Tag Archives: American dream

GOD WAS WRONG

By Andreas

[This was written for the Nicholas Ray Blogathon over at Cinema Viewfinder. For more, see my entry on Ray from PopMatters’ 100 Essential Directors series.]

Watching Nicholas Ray’s domestic hell-o-drama Bigger Than Life (1956) puts a sour feeling in the pit of my stomach. It makes me queasy. It’s not just because of the white-knuckle tension that mounts as middle-class patriarch Ed Avery tyrannizes his wife and son. And it goes beyond the film’s super-scathing critique of family life and conformity in the 1950s. No, it’s a deep, lingering nausea stirred by the film’s corrosive dialogue, its too-vulnerable performances, and its blistering, visceral immediacy.

To elaborate on that “visceral immediacy”: whenever I think about Ray, I like to remember that “The Blind Run”—the treatment that evolved into his Rebel Without a Cause—began with the image of a man on fire hurtling toward the camera. It’s my skeleton key to Ray’s scattered filmography, a neat encapsulation of his pet themes and distinctive style. Ray’s movies were abrasive, direct, and unrelenting, injected with searing color and imagery, tagged with pulpy, elemental titles. Titles like Bigger Than Life.

Hell, that’s almost more of an onslaught than a title. But it’s a terrifyingly apt description of James Mason’s Ed Avery and his cortisone-induced delusions of grandeur. Cortisone, the film’s “miracle drug,” makes Ed swell up like an ego-crazed balloon. “He even looks bigger,” remarks an avuncular Walter Matthau. The cortisone is where my queasiness begins; it lends a strangely sci-fi edge to the film’s psychodrama. It’s a Jekyll/Hyde potion in the guise of a cutting-edge pharmaceutical—intended to turn sickness into health, it instead transforms a family man into a raving monster.

This transformation is always painfully legible in Mason’s performance. He starts the film off being so affable in his bowtie and white shirt, even if his British accent belies his supposed middle-American roots. As a father and schoolteacher, he champions athleticism, intelligence, and hard work, values that the post-cortisone Ed twists inside out. Between flickers of lucidity, he starts giving off a messianic glow and generating credos cobbled together from bits of Nietzsche and Horatio Alger. But the old Ed is always discernible just underneath the charismatic madness.

This feature-length metamorphosis is what really gets to me: how everything “good” quickly and unmistakably turns evil. Ed’s football practice with his son becomes a dehumanizing torture that’s a dead ringer for the swimming pool races in Mommie Dearest, another movie that made me nauseous. The family’s house, with its kitschy interiors right out of Better Homes and Gardens, becomes contaminated like poisoned candy.

It becomes a house of horrors, and I don’t use that phrase idly. As the Avery family descends into hell, Bigger Than Life borrows liberally from the techniques and iconography of the horror genre, enlarging Mason with low-angle shots and Nosferatu-like shadows. The climax is a conventional hero/monster showdown, punctuated by Ray’s lurid use of red and the cartoonish circus music booming from the TV. The film closes on an ostensibly happy ending, but it doesn’t feel happy at all.

Especially not after we hear Mason snarl a line like, “Our marriage is over! In my mind, I’ve divorced you!” It’s a line that severely disturbs his son, and me as well. That “in my mind” turns it from a conventionally melodramatic bombshell into a statement of intent: Ed is going to impose his psychotic beliefs on the world around him. This same desire leads to Ed’s greatest transgression, and the film’s most traumatizing moment, when he decides to act out the biblical story of Abraham sacrificing Isaac. “But Ed,” protests his wife. “You didn’t read it all. God stopped Abraham.” Ed thunders back, “God was wrong.”

That line’s forceful blasphemy lingers long after the ending credits. It’s Ray’s most vicious indictment of bourgeois materialism, American exceptionalism, and every Cold War cult of self-improvement. “God was wrong” is like “You’re tearing me apart!” or “I’m a stranger here myself”—an ideologically dense line of dialogue indistinguishable from Ray’s own anti-conformist ethos. Those three little words sum up the film’s brash style, its sickening power, and its overall message: something is truly rotten in America.

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Perfectly Cromulent Analysis: Mr. Plow

Just in time for April, my “Perfectly Cromulent Analysis” series is back—in a new, bite-sized format! I’ve been looking for a way to keep writing about The Simpsons that’s a little less time-consuming than the more comprehensive essays, so I can do it with more regularity. Thus, I’ll be paring down my analysis and trying to focus more closely on the episodes’ satirical points and individual moments of comic genius. Since winter’s just now ending in the midwest, I’ve picked a snowbound classic from Season 4 to celebrate: “Mr. Plow.” (That’s the episode’s name. That name again is “Mr. Plow.”)

