30 November 2014

Romance Stories Under Scrutiny: The Fast Forward Relationship - From "The Last of The Mohicans" to "Thor"

I recently re-watched an old '90s sonnet of mine. Or should we say a much repeated drama on TV during my childhood years, along with "Dances with Wolves" (Kevin Costner, 1990), namely "The Last of the Mohicans" (Michael Mann, 1992). 

Oh yes, it was the white man's stoic but not emotionless face (although that might be debatable) among all the Native Americans' masks of failed communication. These kind of epic dramas were more or less apologetic in their retakes on their own failed history-telling concerning the Americans' historically painful relationship to the original American people. Which they - let's be honest - robbed. God knows, it has never been truly rightfully told in big CinemaScope, at least not from the POV of the Natives themselves, and I've seen more than a few cringe-worthy movies - especially those from my otherwise beloved Golden Age of Hollywood - to second that. 

Given the Westerns' set-up back then, the white man was always the center of the narrative - whether he was good or bad or anti-heroic. The Native Americans were always second-rate in that aspect, even when one could argue for a Crusoe/Friday or The Lone Ranger/Tonto relationship between the white hero and one of the Natives. No less problematic, that is.

Well, that's a talk for another time. 

Back to the drama of "The Last of the Mohicans", I specifically want to talk about its set-up concerning the romance between the two lead characters in the film which I find problematic, given it is hailed as one of the greatest, most moving love stories in cinematic universe. To retract, and on a side note: it is between (again again) a white man and a white woman. Sure, it can be enticing and tense like in "Dances with Wolves" but the fact that it always has to be 'so white' represented, even when one part for some reason needs to be raised among the Natives (presumably in order to seem 'less white'?), and the only other alternative seems to be Native Americans kidnapping white women; painting out the savage against the civil to the point of silliness, is just too black-and-white (no pun intended).

But I digress again.

Good things to say about this film: Apart from great performances, especially from the actual Native American actors, and a magnificent, haunting and prophetic score (Trevor Jones and Randy Edelman) as well as cinematography (Dante Spinotti), it has pretty nicely construed action as well (if you tend to notice how unwillingly extras try to fight each other in battles scenes, even in recent productions, this one at least succeeds). But when it comes to the love story that centers around the two main protagonists Nathaniel 'Hawkeye' Poe (Daniel Day-Lewis) and Cora Munro (Madeleine Stowe) ... I'm sorry guys, but it falls short. I like Madeleine (girl's got spunk) and Daniel (though not one of his most memorable performances) as actors, but, excuse me, that relationship went from 'I barely know you or trust you' to 'Let's randomly watch stars together, share childhood memories and talk awkward innuendos and in-between-lines' to 'We're now deeply and forever in love' in no time. At all

I know, I know, you can only do so much with a story in 117 minutes and since there's a whole lot more going on than this little affaire de coeur it somewhat insults me that it seems not much more is needed than a couple of damsel-in-distress rescues, some common gratitude, a shallow moonlight talk and awkwardly bland, long stares in order for these two to be deeply in love before we know it. It's a war, I get it, and people get pushed together or seek each other out in the strangest of circumstances (I mean, wouldn't you seek comfort in the nearest nice, safe arms if you found yourself in a war-zone and didn't know whether you were going to live or die?). Or perhaps people just moved faster in the 1750s... and all that could be valid enough arguments for these two to be so head-over-heels in love and set on each other - if only the movie wasn't in such a damn hurry to force this process along! 

Alright, what about love at first sight and all that, you might argue? 

The whole 'It worked for Romeo and Juliet'-argument sorta falls short here (doesn't it always?), since Hawkeye barely looks at Cora when they first meet - at least not for more than a couple of seconds and with no sparks sent flying between them. The camera certainly doesn't dwell on anything significantly; that this is as 'fateful' a meeting as it is suddenly made out to be in the second half of the movie. Actually, he seems rather indifferent towards her for most of their time together in the beginning. Sure, she confronts him with a prejudiced attitude and he isn't exactly warming up himself, but they are not at each other's throats - they're not even that interested in each other, other than 'a damsel wanna thank her rescuer'-kinda mode. Then comes all the star-gazing and 'blood-stirring'-thing which is okay though kinda awkward put together (she's wide-eyed, thankful and curious and he's cool and detached but kinda baffled and turned on??). I'm not saying it should be all logically put together - after all, love isn't logical - but the way it is paced and built up bothers me. 

