Sunday, September 24, 2017

Dolores Claiborne

SPOILER ALERT! The plot will be discussed.

Since two TV shows, Pretty Little Lies and The Handmaid’s Tale, recently won several Emmy awards, I decided to talk about this 1995 movie, directed by Taylor Hackford and based on a Stephen King work, since these stories address a topic which is important to me, the abuse of women by men.
The movie starts with an upward shot of an opulent house, emphasizing the elevated status of its owner, Vera Donovan (Judy Parfitt). The story begins in the present, with Vera, in a wheelchair, shouting at her maid, Dolores Claiborne (Kathy Bates), in the upstairs hallway. Vera is yelling, “Let me go Dolores!” Vera then topples down the long staircase, crashing into the spokes of the banister. She is bleeding and in agony, and then says to the other woman, “Please Dolores.” She runs into the kitchen, knocks objects onto the floor in a frenzy, looking for something, and settles on a rolling pin. She stands over Vera, ready to end the woman’s life, but cries and shakes, and is interrupted by the mailman. Vera then dies from her injuries.

It appears at first glance that Dolores is trying to kill Vera, but her conflicted emotions about harming the other woman leaves us with a mystery concerning what really happened. The narrative then moves back and forth between flashbacks and the current situation in order to let the audience know what truly occurred.
There is a cut from the site of the death on the island off the shore of Maine to New York, where Dolores’ daughter, Selena (Jennifer Jason Leigh - the three lead women here should have received Oscar nominations. They are excellent), pleads with her boss, Peter (Eric Bogosian) to cover an important story in Phoenix. In economic fashion, we quickly learn that Selena is an excellent journalist, but slept with her boss, who now has moved on to the next pretty young worker, and Selena will probably not land the next important assignment she deserves. Here we have a talented woman who, despite her success interviewing famous people, must be made subservient to a man, both professionally and sexually.

Selena receives an anonymous fax indicating that her mother is under suspicion for killing Vera. Out of responsibility, she returns to her home which she ran away from not long after her thirteenth birthday. The sunny skies of New York change to the overcast chilliness of the island, symbolizing the somber and troubled mood of Selena and her relationship with Dolores. The ride on the ferry stresses the isolation in which Dolores resides, both physically and psychologically, and the mental journey of returning to an unpleasant place is mirrored on Selena’s grim face. Indeed, Selena appears irritable and sad throughout the movie because of how she perceives her mother, until more information comes to light, and her buried memories of what really happened in her youth are unearthed.

Mother and daughter have been estranged for so long that Dolores doesn’t even recognize her. She is glad to see Selena, hugs the emotionally distant daughter, but she did not send the fax, not wanting to involve Selena in more sordid business. Because this incident is the second time Dolores is a suspect in a death. Selena’s father, the alcoholic Joe St. George (David Starthairn) died and Dolores was accused of killing him. She was acquitted, but the detective, John Mackey (Christopher Plummer), lost the case, and now wants to make sure that Dolores doesn’t get away with it again. But, the fact that Dolores did not actually hit Vera with the rolling pin only makes her a suspect in the death of Vera, and can’t be arrested, much to Mackey’s disappointment. So, she goes back to her abandoned house with Selena because she had been living full time at the Donovan house, taking care of the invalid Vera.

Mackey is another male in the story trying to subjugate a woman with his power. But, to her credit, and, as Selena points out, to her mother’s own detriment, Dolores refuses to be bullied. Her colorful and combative language vents her hostility, but also provokes anger in others. She says that the police station is a mess, and starts to tidy up, despite the mild protestations of Constable Frank Stamshaw (John C. Reilly), one of the few males in the film that is not depicted in a negative light. When going home, some young men shout out to Dolores if she has killed anybody else today, and her angry retort is to say, no, but she knows where to start. After getting fed up with Mackey’s snide comments and vindictiveness toward her, she wittingly and aggressively says, “Now, you listen to me, Mr. Grand High Poobah of Upper Buttcrack, I’m just about half-past give a shit with your fun and games.” She explains to Selena that she is hostile many times because, “Sometimes, being a bitch is all a woman has to hang on to.” This phrase is repeated in the movie to show that women have to use the only tool at their disposal to survive.

The return to their house allows for memories to emerge in the form of flashbacks, primarily for Dolores, but a significant one for Selena toward the end of the film. Selena does not want to remember her childhood, but subconsciously she flinches as she enters the house again, and looks wary of ascending the stairs. But, she is stuck there because the only hotel is closed for the season, and the inn burned down. The coldness of the season suggests the harshness of confronting negative thoughts and the desire to close the mental door on what is threatening, and withdraw into one’s comforting status quo. Selena’s selective way of looking at things is seen by her accusing her mother of not getting in touch with her after Dolores mentions that she hasn’t recently heard from Selena. She can’t see that Dolores kept away to shield her daughter from unwanted reminders of what happened to her father since Selena believes, just like Mackey, that her mother killed her father.

While Selena gets washed, Dolores unpacks her bags in Selena’s old bedroom. There are newspaper articles on the wall showing her daughter’s interest in current events, and the books on the shelves are those of prominent writers, such as Saul Bellow, Doris Lessing, and Kurt Vonnegut. These items show us that Selena was a very bright girl and young woman with great potential, who was able to overcome prior trauma, but who is psychologically damaged because of past abuses. Indeed, Dolores finds several bottles of medicine to treat psychiatric conditions in Selena’s travel bag. Dolores may be wanting to rationalize when she says her daughter only went through a “bad patch.” Selena corrects her, saying she had a nervous breakdown. But, despite the terrible experiences Dolores has endured, and her resultant bad humor, we see Dolores remembering a pleasant time, when she played hide and seek with the young Selena.

