Sunday, August 30, 2015

THE WORLD ACCORDING TO GARP: Blu-ray (Pan Arts 1982) Warner Archive Collection

In Shakespeare’s time, John Irving's fourth novel, The World According to Garp (an existentialist tragicomedy that became a publishing phenomenon in in 1978) would have been quaintly referenced as that proverbial ‘tale told by an idiot’ – albeit, an extremely articulate and intellectually perplexed and probing one – though no less ‘full of sound and fury…signifying nothing.’ Even the mostly respectful book reviews of the year felt the need to take sides in the arguments as presented by Irving with terrific irony. Was the novel and the character, T. S. Garp (brilliantly conceived for the movie by Robin Williams in his film debut) pro- or anti-feminist; for or against modern marriage? The genius in Irving’s textually dense ramblings, devoted to this somewhat emasculated fop, chronically overshadowed by the women (and one surrogate transgender gal) in his life; the spawn of a demented Margaret Sanger-esque nurse’s biologically, proto-feministic and highly unorthodox need to procure a child without actually tolerating a husband; queerly never offered us an opinion – merely a series of vignettes travelling through various time periods, from which the reader might glean a variety of perspectives.
The whimsy in Irving’s apparently ‘straight-forward’ style to concocting his alternative reality gave it its’ impetus as a bizarre reflection on then contemporary society; the Ellen James Society being the most perversely acknowledged as a counterpoint to 70’s radical feminism. Here is a cult of pseudo-militants, incapable of relating to the world, or perhaps even each other through the gift of articulate speech; chained to a cause after having their tongues surgically removed in a thoroughly misguided show of support for a young rape victim – Ellen James – whose own tongue was removed via her male attacker to keep her silent. Using this intolerably violent act as their crutch, the ‘society’ – arguably, comprised of a bunch of man-hating lesbians – perverts one woman’s grief into a national campaign in order to eradicate masculinity from the earth – or rather, keep it at bay and away from their cloistered gathering.  
As a reflection of modern American life back then (and its continuing spiral into anarchic oblivion since), The World According to Garp remains prophetically disturbing and desolate; the implosion of middle-class morality, and, escalation of random acts of violence, foreshadowing our present epoch with eerie and exacting precision, right down to John Lithgow’s Roberta Muldoon; a transgender former sports celebrity (Caitlyn Jenner, anyone?).  As with all great works of literature, Garp’s purpose – perhaps, somewhat unclear to the rest of us not possessing the author’s far-reaching vision of a future – was generally misconstrued as densely packed intellectual ‘clutter’. Nevertheless, it places the reader in the driver’s seat to formulate opinions about truth and virtue while searching with Garp for a place of solace within this dystopian nightmare. There is little to deny Jenny Fields (realized with nonsensical empathy by Glenn Close) her crippling influence on the natural development of her son’s emotional psyche; a woman so enamored with marching to the beat of a different drum that she sets about to reshape the external influences of life itself, and Garp’s in particular, to assert them as fundamental truths about life and men in general.
Jenny’s grotesque canonization as a leading figure in the 70’s feminist movement is disquieting.  For here is a woman who, by her own rather unapologetic admission first, to her parents (Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy in the film) – then later, Garp, and finally, anyone else who will listen or read her ‘tell all’ novel – has cruelly denied her child a father (even a father-figure, although Roberta does marginally serve as this bridge, straddling the two sexes); having taken advantage of an unconscious and brain-damaged technical sergeant while working as a nurse in the military hospital, simply to harvest his sperm for her own selfish needs. The baby grows up to be T.S. Garp; ill-equipped and even less likely to investigate the basic mechanics of what it means to be a man. According the novel and the movie – ambitiously directed by George Roy Hill – puberty is a curse, as is all male sexual desire. One cannot escape the natural evolution of the former or stave off the frustrated urges of the latter. Without a real man to point out the fundamental truth – that all human beings are dictated by their passions – cerebral and physical – young Garp’s (James McCall) sex education is extremely limited to Jenny’s ideas of ‘dirty male lust’ and reoccurring prepubescent experimentations with the town’s trollop, Cushie (Jillian Ross as a child/Jenny Wright as an adult). A reprieve of sorts arrives during Garp’s college years; a chance meeting and instant infatuation with fellow student, Helen Holm (Mary Beth Hurt).
Garp wants Helen in the sort of cheaply erotic way Jenny finds disgusting and yet simultaneously fascinating. Helen, however, is not interested in jocks, something Garp has since become, thanks in part to his joining the wrestling team against Jenny’s wishes. She would have preferred him to take up basketball.  Locker room shenanigans aside, Garp finds the company of men – or rather, boys of his years – stimulating. Despite being attracted to Helen, Garp also continues to see Cushie on the side; Cushie’s introverted sister, Pooh (Brenda Currin) exposing Garp and Cushie’s love-making on the grassy knoll to Helen, who thereafter avoids Garp like the plague. In the meantime, Garp has been working very hard to impress Helen as the writer she pledges to marry upon graduation. After their breakup, Garp decides to go to New York and become a real writer to spite her. Unwilling, as yet, to loosen the maternal yoke, Jenny quits her job as school nurse and moves in with Garp.
During their initial arrival to the Big Apple, Jenny becomes aware of Garp’s casual glances directed at a prostitute (Swoozie Kurtz). Partly meant to embarrass Garp, but also to learn more about his concept of desire – presumably, for which she has no stomach or extracurricular experience, Jenny is gripped to unearth this hooker’s particular back story regarding the world’s oldest profession. Mother and son befriend the reluctant prostitute. Jenny buys her a cup of coffee and then pays for Garp’s ‘first time’ with a professional. Later, Jenny will offer the hooker a safe haven at her family’s seaside retreat – converted into a sort of misfit’s oasis and respite for the socially stunted. But for now, as Jenny has momentarily retired from nursing, she takes up Garp’s passion to write; penning the bizarre memoir – Sexual Suspect. Inadvertently, it becomes a controversial best seller, embraced by the feminist movement.
Jenny’s overnight celebrity is an anathema to Garp’s carefully crafted proses; his first novella – richly supported by publisher, John Wolfe (Peter Michael Goetz) though receiving little exposure or praise beyond the literati. Garp returns to Helen and proposes marriage. She accepts, recognizing his talents as a brilliant writer. Nevertheless, the rest of the world knows Garp only from his mother’s novel as the ‘bastard son of Jenny Fields’. Garp’s marriage to Helen is hardly without its hiccups. After giving birth to two sons, Duncan (Nathan Babcock) and Walt (Ian McGregor), Helen – now a college professor at Reardon Academy – takes up with one of her graduate students, Michael Milton (Mark Soper). In the meantime, Jenny has established a sort of feminist refuge on the sprawling New England compound once owned by her parents, bequeathed to her after her father’s death. Garp meets ‘Roberta Muldoon’ – a transgender and devout convert of Jenny’s methodologies. Roberta is empathetic to Garp’s inability to accept his mother’s constant and controversial meddling in all their lives. Their unlikely friendship will ultimately ease Garp through some very tough times ahead.
Having discovered Helen’s ongoing infidelities with Michael, Garp confronts her over the telephone, flying into a rage. He takes Duncan and Walt out for dinner and then a movie to clear his head. But his anger incrementally festers as the night wears on. Earlier, Garp has illustrated his passion to fly by turning off the engine of his Packard on the decline leading to their house, allowing gravity to send the car coasting to an abrupt stop in the family’s driveway.  Now, under the cover of night, as rain begins to fall, Duncan and Walt implore him to repeat this trick. Alas, they are unaware Michael has parked his car in the driveway, having coaxed Helen into performing fellatio on him in the front seat. In the resultant smash up, Walt is killed and Duncan loses an eye. Later, we learn Helen also bit off Michael’s penis in the accident, breaking her jaw; Garp cracking his neck and jaw, having his mouth wired shut for a time. The family retires to Jenny’s familial home to convalesce. But Garp’s ire remains unabated. Unable to speak, he nevertheless makes his disgust for Helen known to all, causing Jenny to take Helen’s side.  Roberta comforts Garp.
Sometime later, Helen and Garp are reconciled; their marital bond strengthened by their shared grief at having lost a son. They decided to have another child. Garp writes a politically loaded novel condemning the Ellen James Society. It incurs the organization’s wrath, but garners him sincere praise from the critics and an anonymous note of thanks, presumably written by the reclusive rape victim. Jenny, accompanied by Roberta, leaves for New York to support a woman candidate (Bette Henritze) running for governor. Regrettably, the outdoor venue is patronized by a sniper who performs a public execution as Jenny takes the stage. Garp’s grief turns to scorn when the Ellen Jamesians organize a public funeral for Jenny meant to exclude him from attending. Roberta helps Garp in a disguise as a woman in order to partake in the services. But his presence is exposed by Pooh who has since become a member of the cult.
