Sunday, May 28, 2017

To Have and Have Not

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

Forget about the fact that this story is based on a novel by one Noble Prize winner (Ernest Hemingway), and adapted, in part, by another (William Faulkner). This film works because of its stars. Is there anybody in Hollywood history who is cooler than Humphrey Bogart, or sexier than Lauren Bacall are here? The highlights of this motion picture are the scenes between these two, crackling with good dialogue, which reveals the connection between them.
Hoard Hawks directed this 1944 work, and contributed to its final screenplay, which includes improvisations from the actors, according to IMDB. Yes, it does seem to be derivative, echoing character and plot elements from Casablanca. Instead of the Cuba of Hemingway’s book, the film is set on the island of Martinique in 1940, mirroring the conflict between the “Free French” and Vichy French German collaborators. (Also, the “haves” and “have nots” of the title indicating class struggle in the novel are not part of the screenplay). The opening scene has Harry Morgan, (Bogart), requesting a temporary permit to do charter fishing. He is told that there are new restrictions. We are immediately introduced to the Nazi influence gripping the world, even on this Caribbean island. Martinique is sort of the Casablanca of the tale, where the American, Harry (a type of Rick), does his business, trying to stay neutral, as is the United States, at the dawn of World War II.
 The atmosphere has turned to one of mistrust, exemplified by the man Johnson (Walter Sande), who hires Harry to take him fishing. He tries to con Harry out of the money he owes him by saying that he must go to the bank in the morning to get funds. Harry later finds out Johnson has more than enough cash and travelers checks on him to pay his debt, and bought a plane ticket to skip out on Harry. The feeling of encroaching repression presents itself when Vichy sympathizers follow and question Harry and Johnson when they suspect that one of them made an anti-Vichy remark. The story even tempers the comic relief, provided by Harry’s shipmate, Eddie (Walter Brennan), with the fact that the man is an alcoholic, constantly asking Harry for money for another drink, and whom Harry worries will inadvertently betray him.
Harry shows his desire not to get involved in the politics of the time (like Casablanca’s Rick) when he refuses to help Gerard, (also known as Frenchy) (Marcel Dalio), with the Free French movement by using his boat to transport rebel sympathizers. Harry stays at the bar/hotel that Frenchy owns, and a young woman named Marie (Bacall), who has rented the room across from Harry, shows up while Frenchy and Harry are talking. She asks, in her breathy way, for a match for a smoke, and that there is heat between these two is quickly evident in the looks they exchange. Later in the bar downstairs, they again exchange meaningful glances. Marie, however, is also a scammer. She cozies up to Johnson, and Harry sees that she has lifted his wallet. (But, not too cozy, as she pulls away from the man when he touches her arm, which offsets how she is warming up to Harry). When he confronts her with her theft, he finds out about the lucrative and duplicitous contents of Johnson’s wallet. He demonstrates his roguish wit when he says he doesn’t have anything against her stealing, just not from someone who owes him money. When he returns the wallet in a confrontation with Johnson, he says that the liar should give a receipt to the stealing Slim, to show she brought it back. This joke elicits a smile from Slim, who now reciprocates by lighting Harry’s cigarette, solidifying the use of the “heat” metaphor for the passion between them.

Their bonding continues when she meets Eddie. The shipmate asks a question “was you ever bit by a dead bee?” When he continues by saying that he was bitten by dead bees, she says why didn’t he bite them back. Eddie then says that is what Harry always says; thus, the implication is that Slim and Harry are made for each other. But, the “dead bee” line crops up other times. Slim takes it up when she asks the Vichy Gestapo man if he ever was bit by a dead bee. Eddie asks it of the local secret policeman, Captain Renard (Dan Seymour), but Harry interrupts the question, not wanting any rapport established with the Vichy authorities. However, Harry later refers to Renard as having “bee’s lips.” Eddie’s question works as a kind of test to see if a person qualifies as a friend. The “bee” represents hidden danger to the point that it can harm one even after the threat seems to be gone. If one answers correctly, that person can be trusted. So, toward the end of the film, Eddie, in and out of drunken states, asks Slim about the biting dead bee again, and because she gives the right response, she is welcomed once more into Harry’s and Eddie’s confidence.

It is interesting that Harry calls Marie “Slim” throughout the movie, and she refers to him as “Steve” (because, according to IMDB, “stevedores” work on docks). And, Harry addresses Gerard as “Frenchy.” These may be endearing nicknames. However, this practice may also indicate an inability to know anyone too well in the suspicious times in which the movie is set. Also, it can hint at not really wanting to reveal who one really is when it is difficult to know whom to trust. (Marie comically tells Harry that she might object to being called “Slim” because she is too skinny to not take offense at the nickname, thus revealing, by calling herself “skinny,” that the nickname doesn’t bother her at all).