In addition, Selena smokes and drinks, and the latter upsets Dolores because she is afraid the daughter may have inherited a tendency toward alcoholism from her father. While Dolores admits Selena has been under a great deal of pressure, maintaining her reputation, which includes interviewing noteworthy people such as President Richard Nixon, and drinks to alleviate the stress, she, nevertheless, advises Selena to “slow down” on the booze. Selena says, “Trust me, I know my limit.” Dolores says she’s heard that before, from her husband. Selena angrily justifies her father’s drinking by saying, “What did he have to be happy about.” Dolores says that Joe was happy when he made other people miserable. Selena then directly accuses her mother when she says,”Is that why you killed him?” She goes on to say that the few memories she has of her father, she would like to keep. This is an ironic statement, because she has been successful in making herself forget many disturbing memories about her dad.
It is at this point in the movie that Dolores feels she must fill in those parts of their history that either Selena has repressed or of which she was unaware. The flashbacks that follow reveal what a brutal and humiliating man Joe was. There was the time that he came home and Dolores urges him to sell some old machinery because they have money problems. He fights her on it, and she says if he hadn’t lost his fishing boats, they wouldn’t be desperate, and she wouldn’t have to spend so much time working for Vera. When he bends over he reveals a split in the seat of his pants. She laughs. He deceptively laughs with her, then takes a chunk of wood and slams Dolores in the back. He blames her for provoking him, saying, “Why do you make me do it?” He thinks she is acting superior to him because of where she works. He later piles on his verbal attacks, saying that she should look at the women on the television beauty pageant to see what “a real ass should look like.” He tells his pals that Dolores didn’t look so bad when he decided to marry her because he was too drunk to know better. The abuser of women usually has low self-esteem, and refuses to do a self-assessment of inadequacies. So, he builds himself up by blaming the female for everything, and refuses to take any responsibility for his violent and demeaning actions.
Dolores is in severe pain after the attack, but hides it from the young Selena, saying she is just tired. However, Dolores is no pushover. When she drops a plate, Joe says it better not be one that belonged to his mother, who said Dolores couldn’t cook and would get fat. Right then, Dolores smashes a bottle over Joe’s head. She has a hatchet in her hands and now Joe is scared, because bullies are really cowards at heart, hiding their fear behind an intimidating cover. But, she drops the hatchet in his lap, and dares him to kill her, because if he doesn’t, and he hits her again, she says, “one of us is going to the bone yard.” He backs off as Selena enters the room, and Dolores shields her, literally and figuratively, from what has happened, blocking her daughter’s view of Joe. In the present, Selena yells and cries, sarcastically shouting, “Thanks for sharing!” to her mother. She does not want to believe Dolores, who is establishing what kind of man Joe was, and that hits too close to home to what Selena has worked to forget.
A flashback to Dolores’ first days as Vera’s employee shows Mrs. Donovan as a domestic tyrant. She has endless rules on how Dolores should take care of the house, even on the number of clothespins that have to be used to hang up the washed linens. “Six pins, Dolores. Six pins, not five!” she shouts at her maid. In her narration to Selena, Dolores sums up the suffering involved with working for Vera when she says, “Hell ain’t somethin’ you get thrown into overnight. Nope real hell comes on you slow and steady as a line of wet winter sheets.”

But, Dolores has that ability to see both sides of the situation. She says that Vera was a prisoner of these rules herself, having to feel compelled to insure their enforcement. Also, she observes that Vera’s husband, Jack Donovan (Kelly Burnett) ignored his wife, not even acknowledging her remarks to him as he practiced his golf. The man was also dismissive of Dolores as she interrupts his swings because she must hang the clothes out to dry. He only would visit his wife once during the summer stay at the island house. So, even though Vera may lord over the premises, her husband, the man, still is the ultimate ruler. However, Jack Donovan dies in a car accident, and Vera, not a grieving widow, decides to move into the summer home permanently. Dolores agrees to work for the exacting Vera all year round to save money for Selena’s education.
In the present, Mackey comes around to gather evidence. He needs one of Dolores’ hair follicles. Dolores lets him pull it himself from her scalp, in a scene stressing how men use force against women. Dolores admits that she threatened Vera regularly because the invalid woman became more and more nasty toward Dolores as Vera’s illness progressed. But, Dolores points out to Mackey that saying something and doing something are very different things. Selena questions why her mother is so nasty toward Mackey, and Dolores must again remind Selena of her past. Mackey ruthlessly grilled the young Selena, implying that she conspired with her mother because the daughter was not at home on the day of her father’s death, thus removing herself as a witness. In fact, Selena was working at the hotel because of the additional visitors there to witness the solar eclipse on that day. Mackey, like many men, likes women to be demure and submissive, and Dolores is the opposite of that type of female.
How Selena is also a woman at odds with the male gender is demonstrated in the next few scenes. In a phone conversation with Peter, her love-them-and leave-them boss, she learns that he gave the important Phoenix story to another reporter. She quits her job, becoming even more isolated, like her mother. She then encounters Mackey in a bar, and he is intimidating about how he underestimated Dolores before but won’t let her get away with murder this time. He says that he successfully closed over eighty cases, and Joe’s death is the only one in which he was unsuccessful. Selena then realizes that it was Mackey who sent her the fax, because the detective figured that Selena’s estrangement from her mother indicated that she, too, blamed Dolores for her father’s death, and that Mackey could now use Selena against her mother. Selena now sees him as another manipulative man. When Selena goes back to Dolores’ house, her mother tries to be encouraging about future companionship, despite her negative experiences with males. Selena is pessimistic. Is response to Dolores’ question, “You tellin’ me there’s nobody?” she says, “I’m telling you there’s a lot of nobodies.” Subconsciously, her childhood has prevented her from trusting any commitment to a long term relationship. The current harassment of Dolores by locals resurrects Selena’s memories of the same onslaught when her father died. We see her flashbacks of trying to hurt herself with a broken glass Christmas ball. In the present, Selena storms out, ready to escape the current torment. She takes her pills to escape the mental pain. But, she remains, maybe because deep down she feels a need to help her mother in her world of male oppression.
A visit to the Donovan house to collect Dolores’ belongings causes Dolores to be outraged that the police left Vera’s unclean bedpan, with Mackey claiming it as evidence. Mackey drops a bomb onto Dolores when he says she had motive because Vera left over a million dollars to Dolores in her will. Since the document was executed eight years prior, Mackey argues she must have known about it. Dolores is dumbfounded and swears she knew nothing about the inheritance. The visit triggers another flashback, which shows Dolores became the only person Vera could rely on in her decrepit state. Dolores tells Selena that as Vera’s illness grew worse, she moved into the Donovan home, and fed Vera, helped with her transfers from her wheelchair, cleaned her bedpan, and dealt with Vera’s incontinence. The actions showed Dolores’ caring attention, even if their words were antagonistic to each other. In that verbal hostility was demonstrated how the employer-subservient worker relationship developed into one of equality and familiarity.

