Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Good and Bad Housekeeping

The invisible Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) looks after the family in Alfonso Cuarón's sublime Roma.

The opening titles of Alfonso Cuarón's Roma (2018) play out over a long shot of paving stones as water flows over them and reflects the sky and a plane passing overhead. The film's final shot looks upwards toward the outbuildings of what we've learned is a middle class home, this time showing the sky more directly as the family's Native maid, Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), carries their laundry to the rooftop washing area. It's a simple shot of almost overpowering intensity within the context of what Cuarón has depicted during the past two hours and 15 minutes. During that time, we find that Cleo is the real backbone of the family. She may be just "the help," and, as such, virtually invisible at times, but she keeps the family running, even during times of crisis.
Like many great realistic works, and Roma most definitely is one of the great films, the picture sheds life on the marginalized. Cleo, a character inspired by Liboria Rodriguez, the maid who helped raise Cuarón, is one of the many often overlooked people who keep the worlds of middle and upper class Mexicans running smoothly. In the firm's first scene, a beautifully framed long shot of the house's upper level, she moves silently through the bedrooms, making beds and gathering dirty clothing. The scene quickly establishes her importance to the family. Their story would be the subject of any number of popular dramas or telenovelas. The restless father (Fernando Gradiaga), a well-off doctor, moves off to be with his mistress, leaving his wife (Marina de Tavira) to pick up the pieces. But the film focuses instead on the maids who quietly get them through the crisis. The marital break-up is important primarily as it affects Cleo's life. The husband's leaving leads his wife to take her hurt and anger out on Cleo in a brief outburst. While the family is off celebrating Christmas, the maid witnesses a married friend coming on to the now deserted de Tavira. She's with the children when their mother explains that their father has left and shares their shock when they return from a vacation to a house from which the husband has removed his belongings.
Yet Cuarón also gives the film a dreamlike atmosphere. The long takes, often with the camera following Cleo as she moves through her world, create an otherworldly rhythm. It's as if the camera were exploring an alien landscape made up of familiar objects. Cuarón also has a knack for incorporating elements of the environment that seem strangely out of place, like a trio of crosses set up along the road or a man dressed as a pagan forest creature for a holiday party who joins in when the guests go out to fight a forest fire as if this were the way anybody would dress to douse the flames. When Cleo's trip to buy a crib for her unborn baby coincides with 1971's Corpus Christi Massacre, a student uprising attacked by CIA-trained soldiers and right-wing guerillas, it all seems part of some strange nightmare in which the character is caught.
For all its stylistic bravado, however, Roma's greatest strength lies in Cuarón's ability to capture character in all its contexts — psychological, social, environmental — often in a single image. Gradiaga is introduced as he tries to park his car in the home's narrow driveway. Cuarón first shows his hands as he smokes a cigarette, the ashes going wherever they will. That one shot perfectly sums up his careless attitude toward the world around him, creating an impression only reinforced when he leaves his family without making arrangements for their financial support. As a more complex character, Cleo is captured in a series of images — the impassive stoicism with which she goes about her duties, the wry smile on her face as she watches her macho lover (Jorge Antonio Guerrero) show off in a hotel room where they've just made love, the childlike quality she captures while playing with one of the children in the rooftop laundry area and the pain when her pregnancy doesn't go as planned.
In all of this, Aparicio is a wonderful collaborator, capturing Cuarón's vision almost effortlessly. This is her film debut, and she had had no prior experience or training as an actress. Her work lacks the polish and interpretive focus of a trained actress, which in this case is a benefit. I don't think Cleo would be as moving a vehicle for Cuarón's social commentary were she played by someone with the tricks to help underline his meanings. Where a trained actress might have underlined the writer-director's work, Aparicio simply is. She inhabits the role in a simple, instinctive performance that is ultimately devastating.
By the film's end, this invisible woman has been shown to be the driving force behind the family's survival. She does so quite literally in the film's final movement, when, in the midst of her own personal crisis, she goes into the ocean without hesitation when she fears something has happened to two of the children. The scenes that follow, with the family's homecoming, underline her marginalized status. When the camera follows her as she climbs the stairs at the end, it's almost as though the character herself were ascending. It's a great moment of exaltation — not mindlessly optimistic, but rather grounded in the full knowledge of the character's social standing in a world too preoccupied with class and material worth to give her the value the film does.  

  Christmas with Virginia Madsen, Aidan Langford, Cory Michael Smith and Michael Chiklis in 1985, a gift that doesn't keep on giving.

