Local Color (1977)

14 04 2014

What are the things that make us sad, that disappoint us? The things that make us cover our faces because we’re exhausted and long for a bed to fall asleep in and hide from everything else? It might be failed relationships, the rent, hating your job, not having a job, paying the rent, or even death. Sometimes it’s none of these things, sometimes it’s just the crushing weight of our daily routines  This sounds like a rather heavy and ominous way to introduce a film, but Mark Rappaport’s Local Color is a study of that kind of exhaustation. Calling it listlessness seems like an understatement, for as much as Rappaport’s characters live and breathe in an exciting and functional world, it is that same world that severely limits their movements and censors their happiness.

1

Andrea and Andrew are twins, sometimes referred to as Andy and Andy who are both going through romantic troubles. Andrew’s boyfriend is more and more bewildered at home, and shows an increasing interest in the older women at the office. Andrea, on the other hand, is becoming bored with her husband Fred. For all we know, Fred is still interested in her, but Andrea wants to find something new. She flippantly tells her friend Viv that if a man walks up to her, she’ll gladly sleep with him. Meanwhile, Alvin and Lil are concerned about their teenage daughter and her promiscuity. Alvin’s fears manifest as jealousy as he proclaims a sexual interest in his daughter, perhaps specifically to alienate and frustrate his wife.

2

Perhaps it doesn’t even need to be mentioned but Local Color is a movie about the big things. It’s about the invisible forces that regulate and more importantly, limit our daily life. In a word, capitalism. Yes, that might not sound like the most original or interesting subject to criticize, but Rappaport does not formally display his politics like Jean-Luc Godard would. Sure, he has made a very stylized film here, but the film’s political points come from the personal, which are, in my personal opinion, two things that can never truly be separated. Sure, he is able to visualize what he identifies as symptoms of this existence (the glacier imagery at the beginning anticipates the restless movements of the protagonist) but the film’s central ideology isn’t projected through the words of the individuals. It’s instead revealed through their isolation, their inability to grieve, and their anxiety from life’s repetition.

3

Early on in the film, Andy’s boyfriend, Brian, tells us about Pangaea, the super-continent that once contained all of today’s seven continents as one land mass. He tells this to Lil who seems terrified by the idea that New York City was once below the equator, she even says “that’s scary.” “It’s exciting” responds Brian who goes on to suggest that there’s something exhilarating about a world that is constantly changing. Rappaport seems enamored by things that seem to be contradictions. The sadness of his protagonist might come from a world that is always the same, but one of these subjects literally tells us that the world is constantly changing. Both are true, which sounds like an intentionally obtuse idea. Instead, I would like to suggest that the repetition of our daily lives becomes even more upsetting when we’re forced to consider the way the world is constantly evolving. Our progress seems to be slower than the continents drifting in the place where they’re to be found today.

4

It would be fair for one to ask “so what the fuck is wrong with these people?” but no answer would do justice to the pressures that they and of course, we face from existing daily. Rappaport’s perspective is privileged, the film’s makeup is composed almost entirely of white young adults living in New York City. I understand the problem of his illustration, and how it limits the film’s universal reach. The characters here are not struggling to have food on the table, instead the food has become dull and tasteless. I think it’s important to acknowledge this difference in experience, because even though the frustration of the individuals in Local Color matches a malaise that I understand, but it doesn’t contain all of human suffering. Sure, we all suffer, but we don’t endure and experience the same thing and to suggest there is a universal experience threatens to erase the suffering voices who are below Rappaport’s characters on the social ladder.

5

With all of that said, I think Rappaport has made a film that attempts to achieve something universal. He’s attempting the same thing Yasujiro Ozu did with Tokyo Story weaving together a fully formed portrait of something heartbreaking within a critique of our capitalism. Ozu’s film, a canonized arthouse classic that has been discussed endlessly, is seldom seen as a political film. For me, though, it is one of the most damning critiques ever committed to film, if only because it’s dissection of capitalism is embedded in a story that deals with death, something that is “deeper” than the system that regulates and oppresses us daily. Ozu’s film is so crucial because it shows these dilemmas as related. Rappaport’s film tries to do the same thing and he doesn’t exactly fail, but his vision ends up working as smoothly as Ozu’s. It’s less a criticism because I am holding it up to the standard of one of the best films of all-time, and more just a description of how everything comes together for Rappaport: sometimes his protagonist are too perfectly in tune with these invisible forces. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with some deadpan, theory-talk. The fact that the protagonists are wise and eloquent enough to pinpoint and describe the very things that are causing them such anguish is the one thing that gives us hope for their and our fight for happiness.

