Paint It Black

When I was 24 or 25 the woman I was living with dumped me and started seeing other men, and it sent me spinning out of control. For six or eight months there, I did every stupid thing under the sun and then some, and I made it through those days without any life-changing fuck-ups—for me or for anybody else—through pure dumb luck. But the frame of mind I was in back then never did evaporate completely. It only takes the crumb from a madeleine—a song, a situation—to bring back the anger and smallness and pain, and I can’t help but feel for anyone who ever goes through the process. I didn’t come close to stalking or hurting my ex (basically, I took my shit out on everybody around me except her), but when I hear about the TRO type of guys, even the violent ones, I simply can’t write them off as the social garbage that law-and-order nuts and women’s rights groups insist they are. Some of it’s a “There but for the grace of God…” thing, but I also know they’re just trying to obliterate the pain, and that they don’t want to be this way either.

Jealousy and the indignities of being left behind make for great film subjects because shitfits and degradation look so good to the camera’s eye: Emil Jannings humiliating himself in chicken feathers for Marlene Dietrich in The Blue Angel; Edward G. Robinson tormented by the sound of Joan Bennett’s voice calling another man’s name in Scarlet Street; Albert Finney driving a one-man Indy 500 all over Diane Keaton’s brand-new tennis court in Shoot the Moon. The titles alone—Raging Bull, Blood Simple, Love Me or Leave Me, Smash Palace, Contempt, Bitter Moon, In a Lonely Place—are emblems of bitterness, alienation and violence, while even comedies on the subject can’t resist coloring what happens when Aphrodite uses your brain as her pincushion.

And they keep tumbling down the chute. Malcolm Venville’s hard-to-pigeonhole 44 Inch Chest opens with a closeup of its hero lying flat on his back, sweaty hair pasted to his forehead, and surrounded by the shards of a room which he’s just finished demolishing. It’s a signature view of the primal, endlessly battered Ray Winstone, who’s embodied just about every form of moral depravity there is—hooligan, drunkard, daughter-rapist, mankiller—while keeping his inner yuck alive in fresh and interesting ways.

44 Inch Chest finds him hitting bottom again, this time as the car salesman Colin Diamond. Colin has just learned that the wife he adores (Joanne Whalley, looking better than ever) has been cuckolding him with a studly young French waiter, and in his distress he turns to his mates, a circle of friends played by Ian McShane, Tom Wilkinson, John Hurt, and Stephen Dillane—casting decisions which clue us in that this support group won’t be telling Colin to use his words. After hearing the news, the quartet brazenly snatches the Frenchman and delivers him to an abandoned house where Colin—and, vicariously, his friends—will take their revenge on him. With “Loverboy” now safely trussed to a chair, Wilkinson helpfully explains the situation to him: “You should have got your own fucking wife to fuck.”

The role of Colin was written specifically for Winstone by Louis Mellis and David Scinto, the duo who created the great part of “Gal” for him in Sexy Beast, and the two movies have the same staccato volubility, the same fierce contest between jokes, asides, argot and belligerence. Set mainly in a gutted room dressed in mustardy tones of decay, the film plays out over a long, talk-filled night, as Colin searches himself for an answer potent enough to satisfy the codes and imperatives of his gender as represented by his friends, a spectrum of masculinity ranging from McShane’s wanly hilarious gay gambler to Hurt’s perpetually outraged aging gangster. 44 Inch Chest boasts yet another of Angelo Badalamenti’s haunting scores, and it freely dips into both surrealism and straightforward theatricality. By the end of it we can see the glimmers of a better world, one in which even the most scarred among us can find a way to hold his head upright.

Nothing says more about how drastically the movie industry has changed than the fact that in the year 1964 Columbia Pictures gave an unlimited budget to a French director for a foreign language film about marital infidelity. This came about for a number of reasons. Columbia had just tried the same strategy with a black comedy about the threat of nuclear annihilation, and Stanley Kubrick had come back with Dr. Strangelove. European cinema, and French cinema in particular, was big at the time. And Henri-Georges Clouzot was a prestigious and reputable director.

Clouzot’s script for L’enfer was about a pair of newlyweds—Serge Reggiani and Romy Schneider—and the husband’s growing (but wrongheaded) suspicion that his wife is being unfaithful to him. Clouzot is often called the French Hitchcock, and besides bringing awesome levels of craftsmanship to their suspense films, the two men favored linear storylines that were almost too generic for the good of their reputations. By the time of L’enfer, Clouzot, having taken to heart the work of avant-garde painters and musicians, wanted to try something radical—and here was Columbia Pictures, with all that money. He envisioned L’enfer as two movies harnessed together: a series of black and white segments offering a conventional external look at the marriage and, intercut with it, Marcel’s hallucinations about Odette and her trysts, which were to be shot like a fever dream.

