Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Wyler reloaded

Wyler reloaded

(Note: This post was part of the William Wyler Blogathon)

It's not as if Wyler intended it I suppose, but for what seemed like the longest period--from the thirties (Wuthering Heights, Jezebel) through the war years (Mrs. Miniver, The Best Years of Our Lives) right up to the threshold of the socially turbulent sixties (Ben-Hur) and late into it (Funny Girl) he was a force to be reckoned with. He was Hollywood, or at least that part of Hollywood that wanted prestige pictures (preferably the kind that also made money). He wasn't half as prolific as Ford--around 70 films in 46 years, compared to Ford's 140 plus in 49 years--and his reputation today isn't as formidable, but to misquote yet another Hollywood icon "what's there is cherce." 

Or at the very least entertaining. Melodramas like The Letter (with that great opening shot of Bette Davis stepping out of her bungalow, gun blazing) and Jezebel (which as Confederate confections go I prefer to the more conventional Gone With the Wind) showcased Davis' inimitable brand of feminist perversity to wonderful effect; Wuthering Heights diminished the intense mysticism of Bronte's great novel (not to mention--this being a Samuel Goldwyn Production, where good taste is paramount--cleaning up much of the novel's blood and dirt and sadism) but did give us Laurence Olivier's huge hands rising up to give the pretty (and rather vacant) Merle Oberon two full palms across the cheeks.

My favorite, though, would have to be Ben-Hur--and only because I finally heard screenwriter Gore Vidal's anecdote (filmmaker Mario O'Hara, when informed of Vidal's story, was both startled and pleased; he said "I didn't know anything, but I could sense something was going on"). Watching on DVD I'd mostly skip through the long intervals of Ben-Hur rowing away in the galleys nursing plans of vengeance and go straight for the chariot race (which George Lucas shamelessly ripped off for his The Phantom Menace); nowadays I find myself watching all of Messala's (Stephen Boyd's, who was in on the scam) scenes--the way he'd clasp Ben-Hur's arm (Charlton Heston, who wasn't) in manly greeting, or the way he would insist on sharing a drink, or the way he'd gaze impassively at his childhood friend, broken and sobbing on his desk. Messala's final scene is suitably vivid: tied down tight as a deer carcass about to be gutted, Messala squeezes his words out like so many bloodied turds onto Ben-Hur's palm to deal (or not to deal) with as he pleases, then expires with a long, drawn-out sigh (the movie dies a little along with him).

Is Wyler a great filmmaker? I don't know. But his best-known movies were screened (and re-screened, often on TV (Ben-Hur was an Easter staple)) in the Philippines when many of our present filmmakers were growing up; some were not only watching, they'd been inspired to remake two or three of his movies.

In the case of Carlos Siguion-Reyna's Ikaw Pa Lang ang Minahal (You're the Only One I've Ever Loved, 1992) the filmmakers had probably wanted to do a Filipino version of Wyler's picture (Siguion-Reyna's previous production had been the 1991 Hihintayin Kita sa Langit (I'll Wait for You in Heaven), an unabashed transposition of Wyler's Wuthering Heights). Siguion-Reyna is no Wyler--no chariot races for him or any other Filipino filmmaker, not till budgets and filmmaking technology levels in the Philippines have at least trebled, I'd say--but like Wyler he does multiple takes, like Wyler he insists on a certain level of technical perfection (his films are beautifully lit shot and produced, his dialogue almost always recorded live), like Wyler he does classic melodramas and the occasional 'message' picture.

Unlike Wyler Siguion-Reyna's casting is often hit or miss--Richard Gomez, who played the Heathcliff character in Hihintayin, was woefully inadequate (didn't help that Michael de Mesa, who plays Hindley Earnshaw, has the dark passionate looks and sultry authority to be a great Heathcliff). By some queer stroke of fate what made Gomez a risible Heathcliff--the pretty-boy face, the blatant insincerity, the sense of inadequacy masked by superficial charm--makes him the perfect Morris Townsend.

As for his choice of actress to play Adela (the Catherine Sloper equivalent) Siguion-Reyna lucked out; he managed to snag Maricel Soriano (considered by O'Hara among others as one of the three finest Filipino actresses). Soriano can't boast of the same calibre work that de Havilland has but that's not entirely her fault; she's collaborated with many filmmakers but arguably only Ishmael Bernal has consistently managed to bring out her best. She's worked with Siguion-Reyna several more times but the output has been inconsistent--Abot Kamay ang Pangarap (Elena's Redemption, 1996) is one unhappy result. Which makes one ask--why is this film so different? What makes it so eerily not just right, but actually inspired?

