Thursday, December 8, 2016

CARNAL KNOWLEDGE 1971

“The who, the how, the why…they dish the dirt, it never ends.”
Girl Talk   Neal Hefti/Bobby Troup  1965

“Don’t come any closer. Don’t come any nearer. My vision of you can’t get any clearer.”
Girls Talk    Elvis Costello  1979

In Mike Nichols’ Carnal Knowledge, college buddies Jonathan (Jack Nicholson) and Sandy (Art Garfunkel) engage in an awful lot of girl talk. Or, more to the point, a lot of awful talk about girls. 
Each weighs in on what qualities constitute the “ideal woman”; they speculate on their chances of “getting laid”; they rate women’s body parts in an effort to determine her desirability, aka worth; they rate and evaluate physical intimacies as though they are sports statistics, charting the speed of numbered bases reached (1st base, 2nd base, homerun) vs. the number of dates logged. They equate a woman’s susceptibility to their seduction ploys as evidence of her virtue: if she succumbs too easily she’s a slut, if she resists for too long, she’s a ballbuster; and they bemoan the fact that, no matter how perfect, a woman is never beautiful enough, submissive enough, or ANYTHING enough to sustain interest over an extended period of time. 
Jonathan & Sandy: Amherst College, Massachusetts - Late 1940s
The casual dehumanization serving as the sexist throughline in all of Jonathan and Sandy’s incessant girl talk is attributable, at least in part, to the callowness of youth (when introduced, both boys are virginal teens at Massachusetts’s Amherst College) and reflective of the repressed sexual mores of the American middle-class during the late-1940s (their creepy sexual banter is similar to the same kind of talk played for nostalgic/sentimental humor in Summer of '42, released the same year). However, as Carnal Knowledge follows the fault-finding Jonathan and ever-questioning Sandy through some 20 years of friendship, we come to see that neither the passage of time nor America’s evolving sexual landscape does much to alter the content, timbre, and tone of the conversations between these two perennial hard-y boys.
Older, But Not Wiser
Sandy & Jonathan: New York - Early 1960s
As each fumbles and stumbles their way through dating, marriage, “shacking up,” and parenthood—with love and tenderness making only fleeting appearances, and then, more often than not, couched in erotic desire—the overall impression we’re left with is of two men who’ve approached sexual exploration not as a journey of discovery, but as a quest to have firmly established ideas about women confirmed or disproved. Self-reflection and introspection play no part, for the male gaze is ever outward and always infallible.

Faced with the option of uncomplicated fantasy over unpredictable reality, men who grow old without benefit of growing up invariably opt for holding onto the wish for the unattainable, unsullied, idealized dreamgirl. Proving perhaps that one can acquire carnal knowledge without learning a single thing.
Jack Nicholson as Jonathan Fuerst
Ann-Margret as Bobbie Templeton
Arthur Garfunkel as Sandy
Candice Bergen as Susan
Carnal Knowledge screenwriter Jules Feiffer (Little Murders, Popeye) conceived of his dark comedy of sexual bad manners as a stage play, but director Mike Nichols told the famed cartoonist/author/playwright that he saw it instead as a film. As such, the movie has a stylistically theatrical feel to it, both in the dominance of language (the script is sharp as a razor) and the frequently used device of making it appear as though a character is breaking through the fourth wall and speaking directly to us. The cramped framing and preponderance of close-ups makes the world of Jonathan and Sandy seem strangely underpopulated, isolated, and self-centered (in the way dreams and memories often appear to us), while at the same time feeling confessional and all-too intimate.

Most distinctively, Carnal Knowledge retains a classic theatrical three-act structure that neatly divides the arrested-developmental stages of its two leads into chapters mirroring America’s shifting sexual mores. Each era designated by the significant woman in the life of Jonathan, the film’s chief chauvinist.
It's Complicated
Susan and Jonathan connect behind Sandy's back
Act I: Susan (Candice Bergen) The late 1940s  * "The Kinsey Report"  Alfred Kinsey 1948
Both Jonathan and Sandy fall hard for Susan, a neighboring student at Smith College who looks like the WASP dreamgirl: i.e., she superficially embodies the era-specific attributes deemed ideal for assuming the role of girlfriend, wife, and mother. But Susan is no passive male fantasy figure. She's postwar woman emergent. Straining against gender constraints and just as uncertain of how she is supposed to "be" in the uncharted territory of sex and relationships, Susan is intelligent, opinionated, ambitious, and conflicted. In short, an actual complex human being during an era when all that’s expected of her is ornamental perfection. Things between these three get messy in a hurry.
Carnal Knowledge explores how both men and women can feel
pressured into engaging in sexual activity 

Act II: Bobbie (Ann-Margret) Early 1960s * "The Feminine Mystique"  Betty Friedan 1963 
Jonathan is now an accountant of some sort, single, embittered by a string of unsatisfying relationships, and still searching for his “perfect woman” (the ideal whittled-down by this stage to an exacting checklist of physical specifications). Sandy, now a physician, is married to Susan and lives in a passionless suburban rut he takes great pains to justify to Jonathan. Susan, though unseen, sounds as though she has matured into precisely the kind of vaguely dissatisfied Smith-graduate-turned-suburban-housewife Betty Friedan surveyed as the basis for her groundbreaking feminist tome The Feminine Mystique
Although in the film 29-year-old Bobbie is an enticing older woman to 20-something Jonathan, in real life, Ann-Margret (who really WAS 29) was four years younger than co-star Jack Nicholson's 33. 

