Sunday, August 28, 2016

The Prince of Tides

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

This 1991 film is a fitting follow-up to last week’s Rain Man, since this movie, too, deals with people who are emotionally cut off from their feelings, which, in turn, prevents connecting with others on other than a superficial level. In the case of this story, the inability to deal with traumatic memories causes the crippling psychological effects experienced by members of a southern family.

The main character of the film, and its narrator, is Tom Wingo (Nick Nolte in an Oscar-nominated performance). At the start of the movie, we see a beautiful vista of the tidal land where he lived with his brother and sister in South Carolina. Tom’s mother, Lila (Kate Nelligan), is a beautiful woman, who, Tom says, instilled a love of language and an appreciation of nature. His father was a hard-working shrimp fisherman. However, Tom quickly dispels notions of an ideal childhood when he says his father was a violent man, and admits that, although once thinking his mother was extraordinary, “I wasn’t the first son to be wrong about his mother.” He says that he wasn’t sure when his parents “began their war against each other. But, I do know the only prisoners they took were their children.”  His mother thought herself a remarkable woman who deserved a better life than that provided by her husband, and planned on rising above her poor economic standing in the community.

We see the young Tom with his sister Savannah, and his brother Luke as youngsters as they jump into the water together to escape an angry fight between their mother and father. Tom says they submerged themselves to hide from what they feared above on the surface. He says, “We found a silent, soothing world, where there was no pain. A world without mothers or fathers. We would make a circle bound by flesh and blood and water.” Here the liquid world almost symbolizes the amniotic desire to return to the safety of the womb, before having to be born into a world of torment. The circle they formed shows a comforting unity not only with themselves but with nature and, what Tom later calls, its biological clocks ticking all around them. But, this desire to escape the harshness of reality becomes a submersion into the river Lethe, where some of them buried their bad memories. As Tom says of this time that it was all long ago, before he decided not to have a memory.
We first see the adult Tom at his home, but he still carries the childhood scars inflicted by his mother’s disappointment of her family’s lot in life. He still feels the hurt of his mother’s disapproval of his only becoming a coach and a teacher. One can see his point when the first words out of Lila’s mouth when entering her son’s home are, “The shrubs need water.” This insecurity has carried over into his relationship with his wife, Sally (Blythe Danner). She is a doctor, and when she comments about having a hard day, he says it’s tough work “being a saint.” From this line we see his sensitivity to what he has made out of his life. The death of his brother has added an extra sorrow to his world and probably led to his recently losing his job, which makes him feel even more like a failure.

However, instead of openly confronting his problems, Tom hides behind an unfeeling shied of glib remarks. When his wife wants to talk about how distant he has become, that he hasn’t touched her in a long time, he quips that before any discussion involving their relationship, he needs, “a stiff drink,” which stresses the desire to escape emotional confrontation. She says she doesn’t know what he’s thinking, because he doesn’t want to delve into his deepest thoughts. When Sally says she doesn’t know how he feels about her, he jokingly dismisses the problem by saying that she shouldn’t take it seriously since he doesn’t know how he feels about anything. This line emphasizes his way of evading painful thoughts, which then prevents meaningful communication and connecting with someone important in his life.
A visit from Lila interrupts the couple’s discussion when she brings news that Tom’s sister, Savannah (Melinda Dillon), an acclaimed poet living in New York city, has tried to commit suicide again. Tom goes to New York with a feeling of dread because he hates all the things about the city that Savannah loved: the bag ladies; the muggers; the noise; the winos. The author of the novel and screenwriter, Pat Conroy, presents a love-hate relationship with the northern city. While he exposes the prejudicial snobbery of New Yorkers toward southerners, he also says that the city forces one to want to mentally improve oneself. It is also the place where Tom must travel to become whole again. Savannah went to New York because it was the opposite of her life in South Carolina, which she wanted to leave behind. That abandonment entailed blotting out memories, which her psychiatrist, Lowenstein (Barbra Streisand, who should have received an Oscar nomination for her directing here), wants to retrieve. (Interesting that two songs made famous by Streisand deal with memories – “The Way We Were” and “Memory” from the musical Cats). Ironically, she wants Tom to fill in the blanks by being his sister’s “memory,” a difficult task for a person who has tried to forget the ugly events of the past.
Tom is resistant to talk about Savannah’s suicide attempts and is angry that psychiatrists have not been able to help her. Of course, much of that failure has to do with not sharing the Wingo secrets. Savannah’s recent suicide attempt followed the death of Luke. We later find out that he had been fighting a war with the government over wanting to keep some family land. He became violent and was eventually shot by the authorities. In his usual attempt at dealing with emotional trauma, Tom is glib, saying Savannah “had a few bad days about it,” referring to her brother’s death. In order to help his sister, Tom eventually relents and begins to tell family stories. Lowenstein discovers the depth of this family’s dysfunction. His father, Henry (Brad Sullivan), berated Tom as a child about not crying, which instilled an inhibition to show feelings. He was violent with his whole family, but Luke would stand up to him, at one point shooting out the TV so his father would stop watching it and participate in a birthday party. Lila had a stillborn baby, which she said died because the family was “bad,” this statement placing guilt on her children for the loss. Henry, perversely, wrapped it up and placed it in the freezer. Tom found Savannah during the night holding the dead child, rocking it, and saying, “You’re the lucky one.” Lila burned Savannah’s journals because they exposed the family’s ugliness, so the daughter became a poet to put her stories in code. Lila told the psychiatrist that she thus raised her daughter to become a writer. Tom knows that this is a ridiculous credit to take, and points out that his mother raised “a schizophrenic,” and that she should have raised cobras, not children.

