DOASKDOTELL MOVIE REVIEWs of Splendor in the Grass, Advise and Consent, Rain, Rebel Without a Cause, Lilith, Hud, Hiroshima mon Amour, Fail-Safe, The Bedford Incident, (The Atomic Café, The War Game, Dr. Strangelove, Infinity, Fat Man and Little Boy, The Trials of J. Robert Oppenheimer), A Raisin in the Sun, The Rose Tattoo, Stateside, Gardens of Stone, and The Virgin Suicides, Heathers, The Notebook, The Believer, The Slaughter Rule, The Door in the Floor, A Walk to Remember, Asylum, The Tunnel, The Grass Harp, The Most Dangerous Game, Fermat’s Room, A Streetcar Named Desire , The Glass Menagerie , Good Night, and Good Luck, Point of Order, Capote , Infamous, Suddenly, Last Summer , Jane Eyre, The Magdalene Sisters , Cat on a Hot Tin Roof , Baby Doll, Tea and Sympathy , A Long Day’s Journey into Night , The Iceman Cometh, Ice Men, Our Town (2 films), The Bridge of San Luis Rey, Me and Orson Welles, A Single Man

 

Title:  Splendor in The Grass

Release Date:  1961

Nationality and Language: USA, English

Running time: 124 minutes

MPAA Rating:  PG-13 (by today’s standards)

Distributor and Production Company:  Warner Brothers

Director; Writer: Elia Kazan, screenplay by William Inge

Producer:

Cast:   Natalie Wood, Warren Beatty

Technical: 35mm

Relevance to doaskdotell site:

Review:

 

First, for the reference to the William Wordsworth poem “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood.” (1888)

 

“What though the radiance which was once so bright
Be now for ever taken from my sight,
Though nothing can bring back the hour
Of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower;
We will grieve not, rather find
Strength in what remains behind;”

 

For full poem, see

http://cla.calpoly.edu/~smarx/courses/253/Splendor/ode.html

 

Yes, college students, make sure you can identify this passage for your lit. finals.

 

In my first full semester of college (The George Washington University), spring, 1962, while living at home after the first semester catastrophe at the College of William and Mary, I was taking English 52, “Survey of English Literature,” and the very first assignment was to read this poem and some other Wordsworth. I seem to remember discussion (after one of those notorious card pop quizzes) about poetry giving pleasure. I’ll come back to all this later.

 

If you want to see a detailed writeup of this film, go to the review by Tim Dirks at http://www.filmsite.org/sple.html

 

First, for some more perspectives on the film itself. Yes, today, it seems a bit like a soap opera, though better grounded than Days of our Lives. You always have a problem with a movie like this, where the dramatic situation, opportunities and recognition point are exaggerated to keep the audience in its seats and out of the concession lines. That is, the script really does make the sociological point about “family values” for a previous generation. Wilma Dean (Natalie Wood)’s mother lectures her early on, that only nice girls find good husbands, that women don’t enjoy sex the way men do, and that sex is for producing babies. All very pertinent in 2004 when we debate gay marriage. For what comes across so well is that family values is about lineage and blood, about preserving meaning for middle class people socialized by the modern concept of marriage. That includes both a since of shelter within the family for people who need it (kids, and the elderly), and a propagation of class privilege through the family—a bane for the political Left, which correctly points out that such an attitude transmits unearned wealth (“generational wealth” as Apprentice Bill Rancic said) and encourages old institutional practices like segregation. But movies like this tend to be effective when they indulge in a certain hyperbole in presenting an old-fashioned and aging social paradigm.

 

Okay, this is 1928 Kansas, a poor family, and a Romeo and Juliet setup of two high school sweethearts. (I digress here a moment: Shakespeare’s play Romeo and Juliet is taught often in freshman high school English, and in the opening scenes teachers have to deal with hired lactating nurses, the fact of 13-year-olds dating and marrying [risking the issue of underage sex and even child pornography] and then the whole family values thing about whether marriage is about individual love, or about babies and continuation of family [Mercutio]. Can gay marriage be far behind? Tchaikovsky may have thought so with some prescience when he wrote his famous, passionate overture-tone poem, to end in such hollow triumph—and then there is the Berlioz work, too.) Both high school teenagers [though Stamper looks like a young man already] face parental opposition to their going all the way, and circumstances that make their situation particularly poignant. Now, Bud Stamper (Warren Beatty) is a jock, and Wilma is a poor girl, so there is a bit of sympathy, but not so much respect. (They are not on the level of Clark and Lana from Smallville). Eventually Bud sows his wild oats with another girl, which leads Wilma to a nervous breakdown and stay in a mental hospital, where a doctor tells her it is up to her to change, out of deference to her parents (not just the opinions of “other people.”)  Okay, that reminds me of Ephram and Madison on Everwood, and Ephram’s high school essay on his “fatal flaw,” his inability to change.

 

The film is schmaltzy, especially with its music score, and engaging. The sexual suspense could have been stronger, as it is in later Beatty films (Lilith, 1964). (Although, there is one sequence in particular, where Wilma Dean explores Bud’s neck and throat, and Bud almost goes for the payoff in the next room.)  Now I saw it the last Saturday in October, 1961, while at William and Mary (I think it was Oct. 28, Homecoming). My roommate would see a later show the same day, announcing that he as going out to “emote” and then come back to the dorm room in shell shock.  For most high school students remember their first love, as an emotionally wrenching affair, a time of idealism (“splendor in the grass, glory in the flower”); adult life, when one settles down and raises a family (if one accepts the challenge – I never did) is much more grounded in aesthetic realism. I had experienced this, in a partially unreciprocated homosexual manner, as a high school senior—but the whole personal life story had provided a new emotional high. I recall an episode of Smallville, season 2, where one of the kryptonite freaks (who steals the youth out of her victims and leaves them with progeria) that you will never be as beautiful and perfect again as you are now. The mental institution episode also is fortelling; seven months after my William and Mary expulsion I would be in one myself (at NIH), as detailed in the link given above. So this movie foreshadows and postshadows a lot for me.

 

TheWB Smallville Season 3 presented an episode “1961” in which Clark’s extraterrestrial father Jor-El is presented retrospectively, and there is a shot of the movie theater in Smallville with the placard for “Splendor in the Grass” with Natalie Wood. An interesting choice. It would not have shown until late October.

 

Still, one wonders about Clark’s own academic skills. Would he identify the a quote from the Wordsworth poem on an English test with his photographic memory? I think so. In any event, the quote was on the English 52 final that 1962 spring at GW. But you got to choose any 5 of 7 passages to identify and explain the significance of. But I got this one right and got an A in the course.

 

That Smallville episode also mentions the 1955 film Rebel Without a Cause, in which Natalie Wood plays Judy and the late James Dean plays Jim Stark, the compulsive fighter who draws other people in, like ‘Plato’ Crawford (Sal Mineo), and drags his family along with his reputation. The story doesn’t seem as emotionally seductive to me as the wistful Wordsworth tale above, but the true CinemaScope and WarnerColor are spectacular in this grand old 50s popcorn movie. Dir. Nicholas Ray, 115 min, PG-13 by today’s standards.

 

Lilith (1964, Columbia, dir. Robert Rossen, PG-13, 14) presents Lilith Arthur (Jean Seberg) as a mysterious young woman in a New England mental sanitarium, and Warren Beatty, very much looking as if he were at his own biological summer solstice as Vincent Bruce as the young attendant, with his own mysteries, who will gradually fall in love with her. The black and white film builds up sexual tension very slowly, finally to offer some release outdoors on a nature path. The film seems to be as much about the defrocking of the male character as it is about Lilith. But for Warren Beatty this was an interesting follow-up to Splendor. This film, erotic in subtle ways, seems to have been forgotten.

