Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Lasse Hallström | What's Eating Gilbert Grape

traveling horizontally or vertically
by Douglas Messerli

Peter Hedges (screenplay, based on his novel), Lasse Hallström (director) What’s Eating Gilbert Grape / 1993

Swedish director Lasse Hallström is well known for his oddball, yet mostly gentle and sometimes sentimental views of family and community life, beginning with My Life as a Dog, including The Cider House Rules, and Chocolat. What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (from 1993) is an important step along that directorial trajectory.
     Certainly, with Johnny Depp as the hero of this tale, Leonardo DiCaprio as Arnie Grape, his mentally disabled younger brother, John C. Reilly as a local commentator, Tucker Van Dyke, Mary Steenburgen as Gilbert’s married secret lover, and Juliette Lewis as the new woman in Gilbert’s life, Hallström could not have gathered a better cast. With the famed cinematographer Sven Nykvist (Bergman’s favorite) and the clever production designer Bernt Capra (father of my Green Integer co-administrator and typesetter, Pablo), the director of this film has some of the very best talents in the industry. The young DiCaprio was nominated for Academy Award for his role as the disarmingly honest Arnie, a grown-up version—he is just turning 18 in this film, despite the doctor’s proclamation that he probably would not live beyond the age of 10—of the younger Arnie of Alfred Hitchcock’s equally oddball, romantic work, The Trouble with Harry—a child, I might remind you who could not differentiate between yesterday, today, or tomorrow.
     In fact, if you think carefully, there are a good number of similarities between the two films. Both involve small US towns (in Hitchcock’s case a kind of Vermont paradise and in Hallström’s an equally small Endora, Iowa—a fictional Iowa town) where in handsome young home-towners suddenly fall in love with outsiders; both films involve the gossip of locals, which is gradually transformed into more caring and comprehending understanding of those among them; and both are filled up with eccentric characters whose lives become almost unbearable in a world were, as the voiceover announces early in this film, “we’re not going anywhere.”
      The “we” of this announcement is not only Gilbert, who works for a small grocer in the center of the town, threatened with extinction by a new supermarket FoodLand on the edge of town (echoing what as happened in so many small US towns when big stores such as Walmart move in), but his two sisters, Amy (Laura Harrington), who is now serving basically as the mother of the tribe, and Ellen (Mary Kate Schellhardt), a younger teenager who still helps in family chores.

    Together they care not only for the troubled Arnie but for the grossly obese mother Bonnie (wonderfully performed by Darlene Cates, who since her husband’s suicide has not left the couch for the last 6 years. One of the quiet rituals of this film is the set table moved over to accommodate the unmovable mother, dressed in a frowzy house-dress from which she has probably never escaped. The movie does not explain her shower and bathroom duties, but the audience and only wonder those issues. Certainly, the house their father has built is suffering from her occasional shuffles from the living room into the kitchen.
     Accordingly, we understand almost immediately “what’s eating Gilbert Grape,” stuck in a place that will not allow him any movement, even away from the desperate housewife which he is seemingly forced into sexual encounters since she is one of the very best customers of his employer Lampson’s.
     Yet the good-looking, in this case slightly red-haired Depp as Gilbert, does his best for his troubled family, helping to call-down his brother from his often attempts to climb the town’s water-tower, and to keep his mother from the town’s abuse for her gargantuan proportions. When Arnie attempts to climb, he helps by singing him down; yet the town leaders are growing impatient with his behavior, and threaten to control the child—even if we and the entire town know he, at 18, is no longer a true child, even if his mind cannot comprehend this.
      Up and down and in-between are the dominate images of this film. If the others are “not going anywhere,” Arnie’s climbing trees and the water-tower are evidence that there are other directions.
The in-between is death by drowning, clearly a metaphor representing the problem of not being able to escape.
     The woman with whom Gilbert is having an affair husband buys his own troubled children a small swimming pool, which he drowns in after suffering a heart attack. Gilbert gives Arnie a warm bath but forgets him there until he discovers the boy shivering the next morning in the now cold water, afraid, surely like his mother, of ever entering the water again. The shock of the event finds Gilbert breaking his very own rules that proclaim, “nobody touches Arnie.” Shocked by his own behavior, he gets in his truck and drives off.
     This movie begins with new possibilities as Gilbert and Arnie stand beside an empty country road to watch the procession of the annual International Harvester Travelall trailers who visit the small town to camp in a nearby recreation location. Arnie is delighted by their arrival, but it is Gilbert who truly discovers another life when he meets the wonderfully open-minded Becky, to whom Arnie runs in despair. Instead of “up-and-down,” the world Arnie has defined as his perimeters, she helps him to perceive a more horizontal movement through space, taking him into the river waters to help cure him of his aquaphobia.
      Back from his own horizontal voyage of guilt, Gilbert attends the primitive birthday party for the child who has lived beyond the prediction of his death. And meanwhile, when Arnie does finally reach the vertical heights of the water-town he has so long been seeking, the moribund Bonnie finally arises from her endless lethargy to, for the first time in years, to horizontally move in an attempt save her son from police detention.
     Gilbert, clearly in love with the adventuresome Becky, dares even to invite her into their troubled home to meet his mother, something he has before dared to do. Bonnie’s gentle statement, “I did not always look like this,” says it all. She recognizes the horrific burden she has been to her own family.
     When the overweight woman finally makes her own vertical voyage up the stairs of the rickety house to the bed she hasn’t used in years, the family finds her the next morning dead. Surely, since they will have to use a crane to remove her from the house, the neighbors will laugh and hoot about the event.
     Once again, however, the family comes together to protect one of their own, removing their possessions from the family home and setting it afire, almost like an Indian cremation event or, perhaps, more closely, to Andrei Tarkovsky’s sacrifice of the grand home in the movie of that same name.
      Yet that event allows the family a new freedom to move in a horizontal direction into the future.
Amy, we are told is now managing a bakery and Ellen is switching her educational goals. Gilbert and Arne wait by the roadside for Becky, who picks them up in her airstream trailer, presumably to take them on a new road in their lives.

Los Angeles, November 26, 2019
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (November 2019).

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