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Thursday, December 11, 2014

Bennett Miller | Foxcatcher

wrestling with pygmalion
by Douglas Messerli

E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman (screenplay), Bennett Miller (director) Foxcatcher / 2014


One might begin any discussion about Bennett Miller’s new film, Foxcatcher, by noting the importance of its title. Foxcatcher is the name of the du Pont estate, ruled over for most of this film, by John du Pont’s (Steve Carrell) patrician mother, Jean (Vanessa Redgrave), presumably an attempt to describe the success of her numerous hunting parties to catch the wily prey. I once had a friend in Washington, D.C., Mary Swift, who having participated in fox hunts (perhaps even in the ones arranged by Jean du Pont), dismissed any discussion about the poor beasts chased by hounds and adults upon horseback by arguing that in the vast majority of such hunts, the foxes always escaped. Whether or not that is the truth, the reality of Foxcatcher was clearly asserted in the claim of the name itself: du Pont’s foxes were always captured or destroyed, an important metaphor for the fact that, at least in the du Pont sensibility, even the cleverest of animals could not escape their capture and even torture. And the fact that John, although he claimed to hate his mother’s love of horse flesh, still chose to put his wrestling enterprises under the umbrella of his estate’s moniker, immediately suggests that there is something sinister about the place.

     The “little kit” which John choses to chase, particularly the Olympic gold medal-winning Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum), could hardly be described, moreover, as a “fox.” Having lived a nearly homeless life on the move with his elder, fatherly brother, Dave (Mark Ruffalo)—a man who is far more savvy and grounded in family life with his wife and two beloved children—Mark is a winner on the verge of becoming a loser, even before meeting up with du Pont. Isolated from others of the wrestling circuit and separated even from his caring brother in his lonely struggle to prepare for the upcoming World Wrestling Championship and, later, the Olympic trials, Mark is financially strapped, surviving in a small apartment where he nightly retires on a ramen-based diet, records, and television. He is a loner, and without his brother would be utterly lost.
      Out of the blue, he receives a call from du Pont, inviting him to a meeting. While most of us would be utterly startled by such an invitation, Mark is completely clueless, not having the foggiest notion that he is about to meet with one of the wealthiest Americans alive. As their first conversation reveals, Dave not only is clueless about du Pont, but about nearly everything going on in the world around him. His focus, as the director reveals in one of the very first sequences of the film, is on how to bring down the figure who stands before him, even if it is only a robotic dummy substituting for human flesh. One has the feeling that, except for his brother, du Pont is one of the few human beings with whom Mark has even had a conversation:

                du pont: Do you have any idea why I asked you to come here
                                today?
                mark schultz: No.
                du pont: No? Well, Mark, do you have—do you have any idea
                                who I am?
                schultz: No.
                du pont: Some rich guy calls you on the phone. I want Mark Schultz
                                to come visit me. Well, I’m a—I’m a wrestling coach. And
                                I have a deep love for the sport of wrestling. I wanted to 
                                speak to you about your future, about what you hope to
                                achieve. What do you hope to achieve, Mark?
                schultz: I want to be the best in the world. I want to go to World’s
                                and win gold. I want to go to the ’88 Olympics in Seoul
                                and win gold.
                du pont: Good. I’m proud of you.

 

     Screenwriters Frye’s and Futterman’s careful dialogue says it all. The idea that the wealthy du Pont is actually a “wrestling coach” is something, suggested by his pause, that even he is a bit uncomfortable with, having simply conferred upon himself another major avocation  (he is a kind of hobbyist, a “ornithologist, philanthropist, philatelist,” as he later forces Schultz to memorize). Schultz’s restated goals “to win gold” reveals the utter simplicity of his ideals and the lack of complexity in which thinks and expresses himself. And du Pont’s paternalistic approval of his goals merely reveals his attitude towards what we soon discern is his newest victim. 
     Although Miller’s movie makes no mention of it, du Pont had already been accused by a Villanova college wrestler of sexual harassment.* It is clear that this very strange man (particularly as Carrell plays him), chooses every word, perhaps even subconsciously, not only to aggrandize his own role, but curry favor with his young new charge, whom Bennett and his writers soon reveal he is about to attempt to transform from a lumpen, muscle-bound, dough-boy into a kind of male Pygmalion, a figure who he might create as someone from whom he might receive love.

