Sunday, December 27, 2015

Rear Window

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

Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window is aptly titled. In the literal sense, L. B. Jefferies (James Stewart) looks at his neighbors carrying on their day to day activities through his back window into theirs. But, on a thematic level, the film shows what it looks like when we penetrate (sexual connotation intended – consider Jefferies phallic appearing telephoto lens) the worlds of people that they would rather keep hidden from the scrutiny of others. As Lt. Thomas Doyle (Wendell Corey) says to Jefferies later in the film, “That’s a secret private world you’re looking into out there. People do a lot of things in private they couldn’t possibly explain in public.”

As usual in Hitchcock’s movies, we are made complicit here in the voyeurism of his main character as he peers into, one may say violates, the privacy of the those living across the courtyard of his apartment. We, the audience, may, at first, be appalled by Jefferies Peeping Tom activities. But, we are drawn in by the same curious desire to watch the stories of others, the more lurid, the better. Hitchcock is saying that not only is this aspect of human psychology universal, it certainly is part of the nature of watching films. He emphasizes this point by reminding us of the connection between films and voyeurism over the opening credits. The camera is directed through the window of Jefferies’ apartment as the shades rise up, revealing the view, just as a curtain would rise, as it did years ago, in a movie theater. The windows of the apartments appear as story boards that are used to plot out a movie story in illustrated scenes. Or, as if different movie narratives are there for viewing on split screens. There are the sexual stories served up with the views of Miss Torso and the Newlyweds; there is the sad tale of Miss Lonely Hearts; we have the desire for success in the plot surrounding the Songwriter; there is the slapstick comedy of the couple sleeping on the fire escape when the it starts to rain; and of course we have the mystery involving Thorwald (Raymond Burr) and his eventually missing wife. When Lisa Carol Fremont (Grace Kelly), Jefferies’ girlfriend, playfully introduces her name she announces it “reading from top to bottom,” the way credits are displayed in a movie. There are mentionings of “opening night” and a “sold-out house,” again reminding us of the audience’s role of being a viewer of the actions of the others, just like Jefferies, and eventually Lisa and Stella (Thelma Ritter), Jefferies’ physical therapist. Earlier on Stella is upset by Jefferies’ peering, and says “We’ve become a race of Peeping Toms,” and should turn our eyes on ourselves; that way, maybe if we saw our own imperfections, we wouldn’t try to expose those of others. But, later she is drawn into the spying, and wants Jefferies’ telescopic lens, saying to him, “Mind if I use that portable keyhole?”

Jefferies is immobilized in a wheelchair with a full leg cast for broken bones sustained during one of his photo shoots. He is a journalist who enjoys putting himself in danger in the field. Hitchcock shows us the picture he took of the car crash he shot which resulted in his injury. So, he is a professional observer who enjoys placing himself in harms way to capture the actions of others. In this way, he is ideally suited for this story because of the dangerous situation he assumes investigating the possible murder across the courtyard. He is at particular risk this time because he cannot escape from his predicament. In a way, his apartment is a prison. This theme of an innocent man at risk of being incarcerated is a continuing theme in Hitchcock’s films, probably going back to the time he was placed in a jail as a child for being a truant to teach him a lesson. He learned it well, only in a different way. His movies show a major distrust of the authorities.

Actually, all of those people Jefferies observes are sort of in their own prisons. The Songwriter is held captive by the need to find that special romantic tune for which he longs. Miss Lonely Hearts is trapped in her emotional isolation, inventing suitors, and accosted by one trying to take advantage of her when she summons the courage to seek a man out. She almost succumbs to suicide. The voluptuous wannabe dancer, Miss Torso, appears to be very popular, but as Stella points out, she must fight off the male wolves to find someone genuine. The newlyweds appear happy, but the groom eventually looks as if he is caught in a sexual prison, going to the window for relief from his bride’s physical demands. And then there is Thorwald trapped in a marriage to a nagging, demanding wife, who is herself an invalid, mostly confined to her bed. All of these stories have romantic relationships at their center.

Jefferies shares in that theme, because he is trying to deal with his girlfriend, Lisa, who wants to get married. She is a city woman who is involved with fashion. He cannot see them together because she is high society and he is always off and running with little warning wearing combat boots, driving jeeps and going to places with scary food options. She refuses to take no for an answer. Jefferies almost seems to want to escape his own predicament by viewing the lives being lived out in the other apartments. But, instead, their romantic stories reflect back on his own situation, giving him no relief. He makes disparaging statements about marriage to convince himself more than anyone else that a union with Lisa is not right for him. He says the Songwriter lives alone probably because of an “unhappy marriage.” He states that he thinks marriage will make him static, unable to be active and go places. However, the irony is that he has become stationary because of his so-called active life. When talking about relationships, Jefferies keeps speaking about them in a logical manner. Stella reminds him that there should not be so much thinking involved in matters of the heart. Jefferies’ defense mechanism is divorcing himself from his emotions.  

Jefferies becomes more and more suspicious, as do Lisa and Stella, as he (we) see Thorwald cleaning a large knife and saw and taking his salesman suitcase of samples on multiple trips at night. Then there is the disappearance of his wife while her purse and jewelry remain behind. Doyle dismisses their suspicions, saying that Mrs. Thorwald was accompanied by her husband to catch a train to visit a relative. Jefferies and the women believe Thorwald was with his mistress, and seek out evidence. Lisa becomes very bold, and her audacity makes her very attractive to Jefferies. She enters Thorwald’s apartment after Jefferies lures Thorwald away with a phone call threatening to reveal his crime. Lisa is surprised by Thorwald, but Jefferies is able to summon the police. In a thematically significant image, Lisa shows she has Mrs. Thorwald’s ring on her left hand. This action shows how she is marriage material for Jefferies, as she is more adventurous than he gave her credit for. But Thorwald sees that she is signaling with the ring, and he looks right at Jefferies’ window. Reversing the roles of observed and observer. This cause and effect also shows how danger is attached to relationships.  

In the end, Thorwald comes for Jefferies while Stella tries to get Lisa out of police custody for breaking into Thorwald’s apartment. Jefferies is able to get a call off to Doyle before his assailant arrives. The photographer is only armed with the tools of his trade – a camera and light bulbs. He keeps flashing them at Thorwald, temporarily blinding him and slowing him down. It’s as if Jefferies has almost no qualms about invading the lives of others (except at one poignant point with Miss Lonely Hearts), but when someone exposes him, he tries to stop them from seeing his world.

