Saturday, November 23, 2019
What separates a drama from a melodrama?
This is something I basically knew from context--what movies get painted with that brush, or when it’s appropriate to tell someone to stop being “melodramatic”--but I never really stopped to look up its full meaning until trying to figure out where to start writing about Now, Voyager, a 1942 Bette Davis vehicle directed by Irving Rapper.
A melodrama is a story that purposely operates with heightened emotions and exaggerated situations and characters in order to provoke an equal response from the audience.
So, big swaths of feeling splashed across the screen at maximum volume. More or less.
If one was looking for a textbook example of melodrama, they’d need to look no further than Now, Voyager, a film where a cross word can literally drive the life out of an old woman. Now, Voyager swings from the depths of depression to the heights of romance, back down to heartbreak and ultimately its quietest concession: acceptance. Its theme is one of independence. Hardly anyone in Now, Voyager is allowed to choose their own fate, no matter how hard they try.
Davis stars as Charlotte, the result of a late-in-life pregnancy. Her widowed mother (Gladys Cooper, Rebecca [review]) has held on to Charlotte as her final companion, somehow trying to correct the mistake of her birth by keeping her close, stifling her social growth, and demanding her constant loyalty and companionship as payment for her inconvenient existence. Charlotte is bookish and shy, and she spends her time in her room carving elaborate ivory boxes. The isolation has started to take its toll, however, cursing her with all kinds of nervous ailments, and at the start of the picture, she is being looked over by Dr. Jaquith (Claude Rains, Notorious [review]), a soft-pedaling psychologist who believes he can bring Charlotte out of her shell. He separates her from her mother and takes her to his wellness resort, helping Charlotte to find herself and ultimately sending her on a world cruise so she can experience how life is lived.
It’s there that she meets Jerry (Paul Henreid, Night Train to Munich [review]), an architect and father of two stuck in a loveless marriage. He and Charlotte hit it off, primarily because neither is aware of the history of the other. Charlotte in particular blossoms, at first playing an invented character before fully stepping into the role she was always meant to play--sophisticated, charming, warm, and dare I say...sexual? Naturally, their romance can only last as long as the cruise, and when they land in the states, they must go their separate ways. Jerry is far too proper to betray his wife fully, and Charlotte would never ask him to. (Note: Both Henreid and Rains starred in Casablanca the same year Now, Voyager was released.)
Naturally, their paths will cross again, most importantly when Jerry puts his own daughter (Janis Wilson) into Jaquith’s care. Charlotte sees herself in the young girl and decides to try to help her the way she herself was helped. She can be the mother neither of them ever had.
Location is crucial to Now, Voyager. Both as visuals and metaphor. Charlotte is stifled by polite society. Though she lives in a massive three-story house, its interiors appear cramped. There is never anywhere to go. The production designer packs every inch of the place so that no figure ever stands alone, there is always something next to them. This makes the fresh air and open spaces of Jaqueth’s health farm all the more freeing. Charlotte isn’t just away from the damning eyes of her mother, but she can stretch and breathe and find herself at the source of all life. This is a common trope of melodrama, from Douglas Sirk to Todd Haynes, and also of noir, which plays in a melodramatic shadow all to itself. Civilization makes us forget our humanity. Is noir a kind of sibling to melodrama, then, with the latter’s crimes being of the heart?
If the countryside is freeing, then the vast ocean is even moreso. No land in sight, no connections to their regular lives--Jerry and Charlotte have found a reprieve from all that hounds them. The joke is always that you can do anything in international waters; Now, Voyager amends that. You can also be anyone.
Henreid’s Jerry is a romantic dream. He’s attentive and genuinely interested; he’ll lead the way, but step back when necessary; he will sacrifice his happiness for familial duty. He is less compelling on his own; Rapper lets Charlotte define him by how she surrenders to him. It’s a careful balance. His love for her gives her confidence, but as Now, Voyager progresses, Charlotte makes her own choices--something she would not be able to do if they could truly be together. That would have meant trading her subservience to her mother to serving a man. The denial means that Charlotte has to work to make her own happiness.
Bettie Davis is, of course, incredible. Her beauty is unconventional in a lot of ways, and so it never really feels as thought she is “dressing down” when she plays a spinster or introvert, like they are having to hide who she truly is. It’s not about the hair and wardrobe anyway, it’s about how she carries herself. In the early scenes, Charlotte is closed and bitter; in later scenes, it’s almost like she’s shed her skin and become something new. She could be wearing the same outfit on both sides, it wouldn’t matter, because the acting.
In all honesty, Now, Voyager is successful as a whole in much the same way as its lead actress, in that it has its own level of confidence and it never apologizes. There is much that could be considered overwrought or even silly were Rapper’s presentation not so assured. He hits the big notes with vigor, and yet understands the lows with the same measure. Thus, we get a surprising ending to the picture that holds its ground, giving audiences what makes sense over what is obvious, the camera panning toward the sky as Davis delivers two of the most memorable final lines of romantic cinema, redefining just exactly where these lovers are voyaging to, but finding comfort and love there all the same.
