Wednesday, June 8, 2016

George Stevens | Shane / Pier Paolo Pasolini | Teorema / Harold Prince | Something for Everyone


redeeming families
by Douglas Messerli

A.B. Guthrie Jr. and Jack Sher (screenplay, based on the novel by Jack Schaefer), George Stevens (director) Shane / 1953

Pier Paolo Pasolini (screenplay and director) Teorema (Theorem) / 1968

Hugh Wheeler (screenplay, based on the novel by Harry Kressing), Harold Prince (director) Something for Everyone / 1970


Quite by accident, I ordered two films from Netflix back to back that I would never have thought to pair, but which share the same narrative and themes: George Stevens’ 1953 classic, Shane, and Pier Paolo Pasolini’s 1968 movie, Teorema.


     On the surface, these films are obviously quite very different; there is no real sex, for example, in Shane, while Pasolini’s Visitor has sex with all family members, including their maid. Shane, moreover, is clearly without the Marxist and Roman Catholic messages of Teorema. But for all that, the films are quite similar in their plots and significance.
       As in the Pasolini work, a visitor (Alan Ladd) appears out of nowhere and is quickly welcomed to live with a the family, in this case working as a hired hand.

     Almost as in Teorema the young boy, Joey (Brandon deWilde) immediately takes a liking to the handsome visitor, as does Shane to the boy. Clearly, there is no sexual relationship between the two (while there most certainly is one between the young teen and the Visitor in Teorema), but it is clear that Shane is absolutely worshiped by Joey, and, at one point, Joey tells his mother even that he “loves” the stranger. Perhaps it is just their good acting and the easy comfort with one another, but Ladd and deWilde do seem absolutely delighted in each other's presence, winking and smiling every time their eyes come to rest on each other.* Joey’s mother (Jean Arthur), knowing that one day Shane will have to leave, warns her son not to love him too much. Even if we acknowledge the fact that it is Shane’s ability to use a gun that most attracts the boy, the obvious Freudian implications of that make it clear that it is the Shane’s western masculinity that draws the boy to him. One of my friends recently suggested that the relationship is so close to sexuality (which in this instance would be pedophilia)—the boy, dressed only in his night shirt, even visits Shane sleeping in the barn early one morning—that it is amazing that the director “got away with it.” It might have been even more interesting and controversial had Stevens been able to cast Ladd’s role with his first choice, Montgomery Clift, a gay actor.

       But Joey isn’t the only one who immediately seems to fall in love with Shane. Joey’s mother, Marian Starrett, lights up in his presence, immediately serving up a meal that her husband describes as “fancy.” It is at her urging that her husband asks Shane to stay with them. She dresses up in her “wedding” dress, primarily for Shane, it is made clear, when the hired hand joins family for a trip into town. Although, once again, the two do not have sex, Shane’s very presence clearly provides her a sexual frisson. At the Memorial celebration, she dances more with Shane than with her own, quite clumsy husband.
       If her husband, Joe Starrett (Van Heflin), demonstrates little jealousy of Shane, it maybe because, he too, obviously is attracted to the man and enjoys his company. Hardly have the two met when Shane sheds his shirt and helps Starrett remove a front-yard stump that the farmer has been trying to remove for years. He, too, changes his whole demeanor whenever Shane appears.

        More importantly, as in Teorema, the appearance of the visitor redeems the entire family and their small farm neighbors. Along with the other homesteaders, who have been continually threatened by local ranchers headed by Rufus Ryker (Emile Meyer), they suddenly feel strong enough to make a trip into town to buy goods and to celebrate Independence Day nearby.
        By single-handedly fighting and beating the entire gang, Shane emboldens the Starretts and others to remain on their land. And by determining to take on the gunslinger, Jack Wilson (Jack Palance) Ryker has hired to kill Starrett, Shane saves his friend’s life. Even as Shane wrestles Starrett to prevent him from going alone to Ryker’s headquarters, it appears the two are more engaged in a sexual embrace than in a true battle, and it takes a gun (again with all its Freudian associations) to knock him out. Once Shane accomplishes the act, he immediately gets water to help the loser to be quickly returned to consciousness.
       Now that he has restored meaning to the Starrett’s lives, he, like Pasolini’s beautiful hero, must leave, despite young Joey’s moan of despair: “Shaaaane, don’t go.”
       Of course, Pasolini has a very different notion of families. If in Stevens’ tale the family is at the center of life, crucial for the survival of his pioneers, the Italian director’s utterly bourgeois family life has delimited and thwarted the desires and personalities of its individual members.

       As in Shane, the “Visitor” (Terence Stamp) seems to come out of nowhere. But in Pasolini’s work he is proceeded by a kind of comic angel, an arm-flapping postman bringing the family a note of the Visitor’s arrival. The family accepts him readily, almost as if they were expecting him, and are delighted by the handsome “boy’s” appearance. Pasolini’s camera almost makes love to him, zooming into his crotch time and again. And almost before anyone can get their bearings, the angelic visitor saves their suicidal maid (Laura Betti) and beds her.