 

Advise and Consent (1962, Columbia, dir. Otto Preminger, from the novel by Allen Drury) is a delicious political drama in black-and-white CinemaScope, with the screen filled with details in every scene (like streetcars in 1950s Washington DC, an images of real apartment buildings in [ironically] the Dupont Circle area). The pace is slow in the beginning, as the president (Franchot Tona) seeks to confirm Robert Leffingwell as Secretary of State (sound familiar?) with the advice and consent of the Senate. The young senator from Mormon Utah, Brigham Anderson (Don Murray) stages a McCarthy-style hearing in which details are dug out of Leffingwell’s past suggesting that he has sympathized with Communists (remember, this film was made before the Cuban Missile Crisis). Pretty soon the S.C. powerbroker senator Seabright Cooley (Strom Thurmond??) played by Charles Laughton pulls strings and Anderson finds that a skeleton from his own literal closet is pulled out, in (these are days long before the Internet, home computers and email) the form of simple phone calls to his wife at home from an ex-Army buddy with whom Anderson had enjoyed a homosexual affair while in the Army on Korea. (He first finds out about this in a bedroom scene—in good clothes in every scene up to this point, he looks earthy with curly chest hair—and then he has become so vulnerable!) Now Anderson had given that all up for wife and child—because in those days having and raising a family was practically a prerequisite for the rewards of power (that was how you paid your dues and shared social justice). In one line his wife Ellen (Inga Swenson) says that their home life is all she has. That is how it was in those days, so if you wanted to bring someone down you could go after his family. That is not as easy today, but it still can happen. What makes it possible, of course, is the moral circularity of the whole moral value system. It fits in well to the political attitude that contributed to my own William and Mary expulsion for “admitted latent homosexuality” and subsequent attempt at reparative therapy. (I would once be asked in a security interview if anyone had ever tried to blackmail me.) There is a line early one where being a bachelor is compared to being a widower, which is more respectable. There are other interesting lines, like where Leffingwell tells his middle school son to tell a “Washington DC lie” to a phone caller. In one episode, Anderson tries to look up his blackmailer, and runs into a 300-pound call boy with multiple cats, and then visits the gay bar, only to feel disgusted. The ending of the film is quite tragic, as Anderson is quite ruined, without eternal Mormon marriage, without salvation.

 

Rain

 

I mentioned the William and Mary roommate’s seeing the movie; for a few weeks before he had talked a lot about the play Rain, which had apparently been performed in his high school when he was a senior. I checked this out from Netflix, and the best one to look at seemed to be the 1932 version (United Artists, 92 min, sug. PG-13) directed by Lewis Milestone. The play is by John Colton, the screen adaptation is by Maxwell Anderson, and the original story “Miss Thompson” is by British author William Somerset Maugham, and it gets read in English literature classes. (There is a 1953 adaptation, “Miss Sadie Thompson” and there are several other film versions.) Joan Crawford plays Miss Sadie Thompson, a prostitute who gradually provokes the passengers quarantined (for a typhus outbreak) on Pago Pago Island. The black-and-white film provides constant rain (often shown) as an effective, if abstract backdrop, for the isolation that the characters feel (a la The Tempest) as the preacher Alfred Davidson (Walter Huston) begins to rail at Sadie over her immorality. The film and play explore, largely in the conversations with the preacher, why Sadie became a hooker, what she is running from, why she does not want to go back to San Francisco (instead of Sydney). It seems she will go to jail for a “crime”—when the preacher says (and she repeats) that must suffer “unjust punishment” as a “sacrifice” for her sins. Her personality changes as she relishes the meaning that would come from her temporary martyrdom, which her friend Sgt. O’Hara (William Gargan) tries to balanced off and bring her down, from her “sweet lemons” guilt trip. Yet she gets the last laugh. The preacher’s rape of her is not shown; we are surprised when Samoan fishermen find his corpse in the water in a way that would happen in a John Sayles film.

 

I’ll (with some risk, probably) stake out my own turf here and announce that I expect to name the first of my three “science fiction” novels (a planned triptych) as Rain on the Snow . I also have a female character, brought up as a churchgoer and participant in church retreats, who becomes a “Manchurian” prostitute – and gradually she realizes her aim is to help bear the next Christ figure. But other characters pose their own versions of how to go about this.      

 

During that fall of 1961, they were already talking about the upcoming Hud, which came out from Paramount in 1963 (dir. Martin Ritt) based on the Larry McMurty novel—as a technical exercise in visual exposition in black and white Cinemascope. Paul Newman plays as the 34-year-old Hud Bannon, at odds with his father Homer (Melvyn Douglas), and setting a bad example for his nephew played by Brandin de Wilde. Hud has already become cynical, ready to work out for number one about his “inheritance” after his father’s mistake threatens the family west Texas ranch with some bad Mexican cattle, threatening foot-and-mouth disease (reminding us of the early 2001 epidemic in Europe that started in a Scottish restaurant. There is a great line where Homer says to Hud, “You don’t care about people. You live for just yourself, and that makes you not fit to live with.” Again, how that fits into family values. In the end, Hud gets his ranch when his dad dies in a Cadillac crash and his nephew and others (Patricia Neal) have left. He is all alone, and the final shot almost seems to be shot on another planet.

 

An important little film that came to the Williamsburg theater that fall (1961) that I missed because of my November expulsion is Hiroshima mon Amour (1959, Argos/Janus/Criterion, dir. Alain Resnais) a little black-and-white foreign film about a French nurse (Emanuelle Riva) falling in love with a Japanese architect (Eiji Okada) 14 years after the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima.  The first scene shows their non-hairy bodies in embrace, covered with sand and then glitter. Soon the film becomes a vehicle for telling the story of the horror of the bomb, with many actual photos (including horrific injuries and subsequent birth deformities) as well as shots from the museum, as well as the open space at Ground Zero. It reminded me of my own walk through Auschwitz in 1999, as well as of 9/11.  Then the movie changes layers as she tells her story of her love with a German soldier during WWII.  Of course, his demise is predictable, and she finds herself ostracized over her forbidden love, just as in Splendor. But here, when the story is told years later almost as if it were third person, it is overshadowed by the horror of nuclear war, although WWII in France (the city Nevers) was not by itself compelling enough for her. This is a good place to mention The Atomic Café (1982, Libra, dir. Jayne Loader and Kevin Rafferty) which contains a collage of government “duck and cover” propaganda films from the 50s and 60s, where the government tried to dodge the idea that MAD (mutually assured destruction) was a threat to our survival. I saw this at the Inwood in Dallas. Peter Watkins in Britain would direct The War Game (1965, 48 min, Pathe/BBC) with a fictional account of nuclear war on a British city, where a scenario is presented in which the war in Vietnam escalates as China and then the Soviet Union enters in (a scenario which in retrospect can be argued as improbable by historians). There is a scene where a child says, in a nuked city, “I don’t want to do nuthin.” I saw this in 1967 on campus at the University of Kansas in Lawrence while a graduate student (before my own military service). (The War Game should not be confused with the MGM 1983 thriller film War Games.) The ultimate fictional scenario of nuclear war was dramatized by Stanley Kubrick (dir.) in the satire Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964, Columbia, bw, 93 min), which I would eventually see in a small theater on 8th St in NYC’s West Village. An insane general starts the wheels of war, leaving to comic meeting scenes where politicians try to stop it but get deeper into trouble (this is not Ted Koppel’s war gaming on “Nightline”) with the eventual scene where the general rides horseback on a “Sabre Jet” (that was a movie once) and makes his John Wayne calls as he goes downhill fast. The bw photography, especially of the icescapes from the military jets, is delicious. All of this helps explain the paranoia in my semester at William and Mary, when the Berlin Wall was set up with a major confrontation for Kennedy in October, 1961.  

 

Fail-Safe (1964, Columbia, dir. Sidney Lumet, novel by Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler) suggests that the U.S. and USSR had fail-safe systems where bombers with nuclear warheads could not be called back. There is a “mistake” and they can’t be. The Air Force pilots go on to Moscow, with their cyanide pellets and bombs. In one tearful scene, even the wife of a pilot can’t get him back. The United States offers New York City in return for Moscow, and at the end New York is destroyed by an American bomb, to prevent WWIII from going further. Henry Fonda is the president, and Walter Matthau is the dangerous professor. The film shows the intricacy of guided missile systems, that seemed clunky but that had a global reach that anticipates today’s Internet. The film is in icy black and white.

 

The Bedford Incident (1965m Columbia, dir. By James Harris, novel by Mark Rascovitch) sets up an encounter between an American destroyer and a Soviet submarine hiding among the icebergs that would have sunk the Titanic. There is a mad doctor on board (Martin Balsam) who is back in the Navy because he can’t stand home life and has multiple divorces. This was Sidney Poitier’s first film; Richard Widmark is in charge. At the end there is a delicious mushroom cloud.

 

On August 6, 2005, on the 60th anniversary of Hiroshima, The Discovery and Sundance channels presented the film Hiroshima: The First Weapon of Mass Destruction. The film reenacts the two days of the crew of the Enola Gay, commanded by Paul Tibbets, and shows actual and recreated footage of the aftermath of the atomic bomb explosions.

