Sunday, October 30, 2016
SPOILER ALERT! The plot of the movie will be discussed.
I primarily examine American films, but this 1961 French New Wave film from director Franҫois Truffaut was viewed and discussed in the current film discussion series at the Bryn Mawr Film Institute in which I am enrolled, and I thought it would be interesting to share some of the comments made by class members, including my own, concerning this groundbreaking movie.
One of the elements of the New Wave films was to emphasize the movie-making process itself, and in this way, they are anti-realistic. The narrative can be disjointed, with quick cuts and jumps back and forth in time. This experimentation also coincides with the stories, which can contain rebellious or iconoclastic characters and topics. There is also an enigmatic quality to these motion pictures.
This story, which jumps back and forth in time, centers on the relationship between two men, Jules (Oskar Werner), from Austria, who meets up in France with Jim (Henri Serre). They share interests in the arts and a Bohemian lifestyle, and become friends just before World War I. They eventually become involved in a lifelong love triangle with Catherine (Jeanne Moreau). What I noticed in the movie was the shifting between images of movement versus those of stability and permanence. There are trains, bicycles, flowing rivers, and toward the end, an automobile. The character Thérèse (Marie Dubois) puffs a cigarette in a way to produce smoke as she imitates a locomotive. The camera performs 360 degree shots on occasion, which contrasts with other still shots of the characters. Even when the main characters are motionless in a room in Jules’ and Catherine’s home, someone is sitting in a rocking chair that is constantly moving back and forth, scenes which show movement and stasis at the same time. Movement from one moment to the next can represent the fleeting nature of time, which Jules stresses in his use of a large hourglass (its curves suggesting an analogy to a woman’s form, which can be lovely in the moment, but also changeable, due to the toll time exacts on humans). Jules may want to make the most of the time he has with the woman he loves, Catherine. He seeks a long-term stable commitment from a woman, and a family that goes along with that relationship. Jim’s response is different as he likes to move from one woman to the next in his own way of filling his life with different experiences, making each precious moment count.
Jules and Jim, but especially the former, seek permanence in the form of art. They become enamored of a piece of sculpture of a woman with an enchanting smile, and they later find its human counterpart in Catherine. The irony here is that she is human, not an eternal constant representation of beauty, and her personality is mercurial, the opposite of the constancy Jules seeks in a mate. Jules at one point draws the likeness of a former love on a restaurant table, again showing his desire for the eternal frozen ideal captured in a work of art. Thérèse is a female version of movement as she goes from one man to the next. So, movement can also mean freedom from being entrapped in conformity to society’s rules. Although Jules first takes up with Thérèse, she is the opposite of Jules’ attraction for unchanging stability, since she is an anarchist who the audience first sees painting not art that transcends time, but rebellious slogans on walls. Truffaut seems to be saying that film has elements of both change and permanence, since there is movement in a movie (hence its name) and, on the other hand, the entire film is a work of art that is immutable.
The depiction of the romantic relationships also reflects the dueling desires for the change that movement signifies and permanence. Early on in the narrative the three friends stay at a hotel while on vacation. In the morning Truffaut gives us a shot of the two men and the female at their respective room windows. The image is one of a right triangle, which, in mathematics, is a set drawing of lines and angles. But a love triangle is a contradiction in terms, because the relationships among people occupying its corners are unstable, shifting. When they first meet, Catherine dresses up as a man, and the three go out on the town. Jules says that they should discard all references to gender. It appears that if they were three male friends, things would be stable among them. The movie seems to be saying it is the romantic aspect which throws things off balance. In fact, the relationship between Jules and Jim endures even despite political upheavals, as they serve as soldiers on the opposite sides of the fighting during World War I, each man hoping that he will not have to confront the other.
There is a scene when the three friends exit a play and they get into a discussion about women. Jules argues the sexist attitude that it is of primary importance that women remain faithful. He offers a derogatory quote about how women, because of their inconstancy, should not be allowed in church. Catherine, angered by Jules’ attitude, in a symbolic act of not wanting to be, as a woman, restricted in a prescribed code of behavior, jumps into the rushing river, mirroring her desire for freedom from entrenched attitudes (more on the river jumping later). But, she at first joins with Jules, and they settle down and have a daughter. However, she is torn between wanting this life, and not being tied down. She has numerous affairs while married to Jules, but is not happy in her infidelity. She eventually takes up with Jim, who is attracted to her wildness, and the three live in the same house, since Jules becomes resigned to the fact that he is not her soul mate, but at least there is constancy with her in his life if she stays with Jim. He, however, is wary of becoming another Jules in Catherine’s life and returns to France. He had been involved with Gilberte (Vanna Urbino), who would play the traditional female role as a spouse. So, Jim, too, is divided between the free spirit represented by Catherine and a stable relationship symbolized by Gilberte. Catherine, also conflicted, doesn’t want to be tied down, but is jealous of Jim’s “farewells” in Paris. Jim does return, but Catherine, to balance the books as it were, has an affair with a friend of the men, the artist Albert (Serge Rezvani). When Jim returns, he wants to wait a while before he is intimate with Catherine because he wants to make sure that if they have a child, it will be his. He eventually leaves for France again (more movement), but returns when Catherine becomes pregnant, only to learn that she has a miscarriage.
