Bad Barrels & Bystanders: Tom McCarthy’s “Spotlight”

Few movies have portrayed journalism with such grounded realism and deep reverence as 2015 Academy Award winner Spotlight.  Though director Tom McCarthy paints a rather unglamorous portrait of the profession (the majority of reporting occurs either in the Boston Globe’s dreary manila beige offices or dimly lit basements haunted by the stench of dead rats), it’s clear he possesses a worshipful esteem for the occupation.  Like so many films consumed with the minutiae of daily journalism, Spotlight is a “tour de force of filing cabinet cinema,” endlessly fascinated with the details of what today has become a dying craft: the poring over records, the digging up leads, the sifting through clips.  But this film is not simply for journalists who wistfully remember the days when newspapers were delivered to your doorstep (or longingly recall the whir of the printing press)- it’s for anyone who believes in the tremendous power of a few individuals to have a far-reaching impact.  “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world.  Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has,” Margaret Mead once said.  This subtly gripping tale proves true this sentiment.

spotlight division

A first-rate newsroom drama based on real life events, Spotlight documents the Boston Globe’s Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation into the widespread sexual abuse of children by Roman Catholic priests.  The year is 2001: the traditional newspaper has only just begun to compete with the internet but local publications like the Boston Globe are struggling to maintain their readership.  To boost sales and make their paper more relevant, the Globe brings in new editor-in-chief Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber), an unmarried man of the Jewish faith.  “What are you reading?” Walter Robinson (Michael Keaton), editor of Spotlight, the paper’s investigative division, asks when they meet for a business meeting over dinner and drinks.  “The Curse of the Bambino but, to be honest,” Baron confesses, “I’m not much of a baseball fan.”  In a predominantly Catholic city that devours peanuts at Red Sox games, Baron is an outsider to say the least.  But it is his status as newcomer that makes him willing to take on Boston’s mightiest, most formidable adversary: the Archdiocese.  After reading that the Archbishop of Boston, Cardinal Law, potentially knew priest John Geoghan was molesting local children, Baron urges Spotlight to investigate.  

An ensemble of fine actors compose the Spotlight team: tough guy Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo) typifies the determined persistence of the classic reporter as he tirelessly tracks down leads, sneaking into offices uninvited and enduring door after door slammed in his face.  Fellow staff writer Sacha Pfeiffer (a warm performance by Rachel McAdams) interviews victims while diligent reporter Matt Carroll (Brian D’Arcy James) discovers whenever a priest was accused of abusing a child, the Archdiocese would officially say he was on “sick leave” and send him to a treatment center only to reassign him to another parish where he would surely resume his predatory ways.

spotlight

As the group of journalists delve deeper, they begin to realize the sheer scope of what they’ve stumbled upon: the systematic abuse of children isn’t just limited to Boston-it goes to the heart of the Vatican itself.  What makes such rampant horror possible?  Creator of the infamous Stanford prison experiment Phillip Zambardo would argue these atrocities weren’t perpetrated by a few “bad apples” but the result of a bad barrel.  Lack of oversight, a complete absence of accountability: the Catholic Church created a precarious situation in which priests faced no repercussions for their actions and could therefore be seduced into abusing their power in the most despicable ways.  “When you’re from a poor family, religion counts for a lot,” survivor and impassioned victims advocate Phil Saviano explains, “When a priest pays attention to you, it’s a big deal.  When he asks you to collect the hymnals, you feel special.  It’s like God asking for your help.”  

What’s chillingly disturbing about the Catholic Church scandal is not only the ways in which so-called “men of God” use the collar to prey on the helpless and vulnerable but the countless legal, political, and social institutions complicit in the cover up.  After all, if the abominable abuse of children was happening on such a grand scale, how did nobody know?  The Boston Globe comes to estimate there are nearly 90 offending priests in Boston alone.  By discreetly settling these abuse cases out of court, lawyers like handsome, smooth-talking Eric MacLeish (Billy Crudup) keep the Church’s disgraceful secrets hidden from public view (not to mention make a small fortune for themselves).  On a larger scale, police departments perpetuate the abuse by releasing offenders like Geoghan back into the hands of the Archdiocese rather than follow standard protocol and press criminal charges.  Even the Globe itself, we learn, is partly responsible.  The paper had been tipped to the existence of a scandal as far back as 1993 but turned down the opportunity to cover the story.  Why?  For the same reason families of victims didn’t speak out- they were afraid of taking on an organization as influential as the Archdiocese. 

The press, lawyers, police: all wittingly and unwittingly contribute to the conspiracy of silence that enables such monstrosities to continue.  Though Spotlight never indulges in the speechifying or grand-standing typical of a Hollywood drama of this material, it unwaveringly maintains a stance that is moral: not only are the perpetrators themselves culpable- loathsome men like Geoghan and their superiors like Cardinal Law- but, through our inaction, we bystanders are equally at fault.  As lawyer Garbedian sharply notes, “If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse one.”

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A Shattered Marriage: Trauma & Heartbreak in “The Squid and the Whale”

divorce

The governing philosophy of writer-director Noah Baumbach’s heartfelt, sharp-witted The Squid and the Whale is nicely summed up by the unsparing words of one of his central protagonists Barnard: “people can be very stupid.”  A tender, exquisitely painful look at the aftermath of a messy divorce, The Squid and the Whale is also a portrait of the manifold ways people can be petty and foolish when heartbroken.

