Sunday, March 26, 2017


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

I’m again using the discussion of a movie at my film class at the Bryn Mawr Film Institute as the basis for an analysis. This 1983 pseudo-documentary from Woody Allen, notable for cinematographer Gordon Willis’ technical wizardry in creating fake footage of the 1920’s, is also a funny and thoughtful examination of human insecurity and desire for approval. It also explores the nature of celebrity while taking satirical swipes at the medical profession and journalists.
The word “zelig” in Yiddish means a blessed or dearly departed soul. Zelig (Allen) has the ability to change his physical appearance to mimic the men with whom he comes in contact (not women – maybe that was too much of a metamorphosis for Allen to attempt). However, psychologically, he does take on the professions of those in close proximity, male or female.  This changeability could be considered a “blessed” ability, but it also is a curse, because in order to transform into other people, Zelig has to kill (the “departed soul” part of his name) his own personality to become them.

We learn about his background which lays the foundation for why Zelig wants to hide behind other facades. His family was always negative toward him which contributed to a lack of self-esteem. The film’s narrator humorously emphasizes this rejection by saying that his parents joined with anti-Semites to criticize him. His father was an actor, so he has a family history of wanting to disappear into playing the role of another. We again have a funny depiction to drive home the point with his father performing in a Hassidic version of Shakespeare, the actors sporting beards, hats and the other adornments of their faith, thus showing at the same time a desire to blend into another role and the difficulty of shedding orthodox cultural identity.
Zelig, like most people, wants to feel safe and to be liked by others. So, his chameleon quality is an exaggerated desire to fit in, so he will be accepted by those around him who cannot judge his true nature. It is the obliteration of the individual to blend in with the group. Later, it is shown that this trait can be dangerous as Zelig goes to Nazi rallies in Germany. A lack of individuality makes one vulnerable to being imprinted with the belief system of a monstrous dictator.
Zelig’s malleable nature first attracts attention at an extravagant party where he adopts a refined Boston accent and fits in well with the Republican elite in attendance. He then joins the kitchen servants, and turns into a working-class Democrat. It is interesting that F. Scott Fitzgerald, who was supposed to be in attendance at this party, writes about Zelig’s transforming ability. Fitzgerald’s most famous book is The Great Gatsby. The title of the novel sounds like a carnival act, a pretend entertainment, which points to what Zelig will become when his brother-in-law and sister make him into a sideshow attraction to exploit him. Also, the character of Gatsby abandons his mundane background, changes his name, and invents a phony persona based on what America sees as indicators of success and acceptance – fame and fortune. Zelig, too, is a person who erases his ordinary roots to fit in and be accepted by those around him. (The end of the film ends with Fitzgerald, which emphasizes the connection between Zelig and Gatsby).

The fake documentary look provides what purports to be an alternate, factual historical record. The use of real well-known people, such as Susan Sontag and Saul Bellow, contributing their talking-head commentaries, provides an ironic contrast by seeming to make valid the fantastic possibility that a man can change from Caucasian to African American or Asian American, or can bloat himself into becoming hundreds of pounds heavier just by standing next to other men. Allen placed the story in “The Roaring Twenties.” It is an appropriate setting for his movie. This period was also known as “The Gilded Age,” which connotates a covering over a lesser metal – not genuine all the way through, just as is Zelig, and in essence, any type of fame, which does not get to the person behind the headlines. It was also when the media became important, feeding the hunger for heroes and role models like Charles Lindberg. It took place after the disillusionment of WWI, when there was a reassessment of what to identify with. Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and others were physically alienated, becoming expatriates, and were mentally adrift. Gertrude Stein called them “all a lost generation.” So, at this time many people were reassessing what they believed in, and in a sense, who they were.
Allen satirizes the medical profession, showing how its members resort to all sorts of tests to explain Zelig’s ability, trying to find fact in what is really a fiction. (Isn’t this what the belief in “fake news” amounts to?) One doctor says Zelig got this way by eating Mexican food. Another says he has a brain tumor, but offers no evidence. This physician is so inept, he fails to diagnose his own brain tumor, and dies.

