Sunday, June 25, 2017

The Insider

SPOILER ALERT! The plot will be discussed.

Michael Mann’s 1999 film presents profiles in courage. Jeffrey Wigand’s decision to act for the greater good by telling the truth about the tobacco industry causes him to endure personal suffering. The title of the movie is ironic. Wigand was a corporate insider of the status quo, but, by doing the right thing, which should represent normal behavior, he becomes an outsider. But, the CBS producer, Lowell Bergman, must also fight against resistance and the threat of occupational exile, in order to get Wigand’s information out to the public.
The story starts far from American shores in the Middle East. The camera puts the audience in the position of Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino), a producer for the highly rated and well-respected TV news magazine, 60 Minutes, who has a hood over his head. Hezbollah soldiers take him to meet Sheikh Fadlallah, the leader of the militant organization. After Lowell sets up a meeting between the Sheikh and CBS correspondent Mike Wallace (Christopher Plummer), and the Hezbollah people have left, Lowell tells his assistant “Take your blindfold off. Welcome to the world.” Symbolically, until the journalists deliver the information to us, we reside in the darkness of our ignorance.
The scene switches to scientist Dr. Jeffrey Wigand (Russell Crowe, in an Oscar-nominated performance). He is already becoming an outcast, as he cleans out his desk while the other employees in white lab coats have an office celebration, their jovial attitudes contrasting with his solemn one. There is a slow motion shot of him walking out of the doors of his former place of work, which is a foreshadowing of the last shot of the movie. He drives to his upper-middle-class suburban Kentucky house, which he afforded by taking money from a company that actually undermined the health of the citizens living there, and where he now feels out of place. He delays telling his wife, Liane (Diane Venora), that the tobacco company, Brown and Williamson, fired him. Her first response is not to ask how her husband is doing. Instead, her concern is one of self-preservation, asking about their expenses, and health benefits for their daughter who has asthma. It seems ironic that Wigand, who worked for a business that contributed to so many lung ailments, should have a child suffering from a breathing disorder. Jeffrey, feeling under attack for letting his family down, offers the reassurance that his severance package was a good one, and it included health benefits.

Lowell receives an anonymous package of documents containing the results of a study analyzing fire risks due to cigarette smoking. He needs a technical consultation, and someone recommends Jeffrey. When Lowell calls his house, Jeffrey’s wife answers, and after Lowell says he is with 60 Minutes, she tells Lowell that her husband doesn’t want to speak with him, without even knowing the reason for the call, since she assumes it has to do with his job termination. Being a journalist, Lowell knows there is a story here. (There is a picture of Caesar Chavez on Lowell’s wall, suggesting he admires a rebel who fights for truth, as did the Latino leader). After some back and forth faxes, they meet at a hotel close to Brown and Williamson’s offices. Jeffrey acts very paranoid about the meeting, suspicious of the room service person knocking at the door. Jeffrey says he can do the consultation since it deals with Philip Morris, and does not pertain to his job. His insistence that he can’t say anything else causes Lowell to become extremely curious.

Shortly after his meeting with Lowell, Jeffrey’s former boss, Thomas Sandefur (Michael Gambon), calls Jeffrey in to set down new guidelines for his confidentiality agreement. If he does not comply, all benefits will be terminated. It is possible that the company was following Jeffrey and knew of his meeting with Lowell. Jeffrey is quite angry at the meeting, questioning any justification for calling those present being in the service of true science. He says, “So, what you’re saying is it wasn’t enough to fire me for no good reason. Now you question my integrity? On top of the humiliation of being fired, you threaten me? You threaten my family?” He curses Sandefur, and storms out. Then, he calls Lowell in a rage, saying he sold him out. Lowell gets him to listen to logic, telling him why would he give him up, especially before he received any information from Jeffrey.
Lowell and Jeffrey meet again in the latter’s car during a downpour, indicating the storm of resistance they will have to weather. Not all corporations should be judged the same, according to Jeffrey. He felt that the CEO of Johnson and Johnson did the right thing during the Tylenol scare a while back. The head of that company immediately pulled all bottles off of the shelves, and installed tamper-resistance caps. He put the safety of the people ahead of acquiring wealth. Jeffrey tells Lowell that he went to work for a tobacco company for the money and benefits, and hoped that he could do some good through research. His confidentiality agreement doesn’t allow him to talk any further about his work. Lowell succinctly says that Jeffrey is in a state of conflict, caught between wanting to expose the truth and protecting his family’s economic well-being.
Lowell consults with his staff, including Wallace. The legal advice is that big tobacco never lost a lawsuit. They have tremendous resources, and can tie up the litigation for an extended period of time, causing the opponent to be drained financially. Their defense is the “We didn’t know argument,” which states that if they provide a product which turns out to be harmful, and people choose to use it, the effects are their responsibility. But, Jeffrey knows that the tobacco companies did know that nicotine is addictive, and chemically enhanced its addictive properties, making it extremely difficult for people to exercise free will and stop smoking. Lowell realizes that Jeffrey’s information, because he was a corporate vice-president and noted scientist, would be a crippling blow to the tobacco industry.
Jeffrey becomes a public school science teacher. He tells his students, “I find chemistry to be magical. I find it an adventure, an exploration into the physical building blocks of our universe.” He has transitioned into a job which pays a great deal less than what he used to earn, but which allows him to enjoy his profession. And, he is now working on behalf of the public sector, not to its detriment, inspiring young people with his love of knowledge. He tells his wife that maybe, even though they had to move to a downsized house, this change can be for the better, because he will be able to spend more time with the family. But, his decision to not sign the new confidentiality agreement leaves him open to threats. He is alone as the last person at a golf driving range, when a large man shows up in a suit, hits a few balls before closing, and stares threateningly at Jeffrey. Jeffrey finds footprints in his newly planted garden which shows he is being observed. Also, the destruction of the plants implies that he can’t feel secure enough to put down roots in his new life. His wife receives threatening emails, and Jeffrey finds a bullet in his mailbox. It matches the caliber of one of his guns, and the FBI men who show up are intimidating, implying that Jeffrey, being agitated, may be trying to incriminate his former employer. They also confiscate his computer without even asking permission.

