Monday, January 16, 2012

Gender, Misogyny, and Body Humour/Horror in the 70s Films of Elaine May

I had a little Elaine May film festival last week, rewatching Mikey and Nicky and A New Leaf and watching The Heartbreak Kid for the first time. I'd been avoiding The Heartbreak Kid because of its Neil Simon screenplay – a former playwright, I believed the longstanding critical consensus that Simon was a middle-of-the-road comedic playwright, which didn't appeal to me, and gave him a miss. I also have my moments of skepticism about auteur theory and, since I knew May as a writer-director from Mikey and Nicky and a writer-director-performer from A New Leaf, I wasn't certain that she would be able to assert herself over the material as a director alone. In fact, I liked The Heartbreak Kid somewhat more than A New Leaf, though it still has to take second place to her suis generis (although, or because, it's a Cassavetes imitation) masterpiece, Mikey and Nicky. (Regarding what this means to auteur theory, Grodin's account of the filming quoted in the article I linked to above suggests that the director and actors had a great deal of input in what we see onscreen, to the official screenwriter's chagrin.)

I've watched A New Leaf three or four times now, and my problems with it remain: Walter Matthau seems miscast as the main character, an upper-class cad who speaks like a character from Oscar Wilde, occasionally via Joe Orton (as in a line about a hostess's “erotic fixation” with her carpet), although I can't be sure because I've never seen Matthau in anything else. (I may have watched Grumpy Old Men when it came out when I was a teenager.) The movie neither satirizes anything recognizable (what do fortune-hunters mean in the 1970s, and what did fortune-hunters who prey on clumsy, socially inept botanists ever mean?) nor quite succeed in creating its own world. Nevertheless, it has its pleasures (May's physical comedy as the heiress) and points of interest (the Matthau character's repulsion at women and the idea of marriage, and his initially unconscious discovery of a purpose in life as he reluctantly finds himself taking care of his helpless wife), and the subversiveness, suspense, and irony would have been greatly increased if the film hadn't fallen victim to censorship, as Jonathan Rosenbaum recounts in the excellent piece that introduced me to May as a director. (I had previously known her as half of the 50s satirical improvisation-based comedy duo she formed with Mike Nichols, who more famously went on to direct films).

Like A New Leaf, The Heartbreak Kid is a dark comedy about a fastidious man, whose point of view the audience occupies, who is revolted by his wife – here played by May's daughter, Jeannie Berlin – and wants to get rid of her. The deeply uncomfortable moral dilemma on which the plot turns is that the protagonist, Lenny, meets the woman of his dreams on his honeymoon, even as he is discovering all of the things he hates about his new wife. Does he do the morally and socially conventional thing, or seize his chance and ditch his new wife?

Two things render the direction of The Heartbreak Kid masterful: first, May's neutrality with respect to the characters, which nudges the audience's sympathies but leaves a great deal ambiguous as well; and, not unrelatedly, the marvellous performances she gets out of Charles Grodin as Lenny, Berlin as Lila, and Eddie Albert as the father of Lenny's dream girl (played by a breathy, vague young Cybill Shepherd). May encourages identification with Lenny's disgust with his gauche new wife's tics – her insistence on singing along with the radio loudly and tunelessly, her clingy behaviour, her need for reassurance, her gross eating habits (chocolate bars in bed after sex, egg salad all over her face) – while leaving room for us to wonder whether Lila's really that annoying or whether Lenny is a bit of a jerk with an overwhelming case of post-marital jitters. “Bit of a jerk” becomes “enormous jerk” when Lenny ditches Lila, who's ended up with a horrible case of sunburn after refusing to take his advice and use sunscreen, to pursue Shepherd – a coy, sadistic WASP cocktease in half-Temple Drake fashion, who first appears, epiphanically, above Lenny in a halo of sun and fine blonde hair, hovering above him as he lies on the beach, informing him that he's “in her spot” like a bitchy toddler.

