Sunday, April 25, 2010
In desperate attempts for us young students to evoke clarity in our essay writing, my elementary school teachers would frequently use the analogy, "If aliens were to read your paper and knew absolutely nothing about (fill in blank noun/verb here), how would you explain this to them?" I don't know about extraterrestrial life, but I know that if aliens were to come to Earth and one film would be shown to reveal what sociologically makes us human beings, Francois Truffaut's The Wild Child would do exactly that, because its very story is about an alien who finds himself integrated into human society.
The alien in question is a feral child found in the Aveyron forests, seemingly having been left to survive on his own devices his entire life. Dr. Itard (played by director Francois Truffaut in a role which mirrors his later acting performance in Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind with the same spiritual and human intellect), a doctor of deaf children, takes an interest in the child's case and attempts to socialize the child with the help of his housekeeper Madame Geurin. Little by little. the child learns to walk bipedally, put on shoes, eat properly with a fork and knife, learns the correct order of the alphabet, and is given the name Victor.
But the real journey is in learning how to emote. Last year, I took a sociology class (my first despite being a psychology major) called "Self and Society" because I needed to fill my class schedule and it sounded interesting; it ended up being my favorite class of the semester. The accumulation of what I learned is that people learn how to emote by spending time with other people. How else would one know how to laugh at a joke? Or cry at times of sadness? There is something to be said for living as an anti-conformist and abhor the unspoken codes and rules of society which Edith Wharton wrote about, but severe isolation has its tolls on the human psyche. By showing Victor how humans behave in everyday social ways, Dr. Itard reveals morality and emotions. A real-life anecdote not seen in the film states that when Madame Guerin's husband died and she wept out of grief, Victor stopped what he was doing and consoled her.
While Truffaut doesn't mean to say that society is always in the right (scars on Victor's body hints at signs of abuse at the hands of others, making him not a genuine feral child but an abused, neglected victim who might have suffered a worse fate had he stayed with his family), Truffaut's filmography celebrated human relationships and interactions, be they romantic (as they often were with Truffaut, the man who loved women) or platonic. He knew that compassion is what made us human, and it's a privilege which is learned, not inherent.
To any aliens reading this (or English teachers of Christmas Past), I hope I have created a clear picture of why we're human--and why Francois Truffaut was one of the best of them all.
Monday, April 19, 2010
"There is no such thing as love, only proofs of love." So began my introduction to Robert Bresson's unique vision of the crazy things people do for the sake of love (or is it only the proof of it?), in his near-fantasy Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne, written by Jean Cocteau and borrowed by Bernardo Bertolucci in two of his films. Perhaps the lines would become more pertinent in his little-seen 1968 adaptation of Doystoevsky's short story A Gentle Creature, which opens with the sudden suicide of a beautiful young woman, and a question: Why couldn't love unite these two people, who need a connection more than most cinematic creations ever made?
These two people are left unchristened by a name, known only as "She" and "He." In the opening moments, She commits suicide, poetically visualized by a white shawl falling in the wind, her life and innocence gone forever. Her husband is left to pick up her body, and the pieces of their marriage, via flashbacks. A near-destitute student, she comes to His pawnshop to sell what little possessions she has. Pitying her, he buys everything she brings, even obviously worthless objects ("I'll only do this for you" he commandingly reminds her). As a pawnbroker, the husband sees himself as a sort of Faustian alter ego, having the power to do good as well as evil through his handling of money. When he asks her to marry him, he probably does so in the belief that this proof of love is a good-doing, not so much because he truly loves her. She accepts his proposal. Bresson reminds the viewer that this marriage is little more than a practicality on both sides by visually comparing the signing of a marriage certificate and the receipt of a barter made at the husband's pawn shop.
In many ways, the marriage resembles that of Tippi Hedron and Sean Connery in Alfred Hitchcock's Marnie, one of commodity rather than love, with a beautiful blonde suffering from her trapped cage. Although the first few days of marriage show nuggets of happiness, including a moment of an impulsive hug ("She loved me then," the husband assures himself in the present), the marriage is still little more than a business transaction--the husband sets rigid rules for their lifestyle and limits the amount of money they may give away through the pawn shop. Knowing her prior life of near-destitution, the wife rebels against this, causing friction, jealousy and even an attempted homicide. When the wife becomes seriously ill with fever, the husband has a change of heart and promises a more positive change. When the wife recovers, she agrees to this radical new life, but jumps off their balcony moments later.
Why didn't love unite these two? Surely they're two characters in need of redemption--the pawnbroker's capitalistic ways would've been softened, and the girl's need to be taken care of would've been sated. The man claims he wants to love her, but the girl defensively states that he only wants to marry her, not to love her. (This line, juxtaposed with the image of the couple behind a wire fence at a zoo, cements their trapped natures) Their marriage is one of occasional mutual respect and admiration, but not one of communication and understanding, the fatal flaw in the business transaction of their marriage. The man does not know anything about her other than he wants to help her; his action might be "proof of love" as Cocteau once wrote, but his lack of heart and thought--the exact place where the love should've come from--is the defining nail in the coffin.
