Saturday, August 17, 2013

In a Lonely Place: Male Melodrama in Vincente Minnelli's 'Some Came Running'

The Hollywood melodrama reached its zenith in the 1950s: the same decade that enshrined the 20th century bourgeois values that continue to haunt us – upward mobility, materialism, repression, conformism, the nuclear family – also produced movies deeply critical of those values from auteurs like Nicholas Ray, Douglas Sirk, and Vincente Minnelli. After over a decade of blockbusters catering to fantasy fans it's safe to say that fantasy is no longer an underdog genre, and it should therefore cause no butthurt if I remark that it might be interesting for a movie to take a long hard look at contemporary life and values now and then. At least Hunger Games had the virtue of allegorically reflecting something about Occupy-era boomer-Millennial relations.

Any movie that's not a comedy is a melodrama in the broad sense, but there's also the melodrama, a genre characterized by over-the-top acting, lurid subjects, and a focus on family and/or marital relationships. The melodrama is usually associated with women because of that relationships-focus and all of the emotion and stuff, and until recently I thought that melodramas with male protagonists were largely covered by film noir (usually centred on a sexually and existentially anxious doomed protagonist) and movies about dangerously angry and alienated men (starting in the 50s with Nicholas Ray and continuing in very different ways in the films of Cassavetes, Scorsese, Coppola, and Anderson). Sometimes there was overlap between the types, as in Ray's In a Lonely Place or (arguably) Taxi Driver. Sometimes a melodrama that still fits comfortably within the realm of the “woman's picture” (focus on a single romantic plot) might have a male protagonist, like Sirk's There's Always Tomorrow or Dieterle's Love Letters. The woman's picture/noir hybrid, meanwhile, produced movies that anticipated 1950s melodrama in their critique of American bourgeois values and the nuclear family, like Michael Curtiz's Mildred Pierce (1945) and Max Ophuls's The Reckless Moment (1949).

But there was a time when bestselling novels written by men, featuring male protagonists, attempted to deal with problems of class and sex in American society. (Not only men, and not only male protagonists, but that's what I'm talking about here.) For better or worse, this kind of novel was shrugged aside by academics because it didn't fit with the narrative whereby the serious novel can never recover from Modernism: The Recognitions is an acceptable sprawling novel of American life, Peyton Place is not. I wrote about a movie based on one such bestseller, Kings Row (1942), in my last post, and now I've seen another, Vincente Minnelli's Some Came Running (1958). It seems like a novelty today to see a film that is neither a romance aimed at a female audience nor a romantic comedy, in which the whole concern of the male protagonist is to be loved by a woman rather than to bond with or prove himself among other men, and in which this is not an indication that the man is a stalker.

Thanks to feminism we have a heightened awareness of the cultural tropes that demonize female sexuality, and from Shakespeare to Thomas Hardy to Preston Sturges there have always been male authors interested in protesting against the sexual double standard. Some Came Running, however, shows how similar tropes can be used to demonize male sexuality. Frank Sinatra's Dave Hirsh, an Army veteran and unsuccessful novelist, returns to his hometown, where he meets Gwen, a creative writing and literary criticism teacher who's a fan of his work, through his semi-estranged older brother, who became a successful businessman through his wife's wealth. Dave falls in love with Gwen, who's conflicted about her feelings for him. Dave's a drinker and a gambler who sometimes takes up with “tramps,” and as such the educated, upper-middle-class Gwen feels that he's not good enough for her. More particularly, she's concerned that because he's been with “whores,” his desire for her means that he thinks she's a “whore” – and any desire she shows for him would confirm it. She rejects him out of affronted pride and jealousy, in the same way that, Freud speculated, “Dora” neurotically rejected her employer's advances even though she had feelings for him because she learned that he'd made the same advances to a lower-status woman a few days earlier. For the movies, this is pretty advanced sexual psychology, even if a female viewer may feel that there's a simpler explanation when a woman acts like Gwen, and it's called "she's just not that into you." 

