Thursday, August 14, 2008

POPCORN KERNELS—Anne Bancroft x 4; John Ford x 2

There are times when I am admittedly overwhelmed by the amount of films I watch in any given week and the responsibility I feel towards each and every one of them; as though films are gifted children requiring parental acknowledgment and encouragement for fear that—lacking same—they will wither, conform and lose what is special and integral. Though fond of critical overviews, it's impossible to provide same for each film I see. Besides, the research can become mind numbing, exhaustive and counterproductive; a case of not seeing the forest for the trees. More accurately, my responses to films range from the contrived and complex to the most innocent and simple, dependent upon a variety of factors, not only my own moods and energy levels, but the moods and the energy levels of the films themselves, mixed and matched against the time of the day (a film with my morning cup of coffee is a completely different experience than the one employed as a sedative against late night insomnia). Sometimes even when I like a film there isn't a whole lot for me to say. So why worry the bone? And yet I'm an old dog and it's hard to teach me new tricks. I can't just watch movies and let them go. I have to gnaw on them even for a little bit before I bury them in the back yard.

Even if not fully fleshed out, fleeting impressions can be important if for nothing else than an entry in time and—as I have mentioned here and there—my approach to film is consciously diaristic. There's something epistolary about films as well; they are like letters to myself about who I am at any given time. I enjoy distinguishing a particular movie in a particular moviehouse with a particular audience at a particular time, in which one image or one phrase stands out, like the unexpected popcorn kernel that hasn't popped; "grannies" we used to call them when I was a kid. Along with the leftover salt, "grannies" would accumulate at the bottom of the bag. With a little more time, perhaps a little more heat, they could have popped open. Sometimes to not crunch away at them seemed like such a waste of good corn. That seems as good a description as any for the nature of some of my cinematic impressions.

I've been enjoying Turner Classic Movies "Summer Under the Stars" where each day an actor's work is profiled through a sampling of a dozen or so films, some performances minor but pleasant, others iconic and unforgettable, an entertaining ratchet between two to five-star movies placed in the appropriate context of a whole. Many of my associates who swirl the formal elements of film around like cigar smoke in a snifter of cognac frequently focus on directorial auteurship and pay less attention to the devoted, grunt work of the actors who labor in front of the camera, investing malleable scripts with a crafted spectrum of luminosity and technique. That's why "Summer Under the Stars" is such a refreshing treat because it's really about the performers and their performances. It really is about the influence of the firmament.

I pick and choose throughout the month of August, usually watching a few movies in a row to get a sense of the performer's range. A few Marie Dresslers. Some Chaplins, some Garbos, shifting from silents to sound. Gregory Peck, Claude Rains, Fred MacMurray, Kim Novak. Often it's pure happenstance on who I settle in to watch on any given day. The flexibility of the calendar has more to do with that than anything; but, I quite consciously set my sights and my calendar to watch TCM's selection of Anne Bancroft films, which aired last Wednesday, August 6, 2008.

Over at The House Next Door, I'm grateful Dan Callahan beat me to the punch in providing an appreciation of Bancroft's career. He did such a masterful job of profiling her work by decades, drawing emphasis to the specific grace of her work in the sixties when audiences experienced her accomplished performances in The Miracle Worker (1962), The Pumpkin Eater (1964), The Slender Thread (1965), Seven Women (1966) and The Graduate (1967). In my mid-teens at the time, I saw all but one of those films (Seven Women) and recall distinctly how their sophistication and maturity impressed my questing inexperienced sensibility. Watching these movies was like having experiences, which I was so hungry for by default. I hadn't yet come to terms with Joni Mitchell's admonition that a time would come "when I'd drag my feet just to slow the circles down." I'm caught up in a funny time loop right now where I am re-experiencing the sixties for myself, not only in film, but in the music I listened to and the books I read. Anne Bancroft is clearly part of this nostalgic process, which is really not about wanting something I used to have as much as it is about savoring something twice and more fully.