Into Jonathan’s life comes Bobbie, a TV commercial model who is the physical embodiment of the Playboy ideal and Jonathan’s fantasy-girl come to life. Unfortunately, since Playboy magazine fails to disclose just how one goes about living day-to-day with an individual one needs to objectify for the purpose of sexual arousal, things begin to head south for the pair rather rapidly; the pliant, none-too-bright bombshell who only wants to get married and have kids proving an easy and willing emotional punching bag for Jonathan’s aggression, scorn, and callousness.
"I wouldn't kick her out of bed!"
Jonathan's favorite expression of feminine endorsement is realized in its most literal, ironic terms with Bobbie, the  sexualized dreamgirl whose depression and willing subjugation results in her almost never getting out of bed 

That the blossoming and eventual disintegration of their relationship plays out almost exclusively within the confines of their bedroom (a playroom turned prison) underscores the realization that Jonathan's and Sandy's quest to align adolescent sexual fantasy with adult reality is a task far beyond either of their capabilities. Easily the most emotionally brutal and devastating section of the film, Act II of Carnal Knowledge lays bare the battle of the sexes in a way that spares no one. As the men approach middle age, wondering whether their teen ideals will ever be realized, it becomes obvious that neither knows any more about women than they did in their days at Amherst.
Divorced, indecisive and easily bored, Sandy finds temporary solace with Cindy (Cynthia O'Neal),
a woman whose self-assurance suits his sly passive-aggressiveness

Act III: Louise (Rita Moreno) Late '60s/'70s * "The Female Eunuch" Germaine Greer 1970 
The college buddies have grown older, but only chronologically. Sandy, sporting sideburns, shaggy moustache, and pot belly over his bell-bottomed jeans, has found a kind of restless peace in his midlife romance with a hippie young enough to be his daughter (Carol Kane). Jonathan, very successful, very alone, and something of a drinker (and looking uncannily like '80s-era Robert Evans), is reduced to regaling guests with a self-narrated slideshow titled “Ballbusters on Parade!” in which the sad spectacle of a lifetime of empty sexual conquests are trotted out and disparaged in escalatingly vulgar terms (sort of like the published autobiographies of Tony Curtis and Eddie Fisher).
As the film nears its conclusion, we’re left with a sense that Sandy’s endless searching (ever external, never within) might perhaps eventually lead to some level of fulfillment; after all, he at least concedes that there is a great deal about love he doesn’t know. But Jonathan, firm in the cynic’s resolve to mistake mislearned lessons for wisdom, thinks he has it all figured out. What he has gleaned from twenty-some years of acquired carnal knowledge is revealed in the memorized, methodically recited, misogynist monologue delivered by Louise, the prostitute the now-impotent Jonathan must regularly visit.
The Misogynist's Maxim
Able to achieve arousal under only the most compulsively controlled circumstances, Jonathan has Louise ritualistically recite a carefully prepared (pitiful) speech designed to reassure him of his male dominance. 

If, as Mike Nichols once remarked, Carnal Knowledge is about the fact that men just don’t like women very much, I’d say the only thing surprising about that statement would be anybody attempting to refute it. Certainly not in today's world where the crude, dehumanizing sentiments attributed to Jonathan (a character whose woman-hating harangues brand him shallow and contemptible) sound eerily like what America shrugged off during this recent shitstorm of an election as appropriate “locker-room talk” from “boys” well into their sixth decade running for the highest office in the land.
Has "Boys Will Be Boys" always meant "Boys Will Be Hollowed-Out Husks of Shame & Self-Loathing"?

THE STUFF OF DREAMS
My strongest memory of Carnal Knowledge when it first came out is how shrouded in secrecy it was. Beyond its provocative title and the prestige implied by the collaboration between highbrow satirist Jules Feiffer and Hollywood wunderkind Mike Nichols (his Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? -The Graduate winning streak took a hit with the costly flop of Catch-22), little to nothing was known about the film’s content in advance of its release.

Nichols’ reputation for extracting unexpected performances from his actors made Carnal Knowledge’s unusual cast a prime focus of interest. For who but the man who deglamorized Elizabeth Taylor to an Academy Award win would have the nerve to assemble in one film: getting-along-in-years up-and-comer Jack Nicholson; high-pitched pop-singer Art Garfunkel; beautiful but glacially aloof “actress” Candice Bergen, and, most intriguing of all, maturing sex kitten and industry punchline Ann-Margret. 
After having a 1972 obscenity verdict overturned, Carnal Knowledge was re-released in 1974 with new poster artwork. In 2001 Mike Nichol's Closer recreated that ad's quadripartite portrait design

Carnal Knowledge was promoted with a minimalist ad campaign so calculatingly discreet—white text against a stark black background, the title in scarlet letters—it proved tantamount to wrapping the film in a plain brown wrapper. Imaginations ran wild as the public (essentially doing the studio’s work for them) envisioned a film of such sexual explicitness and candor, no advertising dare elaborate. 
I was 14 at the time and desperately wanted to see Carnal Knowledge. Imagining it to be just the kind of cerebral smut my parents would begrudgingly allow me to see (provided I name-dropped a few choice critique sources like Saturday Review or The New York Times), but no such luck. My parents had active imaginations, too, and I’m afraid I underestimated the combined effect Ann-Margret and the word “carnal” would have on their faith in my adolescent maturity. Forbidden from seeing the film, I had to content myself with borrowing a copy of Feiffer’s published screenplay from the local library. I didn't get around to actually seeing Carnal Knowledge until the 1980s.
Carnal Knowledge is not one long misandrist harangue about how terrible men can be. As J.W. Whitehead notes in the book "Mike Nichols and the Cinema of Transformation," the women are also prone to exploitation and are often subtly complicit in their objectification.