Dolores then tells Selena what really happened on the day that Vera died. Vera was a strong woman, and hated the idea of being helpless. She tried to throw herself down the stairs. Dolores was trying to prevent her suicide. However, after Vera was suffering following her fall, she pleaded with Dolores to end her life. So, Dolores chaotically searched for an object to put Vera out of her misery. But, when she stood over Vera with the rolling pin, she couldn’t find it in herself to end the life of the woman she had shared so much time with.

Selena, trying to escape the situation, feels she no longer has to be responsible for her mother since Dolores now has money and can hire a good lawyer. Selena gives her a list of prominent New York attorneys. Dolores wants to know that Selena believes her story. Selena doesn’t understand why, if life with Vera was so terrible, her mother didn’t leave. Selena says that’s what she does, implying that her mother hurt her and that’s why she left. Dolores now realizes the extent of Selena’s selective amnesia concerning the actions of her father. Tired of being accused as the one who hurt Selena, she makes Selena sit and hear the truth. In a flashback, Dolores tells her that she questioned young Selena why her honor student grades started dropping to C’s and D’s. Selena stopped washing her hair and taking care of her appearance, as if trying to look unattractive as a defense against unwanted attention. Selena tells her mother not to touch her. Dolores also noted that Joe gave his daughter a pretty necklace that was handed down from her mother’s side of the family. Men give gifts when they want to seduce women, or money to prostitutes for sex. Dolores voices her realization to her teenage daughter that Joe was sexually abusing Selena.

Once Dolores realized Joe’s incestuous activity, she went to the bank to withdraw the savings for Selena so the two could escape. But, Joe went with a story about how the passbook was lost, and the bank issued a new one to him. He closed the account, taking the savings, and opened up a new one in his name. We have another example of male abuse, only here it is financial. The bank manager is condescending, another man who wants his women submissive and quiet. But, Dolores is outraged, and tells the bank manager loudly that she lost her money because she is a woman. If she had come in and tried to take the money out of her husband’s account, they would have contacted Joe.

Continuing with her retelling, Dolores says she broke down and cried while in the presence of Vera. After Dolores tells her what has been going on, Vera now tells Dolores to call her by her first name, as their sisterhood in opposition to male abuse becomes more established. She says Selena didn’t want to deal with the situation when she was thirteen, and ran off to work at the hotel so she wouldn’t be around when her father came home. Running after Selena, Dolores found a covered over hole on the property, which was the place where Joe’s body was eventually found.

At this point, Selena doesn’t want to hear anymore because the story is becoming too painful for her to listen to. She gives Dolores the discovery evidence she acquired from Mackey to give to a lawyer, and she packs and leaves. But, Dolores has slipped a tape in her belongings so that she would listen to the rest of the story. Dolores counts on the reporter part of Selena, in the absence of her mother’s offputting presence, to want the facts. In the recording, Dolores relates how she told Vera about her husband’s advances on the teenage Selena. Vera wants to know if he has gone all the way with his daughter, and Dolores says that if he hasn’t already, he soon will. We now discover that it is Vera who initiated the “bitch” line. She tells Dolores, “Sometimes, you have to be a high riding bitch to survive. Sometimes being a bitch is all a woman has to hang on to.” She then says, “It’s a depressingly masculine world in we live, Dolores.” She goes on to advise Dolores that the little bit of money she saved will not protect her. It is Vera who covertly suggests doing away with Joe, by admitting that is what she did with her husband, Jack. He says, “Husbands die every day, Dolores … They die and leave their wives their money. I should know, shouldn’t I? Sometimes they’re driving home from their mistress’ apartment and their brakes suddenly fail. An accident, Dolores, can be an unhappy woman’s best friend.”

