Sunday, September 25, 2016

Altered States

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


Ken Russell directed this 1980 film in his usual over-the-top style (The Devils, Tommy), this time with a story based on Paddy Chayefsky’s novel. The writer was at constant odds with Russell in the making of the movie, and he disowned his adaptation, unhappy with the way the director, who found the script ponderous, presented his words. A pseudonym is listed in the credits. Even with these qualifications, I find films such as this one, along with the recent Limitless and Lucy, which explore the possibilities of the human mind, fascinating.
Toward the beginning of the story, Eddie Jessup (William Hurt) tells his future wife, Emily (Blair Brown), that as a youth he had religious visions of Christ and angels. Then, his father, whom he deeply loved, endured an extended, painful battle with cancer. His last word to his son was “terrible.” Eddie says to Emily, “So the end was terrible, even for the good people like my father. So the purpose of all our suffering was just more suffering.” After his death Eddie had no more visions and gave up on the external belief in God. The movie is about his quest, as a renowned scientist, to fill that religious void with studies into how universal truths exist inside the human mind.
 The story begins with Eddie in a sensory deprivation tank at a college where he teaches. He had students use the tank and decided to explore the experience himself. He tells his associate, Arthur (Bob Balaban), who monitors the experiment, that he hallucinated, seeing religious allegorical images, including, ominously, those from the bible’s “Revelation.” He also re-experienced his father’s death. Arthur says that Eddie cried, which is an unexpected response to Eddie. Thematically, the tank is a denial of the human body – one floats and is not using any of the physical senses. The person focuses only on mental processes. Eddie is so engrossed with his cerebral quest he is not able to emotionally connect with others in what we know as the real world. Thus, his surprise at the crying. He was only able to relate to someone else in his memories while in this solitary state.

Eddie attends a party, (where people smoke pot and listen to The Doors which fits with the mind-expanding theme of the film), where he meets Emily, a psychiatric anthropologist, someone who explores the human psyche through history’s cultures. Her profession would seem a fitting match for Eddie, who seeks what links all human minds. When she first sees Eddie, he is in the doorway, framed by a bright light. Could this portend that he brings a revelation? Or, maybe it foretells that he is a man caught between two states of existence which exist on either side of that doorway. They have a scientific discussion and Eddie talks about how the madness of schizophrenics may not be a disease, but another state of consciousness. He also believes that schizophrenics seem to be trying to alter their physiology to match their schizophrenic selves. This metamorphosis of mind over matter comes up later in the story. Again, because he is looking for that religious substitute, he is interested in the fact that schizophrenics have religious visions, which to Eddie, may mean that they are tuned into something universal. Animals can’t describe their mental images and ethically he can’t implant electrodes into the minds of people to stimulate or records mental images, so he uses the deprivation tank as a non-invasive vehicle to study mental activity.
Emily finds him exciting, and they have sex after this first meeting. But, during the act, he is uninvolved personally with her. There is a stained glass window in the room and he stares at that, and he tells her he was thinking about God and crucifixions during intercourse. She tells Eddie that making love with him is similar to being harpooned by a mad monk in the act of receiving God. She later says “I sometimes wonder if I’m the one being made love to.” These remarks are significant in showing how detached Eddie is from other humans. In his quest for the universal he is like those sailors in Melville’s Moby Dick who, staring out into the seemingly infinite ocean, lose themselves, and plunge into the vastness. He tells her that he is not good with women, but that no one will be half as remarkable as her, and he doesn’t want to lose her. Given his lack of relating to others, she says that’s as close to his saying that he loves her that he will get. They do get married, have children, and he teaches at Harvard. But, we learn that they are to be separated. Eddie, again showing how his intellectual quest to learn about the human mind separates him from the rest of humanity, says to Arthur the ritual of everyday life, including the university politics, is driving him crazy and he wants to be free of human clutter. He says that he knows that Emily loves him, but the says, “whatever that means,” indicating he is not at home in the world of limited, every day existence. He can’t understand the importance of caring for others on a personal level.
At a get-together, Eddie delivers his version for a replacement for the belief in a traditional God: “It is the Self, the individual Mind, that contains immortality and ultimate truth.” All of our individual minds sprang from and still have the memory of that first, original Self. He says that we all have “six billion years of memory in our minds.” For Eddie, “Memory is energy!” He believes that this memory energy resides in the limbic system of the brain and he seeks “a physiological pathway to our earlier consciousness.” He wishes to understand the essence of all humanity so as to explain, what he sees, going back to his father, the meaningless horror of life. While Emily goes to Africa with the children to pursue her studies during their separation, Eddie visits Mexico to join in an ancient Native American tribe’s ritual which supposedly can create the same archetypal response in all those who participate in a mushroom-induced experience as they reach a different consciousness. On the way to the ceremony, we see a cave, a primal symbol for the womb, but the camera looks from the inside of the opening, as if presenting a view down the birth canal. It could signify a rebirth into this other altered state. The Mexican native says that he will see “one’s unborn soul.” After Eddie takes the mushrooms, he sees fireworks flashing across the sky, as if neurons are firing in the mind. We hear the jarring sounds of horns that are not harmonious, and drum beating, which coincide with this unevolved, primal state. He sees civilized images of himself and Emily dressed up at a tea party, but there is a snake there, reminding us of the Garden of Eden, and she feeds him ice cream, a possible substitute for the apple. But, the apple represents knowledge of good and evil, and the human desire to want to know too much, which leads to destruction through pride. Perhaps Eddie is guilty of this most original of sins.



