Wednesday, January 30, 2008

The Home Viewer (4): Love Is Strange

(Here's the latest piece I've done for our local paper.)

As Valentine’s Day approaches, the Home Viewer trusts you to find your own favorite cinematic love, whether it be Titanic or Gone With the Wind, a mere Ghost or a Pretty Woman. As for me, I’ll wander down meaner streets to the lonely places, where the Valentines are blue, and the love is mad, blind, or lost—and sometimes found.

Mad Love

--Or, as the French put it, amour fou, plunging into icy Freudian waters, searching in dim dreams for pleasures without any principles. There’s Mad Love (1935) itself, in which director Karl Freund (cinematographer for Browning/Lugosi’s Dracula) makes a pact with that little devil Peter Lorre, and together they paint an expressionist portrait of a brilliant surgeon deformed by his needs. Mad Love has two strange bedfellows: Gun Crazy (1949) and Bonnie and Clyde (1967), in which impotency is cured at gunpoint while passion mingles with shame. All three accept fatal excess as the everyday, and let its mad lovers misbehave all the way.

Blind Love

If not mad, does love go blind? Tom Waits sings that “the only kind of love is stone blind love,” and the only way to find your love is to close your eyes. Which can be dangerous. Consider all those film noir fall guys, from Fred MacMurray’s insurance investigator in Double Indemnity (1944) to William Hurt’s poleaxed lawyer in Body Heat (1981)—actually more or less a remake of Double Indemnity. But it isn’t just the femmes who are fatale: Charles Boyer keeps Ingrid Bergman guessing with near-fatal results in Gaslight (1944), and Jimmy Stewart has in the end only himself to blame for getting so dizzy over Kim Novak in Vertigo (1958). Ah, the ache of (I’ll quote Waits again) that “blind and broken heart that sleeps beneath [your] lapel.”

Blind love, though, can be a remarkable thing, unconditional, infinitely compassionate, redemptive. Akira Kurosawa's Akahige/Red Beard (1965) gives us the great gift of Dr. Niide (Toshiro Mifune), a doctor in a charity clinic whose deep humility and good will—and humor—is untainted by false pride or false humility. He simply moves forward, implacable and self-effacing, healing as though he has no other choice and shining a light on everyone he meets so they can see clearly their failings, strengths, and needs—including the need to stand with him in love to accomplish whatever job awaits.

Lost (and Found) Love

So far, it’s been mostly risks and falls. And you must admit there’s something inevitable about the losses of love. As Cagney famously barks out in Boy Meets Girl (1938), it’s the Only Story: “Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl!” Wes Anderson applies his typical pretzel logic to this formula in The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), as everyone confronts their loves, mad, blind and what-all, sometimes reckless, sometimes calculating, sometimes even suicidal. But, like Royal Tenenbaum himself (Gene Hackman having the time of his life)—his character loving everyone almost as much as he loves himself—these dedicated eccentrics find their lost loves only when they finally do love others as much as themselves, and devise ways to save each other from lovelessness. It appears, then, that Royal’s gravestone doesn’t lie as it announces he “Died Tragically Rescuing His Family From The Remains Of A Destroyed Sinking Battleship.” That’s as good a metaphor for love as any.

And as the ship sinks, drastic measures sometimes must be taken to save the innocent. Sling Blade’s (1996) Karl (Billy Bob Thornton) has lost almost all love, but still manages to give what he has to young Frank (Lucas Black), “nervous” and lonesome, hanging onto his mother even as she slips from him. And while Karl may be lost in the horrors of his childhood, it is hard to deny that the final blade he slings, like Michael with his flaming sword, frees Frank and his mother and helps them all find at least partial peace.

Well, the biggest risk we could take this time around as Humble Viewers is Sally Potter's Yes (2004), which cannot be described without its sounding more than a little silly. The movie is set in present-day England, but everyone speaks in rhyme. (I kid you not.) It is in part about a passionate love affair between an unhappily married woman, "She" (Joan Allen), and an expatriate from Beirut, "He" (Simon Akbarian). And although Yes is about a great many other things—I will not detail them here, lest you disbelieve or storm off—it returns, with ecstatic affirmation, to love, particularly in its insistence that to love we must surrender to the other, and treasure the new home because it is the home of the one we love, who lives in ours now—and they become one home.

I should give the final word to “The Cleaner,” the movie’s wise housekeeper, who insists,

... everything you do or say
Is there, forever. It leaves evidence.
In fact it's really only common sense;
There's no such thing as nothing, not at all.
It may be really very, very small
But it's still there. In fact I think I'd guess
That 'no' does not exist. There's only "yes."

Yes almost breaks your heart, but at the last moment opens it instead. Near the end of the film, “She” makes a video, looking in the camera to ask God if He can forgive her for not believing in Him. I might be wrong, but I think God answers with, as The Cleaner asserts, the only response possible. A small word, but it’s the key to finding what was once lost.

(Note: I know this should be about home viewing, but I’d like to mention the best off-center/dead-on love story I’ve seen in a long time: Juno, the tale of “fertile Myrtle” “the cautionary whale” whose shenanigans—“one doodle that can't be un-did”—make us love her for exactly what she is.)

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