After listening to Vera, she realizes how the deep hole she found on their property can be used to cause Joe’s “accident.” With everyone at eclipse parties, including one at the Donovan house, Vera tells Dolores she can have the rest of the day off, to go home and watch the eclipse with her husband. Of course, her words are code for doing him in. Dolores gets Joe a large bottle of whiskey, and in his drunken state, he is slowed down and clumsy. Dolores then tells him that she knows about the money, and persuaded the bank to gain access to the account, except for $500 Joe had taken. She then accuses him of sexually abusing Selena, and says she will get him arrested for child molestation. The taunts work, as Joe goes after Dolores, and she leads him to the hole, where Joe falls to his death. Before he drops, Joe begs his wife by saying “please,” which reminds us of what Vera said. But, this is not a plea that deserves mercy; it is a desperate request from a monster. Dolores looks up at the eclipse, the darkness, possibly representing Joe’s evil and maybe Dolores’ dark deed, but with the subsequent reappearance of the sunshine comes the hope for a brighter life to live. Everyone knew Joe was an alcoholic, and his death was ruled an accident while intoxicated. Dolores says on the tape that she will tell the truth about what happened to Vera, but will not get a lawyer and fight whatever is decided. If she is convicted of murdering her, then it will be payback for killing Joe.
Now, Selena has a flashback of a memory she was not able to face until her mother initiated her rediscovery of her history. She is on the ferry, and she remembers her dad buying her hot chocolate (another bribe), and forcing her to perform manual sex on him. Selena, now understanding that it was the paternal part of the family that harmed her, shows up at the inquest to help her mother. She argues that if, indeed, Dolores knew for many years about the will, why would she endure several years of cleaning bedpans and backbreaking work before she would kill Vera? And, why do it at the time that the mailman showed up at the same time every day? Selena says the two women, despite their arguments, really experienced supportive love for each other. She reveals to the magistrate that the real reason the case is being made against her mother is because Mackey has an agenda because he was angry for Dolores spoiling his all-win conviction record. It is about revenge for a prior case, and Vera’s death should have nothing to do with their shared histories. She tells Mackey that she will get a New York lawyer to tear his case apart if he pursues it. Selena finally shows affection toward her mother, taking her hand and they leave on the ferry.
Selena says that she doesn’t know how to feel about what her mother did, but she knows she did it for her. Dolores is relieved because she is finally understood. Selena leaves her, but Dolores is no longer alone in spirit. When the “bitches” are united, as is the case in Pretty Little Lies, they win.

The next film is The Deer Hunter.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Stalag 17

SPOILER ALERT! The plot will be discussed.

Who can you trust? What’s real, and what only appears to be true? When is deception necessary, and when is it a tool used to harm others? Billy Wilder’s 1953 dramatic film with comic elements explores these questions.
The opening shot of the movie establishes a feeling of menace as the camera looks upward at a guard with his dog walking  along a fence, making the two seem larger than real life, and thus very threatening. The camera exaggerates the appearance, but the point is to emphasize the real danger they represent. There is a voiceover, which is delivered by Clarence Harvey Cook (Gil Stratton), known as “Cookie.” He is the occasional narrator, telling a war story after the conflict is over. His opening remarks point to how the depiction of wars in the movies is a deception, only part of the truth. They show “flying leathernecks, and submarine patrols and frogmen and guerillas in the Philippines. What gets me is there never w-was a movie about POW’s.” Cookie stutters, which shows the impact of war on soldiers, the non-heroic side which up to the time of the making of this motion picture was not often explored (The Best Years of Our Lives being a notable exception). This story focuses on prisoners-of-war. It may not show the horrors as were inflicted on those captured in the Pacific, but it does attempt to round out the picture to present a more complete view of what was happening in World War II. For instance, one of the prisoners, Joey (Robinson Stone), has psychological damage due to his brutal war experiences which have caused him to be catatonic.
Cookie lets us know right away that the war story he is telling has to do with a spy in his barracks in the German prisoner-of-war camp, Stalag 17, which consisted of Air Force sergeants. So, not only do the soldiers have to deal with the obvious, overt danger imposed by their captors, but they realize that there is an unseen, hidden threat within their group. They start to smell the rat among them when the Germans thwart all of their plans involving escape and other military activity. The first indication of a traitor among them occurs when guards are already staked out near the forest close to the camp, and shoot two hopeful prisoners after weeks of planning to escape. The soldiers are also deceptive, pretending a radio antenna is a volleyball net, and hiding a radio and later a smoke bomb in the empty pants leg of a prisoner who suffered an amputation due to a war injury. The radio is hidden in a bucket of water with a false bottom, another example of a deceptive appearance. But the Americans are the ones suffering under the oppressive rule of the Commandant (Otto Preminger), and his lackey, Sergeant Schulz (Sig Ruman). And, they are on the side fighting against Nazi atrocities. So, one can argue that subterfuge can be justified if the cause is a just one.

However, there is a prisoner who is not part of any ruses (at least not until the end of the tale). That person is Sefton (William Holden, in the role that won him an Oscar). He is not a likable fellow, as we can see when he takes bets against his wager that the two escaping prisoners won’t make it out of the forest. The other soldiers comment on his coldness, with Harry (Harvey Lembeck) saying Sefton would “make book on his own mother getting hit by a truck.” He is down on any attempts at escape, not liking the odds, which weigh more heavily with him than unreliable patriotism. He cynically says that even if one gets to escape, the Air Force will just put the soldier back in the fight, and then maybe get captured by the Japanese. He acquires food, alcohol, and cigarettes by conducting races involving mice, and making and selling alcohol made from potatoes (this activity shows up in The Great Escape). He uses the goods he acquires to deal with the Germans so he can wait out the war as comfortably as possible. The narrator Cookie is his assistant, helps him with his operations, and even acts like a servant, shaving Sefton. When some judge his attitude, he says in the first week after arriving in the camp somebody stole all the goods in his Red Cross package. He says, “This is everybody for himself, dog eat dog.” He says everybody trades, only his transactions are a little “sharper.” But, when he says that the negative remarks from the others made him lose his appetite, he generously gives the egg he cooked to the afflicted Joey, indicating that there may be a warm spot in him yet.

