Friday, April 27, 2018

OPEN SECRETS: MOVIES AND THE ME TOO MOVEMENT

Had someone spent the better part of this year in a cave (an idea that grows increasingly appealing to me with each passing news day), only to just now become aware of the seismic social phenomenon that is the Me Too Movement; one could hardly fault them for assuming this newfound global discourse had been instigated by Hollywood as a means of addressing and drawing attention to the prevalence of sexual assault and harassment in the entertainment industry exclusively.
Indeed, as a sea of celebrated (largely white) faces comes to signify the frontlines of a movement that has, since an October 2017 tweet by actor Alyssa Milano, spawned a thousand hashtags and sparked a long-overdue cultural conversation, it’s easy to forget that the Me Too Movement was founded by African-American civil rights activist Tarana Burke as far back as 2006 as an “empowerment through empathy” program targeting women of color…traditionally the most underserved survivors of sexual violence.

The Color Purple (1985)
One of the few feature films to treat the sexual abuse of black women as a serious theme.
Historically, black women who speak out about rape, molestation, and sexual assault face resistance from all sides: accusations of race disloyalty if the perpetrator is a black male; said assault trivialized or disregarded if the perpetrator is a white male; silence or indifference from white females. 

When social-media frenzy—that unwieldy, modern equivalent of the scandal sheets of old—seized upon the band-aid-on-a-broken-leg karmic purge of the whole Harvey Weinstein scandal (offenses so unequivocal, males nationwide wide were granted license to condemn him free of having to bear either the weight of self-recognition or sting of complicity), defenders of the status quo were quick to whine about the  pendulum of consequence and accountability swinging too far. (This, after all of six months, mind you.) In the glare of spotlights and ancillary campaigns like #TimesUp and #NoMore, it looked for a while as though the essential tenets of Tarana Burke’s “me too. Movement” were in danger of submersion.  

Always a social movement about survivors (e.g., I see you and I understand) and less about naming and shaming, the focus of Burke’s Me Too movement encourages speaking aloud about that which gains its power from suppression, shame, and secrecy; recognizing the strength and value of those who survive traumas intended to instill feelings of guilt and worthlessness; and, most significantly, challenging the accepted perception that sexual assault and harassment are the isolated transgressions of a few bad apples, rather than a toxically pervasive by-product of socially-sanctioned misogyny and systemic sexism.

America is a fame-culture addicted country. So, if in the land of Celebrity Lives Matter it took our preoccupation with the problems of the privileged to give voice and visibility to what has long been an open-secret reality for millions of women nationwide; then it’s only fitting (if not downright ironic) that it should be via the industry that has made a fortune perpetuating and normalizing images of sexual abuse and violence towards women.

Marnie (1964)
Rape culture is when an esteemed director has to die before the public engages in a serious dialogue about an actress’ career-long disclosure of the sexual harassment she endured while in his employ. 
Alfred Hitchcock's behind-the-scenes harassment and obsession with Tippi Hedren
 lends Marnie's already distasteful rape scene an extra layer of ick.

For me, the single most surprising thing to come out of the whole #MeToo Movement are the reactions of shock, surprise, and incredulous outrage. All that convenient "Has this been happening under our very noses all this time?" self-absolution, instead of the more self-implicating—but arguably more accurate—realization that when it comes to acknowledging society's apathy towards the prevalence of sexual assault, our culture tends to adopt a position in line with a lyric from Stephen Sondheim's Company"Think what you can keep ignoring...."

Movies have the potential to be an eloquent voice for the things we find most difficult to discuss or even speak aloud. Similarly, I can think of few art forms more influential than film when it makes up its mind to utilize its magic to help shine a widescreen, Technicolor spotlight on some dark aspect of humanity society likes to keep relegated to the shadows. But traditionally speaking, when it comes to the depiction and treatment of women, it can’t be said that movies have always been what you might call a ready ally.

Hollywood rarely knows how to write a lead female character who is both sexual and sympathetic. Trapped by the narrow Madonna-whore social construct of womanhood, hack writers are often at a loss for how to feature as much nudity and sex as possible while still giving the audience a female lead they can root for/identify with. The irresponsible solution? Have her be the target of multiple sexual assaults. The Lonely Lady was marketed as a film with lots of sex and nudity, but in truth, there is very little sex in the film. What there’s plenty of is assault, coercion, battery, and rape.
Whatever brownie points The Lonely Lady earns for relevance (plot: women aren't taken seriously behind the camera in Hollywood) it loses due to its trivialization of sexual assault

If Movies Could Say #MeToo
So many of the films I cover for this blog are female-centric and were made during the era specific to when the Feminist Movement began to influence women’s roles both on and off screen. I'm intrigued by the possibility of exploring whether the attitudes in some of my favorites (and, in turn, my response to them) are dated, or, since many were once considered progressive, if they are in any way in tempo with the timbre of the times. Limiting my scope to films from my personal collection, my purpose in highlighting these movies is not just to illustrate how frequently rape, harassment, and sexual violence have figured in narratives and roles written for women over the years; but to examine the ways movies can reflect, shape, and possibly change our perceptions of behaviors and attitudes that have existed for too long without being challenged.


THE BORN LOSERS (1967)
As with so many horror films and westerns, the raison d’être of biker movies (essentially westerns on wheels) is the spectacle of assault on the female form. Not because women’s vulnerability to male violence is of any real import to the plot, it’s there simply to convey how bad the bad guys are. A staple of movies devoted to the wrongheaded notion that the banner heading of "action" always denotes the confluence of sex and violence. The Born Losers was written by the film’s star Elizabeth James, whose screenplay she decided--whether out of embarrassment (appropriate) or the belief that no one would see a biker flick written by a woman (misguided)--to credit under the pseudonym James Lloyd. I ascribe to Ms. James the refreshingly fearless and independent-minded heroine, and I thank her for providing personal fave Jane Russell with a colorful guest appearance. But in all other aspects this cycle melodrama (which introduced the "peace through asskicking" character, Billy Jack) is non-stop rape, female victimization, and by-the-numbers damsel in distress stuff.

