All posts by Sylvia Townsend

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Environmentalism in “Red Desert” (1964)

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Michelangelo Antonioni has said that he appreciates the beauty of factories he shot in his 1964 film Red Desert and that his main character, Giuliana, cannot adjust to progress. Indeed, Giuliana is out of step with progress in the form of industrialization, but the director surrounds her, and focuses on, air tainted with lurid, poisoned yellow gas; ground strewn with garbage and industrial waste; and disgusting lakes and bodies of water fouled by oil and other industrial chemical pollutants. Her surroundings are revolting, yet the people around her take them for granted. She is having a nervous breakdown partly from revulsion at her hideous environment, but also because she feels distanced from other people who are perfectly at home with the destructive effects of “progress.”

Under the titles at the beginning of the film, a factory is shown out of focus. The first shot after the titles end is of a steel tower spitting balls of fire, like a dragon. Next to it is a nuclear reactor, spewing smoke into the air.
We first see Giuliana (Monica Vitti) walking near her husband’s factory in Ravenna, wearing a green coat. Although she is outdoors, her coat is the only green in the landscape. As she eats a sandwich, she is shown with the tower disgorging fire over her head, then with mounds of trash and industrial waste at her feet. In this unnatural, icky landscape the ground belches smoke, bringing to mind the fires of hell.

The action moves to the factory, where Giuliana’s husband is the boss. A worker tells him the steam temperature is high. The boss is unconcerned about potential danger, and tells the worker to adjust controls to lower it.
Giuliana comes in and goes to wait in his office. As she crosses the factory floor, she passes a spot disgorging smoke. Suddenly a spurt of smoke gushes out and, startled, she hops out of the way to avoid it.

Then her husband and a man named Corrado (Richard Harris), who is looking for workers to take to Buenos Aires, go outside the plant. Some smoke is coming from the plant, then a whole lot of smoke starts to come rushing out; clouds of it billow out and obscure part of the factory, then expand to fill part of the sky. It looks like it’s going to blow. The two men stand calmly by, watching it. They back up a little to avoid the smoke so they can continue to see, but are otherwise unconcerned.

The film cuts to Giuliana’s house. The architecture and furniture are stark and modern; the stair railings are blue pipe that resemble the pipes in her husband’s factory. Her son’s toys are all mechanical; no balls, marbles, jacks, teddy bears or yo-yos, nothing cute, cuddly or fuzzy. A child-sized robot on wheels mindlessly goes back and forth, and the boy’s father gives him a mechanical top with a gyroscope inside.

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Giuliana tells her husband she dreamt her bed was sinking in quicksand. She obviously feels her world and her marriage are unstable and unsafe. She has been hospitalized for mental instability and she tried to commit suicide.
Later, she goes to an empty store that she wants to open to sell ceramics, then accompanies Corrado to look for workers. Streets are bleak, unpopulated and kind of spooky. Buildings are stark and boxy. Giuliana’s husband joins them. They pass a lake, turned black with oil, sludge and gunk, in a wasteland of pollution. The water is really disgusting. “Waste has to go somewhere,” says Giuliana’s husband, tritely. Giuliana recalls that at a nearby restaurant a diner complained his eel tasted like petroleum.

They walk further and encounter more water fouled by oil. It is mottled black with patches of muck. Not to sound like Roseanne Rosanneadanna, but it looks thick, noxious, gooey and stinky.

They reach a shack near the ocean with two rooms. One room has a wood-burning stove and the other is taken up, wall to wall, with a bed. Giuliana, her husband, Corrado, the boss of another business and his wife, and another woman, get on the bed and kid one another about having an orgy but don’t go through with it.

Then – they destroy their environment. They tear down the boards that form a wall dividing the two rooms and chuck them in the burning fireplace. Only the businessman who owns the shack objects to the destruction of his property.
A doctor, and then an ambulance arrive at a large ship next to the shack. Then a seaman raises a yellow flag, signifying disease or pestilence. With all the pollution we’ve seen, it’s no wonder.

Giuliana goes home and her son, who has numbness in his legs or is faking it, asks her to tell him a story. Her story takes place in an environment diametrically opposed to the one she inhabits. Her fantasy is about a girl at a beach with clear, pristine water. She has no people for companions, but cormorants and seagulls and wild rabbits live and frolic at the beach. Green vegetation surrounds them. Rocks eroded and rounded by the waves have almost human shapes. She hears singing that turns out to be the song of everything around her: she is in tune with nature.

Giuliana goes to visit Corrado at his hotel. She tells him she can’t manage in life because she needs people. Evidently, she can’t express herself or relate to others because they accept what she finds unacceptable. She looks to him for help because he is interested in her, but his interest is probably sexual. She sleeps with him, which solves none of her problems.

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At the end of the film, she is back with her son outside her husband’s factory. Smoke is coming out of the ground, and suddenly a spurt of smoke erupts. Her son asks her why and she says she doesn’t know, but she doesn’t become agitated. He asks about the poisonous yellow gas coming from a smokestack, and she says the birds have learned to avoid it.

The world becomes blurry and she hears spooky science-fiction type music, signs of attacks of alienation she’s had in the past, but she doesn’t dwell on it and moves past it. She will try to adapt as well as she can.


Haskell Wexler and the Making of ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’

            After Francis Ford Coppola fired him from The Conversation and replaced him with Bill Butler, Haskell Wexler was devastated. He would not have agreed to shoot his next feature, One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, had he known he would once again be fired and replaced with Bill Butler.

            From the mid-1960s to early 1970s, Wexler was active in the anti-war and hippie movements, and he knew Cuckoo’s Nest co-producer Saul Zaentz from attending demonstrations in Berkeley and San Francisco. At the time, Zaentz was co-owner of Fantasy Records, based in Berkeley. One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest would be his first film with another novice producer, the actor Michael Douglas. Douglas had acquired the rights to Ken Kesey’s highly acclaimed novel, published in 1962, from his father, Kirk, and had asked Zaentz to collaborate with him in making it into a film.

