Friday, June 3, 2011

When Time Shall Be No More

Make Way For Tomorrow - 1937

Directed by Leo McCarey

That’s the illest song ever!”
                        Pharrell Williams, on Bonnie Raitt’s “I Can’t Make You Love Me

            Orson Welles didn’t say that Make Way For Tomorrow was the illest movie ever, though he came pretty close, saying of it, “Oh my god! That’s the saddest movie ever made. It would make a stone cry!”
            So why am I comparing Make Way For Tomorrow with I Can`t Make You Love Me? Because when I think of Make Way For Tomorrow I can’t help but think of I Can’t Make You Love Me; the thoughts they induce in my mind magnetize and coagulate and unify, and like the sun and the moon they illuminate and gravitate towards each other. And because both works were born sad, because both flaunt their bruises while other works surgically remove them, and because both are straightforward without being brutish and blunt. And I think of Make Way For Tomorrow not so much as a movie (although it certainly is that, and a great one too) but as a dirge, a song that never ceases to be sad. Both eulogize a love that can only be remembered and never regained. Both dwell, and dwell deeply, and both are full of sentiment, but not the sugary sentiment that makes one shudder and vomit, but that sentiment’s dark and sludgy doppelganger, the medley made of grief and loss and surrender.
            Before directing Make Way For Tomorrow, Leo McCarey had directed a string of comedic hits with the likes of Laurel and Hardy, W.C. Fields, The Marx Brothers, and Harold Lloyd. The impetus to direct Make Way For Tomorrow, however, was far from comedic. The sudden death of his father led McCarey to immediately make a film that would honour his memory. Paramount, the producers of the film, presumed the film would be box office poison, and asked McCarey to add a Hollywood ending, but McCarey, being brilliant and a moneymaker to  boot, completed the movie without studio interference. Though the film bombed and Paramount fired McCarey for his efforts, directors no less esteemed than Jean Renoir, Ernst Lubitsch, Frank Capra and John Ford adored it, and when McCarey won an Academy Award for The Awful Truth (made immediately after Make Way For Tomorrow), McCarey’s acceptance speech went, “Thank you for the award, but you’ve given it to me for the wrong picture.” Later in life, McCarey said of Make Way For Tomorrow, “If I really have talent, this is where it really appears.”   
            The movie is ostensibly about the 50 year marriage between Bark and Lucy Cooper and the slow dissolution of that marriage. Annihilated financially by the Great Depression, they are forced to give up their house. They have five children, and while they are all doing well, none of them are able to take both Bark and Lucy in, and so Bark and Lucy are forced to separate. Nobody in the film is especially bad, and there are no great schemes or terribly important plot points. There is almost a total lack of tension, which is not to say that the movie lacks drive or inevitability, oh no. Rather, Make Way For Tomorrow has the drive and inevitability of a life lived very long in real time. The movie moves simply from circumstance to circumstance, and we simply witness the love that binds Bark and Lucy, the love that despite having already existed for 50 years and the separation that now threatens them, has all the vigour and spontaneity of a freshly lit fire. And because we know that their being apart cannot be helped and that time is being unfriendly towards them, well, that’s what makes Make Way For Tomorrow the saddest movie ever made.

