Saturday, November 26, 2011

George Seaton | Miracle of 34th Street

born again
by Douglas Messerli

George Seaton (screenplay, based on a story by Valentine Davies), George Seaton (director) Miracle on 34th Street / 1947

 I’ll begin by admitting that I absolutely enjoy George Seaton’s and Valentine Davies’ holiday fantasy, Miracle on 34th Street. I have probably watched this film every year of my adult life on Thanksgiving day or during the Christmas season, and I get delight just imagining that I might have been able witness the premiere of this film as a 6-month old baby. 
    This year, watching it just before Thanksgiving dinner, however, I had a different, more contrarian view of the holiday chestnut, listed in the National Film Registry.
    Let me start by saying the obvious, a cliché spouted each year by thousands of religious Americans, particularly, one imagines, by those who describe themselves as “born again:” the Christmas season has increasingly become commercialized, and most Americans have lost the sense of the holiday’s true focus, the birth of Christ.
    Admittedly, I am not among those religious or “born again” Americans, but even I was appalled when the Christmas shopping season, it was announced, would began this year not on the Friday morning after Thanksgiving, but at midnight. A local radio station began 24 hour programming of Christmas carols (most of them centered on the holiday festivities instead of the child in Bethlehem) two weeks ago!
     Generally recognized as the emblem of that pagan, commercialized Christmas is Santa Claus, the jolly, fat Dutch gift-giving Sinterklaas. You remember him, the one about whom your parents lied, leading you on to believe that he was the source of all of those lovely Christmas presents beneath the tree until you grew old to appreciate the loving care they had been secretly showing you for all those years? As I have written elsewhere, I came to that realization, almost miraculously one morning, at a far younger age than most of my peers; it didn’t bother me one little bit that there wasn’t any Santa Claus and that my parents had been so nice to me for all those years. But my revelation of that fact to a school friend, sent her off crying into her mother’s arms. I was told that I must never reveal the truth to anyone my age or younger. But even older children, I realized, might not like to hear my discovery.
     Seaton’s work, however, begins almost at the opposite end of the equation. The young girl at the center of this story, Susan Walker (Natalie Wood), has been told by her level-headed mother, Doris (Maureen O’Hara) that there is no Santa Claus, without any noticeable effect in the child’s demeanor. Mrs. Walker, who works at Macy’s, coordinating the all-important Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, is apparently a strong-headed and practical woman, who has, one imagines, tried to remove almost all fantasy and myth from her young daughter’s life. She has told that there are no giants, and the girl is discouraged from reading “fairy tales.” Obviously, the mother has been hurt by what she perceives as the fantasies of her married life. One wonders how she has dealt with Christian myths, including the child born in a stable. But fortunately, for the survival of the film, Seaton has skirted that issue and, indeed, all issues having to deal with the real season’s purpose.
    The film begins with a seemingly pernickety old man scolding a young window dresser for putting the reindeer in the wrong places in relation to his store’s depiction of Santa and sleigh. The man, Kris Kringel (the marvelous Edmund Gwenn), we soon discover, is very particular when it comes to all things about Santa. After all he believes he is Kris Kringel, Santa. It is, as the doctor to the nursing home where Kris lives later assures us, a quite harmless delusion, one that only leads him to do good. But everything is soon made much more complicated when Kris accidentally encounters, during the early moments of the Macy parade, that the man hired to play Santa Claus—the traditional star of the event (even today, as I watched the parade, the bands, floats, balloons, and other theater and vaudeville events, the parade culminated with Santa’s arrival)—is absolutely soused! Reporting the man’s condition to Mrs. Walker, Kris seems a natural to replace the drunk Santa. After all, he even looks like a well-trimmed and tailored Santa. It is almost inevitable that Mrs. Walker should invite him to portray Santa, since, he declares, he has certainly had experience.
     Meanwhile, Doris’ daughter, Susan is watching the parade from a neighbor’s window, from what we might presume is a Central Park West apartment. Today we might worry about the fact that she is watching this with an adult male, Fred Gailey (John Payne)—although we have been reassured by the Walker’s maid that she has been keeping an eye on the girl—who occupies an apartment across the way. The Santa Claus, declares Susan, is quite convincing, far better than the one of the year before. Gailey is a bit troubled by her mature dismissal of Santa, as well as giants, but is not beyond encouraging her to invite him to dinner in the Walker home. Mr. Gailey may be a happy man (the old fashioned meaning of “gay”), but he is represented as bit disturbing in his forward behavior. His “move” on the daughter, clearly, is also a move on her somewhat cynical mother. Nonetheless, he is invited to dinner.
     Kris, meanwhile, not only looks the part of the perfect Santa, but is quickly hired by Macy’s to become their Department Store Santa. Kris is delighted to be able to return to his rightful place, and everyone seems happy with his “acting,” until it is discovered that he has been telling some parents to purchase their children’s gifts at competing stores—even Gimbels. The scene where Thelma Ritter (in one of her first film roles) stops to thank the floor manager for their unusual new policy, where they put the spirit of Christmas, so it appears, before their own financial gain, is one of the most delightful of the film.       
     Such radical behavior is, expectedly, met with horror, until both the floor manager, Julian Shellhammer (Philip Tongue) and Mrs. Walker, summoned to Mr. Macy’s office, are surprised to discover that their boss loves the idea, realizing that it will result in even more gift-paying customers. In another assault on the Walker family, Gailey encourages Susan to wait in line to see Santa, before dropping her off to her mother’s office. The girl is skeptical, until she hears Kris speak and sing to a young Dutch orphan in her original language. Doris’s response is predictable: “Susan, I speak French, but that doesn’t make me Joan of Arc.”
      To back her up, Doris summons their Santa, encouraging him to tell Susan that he is not really Santa Claus, but when he insists that he is, she demands his file, wherein she discovers that he goes under the name of Kris Kringel and declares his birthplace as the North Pole. A visit to the store psychologist is ordered for Kris, who passes all the tests with great aplomb, yet raising the ire of the psychologist, Granville Sawyer (Porter Hall) who throughout the interview pulls at his eyebrows (a trait shared by his secretary), by suggesting that something may be problematic in his home life. In retaliation, Sawyer suggests that Kris may have a latent hostility that could break out at any time. A call to the doctor who heads the Long Island nursing home where Kris has been living, brings reassurances from Dr. Pierce (James Seay), who also suggests it may be easier if Kris can find a place to stay nearer to the store in Manhattan. Before you can say Kris Kringel, Gailey has invited the old man to share his bedroom, further insinuating his being into the Walker’s life.
     As the old man speaks to Susan, he is saddened to learn that she does not believe in his existence and that she has been spurned by her playmates for being unable to imagine herself as an animal. “But I am not an animal,” she declares, after which he patiently teaches her how to pretend to be a monkey. It is clear that he has taken on the Walkers as a kind of test case:

                      …Christmas isn’t just a day, it’s a frame of mind…and that’s 
                      what’s been changing. That’s why I’m glad I’m here, maybe 
                      I can do something about it.

     Kris even repeats the sentiments I stated earlier in this essay, disparaging the commercialism of the holiday—a strange thing for that emblem of the commercial to do; but it is clear the director and writer want to both ways.
     Soon after Kris discovers that a beloved young janitor, Alfred (Alvin Greenman) has also been seeing the mean-spirited Sawyer, who suggests that Alfred has psychological problems simply for wanting to play Santa Claus at his neighborhood YMCA. Furious with the abuse of this good-hearted boy, Kris charges into Sawyer’s office, accusing him of malpractice and hitting him over the head with his cane. The violence Sawyer has predicted has, alas, become reality, and Kris is sent to Bellvue Psychiatric Hospital for evaluation, believing that Mrs. Walker has been behind the decision.
     Despairing of the lack of faith she has shown, Kris purposely fails the psychiatric examination, and is destined to be locked away. Almost everyone knows the rest of the story, how Gailey takes on Kris’s case, fighting to convince a disbelieving world and court that Kris Kringel is truly Santa Claus. Even Mrs. Walker and her daughter come round to support his cause.
      The case is miraculously won due, in part, to the political exigencies of court. As the Pol Charles Halloran (William Frawley) puts it to Judge Henry X. Harper (Gene Lockhart):

                        All right, you go back and tell them that the New York
                        State Supreme Court rules there’s no Santa Claus. It’s all
                        over the papers.The kids read it and they don’t hang up
                        their stockiings. Now what happens to all the toys that
                        are supposed to be in those stockings. Nobody buys them.
                        The toy manufactures are going to like that; so they
                        have to lay off a lot of their employees, union employees.
                        Now you got the CIO and AF of L against you and they’re
                        going to adore you for it and they’re going to say it with votes.
                        Oh, and the department stores are going to love you too and
                        the Christmas card makers and the candy companies. Ho ho,
                        Henry, you’re going to be an awful popular fella. And
                        what about the Salvation Army? Why, they got a Santa
                        Claus on every corner, and they’re taking a fortune.

     So much for Kringel’s dismay for the commercialism of Christmas! Perhaps no clearer statement of the relationship of the fat, jolly, fellow and money has ever been made. Harper’s children even hate him, and Gailey calls the young son of District Attorney Thomas Mara to testify that his father has told, assuredly, that there is a Santa Claus.
     Even more cynical are the US Postal employees, tired of all the unclaimed mail addressed to Santa Claus, who win the day for Gailey and Kris Kringel by forwarding dozens of sacks of letters to the courthouse, providing the Judge with an easy way out:

                         Uh, since the United States Government declares this man to
                         be Santa Claus, this court will not dispute it. Case dismissed.