            The screenplay, by Larry Hauben and Bo Goldman, concerns R.P. McMurphy, a patient who’s been sent for evaluation to Oregon State Mental Hospital, where he shakes things up. McMurphy (like Wexler) questions rules and conventions, and challenges authority.  His nemesis, Nurse Ratched is a rigid, sadistic disciplinarian who, under the guise of helping her charges, irreparably harms them.

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Jack Nicholson, whom Wexler had known since they’d worked together on Studs Lonigan in 1960, would play McMurphy. Louise Fletcher would play Nurse Ratched and Milos Forman would direct. Forman had directed The Firemen’s Ball and Loves of a Blonde, both Oscar nominees for Best Foreign Language Film, in his native Czechoslovakia. The small film Taking Off (1971) had been his first American movie.

When the producers suggested Wexler as cinematographer, Forman was concerned that, since Wexler had directed a film, he might try to encroach on Forman’s job. Nevertheless, he admired Wexler’s work, so he had dinner with him to see how they’d get along. Forman wrote in his memoir: “He struck me as the gentle, quiet type. He was very enthusiastic about Kesey’s book and the screenplay, which Larry Hauben and Bo Goldman had written. I wanted a sort of a raw, realistic look for the film, but not so tawdry that it would pull attention away from the story. Wexler said he knew exactly how to give me this look, so I offered him the job.”

Wexler can be extremely congenial, and he believes it’s his job to stay on schedule and on budget, make the leading lady look good (when the script calls for it), enhance the story’s interest with lighting, framing and emphasis, and help the director. And while often cooperative, he is also extremely independent. Unlike most other directors of photography, Wexler owned his own equipment and rented it to the production company. He said that studios discourage this because they relinquish some control. “It has to do with studios wanting to hire below-the-line workers, and they don’t want you to be loan-out companies or little entrepreneurs on your own,” he said. That view is shortsighted, he thinks, because cameramen who buy their equipment maintain it well and are accustomed to it, enabling them to do their job better than if they use rentals they need to get used to.

After Wexler was hired, Paul Sylbert, who won an Oscar a few years later for Heaven Can Wait, signed on as production designer. By January, 1975, the production company had been in Salem for a few months assembling a cast and preparing. They were shooting the film in an unused ward at Oregon State Mental Hospital in Salem, where the book is set. The hospital’s director, Dr. Dean R. Brooks, would play the head of the institution, and other patients and staff had small roles.

One day, about a week into rehearsals, Sylbert was in the production office trying to get some money for his crew, who had not been paid because the production had temporarily run out of money. Dr. Brooks came in with two women — the head psychiatrist and the head nurse– and told Sylbert he wanted to go to the ward where the actors were rehearsing, and where they would film. Sylbert said he’d accompany him. When they arrived, they walked to the front of the ward where the actors were rehearsing the pill distribution scene early in the film, where a nurse and orderlies give the patients medication. Sylbert recalled that he and Dr. Brooks were shocked to see that “It was bedlam. Milos was having them drag these patients to the pills, it was just like they were doing a 19th century madhouse.” Some of the patients were forced out of their wheelchairs and hauled across the floor.

Sylbert had had an intimation that Forman might want to portray an antiquated and inhumane mental hospital because the only research he’d given the production designer to guide him in devising the sets was a Life magazine article from the 1940s on institutions of the period. The story had pictures of patients in long smocks, walking like zombies and being treated horribly. Also, Forman had screened Frederick Wiseman’s 1966 documentary Titicut Follies for the cast and crew. That film, set in the State Hospital for the Criminally Insane at Bridgewater, Massachusetts, chronicles brutal guards bullying, taunting and humiliating inmates, who are confined, naked, in barren cells.


Sylbert continued, “Brooks was standing next to me, and he was a big guy, bigger than I am, anyway, and I could feel the heat rising in him. And all of a sudden, he let out a bellow and he said, ‘This has got to stop!’ And he charged toward Milos with the two women on his trail, saying, ‘This has got to stop! You have been here for weeks, months, don’t you have any idea how an institution is run?’ He chewed Milos’s ass up one side and down the other. And this is in front of everybody,” in the cast and crew.

Dr. Brooks was understandably concerned that an inhumane and inaccurate depiction of his hospital could damage its reputation and mislead audiences about treatment of mental patients in general. Additionally, portraying the hospital as chaotic at the beginning of the movie would undercut the drama and destroy the premise. Sylbert explained, “What you wanted was a calm, tranquilized, literally – that’s what a pill scene is, a tranquilized environment – in which somebody throws a rock. And that’s Randall McMurphy; he comes splashing into the institution. But if it’s not quiet and calm and tranquil to begin with, you don’t have a place to go.”

`           Two days later, Sylbert had dinner at the steakhouse at his hotel in downtown Salem with William Redfield, who plays the patient Harding in Cuckoo’s Nest. At the time, the two men had been close friends for more than 20 years. Redfield told Sylbert, “Jack has taken over directing the actors.” Redfield said that every night a group of key actors who played poker in the film met in Nicholson’s room and rehearsed the following day’s scenes. According to Redfield, Nicholson’s confidence in Forman had been utterly destroyed when Dr. Brooks bawled him out, and Nicholson was directing the movie and refusing to speak to Forman. Years later, Sylbert confirmed Redfield’s account when he worked on Biloxi Blues with Wexler’s eventual replacement on Cuckoo’s Nest, cinematographer Bill Butler. Sylbert told Butler he’d heard that the actors met in Nicholson’s room each night to rehearse and that Nicholson refused to speak to the director. When Sylbert asked if that was true, Butler told him, “Yes. He never talked to Milos at all, he only talked to me.”

