ONE DAY SINCE YESTERDAY

 

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Roman Polanski was more right than he knew he said that films which end unhappily stick with us longer than the upbeat movies, for we spend much of our time afterward trying to figure out how/why things turned out so poorly, and what (if anything) it all means. In the aftermath of the Manson murders, Polanski doubtless spent most of his time wondering why his pregnant wife and her friends were butchered, which may have been the reason Polanski chose Shakespeare’s bloody spectacle MACBETH as his next project; what better vehicle is there than Macbeth’s despairing view that life is “full of sound and fury and signifying nothing” to look for meaning within the meaningless?

Indeed, unlike the powerless figures in Greek tragedies, Shakespeare mined his tragedies from the actions and inactions of his characters; the line from JULIUS CAESAR about our faults lying within ourselves might the closest thing to a thesis statement Mr. Shakespeare penned for his entire oeuvre.

Recently, I re watched THE LAST PICTURE SHOW and, aside from how incredibly moving and flawlessly crafted this film remains, after it was over, I began living Polanski’s prophecy, and kept asking myself “What is this film about? Why is everyone in it so damn miserable???”

To be sure, Peter Bogdanovich and Larry McMurtry do a fine job in the screenplay (adapted from McMurtry’s novel) of sharply drawing all the characters in the film’s dying little town; sex is plentiful but love is rare for these folks, jobs are mundane, so it’s easy to see why they’re so unhappy, but all I could wonder was why no one in the story does much about it. It’s really my fault for trying to find such a simplistic answer, because life rarely works out in neatly, and the best fiction shouldn’t offer easy answers.

The elegiac melancholy suffused throughout the movie belies, or maybe it imbues, the characters’ constant search for relief from their perpetual malaise. The way Bogdanovich directed the film, shooting it not just in black and white, but also with the kind of wide angle, deep focus photography common to films of the past, but filled at the same time with a sexual frankness, and a downbeat tone, which films of the 40s and 50s never had, make this movie both a celebration and criticism of films from yesteryear, and this boxes within boxes construction is part of what gives this film added power in revisiting it. But also, of course, the terminal melancholy of these lonely souls is what haunts us.

Each of the people in THE LAST PICTURE SHOW take their turns ending up in predicaments they never could’ve anticipated, and if that isn’t a recipe for how life works, I’m not sure what is. Peter Bogdanovich himself ended up in unforeseen places: after the thunderous success of this film in 1971, and his two succeeding movies (WHAT’S UP, DOC? In 1972, and PAPER MOON in 1973), he suffered some professional setbacks before facing a horrific personal tragedy in 1980 when his then-girlfriend Dorothy Stratten was brutally murdered by her estranged husband. Bogdanovich, in turn, took full financial control of the movie he’d directed which featured Stratten in a lead role, 1981’s wonderful romantic comedy THEY ALL LAUGHED, and the film’s poor reception broke him in every way.

 

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All these vicissitudes are well-chronicled in the 2015 documentary ONE DAY SINCE YESTERDAY, which took its title from a song Bogdanovich co-wrote for his comic valentine, which in turn was taken from something Dorothy Stratten had written to him the day after their first romantic evening together. The song’s lyrics, about forbidden fruit being sweetest, are doubly wrenching given what that love affair led to (“Emotions are terrific because nobody can help how they feel,” John Ritter’s lovesick detective tells Stratten’s character in an equally poignant moment in THEY ALL LAUGHED).

 

It’s often irresistible for people to seek out hints of autobiography in fiction, and Bogdanovich has said THEY ALL LAUGHED is the film closest to him (although THE LAST PICTURE SHOW will probably remain his best-known work, it had roots of autobiography for author Larry McMurtry, not the director).

In the end, though such matters are irrelevant; whether it’s the light-hearted, breezy romance the detectives find in THEY ALL LAUGHED, or Sam the Lion’s recollection of a brief affair which lit a dark corner of his life in PICTURE SHOW, all that matters is how such moments resonate with us, and the perspective we receive on all the joys and pains still closer than one day since yesterday.

 

 

Copyright (c) 2018 by Eric Peeper

 

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CHILDHOOD’S MINEFIELD

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Though it’s not often easy to pinpoint when it happens, sooner or later a fundamental line gets crossed in the gap from childhood to adulthood; it isn’t so much that the magic feels gone, but that our definition of “magical” changes from Santa bringing presents to knowing that we’ll have enough in the bank to get by.

Still, the childhood minefields of loneliness and self-acceptance may forever be an albatross for many of us, and the power of two of the most resonant cinematic portraits of childhood, Spielberg’s E.T. – THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL and Bergman’s FANNY & ALEXANDER, is that they both hit all of these nerves.

Francois Truffaut arguably made the most adult films about childhood, from THE 400 BLOWS to SMALL CHANGE, but the two movies from Bergman & Spielberg are interesting because they each present the fantastic alongside the mundane, which is precisely how children can view the world; kids easily have imaginary friends and adventures that adults can’t, or won’t, see.

This is a style both directors illustrate in other works (Spielberg in films ranging from CLOSE ENCOUNTERS to JURASSIC PARK, Bergman in THE SEVENTH SEAL and WILD STRAWBERRIES), but it peaks here by having the eyes and ears taking in these unworldly sights and sounds be predominantly those of children; Alexander seeing the grim reaper  feels every bit as plausible through his eyes as when Elliot first meets the extra-terrestrial guest in the shed.

Children only gradually began to take center stage in Bergman’s work, possibly because of the increasing number of children he fathered, but Spielberg’s films, from THE SUGARLAND EXPRESS onward, concerned either the welfare of kids, or depicted a child-like hopefulness to life’s gray skies.

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E.T. and FANNY & ALEXANDER, which both coincidentally opened in 1982, offer unique viewpoints from two sensitive directors, with very different sensibilities, taking a look at life through the guileless gaze of children.

Fittingly, the two movies draw on memories from the filmmakers’ upbringings – Bergman recalled in his autobiography how he would hide under tables and dream as Alexander does (and dreaming is something no creative person can outgrow), and Spielberg (as noted in Joseph McBride’s biography of the auteur) used Elliot’s method of warming a thermometer on a light bulb to allow him to play hooky more than once as a boy.