Tom illustrates how his parents don’t deal with unsettling feelings. His father didn’t reply to Lowenstein’s telegrams because he felt these types of communication only bring bad news. His mother didn’t come to New York because she was planning a birthday celebration for her second husband, again avoiding the negative situation, although she told Tom that Savannah would probably not want her around.  Tom says it’s the Southern way that when things get too painful, “we either avoid them or we laugh.” As to times when it is appropriate to cry, Tom says, “We don’t.” Lowenstein asks Tom if he cried when Luke died. He says no, it wouldn’t bring him back. She says, “No, but it might bring you back,” emphasizing his need to be made whole again by accessing his emotional side.

Tom discovers a children’s book under a pseudonym that he knows his sister wrote because, even though it is an allegory about the Jewish holocaust, it is based on his family. He angrily confronts Lowenstein because she did not tell him about the book. He then talks about how she along with his wife, who has admitted to having an affair, are like other women, who betray the men in their lives. Lowenstein correctly points out that he feels betrayed by his mother, and that is why he is laying blame on other women. In order to achieve the social advancement she felt she deserved, Lila actually married the wealthy man who once hit Tom for fighting with his son while saying a Wingo was too lowly a person to lay a hand on his child. But, Tom admits that it is hypocritical of him calling women devious, since he was the king of keeping secrets.
Lowenstein’s probings force Tom to confront his past and its associated emotions. At one point Lowenstein says bad memories act like an infected splinter which must come out in order for health to be restored. In addition, Tom’s estrangement from his family provides an incentive to see if dealing with his problems can help him solve his inability to connect with others. Sally sums up Tom’s deficiency when she says she chose the other man she became involved with, “Because he knows how he feels about me.” Lowenstein wants to know why in her children’s book, Savannah chose to depict herself as a holocaust survivor. What horror did she have to survive? When Savannah came out of her attempted suicidal coma, she mentioned the word “Callanwolde.” Tom originally denied knowing what it meant. But, he now tells Lowenstein the horror which led to his sister’s mental illness. The word refers to a prison from which three convicts escaped and subsequently invaded the Wingo home. The father was away, and two of the men raped Savannah and Lila. Tom still tries to hide what happened to him, but Lowenstein gets him to admit that the third convict raped him. Luke was able to get a rifle and killed two of the convicts, while Lila grabbed a knife and killed the other. Lila then compounded the horror by making her children promise not to tell anyone about the attack and forget that it ever happened. They cleaned and buried the bodies, attempting to bury the terror associated with them. This denial of traumatic attacks just surfaces in deranged ways. Trying too hard to make things seem sane when they are not is a type of insanity. A few days later Savannah tried to kill herself for the first time. After telling the story, Tom tries to brush off the impact of the violence by singing, “And that’s what I like about the South.” But, Lowenstein says that he has become so good at hiding his pain, but that little boy inside of him is still hurting. He finally cries in her arms, the tears acting like a cleansing purification of his psychological aching. He considers himself a weak failure in comparison to his sister and brother. But Lowenstein reminds him that his brother was killed and his sister was suicidal and in a hospital. He is alive and unharmed, so she says he must be doing something right. He is Savannah’s twin. It may be that this fact points to the possibility that he could have gone the self-destructive way of his sister, but somehow he had the strength to forge his own way and survive.

He returns home to South Carolina for his child’s birthday (there are several of these celebrations mentioned in the story, perhaps suggesting the possibility of personal resurrection from life’s attempts to destroy us). Tom is now able to admit to Sally that he can be a “closed, defensive son of a bitch.” She seems relieved to see him realize this fact. But, he needs more help working on his issues. He gets it by becoming romantically entangled with Lowenstein. She herself has been in denial about her sad relationship with her husband, Herbert Woodruff (Jaroen Krabbe), a pompous, condescending violin maestro, who is having an affair with his piano accompanist. Tom has helped coach Lowenstein’s son, Bernard (Jason Gould, Streisand’s son), a promising musician, play football. Herbert sees Tom as a Southern hillbilly who is a bad influence on the boy. He humiliates Tom and his wife at a dinner party at their home. Tom gets back at him, making him apologize when he threatens to destroy his Stradivarius. After this event, Lowenstein and Tom have a passionate affair. In an emotional way, they save each other. But, as she says, she loves him because he is the type of man who will return to his wife. When Sally needs him again, he returns to the South, and finds his place in the world as a coach, English teacher, husband and father. The bridge he travels over each day symbolizes how he has been able to connect the different parts of his life into a working whole.
Before he leaves New York, Tom talks to his sister who has been released from the hospital after significant improvement in her condition. She says she is writing a new book to be entitled, The Prince of Tides. She is going to dedicate it to her brother, Tom, her memory. Although it can be painful, dealing with the past allows for healing.

