Sunday, August 30, 2015

Rebel Without a Cause

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

I wanted to announce the publication of my new novel, The Bigger Picture. The link to Amazon is:

All of my earnings will be donated to the Bryn Mawr Film Institute. It is a mystery for movie lovers, like its prequel, Out of the Picture. The new story deals with the double sexual standard and sexual abuse of women.

Don Maclean writes in the song “American Pie” that Bob Dylan, the “Jester,” wore a coat “he borrowed from James Dean.” In director Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause James Dean’s Jim Stark wears literal and symbolic clothing. The jacket we see him wear for most of the film is red. It can signify the passion of rebellious youth. The opening sequence shows a drunken Jim on the ground with a red toy monkey. In this one image Ray shows a person caught between childhood (the toy) and adulthood (the drunkenness). And this film, like To Kill a Mockingbird, addresses the inevitability of losing one’s innocence and having to be born again into the pain inflicted by the grown-up world.

We move to the police station where the three main characters are brought together in the same place: Jim is arrested for his public drunkenness; Judy (Natalie Wood), wearing a red coat, was picked up for being a minor walking around at night alone; and John “Plato” Crawford was arrested for shooting puppies. These rebellious youths meet in a place that stands for the enforcement of the rules with which they are at odds. Jim mimics the police siren, and a cop says “that’s enough static out of you.” The word “static” means noise, but it is also used to suggest opposition or criticism, which is one of the role’s of youth.

Jim is no longer a child and must now face the disappointing reality of his home life. We learn that he is the new kid in town, which adds to his rootlessness, and, thus, to his insecurity. His parents always move whenever there has been trouble in the family. Jim accuses them of always blaming him for the relocations, but there are problems between the mother and father. Jim’s dad, Frank (Jim Backus – yes Mr. Magoo and the rich guy on “Gilligan’s Island) is a wimp, (his wearing the frilly apron around the house is an embarrassing reminder to Jim of Frank’s emasculation) never standing up to his domineering wife (Ann Doran), or showing any decisiveness in general. The family’s moving around suggests the inability to feel “at home” can continue into adulthood.

Judy longs for the affection of her father (William Hopper) that she received when she was a child. She is disappointed that her father isn’t the one picking her up at the police station. There is an incestuous subtext at work here. She is a curvaceous young lady now, so when she gives her father a quick kiss on the lips at home, he pushes her away in disgust. It almost appears that he protests too much, subconsciously guilty of his own urges. He considers her a tramp because she stays out at night with her rowdy crowd of friends. Her mother says when you are starting to grow up, “nothing fits.” She is in-between worlds. So, Judy, too, feels homeless.

Probably the most interesting character of all is Sal Mineo’s Plato. He wears clothes a mother might pick out for a young boy going to a family event. His tie and jacket, and the pale imitation of a motorcycle scooter he rides, look out of place at the high school. His parents are absent. They have split up, and she is never at home. His father is rich and provides him with material things. He sends support checks with no personalized letters to him. The only person caring for him is the African American nanny, which he is too old to have. He wants for nothing – except love. So, emotionally, he, too, is without a home. At the school, Plato opens his locker, and on the door is a photo of the actor Alan Ladd, a handsome man. He then sees Jim in the mirror on the door. Is Plato gay, and is attracted to Jim, who is associated in this scene with a handsome actor? But, later, Jim is considered as a surrogate father by Plato. The latter says to him, “”If you coulda been my dad. We could have breakfast in the morning.” There is a blending of the sexual and the paternal here, as there is with Judy. It is meaningful that all he has of his dad is a photograph, where? - in his bedroom. Why did Plato kill those puppies? They are not full grown dogs, but babies. Perhaps in his life there is a disconnection between an ideal childhood and the one he experienced. It may be he was abused by his father, and he considers the killing of the puppies an act of mercy to spare them the pain of growing up. It is significant that his nickname references the philosopher who believed that this world was made up of imperfect copies of almost forgotten transcendent ideas.

Since he does not fit in at home, Jim doesn’t want to feel like an outcast among his peers. But the first thing he does is walk on the school’s insignia placed in the cement as he heads for class, supposedly a sign of disrespect. He tries to make fun of the planetarium presentation about the end of the world to be accepted by the gang of kids. But, he is taunted by Judy’s boyfriend, Buzz, who calls him “chicken” when he refuses to fight after Buzz slashes the tires of Jim’s car. The accusation of being a coward is the one thing Jim can’t stand, because it reminds him of his spineless father. He accepts the challenge of the “chicken run” where two beat-up cars are driven toward the edge of a cliff. The driver who jumps out first is the “chicken.” Buzz dies because of a piece of clothing. The strap on his black leather jacket, a symbol of rebellious youth, gets caught on the door handle and he plunges to his death. Did his nonconformity to the approaching responsibility of adulthood kill him?

Jim goes home after the tragedy looking for direction as to how to act. Again, he, too, is caught between the world of the child (he drinks milk at home like a baby) and being forced into being an adult. He asks his father “What do you do when you have to be a man.” He is looking for a clear moral compass to follow, but his dad basically tells him it isn’t that simple, and just wants him to cover his own ass in connection with the accident. His parents tell him that in ten years none of what has happened will be remembered, as if to say the leaving behind of youthful idealism will fade away as one ages.