The man who takes care of security in the barracks is Price (Peter Graves). He says he can’t understand how the Germans knew about the attempted escape. The Commandant coldly displays the bodies of the two men in front of the soldiers to emphasize his order that anyone out after curfew will be shot. One of the prisoners throws Joe’s flute which splashes mud onto the Commandant. When he asks who did it, one steps forward, immediately followed by the others, which undermines Sefton’s statement about selfishness (and which is repeated in the movie Spartacus). The Commandant says the stove covering the escape tunnel (another story device in The Great Escape) will be removed and the tunnel filled in. The hiding of the escape route is another item on the list of appearances being deceiving. The barracks will not have heat as a punishment. Price also questions how the Germans knew about the tunnel. Because Sefton deals with their captors, the suspicion grows among the prisoners that Sefton may be trading secrets for his own gain. One prisoner who is especially hostile toward Sefton is Duke (Neville Brand). When Duke throws something at Sefton, which the latter dodges, Sefton gives a cool and funny response when he says, “Give that man a Kewpie doll.” The line conjures up an escape from what is real in the form of a circus show, where performers play roles that are not their true selves.

Even in the comic subplots, the movie furthers the theme of appearances hiding underlying truth. Harry’s best friend in the barracks is the deep-voiced Animal (Robert Strauss). He has an extreme crush on the sexy actress Betty Grable. One night at a pre-Christmas party, the men dance with other men (defying reality by pretending their partners are women, to give them a comforting illusion). Harry puts on a cap and stuffs straw under it, giving (again) the appearance of a woman, who the inebriated Animal mistakes for Betty Grable. When Animal discovers that it is an illusion, harsh reality crashes in on him, showing that sometimes the ignorance of the truth is more attractive than accuracy (The Matrix anyone?) Another example of the bliss of denial is illustrated when a prisoner gets a letter from his girl back home. She writes that she found a child on her doorstep, and took it in. She writes to the soldier that he’s not going to believe it, but the baby looks just like her. He keeps repeating, “I believe it,” not wanting to accept the real possibility that she was impregnated by someone else. A new arrival is an impressionist, and can do very good impersonations of Clark Gable, James Cagney, and Cary Grant. It is a bit of entertainment placed in the story, but even here we see the theme of how we sometimes buy into falsehood for escapist purposes. Harry receives a great deal of mail, and tries to fool Animal into thinking the letters are all from female conquests. He wants to foster the appearance that he is a great lover, but Animal discovers that the communications are from a company warning of repossession of Harry’s car for delinquent payments. The attractiveness of pretending instead of seeing the things the way they are is demonstrated by the men looking through a make-shift telescope (another of Sefton’s schemes) to watch Russian female prisoners go into a shower. They can’t really see anything through the cloudy windows, but they find joy in their imaginations. Perhaps writer/director Wilder is making a comment about the power of illusion, which is the province of movie-making.

The film presents devious ways in which the Germans distort how others perceive them. One prisoner’s letter states that those at home are making more sacrifices than the POW’s, because the soldiers have nice accommodations, which include ice skating rinks. The German propaganda machine has perpetuated this lie. And, the Germans clean up the stalag and issue warm blankets temporarily, along with better food, while the inspector representing the Geneva Convention visits to check on the prisoners’ situation. The men don’t dare complain, because they know that the Commandant will punish them, so they participate in the lie to protect themselves.

We see how Schulz empties the barracks for various phony reasons, including deviously pretending that there are air raids and wanting to protect the prisoners. He creates these deceptions in order to retrieve the information the spy places in a hollowed out chess queen piece (the piece hiding its true purpose with a benign exterior). The inclusion of the board game in the story symbolizes the larger game that is being played, using the prisoners as pawns in the deceptive strategy to extract information and report it to the Commandant (who by the way is even devious with his superiors, pretending to adhere to strict military protocol, only putting on boots to be heard clicking when he is on the phone with headquarters). Schulz ties the light wire in a loop above the chess board to indicate that there is a communication waiting for the informer, and straightens it out when he has received information.

An American lieutenant, Dunbar (Don Taylor), arrives at the camp. He blew up a German ammunitions train. Sefton has a grudge against him, because Dunbar comes from a very rich family, and he claims that Dunbar’s mother bought his promotion, while Sefton, who was in the same outfit, failed to make the cut. The Germans discover the radio, and Dunbar is held for questioning without sleep, after he spoke about the train incident in the barracks. The men discover that Sefton traded with the Germans so he could spend some time with the Russian women. The prisoners assume Sefton acquired this last favor by giving up the radio and Dunbar. They beat up Sefton and confiscate his foot locker of contraband. The audience now sees Price eyeing the loop in the light wire. While the others sing together, he takes the chess piece and straightens out the wire, whose shadow Sefton sees dangling. Price finds out how Dunbar blew up the train while playing another game, horseshoes (with the game motif repeated), and when he scores, it is noted that he threw a ringer, which is what he is, someone who wins by pretending to be someone he is not.