 

There have been several films about the development of the atomic bomb. One of the best is the little film Infinity (1996, First Look Pictures, 117 min PG-13, dir. Matthew Broderick, who plays physicist Richard Feynman, who aspires to become top physicist and joins the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos, NM, even as his wife’s (Patricia Arquette) health fails with tuberculosis. Broderick looks youthful and energetic throughout the movie.  He would eventually win a nobel prize in physics. Perhaps this film would inspire A Beautiful Mind years later. Another important film was Fat Man and Little Boy (1989, Paramount, dir. Roland Jaffe) starring Paul Newman as Gen. Leslie R. Groves and Dwight Schultz as J. Robert Oppenheimer. The movie title, of course, comes from the nicknames of the two bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki (the second of which used plutonium).  The Trials of J. Robert Oppenheimer” (2009) is a docudrama biography that aired on PBS, review link here.

 

A Streetcar Named Desire (1951, Warner Brothers, dir. Elia Kazan) is, of course, another classic Kazan film. In black-and-white and literally drawn from Tennessee William’s play, the film is very abstract and looks like a filmed play, almost intentionally. The only major technical difference is, of course, the opportunity for intense close-ups, one of the most remarkable being when card player Mitch (Karl Malden, who is creepy and unattractive by modern standards in the role) grabs Blanche Du Bois(Vivien Leigh) by the face and sees she is no sweet sixteen. (I remember once asking a neighbor middleager how old she was—I was about 13 then and had a teen-brain’s social sense—she said “16” when obviously she wasn’t). You wouldn’t get that on the stage—the furrows in the face come out of the woodwork “like a blob.” The sets are so well constructed for black-and-white—down to the clothes (the white mink stole) and female accoutrements—and then the sounds from the surrounding Big Easy come through (almost like they would later in Hitchcock’s “Rear Window”). Yes, there is a Desire street in New Orleans, and everybody wants to watch movies about New Orleans now that Katrina has happened, and a movie like this makes you feel the catastrophe, and want to see the city—a masterpiece of art--resurrected. (About the only outdoor scene is at the beginning when you see a steam train going near the levee along the Mississippi River, taking passengers—and I think there were oil cars for the port.) There is a streetcar, too, and Blanche boards it. I don’t know if it will be restored now. 

 

All of this temporal interest aside, however, we still come to the structure of the story. Present tense, most of the story deals with Blanche’s crashing in the home (probably not French Quarter) of her sister (Kim Hunter) and longshoreman husband (Marlon Brando – and the film gives us a good look at him as a young man). He becomes suspicious of her, pretty soon taking incessantly about Napoleonic law (apparently the case in Louisiana, and I don’t know if this affects the recovery today), which gives a husband a lot of control over a spouse’s property. This brings up the inner stories of Blanche’s troubled past. Her husband shot himself on the river after a party, and it seems like that was the result of his hidden homosexuality. Moreover, she, an English teacher (not too long after the days when teachers were expected to bring a “scuttle of coal” to the classroom – see the “teacher’s certification exam from 1895”) has had an affair with a 17-year-old (male) student. Now teacher-student is absolutely taboo, although the student may have been at legal consent age. The trouble is, she just tells these stories in various scenes, especially to Mitch as well as sometimes (defending herself) to Stanley Kowalski (that is, Marlon Brando). The really interesting story would have been to act these out in real time. (See “Student Seduction” below.)

 

Now, the DVD today is a director’s cut, which would be PG-13 by today’s standards (and I rather suspect many English teachers use the play and film today in high school, certainly in the 11th Grade when American literature is taught). But many passages (including those about homosexuality as well as the supposed “rape” scene perpetrated mildly by Mitch) were cut to fit the 1951 production code. In those days, there were many unmentionable things. The script uses the words “gay” (at one point Blanche says she looks “gay”—whatever that meant in Southern society around 1950) and “straight” in ambiguous ways, as several times Mitch taunts her as to whether she has gone “straight.

 

The Glass Menagerie (1973, ABC, dir. Anthony Harvey, play by Tennessee Williams). There have been several television and film adaptations, but the 1973 stage-film version allows us to watch Katherine Hepburn give a riveting performance as matriarch mother Amanda Wingfield. Williams can take simple situations in an earlier generation (early in the 20th Century) and make them compelling by modern standards. Her son Tom (Sam Waterson) aspires to become a successful writer, is bored with his blue collar job at a warehouse, and spends many nights at the movies (looking for vicarious “adventure”), staying out late, to the consternation and disapproval of his mother, who has already discarded a D. H. Lawrence book as unsuitable to be in her home.  She wants Tom to take filial duty to protect his “peculiar” younger sister Laura (Joanna Miles), who is so nervous that she vomited while appearing at a church function. Tom would escape all of this only by getting married himself, something he is disinclined to do until he can succeed in life on his own terms. So Tom arranges a gentleman caller Jim O’Connor (Michael Moriartiy). But even this goes bust: Jim tries to lift Laura’s spirits, but then reveals that he is already engaged to marry another girl. Amanda is disappointed again at Tom’s filial insensitivity and ineffectiveness in participation in family matters. Tom goes out again to the movies. I think I have a lot more in common with dreamy character Tom than Jim. One can imagine an essay assignment where a student is asked to compare himself or herself to each character, and that would be particularly provocative.

 

Suddenly, Last Summer (1959, Columbia, dir. Joseph L. Mamkiewicz, prod. Sam Spiegel, based on a play by Tennessee Williams, screenplay with assistance of Gore Vidal, 113 min, PG-13, bw) is a cunning treatment by Tennessee Williams of some of the “spiritual” evolution of male homosexuality, as viewed in disguised form by other family members, in a story brilliantly layered. Wealthy Louisiana widow Mr. Violet Venable (Katherine Hepburn) wants to cover up the family embarrassment of her only-child son’s violent death on the coast of Spain and her niece’s insanity. The niece Catherine (Elizabeth Taylor) went insane when traveling with the son, her cousin, Sebastian, when she saw his death. Violet has arranged probate so that Catherine can only get her share of the inheritance money (from her husband) if she undergoes a lobotomy. The early and middle part of the movie have scenes in the asylum, some of them shocking, as when the “god damn MP’s” grab her gams from below as she stands and watches them on a balcony. Later there is a scene where another insane patient rocks a wicker chair and makes a disconcerting sound effect on everyone. The psychiatrist (Montgomery Clift) tries to be a go between but develops an affection for Catherine. Gradually, Catherine will be induced to disclose what really happened to Sebastian (whose face is never shown). He had discovered a gay beach, and enjoyed himself as a voyeur. Yet he had been self-righteous in his celibacy. He had found in his own life a view of “God” (probably through his homosexual aesthetics), and had separated himself from the family and tribal values of his mother, to her great consternation (the reaction of mothers to the alien values of apparently gay sons is a common theme in Williams plays—one which makes them touchy items for English teachers, even as they are great literary masterpieces). The young men start chasing him and are joined by young boys, often playing ragtag homemade musical instruments (as if for a march from a Mahler symphony). They chase him through the city and trap him, chasing him up a hill. He had been rumored to die of a heart attack, but she reveals that they swarmed on him like “The Birds” (to refer to the famous Hitchcock film—my analogy), and apparently stripped him for some kind of endstage sadomasochistic ritual, which is not shown but for which there are some visual foreshadowing clues. I suppose that there is some parallel to this and my own story in the first chapter of my DADT book, except that I was the one to go to the mental institution.

 

Actually, the mob uprising against Sebastian might lend itself to another interpretation. That is, he demonstrated a voyeuristic interest in male beauty (on the beach), in the idea that he could publish his own aesthetic standards for men upon the world. Some men take that is judgmental and adversarial. At least, he would ignore everyone else, and leave them out in the cold. So the urchins of the world wanted to get and demand his attention. They resented his “attitude” (of indifferent contempt toward them) and so they rose up to expel him. And in doing so they stripped and killed him. This is perhaps a rite of passage, to make him a “normal” man, a tribunal which he failed. So he passes. Maybe he is not even saved. In the end, this is truly a horror movie.

 

This is one of the most garish black-and-white films ever made. Imagine the flora around the Louisiana home where the viewer has to imagine all the color. But this is a film that must be in black and white. The symphonic music score is by British composer Malcolm Arnold and seems to include music from his symphonies. The movie should be remastered for Sony or Dolby Digital and shown in repertory houses.