Unwilling to speak to the director, Nicholson turned to Wexler for guidance. After a take, he would sometimes look at Wexler to see how he responded to the performance. As well as making suggestions that Nicholson followed, Wexler also changed some dialogue. For example, after Big Chief says his first words, and takes another piece of gum from McMurphy, in the script he says, “Oh, gum.” Wexler suggested, “What if he says, ‘Juicy Fruit?’” Forman shot Wexler a dubious look but Nicholson piped up, “Yeah! Say ‘Juicy Fruit!’”  So he did.

When the inmates were waiting in line in front of the glass booth for their medication, Wexler told Nicholson that he remembered at summer camp kids had spread the rumor that counselors were giving them saltpeter. So Nicholson added the line, “I don’t want to be slipped saltpeter.”

In another scene in the glass booth, Wexler wanted Nurse Ratched to look more sympathetic than in other shots. In some scenes he filmed her to make her look as if she were wearing a shiny white mask, since her habitually placid expression conceals the rage, frustration and hatred roiling beneath the surface. Louise Fletcher was in the booth and Wexler and his gaffer, Gary Holt, were 20 or 30 feet away setting up the shot. Wexler recalled, “I said, ‘Gary, what the fuck are we going to do about her face? It’s so flat. I’ve got to give her some kind of look.’ So, I don’t know what we worked out, but anyway, the next day she said to me, ‘Oh, Haskell, you don’t like my fucking flat face?’ So I thought, ‘Well, Gary Holt spilled the beans.’ That’s not the kind of thing you say to an actress. So I said, ‘Where did you hear that?’ and she said, ‘I read your lips.’” Fletcher’s parents were deaf so she read lips, and when she won the Oscar for Best Actress for Cuckoo’s Nest, she translated her acceptance speech into sign language.


The hallway lighting caused another problem for Wexler. Guided by an image of Nurse Ratched as a fiendish mother hen smothering the eggs in her nest with her so-called love, Paul Sylbert had the hospital ward’s walls painted the shades of brown eggs; a brown dado with off-white above. Wexler installed fluorescent lights in the hall, but in those days no fluorescent lights were made specifically to be filmed. In an early scene Nurse Ratched walked down the hall, Wexler observed, “And really looked green. I mean a really bad green.” Apparently the paint had an undercoat of green that the fluorescents picked up. So, at night, Wexler had the standby painter repaint the hall to eliminate the green.  Michael Douglas, Wexler recalled, was furious that he hadn’t discussed this beforehand with Sylbert, since this was the production designer’s purview.

Wexler was also challenged shooting the group therapy scenes. Forman wanted to have one camera constantly roving from actor to actor, so they would always give their best performances. Wexler operated the A camera, and had two other cameras moving among the actors, documentary style. However, as Forman noted, shooting this way prevented Wexler from lighting each actor as carefully as he could if the camera were more stationary. Forman later said, “It was not easy on the cameraman, the director of photography, because he had to light a space – practically 180 degrees of the space had to be lit – so it would be usable in the film for the wandering camera. And because when you are shooting in a real location you don’t have the height of a studio where you can hide and hang however many lights and lamps you wish, we had a low ceiling. So the whole job of lighting the scenes was very elaborate and very cleverly done by the cameraman I worked with, Haskell Wexler.”

Shooting on location also irked Wexler. Forman, on his DVD commentary over a group therapy scene, said, “These kinds of situations, when you are shooting on location, are driving the directors of photography crazy. You can see the windows, you can see that it is pretty bright on the outside. But you shoot this whole scene, this whole scene, it took a day or two to shoot  and if you watch really carefully you see how difficult it is to control the same kind of mood behind the windows because the weather changes during the day. For a while it’s sunny, it becomes cloudy, it’s raining, but in the film you have to feel it’s the same all the time or you have to do it in a way that nobody notices these changes, which I think was accomplished by the cinematographer.”

Since most of the movie takes place inside, Wexler thought they should film in a warehouse or soundstage. He recalled, “Of course being the kind of person I am, I let everybody know it would be much better to just get a nice, big, huge set and we wouldn’t have to have all the problems we were going to have.” To simulate sunlight, they put arc lights outside the windows. But the carbon rods inside the arc lights burn down and must be replaced from time to time, and sometimes they had to put gel filters over the lights to simulate a different time of day.

Additionally, Wexler thought an American director would have been better suited to tell the story, and that a Czech might not fully understand the World Series or a Native American character such as Big Chief. Wexler felt that Forman needed help, but to others the cinematographer’s efforts amounted to meddling.

Indirectly and inadvertently, Wexler also spooked the producers. The FBI came snooping around the production offices, housed in a motel, asking questions about Wexler. He’d been under FBI surveillance intermittently since eighth grade, when he’d belonged to the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, a group that supported Spanish Republicans fighting Franco and the Spanish Nationalists in their civil war. Now, agents were looking into his association with the Weathermen, a radical left group that bombed government buildings and banks. In January of 1975 they bombed the U.S. State Department, to protest the escalation of the Vietnam War. Wexler was friends of two of the group’s leaders, Bernardine Dohrn and Billy Ayers; he agreed with many of their ideas but deplored their methods. He explained, “This is an obvious case where all the good things they were for – being against racism, thinking about poor people – all the things which I very much agree with, go down the sewer by their choosing a path of violence.”

The same year as Cuckoo’s Nest, Wexler shot a film of the Weathermen, Underground, when the FBI was searching for them because of the State Department bombing and they were fugitives. Wexler remembered that contacting them was a cloak-and-dagger affair. First, the director Emile de Antonio called and asked Wexler if he would like to be considered to shoot “some secret stuff.” De Antonio told him that his name had been presented to the fugitives as someone who might be trustworthy. Knowing that de Antonio had directed Point of Order, a documentary about the 1954 Army-McCarthy hearings, Wexler agreed. Then, Wexler said, he was given elaborate instructions to shake a potential tail. He was told to drive down Highland Avenue to Wilshire Boulevard, and go into a Bob’s Big Boy there. He was to wait at the restaurant before going to a nearby phone booth and dialing a number. Then, he walked to Los Angeles High School Memorial Park, where a man wearing a fake beard was sitting on a bench. The fellow said, “Hello, Haskell,” and questioned him about where he’d been, what he’d seen.