Spirited away by Roberta down a back alley to avoid a scene, Garp comes face to face with the reclusive Ellen James who holds up a copy of his novel, mouthing the words ‘thank you’ for his honesty, before helping Garp escape the militants in hot pursuit by hurrying him into a waiting taxi. A short while later, we find Garp has given up writing, having come home to coach the college wrestling team. Regrettably, Pooh is also on campus. Masquerading as a nurse, she fires several gun shots into Garp. As Garp is air-lifted by medical helicopter, he quietly peers out the window at the landscape, turning to a tearful Helen and adding, “Look…I’m flying, Helen. I’m flying.” We cut away to the image of a happy baby, Garp, being tossed into the air; the infant joyously smiling now. Is this merely childhood memory unearthed by the adult Garp as he drifts in and out of consciousness, or a recap meant to mark his life at its end?  
As with most artists, The World According to Garp is a far more personal reflection of John Irving’s own heart; an intimate portrait grafted onto fictional counterparts, the veneer thin and stemming from Irving’s own obsession to draw a vicarious clarity out of being denied access to his own birth father. In reality, Irving’s mother never gave up information about his origins, just as Jenny baits Garp with a single ‘scripted’ story of his conception that leaves him feeling deflated, yet bursting inside with even more unanswerable questions. The novel’s view – that sex equates to death or, at the very least, is a harbinger to all sorts of dissatisfactory and emotional disfigurement, torturous and cruel – is carried over into the movie; ambitiously so, given the climate in American movies back in 1982; screenwriter, Steve Tesich choosing to explore some, if not all, of Irving’s ‘hang-ups’ via Garp’s repeatedly thwarted exploration of his own sexual feelings – rechristened as ‘lust’ by Jenny – without reprisals.  In the novel, Jenny takes the young Garp to Vienna as an escape from American provincialism. In Austria, she and Garp encounter the prostitute. For budgetary and logistic reasons, this intercontinental venue was changed to New York instead. In both cases, this chance encounter that ought to have expanded Garp’s understanding of sex and love, is instead usurped and mined by Jenny as a chapter for her memoir, ‘Sexual Suspect’.  
Interesting – and gutsy – of Irving to cast the fictional Jenny Fields as the empathetic organizer of the Ellen Jamesians – a self-mutilating cult of voiceless women, protesting the rape of a young woman – when, by her own admission, Jenny has raped a comatose and dying technical sergeant merely to conceive Garp. Ultimately, Tesich’s reconstitution of Garp’s marriage to Helen distills what, in the novel, had been multiple affairs with many singles and other married couples, into two separate indiscretions; Garp’s seduction of Duncan and Walt’s teenage babysitter (Sabrina Lee Moore) and Helen’s affair with her graduate student, Michael. This makes the couple’s later reconciliation more palpable and convincing; the audience able to excuse a ‘single’ indiscretion on both sides, recognized by both offending parties as an obvious lapse in judgment, though just as unlikely to embrace any married couple whose morality and attitudes toward marriage are laissez faire to non-existent. The inextricable link between sex and death, even murder, is less darkly drawn in the film than in the novel; the one exception being Walt dying from injuries sustained in the car wreck that causes Michael to lose his manhood between Helen’s clenched teeth after she agrees to fellatio as a parting gesture in their affair. The movie retains John Irving’s wickedness for combining a macabre sense of the perverse and silly, but even further lightens this mood by tipping the scales toward a sort of merciless sardonicism.
It helps that the novel and the movie are set in the afterglow of the fabulous forties; a decade then, as yet, untapped in the movies for its sexual explicitness. There is a great tendency among the young to look upon previous generations, particularly those in the early half of the 20th century, as harbingers of a sort of sexless glamor; women of virtue married to men of valor, everyone doing their part to remain congenially ‘above it all’ where love, lust and sex is concerned. To a large extent, this common view by the novice has been nurtured via the entertainments then in vogue; songs professing unrequited kisses left on a pillow and movies in which a brief interlude of mostly chaste clenches leads to a swift walk down the isle in a flourish of strewn rose petals and groundswell of underscore to punctuate the proverbial ‘…and they all lived happily ever after’ – sleeping in separate beds, preferably, in separate bedrooms, with one foot firmly planted on the floor. But by 1982, the American movies’ fairytale about life as a couple had fallen on crasser times; the graphic nature of sex exorcised in countless ‘love scenes’ that had very little to do with satisfying our cerebral vestiges for a ‘good time’.  
The world, at least, according to Garp, is misshapen, imperfect, dissatisfying and frequently harmful. Here is a man unable to find even the remotest satisfaction in most any relationship he chooses to cultivate; though chiefly, with the women in his life. Ironic, given his aversion to homosexuality in general, Garp’s most cherished and enduring friendship is with the transsexual, Roberta – likely derived from his remembrances of her when she was still a robust footballer, playing professionally for his favorite team. There are shades of the buddy/buddy picture at play in the scenes where Garp and Roberta narrowly escape a psychotic truck driver (Matthew Cowles), whom Garp threatens with a crowbar after he is caught recklessly speeding through their residential neighborhood.  And later, Roberta and Garp are seen sharing a game of touch football, engaging Walt and Duncan in an afternoon’s make-believe of war and conquest, with Roberta as their damsel in distress. And it is Roberta to whom Garp turns in hours of genuine need; a sincere comfort after Jenny’s assassination and Garp and Helen’s recovery from their near-fatal car wreck. 
As a novel, The World According to Garp remains densely packed with scenarios that frequently border on grand guignol; sexual encounters that end badly or scenarios where women struggle to discover themselves from under the postmodern feminist fallout, instead frequently find themselves the victims of an insidiously monolithic patriarchy that even embraces political assassination to remain in control. Deconstructing the novel’s stories within stories takes the reader into a complex netherworld of stumbling social situations and intricately woven character studies, frequently bleak and often quite horrifying. In the book, the fatalistic nature of its protagonist is exhaustive and exhausting. The movie is salvaged from becoming a real downer by screenwriter, Steve Tesich’s refusal to go all the way down this rabbit hole; also, by Robin Williams’ miraculously restrained performance, void of his usual need to take over virtually every scene in which he appears. Instead, we are given a kinder, gentler Garp – still cynical, world-weary and occasionally imbued with Irving’s sense of animosity toward feminists in particular and women in general. But on the whole, Williams’ Garp is a probing, nurturing and soul-searching drifter through life. He discovers his path through the wilderness of angst, self-pity and regrets; albeit, too late to truly appreciate all the meandering misfires as part of the learning curve in the journey gone before it. The intractable nature of Irving’s prose is not so much reinterpreted by Tesich, but played verbatim like a moving tableau of the text, with minor artistic license taken along the way.
The movie, however, lives entirely within its moments, eschewing Irving’s overriding arc of sublime nihilism. As a movie, The World According to Garp is director George Roy Hill’s counterculture folklore to Hollywood’s nationalized whitewash in candy-flossed entertainments. In increments, it’s grim, sour, and excoriating showbiz. But oh, what a show; the bits of business appropriately disturbing to their core; odd people do unsettling things to each other in the spirit of professing to be just normal Average Joes. Overlapping the ostensibly indivisible chasms of politicking and madness, the twain frequently runs a parallel course, unexpectedly meeting right down the middle with nerve-jangling results. As such, The World According to Garp is often wintry and abrasive in its storytelling, yet always with something relevant to say about the modern implosion of suburban life. 
The Warner Archive Blu-ray has been remastered in 2k from a newly created interpositive. The results are impressive but slightly imperfect. Miroslav Ondrícek’s understated cinematography looks gorgeous for the most part, although there are still a few obvious hints of age-related damage scattered throughout this transfer; a speckle here, a fleeting scratch there. The subdued color palette, particularly during outdoor scenes, has been very accurately reproduced. Scenes shot indoors under natural lighting conditions tend to adopt a slightly thicker patina of grain (as they should) but with flesh tones ever so slightly leaning toward an unnatural orange.  Overall, the image is finely detailed and generally film-like, untouched by unpleasant digital manipulations. But it doesn’t really impress. Okay, The World According to Garp is not a movie meant to overwhelm. It’s an earthy, alive and gritty main stream product that plays more like experimental art house. The visuals on this Blu-ray support this assessment. Let’s leave it at that. The original mono audio is presented in 2.0 DTS and is surprisingly robust with good solid clarity.  WAC's Blu-ray is a first-rate presentation of this tenaciously idiosyncratic story. For those willing to invest in the tale being told, there are formidable riches to be mined and treasured forever. Recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


Friday, August 28, 2015

FATAL ATTRACTION: Blu-ray (Paramount 1987) Paramount Home Video

The movie that made every married man even contemplating an extramarital affair cringe, Adrian Lyne’s Fatal Attraction (1987) subverts the male fantasy of taking a mistress to bed without reprisals. Instead we get every man's worst nightmare – discovering the gal on the side is both insane and pregnant with his child. In retrospect, Fatal Attraction is a far more insidious thriller than critics of its day gave it credit. Indeed, the premise, that a happily married man could stray even from the perfect wife and mother, simply to satisfy an itch while she is away feathering his nest, and then, be forced to face the consequences of his betrayal with a near death experience, served to ignite a powder keg of feminist debate in 1987.  Militants picketed the movie wherever it played, charging Lyne and screenwriter James Dearden had made a public attack on the decade’s power broker female executive. Why, they inquired, did a highly successful career for women, equate to one becoming a raving psychotic, driven by her hormones?   Fair enough, the film’s Alex Forrest (Glenn Close), a seemingly normal and enterprising go-getter, working as legal counsel for a publishing firm, slips in her lust for attorney at law, Dan Gallagher (Michael Douglas) into a raving and obsessed gargoyle; stalking him, taking his daughter hostage, murdering the family pet and causing Dan’s wife, Beth (Ann Archer) to suffer injuries in a horrific car wreck. But did either Lynne or Dearden consider Alex Forrest a representative of the ‘working woman’?  