When he began filming FANNY & ALEXANDER, Bergman announced that it would be his final film (though he stayed active in the theatre and in television, and he didn’t quit writing), and it seemed he wanted to leave nothing out, giving himself an expansive 312 minute, four part miniseries canvas to paint on; as he had done with SCENES FROM A MARRIAGE, Ingmar Bergman would later edit the miniseries into a feature length movie for foreign markets, but he always seemed more comfortable with the longer version, as the feature version (as splendid as it is) pares down some of the fantastical aspects.

In his screenplay of CRIES & WHISPERS, Bergman wrote that he felt the color of the interior of the soul was red, and that’s why that picture became drenched in scarlet hues – that’s the real landscape of that film.

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Red shows up again in F&A, especially in the colors of the bedroom the titular duo share later. Is Bergman making a point on the soul of the whole family unit, and how it’s displaced by all the upheavals, but most especially how painful it is to the children?

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While making his adolescent 8mm sci-fi opus FIRELIGHT (a rough draft for what later became CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND), young Steven Spielberg boldly told his collaborative classmates that one day he wanted to be, “The Cecil B. DeMille of science fiction.” The scope and the success of CLOSE ENCOUNTERS more than allowed Spielberg to achieve that boyhood dream, and it is interesting that for E.T., his next work sci-fi, he turned to a far more intimate fantasy than he’d done in the previous work.

Tellingly, Spielberg delivers another portrait of another fractured family like the Nearys in CLOSE ENCOUNTERS; Elliot and his family have been so devastated by the abandonment of the husband/father in the house that they have become aliens of a very different variety to each another.

At the end of their dual masterpieces, Bergman and Spielberg have their youthful protagonists learn some harsh lessons – when E.T. leaves, Elliot learns that magic exists, and it’s heartbreaking; when the ghost of the vile stepfather slaps Alexander on the back of the head, hinting he’ll always be lurking, Alexander learns that magic exists, and it’s frightening. Though we may not live in a world of such literal magic realism, the fears and heartburns that we encounter in our youths can become a no man’s land we may spend much of our adulthoods attempting to navigate our way out of.

 

 

Copyright (c) 2018 by Eric Peeper

 

 

 

 

 

A THOUSAND NATURAL SHOCKS

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“Have you heard of attachment theory? It describes our need, psychologically, to form close relationships, to reach out to intimates. We need such relationships to conceal the awful truth, which we confront as we grow up, that each of us is alone. The greatest battle of human existence is to come to terms with that fact.”

This exchange comes about two-thirds of the way through Arthur Clarke & Stephen Baxter’s science fiction novel THE LIGHT OF OTHER DAYS, as one character tries reminding a technologically addicted friend what’s truly important. Robert Redford’s 1980 film ORDINARY PEOPLE has nothing to do with high technology, but everything to do with the terrain Clarke & Baxter spoke of – the wilderness of human connectivity.

Based on Judith Guest’s novel of the same name, the film follows the dissolution of an upper middle class family, the Jarretts, after the death of their eldest son. In its broadest outline, that makes the film sound as superficial as many of the weepy domestic television movies that followed ORDINARY PEOPLE, but Guest had the instinct and the talent to look deeper and x-ray her characters, and Redford had the good graces to follow her lead with how he brought the book to life.

This is not a message movie; if anything, it is about confronting the truth, both about ourselves and those around us, and, as Martin Scorsese pointed out in his introduction to Ciment’s book KUBRICK, “…No matter how comfortable we think we are with the truth, it always comes as a profound shock when we are forced to meet it face-to-face.”

Every film is defined by the director’s choices, not just where they put the camera, but also what they restrain themselves from doing, and this film is a masterclass in the courageousness of playing everything in a minor key, something all the more striking since it was Redford’s directorial debut.

Again unlike many of the family dramas that succeeded ORDINARY PEOPLE, this is a film with minimal music or directorial flourishes; Redford keeps his focus on his story and his actors, but Redford also allows his painterly eye (for Redford did, as he told James Lipton, consider a career as an artist in his younger days) to tell the story in a powerfully casual way. Indeed, many shots in the film could be a heartbreaking still life.

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Any successful movie sets up its mood and tone from the outset, and Redford’s calm confidence is crystal clear in his lyrical opening sequence. ORDINARY PEOPLE was largely shot in and around Chicago, and we begin with gorgeous shots of autumn in the Midwestern U.S., as we hear Noel Goemanne’s choral version of Pachelbel’s Canon in D (Redford hired Marvin Hamlisch to do the specific arrangements for the film).

Pachelbel’s tune becomes the musical signature of the whole picture (though used sparingly), and it is a sublime choice. In this sort of emotional story, the temptation is to use the music to force a response; Canon in D is a classical piece that is, curiously, not any single emotion, but it consistently keeps us in a contemplative mood.

Using the changing seasons to illustrate the changes in people may be far from original, but it is sensitively and appropriately used in this film; we begin as the autumn leaves are changing and the picture ends during an early winter thaw, as Conrad and his father openly talk and embrace for the first time in a long time.

The autumnal view foreshadows the changes in the characters, but the very first thing we see in the opening shot is of the waterfront, where the cause of the tragedy that precedes the story happened, and from which all the seismic shifts in Conrad, Beth, and Calvin precipitate.

After the evocative opening shots, we push in on a high school where we hear the  choir rehearsing the Canon, and we hear Goemanne’s lyrics for Pachelbel:

In the silence of our souls O Lord, 
We contemplate Thy peace 
Free from all the world’s desires 
Free from fear and all anxiety

It is never clear whether Conrad is attending a private school or not, so it is a unique choice for a school to be performing music with any religious connotations, but the lyrics do reflect the “surcease of sorrow” (to quote Poe) that Conrad needs, which we clearly see when he bolts up in bed in the following scene, a textbook portrait of anxiety and depression. Conrad also mentions later in the film that he’s an atheist; might this view be a backlash to his schooling, if he attends a religious secondary school?

We never learn if this opening is a flashback to Conrad’s serene life before the death of his brother, or if it’s just a dream that temporarily gives him some peace, but either way we are instantly shown something is boiling inside this young man.