VALLEY OF THE DOLLS (1967)
The “working girl” genre is long dead, but for a time there seemed to be a glut of films devoted to dramatizing the perils facing single women trying to make it in “a man’s world.” These films gave lip service to female independence, but always managed to make it clear that women were better off (safer) sticking closer to hearth and home. While the sincerity of the intentions of these films is up for debate, and their attitude often smacks of the sexist “If you can’t stand the heat, stay out of the kitchen” toxic male in the workplace ethic; at least these movies recognized the commonality of sexual assault in women’s shared experience. In Valley of the Dolls Sharon Tate is subjected to objectification and sexual coercion; In The Best of Everything (1959) Diane Baker is sexually harassed on the job; and in The Group (1966) Jessica Walter is battered and narrowly escapes date rape. 

MANHATTAN (1979)
No insult to anyone who loves this film, but as soon as Woody Allen says the line "I'm 42 and she's 17," Manhattan morphs into a horror movie. I adored this film once, and back in 1979 nothing about this May/way-past-December romance gave me the willies (beyond Allen's fundamental unattractiveness, of course). I look at it now and...I mean, even applying the blinkers-on standards of the time (it was released two years after the Polanski rape trial) the Allen/Hemingway thing still creeps me out. She's of age and so is he, but the legalities don't undercut the gross-out factor. Now, I suffer a Breakfast at Tiffany's response when I encounter it. Which is to say that much in the same way I wish for there to be some way to cut Mickey Rooney's Mr. Yunioshi out of that lovely film, I harbor a similarly unreasonable desire for there to exist somewhere a Mariel Hemingway-free cut of Manhattan.

UP THE DOWN STAIRCASE (1967)
There's probably not a woman alive who can't relate, at least in part, to this image of Sandy Dennis being harassed by guys on a sidewalk. I'm forever baffled when I hear men say that women should feel complimented by wolf whistles and catcalls. That is, until I recognize the disingenuousness of such sentiments. Men know precisely what they are doing. They know the entitlement, they know the power, and they know they are exerting a subtle form of dominance. It's a put-down and sign of mastery; a signal that the right to speak out about a woman's body matters more than that woman's right to say she doesn't want to be subjected to it.

NEW YORK, NEW YORK (1977)
Written as a "meet cute" introduction for the two leads of Martin Scorsese's uneven musical romantic drama, this opening scene comprised of Robert De Niro's persistent pursuit of Liza Minnelli at a V-Day function has always felt more than a little creepy and threatening. Back in 1977 I chalked it up to the Travis Bickle effect, but upon revisiting the film recently, I have to say the toxic masculinity, sexual harassment vibe is off the chart. De Niro comes off as stalker material and Minnelli looks as though she wished pepper spray had been invented in 1945.

TO DIE FOR (1995)
In this satirical black comedy loosely based on a real-life incident, Nicole Kidman plays a cunning (albeit, not very bright) sociopath who dreams of a career as a news anchor. While Kidman's character is set up to be a parodistic amalgam of the worst of our fame-at-any-price culture, the way men respond to her character's professional ambitions offers a piercing (perhaps unintentional) commentary on how some men regard women in the professional sector. It says a lot when one realizes the level of professional condescension, objectification, harassment, and disregard Kidman's grossly unqualified character is met with would be precisely the same were she Diane Sawyer or Robin Roberts. America got a poisonous taste of this in our last election.

LOOKING FOR MR. GOODBAR (1977)
The jury is still out as to whether Richard Brooks' adaptation of Looking for Mr. Goodbar is a moralizing cautionary tale or a bracing expose of our culture's sexual hypocrisy (I vote for the latter). More disturbing than this film's violent denouement are the comments I read on IMDB and other online sources where the biggest takeaway some men (and a distressing number of women) have regarding the tragedy that made this movie such a shocker, is that Diane Keaton's character really shouldn't have laughed at Tom Berenger's inability to perform in bed. Yes, the fragility of the masculine ego is such an acknowledged no trespass zone that people actually think death is a foreseeable consequence of wounding it. 

LIPSTICK (1976)
The sensitive, thought-provoking, well-intentioned film about the subject of rape and its far-reaching psychological, emotional, judicial, and social aftermath has yet to be made. Back in 1976 this glossy pseudo-feminist Death Wish exploitation film pawned itself off as the genuine article by introducing many good talking points in its courtroom scenes. Especially as pertaining to the (continued) assertion that a woman can "provoke" her own sexual assault due to what she wears or how she looks. But by lingering over the unsavory particulars of the act of rape and giving short shrift to the characters and their motivations, Lipstick showed its true hand: it was simply interested is exploiting violent physical assault for sensation.


SOMETHING WILD (1961)
On the opposite end of the Lipstick spectrum is this rarely seen Carroll Baker arthouse entry that stands as one of the more complex and contemplative studies of a woman dealing with the emotional and psychological trauma of rape. Unfortunately, the brilliant character-study feel of the film's first half feels curiously at odds with the compassionate but arguably problematic second half. Recommenced for its focus on the survivor aspects of rape, and not dwelling upon nor exploiting the violence of the act itself.

