Sunday, July 30, 2017


SPOILER ALERT! The plot will be discussed.

I am not knowledgeable about classical music, nor am I well versed in the lives of composers. I will discuss this 1984 Oscar winner for Best Picture on its own terms, and not explore artistic or historical inconsistencies. The film presents the theme of the appreciation of works of art divorced from the assessment of the artist who creates those works. In this story, the theme is distilled by exploring the relationship between its two characters, Antonio Salieri (F. Murray Amsterdam, winner of the Best Actor Oscar), and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Tom Hulce).
Milos Forman (also an Oscar winner here) directed Peter Shaffer’s Oscar winning adaptation of his own award winning play. The title is, of course, significant. Mozart’s middle name means “beloved of God.” And it is the perception that God chose the vulgar Mozart instead of the devout Salieri to be his instrument that drives the Italian composer to distraction. Indeed, we find Salieri in a mental institution after shouting out to the dead Mozart for absolution (a word that reappears later) for having been the great composer’s assassin, and cutting his own throat. Since he seemed to want forgiveness for his sins, a priest visits Salieri to hear his confession. When he asks the cleric if he knows who he is, the priest dismisses the question, and says, “It makes no difference. All men are equal in God’s eyes.” Salieri sarcastically responds by saying, “Are they?” It is this point that moves him to tell his story, which turns out to be more of an explanation of his vile acts than an apology for committing them.
Salieri asks the priest if he knows any of his compositions, which he doesn’t. But he recognizes one of Mozart’s tunes. We immediately see that Mozart’s works endure, but Salieri’s limited talent had a short-term popularity. The scene also illustrates a contradiction in Salieri’s character. He says he had a desire even as a child to be God’s composer, to be the deity’s voice. But, he doesn’t pledge to be devout out of true unselfish religious belief. Instead he made a bargain with God. He said he would be chaste, work hard, and show humility only if God would then make him a great composer. In his plea to God he said, “Let me celebrate Your glory through music and be celebrated myself. Make me famous through the world, dear God. Make me immortal. After I die, let people speak my name forever with love for what I wrote.” He pretends to be a pious man, but he is actually full of envy and plots for himself, telling God, in essence, “I’ll scratch your back if scratch mine.”

As a youth, Salieri’s father did not support his son’s musical ambitions. After submitting his proposition to God in the form of a prayer, Salieri says God accepted the pact by performing a miracle - the death of his father so that he could pursue his musical ambitions. Now, what does that say about the man, who is so selfish, that he considers his father’s demise to be a marvelous act of God. He eventually becomes the court composer for Emperor Joseph II (Jeffrey Jones) in Vienna. He says that the emperor did not have an ear for music, but he loved Salieri’s work, so the composer was satisfied. Salieri is more concerned about acceptance that accomplishment.
Salieri says he had heard of Mozart’s amazing abilities to perform and compose at very early ages. He assumes the man will be a person of admirable qualities to have been blessed by God with such talent. He first sees Mozart at an event where the young composer is to present his music to the Archbishop of Salzburg. Salieri sneaks into a room filled with desserts and tastes one (Salieri’s love of sweets is shown throughout the film, including one treat named “Nipples of Venus,” pointing to his carnal, not spiritual wants). A young man bursts in with a young woman, and proceeds to make excremental and sexual jokes. When Salieri realizes that the boisterous, bawdy youth with a high-pitched giggle is Mozart, Salieri is appalled. Mozart plays a game with the girl where he speaks sentences backwards. It seems silly, but Mozart says that the whole world is backwards. It is an insightful comment because to a person of his genius, who wants to move forward, those with an old-fashioned mentality are just a hindrance as they do not have his revolutionary vision.
The Archbishop of Salzburg is one of those obstacles, who wants Mozart to return to his home and learn better manners. Mozart’s father, Leopold (Roy Dotrice) eventually persuades the archbishop to have him stay in Vienna. The emperor wants to meet Mozart, and Salieri composes a welcoming march for Mozart. When he finds the way it should sound, he looks up at a crucifix of Jesus and says thank you. While he slaves at writing, we have shots of Mozart being frivolous, trying on wigs. The contrast between the serious and the fanciful is stressed here, and we can feel some sympathy for Salieri, since achievement comes so easily to Mozart. When the march is played, Mozart memorizes it immediately, and proceeds to show his arrogance by critiquing it and improving it on the keyboard. This action just infuriates Salieri more. However, when he hears Mozart’s music, he says it is the voice of God. He asks why would God choose this obscene child as his vessel. Salieri admires the talent, but can’t get past the kind of person Mozart is. His torment is palpable as he questions why would God put a longing in Salieri to sing to Him, and then make him “mute.” After Mozart shows the inadequacies of his composition, Salieri again looks at the crucifix and says thank you, but it is with anger this time, as if to say, “Thanks for nothing.”

Mozart wants to write an opera that is set in a harem. He is a rule-breaker because he says the tired repetition of stories about exalted heroes and mythic figures are devoid of true emotion. He wants to humanize the music, show real love in his stories. He is concerned with feelings not just form. Even though his music comes from God, his inspiration comes from this world. The emperor allows him to compose the opera, which includes a female singer who Salieri has taught, and for whom he lusts. But, because of his deal with God, he has never touched her. So when he realizes the “creature” (as he refers to Mozart) had her sexually, he is outraged. He admits that at this point it was the first time that he had violent thoughts.

