Saturday, April 26, 2014

Alpha Dog

This is some kind of pop art review I wrote of ALPHA DOG quite a while back.  Judging by the form and style, it must have been a kind of next day review while the film was still relatively new in release. It looks to be mainly a mainstream, daily newspaper type of review. I certainly wouldn’t write about any film in this style today.

Here's a movie about spoiled, rich Southern California white kids whose lives mainly consist of drug abuse, meaningless sex, and posturing violence. Are you still awake? Actually, the fact that the plot, the characters, and the setting have all been done umpteen times before shouldn't be an automatic disqualification by any means as long as some of the other elements of filmmaking are strong enough to make up for the shortfall. Here's the problem though, and it's a pretty insurmountable one - everyone's a bad guy. Dramatic tension only comes across when we have really strong feelings for the good guys and equally strong ones for the bad guys. You know, protagonist(s) and antagonist(s). Here all we have is one dirtbag versus another. With a couple of small exceptions every character in the film is either despicable or stupid.
Johnny Truelove (Emil Hirsch) is a marijuana dealer with a stable of low life thugs and followers including the doomed Elvis (Shawn Hatosy), Frankie (Justin Timberlake), and TKO (Fernando Vargas). Jake Mazursky (Ben Foster), an out of control drug addict, can't come up with the money he owes Truelove. When he tries to talk to Truelove about some more time and a pay plan, Truelove attacks him - huge mistake. Jake's a black belt in the martial arts, and after he pulverizes Truelove in the fight he proceeds to humiliate him in front of everybody by calling him too chicken to use the gun Truelove pulls on him, which turns out to be true.
Meanwhile Jake's younger brother Zack (Anton Yelchin) has a fight with his parents when they find a reefer bong in his bedroom; after he runs out of the house we see him wandering through a park. Guess who just happens to be cruising by in their van? Right, Truelove and his cronies. Seeing the opportunity, they grab the kid and plan to hold him for ransom for the money Jake owes. We're supposed to believe that they're so stupid, ignorant, and young that they don't realize kidnapping is considered to be one of the most serious of crimes - they treat the whole thing like a kid's game. And this is one of the main points the the picture is trying to make, though you have to look really hard to see it - these are all just wannabe adults, children pretending to be grownups. The film goes to some length to indict the parents, particularly Truelove's father (Bruce Willis) and Mazursky's mother (Sharon Stone, in a good performance that's almost wasted by the way her character is changed in the last scene in which she appears) - both of whom are seen in journalistic footage that is supposedly taken way after the main events of the film transpire. 
Frankie's father is a pothead who invites his son to join a menage consisting of himself and two girls half his age.
The film is loaded with tattoos, drugs, rap music, gorgeous SoCal mansions with swimming pools, etc. The only two characters with any straight and narrow sense of right and wrong are Frankie's girlfriend, Susan (Dominique Swain - who by the way has the best biceps in the picture in spite of all the males who aspire to that title!) and the burnout druggie Keith (Chris Marquette), who refuses to be complicit in the story's appalling conclusion. Chuck Pacheco as Chucky Mota is good too in a brief role that seems to capture the entire essence of Southern California in about six speaking lines.
Alpha Dog requires patience and a willingness to grant the benefit of the doubt. There are a lot of loose ends (for example after a while Jake, who dominates the story up to a certain point, simply disappears - he simply falls off the screen and is never seen again); director Nick Cassavetes tries to be artsy at times (the image of an evil laughing clown is snuck in under the radar in back to back scenes), to his credit. If you have an open mind you may like this film, but it's going to take some work.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Looking for Mr. Goodbar

Here's an essay I wrote about this film many years ago.  I'm not sure I would think about it this way any more.

     Off the top of my head I can name a few novels dealing with the theme of a sexually strong, assertive woman being derailed and destroyed (literally) by society: Flaubert's Madame Bovary, Kate Chopin's The Awakening, Irwin Shaw's Lucy Crown, even the opening paragraph of John O'Hara's Appointment at Samarra.  In the 1970s Judith Rossner gave us a mighty story in this tradition, with implications that will never leave us.  They remain as relevant today as they were then, indeed, as they probably have been since Adam and Eve in the garden.  It's in our interest as a people to pay attention.
                                     According to an article that appeared in the New York Sun at the time of her death, Rossner hated the movie that was made out of her earth shattering bestseller Looking for Mr Goodbar.     Link - Click Here  This isn't surprising.  If she was looking for fidelity to her book it's very easy to see how she could be dramatically disappointed.  For his film  Richard Brooks - doubling as  he often did as both screenwriter and director - changed numerous details, although there is a certain logic that the script follows in trying to retain a degree of faithfulness to some of the ideas Rossner works with in the novel.  In what follows here, however, I'm going to stick for the most part to the trajectory of the film because it's a little easier to follow.  First I want to speak briefly about something in this story - in both the page and the screen versions - that draws me to it deeply, and this is best expressed by a term that's kind of a cliche but nevertheless appropriate.  This is what we call the shock of recognition.  I received this shock no less than four times (twice in the book, twice in the picture) in my appreciation of the story and it really hit home, in my heart and soul, even if the incidents described are relatively minor points that have no great bearing on plot or theme.  I acknowledge that the creation of this kind of bond is deeply subjective but, at the same time, it occurs to me that perhaps an infinite number of readers  and viewers might be similarly touched by other episodes that I myself wouldn't think twice about.  This is a fascinating thing, and I want to come back to it at the end.
                                    Also, as I am attempting in these essays to apply some well known concepts from twentieth century analytic aesthetics to the stories I consider, I want to take a look at the film and how it relates to an idea put forward in the well known essay by  Arnold Isenberg entitledThe Problem of Belief, so that will be another point of interest later on.  Too, in placing more emphasis on the film I don't want to give the impression that the book is somehow less vital or engaging - quite the opposite - so I will be looking at one instance in which the book is vastly superior to the film (by the way, to simply make a list of all the things that are different would be to make one numbering in  the scores of items ).
                                    So, to briefly recap: one, we'll follow the film; two, look at a difference with the book; three, view the work in the light of a famous idea of theoretical aesthetics; and four, delve a little into the shock of recognition. If I place much more empahasis on the first of these and only touch a bit on the other three that is arbitrary - any of the four could be stressed more or less than the others.

