Sunday, November 30, 2014

Ordinary People

SPOILER ALERT! The plot will be discussed.

I know film critics went into rage mode when Ordinary People took the Academy Award for Best Picture for the year 1980 over Raging Bull. Where do you stand on this argument? In my opinion, it was a worthy winner. The acting and the directing, by first time helmer Robert Redford, hit artistic marks with Oscar caliber ammunition. The theme about the tension between the desire for control and limitations on behavior and thoughts and the conflicting need to break rules and boundaries has always been a subject of interest to me.

The very first scene lets you know where this film is heading. We see a placid lake with a hovering bird, both representing calm and peace. We then view reassuring vistas of autumnal trees and a safe, affluent suburban setting as the ordered, hypnotic sounds of Pachebel's Canon in D wash over us. We zoom in on the youthful choir singing words accompanying the music. Then, almost brutally, there is a cut to the main character, a sweat soaked Conrad (Timothy Hutton), waking up from nightmare. Thus, the conflict has been immediately presented to us between order on the surface and caged chaos raging beneath the controlled world above.

The water references above are intentional. Conrad survived, at least physically, a boating accident, in which the only other member of the crew was his older brother, Buck, who drowned. Conrad is psychologically underwater now, suffocating from guilt, not only for what happened to his brother, but because he attempted suicide by cutting his wrists in the bathroom, which, of course is associated with water. He is a member of the high school swim team, which symbolizes how he is unable to get out of the mental ocean threatening to swallow him up because of his "faults." When he finds out that a friend at the psychiatric hospital committed suicide, the first thing he does is throw water on his face, revealing his scarred wrists, implying that he feels guilty that he could not help her. Eventually his psychiatrist (Judd Hirsch) makes him realize that he has to let himself off the “hook” (fishing reference) about saving himself in the boating accident. And, that he has to forgive his mother for her limitations. He tells his patient that he is not big on "control" which stifles feeling. Conrad's independence is illustrated when he quits the swim team.

His control obsessed mother, Beth (Mary Tyler Moore), cannot cope with the upheavals in her family and deals with the problems by going on as if nothing has happened, submerging all attempts to openly deal with the pain suffered by her son and her husband, Cal (Donald Sutherland). Conrad states that his mother will not forgive him, that it was almost impossible to wash out the blood stains in the bathroom after his suicide attempt. Water is also used as a symbol showing the desire to clean up a mess similar to trying to wipe the memory clean of disturbing thoughts. Beth immediately shoves Conrad's breakfast down the garbage disposal when he says he is not hungry one morning. She tries to stifle her husband from mentioning that Conrad is seeing a psychiatrist, because this would acknowledge that a problem exists. She heatedly rebuffs Cal at lunch after he suggests that they all get things out in the open by seeing the psychiatrist. Then she quickly shuts up and puts on a happy face when the waitress approaches their table. Outward conforming appearances are what matter to her. If things look okay, then things must be okay. When they do a get-away to Texas, she and Cal argue over including Conrad in a future trip. He says that all her son wants is to let him know she doesn't hate him. She says, "Mothers don't hate their sons." She says it like it's a rule she is reciting from the Good Mother’s Handbook. She doesn't make it personal by saying that she cares for Conrad.

In the end, Cal gives a concise assessment of his wife. He says that everything would have been fine it there hadn't been any "mess." That she cannot deal with mess. This fact means that she is not really strong. This conclusion is the crux of why someone rigidly adheres to rules and accepted behaviors. They are crutches for the weak, who cannot face anything without supports to prop them up along life’s paths. People like Beth are not willing to let themselves test their inner strength by facing reality with an open, inviting mind.

There is so much layered in this movie, I think a thorough discussion can go on much longer. The performances by Donald Sutherland, Mary Tyler Moore and Judd Hirsch are pitched perfectly. And Timothy Hutton, in his Oscar-winning role, hits every note, except maybe when he tries to sing. And blame Redford for the overuse of the Pachebel Canon at so many weddings.

Next week's movie is Tootsie.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

A Man for All Seasons

SPOILER ALERT! The plot of the movie will be discussed.

