The Morning After #11: September 6, 2010

Although the Labor Day holiday isn’t quite over, I’m going to go ahead and post what I’ve seen so far this weekend. I may see more today, but I’ll have to save those for next week’s update. The Wicker Man came in Saturday, so I was able to get that one out of the way, plus all three other DVDs I had received (The Fisher King, The Bad and the Beautiful and The Miracle Worker) and a few more episodes of Firefly.

So, here is what I watched this weekend:

THE MIRACLE WORKER (1962)


There are times when two actresses are so in sync when performing together, they feel as if they are but one character and one performance. Such is the case for The Miracle Worker featuring Anne Bancroft as Annie Sullivan a visually impaired teacher attempting to get through to blind and deaf Helen Keller played by the talented young actress Patty Duke. They work together like few thespians can, drawing us into their contested relationship and keeping us glued to their successes and failures.

Duke had not yet started in the wildly popular self-titled Patty Duke Show, but she’d been a constant presence on television and in films prior, and even in the stage version from 1959 to 1961, so it comes as little surprise she was given the challenging big screen role. While she’s barely been a strong presence in either medium over the last couple of decades, there was little doubt of her talent and capabilities and The Miracle Worker may well have been the one film she should be most remembered for. Bancroft, however, continued an excellent career for many years. Yet her performance in Miracle Worker is astounding for its technical brilliance and emotional resonance. Neither role lacked significant challenges and both actresses delivered fine career-defining and eventually Oscar-winning performances.

A rather interesting side note: it is strange watching Inga Swenson as Helen’s mother. I first came to know Swenson as the bitter, confrontational German housekeeper on Benson, so it’s a bit weird seeing her in such a dramatic role and one in which she has no trace of her familiar German accent. She’s a bit over the top in the film, but not compared to her bombastic and irritating husband played by Victor Jory.

As for the film itself, it’s a bit of a mixed bag, but that’s more a statement on its rather unusual style than the actual quality of the film. Using interesting camera techniques and focus issues to display the harried emotional state of Annie Sullivan. And while displaying her flashbacks as grainy and difficult to see is hard on the audience, it helps bring them into Sullivan’s visually-impaired world in a way that works better in retrospect than while watching the film. Matter of fact, as the film started, I was having a hard time watching it as it was so different from what I’d seen and for 1962, it was a rather brave choice. Yet, when I got to the emotional finale, I couldn’t help but admire the skill and technique that got us there.

THE FISHER KING (1991)


From the strange and twisted mind of Terry Gilliam comes a frequently-frustrating film about mental illness, the power of compassion and a knight’s quest to retrieve the holy grail.

The film stars Jeff Bridges as a jaded, egocentric shock jock poking fun at the misery of his callers and preparing for a leap to television. All his plans are derailed when a hapless caller is whipped into frustration by the jockey for ratings gold, but which unhinges the poor, deluded caller. He later goes on a shooting spree in a night club, killing several and sending the jock into an emotional tailspin that drives him away from radio and towards life as a recluse at his girlfriend’s apartment and video store.

Bridges’ emotional state has also driven him to drink and while wandering the streets one evening in the hopes of forgetting, he’s accosted by a trio of hoodlums who douse him with gasoline in an attempt to set him on fire. A strange homeless man played by Robin Williams arrives in the nick of time to save him. Afterwards, he learnsthat the bum has fallen into his depression and gone crazy after his wife was slain by the man who the jockey had driven mad months earlier. Bridges goes out of his way to try and placate his conscience by yielding assistance to this crazy man, indulging him in his bizarre claims of being spoken to by God and sent on a spiritual quest to retrieve the Holy Grail.

Bridges does a superb job as the guilt-ridden shock jock, but the film belongs to Williams whose zany, madcap antics drive the film’s central focus home and keep the movie from being completely frustrating and seemingly pointless. The concept is certainly original, which is what Gilliam is unerringly noted for, but sometimes his concepts are a bit too twisted to be completely enjoyable. The Fisher King is like that. Trying to sift through the strangeness to find the kernel of truth Gilliam wants to present is a simple, yet tiring task. Keep up with all of the weird characters and situations often distracts from the greater picture, a story about the power of guilt and the ability for the soul to cleanse when we let ourselves go free.

The film often reminds me of one of my favorite events of the 1991 Oscar season. At the early-morning nominations announcement presentation in 1992, then-President of the Academy Karl Malden presented the year’s nomination alongside Oscar nominee Kathleen Turner. As they moved through the list, Malden kept reading off categories featuring nominations for The King Fisher. Turner kept nodding until she finally tried whispering him that it was indeed The Fisher King. He never seemed to take notice, but now that I’ve seen the film, it’s almost fitting that he bungled the title.

THE WICKER MAN (1973)


The slasher model had not quite made its presence known in the realm of modern horror films. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was still a year away and Halloween was five off. So, horror was still on a religious kick, scaring people with the prospects of Satanic possession. The first major feature of this type was Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby leading the charge in 1968. It would be followed five years later by Best Picture nominee The Exorcist and three years further with The Omen.

