Next, controversy over the 2019 films Joker, Parasite, and Little Women.
Sunday, January 26, 2020
SPOILER ALERT! The plot will be discussed.
If you haven’t heard of the movie Seconds (1966), which is very possible since it was a commercial failure that later gained cult status, you should check it out. It is a disturbing cautionary tale that foreshadows many concerns which people still worry about today. The title does not refer to time, but to an opportunity to have a second chance at life. But it also may signify being a glutton at the dinner table, wanting too much of a so-called “good thing.” Also, the title may suggest “secondhand,” which is a negative term implying something that is not new and thus inferior to the original condition.
Director John Frankenheimer specialized in paranoia conspiracy films (The Manchurian Candidate and Seven Days in May). According to movie critic David Sterritt, Frankenheimer did not view the 1960’s as an optimistic era, but instead worried about the “military-industrial complex” (of which President Eisenhower cautioned against), and “the danger of runaway technology.” Sterritt says in this movie, the director blended “horror, noir, science fiction … and an acid critique of American capitalism.” Frankenheimer said that an American Dream that was based solely on making more money was hollow and resembled more of a nightmare, which is what this film depicts. That mercenary outlook pushes one into wanting to “escape” those characteristics that made a person who he or she is. He said he wanted to present a “horrifying portrait of big business that will do anything provided you are willing to pay for it.” He also wished to show the dangers of a society that demanded its members to want to be “forever young” in its “advertising and thinking.” If one is only interested in physical and materialistic gratification, then one only wants more since there is no genuine satisfaction.
There is a face over the opening credits which is distorted, as is this tale about the desires of the world’s inhabitants who want more youth, money, and superficial success. There is gothic organ music in the background which adds an eerie, frightening feel to the visuals. The warped face ends up in bandages covering it, making the visage an image out of a horror movie. The face looks like a Halloween monster mask, possibly that of a mummy, which signifies death. But there is another human mask underneath as we discover that hides one’s true identity, which comments on the facades people erect to hide their true selves.
Arthur Hamilton (John Randolph) is in a train station and the altered visuals continue as the camera jumps around while the commuters pass into view. Arthur looks despondent as he heads toward a train. His outlook makes him a possible customer for the company that offers a new life. A stranger approaches him and hands him a note before mysteriously leaving quickly. As Arthur is ready to settle back into trying to solve a crossword puzzle, a solitary activity, he pulls out the slip of paper that displays an address. He gets off at Scarsdale. He is a bank executive, whose career revolves around money. His suburban New York life is boring. His wife, Emily (Frances Reid), picks him up and their asking how each other’s day was is a banal exchange, with talk of gardening and their daughter’s successful marriage to a future doctor (financial success again being stressed). She wonders why he was pacing at two o’clock in the morning following a telephone call. He says it was a prank call, but his vagueness suggests that he was first contacted verbally before he received the note.
Later that evening, as Arthur stares at his telephone with the piece of paper in front of it, the phone rings loudly, startling him (and us). The man on the other end is Charlie Evans (Murray Hamilton), who the alarmed Arthur says is supposed to be dead. The man on the other end knows exactly what pictures are hung up in the study, and even how long the telephone cord reaches. He describes events only his friend would know, and mentions that Arthur scratched a note on the bottom of a tennis trophy that sits in the study. Charlie says to go to the address on the note just past noon and use the name “Wilson.” Charlie says he feels more alive than he has in the past twenty-five years and questions what Arthur is hanging onto. Arthur, however, is hesitant to do what his friend told him.
Later in their bedroom, Arthur is upset about Emily asking about the phone calls. That he is distraught is implied by the bottle of medicine sitting on his end table. They sleep in separate beds which suggests there has been no sexual activity between them for some time. She comes to his bed and asks him to see the doctor. She kisses him and looks as if she wants intimacy. But there is no spark in their kiss. He is distant and she pulls away, going back to her separate space.
At work, Arthur is paranoid about the presence of a man who entered the bank. He is distracted from his dull dictation involving a loan as he looks at the man. He stares at his phone, which has become an upsetting object. The film continually projects a sense of menace. Arthur decides to go to the address on the note. He must follow a twisting path to get to the Company, which is like going down the rabbit hole of a scary “Wonderland.” His passage through business locations adds to the story’s satire against worshiping capitalism. Sterritt says the laundry Arthur first visits suggests his wrinkled skin will be pressed so as to create a younger, more socially marketable appearance. It’s possible the steam may also symbolize the infernal fires of the hell into which Arthur is descending. Arthur already starts to pretend to be someone else because he must dress like one of the employees at a meatpacking plant so as not to draw notice (the meat company’s slogan states it’s the “used cow dealer,” a pun on a car dealership, but the words carry with them an ominous sense of death). Sterritt points out that the meatpacking establishment uses the same type of truck to transport animal carcasses, many of which are on display, as the one that transports Arthur to the Company. This observation would suggest that companies treat people the same as meat, to be reprocessed and sold for a profit.