The end of the film can be viewed in different ways. The three are at an outdoor café/dance hall. Catherine invites Jim to get in her car and asks Jules to watch them closely. She drives them off a cliff into a river, killing them both. Again, the car and the river can indicate movement, signifying the freedom of change, but also of time passing and its consequential lack of permanence, except in the final act of time which leads to the permanent state of death. Maybe Catherine realizes that she can’t have the lasting relationship with either or both of these men that Jules and Jim have for each other, and out of desperation, and jealousy, ends the futility, but also denies Jules and Jim the enduring relationship she sought and also resisted. Or, maybe because she couldn’t hold onto Jim in life she felt that she could be together with him in death. Jules experiences a sense of relief that he no longer has to experience shifting (movement?) between loyalties. However, Jules doesn’t allow their ashes to be mixed, thus maybe his jealously not allowing them to be together in death. Catherine wanted her ashes scattered into the wind, a testament to her unfettered wants, but legal regulations wouldn’t permit it, the restraints of civilized life restraining even her final wish.
Others in the class emphasized the homoerotic nature of the relationship between Jules and Jim. After working out in a gymnasium, Jim reads from a work he is writing about two men (them?) who have a gay relationship. Members felt that, just as in Gilda, the two men were using a woman as a conduit for their repressed feelings for each other. Perhaps the messiness of intimacy would have damaged the resilience that the platonic nature of their relationship needed to persist.
Members also pointed out the foreshadowing that exists in the film. As was already noted, Catherine’s plunge into the river after the play is echoed in the final plunge into the river at the end. Catherine’s cheating by getting a head start in a running race with the men shows how she will cheat on them later with other lovers. Her trying to burn love letters at the beginning causes her dress to catch on fire, a foreshadowing of her future cremation. It is also a hint of her self-destructive nature, as is a later incident when she wields a gun. In the first two times, Jim saves her, but he can’t prevent her death (and his) at the end. Jules studies insects and there is a bug crawling across the outside screen door when Jim and Catherine are together, omens of something dark infesting their lives.
Well, I hope the different insights from the film class were helpful in examining this influential movie.
The next film is Good Will Hunting.
Sunday, October 23, 2016
SPOILER ALERT! The plot of the movie will be discussed.
Jack Crabb (Dustin Hoffman), in person altering makeup and raspy voice, relates his adventures to a historian (William Hickey). Jack and his sister, Caroline (Carole Androsky), are the only survivors after Pawnee Indians attack their wagon train (later Jack has no use for the Pawnee because they pandered to the whites, allowing themselves to be used as scouts for the cavalry). A Cheyenne brave rescues them and takes the children back to his village. Jack’s sister’s attitude is the accepted notion of the time that the Red Man is a savage and will rape her. In fact, they do not even realize she is a girl, and offer her the peace pipe as the eldest male family member. She seems a bit insulted that she wasn’t assaulted. Jack says that the Indians treated him as a special guest. His sister escapes, and the 10-year-old Jack innocently believes that she was going for help. But, it is the white person who abandons him and the Indians who adopt Jack as their own. They teach him to hunt, to use red paint to protect his skin, and how to read a trail. He is considered a grandson by the Chief, Old Lodge Skins (Chief Dan George).
The Chief gives him the name of Little Big Man because even though he is small in stature, he has a big heart, and Old Lodge Skins tells him a mythic story about a small warrior whose courage was big. The positive moral here is that it is what is inside a person that matters. The whites don’t try to understand the Native Americans, but instead lump them all together and condemn them because they look and act differently. When Jack punches one of the older braves, the older boy is startled because the so-called barbaric tribe members don’t know how to beat another, as whites do. The bruised Indian, Younger Bear (Cal Bellini as the adult), is shamed because Jack says he is sorry for him, indicating pity. Jack later kills a Pawnee and saves Younger Bear’s life, forcing him to owe Little Big Man a life.