At the time, the two confront Johnson about his lying ways, the cheater is shot in the crossfire between the authorities and the Free French. Harry’s self-centered nature is evident because he is disappointed that Johnson died before signing over the travelers’ checks. He cynically says that Johnson signed checks as slowly as he ducked bullets. Frenchy, Harry, and Slim are brought in for questioning since they were observed in the company of the Free French men. The authorities take the cash Harry took from Johnson’s wallet as part of what the man owed for the fishing charter, and confiscate Harry’s passport. Injustice is taking hold here, as is intimidation. One of the policemen slaps Slim for a wisecrack, and Renard asks Harry where his loyalties lie. Harry shows his current neutrality by answering, “minding my own business.” Renard then falsely assures Harry that the new Vichy government is peaceful and just, and slanderously compares it to America.
In the meantime, Harry and Slim get to know each other in a roundabout way, reflecting the suspicious environment around them. They go to a bar, and, since they don’t have any money, she goes off to use her feminine ways to get some liquor. He tells her he’ll go back to the hotel, but does not reveal that he is actually becoming jealous of her using other men. When she returns with a bottle of booze, she senses that he is “sore,” and she gets angry because he makes assumptions about her life, running off at a young age (she’s supposed to be twenty-two, but Bacall was really nineteen), and wandering from place to place. He tells her that she must have had a life of hard knocks, since she didn’t even flinch when the policeman slapped her. When he asks her how long she has been on the run, her first response is to say it’s none of his business, and to act tough. But, she seems to want more here, and becomes honest, telling Harry that she has been away from home for six months. She says with him, she feels cheap, which is not what she is used to, and exhibits vulnerability, and hope, when she hints that she had thought things would be different with Harry. First, they connected through looks, now he smells her perfume, and then he touches her face, as their bond deepens through the senses.
 He almost switches to being paternally protective when he says he will get her back home, because she says she would walk there if she could, except for all of the “water.” She realizes he will get the money to help her by aiding the Free French. She now becomes protective, urging him not to do anything dangerous. His default position is one of security through secrecy, so he hides his growing feelings for her by saying he isn’t going to get involved for her, but because he needs the money. She then pulls out some cash, after saying she was broke, and wants to give it to him. So, she wasn’t being totally honest, and he acknowledges her sneaky ways by saying, “You’re good. You’re awfully good.” She tempers her deception by saying she always keeps a little money (only $30) handy as a buffer of protection against those who want to take advantage of her. But, she is honestly offering him some cash so he won’t be reckless. She then turns the tables on him, showing she can read him, too. She wants to know who was the woman in his past that jilted him, and made him so suspicious. Her intentions become more overt, as she sits in his lap and kisses Harry. Keeping their cool exterior, even at a time of passion, he asks why did she do that, and she says she was wondering what it would be like. She kisses him again because she wasn’t sure yet what she thought of it. After the second kiss, she tells him, “It’s even better when you help.”

The film’s famous lines (actually written by director Hawks) are significant. Slim wants Harry to know that they can fearlessly communicate honestly. She tells him, “You know, you don’t have to act with me, Steve.” She wants to break down defensive facades. Their connection is so strong, they can show their feelings without the worry of misleading words getting in the way. She says to him, “You don’t have to say anything, and you don’t have to do anything. Not a thing. Or, maybe just whistle. You know how to whistle, don’t you Steve? You just put your lips together, and … blow.” No need to explain the intensity of what is going on between these two.
Harry again asserts that he is not on the side of the Free French, and only will help them for a payment. But, he does show his sympathy for them when he aids one of their wounded. His toughness is again tempered when he gives Slim a ticket to get off the island to escape any danger that might come her way through his actions. (She refuses to leave, though, and Harry is actually glad she stayed. Frenchy offered her a job singing in the bar.) He also tries to stop Eddie from going along on the job, but he becomes a stowaway. Harry must transport Paul de Bursac (Walter Molnar), and his attractive wife, Helene (Dolores Moran). There is a dense fog on the sea. It adds to the suspense, but it is also symbolic of the perilous times. When one can’t see clearly, it is difficult to determine where the enemy lurks. In a confrontation with a patrol boat, Paul, acting recklessly, is wounded. Harry transfers him onto a smaller boat, but his wounds require him to return to Martinique, where, by necessity, he is placed in Frenchy’s basement. 
The relationship between Paul and Helene, in one sense, mirrors that of Harry and Slim, but in another, contrasts with it. Harry has familiarity with gunshot wounds, and offers to treat Paul. Because of the frightening world in which she lives, Helene is mistrustful of Harry, and initially refuses treatment. After she relents, she pretends to be tough, but passes out when Harry removes the bullet from Paul’s arm. Slim takes over, and she, in contrast, shows no such squeamishness. Afterwards, Helene admits her crippling fear, and how that apprehension spread to, and weakened her husband. Slim’s strength shows that she would be no such drain on Harry. Harry soothes Helene’s guilt by assuring her that being afraid is a pervasive response. Because of his comforting manner, Helene now, just as did Slim, begins to let down her guard and is able to trust, even to the point to have Harry hold onto her jewelry so it won’t fall into enemy hands. After Paul recovers, he admits to the contrast between the coolly confidant Harry and his less competent self. But, he has a mission to free a prisoner from Devil’s Island, a charismatic leader (similar to Casablanca’s Victor Laszlo). He shows his courage, and that of the Resistance, which Harry respects, when Paul says that the enemy isn’t counting on the fact that, if one person fails, “there will always be someone else” to take up the fight. He tells Harry that even though it is not yet his war, he hopes that “someday it will be.” This statement certainly resonates with the urging in Casablanca for America to abandon its isolationism and join the battle against Nazi Germany. Harry is actually already onboard, even if he hasn’t announced it, as he refused Frenchy’s offer to liquidate his room bill for treating Paul, and did so for free. Helene and Paul may not have the personality tools of Harry and Slim, but they have a purpose bigger than themselves, and that commitment wins over Harry and Slim (as it did Rick in Casablanca.)
It is now Slim’s turn to exhibit jealousy. Helene does come on to Harry, and Slim hears her say to him that nothing he ever would say would make her angry. Slim was bringing down breakfast and says the eggs may be a little too hard-boiled, to which Helene responds that she likes them that way. This exchange may refer to the type of man Harry is, with Slim trying to tell Helene that Harry may be too much man for her, but Helene saying she is up for it. Back at the hotel, Slim offers to take off Harry’s shoes, make him breakfast, and draw him a hot bath. He says he can do these things himself, and all he wants is some solitary sleep. He tells her to take a walk around him. She catches on fast, saying she understands that there are no strings attached to him, impairing his freedom. She kisses him, and uses her seductive leverage by placing a condition for further romance that would require him to shave. After he has done that, she says, “we’ll see how that goes.” When Frenchy shows up for some help with Eddie, Harry’s funny line is he has “to shave,” which implies he’s readying himself for sex.