With Conrad firmly placed on the story’s stage, we are next introduced to his parents, Calvin and Beth, as they attend a local production of SAME TIME, NEXT YEAR. As he later did for 2004’s SPIDER-MAN 2 (where Oscar Wilde’s THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST made subtle comments about honesty and identity apropos for a masked superhero and his would-be girlfriend), screenwriter Alvin Sargent uses a play within the play to make a nice ironic point about the characters’ lives; the dialogue here (“What I do know is that in the last 24 years, I’ve never been out of love with you”) echoes with a vengeance at the end of the picture.

This husband and wife are able to make small talk with such ease (with their friends as well as each other) that we might be forgiven for not guessing the family has been through such trauma recently; it could be excused as how determined they both are to return to normal, but the repression in this house becomes clear once they’re home.

Calvin makes a point of checking in on his son when he notices the boy’s light on in his room. Yes, he tries making sure his son is alright (unlike Beth, who just goes to bed), but the marvelously subtle performances of Donald Sutherland and Timothy Hutton reveal how much in this family goes unspoken, as Calvin gently but forcefully suggests his boy see a shrink as planned, while Conrad insists he’s fine.

The elephant in the room is the set of scars on Conrad’s wrist, in clear view as Hutton rests his head on his arm. Watch the actors’ eyes and body language as they talk around what Conrad has done in the past, and it’s clear how Conrad’s guilt and sense of blame stayed buried until he did something so drastic.

The crux of the story becomes how the three of them circle around the painful past they all share; Calvin and his surviving son become more communicative: Conrad, once his reluctance fades, has his psychiatrist (Judd Hirsch, in a wonderful performance), and Calvin talks with his business partner and friends at parties with greater ease than he does with anyone at home.

Beth, however (whether by choice or from upbringing), tries looking the other way as long as possible; even conversations with her own mother have a frigidity that Eskimos would be in awe of.

Through his analyst, Conrad comes to terms with his guilt over not only his brother’s death, but also his own subsequent suicide attempt. “I don’t want to hurt myself. I want to stop hurting,” said one character in Wallace’s INFINITE JEST, and Conrad’s interior monologue is probably not much different. Still, he doesn’t arrive at easy answers; Dr. Berger’s words are great but the real emotion in the powerhouse scene between them as Conrad confronts everything comes from Conrad trying to internalize the doctor’s words, something that can take years to do.

Conrad’s wrenching scene with Dr. Berger is not only flawlessly written and acted, but it also is  revealing about Redford’s direction: this scene reaches the emotion solely on the writing & performances, no music. This is the strategy Redford has done through the whole film, but in the last 20 minutes of this film, it adds up to an emotional crescendo rivaling the best music.

This scene would’ve been the end of a lesser film, but thankfully nothing is tied up with a bow; as we see in the final scene between himself and Calvin, Conrad is still quick to blame himself for anything that goes wrong, so he still has growing to do by the end of the film. Redford, as Judith Guest did in her beautiful novel, sidesteps any instant solutions.

The worst thing that happened to ORDINARY PEOPLE was its success at the Academy Awards; beating put Martin Scorsese’s masterpiece RAGING BULL for the Best Picture and Director prizes has created  tremendous backlash toward the movie in recent years among film buffs, but ORDINARY PEOPLE has tremendous staying power on its own terms. Sam Mendes cited this as one of the films that influenced his look at dysfunctional suburbia, 1999’s AMERICAN BEAUTY, which is clear in scenes like the dinners in Burnham house: just as Redford had done, Mendes shows most of his trio in wide shots at the dinner table, saving the close-ups for his punctuation marks.

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The best fiction is at its best when all walls fall away, and we become wrapped in the gauze of a beautiful lie that speaks the truth; ORDINARY PEOPLE  does this as few films do. There may be nothing we can do to stop the coming of what Hamlet dubbed “the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to,” but, as the Jarretts learn the hard way, how we react to those blows will change our lives.

 

Copyright (c) 2018 by Eric Peeper

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

THE SLEEP OF REASON

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“Until you learn to name your ghosts and to baptize your hopes, you have not yet been born; you are still the creation of others.”

                         – Maria Cardinal, THE WORDS TO SAY IT

 

A hallmark of Gothic literature isn’t just that spooks exist in the old dark house at all, but that the ghosts have some kind of agenda; think of the spirits that Scrooge must suffer in A CHRISTMAS CAROL, Hamlet’s father  demanding revenge, or even the lonely Captain in THE GHOST & MRS. MUIR.

Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 translation of Stephen King’s modern gothic THE SHINING stands apart from this tradition by making us wonder not just what the spirits of the haunted Overlook Hotel may desire, but if any ghosts reside there at all.

King’s book arrived in 1977, hot on the heels of the publications of ‘SALEM’S LOT and CARRIE (not to mention the success of the 1976 film version of CARRIE), and King was suddenly a full-blown phenomenon. With THE SHINING, he delivered a story fueled, in part, by his own struggles with alcoholism (a factor that similarly fueled Stevenson’s novella THE STRANGE CASE OF DR. JEKYLL & MR. HYDE), and follows a barely recovered alcoholic family man who becomes the winter caretaker of an elegant, Manderlay-esque hotel; once he and his brood move in for the long snowbound winter, the three realize the Overlook may, in fact, be haunted.

Kubrick biographer John Baxter incorrectly points out on the DVD release of the film that King’s novel is “unashamedly mystical,” inferring that the story is all laid out on the surface. In fact, there are numerous degrees of ambiguity in the book, although in the end King does indeed side with the supernatural, such as when the topiary animals on the grounds spring to life.

Kubrick’s film, much like Poe’s THE TELL-TALE HEART, torques up the ambiguity a hundred times over, but even in the book, it is questionable how many of the frightening events are happening only in the heads of the dysfunctional Torrance clan, and there are never any concrete answers to fully explain the film (another staple of Kubrick’s work); indeed, wading through THE SHINING’S layers, we become lost in a psychological labyrinth every bit like the hedge maze that dominates this picture.

For the most part, Kubrick’s oeuvre doesn’t deal with the domestic; BARRY LYNDON’s family scenes are far from cozy, and the space travellers in 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY only see home via pre-Skype video messages.