“Mr. Plow” follows a narrative arc that should be familiar to Simpsons fans: first, Homer tries to accomplish something so he’ll be respected by his family. He fails, here through the betrayal of his best friend. Finally, he achieves some modicum of redemption, though divine intervention guarantees that it’s no more than a modicum. It’s the typical sour-but-sweet satire of the American dream that the show is renowned for dishing up. “Mr. Plow,” though, is brought a cut above even The Simpsons’ high standards by its brilliant set-pieces, reversals, and character-based humor. For example, consider my favorite joke in the whole episode…

While visiting a big, flashy car show, Homer stops off at a booth to enter a “free car” contest. He fills out the  form and, while dropping it in the slot, asks the model, “Do you come with the car?” The model, voiced by Nancy Cartwright (aka Bart) offhandedly replies, “Ohh, you!” with a coy wave of her hand and a squeaky giggle. Homer leaves, and another man walks up, fills out the form, and asks the same question. She automatically responds in the exact same way. The whole joke takes about 11 seconds, it’s unobtrusively woven into the episode’s plot, but it’s still an incisive, self-contained critique of rampant institutionalized sexism.

I love how the show’s not afraid to mock its main character when he treats a woman like a sex object. (For a more in-depth exploration of this, see Season 1’s “Homer’s Night Out.”) Both he and the man who follow him think they’re so clever, like they’re the first visitors to this booth to crack that obvious joke. And of course the model can’t tell them off, because it’s her job to validate their delusions of wit and desirability. But in Cartwright’s performance, you can catch the slightest whiff of contempt, both in the ultra-calculated nature of her laugh and the mechanical way she repeats herself. It’s such a scathing, flawlessly executed indictment of male self-satisfaction.

Nothing else in the episode quite lives up to those 11 seconds, but there are still nuggets of genius deposited all over the place. Parts of “Mr. Plow” could function as a time capsule of global politics circa 1992: just look at “Crazy Vaclav,” the Slavic car salesman who tries to sell Homer a car made in a country that no longer exists (“Put it in H!”). Or the representative of the ethically suspect and ironically named “Fourth Reich Motors,” a model of post-Nazi German efficiency at any price. Both of these examples casually and hilariously postulate a world still struggling to figure itself out in the immediate aftermath of the Cold War.

Another one of the best jokes in “Mr. Plow” is rooted not in international politics, but in the inner workings of Homer’s mind. As he’s about to claim his insurance money for both of the family’s wrecked cars, the claims adjuster asks him to explain what “Moe’s” is. Internally, Homer panics and decides to lie. “But what else is open at night?” he ponders. Then, in extreme close-up, he answers while wearing the most blissful of smiles: “It’s a pornography store! I was buying pornography!” Dan Castellaneta’s delivery is so pitch-perfect that I can hardly think about that line without cracking up. The restrictive framing and the lack of a reaction shot from the (no doubt aghast) claims adjuster complete the moment, rendering it unforgettable.

So far, I’ve concentrated entirely on the episode’s first act. (That’s how substantive “Mr. Plow” is.) The rest of it is brimming with good jokes, mostly focused on Homer’s harebrained, initially successful scheme to make his snowplow pay for itself. But the best parts come after he encourages his perpetually drunk pal Barney to go out and make something of himself—and Barney instantly becomes an aggressive rival plowman. This conflict capitalizes on their ongoing, beer-soaked friendship, as Barney callously shoots out Homer’s tires, slanders him on TV (with the aid of Linda Ronstadt), beats a cardboard cut-out of him into oblivion, and steals his clientele, all under the guise of “healthy competition.”

It’s pretty astonishing that Barney gets away with all this, yet the episode never feels mean-spirited or unnecessarily vicious. I suspect it’s because Barney retains the same soused, happy-go-lucky personality throughout, burping and mumbling even when he’s hobnobbing with Ronstadt and mercilessly sabotaging his best friend. He still feels good (or maybe drunkenly innocent?) at heart even when his actions say otherwise, and he even gets a moment of wickedly funny pathos toward the end, as he remarks that at least dying will reunite him with dead family members “and that plant I never watered.” It’s impressive that the Simpsons writers created a character whose audience sympathies could withstand his borderline-sociopathic behavior in this episode.

I’ll close with another of my favorite jokes from this episode. (That is, aside from the sublime visual gag with the bridges.) It’s when Homer complains to Flanders, who’s just had his driveway plowed by Barney, “I thought I was your plowman!” Flanders pauses, then offers to let Homer plow his pristine driveway, but to a self-motivated go-getter like Homer, this is tantamount to an insult. He cries, “I don’t need your phony-baloney job!” before quickly adding, “I’ll take your money. But I’m not gonna plow your driveway!”