Harry has had it with the deterioration of the situation on Martinique and wants to leave with Eddie and Slim. However, Renard and two of his men show up. They threaten to put Eddie through painful alcohol withdrawal unless Harry tells them where Paul is. Harry gets to a gun in a desk drawer, shoots one of the men, and then handcuffs the other one and Renard. He beats Renard until the man secures free passage for his boat to leave. Harry also says he will help Paul free the prisoner on Devil’s Island. When Frenchy asks why he changed his mind, Harry jokingly says that maybe it’s because he likes Frenchy, or doesn’t like the collaborating French. In any event, he has joined the Resistance.
The ending is a bit underwhelming, as Slim sort of dances out of the bar/hotel with Harry. According to IMDB, Hawks was to have a shootout on the boat, but couldn’t fit it into the film. So, he gave the sequence to John Huston, who put it to good use at the end of another Bogey/Bacall film, Key Largo. But, at the end of this movie, piano player Cricket (Hoagy Carmichael) asks Slim if she is happy. She answers, “What do you think?” I think we can agree, in the film and in real life, that they lived happily ever after.
The next post will be a shorter, focused analysis of Manchester by the Sea.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Fight Club

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

I know that this 1999 film directed by David Fincher, based on the Chuck Palahniuk novel, can alienate the female population with its emphasis on the male role in modern American society, and the depiction of brutality associated with boxing. But, although gory, there are actually not that many fight sequences in the movie. The editing and cinematography provide a sense of motion to a film that is actually quite wordy. The story deals with existential issues, and the theme explored in recent posts on this blog (A Face in the Crowd, Bigger Than Life) about how the plight of the individual can clash with the needs of society.
The story begins at the end and then plays catch-up. Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt) has secured the Narrator (Edward Norton), who I will call Jack (he uses the Reader’s Digest health title series to describe himself, such as “I am Jack’s Colon”), to a chair at the top of a city building, and threatens Jack with a gun, as an earth-shattering event is about to take place. The opening titles display over a depiction of the neurological impulses traveling between Jack’s brain and his mouth, where Tyler has placed the gun. Jack’s mental processes are thus emphasized from the start. He says that he has had insomnia for six months, which makes him feel like he has become “a copy of a copy” of himself, and, like subsequent paper reproductions, his self-image has become faded, his identity not as distinguishable. Added to the lack of sleep is the fact that he travels for his job, and wakes up in strange places, in various time zones. All of these factors contribute to mental disorientation, and the need to psychologically compensate to function. Jack poses the question that if you wake up at different times in different places, can you wake up as a different person? The movie is laying down the foundation for psychological fracturing, and the emergence of a dissociative personality disorder. Jack starts to address himself in the second person, and this substitution of “you” for “I” shows how he is beginning to construct another part of himself as a separate entity. The style of the film reflects the free association of the mind, as Jack then provides the audience, not exactly sequentially, with the back story.
Jack works for a prominent automobile company to determine if recalls are worth initiating following catastrophic accidents. If a recall will cost the company too much money, it will not be initiated. Palahniuk said that one of the themes he wanted to explore was how people have reduced their degree of connecting with others on a personal level. In the movie, the insensitive comments by accident investigators talking about how a victim’s body fat melted onto the polyester of the car seat, producing “modern art,” mirrors the lack of emotional involvement in a consumer-driven world. In a commercialized society, the things one owns are more important than other people, or even personal safety. So, Jack’s condo becomes his “life,” and Fincher provides us with a view of Jack’s home as if displayed in an IKEA catalog. He wonders “What kind of dining set defines me as a person.” In existential terms, this is the state where an individual denies freedom by identifying with external definitions. That is, I am not a multi-faceted person, but I’m an accountant, or, even worse, in this case, a grouping of furniture. Jack echoes the loneliness of modern existence by describing the “single-serving” meals and condiments on plane rides. The film often provides lists to detail its point. Jack talks of: single serving sugar; single serving cream; single pat of butter; “the microwave Cordon Bleu hobby kit.” The people he meets on the flights are “single-serving” friends, who one meets for a short time and then disposes of them, like the food portions. 
Because of his disconnected, sleep-deprived state, Jack asks his doctor for sleeping pills. When the physician doesn’t want to encourage an addiction, Jack says he is in pain. The doctor says if Jack wants to see real pain, he should go to a testicular cancer support group. It is here that the movie offers up a complexity of symbolism. Jack goes to the group and meets Robert “Bob” Paulsen (the rock star Meat Loaf). Bob was a body builder, and took steroids. Because of his subsequent testicular cancer, he has gone from an image of extreme masculinity to one of an emasculated male. His transformation is even more pronounced, because he has developed huge breasts due to treatment. So, he has in a sense been feminized. On one level, Bob can represent how modern American society has castrated, and transgendered males into women. Later Tyler echoes this argument when he says, “We’re a generation of men raised by women,” and he wonders if the seeking of another woman as a partner is “really the answer we need.” Tyler sees his generation’s boys as being without male role models, with fathers who have either physically or spiritually abandoned them. But, in this group, men, by getting in touch with their feminine side, are able to show genuine emotion, hugging other men, and crying. As Jack says, in this group, pretending to be inflicted with testicular cancer, there is no pressure for him to pursue the “pleasure principle.” Here, Jack “loses all hope,” and he doesn’t have to live up to any expectations for the future, which gives him a sense of freedom. In a way, by hugging Bob, his face mashed up against the man’s large breasts, he is able to draw emotional nourishment, and that night, he says that babies don’t sleep as well as he did.
But, instead of using the one experience to change his life, Jack, instead, goes to numerous groups, pretending to have each one’s afflictions, and admits that he is an addict, unable to be emotionally independent without his fixes. In these groups, Jack feels that during the day, when he is actually disease free, his inauthentic life is a sort of death, but when in the groups, identifying with the dying, he feels resurrected, in touch with real emotions and other people, stripped of any need to put on social façades. In one group, the leader teaches meditation techniques, where one envisions entering a cave, escaping from the reality of the pain and suffering of the illness. Jack sees his “power animal” in the cave as being a penguin who tells him to “slide.” This utterance does not make sense at this point, but later, we see that it is the Tyler part of Jack saying to let all things that truly don’t matter slide away, including expectations and superficial material needs. For Tyler, this meditation is harmful, because escape from disease and dying is being in denial of the human condition.

