-quarters of boozing, brawling, sexy, salacious pre-code movies start?with a greedy (or simply starry-eyed) poor boy or girl, either from the city slums or a nowhere rural burg, heading for Park Avenue or midtown or Hollywood or some other high-rent, high-stakes neighborhood to make it on their own terms. Taking full advantage of the pre-code era's tough realism about the realities of class in this country, the heroes and heroines are shown to be sorely limited by circumstance. They aren't as well-off, genteel, connected or educated as the rich folk, but they're scrappy and resilient, and they're possessed of a certain animal cunning and know how to deploy it. In short, they know what they have to do and how to use what they've got. For men, this means pulling scams, talking fast, working the angles and using their fists when necessary?the attributes of a budding hoodlum shark, a Cagney specialty. For women, that means selling their God-given sex appeal wherever and whenever possible. On a whim, Stanwyck's character gets an entry-level job at a Manhattan bank and quickly begins sleeping her way to the top. This is not implied; it's stated by the hilariously unsubtle dialogue about experience and training, and in the transition sequences?exterior shots of the bank building that start on a window labeled, say, "Mailroom" and rise up a couple of floors to "New Accounts" or "Loans." The heroine is not condemned for her ambition or the means by which she realizes it; on the contrary, the film sides with her throughout, letting us know this is the only way somebody of her social stratum could advance quickly. This kind of grotty, no-illusions realism, presented in the guise of lascivious poor-girl-in-the-big-city melodrama, with the understanding that adults live in this kind of world and could handle seeing it depicted onscreen, would have been unthinkable only a few years later. It's hard to imagine that just six years after Baby Face, Gone With the Wind producer David O. Selznick would be reduced to haggling with censors over the use of the word "damn." To greater or lesser degrees, this frankness is present in most of the pre-code features on Film Forum's schedule. In Victor Fleming's Red Dust (1932, Aug. 29), rubber baron (or is that robber baron?) Clark Gable tries to decide between red-hot Mary Astor and red-hotter Jean Harlow, and the appeal of sleeping around is acknowledged without an 11th-hour bout of finger-wagging. Quadruple-stacked sensual peahen Mae West in I'm No Angel asks a young, fresh-faced Cary Grant to "come up and see me sometime," and even a blind and deaf nun would know she wasn't talking about having a drink or playing Fish. In Virtue (1932, Aug. 26), Carole Lombard is a hooker on the run from a prostitution charge who gets mixed up in a con game. We're encouraged to second-guess her for getting in over her head, but not to pass judgment on her avocation. Josef von Sternberg's Blonde Venus (1932, Aug. 27-28) has sex and self-sacrifice all mixed up?how could it not with Marlene Dietrich playing the va-va-voom nightclub singer wife of an unappreciative jerk husband?but it also acknowledges the influence of black culture on the decadent white nightclub world, as evidenced by her performance of "Hot Voodoo" in a white-girl fro. In Red Headed Woman, (1932, Aug. 29), Jean Harlow plays a small-town girl who goes to New York, vamps her way into her boss' bed and struggles to stay there. "I love my wife," the man says, in a clinch with the lusty blonde hick fatale. "We've been sweethearts since we were kids." "She doesn't have to know about us," Harlow replies. It must have been an amazing sensation for working people (and poor people) to go to the movies during this period and see stories like these onscreen. Sure, a lot of them?most of them?were wish-fulfillment fantasies about persons of limited means making it big on guts, sex and heart, and it was infinitely more common to see tales of poor people in rich surroundings than the reverse. But the characters' slang and I'll-do-what-I-gotta-do attitude must have made a great deal of sense. In a world of bread lines, only moralistic pieties would have seemed a sin. My favorite selection by far, however, is Lady Killer (1933, Aug. 25), a truly strange wish-fulfillment adventure in which slum hood Cagney starts out as a badly behaved usher at a movie theater and then remakes himself as, in rapid succession, a petty crook, the leader of a gang of thieves, a fugitive, a movie extra and an international film star. (Could this film be an unacknowledged influence on Elmore Leonard's Chili Palmer character?) His only qualification for any of these jobs is his insolent sense of invulnerability. It's like he's been knocked down so often by so many people that he can't feel pain or fear anymore. He's always looking for an angle, sizing people up for weaknesses they don't know they have?especially guys who think they can put one over on him. In the opening of Lady Killer, the ushers at the movie theater are assembled like troops for inspection by their