The Spiral Road (1962)

The Spiral Road is set in the Dutch East Indies in 1936.  As required by their medical school contracts, several young doctors arrive in Indonesia to spend five years treating the natives for tropical diseases, such as cholera, plague, and leprosy.  The brightest of these, a gold medal winner with high honors, is Anton Drager (Rock Hudson).  On the day of their arrival, the doctors are told they will attend a dinner where they will meet the hospital staff and their families.  At the dinner, Mrs. Kramer, the wife of the director, tells Drager that the social life in the Dutch colony can be quite enjoyable, but he says he didn’t come to this part of the world for dance lessons or to join the Country Club.  She says, “You make it sound like a fate worse than death.”

Most people would regard Mrs. Kramer’s remark as merely a manner of speaking, but Drager states that he does not believe in fate.  This would be like someone saying, “We can thank our lucky stars that it didn’t rain today,” to which someone says with a straight face, “I don’t believe in astrology.”

“What do you believe in, Dr. Drager,” she asks.  “Anton Drager,” he replies.  After an arrogant answer like that, one suspects that Mrs. Kramer might not be too disappointed that Drager has no interest in the social life in Batavia.  Through subsequent conversation with her and then with her husband, we learn that Drager is quite ambitious.  He wants to work with Dr. Brits Jansen (Burl Ives), who is the best in the field of tropical medicine, but who hasn’t published anything in years.  Drager hopes to publish jointly with Jansen, so that when he returns to the Netherlands after five years, he will be very much in demand in the field of research, for which there will be significant remunerative benefit.  Kramer agrees to send Drager to Jansen.

On arriving in the area where Jansen usually works, Drager meets Harry Frolick, a river master, and Captain Wattereus of the Salvation Army.  Frolick goes out of his way to mock Wattereus’s religion, becoming so physically aggressive about it that Drager has to grab Frolick and push him away, knocking him to the ground.  After Frolick leaves with a prostitute, Drager remarks, “Well, that was a ridiculous exhibition.”

“Poor Harry,” Wattereus says.  “He’s going through a hell all his own, trying to prove God doesn’t exist.  For if God doesn’t exist, Harry’s sins don’t exist.  That’s why he’s so violent and unhappy.”

Drager disagrees, saying, “To me, Frolick is just a poor idiot who can’t hold his liquor.”

Now, either explanation could be correct, for all we know.  It could be as simple as Drager says.  But then, such extreme hostility toward religion on Frolick’s part makes us suspect he is an atheist who is still struggling against the remnants of religious upbringing that are still within him.  This is a recurring theme throughout the movie:  explanations involving people’s beliefs in the supernatural versus physiological explanations only.  Now, these explanations in terms of beliefs depend in no way on those beliefs being true.  Even if there is no God, Wattereus’s explanation for Frolick’s behavior in terms of his internal struggle against religion could still be correct.  Later, when Drager catches up with Jansen, who is in a village trying to eliminate the plague that has beset a village, Jansen tells him that he will often have to appeal to magic to deal with the natives.  As easy as this is to understand, Drager appears to be unconvinced.

Later, when Drager tells Jansen of his dispute with Wattereus over the correct explanation for Frolick’s behavior, Jansen says, “I take it you don’t believe in God.”  Now, just as you do not have to believe in God to accept Wattereus’s explanation, not accepting that explanation does not mean you are an atheist.  So, there is no logical reason why Jansen should conclude that Drager does not believe in God.  As a matter of fact, Drager says he does not believe in God, so Jansen’s conclusion turns out to be true, but that does not make his reasoning valid.  So what is going on here?  The movie is equating an explanation in terms of beliefs with holding those beliefs.  By identifying atheism with a simplistic understanding of human nature, the atheist can be dismissed as a fool.

Along these lines, when it comes to physiological explanations, Drager is shown to be excellent.  He is able to diagnose leprosy at a glance, which amazes Jansen.  In other words, the movie makes it clear that in the realm of the physiological, Drager is brilliant.  Therefore, when physiological explanations alone do not suffice, it follows, according to the perverse logic of this movie, that atheism does not suffice.

After learning that Drager is an atheist, Jansen says that atheism is fine for civilization, but there are no atheists in the jungle.  This is a variation on the old saw that there are no atheists in foxholes.  People who make that sort of argument reason as follows:  people need to believe in God, especially when they are afraid of dying; therefore there must be a God.  This is just one more conflation of the efficacy of a belief with the truth of that belief.

The whole reason the subject of Wattereus came up in the first place is that he runs the nearby leper colony, and Drager and Jansen are taking the man Drager correctly diagnosed as having leprosy to live there.  Jansen tells Drager that Wattereus and his wife Betsy are his best friends.  When they get there, it turns out that Betsy has leprosy.  She is behind a curtain surrounding her bed, so we are left to imagine that she has been horribly disfigured by the disease and is in much pain, as well as being blind.  Jansen gives her an injection to make her sleep.  Outside the hut, Jansen tells Wattereus, “She’s worse.  There she lies dying, mutilated, rotting away, and I can’t do a thing about it.”

Later, when Drager and Jansen are alone, Jansen tells how when he first met them, they were already out there, taking in lepers, but they were doing nothing to protect themselves, because, Betsy said, “God protects us.”  But he took one look at her hands and knew that she had the disease.  “Well,” Jansen said to her, “Your God’s made a fool of you…, because you’ve got it.”

