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

Mass Media as Mass Deception: Fritz Lang’s “The Blue Gardenia”

Often hailed as the “master of darkness,” Fritz Lang made such immeasurable contributions to the film noir genre he almost goes without introduction. Born in 1890, Lang was of the German expressionist school and during the Weimar era made such stunning cinematic masterpieces as Metropolis. In interviews, he has confessed the film was inspired by his first sight of a New York skyscraper in 1924: “The buildings seemed to be a vertical sail, scintillating and very light, a luxurious backdrop, suspended in the dark sky to dazzle, distract and hypnotize.” This cynical attitude toward modern notions of progress, both social and technological, would inform much of his later work as an American director. Though not as openly political or visually extravagant, his American films noir would interrogate many of the same issues: repression, technology, and the unfortunate plight of the individual in a corrupt and severely mechanized world.

His 1953 The Blue Gardenia is no different, fitting nicely into his impressive repertoire of remorselessly satirical films. Anne Baxter plays the pretty and charming Norah, whose impulsive decision to go out with Prebble, an infamous womanizer, lands her at the heart of a murder plot. Convinced she killed Prebble in a drunken stupor and unable to recall the events of the night, Norah spends the course of the film isolated and alone, unsure if she should turn herself in or even if she is guilty of the murder. She eventually turns herself in to Mayo, a journalist who has made a sensation out of her, hoping he and his powerful newspaper can help to reduce her sentence. Upon meeting her, however, Mayo is convinced of her innocence and sets out to find the true murderess, who he finds rather easily: she is yet another woman betrayed and misled by the wolfish Prebble. After confessing that she murdered him in a fit of jealous rage, Rose is apprehended by the police, Norah is freed and the conventional happy ending can commence as Mayo and Norah fall in love and (we assume) walk off into the sunset.

Lang and his production team shot The Blue Gardenia in an unheard of twenty days, and many of its critics would dismiss the film as a rushed studio blockbuster. Initial reception of the film was lukewarm at best, and most other reviews were unduly harsh. Variety Movie Reviews claimed that “a stock story and handling keep it from being anything more than a regulation mystery melodrama” while film critic Dennis Schwartz famously called it “a film that never has the chance to bloom because of its dull script.” Lang detested the film himself, admitting the project was simply a job-for-hire. Certainly when compared to other films in the Lang canon, The Blue Gardenia can appear uncharacteristically pedestrian: the plot is predictable and there are none of the ornate, expressionistic touches that made Lang a legend early in his career. Upon release, the film inspired modest scholarly discussion and today there is but little criticism on the subject so why, when critics and scholars alike disregard the film as a critical failure, should we examine it any further?

Lang’s genius attention to forms of mass media keeps The Blue Gardenia from falling victim to the melodrama of its rather formulaic plot and, in my opinion, deserves serious consideration. The mass media-from the newspaper column to the dime store novel-informs (if not entirely controls) the lives of his misfortunate characters: Norah buys a dress because it is advertised as “fashionable,” Crystal and Sally believe the Blue Gardenia is a wanton streetwalker because Mayo’s column imagines her as one, and so on and so forth. The director’s intimate friendship with fellow German émigré and groundbreaking social theorist Theodor Adorno undoubtedly influenced this scathing portrayal of the press. Sociologist, musicologist and philosopher, Adorno is perhaps best known for his theory of the culture industry outlined in The Dialectic of Enlightenment. As he was writing, Lang acted as his primary informant in Hollywood. Though there’s no historical evidence on the matter, it is likely Lang had access to “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception” as Adorno was writing it. Both men shared an interest in each other’s work and regularly corresponded from 1949 to 1967. Adorno’s theory of the culture industry, thus, is a lens through which we can better understand this subtly provocative but tragically underrated masterpiece. For both men, mass culture would make real a dystopic vision of the future, a future where media conditions the consumer until he can no longer think for himself, the human becomes inessential, and men become numbers. Lang explores the many impersonal faces of mass media to warn us against these present and potentially dangerous processes of reification at work in modern pop culture, which I feel redeems The Blue Gardenia from its critical obscurity and initial dismissal.

operating-boards

From the film’s very opening scene, people appear virtually interchangeable. When Mayo visits the West Coast Telephone company, the telephone operators look eerily similar: they all sport the latest coiffed hairdo and they all appear sitting, seemingly dominated by the mass circuit boards they spend their days operating. The resemblance between Norah and her two roommates, Crystal and Sally, seems particularly striking; all pretty and blonde, it is difficult at first to even tell them apart. Ultimately, their LA world is a reified one where men are quantified and the individual is of little consequence to the whole: Crystal is known chiefly as G1466, Norah claims her boyfriend abroad is not just any guy but “1 out of 100,000” while the rest of the film obsessively preoccupies itself with various types of numbers. Lang’s preference for counting operates to fully undermine the individuality of his characters. This substitutability of persons becomes significant later when Norah pretends to be Crystal after Prebble calls with a dinner invitation. Rather than appear disappointed at seeing the wrong girl, Prebble warmly welcomes her to his table for dinner and drinks as if the particular girl never mattered so long as there was one.

norah-prebble

For Lang, mass media is responsible for this total obliteration of the individual. Mayo knows the masses lust for a classic who-done-it murder mystery and, with just the right dose of sex and intrigue, he is certain such a story will make headlines and yield him significant profit. “Everyone wants to read about murder,” he assuredly tells his assistant, “even when an unknown doll kills a guy no one’s ever heard of before.” As star journalist for the Chronicle and our central male protagonist, Mayo becomes a figure for mass media itself. Under the reign of mass culture, art- which was once dictated by its own set of internal laws- enters the sphere of consumption and must become like any other commodity: vulnerable to the laws of supply and demand. Necessarily, art becomes an industry and information outlets like newspapers find themselves more concerned with their monthly revenues than the quality of their news. For the Chronicle to be financially successful, Mayo must tailor his discourse to projected ideas of supply and demand. It is because he concludes the public has a morbid taste for murder that he investigates the Blue Gardenia case in the first place. Like all journalists, he must ask himself: Is this how journalists write? Is this how journalism sounds and, more importantly, will it sell papers? Mayo transforms a gruesome instance of violence into a consumable product for the masses, thus he renders the individual- both perpetrator, Norah and victim, Prebble- disturbingly insignificant. His bold headline, “PAINTER OF CALENDAR GIRLS MURDERED IN STUDIO MYSTERY,” identifies Prebble, not as a concrete, particular person, but as a generalized universal, which only serves to further abstract him and his awful murder. The terse, punchy headline may metamorphose an “unknown doll” and anonymous “artist” into a story, but there was no story to begin with: he simply invents one.