Jim goes to the police station to talk to Sergeant Ray (Edward Platt) who was sympathetic when Jim was arrested, but Ray is not there. The other members of the gang think that Jim informed on them, so they go after him. Jim, Judy, and Plato go to a dilapidated mansion to hide. All three are in a sense refugees from their homes. They play at being a family, with Jim the father, Judy the mother, and Plato as the child. But Jim satirizes this action, affecting an adult tone of voice, talking about renting or buying, with Judy chiming in about their budget, and Plato saying it will only cost “three million dollars a month.” With these words they acknowledge the absurdity of the grown-up world. Jim says mockingly of having children, “we don’t encourage them.” It reminds the audience about the pessimism of existence at the planetarium, and echoes the killing of the puppies, implying youth has a horrible time ahead of it. Their pretending is cut short by the gang members finding them. Plato has his gun and shoots one of the youths. Jim is able to disarm the weapon, but Plato wants the gun back. He is killed by the police as Jim leads him out of the mansion, since the cops don’t know there are no bullets in the pistol.

Let’s get back to the color red and that toy monkey. The titles at the beginning of the film are in red, and as was said, so were the monkey and Jim’s jacket, as well as Judy’s red coat. One of Plato’s socks is red, a mismatch which conjures up the image of a child but also hints at tragedy. Red is also the color of blood. Could the color also signify violence? When Judy looks into her compact mirror, Jim asks her, “Want to see a monkey?” The monkey can also be seen as a “monkey on your back,” which is an ominous reference. And, Jim may be the “monkey wrench” that damages the machinery of society. Plato says to Jim that when it comes to Buzz and his friends, that he shouldn’t “monkey with them,” another omen of the chaos to come.

So, Jim can, in one sense, be seen, inadvertently, as an “angel of death.” At the police station he hums Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries,” which is associated with going to the afterworld. He lives on “Angelo” street. He enters the planetarium just as the show explores the eventual cosmic end of the world. The scientist there talks about how “the earth will not be missed,” and “the heavens are cold,” after our planet’s demise. The youth in attendance are startled by the flash of light that will indicate the end of existence. Why should they not feel that life is doomed? When Judy is asked toward the beginning of the film who is Jim Stark, she says, “He’s the new disease.” Jim is a participant at the scene of Buzz’s death, and the other gang members want to blame him for the tragedy. The cliff where the “chicken-run” takes place is called “the end.” After Buzz goes over the edge, it appears as if Judy is contemplating jumping after him. But, a look from Jim stops her, as if he must be consulted in matters about death. At one point Jim’s reaper-like persona says, “I don’t know what to do anymore. Except maybe die.” Plato dies because he still has the gun which Jim allowed him to keep. At the end, he puts his red jacket on Plato (once earlier he offered him the jacket in the police station – another omen), and zips it up like a body bag. It is fitting that Plato’s tragedy occurs at the observatory, the place where the young people hear about the end of the world. Plato earlier asks Jim if the earth will end at night. Jim says it will end at dawn – a foreboding statement since that is when Plato’s life does end.

We have to consider that not only is Jim, as are Judy and Plato, justified in their aversion to adulthood, but also that their rebelliousness is a threat to the society around them if it is so self-involved. It is why we are all programmed into social roles as we lose the passion of youth and exchange it for the compromises inherent with aging. At the end of the film, Jim’s parents exchange understanding smiles once their son, with his supposed future bride, is returned to them, which given the circumstances, appear creepy and discordant. The father puts his coat around Jim, indicating Jim and Judy will join the ranks of the adult members of society as future replacements. Thus, the cycle goes on. The last image is that of the director, Nicholas Ray, as the curator of the observatory (a fitting place for a director), appearing as an indifferent god walking through the mechanism of his creation.

Next week’s movie is Long Day’s Journey into Night.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

The Spanish Prisoner

SPOILER ALERT! The plot will be discussed.

David Mamet again explores the thin line between what appears to be legal and legitimate and the dark side of the human soul that lies beneath that outward, supposedly civilized fa├žade in this 1998 film.

Joe Ross (Campbell Scott), under contract by a firm headed by a Mr. Klein (Ben Gazzara), has developed a "process" which is worth a fortune. The mathematical equations which describe this breakthrough are written down in a binder, which is placed in a safe to which only Ross and Klein have the key. Ross, his words-of-wisdom spouting partner, George (Ricky Jay Lang), Klein, and a newly employed secretary, Susan (Rebecca Pidgeon) fly to a Caribbean island to firm up the deal between the principals. Ross and Susan run into Jimmy Dell (Steve Martin – no joking around in this role) who appears to be coming off of a seaplane with a beautiful Japanese woman. Tourist pictures are taken, and Dell offers Ross a thousand dollars for his camera without giving a reason.  Later Dell meets Ross and says that he didn't want the picture to get out because the woman is a princess who is married. She was sent off to wherever her unnamed principality exists. Susan has drinks with a woman who turns out to be an FBI agent, named McCune (Felicity Huffman).