The Heartbreak Kid deals more directly and openly with WASP fetish (still going strong, without self-awareness, in Eugenides' The Marriage Plot of last year) than any other film I know. The dream Lenny decides to chase, thrown into relief by his disillusionment with marriage (which is to say, mundane closeness to another human being, perhaps the theme responsible for the choice of "Close to You" as ironic pop commentary), is that of marriage to the blonde WASP bitch goddess and entrance into her exclusive world. It's not just a question, then, of whether or not achieving his life's dream is worth committing the morally vile act of leaving his wife for another woman on their honeymoon (although that's how he sees it, in the speech he gives Lila), but whether this dream, in particular, is worth the cost. It's not, of course, but that doesn't matter. What matters, dramatically, is Lenny's absolute conviction that he knows what he wants now, which overrides ordinary moral concerns, and his determination to get it – which overrides the objections first of the shallow Shepherd, who understandably thinks he's crazy, and then of her overprotective father. He gate-crashes the WASP elite through the sheer force of his belief that that is what he wants to do; never mind that this world is depicted as satirically, and revealed to be as repulsive in its own way, as Lila. In Lenny's eyes it is, and remains, sheer glamour.

I then watched the 2007 Farrelly Brothers critically derided remake of The Heartbreak Kid (or as much as I could get through before I was too bored to go on), which made May and Simon's achievement seem even more remarkable in comparison. For the record, I thought Dumb and Dumber was hilarious when I saw it as a teenager (and a teenage cinephile, though just getting started) and also liked There's Something About Mary when I saw it the year of its release. I don't recall much about the former, but the latter I remember as spectacular humiliation slapstick given a vulgarized shock-comedy update: to win his ideal (WASP) woman, Ben Stiller has to be subjected to an endless series of excruciatingly painful accidents and humiliations (although in the notorious cum-in-hair scene, the ideal is desecrated – or, perhaps, brought down to the adolescent Everyman protagonist's level – by receiving a humiliation of her own).

Another reason I was reluctant to watch the original Heartbreak Kid is that I generally dislike 70s movies, timebound in a decade whose cinematic and sartorial style grates on my optic nerves (including the few I make exceptions for, mainly horror films like Don't Look Now, Carrie and Videodrome). But May's film has a classicism and restraint that makes it seem timeless, unlike the remake, which seems absolutely bound to its era – which says nothing good about American comedy in the first decade of the 21st century. It's not even the worst of the remake's crimes that the Farrelly Brothers jettison the original's satire of social climbing, although it does render the remake incoherent. The protagonist, now called Eddie, is a 40-year-old bachelor who seems unprepared for the reality of marital life, since he breaks up with women for minor infractions like not sharing his taste for dumb comedy. Whereas the original starts with the Jewish wedding of Lenny and Lila, here we get a bunch of pointless background, including a meet-cute (with a typical gratuitously vulgar twist) where Eddie tries to stop a man from stealing Lila's purse and ends up with a pair of her panties. (The gratuitous vulgarity – designed for instant cheap laughs – continues when Eddie and his dream girl meet cute when she mistakenly thinks he's renting a porn video.)

May leaves it open to the viewer to both sympathize with and feel revolted by both Lenny and Lila. It may be ambiguous whether Lila is really that irritating and disgusting, or whether we're seeing her through Lenny's neurotic viewpoint, but when he leaves her to recuperate from sunburn in the hotel room on their honeymoon while pursuing another woman, there's no way not to sympathize with her. As in Mikey and Nicky, May proves herself a master of creating and sustaining discomfort in the scene where Lenny dumps a shocked and devastated Lila at a restaurant, speechifying at her about the importance of living one's life. May spares the audience none of the excruciation of the outrageous premise. Yet we are never pressured to either condemn or condone Lenny; nor, at the ending, are we decisively guided to think that he'll be either hollowly happy or fittingly unhappy. He's got what he wanted, and if that's what being happy means, he'll be happy – or perhaps “happiness” is immaterial. As he mingles with guests, repeating the meaningless, rote phrases of the unsophisticated Midwestern business elite he's entered (even to a couple of kids he ends up with on the couch at one point), we understand that this world is risibly dull from his New York perspective, as if Hildy Johnson went to live with Bruce in Albany after all, but neither May nor Simon tip us off that his marriage with Shepherd will be either blissful or otherwise. (Despite this comparison of the choice Lenny makes to the choice Hildy doesn't make, I think Jonathan Rosenbaum is incorrect to suggest that Lenny leaves an "overpowering" woman for, presumably, a less threatening one – although he's right that The Graduate must be read this way. I don't think May and Simon suggest at all that Lila is “complicated” or more interesting than Shepherd's character, who is not treated especially unsympathetically, as Lila is not treated especially sympathetically. If Lila is overpowering, it's only in her insistent corporeality, not her personality, which is rather meek when she's not singing. Lenny doesn't leave the right woman for the wrong woman, or vice versa; he leaves a woman for the woman he thinks is the right one – the irony lies not in the fact that she's really the wrong one, but that she's neither right nor wrong. She is also just a woman.)

