Saturday, January 24, 2015

Adultery as narrative catalyst in cinema

By Steve Evans

The aftermath of a cheating spouse drives the plot of so many great films that this narrative stratagem could be a cinematic sub-genre of its own. I cannot think of a single film dealing with infidelity in which the outcome of an adulterous affair leads to anything but misery and tragedy.

In every instance, the spouse committing the affair is portrayed as morally bankrupt, neurotic, emotionally unwell or completely unencumbered by conscience. Human beings if anything are an impulsive species of animal, driven more often than not by their own selfish desires to the exclusion of everyone around them. Adultery remains such a sturdy cinematic trope because it is the ultimate betrayal between two people who at least at one time shared common hopes, dreams and intimacies. In real life, the consequences are emotionally devastating for at least one individual. In the cinematic realm, the consequences are often much worse.

A representative sampling: 

The Graduate
Mrs. Robinson seduces newly-minted college grad’ Benjamin, whose confusion with his life is so total that he ends up having an affair with her daughter, as well. Many viewers view this film and come away with the idea that it ends happily. Look closely at the expressions of the protagonists as the bus pulls away. The end is, at best, ambiguous. Outcome: uncertain.

Body Heat
The wife (Kathleen Turner) of a wealthy businessman conspires with her lover (a none-too-bright attorney played by William Hurt) to murder her husband and collect on his life insurance. Double-crosses and a twist ending follow multiple deaths and a long prison sentence. Outcome: Murder, arson, prison.

Double Indemnity
Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray plot to murder her husband and stage the death like an accident so his insurance will pay off double the policy rate. Body Heat is essentially a remake of this classic film noir, in which Edward G. Robinson plays against type as a good guy. Outcome: Murder and prison, preceded by some snappy dialog.

The English Patient
A profoundly moving tragedy in which an illicit affair comes undone by a jealous husband, who crashes his bi-plane in an effort to kill his wife and her paramour. Though the narrative tilts in favor of the lovers, the film also makes clear that they are aware what they are doing is wrong – and they proceed anyway.  No better film about choices and consequences has been made in the last 30 years. Oscar winner for Best Picture of 1996. Outcome: Murder, suicide, burn-victim agony, soul-wrenching contemplation, euthanasia. As if the horrid backdrop of World War II was not enough.

Blood Simple
The Coen Brother’s first film, a neo-noir of adultery, conspiracy and violent death. Frances McDormand plays the wife of a shady bar owner involved in an affair with one of his bartenders. The husband hires a sociopathic fixer to kill them both, but as with most characters in the Coen’s cinematic world, the aftermath of marital betrayal leads to a convoluted series of double-crosses, mistrust and murder. Outcome: being buried alive, shot through the heart, stabbed in the hand and one thoroughly wrecked bathroom.

American Beauty
Another Best Picture Oscar winner (1999), American Beauty explores the dysfunction beneath seemingly placid suburbia, especially middle-aged angst and the gnawing dissatisfaction that life derailed somewhere along the way. Oscar-winner Kevin Spacey lusts for a cheerleader at his daughter’s high school. His daughter gets involved with a weird kid who deals pot and shoots strange videos. As Spacey’s wife, Annette Bening has an affair with the local real estate hotshot, leading to his own divorce. A homosexual subplot propels the picture to a tragic climax with only the slightest grace note of redemption for Spacey’s character. Outcome: ruined lives, shattered dreams, murder.

Cinema Uprising copyright© 2015 by Steve Evans. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

The Deer Hunter: Masculinity Against All Odds

By Steve Evans
Finishing up my mini-festival of John Cazale films today with an evening screening of The Deer Hunter, that epic, heartbreaking and long (but not too long) exploration of Vietnam-era Americana and small-town values. Oh. And it also took the Oscar for Best Picture of 1978.

Unlike most critics and film historians, I never thought The Deer Hunter was “about” the Vietnam War. Rather, it is about three men of identical working-class backgrounds but markedly different personalities, and how they each cope with horrific, life-altering circumstances as a consequence of going to war. It is a study of masculinity, of what it means to be a man and how a man responds to seemingly impossible situations.

John Cazale’s character Stan is peripheral to this theme. He represents the weak male, the ineffectual hanger-on whose identity depends on the men he can surround himself with. The central characters are played by Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken (in an Oscar-winning performance) and John Savage (a last minute replacement for Roy Scheider, who quit the production and opted, instead, to star in Jaws 2).

While the film itself remains a devastating emotional experience, it also has the distinction of containing the single greatest sequence of unbearable intensity and suspense in the history of motion pictures. Period. I refer, of course, to the infamous sequence where De Niro, Walken and Savage are held in a Vietcong POW encampment, forced to play Russian roulette for the gambling amusement of their captors, along the most desolate stretch of rat-infested river ever seen in film.