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
My oft-expressed fondness for movies that give vent to brutal, blistering, peel-the-wallpaper emotional pyrotechnics, places Mike Nichols Carnal Knowledge high on a list of favorite films that include: They Shoot Horses,Don’t They?, The Day of the Locust, Reflections in a Golden Eye, Last Summer, Looking for Mr. Goodbar, Maps to The Stars, Carnage, and, of course, the Nichols’ own Closer and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Arguing that the ability to lie to oneself is the greatest special effect known to man, and that nothing is more exciting or dramatically compelling as emotional conflict; these films are my action movies, my superhero flicks, my adventure sagas, and (non) CGI thrill rides.
I’m drawn to films of emotional violence because physical violence is mere kid’s stuff by comparison. Americans have always found it easier to face a gun than to face themselves. These movies, when as honest and insightful as Carnal Knowledge, are very humane in their perspective, insightful in their compassion. And like all good art, they have the potential to lend order an air of poetry to what in real life is often merely chaos and banal cruelty.
Never Trust Anyone Who Begins a Sentence with the Words "Believe Me"
In 1971, a line of dialogue branding Jonathan contemptible
and superficial. Today, likely a 3am tweet from a 70-year-old cretin.
What inspired my revisit to Carnal Knowledge is the degree to which the baby-man words and behavior of a prominent celebrity in our recent election (he is no political figure by any stretch of the imagination and his name will go unmentioned on these pages) exposed and solidified the unassailable reality that America’s misogyny (like its racism) is so systemic, deep-rooted, and essential to the perpetuation of the status quo; we as a culture actually reward men for never growing up. I agree with the assertion by Feiffer and Nichols that Carnal Knowledge is about the fact that men don't seem to like women very much; but to that I'd also add that, in the end, men clearly dislike themselves even more.
Rita Moreno as Louise
PERFORMANCES
I've met young film fans who, having grown up with the Ann-Margret of TommyThe Return of the Soldier, The Two Mrs.Grenvilles, and A Streetcar Named Desire, were more surprised by her sex-kitten past in Bye Bye Birdie and Kitten With a Whip than by her startling, career-rejuvenating turn in Carnal Knowledge.
She's is indeed outstanding and gives a very moving performance every bit deserving of her Golden Globe win and Oscar nomination; but looking at the film today, I'm more surprised that Jack Nicholson's performance escaped Academy notice. He's perhaps the oldest-looking college boy on record, but he is electric to watch and plays Jonathan with a naked complexity I can't believe many others could mine so effectively. In truth, everyone in Carnal Knowledge shines brightly, and the performances have only grown richer with the passing of time.
Carol Kane as Jennifer

THE STUFF OF FANTASY
In our heteronormative culture, we've devised names for men who hate women (misogynists), and women who hate men (misandrists); but I've yet to come across a suitable word for the parallel cultural phenomenon of  gay men who hate other gay men (the word homophobe doesn't cut it for me). I bring this up because, as a gay man, I only see Carnal Knowledge as being partially about the battle between the sexes.
Ken Russell's Tommy (1975) reunited Jack Nicholson and Ann-Margret   

When I can listen to Jonathan and Sandy talk in degrading terms about women and associate those exact same dehumanizing phrases to experiences I've had listening to gay men talk about other gay men in locker rooms, dance studios, bars, gyms, and supermarkets; I recognize toxic masculinity is not limited to straights. While definitely one of cinema's most acerbic visions of male-female sexual politics, the ragingly heterosexual Carnal Knowledge also has a lot to say to the gay male viewer about the ways our culture teaches ALL men (gay and straight, alike) that sex, masculinity, and "maleness" has to do with dominance, objectification, and a disdain for vulnerability.
But that's for another essay at another time.


BONUS MATERIAL
In 2001, Vanity Fair reunited the cast and director of Carnal Knowledge 
for this spectacular group portrait by photographer Annie Leibovitz 

In November of 1988 at the Pasadena Playhouse in California, Jules Feiffer revived his theatrical version of Carnal Knowledge

A few excerpts from a truly jaw-dropping "Ladies' self-help book" book published in 1945 (its attitudes chillingly reflective of Carnal Knowledge's first act) titled What Men Don't Like About Women by Thomas D. Horton. Clearly the Steve Harvey of his day.

