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Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Alfred Hitchcock | Vertigo | Psycho


murder for love: two hitchcock romances
by Douglas Messerli














at edge

Alec Coppel and Samuel A. Taylor (screenplay, based on a fiction by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac), Alfred Hitchcock (director) Vertigo / 1958

For years I have put off writing about Alfred Hitchcock's film Vertigo, not because I have nothing to say about it, but because I have so much! As I've noted elsewhere, the first time I saw this film at a small Manchester, Iowa theater in 1958, I was only eleven years of age. The film whirled around me like a mysterious, inexplicable virago. I was literally made dizzy by the film, and I remember, as it ended, going into men's room on the second floor of the movie house, thinking to myself, "I am too young to see this film." Immediately, I went downstairs once more and saw the movie all over again!

     Since that time I have seen the movie perhaps 100 times, both on television and in theaters, on DVDs and computer screens. Only on the latter, did the movie suffer.

   
     Even from the beginning I realized this film was about a romantic obsession—an obsession for a woman (Madeleine Elster/Judy Barton) dreamily played by Kim Novak, and an obsession for a city, San Francisco. Just as the film's structure functions as a kind of double helix (the coil appears in the credits, shifting at moments into a pattern very much like Crick and Watson's later representation of DNA, and again in Madeline Elster's hairdo, in the painting of Carlotta Valdes at the California Palace of the Legion of Honor, and in the rose symbolizing Scottie's descent into madness), in which everything that happens in the first part reoccurs in a slightly different form in the second, so too do these two obsessions weave around each other, the same woman appearing slightly different the second part and city changing from a magical world of lights (both sunlit and artificial) to a darker world of restaurants and a night drive to Mission San Juan Bautista. Indeed, the two parts of the film are played out in almost oppositional worlds, the first the story of a glamorously beautiful woman, traveling in a kind haze through the sun-filled streets of the beautiful city and environs with Scottie (James Stewart) following and later joining her almost as if they were tourists, Hitchcock taking his audience along for the ride. It is a slow story of developing love— lushly accompanied by Bernard Herrmann's Wagnerian-like score—which ends tragically as the suicidal Madeleine Elster seems to jump from the tower of the Mission to her death, from which Scottie has been unable to save her because of his vertigo.

     The film then turns to Scottie's inquest ("Coroner: He did nothing. The law has little to say on things left undone.") and his descent into depression, a kind of madness that even his chipper and loyal friend Midge Wood (the wonderful Barbara Bel Geddes) cannot help him to escape.

   The second roll of the helix begins with Scottie's accidental encounter with a young woman who looks somewhat like Madeleine. But this young woman is dressed atrociously, her hair hanging in tasteless bangs. She works as a shop clerk. And there is little mysterious about her as she reports in her flat American accent her background, even providing her would-be offender with her driver's license. It has always struck me that if Judy had been made over by Gavin Elster into such a beautiful woman in the first part, why should have chosen to revert to Judy Barton in the second? And reportedly—I have not read the article nor have knowledge of its existence except for a message board posting on the IMDb site for the film—Claude Chabrol, writing on Vertigo, claimed that she is not the same woman, but another whom Scottie makes over to look like Madeleine. Yet, obviously, that does not account for the letter of admission she writes to Scottie before tearing it up, nor her possession of the jewelry previously worn by Madeline, nor her verbal admission on the tower of the Mission near the end of the film. And that reading misses the point. While everything in the second part is the same, has the same genetic make-up of the first, everything has changed, which gives the viewer the slightly sickening sensation that things are not right.      

     Indeed, they are not right. For by acting as Madeleine, Judy has helped in the murder of Gavin Elster's real wife. She is a murderess first, but also a cheat, a liar, even a kind of whore for allowing Scottie to dress and coif her as someone else:

            Judy: If I let you change me, will that do it? If I do what you tell me, will you love me?
            Scottie: Yes. Yes.
            Judy: All right. All right then, I'll do it. I don't care anymore about me.

In Hitchcock's patterning of the human DNA we recognize the potential for humans to be two beings, to have the capabilities of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Although Scottie has throughout this second half of the film been seeking his past, in recreating Judy into her former being he has also symbolically taken away her current life, which gets played out into the final incident where he forces her to return to Mission San Juan Bautista and, overcoming his dizziness (not only his vertigo but the confusion of his thinking) forcibly grabs her, demanding the truth:   

           Scottie: And then what did he do? Did he train you? Did he rehearse you? Did he
           tell you exactly what to do, what to say? You were a very apt pupil too, weren't you?
          You were a very apt pupil! Well, why did you pick on me? Why me?

The sudden appearance of a mission nun so startles Judy that she rushes to the edge, actualizing her previous performance of death.

