Sunday, January 22, 2012



Because yesterday I saw The Artist and Rachel's blog brought to my attention the Month of Vertigo blogathon going on at The Lady Eve's Reel Life, I've been thinking recently about mediums inspired by Hitchcock's trippy 1958 movie.

Most cinephiles already know Vertigo's plot, and could probably recite it backwards. We follow the deteriorating life and sanity of a once steady, sardonic detective (James Stewart in his greatest performance) who becomes crippled by vertigo and his guilt-induced obsession with a tortured femme named Madeleine. Madeleine, of course, is hardly anything more than a hallucinatory dream, first consumed by the conviction she is becoming her dead, mad ancestor Carlotta Valdez, then instead is replaced by the less mysterious and brassier Judy Barton, who merely acts out Madeleine's mannerisms and looks, in order to please the increasingly lizard-eyed, desperate Stewart.

No, I'm not going to re-type that summary backwards just to prove my point.

Vertigo's reputation might be doing better now than when it was first released some fifty-four years ago, but it's still a polarizing film. You can either be like me, and love it with the giddy abandon of a girl who always loves with a giddy abandon any stylish, well-acted film about high-flown love, obsession, and madness. Or you could be like my brother-in-law, and recall Vertigo as that overrated Hitchcock movie where James Stewart follows a car around for two hours.

Whether you dismiss Vertigo as overblown and draggy or embrace it for its ambience and impeccably executed melodrama, there's no denying the atmosphere, the music, the themes of Vertigo--driven so mad by lost love you become crazed with the need to recreate it--have inspired many. The first most direct homage came in 1976, with Brian DePalma's Obsession.

 The movie drew a lot of angry criticism when it was released, most notably from the man himself, Alfred Hitchcock, who considered DePalma a cheap imitator. Many critics and filmgoers already labeled DePalma as such before Obsession even came out, so when the film was released they took it as confirmation of their opinions. The negative press and convoluted plot sunk the movie's chance of success.

Like many DePalma films, the movie may have started out with a similar Hitchcock vibe, but takes a more violent, kinkier turn--no small feat, considering Hitchcock's penchant for both. Cliff Robertson's Michael Courtland is a successful, happily married man, until his wife (Genevieve Bujold) and young daughter are kidnapped for ransom. Because he's manipulated by the police and his business partner (John Lithgow), he bungles the ransom and both wife and daughter end up murdered, incinerated in a car crash. Fast-forward many years later to Italy, where the broken and numb Courtland is on a business trip, and just happens to see a woman who looks exactly like his beloved lost wife....

The exact minutiae of the plot of course differ from Vertigo, which follows a shamed detective's love affair with a woman who he thinks is married to his friend, but the essential themes are the same: lost love, guilt, doubles, reincarnation maybe?, reveals, confessions, deceit, badda boom. The big plot twist at the end has even more...unsettling implications than Vertigo's, and maybe where DePalma slipped up was in not realizing this to the twist's full potential, and he glosses over the obvious ickiness.  You might as well play up the ick-factor if you're going for it.

And yes, DePalma may have tried too hard copying the atmosphere of Vertigo, such as the dream-like cinematography by the renowned Vilmos Zsigmond, which includes replicating the infamous circling shot of the embracing couple at the movie's end. Yet this stealing of tricks does make the movie memorable, even if the stodgy characterizations and stylized shots keep the audience at a distance.

But the biggest coup for DePalma was securing Vertigo's original composer Bernard Herrmann to write Obsession's score. Herrmann and Hitchcock had apparently suffered a falling out at this point, so one can only imagine the glee Herrmann took creating Obsession's magnetic, delicately gorgeous score, whereas poor Hitch had to resort to such incongruous and brash compositions as the one Ron Goodwin wrote for 1972's awful Frenzy. 

Vertigo's score may have been more powerful, sweeping, and tragic, and it will always rank as one of my favorite film scores of all time, but Obsession's music is more intricate, more subtle, more eerily beautiful. Both scores capture that terrifying feeling of love and humanity frozen by trauma, only whereas Vertigo's music throws you tumbling headfirst down that rabbit hole of tragedy, Obsession's teases you, rocks you back-and-forth gently as the madness simmers beneath the chords.

Because Bernard Herrmann is possibly the greatest movie composer of all time and Vertigo's score is a principal ingredient in why it's so memorable, there's no surprise that when people imitate Vertigo, often they imitate through music. Therefore, it's no coincidence some rock groups have taken to Vertigo's messy and dramatic storyline, maybe pulled in by Herrmann's hypnotic soundtrack.

