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

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Iguanas and Mustangs

"When you're in love with a beautiful woman / it's hard." - 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 town. Now that we can diagnose and prescribe meds for these sorts of problems, the old school booze and tranquilizer self-medication regimen isn't as respected as it used to be, alas. Critics able to recognize her symptoms, and the brilliant parlaying she does bringing her own madness to bear on her character's, are soon tut-tutting and trying to prescribe her lithium rather than savoring her sexy descent. Most of all, it's because it's no longer 'cool' to confront death head-on, like a kid slamming into an oncoming wave with his bodyboard. But death is where madness and marriage are finally reconciled but the 'now' we are in is terrified to look at death, much more terrified than we were back in 1961 when atomic annihilation seemed only a motion away. 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 over and over again. Once upon a time, though, unrestricted booze, cigarettes, uppers and downers access helped great white male writers and directors see into the void without flinching. Titans like Huston, Williams, O'Neill, Henry Miller (and --in a pinch--Arthur) could make movies and plays about cowboys that were really about how to face death, about dying and reconciling with fathers before it's too late, knowing 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.

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 women (and the gangsters 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 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 and Miller digs it. He gets her, recognizes that she's the smartest person in every room, forced to couch her genius in breathy dopiness 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.

Meanwhile, the stand-in for Arthur Miller (MM's newly-minted ex-husband) fumes back on the Reno divorce court steps, watching the 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 they went out in public. He becomes like Welles 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 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, and her deep insecurities and wildly-tilting mood swings. 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 potential and the intelligent would-be beatnik underneath it, and the bravery of trying to escape from her own demons as well as the publics, at the same time. As termite 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, hangs over THE MISFITS like a windless, gnat-filled haze. Death hovers over the maiden of madness like a halo, and if you've never had to face death 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, and cigarettes can help you think clearly enough to write about rather than just screaming in terror.

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 otherwise bring.

The similarity of MISFIT's 'freeing-the-horses' climax and the incident of Richard Burton cutting loose the titular lizard in Huston's NIGHT OF THE IGUANA (1957) should prove no coincidence but a clear thread emerging in Huston. 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. 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) off to their material planes to sulk through a few more unlaid lifetimes.

Otherwise, the plots of IGUANA and MISFITS are almost comically nonexistent. In the latter, Gable, along with fellow cowboy Montgomery Clift, ropes wild mustangs in the Nevada desert to sell to a dog food conglomerate. But they've ground up every last one, except for a single hardscrabble family. His ex-bomber buddy Guido barnstorms them down out of the mountains and into the lassos of Gable and Clift, waiting at the end of a trespass.. But 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 continue to get her drunk enough to maybe sleep with them.
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 on the vast flat plain, her dramatic tantrums seem lost in the wind. 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 her character is a mess, 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?

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.

We know Burton and Huston drank constantly on the set of IGUANA (and Elizabeth came, too). And the actors we see in MISFITS are 'real' drunks, except Wallach. We can feel it. The drinking is legit (maybe all that waiting around for you know who drove them crazy). As it is, we feel confused, the way--as a kid--I used to feel when our old neighborhood would have big block parties, somewhat alarmed but also thrilled, to see our parents all start falling off their lawn chairs, hooking up with each other's wives, and belting out slurred folk songs, while the kids roasted marshmallows and smoked punks to keep the mosquitoes away and played kick the can sometimes til dawn all while the parents roared at their endless dirty jokes around the glowng coals and seemed gradually to get sort of dangerous and unhinged. 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 you sips of their beer, rubbing our head too hard, then pushing us away again.

We were too young to associate the yucky taste of their drinks with their behavior. Why on earth would anyone drink something that made them even more stupid than they were already? Cause and effect of food and drink was not in our grasp. I found out later about how booze is a miracle and would have solved all my problems if I had known earlier... and now the MISFIT-cast's style of drunkenness harkens me back to the days of my childhood, when my parents were crazy ass partiers in their early 30s, and our kitchen looked like the one in MAD MEN.

