Thursday, July 26, 2012

Near neo noir Thursday: Obsession

[Spoilers galore so don't read any further if you are planning on watching this turkey.]

Short version, don't waste your time. But some failures are interesting in that they point the way to future success.

It's a Brian de Palma movie so you know what you are going to get. A whole lot of Hitchcock devices combined with utterly unbelievable character motivations. The thing is based on a "story" by de Palma and Paul Schrader except that it's really story lifted right out of Hitchcock's Vertigo.

It's on the way-too-long, way-to-inclusive list of supposed Film Noir up at Wikipedia. I think every dark-mood movie ever made is on that list.

So what has it got going for it? Not much.

But it does highlight one element of neo noir that is worth noting and that is the protagonist's being driven by some past failure to do the morally right thing that is required of him as a man. This element was more hinted at more than used or drawn out in Chinatown and it is beautifuly used in Body Heat. Even Palmetto uses it fairly well. Here in Obsession it is overdone to the point of ridiculousness.

If you know the plot of Vertigo, then you know this one too. A man is haunted by the memory of his wife's death, an event he holds himself responsible for. He meets a woman who looks exactly like her and becomes obsessed at the thought of having a retake of his old love. In Hitchcock, the man fails because he hasn't changed. He has the same weaknesses and failings so, when he comes up against a similar situation, he makes the same mistake leading to the same tragic end.

But de Palma and Schrader change a key element. Unbeknownst to our protagonist, the whole thing is actually a  set up. He only thinks it is his failings that caused his wife's death when it is actually the plotting and machinations of a person he thinks of as a friend that cause her death. And then they stick a happy ending on it. It's sort of like sitting down to watch a movie about the Titanic only someone has replaced the last five pages of the script with the ending from one of the weaker episodes of Fantasy Island.

Controversy that isn't sexy
Oddly missing from the plot is any sexual element at all. We have a man who falls deeply in love with two women and both relationships are so chaste they make Emma and Mr. Knightly look like hard-core porn by comparison. This in a movie by two guys, Brian de Palma and Paul Schrader, who specialize in creepy sexual relationships. What happened? Oddly enough, the reason the movie is so unerotic is that they went too far.

Huh? Well, consider this oddly uninformative line from the Wikipedia article on the movie:
Completed in 1975, Columbia Pictures picked up the distribution rights but demanded that minor changes be made to reduce potentially controversial aspects of the plot.
And all five people who read the article said, "What potentially controversial elements?" And you can read far and wide and find no explanation. Apparently it's so "controversial" that no one wants to talk about it even now.

I don't know for certain myself but I'll make a pretty confident guess [here comes the big spoiler]. The woman who looks exactly like the dead wife that the protagionist becomes obsessed with isn't just any woman. For while it appears that his daughter also died in the accident that killed his wife, she actually survived. She has been spirited away to Italy by the villain bent on revenge all these years and fed a steady diet of "your father irresponsibly caused your mother's death" so now she is ready to be used as a tool in revenge.

(Which is sort of like planting an oak tree so that you can cut it down twenty-five years from now and make it into a club so you can kill someone. I mean, why not just buy a baseball bat right now?)

Okay, the "revenge" then turns out to be that an encounter is set up and the hero falls in love with the hate-filled daughter and becomes obsessed with marrying her. Again, in the Vertigo plot, the protagonist is emotionally disturbed because he has seen his wife die in front of him. It could happen so you believe it. But it could also not happen. In this plot, you have to believe that the villain knew with absolute certainty that the daughter would grow up to look like exactly her mother and that the protagonist would become obsessed with her if he ever met her and that all well-meaning attempts to help him would only drive him deeper into his obsession until ...

Anyway, the bizarre plan works because it's in the script and then our protagonist marries the woman he has become obsessed with who is actually—I suspect you are beginning to see where the controversy might arise—his daughter! It's best to resort to clinical language when dealing with such sensitive issues. For example, icky, icky, gross, gross!

So how does the movie handle it? Well, we start with our protagonist unconscious. He is dreaming of his wedding day the morning after it happened. The image is literally fuzzy. We see the vows, the cutting of the cake,  the kiss, and then we hear his wife/daughter mysteriously telling him she is going to give him another chance to prove he loves her and then, bang he is awake and she too has been kidnapped.

And what else happened on their wedding night? Did he get drunk and was unable to perform? Did she drug him? Was the incestuous sex so good it clouded his brain? Who knows. They do kiss on the lips so presumably something at least started to happen but the changes demanded by Columbia all conspire to muddy the issue as much as possible, not so we won't know, but so so we won't think about it.