Jefferies is rescued by the police, but not after sustaining another broken leg for his precariousness observations. Miss Torso is reunited with her true love, who survives his hitch in the military. The Songwriter finds his love tune, which touches Miss Lonely Hearts when he plays it, preventing her suicide. The two are seen together at the conclusion of their movie (and ours). Love and relationships will continue, even though there will be conflict. The Newlyweds are already sailing rough waters when the bride finds out that her new husband quit his job. And although we see through our eyes (and through the camera lens) this time, not those of the sleeping Jefferies, that Lisa now wears jeans and is reading a book entitled Beyond the High Himalayas, she then puts the book down and picks up a copy of Harper’s Bazaar. These two will be joined, but sometimes in battle in the future. We have vicariously witnessed the dangers and rewards which accompany the interaction between couples, and the shades to the apartment are then lowered, like the curtains at the end of a film.

The next film to be discussed will be Crash.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Happy Holidays

In honor of the holiday season (and because I am breaking in a new laptop), there will be no new post today. Just to share, my favorite holiday films that I try to view each year are White Christmas, followed by the movie on the other end of the seasonal spectrum, Bad Santa. I then like a few films that are in between those two in mixing comedy and sentimentality, Love Actually and The Family Man, the latter with Nicholas Cage.

Anyway, I will return soon with an analysis of Rear Window. Seasons greetings to all!

Sunday, December 13, 2015

The Searchers

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

This John Ford directed film released in 1956 is a visually captivating movie shot in Utah, but its focus is on family, in all its forms, and how it can be a positive and a negative force.

If you want to study a film to do an impression of John Wayne, with his halting, growling delivery, this is a good movie to study. At times he almost sounds like a parody of himself. But his Ethan Edwards is an interesting character. He returns to the home of his brother, Aaron (Walter Coy), following his hitch as a Confederate soldier in the Civil War. But, it has been three years since the end of the war. Where has he been and what has he been up to? He provides no answers, but he has new Union gold coins, so his brother questions if he was involved in illegal activity. It is obvious that Ethan and Aaron’s wife, Martha (Dorothy Jordan) have romantic feelings for each other. Perhaps that is why he took so long to return to his brother’s farm. Family ties can become strained when emotions may lead to rancor.

Ethan’s affection for his nephew and nieces is obvious. But, he shows contempt for an adopted young man, Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter). He says he is part Cherokee. His last name begins with the word “paw” which implies something animal-like, and, probably, in Ethan’s mind, savage. At one point he calls Martin a “blanket head,” a slur referring to his Cherokee background. The derogatory remark resembles the current negative phrase, “towel head,” aimed at those of the Islamic faith. Ethan actually saved Martin when the latter was an abandoned child. Now, Ethan sees him as an outsider who has invaded his family. It shows the two sides of Ethan – one, a savior of an innocent, and the other a bigot, who cannot tolerate someone who is different from himself or his family. In a way, he is like America, which welcomes diverse peoples (the neighboring Jorgensens are indicative of these), but also, sometimes, harbors a xenophobic tendency.

Ethan also found a family in the army in which he fought. When he returns to his brother’s place, he is still in uniform. When the Reverend Clayton (Ward Bond) notes that Ethan was not seen at the surrender to the North, Ethan says, “I don’t believe in surrender. Nope, I still got my saber, Reverend. Didn’t beat it into no plowshare, neither.” He earlier handed the saber to his nephew, Ben (Robert Lyden). Perhaps this shows that along with love, violence is handed down through a family’s generations. He has not moved on. He remains emotionally attached to his brotherhood of soldiers, and is still at war. He needs to find another enemy to fight.

An Indian warrior named Scar (Henry Brandon) becomes that enemy. It appears that Native Americans have run off with cattle belonging to Lars Jorgensen (John Qualen). Clayton, who is also a Captain in the Texas Rangers, deputizes Ethan and Martin to chase down the thieves. Ethan, Martin, and Mose Harper (Hank Worden), go with Clayton, but Aaron stays with the family at the farm. The search party sees that the cattle were taken and slaughtered by some Comanche to lure them away from the Edwards ranch. We then see the Comanche chief, Scar, blow a horn, signaling an attack. When Ethan and his party return to the farm, they find the house burning, and Aaron, Martha, and their young son, Ben are dead. Daughters Debbie (Natalie Wood) and Lucy (Pippa Scott) are missing. As they bury the dead, Ethan yells at the minister because the ceremony is too long. He is now on the warpath, ready to seek revenge for the loss of his family.

On the way, they find a dead Native American, who was killed probably in the confrontation with Aaron. Ethan mutilates the body, shooting its eyes out. He does this because the Comanche believe that one cannot enter the spirit-land without sight. His spirit will be forced to “wander forever between the winds.” Ethan’s anger and bigotry have so poisoned him that he defiles not only his own people’s religious practices at the funeral, but also those of others in his desire to torment his prey beyond the grave. Also, Ford is showing us that the culture of white people and that of the Native Americans are similar in combining war and religion. The Native Americans cloak their victims of combat in religious belief, and the whites are initially led by Clayton, who is an ex-soldier and now a lawman, but also a minister.

The search party encounters the Native Americans, and in a shootout, one of the whites is injured. Etahn will not even allow the Comanche to gather their dead and wounded, as he continues to shoot at them. Clayton chastises Ethan for his lack of decency. Clayton retreats with the wounded man, but Ethan, Martin, and Lucy’s boyfriend, Brad Jorgensen (Harry Carey, Jr.) continue the pursuit. Ethan mostly would like to be alone in his vengeful quest. It shows his monomaniacal personality. Martin says sarcastically, “That’s why we are here, to find the girls,” realizing that Ethan has more on his agenda than the sisters’ safety. Ethan, on a separate trail, says he found Lucy’s body, and wrapped her in his Confederate coat. This action appears symbolic of his losing his military and blood families. Brad, enraged, runs off to the Native American camp. We hear gunshots, indicating that Brad has been killed. The loss of family members in the wake of initial violence is now expanding, as a Jorgensen is now dead.