Mayo understands his subjective (and perhaps faulty) perception of the Blue Gardenia as objective truth; as Adorno cleverly observed: “There is the agreement- or at least the determination- of all executive authorities [of mass media] not to produce or sanction anything that in any way differs from their own rules, their own ideas about consumers, or above all themselves.”1 Mayo invents Norah by relying on his own misinformed notions of feminine archetypes, especially that of the beautiful but duplicitous ‘‘bad girl.” His portrayal of her as a “flashy blonde” merely posing as a lady undoubtedly reflects his own ideas about femininity and women; so as he presumes to know all there is to know about the consumer, so does he imagine his depiction of Norah’s ‘‘kind’’ of girl as fair and accurate. This boastful confidence in his own assessment of the murderess has chilling implications when he is asked how, exactly, he knows the Blue Gardenia is beautiful: “They’re always beautiful,” he replies with a smirk. By reducing people to hollow statistics and sweeping generalities, mass media neglects what makes an individual human and, therefore, essential: his particularity. Mayo’s continual preference for the plural pronoun “they” as opposed to the singular “she” reveals the reification process complete. Norah is no longer an individual with a specific set of circumstances or justifiable reasons for murder, but a repetitious, hopelessly banal convention: the femme fatale.

mayo

Though his labeling of individuals as “sorts” of people seems a rather harmless quality of trash journalism, it has frighteningly serious consequences for the consumer. As they read the morning paper, Sally and Crystal replicate mass media’s unsettling brand of either/or thinking perfectly: “Black?” Crystal asks skeptically, “it was probably bright red…that kind of girl never wears black.” Here, color takes on social significance as it distinguishes one class of consumers from another. The black taffeta dress sets off a chain of associations for the women, both of whom have been conditioned to identify people by the clothes they wear. Just as we might judge a woman with a tramp stamp as-well-trampy, Sally and Crystal believe a woman wearing black must be like the dress she purchases: chic, elegant…certainly not a cold-blooded killer. By systematically grouping consumers into types, mass media mechanizes people (who are infinitely complex and manifold) into a series of algorithms. If propaganda is a deliberate and methodical attempt to sway audience opinion, Mayo’s form of sensational propaganda has worked: Crystal assumes the murderess was wearing bright red- the racy, tempestuous uniform of a “femme fatale”- because the stories she reads disseminate women’s rigid classification: her ideas are no longer her own.

Adorno called this phenomenon regression, or the “debilitating relapse and reflective re-appropriation of regressive modes of knowledge and conduct.” In simpler terms, regression is a developmental moving back: an irreversible infantilization of the consumer. Naive and not yet grown to maturity, children often understand the world in terms of overly simplistic black/white categories; by militantly insisting on universal typologies, mass media promises our return to an infantile mode of spectator engagement where we can no longer appreciate the nuances, the complexities, the inconsistencies, or the particulars. Crystal’s failure to conceive of a woman other than the “femme fatale,” then, signifies a total loss of her imaginative powers. Because newspapers (especially of Mayo’s variety) unendingly recapitulate the same, tired characters and formulaic story lines, the consumer becomes versed in the traditions of a genre and thus wants the same thing perpetually until he regards anything novel with mistrust. Indeed, to even suggest a woman other than the classless whore Crystal visualizes would be to critically upset her view of the world as clear-cut and intelligible.

norah-friends

Spellbound by the Blue Gardenia mystery and a self-proclaimed crime novel fanatic, Sally also seems arrested in a desperately infantile way of thinking. As the women continue pouring over Mayo’s coverage of the Blue Gardenia murder, Sally pleads: “Listen to this, he’s almost as good as Mickey Mallet. And I know a few other facts that will be of special interest to the girl who done the who-done-it. Her voice was quiet and friendly as she drank half a dozen Polynesian pearl divers…” What is harrowing, here, is the intrusion of fictional drama into non-fiction discourse. Mickey Mallet, a writer Sally adores and whose books she loyally buys, writes murder mysteries: a dime-store genre mass produced and almost exclusively turned out for profit. For most, the true crime novel offers gratification by the sheer fact of its predictability. After Norah asks how she knows what his new release is about before having read it, Sally replies, in a comic but revealing moment, “That’s what they’re all about.” So just as a good mystery writer needs an exceptional sense of pacing, so must he strictly adhere to the conventions of his genre: usually blood and betrayal. Sally compares Mallet, a writer of fiction, to Mayo, a journalist of supposedly impartial fact, which indicates she is confusing art for real life- a devastatingly tragic mistake. Why is this so troubling? Well, if the spectator Sally views homicide, an awful and senseless act of violence, as the romanticized stuff of novels, murder becomes romantic and we begin to believe the world is like a detective story: a foreboding landscape where murderers potentially lurk around every corner but can be easily detected (and apprehended) by type. Sally continuously permits mass media to infiltrate her thinking and dictate her behavior in real life: at various moments, she manipulates her voice to sound like a sultry femme fatale when she believes a male courter is calling and later, after this scene, she curiously holds a knife to her chest as if she were in a slasher movie. These disconcerting instances signify a playacting that is no longer innocent make-believe; rather, Sally’s simulating the stuff of dime store novels suggests the consumer, much like herself, will enact art upon life until he no longer has free will.

