Sunday, January 29, 2012

Carol Reed | The Fallen Idol

the case of the missing mother
by Douglas Messerli

Graham Greene (screenplay, with additional dialogue by Lesley Storm and William Templeton), Carol Reed (director) The Fallen Idol / 1948, USA 1949

Carol Reed's The Fallen Idol is a mystery movie with hardly any mystery to it. We begin with a grand exit from what is apparently the French embassy in London, as everyone, including the Ambassador says goodbye. Left behind are only the head butler and housekeeper Baines and his wife, two cleaning women, and a small boy, Phillipe (the loveable Bobby Henrey), the Ambassador's son.

     The Ambassador evidently will be away for a few days, as he mumbles something to the effect that he will be bringing "back" the boy's mother. Accordingly, right from the beginning we observe things as they may appear from the boy's point of view, a bit confusing, with an ever-present sense of mystery in the air. What soon does become clear to us, however, is the Ambassador himself has not spent much time with his lonely son. A substitute father and companion has been found in the head butler, Baines (Ralph Richardson), who dotes on the boy, telling him larger than life tales about his adventures in Africa, taking him on daily walks, and sharing the secret of the boy's beloved pet snake.

    Mrs. Baines (Sonia Dresdel), on the other hand, is almost as mean and unlikeable as any Dickensian harridan. A harpy (who later snaps out at him: "You're not such a child as you pretend to be! You've got a nasty, wicked mind and it ought to be beaten out of you!"), Mrs. Baines is in near constant motion as she floats through room after room covering the furniture with white sheets and ordering any remaining workers to speed up their activities. She is such an outright monster that at lunch in their basement quarters, Philippe admits that he "hates her," for which he is punished by her taking away his food and sending him to his room. There will be no walk to the zoo with Baines on this day. The gentle but pained look on Baines' face as he sneaks the boy the box wherein lies his snake, reveals his relationship with his wife is nearly unbearable.

     In fact, Phillipe is a complete innocent, but is of that age when he is beginning to think things out, to makes sense of the adult reality which in a few yeaars he must embrace. Like Mrs. Baines, he too is nearly all movement as he flies around the large embassy, sneaking views of people from different vantages and levels of the multistoried building. Observing Baines leaving, he follows down the fire escape, but loses sight of his friend soon after.

     As he strolls down the street, staring into store windows and even asking for Baines at a nearby pub, he suddenly comes upon his friend sitting in the corner of a tea shop with a young woman who is crying as Baines pleads with her in loud whispers. The adult audience immediately suspects what is going on; Baines obviously has a girlfriend who is threatening to leave the city. But the boy, blind to reality, quickly joins them. As Baines introduces his "niece," the girl Julie—who also works in the embassy—and he continue to talk about themselves in the third person, while they simultaneously attempt to distract the boy with milk and cakes. It may well be one of the most linguistically painful scenes of any film, as the loving couple attempt to resolve their problems in the third person while simultaneously trying to restrain their intense emotions. Just as intensely the boy sits, attempting to feed his snake, while sucking in every word.

     Soon after, Baines asks the boy to keep their meeting secret, to which Phillipe, perceiving it as a sort of game, readily agrees. By evening Mrs. Baines, after detecting the word "they" in Phillipe's explanation of where he has been, also requests he keep their conversation a secret: "You can keep our secret now? Hmmm? Yes?" Suddenly we understand that the serpent in this Eden is not the boy's snake, but each of the adults as they, abusing the boy's innocence, strip it away through lie after lie.

     Pretending to visit her mother in the country, Mrs. Baines announces her departure the next morning, while Baines, boy in hand, rushes to a meeting with his girlfriend, Julie, in the zoo. Again they attempt to communicate their differences while entertaining their young charge. Phillipe, quite expectedly, is keen on visiting the Reptile House. As he stares into the cage at a cobra, the snake spits venom onto the glass, demonstrating that—just as Baines has suggested "There are lies and lies.... Some lies are just kindness"— so are there snakes and snakes. Some of them will kill you. Later, Phillipe discovers that Mrs. Baines has found his hidden snake and destroyed it!