     So, insists Seaton’s film, Santa Claus, despite all evidence to the contrary, is alive and well. Yet Seaton and the original author go even further, demanding of even the adult characters and viewers their utter belief in the commercial emblem. When asked what she might like for Christmas, Susan pulls out an advertisement for a suburban Long Island home. Even Kris Kringel is a bit stunned by her demand, when he suggests, “…Don’t you see, dear? Some children wish for things they couldn’t possibly use like real locomotives or B-29.s.” Her retort is the stubborn insistence of any spoiled consumer:

                     If you’re really Santa Claus, you can get it for me. And if you 
                     can’t, you’re only a nice man with a white beard like mother said.

     The filmmakers hardly pause to take in the significance of what the child has just said, and within a few hours, Kris has sent the three traveling along a route that winds by the house of her dreams. Upon glimpsing it, Susan demands they stop and runs into the home as if she already owned it. How can Mr. Gailey and Mrs. Walker resist such a consumer dream, even if it means giving up their perfectly nice apartments, overlooking the parade route, and now worth millions of dollars? They will simply have to marry, move to the suburbs, and build on the little family with which they have begun. The discovery of Kris’s cane left near the fireplace convinces them surely—as “born again” Christian’s zealous rediscovery of Christ—of Santa Claus’ existence, just as the audience is bathed with consumer assurances that this is, in fact, the perfect house.
     Perhaps never in the whole of Hollywood productions was there a more central pitching of consumer products. Even movies with thousands of “product placements” cannot match, Nathalie Wood’s answer to Kris’ question of where she had found the lovely sweater she is wearing: “My mother got on sale it at Macy’s.”
     During an ad between events of this year’s Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, Macy’s proudly quoted that line among other cinematic mentions of the august department store.
     As Susan chants to herself: “I believe…I believe…it’s silly, but I believe.”

Los Angeles, Thanksgiving 2011

Friday, November 18, 2011

Pierre Étaix | Heureux Anniversaire (Happy Anniversary) / Le grand amour (The Great Love)

being married: two films by pierre étaix
by Douglas Messerli

Pierre Étaix and Jean-Claude Carrière (writers and directors) Heureux Anniversaire (Happy Anniversary) / 1962, USA 1963

Pierre Étaix and Jean-Claude Carrière (writers), Pierre Étaix (director) Le grand amour (The Great Love) / 1969

On November 16, 2011, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences presented an evening of two films, a short and feature, by the French director Pierre Étaix, a man little known in the US because his films were, for many years, tied up in copyright issues which also resulted in their deterioration. Through the help of several organizations, particularly the Technicolor Foundation for Cinema Heritage and Groupama Gan Foundation for Cinema, this director’s films have been restored and will be released next year by Criterion on DVD. But it was a special treat to see two of them at the Academy’s widescreen Samuel Goldwyn Theater.

     The first of these “The Laughter Returns” films was Étaix’s 1962 black and white short (15 minutes) Heureux Anniversaire, which flawlessly reveals Étaix’s roots in the circus, as well as his major cinematic influences, Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Jacques Tati, with whom he worked on Mon Oncle.

     This movie, which won the 1963 Academy Award for short films, is a kind of road picture—in which no one goes anywhere. The earliest frames reveal a loving wife, La femme (Laurence Lignières) setting a formal table, hiding a gift within the napery and preparing a beautiful meal for her husband: it is, quite clearly, a special occasion, and when, soon after we see Le mari (Étaix) with a wrapped package and champagne, we recognize that is a shared holiday, in fact an anniversary. When the husband attempts to drive away from the shop where he has purchased the gift, cars have locked him in. He honks one of the cars horns, and a man, mid-shave, exits from the barber, politely moving the car so that the implacable Étaix can exit.

     One major difference from Étaix’s films from other comic works of its time, is that it seldom focuses on only one figure. For this poor man, whose space is immediately overtaken by another automobile, is forced for the rest of the film to circle the block, shouting out to the barber over and over that he will be right back.

    The happy husband, meanwhile, trapped in a traffic jam which the writers mock by showing various drivers engaged in every kind of activity—except driving—imaginable, from reading, playing games, dining, etc.

     When traffic finally loosens a bit, our hero decides to stop by a flower shop. This time, he enters a narrow space, which, when he returns, permits him no entry into his car. For a few seconds, he even contemplates crawling through others to get to his own, but it is to no avail, and other trapped drivers berate him for the situation.

     Meanwhile, the wife, patiently waiting at home, is growing tired, bored, certainly impatient, as she nibbles at a salad, nips a bit the wine.

     The flowers are crushed by the time hero is on his way again. Another visit to a shop, where he buys a ridiculous sunflower, ultimately ends with similar results: the flower is beheaded. By the time the poor man reaches his apartment door, the wife, having finished off the bottle and eaten much of the food, has fallen into a kind of drunken stupor, her had lying upon the dinner table. Le mari gently kisses her and rattles the little package she has hidden the napkins folds. He shall have to spend the night alone. Such is married life in the 20th century urban world.


