Sunday, October 31, 2010

Robert Mulligan | To Kill a Mockingbird / Peter Masterson | The Trip to Bountiful / Bruce Beresford | Tender Mercies

Horton Foote

from To Kill a Mockingbird

from To Kill a Mockingbird

from To Kill a Mockingbird

from The Trip to Bountiful

from Tender Mercies

from Tender Mercies

by Douglas Messerli

As I mention below, the death of Horton Foote on March 4th, 2009 sent me back to three screenplays he had written: To Kill a Mockingbird, based on a novel by Harper Lee, The Trip to Bountiful, and Tender Mercies, the latter two emanating from his own pen.

Foote is the kind of man who, as one of my favorite film guides, Time Out, describes him, is seen as "admirable." Harper Lee reportedly said of his face something to the effect: "He looks the way God should, only he's clean shaven." The films I selected to write about are immensely popular, most of them winning awards, two of them being mentioned recently in The Los Angeles Times in their list of 10 best "Comfort Films," films they claim to be as appealing in our economically hard times as comfort food.

Finally, I had enjoyed all three films on which I have chosen to write, having seen the first two of them several times.

How to explain, then, the essays that follow, in which I basically dismiss them for representing the status quo or, at least, a diminishment of life? Chalk it up, perhaps, to my curmudgeonly shift into older age. Or, perhaps, as I have aged I simply do not have as simple-minded notions about life and happiness as I did in my youth.

As I wrote early on in this series of My Year volumes: "I seek no agreement with what I put forth and often have skewered my perceptions of things in order to explore issues that most interest me."

Looking at that kindly face—he does sort of look like a god, if you believe in a white god—I am sure that Horton Foote was admirable, kind even, caring, loving, well meaning. But I still don't think I could live a world created by him.


Harper Lee To Kill a Mockingbird (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott & Co., 1960)
Horton Foote (screenplay), based on the novel by Harper Lee, Robert Mulligan (director) To Kill a Mockingbird / 1962

Almost every American school child and millions of adults know Harper Lee's American classic novel and the film, scripted by Horton Foote, based on the novel. As Joseph Crespino wrote in an essay in 2000: "In the twentieth century, To Kill a Mockingbird is probably the most widely read book dealing with race in America, and its protagonist, Atticus Finch, the most enduring fictional image of racial heroism." Lee's novel and the film, moreover, are etched in American consciousness; the racial violence of 1936 in the small town Alabama it recounts dovetailed perfectly with the changes occurring in American minds and the radical challenges of Southern prejudice which became a major issue of the 1960s. And in this sense the book, perhaps, effected more middle-class Americans than any other of its time. Even at a personal level, I remember being impressed when my mother, who read primarily Romances, hosted a book club during this period; my father, brother, sister, and I were consigned to the basement, but I recall creeping up to the doorway, listening in as one book club member dramatically read the scene in which lawyer Atticus Finch is spat upon by the evil Bob Ewell on a downtown Maycomb, Alabama street. When the movie premiered, I was in attendance.

I believe I first read the book a few years later, in 1964, while living in Norway. I recall devouring it in a single afternoon, wiping away the tears as I completed its last pages. There was no question in my mind that it was extremely sentimental—for most of that year I had been reading the works of Thomas Hardy and Henrik Ibsen—but I recognized it for its high moral tone and its gentle nostalgia nonetheless.

With the news of the screenplay writer Horton Foote's death on March 4th, I decided to revisit both the novel and picture. For the most part, Foote's adaptation of Lee's book is successful, if far moodier and grittier than the more comedic original. Indeed Harper Lee was said to have been pleased with Foote's version. But that is not to say there are no crucial differences between film and novel.

Mulligan's black and white images, helped by Elmer Bernstein's brooding but lyrical score, creates a darker tone than the novel evokes. And Foote's decisions to focus the action on the Finch house, the courtroom, and the back country lanes where the Ewells and Robinsons live, along with his deletion of characters such as Aunt Alexandra and the larger role in the novel played by their childhood friend Dill (based on Truman Capote), further isolates the Finch and Radley families from what is clearly a highly bigoted community. It is almost as if, in Foote's version, Atticus and the children are not given leave to walk the streets of Maycomb. The children's two outings are a nighttime scramble to protect their father from a lynching mob and a hidden attendance in the Black only upstairs gallery of the courthouse proceedings. Even Ewell's open act of hatred, his spitting upon Atticus's face on a downtown street now occurs in front of the Robinson's shack. Given Atticus's moral separation and their neighbor Boo Radley's secretive ways, there is almost a claustrophobic quality to Jem and Scout's life in Foote's rewriting of the work.

That sense of isolation, moreover, changes everything by pitting the people on the Finch's street against the entire community (epitomized by Scout's several school yard scuffles), a fact emblematized in the appearance of a rabid dog, clearly wandering into their cul de sac from some other part of town. To the children's surprise, their father—who notably refuses to play baseball with the other city fathers—shoots the animal dead, amazingly protecting his loved ones.
Similarly, when Ewell attacks the Finch children (Ewell's attacks in the novel also include Tom Robinson's wife), their neighbor Boo, like the father, comes to their rescue. It is notable that the sheriff of this hateful town, argues against his lawful duty, proclaiming that the truth—the fact that Boo Radley has killed Bob Ewell—would harm the mentally retarded man:

I never heard tell it was against the law for any citizen to do his utmost to
prevent a crime from being committed, which is exactly what he did. But
maybe you'll tell me it's my duty to tell the town all about it and not to
hush it up. Well you know what'll happen then? All the ladies in Maycomb
including my wife will be knocking on his door bringing angel food cakes.
To my way of thinking, taking the one man who's done you and this town
a big service and dragging him with his shy ways into the limelight—it's a
sin. And I'm not about to have it on my head. ...Bob Ewell fell on his knife.

Like the figures of the musical Oklahoma! described in My Year 2003, the authorities of this southern town decide to bend truth, something very near to what Scout has earlier on defined (mistakenly, so Atticus insists) as a "compromise."

Frankly, given the outcome of Tom Robinson's trial, we may find it hard to imagine that the "good" ladies of Maycomb would award the murderer of Bob Ewell, who has evidently convinced their kind that his daughter has been raped by a Black man. Is it any wonder then that Tom Robinson, despite Atticus's advice to "not lose faith," runs "like a rabbit" to escape the police? The fact that he is shot and killed, despite the deputy's proclamation that he meant just to wound him, is, perhaps, inevitable.

Given the events of both film and novel, particularly the more enfolded fiction of Foote's script, it is clear that—despite any moral lessons and perceptions gleaned by the Finch children and the audiences of this film—the world to which Jem will awaken in the morning (the familiar last lines of both novel and film being the adult Scout's words about her father: "He turned out the light and went into Jem's room. He would be there all night, and he would be there when Jem waked up in the morning") is no better than the one in which he was nearly killed that night. Atticus Finch may represent a hero, but his actions in such an isolate world, have little effect. And in that respect, the film embraces the status quo, and the moral indignation of the readers of Lee's classic and the viewers of the Mulligan/Foote adaptation can only represent a kind of righteous pat on the liberal back.

