Sunday, April 29, 2012

Iguanas and Mustangs

"When you're in love with a beautiful woman / it's hard." - Dr. Hook

THE MISFITS (1961) was just on TCM and for a big chunk of it I was floored by its poetic train wreck qualities and wondered why Marilyn Monroe's performance is maligned in film criticism. It's like a bi-polar character written for a bi-polar actress by her bi-polar husband as a divorce present can't get a break in this town. Especially now, when we can diagnose problems of this sort and medicate them, the self-medication of booze and tranquilizers isn't respected. And then there's death, where madness and marriage are finally reconciled. MISFITS got all that, and horses as handy catch-all metaphors for woman, the American dream and its sad capitalism awakening.

But it's Death that must be acknowledged. Death, the ultimate marital therapist and signifier for great literature. Death hangs over THE MISFITS like a windless, gnat-filled haze. If one lacked direct war experience in order to be a man who knows death, MISFITS shows that booze could make up the damage, enabling a clear-eyed view of death invisible to the naked, sober, civilian eye. John Huston, like Howard Hawks and few others, saw the inextricable linkage of death to the activities of all men, be they whalers or iguana wranglers or prospectors or boxers or detectives. Huston's drunkenness is the sort one sees in WWI pilots in 1930s movies, the drunk freedom from death that only facing death, and seeing your friends die in flames, can bring.

The similarity of MISFIT's freeing-the-horses climax to Richard Burton cutting loose the titular lizard in NIGHT OF THE IGUANA is no coincidence. In the nonstop stream of barbarism that is civilization through the eyes of the alcoholic, poetic, and bi-polar (the only sane souls around), a single act of compassion just may save the world, or at any rate fool St. Peter into waving you past unexamined for dark spots.

It's this motif that attempts to somehow impose order on the swirl of visuals in Malick's TREE OF LIFE (my sort-of review here), for example, as when a dinosaur merely tags a wounded possible dinner with his foot and marches off (and later a similar gesture is repeated between warring siblings), and it's this gesture--the throwing them back because they're too small, as it were--that ideally, finally, redeems Burton and Gable, and sends ugly Americans like Ms. Fellowes and Guido (Eli Wallach) off to their material planes to sulk.

Along with fellow cowboy Montgomery Clift, Gable ropes the mustangs for a dog food conglomerate. His ex-bomber buddy Guido barnstorms the mustangs out of the mountains and into the lassos of Gable and Clift, waiting at the end of a trespass. It's a pretty dirty job and the last horses left are a cute family of a stallion --two mares and a colt --and Mare-lin (get it?) has a nervous breakdown thinking about these poor gorgeous wild and free beasts being ground-up, stacked, and canned (Burton's words for modern humanity in IGUANA) so the boys can continue to get her drunk. A whole reel goes by while the cowpokes tussle over who will release the horses and win MM's favor, or if they just won't and get the money and buy booze and try the long way around.

But for many actors there's a fine line between an actor drinking during shooting--and then acting drunker than he is--and a sober actor playing drunk. The sober actor might get all the motions and slurs right, but the insulated bi-polar aspect--the ability to careen from jubilant to morose, from possessive to ambivalent, from greedy to benevolent from mopey to Zen, like a drunken slalom--can only come from the hearty heart of darkness, the fortified brand, that limits itself to only three drinks before breakfast, just to kill the shakes. And out in the desert heat that kind of buzz-balancing can knock you flat on your dehydrated ass. We know Burton and Huston drank constantly on the set of IGUANA (and Elizabeth came, too). And the actors we see in MISFITS are 'real' drunks, except Wallach. We can feel it. We feel confused, the way as a kid I used to feel when our old neighborhood would have big block parties, somewhat alarmed but also thrilled, to see our parents all start falling off their lawn chairs, hooking up with each other's wives, and belting out slurred folk songs, while the kids roasted marshmallows and smoked punks to keep the mosquitoes away and played kick the can sometimes til dawn all while the parents roared at their endless dirty jokes around the glowng coalss. The parents seemed like they'd all just been in a bad car accident or been hit on the head with baseballs. They lurched wildly and said contradictory things, punishing you for doing something they told you to do mere moments ago, and then forgetting they punished you and giving you sips of their beer, rubbing your head too hard like you were a dog, then pushing you away again.

We were too young to associate the yucky taste of their drinks with their behavior. Why on earth would anyone drink something that made them even more stupid than they were already? Cause and effect of food and drink was not in our grasp. I found out later about how booze is a miracle and would have solved all my problems if I had known earlier... and now the MISFIT-cast's style of drunkenness harkens me back to the days of my childhood, when my parents were crazy ass partiers in their early 30s, and our kitchen looked like the one in MAD MEN.