            The first onset of sadness arises about 24 minutes into the movie. So far we have witnessed only briefly Lucy’s new life in the New York apartment of her son George, and already we see that she is as wanted as an ordinary intruder is. She returns home from a movie and interrupts a bridge class being taught by George’s wife, and then shortly she receives a long distance telephone call from Bark. She receives the call within full earshot of these bridge playing strangers, but she makes no attempt at discretion. This is the first time she has heard her husband’s voice since their separation, and she is happy to hear from the man she loves, and as far as she’s concerned the room is empty save them.
            This conversation operates in only one way. All we hear is Lucy’s loud and tuneless voice, we hear nothing of what Bark says, and it is a miracle of screenwriting that we can learn so much about them both without the benefit of a two way talk: Lucy`s monologue transcends into a dialogue. And, believe it or not, another miracle takes place simultaneously: that of the performance of Beulah Bondi. Bondi performs this monologue with a minimal amount of gestures, she doesn’t fidget with the phone cord or flare her nostrils as a silent film star or as a grand hack would, instead she limits Lucy to a few tiny and thoughtful movements of her eyes, and to a fractured and unbearable tone of voice. It`s all wonder from Bondi, she makes the monologue sound like a private song composed for and played by two hands, and though these hands are cities apart, they’ve practiced together so long that no distance could possibly separate them.
             Lucy begins sounding annoying and overprotective. She says to Bark, “You ought to write. You know I worry...Bark, it’s getting cool. Don’t go out without your coat. And if it rains, don’t go out at all!”
            She sounds like a spate of notes struck out of tune, but as the monologue progresses she gradually acquires grace and begins to sound like a series of sad and hypnotic notes played softly and tenderly at a piano. Lucy then says, in a way so melancholic that the strangers in the room begin to seize up from such artlessness, “Oh, I’m as happy as a lark...Of course I miss you, Bark, that’s the only trouble...I know you do. Don’t forget what I told you. We’ll soon be together, for always.”
            Lucy ends the conversation by saying, “It’s been good to hear your voice, Bark. It must have cost you a lot to call me...Well, that’s a lot. You could have bought yourself a good warm scarf for that. Alright, Bark...Goodbye, Bark. Goodbye, my dear.”
            Bondi delivers that last “my dear” in a tone that is simply excruciating. She makes the phrase sound as if it could only end on the saddest note. And though I don’t know which note is the saddest of all, I imagine that it sounds very much like the final one.
            As sad as that scene is, Make Way For Tomorrow contains even sadder ones.
            In the movie’s last 25 minutes, Bark and Lucy are finally reunited. They have 5 hours together before Bark must depart on a train for California. They begin their time together with a walk in a park. They stop at a bench to have a seat, and here they have a conversation which has been 50 years in the making.
            Lucy says, “I figure that everyone is entitled to just so much happiness in life. Some get it in the beginning, and some in the middle, and others at the end. And then there are those who have it spread thin all through the years.”
            Victor Moore, who plays Bark, is also remarkable in this movie. Before acting in Make Way For Tomorrow he acted in comedies and was trained as a vaudevillian. Playing against type, he helps prove the old showbiz adage that if you can play comedy, you can play anything. Bark replies to Lucy with the words that I find to be the saddest in the entire movie: “The trouble is I was a failure. I suppose you liked me because I knew a couple of jokes and could make you laugh. I was a town clown. But there wasn’t much in the business world, Lucy, for that kind of a fella.”
            These are the types of thoughts reserved only for broken men. These are thoughts that are too painful to think and nearly impossible to say, even if just to yourself and under your breath. Because to think thoughts like these is to risk imploding the edifice upon which you’ve built your entire life, and that even to consider the threat of these thoughts is only to confirm the hunch that you’re not the man you set out to be at all. And to consider that you’ve failed is to consider what good you’ve been at all to anybody, and what good could you ever possibly be. And once this has happened, it’s all sad minutes, sad hours, and sad years. At what point in his life did Bark begin thinking this?
            Bark says this not because he has courage, but because it’s something outside of himself. It seems as though he is making a statement about his life, but in truth he’s really asking a question of Lucy, a question he’s not qualified to answer himself. He’s asking her, “What have I been good for?” And it’s a question only Lucy is qualified to answer because she’s the only person he trusts more than himself, because any other answer aside from the correct one would mean defeat.
            Lucy replies, “I won’t let you call yourself a failure, Bark.”
            And for Bark, this is it. She has justified his reason for living. Because for those words alone has he stayed alive, and because of those words alone he may live just a while longer. And what’s more fantastic about Lucy’s answer is that she’s known it for years, she’s just been waiting for Bark to ask the question. It’s a wonderful conversation, and one in which they subtly renew their vows. Without this exchange, Bark would not be able to later joke to a maître d’hôtel, “Best thing I ever did was marrying her. Randy Dunlap was courting her at the same time I was. I guess I looked like the best bet since she took me. Randy Dunlap is a banker in our town. I’ve got his girl but he’s got my house.”
            The final scene of the movie is justifiably honoured, as it ends with some of the loveliest parting lines ever spoken and written. In these lines I find encompassed all that I wish great art would do. It’s inconceivable that these last lines could have been spoken at all in that way, with so much finality, in such a perfect setting, with that much tenderness, by two real people without a script (even the phrase “I do” is carefully scripted so people don’t screw it up). Great art helps you say what you’re too incompetent or too witless or too afraid to say in real life.
            Think of Pablo Neruda’s marvellous book The Captain’s Verses. The best line in that book is not “I love you” but the other all-embracing lines which rapturously surround it. A maggot could probably scrawl “I love you” inside the grey carcass of a nightingale, but it takes real art to say what’s obvious without being so obvious. Thus Neruda writes: “And so you see, my love,/how I move/around the island,/around the world,/safe in the midst of spring,/crazy with light in the cold,/walking tranquil in the fire,/lifting your petal/weight in my arms/as if I had never walked/except with you, my heart,/as if I could not walk/except with you,/as if I could not sing/except when you sing.”
            Undoubtedly, saying, “I love you,” is heavy and loaded, but as far as proof goes, it is still subject to reasonable doubt. So Make Way For Tomorrow ends with these lines:
            “In case I don’t see you again...well, anything might happen...the train could jump off the track. If it should happen that I don’t see you again, it’s been very nice knowing you, Miss Breckenridge.”
            “That’s probably the prettiest speech you’ve ever made. And in case I don’t see you...well...for a little while...I just want to tell you. It’s been lovely, every bit of it, the whole 50 years. I’d sooner have been your wife, Bark, than anyone else on earth.”
            “Thank you, Lucy.”
            How could you possibly doubt lines as lovingly written as those? Make Way For Tomorrow is the illest movie ever.

