Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Moonrise Kingdom, Irene Dunne, Ingrid Bergman, and a little Rudy Vallee

Moonrise Kingdom

Maybe liking Wes Anderson is a matter of perspective; maybe one needs to see his films from a chair lowered some six or so inches--maybe this miniscule adjustment's all that's really needed to love his work with little or no qualms.

I mean--all the archness that seems so gratingly off in adults seem perfectly natural, even dignified, in a child. The bizarre yet somehow benevolent adventures--there's violence and even death but not a lot of cruelty, much less flinching--seem more heroic, even infused with a miniature grandeur when children (or stop-motion animals) go through their paces. And a love scene involving a kiss or stripping down to underwear can seem annoyingly coy in adults, but daring and even creepy in kids.

Even the adults here seem transformed--their shenanigans and eccentricities (an adulterous affair, a nosy professional, a dedicated scout leader) all-too-familiar in other Anderson films feel fresher somehow, more mysterious, when seen through a younger (and shorter) pair of eyes.

Moonrise Kingdom then, along with The Fantastic Mr. Fox, is Anderson's most satisfying work in years, and all due to this slight physical adjustment in the audience's subjective height. Maybe they were right after all--size does matter.

Ingrid Bergman day at TCM

The list is full of familiar (maybe too familiar) classics--Casablanca and Gaslight, anyone? But the gems of the lineup are the pair she made with Roberto Rossellini, the relatively less well-known (though highly regarded by those in the know) Stromboli and Europa '51.

Stromboli, about a newly wedded woman who experiences culture shock (to put it mildly) when brought to the eponymous island, is really about learning that there's more to life than mere survival, than the creature comforts of urban life. She may not like the epiphany, she may never accept it, but it's there, raw and open as a belly wound. Rossellini's attack is beautifully ambiguous--Bergman's Karin is the ostensible protagonist and we feel for her fish-out-of-water status (mirroring Bergman's own circumstances as an actress shooting for the first time in Italy without knowing a word of Italian), but as we get to know her we realize she's also selfish and limited, and we're reminded that she largely created the whole situation for herself (she volunteered to marry her fisherman husband to gain a visa out of the prison camps). The natives at first come off as provincial and ignorant, but as we come to know them we realize this is how they've adapted to the meanness of their environment, a blasted landscape largely formed by the volcano of the same name.

It all comes together in the film's finale (skip the rest of this paragraph if you wish to see the film, and I wish you would), some ten minutes of largely wordless mountain hiking that ends as tumultuously as any disaster film, only the tumult is mostly internal (the volcano itself is content to rumble threateningly, majestically). Hollywood audiences stayed away due to the scandal, but the few who did come and watch expecting another Casablanca or Notorious came out scratching their heads, wondering if there was a missing reel somewhere (and apparently an alternate version  exists (which Rossellini disowned) that has Bergman going back to her husband). What happened? RKO and American audiences got their first taste of Rossellini is all, and not the Rossellini made famous by Paisan or Rome Open City, but a Rossellini already evolving beyond the limits of neorealism (a genre he helped establish) to something else entirely, take on a subtler, more spiritual (and far more interesting, I think) style of filmmaking. What happened--total disillusionment or searing epiphany? I'd like to think that Karin escapes the island but life hereafter would be a joyless affair, the poor woman painfully, everlastingly aware of the huge hole in the middle of her self where her soul should be. 

Europa '51 starts with the death of a child, ends with the immolation--of sorts--of a saint. Rossellini charts Irene's (Bergman) descent (or ascent if you will, again he's masterfully ambivalent about it all)--into social awareness and near-madness with pathological precision, starting from inconsolable grief to blind groping for a purpose in life to a dawning realization of the nature of her obligation to her fellowmen (Rossellini's film can be seen as spiritual brother to Akira Kurosawa's Ikiru, also about a personal crisis inspiring life changes). Parallel to this is her family and husband's dawning realization that her mind and spirit are drifting away from them, and their panic at what this may mean for their reputation as a respectable upper-class family.

Interesting to contrast Rossellini with his near-contemporary Robert Bresson, arguably the only other director seriously concerned with depicting the human spirit onscreen at this time. Bresson's techniques quickly become more uncompromising, more perversely pointed in unusual directions (a focus on hands and feet for one), lasting for unusual lengths of time (sometimes a minute past the point where a conventional director might cut away). Rossellini's style is precise as well, but his innovations stay carefully within the confines of commercial cinema. 

Even within those limits, Rossellini comes up with startling effects--Irene's arrival at a mental institution is an impressionist tour de force, the camera acting as her eyes picking up details here and there--the immaculately white walls, the patients' slack faces, the staff carefully locking doors and shutting windows--and we share her growing panic at the prospect of staying in this terrible place. And yet there is no inappropriate hysteria, no excessive drama--when asked why she does what she does, Irene calmly and perceptively replies "hate:" hate for herself, hate for her inadequate response to the sufferings of the world, a cause hopeless enough to drive anyone insane. 

