Friday, February 10, 2017

WINDOWS 1980

Warning: Spoiler Alert. This is a critical essay, not a review. Therefore, many crucial
plot points are revealed and referenced for the purpose of analysis. 


“Dying is easy. Playing a lesbian is hard.”  
Fictional actress Debbie Gilchrist, co-star of Home for Purim in Christopher Guests’ For Your Consideration (2006)

I really love suspense thrillers, but good ones are extremely hard to come by. Far too often pretenders to the title come up short on both suspense and thrills because of predictable plotlines and a near-devout adherence to the structural conventions of the genre; a common pitfall suggesting one too many How to Write a Winning Screenplay workshops offering a downloadable “Surefire Suspense Thriller” PDF template upon enrollment.
Granted, not many directors understand storytelling, the language of cinema, or the rudiments of building suspense as keenly as Alfred Hitchcock, Henri-Georges Clouzot, Roman Polanski, and Claude Chabrol; but one hopes they at least try. Without such a foundation the alternative is invariably a suspense thriller that trades mystery and surprise plot twists for contrivance, coincidence, and implausibilities.
One movie to chart rather high on the contrivance, coincidence, and implausibility meter is the notorious 1980 psychological thriller Windows. A dark and distasteful example of the “What the hell were they thinking?” school of cinema I so associate with the ‘70s (which is actually when the film was in development); Windows is a movie of firsts and lasts:

Windows is the first and last film to be directed by famed The Godfather cinematographer Gordon Willis. It’s the first & last screenplay to be written by Barry Siegel (not the Pulitzer Prize winning author). It’s also the last major motion picture to feature up-and-coming The Godfather/Rocky alumna Talia Shire in the lead; Windows being the three-strikes-you’re-out, last-straw flop the industry tolerated from the actress after the poor boxoffice performance of her two previous leading lady ventures: Old Boyfriends (1979) and Prophecy (1979). Finally, Windows had the dubious distinction of being the first film to be released in 1980 (January 18th), but, seeing as it was pulled from theaters almost immediately after the near-unanimous critical drubbing it received, it's a good guess that Windows likely wound up as the last entry in year-end boxoffice tallies.
Talia Shire as Emily Hollander
Elizabeth Ashley as Andrea Glassen
Joe Cortese as Detective Bob Luffrono

Shy, stammering Emily Hollander (Shire) works in some mysterious capacity at the very picturesque Brooklyn Children’s Museum. Though we never find out exactly what she does there, we do learn that her co-worker is her husband and that they are soon to be divorced. Where Emily lives is picturesque too, her apartment being in a quaint Brooklyn Heights brownstone huddled, troll-like, beneath the Brooklyn Bridge. She shares this tiny apartment with a cat, a closet full of look-alike outfits, and several volumes of books devoted to the subject of stuttering. We're left to do what we will with all this visual backstory, for the film refuses to disclose anything which might provide a clue as to why she's so timorous or why her fashion sense runs to Italian Tzniut.
We know Emily regularly sees a therapist and that she struggles with a stutter.
What we never find out is why Emily, like Olive Oyl, has a closet full of the exact same outfit.

Returning home one evening after work, Emily is assaulted in her apartment by a man wielding a switchblade and a mini tape recorder. In a very-difficult-to-watch scene, Emily is terrorized and sexually humiliated (not raped, as many critics thought at the time) by her assailant, her frightened pleas recorded for some kind of perv posterity. This roughly 2½ minute sequence feels like it goes on for an eternity. And as you sit there squirming in your seat, wishing maybe Rocky Balboa would show up to kick ass and rescue Adrian; somewhere in the back of your mind you’ve arrived at a concrete certainty: you’re certain that nothing that follows in this film (that’s now only 8-minutes old) will ever—no matter how masterfully done—justify this scene.

Physically unharmed but emotionally shattered, Emily reports the assault to a sensitive Italian police detective named Bob (cow-eyed Joe Cortese), but is understandably reluctant to go into details. Enter husky-voiced, over-solicitous neighbor and friend Andrea Glassen (Elizabeth Ashley), an affluent poet whose obscenely large and picturesque apartment in the same building suggests Emily must be renting her closet. (In actuality, Andrea may live miles away, but Windows, for all the time invested in painterly images of New York, is fairly lax in establishing place or proximity.) While Emily sits silently grappling with her feelings, Andrea shoots officer Bob lots of stony glances until futility (or boredom) causes him to leave.
In a departure from the usual suspense thriller gambit which contrives for a terrorized protagonist to remain at the scene of the crime in order to better facilitate encore visits from an assailant; Windows has Emily hightailing out of her apartment the very next day and moving into a picturesque (what else?) Bridge Tower apartment across the river. A place with a spectacular view, ginormous picture windows, and a convenient shortage of drapes.
Now, Windows is a curiosity for any number of reasons, but the core of its strangeness lies in what transpires at this juncture. Just when it seems as though the stage has been set for the suspense part of this low-thrill thriller to kick in (vulnerable heroine, potential love-interest/hero, motiveless assailant, suspicious characters), the film just up and reveals the identity and motive of the villain. Mind you, this is 25-minutes in. Suspense obliterated, this leaves us with roughly 60-minutes of resolution. 
(You’ve been warned, spoilers to follow.)

It seems Andrea is a lesbian pathologically and psychotically in love with Emily. Her romantic scheme to win her lady love is to hire a cab driver to sexually assault her (what did she do, look in the Yellow Pages?)  in the hope that the trauma will: (1) turn Emily off men for good, (2) send Emily rushing into her arms for protection and comfort, (3) all of the above.
*Note to straight screenwriters creating gay characters: “That’s not how it works. That’s not how any of this works.”

