Psychedelic Film Criticism for the Already Deranged

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Born to be Childless

(Note: Spoiler Alerts)
Oh what a difference sobriety (and age) makes. Seeing Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf on the big screen while not drunk (for the first time) has helped me see that beneath the film's boozy bravado is the terror of living life as a childless couple, growing old without children to block the vanishing point on the Grim Reaper's scythe swipe horizon. Taylor and George Segal have the 'animal magnetism' - the drive to claw your way up the orgasm-dancing spasm ladder - while Dennis and Burton play solo games of "peel the label" as the drunken dreamers (Dennis is already deeply sunk into the game before Segal catches on). Dennis' hysterical pregnancy mirrors Burton's murderous telegram (examples of 'kill your darlings' editorial ruthlessness-essential for good writer, terrible for a social animal trying to get ahead). Taylor is ferocious, Segal smug and bewildered, but Dennis is irrepressible, her innocent, booze-fueld bulimic-alcoholic (bucolic) mania the upward flip side of Burton's booze-fueled depression. I'd love to see a two-handed gender neutral version where the same actor plays both Burton and Dennis' parts, and the other Taylor and Segal's. Think about it, Wooster Gruppe!


I'm childless myself, and feel blessed I've never let myself get misty about it. One regrets either decision, as Socrates would say. If we regret now (young parents unable to get any sleep, peace or privacy while childless couples run wild and free), we don't regret it later (dying alone, undiscovered 'til the neighbors smell the corpse, like poor Yvette Vickers) but that's show biz. Divorced, better, best and bested, I know lots of other childless folks and we all struggle with it as we pass "the point of no return" Of course it's different for guys, but still... It's a little more acceptable now, but still... for dear old George and Martha, having no doubt married in the conservative 1950s, it has to be a bit of a sore spot, hence the creation of their imaginary child, the little bugger (though they keep it to themselves). And yet, just as the bugger is imaginary, so too is the ominous specter of the furred and fanged Woolf (pictured left) who looms over the film like an ominous towering menace.

If this blog entry seems a little whacked, forgive me. It's soggy and warm outside and after a stretch of biting cold, my body is reeling in a cosmic puppy dance of uncertainty and emotional ping-pong. Such spontaneous, seemingly off the cuff--even cheeky--ramblings seems only too pertinent when attempting to discuss such a sprawling masterpiece as Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, wherein great gobs of mythopoetically psychohistorical insight come ripping across the screen in torrents, braying and guzzling, melons bobbling, trailing clouds of booze exhaust. In the newest DVD transfer, things are so sharp and clear you can see the spittle in her mouth. Wait, did I say that already? You can see Blonde on Blonde hanging on the wall in their house and Another Side of Bob Dylan hanging at the inn. Was that a thing or did the set decorator have a Dylan crush? It was the season. Have I been repeating myself again? Hannah? Hannah? Oh yeah, Hannah is in Night of Iguana! (pictured at right). Life's a half-familiar song a drunken fiddler plays / staggering merrily along / crooked alleyways.

I wish there were more films with dialogue by Albee or Williams - playwrights, y'know? These were men who knew how to find the nuggets of truth and wisdom amidst the leavings of their rampaging drunken demons. Writers can't get that high anymore thanks to smoking bans and, I hate to say it, the fact that most such drunk playwrights are now British and they've done too much ecstasy in the 90s to think as clearly --they shall be nameless, the bobbleheads ('hic').

But even if we only had this one work, no matter how much tripe the Taylor-Burton pair bond may have served up in their onscreen time together, they'll always be forgiven, and rightly. Even if Woolf was the only film they ever made together they would deserve undying reverence, of the true king not bourgeois grant-bestowing style reverence, m'lord, but mud in the grindstone gears earth mother reverence.

Luckily they made one more film based on a good play together, Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew, and some decent camp, like Dr. Faustus and The Sandpiper. That's better than a child any day. Films are immortal and sometimes anamorphic, kids just get uglier, and then morph blurrily into teenagers. What if you have a son and it grows up... you know, drinking bergen? Hazmat crew, take me away!

2 comments:

  1. joseph Aisenberg21 April, 2012

    I like this piece, especially for the phrase, "torrents of Taylor". I don't actually think I've ever seen the movie drunk! But I did see it for the first time skipping school on an afternoon showing on cinemax, while my grandmother napped nearby. I'd been wanting to see it ever since my aunt told me how terrible she thought it was: just a couple alcoholics cursing at one another for two hours straight, which of course I thought sounded awesome. Dennis is amazing, but Liz is the one that holds the whole thing together; Burton is good too, though I think he's a bit too much the fancy Shakespearean actor. I never really believed in his passivity. That means that the only thing you can think about him is that he really did marry her because he liked her monstrously vicious discombobulation. No one I've read before has ever noted that one of the books on the shelves over their bed is The Tin Drum, about a child who decides never to grow up.

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  2. Burton's peformance is, I realized on a millionth viewing, a slow burn fuse - he's only passive at the beginning when they're preparing to what he thinks is going to bed, another pair of tired old faculty people. But once the hard drinking and jealous threat perception take hold he gradually spreads out his Mephistophelean wings... There's several moments when they almost call it a draw but then she pushed another button and he escalates as she does. His performance is so larger than life I think you can read it a lot of ways, ala your perceptive Tin Drum comment, but I think he put a bit of gradual escalation, some good ebb and flow - he is a bit passive, but he's learned you have to pick your attacks and retreats with Martha, who seems to have boundless feral energy. He's the only thing close to a worthy opponent she can find.

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