Mozart wants the approval of the emperor because he is a type of father figure, and Mozart had definite paternal issues. His father exploited his son’s genius by having him perform all over Europe. He played before monarchs and the Pope. Because he was robbed of his childhood, he never has had a chance to mature and move out of it. He is in a state of arrested development as a person, although he is far advanced as a musician. His father forbids him to marry at this point, not believing him to be ready for that stage of life. However, Mozart is infatuated with Constanze (Elizabeth Berridge). He marries her, but he has no life skills, drinks too much, spends money way beyond their means, and she thus is constantly trying to get him to earn a living. The emperor has a niece in need of musical instruction. He suggests Mozart to his musical staff, but Salieri undermines the appointment. Constanze, not knowing Salieri’s true feelings, asks for his help to get the appointment. She brings his music to show that Mozart is worthy. She can’t leave it with him since they are the original manuscripts. When Salieri looks at them, he realizes that there are no corrections. He says it was like Mozart was taking dictation from God. The emperor, unable to fully appreciate Mozart’s achievements, said there were too many notes in his music. Salieri counters this argument when he says while reading the music, “Displace one note, and there would be diminishment. Displace one phrase and the structure would fall.” He goes on to say that “I was staring through the cage of those meticulous ink-strokes at an absolute beauty.” Those words show that Salieri feels as if he is being locked out of the holy kingdom. Salieri literally swoons while reading, and drops the sheets of music. But, instead of helping to nourish the output of God’s work for all to savor, he sternly turns his back on Constanze and walks away, showing he is only concerned with his own ego. His resentment for not being justly rewarded by God now becomes a declaration of war against the deity, as he tosses his crucifix into the fireplace, in essence condemning Jesus to a fiery hell in his mind.

Mozart is pleased to have his father come to stay with him, because he wants his love. But, Leopold has nothing but criticism because his son lives in poverty, has no students to bring in a steady income, and the house is a mess. Mozart wants to take his father out and celebrate his arrival, so they buy costumes for a masked ball. Leopold’s costume is a bit scary, as it is all black with a headpiece that shows the face of tragedy on one side and that of comedy on the other. But, even the one with the smiling visage is spooky, since it is displayed with the dark color. Leopold disapproves of his son’s rowdy friends. Salieri is also there, in a mask, spying on Mozart. When Mozart is challenged to play works of other composers, Salieri, in disguise, mentions himself. Mozart then shows his disdain for Salieri’s work, doing a burlesque interpretation. This action further enrages Salieri, who says that Mozart’s obscene giggle was God laughing at Salieri. We again are witness to the man’s inclination to be self-centered, acting like the universe revolves around him. He says that before he leaves this earth, he will be the one laughing at God.

Salieri works on ways to undermine Mozart. He anonymously pays a woman to be a maid for the Mozarts, pretending it is from an admirer. He uses her to spy on Mozart. Leopold doesn’t like the idea, and gets into a huge fight with Constanze. Mozart, who just wants to enjoy life, is sullen because of the tension in his home. He wants to do an Italian opera based on a French play, which becomes The Marriage of Figaro. Through his spy, Salieri learns of Mozart’s project, and tries to nip it in the bud, since the play was banned by the emperor. He feels that it stirs up animosity between the masses. But, Mozart convinces the emperor that he has no interest in politics, and that his opera is about the love of a common man, not about his anger of being oppressed. The Italian composers say it is a vulgar farce. Mozart tells them, “Come on now, be honest! Which one of you wouldn’t rather listen to his hairdresser than Hercules? Or Horatius, or Orpheus, people so lofty they sound as if they shit marble!” He offends with his language, but tells the emperor that although he is a vulgar man, he says his music is not. He makes the distinction between a play and an opera, where he can have numerous people singing at once for twenty minutes at a stretch because in a play it would be noise, but in musical composition, there will be harmony.

It seems as if he will get the go-ahead with the opera, but again, Salieri finds out from the maid that there will be dancing at Figaro’s wedding. The emperor has forbidden a ballet in an opera. Under the pretense of protecting Mozart from the emperor’s wrath, he tells the musical director about the ballet. The director cuts out that music. Mozart seeks Salieri’s help, saying he was so frustrated he tried to burn the manuscript, but his wife saved it. Salieri says, “Thank God,” ironically, since that is who is now his enemy. As a composer he yearns for great music, but he despises the instrument that produces that artistic achievement. Salieri can’t reconcile these opposite feelings inside of himself. He tells Mozart that he will intervene on his behalf, but does nothing to help Mozart. During rehearsal, Mozart has the actors dance without music to show how silly it looks. It just so happens that the emperor sits in on this session, sees how ridiculous the dancing is without the music, and says it should be restored, again thwarting Salieri’s plans.