Since Dan has done the good work, I'm free to pick through the popcorn kernels in the bottom of the bag and offer up some random associations. The first and most important one for me is Bancroft's turn in Jack Clayton's The Pumpkin Eater, in which she co-starred with Peter Finch, James Mason and Maggie Smith in a nearly translucent script by Harold Pinter. Of course, I didn't know Harold Pinter from diddley squat as a kid but I did know who Anne Bancroft was because of her Oscar-winning performance as Annie Sullivan in Arthur Penn's The Miracle Worker two years earlier, which I watched again solely because—along with Bancroft's indelible performance—it is arguably Patty Duke's finest performance as well (though, I confess guiltily, I am partial to her shouting, "Neely, Neely O'Hara!" in the proverbial blind alley). Despite the whole "wah-wah" controversy, to this day I still get completely choked up witnessing the "miracle" of Helen Keller making the cognitive connection between the word Sullivan is spelling into her hand and the water splashing from the pump.

I remember not fully understanding The Pumpkin Eater when I first saw it. How could I? I would have been all of 11 at the time it came out so it's possible I initially only caught whatever clip was chosen for Bancroft's Oscar nomination at the Academy Awards ceremony, and only later watched the film in its entirety on some television broadcast. Yet by 13 my parents were already suffering the death throes of their marriage and I was keenly aware of my mother's suffering and how she felt trapped by the proprieties of a loveless marriage.

Don't ask me why but the nursery rhyme upon which the film's title is based was one of my favorites as a child, memorized early on: "Peter, Peter, pumpkin eater, had a wife and couldn't keep her. He put her in a pumpkin shell and there he kept her very well." Even as I recite that rhyme, in my memory's eye I can see the illustration that accompanied it of a woman and her children looking forlornly out of a window carved in a giant pumpkin shell while Peter walks away whistling. Leave it to a children's nursery book of rhymes to spell out the hazards of masculine entitlement.

I'm not sure I would agree with Dan's characterization of Bancroft's performance as "impenetrable." I find her performance painfully permeable. I would rely more on a splendid July 2006 address given by David Hare to the American Academy in London on the occasion of a retrospective of films based on Harold Pinter scripts, wherein Hare elucidates: "Pinter offers the stuff actors want and with which they can do magic—surface vitality, of course, but also an undertow of narrative and implied feeling which deepens the simplest remark. In the spare, complicated screenwriting of Pinter, 'yes', 'no' and 'maybe' become words which do a hundred jobs." In other words, he provides actors the opportunity to show us what he means to tell. "In The Pumpkin Eater," Hare continues, "we never see Maggie Smith making love to Peter Finch. We don't need to. Finch tells us about it, more powerfully than any shot of flailing limbs could ever achieve. And even more powerful, because at second hand, in Anne Bancroft's eyes we see a glare of pain and betrayal which tells us more about what went on than any mere showing could hope to show."

All of this is by way of leading to the simple popcorn kernel I'm intending to highlight, and one which I've not seen written about anywhere. After Jo Armitage (Bancroft) discovers her husband Jake (Finch) has repeatedly betrayed their marriage through infidelity, and after an enraged assault where Jo pounds Jake with her fists, she returns to the bed of a former husband for physical solace. The camera leads into this scene by showing the cigarette that Jo is smoking after having had sex with her ex. While their conversation detailing her admitted frustration is moving forward in real time, the smoke is going back into the cigarette. It's a truly wondrous cinematic moment, an inversion redolent of Jean Cocteau that defeats time, the kind that my compatriot Michael Hawley says is what makes movies such wonderful things to watch and—in this instance—I have to wholly agree. My breath caught in my throat. The psychological need for illo tempore, to return to the beginning, has rarely been captured so exquisitely, so painfully. That image alone makes The Pumpkin Eater unforgettable.

Sidney Pollack's first narrative feature The Slender Thread is another film that I return to again and again despite my awareness—as Elvis Mitchell recently confirmed when we spoke—that Pollack was displeased with the project. Representing again the repression and self-implosion of a failed marriage, in The Slender Thread Bancroft's character Inga gives up on life, takes an overdose of pills, yet calls a suicide hotline for company as she drifts into unconsciousness. Sidney Poitier's character Alan is a collegiate volunteer at the crisis hotline whose task is to keep Inga talking until she can be located and rescued. The telephone line and the connection it affords becomes, in essence, the titular slender thread. Just as one could say that Bancroft was at her prime expressing the particular cultural sophistication of the sixties and the plight of tethered women, so one could say the same about Poitier who brought to that decade a string of remarkable performances that enunciated civil rights concerns of the era: A Raisin in the Sun (1960), Lilies of the Field (1963), A Patch of Blue (1965), To Sir, With Love (1966), In the Heat of the Night and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? (both in 1967). The two of them together in the same film is one of the best duets of the sixties.