He says he almost got satisfaction in telling her.  She was tending to a leper when he told her, but she just looked up at him and smiled. “I’ve never seen such beauty and peace,” he says.  In other words, Jansen was much like Drager when he first came to the jungle, and this is just one of the ways in which living in the jungle makes people believe in God.

When a movie presents you with a setup like this, you know that the subject of mercy killing will inevitably arise.  Drager asks Jansen if he ever thought about putting her out of her misery.  Jansen says he did once, about three years earlier, but he couldn’t do it.  Drager offers to do it himself.  Jansen then explains why he couldn’t do it. He says he had the needle to her skin.  She could still see and talk at that time, and she knew, so she asked God to forgive him even for thinking about it.  That was when he realized that “The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh way.”  Jansen says that he realized he must not play God, and he makes it clear that it would be wrong for Drager to do so as well.

This is not much of a moral dilemma.  If Betsy did not want to be euthanized, then that was her decision.  What we would like to know is what Jansen would have done if Betsy had begged him to kill her.  Would he still have said it was wrong to play God?  But that kind of scene belongs in a completely different movie.  This movie is not interested making us think.  It is interested only in presenting us with an utterly lopsided advocacy in favor of God and religious belief, and in showing us just how wrongheaded the atheist is.

After several months, Els (Gena Rowlands), Drager’s fiancé, shows up for a visit.  After one thing and another, they decide to get married.  During the ceremony, the bride and groom are both supposed to repeat after the minister a ritual affirmation that includes the phrase “in the sight of God.”  Drager tries to leave it out, but the minister isn’t having it, so Drager is forced to utter it.  It would have been more interesting if Drager had repeated the phrase the first time indifferently, as most atheists would, but this is a movie atheist, don’t you know, so such things matter to him.  Later, Els says it was sneaky of him trying to leave God out of the ceremony.  He jokes, “I was in a hurry.”

Jansen does not like to work with married men in the jungle, but Els eventually convinces him to take Drager back.  He agrees.  It turns out that during the intervening months, Drager has been compiling Jansen’s notes on leprosy into a coherent manuscript.  At first, Jansen is angry, but after reading most of it, he agrees that it is good.  But Drager tells him to read the last chapter, in which Drager concludes that management of all medical centers presently under control of religious and charitable organizations be taken from them and turned over to the administration of the government health service.  In particular, Drager believes that Wattereus is too sentimental, allowing people to stay in his leper colony long after their disease is in remission, causing the colony to be overcrowded.  But Jansen points out that their families will never take them back, that the leper colony is the only family they have.  Through the discussion, it becomes clear that Drager really doesn’t care about people beyond their role as patients with a disease to be cured.  All he really cares about is getting back to Holland and publishing the manuscript jointly with Jansen, as a means of becoming a successful researcher.  Jansen takes the manuscript away from him and says he will have him replaced.

The replacement is brought up by Inspector Bevers, who tells Drager that before he can take him back, they will have to check on Frolick.  When they get there, the camp is deserted, except for Frolick, whose hair and beard make him look like a wild man.  It is clear that he has gone mad.  He tries to kill Drager with a machete, and Drager has to shoot him.  Back in Batavia, Kramer is trying to understand what drove Frolick mad.  Drager says it was a psychotic state induced by excessive use of alcohol.  We have already seen that Frolick was an alcoholic, and there were bottles of gin everywhere.  But Bevers has a different theory.  The madness was caused by Burubi, the witchdoctor.  True, Burubi probably supplied Frolick with the gin, but we also saw a dead lizard surrounded by a circle of blood, as well as an effigy of Frolick cut into pieces.

So, here we are again:  Drager insisting on a purely physiological explanation; Bevers saying that black magic was involved.  It is a cliché to point out that voodoo can’t harm you, if you don’t believe in it; but if you do believe in it, it can kill you.  Superstitious natives have been known to go into shock and die when presented with an effigy of themselves with a pin stuck in it.  Through isolation and excessive alcohol, Frolick’s mind had deteriorated to the point that he came to believe in the witchdoctor’s black magic.  But Drager cannot accept this simple truth.

Drager is still stressed by having to kill Frolick, but he and Els decide to go to dinner.  Wattereus happens to be in town for his monthly checkup, and he joins them.  He laments that he might have been able to do something for Frolick.  Drager replies that all he had to do was work a miracle, turning whiskey into water.  That’s a pretty good line.

Wattereus argues that it was not the alcohol that drove Frolick mad.  Rather, after the natives deserted him, Wattereus continues, Frolick was forced to stand alone, and that’s what broke him.  Throughout the movie, there have been remarks by Drager to the effect that he is a rugged individualist, someone who relies solely on himself.  Now Wattereus is implying that this kind of stance toward the world is untenable.  He says of Frolick, “He cut himself off from God, and from people, at least the love of people, the only sources of strength a man can call on.”

This is another conflation that this movie makes, and it makes it in a big way:  love of God and love of people.  The idea is that because the atheist thinks he does not need God, it follows that he thinks he does not need people.  Of course, Drager is an atheist who, as a matter of fact, thinks he does not need people, but that is only because the people who made this movie wanted him to be that way.  Not only is there no logical reason why the two should be related, they are not so related as a matter of fact.  But in this movie, love of God and love of people are inextricably intertwined.  This is emphasized by an epilogue at the end of the movie, a quotation from the Bible, I John, 4:12, that makes this connection:  “No man hath seen God….  If we love one another, God dwelleth in us, and his love is perfected in us.”