They continued to vet him, intermittently, until one night they blindfolded him with a bandana and put him on the floor of a car. He was taken to a house that he concluded was near the beach because he could smell the ocean. Some of the Weathermen wore ski masks over their faces. Wexler shot the backs of their heads through cheesecloth as they talked. While he was filming them, Wexler remembered, “I said, ‘What a waste of dedicated, bright young people to have their lives chopped off because of their stupid decision to be violent.’ I said as much, diplomatically, but it was cut out of the film.”

So, although the FBI didn’t suspect Wexler of bombing any buildings, agents were keeping an eye on him, and their presence exacerbated the friction he was causing on the set. Forman later maintained that Wexler’s complaints jeopardized the picture: a few actors “told me that Wexler had been expressing his doubts as to whether I was competent enough to make this particular movie. Before long, the producers heard the same mutterings. They weren’t about to let the situation simmer; they had the most to lose if morale started to suffer.”

Wexler is sufficiently honest and self-aware to admit he was interfering: “I was my usual smartass, let’s put it that way. In areas and places where people shouldn’t be told, ‘Dummy, you’re doing it the wrong way.’”  Sylbert observed of Wexler, “It’s his feeling that he’s better than anybody he’s working with, in any area.”

Wexler’s hubris doomed him. Forman had his big opportunity to film an acclaimed book with a star actor. But he was threatened when Nicholson stopped talking to him and started communicating to him through Wexler, an aggressive, opinionated cameraman who was also a respected director. Sylbert thought that with Wexler’s “attitude toward directors, thinking he was better than they are – when you’ve got a director, when you’ve got blood in the water and you’ve got a shark like Wexler – Milos must have felt he was going to be killed.”

Instead, Forman survived and Michael Douglas fired Wexler, when he had nearly finished shooting the movie. The producers hired Bill Butler to film the final scenes —the party and its aftermath. The production then went over schedule, Butler had to leave for another commitment, and William Fraker shot the fishing expedition.

Wexler said he was crushed over being fired from his second Hollywood film in a row: “I wanted to commit suicide. I was so depressed. I was so hit by this kind of firing. I mean, I’m not exaggerating, I was just wiped out.”

Douglas has always said he fired Wexler because of creative differences, not his cinematography. Wexler was on schedule and he said everybody patted each other on the back when they saw his dailies. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences nominated One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest for Best Cinematography. The nomination went to Bill Butler as well as Wexler, because Butler is credited with “additional photography” on the film. The award went to John Alcott for Barry Lyndon instead. But Cuckoo’s Nest was the first film since It Happened One Night in 1934 to sweep the top five Oscars – Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Actor in a Leading Role and Best Actress in a Leading Role.

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Duality in Bob Rafelson’s “Black Widow” (1987) – The American Detective Movie Where Both Cop and Criminal Are Women

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Bob Rafelson’s steamy 1987 thriller Black Widow is the rare Hollywood movie to feature females as both cop and killer, and surely the only one in which both heroine and villainess are bisexual women attracted to one another. (Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Les Diaboliques has two bisexual heroines who, like Black Widow’s, share a man and scheme to get rid of one another, but it is French and neither is a detective.) A cop who desires his suspect has a long tradition (Laura). Criminals, drawn to danger, sometimes fall for the detectives who are pursuing them. But the attraction is usually heterosexual, and the cop doesn’t usually sleep with his quarry’s boyfriend. Also, although lawmen sometimes face a choice of whether to save a villain’s endangered life (The Untouchables), the criminal doesn’t usually rescue the cop who is chasing him, as in Black Widow’s scuba diving mishap, where the murderess shares her oxygen with the detective as they ascend to the ocean’s surface, their bare legs undulating together erotically.

Rafelson uses his heroines’ similarity to set up a duality; they are the same sex but on opposite sides of the law. Through story structure in the screenplay by Ronald Bass, and through staging, cinematography, production design, costume design and hairstyling, Rafelson focuses on his heroines’ duality: besides their sex, they share salient character traits, and besides being law enforcer and law breaker, they have diametrically opposed styles, appearances and love lives. Midway through the film, when they finally meet, Rafelson develops this duality further; while they are physically attracted to one another they are simultaneously trying to incarcerate one another. Their differences diminish as the plain-Jane detective imitates the sultry black widow in appearance, behavior and tactics.

Using a parallel structure, the movie demonstrates the similarities and differences of Justice Department employee Alex Barnes and the seductress/murderess whose real name we never learn, but whose first alias is Catharine Petersen. Debra Winger, who had been playing the love interest or leading lady in films such as Terms of Endearment and An Officer and a Gentleman, has an unbecoming hairstyle and wardrobe as Alex. Theresa Russell plays the ravishing chameleon Catherine, who tailors her personality and appearance to tantalize each victim. Both are attractive, troubled young women who are dedicated to, and excel at, at their occupations. Both are out to “catch” someone, both engage in long preparation and extensive research, and both take on multiple false identities. But while Alex is frumpy – she wears baggy clothes and doesn’t bother to tame her out-of control hair – and celibate, Catharine is sleek, chic, well-coiffed, and well-groomed. She wears fitted, expensive-looking outfits, and she is always luring, marrying, or bumping off a lover.

