Movie Loves, Lost and Found

Tuesday, March 7th, 2017 Movies / Writing


Sometimes I end up watching two movies back-to-back that are not just different, but are polar opposites—that balance each other in such a perfectly bizarre yin/yang juxtaposition that the randomized double-feature shocks me with its illumination and depth, as if some broad truth that runs across the spectrum of art and life has been unexpectedly and shockingly made clear. And when I’m feeling sad or lonely (which is when I end up watching random double-features) this feeling is especially magnified, like I’m a mad scientist in a lonely garrett, rejected by the world and the scientific community, mixing bizarre combinations of chemicals and creating violent new life.

The best example was back during the early Obama years when I received some bad news (technically “heartbreak”) and ended up, since the discs had just arrived from Netflix according to their mysterious availability schedule, seeing Wanted and The Wrestler (both 2008), which, when put side by side, seemed that depressing evening to constitute a definitive statement on sexuality, desire, violence, and loss. The Wrestler is of course brilliant and Wanted is of course ridiculous, but that night it made no difference: they were the two acts of a devastating single story about how men and women try and fail to connect, and how they are destroyed or fulfilled by their (one hesitates to use the phrase) gender roles. The protagonist of Wanted—which is based on a comic book I have not read—is a classic comic-book loser (played by James McAvoy), meant blatantly to stand for the reader: oppressed, cheated on, miserable in his software-company job, “apologiz[ing] too much,” with a missing father (in other words, a poor man’s Neo or Luke Skywalker) whose world is overturned in an instant when a gunslinging Angelina Jolie drops suddenly into his life, turning his drugstore visit into a shooting match which leads to a car chase, and revealing that he’s actually not a loser but is in reality a super-warrior, whom she’s (of course) in love with. Watching this, I kept waiting for the dream or spell to end; for a Walter Mitty/J. Alfred Prufrock awakening, but of course it never came; the story kept escalating and escalating with curving bullets and assassination schemes and naked Jolie bathing in special sci-fi milk that heals her wounds, and gunfights atop moving trains, and Jolie kissing McAvoy in front of his unfaithful girlfriend, and Morgan Freeman, until the whole plot blows up and everyone is dead or has won and McAvoy sneers, “What did you do today?” directly at the camera (I had done nothing except miserably order Chinese food and open two Netflix envelopes.)

And after this came The Wrestler and suddenly Mickey Rourke—beloved Mickey Rourke, from my college days of watching Angel Heart and Diner over and over with roommates—now a destroyed, surgically-mutilated grotesque, shuffled from his trailer park to his supermarket job to his miserable paid appearances in sleazeball gyms, having destroyed his body and soul in order to act out a caricature, a known pantomime, of the same kind of combative, triumphant masculinity that McAvoy effortlessly achieved in the other movie. Angelina Jolie did not drop into his life in a drugstore. Instead, he had a heart attack while trying desperately to connect with an aging stripper (Marisa Tomei, whose constant, pained smile—she keeps putting it back on in case the bosses are watching—broke my heart) and with his estranged daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) and ends up weeping in view of the action figures made of him in his prime and then, rather than winning by blowing up enemies, redeeming himself by leaping into offscreen oblivion. Wanted was a young man’s dream of sex and power and The Wrestler was the world revealed in (as Evelyn Waugh described the end of youth) “the bleak light of dawn,” an old man who has also turned himself into an action figure, a comic book character, an adolescent figment of manhood, but is made of soft flesh rather than plastic or printer’s-ink and has collapsed into self-parody and self-loathing. The good-looking woman isn’t a fellow super-warrior aching to save him; she’s just another used-up gender icon, a stripper too old for her collegiate clientele (who openly mock her), an ordinary person trying and failing to be “a sex symbol,” just like him.

Together, that night in 2009, those movies were indelible, unbearable—it seemed that there was no hope for anything in between juvenile dreams and aging decay, and that the only constant between the two was the unforgiving superhuman lure of sex and potency, which, for gunslingers or wrestlers, comic-book warrior babes or cut-rate strippers, always disappoints, always leads into the solitary depths of escapist fantasy or the brutal reality of failure and age.

Today’s serendipitous double-feature was less bleak, but the total effect was not that different (especially given my current mood): watching David Lean and Noel Coward’s Brief Encounter (1945) and then Vincente Minelli’s Oscar-sweeping Lerner and Loewe musical Gigi (1958), I realized I’d accidentally created, or discovered, another fully-realized composite treatise on love and desire, this time more directly in the formalized context of retrograde social expectations and obligations (forgive me, but “gender construction”) and the contrasts and similarities between the turn of the last century, the end of WWII, and today.

David Lean, who would make widescreen epics like Lawrence of Arabia and Dr. Zhivago, started out with intimate, black-and-white, impeccably English material like Brief Encounter, a miniaturist drama about an upper-class London wife and mother (Celia Johnson, nominated for an Oscar) who, during her weekly shopping trip by train, meets a married doctor (Trevor Howard) whom she, in that strange way that seems to happen only once a lifetime or not at all, instantly and mutually falls in love with. As Johnson and Howard—whose “chemistry” (as we now say) is as tender and heartfelt and unglamorous as anything I’ve ever seen or read— rendezvous over successive Thursdays (bookended by Lean’s magnificent black-and-white steam-train imagery) their “relationship” (to use a word the two proper English characters never would—like The Remains of the Day decades later, the movie is, as much as anything, a fond portrait of an upper class forever frozen outside the margins of emotional self-expression) blossoms, not to an affair, but to a desperate, futile bargain; a mutual decision to refuse each other but to delay the moment of refusal for just enough time to grant themselves the joy—and, as they well know, the eventual solitary agony—of a few scattered days spent alone together, as if they were lovers (although they never are). The movie is so good, so rich and honest and well-observed, that I was stupefied by its emotional force (I had only seen it once before, on television, and the digitally-restored Criterion edition I saw today is like a museum gallery of luminous mid-1940s black-and-white urban splendor) and the naked, helpless yearning of the two near-lovers: it isn’t Shakespearean “tragic love” with all that amped-up operatic dimension; it’s the mundane world of coffee spoons and library books and sudden London rainstorms that casts the urgency of Johnson and Howard’s “brief encounter” in such stunning, indelible relief.

Astonished by the tragic power of Lean’s and Coward’s vision, I—in my aforementioned glum state—figured Gigi (which is a deep childhood memory of a vinyl record my parents played over and over, and, later, a movie on TV during my high-school years) would cheer me up, but of course it did no such thing. The shameless Eisenhower-era Belle Époque fantasy (which works by reproducing the look and feel of the most famous Parisian paintings from the post-Impressionist/Toulouse Lautrec/Sem period) starts with Maurice Chavalier’s shamelessly lecherous “Thank Heaven For Little Girls” and keeps going in the same direction: in Paris of 1900, wealthy, handsome Louis Jourdan tires of the endless willing courtesans whom he goes through like Kleenex, until he realizes he’s actually in love with insouciant schoolgirl Gigi, the granddaughter of a working-class acquaintance whose scarlet-walled apartment he frequents for no clear reason. Gigi is made over, Eliza Doolittle style, by her grandmother and other elderly ladies with dollar signs (franc signs?) in their eyes, transforming into a suitably well-gowned and bejeweled fin-de-siècle ornament, fit to ride Jourdan’s tuxedoed arm into Maxim’s and along the Jardin des Tuileries where the movie begins and ends. Jourdan rejects Caron but then accepts her (suddenly recognizing her beauty and charm, which snaps into focus for him in my favorite lyric: “Have I been standing up to close or back too far?”), and they are seen happily married as the music swells and Chevalier, singing directly into the camera, reminds us that “little girls/Grow up in the most delightful way.”

Gigi won nine Oscars (a nomination-to-win record not broken until The Return of the King in 2004) and made millions, despite being described critically as “a meal consisting of cheesecake”: the overwhelming Cecil Beaton design—the epitome of 1950s Technicolor chic—looks as edibly sumptuous on a modern flatscreen as it must have in the big, old theaters of the Capote/Hitchcock era. But after Brief Encounter, all that irresistible, infectious happiness, all the charm and wit of Jourdan and Caron, all the ageless ugly-duckling-into-swan mythology, seemed, somehow, on the edge of tragedy and existential terror. As the old women’s eyes light up with pure greed and vicarious lust at the prospect that their wayward schoolgirl will hit the jackpot that they never got near (although the grandmother and Maurice Chevalier sing a plangent minor-key song that reveals they were almost lovers), I found myself strangely moved by the “happy” ending, not because I envied the characters but because it all seemed, suddenly, so impossible: like James McAvoy and Angelina Jolie decades later, these lovers succeed in finding happiness only in the exact moment that they leave reality behind for good—when their elevation from movie life to that rarefied, transcendent state of the Hollywood ending (like Danny and Sandy flying their car into the sky at the end of Grease) pushes them across the border into Valhalla, away from the earth.

Impossible loves and possible loves; endings both violent and blissful and unbearably tragic (Celia Johnson’s final, tearful embrace with the dull, sweet husband whom she knows for certain is not the love of her life concludes Brief Encounter with a moment of almost unbearable pathos and Aristotelian closure)—four movies in two random pairings that mark out the boundaries of male and female hope, desire, fantasy, joy and loss. Movie love is not real love (and watching romantic movies alone is a kind of addictive masochism), but the truth of art, the prism of cinema across the decades, illuminates the melancholy of a fading evening like every movie screen that ever shone in the darkness.