But Wattereus is not through.  He moves on to the next step:  “And he was defenseless against the wilderness.  But then we began in the wilderness, all of us lost and afraid. But with a choice:  to take the spiral road upward, leading to God, or to remain in the darkness and degenerate back to the animal.  I know how terrifying it is to look into the face of a human being, someone you know, but can no longer recognize, and to see in it the image of what we can become.”  In other words, Frolick was not practically unrecognizable because he hadn’t shaved, bathed, or combed his hair in a month, but because he didn’t believe in God.  It was his atheism that caused him to become like an animal.

Drager has another explanation.  He tells about how just before he came out to the Dutch colonies, a God-fearing, gentle shopkeeper committed a brutal sex crime.  It seems he had been receiving hormone treatment for chronic prostatitis, and an accidental overdose was apparently responsible.  And so, Drager continues, if an injection can turn a saintly man into sinner, then the reverse should also be true.  Eventually someone will discover the right chemical to turn a sinner into a saint.  “It will be the first biochemical explanation for faith, like putting God into a test tube.  Religion would become nothing more than a matter of glands.  One simple shot.  Ten cc’s of saint serum and heaven on earth.”

After Wattereus leaves, Els chastises Drager for humiliating him, but Drager is clearly fed up with it all, saying he just wanted to clear the air:  “You heard him.  Spouting all the spiritual gibberish about poor Harry, the man without God, punished for his sins, struck down by some heavenly fist.”

Els says that was not what Wattereus meant, saying, “All he said was we all need faith in some power greater than ourselves, that we need each other, that without it we’re alone, and we can’t live alone.  No one is strong enough.”

Els is right in one respect.  Wattereus was not saying that God will strike down people who don’t believe in him, but rather that man cannot live without believing in God.  Drager says it’s the same thing.  On that they disagree.  But where they do agree is on the conflation, just reiterated by Els, of loving God and loving people, needing God and needing people.  It is only their attitude toward that conflation that constitutes their disagreement, with Els saying we need God/people, and Drager saying he doesn’t need God/people.

Drager says, “I’ve heard stuff like that since I was a kid, and it scared me then.  Love one another, love God or he will destroy you.  I heard it all.”  He tells how his father, who was a hellfire-and-damnation preacher, would “beat me regularly trying to teach me to love God.”  Drager says he was afraid at first, but then he stopped it once and for all.  At the age of ten, while his father was ranting from the pulpit, Drager says he dared God to kill him, saying to God, “I don’t love you, God.  Do you hear me?  I hate you….”  He says he kept that up every Sunday for a month.  But nothing happened.  And then he knew, “God couldn’t touch me.  He couldn’t hurt me.  And if he couldn’t hurt me, he couldn’t help me.  Nobody could.”

Note the conflation right at the end:  God can’t help me, therefore people can’t help me.  Needless to say, when he explicitly follows up on this by saying he doesn’t need anyone, Els draws the conclusion that he does not need her.  He is reluctant to go that far at first.  She says she wants to understand what is happening to him.  He says he is angry that Jansen won’t let him publish the manuscript with him, and he is upset that he had to kill a man.   And he tells her that he had an affair with a native woman while in the jungle, “No words, no questions.”  In other words, he may need sex, but he does not need the person that goes with it.  Finally, he tells Els that he does not need her, that she should go back to Holland.

Meanwhile, back in the jungle, something has happened to Dr. Sordjano, who happens to be a Muslim.  Drager is sent to check on him, to bring him back if he is still alive, and to shut down the camp.  When Drager, Inspector Bevers, and their crew arrive, they find a situation similar to that of Frolick.  When Sordjano dies, Drager refuses to leave, saying, “I’m not Frolick, and I’m not Sordjano.  I don’t need liquor, or a prayer rug, or the Bible.”

After Bevers leaves, Burubi starts with the black magic, causing the men who were left with Drager to desert.  After several weeks, Drager is reduced to the same state that Frolick was in, shaggy hair and beard, wild look in his eyes.  When he sees his reflection in the water of a stream, he does not recognize himself and he fires his gun at it.  This recalls Wattereus’s comment about looking into the face of someone you know but don’t recognize, seeing the image of what we can become without God.  Later, when Drager gets stuck in a pond, he sees his face again and says in horror, “It’s me.”  Then there is the scene we all knew was coming.  He prays to God, asking for help.  Immediately thereafter, he calls out to Els, establishing the conflation one more time of needing God and needing people.

Well, God sure acts fast, because just then a rescue party shows up.  Drager collapses in Jansen’s arms.  Later, back in Batavia, Els is by his bedside.  He is delirious but holds her hand tightly.  He starts calling out her name, louder and louder, so that Jansen and Wattereus come running in to see what is happening.  Just then, he comes to, takes Els in his arms, and says, “Thank God.”  He says that, he does, right there in front of God and everybody.

Boy, if he could have just held out another five minutes in the jungle, his dignity would have been saved, and we would have been spared the most degrading, atheist-humiliation scenes ever filmed.

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Rich and Strange (1931)

Rich and Strange is a second-rate movie, made all the more disappointing by the fact that it was directed by Alfred Hitchcock.  We expect more from Hitchcock, so we feel let down when we watch one of his inferior films.  Because the movie fails to fully engross us, keeping us completely within the movie as it were, we are freed up to reflect upon the subject matter outside the movie.  That is to say, we find ourselves thinking about life.