Yet the idea of pagan religions wasn’t as frequently used, but would get its own shot at the horror audience in 1973 with The Wicker Man, a cult classic (pardoning the pun) about a police officer who finds himself pursuing a missing girl on an island of ritual and mystery where he suspects murder, but finds something more diabolical. Edward Woodward takes on the mantle of the Catholic cop Sergeant Howie who find himself caught in a desperate and dangerous situation. When he arrives there and is told that no one has heard of this girl, he begins uncovering lies, fertility rituals and a childrens’ education system devoted to teaching kids early about the necessity of sex and its impact on culture and nature. Despite being a rather forward decade for psycho-sexual and violent cinematic experiences, Wicker Man is still a bit too advanced for a society still locked in repressed religious belief. It’s why films like Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist, apart from being excellent films, managed to touch so evocatively the minds of millions of audiences. They weren’t exactly prepared for what The Wicker Man would have to offer and may have been more offended than entertained.

The film isn’t about its performances, which are notably lacking. It isn’t about its scares and thrills, there aren’t any. It’s about the shock factor. It’s about dealing both seriously and not-so-seriously about the lack of religious tolerance in society and doing so almost surreptitiously. Although this island community has its share of unusual and aberrant customs, it’s the words of their Lord Summerisle, played acerbically by horror legend Christopher Lee, that seem to linger. In one scene where Sergeant Howie is questioning the fakeness of their religious pursuits, questioning the wisdom of the unusual concept of reproduction without sexual union, and asking him if the children have never learned of Jesus, he wittily responds “himself the son of a virgin, impregnated, I believe, by a ghost…”

Yet, for all its forward thinking, The Wicker Man still focuses the audience squarely against the pagan cult and vilifies it in the final scenes as the crowd sings and raises praise to their gods as the wicker man himself burns away the offerings they have provided. However, I must give it credit for at least trying to go a different way with its concept, I just wish it hadn’t been so effectively against religious tolerance.

THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL (1952)


Who is Jonathan Shields? That is the premise of the story The Bad and the Beautiful, a Vincente Minnelli drama about a washed up producer’s son trying to make a success for himself in the film industry and the many hands he stepped on climbing up the ladder. Kirk Douglas stars as Shields who charismatically dances through the film’s frames on a crash course with a destiny established early in the film.

Shields begins the film desperate for a new film, having become a financial failure in the film industry, but how that ruin came about is told through flashback, three of them to be specific. His attempts to contact the director (Barry Sullivan), actress (Lana Turner) and writer (Dick Powell) he burned in his push to fame, provide the impetus for the story as his longtime assistant Harry Pebbel (Walter Pigeon) summons the three wayward souls to his office and hopes to convince them to help out the man who gave them their breaks in the business.

There are three stories here and each one follows a natural progression of events as Shields rises to fame. His first encounter is running rough shod over the director who stood by his side as they launched his empire. The second is helping the daughter of an also-failed father become a strong and talented actress. And the third is taking a novelist and turning him into a credible and successful screenwriter. In each of these sections, he identified his associates’ needs and used them to not only bolster their capabilities, but boost his career as well and in doing so, his own hubris helped tear down those same relationships driving a wedge between them.

Aside from Douglas, there isn’t really a noteworthy performance in the bunch. The ensemble is strong, but fade appropriately when placed alongside Douglas’ sometimes-outlandish, frequently engaging Shields. Turner probably comes off the worst of these. While her scenes of learning to become a better actress are quite good, when she’s actually acting as her character, she loses a lot of that spritely energy and becomes a rough caricature.

The film itself has a few entertaining moments, but feels every bit segmented as the story implies. Although the continuous story arc of the film is easy to follow and makes sense, it still feels a bit disjointed and awkward at times. While it would be decades before directors would skillfully wind disparate stories together in strange and original ways, they can always be compared to this type of story that was told so conventionally and unerringly straight forward that, despite starting at the end and then slowly working its way back through the characters’ histories, it still feels uselessly linear.

FIREFLY

And speaking of stories that end and then go back and tell a story forward, the last episode of Firefly I watched before writing this article did exactly that. And was just about as effective as The Bad and the Beautiful which also took its influences from earlier works including the film that made such techniques commonplace, Citizen Kane. But to compare either The Bad and the Beautiful or Firefly to Citizen Kane is about as outlandish as you can get.

As the series proceeds, it’s clear it suffers from what most first-year series do, character development fatigue. While still trying to learn about its characters and situations, the show has become rather generic. Despite being a sci-fi western, Firefly sometimes feels like neither, trying to use technology to highlight how far removed we are from our history, yet displaying just how easy it can be to lose those advancements and be little more than we ever were: hard-pressed folk trying to live from day to day. So while the episodes are a bit lackluster in certain respects (plotting, progression and rhythm), it still effectively highlights the necessity of such programming on television. Sometimes a program showing a dystopian future can be every bit as entertaining and as relevant as the glossy, imaginative and Utopian ideal envisioned on Star Trek.

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