Allen also targets the press. Journalists are supposed to print the truth, but newspapermen in an interview say they would exaggerate and alter stories to get and keep the fickle public’s interest. But, they could tell Zelig’s tale as is, because it is so unbelievable, they don’t have to exaggerate the facts to make it palatable. The thrust here is that the media rarely provide a straightforward story. This critique of journalism includes the reporting of scandals about celebrities (which Allen will eventually have to deal with), as is what happens to Zelig when it is discovered he has many wives whom he married while assuming various personalities. The public is also culpable because they want to identify with and get close to celebrities, while at the same time hoping to bring them down out of envy. And, their attention span is fleeting, always wanting a new fad to excite them as they drop disposable interests.
The irony of Zelig’s story is that he becomes famous because of his ability while not wanting to stand out as himself. But, he also wants to be liked, so he seeks out famous people, and becomes a celebrity impressionist. The movie contains scenes where Zelig is with Hitler, the Pope, Babe Ruth, and later with movie stars, whom he morphs into. As with selfies, and earlier with autographs, people want some form of decreasing degree of separation that links them to famous people, thus connecting them to celebrities, indulging their wish for acceptance through a vicarious connection. Other people latch onto Zelig’s fame by selling merchandise and cashing in on the chameleon lizard motif. Some write songs, to which people dance, mimicking a lizard, identifying with Zelig, as they disappear into the crowd, losing themselves, like Zelig, as they merge into a singular mass identity while participating in the fad of the moment.
Because Zelig shows no signs of individual uniqueness, his sanity comes into question. A psychiatrist, Dr. Eudora Fletcher (Mia Farrow), takes him on as a patient. In her presence, he assumes the identity of a mental health physician. One of his funniest lines is when he says, “I worked with Freud in Vienna. We broke over the concept of penis envy. Freud felt it should be limited to women.” She eventually hypnotizes him and discovers his yearning to be liked and accepted is at the root of his malady. The real person, Dr. Bruno Bettelheim, in an interview sums up how Zelig is just an extension of us all when he says, “Now I myself felt that his feelings were really not all that different from the normal, what one would call the well-adjusted, normal person, only carried to an extreme degree, to an extreme extent. I myself felt that one could really think of him as the ultimate conformist.” Perhaps Zelig represents what most of us need, to fit in, to feel safe in society, hiding our insecurities, but also desiring adoration if others could only see our uniqueness and special nature.

But, Fletcher has a breakthrough, and Zelig finds his individuality. There is more irony in the fact that Fletcher, just like Zelig, becomes famous by her association with another, in this case Zelig, who is a celebrity himself at this point. But, here is where Allen makes a sly comment about human nature, similar to what is suggested in Rebel Without a Cause. Zelig becomes so opinionated and self-righteous, he turns into an anti-social being, always at odds with others. So, the point here is one must sacrifice some individuality, and submit to some conformity, in order to be compatible with society. Zelig relapses, but Fletcher rescues him in Germany. They fall happily in love. There is a reverse Pygmalion aspect to their relationship as she falls in love with her creation, too, but here, she deconstructs the artifice to reveal the true person inside Zelig.
Allen also is making a statement about filmmaking in this movie. Motion pictures are openly fictitious, except for documentaries. This is a “mockumentary” so it appears to be genuine. When Zelig is being recorded at the sessions with Fletcher, he looks right at the camera and says he is being recorded. But, of course, Allen, the actor, is also being recorded in his own motion picture, so he calls to the attention of the audience that they are seeing a movie, and he breaks the fourth wall by doing so. There is a movie within the movie called “The Changing Man.” We, as an audience are looking at a movie that has as its subject a made-up figure (Zelig) who is supposed to be real, and of which there is a fictional version of him in another movie (like Zelig himself) pretending to mimic something real. Works of art are not facts, but fictions, which illuminate the true reality hidden within their subjects.

The next film is Equus.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

The Seventh Seal

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

The style of this 1957 film from director Ingmar Bergman can feel pretentious and dated now, and there have been parodies of it. There was a Saturday Night Live sketch many years ago, where two people stare at each other somberly at a table and speak Swedish. A ghostly white-faced, black-hooded figure (similar to the one of Death in the movie), appears. One of the people gives car keys to Death and says take the Volvo to get some pizza. Then a narrator says they fooled Death, because there is no pizza in Sweden. Yes, the film is bleak and depressing, but there are some humorous moments and lines in it that provide a darkly comic element to its generally bleak philosophical tone.
 The movie starts on a serious note, with a desolate setting along a rocky shore (no soft sand here to cushion the proceedings) covered by dark clouds. There is no soothing sound track. All we hear is the disharmonious sound of waves crashing, perhaps echoing the discordant world we are about to enter. We see a knight wearing the uniform of one who fought in the Crusades, who we later learn is named Antonius Block (Max Von Sydow). He has a chess board and pieces sitting on a boulder in front of him. Is he playing against himself, the warring factions of religious belief and disbelief battling inside of him for his soul? His squire, Jöns (Gunnar Björnstrand), is stretched out on the stone bed of the beach, which tells us that even sleep can be a torment in this life. Death (Bengt Ekerot) pays a visit to Block, saying that he has been near the knight for quite a while now, which makes sense since Block spent ten years fighting holy wars. Block makes a deal with Death to postpone his demise. They will play a game of chess, and he will have a reprieve from the Grim Reaper as long as they play, and will be allowed to live if he wins the game. Death, proud of his gaming skills, agrees.