Well, at least, there is chemistry, isn't there?

Hmm, maybe, in some brief seconds, and some might feel it more, going as far as calling it intoxicating; I just don't. And I guess that's where we differ in views to those readers who might disagree with me. I'm sorry, but it's simply a boring romance, in my opinion. Boring as hell, and I'd much rather talk about what's going on between Uncas (Eric Schweig) and Alice Munro (Jodhi May - who, by the way, is perfectly cast as Stowe's sister since they bear a striking resemblance to each other). Talk about a wordless relationship! Though, apparently, much of their unspoken romance was cut out from the movie but included in the script - which might help explain what led to the devoted, yet tragic ending for these two lovers. 

Alright, one could definitely make some of the same arguments about these two as I just did above regarding Hawkeye and Cora, but my point is that at least the connection between Uncas and Alice seems more believable and less forced - it's even established way before Hawkeye and Cora's. Perhaps because it is less expected and thus all the more fascinating with hardly no words spoken at all? And given the conversation at the beginning of the movie between Hawkeye, Uncas and Jack Winthrop in the Cameron household where they 'joke' about Uncas in need of a good wife (also in order to continue the Mohican bloodline), not Hawkeye, there's all the more reason for Uncas to be given the possibility of love in this story. Also, considering Alice's somewhat frightful (and fatalistic?) nature and strong bond with her father which she then brutally looses, gives her as much reason for the chance of finding such a strong bond again. That is perhaps why the ending and fate between these two lovers is all the more tragic (and enigmatic and fascinating), because they deserved a happy ending the most, whereas you're less concerned about the fate of Hawkeye and Cora. They seem to be handling themselves quite alright throughout the movie and will likely continue to do so, even if they hadn't found each other. Clannad's beautiful song, "I Will Find You", seems, in fact, all the more fitting for Uncas and Alice, after she's taken away by Magua (Wes Studi), even though the words are spoken between Hawkeye and Cora and clearly meant for them.
And as one person so precisely commented on the article "Michael Mann looks back on The Last of the Mohicans 20 years later"
[...] Everyone I spoke to was upset like me for not showing the love develop between Alice and Uncas. It left people confused why a man traces up a steep mountain on a suicide mission for a girl he never even spoke a word to. It wasn't until I read the actual script online and seen he [Michael Mann] had an awesome love scene in the cave between Alice and Uncas. People were upset he didn't use it because it would have taken away the boring love story between Cora and Hawkeye. Little did he know we wanted to see more Alice and Uncas. You can't put a gorgeous Indian like Eric Schweig in a movie and not have at least one love scene to make us drool. Your story made no sense why Uncas died without that scene. You should have included it in the extended version or deleted scenes.
Cora (Madeleine Stowe) and Hawkeye (Daniel Day-Lewis) on 'romantic' nightwatch

Now that we are at this whole problematic star-gazing-fast-forward-type of romance, another more recent - albeit different - film, "Thor" (Kenneth Branagh, 2011), comes to mind. Once again the protagonists and lovers-in-question, Thor (Chris Hemsworth - in a silly comics-version of the real deal) and Dr. Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), go right down to business after having been accidentally and literally thrown together. 

After some superficial differences in cultural behavior and communication - very striking to a 'me-Tarzan-you-Jane'-sorta relationship - Hemsworth strips for a (very important) second-or so and shows off a boring set of skills, including a ridiculously sized torso - especially compared to Portman's already petite figure - as well as some gentlemanly manliness all rapt up in one 'Norse' package. Meanwhile, Portman plays along from beneath (literally from beneath) with a wide-eyed curiosity, partly that of a scientist's and partly that of a female's 'natural' reaction to Hemsworth's bulging muscles and Australian accent. Ugh. So predictable. Then, of course, we have the quiet bonding moment which includes - guess once - star-gazing and childhood anecdotes. Geez. After that, they're all truly, madly, deeply in love and ready to take a bullet for one another, apparently. Other reviewers have pointed out this confusing jump of pace regarding the quality time spent between the so-called lovers, as well.

Dr. Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) and Thor (Chris Hemsworth) share info
(no, really, they're falling deeply and irrevocably in love, can't you tell?!)