     Returning to the embassy from their outing the two adults and child set themselves a little "picnic," and for a few moments play hide and seek with the boy with complete abandonment, as the three joyfully race through the house, pulling sheets off the furniture as they run. It is, in fact, a kind of undoing of what Mrs. Baines has so expeditiously accomplished, an exhilarating celebration of chaos. As the boy hides beneath a large dining table, the camera viewing the scene from his vantage, we hear the approaching couple coming toward him from another room while suddenly seeing at the other end of the table a pair shoes and legs—clearly those of Mrs. Baines, who has obviously remained in the house! Even their momentary joy is destroyed, with the boy at the very center.

     A short while later, Mrs. Baines faces off with her husband at the head of the long stair case, demanding to know where the interloper is. Baines attempts to quiet her, fearing the boy will hear. Phillipe has in fact already been awakened by the woman and is watching the entire scene in terror. As he runs to another level of the house to witness the scene better, Mrs. Baines moves to a higher point to see if she might glimpse her nemesis below, only to slip, falling the several floors to her death. Seeing what has happened from the new vantage, Phillipe has no way of knowing what really occurred, and can only suppose that his dear friend has pushed his wife to her  death.

Horrified by the reality he has thought he has witnessed, he runs, dressed only in his nightshirt, into the streets, racing away from anyone who might approach until he meets up with a friendly policeman who invites form a cup a tea—to be sipped, it turns out, in the police station. Queried, Phillipe will not speak, clearly out of horror, but also perhaps in fear of revealing anything more than he already has.

    At this point a strange event occurs, which, I would argue, is perhaps at the heart of the real mystery of this work. The police have recently arrested a prostitute, who in a cockney accent, humorously claims she was "just walking in her sleep." When confronted by the policemen, Phillipe suddenly goes to the woman for comfort and solace. It is the first time he has touched a woman in the entire film, and in that act we are reminded that for some he has had no mother, evidently, for some time. The prostitute, Rose (Dora Bryan) comments—just as previously has Mrs. Baines—that the boy needs a haircut, reiterating the boy's lack of maternal attention. She finally elicits his address and, ultimately, his name. "Oh, I know your father," she proclaims.

     At that point the film returns to its somewhat predictable "story," the mystery of which we have already shown, as the boy is brought home, Baines questioned, blood and fingerprints checked, etc. Questioned once more by the police, the boy continues what he believes is the protection of his hero by denying everything, even after the police have uncovered the relationship between Baines and Julie and suspect the butler of having killed his wife. Baines tells only the truth, but by refusing to say what he has seen, the boy almost convicts him. Julie finally tells Philippe that he must no longer lie: "The truth can't harm Baines. Don't you realize he's innocent?" Who is the child to believe?

     Fortunately, the expert police find the dead woman's footprint in the dirt from an overturned plant on the higher overhang from which she has fallen, and recognize that she has not been pushed. Baines is declared innocent. Now the child suddenly is determined to tell the truth, but no one will listen him, no one will hear that it was he who had overturned the pot. Try as he might to relay his honest admission—which obviously has little to do with the police's determination—he is ignored. The adult world, for Phillipe, remains incomprehensible.

     Will Phillipe continue to admire a man whom he believes actually did kill his wife and has lied to him about his African past? And what of his parents, who suddenly, at film's end, reappear? Where has Phillipe's mother really been? Some viewers have suggested that she has been in the hospital. But if so, why? And why did the Ambassador need several days to fetch her back? Was she in a French hospital? Perhaps the father has also been lying. Perhaps the couple, who seem to have been separated for some time, had marital differences. Clearly, we know the father has used the services of Rose!

     The Fallen Idol of this film is not just Phillipe's friend Baines, but is truth itself. Encouraged to lie by almost all the adults of this film, the boy can never again be sure of anything he is told. Near the end of the work, the Inspector asks Phillipe: "Shall I tell you a secret?" to which Phillipe responds emphatically, "No!"