Windows is the last film appearance of Oscar-nominated Funny Girl co-star Kay Medford.
She portrays kind but apprehensive neighbor Ida Marx. Ida & Emily share a similar fashion sense

Once Emily moves away and begins a hesitant and intensely boring love affair with Detective Bob, Andrea secures herself a loft directly across the river from Emily's apartment and watches the object of her affections through a telescope while getting off to the tape-recorded cries and moans of Emily’s assault. Fun gal, that Andrea. 
With the “whodunit” out of the way, Windows has plenty of time to devote to the “why?"—a valid concern given that we've seen precious little about Emily to warrant interest, let alone obsession—but instead, the film treats us to moody dissolves and countless picturesque shots of New York (by now you've gathered that picturesque is the film's defining dramatic motif).
To remind us that we're watching a thriller there are a couple of off-screen murders and a scene of Emily discovering something unpleasant in her freezer wedged between the broccoli spears and Cool Whip; but for the most part suspense is limited to wondering just how Nutso-Bismol Andrea is going to go before the inevitable showdown. A showdown brought about by the screenwriter having the characters do the absolute dumbest thing possible at the absolute perfect time.
"Hello, Police? I just happened to catch the cab of the driver who assaulted me...what should I do?"
"Get back in the cab and have him drive you to the police station."
"Oh, OK...will do!"
The arch dialog may be mine, but I swear, this actually happens in the film!

Falling woefully short of the mark by comparison, the movie Windows most obviously attempts to replicate is Alan J. Pakula’s masterpiece of paranoid urban dread, Klute (1971);  a movie distinguished by Gordon Willis’ evocative painting-with-shadows cinematography. Like Windows, Klute’s mise en scène is New York as a claustrophobically alienating city devoid of intimacy; at its plot’s center, a romance between a detective and a woman targeted by a psychopath aroused by tape recorded assaults. Alas, outside of Willis’ photography, that’s where the similarities end. 
Whereas Klute revitalized the standard detective thriller through its subjective visual style and character-study approach to the protagonists, Windows’s screenplay feels like it’s a few story-meetings short of a completed idea. Behind the tired "scheming lesbian" trope, you keep waiting for there to be some kind of unifying statement made about the alienating character of the city or how it fosters an inability to communicate or connect. 
Andrea's therapist (Michael Lipton) questions her about the authenticity of her love for Emily
"Have you said how you feel?"
"I will. I...I mean, I can't yet...but I will."

With Emily there’s her stutter, her inability to talk to her ex-husband, the wariness of her new neighbors, and her assailant threatening only her throat and mouth with his knife. As for Andrea, she has trouble communicating with her therapist, expresses herself emotionally only through poetry, engages in voyeurism and ecouteurism (sexual arousal by listening), and clearly has a problem landing a date. 
As friends, Emily and Andrea seem unlikely from the get-go, yet both appear to be damaged in some way you'd think the film would make use of to explain how they became friends in the first place. No such luck. 
Add to this the visual echoing of windows, glass, lenses, reflective surfaces, and the themes of watching and being watched, and you’re positive Windows has a distinct point to make. 
Yet it never materializes. Windows is all style and no content.  And by the time it limps to its conclusion, it actually comes as something of a surprise that all this curated and weirdness has failed to add up to anything substantive.
Every move you make, every step you take, I'll be watching you
The hit song by The Police was released in 1983, but it fits Windows to a T

THE STUFF OF DREAMS
I saw Windows in Hollywood on the day it opened. Although it was released in a flurry of controversy (William Friedkin's Cruising, another film featuring a homicidal homosexual was slated to open the following month) word-of-mouth about the film was so poor that picketers didn't even bother to show up.
I was less concerned about the controversy than I was overwhelmed at the prospect of what I was about to see. Anticipation was at an all-time high for I had worked myself into a frenzy thinking that Windows was going to be as scary as Klute, gritty as Looking for Mr. Goodbar, and as stylish as Eyes of Laura Mars. I had thoroughly convinced myself that this was going to be something really special. Advance word-of-mouth be damned.
Did Windows measure up to my expectations? Well, I'd be lying if I said I didn't enjoy it. Indeed, I sat through it twice. But it wasn't because it was such a great thriller; I was riveted to my seat by the sheer weirdness of it all. It reminded me of that scene in Young Frankenstein when Igor drops the genius brain resulting in an abnormal brain ("Abby someone...Abby Normal") being inserted into the monster by mistake. Windows feels like the studio assembled an A-list cast and crew, sunk a lot of money into the budget, but at the last minute somebody slipped in a script for a low-rent, mid-'70s, grindhouse rapesploitation flick.
The release of both Cruising and Windows within a month of each another in 1980 looked at the time as though Hollywood was bracing to trade one negative stereotype: the scary urban Person of Color of the Dirty Harry-'70s, for another: the homicidal homosexual. Putting it into context: to do so in the progressive climate of  the post- sexual revolution/gay-liberation era felt offensive enough, but it certainly wasn't helped that the tragedy of the AIDS epidemic was looming on the horizon of 1981, contributing to the proliferation of the kind of rampant homophobia that characterized the latter part of the decade.
As the '70s came to a close, gay characters in films were still largely depicted in either comic or derogatory terms, so the gay community was right to protest this rare instance in which two major films with large roles for gay characters depicted both as pitiable psychopaths. Windows was so widely panned and dismissed that I honestly don't think it was still in theaters by the time Cruising opened just four weeks later on February 18th.

For me, the distancing of time has made Windows considerably less sensational, and in turn, the character of Andrea far less offensive (largely because she's so sketchily drawn she's less a human being than a plot contrivance). But seeing Windows again after so many years made me aware of one of my personal pet peeves: How very much I wish contemporary independent gay cinema (especially gay-themed rom-coms) would lay to rest the VERY tired wish-fulfillment trope of having gay guy developing crushes on straight guys (straights who somehow ALWAYS wind up coming out as bisexual by fadeout). Zzzzzz. Talk about something being done to death.
The film's windows/lenses motif is carried over to Andrea's brobdingnagian eyewear

PERFORMANCES
Years after having made the film director Gordon Willis expressed that he felt the film was a mistake. One big mistake I can attest to was the decision to have Talia Shire more or less reprise her Oscar-nominated performance from Rocky. Shire’s Emily is a veritable portfolio of self-conscious gestures, downcast eyes, halting whispers, and fleeting half-smiles tucked into a knit hat. As much as I like Talia Shire (and I like her a lot) her Xerox performance here had me feeling, at least the first twenty minutes or so, that Windows was the darkest, most surreal Rocky sequel ever made.
I think the cautious romance between Emily and Detective Bob is supposed to be touching,
but at times they seem like they're mere moments from pledging a suicide pact 