In retrospect, it is a thoughtless argument, and one basically asking the wrong question - 'what more could Mrs. Gallagher have done to keep her man?' - when the onus ought to have zeroed in on critiquing just what in the hell was wrong with her man; a guy who could so easily and callously shrug off his marital commitments, simply because she was out of town for the weekend. Ultimately, Lyne and Dearden made no judgment calls or, in fact, gave us any explanations to suffice and quell all the inhuman noise and controversy surrounding the picture. Such is life; rarely, what we would hope it to be or as neatly defined and bookended with reasons, and quite often sneaking up from behind to assault our senses and good name when we least expect it. On the flipside, the emotional castration Dan suffers at Alex’s hand seemed to satisfy at least some, a sort of all-encompassing divine retribution for every husband’s philandering ways. Yet, the punishment inflicted upon Dan by his jilted lover turned enemy spills over to terrorize his wife, Beth (Anne Archer) and their young daughter, Ellen (Ellen Hamilton Latzen); the impact of his actions possessing far-reaching ramifications that almost tear apart a family, or at least cause them to reassess their loyalties to one another.
Fatal Attraction is unquestionably a harrowing thriller; yielding to that moment when intense passion crosses the line into a dangerous downward spiral of psychotic obsession. In today’s cynical climate, Lyne’s movie perhaps appears marginally tamer than it did in 1987; its melodramatic arc and somewhat clichéd ‘villainess’ ending, bordering on pure camp. There is no denying screenwriter Dearden paints these characters in very broad brushstrokes: Dan, our wayward cock of the walk, with an egotistical sense of manly attractiveness being brought into question by his own looming mid-life crisis. Beth is his doe-eyed, faithful-as-a-bird-dog Suzie Cream Cheese, desiring to drag her man back to the affluent suburbs. She cannot fathom her man’s wandering eye has already led them all into a den of iniquity soon to rupture with all the violent underpinnings of the San Andreas fault. And Alex is remarkably transparent as the bunny-boiling, 'I am a bad woman, hear me roar' being thrust upon this clan. What salvages the writing are the performances by Michael Douglas, Ann Archer and particularly Glenn Close; the latter giving a brilliant interpretation of the lost - though hardly soulless – creature, who refuses to be dumped like garbage once the man has had his fun.
It is all quite good up to the end; Lyne falling back on the traditional ‘hell hath no fury showdown’ to wrap up the story. The ending to Fatal Attraction was, in fact, forced upon Lyne by the studio after he had already conceived a much more diabolical last act finale - Alex taking a butcher knife to her own throat, the same utensil Dan had handled in an earlier scene; thus, his fingerprints left to be discovered by police, who thereafter assume the 'obvious' - that he has murdered his lover to shut her up: the ultimate betrayal come home to roost and inflict one final devastation on the Gallagher family. Reconsidering Lyne’s finale, one is rather immediately struck by the fact it too doesn’t quite work. Alex, strong-willed, her mental acuity even further askew by hormonal imbalances brought on by her pregnancy, taking her own life and that of her unborn child. Only a few scenes before, she had sent Dan an audio recording, vowing to make him pay for their mistake for the rest of his life. Hell hath no fury…remember; and yet, Alex’s suicide get Dan off the hook in the long run; the police sure to discover, via Beth’s alibi, that Dan was nowhere near Alex’s apartment when the throat-slashing began; the fingerprints easily explained away, since Beth already knows about her husband’s affair, and Dan, now free of both Alex and the bastard child he never wanted in the first place.
For its day, Fatal Attraction trod some particularly tawdry ground in an unexpectedly cheap and tawdry way. The film was ground-breaking in its representation of marital infidelity. Dan’s wife, as example, is not presented to us as the cause of his marital angst. In fact, she is sweetly innocent and utterly charming; better still, a most forgiving and patient spouse. Even more curious, given his ultimate betrayal, Dan thinks so too. And the impetus for the affair is not some growing infatuation between colleagues at work, but carnal-based, sweat-soaked passion, invested on a spur of the moment; a consensual whim, made by two apparently reasonably-minded, well-rounded and consenting adults – both intelligent and old enough to know better. Again, the onus of responsibility here is on Dan – the guy with everything to lose after spending himself on a male ego-driven dare one rainy afternoon. Instead, the focus gradually shifts from Dan to Alex – manipulative, unstable and finally – just plain vanilla nuts. It is to Glenn Close’s credit, she never allows her character to slip completely down this rabbit hole into blow-job/knife-wielding lunacy without alluding to something far more sinister and demonic behind the eye. Clearly, Alex is troubled. But she is also enterprising, her revenge conceived with a systematic determination to inflict maximum anxiety on her casual lover; baiting him with visits to his apartment on the ruse she is house-hunting, introducing herself to Beth, and later, befriending Ellen as a pseudo-maternal influence.   
Adrian Lyne’s approach to this straightforward material is fairly sophisticated; his subtle introduction of Beth and Dan, seen in their idyllic – if slightly cramped – New York apartment, preparing to attend a work-related book-signing with their best friends, Jimmy (Stuart Pankin) and Hildy (Ellen Foley); the perfect segue to Dan’s first casual introduction to Alex. The contrast between these two couples cannot be overstated; Beth’s fragile elegance pitted against Hildy’s more gregarious repartee; Dan’s self-professed peacock, seemingly the straight man to Pankin’s bulbous sidekick.  When first set up, Beth and Dan are clearly the power-brokering pair, exploiting Hildy and Jimmy as their appendages; figures of fun for amusing nights on the town. Lyne gives us glimmers of the unanticipated volatility to follow; Jimmy hitting on Alex at a business mixer, only to be shot down by her murderous stare. This look of absolute glacial hatred melts when Dan attempts a subtler approach to their ‘cute meet’; alas, soon to turn out neither ‘cute’ nor casual. Here, Lyne provides insight into each’s motivations and foreshadows the future crossed paths that will lead a devoted husband and father astray. The genius remains in the casting of Glenn Close; not only for the obvious reason – that she is a superior actress, but equally, because in terms of physical appeal alone, she pales to Anne Archer’s gazelle-like beauty.
Lyne breaks us of the Hollywoodized misconception that a man’s straying is purely motivated on ‘trading up’ his female companion, solely based on her looks. Archer is not only clearly the forerunner, but the winner. Alas, she is also ‘wife’ and ‘mother’ – Lyne exploiting the conventions of these signifiers to suggest Dan could never indulge in the sort of tasteless sexual escapades with a woman he so obviously respects – at least, enough to have put a ring on her finger. That was then. And yet, happier times have persisted – the bloom of love not yet having worn thin when Dan meets Alex. The betrayal is thus all the more unnatural and shocking, because it is not prompted or preceded by anything Beth Gallagher does; her biggest ‘transgression’ – kicking Dan out of their marital bed for one night after he returns from taking the dog for a walk to discover their daughter, Ellen has crawled into bed and fallen asleep next to his wife. And there are no stressors at work either; none that would suggest or support Dan’s need to blow off a little extramarital steam while Beth is away in Connecticut, house-hunting. In fact, Dan is about to be made partner at his law firm.
Casting Michael Douglas as the pivotal maypole around which both women do their dance is inspiring. Beth’s martyrdom is pitted against Alex’s aggressive passion. Both bring about a deeper suffrage. But it is a stretch to suggest Alex seduces Dan. Rather, he willingly allows his virtue to slip, presumably, only for one ‘harmless’ weekend tryst.  Dan gets more than he bargains for as Alex inveigles him in an increasingly well-plotted, if maniacal and harrowing, game of blackmail; the insidious stealth with which she suddenly infects and affects all that is good and decent in all their lives, creeping with all the voracity of an untamed kudzu to entangle this ‘perfect marriage’. But Douglas makes his portrait of this straying ‘family man’ not merely palpable, also queerly sympathetic. In the first act, we cannot help but find Dan Gallagher a reprehensible cad; Douglas conveying an assured bravado and selfishness that naïvely believes he can have both a dutiful wife and a mistress at his beckoned call. However, it is in the middle act where Douglas illustrates a superior interpretation of the oft witnessed ‘cheating spouse’; avoiding not only the more transparent clichés, but even the subtler ones. Douglas gradually peels back the façade of Dan’s male ego to reveal a rather boyish anxiety; being found out escalating into abject fear and then, even more uncharacteristically, stripped down to an honest and empathizing remorse-filled regret for his actions.