blowhard manager, who tells them a lot of patrons have been complaining about their rudeness, especially their nasty habit of chewing gum. Of course Cagney is chewing gum and has to spit it out. But he doesn't do it surreptitiously; he just spits it out, with a malicious grin that says, "One of these days I'll either own you or kill you." Later, a member of his gang asks a stupid question, and Cagney takes the toothpick out of the guy's mouth and flicks it away before answering. He's impatient with the world's inability to out-think him?and its inability to serve up any underlings, dames or nemeses worth rousing himself to compete with. Martin Scorsese and his stable of volatile Method actors must have learned a lot from Cagney, and from other Warner Bros. stars who brought a whiff of the streets with them to the big screen. In this film, you get an early sense of Cagney's no-bullshit precision as an actor, his refusal to do aristocratic voices or otherwise put on airs. His very presence calls the unreality of Hollywood stories into question and challenges them to be more real. And before his arrival, you never really saw explosions of raw slum violence onscreen?the grapefruit in the face in Public Enemy, for example. That was Cagney's specialty, and it shook movies up as much as Brando's brooding, ambisexual, Method introspection in the 50s?maybe more. Late in Lady Killer, after he's made it as a movie star, Cagney's visited by his old girlfriend and gang mate (Mae Clarke, the grapefruit girl from Public Enemy) who's setting him up for a shakedown. The girl lets herself in just as he's coming home with his new girlfriend, a movie star; the movie star leaves in a huff and Cagney expunges Clarke from the apartment as if she were a sewer rat who came in through a grate, pushing her out the door and booting her in the ass to send her down the hallway faster, then throwing her suitcase out after her. It slams against the wall over her head and pops open, and she screams. You don't just recoil in horror at the suddenness of Cagney's violence; for a second, you forget you're watching actors in a movie. Cagney is frightening?a thug who made good, but still a thug. He reminds you of reality; he puts you in fear of your life. When is the last time a contemporary movie star evoked that kind of terrified fascination? Certainly not recently: We now live in a period when the ratings board allows greater freedom of expression (though not total freedom), yet the stars protect themselves much more carefully than Cagney ever did. It is difficult to imagine Tom Cruise, Tom Hanks, even Al Pacino and Robert De Niro these days, allowing themselves to express such helpless rage onscreen. They're too worried about alienating the audience; they don't want to jeopardize their investments. Perhaps self-protective glamour?as carefully practiced by the wealthiest and most powerful movie stars in the medium's history?is the new production code, keeping life out of movies. Perfect Blue directed by Satoshi Kon As a technical advance in the art of anime, Perfect Blue is a milestone?a comic-bookish, proudly ridiculous melodrama about an imperiled celebrity that's rendered in a nearly photorealistic style, with some of the most credible textures and body movements I've ever seen in an animated feature. Ralph Bakshi didn't replicate human facial expressions and body language this precisely in his 70s epics, and he was rotoscoping real actors. But technical mastery only gets you so far. This tale of a bubblegum pop singer named Mima Kirigoe, who leaves her puffy pop group to make a career as an actress only to be stalked by a mysterious fan (or fans), goes all out to impress, fracturing its narrative and reassembling the pieces so that they straddle the border separating reality from the heroine's increasingly distressed and paranoid fantasies. But despite the slick surface and breathtaking bursts of nightmare violence, it's a pretty thin movie. It seems interested in its heroine mainly as a plot device?or perhaps as a spool around which to weave ever more elaborate set pieces?rather than in exploring the emotional distress of a threatened woman in ways that encourage audience identification. Much of the time, she's objectified in one way or another, either as a cutesy-poo ingenue or as a sex object ripe for violation (concretely, by her stalker, or metaphorically, by the male-dominated entertainment industry). An ugly movie-within-a-movie gang rape scene makes the whole thing even more unsavory; it's filmed in a way that divides viewer identification between the screaming heroine and the piggish, adrenaline-jacked rapists. Like so many anime masters, Satoshi's genius is primarily mechanical and sadly inhumane. If Perfect Blue were a live-action film instead of a heavily hyped Japanimation import ("If Alfred Hitchcock partnered with Walt Disney, they'd make a picture like this!" proclaims Roger Corman in the press notes), it would probably play after midnight on Showtime and star a cute, no-named young model-actress with plastic breasts.