Eddie wants to continue the experiments back at Harvard, but hopes to use a sensory deprivation tank to enhance the experience. During one of his hallucinations he says he first observes, but then becomes, an early ancestor of humans hunting through grasslands. The virtual experience becomes reality, as he taps into that memory energy, like the schizophrenics of whom he hypothesized, and transforms his human vocal architecture into an almost simian one. He can’t speak for a while until he “reconstitutes.” He tries a session with no one monitoring him and he totally transforms into the primitive being, breaking into a zoo and killing and eating a small sheep. He calls this his most satisfying experience. It is ironic that an immensely intellectual man, who denies the finiteness of the body in a sensory deprivation tank to totally explore the infinite possibilities of the human mind, wants to become primordial the relief of escaping the futility of that endless scientific questing for ultimate answers. His final experiment unleashes the full force of the primal human memory energy, which bends pipes, blasts through glass, and lights up the entire laboratory, knocking out Arthur and Mason (Charles Haid), the doctor monitoring Eddie. Eddie’s mind-altering experiment turns him into an unformed being as he arrives at the state of the first cell of mankind’s origins. Emily rescues him, pulling him out of a whirlpool which symbolizes Eddie’s descent into this inhuman existence.


Emily tried to make him accept that we don’t have great truths, that we’re “born in doubt.” Eddie now realizes it is pointless to search for universal absolutes when there are only relative ones in the human world. He tells Emily that she saved him from “the pit.” He was at that “moment of terror that is the beginning of life,” which turns out to be “nothing. Simple hideous nothing. The final truth of all things is that there is no final Truth. Truth is what’s transitory. It’s human life that is real.” But, he tells Emily that he is too far gone into that realm of terror, and the only thing that stops him from being consumed is her. She tells him to fight the terror of that nothingness. She says we do that by building “fragile little structures to keep it out. We love, we raise families, we work, we make friends. We write poems.”

Eddie starts to transform into that horrible nothingness. When Emily reaches out to help him, she starts to degenerate, too. This image shows a symbolic spreading of this emptiness springing from meaninglessness. But, Eddie, because he now transcends his self-centered doomed quest and wants to dedicate his life to another human in the here and now, pounds against the walls and fights the abyss growing inside of him. He conquers it, and he transmits this new hope to Emily, curing her. It is fitting that the last words of the film are, “I love you, Emily.”

The next film is Harold and Maude.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Marnie

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


Yes, another Alfred Hitchcock film. And, it won’t be the last. The director just offers so much to talk about. Although many of his movies deal in some form with sex, this 1964 piece is probably his most overt on the subject, and its lack of subtlety may lessen its accomplishment. But, it still lends itself to meaningful discussion.
Hitchcock recycles elements from previous projects here. The first shot in the film is at a train station. Not unfamiliar territory for the director. He used a train and a tunnel in North by Northwest to imply sexual intercourse, and it’s possible the opening scene harkens back to that suggestion. The title character’s trauma induced amnesia is reminiscent of Gregory Peck’s condition in Spellbound, and both characters have an adverse reaction to a color related to the traumatic event: for Peck’s character it is black lines against a white background, and in this film, it is red (Marnie becomes upset when she sees clothing, flowers, or ink which is colored red, and the film turns red, mirroring what is going on inside of Marnie’s mind). The opening has the camera focus on a purse. We then cut to a scene where Sidney Strutt (Martin Gabel) tells the police that an employee by the name of Marion Holland stole $10,000 from his business. In the film Psycho the similarly named Marion Crane steals money, and we also see it stashed in her purse. Psycho dealt with the love-hate relationship between a son and his mother. Here, it is between a daughter and a mother. When we hear the line, “I always thought a girl’s best friend was her mother,” it echoes the one used by Norman Bates, who says, “son” instead. Like Psycho, we have a dysfunctional relationship with a mother, and the psychological fallout resulting from that family dynamic. 