The next film is Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Rain Man

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

The title of this 1988 Oscar-winning best film clues us into the main theme of this story. Tom Cruise’s Charlie Babbitt says that when he was scared as a child he had a pretend friend, the Rain Man, who would sing to him so he would feel safe. That imaginary friend turns out to be a brother of whom he was unaware existed. His name is Raymond (Dustin Hoffman, winning his second Oscar). The discrepancy between the two names points to the importance of communication being necessary between individuals to understand each other, which allows them to be emotionally connected.
The movie opens with the unloading of Lamborghini sports cars at a shipping dock. During this sequence, and later in the film, the music sounds primitive, with a predominance of percussion. It feels tribal, which goes along with the theme of the importance of bringing family members together. The initial image foreshadows the importance of the car road trip that will occur later, and presents something, in this case an automobile, which establishes a bond between relatives. Charlie became estranged from his father when he took the family Buick Roadmaster convertible, against his dad’s wishes, to celebrate with friends after getting a good report card. His father, a man who passed on his difficulty showing love to his offspring, knew that his son took the car, but reported it stolen, and let Charlie stay in jail for two days. Charlie left home after that incident, so it is ironic that the automobile which was pivotal in the initial family break up is now the vehicle that brings the two brothers together.
The film quickly establishes Charlie as a man cut off from others, someone who does not listen or communicate well with those he encounters. He is in a financial bind trying to negotiate between the buyers of the sports cars, the institution which lent him the money to acquire the Lamborghinis, and the Environmental Protection Agency holding up emissions approval. He says to one of the parties on the phone, “Don’t tell me that, ‘cause I’m not even listening.” Instead of being straightforward with the various parties, he uses lies to delay dealing with his problems. 
This lack of communication carries into his personal life. He has been involved for quite a while with one of his employees, Susanna (Valeria Golino). It is significant that his romantic partner is an Italian who, although speaking English well, symbolizes Charlie’s lack of wanting someone with whom to converse, and thus become close to. For example, when he relates the story of his father and the Buick, she does not understand the phrase “pulled over” by the police, and he must try to clarify it. As the couple drives to a getaway spot, she complains that he hasn’t said anything for quite a while. He is annoyed about this topic being brought up again, so we realize that this lack of communication is an ongoing concern of Susanna’s. She wants him to share what he is thinking. She says consider talking to be “foreplay,” which means it would add depth to their sexual intimacy.
 During their drive, Charlie receives a call telling him that his father died. He is unemotional, ending the conversation with, “Is there anything else?” as if the fact of his dad’s passing was just another item on his “to do” list. He takes Susanna with him to Cincinnati, but leaves her in the car at the gravesite. He is only interested in the will, and when he says he will be having a short meeting with the lawyer, she says, sure, she can wait in the car, which symbolizes how the physical distance at which he keeps her mirrors the emotional one he has established between them. In the will, his father says he understood why Charlie left, but did not forgive him for never trying to get in touch again. He rants at the lawyer, asking was he listening to what was written in the will. The lawyer tellingly asks, “Were you?” Again, Charlie does not pay attention to what someone is saying, in this case his father, who obviously revealed in his words how hurt he was by his son’s continued estrangement. After he becomes angry that his father only left him the roses in the home’s garden and the Buick, he confides to Susanna about the story surrounding the Roadmaster, telling her that his mother died when he was two years old, so it was just him and his father. She is amazed that after being together for some time, he has never shared the stories surrounding these traumatic events.

But, his primary concern is the inheritance and his investigation reveals that his father’s three million dollars is held in a trust administered by a Dr. Bruner (Gerald R. Molen), who runs a hospital for the mentally challenged. While Charlie tries to make a deal with Bruner, Raymond enters the story because he recognizes the Buick. When Charlie arrives on the scene, Raymond can recite all types of facts about the car and its owner. Charlie learns from Bruner that he has a brother, who is autistic. The movie was pioneering in publicizing autism, and how those with this condition need rituals, routines and a static environment to provide a sense of protection. If these become disrupted, the person is terrified. Raymond calls one of the attendants, Vern (Michael D. Roberts), his “main man” whenever his world appears threatened, as it does when Charlie and Susanna handle his things. Susanna says she tried to touch Raymond, but he pulled away in alarm. Vernon explains that he has known Raymond for nine years and doesn’t even like the caregiver touching him, and, if he left, Raymond would probably not even register concern about Vernon being gone. He says that people were not Raymond’s first priority. He cares more about his baseball cards, books, and TV programs. Bruner says Raymond has trouble communicating. So, in a strange way, these two brothers are similar. They both have difficulty with listening, communicating, and being able to deal with emotions because of their inability to connect with others. Director Barry Levinson stresses this similarity between the two by cutting to Charlie’s face as we are told about Raymond’s condition.
Charlie basically kidnaps his brother, using Bruner’s concern for Raymond as a bargaining chip to negotiate a deal to receive part of the inheritance. He seems quite cold toward his brother at first, removing him from his protected environment, and is short-tempered with Raymond concerning his idiosyncrasies. When Susanna realizes Raymond’s removal from the hospital was not with Bruner’s approval and how Charlie shows a lack of concern for Raymond’s well-being, she becomes angry. He says that she doesn’t know what he is going through, which she agrees because, again, he doesn’t say anything. He tells her he needs her, but, because of his inability to deal with feelings, she says he doesn’t need anyone, and leaves in disgust. (Little incidents continue to show Charlie’s lack of listening – when all three are in the hotel room, Charlie says he is ordering a pizza. Susanna says no peperoni, and Charlie ignores her and orders the pizza with the topping).