     Again, Scottie has not been a true murderer, but this time, he is the direct cause. It is he who has forced her to return to the sight of the first murder and to confront her participation in it. And we know, in his almost existentialist pose at the edge of the roof, that even if he escapes the accusations of murder, he will never escape his anguish and guilt. In short, we can describe, at least metaphorically speaking, Scottie's act as one of revenge—growing out a kind of fatal disappointment in the woman behind Madeleine Elster—as a  murder for love.

Los Angeles, February 25, 2012.





















the jealous mother

Joseph Stefano (screenplay, based on the novel by Robert Bloch), Alfred Hitchcock (director) Psycho / 1960

It was not until I began writing the essay above that I suddenly realized that Hitchcock's well known 1960 horror film Psycho bears much in common with Vertigo in the sense that it too is a kind of romance—a very strange one to say the least—but still a romance between a young man, Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins), and a passing stranger, Marion Crane (Janet Leigh), staying the night at his hotel. The two hardly meet, sharing only a short conversation over shared supper, where it becomes clear that the lonely Norman, miles from the more-traveled highway, is fond of his new guest, and through his shy looks and comments we observe his interest in her. An supposed argument with his mother confirms his emotions:

Norma Bates: [voice-over] No! I tell you no! I won't have you bringing some young girl in for supper! By candlelight, I suppose, in the cheap, erotic fashion of young men with cheap, erotic minds!
Norman Bates: [voice-over] Mother, please...!
Norma Bates: [voice-over] And then what? After supper? Music? Whispers?
Norman Bates: [voice-over] Mother, she's just a stranger. She's hungry, and it's raining out!
Norma Bates: [voice-over] "Mother, she's just a stranger"! As if men don't desire strangers! As if... ohh, I refuse to speak of disgusting things, because they disgust me! You understand, boy? Go on, go tell her she'll not be appeasing her ugly appetite with MY food... or my son! Or do I have tell her because you don't have the guts! Huh, boy? You have the guts, boy?
Norman Bates: [voice-over] Shut up! Shut up!

     Unlike Vertigo, however, where Scottie—as a kind of voyeur—and Madeline—as an observed performer—have long days together as their love blooms, Marion is almost unaware of his feelings, and Norman has no time to develop a relationship. The two are completely pulled away from any possible consummation of feelings, she having stolen $40,000 and left her lover—for whom she has stolen the money in order to marry—back in Phoenix, he having a more powerful love-hate relationship with his mother. The romance of this frightening tale, from the beginning, is off kilter. Both the soon-to-be victim and the murderer are not who they pretend to be.

     Like Madeline, Marion is a liar and, in this case, a thief. The realization of her errors comes soon after her conversation with Norman, as she determines to return to Phoenix; and, like the mythical bird, she clearly hopes to be "reborn," to rectify her behavior. The shower, as numerous observers have noted, is a kind of ritual baptism, a washing away of her sins with a hopeful return to innocence. Yet, the attentive viewer also knows that a resurrection will be impossible, for as we have witnessed in Norman's room behind the motel's front desk, Norman's hobby is taxidermy: he stuffs birds, assuring no possibility of their being reborn out of the ashes.

     Minutes later, dressed as his mother, he stabs Marion to death in the famed shower scene, a scene so powerful that women all over the world became terrified to take a shower. The three minutes of 50 cuts is a kind of small and masterful film in  itself, revealing in its attention to the details to Marion's body just how obsessed Norman/his mother is with this woman. It is hard to perceive such a brutal murder as a kind of love scene, but the way Hitchcock has filmed it, beginning with the sensual pleasure Marion finds in the shower, her scream upon the sudden intrusion, the outstretched hand and fingers, the gradual fall, the appearance of blood, and the final focus upon her dilated eye, it is almost a kind of dance, a dance of death if nothing else.

     Norman has to destroy her as his jealous mother to keep his psychosis alive; and it is that necessity—the acts of the jealous mother—that makes us realize just how attracted he has been to Marion. In a sense, Norman has been as obsessed with her as Scottie was with Madeline.

     The rest of the story, how family and authorities discover the truth, hardly matters. The only thing that keeps the audience's interest—which is why the director was so determined not to reveal the story's secret and would not allow audiences to enter after the movie had begun—is the fact that we do not yet realize that Norman is his mother, having killed her off long ago. What gradually becomes apparent is that his real lover was his mother, a tyrant who would allow him no other lover, keeping him frozen in infancy forever. So, in the end, playing the role of both his mother and himself, he is, as his last name suggests, making love to himself, a kind of psychical masturbation. As the doctor summarizes:

Dr. Fred Richmond: Like I said... the mother... Now to understand it the way I understood it, hearing it from the mother... that is, from the mother half of Norman's mind... you have to go back ten years, to the time when Norman murdered his mother and her lover. Now he was already dangerously disturbed, had been ever since his father died. His mother was a clinging, demanding woman, and for years the two of them lived as if there was no one else in the world. Then she met a man... and it seemed to Norman that she 'threw him over' for this man. Now that pushed him over the line and he killed 'em both. Matricide is probably the most unbearable crime of all... most unbearable to the son who commits it. So he had to erase the crime, at least in his own mind. He stole her corpse. A weighted coffin was buried. He hid the body in the fruit cellar. Even treated it to keep it as well as it would keep. And that still wasn't enough. She was there! But she was a corpse. So he began to think and speak for her, give her half his time, so to speak. At times he could be both personalities, carry on conversations. At other times, the mother half took over completely. Now he was never all Norman, but he was often only mother. And because he was so pathologically jealous of her, he assumed that she was jealous of him. Therefore, if he felt a strong attraction to any other woman, the mother side of him would go wild.
[Points finger at Lila Crane]

 
Dr. Fred Richmond: When he met your sister, he was touched by her... aroused by her. He wanted her. That set off the 'jealous mother' and 'mother killed the girl'! Now after the murder, Norman returned as if from a deep sleep. And like a dutiful son, covered up all traces of the crime he was convinced his mother had committed!  

 So it is confirmed that Marion's murder was indeed a murder for love.

    At film's end, Norman sits covered in a blanket, as psychically dead as Scottie in Vertigo. But while Scottie stood at an ledge, reminding us of his 20th century angst, the last images of Norman look more like a scene out of Fellini than anything else, hinting at something similar to the postmodern absurdity of the years ahead. Even Norman's thoughts—his absurd belief that "I'm not going to even swat that fly" indicates that "he wouldn't even hurt a fly"—seems to be something out of Ionesco or Beckett rather than taken from a high modernist literary text. Despite the fact that the two protagonists stand and sit in similar positions, accordingly, Hitchcock's implication of what it means is far more comic in Psycho, despite the horrors of the film itself. 

 Los Angeles, February 27, 2012

Sunday, February 26, 2012

The Creepy Stuff I Did

















the creepy stuff i did
by Douglas Messerli

David Letterman Late Show with David Letterman, October 1, 2009, CBS
Woody Allen and Marshall Brickman (writers), Woody Allen (director) Manhattan / 1979
Joe Bini, P. G. Morgan, and Marina Zenovich (writers), Marina Zenovich (director) Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired / 2008, the showing I witnessed was at the Melnitz Theatre, UCLA, on October 1, 2009

 While recently listening to David Letterman's "confession" of his sexual encounters on late night television, I was bemused and more than a little frightened, once again, by my fellow citizens' sexual prudery and by the underlying attitudes we Americans seem to have about sex in general.

     Letterman, as most Americans now know, was being blackmailed by CBS producer Robert "Joe" Halderman for having had—are you sitting down?—"sex with a woman who worked with me on this show." Allegedly these sexual relationships all occurred before his marriage to Regina Lasko and the birth of their son, although there are now suggestions that he took one of the women, Stephanie Birkett, on a Caribbean vacation with his wife and son.

    However, unless Letterman threatened these women with dismissals from their jobs if they did not have sex with him, it amazes me that anyone might have thought that he could get away with blackmail or that viewers might even imagine this to be of interest except to Letterman, his wife, and the women with whom he had sex. Certainly, it can (and evidently has) lead to matrimonial difficulties and may someday end up as an issue in divorce court, but in my estimation those issues have no place at all in the minds of prurient American television viewers, who every day, it seems, are shocked and absolutely amazed that our celebrities and leaders lead lives as sexual beings!

     The media, of course, mightily fuels this ridiculous outrage. In France or even Italy, the public and press might hail Letterman as an ordinary man. But here he is forced to describe his noncriminal behavior as "creepy," as if he were some strange deviant, hiding his actions from an innocent American mass. Although the American divorce rate, as some sources show, has decreased in the last few years by 30%, it is still, according to The Marriage Index, 2-6 times higher than in Canada and European countries. Obviously, divorce may occur for numerous reasons, yet infidelity is obviously high among its causes. Accordingly, Letterman may be a very ordinary man. Why are we so fascinated by the topic?

    On the other hand, if one of these women had been an underage intern, it would be a different matter. And that is what we must consider in the recent arrest of Roman Polanski, to whose side numerous Hollywood figures have recently come in support of his being freed from the Swiss prison and possible U.S. extradition.