While it may be true that there were no real alternatives in 1936, and that both novel and the film merely reiterate the truth of that reality, it is the imitation of the facts, the bland realism boiled up with heavy doses of nostalgia and romance, that ultimately disturbs me. Perhaps a more passionate response might be a fantasy where one could celebrate change.

Los Angeles, March 13, 2009


Horton Foote (screenplay) based on his play, Peter Masterson (director) The Trip to Bountiful / 1985

Based on his 1953 television play, Horton Foote's film, The Trip to Bountiful is, as The New York Times reviewer Vincent Canby wrote in 1985, "a richly detailed film," "exquisitely performed" by the great actress Geraldine Page, a role for which she won Academy Award for best actress.

The story, like most of Foote's writings, is a simple one: one day in 1947 Carrie Watts, an elderly woman now living in Houston with her detestable daughter-in-law Jessie Mae and her unimaginative son Ludie, escapes their constant admonitions—Carrie is told time and again by Jessie Mae not to run through her daily chores, to stop singing her "out of style" hymns, and to stop rifling through Jessie Mae's dresser drawers—and their attentive watch over her—more determined during the time of month when Carrie's social security check is due. As Jessie Mae goes about her daily chores, consisting primarily of shopping and sipping cokes with her friends at the local drug store, Carrie bolts, first to the train station (where she attempts to buy a ticket to the now-nonexistent stop at Bountiful) and then to the bus station, where with the help of a young woman rider, Thelma, she eludes her guardians and is able to get aboard the bus.

Thelma and Carrie's journey to Harrison, the nearest stop to Bountiful, is the perfect time to establish Carrie's character, and through a mix of garrulous historicity, shy inquisitiveness, and gentle poetic wonderments, Page displays her dramatic range in time for the bus to arrive in Harrison, twelve miles from her goal.

Carrie was born and lived most of her life on a farming community, where, it appears, the last of the inhabitants has recently died, a place where Carrie will be unable to reach before her son, in a rented car, arrives to return her to "civilization." Unlike most of the small town policeman we encounter in film and television, however, the Sheriff of Harrison is a friendly authority who agrees to drive her out to Bountiful. Carrie's encounter with the old homestead is a mix of pure joy and total dismay, as she recalls the "bountiful" life she lived there along with memories of the loss of a child and the hard times she and her family faced, all intertwined with her recognition that "when you live longer than your house and your family, then you've lived long enough."

Even the old cannot go home, and when Ludie finally arrives, it is with complete acceptance that Carrie readies herself for her return. Ludie, at first, is resistant to any notion of a nostalgic past, but perhaps because of Carrie's joy in simply having been able to accomplish her trip, he finally is able to admit that he too has some good memories of the place. Afraid of dirtying her shoes, Jessie Mae has remained in the car, and when she does trot out to demand that her husband and mother-in-law return to the city, she has nothing to offer but another litany of do's and don'ts.
With one final scratch of the hard soil Carrie is ready to return home to Houston. As in many of Foote's works, the status quo is restored. Once again, we have, along with the characters, experienced a mild catharsis in the form of small psychological revelations, but nothing has truly changed—except perhaps for an even more determined imprisonment of Carrie Watts, while her trip to Bountiful will no longer be a dream of possibility, but simply another remnant of a failed past.

Los Angeles, March 15, 2009


Horton Foote (screenplay), Bruce Beresford (director) Tender Mercies / 1983

Two years before The Trip to Bountiful, Horton Foote wrote and directed what was perhaps his most successful screenplay, which won him an Academy Award. Like the others of Foote's scripts I describe, the story of Tender Mercies is a simple one, and the actors, particularly Robert Duvall in the role of country-western singer Mac Sledge, are so laconic that at moments there seems to be no story to tell.

Famed country singer Sledge has fallen into an alcoholic chasm, destroying his marriage to fellow country singer Dixie Scott (played by Betty Buckley) and alienating him from his daughter, Sue Anne, whom he has not seen in over eight years.

As the film begins, Sledge loses even his drinking partner, and is left alone in a rural motel without money or means of transportation. The hotel owner, Rosa Lee (Tess Harper), a widow with a young son, offers him two days and some food which he parlays into a part time job working in exchange for room, food and $2.00 a day.

Sledge befriends Rosa Lee's boy, Sonny, and a romance between the two adults develops—so quickly, indeed, that we hardly notice it until he announces his desire to marry Rosa Lee; before we have even assimilated that romance, moreover, the two are described as being married. Most of the "action" of this film, in fact, occurs offstage, with the major onstage movements consisting of Rosa Lee ironing and Mac repairing doors, gardening, and traveling into town to pick up seed.

Little by little, however, we piece together his tragic past: a successful singing career that ended in his alcoholically-charged near-murder of his former wife. His new relationship with Rosa Lee, however, is a sustaining one that allows him not only to overcome his alcoholism, but gradually admit that he misses singing and composing, both of which he has continued on the sly. It is clear that without accepting his past, his present identity is in question. As a town local shouts to him: "Hey, mister, where you really Mac Sledge?" His humorous answer reveals his dilemma: "Yes, ma'am, I guess I was."

As word gets out of his whereabouts, journalists and admirers seek him out. While he rejects the former, he accepts the friendship of four local singers, the Slater Mill Boys, to whom he gives permission to perform his song, and with whom he ultimately sings in a local gig. In the offing is a record.

When Dixie performs in nearby Austin, Mac attends the performance, hoping to get a chance to see his estranged daughter, but Dixie furiously sends him away. A few days later the daughter escapes her mother's guard to visit the father, but the silence between them offers neither much to go on. The next day, the daughter runs away with a singer from her mother's band, and soon after is killed, again "offstage," in an automobile accident triggered by her husband's drinking.

The film ends in two long distant shots of Mac and Rosa Lee digging in their garden as he discusses what he sees as the unfairness of life. "I don't trust happiness. I never did, I never will," he proclaims. A few minutes later, however, Sonny discovers a football Sledge has bought him, and the film ends with son and father throwing passes, Rosa Lee fondly smiling, basking in the glow of a normal and good future for her family.

If, as I have argued in my discussions of Foote's other two screenplays, that they end in the status quo, in Tender Mercies we witness a change—a change that the filmmakers apparently perceive as better than the past. Sledge ends up, indeed, as a kind of American Candide, a man who in his grand past suffered in his innocent pride, but who wisely turns to tending his own garden.

I squirm, however, when I think of Sledge basically sacrificing his musical talents and the appreciation that goes with them for the kind of nostalgically evoked America with which Foote rewards him. Although Australian-born Beresford, like the Germans Wim Wenders and Percy Aldon would do in the years following, poetically depicts the American southwest, it is hard for me to see the barren flats around Palmer and Waxahachie, Texas, where the film was shot, as representing a kind of new Eden. And, although, Rosa Lee's house seems to improve in appearance with every scene, it is still a grubby, unpainted shack in the middle of nowhere.

While I know many thousands of viewers will cry their eyes out (I admit it, so did I) at the very thought of father-and-son bonding in football heaven, I find it a long way from anything I might describe as my American dream. In order regain his peace of mind, I would argue, Sledge has had to give up nearly everything, including—the near impossible for a song writer—language itself. Rosa Lee's quiet smile at the end of Tender Mercies sends a shiver through my bones, for in order to survive in her world, Sledge has had to abandon the messiness of a creatively meaningful life.