Only LOLITA and EYES WIDE SHUT deal with characters whose problems hone in on the familial, though the specifics are far from typical. EYES WIDE SHUT shares a kinship with THE SHINING in that both deal with fractured marriages, but in THE SHINING we are never given details about what’s caused the cracks. Dr. Bill in EWS realizes with a vengeance that his wife’s needs are not being met, nor have they been for quite some time; Jack and Wendy Torrance never seem to get to the bottom of their marital problems, nor do they try. This is in sharp contrast to King’s novel, where Jack, Wendy, and their son Danny are trying hard to rebuild the dyke destroyed by Jack’s drinking.

In the film, Kubrick and co-screenwriter Diane Johnson take a far darker turn by leaving the specifics under the surface. In his chat with the ghostly bartender Lloyd (if he’s talking to anyone), Jack simply sounds resentful of his wife, though he professes a token love for his boy. In Kubrick’s hands, Torrance is far from the overgrown man-child we see in several of Spielberg’s films, like WAR OF THE WORLDS or CLOSE ENCOUNTERS, men who had families before they were truly ready. No, Jack Torrance comes off as a man who feels his shipwrecked status needs a scapegoat.

In the novel, Torrance sacrifices himself to destroy the hotel and spare his family, thus redeeming all his sins. Kubrick himself sounded as though he saw nothing at all redemptive in Jack’s character, and wanted him on a pitch black course from the beginning. “Jack comes to the hotel psychologically prepared to do its bidding,” the director told Michel Ciment. “He doesn’t have very much further to go for his anger and frustration to become completely uncontrollable.” Kubrick further felt that Jack is “quickly ready to fulfill his dark role,” so this could be a man ready to blame ghosts for his misdeeds.

It must be pointed out, however, that although the psychological subtext of Kubrick’s adaptation shares a similarity to the great 1942 horror gem CAT PEOPLE, where it is completely ambiguous whether or not Simone Simone’s character actually transforms into a deadly panther or whether it’s all in her mind, Kubrick (and King, in the source material) sprinkles enough inexplicable supernatural phenomena in the story (how does Jack get out of the locked storage room?) that we can never truly explain everything as just existing in the characters’ damaged heads, but such questions are precisely what keep us returning to THE SHINING after so many decades.

If character is destiny in fiction (if not in life), the setting of a tale is often a mirror for the characters, if not the tale itself; where better for Dickens to have set A CHRISTMAS CAROL than the very country where Gothic literature was born? In THE SHINING, the vast, empty corridors of the Overlook become a perfect reflection of Jack Torrance – cold and empty with unknown horrors around every possible turn, plus mother and son doing their best to keep warm and thrive amidst the frigid isolation.

In the latter half of his career, from 2001 onward, Kubrick seemed increasingly drawn to trying to create films with enormous understatement, films that seemed razor thin on the surface but had myriad undercurrents; the dialogue is often less than electric because the real emphasis is what’s not being said, the looks and gestures accompanying every banal line, and THE SHINING is no exception.

A prime example is the job interview scene early in the film. Yes, it features key exposition with the horrific backstory of the Overlook, but Jack Torrance’s reaction to the news that a previous caretaker butchered his family becomes an interesting Rorschach test for what happens later.

Also of interest is how Kubrick makes us, on subsequent viewings, reexamine Torrance via an almost throwaway character. Bill Watson, the assistant to the hotel’s manager,  Mr. Ullman, joins them during the interview and is initially all smiles and handshakes, until the conversation turns to the subject of the previous caretaker. Kubrick then throws us for an interesting loop by cutting to Watson’s reaction to how Torrance is taking all this. What is Watson thinking? We never know, because he’s never given another line in the whole film, but he’s there throughout several key upcoming scenes, always at Ullman’s side; Watson is seen in the background having an intense discussion about the potential new hire as Jack calls Wendy. What is Watson saying? Does he already detect something is off? Has he noticed the profound resemblance between Torrance and the man in the ballroom photo from 1921?

Typical of Kubrick’s work, THE SHINING was met with extremely mixed reactions when it hit the cinemas in May of 1980. The film was financially successful, but it received indifference from critics; in an interview for the DVD release of EYES WIDE SHUT, Steven Spielberg admitted that he was less than impressed with the film at first (though he said it is now an all-time favorite of his, something made abundantly clear by the astounding homage he paid to it in READY PLAYER ONE), and Spielberg was far from the only filmmaker to feel uneasy about it.

“I don’t think (Kubrick) understood the [horror] genre,” SCANNERS auteur David Cronenberg told the Toronto Star in 2013. “I don’t think he understood what he was doing. There were some striking images in the book and he got that, but I don’t think he really felt it.”

Again, par for the course with much of Kubrick’s oeuvre, time has been kind to the craftsmanship that (understandably) threw many for a loop in 1980, especially anyone expecting a typical fright fest. Kubrick was an innovative stylist, from the still awe-inspiring visual effects of 2001 to the candlelit splendor of BARRY LYNDON, and it is easy to imagine how much filmmakers and filmgoers anticipated what Kubrick had up his sleeve for his foray into the macabre. What he had, beyond the exquisite sets, was the Steadicam.

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This specially mounted (and perfectly balanced) camera rig,  which allows bump-free mobile camerawork without cumbersome dolly equipment, was the invention of Garrett Brown in 1975;  the Steadicam became a signature to ROCKY, with the God-like floating camera chasing Stallone up the steps of Philadelphia’s art museum, but Brown (who also operated the camera using his gadget), instilled in ROCKY’s director, John Avildsen, that the Steadicam was about more than stunt shots – it was a replacement for tons of expensive equipment.

Sure enough, many shots in ROCKY that might not be recognized as enormously complicated now, like the shots following Stallone running through the streets of Philly, were made far easier; with no dolly track to lay, the Steadicam was simply put in the back of van that Stallone followed, and the gadget delivered a perfectly stable shot every time.

Kubrick saw a test reel of this new device and knew he wanted to implement it on his next film, and THE SHINING is a masterclass in its usage.

Just as the zoom lens in BARRY LYNDON was used for more than simple effect, Kubrick, his cinematographer John Alcott, along with Garrett Brown himself, used the Steadicam not just for marvelous stunts like following little Danny endlessly throughout the Overlook’s corridors, but as a magnificent way to build tension.