Even if you do not subscribe to any established religious faiths, the issues raised by religion are essential to human nature. And religion's impact on history has been immense. One might think that a story set during Henry VIII's time about a conflict between the King and the Chancellor of England over the Catholic prohibition concerning a divorce would not speak to us today. But, that's not what this intelligent film by director Fred Zinnemann is really about. Its focus is on honor, integrity, and the courage to adhere to one's convictions no matter what the consequences.

Henry the VIII, played by a larger than life Robert Shaw, appoints Sir Thomas More, a lawyer and magistrate, as Chancellor to make him beholden to him in his battle with the Catholic Church. Sound familiar? The same situation is depicted in the film Becket, which has similar themes, and which I will discuss in another entry. Henry was given approval by the Pope to marry his brother's widow (considered by many as incest). He then wants to divorce her, saying that he shouldn't have been allowed to marry her in the first place. He now wants to marry Anne Boleyn (a wordless Vanessa Redgrave). Although I do not agree with the positions of the main characters in Becket and this film, I still find myself admiring them because the kings they oppose are not arguing an opposing ideology, but instead are only interested in fulfilling their own desires.  

Shaw's loudness is offset by the quiet strength of Paul Scofield's Oscar winning performance as More. Thomas tries to walk a moral tightrope as he tries to not open himself up as a traitor to the crown and at the same time keep his allegiance to the Pope.  So his fate hinges on what he says and especially on what he does not say. Words are very important in this story, and More's brilliance shines as he plays this legal cat and mouse game. The King, in order to get what he wants, breaks with Rome, and establishes the Church of England, with himself as its head. Those who oppose him on this action are considered traitors. Thomas resigns as Chancellor when he sees he cannot openly support the King, who requires his followers to sign a loyalty oath, which More will not do. And so he is brought to the Tower of London. But, he is very careful not to ever say that he opposes the King, not even to his wife, played by Wendy Hiller. It is ironic that he tells her at one point that he does not consist of the stuff of which martyrs are made. It is Richard Rich (John Hurt) who betrays him, perjuring himself by saying that More told him that the King through Parliament could not undermine the Pope's authority.

More is a complicated character. He is a devout Catholic, believing in the Pope's authority handed down from Jesus to St. Peter and his successors. He refuses to have his daughter (Susannah York) marry Will Roper (Corin Redgrave) until he renounces support for Martin Luther and thus stops being a heretic. But, he believes in the laws of man, too. He tells Will that he would give the Devil himself benefit of the law for his (More's) own safety's sake, stating that for the law to be effective, it must be applied universally. What More objects to in Roper, and especially with Henry, is that they have no codes to live by, no core belief systems, and that they change the rules on a whim to suit themselves. More says to Cardinal Wolsey (Orson Welles) that when a man in office ignores his own morality, he leads his country to chaos.

The motifs in the film enhance its themes. There is a great deal of going back and forth by boat between the seat of government and Thomas' home. This fact comes to symbolize the ethical distance between the King and the affairs of state and More's religious morality. At one point, because he is now considered out of favor with the King, the water taxi boatmen will not shuttle Thomas, and he must find his own way home, which emphasizes the loneliness of the person taking a moral stand against those in power.

When the King visits Thomas, he jumps from his boat into the mud. He laughs and, following his example, his followers all jump into the mud. The mud symbolizes the moral muck in which the King and his followers now reside. Henry's filthy mind is seen in how he lusts after Thomas' daughter, but turns away from her when she exhibits the beauty of her mind with her fluent Latin. Ironically, the man of no morals seeks the approval of the man of truthfulness to legitimize his selfish, lustful ways. Rich is tempted by Cromwell (Leo McKern) to inform on More, and when Rich falls backward into the mud after he is offered a post for his collaboration, you know that he, too, now wallows in corruption. 

Thomas tells Rich that he cannot employ him at Court or recommend him for a job in public office because he knows he will accept bribes. Thomas asks him what he would do with the money from a bribe. Rich says he would buy proper clothes. As we see Rich become more involved with Cromwell in the conspiracy against More, Rich's wardrobe becomes more expensive and elaborate. His exterior increases in adornment as his soul declines in worth. 