YouTube: Mike Nichols talks about Carnal Knowledge: 2011 Film Society of Lincoln Center

"You want perfection."
Copyright © Ken Anderson

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

BONJOUR TRISTESSE 1958

Seeing as 2016 has exposed America as a country hell-bent on both leading the charge and serving as the gatekeepers to the demise of decency and death of dignity; I wonder if the moral dilemma at the center of the Bonjour Tristesse would even appear as such to audiences today. In a world that takes its ethical cues from reality television, and where ego-driven consequentialism (the end justifies the means) has come to replace a humanist moral compass; the choice between a life of financially well-upholstered self-gratification versus the option of sharing an authentic emotional relationship with one you love, would likely seem a no-brainer to those who reduce human beings to either "winners" or "losers": Go for the villa on the French Riviera!
Jean Seberg as Cecile
David Niven as Raymond
Deborah Kerr as Anne Larson
Mylene Demongeot as Elsa Mackenbourg
During the nascent days of what has come to be known as the Jet Set; a year after Playboy Magazine branded and commodified the image of the ladies’ man; and a good six years before Fellini exposed the world to La Dolce Vita; 18-year-old Françoise Sagan achieved  acclaim and infamy when she wrote of “La Belle Vie” in her debut novel Bonjour Tristesse. Considered shocking at the time, Bonjour Tristesse is a wafer-thin tale of a precocious 17-year-old girl who admiringly but heedlessly adopts the sybaritic ways and philosophy of her widowed father—a shallow playboy—and the way her surface sophistication fails to prevent her from responding in the most childish way possible to the jealous threat imposed by the introduction of “a woman of substance” into their incestuously codependent twosome.

Though I only just read Bonjour Tristesse prior to writing this essay, its frank talk of mistresses, womanizers, adolescent sex, drinking, smoking, and basic, old-school bohemian living-it-up,  still resonates with a narrative and psychological insight startling in a writer so young. I can only imagine what the American response to the novel was back in the days when the strongest stateside glimpses of 1950s teenage life were provided by the polar-opposite rebellion/conformity images of James Dean and Dobie Gillis. And that’s just the view from the boys’ room. The scope of behavioral possibilities for girls was even narrower. Teenage girls of the '50s who didn’t fit into the conventional "biding-my-time-until-compulsory-wife-and-motherhood" of My Little Margie/A Date With Judy/Gidget mold, were always depicted as the “bad” girls in juvenile delinquency exploitation films. There was no gray area: virgin or "going steady" wife and mother to be...that was it.
Cecile and Raymond: Two of a Kind
Given Bonjour Tristesse’s risqué reputation, perhaps it was inevitable that the novel would be brought to the screen by Otto Preminger, a director known at the time for shattering taboos on the big screen (Carmen Jones - 1954) and challenging censors (The Moon is Blue - 1953, The Man With The Golden Arm - 1954). With a screenplay by Arthur Laurents (Rope, Anastasia) and sumptuous CinemaScope color photography by Georges Perinal (Oscar winner for The Thief of Bagdad – 1940), Bonjour Tristesse was Preminger’s follow-up feature to the critically lambasted Saint Joan, and only the second motion picture appearance of that film’s star: Preminger discovery and protégée Jean Seberg.

Every "plucked from obscurity" cliche in the book applies to then-17-year-old Jean Seberg being discovered by Otto Preminger, signed to a seven-year contract, and thrust into the lead role of Joan of Arc in his calamitous 1957 film version of George Bernard Shaw's play. The poor U.S. reception accorded Bonjour Tristesse when she was but a seasoned  veteran of 19 (the film did well in France) brought their professional relationship to a premature end.

Narrated by Cecile and presented as a series of black & white, present-time Paris flashbacks of the colorful summer she and her father spent on the French Riviera a year before, Bonjour Tristesse is a coming-of-age tale in which the getting of wisdom is paid for in bitter tears of self-recrimination. Wealthy, widowed playboy and zealous bon vivant Raymond (Niven) may be Cecile’s father, but he is anything but a dad. More companion than parent (Cecile calls him by his first name), Raymond’s conduct—a staunch disregard for sincere emotion, and a tireless pursuit of hedonistic distraction—is precisely the kind of immaturity that looks like maturity to an adolescent. Thus, Cecile adopts Raymond’s fecklessness, cynical philosophies as her own, unconnected and unmoored to either life experience or self-awareness.
Geoffrey Horne as Philippe
The drama is set in motion when a casual invitation extended to family friend Anne Larson (Kerr) is accepted, upsetting the epicurean balance of the heretofore frolicsome foursome comprised of Raymond and his mistress-of-the-moment Elsa (Demongeot), and Cecile and Philippe (Geoffrey Horne), a vacationing law student and eight years Cecile’s senior. The arrival of the chic and sophisticated Anne has the splintering effect of an adult entering a children-only birthday party: a welcome change-of-pace and escape from juvenilia for some, a fifth wheel to others, and, perhaps to most, an unfocused and vaguely felt threat.
British character-actress Martita Hunt (Anastasia, The Unsinkable Molly Brown) as Philippe's mother,
getting poker advice from the "brilliant" Elsa 

Whatever the initial response, the lingering impression made by the contrasting virtues of Anne’s maturity, intelligence, and sensitivity on the hollow hedonism of that summer, is the unwelcome awareness for all that “There’s gotta be something better than this.”