In the film’s first scenes, set at night, we see Catharine, elegant and poised, applying eyeliner, then putting on sunglasses. She takes a helicopter, then a limo, from a plane to her home, the setting where she pursues her occupation of seducing and killing. The swank apartment has a black-and-white checkerboard pattern on the hall floor. Next we see Alex, disheveled and tense, rushing to work at her desk job at the Department of Justice. Wearing sunglasses, like Catharine, she passes through the lobby, which has a black-and white checkerboard pattern on the floor. These scenes demonstrate immediately some of the characters’ similarities and differences. We learn that Catharine romances and kills without getting caught, while Alex works compulsively, and never goes on a date.
Later Catharine, now sassy in red curls and a clingy, emerald-green wrap dress, goes to have lunch with her new husband, a Dallas toy manufacturer (Dennis Hopper). Sitting at his desk and looking at a cluster of beeping and blinking glass tubes, he is on the phone scolding the toy’s inventor for writing confusing directions: “I don’t know how to read the instructions. I’m only five fucking years old.” When he teases his wife by telling the caller she looks a little scruffy today, Catharine, seated cross-legged in a chair on the other side of his desk, pouts and slides her slinky skirt up her thigh, proving him wrong. A few scenes later Alex, going to work, forgets she’s carrying a gun, and a security cop detains her in the lobby and escorts her to her boss’s office. As her co-workers watch and razz her she playfully tosses up the edge of her long, voluminous gray, gathered skirt to reveal a not-very-sexy glimpse of calves shod in brown boots.

After Alex becomes suspicious of recent deaths of rich men married to the same young woman, we follow the pair as they separately pursue their occupations; Alex researches Catharine and Catharine researches her next prey, the owner of a museum in Seattle. Alex brings her work home at night, and sets up a projector and screen in her living room to examine life-sized slides of Catharine. Alex is immediately attracted to the glamorous woman, and superimposes her arm and hand over the image of Catharine’s arm and hand. She goes to the bathroom sink, regards her less-alluring image in the mirror, and bends over, jealous and despondent. The film cuts to Catharine as she, too, bends over; she is also at home at night, looking sensational as usual in reading glasses and a silk kimono, studying books and magazines, then watching a video of Northwest Indians, one of the interests of her intended’s museum.

As the film progresses, Alex visits the sister of one of Catharine’s late husbands, learning more about the black widow and getting closer to her quarry. In the following scene, Catharine, demure and bewitching, flirts with her next husband, telling him the old joke about how porcupines make love (very carefully) enchanting him, and getting closer to her quarry. In a later scene, set at night at her husband’s lakeside lodge, Catharine, wearing nothing but a camel-hair coat draped over her shoulders, stands in front of a fireplace. The coat drops to the floor to reveal, illuminated lit by firelight, the graceful silhouette of her back from the waist down. Then, her skin golden and her lovely face flushed from the glow of the fire, she bends to pick up her coat, and we see glimpse of her breast. Her husband (Nicol Williamson), reclining nearby on a mattress on the floor, regards her with frank appreciation. She drapes the coat over her shoulders and, barefoot, slowly approaches him, lowering herself, lying next to him and embracing him. In a stark contrast, Rafelson cuts to Alex at night, still at the office, playing cards with her boss and colleagues on a makeshift table. After the game, she is seated at her desk when her boss offers to massage her neck. When his fingers inch down toward her breasts, she turns abruptly, rebuffing his advance.

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Later, both women have setbacks. Alex warns a Seattle police detective that the museum owner’s new wife plans to kill him, and the cop treats her like a crank. The film cuts to the museum owner telling his wife that a reporter (Alex in disguise) wants to write a profile of her, altering Catharine that someone is on to her.

In another visual manifestation of their duality, in staging and in costume design, Alex is associated with water and blue, and Catharine with fire and red. The two women are first shown in the same place when they get on a ferry, Catharine in a long, supple gabardine coat, driving a late-model Mercedes and Alex in a long, stiff, baggy jacket, on foot. They finally meet at a scuba diving class in a pool after Alex quits her law enforcement job to pursue Catharine, and finds her in Hawaii. Alex, who is all work, is likened to water and blue, the cold color and the traditional hue of police uniforms. Catharine, by contrast, is shown standing nude and then having sex in front of a fireplace, and later, with a new conquest, Paul (Sami Frey), in front of an erupting volcano in Hawaii. She is passionate and murderous, and associated with fire and red. Paul later mentions a belief that a goddess of devastation lives in the volcano and makes fire from time to time (just as Catharine turns murderous occasionally and kills a husband).

After Alex tracks Catharine to Hawaii and the two women meet, they begin a relationship. Although Alex abhors the crimes, she is attracted to the criminal. While Alex has been spending most of her time at her desk, at a low-paying job, Catharine has led a dangerous and action-packed life, traveling from city to city, marrying rich and interesting men, poisoning them, and inheriting their fortunes. Alex watches Catharine at work manipulating her next victim, Paul, from the other side of his back yard in Hawaii. Catharine watches Alex from the other side of a farmer’s market as the cop tries to get rid of a pesky private detective she had hired earlier to find the black widow. Realizing Alex is out to get her, Catharine begins to plot to get Alex.

Simultaneously, they begin an understated, unconsummated romance. At their first meeting at the scuba diving class, a tracking shot shows a succession of students, all young women, lying on the grass, practicing mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. The camera pauses as Alex lowers her face to Catharine’s, and jokes about not taking the gesture, so similar to a kiss, personally. After the class, they lie next to each other on chaises longues, sipping frothy drinks. Catharine is a blonde bombshell in a snakeskin-patterned bikini, her long, straight hair falling over a shoulder. By comparison, Alex, lying on the chaise next to her, looks plain and pale; she wears an unattractive bathing suit with a big tie like a bow, and a long, baggy blue shirt over it. They go to Catharine’s hotel room for a drink, and Alex reclines on her bed. When they have a picnic, they lie side-by-side on a blanket and talk about romance. Catharine rests on her elbows as Alex, propped up on her side, facing her, gazes at her intently; their faces are very close. Catharine turns and lies on her back, telling Alex about her husbands and her feelings for them, leaving out the part about doing them in. She turns again and the two women, each resting on an elbow, gaze at each other. After scuba diving, they sit on the beach, side-by-side, to watch the sunset. With Catharine’s blessing and encouragement, Alex sleeps with Paul, who Catharine, to whet his appetite, has declined to have sex with. With Alex thus occupied, Catharine searches her apartment, and when she finds a hankie in a drawer, she smells it and brushes it against her cheek in an old-fashioned, romantic gesture. And, at her wedding, Catharine, looking gorgeous in a sinuous, white silk-charmeuse gown, accepts a gift of jewelry from Alex, a pin in the form of a black widow. Unexpectedly, Catharine grabs the back of Alex’s neck, pulls her toward her, and kisses her forcefully, stunning Alex, and sending her reeling. Finally, at the film’s conclusion, Catharine tells Alex that of all her relationships, she will remember this one.