Sefton also notices that the wire is sometimes tied into a loop. He now also engages in deception, pretending to exit the barracks during a supposed air raid. He hides, and sees Price talking in German with Schulz about how Dunbar set off his explosion. The men, using that aforementioned smoke bomb, snatch Dunbar before the SS can take him away. The barracks leader, Hoffy (Richard Erman) hides him in the water tower, but tells no one about it. They are desperate to get Dunbar out of the camp. Price volunteers, and it is now that Sefton reveals to the men that he is the spy. He removes the hollowed out chess piece from Price’s pocket, and when asked what time was the attack on Pearl Harbor, Price unthinkingly provides the time it occurred in Berlin. It is with the characters of Sefton and Price that the movie most significantly presents its theme of how appearances can be deceiving. Sefton is cynical, selfish, a loner, who has mussed up hair and scruffy beard growth, but he is no traitor. However, the men make that assumption based on factors unrelated to patriotism. Duke, his angriest enemy, has to concede that they really read him wrong. Price is “Security,” the one voted to keep them safe. He is a handsome, clean-cut looking man (maybe the blond Aryan appearance should have been a red flag), who ironically is not there to defend them, but is an infiltrator, a German pretending to be an American and a protector.

Sefton now sees the odds in his favor as he continues to use deception in the form of a diversion. The plan is to tie cans to Price’s leg, and gag him until after curfew. Then, the men will throw him out into the compound. During the commotion, Sefton will rescue Dunbar and they will escape. The plan works. Price is killed, appearing to be an escaping prisoner, and so, he will not be able to be used again to spy on other Americans. Sefton gets Dunbar out. Before he leaves the barracks, Sefton tells the others, in character, that if ever runs “into any of you bums on a street corner, just let’s pretend we never met before.” But, he pops up out of the hole under the barracks, smiles, and salutes them all.” Is he really not as hard-boiled as he pretends, and actually has admiration for his fellow soldiers? Or, is he being sarcastic? I know we would like to believe the former.

Whether it is to do harm, to defend ourselves and others, or to just make life more bearable, deception is a human means used in all aspects of life.

The next film is Dolores Claiborne.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Friday Night Lights

SPOILER ALERT! The plot will be discussed.

I’m from Philadelphia, so I guess it’s sacrilege that instead of Rocky, this 2004 movie, based on true events that took place in West Texas in 1988, is my favorite sports film. Yes, it takes several liberties with the book by former Philadelphia Inquirer journalist Buzz Bissinger on which it is based. But, it not only shows the negative aspects of the extreme preoccupation America has with football, but also balances those observations by presenting the positive rewards of team spirit and the indelible gratifying youthful memories that extreme sports competition can create.
The opening establishing shots show the vast Texas expanse of barren landscape, which suggests why the people in a mainstream town like Odessa turn to the excitement of football to fill up the empty spaces in the lives of its residents. (Much of the cinematography is hand held, not consisting of artistic, staged shots, which gives the film more of a realistic, documentary feel). These citizens close up their businesses to go to the football games. They name their pets “Panther” and “Mojo” after the team’s monikers. The radio stations’ broadcasts are filled with the comments of their listeners who speculate on the chances of the Permian High School football team. The camera moves from the wider shots to focusing on the players’ hands and feet, and football gear that must work together to win. One radio caller shows how the town is totally invested in football when he says that even if they pay the coach $100,000 a year, it's worth it if the team takes the state championship. We begin to see the pressure that is piled onto the minds and bodies of the players from all sides to not only succeed, but to dominate the sport in which they compete. Mrs. Winchell (Connie Cooper) drills her son, the self-doubting, serious senior quarterback Mike (Luca Black), not on mathematics or English, but on football plays. (Mike has conflicting responsibilities, because his mother is sick, and he feels that he can’t go away to college and leave her. He has an estranged sibling whom he calls in a phone booth. Mike looks like he is in a prison, alone, and from whom he gets no help in caring for the mother). Even at pre-season practice, college scouts sit in the stands, as the team members realize that their futures may depend on every move they make on the playing field. Former state champion Charles Billingsley (country music singer Tim McGraw, in a terrific performance), wearing his championship ring, as do many men in the town, marches on the field and humiliates his son, Don (Garrett Hedlund), a running back, for fumbling the ball. In an interview, when asked what it’s like having a football legend for a father, Don conveys a great deal about the burden placed upon him by not saying much when he responds with, “Next question.” He says that in a small town, if you “screw up” everyone knows it. There is no place to hide your failures.
The team has built its whole offense on one player, African American student Boobie Miles (Derek Luke), who has a great physique, and can do it all: run; catch; throw. His abilities make him so egotistical, that his self-absorption does not allow for any room to care about being part of a team. He tells Mike, after the quarterback says Boobie hasn’t lifted weights like the other players, “This is God given. The only thing I gotta do is show up.” He sees himself as chosen by God, and does not have to earn his place as part of the team. For him, he is the team. His boasting is an affront to the oppositely quiet Ivory Christian, aka Preacher Man (Lee Jackson), who exudes stoical strength. On the field, after Don’s father has humiliated his son, Boobie says to Don that he doesn’t have to worry about hanging onto the ball, because he “ain’t never gonna get the ball. Your job is to be blocking for Boobie and I don’t care if your dad is sitting over there crying.” Don goes after Boobie for his selfish insensitivity, which shows how the star player’s attitude divides the team that should be thinking about how to work together.