6





The Women (1939)

7 04 2014

I hesitate calling this George Cukor’s “opus” but it’s still certainly the biggest film of his I’ve seen. That’s vague, but a film like The Women has such limitless possibility, that it’s a bit overwhelming to even try to begin at all. I don’t think I’ve seen a film where each reading seems to contradict the others. Some might see the film what it is at its surface: a satire of gossipy women, but such a view is remarkably short-sighted to me, and threatens to destroy the film’s more impressive illuminations. The most succinct and radical of which is that in a world that only physically consists of women, men still have control over them. Sure, the gossip and fights are entertaining, but Cukor’s film manages to live on because it offers something that has to go beyond the simplistic critique of “catty” women.

1

Mary Haines seems to have what many dream of: love and money. The former may be compromised, though. Her husband, Stephen, is having an affair with Crystal, a lowly perfume girl. Sylvia, who has an unhealthy interest in tearing down the Haines marriage, goes out of her way to arrange Mary an appointment with the gossipy manicurist who informed her of the affair. In a cruel twist, Mary learns about her husband’s affair from a complete stranger. Distraught, her mother tries to convince her to keep her marriage alive if only for her daughter. She takes her time to make a decision, but finally decides upon a divorce and to move away from her posh New York City lifestyle to a dude ranch in Reno. While there, she gets word that Stephen is now married to Crystal, but that their relationship has also begun to reach it rough spots.

2

Maybe the best place to begin with The Women is what it isn’t. At least, what it isn’t to me. To me, it isn’t a “satire” because that denotes something flighty, and ultimately inconsequential. Satire usually suggests social commentary, which The Women has, but it suggests a rather benign type of commentary. It’s the type of commentary that is not interested in dismantling the powers that be, but instead revels in their absurdity. There are parts of Cukor’s film that work as satire, particularly when the titular women’s conversations get framed around as being combative, something the film physically illustrates with a rather bizarre fighting sequence during the film’s brief visit to Reno. I think categorizing the entire film as a satire is a disservice, though, as a satire would be content with just presenting a group of women, self-absorbed and materialistic, as being vapid and insincere. This is not what The Women is, it is far more.

3

The dialogue can begin to tell us something about what lies beneath Cukor’s carnival of feminine hjinx. The film’s opening has this comic energy that makes it easy for one to get lost in what the film presents on the surface. The momentum of the introduction seems to channel that of a lengthy tracking shot, but Cukor never actually does this physically. He dissolves, but the pace of the performers every time a new frame bubbles to the surface is so rapid that the editing seems invisible. The film regains the more conventional Hollywood flow, but the opening’s breakneck speed is important in that it introduces us into a film world that doesn’t have an equilibrium. Indeed, things will continue to seem “off” for the audience as the film continues and the reassuring presence of a white, heterosexual male is nowhere to be found. Men still exist in The Women, but the fact that they are not physically represented is in itself, a slyly novel move on Cukor’s part.

4

The presence of the male gaze is not absent in The Women. Again, no physical men, but most queer readings of the film suggest that many of the supporting women, particularly Sylvia take on the male gaze as their own. That’s certainly a sound explanation when she enters the perfume store looking for Crystal. Her and Edith take on the eyes of a man, specifically Stephen, as they enter the store looking for a woman worthy of a man’s desire. This all plays out like simple narrative proceedings under Cukor’s touch where as they would cumbersome in someone else’s hands. Think of Joe Swanberg’s musings on the male gaze in The Zone which I discussed here. Swanberg, although, admirable is inside his own head too much. I like what he’s trying to say, but he says it in his convoluted, ultra heavy, and woefully heterosexual way. Cukor makes the same point, and it breezes by and his queer atmosphere (so to speak) is more beneficial (and relevant) to the experiment.