     As Étaix himself describes it, Le grand amour is based on a vaudeville conceit, that of an older man attracted to a younger woman. If one wants to recognize just how adroit Étaix is, however, one might compare this film with an American equivalent such as Billy Wilder’s tepid comedy of 1955, The Seven Year Itch. Similar to Le grand amour, the male in Wilder’s farce is fed-up with married life, and attracted to a young shapely woman (in this case, Marilyn Monroe), and like the Étaix figure, imagines all sorts of humorous scenarios of how to seduce the younger woman while his wife is away on vacation. Yet how much more coarse and, frankly, uninteresting, is Wilder’s version. Tom Ewell was a bean-bag of a man, middle age having spread to every muscle in his body. Perfect, I imagine, for all those frumpy American men who still might imagine that Monroe would swoon over them. But Étaix, still handsome in a comic way, has a true chance to attract this young beauty, his secretary Agnès; indeed she seems almost to flirt with him, and readily agrees to join him on a dinner date. In short, we know nothing will ever happen between Ewell and Monroe; the idea is preposterous from the outset. But in Le grand amour there is actually a dangerous possibility that Pierre’s attractions will take him further than an imaginary fling.

     In Le grand amour, moreover, we also know the whole story of their lives, and witness how Florence (whose appearance is so close to her mother that she takes the frightening prediction—“like mother, like daughter”—to an entirely new dimension) has manipulated him. The family relationship is comically reiterated by the scene in which, after having heard gossip of her husband’s philandering in the park, packs up to go home to “mamma.” The film brilliantly tracks her down the stairs, Pierre pleading with her as she goes, to watch her enter  a room below wherein her mother and father sit.

     Florence’s family have, despite Pierre’s reluctance, been only too happy to marry their daughter off, and before he has even had the opportunity to think things out, he finds himself in the cathedral with a hundred sober faces behind him, determined to see he follow through with the event. The wedding is made even a more hilarious when we discover the facts that, Étaix later married the actress playing Florence (Annie Fratellini), several members of her circus-performing family serving as figures in the film.

    The paternal business is a tannery, and before Pierre can even say, “I do,” he is closeted up into that family enterprise, each day facing the ugly visage of the father's capable secretary. Although outwardly playing the joyful married couple, dining several nights a week with Florence’s family, the two, years later, are both dreadfully bored. No mere “seven year itch,” Pierre is suffering from what might be described as an intense rash. He cannot even walk through the park on his way to work without arousing the interest of the provincial town’s gossips, wonderful clowns and character actors whose antics carry this film into new comic dimensions.

     It can hardly be a shock, accordingly, when a young, very young, beautiful girl turns up in Pierre’s office to replace the former battle-axe. Goaded on by his friend Jacques (Alain Janey), Pierre suddenly begins to imagine, just as the Tom Ewell character in the Wilder film, all sorts of possibilities. But while Ewell’s revision of his life is basically banal and ineffective, Étaix and Carrière draw their comic possibilities from the theater of the absurd, conjuring up (with Étaix’s miraculous prop-man) beds that take to the streets, a spousal property settlement in which every object in the house has been split into halves, as well as a whole series of imaginary love scenes played out by the two men in a restaurant that cannot but convince everyone from the local gossips to the café waiter that Pierre and his friend Jacques are having a gay affair!

     Whereas, Ewell attempts, in his imagination, to madly embrace his prey upon a piano stool, Pierre actually speaks out about his passion for his young secretary—without knowing, however, that he pouring his heart out to the ugly secretary about to leave the company, who quickly locks the door to bar his escape!

     Throughout all this ridiculousness, Étaix maintains an aplomb and grace that has been compared, with good reason, to the dancing of Fred Astaire. It is perhaps, not accidently that the director reminisced, after the film, interviewed by Leonard Maltin and translated by Geneviève Bujold, that he works best with clowns and dancers. While Étaix perhaps sees his roots most clearly in the little tramp, I would argue that his personality is closer to the stoned face and the choreographed agility of Keaton. And like Keaton (and to a certain degree Chaplin) the marvel of his movements are that they actually occurr in real space instead of being recreated through computer simulation. As Étaix argues, “they were real, not something made up.” The beds truly rode down country lanes. “We closed off the streets, but a car still came up to us as the bed flew past,” he recalls.

     Like Richard Sherman (the Tom Ewell character), Pierre does not go through with his imagined affair. In the American film, it is a combination of guilt, fear of discovery, and jealousy that finally extinguishes his passion for Monroe. In Le grand amour it is his own being that finally reveals to himself who he actually is. As he begins to talk to the young beauty over dinner, he speaks of nothing but the office. It is clear that, despite his seeming entrapment in Florence’s world, it is precisely the place in which he most comfortable. He is a business man at heart, running a tannery, and as he begins to reveal himself, he grows older and older by the minute in her eyesas well as in ours and, most importantly, in his own. Just as he has earlier wished that he were younger (in cinematic terms, becoming younger) before calling for his secretary, who arrives at his office door as a child of 10 years of age, so now he leaves the dinner comprehending the truth. “I have wanted to tell you something,” he begins, “I no longer love you.”

