Where are the Kids?

Let’s talk about women. Women on screen. Most of the time when we think of women in movies we have a clear image, a predefined vision of what a cinematic woman should be like, look like and act like. And when the tables are turned, and we finally get a performance that does not reflect a woman that way, think of Meryl Streep in Kramer vs Kramer as the quiet, docile yet ruthless wife that asks for child custody, or Charlize Theron in Monster as a prostitute that goes on a killing spree after having been molested one too many times, the general public’s response is to reward them. Usually with an Oscar. But that is a rough sketch of the overall picture. But what if I told you that once upon a time there was a director whose entire filmography revolved around unconventional, in a way uncinematic women? What if I told you that he was a director who revolutionized the image of a woman on screen? I am talking about a filmmaker who understood women in all their complexity and embraced everything about them when making a movie. Often times he’d paint the female protagonist as the hero and simultaneously as the antagonist, too. I am talking about John Cassavetes and I want to dedicate this post to the character of Mabel Longhetti in his 1974 effort, A Woman Under the Influence.

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Mabel and Nick: a couple to remember.

Initially conceived as a play, A Woman Under the Influence quickly became a screenplay for a movie with the same title, as Gena Rowlands, John Cassavetes’ wife and lifetime collaborator (appearing in 11 of his movies), felt that playing the character of Mabel would become too excruciating in the long run, as most plays are on five to eight times a week. Because yes, Mabel Longhetti is a mentally disturbed woman, but the mental illness is never made too explicit in the film. In fact, Cassavetes never, in all of his interviews, guest appearances and lectures, never referred to Mabel as a mentally unstable woman. To Cassavetes, Mabel was a woman who suffered many things, just like most people, and to him, that was what made her a character worthy of a movie of her own; Mabel to Cassavetes was a person that lived life with everything she had. To Mabel, every emotion is amplified, and that is also perhaps why A Woman Under the Influence is one of the most disturbing portrayals of family life ever put on screen, and perhaps why Richard Dreyfuss, in an interview following his hit movie Jaws in 1975, when asked what movie had scared him the most in the past decade or so, pointed to Cassavetes’ film, admitting that the emotional intensity of the film, the relentless focus on Mabel and her psychological journey as a mother and wife, was enough to make him vomit in exhaustion upon his return home from the movies.

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Mabel’s suffering.

So what is it that makes A Woman Under the Influence one of, if not, the greatest portrayal of a woman in the history of cinema? For starters there is Gena Rowlands, giving a career-defining performance (more about Gena in a post from 2016) as Mabel Longhetti, devoted mother of three, loyal wife of a construction worker (played by an equally powerful Peter Falk), and above all, a woman tormented by her inability to express her overwhelming love. It is in fact Cassavetes primary goal as a filmmaker to talk about love, as he often stated in some of the interviews prior to his premature death in 1989;

I have a one-track mind. That’s all I’m interested in – love. And the lack of it. When it stops. And the pain that’s caused by loss of things that are taken away from us that we really need.

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Mabel’s primary source of joy: her kids.

And it’s true. I remember watching A Woman Under the Influence for the very first time and being highly disturbed by the display of mental illness in the movie. I couldn’t take it, and similarly to Richard Dreyfuss, I felt sick and had to pause the movie a few times just to distance myself from what was taking place in Mabel’s world. However, upon revisiting it a couple of days ago, I watched it with Cassavetes’ idea that it is a film that revolves around the weight of love and what happens when someone is sensitive, vulnerable and in love to the point that even the smallest of things will make that person go crazy and lose balance in life. Because Mabel Longhetti is exactly like that. The first scene we see her appear in, is the scene where she is getting her kids ready to go off with grandma for the weekend. Mabel runs around the driveway making sure her three children have all they need for a weekend away; she tucks in their shirts, she runs back into the house to find an extra pair of shoes, and she keeps repeating to her little joys as they get into grandma’s car ”Get your fingers in! Watch your fingers!” And when finally grandma drives off with the kids, Mabel shuts herself inside the house and starts pacing up and down the hallway, biting on her fingernails, murmuring to herself that she shouldn’t have let them go. The instances when her illness takes over are the instances where her overwhelming love does not know where to go. After a short while, Mabel asks herself in panic ”Where are the kids? Kids? Where are you?

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A happy household… at times.

Mabel is most vulnerable on her own. It is then that her condition turns her into a threat, a threat mostly to herself, as she goes off into the night in search of an adventure and ends up inviting a stranger into her home (it is never made if it is a one-time thing or a repeating occurrence). Meanwhile, her husband Nick is her only life saver, her only certainty in a world that otherwise could be considered her greatest danger, as the immense metropolis that is Los Angeles is bound to push her off-balance into free-fall. When Nick is not home, and that is quite often as his work demands a full 24-hour availability, Mabel is on her own, squaring off with her demons. She indulges in weird moments of self-harm, punching herself in the head, making faces in front of the mirror, drinking hard liquor, smoking packs of cigarettes, running up and down the house in search of something she could her pour love into, but as Cassavetes himself said about how he tackles the theme of love in his movies; ”To have a philosophy is to know how to love, and to know where to put it. […] What everybody needs is a way to say where and how can I love? Can I be in love so I can live with some degree of peace?” Most of the time Cassavetes movies do not deliver an answer to this question. Yet, in A Woman Under the Influence, this very quest to achieve a degree of peace through love is the main focal point of Mabel’s condition.