Lowell tries to help Jeffrey as the conspiracy seems to widen against the former tobacco scientist. He calls a contact at the FBI, questioning the way the two agents acted, implying that maybe they may be seeking security jobs with the tobacco companies, or might know people in those jobs, and could have been persuaded to menace the Wigands. Lowell says to his Federal agent friend, “I’m getting two things; pissed off and curious.” His statement carries the threat of how a free press can put fear into questionable activities by threatening to expose them. He also gets private guards to protect the family. However, this need for security further distances Jeffrey and his family as it establishes a barrier between them and the world outside.
Jeffrey admits that he does not like to get pushed around, and after the threats to himself and his family, he tells Lowell he wants to be interviewed. However, when they meet for dinner, he questions Lowell’s sincerity. He says, “I’m just a commodity to you.” Lowell says maybe to the network he is, but to Lowell, he is “important.” Jeffrey wonders if any good will come from his information. He says maybe people watch Lowell’s show because it’s “something to do on Sunday night.” He says maybe what he has to say won’t change a thing, while his family will be “left out to dry, used up, broke, alone.” Jeffrey says all Lowell is putting out there are words. Lowell counters by telling him nobody is making Jeffrey speak out. Lowell tells him not to evade his responsibility by questioning Lowell’s motives. Lowell says he has been putting his reputation on the line publicly, and backing up his words with action, getting stories to inform the people. This back-and-forth exchange highlights the courage needed to open oneself up to attack in order to fight for what’s right.
Lowell wants to work around the confidentiality clause by having Jeffrey compelled to testify in a lawsuit that the state of Mississippi is bringing against the tobacco industry. In the meantime, he and Mike Wallace record the interview for 60 Minutes. Jeffrey says that the CEO’s of the tobacco companies perjured themselves in front of Congress when they said they did not believe nicotine was addictive. As an insider scientist, he knows that they used ammonia to produce “impact boosting,” to cause the nicotine “to be more rapidly absorbed in the lung and therefore affect the brain and nervous system.” Jeffrey says that the tobacco industry inside their doors said they were in “the nicotine delivery business,” so that a smoker would get his or her “fix.” Jeffrey specifically rejected being involved with using a drug that was a flavor-producing additive that was a lung carcinogen, and that is why he was fired.
To illustrate how much influence the tobacco industry has, it pressures a court in Kentucky to put a restraining order against Jeffrey testifying in Mississippi. That state rejected it, but if Jeffrey goes back to Kentucky he could be fined and imprisoned. Jeffrey asks a question that shows how upside-down things have become when he says, “How does one go to jail?’ for telling the truth, and thus endangering his family. After agonizing over what to do, Jeffrey decides to testify anyway. As he rides to the courtroom, Jeffrey passes rows of headstones in a cemetery, possibly reminding us of what is at stake, which represent the lives of numerous individuals that were, and can be, victims of smoking. The disease that tobacco causes becomes a metaphor for a corruption spreading throughout industry and government that threatens the wellbeing of the citizens. However, when he does return to his home, his wife and children have left, his spouse unable to deal with the pressure. As Lowell tells Mike, “These are ordinary people under extraordinary pressure.” In Mississippi, Richard Scruggs (Colm Feore), who is assisting in the prosecution of the tobacco industry, knows what a sacrifice Jeffrey is making. He tells him, “You’re assaulted psychologically. You’re assaulted financially, which is … directed at your kids … You feel your whole family’s future’s compromised. Held hostage.” The soundtrack of the film is a combination of Middle east sounds and jazz. The former adds a mournful, almost sad feel to the film. But both add to a sense of being out of the mainstream of America, which is where Jeffrey finds himself.

Big tobacco then goes after Lowell and CBS, legally. Through a principle called “tortious interference,” they can sue the network for facilitating Jeffrey’s violation of his confidentiality agreement. The CBS lawyer says that the Big Tobacco can sue for enormous sums because “the greater the truth, the greater the damage.” What this implies is that some truths must be concealed if they adversely affect the powerful. The phrase “Too big to fail” comes to mind. Lowell finds out that there is a deal to sell CBS to Westinghouse, and the lawsuit would impair that transaction, and the higher-ups at CBS, including the chief counsel, will suffer financially. So, the tentacles of this financial conspiracy reach into many places. Lowell refuses to shoot an alternative version of Jeffrey’s interview, but Mike Wallace, afraid that Brown and Williamson could wind up owning CBS, cooperates. Wallace records a preface to the severely abridged interview that airs, but CBS even guts that.  

So, now, Lowell, like Jeffrey, who has moved into a hotel room, is all alone, professionally, forced to take a mandatory leave of absence. Jeffrey feels that all he gave up is for nothing if CBS won’t air his interview. However, Lowell works to invalidate smear campaigns against Jeffrey concerning false allegations of shop-lifting and failed custody support involving his prior marriage. He covertly leaks information to The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times, so that information about Jeffrey and Big Tobacco has nothing to do with CBS being involved in breaking his confidentiality agreement. CBS also comes under attack for caving to lawyers and big business, which in a democracy is dangerous because it stunts the free flow of information. As Lowell says to his boss, “Are you a businessman? Or are you a newsman?” With Wallace now on his side, and with, as Lowell says, “The cat completely out of the bag,” CBS airs the complete interview. We see people stopping what they are doing, listening to the program, learning, so that they can make informed decisions. Jeffrey’s daughter looks up with respect at her father as she sees him on the TV, implying that role models are important.