                                    Theresa Dunn is a very shy, withdrawn college student from the Bronx, NY, who is about to graduate and become a teacher.  Part of the reason for her shyness has to do with both physical and emotional scars she carries as a result of a serious medical condition she suffered with as a child.  Her parents are fairly strict Catholics who seem to love her two sisters, Kathleen and Brigid, more than they do Theresa. After having an affair with one of her professors Theresa finds that her heretofore repressed sexuality has been exploded wide open.  Now able to afford her own place as she begins teaching, she moves out of her parents' home and commences a kind of double existence - mild mannered teacher by day and wild cruiser of singles' bars at night.  She picks up many different men, ultimately with catastrophic consequences.
                                    In the course of the narrative Theresa has six  strongly consequential relationships: with one of her professors, Martin Engle; with her father; with her sister, Katherine; with her student, Amy; with James, a social worker who is interested in her romantically; and with Tony, a wild man she picks up in a bar and  with whom she contiunues to have an affair.  The dynamics of each are very different - it is nothing short of amazing to see one person live six different roles, be six different things to six different people. (Of course, many of us do this throughout our lives, so in that sense it isn't unique, but it is unique to be able to watch someone perform her different roles, exhibit the different facets of her personality, with objective distance.  In fact this may only be possible at all in the cinema.) It is her relationship with her father that causes everyone the most pain. This is telegraphed in the sequence of opening credits in a creative way that's not so easy to catch.
                                    The film inexplicably opens with three quick color snippets that are lifted right out of the body of the picture, similar to the way that the opening credit scenes of TV programs show highlight moments from various episodes.  It isn't clear why these are chosen, or why they're shown in the order they are.  The three show, first, Theresa in a lover's car in heavy traffic.  Next comes a shot of Theresa walking the streets, lined with singles' bars.  Finally there is a montage of New York theater marquees, a shot that recalls something Brooks did in his film of Truman Capote's In Cold Blood  (Brooks' style is instantly recognizable between the one film and the other).  Then the powerful main credit sequence begins.  Still black and white images flash by while well known 1970s disco thumps on the soundtrack.  We see Theresa in many of the images, as well as Tony in some (Tony is played by Richard Gere, in his first big role).  We see throngs of partyers dancing, talking, drinking, kissing; in one string of images disco women, Theresa among them, are seen applying their makeup in ladies' room mirrors.  Gay men and tranvestites are seen, as well as a woman's ample cleavage beneath a large crucifix that hangs around her neck (and you thought Madonna started this!!).   There is a shot of a burning candle  which can only be understood after the fnal scene of the film.  Amidst this all there is one still in which a man's eyes roll ominously - the only movement, the only non-still, in this entire opening portion.  It took me about four or five viewings of the film to see that this is Theresa's father, played to perfection by Richard Kiley with varying degrees of despicability and sympathy  Gradually the up tempo music is replaced by a melancholy ballad sung by the great jazz singer Marlena Shaw, a song with lyrics that are obviously supposed to be Theresa speaking to James, who sincerely loves her but in whom she has very little romantic interest.  Just as the moody tune starts to lull us there is a lightning cut to a crowded, loud New York subway car and we see Theresa (Diane Keaton) being jostled by a fellow straphanger reading Hustler magazine.  This is both an indication of the free form insanity of New York City in the 1970s and a forewarning of Theresa's life to come.  Dialogue from the next scene - the voice of Martin Engle, the arrogant professor with whom Theresa will have her first affair - is heard while we still see the subway platform on t