I like Elizabeth Ashley a great deal, but it surprises me to think that outside of a TV movie or two, I've only seen her in this, Coma, and Ship of Fools. She has an intensity which makes her always interesting to watch, plus a kind of Susan Hayward propensity for overacting that challenges the believability of her characterizations. Playing a can't-win part, Ashley is really not that bad. Short of resorting to that "unblinking stare" thing that movie lesbians have been doing since Candice Bergen trained her gaze on Joanna Pettet in The Group her stereotypically written role is mercifully devoid of grand "I'm a lesbian!" acting indicators. The screenplay does her no favors in the final scenes (where she's left to go right over the top without a net), but she definitely has her moments and her performance looks better to me now than it did in 1980.
"Why don't you ever smile? You almost never do."
I think Elizabeth Ashley is very good in her moments with her therapist, as well as in this scene near the end where an opportunity is missed for Emily and Andrea to interact in a manner this is not just advance/retreat. Had the screenwriter seen Andrea as a flesh and blood person instead of just a gimmicky villain, perhaps he would have found a way to make this meeting between two women- emotionally damaged in vastly different ways -represent something deeper other than a genre payoff.

Although Windows has an impressive pedigree and the odd cult cachet of being a film few people have, liked, heard about, or seen; it's not, for me anyway, an undiscovered classic. What it does have is the stamp of being a visually stylish '70s-into-the-'80s curio which manages to be, by turns, engrossing and off-putting.


BONUS MATERIAL
In 2007 Talia Shire appeared in a series of commercials for GEICO.com in which she portrayed a therapist to one of those cavemen that were so popular for 15-minutes then- even getting their own ill-advised short-lived sitcom.  Shire playing the silliness absolutely straight is really rather marvelous.
Commercial #1
Commercial #2
Commercial #3


Paperback tie-in novels adapted from screenplays were once a popular part of movie marketing. The novelization of Barry Siegel's screenplay for Windows was written by H.B. Gilmour. Gilmour carved out quite a career novelizing screenplays, a few of her many other paperback adaptations being: Saturday Night Fever, All That Jazz, and Eyes of Laura Mars

THE AUTOGRAPH FILES
Gordon Willis died in 2014 at the age of 82. This autograph is from 1984 when I was a dance extra in the awful John Travolta/Jamie Lee Curtis aerobics movie Perfect (1985), for which Willis served as cinematographer. Some of his other more distinguished films are: Annie Hall, All the President's Men, The Parallax View, Pennies from Heaven. Considered one of the most influential cinematographers of the '70s, he was nominated only twice (Zelig, The Godfather III), and was awarded an honorary Oscar in 2010.

Copyright © Ken Anderson

Sunday, January 29, 2017

AUTUMN SONATA 1978

The tragic back-to-back deaths of actress/author Carrie Fisher (December 27th 2016) and her mother, Golden Age movie star Debbie Reynolds (December 28th 2016), offered a poignantly bittersweet, fittingly Hollywood-like end to one of my generation’s most conspicuous and compelling mother and daughter relationships.  

As though following a script co-written by generations of accomplished mothers and the daughters who sought to emerge from under their shadow; the life trajectory that took Debbie and Carrie from the semi-autobiographical, allegational purge of Postcards from the Edge (1990) to the late-in-life mutual love and admiration evident in the moving documentary Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher & Debbie Reynolds (2016), played out before my eyes like a real-life Fannie Hurst novel (Fisher, who passed at age-60, was just one year older than me).
There is perhaps no relationship as fundamentally complex and formative and as that of parent and child. Nor, it would seem, one as inextricably fraught with the potential for misunderstanding, miscommunication, and the inadvertent infliction of crippling psychological wounds. 
When it comes to parenting, our culture, while not wholly forgiving, is inclined to make allowances for the unavailable father. Cast by patriarchy as the breadwinner/head of the household, a father’s physical and emotional absence in the home is rarely called into question if it’s in the service of carrying out his “duty” as husband and father: i.e., being the provider of food and shelter for his family. Hollywood is full of notoriously MIA dads (Henry Fonda, Ryan O’Neal, Bing Crosby, Carrie Fisher’s own absentee dad Eddie Fisher), but public scorn fell less along the lines of their not carrying their fair share of the emotional weight of parenting, but more along the lines of morality: the absentee workaholic father, while not ideal, is acceptable; censure is reserved for the philanderer father.
The same leniency has not always been accorded mothers.

Lacking much in our culture to support, encourage, or even explain the reality of the working mother in terms not subtly reprimanding, women with ambitions outside the home are generally held to a higher, more critical standard than men. Women with families still face society’s two-option-only job default setting: motherhood=essential & important; mothers engaged in any professional endeavor beyond the scope of childrearing = nonessential bordering on self-indulgent.
(It's significant to note that this distinction is rooted in race and class, and rarely applied to women of color or the working class poor.)

Paying little heed to the reasoning that a suppressed, unfulfilled individual of either sex is very likely to make for a pretty toxic parent, our culture rewards ambitious motherhood (e.g., that Octomom nutjob, the celebrity trend of serial adoption, reality-TV shows celebrating couples who crank kids out like sausages), while questioning the “maternal instincts” of any mother who has gone on to achieve a level of success in her chosen field of profession.
Consider the fact that successful men are rarely asked if they are afraid their work will lead to the neglect of their children. Family men are expected to have both professional and personal goals; meanwhile, working mothers are forgiven their professional ambitions only if they simultaneously assert (as often and as publicly as possible) that family comes first (Diana Ross, Angelina Jolie, Mia Farrow). 
Perhaps this sexist double-standard, unfair as it is persistent, is rooted in the not-wholly-unfounded presumptive tack that views the physical act of motherhood—carrying a baby to term—as source of a bond unique between mother and child that is incomparable to that of father and child.
But whether its source be cultural, biological, or psychological, the love/hate, push/pull dynamics of mother-daughter relationships has always held a dramatic fascination. One of the most searingly honest and extraordinary explorations into the pain that mothers and daughters can inflict upon one another is Ingmar Bergman’s Autumn Sonata.  
Ingrid Bergman as Charlotte Andergast
Liv Ullmann as Eva
Halvar Bjork as Viktor
Lena Nyman as Helena

Autumn Sonata explores the strained mother-daughter relationship of Charlotte (Bergman), a renowned concert pianist, and timid, soft-spoken Eva (Ullmann), a onetime journalist now living a quiet life in the country with her husband Viktor (Björk), a parish minister. Seven years have elapsed since Charlotte and Eva have seen one another, the time and travel demands of Charlotte’s career still a source of suppressed resentment for the 40-something Eva, who can't help but associate her mother’s success and devotion to her art with agonizing childhood memories of abandonment and neglect.