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 Tuco in GOOD, BAD, UGLY and (his best role in my opinion), 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. 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 cockblock them and get Burton in the sack herself. There's moments when he cuts in on Gable and Monroe dancing where Guido reminds me of De Niro in NEW YORK, NEW YORK where 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 care? As sensible people we naturally want to ditch guys like Guido at the bar, so we sneak out while he's in the bathroom, pick 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!

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 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 -  there's nothing kinky about it, at least on my end) and notice --as I never did before--that Gable and Monroe are supposed to have spent at least a few weeks together 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. 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. The ride home from the rodeo with Gable passed out in back of the station wagon, Clift sleeping on her lap in the backseat, and Wallach weaving looking backwards and cresting 90: "I can't land and I can't get up to god neither." Now I respect Wallach's existential loneliness, he 'gets' Rosalind in ways Gay and Monty don't ("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. He's tragic. 

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. Fuckin' cocaine, man. I'll confess, it turned me into a sociopathic Angel Eyes myself--made even me feel like a sweaty rapey townie.  As a result of its popularity in my crowd (in the late 90s) I had to watch most of my gorgeous blonde muses go home with dirt bags 'cuz the dirt bags had some (coke) at home, and they wanted some more. 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.

And the worst was being stuck talking to a Guido-like dirtbag cokehead while tripping, just because we were the only ones still awake. It was almost better they hooked up with a hottie and left me to my own late night devices. No good trip can survive ending the night trapped by the white noise squall that was their incessant clenched-jaw chatter and tales of fights they always got into but never started and the various stadium rock shows they saw over the years, zzzz.

It's not fair, of course, because for screenwriter Arthur Miller 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 via his marriage to Marilyn. In the words of Dr. Hook, "When you're in love / with a beautiful woman / you can't keep from cryin'." There's a Charlie McCarthy Show (radio) episode where Charlie's going to marry her himself, and when the world finds out he's chased by legions of angry soldiers and sailors while 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").

ASurely passing sailors and soldiers didn't view splintery Arthur Miller as competition any more than they did "woodpecker's pin-up boy" Charlie McCarthy, despite the power of the pen. Guido seems to be the receptacle for all that passive aggressive rage Miller surely felt against all the slavering legions. I can vouch that it's a horrible, powerless feeling. And there's almost nothing you can do about it that doesn't look childish on your part.

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. They'd both be ground up, stacked, and canned real soon if they weren't already. 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!" 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 that reaped 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.


  1. Wow. I really need to see this film.

  2. Eric I live to read these posts of yours...this particular one on The Misfits is nothing short of great! Your personal insight matched by the candid nature of how these films speak to you is how films should be reviewed...I have been watching the misfits for years and never grasped the full scope of it until reading this...don't ever stop writing my friend you are an original.

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  4. Ummm, Eric, Eli Wallach didn't play Angel Eyes in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. He played Tuco. Please change that. It makes you look so ignorant.

    If Wallach's portrayal if Guido bothers your (obviously) delicate sensibilities that much, it's because he did his job as a very good actor. Guido is SUPPOSED to be repugnant. Otherwise, you're missing the whole point of the character's presence in the movie. But, my God, try REALLY hard not to be too repulsed by Guido, okay? We would hate to have you miss Wallach's other fine performances because you were hiding under the bed!

  5. thanks for your impassioned defense, Stampschick. I excised the Angel Eyes, not sure why i thought that. Anyway, Eli Wallach is lucky to have so fervent a defender! If you'll note I post-scripted awhile ago checking the vehemence of my response, confessing it's based, as all too often these things are, on projecting traits I wish I could somehow exorcise from my own character through a cinematic denial. The thing about Misfits, I've seen it dozens of times, and thought it was a masterpiece maybe 1/3 the time, and in all those viewings I've never seen the same film twice, as if my memory is somehow re-editing it in every interim. Either way, keep up the attitude! The all-too often drab and conformative world of cinema criticism needs more maniac amore.


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