5

More than Cukor’s own queering of the women’s genre picture, is a profound and kind of heartbreaking critique of a patriarchal society. The film’s saddest moment involves periphery characters. In regards to sex, one proclaims “you can’t trust men, that’s all they want” which is met with “what else do we have to give?” On the surface, this seems kind of backwards, as if Cukor himself is buying into the idea that women are nothing more than sex. The quote reveals, in a rather cynical and deflating way that men often perform their courting (or dating or just “being nice”) all because of sex. Women being viewed by the opposite sex as good for nothing but intercourse is not the most unique idea ever, but its position in regards to Cukor’s world, one dominated by women physically but all of whom are still controlled by men.

6

I think that’s the lasting image of The Women. Yes, it ends with Mary running back into the arms of her cheating husband, but the film doesn’t grant us the satisfaction of their conventional happy ending. If anything, the film’s attitude in the last five minutes seems to suggest that what is happening is somewhat cyclical. The “gold-digger” Crystal, whose designated “low” class status just cries out for more attention that Cukor unfortunately doesn’t give her, gracefully accepts her reunion of a world without financial stability. “Well, girls, looks like it’s back to the perfume counter for me” before putting in one last zinger. Crystal is put back in her place, but so is Mary. Equilibrium has been restored, but everything to this point has suggested that said equilibrium is something to challenge, not accept. It’s a force that is so imposing (again illustrated by the absence of men, but their ability to control the women in the film) that returning to it seems comforting.  Comparing The Women to a film as subdued and observant as Mikio Naruse’s Flowing seems awkward and forced, but Cukor’s protagonists are limited like Naruse’s protagonist. Perhaps its problematic to make such a connection with the differences in class, but Cukor’s women also seem to fall victim to this: ““If they move even a little, they quickly hit the wall.”

7





La Carrière de Suzanne / Suzanne’s Career (1963)

2 04 2014

Even with one feature film and one entry into his Moral Tales collection under his belt, I feel that by 1963, Eric Rohmer was still finding his voice. One senses the typical ethos of the New Wave sprinkled over what would become Rohmer’s primary concern throughout his career: heterosexual relationships and how people (primarily men) are really bad at them. The result is that Rohmer’s typical aesthetic (one that some may call uncinematic, but that I find to be fitting with his observations) is missing and replaced with something more typical of Godard and Truffaut during this period. There’s indeed a youthful, energetic, but sloppy quality to Suzanne’s Career. John Cassavetes’ Shadows might be an even more accurate comparison in that it’s an earlier effort that is a perfect introductory text to the filmmaker and what they’re about, but the more dense material would follow afterwards.

1

The shy and quiet Bertrand is best friends with outgoing schmoozer Guillaume. The former spends most of his time alone, the latter flirting. Bertrand is quick to dismiss any idea of jealousy towards his best friends, even more so when Suzanne enters the picture. Guillaume is fond of her, or at least he enjoys spending time with her. Of course, in keeping with his cool demeanor he never lets any signs of true affection show. He eventually moves on and does so with little trouble, “Her body is not bad, but she’s got my mother’s name” Meanwhile, Bertrand grows increasingly bitter towards her. Through voice over, he tells us that it’s hate that is fueling his feelings for Suzanne. He has no interest in her romantically, and repeatedly tells us that she’s actually quite ugly. Yet, this women occupies a great deal of space in his brain.

2

It seems that the women in these earlier Rohmer efforts are a little flat, as if they exist as accessories to the men. His best films, weirdly enough, are the ones that make women the focus, and I felt he kind of figured this out sometime in the 1980s. Full Moon in Paris and The Green Ray are the epitome of this, and two of his very best films. One could argue that the absence of such a character in this film to be a problem, but in a way it perfectly fits in with the mentality of Guillaume and more importantly, Bertrand. The latter is only able to see Suzanne in relation to himself, and because she won’t love him he puts up pillars, defending himself from the realization that he’s hopelessly in love with her. Basically, he acts more and more like an asshole to prove that he doesn’t feel anything for her. He only sees her in relation to his own unhappiness, rather than an individual breathing, living, and existing with her own concerns and anxieties. Bertrand tells us at the film’s end that Suzanne has “won the battle” but since, you know, had her own life outside of his brain, she probably never considered that they were in a competition to make the other person miserable.

