Sunday, September 6, 2015

Long Day's Journey into Night

SPOILER ALERT! The plot will be discussed.

You might feel like you spent a whole day watching this film. It comes in just under three hours. Well, Eugene O’Neill was not known for being brief. Some critics have criticized this 1962 screen version of the play, directed by Sidney Lumet, for being “stagy.” I would have to disagree. Yes, we are talking about basically a four character story set at a beach house. But Lumet starts the story of the Tyrone family outside, near the water. The first object we see is the sun, its burning rays bearing down on the earth, hinting at the long day to come. To me the use of the illuminating sun as the first image presented is ironic, since this family doesn’t really want to see the truths surrounding their lives. At one point, the son Edmond (Dean Stockwell) says, “Who wants to see life as it is if you can help it.”

Lumet uses close-ups to zero in on characters as they are showcased while going through their ruminations. He says in his book, Making Movies, if you viewed close-ups of the actors at the start of the movie and then at the end, “you’d be shocked at how different they look. The ravaged, worn, exhausted faces at the end have almost nothing to do with the composed, clean faces at the beginning. It wasn’t only acting. This was also accomplished by lenses, light, camera position, and length of takes.” This effect emphasizes the toll this day (which is symbolic of the many days of their lives) exacts on the family members.

Let’s look at the individual characters. The matriarch, Mary (Katherine Hepburn) has been morphine-addicted since the birth of Edmund. She was institutionalized, and her husband and sons worry that at any moment she will relapse (which she does). Gong to the “spare room” is the signal that she is isolating herself from the family (a spare room is not used by family members) so she can shoot up. The drug addiction is a literal and figurative escape from reality. She, as do the others, blame their problems on other family members, instead of taking a hard look at themselves. Mary says it is her other son’s fault, Jamie (Jason Robards, Jr.) for having the measles that infected a third child, who eventually died. She says it was Edmond’s fault for bringing a birth too soon after the death of a child that led to her addiction. She refuses to accept the fact that Edmond has tuberculosis, and slaps him when he tries to make her realize he doesn’t just have “a summer cold.” She accuses her sons and her husband, James (Ralph Richardson), the traveling actor, for having lives outside of the home, leaving her alone. But, she has made the house a prison for herself. The fog at the beginning is symbolic of her inability to see the truth about her life. The fog horn is used repeatedly (for instance when they all are drinking alcohol) to show how the family is like a boat trying to navigate a self-imposed obscurity to the truth. Lumet says in his book that he used longer and longer lenses on Hepburn to show the character’s slipping “into her dope-ridden fog.”

The pretentious father, James, is also in a state of delusion. He was an actor of some note who invents statements about his theatrical abilities. He blames his sons’ wandering ways on their lack of commitment to the Catholic faith instead of taking responsibility as their father. He tries to limit the consumption of alcohol by the boys, but he drinks a great deal stating it is for medicinal purposes. He champions the importance of the family, but he was absent much of the time and was unfaithful to his wife.

Jamie drinks to excess, visits brothels, and generally has no stability in his life. He wants to blame his father and mother for his cynical and pessimistic view of the world, but again, does not take any personal responsibility. Edmond became a sailor to escape the family. He talks of a nirvana-like experience while at sea. He felt part of everything else, achieving self-obliteration, and not feeling at home at any one place. It is appropriate that he is the one suffering from “consumption,” since his individuality has been wasting away. The father blames Jamie for corrupting Edmond, but the latter allows his brother’s influence to take hold of him.

In the end, the characters start to confront the truth about themselves. For instance, Jamie confesses his love/hate relationship with Edmond (which is sort of how they all feel about each other) when he tells him that he wanted to corrupt his brother. He didn’t want Edmond to be the preferred son of the parents. Lumet says, “As the scenes progress and the truth becomes more and more agonizing, the lenses get wider and wider, the camera gets lower and lower, the light harsher but darker, as the whole story of these people gets wrapped in night and the final terrible truths are articulated.”

As I said, a long day indeed.

Next week’s movie is The Graduate.

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