In the remake, Lila isn't simply gauche and irritating – she's a monster: both stupid and crazy, as well as jobless, with a former coke problem that's left her with a deviated septum that causes liquids to spurt from her nose and scarily aggressive bedroom habits (the cheap homophobia doesn't stop, as everyone from pubescent boys to his new wife in bed accuse Eddie of being a fag, pussy, etc.). Anyone would be within their rights to get an immediate annulment, so why the movie takes time to set Eddie up as overly picky is mysterious. Eddie then falls for a definitely less "overpowering" woman: sporty, laid-back, not-insane Miranda, who, in the movie's sexual subtext, appeals to Eddie because her sexual differentiation is less pronounced. (The movie's adolescent homophobia is due to Eddie's adolescent homophilia: sexually aggressive women make him feel emasculated, whereas what he really wants is a “pal.”) There's no moral dilemma: obviously, Eddie should leave the nightmare and marry the nice girl. But since there's no moral dilemma, there's also no movie – no point to the plot, except as a vastly mean-spirited (to both of the female characters, no matter how negatively or positively portrayed) farce premise. But even describing the movie's plot as choosing a nice, subdued, boyish brunette over a sexual blonde hottie (this version's Lila) gives it too much credit for coherence: Lila is never set up as Eddie's false dream girl; she's just the girl he happens to meet in the street and marry, who happens to be hot and blonde, and then happens to turn out to be crazy.

I gave some consideration to my reaction to the Farrelly Brothers' remake of a classic satire, because I would go to some lengths to defend Frank Tashlin and Jerry Lewis's similarly maligned loose remake of the Preston Sturges classic The Miracle of Morgan's Creek as Rock-A-Bye Baby. Although Tashlin is widely regarded as a satirist by his revisionist cinephile fans, there's no doubt that Sturges's biting satire of small-town mores, including taking aim at single motherhood and premarital sex, is completely jettisoned in the remake's remoulding of the material into a Lewis vehicle, and a great deal is dumbed down and sweetened up – including going to the length of cutesy songs and broad ethnic stereotypes. But Tashlin and Lewis replace Sturges's satire with something equally interesting, employing aspects of Lewis's persona that Tashlin was even more interested in exploring than Lewis in his self-directed films (with the exception of The Ladies Man): a subversive attack on gender essentialism from a male perspective that predated second-wave feminism by five years (if you date that from the publication of The Feminine Mystique). Lewis's character, Clayton Poole, goes to court to prove that he can take care of female infant triplets by himself, arguing not that a father is as good as a mother but that you don't need to be a woman to be a mother – which brings him up against the prejudice of a small town's biological essentialism on the sacred subject of motherhood. What's more, Tashlin and Lewis don't just tailor the material for Lewis's gender-transgressive persona, but offer an intelligent reading of a neglected aspect of the Sturges film: the problems of a widower raising two teenage girls, which is how one of the girls manages to go wild and get pregnant out of wedlock.

In other words, sometimes it's possible for a remake of a classic comedy to stray from its source and offer an apparent dumbing-down that has its own interest. Maybe 50 years from now, the Heartbreak Kid remake will look like a brilliant, subversive take on gender politics and a shrewd exploration of its source's subtext. Right now, however, at least to me, it looks like the best exploration, or exploitation, of whatever comedic persona Ben Stiller has happened in Zoolander, which played on the Jewish movie comedian's tension between narcissism and self-loathing that Stiller inherited from Lewis, specifically in The Ladies Man. But while I liked Zoolander, it's not half of half the movie The Ladies Man is.

