Sunday, February 25, 2018

The Silence of the Lambs

SPOILER ALERT! The plot will be discussed.

When Dr. Pilcher (Paul Lazar) at the Smithsonian starts to hit on FBI trainee Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster), he asks her what does she do when she is not “detecting.” Her answer is, “I try to be a student, Dr. Pilcher.” In this multiple Oscar-winning 1991 film, (Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Screenplay, Best Director), Clarice has two primary teachers - Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins (if you add a couple of letters, you get “lecturer”) and FBI Behavioral Science chief, Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn). One could be simplistic and say that Lecter is Clarice’s Darth Vader and Crawford is the Obi Wan Kenobi character. But, this movie is anything but simple, and both men use Clarice, as well as help her.
The opening shots take place in the FBI obstacle course outside Quantico, Virginia. The forest, with no easy path, can represent the many obstacles Clarice will encounter to live up to her name, as she tries to get “clear” of the frightening danger in her world, and possibly fly above it. Her last name is Starling, after all, and her hair is dark, like the color of that bird’s feathers. The starling is considered by some to be a pest, and Clarice must pester the circumstances surrounding her case to find the killer in this story. (We will get back to the “flying” motif later). A major impediment on Clarice’s educational road is sexism. As she runs or passes by males, there are individual and group looks (on the training course, at the Baltimore asylum, and in the West Virginia funeral home), of men who show a combination of lust and dismissal for her being among the predominantly male lawn enforcement community. Foster said that she wanted this role because she did not want to play another victim. Clarice uses her feminine side on Dr. Chilton (Anthony Heald) at first to gain private access to Hannibal, but later ups her game by using legal threats to get him out of his way as he tries to punish her for not succumbing to his original sexual advances. Later she also takes charge at the funeral home full of male patrolmen, clearing the room so that the examination of the victim’s body can take place.

Crawford knows she is smart as she excelled in a course he taught at her college, and admired her courage to “grill” him on civil rights violations during the FBI’s Hoover years. But he deceives her, sending Clarice to try and get Hannibal to fill out a questionnaire as part of an information gathering survey of serial killers, when he hopes that Clarice will be able to seduce him into providing insights to help capture the at-loose murderer, Buffalo Bill. Crawford is actually using her youthful, inexperienced, status to activate Hannibal’s self-glorification by wanting to impress a new student. The fact that Clarice is physically attractive just adds to the draw. As Chilton says, Hannibal hasn’t seen a woman for several years, and Clarice is just the cannibalistic psychiatrist’s “taste,” which links the appetite for food with that of lust. Her strong response to Chilton is that she graduated from the University of Virginia, which is not a “charm school.”

When Clarice meets Hannibal for the first time, he is creepily standing in the middle of his cage, as if waiting for her, and ready to scrutinize her just as did the other males. But unlike the others, Hannibal is a sort of super anti-hero. He hardly ever blinks, as he takes in everything around him. His nostrils flare often and his powers of smell are equally elevated, knowing what lotion and perfume Clarice uses, even if not on that particular day. Later, he can even tell that she skinned her leg, and that the cut is no longer bleeding. He has theatrically exaggerated ways of speaking, slowing down sentences so as to carry weight, and of moving his hands, such as when he pulls documents out of the tray to his jail. All of this affectation sets him apart from others, probably showing that he sees himself as superior and separate from the mere mortals around him. He probably believes that he can carry out his crimes because gods don’t have to obey the rules of inferior creatures. Perhaps he devours his victims to show his dominance, and obliterates pretenders to greatness. Maybe in Hannibal’s mind, he raises his victims’ mediocrity by transforming them into epicurean delights.
He originally likes Clarice’s candor about sharing the vulgar comments of the inmate Miggs (Stuart Rudin), and is appreciative of her courteous nature. He makes references to Buffalo Bill, as if intuitively knowing that Crawford sent the impressionable Clarice (her temporary ID showing her novice status) to seduce him into volunteering his help concerning the hunted serial killer. It is interesting that in a small way Clarice turns the tables on Hannibal here because she appears to coldly consider why he didn’t take any trophies of his victims, but instead ate them. Hannibal doesn’t like being analyzed, and looks away, asking for the questionnaire. Of course the document does exactly that kind of “dissecting” as Hannibal calls it, and he becomes nasty, employing a Southern accent, calling Clarice a “rube” with “cheap shoes” who is “not more than one generation removed from poor white trash.” He says her ambition took her “all the way to the F - B - I.” His speech sounds sibilant many times, like a snake (Satan?) hissing. Hannibal's sucking sounds after talking about eating the census taker's liver makes him sound like a vampire, and a policeman later makes the blood sucker reference concerning him. Clarice challenges him by saying he sees a great deal, but seems unable to point his powers of observation at himself, because maybe he is “afraid” to do so. Possibly that is the only thing that can really frighten Hannibal, to really face his megalomania.
Hannibal is a sort of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde character. He extols manners, and decides to help Clarice after Miggs throws his semen at her, shouting that “discourtesy is unspeakably ugly to me.” He says ‘thank you” to the asylum attendant Barney (Frankie Faison), someone who treats him humanely, as opposed to Chilton who degrades Hannibal as a beast when he says “how rare it is to capture” a psychopath alive. Hannibal loves classical music and is an accomplished artist who hangs his sketches of Florence in his cell. He has a witty, dark sense of humor, that is at its heart condescending, and which fits with his superior attitude. He says that the death of his patient, Raspail, was the best thing that could have happened to him since his therapy was going nowhere. He sarcastically refers to the Buffalo Bill’s overweight victim as “Miss West Virginia.” He calls the dissociative inmate, “Multiple Miggs.” But, he can, as shown above, be nasty verbally, and he asks crude sexual questions of Clarice concerning Crawford and later the sheep rancher. Of course he is also brutally violent, savaging a nurse while at the asylum and clubbing and eviscerating policemen in Tennessee.
Hannibal points Clarice to a storage facility. She figures out that the name on the unit he gives is an anagram a little too quickly to be believable, but it illustrates her intelligence and her need to uncover what is hidden to reach the solution to the crimes. She must jack up the door to the unit, crawl under it, and she injures her leg in the process, which shows her desire to surmount obstacles in her way, like on the training course. This scene is in keeping with the theme of having to penetrate barriers or dig beneath the surface to be successful. She must break into the storage facility, and get into the car there. Raspail’s head is in a jar, but it is covered, and she must unveil it. There is a mannequin in the car, missing its head, dressed like a woman, which implies male transvestism. She must go through many locked doors at the asylum, and eventually explore behind doors at Bill’s place to become victorious.