Dell and Ross become chummy. Dell asks Ross to drop off a gift for his sister in New York. Ross wants something specific from Klein as to how much he is going to be paid for his contracted work, but gets only vague reassurances. Susan, who openly starts to flirt with Ross, plants the seed of suspicion in Ross about Dell, saying that they didn't really see him come from the plane. She also says people sometimes use others as "mules" to smuggle contraband. She says what becomes the theme of the film:  "Things aren't what they seem." Ross opens the gift that Dell gave him for his sister, and sees that it is only a book about tennis, with a broken spine.

Back in New York, Ross gets a new book and drops it off with the doorman at the sister's building. Dell and Ross have dinner at the former's club, but it is a "members only" night, so Ross signs a certificate which makes him a member. Also, Ross and Dell talk about bank accounts and jokingly Dell opens up a Swiss bank account for Ross. When Ross makes known to Dell that he questions Klein's good intentions, Dell says that he should meet with his attorney and bring the process along. Ross begins to suspect Dell when he goes to the sister's home to give another gift and sees that she is not a young tennis player but is really an old woman.  Ross contacts McCune, and she implies the FBI has been after Dell, which is why she was in the islands. She and her agents meet Ross in NY's Central Park for a sting. He brings the process, and they set him up with a wire. Dell never shows up and all the agents disappear. Ross calls the FBI and finds out that McCune was a fraud, and the binder he now has of the process is blank. It was all a scam – Dell's office and club were fakes. The police now suspect Ross, since he spent lavishly on himself, (the money was really from partner George's casino winnings, which he also used to buy a first class ticket for Susan). Ross has a Swiss bank account and the dining club membership he signed was really a request for asylum in Venezuela. Ross goes to George's apartment and finds him stabbed to death.

Ross is now on the run and goes to Susan. They decide that he should go back to the island from Boston and retrieve the video surveillance tape of Dell so that the FBI will be able to go after the career criminal.  Before he flies off using the round trip ticket he bought for Susan, he remembers that he has Dell's fingerprints on the first tennis book.  We now realize that Susan is in on the scam because she gives Ross a camera bag with a gun in it so that airport security would arrest him. Ross also sees Susan with the fake McCune. He wants to go on a ferry back to New York, and sees that Susan has swapped his plane ticket for one to Venezuela to implicate Ross further. He grabs Susan and they get on the boat before Huffman and others can catch up. Ross makes known to Susan that he knows she is part of the plot. However, Dell is on the boat. Ross goes to the back and a Japanese man places a microphone on Ross' lapel and tells him to get Dell to tell him where the process is located. The audience does not hear Dell's response which is drowned out by a ship horn. Just as Dell is ready to shoot Ross, a young Japanese woman shoots Dell with a tranquilizer dart. He and Susan are arrested. The Japanese man and woman work for the U.S. Marshall Service, and they have been tracking Dell. Klein was the one setting it up because he wanted the process for himself. (How else would they know what the binder looked like – if the plot were tighter, Ross should realize the fact that there had to be someone working on the inside at the company).

Mamet uses the "appearance versus reality theme" in many ways here.  Dell, Susan, McCune and Klein all appear to be legit, but are really part of a conspiracy. Ross, looking like the clean-cut Boy Scout who has been played, surprisingly is able to sort things out. Mamet has fun with the Japanese motif. Klein paints the Japanese as evil, by saying to Ross not to double-cross him and sell the process to the Japanese. The Japanese "princess" is not really royalty. Japanese are referred to in the Caribbean as being tourists with cameras all over the place. In the end, there are Japanese Americans posing as foreign tourists who are the real government agents who save the day. As the NY policeman says, "nobody suspects Japanese tourists."

The appearance versus reality theme is reinforced by Mamet's words which sound cryptic, using unfinished sentences reminiscent of the Watergate Tapes. He writes the script so that one word, such as "look" repeated differently in a short span takes on different meanings. There are also the repeated times that people are referred to as having the flu. George becomes sick. Dell says his sister can't meet them because she has the flu.  Even Susan calls her place of work, saying she is sick with the flu so she can "help" Ross.  These references tell us that there is something rotten in the state of Mamet.

Next week’s movie is Rebel Without a Cause.

Sunday, August 16, 2015


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

“Welcome to my nightmare.” That is what it feels like Roman Polanski is saying to us with this 1965 movie, his second feature film, which explores a young woman’s descent into madness in trendy London.

At the time this motion picture was made, feminism was just a small tributary flowing alongside the mainstream of society. The “free love” idea of the 1960’s, although allowing women to explore their sexuality, was mostly an exploitation of the current anti-establishment rule-breaking by men to gratify their sexual desires. The roles offered women in the context of this film are limited. The main character, Carol Ledoux (a beautiful, thick maned Catherine Deneuve – is she an animal to be hunted, or is she a dangerous lioness?) is a manicurist in a beauty salon. She works in a place whose sole purpose is to make women beautiful for men. She lives with her sister, Helen (Yvonne Furneaux) in an apartment. Helen is having an affair with an insensitive married man, Michael (Ian Hendry), which indicates her lack of fully satisfying relationship opportunities.