Lyne’s last act finale, foisted upon him by the studio, remains something of a minor betrayal to each character’s driving principles - especially Beth’s. She is, after all, the grotesquely injured party in this equation, having endured, not only the indignation in discovering her perfect partner has gone astray; also, survived the emotional roller coaster of Ellen’s faux kidnapping, a near fatal car accident, and, in the finale, almost being murdered at knifepoint by Alex in an upstairs bathroom. Yet, it is Beth who gets Dan off the hook for his extramarital affair by shooting his psychotic lover dead. Sweet revenge or self-defense? We are never entirely certain; the calculating look on Beth’s face as she rescues her husband from being Ginsued by his illicit paramour, registering subliminal satisfaction at being the one to ‘put down’ this rabid hellcat. Lyne’s finale completely eschews the fact Alex is pregnant with Dan’s baby at the time of her murder. Audiences in 1987 did not seem to mind this. But feminists decried Beth’s actions as an assault on the proverbial sisterhood, particularly as it is in defense of the male responsible for both hers and Alex’s emotional misery.
Only in retrospect does Dan’s wounded chivalry, flying up the stairs at the first sound of Beth’s frantic screams, and, expending his rage to disarm Alex of her butcher knife by forcing her head beneath the steaming bath waters, seem, not only less chivalrous, but even more enterprisingly desperate; a means to silence Alex once and for all, thereby –literally – washing away his carnal sins. And, of course, Alex herself is compromised; having begun the story as an intelligent, sane, even playful and forgiving lover, she gradually unravels into the cinema’s tradition of the ‘bad woman’ – very bad, indeed – killing Ellen’s beloved pet rabbit and allowing its boiled remains to be discovered by Beth in a stock pot on the stove; pouring acid on Dan’s BMW, mailing threatening audio tapes to his place of business, and finally turning up uninvited at his apartment, and later, the Gallagher’s newly purchased country home to exact her penultimate revenge.
It is unclear what Alex’s motivations are in the finale as it exists in the film today. Clearly, her plan is to kill Beth. But could she genuinely expect Beth’s murder to liberate Dan into rekindling their affair? While the argument can be made Alex is quite obviously not playing with a full deck; her scenarios are nevertheless flawed and ill-plotted. At least, Lyne’s original ending, Alex committing suicide with the malignant intent to frame Dan for her ‘murder’, is in keeping with the character’s vengeful ambitions to never let him go. Even in death, she would have destroyed his chances for a happy home. As this never occurs in the final cut, we are left with a somewhat unsatisfactory denouement; the family Gallagher, disjointed, shell-shocked and unlikely ever to return to its original state of unity.    
Fatal Attraction opens with the Gallaghers at home; Dan, listening to a deposition in his underwear on the couch as his young daughter, Ellen quietly watches television at his side. Beth has already begun to put on her face for a publishing gala they are expected to attend later in the evening. After leaving Ellen with a babysitter (Jane Krakowski), the couple is joined by good friends, Jimmy and Hildy. Jimmy is feeling his oats, drawn to Alex Forrest who is poised in a slinky gown at the bar. But Jimmy’s harmless flirtation is met with a daggered glare; our first ‘fleeting’ glimpse of the Medusa lurking just beneath. After Jimmy bows out, Dan casually engages Alex in conversation. She is more receptive to him, but still thinks him a ‘naughty boy’ for flirting, particularly as Beth is in another part of the room. The next day, Dan bids Beth and Ellen goodbye as they drive off to spend a weekend at her parents’ Joan (Meg Mundy) and Howard Rogerson (Tom Brennan) in Connecticut. Arriving at the publishers a short while later, to negotiate a contract with a female author whose scandalous exposé about a real affair she had with a senator is threatening a lawsuit, Dan is amused when the client’s legal counsel is none other than Alex.
At negotiations’ end, Dan and Alex agree to share a taxi because it is pouring rain. Instead, they wind up at a nearby bistro where each reveals bits from their past; Alex, inquiring about Dan’s wife and child. When Dan suggests his marriage is ‘good’, Alex comes back with “If it’s so good what are you doing here with me?” Ironically, her directness does not set off any red flags for Dan. He has already decided he won’t be going back to an empty apartment tonight. And so, Fatal Attraction begins to slip into the mire of a heated weekend sex-capade; complete with elevator blow-jobs and some fairly hardcore acrobatics in the bedroom and kitchen. Afterward, Alex takes Dan dancing to her favorite Latin-American club. As Alex lives in a walk up near the meat packers’ district, no one pays attention to their comings and goings at all hours. The next afternoon, Alex coaxes Dan to play hooky from his work-related responsibilities; the two engaging in a spirited game of touch football in Central Park. When Dan fakes a heart attack, he causes Alex to momentarily become panicked. Revealing his sick little prank, she admonishes him with a fake story of her own, about her father dying right before her eyes when she was barely five years old. As Dan suddenly feels guilty about his stupid prank, Alex bursts into laughter, revealing to him her father is not dead but living in Arizona. Like most things Dan comes to know about Alex, this too will later be proven as a lie.
But for now, the two share more intimate stories about their youth; more spaghetti and sex and opera music (Giacomo Puccini’s Madame Butterfly, to be exact – a prophetic choice, given Lyne’s original ending). But by now, it’s Sunday. Beth will be coming home soon. Dan’s attempt to disentangle himself from their weekend tryst leads to a disastrous moment;  first, of violent refusal, as Alex claws at the buttons on his shirt, tearing apart the fabric in a rage; then, in her plunge into suicide, slicing open her wrists and smearing Dan’s face in the blood from her open wounds. He manages to bind her cuts and put her to bed before slinking home like a penitent drunkard. When Beth arrives, Dan feigns a boring weekend at home. She tells him about her restful weekend – of Ellen’s desire to have a pet rabbit and of the beautiful cottage, not far from her parents; possibly, the ideal place for them to have a real ‘fresh start’ at last. Dan resists at first.  But then Alex begins to stalk him at home; mysterious phone calls in the middle of the night, ending in hang-ups when Beth answers, or thinly veiled threats made when Dan picks up the receiver. To put an end to the harassment, Dan agrees to meet Alex publicly in the subway, whereupon she confides she is carrying his child. Dan offers to pay for an abortion. But Alex insists she will carry the child to term.
Under duress, Dan agrees to buy Beth her dream cottage in Connecticut. While Dan, Beth, Jimmy and Hildy celebrate, Alex is seen, huddled on the floor of her apartment, turning the light in her bedroom on and off as she weeps real tears listening to Madam Butterfly.  More confrontations ensue. Dan attempts to stand his ground with Alex, when, in reality he knows he doesn’t have the proverbial ‘leg’ to stand on – except, perhaps, the one that got him into trouble in the first place. “You're so sad. You know that, Alex? Lonely and very sad,” he tells her. “Don't you ever pity me, you smug bastard,” she threatens. “I'll pity you because you're sick,” he challenges, to which she astutely summarizes “Why? Because I won't allow you treat me like some slut you can just bang a couple of times and throw in the garbage?” A short while later, Dan and Beth move into their new home.  Alex is anything but out of the picture. In fact, she deliberately douses Dan’s Beamer in battery acid; then, tails him as he rents a car to drive himself home. Observing the ‘happy family’ through the window, Alex becomes disturbed and throws up in the bushes.
The next afternoon, the family returns home to a gruesome discovery. As Ellen and Dan race to the backyard to play with Ellen’s pet rabbit, Beth enters the house; discovering her stock pot boiling on the gas stove. Knowing she has not left anything cooking on the stove, Beth approaches the pot with trepidation, discovering the rabbit’s mutilated remains cooking inside. After putting a distraught Ellen to bed, Beth suggests Dan telephone the police. Instead, he confesses the truth to her; of his affair with Alex, the possibility she is carrying his love child and the likelihood she is responsible for the bunny boiler. Beth is outraged, ordering Dan from the house. He moves out. But Alex is not about to leave the family alone. Alex befriends Ellen; picking her up from school and taking her to a nearby amusement park where they ride the roller coaster. When Beth arrives at the school she is informed by Ellen’s teachers, the child is gone. Believing the worst, Beth drives like a maniac through the streets, frantically looking for her daughter, eventually causing a terrible car wreck that puts her in the hospital. Meanwhile, Alex has dropped Ellen off at home unharmed.