In West Virginia, Crawford, like a teacher, quizzes Clarice on what deductions she can draw from the case files. He again uses Clarice by trying to get the local sheriff out of the way by saying he doesn’t want to discuss this type of “sex” crime in front of Clarice. She later calls him on it, saying that what he models “matters” because it devalues her, and sets a precedent for the other policemen. She discovers that the victim has diamond-shaped sections of skin removed from her body, and that there is a bug cocoon in the girl’s throat. Again, we have something buried or obscured from sight that Clarice must discover. She finds out that the cocoon contains a Death’s Head moth. One is also found in Raspail’s decapitated head. When she discusses these findings with Hannibal, he again takes on the role of lecturer, talking about how the morphing of a chrysalis into a winged creature symbolizes Bill’s wish to change into something beautiful. Clarice realizes that Hannibal knows who Bill is because the psychiatrist understands Bill’s motivations. Bill has kidnapped a senator’s daughter, Catherine (Brooke Smith). Hannibal makes a bargain to be transferred to another facility away from Chilton where he can have some time outside his prison in exchange for helping Clarice in the process by capturing Bill. Clarice says they worked out the deal with the senator.
It is interesting to watch the scene between Clarice and Hannibal as they negotiate his possible transferal and help with the case. He wants it to be a “quid pro quo” bargain. He will deliver information if she will talk about herself. As she relates the early loss of her mother and the killing of her law enforcement father, whom she adored, Hannibal takes on his professional role as psychiatrist, listening to a patient’s story of how her childhood shaped her. But what is a psychiatrist but someone who hears a person’s confessions? Hannibal turns his head away from Clarice when she discloses her personal history, and he looks like a priest behind a confessional’s door (but in this case it is a prison wall). However, his is a voyeur’s perspective, as if he can’t feel human emotions due to his own insanity, and can only experience feelings vicariously.

We don’t get much background on Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine), but Hannibal sheds some light on him, and again, he has shades of gray in his character, too. The fact that Bill wants to change into something beautiful from something representing death shows that Bill sees himself as ugly and deadly, and he, too, like Clarice, wants to “fly” above his circumstances, like the moth. In fact, when he does his naked dance with a piece of elaborately designed material draped around him, he then raises his arms above him, looking like a bird with wings, as he plays a song with the lyrics, “I’m flying over you.” But, as Hannibal says, Bill’s desire to escape his male brutality by becoming feminine is a delusion because he is not a true transvestite. As Clarice smartly points out (and Hannibal gives her a good grade for doing so) transvestites are not aggressive. Hannibal says Bill was probably rejected from gender reassignment institutions for personality reasons. He tells Clarice, “Look for severe childhood disturbances associated with violence. Our Billy wasn’t born a criminal, Clarice. He was made one through years of systematic abuse.” Billy wants to transform because he “hates his own identity.” He thinks he can do so by being a woman, but, Hannibal says, “his pathology is a thousand times more savage and more terrifying.” When we see Bill in his subterranean lair (basements and underground passages are in gothic tales because they indicate hidden, subconscious drives and dangers), he has the word “love” tattooed on his hand, (the scientists said that somebody “loved” the moth, showing Bill’s ability to love which has been displaced toward an insect) and cares for his cute little poodle, which he calls “Precious.” Not quite what you would expect from someone who is pure evil. The senator kept using Catherine’s name to make her more of a person than an object in a televised plea to the kidnapper. We see Bill trying to make the girl into a thing when he says to Catherine, “It rubs the lotion on its skin,” but Bill appears upset about what he is doing to the girl. At one point Bill yells down into the well, where Catherine threatens to hurt his captive dog if not released, “You don’t know what pain is!” This outburst can obviously be seen as a threat, but maybe Bill is also talking about the “systematic abuse” that Hannibal says Bill may have endured.

