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.