The accepting nature of the Cheyenne (which is translated as “human being,” ironically contrasting the nature of the Indians with that of the whites) is seen in how they accommodate Little Horse (Robert Little Star as the adult), who likes to be with the women, and grows up to be gay. In fact, Jack notes that the Cheyenne would not force any boy to fight if he was not so inclined, which shows how the tribe respected individuality.
The Cheyenne find that the white soldiers have slaughtered a Native American camp, including women and children. When Little Big Man asks Old Lodge Skins why whites would commit such cruel acts, the old man says, “Because they are strange. They do not seem to know where the center of the Earth is.” Here, the Chief indicts the whites for not having a moral center. He decides to wage war on the soldiers to teach them a lesson, but as Jack narrates, his grandfather’s idea of war and that of the soldiers were not the same. The Cheyenne just wanted to humiliate the enemy by “counting coup,” being the first to tap the opponent with a stick. The soldiers shoot to kill, and the Cheyenne believe Jack was killed. Instead he saves himself by showing that he is a white man. Here, and other times, Jack is not a noble person, willing to die for his tribe. He is pragmatic, doing what he can to survive.
The soldiers hand Jack over to the Reverend Silas Pendrake (Thayer David) to make sure he will now receive a Christian moral upbringing to counter the supposed barbaric life he has lived up to that point among the Native Americans. However, the first thing the “civilized” reverend says is that Jack is a liar, and endorses violence by saying “We shall have to beat the lying out of you.” Pendrake falsely condemns the Indians for not knowing anything of what is morally right, eating human flesh, and communing with the minions of the devil. Despite his warnings and beatings about the temptations of the flesh, the portly reverend is a glutton, always wanting to satisfy his hunger. His wife, Louise Pendrake (Faye Dunaway) is an extreme hypocrite, preaching the virtues of denying physical pleasure while indulging her lust by touching the grown-up Jack while washing the filth off of him, but revealing her dirty thoughts. She warns him of how the girls will be after him, likely vicariously thinking of her own wants, and trembles when she says “and that way lies madness,” showing how she already is in that state, made crazy by a religion that wants to repress her sexual drives. She tells Jack that “purity is its own reward,” and undermines the statement by kissing him on the lips. Jack actually believes in the religious teachings, and confesses to a true love for Mrs. Pendrake. But, while on a visit to the soda shop, he comes across her having sex with the proprietor (Jack, before spying on the couple, plays with a faucet in the shape of an elephant, the long trunk an obvious phallic symbol). Jack says, “She was calling him a devil and moaning for help, but I didn’t get no idea she wanted to be rescued.” Given the level of hypocrisy, Jack says after what he saw ended his religious stage.
He takes up with a swindler, whose outright dishonesty and lack of moral pretense is refreshing to him in contrast with that of Mrs. Pendrake. Mr. Merriweather (Martin Balsam) sells snake-oil, offering it up as a magical elixir. He says that Jack has this streak of honesty in him, instilled by Old Lodge Skins, that prevents him from exceling as a fraud. He says to his apprentice, “He gave you a vision of moral order in the universe and there isn’t any.” His nihilism and cynicism show in his words about how easy it is to get people to believe lies: “a two-legged creature will believe in anything and the more preposterous the better: whales speak French at the bottom of the sea. The horses of Arabia have silver wings. Pygmies mate with elephants in darkest Africa. I have sold all those propositions.” Could he be talking to us today about how politicians function? In any event, Merriweather keeps losing parts of his body, including his ear and a hand. He later loses an eye due to cheating at cards, and when Jack meets him further in the story, Merriweather proposes the rape of the land by killing dwindling buffalo herds for their hides. At that point he has lost a leg. His physical infirmities reflect his moral decay due to his exploitative capitalistic ways.
While working with Merriweather, the two are tarred and feathered by local town folk for the deadly potion the duo are selling. One of the locals is a woman who turns out to be Jack’s sister Caroline. She wants to teach him how to shoot. He doesn’t know anything about guns, to which his sister questions what kind of upbringing did he have with the Indians. To her, a “man ain’t complete without a gun.” Again, the so-called civilized world of the whites is satirized as violence is shown to be an intrinsic part of that society. It turns out that Jack is a natural at shooting. He enters the gunfighter stage of his life. Instead of looking intimidating, he dresses in an over-the-top way, in a fancy black outfit. His boots break through a plank of wood while walking on the street. He is known as the “soda-pop kid” and barely reaches the table as he props his boots up. He runs into Wild Bill Hickock, who rightly says to the young man, “you ain’t got the look of murder about you.” Jack’s life among the Cheyenne taught him to respect life, and that is why he is so awkward as a gunfighter. After seeing how nervous Wild Bill is, who is on the alert against being shot by men proving their white world worth by besting him in death, and witnessing Bill’s bloody killing of an opponent, he sells his guns. Disgusted with his not embracing violence, Caroline leaves Jack, abandoning her brother once again. So much for the white society’s loyalty to family.