When he finally makes it to the Company, the picture on the wall of the reception room is one of a mother and child, which suggests birth, or in the case of this story, rebirth. Arthur accepts some tea, which turns out to be drugged. We again get close-ups magnifying his face, and the camera work attempts to recreate the dizziness that Arthur is feeling. The shots imply that the world he is entering is mentally unbalanced. The numerous close-ups of human faces stress how the horrors that occur in this movie are personal. Arthur seems to be having a nightmare (mirroring the real one he is in) where the walls and floors of a bedroom are distorted and a beautiful woman in a nightgown in a bed screams inaudibly. It looks as if Arthur is on top of her, implying that a rape is taking place. Arthur then wakes up sitting on the reception room’s couch. Upset, he attempts to leave, but like what might occur in a Twilight Zone episode, there is no button to push to summon the elevator, showing how he is incapable of escaping the situation he has become a part of. He goes into a waiting room that has many eerily silent men sitting at desks, looking as if they are killing (the word fits here) time. Arthur stops at one desk and the man sitting there seems surprised to see him. Arthur asks the man (who turns out to be the rejuvenated Charlie who called Arthur) how to exit the building. The man turns away without answering. A man looking like an orderly dressed in white enters the room, and after Arthur asks him how to leave, the orderly makes a call and tells Arthur he must return to Mr. Ruby’s office. One gets the feeling that the ghost of Franz Kafka wrote this scene, and possibly the whole movie (the screenplay is actually by Lewis John Carlino, based on a novel by David Ely).
Ruby (Jeff Corey) says he is there to talk about the circumstances surrounding Arthur’s death. Arthur is upset, and Ruby says the topic may be “indelicate” but must be discussed because of its complexity, which carries a high price tag. A chicken dinner is brought in for Arthur (a strange action during a meeting discussing one’s demise. Food in the context of the film is used to emphasize the unappetizing nature of what is happening). Ruby says the expense includes cosmetic surgery and getting a “fresh corpse” that will match Arthur’s “physical dimensions and medical specifications” so it can appear as if Arthur has died. Ruby says there must be an “obliteration” of the cadaver’s “identifiable” features before it is found, such as fingerprints and teeth. This tale is about wiping away that which makes people unique. Ruby says they “can’t leave anything to chance.” Arthur’s subdued response is, “No, I guess not,” which is a bit humorous, as if what is being stated is part of a rational, acceptable discussion. Ruby asks if he can eat the food Arthur declined, and, given what is happening in the story, the image suggests a beast devouring its prey. Ruby goes on to say that Arthur’s death must be “very carefully staged” so that there are witnesses and other evidence which will identify him as the one who is dead.
Ruby presents different ways that may be used to fabricate Arthur’s demise and says that choosing how he will die may be the most important decision of Arthur’s life, which makes it seem as if living one’s life is not all that significant. Men enter Ruby’s office with documents that consist of Ruby’s will and a trust which ensure Arthur’s wife and daughter will be provided for. But there will also be enough money to take care of Arthur in his new life. However, in an ominous note that indicates how Arthur is delegating his freedom, the Company will be the trustees. Ruby offers a pen for Arthur to sign the agreement, and it feels as if he is making a Faustian deal with the devil, selling his soul. Arthur hesitates, and Ruby has the men show Arthur that they staged and filmed the bogus rape scene. So, the lock has been fastened on Arthur’s fate by way of blackmail.
Ruby and the men leave, and there remains an older man, the Company Chief (Will Geer, who later was the grandfather in the TV show The Waltons and who acts grandfatherly here). As Sterritt says, the Chief is shot making his hat look like a halo around him. One might argue that he sounds as if he is recruiting his flock to enter the afterlife. The Chief says that Arthur’s friend, Charlie, wanted Arthur to know “that rebirth is painful,” most likely since it symbolically replicates one’s first traumatic emergence out of the comfort of mother’s womb into a much different surrounding. Instead of blackmail, the Chief calls the video “insurance” that makes it “easier to go forward when you know you can’t go back.” The Chief smiles and acts reassuring, but what is occurring is criminal, thus adding to the theme that appearances can be deceiving.
The Chief presents the proposition that Arthur’s life is meaningless to him and others, and then allows Arthur to do the talking which presents the evidence that justifies what the Chief stated. Arthur has no proof to refute the fact that his relationship with his wife consists of habitual repetition with no humor or passion. His daughter lives far away and hardly communicates. He says he has friends but they are equated with the boat he uses in the summer, which stresses that people in his life are the equivalent of things. There is no emotion in Arthur’s voice, only a sense of regret. The Chief implies that the “dreams of youth” have been unrealized, which, unfortunately, is true for the majority of people. He goes on to say that Arthur and his family no longer need each other, and it’s “time for a change.” The close-up of Arthur presents a man who seems to be mourning his own life. The scene is shot with Arthur in close-up and the Chief in the background, and it appears like Arthur is making a confession to his priest. But, the religious reference here is ironic.
As Arthur uses a pen to sign the contract, the next scene neatly segues into showing the doctors drawing surgical lines around Arthur’s ear, his face already covered, implying that he is disappearing. They look at annotated drawings of what they must do to transform Arthur. When Arthur is bandaged, and literally loses his face (“defaced,” as Sterritt calls it, which also carries with it the intent to wipe out the value of the original work) he also is in danger of losing his identity. The scars turn out to be physically literal and also psychological. There is a cut to an obituary which shows Arthur died in a fire, sort of a symbolic cremation, his past life having been turned to ashes.
Arthur is now Antiochus “Tony” Wilson (Rock Hudson, in what I think is his best performance). He has had teeth replaced and a vocal cord reconstruction, and must heal before he can speak (which allows a new actor to play the role, both literally and as part of the plot). But the initial scars on his face remind us of Frankenstein’s monster, to emphasize that this is a horror tale. Tony starts to cry, and one could wonder if Hudson took this role to reflect his personal story of re-imagining himself as a straight leading man while hiding his gay orientation.