Unfortunately, as Lowell tells Jeffrey, “I’m all out of heroes, man. Guys like you are in short supply.” To which Jeffrey responds, “Yeah, guys like you, too.” In the end, Lowell quits, because his whole assurance of protecting his sources has been compromised by the corporate undermining of the news. He tells Wallace, “What got broken here doesn’t go back together.” He walks out of the building of his employer, and the exit is shown in slow motion, mirroring Jeffrey’s plight at the beginning of the film. Lowell pulls up his coat collar against the unwelcoming cold as an outsider.

Written addendums show that the tobacco companies settled for 246 billion dollars with states that sued them for reimbursement for Medicaid funds paid to smoking victims. Jeffrey Wigand was named teacher of the year in Kentucky. Lowell Bergman taught graduate school journalism at Berkeley, and worked for PBS. The film is a tribute to those who work hard and sacrifice for the good of the many.

The next film is Wag the Dog.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

The Talented Mr. Ripley

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

Before this 1999 film, directed by Anthony Minghella, settles on its title, it offers a number of adjectives to describe the main character. Some are: troubled; intelligent; beautiful; yearning; musical. Before finalizing with “Talented,” another one shows up, which is “mysterious.” The movie suggests that he is multi-faceted, but also that there is no set of easily definable criteria to categorize him. That implication is possibly why his face is revealed during the running of the credits in strips, suggesting his personality consists of multiple puzzle pieces that may be impossible to assemble.

Who Tom Ripley (Matt Damon) is can’t be determined by a surface observation. We first see him playing a piano accompaniment at an opulent outdoor party as a young woman sings opera. But, Ripley, in an after-the-fact voice-over, says that everything would not have happened if he hadn’t borrowed a jacket. This fact coveys that he is not wealthy enough to be a guest at the proceedings. But, the jacket sports a Princeton University logo on it. We immediately see that Ripley (whose name implies that he “rips off” others) pretends to be something he is not. When Herbert Greenleaf (James Rebhorn), a wealthy shipping businessman, assumes that Tom, being a Princeton man, must know his son, Dickie, Tom embraces the deception by saying he does. Greenleaf’s wife, seeing Tom with the opera singer exchange what looks like an affectionate kiss on the cheek, says what a nice couple the two makes. Another false assumption, as Tom is just a friend, and escorts the woman to a car where her boyfriend awaits, and from whom Tom borrowed the jacket. When it comes to Ripley, the theme of appearances are deceiving has been established.

We next see Tom working as a bathroom attendant at a concert hall, brushing lint off of affluent-looking men in dinner jackets. We already know he is musical, so where he works makes sense. But, he is a person residing on the lower rung of the socio-economic ladder, and has the opportunity to infiltrate those well-off groups by clinging to their fringes, providing menial tasks. Even though nothing definite is said, it seems apparent that Tom wants the better life, probably because he feels he deserves it. And, that is why he will perpetuate frauds to become part of high society. That he wants praise and acceptance is evident because he plays the grand piano on the stage, the spotlight shining down on him, when he believes he is the only one left in the theater. However, here and elsewhere, we get a shot of half of Tom’s face, the other half hidden behind a door frame, suggesting that there is always a part of him that refuses to reveal itself, to be explained.

Tom is able to cash in on Mr. Greenleaf’s belief that he knows his son. He is to try to get Dickie to return home from Italy. According to Greenleaf, his son’s “talent,” (as opposed to Tom’s multiple talents) is to spend the allowance his father gives him. The older American generation man sees work as the one prevailing virtue, and is antagonistic toward Dickie’s indulging his interests in jazz, lounging on the beach, and sailing. These activities represent the European leisurely lifestyle. One does get a negative, almost The Great Gatsby, critique in this film of the idle young rich who are unproductive, pretentious, condescending, and dismissive of those that don’t belong in their exclusive circle.
Tom prepares for his role, like an actor pretending to be someone else, to get close to Dickie by listening to and learning about jazz while he packs for the trip in his loud dive of an apartment. Because he is funded by the rich Greenleaf, Tom sails first class to Italy, and, thus, appears to be a member of the elite. He fosters this impression when he encounters Meredith Logue (Cate Blanchett) when they are collecting their luggage. Since the chauffeur who brought Tom to the ship said that Greenleaf is a name that “opens doors,” he pretends to be Dickie with Meredith, so he will be compatible being in her company, she being from a famously rich family. She wonders why he was looking for his luggage under the letter “R.” He is quick in adapting to situations, so he says he was traveling incognito by using his mother’s maiden name. He is a man disguising who he is by saying he is traveling in disguise. Meredith comments how she envies his ability to travel light, which is significant, because he has little historical “baggage” which he carries with him. And, she wishes to dispense with hers, feeling weighed down by her family attachments, and is also traveling under an assumed name. While his motive is attention and acceptance, she seeks anonymity. So, in this story, for varying motives, people are phonies.