When Figaro is performed, Salieri says the ending is like a divine absolution granted to everyone present. In a way, it is what Mozart seeks from his father, and what we first hear Salieri ask for at the beginning of the film involving his participation in Mozart’s destruction. Salieri finds a victory over Mozart despite the triumph of the music when the emperor yawns once during the opera. It closes after only nine performances. Mozart goes to Salieri to ask why the run ended so abruptly. It is here where Salieri sounds like a modern network TV or Hollywood movie producer who caters to the lower artistic expectations of the audience. He says to Mozart, “You make too many demands on the royal ear. The poor man can’t concentrate for more than an hour. You gave him four … I think you overestimate our dear Viennese, my friend. You know you didn’t give them a good bang at the end of songs to let them know when to clap.” This scene is followed appropriately by Salieri conducting his latest work which delivers all the bang needed to please the masses, and the emperor heaps praises on him. However, he only gets left-handed compliments from Mozart.
Mozart learns of his father’s passing. It so upsets him that his father died while still considering his son a failure at life, that Mozart writes Don Giovanni, which, according to Salieri, has a resurrected, frightening apparition who stands for Mozart’s father. He is dressed in black, as was Leopold at the masquerade, exposing to the audience his son’s betrayal. He comes back from the dead to accuse him of his sin, and send him to hell. Salieri used his influence so that the opera played for only five performances, but Salieri secretly was there for every one of them. Since he can see how Leopold’s influence haunts Mozart from beyond the grave, Salieri hatches a diabolical plan. Mozart’s failure placed such a strain on his family life that Constanze’s mother convinced her to take their child and leave for a while to relieve the toll her husband’s irresponsible living was taking on his wife. Mozart drinks all of the time, goes out all night to party, and becomes ill. Salieri appears in the masquerade costume worn by Leopold at Mozart’s door. He says that he wants Mozart to write a requiem mass for someone who should have had one. He pays Mozart for it. Mozart is not sure if it is his dead father who is commissioning his own funeral work. Salieri says he wants to steal the requiem from Mozart and pass it off as his own. He would play it at Mozart’s funeral, earning Salieri fame.
Mozart’s vaudeville friends make a deal with him to write a fanciful work for which he will earn fifty percent of the earnings. This work becomes The Magic Flute, which is very successful. But, Mozart is now dying as he is writing both works at the same time. As the maid no longer wants any part of Mozart’s decline, she does reveal that he is working on an opera, not the requiem. Salieri shows up in costume saying Mozart must finish the requiem by the end of the next day. He pays him more money. While playing keyboards at the performance of The Magic Flute, Mozart collapses. Salieri is there, and doesn’t want him dead until he finishes the requiem. He helps Mozart get to his home, and Salieri accompanies him. When there is knocking at the door, Mozart assumes it is the man in black. He tells Salieri to ask for more money. Instead, it is the vaudevillians with half the box office proceeds. Salieri pretends that it is from the dark figure, spurring Mozart to finish the requiem. Salieri offers to help him finish. Mozart, ironically, asks forgiveness of Salieri (that absolution again), because he believes he is a friend that he doubted. Mozart is so weak that he dictates to Salieri. This symbolic act is a dramatization of what Salieri said happens to Mozart when he composes. He said God dictated to Mozart. Well, now, God tells Mozart what to write, and he dictates it to Salieri. He is basically barging in on the process, usurping Mozart’s role. His attachment to the effort does not make Salieri great; it is the work of art that is produced that should be praised.
Constanze returns, and is not happy to see Salieri there, since she remembered when he refused to help her husband concerning the emperor’s niece. She takes the manuscript from Salieri and puts it away, robbing him of his phony association with greatness. Mozart dies, and he is buried in a mass grave reserved for the poverty-stricken. We return to the present with Salieri as an old man in the asylum. His self-centeredness has not diminished as he complains that Mozart’s name has become more and more renowned with the passing of time, and Salieri has been allowed by God to live as a kind of torture to see his popularity diminish into nonexistence. He condemns God for killing his chosen one, Mozart, just at the moment to deny Salieri any greatness by stealing his music. As he is wheeled out, Salieri becomes a sort of parody of a deity. He says he grants absolution (yes, forgiveness again, but he has no power to grant anything) to all the inmates. He says, “I speak for all mediocrities in the world. I am their champion. I am their patron saint.”

Salieri said, in the end, he would be laughing at God. But, the last sound we hear is Mozart’s giggle. For his selfish, destructive ways, Salieri has been tormented, and God is getting the last laugh.

The next film is Broadcast News.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

The Magnificent Ambersons

SPOILER ALERT! The plot will be discussed.

So this 1942 film is not the version that writer/director Orson Welles wanted to be released. The studio, RKO, chopped fifty minutes out of it and added a more upbeat ending. But, what we do get to view is an interesting story about the positive and negative aspects of change.