Unlike Sally and Crystal, Norah hysterically resists being written into mass media’s discourse, proposing alternate explanations as to why a respectable woman might go out with a notorious playboy like Prebble: “Maybe she was defending her honor; maybe she was lonely and bewildered; maybe she wanted some excitement.” Here, Norah inhabits the rhetorical realm of “maybe” while her two roommates obstinately cling to mass culture’s artless and unrefined vocabulary of universals. A more sophisticated space of thinking, “maybe” refuses to be limited to definite, inflexible categories and considers the possibility of multiple answers. Though Norah did agree to a date with Prebble, she is not the trashy, promiscuous woman her roommates imagine- their belief in “types” of people neglects that humans are naturally spontaneous and particular.

In the beginning of the film, Norah will revolt against being treated as a universal when she is in fact a particular. While reading a dear john letter from her boyfriend abroad, the camera transitions to narrative first person as if Norah were finally writing her own discourse. “Best wishes for your future,” she cries infuriated, “and yours very sincerely.” His nauseatingly clichéd sign off- “yours sincerely”- regards Norah as if she were a casual acquaintance rather than an intimate lover and sets off a tailspin of emotion and anger. Visually, first person narration restores her free will and human agency. So though she is powerless to control her boyfriend’s abandonment and deception, she can still command her own narrative, or what these events mean to her. By giving Norah rare access to visual subjectivity, Lang implies she remains empowered in this moment because she has not yet faded into the anonymity of universals.

norah

Norah, however, will eventually consent to the media image of her as she becomes less and less certain of her own innocence. Throughout the course of the film, Lang parallels Norah’s unfaithful boyfriend to Mayo, the journalist responsible for naming her a murderess: both write letters, both use insincere forms of address (“best wishes for your future”/ “yours very sincerely”/ “yours very earnestly”), both betray her trust, and both will inform her of a story she was unaware of. Though the letter is an intensely private, intimate form of communication, Mayo imitates its closeness and friendly informality in his public address to the Blue Gardenia, hoping to bait her and get his story. Mayo’s desire to recreate Norah, the living, breathing woman, into a flat, two-dimensional discourse is a particularly male fantasy as it quite literally objectifies her. By casting Norah into the role of alluring and lethal femme fatale, Mayo robs her of agency, or the power to identify herself. And because his narrative holds infinitely more influence than hers, Norah’s view of herself goes totally ignored while his inflated, dramatized scandal goes on to captivate millions: he is a master of public discourse, and she, only of private. Norah will ultimately submit to the male fantasy of her as a “bad” girl because mass media unrelentingly imposes its version of her narrative until she has no other choice. This pivotal shift is made evident when Norah begins dressing like a femme fatale, appearing in suits throughout the course of the film when we think she is indeed the killer. Considering the importance narrative holds for Lang and this film, the role of alcohol and intoxication becomes thematically significant. Norah cannot vouch for her own innocence because she was in a drunken stupor at the time of the murder; rather, she can only recollect her story after Mayo calls for a further investigation. Like a drunkard who can’t recall last night’s shenanigans because he was blacked out hammered, we, the film suggests, can’t author our own stories-mass media must fill them in for us.

Though The Blue Gardenia spends the majority of its time portraying Norah as a bad girl who committed murder, its ending will reveal she was actually a good girl all along. As was convention in many films noir, Lang momentarily affords his femme fatale power but is “not content to leave the viewer with the notion that such a girl was a possibility in real life…in the film’s closing reel it would be revealed that she was not responsible for the criminal machinations. There has been a case of mistaken identity throughout. At the end of the film, the viewer is assured that the girl is “good” after all.”2 When Norah reveals herself as the Blue Gardenia in the diner, Mayo cannot believe it: the woman before him- pretty, blonde, well-mannered- is a perfect portrait of a “good” girl and fails to resemble his preconceived image of her. “I hadn’t expected you’d be the girl,” he says, frustrated and disappointed. Moments later, the police rush in and Norah is convicted for Prebble’s murder, but Mayo remains unconvinced. Norah, the simple, charming girl he’d just met, could never brutally kill a man: she wasn’t the “type.” This dissatisfaction leads him to further investigate and eventually apprehend the real killer. Though we watch films to momentarily experience our repressed, forbidden desires, there is a sense of relief and affirmation when everything returns back to normal. In this sense, Norah’s release is cathartic in that it restores our faith in the dominant modes of mass media’s type-based thinking. The Blue Gardenia flirts with defying our expectations, only to confirm what we knew all along: Norah’s “kind” of girl- the sweet, girl next door type- could never be capable of such a heinous thing as murder. Mayo’s initial instinct- that Norah was innocent- turns out to be correct and from there the film is tidily resolved. Norah is “no longer the spider woman, but her opposite, the nurturing woman, the redeemed who saves the male hero from the corrupted world in which he lives.”3 Both Norah, the virtuous woman, and Mayo, the notorious bad boy figure, recede into the safe conventions of their genre; because she proves romantic love is possible, he can reform his womanizing ways and rejoin the proper hetero-normative institutions of marriage and family.