Jöns wakes up and talks about how there are ominous stories that portend dire events. He says there have been rumors of one horse devouring another, and graves opening to release the dead. He sings a song about God being at an unattainable distance in the sky, but that Satan is close, here on earth. Basically, he is saying evil is readily observable, but benevolence, not so much. This theme continues as they travel, as the squire goes to ask a hooded person for directions. It turns out that under the cloak are the mummified remains of a person. Jöns is the one who provides most of the black humor in the film. When the unknowing Block asks what the “person” said, the squire answers that the dead man was “eloquent” in what he had to say. No words were necessary to convey what a deadly path they are on: the scary image says it all.
We then encounter a traveling troupe of actors. One of them, Jof (Nils Poppe), is a light-hearted soul, compared with most of those in the story. He is a juggler (perhaps suggesting he knows how to balance the light and dark aspects of life?). He is also prone to having visions, indicating that he can see beyond the immediate problems that may bog a person down in a depressing state of mind. After waking up he has a glimpse of the Virgin Mary, wearing a crown, teaching the baby Jesus how to walk. His loving wife, Mia (Bibi Andersson), kids him about his visions, and calls him a dreamer, as she takes care of their son. Jof believes in miracles, hoping to one day make one of his juggling balls stay suspended in the air. He says if he doesn’t achieve this feat, maybe his boy will be able to. He sings a song about Jesus, (which contrasts with the pessimistic one sung by the squire), and the covered wagon in which they ride is adorned with religious pictures. It’s possible that this family represents a version of the Christian holy family, with Jof being Joseph, Mia as Mary, and their son a young Jesus.

But, Bergman has set his tale during the Middle Ages, also known as the Dark Ages. The Black Plague is ravaging Europe. People are afraid, so they believe unbelievable stories (like one that says a woman gave birth to a calf’s head) that suggest that the end is near. Thus, the title of the film, which comes from the last book of the bible, The Revelation of St. John the Divine, which tells of the apocalypse to come. The film begins with a quote from chapter eight of the book, which tells that the seven seals will be opened, and the destruction of the earth shall begin. The third member of the troupe, Jonas (Erik Strandmark), plays Death, and wears a death mask, at church events (which ironically comments on the fact that we also are seeing an actor play the real Death in the film). When the squire, Jöns, visits a church and talks with a painter doing murals, he asks why does the man depict Death dancing. The response is, “A skull is more interesting than a naked woman.” (This is the first mention of death dancing, and later, townspeople sing about death dancing along the shore – we saw him first at the beach – which points to the final image of the film). This statement deals with the propensity of humans to be attracted, in a perverse way (like not turning away nowadays from a car accident), to catastrophe. It plays to the fear of death, and thus the preoccupation with the end of one’s life, or, here, even the end of the world.
Bergman seems to be offering that one possibility for the existence of religion is that people turn to it when they are scared. The knight says we “make an idol of our fear, and call it God.” The church artist says people need a reason to explain the devastation of the plague, so the justify it by calling it a punishment from God for the evil ways of humans. Indeed, later in the movie, we have a procession of people whipping each other, subduing the flesh as it were, as penance for sinful ways. A priest among these penitents frightens the townspeople by saying that they will all die of the Black Plague. Instead of rejoicing at life, he talks of a pregnant woman being full of a lust for life as being foolish, since life is short. From this viewpoint, life is not meant to be enjoyed, and one should worry about the immortal soul that can be tortured in hell if it leaves this world in a sinful state. When the procession members march out of the town, we see them disappear, suggesting they lived their lives as if already dead. 

The irrational fear of death leads to superstitious practices that justify the tormenting of others. Block and his squire come across soldiers who have tortured and are ready to burn at the stake a woman they say has consorted with the devil. They blame her for bringing about the plague. When Jof is in a tavern he jokes about the impending doom, and is immediately considered suspicious for his lack of fear. In contrast to those whose belief in religion is based on fear, the knight Block wants his faith built on a basis of true belief. When he looks at a statue of a crucified Jesus, the knight’s tormented soul is mirrored in the agony on the sculptured face of Christ. He sees who he believes is a priest waiting to hear his confession. Block says that he feels that his contrition will not be genuine. He reminds one of King Claudius in Hamlet, who also seeks relief, whose words fly up, but his thoughts remain below. Block says, “Is it so terribly inconceivable to comprehend God with one's senses? Why does he hide in a cloud of half-promises and unseen miracles? How can we believe in the faithful when we lack faith? What will happen to us who want to believe, but cannot?” Block wants to believe, but he requires more than commitment to a belief system solely for the selfish protection from post-mortem punishment. He goes on to say about the idea of God, “Why does He live on in me in a humiliating way - despite my wanting to evict Him from my heart? Why is He, despite all, a mocking reality I can't be rid of?” He also can’t get relief in atheism, because the desire to believe, to have meaning beyond mortal life, haunts him. Without actual knowledge of God, not just faith that he may exist, he is left in a state of “preposterous horror.” He can’t face death “knowing everything’s nothingness.” But, that is exactly what he is doing, because the priest turns out to be a masquerading Death (the irony then is that the church and its priests are implied as fake purveyors of truth). In his confession, Block said he was playing the chess game so he could get a reprieve to have time to do one meaningful act after all his pointless wanderings. In a way, isn’t he speaking for everyone’s wish?