There are numerous mirror images in this movie. When the artist uses reflections symbolically, they usually imply multiple personality aspects, or doppelgangers. Tom looks into a mirror as he practices his Italian for his role. He says, “This is the face of Dickie,” followed by “This is my face.” He has already pretended to be Dickie once. Much later in the story, Dickie (Jude Law) calls Tom a “leech.” He wants to attach onto a person and suck the life out of him, which may cause the host to die. Tom is like a body snatcher, an unformed entity drawing its form from another. He not only wants to be accepted by the upper class, maybe loved by them, but also wants to replace one of their kind with himself, since he can’t become a member of their club based on his social standing. A metaphorical validation of this point occurs when Tom first encounters Dickie. He had been spying on Dickie and his girlfriend, Marge (Gwyneth Paltrow). He then pretends to recognize Dickie as a fellow Princetonian while casually walking on the beach where the two are sitting. Dickie does not remember him, but says his college days were like a fog, a place in which he was lost because it required him to rigorously apply himself. Dickie comments how white Tom looks. Tom says, “It’s just an undercoat,” and adds, “You know, a primer.” Tom’s joke is revealing of how he is an unfinished foundation, an incomplete person, ready for an identity to be grafted onto him. At this point he is as pale as an insubstantial ghost, looking to become incarnate.

Tom insinuates himself into Dickie and Marge’s lives by taking advantage of a courtesy invite to lunch. Dickie makes Tom feel like the help again when he asks him to make a martini, but Marge softens it by saying what a great drink she makes. Dickie says that is her talent and asks Tom what his is. He admits truthfully, although it appears comically, that his skill set includes forging signatures, telling lies, and doing impersonations. He then imitates Mr. Greenleaf, using some of Greenleaf’s words about jazz being “noise”, which impresses Dickie, and in his father’s voice, Tom admits to the plan where he is paid to get Dickie to come home. This reveal ingratiates Tom to Dickie, showing that he is really on Dickie’s side. Tom also wants Dickie to stay in Italy, so he can be part of his world. He strategically drops a bag of jazz albums onto the floor as he is ready to leave, and now Dickie is won over. He takes Tom to a jazz club, where Dickie plays the saxophone with the band, and brings Tom onstage, where he quickly picks up the lyrics, since the outside easily imprints onto him. It is appropriate that the song they sing is about someone who wants to imitate a lifestyle, like Tom. (This film reverberates its themes in almost every scene). Tom weds himself to Dickie and Marge by using Mr. Greenleaf’s payment to buy Dickie a refrigerator. As reciprocity, Dickie invites Tom to stay with them, furthering his encroachment into Dickie’s life.
Tom schools Dickey on duplicity by coaching him on writing letters to his father so as to milk Greenleaf out of more funds. In one of the father’s letters, he notes that he saw Tom with the girl at the recital. Tom pretends that he is engaged to her, affirming the misconception to be consistent with Greenleaf’s account. Dickie says that is why his father likes Tom – he is stable, settling down. We begin to see that Tom is becoming a replacement for Dickie in Greenleaf’s eyes. And, Tom, not knowing sailing, or the Italian cities, becomes a protégé, as Dickie unknowingly grooms him as a substitute.

Tom’s chameleon ability is witnessed in a chilling mirror scene where Tom, looking into his reflection, mimics both Dickie’s and Marge’s speech patterns, with pictures of his hosts also appearing in the mirror, as he handles their jewelry, coveting their possessions. Dickie even offers Tom, who has a corduroy jacket, stressing his outsider status in Italy, to wear his shirts, furthering their identification with each other.

There is a prevalent homosexual theme occurring in the film. Marge, who even though at this point likes Tom, complains to Dickie about his intrusion. She bitingly asks Dickie that if they were to marry, would they have to take Tom with them on the honeymoon, since she sees how Tom is drawn to him. Tom learned from Marge that Dickie sang “My funny Valentine” for her. Back at the jazz club, with Tom and Dickie on stage, Tom now sings the song, and we know he is singing to Dickie. When Tom takes off his glasses, Dickie says Tom doesn’t even look ugly without them. It is actually a compliment, and encourages Tom sexually, but also shows Dickie’s narcissism, as Tom looks a bit like him. Tom mentions that he is Clark Kent with the glasses, and Dickie is superman. This reference emphasizes the flattery, but also points out that the superhero reference signifies the merging of two personalities into one person. This is more than gay attraction – it is love of oneself, each participating in the romance. Under normal circumstances, the physical bonding between two men would be benign. But, we already know Tom is deceptive and scheming. As Tom holds onto Dickie when riding on the latter’s scooter, Dickie complains, saying that Tom is breaking his ribs. This scene indicates Tom’s dangerous nature because of his obsessive urge to possess another, and is a foreshadowing of the end of the film.

Dickie begins to recognize Tom’s obsession with him while Dickie is taking a bath and Tom sits next to the tub. They observe that the two of them and Marge are only children, which Tom says that means that they have never shared a bath with anyone. Tom then asks if he can join Dickie in the tub. Dickie gives a look that shows how weird he thinks the request is before saying no. Tom then says he meant using the warm water after Dickie is finished, because he is cold. This statement almost symbolically implies the sharing of bodily fluids. Dickie then emerges from the water, naked, and again we have the mirror, with Tom looking at the reflection of the nude Dickie. By looking at Dickie, Tom is seeing his own sexuality reflected back to him, but even more, their separate persons are merging into one image. Dickie is not a fully formed individual himself, as he moves from place to place, from one musical instrument to another, and diverts his attention to various people. Dickie’s lack of a definite identity is symbolized in the scene where authorities question his ID, to which an official says that he doesn’t look like his picture. Thus, he is ripe for Tom to take possession of him.
The arrival of Dickie’s friend, Freddie Miles (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) threatens the bond with Tom. Freddie is a condescending, elitist young man, who immediately sees Tom as an unworthy invader into the privileged sphere. Freddie works it that only experienced skiers can go on their holiday, so Tom is excluded. He now occupies all of Dickie’s time, exiling Tom to lonely, solitary sightseeing, reverting him to outsider status. Dickie becomes more alienated from Tom when he comes home and sees Tom wearing his clothes, including his shoes, and dancing around the apartment. This scene follows the tub one, and Dickie finds Tom’s encroachment disturbing. He tells Tom to take off the clothes, but in another room, attempting to minimize any sexual situations between them.