Though the ending represents a sort of reinstatement of universal thinking, Norah’s final identification with Rose, the true murderess, suggests the rigid distinction of “femme fatale” from “good girl” is more precarious than the film once thought. According to the guidelines of character types, Rose, the murderous bad girl, and Norah, the pretty, naïve good girl, should be nothing alike; however, they have many things in common: more than just their physical similarities, both wore a black taffeta dress on the night of the murder, both have been betrayed by cheating and deceitful men, and both feel devastated at having lost the one they loved. So while the film proves only a certain kind of woman commits murder, it equally suggests Norah could have very well been in Rose’s place. In the end, The Blue Gardenia leaves us with an unsettling question: if Norah, a supposed good girl, can relate to a brutal crime of passion, could the repressed urge for transgression no longer be reserved to a criminal class, but be potentially existent in us all?

norah-as-murderess

1. Adorno, Theodor. Dialectic of Enlightenment. Stanford University Press, 2002.

2. Smedley, Nick. A Divided World: Hollywood Cinema and Emigre Directors in the Era of Roosevelt and Hitler, 1933-1948. Intellect, 2011.

3. Murlanch, Isabel. “What’s in a Name? Construction of Female Images in Film Noir: The Case of Fritz Lang’s The Blue Gardenia.” Atlantis Journal, vol. 18, no. 1-2, 1996, 111.

Art Makes Life: Reality & Film in Nicholas Ray’s “In a Lonely Place”

Called his smartest and most shocking masterpiece, In a Lonely Place poetically renders director Nicholas Ray’s lifelong fascination with the misunderstood outsider.  Made in 1950, the picture is essentially about movies and movie people: Dix, our protagonist, is a washed up screenwriter who finds himself at the heart of a murder plot when a girl he was with turns up dead.  When Laurel, his alluring neighbor, sashays into the police station with an alibi, a passionate love affair ensues and the two become inseparable.  Alternating between the suspense and anxious paranoia of noir and the overpowering intensity of melodrama, In A Lonely Place is a devastating film you won’t soon forget.

“Art makes life,” Henry James once said.  In a Lonely Place represents a chilling refashioning of this old adage.  The English-American novelist may have meant that art imbues life with meaning, but in Ray’s film noir this sentiment becomes terrifyingly literal.  With the rise of Hollywood film, cinema increasingly dictated how we viewed the world.  A brilliant work of meta-fiction, In a Lonely Place meditates on film as an industry bent on manufacturing (and perpetuating) certain cultural narratives.  Though film is meant to represent reality and, thus, be mimetic, the Hollywood picture, Ray argues, often deceptively manipulates or exaggerates it.  In a Lonely Place represents an exercise in demystification as it dispels some of Tinseltown’s most enduring and prevalent myths, particularly that of the criminal, the hero, and- our most beloved-the happy ending.

in-a-lonely-place-2

The Myth of the Criminal

As In A Lonely Place progresses, Hollywood’s prevailing stories will indeed influence how Lochner and police locate possible suspects for investigation.  In detective fiction and horror movies, the murderer often outwardly looks like a deranged lunatic, a maniac who gains sick pleasure from inflicting pain on his victims; however, it is often the most ruthless killers who, in real life, appear the most normal.  This powerful myth of the “criminal” as a certain type of person infiltrates legal proceedings when Dix is accused of Mildred’s murder.  Dix, a screenwriter who admits to having killed dozens of people in “pictures,” finds himself ensnared by a fiction of his own creation: the language of murder mystery.  He can certainly be cast the part of a killer; Lochner initially suspects him because his long history of violence and run-ins with the law.  The police further investigate him, rather than Mildred’s boyfriend (the more logical suspect), for the central reason that Dix looks like a killer: he suffers from severe post-traumatic stress disorder after serving in the war and is infamous around Hollywood for his volatile, ill-temper.

Lochner’s logic for pursuing Dix as a prime suspect, then, rests on the fallacious premise of a universal “type” of criminal.  During questioning at the station, he vocalizes his astonishment at Dix’s lack of emotional response: “You’re told that the girl you were with last night was found in Benedict Canyon murdered, dumped from a moving car and what’s your reaction?  Shock?  Horror?  Sympathy?  No, just petulance at being questioned, a couple of feeble jokes. It’s puzzling, Mr. Steele.”  Tall and upright, Lochner menacingly hovers over Dix, who appears disinterested as he casually lays back in his chair.  Lochner may personify justice as a detective but he interrogates Dix for no other reason than that Dix suits the profile and was coincidentally with Mildred around the time of her murder.  His choice of nouns- shock, horror, sympathy-characterize a range of appropriate human reactions, none of which Dix displays at hearing the news.  This introduces an ideal (and ultimately false) portrait of normalcy which supposes all “normal” people will cope with grief in the exact same way.  Dix’s apparent indifference immediately implicates him because, according to Lochner, only a sick man, a cold-blooded killer, could appear so dispassionate and composed after being told a young woman was slaughtered.  The dramatic irony, of course, is that we know Dix can be a rather sensitive and vulnerable man despite his inclination for violence; soon after he leaves the office, he sends his condolences to Mildred’s family by mailing an anonymous bouquet of flowers.

Troubled and complex, Dix illuminates Ray’s lifelong interest in the outsider:

If there is a single image that sums up Nicholas Ray’s view of the human condition, it is that of the hunt…Where other directors have consistently explored the figure of the predator, Ray’s sympathies and interests have been, more often, with the prey.  Ray’s people are unstable, insecure, scared by their surroundings, or carrying within themselves the seeds of their own destruction” (Ebert).