SMOOTH TALK (1985)
The tendency for movies to sensationalize sexual assault and rape is that when the perpetrators are depicted as drooling monsters (Showgirls), it supports men not being able to recognize their own inappropriate or abusive behavior in these outsize portrayals. Similarly, when rape is only shown in terms of extreme violence and brutality (Blue Velvet), it reinforces a tendency in both sexes to only recognize and accept allegations of rape in terms of how brutal the assault and how much of a struggle the victim puts up. Smooth Talk, in which a sexual predator rapes a teenage girl by means of subtle threats and terrifying coercion, raises very real issues concerning how many date rapes and incidents of sexual assault occur with no physical violence. What can't be ignored is that in many instances assault can arise out of the threat of violence, the potential for violence, or merely the verbal and psychological assertion of power. In these instances, the perpetrator relies on society's blurred lines to ensure a victim's silence.

LOLITA (1962)
Stanley Kubrick was a genius. Vladimir Nabokov's novel is brilliant. James Mason's performance is his finest screen work. And I adore Shelly Winters in this. All that being said, my problem with Lolita is that it appears as though no one involved in the making of the film was the least bit concerned with the single aspect of the plot that strikes me as being so profoundly sad and scary. Lolita, a teenager, following the death of her mother, is bound to the possessive, predatory, obsessive molester her mother married. She has no one else. And like a captor, Humbert likes it that way. Add to this the fact that her only means of escape (as presented) is into the arms of another creepy pedophile (Clare Quilty) and you've got the makings of a tragedy, not a dark satire. Sure, the film is told from Humbert's twisted perspective, but for the film to ask the viewer not to concern themselves too unduly with what this girl is feeling or going trough is, for me, asking a bit much.

THE HAND THAT ROCKS THE CRADLE (1992)
In this suspense thriller, Annabella Sciorra (a real-life Harvey Weinstein assault victim/accuser) plays a woman who is sexually molested by her gynecologist. The filing of her complaint spearheads the film's not-always-plausible nanny-takes-revenge plot and brings an end to this aspect of the story, but the strength of the sequence is that it offers a realistic, non-sensationalized look at the kind of assault that can happen to any woman. That it's also the kind of assault that leads so many women to question their own judgement makes it a brief but powerful entreaty for women to trust their instincts and listen to their bodies.

ALICE DOESN'T LIVE HERE ANYMORE (1974)
In closing, a look at this marvelous moment courtesy of Ellen Burstyn. A reminder that it's never too late to call 'em out on their bullshit.


This Is Just The Beginning
9 to 5 (1980)
A shout-out to my favorite workplace comedy. A film that humorously tackled sexism, workplace misconduct, the glass ceiling, and equal pay for women. There's no denying a lot has changed since this film came out, just as it's painfully clear there's a lot more work that needs to be done. But I've a feeling the recent groundswell of grassroots social activism is just the beginning of a wave of change. Here's hoping movies stay in step with the times and (better still) occasionally lead the way

"Silence in the face of injustice is complicity with the oppressor" - Ginette Sagan

There's so much backlash talk these days about the Me Too Movement fostering a "victim" mentality (something said at one time or another about all civil and human rights movements). But the reality has always been that speaking one's truth aloud, no matter the risk, odds, or assurance of outcome, is an act of triumph, the sign of a survivor, and profoundly heroic. me too. #MeToo


BONUS MATERIAL
A short film about civil rights activist and Me Too founder Tarana Burke 
(click on link to view)
SHE'S REVOLUTIONARY (2018)

THAT'S HARASSMENT (2018)
Filmmaker Sigal Avin and actor David Schwimmer produced a powerful series of five short films designed to demystify sexual misconduct. (click on link to view)


In this splendid New Yorker article by Molly Ringwald, the former Brat Pack member revisits her films The Breakfast Club and Sixteen Candles in the age of #MeToo 



Copyright © Ken Anderson

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

ORDINARY PEOPLE 1980

"Every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."  - Tolstoy

Ordinary People won the 1981 Best Picture Oscar against Raging BullThe Elephant ManTess, and Coal Miner's Daughter. While hindsight and time has confirmed in my eyes Martin Scorsese’s searing and ambitious Raging Bull as the more deserving prize recipient that year, I must assert that in saying this, I am in no way diminishing or discounting the brilliance that is Ordinary People. Easy to discredit due to its essentially conventional structure and themes, easy to overlook because it lacks both the cinematic bravura and operatic scope of Scorsese’s masterpiece, director Robert Redford's Ordinary People is nevertheless one of the most emotionally eloquent and evocative domestic dramas I've ever seen. The passion of Scorsese's beautifully-rendered masterpiece moves me aesthetically and I respond to it (as I do with the films of Stanley Kubrick) and on a level largely cerebral.
But to this day, of all the movies nominated that year, Ordinary People is the film I remain most moved by. Its poignance peaks to me in ways that perhaps have little to do with art, but everything to do with my enduring fondness for motion pictures that explore the human condition.
As the years go by, I come to appreciate Ordinary People’s simple, straightforward cinematic approach more and more, for it feels less like the absence of style in a first-time director, and instead a deliberate attempt on Redford’s part to convey a certain conventionality and constriction in the world these people inhabit. A means of training the focus on what’s most important to the story: the inability of its characters to understand and express feelings that fall beyond the scope of the coping mechanisms of structure, order, and self-control.
Mary Tyler Moore as Beth Jarrett
Donald Sutherland as Calvin Jarrett
Timothy Hutton as Conrad Jarrett
Judd Hirsch as Dr. Tyrone C. Berger
Elizabeth McGovern as Jeannine Pratt
Dinah Manoff as Karen Alrich