Winter sets in, and Martin and Ethan lose the trail leading to the Native Americans. They return to the Jorgensen ranch, where we find that the Jorgensen daughter, Laurie (Vera Miles) and Martin have a budding romantic relationship. This is significant because it is between a white girl and a part Cherokee, which points to the joining of diversities that can occur in The United States. Ethan and Martin discover from the Jorgensens that a trader named Futterman (Peter Mamakos) has information about Debbie. Ethan and Martin visit Futterman, who says that he bought some calico print dress material from a Nawyecka band of Native Americans led by Scar. Ethan gives half of the reward for the information, and tells Futterman he’ll get the rest when Debbie is retrieved. Ethan realizes Futterman will try to get the rest of the money, so he uses Martin as he sleeps to lure Futterman and his men to their campsite. He kills Futterman when he and two others try to ambush them. Ethan’s unfeeling use of Martin as bait, and his shooting of the other three men in their backs shows how his self-centered path of revenge has isolated him from humane actions.

Their search goes on for years. It is ironic that, while pursuing Native Americans as enemies, that Martin also trades with other tribes for supplies. At one point he accidently trades for an Indian bride, named Look (Beulah Archuletta). This episode allows for some comic relief, until she finds out that they are looking for the dreaded Scar. Look abandons them. She is found later as one of the victims of a U. S. cavalry slaughter. If you listen to the music played in conjunction with the cavalry, you will find that it is the same tune that is used during the cavalry massacre in the movie Little Big Man. The soldiers have a few white girls that they liberated from the Comanche. The girls appear traumatized form their experiences. Ethan is horrified, believing that he may no longer see Debbie as a member of his family, but instead she might have become an alien Native American. These scenes, added to the previous ones showing violence, show how the story reveals that atrocities are perpetrated by all human beings, not just members of one race.

Ethan and Martin have traveled from Texas to Colorado, and after five years, are in New Mexico. They find Mose in a Mexican saloon. He is with a merchant who deals with Scar. They meet the chief, and it is interesting that he and Ethan are annoyed that they speak each other’s language. Instead of bringing them together because they can communicate, their anger and prejudice keeps them apart. We now learn that Scar’s two boys were killed by white men. One might argue that “Scar” is an appropriate name for the Comanche warrior, since he carries the remnants of the psychological wounds he experienced due to the loss of his family members. In this way, he is similar to Ethan. Scar now takes the scalps of whites in revenge. The audience can now see that both races have violated each other’s families, which has resulted in more violence as both Ethan and Scar have embarked on their desire for revenge, each death escalating the bigotry that drives them.

Ethan and Martin see Debbie, who is now dressed as a Comanche. Probably based on the native’s rules of hospitality, they are allowed to leave. But, later, Debbie rides out to tell Martin that even though she remembers how they were like brother and sister, the Comanche are her family now. Ethan rides up and is ready to kill Debbie, feeling that she is no longer a family member, and the pain of her becoming part of a Native American tribe that killed his family makes it impossible for him to tolerate her existence at this point. Scar’s men arrive, and there is a shootout. Ethan is wounded, but they are able to find safety. Ethan, now feeling that he has no family left, gives his last will and testament to Martin, to whom he has left all his belongings, including the Edwards farm. This is an ironic act since Ethan considers Martin, a part-Cherokee, supposedly related to his enemy, as the only person left that can be considered a family member.

Ethan and Martin return to the Jorgensen’s farm. A young cavalry officer arrives with Mose who escaped Scar’s camp and now can tell them where to attack the Comanche. We have another ironic twist here, since it is Ethan’s former enemy, a Union officer, who helps deliver the news to aid Ethan in his quest. This is just another sign provided in the film that there are reasons for people to come together, but old prejudices and anger keep people from becoming part of a larger familial community.

The Rangers, with Clayton in charge, ride out again to confront Scar. Martin sneaks into the Comanche camp, and in the process of rescuing Debbie, is discovered by Scar. Martin outdraws him and kills the chief. The Rangers charge in, killing and scattering the remaining tribe members. Instead of harming Debbie, Ethan, as if burying his revenge with the death of Scar, picks up his niece and says, “Let’s go home, Debbie.” The last camera shot of the movie echoes the first in the film. We look out through the doorway of the Edwards house at the beauty of the American West. We are again in the family home.

At one point in the film, Mrs. Jorgensen, an immigrant, like all of our families before us who have become Americans, says that we may currently feel like we are living precariously “out on a limb.”  But, she says, “some day this country’s gonna be a fine, good place to live. Maybe it needs our bones in the ground before that time can come.” Perhaps we are all searchers, looking for that hopeful day when we can all live together as family.

Next week’s film is Rear Window.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Five Easy Pieces

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

Jack Nicholson followed up his Easy Rider star-making role with this other “Easy” stellar performance. Both films deal with rebelliousness, although this one does not offer a positive view of nonconformity.

The movie opens with dirt literally being thrown at the camera, and, thus, the audience. Bobby Dupea (Nicholson) – if you put the “a” in front of his name he is called “A Dupe,” in essence a fool - is working in an oil field. It is a grimy, blue collar job where he participates in the daily grind of making a buck. This opening scene may seem to show that Bobby is associating with down-to-earth people, but he is not happy there. He seems to tolerate his girlfriend, Rayette (Karen Black) who wants to be a country music singer. He bowls, gets drunk with his pal, Elton (Billy Green Bush), and cheats on Rayette. On the way to work one day, Bobby and Elton are stuck in a traffic jam. Bobby goes into a rage, comparing people to ants. It is here we get a glimpse of the past life he left to participate in his current one. He jumps out of the car and boards the back of a truck which contains a piano. He starts to play the piano whose music is in counterpoint to the cacophony of the cars with their horns blaring around him. The truck then exits the flow of traffic, which is symbolic of Bobby’s urge to deviate from the mainstream. Those in the cars are angry about their individual needs being frustrated. But, only Bobby acts on the infringement on his individuality. In essence, he has lived his life in counterpoint to wherever he happens to be. There is another scene near his family house on a bridge where Bobby himself causes a traffic jam to have a conversation. His desire to have things his way shows a disregard for the situations of others. These two scenes show how the individual and society can often clash when the needs of the one are weighed against the needs of the many (I’m starting to sound like a Star Trek movie again).