If the film industry (here personified by the police and Lochner, who perpetuate its belief in a universal “type” of criminal) acts as hunter, Dix is the hunted.  But what is remarkable about In a Lonely Place is the blurring of that once clear distinction: Dix, who disseminates many of Hollywood’s driving myths as a screenwriter, is rendered another helpless viewer, disempowered by a stream of stereotypic description.  Lochner and law enforcement target him because his unpredictable fits of anger typecast him as a potential killer.  Later, his wisecrack response only intensifies their suspicion: “Well I grant you the jokes could’ve been better but I don’t see why the rest should worry you…that is unless you plan to arrest me for lack of emotion.”  Dix’s clever reply eerily foreshadows what is to come, considering Lochner will persecute him precisely for a “lack of emotion,” or breach of acceptable, supposedly normal behavior.  From the beginning of the interrogation, there exists an ominous sense that things are closing in: with every step, the intimidating and predatory Lochner literally corners Dix while he figuratively traps him in a frame for a crime (we later discover) he did not commit.

dix-lochner

Dix as Criminalized for Being Particular

Because Dix violates standard types, his world criminalizes him and will ultimately demonize him as other.  Dix defies simple definition, thus he must be articulated through universal abstractions like that of the criminal.  While speaking to Lochner, Brub tellingly admits: “It’s hard to tell what Dix feels about anything.  None of us could ever figure him out.”  This complete and utter inscrutability serves to bring him under law enforcement’s watchful suspicion.  His eccentric and rather odd behavior renders him inaccessible to the other characters, who feel uneasy at encountering someone they cannot readily understand.  This discomfort results, not from Dix’s actual status as a murderer, but from his outward failure to conform.  By being fiercely individual and particular, Dix threatens to dismantle the film industry’s fragile belief in “types” of people, which provides the very foundation of society itself.  “How would you feel if some joker like me told you that the girl you took home last night was murdered?” Lochner asks Brub.  “I’d come apart at the seams,” he replies.  “Yeah,” Lochner confirms, “most innocent men do.”  Lochner uses Brub as a reference point, a grounds for comparing Dix to the norm.  He, however, finds Dix wanting because, unlike Brub, Dix never shows a glimpse of emotion and is for the most part reserved.  Lochner’s hypothetical questioning suggests the criminal can be found by measuring and judging him against others, a strategy which rests on the erroneous assumption that any two individuals will be exactly alike.  While the word “most” proves he is gauging Dix against an overly broad idea of majority instances, it equally reveals his reliance on statistics as undependable and logically flawed, seeing as there will always be exceptions to every rule.  Lochner accuses Dix of murder and aggressively pursues him simply because he is different from most, which implies that-in much the same way that to have leftist leanings during the McCarthy era made one a traitorous commie-to be individual in the uneasy world of film noir was to be considered a criminal.

Lochner and the other characters continually misunderstand Dix’s peculiar behavior as a sign of his pathological urge to kill.  In the hauntingly disturbing scene where Dix reenacts Mildred’s murder, Sylvia argues he is a “sick man” because he seems to enjoy watching Brub almost choke her.  While Brub and Sylvia pretend to be the perpetrator and victim, Dix acts as the figurative director: “Now, you’re driving up the canyon, your left hand is on the wheel.  She’s telling you she did nothing wrong; you pretend to believe her.  You put your right arm around her neck.  You get to a lonely place in the road and you begin to squeeze.  You’re an ex GI, you know judo, you know how to kill a person without using your hands.  You’re driving the car and you’re strangling her.  You don’t see her bulging eyes or protruding tongue.  You love her and she’s deceived you.  You hate her patronizing attitude, she looks down at you.  She’s impressed with celebrities, she wants to get rid of you.”  Dix’s reconstruction reflects his own insecurities, particularly his fear of abandonment and betrayal.  Indeed, these lines foreshadow the concluding scenes between him and Laurel.  Nevertheless, his words also reflect his intuitive powers to reveal the motives of the actual murderer, the jealous Kessler, who killed Mildred after she broke a date to spend the evening with Dix.  What Sylvia perceives as evidence of his lust to kill is actually proof of a rare gift for perception and exceptional intelligence.  In real life, In a Lonely Place argues, the killer isn’t always the anti-social weirdo who eats lunch by himself- sometimes he’s the handsome jock who lives right next door.

Both an object of fear and source of fascination, Dix’s bizarre antics command the attention of others throughout the film.  Brub, Laurel, Sylvia, the police: all his friends and lovers obsessively preoccupy themselves with figuring him out.  But as Sylvia’s assessment of Steele demonstrates, their perception of him is often inaccurate.  The world’s persistent misreading of Dix and his role in the murder speaks to the limitations of film and, ultimately, of perception.  If film is a series of images that reproduce the empirical reality of everyday objects, perception is a kind of film: it processes concrete, material stimuli to construct a comprehensible image of the world. Sylvia creates an “image” of Dix which, because it is shown to be false, serves to expose the natural artifice of all images.  Like our own naturally limited perceptions, movies are fabricated: they are not real.

dix-friends

The Outsider &  the New Hero

Though Hollywood usually portrays its hero as the perfect embodiment of his society’s ideals, In a Lonely Place suggests the new hero is actually an outsider.  Dix’s glitzy, status-conscious Los Angeles essentially views him as a forbidding threat because he revolts against their materialistic culture.  In the very opening scene while Dix and friends dine at an exclusive Hollywood hot spot, Mel tries to persuade him to adapt an inane bestseller for the screen; however, his firm refusal (“I won’t work on something I don’t like”) reveals he will not compromise his artistic vision for commercial success.  This poses a stark contrast to other members of the film industry like the director whom Dix disdainfully calls a “popcorn salesman” for shamelessly making and remaking the same picture for twenty years.  While most other Hollywood insiders have no integrity or respect for the art form, Dix is unwilling to write any script that does not reflect who he is as an artist and individual.  Visual elements confirm his position as outsider.  Whereas Mel and Lloyd wear light tan suits, Dix dresses himself in a black blazer and quirky bow tie, which suggests he is but a reluctant member of this Hollywood culture.  Dix exists in a merciless and highly competitive world where a person’s value is determined by the number of hits he has at the box office.  If someone fails to produce a hit every x-amount of years, the film machine inevitably spits him out: he is “washed-up” or of little consequence to the Hollywood A-list.  Dix cares little for these superficial indications of success and is thus rendered a misfit in this glittery world of celebrity and scandal.