The film opens with the Narrator (Welles) speaking. The Ambersons reached their “magnificence” back in 1873. However, we are told that their “splendor” existed in a town which would “spread and darken into a city.” Right up front we know that small town life can be threatened by progressive urban growth. The look of the movie, especially at the beginning, is one of an old newsreel, which, like the beginning of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, evokes a nostalgic feel, but also reminds us that what we are seeing are extinct images. The Narrator says that in the past, “they had time for everything. Time for sleigh rides, and balls, and assemblies, and cotillions.” Men and women courted in a measured manner, with serenades being part of the romantic process. He goes on with this epic catalog, with its numerous “ands” which slow the movement of the script, emphasizing the deliberate pace of prior times. Welles is showing a contrast with nineteenth century life and that of 1942. Imagine the difference between the high speed tech world of the present versus then. We now want to cram as much as we can into a life, but are we also not taking the time to appreciate the individual experiences? During this older time, “The only public conveyance was the streetcar.” The Narrator offers an ambiguity, saying this would be “too slow for us nowadays, because the faster we’re carried, the less time we have to spare,” as we always find something else that needs doing. We see the streetcar stop at the Amberson mansion. This image and the talk of the leisurely pace of the streetcar will ironically contrast with what happens later.
Anonymous townsfolk pop up occasionally, commenting on the Amberson family’s progress, a positive sounding word that does not fit the arc of these people. The citizens act like a Greek chorus, commenting on the action. They tell us that they admire the Amberson mansion for its well-appointed rich woodwork, plumbing, etc., and this admiration indicates the affluent nature of the family. We also learn of the failed attempts of Eugene Morgan (Joseph Cotten) to win the affection of Isabel Amberson (Dolores Costello). At one point it is said that Eugene is “dressing up.” That statement has the connotation that at that time, Eugene was out of his social league for pursuing Isabel. Eugene takes to drinking too much as a result. Isabel accepts the advances of Wilbur Minafer (Don Dillaway), a dull but reliable businessman. A townswoman predicts that Isabel could never love the likes of Wilbur, and would then shower all of her affection on offspring, spoiling the children.
It turns out that the lady’s look into the future was on the money. Wilbur and Isabel only had one child, a son who is always called “Georgie.” That nickname makes the boy sound like a child, and that is how he acts for almost his whole life. He is considered a “terror” by the residents, as he gets into fights with other children, and curses and hits their parents. He is like Fitzgerald’s reckless rich, riding carelessly through town. He has long hair and wears a kilt-like skirt as a youth, which gives him an effeminate appearance, possibly emphasizing that he is, and will continue to be, a “mama’s boy.” He is actually called a “would-be dude.”

Time passes (of course, which is the point of this movie), and Isabel throws a party for the now young adult Georgie (Tim Holt). He may look older and his hair is shorter, but his speech and actions show him to still behave as a child. He is symbolic of the old privileged order, represented by the Ambersons, which does not want to change with the times. At the party, the long absent Eugene has returned, widowed, and with his grown-up daughter, Lucy (Anne Baxter). Georgie is immediately attracted to Lucy, but he can’t even remember people’s names, which shows how self-involved he is. He also makes self-indulgent statements like one should do whatever one likes in one’s own town. The implication here is that Georgie considers the place his town. His patrician attitudes come across to Lucy. He says he has no desire to be a lawyer, banker, or politician. Because he hasn’t had to work for a living, he has the distance to, one may say insightfully, question what these people, “ever get out of life, I’d like to know. What do they know about real things.” But, when Lucy asks him what he would like to become, he says, “A yachtsman.” Is he being funny, or is he that out of touch with the common man?

Wilbur has suffered failures in his business ventures, and is experiencing ill health, probably as a result of his misfortunes. Isabels’ marriage to him has been suffering, and that is why she now is excited to see Eugene again. Since he drank too much earlier in life, Eugene will no longer indulge in alcohol consumption. He has moved up in the world, and is now a successful businessman. But, he is an inventor, and he has developed a new version of the automobile. He represents change. Georgie, of course, scoffs at this look into the future. Someone says it is like “old times” with Eugene’s return. But the inventor sees this reliving the past as an impossibility. He says, “When times are gone, they’re not old, they’re dead. There aren’t any times but new times.” The new times have changed the world order, and now we find Ambersons pursuing Morgans. We also discover that Georgie’s Aunt Fanny (Agnes Moorehead) has always had a crush on Morgan, which adds to this reversal of fortune on the part of the Morgans.

Georgie’s resentment of Eugene is on two levels: first, because he dislikes his inventions causing a change in the economic order, (he urges his family not to invest in Eugene’s business); secondly, he is jealous of his gaining his mother’s attention. Lucy, although seemingly in a perpetually cheerful mood, says to her father that Georgie is domineering and arrogant. At this point, Eugene does not want to judge Georgie harshly, and says that since he is Isabel’s son, he must have some fine features.