 In class Engle insults the students, then reads from Theresa's embarassingly forthright essay.  Here Brooks introduces a narrative device he uses five times in the film (and this, again, is something he's done in other films) - an imaginary dream sequence, a sort of possible world/alternative universe that exists in Theresa's imagination.  The bell rings, signaling the end of class.  Engle closes the door and locks it behind the last exiting student, and Theresa rushes into his arms.  They kiss madly, in a passionate embrace.  Then we see Theresa at her desk in class, eyes closed, and Engle asking "Miss Dunn?  Miss Dunn?  Are you all right?"  The kiss was a dream.  But what's important here is what we can deduce from the visual information - Theresa is thinking of Engle sexually already, at this point, and we have to assume that she applies for the job as his assistant for purposes of being closer to him.
                                    Engle is a reprehensible sleazeball, mean and nasty to everybody, insulting, unkind.  Near the end  of the film when Theresa runs into him in a bar he is confused, humbled, pathetic and beaten, and she rubs it in his face (the tables are totally turned - she is the one with all the power now).  Although we eventually see that he goes through student lovers like paper cups, in the beginning he doesn't think of Theresa this way. In fact, she makes the play for him.  The deeper we get into the film the more we see of Theresa's Jekyll and Hyde, good girl/bad girl dichotomy, but most assuredly she plans to have an affair with Engle, consciously.  He is no doubt attracted by the feelings that her frankly erotic written assignments stir up within him, though at first he tries to fight this a little.  He kids himself that he picked her for the job, for example, beacause "You're the only girl who knows syntax, and grammar, and can spell."  She is the aggressor; when he notices the scar on her back, acquired from her childhood surgery, he attempts soothing words.  She's not interested, saying (in a line taken directly from the novel) "I'd rather be seduced than comforted."  When he makes a buffoon of himself during their first lovemaking, even though Theresa is revealed to be a naive virgin, cracks in his armor begin to show. Later, after he calls Theresa up to arrange a secret meeting in his car and they rendezvous covertly, he insults her viciously.  When he breaks off their affair she seems only temporarily set back, mostly because of things she is learning from her sister Katherine (played by Tuesday Weld in perhaps the best performance of her career).  Thus Engle serves as an introduction not only to sex and romantic love but also to romantic cruelty. 
                                    Familial cruelty is something Theresa knows quite a bit about because of the strange domination of her father.  The father is a deeply self deluded puritan, an alcoholic, almost  like a character out of The Iceman Cometh, wrapped in a hopeless cocoon of pipe dreams.  He is totally out of synch with reality in his perception of Katherine who, in the first scenes that introduce the family, is on her way to Puerto Rico to have an abortion.  A jetsetting stewardess, she has a sort of mini breakdown while she confesses to Theresa that's she been having simultaneous affairs with one man in New York, one in Chicago, and she has no idea which one the father is.  While this is going on her ex husband is calling on the phone, much to the derision of the family.  Sobbing hysterically, she tells Theresa that nothing she's done in her life has worked out right and that the rest of the family "Thinks I pee perfume."  Certainly she can do no wrong in her father's eyes.  He believes the preposterous lie she tells about having to go to Puerto Rico for "stewardess business." 
                                    Earlier, in a flashback scene recalling her childhood operation. Theresa's father was seen to be staring at his five year old daughter coldly, cruelly, with a mean and unfeeling countenance.  Why?  A couple of times in the course of the film he tells what is obviously a shrill, endlessly repeated bromide about how his own mother had four perfectly healthy boys, and when this is revealed to be a lie he has been telling himself  (and his family) for decades much of his cruel behavior towards Theresa is finally explained.  He is just like Engle, an icy SOB who puts up a rough front in order to protect and coddle the snivelling coward that lurks within.  I mentioned In Cold Blood earlier.  In Brooks' rendering of that tale he used the same technique, the flashback, the references to things from the long gone past, to explain the behavior of Perry Smith, the killer played by Robert Blake. Here it's used doubly, to explain both some of Theresa's and her father's present day behavior. 
                                    One scene in particular conveys to us the sense of conflict and contradiction tearing this tortured man apart.  Theresa's just stayed out all night without coming home, apparently for the first time in her life,  Ironically she was at a drug and booze filled orgy at her sister Katherine's new place, and her father throws a fit of rage when she fnally comes home in the morning, screaming at her that she must obey the rules of the house if she wants to live there, whereupon she packs her things to leave, saying his rules are unacceptable.  He sneers, telling her that she'll never make it on her own in "mugger's paradise."  He can only accept her at all if she submits to his puritan dominations.
                                    The character of Amy, one of Theresa's deaf students, is used to fulfill several purposes.  Firstly, being a black child, she is there to show us, visually, that Theresa's not racially biased or prejudiced.  This may seem odd, but in the novel Rossner takes up questions of social and racial justice at lengths that just aren't possible in a film where they are not the main subject matter.  Secondly, having Amy come from a black family provides a reason for James - their welfare case worker - to enter into Theresa's life (in the novel James is a lawyer who enters Theresa's life from a set of entirely different circumstances).  Thirdly, it is necessary for Tony, Theresa's lover, to be confronted physically by another male.  In the novel this is done by his own mother's boyfriend but in the film this role is assigned  to Amy's brother (played by LeVar Burton of Roots fame). Before      briefly taking up Amy on her terms as a character we might take a little detour to look at a couple of these issues here.
                                    I mentioned at the beginning that Brooks' script, while radically departing from the novel in many ways, has a certain logic of faithfulness to some of its ideas nevertheless.  One of the issues that Rossner grapples with at some length is that of race relations:

                                                            Gradually she was becoming less frightened of black people - maybe becaus she wanted to so badly but also because she was seeing more of them than she'd ever seen, close up, at any rate.  Her new attitudes made it a little easier for her to be with people like the other young teachers because it relieved her of some of the specific social guilt she'd felt, right through her days at City College, over being a secret racist.  Being really no better than her parents in her ideas.

By introducing Amy and getting Theresa involved with her family and their life of deprivation and hardship Brooks communicates her loving nature to us and shows that it crosses racial boundaries, and the favor is repaid in kind when Amy's brother gives Tony a serious beating after Tony stalks Theresa outside her school.  Thusly, true and genuine human contact destroys all artifical racial barriers - there is no racism.  That's one example of the script staying true to the spirit of the book in spite of the deviations of story.
                                    Another way: in the novel, Tony and Theresa go to a party at Tony's mother's house where Tony savages them both with the C-word, flinging insults fueled by animal rage.  Consequently he is beaten to a pulp by his mother's boyfriend.  This scene is nowhere to be found in the movie, although Tony does make the same C-word insults to Theresa about herself and his mother, and then suffers the beating at the hands of Amy's brother.  So the spirit if not the letter remains intact.