Los Angeles, January 28, 2012

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Yasujirō Ozu | Akibiyori (Late Autumn)

the oppositions
by Douglas Messerli

 Kōgo Noda and Yasujirō Ozu (screenplay, based on a fiction by Ton Satomi), Yasujirō Ozu (director) Akibiyori (Late Autumn) / 1960, USA 1973

 As in many of Japanese director Ozu's films, the story of Late Autumn is, superficially, quite simple. Commemorating the death of Akiko Miwa's husband, several of his close male friends, his wife, and daughter Ayako have gathered at a Buddhist temple. The men suffer the ceremony, commenting on the lengthy performances of the monks, but also gossiping, afterwards, about their own youthful love of Akiko (beautifully played by Setsuko Hara) and their worry over her daughter Ayako (Tōko Tsukasa) for her marriageless state. These three busybody and bungling businessmen—Taguchi (Nobuo Nakamura), Marniya (Shin Saburi), and Hiriyama (Ryuji Kita)—don't even have an available candidate in mind, but are determined to intrude themselves into the Miwas' life.

     At a meeting with Ayako, one of them suggests an employee, Goto (Keiji Sada), an attractive enough man that Ayako does agree to go out with him on a date. But Ayako is quite insistent that she has no intentions of marrying; somewhat shocking all of the older generation, except perhaps her mother, the young daughter relates that "I'm happy as I am," later adding that love and marriage do not necessarily go together.

     So the director sets up what might at first seem to be a statement of generational change, the older, more traditional generation, represented by the men, unable to comprehend the younger generation. Indeed, that is precisely what these meddlers proclaim! Yet, Ozu's carefully framed scenes reveal numerous contradictions or, better yet, oppositions—not so much between generations as within the emotional attitudes of most of the film's major figures. Two of the businessmen have very happy home lives, with smart, contemporary children who still seem to be friendly with and close to their fathers and mothers. The third man, although a widower, is apparently quite happy in his newfound bachelorhood. Yet, underneath each of these individuals is nostalgic for and, at times, apparently regretful for their pasts; perhaps they all would have, at one time or another, proposed to Akiko—the fact of which the two wives seem quite aware. Accordingly, what at first may seem as simple kind, if intrusive actions, are gradually recognized as attempts to once again make contact with Akiko and their own pasts.

     Similarly, Ayako proclaims that she is perfectly happy living with her mother, and the two do seem to enjoy each other's company, shopping together, lunching, and later, even enjoying their time together at a country retreat. In short, despite their different dress and ways of communicating with the outside world, at home they seem to be pleasantly alike, so in tune with each other that you well understand Ayako's attitude towards marriage.

     At the office, however, Ayako and her friend rush at a certain hour to the roof in order to see a train, filled with brides on their way to their honeymoons, speed past. They are disappointed that another friend, evidently just married, has not waved at them with her bouquet as promised. For a woman who declares no interest in marriage, Ayako seems to have secret yearnings that she has not quite explained to herself.

     Unable to succeed in convincing Ayako to leap into the wedded state, the busy trio determine to find a companion for Akiko first, which will "allow" Ayako, as they see it, to seek out her own love. The widower among them finally realizes that he would enjoy the company of Ayako, and, after much confusion and misunderstandings (which results in a good scolding from Ayako's throughly modern friend Yukiko), he proposes. But instead of freeing Ayako, the idea of her mother rewedding shocks her, as she verbally lashes out at Akiko, somewhat like the children in Douglas Sirk's melodrama All That Heaven Allows, describing it as "filthy." If she has seemed of the new generation in her attitudes toward marriage and sex, she is a strong traditionalist in terms of her mother's situation.

     As critics such as Adrian Danks have pointed out, however, there is a huge gap between the children of Sirk's film and Ayako. For ultimately, Ayako, who remains close to her mother, perceives the error of her ways, and agrees to marry Goto. It is perhaps inevitable, now that we better understand her attitudes,  that she marries in the traditional Japanese wedding garb.

     At movie's end, contradictorily, Akiko determines not to remarry, deciding to remain alone with her memories of her dead husband. Her final turn to the camera with a half smile restates all of Ozu's "oppositions," leaving the viewer with a mixed sense of joy and sorrow, as we recognize her emotions of  acceptance and sadness of her future life.