Cory Michael Smith has the narrow, angular face of an El Greco saint. When he puts on a pair of horn-rimmed glasses, and goes all manic as Edward Nygma on Gotham — a TV series noted for its stylish, over-the-top villains — his face works beautifully to reinforce the character's special brand of crazy. It can also twist into an impressive mask of suffering, which is almost enough to salvage Yen Tan's 1985 (2018). Smith, who also co-produced, stars as a young man visiting his Texas family after a three-year absence. His father (Michael Chiklis) is emotionally withdrawn; his mother (Virginia Madsen) is the family peacekeeper; and son Adrian (Smith) is living a typical gay life for the period, out in the mecca of New York, closeted at home. It's a situation familiar to anybody drawn to gay theatre or independent films or who lived through the 1980s. Adrian has come home seeking some kind of closure with his family and his ex-girlfriend (Jamie Chung). Can he come out and tell them he's HIV-positive in an era when the diagnosis was a virtual death sentence?
It's not just that the coming-out drama has been done before and better in TV movies like An Early Frost (1985), Consenting Adult (1985) and Doing Time on Maple Drive (1992). It's that 1985 seems to have been written in 1985. There's none of the innovative storytelling that made Angels in America (1991-1992) or Parting Glances (1986) or even Longtime Companion (1989) such groundbreaking works. Not only does the script by Tan and cinematographer Hutch offer nothing new on the subject. What it does offer is presented in a flat and plodding style. Hutch shoots the film in a murky black and white, and he and Tan don't create many expressive images. There are a lot of shots that just feel wrong — close-ups that need to be two shots or people just standing in front of the environment without really seeming to inhabit it. Is this an attempt to make the family's home, Fort Worth, seem like the kind of place any thinking individual would want to escape? If so, it's a rather condescending approach. It's not as if Adrian suddenly turned into a sensitive individual on his own. There must be something back home that shaped him.
This is particularly regrettable because every now and then there's a nice touch in the writing that suggests that Tan and Hutch could have written a better script if they'd just been willing to dig a bit more deeply into their story's context. When Smith visits Chung in Dallas, she's doing a comedy routine at a local club. It's not only better shot than most of the film, but it's also better written as she riffs on being a Korean-American in white-bread Texas. Later Smith takes his brother (Aidan Langford) to the movies. The movie the kid wants to see, A Chorus Line (1985), is sold out (luckily for them; that film was so bad it could probably turn people off to musical theatre and gay life forever), so they end up seeing A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddie's Revenge (1985), the most homoerotic horror film of its day. But in both cases, as soon as the moment lands, it's right back to plodding dramatics that seem more about putting people into telling situations than letting the characters actually breathe.
None of this is the fault of the cast. They all work very hard at bringing Tan and Hutch's moribund dialogue to life and in some cases succeed. Smith captures the way closeted gay men are constantly shifting roles. He's a different person with his parents than he is with his former girlfriend or his kid brother or when he calls one of his roommates in New York. And when he has to suffer, he's totally committed to the moment. Chiklis is saddled with one of the film's most unfortunate scenes. In a late night conversation with his son, he reveals that he's known Adrian is gay for years because, in essence, he stalked him while visiting New York. This is about three quarters of the way through the film, but there's been nothing in his behavior to suggest any of this. It suddenly comes up out of nowhere. The scene ends with him warning Smith not to tell his mother, because it would destroy her. Yet we've already seen enough of her sympathetic nature to know that she'd probably handle it better than her husband. Did the script really need to drive home his lack of awareness of his own family? Chiklis connects to the material, but for all his efforts, the scene just doesn't ring true.
Madsen connects well, too, and has one of the film's better scenes, when she confides to her son that she voted for Mondale rather than Reagan. It's a lot more believable when she warns Smith not to out her to his father. She also has a really lovely moment at the end when all she has to do is turn off the radio. It's a Christian talk show, and she makes it a subtle moment of rebellion. Langford, as the younger brother, is also deeply resonant, though you can pretty much tell his story from his first moment on screen. You don't need to find out that he quit the football team to join the school drama club to know that he's another gay boy in training.
The situation in 1985 is so basic that for a lot of audience members the resonance is built in, and I've spoken to people who saw themselves in the movie so thoroughly they had no problems relating to the material. Yet I can't help wishing the audience and the cast had been given something deeper. Coming out and dealing with AIDS are primal experiences in most gay men's lives. That people survive them at all is a testament to the strength and resilience of LGBTQ+ peoples. There are many films that have captured that sense of power. 1985's actors and audience deserve that kind of movie.

  Domestic matters concern Jane Darwell, John Beal and Rosalind Rusell — in a gown that helps make the domestic universal — in Craig's Wife.