 Theresa is a teacher of deaf children.  One girl in her class, Amy, comes from a family who cannot afford a hearing aid for her, a fact which sets her back in all aspects of her life.  Amy wins a special place in Theresa's heart, and Theresa decides to visit her family to see what can be worked out.  As it happens when she goes on the visit she encounters James, the welfare man (played with saintly innocence by William Atherton) who is threatening to cut off the family's welfare altogether, which would effectively kill off any chance of the acqusition of a hearing aid.  Fortunately Theresa is able to lobby James to the family's advantage.  Again the desires of the heart, the emotions,  happily carry the day.
                                    I'm not going to spend a lot of time on the characters of James and Tony here because, in certain ways, these relationships are classic examples for the question Why are good girls attracted to bad boys? and the corollary, And not good boys?  The literature on this subject is immense and I don't really have much to add.  Let's just say that Tony is a classic bad boy and James typifies  many of the characteristics of an anti-seducer (cf. Robert Greene's The Art of Seduction).  Put another way, Tony is a seducer, James is a comforter, and we recall Theresa's remark to Engle, "I'd rather be seduced than be comforted."
                                    The only easy, smooth, almost wholly positive relationship Theresa has is with her sister Katherine.  The sisters are completely loving toward each other, mutually supportive, joking, easygoing, altruistic.  (The third sister, Brigid, is happily married with  a child, another on the way,  and not a significant presence in the story.  Neither is their mother.)  Everyone has Katherine on a hopeless pedestal that no real person could ever quite live up to.  A neighbor says, "Katherine's come home, more beautiful than ever."  But as we noted, Katherine is deeply troubled.  As she pops pills and boozes it up she cries on Theresa's shoulder, "I'm a mess."  The response Theresa gives is instructive for its perpetuation of the illusions they all have about Katherine:

                                                            You're perfect.  Perfect hair, perfect teeth, perfect legs.  You 747 in here, packing gifts like Santa Claus.

Whereupon the response is, "You're the rock baby, you're my Rock of Gilbraltar," and "We all need somebody who won't blame us."  Throughout the film Katherine lurches from one husband, one man, to the next, from one abortion to another, from drugs and orgies and psychoanalysis to abstinence and group therapy.  At the end of the film she seems to have steadied off, happy with a new boyfriend; in the course of the story a chandelier she had in her apartment, with crystals depicting craven sexual acitivity, is passed from her apartment to Theresa's symbolically.  (It is violently pulled off the ceiling and smashed to bits by James, eventually, in yet another symbolic act.) 
                                    Katherine and Theresa are reflections of each other.  Towards the end of the film, after Tony gives Theresa a bloody lip, it is her sister who is there to comfort her, and as they hug and cry and laugh together it's hard not to be moved, and although both have utterly disastrous judgment in regard to men we gradually see it's Katheirne with a firmer hand on the rudder.
                                    On the whole the film is not only absorbing and thought provoking but also clever, for example in passing references toCrime and Punishment as well as The Godfather, which Diane Keaton of course had a role in.  Cockroaches, Janis Joplin, and a painting channeling The Scream all have their roles as commentative devices, and Brooks again uses frenzied jazz anchored by acoustic bass, as he did inIn Cold Blood, to suggest an out of control personality.  There's also a continuity gaffe of a pretty tall order involvolving Tony turning a radio on and off, and performances by William Atherton as James and Alan Fierstein as Engle that even now hold up well.

  I want to look now at a critical event in the story that is handled very differently in the book and in the film, and it has to do with the character of Gary, a man Theresa picks up in a bar who eventually murders her.  In Rossner's novel the narrative begins with this character, in two short chapters entitled "About The Confession" and "The Confession."  Thus we know Theresa's ultimate fate immediately, from the get go, at the beginning - she's murdered by Gary Cooper White.  In the movie this is not the case, we have no such knowledge, and are unaware of the story's resolution until the very final scene.  This radically changes the way we view the story, approach it, and understand it. Let me try to explain.
                                    Towards the end of the film Gary and his gay lover enter the story from out of the blue, from nowhere, with no preamble, no setup, no warning.  They just kind of parachute in from the sky, and in this quick scene the film assumes Gary's point of view.  Up to this point, if I'm not mistaken, Theresa has appeared in every single scene of the film without exception, and the narrative point of view is always hers, again without exception.  Therefore, the logic and cohesion of the narrative, which has been nearly perfect all along, is suddenly wrecked.  We see Gary and his lover, in absurd costumes, arguing and fighting, and we don't see Theresa or a connection to her, and we're wondering, Who are these two guys? What are they doing?  What's their relationship to anything that's come before?  And then the considerable background information - to use a shopworn literary term, the EXPOSITION -  about Gary that Rossner provides - at a leisurely pace - has to be rushed into the final scene in quick, terse dialogue.  The viewer is given no time to digest or ponder it, as this is the scene in which Gary kills Theresa.  In my opinion this is a fatal flaw, and it presents the film from being a truly great one.  It's too "Hollywood" to make the ascension. Very complex things are too easily, uncovincingly, explained.  In this way the novel has much to be said for it over the film, and I point it out as a catalyst for further research.  (Also, the PC Police today would incite a riot over the way Gary's lover is portrayed.)
                                    The essay by the philosopher Arnold Isenberg entitled The Problem of Belief  (in his book Aesthetics and the Theory of Criticism) contains the following brilliantly illustrative passage:

                                                            Men of letters who insist upon some version of the idea that beauty is truth would never accept as an example of their meaning the truth of the proposition, "There are no fewer than three people in this room." Their "truth" is not plain truth.  Theirs is a fancy truth or, to speak more respectfully, a higher truth.  But they are not unwilling to appropriate the prestige of the plain truth.  and this prompts a query, which I must leave it to you to answer, about the sources of that prestige.  What  is so glorious about the truth?  Why should a quality which all except the demented commonly attain in the greater number of their ideas be considered so precious as to increase the stature of a Milton or a Beethoven if it can be ascribed to him?