Bobby is none too pleased when he finds out that Rayette is pregnant. When Elton suggests he settle down with Rayette, Bobby goes into a rage. After Elton is arrested for having robbed a gas station, Bobby quits his job. He visits his sister, Partita (Lois Smith) who is in Los Angeles making a recording. Bobby now is cleaned up, in a suit, and has lost his Southern accent. He is a man waffling between worlds, and does not stay in one for any length of time. After he finds out that his father is an invalid after suffering a couple of strokes

Rayette threatens to kill herself if Bobby leaves her, so he brings her along on his family visit. They encounter two women on the road and give them a ride. One of the women, Palm Apodaca (Helena Kallianiotes) describes the world as a filthy place full of “crap,” in essence echoing the opening scene where dirt is flung at the screen. She says, “Man! He likes to create a stink! I mean I’ve seen filth you wouldn’t believe. Ugh! What a stink!” She talks about going to Alaska to get away from it all. To a degree, she is like Bobby, wanting to escape and run away from the world. But she is commenting on what “man” has done, and she is traveling with a female companion, probably her gay lover. So, if the world is a mess, then she may be accusing the male gender for making it so. The movie amplifies this indictment of men when the song “Stand by Your Man” is played. Rayette stays devoted to Bobby not matter what indignities she must endure at his hands. In this film, men do not stand by their women. In the short speech that Struthers’ Betty gives she says her mother said that the dimple in her chin meant that God didn’t like her because if He did He would have instead put dimples in her cheeks. She says she  would cover her chin while praying to God thinking he may listen to her if the dimple was not seen. The implication could be that women have been marginalized by their looks. Also, Betty is saying that she, too, is an outsider because she does not meet the accepted standards of society. In addition, at the Dupea house there is no mother figure noted. Maybe this eccentric family would have benefited by a matronly female presence.

Bobby, Rayette and the hitchhikers are involved in the famous diner scene which follows. Here, we tend to sympathize with Bobby because we have all tried to get something for ourselves only to be thwarted by ridiculous rules. He can’t get a chicken salad sandwich the way he wants it. It is a simple scene which speaks volumes about the individual, who, like a child, wants things his way, and does not want to be told “no, you have to follow the rules.” Again, Bobby explodes and violently clears the dishes off of the table. But, we also realize that the waitress didn’t make the rules, and is just trying to do her job.

After dropping the two women off, Bobby and Rayette drive to the Washington home. Bobby wants to keep his two worlds separate, so he tells Rayette to stay at a motel. He finds his father is physically unresponsive, but his condition perhaps also symbolically shows how his dad has become paralyzed by the bloodless musical way of life he fostered. His brother, Carl (Ralph Waite), a violinist, is engaged to a pianist, Catherine (Susan Anspach). She is attracted to Bobby, perhaps because he has escaped the cerebral, disciplined artistic world of his upbringing. They are in a room together where pictures of the family members adorn the walls. Bobby’s is there, but he left those walls. Catherine shows concern that she may be placed on those walls, her three dimensional body flattened to just a representation of a full bodied woman. This perception may be the reason she goes to bed with Bobby.

Rayette, bored staying at the motel, shows up. It appears that Bobby and Catherine are not the only ones who want an alternative to the demands of musical virtuosity. Carl flirts with Rayette, and we later find Bobby’s sister, Partita, getting a massage from the burly male nurse who attends the father. There follows a scene where Bobby, again switching preferences, gives an impassioned defense of Rayette in front of an effete, pompous family friend who visits the house.

In another scene, Bobby plays the piano for Catherine, who compliments him. He dismisses the gesture, saying he played the easiest piece he could think of. He played it when he was eight years old, and he says he played it better then. He felt nothing playing the music, no emotion. The “Five Easy Pieces” of the title are what the youth learns early on. But, Bobby has never advanced past that time. He, in essence, is still an immature child. Catherine refuses to leave with Bobby, realizing that he is not capable of loving anything, not even himself.

At the end of the film he abandons Rayette, saying he is getting some coffee while they are at a gas station. He hitches a ride with a truck driver. At one point during the film Bobby says “I move around a lot. Not because I’m looking for anything really, but ‘cause I’m getting away from things that get bad if I stay.” Things get bad because he can’t emotionally find it in himself to compromise his individual wants by making a long term commitment to others. He is a man who is not at home anywhere.

Next week’s movie is The Searchers.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Venus in Fur

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

If you can get past the fact that Venus in Fur, a film with sexual themes, was made by Roman Polanski, a man in exile because of his sexual behavior, you might find this movie interesting for the way it explores perceptions of male-female role-playing.

This motion picture, in French, is based on a play by David Ives (who co-wrote the screenplay with Polanski), which was inspired by the novel written by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch (from whose name the word “masochist” is derived – a point noted in the film). The story takes place in a theater (the “h” is missing on the sign outside, possibly indicating that either this is not a first-class locale, or that things are not quite what they seem here). There are only two characters: Thomas, the playwright and director (played impressively by Mathieu Amalric, who looks disturbingly like a younger Polanski); and, Vanda, a woman coming in late for an audition for the part of a woman named – Vanda (played by Emmanuelle Seigner, Polanksi’s wife – which just adds to the blurring of the lines between illusion and reality in this story). We are immediately made to question what is real and what is fiction by the coincidence involving her name. Vanda, the actress, seems to be ditsy, rambling on, and she is dressed like a hooker. We have already heard Thomas complaining how the other women who have showed up for auditions were dressed like prostitutes. He also says that he could play the part better. However, once she starts to read her lines, Vanda sounds totally believable in the role. She knows all the lines, even though she said she just took a quick look at the script. She knows how to adjust the lighting to set the right mood. She has props which fit the right time period for the play, and has brought a smoking jacket to fit the male character’s aristocratic class. (Her knowledge is explained by her saying that she was a private investigator, hired by Thomas’ fiancé to investigate him. This statement is then passed off as a joke. But, is it? It would explain how prepared she is). The irony is that as herself, she is unimpressive, but in a fictional role, she is empowered. Does this mean that in real life women are not allowed to be strong, and can only achieve strength in roles men allow them to play?