Tony must heal and undergo physical therapy. He then meets with Davalo, (which sounds like the Italian word “diavolo” that means “devil”) who is his “guidance adviser.” (The actor, Khigh Dhiegh, is the same person Frankenheimer used as the brainwasher in The Manchurian Candidate, thus adding a chilling aspect to his presence here). From a drug-induced psychological assessment, another example of how the Company covertly controls Arthur/Tony, Davalo says that Arthur wished to be a painter (“Arthur” has the word “art” in it). Sterrett notes Arthur’s desire to be a painter contrasts with drawing surgical lines on him. The critic’s note suggests Arthur’s wish to create art contrasts with what the Company does to him to enhance their commerce.
Davalo presents Tony with authentic documents from universities which show he studied art at prestigious institutions. The fact that the documents are real illustrates how powerful the Company is that they can acquire such validation. It is ironic that the papers are real, but Tony is a human forgery. Davalo has “evidence” that galleries displayed Tony’s paintings. To enhance the phony facade, Davalo says that they will furnish Tony with paintings on occasion to keep up the front until he adopts a painting style of his own. Because he will be able to show that he is a successful painter, Davalo tells Tony, “you don’t have to prove anything anymore.” These are scary words, because on the surface they sound as if Arthur already paid his dues. But, the statement also shows that with money and connections to technology, what is false can be made to appear to be real. The film here speaks to us today since technological manipulation of information in the media can blur the difference between lies and facts. Davalo also says Tony is a bachelor, and his parents are deceased. He is “alone in the world, absolved of all responsibility except to your own interest.” In this brave new world, caring about others is vanquished by the drive to satisfy selfish wants.
Tony flies to Malibu, California, which is where the Company has relocated him. We hear Davalo in a voice-over saying Tony will have what every middle-aged man wants, total “freedom.” The movie is addressing the male tendency to have a mid-life crisis, where there is anguish that youthful hopes for a grand, significant life most of the times made way for settling for a more downsized version of occupational and family success which entailed accommodations to others. As Arthur, he was not used to female attention. But now the pretty flight attendant seems to want to flirt with the handsome Tony. His reaction (which may covertly fit Hudson’s personal satirical take on the scene) is to run to the bathroom and pull out some pills. The scene also suggests that the Tony transplant is being rejected by Arthur.
A stranger rushes up to Tony as he acquires his luggage at the airport, loudly calling his name and implying he knows him as an artist, possibly adding authenticity to his new persona. But, Tony is puzzled by this event since, despite his metamorphosis, the incident still feels odd. The quick scene also highlights the fact that Tony has no friends here. Tony has an expensive home with an artist’s studio. A man named John (Wesley Addy) says he’s there to assist him as a servant to make the transition for as long as Tony needs him to become oriented. John informs him that professional businessmen and writers live in the local community. But John says he thinks Tony is the only artist, which Tony hopes is true so nobody there can question his painting ability. Tony, despite his new appearance, is still very much the older Arthur, and is thus having difficulty shedding the outlook of his previous self.
John suggests throwing a cocktail party for the locals living there, but Tony feels he is not ready, which again suggests he is not yet comfortable in his new skin. He is unhappy with his early painting attempts, and looks lonely walking on the beach and eating alone. John pushes for meeting others, probably wanting the transplant not to be rejected, since a successful rebirth would benefit company business. But Tony impatiently resists. He is not sleeping, and looks unhappy.
Tony meets a beautiful woman named Nora Marcus (Salome Jens) on the beach. She is alone, too, and at first looks like she wants it that way. As he starts to walk away, she calls to him and asks to walk with him. She then runs into the ocean shouting that she wants to ask the sea a question. Tony is still morose, not getting caught up in her exuberance. He asks what did she ask, and she says, “Who is Tony Wilson?” A very appropriate question for this identity blurring film. She says the ocean answered by telling her, “to mind my own business.” Her statement reflects Tony’s mood, but also makes him admire her insight, since he offers a tiny smile and keeps walking with her.
At her house, she shows Tony a picture of her family as she tells her story, which mirrors Arthur’s. She had all the comforts of an affluent family life, but was unfulfilled. She says she left four years prior, and sees her family occasionally, but the connection is not the same, because she is “different.” This admission connects with Tony’s outsider feelings. He says he understands, and she can’t believe he would, given his free artistic life. He says she doesn’t know anything about him. She says she does because she can see who he is by looking at his face. What an interesting statement, since it’s not his real face. But maybe his true identity somehow surfaces through the superimposed features. She says she sees “grace,” but it isn’t “pure.” She adds, “it pushes at the edge of something still tentative. unresolved, as if somewhere in the man there is still a key unturned.” She comforts him by saying what she said fits just about everyone. He warms to her “analysis” of his current alienation, and she strokes his new face. It is only later that we find that there is a reason why she knows him so well.
Tony asks Nora if he can join her at what she describes as a wild party in Santa Barbara to help to turn that “key” to unlock the prison of his self-imposed isolation. The gathering mimics a bacchanalia with loud celebrating, music, and wine drinking. Most of the people there are young and they strip off their clothes and jump into a huge wooden vat together to stomp on grapes to make wine. Nora, while drinking and hugging the still unsure Tony, says, “Now, in dying, Bacchus gives us his blood so we may be born again.” These words seem to mimic what happens in a Catholic mass, where the blood of Jesus Christ is supposed to open the door to spiritual, not carnal rebirth. The whole scene adds to the theme advanced by the Company of abandoning self-sacrifice for others to indulge selfish desires.