Regarding the aspect of setting the 'right romantic mood' in both films, I guess there's just something fundamentally romantic in having the two lovers go star-gazing; whether it's sharing the contemplative quietness of the night, philosophizing over the vastness of space and man's small existence or showing off an impressive but basically useless (unless it's job-related) knowledge of stars - learnt by heart, of course. 

Just look at films such as "Can't Buy Me Love" (1987), "Roxanne" (1987), "Heartbreakers" (2001), "A Walk to Remember (2002)" or "Down with Love" (2003) and countless of other romantic movies which make use of this particular trope. 

And there surely is nothing wrong with such a trope in order to give the potential lovers some (often much needed) quiet time, to 'sweeten' the air, so to speak, and spark some deeper, more intellectual attraction between the two of them. As long as it is done with patience. Even if it's completely sappy and cheesy. As long as the movie lets it play out between the characters in a more or less naturally constructed pace, and perhaps also subtly indicates what we don't necessarily see or hear in-between scenes but have to interpret ourselves. There's a natural flow in the narrative that just needs to flow in that regard and I'm including plot-twists and surprises and all - even in or perhaps even more so in historical and/or epic films. 
After all, we're not talking genres such as "Transformers" or soap-operas like "Days of Our Lives" where nothing flows naturally, and where talking about a realistic romantic development or scenario between two people is like speaking to deaf ears (no offense). However, such matters are hardly relevant for these types of entertainment where focus and form lie elsewhere - and that's perfectly fine. Every man to his taste. But the best romantic story lines in - historical, epic, etc. - films are, after all, those who manage to let the relationship play out patiently - no matter how tense or naive or ridiculous the situation is.  

Furthermore, when I watch a movie I care as much (or even more) about the character stories as the overall story-line, so naturally I get offended when these stories are disrupted, manipulated or pushed forward for no other reason than presumably that of ignorance, forgetfulness, impatience, further the plot or the most common one: a lack of time and space. Such 'trifle matters' other directors have certainly overcome throughout time and still managed to produce films that balanced 'the big picture' as well as 'the small one'. Okay, period pieces do tend to be more than 2½ hours long or even cut up into a miniseries because these multi-faceted factors need to be included in order to do the story and the characters justice, but others have managed just as well without such framework. Just saying.

It may just be my logical/rational mind that naturally demands causality and reason to every action and reaction, and I know that - in the matters of the heart - there's rarely a reasonable or logical explanation for anything, but I love it when films stir up these ways of thinking and surprise us while not distorting the natural flow. And it has been done so many times - more or less successfully - in so many genres; subtly, inexplicably, honestly or elusively and so on - among all the (melo)drama. I just wish "The Last of The Mohicans" and "Thor" had managed to do so as well with their main protagonists. 

You can rightfully disagree.

*revised 11-05-18*

22 November 2014

Movie Parallels: "Black Narcissus" (1947) vs. "The Nun's Story" (1959)


The sexual tension between David Farrar's caretaker, Mr. Dean, and Deborah Kerr's Sister Clodagh in "Black Narcissus" (1947) and Peter Finch's Dr. Fortunati and Audrey Hepburn's Sister Luke in "The Nun's Story" (1959), respectively, is to cut in. Wouldn't you agree? 

I couldn't help but noticing that, in general, some very masculine-looking men have been chosen to star opposite Deborah and Audrey in their nun-versions, besides David Farrar and Peter Finch, such as Robert Mitchum ("Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison", 1957) and Sean Connery ("Robin and Marian", 1976), respectively. Not to forget Richard Burton opposite a very reluctant 'nun-in-hiding', Joan Collins, in "Sea Wife" (1957), though I never really got what that film was about.  I mean, even the so very distinguished, strict and regally handsome Christopher Plummer looked positively dishy in "The Sound of Music" (1965), even though Julie wasn't even in her nun's habit! I can't think of more virile men starring opposite these angelic beauties, and it's actually funny that this seems to be somewhat necessary in order to make out their opposite positions. And though Bing Crosby never exuded this virile masculinity (quite the opposite really) he was perhaps all the more perfectly fitted as a Father and a holy man opposite Ingrid Bergman's serene, beautiful nun in "The Bells of St. Mary" (1945). But I'll leave that for you to judge. 