When Dan learns of the accident he storms Alex’s apartment, perhaps intent on murdering her. The two struggle in the various rooms, Dan wrestling a carving knife loose from Alex’s grip. She seems erotically pleased to have surrendered the knife to him; again, director, Adrian Lyne’s original scenario (to have Alex slit her own throat, but with a knife covered in Dan’s fingerprints) would have borne out this plot twist. Instead, Dan returns to Beth and begs her forgiveness. She recognizes his remorse as genuine and allows him to move back into the family home. But on her first night’s return to take a soothing bath, Alex breaks into the house and confronts Beth at knife point in the upstairs bathroom. Dan is none the wiser for this intrusion until Beth screams for help. He charges up the stairs, bursts into the room and attacks Alex. She violently slices the air in retaliation, the blade superficially wounding Dan in the chest. As he forces her head below the surface of the bathtub water, Alex fakes drowning. Dan loosens his grip and reclines on the edge of the tub, presuming the ordeal is over. However, Alex has one last trick up her sleeve. She leaps from the bath, knife in hand and ready to stab Dan in the back, only to be fatally shot by Beth with the gun the family bought for self-defense earlier.  As police swarms the house in an aftermath of sirens and questioning, the camera casually pans to a silver-framed photograph in the foyer; the Gallaghers, smiling blissfully.
In retrospect, Fatal Attraction is a watershed in American cinema; Adrian Lyne’s direction and the performances of these three principles in the ill-fated lover’s triangle, managed to generate holocausts and hell fires as no other intimate drama/sex thriller ever had before it. Viewed today, a lot of the precepts and pacing in Fatal Attraction has become diluted and formulaic from our seeing too many like-minded adulterous melodramas, leaving contemporary audiences to wonder what all the fuss was about with Lyne’s movie. It is important to recall virtually none of these machinations were ‘old hat’ when Fatal Attraction debuted. And today, the movie still holds a hallowed place as shocking, yet tasteful cinema.  Despite the feminist backlash the picture endured, Fatal Attraction was a huge hit on both sides of the Atlantic; Lyne resisting immediate offers to do ‘another Fatal Attraction’ – although, subsequent movie projects like Indecent Proposal (1993) and his lackluster remake of Lolita (1997) would prove variations on a theme. In 2002, Lyne relented to visiting the same well twice, and almost verbatim, with Unfaithful; the roles reversed. This time, it was Diane Lane’s bored housewife who took a penniless artist and bookseller to bed, leaving her husband apoplectic and eventually turned secret killer of her lover. But by then, the salacious machinations on display had been distilled to one-dimensional and mechanical intrigues. Yet these, quite simply, failed to excite.
Arguably, Fatal Attraction could have been better had Paramount not balked at Lyne’s more understated conclusion, forcing him to cobble together the ‘evil villainess’ scenario as it plays today. This ending is undeniably heart-pounding. But it is also structurally flawed. For example; how is it that no one in this small community of country houses sees Alex approaching the property or entering the house? Dan sets the alarm while Beth retires upstairs to take her bath. How long has Alex been in the house and, more importantly, given her murderous impulsiveness, what is she waiting for? Furthermore, once Beth and Alex begin to struggle for the knife in the upstairs bathroom – with Beth, at first, shrieking several times for help – why does no one, including Ellen (who is sleeping only a few feet away) immediately rush to her aid? Lyne uses the shrill piercing sound of a whistling kettle to presumably ‘drown out’ Beth’s screams. But we are not talking about an expansive estate with many rooms; rather a cozy cottage-styled home with few nooks and crannies in which to hide. One gets the sense from earlier scenes played out inside the home that even the slightest creaking of the stairs would alert everyone to an intruder. Yet, on this night, ‘a kettle’ stifles cries for help and voices shouting in an upstairs bath. Finally, although it is Dan who attempts to drown Alex in their bathtub, it is actually Beth who murders Alex with a fatal gunshot, leaving Dan – more or less – the emasculated victim of this penultimate assault.
None of these glaring oversights mattered to audiences in 1987. When Fatal Attraction hit theaters it became an instant sensation, either intentionally or unintentionally setting off that powder keg for outraged feminists, who denounced it as masochistic tripe. Curiously, this only made the public want to see it more. It has become something of a sport with movie-goers ever since to defy negative publicity and indulge an even more disturbing fascination; to see a ‘good picture’ that is supposed to be bad. In retrospect, Fatal Attraction is an artful entertainment, Adrian Lyne plucking at the chords of the audience’s curiosity, contempt and fear to tell a simple story about the darkest inhibitions to which man and woman can succumb without much effort or resolution. Howard Atherton’s cinematography and Maurice Jarre’s understated score conspire to bolster this understated critique of self-destructive nature, unable to leave well enough alone and driven by the most primal urges, despite centuries of striving for a more cultured set of moral principles by which to live. There have been other erotic thrillers before and since Fatal Attraction, arguably, none so skillfully ricocheting between moments of fitful passion and unadulterated obsession. This is what makes Fatal Attraction much more an artistic masterpiece than a commercial colossus; although, in the summer of ’87 it proved to be both.  
Paramount’s Blu-Ray rectifies many sins committed on previous DVD incarnations of Fatal Attraction. For some reason, previous regimes at the studio never bothered to revisit original camera negatives, but used imperfect print masters to slap their movies to disc format. The result: an image ultimately lacking in fine detail, with some slight variances in color density and balancing and, at least three generations removed from fine grain sources, sporting a barrage of age-related artifacts. But now we get the Blu-ray: a true 1080p transfer from original elements and virtually free of debris and damage. You’ll be hard-pressed to find fault with this disc. The Blu-Ray sports refined and very vibrant colors, true to life and the period in which the movie was photographed. Shadow and contrast have been beautifully rendered for a very sharp – though not artificially enhanced – smooth transfer. Indigenous grain has been well-preserved. Here is an early contribution by Paramount to do right by its own catalog in the years before it suddenly decided to sell-off ‘grazing rights’ to its back catalog to Warner Home Video. Since that time, we have seen very few quality transfers coming down the pipeline. The DTS stereo audio will impress. Extras include featurettes previously a part of Paramount’s Special Collector’s Edition DVD; most presented in HD herein, including the original trailer. Bottom line: highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)


Wednesday, August 26, 2015

AMADEUS: Blu-ray (Saul Zaentz/Orion 1984) Warner Home Video

“When you finish a film, before the first paying audience sees it, you don't have any idea. You don't know if you’ve made a success or a flop. And in the '80s, with MTV, we were having a three-hour film about classical music, with long names and wigs and costumes. Don't forget that no major studio wanted to finance the film for these reasons.”
Milos Forman
History vs. Hollywood’s fictionalized tradition of ‘inventing the truth’…and never the twain shall meet. Milos Forman’s Amadeus (1984) is about two people who never actually met in real life; the gifted musical prodigy, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, brilliantly reconstructed by Tom Hulce as oafish punster, and, insanely jealous court composer with daggers in his heart, Antonio Salieri (F. Murray Abraham). Throughout the better half of this three hour colossus, Salieri employs oily charm to ingratiate himself into Mozart’s confidences. Yet Salieri’s envy, all-consuming with devastating results, is well known to seemingly everyone except Mozart, who trusts the serpent with his own ambitions and, tragically, his life. The artist's wife, Constanze (Elizabeth Berridge) recognizes Salieri’s darker purpose. Still, the trusting and naïve Mozart cannot bring himself to see the deceiver. Salieri presents himself as friend and mentor, all the while plotting the young composer’s demise. As they used to say, ‘the truth (may) set you free. Alas, it rarely makes for good melodrama. And so, virtually none of Peter Schaffer’s screenplay adheres to the life and times of this brilliant man; Schaffer instead embracing the precepts of an original off-Broadway play, and endeavoring to transform what on the stage had been a series of conversations and altercations, into a sweeping epic with exotic locales, the likes of which Hollywood then had not witnessed in nearly fifty years.
There is nothing new in Schaffer’s level of deception when delving into the bio-pic. Throughout the 1940s, Hollywood was enamored with exploiting the back catalog of famous composers, mostly to regale audiences with a loosely strung together fiction sandwiched between elaborately staged and glossy musical numbers, designed to show off a studio’s cavalcade of their brightest and biggest stars. Every life, from Frédéric Chopin’s (A Song to Remember, 1945) to Jerome Kern’s (Till the Clouds Roll By, 1946) was prone to this Technicolor fantasia into pure escapism. But like all other Hollywood-devised formulas, this too would run its course, fizzling in the mid-fifties. Changing times and tastes, not to mention the implosion of the ‘star system’ and severe budgetary restrictions thereafter, eventually crushed all future prospects for resurrecting this sub-genre. And truth be told, Amadeus is not harking back to these all-star spectacles, but remains something more of a kissing cousin to the ‘art house’ experiment, shot without the benefit of ‘stars’ and made for the relatively inexpensive budget of $18,000,000 – with every dollar showing up on the screen.  
Shot in Prague, Kroměříž and Vienna, Amadeus greatly benefits from these sumptuous European backdrops. Indeed, Forman was able to lens various sequences inside Count Nostitz’ Theatre where Mozart’s Don Giovanni and La clemenza di Tito had actually debuted two centuries earlier. And yet, there is a decided disconnect between these opulent and authentic surroundings, ably abetted by Miroslav Ondrícek’s stunning cinematography, Karel Cerný’s superb art direction and Theodor Pistek/Christian Thuri’s costuming, and, the cast, comprised almost entirely of American talent. The performances in Amadeus are simply that – performances; highly theatrical, with some more skillfully executed than others. Schaffer’s screenplay plays to the strengths in Tom Hulce’s adolescent reinterpretation of this boy genius; dictated to by a stern patriarch, Leopold (Roy Dotrice) and patronized by the Emperor, Joseph II (Jeffrey Jones – a dead ringer for his alter ego). Our Wolfgang – rechristened ‘Wolfie’ by Constanze – is both a scamp and a brat, not above informing admired court composer, Salieri that his melody created in Mozart’s honor “doesn’t quite work” and suggesting to the Italians that their renaissance knows absolutely nothing about ‘love’. He’s also a bit of a deviant, over-sexed and prone to dirty jokes, farting in public, and, wanton revelries that fly in the face of his father’s Teutonic outlook on life. 