Nora wants Tony to be a part of the ritual, but he feels like a stranger here, not a willing convert to this new life with people he does not know, which possibly reveals his continuing attachment to those he cared for and left behind. Nora takes off her clothes and joins the other naked people. The juice of the grapes that coats their bodies is like amniotic fluid and the vat resembles a womb that will give birth to a new life steeped in self-indulgent intoxication. Tony calls to Nora and wants the two of them to leave. However, the others pull off his clothing and throw him into the vat. Nora hugs him and wants him to kiss her. In a way she is the Eve of the bible who tempts Adam to join in the sinning through the partaking of physical satisfaction. At first Tony seems to be drowning in the juices, but then lets go and gives way to the physical temptations as he laughs and commits to the new life, repeatedly saying the word, “Yes!” The movie can be seen as a resurrection tale, but as it turns out, a demonic one.
After breaking out of his reclusive existence, Tony now takes John’s advice and hosts a large cocktail party with Nora at his house. He is drinking and his intoxication, fueled by the pagan wine ritual, is reflected in staggering camera shots, not unlike what was used at the beginning of the film. This symmetry suggests that the loss of focus in Arthur’s life repeats itself in that of Tony. Interestingly, the wild Nora of the wine party at this moment sounds like a stereotypical suburban wife of the time as she chides Tony for consuming too much alcohol. She says the excessive drinking is “not like” him, which is true, since he is still Arthur, too. Her remarks imply that Tony has not progressed in his journey of reincarnation, and in fact he is being reintegrated into the same prescribed life, only with a different appearance.
He takes Nora aside and says he will have her sexually later. Her kidding comment about Tony being a “dirty old man” stops Tony short, and the grim look on his face implies he is thinking about how he is still the aging Arthur underneath, which makes him feel pathetic. His smiling agreement that “Yes I am” a dirty old man is a sad confirmation of his past life. He explains that he needed the booze to give him courage to deal with meeting the residents of the community he has invited to his party. He says that he will behave, but then pours what remains of his drink onto the floor. Arthur then comes through and says he is sorry and that he has embarrassed her. She says no, and wants to get the party over with so they can have sex. She says she thinks she loves him, but he does not return the sentiment. Instead he says she is beautiful (stressing physical appearance), and jokingly calls her “evil” for her sexual ways, which is an odd word to use, and adds a disturbing feel to the scene.
Tony is in a conversation with Nora and another woman and a man. It is revealed that the man is a Harvard lawyer. Arthur almost surfaces as Tony says that’s a coincidence, but he is interrupted before he undermines the supposed art background of Tony by revealing Arthur’s education. The alcohol breaks down Tony’s inhibitions and undermines his ability to maintain a separation between his two identities. When the other woman calls the other man “two-faced,” Tony starts to laugh at the remark, because he himself is literally a man of two faces. The jokes about how California is the place where strange movements and cults thrive is satirized here. Tony talks to one woman who says she belongs to a group that routinely changes “sects.” It sounds like “sex,” but even with the idea of pursuing rotating systems of beliefs the interchange points to the lack of finding stability and anchoring oneself to a code of behavior.
Tony continues to drink and when a woman asks what is his artistic process, he says he paints naked to get in touch with his primitive self, which is what happened at the wine party. But, his delivery seems to be mocking what he is saying. He spills a drink onto the questioner’s dress, and she and her husband are outraged at his unbecoming behavior, which again shows how even after the unrestricted behavior at the bacchanalia, he has not attained the world of total freedom that the Company promised. The film shows the attraction of unhindered actions, but also suggests that having no boundaries is not the way to go in a social environment.
Tony approaches a table where the attorney is with Nora and other men. Tony apologizes for interrupting, but nobody there is speaking, similar to the room of workers at the Company, which lends a surreal, inhuman element to the scene. When he starts a joke by saying, “Have you heard the one about …” they interrupt in robotic unison that they know it, without even hearing what Tony is about to say. It is an eerie restriction on Tony’s freedom of speech. When Tony starts to ask about where the lawyer stayed at Harvard, the group quickly disperses, as if questions about the past are forbidden. The drunken Tony follows the lawyer outside and says he was a Harvard alumnus, but just stopped being one since he became a painter. He starts to sing the Harvard school song. When the lawyer tries to shut Tony up, he suggests that they play golf. Tony exhibits fake shock that he the artist would play golf, but says Arthur Hamilton would play the game, thus letting his personal cat out of the bag. The others stare at him like pod people from Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Men carry him away to the bedroom as Tony says he has a nephew at Harvard. As they pin him down, we see their stern faces staring down at the prone Tony, like he was still on the operating table, being molded into something he is not. One man says Tony has no nephew, and if we haven’t already, we now suspect that this community consists of clients of the Company. Tony laughs and says “right,” but follows with the fact that he does have a nephew. And then he says the same about the existence of his daughter, and that he may be a grandfather now. John enters and confirms the fact that the others are “reborns.” Tony wails in tears at the revelation. Nora enters and tells him to stop crying and asks, “Who the hell do you think you are?” Thematically, it is a pertinent question, since the film questions what elements make us who we are.
