Sunday, April 29, 2012

Iguanas and Mustangs

"When you're in love with a beautiful woman / you can't keep from cryin'" - 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 often maligned in snootier film criticism as 'uneven'. It's like a bi-polar character written for a bi-polar actress by her bi-polar ex-husband can't get a break in this square ass bourgeois town. Now that we can diagnose and prescribe SSRIs for these sorts of mental dysfunctions, perhaps the problems seem one of acting or writing rather than the deep psychic rifts they were. The old school booze and tranquilizer self-medication regimen isn't as respected as it used to be, alas. The hip Critics able to recognize the fearless genius of bringing her own madness to bear on her performance --leaning into it rather than trying to overcompensate. Critics today feel strange about applauding her bravery rather trying to prescribe her lithium. They don't see how she's staring into death in her way --three of the four leads would soon be dead and the movie seemed somehow to know it. But I guess it's no longer 'cool' to confront death like a kid slamming into an oncoming wave at the beach. That wave might have an undertow, Johnny! You're not to fight waves anymore. Fighting is wrong! 

But the hep cats amongst us know death is where madness and marriage are finally reconciled but the 'now' we are in is much more terrified than we were back in 1961 when atomic annihilation seemed only a motion away. Now it's less about mortality and more about inclusion and representation, of strength and unity. Death barely factors into 'Big Art' cinema at all, unless it's too have a funeral and scenes of crying while watching old home movie loops of some backyard picnic, freeze-framing on your dead daughter while the tacky Howard Shore music moans and minor keys its way deep into your, you know, your heart?

Once upon a time, though, unrestricted booze, cigarettes, uppers and downers access helped great white male (GWM) writers and directors to see into the void without flinching. Titans like Hawks, John Huston, Tennessee Williams, Eugene O'Neill, Hemingway, John Ford, Henry Miller and Sam Shepherd could make movies and plays about cowboys that were really about how to face death, about dying and reconciling ourselves, presuming full well the next bell tolls for thee. Now, with all these new SSRI prescriptions, we can't even remember where that damn void is much less stare into it. The heroism is gone. 

But hey, man, MISFITS still looms tall, for all its faults, and the last family of wild mustangs roaming the wasteland are a handy catch-all metaphor for chain smoking drunk writers, and their indulgent lovers (and the gangsters and big shots that paw them while you watch helplessly from behind your typewriter). Here, in this Arthur Miller-scripted little chamber piece, Marilyn Monroe is both the cherry atop our collective drunk American dream and its hungover, melancholic morning after. She's the enticing gauntlet that you mortgage your soul to grab. And she's the embarrassment when you come too quick and pass out, waking up feeling cheap and ashamed. She puts up with it all, it's part of the job. But she wants more out of her career than playing endearingly daff sexpots, and Miller digs it. He gets her, recognizes that she's the smartest person in every room, forced to couch her genius in breathy baby talk and to resign herself to being ignored even as everyone drools down her blouse. She's used to being alone in a crowd, exiled by her beauty, as if men--being rendered stupid by her allure--can't process her words beyond their shape in the wind. Only Gable's cowboy gets how sad she is. That's what wins her over. But she really connects with Clift, who seems as resigned to death, shell-shocked from bad rodeo falls, as damaged as she is - they're like lost souls, Lake and Ladd, Cage and Shue in LEAVING LAS VEGAS. They don't have to sleep together to share intimacy of the sort Eli Wallach meanwhile doesn't even know he secretly longs for. He can't get bast his crotch chakra, when all the time his heart is broken over an ex-wife whose dream house is an unfinished cottage facing the wasteland of sunburnt eternity.  

Meanwhile, the stand-in for Arthur Miller (MM's newly-minted ex-husband) fumes back there on the Reno divorce court steps, watching Nevada cowboys fall over themselves at his once-wife's feet and secretly venting his spleen against them and her inability to fend them off or make her intellect known, the guys tossing him confrontational stares in between flirts, all resulting (or having resulted) in him feeling like he's being cuckolded every time he and her went out in public. He becomes like Welles childish, insecure cutting off ex-wife Rita' Hayworth's hair and dying it blond for LADY FROM SHANGHAI, a symbolic neutering, a vain (and in-vain) attempt to satisfy his petulant egoic insecurity. 

But unlike Welles, Miller sees beyond his own genius far enough to recognize his pin-up ex-wife's mythic potential. Hayworth's character in Welles' film could be played by anyone --it's generic femme fatale material. But for MISFITS, Miller clearly understood Monroe's full mythic American mirage and the intelligent would-be beatnik underneath it; he saw the bravery in trying to escape from her own demons as well as the public's. As a termite art reward he writes for her these devastating one-liners that become private jokes between herself and maybe us if we're really listening rather than just drooling in the dark. Even if the rest of the world dismisses her quips as 'idiot savant wisdom' she at least has saved herself, the way Prospero saves himself from potentially infected late-coming party guests in MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH.  

And it's Death that must be acknowledged first and foremost if Marilyn is to come into focus. Death! The ultimate marital therapist, it hangs over THE MISFITS like a windless, gnat-filled haze. Death! It hovers over the maiden of madness (MM) as a halo. Death! If you've never had to face it yourself--i.e. in a war, hospital, or crematorium--let me assure you it can be done with sanity intact, if you're drunk. Booze can enable a clear-eyed view of death invisible to the naked, sober, civilian eye (who'd merely shake and tremble like the drunk does sober just thinking about 'wages'. Cigarettes can help you think clearly enough to write about rather than just screaming in terror. But kill you? Yes, that too.