     With his low-set camera and straight-on portraiture of his figures as they speak—most often over food and, particularly, drink—Ozu has helped us to realize that people are  complex beings. What they often say on the surface is not what they may do in their lives, and vice versa. Despite her traditional ways, Ayako has joined the new generation. But perhaps it is a generation that is not so very different, after all, from the past. For Ozu, what I have described as "oppositions," might be spoken of as a balance, a balance he displays in almost every shot of the film (for example, cases of Coca-Cola bottles placed outside a traditional Japanese bar), between the changes of the future and the values of the past.

     If ultimately Ozu's work seems to be a profoundly conservative vision, his view also, laced with his sense of mono no aware (a recognition of the impermanence of things), accepts change.

Los Angeles, January 25, 2012


Monday, January 23, 2012

Henning Carlsen | Sult (Hunger)

the man who talks to his shoes
by Douglas Messerli

Henning Carlsen and Peter Seeberg (screenplay, based on the novel by Knut Hamsun), Henning Carlsen (director) Sult (Hunger) / 1966

It must have seemed to a act of great moxie that director Henning Carlsen took on a film adaptation of Knut Hamsun's great novel of 1890, Sult (Hunger). For one thing, Carlsen is Danish, while the events occur in Kristiania (Oslo, Norway). The languages of these two friendly Scandinavian countries are quite similar, but there is just enough differences, I am sure, to distract for the Norwegian viewers of the film, from the film's Danish title, Svält, on. More importantly, in Hamsun's narrative very little actually happens. His work is a piece of internal language, a conversation with the self that the unnamed character carries on as, starving, out of work, and homeless, he wanders the streets of Kristiania. Only a few things actually "happen" to him: he writes an article and attempts to place it with a publisher; he observes a lovely and slightly flirtatious woman whom he dubs Ylajali (Gunnel Lindblom); although we cannot be certain, since many of the events are those of his imagination, he may actually visit Ylajali and contemplate having sex; he stares in the windows of the various stores and encounters some of his friends from the past; he is kicked out of his rooming house and briefly finds another (for one night) only to be ousted the next day by a boarder whom he observes having sex with the landlady; and he sits on park benches, sometimes talking to his worn-out shoes as if they could understand and converse with him. In short, there is no traditional story attached to this work; it is merely a series of psychological incidents played out upon a realist setting, the Oslo of 1890. That is, in part, why Hamsun's fiction was so innovative and ground-breaking. Without any of the gewgaws of plot, Hamsun had created a character so amazing that he stands alongside of the memorable figures of Dostoevsky, Kafka, Camus, and others.

      Miraculously, the film has come through remarkably well, and, although different in many ways from the literary work, is true to its essence. Of course, most of the praise must go to Hunger's brilliant director, Henning Carlsen, who filmed in black and white (and sometimes sepia), more closely linking it to the silent pictures with which is aligned. There are occasional conversations in the film, and the noises of the street itself—the clip-clop of horses, the drum of the feet of workers and ladies out for a stroll—but for all that it may as well be described as a silent film. And Carlsen and cinematographer, Henning Kristiansen, have used their camera to catch the smallest of facial and bodily nuances, the grimaces of disgust on the faces of  the bourgeois citizens of Kristiania as they pass the beggar-like hero, a dog's violent gnaw of a bone (which our hero would love to share), the scuttle of a rat, the blinks of Ylajali's large eyes. All of these help to make the film come alive and replace what might have ordinarily been told in dialogue.

     But a large of the film's success must be accorded to the actor Per Oscarsson who plays the hero (Pontus as he is called in the film) with all the aplomb of Chaplin and Keaton combined. Oscarsson won the Best Actor award at the 1966 Cannes Film Festival, well deserved surely. From the very first scene, as Pontus stands with his back to us on a bridge, the actor completely enthralls us with his every bodily move. In this scene he seems to be doing something that we cannot quite interpret, yet appears to be something slightly obscene, a regular movement of the hands. Is he masturbating in open public? When the camera finally moves in, revealing his actions, we humorously recognize that he is, metaphorically speaking, masturbating. He is attempting to write with a pencil upon a slip of paper. Yet he seems to be getting nowhere, repeating again and again a date, circling empty words, etc. Writing is not a easy task in the open air.