Barnard (Jeff Daniels) is perhaps the stupidest of all Baumbach’s characters.  A once acclaimed novelist whose stardom has dimmed, Barnard is an insufferable bastard for most of the film. Haughtily pompous, he speaks with an obnoxious pretension, assuredly telling his teenage son Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) not to bother with A Tale of Two Cities because it’s “minor Dickens.”  So self-important is he that at one point he calls Kafka “one of his predecessors.”  When he’s not bragging about an alluring woman he could’ve slept with at a George Plimpton party, he’s subtly boasting that one of his scenes was a favorite of Norman Mailer’s.  One gets the sense that Barnard drops the names of impressive people and touts sophisticated-sounding opinions to conceal a deep-seated insecurity: though he was once a novelist of some renown, now he can’t get an agent or a book published.  Every time Barnard uttered yet another one of his overblown opinions or self-mythologizing stories, I couldn’t help but roll my eyes.  Needless to say, my eyes were rarely straight ahead for the film’s brief 80 minutes…is it any wonder his wife Joan (Laura Linney) leaves him?  

A literary talent on the rise, Joan is also a writer but-unlike her has-been husband- she actually writes.  In a revealing scene, Barnard is setting up his bed on the coach, a tattered copy of Saul Bellow’s The Victim daring us to analyze its significance on the night stand, when he hears the clatter of typewriter keys in the kitchen. Curious, he follows the sound to find his wife visited by the muses who’ve so long forsaken him.

What are you writing?” he asks obviously jealous, “Did you take my note about the ending?”

Yeah, some of it….” she nods evasively, clearly not wanting to quarrel.

Does he still die?” Barnard presses.

Yes,” she finally admits like a child who’s forced to concede to a bully at school.

Then you didn’t take my note.”

What follows is a sad scene all too familiar to those who grew up in a turbulent home.  As Barnard and Joan holler and shriek, their two sons find their own ways to cope: 12-year-old Frank (Owen Kline) tries to ignore their fighting and hide under the covers; older brother Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) leaves his room to check the commotion, looking painfully vulnerable as he sprawls out on the stairs in his underwear.  Baumbach’s directorial touch here is beautifully subtle: though he never states it outright, it’s undeniable envy plays a central role in their breakup.

unhappy couple

When Barnard and Joan finally break the news of their split, both are startlingly distant; rather than console their sons with loving assurances, all they discuss are the logistics of joint custody.  Yes, after some time Joan hugs a tearful Frank but what should be a heartfelt exchange still seems oddly devoid of emotion.  

Divorce is traumatic.  We hear this over and over.  But never before has a movie so faithfully limned the pain and grief that follows marital dissolution.  After the disintegration of his 17-year marriage, Barnard becomes more angry and bitter, constantly bad-mouthing Joan to his sons, even tactlessly revealing to Walt that his mother had an affair.  Little thought is given as to how such a divulgence will affect the teenager- all Barnard cares about is enlisting recruits on his side of the war.  

Joan isn’t entirely innocent either: unhappy in her loveless marriage to a self-absorbed writer, she finds solace in passionate affairs with several men, including her youngest son’s tennis instructor.  Rather than divorce Barnard, she remains unfaithful for many years.  Much like her ex-husband, in the immediate aftermath of their divorce she behaves selfishly and insensitively, telling Frank when he shows up unexpectedly for a visit that she needs a “break” from him and his brother once in awhile.  

While Joan is romping with a sexy tennis instructor and Barnard is lambasting Joan, their sons are finding their own ways of coping with the devastation of a broken home.  A masterful storyteller (he was once a novelist, after all), Barnard fashions a narrative in which he’s the irreproachable victim.  Walt, who idolizes his father, whole-heartedly believes his versions of events and channels his rage at Joan, at one point accusing her of “running a brothel.”  Outraged by her infidelities, he blames his mother for the divorce and relentlessly defends Barnard.  Yes, Joan was unfaithful but- as more impartial viewers witnessing these events-we possess the context to understand her affairs were most likely a symptom of an already strained marriage, not their cause.

walt & barnard

The stupidest thing Walt does, I think, is side with Barnard.  Not only does he unfairly hold his mother responsible for the divorce, he worships an uppity, self-satisfied snob.  In the cult of novelist Barnard, Walt is his most devoted follower: he reveres his father’s judgement so much that he trusts his assessments of literature without question, often passing over books simply because his father dismisses them.  So ardent is his adoration that he develops the off-putting habit of imitating his father’s elitist opinions, though he’s never actually read the books he so confidently critiques himself.  In a hilarious scene, he tells his love interest that Metamorphosis is very “Kafkaesque,” a bookish adjective he’s undoubtedly heard his father spout around the house.  “Uh, yeah,” Sophie (Halley Feiffer) replies, “it would have to be. It’s by Franz Kafka.”

In the wake of his parents’ acrimonious break up, the most despicable habit Walt adopts from his father is his misogyny.  It is from Barnard that Walt learns women are but a prop for man’s colossal ego- nothing but pretty play things to be assessed by their exteriors alone.  Throughout the film, Walt treats Sophie not as a first love to be courted and wooed but as a placeholder until he finds someone better.  “What do you mean, better?” his mother asks in disbelief, knowing “better” is code for more attractive.  Barnard encourages this detestable attitude toward women, at one point telling him to have sex with Sophie once to see if he “likes” it and on several occasions urging him to “play the field” and “not get tied down.”  After Walt wins the school talent show by passing off Pink Floyd’s “Hey You” as his own, Barnard is more adamant in his recommendation to sidestep commitment: “Things are going to change for you after tonight,” he assures him, hinting Walt will attract more tantalizing, desirable prospects after the evening’s show.  

