Wednesday, September 07, 2011

The War Against Normal: A STRAW DOGS remake and LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN

I just saw there's a remake of Sam Peckinpah's great misunderstood masterpiece STRAW DOGS. Take a look at this poster:
First of all, what is up with that reflection of a face when we can see clearly that the chunk of glasses where said reflection would be has broken off? Did this guy get a tattoo of a dude's face on his eye? Did only his reverse clip-on shades get broken? See the original poster below and wonder to yourself what kind of poster artist would think lenses that have broken off still reflect?

And of course, no crap remake poster would be the same without a meaningless tag line. Are they asking us or telling us about this breaking point? Have they tested every man for one? What about women?  Sexist bastards.... Deconstructed, the tag intends to align the viewer with 'everyone' - indicating the sneering contempt the copywriter feels for their target demographic: "Don't worry, the hero of this movie isn't going to get pushed around for long!" Chances are the author of that tag didn't even see it, or the original, or any movie made before 1993, the year punk broke! 

The original poster was terrifying since if you look at Dustin's expression it's calm, even smiling, and compacted down to resemble Roman Polanski after a night of some energy expenditure. His eye behind the broken glass is dead like a shark's, or as if its been gouged out at the pre-photoshop art department then pasted back in by a nervous intern hoping the boss wouldn't notice. Yet he's smiling.

The weird thing is most people don't realize that Peckinpah considered Dustin's STRAW DOG math professor 'everyman' (who breaks the point and kills a bunch of locals to protect a child murderer), to be the bad guy, a self-satisfied liberal who considers himself six cuts above the riff-raff of the icky rural England locale that he settles in with his hot young wife (Susan George). See, she's easily the cutest bird inside a 60 mile radius of this Cornwall dump. She was born there so everyone knows her; she even left behind several strapping ex-boyfriends when she escaped. Now she's back. Some call this a rape-revenge film, but Hoffman never finds out about her being raped (by her ex-boyfriend and his sadistic pal after they trick Dustin into going quail hunting with them and leave him stranded way out in the middle of nowhere, then double back to the alone and kinda terrified George) and his refusal to turn the caught-red-handed pederast (David Warner) over to the mob for a right proper lynching is what sets the bloodbath in motion. Mostly, I'm betting Hoffman goes ballistic because of the dead cat (discovered hanging in the closet) - that would surely get me fired up too. If someone killed my cat I'd probably raze the whole town.

Long lumped by the literally-minded critics (how small town riff-raffish of them!) in the category of vengeful ass-kickers like Buford Pusser in WALKING TALL, and Cameron Mitchell in any AIP biker film, one can only assume the complex shadings of self-righteous lefty nerd narcissism in Hoffman's smug everyman will be weeded out in the remake until he's American Average like "everyone" with their "breaking points."

I've been reading the new Pauline Kael collection, so forgive me if I sound astringent, but apparently the idea that the one educated man who stands alone against the many armed yokels might actually be the bad guy (or at least not a cut-and-dry hero) in a film is beyond the average (petit-bourgeois) movie critic unless it's spelled out with ominous music cues and sudden outbursts of misogynistic violence. It hasn't been done to death so they don't believe it even exists. The fools! The bombastic ignoramuses!

And then there's the reverse: sometimes the villain everyone presumes is evil is actually the only sane, sympathetic person around!

Kim Morgan and the Self-Styled Siren discuss one such film, LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN (1945) across both Kim Morgan's site, Sunset Gun, and Siren's classic self-titled blog, and the realization that Gene Tierney's murderous bride is actually the complex heroine of the film, which is a kind of horror story about a beautiful bi-polar artist who gets trapped in a stiflingly normal marriage with a husband who hides behind Norman Rockwell facades and close extended family sing-a-longs to avoid being intimate (hinting he might not even know he's really gay). Here's a sample from Morgan's side: 
Gene/Ellen is a modern type of woman, a poetic, ingenious woman, and I always get the sense that her inner struggle to express whatever power or talent she has, well beyond her beauty, is pure torture. Many may look in her eyes and see cold orbs of hate, but I see… Wagner's entire Ring Cycle, and beautiful, damnable Richard W. seems especially appropriate since, for some crazy reason, he also managed to write, in 'Lohengrin,' 'Here Comes the Bride' amidst his Götterdämmerung. 
Is this an excuse for her dastardly acts? No, but she does serve to symbolize every trapped, powerful woman flapping around her white picket fenced-in bird cage. That war raging inside her twists into a a full-scale blitzkrieg on the… normal people. Her revenge is her final work of art! Her masterpiece! (more here - Siren)
 And from la Siren:
I always wait for that staircase, for Gene hurling herself down it after carefully leaving one slipper on the top step, like a psychopathic Cinderella. It's a wicked act, but she tells Ruth just before she does it, "sometimes the truth IS wicked." Along with Mildred Pierce, Leave Her to Heaven dares to go down some dark maternal byways, into things some may feel, but no one wants to admit--in this case, pregnancy as a cage, one that's about to slam shut for oh, about 21 years. Ellen's on bedrest, its own kind of "Yellow Wallpaper" hell. (Those insipid posies on Ellen's dressing-room wallpaper could drive a lot of women to the brink.) Look at what she's doing beforehand. She's talking to her own sister about the stroll the girl just took with her husband. Couldn't Richard be upstairs talking to his wife? Making sure she isn't bored and terrified, instead of taking it for granted for that she's rubbing her belly and practicing lullabies? So she grabs her most beautiful robe, and re-applies her lipstick, and she even puts on perfume--because she's about to go back to Ellen, the beauty, and leave behind Ellen, the terrarium. (More here / Sunset Gun)
"Psychopath Cinderella" - awesome. And here's something I wrote (link here) on the same subject for Bright Lights in March of 2010 when Film Forum screened LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN for a special week-long revival screening:
Wilde's straight-edge kid brother gets killed first after he decides to hang around the lodge like a third wheel albatross on Ellen’s neck. The way Stahl frames this event, in the peace and quiet of the lake,  makes a great ironic comment on the production code-approved craze for “discovering the great national parks” that was going on all over cinema in the late 1940s, early 1950s. I always root for Tierney in these scenes. I too know the frustration of having to run a cock-blocking gauntlet of resentfully undersexed friends and relatives every time you want to get your lover up to bed, or having to drag your urbane self out to buggy campsites to pacify your spouse’s yen for convention.