One of the joys of Turner Classic Movies is the opportunity it gives viewers to discover great films they may have overlooked. Combining the network with a good DVR creates an education in film history. That happened to me when I taped most of a night of John Beal films and finally got a look at Dorothy Arzner's amazing 1936 film adaptation of George Kelly's Pulitzer Prize play Craig's Wife. Like many plays from the 1920s and 1930s, the original seems over-written. It takes forever to make its points. Arzner and screenwriter Mary C. McCall, Jr., reduce the running time to less than 90 minutes, and that includes a few scenes added to open the piece up. Yet they don't miss a beat. The thing moves along pretty rapidly without making the viewer feel rushed, and, if anything, the cutting actually adds to the play.
Both versions focus on Harriet Craig (Rosalind Russell), a woman whose god is materialism. Although her husband (John Beal) loves her, she views him as simply a convenience, the source of a house she treasures more than she could another human being. During the course of one day, he becomes aware of just how mercenary she is and leaves her. Kelly provides a mirror of their unsatisfactory relationship in the marriage of Fergus Passmore, a friend of the husband's who kills his wife in the throes of jealousy and then kills himself. In the play, we simply hear about the case. In the film, however, we go with the husband on a visit to Passmore where we see the man's suffering through his unhappy marriage. The scene is short, but Thomas Mitchell makes the most of it, turning Passmore into an abject character whose grief over his wife's neglect has caused him to lose most of his friends.
That's just one scene, of course. The entire movie —from the opening in which the housekeeper (Jane Darwell) tries to stop the new maid (Nydia Westman) from moving Russell's prized Grecian urn, to the final scene, when Russell pays for her shortcomings and finally realizes the cost of cutting herself off from others to focus on her house — is all of a piece. Arzner moves from one plot point to another effortlessly. Her special gift was finding ways to make acting, script and design all work together to capture a sense of human experience. Given the studios' tendency to type her for "women's subjects," this inevitably translates to female experience.
The advantage to Arzner's brisk pace is the way it focuses the story more clearly on the tragedy of Harriet Craig. Kelly's original play, which seems to go on forever, tends to lose its points in all the padding. Although some scholars have suggested the focus of his dramatic barbs was materialism, it's hard not to read the play as misogynistic. Harriet would seem to represent a nightmare version of woman in her ordained social role as homemaker. She's done such a thorough job of creating the perfect home she can't allow anything to disrupt it. She only lets her husband smoke in certain rooms and has driven away most of his friends because she can't keep the place tidy if people keep parading in and out. The fact that it's the women in her life, her niece and her husband's aunt, who first see through her, only underlies the script's patriarchal subtext. They represent the "good woman" who realizes that everything a woman does takes second place to her primary function, keeping some man happy.
The film's more compact script, however, subtly shifts the meanings. In Act II, Kelly gives Harriet a justification for her devotion to house over husband:

I saw what happened to my own mother, and I made up my mind it'd never happen to me. She was one of those "I will follow thee, my husband" women — that believed everything my father told her; and all the time he was mortgaging her home over her head for another woman. And when she found it out, she did the only thing that women like her can do, and that was to die of a broken heart — within six months; and leave the door open for the other woman to come in as stepmother over Estelle and me. And then get rid of us both as soon as Estelle was marriageable. But the house was never mortgaged over her head, I'll promise you that; for she saw to it that it was put in her name before ever she took him; and she kept it there, too, right to the finish.

In the play, that speech, although well placed at a climactic moment, tends to get lost in the shuffle. In the film, however, it feels much more prominent. Arzner shoots it in close-up, and Russell brings it just the right level of fervor to make it important but not overstated. She also cuts everything after "broken heart," so there's little mention of the woman who stole Harriet's father from his wife. As a result, Harriet's pathology is presented as the result of her mistreatment by the first prominent man in her life.
Arzner also does more with the film's end. Kelly's presentation of the final scene is rather subtle. A neighbor has dropped off some roses for Craig's aunt, who has already left to get away from Harriet. Earlier, Harriet had ordered a similar gift out of the living room because real flowers are messy. In the final scene, she holds the flowers, not noticing as they drop petals on the floor. Rather than use the falling petals to drive home her point (Arzner has already made great use of other objects, particularly Harriet's treasured urn, the husband's cigarettes and the house keys), Arzner simply uses close-ups of Russell, who suffers impressively at the realization of her ultimate isolation.
Russell rarely had a kind word for this film, even though it convinced her home studio, MGM, to give her bigger and more demanding roles. She fought against the loan-out to Columbia to do the picture. In fact, Columbia head Harry Cohn only asked to borrow her for the role because he didn't want any of his contract female stars to play such an unpleasant character (this was two years after Bette Davis became a star playing the even more unpleasant Mildred in 1934's Of Human Bondage).
For all her misgivings, however, she turns in a masterful performance. Early Russell is a revelation. There's a lightness to her work that fades by the late 1940s. She uses her stage training to great advantage. Her perfect posture and clipped diction help express Harriet's detached superiority. Oddly, they also anticipate her best work in comedies like The Women (1939) and His Girl Friday (1940). Her freshness gives the work an almost improvisational quality that's far from the heavy, over-determined work of films like Mourning Becomes Electra (1947), Picnic (1955) or Five Finger Exercise (1962).
Arzner sets her off to good effect. One of her smartest choices was to go for a Grecian style for the living room set. Working with former silent star Billy Haines (who's not credited), she turns the home into a temple for Harriet. For her big confrontation with Beal, costumer Lon Anthony even incorporates Grecian elements into her gown. The lines show off Russell's height and bearing. She's almost unbelievably svelte, like a goddess expecting to be worshipped.
This wasn't Harriet Craig's only screen appearance. Irene Rich had played her in a 1928 silent, and Joan Crawford starred in a 1950 remake named for the character. The latter has become the most famous translation of the work, which is a pity. The connection between Harriet's compulsive housekeeping and the legends about Crawford's incessant cleaning in real life gives the whole thing an air of camp, while the adaption loses most of the original's resonance. The murder-suicide subplot is gone, and Harriet's machinations start moving into the land of bad soap opera. All that tends to push Arzner's superior version into the shadows. Without TCM, it would likely stay there.

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