John Huston, like Howard Hawks and few others, saw the inextricable link of death to the cinematic outdoor activities of all men, be they whalers or iguana wranglers or prospectors or cowboys 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 endow. 

The similarity of MISFIT's 'freeing-the-horses' climax and the incident of Richard Burton cutting loose the titular lizard in NIGHT OF THE IGUANA (1957) should prove no coincidence but a clear thread in Huston's 60s oeuvre (who made both). In the nonstop stream of barbarism that is civilization through the eyes of the alcoholic, poetic, and bi-polar (the only sane souls around), Huston knows that a single act of compassion just may save oneself, like a kind of ceremonial anti-sacrifice, because 'you are that'. 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 both womanizing drunks Burton and Gable, and sends ugly Americans like Ms. Fellowes and Guido (Eli Wallach) home to stew any chance they had for love in their own fermenting mason jar juices.

Otherwise, the plots of IGUANA and MISFITS are almost comically nonexistent. In the former, Dick Burton freaks out after getting fired from his job for giving in to the relentless charms of Sue Lyon, then is told weird sad Carson McCullers-style stories of an old maid's two sexual encounters with creepy lonely men while an old man spouts a poem. In the latter, Gable, along with fellow cowboy Montgomery Clift, ropes wild mustangs in the Nevada desert to sell to a dog food conglomerate. Before that they drink with and try to ball Marilyn Monroe while Thelma Ritter acts as a tipsy sort of chaperone, But in these skeletons of plots, the whole world seems to fall apart only to magically reveal that death has the power to pull it all back together.

In MISFITS, it turns out Gahle, Clift, and pilot Wallach have already caught and sold every last mustang in the desert, all bound to be "stacked and canned" as Burton puts it in IGUANA. except for a single hardscrabble family, still hanging on. The strategy: ex-bomber Guido barnstorms them down out of the mountains and into the lassos of Gable and Clift, there waiting at the end of the ravine. Meanwhile, alone in the car, 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 afford to get her drunk.

A whole reel goes by while the cowpokes tussle over who will release the horses and win MM's favor, all while she convulses in empathic-neurotic pain in the backseat, as do we. But outside on the vast flat plain, her dramatic tantrums seem lost in the wind. Huston films her way downwind, so her shouts are heard only as murmurs. I'm fairly sure, Huston hated her by that time in the shooting, for holding up filming so many times people were getting heart attacks and kidney stones in frustration. But hey, it suits her character. Despite the gorgeousness, she's a drunk through and through, same as the lot of them, so what the hell were you expecting? To gentle her down real nice with the right halter? (five bucks if you recognize that quote!)

But 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, and back again, like a drunken slow motion slalom -- can only come from the fortified brand of drinking that limits itself to only one or three before breakfast, just to kill the shakes, you understand? And out in the desert heat that kind of buzz-balancing can knock you flat on your dehydrated ass by lunch, let alone holding out til cocktail hour, where you can finally drink in public, and get as sloppy as you want.

We know Burton and Huston drank constantly on the set of IGUANA (and Elizabeth was there, too). And the actors we see in MISFITS are all 'real' drunks, except Wallach. We can feel it. The drinking is legit. That being said, real drunkenness isn't always 'fun' to watch. I used to feel kind of strange when our old neighborhood would have big block parties and all the adults would get smashed and be out all night laughing it up in their lawn chairs while we kids roasted punks and marshmallows, blessedly free of any set bedtime, able, like them, to stay up until dawn. We'd be somewhat alarmed but also thrilled, to see our parents falling off their lawn chairs, hooking up with each other's wives, and belting out slurred folk songs, while we roasted marshmallows and smoked punks to keep the mosquitoes away and played kick the can while the parents roared at their endless dirty jokes around the glowing coals and seemed gradually to get sort of dangerous and unhinged. To me, in my innocence, they 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 us for doing something they told us to do mere moments ago, and then forgetting they punished us and giving us sips of their (horrible-tasting) beer, rubbing our head too hard, then pushing us away again, telling us, at 5 AM, not to stay up all night. 

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 the crafty Sicilian seducer in BABY DOLL, but Guido as a character here, with his all-too human sexual frustration and petulant longing for Monroe--is repugnant and tragically mired in biologic impulse. I don't want to see Wallach in anything for weeks after a MISFITS screening. I want to remove him from the scene, as I've tried to do with friends who get drunk and won't stop hitting on other friends at all-night parties, 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 like starving orphans at the Charles Dickens bakeshop window. 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 get Burton in the sack herself. There's moments when Wallach cuts in on Gable and Monroe dancing that remind me of De Niro in NEW YORK, NEW YORK. We're like, 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 we spend two hours with someone that this pushy and uncouth? As sensible people we naturally want to ditch guys like Guido at the bar, so we sneak out while he's in the bathroom, bring 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!

Then again, it is his house.

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 somewhere 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.