Charlie’s plan is to fly to California to his home, and try to get custody of Raymond. Raymond throws a fit at the airport because he recites all the crashes that have occurred, providing the dates of the accidents. (Bruner had said that Raymond is a savant. Although he has mental deficiencies, he has amazing memory and mathematical skills. He is able to memorize the phone book to the middle of the “G” section in one night in the hotel, can immediately count over two hundred toothpicks that fall on the floor of a restaurant, and solve complex arithmetic problems). So, Charlie has to take his brother in the family Buick, which allows them the time to bond. Because Raymond has problems listening and talking, Charlie gets a dose of his own medicine. Along the way, Raymond’s way of saying “Oh, oh” whenever something doesn’t go according to his routine, or announcing the countdown to when Judge Wapner will be on TV, although at first infuriating Charlie, eventually make Raymond funny and endearing.

The turning point that brings these two together emotionally occurs at one of their motel stops (funny that Rain Man can’t travel in the rain). Raymond reveals that he sang for Charlie when he was young, and his brother called him Rain Man. He gives Charlie a photograph of when his brother was a child. Raymond starts to sing the Beatles’ “I Saw Her Standing There,” and the brothers begin to harmonize, musically and emotionally. When Charlie turns on the hot water in the tub, Raymond has a tantrum and reveals that he accidentally burned a baby, which Charlie realizes was himself when he was a baby. He concludes that was why they sent Raymond to live elsewhere. When Charlie says he is now alright, Raymond affectionately, although awkwardly, pats his brother on his head, making physical contact, repeating, “Never hurt Charlie Babbitt,” and allowing an emotional connection to begin between the siblings. Whereas at the beginning of their journey, they couldn’t even communicate about what to eat for breakfast, Charlie now begins to take care of his brother, making sure he gets what he wants, such as having his bed near the window, eating his cheese balls, watching his favorite television shows, and even tucking him in at night.
Charlie uses Raymond’s abilities to count cards in Las Vegas, and wins enough money to escape his financial situation. He is grateful to have a brother who has bailed him out. He gets them the high roller suite, and places his brother’s bed next to a panoramic set of windows. But, when he tries to hug Raymond, he responds with an agitated yell and a pushing away, showing that there is no easy solution to Raymond’s condition. However, Charlie is now more in touch with his emotions, and able to start to communicate his wants. He calls Susanna, and expresses desire for her to return, which she does.

When they arrive in Los Angeles, Charlie realizes that he doesn’t care about the inheritance anymore. He has made an emotional connection with a brother he did not know existed and wants custody of Raymond. But, he realizes that it is dangerous for Raymond to live in his house when his brother causes a toaster oven to smoke, setting off an alarm, which causes Raymond to become terrified to the point where he bangs his head against a glass door. When a psychiatrist (director Barry Levinson) examines Raymond, it becomes obvious that the latter is confused about where he should live. Charlie concedes the custody battle. But, when alone with Raymond, he tells him he likes having him for his brother. In a clear action of emotional connection, Raymond leans his head against his brother’s forehead. He also starts to substitute Charlie for his caregiver, Vern, by calling his brother “my main man.” Raymond goes on a train to return to the Ohio hospital, but Charlie promises to visit him in two weeks.
When Raymond would come into a new setting he defaulted to the ritual of repeating Abbot and Costello’s “Who’s on First” comedy routine. Charlie tells his brother it’s not a riddle to be solved that will provide a solution to Raymond’s problem. He says it’s supposed to be funny, and if his brother would understand that, maybe he could get well. Raymond always said there had to be syrup on the table before pancakes arrived. Toward the end of the film, Charlie surprises him at a restaurant counter with the topping before the flapjacks are delivered. Raymond, for the first time laughs, and says, “Charlie Babbitt made a joke.” At the train station, Bruner asks if he is happy with his K-Mart clothing. Raymond repeats Charlie’s line, “K-Mart sucks.” Charlie says. “Hey, Ray. You just made a joke.” To which his brother responds, “Yeah, a joke, Ha, ha, ha, ha.” Because he now can appreciate the interactive joy of humor, maybe Raymond, just like his now socially connected brother, is on his way to a more emotional life.

The next film is The Prince of Tides.