 

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1984, Showtime/Imagine, dir. Jack Hofsiss) is one of Tennessee Williams’s most skilled studies of sexual repression. This DVD is a pretty literal stage-like rendition, with some added material to deal with the sexual issues. It starts out slowly with Mrs. Maggie Pollitt (Jessica Lange) who is dealing with her handsome husband Brick’s (Tommy Lee Jones, looking younger) recent lack of sexual interest. Brick is on crutches, as visual symbol of the decline of his old competitive masculinity as a jock and football player (he is a sportscaster). They are still childless. Brick joins in the conversation, and soon his father, as they gathering at the father’s plantation. Her father (“Big Daddy”) is dying of colon cancer, which they first talk about as a “spastic colon.” The characters talk like plain folk as they have to deal with difficult medical and social concepts. Williams was a master of showing how ordinary people have to overcome cognitive barriers to grasp what is really going on around them. In the middle of the play (as expanded from earlier versions), Brick and dad have a conversation about his homosexuality (even mentioning sodomy), how it grew out of a close friendship and seem to be a natural extension, more natural in his mentation than marriage, which has degenerated into a social obligation. This sounds like a chilling rewrite of conservations that I had as a naïve freshman at William and Mary.

 

The 1958 film (1958, MGM, dir. Richard Brooks, 108 min) opens up a little, and compresses out the literal references to homosexuality, but instead gains its effectiveness with Maggie’s dissatisfaction with her not having children and with Brick’s (Paul Newman) lack of romantic interest. The opening scene shows Brick breaking his leg while drunk. Elizabeth Taylor carries this film as “The Cat” Maggie. Burl Ives is Big Daddy, who admits in a basement conversation with Brick that he had his kids to live vicariously through them, but feels more that he owns them rather than loves them. There is a the great line “mendacity is the system that we live in” and later “truth is something desperate.” Also, Brick tells his dad that for him, “Love is just another four letter word.” And they make it clear that Maggie really knows what Brick’s “problem” is. It is arguable that the point of all of this gets more powerful because it is not explicitly stated, and in the 1950s it usually could not be. Is it the mark of a writer to imply the brutal truth without spelling it out? Even though the film belongs to Sony/MGM, WB is distributing the new DVD. 

 

Baby Doll (1956, Warner Bros., dir. Elia Kazan, orig. screenplay by Tennessee Williams, 111 min), was Williams’s first original screenplay and created quite a furor at its time. Caroll Baker plays a 19-year-old bride in an old house in Benoit, MS with no furniture, and she sleeps in a baby crib and sucks her thumb. She refuses to consummate her marriage with her repulsive husband Archie (Karl Malden), who has made enemies in town and gets his cotton gin burned down—until her twentieth birthday, a few days hence, and he is challenged to make it that far. She makes fun of his visual physical inadequacy (his bald head) and seems to be attacking his manly worthiness. But a rival Silva (Eli Wallach) goes for his business and his wife. In the middle of the film, Silva moves in on her in some scenes (one on an outdoor swing) that were considered pornographic at the time, but modest today. Cardinal Spellman claimed that Catholics who saw the film were committing a sin. But what probably upset most people was the undoing of Archie, a depiction of a family man’s emasculation because he just ain’t got it.  At the end, he goes for revenge and is brought down by the cops. Carroll Baker claims that her reputation was sullied by the film.  

 

A Raisin in the Sun (1961, Columbia, dir. Daniel Petire, from the play by Lorraine Hansberry, black-and-white, 124 min, PG) presents a black family headed by Walter Younger (Sidney Poitier) and his wife Lena (Claudia McNeal) living in a cramped Chicago apartment. When mother (Ruby Dee) gets $10000 from a life insurance policy, the family fights her matriarchy with its own plans for the money. The early part of the film presents confrontations between Mother and other family members over values, as her religious faith and the desire of younger people to bring other “ideas” into the house, including women going out in the world on their own. Mother is more interested in preserving her family even if it means acquiescing to old-fashioned ideas that may oppress other African Americans. There is one scene where a white man visits the family and tries to argue why they should not move into a white neighborhood. By 1961 segregation had become “kinder and gentler” after Brown v. Board of Education. This play is often on high school reading lists today.

 

ABC Television aired a new TV movie of the play directed by Kenny Leon (3 hours), on Feb. 25, 2008. Alexandra Cheron, Sean Combs, Sanaa Lathan, Justin Martin. 

 

The Rose Tattoo (1955, Paramount, dir. Daniel Mann, 116 min, prob PG-13) is an early film in black-and-white VistaVision, and looks very sharp and clear. It is a Tennessee Williams eclectic admixture aiming to score social points. An Italian-American Serafina Delle Rose (Anna Maganini) loses her husband when he is shot by police smuggling, and she mourns. Her daughter (Marissa Pavan) meets a wholesome sailor Jack Hunter (Ben Cooper) and Serafina meets a trucker, Burt Lancaster, who woos her. To connect back to her earlier spouse, he visits a parlor in New Orleans and has the artist etch a rose tattoo (despite the film’s BW) in the most sensitive area of his chest, right in the middle. Of course, this would have required the famous macho actor to shave his chest to be absolutely baby smooth. But that was always common; the public didn’t see that much of mother nature in those days, given the production codes, anyway. There is dialogue about arranged marriage and the proper social roles. 

 

A recent treatment of the “Splendor in the Grass” story is Stateside (2004, Samuel Goldwyn, dir. Reverge Anselmo, starring Jonathan Tucker, Rachel Leigh Cook, and Val Kilmer).  Here a rich kid Mark (Tucker) joins the Marines in 1980 to get our of a jail sentence (the military is not likely to do that today) after a DUI conviction, but then falls in love with Dori (Cook), who has been institutionalized. The story is a bit convoluted here, as it is through another girl friend Sue (Agnes Bruckner, from Blue Car) who lost her teeth in the accident and who is committed (and then in a halfway house) that he meets Dori. Sue, in fact, has become a kind of Magdelene Sister for having written sexually explicit letters.  The film has explicit scenes of Marine basic training, and sometimes the drill sergeants go over the line (as with stapling Mark’s finger on the rifle range). Eventually, Mark will be wounded in the terrorist attack in Beirut in 1983, although that all happens offstage.

 

Gardens of Stone (1987, TriStar, dir. Francis Ford Coppola, 111 min, R) A sergeant (James Caan) stationed at Fort Meyer’s Old Guard (“toy soldiers”) transfers to Fort Bragg (or Benning) to train cannon fodder in Vietnam. There are interesting scenes of barracks life, and a nice shot of Arlington Cemetery in snow. I was stationed at Fort Meyer South Post for duty in the Pentagon in the Summer of 1968. There’s a great line about asexual reproduction in worms. The only Vietnam footage is newsclips.  

 

Another variation of the Splendor theme appears with the notorious The Virgin Suicides (Paramount Classics, 1999, 97 min, R, dir. Sofia Coppola [Lost in Translation], which Roger Ebert characterizes as a retelling or re-adaptation of the Australian film Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), and it is also based on a novel Jeffrey Eugenides. It starts with the suicide of 13 year old Cecila Lisbon, but will eventually lead to similar tragedy for her four older sisters. The centerpiece of the story is the romance between Trip Fontaine (Josh Harnett) and  Lux Lisbon (Kirsten Dunst), against the wishes of her overbearing and moralistic parents played by James Woods and Kathleen Turner. Hartnett, at 21, with his boyish long-haired male swagger, looks as tempting, dashing and unstoppable as ever (this may be his best performance until Hollywood Homicides), and the love scenes could have been handled with more suspense. When Lux returns home from a multiple date (with the other sisters and boys in the film) after curfew (around 5 AM) the parents explode. There is one pathetic scene where her mother makes her burn her rock records (I was an avid classical record collector as a teenager). The tragedy will follow in docudrama fashion, and I don’t think it is as mysterious as some critics claim. Trip is also the omniscient observer for the film, and his own narration shows that he did not turn out well as an adult—a film about his troubles could have been interesting and fit into the style of TheWB.

 

Another film to play on teen suicides is Heathers (1989, New World/Lakeshore, dir. Michael Lehmann) where Veronica (Winona Ryder) means up with Jason Dean (Christian Slater) and starts “arranging” teen suicides of her rivals (the Heahters), one of which is a particularly graphic poisoning. Rather pointless.