However, sexual tension doesn't have to be overtly present through bodily appearance nor does it have to have significant signs like winking or flirty eyes or anything the flirting experts (do they even exist??) are saying. To me, it can be much more suggestive and thus all the more powerful. It can come from the roller-coaster rides of the usual love-hate-relationships and the demonstrative behavior that comes with more or less consciously denying their true feelings about each other; misunderstandings, prejudices, bantering, disagreements, etc.. Sometimes expressed through screaming and shouting, sometimes through silence and the inability to express feelings in words. Not always the whole 'opposites attract' thing (I'm not a big believer in that, though it sounds romantic in a faraway world or time) but more complicated than that, and that's what makes it interesting! I mean, if you look more closely at the photos above with Peter (Dr. Fortunati) and Audrey (Sister Luke) standing opposite each other, you get what I mean, right? Or is it just me who reads them as sexually tensed? We could call it strained all we like, but in the end isn't there something else? I could watch those scenes again and again. Of course, they are desirable; it's like watching the wolf and the lamb trying to work together - more or less unwillingly, despite being undeniably attracted to each other. We almost want these pristine women to fall for these men's spell, but then again every fibre in our bodies says it would undermine the very work these women have chosen to do; almost a disgrace to their very identities as women.

But is this sexual tension just a thing when there are nuns involved in films? The idea that the women need to be beautiful, almost looking like from Heaven sent themselves, and the men purely earthly, with an almost animalistic rawness added to their personas? And that these women must now struggle with their purity in all this 'dirt' that the men bring in? Or that the 'dirt' binds the women to earth? I don't know if it's that biblical or not; after all, women were supposed to be the 'bad thing' in that sense, right? Yet, here it's rather the men that have been made 'the forbidden fruit'; the temptation, the sin. It sure paints men and women as two different species. Or does it? Furthermore, why can't these virile men be priests and monks as well? Does their 'animalistic, sexualized nature' stand between them and a religious, ascetic life, raised above sin? An interesting book has been written about the subject, called Veiled Desires: Intimate Portrayals of Nuns in Postwar Anglo-American Film by Maureen Sabine and may give a more developed insight into this question.

For one thing, nuns and monks, life in monasticism and asceticism have always fascinated those on the outside. To give up and abstain from worldly pleasures and exchange it solely for an obedient, religious life is almost unfathomable - especially today, in a world so secularized and a generation so narcissistic that the mere thought of some people willingly giving up their SELF for GOD (though the one doesn't necessarily exclude the other) is absurd. But also fascinating, almost admirable, if it didn't come with so many skeletons in the cupboards. Lately with a severe domino effect, as horrific stories of abuse in all kinds of shades have emerged from the history of the Catholic Church; for example the Magdalene asylums (seriously, you'll not believe it when you read about them, but the fact that it DID happen is even more unbelievable!), giving the Church all but a nice reputation - if it ever had one to begin with. I hardly pity 'them' but religion is basically a tough nut to crack when it comes to 'who has the most blame or guilt?'. It's just like war; no one ever comes out a winner or a saint in the end. 

But back to these - basically representative - white, angelic nuns portrayed on film. How do they stand in all this, one could ask? Nowhere, perhaps. Everywhere, maybe. Yet, they represent a duality in the sense of being a woman; of  love, of compromise and of sacrifice in more ways than one, and the strive to achieve something in this world ... well, there's more than one analogy to transport to our modern day world. And if you strip these women figuratively and literally of their veils and habits, their churches and crucifixes, and give them modern clothes and objects, the universality of their struggles and doubts still stand out. 

Furthermore, their beauty; their (repressed? Undermined?) sexual attractiveness: The mystery that women should want to hide such beauty has caused much confusion for men and women alike and not only because of narrow-minded, sexist prejudice, vanity complexes or feminist assertiveness. If you think of how women has been portrayed throughout history in art, literature and film, you'll realize women really have been portrayed as the big mystery, 'the Otherness', ever since the Bible blamed the woman for the Fall of Man. Just think of femme fatales in film noirs, or the sex symbols or any stereotypical category women has been put in, or rather locked in. I'm not saying men haven't been through categorization throughout time as well, but heaven knows it hasn't been quite the same! One major, endured taboo men might have the claim on is the portrayal of homosexuality, especially on film, since masculinity always has been asserted as something solely one-sided for some reason (heterosexual, tough, brutal, virile, strong, unimpressed etc.) and femininity after all was allowed more obscure and ambiguous exploration on that matter (though they were at most repressed and not nearly explored enough out in the open).
Well, that's a sidetrack.