Dix’s exclusion from his surroundings reveals more about the state of his culture than it does about his own moral character.  Greedy and avaricious, selfish and success-obsessed, the post-war film industry seemed to have lost sight of the higher ideals of the New Deal era:

In the 1940s Hollywood could no longer invest its male heroes with triumphant New Deals values of self-denial and social responsibility…Instead, male heroes acted as solitary repositories of ideals that appeared to have been lost in society at large.  This called forth a new type of male image, the stoic, isolated, often misunderstood male, whose personal code of ethics existed precariously in a corrupt, greedy, and violent world” (Smedley 152).

Dix fits this profile of the new hero to the tee.  In the same opening scene, he violently confronts Junior, a major studio head, after he insults Charlie, a dear friend and washed up actor (much like himself).  A true champion of the underdog, Dix despises meanness and pettiness and will go to great lengths to protect a friend’s dignity.  “What’s the matter with you?” he scowls insulted, “don’t you shake hands with an actor?”  The simple act of shaking hands reflects a profound recognition of someone else’s humanity, which suggests Junior’s refusal to shake Charlie’s hand is more than just a rude gesture: it is a smug expression of superiority.  Dix will not partake in his peers’ snobbish pretension and treats Charlie warmly and jovially despite his status as a Hollywood nobody.  When Dix asks Junior to recall the vital part Charlie had in making him millions, he replies, with an air of condescension, that “pop made a star out of a drunkard.”  His malicious attempts at humiliating Charlie send Dix over the edge, provoking him to violence in front of the whole restaurant.  This seems a rather normal occurrence as his old flame Fran says, almost unsurprised: “There goes Dix again.”  Hot-tempered and uncontrollably confrontational, Dix begins as at odds with his world, which no longer shares in his noble values of integrity and honor.

in-a-lonely-place-3

The Myth of the Happy Ending

In a Lonely Place not only undermines the misconception of a certain type of man as hero and criminal, it unravels one of our most cherished Hollywood myths- the myth that romantic love is possible.  Ray masterfully constructs a romance narrative only to have it collapse on itself. Though Dix truly loves Laurel, his bad temper increases his propensity for violence and, by the end of the film, sentences him eternally to that “lonely place” in the road.

What disintegrates their relationship?  Sure, there’s the fact that Dix is suspected of murder for most of the film.  But it’s mostly the fact that the investigation surrounding him feeds Laurel’s anxieties about disturbing dimensions of his character.  This atmosphere of suspicion infects their once blissful love affair, promising it will end in disaster.

Dix and Laurel’s ill-fated fling suggests Ray has significant doubts about love’s redemptive power.  Surely, Laurel loves Dix, but she cannot reform him: he is a tormented soul who’s too outraged, too out of step with his world.  Instead, love is depicted as a beautiful but fleeting thing, easily transformable into its opposite: hate, or worse, fear.  Laurel seems to recognize long-term love’s impossibility early on: before Dix, she has a reputation for leaving men and repeats, in a sort of symbolic refrain, that it “wouldn’t have worked” when talking about her past relationship to Baker.  Though movies generally provide a hopeful, even naive, portrait of romance, Laurel and Dix cannot “work” and never get their giddy happily-ever-after: only irreversible realizations about each other that culminate in a poignant break up.

But the question remains: why end the film this way?  I would argue Ray tragically dooms their romance to challenge Hollywood’s claim to a universal “type” of love.  Facing unprecedented numbers of divorce, 1950s America could no longer take seriously the belief in the Hollywood happy ending:

By the end of the 1940s the American public was jaded, and it was getting harder for Hollywood to sustain many of its driving myths, one of the most important of which had had to do with the miracles of love and romance.  In the wake of many hasty wartime marriages, there was now a new American phenomenon of divorce.  A happy marriage and family were not the only possible outcome for lovers” (McClure).

To the disenchanted post-war audience, the stereotypic myth of love as everlasting now seemed hopelessly unrealistic.  Viewers were no longer content with unicorns and lollipops, with gorgeous couples prancing off into the sunset- they wanted to see faithful depictions of their lives as they actually were.  In a Lonely Place resounds as a rallying cry against such fairy tale “happy endings.”  Though most Hollywood films, even today, refuse to acknowledge sadness and the staggering reality of divorce, Ray’s masterpiece gives voice to the millions of other “possible outcomes for lovers.” 

The Ethics of Intervention: Suicide & Eric Steel’s “The Bridge”

Based on Tad Friend’s 2003 New Yorker piece “Jumpers,” Eric Steel’s disturbing documentary follows one year in the life of the mythical Golden Gate Bridge.  Over the course of 2004, Steel and his team recorded over 10,000 hours of footage, capturing 23 of the year’s 24 tragic suicides.

Since the bridge’s opening in 1937, an estimated 1,700 people have committed suicide by hurling themselves 245 feet into the frigid San Francisco Bay below.  On average, every 2 weeks another person jumps.

What makes the Golden Gate Bridge such an attractive place to commit suicide?  As Friend observes, “the Golden Gate is unrivaled as a symbol: it is a threshold that presides over the end of the continent and a gangway to the void beyond.”  For many, this marvel of construction stands as a gateway to the golden west: Silicon Valley, Tinsel Town, and all the glamor and shimmering possibility of success.  Its mighty stature is a testament to the grand things man can accomplish.  But for others, the Golden Gate is a bitter reminder of failure.

golden gate bridge

Besides its morbid mystique, many choose the Golden Gate Bridge for practical reasons: a 98% fatality rate pretty much ensures you’ll perish if you jump.  Other forms of suicide (overdosing, shooting yourself, hanging) are less likely to be successful.  Plus if you choose to make the fatal plunge, you eliminate the possibility that a loved one will find you and, the idea goes, spare them (some) trauma.  Most who jump die on impact; those unlucky enough to survive hitting water at 75 miles per hour drown or die of hypothermia.  