 

The Notebook (2004, 120 min, PG-13, New Line Cinema, dir. Nick Cassavetes, wr. Jeremy Levenand Jan Sardi, based on the novel by Nicholas Sparks) seems like a combination of Harlequin Romance, soap opera, Titanic, Terms of Endearment, and Splendor in the Grass—all of those. It has the look of an indie film, something you would see from Focus or Lions Gate rather than one of the “big studios.” The film opens in a nursing home as Noah Calhoun (James Garner) is reading a story from a notebook to Allie Nelson, Gena Rowlands. Allie is slipping into Alzheimer’s disease, and no longer remembers her earlier romance, but can understand the retelling of her own history. Now, her lost forbidden love was one that crossed class lines. Her old money Southern parents forbade her to see young Noah (Ryan Gosling) because of his “proletariat” social status of working in a lumber yard. Noah, though, will be as fine a young man as you could see (Gosling plays the role with all possible charisma), and it becomes clear that his practical construction talents (he rebuilds a Tara-like home that he inherits) would have earned plenty of New Money in the boomtown coastal South Carolina that would have marked his adulthood.  Noah will go to war (World War II), Allie to a finishing college, and both will meet other partners—so we set up the inevitable clashes and beats for the story to follow. But with a Romeo and Juliet story like this, you know that the virtue we root for is love for its own sake, for the happiness of the partners, not for “family building” or building of a future family hierarchy or kinfolk a la the writings of Maggie Gallagher. So, curiously, this film helps make a case for gay marriage, with 100% heterosexual context. 

 

The Believer (2001, 99 Min, R, Lions Gate/Palm/Fireworks, dir. Henry Bean) presents the often gentle Ryan Gosling here as the Jew Danny Balint turned neo-Nazi white Supremacist skinhead. The story unfolds in non-linear fashion and jumps around into flashbacks trying desperately to rehearse his conversion in various soliloquies. The best explanation is a bad experience in synagogue, where a rabbi chides him for questioning authority and accusing him of being someone who would have worshiped the Golden Calf (aka. Schoenberg’s opera Moses und Aaron). But the self-lectures are titillating indeed. Early on, Danny accuses the “Jew” as someone who shuns “real life” (with penetrative heterosexual performance) in favor of creating “abstraction” – a space of intellectual belief and invention through which one can control mere “average Joes.” Later, Danny accuses the Jews of creating their own oppression so they can be the “chosen people,” which seems a bit contradictory to the earlier idea that the Jews demean procreation.  This film had great difficulty getting distribution. 

 

The Slaughter Rule (2002, Sundance Films, 116 min, R, dir. Alex and Andrew J. Smith) presents Ryan Gosling as Roy Chutney in a teenage coming of age drama in the Montana countryside, where the high plains and buttes change to mountains, around Great Falls. The film is in full Panavision format, and the steely wide screen winter landscapes are breathtaking. In a few cases, the wide screen seems to hamper effective close up shots of the central characters. The story seems contrived but Gosling’s jump-out-of-the-screen performance pulls it off. Roy loses his father to an apparent suicide on the railroad tracks, then is cut from the varsity football team, but is invited to head up a six-man football team by codger Gideon Ferguson (David Morse). Roy becomes loyal to him while falling in love with an older woman, Skyla (Chea DuVall). But gradually Gid’s intentions become problematic, as does his past. He has an interest in teenage men that borders on pedophilia, and in the past that led to at least one tragedy. This film did not have wide release (it was on Showtime) because of the edgy subject matter.  I have wondered myself about movie industry policies on showing or implying legally underage sex; the “Age of Consent” in Montana is 18, and Roy is apparently 17 in the story. The “Slaughter Rule” refers to stopping a game when the score is lopsided enough.

 

I recommend visiting http://www.ageofconsent.com

 

The Door in the Floor (2004, Focus/Revere, T, 111 minutes, dir. Tod Williams, based on the first third of the novel A Widow for One Year by John Irving) looked, in the previews in trailers, a lot like another “The Notebook.”  The title of the movie suggests a kind of mystery or hidden horror. In fact, it is much more daring, exploiting the sexual possibilities in the dramatic situation, that seems a bit contrived. A children’s book author Ted Cole (Jeff Bridges), separating from his wife Marion (Kim Basinger) hires a young prep-school intern Eddie (Jon Foster) to spend the summer at his Hamptons beach estate. (The movie title is that of one of his stories, as a mystery to frighten children.) Well, he and his wife are trading use of the house every dat to take care of 4-year-old Ruth, and they have lost two teenage sons in a mysterious earlier tragedy that you suspect Ted had something to do with causing.

 

Eddie is interning because he is considering becoming a “writer.” Now I have a problem with that: you don’t become a writer for the hell of it (something more specific like a journalist, yes!) You write when you have something to say. But not Ted. He has given up writing mainstream novels to become an “entertainer of children.” (He is also pretty good at watercolors and drawings.) Ted needs an assistant partly because he does not have a computer and does not know how to use one. (A likely story!)  There is one conversation where Ted evaluates one of Eddie’s stories and talks about plot “manipulation” to keep the reader hooked.

 

It seems, though, that Eddie was hired also as a kind of domestic helper. He gets involved legitimately in the child care of Ruth (there is one edgy scene where he is about to give her a bath), a responsibility that could be a surprise and inappropriate. He drives for the couple (Ted’s license is suspended). He seems thoughtful and studious. But the catch is, of course, coming of age. When Marion sees his using fetish objects, and affair between the teenager and older woman ensues. Yup, you guessed it. But the interesting thing is the cinematography of it all. Eddie is the only young, attractive adolescent-to-adult character in the movie. There are no young, attractive women. The camera dawdles on Eddie, demonstrating that he has reached the optimum beat in the late spring of his life—the shaggy legs but smooth chest. Soon his body will move on to “summer.”

 

The end of the film does suggest a sequel. This, after all, is just part of a novel.

 

A Walk to Remember (2002, Warner Bros/DiNovi, 95 min, PG-13, dir. Nicholas Sparks, based on his novel) was shown during Thanksgiving week on TheWB as a break from Smallville, and it fits into TheWB theme of teen dramas. A high school misfit and underachiever Landon Carter (Shane West) gradually falls in love with minister’s daughter Jamie Sullivan (Mandy Moore), and she will tame him (as George Will writes, “women tame men!”)  The story starts as if it were about how to get into showbiz, and that is what attracted me. Carter gets community service after his indirect involvement in a diving-dare prank that seriously injures another high school student, and one of his assignments is to act in a school play Thorton’s Way.  There are other assignments like tutoring a special education student in geometry (that student is made to look like a stereotyped minority, which was a bit of a drag)—which Carter manages to do on the basketball court. At one place, it seems like Carter is “smart” but will not graduate. But he starts to warm up to acting because he warms up to Mandy. Now, the screenplay kind of drops the acting theme in the middle as he moves into a Romeo and Juliet type romance with Mandy. Her reverend “religious right” father (Peter Coyote) will have none of it. There is an enchanted evening where they go to dinner, then “camping” to look at the stars through her telescope. They lay together, his shirt undone on a youthful chest, and you wonder if it will “happen.” No, the story takes another twist, as we learn soon of Jamie’s tragic secret, and then the movie is a bit like Ryan O’Neal’s Love Story. Carter is totally humbled, marries her for one enchanted summer before she passes, but then goes to college and gets into medical school. So a film that I thought would be a bit like a Garden State turns into something more like Splendor in the Grass, but with a redeeming ending, where you really like Carter and admire him. There are many missed opportunities, where the film could have taken one thread further than it did. Instead, Sparks seems content to leave these threads to other novelists and screenwriters for other scripts. 

 

Asylum (2005, Paramount Classics/Seven Arts, dir. David MacKenzie) is a British soap opera/thriller about the wife (Stella, played by Natasha Richardson) of the superintendent of a British mental hospital in the 1950s, an affection starved lady (her husband [Hugh Bonneville] is apparently impotent) who falls in love with one of the mental patients (Marton Csokas), who does occupational therapy on the hospital grounds and who had hacked his own wife to death. The sex scenes are steamy, and soon she gets herself and her husband into trouble, as he escapes and she goes on trysts to see him in London. He will get fired after the scandal, but the the “MP” (Edgar, that is) follows and stalks her to a new job in Wales. Complications follow: the little son drowns, and she winds up in the asylum herself, where the head shrink (Ian McKellen) tries to capture her. There will be eventual suicide, and she doesn’t black out into nothingness all at once. Perhaps her soul is not worth saving, as she has no life left. The film has the opportunity to contrast life “on the outside” with institutionalized life (in the beginning she is told that her participation in hospital affairs is “expected”), but misses the mark. The “on the outside” phrase was said a lot when I was a patient at N.I.H. in 1962, but the pace events on a real mental ward tends to go slow, although there are screams and emergency sedative injections in the middle of the night.