For Raymond, Anne offers the opportunity for genuine happiness and a rescue from a life of superannuated adolescence. Cecile, torn between admiration and resentment, keenly fears Anne’s unattainable poise will only serve to emphasize in her father’s eyes (per their atypical father/daughter relationship) the very chasm that exists between being a grown-up and merely acting like one. Unacquainted with what she stands to gain in acquiring both a mother and a father, Cecile can only see what she stands to lose in terms of the unimpeded path to instant gratification she is currently afforded by Raymond. Anne is more than a rival for her father's affections, Anne is a threat to Cecile's priveledge not to have to think. About anything. Anne threatens Cecile with the inevitability of having to grow up, and as such, Cecile sees her as a threat to her way of life. She must be stopped.
What follows in this gender-switch Come Blow Your Horn can best be described as a perverse, uniquely Gallic precursor to Disney's The Parent Trap as Cecile schemes to save her father (and most importantly, herself) from the specter of death by matrimonial maturation. With predictably tragic results.
Cecile Allocated To The Sidelines

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
Bonjour Tristesse is unequivocally my favorite Otto Preminger film. Although I arrived to the party rather late (I saw it for the first time just five or six years ago), it took absolutely no time for me to fall in love with its chic style, period sophistication, gorgeous French locales, and uniformly splendid performances. Arthur Laurents’ emotionally perceptive screenplay maintains Sagan’s view of Cecile as an unreliable, slightly self-dramatizing narrator. But by way of a nifty framing device that provides a glimpse of Cecile and Raymond’s life in Paris subsequent to that fateful summer (in eloquent black and white), Cecile’s deceptively colorful reveries of an untroubled past come to inform the scenes that take place in the monochrome present in despairingly poignant ways.
It's Only A Paper Moon
Enlivening my first viewing of Bonjour Tristesse was its having coincided with the broadcast of the reality TV trainwreck that was Ryan & Tatum: The O'Neals. A program to which I was religiously drawn every Sunday evening. Watching a real-life Cecile (Tatum O'Neal) grappling with a real-life Raymond (Ryan O'Neal) over his having let a real-life Anne come between them (Farrah Fawcett), made for a positively surreal viewing experience.

PERFORMANCES
From what I’ve read, much was made at the time of Preminger’s accent-clashing decision to pepper Bonjour Tristesse with but a smattering of actual French actors and instead have the lead Parisian characters of Sagan’s novel portrayed by two distinguished stars of the British cinema and a green teenager from Iowa. I’m sure purists and fans of the book were thrown by it all, but as one raised on a steady diet of Yankee actors in classic films speaking with clipped, mid-Atlantic dialects, not to mention British actors cast as everything from Egyptians (Cleopatra) to Southern belles (Gone With the Wind) to dustbowl Texans (Walk on the Wild Side); I can’t say Seberg’s flat Midwestern twang bumping up against Niven and Kerr’s veddy veddy proper English along France's southern coast caused me much concern. If anything, it made the authentic French accent of the adorable Mylene Demongeot stand out like a sore baguette.
As Elsa, Raymond's mistress-of-the-moment, French actress and '50s/'60s sex-symbol
 Mylene Demongeot  (still acting at 81) is a delight. 
Otto Preminger has never struck me as a particularly sensitive director, but the performances he elicits from the entire cast of Bonjour Tristesse are something else again. Thanks largely to the contributions of the cast; Francoise Sagan’s introspective-yet-detached novel is fashioned into a heartbreaking parable about the human propensity for casual cruelty.
How unfortunate it is that as a youngster I first came to know of David Niven via his one-note performances in what then-appeared an unending stream of atrocious, look-alike sex comedies (Bedtime Story, Prudence & the Pill, The Impossible Years, and The Statue). It took several years for me to come to appreciate—through exposure to his earlier work—what a consummate actor he is. In Bonjour Tristesse Niven adds untold nuance to his portrayal of a man-child who goes from enviable to pitiable over the course of the film. 
When Enjoying Each Other's Company Turns Into Needing The Reassurance of Each Other's Company


I love Jean Seberg in this, although I’m not at all sure I’d have felt the same had I seen Bonjour Tristesse back when it was intended to remedy the damage inflicted by her out-of-her-depth performance in Saint Joan. Time has been kind to Seberg, and the effectiveness of her Cecile is as much a triumph of personal style (she’s the epitome of youthful chic) as it is the distancing needed to assess her performance without all the nagging hype. I find Seberg to be remarkably good here, with even her liabilities (her line readings can sometimes be a little robotic) morphing into assets under the heady sheen of her unassuming star quality.
When it came to adolescent sexual independence, Cecile's unfettered license would likely cause
Annette Funicello's waterproof bouffant (the Beach Party movies were still five years away) to turn stark white

But the jewel in Bonjour Tristesse’s crown, the linchpin upon whom the entire emotional thrust of the film pivots, is Deborah Kerr. In an earlier essay on her work in the film Black Narcissus, I acknowledged the high level of esteem in which I hold her talent. Her work in this film is no less astonishing. More than merely serving as an identifiably "substantive" woman by way of her intelligence and poise (to contrast with Raymond's usual flirtations), Kerr confirms the narrative’s assertion regarding her character's sensitivity and vulnerability by giving a beautifully realized performance that is as wise to understanding the inner workings of this kind of woman as it is ultimately heartwrenching. She really is one of my all-time favorite actresses.