     Florence returns from her vacation just in time, but he cannot find her at the station. When he does finally encounter her, she looks younger, refreshed; so too, she tells him, does he. She has disembarked with a young handsome man, who stands holding her bags. Pierre is outraged. Who is the young man? Does she give her bags up to just anyone? So the couple goes arguing down the street, their discussion clearly providing fodder for the gossips for months.

     When asked why he turned the action from their argument away to the distracted clearing up of the café waiter and the final shrug of a drunkard (another clown) who appeared throughout the film, Étaix commented: “I did not want to ‘end’ the film with any conclusion, good or bad. It may be that the fight between the two is the first time they are really talking to one another. But I did not want to say that. I wanted to turn the audiences’ attention away from whatever they thought the ending might really be. There is no one answer, no one ending.” The danger that puts all of Étaix’s characters on a kind of circus high-wire, remains. We can never know for sure whether they will balance themselves and walk across the tent-tops or tragically fall.

Los Angeles, November 17, 2011

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Pedro Almodóvar | The Skin I Live In

the i who still breathes
by Douglas Messerli

Pedro Almodóvar (screenplay, based on a fiction by Thierry Jonquet), Pedro Almodóvar (director) The Skin I Live In / 2011

 Influenced to a certain degree by Georges Franju’s elegant horror film, Less yeux sans visage Almodóvar’s langorous study of control over another being takes us into a secret world of a tortured Frankenstein who, with the advances of today’s science, can completely transform the human body. Much like Franju’s Doctor Génessier, Robert Ledgard, heading an isolated clinic and operating out of his house, has suffered the horror of seeing a wife severely burned in an automobile accident, evidently caused by his half-brother, the brutal and bestial Zeca, with whom she was having an affair. Through patient nursing and the attentions of her doctor-husband, the wife survives, but upon witnessing her burned shell of her body in the glass of a window, she leaps to her death.

     Robert (Antonio Banderas) is left with a daughter, Norma, who never quite recovers from the shock of her mother’s death, and is unable to deal publically with other people. As Robert and Zeca’s mother relays the news early on in the movie, Norma followed the route of her mother, falling from a high window of the institute where she had been committed.

     Although this information is summarized early on, we don’t actually see the events played out until after the director has introduced us to another, more mysterious figure, Vera Cruz (Elena Anaya), a beautiful woman kept locked up in Robert’s home. We see little evidence of any outward operations—and certainly none of the masks and late night activities of Franju’s film. But we do know that, like the Dr. of that work, Robert has experimented on skin transplants, and we can only suspect that Vera has been at the center of his attention.

     He has, so it is hinted, made over the imprisoned girl somewhat in the image of his dead daughter, a fact for which his mother, serving as the head of house and cook, despairs. Now that he has finished with her, she suggests, he should destroy her instead of keeping her locked away in a room where she reads, exercises, and, occasionally, writes upon the walls. She is a dangerous being.

     We recognize some of that potential danger when Zeca shows up at the house on carnival night, dressed, absurdly, as a tiger, demanding that his mother hide him for a few days since he has just been involved in a heist. The mother, Marilia (Marisa Paredes) is outraged and quickly rejects any such suggestion, and, accordingly, is tied up and gagged by her son. Glimpsing the young lookalike Norma on a television monitor, Zeca—a bestial figure if there ever was one— frantically searches the house for the girl, and finding the room, rapes her, Vera, strangely enough, both accepting the brutal action and crying out in terrible pain.

     Robert, returning home mid-rape, rushes to the room to shoot his half-brother dead, while his mother below, screams out that he should kill them both.

     What follows is even stranger, as a sexual relationship suddenly develops between Robert and Vera. And after he has destroyed Zeca’s body, he returns to her bed. The implications are frightening: if she indeed looks like his daughter, has he been sexually involved with his daughter as well? We are never given an answer, but we sense something grandly amiss.

     Almodóvar—as the director of Women of the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown and other comedies—has often been described as creating a frenetic or, at least, hectic pace in his works. But here he almost lugubriously takes us back in time, retelling some of his tale, and, in so doing, revealing new truths that are even more frightening than those we already suspect.

     Although she has had a difficult time with social relationships, Robert takes his daughter to a pre-wedding party, where the young Norma seems to be acclimating herself well to other young women her age. Suddenly, however, many of the younger generation seem to be missing, and following their tracks, Robert finds a group of them, boy and girls, in the middle of woods, engaging in group sex. His daughter is nowhere in sight.

     We have already been introduced to a young man, Vicente, who works as a window dresser in his mother’s second-hand dress shop. He has asked for the young shop assistant to go with him to the party, but she turns him down, evidently being more interested in women than in men. When he suggests she put on a dress he is displaying, she disparagingly suggests he wear it himself. The suggestion is that he may be gay, but he scoffs at her suggestion.