What, if any, is the "fancy truth" of Looking For Mr. Goodbar?  I gave the hint of a suggestion to this answer above, twice, and somewhat evasively avoided comment.  The fancy truth is that Good girls are often attracted to bad boys.  A corollary of it is something I suggested in the first paragraph, about literature that has explored the subject of women who explore and employ their sexual confidence freely and the attendant consequences they suffer as a result.  I don't know how to word this fancy truth more precisely, nor I am quite sure that I'm articulating it properly, but  I offer it nonetheless.

Finally I'd like to talk a little bit about the shock of recognition.  Admittedly this shock is not  as impressive  here as perhaps it is in reading something like either Augustine's or Rousseau's Confessions, but it was there for me nonetheless and moved me greatly.
                                    I can remember the first time I stayed out literally all night, drinking, partying, and generally misbehaving, literally till  the sunrise of a new dawning day - my mother freaked out on me, on herself, and on the Lord Jesus Christ that she believed in, loudly and for days.  I can remember where it was ( a bar called Rob Roy that has been a pizza place for decades now), who I was with, what time of year it was, everything.  Seeing the similar scene in the film, where Theresa stays out all night and endures the wrath of her father, brought this scene back to me in all its vividness - not only the cast, time, and place of the memory but also the attendant psychological circumstances surrounding it.  Quite an experience!
                                    I can remember once being told by a girlfriend that the reason she had felt compelled to cheat on me (with a colleague at her job) was something about how the proximity of working together day after day after day in a small space, for years, had seemed to draw them together against their will (if this was not the exact explanation it was something close to this, something that sounded equally absurd).   Then I read the following passage about Theresa and Engle, working in Engle's office:

                                                            Occasionally she asked him a question about some paper and then he might lean over her to see what she was talking about.  Once in the spring she looked up as he was doing that and he kissed her mouth.

This was amazing to me; something I had regarded as an obvious lie, a contrivance, for years was explained to me in a matter of seconds, perfectly and exactly, and set me off into deep meditiation.  Reflection upon the long ago events compelled me to perhaps soften a grudge (?!) that I had been subconsciously holding for many years.  It was remarkable!
                                    I can remember instances - more than a few! - in my own life that almost exactly mirror some circumstances that Eli (a fellow Theresa picks up in a bar) describes about himself and his wife, Rachel.  These are very graphic in the novel, so it may be best not to quote them here, but this was another therapeutic instance of being able to confirm my own experience with that of others.  A great relief!
                                    I can remember, lastly, when many of the songs on the soundtrack of the film - for example, Boz Scaggs' Lowdown - were cutting edge, ultra hip party songs of the moment, of the here, the now - and today they're played on the golden oldies/geriatric memories radio stations.  Goodness!  This is as powerful a reminder of the relentlessness of time as I am able to think of, something that is really ineffable and incommunicable in the last analysis - a feeling that must be experienced in order to be comprehended.  Wow!
                                    In summation: Looking For Mr. Goodbar is certainly one of the most powerful works of the 1970s; I plan to come back to it again and again for what I should like to call its ability to instruct and enlighten.  I think it is a rare and powerful happening.


Saturday, April 12, 2014

Burnt Offerings

This is an essay I wrote a long time ago on Burnt Offerings.

Are human beings conscious agents with free will?  Is there such a thing as freedom? What role does fate play in our lives? These questions have been the province of philosophers and psychologists forever, and they turn up as the largely unstated subject matter of Robert Marasco's 1973 horror novel Burnt Offerings.  The film, made a few years later by director Dan Curtis of TV's Dark Shadows fame, is even less overtly concerned with these issues and functions more as a pure entertainment of the supernatural.  Bear with me as we make an incomplete,  roundabout, somewhat fragmented examination of this unusual story whose title appears in the Bible many times. 
                                    Around the midpoint of the twentieth century the philosopher Frank Sibley published a highly influential, much discussed essay entitled "Aesthetic Concepts" in which he  largely succeeded in recasting some of the most fundamental ways we talk about our appreciation of the arts.   In this paper Sibley sought to distinguish between two different kinds of concepts.
                                    Let's imagine contemplating a sculpture.  Asked to describe it, we might say, "It's curved, it's made of wrought iron, and it's about three feet tall."  According to Sibley's account these attributes are non-aesthetic concepts - any person of average, normal intelligence is immediately able to identify them.  We might equally say of the object, "It's elegaic, meditative, and displays a real sense of pathos," and in Sibley's terminology these are aesthetic concepts.  Unlike the recognition of non-aesthetic concepts, recognition of aesthetic concepts requires a certain taste, refinement and sophistication.  The majority of Sibley's paper goes on to take up issues that delve much more deeply into technical philosophy than is necessary or desireable here; I bring it up because I think this story that is what it is specifically because of our ability to recognize a very particular aesthetic concept that the it exhibits, and that is the concept of "defamiliarization" aka "making strange". 
                                    This is a notion first written about by the Russian Formalists of the early 20th century.  David Lodge gives a good account of it in his book The Art of Fiction.    Essentially what it means is to put an odd twist on something well known to us.  I want to suggest that this is is the plan of attack used by  Marasco in  Burnt Offerings and also by Curtis in his 1976 cinematic treatment of the  tale - to defamiliarize the asking of  the ancient questions I mentioned at the beginning. I want to suggest also that there is a sense of oddness embedded into the tale that makes us nervous and that both Marasco and Curtis play up this oddness in their different ways, and that this oddness is what scares the daylights out of us.  Burnt Offerings is viscerally traumatizing, and it is its weird aura that makes it so more than anything gory or frightening in the story itself  (Indeed, on close logical examination, the story doesn't hold up at all.  There are gaps of reason and probability in it that make it, finally, untenable.  But it's none the less interesting for that.)  It is about the loss of control - something that scares us perhaps more than anything else - but not obviously so.
                                    The basics of the story are this: a family rents a house from an eccentric couple for the summer.  The house immediately begins to kill them off slowly, as it has apparently been doing to successions of renters for hundreds of years.  It feeds on guests in order to remain "immortal" and each group of renters contains a  young female  mom who somehow slowly morphs into the matriach, the old lady who lives upstairs and never comes out of her room. Over the course of two year periods the house and grounds become fantastically rejuvenated, brilliant, and then slowly deterioriate back into decepit condition until new renters come along. This story is said to have directly inspired Stephen King's The Shining -  in fact King says as much in an essay - and, indeed, especially in the visual device of the photographs of all the past inhabitants of the house, the resemblance is easy to see.