Ordinary People tells the story of the Jarretts, an upper middle-class family living in the Chicago suburb of Lake Forest; an affluent neighborhood of spacious homes, manicured lawns, and country clubs. Fittingly, the film opens with a montage of tranquil, postcard-perfect images of this tony residential community, for in this beige-colored, WASP enclave, appearances seem to do all the talking. Most vociferously, these meticulously kept-up appearances speak of status and wealth, but they're also an avowal of the belief that if everything looks right, it must then certainly be right.
Out of order comes security, from security comes happiness. Everyone is safe. Lives are happy. All is as it should be and there is no mess. Except for in the Jarrett household, where, bit by bit, their lives are coming apart.
Keeping Up Appearances
Looking at them from the outside, one would assume the Jarretts haven’t a problem in the world. Genial, easygoing Calvin is a successful tax attorney; elegant, poised Beth, mother and housewife, is an avid golfer and paragon of perfectionism; and 17-year-old Conrad…he’s just been released from a mental hospital after having tried to kill himself.

You see, Buck Jarrett, eldest son, star athlete and all-around Golden Boy, drowned in a boating accident a little over a year ago, and the emotional fallout of the tragedy (or more precisely, the lack of it) has left a huge fissure in the Jarrett’s façade of have-it-all normalcy.
The loss of the older brother he looked up to causes Conrad to suffer a nervous breakdown born of guilt for having survived and sensing he'll never measure up enough to compensate for the void. Beth, who one senses blames Conrad for his brother’s death, has virtually shut him out of her life. Unable to display affection and withhold of approval, she thinks that Conrad’s suicide attempt was a deliberate act of revenge directed at her (the deed left the image-conscious Beth having to weather both the stigma of having an institutionalized son and the humiliation of others knowing that all is far from orderly in the Jarrett household).
Calvin, stuck in the role of conciliator, drinks a bit and tends to turn a blind eye to what he perhaps knows/fears to be true between Beth and Conrad. In his earnest efforts to make everything nice, he too, lives in state of denial about his feelings.
Recovering from shock therapy, left behind a grade for his months-long stay at a mental hospital,
Conrad feels the pressure of others wanting things to return to "normal" as quickly as possible

In chronicling Conrad’s journey toward forgiveness (himself and his mother) Ordinary People’s look at the dysfunction within a by-all-appearances functional family covers little of what I’d call new ground. Certainly not after all those ’60 post-Graduate films eviscerating the middle class for their false values, or the wave of Vietnam-era ‘70s films and TV-movies devoted to cultural soul-searching. But how Robert Redford succeeds in making Ordinary People an extraordinarily unique look at a familiar film topic is that his direction displays an uncommon sensitivity and understanding of this world and these people. Gone are the cliché, easy-target jibes at the upper middle-class so typical of those ‘60s & ‘70s films, and in its place, an obvious familiarity with the rituals of suppression (few interactions occur outside of the formalized: meals, cocktail parties, golf games; and "keeping busy" is the cure-all panacea), and an empathy for the adult characters and compassion for the adolescents.
The "French Toast scene" is one of my favorites. The father who tries too hard, the son who feels too much, and the mother who expresses her feelings in the only way she knows how: through the dutiful carrying out of household routines. The tension is thick as maple syrup.


WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
Ordinary People was a critical and commercial success upon release, its few detractors mostly citing it for perhaps being a little too ordinary in its approach. A solemn, pedigreed, adult drama about important issues, Ordinary People is the kind of film studios once touted as a “prestige picture” and critics merely labeled “Oscar bait.” (Indeed, it was nominated for six Oscars, winning four: Picture, director, supporting actor, and screenplay.)
Almost too refined and tasteful for its own good, Ordinary People’s, family-in-crisis subject matter, naturalistic performances, and distinct lack of showy, cinematic tricks (a welcome rarity from a first-time director) still has many feeling that Redford’s film is little more than a superior movie-of-the-week. 
But to me, what Ordinary People lacks in visual distinction (not entirely fair, John Bailey’s cinematography, evoking the chill and melancholy beauty of autumn in the Midwest, is surprisingly expressive) it makes up for in keeping the viewer emotionally rapt in the domestic disintegration of the Jarretts. Ordinary People’s greatest strength has always been its characters, the tenuous structure of their relationships, and the depth of emotion the film’s remarkable cast brings to Alvin Sargent’s splendid adapted screenplay (from Judith Guest’s 1976 novel).

The entire cast of Ordinary People is excellent, but Mary Tyler Moore wasn't fucking around. She brings it like gangbusters in her portrayal of Beth, inhabiting the character in a way that leaves you feeling she appears in the film more than she actually does. Every one of her scenes is virtuoso, but here are my favorites:
"Give her the goddamn camera!"
Never has Mary Tyler Moore's smile been used to better knots-in-the-stomach effect
"Mothers don't hate their sons!"
Moore and Sutherland are electric in this memorable confrontation scene
A dog named Pippin
Absolutely brilliantly played and written scene (watch Moore's shift in expressions. Like a door being cracked open only to be slammed shut). Two people trying to connect and not being able to. Breaks my heart every time.
The Hug
On a scale of emotional power, this reverberated through the theater like the chest-busting scene in Alien. I swear, the entire theater seemed to gasp and break into LOUD sobs all at once