Despite their failings, film critic Nick Schager has said, The Squid and the Whale “dares not harshly judge its all-too-human characters.”  I would have to agree.  Barnard, Walt, Joan: all are but frail, flawed people trying to navigate heartbreak on their own.

Morality & Justice in Macon Blair’s “I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore”

ruth & tony

Offbeat, dark and at times downright hysterical, Macon Blair’s I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore charts one neurotic woman’s quest to recover justice in an evermore unjust world.  The inescapable buzz of grim news blaring through car radios, the bleak reports of protests and mass shootings, the million and one ways men can be thoughtless and utterly inconsiderate of each other: all provide the dreary backdrop to Ruth Kimke’s rather sad life.  In the opening scene alone, our central character witnesses an elderly woman die after making a series of despicably vulgar, racist comments, a colossal pickup truck unapologetically guzzle gas and belch a stream of exhaust, and countless other ordinary people be heedless and rude.  The cheerful strumming of Jason Newman’s ukuleles renders the scene all the more pitiful.  When Ruth arrives home only to find that she’s been robbed, she loses what little faith in humanity she has left and sets out to find the perpetrators on her own.  

Our misanthropic protagonist becomes more ruthlessly cynical as she notices the deterioration of graciousness and good manners all around her.  So disgusted is she with humanity that she starts sobbing while reading a bedtime story to a five year old.  “But everyone’s an asshole!” a hysterical, disillusioned Ruth counters when a friend tries to comfort her with platitudes.  

ruth

Self-described as a constant portrayer of morose and dispirited types, Melanie Lynskey captures Ruth’s bitter outrage with moving effect.  As LA Times film critic Justin Chang has said, Lynskey  gives “endearing form to a woman for whom life has become an endless series of dissatisfactions.”  But what makes her character relatable and likeable-I think-is her yearning to preserve rectitude in a broken world.  In our harrowing era of division and bigotry, many of us can identify with Ruth, a weary woman who wonders what happened to basic courtesy among fellows.

Ruth, however, isn’t an entirely sympathetic character.  Is her commitment to goodness noble?  Of course.  But watching the film, I couldn’t help but find her rants about the decline of human decency unproductively pessimistic.  Yes, people are assholes: what’s sitting and complaining for 45 minutes going to do about it?  When Ruth embarks on a mission to locate the people who robbed her, I understand her motives: she’s an upstanding citizen who’s tired of contemptible people doing wrong and getting away with it.  But the pragmatist in me couldn’t help but wonder: if you find the perpetrators, what are you going to accomplish?  You’ll get your grandma’s irreplaceable silver back?  You’ll have the satisfaction of reestablishing some kind of moral order where lowlifes are brought to justice?  Not to mention her exasperation with the detectives on her case seemed whiny and self-centered.  Poor Ruth…the police aren’t paying full attention to your petty robbery case?  Did you ever think they have more pressing things to get to like rapists and serial killers?

By the end of the film, the cost of Ruth doing the “right” thing is high.  In her pursuit of justice, she becomes quite an asshole herself, smacking an old, innocent pawnshop owner in the face and stealing a wealthy couple’s sculpture from their front lawn, even though they didn’t loot her home, it was their estranged drug addict son.  By the time I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore lurches into bloody mayhem, we’ve seen the appalling, atrocious things of which men are capable.  In the end, Ruth is right: people are assholes.  But the film’s terrifying descent seems to warn against channeling our rage like Ruth.

The American Dream: Meaning & Materialism in “American Beauty”

Revisiting favorite films is one of my most cherished simple pleasures.  I delight in analyzing a film’s minute details: the bits of dialogue, the arrangements and sequences of scenes.  There’s something incredibly gratifying about breaking down a work of art and seeing how it works.

This week reexamined 1999 drama American Beauty.  Director Sam Mendes mercilessly satirizes the Burnhams, a “normal” American family who possesses every middle class luxury but lacks a meaningful sense of themselves and each other.  The film opens on Lester, a pathetic advertising executive who describes “jerking off” as the high point of his day.  The next 24 hours consist of his much younger and recently promoted boss telling him, in the most pseudo-kindhearted way, that he must fill out a detailed job description so the company (in typical corporatist fashion) can decide “who’s valuable and who’s dispensable.”

lester

Life at home isn’t much better.  His high-strung real estate agent wife, Carolyn, uses her job as a convenient excuse to ignore him while their daughter, Jane, couldn’t despise either of them more.

burnham family

From a Marxist perspective, American Beauty reveals itself an outright condemnation of the American bourgeois.  Though the Burnhams have attained all the outward signposts of success-pruning shears with tastefully matching gardening clogs, a gorgeous two-story home with the quintessentially American white picket fence- both Lester and Carolyn find themselves trapped by the hopeless banality of their suburbia.  For them, conventional, consumeristic notions of affluence have failed to bring any sort of lasting satisfaction.  In fact, the accumulation of more and more things seems to demolish the possibility for genuine happiness and human connection all together.  In a poignant scene, we realize that Lester and Carolyn’s marriage is too far gone to be recovered. 

Uh, who’s car is that out front?” Carolyn asks irritated, pristinely manicured fingertips tapping on the door frame.