Thomas is at first dismissive of her. But, he is then surprised and awed by Vanda’s preparedness. His role of power as the director and writer is eventually taken over by Vanda. She convinces him to play the male role and read with her. She becomes the director, and even improvises, basically re-writing the play. The submissive one becomes dominant. Thomas admits that when he was young, he had an aunt who beat his naked behind. From this act, he says, sensuality comes from pain, and it taught him how to be a man – not an attractive definition of what it takes to be a male. Instead of the male Dionysus being the punisher in sexual debauchery, here, in this story, Venus wields “divine cruelty.”

 Later in the film, Thomas passively reclines on a couch, and Vanda becomes his psychiatrist, making him confess that despite his fiancé being rich and the two talking about art and literature, that underneath he is unfulfilled. Thomas likens the relationship between the dominant and the submissive as that between a hammer and anvil. He seems to want to be the anvil, but feels he must reassert his position of the hammer with the actress Vanda. But, the ring tone for his fiancé on his cell phone is from Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkries,” indicating that he is submissive in his sexuality in his real life. Vanda is the dominant one on the phone when talking to her boyfriend. But, she, too, seems to alternate between being powerful and sexually submissive in her behavior, in both the role and in real life. Vanda at one point during the audition slaps Thomas, and then kisses him. She appears to be conducting business while signing the contract to be in the play, but then flashes her breast. She transfers her dog collar from her neck to his, and he trembles in ecstasy when it is fastened on him.

In the play, Vanda says that the male character will be her slave for a year, after which they will have sex. It appears that she has the upper hand. But, Vanda, the actress, accuses Thomas of being sexist. She tells the author/director that the more the male submits, the more he has power, because it is his game that is being played, not the woman’s. He asks to have her boots put on him. The zipping of the boots signifies enclosure, a type of bondage she is placing him in. She begins to dress him as a woman – he did mention earlier how he could play the part of a female, possibly subconsciously suggesting his own urge for submission. At the end of the play Thomas has written, the male resumes dominance. Things are different at the end of the film. She has Thomas in female clothing, tied up, telling him how dare he think that she could humiliate her. He has been made to assume the enforced traditional degrading role of the submissive woman. At the end, she undulates as a naked Venus, draped in sensuous fur, taunting him, rendering him figuratively impotent. Perhaps she really is the goddess, as she makes Thomas admit at the end. It would explain how she knows so much. Maybe she is her real self in the play and the actress persona is the fiction. She quotes a line from the Bible: “And the Lord has smitten him, and delivered him into a woman’s hands.” At the end, Vanda has delivered divine retribution.

Next week’s movie is Five Easy Pieces.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

The 2015 Turner Classic Movie Cruise

I had been thinking of taking this cruise since its inception five years ago, and was inspired to finally sign up after receiving encouragement from a fellow Bryn Mawr Film Institute member who sailed on the prior four trips. If you are thinking of going on a future TCM cruise, you should pre-enroll early. The ship fills up quickly. My wife and I checked the TCM web site regularly for the sign-up period and pre-registered in early spring for the November 1 cruise. If you don’t make it on the first round, they put you on a wait list, just like you are applying to a college.

We sailed out of Miami and stopped at Grand Cayman Island and Castaway Key. We were on the Disney Magic, but there were only 17 children onboard. Not your typical Mickey Mouse experience. On the first afternoon the guests were introduced by TCM hosts Robert Osborne and Ben Mankiewicz. These included Eva Marie Saint, Lou Gossett, Jr., Angie Dickinson, Roger Corman, Ruta Lee, Illeana Douglas, and Alex Trebek.

Robert Osborne started out as an actor quite a while back. He became a friend of Lucille Ball, who gave him some career altering advice. She said he could continue as an actor, but he was a journalist major, loved film history, and was a good writer. She said he should write about the movies. He took her advice, and, he said, he found his true calling.

Osborne interviewed Angie Dickinson, and commented that her talents were wasted often. She said that she loved working with John Wayne on Rio Bravo, and felt that his performance in that film showed a range of emotions. She said he wasn’t given enough credit for his acting abilities.

Eva Marie Saint discussed the differences in the directing styles of Elia Kazan and Alfred Hitchcock. In On the Waterfront, Kazan wanted the actress to work from the inside out in the Method Acting style, tapping into a feeling of innocence being lost, since her character was brought up by nuns, and then was exposed to the brutality on the docks and the sexual feelings toward Marlon Brando’s character. Obviously it worked, since she won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. On the other hand, in North by Northwest, Hitchcock took her shopping, molding her character from the outside in by fashioning the character’s seductive and deceptive personality through the clothes and make-up she wore. Ms. Saint had praise for those with whom she worked in films except for one person – Gary Marshall, Penny’s brother, who directed her in the early Tom Hanks’ movie, Nothing in Common. She said he cut out scenes which provided insight into her character, and did so without informing her.

Los Gossett, Jr., described how Richard Gere came onto the set of An Officer and a Gentleman with a bit of a Hollywood star attitude. But, after he realized that Gossett and the rest of the cast and crew were there to work hard to make the film the best it could be, Gere came around and pulled out all of the stops, especially in the scene where his character cries out that he can’t quit because he’s “got nowhere else to go.” He added that the two of them trained for months to learn martial arts to prepare for their roles. I had a chance to get Mr. Gossett’s autograph, and I mentioned that I recently saw Skin Game again, the film in which he co-starred with James Garner. This movie is, of all things, a comedy revolving around slavery in the South. Garner’s character sells Gossett’s African American as a slave. Gossett’s character latter escapes, and they split the profits. There is a serious undertone to the film, given the subject matter. Gossett commented to me that the film was ahead of its time. I felt that it could have influenced Quentin Tarantino when he made Django Unchained.

The song “My Way” could have been written for producer/director Roger Corman. He recounted his maverick ways in Hollywood, never bending to the will of the studios. He described how he made films in a week, rehearsing for three days and then shooting for two. Sets were reused to cut down costs. I remember seeing and enjoying those Vincent Price starring movies based on Edgar Allan Poe’s stories. Corman gave many movie greats their starts, including Francis Ford Coppola and Ron Howard. In a film clip, a tearful Jack Nicholson expressed his love for the man that ushered him into the movies.