POST-SCRIPT 8-7-16 - Interestingly, I'm half watching this while spanking my sphinx (don't ask) and notice --as I never did before--that Gable and Monroe are supposed to have spent at least a few weeks together shacked up in Guido's unfinished house in between the day of the rodeo and the last time Thelma and Guido were there--time enough to build a garden at least-- and Marilyn's brilliant observations--ignored by the rest of them for the brilliance they are--and Clift's shattered face and wobbly drunkenness and the way everyone is so hammered all day at the rodeo, not just Clift, nor Monroe, nor Gable but Wallach, too--I don't remember any of that. Last time I was blinded by my dislike of skeevy Guido; this time I'm not overly horrified by him, nor enthralled by Clift or Gable by contrast (Gable's mush-mouth drunkenness seems tragic; he makes a spectacle of himself in a great powerful scene (was he really drunk? It sure seems that way). I also noticed details in the ride home from the rodeo with Gable passed out in back of the station wagon, Clift sleeping on her Marilyn's lap in the backseat, and Wallach weaving over the yellow line while looking backwards and cresting 90 mph. " Now I respect Wallach's existential loneliness, he 'gets' Rosalind in ways Gay and Monty don't --he's impressed by her sensitivity ("when something happens to someone, you care.") and is wiser to his own failings; he just doesn't know any other way to reach Marilyn except through sexual come-ons --and though it's kind of repulsive, it's because we don't want to own up to feeling that way herself. He wants what Gable has, and Clift has with her- a kind of stray puppy playing with a young girl kind of affection. He's tragic. And Marilyn is tragic (even Clift makes a kind of sad play for her in the end) and Gable is tragic (he's got tombstones in his eyes). and he knows it. 

To confess, I guess I developed a deep Guido hatred from being in a band in college, which meant having a hot girlfriend and regularly throwing big drunken parties wherein I had to regularly fend off the sexual mustang-hormone snarky needy skeevy bastards 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 for daring to try and traverse the yawning chasms of charisma between them and my gorgeous girl. So yeah, I hate the Guidos and the wallies and the dirtbags. And when their scummy bullying come-ons trumped my poet boozer moodiness, I formed a permanent resentment.

In other words, Arthur Miller, I feel your pain. 

It's not fair to him, of course, because he had an unimpeachable literary rep, so 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. There's a Charlie McCarthy Show (radio) episode where Charlie and Marilyn are running off to get married, and when the world finds out he's chased by legions of angry soldiers and sailors trying to prevent it. Everyone 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... by so little.") Even the justice of the peace tries to steal her away ("Mrs. Monroe, I'm a bachelor steady habits").

Surely passing sailors and soldiers didn't view splintery ectomorph Arthur Miller as competition in the virile red blooded satyr category, any more than they did "woodpecker's pin-up boy" Charlie McCarthy. Guido seems to be the receptacle for all that passive aggressive rage Miller surely felt against all the slavering legions - he's the trog everyman who knows he'll kick himself for days if I doesn't at least make a try for that blonde brass ring. I can vouch that it's a horrible, powerless feeling being the Arthur. People mistakenly think it's a prestige position --the envy of every man--but it's hard to keep 'earning' her in their eyes, no matter if they're perfect strangers. There's almost nothing you can do about it that doesn't look childish on your part. (My strategy: spill my drink on their shoes, but I rarely did since I loved booze too much to throw it away.) I avoided dating really hot girls, but keeping them as friends if possible --to be the Clift, so to speak, rather than either the Guido or the Gable. But then again, I've got tombstones in my eyes too. 

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 reward for self-hatred). 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 wild mustangs in that desert valley. 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 the preciousness of animal life, tells us he's a true cowboy and maybe cowboys--courageous as they may be--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 male 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 without the bottle (thus 'landing' in however patchy a field) which skeeves MM and us all out--like he's holding the horses hostage--and Clift is just too sensitive, too banged up, to deal with her pain, beyond a sympathetic gaze.

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-eyed, emotionally battered vulnerability they display is not just acting. Though still charismatic in certain angles, overall Clift looks like shit, with visible broken nose ridge fracture, smashed puffy face; he seems super out of it even before he's kicked by a bull, like "that bull had the whole Milky Way in its hoof!" (was his character's beat-up look a way to rationalize the obvious damage to  Clift's face?) 

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 pills are harder and harder to get now that the jig is up, and the dogs that ate the food there was are all dead from old age and Clift and Monroe never got there at all.

That's progress, like the westward expansion of the dust bowl. The whole final segment of roping the mustangs and Marilyn Monroe freaking out with those big bipolar doe eyes is so painful I sometimes have to walk away from it, but keep it running on the DVD player anyway, and come back in time for that brilliant final fade-out, with Gable and Monroe driving 'home' towards that 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 and your mustang hips are devoured by the ravenous eyes of our collective Anubis.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Idiot Wind of the Locusts: SOYLENT GREEN (1973)

"People were always rotten" Edward G. Robinson laments in 1973's sci-fi eco-dystopia cautionary tale SOYLENT GREEN. Referring to the good old days of air conditioning and topsoil, he can't possibly know the irony of his statement. In point of fact, everything else is rotten: the land, the air, the water... but thanks to a revolutionary, preservative-enhanced freeze-drying process, people are the only things left that ain't rotten: They stay fresh and delicious... almost forever... through the amazing soylent processes.

That famous quote, "Soylent Green is people!" is the purloined letter of the film and I don't feel guilty giving it away because it's long been part of popular culture, a 'gotcha' twist to go alongside Chuck's "Damn you all to hell! You blew it up!" rant to the Statue of Liberty at the end 1968's Planet of the Apes. It's hard to imagine a time when these two twists were new --to be the first people to see these films and to be like "wow!" instead of "ugh... finally."