Mine.  1970 Pontiac Firebird.  It’s the car I always wanted and now I have it.  I rule!” Lester replies matter-of-factly.

Where’s the Camry?”

I traded it in.”

Shouldn’t you have consulted me first?”

Hm, let me think.  No, you never drove it.”

lester and carolyn

Soon the marital bickering becomes an invitation to intimacy: “Where’s Jane?” Carolyn asks, her distracted tone implying she’s only asking out of a sense of parental obligation rather than genuine concern.

Jane not home,” Lester replies in a caveman manner indicative of his return to a baser, more visceral need for sexual attention.  Carolyn looks confused, alarmed even (clearly they haven’t had any kind of physical contact, let alone flirtation, in a long time).

We have the house all to ourselves,” Lester says, alluringly lingering over every word as he moves besides her on the coach.  Carolyn, again, looks fearful.  “Christ Carolyn. When did you become so…joyless?” (the negation of the suffix rendering the absence of joy, the total lack of delight in their hollow, cardboard cut-out lives, all the more poignant).

Her eyes widen in a sad blend of shock and hurt.  “Joyless?  I’m not joyless.  There happens to be a lot about me that you don’t know, Mr. Smarty Man.”  (that she’s fucking the Real Estate King whose cheesy face is plastered on bus stops all over town, for instance.)

Whatever happened to that girl who used to fake seizures at frat parties when she got bored?  Who used to run up to the roof of our first apartment building to flash the traffic helicopters?  Have you completely forgotten about her?  Because I haven’t…” he leans in seductively.  

Recalling these past versions of herself, Carolyn chuckles as she leans against the coach.  Lester begins kissing her neck and, for a brief moment, we think there might be hope for this estranged couple.  But as Lester slowly caresses her neck, Carolyn turns her head: “Lester, you’re about to spill beer on the coach!”

beer on coach #1

beer on couch #2

Always brilliant Annette Bening so precisely captures the complexity of Carolyn’s emotions at this moment: the terror at seeing her $4,000 pin-striped, Italian upholstered silk coach nearly ruined by a drop of beer; the disgust she feels with herself for caring so little for her husband and so much for a coach; and the aching regret she must live with knowing she spoiled their one chance at reconciliation forever. 

It’s just a couch!” Lester screams, outraged at his wife’s acquisitiveness.  

The fact that Carolyn is willing to tarnish such a rare moment of intimacy with her husband for something as superficial as a coach proves the distressing extent of her materialism: so completely preoccupied is she with objects that she forgets to contemplate the transcendent and spiritual.  All in all, this single exchange calls into question our idolization of the American dream.  Though we glorify wealth and stature as the foundational pillars of our national credo, their attainment leaves this couple desperate, unsatisfied, and deeply alone.  As professor Roy M. Anker so penetratingly observes, the Burnhams’s single-minded pursuit of material prosperity has kept them from beholding the “exquisite beauty” of the ordinary human world.

 

Temporary is the Saddest Word: Youth & Nostalgia in Richard Linklater’s “Everybody Wants Some”

Described as the “spiritual sequel” to his 1993 cult classic Dazed and Confused, Linklater’s latest Everybody Wants Some shares much in common with its cinematic predecessor.  Both wistfully render adolescence, Dazed and Confused, the final days of high school, Everybody Wants Some, the heady anticipation of coming adulthood.  Both burst with the carefree exuberance of youth.  And though each film depicts a very specific moment in historical time, both yearn to capture something universal: the magic of the teenage years.  So though you might be too young to remember mustaches, hysterically short shorts, or disco, Everybody Wants Some will have you affectionately recalling the simpler days of your youth.

everybody wants some opening scene

Told in the delightfully meandering way that is his trademark, Linklater doesn’t offer much in the way of plot.  The film opens on a goofily cute Jake (played to charming effect by an adorable Blake Jenner) cruising through a one-lane country road.  The year, 1980.  Linklater establishes the time period from the first frame: his boyish protagonist sports a super 70s baseball tee and drives a brawny Oldsmobile.  As the hand-tapping rhythms of “My Sharona” thump in the background, the camera circles to the back seat, revealing a milk crate of albums and an old school record player.  Jake, a freshman baseball player on his way to college, is much like the road he travels on: full of possibility.  It’s the weekend before school starts and anything can happen (and most things do).  In the three days before classes, Jake and his teammates boogie at a disco, line dance at a hoe down, mosh at a punk show, and mingle with geeky theater majors at a psychedelic party in the woods- not to mention get lucky an astonishing number of times for a bunch of inexperienced teenagers.  When they’re not chasing girls or finding new ways to fuck with each other, they’re taking bong rips and waxing philosophical about everything from the nature of identity to the meaning of life.

jake & finn

Everybody Wants Some flouts the most basic narrative conventions: there’s no conflict, no climax.  The story certainly doesn’t satisfyingly chart any character’s development.  But this raunchy, rambunctious college flick is more than just a good time- it’s a bittersweet meditation on the transience of youth.  As an adult watching the film, I can’t help but envy Jake: he’s only just beginning college, for the first time tasting the exhilarating independence of adulthood but with very little of the responsibility.  In the coming months, his most pressing obligation will probably be turning in his Shakespeare midterm.  Most likely, his parents are still footing his bills.  But as the unrelenting countdown to the first day of school continually reminds us, time is running out.  Jake stands at a pivotal juncture in his maturity, his first day of college symbolic of his monumental entrance into adulthood.  For four glorious years, “adulthood” will be all-nighters, girls and booze but before long, adulthood will mean venturing into the last frontier, the “real world.”  

baseball

This “real world” lingers in the background throughout much of the film.  Though Jake and his teammates possess a zeal for baseball that borders on obsession, none of them harbor any delusions about going pro.  Up until now, baseball has been the singular passion that’s organized their existence; however, after four years of college, they know they’ll have to get jobs like everyone else.  Linklater’s sentimental mix tape hits an elegiac note when we realize growing up often means sacrificing our dreamier goals.  Like Jake, we’ve all had to eventually hang up our baseball gloves.