Los Angeles, March 17, 2009
All three pieces reprinted from Green Integer Blog (March 2009).
Copyright (c) 2009 by International Cinema Review and Douglas Messerli

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Apichatpong Weerasethakul | Sud sanaeha (Blissfully Yours) and Sud pralad (Tropical Malady)

Three images above: Blissfully Yours

Three images above: Tropical Malady

by Douglas Messerli


Apichatpong Weerasethakul (writer and director) Sud sanaeha (Blissfully Yours) / 2002

Apichatpong's film, Blissfully Yours, won Un Certain Regard prize at the 2002 Cannes Film Festival, prognostic of his being awarded the 2010 Palme d'Or for his most recent film. Many critics have understandably praised the 2002 picture as a beautifully, slow-paced, idyll.

Perhaps they saw another film, however, than the one I watched again the other afternoon on my DVD. Yes, it is a beautiful film, and it is certainly slow-paced with regard to what most people think of as "story"—the credits do not appear until 45 minutes into the film. But, as he made apparent in Tropical Malady, Apichatpong does not tell his story through action or language, but through image and gesture, gestures often so small that they do not even seem significant.

Indeed, throughout the first long scene the main character, Min (Min Oo) does not even speak, as three women, a doctor, his girlfriend Roong (Kanokporn Tongaram) and her friend/landlady Orn (Jenjira Jansuda), prod and stroke him as if he were a prize stud bull up for sale. By accident, I saw that first scene without subtitles, finally realizing that the previous viewer had obviously watched the movie in Thai, I quickly made the correction and started again. But I hardly needed the subtitles to realize that these women, lavishing so much attention to the body of this handsome young male was strange and vaguely perverse.

The man Roong and Orn describe as a cousin from the country, in fact—so we discover at the end of the film—is a fugitive on the run from Burma, illegally in Thailand. Accordingly, the two women have not allowed him to speak for fear his newly-learned Thai and his accent will betray the truth. He has had a terrible problem with his throat for years, and is mute, they insist, even as the doctor discovers no evidence of infection.

What we learn from the entire first scene is that both Roong and Orn survive in this Northeastern corner of the country through a series of seductions and lies, small acts of thievery and petty betrayals. Orn tries to convince the doctor to give Min a medical certificate (necessary if he is to find a job), promising that Roong will bring in his passport within the week. The doctor refuses, and Orn, trying to use her long acquaintance with the doctor as a tool, attempts again and again to convince the doctor to change her mind, even as the nurse calls for her next patient.
Min, evidently, suffers from psoriasis (he is shedding like a snake declares Roong), but the two women have replaced the doctor's prescribed lotion with cheap hand-softeners from the grocers. Similarly, Orn has replaced her prescription of sleeping pills with a over-the-counter mood control drug. Are they selling the real drugs? One can only wonder when, in the very next scene, Orn and Min visit Orn's husband at his office, where she mixes up a new batch of cheap lotion with vegetables that make the salve appear more like an avocado salad that a cure for his rash.

While Orn mixes her new concoction, Min waits, where one of the male office executives, attempts to flirt with him, encouraging Min to steal away with him for a sexual encounter. Min seems almost oblivious, and one wonders for a moment, if he might not take him up on his offer in the way that Tong casually accepts Keng's advances in Tropical Malady.

The long drive from Orn's husband's office to the porcelain factory, where Roong paints mass-made figurines, may seem to the unobservant viewer as simply a picturesque trip through the countryside; but what we witness out of the back of Orn's Toyota Corolla is something close to what one might see in the poorest sections of the American South. The small shanty-like houses and stores around which rush citizens on motorbikes is a far cry from Bangkok or even the factory that seems almost hidden away from the badly-paved roads. This is a territory of poverty, and to survive in this world, it is clear its citizens must rely on their cleverness and stealth.

Min (who evidently briefly worked at the factory) has been told that he is banned from the grounds, but the gatekeepers seem happy to see him, as does the dog they keep. Roong, meanwhile, convinces her manager, after a series of questions, that she is ill, managing her escape. Exchanging her motorcycle with Orn's car, the two lovers, Roong and Min, are suddenly off for picnic in the country. Only now do credits appear, a Thai version of a Brazilian samba accompanying them.

It is also true that for much of the rest of the film, Apichatpong—taking us along in the journey away from this deprived society into the lush and tropical wonders of the jungle, where Roong and Min picnic, shyly make love, and soak up the sun—formulates his film in the context of a sexual idyll. But just as we may have missed a great deal of detail in the first part of the work, to characterize the rest of the film in that simple manner is to miss everything. This garden is, after all, not just any garden, but a special one for Min; he has clearly been here before. Here also lie fruit trees from which he begins to eat (in a clear reversal of the Adam and Eve story, which it recalls), before passing its berries on to Roong. But then, perhaps he is not, symbolically speaking, Adam, but is the serpent of the creation myth to which Roong has already compared him; his flaking skin is the major issue in the movie.

As a man between borders, trapped in a country where he literally has not yet found a new identity, Min must also shed the old to become a new being, which works nicely with the creation myth at which Apichatpong has hinted.

But, where, one can only wonder, is Adam?

I am not suggesting through these perceived parallels Apichatpong is a symbolist, setting up a series of analogs by which the moviegoer can comprehend his film. But his work is clearly influenced by traditional Thai and international mythology, that embrace a multitude of possibilities even contradictions. And we cannot help but wonder that if the woman and the snake have now embraced, how that myth might end.

By chance—although, despite the seeming casualness and spontaneity of this director, I believe he leaves very little to pure "chance"—Orn has made her own journey to the country with the very man who had propositioned Min. This spot of jungle, it appears, is a sort of "lover's retreat." While Orn and her lover are portrayed having ordinary, if slightly brutal, sex —no romantic lover's games for them—their motorcycle is stolen. Even more ominous is the fact that when Orn's friend, pulling up his pants, attempts to run after the thieves, we hear, soon after, the sound of a gunshot. So much for idylls!

Presumably killed, he does not appear in the movie again, as Orn wanders forward in the undergrowth, ultimately showing up—her clothes torn, her skin scratched—at the very spot where Roong is now engaging in oral sex. Throughout, their romantic interlude, Min, his whole body affected by his shedding skin, is almost entirely passive. Only after Roong completes the act, does Orn move towards them.

Although Roong has spoken out against Orn previously (she'd be better without her, she delcares to Min) we know that Min thinks of her (on the baisi of his drawings of the two, overlain upon the screen during much of this country "escape") almost as Roong's sexual equal. And it is apparent, that both women desire him. The women "face off" in the nearby stream, Roong tossing water into Orn's face, Orn returning the offense. At first rather fiercely, but gradually shifting to smiles and mysterious purposefulness, they push, pull, and pinch one another, until both are waterlogged, many of their gestures suggesting a sort of baptism of one another and their beloved Min, before they swim in and out of one another's space, undressing, finally, upon the riverbank.

As they lie down to rest, Roong gently plays with Min's penis as he sleeps, never in this film to again awaken. Orn, nearby and just out-of-sight, writhes in obvious emotional distress, clearly out of loss (her son we are told has been drowned), loneliness and, perhaps, jealousy. Any joy these locals may have experienced has been so brief that it now hardly matters.