When Eva learns of the recent death of Leonardo, Charlotte’s lover of 18 years, she invites her mother for an extended visit. Eva’s motives for the invitation, not entirely clear even to herself, ostensibly harbors the hope that perhaps out of grief or loneliness her independent, self-reliant mother might at last be receptive to the kind of familial intimacy she has clearly spent a lifetime running away from.

Charlotte's arrival makes evident the elemental differences between the two women; the mother’s radiance and vivacity fairly filling the rooms of the tiny vicarage with a life force that can't help but eclipse Eva’s low-key timorousness. Daughter cannot hope to compete, so she retreats into herself. Mother is used to the spotlight, so she has little patience or understanding with anything that falls beyond its glare. Charlotte is pragmatic to Eva’s spiritual; self-centered to Eva’s empathetic; stylish to Eva’s almost studied frumpishness, and forward-gazing to Eva’s tendency to dwell upon and inhabit the past.
Eva surrounds herself with memories of her son Erik who died before his 4th birthday.
Charlotte, busy with her concerts, never met her grandson and was absent at his funeral

Whatever water-under-the-bridge good intentions behind Eva’s invitation are scarcely given chance to take root before Eva springs the news to her mother that Helena (Nyman), Eva’s younger, equally-neglected sister who's stricken with a debilitating degenerative disease, is no longer sequestered in a nursing home, but living with her and Viktor. News that doesn’t comfort Charlotte so much as unnerve her, setting in motion a chain of events confirming her apprehension that her designer luggage won't be the only baggage waiting to unpacked during this fateful visit.

In one drunken night of accusations and confessions, a lifetime’s worth of stockpiled regrets, resentments, and recriminations are brought out into the open. But alas, exposure is not the same as clarity, and under the deluding guise of reconciliation the child affixes blame, the parent justifies, and each challenges the other’s reality as subjective experience masking itself as truth.
In the end, there exists not just a separation between Charlotte and Eva, but a chasm. Time has transformed parent and child into two adults. Two strangers who know each other all too well. Two individuals who share the same blood, yet are divided by a shared past each remember differently.

Autumn Sonata’s alternate title could well be Face the Music, for running like an undercurrent beneath this searing chamber drama about the domineering force of love—the need for it, what happens when we don’t receive it, the lengths we go to reclaim it—is the subtheme of emotional accountability. As insightfully realized by Ingmar Bergman's screenplay and sensitively rendered by cinematographer Sven Nykvist's stunning images, Charlotte and Eva’s mother and child reunion is portrayed as a despairing day of reckoning. A chance to settle old scores and confront the ghosts of the past in the blind hope of embarking on a future.
"Just wait. We all eventually turn into our mothers."
                                        Nocturnal Animals (2016)


WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM 
Autumn Sonata's stacked-deck conflict—neglected daughter confronts selfish mother—is thrown a remarkable curve by Ingmar Bergman's employment of a fluid narrative perspective. Inner monologues are heard; Viktor breaks the fourth wall, directly addressing us; flashbacks and intercut action contrasts and contradicts the spoken word...each of which plays havoc with any attempt on our part to draw pat conclusions regarding the truth of what transpires between these women.

As the past is resurrected and mother and daughter confront each other with painful disclosures, the role of victim and victimizer shifts in strange and unexpected ways. Amid appeals for forgiveness that are met with blame, and recollections of maltreatment countered with denials, each woman is faced with a troubling dilemma: can a person accept another's account of the past as being truth if the very basis of that truth signifies a profound misunderstanding of one another?
One usually has to reach an advanced stage of maturity before realizing that our parents are not flawless beings and simply human. Like us, they carry the wounds and vulnerabilities of their upbringing and try to do the best they can with the gifts and limitations nature accords.  If love is imperfect and the past can't be changed, is forgiveness the true sign of our having fully grown up?

There have been a great many films about mother and daughter relationships, most melodramatic, a great many more teetering towards over-sentimentalization. But no matter the form taken—The Joy Luck ClubGypsy, Terms of Endearment, Imitation of Life, September (Woody Allen, channeling this very film) —the drama follows a natural pattern similar to that reflected in most of our lives when it comes to our parents: neglect or over-protectiveness / rebellion / estrangement / reconciliation. (Joan Crawford's Mildred Pierce being the noir exception...that Vida was a pretty hard article.)
I grew up the only boy among four sisters. Both of our parents worked, our mom in particular finding her stride in the '70s after attending EST workshops and landing several promotions in her career working in government in San Francisco. I had my own parental issues with being a latchkey kid at the time (I retreated into movies), but my mom's fought for and well-earned burst of feminist self-actualization during my high school years was particularly hard on my sisters. Perhaps that's why the unsentimentalized truth of Autumn Sonata resonates so strongly with me. It gets the emotions right from both sides of the argument, offering the bracing insight that some battles end with no victors on either side.
Much in the way that our parents become more recognizably human to us as we grow older, Autumn Sonata is a film that plays very differently to me now than it did back in 1978. At age 21, I wholly identified with Ullmann's character's point of view, today I can't help but appreciate the struggles of Ingrid Bergman's character as well. Both women are more alike than they'd like to admit, and as each is a product of a home where maternal love and affection were largely absent, I find that there's something hopeful (in not exactly happy) in the way each has coped. Charlotte, though indeed selfish and remote, has channeled her emotions into her art. Eva, while prone to dwelling on the past, has actually learned how to love (others, if not herself, just yet); and in caring for her disabled sister and late son, seems intent on not repeating her mother's mistakes.