Everybody Wants Some has been called nostalgic in the best sense but we must remember there’s always a sad quality to nostalgia.  After all, nostalgia is a yearning for the past which-by its very definition-can never be recovered.  So though we fondly reminisce about our first college crush when Jake spends a sweet, romantic evening with Beverley on a lake, we’re heartbreakingly aware that we’ll never again experience anything quite as giddy as those first few days of school.

jake & beverley

 

Who’s That Girl: Objectification & Obsession in Otto Preminger’s “Laura”

 

laura titles

Never has a trailer offered more insight into a film than in Otto Preminger’s 1944 Laura. Much like the movie itself, the trailer opens-not on the titular Laura (Gene Tierney)-but on her stunning portrait. It is this portrait that will inspire Detective McPherson’s (Dana Andrews) near rabid infatuation. To say Laura was the focal point of the other characters’ obsessions would not be to overstate. “Everybody,” the trailer asserts in bold, curvy typeface, “is talking about Laura.” As in the actual film, the trailer spends the majority of its time depicting various admirers preoccupied with our captivating lead character. “Who is Laura?” it wonders as it displays a ravishing Gene Tierney in an exquisitely sharp-shouldered nightgown, “What is Laura?” This seemingly insignificant shift from “who” to “what” captures the central issue of the film: Who is Laura, really? Is she the sophisticated career woman? the winsome, magnetic socialite? or the stereotypically frail, pathetic victim of men’s mistreatment? Can we ever truly know Laura? or is she more of a conception than an actual person? Laura-I would argue- is not a person but an object, an idol for men to both desecrate and worship.

Of all the male characters, dandy, effeminate journalist Lydecker (Clifton Webb) most clearly objectifies her. As a radio host and newspaper columnist, Lydecker literally devises stories for a living but, figuratively, he narrates the events of Laura’s and, thus, our story. Interestingly, we only learn of the alluring murdered girl through a series of his flashbacks- she never “speaks” for herself. Laura is oddly barred access from her own narrative, a flagrant form of objectification. As the camera pans across Lydecker’s lavish apartment to reveal chic glass vases and an elegant vintage clock, we learn both Laura and McPherson at one time figured as characters in his accounts, McPherson as the “man with a leg full of lead” who apprehends a homicidal gangster at the siege of Babylon, Laura as his star. When perennially calm McPherson begins to fall for the enchanting New York socialite, he isn’t so much enamored of Laura the girl as of Laura the myth. We see this most evidently in the way he longingly gazes at her portrait. Much like a novel which is a fictional rendering of the world, Laura’s portrait is an invention of its painter’s mind, a representation of Laura- not Laura herself. As the film progresses, McPherson finds himself bewitched-it seems-not by Laura but by various male constructions of her, particularly Lydecker’s. In a way, the real woman is like the film’s cinematography: slippery, as hazy and surreal as a dream.

laura's portrait

The first time we actually see Laura is during one of Lydecker’s flashbacks. Lydecker and McPherson sit at a cozy table with red-and-white checkered napkins in what appears to be a romantic Italian restaurant. Behind them, a large window opens up to an outdoor patio where couples drink merrily and vines cover the building’s brick walls. Lydecker, we learn, “selected a more attractive hair dress” for Laura and taught her what clothes were “more becoming” to her figure. It was because of him that she was able to gallivant among New York’s elite. He was the Pygmalion to her Galatea, the sensitive artist who sculpted her otherworldly beauty from stone.

From a feminist perspective, Lydecker’s conception of Laura offends on multiple levels. First off, in his retelling of events, Laura’s dazzling rise to adoration is a product of his labor-not her own. Though his connections as a columnist certainly help launch her career, it would be grossly unjust to disregard Laura’s role in her own success. She’s tenacious and career-oriented (qualities I’m willing to wager were uncommon among prim 1940s women). She’s gutsy (after all, how many of us would have the nerve to cold call an acclaimed writer in the middle of a restaurant? how many would be so determined that we would persist-even after being cruelly rebuffed?). Not to mention, she displays astounding initiative: we must not forget it was her idea to seek out Lydecker’s endorsement- not her advertising firm’s. Laura may possess an almost irresistible charisma but her most remarkable quality is her pluck. That Lydecker trivializes her part in her own accomplishments and in fact takes credit for them smacks of a patronizing sort of misogyny: to him, it’s inconceivable Laura alone could have made a name for herself.