All in all, it's the classic set-up of contrasts: The pious, virtuous, obedient, but nonetheless beautiful women of God placed in strange, exotic surroundings, opposite the spirit of maleness embodied in the tall, dark and handsome men with a streak of roguish charm and insolence to serve as a constant temptation; to shake the nuns' faith and innocence and somehow crack the shell of perfect composure. It remains on the surface a clash of beliefs, human conditions and dichotomies, such as religion vs. secularism, Heaven vs. Earth, harmony vs. disharmony, civilization vs. animalism, abstinence vs. hedonism, mind vs. body, female vs. male. Their symbolic beliefs and conditions conveyed through their contrasting postures throughout the films as seen in the above pictures: The nuns' poised, steadfast stances and the men's relaxed, suggestive poses. But in the end it comes down to what we cannot deny we all share and what cannot be separated or put into categories such as feelings, emotions, sensations, and all in all, the soul. 

But this set-up, of course, also gives away for the perfect fantasy and basic curiosity to be outlived; that of nuns or ascetics being strange, secluded and unyielding creatures separated from the common man and devoid of all human sins and desires that everyone else give away to. What happens when they are challenged - when they're pulled out of their natural environment and put into a new one? How strong are they truly in their faith then? Aren't they humans, too, after all? Made of flesh and blood and bone like everybody else? What happens when faced with those elements they have learned to resist for so long no matter what? And what, in particular, makes young, beautiful girls give up worldly goods, pleasures and vanity and turn to asceticism when they could have everything in the world - and then some? How can such a young girl be so sure of such a life-changing decision and never be in doubt - even when the opportunity of love, a worldly not godly love, arrives?

The almost ethereal beauty, specifically a beauty of innocence, of both Deborah Kerr and Audrey Hepburn made them perfect for the roles of these young nuns (more than once in both of their careers); so committed to their faith and ideals they could be angels themselves, and yet so human that they can't help wavering in their faith, being conflicted when faced with real life or new surroundings, or being drawn to even the smallest of worldly pleasures which they then punish themselves for, almost inhumanly so. And by doing so they left a mark in us and made us ponder upon the power of faith and the individual human sacrifices for a greater good; a greater good that perhaps is good in theory or in thought - and to some extent in practice - but in the end may not be that great a good (at least not for everyone) - and that human weakness isn't that black and white, after all.

On that note, the suggestive modes of eroticism and human desires and/or weaknesses in both films seem all the more palpitating in subtext; that which isn't verbalized or confronted directly but remains unfulfilled and strained (and even strenuous) for the characters involved as well as the audience. Of course, the innocent, covered-up beauty of Deborah or Audrey and the roguish, bared charm of David or Peter who bodily dominates the pictures, oozing of rugged masculinity opposite these waif-like creatures of God creates an immediate, palpitating sexual tension. But it also forms a question of deeper feelings that may or may not exist or be shared, but which they and we, the viewers, both know cannot come true either way. None of them act on their feelings in the end and it wouldn't have been the great stories or films we know today if they had - mainly because we remember them for this particular unspoken, 'unconsummated' tension. And it doesn't make their possible feelings 'speak' any less or be any less true. On the contrary. And that's why I think these films stand out so significantly in our memory, despite the melodrama or the banality one could claim is being conveyed.

03 November 2014

Movie Parallels: "Strangers on a Train" (1951) vs. "Filth" (2013)

Don't tell me I'm the only one who has noticed the striking similarity between the scene from "Strangers on a Train" (Alfred Hitchcock, 1951) where Robert Walker bursts a pestering, little kid's balloon and the scene from "Filth" (Jon S. Baird, 2013) where James McAvoy lets a pestering, little kid's balloon fly?


And the funny thing is that James McAvoy has actually, previously, reinacted the famous shot - for a Vanity Fair shoot - from "Strangers on a Train" where Robert Walker's character charms James Farley. And James is in Robert's place! How ironic is that?!