The deal that Crawford and Clarice made with Hannibal was a fraud (is Clarice learning deception from her supposedly benign teacher, Crawford?) Chilton, who bugged the conversation between Hannibal and Clarice, reveals this fact to Hannibal and made his own deal with Senator Ruth Martin (Diane Baker). As he talks with Hannibal the camera zooms in on a pen that Chilton leaves on the bed in Hannibal’s cell. It is interesting that Chilton warned Clarice not to give Hannibal anything, including a pen, and here Chilton is negligent enough to break his own rule. Hannibal wants to deliver his information about Bill to the senator in person. He is flown to her home state of Tennessee. He is restrained, and a grotesque mask is placed over his face. Unlike the children on Halloween who pretend to be monsters on the outside, Hannibal’s mask reveals the monster underneath. He is placed in a cage in a courthouse.
Because Senator Martin is furious with the FBI for using her name in a deal without her knowledge, Clarice must lie about being part of Chilton’s security team to gain access to Hannibal. She again must uncover truth behind a smokescreen as she sees that Hannibal’s name for Bill is a fraud, an anagram referencing Fool’s Gold. She wants him to tell her Bill’s real name, but he wants to know why she ran away from the relatives where she was placed after her father died. Clarice tells him that she woke to screaming and she saw that the slaughter of the lambs was taking place. She wanted to free them, but they wouldn’t run away. She took one, but it was too heavy and she couldn’t get very far, and that lamb, too, was killed. Hannibal explains the title of the film when he says to Clarice, “You still wake up sometimes, don’t you? You wake up in the dark and hear the screaming of the lambs … And you think if you save poor Catherine, you could make them stop, don’t you? You think if Catherine lives, you won’t wake up in the dark ever again to that awful screaming of the lambs.” The lambs symbolize the flocks of innocent people that Clarice wants to protect. Perhaps she followed her father into law enforcement to try to fight the forces that led to her dad’s violent death. After she is finished with her story, Hannibal looks like he has had a sexual climax from the sharing of the traumatic childhood experience. He closes his eyes and quietly thanks her, most likely for the emotional pleasure she has given him.

Hannibal becomes the teacher again as he lectures Clarice about Marcus Aurelius and “first principles” and “simplicity.” He says, “What does he do this man you seek?” in slow, dramatic, stress-laden speech. When she says he kills women he, like an instructor, corrects her. “No,” he says, “That is incidental.” After he tells her that Bill “covets,” he then asks how does he do this, and follows up like a teacher calling on a student by saying, “Make an effort to answer now.” He gives her the right response, just as many instructors must do when the student can’t come up with the correct answer. He tells her, “We begin by coveting what we see every day.” Chilton interrupts them (a variation on coitus interruptus?), and Hannibal touches one of her fingers with his as he hands her Bill’s case file. The image stresses the strange sexuality between these two. After all, she brought back his drawings to him, an act of kindness from the beauty to the beast, and when she says she came to see him on her own Hannibal maybe only half-jokingly says, “People will say we’re in love.”
After his encounter with Clarice in the courthouse, two policemen bring in Hannibal’s dinner. On the desk in the cage is a copy of Bon Appetit magazine, a comical item given Hannibal’s cannibalism, but also in keeping with his way of elevating inferior humans in the only way he sees that they can be, transforming them (Clarice and Bill wish for transformation) into a gourmet meal. But, there is also a drawing of Clarice holding a lamb, with the Christian crucifixion scene in the background. An entry on IMDb suggests Clarice and the lamb resemble Michelangelo’s Pieta, with Claice being Mary and the animal standing for Jesus. Hannibal ordered extra rare (appropriate for his tastes) lamb chops. Is he symbolically reenacting the sacrifice of Jesus who was known as the “lamb of god?” Or is he mocking Clarice’s attempts to protect the vulnerable in society by ordering the dead animal for his meal?
Hannibal with the help of the pen of the negligent Chilton, picks the locks on his handcuffs, and proceeds to murder the policemen. He hangs one of them, who he disemboweled, up on the side of the cage, with the officer’s arms spread out. Again, we have the appearance of a bird, or also an image of crucifixion. In any case, the scene suggest denial of rescue for the innocent or a chance an escape from violence. We have a recurrence of the covering up or hidden truth motif in that Hannibal pretends to be one of the policemen. He wears a different mask this time, the bloody face of one of the policemen that he has cut off and places over his own as a disguise. He removes this mask in the ambulance later and reveals his monstrous inner nature by killing the crew and a citizen for his clothes and money as he makes his escape.
Hannibal wrote on the case file that the scattered sites of where Bill’s victims were found seemed “desperately random.” Clarice tries to again uncover what the reality is behind the appearances. She discusses events with her friend, Ardelia (Kasi Lemmons), as they repeat Hannibal’s words to Clarice about coveting. The first victim was weighed down, and was the third body to be found. Clarice reasons that the purpose was to make her drift further away from her home, which means he saw her “every day,” as Hannibal put it. That means Bill lives where she did, in Belvedere, Ohio. (Interesting historical fact: the first victim’s name is Fredrica, and the real Buffalo Bill was married to a Louisa Frederici, which sound a great deal like the victim’s name. Does Bill murdering her in this story show how a serial killer would get a divorce?)
Clarice goes to Belvedere and unearths more information leading her to Bill. Keeping with the uncovering theme, she finds at Fredrica’s house a music box which has a hidden compartment with photos of a partially dressed Fredrica, revealing her sexual side. She sees that Fredrica was a seamstress. Clarice finds hidden (of course) behind a door, clothes material with diamond-shaped cutouts, similar to the pattern on the body in West Virginia. She now knows that Bill, in his weird way, is making a woman’s suit out of female skin to symbolize his changing gender. She calls Crawford about what she discovered, but he knows from checking at the Johns Hopkins gender reassignment department that Bill’s real name is Jame Gumb, and he had exotic insects delivered to a house in Chicago. The FBI goes to this house, but it too turns into an obstacle, a deceptive appearance, since nobody is there. Clarice goes to the home where Fredrica worked and that is where Bill actually lives. When she sees a moth flying, (appropriately by a Starling) Clarice knows she is in the killer’s presence. He escapes into the cellar and shuts off the lights. He wears night vision goggles which look scary, and reminds us of Hannibal’s frightening mask, mirroring the monster beneath. He is a denizen of the dark, scrutinizing Clarice, as did the other males in the story, but Clarice is up to the challenge. She swivels and shoots him when she hears him cocking the trigger on his gun. The bullet goes through a boarded up window, letting light in, and symbolically destroying the darkness of its demon inhabitant.