I should mention now that I have probably seen close to 15,000 motion pictures during my lifelong love affair with the cinema. Never have I seen a more terrifying and emotionally exhausting sequence than the Russian roulette tortures endured by the protagonists of this film. It ranks among the most brilliantly constructed 15 minutes of film in the history of the medium.

I saw this picture when I was 15 years old and it haunted me for days afterwards. I watched it again this afternoon and found myself in the same vise-grip of total involvement that I first experienced more than 36 years ago.

Every time I view The Deer Hunter I challenge myself to a different question. Three decades ago, I wondered how I would handle myself in the same circumstances. Today the film gave me reason to consider just what I am prepared to do to ensure the well-being of my children and my own self-preservation in the face of ungodly obstacles.

These are provocative thoughts to consider, my friends. Be glad you are seldom faced with such choices.

But if it should ever come down to it, I now know unequivocally that I will follow De Niro’s lead and bring the situation to its inevitable conclusion.


Yeah? Just try me.

Cinema Uprising copyright © 2014 by Steve Evans. All rights reserved.


Sunday, September 14, 2014

Remembering John Cazale (1935-1978)

By Steve Evans

I am this week revisiting the amazing career of character actor John Cazale, who made precisely five films – all of them either nominees or winners for the Best Picture Academy Award: The Godfather, The Godfather Part II, The Conversation, Dog Day Afternoon and The Deer Hunter, which was released posthumously, as Cazale died of lung cancer mere months before that film opened in 1978.

Most people will remember Cazale as Fredo, the weak brother in the first two Godfather films. He was engaged to Meryl Streep at the time of his death and was reportedly the love of her life.

I watched Dog Day Afternoon (1975) earlier today and recall the conversation I had with the film’s Oscar-winning screenwriter, Frank Pierson, during the Virginia Film Festival a decade ago. Pierson gave a clinic on dramatic writing – and he was imminently qualified to do so – a much of Dog Day is set inside the branch office of a Brooklyn bank during the course of a robbery, with only dialog to propel the plot.

Cazale has maybe 20 lines in the entire film. His work is all the more chilling for the scarcity of his verbosity. Al Pacino got all the attention (and an Oscar nomination), but it is Cazale's brooding performance that haunts and ultimately rewards repeat viewings.

All of this is a roundabout way of saying that the 1970s were the last truly great decade of American cinema. For seven fleeting years, Cazale was an integral part of that.

Cinema Uprising copyright © 2014 by Steve Evans. All rights reserved.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Paid to See 'Planes' Sequel; Found Nemo, Instead

By Steve Evans

Taking three kids to the movies turns out to be more interesting than the movie itself, in this case, Disney's sequel to Planes.

After the picture finally started, the two oldest kids made two trips each to the restroom, which in practical terms means we ALL went to the restroom four times. The youngest ate more than half of an $8 sack of popcorn and talked merrily throughout the film while giving me non-stop High Fives. Then she removed and tossed one of her shoes down the aisle. I do not see well in the dark, but always bring a pocket flashlight with me for these special occasions. Middle child took his shoes off as the credits rolled, then went running and leaping up and down the theater aisles. Oldest child offered to share her Skittles with every kid leaving the theater. She and her brother danced until the house lights came up, then we looked for their shoes.

And once we got to the car, loaded up and locked in with seat belts, my three-year-old son screams, "Daddy! I left Nemo inside the movie house!" Nemo is a beloved stuffed toy, a Clown fish from the Disney/Pixar film Finding Nemo. Whereever my son goes, Nemo goes.

Nothing to do but unload everyone, bang on the Exit door of the theater until a kind soul let us in, then pick our way through the theater in our quest for Finding Nemo.

Alas, the stuffed fish was not in Theater #8. But the nice folks at Lost & Found had indeed found Nemo, no worse for the wear and tear except for a few pieces of buttered popcorn stuck to his gills.

Half an hour later, we were back in the car and on the road. Youngest had both her shoes. Mr. Elephant was in the possession of my oldest. And middle child clutched Nemo to his chest -- a clear sign that going back into the theater was the right thing to do. Hell, the only thing to do.

Over ice cream the kids talked happily about how much fun they have going to the movies. And I thought quietly that the tale of a Talking Plane and his adventures with firefighters in the Pacific Northwest could scarcely compare to the real-world excitement of lost shoes, finding Nemo, and making so many trips to the potty I am thinking of equipping everyone with a colostomy bag.

Fatherhood: the most challenging job I ever loved.

(For those of you on the fence about the Planes sequel, truth be told it's better than the original. The computer animation is a wow. For kids and their parents -- at least the parts we managed to see.)

Cinema Uprising copyright © 2014 by Steve Evans. All rights reserved.