Polanski likes to use apartments to illustrate the sensation of sinister forces closing in on people. He does it again in Rosemary’s Baby. Here, how the brutish Michael’s existence invades Carol’s safety is seen by how she is repulsed by his toothbrush placed in her bathroom glass, and his razor takes up space on the bathroom sink area. She is subjected to the loud lovemaking of Helen and Michael in the next room at night. The sound of the ticking clock seem amplified to her (just as it does in Rosemary’s Baby), suggesting the inevitable movement toward one’s fate. In the apartment, she cannot escape the sounds of the world crashing in on her, whether it’s the water dripping inside, or the city’s noises outside. These become amplified as the story progresses.

Her aversion to sex becomes more evident. Carol rejects Colin (John Fraser), a man who appears harmless enough, but who is just another male attracted to her looks. He really doesn’t look at her as a complete person. She is harassed by workers on the street, again showing the one-thing-on the-mind attitude of men. She picks up and smells Michael’s undershirt, and it makes her vomit. She hardly eats anything. Sex and eating are equated in literature and film (remember the dining scene in Tom Jones?). Her rejection of food symbolizes her lack of appetite for sex. She encounters women who do not need men who appear content. She looks out the window at the celibate nuns in a courtyard, who are joyful as they play a game. An older woman who lives across the hall no longer needs sex in her life, and has a faithful, comforting companion in her pet dog. The skinned rabbit that was to be dinner when Carol comes home from work is another reminder of a woman’s role, as it does in the movie Fatal Attraction: the notion that “the rabbit died” indicates pregnancy. She also doesn’t cook, which is another role relegated to women. Is it a wonder that Carol allows the rabbit and potatoes to sit out and rot, indicating her failure as a woman in this man’s world? It also illustrates her mental deterioration.

That she is not mentally stable becomes more and more apparent. She has a glazed over look in her eyes. She is in a distracted state at her job when she injures the hand of a woman during a manicure. Her cutting the client’s finger shows how she subconsciously rejects the objectification of women based on looks. This rejection can also be seen in the way she wishes to dismiss her own beauty by chewing on her hair and swatting at her nose, as if to cut it off to spite her face. It also is a foreshadowing of what is to happen later. After her sister and Michael leave for a vacation in Italy, Carol shuts herself up in the apartment. Helen sends her a postcard of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, a tilted, erect, phallic symbol, which, is viewed as another assault on Carol’s fragile mental state. The disintegrating food draws flies, and we hear the loud buzzing, emphasizing her madness. Carol hallucinates that the cracks in the walls are getting larger with accompanying loud crumbling sounds. Michael’s wife makes an abusive phone call to Helen, but Carol takes it as an attack on herself, and rips out the phone. She imagines a man is in the apartment who rapes her repeatedly. We get an insight of why Carol is damaged. There is a family photograph which shows her as a young girl, standing by herself, staring away with a sad look on her face. There is an older man in the photo who also appears uninvolved. Perhaps she was abused as a child by an older male family member.

The males in a pub with Colin are also painted as grotesque exploiters of women. Colin is disgusted by them. He goes to the apartment to find out why Carol has not been around. He may mean well, but he still ignores her desire to be left alone, and breaks down the door, symbolically violating her. She bludgeons him with, appropriately, a phallic-shaped candlestick. She nails a piece of wood across the door to barricade herself in. The landlord (Patrick Wymark) also forces his way in, and, after assuming Carol’s revealing nightclothes are a come-on, tries to have sex with her. Carol slashes him to death, again, ironically, with a male object, Michael razor.

When Helen and Michael arrive back at the apartment, they and the other tenants realize the horrors that have occurred. Carol is carried out of the apartment by Michael, which seems on the surface like a rescue from her torment, but can be interpreted as being transported by another callous male to some other place that is not safe from abuse.

Is this film just a portrait of a disturbed woman succumbing to her psychotic demons, or are we also presented with an avenging spirit meting out female justice to male sexual tyranny?

Next week’s movie is The Spanish Prisoner.

Sunday, August 9, 2015


SPOILER ALERT! The plot of the movie will be discussed. And, sorry, this is a long post. There is just so much to say about this brilliant film.

I want to start out by thanking my father. He took me to see movies like this one, and Dr. Strangelove, while other parents eye-fed their children a steady diet of cartoons. Don’t get me wrong, I believe moms and dads should monitor what their kids take in. I just think quality should be the primary standard for viewing. And, when it comes to quality, it’s hard to beat Alfred Hitchcock’s works. My father loved his movies and the TV show, Alfred Hitchcock Presents. When I was nine years old in 1960, he wanted to treat my mother to a movie after a visit to the unemployment office after she lost her job. So, we went to downtown Philly to see this shocker.