Throughout his version of events, Laura figures as little more than an object. At one point, he confesses she became as well-known as his “walking stick,” a telling comparison proving she’s nothing more than a comely accessory to his pin-striped suit. “The way she listened,” he later divulges to McPherson, “was more eloquent than speech.” Though “eloquence” usually refers to the act of speaking, here it describes listening, a profoundly passive, non-participatory activity. Once again, Laura appears as a disempowered object, a mere receptacle for Lydecker’s instruction. While he educates her in the ways of worldly knowledge, she merely gazes dreamily through the smoke from her cigarette. In much the same way she is denied the right to her own story, Laura is consigned to silence, powerless to challenge either men’s portrayal of her or the dominant discourse.

more eloquent than speech

Laura’s story is not just reappropriated by her male courters but by Bessie (Dorothy Adams) her maid, a plain woman whose demeanor is as homely as her name. Bessie seems similarly concerned with maintaining a certain narrative of Ms. Hunt; after the night of the murder, she hides a bottle of wine and scrubs a pair of glasses- irreversibly destroying critical evidence- all because she doesn’t want police to think Laura was anything but a “fine lady.”

Bessie, Lydecker, McPherson: all are obsessed with writing Laura into a particular story. Why is this significant? For starters, when Laura violates the parameters of her male courters’ carefully designed plots, she finds herself (and those she loves) in great peril. Take Lydecker, her most zealous admirer. Lydecker’s narrative rests on the premise that him and Laura are a couple, which they absolutely are not. “Tuesday and Friday nights we stayed home,” he reminisces fondly, “dining quietly.” The image of them “dining quietly” on a Friday evening seems oddly domestic considering their relationship is entirely non-sexual. Laura, however, will eventually defy this prescribed part as love interest, infuriating the besotted Lydecker. As the film goes on, his obsession becomes more menacing. Indeed, he will come to exhibit all the tell-tell signs of a stalker: irrational, murderous jealousy, haughty narcissism, a possessive longing for control. The thing that outrages him most? The object of his idolatry violating her role. Laura may occupy a starring role in his fantasies, but he directs the story- he won’t stand for a nobody actress transgressing his hard-won script. When Laura calls to cancel a dinner date-a deed most would find only mildly disappointing- Lydecker confesses he feels “betrayed”; in fact, he feels so slighted by her “betrayal” that he marches to her apartment during a snowstorm. Seeing the shadow of another man through the window, he waits to glimpse his identity. The fact that he lingers for what must be hours in a blizzard only proves the disturbing extent of his devotion. When her companion reveals himself as the painter Jacoby, Lydecker sets out on a vindictive campaign of defamation: he brutally lambastes the artist in his column, calling into question his aesthetic, “demolishing his affectations” and “exposing his camouflaged imitations of better painters.” Like every controlling man, he claims to sabotage Laura’s chances at happiness because he “loves” her, because the buffoons she chooses to entertain aren’t “worthy” of her attention. But I beg to differ: Lydecker spoils her affairs, I would argue, not because he harbors any kind of real affection toward her, not even because he feels emasculated or vengeful seeing her with another man, but because her dating Jacoby dramatically undermines his glorified image of her. “Yet I knew,” he asserts with the obstinance of a child who insists in Santa, “I knew Laura wouldn’t betray anyone.”

lydecker

Laura, of course, will go on to painfully betray someone: Lydecker himself. It all begins when she starts dating Shelby (Vincent Price), a hulky Neanderthal of a man with an innocent face and dopey Southern drawl. Mr. Carpenter sees no distinction among women: at one point, he flirtatiously tells Laura he “approves” of her hat- the same stock compliment he will later utter to Ann Treadwell (Judith Anderson). He even brings his mistress, model Diane Redfern, to Laura’s apartment and lends her his fiance’s most intimate belongings, a negligee and mules. Laura, Diane…to him both are little more than decorative baubles: pretty, perhaps, but completely interchangeable.

Though Lydecker envisions Laura as the darling of fashionable society, her relationship to such a philandering fool casts serious doubt on his conception of her as a bright young girl. Laura is bright but-at the same time-she’s stereotypically female: as in many a hackneyed love story, she falls for a deceitful womanizer who in no way deserves her. When Lydecker mentions an unsavory rumor that Shelby stole jewels from his Virginia host, she predictably defends him: “Of course they would say that,” she counters, “he’s not rich.” Later, she retreats even further into the overdone troupe of self-sacrificial, too-forgiving female: “I know his faults,” she rationalizes, “A man can change, can’t he?” Despite a bulky folder of evidence, Laura refuses to believe Lydecker’s accusations, insisting Shelby would “never” lie, “never” steal, “never” two-time her. This exchange reveals two things about Ms. Hunt: 1) she’s optimistic-even naïve- and believes love possesses the power to redeem the irredeemable and 2) her trusting disposition makes her easy to take advantage of. For Lydecker, this encounter brings about a devastating realization: Laura is not Galatea, a flawless goddess carved from stone- she’s a human being, ordinary and fallible.

lydecker & laura

When Laura doesn’t immediately dump Shelby and instead goes to the country to “clear her head,” she irreparably violates Lydecker’s conception of her. Upon learning of Shelby’s infidelity, she was supposed to break off their engagement, she was supposed to finally realize her buried longing for the desperate best friend who’s in love with her. But instead, she decides to reflect by herself, an outrageous assertion of selfhood which motivates Lydecker to kill her. Sure, he accidentally ends up killing the hapless Ms. Redfern but he’s a writer, not a career criminal.