All of which makes a certain sense but why not just not make the movie in the first place. It's like remaking Lolita and making Dolores twenty-five years old. Okay, the story is not offensive to anyone anymore but it also isn't the same story anymore either. "We stopped the spread of the cancer by shooting the patient in the head."

Oh yeah, just in case that isn't crazy enough, de Palma sticks a happy ending on it. An utterly conventional romantic happy ending in which the two leads run into one another's arms in defiance of the whole world and the camera spins around them and they are so in love. Okay, in the abstract—father and daughter go through serious trauma and then are reunited so they hug—all seems harmless enough. But put the specific context in and icky, icky, gross, gross!

The subtext is so elaborate they had to leave out the text
The perhaps surprising thing is that the whole movie is an intensely literary exercise. It's not just that it features extensive references to Vertigo, the movie assumes you know the plot of Vertigo because otherwise you couldn't follow what was happening. And there is a whole Dante Vita Nuovo subtext as well.

All of this is quite deliberate. I'm sure they had Nabokov in mind and were attempting to achieve a succès de scandale that could be justified on "artistic" grounds when they wrote it. And then they were forced to tone it down. But you can't blame the censors for this one. It was a confused mess before they got their hands on it.

The whole thing is so damn complex that most viewers must have left the theatre not entirely sure what had happened. Not surprisingly, this is one of those movies that critics loved and viewers hated. Critics love things that are hard to understand because it justifies the existence of critics.

The neo noir elements
The big neo-noir thing, as I say, is the hero driven by his inner demons and past failures. That is an important element in neo noir. A hero like Sam Spade has a past and demons but he is also driven by a genuine and admirable sense of justice that triumphs over his and everybody else's selfish concerns.

But that hero is harder to believe in now. The turning point in hard-boiled and, therefore, noir history comes with I, the Jury. The unintended effect of Spillane's travesty was to expose the weakness of the hard-boiled hero. How is the hard-boiled hero with his personal sense of justice any different from a psycho path? How is Batman really all that different from the Joker? Everyone felt sure the hard-boiled hero they loved was different but how do you explain the difference in an era that doesn't allow appeals to moral truth?

We tell ourselves, "But he is the hero is on the side of truth and justice!" The problem with that, however, is that his reasons for doing right are always personal and not an appeal to any principles outside himelf. Raymond Chandler, forced to face the contradictions, created the character of Terry Lennox in The Long Goodbye. Marlowe says this of Lennox:
I'm not sore at you. You're just that kind of guy. For a long time I couldn't figure you out at all. You had nice ways and nice qualities, but there was something wrong. You had standards and you lived up to them, but they were personal. They had no relation to any kind of ethics or scruples. You were a nice guy because you had a nice nature. But you were justa s happy with mugs or hoodlums as with honest men. Provided the hoodlums spoke fairly good English and had fairly acceptable table manners. You're a moral defeatist. I think maybe the war did it and again I think maybe you were born that way.
"No relation to any kind of ethics or scruples". What he means is that nothing of Lennox's code can be justified by appealing to anything outside himself. And that is the way of the neo noir hero. Why does Batman fight crime? Not because crime is wrong but because he saw his parents killed in front of him when he was a kid. If he'd had a happy childhood he'd presumably be happy working as a concentration camp guard.

We all feel that the hero we like is different but we can't actually explain why he is good. In the end, the only reason Batman comes down on the side of good because his fans really want him to and the scriptwriters are careful never to disappoint them.

You could blame the writers and directors for this except that it's true of our entire culture. Why should you "walk for the cure"? The ads tell you to do it for someone you love—your mother, wife, daughter, best friend. No one makes a case for why defeating this cancer might serve some greater moral truth. Every moral appeal is an attempt to sway your emotions and not an appeal to some moral reality that could be argued about. No, do it because you care.

But what about the hero who cares deeply for reasons that are vague, or disturbed, or twisted or even crazy? How is the bad dark knight different from the good dark knight? The reason neo noir is so important to anyone wondering what it is to be a man in our era is that it forces us to consider those questions.

It's interesting to compare Chinatown  and Who Framed Roger Rabbit in that regard. Jake Gittes has a past in Chinatown and his inability to bring about justice in Chinatown, his managing to get the woman he was trying to protect killed, haunts him. The idea is there but it's latent. In Who Framed Roger Rabbit, heavily based on Chinatown, you can see how much the plot motif had developed in just thirteen years. And it's all the more evident because Roger Rabbit is just a cartoon with lots of parody aspects. The demons from 'toon town haunting Eddie Valiant are much more prominent in the story than the ones from Chinatown haunting Jake Gittes.

Obsession was a step along that path. It's not a terribly well-made movie but it's part of the history.

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