In any case, Gwen's cuturally-conditioned conflict isn't presented especially sympathetically, and she would come across even more as a typical 50s movie melodrama portrait of a “frigid” woman (see also the “nymphomaniac,” as in Sirk's Written on the Wind) and neurotic female intellectual/career woman if it weren't that Hirsh jerks around and leads on Shirley MacLaine's Ginnie in much the same way. He can't love Ginnie, who loves him with even less pride than he loves Gwen, because she's a tramp and because she lacks education: Gwen can't understand his sexual life and Ginnie can't understand his intellectual life. In other words, Hirsh is as divided, conflicted, and neurotic as Gwen, a point driven home when we glimpse Gwen discussing the phenomenon of great male writers' debauched sex lives with her class. The movie is troubled by Hirsh's unconventional sex life – as pathologized as the sexuality of the “frigid” woman or “nymphomaniac” – and asks for understanding of it.

A couple of interrelated subplots flesh out this portrait of middlebrow American sexual hypocrisy. Dave's unhappily married brother seeks consolation in the arms of his much younger secretary; when his daughter discovers this she goes wild and takes off to a nearby big city with a man who's picked her up, where she runs into her uncle, who makes him scram and puts her on a bus back home with admonitions about not turning into a “tramp.” Later we learn that she's decided to break way from home in a healthier way, by getting a job with a publisher in New York. When we first met her she told her uncle that she admired the male freedom that allowed him to see all different sides of life, but if her desire to emulate Dave and its proto-feminist implications are explored in the novel, they're not in the movie. We only know that a middle-class young woman can't emulate male freedom without becoming categorized as a “tramp” – although we also know that Dave, to a lesser extent, is also considered damaged goods, although being the victim of such attitudes doesn't make him any less disposed to exhibit them towards women.

The movie cuts the Gordian knot of sexual hypocrisy using the melodrama trope of the good-hearted whore and her refreshing honesty. Throughout the 60s MacLaine just kept playing sexually aberrant women. What was it about the fey, offbeat personality and the androgynous haircut that screamed “prostitute” and “fallen woman”? It all started here, anyway, with her grating/endearing, abject and masochistic performance as Ginnie, which won her an Oscar. Having a gamine actress play a virgin/whore character is a familiar European gambit (see Bresson's Ladies of the Bois de Bologne and Fellini's Nights of Cabiria); the actress's ethereal quality makes the virgin archetype stand out in relief against the soiled and vulgar reality. Two years later MacLaine would play a similar role (for which she got an Oscar nomination) in Wilder's The Apartment, in which Jack Lemmon's junior businessman must face up to the fact that as a 99%er, he's a prostitute in relation to the big boys just as much as MacLaine's suicidal abandoned mistress is, and must choose between joining their ranks by exploiting women or choosing “feminine” values by rejecting power. Which come to think of it is also the theme of Some Like It Hot, in which Lemmon more literally embodied the feminine.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Jackie Brown, Kings Row, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me: Men Critiquing Men in the Movies

I've complained on this blog (in which post or posts I can no longer remember) about male indie directors taking no interest in making films with female protagonists, but maybe I haven't looked hard enough. At the moment there's Noah Baumbach's Frances Ha, a character study of a woman in her late 20s who in type is a cross between a rare female loser, a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, and a hipster Bridget Jones (with the desperation for a man thankfully omitted; or perhaps it's rather that the clinginess essential to the character has been changed into a homoerotic dependency on a more grown-up female friend instead). The movie's effect on the viewer will largely depend on whether one is susceptible or allergic to Greta Gerwig's brand of fey charm – see also Giulietta Masina and Anna Karina, both of whom I adore; my reaction to Gerwig was complicated by identification with a present-day actress/heroine, albeit one almost decade younger than me. 

There is also of course Cassavetes, who has made movies with female protagonists and one specifically about the experience of being female. There's Todd Haynes, a major exception; unfortunately, I don't like his movies. Lars von Trier – another exception whose movies I also don't like, but by this time it's starting to look like I don't have much of a case, even before I add David Lynch, whose movies I do. Directors who truly have no time for women like Scorsese, Coppola, and Kubrick may have gained enormously inflated reputations in the initial burst of American independent films, and indie auteurs from Cronenberg to Kaufman to Anderson may be gender literalists about their author avatars, but perhaps 25-50% percent of high-profile male indie directors are more adventurous in their approach to gender. Does that arbitrarily made-up percentage sound correct? Sure!

And there's Quentin Tarantino, who, for all the pulpy macho violence of his films, can't be accused of taking no interest in female protagonists given the Kill Bill movies. But also given Jackie Brown, which I finally watched yesterday. 

Please note: all discussions of films below INCLUDE SPOILERS.