The main drawback of MISFITS for me is the skeevy presence of Eli Wallach as Guido. Nothing personal against him as an actor; we all love him as Angel Eyes in GOOD, BAD, UGLY and the crafty Sicilian seducer in BABY DOLL, but Guido as a character is grossly repugnant; I don't want to see Wallach in anything for weeks after a MISFITS screening. I want to remove him from the scene, and I feel bad for Thelma Ritter, forced to be the fifth wheel as Monty Clift, Clark Gable, and Wallach all vie for MM's attention. Of course we're not supposed to like Wallach's sociopathic pilot, but if not why are we even hanging out with him? Age is supposed to make people wise, and Wallach seems an odd fit, like if Mrs. Fellowes stayed up with Burton and Deborah Kerr and Ava Gardner in IGUANA, and tried to cockblock them and get Burton in the sack. There's moments when he, say, cuts in on Gable and Monroe dancing where Guido reminds me of De Niro in NEW YORK, NEW YORK where yes, the guy can act and the guy filming him can direct and the writer can write, but they all forgot an essential ingredient: why we should care about an unrepentant asshole? As sensible people we naturally want to ditch them at the bar and bring the cool people home, pick up a quarter keg on the way, and then turn the lights out and tell everyone to be super quiet if they come peering in the window. My drunken posse learned fast how to shuck these wallies so I resent that my loser-ditching skills have no use in excising Guido from the festivities.

I'm prejudiced against the type of course from being in a band in college and having a hot girlfriend and regularly throwing big drunken parties blah blah. I had to regularly fend off the yawning chasms of need that hung around her and pawed the turf and snorted coke through their bovine nostrils and got all mean and grew ugly devil horns after she refused them.  I never liked coke because it turned me too much into a Wallach. I stopped doing it, and had to watch the gorgeous blonde muses go home with dirt bags 'cuz the dirt bags had some. So yeah, I hate the Guidos and the wallies and the dirtbags. And when their scummy bullying come-ons trumped my poet boozer 'never in a million years work up the guts to bust the first move'-busting, I formed a permanent resentment.

And the worst was being stuck with a dirtbag cokehead while tripping, just because were the only ones still awake. It was almost better they hooked up with a hottie and left me to my own late night devices. No good trip can survive ending the night trapped by the feedback white noise squall that was their incessant crankhead chatter and tales of fights they always got into but never started and the various stadium rock shows they saw over the years.

It's not fair of course because for screenwriter Arthur Miller the heat was on to perform as a genius and he must have been suffering from the same anti-wally poison due to being the envy of every man alive via his marriage to Marilyn. As Dr. Hook sand, "When you're in love / with a beautiful woman / you can't keep from cryin'." There's a Charlie McCarthy show episode where Charlie's going to marry Marilyn Monroe (the guest) and the bulk of the show is spent with them listening to the radio as everyone from Arthur Godfrey to the Marines, to Winston Churchill ("never has so much... been taken away from so many... for so little." laments loss of Monroe as a possible bedroom fantasy. Even the justice of the peace tries to steal her away ("Mrs. Monroe, I'm a bachelor steady habits"). Surely the Marines didn't view splintery Arthur Miller as competition any more than they did McCarthy, despite the power of the pen. Guido seems to be the receptacle for all that passive aggressive rage Miller surely felt. I recognize the rage, it's a horrible, powerless feeling. My only strategy was to accidentally spill my drink on their shoes.

Perhaps it's no accident then that Wallach is the only actor still alive in real life as of this writing, as if watching all the other cast members slowly vanish in the desert wind like shimmering horizon angels left him cursed with longevity. The other actors found 'the highway under the big star' and left Eli behind to fly his damned crop duster "without ever being able to land."


Then there are the mustangs: You can wonder why Gable doesn't realize that he, himself, is the reason there are no more wild mustangs in the canyon. His attitude in roping them, so casual about animal life, tells us he's a true cowboy and maybe cowboys--courageous and insane as they are--are all sociopaths. Maybe all hunters and soldiers have to be immune to their fellow creature's suffering just to keep from cryin'. Gable's blind to having drained the mustang bottle but Marilyn knows those poor mustangs are just like her, caught in the thresher of dirtbag desire. The horses bring money for booze which the cowboys feed to her in an effort to get her into bed. Guido then offers to free them if it means her can get her into bed (thus 'landing') which skeeves MM and us all out, and Clift is just too sensitive, like Marilyn, to deal with the pain they cause. He likes her for who she is, not as something to brand.

By all accounts Clift and Monroe were both half out of their minds on booze and pills during the torturously long location shoot and the wild vulnerability they display is not just acting. They'd both be ground up, stacked, and canned before you know it. And the cowboys will be thrown up against the barb wire and neon of the west they've won, and they shall lament there's no more hosses to rope for dog food and the dogs that ate the food there was are all dead from old age and there you are. That's progress, like the westward expansion that reaped the dust bowl. The whole final segment of roping the mustangs and Marilyn Monroe freaking out with those big doe eyes running the bi-polar gamut is so painful I had to walk away from it, keep it running on the DVR and come back in time for that brilliant final fade-out, with Gable and Monroe driving 'home' - wherever that is. No credits, no music, no... nothing. It's not perfect as a film but as death's desert Christmas card it's ripe with transcendental mythic inscrutability and that alone makes it a quiet, drunken, desperate little triumph. Set it free, set them all free, like Monroe and Clift and Gable are free, and play God here tonight. Marilyn! You are avenged!


  1. Wow. I really need to see this film.

  2. Eric I live to read these posts of yours...this particular one on The Misfits is nothing short of great! Your personal insight matched by the candid nature of how these films speak to you is how films should be reviewed...I have been watching the misfits for years and never grasped the full scope of it until reading this...don't ever stop writing my friend you are an original.