Charlie calls the distraught Tony the next morning warning him of what he is doing about exposing the process. Tony says he has to get out, which is what he was doing the first time around. He says that Nora is a “reborn,” but Charlie says she is an employee of the company, a different sort of fraud, who was trying to make sure Tony would adapt and not reveal his secret. After hearing this ultimate betrayal, Tony is finding it difficult to trust anybody since authenticity is hard to come by. Charlie says the Company supplied Nora because the initial “adjustment” is a difficult process. Charlie seems afraid of what could happen to him, because the two men were connected in their prior lives. The suggestion is that if Tony is exposed, Charlie’s arranged death may be questioned, and he would be a liability for the Company.
Charlie begs Tony to stay put, but we see him at the airport, trying to escape his life again. Reborns follow him to the airport, so we know Tony will not be free. Tony goes to his old house, trying to reconnect to the life that he undervalued. He looks around the converted living room and picks up a picture of himself as Arthur. There is a reflection of Tony in the glass covering the picture of Arthur, stressing his dissociative existence. He called Emily before visiting, and what follows is a strange meeting between a wife and a husband she doesn’t recognize. Perhaps the movie is suggesting how spouses over time begin to feel estranged from each other.
Tony says he met Arthur just before he died to explain why Arthur never mentioned him. She is puzzled that Tony knows that the room they are sitting in was once a study, which reveals knowledge not usually shared in a recent acquaintanceship. He says he and Arthur talked about painting and he wondered if he could have one of Arthur’s watercolors that was stored away as a memento. She says the garage that housed Arthur’s paintings has been cleaned out, which is a metaphor for what has happened to his prior identity. Tony says that Arthur spoke a great deal about his house and his family. Emily is surprised, saying it wasn’t like him to do that. Her statement demonstrates how she knew that Arthur didn’t seem to have strong feelings about his life, or her in particular. Tony, through his disguise, is able to learn about what his wife thought of him which he didn’t realize when he was actually himself.
Tony, using painting as a metaphor, says that he wants to have a detailed portrait of Arthur, but all he has are sketches and “lines,” (Surgical? Could the movie be implying that his genuine connection to “art” was cut out of “Arthur,” when he let the surgeons remove him from his old life. Also, maybe Frankenheimer is making a cinematic reference to bits of a character sometimes being left on the cutting room floor). Tony’s words indicate how he wants to understand himself through his wife’s perspective. Emily says that she mostly remembers Arthur’s quiet nature, his “silences.” She says that he seemed to be listening to a voice inside him, and wasn’t touched by anything. She says he lived like a “stranger” there who may have been upset about the life he “surrendered” to. She says that Arthur fought for what he was supposed to want, and when “he got it, he just grew more and more confused.” These lines show how the human spirit is prone to be an outsider, never satisfied with what it has been told should bring happiness. As she talks she stands in front of Arthur’s picture as if she is talking to him, which she actually is. She says that Arthur had been “dead a long, long time before they found him in that hotel room.” So, in essence, his soul died before his body supposedly did. As Frankenheimer does in his other movies, one person is in close-up here as we see the effect of the words of another character in the background. The only memento she can give him is the trophy he won in college that was used by Charlie to prove his identity. It somehow symbolizes a time in his life long ago when he felt he was happy and a winner.
Outside, John pulls up in a car, and says he is sorry. At this point, Tony is resigned to his fate, saying, “it doesn’t matter,” which can sum up his attitude toward his attempts at living so far. He tells John that he wants to go back to the company to kill off Tony and start again. He later says to Ruby that mistakes were made this time around, but Ruby first wants to know if Tony can recommend someone else who “would benefit by the company’s services.” Charlie had been the one to give them Arthur’s name, and the Company relies on a “word-of-mouth” means to recruit its subjects. Tony says he has to think about who he could suggest.
Company workers take pictures of his undressed body as Tony questions the procedure, which apparently is different from what happened during his prior surgery. The audience should be getting suspicious now. He is brought back to that same silent room filled with men. The attendant is putting pills in little paper cups, (Nutrients? Sedatives? It’s like a mental ward) to be consumed by those present. An attendant tells Tony to take a seat. Charlie is there, and seems to recognize that Tony is Arthur. Charlie quietly talks with Tony, revealing who he is. He confesses that he has been in that room waiting for a long time for the next body. Tony seems to have gained insight through his talk with Emily. He says he spent years trying to get “things” that he was told were important. How he should get meaning out of life, not possessions, and make connections with people should have been emphasized. He says in California, “They made the decisions for me all over again,” but the emphasis was still on getting the same “things.” Charlie, now called Mr. Carlson, sobs, and hopes that Tony is right when the latter says, “It’s going to be different from now on. A new face and a new name.” Tony doesn’t realize that running away from one’s self which is defined by one’s actions will not end well. A loud buzzer sounds and Charlie is picked to leave.
In a contentious meeting with Ruby, Tony says that he doesn’t have anyone to offer as a recommendation for the company. Ruby accuses him of deliberately not cooperating, and Tony does not deny that. After Tony leaves, Ruby makes a call and says that they are ready to go “to the next stage” with Tony. Oh, oh.
The Chief wakes up the sleeping Tony and says he had hoped Arthur’s dream would have come true. The bedroom, as does the waiting area, look like cells, which undermines the quest for freedom. Despite his being aroused from a sleep state, which incorporates dreams, Tony says maybe the problem was that he never had a dream of his own (except for the ones imposed on him). The Chief says that they keep trying to improve the process, but they had a significant failure rate, which is not what a company wants to divulge. Perhaps the significant number of unsuccessful reborns is because the emphasis was on superficial external changes and not meaningful internal ones. As Sterritt says, “the body is reborn but the spirit stays dead.” The Chief says he didn’t start the business for rich people. He really wanted to help everyone, and didn’t care about profits. But, the business grew, and then there was a board of directors, so the acquisition of money became foremost. He is basically stating what happens when corporations become so large and powerful that the welfare of clients becomes secondary.