Apart from registering as pure and magnificent entertainment, Amadeus is a film queerly absent of fact, yet wholly excelling in its alternative verisimilitude. Director, Milos Forman assumed a daunting task with this motion picture: how best to capture the essence of a relationship between two men where no relationship ever existed. Mercifully, the historical record has Salieri's own claim to chew on; made in a fit of madness while convalescing in an asylum; that he orchestrated the demise of this musical genius. And so, our story opens many years after Mozart’s death, with the aged and half-crazed Salieri attempting suicide by slitting his own throat. He is taken to a mental hospital where he begins to confess his sins to a priest (Herman Meckler). From here, the tale regresses to Salieri’s days as court composer for Emperor Joseph II. Considered an authority on composition, Salieri’s supremacy is all but ended with Mozart's arrival – a one-time child prodigy out on his own, in an ambitious spree and lark to take the world of music by storm; laughing hysterically and breaking wind on cue to punctuate his general contempt for authority. One can, in fact, empathize with Salieri during these initial scenes; the jaded stately popinjay forced to kowtow to this upstart, scornful of practically any human thought outside his own limited understanding of the world.
Sex with an improper young lass seems to have turned Mozart’s head – both of them – Constanze seen as a sort of enterprising interloper, disparaged by Leopold, who disavows his son of his inheritance upon learning of their secret marriage.  At least the movie gets most of this subplot right. The real Mozart’s marriage to Constanze was considered mildly scandalous, insofar as he had courted her while boarding with her family, was asked to leave by them – did – but took Constanze’s affections with him; the two eventually engaging in illicit rendezvous inside Mozart’s apartment. This prompted Constanze’s sister, the Baroness von Waldstätten to threaten an intervention based on the mores and laws of decency then in place. To prevent a full-blown scandal, Mozart married his sweetheart almost immediately, quelling any allegations of indecency, but very much incurring ire from both Constanze’s family as well as his own. Although this vignette from Mozart’s life might have fueled enough tension to sustain an entire movie, Amadeus is not particularly invested in exploring the turbulent union, except as backdrop to an even more treacherous and downward spiral in Wolfgang’s fortunes – and misfortunes – presumably, compounded by his unsuspecting good nature toward Salieri; the man who (at least, according to Schaffer’s designs) will push him into an early grave.
Mozart and Salieri get off to a rough start; Mozart illustrating his mastery of composition by instantly memorizing, then re-composing the welcome march written in his honor by Salieri, but bumbled rather badly at the keyboard by the Emperor.  Mozart’s ability to simply ‘pick up at tune’ impresses both the Emperor and his court cronies; all except Kappelmeister Bonno (Patrick Hines) who regards Mozart as an evil little bug to be squashed. Thus, when Mozart insists his first opera under Joseph’s patronage be in German, rather than traditional Italian, he incurs Bonno’s considerable opposition. Mozart compounds this displeasure at court by seducing Katerina Caveleri (Christine Ebersole) – the operatic diva whom Salieri has lusted after for quite some time. Salieri pretends to be unimpressed by Mozart’s efforts, when, in reality, he is seething with jealousy. When it is announced Mozart will marry Constanze instead, Katerina flies into a rage. In Salzberg, news of his son’s hasty marriage to this lowly girl all but breaks Mozart’s father, Leopold’s (Roy Dotrice) heart. Even after paying a visit to the happy couple, Leopold cannot contain his displeasure. Instead, he departs the city, the rift between father and son never entirely healed. News of Leopold’s death shortly thereafter leaves Mozart tormented and fearing his father’s ghost will forever haunt him.
From here, Salieri begins to deliberately plot a richly satisfying and extremely vial, well-orchestrated plan of revenge – first, to tarnish Mozart’s good standing with the Emperor; then, to pretend to be Mozart’s confidante in order to steal his latest composition; a requiem Salieri has secretly commissioned, but meant to drive this young zeitgeist into his early grave. Constanze, who had left Mozart in a marital quarrel over monies owed them by Emanuel Schikaneder (Simon Callow) several months before, now returns to discover Salieri’s ruse too late. Salieri has been driving her ailing husband, bedridden and delirious, to finish his requiem. Recognizing the terrible strain this work has put on his health, Constanze gathers the pages of Mozart’s unfinished composition and locks it away in a nearby cabinet, ordering Salieri from the house at once. Alas, in their moment of heated exchange neither has yet to realize Mozart has already died, presumably, from heart failure brought about by extreme exhaustion.
Mozart’s burial in an unmarked pauper’s grave is heartbreaking (and untrue); just one in a heap of nameless bodies committed to the same hole in the earth without fanfare or even a faint remembrance of the musical genius that once occupied his corruptible flesh.  In reality, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was laid to rest in a ‘commoner’s plot’ with a private headstone – merely, denoting he was neither a member of any royal house or even the aristocracy. Again, we regress to the asylum where the aged Salieri has survived his suicide attempt; his confession to the priest taken as fact; his sins destined to condemn him for eternity. As Salieri is wheeled back to his cell, he gleefully passes an entourage of unfortunates; mad, filthy, lost in their own tortuous thoughts and chained to the walls or restrained in straightjackets; smiling and absolving them of their sins, the sudden echo of Mozart’s infectiously juvenile laughter, piercing his mind and causing Salieri to wince in extreme mental anguish.  
In these final moments, Amadeus almost degenerates into a sort of moralizing grand guignol. The asylum is a house of oddities. Yet, within its walls of yowling despair we glean the nucleus of Peter Schaffer’s exercise; his decision to illustrate how revenge is never as sweet or as satisfying as the avenger might at first anticipate. In murdering that which he secretly loved and desired to become – though, publicly condemned, and, swore to destroy as a rebuke of God’s purpose and presumed curse on his own willful talents – Salieri condemns himself to a fate worse than death. He is void of love – ethereal or otherwise – and plagued by a vengeance far more self-destructive and enduring than the swift end to which he has sent Mozart. In 1984, the Academy simply could not decide who had given the better performance; electing to nominate both F. Murray Abraham and Tom Hulce as Best Actor and let the voting members of AMPAS decide. They chose Abraham who, in his acceptance speech declared, “Only one more thing could have made this evening complete…to have had Tom Hulce standing by my side” to which Hulce, from his seat in the auditorium, mouthed the words ‘thank you’ in reply. If animosity and competition between Salieri and Mozart was the order of the day, it was anything if nonexistent between Abraham and Hulce throughout the shoot, and particularly absent on this Oscar night.
In retrospect, Amadeus is very much a product of its time, disinterested with virtually all particulars when creating any authenticity outside its own marvelously achieved falsehoods. Hulce’s performance is especially of the moment – that moment very much catering to the social mores and mannerisms of youth circa, 1984; or as the studio’s clever marketing then declared, “the man…the madness…the music…the murder…everything you’ve heard is true!” Hulce’s own genius resides in conveying a sort of timeless aura of puckishness; the high-pitched cackle of a virtuoso, drunk on his own success and contemptuous of all those who would dare question its legitimacy; his awkward inability, unable and unwilling to assimilate into the culture of court life – farting on cue and engaging in ‘blue-humored’ parlor games that would make even a lowly scullery maid blush, much less the rigidly cultured boors who populate Joseph II’s court. And yet, Hulce shows great restraint in never going all the way with this performance. It so easily could have devolved into cheaply orchestrated ridiculousness, pantomime and/or rank parody.
The more subtly nuanced of the two is, of course, F. Murray Abraham’s Salieri; an enviable and sustained blend of simmering wrath and mildly amusing comedy. Like all truly magnificent villains who endure in our collective memory, Abraham’s court composer is infectiously mischievous as well as ill-advised. His evil stems from the core of a very sad and lonely individual. We can truly empathize with the way the cocoon of authority he has struggled to construct around himself is almost immediately questioned and all but dismissed by the young upstart, presumably poised to eclipse even his greatest personal triumphs. Here is a man who prayed to God for his talent – limited as it may be, compared to Mozart’s – but to have it recognized as such. For this wish, Salieri has sacrificed much and will, ultimately, give everything over to a devil’s sin as his devotion is turned asunder to avenge God’s betrayal of this promise he wholeheartedly believed was made in good faith and exclusively to him. Mozart’s death seals two fates – God’s little dynamo on earth destroyed – and Salieri’s chance to ever be redeemed into the gates of heaven. It is this sobering self-destruction that continues to linger as the houselights in the theater come up. It is also largely for this reason that Amadeus – the movie – has endured.