PERFORMANCES 
Autumn Sonata is a film chock full of trivia tidbits. It marks not only Ingrid Bergman’s last feature film (one for which she was nominated for both an Oscar and a Golden Globe) but her only teaming with sound-alike countryman Ingmar Bergman. Bios note that it is also Ingrid’s first Swedish-language film in 11-years; a nifty coincidental turnabout being that she portrayed a pianist in her first major Swedish film (Intermezzo -1936) and plays one again in her final film.
Autumn Sonata marks the 9th of 10 films Liv Ullmann appeared in for Bergman, their daughter Linn cast to portray Eva as a child. By all accounts the two Bergman’s didn’t have an easy go of it at first, Ingrid’s outspokenness and studio-trained acting style being quite the departure from the usual “the genius is in” compliance from his crew. But whatever difficulties went into the creation of Autumn Sonata prove more than worth the trouble, for Bergman and Ullmann give exceptionally raw performances.
Favorite Scene: Eva listening to Charlotte play Chopin's Prelude No. 2 in A Minor realizes that her mother's art has been the recipient of all the love and attention absent from her childhood 

A common passage in most every tell-all memoir by a celebrity offspring is that moment when the child grasps the extent to which their parent is devoted to their work. It's usually when the child sees the parent give forth with a sensitivity and emotional availability not present in the household. While admiring their artistry, creativity, and passion, the child nevertheless realizes they can never compete and will always come in second (even if marginally) to that magical "something" that gives their parent's life purpose.

Ullmann, coming as no surprise, is first-rate throughout and comes across very much at home in Bergman’s world of exposed faces and bared souls. At once heartbreakingly sympathetic, the next moment bitterly unfair, her Eva feels all the more real and affecting because her pain and occasionally crosses the boundaries of reason. Ullmann’s is not an intellectual performance, but one deeply realized and felt.
But it's Ingrid Bergman who brings something altogether fresh to Ingmar Bergman's usual solemn rumination on the puzzle that is the human experience. Always a charismatic and compelling presence onscreen, here Ingrid Bergman plumbs depths I've never seen in her before. Her Charlotte is precisely the charmer she needs to be, the cold narcissist her daughter accuses of being, and the creative artist possible only in people accustomed to living with demons.
Ingrid Bergman is flawlessly unsympathetic and achingly vulnerable. I think it's my favorite of all of her screen performances.

THE STUFF OF FANTASY & REALITY 
A significant part of Autumn Sonata’s impact is the core of emotional verisimilitude running through its characters, dialog, conflicts, and performances. Textured and nuanced in its ability to convey the heated, paradoxical perspectives of mother and daughter, at times the film feels so real it’s as though the words were taken from the transcripts of a documentary or group therapy session.
This core of truth I speak of is (at least for me) attributable to the incontestable thread of semi-autobiography Autumn Sonata is fused with by way of its cast and creator. At various times in their lives Ingrid Bergman, Liv Ullmann, and Ingmar Bergman has each been either the neglected child or the absent parent. The childhoods of both Ingrid and Liv were marred by the deaths of parents when they were very young, while Ingmar spoke often about his sickly youth and abusive father. As adults, all three had bouts of being less-than-ideal parents: Ingrid’s well-documented affairs and marriages and 5-year estrangement from first daughter, Pia; Ullmann’s self-professed immersion in her work after the out-of-wedlock birth of her daughter with Bergman; and Bergman—5 times married, 9 children from multiple partners—whose work always came first, was perhaps the epitome of the absentee father.
Charlotte's abandoned husband Josef (Erland Josephson) consoles the adolescent Eva

THE STUFF OF DREAMS
back in the '90s I worked as the personal trainer for three daughters of celebrity parents. One was the struggling actress daughter of an Academy Award-nominated actress from Hollywood's Golden Era. Their relationship was almost identical to that depicted in Postcards from the Edge; strained at best, competitive nonstop. The second was the daughter of a famous Hollywood couple, since divorced. To hear her tell it, her relationship with her mother improved in direct proportion to the ratio of decline of her mother's career (i.e., her mother had more time for her when her mother suddenly found herself with more time). The third client, while admitting to being the progeny of "two raging narcissists" and forever in their shadow, nevertheless found happiness through therapy. Lots of it, from what I understand, but it seemed to be just the trick for enabling her to let go of the unchangeable past and forge a loving relationship with her parents in the here and now.

Testament to Autumn Sonata's honesty and unblinking gaze into the human condition is how, seeing the film again after many years, I still recognize these women. I've met them before in the countless mothers and daughters I've come across in my life. I also recognize myself, I recognize my sisters, and I recognize my mother.
Copyright © Ken Anderson

Monday, January 9, 2017

NOCTURNAL ANIMALS 2016

Warning: Spoiler Alert. This is a critical essay, not a review. Therefore, many crucial
plot points are revealed and referenced for the purpose of analysis. 


Amy Adams as Susan Morrow
“Do you ever feel like your life has turned into something you never intended?”

Susan Morrow is a successful Los Angeles art gallery owner who lives a life of lacquered, heavily curated wealth in the kind of sterile, fortress-like compound Architectural Digest likes to try to convince us are homes. They’re domiciles, but by no stretch of the imagination are they homes.
Susan, who sports, or, more accurately, hides behind, a severe, vision-concealing hairdo, shares this steel and cement mausoleum with her model-perfect financier husband Hutton—who looks precisely like what you’d imagine a man named Hutton would look like—and several million dollars’ worth of art. Art for which Susan harbors little affection and must occasionally sell in order to keep up appearances while her husband’s business flounders.
Armie Hammer as Hutton Morrow
From the way she occupies space without actually inhabiting it, and from the way her makeup and dress appears designed to conceal and camouflage; we can tell that Susan is at some kind of a crossroads. She exhibits all the traits of the well-upholstered midlife crisis (career and creature comforts secured, the “Am I happy?” dilemma rears its head), but there’s something more. It has to do with her past...and it's tearing Susan apart. 

“What right do I have to not be happy? I have everything. I feel ungrateful not to be happy.”