     At some point I would like to discuss American and current international attitudes (largely in response to American pressure) about sexuality and children. As a society, the rising hysteria about child abuse—and I will assert that it has reached that level of behavior since it has become something that cannot be rationally discussed—is dismaying to the say the least. Our viewpoint is based on a Victorian notion of childhood isolation, a blessèd time of innocence in which children are to be protected from the world at large, and there is a certain wisdom, I am sure, in this vision, even if the reality seems to be pointing to the opposite, that today's children are increasingly behaving, earlier and earlier in their childhood, as adults (with results both good and bad). Those facts, also fueled by the media, in turn, fan the flames of further fears which Americans play out.     

     Nearly everyone save sexual predators themselves, recognizing the power adults have over children's minds and bodies, want to protect juveniles from the sexual advances of men and women who may psychologically hurt them, physically abuse them, or even kill them; most civilized societies understand those dangers and seek to protect their young. But at what age to draw the line? We have somewhat arbitrarily named the age of 18, even though one can enlist, without parental consent, to go to war at age 17. Evidently, children have permission to die, as long as do it as virgins.

     No matter what age is chosen to be appropriate, on the other hand, there will always appear to be exceptions, children more advanced, physically and sexually, than their peers. And one cannot expect the judge or jury to make such determinations, to pick and choose among the victims. On the other hand, in severe cases of murder and mayhem there seems to be an increasing decision among prosecutors to try some juveniles as adults. Not being a lawyer, I don't know what kind of criteria goes into these determinations, but it does seem somewhat hypocritical when we can pick and choose how we can apply life imprisonment or even the death sentence to underage children, while making no allowance for their sexuality.

      In his 1979 film Manhattan, Woody Allen flirts with this very issue. Recently revisiting this film, I was a little abashed to remember that the girl Allen has taken up with after his second wife (Meryl Streep) has run away with another woman, is a 17 year-old high school girl (Mariel Hemingway). Although the Allen character is clearly someone uncomfortable with the idea throughout the film—joking at one point, "I'm older than her father, can you believe that? I'm dating a girl, wherein, I can beat up her father."—noone else seems appalled by the fact. Indeed all of Allen's friends in the movie seem to be involved, like Letterman, in extramarital affairs (particularly the character Yale, played by Michael Murphy) or, in the case of Diane Keaton's character, easily shifting from bed to bed. Only Tracy, Allen's 17 year-old lover, seems to know what she wants—an older lover to "fool around" with. Not until Allen has sent her packing does he realize how much he misses her; but she's now 18 and on her way to a new experience in life, a six-month stay in England, which, incidentally, he had previously recommended to her.

     That film received nearly unanimous praise, and no reviewer I've read seemed at all appalled that it was, in some senses, a film about child abuse. Maybe because it was fiction it was saved from public outcry, although one must remember that just two decades earlier Lolita, another fiction about this subject, was banned in the USA.

      Allen, one should recall, has had his own sexual scandale, involving himself in an affair with Soon-Yi Previn, the adopted daughter of Allen's lover of the time, Mia Farrow, a romance she discovered by finding nude pictures of her daughter taken by Allen. Frankly, I might describe Allen's actions as far more "creepy" than anything Letterman has done. Ultimately, Allen married Soon-Yi, and they remain married today. It comes as no surprise, accordingly, that Allen is one of the signatories of the petition demanding Polanski's release from jail.

      If in the film-fiction Manhattan Tracy is apparently more mature than all the adults of that film, the girl with whom Polanski had sex in 1977, Samantha Geimer, although a mature looking girl, was not even close to legal age; she was only 13 at the time. Geimer, moreover, clearly did not want a sexual relationship with her photographer and reported his sexual advances as rape to the police. Whether Polanski had set out to rape her or whether his sex with her seemingly arose from a too-intimate setting, a sauna at Jack Nicholson's house, is not really the issue. Polanski fed her both Champagne and part of a Qualude before engaging in sex. And even imagining that, as a sexual swinger of the international set, he was unaware of how serious Americans took such infractions, he surely couldn't have been so stupid to think his actions would have no consequence.

     Although one might find it psychologically fascinating that he committed these infractions just a few years after the brutal slaying by Charles Manson and his dreadful followers of Polanski's beloved wife, Sharon Tate, events all further interwoven, surely, with his childhood memories of the murder of his parents in the death chambers of World War II concentration camps, it can have no direct bearing on his criminal behavior, particularly since he was twice found to be free of serious psychological problems. It may be fascinating to consider those issues when discussing his films, but cannot be seen, as some have attempted, to be an excuse for his actions.

     Finally, it seems ridiculous to argue, as some in Hollywood have, that he should be excused from this sexual "slip up" because of his immense talent. When will we learn that great artists, writers, and other geniuses often support evil actions and those behind them? I love the writing of Knut Hamsun, but to do so one must also accept the fact that he was a supporter of the Nazi cause and actually met with Hitler. My own thinking about poetry has been very influenced by Ezra Pound, but I cannot condone his support of the Fascists and his anti-Semitic writings. Great artists can also be bad human beings.