     Pontus, as I have mentioned above, has not eaten for several days, and when he finishes his attempts to write, he rips off a small bit a paper and stuffs it into his mouth, simply to chew on something. Oscarsson's lean, unshaven face is perfect for the role. We can see that he is handsome even in his haunting decay. If only....might someone in this society come his rescue? Yet by the film's end we know that would be impossible. This is a proud and self-destructive man, a kind of hunger-artist, determined to get by on almost nothing. He awards even his bedding to another unfortunate. Time and again, at the editor's offices and when he encounters friends, etc., asked if he needs a small advance or to them in a meal, Pontus lies to hide his penniless situation. When he is accidently overpaid at a grocers whom has visited to purchase a candle, he throws the coins into the hands a woman beggar and returns to the grocer to upbraid his inattention. When he finally is able to buy a little soup, he discovers he can longer stomach it. As played by Oscarsson, Pontus is a nineteenth-century dandy in the dress of a fool, a man—one is tempted to say, much like the author—who, despite the turmoil and terrors of the upcoming century would remain a romantic.

     And, in that sense, he, and only he, is responsible for his fate. Despite Hamsun's dour and unforgiving portrayal of the Kristiana bourgeoisie (Carlsen portraying them at moments a bit like the figures in some of the paintings of Edvard Munch), it is Pontus' inability to recognize his own suicidal tendencies that is he undoing. He has talent, it is clear, but he has no idea how to reveal it. The only solution to his condition—as he has been previously told by his landlady—is to leave, to return to the country or go elsewhere. At the very last moment as a ship is about to leave port, the hero signs on. Where he is headed no one knows, not even, apparently, the character. But it does not matter to someone who talks to his shoes. It will be a better place by far, and finally he can learn again to how to eat.

Los Angeles, January 21, 2012

Monday, January 16, 2012

Bruce Robinson | Withnail & I

the panic
by Douglas Messerli

Bruce Robinson (writer and director) Withnail & I / 1987

 Withnail and "I" (the latter once in the script referred to as Marwood) are young, out of work actors, living in a Georgian flat in Camden Town, mostly without heat. In between their trips to collect unemployment benefits and attempts to gain "coins" to feed the gas and electricity meters, they primarily survive on alcohol and drugs. The last time they seemed to eat was so long ago that, at the beginning of the film, Marwood (Paul McGann) is terrified that something under their filthy dishes is alive.

     Marwood begins the film—which I first saw upon its release in 1987 and viewed again the other day—with an almost Woody Allen-like sense of high anxiety:

                             Withnail: I've some extremely distressing news.
                             Marwood: I don't want to hear it. I don't want to hear
                                     anything. Oh God, it's a nightmare, I tell you.
                                     It's a nightmare.
                             Withnail: We've just run out of wine. What are we gonna do
                                     about it?
                             Marwood: I don't know, I don't know. Oh God, I don't feel
                                     good. My thumbs have gone weird! I'm in the middle of a
                                     bloody overdose! Oh God. My heart's beating like a
                                     fucked clock! I feel dreadful, I feel really dreadful!
                             Withnail: So do I, as does everybody. Look at my tongue, it's
                                     wearing a yellow sock. Sit down for Christ's sake,
                                     what's the matter with you? Eat some sugar.

So opens this whirlwind of a film wherein an unlikely pair stumble through their lives in a constant fog of apprehension and terror of the consequences. Like most young people, these two are a mess of contradictions, feeling their way through life like blind beings.

     As their witty discussions continue, however, the audience is drawn into their alien world, particularly by the flamboyant insanity of Oxford-educated Withnail (Richard E. Grant) who, it soon becomes apparent, exaggerates everything and perceives no difference between truth and lies. Throughout most of this dark comic tale, it is the differences of personality—Withnail's brilliant self-pity and Marwood's terrified passivity—that utterly enchants us. It is as if Neil Simon's stale comic couple, Felix and Oscar of his The Odd Couple, had been rewritten by a hip Oscar Wilde. Indeed one of the utter charms of Withnail's character is that he is almost a Wildean creation, a man who without an acting job spends his life in an imaginary play of his own making.