After rejecting the religious path, the role of a swindler, and the gunfighter profession, Jack then tries another aspect of white society, that of a husband and businessman. Again, he fails. His partner robs him of all his money, emphasizing the dishonesty of the white world. It is interesting that he chooses a mail order Swedish woman, Olga (Kelly Jean Peters) as his spouse. Even though Jack is trying to exist in the American white environment, he marries a foreigner who doesn’t speak the language of that world. Perhaps his Indian roots subconsciously reject his trying to fit into the white American established order. Jack first encounters General George Armstrong Custer (Richard Mulligan) when he is being evicted from his home. Custer actually shows some sympathy for the deprived man and advises him to go west. Jack says his wife is scared of Indians, but Custer assures the couple he will protect them. Ironically the next scene is an attack by Indians on the stagecoach on which Jack and Olga are riding. A brave carries Olga off. Olga has the same attitude about the so-called uncivilized Indian that Jack’s sister has. However, we later find that she becomes the wife of Younger Bear, Jack’s Cheyenne enemy, and she seems right at home in the Native American world since she is much better suited to the non-standard American lifestyle, being a foreigner.
Jack looks for Olga by venturing into Indian territory, and convinces Cheyenne braves that he is Little Big Man. He meets with Old Lodge Skins again, who has second sight. He says he had a dream of Jack at the soda fountain, playing with the elephant faucet. He also has a premonition about Jack having three or four wives, which is contrary to the Cheyenne tradition of monogamy. Since Olga is not yet with the tribe, Jack again goes back to the white world, hoping to find his wife by becoming a scout for Custer. The general reveals his self-righteousness when he says he can tell a man’s profession just by looking at him, and says that Jack is no scout, but instead is a mule skinner, a profession Jack knows nothing about. The bigotry of the soldiers becomes apparent when one tells Jack that it would be kinder to put a bullet in the brain of a woman who had been captured by Indians. When the soldiers raid an Indian village, they are merciless, killing women and children. Jack is horrified, and tries to stop them. An ironic scene follows when Jack, trying to escape, encounters the Cheyenne brave Shadow That Comes in Sight (Ruben Moreno), the man who originally brought him to the Cheyenne as a child. The brave does not recognize Jack, and tries to kill him. A soldier shoots Shadow before he can kill Jack. As Jack says, “An enemy had saved my life from the violent murder of one of my best friends. The world was too ridiculous to even bother to live in.”
Old Lodge Skins has another dream, more ominous, in which the horses are crying, trying to tell him something. They discover that the message is that the soldiers, ordered by Custer, are coming to wipe them out, showing how the whites can’t be trusted to keep their promises. To the ironically contrasting upbeat marching music derived from an Irish jig, the soldiers systematically kill men, women, and children, including Sunshine and her newborn baby. In a bit of magical realism, Jack escapes with Old Lodge Skins, whom he convinces is invisible because he did not see soldiers in the dream, so they can’t see him. The Chief grins as he walks right through the soldiers to the river. Penn provides us with mirroring shots of Sunshine and Jack falling to the ground as he seems to die inside watching his woman and child expire. Jack poetically sums up the death of that promised hope by saying, “Sometimes the grass don’t grow, the wind don’t blow, and the sky is not blue.”
Jack wants to kill Custer, goes to his camp, and convinces him to hire Jack. He enters Custer’s tent with a knife, but the general intimidates him. Custer realizes that Jack came to kill him, but that he lost his nerve. He says since he is no Cheyenne brave, Jack isn’t worth hanging. Jack is so humiliated that he can’t return to the Cheyenne; so, he becomes a worthless drunk. He again encounters Wild Bill who is married and wants Jack to give money to a widow with whom he has been intimate. At that very moment, a youth kills Wild Bill for having shot his father, which emphasizes again the violence of the white society. Jack finds the widow, who turns out to be Mrs. Pendrake, who has indulged her lust by becoming a prostitute. With a bit of divine justice, she finds the profession boring since the sex occurs day and night. However, with the money Wild Bill has given her, she promises to leave for Washington. The film suggests that she will spread her corruption, like a venereal disease, into the body politic, as she promises to wed a senator, and will religiously continue her unfaithful ways, telling Jack to look her up if he ever visits the nation’s capital.