Welles provides us with a significant scene which symbolizes the precarious nature of  both accepting change and also the maintaining of the status quo. Eugene takes Isabel and other Ambersons on a car ride, but in the snow. The automobile gets stuck, unable to transverse the slippery road. Georgie, in a sleigh accompanied by Lucy, rushes past them. But, a sharp turn causes the sleigh’s occupants to tumble out. Georgie falls on top of Lucy, and he uses the opportunity to kiss her. One could interpret these proceedings as showing the shortcomings of progress in the form of the automobile, and that the old standby of the sleigh is more reliable. But, it, too, succumbs to nature’s trial. However, one could argue that Georgie would have been fine if he had not been distracted by Lucy, who, being the daughter of Eugene, represents the perilousness of the future, and which distracted Georgie, and altered his otherwise secure route.
We have a merry scene with members of both families singing at their outing which then shifts to a sad one where we view a mourning wreath on the Amberson door (the doorway, where Eugene’s advances toward Isabel were refused, and where he again is later turned away, becomes symbolic, as it reflects the fate of the Ambersons and Morgans). Wilbur has succumbed to his illness. We start to sense a change in the Amberson estate when we hear that all that Wilbur left his wife was some insurance. Georgie may initially appear mournful, but is later shown acting like a gluttonous child as Fanny feeds him while pumping him for information about his mother and Eugene. Georgie was not happy about Eugene accompanying Isabel to his college. The youth’s condescension is unashamedly overt, as he says that Eugene is so low on the social order in his mind that he is “beneath himself.”
We have a scene where Lucy rides with Georgie in a carriage (not a car, of course). He wants to talk about the possibility of their marriage. She does not, and does say that he still should have some sort of professional plans. The best that he offers is the he will work with charities and belong to movements, acting like a “gentleman.” He offers nothing specific, showing no passion to really help. He just says what he believes is the way a person in his exalted station in life should act. He says that he does not see himself peeling potatoes or arguing a legal case. That is because he hasn’t had to do any work, expecting others to provide those services. He has had a free ride. Lucy does admit that her father would like to see Georgie choose a profession. The young man’s response is a bit contradictory. He says that he wouldn’t be much of a man if he let someone else dictate what he should do. But, he is willing to play the part that his family’s station in life has prescribed for him.

At a dinner party with the Ambersons and the Morgans, Eugene admits that his automobiles have changed the way people live, Streets have had to be widened. People living for convenience in small towns can now move farther away, because they can travel faster to other places. This fact undermines the pull to live in the town itself. Georgie says the car is a nuisance and shouldn’t have been invented. Instead of feeling insulted, Eugene becomes philosophical. He admits that his invention has not added beauty to the world or anything to the human soul. He acknowledges that every step we take forward in the name of progress, we may be taking a step backward for civilization. This statement may be the main theme of the film.
Although Fanny wants her nephew to undermine Eugene so that Isabel may relinquish him and he may then pay attention to Fanny, she eventually recognizes the truth. She says to Georgie that even if his mother was not in the picture, Eugene would not find her to be the one for him. She also says that Isabel was always a good husband to Wilbur, and that even though there may have always been some feelings between Isabel and Eugene, the two never did anything wrong. However, the Oedipal anger that Georgie has grows stronger as he sees Eugene as a longstanding interloper, and it is now that he refuses to let Eugene through that doorway into the Amberson home to see his mother. Eugene writes a letter to Isabel, saying that she must decide whether to move forward (a word representing progress and change), or have things remain (meaning resistance to change), which would entail Isabel choosing her son over Eugene. She lets Georgie read the letter. He at first is angry, then confused and depressed. Feeling the need to be nurturing toward her son, she says she will break it off with Eugene, and she and her son will go on a long trip around the world. In essence, do what the privileged class does, which is, remain detached from problems.

Right after his mother’s decision, Georgie runs into Lucy in town. She admits that she hasn’t been in touch with Georgie because she says that they had been acting like little children, playing at being in love. She is ready (as a Morgan) to move on. He, obviously, is not ready for that. He tells her that he will be leaving with his mother and this meeting could be their last. She acts cheerful, and wishes him a nice trip. Her lack of feeling of loss disturbs him greatly. But, we then see that Lucy’s cheerfulness is just a false front, and she goes into a store looking for the equivalent of smelling salts, after which she faints.
Jack Amberson (Ray Collins) returns from a trip to Europe and says that his sister, Isabel, was ill. But, Georgie does not want her to return home. After they do return home, the family still prevents Eugene from seeing the gravely ill Isabel. Even as she is about to die, Isabel still is indulging her son, asking if he ate something and if he was catching a cold. She asks if Eugene had visited. Georgie is honest and says that he had. Isabel’s regret is that she could not have seen him once more. Her decision to live in the past and not to move ahead with Eugene destroys her.
The patriarch of the family, Major Amberson (Richard Bennett) had ruminated about how the progress of the town was rolling over him and burying him. After Isabel’s death, his family’s fortune depleted, he says that all his business dealings were a trifling and a waste. He has a terrifying look into the future, where he fears the Amberson name will not even be remembered. Now, no streetcar bothers to stop at the doorway of the once exalted Amberson home. Uncle Jack, now financially broke, at the train station tells Georgie about an old romance, and how he said goodbye to her at the station. In one’s memory, she is frozen in his mind, and probably he is in hers. Only in memories can the forward marching of time be halted, and the magnificence of the Ambersons remain intact. As his train is about to leave, where it will take him to a new job, Jack says that they all thought Georgie was such a terror that he should be hanged.