The voiceover says everything: Min goes off to a job in Bangkok, leaving the two cast forever out of any possible paradise they might have inhabited. Roong gets "another boyfriend" and sells noodles. "Orn continues to work as an extra in Thai movies," so the voice humorously reports, as if that has been her role—just as in this film—all along. Life in this outpost goes drearily on.

Los Angeles, November 12, 2002; revised September 16, 2010


Apichatpong Weerasethakul (writer and director) Tropical Malady / 2004

A malady, as we know, is "a disease or disorder of the animal body," in this case, presumably, caused by the heat of the tropics.

Yet in Thai director Weerasethaku's simple and beautiful film, it is hard to comprehend who is suffering and why? So subtle, so seemingly innocent, is his love story between a young soldier Keng (Banlop Lomnoi) and a country boy with little experience, Tong (Sakda Kawebuadee) that the viewer can hardly imagine that this will end as a story of passion and punishment.
Only in the very first scene, before the credits, does the director give some clue to what will come, suggesting that we might be a little on edge in watching the bipartite film he has constructed. A group of soldiers, presumably out on maneuvers near the forest, come across a body that has just been killed. They wrap it and bring it back to some nearby farmers. As they travel, the observant viewer will notice a naked, tattooed man running nearby back into the forest. As Keng reports to the friendly country folk whom he has joined for supper, "The body will be bloated by morning."

Before long, Tong joins the country men and women, and Keng, we perceive, is immediately attracted to him, and on the sexual hunt. Keng, it becomes apparent when the action later moves to town, is an experienced gay man, who has numerous friends of both sexes in the nearby city, including a young man he meets in the bathroom of the local cinema who clearly would like to have sex with him again. But Tong has now caught his eye.

Tong, who works in the city as an ice-cutter, seems so innocent that it is hard to tell whether he is gay or not. He sexually teases a young woman, also from the country, while readily joining in the invitation to join up with Keng. But once he and Keng begin sharing activities, Tong seems quite ready to accept the soldier's sexual attentions, even encouraging a groping session at the local movie theater.

Most of the first part of this film is passed in what appears to be a sort of paradisiacal idyll, as the two move back and forth from country to town, attending a concert by a popular singer and visiting with two country sisters, one of whom takes them to a hidden Buddhist temple and tells stories of magic. The second sister, who runs a small grocery, shares her belief that:

Greed is our downfall. I was watching Who Wants to be a Millionaire. The
woman won a lot of money but wouldn't stop playing. She lost and got
only 30,000 Baht.

Here, as elsewhere, Weerasethaku suggests that not everything we see—which he makes certain we see in the most beautiful light imaginable—is as it seems. Tong is fearful of memories, Keng afraid of taking chances in life (he refuses to try a narrow path out of the Buddhist cave). Tong hints, only through a photograph from his own days of being in the military, of a previous relationship, while Keng resents his refusal to visit the military camp. Tong's beloved dog is found dying on the road. Most of the reviewers that I have read describe the final scene between the two as consisting of Tong simply walking away into the darkness, but, in fact, the scene immediately after shows Keng and his soldier friends in a truck on their way out of town—their commander has returned and their idle time is finished. It is not Tong that leaves, I would argue, but Keng.

With new credits and a brief description of a folkloric myth about a man converted into a tiger, who is doomed to kill men and animals in the nearby region, we see Keng having returned, sleeping evidently in the missing Tong's room, briefly perusing the photograph of Tong and his earlier friend. It is clear he is on the search for his former love. Whether he has been assigned that job or has simply taken it upon himself, we never find out. But the search reminds one, somewhat, of the famed Frank Stockton tale, "The Lady or the Tiger?" in that this search may depend upon which he discovers, the man or the tiger. If it is the latter, his greed with be punished, if the former, his passion will have been rewarded.

The slow-paced, night images of the latter half simmer with a deep beauty that we noticed in the city and country lights in the first part. But here, everything is on edge. The soldier is, after all, a man who can kill, the tiger a wily prey who can see in the dark. Exhausted by his first day in the forest, Keng pulls a stockinged hat over his head to protect himself, as he falls asleep in the crook of a tree. In his dream, baboons speak to him, telling him that he must either let himself be devoured or kill the tiger to free the man within. Deep in the forest he discovers the walking, tattooed man we witnessed in the first moments of this film, and he attempts to grab and hold on to him, apparently to bring back to the society where had originally discovered his love. Yet time and again, the man (Tong?) escapes his capture, eventually tossing Keng from a mountaintop.

When Keng awakes, he returns to the hunt, experiencing odd visions, and, eventually losing his rifle. In the last few moments we see Keng beneath a tree, upon which sits the tiger. Keng bows, offering up his life, willing to give up his blood to the beast in order that he might join him. The ending may be equivocal, but the meaning of the tale is not. Love may be a supreme pleasure, but it also entails a sacrificing of self. In the end we do not quite know whether Keng has found the man or the tiger, but he has discovered the core of love.

Los Angeles, August 29, 2010
(c) 2010 by International Cinema Review and Douglas Messerli

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Alfred Hitchcock | Rebecca

Pondering the past

by Douglas Messerli

Based on a novel by Daphne Du Maurier, Philip MacDonald and Michael Hogan (adaptation),
Robert E. Sherwood and Joan Harrison (writers), Alfred Hitchcock (director) Rebecca / 1940
“Rebecky,” sketch on The Carol Burnett Show, September 27, 1972

Whenever I watch Alfred Hitchcock’s great film Rebecca (and I now watch it several times each year) I am reminded of Carol Burnett’s spoof of it, “Rebecky,” presented on her television show on September 27, 1972. In that skit Carol, dressed in oxford shoes, an outrageously thick wool skirt and coat, and heavy-rimmed glasses accentuates the clumsy awkwardness of the original Joan Fontaine character lost in the vaulting corridors of De Winter’s Manderley as she attempts to make her way to the morning room. There is something deliciously loony about the scene, in part because we realize its satire is so close to the source.

Indeed, for many years as a young man I felt that Rebecca was one of the weakest of Hitchcock’s films, an almost embarrassing work rooted as it was in the melodramatically-pitched writing of Daphne Du Maurier. How could any movie beginning with the illusionary romantic statement (“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again. It seemed to me I stood by the iron gate leading to the drive, and for a while I could not enter for the way was barred to me. There was a padlock and a chain upon the gate.”) be taken seriously?

Over the years, however, I have come to recognize that it is precisely the melodrama that works so well in this film, the overwrought battles between innocence and evil encapsulated in the characters of the second Mrs. De Winter and the head servant Mrs. Danvers, and the various sets of oppositions throughout the work—the past vs. the future, rich vs. poor, knowledge vs. ignorance, and beauty vs. the ordinary—that helps to make this film such a giddy operatic-like work. One could write an essay—and I suspect many have been written—on each of these binaries!

