Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Dominus In Absentia

Suddenly, Last Summer (Mankiewicz, 1959)

Gore Vidal's adaptation of Tennessee William's one act play is a powerful investigation of memory, trauma and, of all things, lack, the power of an absence. The only son of southern grand-dame Violet Venable, the ghost of Sebastian Venable haunts nearly every moment of this movie.

I don't mean "haunt" in the paranormal sense. There are no deep shadows, eerie apparitions or other tropes of horror films. Rather, it is the obsessive memory of Sebastian that confronts us at every turn. Sebastian is never seen, not completely. At the end of the film, at best, we get his white silk suited silhouette, but never his face, never his undeniable presence.

And there are some impressive actors present. Katherine Hepburn delivers a portrait of a grieving mother with overtones of crippling loss, incest and a meandering poetry that both fascinates and deeply disturbs. Elizabeth Taylor plays the confused and persecuted Cathrine Holly with understatement in most scenes, which makes her near-psychotic breaks all the more compelling. Keeping a firm anchor in this sea of (let's be honest, rather misogynistic) female insanity, is Montogmery Clift as Dr. Cukrowicz, with a calm and analytical performance. His character is a surgeon, but his role is more sedative - like the one he administers to Catherine before the penultimate scene.

With such a pantheon of actors all bringing their A-game to Williams's dense play, it is no surprise that the focus is mostly upon words. Evocative metaphors abound in sprawling monologues, images some times half-glimpsed, some times brightly conjured, that dance about the real problem: the deceased Sebastian.

It is his absence that is the true motor of the plot, of Catherine's supposed insanity and Mrs. Venable's real psychosis. His name appears everywhere, and his description varies from character to character as the movie slowly builds the complex portrait of a son, a poet, a philosopher and a manipulative gigolo. This ever-present absence is also felt in the few artful touches of the director: the occasional skewed frame, the swelling music, the over-the-top garden at the Venable estate. When Sebastian's figure finally makes an appearance, we only see him from behind, through the haze of superimposition - through Catherine's drug-induced and traumatic memory recall.

Sebastian's ghost brings ambiguity and polycentricity to this otherwise realistic and straightforward work. He is many things, but nothing. The idea of him raises more questions than answers. This is the greatest strength of the film: fearless ambiguity and terrifying ambivalence. Ultimately, the movie breaks down the artificial barriers between reality and memory and reveals the detritus left behind in the act.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Wages of Fear

Wages of Fear (Le Salaire de la peur), Clouzot, 1953

On one hand, one could critique several things about Henri-George Clouzot's multinational adaptation of Georges Arnaud's novel. It would be generous to call the characters two-dimensional; they are types more than people. The feral Linda (Véra Clouzot) is as a misogyntic a depiction as they come, Bill O'Brien (William Tubbs) is an underhanded corporate suit, barely a step up from the thug he used to be, and only Mario (Yves Montand) and Jo (Claude Vanel) show any kind of development - all of it downhill. No one is likeable: a libidnous café owner, thieves, expatriates and thugs are the only people that live in the hell hole village of Las Piedras. The plot is episodic, especially the last act, in which four desperate men encounter a series of improbable obstacles on an impossible mission to deliver nitroglycerine over a barely-tamed South American countryside. The final scene is gratuitous; it seems almost tacked on to nail home the film's nihilism.

On the other hand, it is important to approach this masterful thriller in the appropriate frame of mind. If Hitchcock were a Frenchmen, this is the kind of movie he would make. Le Salaire de la peur isn't concerned about realistic drama or storytelling. The psychology of the characters is of use only to propel them into impossible positions where they confront that greatest of existential bogeymen: the absurdity of death. This movie is an existential allegory par excellence and its derives its power from two things: its conventional weaknesses mentioned above and a paradox of improbable plot and the ontological effect of cinema.

Mario isn't even a villain - he's neither that important nor ambitious, merely a former thief and con-man with no scruples stuck in the middle of nowhere. At no point is he a sympathetic character: he uses his lover to steal cigarettes and then beats her, he befriends the newcomer Jo and eventually runs over him with a truck, he betrays his friend and roommate, Leo, just for Jo's tenuous friendshp. Nonetheless, as he skirts death again and again during the nitroglycerine run, we more than feel for him - we fear for him. Clouzot achieves this with great cinematography. There's nothing fancy about the cutting or the camerawork, but rather what the director puts in front of the camera: a multiton truck half-dangling over a cliff or a breakneck run over a washboard road with 5 tons of nitro on board (while barreling towards another truck just ahead). Everything about the episodic final act is unforgivingly taut, and the strain on the characters translates to the audience. This movie is exhausting.

This engaging cinemtography transforms the character types and thin plot from lamentable to allegorical. The walled-off Southern Oil Company is a thin stand-in for the French Colonial Empire, or post-war American mercantilism, or brutal Stalinism - take your pick. The rag-tag dispossed of Las Piedras are you and me pared down to the ugly interiors we try to hide. There's nothing romantic about any of this, just abstracted to the point of art and allegory. Le Salaire de la peur is bleak, but it doesn't use that to lead us to suicide but rather some poignant philosophical meditation. Exiled from everything we ever knew, our leg broken, half-drowned in oil and carting tons of explosives through a barren wilderness, what would your dying thoughts be? Jo remembers the Parisian street he used to live on, the passers-by, the shops and cafés - and the fenced-off lot at the corner. What was behind the fence he wonders?

"Rien. Il n'y a rien."

There's no moral to this, and there's no hope, either. You run through the wilderness at 40 miles per hour with tons of TNT in back just for a few bucks and in the end you blow up, you bleed out or you drive off the cliff on the way home. In other hands, this story would become a heroic tale of redemption, down-on-their-luck Joes give taking their one shot and proving their worth. And that would ruin it, cheapening the underlying critiques of corporatism and tunnel-vision that plague our world even today.