In the end, Lydecker is more like Mark Chapman, the deranged fan who gunned down John Lennon. “How,” Chapman wondered, “could a man who preached love and peace, a man who condemned materialism and corporate greed, live so extravagantly?” Disgusted by Lennon’s hypocrisy, on December 8, 1980, Chapman strolled up to the Dakota apartments, pulled out a Charter Arms 38 pistol and slayed his favorite Beatle. I imagine Lydecker feels a similar disenchantment when- at the end of the film- he tries (yet again) to kill Laura. By this point, she’s committed a litany of offenses: dated a derivative second-rate painter, almost married a shameless womanizer. Expressing interest in McPherson, a man who tastelessly refers to women as “dolls” and “dames,” is the ace of spades that finally makes the house of cards topple over. McPherson embodies a brawny masculinity Lydecker despises but-again-this isn’t why he tries to kill her. He tries to kill her because-like Chapman-he’s lost an idol.

lydecker final scene #2

lydecker final scene

 

 

The Lunacy of Dreams: Delusion & Deception in “Sunset Boulevard”

In Billy Wilder’s magnum opus Sunset Boulevard, the line between dream and delusion is as thin as its leading lady’s eyebrows. Out-of-work screen writer Joe Gillis (William Holden) finds himself ensnared in the delusion of aging has-been Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) when a car chase leaves him stranded with a flat tire in front of her decaying, Spanish-style mansion. Norma, a forgotten silent film star who believes she’s on the verge of a triumphant return to the screen, enlists Gillis to help her rewrite a script she’s been working on. As the film propels itself toward a shattering climax, we look on in a strange mixture of stupefied horror and disbelief: what lengths will Ms. Desmond go to maintain her illusion of celebrity? A disturbing tale about the obscured line between reality and fantasy, truth and deception, Sunset Boulevard exposes the dangerous-sometimes deadly- consequences of clinging too tightly to a dream.

Sunset Boulevard is predicated on a lie, albeit a little white one. When a couple of slick-talking car repossessors come to impound his 1946 Plymouth convertible, Gillis fibs: “The car isn’t here,” he cocks his head offhandedly, “a friend took it to Palm Springs.” The story seems too convenient to be plausible but-because they can’t prove otherwise-they leave him alone for the time being. Just when we think Gillis might get away with it, the two men spot him driving along Sunset. Though this brief encounter may seem insignificant except for the vital role it plays in driving the film’s plot (after all, there would be no story had Gillis never turned into Norma’s driveway), the fact that Gillis’s lie is eventually exposed reveals a theme critical to Wilder’s noir: lies-no matter how meticulously woven-will always unravel, even if they’re concocted of dreams.

A washed-up actress who deludes herself into believing she can make a come back, Norma epitomizes the sinister side of the Hollywood dream machine. Like the unfortunate Miss Havisham who refuses to take off her wedding dress after her fiance leaves her at the altar, she’s a kind of stopped clock. “Oh, I know you,” Gillis smirks when he stumbles upon her decrepit Sunset estate and finally recognizes her, “you used to be big.” “I am big!” Desmond counters in what has to be one of the cleverest retorts in all of cinema, “It’s the pictures that have gotten small.” But the truth is pictures haven’t gotten small: as the sweetheart of a bygone art form, she’s a monument of another era- obsolete.

norma i am big

Norma’s habitation is a symbol for her stasis. Outwardly, the Desmond estate appears like another 1950s style Beverly Hills home; inwardly, it reeks of the musty, erie castles and gothic noir of Edgar Allan Poe. “The whole place seemed to be stricken with a kind of creeping paralysis,” Gillis observes as he catches the haunting sight of her sagging tennis court and empty pool, “out of beat with the rest of the world, crumbling apart in slow motion.” Norma’s gloomy mansion is less a residence than a mausoleum, a tomb glorifying her former renown: inside, every inch of available surface exhibits a head shot of her at the height of her heyday. But, among the dozen of photos, not a single one depicts her as she is now: there are no pathetic, 50-something Norma Desmonds galavanting in gold frames- only pale, youthful Normas posing in pearls and silk gowns. Her ego-mania makes Narcissus look modest. But is it really herself she worships? No, Norma reveres not herself so much as the attainment of the dream these pictures represent. In much the same way that Gatsby clings to the fantasy that he’ll procure enough wealth to win his long lost love, Norma subsists on the illusion that she’ll make her comeback. But just as he can never fulfill his ambition of reuniting with Daisy and erasing their interlude of years apart, Norma-we realize- can never revive her former distinction in Hollywood. Why is her dream so unfeasible? For starters, she’s half a century old; Salome’s nearly half her age. Not to mention it’s practically unheard of for anyone to make a comeback after two decades. But figures and probabilities mean nothing to Norma: she always has a keen eye to the green light across the bay.

normas

That reality will infiltrate Norma’s fortress of delusion is a fear that pervades Sunset Boulevard’s every shot. All the other characters, particularly Max, her devoted butler, work around the clock to safeguard her self-deception. Rather than let Norma face the agonizing truth that she has sunk into obscurity, he forges her dozens of fan letters so she thinks she’s still adored. “I didn’t argue with her,” Gillis admits when Norma refuses to let him cut yet another scene of her awful screen play, “You don’t yell at a sleepwalker.”