But that would be an academic exercise which would erase, I am afraid, all the fun of witnessing precisely those issues that Burnett was satirizing, the vast distance between what we think we know and what is truth. In a world so confusing that one cannot even find one’s way to the morning room or, worse, not even perceiving that one might be expected to spend the morning in such a room, where does one go from there? A house phone call from a servant reveals that the second Mrs. De Winter does not even understand her own identity (she is given no Christian name in either the novel or the movie) as she reports that Mrs. De Winter has been dead for some time. Certainly marriage to her new husband, George Fortesqieu Maximillian De Winter, is, as the caddish Jack Favell later suggests, “not exactly a bed of roses.” She has not even clearly understood De Winter’s proposal to her (until he chastises her “I’m asking you to marry to me, you little fool.”) and replies with such low self esteem (“I’m not the sort of woman men marry”) that it is indeed a wonder that she is now sitting in that well-lit room. It can hardly be an accident when she clumsily knocks a cupid figurine to the floor, smashing it to pieces; cupid has had no role in her romance.

But then everyone in this film is filled with illusions and misapprehends the world around. The American socialite for whom the second Mrs. De Winter works imagines the great mansion of Manderley to be filled with magnificent nightly parties, and believes Maxim to be a “broken man” because of his sorrow over Rebecca’s death. Indeed the whole of society has been convinced apparently of their great romance.

Maxim’s sister and brother-in-law are stunned to see their new sister-in-law so shabbily dressed (of her appearance Beatrice Lacy declares that she “obviously doesn’t give a hoot” how she looks) and that Maxim has said nothing about her appearance, for Maxim has been known to have chosen many of Rebecca’s lovely gowns.

Max himself is convinced that he has been responsible for his wife’s death, and Favell is threatening blackmail since he believes that Rebecca was going to have a baby, his baby. Even Mrs. Danvers, who knows of her mistress’s lies, imagines Max to be suffering out of his love for Rebecca:

I’ve seen his face—his eyes. They’re the same as those first weeks after she
died. I used to listen to him, walking up and down, up and down, all night
long, night after night, thinking of her, suffering torture because he lost

Behind all these false illusions, of course, are the work’s deluders, particularly Rebecca, who, after revealing her sexual peccadilloes to her new husband, strikes a deal with him:

You’d look rather foolish trying to divorce me now after four days
of marriage. So I’ll play the part of a devoted wife, mistress of your
precious Manderley. I’ll make it the most famous showplace in England
if you like. The people will visit us and envy us, and say we’re the
luckiest, happiest couple in the country. What a grand show it will be!
What a triumph!”

Mrs. Danvers may still have illusions but it is her delusions that dominate her relationship with the second Mrs. De Winter. Believing that Rebecca has returned to haunt the place, she keeps her mistress’s room as a perverse shrine, maintaining everything “just as it was” and attempts to destroy the usurper she sees in Max’s second wife.

In such a world of horrors, wherein no one knows the truth, is it any wonder that the fresh, young woman who has married the man who has put Rebecca to rest at the bottom of the sea, has no idea where or who she is? Knowing no one of Rebecca’s social class, what is she to do at that desk in that beautiful, fire-lit room.

If Mrs. Danvers had not gone mad, destroying the great mansion by fire, perhaps the second Mrs. De Winter might have had set those vaulted corridors aflame simply to find her way home to real identity and a place in which to enact it.

Los Angeles, January 6, 2008
Copyright (c) 2008 by International Cinema Review and Douglas Messerli

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Claude Chabrol | Le boucher (The Butcher)

by Douglas Messerli

Claude Chabrol (writer and director) Le boucher (The Butcher) / 1970

Despite the statements of numerous critics that Chabrol's film Le boucher is filled with questions that are slowly answered over the course of the movie and, as Netflix's site quotes Adam Gai, "The audience is kept in suspense up until the last shot," I would argue that in this work Chabrol has created his most unthrilling thriller. For it is a work that has utterly no surprises, and because of that fact Chabrol is freed to show us film-making at its most abstract. We witness the process without having to be emotionally involved in plot.

Some of this lack of suspense occurs because, basically, there are only two characters in the film. The young married couple of the first scenes appear only briefly, despite the fact that the male is supposed to be a teacher in the same school where the central character, Helene Daville teaches. Although some of her students are more memorable than others, particularly the young man to whom she is trying to teach mathematics one late night, they are, nonetheless, as are the inhabitants of the small village near the Cougnac Caves where she lives, ancillary figures, unimportant to events. Even the mildly bothersome Police Inspector Grumbach offers little in the way of substance. Other than the beautiful and emotionally reserved Helene (Stéphane Audran) there is only her suitor, Popaul (Jean Yanne), a war-veteran who has just returned to his hometown to take up his father's business as a butcher.

From the earliest scenes in the film, we recognize Popaul as being facile with knives—at the wedding ceremony with which the film begins he insists upon slicing the large roast by himself—and early on we recognize that he has been embittered by the gruesome violence of his war experiences:

Popaul: I've seen a corpse or two—their heads in the wind, cut in half, mouth
open. I've seen three or four piled together. Kids with their eyes punctured.
Indo-Chinese as old as Madame Tirrant completely torn to bits. I've seen pals
of mine rotting in the sun, being eaten by maggots.

Were we to encounter Popaul today, I would guess that many of us might suggest he seek help from a psychiatrist.

Accordingly, despite his gentle demeanor with Helene, when word of a brutal murder reaches the village, we have no choice but suspect Popaul. There is literally no one else to suspect, and any "reader" of such a work knows that it would a ridiculous and absurd tale if the murderer was someone whom he had never met. It is as if Chabrol has taken the old whodunit story and emptied it of all save two figures, one of whom we cannot imagine as the murderer, and whom we know cannot have committed the second murder since she is on an outing with her students when she and they discover the body, its blood dripping from it, almost comically, upon a young girl's sandwich.

Chabrol takes this even further by having Helene discover at the scene of the crime a lighter (or one exactly like it) that she has given as a gift to Popaul. Since we know it must therefore be Popaul who has committed the two murders, any suspense of the film must depend less upon the discovery of the killer than the gradual discovery of who these two people are. It is their inner selves, not their grand actions that bring any meaning to the work.

Chabrol carries this idea of "no surprises" even further, comically commenting on it when, at the funeral of the second woman killed, Popaul, exiting the church, looks up at the rainy sky to say, "What a surprise!" Helene may have been surprised; she does not have an umbrella. But he and everyone else does, which they simultaneously open, recalling a similar scene from Hitchcock's Foreign Correspondent, a parallel to the earlier reference, with the discovery of the lighter, to Hitchcock's Strangers on the Train. No, it is no surprise that at such a sad occasion, rain should fall. And the natives have expected it.

What is surprising in this film is that Helene pockets the lighter without mentioning it to anyone. She is not only tampering with evidence but, by squirreling away the object, she is endangering her own life.

She has already spoken of the importance of Cro-Magnan man to her students, noting that if he had not brutally killed out of a need to survive that modern man would not be there today. We can only suspect, accordingly, that she sees her courtier-murderer, Popaul, as a necessary evil, someone who must do what he does in order to save the world, perhaps restoring the love she has relinquished.

Yet it makes no logical sense, and when she does encounter him that same evening, she is clearly terrified. Only when he produces a lighter exactly like the one she has found, can she again breathe easier, laughing behind her tears in relief.

If Popaul is psychologically disturbed, we now perceive that, in her inability to begin another relationship, she is psychologically scarred by her past as well. While she remains emotionally and sexually aloof from Popaul, she is also a kind a seductress, a woman seeking love despite her denial of it. As she quite straight-forwardly answers Popaul's challenge:

Popaul: But, shit, if I kissed you now, what would you say?
Helene: I'd say nothing, but please don't.

