Wednesday, March 28, 2018


"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.

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

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.

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. 

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


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 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.

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

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.

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.

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

Friday, February 9, 2018


One of my favorite Maya Angelou quotes (one which paraphrases an earlier quote by Carl Buehner) is: “People will forget what you said. People will forget what you did. But people will never forget how you made them feel.” I like this quote because not only have I found it to be true in my life, but it also summarizes what I’ve always maintained to be my own experience of film: I’ll forget what a movie made at the boxoffice. I’ll forget whether critics deemed it a hit or a flop. I’ll forget if it won any Oscars. But I never forget how a movie made me feel.

A great many things go into making a motion picture: acting, direction, screenwriting, cinematography, mis-en-scène, etc....simply a host of creative and aesthetic contributions by artisans and craftspeople in collaboration. But I always contend that unless you’re discussing measurable, fact-based elements such as whether or not a scene is in focus, or if a boom mike popped into frame; the act of ascribing value to a film (to classify it as either a “good” or bad” movie) is to engage in an act of subjective evaluation rooted in opinion, interpretation, point-of-view, and personal taste.
I love movies. I’ve loved movies for as long as I can remember. I get a kick out of reading about them, discussing them, analyzing them, and especially writing about them. But one of the risks of being a devoted cinephile and immersing oneself so (too?) deeply in film theory and fandom minutiae is that I can occasionally forget what made me fall in love with movies in the first place: they’re a great deal of fun. To be able to watch a large number of films over the course of one’s lifetime and yet still remain connected to the pure, sensual, escapist thrill of movies has always been a goal of mine. Something easier to tap into with some films more than others.

When it comes to most of the movies I love, I find that critical analysis which encourages me to look beyond mere sensory response doesn't diminish my enjoyment of a film so much as it contributes to significantly enriching the overall experience. But every now and then I fall in love with a film so voluptuously visual, so lyrical, so ardently impassioned in its sensibilities, that there is absolutely no diminution in simply surrendering myself completely to its sensual charms and leaving my analytical brain at the door.
For me, Camelot is such a film.
Richard Harris as King Arthur
Vanessa Redgrave as Guenevere
Franco Nero as Lancelot Du Lac
David Hemmings as Mordred
The mystical legend of King Arthur, Guenevere, Lancelot, and the knights of the round table is tunefully romanticized in Camelot, Alan Jay Lerner (lyricist & librettist) and Frederick Loewe’s (composer) follow-up to their wildly successful My Fair Lady. Camelot (starring Richard Burton, Julie Andrews, Robert Goulet, and Roddy McDowall) opened on Broadway in 1960, when I was three years old. When Warner Bros. released its heavily-publicized, three-hour, 70mm, $13-17 million (depending on the source) big screen film version in 1967, I was ten. In other words, I have no real memory of a world without Camelot in it.
Lionel Jeffries as King Pellinore
When I was very small, I linked Camelot to dull, suitable-for-parents-only entertainment, associating it exclusively with Robert Goulet crooning the ballad “If Ever I Would Leave You” on TV variety shows (as I had Barbra Streisand and the song “People”). Following that, the show’s title tune became married to sad memories of President Kennedy’s assassination after my teacher (per the 1963 Jackie Kennedy Life magazine interview wherein it was referenced as the late president’s favorite song) played that paeanistic anthem to our class, resulting in a roomful of first-graders bursting into tears without any of us really knowing why. Not long after this, Camelot became familiar to me as an Original Broadway Cast album that every parent seemed to have in their home, yet never played.