Reactions to The Bridge can best be described as divisive.  Critic Stephen Holden of the New York Times called the documentary “one of the most moving and brutally honest films about suicide,” while critic Andrew Culver of The Guardian gave it a harsher review, only awarding it 1 of 5 stars and claiming “it could be the most morally loathsome film ever made.”

So is The Bridge tactlessly morbid or remarkably sensitive?  discomforting or viscerally fascinating? A tastelessly exploitative snuff film or a profoundly empathetic look into a topic that is traditionally taboo?

Like Culver and many other critics, in some ways, I am appalled by Steel’s project.  While making the film, Steel hid his intentions from both the families of the deceased and bridge authorities.  Rather than be forthcoming about the real intentions of his undertaking, he told the Golden Gate National Recreation Area that he hoped to “capture the powerful, spectacular intersection of monument and nature that takes place everyday at the Golden Gate Bridge.”  More despicable was his deception of the victims’ families.  While interviewing, he never made it known that he had footage of their loved ones jumping to their doom.  Steel packages desperate people at their most hopeless final moments into a film for a profit, which many have condemned as ruthlessly self-seeking and insensitive.  

On a human level, I’m even more troubled by the thought that Steel and his crew could have done something to stop the suicides but chose not to.  Were they watching people jump in real time?  Or did they pose cameras on the bridge 24 hours a day and only see the gruesome deaths after the fact when it was too late to stop them?  I’m not entirely sure of Steel’s methods but I do find the possibility that people were allowed to die for the purposes of spectacle and entertainment deeply disturbing.  

As such, The Bridge raises interesting questions about the ethics of intervention: when do filmmakers have a moral obligation to intervene-rather than record- preventable events?  when do ordinary people?  

It’s hard to believe that a person could witness another in danger and do nothing but it happens all the time.  In a controversial cover storyThe New York Post featured a haunting picture of a man about to be hit by an oncoming subway train.  The man, Ki Suk Han, 58 year old father of one, had been arguing with street vendor, Naeem Davis, 30, when the altercation exploded into physical violence and Davis pushed him off the platform.  Freelance photographer, R. Umar Abbasi, captured Han’s chilling final moments for the The New York Post, who featured the photo under the tasteless headline “Doomed.”

doomed

Since its publication, the photo has ignited controversy.  Why had Abbasi chosen to immortalize such a horrific incident instead of take action to stop it?  Journalists and the public alike have expressed outrage that Abbasi chose to snap a picture instead of save Han from such a gruesome end.  But, in my opinion, Abbasi isn’t the only one who deserves opprobrium.  Eighteen other people witnessed the devastating event.  These panicked bystanders watched as Han struggled for 60- some speculate up to 90- seconds to drag himself back onto the platform.  Not a single person tried to pull him to safety.  

Like Abbasi, the mercilessly determined photojournalist obsessed with getting his story, Steel exploits the dreadful and macabre for his own gain.  And like the cowardly onlookers who do nothing to rescue a poor man from avoidable demise, bystanders in The Bridge often walk past the anguished and distraught without a second look.  At several points in the film, a troubled spirit walks along the bridge clearly contemplating whether to jump and no one stops.  Giddy tourists with cameras and visors simply stroll past, too concerned with capturing the splendor of the bay against the Golden Gate to notice another person unraveling before their eyes.  Kevin Helms, one of the mere 26 people to have survived the jump, confesses that as he pondered taking his own life, he struck a deal with himself: if one-just one- person stopped to ask him what was wrong, he wouldn’t jump.  No one did.  The only person to approach him as he paced back and forth sobbing was a German tourist.  “Will you take my picture?” she asked, completely oblivious to the fact that he was upset.  

More than just explore suicide, The Bridge meditates on the troubling ways we’ve lost our humanity.  In an increasingly alienated, desensitized culture, we find ourselves less and less unsettled by the agony of others.  If we don’t amuse ourselves with the humiliation of celebrities in tabloids or of hopefuls on reality T.V., we’re alarmingly indifferent to other people’s suffering.  Like movie goers who voyueristically glimpse the triumphs and torments of characters on screen but feel relieved to leave the whole experience in the theater, in real life, we often prefer to witness the drama of our fellow human beings but not interfere.  

The photographer/filmmaker is a powerful metaphor for the detached bystander.  Rather than participate directly in the action he observes, he simply documents it.  Something about recording with a camera estranges him from the tragedies he witnesses.  After saving a young woman from hurling herself off the bridge, a photographer explains why it took him so long to act: “I started taking pictures of her on the ledge and I realized that this girl was about to jump. But when I was behind a camera, it was almost as if it wasn’t real cause I was looking through the lens. I guess I was waiting for her to jump because I thought there was nothing I could do.”  Later, he compares himself to a National Geographic photographer filming a tiger: the tiger may have been running toward him, but he was so excited at the prospect of getting footage that he forgot in a couple of seconds that tiger would pounce.

What redeems The Bridge from Steel’s deplorable methods is this underlying plea for action. It may be hard to comprehend the anguish and despair of someone at the nadir of their life; in many ways, another person’s psyche is like the Golden Gate, mysterious and shrouded in fog.  But should we suspect another is afflicted with terrible self-loathing, tormented with sorrow and pain, we should have the humanity and compassion to stop and utter those three simple, yet life-altering, words: are you ok?

Deceptions & Lies: Bart Layton’s “The Imposter”

Disturbingly haunting and so outrageous it’s hard to believe, The Imposter sketches the real-life story of master con artist Frederic Boudin.  Boudin, a smooth-talking French man from a broken home, had been making a living impersonating abused and neglected children when he decided to pose as Nicholas Barclay, a boy who went missing in 1994 from San Antonio. Though Boudin beared no resemblance to the missing child (Barclay was an all-American blonde-haired, blue-eyed type; Boudin, an ebony-haired, brown-eyed French-Algerian nearly 7 years older), the Barclay family expressed no doubt that Boudin was their long-lost son when he resurfaced in Spain 3 years later.