I just love the understanding of commerce that this exchange betrays: he’s willing to put on the facade of earning the money when need be, but ultimately it’s all about getting the money, especially since the job’s prestige has run dry. Flanders, naturally, is too gracious to ask for the money back. Considering all these bitter, bleak, and brutal jokes, it’s surprising that “Mr. Plow” still has time left for scenes of adorable lovemaking, advertising parodies, nail-biting suspense, and even an extended Adam West cameo that single-handedly outdoes his entire recurring role on Family Guy. But what else would you expect? This is prime Simpsons, so of course they turn a 20-minute cartoon about buying a snowplow into a work of art.

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Force of Evil and the Love of Film (Noir)

Around this time last year, I participated in the “For the Love of Film” blogathon, which was devoted to one of my favorite causes—film preservation. It’s happening this year, but with a dark and wonderful twist: it’s centered on film noir, which is my bread and butter, my métier, my love. In other words: let’s raise some big money, folks. Let’s pretend we’re like Sterling Hayden in The Asphalt Jungle, and Cy Endfield’s forgotten noir The Sound of Fury (1950) is the Kentucky farm we’re trying to buy back. Or if that’s too confusing, maybe we could be Elisha Cook, Jr. in The Killing.

Or let me just put it straight: we need to raise money to preserve a great film. A great film about mob justice that stars Jeff Bridges’ father, Lloyd. See Ferdy on Films and Self-Styled Siren, the blogathon’s co-hosts, for more information. In the meantime, you can do two things: 1) click on that Maltese falcon at the left to donate any amount of money (please, please donate!) and 2) let me tell you all about another great, underrated film noir, Abraham Polonsky’s Force of Evil (1948).

Like The Sound of Fury, Force of Evil was made by a filmmaker on the cusp of being blacklisted, and Polonsky wouldn’t receive another film credit for twenty years. It’s a tragedy that such a promising career should be cut so short, yet it’s not surprising; Force of Evil is not just well-made, but also bleak, brave, and dangerous. It proves that Polonsky, as an artist, was unafraid to indict the greed and corruption he saw around him, and do it in the most caustic, unwholesome way imaginable. He was totally willing to “speak truth to power,” and in the process create one of the the blackest noirs. In Force of Evil, the saving graces of love, humor, and family are gone. All that’s left is the bad, and the worse.

At the center of all this is Joe Morse, the lawyer for a big-time numbers racketeer, played by the always-dynamite John Garfield. Like Polonsky, Garfield was just a few years away from the blacklist, not to mention his own death, and his performance bleeds desperation. His introductory voiceover is deceptively optimistic—”Tomorrow I make my first million dollars,” he claims—but that optimism, and any chance for the fulfillment of Joe’s American dream, is premised entirely on a series of cold-hearted deals he’s made with his boss, Tucker (Roy Roberts). Ironically, it’s Joe’s brief glimmers of humanity and altruism that destroy him and bring down his whole wicked world.

Joe, you see, is conflicted. His brother Leo (Thomas Gomez), a fatherly salt-of-the-earth type with heart trouble, runs a small numbers “bank” that Tucker plans to absorb into his combination on July 4, unless Joe intercedes. But when Joe stands up for him, Leo wants no part in it. So Joe has to force him in, straining their already troubled relationship, and accidentally driving his brother straight into an undignified grave. Gomez gives the performance of a lifetime as the sweaty, palpitating Leo, a man who only wants the best for his employees, and who sees his brother as a dirty gangster. Force of Evil is filled with hungry-eyed men who make the realtors of Glengarry Glen Ross look downright serene, and Leo is the hungriest, most panic-stricken of them all.

When Joe takes a romantic interest in Doris, Leo’s innocent surrogate daughter, Leo is understandably pissed. And he may be in the right. Force of Evil forces the viewer to ask the question: would you rather be Joe, the ambitious black sheep, who has sacrificed his scruples and his self-possession for that “first million dollars”? Or Leo, who’s bound to end up dead amidst the trash and seagulls, who may in fact be a small-time crook, but at least retains the vestiges of a tarnished soul? The film provides no easy way out, and no absolution through a cutesy Hollywood love story.

Even the “good” characters, like the mousy accountant/informant Bauer (Howland Chamberlain), have compromised themselves in the worst possible ways. Before he ends up as a bloodied corpse on the front page of a newspaper, Bauer is castigated by Leo as a “dumb, rotten dog” who should’ve left everything alone. In Force of Evil, everyone is complicit in Tucker’s overarching corruption, and redemption is always just out of reach. Tucker’s wife, played by femme fatale extraordinaire Marie Windsor, wears that corruption like a perfume, and manages to sound seductive even as she plants seeds of paranoia and betrayal in Joe’s brain.