Jake Gyllenhaal as Edward Sheffield/Tony Hastings
Into this environment of ennui arrives a manuscript which turns out to be the proofs of a soon-to-be-published novel by Susan’s ex-husband Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal), an aspiring writer whom she hasn’t seen or been in contact with for 19-years. In fact, their breakup was so acrimonious and hurtful (she left after secretly aborting their child and cheating on him with the “handsome and dashing” Hutton) Edward never remarried and all attempts by Susan to contact him have been met with his hanging up on her. (Will future generations ever know the ecstasy of slamming down a phone receiver in anger?)
Michael Shannon as Bobby Andes
If the timing and arrival of this parcel weren’t already fraught with portent—delivered, significantly, by a shadowy figure driving a vintage, chocolate brown Mercedes—then certainly Susan suffering a this-can’t-be-a-good-omen paper cut while opening the package provides plenty of additional cause for concern. But the novel’s title “Nocturnal Animals” (a onetime term of endearment Edward had for his chronically insomniatic ex-wife), its dedication (“For Susan”), and uncharacteristically genial note crediting her with inspiring him, hints perhaps at the possibility of one of those timely, estranged couple reconciliations beloved of rom-coms.
Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Ray Marcus
But when her husband goes away for a business meeting (monkey business, if you my cruder meaning), Susan settles down to read the novel only to discover it is a disturbing, cruelly savage tale of violence, guilt, loss, and revenge. One which Susan interprets through the valueless absurdity of her current life and the fractured, self-reproachful emotional prism of her past with Edward. Within the novel's sad, heart-wrenching story of a family destroyed by a nighttime confrontation on a barren strip of West Texas Interstate, Susan perceives worrisome life parallels. The more she reads the more she comes to fear that the allusions and thinly-veiled similarities are an allegorical, perhaps threatening, indictment of her relationship with Edward, and her culpability in its dissolution. 
Laura Linney as Anne Sutton


“Susan, enjoy the absurdity of our world. It’s a lot less painful. Believe me, our world is a lot less painful than the real world.”


Nocturnal Animals, written and directed by Tom Ford (only his second film, his first being the sensitive and touching A Single Man) is one of my new modern classics: a contemporary film with the heart and soul of a film made in the '70s.
I don't write about many contemporary movies on this blog, but when I do (Closer, Blue Jasmine, Maps to the Stars, and Carnage), it's because they speak to me in a forceful, intimate voice reminiscent of my favorite films from the '60 and '70s. They tend to be difficult, character-driven scenarios dealing with pain of interpersonal conflict, self-confrontation, and alienation. They're movies that, for me, illuminate the vicissitudes of human experience in ways challenging and poignant. People often write to me, curious as to why I seem to be drawn to films of intense emotional conflict...usually between people not easily recognized as sympathetic.

I like to think it's because I'm essentially a happy person blessed with a modest, good life, and peace of mind. Happiness I attribute 100% to the lessons I've learned from the pain and difficult things I've endured in my life. While I wouldn't recommend wallowing in it, I personally don't think growth is possible without hardship, conflict, and grappling with things like sadness and tragedy. Since this is something I so respect in life, I guess it's a quality I gravitate to and applaud when it's addressed in film.
In the fictional story within the story, the characters in the novel look like Susan, Edward, and Susan's daughter with Hutton. As we're seeing the novel from Susan's perspective, Ford leaves it up to us to decide if the characters are genuinely written as such, or if the guilt-ridden Susan is projecting herself into the narrative.
Isla Fischer as Laura Hastings, Elle Bamber as India Hastings, & Gyllenhaal as Tony Hastings, who just so happens to look like Susan's ex-husband Edward Sheffield 


I was absolutely floored when I saw Nocturnal Animals. No, check that...Nocturnal Animals kicked me in the solar plexus. I was stunned. Like a good thriller should, its plot kept me in a near-constant state of agitation and anxiety; but the tension didn't emanate exclusively from the storyline(s) -
EVERYTHING about the film sparked my emotional antennae. From the costuming, sound design, decor, music (Abel Korzeniowski's score sent chills down my spine)...it's pure bliss. There is just so much going on and so much alert attention required, I was thoroughly worn out by the time the film was over. Yet, I couldn't wait to see it again. Watching it was a rich, exhilarating, equilibrium-losing, roller coaster experience.

As much as it can be said of a director with only two films under his $800 belt (the actual cost of a Tom Ford belt, folks) Nocturnal Animals features these director "trademarks" first seen in  A Single Man (2009)- Top: A brown vintage Mercedes Benz appears throughout Nocturnal Animals. It's first glimpsed delivering the dreaded manuscript. This is the only time the "real" Edward appears in the film. Center: Two characters in the film wear large frame eyeglasses similar to those worn by Colin Firth in Ford's debut film. Bottom: A Single Man featured a protracted, comical scene with a character seated on a toilet. In Nocturnal Animals, Ray's exposed and unorthodox facilities are more unsettling, and stand in perverse contrast to the opulent exposure of Susan's bathroom with the floor to ceiling window overlooking Los Angeles.


As a longtime L.A. resident, Nocturnal Animals gave me a wholly unexpected look at the all-too-familiar. For years I've worked as a personal trainer to many wealthy clients; the world depicted in Nocturnal Animals is familiar to me (from the perspective of an outsider) and I recognize the people. It's a world where people exist almost exclusively in interiors. They live in security-gated homes, are driven to their laminated offices in oversized vehicles, after which they go to their sterile gyms, and later dress to go to not-too-cloistered restaurants. Nocturnal Animal's depiction of Los Angles as a gray and blue landscape is pretty apt, for who sees the sun when you're always wearing dark glasses and looking out at the world through the tinted windows of your limousine?

The world Susan inhabits is a holed-up world that offers many benefits (the illusion of safety, insulation from self-examination); but it brings with it a unique set of problems. Problems many of the wealthy are conflicted about because, when all is said and done, the world sees them as having everything. But they know that they don't (nobody does), and that realization sometimes just eats them alive.
Zawe Ashton as Alex
Jena Malone as Sage
The extreme, high-style, costumes of designer Arianne Phillips play a 
significant role in establishing character and tone


THE SUBJECTIVE GAZE
I have a weakness for films that play with the idea of perception. The subjective gaze and the possibly unreliable narrator fascinate me because when a film leaves it up to the viewer to draw their own conclusions based on the images presented, truly eye-opening things are revealed. Mostly about the viewer.
All three narratives in Nocturnal Animals are seen through Susan's gaze. Hers is the only reality we're exposed to. Whether it be her re-evaluation of her past, her sense of alienation in her current unhappy marriage and unfulfilling job, or her response to Edward's novel; we only see them from Susan's perspective.