Sunday, August 14, 2016


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

Everyone who has seen this 1987 film knows it is a comedy. But, for a movie which serves up quirky characters and funny lines while people consume food in an affirmation of life, the story is preoccupied with morbidity and the associated fear of impending death, and the consequences of passion, such as infidelity. Being of Italian descent, all I can say is welcome to my world.
The Oscar-winning writer, the Irish John Patrick Shanley, and the director, Norman Jewison, know how to deliver the pizza when it comes to evoking the world of these New York Italian Americans. The opening shot is of the Metropolitan Opera House, which foreshadows where the action will take place later. We then see Loretta (Cher, who received the Oscar for Best Actress) walking on the street as vans carrying scenery to The Met pass by with their cargo for the production of La Boheme, the opera she will see later. The musical work chosen is appropriately composed by an Italian, Puccini, and fittingly tells a story of love and death, with a dash of unfaithfulness.
Loretta works as an accountant for some of the businesses in the area, and the first one she stops at is, yes comedy lovers, a funeral home. The director brags how he makes the deceased look better than they did when they were alive, which is funny, but also is a sad commentary on the living. Loretta feels as if she has been scorned by life because her husband was hit by a bus (again with a death reference) after being only married for a short time, preventing her from having children. She later says she waited for true love and that romantic notion has pushed her back on the pendulum of affection to a place of cynicism and practicality. While going over a florist’s business records, the owner says the man who sends roses really knows about romance. Loretta scoffs, and says he's just paying money for things that will die. He says if everyone thought like her it would be bad for business. But, we see that her romanticism is not dead. She says she likes flowers, and after he gives her a rose, she smiles. In fact, there are two instances, one in the flower shop and later in her mother’s bedroom, that we see Loretta reflected in mirrors, suggesting that she really wants to have an alternate romantic reality free of the self-imposed restraints of her pragmatic lifestyle.
Loretta has been dating Johnnie (Danny Aiello). He proposes marriage to her at the appropriate place, an Italian restaurant, because romantic appetites and digestive ones are very much linked in the Italian culture. Ironically, here, there is no passion on Loretta’s part. There are signs that there is no combustible chemistry between these two. He is afraid he will ruin his suit if he gets down on his knees to propose. He has no engagement ring, and she demands he use his pinkie ring, which he reluctantly gives up. It is not that Loretta wants to hold onto romantic notions. She just doesn’t want to accept that bad things can happen when passionate love is involved. Instead, she blames her husband’s death on “bad luck” because the wedding was at city hall and there was no reception. She now rationalizes that bad luck can be prevented if they perform the traditional matrimonial actions. Johnnie is flying to Sicily the same evening he becomes engaged, practically running away from the commitment, to be at the death bed of his mother (another reference to The Grim Reaper). To solidify her peace of mind about preventing more bad luck in her life, she gets him to promise to marry her in a month. As the plane takes off, Loretta encounters an old lady (Gina DeAngeles), who says she is putting a curse on the plane because her sister is on it and she wants her to die for stealing away her lover long ago. Loretta says she doesn’t believe in curses and the old lady says, “Neither do I.” We have the theme of unbridled passion which can lead to infidelity coupled with the desire for deadly revenge. Yet, the woman placing a curse and then saying she puts no faith in them makes this scene darkly comic, which means it goes beyond comedy or tragedy, to an absurd place where the world, even its horrors, are not taken seriously.
When Loretta returns home to tell her father, Cosmo (Vincent Gardenia), that she has news, the first thing he says is “let’s go into the kitchen,” the place where appetite-sustaining and life-perpetuating food is prepared and consumed, making it the center of Italian family home life. Contrarily, when she tells him she is getting married, his response, instead of one of appreciating the joy life offers, is to assume the worst can happen. He questions why she would commit the act again, since marriage doesn’t work out for her. When they go to wake Loretta’s sleeping mother, Rose (Olympia Dukakis, Oscar winner for Best Supporting Actress), to tell her the news, the first words out of the lady’s mouth are “Who’s dead,” which are funny in their extreme nature, but which show how the tendency here is to immediately expect something morbid has occurred.
There are plentiful references to animals in the movie, emphasizing the instinctual mating drives of animals, including humans, and these allusions to the bestial part of people undermines Loretta’s attempt to abandon reckless passion for a peaceful, rational relationship. When Loretta shops at the liquor store, the wife of the proprietor of the store accuses him of leering at another woman, and says when he looked at the woman she saw in him a “wolf,” and we see this observation is noted by the eyebrow-raising of Loretta. The man counters by saying when he looks at his wife he sees the woman he married, not the older woman she has become. The implication is that animalistic passion creates an unreal world outside the sphere of rationality. This scene is echoed when Loretta’s Aunt Rita (Julie Bovasso) says to her husband, Rose’s brother Ray (Louis Guss) that he looks twenty-five years old in the moonlight (we’ll get back to the use of the “moon” in the movie later). The next day, after the two made love, she says he was a “tiger” and she was soft as a “lamb,” almost equating sex with a predatory devouring (appetites again) act. 