Jack starts to see a woman at, of all things, the testicular support group, so he knows she, like himself, is a fake. Her name is Marla Singer (Helena Bonham Carter). She is brash and trashy, and her presence undermines him because she reminds him of his fakery, which doesn’t allow him to immerse himself in the genuine suffering going on. Jack is unable to sleep again. She is a fitting woman for Jack and Tyler because she is trying to reach, as Tyler says, “rock bottom.” Jack says “Marla’s philosophy of life is that she might die at any moment. The tragedy, she said, was that she didn’t.” She doesn’t own much, taking other people’s clothes out of laundromat dryers. She stays at a dump of a hotel. She walks out into streets as if she doesn’t care if she is hit by a car. But, they share a bond by going to these groups. As Jack says, “When people think you’re dying, they really, really listen to you, instead of just …” and Marla finishes his thought by saying, “instead of just waiting for their turn to speak.” Even though Jack doesn’t want to share time with Marla, and considers her an intrusion, they find a connection, actual communication with these dying people. It is quite comic the way they decide to divide up the groups, the different kinds of cancers and blood parasites, as if they are setting up a car pool. 
With his sleep cycle again interrupted, Jack isn’t even sure when he is awake or sleeping as he travels from one city to another for his job. He has fantasies that his meaningless non-group existence will end in a mid-air plane crash. At this low point, significantly, Tyler pops up in the seat next to Jack on an airplane. Tyler sees through pretense, not allowing for the denial of the harshness of life. He points out that the placards showing what to do in case of a plane emergency show illustrations of placated, anesthetized people who are high on the oxygen from the masks. He doesn’t even allow Jack the complacency of his cleverness about “single-serving” friends, and questions his superficial conversation when asking Tyler’s occupation.  
When Jack loses his luggage at the airport, it’s as if he is ridding himself of life’s psychological baggage. It is significant that he returns to find that his condo has had a gas leak explosion, and now he has shed himself of all his material ties to his object-dependent existence. It is interesting that Jack describes his condo building as a huge filing cabinet. This Kafka metaphor shows how people are reduced to identical pieces of paper, filed away in the drawer-like rooms. Tyler gave him his phone number and Jack calls him. Tyler says he can live at his place, which serves as a good example for the purging of commercial living. It is a dilapidated dump, in an almost abandoned area of the city, reflecting Jack’s alienation. Jack has to go through object withdrawal, but realizes after a month there, he no longer misses watching television.
As they have some beers, Jack is going through the pangs of transition from being a consumer to shedding materialism, Tyler tells him there is no need to be perfect, or complete. One should evolve by letting “the chips fall where they may.” It is then, outside, that Tyler tells Jack to hit him as hard as he can. Tyler says that he’s never been in a fight, just like Jack, and that they shouldn’t die without having sustained some scars. This is how their fight clubs are born. It doesn’t matter who wins a fight, it is the experience of feeling pain that makes you feel real. It’s sort of like that line from the Goo Goo Dolls’ song, “Yeah you bleed just to know you’re alive.” Jack says that the volume of everyday meaningless existence is turned down – he can’t even hear the words of his boss – because the intensity of fighting drowns out the hum-drum existence elsewhere. Tyler sets up rules as more and more people show up for the fights, which seems to contradict the first and second rules, which say you do not talk about fight club. Tyler annunciates their manifesto. This young male generation has “no purpose or place. No Great War. No Great Depression. Our Great War is a spiritual one. Our Great Depression is our lives. We’ve all been raised on television that we’d all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars. But we won’t. And we’re slowly learning that fact. And we’re very, very pissed off.” This disillusionment with the fake advertisement for their lives is what fuels their revolt. Tyler preaches that the things one owns begin to own the purchaser. This worshiping of things is just another form of enslavement. 
Tyler makes soap, which uses fat. He gets his fat from liposuction clinics. He and Jack break into these places to steal the disgusting, gooey substance. By making soap from “fat” women’s lard, he is making an anti-commercialism statement by selling women consumers their own affluent waste. It’s sort of his version of divine justice. (But, like other elements of the film, there is a bit of a misogynist feel here.) Conversely, the men who show up at fight club are like “cookie dough,” but eventually appear “carved out of wood.” They go from living off the fat of the land to being almost like a work of primitive art. Tyler shows his subversion of the American escapism into self-amusement by taking jobs at a local movie theater and inserting pornographic images into children’s films. As a waiter, he deposits bodily fluids into food at an upscale restaurant. He’s sort of a modern-day Jonathan Swift, reminding others of their baser natures so they can’t deny the lowliness of their true nature.

