Sunday, May 7, 2017
Bigger Than Life
SPOILER ALERT! The plot of the movie will be discussed.
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 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.