The squire Jöns does not have the anguish of the knight he serves. He says that he went to the Holy Land to fight for the Lord, and for his efforts his rewards were being bitten by insects, getting poisoned, and contracting infections. He says that the crusade was a “stupid quest.” On a scavenger hunt he finds a dead woman in a barn. He hides when a man by the name of Raval (Bertil Anderberg) appears and steals a bracelet off of the female corpse. Another woman comes in, and Raval threatens her. Jöns stops Raval from hurting the girl. He knows Raval, who was a theologian who urged Block and Jöns to go on the crusade. Here we have another swipe at the church, as this man was a phony religious person who sent men away on a holy war while he stayed behind and exploited others. Jöns warns Raval that he will be punished if he ever sees him again. When he does encounter him again, he blinds Raval, perhaps as ironic justice for preventing others from seeing his deceptive nature.
Jöns is not what you would call a feminist. He roughly treats the woman (Gunnel Lindblom) he saved, grabs her, kisses her, and says he needs a housekeeper because if he is lucky, his wife is probably dead. He says she owes him her life, so she must go with him. At the tavern, When Jof was threatened, he was accused by Plog, the buffoonish, drunken blacksmith (Åke Fridell) of running off with his wife. After saving Jof (the squire, despite his sour ways does help people), he tells Plog not to lament the loss of his wife (who ran off with the other troupe member, Jonas). Jöns says,” Love is nothing but lust and cheating and lies.” After basically saying you can’t live with women and you can’t live without them, he says, in his darkly comic way, “it seems like the logical thing to do is kill them while it’s still fun.” He says love is a disease that “eats away at your strength, morale.” And, “if everything is imperfect in this world, love is perfect in its imperfection.” So, not only does Jöns not believe that religion can save one, he also feels neither can love. In terms of degree, Jof is the hopeful one, Block wants to be hopeful, and Jöns relishes in his total lack of hope.

Block has a moment of contentment when he meets up with Jof and his family. His squire and the girl join them. They share a meal, and the knight remembers how good he felt years ago with his now estranged wife, Karin (Inga Landgré). He compares the overflowing milk saucer he drinks from as a metaphor for happy memories. Perhaps being around the positive energy of Jof and his family helps to lighten his mood. However, Bergman gives us contrasting images in one shot. The hopeful Jof is seen singing, but behind him is the death mask of the actor Jonas. Individual moments may be enjoyable, but death is always lurking close by, ready to undermine the joy. Block wishes to perform that one meaningful act by providing these people sanctuary from the plague in his castle. After Plog finds his wife, Lisa (Inga Gill) with Jonas, she then acts repentant, and they join the group. Jonas avoids Plog’s wrath by simulating a suicide scene with a phony dagger. Ironically, he may cheat death by avoiding being killed by another man, but Death itself can never be avoided (a foreboding of the ending of the story). Death deduced Block’s plan, and has followed them. The dark figure shows up and chops down the tree Jonas has climbed, killing him.
Before they travel to Block’s castle, the knight loses the chess game to Death. The group continue on their way to the knight’s castle. There is an ominous storm, and Jof and his family escape in the covered wagon. When the others reach the castle, Block’s wife Karin is there. Even though we can see that these two love each other, the time Block has been away, and the damage his anguish has visited upon him, has created an emotional distance between the married couple. There is a knock at the door. Death has come to claim them. Block, still clinging to the slim possibility of belief in God, prays for mercy. But, the cynical squire says there is no one to hear him. The group approach the camera, as if making a curtain call at the end of a play. Jöns’ girl, who has not said one word, finally speaks, and says, “It is finished.” The short sentence announces the end for these characters and their story.

There is, however, one more scene in the film. Jof and his family survive and come out of their wagon to a bright day after the storm. This optimism is countered with one of Jof’s visions. He sees the others on a hill, following Death, holding hands, as they do the foretold dance of death. Although God is an allusive figure for the character of Block, Bergman personifies Death, because there is no doubt of its existence.