 In the scene where Freddie joins Dickie, Marge, and Tom on a boating outing, Tom, sits alone, reading, as the other young men frolic in the sea. Freddie pretends to be drowning Dickie, who yells out as if being threatened. Marge observes, “Why is it when men play, they always play at killing each other.” This is a foreshadowing, because in Tom’s world, the subconscious desire to destroy becomes outwardly manifest. Later, in that same scene, Freddie pressure Dickie to come with him to Rome, where there are many women. He says this within earshot of Marge, who goes below. Freddie demonstrates the inconsiderate carelessness of the wealthy here. Dickie follows his girlfriend, saying he must do “Marge maintenance.” The two engage in sex, with Tom peering in disgust, wanting Dickie to himself, through an opening above. Freddie needles Tom, asking him “how’s the peeping, Tommy,” and repeats his name over and over, “Tommy, Tommy,” We have a Tommy, a Dickie, and a Freddie here, supposedly grown men on the outside, but acting like children, unconcerned about the effects their actions have on others as they satisfy their wants.
Dickie’s father writes to Tom to tell him that since he hasn’t been successful in getting his son to return to America, Greenleaf says he doesn’t require his services any longer. Dickie, becoming distanced from Tom anyway, now has the excuse that Tom no longer can pay his way. So, he tells Tom it’s best that they move on with their lives separately. But, he says they will have a final outing at a jazz festival in San Remo before saying goodbye. On the train to the town, the two share a car, and Dickie snoozes. Tom sees his reflection along with Dickie’s in the compartment’s window, and the two men look very similar, stressing the merging of their identities. Tom rests his head on Dickie’s shoulder. Dickie wakes up, and comments humorously that Tom is a bit “spooky.”
Dickie now sees right through Tom’s fakery. He calls him out about not having gone to Princeton, and how he only said he liked jazz to get close to Dickie. On a boat ride, Tom says he has a plan where he will return to Italy after he acquires enough funds, and they can be together again. He says that they are the brothers they never had, and he will get rid of the “Marge problem.” Dickie says he loves Marge and is going to marry her. Tom says that Dickie loves him, which Dickie laughingly denies. Tom then releases all of his venom, reminding Dickie of his cheating on Marge, and how he caused Silvana’s death. Dickie calls Tom a “third class mooch,” emphasizing his lowly socio-economic status, and calls him “creepy,” saying he doesn’t want to be in the boat with him. Tom explodes, hitting Dickie with an oar, and, after a struggle, kills him. Afterwards, he nestles next to his body, presenting an image of necrophilia. He weighs down the boat, and swims to the shore.
Back at the hotel, the concierge addresses Tom as Dickie, and from here on he leads a dissociative life, becoming Tom or Dickie depending on whom he is with. He tells Marge that Dickie abandoned them both, and left for Rome, providing a forged letter from Dickie to Marge backing up the story. He sends letters supposedly from a living Dickie to Tom. He alters Dickie’s passport and draws money from Dickie’s funds. He again encounters Meredith, who knows him as Dickie from their cruise. She says she ran into Freddie, who said he was with Marge. To solidify the story, he says he left Marge. Meredith is attracted to Tom/Dickie, and Tom forges ahead with Dickie’s lifestyle, having Meredith as his escort, as she picks out clothes for him, symbolically helping him become Dickie. 

The two attend an opera, which significantly is about a man who pretends to be someone he is not. There, Tom runs into Marge, who is with a friend, a musical conductor, Peter Smith-Kingsley (Jack Davenport). There is a spark of attraction between Tom and Peter, and one can’t help but think Tom sees Peter as a replacement for Dickie. His two identities are in danger of colliding, so Tom leaves the opera with Meredith. He says he can’t see her again, because she (another somewhat look-alike) reminds him of Marge. However, he says he will meet her the next day near the Spanish Steps at a café for a proper goodbye. Tom knows that Marge will be there, too, who shows ups with Peter. He stands up Meredith, who encounters Marge. Meredith substantiates that Dickie is there in Rome, and says that he still loves Marge. After Meredith leaves, Tom shows up as himself, and after he hears the story (which he has set up), he says, almost like an inside joke, that whenever Dickie does something wrong, he feels “guilty.”

 Freddie has been tracking down Dickie’s whereabouts, and shows up at the apartment in Rome. But, instead of finding his old friend, he sees Tom. He is suspicious immediately when Tom says that Dickie is having dinner at six in the evening, which is way too early. Tom looks like he is settled in there despite his saying he doesn’t live at the apartment. Freddie says the landlady said that Dickie was there now. As Tom talks, Freddie keeps hitting a piano key which is out of tune, indicating that Tom’s story doesn’t sound right. Tom is not wearing glasses, and has his hair swept back. Freddie, addressing Tom, says that the only thing there that looks like Dickie “is you.” Stating that Tom is a “quick study,” Freddie’s insight as to Tom’s attempt to replace Dickie is accurate. When Freddie leaves, he talks to the landlady who says Dickie plays the piano, which Freddie knows is not true. She then sees Tom on the upper landing and addresses him as Dickie. Freddie returns to the apartment. Bad move. Tom slams him over the head with a stone bust, killing him. IMDB says that the bust is of the Roman emperor Hadrian, whose gay lover was killed. An appropriate murder weapon for Tom, who did in his wished-for gay object of desire, Dickie. Always a wizard of manipulating what appears to be real, Tom pretends Freddie is drunk, and is helping him to his car. He even imitates Freddie’s voice, setting up the story that Freddie was alive when he left him. He dumps Freddie’s body in the woods next to his car. 