Jack is so alienated from the white world and unable to return to the Indian one, so he becomes a mad hermit, and one day is ready to kill himself. But, he hears that same jaunty marching music performed by the American troops. He vows to “look the devil in the eye and send him to hell.” He again goes to Custer’s camp. The general keeps him alive to use him as a “reverse barometer” since he believes Jack will only tell lies. Custer wants to provide him with the way he should deal with the Indians. He needs one more decisive victory before running for President of the United States. Just before the Battle of Little Big Horn, Custer asks Jack what he should do. Jack says, “I had him.” But, he wasn’t “armed with a knife, but with the truth.” He tells Custer that there are thousands of Indians in the valley who will wipe him out. So, he says to him he should go in there, “if you’ve got the nerve.” Custer wrongly thinks Jack is trying to outwit him, not wanting him to go against the Indians and getting a victory. Of course, he and his men were wiped out. Jack is rescued by Younger Bear, who finally has paid back the life he owed Little Big Man.
Jack meets with Old Lodge Skins, who says that they won a victory today, but he knows they will lose the war. In a statement condemning the whites for their lack of humanity, he says, “There is an endless supply of white men. There has always been a limited supply of human beings.” Without “human beings” the world has no center for him. So, he wishes to scale a mountain, die, and join the burial in the sky. However, he cannot will his own death, and after resting on the ground with his eyes closed, he reacts to rain falling on his face. When Jack reassures him that he is still in the world, his sad response, mirroring the doomed fate of the Native American situation, is “I was afraid of that.” The movie ends with the 121-year-old-Jack finishing his story, a man of longevity, but whose years were filled with unhappiness.
In one of his speeches, Old Lodge Skins sums up the moral divide between the Native American world view, which cherishes all of existence, and the spiritual emptiness of the whites’ selfishness: “The human beings, my son, they believe everything is alive. Not only man and animals. But also water, earth, stone … That is the way things are. But the white man, they believe everything is dead. Stone, earth, animals. And people! Even their own people! If things keep trying to live, white man will rub them out. That is the difference.”
The next film is Jules and Jim.
Sunday, October 16, 2016
SPOILER ALERT! The plot of the movie will be discussed.
The story centers on four men in Georgia who go on occasional escapes from their suburban world into the wilderness. The beginning of the narrative presents an anti-mechanization argument. For the leader, Lewis (Burt Reynolds), this particular trip holds a special meaning. The land and the river they will be traveling through is about to be converted into a lake with the whole area flooded to produce hydroelectric power. This event represents an extinction process for Lewis, as he complains about how they will be flooding the valley and “drownin’” the river. He sees the conversion as a “rape,” an omen of what is to come later. Their excursion is meant to experience the uncorrupted Cahulawassee River in the remote Georgia wilderness before it is lost forever. Lewis is a man who relishes the idea of hunting with his bow and arrows and riding his canoe through the river’s rapids. He believes that society’s machines will fail and the established order of civilization will collapse, but that his survivalist skills will allow him to go on. We hear the destructive sounds of dynamite blasting away at the valley ironically followed by the natural noise of thunder which sustains the river, the contrast seeming to emphasize the difference between human endeavors and the ways of nature. On the way to the river, Lewis gets a thrill just hearing the flow of the water. He initially gets lost on the way to the shoreline and says that “Sometimes you have to lose yourself before you can find anything.” He is espousing the need to shed themselves of soft city living to find their true natures which are consistent with the wilderness. When one of the group, Bobby (Ned Beatty) concedes that they have lost some of nature in the city, Lewis counters by saying they hadn’t “lost” it; they “sold it” for profit and creature comforts.
Lewis’ friend, Ed (Jon Voight) says he has done okay under the current system. Lewis counters by saying that, yes, he has a good job, and a nice wife and child. But, Ed says Lewis’ scornful attitude makes it sound like Ed’s life is “shitty.” Ed seems a bit embarrassed by admitting he has some insurance after Lewis dismisses Bobby’s work as an insurance salesman. Lewis says, “I don’t believe in insurance. There’s no risk.” And, risk makes life worth living for Lewis because it tests one so as to discover what a person is made of. Director John Boorman gives us a significant shot when he shows Ed sheepishly looking at his pipe, a symbol of his comfortable life, which he hides under his clothing. But, he also handles his knife, which is also part of his personality, but with which he currently is not comfortable, and he puts the weapon in a pocket, too. At the beginning of their journey, he starts to sense danger, and tells Louis maybe they should leave and just go play golf. He is being sensible, but at this point he seems cowardly. In an interview, Voight said he wanted Ed to pick the wooden canoe, because it looked homey, and fit Ed’s desire for feeling safe. Yet, Lewis asks him if he is so careful, why does he keep going on these excursions with him. Ed smiles and says he was wondering about that himself. There is obviously a part of Lewis’ wild nature that Ed admires.