    When he shows up at the party he has already ingested—as have the other young people—a substantial amount of drugs. Meeting the young Norma, he lures her into the out-of-doors, asking her what drugs she has taken. Innocently, she reports the numerous drugs she is being proscribed for her psychological condition, while he interprets it in his own way:

                              Vicente: You are different. I am different as well.
                              Norma: Are you in therapy, too?

She, he is convinced will be a willing participant in his sexual experiment. As he takes off into the woods to have sex, she grows frightened, screaming out, to which he responds by trying to silence her, slapping her as he attempts to take her. She passes out, and he, horrified, quickly redresses her and disappears from the event. Robert comes upon her at that very moment, observing the boy on a motorcycle speeding away.

      After the attack, Norma’s condition worsens. Locked away in a sanatorium, she appears to grow sicker, hiding from her father upon each of his visits. It can only confirm our earlier suspicions; she has associated the young rapist with her own father. He is asked to no longer visit her, and soon after, as Marilia has already told us, she jumps to her death.

     Only a few frames later, the young handsome Vicente is kidnapped and chained in a dark space for several days, fed only water and a little rice. We comprehend Robert’s sense of revenge, but why, if it is him, is he torturing the youth? What might possibly be gained?

     Perhaps his mother, has said it best when she observed: “The things for love a madman can do!"

One of the most eerie scenes of the film occurs when we observe Robert spraying a hose over the filthy Vicente, convinced he is about to be murdered. Gently and patiently, however, the handsome Robert almost lovingly shaves the young man who, we soon discover, is about to undergo an operation. We can only suspect the worst, but when the boy has awakened from the surgery, we discover something even beyond the expected castration. He has replaced the boy’s genitals with a vagina, producing various sizes of dildo’s with which the boy is ordered to practice in order to help heal the crevice.

    Without a few months, Robert has completed the sex change, as we witness the young beauty, now Vera, after the transformation. Against his will he has been made over by another from a man into a woman. At first, the patient lashes out in rebellion filling the walls with words and numbers, dates of changes on his body and the statement, over and over: “I breathe. I breathe. I breathe. I know I breathe,” as if his very respiration, sign of his survival, were a reiteration of the Decartesian principle, “I think, therefore, I am.”

     We already know what happens, but its meaning haunts us in a new way. Was Vicente truly gay all along, unknowingly seeking the very transformation that has been forced upon him? What kind of man is Robert, who must transform a boy into the woman of his desires? The implications, although Almodóvar does not explore them, are immense. Who are these men or women, including Robert’s terrifyingly collaborationist mother? Perhaps she has no other choice, but Vera now agrees to never run away. It is like a vow of marriage, which the strangely naïve Robert readily accepts.

     Vera-Vicente even makes a trip with Marilia into town, but when Robert and she attempt sex after her return, she insists that she has bought a lotion, which she briefly leaves the room to retrieve. Upon her return she has brought his gun, shooting him at close range near the heart. His almost poignant shock at the turn of events reveals his insanity:

                                Robert Ledgard: You promised not to run away.
                                Vicente: I lied.

As Mirilia climbs the stairs, gun in hand, to check out the situation, she too is shot by the victim.

     If the final scene of Vera-Vicente’s return to his mother’s dress shop seems almost banal, it is simultaneously an expression of immense courage and resilience, as the young woman proclaims to his mother his true identity: Soy Vincente.

Los Angeles, November 16, 2011
Reprinted from Nth Position (December 2011).

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Irvin Winkler | De-Lovely and Wes Anderson | The Life Acquatic with Steve Zissou

by Douglas Messerli


 Jay Cocks (writer), Irvin Winkler (director) De-Lovely / 2004

I’ve got you under my skin.
I’ve got you deep in the heart of me.
So deep in my heart that you’re really part of me.
I’ve got you under my skin.

Perhaps the most underrated movie of 2004 was Irvin Winkler’s De-Lovely, a movie devoted to the life of Cole Porter. Manohla Dargis, writing in the Los Angeles Times, began her review by describing the movie as “De-Lousy” and New York Times reviewer Stephen Holden wondered if Porter could have survived “a movie so lifeless and drained of genuine joie de vivre it makes you long for the largely fictional earlier film” on his life. Desson Thomson of The Washington Post saw the movie as unable to overcome its own “stagy conceit.”

     My companion and I, however, quite liked the picture, and Howard went back to see it several times. The Polish film director Zbigniew Kaminski, who lives in our building, agreed with me that it was one of the better films of the year. My poet friend Charles Bernstein, more­over, reported that he had also enjoyed it, particularly actor Kevin Kline’s musical renditions, which reminded him of Porter’s own high, whining voice.

     What I enjoyed about this film was what Thomson had described as “stagy,” the theatricality of it. As I’ve noted elsewhere in these cultural memoirs, Americans are true literalists: we like our theater, particularly when filmed, to be true-to-life, whatever that might mean. And we are quite intolerant, as many critics of this film were, with songs interpreted in new ways. In that sense, any film of the larger than-life Porter might have been impossible. For, like British composer and dramatist Nöel Coward, Porter lived a life that was a highly stylized, one largely invented in his own creative imagination.