One may find that Hitchcock is presenting a misogynistic view here of female sexual deviance and criminality. Even the book Sean Connery’s Mark Rutland reads is entitled Sexual Aberrations of the Female Criminal.  However, I think it’s more objective to approach this motion picture as a case study primarily of one traumatized female. To counter the anti-female argument, Hitchcock immediately shows us the male preoccupation with sex by how detailed Strutt describes the thief, saying she was “five-five, 110 pounds, size 8 dress, blue eyes, black wavy hair, even features, good teeth.” He lingers over his words, suggesting he is enjoying the picture he conjures. He hired her even though she had no references, which shows his interest in her was purely physical. He gripes by implying she held a high opinion of her looks because she would tug down on her skirt, as if she were hiding a “treasure.” Of course, this comes off like he was angry because he couldn’t get a decent look at the goods. Mark happens to be in the office because he does business with Strutt, and the former’s sexist aspect comes out because he urged Strutt to pretty his place up with attractive women. While talking with Strutt he realizes that he has seen the criminal before, describing her as the “good looking one with the legs.”
We see Marnie (Tippi Hedrin), her real name, washing out the dark coloring to reveal her true blonde hair. She has taken on numerous identities as we see her sorting through several Social Security cards with different names. We, thus, realize that she has committed a number of these thefts. But, it also implies that she may not know who she really is, what is the true nature of her personality. She escapes to a stable in Virginia where the workers know her by the name of Edgar, her true last name. She enjoys riding her beloved horse, Forio. In mythical literature, the horse can symbolize sexual power. Or, in this case, it could be that Marnie, who we later learn is sexually “frigid,” is displacing her sexual desire by riding a horse because in her mind she could never “ride” a man. In fact, there are many references to animals in the movie. Marnie applies for a payroll job at Mark’s office. He appears to recognize her, is intrigued as she again tugs down at her skirt as he observes her, and allows her to get the job. He later says he wanted to be a zoologist and once trained a wild jungle cat, getting the creature to trust him. This story implies an analogy to his developing relationship to Marnie. He solidifies this connection when he says he studied the instinctual behavior or predators, and females in the animal world are mostly predatory, as Marnie has been in her preying on employers. He seems almost cold at times, like a detached scientist studying a specimen. They go to the horse races in Atlantic City, and, in addition, Mark’s father loves horses. Mr. Rutand (Alan Napier) says that “the best thing for the inside of a man or a woman is the outside of a horse.” This line sounds like he is just talking about riding, but the act of wrapping legs around a horse, and the idea that it’s best for the “inside” of a person, sounds sexual, and later Mark says his father understands “basic animal lust,” and judges people by their “smell,” which associates men with primal physical sensation. On the other hand, Marnie, despite her affection for Forio and the subconscious need for intimacy it indicates, says that the whole idea of intimacy in marriage is “degrading, it’s animal.” Later in the story, Marnie says that Mark acts like, when it comes to her, he has caught an animal. He says that is true, a wild one. It is probably her wildness that brings out both his interest in animal behavior and his more intellectual interest in solving her psychological mystery. It is no big surprise that the movie presents men as accepting the basic instinctual sexual drive that is associated with animals since humans belong to that family. For Marnie, however, her experiences have alienated her from her instincts.

Let’s get back to Marnie’s visit with her mother after her trip to the stables. She goes to Baltimore to see Bernice Edgar (Louise Latham). We learn that the money Marnie has been stealing is not for herself but instead for her mother. She has not been at home much, probably because she does not feel accepted there. She appears to be trying to buy her mother’s love which she has found elusive for many years. Bernice lavishes more attention on the bratty neighbor’s child, a substitute Marnie who also has blonde hair, than she does on her own daughter. Marnie notes how her mother avoids contact with her. Marnie says she feels there must be something wrong with her that her mother doesn’t love her own daughter. This parental modeling has not helped with Marnie’s inability to deal with intimacy. In addition, mom’s disgust of men has shaped the child’s attitudes toward the male gender. Bernice does not like the highlights in Marnie’s hair, thinking it is meant to draw the attention of males. She says, “Men and a good name don’t go together,” and “Decent women don’t get mixed up with men.” For Bernice, a “good name” and being “decent” mean a woman does not appear sexually easy. Marnie does not drink, smoke, or dress suggestively. She reassures her mother by saying that they don’t need men and that they can do okay for themselves. Today this attitude might indicate an attempt at declaring female empowerment. However, in the context of this story, Marnie and her mother are not examples of independence but of damaged aversion toward males.
The scene at Mark’s place of business when Marnie is working there on a Saturday is a psychologically symbolic one. A violent storm erupts while Marnie is inside his office. He keeps reassuring her, but her fear of the storm seems to have triggered a re-experiencing of a trauma as she presses herself against the door, as if trying to escape, saying she wants the “colors” to stop. The wind causes a large tree branch to break through the huge picture window, shattering the glass. One could interpret the storm as an expressionistic projection of the turbulence inside Marnie since she is attracted to Mark at the same time she loathes him as a man. The thick tree wood appears phallic as it thrusts through the protective interior of the supposedly safe housing. Mark then calms Marnie, comforting her with gentle forehead kisses and an embrace. Is this scene a foreshadowing of the sexual act later between Mark and Marnie? Is this just an incident that draws Mark into wanting to understand the mystery behind this woman? Is it symbolic of a breakthrough toward which Marnie is heading in trying to gain self-understanding? It may be a “breakthrough” for Mark, also, to move forward because the storm destroys the Pre-Columbian art pieces that belonged to his deceased wife. After Marnie says she is sorry that the storm destroyed them, he says everything “has to go sometime.”
Marnie and Mark spend a lot of time together, and she even has a room when she wants to stay at the Rutland family home. Mr. Rutland says his son is sneaky, illustrated by the way he hides booze in tea, and later Mark steals a hidden kiss from Marnie in the stables, an appropriate place where Marnie temporarily associates him with the area where horses reside. But, she robs his office, too. He catches her in the act, tells her she he knows about her lies, even about the fact that she is really from the south by the way she pronounces words. She tells him some truth about growing up poor in Virginia, and reveals her real name. He says it’s his lot in life to have fallen in love with a liar and a thief. He covers up her theft, and eventually anonymously pays back Strutt for the money she stole.