3

This would not be the last time Rohmer made a point of calling out asshole male behavior, and he would pinpoint the inherent hypocrisy of the “beta male” with sharper precision in other films. Still, the broad strokes he uses here makes this film more widely applicable. Bertrand is an awful character, but Rohmer’s genius is not that he is able to enjoy the ugliness of his protagonists. No, he’s bothered by it just as much as we (hopefully) are, but the conversations isn’t meant to end at look at this fucking awful human being. The reality is there’s something of Bertrand in myself, and the same goes for any number of my “sensitive” male friends.

4

There’s been plenty of more in-depth pieces about the phenomenon of the hypocritically misogynist “nice guy” and I’m not here to rehash that argument. Rohmer himself has quickly and effortlessly translated the central idea into this film: that the men who aren’t explicitly assholes to women don’t inherently deserve the love and respect just by not being an asshole. One of the most interesting developments of this argument is that assholish behavior doesn’t have to explicit, and instead Bertrand (and many sad boys after him) bottled up their bitterness to women who didn’t pay him back for his ability to perform as pleasant with love or sex. Of course, I love to think I’m personally above this childish line of thought, but returning to Rohmer’s genius, one doesn’t have to completely emulate Bertrand to find his thoughts awfully familiar.

5

My intention here is to navigate the reality of being a lonely, sad dude without acting like a horny, entitled idiot. I get where Bertrand is coming from. I’ve been alone, unloved, and felt like those two things would never change. Hell, I feel like that today. I can’t even give some type of uplifting platitude that true love will find you or whatever. However, what I can say is that the sadness one feels is never the only one that exists.  We all suffer emotionally and just because your pain is yours and is only one you can feel does not mean that your ability to empathize with others should be shut off. This is not an easy thing to realize or even to apply in practice in your heart and head. In fact, the easy thing to do would be to complain about people you want to bone not noticing how nice you are to them. It sucks to be alone, but no one’s romantic anguish should come at the expense of reasonable behavior. Love going unreturned sucks, but I dunno, deal with it. Cry and jerk off and do anything but sacrifice your ability to be compassionate and empathetic.

6

My appreciation for Rohmer and this film in particular might be lost somewhere in the conversation about “sad boys” but I find the need to clarify that he’s done more than introduce another asshole into cinema. He’s done that with Bertrand, sure, but he’s introduced an asshole that should make any attentive male viewer reflect critically on how they view themselves and how they actually act. The film’s more crucial point might be the finale, which punctuates all of Bertrand’s musings with the reality that by seeing all of these women in relation to himself, he’s doesn’t know either of them. The result is that he’s as alone as he’s ever been. The film is not a tragedy of Bertrand’s collapse, but instead an investigation in the problems in how he thinks. In a way, this film is the antithesis of Spike Jonze’s Her, a film that sympathizes with the protagonist’s subconscious identifying as a martyr via heartache. Bertrand probably sees himself similarly, but Rohmer doesn’t accept this position. He makes it known that Bertrand is not the only person to ever feel lonely, and his unrest is no excuse to be, well, only concerned about himself.





Viola (2012)

1 04 2014

Most of what I’ve read about Matías Piñeiro’s third feature places the latest work of this young filmmaker alongside Jacques Rivette and Eric Rohmer. While I see the similarities, I hesitate to proclaim that he’s working in the same territory as those filmmakers. To begin with, I think they’re already plenty different to begin with, and thus even a conscious melding of their styles would produce something unique. Sure, the characters are loquacious like Rohmer’s, and yes they’re actors like many of the characters in Rivette’s film. Aside from the carefree sensation that the latter filmmaker evokes, it’s hard to pinpoint more similarities. While Piñeiro reminds me of these two masters at times, this film is reflective of a filmmaker trying something completely new and the result is something that even when frustrating, is utterly hypnotic.

1

A group of actresses are preparing for a production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. They perform it in front of a small group, primarily composed of males, and giggle about said audience’s lecherous eyes afterwards. They continue to practice afterwards, until the point where their interactions seems to be centered around the play’s dialogue. The lines repeat, but every time they’re spoken they are granted a new context. This group runs into Viola, who lives with her boyfriend and makes money by selling bootleg DVDs. Her relationship with said boyfriend seems to have reached a state of homeostasis, but when she discusses her relationship with the actresses, they question the authenticity of his actions. The problem, they say, lies in the fact that he’s performing romantic gestures, particularly giving her a kiss after he arrives home. Their romance has become automated, which is ultimately a sign of its death. Viola goes home and anticipates a more spontaneous display of affection from her lover.

