Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Towards a Revisionist Cinema

Many classics of the European cinema could easily be turned on their heads with relatively minor tweaking of their scripts. Let’s consider a sequel to Bertolucci’s The Conformist entitled, The Nonconformist. The film would be a revisionist work that takes the theme of the Bertolucci classic and turns it into an essay about a good guy who refuses to go along with fascists and suffers from no psychosexual problems. You wouldn’t need a beauty like Dominique Sanda in this low budget production since the main character would never flee from his pleasant inauspicious surroundings and his plain Jane wife. After the war, our central figure, Massimo, is rewarded by getting a bureaucratic job filing papers for the ruling Christian Democratic party.  L’Avventura Redux  could be another another revisionist classic. In this sequel, three fashionable Italians, contemporary versions of Monica Vitti, Lea Massari and Gabrielle Ferzetti (who starred in the original Antonioni movie) play a threesome who go off on a pleasure cruise. The Masari and Ferzetti types are an item and the Monica Vitti look- alike is the odd man or in this case woman out. She triangulates and is intermittently seductive as she sunbathes topless on a rock, but only in an innocuous way and at the end of the movie the boat returns to port. In a final shot, the three are shown driving off to dinner in an Italian restaurant, which is not surprising since the movie is set in Italy. Why do we need revisionism in cinema? Why can’t we simply be happy with the restored prints? The answer is simple. The Berlin Wall fell and the Cold War ended, but the great old dinosaurs of modern cinema, which were products of their eras, never budged. It’s a new world and one in which films, in order to remain relevant to their audience, must be remodeled like old houses in which 50’s appliances are replaced with up to date refrigerators and stoves.

Monday, December 30, 2013

The Wolf of Wall Street

The Wolf of Wall Street is a minor work by a great filmic novelist. It’s a long movie, like one of those tomes by Dickens or Balzac that had never even heard of the jump cut. The direct address to the viewer  and the interior monologues which are novelistic modes of disquisition might also derive from the fact that the movie is based on an autobiographical work by Jordan Belfort (played in the movie by Leonardo DiCaprio). Belfort’s scam was the underwriting and selling of so-called penny stocks. His career begins on Black Monday, October 19, l987, the day the stock market fell 508 points and the old line firm L.F. Rothschild, where he’d been hired for his first legitimate job, tanked. “I want you to deal with your problems by becoming richer,” Belfort tells the employees of Stratton Oakmont, the auspicious sounding firm he later creates. Actually his story is one of addiction to both money and drugs, specifically Quaaludes and cocaine. There’s an image that’s used in the ads for the film, of DiCaprio on his knees licking the high heel of a blond. That blond turns out to be his second wife, Naomi (Margot Robbie), and the scene is one in which she takes her vengeance on his repeated infidelity with prostitutes by both depriving him of sex and threatening to increase the torture by walking around the house without underpants. There are a number of other scenes like this which tell the whole story in microcosm including one where Belfort is so paralyzed by Quaaludes that he can’t warn his cohort Ronnie Azoff (Jonah Hill) that the F.B.I. is bugging their conversations. Here the particular little device has to do with a piece of telephone wire which acts as a noose. So what is Scorsese getting at as he flourishes these metaphors of submission and entrapment? Besides the addiction leitmotif, it’s hard to tell. The canvas is large, but also unutterably small, reducing human existence to the striving for money and power. Scorsese triages his users, but the result is antiseptic and emotionless. There's something missing in this tale of avarice among the cast of outer borough characters. Maybe it’s just the pubic hair on Jordan’s second wife. Along with Black Monday, the advent of Brazilian hot waxing is another of the losses which the film records.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Bipolar Disorder, ADHD and Man’s Soul