The Amberson house must be sold, and Fanny wants to move into a boardinghouse. She has no money, though, having lost it in a taillight investment, indicating that new order won’t accommodate the old. It is now that Georgie finally steps up to help pay for his aunt’s and his survival. He acquires a job in the legal profession, but he needs a high-paying job, so he works at a dangerous dynamite factory. The way to make money now is through risky businesses. Lucy reads that Georgie was struck by a car, and had both of his legs broken. This accident symbolically implies that the future is running down and trying to destroy any obstacles from the past that may try to stop its forward motion. Eugene and Lucy visit Georgie in the hospital The final scene has Eugene telling Fanny that Georgie felt that he was given the opportunity to tell Eugene how sorry he was for the way he treated him.

The Narrator toward the end of the story says, as we see a town transformed into an ugly city, that as Georgie walked home, he traveled through “strange streets of what seemed to be a strange city.” It seemed the town “heaved and spread. It befouled itself and darkened the skies … Tomorrow they were to  move out. Tomorrow, everything would be gone.”

The film seems to be telling us that, for better and for worse, change is an inevitability.

The next movie is Amadeus.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Pressure Point

Pressure Point
SPOILER ALERT! The plot will be discussed.

There is a good chance that you have not heard of this 1962 film, but it contains an insightful psychological and social exploration of how bigotry, on a personal level, and totalitarianism, on a national scale, can take hold. It is not surprising that the producer of the movie is Stanley Kramer, whose many motion pictures focus on the big issues, such as Inherit the Wind and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. It also showcases two terrific performances by Sidney Poitier and, of all people, singer Bobby Darin.
The credits role to a jarring jazz score which will underline the abnormal mental pathology of Darin’s character (who has no name, but is just known as the Patient, just as Poitier’s character is the Doctor). The Young Psychiatrist (Peter Falk) barges in on his boss, a gray-haired Poitier, saying he can’t get through to a young African American patient, whose mother was a prostitute who brought white men home with her, and whose father was killed by white men. Falk argues that his patient quite naturally sees him as the enemy, and that a black psychiatrist should handle the case. First off, that Poitier is the head of psychiatry here means that there has been progress in racial matters, which will undermine Darin’s later prediction that it will take the country 5,500 years before African Americans will be accepted by white people. Also, Poitier does not practice so-called reverse racism, as he says he appointed Falk to the case because he thought he was the best person for the job.
Falk says that the patient’s problem is anger and hatred. Poitier says he experienced a similar case and the majority of the film is a flashback as he retells his story to give Falk some perspective on his situation. It was Poitier’s first real psychiatric job, and it was at a Federal penitentiary in 1942. It is a significant time, since Nazism is controlling most of Europe. Darin’s inmate, serving three years for sedition, enters the psychiatrist’s office, and starts laughing. Immediately, he shows his racial prejudice, which triggers a defensive response on the part of The Doctor. If the laughing wasn’t enough, Darin says he doesn’t care what Poitier thinks of him because he is a Negro. He says that the Doctor must think he has it made because the Jews put the cripple, Franklin Roosevelt, in the White House. So, Darin’s character, although being forthright about his outlook, reduces everyone to a derogatory label, as do all racists.
When Poitier asks Darin if he believes everything recorded in his records, and why he was willing to go to jail for it, Darin makes it sound noble, twisting the argument around, saying one has to sacrifice for his or her beliefs. Of course, it is the cause that is in question here, not the dedication of the believer. He does admit that he believes most of what he has espoused, and the rest is politics, which has to do with the power to manipulate people to one’s way of thinking. He considers his imprisonment an expected setback, which occurs when trying to fight the established order. He cites Adolf Hitler as an example, and that he was able to use the time in prison to write his manifesto, Mein Kampf. Darin says he will use his incarceration to explore the vast prison library there to learn more and be ready to sway others when he gets out.
Poitier admits that he could not keep his medical objectivity when dealing with this racist patient. He was disappointed that his sentence was not longer. It is interesting that this doctor could be emotionally detached when dealing with thieves or murderers, but could not do so with this patient. He saw Darin’s character as more dangerous because he was a leader type, intelligent, and could influence many others with his message of hate; in that way, he presented a more widespread danger than the criminal whose victims are more limited.
We see Darin resting on his cot in his cell, and the shadow of the barbed mesh connecting the bars on his window highlight his imprisonment, not only externally, but also internally. The small cell is a type of expressionistic reflection of the lonely world in which this patient has lived most of his life. We witness his hallucination during a panic attack, where he sees a tiny version of himself trying to climb out of the sink drain in his cell. He presses the water valves to wash away the image. This is a conflicted visual. On the one hand, Darin’s character is trying to climb out of the dark sewer of his tortured unconscious, but he also drowns any self-understanding, and thus, reveals his desire for self-destruction.
In another session with Poitier, Darin says that he doubts the doctor can help him, because, being black, he can’t even help himself. Even though he is a psychiatrist, he could only get a job in a prison, and has a shoddy office. He says that Poitier will never be accepted by a white society. But, when Darin has a panic attack when asked about his blackout spells, Poitier knows his exact symptoms, which include feeling sick in the stomach, inability to breathe, sensing odd sounds and colors, and experiencing body stiffness. Poitier admits that he had this same problem in the past. Because he has established a commonality between them, Darin drops his hostile pose, and asks for help. The film is saying that even supposed enemies can find a connection, not feel alienated from each other, if they make the effort to view each other as individuals, and not as stereotypes.