Their first encounter with the area’s inhabitants starts to move the film away from Lewis’ positive viewpoint of this world by showing the unsavory and scary existence in this valley. The buildings are dilapidated. The people are unkempt. They are nothing like what these men see in their safe suburban communities. Bobby is condescending toward the locals, saying they “may be at the end of the line” of civilization. He also says they are examples of “genetic deficiencies” caused by inbreeding. That he comes from a removed world where money is the only thing that matters is seen when he says that they just have to give a “couple of bucks” to make things go smoothly. The natives warn them that they are out of their depth here. One tells Bobby that “you don’t know nothing,” and they are warned that they would be “crazy” to follow through with their canoe trip. The fourth member of their group, Drew (Ronny Cox), plays guitar with a banjo strumming youth who appears to have one of Bobby’s “genetic” deficits. The musical “dueling” with the locals dancing and singing along, although a sort of benevolent competition between the two cultures, does show how these people coming from different worlds can exist in the harmony of the artistic moment. But, after the music is over, the boy turns away, ignoring Drew’s offered handshake, emphasizing how they are too different to ever be friends.
After the men are on their way they see the boy above them on a makeshift bridge. He swings his banjo back and forth which makes it look like the pendulum of a clock. The image seems to be warning them that their time as civilized men is counting down. After they get through some rapids, Bobby says they “beat it.” Lewis admonishes him because his attitude is like those whose egos make them feel they can conquer nature. Lewis says, “You don’t beat this river.” But, even though he is an outdoors man, Drew offers a different perspective on Lewis. He says that he may know the woods, but he doesn’t “feel” them. Lewis may want to be one with nature, but he really “can’t hack it.” After all, he only visits the rural regions; he doesn’t live there. When Ed tries to wake Lewis in the early morning, his friend is in the fetal position, and gives out a little yelp, like a baby not wanting to be disturbed. This scene undermines Lewis’ macho persona. The warnings that they are out of place start to become evident. Lewis hears something at night that could be dangerous, but doesn’t know what it is. Ed sounds like he feels relief that the large problems in distant parts of the world, or even smaller ones in Atlanta, won’t touch them out where they are. But, it also means that they are cut off from any help from the outside world. When Ed tries to exercise his hunting ability, he gets the shakes pointing his arrow at a deer, and misses, showing his not being in sync with what is required to survive in the woods. We begin to hear the “Dueling Banjos” theme more and more, now telling us ironically that these suburban men are not in harmony with this alien environment. Lewis may see this world as the Garden of Eden, but as they row, Ed asks “are there any snakes around here?” and they later see a water snake. Perhaps this image suggests that the devil lives here and that it is no paradise.
Bobby and Ed shore up their canoe while Lewis and Drew are still on the river. They encounter two mountain men. One of them looks grotesque, with his upper front teeth missing (Herbert “Cowboy” Coward). In this context, Bobby and Ed’s weakness is that they try to deal with these people like civilized men, instead of immediately going into what we, today, would call a Walking Dead survivalist mode. Ed addresses these two savage types while holding that tobacco pouch he probably uses in his study at home. The mountain men say the other two are lost, and they are in this situation where there is nothing to prevent acts of depravity. These two get the jump on them with a rifle and a knife. Ed is bound to a tree with, ironically, his own store-bought belt. The other man (Bill McKinney) makes Bobby disrobe, stripping him of the remnants of civilization, and calls him a “sow,” reducing him to an animal, forcing him to squeal like a pig. (There was a foreboding of Bobby being used as a woman when he said the life jacket he was told to wear looked like a “corset). Boorman, said that Bobby’s rape was the malevolent nature of the wilderness exacting revenge for what Lewis earlier called the “rape” of the valley.