Not only does Alex find Catharine attractive, she begins to copy her. The first day they meet, Alex borrows one of Catharine’s dresses for an evening party and employs her hairdresser to shape her unruly curls. Alex is attracted to Catharine’s boyfriend, and sleeps with him. As the film progresses, she employs Catharine’s tactics and uses subterfuge to try to entrap the murderess. In the last scene, Alex has been transformed from an unkempt Department of Justice office worker, with wild hair and ill-fitting clothes, to a chic young woman with a stylish hairdo, and a fitted, décolleté dress, striding confidently out of a county courthouse in Hawaii.

The conclusion is character-driven and inevitable. Both women are compulsive and neither will ever give up; since Catharine won’t stop killing, she is doomed to be caught once Alex is on to her. But even though Alex prevails and puts Catharine behind bars, Catharine has prevailed in the sense that she has influenced Alex, who has become more like her. The divide between cop and criminal has narrowed. Alex has dirtied, if not bloodied, her hands. She has left her law-enforcement job, and used morally questionable methods – taking on disguises and using subterfuge – to pursue Catharine. She did not warn the murdered museum owner that his wife planned to kill him. Catharine couldn’t frame her for murder, but she has left her mark on Alex.

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Stanley Kubrick’s “The Killing” (1956) and the Prominence of Domesticated Animals

Stanley Kubrick’s 1956 film noir The Killing is striking for its attention to domesticated animals – horses, dogs and a parrot. The film’s first shot is of horses being led from their paddock, the title is superimposed over footage of horses, and a toy poodle brings about the movie’s denouement. The title itself can be interpreted as referring to the killing of the racehorse Red Lightning since no character mentions “killing” in regards to the heist, none of them make a killing because they all end up dead or back in jail, and the only character who uses the word “kill” is the hood hired to shoot Red Lightning when he’s asking for the details of the job. All the animals are confined; the horses in stables and paddocks before being ridden and led, the dogs cuddled in their owner’s arms, and the parrot in its cage. Kubrick makes comparisons, in shots and dialogue, between the animals’ confinement and the characters being hemmed in by circumstances they can’t surmount.

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Domesticated animals appear in many scenes throughout the film. The movie’s first seven shots are of racehorses being led to a racetrack starting gate, a team of four horses dragging the gate into place, and the racehorses taking off. This same footage of horses is used as an anchor as Kubrick repeatedly returns to the seventh race to show the various characters acting out their separate roles on the day of the heist. A caged parrot is shown in most of the scenes between the mousy George Peatty and his wife, Sherry, a wisecracking siren in a curly pompadour. Like Polly, George is shown more than once behind bars, and in the scene where Sherry pulls the wool over her husband’s eyes, a cloth is draped over the parrot’s cage. The farmer who moonlights as an assassin cradles and caresses a puppy during the entire scene where he and the heist’s mastermind, Johnny, discuss killing the horse to distract the cops during the crime. Finally, a yappy little poodle precipitates the film’s unhappy conclusion. When the poodle jumps out of the arms of its smothering owner at the airport, it runs in front of a baggage cart. The driver swerves to avoid the dog and Johnny’s suitcase tumbles off the cart and bursts open, sending the loot flying away in the wind generated by the airplane engine.

In the film’s first shot horses ridden by jockeys are led out of their paddock. We see a team of harnessed white horses, with blinders blocking their peripheral vision, dragging the starting gate into place, and the racehorses being led toward it, two of them repeatedly throwing their heads back as if to shake off their restraints. Then trainers, rushing, yank and pull the horses up to the gate. Later in the film jockeys whip them to make them run faster. In no scene do we see the horses being fed, groomed, petted or congratulated, or any affection being shown. They are led, confined and manipulated, and they don’t look happy.

The Killing’s characters are similarly led, confined and manipulated. Kubrick draws a visual comparison between horses and people by cutting from the horses lined up behind the gate to the line of cashier windows at the racetrack. (He also makes a visual comparison between horses and people later in the film, when Nikki waits in the parking lot for Red Lightning to approach, by dissolving back and forth between the racing horses and the cheering crowd.) The characters are confined and limited by their relationships and by their low-paying, dead-end jobs. A loan shark who notes that “We all get a little cramped,” nevertheless raises the vig $400 and menaces Stanley, the dirty cop, with veiled threats of what he’ll do if the debt isn’t repaid soon. Fear of the loan shark motivates Stanley to participate in the stick up at the racetrack to get cash immediately. George Peatty, a track cashier, is under the thumb of his wife, Sherry, a manipulative, wisecracking gold digger. Sherry leads him to believe she will love him if only he provides more money for a fancier apartment and more comfortable lifestyle. To avoid the pain of her emotional blackmail, George takes part in the theft. Just as people make horses race for financial gain, the loan shark and Sherry try to use Stanley and George to procure money for them. In another parallel between animals and humans, just as the horses leave the confinement of their stables and paddocks, and run around and around the track, ultimately ending up back where they started in the confinement of their stables, Johnny gets out of jail, engages in a lot of useless activity, and ends up where he started, in the slammer.