     Behind this comic surface, however, are darker stories, one concerning the British class system. Despite his feeling of the injustice of society—"Free to those that can afford it, very expensive to those that can't"—Whitnail is, in reality, a wealthy-born snob, who is so embarrassed about Marwood's more common background when they visit his rich Uncle Monty (Richard Griffiths) he lies, suggesting that his friend has gone to "the other place," presumably Eton instead of Harrow, which both he and his uncle have attended.

     They have dropped into his Uncle Monty's to ask him if they can borrow his county cottage for the weekend, hoping to get some good country air, food, and perhaps even sleep into their systems. Monty agrees. But the cottage turns out to be a run-down stone building, with little food and no heat. Although the countryside is truly beautiful, the weather is inclement, with heavy rains and fogs. The neighbors are downright unfriendly.

                           Withnail: This place is uninhabitable.
                           Marwood: Give it a chance. It's got to warm up.
                           Withnail: Warm up? We may as well sit round this
                                            cigarette. This is ridiculous. We'll be found
                                            dead in here next spring.

     Gradually, we discover just how divorced Withnail is from this and other realities. Attempting to buy food, the couple approach a local farmer, whom Withnail keeps asking "Are you the farmer?"  Marwood interjects: "Stop saying that Withnail, of course he's the fucking farmer!" Later Withnail offends a local poacher by calling him, again by type, "The Poacher." It is as if human beings were simply what they did for a living.

Despite the two men's close friendship, moreover, Withnail is willing to sacrifice his friend at the slightest of incursions. When they visit a local pub, an Irishman calls Marwood a "ponce," in response to which Marwood suggests they leave the place. Withnail challenges the Irishman, but when the man comes forward to face the challenge, Withnail dodges:

                             Withnail: I have a heart condition. I have a heart condition.
                                             If you hit me it's murder.
                             Irishman: I'll murder the pair of yers!
                             Withnail: [close to tears] My wife is having a baby!
                                             Listen, I don't know what my fucking
                                             acquaintance did to upset you but it's nothing
                                             to do with me. I suggest you both go outside
                                             and discuss it sensibly in the street.

A few seconds later they both race from the pub, terrorized.

      Withnail's lack of loyalty and courage is revealed again when, as the two cross a field, they accidently leave open a gate from which a nearby bull eagerly exits. Withnail jumps to the other side of the fence, leaving Marwood to chase the bull back within.

     One wonders why Marwood, far more sane and capable than his friend, continues to hang around. What is the glue that keeps these two together?

      One might analyze their relationship in many ways. On the simplest level it is simply that Marwood may find Withnail dazzlingly entertaining, a perfect balance for his less adventuresome and somewhat passive behavior. But to me it also suggests that there is something deeper here, something about which the film (and by extension, the filmmaker) never quite comes to terms with.

      Throughout the film, Marwood becomes particularly panicky when anything sexual occurs, the earlier scene of his being accosted as a "ponce" being only one of a series of examples. Monty, Withnail's gay uncle, is obviously hot for Marwood, particularly after Withnail has falsely told him his friend is gay also. In the middle of the night, the two hear noises. Fearing a break-in by the unfriendly poacher, Withnail dives into Marwood's bed resulting in an even more hysterical Marwood, who is told by Withnail that the intruder is coming for him.

     The intruder, it turns out, is Uncle Monty himself, who has decided to join them in the country, and has brought wine and provisions so that they might properly eat. His real intention, however, is to "bugger" Marwood even if it means "burglary." In short, he attends to rape him and enters his room that evening to accomplish the deed. Panic-stricken, Marwood turns the tables so to speak by proclaiming that he and Withnail are a gay couple, and wishes to remain faithful. The foolish and conventionally-minded uncle apologizes and leaves the room, and the next morning, his house.

    Escaping the rape, Marwood rushes to Withnail:

                           Marwood: Withnail, you bastard, wake up. Wake up you
                                      bastard, or I burn this bastard bed down!
                           Withnail: I deny all accusations. [opens his eyes]
                                           What do you want?
                           Marwood: I have just narrowly avoided having a
                                            buggering, and have come in here with the
                                            express intention of wishing one upon you.