To show how God and religion have no place in the barbarity of the forest, the toothless mountain man, before forcing Ed to kneel so he can perform oral sex on him, blasphemously says, “You gonna’ do some prayin’ for me, boy. And you better pray good.” However, Lewis shoots and kills the one who raped Bobby, while the toothless man gets away. Given the context, Lewis’ act is legally justifiable. What follows is not. Drew, the moral center of the story, says they must report all that has happened to the authorities. Lewis argues that he will not get a fair trial in this part of the state because all of the people are related to each other, and he killed one of their kin. Also, the one that ran away can make up any story he likes and recruit other mountain men. Lewis wants to bury the body which will be covered by the lake. In response to Drew’s pleas to act within the law, Lewis, raising his arms and looking around them says, “Where’s the law, Drew?” They take a vote, creating their own little government. Bobby, ashamed about the violation he endured, doesn’t want information about the assault to get out. Even though Ed is emotionally conflicted, he goes along with Drew’s plan. By covering up the killing, they lower themselves to the same level as the mountain men, abdicating any accountability to society at large. As they dig the earth with their hands to make a grave for the dead man, Drew swings his arms like an ape, grunting, showing how he has devolved into an animal.
While paddling their canoes to escape, Lewis looks up as if he notices something. Drew loses his wallet with pictures of his family in the river. It’s as if he has lost whatever grounded him in the outside world by going along with covering up the acts of violence. He doesn’t put on his life jacket, implying he no longer can live with what has happened. He shakes his head, and falls out of the canoe in the rapids. Lewis, the man of nature, is thrown out of his canoe and his leg is horribly mangled. This macho man whines in pain most of the rest of the film. He says that Drew was shot by the other mountain man. Ed, now having to take over Lewis’ position, climbs the mountain. He spies a man with a gun. Echoing the previous shaking while aiming his arrow, he kills his prey this time. However, he slips, piercing himself with another arrow. Could this imply that his act of violence is self-destructive? To compound the confusion, the man he killed has false teeth. Is he the one with the rapist? Why would he now put in his false teeth? Bobby later asks if he was just another guy out hunting. We don’t know, because no legal investigation is utilized to gather evidence. When Ed tries to lower the body of the man he killed, they both fall into the river, and the rope and the man seem to entangle Ed under the water, symbolically tying them together morally, and suggesting that violence equates to swimming in dangerous waters.
They put Lewis in the remaining canoe and on their way they find Drew’s body. His arm loops around his head in a distorted fashion showing how he was a broken man physically and spiritually after their cover-up. They can’t tell if he was shot. To avoid any questions, they weigh down his body, as they did with the man Ed killed. They eventually come to the place where they can get off the river. Their entry place back on land contains a rusted out wreck of a car, a symbol of the civilization they are returning to. They exit the water where there is a church. On their ride back to their cars they see the church being moved because of the future flooding. The solid, definite foundation of beliefs that a church should represent are undermined symbolically by the building having no set location. These men no longer have an ethical or spiritual foundation on which to rely, as their lives, too, are shifting following what has been done to them and what they have done.
Despite suspicions by one of the deputies, a brother-in-law of one of the missing mountain men, the Sheriff (played by the author of the story, James Dickey) says there is no evidence to hold the men. They may have tried to bury what happened, keep it submerged, but Ed has nightmares of the dead mountain man’s hand rising out of the water, in a way pointing an accusing finger.
This film provides no right way to live. The so-called “civilized” world is destroying nature. But, the men who occupy this wilderness act as primal beasts. Their living conditions are deplorable. As one inhabitant says, the best thing for the town in the valley is for it to be “covered by water.” It’s as if Dickey is saying that for humans to be one with nature is to be primitive. The idea of the “noble savage” is a contradiction in terms: there is nobility in being savage. It appears that in this tale, there is no “deliverance” from evil.
The next film is Little Big Man.
Saturday, October 8, 2016
SPOILER ALERT! The plot of the movie will be discussed.
The plot isn’t really what’s important in this 1946 film noir tale. It’s really about the love triangle between the three main characters, or better yet, the love-hate relationships bonding them together.
We first see Johnny Farrell (Glen Ford), the occasional narrator, playing dice with sailors in Buenos Aires. (The foreign locale was required to allow the film to get some of its sexual promiscuity passed the censors, apparently it being permissible if set outside the U. S.). After he leaves the game he is threatened by a man with a gun. However, another man who turns out to be Ballin Mundson (George Macready) saves him with the use of a walking stick with a sharp blade at its end. Ballin knows that Johnny was cheating, but invites him to gamble at a casino. Johnny shows up there and continues his deceptive ways at card playing. We learn that it is Ballin’s casino. Johnny persuades Ballin to hire him since through personal experience he knows how to keep the place secure. The two earn each other’s trust, and Johnny becomes a loyal friend.