It seems everyone recognizes Bernard Herrmann’s slashing musical score. Even the opening music has a frantic, unnerving tempo as we see lines slicing through the credits, immediately foreshadowing the violence to come. We are told that the story is set in Phoenix, and we are given the exact time of day to the minute. It almost feels as if we are about to watch a documentary, or at least a retelling of actual events. This verisimilitude makes the horror to follow more startling. Our first view of Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) is in a hotel room on a weekday in the afternoon as she squeezes in time with her lover, Sam Loomis (John Gavin). He is leaving for the airport, indicating the lack of permanency in their relationship. She is wearing a white bra and slip. Instead of a white wedding gown, she wears undergarments of that color, emphasizing that she is having sex without the benefit of marriage. And marriage and respectability is what she tells Sam she wants. He says “respectability” is work, which implies that casual sex is easy. So, given the time in which the movie was made, Marion’s premarital intimacy is deviant behavior.

This anti-social tendency grows. Sam is divorced and must pay alimony. He has to make good on his father’s debts. He has a low income job at a hardware store. He says he will marry Marion (her name implies she is the “marry in’” kind) when he is in a better financial situation to support them. After returning to work from her lunchtime rendezvous, we see a painting of the desert behind Marion’s desk. As was said, the setting is in Arizona. Does the desert hint at Marion’s barren life? Or, does it point to her infertility, thus indicating that her biological clock is ticking since she has no children? Can it be morality has a difficult time growing within her? Maybe the painting points to all of these things.

When her boss, George Lowery (Vaughn Taylor) gives her custody of $40,000 in cash to put in the bank, she fakes a headache, goes home, and packs a bag, ready to go to Sam with the money that she thinks will bring her happiness. It is interesting that the man, Tom Cassidy (Frank Albertson), who brings the money to the office says it doesn’t purchase happiness, it just buys off unhappiness. The money here is just a  MacGuffin; it’s only worth is to propel the plot. By the way, while she is packing, she is now wearing a black bra and slip, indicating her criminal activity. Her boss sees her in her get-away car. The suspense increases when a policeman, looking scary behind sunglasses, finds her asleep on the side of the road on her journey to Sam. She acts suspiciously, and he follows her to a used car dealership. She is in such a hurry to leave, she almost forgets her luggage. She imagines what the policeman and car salesman are saying about her curious behavior.

Up to now, and we’re not very far into the story, the focus is on Marion. We think the narrative will be about her and the money she took. But, the opening is a red herring. She drives us into the actual center of the story. There is a terrible rain storm at night, and Marion can’t see the road clearly (and figuratively, she is unable to visualize what is the right path to be on). And boy, does she make a wrong turn. She has definitely “gone off the main road,” as Norman says, in more ways than one. She stops at the Bates Motel. Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins - how could he have not been nominated for an Oscar?), appears as the boyish, innocent-looking proprietor of the establishment. He tells her that there are twelve rooms and twelve vacancies. Even though he says they moved the highway, the lack of visitors is a reddish flag. He says that it is a “dirty” night, not a “bad night,” which adds a sexual connotation to his speech. She registers under a false name. It is at this point there is a subtle hint that there’s something not right with Norman (even though his name suggests the word “normal.” Of course, in the end he is neither woman “nor man,” but both in the same body. And, “Bates and “baits” are homophones – which implies he is trying to catch someone, with his innocent appearance). He turns to the keys hanging on the wall. It appears he will pick a higher numbered key, but he hesitates, and instead chooses number one, the room next to the office. He says that way she can be in touch easily if she needs anything. When he shows her the room, he points to the bathroom, but is unable to say the word, showing his prudishness, which, as we soon see, comes from his “mother.”

He invites her to the family house, which looks like a Gothic castle, behind the motel. It suggests the place where Frankenstein tried to bring the dead back to life, which we learn Norman, in his own way, has been doing. Marion can hear Norman supposedly arguing with his old mother in the house. Marion hears her say, “Go tell her she’ll not be appeasing her ugly appetite with my food … or my son!” The writing, especially the dialogue, in this film is so meaningful (again, how could Joseph Stefano not be nominated for his adaptation?). We see here the oedipal connection between Norman and his mother. “She” is showing disgust about satisfying an “appetite” – translate that to mean sex. “She” is also jealous of Marion. So, they can’t eat at the house, and Norman brings the sandwiches back to the motel. One of the film’s great lines is uttered by Norman when he says that his mother “isn’t quite herself today,” or any day, as we learn. Marion offers her room to satisfy, literally, and in Norman’s mind, symbolically, their appetites. His mother’s influence prevents him from “entering” her space. They go to eat in the parlor (said the spider to the fly) behind the office. Norman says it would be too “officious” to eat in the outer room. Wrong word. “Officious” means meddlesome. Is it a Freudian slip, indicating the influence of his mother trying to insinuate herself into his “date” with Marion?

Marion is startled by the stuffed birds adorning the parlor. Norman is an amateur taxidermist. Again, we are given another reference to making something dead appear as if it is alive. Her last name is “Crane,” which implies she could become one of the dead creatures, or, is she already dead inside? There are also pictures of birds in Marion’s room. Norman says Marion, true to her last name, “eats like a bird,” which is an ominous thing to say, since they are surrounded by dead ones. But, he says, he would not stuff cats or dogs. Birds are passive, he says. Norman can identify with them in a way. His personality is mostly passive, and he deals with the birds after they are dead. He, himself, looks like a skinny bird. But, when we see Norman outside, his reflection mirrored in the window, he appears dark and mysterious, implying there is a sinister aspect hidden underneath the benign exterior.