The ending (skip if you haven't seen the film!) shows some kind of transcendence, but one can easily read it as Irene finally embracing her madness--her husband and mother and friends walk sadly away while her new adopted family of underclass folk look up at their precious saint, already tucked safely away behind bars (the way statues of the the most famous saints in ancient cathedrals are often kept, high and unassailable, heavily draped with their jewels and gold-stitched capes). Easily one of the most harrowing (most exultant if you like) endings I have ever seen.

Irene Dunne day at TCM

In A Guy Named Joe (1943) the real source of comedy is between Van Johnson and Tracy, particularly Tracy's trademark brand of the slow burn--being dead to him is like being father of the bride, you're impotent and omniscient, and the combination is frustrating. Dunne is the film's heart--she's lost Tracy, and she's too hurt and frightened to accept the ardent Johnson's offer of a new life. Victor Fleming mixes miniatures and actual footage of planes and battle sequences to great effect; even filmmakers nowadays can learn a thing or two about making an action sequence vivid, memorable, even somewhat frightening. It does get a bit wordy with all the endless speeches delivered to no one in particular--but you've invested enough in the characters that you keep watching anyway.

My Favorite Wife (1940) is a wonderful comedy, and I can't help noting that the hoary device of the third party going off to war while the object of desire marries someone else has been used again and again, as far back as Odysseus, as far away as Raj Kapoor's Sangam, and as recently as Michael 'friggin' Bay's ludicrous Pearl Harbor.

I do think the script succeeds at stepping up the momentum, adding an Adam (Grant's longtime 'roommate' Randolph Scott, which throws this whole Cary Grant-Irene Dunne conflict into an altogether more interesting life), and a judge that seems to have stepped in from a Frank Capra courtroom comedy. The ending is a less successful reprise of the finale of The Awful Truth, but 'less successful' is relative--it's a terrific scene, full of charm, and the film overall is wonderful fun. That said--

The Awful Truth is near perfection; it features the first appearance of screwball Grant, a slapstick master with glowering brows and a whole menagerie of glares, slow burns and elaborate double takes hidden under his leopardskin bathrobe. Here you see the germ of ideas Hawks would later steal--and, some would say (including me)--perfect in His Girl Friday (1940): Grant playing off Ralph Bellamy's granite-swift uptake; Grant scheming to one-up his wife; Grant playing off an inanimate prop--in His Girl Friday a writing desk, in The Awful Truth an ill-fitting hat--to create the perfect piece of slapstick, largely wordless, exquisitely timed. 

The finale, with Grant building up a furious storm of bluster and embarrassment in an increasingly desperate attempt to sneak into Irene Dunne's bed reaches comic apotheosis with the sight of Dunne staring helplessly, hopelessly at him, lips half-parted with frustrated ardor.

Could it have been improved with nudity? I don't think so. Nudity would have been a distraction, would have actually detracted from the perfection of the moment; no one could manage to be so peerlessly hilarious and jaw-droppingly desirable at the same time, the sensuality adding edge to the hilarity, the hilarity adding spice to the sensuality. Take it from someone who has watched (and enjoyed) more than his share of pornography and perversion; this was hot.

The Palm Beach Story

The comedy of remarriage, given a perverse twist by Preston Sturges (he'd push perversity a step further with Miracle at Morgan's Creek). Claudette Colbert, delectable as usual (is it getting hotter in here or is her unbuttoning scene with Joel McCrea that sexy?) decides she needs to go out and use her looks to raise money for her struggling inventor husband; said husband naturally wants to stop her (if he didn't it'd be a more European kind of film, I suppose), and that's the motor that drives this film forward. Rudy Vallee is wonderfully unflappable as John D. Hackensack III, one of the richest men in the world; he lives according to his principles to the fullest ("Why do you travel around in a lower berth?" "Staterooms are un-American") and he's every bit as adorable as the rest of the screwball characters. 

Maybe the only flaws to this film are Mary Astor, strangely unappealing in maneater mode (thought she was miscast in The Maltese Falcon, and doubly miscast here) and the way the hapless black porter is portrayed. The finale should be a flaw--talk about contrived endings--but somehow Sturges prepares for it with the equally nonsensical opening ("They live happily ever after" followed by "or did they?") failing to explain anything with anything except that this whole other subplot is somehow involved with the main plot (it ties everything up in a single neatly Gordian package--amazing what Sturges gets away with in terms of what needs to be explained and what doesn't). The second time "happily ever after" appears one is doubly satisfied--now the two lovers should be happy with their lot in life--and then Sturges tops the topper with a second "or did they?" Here we go again.


2 comments:

john marzan said...

have you seen I do Bidoo Bidoo and brillante mendoza's Captive yet?

Noel Vera said...

Nope. Been busy.

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