                                    The novel  begins with a long section that doesn't appear in the film at all.  In the borough of Queens in New York City (the film switches the locale to California), the Rolfes - Marian, Ben, and their son David - seemed doomed to spend another summer shut up in their tiny apartment in a hot, noisy, crowded urban neighborhood.  There is a long windup before they move into the terrifying haunted house,  approximately a third of the book, and it probably wouldn't translate to film form very well at all.  This is one of the problems with the film - it doesn't  adequately set up the tension between Marian's all consuming desire to be in the house and Ben's suspicion and resistance in the way the book does. Marasco writes carefully and with subtlety; the text seems to be relatively innocent but there is all manner of menace underneath that requires perhaps a second and third reading, and reflection, to pick up on.  Really the book is a kind of examination of the concept of free will in a way the movie cannot be. Curtis, on the other hand, handles the story with more spectacularity and excitement than is perhaps possible on the written page, and quite a few significant details get changed.(This is the way in which the film is far superior to the book - it's simply scarier.  The moody commentative score by Robert Cobert has plenty to do with that.)  I plan here to briefly pick out a few ideas along these lines of the denial of free will and the advancement of determinism from the first two chapters of the novel and then shift to  musings about  the picture. First let me clarify something I just said - in spirit, the script tries to stay as faithful to the novel as possible.  A lot of the dialogue is lifted verbatim from the book - but there are numerous changes of detail, as I stated  Some of these changes spring out of concessions that have to be made because of the inherent nature of the movie medium.  Others spring out of a need to have sensationalism in a horror film for purposes of creating box office.  Others seem to have been made for no special reason at all.  There are at least twelve notable changes, and we'll list them shortly.

                                    As well as introducing all the principal characters, the first couple of chapters are a veritable creative writing course on foreshadowing, on giving little glimpses of, and making quiet allusions to, the horror and evil that is to come.  The story begins with Marian and David in the apartment, which is quickly followed by a scene of Ben trying to park his car in their Queens neighborhood (which must be Long Island City - the "LaGuardia landing pattern directly overhead" is mentioned); these two scenes are happening concurrently inside the real time of the fiction.  Defamiliarization starts immediately with  two bizarrely formulated words: "schoolshirt" and "schoolshoes," presented as one word constructions.  Marian pleads with her son to clean up his room, and after he grudgingly obeys there's an ominous red signal in the form of her odd declaration, "The only time I get to see you is when I'm yelling at you.  That's why I yell so much." This blueprint for poor parenting reveals an unease about her relationship with the boy which her husband Ben will also be seen to share.  While he cleans up, Marian's awareness slowly absorbs the claustrophobia of the building, the area, the noisy neighbors, everything in the immediate surroundings.  She has a kind of panic attack in stark one word sentences:

                                                            Summer.  Apartment.  Queens.  The overtones were ominous.  Again.

We can make a plausible case that somehow, some way, the Allardyce House (the haunted house the Rolfes will soon rent from the brother and sister team of Roz and Brother) is reaching out to her before she even has conscious knowledge of its existence.  Her desire to escape the city is presented as  being extremely strong, and her particular desire for that particular house, onces she reads the ad for it, before she even sees it, is unrelenting - Marasco thus dips the story in the supernatural before we really even know what is going on.  The ghosts of the house are contacting her subconscious.  This most definitely is a kind of determinism - she's helpless to resist it.
                                    Ben, too, is thinking along the lines of the misery of another crowded Queens summer - in a blunt gestalt - but on smaller, more immediate terms.  The first words we read the first time we meet him are:

                                                            Bus stop, hydrant, driveway.  The goddamn area was getting worse than Manhattan.