      As other guests arrive at the villa, the family’s son (Andres Jose Cruz Soublette) must bed down with the stranger in his childhood bedroom. Unable to sleep with the beautiful hunk lying in the  very next bed, the son, almost like Joey in Shane, can hardly keep his eyes off of him, attempting  to view his naked body even as the visitor appears to sleep. When the visitor suddenly opens his eyes, the son goes scrambling back into his own bed, pleading “excuse me, excuse me!” The Visitor joins the young boy in his bed, comforting him and, presumably, engaging in sex.
      Observing the stranger’s pants and underwear laid out on couch, the bourgeois mother of this brood (Silvano Mangano) undresses and lays out on the balcony to await the return of the Visitor, at play with their dog. She too gets what she seeks.
       Their daughter (Anne Wiazemsky) is the next to seek his charms, and is finally awakened in the process to her own sexuality.

       When the father (Massimo Girotti) cannot sleep because of his daily pains, he rises early and on his return to the bedroom cannot resist opening the door to his son’s bedroom only to witness the two lying in the same bed. Even the vision of their coupling sends him into a psychological tizzy, returning to his wife and, despite the fact that she is still sleeping, requesting sex, which she refuses at that early hour. Ill in bed the next day, the Husband is visited by the Visitor, who carefully brings the older man’s legs to his shoulders, peering down upon his with his lovely blue eyes. The father suddenly feels better and is cured. And the next day the two go on a drive before turning off into an empty field were they, too, have sex, the father suddenly abandoning all he has formerly believed about his own sexuality.

       Just as soon, having provided each of these insular individuals the love they apparently needed, the angel-postman returns to announce the Visitor’s departure. And over the few hours that remain each of the family members reveal to the stranger how he has utterly changed them.
       The “theorem” of Pasolini’s title has been, clearly, that love changes everything; but the ways it changes each of them remains the subject of the second half of the director’s film.
        As I have already hinted, unlike Shane the stranger’s presence does not bring the family closer together, but frees them to leave family life, some for better and others for worse, depending upon their own abilities or inabilities to face the past, present, and future.

        The Maid, the most backward looking of the group, returns to her rustic peasant village where she sits on a bench, eating only nettles, before accomplishing several miracles (curing a young child’s facial disfigurations and hovering in the air over one of the village buildings) before burying herself.

        The Daughter—who now claims she has nothing to look forward too since the very best thing to have happened to her has been the Visitor’s encounter with her—becomes catatonic and is carried off to an institution.

        The Son, now completely involved in the present, becomes a painter, trying again and again to create abstract paintings on glass that reflect his experience with the Visitor. The mother, freed from her near-frigid and meaningless bourgeois life, drives off to seek sex with handsome young men, apparently, having sex with two street-boys in the same day.

        The Husband, completely transformed by his sexual revelation, seems to be the only one who embraces the future. Giving away his large factory to his employees, he catches the eye of a young good-looking man before stripping off his clothes in the middle of a train station, and, metaphorically speaking, voyaging into a lava desert, a new world in which he cannot imagine what he might find and in which may not even survive.
          The dissolution of the family brings these individuals similar pleasures to Shane’s removal of the threats to family life in the American work.
          While writing on the two films above, yet another film came to mind, with once again a very similar structure, and yet again different results. Harold Prince’s Sommething for Everyone of 1970 begins with another handsome stranger’s visit to a family, this family ensconced in a grand estate, even though the Countess Herthe von Ornstein (Angela Lansbury) has little money left. The visitor, this time round is named Konrad (Michael York during his pretty boy period) and seems, at first, just to want to work for the family, quickly dispensing a previous servant by revealing to the police that his room is filled with Nazi memorabilia. 
          Konrad too has sex with nearly everyone, first with the son, Helmuth (Anthony Higgins), and then with the elderly Countess. But Konrad, rather than being an angelic visitor is most  definitely a demonic one, plotting, with the family’s tacit agreement a marriage between Helmuth and a gauche, but wealthy American family, the Pleschke’s, who are willing to pay a handsome dowry for their daughter’s marriage.

          Since Helmuth, a devoted homosexual, has no interest in women, Konrad himself secretly woes the daughter, Anneliese, finally convincing her that by accepting marriage with Helmuth they might remain together. The deal is struck, and the wedding celebrated; but at the last moment, the daughter, going to his room to say goodbye, discovers Konrad and Helmuth in the midst of sex.
           Speechless, she seethes in the back seat of the car that Konrad drives to return the parents to the train station. When she finally begins to reveal the horror, Konrad sends the car over the cliff, himself escaping, killing the Pleschkes while keeping his secrets.

           With money, the family is now free to return to the status quo, but Konrad determines to marry the Countess, making himself heir to their fortune, again assuring Helmuth that this way he can remain close by and continue their sexual relationship.
           All this time, the rather plain looking daughter of the Countess, Lotte (Jane Carr) has been watching and waiting, and now makes it clear that if Konrad doesn't marry her, she will tell all. We never know whether she will insist that Konrad, in the future, pay attention to her alone, or whether this plotting and scheming family might all share in Konrad’s love. Nonetheless, Konrad now is most definitely a member of the family.

*Film legend suggests that, in truth, deWilde was somewhat of a hellion, continually sticking out his tongue at Ladd while he made his final speech to Joey.

Los Angeles, June 8, 2016

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