      Yet Polanski's acts are even more muddied by the actions of the press, lawyers, and judge overseeing his criminal case. As Marina Zenovich's 2008 film, Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired  (screened at UCLA soon after Polanski's Swiss arrest) reveals, from the moment of Polanski's act he was hounded by the news media, who cast him as the perfect target for Americans who hated the intelligentsia, were xenophobic, and who feared the sexuality he exuded.  

     The appointed judge for the case, Lawrence J. Rittenband, was noted for his relationships with celebrities, and sought out the case, purposely generating news coverage of the hearings. The opposing lawyers, Douglas Dalton (Polanski's lawyer) and Roger Gunson (for the accuser) were intelligent and dedicated lawyers forced to play charades by the judge's shifting impositions of law. Even when the parties agreed to drop all charges except rape and that Polanski would undergo psychological observation, Rittenband further played to the grandstand, demanding a series of new tests in Chino State Prison. Once again all parties agreed to his demands, yet Rittenband audaciously made them perform his decision out in court, each lawyer playing out the case that had been already previously decided.

      Even after serving his time in the Chino prison, Polanski and his lawyer were further threatened by the judge, and after flying to Europe, where the filmmaker was captured in pictures at the Munich Ocktoberfest surrounded by young women (an event Polanski had not even wanted to attend, but was encouraged to by a German friend), Rittenband threatened to sentence Polanski to more time in Chino and demanded, illegally, that Polanski give up his rights for deportation. Dalton and Polanski refused. Even the blue-eyed upstanding Mormon prosecutor Gunson admits, had he been asked to do what Rittenband had demanded, he too might have left the country. In 1978, after almost a year of such public torture, Polanski illegally fled the US.

     That the California enforcers are still vigilantly attempting to return Polanski to the US for sentencing—a sentencing which clearly threatens, as the New York Times recently pointed out (Sunday, October 11, 2009), to be a less forgiving prison time for his acts—seems unfair at best.

     Although there is little question that Polanski "got off" the first time around, with a very short time in jail, in the end one must ask what is justice, what is imprisonment about? Certainly, justice did not win out in 1978, either for the accuser or accused. Why do we imprison people? Obviously, in part, we incarcerate the guilty as punishment for their crimes. But we seem to have forgotten that we also jail individuals with the hope of reformation, with the desire of somehow redeeming their lives. Today, it appears, particularly when it comes to sex crimes, that we no longer believe in that possibility. And we all know that some sexual abusers, particularly when it comes to children, have committed crimes over and over again. I do think, however, that we should not presume by such recidivism that all such criminals are unable to be reformed. Clearly, Polanski has led, in the 31 years since his escape from America, a productive and seemingly governed life. What can be the use of trotting a 76 year old man off to prison for a crime he committed at age 44? It seems to me that Polanski has been more than punished for his acts, unless, as I suspect, we are a terrifyingly vengeful society when it comes to sex.



Los Angeles, October 12-13, 2009

Reprinted from Green Integer Blog (October 2009).



When I shared some of the above comments with my M.F.A. students at Otis College of Art + Design in conjunction with our reading a book that involved issues of sexuality, I found their reactions very similar to what I feared were those of the general American public.

     Several of my students insisted that Polanski had to be returned if only to be made a symbol of the fact you cannot simply escape our justice system and "get away with it."

     I suggested that I had never been much interested in converting human beings into symbols. But even more importantly, one has to ask what is a symbol?

    No one in my class could say, although one ventured, "something or someone that means something else."

    "Perhaps, but such a trope could also be an allegory, where every time you see a figure or an image it also stands for another thing throughout the entire text. A symbol, on the other hand, is not one other person or thing but represents a whole group of possibilities.

     "In Eudora Welty's Golden Apples, for example, particularly in the first story titled 'Shower of Gold,' we are presented with a character, Miss Snowdie MacLain, a woman who is nearly an albino, who from time to time is visited by her itinerant husband, King MacLain, who upon these occasions impregnates her, only to leave again for more than a year at a spell. The MacLain's are characters, a couple in Welty's fiction, who have a very strange relationship, but remain credible characters nonetheless.

    "Surrounding this couple, however, are a series of associations, the 'shower of gold' hinted at in the title, and the fact that she is an albino, unable, at some points, to explain her pregnancies, information we get from the narrator of this story, Mrs. Rainey. When Snowdie announces she is going to have a baby, for example, the narrator notes:


                      She [Snowdie MacLain] looked more than only the news had come over
                      over her. It was like a shower of something had stuck her, like she'd been
                      caught out in something bright. It was more than the day. There with her
                      all crinkled up with always fighting the light, yet she looking out bold as
                     a lion that day under her brim, and gazing into my bucket and into my
                     stall like a visiting somebody.