Thursday, March 31, 2011


The Room - 2003

Directed by Tommy Wiseau

Dear Tommy,

Perhaps The Room isn’t a success in quite the way you envisioned. The movie is highly lauded in some circles, but with mock applause and snickering and not with a sense of tragedy and purgation, which is what I think you wanted. At the risk of being presumptuous, I take it The Room is something close to an autobiography. I take it you wanted The Room to destroy the one who broke your heart. The Room has the unmistakable tone of a spiritual confession, as if you were blanching your soul so you could end your suffering and perhaps transfer your suffering to others. I’m not saying the movie provides the same state of grace as anything written by St. Teresa of Avila or St. John of the Cross, but if nominations come up for secular sainthood my ballot gets your name on it.

Tommy, The Room is the one film I can show to everybody I know and not have them hate me for it. Everyone understands it. They stick with it until the end. That’s a very rare quality in a movie. In fact, I don’t know of any other movie that has such a universal quality. Avatar may be the highest grossing movie of all time, but I know at least twenty people who found it as simplistic and hackneyed as I did. What you’ve done with a fraction of the budget and an atom of the technical talent is amazing and gives me hope for the future of filmmaking.

People say The Room is poorly written and badly acted, but don’t believe them when they say it, Tommy. And even if I tell you the same thing, don’t believe me when I say it either. People say it to hurt you because The Room has hurt them. The Room doesn’t just cut to the bone, it cuts through the marrow. The Room could cut through a three-hundred year old oak tree and expose its hidden life and reveal the events it didn’t want to reveal. That’s the real reason why people love The Room, Tommy, because it is a private exhibition made public, and we love confessions and we love gossip because we’re too timid to make a confession ourselves. We’re really without depth and breadth, and when something towers above us, Tommy, we wonder how something could possibly get so high.

But that doesn’t mean The Room doesn’t provide a healthy amount of laughter, Tommy. Much of it is warranted and some of it less so. Why this is so I don’t really know. Perhaps the laughter has its roots in a form of uncomfortable recognition. Who of us hasn’t done or said something stupid that one regrets? The Room is full of misogynistic asides which sneak in through a literary sleight of hand: they are the hidden lines of a man who has truly been hurt and betrayed. If I had written them I would have edited them out, not because they were really bad but because they would reveal too much, and my ego would never let itself go that unprotected, not even in the guise of a fictional character. Don’t regret any of the lines you have written because people laugh at them, Tommy. They laugh simply to protect themselves.

Forgive me for saying this, Tommy, but I’m not entirely certain The Room has anything to say about the nature of love. No matter how many times I see it I’m never convinced that anybody in the movie really loves another person. I don’t think you intended this. I don’t think you intended to make a movie where the characters seemed devoid of love. I do, however, think The Room at least offers a glimpse into the nature of jealousy and obsession. It’s a strange ambiguity, Tommy. The events in The Room are driven to destruction because of a love that mutates into some sort of multi-tentacled hentai monster that sticks itself inside everything and clutches everything everywhere. Love may be buried somewhere deep inside its dark heart. Or maybe I’m just blind to the innards of love. Maybe I’ve been hurt bad enough and been sad long enough not to see that love is laying in wait for me, but that’s a big maybe, Tommy.

If I have one regret about The Room, Tommy, it’s that you won’t be able to make a movie like it ever again. I don’t know what fame is like, but they say once you’ve had it you can never be the same person again. In a different age, when it was easier to go unnoticed, perhaps you would have been given the chance to make another film, with your directorial innocence still uncorrupted. It’s all impossible now. The Room was an event that can never be replicated.

And so I ask you, Tommy, where can you possibly go from here? Do you make another film as if The Room never happened or do you make something self-conscious like Fellini’s 8 ½ and react to the success of The Room? The next step won’t be easy.