Earlier in the film, Chilton tells Hannibal how Clarice and Crawford scammed the killer, and that he was not going to see the birds and walk on a beach. But, at the end, Hannibal has escaped, like those birds, and is on a tropical island ready to get his revenge on the arriving Chilton for his “torments” by having him “for dinner.” Unlike Bill, Hannibal, a super villain - not a hero, has flown away from imprisonment. But what of our heroine? She gets the recognition for her ending Bill’s crime spree. She graduates from the training academy. But, at the reception, there is a cake in the shape of the FBI seal, and it is carved up. Is this an ominous image of the future (similar to the deconstruction of the spread made to look like an American flag in The Manchurian Candidate)?
Hannibal calls Clarice at her reception and asks, “Well, Clarice, have the lambs stopped screaming?” Is Hannibal mocking her or really curious if she is no longer tormented by her dreams? We do not get an answer from her. This story does not depict elevating transformations. The iconic cowboy Buffalo Bill is turned into a serial killer. Where Clarice shot out the window in Bill’s dungeon, there is a small American flag knocked on its side. Maybe the gunfire is so loud in the United States that it is difficult for anyone to experience the peace found in silence.

Next week, the Oscars.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

The Pawnbroker

SPOILER ALERT! The plot will be discussed.

I was originally going to discuss The Silence of the Lambs this week (I’ll talk about it next time), but decided to write about The Pawnbroker after my movie class viewed and analyzed this 1964 motion picture recently. I had seen it before, but was especially moved by Sidney Lumet’s direction and Rod Steiger’s performance this time around. This film is the first American movie to deal with the subject of the Holocaust from the point of view of a survivor. It is a very powerful portrayal of the paralyzing grip on a Jewish victim of that time, and explores whether he can loosen its traumatic hold on him.

Lumet, contrary to Hollywood practice, was a screenwriter's advocate (Network, The Verdict, Long Day’s Journey into Night) and some might say that he didn’t have a personal cinematic signature. However, in this film he reflects the French New Wave use of jump cuts as he evokes the stream of consciousness flashbacks visualized by Nazi concentration camp survivor Sol Nazerman (Steiger), (such as when Sol rides the subway and he mentally returns to the concentration camp cattle car). The movie opens, contrary to expectations, with an initially edenic scene of a smiling Sol, his laughing children, and his happy wife. The are in an open field of flowers, moving in slow motion, as if the people there want this free, joyful time to last forever. This blissful scene is destroyed as we see the individuals look up, their smiles disappearing, as Nazi soldiers appear on the perimeter, ready to coral and eventually imprison the pastoral celebrants.

