Tuesday, May 17, 2011

REFLECTIONS IN A GOLDEN EYE 1967

One of the more suspect affectations among the film-school cognoscenti (and there are many) is the lazy, ofttimes wholesale, approbation afforded offbeat, abstruse, or otherwise boring films in an effort to appear possessed of a more discerning aesthetic sense. Though rooted in the not-unfounded notion that the scope of film should encompass more than just mass-market fare, too frequently this democratic ideal gives way to a baseless elitism and the knee-jerk aligning of oneself with the unpopular just because it is unpopular. 
I know whereof I speak, because, as a former film student, I've been guilty of such behavior myself. More hours than I care to think about have been spent in dark theaters pretending to enjoy some execrable, masturbatory piece of self-indulgence merely because it was trashed by mainstream critics. A sophomoric game of "one-upmanship" was common practice with me and my friends at film school (The San Francisco Art Institute) , each of us attempting to best the other in professing love for a film more unlikely and unknown than the last. 
"A peacock of a sort of ghastly green. With one immense golden eye. And in it these reflections of something tiny and grotesque."
 I mention this as a kind of preemptory self-defense/explanation, noting my awareness that heralding John Huston's arty, much-maligned, "Reflections in a Golden Eye" may appear more than a little pretentious. That may be the impression, but I really think that this would be a widely-liked film if only more people knew about it. A victim of an era that had no idea of how to market such an unusual film, this is one amazing movie that has definitely improved with time. Distanced from the shock value of its once-taboo theme of homosexuality, and removed from the movie-star tabloid distractions of its two controversial stars, "Reflections in a Golden Eye" can be seen for what it is: a searing character piece boasting fine performances and John Huston at his best as director.
 Elizabeth Taylor as Leonora Penderton
  Marlon Brando as Major Weldon Penderton
Julie Harris as Alison Langdon
Brian Keith as Lt. Col. Morris Langdon
Robert Forster as  Pvt.  L.G. Williams
Zorro David as  Anacleto

A last-gasp entry in the beloved (to me, anyway) sub-genre of "Southern Gothic," "Reflections in a Golden Eye" peels away the placid exterior of life in a peacetime military base to reveal the madness and repressed passions that lie beneath the imposed order of barracks, military protocol, and rigid conformity. 
Its plot is steeped in southern-fried dread: Robert Forster is a sexually repressed soldier who develops a scopophilic fixation on Elizabeth Taylor, the sexually rapacious wife of army officer Marlon Brando. Brando, who tolerates Taylor's affair with fellow officer Brian Keith (whose mentally disturbed wife, Julie Harris, has recently mutilated herself out of grief over the death of a child), is a latent homosexual who becomes sexually obsessed with Forester.  
Houston, rather ingeniously, takes a stylistic cue from the book's title and not only shoots the film in muted tones of gold, but films the events from an emotional remove. We are not invited into the minds of these characters so much as we are entreated to observe their piteously empty and sad behaviors as if we were voyeurs ourselves: seeing it all from a distance, reflected and distorted in an immense, all-seeing, golden eye. Once the film is over and there's time for everything to sink in, it soon dawns that the reflection has been of ourselves the entire time.
A favorite Elizabeth Taylor screen moment.
Leonora challenges her husband's masculinity:
"Son, have you ever been collared and dragged out into the street and thrashed by a naked woman? Huh?"
WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM:
It's always a challenge for a movie to ask us to identify with characters that represent, in large part, aspects of ourselves we look to the movies to help us to forget. "Reflections in a Golden Eye" has much to tell us about pain, compassion, and awareness of the fact that everyone harbors within themselves something dark and hidden that they are convinced would render them unworthy of love if revealed. But, like Thackeray's "Vanity Fair," Carson McCullers' "Reflections in a Golden Eye" is a novel without a hero, and it deprives us of reassurance and comforting, "feel good" messages. What I admire about the film is how it shows, with sensitivity and insight, the ways in which  the bizarre and even perverse, when removed from the sensationalism of moral judgment, can reveal itself to be nothing more or less than just human vulnerability.

Symbols of desire: The  Major, surrounded by the fetish objects of a male physique photo and a silver spoon stolen from a fellow officer, fondles a phallic candy wrapper discarded by the soldier he has become obsessed with.
  