After he struggles to park the car and walks to their apartment building Marasco inserts a telling scene which serves to further show how the child, David, is alienated from his parents (or they from him).  Ben waits to cross  the street at a red light.  One of the other pedestrians is a little girl holding a bag.  He asks her what's in the bag and she replies, "Ring Dings," and he doesn't know what Ring Dings are.  This is odd - it has already been established that his own son David is a lover of Yankee Doodles, a similar Drake's cake that kids like. It is not possible that a parent who's aware of what Yankee Doodles are would be ignorant of what Ring Dings are. This suggests he's deeply out of touch with his son's world. 
                                    He's also on a different wavelength of perception than his wife Marian is, and about some fundamental matters.  For example, in regard to the family's monetary situation, she has the thought, "And they weren't exactly broke."  Shortly therafter Ben makes a remark to the effect that after nine years of marriage they only have two thousand dollars in the bank, clearly dismayed.  And he repeatedly insinuates that there is no way they can afford the Allardyce house..  (Ben is a teacher, a fact that is clearly and directly brought up a few times in the novel but only obliquely referred to once in the film. The book mentions that Marian frequently temps, doing office work, and this is not pointed out in the film at all.)
                                    Background exposition isn't the only, or even the main, strong point of this part of the novel.  As noted, there is a quiet but defiinite tension about Marian's attraction to the house..  In order to be concise I'll concentrate  now on this one  point.  I want to suggest that Marasco is making a point about free will and conscious agency in a way that definitely invokes the power of thought, mental power, brain waves, and destiny.  It's spirit, or mind, taking charge of another person's thoughts and actions.
                                    The desire to leave the city is already planted in Marian, as we've seen.  Marasco begins foreshadowing the horrid events that are to follow almost immediately, when he brings up the subject of David's bicycle twice in the very early going.  As David is going out to play Marian says, "No bike on the boulevard, remember..."  As Ben is driving home some wild kids swerve in front of him on bikes and he thinks "Bike lecture.  Tonight."  These seemingly random, seemingly realistic little tidbits actually serve a larger function, which is to warn of danger, and we know this because when the Rolfes go to look at the Allardyce House for the first time David finds a bicycle in the woods, covered with blood.  They make nothing of it, but we get it - something horrible happened to one of the kids from one of the many previous renting families.  Events are being foretold, transmitted to the Rolfes in Queens before they even know what the Allardyce House is.  The Oracle of Determinism is in full play, predicting inevitabilities as surely as a Greek tragedy.
                                    Another example of forecasting: "She had dusted just a couple of hours ago and already there was a layer of soot on the windowsill in their bedroom."  Again, this seems like nothing at all...until we reflect for a moment on the condition the Allardyce house is in when they first arrive - a wreck, unkempt, weeds, mold, dust, everywhere.  Dusting and cleaning are going to be two of her main activities in the house; it is almost as if she is practicing for the role she is going to assume in the house.
                                    At another point, after the piano playing of their downstairs neighbor begins to drive them crazy, Marian makes a joke that is an eerily accurate description of later goings on in the house: 

                                                            "There's no one down there, you know," she said confidentially, "just a piano playing itself.  And feet
                                                            above us that run back and forth.  No real people, just resident sounds".

                                    Shortly thereafter they argue about whether or not to respond to the Allardyce's ad.  He says no, but then: "But of course he'd go along with her, just as he had for the past several years."
                                    She observes with crazed irony, "It could be so good for us if it worked out.  No worrying about Davey and that damn bike."  At the Allardyce house Davey falls and hurts his knee badly,  is attacked by his father in the pool in a drowning attempt, almost killed by a gas heater with a mind of its own, etc.
                                    Marian gets directions from the Allardyces on the phone; when Ben remarks they're a little hard to follow, and maybe perhaps they should try one of the other places first, she objects.
                                    Marasco is careful to show us the Rolfes driving on a dirt lane where "the trees overhead seem to lock together," and on this lane, later, this will be shown to be quite a prescient little observation.  Ben even has a twig snap against his arm, which is hanging out of the window.
                                    There is some discussion, when they first approach the house, as to whether the place being advertised is indeed the house or the guest cottage.  Marian thinks (italics in the original):  Please let it be the house.
                                    Later, in chapter three, FATE is specifically mentioned for the first time in regard to Marian's attraction to the house:

                                                            But it was something close to fate, as much as meeting Ben had been ten years ago.
                                                            It was only a house and it would only last two months, not a lifetime, but the depth of
                                                            her reaction surprised even her when she thought about it, which was often.  Having met Ben
                                                            and not having married him was inconceivable to her in retrospect; the same was true of
                                                            the house.

                                    Interested readers should read the book closely to marvel at how Marasco uses defamiliarization to theorize about human freedom and the nature of personal responsibility for one's actions.  As an aside I also want to point out that Burnt Offerings has a lot to say about the nature of relationships - about how a woman can gain psychological power over her  - and about the structure of the family unit.  Due to considerations of space I haven't gone into these at all here.


                                    The film Burnt Offerings begins with the Rolfe's station wagon cruising along a winding road as it carries them to check out the Allardyce house for the first time.  This marks the first departure from the book, where the family car is a Camaro.  Here are eleven others:

                                    1. In the book Marian is mesmerized by a sound in Mrs. Allardyce's room described as a hum; in the film
                                    it's a little music box.

                                    2. While Ben and Marian discuss the terms of the rental with the Allardyces David, in the book, falls on some rocks
                                    on the shore and badly hurts humself.  In the film there is no shore.  He falls off a gazebo he is trying to climb.

                                    3. In the book Ben needs to get working on his master's degree; in the film it's his doctorate.

                                    4. In the book the bloodied bicycle is found by Ben and David on their first visit to the house.  In the film
                                    this happens after they've already moved in.  Additionally, they find it in a graveyard full of generations of
                                    Allardyces, a scene not in the book at all.

                                    5. In the novel David is eight years old, in the film he's twelve.

                                    6. In the novel the recurring dream about the hearse driver starts as a result of him being at the death of a
                                    neighbor of Ben's family.  In the movie it's Ben's mother who has died.

                                    7. In the film the hearse driver first appears at the Allardyce house while Ben is clearing the brush around the
                                    road.  The bumper of the car is actually described as brushing the back of Ben's leg.  In the film Ben has stopped
                                    working and is sitting on the lawn drinking a beer.  The chauffeur smiles at him from a distance.

                                    8. In the penultimate scene when Marian is driving the car in the rainstorm, in the book, Ben is mysteriously
                                    transported to the back seat when the image of Marian becomes the chauffeur; in the cinematic rendering he
                                    remains in the front seat.

                                    9. When Ben and Marian are negotiating the price with Roz Allardyce, she first asks for seven hundred in the novel,
                                    and Brother angrily tells her to go back and ask for nine.  In the film she asks for nine right off the bat.