And, as you might expect, Force of Evil ends in a big, loud mess as the crooks double-cross one another, leaving Joe with nothing but rubble and guilt. As this synopsis might suggest, the film is relentlessly downbeat; it’s all but nihilistic in its chilling vision of American life. For Polonsky, the real crimes aren’t just muggings and murders, but all the backroom arrangements made by amoral bureaucrats with more concern for statistics and legal loopholes than all the lives they’re ruining. Between its unflinching darkness and beautiful distillation of noir style, Force of Evil is a confirmed masterpiece, which I see as a likely influence on On the Waterfront (directed by Polonsky’s nemesis, Elia Kazan) and The Godfather, especially considering Force of Evil‘s bloody diner scene.

As such, it’s one more important piece of the film noir heritage that Marilyn Ferdinand, Farran Smith Nehme, Greg Ferrara, and all the rest of the intrepid blogathoners are fighting to save. So please, help the Film Noir Foundation makes its first million dollars. Give generously to save the movies that you and I love. For the love of film (noir), click the button below and donate!

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Filth, Fame, and Divine

I really really love John Waters’ Pink Flamingos (1972). It’s one of the most infamous cult movies of all time; it’s also hilarious, unrelentingly in-your-face, and endlessly enjoyable in the most tasteless ways. Hell, I love it so much that I wrote a 12-page paper on it a week ago called “Divine, Pink Flamingos, and the Politicized Body.” Therefore, I’d love to share with you what I learned from this paper. The fruits of my intellectual labor, if you will! And better yet, I’ll present them via a bulleted list, as my gift to you.

  • The mother: Within the film, Divine’s body is squeezed into a lot of roles. She’s a loving mother, a sexy starlet, and a mass murderer. The conflation of these gendered identities subverts them all, making for some pretty acrid social commentary. Babs Johnson’s brood is the American family run amok (complete with incest and chicken-fucking), and she’s an exaggerated, parodic portrayal of the ideal suburban homemaker – June Cleaver as a fat, foul-mouthed drag queen.
  • Sexualization: Divine (the character) isn’t just a mother; she’s also a horny gal raring for some action. Or as she puts it: “Why, I’m all dressed up and ready to fall in love!” She embraces a clichéd 1950s image of what attractive women are, and how they act, even if that image is self-evidently ridiculous. Like the film as a whole, she undercuts social norms by claiming as her own the lowest, tackiest, most degraded forms of cultural discourse.
  • The transgressive body: Early in Pink Flamingos, Divine buys a slab of meat and warms it up “in [her] own little oven” by holding it between her legs. Later, she barbecues the meat and serves it to her family for dinner. She’s the homemaking matriarch, but she also rubs food against her genitalia, licks furniture, and eats shit. The actions don’t suit the role, but Divine does them anyway.

  • Violence: As Michael Tinkcom points out in Working Like a Homosexual, John Waters totally anticipated the tabloid glamorization of criminals, and did it better than Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers (1994). Divine and her family are a pack of fugitives, “the filthiest people alive,” and this only compounds her sex appeal. As Pink Flamingos sees it, there’s no difference between pin-up and wanted posters. (Female Trouble delves even deeper into this – “I’m so fucking beautiful I can’t stand it myself!”)
  • Celebrity: Pink Flamingos is really about the cult of celebrity. In Divine, his cinematic muse, John Waters blends Jayne Mansfield with the Manson Family. (The film quotes a scene from the Mansfield vehicle The Girl Can’t Help It [1956], and it’s dedicated to “Sadie, Katie, and Les,” three of the Manson girls.) By mixing sex, violence, and press coverage, Waters is essentially writing a love (or poison pen?) letter to postwar mass culture. (Also, for what it’s worth, I think Divine might be the Lady Gaga of the 1970s.)

So there you have it! It’s my reading of Pink Flamingos in just a few bite-sized pieces. It was a little more complicated than that, but you get the general idea. I talked about Rachel Adams’ Sideshow U.S.A., especially her take on Zoe Leonard’s photographs of bearded lady Jennifer Miller; also, I included this very vital quote from Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble:

The replication of heterosexual constructs in non-heterosexual frames brings into relief the utterly constructed status of the so-called heterosexual original. Thus, gay is to straight not as copy is to original, but, rather, as copy is to copy. The parodic repetition of ‘the original,’… reveals the original to be nothing other than a parody of the idea of the natural and the original.

So remember that the next time you have to write an academic essay about drag! Finally, I noticed a great visual tidbit in the entryway to the Marbles’ house in Pink Flamingos.