Tyler emphasizes that “It’s only after we lose everything that we’re free to do anything.” That liberation can only occur once we realize that we are dying moment by moment. Tyler won’t even let people take solace in the lives of their pets, because we see that one of his follower’s cars has a sticker which reads “Recycle Your Pets,” reminding us in a dark way that everything dies. The feeling that death is imminent frees one of any worry about consequences. Tyler has a gun and pulls a convenience store clerk named Raymond (Joon Kim) outside, forcing him to kneel down, and points the gun at him. He tells the man that he is going to die. He sees in his wallet that he went to school, and gets Raymond to admit he wanted to be a veterinarian. Tyler takes his driver’s license and says unless he starts working toward that goal, he knows where Raymond lives, and he will kill him. The gun is not actually loaded. After Raymond goes running off, Tyler says that tomorrow, Raymond’s breakfast will taste better than anything they have ever eaten, and he will be on his way to a heightened life, alert to the fact that death can strike him down at any time. Tyler does not see any purpose to turning to the promises of a future reward from a God who has abandoned them. He says we should not seek spiritual redemption or worry about damnation. Tyler at one point inflicts a chemical burn on Jack’s hand to make him realize life’s immediate painful presence. Tyler says that self-improvement is “masturbation.” He advocates “self-destruction,” by which he means breaking ourselves down to basic building blocks, stripping everything down to our essential selves. You don’t do “self-improvement” on a bad foundation. Another time, Tyler is driving a car and persuades Jack to let the wheel go, letting everything truly “slide.” Tyler asks the other men in the car what do they wish they could have done if they weren’t about to die. They know immediately: one wishes he could build a house; the other would have painted a self-portrait. If you don’t look for future fulfillment that may never come, then you must concentrate on the here and now. For Tyler, carpe diem is not enough – it should be carpe each moment.
This attitude, of course, can be destructive not only to the self and others who agree with it, but what happens when it is forced on others? That enforcement of the individual’s will onto the population at large occurs when Tyler turns the fight clubs into his personal war, which he calls “Project Mayhem.” He recruits an army of combatants that freely relinquish their freedom and individuality for what Tyler calls “the greater good.” But, as Jack says, their new motto is “In Tyler we trust,” the leader now becoming the replacement for God. They all submit to the chemical burn on the hand, and chant Bob’s name together in robotic unison after the police kill him following a mission. The real problem occurs when Tyler commands his men to set a building fire, destroy gentrified coffee shop, wreck cars, befoul public fountains, contaminate restaurant food, etc. After Bob’s death, Tyler’s attitude is that you have to crack a few eggs to make an omelet. In order for revolutions to succeed, however, the majority of the population has to be behind you; otherwise, it is just terrorism.

There are many clues along the way that indicate that Tyler is not a real person, but instead is a projection of that part of Jack’s personality that wants to revolt against the status quo. When he first sees Tyler on the plane, Jack notes they have the same type of briefcase. When he tells off his boss, Jack says, “Tyler’s words coming out of my mouth.” Another time he says, “Sometimes Tyler spoke for me.” When he extorts his boss out of money, office equipment, and most importantly, travel vouchers, he beats himself up, putting the blame on his superior. But, as he is hitting himself, he says that it reminded him of the first time he and Tyler fought. Tyler’s residence is on “Paper Street,” implying that his existence is akin to a phony business entity, established only “on paper.” There are many other hints. But, in a way, all of the men joining the fight clubs are living out different versions of themselves, being domesticated during the day, and battling as wild beasts in combat at night. Jack’s alter ego tries to prevent him from finding out about his imaginary friend. But, Marla is a problem, because she tries to make that human connection, reaching out to Jack during a “cry for help” suicide attempt. Jack thinks she becomes involved with Tyler, so he keeps dismissing her after sexual bouts that he thinks involve Tyler. His dissociative behavior is obvious to her, as she calls him “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Jackass,” (a nice play on the fake name “Jack”). She, therefore, is a threat to “Project Mayhem” in Tyler’s eyes, and tells Jack not to ever mention him to Marla.
Jack wakes up one day to find Tyler missing. His men are building bombs. He finds Tyler’s air ticket stubs, and travels to the places listed on them. He says it is like déjà vu, because, as Tyler, he has already been to the destinations. He says that going after Tyler was like “following an invisible man,” which is an accurate description because Tyler doesn’t really exist separately. Jack seems to be on the verge of self-understanding when he says, “Is Tyler my bad dream? Or am I Tyler’s?”  He finally gets someone to break the rule that one does not talk about Project Mayhem. The man calls Jack Mr. Durden. Jack calls Marla who also calls him Tyler. (Why no one said anything to him about how he was talking to himself before, or why he didn’t hear anybody call him Tyler, seems impossible. But, maybe Jack just shifted between personalities before, and now he was ready for the truth). Tyler appears in Jack’s hotel room, and admits to all of it being a self-delusion, and that Jack blew up his own condo to free himself from his enslavement to things. He tells Jack that he wanted to change his life, and Tyler allowed him to be free in all the ways that Jack was not.
Jack comes to realize that bombs have been placed in buildings at night, when they are empty, all over the world, concentrating on places that house debt records. The idea is to destroy all evidence of indebtedness, lifting the crushing burden of consumerism (does this story sound familiar, Mr. Robot fans?) After Tyler beats Jack in a fight (on security cameras we see Jack just hitting himself), we return to the first scene, where Tyler has Jack bound. But, Jack knows he can be in control now, mentally transfers the gun into his own hand, and shoots himself in the mouth. This trauma translates to Tyler’s head being blown apart. Men from Tyler’s army bring Marla to Jack, who dismisses them. The two hold hands, as buildings are leveled.
Are Jack and Tyler now integrated into one personality? Will the socially conscious Jack be able to temper the self-obsessed drives of that part of his self that is Tyler? Even more importantly, when is the freedom of the individual a threat to society, and vice versa?

The next film is To Have and Have Not.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Bigger Than Life

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

On the surface, this 1956 film is a story about the dangerous side effects of a medication that almost destroys a man’s family. But, just as he did in Rebel Without a Cause, director Nicholas Ray explores several themes about the nature of the individual and her/his interaction with society in America.