We then see that Sol is having a dream which turns into a nightmare, sort of what has happened in his real life. Now that we know where Sol is coming from, his present snoozing in a patio chair in the backyard of the suburban Long Island home is not an escape from his past torment. Lumet conveys his mental prison by showing the lawn circumscribed by claustrophobic fences, and his relatives closed in by partitions on the house’s deck. (Later, crooks want money in exchange for a stolen lawn mower, obviously not a tool useful in the inner city. Sol’s attempt at using his suburban existence as a sanctuary is undermined by the image of the supposedly benign mower, shot from the ground up, transformed into a menacingly approaching reminder of the continual presence of past dread for him, and us, as we share his viewpoint). Sol’s sister talks about taking a trip to Europe, commenting that the old country has an ancient smell to it. Sol says he remembers it as a “stench.” For him, the past is a chamber of horrors, where he lost his wife and children, and which he does not want to revisit. Despite his desire to bury those memories, his subconscious keeps unearthing them. He is still mentally in that camp. He works in a pawn shop which is full of cages and locks, reminding us of Sol’s state of mind. These visuals extend to the landscape around him, as the small apartments in tall, slab-like buildings look like cells in a prison.

Sol’s mental state reflects a diagnosis of what we now call post-traumatic stress disorder. He has suffered life-threatening events in the past, which can be triggered and relived due to present occurrences that remind him of his trauma. There is a numbing of affect, so emotions are repressed in order to insulate the psyche from the pain of those previous torments. In order to accomplish this escape from the past, the victim may try to remove himself from society. Sol’s name even implies i-sol-ation. Yet, Sol’s pawn shop is in the crowded Harlem of the early 1960’s, where shoes piled up in a store window remind Sol (and, thus, us) of those items placed in heaps in the death camps. Victims were stripped of their possessions and eventually their lives as they entered the gas chambers. The shoes are almost symbolic of those lost souls (no pun intended). Perhaps Sol works in the ghetto of the inner city because he is not capable psychologically of moving forward in time out of the historic jail in which his mind resides (he doesn’t want his helper to tear off the previous day’s calendar page). He may also be unconsciously punishing himself by working in a place where others are confined by the repressive limitations of their situations because of his own survivor guilt (another symptom of PTSD). It is ironic that the soundtrack plays jazz, a liberating, free-form music, that contrasts with Sol’s mental incarceration.

Economically and, therefore, optimistically drained people enter Sol’s shop. The place, with it’s metal grate separating the customers from Sol, becomes almost like a confessional as some people tell their stories to a seemingly disinterested listener, as Sol plays the role of a reluctant priest. They have to cash in what amounts in the material world as meager objects of value because of deprived situations. One fellow brings in an oratory award, which to him is gold for a past achievement, but in capitalistic terms, is only worth a dollar. Others come with bronzed baby shoes and a framed butterfly collection, objects that transcend material worth, but which current economic stresses force the owners to put a price tag on their intangible value. One man seems to just want to use his visit to expound on ideas, use his intellect, but he hasn’t enough goods to purchase a cerebral exchange with Sol.