Milos Forman’s skilled direction of these dramatic sequences is counterbalanced by cosmetic interludes of lavishly appointed musical excerpts from Mozart’s operas, including whole portions from Don Giovanni, The Magic Flute, The Marriage of Figaro and Abduction from the Seraglio. Far from simply interrupting the story for an orchestral respite, the music inserted augments the emotional core of the drama it bookends. In hindsight, Amadeus is a prestige production in an era unaccustomed to the concept: Miroslav Ondricek's cinematography, a vibrant tapestry that typifies the stately grandeur of ole Vienna. Patrizia von Brandenstein's production design is a minor miracle, immeasurably aided by Theodor Pistek's costumes. Amadeus may have absolutely nothing to do with reality, but it remains a superbly crafted revision of that life itself, a superior adaptation of a beloved stage work and ultimately, an exceptionally engaging entertainment besides - truly, one for the ages.
Warner Home Video’s Blu-Ray is of Forman’s director’s cut adds another 23 minutes of girth to the film’s already weighty runtime. In 1984, Forman removed this footage for the sake of the movie’s success – perhaps, understanding that any story about classical music was a stretch in the first place, and, the unlikeliest of candidates to catch the public’s appetite. The irony, of course, is that Amadeus did just that; raking in more than $51,973,029.00 in the U.S. alone. The imposition of these cuts to the movie’s theatrical release is forgivable; especially since the newly reinstated scenes on home video only serve to augment and enrich our movie-going experience with insightful embellishments.  Warner’s Blu-Ray – one of their very first releases in hi-def – continues to be a standard bearer in the format, easily besting the original 2-disc collector’s set on DVD. In the days before Warner simply went for extravagant packaging, but scrimped on actual remastering, Amadeus in hi-def is a both vibrant and true to the theatrical experience. Color fidelity and saturation are superb; ditto for contrast levels, fine detail and a light smattering of indigenous film grain looking extremely natural. Flesh tones are particularly satisfying, as are reds - blood red – the overall image, more eye-popping and spectacular than ever.
Another revelation is the 5.1 PCM Dolby Digital audio. It is perhaps a minor regret, Warner never bothered to upgrade the experience to DTS. Nevertheless, what’s represented here accurately recaptures the acoustics of the theatrical release. Extras include an extensive look back at the making of the film, directly ported over from the 1996 deluxe LaserDisc release, an audio commentary from Forman and the film’s theatrical trailer; all of it contained in a handsome digipak design with an audio CD sampler of portions of the soundtrack, conducted by Sir Neville Marriner. Bottom line: highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)


Tuesday, August 25, 2015

THE AMERICANIZATION OF EMILY: Blu-ray (MGM 1964) Warner Archive Collection

Most movies are the undiluted vision of their director; a visual artist’s personal imprint that becomes more apparent upon repeat viewings of their body of work. On occasion, however, the focus has shifted from director to producer, perhaps nowhere more distinctly than in those movies made by David O. Selznick, so clearly and obviously reflecting his thoughts, his morality and his ideals; the director assigned to helm these productions, a mere minion, expected to fulfill Selznick’s edicts. Rarely, however, in the history of American cinema has the writer been given such consideration, leeway, or even accolades as a movie’s acknowledged auteur; unless, of course, he also happens to be its director, as say, a Joseph L. Mankiewicz or Preston Sturges. Hence, The Americanizaton of Emily (1964) is all the more extraordinary and unique. For although the movie is amply realized by its director, Arthur Hiller, the essence, nee – the spirit - of the piece is undeniably dictated by screenwriter, Paddy Chayefsky’s erudite prose. William Bradford Huie’s novel defines ‘Americanization’ as a sort of faux prostitution; English girls trading sexual favors to the Yanks in order to acquire stylish clothes, perfumes, and, lavish outings to fashionable parties and nightclubs; all of it ultimately culminating in midnight rendezvous inside the swankier suites of London hotels; the Savoy, Dorchester or Claridge’s.
In reconstituting this rather seedy premise, Paddy Chayefsky has superficially gleaned only Huie’s basic premise and characters. Instead, he has taken an almost perverse and very esoteric approach to this material; the tale of an unrepentant coward, slick and devilishly handsome dog-robber, Lt. Cmdr. Charles Edward Madison (James Garner) and the priggish English widow, Emily Barham (Julie Andrews) he comes to seduce and eventually care for, becomes a mere platform on which Chayefsky grafts an even more sublime social commentary about the ever-lasting psychological perils of war; its deification of heroes and heroism as insidious to the perpetuation of mankind’s self-destruction as any misperceived notions of valor. The genius in Chayefsky’s writing is that it never come across as a weighty tome - stagnated or preachy - but miraculously retains a self-reflexive quality, easily disseminated to the audience with razor-backed honesty. Chayefsky’s characters are far more astute, articulate and able to philosophize and debate a point of interest, plumbing it to fascinating depths. And yet none of these characters ever slips into overbearing academia or tedium in their quest for the truth. Many authors and playwrights have walked this tightrope. Maxwell Anderson immediately comes to mind. But few have been more stealthily secure in their clever-clever expositions than Paddy Chayefsky. The true artistry in his exercise becomes educational almost by accident. The lesson is taught, but Chayefsky is never obviously the teacher. Indeed, Chayefsky once clarified in an interview that “our purpose is to entertain. We fill up their leisure. If we also happen to give the audience something to think about then we have achieved what is called artistry…and that’s gravy. That’s bonus.”
In retrospect, The Americanization of Emily remains an embarrassment of such ‘bonuses’; an unexpected melodrama – deadly serious at its core, yet wrapped inside an anti-war social critique approached with even more wicked distraction by way of a thoroughly scathing romantic comedy. Chayevsky’s wit, his superior intellect and his ability to expound such lofty platitudes while making them seem more casual conversation, fit for the salon or a playful parlor game between old friends or lovers; this is the kernel of genius of his artistry. For although the characters that populate The Americanization of Emily deconstruct and articulate exceptionally well thought out arguments in order to illustrate both the pro and con, and, with Chayefsky’s own opinion clearly on the side of restraint, though arguably, never appeasement, these nuggets of morality and humanity never unhinge the discussion into wordy byplay. Instead, we are compelled to listen to his almost rhapsodic theorizing; the conflict between man and woman inventively plied and exploited as a counterpoint to the warring of nations; the solemnity in the art of mechanized warfare made to reflect this more intimate contest.
The term ‘highbrow’ is often incorrectly referenced to mark this chasm between the common collective understanding (a.k.a. popular opinion) and pure intellectual thought (nee, debate). But Chayefsky’s prose manage the seemingly impossible; to transfix his audience with deeper ideas and ideals, their interpretation seeming effortlessly more easily digestible.  Chayefsky always says what he means and means exactly what he says. Such personalization and personification of the larger issues at stake, rendered down to their most basic equation – two people in love – never talks down to the audience; the eloquence loftier and more resilient than the conflict itself and food for thought once the houselights have come up.  At the time of its release, The Americanization of Emily was neither well-received nor critically acclaimed; if for nothing else, then for Julie Andrews’ miraculous departure from squeaky-clean and blissfully virginal nuns and nannies. As the title character, Andrews is given the exceptionally plum role of a widow who, having lost her husband at Tobruk, and briefly succumbed to the madness of casual liaisons with many men to drown her sorrow, has somehow managed to slip into a sexual reformation, morphing into a rather priggish spinster to whom all men – though particularly American soldiers - now seem an anathema to her newfound moralizing sense of self. Emily’s resolve is repeatedly tested by her obvious and growing attraction to Charlie Madison; his chipping away at her faux ‘high-minded principles with amorous contempt, impeding her ability merely to love and be loved in return.
Yet Charlie begins both his admonishment and his assessment of Emily thus, with a very real condemnation of the war itself: “You American haters bore me to tears. I've dealt with Europeans all my life…I've had Germans and Italians tell me how politically ingenuous we are, and perhaps so. But we haven't managed a Hitler or a Mussolini yet. I've had Frenchmen call me a savage because I only took half an hour for lunch. Hell, Ms. Barham, the only reason the French take two hours for lunch is because the service in their restaurants is lousy. The most tedious of the lot are you British. We crass Americans didn't introduce war into your little island. This war, Ms. Barham to which we Americans are so insensitive, is the result of 2,000 years of European greed, barbarism, superstition, and stupidity. Don't blame it on our Coca-cola bottles. Europe was a going brothel long before we came to town.” 
This, of course, has the opposite effect intended. For only a few hours later, Charlie will discover Emily patiently waiting in his bedroom to be served and serviced. The burgeoning affair gets off to a very rocky start and intermittently progresses, while Chayefsky’s narrative briefly entertains the approaching D-Day invasion on the windswept and very bloody beaches of Normandy. The premise is more necessarily complicated by Emily’s mum (the sublime, Joyce Grenfell); who has slipped a cog after the brutal death of both her husband, killed in the blitz, and son – one of many casualties in the war; choosing to live her days in an indeterminate past where each is still very much alive and apt to come home at any moment.