In fact, taken together, these two films are like sci-fi eco-disaster bookends wherein the grim future of Soylent is the distant past in Apes. At least (we consoled ourselves in these scenarios) once we starved our selves off the planet, the eco-system itself might eventually recover.  Even in the 1970s, you see, my son, overpopulation was considered a very real problem. At least they had the guts to think about it! Now the population has already doubled, just as the worried harbingers predicted.

The 70s was a time of returning to earth and going camping and finally learning to stop throwing our McDonald's trash out the window as we drove. The cinema also gave us Logan's Run (where everyone dies at 30, to thus keep the population attractive and unwise), Rollerball (bloodsport sets the trends); that forgotten Bruce Dern film Silent Running (the last plants kept alive in a remote orbiting spaceship) and even, the last ditch version, keeping the plants alive in caverns on Saturn's third moon, Saturn 3). it was all cascading out of our growing awareness of pollution, the hole in the ozone layer (Day of the Animals), the ocean (Jaws). There was that 1970s crying Indian commercial. There was Pogo Earth Day poster. These things made an impact. We kids of the time still remember them... At least I do. Funny thing is - all the dire predictions came true so what did we do? Some things... I guess, to stem the tide. I myself give $$ to Greenpeace every month on the condition they don't bombard me with junk mail. But the movies... the movies all but forgot about it. Why make a movie warning about what's already come true?

What's disturbing about GREEN, looking back now so many years later, isn't the inevitability of cannibalism in a society choked on humans and starved on everything else, but Heston's naive flare-up of morality and outrage over it all. The last chunk of the movie is him desperately trying to warn the public, but the film, the audience, even his friends, are against the idea. We can't even imagine anyone caring either way.  Warn them of what? Would anyone rather starve than succumb to cannibalism? I imagine there are a few, but most of us, forced into the situation, probably would shrug and dive right in. I personally don't see what the fuss is. It's hypocritical, in fact, to get high and mighty about it. The Soylent Corp., the shadowy conglomerate behind it all, is, to my mind, doing a public service by hushing it up.

The Soylent Green itself is--as the movie clearly states--the last gasp of food production in the face of global starvation. The people killing to keep it a secret should be thanked for working so hard to disguise the long pig... it's compassionate. It saves mankind from feeling worse than it already does. Why not tell the delusional Donner party matron shivering in the back of the cabin that its venison, if it gets her to eat it?

By the same token, I know of cancer-stricken old ladies who are malnourished because they're too nauseous from chemo to eat, but they don't want to smoke pot--which would help--since its illegal. They've believed the governmental hysteria all these years, so even their own children can't convince them to try it.  So why should the kids, if they lover her and have some, not mix it in her brownies and just not tell her? Would Heston fight them to make sure she knew, and that the granddaughter who made her the brownies went to jail? He probably would.

But cop Heston doesn't want to hear my rationalizations. Near the end he even sneers to his chief, "soon they'll be breeding us like cattle," and it's fitting that the stupidity of that remark is completely lost on him. One asks: With what, Chuck, will they be feeding these human cattle? If there were any feed or grass left, people would be standing in line to be bred like cattle. And 'breeding' us kind of defeats the whole point, doesn't it, Chuck? Like breeding locusts to feed an incoming swarm of locusts... or carrying coals to Newcastle, wherever that is... I assume a place that's already rife with coal.

But for every perceptive, accurate, and nihilistic prediction in Green, there's a few that have dated, badly. I dig that the film is not racist--Heston was on point in such matters, even marching with MLK in '63--but it is most definitely sexist. In the future, it seems, women are all sluts, heh heh, that are called 'furniture' because they don't move or pack when one man moves out; they just stay behind for the next man who moves in, and none of this is in the novel by Harry Harrison, which is perhaps why it comes off so half-baked, if you'll forgive the expression, and misogynistic. The film makes sure we know that the girlfriend of the murdered Cotton will have to service the new tenant's broheims when they come over for parties. If she has a problem with that, out she goes. Yeesh.

I also wish to further point out the hypocrisy of Heston's outrage over the "big" secret when he's shown to be a remorseless carnivore even when he knows "where" the meat is coming from, i.e. the scene wherein he brings home a pound of confiscated fresh beef to Edward G. Robinson. Old enough to remember when beef was ubiquitous, Robinson weeps when he sees it. No one even mentions, thanks, or says a prayer for that poor "final" cow, who died just so Eddie and Chuck could get a taste of the old world. I wonder if Heston's relatively young cop (who missed out on the heyday of livestock) would get outraged if he knew that the meat was from... you know.... a fellow mammal. I can see him exploring a whole new avenue of indignation: "Beef is.... cows?! Damn you, apes!"

He, you, we, should relax, man. Stress makes people gamey. We all should all agree to put our outraged moral muskets down and admit it: we're fascinated by cannibalism. We secretly, deep down, don't see what the fuss is. We know we've eaten each other in some distant primordial pre-language miasma past, and that we may end up eating each other in the over-populated future, so why not recognize the enemy we're facing isn't our instincts but our own antiquated morality? All those meat sticks starving to death because they'll only eat non-human animals --they're the worst kind of hypocrites. To paraphrase Dylan's "Idiot Wind," we're lucky we can even eat ourselves. After all, nearly ever other species of carnivore probably does it now and again. Sharks do it. Spiders do it. Know what happens to the principled objector to cannibalism in starvation conditions? Yum Yum! The tragedy is that decency prevents us doing it except as a last resort, by which time we're all skin and bones --the worst parts!