Sol is like a walking corpse whose spirit, if not his body, died during the Holocaust. His death-like existence even spills over into his sex life. He has relations with the widow of a friend of his who died at the camp. Although it may be that in some way Sol is attempting to give comfort to the wife of his friend, it almost seems as if he is doing it only out of some form of duty. The two are like two lost souls going through the motions. (Lumet heightens their sterile affection by contrasting their lovemaking with cuts to Ortiz and his girlfriend who are passionate toward each other). Sol’s girlfriend’s sick father, Mendel (played by Lumet’s dad, Baruch Lumet) is sequestered (again like a cage) in an adjoining room, and it looks as if he was already in his tomb when later the daughter calls Sol to tell him he has died. Sol, stopping himself from opening the gates to emotional pain, coldly slams the door on commiserating. He says to her he is not able to afford to close the shop, and callously suggests that it was useless to go and “cry” with her.
The movie has come under criticism for depicting African Americans and Latinos as criminals. But as was noted above, many of Harlem’s inhabitants, given their circumstances, found very few opportunities to escape America’s ethnic prison in which they were confined. One of Harlem’s residents is Jesus Ortiz (Jaime Sanchez). Unlike Sol, he is trying to surmount the weight of his past, which involved criminal actions. He wants to learn the pawnbroker business from Sol, who was a professor in a previous life, and Ortiz wants to be his student in the US. Ortiz is full of energy and hope, neither of which Sol exhibits. The young man witnesses only contempt and coldness on the part of his mentor (little images show Sol’s lack of warmth, such as when Sol withdraws from Ortiz when the latter tries to help Sol on with his sweater). He asks Sol “how come you people come to business so naturally?” Sol is contemptuous of the ethnic stereotype, and says sarcastically, “you want to know the secret of our success,” which he does not view as an accomplishment. He says it derives from “several thousand years” of having nothing, no land or a place to grow food. All his people had was “a great bearded legend,” referring irreverently to God, and “a little brain.” Sol says that it was the use of intellect that led to becoming merchants, but the drive to survive through business then led to a vicious cycle of earning and reinvesting that left no room for generosity or enjoyment, probably because of constantly being in fear of what happened before. In a way, Sol blames the oppressive part of his heritage causing a type of confinement through being pragmatic, which has caused bigoted references to a Jew as being, “a usurer, a man with secret resources, a pawnbroker, a sheenie, a makie, and a kike!”
So, when Ortiz asks Sol about what he believes in, he says it is not “God, or art, or science, or newspapers, or politics, or philosophy.” All of these non-material things have not provided comfort in his world of pain. He, instead, cynically puts his faith in what can be used to sustain his body. He says he believes in “money … Money is the whole thing.” But in addition to not wanting to deal with his history, Sol also wants to close his eyes to where his “money” is currently coming from. He launders currency for the local big time gangster, Rodriguez (Brock Peters). Sol does not like how Rodriguez calls him “professor,” because it reminds Sol how far he has fallen when he is addressed by a lawbreaker. His mental avoidance  of topics is mirrored by how Sol does not look at people face-to-face, but instead gazes down or away. When he is called to visit Rodriguez (whose apartment also has a prison-like decorative screen, also implying that even this big shot is not free from the ghetto’s restraints) to make sure he will comply with the gangster’s wishes in the future, Rodriguez does not allow Sol the denial of where the pawnbroker’s payoffs derive. He makes him face the fact that the income comes from illegal activities, including drugs and prostitution, the latter of which is particularly painful as we see Sol flashback to when his wife was used to gratify the sexual appetites of the Nazis. In a symbolic act, Rodriguez grabs Sol’s face and makes him face the gangster, and, in effect, Sol’s own haunted situation. He forces Sol to say “yes” not only to Rodriguez’s demands, but also to his own life. The emotionally suppressed Sol now cries, as his psychological defenses break down.
Since Sol now confronts the corrupt nature of his money, it no longer holds the one constant in his life on which to rely. Back at the shop he begins to give out too much compensation for the objects that people bring him. A woman by the name of Marilyn Birchfield (Geraldine Fitzgerald) visited the shop, looking for charitable donations. After getting a dismissive response from Sol, she again reaches out to him on a personal level. They meet near a park bench. She seems to want to share her loneliness with Sol, again in a sort of confessional encounter, and he reaffirms his desire to be left alone. However, in his current lost state, Sol goes to Marilyn’s apartment. She wants to help him, and there are symbolic gestures in their encounter. She opens a door to a balcony, an invitation to what seems to represent a chance at removing Sol’s psychological barriers through sharing pain with another. But, Sol is not capable of reaching out to her. They go back in the apartment, and Marilyn feels defeated, expressing her helplessness, as she stretches out her arm (looking something like a human version of the figures of God and Adam reaching for each other on the Sistine Chapel). She appears to be trying to make a last chance connection, hoping Sol will take her hand. He does not, and leaves.

Rodriguez comes to the pawn shop to confront Sol for not cooperating again. His henchman beats Sol up, and Sol asks Rodriguez to kill him. Rodriguez realizes that Sol has a death wish, that he wants to be released from his agony. Rodriguez won’t grant him his wish, wanting the man to deal with his torment, and predicting a worse fate when death will come to Sol at a time when he wants to live. Because Sol’s cynical views that life offers nothing to believe in, and has taught Ortiz that everything comes down to acquiring money, Ortiz returns to his criminal accomplice, Tangee (Raymond St. Jacques). Ortiz observed one of Rodriguez’s men deliver a large sum of money to Sol to keep in his safe. Ortiz informs Tangee of this fact, but doesn’t want any guns involved in the heist. Tangee and his men show up to rob the shop, and Sol, again trying to fulfill his desire to end his life, provokes them by closing the safe door. One of the men has a gun, and Ortiz, surprised at seeing the weapon, intervenes to protect Sol, and is killed instead.

Despite the fact that the story revolves around a Jewish Holocaust survivor, the film has several Christian references. Sol’s last name is Nazerman, which seems to be a reference to Jesus’ birthplace of Nazareth. Ortiz, ignorant of the Nazi practice of tattooing numbers on inmates arms, asks if the digits represent Sol belonging to a secret society, and he asks Sol what he had to do to be a member. Sol’s answer is, “You learn to walk on water.” Perhaps Sol is saying that it took a miracle to have survived the ordeal, but the statement again points to Jesus as the miracle worker. But Sol is not the Christ figure here. If anyone is, it is Ortiz, living up to his first name, Jesus, by sacrificing himself for another. At the end of the movie, after Ortiz crawls out of the shop, bleeding, Sol impales his hand on the nail used to hold the pawn slips. He then goes out onto the sidewalk, and bends down next to Ortiz, like a supplicant, as if to recognize the young man’s unselfish act. Sol’s self-inflicted wound is sort of a stigmata, connecting him to the sacrifice. It may be that Sol at the end looks at the blood of another, and empathizes with the suffering of others in general, as he mixes his own blood with that of Ortiz’s, showing the universality of suffering and sacrifice.

