An American Zola

January 16, 2013

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Theodore Dreiser was a Naturalist in the tradition of Emile Zola, but with a twist.  Maybe it was American puritanism, that Calvinist strain, or perhaps some other element of his personality, but man, could he lay on the doom.  Having just finished An American Tragedy, all 900+ pages of it, I feel as if I was run over by a steamroller.  And I’ve been feeling that way since page 100!

Clyde Griffiths (George Eastman in the Stevens’ film adaptation) has had a stunted youth, the child of impoverished street preachers who include him, even as a very young boy, in their curbside music and proselytizing.  Clyde doesn’t feel comfortable with this life from an early age – he always is restless and wanting something different.  Eventually, he breaks away, becoming a bellhop, and he enjoys the taste of the highlife that the job, and the tips that come with it, brings.  During a wild night out with some friends in he is a passenger in a car that runs over and kills a little girl:  he has to skip town, severing his relations with his family yet more deeply.

Eventually, he connects with his very rich uncle, who, feeling guilty about the way his evangelist brother was shafted in the matter of the family inheritance, decides to give the kid a chance in his factory, working from the bottom up.  He tells his family that there is no need to admit him to their provincial circle of the social élite, but Clyde besides being handsome and possessed of charming ‘soft’ manners, bears a striking resemblance to his cousin, the heir apparent at the factory.  It just wouldn’t do to shun him completely:  his face would give the story away and cause talk.  He is granted limited access to the Griffiths family.

Eventually, he breaks the rules and forms a romance with a factory girl:  she is pretty, and Clyde is subject to powerful sexual urges.  He also becomes a regular in the young-smart set of the Griffiths circle, and a powerful flirtation, then a romantic infatuation develops between him and a beautiful girl in that set.  He keeps his multiple romantic relations a secret, dooming him when the factory girl becomes pregnant.  At his wit’s end, his dream of marriage into society, wealth, ease, material opulence threatened, he plots her murder.  She is drowned, mostly through his actions, but there is, to the end, a little shred of ambiguity regarding his intent at the very last fatal moment of he life.

He is immediately caught, despite his ‘careful’ planning, tried, and convicted.  He dies in the chair.  It is all incredibly slow, detailed, crushing in its inevitability.  The characters in this tale are all presented as sympathetically as could be, while the author, from an Olympian perspective, dissects them coolly and dispassionately.  It was written and takes place in the 1920s, so some things are not discussed so freely as today, but more so than they were not long before.  Clyde’s visit to a brothel while working as a bellhop:

Prepared as Clyde was to dislike all this, so steeped had he been in the moods and maxims antipathetic to anything of its kind, still so innately sensual and romantic was his own disposition and so starved where sex was concerned, that instead of being sickened, he was quite fascinated. The very fleshly sumptuousness of most of these figures, dull and unromantic as might be the brains that directed them, interested him for the time being. After all, here was beauty of a gross, fleshly character, revealed and purchasable

And later:

 His was a disposition easily and often intensely inflamed by the chemistry of sex and the formula of beauty. He could not easily withstand the appeal, let alone the call, of sex. And by the actions and approaches of each in turn he was surely tempted at times, especially in these warm and languorous summer days, with no place to go and no single intimate to commune with. From time to time he could not resist drawing near to these very girls who were most bent on tempting him, although in the face of their looks and nudges, not very successfully concealed at times, he maintained an aloofness and an assumed indifference which was quite remarkable for him.

Everyone is ruled by their nature, formed by genetics and the social petri dishes in which they were cultured.  The unconscious, and sex, lurks unacknowledged, but powerful.  Not just Clyde, but the lawyer who sends him to the chair, the jurors, his defense, the doctors who refuse to give his girlfriend an abortion – they are all locked into the suffocating confines of the social machine.  Here’s Mason, the district attorney, determined to see him fry for his crime, and to make a political coup for himself in the process:

Mason was a short, broad-chested, broad-backed and vigorous individual physically, but in his late youth had been so unfortunate as to have an otherwise pleasant and even arresting face marred by a broken nose, which gave to him a most unprepossessing, almost sinister, look. Yet he was far from sinister. Rather, romantic and emotional. His boyhood had been one of poverty and neglect, causing him in his later and somewhat more successful years to look on those with whom life had dealt more kindly as too favorably treated. The son of a poor farmer’s widow, he had seen his mother put to such straits to make ends meet that by the time he reached the age of twelve he had surrendered nearly all of the pleasures of youth in order to assist her. And then, at fourteen, while skating, he had fallen and broken his nose in such a way as to forever disfigure his face. Thereafter, feeling himself handicapped in the youthful sorting contests which gave to other boys the female companions he most craved, he had grown exceedingly sensitive to the fact of his facial handicap. And this had eventually resulted in what the Freudians are accustomed to describe as a psychic sex scar.

In his dreaminess, he has something in common with Clyde, but he was deformed, and now he has that “sex scar.”  And there is the town, the jurors, the face of stolid morality, the herd mentality of the Christian rubes, which Clyde’s defense attorney scorns, but treats gingerly by necessity, as he questions Clyde on the stand:

He was a college graduate, and in his youth because of his looks, his means, and his local social position (his father had been a judge as well as a national senator from here), he had seen so much of what might be called near-city life that all those gaucheries as well as sex-inhibitions and sex-longings which still so greatly troubled and motivated and even marked a man like Mason had long since been covered with an easy manner and social understanding which made him fairly capable of grasping any reasonable moral or social complication which life was prepared to offer.

“Oh, I can’t say not entirely afterwards. I cared for her some — a good deal, I guess — but still not as much as I had. I felt more sorry for her than anything else, I suppose.”

“And now, let’s see — that was between December first last say, and last April or May — or wasn’t it?”  “About that time, I think — yes, sir.”

“Well, during that time — December first to April or May first you were intimate with her, weren’t you?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Even though you weren’t caring for her so much.”

“Why — yes, sir,” replied Clyde, hesitating slightly, while the rurals jerked and craned at this introduction of the sex crime.

“And yet at nights, and in spite of the fact that she was alone over there in her little room — as faithful to you, as you yourself have testified, as any one could be — you went off to dances, parties, dinners, and automobile rides, while she sat there.”

“Oh, but I wasn’t off all the time.”

Clyde done wrong, but what were his chances in life?  Society stinks.  Capital punishment is brutal and inhuman.  Public officials are self-serving and venal.  (Mason is honest, but one of his staff plants evidence to further incriminate Clyde.  He needn’t have bothered, but he does anyway.)  The social élite are shallow, smug, and uncaring.  Society is a machine to grind you down, and it starts on page one and goes on, and on, and on…It’s a pretty damn impressive literary feat, if you can stand it!  Dreiser can create a stem winding dramatic courtroom oration as well as he can reproduce the  baby talk of a society princess teasing her beau.

When I began the book, I was struck by how unsympathetically Clyde was portrayed (or at least, without sympathy) compared to the film.  As I read on, however, I came to feel that George Stevens had done a remarkable job of adapting the book and bringing forward to the 1950s, both as a narrative, and in its approach to the audience.  One of the principal differences that I did find a little bit too much to accept in the film, is that Angela Vickers (Liz Taylor) visits Clyde just before his execution, after being kept completely out of view and out of the testimony of the trial.  She still loves him.

In the book, she sends him a brief anonymous, typewritten note that makes clear that she is emotionally distant from him now, although she recognizes how in love they were, and she will not forget him.  It is  in keeping with the ruthless presentation of class relations that is part of the book – she will get on with her social role in the world – and it is the final, crushing blow to Clyde.  As I noted in my post on the film, it is a social melodrama, and such uncompromising realism would have been out of place.