Tommy, I wish the world would have left you alone so you could remain alone and make innocent movies.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Sceptical Inquirer


Directed by James Wan

The movie begins with some promise: stills of a domestic interior creep by and you’re at once impressed by the tastefulness of the decor, and underneath these Good Housekeeping images the Bernard Herrmann-ish score slashes through all this tasteful banality and counterpoints them with a bit of malice. Score and image are at first opposed, but they slowly begin to entangle each other, and gradually the images get agitated and gather a bit of malice themselves, apparitions begin to appear in front of the couch and behind the windows. Now sound and image are of the same amplitude, and they combine to spew the word INSIDIOUS onto the screen like unwanted barf, and the image of it swallows up the breadth of your vision, the sound of it shrieks at you like a banshee, and then it all drops off into silence and darkness, but the stink of it still lingers. As far as opening gambits go, the movie goes all in from the start, but experience tells you that these opening credits are just bluffing.
            After such agitation, Insidious settles down far too easily after the opening credits. The plot is familiar to anybody who has seen any of the Amityville or Poltergeist movies, so one shouldn’t feel too bad about spoiling it. A family moves into a new home and strange things begin to happen. A boy falls from a ladder and goes into a coma. Medical doctors are unable to rouse the boy from his coma and so the family takes him home. More strange things happen. The family moves into another home. Still more strange things happen. Desperate, the family consults a trio of paranormal experts. The leader of these experts, a reasonable middle-aged woman, then divulges the entirety of plot: It isn’t the houses that are possessed, but the comatose little boy. And he’s not in a coma or really possessed, really he’s an astral traveller/projectionist: his soul is capable of travelling outside of his physical body. Trouble is his soul has travelled to a realm that Rand McNally doesn’t make a map for, a forbidden realm full of sidetracked phantoms called The Further. As if that wasn’t bad enough, the various phantoms are jostling to possess the boy’s earthly body (the phantoms just really want to live again you see).
            And it’s a good thing this medium shows up to explain the plot too, because up until her appearance the movie has no way of resolving the problem it has created for itself, so as far as mediums or phantoms go she’s more of a deus ex machina. Medical science is unable to help the boy, so the only alternative is a medium capable of resolving things. But her coup de grâce is the revelation that the hapless father of this family is also an astral projectionist, and in order to rescue his son he too must also travel too far this side of paradise.
            Insidious, being a horror film, of course has every right to call upon a quack to resolve its issues, but there is something quite insidious about the way the movie resolves itself. The set piece of Insidious is a séance in which the medium tries to guide the boy back into the realm of reality. It is quite a tense and terse sequence; it happens through a spate of screeches and flash bangs, and in the darkness visions of the uncanny splash onscreen, and this dark song and dance beats you about your eyes and ears and all of sudden all sensation bursts. One thinks this ruse would impress Houdini or Hitchcock it happens so convincingly. But before this séance starts we are convinced not to believe it. The medium puts on a gas mask anchored to a what’s what of doohickies and bleeping things, her assistants are presented as buffoonish hucksters, and so you are more than prepared for these junior ghostbusters to be exposed as frauds. The movie convinces you it’s about to debunk itself, but in order to abide by horror conventions and the framework of its own questionable logic, it goes all in again. These people aren’t frauds, the séance turns out to be real, and the movie tells you The Further really exists and tries to sell you on more silliness, and then you realize you’re not a world weary moviegoer but an easy mark, and the entire movie is just a confidence game and you’ve been fleeced 14 dollars by the movie’s producers.           
            The father strays into The Further, an unimaginative place where empty space is low budget black and footsteps shiver and everything is just a simulation of things that appeared before, except it has no sun and it has ghosts that don’t do a lot except pose. The Further is such a bland realm that you wonder why anybody would want to astral travel around in there, so it’s no surprise that all the ghosts are scoping for a vessel back into the world of the living.
            The movie ends with a twist that is as commonplace as The Further. Let’s just say that one of the astral travellers picks up a hitchhiking murderer.
            In The Demon Haunted World, Carl Sagan wrote a true thing about The X-Files: that for its pretense about science and investigation, it never debunked a damned thing, all it did was increase our belief in spooks and conspiracies. Hollywood, for all its claims of liberalism and being bright in the dark, is a place just as demon haunted as any state drenched in red. Mixing red and blue just makes dark. And so they all go, all into the dark.
            Before Insidious started a trailer played for a movie called Apollo 18. It is about some sort of bogeyman or gremlin that terrorizes astronauts on the Moon. The tag line is something like: Find Out Why We Never Went Back! And so again science and reason are trumped by some shadowy manifestation of evil and ignorance, and you wonder when Hollywood will stop projecting their fears into the darkness of the Moon or in the darkness of the cinema. You can keep people in the dark with fear and religion. You can also keep them in the dark with sorcery and movie magic.