     "Now that's good descriptive writing, we feel almost as if we can see Snowdie MacLain, a woman who is a bit confused about the facts but nonetheless proud of knowing that she is soon to give birth. The story remains just that, a story. But for the knowledgeable reader, the way this story is told suggests other things, stories, images, etc. Do any of you recognize what that 'something else' is?"

      None of them spoke.

      "In Greek legend we have many stories about Zeus, his rape of Leda as he transformed himself into a swan, his abduction of Europa while disguised as a bull, his love of the Trojan prince Ganymede who was stolen by an eagle sent by Zeus. In short, Zeus, King of the gods, was a serial rapist.

     "Another such tale concerns Danaë, the daughter of King Acrisius and Eurydice. When the oracle reported to her father that he would be killed by his daughter's son, Acrisius locked Danaë up in a cave to keep her childless. But Zeus appeared this time as a golden rain, a 'golden shower' that impregnated her with a child, Perseus, who would later kill Medusa, the female monster whose gaze turned people to stone. Perseus later participated in the athletic games in Larissa, throwing a discus which, by accident, hit an attending guest, Acrisius, in the head, killing him and fulfilling, of course, the oracle's prediction.

    "Welty's character Snowdie shares a great deal with Danaë, and reading about her reminds one of that myth and other such myths Welty weaves throughout the stories of The Golden Apple. Snowdie is not Danaë, but shares things in common with her and the events surrounding that Greek myth, and Welty's story is enriched by this combination of associations.

     "That is a symbolic relationship. But it works only if the reader knows the Greek myth. None of you knew it, which is why, I would suggest most writers don't use symbolism these days. In our society in which fewer books are read and we have forgotten much of our literary history, we have lost sight of many of the associations that allow for symbols to properly function."

    As I told this story, I privately wondered how Welty's brilliant collection—filled with tales of abduction and rape—might be received today. Would today's readers find the genteel Miss Welty an immoral writer advocating child sexuality since, at one point, two young twin boys rape a girl their age?

     "Perhaps you mean that Polanski should be made an 'example,'" I suggested. "But, I might ask, in my role as Devil's Advocate, what would his being sent back to jail be an example of, to whom would that example be conveyed?"

     "An example of our justice system," one student nearly shouted. "An example to others that you can't just expect to run away from your criminal actions and live happily ever after just because you're rich and famous."

    "I have my doubts," I answered, "about punishment actually preventing crimes. I think most people who commit such acts as Polanski are either convinced that they are somehow above the law, that it doesn't apply to them, or that they probably won't get caught. I suppose there are some potential child molesters out there who might think twice about actually acting on their thoughts; perhaps there are more than I can imagine, and the other punishments meted out by the system prevent these men and women from acting. I hope that's true.

    "Yet it seems to me that criminals will continue to proliferate, with or without examples of how our system operates. Just look at the overcrowded prisons we find throughout our country. Never before have our prisons been so full of men and women who have broken our laws; in 2008 almost 4 million people were incarcerated at year's end" (While I was editing this CNN reported that this year to date there have been 90,000 rapes! Could that be true, I wondered to myself? Upon checking the statistics elsewhere I discovered that over the past two years 787,000 US women were the victims of sexual assault! What can that say about our society, when even rape becomes, in some perverse way, ordinary? Imagine every man and woman and child in the state of South Dakota, population 804,000, involved in such acts! I can only ask myself, "What is wrong with this picture? Could it be that there is a correlation between our fears about and lurid fascination with all things sexual and the brutal behavior behind these acts?")  

      "When I hear, we have to make an 'example' of someone, I think of something like a frontier posse angrily gathering to track down their man, an event that usually ends in a hanging or a shootout. Even if this posse were to catch their man and bring him safely back to justice I suspect any example it might convey would to the law-abiding society itself, which implies that the example works something like a pat on the back: 'Good for us! Hooray! We've got a great system of laws.'

      "I don't think I like the idea of turning human beings into examples either."

      "Justice has to be served!" proclaimed another student.

      "That may be true," I argued, "but in this case it wasn't served. Judge Ritterband, as I told you, twisted the system for his own purposes. Were Polanski to have stayed for his sentencing, I should imagine his case might easily have been overturned given all the illegal maneuvers the lawyers from both sides describe. What that would have meant for Polanski is probably numerous other courtroom battles. Whose justice is it, finally, to try a man over and over from the same crime? In a sense, by fleeing the country, Polanski gave Ritterband just what he had illegally demanded. Polanski deported himself, and for all these years has never been able to return to the US."

      Two of my women students stridently spoke up: "I think he should be locked up and they should throw away the key."