Jackie Brown's Deconstruction of Machismo

Jackie Brown belongs to that category of crime film that quietly deconstructs the machismo that belongs to the genre, like other female-lead members such as Cassavetes's GloriaGloria, however, is considerably more conventional in its portrayal of gender, with the former gun moll played by Gena Rowlands standing up to the ruthless gangsters in order to protect a little boy – the mother-tiger archetype. As far as its examination of gender goes its most interesting aspects are Gloria's fierce independence (of Cabiria proportions) – she's a loner-cousin to Rowlands's character in Minnie and Moskowitz – and the way it seemingly depicts men in relation to women through the character of the scrawny prepubescent boy whose distinctly romantic love for Rowlands leads to comic attempts to act “like a man” but actually leaves him overwhelmed.

While sort of vaguely admiring Tarantino on a few fronts, I have never exactly been a fan, which is why for me Jackie Brown, which I only just saw for the first time, stands out in his oeuvre like another low-budget triumph by an auteur better-known for bigger films, Tim Burton's Ed Wood. One flaw I did find in the film, in common with many reviewers at the time of its release, was its pacing and length, although not due to the talky scenes and incidental episodes that serve little purpose but to allow actors of the calibre of Samuel L. Jackson, Robert De Niro, Bridget Fonda, Pam Grier, and Michael Keaton to interact in warped, hilarious, and frightening ways – as if once upon a time Tarantino could have become the Preston Sturges of crime films. I was bored because the movie didn't ratchet up the pace the nearer we came to the quadruple-cross (or whatever the number was) climax, instead alternating between peaks and valleys of tension in a way that made it seem as long as it is. I had the same problem with Pulp Fiction: by the time it enters its final act I'm snoozing.

Something I don't share with the critics whose reviews I've found online is their complete disregarding of the film's gender and racial politics. Yet surely the only reason we're expected to sympathize with Jackie is that by double-crossing both the cops and Jackson's criminal she's simultaneously sticking it to the White Man and the macho culture that transcends race and that results in the death of Fonda's character, shot by De Niro for needling him about misplacing his car after a money exchange. In fact it's hard to know how this film would have played if the lead character were white, as in the Elmore Leonard novel it's based on, although there's a specific discomfort in reflecting on the fact that the plot involves a black woman stealing the life's earnings of a black man, whether or not she's in danger from him and he's put her in danger from the police.

There would be ways to make Jackie's betrayal of Ordell seem much less uncomfortable, and both Tarantino and Jackson know what they are – instead of which they choose to portray him as relatively complex within the film's cartoonish terms. Just let him be the one to kill Fonda rather than De Niro; even let him strike her (rather than just recommending it to De Niro as a course of action preferable to murder) or Jackie and he would easily earn his betrayal and death by most audiences' standards of fictional justice. But Tarantino wants things more interesting and Jackson, thanks to his masterful comedic abilities, is up to that challenge. As a study of betrayal within a macho criminal universe it's not nearly as harrowing as Elaine May's Mikey and Nicky but should perhaps be considered its distant relative (especially given the gift for dialogue and love of talk he shares with May).

What a Man's Gotta Do

Charming and generally affable and reasonable but also practical, Ordell kills associates only when he must, to protect himself, and maintains a not-very-well-run patriarchal household with Fonda's stoned and insolent Melanie. Melanie sexually solicits De Niro's Louis, an old associate of Ordell's who was recently released from prison, and it briefly looks like they might form an alliance to rob Ordell. But in a scene at a bar with Ordell and Louis afterwards it becomes clear that Melanie is a mere object of exchange in their homosocial bonding: Ordell “lent” her to Louis and only bonds the harder with him over his friend's sexual betrayal. Moreover, Melanie is one of several women he has set up in houses. Having had her and feeling guilt over it that feeds his disgust at her own disloyalty to Ordell, Louis increasingly turns on Melanie after this exchange, becoming irritable, threatening her with violence, calling her a “bitch,” and finally killing her when she refuses to shut up and stop making fun of him. When Ordell learns of this he's not sentimental but he is nonplussed; after a few protests, however, he concludes, “If you had to do it then you had to do it,” a line that Jackson could have made much more chilling – instead what's chilling about it is that it's completely matter-of-fact. In his warped perception, killing a woman for no reason at all is sometimes what a man's gotta do.