On the one hand Mark is not romantic in the least. He says Marnie will marry him and that way she doesn’t have to steal since she will be part owner of his wealth. He says the marriage will make her his legal possession, because it would either be him or the police. After the ceremony, he sarcastically tells the preacher thanks for being there because without him, it wouldn’t have been legal. On their honeymoon cruise he learns that Marnie can’t bear the thought of physical intimacy. The thought of him touching her makes her feel like she’s going to die. He says she needs a psychiatrist. Her response is “Oh men! You say ‘no thanks’ to one of them and Bingo! You’re a candidate for the funny farm.” Again, her words do hit accurately at the male ego in a general sense, but in Marnie’s case, she actually does have a mental condition, which today would probably fall under a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder. He promises to be kind to her. They sleep in separate beds. But her adversity finally gets the better of him and one night he bursts into her room and pulls off her robe. He then is sorry for his action, and covers her back up. Some may say what follows is a rape, but Marnie voluntarily lies back on the bed and allows Mark to have sex with her. However, she looks like she goes into a type of catatonic state to remove herself mentally from what is to her an intolerable act. The next day she tries to drown herself in the ship’s swimming pool. Mark wants desperately to find out about Marnie’s past. She says to him, “You’re dying to play doctor,” which also carries the sexual connotation of the game sexually curious children play. Her response of “church, purify, cleanse” to the word “water” implies her desire to be her mother’s version of “decent.” When he says “sex” she first says Jack and Jill, innocent gender roles, but then progresses to “masculine/feminine” which makes her think of physical intimacy that leads to her aversion when she says, “I’ll slap your face if you come near me again.” She says “me” in response to “death” which shows her distraught state, and she counters the word “red” with “white” wanting to blot out her fearful past. She then begs for help. They cut the honeymoon short and return home. They begin to make some progress together.

However, Lil (Diane Baker), the sister of his deceased first wife wants Mark for herself. She overhears about Marnie’s past as the newly married couple talk and invites Strutt to a family dinner party hoping that the businessman will recognize the woman who stole from him. He does, but Mark uses his influence to keep the theft a secret. Lil is another negative female character in the film, presented as a gold-digger. But, Hitchcock balances her marriage-for-money schemes with Mark’s admitting that the Rutland family would get out of economic woes by marrying the occasional heiress. It appears both sexes can use the marital arrangement for financial gain.



Mark eventually brings Marnie’s horse Forio to the Rutland home, smoothing the way psychologically for her to transfer her feelings from the animal to him. When she must kill her horse after the accident of jumping over a wall permanently injures the animal, it can be seen as symbolic of her painfully freeing herself of the sexual surrogate. However, her first impulse is to steal from the safe in the house and pack so she can run away. Mark stops her and she breaks down in his arms, feeling emotionally broken by her mental state. Lil actually helps Mark by overhearing Marnie talk to her mother living in Baltimore. He has a private investigator find out about Bernice Edgar’s past, including the fact that she killed a man when Marnie was six years old. Mark brings Marnie to her mother’s house to bring everything into the open. Bernice was a prostitute once, and on a stormy night one of her men (Bruce Dern) in white suits (sailors) went into Marnie’s room and caressed the girl. Bernice came in to stop him, but the sailor fell on the mother, hurting her leg. Marnie was the one who actually killed the sailor, hitting him with a fireplace poker. The blood flowing down the man’s head is the reason for her reaction to the color red, and the weather of that night caused her fear of storms. Bernice said she was the one who killed the sailor out of self-defense, fearing that the authorities might take Marnie away from her. She admits to becoming pregnant with Marnie at the age of fifteen, when she was lured into having sex with a boy whose sweater she wanted. She finally tells her daughter that she was the one thing in the world she truly loved. Marnie’s revulsion concerning sex came from her mother’s sexual promiscuity leading to the violence, and Bernice’s subsequent preaching of negativity toward intimacy with men.
Marnie says that she grew up “decent” by her mother’s sexual definition of the word, but she was also a liar, a cheat, and a thief. Sexual repression has a tendency to surface in distorted, sometimes, anti-social ways. Marnie and Mark leave the house. They hear girls singing a song that was heard earlier in the film when Marnie first visited her mother. The lyrics include the word “purse,” which is a slang term used by prostitutes to refer to a vagina, and which reminds us of the yellow purse, the creased end of which resembles female genitalia, carried by Marnie in the first scene. Does the ending suggest an alternate version of the Adam and Eve story, that the innocence of girls is always in jeopardy of being corrupted by men?