By 1967 my family had settled in San Francisco, and it’s then that I recall first catching sight of Bob Peak’s colorfully alluring artwork for the movie poster. Still one of my favorite movie posters, I responded strongly to it because it resembled the then-popular psychedelic/Art Nouveau-style of San Francisco rock and roll concert posters that were all over the Haight/Ashbury district where we lived.
With Camelot’s artwork staring out at me from the poster display case in front of the Coronet Theater (where Camelot had its exclusive, reserved-seat, $3 a ticket, roadshow engagement) and from the cover of the Columbia Record Club mail-order soundtrack LP that arrived at our door because my mom forgot to send back the “not interested” card the month previous; suddenly this stodgy, must-to-avoid, middle-aged entertainment became the movie I couldn’t wait to see.
Laurence Naismith as Merlin
Of course, in the days when double and even triple features were the norm, the idea of paying $3 (75¢ to $1.50 was average) to see just one movie didn’t sound all that appealing to my young mind. As it turns out, the idea sounded even less so to my parents’ older minds, both holding to the position that it was “Out of the question to shell out that kind of money for the privilege of watching you fall asleep.” That’s what drive-ins were for.
So, until Camelot became available at “popular prices” and made its way to our neighborhood theater, I had to content myself with listening to the soundtrack album.
And listen to it I did. Constantly. Persistently. Rapturously.
I fell in love with the sound of Camelot before I ever saw a single frame. 

I saw Camelot sometime in late 1968, by which time the film’s flop* status was common knowledge, and some 30 minutes of footage from the roadshow version had been excised in an effort to speed things along, so to speak.
*[A huge bone of contention among retro film fans is the word “flop” ascribed to a beloved favorite. Hollywood has long held to the unwritten rule that a movie needs to make at least two to three times its production costs to begin to show a profit. Thus, while Camelot saw out the year as #11 on the roster of top grossing films (meaning it was reasonably popular with the public), with its $15 million production budget, a domestic boxoffice return of $31 million translates as genuine flop material. The same holds true for many other “popular successes” that simply cost too much to promote and distribute. One of the most notable is Hello, Dolly! which came in as the #4 top-grosser of 1969. But budgeted at a whopping $25 million and marketed to the skies at a cost of at least half that amount, the $33 million it took in at the boxoffice proved that it may have been popular with the public, but nothing short of ruinous for 20th Century-Fox.
Perhaps the most curious application of the word flop is attributed to 1967’s Valley of the Dolls. Budgeted at a modest $4 million, VOD ranked #6 at the boxoffice and raked in an astounding $44 million, making it a significantly profitable hit for the studio. However, the film proved such a critical disaster and so devastating to the careers of those involved, the label of “flop” has clung, largely in reference to its quality (or lack, thereof), not its profitability.]

In any event, once the theater lights started to dim that Saturday afternoon in 1968 (I can’t remember whether it was at the Amazon or the Castro theater), none of that made any difference, because no one else’s experience of Camelot mattered but my own. I grew up with very little interest in most of the age-appropriate movies of the time (I was an adult before I saw The Sound of Music, Mary Poppins, or Doctor Dolittle), so at age eleven, I hadn’t much exposure to fantasy or magic in movies. Camelot, which looked to me like a fairy tale come to life, captivated my imagination from start to finish.

There in the dark, before this enormous screen, came a vision of opulent, extravagant fantasy that seemed to shimmer with an almost otherworldly luster. The scope, the color, the lush orchestrations, the pageantry…this creation of a world both magically artificial and hyperreal so overwhelmed my senses that I’ve no memory of what I actually thought of the story itself; only the sense memory of feeling totally and absolutely transported by a movie.
It was aesthetic overload. I was absolutely floored by how gorgeous everything and everyone looked. Even those enormous, incessant Panavision closeups that drove so many critics to distraction were positively swoon-inducing for me. Camelot was the most “movie” movie I’d ever seen. 

Clearly, most of what’s recounted above is a young film fan’s response to the candy-store charms of old-fashioned Hollywood movie-making. Too young to sense the dissonance so many found (and continue to find) in having a mystical, musicalized wisp of romantic lore mounted as a massive, grandiose epic; I simply fell under the spell of cinema’s unique ability to give life to fantasy.
Looking at Camelot today (I watched it over the Christmas holidays) I’d like to report that my adult self finds the film’s pacing to be sluggish when it should be lilting; the thin singing voices of the leads ill-serving of the score’s lovely melodies; the overall tone wavering unevenly between farce, romance, and drama; the film’s length interminable; the self-serious performances deadly to the story’s wit and humor; the sets artificial and stagey.
I’d like to, but I can’t.
I see these things and recognize them to be sound and justified criticisms leveled at the film by friends and loved ones (my partner, a man of unyielding good taste and intelligence, cannot abide a single frame of this movie); but they’re flaws visible to me only when I look at Camelot through the eyes of others. When I look at Camelot through my own two eyes, it’s a little like the scene where Arthur, extolling the virtues of Camelot to Guenevere, gives a brief lesson on how perspective can change perception: “When I was young, everything looked a little pink to me.”