But before Chuck's climactic bout with civilization-tanking hypocrisy, SOYLENT offers one of those very touching and legitimately moving sequences that sometimes show up in the darndest of films, even when least expected. This one involving the disillusioned Eddie Robinson's trip "Home." It's the real climax of the film and if you haven't seen it, stop reading here as it could count as an AMBER SPOILER ALERT!

I got this off some Christian blog, hence the hilarious subtitle
When people can no longer take the heat of dystopia there is a nice available option in Soylent Green: 'Home' --a chance to stop out of the claustrophobic grim and into a giant white (air-conditioned!) edifice, a kind of fusion of airport and hospital, that draws the shambling elderly in like the clean white light at the end of a very long and filthy tunnel.

It's no coincidence that once one decides to shuffle off one's mortal coil everything becomes suddenly magical and precious. It's just like when you're tripping and have been having a terrible time, clawing at your tombstone in a third ghost Scrooge miasma, and then you finally realize--in a moment of glorious Xmas morning Scrooge awakening--that you're not actually dead --you're alive! But you're not afraid of dying anymore, either. You get the full picture at last: it's only by relinquishing that which you most love that you yourself become that love. As Glinda says at the end of OZ, "that's all there is" to "home." Thus suddenly, for the first time, it seems, in decades of this old man's life, there is air conditioning, and cleanliness, and nice people, and room to swing a cat.

Seems like heaven. Upon entrance to your special room in "Home," which is just a cool rounded white room with a comfy bed and a rounded full wall screen on all sides of the room, a man and a woman in white flowing robes let you pick the color of the blazing light you want to subsume you, and you get a full 20 minute film to bask in, all around fields of flowers and flowing  blue skies, orange sunsets, and all the wonderful things earth used to have. You lie in bed while the drugs drain the last gasps from your lips and then are free... your now useless corpse gently whisked off to the soylent plant.

Man, I want to encourage the building of just such a room in every hospital, as a place not just for dying, but for tripping, instead of the usual clinical hospital setting where most legally approved medical experiment therapeutic tripping is done. Man, how groovy.

Most of all, I wish my dear old granny could have access to an assisted suicide set-up like that one. They won't let her just die in her nursing home and she's fairly healthy for a 97 year-old. She can barely hear or see anymore, and can't walk because of a bad hip, and can't really think straight for long periods ---and she's been that way for 20+ years; but she could be good for another 5 or 10 years. I know she'd at least like to have the option, some button on her remote she could hit that signals a nice trippy out. Her own mom died at 107--and the last 17 years (!) were, as she put it even then, shamefully superfluous. (PS -2017-  my granny finally died --at 102- g'head on, Dorothy - I hope when I see you you're all young and foxy in your WW2 nurse uniform again!)

But anyway, it gets better. Heston shows up at "Home" halfway through Eddie's process and when he realizes it's too late to prevent his going, has to says good-bye to Robinson through the chamber's viewing window. When he realizes it's inevitable Heston pulls out a piece of acting that's so beautiful and touching it contrasts the general misery of the rest of the movie to such an extent we can hardly bear to return.

And turns out there's a reason it's some of the best acting Heston has ever done:

"This was the 101st and last movie in which Edward G. Robinson appeared; he died of cancer twelve days after the filming, on January 26, 1973. Heston was the only member of the crew that Robinson told of his cancer (immediately before filming the scene of Robinson's character's death), knowing that this knowledge would deeply affect Heston, and therefore his playing of the scene. Robinson had previously worked with Heston in The Ten Commandments (1956) and the make-up tests for Planet of the Apes (1968)." (WIKI)
John Nesbitt at Old School Reviews put it this way:
Those ARE real tears falling from the Chuckster's eyes when he gazes upon Sol's poignant farewell. Heston need not resort to his Ben Hur technique of burying his eyes to feign heartbreak; this time the tears flow . . . effortlessly and honestly. Immediate "method acting" is forced on Heston naturally since he knew that Robinson truly was dying and that this would be the last scene that the legendary actor would ever perform. Thus, the tears are real—a gut wrenching fusion of fiction and real life drama. That alone makes the film well worth examining.

Robinson's devotion to his chosen craft was full and total, so it's fitting and courageous that he uses his impending death to transform what might have been just a so-so or even hammy or merely macabre moment into something very, very beautiful, something braver--in some ways--than Bergman. The film never spells out directly what's to come as Robinson enters "Home" but we have a pretty good idea and it makes the kindness of the assistants and the comfort of the air conditioning extra comforting.  For all the sorrow and misery in the rest of the film, before and after--all the sweaty packed-dusty starving, sweaty unrest--here, finally, is some grace. Just knowing that Robinson will at least have a beautiful 20-minute drugged-out voyage into the yawning blazing white yoni light of death is enough to make us happy for him. He can finally appreciate his legacy, like a painter who at last steps back to see the big picture.

It's in that spirit that I feel right about mentioning my last golden moment with my dying dad, a week or so ago, down in his and my mom's retirement home in North Carolina, drinking and watching LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT, shivering in the air conditioning and stark brilliance of each actor, their ebbs and high tides of drunken dysfunction rendered into black magic poetry under Sydney Lumet's alchemical care. If the "Home" sequence in SOYLENT was lengthened into a whole 3-hour film it might look like this. Lumet creates in this tight, long film something eternally free, yet at the same time crushed before it has a chance to fly. It's also a great, reverse funhouse mirror to mine own family (two brothers--neither married or with kids--alcoholism, one's a poet, one family member realizes he's going to maybe die very soon, etc.). Anyway, my dad and I bonded big under the black-and-white brilliance of it all, attuned to each others' rapture in a way that brought us together as film (on TV) always had, from when he first showed me GODZILLA VS. THE SEA MONSTER on afternoon UHF TV when I was five or six.