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Waste, Italian Style

February 20, 2012

Gomorrah (2008), a film by Matteo Garrone, is based on a journalistic account of crime families in the Naples region of Italy, by Roberto Saviano, who is certainly a very brave man, and whom Berlusconi denounced as unpatriotic.  It follows five stories of people whose lives, as are all lives in the region…in Italy? are touched by the mob:  two stupid young kids who dream of big time success as mobsters, and fancy themselves the new Scarfaces of Naples; a master tailor working in the illegal knock-off industry that produces counterfeit haute couture gowns; a young kid who wants to find his future with the local gang while a turf war rages; a mousey accountant who handles payouts and who finds himself in the middle of the same war and wants no part of it;  and a young college graduate who gets a job in the waste disposal business.

The film uses non-professional actors and is produced in a neo-realist, or vérité style:  it is profoundly disturbing.  I suggest it as a pendant to Mafioso for those in thrall to the Coppola-Scorsese melodrama view of the mafia.  Scorsese ‘presents’ this film, and I’m sure he thinks Goodfellas is similarly hard hitting, but in Gomorrah, an MTV soundtrack is notably absent.  For those with a special interest in waste, American or Italian style, this film is informative.  The northern industries send their toxic waste to the south, where it poisons the land.  The managers look the other way, assured that the disposal is clean,as the Americans say.  The price is irresistible.

The action takes place mostly in a neighborhood with architecture that looks like something out of the futurist dreams of Antonio St. Elia.


Keep on truckin’

August 28, 2010

Jules Dassin’s Thieve’s Highway (1949) focuses on the produce market of San Francisco like a little slice out of Zola’s Belly of Paris.  Lee J. Cobb plays a thoroughly hateful crook, Mike Figlia, who likes to take greenhorn truckers, and anybody else, for all they’re worth, and he has no compunctions about applying some physical force to make a deal go his way.  Richard Conte, of unshowable ecstasy renown from The Big Combo is a war vet, Nick Garcos,  out to make a killing and revenge his father, crippled by Figlia, at the same time.  Although it has a happy ending, it is quite noir-ish in the way that you sense things are only going to get worse and worse for Nick practically from the start.  There are a few surprises when ethically marginal characters choose to turn towards the good, but plenty of them just keep on a bee-line straight to corruption and thievery.

After Nick clinches his deal, he calls his girl back home to tell her to come to San Francisco.  They’re going to be married!  The proposal is made over the phone, with appropriate choruses commenting on the action at both ends of the line.  She’s a bit of a middle-class gold digger, that is, he’s nice, but only nice enough if he’s got the bucks.

Polly comes to Frisco, only to find Nick in a floozy’s room, and all beaten up.  Here he licks her handkerchief so she can dab his wounds.  She’s so snobby and aloof, getting his tongue on her hanky is probably as close as Nick has gotten to Polly’s attractive charms.  It’s a weird shot, and it hints at a lot of unsaid things about their relationship.

Nick lost all his money to thugs hired by Figlia, but he’ll get it back.  Eventually, he corners Mike in a bar and uses some direct negotiation to recoup his stolen funds.  Mike is big, and he’s always got a crooked angle to distract the marks, but when it comes to direct confrontation, he’s a pushover.  As Nick moves in on him, he pulls wads of bills out of his pockets – money always seems soiled, crushed, and scattered in this film; never neatly folded – and puts them on the bar to get Nick to stop.  “Why don’t you take your money?” he screams, but Nick is taking a break from the cash economy, and is more interested in ethical retribution, a higher, or lower?, ambition.

The cops arrive and stop Nick from pulverizing Figlia.  They are there to take him away for what he did to Nick’s father, but it’s not clear why they suddenly have evidence to put him away.  Anyway, the forces of order are back in charge, and they admonish Nick:  Figlia’s a crook, but that doesn’t mean people like you can just go beating him up.  Leave Figlia to us! I guess society is basically okay if Figlia is going to get his just desserts.

Nick has grown up a bit, learned the facts of life.  The tart who was taking care of him – partly because Figlia paid her to get him out of the way while he stole his produce – helped save him by notifying the police.  Another public courtship ensues, but with a happy ending.  Not only has society reasserted its control of economic life, but Nick has rejected bourgeois striving conventionality as the rule for his personal life.  He goes off with the shady lady, Rica, the tart with the heart of gold.  A strange duality of messages.