     "Precisely my point," I responded, "with regard to sex we are a vengeful folk."

     At that instant I don't think my students much liked me.

Evidently, the seemingly non-judgmental Swiss also felt that the American attitudes towards sex were slightly perverse, and let Polanski out of prison so that he might return to his home in France.


Los Angeles, October 13-14, 2009

Saturday, February 25, 2012

F. W. Murnau | Sunrise


















 
town and country
by Douglas Messerli

Carl Mayer (scenario, based on a story by Hermann Sudermann), Katherine Hilliker and H. H. Caldwell (titles), F. W. Murnau (director) Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans / 1927

Recognized as one the greatest movies ever made, F. W. Murnau's Sunrise uses a dazzling montage of imagery to tell one of the simplest of stories. Although Murnau's script, written by Carl Mayer, was based on an early Hermann Sudermann story, published in his Lithuanian Stories of 1917, the plot will remind American readers of Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy of 1925—although with a much happier ending.

      A young farmer, simply called The Man (George O'Brien), has fallen in love with a woman from the city (The Woman from the City) (Margaret Livingston), ignoring his formerly beloved wife (The Wife) (Janet Gaynor) and their new baby. The intrigue of the story, in fact, has begun before the movie, and what we observe is simply the result of the affair and its aftermath.

      Called out into the night by the evil city woman, the man is overwhelmed by his love for the dark stranger, while the wife is left suffering alone. The city woman suggests that her lover join her in the city, and when he asks "What about my wife?" she has a dreadful suggestion: "Well, couldn't she drown?" Momentarily the man is outraged, but her kisses and embraces mesmerize him, and the plan is suddenly underway, as she suggests he buddle together bulrushes, like a surviving Moses, to help him float away from the boat after he has overturned it, drowning his wife.

     Despite his reluctance and obvious feelings of guilt, he invites his wife on a trip across the water, which she mistakenly perceives as a new chance for romance. Murnau brilliantly creates a sense of tension as the boat begins its voyage by having the family dog break its chains, jump into the water, and swim out toward them. They return to land where the man again tethers the dog before proceeding. The wife, delighted by the prospect of travel, is all smiles, dressed in her best bonnet; but the darkness and grimness of her husband gradually registers upon her face, changing it to fear and doubt. When he rises, ready to commit the dreadful act, she is suddenly aware of her fate, and pleads for her life. The man suddenly regrets his actions and rows to land, whereupon she races from him, catching a nearby trolley on its voyage to the city.

     He catches up to the trolley and joins her, attempting to reassure that will no longer hurt her. So has the couple unintentionally begun a journey into a world opposite of theirs. The rest of the story is one of discovery and reconciliation as the two attend a wedding, visit a barber, dine out, drink wine, and even dance. They are treated much like the country bumpkins they are: they are overwhelmed by the wine, encouraged to dance a peasant dance, and, at one point, even race after an escaped pig, the man capturing the beast who has created a furor in the music hall. Love and joy is rekindled, reflected most in of their quiet boat ride home—that is until the director riles up a terrific storm, wherein they are certain to be drowned. Pulling out the hidden bulrushes, the man straps them upon his wife's back, as he dives in to attempt to swim back to land.

     He is successful, but his wife appears to have not survived as he and others search the waters after the storm. An older neighbor, however, travels "around the point" where he knows the currents move, finding the nearly drowned wife and bringing her home to safety. The couple fondly look upon one another as the sun rises, the woman from the city returning to whence she has come.

     It is an almost mythical story, played out in polar oppositions, sunrise/sunset, light/dark, farm/city, quiet/noise, etc., and Murnau uses those elements to convey his film almost without any dialogue; there are just a few story boards. Still, if that were all there was to this film, it would be simply a slight melodrama, a tale of infidelity and its results. It is Murnau's brilliant use of images that brings this film to such significance.

     Although much of the film was shot in Lake Arrowhead, California, the farm setting looks like something out of the Baltic instead of any American space. The thatched huts at the edge of a what might be a huge lake seem an unlikely place for plowing, the raising of chickens and hogs. It is a fairytale world that is as unreal as the huge urban landscape of Murnau's city which might remind one of Paris or Berlin, but looks little like any American city I've seen. The huge glass-vaulted railroad station, the cavernous restaurant space, the crowded dancehall, the intense traffic of this city—all exaggerated by the director's numerous superimpositions of images (created in the camera itself by blocking out certain parts of scene and reshooting over them)—is something right out of German Expressionism or even Futurist art. This American film, the only one to win an Oscar for "Best Picture, Unique and Artistic Production," is, one might claim, the most un-American-looking film ever made in this country, which is perhaps what makes it an even more thrilling artifact, wowing us with its magical sets and images.