2

Unfortunately, my description of the film’s narrative makes it read as though it unfolds like any other. If cinema is a language to be used to describe what words fail to, then Viola is a runaway success because any description of this film is a great disservice. The aforementioned comparison to Rivette gives one a general idea of the film’s unique structure and attitude but even Rivette’s playfulness seemed grounded by reality. If Rivette’s world is one where the characters are shooting the breeze and unbound by any typical narrative functions, then Piñeiro’s world where the characters are similarly easy-going are not just free of conventional narrative, but of gravity itself. Maybe this is hyperbole, but my suggestion is one that aptly describes the film: it manages to feel free and weightless in a way that might not easily digestible, but again, it is so unique.

3

The frustration I feel from trying to describe Viola is indicative of the frustration that comes from watching it. I feel that its audience will inevitably be limited to “learned” viewers, not necessarily ones conversant in Shakespeare but at least viewers that want to feel something different. Part of the film’s novelty, a word I’m not using negatively, comes from the fact that it doesn’t feel like anything else I’ve ever seen. Of course, one must crave this unique experience or they will likely be overwhelmed with boredom. Yes, there’s been slow art films and there’s been films “where nothing happens” but that doesn’t quite describe Viola. A lot actually happens in this film, but the way it communicates to the audience is not particularly accommodating and what it is communicating isn’t exactly clear. Mystifying might be the best way to describe it because it is as fascinating as it is frustrating, but it also never feels heavy.

4

The film’s running time barely eclipses the hour mark, which doesn’t give much time for fully realized characters. They’re wonderfully opaque, risking coming off as slight. We learn very little about Viola except that she might be subconsciously unhappy with her relationship and that she makes money from pirating DVDs. The fact that the film’s other half is devoted to actual performers is curious. Walter Benjamin suggested many years ago that photographing (or reproducing) a performance took away from its aura. I think Piñeiro is bringing this rather old (but canonical) argument back into the present. I find his meditation, maybe just because it is new, much more interesting that Benjamin’s suggestion. I like to think of it as flattening the performance, the “aura” is lost but it feels more pragmatic. Viola’s pirating isn’t critiqued in a trite way, but she comes face to face with an actual performer. Theoretically, someone whose work she’s profiting from. It’s another degree of reproduction, but  there is an “aura” in the film itself that I don’t think that Benjamin or any of his Frankfurt peers could have anticipated in cinema. I’m not sure if that answers any of the questions that reproducing performances poses, but Piñeiro gives us something much more exciting: the realization that film isn’t dead, it is alive and well and as difficult to pin down as ever.

5

 





Susan and God (1940)

31 03 2014

This film came in-between two of Joan Crawford and George Cukor’s more celebrated collaborations, The Women in 1939 and A Woman’s Face in 1941. I can’t speak on behalf of the former, but in comparison to the latter, it falls quite short of that film’s promise. What we have here is something of a failed comedy, an attempt at “religious satire” and whether it succeeds or fails is beyond me because the idea of a religious satire just seems so stale and uninteresting to me. The limitation of such a commentary makes the humor all a bit simplistic and if satire is meant to provide a larger critique of social life, then that is missing here. Despite this being a laborious viewing and one of Cukor’s more boring efforts, it actually is interesting, albeit in a way that is unintentional. The film glosses over an interesting dynamic involving self-image and public perception. It doesn’t save the film, but it does suggest that even when he was boring, Cukor was still interesting.

1

Wealthy socialite Susan Trexel returns home from her European vacation with a surprising announcement for all of her friends: she’s found God. Although they all act supportive of her new lifestyle, many of them are skeptical of it as nothing more than another mask for her to try on, a personal trend that will soon fade into obscurity. The most skeptical is Susan’s husband, Barry, who she seeks a separation from. Using their daughter Blossom as motivation, Barry coerces Susan to spend the summer together with her husband and daughter. Barry’s intentions are to make Susan see the error of her ways, and realize that she needs to keep the family together. At the same time, Barry himself begins to find himself increasingly interested in Charlotte.