How could a family not recognize their own flesh and blood?” is the maddening question that insistently hovers over The Imposter. “How,” as the real Nicholas’s sister, Carey Gibson, so eloquently exclaims, “could the Barclays be so fucking stupid?!”

But it’s not just the Barclays Boudin dupes: the FBI, the American embassy, the eager media impatient to tell the incredible tale of a missing boy’s safe return home-all fall for Boudin’s not-so-convincing get up. As we watch clips of Boudin’s interviews with local news stations-his hair clearly bleached, his answers delivered in a charming, unmistakably French accent-we wonder how any rational person with functioning eyes and half a brain could have believed such an obvious charade. The idea that this man was Nicholas Barclay was preposterous, borderline absurd.

The Imposter gains its momentum from this sheer improbability. But what makes the story even more compelling is that it’s absolutely true. British director Bart Layton relays this perplexing tale from multiple perspectives, including Boudin’s, the master of disguise himself. In much the same way that Hitchcock forces us to identify with a schizophrenic killer in his groundbreaking Psycho, Layton compels us to feel sympathy for this diabolical con man who, as a boy, was unloved and left alone. Layton does a genius job of distracting us from Boudin’s totally despicable behavior: throughout much of the documentary, we find ourselves susceptible to his distorted fun house logic, even enthralled by his sociopathic charm. In many ways, we’re like the Barclays themselves: naïve and ready to be fooled.

When Boudin makes some troubling accusations 45 minutes later, we’re ready to believe him-despite the fact that he’s made a career of deceiving people. He’s manipulative, convincing, charming, there’s even some well-founded evidence to support his suspicions. But truth is hard to pin down in The Imposter. Without giving too much away, about halfway through the documentary the primary question is no longer whether a family could plausibly mistake a stranger for their son- it’s why they would. As Layton shifts from the grieving, simple, small town family to the hard-boiled, film-noir type cop to Boudin himself, we find ourselves flung between competing versions of events but uncertain of any of their validity: we’re in a disorienting courtroom, each party testifying on its own behalf-and each accusingly pointing a finger at someone else.

Thrilling, baffling, suspenseful, The Imposter is a must see for those who relish mysteries…but are at ease without ever finding the answers.

The Descent: A Film Review

 

the descent

 

British horror thriller The Descent is probably one of the most original scary movies of our time. There’s no sensationalistic violence or needless gore here. Instead of rely on the obvious, cliched gags of the horror genre, The Descent plays on our most primal fears: fear of enclosed places, fear of the dark. The title may literally refer to six women’s harrowing drop into the depths of an eerie cave system, but it equally refers to their horrifying descent into unimaginable madness and terror. Below the surface, each woman finds herself in a kind of hell, an inferno where nightmares are realized and man is reduced to his most savage form.

After suffering the loss of her husband and daughter, Sarah (Shauna MacDonald) is devastated and emotionally fragile. To help her heal, her best friends Beth (Alex Reid) and Juno (Natalie Mendoza) plan a girls trip away. But this is no mimosa and bed and breakfast type trip- the girls plan on trekking through the Appalachians and exploring its hidden caves. If writer-director Neil Marshall does anything well, it’s violate our expectations. Apart from featuring an all-female cast (a move virtually unprecedented in horror flick history), Marshall chooses a bunch of bad-ass adrenaline junkie chicks as his stars. I’m not going to lie: the feminist in me was satisfied to finally see women escape their helpless damsel-in-distress roles and scale cave walls. In fact, The Descent indulges in no screaming, pitiful pleas of spare me: when cave-dwelling monsters show up 40 minutes later, Marshall’s women remained tough and determined and defend themselves.

Marshall and cinematographer Sam McCurdy do a spectacular job of creating a near unbearable sense of claustrophobia throughout the film. Though enclosed spaces aren’t scary in themselves, the idea of being trapped in a confined cave is enough to give most of us a panic attack. I myself could barely make it through some of the more excrutiating scenes when the girls were navigating through the cave’s passageways. Why? It’s not fear of the cramped quarters-it’s fear of the panic we’ll create for ourselves. In one scene when Sarah gets stuck while crawling through a tunnel, it’s her own anxiety that puts her in danger: “Sarah, just breathe!” her friend Beth tries to comfort her, “Calm down…you just have to breathe.” Much like Sarah, we produce our own fear as we imagine what might be lurking just around the corner in the dark.

What makes The Descent so downright disturbing are not the caves or monsters they encounter (though those are also pretty darn scary), but the demons they must confront while far from civilization. The setting of a cave turns out to be a genius setting for a horror movie; in Freudian psychology, a cave hints at the dark underbelly of the psyche where repressed fears reveal themselves and deviant longings lurk.

The Descent, it seems, is just as much a literal descent underground as it is a metaphorical regression to our more beastly animal nature.  Marshall’s cave setting makes it possible for the women to justify committing the most heinous acts against each other.  In one devastating scene, tough girl Juno is slaying cave monsters left and right only to accidentally kill her friend Beth.  Rather than rush to her aid or even just apologize for stabbing her, Juno looks in horror at what she’s done and leaves Beth to die there.  Sarah also becomes merciless when she takes her revenge at the film’s end and stabs Juno.  If we take the cave as symbolic of the Freudian unconscious, it makes sense that Marshall’s characters turn on each other.  In the real, civilized world, it would be unconscionable to act on our vengeful desires; in the wilderness, it’s perfectly acceptable to stab our husband-stealing friend in the foot and leave her there to be ravaged by man-eating monsters.  

In the end, The Descent is not a horror film in the traditional sense- it is an unsettling reminder of our potential for evil.  As the title itself suggests, ruthless barbarism and selfishness are a part of our heritage as a species.  Put good people in dire enough circumstances and they’ll do unthinkable things to each other.