In short, she will not out rightly reject love were it to make its demands; she is simply attempting to protect herself so that love will make no demands. She is, in other words, a passive being; unlike Popaul, who makes things happen, who brings her food, fixes her lights, paints her rooms, who, in fact, admits that he wants to "look after her," Helene can do nothing but exist, glowing in her beauty much like the light(er) she gives him. It is no accident that she provides the fire for the cut of meat his has brought her.

Only when Popaul discovers the hidden lighter, and, perceiving suddenly that she has found him out, steals it back, does Helene accept the reality that we have known all along. And it is only then that she can begin to function for herself, madly racing from door to door to lock herself away from the beast calling out. It is at that moment also when we perceive that Chabrol's tale is not that of a murderer on the loose, but a kind of fable like Beauty and the Beast.

It is not her murder he seeks, but out of embarrassment for being the beast, ritual death. Even his sudden plunge of his knife into his own belly is not a surprise as much as an inevitability. It is only now that Helene can truly come into her own, reaching out to save him, to protect him from himself, just as she has mothered her students.

This time she allows him the kiss, but it is the kiss of death, too late to redeem the animal within.

Los Angeles, November 20, 2010
Copyright (c) 2010 by International Cinema Review and Douglas Messerli

Friday, October 15, 2010

Abraham Polansky | Force of Evil

by Douglas Messerli

Abraham Polansky and Ira Wolfert (writers), Abraham Polansky (director) Force of Evil / 1948

During a weekend I was to have been in New York—a trip cancelled because of heavy snow—I watched Abraham Polansky’s acclaimed film of 1948, Force of Evil. Unlike Andrew Sarris and some British critics, I do not feel that this film is one of the “great films of the modern American cinema.” But the movie does have a powerful film-noir quality and a brilliant performance by John Garfield which nearly matches his work in Body and Soul (which Polansky also wrote) and Marlon Brando’s edgy and touching portrayal of Terry Malloy in Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront. I guess I’m reminded of Kazan’s film because each of these movies has as a subtheme: the corruption of one brother by another. But as opposed to On the Waterfront’s betrayal of a younger, more sensitive brother by the older sibling (portrayed by Rod Steiger), Force of Evil—in a more complex twist of events—concerns itself with a younger brother who, engaged in a high echelon of a gangster world, attempts to protect his elder brother, a petty crook who runs a small-time numbers business out of a private apartment.

In order to save his brother Joe Mason (Garfield) has Leo’s business raided by the police; but the raid itself is enough to rouse the elder Mason’s conscience, and he threatens to leave the business, along with at least two of his employees who have suddenly realized just how entwined they have become with evil forces. In the perverted world to which they have become pawns, however, the crime is not in the “taking,” but in the “not taking,” and that is, as the movie puts it, what makes them truly guilty. Refusing to “live and be guilty” in the old manner, they are given no choice but to become more deeply involved in the gangster world from which they seek to escape.

It is this illogical but inevitable descent into hell that makes this movie so mesmerizing. Once Mason/Garfield has set things into motion, there is no possible escape for either his brother or for his loyal secretary, with whom the younger Mason now establishes a swaggering macho relationship. Employees betray bosses; warring mob leaders join forces in the inverted world where paranoia is necessary for survival. Polansky and novelist Ira Wolfert’s almost incantory dialogue and voice-overs create a three-sentence rhythm of sophistic logic:

People can be made to talk. Who was my phone talking to?
A man can spend the rest of his life trying to remember what
he said.

Or, as Leo later says: “I’m a man with heart trouble. I die every day. It’s a stupid way to live.” In such a world Leo’s murder is inevitable; all the brother has done to protect him has only assured that he will be tossed upon the pollution-ridden river bank like “a piece of meat.”
In a world where everyone is listening in to the most private of conversations, Joe is forced to open his own locked away telephone to the voices of the mobsters as they spin, like spiders, new plots to enmesh anyone who is willing to see their own petty crimes as “not so bad.” As Leo, shortly before his death, comes to realize, even the pettiest of criminal acts permit the most perverse atrocities.

Los Angeles, December 7, 2003
Copyright (c) 2010 by International Cinema Review and Douglas Messerli

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Jean Renoir | La Regle du jeu (Rules of the Game) and Robert Altman | Gosford Park

weekends in the country

by Douglas Messerli

Jean Renoir and Carl Koch (writers), Jean Renoir (director) Rules of the Game (La Règle du jeu) / 1939

Julian Fellowes (writer, based on an idea by Robert Altman and Bob Balaban), Robert Altman (director) Gosford Park / 2001

Over the years since its first and evidently disastrous showing in France in 1939, Jean Renoir’s Rules of the Game (La Règle du jeu) has received extensive commentary, particularly concerning its masterful mix of genres—farcical comedy, soap opera, drama, love story, political documentation, and social satire—which function together not as pastiche as in many postmodern works, but as a shifting, improvisational entity that allows very few moments of viewer disinterest. The farcical elements of this fable—the various affairs between the wealthy La Chesnayes, wife Christine and husband Robert, the former of whom has had a recent dalliance with the heroic Alan Bates aviator André Jurieu and the latter of whom is trying to end his long time affair with  Geneviève de Marras—serve as ridiculous counterpoint to various other enamoring actions of servants and guests at Christine and Robert’s weekend chateau-party for their friends—and enemies. As in the Beaumarchais, Marivaux, Musset and Molière comedies which inspired Renoir’s script, the serving-class characters parallel the bedroom antics of their masters—although in this work no one seems to be able to make love in a bedroom but must find various public rooms, nooks and corners of the chateau to carry on their affairs.

    Lisette, Christine’s chambermaid, is married to the chateau’s gamekeeper, Edouard Schumacher, but openly flirts with Octave (the beloved family friend played by Jean Renoir) and the newly hired Marceau (former poacher now hired on a whim by Robert to serve on the staff). Part of the great joy of this cinematic masterpiece is the insanity of these figures and others as they rush about the chateau, camera zooming after them, in chase of one another, lover running after lover, husbands in chase of wives and suitors both.

    Renoir, however, has deeper issues up his sleeve, so to speak. Particularly through his presentation of the always ready-to-be-bored party guests and their meaningless activities— from the silly amateur theatrical presentations of brief musical renditions of Tyrolian operettas (including a singing bear, Octave, who later can find no one to help him out of his costume), a skeleton dance, and the brutally frank documentation of a shooting party’s indiscriminate massacre of every pheasant, rabbit, and quail that can be scared out of the woods by tree-pounding servants into easy killing-range—Renoir reveals through images alone the stupidity and violence at heart of this French society of wealth. As Europe stood at cliff’s edge, Le Règle du jeu demonstrated all too well, evidently, why France would be unable to defeat the German armies. The film was not only badly received, but caused an uproar upon its premiere, one theater patron even lighting a newspaper afire in hopes of burning the movie house to the ground. Other theaters planning to show the film were threatened and, after having been re-cut several times, the movie was ultimately banned on the grounds that it was bad for the morale of the country. It is a near-miracle that most of the lost footage was eventually recovered and the film rediscovered in the Venice Film Festival of 1959.