But, Boobie’s talents only revolve around football. When asked about his grades, he says he gets all “A’s,” because he is an athlete. He has nothing to add about his courses. He says, “Hey, there’s only one subject. It’s football.” His lack of any other knowledge shows when he doesn’t know the word “distinguished” in the college material sent to him, ironically from institutions of higher learning trying to recruit him. Later, he thinks a MRI can fix a knee injury. This emphasis on sports at the expense of academic disciplines, shown in Mike’s session with his mother, is echoed in a radio comment. A man says, “There’s too much learning going on in that school,” a sad revelation of how things have turned upside down, where sports is thought of as the primary part of the curriculum, and academic studies are considered to be extracurricular.
The town will not give the players a moment of rest from the responsibility heaped on them. While they eat in a car, a man drives up and asks them in mid-bite if they are going to win State, be undefeated, get it done. The implication is that if they don’t succeed, their lives are ruined. When they eat at the burger joint, a  thirty-five year old man, driving in his car, yells to Mike, Don, and Chavez (Jay Hernandez) about going to a party with the other football players. The boys comment on his age, which implies how the man is still living in a state of arrested development, not having moved on from his youth. A former title winner wants a picture of his baby with Mike, who he calls the next Texas State Championship quarterback. He tells Mike that he should not waste a second of being on top of the world at age seventeen, because “before you know it, it’s done.” He says, “After this, it’s just babies and memories.” There is this carpe diem feeling that hovers over the movie about how fleeting are the youthful exhilarating feelings of triumph, indestructibility, and freedom.
Don is also trying to have some seventeen year old fun before the grueling football season is to start. He takes a girl home, and starts to make out with her. But, his father, like the town, won’t give him a moment’s escape. He barges in on them, drunk, and starts to wrap Don’s hands around a football with duct tape, yelling at him for not being able to hold onto the ball. His father is a bitter man, who has not been able to make the transition from being a high school hero to being an average,  working stiff. He wants to recapture the idol worship of his youth by vicariously experiencing the accomplishments of his son, who he sees as not being capable of achieving greatness. At one point, after a game loss, Charles kicks out the windows of the car, saying he needs air because Don makes him sick. He takes off his championship ring, presses it into his son’s head, asking him “Can you touch that?” He then throws the ring out of the car window, which implies that his son’s failures, which he shares, has brought him shame, and has invalidated his entitlement to past glories. After he has sobered up, Charles says he didn’t mean half the things he said. But, he echoes what the man with the baby said to Mike. He says that winning is the only thing important his son will have in his life. He says that is not only an ugly fact of life it is the only fact of life. He tells Don that he has only one year to make memories. Don found his dad’s ring, and gives it back to him, trying to show that he doesn’t want his father to feel like a failure because of him.

After the exhortation to enjoy the moment, Mike goes to a party. But, even here peers test him to see if he is worthy of their expectations. A local beauty wonders why Mike doesn’t have a girlfriend, and asks if he is gay. He says no, but she then asks, “Can you prove it?” He then has sex in the bathroom with her, but for Mike the act is more like another challenge on an obstacle course rather than a pleasurable event. At a dinner party where Coach Gary Gaines (Billy Bob Thornton) is a guest, wives complain about the size of the players. There is a “size matters” theme here from the females, as even Gaines’ wife later talks about how big the opponents are. The men have to measure up on the macho meter, as did Mike at the party. The team may be called the Permian Panthers, but their nickname, displayed on the side of the high school building is “Mojo,” which is a magical ability, but is often associated with a man’s sexual power.

The man who experiences the full force of the town’s intimidation is Coach Gaines. The radio callers and the community leaders constantly harass him about the team’s efforts. They are like backseat drivers, telling him how he should do his job, and they Monday-morning quarterback like mad. At the dinner party mentioned above, racism (more emphasized in the book) surfaces when one of the women says to use Boobie on defense, too, because nothing will hurt that (n-word). Her remark shows how the white leaders just see the black player as a tool to be used for their own glory, and don’t value him as an individual. Gaines says, in a bit of ironic foreshadowing, that he doesn’t want to use Boobie on defense because he doesn’t want him to get hurt. The coach’s response to the pressure varies as the story progresses. At the beginning, he passes on the weight of the obligations by saying that the team must protect the town’s reputation. He says that they are in the business of winning, and asks them if they can be “perfect” because that is what it will to take to achieve their goals. On the locker room wall, there is a sign that reads, “Whatever it takes,” which doesn’t leave much room for human imperfection.

In the first game of the season, Boobie runs for touchdowns, throws for one, and catches the ball, taking it into the end zone. Permian runs up the score. Toward the end of the game, Gaines sends in the third-string running back, Chris Comer (Lee Thompson Young) to substitute for Boobie. In what appears to be just a humorous moment, Comer is ready to run onto the field without his helmet. He gets called back, and told to find his headgear, which he can’t locate. This funny scene actually illustrates what happens when the exuberance of winning becomes so carried away, a player forgets about his own safety. Gaines chastises Comer, but then recklessly puts Boobie back in the game, putting him at risk for injury that he said he wanted to avoid. Of course Boobie thinks he can’t be stopped, and even wants to kick the extra point after a touchdown. His arrogance and the coach’s negligence have repercussions. Boobie tears a knee ligament when he is tackled. A shot of one of the opposing players quietly congratulating the tackler shows how football can be sadistic when hurting another player is praised. Boobie wouldn’t allow for the possibility of injury, of failure, and he has no backup plan. And, the coach had built his team around one “star” player.
Boobie is in denial. He only wants to hear from the local doctor and the radiologist after the MRI that he can play again. When he is told he can’t, he says it is a conspiracy because the MRI was taken at a hospital in an opponent’s area in Midland. The need to win has been so emphasized that even Boobie’s uncle, L. V. Miles (Grover Coulson), who should be looking out for his nephew’s health, tells Gaines that there was no tear and Boobie is okay to play. The coach keeps asking how Boobie is doing after he seeks medical assessments, but is also in denial because he doesn’t seek verification as to the extent of the injury.