At the end of the film we are told that Cromwell, like any henchman whose mission in life is doing the dirty work their superiors delegate to them, was executed at the end of his usefulness. Henry died, appropriately, of syphilis. Rich, however, became Chancellor of England, and died in his bed. In this world, alas, the bad are not always punished. Thomas, whose moral constancy made him a man for all seasons, says at his execution that he was "the King's good servant, but God's first."

Does this film make a good argument about the need for the separation between church and government? What do you think?

Next week's film is Ordinary People.

Sunday, November 16, 2014


(A version of this post first appeared on the Bryn Mawr Film Institute Blog)

My father was a big Alfred Hitchcock fan because he was the “Master of Suspense.” But, there is so much more going on in his art. He addresses voyeurism often, which is fitting, since his audience lives vicariously through the characters he presents on the screen. However, he goes further, making the audience, from the perspective of the camera lens, an unseen presence stepping into the stories themselves. We become a Peeping Tom, like Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window; we observe Janet Leigh through the hole in the wall, in Psycho; we are accused directly in the diner scene of causing the coming apocalypse, in The Birds.

In Vertigo, Jimmy Stewart's weird obsession with Kim Novak takes this voyeurism to the point of obsession. The voyeur has no respect for the individual, who is only a means to satisfy the voyeur's fantasy. In the opening credits we see a woman's face and then her eye. We then look into that eye, and there is a spinning pinwheel. Right from the beginning, Hitchcock is saying that a man can become unbalanced with obsession over a woman.

Stewart's detective Scottie discovers that he has acrophobia while hanging from a gutter after chasing a criminal. He is then traumatized by witnessing a fellow policeman fall off the roof trying to save him. Falling becomes a motif in the film. The story takes place in hilly San Francisco, which symbolizes the precariousness of Scottie's predicament. (Scottie lives right near Coit Tower.)  Probably because he feels guilty about the dead police officer, he dives into the bay to save Novak's character. But the jump also shows how dangerous his obsession can become. Of course, there are the falling deaths from the tower, and Scottie has dreams of falling off the tower. After the death of his fantasy woman, he drops into a state of catatonia, unable to be in the real world. The falling theme also refers to the danger of falling in love with the wrong person, for both Scottie and Novak's Judy. One could push it and say, for Scottie, the towers are phallic symbols, and the fear of falling could symbolize the fear of impotence in real life, thus encouraging the escape into fantasy.

The acrophobia is not only a plot device so that Scottie can't witness Thomas Helmore's Gavin throwing his wife off the tower. It also symbolizes Stewart's inability to see the big picture from a height. He can only see as far as his version of a dream woman lets him. The first scene deals with beauty and sex, as Scottie’s ex-fiancĂ©e, Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes) draws fashion pictures and discusses a newly designed bra. She is not the Hitchcock ice-goddess, since she just draws beauty and clinically describes the bra's engineering. When she draws a picture of Novak as Gavin's wife Madeleine and substitutes her own face, Scottie quickly departs the room, showing how she does not fit his sexual requirements. She is real and can't compete with a dream girl. Gavin is an old friend, who knows of Scottie's disability, and wants Stewart to find out where his wife is going on her mysterious trips. At first Scottie is the voyeur spying on her beauty at the restaurant. Hitchcock places the audience in the car seat, following Novak, joining the detective in his fantasy. When he follows her through a dark walkway and opens the door, the scene lights up with the beautiful colors of flowers which the equally beautiful Novak is buying. It reminds one of Dorothy opening the door to her drab house to witness the awe of Oz, which, of course is a fantasy land, and which can be dangerous, just like Scottie's obsession.