The next film is Altered States.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Fargo

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


This 1996 film by the Coen brothers starts off with a statement about how they are realistically presenting actual events in the movie out of respect for the dead. The Coens are satirizing the overwhelming trend in recent years to give into reality-based stories as the accepted source for entertainment. The story here is really fictitious, but like all great writing, it uses true experiences as a way to reveal human nature. By declaring that the film is based on an actual story, the effect is to allow the audience to be drawn into a bizarre tale they might otherwise reject.
The Coens are from Minnesota so their imaginative script comes from their real experiences living among the people inhabiting this land. As can be deduced from the names of the characters, many of the people who live there derive from Sweden, coming from one cold land and settling in another. The filmmakers described the locale as “Siberia with family restaurants.” This line points to the duality of the setting. There is the harshness of the cold mixed with politeness on the part of the natives. It’s what the Coens call “Minnesota nice.” The language is filled with corny, folksy phrases, such as, “Oh, yah,” You’re darn tootin!” and “Oh, you betcha.” These people face a challenging environment with a smile, like the cheery cashier despite her unglamorous job, and a persistence, like the fellow later in the film who knows it perpetually gets colder and still another weather front is coming in, but who continues to clear his driveway. But, the makers of this movie also stated that this forced continual politeness represses the negative aspects of humans, which can lead to violent eruptions. So, I guess it’s reasonable to say that the Coens give us here a dark version of The Prairie Home Companion.

The movie starts with a whiteout shot where nothing can be seen initially. The first object that emerges out of this impenetrable view is a car towing what we learn later is a new tan Oldsmobile Cutlass Ciera. The man bringing the car to the inn/restaurant/bar is Jerry Lundegaarde (William H. Macy). He registers under a false name, and he has stolen the car from the auto dealership where he works as part of a scheme to have two crooks kidnap his wife so he can extort a ransom from his well-to-do father-in-law. Given the level of deception and criminality involved it is possible that the lack of visibility at the opening of the movie signifies the moral blindness of the perpetrators.

The two men Jerry hires to do his dirty work are Carl Showalter (Steve Buscemi) and Gaear Grimsrud (Peter Stormare). Carl is a talker, and right from the beginning he starts to question why a man would sink so low as to kidnap his own wife. But, he gets tongue-tied while speaking, receives a withering look from Gaear, and quickly capitulates to the immorality by wanting to take a look at the Ciera. When they approach Jerry’s house to take his wife, there is a telling scene about the two opposing worlds that exist in this story. Jerry’s wife, Jean (Kristin Rudrüd) sits comfortably on her couch, industriously knitting, watching television, looking out through her picture window at the peaceful surroundings when a man with a ski mask approaches the window, trying to peer inside. Jean is caught like the proverbial deer in the headlights, unable to even think that anything bad is happening until the man smashes through the glass, basically shattering her safe life, wrenching her through the looking glass and delivering her into the dark side of this existence.

In Blood Simple, the Coens first explored how all intelligence and reason go out the door when people become obsessed with money. Here, the wrong decision to allow greed to rule leads to a domino effect where more and more dumb and violent acts follow each other. A policeman stops the two kidnappers because Carl negligently forgot to replace the dealer tags on the Ciera. When Jean, bound up in the back seat, makes a noise, the policeman becomes suspicious. Carl comes to violence slowly. He threatened Jean hesitantly when the cop approached by saying she must be quiet, “Or we’ll have to, ya’ know, shoot you.” Not his large partner. Gaear, with white hair, resembles the Abominable Snowman. He, unlike is babbling fellow criminal, hardly speaks. He has a frozen facial expression, almost like he is in hibernation. That is until his killer instincts kick in. He grabs a gun from the glove compartment, pulls the policeman’s head down against the open car window and shoots the officer in the head. Carl is shocked by the attack. As Carl tries to remove the body from the road, another car goes by with people witnessing the dead cop. The dominoes keep falling as Gaear pursues the other car at high speed, forcing them to go off the road and overturn their vehicle. Like a cold killer, Gaear assassinates the two.
In the middle of this mayhem is the loving couple comprised of Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand, Oscar winner for Best Actress) and her husband, Norm (John Carroll Lynch). She is an unlikely hero at first glance. She is seven months pregnant, but it turns out can still handle the full duties as Brainerd’s Chief of Police. She and her husband dote on each other. When she is awakened about the homicides, Norm says he’ll make her eggs, despite her protests, telling her, “You have to have a breakfast.” Even though it is so cold out that the police car won’t start, she can rely on him and comes back into the house because the “Prowler needs a jump.” She encourages him in his hobby of painting birds, saying how important it is that his drawing will be on the three cent stamp because they are needed to make up the difference between the old and new rates. She takes time to pick up worms for his fishing, and he meets with her for a lunch buffet with Muzak playing in the background, showing how serene their life is compared to what Marge has to deal with in the outside world. They smile as they say that they love each other. In the midst of this violence and the bitter weather, these two are like a warm fireplace, and Marge can go out and fight crime knowing Norm has her back.