The title of the film is projected in large letters, appropriate for the title of the movie. The music sounds dire in the beginning, suggesting a serious story is about to be told, as the camera focuses in on large doors to a building. But, that dread-inducing score is mitigated as scores of suburban children exit through the doors. The children are leaving an elementary school where Ed Avery (James Mason) is a teacher. We immediately know there is something wrong with him because his hand is shaking. We find that he is working another part-time job as a taxi cab dispatcher after school because of financial strains. His boss notes that he is a good teacher and is not getting paid enough. He has not told his wife about the second job because he believes that she will think he is too good to take such a lowly position.
The movie introduces major themes quickly. One of them deals with socio-economic class distinctions. Ed, despite being well-educated, and performing the vital job of teacher, can’t support his family with the one position. He even has to borrow the bus fare to get to the cab company. He says that his wife might think the second job is beneath him, but as we will see he is probably projecting his own feelings onto the situation. Even though he is friendly with the other employees, his statement about status places the cab company’s workers below Ed’s rung in society. One of the cab drivers asks Ed not to assign him too close to the race track. There is again a reference to the need for more money through gambling, but it also indicates the need to escape one’s financial predicament in an activity that can be addictive.
 Ed’s home appears to mostly meet middle-class standards. But, in the kitchen, sticking out like a festering sore thumb, is the water heater. It looks rusty and old, and is not performing well. Its overt presence tells us that its straining to operate properly mirrors the financial stress Ed is undergoing. His family isn’t helping. As soon as he comes home his son, Richie (Christopher Olsen) wants to know if his father brought him something. He also wants Ed to take him fishing, which is a leisurely activity Ed can’t afford to indulge in. His wife, Lou (Barbara Rush) also asks if he has purchased something for their bridge game that evening. There are signs that Ed inwardly feels superior to his place in the world. He tells his son that he watches TV shows that are boring, with repetitive stories. He has a football on the mantle which reminds him of when he played the game in school. The deflated ball is symbolic of his fall from athletic heroic grace, and may be why, later, he resents the gym teacher, Wally Gibbs (Walter Matthau). There are numerous posters on the walls of the house that refer to European locales: London; France; Rome; Bologna. These could, partly, represent exotic locales that Ed believes he has been unjustly denied the opportunity to visit. But, there are also replicas of maps used by centuries-old European explorers who visited America, and secured its land for Old World royalty. Mason himself, with his sophisticated speech and manner, adds to the feeling that Ed longs for kingly treatment.

Ed is caught between his self-centered desire for importance, and his willingness to sacrifice for the family he loves. He also has feelings of resignation about their place in society. Lou echoes Ed’s earlier complaint about dullness, this time concerning one of the bridge players. Ed says that they, too, are dull. He says that nobody present said anything startling or imaginative. But, this observation in itself shows that Ed is judging the inferiority of his plight. At one point, Lou attempts to do some cleaning up, but Ed keeps turning lights off in the house. It is sort of creepy, creating a feeling of a sinister side to this supposedly proper suburban world.

Ed doubled over in discomfort at the cab company, and again experiences pain during the bridge game. He then collapses near the outside doorway, and his hand grabs onto the frame, pressing the buzzer button. The sound serves as a kind of warning signal to what is happening to Ed. He goes to the hospital. The doctors, figures of authority, seem almost cold, and inefficient, in their continued probing of Ed’s body, which includes biopsies, to determine his problem. They finally diagnose him with a rare disease involving inflammation of the arteries, which can prove fatal within a year. They offer hope in the form of what was then a new, experimental drug, cortisone. They do warn that it must be taken in proper doses because it can cause mental changes. While in the hospital, one of the cab workers visits Ed, and he must tell Lou the truth about his second job.
Before exploring more what happens to Ed, it may be revealing to discuss a couple of supporting characters and their relationship to America’s contradictory stances regarding individuality, especially in the 1950’s. Another teacher is Pat Wade (Kipp Hamilton). She is young and attractive, but not involved with a man. Although the U. S. extols the importance of individual sovereignty, it also finds those who do not conform to societal expectations to be suspect. Pat stands out because she is not involved romantically, and should be on her way to having a family. She has car problems, which underscores a shared economic problem of not being able to afford new things, but it also underscores that, being single, she needs help from others which she would not have to request if she had a husband to aid her. Ed tries to set her up with Wally, who is also single, to rectify both of their societal deficiencies. There is an implication that Wally’s lack of a marital partner may be because he is gay. At the school’s open house, he has a brief, mutually supportive exchange with a male teacher outside the entrance. Wally grips the other man’s arm, and they enter the building side-by-side with their arms wrapped around each other’s shoulders. So, despite the prevailing U. S. anti-communist sentiment at the time involving the subjugation of the individual in favor of the glorification of the state, the individual preferences of these two people make them, in a sense, societal outlaws.
What happens to Ed, however, illustrates that when self-importance becomes predominant, it poses a danger to the other members of a society. The cortisone not only eases his pain, it initially produces an energized high. Ed can’t wait to get back to work. After being dropped off at the school, he tells Lou that seeing his family in the hospital lobby made him feel “ten feet high.” We then have an upward shot of Ed, looking like a giant, his head appearing as if it rises above the roof of the building. He is on his way to feeling bigger than the lives around him. It is significant that we hear him teaching his class about a “bigger than life” person, Julius Caesar, and how the character of Cassius in Shakespeare’s play refers to Caesar as a “colossus.” Perhaps Ed is seeking a role model.
After taking over Pat Wade’s class (disrupting the normal work flow by being late because of those car troubles), he admires her dress when she arrives. He decides that Lou deserves some upscale clothes. He wants to take her out shopping, because he wants to celebrate his getting better, which is a “big” occasion, the word stressing the supersized attitude he is adopting. The emphasis on class identification is emphasized here. Lou seems frightened to even enter the pricey store, embarrassed about being in a place above her social station. Her fears seem to be justified, as a female salesperson ignores their requests for service. Ed, however, begins to threaten the employees with a scene unless they get first class service. He then conducts himself like a monarch ordering those around him to do as he wishes. He practically forces Lou to try on one dress after another until he approves of the ones he wants her to wear. But, at the same time, he adopts a superior stance by minimizing the talents of clothes designers. He is on the road to building up his opinion of himself by knocking down accomplishments of others.