After a devastating second game loss, there is understandable despair on the part of the coach and the teammates. Gaines goes home to a house whose lawn has been covered with “for sale” signs that the fickle townspeople, letting anger overcome loyalty, have placed there. The coach does handle the situation with grace, reassuring his wife by hugging her as she sits looking at the signs. Chavez, Don, and Mike are in a desolate part of town, which mirrors their empty feelings, taking turns at target practice. Chavez is more upbeat, but he, unlike Boobie, has good grades, and has a shot at future success outside of sports. He says that that they are only seventeen, and have their lives ahead of them. But, Don, and Mike don’t share Chavez’s hope, and “don't feel seventeen.” They have been made to endure the wear and tear that usually accompanies the obligations and responsibilities that later years exact.

Gaines at first does yell at his players, telling Mike that he is playing “like the village idiot” at one point. Gaines’ sympathetic side does emerge as he visits Mike at his home. He says he knows Mike knows that life isn’t always fair, but if he doesn’t do something about it, then he will always “get the short end of the stick.” Mike admits that his mind isn’t right. Gaines can see that Mike has a confidence problem, and he tells the young man he will one day have to leave his mother and his home, and become an individual. If he is able to take care of himself, reach back and find his inner strength, then Mike will be able to “seriously fly.”
The injury to Boobie becomes a catalyst that causes the players to discover their individual talents and play like a united team. In the next game, Comer takes a lateral pass and runs across the field to score a touchdown. His action sparks the team, as he scores additional times, the players block a kick for a touchdown, and Don runs the ball into the end zone. The Panthers come from behind to win the game. The team wins four straight games. Gaines wants to believe Boobie when he says he can play. He hesitates, but puts him in the next game. Boobie re-injures his knee and must be carried off the field. The permanent loss of their star player temporarily demoralizes the team, and they lose the game. We see Boobie sitting on his porch, looking at men come by to pick up the trash. He looks at them, and we know he is thinking that he may be looking at his future. When Boobie cleans out his locker, he acts cool, but it is heartbreaking to see him in tears in the car with his uncle. He is a young man who thought he would always be a winner, but now is emotionally defeated.

Permian winds up in a three-way tie, and a coin toss will decide which two teams will advance to the play-offs. After all the work and anguish that the players have experienced, their fate will be decided, not by talent and dedication, but by random chance. On the drive to the coin toss, Mike confesses to Gaines that he feels as if no matter whether they win or lose games, he feels as if he’s going to be a loser in his life. He likens it to feeling as if he has been cursed. Gaines admits that it took him a long time to realize that inside oneself, there isn’t much difference between winning and losing. It’s more external, the way people treat you that’s different. He tries to tell Mike that there are no curses, but what we call curses are really “self-imposed.” He says, “We all of us, dig our own holes.” In other words, we can defeat ourselves because we are our own worst enemies.
Permian survives the coin toss, and goes on to win games in the playoffs and reach the state championship game against the unstoppable Dallas high school team. Even after overcoming many hurdles, Gaines faces intimidation from the local community leaders. He can’t even go grocery shopping with his family and have respite from the pressure. The men drive up in the parking lot and tell him that if he doesn’t win, it won’t be good for him. He sarcastically tells them he appreciates their support. As the players board the bus for the final game, Boobie shows up, asking if there is room for one more. He may be a fallen hero, but he shows character, now becoming a true team player, ready to provide inspirational support for his teammates.
Dallas dominates the first half, overpowering Permian, until the closing seconds, when Comer takes the ball for a long run and a touchdown. At halftime, instead of bellowing out a loud speech exhorting his players, Gaines gives a philosophical, emotional talk. He explains what he meant when he asked early in the season if they could be “perfect.” He says, “Being perfect is not about that scoreboard out there. It’s not about winning. It’s about you and your relationship with yourself, your family and your friends.” He says if they can be sure that they did everything they could, then they didn’t let themselves or others down. If they can do that, then they are “perfect.” He urges each to hold in his heart what he feels for the other teammates, and Boobie, who would do anything to be playing with them. Gaines tells them that who they are, no matter the game’s outcome, has made him grateful because his “heart is full.”
The team does exactly what Gaines said they would have to do to be “perfect.” They give it everything they have, and battle back to within one touchdown. The film’s play action sequences here are electrifying and involving, and doubts about the negative aspects surrounding football dissolve in the focus on the these battling warriors. Don brings them close to the end zone in a bruising run, and Mike falls inches short of scoring a touchdown as time runs out, and Dallas wins. Don’s father knows that his son played a great game, gave it his all, and shows that he feels his boy is a winner by going down on the field and putting his championship ring on his son’s finger.
The movie ends with Chavez, Don, and Mike basically saying goodbye to the game near the stadium. Don says he will “miss the lights.” He is bidding farewell to that moment in the spotlight that the champions before him were talking about. We read about what happens to the players, going off to college and finding jobs, but that is all aftermath. Gaines is picking out the players for the next team, and we are told the next year Permian was undefeated. Why isn’t that the season Bissinger and the filmmakers zeroed in on? Because the more dramatic tale, the more involving, and edifying one is that which shows how individuals face adversity, challenges, and persevere. Those are the stories that resonate and inspire.

In a couple of weeks, the next film is Stalag 17.