The exchanges between Marion and Norman in the parlor are very revealing. Marion admits that she is “looking for a private island … where I can be alone and no one can find me.” Norman responds by saying, “No one really runs away from anything. It’s like a private trap that holds us in like a prison … we’re all in our private traps, clamped in, and none of us can get out. We scratch and claw, but only at the air, only at each other, and for all of it, we never budge an inch.” Norman here has great insight into his predicament, admitting that he can’t psychologically escape his prison (like a caged bird?). Marion then reflects on her situation when she says, “Sometimes we deliberately step into those traps,” as she has done getting involved with Sam, and stealing the money. When Marion notes how badly his mother treats him, Norman says, “It’s not like my mother is a maniac or a raving thing. She just goes a little mad sometimes. We all go a little mad sometimes. Haven’t you?” To which, Marion replies, “Sometimes, just one time can be enough.” Stefano said in an interview that he saw Marion’s act of stealing as a “mad act.” So, Norman is really talking to the audience about how there is madness in all of us. However, in his brief statement, Norman shows the self-denial of the severity of his illness.

When Marion suggests putting his mother away, we see some of Norman’s madness. He becomes angry at the thought of putting his mother in a ‘madhouse,” and seems to know way too much about these places, suggesting he has looked into them, or that his mother investigated the possibility of committing him at one point. He says he couldn’t just leave his “mother,” either. If he did, in her room, “it would be cold and damp up there like a grave.” This statement again shows his desire to resurrect the dead. He says, “I don’t hate my mother. I hate what she’s become. I hate her illness.” Which, of course, is his illness. He tries to reassure Marion, and himself, that he is alright, by offering the arrested development statement “a boy’s best friend is his mother.” He then admits that a son is a “poor substitute for a lover.” In these sentences, we have Norman’s oedipal crisis.

Hitchcock tends to implicate the audience in the wrongdoings he depicts on the screen. He indicts the audience for what happens in The Birds. In Rear Window, we join James Stewart in his voyeurism. Here, when Norman looks through his peephole at the undressing Marion, the camera becomes the best friend of the voyeur in each of us. And, if you are a heterosexual male, you become frustrated when the lens points back to Norman, and we are deprived of seeing the nakedness of Janet Leigh’s voluptuous from. Later when Marion’s sister, Lila (Vera Miles) investigates the house, she is startled because she thinks she sees someone watching her. But, it is only her own image in a  mirror. Or, does this image suggest that she should be frightened, since we, the audience, are there, stalking her? Or, maybe the mirror, always a symbol of our “other” self, is reflecting back to Lila that she, like everyone, has the potential to be both victim and perpetrator of dark deeds. Maybe just entering this “haunted” house takes us, as it did Marion, down the road that should be less traveled.

The famous shower scene shows the killer’s face in the dark, since we are not supposed to know the murderer’s identity at this point, even though the suggestion is that it is the jealous mother. But, as we learn later, it is Norman dressed as her, and it is his own guilt over allowing himself to be aroused by this woman that turns him toward the mother part of himself. Marion is a threat that may seduce Norman away from his attachment to his mom. Thus, the only way the matriarchal aspect of his personality allows him to “penetrate” her naked body is with the phallic substitute of a knife blade. A person’s sexuality is revealed in a shower, but also the individual’s vulnerability, stripped of protection, the noise of the cascading water masking any sound of approaching danger. The shower head appears like a cold eye, perhaps another symbol of the voyeur, looking down on its victim. She reaches for the shower curtain, a last-ditch attempt at shielding her vulnerability. But, the quick snapping of the curtain pulling away from the rings as she falls has the ring of a life cut short. Life flows out of Marion after the attack, literally, in the form of blood, mixing with water, an image of fertility ironically in counterpoint to the earlier dessert images. The life-sustaining liquids go down the drain, whose image is replaced by Marion’s eye, telling us that all we have left is a lifeless corpse. It is also ironic that Marion dies soon after she admitted that she was going to return home, make things right, and confess her wrongs. She was going to reveal her crimes, which Norman cannot do. It’s as if the shower represents her desire to “come clean.”

When Norman realizes what “mother” has done, he goes to Marion’s room. He is shocked, and backs into the wall, knocking down a painting of a crane. A crane is a wadding bird, which means it is found in marshes, which is where Marion Crane winds up. This, of course, symbolizes another dead feathered creature, in this case a “Crane,” that has to be dealt with. We again are made to identify with Norman, as he cleans up the room. We think at this point that Norman is innocent, and all he is doing is protecting his mentally ill mother. But, Norman is psychologically covering up his crime. He washes the blood off of his hands, but, like Lady MacBeth, one can’t cleanse away true guilt. He unknowingly throws the money, wrapped in a newspaper, into Marion’s replacement car. When the automobile hesitates in its submersion into the swamp, we share Norman’s anxiety. The pause in the car sinking hints at the possibility of confession. But, we, too, want to distance ourselves from the crime and share in Norman’s relief when it is covered by the muddy liquid (clear water and blood have been replaced by the dense, cloudy liquid of the bog). Haven’t we all done something we felt was wrong, and tried to cover it up, even pretended it never happened, burying it in our subconscious?