No such reciprocal action takes place. And in the morning, Marwood, reading Monty's note of apology, feels sorry for the man. But the evening's events have clearly been more traumatic in their relationship than all the lies, lack of courage, class snobbery, and plain befuddled thinking that has come before. One can only wonder, accordingly, whether his lie reveals a somewhat desired truth. At the heart of this film, I argue, is a terror of sex, particularly of gay sexuality.

      A telegram offering Marwood an acting role, sends the couple back to London, with the drunken and license-free Withnail at the wheel of the car "to make up time"—an act, at least in one sense of the meaning, highly desired by his now rejected companion—while Marwood, for the first time in the film, sleeps. The inevitable occurs with Withnail's arrest, his imaginary time haltedThe final scene represents Marwood's leave-taking. Having shorn his curls and shaved, he suddenly looks more mature, as the sets off to the station. Withnail again attempts to keep him near—to "make up time" once more—by offering to share a bottle that he has stolen from Monty's wine cellar. But Marwood is insistent about leaving. So Withnail joins him part of the way, bottle in hand. The departure is sudden with little emotion on the part of either man. But, as Marwood disappears into the distance, Withnail turns toward animals in the nearby zoo of Regent's Park, reciting, quite powerfully, Act 2, Scene ii of Hamlet.

                          I have of late—but wherefore I know not—lost all my mirth;
                          and indeed it goes so heavily with my disposition that this
                          goodly frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory, this
                          excellent canopy, the air, look you, this brave o'erhanging
                          firmament, this majestical roof fretted with gold fire, why, it
                          appeareth nothing to be but a foul and pestilent congregation of
                          vapours. What a piece of work is man! How noble in reason!
                          How infinite in faculties! How like an angel in apprehension.
                          How like a god! The beauty of the world! The paragon of
                          animals! And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?
                          Man delights not me: no, nor women neither. Nor women

Shakespeare's words say it all: Withnail has just lost the love of his life, and with it the joy of living. His future life, we realize, might well contain the isolation and poverty of St. Francis of Assissi.

     Bruce Robinson is a stunning writer and director in this work. In his own life, Robinson, apparently heterosexual, has been married twice and has children. The Withnail character is based on his youthful friend, the actor Vivian MacKerrell, who died of throat cancer (probably caused by drinking lighter fluid, as he does in the film). The character of Monty is based on the personal sexual advances against Robinson by director Franco Zeffirelli as Robinson played the character of Benvolio in Zeffirelli's production of Romeo and Juliet.

     But even autobiographical characters are things other than real human beings. The situations of this film, Marwood's open commitment to Whitnail and his own lie about their relationship, along with the extremely panicky reactions to any suggestions of sex, seem to suggest a character who, while having turned a corner in leaving Whitnail to become a more responsible person in the society, may not yet have completely come to terms with his own time and his sexual being.

January 14. 2012

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Glenn Ficarra and John Requa | I Love You Phillip Morris

a desperate foolishness by Douglas Messerli

Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (writers and directors, based on a book by Steven McVicker) I Love You Phillip Morris / 2009, USA 2010

Glenn Ficarra and John Requa's comic-drama, I Love You Phillip Morris, is hardly a great film, but in its mix of Catch Me If You Can and Dog Day Afternoon (with perhaps a little of Raising Arizona tossed in) it's a kind of delightful mulligan stew about gay love.

      Like Catch Me If You Can and Dog Day Afternoon, this film was based, for the most part on true events. A former policeman, church choir director, and married father of a young girl, Steven Jay Russell (a less than usually frantic Jim Carrey) apparently lives out a desperately closeted life in Virginia and later in Texas, enjoying a close, if sexually unsatisfying, relationship with his wife and good social relationships with his neighbors—until one day, after a car crash, he comes to an epiphany that he was dissatisfied with life. He leaves his wife and child and moves to Miami, find a boyfriend (Rodrigo Santoro), and begins living an openly gay life. Unfortunately, as he explains, the gay lifestyle is quite expensive, so Russell begins the life of a con-man, soon discovered and sent to prison.