The husband says a dead woman is possessing his wife. She goes into spells, visits her grave, and looks at the dead woman's painting on the wall of the gallery. Scottie observes that the curl in Novak's hair mirrors the curl of the dead woman in the painting. We realize that the circular curls also echo the theme of spinning wheels, leading to actual and symbolic vertigo. The story of the ghost plays into the whole unreal, fantasy theme of the film. Scottie sees Madeleine check into a hotel, but the concierge says she was not there that day, and there is no evidence of her in the hotel room. After Scottie rescues Madeleine from the bay, the camera shows her clothes hung up and drying in his home, and Novak naked under the covers in his bed. This is kind of creepy, knowing that she has been undressed by a stranger. It is as if Stewart's character presumptuously has actually taken possession of her (in contrast to her pretending to have become possessed) as an object in his fantasy world. When they are in the sequoia forest, Madeleine seems to disappear for a while, like an unearthly spirit. After his release from the mental institution, Scottie looks for Madeleine wherever he goes, like a morbid ghost hunter. It is ironic that he becomes haunted by the ghost of a woman who pretended to be haunted by another dead woman. Of course, when Scottie accidently sees Judy, thinking she is only a Madeleine look-a-like and not part of the murder conspiracy, he wants to resurrect the dead Madeleine, forcing the now-in-love Judy to again play the same part. When Scottie finally recreates her with make-up, hair styling, and clothes, Hitchcock makes Novak look like she is a ghost, as she materializes out of the hotel room's wall in a neon sign induced mist.

Scottie's obsession is a kind of madness. Gavin says there is madness in Madeleine's family, which sets the stage for the belief that she would commit suicide (her name has the word "mad" in it).  And, Scottie's madness leads to a sort of personality suicide as he realizes at the end, as Roger Ebert says in his book, The Great Movies, that another man (Gavin) created the woman he wanted to forge. Thus, Scottie's dream was not even his own. First he lost the person he wrongly thought was his ideal woman incarnate, and then he loses the woman he thought he created to be his perfect reproduction of his ideal.  For Hitchcock, the desire to possess one's dream person is an impossible act and can only turn life into a nightmare.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Dr. Strangelove

SPOILER ALERT! If you haven't seen the film, the plot will be discussed. I guess you have to be strange to love this movie, and I fit that requirement. Again, I have to thank my parents for taking their young child and respecting him to be able to appreciate this great film at such an early age. Even as a thirteen-year-old, I enjoyed the dark comedy in this flick.

Over the opening credits of Stanley Kubrick's film there is a plane fueling a bomber with a phallic-looking line connecting them, suggesting a symbolic sexual exchange of fluids. Right from the beginning of this perfect satire of the insanity of modern warfare the director shows the connection between the male desire for sexual power and making war.

There is General Jack D. (the "d" sounds like "the") Ripper's preoccupation with bodily fluids as he puffs on a cigar, another phallic symbol. He is compensating for sexual impotence (as he says he denies women his "essence"), by spewing forth his military machismo. He tries to place the blame of his own shortcomings onto an outside entity, the Communists, who, through fluoridation, have undermined his manhood. He lives up to his namesake, Jack the Ripper, by also substituting violence as the outlet for sexual aberration. George C. Scott's General Turgidson, (the name suggesting the swollen male member), is first seen with his half-naked secretary, and says he will return to her for "blast off," making the sexual/rocket analogy. He is intrigued at the end of the movie at the suggestion that there should be a ten to one female/male ratio in the brave new world that will follow the nuclear holocaust. When Peter Sellers' President Muffley (a name which suggests the female pubic region) first talks with the drunken Russian Premiere, it is stated that the latter is, first and foremost, a man, and the President is literally causing coitus interruptus.  Seller's ex-Nazi scientist, Dr. Strangelove, has a hand that wants to salute Hitler, and the spasmodic raising of the arm could be seen as the desire to achieve an erection. Slim Pickens' bomber pilot has a survival kit that contains lipstick, nylons, and prophylactics.  As he says, a guy could have a good time in Vegas with the items. He is seen looking at a Playboy magazine, and the safe that contains the bombing codes has half-naked pictures on it. His plane's primary target is "La Puta," which translated from Spanish is "The Whore."  In the end, he straddles the penis-shaped bomb, riding the weapon of mass destruction, waving his cowboy hat. The image of the American love of the violent, shoot-'em-up Wild West is hysterical and chilling. The film associates guns and bombs exploding with the male orgasm.