Men come in with a gurney and say Tony is being taken to surgery. But there has been no discussion about his new identity. They put him in restraints, so he won’t fall off, says the fake, grandfatherly Chief. As they wheel him away, Tony ironically keeps stressing how freedom is important at the same time he has been immobilized. A man is there who confirms Tony’s Protestant religious orientation. Tony starts to understand that the cleric is there to administer last rights. He thrashes about as he is gagged and given what turns out to be a lethal injection. He is now to be one of the cadavers used for the next fake death of another reborn. (Could Tony be the cadaver used for the fake death of Charlie's latest incarnation?) The words read by the clergyman speak of spiritual resurrection, and that is the only type of rebirth that is left for Arthur/Tony. The last sound we hear is that of the whirring noise of a cranial drill as the Frankenstein doctor is at it again.
The movie appears to be saying that in a society that worships materialism and external appearance over intangibles, such as love and friendship, people themselves may be seen as objects, even as parts on an assembly line, or obsolete objects for disposal.
Next, controversy over the 2019 films Joker, Parasite, and Little Women.
Sunday, January 19, 2020
SPOILER ALERT! The plot will be discussed.
The Marx Brothers films in general were the pop versions of what Theater of the Absurd dramatists and surrealist artists were producing at the beginning of the twentieth century. In Duck Soup the brothers found their best vehicle for their absurdist take on life in general, and more specifically on politics and war. The first shot of the movie is of ducks floating in a pot, quacking, possibly reflecting the brothers, although the bird representing Harpo is the silent one, so all he could do is move his bill (my joke, sorry). The title of the movie may have been provided by Groucho Marx describing a recipe: “Take two turkeys, one goose, four cabbages, but no duck, and mix them together. After one taste, you’ll duck soup for the rest of your life.” Even this anecdote shows how the brothers loved wordplay and poking fun at logic as being the answer to deal with all problems. The Marx Brothers, in their act in Vaudeville and later on Broadway and then in films, would be the anti-establishment force that attacked snobbery and constricting rules. They became the proxies for their audience that delighted in liberation from domineering, powerful figures of authority.
The plot exists only to set up the comic mayhem which then undermines it. It is pointless to discuss all the jokes packed into this short film. It’s best to just watch it and laugh your head off. But comments on its rebellious subversiveness and satiric thrust may be worth mentioning. Groucho plays Rufus T. Firefly, and his humor lights up the story as his name suggests. His painted-on mustache and eyebrows emphasize the lack of any attempt to even suggest that moviemaking is anything but an artistic way to comment on reality and not take it seriously. He is the dictator of the ironically named country Freedonia. He is put into power by a rich person, perennial Marx Brothers straight woman Margaret Dumont playing Mrs. Teasdale. Her name suggests she is constantly teased, or that her wealth allows her to just have tea parties to pass the time, which she does in the movie. The country is in a financial bind (the film was released in 1933, in the middle of The Great Depression, so a nation’s failure economically would have connected with Americans) and Teasdale is tired of financing it. So, she demands a change in leadership if she is to pay out huge sums to save Freedonia. The film stresses that the wealthy are primarily the ones to influence who becomes a country’s leader.
There is a formal, stuffy reception to introduce Firefly. It is populated by well-dressed attendees following mannerly codes of etiquette in a fancy ballroom. Teasdale introduces Ambassador Trentino (Louis Calhern), from the country of Sylvania. Vera Marcal (Raquel Torres) is a dancer who is a double agent for Trentino, who wishes to take over Freedonia. He has a plan to marry Teasdale to gain control, but Marcal says Teasdale is attracted to Firefly. Teasdale introduces Secretary Rob Roland (Zeppo Marx, the straight man who soon would leave the act), and just like Trentino, Roland quickly says “we’ve met” when introduced to Miss Marcal, which slyly suggests she is promiscuous. They then break into song about how Firefly will appear when the clock strikes ten. When it chimes, it does not ring out the correct number of chimes, showing how even time isn’t a reliable point of reference, and an attempt at presenting order is a fake facade in what really is a chaotic world.
The phoniness of the country and its leader is continued in what follows. The song introducing the not democratically elected Firefly calls the country the “land of the brave and free,” which is an obvious reference to the United States. The fake news is that Firefly is never late, but he is still in his pajamas (no, there was no elephant in them. Sorry again, a reference to another Groucho joke). In this film, as in other Marx Brothers movies, Groucho is the insulter, whose jokes spiral into more and more outrageous tangents. When Trentino says, “I didn’t come here to be insulted, Firefly’s response is, “That’s what you think!” The subversiveness of Groucho’s double entendres pushed the censors to their limits. For instance, when Teasdale says she welcomes Firefly with open arms, he says, “How late do you stay open?” Another gem of sexual suggestiveness occurs when Firefly asks Teasdale to marry him and puns on his first name, saying, “All I can offer you is a Rufus over your head.” After finding out that Teasdale’s husband died, Firefly asks her, “Will you marry me? Did he leave you any money? Answer the second question first?” The thrust here is that human greed takes preference over love, especially with a selfish politician. That government figures can’t be trusted with money is emphasized when Firefly tells Trentino he’ll borrow some money from him and give him a note promising to pay him back, and if he doesn’t reimburse him, Trentino can keep the note. His joke suggests the promises of leaders aren’t worth the price of the paper they are written on. Similarly, he later says he’s paying off his dentist, but won’t enclose the check.