PERFORMANCES
Dating back to the first time I ever saw Rebel Without a Cause on TV, I've almost never liked how teenagers have been written or portrayed onscreen (except in low-budget '50s and '60s rock & roll musicals). Timothy Hutton's performance is a rare exception. I find him to be so outstanding. His character's anguish all the more heartbreaking because he comes across as such a sweet kid.
Hutton works a kind of miracle with Conrad, granting us a portrait of a tortured youth that manages to sidestep the usual problematic “troubled teen” clichés that so often come across as self-pitying and self-centered. Hutton was just 19 at the time, yet there’s nothing callow in how perceptively he conveys the feelings of a young man grappling with grief and self-recrimination. Given that this is the young actor's first major film role (for which he won an Oscar in the bargain), the intensity of feeling Hutton brings to his character is perhaps too-easily attributed to his having lost his real-life father just four months prior to filming (actor Jim Hutton succumbed to liver cancer at age 45); but I think it's just a case of a very talented actor meeting with the perfect role.
Adam Baldwin, Hutton, Carl DiTomasso, Fredric Lehne
As the '80s ushered in the era of the insufferable teenager—interchangeable slasher victims or indistinguishable coming-of-age horndogs—Ordinary People's realistic adolescents gently broke from tradition. Frederic Lehne plays a high school jock actually capable of showing compassion. Dinah Manoff, as Conrad's friend from the mental hospital, struggles to keep depression at bay through strained positivity, and most affecting of all, Elizabeth McGovern (making her film debut, as well) as a classmate with whom Conrad shares a mutual crush.  McGovern, who has the quirky, natural charm of a young Paula Prentiss, manages to rescue her character, through sheer force of originality, from being a plot-functional "dream girl" who exists solely to guide Conrad back into the world of feelings.
Hutton's and McGovern's scenes are flawless in their unforced naturalness
Both Redford and Moore have stated that the character of Beth and her inability to display affection reminded them of their own non-relationship with their respective emotionally-remote, perfectionist fathers. I grew up at a time when, via TV shows like Father Knows Best and Leave It to Beaver, the patriarchal ideal defined the perfect family. That’s why Ordinary People’s fence-straddling, somewhat well-intentioned Calvin Jarrett came as such a welcome surprise to me; at last: a divergence from the all-knowing authoritarian father figure of pop-culture propaganda.
Taking on the kind of peace-keeping, empathetic role heretofore only afforded the long-suffering wife in these sorts of domestic dramas, Donald Sutherland—a personal favorite and the only major cast member to fail to receive an Oscar nod—gives an understated performance (Redford initially wanted him for the psychiatrist) whose nuances are all too easy to overlook. An actor most eloquent in his silences (Sutherland’s eyes tend to be more expressive than his face) is at a distinct disadvantage in a film full of so many excellent showier performances; but the contribution of Calvin’s restrained gentleness has the much-needed effect of humanizing Beth (some part of her must have appreciated vulnerability) and making Conrad’s estrangement less torturous (he clearly has someone in his corner).
Had the Canadian Donald Sutherland been cast in the role of psychiatrist as Redford originally envisioned, critics would have lost the opportunity to project culturally stereotypical significance to Oscar-nominee Judd Hirsch's Jewishness. (The old trope about the "expressive" ethnic character helping the uptight white character to open up.) 

“Beth was the character he [Redford] most cared about, and he wanted her to be portrayed with sensitivity. It was she who drew him to the project”  - Mary Tyler Moore

What drew me to Ordinary People was Mary Tyler Moore. I was sitting in a movie theater sometime during the summer of 1980 when I saw the trailer for Ordinary People for the first time. If you’ve never seen it, it’s one of those artfully modulated 2½ minute gems that builds in intensity until the fade out has everyone in the theater murmuring in excitement. Like most everybody else in America at the time, I was still in the throes of Mary Richards withdrawal. The Mary Tyler Moore Show had ended in 1977, but Moore had been a consistent, cheery staple of television since The Dick Van Dyke Show premiered in 1961, so, even with reruns to salve the pain, by 1980 it still wasn’t easy living in a world without Mary.
I had no advance awareness of Ordinary People, so when Mary Tyler Moore appeared in the trailer behaving in a very un-Mary-like manner, I (and many others in the theater) let out an audible gasp. By the time the trailer was over I was aware of having been gripped by the same excitement I felt when back in 1974 I first read Ann-Margret was to appear in a Ken Russell film (Tommy); or in 1979, when the news came out about Olivia Newton-John, the squeaky-clean queen of soft rock, collaborating with British rockers Electric Light Orchestra on a little ditty called Xanadu. The potential for something unpredictably brilliant is always linked to a star going counter to their image and being cast against-type; so, when Ordinary People opened in Friday, September 19th, I happily stood in line to see it. I wasn’t disappointed. 
Ordinary People is unique in its depiction of a mother as a complex, conflicted individual of depth who, in consistent with the maternal instinct myth, refuses (is unable?) to assume the traditional familial role of nurturer and healer.

Giving everyone involved in this film their due and not taking a single thing away from a single performance, it nevertheless remains my emphatic assertion that whatever heights Ordinary People soars to—as either motion picture or human drama—are reached on the wings of Mary Tyler Moore’s performance. She’s better than good here. Her performance emanates from a place of truth that serves as a tether wrenching Ordinary People back to reality every time it appears to veer into soap opera or Lifetime movie territory. I find her to be absolutely astounding.

And not for one moment do I pretend to dissociate my reaction to the character of Beth from my personal response to Moore in the role. It’s precisely my inability to fully shake my awareness of Moore’s endurably likeable TV persona from Beth’s rigidity that gives the performance its much power. The incongruity of Moore’s quick-to-smile façade masking such groundswells anger and stony reserve produces in me the exact reaction I imagine Beth’s country club friends would have should they ever catch a glimpse of what lie behind her perfect life of order. 