After time in analysis, Poitier narrates that a psychological picture of Darin’s character began to emerge. His father rejected him because his conception was not planned or accepted by him. The marriage to the boy’s mother only occurred because she became pregnant. His father was difficult to please and easy to anger. He was a butcher, and he both repelled his son with his blood-letting profession, but also served as a role model for brutality, as he wielded knives to cut the meat. His mother restricted herself to her bed, playing the part of an invalid, using pity as a way to get affection from her son, her only source of attention. His mother would make him rub her leg to ease a cramp, and this type of inappropriate attention caused Darin’s character to feel ashamed. His father was notorious in the neighborhood, coming home in a loud, drunken state, bringing women he picked up, and humiliating his wife by having sex with them in their house.
The movie presents these recollections in a stylized manner. The past events are sometimes dramatized  in Poitier’s office, with a black background, to show how thoughts are not recreated as concrete reality, but are more dream-like. Sometimes we hear the boy’s voice coming out of the adult Darin’s mouth, as he lays on the couch in the doctor’s office, and we also get an image of the boy on the couch. It shows how he, and we, are being taken back in time, but it also implies that the grown-up Darin is still a frightened child in many ways. There are shots at odd angles, emphasizing how his character’s view on life became distorted.
Because the neighbors were repulsed by his father's’ actions, Darin’s youthful boy was not allowed to play with the neighborhood children. He rationalized his separateness as something special that made him stand out from others. He then created an imaginary friend, who he used to bully, getting revenge for how he was mistreated. We again get an example of self-hatred, because the imaginary friend is part of himself. We see the youthful Darin’s character holding a pipe, which turns into a knife, and that reminds us of his father cutting meat. The boy would also have violent revenge fantasies where he was a Far Eastern ruler who tortured or killed others, including the figure of his mother, who he could not feel sorry for because of her lack of courage, despite her weaker physicality, to defy his father. He appears to overcompensate for the feelings of inferiority instilled by his father by being aggressive, but also his revulsion of blood showed his guilt for emulating his father’s savage nature. The doctor gets him to admit, grudgingly, that by the patient’s logic, African Americans, who are without much power in American society (remember this takes place in 1942), should be admired for trying to fight for civil rights. Darin’s character says he does not see blacks as inferior in Africa, among their own race, but refuses to grant them an equal standing in the United States.
He says those who are Jewish are more “dangerous” because they “pass” for whites, and are intelligent. He believes that the “purity of the white Christian stock” is threatened by these “others.” It is common practice in totalitarian ideology to designate those who do not fit into the established culture as the scapegoats, the ones that are the causes of the majority population’s problems. This is a way of diverting the populace from placing any blame either on those in power, or the totalitarian belief system trying to gain control. It is ironic, here, that Darin’s character says he is fighting for mainstream Americans when he, himself, was an outcast, shunned by his own neighborhood where he grew up. He may be trying to buy back into the society that rejected him by being a warrior who is against those he feels are usurping it.
His imaginary friend faded away with age, but Darin’s character’s angry antisocial ways manifested themselves as he became a juvenile delinquent. And, his ability to lead others because of his intelligence developed, as other youthful misfits, also wanting to unleash their anger for not fitting in, followed his lead, braking windows and committing other local infractions.
He left home at age fifteen after a humiliating event where his father, who taunted him about his disgust for blood, pressed a piece of raw liver onto his face. When Poitier shows some compassion by saying how difficult it musts have been for him at that age to be on his own, Darin’s response is that he had to do things that were not fit for a white man. He then apologizes for this statement after seeing Poitier’s stiff response. The psychiatrist's inability to be objective here is shown, because, as Darin’s patient points out, for him to apologize is an “achievement.” Poitier goes to his superior and says he wants off the case, and says that he shouldn’t be treating him because he is an African American. This statement is basically what Falk’s character says at the beginning, in reverse, and illustrates why Poitier is telling this story. His boss says he needs to be objective, and says that he went out on a limb to hire a black psychiatrist, so “Don’t let me down.” Poitier’s narrator says what he felt the man left out was “just because you’re a Negro.” It’s as if his superior is saying that the psychiatrist’s blackness is a handicap which he must overcome.
In another session, Darin tells what he considers to be an amusing story, but which turns out to be a sadistic one, and which points to Darin’s character’s malfunctioning moral compass. While working in construction, he acquired a following of fellow employees, who obeyed him. One time, while in a bar, he initiates a destructive game of tic-tac-toe by carving the lines into the bar surface, followed by painting the surfaces and playing the game on all the establishment’s floor, walls, and ceiling. He now wields an actual knife, as opposed to the pretend one in his childhood daydreams, and intimidates those present. He humiliates the bartender’s wife by playing the game with her lipstick all over her body, molesting her in a form of sexual abuse. While he does this to her, he tells the bartender to lie down on the floor and go to sleep. It is ironic that now Darin’s inmate can’t sleep, possibly showing that the evil he has done is subconsciously exacting its own revenge on him.
