Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception... for a better now

Monday, April 11, 2011

Mendacity A-Go-Go: Liz vs. the Little Monsters

I'll never forgive Richard Brooks for the Gaspar Noe-ish ending of LOOKING FOR MR. GOODBAR (1977, my review here), but his unflinching eye comes in handy when dealing with  the mythic component of Tennessee Williams, and his dispassionate objectification of Paul Newman's unnerving sexuality and Roman statue profile has a unique fetishistic kick perfectly in line with Williams' rough trade tendencies. In CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF (1958) and in the undervalued SWEET BIRD OF YOUTH (1962), Brooks finds in Newman the gay eye candy grand prize of Williams' hard drinking man-children, then lets genius character actors bounce off the bronze.

But the big early scene in ROOF of Maggie chattering away and Brick just drinking and laying around, muttering passive-aggressive things like "Do they, Maggie?" infuriates me, every time, and keeps me from loving the film like I love NIGHT OF THE IGUANA or SUDDENLY LAST SUMMER. Newman seems neither drunk nor closeted, and Taylor seems too poised and mannered to be really in heat. By comparison, dig up the old Showtime production with Jessica Lange (above) and Tommy Lee Jones! I haven't seen it since it premiered on cable in the 80s--but I watched it a peck of times back then: a young, pre-celebrity Lange is damn hot in the negligee dress, and Jones mixes it up with Lang and Rip Torn's Big Daddy with a cagey weariness that Newman lacks in Brooks' version.

I know it's sacrilege but Liz and Paul seem to lack connective chemistry; it's strange to me that the long Brick-Maggie bedroom scene is the most famous and recognized part of ROOF (not so strange perhaps considering how hot Liz looks straining at the seams of her white negligee) yet easily the weakest. Maybe I'm off the mark but for me this isn't a boozy romantic drama with closet undertones as much as tale of masculine redemption: Newman and Burl Ives slay me every time in the heavy showdown in the troll king basement that comes towards the end, and the real scene-stealer is Jack Carson who--when he finally lets some tears show in his voice, some realness instead of this 'boomer' good son-facade--levies such a gentle shock to the film it sheds its whole other skin. Carson seems so honestly frail in this one moment, warts and all, that the rest of the film fades around him suddenly in a mendaciously artificial overacting haze.

Fault it as you may for the now family therapy 101 moments of dialogue and symbolism (the crutch and alcohol, stairs, the ice cream, the unending shrillness of Boomer's one-note wife), but it's the kind of film that holds your hand and invites you to peer--without maudlin weepiness--deep into the harrowing void of mortality the way few films have done before or since. And if you have a dad with cancer who you all call 'Big Daddy' who has a bit of a Welles or Ives gravitas then you will, like me, be devastated down in that basement. The upstairs may be artificial and stifling, burdened with half-assed southern accents and shrill bombast, but down in that basement cobwebs and Cooks' Tour souvenirs, we're privy to something truly titanic: the bloody, pugnacious, tenacious process by which father and son help each other shed their stifling masks and genuinely connect. The sudden coherence of Brick, as if he went through ten years of therapy on his way down the stairs, may not be realistic, but Newman has never been realistic, he'd too godlike for that. It works. Why bother with realism down in the troll king basement? No women are there with their brassy monotone drawls, nor screeching kids. 

Thanks to an ingenious piece of art direction which magically takes cobwebs and antiques and weaves a dense stalactite-bedecked underworld for them to stagger in, what could be just a cliche'd rendition of Charles Foster Kane's big ole statue depository becomes truly mythic in all six senses of the word, with Burl Ives as a kind of pot-bellied troll king and Newman down there with a hypodermic torch to beseech some magic exchange. There's moments for Burl and Paul to each smash stuff in a clutching heart attack way as their illusions of immortality and glory are dashed on the altar of passing time, irrelevance, the horror of all existence, and then are redeemed, sweaty and wrecked, by the icky area they fear and recoil from the most --genuine feeling and human love.  And you know that, in the drug-hip universe of Williams, a hypodermic full of morphine resting on a crate isn't just a symbol; it's something to drool over. Even if neither dad nor son ever finally shoots it, the drugs do their magic.
Drugs don't help you escape from reality in a Williams effort, they help you confront it head on.

Wait, which reality are we talking about? Not the 9-5 family values no-neck monster reality--it helps turn down the volume on that--but the 'holy shit here comes the scythe' mortal coil shuffle reality. In Williams' plays, its the whole mindless reproductive Christian-patriarchal family dynamic that's an escape from the inescapable gravity of death. And if you don't make amends and whatever else you have to do to prepare of it, and do it now, you're fucked. 

And incessant off-key renditions of "Dixie" are not amends. 