And during a pause button moment he told me about how his doctors wanted to give him an enzyme treatment that might extend his life by as much as a month (and maybe not at all), but he had decided to save Medicare the $200,000.00 price tag. I thanked him on behalf of future generations of taxpayers. Without the staggering power of Lumet's film, the magnificent acting and O'Neill's fearless dialogue, that conversation might never have happened. I was proud of my dad for his decision, and it seemed the magnificent, brooding dysfunctional drama unspooling before us was inspiring us to unleash all our boozy courage and wit to bear on the most painful and eternal of all topics...

And then the next morning I didn't even have time say goodbye, as he was in the shower when I left and my mom was hustling me to the airport.

The next time I saw him, he was a bag of ashes.

If he came back as Soylent Green, I'd have a few honorary nibbles. Why not? He'd do the same for me. We're not fussy about food. Why the hell shouldn't my dad get the same sacramental props as the Big Jesus with his bread and blood red wine? Farmers can bond with their future breakfast, it's not that hard. Native Americans pray to their kills. Are you daring to say my Big Daddy's not as tasty as a cow or a buffalo or Jesus? (PS - I get my sense of gallows humor from his side of the family, so don't worry about me offending his ghost).

Long Day's Journey into Night (1962)
But sparing that, to be able to mourn and say farewell to him as he actually died, arranging it all in a beautiful farewell ceremony ending like the scene in Soylent... why wouldn't that have been more humane than just doping him up and waiting out the clock, for him to slip numbly away, by himself, at four in the afternoon, in a sterile hospital bed, a few weeks after I'd returned to NYC?

The hypocratic oath and fundamentalist bible thumpers would never let "Home" happen, of course. For them death must be a desperate, miserable, lonesome ordeal, every last inch of ground and time fought over, all so doctors can bankrupt our unborn grand children's Social Security. I say Euthanize the Vote! Naked Lunch of the future, it's time to write your last menu and testament. Then again, the doctors of our world do dish out opiated hospice-strength cocktails to the truly terminal (my mom crushed up and threw away my dad's before I could swipe it, alas), and there's angelic visiting hospice nurse Phillip Seymour Hoffman, in MAGNOLIA (1999), pretending to light LONG DAY's Jason Robards cigarette as he dies of cancer. I hope someone does that for me.

Like Robinson in SOYLENT, Robards was really dying during the filming of MAGNOLIA and to see him transmuting his real-life dying pain into a deeply, terribly moving final extended death scene is once again to marvel at the deep courage our best actors show in using their immanent real life death in their art. Maybe we can use his and Robinson's examples to encourage our medical establishment to go a little deeper with the idea of assisted suicide and the chance for death to be more than just an ugly abject bodily function. To paraphrase Bing Crosby, death is agonizing, inevitable, a heartache either way, but beautiful... 

If we ever find the courage to actually look it in the twinkling eye, I imagine we'll find it all but irresistible.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Tennessee Williams at the Mill of Rubes: THE FUGITIVE KIND

If a bunch of method-trained NYC actors crashed their bus in the middle of nowhere Louisiana and tried to pass as locals so as to not get lynched, the result might look a lot like The Fugitive Kind (1959). Marlon Brando--radiant, and way too good for it all--plays a Christlike (coded queer) guitar-slinging drifter who winds up in a romance with older Italian shop owner Anna Magnani. Together they face a hardened mob of drunken good-old-boy characters whose raging fires are fueled by Anna's bitter, sweaty invalid husband (Victor Jory, practically stealing the movie) spewing vitriol from his upper berth. It's the kind of vehicle the gay drunk genius Tennessee Williams cranked out by the dozen for his muse/avatar, Anna Magnani, plopping her down in the midst of his usual rentboy deep south fantasias, there to emote and assume postures and be as out of place as a weeping marble Madonna statue in the middle of a rowdy redneck saloon.

Running a general store in this Nowheresville town, scarred by memories of racist mob violence against her late father (for daring serve drinks to colored people at his wine bar), Magnani stays married to racist invalid Jory, who's all dying and sweaty, and strung out on morphine upstairs, for vague reasons (some long term plan of Elektra-style vengeance gone dormant?). Into all this strained soap and free-floating malice walks wandering troubadour Brando, his snakeskin jacket a symbol of his individuality and his handling of his mama guitar as awkward as a lavender honeymoon. He could have hot mess Joanne Woodward (top), who's never seemed sexier, or more alive, or wilder, more intoxicating, rampaging around town in a cute raincoat with wild platinum blonde hair (we're so used to seeing it pulled back with unflattering bangs, that her sudden sex appeal makes her seem like some whole other being), but Brando prefers glum middle-aged Magnani, thus hinting that his character is not entirely straight. He wants a mother, not a lover. And while he claims to be free, he's so closeted/closed-off that his snakeskin may as well be a straight-jacket. Get it?

It's that kind of poetic/layered stiltedness that keeps Kind from being an A-shelf Williams, something perhaps partially explained by its having spent two decades buried deep in his desk drawer (where it was called Battle of Angels), before he finally exhumed and reconfigured it into something called Orpheus Descending. What a title! What else is Orpheus gonna do? Now, Orpheus Just Standing There - that's more like it. The Fugitive Kind isn't much better, but at least there's a poetic semi-poetic second way to read it. And audiences were looking for second ways to read things back in the late-50s.