 

The Tunnel (“Der Tunnel”) (2001, HVE/Avatar/Teamworx, Germany, dir. Roland Suso Richter, R, 160 min) is being shown in a platform release in 2005 in numerous cities. This is a riveting (the 2-1/2 hours pass quickly) film about some an East German swimmer (Harry Melchior, played by Heino Ferch) and some of his friends (such as Matthis Hiller, played by Sebastian Koch) who build a 350-meter-long tunnel under the new Berlin wall in late 1961 and early 1962, to help other family members (especially Harry’s sister and baby) escape. The film does make a lot of blood loyalty to siblings. The plot becomes reflexive when NBC offers them money to film the building of the tunnel. There are harrowing scenes, as when an East German teenager is shot trying to escape over the wall and Matthis wants to help him. He is left to die in a scene that is pure horror and collectivist evil. At the end, family members and little kids slide through the wet tunnel, and you feel you call pull them out of the Cinemascope screen. This is an ambitious, epic historical film and it is surprising it has not had wider release. The length comes in large part from the lack of editing cuts; the release is indeed a “director’s cut.” The opening scene is in an East Berlin natatorium, and it appears that reds, at least in those days, did not shave down for swimming contests.

 

The history is important. (For a summary see the CIA reference: http://www.cia.gov/csi/books/17240/art-1.html ) The Berlin Wall was started around Aug 12, 1961, because the commies wanted to keep the East Berliners in. It was finished quickly, with Checkpoint Charlie built. The U.S, and Soviets had tank confrontations near the checkpoint around Oct. 27, 1961.  That incident was the most serious confrontation to happen besides the Cuban Missile Crisis (of 1962). All of this history took place just before and during the period of my William and Mary freshman attendance, expulsion for “homosexuality” and then mildly reparative therapy at NIH in 1962 (see “Asylum” above). Personal and world history come together.  

 

The Grass Harp (1996, Fine Line, dir. Charles Matthau, 107 min, PG) is based on a gentle novella by Truman Capote that seems like an autobiographical fantasy of his own teenage years and of how became not just a writer but storyteller.(I used to think it was called “The Glass Harp”.) A young Collin Fenwick (Ed Furlong) goes to live with his father’s cousins after his mother’s death, in 1930s Alabama. The story line seems pretty superficial, as one of the aunts has developed a cure for “dropsy” and people are trying to take it away from her. Collin hosts her in the family tree house with other plantation help. The plot is rather like that of a Shakespeare comedy. This is one of those movies that high school English teachers like to hand out video worksheets for to make the kids pay attention to details. What is interesting is Collin’s yielding, cooperative, and psychologically feminine objective personality.  That was the true Capote, before he found his real creativity. (A film “Capote” directed by Bennett Miller will be released in late 2005).   And as a storyteller he seems in this gentle film to have no great pretensions.

 

The Most Dangerous Game (1932, RKO Radio, dir. Irving Pickel and Ernest B. Schoedach, story by Richard Connell and screenplay adaptation by James Ashmore Creelman, 63 min, PG) is one of the most famous early film adaptations of an adventure story, in this case a story often found in high school literature anthologies and used as an example of how to write exciting fiction. The story is a bit hyperbolic and campy, and in one place the evil Count Zaroff (the alternate title is “The Hounds of Zaroff” and Zaroff is played by Leslie Banks) (in the story) goes on a racist tirade that sounds shocking to modern readers. The accepted title of the movie and story is a pun: the game is a pursuit, and the game is man himself, because of the possibility of “brains over brawn.”  Shipwrecked on an island, Rober Rainsford (Joel McCrea) finds the Count’s haunt, along with a potential damsel in distress, Eve Trowbridge (Fay Wray). The evil Count explains the hunt and that Rober (and the damsel) will be prey—after Eve finds the skull of her brother. The second half of the film comprises the chase, and at several critical points Rober has to figure out how to get out of trouble with the environmental jungle resources around him (for example, the “Malay Tiger Trap”). The Count sends the hounds after him, and Rober, at the critical point where he has to jump into the water (he had better be able to swim well, and help her swim against a current), he uses the attack dogs to his advantage. Finally, he confronts the Count in the chateau for a spectacular climax.

 

The film had David O. Selznick as an executive producer (seven years before “Gone with the Wind”). The black and white photography in the chase scenes is spectacular in its abstraction; one feels that one is watching a woodcut in animation. The fog and the swamps and the alligator are especially delicious to watch. The story does not necessarily say that brains is always more important than strength; rather that the must go together. One wonders if this film helped inspire the modern show “Smallville” on TheWB (the way the teenage Clark Kent is developed, as rather like Rainsford). The Count seems to map out to Tony De Mera in the NBC soap opera “Days of our Lives” where the island sequences are similar (the likeable CIA agent character Patrick would correspond to Rainsford). This material is often taught in high school English and also in film school as a major example of adaptation (where the screenwriter changes the story to increase its box office appeal). The story is all popcorn and has some holes, yet today it is more interesting to professional filmmakers than it is to the kids. See also Apocalypto, link below.

 

This film figures into the story of the 2007 thriller from David Fincher, Zodiac (see below).

 

Fermat’s Room (“La habitacion de Fermat”, IFC / Porto / BocaBoca, dir. Luis Piedrahita and Rodrigo Sopeña, 89 min, R, Spain) has four mathematicians put in a room that will slowly implode as they solve the riddle of why they were summoned; similar in theme to the “Dangerous Game” story. Blogger.

 

Good Night, and Good Luck (2005, Warner Independent Pictures/2929, dir. George Clooney, 93 min, PG) is a delicious black-and-white account of how CBS correspondent Edward R. Murrow (David Straitharn) took on Senator Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s. The title of the film was his signoff signature. And great to watch this film is. You are really at the movies with this film. You see correspondents smoking as they report—a practice that was socially renowned then. You even see framed TV cigarette commercials. You see lipstick, and have to fill in the color yourself. (I’m not sure why the end credits mention Technicolor for a black-and-white film—someone may want to email me about that.)

 

More important, of course, is the film’s message about free speech and the First Amendment, and its rendition of the anti-Communist paranoia of the 1950s, a time when I was in middle and high school, and a cultural environment that help set up my own William and Mary expulsion. Early on, Murrow interviews Liberace, and teases him about when he will get married—and from the course of the conversation it is obvious to a modern audience that Murrow “knows” and is talking around Liberace’s barely hidden homosexuality. Then we get with the McCarthy hearings, much of which center around military witch-hunts where Communist associations equate to gay associations today wih “don’t ask don’t tell.” An Air Force officer is being cashiered because of some nebulous association with left-wing elements by other family members. Yes, in those days other blood family members could bring you down. Murrow’s reporting (“See It Now”) gets the Air Force to recount and eventually brings McCarthy himself. McCarthy is always shown in old news tapes that are in surprisingly good condition. George Clooney plays Fred Friendly. Eventually, CBS has a layoff, where in one case a married couple is told that married couples cannot work at CBS and one of them has to go. In the paranoia of the times, your private life mattered a lot, and you could be fired and blackballed for not signing loyalty oaths and affidavits. Finally, Murrow is called in and told his show is being downsized because it doesn’t make money. People don’t want to get stomach aches from all of this politics when they just want to be entertained. (I remember Dinah Shore.)  Murrow argues that an informed public will help protect the country and the corporations who pay for the shows.

 

Murrow stuck his neck out, all right. At one point, his boss tells him that CBS is pay for his house and his son’s education. They play the family-loyalty-to-blood card. But he paid his dues in a time when television was seen as a revolutionary way to affect public opinion. Today the World Wide Web does that, and you can affect opinion without paying your dues, so the comparison gets complicated. But in all of these cases it is the ability to see logical flaws in other people’s thinking and force people to face them that seems like a unique gift, and gives the journalist/writer his purpose driven life.

 

PBS did a documentary on Murrow in its “American Masters” series. He said that McCarthy was not responsible for the wrongdoing in the system, but that Tall Gunner Joe had taken advantage of the system’s flaws.