Lila joins with Sam to find out what happened to her sister. They encounter Milton Arbogast (Martin Balsam), a private investigator who was hired to find the missing Marion and the money by the firm where she worked. Arbogast says they want to keep it quiet, hoping the money will be returned, and there would be no pressing of charges. This is a convenient, one could say contrived, plot device to keep the action focused on the principals, and not involve the police. Arbogast stops at the Bates Motel in his quest for Marion. He catches Norman in a lie about not admitting that Marion stayed at the motel. He asks him to look at her picture “before committing yourself.” This statement is darkly funny, given the fact that Norman should, indeed, be committed to a mental institution. The PI checks out the Bates’ house. We have an overhead shot (again to hide the face of the killer) and we see “mother” come out of her room, wielding a knife. “She” slices at Arbogast, and there is an almost surreal bit of editing that conveys the feeling of the victim’s falling down the steps, followed by the raised knife plunging into the PI. We see Norman soon after at the swamp again, which lets the audience know that Arbogast has joined Marion in Norman’s literal and figurative cover-up.

Lila and Sam investigate after the PI, who told them about Norman’s mother living in the house and who, according to Norman, had talked to Marion, goes missing. They learn from the local sheriff, (John McIntire) that Norman’s mother was dead. She was part of a murder-suicide ten years earlier when she poisoned her lover and herself. Sam and Lila check into the motel. While Sam interrogates Norman, she checks out the house. Norman’s mother’s room has been kept to look as if she lives there, even down to the human indentation in the bed. It shows the extent to which Norman tried to keep his mother alive in his head. Sam’s pressuring about Marion, the PI, and the mother results in Norman temporarily knocking Sam out. Norman goes to the house, and Lila heads to the fruit cellar where Norman carried his mom (“Do you think I’m fruity?” we heard her say to her son – we’d have to give a big “yes” to that one). It is an appropriate place to put his mother. In Gothic stories, there are subterranean passages, because physically, and psychologically, scary actions are hidden from the literal and figurative light of revelation. Lila sees the shape of “mother” sitting in a chair, clothed in a dress. When Lila spins her around, the audience sees mother’s corpse, with empty eye sockets. Lila, recoiling in horror, screams. We hear the slashing Herrmann music, and she hits the hanging light bulb. The movement of the light on the dead woman’s face makes it appear as if the eyes are blinking, alive, which they are to Norman. Bates appears dressed in his mother’s clothes, wearing a wig, wielding a knife. Sam stops him from duplicating the deed on Marion’s sister.

At the police station, the psychiatrist (Simon Oakland) provides what many have said is an overlong, obvious analysis of Norman’s mental illness. He does inform us that it was Norman who killed his mother and her lover. The horrible crime of matricide was too much for the son to bear, and that is why he had to keep his mother alive to escape facing the guilt of his terrible crime. We last see Norman, talking in his mother’s voice, looking motherly as he/she shrouds himself/herself in a blanket. Her internal voice says it was Norman who is the monster, not her. She won’t even harm the fly which has landed on her hand. Norman then stares sinisterly into the camera, as his mother’s skeletal face is briefly superimposed onto his. The last image is that of chains pulling Marion’s car out of the swamp, as if resurrecting the unspeakable acts thought buried forever.

Next time you look into a mirror, ask yourself, what do you really see?

Next week’s movie is Repulsion.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

To Kill a Mockingbird

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

Please don’t “mock” me for writing this post about this immensely popular film. It seems like an appropriate time with the release of the new Harper Lee book. I haven’t delved into film criticism about it except whatever I have heard in a film class. So if you have read what is written here before, my apologies.

I think the music by Elmer Bernstein adds so much to this movie. It ranges from simple nursery rhyme-like sounds to lush instrumental orchestration which mirrors the duality of the narration by an adult telling the story through the eyes of her childhood. The triumph of the story is how well it puts the audience into the perspective of the children and chronicles the confrontation of their, as William Blake would say, youthful innocence with the experience of the fallen-from-grace adult world.

The grown-up  character of Scout provides the setting. It is in the fictional Alabama town of Macomb in 1932, during The Great Depression. Thus, we know these are desperate times, which can exacerbate the problems that already exist in society. That is why the narrator tells us that the summer seemed hotter and the days longer. (Of course, time seems to speed up as we age and get closer to our own demise). In the year in which the story takes place, Scout (Mary Badham) is six years old. Her nickname implies that she is on the lookout for a path to follow, in this case the road to adulthood. Her father, lawyer Atticus Finch (Gregory Peck, in an Oscar winning role, and the character voted by the American Film Institute as the greatest hero ever in motion pictures), is forced to expose his uncorrupted children to the evils of the world. It is ironic that by trying to do the right thing that he places his family in jeopardy. Scout learns that they are poor, but a town resident, Mr. Cunningham, is so impoverished he can only pay Atticus with hickory nuts. Her father must explain to Scout that bringing attention to Mr. Cunningham’s repayment visits only embarrasses the man by emphasizing his deprived state. The anger that poverty engenders needs an outlet and the venting of this rage may be misdirected at a convenient target, in this case an African American.