Yes, that’s right: next to that poster for Joseph Losey’s campfest Boom! (1968) is an Andy Warhol print of Elizabeth Taylor. Since I had recently written a paper on Sixteen Jackies (1964), I was very cued into Warhol and his ties to celebrity culture, mass production, and drag. Like Pink Flamingos, Warhol’s work frequently links consumer culture with death, albeit in subtler, less over-the-top ways. More importantly, the grids of near-identical faces in his many series of celebrity prints (like those of Liz, Jackie, and Marilyn) resonate with the ways that Divine imperfectly embodies the personas June Cleaver, Jayne Mansfield, and Charlie Manson.

My ideas about Waters vis-à-vis Warhol aren’t fully fleshed out quite yet, but there’s a start. After finishing this project, I adore Pink Flamingos more than ever, from Ms. Edie’s demented, egg-centric babbling to Connie Marble’s intense bitchiness (“my kind of people, and assholes!”) to, of course, the divine Divine. A final note: If you want to learn more about drag, Divine, Warhol, and everything else, I highly recommend Marjorie Garber’s indispensable and entertaining Vested Interests. It’s a fantastic book.

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John Huston, Modernist and Anti-mythologist

What’s more fun than participating in a blogathon about a great director? Possibly a barrel of monkeys, but that’s beside the point. The point is that I’m participating in the John Huston Blogathon being hosted between today (Huston’s 104th birthday) and next Thursday by Adam at Icebox Movies. So definitely go there and read some other blogalicious, Huston-centric musings, and watch Adam’s John Huston impersonation video. Now, I’ve been uncertain about how best to approach Huston’s formidable career and larger-than-life personality. So first I want to give a brief overview of – dare I say – the man who would be John Huston.

  • At different times, Huston wasn a boxer, soldier, journalist, and painter.
  • More pertinently, he was an actor, writer, and director on countless films spanning from about 1930 to his death in 1987.
  • His films as a director ran from film noir to biopics to earnest literary adaptations to action-adventure and war movies to period dramas to a biblical epic to the musical Annie, and beyond. Whew.
  • He was the patriarch of a Hollywood dynasty that includes his father Walter, his daughter Anjelica, and his son Danny; he directed both father and daughter to Oscar-winning performances.

In short, he’s a pretty intimidating figure to write about. So I’m planning to spread out my analysis of his films across a few different posts. The basic question Adam’s asking with this blogathon is, Can we call Huston an auteur? Well, maybe I can answer that question indirectly by examining the cinematic commonalities and discrepancies across a small portion of his career. But first, I want to talk to about one of my favorite Huston appearances outside of his directorial oeuvre: as the consummate villain Noah Cross in Roman Polanski’s Chinatown. Starting in the 1960s, Huston acted in a lot of weird, bad movies (like Myra Breckinridge, eww!), but none of his performances even came close to the monster he created in Cross, who wore his aura of corrupted authority as if it were a halo. (Barring possibly the Lawgiver in the last Planet of the Apes movie; Huston was born to wear that ape makeup.)

In Chinatown, Huston gives an easygoing, paternal warmth to a grizzled industrialist who’s ravaged both the land around Los Angeles and his own daughter without suffering any legal consequences, let alone pangs of conscience. The sheer scope and certainty of Cross’s evil acts astound his nemesis, Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson), a small-time private eye who’s clearly out of his league. Cross is a depraved, unabashed behemoth of amorality, yet he’s so outwardly affable and grandfatherly, even during the film’s miserable climax. It’s an infuriating, understated, terrifying performance. And even though Chinatown isn’t a “Huston movie” per se, it’s still worth discussing in relation to his filmography. His presence in Chinatown‘s rotten core is an example of the cleverly meta-cinematic casting that Polanski excels at,1 a casting decision whose tendrils extend back through the decades into the heart of studio-era Hollywood and with it, film noir.

As James Naremore says in More Than Night: Film Noir in Its Contexts, Huston’s role in the movie is, in part, Polanski and producer Robert Towne “acknowledging [their] indebtedness to The Maltese Falcon” (205). Since Chinatown is at once a throwback to and a recontextualization of film noir conventions, what better way to forge a concrete link with the past than by casting the man who’d codified many of them with Falcon, Key Largo, and The Asphalt Jungle? In Chinatown, then, I see a kinship with classical film noir in general, and Huston’s earlier films in specific. In the film’s vision of 1930s Los Angeles, wealth trumps morality or the law; it’s a city where each individual must find their own meaning, whether in the unrestrained exercise of power (Cross) or the simple desire for the truth (Gittes). In some ways, Cross’s unbound ubermensch is a grotesque exaggeration of the vaguely existentialist ethos promoted by Huston’s own films.

