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.