PERFORMANCES:
Marlon Brando has always been an uneven kind of actor to me, but his performance here is outstanding and my favorite of all of his screen portrayals. Its one of those naked performances that actually makes you uncomfortable because he allows you to see him so emotionally exposed. Jokingly referred to as "Mr. Mumbles" by co-star Taylor (as relayed in the terrific book on the making of the film, "Troubles in a Golden Eye" by William Russo & Jan Merlin), Brando's sometimes garbled line-readings are at last made intelligible thanks to the "subtitles" option on the DVD.
When I young, Elizabeth Taylor was such a gossip magazine staple that it was kind of easy to dismiss her as just a movie star. I always thought she was beautiful, but it was only after I grew up that I came to appreciate what a gifted actress she was. She is wonderful here, playing a kind of sexually self-assured bubblehead (note the scene where she writes out the party invitations) unwittingly leading men to their doom. A vision of the kind of woman The Day of the Locust's Faye Greener would have grown up to be. Also, special mention has to be made of Brian Keith who surprised the hell out of me. Always an underrated actor, the way in which he takes a macho stereotype role and fashions out of it something genuinely heartbreaking, is nothing short of alchemy.

 THE STUFF OF FANTASY:
I'm crazy about cinema images that contain, in mere seconds of screen time, enough acuity, poetry, and beauty to equal a volume of written text or a concert of  music. The scenes wherein it is revealed that the sullenly distant Forester takes regular sojourns into the woods to doff his clothes and blissfully ride the horses he loves so much, are really haunting. Rendered even more so by the golden glow of the beautiful cinematography (reverted back to standard Technicolor a week after the film's release. The DVD edition restored Huston's original vision).

 THE STUFF OF DREAMS:
There are many memorable sequences in the film, but the one that seems to stay with me is one that is almost Hitchcockian in its construction. It happens late in the film, at a point in the story when the major has so fully resigned himself to his obsession that he has taken to following the young soldier along the streets at night (something the soldier is not exactly unaware of). One evening, while following on a crowded street, an auto accident occurs behind the major. Everyone on the street, including the soldier, turns to see what has happened or runs to be of assistance. The major doesn't flinch or look behind him at all. Throughout, his eyes remain, fixed and unblinking, exclusively on the soldier. The effect of the scene is so powerful, the first time I saw it I recall feeling my abdominal muscles tense, as if receiving a blow to the stomach.

There's a real poignancy to the pain that must be felt by individuals who cannot, will not, or are unable to, openly express who they are and be true to their natures. To today's audiences, films that deal with  repressed homosexuality may appear dated and perhaps even a little quaint. But I caution those who would think that the broader freedoms of today signal inclusive liberation. They don't. Indeed, one might even argue that our society today has no fewer deeply closeted gay men than in McCullers' time; the only difference is that now they're more apt to manifest as "gay for pay" porn stars; homophobic recording artists; and married, anti-gay legislating politicians.
  
In a marvelous scene, the major poses the following provocative question to the intolerant lieutenant (and, more importantly, to himself) who has just stated that his wife's effeminate houseboy, Anacleto (the only remotely happy person in the film), would have been unhappy, but better off, had the Army been given a crack at making him into a man.
This question was posed by Carson McCullers 70 years ago and it remains one that should be asked of, say, the anti same-sex marriage proponents of today:
  "You mean that any fulfillment obtained at the expense of normalcy is wrong, and should not be allowed to bring happiness. In short, it is better, because it is morally honorable, for a square peg to keep scraping about the round hole rather than to discover and use the unorthodox square that would fit it?"
Just brilliant.

12 comments:

  1. such an underrated film. i discovered it a few years back on the special features of Jackie Brown. One of my favorite Brando performances. his character in this film always reminded me of Denis Lavant in 'Beau Travil' (both are military men with repressed homosexual feelings)

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    1. Thanks for the comment,Marcus. Of course I agree that "Reflections..." is a woefully under-appreciated film. Brando is amazing. I especially like that you make reference to "Beau Travail", an intriguing-sounding film I'm wholly unfamiliar with. I will definitely be checking out.

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    2. I AM A TOTAL FAN OF THIS FILM. It is downright creepy and lurid on almost every level it reaches. You just cannot take your eyes off of it!!