The shoot turned out to be a debacle. The production team spent weeks on expensive lighting tests for the dream sequences. Location shooting followed a quixotic, whimsical schedule as Clouzot demanded retake after retake of shots that depended on impossible timing schemes. He hired three camera teams, each of them stacked with first-rate talent, which he planned to use in a staggered fashion; however, when he kept getting caught up on the shot in front of him, the other two teams could only cool their heels. And though the manmade lake he was shooting on was scheduled to be drained within days, he insisted on reshooting scenes he already had in the can while leaving others to die on the vine. Reggiani grew uncooperative, then disappeared from the set; while searching for his replacement, Clouzot suffered a heart attack and the production was shut down.

The 13 hours of footage that survived the experience—some of it silly but much of it extraordinary—came to light only because the French filmmaker Serge Bromberg found himself trapped in an elevator with Clouzot’s widow one night. Bromberg has used it to create both an approximation of Clouzot’s film and an account of its making, under the doubly accurate title Henri-Georges Clouzot’s ‘Inferno’. It’s an incredibly seductive work, at once sensual, saddening and maddening. All that redundant, futile footage suggests that Clouzot, like Coppola on the set of Apocalypse Now, could never find the crucial handle on his material, but Bromberg has assembled it into something well worth seeing.

And thanks to Jonathan Rosenbaum, I just saw Peter Bogdanovich’s The Cat’s Meow, a what-if retelling of the 1924 party on William Randolph Hearst’s yacht that ended with the mysterious death of the director-producer Thomas H. Ince.  Because Ince’s body was cremated before an autopsy could be performed, the rumors wouldn’t go away that Hearst had shot Ince, but by mistake; his true target, supposedly, was Charlie Chaplin, with whom Marion Davies, Hearst’s mistress, was thought to be having an affair. Kirsten Dunst as Davies and Edward Herrmann, who has Hearst’s trapezoidal jowliness, give a pair of the most convincing historical portrayals I’ve seen; I completely accepted that this was how those people acted, or could have acted, over that weekend. Dunst, only 19 at the time, is particularly good, not just at playing a woman eight years older than her actual self, but at conveying the spirit of Davies’ character as it’s filtered down to us over the years. The movie may look like a cheaper version of Gosford Park but it’s good from beginning to end, and it’s at its best in its melancholy final half hour, after the shooting has occurred, when an entire social circle can be seen sinking into collective shock.

The screenwriter Steven Peros gives us something we’re not really prepared for: a William Randolph Hearst with emotional context. “Willy,” as Marion calls him, may do monstrous things, but he’s clearly no monster: if anything, he wears his humanity like a yoke. His emotional tyranny is but a poor disguise for his neediness, making it easy to understand his agony when he spots Davies and Chaplin exchanging a loving gaze, and his horror when Chaplin jokingly announces to the roaring-with-laughter guests, “I give you Marion Davies—the New Tramp!” Peros, Bogdanovich and his cast treat these characters—or people, rather—with a decency rare for historical dramas, especially one revolving around such grotty affairs.

Bogdanovich, of course, has seen the other side of the coin. Bob Fosse’s Star 80 focused on Paul Snider, a penny-ante Hefner wannabe who killed his estranged wife, Playboy Playmate Dorothy Stratten, and himself, after she and Bogdanovich fell in love on a movie location. Fosse goosed up Snider and Stratten’s tragedy with the same facile gimmicks—time-jumps, shock cuts, varying film stocks, portentous-ironic fake interviews—that he’d ladled onto poor Lenny Bruce’s head a few years earlier, just to ramrod home his inflammatory and untested ideas about life in a materialistic, sexually loose America.

There may well be some worthwhile takeaway from Paul Snider’s story—who knows, it might’ve even been king of the jealous man genre—but Fosse never bothered to seek it out, and as a result Star 80 is a posturing, hypocritically lurid work, condescending to its characters and audience alike, and 180 degrees away from the respect Bogdanovich paid to his material. The Cat’s Meow ends by echoing one of the great closing shots in all of cinema—the last shot from The Rules of the Game—in a way that’s both earned and poetic in its own right. Scott Fitzgerald himself might have applauded the gentle way these children of the Charleston, power, and far too much money are ushered off the stage and into the history books.

Bogdanovich hasn’t directed a theatrical feature since The Cat’s Meow came out in 2001; in a sick joke whose origins I don’t want to think about, his next credit, three years later, was a TV movie about Natalie Wood’s drowning. I’ve given the man a lot of grief in my time but The Cat’s Meow makes up for a lot of things. If nothing else, it contains the fragrant moment when a flustered Hearst stammers out the blinkered Desiderata of needy men everywhere: “I do not ask much, but the little that I do ask, I must be respected. I don’t say this as a threat. It’s just a wish I have as a man.”

3 Responses to “Paint It Black”

  1. Gerald Enzor Says:

    Another great post! I shared this one on Facebook – you should add a “like” button to your posts. 🙂

  2. Tom Block Says:

    Thanks, Gerald, that means a lot. And I’ll look into the button.


  3. PDF Says:

    Wow, you liked 44 Inch Chest a lot more than I did.

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