There are many inspired moments in this film. There is a deadpan Keenan Wynn saying that breaking the soda machine for change to call off the nuclear attack will result in the dire consequences of having to answer to the Coca Cola Company. The look on Scott's face as his General, in an elated depiction of how great his pilots are at carrying out their mission, turns to a realization of the horror of the situation, is great acting. He also hysterically says that General Ripper "may have exceeded his authority" in ordering a nuclear attack. Equally funny is when Turgidson says that the whole military decision making process should not be scrapped because of "one slipup." The Russian leader's name is "Premiere Kissoff," which is appropriate for what is happening to the human race. Pickens' Major Kong says that there will be citations and promotions for his crew after their mission, as if there will be any "after" following the explosion of the nuclear weapons. The plane's H-bombs outrageously have written on them "Nuclear Warheads - Handle with Care," as if they were only some dinner plates in a crate. The use of the music from the song "Try a Little Tenderness" at the beginning as bombers are depicted, is truly ironic, as are the signs at Ripper's air force base stating "Peace is our Profession," which is the actual the motto of SAC. Dr. Strangelove is in a wheelchair, suggesting that the fascist movement has been crippled.  But, at the end, when the bombs are exploding, he is able to walk again, showing that, ironically, we have resurrected the dark angel of death.

This film is my favorite satire, although Wag the Dog and Thank you for Smoking are up there, too. Do you have favorites under this category?

Next week’s film is Vertigo.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Forbidden Planet

I have enjoyed watching movies, discussing them, and just plain having fun thinking, quoting, and referencing them as long as I can remember. In recent years I have taken a number of film studies courses. My scholarly background is in literature, and those films which weave images and words, as do certain stories and poems, into fabrics of meaningful themes appeal to me. I think the relevance of movies is valued by many people, particularly Americans, since they are part of the backdrop of our existence.  Films bookmark our personal narratives.

I am exploring movies, one a week, after this post, usually on a Sunday, in depth.  SPOILER ALERT:  In order to deeply delve into its meaning, I will have to reference a movie's narrative. Most of what I say will be my own views on the subject matter. If I am borrowing from others, I will provide references. 

I was lucky to have a father who loved movies. He especially liked science fiction. I guess that’s why the first movie I saw in a theater was Forbidden Planet. I didn’t know anything about Shakespeare when I saw this film after it was released in 1956. And it was much later that I learned that it was a sci-fi version of The Tempest, with Walter Pidgeon playing an intergalactic scientist version of Prospero. I do remember that seeing luscious Anne Francis in shiny skimpy outfits propelled me into an early puberty. The invisible monsters generated from the main character’s id accompanied by the film’s eerie soundtrack frightened me into the cringe position in my all-too-vulnerable theater seat.

The movie is an overachiever. It has special effects that rival and probably inspired some of the scenes in Star Wars. Picture Obie-Wan walking on the catwalk and compare the background scenes in FP showing the world of the Krel. Also, see how the humor of CP30 and R2D2 owe a debt to Robbie the Robot. You can also find foreshadows of Captain Kirk in the form of Leslie Nielsen’s ship captain and “Bones” McCoy in Warren Stevens’ doctor. Its themes are mature:  Is it better to withdraw from society and its problems, as does Morbius, or participate in it and try to improve conditions; By isolating a child in an attempt at protection, does a parent not prepare an offspring for the tests of life?; How do we protect ourselves from our own demons that lurk below our civilized surfaces? 

The film established high expectations that other science fiction and horror films of the time did not meet for me. I remember hearing someone on TV calling these films “Insect fear flicks of the Fifties.” You would have needed tons of Raid to deal with all of the big bugs in those films. (I’d have to say that Them!, even with its hokey giant ants, was the best from that hive of entertainment). At the other end of the quality spectrum, although not vermin-infested, and released later, who could forget, as much as you might try, the schlock winner Monster Zero, staring Nick Adams and an all-Japanese cast?  The Japanese actors play alien clones. That’s right – these Asians really do all look alike! Do you have any favorite sci-fi films from the 1950’s?

I'll be talking about all types of movies, the good, the bad, and the ugly (yes, Clint Eastwood films, too), which have interesting ideas and ways of presenting themes. I invite you to participate in this quest for meaning in motion pictures.

Next week’s film is Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove.