James Stewart, Tilda Swinton and more...
The Dark Side
In a Year of 13 Moons
(Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1978)
The shots of water rippling and reflecting the morning’s first light that open Fassbinder’s most experimental, grueling film showcase a peculiar, muddily opaque transparency, which is also a great way to describe Spengler’s Elvira. Elvira’s basic properties might seem obvious to the spectator at first—built like a linebacker and wearing male drag when we first meet her—yet her inner life is much more fascinating and complex than basic water in its most usual liquid form. This is a character who has constantly been told throughout her lives (first as a man and now a woman) that she was worthless, useless, stupid. After a while, if this is all you hear, you might become convinced, as Elvira does, that this is what you really are.
The scene that Spengler knocks out of the park in his lived-in portrayal of pure desperation and loneliness, is set in a slaughterhouse as Elvira screams a monologue that punctuates the death cries of animals as they hang upside down and bleed rivers of thick, red liquid onto the floors. Twitching in final death throes, their sinewy muscles, skins, furs, bones and fatty yellow gristle are exposed, manipulated, worked and explored by Fassbinder’s camera as Elvira ( who as a young man did this job), stands unflinchingly by, shrilly and loudly recounting her past traumas. For Elvira, whose body was butchered by a shoddy surgeon’s knife just like these animals (a detail to which no doubt inspired the creation of John Cameron Mitchell’s Hedwig and the Angry Inch), being in the slaughterhouse is simply another reminder that these are the same fragile, tenuous materials that our own bodies are made of and that her choice to alter her body was the wrong one.
The significance of her watching and narrating all of this dreadful action is to remind the viewer that Elvira’s body too has been cut up, torn asunder, and altered too. Surviving that brand of radical transformation, coupled with being constantly reminded of it, can change one in very mysterious, sometimes dangerous ways, particularly when the extreme behaviors stem directly from the rotting corpse of that ages-old albatross: unrequited, binary, hetero-normative love. Haven’t we all been there? While we might seek out chocolate, inebriation or even meaningless rebound sex, Fassbinder’s version of a hell-on-heels Joan Crawford chooses auto-erotic asphyxiation while listening to Christmas music by child choirs, rough trade Czechoslovakian male prostitutes, and gleefully assisting people with suicide. Elvira has a lot of problems but really no solutions. It is to Spengler’s credit that this kind of oddball, operatic character has a soul and doesn’t become a caricature or completely un-redeemable harpy. Elvira is neither reviled nor celebrated as some kind of transsexual martyr or victim, she is a very troubled, very complicated, unsentimental rendering and Spengler makes the delusional highs and the dysfunctional lows equally meaningful by exposing a raw nerve onscreen and cutting it up for two straight hours.
The Classics You Should Have Seen by Now
The Philadelphia Story
(George Cukor, 1940)
“C. K. Dexter Haven”—it’s a throwaway line, a character name that shouldn’t illicit laughter. Yet, in Jimmy Stewart’s remarkable hands, it does just that. Not much about Stewart’s performance in The Philadelphia Story doesn’t illicit laughter, though. Easily, at least a half dozen performances by Stewart could be on a list of unforgettable performances, from the somber Anatomy to a Murder to the whimsical Harvey, but his role as Mike Connor is among his most complex. Watching the film, one sees a typical easy-going Stewart performance; look closely, though, and one sees an “everyman”, disgusted by the excesses of high society, yet slowly seduced into that world, a man torn between the sensibilities of life as a result of the recent economic depression and the power of opulent, privileged living. The film’s ending, in which Mike suddenly notices the loving glances of his girl-next-door assistant, is far-fetched, but Stewart makes the cliches totally believable. The Philadelphia Story features Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant at their comedic best, but is Stewart who is the core of the film, and Stewart who walked away with the Oscar that year, for Best Actor, his only competitive trophy from the Academy despite having one of the most storied, “movie-star” careers in Hollywood history.
Under the Radar
(John Sayles, 1999)
John Sayles’s Limbo starts out, reassuringly enough, as a quintessentially Saylesean community-analysis, setting the viewer down in a small Alaskan town and observing with perceptiveness and wry humor the interactions of the inhabitants—all the while zeroing in on the slowly-building relationship between three characters: a former fisherman, Joe Gastineau (Strathairn), a singer, Donna De Angelo (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) and the latter’s daughter Noelle (Vanessa Martinez). But then Sayles pulls the rug out from under the audience’s feet, and Limbo morphs into a tense survival-in-the-wilderness drama before shifting again, in its unforgettable final sequences, into more spiritual and esoteric terrain. Reviewers at the time seemed uncertain how to interpret these shifts, suggesting that Sayles had somehow lost control of his material. In fact, the structure makes perfect dramatic sense for a film that is deeply concerned with risk, chance and the unpredictability of human experience.
At Limbo’s core is a superb performance from regular Sayles collaborator Strathairn. As Joe, the actor achieves a not inconsiderable feat: making a fundamentally decent man interesting. Strathairn presents Joe, initially, as a regular guy, helpful to others, competent in his work. But as more pieces of the character’s history are revealed—a promising basketball career cut short by injury, his responsibility for the deaths of two friends in a fishing accident—the actor conveys the sense of wariness and reserve underpinning Joe’s daily encounters. Strathairn works beautifully with Mastrantonio and Martinez, his scenes with the former capturing the awkwardness, surprise and pleasure of mid-life romance. By the time Limbo’s protagonists are standing on a beach together, bravely awaiting their uncertain fate, Strathairn has charted a journey from reticence to greater emotional openness with masterful skill. His performance is like the beautiful Bruce Springsteen ballad with which Limbo signs off: soulful, tender, understated, and destined to resonate for a long time in the mind.
From Page to Screen
Don’t Look Now
(Nicolas Roeg, 1973)
“Nothing is what it seems”, John Baxter (Sutherland) says absently to his wife at the beginning of Nicholas Roeg’s supernatural thriller about a couple grappling with the death of a child. Despite evidence to the contrary that accumulates as the film progresses—the warnings of a blind woman who claims to have seen the spirit of the dead daughter, Baxter’s own visions—Baxter refuses to give up his belief in an explicable world.
This could be a portentous, even lugubrious performance, but Sutherland humanizes the role by portraying Baxter’s limitations as flaws of a well-meaning man trying hard to rescue his wife from the all-consuming grief that he has managed to throw off.
Aside from the scene that establishes the depth of Baxter’s loss—he emerges from the brackish pond with his dead daughter in his arms, an anguished animal crying out in pain—Sutherland’s performance is characterized by restraint, punctuated by occasional eruptions of mirth, affection, or anger.
In a church, a smiling Baxter covers, then uncovers his eyes, like a child playing peek-a-boo, as he hides from the clairvoyant and her sister, who have happened into the church. He’s willing himself not to see them and the threat they pose to his hard-won equilibrium, but at the same time acknowledging the silliness of the gesture.
Finally, though, the man who spends his time recreating the past and who misses no detail in the crumbling church he’s trying to save, is too prosaic to picture the future. It makes the tragic consequences of wanting, needing, to look, but being unable to see, all the more wrenching. In the film’s climax, Sutherland’s open, engaged face turns to an expression of horror as Baxter recognizes the fate that his blindness has made inevitable.
Under the Radar
The Deep End
(Scott McGehee and David Siegel, 2002)
“Change, overcoming the idea of oneself as created by society, has been one of my main interests,” Swinton has said recently. “I think that being resistant to one’s inexorable mutations, let alone one’s ability to live simultaneously multi-faceted lives, is a serious and sad mistake.” Swinton’s extraordinary career encapsulates this stance; is there another actress working in films today who has demonstrated so consistent and compelling an ability to transform herself in performance? In a 1992 appraisal of the actress, Michael O’Pray notes Swinton’s “chameleon presence in films” and identifies her “ability and desire to range wide across roles.” It’s an assessment that’s become only more accurate as Swinton’s career has progressed, and the actress has shown herself to be equally at ease with Derek Jarman and Jim Jarmusch, Bela Tarr and Brad Pitt, grit and glamor.
In the under-appreciated The Deep End Swinton proves conclusively her ability to play “ordinariness,” and render it every bit as compelling as a gender/epoch-hopping Orlando. Scott McGehee and David Siegel’s film is a contemporary re-imagining of Max Ophuls’s 1949 noir The Reckless Moment, about a middle-class mother confronted by a blackmailer after hiding the dead body of a man that she believes her child has killed. An ardent cinephile with a keen awareness of genre and performance history, Swinton places The Deep End in “an honorable tradition: the melodrama dressed up as film noir. It’s the film about the woman who’s thinking her way through a crisis, usually in close-up, with nobody to talk to. She’s forced to make decisions and take responsibility.” Swinton’s achievement here is to both pay homage to this tradition of screen heroine while also making her characterization resolutely contemporary, an approach that’s in keeping with The Deep End’s subtly subversive reappraisal of The Reckless Moment’s sexual and gender politics. McGehee and Siegel provide a characteristically stylish ambiance, but it’s Swinton’s taut and deeply sympathetic performance that’s the beating heart of the film.