Melanie perfectly matches Simone de Beauvoir's description, in The Second Sex, of a certain kind of woman who accepts her place within the patriarchal structure and therefore accepts that men are masters of the universe, but spends all her time mocking individual men for their failure to live up to this ideal. Given the value set on femininity in the macho criminal world the film depicts, the way she ends up is hardly surprising. Jackie Brown is something else: economically self-sufficient even if she is a black woman nearing middle age in a low-income job, she uses her wits to first set herself up as Ordell's “manager,” demanding 15% of the cut, and then, in a huge gamble, to take it all from him as her last chance to forestall a dismal future. She's one of Tarantino's cherished underdogs, but in that respect Ordell isn't far behind her, and the way she uses his trust of her to accomplish her own ends and betray him makes him vulnerable and sympathetic at the human level no matter how dangerous and ideologically despicable we know him to be, much like Claude Rains's villain in Hitchcock's Notorious.

De Niro, incidentally, also gives a masterful comic turn: Tarantino (of all people) gets a rare restrained performance out of him, all low-key mumbling and shuffling until at last he's called upon to turn on the sickening menace, but even then Ordell thankfully shoots him before he can get into Cape Fear monster mode. The restrained De Niro performance is in keeping with Tarantino's uncharacteristic handling of violence in this film: the shootings mostly (all?) take place off-screen and have at least some emotional cost for the killer, the audience, or both.

By the way, in case you ever thought gender doesn't affect the way you interpret a movie (because I'm tiring myself out with these endless gendered viewings of media), Variety critic Todd McCarthy, in a positive contemporary review, gets this out of Melanie's fate: “De Niro plays a seedy, relatively uninteresting sideline character for most of the way, only to erupt in the late going in ways that are both insanely violent and touchingly honest and loyal.” I spent a solid thirty seconds wondering what he could possibly be talking about before I realized that he must have approved of the homosocial loyalty that makes De Niro so irritated with Fonda that he shoots the “bitch” with no provocation except teasing. Touching? I don't know about you, but it brings a tear to my eye!

Interestingly, like the "undateable" Frances (as a semi-infatuated male friend dubs her), Jackie Brown ends up alone at the conclusion, not because she has no opportunities but rather seemingly because the male filmmaker doesn't want to diminish her by making it seem like her goal in the movie was a man all along or that now that she'll have one she'll be fulfilled. Since of course nearly every movie, commercial or indie, with a male protagonist ends with a romantic pairing, this means that our image of self-sufficiency is still gendered feminine, although only in the rare feminist movie that goes counter to the prevailing trend. At least I can't think off the top of my head of any representations of male self-sufficiency in movies to counteract the sociopathic loner image, but if you know of them let me know.

Kings Row and Progressive Gothic

Odder still than the fact that I'd never seen Jackie Brown is that I'd never even heard of Kings Row, Sam Wood's Oscar-nominated 1942 melodrama about class, mental illness, and sadism in a Midwestern town. David Lynch's cinema has a lot of disparate sources in lesser-known corners of American cinema, but this is one of them. (I recently saw another for the first time, the 1962 no-budget zombie mood-piece Carnival of Souls.) It seems like more than coincidence that this forerunner of Peyton Place made a star of Ronald Reagan, during whose 50s-throwback presidency Lynch made his masterpiece about uncovering dark secrets in a white-picket-fence small town, Blue Velvet. I found the film remarkable for both its open depiction of the love between the two male best friends who are the movie's central characters and its proto-feminist theme of patriarchal sadism and silencing of women who know the secrets of powerful men.

Best friends embrace.

Although the young psychiatrist-hero ultimately decides to take the side of the troublesome “hysterical” woman, in a rather better reaction than Jake's in Chinatown, one gains a strong impression between three of the four young female characters of thwarted female sexuality: even Ann Sheridan's lively lower-class character, who has enough social leeway to be a tomboy as a child, ultimately has to sublimate her attraction to her husband (Reagan) after his legs are amputated, although at least the speech where she talks about her new “calm” love for him seems nearly as awful as the scene where he loses his legs. Although set at the turn of the 20th century, the film depicts both male and female premarital sexual activity with due Code-evading ellipses but without judgement; in this Freud-informed fictional universe everyone has a sexual appetite.The movie is also a rare example of a male melodrama, a genre known to literary fiction, it seems, but not well-regarded by movie producers; another example cropped up recently in The Great Gatsby. Of course plenty of movies about men are melodramas but try to disguise this fact by a focus on violence and "rites of passage" rather than assuming the traditional, relationships-focused form of melodrama. 