The police investigate the death, and question Tom as Dickie. He gets into a scooter accident, bruising his face, when he sees a man wearing a hat like the one Dickie wore. His smashing into mirrors along an antique row implies how he may be haunted by that part of himself that is now Dickie. He encounters Marge, who wonders if Dickie hurt Freddie. Tom says the bruise resulted from an argument with Dickie, as Tom creates a pattern of violence associated with Dickie. Marge says every time she looks for Dickie she finds Tom, an unknowingly accurate statement. The police, addressing Tom as Dickie, question what happened to Tom, who went missing when Dickie and Tom were in San Remo, and they found a weighed down boat. They think Dickie is the culprit – ironic, since it is Tom who is in front of them, and Dickie is the dead one. Anyway, they have two murders associated with Dickie.
Tom realizes he must rid himself of the Dickie persona, since he is a murder suspect. He forges a suicide note, which admits guilt about Silvana and Freddie. But the note goes on to say how Tom was the brother he never had, and is the type of son his father deserved. He also scratches out the picture in the passport, implying self-hatred, but really a ploy to prevent discovering Tom was impersonating Dickie. Tom travels to Venice, where he encounters Peter, whom he now latches on to. When Marge visits, she looks suspicious, saying, “I see you’ve found Peter,” seeing him as the next Dickie. She is suspicious of how he can afford such a nice place in Venice. She also discovers Dickie’s rings in Tom’s possession, jewelry she bought for Dickie, and which he swore he would never remove. She startles Tom, coming out of a bath when she makes the find and demands to know why he has Dickie’s rings. This shot in the bath reminds us of how Tom has replaced Dickie in the tub. But, when he goes to face Marge, Tom accidentally drops his towel, showing his nakedness, and metaphorically, revealing his true, duplicitous nature.
Mr. Greenleaf arrives in Venice with a private investigator. Marge says that Dickie wouldn’t have withdrawn money from the bank right before he is ready to kill himself. She suspects, rightly, that it was Tom accessing the funds before implicating Dickie as a killer and a victim of suicide. She says Tom now looks like someone who is “to the manor born,” as if he comes from the elite. But, she is really saying his rise was done through deceptive manipulation. However, Tom has plotted his scheme well, and gets lucky, too, as he learns from the investigator that he didn’t make up Dickie’s violent nature. He almost killed someone at Princeton, and his father got him off, allowing him to find refuge for a while in Italy. So, the story indicts more than just Tom. Based on the suicide note which contained Dickie’s endorsement of Tom, compliments of Tom himself, Greenleaf transfers Dickie’s trust to Tom. He now has truly replaced Dickie as his father’s son. When Marge leaves with Greenleaf, she attacks Tom near the pier, saying that she knows he is the killer.

Tom has now taken up with Peter. They embark on a cruise. He appears to want to come clean with Peter, wants to share true intimacy. But, Meredith is on the ship (there are a few too many coincidences here), with an entourage of family members. She knows Tom only as Dickie, and Peter knows him as Tom. He can’t kill Meredith, because she is not alone. Peter has seen him with Meredith, so he knows they will discover his secret once they talk to each other. He decides to do away with Peter, his possible soulmate, which makes the events even more tragic. We hear Peter, in bed, not involved in sex, but in the throes of death (the two were intermixed in Elizabethan poetry), saying how Tom is crushing him, reminiscent of what Dickie said when Tom squeezed too tightly on the scooter. Ripley’s embrace is more akin to a boa constrictor, than that of a lover.

The next film is The Insider.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Annie Hall

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

Woody Allen’s 1977 film, which won the Oscar, (beating out Star Wars), is a portrait of the artist as an alienated man. Allen exhibits this outsider predicament through the story line, but also with various cinematic techniques. In real life, Allen, and in the movie, his surrogate character, Alvy Singer, are powerless to satisfactorily interface with the world around them. So, they use art in an attempt to control their lives, and try to make a connection to others.
Right from the beginning, Alvy breaks the “fourth wall,” escaping the confines of the plot, and speaks directly to the audience in an attempt to explain his take on existence. He notes a joke about two women at a place in the Catskills saying how the food was lousy, with one of them further commenting that the portions were small. Alvy says that is how he views life – “full of loneliness and misery, and suffering, and unhappiness. And it’s all over much too quickly.” So, despite his emphasis on the negative, he admits that he doesn’t want to give it up, that there is still something worth living for. That turns out to be, mostly, romantic relationships. But, at the same time he confesses that he doesn’t have the qualities needed to connect with others, and his feelings of inadequacy cause him to quote Groucho Marx, or whoever made up the line, which says, “I would never want to belong to any club that would have someone like me as a member.”
The movie skips around in time, reflecting Alvy’s stream-of-consciousness. He says that he has a hyperactive imagination, so his mind jumps around a lot. This is the character’s psychological explanation for the non-linear story line. But, the non-sequential telling of events also stresses that what we are seeing is a work of art, with the artist having the god-like control over his invention that a person cannot exert over his or her life. At the conclusion of his opening speech, which is set at the end of the story about to be told, Alvy notes that he has broken up with Annie (Diane Keaton, in an Oscar-winning performance). Even though this tale is humorous, we know from the beginning that this story, despite the artist’s power to manipulate events, does not end with the principle players living happily ever after, because Allen does not want to present a film with a rosy mindset.
 Alvy says he is not a depressed individual, but this assertion is undercut by his youthful fixation on the death of the universe, since it continues to expand, and eventually will “break apart.” He has stopped doing his homework, and his mother brings the boy to the family doctor, who offers a normal way of dealing with impending doom, which is “to enjoy ourselves while we’re here.” The doctor’s name is “Flicker,” which undercuts his advice by emphasizing the lack of persistent stability in the universe. (Could the name also conjure up the term for a movie, a “flick,” implying that a film only can deliver momentary enlightenment or happiness?)