      A great many critics, in fact, have seemed to suggest that the film’s unstated predictions foretold a kind passivity on the part of the French haute bourgeoisie that ultimately allowed some French citizens to readily accept the Vichy government. Octave’s remark early in the film has been quoted extensively: “You know, in this world there’s one thing that is terrible: that everyone has his reasons.”

     Even earlier in the film, one of Renoir’s figures puts it quite bluntly, asking the audience outright, “What’s natural these days?”

     Renoir’s work is significant because it brings these issues into focus, and although the director has no easy answers to his questions of moral consequence, the ultimate result of the ridiculous follies of the chateau’s inhabitants—the shooting death of the “hero” aviator André—says everything: meaningless violence will ultimately be accepted quite readily by this society.

     Indeed, Renoir’s work is so beautifully textured and complex in its structure that the movie moves in many directions simultaneously. I am interested, however, in another perhaps less political issue—although an ultimately even more troubling issue concerning the “polis”—a concern embedded in Renoir’s title, “the rules of the game.”

     We must recall that the theatrical performances, shooting parties and sexual chases I’ve already recounted are just a few of the “games” these people undertake. These people are, as Robert Altman has suggested in his version of such a “country weekend,” Gosford Park, an absolutely bored folk, a group of individuals with a great deal of money but, who without imagination, are desperate for further entertainments. The film, indeed, begins with just such a “game,” André has matched the record for long-range flying of Charles Lindbergh, a feat accomplished not because of his love of flying but in order to impress Christine. When she does not show up for his landing, he sulks, refusing to speak to the waiting radio audience; in short, as Octave describes it, he behaves as a spoiled child.

     The minute the guests begin to arrive at the La Chesnaye’s chateau Colinière, they begin talking of games: bridge, ping-pong and belote. Robert, the master of the house, is a collector of mechanical toys and other such gadgets, and the highlight of the theatrical productions is his presentation of his newest—and largest—acquisition to date: a room-size musical clock that features various doll-like figures performing instruments. Some of the most ridiculous moments in the movie, moreover, portray the nap and bedtime rituals of this group of supposed adults as they gather in the hallways to promenade back and forth, kissing each other goodnight, the males roughhousing like teenagers armed with pillows and other props. There is something almost painful in Renoir’s insistence upon our witnessing these child-like antics.

     The most awful of the “entertainments” enjoyed by this group, however, are far more aggressive. The favorite game at Colinière is obviously gossip, a game that can be won only by the party being gossiped about admitting (or partially admitting) the facts. The camera almost drools over the various guests’ and servants’ salacious comments on the relationship between Madame La Chesnaye and André Jurieu until Christine blithely admits that the two have seen a great deal of each other and he has undertaken his voyage on her account. Later, upon accidentally spying her husband embracing Geneviève (an embrace, ironically, he attempts to deny her), Christine readily purports to have known of the affair, even convincing Geneviève of her knowledge and acceptance with an offer of open friendship. Even though she is an “outsider”—an Austrian and all that might suggest on the eve of World War II—she recognizes that the “rules” of this French game require that she not lose face.

     Yet, unlike most of the other figures in this game-playing universe, she is impetuous, desirous of breaking the “rules” by taking up with almost anyone who will help. The actress playing this  part, Nora Gregor, may be, as the late film-critic Gerald Mast described her, “as haunting and bewitching as a plaster giraffe,” but in her very ungainliness she stands apart from the others. After a brief tryst with M. de Saint-Aubin, she admits her love to Andrè, suggesting that he and she simply run off. This “hero,” however, must play the game properly, first accosting her husband to tell him of their intent to run off, and perhaps engaging him in a duel or at least suffering his outrage. Their “duel” of fisticuffs ends in Robert’s friendly warning that without sufficient money André can never hope to make Christine happy. 

    Admitting her disappointment with her earthbound “hero,” Christine confides in her childhood friend, Octave, who also has secretly loved her all these years. After a long discussion, he agrees to take her away, but her maid convinces him that, with no source of money whatsoever, he also would not be a good match. He hands over his coat to Andre who rushes to his waiting heroine and to his destiny, death at the hands the jealous gamekeeper, Schumacher, convinced that the woman waiting in the greenhouse is his wife Lisette.

      If we have some difficulty caring about the demise of the blandly dutiful André, we still recognize that his death signifies there is no escape from the confines of the highly-structured game-playing society. For in such a context, no other reality is possible. Robert covers up the murder with a simple lie, which Le Général salutes as evidence of his “class.” As Octave tells Christine: “Everyone lies: pharmaceutical fliers, the government, the radios, the movies, newspapers.”

     All their games, indeed, are based on falsehoods. In such a world, no one dares to ask the obvious questions: Are hunters to whom their prey is forced into gunsight really hunters? Are these hideously amateur performances really worthy of such delirious applause? Are any of these individuals really attractive enough to warrant such amorous attentions? Is a weekend in the country truly an enjoyable event?

     The parallel structures of master and servant, accordingly, make it quite clear that the class differences are not at the heart of this woeful tale of pre-World War II France. Indeed, the puppet-like “masters” must submit to the “realities” they have created every bit as much as the man downstairs shining their shoes.


Los Angeles, May 27, 2006


Robert Altman’s Gosford Park bears many structural similarities to Renoir’s great film Rules of the Game. Gosford Park also represents the haute bourgeois (along with some titled figures) who retreat for the weekend to a country estate, where—utterly bored—they proceed to plays games, gossip, and participate in a “shooting party” that belies a kind a mindless disdain for living things. Their sexual escapades, moreover, are paralleled by their servants. Octave of La Règle du jeu is replaced in Altman’s “version” by Ivor Novello, a popular movie star and singer, who provides most of their entertainment. And just as in Renoir’s film, the weekend closes with a murder.

      But here the similarities end, as Altman’s work meanders into various concerns from the relationship between the classes to comical jabs at a dying social fabric. Whereas Renoir’s film points up important social issues of his own time, Altman’s movie is a kind of nostalgically framed satire of a British institution that has long since passed, and in that fact the latter film, although beautifully directed, brilliantly acted, and enjoyable overall, loses most of its relevancy for viewers of the 21st century. One might almost ask what to make of this film, or, to turn the question around, why did Altman direct it? What did he mean to say to us?

     I bring up these questions only because I so admire the technique of the film that I find it difficult to accept that Altman is merely presenting us an historically-based comic-tragedy about the collapse of the British empire—a collapse which the host believes has already taken place.

     As in many of his films, Altman turns down the sound level of his upstairs and, particularly, his downstairs conversations (in this case, each actor was fitted with a portable microphone) so that we must attend with great concentration upon the overlapping dialogue of his characters, which, in turn, implies that the film is worth such acuity. For the most part what we discern through our attentiveness are a series of subtle interrelationships, sexual innuendos, and comic one-liners.     

     Maggie Smith’s unforgettable portrayal of Constance Trentham, who snobbishly vents her spleen to one and all, is almost worth all our patience. Her interchange with Ivor Novello (Jeremy Northam) is typical:

Constance: Tell me, how much longer are you going to go on making films?

Ivor: I suppose that rather depends on how much longer the public wants to see


Constance: It must be hard to know when it’s time to throw in the towel…. What

a pity about that last one of yours…what was it called? “The Dodger?”

Ivor: “The Lodger.”

Constance: “The Lodger.” It must be so disappointing when something just

flops like that.