Illeana Douglas acted in several films I have seen, including the remake of Cape Fear and Stir of Echoes. I also admired her performance in the TV show Six Feet Under. What I did not know was that she is the granddaughter of Oscar winner Melvyn Douglas, and that she had a ten year romantic relationship with director Martin Scorsese. She just came out with a book entitled I Blame Dennis Hopper. The title derives from the fact that her father, after seeing Easy Rider, went hippie crazy. He grew his hair and mustache like Hopper’s character in the film, and went around saying “Man” a lot. He also quit his job and the family had little money after the homestead was turned into a commune. Illeana said that her mother would say, “What do you want for lunch – peanut butter or jelly.” She later worked with Hopper, thinking she would tell him off, but he turned out to be a great guy, so her anger was diffused. She told a strange story about Peter Sellers on the set of Being There. She was a big fan of The Pink Panther, and told her grandfather, who later won a supporting Oscar for his performance in Being There, that she wanted to meet Sellers. At one point in their conversation, Sellers said that Illeana should learn how to ride a unicycle. She asked him why and he responded by saying that not everybody can do it. After Sellers death, she happened to go to a medium. The woman asked her if someone had talked to her about a unicycle. Yes, a definite Twilight Zone moment. But, then a couple of days later, she went home, and found a unicycle in the basement. She asked her brother about it. He said he acquired it at a flea market, and thought he might learn how to ride it. Ben Mankiewicz asked her if she wanted to learn how to use it. She said, “Well, not everybody can do it.”

Speaking of Mankiewicz, I asked him what film he feels compelled to watch whenever it is on TV. He said there were several, but he singled out another Kazan movie, A Face in the Crowd, an early fascinating study of the way the power of the media can be used to sway the masses, as one of his favorites. Recent films such as Gone Girl, Nightcrawler, and even The Hunger Games franchise have dealt with this theme.

Alex Trebek interviewed actress Ruta Lee who appeared in Witness for the Prosecution,  and many TV shows. She and Trebek worked on a game show in the past. She dressed glamorously and was very funny and engaging. Trebek conducted two movie trivia sessions, and he is quite knowledgeable about films. These events fill up fast. The first required participants to recognize movie quotes. The second demanded a knowledge of film music scores. There are usually six people per team. The group with whom I sat finished second in the music competition. If you sail on this cruise, beware of the six retired schoolteachers, also known as “The Dirty Half-Dozen.” Rumor has it that they network every week all year preparing for the competitions. They have won every trivia competition in which they participated on all the TCM cruises, sometimes getting every answer correct! Be afraid, be very afraid.

Of course, there were movies being screened all day long. You can watch them in theaters, in your stateroom, and on a huge screen in the pool area, enjoying the stories in tropical warmth under the stars, both celestial and celluloid.

Next week’s discussion is on a recent movie, Roman Polanski’s Venus in Fur.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

12 Angry Men

I just returned from the 2015 Turner Classic Movie Cruise, with Robert Osborne, Ben Mankiewicz, and guests Louis Gossett Jr., Eva Marie Saint, Angie Dickinson and Alex Trebek among others. I will be posting a summary of the cruise’s events next time around.

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

I’m not sure “angry” describes all of the characters in this movie. For instance, I think Juror # 4 (E. G. Marshall) could be seen as just annoyed. Anyway, this was the first film directed by Sidney Lumet (although he had directed the television version of the story), and the only film produced by star Henry Fonda. The motion picture shows men confronting their own emotional and experiential pasts and those of their fellow jurors as they decide whether or not to send a youth to the electric chair for the murder of his father. Some are plagued while others are buoyed by their respective personalities in this stressful situation, but each one has to decide how to move forward. 

These men do not know each other, don’t even know each others’ names (although in the very last scene Fonda’s character is revealed to be Davis and the older juror is McCardle), and will probably not see one another when the trial is over. They discover the types of persons they are in real time as they discuss the case, and the audience is placed in the same position as the jurors. We get an inkling of a couple of the jurors’ personalities as the camera pans across their faces in the jury box as the judge says that a guilty vote will send the young Latino boy to the electric chair. Jack Warden’s Juror # 7 is fidgety, looking like he can’t wait to escape. Ed Begley’s Juror # 10 is self-absorbed with his cold, as he tends to his dripping nose throughout the film. (Perhaps the cold is an outward sign of a man with a sick way of looking at life, or how his attitudes are infecting him). However, the face of Juror # 5 (Jack Klugman) shows concern or worry, as he looks almost sad glancing at the accused.

The jurors are confined in a stifling hot deliberation room. Its pressure cooker environment mirrors the heated exchanges that follow as the men argue the points of the case. They open the windows in the room at the beginning to let in air, but we discover that some have difficulty opening their minds. Henry Fonda is Juror # 8. We find that he is an architect. Perhaps his occupation suggests that he likes to know how things are put together, and it may be one of the reasons he doesn’t feel that all of the pieces of evidence fit together in the prosecution’s case. We also learn that he has three children. This fact may be another reason why he is not willing to destroy a youth’s life without deliberation. At the first tally, all of the other jurors vote to convict based on a superficial assessment of the case. Fonda’s character is the lone “not guilty” vote. He says that before sentencing a man to death that there ought to be some discussion of the proceedings.

At this point we start to see how the other jurors think. Warden’s Juror # 7 is a selfish, small-minded man who doesn’t care that a person’s life is in his hands. He just wants to get out of the courtroom in time to catch that day’s ballgame. Begley’s Juror # 10 espouses the bigoted beliefs that some of the others share toward the impoverished living in ghettoes. He says they are all born to “lie,” are “real big drinkers,” and “violent” by nature. E. G. Marshall’s Juror # 4 says that the slums are breeding grounds for criminals. Lee J. Cobb’s Juror # 3 says he “has no personal feelings about the case.” But, this is not true. His past with his son warps his objectivity. He boasts that he is a self-made businessman who we learn bullied his son who he saw as a weakling. His boy eventually broke ties with him, and he now transfers his anger toward his child onto the youth on trial.  