      The film also is far different in tone from what it might have been in other hands. Although Sudermann's story clearly is a rural apologia—a work in which the simple beauty and quietude of country life is presented as superior to urban living—in Murnau's hands the city wins out. For while the loving couple at film's end have returned to country life, their redemption has taken place through the vast energy of city living, even if it has been just for a day. And the film itself truly comes to life in its urban landscape. The last third of the movie is almost enervating after what Murnau has already shown us. The quietude of sunrise denotes a kind a protective stasis, in which both creators and audience can have little interest. And it is just that earlier dark fascination of energy and artificed beauty that so attracts The Man to The Woman from the City, that so overwhelms him he is ready to kill for it. This farm couple may live happily ever after, but for the audience it can only signify an "end" and is no longer of interest to us, and in that sense these characters metaphorical die, while we long for that glorious trolley ride and the clamorous adventure waiting at its destination.

Los Angeles, February 24, 2012

Friday, February 10, 2012

Federico Fellini | La Dolce Vita













a state of enchantment
by Douglas Messerli

Federico Fellini, Ennio Flaiano, Tullo Pinelli and Brunello Rondi (screenplay, Pier Paolo Pasolini [uncredited]), Federico Fellini (director) La Dolce Vita / 1960, USA 1961

Fellini's great La Dolce Vita is less a forward-moving narrative with plot attached than it is a series of basically disconnected episodes, 7 days and 7 nights, each related somewhat to the others, as we watch the gradual disintegration of our "hero," Marcello Rubini (Marcello Mastroianni), a reporter covering celebrities and sensational events. To read Fellini's work one has to be fluent in numerous film genres, including neo-realism and documentary, political caricature, Fellini's own kind of Italian magic-realism, meditation, and a simple love story.

     Over the few days in which we follow Rubini's activities, he is pulled—one might almost say "ripped apart"—by the intense love of Emma (Yvonne Furneaux) and the warm intellectualism of his friend Steiner (whose house we later visit for a friendly, if sometimes absurd and shallow, party of self-declared intellectuals) and the pointless and self-deluded love and parties of the wealthy (most clearly represented by Maddalena [Anouk Aimée] and the actress, Sylvia [memorably portrayed by Anita Ekberg]). On the one side is intelligence, concern for others, and spiritual belief (Emma is moved even by the lie of two children who have claimed to see the Madonna); on the other is a series drunken nights in villas and stranger's houses, wherein the characters act out their sexual desires while seldom obtaining them.

     The tension between the two is played out by Fellini from the very first image of the film, a flying Christ which helicopters are taking to the Vatican as the drivers buzz down upon three beautiful women sunbathers to see if they can obtain their telephone numbers. The sacred and the profane are clearly at war in the enchanted city of Rome.

      The Vatican officials who believed the image to represent the second coming of Christ, were outraged by Fellini's early scene. But in fact, although the grounded figures of this film, Emma and Steiner, suffer, the empty party-goers whom Rubini joins night after night, are at the center of Fellini's satiric focus. Through the episodes, their revels grow stranger and stranger, as they move from simple apartments, restaurants, clubs, and late-night tours of the city, into castles owned by aristocrats  (filmed at Bassano di Sutri outside of Rome), and, finally, a beach house. At the final bacchanal, true sexuality has so disintegrated that Rubini breaks down into a kind of would-be savage, tossing chicken feathers at the body of a woman whom he mounts as if he might ride with her into the sunrise.

     Any love that has previously been proffered—whether by Emma, Maddalena, or even the public spectacle of Sylvia—has been abandoned for a kind an empty series of charades, in which the game players are not even aware they are engaging. If, as a character says early in the work, Rubini and his friends are in "a state of enchantment," it has been a song created by the sirens, not human women, and can only lead to everyone being cast into the sea, which is where the film ends.

      Thrown out of the beach house, Rubini and his fellow "sailors" wander the beach. Nearby we see Paola, a young, fresh waitress Rubini has encountered days before. She calls out to him, while he mimes "I can't hear you," and rather than turning in her direction, rejoins the others observing a large stingray, looking like the leviathan of old, its eyes still staring outward even in its death.

      For these damned beings, we realize, there can be no salvation. Or, perhaps Fellini is suggesting—since Emma finds no joy and Steiner shockingly kills himself and his two beloved children—there is no salvation in this modern world. Steiner, in fact, warms Rubini early in the film to not seek a safe and protective life:

Don't be like me. Salvation doesn't lie within four walls. I'm too serious to be a dilettante and too much a dabbler to be a professional. Even the most miserable life is better than a sheltered existence in an organized society where everything is calculated and perfected.

    The Christ of this film, after all, is only a symbol, a thing cast of stone. And the only real miracle of this film is that a small whirling engine can make it fly to its new home.


Los Angeles, February 9, 2012