Therefore, one of the best, trippiest songs to come out of the early '90s was "Carlotta Valdez," by one of the best, trippiest bands from the early '90s, Harvey Danger. Since like Vertigo Harvey Danger's songs are often melodramatic, brilliant, and eerie with cheeky knowing humor, the band is a perfect modern counterpart for the style and flair you get from Hitchcock's best. They get Vertigo's insanity and dark humor, and so they're ideal for commemorating the mysterious Carlotta.

More intense and perhaps more grating to the ear (though I still find the song appealing for all its gravelly punkishness) is the 1997 music video to Faith No More's "Last Cup of Sorrow." This might be my favorite music video ever. The ringing bells throughout the song remind me even of Franz Waxman's haunting score for Bride of Frankenstein, and the creepy tune goes well with this skewed visual retelling of Vertigo. Filling in for Novak is the stony-faced, radiant Jennifer Jason Leigh, and various members of the band play other key roles gone a little wrong and wickedly funny. See the hilarious stand-in for the nun at the end of the video, the stand-in for Carlotta in the dream sequence, and Leigh's punk-rock take on Bettie Page--a good homage draws from many different sources, after all.

And last but not least is the current controversy surrounding The Artist--a controversy, I think, created entirely by Kim Novak, apparently suffering from temporary Norma Desmond Syndrome. First of all, let me discuss a little what I thought of The Artist, a beautiful, fun movie that lived up to its hype, though not without its minor flaws. I felt like a little more character background was needed, such as finding out where Berenice Bejo's Peppy Miller came from, and I would have liked going more in-depth into the relationship between James Cromwell's touching chauffeur Clifton and Jean Dujardin's George Valentin, and Valentin's relationship with Uggie the dog. I know you're supposed to show and not tell (particularly in this movie), but a wee bit more backstory might have helped anchor it more. I also think the film lost its center a bit in focusing so much on the abasement and misery of Valentin once he has his fall from grace, that that section could have been tighter. And perhaps they shouldn't have dyed Penelope Ann Miller and Missi Pyle's hair platinum blonde and given them similar characters, because I was constantly getting them confused. Also, Malcolm McDowell? Totally wasted, I am afraid.

But as I said, these are minor nitpicks (sorry, Malcolm). The worst I was afraid of was that The Artist would be too "cute," which it certainly was in parts, but you forgave the movie because of the nonchalant yet rambunctious tone. And there were more than enough serious moments to counterbalance and contrast to the cute. The dream sequence where Valentin grows hysterical in his dressing room because of all the cascading sounds was chillingly brilliant, though I almost would have preferred it as not a dream, but as a surreal, stand-alone episode foreshadowing Valentin's future. Yet this moment has such a perfectly nightmarish tone that you experience Valentin's hysteria right there with him. And I enjoyed the subtle little nods to movies like Citizen Kane, such as when Valentin's standing backlighted against a projector, much like Kane's intrepid reporter, and we get the full view of Peppy's room full of Valentin's auctioned belongings, echoing the endless storeroom of Charles Foster Kane's abandoned objects at the end of that masterpiece.

You couldn't ask for more effective leads. I am now madly, irretrievably in love with Jean Dujardin, who looks like Gene Kelly and has his sparkle, but with an imposing, strong presence all his own. Berenice Bejo has a beautiful face created for the sole purpose of smiling, and is likably scrappy from the word go. To pull off this material, you need leads capable of personable comedy and realistic tragedy. Dujardin and Bejo excel at both.

So I really don't give a rat's ass if Kim Novak clutched her pearls in despair or that her monocle popped right out into her wine-glass because The Artist's composer Ludovic Bource quite legally bought the rights to Herrmann's Vertigo score for only one key scene where the music flowed perfectly with the tense action on-screen (culminating with the best use of the title card "BANG!" in cinematic history). But remind me, Kim. What do you think about it all?

""I want to report a rape. I feel as if my body -- or, at least my body of work -- has been violated by the movie, The Artist."

Uh-huh. Your body of work? Honey, you were great, but you replaced Vera Miles, fergawdssake. Obviously given Hitchcock's cavalier attitude toward his cattl--actors, I doubt he or anyone else connected with the movie would consider Vertigo Kim Novak's masterpiece. This isn't to belittle Novak's presence and chilling beauty, which is indeed part of what makes Vertigo such a classic--they really don't make faces, bodies, or presence like that anymore. 