THE STUFF OF DREAMS
Bonjour Tristesse is one of the most effective uses of 20th Century-Fox's epic-scale CinemaScope process for the conveyance of intimate themes I've ever seen. Although the French Mediterranean coastline has sweep and grandeur, Preminger and cinematographer Georges Perinal don't restrict the dimensions of the widescreen process to the mere recording picture postcard images. The expanse of the cinema frame is consistently enlisted to enhance storytelling and visually underscore the film's emotional conflicts.
Use of negative space to denote Cecile's emotional detachment
Space & framing reinforcing Cecile's perception
that Anne and Raymond have united in opposition
Once Anne and Raymond become an item, Cecile (from whose perspective the story is told)
always sees herself as just slightly apart
"Brilliant" economy of storytelling:
Albertine the maid helps herself to the champagne, Raymond & Anne share a private laugh,
Elsa begins to smell a rat, and Philippe & Cecile enjoy not having anything to think about  

THE STUFF OF FANTASY
Bonjour Tristesse boasts a magnificent soundtrack by composer Georges Auric. I only recently acquired it for my ipod, but when I was young, it was one of those soundtrack albums every home seemed to have.
French singer/actress Juliette Greco, singing the film's title song

Hope Bryce and May Walding are credited with Bonjour Tristesse's costumes and wardrobe, but the clothes that make the strongest impression are the striking, super-stylish gowns and dresses by iconic designer Hubert de Givenchy. Deborah Kerr, whose character is a fashion designer, wears one elegant outfit after another, while pixie-cut Seberg became an instant style trendsetter with her American take on Audrey Hepburn's gamine chic look.  

Looking at Bonjour Tristesse nowdigitally pristine, widescreen and positively gorgeousit's hard for me to wrap my mind around the fact that it was a flop when released 1958 (although the French took to it, but then again...that Jerry Lewis thing....). As I said before, I think it's one of Preminger's best: a legitimate minor masterpiece. And though perhaps not exactly true to the tone of the novel (for which I'm grateful. The film is more moral) it is nevertheless a movie I revisit with a great deal of pleasure and always leave with teary eyes and a sincerely touched heart.
Saul Bass
Copyright © Ken Anderson

Thursday, November 10, 2016

MISERY 1990

In a verbose, exasperated correspondence, a reader once expressed to me his intrigued bewilderment at how my otherwise—to use his words—“perceptive and aware” observations on the toxicity of idol worship and fame culture (per my essays on Maps To The Stars, The Day of The Locust, Come Back To The 5 & Dime Jimmy Dean Jimmy Dean, The Fan, and For Your Consideration) stood in frustrating contrast to my parallel tendency to lapse into periodic bouts of unapologetic fandom, shameless name-dropping, and displays of philography (autograph collecting). 
Once the feeling of being terribly flattered that my writing could actually exasperate someone passed; I understood his point. I could see how my expressed disdain for the hollow distractions of fame culture and celebrity-worship perhaps suggested to the reader that I place no value on “fandom” at all, in any of its forms. In which case my attendant essays subjectively praising actors whose work I admire, upon whom I harbor crushes, or who I’ve met (cue the autograph scans); must have come across as paradoxical at best, hypocritical at worst. 
But that falls under the heading of reading the content while misunderstanding the context. The truth of the matter is that if I do indeed possess any insight into the phenomenon of fame culture, it’s insight born of firsthand experience, not academic observance. I’ve been a film fan my entire life, even owing my 30-year career as a dancer to film fandom (I fell in love with that irresistible 1980 roller-disco glowstick, Xanadu), so I've come to recognize that not all fandom is created equal.
“Healthy fandom,” as I call it, is when the admiration for and appreciation of the artistic accomplishments of others serves as a kind of balm to uplift the spirits and enhance quality of life. This type of artist-identification has the ability to inspire, broaden horizons, and awaken within individuals an awareness of one's potential and life's possibilities through exposure to the creative arts. Fan worship when channeled into role-modeling can foster self-discovery, self-actualization, and the cultivation of one's own artistic gifts. When it comes to fame culture, I think there's nothing wrong with looking outside of oneself if, by doing so, one becomes motivated to look within. 
Then there’s what I call “toxic fandom.” That’s when one focuses on the life and achievements of others, not as a means of finding oneself, but for the sole purpose of losing oneself. Toxic fandom doesn’t look to the arts for ways to cope and engage with reality, it looks to the arts to escape from it.
Because the toxic fan seizes upon a personality, film, TV series, or Broadway show with a singularity of focus more appropriate to a religious totem or fetish object; the actual talent or merit isn’t a requirement (cue the Kardashians). Fame can be worshipped for fame’s sake alone. With all that is good, happy, and beautiful in the world projected onto a single subject of worship, said “object of affection” doesn’t bring the toxic fan happiness, it represents happiness itself.
Certainly qualifying as the absolute worst-case scenario of toxic fandom gone terrifyingly off the rails is Stephen King's brilliant Misery. Brought to chilling and unforgettable life on the big screen by director Rob Reiner and screenwriter William Goldman (The Stepford Wives, Magic). 
James Caan as Paul Sheldon
Kathy Bates as Annie Wilkes
Richard Farnsworth as Buster
Frances Sternhagen as Virginia
Lauren Bacall as Marcia Sindell
Prolific author Stephen King is the master of Le Cauchemar Banal—the banal nightmare: high-concept thrillers in which ordinary characters in workaday settings find themselves thrust into unimaginably horrific circumstances. Whether it be “bullied high school teen kills entire class,” “dysfunctional family driven insane by haunted hotel,” “rabid dog terrorizes toddler” or, in the case of Misery, “deranged fan imprisons favorite author”; King’s particular literary gift is his ability to mine the darkest, most relatable phobias lurking behind ostensibly commonplace conflicts. The best of the films adapted from his novels (Carrie, The Shining, The Dead Zone) shore up King’s solid storytelling by giving emphasis to his almost Biblical/Freudian take on human nature. I can’t think of a work of Stephen King’s which doesn’t in some way confront matters of sin, redemption, guilt, evil, fate, transformation, loss, and desperation. Sometimes all at once! 
The Wilkes farmhouse
Just the kind of creepy-cozy place you'd imagine a serial killer would live