Bresson's film remains a close adaptation of Dostoevsky's short story, though lifts some of the misogonist undertones to make the wife a more sympathetic character, deletes what little bit of a past the wife came with, and shifts the setting to then-present day Paris. His actors color the enigmas that are their characters, particularly Dominique Sanda as the wife. Of all the actors Robert Bresson worked with, Sanda went on to have the most successful film career, receiving cinematic immortality as the second coming of Marlene Dietrich in Bernardo Bertolucci's The Conformist. In her film debut, which she serendipitously received simply because she called Bresson on the phone inquiring about his latest film, she channels the innocent waif of Joan Fontaine to very moving results. Sanda is an actress whose face is always taking note of something, who is always thinking and observing beneath the beautiful surface. As the wife, Sanda continually reminds us that there's so much more intelligence and emotion underneath her seemingly unmovable facade. In fact, given Sanda's professional relationship with Bertolucci, one can almost see this as a prequel to Last Tango in Paris, in which a similar man is left with unanswered questions after his wife's sudden suicide. Sanda had helped Bertoluci develop the idea and was expected to play the female lead, but her pregnancy prevented this from occurring. Had she been able to play the role, not only would the film's male/female battle been more equal, but the film could've added another layer in which Marlon Brando's widower Paul acts out sexual release with the image of his dead wife, only to be killed by her all over again when he tries belatedly to understand this beautiful creature.
Friday, April 9, 2010
Nicholas Ray was one of the greatest, iconoclastic directors in American cinema. He saw passion in creativity, horror in conformity, and beauty in doomed love. Therefore, it's no surprise that he was able to take a fairly routine RKO script and weave it into a passion project about the loneliness of being homeless, one which both director and star Robert Mitchum were able to look back on with love for what they had created.
In Ray's films, it feels that the luckier a person is at their job (which serve as a sort of surrogate home, just as Ray's directing gig was himself), the unluckier he is at love, and vice versa--Bowie's downward spiral of a crime spree is tempered by his love for Keechie; Dix's screenwriting comeback is accepted at the exact moment when he loses his grip on his girlfriend; Tommy Farrell loathes being a dishonest mob lawyer but finds a soul mate in dancer Vicki. In the opening moments of The Lusty Men, this paradox is evident, as Jeff McCloud shines as a rodeo star in front of a cheering audience of thousands, but only a cross-dissolve later, the other side reveals itself. Jeff gets an injury, and his career is all but over. He walks across an empty arena, newspapers blowing in the wind, the crowd's cheers silenced and long gone home.
Just as he loses one home, he visits the first one he's ever known: the house he was born in. Jeff's first stop on a hitch-hike to a steadier life is to the house he grew up in. The body language and heavy eyes of Mitchum reveal the weight this place in time has on Jeff. Almost as though he's never left or ever grown up, Jeff crawls under his house, fumbles around in the dark, and finds mementos of a childhood he's long left behind (or has he?)--a toy gun, two nickels and an old newspaper. Memories of a time when he felt the ground beneath his feet.
By this point you might not think there's much of a plot in The Lusty Men. There is a plot, concerning Jeff's mentoring of a young farm hand Wes Merritt into a rodeo star while falling for Wes' wife Louise, played with snap by Susan Hayward, but Ray's heart is more concerned with the characters he loves so much rather than a typical 3-act structure. Ray was very proud of his ability to "wing it" on the making of this movie (the script was more or less being written as filming progressed, usually with the support of his lead actor), and it was a small miracle he was able to do so at RKO for the notorious Howard Hughes. At 2 hours, the film works slowly and gracefully, with exciting scenes devoted to the rodeo games and special attention going to the rough-and-tumble men who participate in these games. In other words, this is the kind of script which would decidedly NOT get someone into film school, but the themes which Ray finds fascinating--how every scar tells a story, or how American masculinity in the 1950s was marred by the lack of a real home--make their way into the film with real intelligence, and the watermark of a natural-born film maker.
Ray once took great pride in "taking the gun away from Bogart" in Knock on Any Door, and in The Lusty Men, he does the same with Mitchum, an actor so well remembered for his laconic masculinity and his enigmatic worldliness in equal measures as his off-screen bad boy image and his seemingly nonchalant disinterest in acting. It's very difficult to imagine anyone else playing Jeff McCloud, because Mitchum puts his whole body into this role (that devastating little gimp...), and like McCloud, Mitchum only wore the stoic mask to hide a desire and a tenderness that could become so misunderstood if revealed. This is the same actor who wrote poetry, played saxophone and released a calypso album, among other side passion projects. Given Ray's unique trademark of guiding personally revealing performances from his actors, it wouldn't be a surprise if there was a lot of Jeff McCloud in Robert Mitchum. Or maybe I just don't want to imagine the real Mitchum as Reverend Harry Powell's real-life counterpart.
In the sad end, it is homelessness which kills Jeff McCloud, who begins his journey revisiting the first home he's ever known, and he ends it in the last one he's ever wanted, in the arms of the woman he loves and shares his longing for a gravitationally-bound life. It might not be much, but it's proof that frankly, Mitchum did give a damn.