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.