Ed, now overcompensating for not being able to financially bestow gifts upon his family, follows up the clothes-buying binge by wanting to purchase a new bike for Richie. Even the boy says to his mother his father may be acting somewhat foolish. When they arrive home, Ed wants to throw his prize football around, in a way trying to recapture the glory of his youth. He and his son toss the ball around the house. Ed breaks some glass at one point with a toss, but he doesn’t even seem to care, showing how his needs are beginning to surmount any other concerns. He ate a roast for dinner, and orders Lou to make sandwiches, too, symbolically suggesting his ego needs feeding. When the cab company wants to know if he is coming back to work, the mere intrusion into his current state of mind that he worked at what he now openly scorns as a menial job infuriates him. With condescension, he says he won’t be back as a dispatcher, and will be getting something more in line with his profession. When Lou asks what that is, he yells at her for picking on him, while really angry because he has no fitting job lined up, and is stern with Richie for playing the TV loudly, reminding him of the “boring” nature of the programs. 

Lou tells him that she will get him some warm milk to calm him down. The movie serves up several instances involving milk. The drink works as a device to offset female and male sensibilities, and subvert accepted positive outcomes into negative ones. In the above instance, the milk is associated with the traditional link to female nurturing. It plays a similar role later in the film when Lou secretly gives it to Richie after Ed inflicts a marathon teaching lesson upon his son. In anticipation of Ed’s return home from the hospital, Wally tells Richie he has bought ingredients, including yogurt, to whip up what he calls “tiger’s milk,” to build Ed up so he can fight his illness. This seems to be some macho version of milk, an indication that previously submissive Ed needs to revive his manhood, a sort of harkening back to rugged individualism. However, milk’s nourishing image is tarnished at the bridge party, as Ed, at the refrigerator, gets a glass of milk and then doubles over in pain. At the hospital, while undergoing tests, Ed must swallow barium, which is used for gastrointestinal x-rays. It is white, simulating the appearance of milk. So, the nourishing drink has turned into a false version of itself, used to analyze problems with the digestive system, the very tract through which it is supposed to provide nourishment. Ed discovers by mathematical logic (sounding something like Captain Queeg from The Caine Mutiny) that there is a glass missing from the pitcher of milk, and accuses Lou, in his paranoia, of undermining his instruction of Richie. When the milkman makes a delivery, Ed berates him by saying that the rattling of the bottles has disturbed his concentration. He makes a snobbish accusation that the milkman, being an inferior worker, was envious of Ed’s intellect, and deliberately tried to distract the teacher. Ed is making himself “bigger” by running another person down. Through the use of the milk image, the story metaphorically shows how Ed’s mental imbalance has upended the stability of his world.
After quitting the cab dispatcher position, Ed wants to take a soothing bath. But that pesky hot water heater, reminding him of the financial limitations of his place in society, thwarts his desire to pamper himself. He says he will buy a heater that is “bigger” (that word again), but Lou painfully deflates his proposal by reminding him they can’t afford it. Lou says she will boil up some water in a tea kettle for the tub. While she is in the kitchen, Ed plays at making himself look like an upper-class gentleman, wrapping a towel around his neck, and covering it with his robe, as he views himself in the bathroom mirror. He takes another cortisone pill, as he has been upping the intake of the medicine. When Lou brings the hot water, he treats her like an employee, saying that another full kettle will do. She now revolts, like a rebellious put-upon worker, reminding him he is not in the hospital now, and it is not her role to wait on him. In the middle of storming out, she slams the medicine cabinet mirrored door. Ed looks at himself amid the glass shards. A distorted, monstrous visage of himself reflects back at him. The broken mirror seems to symbolize how his once integrated personality which comprised both individual and social elements, has been shattered. Ed looks scared as he wraps his arms around himself, as if feebly trying to hold his splintering self together. He tries to smooth things over with Lou by saying they were away from each other too long while he was in the hospital. He the gives her a prolonged kiss.
We witness Ed’s growing addiction to the drug (echoing the cab driver’s preoccupation with gambling as an attempt to escape his predicament). His son finds him downstairs at night, crying. He tells Lou that he is depressed for not achieving what he deserves, which shows his feeling deprived of his proper station in life. He says he is just experiencing a drug “letdown.” He is being accurate, medically, because he is in withdrawal from his increased dosage. But, he also feels “let down” by not reaching the personal heights to which his ego aspires. He lies to his doctor, saying he spilled his pills down the sink, so he can acquire an additional supply of the cortisone. At one point, he walks into a pharmacy where he is not known, pretends to be a doctor, uses a fake name, and writes a prescription for himself.

At the school open house, we find Ed headed toward full-blown grandiosity. He stands on an elevated platform in the classroom, looking down on others from his “bigger” stance, pontificating to the parents in attendance. He being a teacher is an appropriate position for someone spouting off what he considers is his superior knowledge. He now has no patience with the slow maturation process of children, who enjoy childhood before growing into their roles as adults. He sees youths as inferior human beings, saying that the children’s drawings are a waste of paper. He says, “Childhood is a congenital disease and the purpose of education is to cure it.” He says that fostering self-expression and emotional security is “hogwash,’ and will only create arrested development, letting the children stay as “morons,” and “moral midgets.” That last size phrase again emphasizes how Ed sees himself as rising above all others. Some of the parents are outraged by his denunciations, but he has supporters, one in particular, who likes Ed’s call for “self-discipline,” and “a sense of duty,” for children to excel. In Ed, we have an exaggerated example of that contradictory nature mentioned earlier of glorifying the individual while also wishing to subjugate her/him. Ed is in extreme self-righteousness mode now, uncensored by any external social restraints. But, from that self-importance flows intolerance for any other position, which, by definition, has to be wrong, and thus inferior to that of the superior viewpoint. Also, by forcing agreement to the megalomaniac perspective, the superior beliefs gain confirming validity through numbers. Thus, the exalted individual knows what is right for everyone else, and for their own good wants all others to conform to the correct belief system.
 Wally tells Lou that Ed is acting like a “big shot,” and even looks taller in the way he carries himself, demonstrating an outward manifestation of his personality metamorphosis. Economics again interferes, even if it means helping Ed, as Lou tells Wally not to say anything to Ed’s boss about her husband’s behavior, for fear that Ed might lose his job. Ed comes across the two talking. Because he believes his superiority is threatened by envious inferiors, Ed becomes paranoid, thinking there are conspiracies against him. He calls Wally “Mr. Muscle Beach,” probably subconsciously fearing he falls short in the physical department, and believes Wally may be trying to have Lou for himself. Later, when Lou tells Ed about how the cortisone is warping him, Ed accuses she and Wally wanting him to stop taking the medication so he will die, so they can be together.