Everyone from Ann-Margret to Lee Remick were considered
 for the role Moore called "The Holy Grail of my career."
Although it’s heartbreaking to see the degree to which Beth’s steely reserve and need to keep up appearances hurts her family, Moore makes Beth’s defiant defense of her own fiercely guarded vulnerability a thing of icy beauty. You can see the pain, you can see the inner struggle, you can even see what she is most in fear of having to confront by letting down her guard (her sense of being a failure); but just as clearly you can see that she can’t help herself. Like everyone else, she too, is a victim of grief, her coping mechanisms as imprinted on her character as name on a Marshal Field’s credit card.
Much like The Graduate's Mrs. Robinson is set up to be that story's villain, yet emerges its most sympathetic character; Beth, in the hands of Mary Tyler Moore, while never quite sympathetic, is so powerless, yet so resolute and repressed, she becomes a tragic figure.

THE STUFF OF DREAMS
In these days of social media self-presentation, Photoshop perfectionism, and smartphones that allow one to filter away all traces of any flaws, a movie about the folly of maintaining images and impossible pursuit of “perfection” could perhaps not be more relevant.
Although Ordinary People is one of the whitest movies ever made, I’ve always been able to identify with it because the image-conscious middle-class world it dramatizes is not at all different from my own childhood growing up as one of the few black families in an all-white neighborhood.
Everything in its Place
In the assimilationist household I grew up in, upward mobility meant the strict adherence to respectability politics. Under scrutiny whether we were shopping, playing outside, or just emptying the garbage, our family had to be a model of everything white America didn’t expect or want us to be. Black excellence (via perfectionism and achievement) was present in everything from how we kept up our house to house we dressed for school. Although we were a household of five (two older sisters had already married and moved out) and under a great deal of social pressure, we rarely spoke of these matters to one another because, by necessity, the needs and problems of the individual were sublimated to the goals of the family in particular, civil rights and the advancement of all of black America in general.
And let's not forget that during all this, I, as the only boy in the family and gay to boot, instinctively lapsed into "The Best Little Boy in the World" mode; neat, well-mannered, drug-free, straight-A student...all so that I'd never give my parents a moment's worry, insuring that the pesky little topic of "gay" would never come up. No wonder I so identified with all that guilt Conrad carried around!
Were it not for my mother going through EST training in the early ‘70s (after which, talking about EVERYTHING became the household standard, resulting in even my conservative dad becoming alarmingly liberal), I think we could have wound up like the Jarretts.
One of the themes of Ordinary People is that not all breaks are clean, and not everything can be put back together again. But as people, we have this amazing capacity to endure and move on. Like the Edna St. Vincent Millay sonnet that opens Judith Guest's novel reminds us:
What a shining animal is man,
Who knows, when pain subsides, that is not that
For worse than that must follow yet can write
Music, can laugh, play tennis, even plan. 


BONUS MATERIAL
The cast of Ordinary People reunited for Vanity Fair in 2011. Photo by Mark Seliger

Ordinary People theatrical trailer

Copyright © Ken Anderson

Thursday, March 8, 2018

SINGLE WHITE FEMALE 1992

The great granddaddy (grandmother?) of “roommate from hell” movies is director Barbet Schroeder’s (Reversal of Fortune) masterfully creepy Single White Female. Sheer perfection in its straightforward simplicity, Single White Female is a splendidly taut and entertaining thriller of escalating dread and suspense built upon two basic, highly-relatable human anxieties: sharing a living space with a total stranger, and wondering whether it’s possible to really know another person…even those to whom we are closest.
Fashioned as an intertangled character drama masking a mordant feminist critiqueit can be argued that the entirety of the lead character's troubles arise out of the way society conditions women from an early age to harbor a fear of and resistance to being "single"; Barbet Schroeder’s Single White Female pairs the Roman Polanski urban paranoia thriller (Rosemary's Baby, The Tenant) with the Robert Altman personality-theft psychological melodrama (3 Women, Images) to chilling effect.
Bridget Fonda as Allison Jones
Jennifer Jason Leigh as Hedra Carlson
Steven Weber as Sam Rawson
Peter Friedman as Graham Knox
When an 11th-hour betrayal results in software designer Allison Jones kicking live-in fiancé Sam Rawson out of her rent-controlled apartment, our despondent, titular SWF hastily places a classified ad (against the better judgment warnings of friend and neighbor Graham Knox) for a roommate.
Enter Rizzoli Bookstore clerk Hedra Carlson; timid, sweet-natured, and studiously amorphous; she’s a substance incapable of reflecting light, only absorbing it. Girlish and diffident in the face of Allison’s easygoing poise, resourceful where Allison is self-doubting and insecure, indistinct and shapeless to Allison’s urban sleek, the women are less an odd couple than strangely analogous opposites. Indeed, Hedra sees in Allison an image of a life she’d very much like to have. Literally.
Allison and Hedra
From the Greek, Hedra is a word used in geometry signifying many faces

In short order, roommates blossom into girlfriends (Hedy! Allie!), girlfriends bond as sisters, and sisterhood evolves into a kind of free-form female family unit into which the only male allowed is Buddy the dog. Sure, Hedra’s a little clingy, a tad furtive, maybe even a little too watchful (“(It's) like she's studyin’ ya. Like you was a play, or a book, or a set of blueprints!”All About Eve); but for a time, each woman finds in the other what they are individually seeking. Allie gets a companion to help stave off her fear of being alone, Hedy finds someone who fills a deep, unarticulated emotional void.