The drowning of the brother is nothing compared to the glorious moment when Gene throws herself down the stairs to induce a miscarriage (Wilde must have waited until she was ovulating to slip her one). That's incredibly hard to do, and I think it's heroic, in its own twisted way, symbolic of her yen for flight and mastery over her own self-preservation instincts (I tried to throw myself down the stairs every week as a kid, to avoid soccer practice, and just physically couldn't--my body wouldn't let me).  Meanwhile if Wilde had bothered to pay attention to her in bed and maybe even give her an orgasm, none of this mayhem may have been necessary.

If we, living as relatively relative free as we do today, were suddenly stuck in a post-code extended family Americana hell hole like Gene's in HEAVEN, would we act any different? Or would we just quietly disappear–like Lea Massari in L’AVENTURA (1960)– before the bores could catch us and smother us back into Stepfordville? Maybe I’m just unusually squirrelly when it comes to the sorts of color schemes at work in the film; as Village Voice scribe Melissa Anderson notes, the color scheme “redefines mauve.” I hate mauve. It's telling that  Gene, whom Anderson calls “one of cinema’s most chilling psychopaths,” grew up with an intellectual, adventurous father who raised her far outside the claustrophobically chipmunk cheeked tedium of “sanitized” American small town life,  No wonder she can't adapt! Like those poor once-professionally employed heroines who had to give up their jobs, get married, and dutifully cook, clean, and obey their husbands, once the code took effect in 1934.
Where I’m going with all this is to analyze the ultimately corrupting nature of post-1934 cinema’s phony morals; the “as long as you feel bad about it, it’s okay to kill” sort of compromise with the censors. You can see this in two roles played by Winona Ryder: HEATHERS, with Winona's refusal to 'enjoy' the killing of the evil jocks and janes nonetheless orchestrated by herself and Slater; and SEX AND DEATH 101 (which I decried in "Why Can't We All Just Morally Compromise - Bright Lights 4/10/08), where she only drugs her sleazy would-be lovers into a restful coma from which they awake at the happy ending. We need more LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN-style sociopaths, by which I man girls with cajones enough kill those who would hobble and baby them with prefab beige rusticity, and critics with the cajones to applaud them, to see purveyors of mauve domesticity as just as deserving of death as cannibal rapists. We had THELMA AND LOUISE to inspire us in this way for awhile in the early 90s, but somehow the drippy third wave feminism of Sex and the City gourmet shopping swept over that fire like a flood of designer bottled water and soggy Stepford ash is all that remains. 
Figures like Gene are essential because they blur the line of good and evil, and help us extoll revenge using art. A murder in the movies is not the same as real life, so let it be cathartic and wild. In this sense Ellen is just such a wild  artist, a frustrated panther goddess trapped in the hell of some L.L. Bean adman’s pre-presentation nightmare and busting out of the net through any means necessary. It’s just too bad she couldn’t take a few more of those little bastards out before the inevitable mauve ocean swallowed her in its tranq dart credits. 

That may sound hardcore, but I embrace the Camille Paglia/ Nietzschean vantage point --beyond good and evil, baby. So how about a LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN remake, directed by Darren Aronofsky, starring Vera Farmiga as Ellen/Gene Berent? And thank God that there are still women out there like Kim and la Siren who aren't scared to call a spade a spade, and then bury you with it.  Sometimes when life gives you lemons it's far more noble--well, not noble, but certainly more exciting and cinematic--to put them in a pillowcase and beat someone up with them than to make lemonade... especially if you're all out of sugar. Ellen is all out of sugar, America,  so take your lumps!


  1. The original "Straw Dogs" is one of those films I've always wanted to see.
    Usually listed among the most controversial films of all time...

    I think I'll start with the original, when I choose to give it a go.

  2. Believe it or not,there was a made for TV remake of Leave Her To Heaven starring...Loni Anderson!!!!! I dare you to seek it out and I rather suspect you will!
    As for the Straw Dogs remake- like many such things,I avoided it -never want to see it. You don't mess with Sam!

  3. Additional condolences for your having to read Pauline Kael.


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