Adapted from King’s 1987 bestseller, Misery is a two-character, single-location twist on the Scheherazade folk tale (wherein a princess forestalls her execution through the spinning of captivating stories), pitting deranged superfan Annie Wilkes (Bates) against popular romance novelist Paul Sheldon (Caan).
After a Colorado mountain blizzard results in Paul Sheldon crashing his car off of a snowy bluff, he wakes to find himself nursing two broken legs and a dislocated shoulder in farmhouse of “number one fan” Annie Wilkes. How Paul’s status shifts from patient to prisoner is revealed through character (retired nurse Annie Wilkes is batshit crazy) and the development of the story’s central (and might I say, ingenious) conflict:

Annie would like nothing more than for Paul Sheldon to continue churning out Misery books—a series of historical romance novels chronicling the adventures of heroine Misery Chastain—until his dying day (which threatens to be sooner than Paul would like if he doesn’t get with the Wilkes program).
Paul, on the other hand, after writing eight financially successful but spiritually crippling Misery novels (do I foreshadow much?), would like nothing more than to put Misery out of her misery, move on, and, via his just-completed profanity-laced crime novel Fast Cars, pursue a career of literary legitimacy. 
Misery's tense melodrama is an macabre exaggeration of the possessive/regressive side of celebrity-worship. Creative growth may be a fundamental part of being an artist, but an equally dominant characteristic of fandom is the wish for a favorite star to keep repeating past successes.  

The close-quarters confinement of two people with such fiercely cross-purpose objectives generates considerable dramatic tension, but Goldman’s taut screenplay, which opens up King’s novel to include rescue-effort sequences involving the local sheriff (Fransworth), his deputy/wife (Sternhagen), and Paul’s literary agent (Bacall), nicely replicates the novel’s escalating sense of dread born of having the true nature of Paul’s rescuer and biggest fan revealed to us exclusively from Paul’s limited perspective. 
In both appearance and personality, Annie Wilkes amusingly plays into the suppositions many of us hold regarding the kind of people who read romance novels or give themselves over to obsessive fandom. But as Annie’s fangirl eccentricities reveal themselves to be symptoms of a larger mental instability; Paul’s mounting anxiety becomes our own as Annie’s irrational outbursts and mercurial mood swings hurls Misery into violent chaos.
Scenes played for black comedy invite us to share Paul's incredulous amusement at Annie's parochial prudishness, Midwest drabness, ignorance ("Dome Pear-igg-non"), and fondness for pop-culture kitsch. But the laughs catch in our throat as we come to understand that the earnestness of Annie's beliefs are rooted in rigid dogma

Lacking the novel's built-in identification factor (the story is told from his perspective), the film nevertheless does a great job of having us experience Annie and her rages with the exact same unexpected suddenness and startlingly irrational violence. So much so that, in effect, Rob Reiner becomes our tormentor; the male Annie Wilkes at whose mercy we suddenly find ourselves. In these instances, we (unlike Paul) can escape, but the compelling nature of the story holds us captive in our seats, no more willing to leave before first learning how things turn out than Scheherazade's king.


MISERY AS FAME-CULTURE METAPHOR
I read Misery many years after having seen the film. And while the movie is a very faithful to the book, as with many adaptations, the changes necessary to mold the descriptive liberties of the written word to fit the specific hyper-reality of the screen can shift a story's narrative emphasis in ways interesting and unexpected. Misery the novel, with its stressed emphasis on Paul's point-of-view read very much to me like one man's internal struggle. Paul Sheldon waging a war with the creative process, his life-altering encounter with Annie Wilkes serving as a kind of baptism by fire through which his creative spark is reborn and over which his eventual artistic maturity triumphs. (This fits with Stephen King's Rolling Stone interview in which he states he was Paul Sheldon and Annie Wilkes was his cocaine addiction.)

The film version, with the necessary excision of Paul's nonstop internal monologues and lengthy passages relating to the content of Misery's Return, subtly shifts the dynamics of the conflict. Since we no longer share the inner workings of his mind and are left to merely observe his behavior, Paul Sheldon may remain the story's central character, but his role in it is has become more reactive. Conversely, Annie, who is depicted in the book in almost one-dimensional terms (a monster comprehensible only in as far as Paul is able to make sense of her erratic behavior), is made the more dynamic character in the film because her actions and desires propel the plot. Deprived of his character-illuminating inner monologues, Paul Sheldon's goals become simplified: survival/escape. Annie, depicted in more complex terms, has fragmented, nonlinear goals that intensify in direct proportion to the deterioration of her mental state.
Kathy Bates' unforgettable, Academy Award-winning performance humanizes the monster that is Annie Wilkes. Playing a frightening character more pathetic than sympathetic, Bates somehow never surrenders Annie's humanity, even when her behavior is at its most indefensibly psychotic.