Wednesday, November 6, 2019
This review originally written in 2014 for The Oregonian.
At a remote French getaway, gay men cruise each other for anonymous sex, leading to brief liaisons and unfulfilled passions.
There, Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps) meets both Henri (Patrick D'Assumçao), a straight man seeking conversation, and Michel (Christophe Paou), a handsome swimmer with whom Franck becomes infatuated. They make a kind of awkward love triangle in Alain Guiraudie's erotic thriller, Stranger by the Lake.
When Franck sees Michel kill a lover, his determination to have him only intensifies.
The action stays centralized, with the men prowling through the woods, sneaking away to share secrets and then coming into the light to pretend nothing happened. Guiraudie’s telling is fairly cold-blooded, but the choreographed dance of desire and disappointment still manages to intrigue.
Saturday, November 2, 2019
In Zaire, ca. 1974, two fighters arrived from America to participate in Rumble in the Jungle. Former champion Muhammad Ali was looking to take back the title belt by besting then-champion George Foreman. It was a huge event, bringing a worldwide spotlight on Africa that had never really been seen before.
Filmmaker Leon Gast went along for the ride, filming the lead-up to the fight, the celebrations and the preparations, capturing the whole of the experience, not just the main event. More than twenty years later he cut the material together as a documentary feature. When We Were Kings is a historical record. Time and distance has given perspective--as evinced by the contemporary commentators on hand, including Norman Mailer, George Plimpton, and Spike Lee--and in some ways, the story plays out better minus the suspense of who will win. This was a significant moment in time, with both fighters representing something in the cultural landscape.
Here, Ali is seen as the underdog, but also the people’s champion. For Africans, he is a symbol of self-determination and victory. He is friendly and embracing. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Foreman is seen as unapproachable and single-minded. He is the gruff commercialist, even though Ali is all that much better at selling himself. Ali is a folk hero, and the Rumble almost takes on the mythic quality of the individualist toppling the system. It certainly is a David and Goliath moment.
Though, not all is perfect in Africa, and When We Were Kings does not shy away from it. At the time, President Mobutu Sese Seko ruled the country with a false air of democracy. His dictatorial nature and the gulf between leader and followers, rich and poor, hangs over everything. In some way, this all has to please him, too. This makes Ali’s activism all the more inspiring to the people of Zaire. Here is a man who has punched at authority and won.
And to be fair, Foreman probably deserves a little more credit for getting to where he was. When We Were Kings has a definite bias in favor of Ali. Foreman might have fared better under a more sympathetic lens, but it’s not just Gast who is looking at these two men, it’s everyone around them. As the fight is delayed by six weeks due to Foreman suffering an injury during a practice bout, the whole thing turns into a pressure cooker. The winner, we will see, is the man who can handle that stress better. It’s interesting to consider the light-hearted figure George Foreman would later become.
Gast keeps the commentary to a minimum, favoring the necessary over the flowery. Mailer’s explanations of fight technique and his memory of the play-by-play is most essential if you’re not a pugilism aficionado. He and Plimpton were on the scene covering the match for their respective press venues. As a blowhard raconteur, Mailer is perfectly suited to making the large seem relatable.
This is the second Muhammad Ali documentary I watched this year. The other was HBO’s two-part What’s My Name, a career-spanning examination of the man’s journey from Cassius Clay to champion to activist and the cycle of victory and defeat that came to define his later career. The Zaire period was touched on in that film, but When We Were Kings goes much deeper. It makes me wish there were more docs of its kind to fill out the history that What’s My Name establishes--like supplemental footnotes, “for more go here.” Between the two movies, I’ve found an even greater respect for a great man. When We Were Kings is not just about the spectacle of a sports event, but about the business and societal needs that inform it. It’s about an artist trying to maintain his integrity when all around him would exploit him. It’s about the struggle of people of color to find their own way when the greater machine would rather grind them down.
It’s also about a celebration. Ali’s triumph wasn’t entirely his own, but also a triumph for his supporters, admirers, and peers. Hence folks like James Brown, Bill Withers, and BB King heading to Africa to perform at a three-day music festival presented in conjunction with the Rumble. This was documented, as well, and while touched upon in When We Were Kings, Criterion fans are a treated to a second full-length documentary on their discs: the 2008 concert film Soul Power.
Directed by Jeffrey Kusama-Hinte, Soul Power chronicles the efforts to put the show on, while also highlighting the best performances. The bill is a combo of the visiting American acts and the best that Zaire has to offer. For the artists involved, it’s a kind of musical exchange. As Withers notes, the Americans can present how they’ve evolved the African sound their mutual ancestors brought across the ocean, while also witnessing how those sounds continued to evolve on their own in the homeland.
Interestingly, the concert faced some of the same challenges as the boxing match--Mubutu was against it, Foreman’s injury threw off the timing--but is more celebratory by nature. This is the party before the war. You might even consider watching it first, as your own lead into the main event.
This disc provided by the Criterion Collection for purposes of review.