 

Point of Order (1964, New Yorker Films, dir and compiled by Emile de Antonio and Daniel Talbot, 96 min) is a collection of live hearings (the film title refers of course to parliamentary procedure and Robert’s Rules of Order) conducted to implicate Tall Gunner Joe – Senator Joseph McCarty in the 50s, this time for ordering favored treatment for a draftee Army private David Schine. Early on, McCarthy charges that the Army is corrupted by Communists and homosexuals, who are somehow in cahoots. Yet Roy Cohn, looking very dapper and gay, often testifies, and they often talk about their favorite “fag” J. Edgar Hoover. They talk in circles and quibbles, and somehow you get the feeling that they all know.

 

Capote (2005, United Artists/Sony Pictures Classics/A-line, dir. Bennett Miller, based on the biography book by Gerald Clarke, and also on the nonfiction book In Cold Blood by Truman Capote, 114 min, R, Canada) is a compelling rendition of the intellectual, psychological and most of all social process of Truman’s writing his famous “nonfiction novel” (which he calls his new literary form; in a sense my own first “Do Ask Do Tell” book is similar, however autobiographical). Truman is played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, and he does come across with the stereotypical “queer” mincing, mannered effeminacy, perhaps lisping (in the Army they would say “lithtp”). People say Capote was like this, however incorrect this stereotype is for gay men in general. Actually, his manner is so honest that he seemed to be accepted in late 50s/early 60s society, a world that was not afraid to arrest and blackball “queers” from most professions, or expel them from school (as happened to me).  The movie starts with an “offensive joke” from Capote about a “Negro homosexual” doing a “Jew” and he actually gets away with it.

 

The main event is, of course, the mass murder (in an unsuccessful burglary of a family in western Kansas by Perry Smith (Clifton Collins. Jr.) and Richard Hickock (Mark Pellegrino); their trial, death sentence, appeals, and eventual hanging. So, yes, this is also a movie that deals with capital punishment, although somewhat tangentially. The real point is that the two killers were not just curiosity objects to Capote; he cared about them and bonded with them and gained their confidence, especially Perry Smith. And that relates to Capote’s success as a writer in the older meaning of the term; he really cared about people (in Rosenfels parlance he was a “subjective feminine:”) and used literature as a way to reach out to them. Capote assumed professional stature in a time when being a writer meant something exalted, the way kids would learn about it in high school English; at one point Harper (below) refers to “your publisher,” as if every writer had a publisher set up to whom he or she was accountable. No more today.

 

Along the way there are many interesting sidebars in this widescreen film. His agent (Chris Cooper) bonds with him, too. He meets Nelle Harper Lee (Catherine Keener), who has written To Kill a Mockingbird, which becomes a movie during the timespan of this movie. In another sequence, Capote visits the prisoners in the local jail, and finds the Sheriff’s residence connected to the jail cell. In still another interesting visual sequence, the prisoners are gradually undressed and photographed, with many tattoos covering a hairless body. We come to learn that one of the prisoners is half native American, and this stimulates Capote’s concern with social justice and how people turn out.

 

Infamous (2006, Warner Independent Pictures, dir. Douglas McGrath, book by George Plimpton, 110 min, R) is another account of the Capote career, and a good example of what happens in the movie business when there are two good treatments or adaptations of a major historical or literary event circulating at the same time. This one is less expansive (it is not in Cinemascope) and is more “intimate,” focusing on a boudoir look with onscreen interviews. Toby Jones plays Capote, and is even more effeminate and mincing than was Hoffman. ("Everybody knows THAT.") Sandra Bullock is Harper Lee, Sigourney Weaver is Babe, Gwyneth Paltrow is Peggy, Gore Vidal is Michael Panes, and the Lee Pace and Danile Craig play Hickock and Smith. The film makes the same point that Capote is a writer, not a journalist, and that was a real profession in those days. And the film takes his polarized, Rosenfelsian personal relationship with Smith even further, to the point that, after a near rape, Smith breaks and admits that Truman is the only person in his life who ever “loved” him. The whole relationship starts, ironically, when Smith at first rejects Capote's writings as unsympathetic ("dispassionate") about people and fears that Capote will treat him as an object in his planned new book. The film tries to explain the political problems with two men “loving” each other, all the while talking about “queers” with 50s style vocabulary. Truman, of course, rises above this and is trusted. The "hang 'em high" capital punishment scenes of the two killers at the end are quite graphic, as one of them takes a long time to die.

 

Jane Eyre (1996, Miramax, dir. Franco Zeffirelli, novel by Charlotte Bronte, 115 min, PG-13) shows a much darker “period piece” world that Jane Austen’s. Orphaned young Jane Eyre (Anna Paquin) is put into a charity boarding school and taught “morality.” She is punished for letting her hair curl, and is accused of “vanity.” She thinks she is following her own nature, and the headmaster tells her she must overcome her inborn vices. Sound like a familiar argument? Fiona Shaw is the evil aunt Mrs. Reed, and Charlotte Gainsbourg is the young woman Jane.  

 

There is a more recent TV miniseries (240 min) from the BBC, directed by Susanna White, broadcast on PBS as Masterpiece Theater in January 2007. The spooky scenes with the fortune telling lead to the attic, and it looks like poor Edward has had his chest ripped open by a vampire, almost like in a horror film. Ruth Wilson and Toby Stephens. Here is the link: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/masterpiece/janeeyre/index.html  

 

The Magdalene Sisters (2002, Miramax, dir. Peter Mullan, R, 119 min) has four Irish nun sisters imprisoned in the Magdalene Sisters Asylum, to cure them of their various religious sins, including flirting (Bernadette), getting raped or having a child out of wedlock. They work at grueling tasks such as manual laundry while trying to keep their humanity. The film seems to explore the idea that another’s moral order can be imposed on someone by force with no choice.   

 

Tea and Sympathy (1956, MGM, dir. Vincente Minmelli, play by Robert Anderson, 122 min, PG-13) is a gaudy – CinemaScope and MetroColor – exposition of the social problems of adolescent male non-conformity in the conformist society of McCarthyism. John Kerr plays Tom Robinson Lee, a sensitive and (by modern standards) very likeable seventeen year old boy at a boarding prep school, who would rather listen to classical records than roughhouse with the boys on the beach and play football. (He is good at individual sports – tennis.) They call him “sister boy” – an acceptable euphemism in the 1950s for “sissy boy.”  He stays in a rooming house run by a faculty wife Laura Reynolds (Deborah Kerr). His own father eggs him on, and even forces him to back out of a supposedly effeminate role in a school play.  The boys make him come to a beach pajama party (like the William and Mary “tribunals”) and rip the clothes off of his beautiful body. Laura becomes protective of the boy as he resists efforts by others to make him conform to “tribal” values. Many scenes in the play develop the idea that groups impose conformity and cultural loyalty on their members out of a sense of collective self-preservation. In one sequence, Tom's roommate plans to move out of Laura's boarding house to get away from Tom because of peer and even family pressure not to be seen associating with a possible "queer" (by inference) and Laura talks the boy out by suggesting that she could spread rumors about him. (This echoes what my situation was in the dorm in 1961 at William and Mary.) Tom gets into real trouble when, under pressure, he tries to visit a prostitute, and she says he has soft hands, like a “girl’s.” The campus police pick him up and he may be expelled by the Dean. We don’t find out whether he was expelled.  In the meantime, Laura has developed great affection for him, to the point that her own marriage crumbles. There is a critical scene in the woods where Tom has fled and Laura finds him, and Tom all but admits latent homosexuality, and yet Laura seems even more drawn to him (they have kissed a few times). Years later, Tom has written a novel about the affair, and reads an unmailed letter from Laura; she is not better off being alone. The writing in this play is not quite as edgy or angry as it is in Tennessee Williams’s plays about hidden homosexuality, but it probes even deeper into the effect that others believe that the lack of one person’s conformity can have on them. The movie definitely makes young Tom look like he is "right" (and the others are "wrong") and he even says so.  Also Leif Erickson and Edward Andrews (as super conformist Tom’s father).

 

A Long Day’s Journey Into Night (1962, Lions Gate/Republic, dir. Sidney Lumet, 174 min, play Eugene O’Neil, PG) is the rather literal translation into black-and-white film of Eugene O’Neil’s famous late autobiographical play, about the disintegration of an upper class family over one day around 1912. Katherine Hepburn plays the morphine-addicted mother, who became a druggie after the birth of her youngest son, Edmund (Dean Stockwell). Her husband James Tyrone (Ralph Richardson) has driven his family crazy with miserliness as his acting career failed; the older son Jamie (Jason Robards) is an alcoholic, and resents the attention given to the bookish younger son and aspiring writer. Now Edmund is expecting a verdict from the doctor over whether he has the dreaded tuberculosis – aka white plague aka consumption. He looks well enough in the film, fairly well built with hairy arms and chest, and only coughs occasionally, so the Stockwell’s acting performance doesn’t match his peril. The doctor’s visit is not shown, but he will have to go to the sanatorium. In those days, this was a horrible family stigma, which the matriarch must deal with. The film does play on the subtle stereotypes associated with gender and social position, but less obviously than with other playwrights. At the end of the film, the family is shown in a distant shot, as through a telescope, backwards. The foghorn from the ocean constantly punctuates the soundtrack, as does Andre Previn’s jazzy piano background music score. 