     So I liked the conceit of presenting Porter’s history as a theatrical event, beginning with the isolated figure of the composer playing “In the Still of the Night” and quickly shifting to the presentation of his friends and “cast” in “Anything Goes.” This musical theater, continuing with Kevin Kline and Kevin McNally (as Gerald Murphy) performing “Well Did You Evah!” at a party where Porter meets Linda Lee, his future wife, is followed, soon after, with Kline’s charming rendition of “Easy to Love.” Perhaps the best moment of Winkler’s fluid cinematic maneuvering occurs in the next scene as Porter begins singing his newest song, “What Is This Thing Called Love,” to Irving Berlin and his wife, a tune picked up and sung more gloriously by a gondolier (the singer Lemur) as he passes the Porter’s Venice mansion, the Palazzo Ca’Rezzonico.

     No matter that according to William McBrien’s biog­raphy of the composer Porter actually met his future wife in 1918 at a wedding between Ethel Harriman and Henry Russell, while “Well Did You Evah! was composed for the musical DuBarry Was a Lady in 1940, or that Porter wrote “Easy to Love” in the 1930s, and that he had already met Irving Berlin in New York in the early 1920s several years before “What Is This Thing Called Love?” was written—as long as the director presents the movie as a musical fantasy, the film is quite enchanting. Similarly, it matters little to me that some of the unlikely performers of the songs in this film were not quite suited to the works, particularly Alanis Morisette in her rendition of “Let’s Do It, Let’s Fall in Love” and Sheryl Crow in “Begin the Beguine”—for these less than perfect performances merely confirm how adaptable Porter’s music and lyrics truly are, how much they have gotten “under our skin.”

     This is not to say that De-Lovely is necessarily a successful film. For me, it begins to fail when it forgets its theatrical conventions, shifting the focus to Porter’s rela­tionship with his wife. Despite the seemingly “honest” depictions in this film of Porter’s homosexuality, the film is oddly prudish when it approaches the subject of Linda Porter. At its heart, the film seems to argue that, despite Porter’s true love for Linda, he treated her so rottenly that the relationship was doomed, and that, even though she often “accepted” his male companions, Porter’s increas­ingly flagrant public behavior was their ruination. In short, if Winkler’s direction begins by taking the movie down the path of Porter’s own musical fantasies, Jay Cock’s script increasingly centers it on what the author perceives as the composer’s sexual failures, a story that comes dangerously close to being homophobic.

     I suppose the filmmakers simply felt that the American public would not be able to accept the fact that Linda Porter was a wealthy socialite whose friends included many lesbians, and that it was she, for example, introduced Cole to Diaghilev and, perhaps, Diaghilev’s lover Boris Kochno—not the other way around. In a story that attempts to focus its sympathies on the “wronged woman,” it may be dramatically appealing to present Linda’s respiratory illness at a time when she had decided to end her relationship with her husband; but in reality she had had ill health throughout much of her life, and was diagnosed with serious health problems as early as the 1920s. There is no doubt that Porter often treated Linda badly and that, despite her tolerance for his affairs, she felt ignored and kept at a remove from his life. But she too, in part because of bad health, perhaps in retali­ation, and, one might conjecture, out of her own desires, spent long periods away from him. Although the film hints at some of these issues, it spends a great deal more time concentrating on Porter’s outrageous sexual outings with male prostitutes in Hollywood—where “love” is “for sale”—in opposition to the more stable and conven­tional relationship of his friends, the Murphys. Except for presenting the early affair with Kochno, Porter’s lifelong friendship with Monte Woolley, his brief liaison with an actor named Jack (John Barrowman) to whom actor Kline brilliantly sings “Night and Day,” and a late-life rela­tionship with a character the movie names Bill Wrather, supposedly Linda’s interior decorator with whom she “arranges” a relationship with Cole (a figure seemingly based on Porter’s friend John Cronin, who insisted he had no sexual relationship with Porter), there is little attempt in Cock’s story to explore the many longer-termed homosexual relationships between Porter and Eddy Tauch, Nelson Barclift and others that occurred throughout his life, and may have been just as influential and meaningful to his music as his marriage. If the earlier film Night and Day mythologized the love between Cole and Linda, this film almost demonizes it.

     What might have worked better, I suspect, is the more fantastical telling of Porter’s life with which the movie began and which sporadically reappears, as in the number “Be a Clown,” satirizing Louis B. Mayer. Porter was an almost archetypal American Midwesterner in love with European aristocracy and wealth, passions which, when mixed with sexual desires unacceptable in American society, forced him—and his wife as well—to create a world apart from that in which they might have more normally lived—a world parallel to, but removed from the “real” context of ordinary people. However, it may have been that very distancing that allowed Porter to compose such extraordinary music and lyrics; writing always at the edge of American sexual and social consciousness, he could burrow under the skin of our desires in way that no “ordinary” American composer might. Like Gatsby, Porter lived in a glamorous world of fantasy from where he could observe, as Gatsby secretly observed his guests, that behind the American façade there were other passions “deep in [our] hearts” which were “really a part of [him].”