Even though the two agreed that gambling and women don’t mix, Ballin brings home a woman by the name of Gilda (Rita Hayworth) and says he married her. There is animosity between her and Johnny from the start, and we realize, as does Ballin, that the two were involved in the past, and what was love between them has turned to hate. But, hate is a strong emotion, as opposed to indifference, and it implies that for it to exist means that the people have not really moved on. This point is illustrated when Johnny says “I hated her so I couldn’t get her out of my mind for a minute.” Gilda, tries to reassure Ballin that he doesn’t have to worry about Johnny because, “I hate him.” Ballin says in response, “And he hates you. That’s very apparent. But hate can be a very exciting emotion … There’s heat in it … Hate is the only thing that has ever warmed me.” Here, Ballin seems to prefer the emotion of hate, the primal ferocity of it. Gilda echoes what Ballin has said when she says to Johnny, “Hate is a very exciting emotion … I hate you so much I think I’m going to die from it.” She then kissed Johnny passionately, showing that love and hate seem to be fueled by the same fire.
Gilda is a film noir femme fatale, but she doesn’t quite fit the role of unfettered manipulator of men. Yes, her flirtatious flings drive males crazy. She obviously hurt Johnny with her sexual ways. And, she cavorts with several men while married to Ballin. But, there are references in the movie about how she has been caged. She is called a canary (is she a bird in a gilded – with a play on ‘Gilda’ – cage?). She breaks the glass in a door at one point with a chair, as if trying to escape her prison. It’s as if she has painted herself into a corner with her sexual role-playing. The very dresses that accentuate her physical beauty confine her, and she asks for help so she can be bound, almost ironically allowing her captivity. She implies that this action is symbolic of her situation when she says, “I can never get a zipper to close. Maybe that stands for something, what do you think?” Ballin disappears after he fakes his own death following his killing a man because of his tungsten cartel business. Johnny marries Gilda, but treats her badly because he still is angry with her. She tries to escape, but he hires a man to romance her and hurt her by bringing her back to Johnny’s cage.
There is also a subtext in the movie involving sexual identity, which even actor Glen Ford admitted existed. Why is Ballin trolling the docks at the beginning? Is he really looking to hook up with sailors? He keeps referring to that blade-tipped phallic-shaped cane of his (the use of a knife as a substitute for the male penis was used in Peeping Tom and Psycho). He calls it “a most faithful and obedient friend: it is silent when I want it to be silent, but talks when I want to talk.” Johnny asks him if that is his idea of a friend, and Ballin says it is. Johnny says then, “You must lead a gay life.” Now, of course “gay” back then did not have the connotations it does now. Ballin is basically telling Johnny to be like his weapon/friend, to be quiet and to talk at his command. And Johnny is telling him his life isn’t very much fun if he wants to have that much control over his friends, the word “gay” used ironically. But, the sexual symbol of the sword seems to be the object that connects the two, since it saved Johnny once and now is meant to join the two in their relationship. The two become very close, with Ballin having Johnny take over the casino when he is gone and giving him access to the private papers in his safe. Johnny wants to stop Gilda initially from philandering because he wants to protect Ballin and later punishes Gilda for cheating on his boss after Ballin’s supposed death. Also, Gilda says at one point that Johnny is in his “nightgown” instead of saying his “pajamas.” This word usage paints Johnny in a feminine, not masculine way. Even Gilda’s femininity is called into question when Johnny says “congratulations” to her after finding out about the marriage to Ballin. He is corrected because the groom is the one that is congratulated, and the bride should receive a wish for good luck. The masquerade that occurs at Ballin’s house is a plot device to hide actions, but can also hint at the possibility that the main characters are hiding sexual aspects about themselves that exist beneath the façade.
Ballin returns at the end to murder Johnnie and Gilda, but he is killed with his own walking stick by Uncle Pio (Steven Geray), the only person in the story who is completely honest in his comments about the main characters. Johnnie tells her, “I want to go with you Gilda. Please take me. I know I did everything wrong.” She says, “Nobody has to apologize. We were both stinkers, weren’t we?” The leave together. But, remember that Johnnie once said, thinking of Gilda, that “Statistics show there are more women in the world than anything else. Except insects.” And, Gilda said, “If I’d been a ranch, they would’ve named me ‘The Bar Nothing.’” The hate part of their relationship seems to be the most sustainable one. Somehow I don’t think this is a “they lived happily forever after” ending.
The next film is Deliverance.