Emily encourages Charlie to play along with this emotionless charade, and briefly, he does exactly as she wishes, before delving into yet another tirade about the futility of war. The effect of his admonishment is not immediately felt, for Chayefsky has gilded the lily of his social critique in a wicked patina of glib repartee; something of a mild amusement for both mother and daughter. “War isn't hell at all,” Charlie tells Mrs. Barham, “It is man at his best; the highest morality he's capable of. It's not war that's insane, you see. It's the morality of it. It's not greed or ambition that makes war. It's goodness. Wars are always fought for the best of reasons: for liberation or manifest destiny. Always against tyranny and always in the interest of humanity. So far this war, we've managed to butcher some ten million humans in the interest of humanity. Next war it seems we'll have to destroy all of man in order to preserve his damn dignity. It's not war that's unnatural to us. It's virtue. As long as valor remains a virtue, we shall have soldiers. So, I preach cowardice. Through cowardice, we shall all be saved.”
Charlie’s critique is both amusing yet frank. But the playful mood of this tea time garden party quickly sours when Charlie permits himself the luxury to criticize Emily’s mother for her nascent pride that continues to hold the balance of her incredible sorrow and imminent joys in a perpetual state of limbo. “I don’t trust people who make bitter reflections about war, Mrs. Barham,” Charlie tells her plainly, “It’s always the generals with the bloodiest war records who shout what a hell it is. It’s always the war widows who lead the Memorial Day parade. We shall never win wars by blaming them on ministers and generals or war-mongering imperialists or all the other banal bogies. It’s the rest of us who build statues to those generals and name boulevards after those ministers; the rest of us who make heroes of our dead and shrines of our battlefields. We wear our widow’s weed like nuns, Mrs. Barham, and perpetuate war by exalting the sacrifice.”
“My brother died at Anzio; an everyday soldier’s death – no special heroism involved. They buried whatever pieces they found of him. But my mother insists he died a brave death and pretends to be very proud. You see, now my other brother can’t wait to reach enlistment age. It may be ministers and generals who blunder us into wars…but the least the rest of us can do is to resist honoring the institution. What has my mother got for pretending bravery was admirable? She’s under constant sedation and terrified she may wake up one morning and find her last son has run off to be brave? I don’t think I was rude or unkind before, do you, Mrs. Barham?” In fact, Charlie has paid the widow Barham a great kindness; one that stirs her back to reality and its bitter thrashings of truth, at last favored over the great lie.
The other narrative thread as yet not discussed involves Charlie’s superior officer, Admiral William Jessup (Melvyn Douglas) who, after suffering a queer breakdown, insists the first dead American on Omaha Beach must be a sailor. Jessup’s declaration is rather startling and, in fact, paid very little mind by Charlie or his fellow officers, Lt. Cmdr. Paul 'Bus' Cummings (James Coburn) or Admiral Thomas Healy (Edward Binns). Nevertheless, the die has been cast. In the wake of Jessup’s reoccurring departures from reality, Bus falls victim to the valorization of war, establishing Jessup’s camera corp. of one – Charlie – who will document the invasion for posterity’s sake and very likely be killed in his efforts. Bus assures Charlie the likelihood of invasion is virtually slim to nonexistent; a comfort Charlie confides to Emily who has by now fallen madly in love with him but cannot bring herself to abide his cowardice. Or perhaps the real disillusionment is yet to follow. 
For as Charlie astutely points out during their farewell in a torrential downpour at the airport, “I don't want to know what's good, or bad, or true. I let God worry about the truth. I just want to know the momentary fact about things. Life isn't good, or bad, or true. It's merely factual, it's sensual, it's alive. My idea of living sensual facts are you, a home, a country, a world, a universe - in that order. I want to know what I am, not what I should be. The fact is I’m a coward. I’ve never met anyone who wasn’t. You’re the most terrified woman I’ve ever met. You’re even scared to get married.”
“Oh sure, you married him three days before he went to Africa. Thank God he never came back. You’re forever falling in love with men on their last nights of furlough. That’s about the limit of your commitments – a night, a day, a month. You prefer lovers to husbands, hotels to a home. You’d rather grieve than live. Come off it Emily. The only immoral thing you have against me is that I’m alive. Well, you’re a good woman. You’ve done the morally right thing. God save us all from people who do the morally right thing. It’s the rest of us who get broken in half. You’re a bitch.” 
Charlie flies off, feeling secure he and Bus will have missed their connecting flight and therefore be too late to engage in the D-Day invasion. Regrettably, fate has dealt a more cruel hand. For the ill winds and rain pelting Emily and Charlie’s during their brittle farewell have also delayed the Allied plans for invasion by a full day, providing more than ample time for Charlie and Bus to hit the beach running. Charlie refuses to comply and is physically dragged to the beach and held there at gunpoint by Bus, now seemingly having succumbed to Jessup’s delusions of grandeur. Realizing what a fool she has been, Emily is powerless to tell Charlie how she really feels; she wants the things he wants – though chiefly, to belong to a man who can be more than a distant and deified memory, resting comfortably snug in a silver frame on her mantel piece. Thankfully, Charlie survives his ordeal. He is mildly wounded and taken to be patched up, finding Emily waiting for him on the other side; all beguilement with the war and its heroes set aside. Charlie is the only man for Emily now – his own blunder into heroism a confirmation of his earlier edict: that through cowardice mankind shall be saved.
The Americanization of Emily is an extraordinary movie about war and the strange bedfellows it breeds.  While other anti-war movies take themselves and their message far too seriously, Paddy Chayefsky’s critique places tongue firmly in cheek and, as a result, makes a far more prophetic statement about valor through irony than perhaps would ever be possible in a more grimly mounted melodrama. Both Julie Andrews and James Garner give decisive performances in their respective careers; each going largely unnoticed at the time of the film’s release. Arguably, The Americanization of Emily plays far better today as a sobering social critique; the evolution of our own present cultural cynicism more in tune with Chayefsky’s brutally funny situations and very acidic wit. There are too few comedies about the advent of global conflict, perhaps because to poke fun at its absurdities and willful chaos seems to disgrace the very nature of valor for which only families that have lost a loved one to war can fully comprehend. Yet the purpose of Chayefsky’s critique is neither to insult nor diminish the impact of that loss of life or even to callously dismiss and make light of bravery; but rather to point to the outcome – the loss itself – as a wholly unnecessary byproduct of a very flawed human endeavor; namely- the miserably misguided ambitions of war.
While that ‘other dark comedy’ about conflict - M*A*S*H – plays as grand farce in the face of imminent peril, a sort of bastardization of wartime precepts, offering a total escape from the grimness, The Americanization of Emily is well-grounded with an overriding sense of doom and languor dangling over the heads of our darling Em’ and her ne’er do well lover. Chayefsky neither shies away nor exorcises the demons that lay beneath his very buoyant and frequently extremely funny social critique: an exceptional gift to American cinema and one for which Paddy Chayefsky’s contributions were virtually all but overlooked at the time. But The Americanization of Emily is bar none a superior example of ‘entertainment’ meets ‘the message picture’: an amalgam by design, it tells a good story, but ultimately, teaches us so very much more.
Here is a Blu-ray release from the Warner Archive to get very excited about. I only have one genuine complaint and one minor quibble with this Blu-ray. First, the complaint; that 'Emily's' hi-def debut wasn’t given the proper fanfare. Everyone should be aware this film is out in hi-def and be ready to snatch it up in a heartbeat. This is a near ‘reference quality’ disc, beautifully showcasing Philip Lathrop's Oscar-nominated cinematography. Prepare to be impressed. The gray scale exhibits superb tonality; blacks - deep and solid; grays and whites finely allocated with subtle shadings that bring even the minutest details in hair, clothing and faces to life as never before. An accurately rendered pattern of natural grain exists. Now, for the quibble: the brief (very sporadic) intrusion of video noise. It just comes and goes, seemingly at random, not terribly distracting but present nonetheless. Again, its’ very minor and does not intrude – much – on this otherwise fantastic film-like presentation. The movie’s inserts of actual stock footage are much softer in focus and grainer – as they have been shot under less than perfectly controlled conditions – nee, reality. They look about as good as they ever have or ever will, but they do not align themselves with the rest of the image quality. This is, of course, as it should be.
The Americanization of Emily sports a lossless DTS 2.0 mono track which remains something of a curiosity, given that the movie is listed as originally being released in both mono and stereo. The track herein has perceptible stereo separation in Johnny Mandel’s score. Dialogue and most effects are center channel based, but I also detected minor separation in the left and right channels, particularly during the sequence where Emily and Charlie say their bitter farewells in the pouring rain. As before we get Arthur Hiller’s audio commentary; incorrectly advertises as featuring Drew Casper on the DVD back jacket, but correctly advertised as Hiller on the Blu-ray. Bottom line: The Americanization of Emily comes very highly recommended. It deserves to be seen and this Blu-ray presentation is definitely the way to see it!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)