This feeling of a lack of security in a turbulent world is symbolized by Alvy growing up in a house built under a Coney Island roller-coaster, the vibrations of which cause his home to shake. Add to the housing situation, we have the additional image of his father running the bumper car ride. Thus, instead of going with the flow of human traffic, Alvy continually collides with the outside world.
Alvy’s outsider personality makes him always at odds with others. As a youth, he saw his fellow students and teachers as inferior. He says that the teachers didn’t fall into the category of those who can’t do, teach, because they “couldn’t do anything.” By placing Alvy as an adult conversing with school age children, Allen depicts the distance Alvy felt between himself and his classmates. For instance, Alvy had sexual impulses toward the girls long before puberty. But, Allen’s technique also shows how we remember the friends we have lost touch with, frozen in memory snapshots of the past, as we wonder what has become of them.
 Alvy has conflicting forces working on him. On the one hand, he wants to be accepted and admired by others, but on the other side, he can’t get over his feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt, which make it difficult to accept recognition of his talent, and make him discredit those who either express praise or seek a romantic relationship with him. When fans of his comedy stand-up routines approach him, he distances himself by pretending not to be himself, and then by degrading their attention, calling them mafia types (cast members from The Godfather) or lower-class workers. But, he also tries to dismiss those who appear higher in the intellectual social strata than himself. His second wife, Robin (Janet Margolin), associates with New York intelligentsia at a party, and instead of trying to connect with them, Alvy goes off to the bedroom, now identifying with the blue-collar mentality, by watching the New York Nicks play. When Robin enters the room, Alvy, out of sync with the occasion, wants to have sex with her, saying the mind can “lie” but the body always tells the “truth.” Here, he values non-thinking physical urges over what he considers pseudo-intellectualism. In short, he always makes himself the odd man out. (He may find himself at odds with either the educated or working-class groups in the city, but he also shuns the suburbs, with its unsettling insect sounds and moths caught behind window screens).
The famous scene which demonstrates not only the suspicion of others promoting their mental abilities, but also the contrast of art with real life is the one where Alvy and Annie wait in a movie theater line. Behind them is a man who negatively critiques the works of film directors Allen admires. The audience connects with Alvy having to endure a know-it-all loudmouth. The man then mentions the work of Marshall McLuhan in the field of communication theory. Alvy then steps out of the verisimilitude of the story and again addresses the audience along with the man in line. Alvy then mixes true reality into the film by bringing the real McLuhan into the movie frame, who then tells the man in line that he knows nothing of his work. Alvy then says to the camera “Boy, if life were only like this.” Alvy literally does not fit in within the “realistic” parameters of the story, so Allen, the artist, allows his stand-in, Alvy, to escape the “plot” of his life, which he finds hostile, and exist in an unscripted world which accommodates his point of view.

Because Alvy feels that society excludes him, he sees himself as a victim, Thus, he finds comfort in embracing anti-establishment conspiracy theories. Because his Jewish background provides historical proof of persecution, he suspects anti-Semitic references in the speech patterns of others; he hears “Jew,” when someone says, “D’you.” He fears that the rest of the country considers him and his fellow New Yorkers to be “left-wing, Communist, Jewish, homosexual pornographers.” He interrupts lovemaking with his first wife, Allison (Carol Kane), because he can’t get the conspiracy argument against the lone gunman theory concerning the assassination of John F. Kennedy out of his head. However, Allison, rightly says he is just using this preoccupation to avoid being intimate with her. His outsider mindset won’t allow him to believe that she would want him.
 Alvy is even alienated from his own profession. He can’t stand the guy who wants to hire him to write jokes for his pathetic act. So, he decides to deliver his comic material himself by doing stand-up (the way Allen did in real life). When he goes out to Los Angeles to meet his transplanted New York actor friend, Rob (Tony Roberts), he is appalled by his use of a laugh track on his TV show, which points to the diminishment of art when success is achieved too easily. Alvey says Rob should be doing plays in New York’s Central Park. Rob says he acted in the park, and was mugged, thus justifying his Hollywood lifestyle. (The fact that Alvy can’t even connect with a male friend is implied by the fact that Rob keeps calling Alvy “Max,” instead of his real name). When Annie says how clean it is in LA, Alvy comments, “That’s because they don’t throw their garbage away; they turn it into television shows.” He also rants against the narcissistic award-giving of Hollywood, saying that they would give a trophy for “Greatest Fascist Dictator: Adolph Hitler.” (Of course, Allen was not present at the Academy Awards ceremony to accept his writing and directing Oscars for this film). For Alvy, Hollywood presents a clash of conflicting architectural designs, and is a place of inauthenticity, where Christmas music plays amid rows of palm trees while one constantly drives, and never walks, anywhere. It is a place where restaurants offer unappetizing meals consisting of sprouts and “mashed yeast,” and the town literally renders him nauseous. Allen satirizes the city’s fleeting interest in a succession of fads by having Jeff Goldblum (in an early movie appearance), calling someone to ask for help because, “I forgot my mantra.” Alvy, never feeling comfortable anywhere, can’t handle the “mellow,” or, content ways of LA dwellers, which, for him, leads to a mentally vegetative state. He says, “if I get too mellow, I ripen, and then rot.”