The disruptive reappearance of Allison’s ousted fiancé evokes D.H. Lawrence’s The Fox (an impression reinforced by the lupine features of Steve Weber) in that the intrusion of the male has an abruptly pernicious effect on the friendship the two women have thus far forged. Feeling edged out (even the dog prefers Allie's company), Hedy makes a desperate, fumblingly inappropriate attempt to insinuate herself into the relationship of the reconciled twosome, one which only serves to further drive a wedge. As she watches her prominence in Allie's life diminish, Hedy's already troublingly possessive behavior and obsessive interest in Allie begins to manifest itself in increasingly psychotic ways.
Family Portrait
Playing on the TV set behind them is the 1957 Rita Hayworth film
Fire Down Below, about a friendship torn apart by romantic jealousy

Although Single White Female features an abundance of intriguing subthemes: urban fear, feminine identity, lesbianism, sexual harassment, duality, women's tendency to invalidate female friendships in deference to menSchroeder's uncluttered approach to the material and film's familiar, easy-to-identify-with premise serves it extraordinarily well. The smart screenplay (adapted by Don Roos from John Lutz's 1990 novel SWF Seeks Same) simply lets the worst-case-rental-nightmare scenario play out in accordance to the well-worn tropes of the classic stalker/suspense thriller, leaving plenty of room for the actors to fully and dimensionally inhabit their characters. The result is that instead of having the characters moved along by the demands of the plot, the characters as realized by the fine performances of Bridget Fonda and Jennifer Jason Leigh, dominate Single White Female.

As the film is structured, we know from the outset that the roommate situation will be problematic, just as we also know, this being a Hollywood thriller, that the central conflict must resolve itself with a sufficiently over the top, crowd-pleasing payoff: usually either cathartic or ironic. Thus, it's all the more appreciated that Barbet Schroeder manages to successfully subvert the plot's predictability by giving emphasis to the relationship between Allison and Hedra, making it feel authentic, while at the same time oddly disturbing. The chemistry between these two women, vacillating between friendly, sororal, co-dependent, and adversarial...is the propulsive, compelling source of the film's suspense and considerable chills.
The Happy Couple
When an arthouse darling like Barbet Schroeder (More-1969, The Valley Obscured by Clouds- 1972) makes a genre film, watching it is a little like seeing your well-mannered nephew running with the “wrong crowd”; you worry about which will exert the greater influence over the other.
Happily, I think Barbet Schroder’s arthouse sensibilities fairly dominate the first two-thirds of Single White Female, effectively drawing the viewer into the psychological drama before the melodrama of the final third takes over. He makes the city and apartment building participating characters in the story, emphasizing the film's duality themes and appearances-can-be-deceiving angle by making New York and Allison's apartment building look simultaneously inviting and menacing.
"At least there's never a problem with privacy!"
Single White Female plays with the idea of strength and weakness, independence and helplessness. By all appearances Allison is the character who has her life together, but the film allows her to be the one to harbor some of the more deep-rooted flaws. She is the first roommate to invade the other's privacy, yet she's made uncomfortable by Hedra's comfortable informality in undressing in front of her. In the end, the women bond over the affectionate gesture of exchanged housewarming gifts. 


Barbet Schroeder displays such a sure touch with his handling of both the characters and the more rote aspects of the suspense thriller that the film’s final act, wherein Schroeder or the studio bow to the pressure to provide the ticket-buying public with the mayhem they crave, strikes the film's sole discordant note. While I have to concede that it's well executed and effectively delivers exactly what is expected of it (suspense, jeopardy, violence, jump cut shocks); and there's no denying that it's an improvement over the sprawling, drawn-out ending of the source novel; but I can't shake the feeling that it is an ending more genre-mandated than organic to the subtle, insinuating menace of the rest of the film. I enjoy the ending for what it is, but I wouldn’t be surprised were it revealed one day to be the work of another director entirely.


WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
Single White Female combines two of my favorite film genres: the psychological suspense thriller and the identity-crisis/mind-meld melodrama. Perhaps because I looked to movies in my own quest for some kind of identity parallelism during my youth (I grew up a bookish, introverted, black gay male, living in a predominantly white neighborhood and attending a private Catholic boys school, the only boy in a family of four girls, with a hardworking but emotionally reserved father), I harbor a particular fondness for movies about people grappling with their sense of self. Even the first student film I ever made (a deservedly lost Super 8mm masterpiece that served as my admission application to the San Francisco Art Institute) was a movie about a man haunted by his doppelganger.

Single White Female is a thriller first and foremost, a genre nail-biter calculated to deliver consistent chills. But in the way it seriously cranks up the fear factor by delving into the dark side of duality and the elemental search for self, it reminds me a great deal of so many of my most beloved identity-merge films: Persona (1966), Dead Ringers (1988), Les Biches (1968), Performance (1970), Mulholland Drive (2001), Vertigo (1958), and Black Swan (2010).
When Imitation Ceases To Be The Sincerest Form Of Flattery
To varying degrees, twinning is a natural by-product of intimacy, a normal part of all close relationships. You see it in long-term couples who begin to look alike and adopt similar mannerisms. You witness it in best friends who copy and adopt identical modes of dress. It's evident in noxious "bromances" in which entire groups of male friends attend the same gym, tanning salons, and share the same tube of hair gel and bottle of Axe body spray.
But no matter how extreme the mirroring, each of us relies on the existence of subconscious boundaries of individual identity to prevent us from ever completely losing ourselves to, or getting completely lost in, others. No such boundaries exist in Single White Female.
Femme Fatale


THE STUFF OF FANTASY
An innovative director with a strong visual style and a comprehension of cinema language is a boon to any film, but such gifts are especially welcome in a genre flick. While there are many directors who’ve distinguished themselves through their association with a particular film genre: Ernst Lubitsch (comedies), John Ford (westerns), Alfred Hitchcock (suspense thriller), John Carpenter (horror); most would contend that plot-driven, trope-reliant films, whose structures require a conformity to brand, don't always leave a lot of elbow room for artistic expression.
Skeletons in the Closet
Allison discovers something scarier than wire hangers
 in Hedra's closet: a wardrobe duplicate to hers
Premise and setup are the stars of the suspense thriller, the director earning accolades only to the extent to which their talents contribute to the successful realization of the narrative’s requisite “payoffs”: surprise, scares, intensity, suspense, etc. Mind you, this isn’t easy, and any director capable of pulling off an effective thriller deserves credit. But the thrillers that tend to stick with me are the ones that manage to both follow the genre dots and bear an imprint of a director’s unique world view and artistic perspective. 