Because I can’t separate the film from my experience of first seeing it, Camelot still shines with a kind of pinkish glow to me. I don’t kid myself that Camelot is a better movie than it is, but my adult perspective—the belief that one can derive perfect pleasure from an imperfect film—guides my youthful perception of it as a magical, majestic, utterly charming spite of its flaws.

Due to having fallen in love with the music first, Lerner & Loewes’ magnificent score will always be my favorite thing about Camelot. Preferring the movie soundtrack to the Broadway version (sorry, Julie Andrews) I adore the film’s human-sized interpretation of Arthur and Guenevere (Jenny, as he calls her) and never found fault with the smaller, more emotive voices of Redgrave and Harris, which achieve such a lovely, amatory quality in the duet “What Do the Simple Folk Do?” (my absolute favorite song in the entire show). Perversely perhaps, the one trained voice in the filmthat of singer Gene Marlino, dubbing Nero’s vocals—I find to be hollow and generic in the dubbing style of Marni Nixon and those disembodied, Doodletown Piper-style vocals they used in Hello, Dolly! and Lost Horizon.
As big-budget musical epics go, Camelot, with its glorious Oscar-winning costumes and production design, is nothing short of a dream; the film’s vast scale emblematic of Arthur’s full-to-bursting idealism. I suspect it was director Joshua Logan’s intention to use so many close-ups as a stylized means of creating emotional intimacy. While this device is sensually effective in the romantic and dramatic scenes, when the principals are required to break into song it offers too many opportunities to ponder the wonders of medieval dentistry.

If you’ve ever seen an Arnold Schwarzenegger Conan the Barbarian movie or any of those straight-to-DVD action films featuring the likes of Dolf Lundgren, one can easily understand why mainstream superhero films have often found it more advantageous to hire and actor and pad his suit (Michael Keaton, George Clooney) than try to get an athlete to act. I’ve always guessed a similar mindset was behind the Hollywood custom of buying expensive Broadway properties and, rather than actually using individuals who can sing and dance, hiring actors who have minimal proficiency in either: it’s easier to teach an actor to sing (dubbing!) than find song and dance performers who come across effectively on film.
I could devote an entire essay on both the soundness (Ethel Merman and Carol Channing) and folly (Lee Marvin, Clint Eastwood) of this practice; but confining myself exclusively to Camelot, I have to put forth that I find Vanessa Redgrave, Richard Harris, and Franco Nero all exceptionally well-suited to their roles. 

They are certainly the most visually stunning Arthur, Guenevere, and Lancelot I’ve yet to come across (Nicholas Clay’s virile Lancelot in 1981’s Excalibur being the exception); Harris a commanding and compassionate Arthur, Redgrave (Camelot’s most valuable player) looking like a fairy princess and bringing a wistfulness to her character that’s touching; and Nero, abysmal lip-syncing aside, gives an engagingly robust, sensitive performance.

An unanticipated pleasure in having seen Camelot when it was new and revisiting it some 50 years later, is reveling in the degree to which it embodies the attitudes and trends of the past, while its themes comment (with depressing acuity) on our current “situation.”
Camelot takes place in a fictional kingdom in the Middle Ages, but (as was common of period films in the days of the studio system) it has late-1960s written all over it. The casting, opting for up-and-coming talent over established stars, reflects who was hot at the time: Redgrave and Hemmings, fresh from cavorting nude in Antonioni’s Blow-Up; Harris only recently having bashed in Franco Nero’s brains in John Huston’s The Bible. The sound of Camelot may be traditional Broadway, but its look (like the world’s most well-funded Renaissance Pleasure Faire) has a decidedly hippie, love-in vibe.
Guenevere (with her mod bangs, cascading falls, and teased hair bump…all color-coordinated with the castle and furnishings) is the world’s first flower-child; while Arthur—whose quixotic anti-war soliloquies sound like a Berkeley campus lunchtime messiah—sports a groovy pageboy haircut and adorns himself with furs, capes, boots, and abundant eye shadow worthy of a Fillmore rocker. Not to be outdone, bad guy Mordred struts about in a leather outfit that looks to have been borrowed from Jim Morrison.