The satirical song that follows contains Firefly’s rules. They include no dirty jokes, demonstrations of pleasure, or even chewing gum, while at the same time singing about how free Freedonia is. There are a few bars from Popeye’s theme song, which refers to the cartoonish character that has become the country’s new leader. The song lyrics make fun of how the government continually places a burden on citizens by raising taxes. Firefly demonstrates the power of a tyrant over working people when he says he’ll deal with their demands for shorter hours by “cutting their lunch hour to twenty minutes.” Firefly plays a fife and marching music is heard, and citizens cheer in a programmed manner. The movie implies people are manipulated to respond to patriotic cues which conceal a dubious hidden agenda. Firefly sings that he’s against corruption, but undermines his stance by saying it’s okay if he gets his share of the graft. In a dark comic note, he pledges, as a leader with unlimited power, to order assassinations. He describes what he will do by using the jack-in-the-box tune, “Pop Goes the Weasel” as he holds up his hands as if he has a rifle in them.
Trentino in Sylvania meets with his two spies, Chicolini (Chico) and Pinky (Harpo), who he wants to get scandalous information on Firefly. Ebert notes that Chico always wears a Pinocchio hat in the Marx Brothers films. That observation fits with his character being Italian, but also adds to the anti-realistic presentation of the films of the brothers. They became famous with their verbal humor just when the silent era of movies was ending. Which makes it ironic that one of their characters, Harpo, never speaks, yet is one of the best silent actors of all time with his physical humor. Okay, he isn’t completely silent because he uses honking horns as a means of communication sometimes. Chicolini (which means “little Chico,” again stressing no attempt to pretend to tell a realistic story) and Pinky take over Trentino’s office with anarchistic, comic actions which undermine Trentino trying to act in a rational manner. One example of the absurdist humor rejecting the blind acceptance of human rational thought is in Chico’s line about not showing up at a baseball game cancelled because of rain, but still listening to it on the radio. Pinky uses scissors to cut Trentino’s hair and his jacket tails, as if shearing off any pretense that people should pretend to act as civil creatures.
At a meeting of his staff, Firefly plays jacks and can’t understand a report, satirizing the ineptness of government leaders. Just like Chicolini and Pinky, Firefly puns his way through the session, mocking any attempt at running government in an orderly fashion.
In a scene worthy of Eugene Ionesco, the absurdist playwright, Chicolini pretends to be selling peanuts (the operative word here is “nuts”). Pinky is outlandish in frustrating any attempt by his fellow spy to extract information from him. They interact with a lemonade stand salesman (Edgar Kennedy) in this hilarious scene. Pinky continues to use his scissors, this time cutting pockets off of the lemonade man’s pants. He also steals money out of the pocket of a customer. Is this a reference to how the government in this Depression era period stole the citizens’ money? Also, the Theater of the Absurd dramatists emphasized the shortcomings of language, and misunderstandings were prevalent in their plays. The Marx Brothers in all their scenes constantly confuse others by misinterpreting what is said to them. Harpo as Pinky here, and in other movies with the brothers, can’t communicate at all (except with his body and his horn). Also, Pinky and Chicolini are not what they seem, since they are spies, Not being able to actually understand who one actually is occurs at the end of the scene with an expertly choreographed shuffle of the hats they are wearing with the lemonade man. (This scene inspired Nobel Prize winner Samuel Beckett to imitate it in his play Waiting for Godot). The bit challenges the idea of relying on absolutes of identity (which is stressed much more in the famous mirror scene later).
Firefly wants Chicolini to give up his annoying peanut stand for a “soft” government job. This line is another jab at government leaders doling out money for do-nothing employment in exchange for favors. Chicolini answers Firefly’s phone when people call, saying the man isn’t there, even though he’s standing right next to him. The movie may be commenting on the inefficiency and inaccessibility of bureaucracies. This idea is driven home when Firefly wants to make Chicolini Secretary of War, and Chicolini says he wants a standing army so they’ll save money on chairs. Chico in this movie and others with his brothers is sort of a con man who confuses the hell out of people with his puns that distract others from finding out what they want from him. In his interactions with Groucho, the latter is his mark who is constantly frustrated.
Don’t ask me how, but Pinky shows up as Firefly is throwing Chicolini out of his office. Whatever is considered “normal” goes right out the window whenever Pinky is present. He continues to disrupt any regular activities by using his scissors to cut things up. He answers questions with tattoos etched on his body. When he supposedly shows a picture of his house depicted on his stomach, Firefly meows and a dog appears coming out of the house to bark at the cat sound. There is no attempt at verisimilitude here. The Marx Brothers constantly remind us that art may escape, alter, or comment on reality, but it is an artificial rendering of the real world.
Roland presents Firefly with a letter that shows Trentino is a threat and must be removed from Freedonia through some covert plan (nothing is straightforward here) of insulting the man, which Firefly does at Teasdale’s tea party. At the gathering, Trentino complains that his attempt to romance Teasdale has been thwarted by Firefly’s presence. Firefly arrives at the tea party as he did at the beginning, bringing chaos which undermines the attempt to maintain order. He grabs a donut out of one person’s hand and dunks it in the cup of coffee held by another. His behavior makes fun of those who believe they are superior to others, which is what Jonathan Swift did in his satires.