Johnnie made Loretta promise to contact his brother, Ronnie (Nicholas Cage), and get him to come to their wedding. He mentions that there was bad blood between them. Loretta’s seeking balance in her life through rationality and practicality is upended when she encounters Ronnie. When she calls him to invite him to the wedding, he roughly dismisses her. She labels him an “animal’ after he hangs up on her. We then see Ronnie sweating as he stokes the fire for the ovens to make bread at his family bakery. These images of heat and food associated with Ronnie imply he is a man driven by passion and appetites, not cool rationality. When Loretta goes to the bakery to talk with Ronnie, he tells her he lost his hand in a slicer because he was distracted when cutting bread for his brother. His fiancé then broke up with him because of the mutilation. She says that was not Johnnie’s fault. But, Ronnie is really angry at fate, similar to Loretta’s blaming bad luck, and does not take responsibility for his part in his accident. He says, “You want me to take my heartache, put it away and forget?” He then says he wants a big knife so he can kill himself (more talk of death in this comedy). 
When Loretta suggests they go upstairs to his place to talk, she tells him that he is a “wolf,” echoing the conversation she overheard in the liquor store. We smile at the shot of Cage with his scraggly head of hair, beard and hairy chest making him look wolf-like. She says that he was like an animal that gnawed off its foot to escape the trap of marrying the wrong woman. He says that Johnnie made him look away and he lost his hand, and she may lose her head. Ronnie then throws the table aside, grabs Loretta and kisses her passionately. First she stops, then gives into the irrational chemistry between them. He takes her to the bed and both say they were dead, their animalistic passion now releasing them from their self-imposed prisons which they labeled bad luck and injustice.
When they awake in the bed in the light of day, Loretta is alarmed by her actions and slaps Ronnie, telling him to “snap out of it,” after he says he loves her. She wants to treat their night of passion as a dream-like trance from which they must awake. She says, again with a death reference, that they will take this secret about their lovemaking to their “coffins.” He gets her to agree to have one night with him at The Met. Despite her protests, she gets the gray taken out of her hair, sports a sexy hair style, and buys alluring clothes. But, as she exits the store, she bumps into a group of nuns, reminding her of her unfaithful ways to Johnnie. (While she tries on her clothes at home and puts on lipstick, she also sports a crucifix hanging from a necklace around her neck, and goes to the priest to confess her sexual betrayal. Most Italians are Catholic, and they are pulled on the one hand by passion and on the other by the animalistic-appetite-denying teachings of their church). After going to the opera, Ronnie maneuvers her back to his bed, saying he may be a wolf, but she “runs to the wolf,” because for a woman like her, playing it safe is the most dangerous thing she can do. Her conservative lifestyle, not indulging her passionate nature after her husband’s death, was unnatural. As to her marrying Johnnie, he asks, “Why you wanna sell your life short?”
Paralleling Loretta’s unfaithfulness to Johnnie, we have the subplots concerning her father and mother, which reinforce the primary themes. Cosmo can’t sleep, because “it’s too much like death.” Rose says he is cheap, because he thinks if he holds onto his money, it will keep him tied to this world and he will escape death. He has taken a mistress, Mona (Anita Gillette), and we seem them, of course, in a pastry shop, food again the symbol for sexual desire. Rose suspects the affair. She hypothesizes that men chase women because of the fear of death, which Johnnie affirms when she asks him, supposedly making them feel more young and vital, and thus fooling themselves into thinking they can delay the inevitable. Rose has a flirtation at, where else, the same local Italian restaurant, the domain of satisfying appetites, with a college professor (John Mahoney) who also has been chasing women, in his case young students. She does not allow a physical consummation to occur because, unlike Cosmo, she says she is married and she knows who she is.
The scene of the grandfather, with his dogs, howling at the large moon ties together the lunar motif of the film with that of instinctual animal behavior. The baying reminds one of the wolf allusions, maybe even the unreality of the werewolf, whose bestiality is released by the full moon. Rose’s brother, Ray, says he saw the same full moon when Cosmo, who was going to marry his sister, showed up near his house. Loretta are intimate the night of the huge full moon. Thus, there is an association of the moon with love, sex, passion – all emotional, non-rational drives. Because of the irrational influence attributed to the moon, we say unbalanced people are “lunatics,’ and when someone is infatuated with another, we say someone is “crazy” for that person.
The main characters in this film are moon “struck,” implying that love here is not a soothing experience, but more like an assault. The story is sort of an anti-fairy tale. The date at the opera is a type of ball, similar to the one attended by Cinderella. In fact, we see Loretta, while preparing for her night out, holding up a single shoe, suggesting Cinderella’s fated slipper. If one observes Ronnie’s false hand it resembles Pinocchio’s, which may suggest Ronnie’s transformation from feeling dead to becoming a real boy. But, there is nothing sweet about their pasts and the cheating surrounding the beginning of their relationship. This unsavoriness is emphasized when Loretta sees her father at the opera with his mistress, at the same time she is with her illicit lover. Ronnie annunciates the unsentimental true reality of romance: “Love don’t make things nice – it ruins everything. It breaks your heart. It makes things a mess. We aren’t here to make things perfect. The snowflakes are perfect. The stars are perfect. Not us. Not us! We are here to ruin ourselves and to break our hearts and love the wrong people and die. The storybooks are bullshit.”
In the end Rose gets Cosmo to abandon his mistress and reaffirm his commitment to their marriage. Johnnie returns from Sicily to say he can’t marry Loretta because his controlling mother recovered and he superstitiously believes the marriage will kill her. So, Ronnie and Loretta become engaged, and the Italian emphasis of the family over the individual takes center stage.
When asked if she loves Ronnie, she tells her mother she loves him “awful,” which sort of echoes Ronnie’s idea of the cataclysmic impact of romantic feelings. Rose’s response is “Oh, God, that’s too bad,” because, as she said earlier, “When you love them they drive you crazy because they know they can.” If you’re going to sacrifice your wits for someone on your way to the grave, the best you can hope for is that the person you join up with is worth the pain. I guess, when it comes to this movie, the laugh is on us.