The next film is Zelig.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

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

This 1975 Milos Foreman directed movie is one of only three films to win Oscars for Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Screenplay, Best Director, and Best Picture. The other ones were It Happened One Night and The Silence of the Lambs. It is definitely not a romantic comedy like the former, but, even though not as scary as the latter, it is very disturbing in the reality it creates.
The motion picture is based on the novel by Ken Kesey, which was inspired by his experiences with veterans at a VA medical center. The author was not at all happy with the adaptation. One of the reasons for his dissatisfaction is that Foreman did not want to tell the story from the viewpoint of Chief Bromden, as does the book. Foreman’s work presents more of a detached documentary feel, with observation shots of people interacting, without many closes-ups or artistic camera movement. To add to the realistic presentation, some actual patients were used as extras. To eliminate a rehearsed look, Foreman used improvisation. In the scene when the main character first arrives at the psychiatric facility, McMurphy’s (Jack Nicholson) slamming the stapler on Dr. Spivey’s desk (Dean R. Brooks) was improvised. When McMurphy leaps on a guard and kisses him, the actor playing the guard was surprised, not knowing that Nicholson was going to jump on him.
The movie addresses the theme of the individual’s place in society. How much can a person indulge his own freedom and how far can society be allowed to restrict one of its member’s actions without resorting to tyranny? The opening shot shows a car taking Randall McMurphy to the mental hospital from a prison. We see a beautiful Oregon landscape accompanied by a mystical, Native American sounding score. The openness and absence of other people then contrasts with the next shot of a closed-in mental ward with grated locked doors. McMurphy hopes he can serve out the rest of his term away from the harshness of a penal institution in the mental hospital. He arrives in handcuffs, because he is a prisoner, but the scene symbolically shows how society shackles those it considers to act in any deviant manner. McMurphy shows unconventional behavior, as was noted above, by kissing a guard, and laughing out loud. Dr. Spivey tells McMurphy that it must be determined if he has a genuine psychiatric condition. His criminal record shows that he has been arrested five times for assault. To which, McMurphy says a prize fighter does the same thing and gets rich for his hitting someone else. Of course, it isn’t the same thing, but the point is that society does tolerate, and, in fact, encourages aggression under certain circumstances. He also was found to be belligerent, had a bad attitude, and participated in “unauthorized talking.” The thrust here is that the rules don’t allow for anyone to rock the boat, not matter the severity of the infraction. McMurphy is serving a stretch for sex with a minor. She was fifteen, but he says she said she was eighteen, and appeared and acted much older. Laws are there to protect the innocent, but he implies that they may over-generalize as to who is innocent. McMurphy says he really has been incarcerated for fighting and having sex too much, meaning excess self-indulgence will not be tolerated. He tells Dr. Spivey that he was called crazy because “I don’t sit there like a goddamn vegetable … If that’s what being crazy is, then I’m senseless, out of it, gone-down-the-road, wacko.” (The word “vegetable” turns out to be a foreshadowing of the ending). He basically is saying that he is being called psychologically impaired for not stifling what he thinks makes him human, his passion and exuberance.
The mental ward encourages a “vegetable” existence. Elevator, mind-numbing music is piped into the space, and tranquilizing medications are dispensed by the aptly named Nurse Pilbow (Mimi Sarkisian). This section of the hospital is run by Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher). You can have a lot of fun playing with that name. It sounds like “hatchet,” and “rat head,” both threatening allusions. It also resembles “ratchet,” which the dictionary says means a device, with teeth, that allows motion in one direction. She truly believes that she is there to help the patients, but only through unswerving conformity to her rigid rules. To deal with problems her advice is, “The best thing we can do is go on with our daily routine.” Fletcher is scary with her condescendingly unwavering sweet voice which can contrast with piercing looks and an unemotional, robot-like presence. She only shows anger when her will is not obeyed. Her swept-up hair style suggests an old-fashioned look, possibly implying a resistance to change. Fletcher said that she looks like she has devil horns.

Why are the patients there? Some are obviously mentally disturbed. But there are others that seem to be able to function. Martini (Danny DeVito) has a constant smile on his face, and likes to repeat words.  Cheswick (Sydney Lassick) has facial tics and emotional outbursts. Harding is overly jealous of his wife because of his own insecurity, and uses pretentious language to compensate. Taber (Christopher Lloyd) seems to have an explosive temper, but he hurts nobody. Billy (Brad Dourif) stutters, is intimidated by his mother, and attempted suicide in the past because of rejection by a girl, again probably due to feelings of insecurity due to the speech impediment. The Chief (Will Sampson), supposedly, is deaf and can’t speak. Most of their problems are not psychiatric, per se, but mostly derive from being social outcasts, not fitting into the mainstream. The last two could be considered outsiders because of physical afflictions, and the Chief may be discriminated against just because he is a Native American. In a way, they are all like McMurphy by being people who do not fit in with what society considers to be “normal.” We discover later that many of the men have voluntarily committed themselves, which McMurphy finds outrageous, probably because they have been ostracized by society and made to feel inadequate because of their deviance from the behavioral norm. At one point Ratched says that a patient not wanting to be social is unhealthy. Another patient then questions, “So, it’s sick to be off by yourself?” This exchange epitomizes the conflict between society and the individual, who is judged as “ill” if he wants to not go with the herd, and be in that wilderness at the beginning of the film, alone. McMurphy berates the others for not leaving, telling them that they just don’t have “the guts” to walk out, and defy the judgment of the outside world. He basically provides the theme of the movie when he says to them, “You’re no crazier than the average asshole out walkin’ around on the streets.” The others on the outside just appear normal by not questioning the ruling establishment.