In HALLOWEEN, director John Carpenter and his cameraman Dean Cundey got away with murder by constantly having objects pop up in the foregrounds of their shots, a perfect way to deliver quick shocks. While Kubrick does employ this at times in THE SHINING (such as when Jack walks in on Wendy reading his manuscript), it’s done sparingly. The fear of what lies around every corner is central to most horror films, and the inexorable momentum given to many shots in the film, be they fast, or creepily slow (as when Danny sees the tennis rolled toward him), it adds invaluable suspense even though we are seeing nothing but empty halls.

The wide lenses employed make the hallways seem even longer than they surely were, making them feel endless, with safety always farther and farther away.

In addition to the flow the Steadicam gave to a story set in such a confined place, Kubrick may have had an additional motivation for wanting the Steadicam’s omniscience floating throughout this film. Ed Di Giulio, the technician who adapted Kubrick’s cameras for the ultrafast lenses needed for the candlelit scenes in LYNDON, wrote to the director after seeing THE SHINING that the virtuosic use of the Steadicam gave the movie limitless dimension. “It was like a malevolent POV,” he wrote. “Evil was following the kid, evil was following the kid.”

Indeed, Kubrick had a way of always making the technology he used as an integral factor in his storytelling. If we can accept that the Overlook is haunted, it’s no coincidence then that the first interior shot of the movie, when Jack Torrance arrives for his interview, is a lengthy Steadicam shot, as though the evil of the hotel is locking onto Jack and already stalking him.

This wonderful opening scene, the kind that could easily be a throwaway, is also a fascinating microcosm of the way the whole film was made. Although Stephen King drew much of his inspiration for the novel from an actual hotel (The Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, Colorado), THE SHINING was filmed completely on London soundstages. The vastness of the sets can be intimated by this early scene; the sunlight pouring in through the windows aren’t daylight at all, but dozens of harsh, bright fluorescent lights. Watch as Jack walks through the entire lobby to Ullman’s office, noting the amount of light coming in through every window, and you get an idea of how sizable this production was. Ditto any of the scenes in the huge Colorado lounge set with daylight blasting through.

The unstoppable momentum of the gliding camerawork in THE SHINING anticipated such later masterful examples that Kubrick did in FULL METAL JACKET (one particularly endless tracking shot following the Marines through Hue City is equally breathtaking and suspenseful), as well as the God-like POVs that Terrence Malick and company achieved on THE THIN RED LINE with the Akela crane.

Stanley Kubrick was far more than a cutting edge technician; he loved breaking conventions whenever it suited his storytelling needs. A perfect instance is the long scene in the restroom between Jack Torrance and the ghost of Delbert Grady, the previous caretaker (the fact that Mr. Ullman mistakenly calls him Charles Grady in the earlier scene adds to both the unreality of the scene, as well as Ullman’s ignorance of people beneath him).

In the bathroom scene, Grady’s ghost (if it’s a ghost) seduces Torrance to murder his family in the same way Grady had done. As film historian Paul Jensen pointed out, close examination of how a director handles simple, quiet scenes often says more about their talents than the bravura moments in a film, and in this scene, Kubrick breaks with convention by crossing the 180° line, aka “the invisible line.”

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Traditional camerawork keeps the camera on one side of a “line” across which the camera shouldn’t cross, for fear of the change in angles being too jarring for the audience. Kubrick, however, keeps changing his shots constantly here, flagrantly breaking the rule, and it is jarring, but that is wholly appropriate – either Jack is talking to a ghost(!), or he’s having a long internal debate about whether he should kill his wife and child; whichever interpretation we choose, Kubrick is disorienting us as much as Torrance himself is mentally coming unglued. It is additionally interesting how the wide shot of the strikingly red bathroom, when Jack and Grady enter, echoes the earlier (and iconic) shot of the blood discharging from the elevators; the door at the rear and center of the frame branches out into the splashes of red across the walls, which has equal resonance with the topic of the conversation in this most curious-looking of movie restrooms.

Part of the allure of a puzzle box film like THE SHINING is that its riddles always offer new interpretations. This film, however, more than any of Stanley Kubrick’s other works (even 2001), has attracted more wild notions, and even conspiracy theories, than most other American films; neither FIGHT CLUB, MEMENTO, nor PULP FICTION have spawned such wild notions that were outlined in the 2012 film ROOM 237. Certainly, many layers of THE SHINING are open to interpretation, but the idea that any filmmaker, let alone one of Kubrick’s stature, would intentionally leave clues about his supposed role in faking the Apollo moon landings buried in this film are more ludicrous than anything dreamt up by Dan Brown on LSD.

Careful research into the lengthy, and rocky, production of this movie bring a long pause to such theories. For someone as meticulous as Kubrick dealing with daily script rewrites, sorting through upwards of 50 takes or more of virtually every shot with his editors, working closely with all the actors, leaves little time to make sure people decades later would know Mr. Kubrick had some alleged hand in faking Armstrong’s One Giant Leap (plus, for one as impossible to please as Kubrick, I doubt anything less than the genuine lunar surface would have sufficed).

King’s novel is structured in five parts, mirroring a five act Shakespearean tragedy; with the structure of the film, Kubrick proved innovative yet again. In the foreword to his story collection SUPERTOYS LAST ALL SUMMER LONG, the late sci-fi author Brian Aldiss recalled that as he and Kubrick futilely tried crafting a screenplay that became AI:ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE, the director showcased a complete lack of interest in the traditional three act story structure, preferring instead a series of “non-submersible units” instead. This method was used to spectacular effect in 2001, which neatly divided itself into several set pieces (“The Dawn of Man,” “Jupiter and Beyond The Infinite,” etc), leaving the audience to fit the pieces together.

“This method works at its best in THE SHINING,” Aldiss wrote. “Here, blackboards announcing starkly ‘A Month Later’ or, simply, ‘Tuesday 4 p.m.’ warn the audience pleasurably that something awful is going to happen and that Jack Nicholson is going to be a little more over the top than before.”

Film editor Tony Lawson revealed on Criterion’s release of BARRY LYNDON that this precise method was tried out on LYNDON, but all involved felt it slowed the pace down too much, but it does work better in THE SHINING, keeping us at arm’s length to wonder what may be coming next. This type of storytelling was indeed widely used in silent cinema, but Kubrick relished trying new methods of old techniques.