David Lynch and the Fantasizing Protagonist

The silenced woman, kept captive by patriarchy, becomes an overt theme in Lynch's Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, which I've described on this blog as “one of the worst films I've ever seen.” I don't really want to deprive Lynch of that honour, since he's also made some of the best films I've ever seen – Mulholland Dr. has frequently occupied top spot in my favourites, with It's a Wonderful  Life and Vertigo as its only serious rivals. However, I'm willing to concede that I may be wrong about FWWM, for a number of reasons: because it was important enough to Roberto Bolano for him to namecheck it in 2666, and while this may be the result of cross-cultural misunderstanding on par with Godard's admiration for Jerry Lewis, it may also be the result of an artist from another culture understanding an idiosyncratic auteur work better than critics at home... like Godard's admiration for Jerry Lewis; because for the first 20 minutes of my first viewing of Mulholland Dr. I was ready to declare it the worst movie I'd ever seen, which tells me something about the reactions Lynch can provoke due to both subject matter and style.

Most of all, however, it's because in the comments section of online reviews of FWWM I noticed that more than one woman claimed from experience that it was the most realistic representation of sexual abuse she'd ever seen. This made me reflect that perhaps what disturbed and angered me about FWWM was not that it treated the subject of incest exploitatively but that it treated the subject at all. It was something I didn't want to think about or see, which one could argue is my contribution to our cultural silence on the topic, which is also a silencing of victims. We seem to be much more uncomfortable as a culture with depictions of incestuous sexual abuse of minors than with depictions of rape in general, perhaps because the specter of sex in the nuclear family is something we all work very hard all of the time at repressing. I mean, it was bad enough for Oedipus when he realized he'd married his mother, but combine the family romance with unequal power relations and patriarchal proprietorship and you get something as nightmarish as – well, as FWWM.

My discomfort with the subject matter, which Lynch makes as emotionally and viscerally unbearable as it should be, is not, however, the only reason I've rejected FWWM on my two or three viewings to date. Like Henry James – a fellow American genius whose prurient/puritan keyhole approach to adult sexuality Lynch shares – in “The Turn of the Screw,” Lynch plants a story about sexual abuse in a supernatural setting, as though they feel obliged to treat the subject obliquely. But whereas all we know about the ghosts in “TTOTS” is that they want to take possession of the children, Lynch creates an outlandish mythology with Black and White Lodges, suffering that takes the form of creamed corn in a demon dimension, and on and on. While some fans of the movie – to go by YouTube comments – love it for exactly these surrealist sci-fi flourishes, I have no idea how to process a movie that's at least as impenetrable as Eraserhead while also having a lucid, tragic plot about a high school student who's beginning to realize that she's being abused by her father, but not in time – as we know – to prevent him from murdering her. In any case, beneath the layer of weirdness Laura Palmer is a Christ figure in the Clarissa Harlowe line, relentlessly terrorized and abused by her creator in a way that Lynch would return to, more abstractly, in INLAND EMPIRE, in which Dern's anxiety is still sexual but also existential.

It may have been when he came up with the Leland/Bob solution to the “Who Killed Laura Palmer” that Lynch first got two ideas that would become central to his later work: the idea of interdimensional or alternate universe doubles (isn't Leland/Bob just like Betty/Diane?); and the idea of a movie that is entirely the fantasy or dream, but in any case the nightmare, of its protagonist. I see no indication in FWWM that the Bob portions are intended as Laura's fantasy; on the contrary, they're objectively presented, which is obviously not the case in “The Turn of the Screw.” However, it certainly makes sense of the Bob story to view it as Laura's “cover story” for her father's abuse. Of great importance to Lost Highway and Mulholland Dr. is the idea of a fantasy concealing an emotionally unbearable reality (in FWWM, “My father sexually abuses me,” in the other two movies, “I have killed the person I love”); and in FWWM and MD, in very different ways, the horrifying reality “peeks through” the fantasy. Lynch's fantasies of interdimensional evil and beleaguered innocence place him in a tradition that's not only Jamesian but also Blakeian, although it's by using the vocabulary of pulp and pop culture that's he's intermittently spoken to a wider audience and both tapped into and created archetypes that resonate even when his intentions at the narrative level are unclear.