Though Norma seems to possess a grandiose belief in her own importance, there are obviously moments when her delusions fail her. Max reveals Norma experiences “moments of melancholy” and that there have been “multiple suicide attempts.” We witness one such attempt on New Year’s Eve when Gillis rejects her. Up to this point, Gillis has been living in a delusion of his own: either he’s somehow oblivious to Norma’s sexual advancements or he suspects her feelings but chooses to ignore them (who wouldn’t if it meant cruising through the Hollywood Hills in a leopard-upholstered Isotta Fraschinis and luxurious camel hair coat?). But when Norma dreamily envisions the fantastic year they’ll have together, there’s no doubt she believes them a couple: “I’ll fill the pool for you. Or I’ll open my house in Malibu and you can have the whole ocean,” she proffers dazedly, looking gleefully drunk, “When our picture’s finished, I’ll buy you a boat and we’ll sail to Hawaii!” Just as Norma denies the very glaring fact that she’s no longer a star, she pretends the much younger Gillis is her suave gentleman caller. She’s prancing around in make-believe when an infuriated Gillis rouses her up: “Stop it with this ‘us’ business!” he shouts. A masterful Swanson renders Norma’s every emotional nuance: her jealousy, her rage, her shock. As Gillis so wisely noted at the beginning of the film, “you don’t wake a sleepwalker…he may fall and break his neck.” The realization that Gillis doesn’t reciprocate her interest jolts Norma from her romantic reverie and forces her to confront a devastating truth: Gillis, this charming man she’s been trying to win with extravagant parties and solid gold cigarette cases, harbors no romantic feelings for her.

The rest of the scene stings with bitter irony: on what should be the most jubilant evening of the year, Norma tries to commit suicide amidst champagne and confetti. Though Gillis leaves rather swiftly after Norma confesses her feelings, he returns frantic when he learns Norma has tried to kill herself. “Happy New Year!” the taxi driver says smiling jovially as he races into the house. When a panicked Gillis rushes through the wrought iron door to see how she’s doing, Max takes him by the arm: “Careful. Don’t race upstairs…the musicians mustn’t know what happened.” Even in the face of mortality, the Desmond household wants to maintain appearances. But Norma can’t sustain the facade of normalcy any longer.

Wilder skillfully composes the scene that follows. Rather than depict Norma in her entirety, he shows her as a fragmented pair of feet and legs- we only see her face as a reflection when the camera turns right to an elegant standing mirror. Though mirrors in films noir traditionally hint at duplicity and often reveal a hidden potential for malevolence, Wilder’s mirrors behave as portals to a character’s inner world. The Norma we see in the mirror-distraught, weeping with bandages on her wrists-drastically conflicts with the image she projects throughout the film. In much the same way that Wilder juxtaposes Norma’s material abundance with her spiritual destitution by displaying her sobbing into a glamorous chiffon gown, he seems to suggest there’s a discrepancy between Norma’s outward and inner self. Despite her apparent vanity, Norma clearly remains unconvinced of her own boastful claims of being a “star.”

norma suicide #2

norma suicide

Delusion, it turns out, is a vulnerable thing: truth can always slip in through an unlocked door. The first time truth penetrates Norma’s citadel of denial it almost kills her; the second (and final) time, it kills her lover. Norma slays Gillis, I would argue, not because he breaks her heart, but because his desertion ruptures any illusion she has about her celebrity: “No one leaves a star,” she whispers in the foreboding silence, “that’s what makes one a star.” If the fundamental requirement of being a star is a horde of idolizing, reverent viewers, Norma doesn’t fit the bill: after all, her one “fan” has just stormed out. Would a Beatles fanatic really walk out on the Fab Four? For almost a quarter century, Norma has believed in the reality of a mirage but when Gillis leaves her, she awakens to the bleakest of deserts: not only has her paramour abandoned her, but her entire conception of herself as starlet has been besieged. There’s no movie with DeMille. There are no movie goers anxiously awaiting her return to the screen. “The audience left 20 years ago,” Gillis tells her out of equal parts compassion and spite, “You’d be killing yourself to an empty house!” Before his untimely (and rather undignified) demise, Gillis embodies an intimate relationship with truth Norma would rather avoid. In the end, murdering him stands as her most aggressive act of denial.

no one leaves a star

This is where Sunset Boulevard seems to pose a contradiction. On one hand, I have argued lies will always be found out. Gillis’s lie to the repossessors, Norma’s lies to herself: at one point or another, all these fabrications are exposed as false. But, in the end, doesn’t the lie prevail? Yes, the dream Norma had “clung to so closely” eventually enfolds her but at a serious cost. Besides a dead man in her pool, preserving her delusion costs Norma her sanity. So unflinching is her devotion to her dream that her denial explodes as full-blown psychosis. After shooting Gillis, Norma sits-deranged and disoriented-in a state of complete shock as police officers try to question her. The only thing she responds to is the mention of cameras. “Cameras?” she asks with crazed, wide-eyed excitement, “Excuse me gentleman, I must get ready for my scene.” Having suffered a total break from reality, Ms. Desmond believes she’s filming a scene for Salome when she’s actually making her way to police. There’s no audience, only a throng of reporters eager to cover the scandal. There’s no DeMille, only Max dutifully resuming his former role as director. And there’s no cameras, unless you count the ones filming the macabre scene for the 5 o’ clock news.

cameras

As she descends the grand spiral staircase in a dramatic finish, her “audience” appears transfixed, horrified by her total detachment from what she’s done. Franz Waxman’s mounting score only serves to escalate the scene’s terror. In a twisted, demented way, Norma captures the green light that’s eluded her. “What happens to a dream deferred?” poet Langston Hughes wondered, “Maybe it just sags like a heavy load.” Or, as in Norma’s case, perhaps it “explodes.”

sunset blvd finale