      I have to re-watch this one!

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    3. Hi again, PTF
      I think you win the prize for having read the most posts in the shortest amount of time! Maybe prize isn't the right word...maybe medal!
      Happy that you like so many of the same films and that you're sharing your impressions. Your comments confirm how great it can be when one allows oneself to surrender to a film on an emotional level. Films don't have to classic or great to touch us. Even trashy films can be enjoyable and memorable when there are ideas, creativity, and chances taken.
      I'll take a flawed original like this over the calculated, money-making,movies-by-focus group they make today. Thanks again!

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  2. Hi Ken ~

    YOU deserve a medal for writing this blog! You have great taste in films and have featured a broad range of films from almost every genre, which I can appreciate. We definitely have the same taste! I am also learning new things as that's always a good thing! Keep up the great work. You keep writing, I'll keep reading! :)

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    1. You're very kind. I would say you have good taste in films too, but I guess that would be slipping in a sideways compliment to myself. :-)
      I'll just thanks very much

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    1. Agradecimentos muito para ler meu artigoS!

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  4. I trust that in the intervening years since you posted your marvelous reflection on Reflections/Golden Eye you have seen, watched, absorbed Beau Travail, Claire Denis's magnificent response to Melville's Billy Budd (and Huston of course was no stranger to Melville, and has Melville's Moby Dick on his resume. Or at least, Ray Bradbury's version of Ahab's cetaceous obsession.)

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    1. Hello Iain!
      Yes, I did finally get to see "Beau Travail" and enjoyed noting the character parallel that early commenter drew my attention to. A fascinating film!
      I have not however, seen either Billy Budd or Moby Dick, but Huston remains one of my favorite filmmakers. Thanks for your kind words and for taking the time to comment! Much appreciated!

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  5. Hi Ken,

    Great post! I've long loved this as one of those films Taylor made during her box office slide which was viewed at the time as just another mistake on her part, but which to me comprise a gallery of off-beat and fascinating late career characterizations (X, Y, and Zee, The Driver's Seat, Hammersmith Is Out, etc...).

    And Brando, Harris, and Keith, are all terrific. More people should know this film, and I hope its reputation will improve now that, as you point out, it's possible to judge it for the work rather than the notoriety of the cast.

    What works against the film for me is the complete lack of any period feel, which I find odd for a director who lived through, and made contemporary films during, the period it depicts.

    Pauline Kael argued in her review of The Only Game In Town that Taylor's private life had so eclipsed her screen persona that it had become impossible to believe her as "ordinary," and surely that perception worked against her performances at the time.

    But what lingers now is bafflement at her blatantly contemporary hair, make up and wardrobe. I keep being yanked from the narrative by thinking, "Wait a minute, WHAT year is this supposed to be?" I'd be inclined to think Taylor overrode Huston's attempt at period authenticity by insisting on her own design team (as she often did during this period), were in not for the fact that neither Harris (and the few other females in the film), nor ANY of the set dressing looks remotely period either.

    An oversight, or intentional, do you think? Huston's monochromatic vision was meant to remove us from reality on some level, but to me the film's major flaw is its seeming so completely unmoored in time.

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    1. Hi Neely
      You're totally right in that the film has absolutely no period feel at all. None. What has always baffled me is the fact that in most films, something like that bothers me no end. "Reflections..." is odd in that it doesn't distract me in the least, which makes me think that the point you make at the end of your comment (about the dreamy remove the film has as a result of its odd characters and use of color) may be the reason.
      It is puzzling, as you say, that there seems to be absolutely NO effort made to convey period; something that often falls to the women characters in films taking place in environments where there are so many uniforms about.
      Because he's such a thoughtful director, it's easy to assume Huston had something up his sleeve, but Taylor's look is SO 60s it feels careless.
      But as I said, I'm more stunned that it has never bothered me than the fact that (like so many non-period, period films of the 60s) it makes no attempt to establish time in a realistic manner.
      You've made me want to watch this again!
      I like your use of another Kael quote (she was a favorite of mine) which I think is largely true with Taylor. She did make a lot of fascinating choices in films during this time. Films I appreciate more now than when I was younger and was confounded by a "star" of her magnitude seeking such oddball assignments.

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