The subjectivity angle introduces many interesting points. For example: Just because she feels guilty about her past, doesn't mean she has genuine cause. As a friend tells her, "You're awfully hard on yourself."  In many ways ALL the characters in Edward's novel convey some aspect of Susan's reality and sense of herself. Nocturnal Animals is at its most intriguing when, on repeat viewings, one realizes how many people, objects, and circumstances from her life Susan has projected onto the events in Edward's novel.
The Rich Fear the Poor/ The Poor Resent The Rich
The film's broad depiction of the redneck murderers (Karl Glusman as Lou) can be seen as Susan's amplification of a perceived the lack of safety in the world outside of the insulated, stainless steel gates of her interior decorated bunker 

My own subjective gaze plays significantly into why Nocturnal Animals hit me so hard. My experience of the film was significantly intensified by the fact that a month prior to seeing it, a writer friend who takes my dance class offered me the opportunity to read the pre-publication manuscript of her forthcoming novel. She told me, “I think you’ll like it. You know these people.”
My friend is, independent of our knowing one another, one of my favorite authors, anyway; her books and short story collections never failing to engage me in their exploration of the complexity of human relationships. A compelling novelist of many books on varied topics, she most recently published a series of books for the Young Adult market. It was the expectation of revisiting the lighthearted tone of those novels that stayed foremost in my mind as I settled down with her manuscript.

I read the entire novel in two days, and nothing of what I knew of the woman or her previous work prepared me for this book. It was unexpectedly violent, emotionally powerful, and very sad; I was quite shaken by it and reduced to a crumpled heap of red eyes and runny nose by the time I finished the last chapter. The book left me physically and emotionally drained. And I was so startled that this brutally tense, suspenseful book was the work of this rather sweet, gentle-natured soul I knew. 

Jump ahead to late December and I go to see Nocturnal Animals. Suffice it to say it was something of a wormholing experience. Here I am, a lifetime insomniac haken to the core by a book he's just read, watching a movie about another insomniac left shaken by the unexpected violence of an unpublished manuscript. A manuscript peopled with characters recognizable from her/my life. To make the already unsettling experience even weirder, my author friend is a redhead who would be a ringer for Amy Adams were she to iron out her hair into that same severe hairdo. As the film unfolded, I sat there with my jaw in my lap. Here I was watching a movie about the subjective experience of “reading” (literal, as in reading a book, figurative as in the way self-reflection is a form of “reading” one’s own past), while virtually interactively engaged in the very same behavior throughout.


“Sometimes maybe it's not such a good idea to change things quite so much.”


THEMES
Susan's remorse over the past, disaffection for the present, and existential disquietude arising from the metaphorical implications of her ex-husband's novel, form Nocturnal Animals' threefold narrative structure. The ways in which these stories interrelatemirror, comment upon, and reference one another—makes Nocturnal Animals an aesthetically satisfying, sometimes harrowing, journey into the psyche of a woman on a journey of self-confrontation. Themes emerge and relation dynamics are revealed, all requiring the kind of "active" and alert viewing experience I tend to associate exclusively with films from the late-'60s and '70s.

Green and Red/Natural Instincts and Violence
Art director Shane Valentino has said in interviews that the look of Nocturnal Animals was inspired in part by Antonioni's 1964 film Red Desert. In that film, a visual poem on alienation and the modern world, the colors green and red reach out to us from a bleak landscape of industrial gray. Signifying perhaps violent nature and the human impulse, Nocturnal Animals has Ray Marcus' green cowboy boots, his vintage Pontiac GTO, and Susan's "absolution dress" all sharing the same vivid green color.
As a symbol of nature, the color green and those associated with it come to signify the "nocturnal animals" populating the landscape of Susan's reality.
Red hair cascading on a red velvet sofa figure in two scenes of devastation and violence.
One emotional (Susan betrays her lack of faith in Edward), one physical (two vicious murders)
The vivid red of violence is represented by the bright crimson light that floods the scene in which Susan breaks up with Edward (top), the curtain in the shanty room where Tony has his final confrontation with Ray (center), and by the scarlet lipstick worn by Susan (but eventually and tellingly removed) when she heads off for her fateful rendezvous with Edward.


Blinded
The glare from the stainless steel gate of Susan's fortress-like home momentarily blinds her in an image mirrored in Edward's novel when the character of Tony is blinded by an assailant. A bone of contention in Susan and Edward's marriage was Susan's blind spot when it came to her suppressed creativity. Blinded by her desire for what she believed to be a secure and "realistic" life, Susan's background blinded her to recognizing Edward's strengths.

Spiritual Desolation
Nocturnal Animals is a tale of guilt, retribution, hoped-for redemption, and, most foreseeably, damnation. As characters abandon their humanity and as illusions of safety spiral into chaos, images of churches and crosses appear at increasingly regular intervals throughout the film. Top: A church stands alone in a barren landscape. Center: Edward/Tony wears a cross around his neck similar to that which is worn by his daughter in the novel, and by Susan. It's also the item he is clutching at the end of the novel. Bottom: Shaken by Edward's novel, Susan is frequently shown clutching the cross she wears around her neck as she reads. Raised a Catholic, Susan is guilt-ridden over having had an abortion without telling Edward, the violent death of a child in his novel feeling like a veiled indictment.

Caged Animals
Recurring motifs of barred, glass interiors emphasize not only the isolation of the characters, but reinforces the fear of being known or exposed (Susan remarks that her husband finds their declining fortunes "embarrassing." Likewise, she expresses feeling embarrassed after confiding in a friend). The remote interiors, with their bold framing lines and large glass panes, simultaneously resemble prisons, art installations, or cages in a human zoo. (Top: Susan's cold and foreboding home. Center: Texas interrogation room. Bottom: Yamashiro restaurant, Los Angeles.)

“Why did you give up on becoming an artist?”