I don't object to gross-out comedy in principle, either. During the 90s, up to and including the first American Pie movie, some gross-out comedies had a sweet charm that shone through the body fluid jokes (a type of comedy revived in the enjoyable Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle, in combination with the new stoner comedy that took over in the 00s). Although admittedly, as someone who's idea of great movie comedy is Buster Keaton, Jerry Lewis, Tati, and the screwball comedies of the 30s and 40s, the best I can say for any movie comedy of the 90s or 00s is that I didn't hate it. I also didn't hate Meet the Parents, where Owen Wilson stole the movie from Stiller in a performance of daffily winsome charisma reminiscent of the screwball heroines. However, aside from his likeable comedies with Jackie Chan, the case of Owen Wilson proves that no performer has enough eccentric charisma to survive the terrible writing and direction of the standard modern movie comedy – such as the tedious Wedding Crashers. I'm sure I'd be happier with the state of contemporary movie comedy, and the things it gives interesting performers to do, if I could like Wes Anderson, but unfortunately, I find his precious quirkfests at least as unfunny as mainstream gross-out comedy. To be sure, I've only tried The Royal Tenebaums, but from what I've heard it's an accurate sample of what the rest is like. The answer is not quirky indie comedy; the answer is better mainstream comedy.

As someone who's tried, and hasn't always hated, dumb gross-out comedy, I think I've got the cred to say that the obligatory inclusion of crass body humour in mainstream comedy, however necessary it may have seemed to catch up with modern sensibilities, has been detrimental to American movie comedies, which have totally foregone the virtues of subtlety and restraint. In The Heartbreak Kid, May can still get comedic mileage out of the mild exaggeration of traits that provoke disgust in partners, like sloppy eating habits, with the piece de resistance being Berlin's sunburned appearance, covered in blisters and cream. The inclusion of urine, farting, diarrhea, and, since There's Something About Mary, semen jokes hasn't become obligatory yet. And remember this was the 70s, where “restraint” wasn't a trait prized in movies, particularly in the horror genre for which the decade is perhaps most remarkable, where bombast and boundary-transgression flourished in movies like Carrie (which took on menstrual blood), The Exorcist (vomit, snot, and pus), Videodrome (stomach vaginas), and Eraserhead (unidentifiable baby-things).

The 70s was, notably, the decade of horror films based on abject femininity, which, as Kristeva famously argued, blurs the boundaries that separate bodies and categories, as well as the decade of Anglo-American radical feminism. This is the context of May's three 70s films, all of which feature a male protagonist as the primary audience identification figure, although he is a sort of unreliable narrator, whose vile behaviour makes him as repulsive as the female character (or, in Mikey and Nicky, characters) he victimizes. In the two comedies, the female victim is a figure of abjection to whom the male character objects on that basis, and in The Heartbreak Kid, May's combination of classicism and the subject of disgust is faintly reminiscent of the sensibility of Cronenberg in Dead Ringers. Since both deal with abjection and boundary-blurring, a study comparing body humour and body horror would be interesting, and the ur-text might be Jerry Lewis's Nutty Professor, a comedy-horror film that brilliantly examines the unnerving abjection of the Lewis persona, with its source in the unruly body. Female biology is abject by definition, at least from the normative, Apollonian male perspective that Cronenberg deconstructs in Dead Ringers; but the male adolescent body is equally unruly, and the adult male is capable of identifying with it – and the shame associated with it – at any point.