Fonda’s juror tries to get the others to look past their prejudices so they can see the evidence from another perspective. When Warden’s juror says that the accused deserved to be beaten by his father because of his history of violent acts, Fonda suggests that his being beaten all of his life may be the cause of him being taught to act that way. His father was a criminal and the youth was placed in an orphanage and hit repeatedly. He tries to suggest that there is a problem with the system, and that the total blame should not be placed on the individual. He goes on to question the unique nature of the murder weapon, producing a knife that he bought that was identical to the one the boy owned. He also disputes the testimony of an old man who could not have been at his door in time to see the accused fleeing.

The statements of some of the more narrow-minded jurors begin to anger the more reasonable ones. Foreman Juror # 1 (Martin Balsam) becomes angry when Begley’s character questions the way he tries to keep order. The older Juror # 9 (Joseph Sweeney) is treated badly by Lee J. Cobb when he switches his vote to not guilty. The man who asks for respect for elders is disrespectful here. Juror #6 (Edward Binns) becomes incensed at this action, and warns Cobb’s juror to not intimidate the old man. The film suggests that closed-minded people will turn on anyone if they don’t go along with their way of thinking.

Consequently, the older Juror # 9 tells Begley’s character that his statements show that he is “ignorant.” The bigoted statements begin to anger Klugman’s Juror # 5, who grew up in a slum, and is no criminal or liar. He at first feels pressured to go along with the guilty verdict, but the negative comments cause him to question the evidence and think independently. Juror # 2 (John Fiedler), a mousy, easily intimidated man, follows a similar path of self-assertion. Begley’s juror sarcastically questions why Juror # 11 (George Voskovec) is so polite because he uses the word “pardon.” He responds by saying, “For the same reason you are not: it’s the way I was brought up.” This line is a good example of how the jurors’ respective pasts influence their present behaviors.

Fonda’s juror also shows anger when he sees Cobb’s character playing tic-tac-toe with Robert Webber’s Juror # 12 (an advertising man who is so used to phoniness he can’t tell what is true) instead of listening to the discussion. He rips the paper out of Cobb’s hands. He also is testy with Begley’s juror’s bigotry. But he is mostly even-tempered, and his urging to look below the surface of preconceived notions at the reality underneath becomes catchy. When the elder Juror # 9 remembers that he saw the marks left on a woman’s nose that could only be made by eyeglasses, her eyewitness testimony is negated by the fact that she couldn’t have had time to put on her glasses and see the youth stab his father through a passing elevated train. This revelation convinces the logical Juror # 4 (Marshall), and he switches his vote, because he now has a reasonable doubt about the boy’s guilt.

Begley’s juror’s bigotry is now viewed as repulsive to the others, and they literally shun him, walking away and turning their backs toward him. The lone holdout is Cobb’s character. He is now placed in the lonely position which Fonda originally held. He has a last rant, but during this tirade he is forced to come to terms with how his attitudes were poisoned by his anger toward his son. With this epiphany, he, too, changes his vote to “not guilty,” and the youth is acquitted.

The film is not totally one-sided in favor of Fonda’s juror’s position. Early on, Binn’s character says. “Supposin’ you talk us all out of this, and, uh, the kid really did knife his father.” But, the thrust of the narrative is one of hope about the possibility of dispensing justice fairly, blind to the prejudicial influences of our individual influences.

Next week, a report on the TCM Cruise.

Friday, October 30, 2015

North by Northwest

I am publishing a couple of days early and will be skipping a week. But, I will be posting again on Nov. 15, 2015.

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

The title of this Alfred Hitchcock directed movie is ironic, pointing to a specific direction, considering all of the misdirection that occurs in the story. This film is primarily about pretending. The main character is Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant), who, like Don Draper, is in advertising, and thus a professional in disguising the whole truth. He becomes immersed, possibly as a form of divine retribution, in a situation rich with deception. And deception can lead to danger which is implied by the opening credits which have the names sliding down the side of a building (a foreshadowing of the last scenes on Mt. Rushmore?).

A hotel pageboy calls for someone named George Kaplan at the same time Roger flags him down about sending a telegraph. He is mistaken for Kaplan, and is kidnapped by some thugs. He is taken from Manhattan to the Long Island estate belonging to Lester Townsend. Roger is locked in the library and is confronted by “Townsend” (James Mason) and his secretary, Leonard (Martin Landau). He is questioned as Kaplan and despite his protestations that he is not the man, Mason’s character does not believe him. It appears that Kaplan is a secret agent on the trail of Mason’s organization. Leonard and a henchman force whiskey into Roger, causing him to be extremely intoxicated. They place him in a moving car, hoping he will die in a DUI accident. Roger thus is put onto a road literally and figuratively which he does not know where it will lead him (more misdirection). He survives and then returns with the police to the estate. They meet a woman pretending to be “Mrs. Townsend” who acts as if Roger was an old friend who came to a party there already inebriated. She implies that the stolen car in which Roger had been placed was accidentally borrowed by the drunken ad man. The library is now presented as a different room, with no liquor cabinet and no bourbon stained sofa pillows. Mrs. Townsend says that her husband is at the United Nations, where he works. The man outside appears to be a gardener, but was one of the henchman who kidnapped Roger (more pretending). Since he was drunk and in a car not his own, and the house belongs to a prominent person, the police dismiss Roger’s story.

Mason’s character had told Roger the room number where Kaplan was staying at the hotel. He goes to the room and discovers that Kaplan was not seen by the maid or valet. He pretends to be Kaplan to enter the room, which of course makes it difficult to argue that he is not the man. The room appears to have been occupied since there are clothes, personal items, and a photograph that shows Mason. Roger goes to the UN to confront Townsend (again calling himself Kaplan because he concluded from the photograph that was in the hotel room that Kaplan knew Townsend) only to find that it is not Mason. The real Townsend says the house is currently unoccupied and his wife is deceased. One of the thugs, Valerian (Adam Williams), who pretended to be the gardener at the estate, throws a knife and kills Townsend, who collapses into Roger’s arms. Roger grabs the knife and pulls it out of the victim’s back. A photographer covering the General Assembly session takes a picture. Thus, it appears that Roger is the killer of a person whose house he visited earlier in a drunken state. (There is a flaw in the plot here – the local police went with Roger to the Townsend estate and saw the “wife” who is actually dead. This would lend credence to Roger’s story).