Like much of film noir, after all, Huston’s films largely took place in that gray space between law and anarchy. His characters wander a world in which traditional authorities, whether in terms of morality, religion, or epistemological certainty, have been dethroned, forcing them to discover the right path on their own, according to their own self-determined values. Basically, I’m locating Huston as fundamentally modernist in his outlook and style. I’m also generalizing like crazy, of course, so I’ll be open about which sample of his output I’m using: I’ve recently watched The Maltese Falcon, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The Misfits, and Fat City, so my forthcoming arguments will be primarily concerned with those films. (I’ll probably make detours into Key Largo, The Asphalt Jungle, The African Queen, The Man Who Would Be King, and Under the Volcano as necessary.)

So: John Huston’s films are, on a very basic level, concerned with the effects of modernity. Like existential seismometers, they detect a rupture in the circle of life; in The Misfits, for example, American family life has fallen prey to divorce, disease, war, and poverty. Roslyn (Marilyn Monroe) and the cowboy Gay (Clark Gable) try to piece together a relationship, but they’ve been so battered by the world – or in Gay’s case, rendered obsolete – that now they can’t even connect to other human beings. Even nature, one of Huston’s abiding interests, can’t stave off the encroachment of modernity. As Gay observes, the wild mustangs used to be given to children as presents, but now kids just ride motor scooters, so the mustangs must instead be ground into dog food. It’s a brutal metaphor that applies broadly to all of these Huston protagonists, displaced men searching for a new home or trying to return to a lost one, as with Dix’s dying pilgrimage at the end of The Asphalt Jungle.

The nature of “home” is also the subject of scrutiny in Huston’s work. In The Misfits, Pilot (Eli Wallach) has an unfinished house, abandoned after his wife’s death, which Roslyn and Gay appropriate as the site of their own domestic fantasies. But these efforts are doomed from the beginning, and the contrast between their reality and the “American dream” ideal proves the film’s bitter truths. In Fat City, washed-up boxer Billy (Stacy Keach) and barfly Oma (Susan Tyrrell) initially live together in a shrill burlesque of marriage. But inevitably they go their separate ways, and it’s because the American dream of marital bliss was not designed for a pair of alcoholics in desolate small-town California. Huston was intent on demolishing these myths on which much of American life was based, revealing the sickness and falsehoods underneath. And so, to come temporarily full circle, isn’t that what Huston was accomplishing by starring in Chinatown? He was at once Noah Cross, titan of industry, but also Noah Cross, the dirtiest of old men.

In that role and in many of his own films, Huston also undercut capitalist myths that underlie the “American way of life.” But I’ll get into that in my next post as I delve into The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.

1 See also Ruth Gordon in Rosemary’s Baby or Lionel Stander in Cul-de-Sac, who dragged their cinematic pasts into the roles with them.

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Perfectly Cromulent Analysis: Homer’s Enemy

Here, at last, is the long-delayed June entry in the “Perfectly Cromulent Analysis” series. The episode comes from late in season 8, toward the end of The Simpsons‘ golden era, but I feel that it stands among the classics, if only for its deconstructive audacity. I like my comedy black, and “Homer’s Enemy” is about as black as they come; it’s a conceptually extreme episode and a departure from any of the usual The Simpsons storylines. But it also gave the show’s writers and producers a unique opportunity to expose the dark underbelly of the show’s premise. Although the show had gone dark before, this was basically the Simpsons equivalent of Jimmy Stewart’s performance in Vertigo, as it briefly granted the public a harrowing glimpse into the hidden evils of an American institution.

The Simpsons is, after all, a sitcom about an average American family’s wacky misadventures. We’re meant to see ourselves, our friends, and our families in Homer, Marge, Bart, and Lisa; we’re supposed to identify with them through all their follies and confusions. “Homer’s Enemy” toys with these built-up sympathies as the starting point of its bleak satire. Everybody, after all, loves Homer. He’s the show’s heart – not despite the fact that he’s an incompetent fool, but because of it and the everyman/everydad status it grants him. So we’re inherently biased against this episode’s titular intruder: who would ever want to be Homer’s enemy, and what would they be doing in Springfield? The answer, we learn, is that he’s suffering.

As the episode opens, we’re immediately introduced to Frank Grimes through Kent Brockman’s human interest series “Kent’s People.” It’s fitting that Grimes is initially mediated through television. He’s the type of hard-luck case whom we normal Americans prefer to view from afar, pitying him for a few seconds rather than dealing with him on an everyday basis. Mr. Burns, typically, has just such a low attention span; he admires Grimes just long enough to hire him, but has a new hero he wants for executive vice president the next day (in this case, a baby-rescuing dog). The TV-suckled populace is a harsh mistress, Burns included, as Grimes learns through experience.