2

All of the relationships emphasized here are remarkably dull. Susan’s relationship with Barry goes so in tune with typical drama that one feels the sensation of it working too perfectly, even as the setup itself is completely nonsensical. The entire film goes a great length to show Susan’s own unrest with Barry. This is something that is reinforced up until the final minute when the two inexplicably reunite. Everything gets tied up nicely because this is a Hollywood film, but it’s so jarring that it seems conscious of the unreal way the couple’s feelings manifest. The screenplay is based on a play byRachel Crothers, which was reworked by Anita Loos. Despite the presence of women in the film’s writing, the discourse suggests something remarkably misogynist. Susan’s spirituality is just an act, and she just needs to be won over by Barry. She finally submits to his constant pressure, which seems heartbreaking enough, but maybe it is even more so when the film treats their relationship working out as a happy ending. All of her complaints about Barry are thrown out the window. Susan is constantly framed as a superficial individual so we’re led to expect any reservations she had about reuniting with Barry were trivial and silly.

3

It’s important to distinguish that the film does position its perspective with Barry. We’re told to sympathize with him, feel his hurt and anguish by the flaky Susan breaking his heart. The fact that he never bothers to listen to Susan is also a fault of the film. I could here say then that it is sort of brilliant in that a woman’s voice being muffled by a man’s own heartbreak is something that happens so frequently that the film manages to capture this phenomenon. I think, instead, that this is the film’s biggest fault. It allows Susan no room to breathe, or even wear a face of concern. Her only problems that the film bothers to articulate to us are immediate and none of them are crucial. In reality, her disappointment in her marriage might have been the very thing that motivated her to become religious, or even pretend to be religious. This is where Cukor actually stumbles upon something kind of brilliant: the film unintentionally illustrates the problems that come when self-image doesn’t match perception.

4

To use a modern example, think of Susan’s spirituality along the lines of modern Hollywood stars and their philanthropy. I find nothing especially wrong with someone using their fame to call attention to certain issues, but often this is only done in service of an image. Modern celebrities, particularly white and male ones, have control over their self-image. This is why Bono’s name evokes images of starving third-world children just as much as it reminds of us his actual music. I suspect that Susan here is actually attempting something similar. She might really be religious and Bono might really have concerns for every starving child alive, but the broadcasting of this personality implies that it is somewhat performed. Bono, as white and male, does gain control of his image but Susan has no such luck. Her spirituality is her trying to take control of how she’s perceived, but it is ultimately undone by Barry’s control. The film attempts to mock her at every turn for her vanity, but there is something tragic about her destination. She never changes how people see her, and more importantly, she’s forced back into marriage that despite the swooning Hollywood love music, she is actually against. In the middle of this forgettable “religious satire” there’s an engrossing and devastating portrait of someone whose voice can’t be heard.

5





A Bill of Divorcement (1932)

27 03 2014

I was going to start this review by saying that this effort is more of the same from Cukor, as if I had plummeted back down to earth with him after the high of seeing A Woman’s Face but the negative connotation would be far too dramatic. This a wonderful film, tight and theatrical like Dinner at Eight yes, but one that works better because the drama is confined to three characters and about the same number of rooms in a single house. Yes, Barrymore and Hepburn play things broadly, but I don’t think that immediately makes their performances silly nor does it make their characters simplistic and dull. They’re quite the opposite, the film is a tragic portrait of a family experiencing an extreme failure to communicate. They’ve pushed their emotions to the ground, and the resurfacing of their patriarch, who they never expected to see again, brings all these things to the foreground.

1

Margaret and her daughter Sidney seem to have finally found a moment of happiness and peace. Margaret herself is finally ready to remarry and she’s found a quality suitor. Sidney might have a long future with her boyfriend, Kit, but she’s not particularly concerned with their relationship. She’s fine tagging along with him back to Canada, but doesn’t show much interest in showing commitment to him. The two seem to have escaped a dark shadow obscuring their lives for years, that of their family’s patriarch, Hilary. He’s been kept away from the family, dealing with PTSD following the war. However, he’s been let out, and he’s come back to resume life with his family, who has already moved on.