The film is loaded with references to game playing and sports. McMurphy gets the Chief to play basketball, as well as the other patients. They play cards, monopoly, and assemble puzzles. McMurphy hijacks a bus and takes the above-named patients on a fishing expedition. In a satirical move, he says that they are all doctors from the mental institution who chartered the boat. The implication is that the actual physicians may be the ones who should be locked up for imposing unfair restrictions with their assessments. The outing is a happy one, where Cheswick overcomes his fear of piloting the boat, and helps catch a huge fish. In a way, McMurphy’s liberating spirit empowers the others. He takes a bet (another game) that he can rattle Ratched in a week, and he does things like questioning the pill taking (spitting his out), entering the nurses’ station, which is forbidden territory, and demanding that the elevator music be turned down. He also bets that he can lift up the marble hydrotherapy fountain and throw it through the window, allowing him to escape. He can’t do it, of course, but he shows that he had the guts, and says at least “I tried,” as opposed to the passiveness of the other patients. However, McMurphy is no steadfast hero here. Sports and games have rules, and he is frustrated when the other patients don’t play by them, wanting to adhere to restrictions like Ratched, to avoid chaos. He is judgmental of Martini when the man breaks cigarettes in half so that each represents a nickel bet in a card game. McMurphy selfishly wants to exploit the others out of cigarettes so he can smoke them, and also wants to swindle them playing poker to get their cash. He becomes short-tempered when they don’t obey the rules while playing basketball.

An important scene revolves around another game, baseball. McMurphy wants to watch the World Series on television. But, that would mean changing the work schedule. Of course, Ratched is resistant. McMurphy says, “A little change never hurt anything, a little variety.” This attitude is contrary to Ratched’s nature. But, she says she will have a democratic vote, hoping that her intimidation will prevail. When it the vote doesn’t go in her favor, she includes all of the ward as part of the electorate, even those who are unresponsive to communication. The results turn out to be nine against nine, and Ratched says the majority didn’t want a change. She adjourns the meeting, but McMurphy gets the Chief to raise his arm, voting for the altered work schedule. Ratched shuts McMurphy down, saying the meeting was adjourned, so the Chief’s vote didn’t count. But, McMurphy pretends that he is calling the play-by-play of the World Series game, and the others participate, showing how imagination can overcome tyranny. Later, to Dr. Spivey, McMurphy says Ratched likes to play “a rigged game,” where she can arbitrarily change the rules to maintain her control.

Ratched can’t tolerate any action that questions her authority. She criticizes McMurphy when he touches the nurses’ station barrier, thus symbolizing his desire to breach the fortress of her authority. She tells him, “you’re staining the glass,” as if his ways are a threat to her pristine superiority. At one of the group therapy meetings, Cheswick takes up the fight against authority when he questions the lack of cigarette distribution. Ratched says that they were losing their cigarettes and money to McMurphy in the tub room, so she placed restrictions on the cigarettes and time in the room. Martini makes a logical counterargument by saying how, then, will they be able to win back their losses? But, because of his quirks, his remarks are not given any validity. Then, Cheswick continues to question Ratched, eventually telling her, “Piss on your fucking rules!” At first McMurphy’s selfishness dismisses Cheswick’s demands, but then he goes beyond just staining Ratched’s glass; he smashes it and grabs cigarettes for Cheswick. Then, a lit cigarette winds up in Taber’s pants cuff. He, understandably, is alarmed, and begins to yell, shaking his foot. This is a normal response, but because he has been prejudged to be a deviant, the staff assumes he is having a psychotic fit, and manhandle him. This event drives home the unfairness of the mindset running the institution. The guards are basically hired thugs, and drag McMurphy to the ground after his braking of the glass. The Chief pulls a guard off of McMurphy, and he, the Chief and Cheswick are put in restraints.
While waiting on a bench after Cheswick is brought in for treatment, the Chief says thanks after McMurphy gives him a stick of gum, happy that it’s “Juicy Fruit.” McMurphy is thrilled to learn that the Chief has been faking the whole time, and they plan on escaping to Canada. McMurphy is taken in to receive electroshock therapy. It is a frightening scene, where he does not know what is happening to him. He is held down and a bite guard thrust into his mouth. His body jerks in a type of seizure as the electricity shoots through his temples. Since McMurphy is not mentally ill, this is a violation of the medical precept, “to do no harm,” showing how overreaching power subverts the rules made to protect individuals. After he returns to the ward, he pretends to shuffle in a zombie-like way, but is only joking (however, this is another foreshadowing).

McMurphy has learned that he can’t just wait out his sentence on the ward, but that the institution can hold him there indefinitely. He plans to break out, but the Chief is reluctant. He talks about his father, a big man like himself, who “did like he pleased.” But, this extreme individuality ran up against society’s restraints, and “everybody worked on him.” He was worn down, and alcoholism destroyed him. And now, “they”, that is those in charge, are “working on” McMurphy. The Chief doesn’t, at this point, feel strong enough to be as defiant as McMurphy. The latter waits until Ratched goes home at night, and the only person left on the ward is the night attendant, Turkle (Scatman Crothers), who he bribes. He calls two girls who bring alcohol, and McMurphy treats the patients to a wild, liberating party. It should be noted that although there is a great deal of fun to be had, there is also destruction of property, which points to the need for the restraints of some rules, and that all of the whims of the individual cannot be indulged, or society will break down. Billy takes a liking to one of the women, Candy (Mews Small), and McMurphy delays his escape by asking her to have sex with the youth, to build up his self-confidence. But, while waiting for the two to make love, alcohol is consumed, and everyone falls asleep, including McMurphy and the Chief, who has now decided to run away with his new friend. They are still there when the daytime staff arrives. Ratched finds Billy with Candy, and then, instead of understanding the boy’s youthful impulses and past history of suicidal attempts, makes matters worse by shaming him, and threatening reprisal by telling his mother. As the staff begins to deal with the situation, one of the nurses finds that Billy slit his throat with broken glass resulting from the night’s festivities. Instead of using the diversion to escape, McMurphy is enraged by the boy’s death, and attempts to strangle Ratched. One of the orderlies knocks him out.