The next film is The Silence of the Lambs.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Throne of Blood

SPOILER ALERT! The plot will be discussed.

The Japanese title for this 1957 film from director Akira Kurosawa is “Spider’s Web Castle.” Although the “Throne of Blood” title rings true to the source material for the story, namely Shakespeare’s Macbeth, whose main character ascended the throne of Scotland through murder, the Japanese translation also fits the tale here. The castle is the home of the Great Lord who is the ruler of this realm. The forest surrounding the fortress contains interwoven paths through the woods that are meant to thwart attacks. However, in this story, the forest fits in with the saying, “Oh what a tangled web we weave/ when first we practice to deceive,” since the main character, Washizu (Toshiro Mifune, Kurosawa’s go-to actor), is caught up and undone in the tangled path of treachery he follows.
The movie begins with a desolate setting where wind (the winds of time?) have swept away what was once the Spider’s Web Castle. We hear an unseen chorus chanting (reminiscent of the ancient Greek theater device that comments on the moral issues in the drama). They say that the tale deals with destruction caused by all-consuming human desires which are delusions compared to life’s true nature. In the end, all but ruins are left as a result of treacherous ambition. Their words remind one of the Book of Ecclesiastes in the bible which speaks of the lack of progress in the natural world as all is caught up in the repeating cycle of death and birth. The book says pursuit to satisfy selfish desires is transient, since in the material world, “all is vanity, and a striving after wind.”
We then travel back in time to medieval Japan where two warriors, Washizu and his friend Miki (Akira Kubo) have won a military victory for the Great Lord against his enemy, Inui. On the way to receive thanks from their leader, the two men become lost in the very forest which is supposed to confuse the enemy, which hints at problems to come. (Forests in traditional literature are many times places of danger where one can stray from a safe journey because of a loss of direction. A couple of films, The Wizard of Oz, and The Princess Bride, are movie examples). As we see here, one can also become lost in such a place morally. They hear a screeching which they attribute to an evil spirit. They discover a shack which was not there before. There is what looks like an old person spinning yarn, and the turning wheel he uses also points to the theme of repetition of birth and death in the material world. He is singing words that mirror some of the chanting chorus. He sings about the meaninglessness of the nature of man, who will eventually “decay into the stink of flesh.” Man also burns himself up in the “flames of desire.” Mortal man is part of that eternal return of the same since from the foul stench of human decay comes the sweet perfume of the flowers. The man also says that men can’t see into their own “hearts,” which points to an inability to recognize a person’s inner nature, including its flaws. These words are warnings which go unheeded by the men, especially Washizu. When they interrupt the man, who is really a spirit, he reveals that he knows their names and commands, and predicts that Washizu will be made Commander of the North Garrison, and eventually will be the sovereign who will rule from the castle. Miki’s son will eventually become ruler, too. Then the spirit and his shack disappear, but what remains are mounds of dirt filled with human bones, meant to remind them of their mortality and the price that is paid for indulging one’s selfish ambitions.
The impenetrable mist and the blinding wind in the movie suggest that inability to see through to the truth of the “vanity” of human pursuits and to gain insight insight into a person’s true self. The two men laugh about the predictions as they rest outside the castle. Later, however, the Great Lord awards them the exact posts the spirit foretold they would receive. Washizu anguishes over his fate, since he is torn between his loyalty to the Great Lord and his own wish to replace him. Washizu spoke to Miki about how the meeting with the spirit was like a dream, and dreams expose our baser natures. In psychological terms, the unconscious mind harbors the selfish yearnings of the uncivilized id. Instead of the encounter in the forest dictating Wahsizu’s destiny, it instead allows his true immoral character to emerge.