     Some critics, most notably Richard Brody in The New Yorker, argue that the problem with Foxcatcher is that once this situation is set up by the circumstances, the director can never bring himself to focus on the animus of du Pont’s motives or, more particularly, seldom represents anything that might reveal the implications of the psychological relationship between the two figures, refusing to fully explore the links between “sex and violence.”

     I argue, however, that Bennett and his writers very much center their work of just those issues, but simply refuse to make them literal. In part, we never become witness to the actual dynamics between the two men because these individual are both tortured beings. Although outwardly deferential almost to the point of slavishness, inside Mark is a volcano ready to explode. If he truly loves his brother, he is also resentful of and severely envious of him. His ability to win depends a great deal his lack of empathy with other human beings. But it is also clear that if he cannot feel, it is because he has been seldom given the opportunity to experience and express such emotions with anyone except for his brother.
     If du Pont has a larger vocabulary, we quickly recognize, it was something he has simply been taught in the attempts to make him presentable as the wealthy scion of a noted family. Particularly in the way Carrell plays him, du Pont’s little pronunciamentos, his appalling rightist political viewpoints, and his behavioral tics have been carefully taught. If he would be a creator of Mark’s personality, he, himself, has been just such a figure for his mother and her associates

 . There is hardly anything “personal” about him—except for his preference for human flesh over horseflesh, which may have arisen as much for his desire for simple friendship as out of a sexual desire. He has chosen wrestling, obviously, to be able to touch and grope other human beings because, much like Schultz, he has seldom had the opportunity to touch anyone either in the flesh or through the intellect, his mother, as he discovers as a child, even paying for a servant boy to be his only friend. The fact that he needs to lay his hands upon other men is so hidden in his psyche that it has become confused with not only friendship but with his paternalistic desires. He is not only still a boy without a friend, but is a would-be lover without someone to love, a father without a son—all roles being completely intertwined in his imagination. 
     I agree with Brody, accordingly, that the real issues of this film are sex and violence, as opposed to what several critics have felt are issues of power and wealth. Certainly power and wealth make it far easier for this man to obtain what he desires, but it is matters of the heart, not the pocketbook that motivates him at all times. If he can easily purchase a military tank, and even, in a pique of anger, procure a gun to mount atop it, it is far more difficult, Bennett makes clear, to carve out another human being who is willing to become friend, lover and son. It involves a very subtle process of intimidation, indoctrination, and chance. One wrong step, and the creation will crumble into pieces, as we soon discover.
    Carefully, slyly, a bit like a fox, he is able to manipulate his young charge, changing the young man from a healthy teetotaler to a beer-drinking, cocaine-smoking hunk, even forcing a new tuft-tinted hairdo upon the kid. Schultz’s hidden envy about his brother is given voice through du Pont’s pronouncements. From the beginning, du Pont is all too ready to touch and feel his object of affection with the usual shoulder, back, and ass pats that occur between thousands of coaches and their players. And gradually, by forcing the young man to teach him wrestling techniques to that he might, himself, compete in the over 50 category of wrestling, he even is able to ritually touch and grope his object of love. 
    Bennett has already shown us just how erotic wrestling is in a long scene in which the brothers spar, combining the standard, almost kabuki-like positions of wrestling maneuvers with the loving familial gestures that include the embracement of heads, gentle strokes, and tender interlocking. If the scenes in which du Pont and Schultz never go that far, it is only because du Pont resists the expressive erotic both for fear of its consequences and what he might force him to admit about his own clearly closeted life. Besides, as we know from historical events, he had already gotten in to trouble for actually expressing such emotions.