Barbet Schroeder approaches Single White Female as though it were a character study in which one of the characters just happens to be a psychopath. The time and care spent on defining the relationship between Allie and Hedy, shading it with a comfortable intimacy and credible eccentricity (Allie accidentally catches Hedy masturbating, but instead of turning away, she lingers, watching) lends this film the stamp of quirky distinction.
Mirrors feature prominently in Single White Female, a film
exploring the dark side of identity, duality, and self-image

A similar attribute is Barbet Schroeder’s use of mise-en-scène to amplify Single White Female’s themes. For example, the internal life of Allison, a character whose anxieties are fueled by insecurity (fear of being alone) and betrayals (her former business partner, her fiancé, her client), is reflected in her external environment.
Allison’s apartment—spacious but just cramped enough to convey urban confinement—is in a building whose derelict condition signals uncertainty and danger. The rooms of the apartment all face a circular foyer, which, once the roommates’ lives and likenesses begin to merge, contributes an element of disorientation and distortion. Meanwhile, privacy (or rather, its lack) is vividly dramatized by the many angles, doorways, and alcoves people use to conceal themselves or suddenly pop into view from behind; air vents that serve as sound amplifiers to neighboring apartments; and telephone answering machines that either divulge too much or are too easily erased.
Troubled Waters
Beginning with the malfunctioning faucet that precipitates Allie getting to know her better, Hedra is associated with water throughout the film. Frequently shown bathing, showering, or in some way cleansing herself (shades of Lady Macbeth), water also figures significantly in Hedra's shadowy past.

PERFORMANCES
High-concept premise aside, the performances of Bridget Fonda and Jennifer Jason Leigh are the prime reason Single White Female endures for me, and why it continues to be such an enjoyable thrill ride after numerous rewatchings and long after its surprises have grown familiar.
When I think of actors who have a good onscreen chemistry, my mind goes immediately to their similarities and what they have in common. But when I watch Single White Female I'm reminded that the most explosive onscreen chemistry comes from different personalities that blend with a symbiotic ease.
Who Is She?
The pairing of Fonda and Leigh—two actors who don't especially look alike; whose rhythms and acting styles contrast intriguingly; who exude, respectively, self-restraint vs. barely held-in-check—seems to draw out the inverse best in both: Fonda has never registered stronger, Leigh (in a welcome departure from her usual hookers) terrifying in her vulnerability.
The film uses both so well that, as with an ensemble piece, it's difficult to assess the work of one independent of the other. Suffice it to say that both actors inhabit their characters in marvelously realized performances that are so relaxed and natural, they manage to buff out the edges of the melodrama, making the formulaic feel fresh.
Occupational Hazard
Stephen Tobolowsky as Mitchell Myerson

As the film progresses we learn that both Allison and Hedra have the same problem of repeating mistakes. Hedy is on the rebound from an earlier, assumed to be unsuccessful, attempt to reclaim a seminal relationship from her past. meanwhile Allie shows signs of being a serial bad-decision-maker. She bounces from one disloyal relationship (a business partner who claimed credit but didn't do any work) to another (a faithless fiancé) to another (hastily opening her apartment to a woman she doesn’t know) to another (a business client whose intentions she misreads). 
Provocatively, Single White Female poses the idea that Allie & Hedy's relationship has the potential to help both women, its dysfunction arguably no more damaging to the psyche than what women have to contend with in urban life on a daily basis.


THE STUFF OF DREAMS
I love scary movies (real scary movies, not those lazy, gross-out body-count things that pass themselves off as thrillers), specifically those rooted in real-life anxieties. Psychological thrillers, urban paranoia...the more the horror emanates from what people deal with in their everyday life, the better I like it. This fondness for the horror in the mundane comes out of my childhood.
The Ansonia Apartments
Barbet Schroeder's homage to Rosemary's Baby
I can remember the precise moment when horror ceased being for me the stuff of kid-friendly escapism (Creature Features on Saturday night TV, all monsters, vampires, and werewolves), and became a vision of a terrifying world of random violence. It began in 1967 when I was nine years old and Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho had its broadcast television premiere. The kindertrauma moment of Janet Leigh’s shower murder opened a veritable Box of horror in my life.

Ken’s Domestic Terror Timeline:
1967- Rosemary’s Baby published, In Cold Blood and Wait Until Dark released in theaters, and commercials for 1965s Return From The Ashes (in which a woman is murdered in her bathtub) appear on TV. 
Ken’s Social Terror Timeline:
1968- Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy assassinated. San Francisco (where we lived) terrorized by The Zodiac Killer. I see Rosemary’s Baby at the movies and have the holy hell scared out of me.
1969 brought Helter Skelter and the Manson killings. 
It was over a course of a few years, but to my psyche it felt as though it had happened overnight. Suddenly the illusion of safety that family and home provided was shattered by the realization that not even bathrooms are safe havens, human beings are the real monsters, and violence can sometimes be cruelly random. 

Single White Female taps into all these still-fresh-to-me horrors: Apartment buildings can be genuinely creepy places, anyone alone is justified to feel vulnerable in a big city, and what is more mysterious and labyrinthine than the human personality? 
Copyright © Ken Anderson