 

The Iceman Cometh (1973, Kino / Cinevision / American Film Theater, dir. John Frankenheimer, play by Eugene O’Neil, PG, 239 min, USA/Germany) is the other mega-play by this famous writer. A man, Theodore “Hickey” Hickman (a well-dressed Lee Marvin, not as mean as in some other roles) walks into a bar “the Last Chance Saloon  in New York in 1912, and (100% sober) essentially tells be patrons, “Be careful what you wish for, you just might get it.” Or “I don’t give a damn.” (Remember Rhett?) Okay, the other patrons of the bar have meaningless lives and can be lectured to. He says, “You’re in the grandstand; you’re through with life.” He also calls himself a “good salesman” who can size up anyone. A younger patron Don Parritt (Jeff Bridges) will balk that Hickey is staring at him (this kind of interchange does happen in bars) but eventually want to listen to what he has to say. Larry Slade (Robert Ryan) says something about all of this “family respect stuff” being nothing more than “property rights crap.” But then the patrons challenge the mystery visitor to reveal who he is.

It’s interesting that an IBM mainframe computer sort product is called “iceman”, maybe because of this play. In the later acts, the mysterious visitor gradually reveals that he has his own confession, of what his own marriage came to and what he had to do to end it. He must face his own demons. The police come; there is catastrophe, and then a drunken, fully soused celebration of nothing.

 

Some detailed notes are helpful for this play. For example, Spark Notes, this. Blogger entry here.

 

Ice Men (2004, Wolfe / First Frame, dir. Thom Best, wr. Michael MacLennan (play?), 108 min, R, Canada, written for Canadian cable with a small theatrical release) sounds, from the title, like a distant adaptation of O’Neill’s play. It is a bit like these “intellectual” plays on social values, updating on Tennessee Williams, this time with a Canadian writer.  The basic concept is that a group of guys have a winter weekend retreat at a forest lodge north of Toronto, and some unexpected guests provide challenges and disruptions. More specifically, Vaugh (Martin Cummins) invites some of his buddies to the cabin he has inherited, celebrating best friend Bryan’s (David Hewitt) birthday. Vaughn’s maladjusted brother Trevor (Ian Tracey) sneaks in (underneath a car), and then a girl friend Renee (Brandy Ledford) follows. The “bad applies” drift into the play like the frigid air spilling in from an arctic cold front. Pretty soon various confrontations among all the characters develop, a bit as in an O’Neill play. One gay character puts the make on another, bringing bisexuality out into the open among male rituals – yet this is more like a fraternity party or a rite of passage (even like in “Dreamcathcher” by Stephen King) than a gay event. One character wants to film the event, and has mysterious motives for asking for so little in compensation (perhaps anticipating “Dying Gaul” movies). Another performs as a musician, and is derided for his lack of musical talent. Despite the presence of cell phones, the cache of movies requires an 8 mm projector (60s style), and their content is a mystery, although they play back in the minds of the characters as like black and white flashbacks from a hunt gone wrong (shades of “Blair Witch Project”).  The movie has an atmosphere of menace and impending horror, paying homage to famous movies and plays in a number of other genres, and finally there is a life-threatening event and rescue (a CPR lesson) at the very end. This is a curious film, non-linear in writing, keeping the viewer interested in what is going on, but leaving some unresolved loose ends. It seems like an adapted stage play. One thing is that the characters look and act a bit alike in the beginning; we are not sure who they are for a long time. The personalities of the characters needed to be more distinct from the very beginning.  The film is very professionally shot and edited technically, with interesting effects with the evergreen forest colors and snow, giving an almost black and white effect with natural light.   

 

Our Town (1977, NBC / Mastervision / Hartwest, dir. George Shaefer, play by Thornton Wilder,120 min, G) is an effective rendition of Wilder’s play on a “Van Trier” type stage (of the town of Grover’s Corner, NH). In three acts, the play lays out the conditions of social conformity and the importance of marriage in a society that does not yet offer a lot of opportunity to be yourself without committing to others (especially in marriage) first. Robby Benson plays the tragic George, conceited about his baseball until he is tamed by Emily (Glynnis O’Connor); his father lectures him at one point about deference to his mom. In three parts, with the “intermission” near the end. Many of the characters are “in the grave” for the last scene. I’ll do more research on this for the blogs soon. (Also several other video versions, and a 1940 film; more later). Hal Holbrook is the stage manager; Ned Beatty and Sada Thompson are Dr. and Mrs. Gibbs.

 

There is also a 2003 DVD from PBS, directed by James Naughton, with Paul Newman as the stage manager.

 

The Hollywood film (1940, United Artists, dir. Sam Wood, 90 min, G) features a young William Holden as George, and Martha Scott as the “doomed” Emily. In very abstract black-and-white, it translates in a straightforward way from the stage concept, but, like all movies, offers close-ups, as in the early confrontation between George and Dr. Gibbs about George’s attitude toward his mother. The movie opens with a lookout view of the town, and the last act has some famous imagery, of the townspeople in black umbrellas going into the cemetery, and the dead speak inside the funeral home, with Emily elevated as if she wanted to become an angel.

 

The music by Aaron Copland is well known, tends to be quiet and supportive (in line with the scene where the minister asks the congregation to keep the music (“Art Thou Weary?”) soft and let it die out). The music is not as emotionally compelling as is, say, Copland’s massive and heroic Third Symphony, yet the music score actually ends loudly.

 

The script moves more quickly than it does on stage, and some lines come out more quickly, as when Mrs. Webb tells the smaller son “no books at the table: I’d rather have my children healthy than smart” and later when Emily asks her mother if she is pretty and if any man will want her, and the mother speaks of “normal purposes.” The first act features a fat, mewy and cantankerous house cat.

 

Link to blogger discussion of the play.

 

The Bridge of San Luis Rey (2005, Fine Line, dir. Mary McGuckian, novel by Thornton Wilder, 120 min, PG-13, UK/Spain) has attracted attention since the tragic bridge collapse in Minneapolis in 2007. This is a period piece, set in Peru in 1714, when five travelers are on a suspension foot bridge in the Andes when it collapses. The collapse is indeed shown near the end of the film, and it is harrowing. (The movie was shot on location in a mountainous desert area near Madrid, Spain.) Brother Juniper (Gabriel Byrne) researches the connections between the five people and finds a tender story involving an arranged marriage and difficult family ties. He writes a book or “tome” but the book is considered heretical by the archbishop of Peru (Robert De Niro). Much of the story of the five characters is told in flashbacks from a church “trial” in cathedral surroundings that look quite opulent. An important witness is the actress Camile Perichole (Pilar Lopez de Ayala), who unveils her smallpox during the film and has done penance in a convent. The archbishop finally sentences Juniper to burn at the sake and that his books be burned.  It’s not real obvious to a modern person what is so heretical (other than the idea that the Brother thought he could question the authority of the Church), but some of it has to do with Calvinism and Caritas. Wilder’s own discussion is here: http://www.tcnj.edu/~wilder/works/bridge.html

 

Me and Orson Welles (2009, Freestyle Releasing/CinemaNX, dir. Richard Linklater, 115 min, PG-13, UK) Zac Efron gets a small role in “Julius Caesar” under Orson Welles and lasts one week!  Blogger.

 

A Single Man (2009, The Weinstein Company, dir. Tom Ford). Colin Firth is a closeted gay English professor dealing with the loss of his lover during the Cuban Missle Crisis of 1962.  Blogger.

Related reviews: L.I.E.;  Murder by Numbers   You can access the Shakespeare plays at http://www-tech.mit.edu/Shakespeare , Spider, Student Seduction ,  Capote’s In Cold Blood ,  To Kill a Mockingbird , Victim , Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf, Tennessee Williams: Night of the Iguana , The Notorious Bettie Page   The Good Shepherd  Apocalypto , Zodiac   White Light, Black Rain, Deliver Us from Evil, Doubt  Julius Caesar

 

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