     Russell quickly develops in prison the same kind of skills to manipulate the system as he did on the outside. When he meets a young, innocent fellow prisoner, Phillip Morris (Ewan McGregor) he immediately falls in love. Although Morris is being relocated to another part of the prison, Russell finds secret ways to keep in communication and before long has been transferred to Morris' cell, where their love is quickly consummated and they enter a deep-committed relationship, Russell promising to protect the younger Morris.

     After Russell pays for others to beat a screaming inmate next to their cell ("That is the most romantic thing anyone ever did for me. I love you so much," gushes Morris) and Morris arranges to have romantic music played late at night so the two can dance, authorities separate the couple, sending Russell to another prison. The breakup is devastating as Morris rushes into the prison yard—where he has previously been terrified to enter—to scream out his love for Russell, Russell responding with film's title: "I love you Philip Morris."

     It is only here that movie really begins, with Russell conning his way through system after system, becoming a lawyer so that he can free his lover, accomplishing small check frauds and false bodily injury claims, and, finally, finagling a job as a CFO for a large corporation, where he embezzles millions of dollars just to support Morris in a life style he "deserves." Indeed there is a sense throughout the film of Morris' belief in entitlement, perhaps because he has been previously so closeted, but also out of a righteous sense that the two deserve to live their lives in joyful celebration of their love. And to be fair, his cons actually make his company millions of dollars as well, he simply taking half of what he illegally raises by investing temporary payments into short-term accounts. His theft is petty when compared, one imagines, to the real CFOs and Wall Street business sharks. Yet time and again, Russell is caught and returned to prison. Through various clever ploys he escapes time after time (in real life Russell was described as the Houdini of prisoners), using the telephone with his skillful ability to convince unwitting authorities, several attempts at suicide, costumes, and other manipulations of the system to free himself and return to Morris.

     When Russell is arrested after his business fraud, however, Morris is furious with the lies and deceit of his friend:

                     From the moment we met, you did nothing but lie. Our whole
                     relationship, just lies. I'm such an asshole. You took advantage
                     of me, just like all the others. You were supposed to protect me.
                     But you did nothing but make a fool out of me. And you expect
                     me to love you? How can I love you. I don't even know who you
                     are. You know what's sad? I don't even think you know who you
                     are. So how am I supposed to love someone that don't even exist,
                     you tell me.

     The two, however, remain in love, Morris ultimately returned to prison as an accomplice with Russell. While recognizing the truth of Morris' comments, Russell plots yet one more large con so that he free himself and work to free Morris. Losing vast amounts of weight and forging prison hospital records, he is declared to have AIDS and, as he grows more and more ill (largely acted), he sent to hospice to die. Morris hears of his near death, and by telephone reaffirms his love, his recognition that all the crazy things Russell has done have been, at heart, for him and their relationship. They are, as they agree, fools for love.

     The final irony is that the man who does not exist dies—so Morris is told. But when Russell shows up as a lawyer to visit Morris in prison, his lover punches him in the face. Russell again pleas:

                   Wait, listen. I just came here to tell you one thing, and that's it.
                   You don't have to take me back. I just want to say one thing. I know
                   you think that we were nothing but a lie, but underneath all those
                   lies, there was always something that was real. I thought about what
                   you said to me. You said you don't know who I am, but I know now. I
                   know who I am. I'm not a lawyer, I'm not a CFO, I'm not a cop,
                   I'm not an escape artist. Those Steven Russells are dead. Now all
                   that's important is the man that loves you. And if you could see that,
                   believe it, I promise I'll never be anything else ever again.

Morris' response: "How do I know you're not bullshitting me again?" is answered with the inevitable: "You don't."

     In fact Russell does try, as a lawyer, to free his friend once again, but in the process is recognized. This time he is returned to prison for 140 years, and the real Steven Jay Russell remains in prison, in complete isolation, today.

     Morris was released. But in the last scene Russell is still dreaming of his friend, imagining himself running from the guards in a final race toward love.

     What began as a comedy has ended in a kind tragedy. For the man who sought so much out of his life has ended up with absolutely nothing. Whether or not he "deserves" better, the American system of justice will not forgive such a desperate foolishness.

Los Angeles, January 7, 2011