My theory involves the source material--Siguion-Reyna early in his career confined himself to melodramas about the middle and the upper classes (Misis Mo, Misis Ko (Your Wife, My Wife, 1988, about bourgeois wife-swapping; the aforementioned Hihintayin Kita sa Langit; and Kailangan Kita (I Need You, 1993, a remake of the glossy 1988 thriller Masquerade)); James (like Siguion-Reyna) was born to a wealthy family and focused on stories about the middle to upper classes. When Siguion-Reyna strayed into stories about lower-class heroines, he struggled (the aforementioned Abot Kamay ang Pangarap; Inagaw Mo Ang Lahat sa Akin (Harvest Home, 1995), about incest in a provincial farm; Ligaya ang Itawag Mo sa Akin (Call Me Joy, 1997), about a prostitute in love (actually, a remake of Dumas' La Dame aux camélias)); James' story, about a sweet but dull woman dominated by her rich, brilliant father, was well within Siguion-Reyna's comfort zone.

More, the project seemed to bring out the film brat in Siguion-Reyna (he had obtained his Master's Degree on film from NYU's Tisch School of the Arts). When Maximo Sevilla (an excellent Eddie Gutierrez in the most rudimentary old-age makeup as the Dr. Sloper figure) tells his daughter what he really thinks of her, she promptly freaks out; in a single prolonged shot Siguion-Reyna records her complete and utter destruction of her room, a scene that recalls Charles Foster Kane demolishing his wife's bedroom. When Sevilla is out of the way and Adela and David are finally reunited, the revelation about David is handled in a manner less subtle than Wyler's yet somehow more cinematic--in Wyler's version Catherine listens to Morris prattle on before she realizes (and later confides to her Aunt Lavinia) that the man is a preening social-climber; in Siguion-Reyna's, Adela watches from a second-floor balcony while David (seen from a high camera angle that implies the difference in their social statuses), acts out in dumbshow what he intends to do when he becomes master of Adela's mansion.

Wyler's film ends with Catherine and Morris on either side of a door, listening for but not responding to each other, shown through alternating interior/exterior shots; Siguion-Reyna, never one to shy away from a flashy visual coup, has Adela sit in a car's passenger seat while we see David through the rear windshield, running, yelling, being drowned in the dusty wake--as succinct a final summation as one might want, and using mis-en-scene instead of montage, at that! As mentioned I'm not ready to declare Siguion-Reyna Wyler's superior, but thanks to the former's intense sense of identification and the flashy yet precise visuals, I might go so far as to say that Siguion-Reyna's version should not be embarrassed to sit alongside Wyler's, and might actually have improved on a few details.

Then there's Mike De Leon, who no doubt has seen Wyler's films; who owes the Hollywood filmmaker little to nothing (Does he enjoy Wyler's work? Not sure--just think the two sensibilities are worlds apart, that Wyler's influence on De Leon is scant, if not nonexistent; for all that it's perfectly possible that De Leon tears up every time he watches the finale of Roman Holiday). I'd swear it's pure coincidence they've adapted the same John Fowles novel to the big screen, De Leon in '86, Wyler in '65. The difference is instructive, even striking: Wyler's is a straight adaptation, following Fowles' novel up to its grim end; De Leon transposes the novel into the '80s and adds a different ending.

Perhaps key to their approach is their choice of actor to play the protagonist. Stamp is a compelling frightening Clegg; De Leon's choice for the role, Joel Torre, considerably less so. That said, Wyler's reason for choosing Stamp is suspect--the actor has undeniable presence, what with his cool eyes and otherwordly demeanor (even playing a transvestite in The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert he stood out, not because he was sexiest (That honor I felt went to Guy Pearce), but because he looked too classy; if you dressed him up in rags he'd still look like a Vogue model). I felt that Wyler wanted a generalized freak--Stamp looks and feels weird, therefore is weird, not to mention criminally insane.

Joel Torre gives an altogether different impression--he looks weak, has played weaklings before (he debuted onscreen as a passive upper-class brat in Peque Gallaga's Oro, Plata, Mata (Gold, Silver, Death, 1982)). Clegg has to be a weakling, or at least unimpressive; there has to be a reason for his shyness, his introverted nature, his inability to reach out to people. Wyler's done striking casting before this and after, but here he reveals a rather straightforward line of thinking in casting Stamp; De Leon casts as if he understands the psychology behind characters like Clegg, or at least behind writers like Fowles who create characters like Clegg.

Much of Fowles' literature is about suppressed sexuality, and the power in his narrative comes from continually deferred sexual release (read The Magus, or better yet The French Lieutenant's Woman, where the whole plot turns--you might say climaxes--on a man's single long-withheld ejaculation); his books in effect are read and remembered because they give the reader a serious case of blue balls. De Leon's work also deals with suppression, but from a slightly different angle--he operates on a terror of sex. Can't say the two are a perfect match but do come from the same left field; probably could sit down and talk on the subject for the rest of the day.