With Mikey and Nicky, May suddenly, violently swerved from comedy, although the film (with its titular allusion to “Mike Nichols”) also seems to be a more direct attempt to grapple with the idea of a friendship so close that it blurs the boundaries of identity than her dark comedies about heterosexual couples. Playing one of the most unpleasant main characters in cinematic history (at least outside the annuls of villain protagonist), Cassavetes gives an uncompromising performance, all edges and jittery nerves; what May does to him, and gets him to do, in this film may be comparable to the tales of “sadistic” male directors getting performances of arresting self-exposure and emotional rawness from their actresses, from Dreyer and Falconetti in Passion of Joan of Arc to Lynch and Naomi Watts in Mulholland Dr. and Laura Dern in INLAND EMPIRE. Since the paradigm, or myth, here is gendered, it's worth noting that although he's the most aggressive, volatile, and violent of May's unpleasant male main characters, Cassavetes' Nicky is also the most “feminized,” which is to say pathologized: he's an hysterical, paranoid hypochondriac who's obsessed with, and openly terrified by, the idea of his death. And only in this film does May exhibit no sympathy – through performance, context, or otherwise – with the character who is betrayed and victimized by the person closest to them. The viewer may be magnetized and riveted by Nicky, and the question of who first betrayed whom and how may be left ambiguous, but the ending leaves no doubt that the writer-director, at least, thinks he gets what he deserves – however horrifying the actual act of betrayal remains. In other words, it's only in the film where May imagines herself strictly as a man, rather than dividing identification between a male and female character, that she fully indulges her masochism.

Despite this personal loathing for (and adoration of) her main character, May's direction in Mikey and Nicky, as in The Heartbreak Kid, is remarkable for its neutrality: she unflinchingly records the things that are unpleasant (physically, socially, morally) about her characters and their environments and leaves the audience to draw their own conclusions. (This seems to be the main point of continuity with her prior career: many of the Nichols and May sketches damn the characters with speech that's a mixture of the closely observed and the gracefully stylized.) In Mikey and Nicky, May extends the ambiguity of her direction to the writing: just as we don't know who's really responsible for what went wrong between Mikey and Nicky (only that Nicky has got to be a difficult friend to have, between his sadism and his neediness: Peter Falk's Mikey cares for him maternally, as Matthau does May in A New Leaf), we don't know whether the woman Nicky goes to visit in an extraordinarily uncomfortable scene where he has sex with her over her protests while Mikey twiddles his thumbs in the other room is, as Nicky claims, a neurotic whore, or whether she's a sensitive woman whom he's set up by sending his friends to her to try it on with her (or what his motivations might be in that case). “Who betrayed whom” and “who is the victim of whom” operates on every level of the film.

There's also an extraordinary scene where Nicky goes to see his estranged wife and baby before he dies, in which the actress playing his wife (Joyce Van Patten) is broken down by the end of the brief scene – her only appearance in the film – to a point of acute emotion rarely seen in any film. (Apparently May got the film taken away from her, and released in its unfinished state, after shooting almost three times the amount of film taken for Gone With the Wind. While this is clearly insane, and sounds like she would never have finished it if it weren't taken away, performances like these make it seem like it was worth it.) For a moment the viewer is left to wonder if Nicky and his wife don't “really” love each other after all; maybe she's the one he “really” needs, not his girlfriends or male friends, and this sort of primal bond is worth the anguish of their relationship (which, May indicates, includes his physical abuse of her) for both of them.

It's the extraordinarily intense nature of the emotions in the writing and performances that gives this impression – but the psychological conclusions that begin to form in the viewer's mind are swept away when Nicky next goes back to visit his “girl,” with whom he has a similarly intense encounter. While May (or is it just me?) clearly revels in the unapologetic swaggering masculinity that allows Nicky to go from woman to woman, wife to mistress, treat them both appallingly, and have them end up swooning at his feet, there is an emotional truth to this juxtaposition... the emotional truth that there's no such thing as a fixed, stable emotional truth. Like Lenny in The Heartbreak Kid, Nicky doesn't “really” love one woman, and not another; nor is it as simple as saying he “really” loves both... or neither. “Real love” is a sentimental fiction: one that Lenny uses as a justification for his erotic and social ambition. There is no real love, not even in friendship, only bonds of need with fleeting moments of real emotion. That's all love is, and it's nothing to get sentimental about, although it's also the core of our identities: Nicky is his relationships. He's defined by them, and nothing else has any meaning for him, even if what he seems to demand most of all, with a tyrannical disregard for what it costs the other person, is the acknowledgement that he's loved, the only thing that stands between him and his fear of the absolute obliteration of death. 

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