The next film is Rain Man.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Michael Clayton

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

At one point in this 2007 film, George Clooney’s Michael Clayton tells his fellow New York City attorney, Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson), “I am not the enemy.” To which Arthur responds, “Then who are you?” This question is at the heart of the movie. After all, his name is the title of this motion picture. This story focuses on where is his moral compass directed, and will it continue to point in the same direction, or will it shift. His last name contains the word “clay,” which in religious usage many times indicates the fallibility of humans. But, it also implies a substance that can be formed, molded into another form. In Michael’s case, it symbolizes possibilities.
The film opens with a voice-over of a message left for Michael delivered by Arthur which sounds like a rambling rant. But, it shows a man who has had a revelation about how he wants to change his life. He had a dream in which he finds himself covered in an excremental excretion which came from an organism. And, he says that “I had been coated in this patina of shit for the best part of my life. The stench of it and the stain of it would in all likelihood take the rest of my life to undo.” When he meets Michael on the street he says he does not see himself as a great attorney, but a person who has facilitated destruction. He says, “I’m Shiva, the God of death.” But Arthur does not allow this understanding to render him helpless. Instead he decides to take on the challenge: “I took a deep cleansing breath and I set that notion aside. I tabled it. I said to myself as clear as this may be, as potent a feeling as this is, as true a thing as I believe that I have witnessed today, it must wait. It must stand the test of time. And Michael, the time is now.”
As the story unfolds we learn that the “organism” Arthur wants to battle can stand for the legal profession and the companies it defends, such as the one at the center of this plot, U/North. He has been defending the company in a multi-billion-dollar lawsuit for selling a toxic defoliant. But, while taking a deposition in Minnesota he encounters a young girl, Anna (Merritt Wever), whose farmer parents have died and whose brother is gravely ill, supposedly as a result of being exposed to U/North’s chemical. We discover that Arthur has a mental condition and had stopped taking his medications. At the deposition, he begins to take his clothes off and seems infatuated with Anna. But, all of this activity carries with it significance beyond the actual behavior. Arthur’s last name is “Edens,” implying that there is innocence in his being, and he wants to get to that place before man’s fall to a pure state of existence. He sees this young woman as an innocent who he wishes to keep uncorrupted. He later tells Anna, (from the mythic new paradise of the American heartland as opposed to the corrupted east of New York), on the phone that we all hope to find someone, “and they’re like a lens and suddenly you’re looking through them and everything changes and nothing can ever be the same again.” Anna is that “lens” for Arthur which refocuses his life. He rips off his clothes as a symbolic act of shedding himself of acquired corruption produced by the world of greed so he can return to the sinless life in the Garden of the Old Testament Bible. Arthur represents in this story one choice of moral direction for Michael.

The movie opens, before returning to a period four days prior, with a sequence that ends at a pivotal point concerning which one of those directions Michael will take. He is at a card game. We later learn that he has a gambling problem. At the card table one of the players notes that Michael’s bet on the success of a restaurant. But, we see later that he has to sell everything to pay off gambling debts and is still $75,000 short. We start to develop the impression that Michael is a reckless person, a loser. He leaves the game, and receives a phone call from an acquaintance to help a rich friend out of a mess. The man hit a jogger while driving. This entitled fellow takes no responsibility for his action, blaming the lighting, the road, and the runner. We find out that Michael is a lawyer, but not a trial one. He is at the man’s house to advise him and get him the legal aid he needs. The man expects that Michael should be able to fix things immediately. We see that Michael’s prime job is one of a legal version of a mob “cleaner.” He is the go-to guy to make all the dirty secrets disappear. But, we can see he’s weary of this assignment. He tells the man, “I’m not a miracle worker. I’m a janitor.” While driving away from the house, his GPS flutters. He sees three horses on a hill, is intrigued, and approaches them. At this point, his car explodes. We then go back in time.
When Michael picks up his son, Henry (Austin Williams), we see that he is divorced and his wife is remarried with a new baby. Henry tells his father about this fantasy book entitled Realm and Conquest. He says it is about a bunch of characters that are in a universe where they each have a nemesis, but don't know who that person is so they can't trust anyone and just live for themselves. Clayton says, “That sounds familiar,” which is a realization about the fallen corporate/legal environment in which Michael makes his living. Michael’s law firm is trying to fight the U/North lawsuit while a big merger is in the works. One of the partner’s, Marty Bach (Sydney Pollack), wants Michel to control his friend, Arthur, after the latter’s outburst in Minnesota. Michael brings Arthur back to New York and puts him in a hotel room. Henry calls the room and has a conversation with Arthur about the fantasy book. Arthur believes the story parallels his struggle. The boy says that the people in the book are all having the same dream, but don’t know it. They think they are going crazy, that what they envision is not real, but it is, and they are not insane. Arthur says, “It is happening, isn’t it? Something larger than themselves, and they’re not ready, are they, to hear it?” For Arthur, he feels that his insight into the need to do away with harmful greed will meet resistance from narrow-minded, selfish people.

