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

Friday, August 05, 2011

The Incredible Melting Marlon (REFLECTION IN A GOLDEN EYE)

"It just occurred to me, you don't believe I want to repent, is that it? Did it ever occur to you that some people might be all repentance and no sin? I may start a mission to help your kind. Come all ye repentants and let us bring a little sin into your lives." -- Sky Masterson (Guys and Dolls)

It's hard to believe the same actor who played Sky Masterson so nimbly in the film version of GUY AND DOLLS would want to suffer through something so repressed as the role of Major Pendleton in REFLECTIONS IN A GOLDEN EYE (1967). Psychosexually Freudian in the extremis, it's from a time (McCullers wrote it in the 1940s) when there was no 'out' of the closet without beatings and jail time. Repression cooked our literature in its egg.

I'd love to love this film, as I love most of John Huston's work and it has so many things going for it, but in the end REFLECTIONS reveals a sad, un-sordid truth: not all Southern Gothic Freudian hothouse pulp has aged as well as as others. The difference between Carson McCullers and her roster of closeted social misfits vs. those of her friend, the great Tennessee Williams, is as sweaty summer when it's too hot to move vs. a cool evening with mint julep and minimal mosquitoes. I'd rather watch Richard Burton swill his way through the scenery in NIGHT OF THE IGUANA for the 37th time than watch Brando soak up the masochistic vapors while his wild stallion wife Liz Taylor (her best line, whispered into Marlon's ear: "Son, were you ever taken out in the street and thrashed by a naked woman?") cavorts with (an equally-unhappily) married (to a bonkers Julie Harris) Lt. Colonel (Brian Keith). Meanwhile a doe-eyed private (Robert Forster) rides naked on her horse and breaks into her room to smell her underwear drawer while she sleeps (Brando is of course in a separate bedroom). In his repressed funk, Brando's Major Pendleton mistakes the stalker private's attentions as queer signals towards his own sweaty, obsessive self. Tragedy, of course, ensues.

There's lots of flustered, coded triangles with old McCullers and her tales of sweaty misbegotten love-starved obsessives, yet for all its litany of perversions and Baby's First Freud symbolism, GOLDEN EYE all rawther airless. The title refers to an idol, unmoving, dead, but all-seeing. Such is the major, or maybe the sun, or, well, you know how dirty double entendres are the very core and existence of the South (I shudder to guess the hidden urethra meaning). Tennessee Williams would have flushed out the mythic connections for Huston, made the thing a wee clearer, so that the mythic dimension vibrant, relevant, alive with cognizance of mortality and archetypal forces. Here the mythic 'eye' component seems like an afterthought, something dead and only briefly unburied before paraded listlessly around the pasture. The story seems to be content with a through-line of horsey-riding sex symbolism that's almost as overwrought and existentially nauseating as EQUUS.

Any similarity to the hindquarters of a horse is strictly intentional.
It behooves us to remember how the whole Freud analysis thing had swelled to super hugeness in the States, thanks to the Kinsey Report. That book helped create the kind of robust sexual unbridling that Huston embodied in real life before and after but, as a director, he depended on a source novel and screenwriter who had, as he himself had done, faced danger on its own terms, either via a war, or bullfighting, or whaling, hunting tigers, or guzzling booze, or facing homophobia with a careless shrug. Huston needed a soul able to write the kind of gutsy harpoon-in-the-eye-of-god prose Huston was at his best when filming. McCullers may have suffered terrible illnesses and a lavender marriage but if you're all closeted and repressed and horny and sober and sweaty in your little Filipino houseboy-molesting, nipple-mutilating, cocktails-and-hysteria fashion, why even bother setting your mess in a military school at all? And if it's not going to heat to a boil and runneth over into lurid murders and mob violence, why stage it in the deep South? Here there's not much to suggest more than a low simmer of surface kinkiness, and-- immediately upon boiling--the film concludes.

And why put Marlon Brando in a role that wastes his talents? Where be his thunderous Marc Antony monologue moment? If you go to the Preakness, do you want to see the best horse just stand still and stare longingly at a carrot? Not that Brando's sad little bits of business at the big 'finally, some gay sex' climax aren't brilliantly underplayed, deeply sad, and bitterly hilarious, but they come too late. And then it ends abruptly with a ghastly bit of repetitive panning camera and onscreen text from the book that tries to be horrific and ironic but is just clumsy.

The eye offends thee, no?
The side cast tries their best to humanize these lurid stock types: Harris, a constant scenery-nibbler, plays the wife who cut off her nipples with garden shears (awhile before the film begins), and who engages in god knows what with her weird Filipino valet houseboy; together they have turned against her cuckolding military husband (but which came first, the infidelity or the reason?). Keith does okay as the indulgent witness and victim of the conspiratorial bond between this female Prospero and her gay Filipino Ariel (he's fine with it as it allows him to scamper off to rendezvous in the hay with Liz). Forster is appropriately inscrutable as the underwear-sniffing (straight) bareback rider and Brando has one great termite moment: when he's about to give a lecture on Patton to his gathered cavalry cadets. Suddenly the romance and resonance attached to a great cavalryman like Patton sinks into him and he almost cries, right there in class. For a minute it looks like his whole head is melting down like golden psychedelic spiral sludge. His eyes and lips spread out in a horizontal puddle of darkness and his lips pour over the sides like Donald Duck through a very gradual...  steam....   roller.

Oh Sky, if only you opened that mission....

1 comment:

  1. A very brave and insightful film that dares confront the unconcious repressions of frightened "film critics" such as yourself...


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