The Wages of Fear

June 28, 2009

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A French melodrama from 1953.  Does it detract from film to classify it that way?  A long film that is one sustained gut-punch with a blow to the head thrown in for good measure.

Four guys trapped in a miserable fleabag town in South America somewhere accept the  job of trucking nitrogycerine over 300 miles to an oil field where it’s desparately needed to blow out a raging derrick fire.  The pay is darn good, but the chances of being blown sky-high are too.  You get the situation, existential in the extreme…

The pretty waitress, played by director Clouzot’s wife, is dimwitted and abused, but then, aren’t all the characters?  They know it too – When one remarks that some fellow looks like a “walking corpse,” Mario (Yves Montand) replies, “You think we aren’t?”

The setup to the fatal drive is very long, and has a weird character.  Strange juxtapositions:  naked Indian natives taking showers; brutal fights in the one lousey bar in town; actors playing representatives and employees of the American oil company, S.O.C. who sound like they’re from…anywhere; social comment; anti-Americanism; socialistic criticism offered up in the vulgar comments of the miserable crew of losers and underworld thugs who consider the company’s offer – it’s pretty odd.  The four drivers slowly take their cargo of jerry cans filled with nitro on their joy ride to death or escape.

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The film is remarkable for its handling of suspense sequences.  Each one revolves around a specific incident in the journey – a boulder in the road that must be carefully blown up with some nitro; a rough stretch of road that must be traversed at either very low speed or very high speed – to go in between means vibration and KABOOM; and the final obstacle, a crater left by the explosion of the lead truck fills with oil from the broken pipeline and must be carefully traversed.

Along the way, Jo, the criminal tough guy who sets himself up as mentor and partner to Mario, descends into jibbering cowardice.  The supercool Bimby and the likable Luigi (already dying of grey lung, shown with Mario above) are blown to Kingdom Come without warning.  Crossing the oil pool, Mario, fed up with Jo, and fearful that if he slows down, he will be helplessly stuck in the oil, knowingly runs over the leg of his erstwhile hero and pal (below).  It’s a dog eat dog world in the wage slave economy.

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While they are trying to get the truck out of the oil, they must swim around in it – two men, are they men? – covered in black goo, they look like demons.  See what men are!!  Mario cradles the dying Jo on his shoulder as they are just about to reach the oil field.  They talk of neighborhoods in Paris they know.  They both are from the same area!  What about that tobacco shop?  What was next to it?  A lot..?  Wasn’t there a fence?  What was behind that fence?  I never saw what was there, says Jo.  As he dies, he cries out, “The fence, there’s nothing!!”  Alas, God is dead, and so is Jo.  Heavy…

After sleeping for a day and gettng cleaned up, Mario, $4000 richer (he got his pay and Jo’s – the oil company guys play fair even if they are exploitive and brutal profiteers) and in a spanking new S.O.C. uniform, jubilantly begins to drive back to the fleabag town, contemplating his escape to civilization.  The waitress hears the news by phone – the whole bar erupts in celebration – it’s a miracle that he made it!  They begin to dance to The Blue Danube Waltz.  Mario is listening to the waltz on the radio in the truck and is transported by the music.  He is dancing with the truck.  Twirling the wheel about, he swerves from side to side of the road with the music, he’s getting a bit carried away.

Yes, well, it had to end that way.  The waitress is dizzy with spinning and falls to the floor – an oddly mystical note in an otherwise brutally hardboiled film.  Simultaneously, Mario looses control, and his truck plunges off a precipice in a spectacular crash.  His lifeless hand clutches a Metro ticket to la Pigalle (the Paris red light district) his talisman of home, lovingly carried everywhere.

I was struck by the extended use of The Blue Danube – how could it fail to  bring to mind Kubrick’s 2001?  Both are examples of man-machine interactions set to music, both with ominous overtones, although in Kubrick, it takes a lot longer for the irony to be revealed.  Is there something about the waltz, the spinning, the evokes mechanistic imagery, people reduced to whirling elements in a clockwork escapement..?

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