Aldiss’ feelings about Nicholson’s performance being “over the top” is a complaint lodged by many (all of the performances in this film have been branded as such at one time or another); for Kubrick, naturalistic acting was a dead end. “It’s real, but it’s not interesting,” Nicholson said Kubrick loved to claim about Method acting in Vivian Kubrick’s video diary about THE SHINING , and the bigger than life acting fits the slow, dreamlike state in Kubrick’s work, almost as though we’re watching life in a late night reverie. Still, Kubrick knew when to have his actors dial things back; the ghost of Jack’s bartender (ghost or memory?) never blinks, creating an incredibly eerie presence as he grants Jack’s request for liquor in exchange for his soul.

Stephen King was colossally disappointed with the film, and the bestselling author has never been shy about saying so. “The real problem is that Kubrick set out to make a horror picture with no apparent understanding of the genre,” King told American Film magazine in 1986, presaging David Cronenberg’s comments by more than 25 years. “Everything about it screams that from beginning to end, from plot decision to that final scene – which has been used before on THE TWILIGHT ZONE.”

King’s lackluster response could well be due to the personal nature of the book’s roots for the author; as a novel, King’s book (like all of his work) has a warmth for the characters and what happens to them, whereas in Kubrick, everything and everyone always becomes opaque. King did get to do THE SHINING his way in 1997, when he wrote and executive produced a three-part miniseries version for ABC. The television version is nicely done,  but the deeper mysteries that lie between the words are what’s present in Kubrick’s iteration.

“Is there something bad here?” Danny asks Mr. Hallorann in a key early scene, and the answer is yes in more ways than one. The cold tone of the film says more about the banality of the Torrance’s home life than any line of dialogue ever could, and there is real venom beneath that frigidity waiting, maybe begging, to become malignant (the novel is appropriately prefaced by a quote from Goya: “The sleep of reason breeds monsters”).

Whether or not there are literal ghosts causing it is beside the point; our pasts are the ghosts that stalk us every hour of every day, and the real subject for Kubrick’s unblinking lens is what makes people do evil knowing that they’re doing evil, so naturally, we’re left with more questions than answers.

Haunted, you might say.

 

Copyright (c) 2018 by Eric Peeper

WE ARE NOT ALONE

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CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND shames modern Hollywood’s love affair with hip, snarky heroes and relentless fast cuts. Steven Spielberg’s 1977 sci-fi opus isn’t just from a different era, it has a different agenda – this isn’t a movie staying busy to hold our attention, but a film that is first and last an experience, a movie fundamentally about sights and sounds difficult to verbalize. STAR WARS, CLOSE ENCOUNTERS’ fraternal sci-fi twin from 1977, changed the intensity of the action film with its brilliant kineticism (as PSYCHO’s shower scene had done for the thriller genre), but Spielberg’s opus is more interested in putting us in the state of mind we find ourselves in while gazing at a dwarfing sight like the Grand Canyon.

In the medium’s infancy, movies could not speak, so filmmakers had to engross their audiences purely through visual storytelling; once sound arrived in 1927, this fell a bit by the wayside as directors (and audiences, to a degree) felt increasingly comfortable using talking heads to progress a story rather than montage. While CLOSE ENCOUNTERS is far from a silent film, its emphasis on the visual is a prime example of Hitchcock’s pet phrase “pure cinema;” Spielberg’s film is, like 2001 before it, a film simply interested in creating awe in a way no other medium can offer.

The alchemy of Spielberg’s gem can best be summed up by focusing in on, appropriately, three elements:

1. THE CINEMATOGRAPHY

Hand-held camerawork has become so fashionable since Spielberg’s 1998 SAVING PRIVATE RYAN that, in revisiting CLOSE ENCOUNTERS, it’s amazing to see a film so rooted in relentlessly precise compositions and camerawork.

Spielberg’s primary cinematographer on this film was Vilmos Zsigmond, who had brilliantly photographed Spielberg’s first theatrical feature, 1974’s THE SUGARLAND EXPRESS, where the youthful director, as Douglas Brode outlined in his marvelous study THE FILMS OF STEVEN SPIELBERG, took home many lesson from Zsigmond’s rigorous approach to storytelling, emphasizing compositional storytelling and motivated camera moves over shots that simply look flashy, and utilized those techniques which resulted in a more aesthetically mature film than JAWS. Indeed, it is a telling sign of their good relationship that Zsigmond’s name is the name that rolled up first in SUGARLAND’S end credits, and their partnership reached its apex here.

Shooting in the anamorphic widescreen format can be a pain (when the format debuted in the early 1950s, Howard Hawks famously said widescreen was only good for filming crowd scenes or funerals), and what separates the men from the boys with this aspect ratio lies in creating compositions that look casual at first, but upon closer examination reveal they’ve been scrupulously composed. CLOSE ENCOUNTERS’ anamorphic camerawork joins the same compositional ranks as Robert Surtees’ work on THE GRADUATE, Freddie Young’s photography on LAWRENCE OF ARABIA and indeed Zsigmond’s gritty and haunting images in THE DEER HUNTER;  any single image from these films are a textbook on anamorphic photography.

An early example in CLOSE ENCOUNTERS lies in the scene where all the electronics are sparking to life in the Guiler household. The toddler Barry has run outside as the alien visitors have been making the commotion, unknown to his mother Jillian. When she awakes and begins shutting off all the stuff in her bedroom that have inexplicably turned on in the middle of the night, Spielberg & Zsigmond keep her bedroom window perfectly framed on the right hand side of the screen, which creates such suspense; we know her son is outside but not knowing what is happening nor what may soon be coming in through that window, and just one of many ways the filmmakers subtly torque up the suspense.

Later in the film, the way human figures and faces are kept in the foreground as the lights and shapes of the alien spacecraft fly around us help create a series of intimate vistas that keep this film from being much more than eye candy.

In his landmark biography of Spielberg, Joseph McBride laid bare the various production difficulties that led to many different cameramen being required to shoot additional later material, including Laszlo Kovacs and John Alonzo, all of which wound up with CLOSE ENCOUNTERS becoming (though for different reasons) a carnival of great cinematographers like Scorsese’s THE LAST WALTZ, but with Zsigmond’s lead, the film retained its unbelievably rich texture and landed Vilmos Zsigmond an Oscar.