I’m not the first to point this out, but there are vertical blinds in Jerry’s office at the car dealership (owned by his father-in-law), which makes it look like he is in a virtual prison now because of his financial mishaps, and foretells his future place of residence behind bars. He is even dishonest in his job, as we see him deceive a customer about not charging him for a car sealant. He is fraudulently borrowing money based on the dealership’s cars to try to pay off some illegal debts he has incurred. Probably part of his problem is the belittling way he is treated by Jean’s overbearing father, Wade Gustafson (Harve Presnell), to whom he is obligated for giving him his livelihood. Wade says to him, after Jerry wants a loan to make a deal to better provide for his family, “Jean and Scotty never have to worry.” Which means Jerry is a lousy breadwinner, and Wade couldn’t care less what happens to his son-in-law if things go south financially. Jerry’s folksy speech and soothing voice mask a seething, twisted soul beneath. He seems to have forgotten what damage would come to his son finding out that his mother was kidnapped. The overhead shot of him walking in the snowy parking lot makes him look like a moving speck of life and emphasizes what a morally small man he is. His selfish, small-minded ideas are placed in ironic counterpoint by shots of the literally larger-than-life statue we see of Paul Bunyan, a mythical lumberjack who symbolized strength and heroic acts in the face of the adversary in this frozen expanse. We see Jerry’s inner self when he erupts scraping ice off of his windshield when Wade won’t lend him the money, and when he is confronted by Marge about the stolen tan Ciera that the dead policeman mentioned in his report. At the end he does not have the courage to face up to what he set in motion, but instead tries to run away from his crimes, and squeals like a caught animal when the police find him in a motel room.
Greed warps Wade who wants to horse-trade the amount to be paid for his daughter’s release. He is so covetous of his money that he wants to be the one meeting with Carl, dismissing Jerry by saying he will “muck” things up, and thus subverting Jerry’s plans to get the cash. Wade recklessly takes a gun with him and surprises Carl, who has caught the violence bug from Gaear. Angry about someone other than Jerry showing up, he shoots Wade dead, but not before Wade shoots him on the side of the face. He takes the ransom which turns out to be a million dollars instead of the $80,000 Jerry said would be the ransom. Carl then kills the parking attendant, eliminating a witness, just as Gaear had done. His greed kicks in now, taking only the eighty grand with him to deceive his partner, and, in an amazingly “blood simple” way, buries the rest of the money under the snow next to a long expanse of fence, with only a small ice scraper as a marker. When he gets back to the cabin where the two are staying he finds Jean dead on the floor, obviously killed by Gaear, because, as the snowman says, she was starting to scream. Despite the fact that Carl has a ton of money stashed away (if he can find it) it doesn’t slacken his thirst for money. He says the Ciera is his and threatens his partner to let him have it. He walks out the door but Gaear goes after him with an axe, so unmoved by murder that he puts on his hat before going outdoors to kill someone.


The film showcases Marge’s intelligence and investigative talents. She knows the whole scenario behind the killings on the road, concluding by the size of the footprints that there were two perpetrators of different size. She realizes that the patrolman’s license plate notation of “DLR” means that the automobile he stopped was recently acquired from a dealership. She tracks the car to Jerry’s place of employment. There is a scene with an Asian American man she knew a while back which many have thought doesn’t fit in well with the film. However, her finding out that this man lied about being married and his wife passing away leads Marge to conclude that some people, although appearing innocent, can be devious. It is after her discovery of this deception that she realizes that Jerry may be lying about the car being stolen from his lot. Her suspicions are confirmed when she presses him for an inventory check and Jerry runs off.


After finding out that the two kidnappers are staying at the lake she drives around looking for the car, which she discovers. The greed for this object turns out to be an anchor which sinks the criminals. She finds Gaear trying to get rid of Jerry’s body in a chipper. She confronts the killer, who flees, but Marge stops him with a shot to the leg. After she secures Gear in the back of the police car she simply but precisely sums up the devastation that comes from avarice, and how alien Gaear’s way of life is to hers. All these deaths have occurred “for what? For a little bit of money? There’s more to life than a little money, you know. Don’tcha you know that? And here ya’ are, and it’s a beautiful day. Well, I just don’t understand it.”