STYLE
As if we hadn’t already been down this road and learned our lesson with Stanley Kubrick, Michael Powell, & Alfred Hitchcock, a great many critics seemed stalled on the dramatic visual style of Nocturnal Animals. The look chosen for this sparsely-populated, introspective thriller is visually striking to be sure, often breathtakingly so, but some can’t seem to get past the curated gloss to access the story and characters within. The above-listed directors were often taken to task for the stylization of their films, but now that they’re dead (which is the way it goes, I guess) everyone hails the artistic eloquence of their fluency in the visual language of cinema. 
The Los Angeles of Nocturnal Animals is no sunny vision of Paradise.
It's a cold, barely inhabited, slate blue environment of gray skies and incessant rain 
No one is depicted outdoors in Ford's vision of Los Angeles. Like a formaldehyde-encased art installation,
Susan occupies sterile interiors 

The narrative structure of Nocturnal Animals called upon Tom Ford & cinematographer Seamus McGarvey (in collaboration with the invaluable contributions of production designer Shane Valentino, art director Christopher Brown, and set decorator Meg Everist) to create three distinct worlds: 1) Susan’s present, 2) Susan’s past, 3) Susan’s interpretation of the fictional world in Edward’s novel. Three distinct worlds sharing a single common denominator...Susan’s very subjective reaction to each.  
In a story told almost entirely from the internal and external perspective of its main character, one of the more arresting aspects of Nocturnal Animals is not merely that these worlds have to be depicted in different ways, but that they have to be depicted in ways subtly conveying that they are the not-entirely-realistic impressions of a single individual.  
As imagined by Susan, the West Texas desert is a vast, arid, sunbaked wasteland,
nightmarishly beautiful and  ominously desolate

With Susan so often shown in states of isolation within empty, cavernous environments, silently grappling with self-reflection, self-evaluation, and, most painfully, self-recrimination; the visual style takes over the storytelling. And while the images convey details, both significant and small, about Susan and her life, their evocation and content is consistently influenced by the loss of emotional equilibrium she experiences as the film progresses. The impact her ex-husband's novel has on Susan creates a mounting sense of unease in the character, reflected in the film's darker palette, heightened sense of menace, and discomfiting cold images.
Susan's flashbacks are naturalistic and warm in tone. They include the film's rare moments of affectionate human contact. In these sequences, dramatic moments are often punctuated with extreme bursts of color: a red velvet sofa, the bright scarlet of a street light, the stark whiteness of a dress


As these three concurrently running narratives bleed in and out of one another, the strong visual style of the segments guide us (per Susan's perceptions) as the individuals and actions in each story come to mirror and comment upon one another; both literally (clean-shaven Edward, red-headed mother and daughter) and allegorically (Hutton Morrow/Ray Marcus as handsome instruments of emotional violence and destruction).

There will always be those who feel that stylization and technical gloss in a film is emotionally distancing, and that visual grit is somehow closer to truth. I'm not in that camp, however, so I can appreciate that the Architectural Digest sheen of some parts of Nocturnal Animals carry as much dramatic weight as those cinema vérité, too-close-for-comfort close-ups in the fictional Texas narrative. How a film is shot is part of a film's vocabulary, and as can happen with any language, the vocabulary a film chooses can be misunderstood.


ART
Susan Morrow owns a successful art gallery and serves on the board of a major museum. As an art dealer/curator/collector, Susan is haunted by her ex-husband's admonition that she studies art because she lacks the courage to be an artist herself. Though art plays a significant part in her life, over the years that seed of doubt planted by her husband's words (and her own sense of uncertainty about the path of life she's chosen) has given root to a cynical (healthy?) disdain for what passes for art in her world. Certainly her gallery's multimedia installation combining images of nude obese women and kitsch Americana.
Carlos
"I thought the work was incredibly strong. So perfect with this junk culture we live in."
Susan
"It is junk. Total junk."

Nocturnal Animals, a work of art itself, makes inspired use of artwork throughout; informing character and providing silent commentary on the film's themes.
Exquisite Pain
Artist Damien Hirst depicts the death of Saint Sebastian as a steer pierced by arrows. My partner reminded me that Saint Sebastian is the patron saint of those who desire a holy death. Something Susan, as a Catholic, might fear is lost to her
Jeff Koons' Balloon Dog sculpture graces the backyard of Susan & Hutton's grotesquely ginormous home. As indicated by the crane, the sculpture, along with several crated art items within the house, are slated to be sold by the financially beleaguered couple.
A jarring photograph by Richard Misrach (Desert Fire #153) appearing to depict a ritual killing in the desert is located in the entryway of Susan's home. Perhaps the source of the vision of Texas Susan imagines while reading Edward's manuscript?
Mooning
The blood-red wall of Susan's austere and decorously spartan office is adorned
 by John Currin's "Nude in a Convex Mirror."

“Nobody gets away with what you did. Nobody.”

THE ENDING
I feel it’s important to stress that this essay is my personal, subjective analysis of Nocturnal Animals, representative of how the film spoke to me. I intend neither an unequivocal “explanation” of the film and its themes, nor a wholesale endorsement encouraging the reader to run out and buy tickets, guaranteed of having the same experience. The mere fact that I have absolutely no complaints with the film stands as evidence of my lack of objectivity. I loved everything about this movie. From the brilliance of the performances to Ford's deft direction and stylistic touches, Nocturnal Animals is just my kind of cinema.
Because my experience was so rewarding,  I've enjoyed reading about how problematic so many people found the film's conclusion to be. It's an astonishingly powerful ending as far as I'm concerned, and the fact that I didn't anticipate it in the least—in spite of its thematic consistency—is what I loved about it. It's one of those endings that thirty people can watch and no two of them will be in exact accord as to what it all means. Some find it frustratingly vague; me, it takes me back to the heyday of '70s cinema when filmmakers were fine with making movies open to multiple interpretations, then leaving them to draw their own conclusions. 

I won't be offering an explanation to the ending here. But I will suggest that it is neither as devastating nor as positive as one might initially presume. Merely consider what I mentioned earlier, that, at least as far as what I've discovered to be true in my own life, growth and happiness is sometimes only possible through the lessons one learns through pain and loss. In which case, what may appear at first glance to be hopeless and devastating about the conclusion of Nocturnal Animals might in reality be the key to ultimately free a nocturnal animal from its cage.  

“You just can't walk from things all the time." 

Copyright © Ken Anderson