2. THE PRODUCTION DESIGN

Joe Alves’ design work on the film is equally specific, using a primarily muted color palette (the term “earth tones” has probably never been used with such specificity than in this movie) for the film’s sets and locations allowing us to both believe the real world domestic settings while prepping us to be appropriately overwhelmed by the neon light show in the third act; had CLOSE ENCOUNTERS been awash with a kind of Technicolor look from the first scene, we would have been numbed by the time the mothership arrived with all of its dazzling splendor.

One interesting exception is the bright red shirt Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) wears in his first scene which already makes him stand out from the crowd long before his character becomes the first human to board the mothership.

3. THE SCORE

John Williams’ score is just phenomenal, appropriately melodic then rightfully (and frightfully) scary and atonal. Rather than giving individual motifs to characters then developing them throughout the story (as he did with such brilliant scores for STAR WARS and SUPERMAN), Williams plays a different game here; follow the way he develops the signature five note melody as the mystery of what it means is unfolded in the film. Once it is understood to be a benevolent greeting from the visitors using the universal language of music, Williams weaves it beautifully throughout the picture before building it to grand crescendo with the grand symphony of communion at the end between the two species.

The use of the choir is also used interestingly (and sparingly) throughout, brought out only as a kind of celestial calling throughout the picture to perhaps reference that the otherworldly is intruding upon the everyday, and yet again, Williams brilliantly returns and swells the choir just before Roy finally enters the mothership.

In addition to this compositional brilliance, Williams & Spielberg implemented, as John Williams told The Criterion Collection for their superb laserdisc release of CLOSE ENCOUNTERS in 1990,  the Russian composer Alexander Scriabin’s concept to associate specific colors to various notes on the musical scale; this method illustrates the communication between the people of earth and their extra-terrestrial visitors in a way that makes for not only sound logic, but also a beautiful spectacle.

McBride also quotes Spielberg as describing CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND as “my vision, my hope, and philosophy,” and that is what resonates most; this is a science fiction film, of course, but its central optimistic premise about radically different beings coming to a mutual acceptance beyond words remains simply inspiring. “We Are Not Alone” said the ads for this film back in 1977, and it is this universally human hope that brings Spielberg’s sci-fi parable down to earth.

 

Copyright (c) 2017 by Eric Peeper

CUT-GLASS CRUELTY

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“I’m always surprised by the reactions to my films. There is usually enough truth in the film to be sure of offending somebody.”

– Stanley Kubrick talking with Michel Ciment

 

The films of Stanley Kubrick are so damn divisive: they’re as praised fengrossing, challenging, and visually ravishing as they are damned for being overlong, self-indulgent and cold-blooded.

Virtually every Kubrick film had controversy of one type or another; LOLITA was condemned by the Church for its salacious story of an older man infatuated with a teenage girl; DR. STRANGELOVE was attacked for its audacity to find humor in nuclear annihilation; A CLOCKWORK ORANGE was assaulted for its disquietingly humorous look at urban violence and how to curtail it; 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY had people simply scratching their heads wondering what the hell the film meant (if anything). His 1975 period epic BARRY LYNDON divided viewers not necessarily for what was on the screen, but whether or not it was worth seeing at all.

Kubrick’s grandest gamble (as Richard Schickel’s TIME magazine cover story described it in December of 1975) is the tale of a petty man in the 18th century who, via any lying and cheating he can get away with, climbs his way to high society only to, after a number of karmic paybacks, return to his meager roots. Like many of Kubrick’s pictures, the story is pretty straightforward on the surface, but has enormously subtle undercurrents with whatever may be going on behind the characters’ eyes.

Redmond Barry, our ambivalent hero who changes his name to Barry Lyndon after marrying the wealthy Countess of Lyndon, is a classically Kubrick protagonist; Kubrick had compared the character of Alex in A CLOCKWORK ORANGE to Shakespeare’s Richard III but the comparison might be better suited to Barry: we follow him from being a lovesick Irish lad to becoming a hardened soldier during the Seven Years’ War, to eventually elbowing his way into the aristocracy by seducing and marrying Lady Lyndon. And it’s all done with the kind of calculating glee that King Richard would’ve been proud of, though we’re not privy to the type of introspective monologues Shakespeare gave us into the Duke of Gloucester’s mind. Here, we’re along for the ride and allowed to read into it what we may (like virtually every Kubrick film).

Kubrick wasn’t the type of director who Xeroxed other films, he had his own unique style and didn’t need to crib from the greats, but I wonder if part of his motive in doing LYNDON was to do a film story that had some thematic comparisons to THE GODFATHER, which Kubrick said in later years was his choice as the greatest of all films, and it would’ve been a movie fresh in his mind as he began work on this picture in the mid seventies. Redmond Barry, like Michael Corleone, is born again through the circumstances that get thrown his way into a man with a heart colder than dry ice.

Whatever our feelings about Barry may be, it is fascinating that Kubrick shifts the emotional core of the second half of the film to Lady Lyndon herself, the opaque mistress who becomes a shrinking violet if ever there was one onscreen; in an oppressive society such as hers, any airing of emotions would’ve been unthinkable and as the handsome rogue she’s married reveals himself to be simply an opportunist and flagrantly cheats on her, Lady Lyndon’s silent screams only become more emotional with subsequent viewings, something that clearly belongs in the terrain of great films.

BARRY LYNDON itself was a project born on the rebound. Kubrick’s dream movie, a film on Napoleon, had been aborted by MGM in the late 1960s and, after making CLOCKWORK in 1971, Kubrick eyed Thackeray’s novel VANITY FAIR as a good project. It would be set in a similar Napoleonic period and would’ve allowed him to utilize the special photographic techniques he’d devised for his Napoleon project: employing special lenses made by Zeiss that had been designed for use in satellite photography that would allow Kubrick and his team to shoot using primarily only the natural light of the period, which were the Sun or the candle, something no period film had adequately done before. After feeling that VANITY FAIR couldn’t be properly condensed into a feature film, he turned to Thackeray’s THE LUCK OF BARRY LYNDON, and everything clicked into place.