Fred is disgruntled.  He is tired of his job, the routine of domesticity, and the kind of entertainment afforded them by the radio and the movies.  Emily, his wife, appears to be satisfied with their situation, but he is frustrated that he cannot provide for her properly.  But mostly, he wants the “good things of life.”  There is a painting of a ship that he points to, indicating that he wants adventure.  He is irritated that Emily seems so content, thinking she ought to want more.  In his exasperation, he flings something at their cat to get him off the table.  Finally, he concludes, “I think the best place for us is a gas oven.”  If this movie had been made in the aftermath of World War II, that would have been much too heavy a line, but as it was made in 1931, Fred presumably is only suggesting that they would be better off if they committed suicide by sticking their heads in a gas oven.  Needless to say, Emily is appalled, noting that they have a plenty of food and a roof over their heads.  And needless to say, Fred is not impressed.

A common plot point in a fairy tale is for someone to get his wish, only for things to go terribly wrong.  Presumably, the point is to make us content with our lot.  In any event, as in a fairy tale, a letter arrives from Fred’s uncle, who has decided to give Fred an advance on his inheritance so that he can travel and enjoy life to the full.  They set sail from England, heading first to France before eventually ending up in the Far East.

On board the ship, Fred gets seasick, leaving Emily enough free time to make friends with Commander Gordon, with whom she soon falls in love, though hesitantly.  Fred finally recovers, meets a princess, with whom he soon falls in love without any hesitation whatsoever.  He is so obvious about it that Emily forms an even stronger attachment to Gordon.

At this point, a word seems necessary about the movie’s philosophy of love.  Emily asks Gordon if he has ever been in love, and he replies, “No, I can’t say that I have.”  Gordon is played by Percy Marmont, an actor who was about thirty-eight years old at the time, so we can figure that Gordon is supposed to be a man in his thirties as well.  The idea that a man could reach that age never having been in love is preposterous.  So, we have to assume that what most of us would call “love,” this movie would dismiss as puppy love, infatuation, or simply lust.  In other words, this movie has an idealistic notion of love, from which vantage point it is assumed that the only way for a man to still be a bachelor in his thirties would be if either he had never truly been in love, or if his true love was unrequited, something he never completely got over.

At the same time, Emily espouses a grim view of love.  She says that because she loves Fred, she wants him to think well of her, but because he is so clever, he frequently makes her feel foolish.  In other words, he belittles her with his “cleverness.”  She goes on to say that love makes people timid.  They are frightened when they are happy and sadder when they are sad.  Everything is multiplied by two, such as sickness and death.  That’s why she is so happy with Gordon, she says, because he is not clever, and if he were to tire of talking to her and excuse himself, it would not be a big deal.  They agree that it is lucky they are not in love.  But then she concludes that love is a wonderful thing.  In other words, love justifies all the misery it puts people through, which is an essential feature of this movie’s sentimental notions of love.

Things eventually reach the point where Fred and the princess are going to run off together, and Emily is going to leave Fred and marry Gordon.  But Gordon makes the mistake of telling Emily how much he despises Fred, that he is a sham, just a “great baby masquerading as a big, strong man.”  He then goes on to mention that the “princess” is actually an adventuress who wants Fred only for his money.  That brings out Emily’s pity.  She leaves Gordon to go back to Fred, noting at one point that a wife is more than half a mother to her husband.

When she gets back to their room, she finds Fred and the princess making arrangements to leave.  Speaking sotto voce, the princess tells Emily she was a fool not to go with Gordon, for then both women would have benefited, after which she leaves, ostensibly to let Fred and Emily speak to each other alone.  Now, Gordon may have made a mistake bad mouthing Fred to Emily, but she turns around and not only tells Fred what Gordon said, but that she realized he was telling the truth, so that’s why she came back to him.  When she repeats to Fred that Gordon said he was a sham and a bluff, Fred says he ought to smash him.  But Emily says that Gordon wouldn’t be afraid of him because he knows that Fred is a coward.  The reason she came back, she says, is that she now realizes that all along she had dressed up his faults as virtues, and that he would be lost without her.  Well, Fred would have to be the cowardly worm Emily says he is in order for him to remain married to her after she said all that.

Meanwhile, the princess takes off with 1000 pounds of Fred’s money (about $77,000 today).  Almost broke, they catch a cheap ship to get back home, but it almost sinks and they are abandoned.  But a Chinese junk comes along, the crew of which are intent on salvage.  Fred and Emily board the ship.  One of the crew gets tangled up in the lines, struggles, and then drowns.  The rest of the crew simply watch, with no one making a move to help him.  Back in those days, it was believed that people in the Orient were indifferent to the suffering of others, and this movie reflects that notion.

While Fred and Emily are on the Chinese junk, a woman has a baby. From the way they look at each other, there seems to be the suggestion that Fred and Emily are inspired to have a baby themselves, now that they are reconciled. Back home, Fred wonders whether they can get a “pram” (baby carriage) up the stairs, and Emily responds that they are going to have to get a bigger place anyway, presumably because they will need an extra bedroom.  So, it looks as though the baby is a done deal.

But I could not help wondering, “Whose baby is it?” The movie is not explicit about how far these two went with their philandering, although one gets the sense that Fred and the “princess” went all the way, while Emily and Gordon never went beyond kissing. But with these old movies, so much is left to the imagination that it is hard to tell.

Then again, even if we assume that Emily and Gordon did not have sex, I can’t help but wonder how long it will take Fred to start wondering whose baby it is.

And in any event, if Fred gets so irritated with their cat, what is he going to be like when the squalling baby arrives?

Are we really supposed to regard this as a happy ending?