By introducing the character of Dill (John Megna playing the role inspired by author Harper Lee’s childhood friend Truman Capote), we learn by way of explanation the supposed story of neighbor Boo Radley. Scout’s older brother, Jem (Phillip Alford), says Boo’s father is the meanest man on earth, locking up his son, who is described as a maniac. This rumor is supported by Dill’s aunt (Alice Ghostley). The children play “dare” games that involve touching the Radley porch. When Scout, rolling in a tire, crashes onto the porch, we see a distorted huge shadow of Boo that looks ominous, approaching Jem. But, a shadow, no matter how surreally large, can’t hurt anyone, and this image emphasizes the falsehoods surrounding Boo’s supposedly menacing personality. We see the shadow retreat when the fear of the children is obvious to him. Later, when they are sneaking around the Radley house, Jem’s pants get caught on a wire fence, and he must remove them to escape being caught. When he goes back to retrieve them, they are folded, as if “waiting for him.” Jem also finds objects such as a pocket knife, pocket watch, marbles, and carved wooden dolls that are images of Jem and Scout.  They are placed in a hole in a tree. Mr. Radley (Richard Hale), cements the hole, symbolically emphasizing how he has stopped the world from knowing the truth about Boo. The latter is ironically named, since he is the one giving the children the gifts. He is the made up monster of the children, whose form and house are seen in dark shots suggesting the nightmare realm of the imagination.  But, they learn that he is their guardian against the real evil that exists in the supposed safety of the civilized world of the town.

That evil is incarnate in the figure of Bob Ewell (James Anderson), the father of his allegedly raped daughter, Mayella (Collin Wilcox Paxton). He is a drunkard who beats his daughter and puts the blame of his brutality on the innocent African American, Tom Robinson (Brock Peters), who Atticus defends out of his sense of morality in the face of the viral-like bigotry spread by patient zero, Ewell. As Atticus says in his court summation, Mayella tells lies about Tom assaulting her to cover up her “guilty” act of kissing a black man. The town spreads its false stories about black men not being trustworthy around white women just as the occupants have propagated falsehoods about Boo. But even in the face of facts about Tom’s inability to strike Mayella because of his paralyzed left hand, the jurors, having been so indoctrinated that they believe their bigoted lies, convict Tom. He is driven to despair, and is killed trying to escape.

Atticus is the true Christian in this tale, as he does not retaliate against the confrontational Ewell when the latter spits in his face for defending the “immoral” black man. Morality is turned upside down when prejudice rules, since Ewell preaches earlier to Atticus that he “has children of his own” and should realize the threat that people like Tom Robinson pose. That scene is ironic, since it is Ewell who tries to attack the children later. Atticus is able to shoot a mad dog because it is a threat to his children, because the animal has a disease it can’t control. But he can’t hurt Ewell, because Atticus is a civilized man of the law, who is supposed to respect human life. However, the long shot of Ewell from Atticus’ car as he drives away from the Robinson home makes Ewell remind us of the rabid dog in another scene that must be put down.

And that is why the character of Boo is a complicated figure. Atticus earlier tells a story about how his father said that he should never shoot at a mockingbird, because they do nothing but sing and bring goodness into the world. Later Boo (Robert Duvall in his film debut) is directly likened by Scout to the mockingbird, which becomes the symbol for innocence. If they reveal that Boo saved the children, then he will be brought into the limelight, which will also expose him to the corruption of the adult world. He is a before-the-fall-character, in the Biblical sense, existing outside of the society’s law. Atticus cannot eliminate the evil Ewell, but Boo can kill him because he is an instrument of divine retribution, used to protect the innocent children from the evil of the grown-up world.

There are nice directorial and script touches in this film. The empty, rickety swaying swing on the Radley porch, which appears desolate and ghost-like early on in the story, is replaced at the end of the film by the Finch porch swing which is inviting, and on which Scout sits with her non-apparition hero, Boo. When Jem is parked outside the Robinson home while Atticus is inside the house, Ewell approaches the car in a menacing way. His hands press against the window glass of the automobile, as if threatening to crack through the protective enclosure of the child’s pure state. This image is later echoed when hands attempt to get at Scout in her shell-like Halloween costume. All we see are the groping hands, which produce a visceral fear, again placing us emotionally in the vulnerable position of the child whose innocence is being attacked.

Innocence also becomes a weapon against narrow-minded bigotry since it brings the men bent on lynching Jim Robinson at the jail back to their pre-fallen state as Scout addresses Mr. Cunningham as a human being, and talks about his son. It is difficult to be part of a mob when you are forced to confront the basic human decency of an individual child.

Another scene which emphasizes the above theme of the positive nature of innocence takes place when the children want to see their father participating in the Robinson trial. There is no room for them on the first floor where the white people sit. They must go to the balcony where the black folks are relegated. But, to the children, there is no stigma about where they sit. They just want to see the proceedings. But, while watching the events unfold, they become initiated into the ugliness of the prejudice which resides where they live.

So, to kill a mockingbird, in the context of this tale, is to destroy the purity of innocence.

Next week’s movie is Psycho