Thackeray famously dubbed VANITY FAIR “a novel without a hero,” and LYNDON equally fits that crown; indeed, our ambivalence about Redmond Barry falls squarely into the author’s claim, as Sebastian Faulk noted in analysing Thackeray, that, “the highest virtue a fictional character can posess is interest,” and that can easily also be said of numerous characters in Kubrick’s oeuvre, from Humbert Humbert to HAL-9000.

The candlelit scenes were a complete success, justly winning cinematographer John Alcott an Oscar for the painterly images which, along with Malick’s THE THIN RED LINE, rank as one of the most ravishingly photographed films (in color) the medium has ever seen; all that candlelit splendor is a perfect counterpoint to what Brian Aldiss described as this film’s “cut-glass frigidity.”

The film’s visual mastery doesn’t limit itself to low-light beauty; Kubrick’s use of the zoom lens is a masterclass in itself. At a time when these were new and all filmmakers were using them, Kubrick and Alcott use zooms not simply for effect, but as a compositional tool. You can see hints of this in A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, but it comes full flower in LYNDON; look closely at the early scenes alone, and you can see how many of them are done in just a handful of set-ups, using the zoom for emphasis wherever and however appropriate, but most especially in the moment when Lady Lyndon sees (with Swiss watch precision and calculation) that her husband is unfaithful.

Kubrick’s legendary perfectionism stretched even to the ways his films were to be shown. When the film was released in 1975, Kubrick sent this letter with specific instructions to protectionists on how the candlelit beauty and cruelty in his opus should be shown:

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BARRY LYNDON was largely ignored in the US when it arrived in theatres; audiences that year were more ready to embrace JAWS and ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST, and most who did see it found it slightly more exciting than listening to the grass grow. And here again we return to a complaint common to Kubrick, but as with many of the master’s works, this film benefits from letting it soak in, then revisiting it over and over.

For in the end, BARRY LYNDON is about regret as much as anything, about the look in the eyes as the name of someone whom you’ve wasted too much of your life futilely loving swims back into view, leaving you with all the time in the world wondering how to heal the wounds inflicted so coldly by someone you should never have let into your heart.

As with many things in life, such matters can take years, even a lifetime, to fully grasp.

 

Copyright (c) 2017 by Eric Peeper

THE LAST VIBRATION

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Sorrow is one of the vibrations that prove the fact of living.
– Antoine de Saint Exupery, Wind, Sand and Stars

There is no space more sacred than the privacy inside our heads and hearts, and whom we decide to allow into that space can become one of the decisive factors in how happy (or unhappy) a life we lead. David Cronenberg’s DEAD RINGERS (1988) gives us a heart-wrenching portrait of that safe personal landscape irreparably torn apart as the eerily close bond between twin gynecologists (both played to shattering perfection by Jeremy Irons) crumbles.

DEAD RINGERS became the fulcrum of Cronenberg’s career, a turning point away from the body horror films he’d been celebrated for earlier in his filmography, such as VIDEODROME, SCANNERS and THE FLY, and turned the horror instead to a far deeper, more disturbing place. To be fair, this project was never planned as a kind of career pivot point; Cronenberg had been trying to finance the movie for quite a few years before it was able to get made, as many directors often do (John Landis spent 10 years trying to get AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON made, and James Cameron first expressed interest in a new film about the Titanic in 1987).

Still, when DEAD RINGERS arrived, it showcased many of the things that acute viewers had picked up on in Cronenberg’s earlier works – his skillful, carefully observed psychological study of people in a, perhaps not self-consciously downward spiral. Cronenberg’s FLY remake still works perfectly well as a monster flick, but it’s unusually potent emotional crescendo should be enough to convince anyone that this is a horror auteur who finds the real horror in the things people do to one another and to themselves than simply showcasing severed limbs, and DEAD RINGERS brings this home with a vengeance.

A writer/director wanting to explore such extreme terrain means nothing if the director in question cannot get good performances from their actors, and this is an underappreciated aspect of Cronenberg; the entire emotional undercurrent of THE FLY hinged on the trio of performances from Jeff Goldblum, Geena Davis and John Getz; A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE would’ve been unthinkable without Viggo Mortensen’s blend of vulnerability and danger; DEAD RINGERS would simply have been DOA without Jeremy Irons. There are no obvious physical differences between the twin brothers he plays. The only way we realize which twin we are watching, the gregarious Eliot or the painfully introverted Beverly, rests totally on his body language, and that’s a hell of a feat.

The result is a film that simply defies all labels; DEAD RINGERS is certainly not a straightforward horror film, though it often gets thrown into that category; even branding it a psychological thriller doesn’t totally feel fulfilling. For me personally, DEAD RINGERS is, along with LEAVING LAS VEGAS, the saddest film I’ve seen, all the more surprising because the characters in either film are not ones asking for our sympathies; the womanizing twin gynecologists played by Irons both do horrendous things to the women they share, as well as to each other and, eventually, themselves.

Ditto the suicidal alcoholic and call girl in VEGAS. It is to the enormous credit of the respective actors and filmmakers involved that all these characters become three dimensional people in order for their tragic flaws to register. To put it another way, they become as human as any of us, and it is a test of our humanity how we react to the vibrations we pick up from sensing another person’s private agonies, which, too, can determine how happy or unhappy a life we lead, for who knows if that pain will be the last thing they ever feel.

A prime example is the scene where Eliot and his girlfriend slow-dance to IN THE STILL OF THE NIGHT as Beverly lies on the nearby sofa, crippled by the mistaken belief that the woman he’s fallen for has cheated on him. Eliot and his lady friend futilely try to get Beverly to join in, perhaps partly a way for Eliot to seduce his brother back to their previous womanizing ways more than simply cheer him up, but it is to no avail. It is this scene, coupled with the preceding one where a shattered Beverly reveals the imagined affair to his brother, that wrenches home the tragedy of the twins: without his girlfriend, Beverly fears he doesn’t know who he is, nor does he feel he has any identity in the bizarre fraternity with Eliot. And once Eliot becomes swept into the same whirlpool, there is no saving them.

Even for those of without an identical twin, this film registers for all of us: how do we live our lives with or without a given person, or how do we live with who we become with a certain person in our lives? By changing or refusing change, does this make us better or worse?

Such questions become even more important if the old adage that we all create God in our own image is true, because that would make us all twins.

 

 

Copyright (c) 2017 by Eric Peeper