The film ends with stability restored, after so much chaos, in the warmth of the Gunderson’s bed, and we are encouraged by their hope for the future as the birth of their child approaches. As Norm rests his hand on Marge’s protruding belly, he says, “Two more months.” She repeats, “Two more months.”

The next film is Marnie.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

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


This 1969 film, directed by George Roy Hill and nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars, addresses a theme writers have wrestled with in a great deal of American literature, including The Great Gatsby, which is the vanishing western frontier, and the idealistic romanticism associated with it.

We see the opening credits next to old footage of the real Butch Cassidy and his Hole in the Wall gang which included the Sundance Kid, with the notation that these outlaws once ruled the West. This sequence immediately makes the point that these men existed long ago, at the beginning of the twentieth century, and they are now a part of history, faded projections on a wall. The entire movie shows the two main characters caught between either dealing with or denying how modern times was eclipsing their world. The first scene has Butch (Paul Newman) checking out a bank, which has been modernized with new reinforced bars and shutters, state-of-the-art vault, and numerous guards. We hear the cold metallic sound of the sealing up of the building as it closes for the day. Butch wants to know what happened to the old bank. After being told it kept getting robbed, Butch’s response is that it is a “small price to pay for beauty.” Whatever historic character that existed in the bank has been replaced by modern inartistic practicality.
Butch is the central character in that he is the one caught in the tension between the world of the past and the one of the future. He keeps coming up with ideas to keep his and Sundance’s outlaw life rolling forward. He realizes that the uncivilized American frontier, which the cinematography shows in its untouched beauty, is threatened, so he suggests that he and Sundance (Robert Redford) head for a new type of “West” in Bolivia, despite the fact that he knows nothing about this land, and isn’t sure if the country is in Central of South America. Sundance laughs at his outlandish schemes, saying sarcastically, “You keep thinkin’ Butch. That’s what you’re good at.” Butch’s response is that, “I’ve got vision and the rest of the world wears bifocals.” Butch seems to be trying to move ahead so he does not become obsolete. He voices to Sundance that he may be over the hill and it could happen to the Kid, too. Sundance on the one hand wants to dismiss this notion so he can live in denial of change. After all, his shooting is still amazing at the card game after a player asks how fast he is, which leads to Butch jokingly repeating the “over the hill” comment. But, Sundance’s attitude may also indicate that he is more resigned to his lot in life than is his partner.

When the two return to the hiding place of their gang, Butch at first wants to keep to the old ways of robbing banks, instead of stealing from the railroad. As he says, banks are easier because they don’t move, which may signify his desire to stay put in time. But his alternate wanting to adapt to change to survive allows him to accept the new plan. After the first train robbery, Butch and Sundance are at the town’s bordello and talk of the Spanish-American War. Butch raises the possibility of joining the military and says, “I always thought I’d grow up to be a hero.” To which Sundance immediately responds, “Well, it’s too late now.” Butch is upset how his partner quickly deflates this ideal dream of his with the truth of his current illegal life.