But not only does such an attitude show unearned pomposity on Novak's part, but I really don't see why we should let her "rape" comment slide just because she's a classic actress from Hollywood's Golden Age. After all, look at how Johnny Depp was attacked because of his comment in Vanity Fair, where he said constant paparazzi scrutiny feels, well, like rape. Both dumb comments, but Depp was absolutely crucified by the press and was subsequently contrite, whereas Novak hasn't even apologized and her rep is even defending Novak's use of the word. Uncool. Thankfully, I think we're past the point of cutting her slack based only on the unhealthy worship we attach to the surviving stars of yesteryear, letting them get away with insensitivity and ignorance.

Still, that more than half a century later Vertigo is causing artistic unrest is beyond neato. Love it or hate it, there's no denying that the peculiar tale met Hitchcock and Herrmann's unique showmanship and energy in exactly the right way to make it a timeless, unique piece that will continue to haunt and inspire many other mediums for many other years.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Amy Irving: The Most Honorable Horror Heroine of the '70s

Some actors you have an unreasoning love for, and you can usually trace that love back to a handful of great characters they played. In the case of Amy Irving, it comes down to two for me: Sue Snell in Carrie (1976) and Gillian Bellaver in The Fury (1978). Both are Brian DePalma films, and both her characters are wholesome but troubled teens trying to do the right thing--failing miserably in most cases, but trying valiantly nonetheless. Oh, and both feature at their core innocent teens struggling with sinister telekinetic powers.

(I also love Amy Irving's voice work here and as Miss Kitty in Fievel Goes West. Lord, she's fabulous.)

Sue Snell is a great character. Saying she's Carrie's moral compass is too trite and broad, when instead she stands for anyone with a conscience seeing her greatest nightmare of guilt come true: the girl she hurt in the beginning destroys everyone but her, Sue. Therefore, Sue is left with the biggest case of undeserved survivor's guilt in history.

It troubled me at first when I'd read online all the discussion theorizing that Sue was actually out to get Carrie throughout the movie, and was in on popular bitch-troll Kris's plan to pour pig's blood all over the hapless Carrie from the beginning. Some believe DePalma left Sue's motives deliberately ambiguous. 

Well, no, he didn't. The truth is Sue's a good girl at her core who did a bad thing at the beginning and is trying to make up for it. Thus she makes the Cinderella plans for Carrie, that despite all her efforts go awry in the worst way.

Like I said, I couldn't at first understand peoples' unwillingness to accept this, as if DePalma must have meant something more, when really, nothing to me could have been clearer that Sue's desire to atone. But having thought about Sue awhile, I think I understand the audience's problem with her. What the girls do to Carrie in the beginning is so monstrous--they display that total lack of human compassion most commonly found in swarms of teenage girls, a pack mentality of exposing and taunting a girl during her first period, naked in the shower, in circumstances where a human being couldn't be more vulnerable--that maybe audiences didn't want to accept Sue could be better than that deep down.

Because if so, then that means other people who view themselves better than that behavior could slip into that pack mentality as well, and that's an ugly truth to face.

That's why I love Sue Snell so much, along with Amy Irving's performance. Irving makes Sue so fresh and real and likable that we feel her guilt right to the bone. We aren't let off the hook. She refuses to disappear into bland nonchalance like the other girls, or externalize some animalistic hatred into even more traumatizing action, like Kris. Real rounded characters are such a rarity in the horror genre--and I'm sure many would say in most DePalma films--that Irving's Sue is almost devastating. That last scene in particular had me gulping in horror not only because of one of the most shocking "AAAUGH!" moments in movies, but because I was afraid what this moment meant for Sue--I really, really cared about her. Not just in that primal way we always fear for the human figure in peril during horror films, but because Sue was a real person to me. A real person I liked.

The Fury has more of the standard action thriller trappings than the teen-wonderland-nightmare zone that was Carrie, so once again we rely on Irving's presence to remind us of the human center in this tale. Less well-known than Carrie, The Fury nonetheless has the same theme of the trapped teenagers with super brain powers. The movie follows two interconnected stories: Kirk Douglas, straight out of the American Handbook for the Capable Action Hero, plays Peter Sandza, a retired agent out to rescue his telekinetic teenage son Robin from a corrupt agency run by John Cassavetes out to exploit Robin's powers. Meanwhile, teenager Gillian Bellaver struggles to come to grips with her own powers similar to Robin's--only to find herself caught between Peter's honorable efforts to use Gillian's psychic connection with Robin to find him and Cassavetes's scheming designs to replace the increasingly unstable Robin with her.

For my money, Irving's Gillian is more relatable than Carrie. This is no black mark against Carrie, or Sissy Spacek's superlative portrayal. But Carrie is such an ethereally pathetic and withdrawn creature, so washed out yet mystical as to seem wraith-like, that the horror we experience on her behalf is the horror we reserve for the Lillian Gishes of the world: creatures whose delicacy and fragility are what make us protective, not because we're necessarily like them. 