     As Ivor plays a series of songs during a game of bridge, she says, nearly under her breath, “What a lovely long repertoire,” and soon after discourages applause, “Please don’t encourage him.” At another point when Morris Weissman (Bob Ballaban) refuses to name the murderer in his next Charlie Chan movie because it will spoil it for the dinner guests, she quips: “Oh, none of us will see it.” Witty dialogue indeed!

     The other guests, meanwhile, battle with their host, William McCordle (Michael Gambon), and with each other over various issues: Freddie Nesbitt (James Wilby) is fearful of being financially ruined by McCordle’s threat to pull out of a business deal; Constance is terrified that he may cut off her promised “lifetime” allowance; and Raymond Stockbridge (Charles Dance) is disgusted with his common-stock wife, Louisa (Geraldine Somerville), who is also the subject of several of Lady Trentham’s barbs.

     The quietly charged interchanges between Mrs. Wilson (the head of the serving staff, Helen Mirren)  and Mrs. Croft (the head of the cooking staff, Eileen Atkins) are worthy of our attention, we realize, when later it is revealed that the two are sisters. Croft is unable to forgive Wilson for allowing her son to be “adopted” (in actuality, turned over to an orphanage by the dreadful host, William McCordle) while she has kept hers (also fathered by McCordle) only to have the child die.

     The servants’ quarters are also the scene of various sexual escapades, the most obvious of which concerns American film producer Morris Weissman’s “gentleman,” Henry Denton (Ryan Phillippe), who, it soon becomes apparent, is not a servant at all. Denton, possibly in a sexual  relationship with Weissman—his sudden appearance in Weissman’s bedroom late one evening certainly gives that impression—sexually gropes Constance’s young maid, Mary Maceachran and the servant-girl Elsie (Emily Watson), while bedding his host’s wife, Sylvia (Kristin Scott Thomas). The first footman, George (Richard E. Grant) is “desperate for a fag”—clearly not only of the smoking sort—and quips to another servant, Arthur , whose offer to “dress Mr. Novello” is refused: “And now you won’t get to see him in his underdrawers. Better luck next time.” Anyone aware of British film and musical history would also know that the beautiful Novello as also gay. As head Butler Jennings (Alan Bates) notes, “We all have something to hide,” his secret, evidently, being that he has served prison time as a conscientious objector during the War.

     Obviously, in terms of dialogue there is a great deal to attend to. But again, one must ask, for what purpose? What should we make of this witty, deceitful crowd?

     Altman is perhaps more successful in conveying—what many critics have recognized as one of his major themes—that with McCordle’s murder we are witnessing the symbolic death of the upper class. In his visual presentation of the servants gathering outside the doorway of the drawing room and in other spots throughout the house to overhear the Novello’s songs, we recognize that the performer may be despised by the figures for whom he directly performs, but he is loved by the servants. And in that fact we recognize their love of life, their thorough and open their enjoyment of music, dance, film and theater they will prevail just as the “ruling class” will ultimately fade away. Altman reveals this with some sense of nostalgia, for as disgusting as these societal figures are, unlike Denton and Novello himself, they are the “real” thing. Like Denton, who pretends to be a servant, Novello is an impersonator. To Morris’s question, “How do you manage to put up with these people?” Novello responds, “Well you forget, I make my living impersonating them.”

     Similarly, ousted from her position as a servant, we recognize that Elsie, despite our admiration for her ability to create a new life, will perhaps also become a kind of impersonator, an actress who, as a native to Britain, can now “pretend” to be as British as Claudette Colbert (on the phone throughout much of the movie American Morris Weissman, in his search for an actress who sounds “British,” asks “What about Claudette Colbert. She’s British, isn’t she? Is she, like, affected or is she British?”).

     In the year 2001—the date of Gosford Park’s premiere—one can only wonder, what does it all matter? In the context of the culturally diverse world of contemporary England, why should we necessarily care about the end of what Elsie describes as “toffee-nosed snobs.”

     To focus on the issue of British class distinctions, I suggest, would miss the point. Although the tale is one of British society, the real issue of this film is not about a dying breed of high society, but the issue of servitude itself. McCordle, after all, is also an impersonator, a wealthy businessman who has married into royalty. Although he seemingly enjoys the superficial trappings of the landed gentry—money and fiddling with his guns—he is as trapped in his life as any of his servants. The “hard-hearted randy old sod,” who has impregnated dozens of women, is detested by his wife and daughter both; although he loves guns, he “can’t hit a barn door.” It is clear that his life in the country is a charade.

     Similarly, the other “society” figures have sold their souls for money and position, and in so doing, have also bought themselves a kind slavery from which they cannot escape. The Stockbridges detest one another, Freddie Nesbitt is always near financial ruin, Lady Trentham is a penurious, bitter old woman, Isobel McCordle a jilted lover.

     Downstairs the “servants” live their lives, as Elsie complains, “through” the upper class. The concept of servitude, in fact, exists even beyond the interrelationships between master and servant. In order to protect her son, Robert Parks, Mrs. Wilson is willing to sacrifice her own life, poisoning McCordle before her son—aware only of his father’s identity—attempts to stab him to death. When Mary asks her how she could have known that Robert would attempt to kill him, Wilson reveals the situation of nearly everyone in Altman’s film: she is the perfect servant, she explains, with the gift of anticipation. She knows what her masters will want even before they themselves know it. Asked whether she isn’t worried about her life, she reiterates: “Didn’t you hear me? I’m  the perfect servant; I have no life.”

     The other figures of this social prison may not have her “gift,” but they, like her, are without lives. Crying out in pain for the inability to admit her existence to her son, Mrs. Wilson is comforted by her sister and former foe, who hushes her: “Don’t cry, they’ll hear you.” With that Altman says it all. No release save death is possible in such a confining space.

      The impersonators—loud, irritating, graceless as they are—are the only truly free beings. As Nesbitt bitterly comprehends, only “ruin” and its accompanying ostracization can free him. As opposed to the stasis of estate life, where he is told several times to keep his problems to himself, he realizes “when you’re ruined there’s so much do.” Obviously, he means he must take care of his affairs, but the statement also suggests a potentially larger engagement with the world. McCordle’s death may have saved Nesbitt from financial disaster, but it has also kept him within the bonds of internment, which he, like the others, must suffer in bored silence. In her inability to keep quiet about events, Elsie, banned from servitude, can now join the world at large. By leaving with those whom the society ostracizes, the crass, loud, ignorant director Weissman, the indiscriminate and selfish sensualist Denton, and the homosexual cinematic and musical imitator Novello, the young girl embraces life at its most morally corrupt—if you buy into the norms of the British gentry—but also at its fullest. In the world to which she is ended, she will finally be permitted, if she desires, to speak out.

     In short, Altman’s focus in this excellent film is not on the death of the British upper class, but, like Renoir’s great masterpiece, concerns the slavery that any class or social distinction imposes on all. Altman’s Gosford Park, I would argue, like most of his other films, is a testament to his love and fear for Americans and a warning against the artificially social stratifications accompanying financial, educational, sexual, linguistic, and cultural differences. 

Los Angeles, May 30, 2006

Reprinted from Douglas Messerli My Year 2006: Serving (Los Angeles: Green Integer, 2008).