Roger now becomes what is a recurring theme in Hitchcock films – the innocent man pursued for a crime he did not commit. There is then a scene with members of an American spy agency having a meeting. We learn that there is no George Kaplan, who was invented to throw off Mason, whose real name is Vandamm, from discovering the real secret agent on his trail. Roger now has augmented this charade by becoming the physical embodiment of the red herring. In a cold-blooded decision made by the spy chief, The Professor (Leo G. Carroll – yes, he becomes the head of the spy network later in the TV series The Man from U.N.C.L.E.), it is decided to do nothing and continue to let Roger remain in danger as a way to preoccupy VanDamm and his men.

Roger, on a train to Chicago to find the fictitious Kaplan at one of the hotels mentioned by Vandamm, encounters Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint). She recognizes him as the fugitive, but is obviously attracted to him and helps Roger hide out in her sleeping car. Eve is also not what she appears, as we find out when she sends a message to Vandamm who is on the train along with Leonard. The next day, Roger escapes detection by the police by dressing up as a railway porter (yes, more pretending) assisting Eve. The police discover the porter whose clothes Roger used, and Roger hides out in the men’s room, lathering up his face for a shave so he won’t be detected (more use of disguise). Eve is supposedly calling Kaplan for Roger so the two can meet, but she is actually talking to Leonard who gives her instructions as to what to do with Roger. Eve seems very upset when after telling Roger to meet Kaplan out in a rural section outside of Chicago. She abruptly leaves him.

Roger is left off at a bus stop in farm country, but Kaplan is nowhere to be found (of course). A man waiting for a bus sees a crop duster plane and comments that it is dusting where there are no crops. Again, the plane is pretending (that word again) to be something else. Roger has been set up and the plane moves in for the attack. Roger again escapes, as the duster flies into a passing truck, and explodes, killing those onboard the aircraft. Roger heads back to the hotel ready to confront Eve about her double-cross, since he is told that the record showed Kaplan checked out at the time Eve was supposedly talking to him. When she sees that he is alive she embraces him, relieved, thus confusing Roger. She receives a call, writes down the address, and takes the piece of paper with her as she leaves. Roger uses a pencil to expose the address etched in the page beneath (for an advertising guy, he is quite adept at getting out of tight spots and tracking things down). He arrives at an auction, where Vandamm is with Leonard and Eve. Vandamm is acquiring a statuette. Roger confronts them, and makes a scene so that the police will take him away from Vandamm’s thugs. The Professor is at the auction, and intervenes with the police. The spy informs Roger about the invention of Kaplan and the need for him to play along a little more by pretending to be him. The government wants to find out about Vandamm’s network which deals in stolen secrets. We now learn that, again, Eve is not what she seems. She is actually helping the spy agency by going undercover.

A meeting is set up between Roger, acting as Kaplan, and Vandamm, who arrives at the Mt. Rushmore attraction center. Vandamm has a house nearby and The Professor said that he will be leaving the country from that location. Roger says he will withhold saying anything about Vandamm’s dealings if he gives Eve to him to get what she has coming for betraying him. Eve pulls out a gun and shoots Roger. It is all a ruse. Eve’s gun fired blanks (a fake gun pretending to be a real one). The deception was acted out to persuade Vandamm that Eve was on his side, despite her revealing emotions concerning Roger. Eve and Roger meet under the supervision of The Professor. She tells Roger that she fell in love with Vandamm before she knew about his criminal nature. Roger now wants them to go off together, but The Professor says she will be leaving with Vandamm to continue her spying. Roger is upset, but pretends (sorry, but it keeps showing up) to go along with the plan. He escapes the hospital room where he has been hidden to keep up the false story about his demise. He goes to Vandamm’s house. He sees the landing strip where the plane will land to help Vandamm escape. He overhears a conversation between Vandamm and Leonard where he learns that the statuette from the auction holds stolen microfilm. Leonard says he does not trust Eve. He found her gun and fires it, showing it just used blanks. Vandamm says he will drop her out of the plane. (There is a possible subtext going on here that Leaonard may be gay and have feelings for Vandamm. Van damm says that Leonard is “jealous” of Eve, and Leonard says his “woman’s intuition” makes him suspect her.)

Roger is able to warn Eve by dropping his monogrammed matchbook with a message in front of her from the upstairs level of the house. After they leave for the plane, Roger is confronted by the maid who stops him at gunpoint. It turns out she has the same gun with the blanks, which Roger recognizes, and the discharging of the blanks distracts Vandamm. Eve grabs the statuette and runs. She and Roger then try to make their escape over the face of Mt. Rushmore. Valerian pursues them, but they prevail, and the thug falls to his death. Leonard grabs the statuette in a tussle with Eve. She stumbles and Roger saves her by grabbing onto her with one hand as he hangs onto the edge. Leonard starts to grind his foot on Roger’s hand, but is shot by park rangers who are with The Professor. The statuette breaks revealing the microfilm inside (another object that is not what it appears on the surface). Vandamm is placed into custody. It first appears that Roger is trying to help Eve off of the cliff, but the scene shifts to him lifting her to the upper birth in a train as they speed off to their honeymoon, another image that is not what it seems.

The use of Mt. Rushmore here is similar to what Hitchcock does with The Statue of Liberty in Saboteur. In both pictures, he depicts, ironically, violence and criminality occurring at locations that symbolize awe-inspiring morality, reminding us that sometimes we only attain a semblance of a civilized state.

Another way that this film isn’t what it seems is the way it subverts the drama with a great deal of humor. Roger is incredibly cool given his circumstances, shooting off one-liners. When he is abducted by the thugs, he asks if he can call his dining partners to explain he is being kidnapped. When he is held captive in the library at the Townsend estate he says it’s good because, “I can catch up on my reading.” At the auction, he says to Vandamm, “I didn’t realize you were an art collector. I thought you just collected corpses.” There is definitely a great deal of double entendre between him and Eve. She says she can handle herself by saying, “I’m a big girl,” To which he responds, “Yeah, and in all the right places, too.” When she invites Roger to stay hidden in her room on the train, she says, “It’s going to be a long night … And I don’t particularly like the book I started.” Once they are in her compartment and he is in the upper birth where he hid he asks her why she is so nice to him. She answers by saying, “Do you want me to climb up and tell you why?” And the last image of the film is the none too subtle image of the train going into a tunnel. Oh, Hitch, you rascal, you.

The next movie is 12 Angry Men.