Psychedelic Film Criticism for the Already Deranged

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. Now that we can diagnose and prescribe meds for these sorts of problems, the old school booze and tranquilizer self-medication regimen isn't as respected as it used to be. And then there's death, where madness and marriage are finally reconciled, but where the 'Now' we are in is terrified to look, much more terrified than we were back in 1961, when atomic annihilation seemed ever only a moment away. Booze and benzo binoculars helped us stare straight on into the void; now with all these new 'scrips we can't even remember where that damn void is. But hey, man, MISFITS gets all that, and the wild horses are a handy catch-all metaphor for Woman, for Marilyn as both the cherry atop our collective American dream and its hungover, melancholic morning after. She gets all that, too, or at least Henry Miller gets her, and not in a vindictive Welles cutting off Rita's hair and dying it blond for LADY FROM SHANGHAI sort of way, either. He gets both her full mythic American mirage dimension and the intelligent would-be beatnik underneath it, trying to escape from her own demons as well as ours and finding no jelly donuts, only death...

But it's Death that must be acknowledged first and foremost if Marilyn is to come into focus. Death, the ultimate marital therapist, hangs over THE MISFITS like a windless, gnat-filled haze, death and the maiden of madness, and if you've never had to face death yourself--i.e. in a war, hospital, or crematorium--booze can 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 link of death to the activities of all men, be they whalers or iguana wranglers or prospectors or boxers or detectives. Huston's great literary drunkenness is of the sort one sees in WWI pilots in 1930s movies, the kind only facing death, and seeing your friends die in flames, can otherwise bring.

The similarity of MISFIT's freeing-the-horses climax to Richard Burton cutting loose the titular lizard in Huston's NIGHT OF THE IGUANA (1957) 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 soul of the world.  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 through a few more lifetimes.

The plots of IGUANA and MISFITS are almost comically nonexistent. In the latter, Gable, along with fellow cowboy Montgomery Clift, ropes wild mustangs in the Nevada desert to sell to a dog food conglomerate. His ex-bomber buddy Guido barnstorms them down 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 now the horses are almost wiped out, and the last horses left are a cute family of a stallion --two mares and a colt. But Marilyn 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 enough to maybe sleep with them. A whole reel goes by while the cowpokes tussle over who will release the horses and win MM's favor while she convulses in empathic-neurotic pain, as do we. But on the vast flat plain, her dramatic tantrums seem lost in the wind. Was this, at last, the moment of sabotage Miller planned? By now, I'm fairly sure, Huston hated her for holding up filming so many times. But her character is a mess, a drunk same as the rest, so what the hell were you expecting? To gentle her down real nice with the right halter?

It's a tricky line between  a sober actor playing drunk and an actor drinking during shooting and then acting drunker (or less drunk) than he or she is. 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 itself, the fortified brand of drinking that limits itself to only three drinks before breakfast, just to kill the shakes, you understand? (I can quit anytime, etc.) 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 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 Guido, but if not why are we even hanging out with him? Age is supposed to make people wise, and Guido seems an odd fit, like if Mrs. Fellowes stayed up with Shannon and, Maxine, and Miss Jelks in IGUANA and tried to cockblock them and get Burton in the sack herself. There's moments when he 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? As sensible people we naturally want to ditch guys like Guido at the bar, so we sneak out while he's in the bathroom, pick the cool people back with us, pick up a quarter keg on the way, and then turn the lights out and tell everyone to be super quiet if he comes peering in the window and/or knocking.  I resent that Miller underestimates my wally-shucking acumen!

(POST-SCRIPT 7-5-15- Interestingly, I'm half-watching this again on TCM and not getting this skeevy Wallach vibe at all. It's clearer that he respects both the boundary of Gable-Monroe [who've been living together a week between their first trip to the half-finished house, and the day of the rodeo, which I missed in the past] and he's nice to Thelma Ritter --together they're like the fifth business of the play - the secondary romance between the man's butler and the maiden's maid, so to speak, though they're just buddies, his bemused tolerance of her bespeaks to his character- though he gets skeevy later it's still nice to see him less loathsome than I recall via this post)

Too confess, I guess I developed a deep Guido hatred 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, with their denim jackets and terrible townie teeth, that hung around her and clawed the turf and snorted coke through their bovine nostrils and got all mean and grew ugly devil horns after I cut in and/or kicked them out. Fuckin' cocaine, man. I'll confess, it turned me too much into a sociopathic Angel Eyes  myself--made me feel like a sweaty rapey Guido waiting to happen. I stopped doing it, and as a result had to watch most of my gorgeous blonde muses go home with dirt bags 'cuz the dirt bags had some and I didn't and they wanted some more. 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 you and he 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 clenched jaw chatter and tales of fights they always got into but never started and the various stadium rock shows they saw over the years, zzzz.

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. In the words of Dr. Hook, "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 and they wind up on the run, chased by legions of angry soldiers and sailors, listening to the radio as everyone on every channel chimes in, from Arthur Godfrey ("by golly, there'll be no commercials today") to Winston Churchill ("never has so much... been taken away from so many... for so little.") 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 against all the slavering legions. I sympathize. It's a horrible, powerless feeling. My only strategy by the end 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. Clift looks like shit and seems super out of it even before he's kicked by a bull, like "that bull had the whole Milky Way in its hoof!" And the Marlboro cowboys all thrown up against the barb wire tracheotomies of Reno, legs wrapped up in kids' paddleball strings, noses bloody from getting kicked by bucking broncos, faces paralyzed in car accidents, faces bloated by booze and "another roll of pills"-- 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 bi-polar doe eyes 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' towards wherever far off star. 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 drunken, desperate little triumph. Set it free, Shannon, set them all free, like Monroe, Clift and Gable and the iguana and mustangs are set finally free, and play God here tonight. Run, Marilyn! Run for the hills before the Giancana beach boy's cannibal hot pots claim your sweet gropeworthy fetlocks!


  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.