Gillian is probably a lot prettier and more charming than us, but in a grounded way that like Sue still makes us feel like we know her and like her--like we could be her, if we were only so lucky to be that pretty and likable. Lots of "likes" there, but what are you gonna do? Here's another one: like Carrie, Gillian has problems connecting with her schoolmates and communicating with her mother, but she's not a social pariah and she handles herself well--plus, her mother's an uptight businesswoman who does love her despite her brittleness, unlike the outlandish nutjob Carrie's mother is. So when this movie's bitch-troll Cheryl mocks Gillian's power, Gillian's slowly slipping mask of social friendliness into miserable humiliation is all the more uncomfortable. Irving is absolutely excellent in this scene. She acts like a normal girl her age would act, crumbling away from the situation: "hey, c'mon, the joke's not funny anymore. I mean, I don't even know what I'm thinking most of the time, ha ha. No, please, lay off." She's so realistically vulnerable it hurts.

And we're not quite granted that evil but nonetheless satisfying sensation of retribution and release that comes in Carrie's prom scene of destruction. We almost do: a sneaky look of brutal triumph crosses Gillian's face when she says Cheryl's only so cruel because she's knocked up. But Gillian doesn't maintain Carrie's stoic violent streak for long: she's immediately contrite, and when Cheryl grabs her wrist demanding Gillian explain herself, Gillian pleads in wide-eyed quiet terror for Cheryl to release her because she knows, she senses what happens next --Cheryl's nose pours out blood like a geyser from touching the psychically volatile Gillian.

We almost feel great about this, except for that Gillian most certainly does not. She hates hurting people. That's what drives her, and that's her character's tragedy.

Again, it's easy for a character to repeatedly say and demonstrate they don't want to hurt others, but it's another thing entirely for a character to really make us see and feel that. Gillian does, Irving does. She's a very beautiful girl, and her wide, striking blue-gray eyes reveal a harrowed soul who wants what normal teenagers want, but more than that wants to keep the people around her safe. Her grounded acting and attitude puts us in her shoes, but her beauty--almost like a fairytale princess variation on the girl next door--and an indefinable charming air elevate her to the status of the angelic heroine worth fighting for and worth rooting for--again, not so much as to make us barf or detach from the story, thanks to the realism Irving brings to Gillian.

However, also like Sue, Irving's Gillian is not perfect. But unfortunately unlike Carrie, the viewer gets the impression anything imperfect about Gillian is not purposeful. She is made at times too hysterical, too "oh my god, oh my god," and although it's certainly not her fault that Robin's final attack tortures her psyche, her screaming from behind the hedge does bust her and Peter's cover. That makes us cringe somewhat--we'd like her to be a little bit stronger. After all, the fact she's a pawn, a prize to be won by both Cassavetes and Douglas, does make her a rather passive figure throughout a good chunk of the movie.

This, along with the film's erratic tone (jumping from action thriller to suspenseful fantasy horror moment to moment), keeps The Fury from being the classic Carrie was. Still, there are other great performances that make the movie a lot of twisted fun: Carrie Snodgress as the likably kooky nurse who hooks up with Peter and helps him free Gillian has a wonderfully spacey and bright quality, and Cassavetes turns the smarm all the way up to 11. And Douglas does a hell of a job, though again, he's such the untouchably skilled action hero and American tough guy that while we admire and root for him, he doesn't tear us apart like Irving does.

Amy Irving is sort of the '70s equivalent of Frances Dee to me: talented, beautiful, and sympathetic, but somehow--either in spite of or because of her understated qualities--she's never been a household name. Her apparently messy divorce with Stephen Spielberg probably didn't help, either. However, she's a steady worker, and has always been more devoted to the stage, anyways. She's unique because even though most stage actors transitioning to the screen usually take a few pictures before they establish a suitably less hammy rhythm when compared to what they were used to expressing onstage, Irving inhabits the underplayed, unflappably humane heroine expertly in her early roles.

Despite what I said above about The Fury's flaws, anything passive about Gillian disappears at the end. During the ridiculously campy yet delicious finale, where Gillian uses what I assume are the combined powers of Robin's unleashed fury and her own, I felt another kind of tingling horror altogether: oh, god, does this mean Gillian's been corrupted and driven mad like Robin? She triumphs, but at what cost? Again, thanks to Irving, we're not given the easy out of pondering this without any emotional involvement. Just as we feared for Sue's physical safety at the end of Carrie, we're more concerned about Gillian's soul at the end of The Fury. 

That takes a good heroine and a good actress. Especially in a horror film, where character usually takes a backseat to gore and suspense.