Helps further that De Leon is a master at creating claustrophobic spaces. Wyler's Clegg keeps his victim in an underground basement with stone walls, and it's an impressive set--too impressive actually; you feel as if Clegg had room enough to install a ping-pong table and fifty-inch flatscreen TV, maybe a wet bar in one corner. De Leon confines himself to featureless, windowless, anonymous rooms, and it's the very banality of the setting that makes his film so unsettling (Hitchcock proved something similar with Psycho--spotless and utterly familiar motel rooms are much more suitable (because they're so visually unsuitable) to murder than any Grand Guignol dungeon). Wyler manages to create fear and atmosphere (stone walls help, somewhat), but De Leon's little film (shot in video, incidentally) has you struggling to draw breath--it's as if they've cut the ventilation to those rooms.

Two films by two Filipino filmmakers, both ostensible remakes of beloved classics from a Hollywood master. A charge regularly made against the Philippine film industry is that it copycats too often, that it remakes Hollywood pictures with numbing regularity, and in fact with Siguion-Reyna the charge lands uncomfortably close; with Ikaw Pa Lang ang Minahal however he's dealing with more personal material and it elevates his storytelling, adds a depth to it that hasn't really been matched since.

With the latter pair of films the contrast is almost funny. Wyler towards the end was a Hollywood dinosaur cunning enough to still earn money (his penultimate film Funny Girl (1968) was a boxoffice hit in a genre that itself was dying), on occasion brave enough to try relatively more modern material (Fowles); De Leon is a predator prowling his territory. The result isn't only to my mind a superior adaptation, but one of the most interesting translations of Fowles around.


Anonymous said...

This is so great, Noel; thanks for contributing. Of course I haven't seen the Filipino versions of these films--can you point us toward any sites where we might be able to purchase them?

I haven't actually seen The Collector either, but I did read the novel, and I like the point you make about how it was almost too "easy" to cast Terrence Stamp as Clegg. Clegg in the novel was so anonymous--if I remember correctly, Fowles didn't even put his dialogue in quotation marks, whereas Miranda's words were in quotations marks--that it was impossible for me to see Stamp in the role. Maybe I'll get a different impression when I see the film.

Noel Vera said...

Yep, Stamp stood out like a sore thumb. Eerie performance, but not authentic. What's eerie about Bilanggo is that, well, you wonder about the director...

These two? Not on video, I'm afraid. Though you can be sure if they ever are, I'd post an announcement here faster'n Wyler can win an Academy Award.

Dan Harper said...

I'm not a Stamp "fan" but he was quite a force in the 60s - remember he was Alfie in the London and New York stage productions. As usual, critics thought he was splendid but strange.

A little anecdote Stamp shared about Wyler's directing. In the scene just after he's won the pools, Stamp returns to the office to gloat at his ex-co-workers. Wyler whispered in his ear before the camera started rolling "the taste of the stamps".

Noel Vera said...

He was again a helluva presence in Far From the Madding Crowd, and still was in Soderbegh's in my opine best work, The Limey.

Haw, Wyler does puns.

Dan Harper said...

I'd like to bring up something that has puzzled me for years, but that isn't particularly related to your post: whenever I watch a Filipino film or TV programme, I cannnot help but notice how much "whiter" the people on screen are from Filipinos I know.

I know all about the "whitening" beauty aids that sell like hotcakes all over Asia. "Eskinol" is the most popular in the Philippines - an astringent that also contains skin-bleaching agents.

I realize this is a can of worms too big to bring up in this small space, but I wanted to know your thoughts on the subject.

Noel Vera said...

Haw. But that's easy--how many white blondes with big breasts do you see in American TV or movies? Then how many are there in real life?

Filipinos have this desire, largely unexamined, to be white, Caucasian, tall--everything they're often not. That's why "mestizas" as half-native, half-Caucasians are called, are so valued on TV and in films--because that's what the producers feel the audience wants to see.

Which is why Nora Aunor is such an extraordinary phenomenon. She's an actress who actually looks Filipino and captured their hearts like no other actress has (it's also why Nora's more fair-skinned rival Vilma Santos, while pretty good in her earlier roles, isn't as iconic an actress). Has not been as active recently, which is why the screen has gone back to white-skinned plumped-cheeked mestizas. Snore.

Anonymous said...

Hi, Noel! Just like to add: "Wuthering Heights" was not an MGM picture; it was an independent prestige production from Samuel Goldwyn distributed through United Artists. (MGM - and in effect, UA once again - would own the rights briefly.)

I did like his "The Best Years of Our Lives" very much. :)

Noel Vera said...

Thanks for the heads up, and am correcting. Who's this by the way?