Burns’ caprices set the episode in motion, as he has Smithers deposit Grimes in Sector 7G. There, he must coexist with characters we know and love – Homer, Lenny (“I’m Lenny!”), and Carl – and share in their workaday sitcom lives. Except Grimes doesn’t want to be on a sitcom. He just wants to work and get paid. Homer’s slip-ups, which are normally fodder for the show’s straightforward humor, become grievances to fuel Grimes’ indignation. As he’s forced to endure Homer’s vices, from everyday rudeness (calling Grimes by demeaning nicknames, eating his special dietetic lunch) to life-endangering incompetence, we’re drawn further into his rapid psychic collapse, which is heralded by increasingly menacing musical cues.

After Homer’s stupidity nearly costs Grimes his job, the tension between them mounts and Grimes declares himself Homer’s enemy. But Homer, never one to take an interpersonal confrontation at face value (see: Flanders, Ned), continues his plight to win Grimes over. While ruminating on this development at Moe’s, Homer refers to himself as “the most beloved man in Springfield,” a line that perhaps too bluntly digs at the show’s Capra-derived paradigm of small-town life. In order to retain this supposed status, Homer plans a surprise lobster dinner for Grimes, before which he insists that every family member be “perfect.” But it’s just this perfection that launches Grimes into a tirade about how Homer is “what’s wrong with America.”

The rest of the episode proceeds along two courses: Homer’s childlike delusion that Grimes will like him if he acts professional vs. Grimes’ obsessive plotting to expose Homer for the fraud he is. But when Homer is applauded for receiving first prize in a children’s model-building contest, Grimes descends into an appropriately cartoonish breakdown with the refrain “…because I’m Homer Simpson.” The plant employees stare on in confusion as Grimes trades in his discipline for a scathing parody of Homer’s gluttony and sloth; the rampage concludes with Grimes grabbing high-voltage wires and dying before his coworkers’ eyes. This scene is followed directly by Grimes’ funeral, at which Homer literally gets the last laugh by falling asleep and yelling, “Change the channel, Marge!” Fittingly, an episode that began with a TV program about Grimes’ life ends with Homer trying to channel-surf past his death.

The episode is devilishly written and executed, as it’s intended to pull viewers simultaneously in two directions. Do we sympathize with our familiar protagonists, or with this anguished outsider? Grimes’ argument against Homer is faultless and self-evident, after all; his rants could be recitations from The Simpsons‘ show bible. But as Grimes tries to cope with Homer’s formula of ignorance yielding success, as he vainly pleads his case to those around him, he traces out an absurdist choice: either love Homer, or go mad and die. Grimes, with his Dickensian background and built-in work ethic, can only do the latter. The show’s recurring characters (like its viewers) have learned to do the former, turning Springfield into a dystopia worthy of The Twilight Zone‘s “It’s a Good Life.”

A quick anatomy of the man who would be Grimey: he’s plain and business-oriented, a mix of Michael Douglas’s psychotic D-Fens from Falling Down and the pathetic losers played by William H. Macy, like Fargo‘s Jerry Lundegaard. Voice actor Hank Azaria masterfully incorporates elements of both into his performance, emanating a hard-edged professionalism that soon devolves into a mess of disbelieving sighs and exasperated sputters. Azaria’s voice gives the episode momentum, mapping out the tragic arc of Grimes’ short career, and the animation complements this by making Grimes all straight lines and eyebrows opposite Homer’s sumptuous curves.

Ultimately, Grimes is not only Homer’s enemy, but his antithesis. Homer is the baby boomer poster boy, blindly coasting along on his unearned privilege while good fortune falls into his lap. (This good fortune is, of course, the show’s status quo, and hence can never be taken away.) Grimes, meanwhile, puts his situation like this: “I’ve had to work hard every day of my life, and what do I have to show for it? This briefcase, and this haircut!” Sic transit Horatio Alger; being the “self-made man” isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. While Homer is a creature of boundless good will, Grimes’ difficult life has made him fidgety, aggressive, and self-righteous. Their disparate environments have divided them both economically and emotionally, and these circumstances have doomed Grimes’ irate legacy to be buried under Homer’s boorish clowning.

I should also touch on the episode’s B plot, in which Bart buys an abandoned factory for $1 and screws around in it with Milhouse until it collapses. While it’s certainly much lighter than the rest of the episode, as it focuses on how an uninhibited 10-year-old would behave in an adult situation (namely, by throwing typewriters into barrels of industrial waste), it nonetheless contains some ironic echoes to Grimes’ storyline. As he first gazes up at his property, Bart quips, “Looks like my years of hard work have finally paid off,” (a sarcastic line which would no doubt make Grimes apoplectic) and the subplot’s real pay-off arrives during the failed dinner party, as Grimes is angrily listing Homer’s undeserved luxuries: “A dream house! Two cars! A beautiful wife! A son who owns a factory!” What seemed like a frivolous side story is recontextualized as an especially infuriating piece of Homer’s American dream.