2

It would be a glaring problem for a film that is about mental illness to, you know, fuck up dealing with mental illness. One could give the film a benefit of the doubt and just say it hasn’t aged well, but the dialogue about mental illness might be unintentionally effective. The insensitive nature much of the public talks about it is not that different from how the characters here try to accurately describe it. The film’s central conceit is that that maybe Sidney has inherited Hilary’s illness because maybe it’s not just PTSD from the war. This is awkward because mental illness is not something you “have” in a way that is immediately identifiable. It doesn’t hep that Hilary’s illness is never described beyond being “crazy” which obviously isn’t the most medically accurate term. The film weirdly frame’s Sidney’s possibility of inheriting this disease as something of a mysterious twist. There’s hints dropped, but there’s no implication that it will be a problem to her.

3

So Cukor doesn’t exactly win me over with this kind of hokey handling of mental illness. Hilary’s relationships are the main thing at risk here, and Cukor actually offers something interesting here: he tries to situate Hilary himself outside of the center. As opposed to being “insane” as the film insensitively puts it, he does show a chronic inability to comprehend the struggles that face both Margaret and Sidney. He’s been locked away for fifteen years, but he sees Margaret trying to start a relationship with another man as betrayal. The film frames his reasoning as one to sympathize with: he’s been struggling to handle his disease and she’s basically abandoned him. She hasn’t been there for him “in sickness or in health” but the dedication of the wedding vows are only seen from Hilary’s expectation of Margaret. She’s had no obligation to sit idly and alone by the window until he’s finally cleared to return to the outside world. An audience in 1932 might have sympathized with Hilary’s situation, but the film goes the extra mile by presenting his argument as the correct one, but instead shows that Margaret herself has shared his suffering. Her loving another man has not weakened her feelings for Hilary, but his expectation for her complete romantic dedication is simply too unrealistic.

4

This is all actually really complex and difficult to process, which seems like an odd thing to say about a film that runs barely over one hour and whose filmmaker frequently paints with broad strokes. While the characters that inhabit the film may not be that complicated themselves, Cukor’s positioning of them is interesting. They may be “flat” or whatever, but that doesn’t mean inherently less interesting. In my review of Hong Sang-Soo’s Our Sunhi I discuss the way he de-centers heterosexual relationships from the men. In love stories, they are almost always the ones who endure pain and heartache and the women are merely the agents that bring on that heartache. Here, the opposite is the case. Romantic love is not the context here, but here’s a rare moment where a male figure, one who is suppose to represent protection and care, is the agent of emotional distress for two women. Weirdly, Hilary himself never learns this. He can only accept Margaret’s decision to move on when he sees her new boyfriend declaring his passion for her. He can only let go when he sees the situation through the eyes of another man.

5

Hong seems like a distant connection for some, probably. Maybe Yasujiro Ozu is an easier connection to understand. The failure of a patriarchal figure echoes his The End of Summer. Upon first encountering his daughter, Sidney, Hilary mistakes her for his wife. “My wife’s not my wife, she’s my daughter” is almost too on the nose for Freudian psychoanalysis, but people speak about Late Spring offering a similar relationship. I don’t buy it in that film, personally, though Cukor’s film ends with the type of father-daughter moment that is rare in all of films but makes up a great part of Ozu’s classic. Here, Hilary and Sidney quietly accept their fate together: they’re to spend the rest of their life ostracized from the rest of the world for reasons they can’t control. Their companionship can’t save them from this fact and I won’t suggest something trite like they can “work through it together” but a community of those suffering is a important thing. It can help make you feel a lot less alone.

6





A Woman’s Face (1941)

24 03 2014

As much as I’ve enjoyed the Cukor films I’ve watched in the past week, they’ve been a little light on personality. Again, they’ve all been good but seem to be missing something that could be classified as uniquely Cukor’s. A Woman’s Face, on the other hand, is the first film of his that I’ve seen that seems especially unique, a film that one probably couldn’t find in the career of any other classic Hollywood director. The film, dripping with melodramatic flourishes, might not seem the most natural or easiest effort of Cukor’s to digest, but it is absolutely one of the richest, most complex films I’ve seen from the era. It’s not quite an out right masterpiece, but it is one of those films that is so singular and unique that it should be (re)considered.