The animal most closely identified with a character is Polly, the Peatty’s parrot (presumably that’s her name, since she squawks, “Pretty Polly, pretty Polly). Polly’s cage has a rounded top and is elevated on a pedestal, so the bird is even with George’s head when he is standing. In the first scene in the Peatty’s apartment, Sherry is mocking him, as usual. Sherry thinks George is a boring loser, and tells him as much. To seek refuge from her belittling, George walks over to Polly, a kindred spirit. Just as Polly is confined in a cage, we see George behind bars, twice. The first time is near the film’s beginning, when he is shown, with a grim facial expression, behind the bars of his cashier’s window. The second time he is framed in a medium close up, holding the balusters of the spiral staircase that Johnny is ascending to hold up the racetrack office. George is imprisoned by his love for Sherry; he will do almost anything for her love.

George also is blinded, metaphorically, by his attraction to Sherry. In the second scene at the Peatty’s apartment, Sherry is seated at a dressing table, George is standing next to her, and Polly is in her cage behind him, blinded literally because a drape covers her cage. Sherry is trying to fool George and obscure the truth by faking affection she doesn’t feel and lying to him so he’ll tell her more about the plot. She says she eavesdropped outside the apartment where the conspirators were planning the job because she was jealous and suspected he was seeing another girlfriend. Sherry tells him she loves him and will love him “always and always.” (Although Johnny doesn’t lead him on, Marvin also is blinded, by his sexual attraction to the younger man. Even though Johnny is engaged to his childhood sweetheart, Marvin suggests he abandon Fay and travel the world with the older man.)

In the final scene at the apartment, George, who has been shot, stumbles in to find Sherry expecting her lover. Wobbling from his injuries, he holds on to the vertical stand that holds up Polly’s cage for balance. Polly says “Watch it” and “Watch out.” When Sherry refuses to call an ambulance for him and tells him to go out and get a taxi, he realizes, too late, that she has never loved him, and he shoots her. When he succumbs to his wounds and tumbles to his death, he is still holding the bird’s cage, and he takes it down with him. The camera pans from George’s head, his expression frozen in death, partially shadowed by Polly, to the parrot, constrained in her overturned cage and unable to fly, before cutting to an airplane taxiing at the airport.

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The final domesticated animal given prominence in The Killing is the dog. When Johnny goes to Nikki’s farm to hire him to kill the racehorse Red Lightning, Johnny holds and pets a really cute puppy, covering its ears with his hands, while the assassin tries out the shotgun. Then, they exchange the puppy for the shotgun. The farmer/assassin continues to hold and cuddle his puppy throughout the scene, caressing and rubbing its muzzle, back and ears as the men discuss shooting the horse; a perverse contrast between the affectionate gestures and the murderous words. Johnny makes light of the killing, saying that shooting “a four-legged horse” isn’t even murder.

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A yipping toy poodle with a bow in its topknot renders poetic justice on the heartless (to horses) Johnny, as it foils the (literally) last man standing at the movie’s end. In his exhaustively researched, and highly readable book, Stanley Kubrick: A Biography, author Vincent LoBrutto reports that before Kubrick became a director, and was a photographer for Look magazine, he shot a photo essay of a champion toy poodle named Masterpiece. Poodles were extremely popular in the 1950s, and Kubrick was obviously familiar with the dogs, and their owners’ practice of giving them undignified, clownish trims, and having them prance around, perform tricks and otherwise behave artificially for human amusement and, in the case of show dogs as with race horses, purses.

The cloying, middle-aged owner of Sebastian, the poodle in The Killing, cradles him near her cheek and smothers him with affection, cooing baby-talk in a phony, Elmer Fudd voice. At the airport to meet her husband, she addresses the unfortunate dog, “We haven’t seen daddy sweetums foe such a wong, wong, time.” She takes Sebastian outside as the plane is arriving, and the dog, agitated by the engine noise, escapes from her arms. As a worker driving a baggage cart turns sharply to avoid the dog, Johnny’s cheap, flimsy, pawn-shop suitcase topples off the top of the heap and bursts, the loot scattering into the wind generated by the airplane’s engine.

Kubrick and the novelist Jim Thompson adapted the screenplay from the novel Clean Break by Lionel White, published in 1955. The novel’s title does not refer to a horse’s broken leg; it is an expression used by Marvin, who despises the other conspirators and wants to make a clean break from them after the heist, and it’s also used by an initial newspaper report that the crooks got away with the loot. Both Kubrick and Thompson were interested in animals. For example, in Thompson’s novel The Getaway, one character is a veterinarian who calls his wife “Pet” and “Lambie,” and philosophizes over the effects of kindness to animals. The screenwriters added the animals to The Killing; Clean Break doesn’t mention dogs or parrots, or horses leaving their paddock or approaching the starting gate. Of course The Killing is a film noir with has a femme fatale, a flawed hero, characters drawn from society’s underbelly, a grim atmosphere and a downbeat ending, but clearly on another level it is about the treatment of animals.

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Rob Reiner: Overlooked Auteur

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Almost every night of the week, some cable TV channel shows a classic film directed by Rob Reiner, either The Princess Bride, Stand by Me, This Is Spinal TapMisery or A Few Good Men. But until recently (on April 27 and 28 the Film Society of Lincoln Center will hold a two-day retrospective of films Reiner directed and Martin Scorsese will present him with the Chaplin Award) many people have thought of him as “Meathead” from the 1970s television series All in The Family, or as a Hollywood director who happened to make excellent films in various genres.  According to Andrew Sarris’s three-pronged definition of an auteur, a filmmaker who repeatedly explores the same themes, has consistency in tone, and is technically competent, Reiner qualifies. His most famous films demonstrate recurring themes that weave throughout his larger body of work, a seriocomic sensibility and a technical competence. Although he’s worked with a variety of screenwriters, including Aaron Sorkin, William Goldman, Nora Ephron and Alan Zweibel, Reiner consistently addresses common themes. Himself a writer since the 1960s, he focuses on writers and the obstacles they confront, the process of creativity, the value of stories, and the use of words to combat corrupt authority figures and bullies. He also demonstrates a consistent tone by balancing the sad and dark with the lighthearted, sometimes punctuating tense or dramatic scenes with out-of-the-blue humor. Although his visual style is not showy, it is effective, and he is a gifted storyteller with an excellent sense of pacing and timing.