I also caught two John Ford movies last Wednesday: his last film 7 Women, starring Bancroft, and a revival of The Fugitive (1947) at Pacific Film Archive as part of their ongoing Gabriel Figueroa series. I wasn't wild about either of them, to be honest and for somewhat the same reasons. In both films men are bestial and women unfortunate victims. I'm not saying that's not the truth, or not a truth, but I wasn't fully impressed with how Ford went about gendering his portrayal of that truth. In 7 Women, Anne Bancroft substituted in for Patricia Neal, who had suffered a stroke. The substitution is telling in and of itself (Neal, in fact, had been the first choice for The Pumpkin Eater). If I had more time and were not just picking through popcorn kernels at the bottom of the bag, a systematic comparison between the two actresses would offer some rich insights, I suspect.

I enjoyed 7 Women well enough but found it a bit silly. The strength of these women, particularly Bancroft's character Dr. Cartwright, seemed staged, pedantic, if not precious. I'm sorry, but the "negotiations" between Dr. Cartwright and the marauding Mongol leader Tunga Khan (Mike Mazurki) made no sense to me whatsoever, especially since—before his appearance—Tunga Khan had been described as tearing the arms and legs off women and children and tossing them onto bonfires for sheer sport. That he and his heathen crew didn't immediately rape the women in the mission—especially Sue Lyon of Lolita fame—and were toned down by slaps to the face and some feisty fury made for a gendered broad farce but hardly a believable tract of feminine emancipation. 7 Women is more in the camp (literally) of Joan Crawford's Johnny Guitar. Margaret Leighton's portrayal of a lesbian guising her desires underneath the thin veneer of Christian missionary work (she lusts after Lyon more than the Mongol hordes do) can be retrieved as yet another example of the queers-as-villains stereotype prevalent in Hollywood of the 1950s and 1960s. I choose to recontextualize it as a bit of stereotype kitsch to enjoy it on that level; otherwise—when visibility is such a strategic politic for lesbians—it's fairly unseemly. The scene where Leighton nearly claws the walls because a "real" woman is giving birth borders on the homophobic, tainting whatever psychological complexity Ford was endeavoring.

The Fugitive was also another unbelievable film and—again—borderline racist. Though perhaps some of Figueroa's most sumptuous cinematography, and certainly worth a look on that level alone, its agenda as entertainment for white American audiences is embarrassingly apparent, especially in its depiction of Mexicans as incompetent animals. Ford had the foresight to include some of Mexico's finest artists—Emilio Fernández as producer, Gabriel Figueroa as cinematographer, Pedro Armendaríz and Dolores Del Rio as actors—and then turns around and sticks in Henry Fonda as the protagonist, a Mexican priest on the run from military officials who can't pick him out from a rounded-up crowd of Mexicans like they're pendejos who can't recognize their own kind. J. Carrol Naish as the Judas informer was equally unconvincing and downright annoying. In fact, being clobbered over the head with Christian symbolism—there are more symbolic crosses in this movie than you can shake a stick at—proved downright tiresome. I found myself thinking, "Why is John Ford trying to make an Orson Welles movie?"


Anonymous said...

Ah, the wonders of old Hollywood. It's been a long time since I've seen The Fugitive, but I think Andrew Sarris pretty much nailed that John Ford and Graham Greene's ideas of Catholicism conflicted. As for Seven Women, only Ford would think to cast Woody Strode as a Mongol warrior. I recall reading somewhere that the way Ford handled Leighton's character, it was as if he was previously unaware of the existence of lesbians. Too bad Ford was too drunk to complete Young Cassidy.

Michael Guillen said...

Great comment, Peter. I shall have to hunt down that Sarris review on The Fugitive!