We then see Washizu with his wife, Lady Asaji (Isuzu Yamada), (the Lady Macbeth of this film) who he has told about the prophecy. She wants him not to feel guilty because she wants her husband to act on his ambitions, which she says are natural desires given his military standing. She sows paranoia by warning him that if Miki tells the Great Lord of the prophecy then he will kill Washizu to protect himself. She urges him to kill the leader first, and escape retribution and fulfill his destiny. Her motto is kill or be killed, which derives from a sort of survival of the fittest jungle law. Washizu says that Miki would not put him in danger since he is a loyal friend. Asaji says that he can’t rely on that friendship because the times are degenerating, and instead of trying to fight that trend, she urges accepting it and acting accordingly. Obviously, she wants to satisfy her appetite for power through her husband. Asaji’s alternating deliberate and quick movements, which are stylized, like a sort of ballet, derive from the Japanese centuries old theatrical tradition of Noh. The word means “talent” or “skill,” and the art form employs stock movements to convey emotion and masks to represent character types. In any event, Asaji’s motion implies that there is something off about her. Her rehearsed motion suggests she is staging a performance to influence Washizu.
The Great Lord visits Washizu’s garrison to fortify the border and attack Inui when possible. He makes Washizu a vanguard commander and assigns Miki to guard the castle. Asaji twists the ruler’s intent around, basically providing her husband with medieval “fake news,” telling him that the Great Lord is exposing Washizu to an attack, hoping he will perish, while protecting Miki in the castle fortress. She eggs Washizu on by saying that Miki will laugh at him from his place in the castle. She wants to put the guards, who are under the command of Noriyasu (Takashi Shimura), to sleep by plying them with sake, kill the Great Lord, and then blame it on Noriyasu for using a guard to commit the murder. After the guards are asleep, Asaji brings Washizu his weapons in the room where a traitor was placed after capture and killed himself. The association of the room with Washizu designates him as a traitor, also. He seems torn, but goes to kill the Great Lord. He returns with a bloody sword, which Asaji takes from him and places it in a guard’s hand. She then washes the blood off her hands. She yells out that the ruler is in danger. Washizu kills the guard to make it appear he was exacting revenge for the Great Lord. Noriyasu flees with the Prince, who is the Great Lord’s son, while yelling that Washizu is the traitor. Washizu goes to the castle to find out what Miki will do. Miki says that the Great Lord’s wife killed herself, wanting to die rather than witness her husband’s enemy taking over the castle. The irony here is that Washizu, supposedly a loyal servant, is the enemy. Miki says that the prophecy is coming true, and Washizu is the best person to defend the kingdom from the enemy, Inui.

Later on, there is to be a ceremony to anoint Miki’s son as Washizu’s successor, as per the prophecy, since Miki has been loyal in supporting Washizu as the new ruler. Also, Washizu and Asaji have not been able to have children. Asaji argues against announcing Miki’s son as the next sovereign. Asaji drops a bomb when she tells her husband she is pregnant. Now it is no longer in Washizu’s best interest to make Miki’s child the next leader. We hear screeching birds, which Miki’s son says is a bad omen, and the young man is able to see that the forest spirit did not cause the prophecies to happen, but allowed the men to bring it about. At the banquet, Miki and his son are absent. Just as in Macbeth, the ruler sees the ghost of his friend. We now know that Miki has been killed. Washizu acts like a madman as he talks to the empty air and stabs at the ghost that nobody sees. After dismissing the guests, the assassin sent to kill Miki returns with the dead man’s head wrapped in cloth. Miki’s son, however, was able to escape.

We hear soldiers saying that the realm is starting to decline, with fewer noblemen showing up at the castle. Some were forced to take their own lives because the paranoid Washizu doubted their loyalty. Asaji has spread the false rumor that Inui’s spies killed Miki, but many of the soldiers do not believe it. There are rumors, which turn out to be true, that Miki’s son, Noriyasu, and the Great Lord’s son have joined with Unui to fight against Washizu. There are more omens, such as rats running away from the castle, which indicates to some that the rodents “flee a house before it burns.” Later, numerous screeching birds invade the castle, mimicking the sound of the evil spirit in the woods. Another bad omen is that Asaji gives birth to a stillborn baby. Washizu in private calls himself a fool after losing a leader, a friend, and now a child, but he continues on his self-destructive path.

Washizu returns to the forest to look for the spirit, who greets him invisibly at first with derisive laughter. When he appears, he says that as long as Washizu continues on this road of spilling blood, he will rise to a “pinnacle of evil,” which sounds contradictory, because good deeds are usually associated with “rising.” It is like Washizu is similar to Satan who is a king, but of the pit of hell because of atrocities committed. The spirit tells him that he will not, however, be defeated in battle as long as the trees of the forest do not attack the castle (a sneaky prophecy right out of Macbeth). Since this occurrence seems an impossibility, Washizu is emboldened, and having learned nothing about himself, says he has no qualms piling more dead bodies onto the the hills of bones the spirit has shown him.
Noriyasu, leading the armies against Washizu, says that the forest is a web of trails that ensnares people, and orders his men to follow a straight path through the trees. His command is a metaphor, urging his men not to be led astray, but instead to pursue a straightforward righteous path. Another bad omen presents itself, as Asaji, like Lady Macbeth, has gone mad, possibly due to guilt, and the loss of her child along with her now failed plans for ruling, and Washizu is horrified to find her continually washing her hands while saying the blood remains on them.

Washizu tries to rally his troops by sharing the prophecies, and telling them that of course it is impossible for the trees to march against the castle. As it turns out Noriyasu’s soldiers use the tree branches as camouflage to attack the castle, so it appears that the trees themselves are approaching. Washizu’s own men attack him, showering arrows upon him. He looks like he is ensnared in a web of violence he has created, and dies wrapped in the weaponry of death.

The film ends as it began, in a wasteland of dirt and wind, with the chorus chanting that only a monument remains where there once stood a castle of men’s delusions, a symbol of the misguided idea of worldly achievement through selfish ambition, which is transient. This is a story that says that personal, indulgent desire is consuming, and burns itself out, passing into ruin.

The next film is The Silence of the Lambs.