Alas, with Camelot’s dark second half, quaint ‘60s nostalgia gives way to harsh contemporary relevance. As Arthur’s humane ideals crumble under his own hypocrisy (he decrees rumors he doesn’t like—Guenevere’s infidelity and Lancelot’s betrayal—to be fake news and banishes from the kingdom those who dare speak what he knows to be true), Mordred, Arthur's vainglorious illegitimate son tweets…I mean, boasts, “I’ve been taught to place needs ahead of conscience. Comfort ahead of principle. I find charity offensive and kindness a trap,” while making ready his plans to return England to a state of cruelty, chaos, and war.
When Arthur laments, “Those old uncivilized days come back again. Those days…those dreadful days we tried to put asleep forever,” he could be speaking of a dark day in Charlottesville, Ga. in August of 2017, or, more accurately, the United States every day since November 8, 2016.

Time has been kind to Camelot, which is ironic, since complaints about its length have dogged the film since its release. No longer condemned for not fitting in with the times, Camelot now belongs to the broader, nebulous past of Classic Hollywood. The cast of budding actors are now revered film industry veterans; the style of filmmaking employed, lambasted as creakily old-fashioned during the youthquake '60s, is refreshingly devoid of CGI and today's ADD style of editing (so ruinous to so many contemporary stabs at musicals); and the melodic score harkens back to a when scores had a timelessness to them that didn't date the music before the film was released.
Yet Camelot remains unique in that it is one of those movies whose dividing line never seems to shift. I've never known anyone who hated the film to ever come around to a different opinion, and those who love it (as I do) can't be talked down off of our cloud no matter what detractors say.

I can't speak for everyone, but I guess back when I was eleven I just took it to heart when Arthur said at the end of the film, "What we did will be remembered."

King Arthur's Camelot took on the role of a Himalayan lamasery in the 1973 musical Lost Horizon

Camelot was revived on Broadway in 1980 with Richard Burton recreating his Tony Award-winning role as Arthur. When Burton succumbed to ill health in 1981, Hollywood's King ArthurRichard Harris, then 51-years-oldstepped into the role. Harris would go on to purchase the rights to the stage production and toured with Camelot for six more years. This production, co-starring Meg Bussert as Guenevere and Richard Muenz as Lancelot, was broadcast on HBO in 1982 and is available on YouTube 

Richard Harris passed away in 2005, nearly as famous as he was at the time of Camelot thanks to his role as Dumbledore, the Headmaster at Hogwarts in the first two Harry Potter films. But a real-life fairy tale romance played out for Vanessa Redgrave and Franco Nero who fell in love during the making of Camelot, had a child out of wedlock, made a couple of films together, separated in 1971, reconnected some thirty years later, and wed in 2006. In 2017, when she was 80 and he 75, they waltzed together on the Italian TV dance competition program Strictly Come Dancing.

Richard Harris had quite the recording career, releasing several albums throughout the '60s and '70s. His biggest success came with 1968's Grammy-nominated A Tramp Shining, which featured the #2 Billboard hit, the talk-sing version of MacArthur Park. I never owned that now-rare curio, but a particular favorite I never tire of listening to is Harris' guest stint as "The Doctor" (talk-singing his way through Go To The Mirror with Steve Winwood and Roger Daltrey) on the 1972 studio recording of Tommy, The Who's double-LP collaboration with the London Symphony Orchestra and a host of guest artists.

Don’t let it be forgot 
That once there was a spot
For one brief shining moment 
That was known as Camelot. 

Copyright © Ken Anderson