Ed announces he wants to fulfill his mission in life, which is to write up and promulgate his revolutionary solutions to educational problems in a series of articles. He again treats Lou as an employee, expecting her to type up his tome. But, then says that she is just an impediment to his work, and he must be free of “petty domesticity.” He says he can now jettison Lou, dismissing her by bemoaning the fact that he did not meet someone who was his intellectual equal. He eventually tells her that in his mind, he is divorced from her. He begins to pack his things. He tells her that she is unable to differentiate between the important and the trivial. But, in his enhanced view of himself, everything else from that towering perspective is trivial, including people. He even says that the human need for sleep is a waste of time, and dismisses doctors for doling out sleeping pills. He says that the word for “doctor” and “teacher” used to be the same, his ego not allowing him to be limited to one profession. He will not concede any high ground to the medical profession, as he now says that physicians only extend life, but don’t know how to make the best of it. Lou, realizing he is mentally disturbed, plays along. 

Ray again uses camera angles and lighting to reflect Ed’s view of himself. We see him at the top of the steps leading to the second floor of the house, looking down at Lou and Richie, who has returned home. But, Ed lessens his superior stance, walking down the steps, and changes his mind about leaving. He says that his first obligation is to guide his son so Richie will reach his full potential. What follows are the long personal teaching instructions mentioned earlier. Ed projects a looming, monstrous shadow on the wall of his study as he literally and figuratively towers over Richie. The shadow changes to a profile of a man with a pompadour hair style, reminiscent of Elvis Presley. The effect shows that Ed considers himself to deserve the same praise as a rock star. He also continues football practice with Richie, but this time it turns into a rigorous drill. Richie can’t match his father’s perfectionistic requirements, and begins to cry while stretched out on the ground, seeing his failure in his father’s judgmental eyes as Ed looks down on him, again standing in the elevated position. There is also a satirical thrust here, as there was about the need to be macho by drinking “tiger milk,” because Ed tells his son that he has to be a real man, male athleticism being equated with success.
We then see the family in church, as the clergyman gives his sermon and asks the congregation to bow their heads in prayer. On Ed’s face is a look of scorn as he refuses to lower his head. Back at home, he says that the preacher is not worthy to tell others about morality. In order for him to be above everyone else, Ed wants to even topple those holding religious authority, calling them “sanctimonious stuffed shirts.” So, he says he must now take on Richie’s religious education as part of his burden, since the rest of the world is not carrying its weight. Richie, showing the mature responsibility that Ed stated at the open house children do not possess, finds Ed’s hidden stash of cortisone. He takes the telephone, locks himself in the bathroom, and starts to call the doctor in order to help his father. Lou in the meantime calls Wally. Ed cuts the phone cord (and symbolically his connection to his son), and calls him a thief. He reads from the bible about the sacrifice of Isaac. Lou tries to dissuade Ed from going down this path by saying God saved Isaac after Abraham passed his test. In an ultimate expression of superiority, Ed says, “God was wrong.” He says that he will be saving the boy from being a criminal by sacrificing him. He knows that the bible says killing is forbidden, so he and Lou must also die. He locks Lou in a closet and is ready to use one blade of the scissors to kill Richie. Wally bursts in and the two men struggle. Significantly, Ed falls from the stairs, implying that Wally knocked him off of his inflated place of importance, and they wreak havoc in the house during their struggle, showing how Ed’s world is now in shambles, as circus music plays on the television, its carnival sounds commenting on the bizarre chaos unfolding.

They eventually get Ed back in the hospital. Lou and Richie rest in the waiting lounge. The film then brings us back to the default class distinctions shown at the beginning of the movie as Ed is no longer a factor. An African American janitor cleans the floor, showing the low-level job to which society has relegated him. Richie comments that some people have to work very late. When a nurse goes by and Lou asks for information, she walks right by, ignoring her, just as did the salesperson in the dress shop. The story now shows the other extreme where sometimes there is no respect for the individuals that make up society.

Lou wants to show Ed that his family is there to support him after he wakes up after being sedated. When a doctor asks if she has faith that he can be okay once the proper level of medication is taken, she says she has faith in her husband, but does not mention the medical profession.
 When Ed does wake up, he asks that they turn out the “sun,” referring to the bright light in the room. Is he still feeling grandiose, believing that the sun can be blotted out? He tells the doctor that he is a poor substitute for Lincoln. Again, is he delusional, thinking he should be in the presence of the great president? But, then he realizes that Abraham is Lincoln’s first name, and he remembers about the sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham in the bible. He says he was afraid he tried to hurt Richie, and now says he remembers everything. The doctor comments that he is no longer psychotic because Ed has left behind his violent tendencies.
The ending on the surface appears uplifting, as the family gathers together. But there is a staged feel to their embracing each other with exaggerated smiles on their faces. Will Ed be able to take the correct doses of his medicine without reviving his addiction? Will he again become delusional? Will the medicine even actually save him from the disease? There is no fair and just solution presented that reconciles the desires resulting from the individual’s wants and the sometimes punishing restraints of society trying to reign in those wants. Ray, as an artist, does not provide answers, but instead raises the questions.

After a one week break the next film will be Fight Club.