Nocturnal Animals (2016)

The twentieth century is when art became ugly.  Oh, I’m not talking about the kind of art that philistines like me enjoy.  I’m talking about that highbrow, elitist art consisting of ridiculous paintings, nonsense novels, discordant music, and weird foreign films.  By the twenty-first century, the novelty of ugliness had begun to wear off a bit, but it can still be counted on to appeal to those who believe that an appreciation of ugliness is the mark of refinement.

Nocturnal Animals is not a weird foreign film, of course, but it could pass for one.  Right off the bat, the movie presents its highbrow bona fides by displaying disgustingly obese, naked women, dancing in place, in what turns out to be an art exhibit.  The woman who has arranged all this is Susan (Amy Adams).  Her life is as ugly as her art show, notwithstanding all the opulence in which she dwells.  Her husband cheats on her.  She can’t sleep.

She receives in the mail an unpublished novel from her ex-husband, Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal).  I don’t suppose I have to tell you that it is an ugly novel.  It is about a man named Tony, also played by Jake Gyllenhaal in Susan’s mind as she reads the novel.  Just in case we might wonder if she is projecting by making this identification between the author and the protagonist, there is an earlier discussion between Susan and Edward when they were married, presented in a flashback.  She criticized something he wrote, telling him he needs to write about someone other than himself.  He says all authors do that.  They don’t, of course.  As Nietzsche once said, “Homer would never have created an Achilles or Goethe a Faust, had Homer been an Achilles or Goethe a Faust.”  But in this case, Edward has created a Tony because he is a Tony.

Anyway, in this novel, Tony, his wife, and his daughter are traveling across west Texas when they are waylaid by a bunch of psychopathic punks.  The movie wallows in the misery of a family being brutalized, resulting in the rape and murder of the two females.  With the aid of a lawman named Andes, who is dying of lung cancer, Tony is able to track down the killers.  Andes kills one of them, and Tony kills the other.  However, the one Tony kills lives just long enough to hit Tony in the head with a poker, blinding him.  Tony staggers outside, falls, and accidentally shoots himself, resulting in his death.

In reading the novel, Susan is deeply moved, even more than she was moved by watching a bunch of naked, four-hundred-pound women jiggle their decaying flesh.  Why is she moved?  Well, it probably has to do with the abortion she had after Edward got her pregnant.  She never meant for Edward to find out, but for some reason he just happens to show up at the abortion clinic just as she finished having it done.  So, you see, the death of Tony’s daughter corresponds to the death of Edward’s aborted child.  And the rape and murder of Tony’s wife corresponds to Susan’s infidelity, because turning Susan’s voluntary lust and betrayal into a gangbang rape is Edward’s imaginary revenge against her.  And just as Edward knows that he is weak, Tony is too weak to save his wife and child.

The death of Tony in the novel corresponds to Edward’s suicide, the novel being one long suicide note, which basically says, “You ruined my life by rejecting my love.”  This is not made explicit, but it is obvious.  When Susan emails Edward, saying she wants to see him, he emails her back, agreeing to meet.  She goes to a restaurant, but Edward never shows up.  Of course not.  He’s dead.

For people like me, this is an ugly novel within an ugly movie.  No wonder it got rave reviews.

Inside Llewn Davis (2013)

The Coen brothers have made a movie about a self-important, obnoxious bum who sponges off people because he believes he was meant for better things than holding down a job.  But such a movie, without any frills, would immediately be dismissed as irritating and boring.  And so it needs some frills.

First, they decided to make this bum a folk singer.  They had previously made the movie O Brother Where Art Thou? (2000), which succeeded with people that liked the music, although it failed miserably with anyone that did not.  So maybe they figured this movie would appeal to people that like folk music.  And even if the folk music in the movie is pretty bad, at least as far as the music performed by the title character is concerned, we know we are supposed to overlook the fact that he is a self-important, obnoxious bum because he is an artist, and that means we are supposed to care.

Frill number two is a cat.  Having a cat continually appear and then disappear gives the movie a motif, making it appear that there is some deeper, hidden meaning to it all.  There isn’t, but something has to get this movie on its legs.  The cat eventually turns out to have the name Ulysses.  Gosh, you mean the return of the cat is like the return of Ulysses?  Well, telling a dumb story with parallels to The Odyssey worked for James Joyce, so maybe the Coen brothers figured it would work for them too.  And it recalls the main character in the movie O Brother Where Art Thou?  So make that two dumb movies by the Coen brothers that are supposed to be spiced up somehow by alluding Homer’s epic, with the second one also alluding to the first.

Finally, there is a time loop.  Sort of.  Except that in the second iteration of the time loop, the cat does not get away.  Now, there are some pretty good time loop movies.  Dead of Night (1945) was the first movie I know of to try this, and it worked fairly well.  And, of course, the greatest such movie is Groundhog Day (1993).  But does a time loop belong in a movie about a folk singer?  I mean, some genres don’t really mix well.  It’s like a movie that starts out as a murder mystery, and halfway through, while we are trying to figure out who done it, Godzilla comes to town.  However, the Coen brothers were desperate for another frill to keep this movie from seeming to be what it really is, and so a time loop is what we get.

An Ida Lupino Formula

I never really cared much for Ida Lupino, either as an actress or as a director.  As for most of the movies she starred in, I can’t say that it was her fault that I did not think much of them, for her acting was fine, and I doubt that any other actress in her place would have made much difference.  As for the movies she directed, for some of which she also was a writer, her responsibility for their lackluster nature cannot be denied.  Nevertheless, when Turner Classic Movies decided to show a bunch of the movies she directed early in her career in that capacity, I decided to watch them.