                                    10. In the novel Marian and Ben have a conversation about the tiles and boards falling off the house whereas in the
                                    film they do not - he witnesses it alone.

                                    11. The ways Ben and David die in the film are contrived, blood and guts, gory movie deaths; in the novel they
                                    expire with less fanfare and drama.


                                    The house and grounds are obviously in horrible disrepair, which makes the fact that a handyman named Walker ( as played by Dub Taylor, he is the only comic relief in the film) who answers the door says he "keeps everything spic and span" pretty funny.
                                    Curtis shoots the great majority of scenes from a low angle, the camera gazing up at the characters; the first sign that something is seriously wrong is in the person of Roz Allardyce (Eileen Heckart), who immediately begins acting defensive about the house and asking if the Rolfes will "love it as Brother and I do."  She serves a critical function though.  In a scene where she answers the telephone the camera zeroes in on her hand, and it looks exactly as the hand of her mother Mrs. Allardyce will look in one of the film's final scenes - a genetic replica. 
                                    After more weirdness with Brother (the great actor Burgess Meredith), the Rolfes (played by Karen Black and Oliver Reed with a disquiet chemistry) are about to leave when David runs in, having injured himself in his fall.  In time we'll find out, along with David, why "children are good for the place" as the house tries to kill him no less than four times.
                                    The family, now joined by Aunt Elizabeth (Bette Davis, in one of her last roles). move in.  Curtis inserts a shot from a vantage point that will be crucial later on, from the old lady's window at the top of the house, looking down at the family car.  I should here state something I haven't up till now, which is that one of the conditions of the whole rental deal is that Marian bring the old lady Allardyce a tray with three meals a day up to her room.  She is simply to leave it outside the door. No one ever sees the old lady, which is one of the great stretches of the film that really doesn't hold up  For an entire week the woman doesn't touch the tray at all, and after that Marian stops worrying about it because her psyche has been fully seduced by the house and all its terrible secrets.
                                    And these terrible secrets are strongly hinted at by the huge collection of photographs on the table outside Mrs. Allardyce's room - her "memories of a lifetime."  They are all headshots, some quite old, of people who look terrified or disturbed, and they transifix and fascinate Marian.  The last scene of the film tells us who all these people are.


                                    The first time we see Marian hypnotized by the music box something else is also going on in the pool, which somehow has turned from a decrepit shambles into a wonderfully usuable recreational facility.  Ben and David are swimming, Aunt Elizabeth sits by poolside.  When Ben makes a deep dive he finds a pair of eyeglasses with a cracked lens at the bottom of the pool.  He is clueless, but we know it's a relic from some past nightmare much as the bicycle was.  In the blink of an eye, after horsing around a minute with David, he's trying to drown him in the pool, holding him underwater, while Elizabeth screams in terror on the sidelines.  He only stops when David bashes him in the face with his diving mask, drawing blood.
                                    That night he has a dream, and here Marasco in the novel and Curtis in the film are forced to rely on transparently contrived flashbacks which have to be introduced  in order to explain the dream.  It's the sort of semi-cheap desperate last resort we see in hundreds of stories - when you can't coherently explain the character's current behavior, introduce something  disturbing from their past that still haunts them now.  The dream he has is of a sinister smiling chauffeur the image of whom has tormented him since his mother's funeral when he was a little boy.  From here on in the pace really starts to pick up and the chillingl  episodes accelerate greatly.


                                    I think the film's most serious depiction of evil and suffering, and of complete helplessness for that matter, occurs with the character of Aunt Elizabeth.  I'm not sure if this was actually Bette Davis' very last role or not, but it's easy to see why see is regarded as one of th great Hollywood icons.  There's even one scene where we clearly see where the expression "Bette Davis eyes" comes from.  Aunt Elizabeth has decided to pay a surprise visit on Mrs. Allardyce, but when she knocks on the door it's opened by Marian.  As they chat about Mrs. Allardyce Curtis shoots the scene from behind Marian , over her shoulder, and we see Elizabeth's eyes straining into the room trying to get a look at the old lady.
                                    The thing about the way the house kills off Elizabeth is that it's internal, from within her body, like a sudden super rapidly growing cancer, or something - she is powerless to fight.  In other instances this is not the case - David has the ability to fight off Ben when he tries to drown him, Ben is able to carry Davey to safety when the gas heater goes beserk,  Marian rescues Davud from the pool when it suddenly develops high waves, Ben is able to ram the car into the trees when they try to block his path, etc.  But Aunt Elizabeth has no such recourse.  Her shocking decline is truly gut wrenching - at one point we actually hear something snap inside of her, a sound that sounds like it might be her bones cracking.


                                    In the future I hope to complete another essay on the film alone that will look at it in much more detail, but for now I'd like to end this one by spelling out something I mentioned earlier, which was that the story simply doesn't hold together under scrutiny.  Here's why: Down throughout the years the Allardyces have rented the house to seemingly dozens of families, and the house has killed them all.  (In the novel sixteen family names are mentioned.)  The pictures of the victims are on display in the house.  The question veritably screams itself - no one comes looking for these dead folks?  Nobody back home where they came from misses them, or knows where they went for the summer and comes to investigate?  No one is going to miss the Rolfes and send the police to inquire at the Allardyce house?  It just seems too unbelieveable for words that no one would notice the "coincidence" that hundreds of people have gone to spend summer vacation at this same house and they've all been killed or disappeared. 
                                    So...these have been some of my opening thoughts on Burnt Offerings.  Hopefully within the next twelve months I'll be able to come up with a more thorough, more complete examination of the film version of this exceptionally rich horror tale.