They look down from the balcony and there is a man trying to sell a bicycle, which he says represents “the future.” We then see Butch riding one at the home of Sundance’s girlfriend, the schoolteacher, Etta (Katharine Ross). The sequence that follows is visual and musical, and it contains facets of the main theme. Butch is quite adept at riding the bike at the beginning, which implies he is capable of dealing with the “future” as represented by the bicycle. However, he rides backwards on it, and crashes it into the fence, illustrating that in the end he may not be able to handle the symbol’s implications. Also, the camera shoots Butch riding with Etta sitting on the handlebars through slats in a fence, simulating the look, like the opening, of an old film strip. This choice again emphasizes that Butch’s world is over and all we have are pictures of this era. Also, from a literary perspective, the West was thought of as the new Eden. But, Etta plucks an apple off of a tree while riding with Butch, suggesting that this new Garden of Paradise is already fallen, and the bicycle is the serpent. We have B. J. Thomas singing “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head,” which implies that despite adversity, Butch maintains a sense of optimism, or is he just being in denial?
At the second train robbery they have to deal with a more modern, fortified safe. Butch uses way too much dynamite, exploding the entire car, causing the money to float into the sky, as if the riches of the future are out of reach. Butch’s overuse of the explosive also stresses his inability to cope with the new changes thwarting his outdated outlaw style. After the explosion another railroad engine and car approach. We see quick shots of the metallic machine, emphasizing its inhuman heft and power, the steam billowing out of its smokestack. When the whistle blows, it is a warning signal for Butch and his gang that they won’t be able to escape their future demises. A posse of men on horses emerge from the car, and Butch and Sundance immediately sense the danger to them. The hunters immediately shoot a few of their gang. Butch uses all sorts of strategies to thwart those looking for them: traveling over water; riding over rock; splitting up. They all fail. They make it back to town, but even the amazingly deceptive Sweetface who Butch admits is so good a liar, he says, “I swear if old Sweetface told me that I rode out of town ten minutes ago, I’d believe him,” can’t save them. The posse’s horses show no typical behavior as they don’t run away when Butch yells at them. They visit an old friend, Sheriff Bledsoe (Jeff Corey), to say they will give themselves up and enlist and fight the Spanish. Bledsoe is astonished at Butch’s lack of insight into the outlaw’s situation. He lectures them about how stupid they are to think the government will forget all about their thievery. He sees Sundance looking out the window, and says to him there’s something out there that scares him. It is the end of their way of life, and they are overdue for giving it up. Bledsoe sums up Butch and Sundance’s plight when he says, “You should have let yourself get killed long ago when you had the chance … It’s over, don’t you get that? Your times is over and your gonna die bloody, and all you can do is choose where.” No matter how far they run they can’t stop being overtaken by their eventual extinction.
Despite all the gloom and doom surrounding this pair, William Goldman’s Oscar-winning script is full of humor ironically delivered in the midst of danger. For instance, when they are cornered by the posse and Butch considers their hunters’ options, Sundance adds, “They could surrender to us, but I wouldn’t count on that.” When Sundance asks Butch which way they should go to avoid their pursuers, Butch says, “It doesn’t matter. I don’t know where we’ve been and I’ve just been there.” The humor is an attempt to deal with their fear of this group of men who seem supernatural. They are individuals that have been bought out by the corrupt East, which is run by companies plundering the land for profit. Even the Native American tracker is called Lord Baltimore, to show how he has sold out his western heritage. The lawman, who we only know by an object, his straw hat, not by any human attributes, is called Lefors, which sounds like “The Force,” suggesting a power that is beyond human limitations. Butch comments on the posse’s Industrial Age mechanistic qualities: “Don’t they get tired? Don’t they get hungry? … Why don’t they slow up? Hell, they could even go faster, at least that’d be a change. They don’t even break formation.” They keep asking, “Who are those guys?” For Butch and Sundance, this group represents the inexorable march of time bent on obliterating the past.
They temporarily escape their hunters by making an almost suicidal jump from a cliff into a river’s rapids. They pack up for Bolivia and leave with Etta. This decision to look for a new frontier is sort of an escape, a running away from their destiny’s inevitability. Butch’s hope is to reverse time to find a place where their outside-the-law ways once flourished. Before they leave, he ditches the bicycle, showing his desire for the good old days by saying, “The future’s all yours, you lousy bicycle.” Director Hill then gives us another series of no dialogue, music accompanied pictures, this time still, aged shots of the trio on their trip first to New York and then on the cruise to South America. This sequence has the same effect as the previous ones of emphasizing we are watching scenes from long ago resembling fading memories.
The difficulty the outlaws have with the Spanish language at first shows an initial rejection by the new host country to these transplanted Americans. But, they start to adapt, and are successful robbing several banks. Of course, their overzealous notoriety draws attention, and they believe they see Lefors’ straw hat in a crowd. He has no jurisdiction to arrest them in Bolivia, so they assume he is just there to kill them. Butch says they will go straight, since the lawman would have to catch them in the act of robbery. The two become payroll guards. The ex-thieves themselves are robbed by Bolivian outlaws. Butch and Sundance get the drop on them after the duo give up the payroll. They must shoot these men to retrieve the money. In a strange loss of innocence, it is the first time Butch, although an outlaw, has ever killed another person. It is ironic that the first act of violence we see from Butch and Sundance occurs while they are enforcing the law. Sundance says, “Well, we’ve gone straight. What do we try now?” They return to their old ways, being outlaws.

Despite their attempts to avoid their situation, they know things can’t end well for them. Etta said before leaving for Bolivia that she would not stick around to watch them die. She offers other ways of going straight such as farming or raising cattle, but Butch and Sundance dismiss these options since they either don’t have the expertise or that they are too laborious. In a way they seal their own destiny. She now says she will be leaving for home, which is the sign that she knows that the end is near. Soon after, Butch and Sundance attack a payroll mule train. When they enter the town of San Vicente, a boy recognizes the brand on the duo’s stolen mule. What follows is an extended gunfight, but the Bolivians bring to bear not only numerous policemen but also the military. Butch and Sundance are at first only wounded and take shelter in an empty building. The depth of the denial of the gravity of their situation is shown as Butch says their next stop is Australia, where the people at least speak English, and there is plenty of land in which to hide out. They pretend that things will work out right up until their end when Butch asks if Sundance saw Lefors outside. When the Kid answers in the negative, Butch says, “Oh good. For a moment there I thought we were in trouble.”
They run out and amid volleys of gunfire, the picture freezes, and we get a still shot of the two outlaws, their action now ended, as we, the audience, return to our time, as Butch and Sundance, and their time in American history, transform into a sepia photographic memory.

The next film is Fargo.