The first one I watched was Never Fear (1949), which was just fair.  The second one I watched was Outrage (1950), and it too was just fair.  Neither movie on its own inspired me to write a review.  However, halfway through the second movie, I began to notice a structural similarity between the movies, which fascinated me.  Whether there is an Ida Lupino formula that applies to any of her other movies and whether that formula is significant in any way, I cannot say.

In Never Fear, Guy and Carol are struggling dancing partners.  In order to give her flowers, he has to steal them.  But finally, after a performance that he choreographed, their agent gets them a two-week engagement at a major night club.  They now have enough money not only for him to pay for the flowers he brings her, but to buy her an engagement ring and ask her to marry him as well, which is something she has been hoping for.  In Outrage, Ann and Jim are also in love.  When Jim gets a raise, he tells Ann they now have enough money to get married, something she has been hoping for.

Then tragedy strikes, and the woman in each of these movies ends up regarding herself as damaged goods.  In Never Fear, Carol is stricken with polio.  Guy still wants to marry Carol, but she pushes him away, telling him she won’t marry him, because things would never be the same.  In part, she does not want Guy to marry her out of pity, but she also has lost her sex drive.  She does not say this explicitly (this was 1949, after all), but much later in the movie, she makes a remark about how she finally feels like a woman again.  (Note:  when the doctor offers Carol a cigarette as she lies in bed, she refuses the offer.  This is taken as a sign that she is depressed.  Later, when she starts smoking again, this indicates that she is getting better psychologically.)  In Outrage, Jim still wants to marry Ann, but she pushes him away.  In part, she tells him he would never be able to forget that she had been raped, but she also now regards sex as something repulsive.

In Never Fear, Carol goes to a hospital and then to an institution for therapy.  There she meets Len, played by Hugh O’Brian, who has an even more severe case of polio than Carol.  He is a kind of spiritual figure.  At one point, the doctor that heads the institution says that Len has a special “power.”  In Outrage, Ann runs away from home without telling Jim or her parents where she is going.  She collapses on the side of the road and is rescued by “Doc,” so called because he is a reverend.  He takes her to a house owned by a married couple he is friends with, and they take her in.

In Never Fear, Guy keeps coming around trying to get Carol to marry him.  He has been trying to make a go of it selling houses, but she tells him to forget about her, to find himself another dancing partner.  They have a bitter argument and do not see each other for a long time.  Eventually, Carol begins to feel better about herself, and she has reached the point where she is able to walk with crutches.  She writes him a letter, hoping to make amends.  He shows up at her birthday party with flowers.  At first, she thinks they will be able to get married after all, but then he tells her that he took her advice.  He has another dancing partner, and they will be performing in Las Vegas soon, which is why he cannot stay long.  After he leaves, she throws herself at Len on the rebound, telling him they are alike, and that they will be good for each other (it is here she makes the remark about feeling like a woman again).  But Len knows she still loves Guy.  He tells her that she is just looking for someone to be comfortable with, and that is not enough for marriage.  In Outrage, we never see Jim again, because he does not know where Ann is.  She hopes that Doc will marry her, but Doc knows that she still loves Jim, and that they must go their separate ways.

In Never Fear, when the day finally arrives for Carol to leave the institution, she has progressed to the point where she only needs a cane.  As she walks down the street, she is apprehensive about facing the world alone (except for her father, with whom she will be living for a while).  But then Guy shows up with flowers.  It is clear that they will get married and live happily ever after.  In Outrage, a man starts making advances to Ann at a picnic, and she goes all flashback, thinking he is the man who raped her.  She hits him with a wrench.  It puts him in the hospital and she goes to jail.  However, the man does not want to press charges, and the judge agrees to let Ann go provided she receives psychiatric care for a year.  In other words, Ann receives professional care same as Carol, only hers is delayed.  Doc puts Ann on a bus back to her home where Jim and her parents are waiting for her.  And in case you were wondering, the rapist was caught.

In one sense, the ending of Never Fear was not far-fetched.  People who don’t dance tend to assume that dancing partners are lovers, but dancers know that very often they are not.  So, Carol would not have had any reason to feel jealous about Guy and his new dancing partner.  However, I still did not like what comes across as an artificial, tacked-on happy ending.  I would have preferred that Carol leave the institution knowing that she will have to face the world alone, except for the support her father could give her, at least for a while.  It would have given the movie a tougher, harder edge.  In fact, I was a little bothered by the way the movie portrayed Carol’s attitude as wrong-headed.  If she wanted to make a clean break with her past, that was her business.  In Outrage, on the other hand, the happy ending seemed reasonable and natural.

 

Gone With the Wind (1939)

Most movies can be discussed without comparing them to reality, but not so Gone With the Wind, owing to its paternalistic depiction of slavery in the Old South as something benign, in which the slaves are so well-treated that you would almost think their Southern masters were doing them a favor. The closest thing to slave beating in this movie is when Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh) slaps Prissy (Butterfly McQueen) in exasperation. And an unnamed Ku Klux Klan is subtly presented (without sheets) as a force for good. Indeed, this movie is to slavery what The Godfather (1972) is to organized crime: a glorification of something despicable, a beautification of something ugly.