Los Angeles, August 19, 2004
Reprinted from Green Integer Review (2004).



Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach (writers), Wes Anderson (director), The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou / 2004

In a theater which might well double for an opera house, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou gets underway with a raising of the curtain upon a prosce­nium stage, announcing its presentation as Part I, a hint of the theatricality of the film that will follow. Indeed, the events of this movie might almost be described as oper­atic: in the manner of sea-going hero Jacques Cousteau, oceanographer and filmmaker Steve Zissou (Bill Murray) has just returned from a voyage where he has lost his best friend and exploring companion to a jaguar shark. His wife, Eleanor (Anjelica Huston) is clearly bored by their relationship, and Zissou is having difficulty raising the money for his next voyage, on which he hopes to seek out the shark and, in revenge, blow it up—his announcement of which clearly offends his audience. As if these problems were not enough, a young man, Ned Plimpton (Owen Wilson), shows up at the after-event party, suggesting to Zissou that he may be his illegitimate son! (Later in the film, however, Eleanor notes that “Zissou shoots blanks”). As he admits at another point the picture, “I know I haven’t been at my best this past decade.”

     But the misadventures are just beginning. Production designer Mark Friedberg, set decorator Gretchen Rau, and cinematographer Robert Yeoman stir up a visually stunning catalogue of images as they take us on a tour of Zissou’s ship the Belafonte (a 50-year old minesweeper much like Costeau’s Calypso). It seems like something out of a coloring book rather than a sea-going vessel. As Zissou observes, the kitchen is the most technologically advanced spot on board.

Moreover, the crazy mix of crew and fellow voyagers—a sentimental German, a music-playing Brazilian, an Indian cameraman, several inexperienced interns, a very pregnant reporter (Cate Blanchett), as well as Zissou’s newfound son (“How long have you been working on team Zissou,” the reporter asks of Ned; “Not very long. About ten minutes,” he replies)—further arouses our suspicions that this voyage will be doomed. When Eleanor Zissou—the brains behind the team—refuses to participate, one recognizes that the ship is left in the incapable hands of a comic Ahab.

     As the voyage progresses, things go further down­hill; indeed, this will be a voyage to the very bottom of Zissou’s and his friend’s lives. Computers refuse to func­tion, forcing the team to break into an offshore facility of Zissou’s nemesis and his wife’s former husband Alistair Hennessey (Jeff Goldblum). Steering his ship across unprotected waters, Zissou suddenly finds himself in the hands of brutal Filipino pirates. Amazingly, he snaps into heroic action, saving all but the on-board accoun­tant from certain death. The ship, however, has been damaged, and as Hennessey catches up to it, there is no choice but to put into port, where they are abandoned by their interns.

Eleanor, sharing Hennessey’s villa, is implored to return to Zissou and sustain the voyage with her family’s money. Her refusal quickly dooms any salvage­able portion of the red-hatted Zissou team’s “adventure.” As Zissou admits, “I don’t have any status anymore.”

     The discovery of Hennessey’s huge vessel about to sink, however, reanimates the team as they head to the once populated island upon which sits a now-deserted hotel, where, ultimately, they discover Hennessey’s crew buried and Hennessey himself along with their company accountant playing cards with their captors. Springing into action, Zissou and his accomplices save the day, but soon after Ned is killed by his “father’s” negligence, as the onboard helicopter crashes into the ocean.

As Eleanor finally rejoins the team, sonar picks up the presence of the giant shark, and the remaining adventurers explore rock bottom in their underwater vessel. Once again, the world portrayed here is a magical one, made up of cartoon-like day-glo colored creatures and bejew­eled puppets. Despite the artificiality of this world—one should say because of the theatricality of it—the magical beast they all finally get to glimpse is truly awe-inspiring, and the ship of fools can finally resurface with a renewed sense of wonderment, having shared in the adventures worthy of any childhood romance.

Soon after viewing this movie I met cinematographer Robert Yeoman at my local bar, the famed Irish pub Bergins. I was sitting at the bar when the tender, Charlie Romanelli, a friend and sometime actor, introduced me to Yeoman. I asked Yeoman what he did for a living, and he responded—he is a quiet and modest man—“I work as a cinematographer.” Would I know any of his films, I asked. “Probably not,” he responded. “Sometimes I work with Wes Anderson.”

 In truth Yeoman has been cinematographer for numerous well-known filmmakers, including Wes Anderson in The Royal Tenenbaums, Dogma, and Rushmore, Gus Van Sant in Drugstore Cowboy, William Friedkin in To Live and Die in L.A., and, most recently, The Life Aquatic co-writer Noah Baumbach in The Squid and the Whale.

Los Angeles, May 5, 2006