Arthur escapes from the hotel room, and locks himself up in his loft apartment. Marty wants him committed, saying that he is wrecking their case since he has been in touch with Anna by phone. But it is difficult to lock him away, as Arthur (quite lucid legally) later points out to Michael, because it is not documented that he is dangerous. We encounter the in-house chief attorney for U/North, Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton in an Oscar-winning role). She is the protégé of the prior head lawyer of the company and now member of the corporate board, Don Jeffries (Ken Howard). She is worried about Arthur’s behavior and has a tense meeting with Michael. She uses covert operatives that Jeffries once used to acquire information. So, this fact emphasizes that she is one in a line of immoral agents working for the company. She finds in Arthur’s briefcase a secret corporate scientific memorandum that says that the defoliant U/North was using has serious health risks. She shows this memo to Marty, who is upset, not about its content, but because it can cause disastrous ramifications for U/North and his law firm. He does not tell Michael about the memo. Crowder also shares all of her surveillance information with Marty. Arthur, realizing his apartment has been bugged after finding out from Michael that he knows he called Anna, makes a phone call to himself, knowing U/North can hear it, recording what is in the memorandum. Crowder tells one of the operatives, in euphemistic language, that she wants Arthur killed. They sedate him as he enters his place, inject him under the toenail so as not to be detected, thus killing him, and then make it look as if he overdosed on his medications.
Marty knows nothing of this murder, and when he talks to Michael, he says he doesn’t understand why, if it was a suicide, that Arthur, who never kept quiet, would not have left a note. Also, Michael does not believe that his friend, so revved up in his current crusade, would then overdose on the medications he was avoiding so that he would not be tranquilized. Michael meets Anna in New York because Arthur had asked her to come because he was going to prove her family’s case. Michael starts to suspect that Arthur, although unbalanced, may have been right about a U/North conspiracy since Marty knows about Arthur’s phone calls, and it is suspicious that the company is now willing to settle at a much lower amount as soon as Arthur is out of the way. He convinces his policeman brother to allow him access to Arthur’s apartment. He finds a receipt from a photocopying company before the police burst into the loft and arrest him. After his brother gets him released, he knows he was followed because no one should have known he was going to the apartment. He goes to the copying center and discovers that Arthur had boxes of the incriminating memorandum made up. It is titled “Realm and Conquest” after the book Henry read and it has the same red cover as the fantasy story. But, Michael was followed to the store, and the henchmen provide a copy of the bound memo to Crowder who now sees Michael as a serious threat.
Michael had asked Marty for an advance of cash so he could pay off his debts. His boss gives him a check on the provision that he must sign a retroactive nondisclosure clause. Michael goes to Marty with the memo, but Marty basically says that Michael is naïve to think that money is made ethically. If the memo gets out then U/North will not only withhold legal fees of nine million dollars, but will sue the law firm for malpractice based on Arthur’s actions. It will also destroy the merger that is taking place. So, the company has Marty’s firm under its thumb. Michael takes the money and pays off his debt.

The audience now catches up to the actions at the beginning of the film. But, now we see Crowder’s covert force placing a bomb in Michael’s car while he plays cards, which is what causes the GPS to flutter. The bomb goes off when Michael has detached himself from the fallen world of corporate greed and conniving lawyers. He is in that bucolic field which Minnesota symbolized, which Anna represents, to which Arthur wanted to return. While he is communing with nature and its beauty, embodied by the horses, he is saved from the treachery of the corrupt world.
Whereas Arthur shows Michael the way to redemption, Crowder exemplifies the road to perdition (the title of another film analyzed in a prior post). Another choice is exemplified by Michael’s brothers. One, Ray (Kevin Hagan) is a decent policeman, while the other brother, Timmy (David Lansbury), is a drug addict. Michael harshly judges Timmy, but his sins seem insignificant in comparison to the crimes of the corporation. Michael also has an addiction, and maybe he sees that his life has not been morally superior to that of his addicted brother. After the bomb destroys his car, he reaches out to Timmy who picks him up and gives him a ride.
However, when Michael shows up outside a U/North corporate meeting room, we are not sure what he will do. Crowder comes out of the meeting and Michael does see the shaken look on her face, as if she has seen a ghost. Possibly that is why he suspects she is the culprit who ordered the hits, and presents his demand to her. He tells her he sold out his friend for $80,000, so he is not the guy she should kill, but the person she should pay off. He wants ten million dollars. She agrees. But, he has used his shady past to trap Crowder, making her believe he would be easy to buy off. Instead, he transmitted, by way of his cell phone, the whole proceedings, and his brother with other policemen go in for the arrest. When Jefferies comes out of the meeting and asks Michael who is he, he responds with Arthur’s words: “I am Shiva, the God of death.” He now admits his culpability in the unholy scheme of things, as did his fellow lawyer, but he now has turned the tables, because he has destroyed the destroyers.
Earlier, Michael, at his family’s house, encounters his shaken brother, Timmy, with his son, Henry, in his car. Henry knows his uncle has taken drugs. Michael reassures his boy that he is strong and will choose the decent way to live. He says to him, “Your Uncle Timmy … on his best day, is never as tough as you … you don’t have to worry, because that’s not how it’s going to be for you.” At the conclusion of the story, Michael also shows his strength. He gives up his career to bring down his pandering law firm and its corrupt employer. We see who Michael Clayton is in the end. He is the person his son deserves.

The next film is Moonstruck.