And yet the movie is tame compared to the book, written by Margaret Mitchell, which required a great deal of sanitizing to make it suitable for a Hollywood production. As an example of the sort of thing that had to be excised in the process of turning this book into a movie, there is the passage where Rhett Butler (Clark Gable) admits to Scarlett that he shot a black man for insulting a white woman: “He was uppity to a lady, and what else could a Southern gentleman do?”

In comparing the movie first to reality and then to the book, we get something of a paradox. By avoiding much of the really offensive material in the book, the movie becomes less realistic than its source, because the racist sentiments expressed in the book accurately reflect the racist sentiments of the white South at the time. However much we might deplore Rhett’s murder of an African American, such things undoubtedly happened in those days.

What is less clear is whether Gone With the Wind is feminist or traditionalist in its attitude toward women. On the one hand, Scarlett is portrayed as strong, resourceful, and shrewd, a woman who chafes at the ridiculous restraints placed on women during those times, and who breaks those restraints one by one as the story progresses. On the other hand, she is portrayed as a wrong-headed woman.  The essence of this idea is that a woman may not know her own mind, and when that happens, a man is justified in using coercive means to bring her around, thereby making her happy in spite of her objections.

Toward that end, Margaret Mitchell sets up a simple opposition in terms of which there is a right and wrong choice in whom one marries, resulting in two possibilities:  the man and woman are alike, which is conducive to happiness; and the man and woman are different, which guarantees misery. Early on in the novel, we find that Scarlett is in love with Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard in the movie), and she is devastated to learn that he is going to marry Melanie Hamilton (Olivia de Havilland in the movie).  Her father (Thomas Mitchell in the movie) tries to console her, telling her that she could never be happy with Ashley, because they are so different from each other.  “Only when like marries like,” he says, “can there be any happiness.” As a way of underscoring just how much Ashley and Melanie are alike, it turns out that they are cousins.  Apparently, the idea is that people you are related to will tend to be like you, and so marrying a cousin is conducive to happiness, even if just a tad incestuous.  In fact, we are told that the Wilkes always marry their cousins, the Hamiltons, which is why Ashley’s sister is going to marry Melanie’s brother.  Scarlett starts to say, “But you’ve been happy, and you and Mother aren’t alike,” but she thinks better of it.  Her mother, you see, had been in love with her cousin (Oh my!), but her family objected, not because they were cousins, of course, but because he was a little too wild.  Unable to have the man she really wanted, she resigned herself to marrying a man she did not love.

Regarding the ways in which Ashley is different from Scarlett, his love of reading poetry and listening to music, for example, she asserts that she would change all that after they were married, but her father chides her for such foolishness, saying no woman ever changed any man.  And as far as he is concerned, the fact that Scarlett thinks she loves Ashley is no argument.  “All this American business of running around marrying for love, like servants, like Yankees!  The best marriages are when the parents choose for the girl.” Besides, he assures her, for a woman, love comes after marriage.  Scarlett’s father is the first man in her life who knows better than she does what will make her happy.

The next day, at the barbecue, Scarlett confesses her love to Ashley, and he admits that he cares for her too, but that he cannot marry her.  “Love isn’t enough to make a successful marriage when two people are as different as we are,” he tells her.  When she asks him if he loves Melanie, he dodges the question and starts talking about how alike they are:  “She is like me, part of my blood, and we understand each other.  Scarlett!  Scarlett!  Can’t I make you see that a marriage can’t go on in any sort of peace unless the two people are alike?”  And thus Ashley is the second man in Scarlett’s life who knows better than she does what will make her happy.

Right after that scene, she meets Rhett Butler, the third man in her life who knows what is best for her.  He falls in love with her at first sight, and somewhat later in the book he explains the reason he loves her:  “I love you, Scarlett, because we are so much alike, renegades, both of us, dear, and selfish rascals.”  However, it is still Ashley that Scarlett loves, and her persistence in this regard is not presented as merely being an unfortunate circumstance, but is treated as morally unacceptable.  There is the sense that Scarlett is wrong not to accept Rhett’s love, that she is willfully refusing to give up her infatuation for Ashley when she could have Rhett, the idea being that when a man truly loves a woman, she is wrong to refuse him.  And it is this moral dimension that justifies the use of force.  Of course, it is part of this whole notion of the wrong-headed woman that when such force is employed, it turns out to be what she really wants.  The first couple of times Rhett uses force, it only involves aggressive kissing, and in each case, she forgets about Ashley and swoons with passion, leading her to accept Rhett’s proposal of marriage.

After they get married, she still loves Ashley, of course, on account of her being so obstinate. The tension builds, with Rhett becoming increasingly physical and threatening, until one night he carries her up the stairs and rapes her.  And of course it is just what she needs:  “Suddenly she had a wild thrill such as she had never known; joy, fear, madness, excitement, surrender to arms that were too strong, lips too bruising, fate that moved too fast.”  But the effect proves to be temporary, and their marriage returns to its previous state of low-grade misery.

What is ironic is that this book was written by a woman. In The Forsyte Saga, on the other hand, another man rapes his wife for similar reasons, being frustrated by his wife’s love for another man. But in that case, the rape is so traumatic that it not only ruins their marriage, but also ruins things for the next generation. And this novel was written by a man, John Galsworthy, also in the early part of the twentieth century. In short, the novel written by a man was more feminist than the one written by a woman.

Back before the movie version had been made, when people read the novel without knowing how it would end, they probably thought Scarlett would eventually realize how much she really loved Rhett, and they would live happily ever after; or, failing that, she would be punished for her stubbornness. And indeed she is. She realizes just how much she loves Rhett only at the point where it is too late. To this extent, the movie is faithful to the book. But what those who read the novel did not expect was the destruction of Rhett. And this difference in what was expected and the actual outcome is the biggest difference between the movie and the book.