It's easy to forget, now it's all fallen into disreputability with many snotty academic circles, but Kind's era saw a kind of post-war suburban renaissance: White middle class America was almost legit intellectual while still being sexual, thanks to Freud and the Kinsey Report. The success of Williams' plays, his bridge game buzzword popularity, was bound up in that 'knowingness', the secret insider cool that came from that. A whole generation, home from the war, had picked up all sorts of European liberalism (that 'continental mind') leaving their parents' small town moral hypocrisy, moving wholesale into the post-war 'suburban dream of martini lunches and modernist art wherein there was just enough dirty business to make deciphering all the psychological underpinnings worth the effort.  Years of sanitized white Christian picket fence heteronormative blandness had made even a veiled mention of homosexuality, rape, or abortion in some otherwise pedestrian romance would send the cocktail class flocking, darling, if for no other reason than being able to say they saw it at the next Jaycees bridge game. Condemned by the Catholic Legion of Decency was like a Pulitzer stamp. 

That said, Willians clearly run out of things to say by the time he dug his old Battle of Angels-cum-Orpheus out of that desk drawer. Man, I know the feeling. Who among us hasn't gone thumbing through old work for inspiration when we've fallen into weary writer's blockage? Still, he should have left the Battle be. He'd already cherrypicked the best ideas out of it for other plays, anyway.

Furthermore, director Sydney Lumet's shadowy noir style seems way too sober and judgmental for the Dirty South. Lumet could be great with small casts where--no matter how messed-up the characters were (as with his masterful Long Day's Journey into Night, Klute, or Dog Day Afternoon)-judgement didn't enter into it. But it's too easy to cast stones in the backwards county where Fugitive unfolds, to make characters grotesque without any real cause other than to  Brando's Christ-y glow even more godlike by contrast. Elia Kazan had a rootsy respect for the uneducated thug but Lumet's lynch mob is just raw undiluted evil, set up for us to throw rocks at, with no awareness of the vicious self-perpetuating irony such throwing engenders.

Most glaring of all the problems though, to my mind, is Brando. He's the prettiest, but he's also the most uncomfortable-looking miscast drifter/troubadour since Sterling Hayden in Johnny Guitar (1954), with which Fugitive would make an apt, if excruciating, lavender double bill. Both concern guitar slinging trouble magnets who shack up with middle-aged super-butch saloon/store owners and wind up in the crosshairs of  rabble-roused townsfolk who burn said saloon/store to the ground. Oh my god, it's the same damned movie!

Both films prove that stock outlaw guitar heroes need to be played by less awesome actors than Brando or Hayden to not seem forced. That's what Elvis was for. Real musicians are always a little spacey because they're so attuned to the melodic spectrum; their personalities are incomplete without their instruments. For big A-list personas, a guitar is just ab awkward accessory, hanging limply on them like a rotting albatross two sizes too small.

But Hayden knows one thing Brando doesn't: if you can't hide your complexity, just try to fade into the landscape as much as possible and let the women do all the raving. Try to not try to act at all. An even "bigger" actor than Hayden, Brando makes a bad casting choice worse by trying too hard to seem easygoing and Christlike. Each monologue is practically hung on the wall of the Whitney like an American folk masterwork and I don't mean that as a compliment.

The dialogue wouldn't be bad for a normal writer, but we've already seen this collection of archetypes and deep south incidents before, in better Williams adaptations and better Williams dialogue: Woodward's bleached nymph straining at her shackles was already brilliantly essayed by Carroll Baker in Kazan's Baby Doll and Sue Lyon in Night of IguanaAnna Magnani had already done the depressed middle-aged Italian widow in The Rose Tattoo; Ava Gardner stole (and likely improved on) the role written for her in Iguana; the dying redneck patriarch shivering in the junky morphine prescription heat was done to a turn with breadth and sympathy by Burl Ives in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Jory and Woodward add their own spin, making them the reasons to watch this, but they still have to contend with Williams' muddled motivations. Jory and his cronies have suspicions about our guitar-wearing Brando's orientation but if they think he's gay, then their jealousy makes no sense. The idea of the virile straight male outsider downstairs at the general store, while the impotent fumer is straight-up Malden in Baby Doll or Anthony Franciosa in The Long Hot Summer (by Faulkner but similar) but the homophobic persecution angle is straight up Suddenly's Sebastian, Cat's Skipper, and Blanche's Streetcar husband prior to their suicides and/or devouring. But you can't have it both ways, unless you're just ticking off the checklist of Tennessee tropes. Even in the dirty south they probably knew enough to realize a gay bestie was a great way to keep the flies off, so to speak.

Another main problem in Fugitive, aside from its similarity to these Williams' classics, is that we can't quite believe an Adonis like Brando would be bothering to hang around these stifling swampy Louisiana backwaters in the first place. The beginning indicates he was busted hustling and is trying to go 'straight,' in some other podunk town, but an actor of Brando's caliber has no business being a mere hustler. His teeth are too perfect, his demeanor too polished. He's out of jail, why not split for NYC or SF and hustle there? New York City is the place where / they say hey babe! Yes sir, a gorgeous boy like him could make a fortune or at least find a nice sugar daddy with a comfy duplex, rather than putting up with a vicious mob just so he can get with this frumpy broad Magnani when he could be sailing the drunken Main with vivacious Woodward. 