      That does not mean that Bennett’s movie does not titillate the viewer enough to make it clear what is really going on. The fact that du Pont has now—with apparent willingness—transformed his young Pygmalion into a personal barber, speaks volumes. And, for his part, Schultz is now convinced that du Pont is his personal mentor, the term the elder uses as a code word for “father.” But just as the two grow closer and closer, we fear that in his being pulled away from the only thing upon which his life is truly focused, wrestling, Schultz will erupt into violence. Without warning, it is du Pont who becomes irrational. Perhaps recognizing that, in his utter innocence and stupidity, Mark Schultz will never be able to transition into the object of his desire, he lashes out against him both verbally and physically, perhaps realizing that he might have been better off if he could have won over the more affable Dave that his withdrawn sibling. 
      As Mark has argued throughout, however, Dave is untouchable, a man more interested in honor and family than in money or the many personal perks involved with du Pont’s patronage. It is rather shocking, accordingly, when du Pont actually does come back to Foxcatcher with Dave and his entire family in hand. In his mind, clearly, he has once more caught his personal fox, a true wrestling coach who will stand in for his inadequacies by training Mark and others to win the gold, and, just possibly, to perform a few other roles on the side.    
     True to his word, as always, Dave does enact his wrestling duties well, training the strange loners du Pont has gathered upon his estate as well as returning some sense of order to his now slightly bitter and silent brother’s life. Du Pont, however, wants his complete time, chastising Dave who on a Sunday is discovered celebrating with his family. And, even more importantly, when Dave is asked to help in a promotional film celebrating du Pont’s contributions, he suddenly finds himself without words to describe what it is precisely, other than money, that du Pont is providing. When the film director suggests he talk about du Pont’s role as a “mentor,” Dave becomes utterly speechless. What wisdom is he imparting, and to whom, we are forced to ask?
      Denied the possibility of touching or groping Dave, and now unable to even approach the sulking and increasingly self-destructive Mark, du Pont, nonetheless, still attempts to impress his mother with his skill and knowledge, particularly when, despite almost throwing the match, Mark squeaks by in another event. The foxes he has caught, however, are of no interest to her; his obvious lust of human flesh is, as she puts it, “low,” an activity she describes as a low-brow sport as opposed to her high-brow play of horses and hounds. The ridiculousness of her evaluations, as well as John’s desperate attempts to gain her approval merely point up the absurd world within which both have cocooned themselves. Theirs is a life not only without normality but is highly perverted.
     But just as horribly, du Pont has now perverted Mark Schultz’s love his brother, his feelings for his sport, and, most importantly, his sense of himself. If his goals had been limited, they were once real goals; now they serve merely as a pre-determined mode of operation whose rules Mark can longer obey. He turns even against his own body, gorging on deserts and other food, which results, predictably, with his failure on the mat. He is no longer a “real” wrestler, but like the violent performers the wrestlers have mocked on TV, a “fake.” He leaves the estate as a fox already caught and tortured, emotionally dead.
     Although Dave now realizes that something is rotten in Pennsylvania, given his buoyant sense of survival he cannot even imagine the simmering madness he is about to face. Untouchable, he represents to the now failed du Pont, everything he has lost throughout his life time and again. Dave is no friend, no lover, no son, not even a man who might possibly accept his consul. He is no one, a fox to be destroyed by the hounds of du Pont’s inbred hate. Du Pont’s murder of whom he now perceives as merely a hired-hand, more closely represents the actions of an utterly disappointed child than those of a plotting and dispirited adult. Like a lover refused before he has even been to express his desires, he blows up this new pillar of marble before he has had a chance to carve out a single scratch.

*See “A Life in Pieces: For du Pont Heir, Question was Control,” in The New York Times, February 4, 1996.

Los Angles, November 24, 2014

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