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.


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