Reiner is interested in the beneficial effects of stories and art, and the creative process (Stand by MeMiseryAlex and EmmaFlipped, The Magic of Belle IsleThe Princess Bride).  In his romantic comedies, the protagonist is often a writer, but is inevitably a spontaneous partner courting, or coexisting uneasily with, a stodgier mate (When Harry Met SallyAlex and Emma,The Story of UsThe Sure Thing). The hero or heroine in the romances also often worries about making a commitment. Finally, in a few films Reiner expresses outrage at the abuse of power. His protagonists use brains, not brawn, to thwart the powerful villains or bullies (A Few Good MenThe American PresidentGhosts of Mississippi).

Stories often comfort or cheer Reiner’s characters. The first shot of The Princess Bride is of a video game watched by a sick little boy who has no enthusiasm for listening to a mushy tale his grandfather proposes to read aloud. At the film’s end the boy, now fascinated, asks the old man to return the following day to read it again. Stories that Gordie invents in Stand by Me give him respite from a troubled home life and a father who doesn’t love him. His stories also give him a sense of identity and accomplishment, and the one about the fat kid who gets revenge on the townspeople who mocked him by setting off mass, contagious barfing heartens his friends, who also have been victims of teasing. Alex in Alex and Emma started writing as a child as a way to express feelings he couldn’t voice after his parents’ divorce. Paul Sheldon’s romantic novels bring joy to Annie Wilkes, the bedeviled fan in Misery.

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Reiner also examines the creative process; in films from This Is Spinal Tap (1984) to The Magic of Belle Isle (2012) the director presents artists, usually writers, wrestling with obstacles to their craft. Writers struggle to find their voice (Stand by Me,The Magic of Belle Isle), recapture their voice (Misery), overcome writer’s block (The Magic of Belle Isle) and come to terms with readers’ expectations (Misery). Alex and Emma is entirely about a novelist, his muse/critic/audience, and the creative process; the two characters discuss writer’s block, inspiration, responsibility to the reader, character development, writing oneself into and out of a corner, deadline pressure, borrowing from life to lend to the story, devising a plot, and other aspects of creating fiction. Rob Reiner movies that delve into writers’ and artists’ relationship with their fans include Misery, in which an unhinged reader torments a novelist when he stops writing bodice rippers and This Is Spinal Tap, in which the aging rockers face dwindling audiences.

In some of Reiner’s romantic comedies, the leading man or lady is a writer (The Story of UsAlex and Emma, Rumor Has It), but in all of them one partner is zanier, and more uninhibited and fun-loving than the other, who is relatively reserved and cautious. By the movie’s end, the free-spirited partner partially grows up and the more restrained mate partially loosens up, sometimes doing something silly or playful just for the hell of it. The staid Michelle Pfeiffer dons a noisy fireman’s hat in response to Bruce Willis’s shenanigans in The Story of Us, and John Cusak  provokes the responsible, organized college girl in The Sure Thing to bare her breasts to a carful of strangers. Although The Bucket List is not a romance, it pairs Jack Nicholson’s impulsive character with Morgan Freeman’s more thoughtful one, and the former influences the latter to become adventurous at the end of his life. In The American President Sydney’s passion for combatting global warming and standing up for worthy causes finally affects the president, who has focused on what he thinks he can pragmatically accomplish until his spirited speech at the movie’s conclusion.


The American President also exemplifies the director’s outrage at bullies and unscrupulous authority figures. The Republican politician who plans to run for president lies to the American people and falsely accuses Sydney of trading sexual favors for political gain. Some of these villains are megalomaniacs, others cruel, insensitive jerks. In Ghosts of Mississippi, Reiner deplores white Southerners who behave inhumanely to African Americans, particularly the coward who shoots Medgar Evers in the back in front of the house where his children sleep. Gordie’s father in Stand by Me asks him why he can’t be more like his deceased older brother, and in A Few Good Men Col. Jessup lies and destroys evidence after a soldier dies during a hazing he ordered.

The good guys or victims prevail by using their noggins.  An instance of a protagonist employing his wits to foil a bully occurs in Stand by Me when Kiefer Sutherland’s Ace finally realizes Gordie won’t back down when the boy tells the juvenile delinquent, “Suck my fat one, you cheap dime-store hood.” The hobbled Paul Sheldon outwits and overcomes his crazed but sturdy captor, Annie Wilkes, in Misery, and Tom Cruise’s character manipulates Jack Nicholson’s Col. Jessup into incriminating himself inA Few Good Men. Near the end of The Princess Bride Westley, the “mostly dead” but recovering hero instructs Inigo Montoya and the giant as the latter drags his rubbery body around the evil king’s castle.

Like Reiner himself, the protagonists in A Few Good Men and Stand by Me have fathers who seem larger than life, and the two characters suffer from anxiety that they  won’t live up to paternal expectations.

So Reiner, a writer and a son of the formidable comedian/writer/actor/director/producer Carl Reiner, clearly addresses personal issues in his films. He has undoubtedly made some clunkers, notably NorthThe Story of Us and Rumor Has It. But Reiner is artistically ambitious, and even these, his least successful films, address his perennial themes of the spontaneous writer who matures and learns to accept a more straitlaced mate (The Story of Us, Rumor Has It) or a child, like the boys in Stand by Me and Flipped, who feels neglected by his parents and creates stories to overcome his sorrow (North).