The next scene shows the ward is again operating in an orderly, “normal” fashion. However, we hear the news in the background about the Berlin Wall and racial tension, so what happens in the outside world does not appear to be saner than what occurs inside the psychiatric hospital. There are rumors about McMurphy. One says he has escaped. Another says he is still there. The medical staff decided that McMurphy was “dangerous,” but that he was not mentally ill. Given that impression, they should have no jurisdiction over him, since his case is solely a legal one. Instead, orderlies wheel in McMurphy back to the ward at night. The Chief quietly goes to him and says he knew he wouldn’t leave without him, and now he feels strong enough to escape. McMurphy’s body is limp, and the Chief then sees the lobotomy scars on his forehead. The Chief says, “I’m not goin’ without you, Mac. I wouldn’t leave you this way. You’re coming with me.” He then smothers the body of the man whose soul was already dead. In a way, he takes McMurphy’s spirit with him, as he accomplishes what McMurphy tried to do – he picks up the marble fountain and throws it through the window, breaking the barrier that symbolizes the suppression of freedom. Taber wakes up and yells, “He made it,” the “He” meaning McMurphy’s essence, in the form of the Chief, who runs off into that beautiful unrestricted aloneness of the wilderness we saw at the beginning of the film, accompanied again by the mystical Native American music.

When McMurphy “teaches” the Chief about basketball, he has him raise his arms upward to grasp and toss the ball above him into the net. He also uses the height of the Native American to scale the fence around the mental hospital to commandeer the bus for their fishing outing. McMurphy has the Chief raise his hand to change the work schedule. At the end, the Chief picks up the heavy marble fountain, which symbolizes the weight of those constraints that prevent individual empowerment, and carries it above his head, showing the strength needed to toss that heft away. One needs to rise to the occasion, transcend boundaries, to fly over life’s cuckoo’s nest.

The next film is The Seventh Seal.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Medium Cool

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

I thought I would follow up last week’s discussion of LA Confidential with this 1969 film, which was viewed and analyzed at my class at the Bryn Mawr Film Institute. Both movies deal with distinguishing fact from fiction.
Medium Cool was written and directed by the cinematographer Haskell Wexler, and it was filmed in Chicago at the time of the Democratic National Convention in 1968, when the possibility of confrontation between protesters and the police was predicted in the wake of the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Bobby Kennedy. Added to the mix were the opposition to the Vietnam War which caused President Lyndon Johnson to not seek reelection, and the blocking of anti-establishment candidate Senator Eugene McCarthy in favor of Vice President Hubert Humphrey. These events produced the ingredients for turmoil.