Either way, the gay subtext is the only way any of it makes sense. The vicious hatred the town rubes have for anyone wild or serpentinely jacketed seems a beard for homophobia. Brando's 'crimes' here aren't otherwise great enough to stir the wrath of the town in quite such a vicious, heated way. Meanwhile, a handful of saints are strewn about for contrast, like Maureen Stapleton as a local painter, who Brando monologues in hushed cobra monotones until she sways before him like a hypnotized chicken. Surely such a talker could hypnotize hateful rubes into liking him if he wanted to. It's clear Brando's outlaw prefers a firehose crucifixion to any kind of real warts-and-all acceptance. Hell, all he had to do was buy them a round at the bar and the rednecks would likely accept him. Jesus would have, if he had the bread. 

What Brando's 'fugitive kind' doesn't grasp is that the beautiful people only trudge through the Dirty South for a reason. Otherwise they move, like Joe Buck in Midnight Cowboy, from small town to big city - that's their natural drift, that's where all roads lead. Paul Newman understood that in Sweet Bird of Youth --his cocky rentboy is shanghaiing a drunken Hollywood patroness and her Cadillac to the outer bayou rings so he can rescue his hometown sweetheart from her cliche'd Kingfish-y mayor father --and it works because-- though Newman is in some ways even prettier than Brando--Newman the actor knows the way to seem a realistic local boy is to taint his beauty with cocky, needy cluelessness. When an already-perfect demigod puffs out his chest and struts to impress, he suddenly seems faintly ridiculous, and that's why Newman's performance works where Brando's fails. In refusing to betray the insecure little boy behind his character's bravado, Marlon never quite 'gives' us anything. He's so wise to his own bullshit he barely says an untrue word, which means he barely says anything, just orates a series of trite poetic monologues of the sort Williams realized early on were best kept in a file drawer.  
Streetcar, for another example, Brando's big Tennessee victory, was subtler by actually being more histrionic --that's the paradox Fugitive director Sydney Lumet doesn't seem to understand, and maybe wouldn't until Klute eight years later: No one should ever be all the way 'beautiful' and making a Williams play hum involves letting an actor become so much themselves that the seams of their persona break and the hideous lonely hunger of their hidden core comes busting out like taxidermy sawdust. 

Another master of getting sawdust out of his actor's taxidermy persona masks? John Huston, as in his Williams adaptation, Night of the Iguana. 

A director able to understand the Williams sawdust mill principle but not how to successfully harness it? Joseph Loesy in Boom! (1968, left). Here Taylor and Burton merely dump sawdust tonnage upon the stage as if it's a suitable shortcut to brilliance. But of course that doesn't work either. The pain has to be real, the sawdust awkward, faux-accidental, the stitches in the mask newly ripped, to grab us. We can sense the difference between drunkenly inspired and just sloppy. But the drunk cannot. That is the tragedy of humankind. 

And while sometimes his plays need a villain-- ala Karl Malden in Baby Doll, who, like the racists of Fugitive, digs on torching Italian-owned business; or Jack Carson's shrill grating harpy wife in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof; or seething Ms. Fellowes in Iguana--when Williams is at his best there's no one-note villains or hicks or closets at all. In Streetcar everyone is sympathetic, even the brute Stanley. A pagan god crossed with "a ape", its he who is the put-upon party after all. He pays the bills and we can understand how he'd be sick to death of Blanche and her joneser high-hattin' and liquor-mooching after a few hours, let almone several months. I'd be fed up after a week. That he puts up with it when he's clearly no milquetoast is to his credit; not that it excuses any rapey climax, but on some level it at least rationalizes it.

When Williams is done right, his monologues are ranted or recited the way we natter on to people we subconsciously know aren't really listening to us. When Williams is done wrong, as he is in Fugitive Kind, monologues go on and on, slow and measured, while the onscreen listener stands at rapt (i.e. vaguely bored but respectful) attention, like at a poetry reading when they're trying to impress the bourgeois date. 

All that said, it's still fascinating as a film, just for its T-Williams laundry list affect. Brando is gorgeous and at least when he does sing and play it's actually his voice and guitar doing it (hearing Brando cautiously sticking to a few lightly brushed chords and singing in a half-whispered croon works only because you wonder if he really doesn't know how to play and it's just no one's told him because he's so gorgeous). And Woodward lights up the screen as the wild drunk nymphomaniac... when she's around, but for whole stretches of the film she's MIA and we're left with this half-baked, zombie-like mama-fixation romance between Magnani and Brando.  

Oh well, even if the tepid chemistry-free 'torridity' is just not convincing and whole stretches are formulaic, if you're a Williams, Brando, or Lumet fan (and you should be all three), you need to see this movie, even if for no other reason than to unlock the joys and motivations of Williams' other, better adaptations. Somehow seeing a genius faltering backwards into amateurish pretension makes his great work all the more noble. There's a great fountain of truth and enthusiastic idealism one can drink from when indulging amateurishness: the amateur's inability to dilute his poetry's potency in the minutiae of realism is like watching a clumsy magician give his tricks away, i.e. fun on a whole other level than intended.  The poetry is still fresh and raw, so you can feel the rush the author felt while writing it, his swooning in drunken euphoria over a late night typewriter. Such a euphoria can help us all find the courage to become alcoholic titans, to write into existence the scalpels that will tear open future actor's masks so they might sprinkle the sawdust of the soul upon silver screens yet to be... even if for no good reason.
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