Pinky has another encounter with the lemonade man, who eventually topples the peanut cart in frustration because of Pinky’s antics. Not to be outdone, Pinky gets back by raising up his pants and sloshing around in the lemonade tank, driving away the customers. Outrageous behavior which flaunts the rules of society is on display once again as the Marx Brothers used the vehicle of the entertaining arts to challenge any restraints placed upon them.
Trentino says war between Freedonia and Sylvania is imminent, and Teasdale asks Firefly to visit her to try to stop the conflict. Firefly first presents romantic expressions, and then immediately squashes sentimentality like a bug. He says he wants to marry Teasdale and can see her in their home bending over a stove, but then he “can’t see the stove.” He asks for a lock of her hair, and then says he’s letting her off easy because he was “gonna ask for the whole wig.” There is another attack against the idle rich when he says she is off “playing bridge” instead of caring for anything else.
Insults are traded again between Firefly and Trentino and the latter conspires (more hidden agendas) to steal the war plans that Firefly gave to Teasdale. Chicolini and Pinky show up at Teasdale’s home to work with Marcal to get the plans, but Firefly is also there as a guest. When Marcal asks for a flashlight, her rational request is answered with a ridiculous response, as Pinky produces a blowtorch. Marcal tells them to not make a sound, which should be Pinky’s specialty. But, he explodes all planned activity, (which is the Marx Brothers specialty), when he resets a clock so it rings twelve times and he starts a music box playing loudly. The speechless Pinky compensates by subsequently creating a racket by mistaking a radio for a safe.
Firefly is in bed (which is where he is a great deal, suggesting some leaders are lazy and sleep on the job) when Teasdale wakes him up and wants to give him the war plans back to make them safe. Chicolini overhears the conversation and locks Firefly in his bathroom. Chicolini makes himself look like Firefly wearing a nightgown. He paints his eyebrows and mustache. He looks just like Firefly, but his Italian accent does make Teasdale say he sounds differently. But he ridiculously says he’s practicing Italian. Pinky dresses up like Firefly too to pull the same scam. Firefly breaks out of the bathroom and now there are three of him roaming around. Teasdale encounters all three, one at a time, not realizing what’s going on. In this absurd world nothing is definite, not even one’s identity (as was noted by the hat routine earlier).
What follows is the celebrated mirror scene that drives the above point home (repeated between Harpo and Lucille Ball later on her TV show). Pinky sees Firefly and tries to escape before being discovered. But, he runs right into a mirror. and shatters it. Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass are brought to mind, where the main character breaches the barrier between the so-called real world and the world of boundless fantasy. If there is one symbolic moment that sums up the comic vision of the Marx Brothers, it is this one. What follows is Pinky mirroring Firefly’s exaggerated movements which he couldn’t possibly do if this behavior was based in real life. Firefly at first thinks it’s himself he sees, but suspects there is something not quite right. As the scene develops the two worlds merge. This last point is made as the two men exchange places as they rotate their positions and even exchange hats. Again, we have art shown as only a version of life. Chicolini enters next to Pinky and that is when Firefly knows that he is being duped and captures Chicolini.
Chicolini is accused of treason. We have another serious, regimented facade in the form of the trial for the brothers to subvert. For example, Firefly empties his briefcase and instead of legal papers there is his lunch, and he complains that some papers are missing which upsets him because he wrapped his dessert in them. Chicolini contributes to the assault on rationality with a series of puns and illogical statements. For instance, Firefly, for no reason, asks the defendant to pick a number from one to ten, and Chicolini says “eleven.” Firefly adds to the nonsense by again making contradictory statements, both asking for clemency for Chicolini and imprisonment in alternating remarks.
Teasdale interrupts the proceedings saying that Trentino and Sylvania don’t want war and the ambassador is again coming to make peace. But Firefly, although starting out glad about ending hostilities, whips himself into a paranoid frenzy and by the time Trentino shows up, Firefly smacks him again with his glove. The scene is not only funny, but it also implies world leaders are warped by their power and suspiciousness which perpetuates violence (supposedly Mussolini banned the movie because he thought it was making fun of him). A musical number follows which carries the above thought further as leader Firefly’s enthusiasm for war influences his subjects as they sing about going into battle. They subvert a gospel song’s lyrics, with the line, “All God’s children got guns.” Darkly funny, and still relevant today.
The waging of war is also satirized as Pinky, supposedly now on Firefly’s side, goes off chasing women (yes, there is what we would call sexual harassment today. It was a different time, but it still doesn’t make it right). Chicolini has also joined Freedonia’s fight and his and Firefly’s irrationality points to the senselessness of war. For instance, Firefly says that if they build trenches high enough, soldiers won’t have to wear pants, and if built higher, they won’t need soldiers. The humor goes dark again when Firefly takes out a machine gun and starts firing, but is told he is shooting at his own men. The film attacks war by implying it can be suicidal, only it does so in a comical way, like Dr. Strangelove, while The Deer Hunter does so dramatically. Firefly wears military clothing from different eras and countries as this sequence cuts back and forth, which emphasizes how military conflicts never cease.
Firefly, Pinky and Chicolini capture and restrain Trentino, and then throw food at him, making him surrender, As Teasdale sings off key about victory, Firefly and company pelt her too as the movie ends, showing that both sides fighting wars are open to ridicule. The ending, like the rest of the movie is funny, because it is a comedy after all, despite some astute observations about reality, art, politicians, and war.
The next film is Seconds.