The title of the movie derives from the theories of media scholar Marshall McCluhan, who became famous for the line, “the medium is the message,” that is, (in my non-expert take), not what was communicated, but how it was done became primary. McCluhan said film was a “hot” medium, because it relies on less participation by the audience receiving the “message.” Through sensory immersion, films require less effort on the part of the viewers to fill in the gaps in the message. Television and print require more activity on the part of the audience, so they are more detached, allowing for the receiver to engage the content, and are thus called “cool” media. Anyway, Wexler is playing with these concepts, because he is providing a fictional story within the context of actual events, thus mixing the two types of media.
What results is a made-up story with actors playing characters in a film that is part documentary. By blurring the lines between what is and is not real, the movie brings up questions about how true is what we see in the news, how it can be manipulated, and how the “cool” aspect of journalism can lead to detachment from feeling for other human beings. The opening credits of the film contain no actors’ names, making it feel like a nonfiction work. The first scene shows the aftermath of a car accident, with an unresponsive woman on the ground. There are two men there, news photographer John Cassellis (Robert Forster), and soundman Gus (Peter Bonerz), who coolly record the incident for several minutes before they call an ambulance. This coldness of just wanting to get scoop coverage by adhering to the sleazy rule of journalism which preaches “if it bleeds, it leads” has compromised the journalists’ humanity. Later, in Washington, D. C., Cassellis dispassionately observes that the networks know where to place the cameras for Robert Kennedy’s funeral, because they did it before (a detached reference to the funeral of President John Kennedy). He shows a cold admiration for the efficiency of the visual process without emotional torment for the tragic proceedings. Cassellis also uses women for sex, without a true emotional connection.
There is a scene where the National Guard is preparing for possible confrontations at the convention. They use people pretending to be protesters. So, we, the audience, watch a fictional movie that photographed actors filming a fake representation of a riot. This blurring of the real and the pretend is further emphasized later with the actual convention confrontations being interlaced with fictional footage. During the showing of the actual conflict, we hear on the soundtrack someone saying the line, directed to Wexler, “Look out, Haskell, it’s real!” It seems like it’s really happening at that moment, but it’s not. Wexler dubbed the line in later, showing how artifice passes for reality. However, the director said that was what he was thinking at the time of the actual shooting. So, in essence, he added later what actually was happening, but just not recorded in the moment. Would we call this altering the work to reflect what was really happening, or is it altering the truth?
In another scene, Gus the soundman says they can’t record the gun range man (Peter Boyle) too close to the noise of the gunfire. This compromise with reality illustrates an accommodation to the filming process. The director then shows a scene where the two main characters come out of a diner, move away from Wexler’s camera and mic, and the audience can’t hear them. This shot emphasizes what it is like when there is no manipulation, which is what happens in real life when some things are out of sight and there are overlapping sounds. But, reality can be bad for filmmaking, which excludes and focuses to follow its own agenda.
Cassellis wants to do a human interest story about an African American cab driver who discovered ten grand and turned it in. One can argue that he wants to show honesty winning out. But, the other blacks in the cab driver’s apartment tell the reporters they need to present a more comprehensive story of the black experience, not just one little story squeezed into the news about a “Negro” that fits in with the general conception of what is the right thing to do, when so many wrongs are inflicted on people of his race. They seem to be saying that the news must report the bigger picture of the black struggle in America to get social injustice addressed. We get the African Americans directly addressing the audience, in a sense breaking the 4th wall, and crossing the line between verisimilitude and reality, at the same time being part of a script, but stepping out of a character while in a movie. Wexler gives them the time to have their say here since the commercial-driven, condensed television coverage won’t.
Cassellis encounters a 13-year-old boy named Harold (Harold Blankenship), who he thinks is breaking into his car. When the photographer realizes that the youth was not trying to rob him, he returns a case, which contains a pigeon, that the boy was carrying, but dropped, to Harold’s home. He lives in a slum with his mother, Eileen, (Verna Bloom), who moved to Chicago after her husband went to Vietnam. Earlier, a well-to-do woman is interviewed, and she talks about how she will vacation outside of Chicago to avoid the disturbing protests. Her wealth allows her to escape to Ontario, which contrasts with the inhabitants of Eileen’s ghetto tenement, where poor people can’t escape the turmoil of their environment. Perhaps Harold’s caging and releasing of the pigeons refers to these alternating situations of imprisonment and freedom. Flashbacks of Harold and his father contain vivid colors which contrast with the muted “cool” hues of the city. But, ironically the ideal flashbacks are undercut with gun toting, and his father’s misogyny toward women. This contrasting of image with content shows how the image can be used to distort the viewer’s perception of reality.

Cassellis becomes attached to the boy and his mother, as he starts to relate to them as people, not just as subjects for his news stories. He is overly amorous with Eileen at one point, and, unfortunately, Harold spies the encounter. The boy, hurting from the absence of his father, is upset by the act, and runs off. In the meantime, Cassellis moves further away from his detachment when he realizes that he, just as his photographed subjects, is being used, when his boss gives his footage to the FBI, probably to be used to target protesters. After being fired, he gets a job filming the convention. Eileen goes looking for her son among the protesters and the authorities. Her bright yellow outfit makes her stand out as an individual just searching for her missing boy in the midst of the indistinguishable crowds of people representing the opposing factions. The film seems to be saying that there are people who are just trying to deal with their own dramas and struggles, which continue on a smaller scale and are not reported by the media.

Cassellis shows his developing humanity by leaving the news story at the convention to help Eileen look for her son. The ending of the film is a bookend to its beginning as Cassellis loses control of the car and crashes the vehicle. Eileen is killed and Cassellis badly injured. Someone driving by takes a picture of the scene and then drives on, echoing the emotionless Cassellis at the beginning of the movie, and showing that what goes around comes around, as he is now the subject of an uninvolved observer. We then have a shot of a TV camera swiveling away from the accident and stopping with the lens pointing at the audience. The implication is that the cold detachment is spreading, and we may be its next victim. The film ends on an ironic note as we hear “Happy Days are Here Again” playing at the convention. It is the theme song of the establishment presidential nominee Humphrey, whose attempt at putting an upbeat spin on this period of time is undermined by images of battered protesters.
Today, we hear a great deal of talk about fake news. This 1969 film seems relevant, as it addresses the need for objectivity to report the news, but cautions against the danger of not feeling empathy which is inherent in emotional distancing. It also raises the issue of whether what is shown in photographic journalism is the complete news or just a snapshot manipulated by those in control of the media to feed the popular appetite for sensationalism and to skew perceptions into desired versions of reality.

The next film is One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.