At the end of the movie, when Rhett leaves Scarlett, we feel relieved. He is through with her, and it is as if he has finally been cured of a sickness. There is the hint of a sneer when he tells her that he does not give a damn what happens to her, and there is a spring in his step as he heads out the door. But the depiction of Rhett in the novel is very different: “He looked at her steadily with dark eyes that were heavy with fatigue and there was no leaping light in them…. He was sunken in his chair, his suit wrinkling untidily against his thickening waist, every line of him proclaiming the ruin of a fine body and the coarsening of a strong face. Drink and dissipation had done their work….”

Although Rhett is only forty-five by that time, he seems much older, drained and exhausted, almost as if he is dying.  And much in the way people often express a desire to go back home as they near the end of life, Rhett talks about going back to Charleston, where his family is, in hopes of finding peace and reconciliation.

When Scarlett finally accepts that Rhett is leaving her, she says, “Oh, my darling, if you go, what shall I do?” Unlike the movie, where the tone of Rhett’s voice and the look on his face as he makes his parting remark is almost triumphant, making us want to say, “Good for him,” in the book, he is defeated, and his words are full of resignation and regret: “For a moment he hesitated as if debating whether a kind lie were kinder in the long run than the truth. Then he shrugged. ‘… I wish I could care what you do or where you go, but I can’t.’ He drew a short breath and said lightly but softly: ‘My dear, I don’t give a damn.’”

Whereas the movie stays with the notion that Scarlett is wrong-headed and gets what she deserves, the ending of the novel makes us realize that it was actually Rhett who was wrong-headed, and that he is the one who really pays the price for it. If Scarlett was foolish in thinking she could change Ashley regarding his tendency to spend a lot of time reading books and listening to music, how much more foolish was it for Rhett to think he could marry a woman who loved another man and somehow change that?

Breezy (1973)

There has always been a clash between generations: the older person telling the younger one that his world view is naïve, and that one day reality will crush all his foolish notions; and the younger person telling the older one that he has wasted his whole life laboring under outdated notions. And there have always been May-December romances, in which sex gets mixed in with this generational clash. Though in one sense the story is ageless, yet the one depicted in Breezy seems very dated now. Between the sexual revolution of the sixties and the hubris of the Baby Boomers, the generation gap as it was then called had a unique tone to it that sounds flat today.

The title character (Kay Lenz) is a hippie chick of about twenty years, who sees so much good in people that even though she is almost sexually assaulted by a man who picked her up hitchhiking, her Pollyanna attitude is unaffected. In fact, she is such an exceedingly good-natured free spirit that she begins to get on our nerves. And, of course, when it comes to sex she naturally believes in free love.

And then there is Frank (William Holden). He is just as promiscuous as Breezy is, but since he is in his mid-fifties, we cannot call it free love, which seems to connote youth and innocence of a sort. Furthermore, he is grumpy about it. When we first meet Frank, he can barely force himself to be polite as he runs off the woman he just had a one night stand with. Eventually Frank and Breezy meet and eventually they start having sex. Society’s idea of an acceptable couple is one in which the man is of the same class as the woman is or slightly better. Check. He should be bigger and taller than she is. Check. They should be of the same race. Check. He should be about the same age as she is. Oops.

As often happens when a couple deviates from the societal norm, while the man and woman are alone with each other, everything seems fine. They fool themselves into thinking they don’t care what others think. But when they are around those others, what those others think starts becoming a lot more important than they thought it would be. At first, it is little remarks made by strangers. A saleslady refers to Breezy as Frank’s daughter. A waiter asks to see some ID before serving her a drink. Then they run into some of Frank’s friends. They are too polite to say anything about how young Breezy is, but they don’t have to, because they are obviously embarrassed by the awkwardness of the situation.

Breezy, of course, is oblivious, but Frank feels the heavy weight of society’s disapproval. To make matters worse, the next day one of his friends, Bob (Roger Carmel), compliments Frank on his nerve, his ability to have a fling without caring what others think. He says he would like to do the same himself, but he knows he could only be a meal ticket for a girl that young. Besides, Bob goes on to say, he would start thinking of himself a child molester. He says all this believing that Frank is free of such concerns, but it is obvious that he is actually giving voice to all the misgivings that Frank has been managing to repress.

At this point, the movie could have had a realistic ending, which would have been more satisfying. For example, Frank could have gone home and had a heart-to-heart talk with Breezy that their relationship was untenable on account of their age difference, that society’s disapproval was just making him too uncomfortable to continue on with it, and they could have parted as friends. Instead, the movie descends into melodrama and sentiment. First, Frank decides to end it by being mean and treating her with contempt, causing her to leave in tears. Then, Betty (Marj Dusay), the woman he was going with before he met Breezy, who loved Frank but gave up on him and decided to marry someone else, is in an accident in which her new husband has been killed. Frank goes to see her at the hospital, and she starts gushing about how she and her husband only had one week of marriage, but it was a beautiful week, and that is what really matters, and so on in this sentimental vein, which naturally functions as the lesson about life that Frank needed to learn. Frank then goes looking for Breezy and finds her. Of course she forgives him. He says, “Maybe we’ll have a year,” and they walk off happily together.

Not every movie needs to be realistic, of course, and sometimes a tacked-on happy ending is just what we want. But here it really doesn’t work.