The depth given to the character of Annie Wilkes in the film (which I credit to Kathy Bates 100%) makes her Misery's "dominant focus": the most dramatically compelling element of a movie. Since interest IN a character can feel distressingly like sympathy FOR a character to our subconscious, in thrillers this contributes to creating an overall sense of unease for the viewer (think Hitchcock tricking us into identifying with Norman Bates in Psycho). We identify with Paul Sheldon's left-at-the-mercy-of-a-madwoman vulnerability; but since more of us know what it's like to be a fan than to be a celebrity, a tiny part of us can also relate to Annie. And we hate ourselves for it.

ANNIE WILKES: THE ULTIMATE THE TOXIC FAN 
If, as someone once said, success is the natural killer of creativity, to that dictum I’d also add: fans are the assassins of artistic exploration.
One of showbiz’s most enduring clichés is the artist who, upon achieving mainstream success, longs for artistic credibility: The Gidget who wants to be a dramatic actress (Sally Field), the stand-up comic who wants to be Ingmar Bergman (Woody Allen); the purveyor of pop-music candy floss who wants to be taken seriously (Madonna).
Some stars have been able to reinvent themselves without alienating fans or losing popularity (Robin Williams, Tom Hanks), but in most instances, attempts to abandon a popular commercial brand are met with resistance, if not outright hostility, by the artist's fanbase.
The terrifying relationship between Paul and Annie depicted in Misery is fascinating when viewed as a meta commentary on the co-depended love/hate relationship celebrities have with their fans.

“I love you Paul. Your mind...your creativity. That’s all I meant.”
Toxic fandom has at its core, a one-sided inequity of intimacy: the fan knows everything about their favorite celebrity, said celebrity doesn't know they exist. Love for an artist's work can be fulfilling, for it at least has the potential to feed the soul. Pent-up, intermingled feelings channeled into an appreciation of an artist's work at least holds the potential for fulfillment of the soul. But when the line gets blurred between love of art and love of artist, you're pretty much staring into the eye of an emotional one-way street.


“You just better start showing me a little more appreciation around here, Mister Man!”
Sooner or later the healthy fan learns that it's not possible to prop someone atop a pedestal without eventually realizing they've left themselves somewhere down on the ground. This realization inevitably leads to resentment. A constant complaint of celebrities today (especially among those who hate being reminded of the very real debt they DO owe to their fans) is what they see as the pushy entitlement of fans. They carry with them an attitude of "You owe your success to me!" or worse, the embittered "You think you're better than me?"—sadly, an epithet usually hurled by a fan moments after treating a celebrity as though they were precisely that. Nathanael West's The Day of the Locust is a work about the deep wellsprings of envy and resentment that can lie beneath fan culture. 

“You and I were meant to be together forever.”
From Presley devotees who refuse to acknowledge Fat Elvis, to Liza Minnelli concert goers who boo if she doesn't sing Cabaret; the symbiotic, vaguely contentious relationship between toxic fan and artist is always a struggle against stasis. Being a creative artist means development and growth, but being a fan frequently means latching onto some favored moment, digging in one's heels, and refusing to accept the fact that everything moves on. The toxic fan wants fan and celebrity to remain together forever, frozen in aspic.

There! Look there! See what you made me do?”
Ever notice how many online fan sites, chat rooms, and movie tribute pages are rife with the most vitriolic bullying and harassment imaginable? Intense self-identification with a celebrity, movie, or TV series often makes the toxic fan (usually a person with a vague sense of self from the start) feel so special, they tend to grow protective and proprietary over time. Separating themselves from the herd by the bestowal of meaningless titles and rank upon themselves (number one fan, biggest fan, most devoted fan), fandom becomes less about the personal joy one derives from the appreciation of a particular subject, and more about appointing oneself its combative gatekeeper.
Given that the seeds of fandom so often take root in adolescence—when individuals turn to the arts as a means of coping with the pain of loneliness, bullying, or feeling like an outsider—it's the height of irony that in so many cases the bullied grow to become the biggest bullies.

“You’ll never know the fear of losing someone like you if you’re someone like me.”
With its combined elements of genres ranging from horror to crime drama, Misery is a very effective suspense thriller (so much so that to this day I can’t watch the famous “hobbling” sequence, nor can I watch that final, bloody skirmish). James Caan and Kathy Bates are both super, handling the drama and black comedy with equal skill. (Although it's amusing to think that the athletic Caan, in this and 1979s Chapter Two, is Hollywood's idea of what a writer looks like.)
The first time I saw it in 1990, all I came away with was the feeling of having enjoyed a real thrill-ride of a movie. it has since become a favorite I've re-watched the film several times over the years (and it is indeed a quaint little timepiece, what with its rotary phones, typewriters, phonograph records, and bottles of Liquid Paper) and what stays with me is now are the characters.
Annie Wilkes may represent the crippling dominance of addiction to Stephen King, but to me, Misery is a searing horror fable (cautionary tale?) about how fame culture can promote emotional displacement through toxic fandom. Culturally speaking, what can be scarier than that?

Do any of you know or have had a run-in with a toxic fan? Better still, a toxic celebrity encounter? Would love to hear about it!


BONUS MATERIAL
In 2008 Kathy Bates appeared as Annie Wilkes in a commercial for DirectTV. Watch it HERE.
Copyright © Ken Anderson