Bruno Bettleheim
One of the lagniappes of psychoanalysis is the philosophical attitude it takes towards mental illness. There is no cure for life. In fact in Charlie Kaufman’s masterpiece Syndechoche, New York (2008) that is precisely the mysterious illness that afflicts the main character, Caden Cotard, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman. The DSM-5 offers a smorgasbord of diagnoses that offer the illusion or delusion that there is some sort of cure for mental states which is achieved by 1)naming them 2)medicating them and 3)making them insurable. This is not to say that there aren’t severely ill patients who don’t benefit greatly from medication. But these days every other person you talk to is either bipolar, ADHD or if their behavior is more over the top, borderline. And having received one of these diagnosis a buffet of medications awaits these sufferers. It’s not surprising that the Times recently ran a front page piece about the abuse of  attention deficit disorder diagnoses, emphasizing the beneficial effect the diagnoses are having on the profits of the drug companies (“The Selling of Attention Deficit Disorder,” NYT, 12/14/13). What’s most disturbing is that much of the medicating is being done willy-nilly by the worst kind of practitioners, those suffering from the arrogance of not knowing how little they know. Moliere would have had fun writing a parody of these Tartuffe’s of psychiatry. Perhaps he might have called it “Le docteur imaginaire.” When Bruno Bettleheim wrote Freud and Man’s Soul :An Important Reinterpretation of Freudian Theory back in l982, he was dealing with the American psychoanalytic  establishment’s need to use language as way of making psychoanalysis more scientific sounding. The fact is that while analysis may be quite helpful to the small number of patients who have the time and money to afford it, it’s hardly what one would classify as a scientific discipline. And that’s probably the good part. Psychoanalysis might not be the cure for ADHD or bipolar disorder, but it offers a broad view of human existence that attends to the one part of the human being that you can’t locate on an MRI or FMRI for that matter--the soul.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

The House of the Dead

Portrait of Dosteovsky by Vassily Perov
What if all the dead have been there all along? What if they are crying about not being remembered? Family and friends flock to the memorial, but then it’s done and people go on with their lives. No one wants to say it, but there's even a feeling that x or y are all better off now that x or y are finally gone. X or y had a long convalescence which was stealing the time and energy, not to speak of resources of their families. Now x or y's husbands, wives, children and friends are free to go on with their lives. Still the dead are jealous for being left out of the party. They curse the living and feel little satisfaction that those who are living can go through a mourning process in which they are finally able to leave the dead behind. Yes, having effectively mourned their dead, the living can go on living and even experience great joy. If only they knew, how unhappy their happiness made the departed, they would be stopped in their tracks. But they have no idea. They are so taken up with their trysts and workouts, their interviews and vacations that they only have time to pay lip service to the dead during prayer or therapy, if then. The dead are definitely crying. Death isn’t what it was cracked up to be. Like the life of the prisoners in Doestoevsky’s The House of the Dead, it’s far worse.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Christmas in Connecticut

Peter Godfrey ‘s Christmas in Connecticut (l945) is a winter’s version of Midsummer Night’s DreamIn the movie which played as part of the Stanwyck festival at Film Forum, Christmas Eve, Stanwyck is Elizabeth Lane, a single journalist who lives a hand-to-mouth existence, but whose doppleganger is a doting wife and mother who cooks delectable meals for her patrician husband in a Connecticut farmhouse. Stanwyck had previously demonstrated an aptitude for playing double-faced characters. In Preston Sturges’s The Lady Eve (l941), which  was the second part of the double header, she’s a grifter who disguises herself as an aristocrat. But fantasy is the lingua franca of  Christmas in Connecticut, which begins when the survivor of a torpedoed American vessel, floating in the middle of the ocean, dreams he’s being served an elegant French meal. The conceit is carried forward in the hospital where a nurse reads Lane’s column in Smart Housekeeping and dreams up the scheme of luring one of her charges into marriage by having him transported to the fantasy Connecticut manse for the holidays. It’s interesting to note that the kind of journalistic chicanery that Stanwyck’s character practices, which usually has rather severe consequences, is here the substance of romantic comedy. One wonders if the props for the movie are stored somewhere on the Warner Brothers lot, since the setting is an iconic never never land and the ultimate house with the white picket fence. Sleighs are pulled by horses and sleigh bells announce the guests. But when all is said it functions a kind of magic retreat, like Shakespeare’s forest in Midsummer Night’s Dream, where Jefferson Jones (Dennis Morgan), the recovering seaman, Alexander Yardley (Sydney Greenstreet), the magazine publisher, John Sloane, the ill-fated suitor and Felix Bassenak (S.Z. Sakall),a restaurateur, who is the resident Puck, all converge.The bucolic setting is belied by the potent and even revolutionary effects produced by the imaginative goings on within. This minor masterpiece is not like any Christmas you will ever spend in Connecticut.