Granted, this was and is a divisive episode among fans. To some, it’s too mean-spirited, while others view Homer’s behavior as symptomatic of his gradual infantilization. Both claims certainly have some credence, but unlike later episodes – which take Homer’s selfish idiocy for granted, and revel in it – “Homer’s Enemy” regards it self-consciously as a source of humor and as an ugly blight on the face of Springfield. Yes, Grimes’ death is played for laughs, and this is exceptionally dark, but the uneasy laughter it elicits is the point of the episode. Above all, this episode remains controversial because it’s a new and unpleasant perspective on the Simpson family.

“Homer’s Enemy” calls to mind the work of Luis Buñuel, in how it inverts right and wrong, punishments and rewards, with bleakly funny consequences. Through Frank Grimes’ eyes, perhaps the Casa de Simpson could be the site of a uniquely American Exterminating Angel. Most fundamentally, though, it’s about skewing the show’s preexisting satire by introducing a human being with a “real world” mentality to the madness of Springfield. As fans of The Simpsons, after all, we’re not too different from Frank Grimes – educated, rational adults living in the real world. We may laugh along with Homer & co.’s weekly exploits, but this episode shows what would happen if we too had four fingers and yellow skin, if we too tried to live alongside the cultural monolith that is Homer Simpson. It would destroy us.

So there’s my take on one of the thornier episodes in Simpsons history. Are you a fan of “Homer’s Enemy,” or are you put off by its painful resolution? Also, what episode should I hit for July: “Bart Sells His Soul,” or “El Viaje Misterioso de Nuestro Jomer“? Another episode altogether? Comment and let me know your preference.

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One Hour Mark: Sweet Smell of Success

This is a picture of Burt Lancaster from 1:00:00 into Alexander Mackendrick’s caustic masterpiece Sweet Smell of Success (1957). A late entry in the cycle of classical noir, the film is about power plays in the New York press, as agents like Tony Curtis’s Sidney Falco make dirty deals with columnists in order to advance their clients. Lancaster stars as J.J. Hunsecker, a bespectacled, all-powerful columnist based on Walter Winchell. By this point in the film, Falco has already made several lurid exchanges and betrayals to curry Hunsecker’s favor. Although this may feel a far cry from the somewhat bloodier material associated with film noir, Sweet Smell treads the same ground of human greed and corruption, and the stakes are just as high.

“He’s got the scruples of a guinea pig and the morals of a gangster,” is how one prospective victim describes Hunsecker, but it doesn’t quite do him justice. He’s power incarnate, and insists that this fact be acknowledged. He can be angry, panicked, calm, even loving, but every emotion is backed up by the knowledge of his supreme authority. This is a film about a city of lost souls, and in that context, Hunsecker is a god. Here, he’s giving a magnificent performance for his sister Susie (Susan Harrison). Although he’s indirectly responsible for the smear that got her boyfriend’s band fired, he plays the caring older brother to win her over. He may be able to dispatch anyone with a curt dismissal, but with his sister, he takes some tact.

The scene plays out in stages: first, he’s the approachable patriarch. “Now, take it easy, Susie,” he says, “you don’t have to protest with me.” As Susie cuts to the point, he gets indignant and reveals his self-interest, his voice growing sharper: “You’ve had your say, let me have mine!” The authoritarian in him emerges, and by the one hour mark, he has her almost reduced to tears. Then he goes at her from a different angle: “There’s nothing I wouldn’t do for you.” J.J. is brother, father, priest, and king all rolled into one. He’s also a master manipulator. Lancaster played a number of roles like this – as Sinclair Lewis’s firebrand preacher in Elmer Gantry, or as a fascist general staging a coup in Seven Days in May – but none so effective and terrifying as J.J.

In these films, Lancaster showed the dark sides of powerful men. J.J. is almost nothing but dark side, power wielded for its own sake. Charles Foster Kane may have wanted love on his own terms, but at least he had lost dreams and forgotten potential. J.J. doesn’t even have a first name to humanize him; there’s nothing but a pair of slick initials. His only weakness is his sister, and as we can see here, he has his own methods for taking care of her. It’s only later in the film, as she falls further out of his orbit, that J.J.’s problems really start… but even then, they’re displaced onto Sidney, the eternal fall guy.

In J.J., Lancaster forges one of the great characters in all of film, a man of stone whose sister is his feet of clay. Lancaster is a monolith, and his glasses look both professorial and razor sharp. For Mackendrick and his cinematographer, the great James Wong Howe, the entire crooked city of New York is extension of J.J.’s perversion and power. J.J.’s apartment is the epicenter from which his corruption radiates. Like J.J., it initially looks welcoming and reliable, but under Howe’s camera, each room becomes menacing and bleak. So in this image, we have two all-American icons of security – the patriarch and the home – mutated into cold, controlling monsters. And that, my friends, is film noir.

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