Poitier asks him if he ever had meaningful feelings toward another person. He says that there was a young woman he met during The Great Depression, after he lost his job, and resorted to selling apples on a cold city sidewalk. The woman smiled at him and bought all of his apples. She seemed truly interested in him, and he was pleased that he could make her laugh. He helped carry the apples to her house, which appeared luxurious by the poverty-stricken standards of the time. The next day, she again approached him and bought him warm chestnuts to eat. The woman’s father appeared across the street, angry at his daughter’s attention to Darin’s apple-selling street person. She defied him, and asked Darin’s character if he would call on her that evening. When he showed up, the father answered the door and made it plain that he was not good enough for his daughter. After he slammed the door in his face, he noticed a mezuzah on the door frame with the Star of David. He later generalizes this action of rejection to all Jews, forgetting that the girl was Jewish, and was a kind person who accepted him. Pain has a way of leaving a more lasting impact that an act of kindness on some people.
The shot of the Star of David is immediately followed by the image of a swastika, showing how prejudice can lead one to join organizations that foster falsely negative beliefs. Darin is at an American Bund meeting, where the speaker blames the Jews for exploiting Christian Americans as they hold onto their money and buy fur coats for their wives. He even wears a pair of glasses that have a large nose attached, viciously spreading the stereotype of how Jews appear. He then urges those gathered to salute Adolf Hitler. Darin’s character has insight into the falsehoods that must be propagated to achieve the takeover of the American government. He admits that when there is no clear enemy, one must be created because the “people need one to blame things on.” He says that average white people want to change the system that they feel has shortchanged them. Black people are easy targets because they can be identified readily. They won’t need wristbands adorned with the Jewish star to designate them. Darin’s patient says that some lies have to be told to achieve the greater good of making America pure again.
He describes how the Nazi movement was growing in the United States. People go to meetings, tell others, and more show up. They contribute donations. They create fear of the Jews, who consider themselves as the “chosen people.” Those the Nazis attack fight back, which just brings more attention, and more followers. He says the American Bund has recruited a famous journalist, industrialists, and even some Hollywood people. They have established youth camps to indoctrinate young people, even sending them on trips to Germany. Darin’s narration is accompanied by actual footage of Nazi meetings that took place, not in out-ot-the-way rural places, but at Madison Square Garden in New York City.
Poitier’s narrator says that even though there are not many psychopaths in a given society, “when militant and organized hate exists, a psychopath is the leader.” And, if one psychopath has a hundred “disgruntled and angry” followers, you then have to deal with, in essence, a hundred psychopaths. Poitier tells Darin in a session that he can’t succeed because everything that he is preaching is based on a lie. But, Darin’s patient points out that “The Big Lie” existed before Hitler. The United States is supposedly based on the principle that “All men are created equal.” But, Darin points out, Poitier, being an African American, knows that that precept does not exist in reality. Black people were not allowed to go to the same schools, acquire the same jobs, and live in the same places as white people. It is at this point that Poitier’s narrator says that now he was truly frightened of how his patient’s beliefs could spread.
The film then reverts back to Darin’s specific psychological problems. Darin had not admitted that the figure he saw in the sink was himself previously, but after intense interrogation, he says that it is really the figure of his father, too. He confesses that he did want his father dead. Poitier explains that Darin’s image and his father’s are interchangeable, because of his desire to kill his parent, and also self-punishment for his lethal fantasies. He was both killer and victim. Once he understood and accepted his hatred of his father, the blackouts ceased, he was able to sleep, and he stopped coming for treatment. He shows up later at Poitier’s office and says he will be able to get out within the month. Poitier, however, still sees him as a threat, and does not approve of granting an early parole. Darin’s patient then spouts out more hate, saying how the Germans have eradicated the enemy in Europe, and soon that will happen in America. Poitier asks for an apology, which Darin refuses. After Poitier takes off his coat and glasses and approached his patient, he is able to apologize. Poitier says once he no longer appeared as a symbol of authority by taking off his jacket and glasses, and was not standing behind his desk, it was easy to apologize to just another human being, who isn’t labeled as part of some generalized enemy.

The staff points out that Darin’s character has become a model prisoner, and think that Poitier is not able to be objective because of his patient’s beliefs. The staff interviews Darin’s patient, and he tells partial truths, but also says that he now sees the light, and owes blacks and Jews an apology. Poitier happens upon the interview and says that Darin’s character is lying, that he still maintains his Nazi beliefs. Darin then says that Poitier is against him because he is still angry at the way he used to be, and will not grant that he has changed. The looks on the staff members show that they do not value Poitier’s assessment. Because of this professional humiliation, Poitier decides to quit. Before he leaves, Darin’s character pays one more visit to the office. He says his point about the existing views toward African Americans was proved - the white staff believed the white prisoner over the black psychiatrist.

Back in the present, Poitier says that Darin’s character was eventually hanged for beating a man to death. He says to Falk’s psychiatrist that he knows how he feels through his own experience, but he didn’t quit, and Falk is inspired to go back and deal with his version of a hateful patient. Before Darin’s character left his office, Poitier said that his movement would fail, “because there is something in this country … something big enough to take it from people like you and come back and nail you into the ground. You’re walking out of here? You are going nowhere!” For our future, let’s hope this psychiatrist’s optimism is a valid one.

The next film is The Magnificent Ambersons.