So why does the loner Alvy, at least to a greater degree than with others, establish a bond with Annie? Because when they first meet, she looks more like an outsider than he does. She is awkward in her speech as she tries to show her interest in Alvy. Visually, she doesn’t conform, her male clothing colliding with her feminine identity. She drives badly (as we see later, so does Alvy). And, like him, she is uncomfortable when someone praises her. For example, when he compliments her on her singing, she looks like she wants to run away. Allen cinematically emphasizes their mutual inability to express themselves with another person by putting subtitles on the screen which show the hidden meanings behind their spoken words. Another noteworthy episode shows the two trying to cook lobsters. Here, they are awkward. but they are accepting of each other’s ineptness, and can laugh and enjoy their alienation together. They sit and have fun watching people walking past them, making up their backstories. (Observing one man, Alvy says he wins the Truman Capote look-alike contest. It is, in fact, Capote, as Allen again intermixes realistic storytelling with artistic manipulation). Alvy feels comfortable exposing Annie to his bleak, off-putting view on life, taking her to a bookstore, and buying her works dealing with death. He tells her that he sees life is divided, “between the horrible and the miserable.” The horrible consist of “terminal cases,” and “blind” and “crippled” people. And, “the miserable is everyone else.” So, he tells Annie, “you should be happy you’re miserable,” because that’s the luckiest one can be in the world according to Alvy.

But, Alvy’s inability to feel at home even with Annie surfaces. When she wants to move in with him, he resists, saying that her apartment allows them the independence that is missing in cohabitation. But, conversely, he wants to keep her on a leash for himself, not wanting to go to parties with her, which might cause Annie to connect with inhabitants of the rest of the world, who he would rather avoid. He says to her, “What do we need other people for?” He may feel closer to her than anyone else, but he keeps trying to change her, urging her to take adult education courses. He sees this advice as helping Annie grow intellectually, but she feels that Alvy is judging her for not being smart enough for him. When she does take courses to improve herself, he acts hostile as she becomes more assertive and independent. He now reverts to his anti-intellectual stance, calling the courses “mental masturbation.” Annie responds by saying masturbation is a subject Alvy excels at. Alvy then delivers the line, “Hey, don’t knock masturbation. It’s sex with someone I love.” Very funny, yes, but also revealing. It stresses his separateness, his inability to share true emotional intimacy with another. He never really says that he loves Annie. He seems to only get satisfaction from himself. Even in Alvy’s animated fantasy, he can’t achieve bliss with another, as Annie becomes the wicked Queen, and they have the same arguments they have in his real life.

Allen visually reveals their estrangement by having Annie project an out-of-body ghostly version of herself as she and Alvy start to make love. It illustrates how emotionally detached from him she has become. When the two are in respective therapy sessions, Allen uses the split screen technique to show the opposing takes on their sexual activity: she sees three times a week as having sex “constantly,” while he sees it as occurring “hardly ever.” She tells Alvy that she discussed a dream she had with her therapist which involved Frank Sinatra smothering her. Her therapist said that she subconsciously substituted Sinatra for Alvy, whose last name is Singer. Thus, the implication is that Alvy is trying to stop Annie from evolving.
 After a previous noisy, distracting singing engagement, Annie performs to an attentive audience. After her set, a music producer, Tony Lacey (Paul Simon) approaches her and offers her a chance to record in California. Of course, Alvy is against it, but they do go to LA. She enjoys Lacey’s company and his entourage. She and Alvy decide that they have grown too far apart, and separate when they return to New York. Alvy delivers one of my favorite lines from the film. He says that a relationship is like a shark: it has to keep moving to exist, and “what we got on our hands, is a dead shark.” When they divide up their things, Annie gives Allen his political buttons, which are against every president, except Kennedy, in his lifetime. Humorous, but also a telling reminder of how long Alvy has felt estranged from mainstream American life.
He finds out that she is living with Lacey (Allen said he wanted Alvy to lose the girl to someone shorter than himself to emphasize Alvy’s lack of self-esteem. This is a man who already said he was one of the few men who suffers from “penis envy”). He goes out of his comfort zone, and flies to LA. He even drives to meet Annie at a restaurant, and his lack of automobile skills is evident in his halting maneuvers. When they meet, he now asks her to marry him, hoping to get her back. Annie sums him up pretty well when she says, “You’re incapable of enjoying life. You know that? I mean you’re like New York City … You’re like this island unto yourself.” (One of the possible titles for the film was “Anhedonia,” which is the inability to get pleasure.) Alvy seemed to consider New York as the black sheep in the American family, so it is fitting that he identifies with it so much. As he attempts to drive away, he keeps whacking into things. We get images of his father’s bumper car ride. So, from the beginning of Alvy’s life to now, he keeps slamming up against the world around him.
Alvy writes a play based on his relationship with Annie, but he has her coming back to him at the end. Alvy tells the audience, it was his first play, and one wants things to come out perfect in art. But, Allen, who has shown us how as a filmmaker he can bend his art to his wishes, is experienced enough to know that this story would seem inauthentic if it had the typical movie happy ending. He does say that he met Annie again later on. She had moved back to New York, and dragged her new boyfriend to a viewing of the Sorrow and the Pity, the anti-Nazi documentary, a fact that makes Alvy feel he had a positive influence on Annie. They have a good reunion, as we view shots of their past experiences together, with Annie singing “Seems Like Old Times.”

The movie ends as it began, with Alvy addressing the audience. After his meeting with Annie, he tells a joke about a man whose brother is crazy because he thinks he’s a chicken. He doesn’t commit him because, he says, he needs the eggs. That is how Alvy now thinks of relationships, because, “they’re totally irrational, and crazy, and absurd … but, uh, I guess we keep goin’ through it because, uh, most of us, … need the eggs.” So, even though he is a confirmed outsider with self-esteem problems, and sabotages all his social involvements, he feels compelled to keep trying to connect with others, for those few “good times.”

The next film is The Talented Mr. Ripley.