1

Anna Holm storms into the court as the public loudly chatters. The charge is never read to the audience, but we can deduce that she is the one on trial. A group of witnesses explain how they met Holm, but their stories never seem to reach a climax, instead they just seem to be establishing context. Then, it is revealed that Holm is a blackmailer, and she runs a rural bar as a cover. Also, she has a very distinctive scar on the right side of her face, one she conscientiously tries to hide from the rest of the world. Her employees all know her truth, though, and they all gossip about her perceived ugliness. Holm sees herself as a monster as well, and when one Torsten Barring attempts to seduce her, she can’t help but falling helplessly in love with him. His affection comes at a price, though, as he expects Holm to kill off Lars-Erik Barring, his nephew who is the one obstacle to him receiving a large inheritance.

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While the setup here is melodrama, I feel the need to clarify that I don’t think this is something inherently negative. Additionally, I don’t think Cukor plays things in the manner that an accusation of melodrama would be read as a negative. This is a melodramatic film, and by that I mean that the flow of the narrative is one that, taken out of context, would seem pretty ridiculous. Again, though this doesn’t make a film “bad” and Cukor thankfully handles the frequent emotional turns with a deft touch. The film’s wordless opening is particularly powerful, and it has the type of coldblooded austerity of a Bresson or Haneke. In fact, the visuals of the opening seem like they could easily be mistaken for Bresson’s The Trial of Joan of Arc, perhaps a fitting comparison considering that the protagonist here is thrown into fire by a society already set against her.

3

Joan Crawford is important in selling Anna Holm’s “me vs the rest of the world” mentality. I guess conventional wisdom associates her with a type of heightened performance (see Mildred Pierce) but her ferocity here perfectly underscores the tragedy of her predicament. A woman who has never known love or affection, is suddenly overwhelmed by a wave of positive reinforcement, but her love can only validated if she murders a child. Holm has essentially been trapped in a box, indeed one that a patriarchal society fits for most women. Her appearance further ostracized her, which leads to her violence. “The world was against me so I was against it” she poignantly states during the trial. The use of the past tense suggests that her medical procedure has saved her from this scrutiny but it only leads to another set of issues. Sure, in a society that relates a woman’s worth with her beauty she does have an advantage after her surgery. However, her beauty makes her relationship with Torsten Barring more high-stakes and eventually, tragic.

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Holm’s doctor, Gustaf Segert, laments pre-surgery that he may invent a monster if the procedure is successful. It’s him posturing as a philosopher when he suggests that a beautiful woman with no heart is a monster. The film doesn’t support his view, but it provides it to illustrate an important point. It’s Holm’s oppression, the disgust everyone greeted her with that made her cold and bitter. This might be the most crucial element of Cukor’s film. His queer identity was something I assumed would be mostly veiled from his actually work with maybe some moments of homoerotic subtext. Instead, here is he making a concise and important point: the need for such an identity and community is necessary because of the oppression. Now, this sounds kind of bad, as if I’m arguing that bigotry brought people closer. I mean that it created a vital resistance, because there had to be one. Holm is not to blame for being a heartless woman, but instead it’s a society that has done everything to point out her perceived flaws and distance itself from her. That’s why when she’s tormented by her acceptance as a beautiful woman, because it almost validates the ill treatment she received when she was (supposedly) hideous.

5

All of this seems like the heaviest political aspect of what is already a heavy emotional film, but Cukor’s own playfulness works to his advantage while it manages to reinforce the above argument. The relationship of Torsten and Holm is one that develops from him seducing her, the first ever femme fatale that identifies as a man. Quietly, Torsten follows the same trajectory of this stock female character. His evilness is meant to be Holm’s downfall, her punishment for not quietly accepting the way society has rejected her entire existence. Instead, the film concludes on a rather happy note. But still, Cukor’s gender reversal is not only sneaky and clever, but illustrates a more realistic point about power dynamics. The conventional femme fatale is an independent woman whose independence is associated with evil, and her modernity is the downfall of the typical, helpless male. This dynamic had such novelty because of its erotic potential, sure, but also because it actually reaffirms a very conservative set of beliefs. Cukor manages to tear all of this down, and the destruction is as captivating as the film’s superficial narrative.

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