I've had those breakthroughs before with my own big daddy, maybe you have too -- the late night boozy moments of truth when you can look at him and suddenly see--instead of a paragon or symbol of authority--a frail, aging human like yourself, not a reflection of you, but a version of the same creature you are --ever trying to escape his lack of future by ignoring his foggy present. And if alcoholism runs in your veins you can bond quite well until the hungover morning when you scarcely remember the progress you made --but hey, you made it. Deep down, behind the veil of mist, you know it happened.  Like many of Williams' plays, it seems made for me, made for a brooding drunk writer by a brooding drunk writer - with booze as the thing that both gives you the brio to stare into that void, and at the same time shorten the distance to the bottom, where the teeth are, in the base of the Sebastian's Venus fly trap garden. Click!

I wonder if the whole first half is intentionally shrill for just this purpose, meant to wear you down with the constant songs sung by the no-neck monsters to welcome Big Daddy home. We identify totally with Brick hiding out in the bedroom, as Taylor's Maggie rants on and on in her flat, mannered drawl. And we identify with Big Daddy when he rejects the ugly brood of Gooper for Maggie's hip convertible, and his irritation with the non-stop dinner songs which his wife makes such a show of enjoying. There's also no accident that the ROOF is in the title, as the different levels of the family estate are packed with meaning, from the elevation of the bedroom and its deceptive luxury (Big Daddy wants a son but momma "hates locks on doors") to the lowest ebb of the basement and the killing floor living room and the convertible quicksand driveway. And when the children go off to bed, and the drama starts in earnest, we above all note the the quietude like a weight removed from our shoulders when their no-neck noise caterwauling ceases at last. It's that 'click' Brick was waiting for. And now we realize we too were waiting for it.

The rejection of messy children is one of the few things I connect with in the Apollonian, as per Camille Paglia, vs. the chthonic. Gayness has been one-note in the media since Williams' day, and thanks to PC indoctrination, homosexuals are now depicted as just the opposite of the fey aesthetes they were in the 1950s; now they're just saintly victims longing to become legally-wed adoptive parents. Either/or but on no level are homosexuals allowed to be properly ambiguous: mercurial, both good and bad, like everything else on this fucked-up planet. A negative portrayal will get you a sack full of angry letters; a positive portrayal a snoozing audience and bizarre Christian right wing protests. Can you win? Williams, even back here in the 50s, wins easily, by giving us complexity.

Few artists today bother to try, to plumb the depths that Camille Paglia writes about in her Sexual Personae, to explore gayness as the rejection of the feminine body, the denial of procreation and all the messy morasses and fairy bower quicksand pits that slow time to a crawl. For me and a very few others, the whole media portrayal in things like TV's American Family and The L Word are deeply offensive because they are a betrayal of all that was good and pure about the Williams' aesthetic. Now everyone's a breeder, queer eye or no, and kids are saints by default, suffocated in round-the-clock hyper-monitoring even as their parents aren't home (they have to work overtime to afford nannies and after-pre-school sewing lessons).

In that sense, it's illuminating that Brick--who may or may not have fooled around with his late pal Skipper-- is the only one to ask "why!?" in relation to Big Daddy's edict to reproduce. He has a point and it's a harrowing one: why bother to procreate just so some idiotic legacy of wealth and possessions can go on? Where's the meaning?

As someone who reacts with  mute horror to the surplus of children in my Park Slope neighborhood, I relate to Brick's question; and as someone who, because he has no kids, I get to stare into the terrifying mortal mirror without the worry being channeled into anxiety about providing for the kids after I'm gone; and as an alcoholic writer aware of the repulsion aspect of sexuality on a visceral level,  I relate to Liz's scheming to keep the no-neck monsters off that nice piece of land. Like her I want to drown them in ice cream, choke them on their own stupid toy guns..

Looking at the film in relation to Williams' other works we see a running theme of the grabby, uncouth, poor relations who breed willy nilly and are a pox upon the land. Against this grain, this unceasing flow of children into the future, stand a few 'whole' souls, beautiful people, like Maggie and Brick, Blanche Dubois, Mrs. Stone, Violet Venable, Rev. T.L. Shannon, and a boozy actress named Alexandra Del Lago.

God bless this old era,when Tennessee Williams was as hot onscreen and stage as pocket edition Freud was in the bookstores. A time when cigarettes, the Kinsey Report, whiskey highballs, and contract bridge made a nation more alive to the truth and ambivalent about the blind procreative drive.  Maybe one day we will once again have another Tennessee Williams to steer us into some actual dialogue with our own tragic genetic imperatives, to embrace the terrifying gaze of the Apollonian eye instead of just aping the most banal of suburban values. Until then, mendacity will remain so common as to be unnoticed, and sexual risk takers will die, whether by AIDS, psychopathic hustlers, or terminal big daddy cancer. Won't someone not think of the children, just for a couple hours, and smoke a goddamned cigarette, or stoke that morphine shot Big Daddy doesn't seem to want, so we can talk like high adults?

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