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Mabel’s greatest fear: to be alone.

When Nick comes home from work with a group of hungry co-workers, we see Mabel spring to her feet in excitement: it is time for to express her love for her husband by preparing a wonderful meal for the numerous guests that Nick considers friends. As Mabel sits in silence, looking at the hungry and tired men devouring home-cooked spaghetti with sauce, we can see glimmers of utter happiness. These are the moments that Mabel lives for, these are the instances when she is at her best, and yet… and yet the condition kicks in. The love that Mabel has for people, for her husband, her family, the family’s friends and relatives, is too strong and is bound to go off any minute. In this scene, for example, Mabel becomes friendly with some of Nick’s co-workers, too friendly, to the point that she embarrasses her husband and makes the guests uncomfortable. When they leave, everything dies down, including Mabel.

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Mabel at her happiest.

If Mabel could have one wish from a genie, that wish would be to be able to put her arms around all the people she loves and keep them there, as close to herself as possible. But that is not how the world works in a Cassavetes film as Mabel is soon deemed to be dangerous for her loved ones (she is eventually put in a mental institution for six months); the danger she poses lies in the affectionate way she plays with her children and her children’s friends, in the way she wants to satisfy everybody that enters her home, the way she maniacally runs up and down Hollywood Boulevard asking strangers for the time as she waits for the school bus to arrive and return her kids safely. It’s as if the most ordinary things make her seem crazy in the eyes of others. But to Cassavetes, the film’s writer and director, this is the essence of a woman; forget the beauty and sex-appeal, the essence of a female protagonist lies in her quirks, her flaws, her habits, her dreams, ambitions and regrets. Mabel is full of them. Cassavetes criticism of women’s depiction in movies is key in analyzing A Woman Under the Influence;

I’m very worried about the depiction of women on the screen. It’s gotten worse than ever and it’s related to their being either high- or low-class concubines, and the only question is when or where they will go to bed, with whom, and how many. There’s nothing to do with the dreams of women, or of woman as the dream, nothing to do with the quirky part of her, the wonder of her.

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”When a man loves a woman…”

In Cassavetes’ brilliant psychological domestic drama we experience a woman. An ordinary woman who is not successful, who doesn’t have a job, who doesn’t go out shopping, who doesn’t do things for pleasure or out of interest. Her world, and her experience comes from inside, because Mabel is crazy in the eyes of others, but when she looks in the mirror, she doesn’t see a crazy person; she sees an emotionally rich person, who through a vast range of emotions that can quickly turn happiness into fear, fear into anger, anger into pure joy, confusion into bliss, is desperately trying to find a way to fit into the environment she is forced to be part of. Her body is tied to the physical world, but her mind isn’t. Mabel wants to live for others, through others; in numerous scenes she simulates the behavior of her children because it is her understanding that a mother raising children should feel the same things as her children. And so she dances, she whistles, she races down the street, she makes faces and puts on costumes because her children deserve to be at the center of her attention. And when her husband brings around his friends she finds fitting to emulate his attitude, that of a tough, working man, a macho figure, a bread winner and the head of the household. What comes off as ridicule to Nick is Mabel’s way of telling him, Look how much I love you. Look how much I care about you. Look how much I admire you.

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Nick battling with his own demons.

To end this piece, Bo Harwood, the film’s music composer said that to him the score to A Woman Under the Influence is ”basically about love […] about loving somebody, loving your family, loving them no matter what,” which is a fitting conclusion, considering that Mabel is full of imperfections but so are the people around her, above all Nick, her husband, who at times reveals himself to be just as crazy as his wife. Then you might say, well if this is about love and loving somebody, what does the concept of a cinematic woman have to do with this post? To which I’ll reply, everything. To me, and famed critics like Roger Ebert, Mabel represents Cassavetes himself, and his experience with dealing with love, family, betrayal and hardship, and that is why, the portrayal of this particular woman is the most accurate, complete and telling I have ever seen; Mabel represents everything that we might want her to represent. Her condition is the accumulation of values, emotions, stories, incidents and thoughts that we all have, that we all share. That’s what makes her so multidimensional, so unconventional, so beautifully unique, and that is also why cinema would never be the same after the film’s release. Cassavetes and Rowlands, in other words, together revolutionized what a woman can do in a film, what she can stand for and what she can bring to the art form that is cinema.

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It’s about loving somebody, loving them no matter what.

Show Me a Leader

Cinema has always represented an escape from reality, a place where science did not apply, where superheros were in fact regular citizens and where love beat them all. After all, we still hear some people say: ”Life’s not like the movies!” as if to say that life is too difficult and too serious to be encapsulated into an art form such as film. However, people seem to forget that movies can indeed encapsulate the gravity, the struggle and the difficulty of what we are faced with everyday.
Enter satires. From the very beginning, satire was meant to turn life upside down by presenting audiences with a grotesque yet faithful representation of the actual state of affairs. Think of Chaplin’s bold masterpiece about fascism, The Great Dictator, and how it was used to send across a message of hope, when hope was nowhere to be seen on the streets of war-torn Europe. Think of Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove as it tried to make sense of the chaos and absurdity of two superpowers pushing each other toward the very edge of destruction, for what? Think of Sidney Lumet’s Network, and how the protagonist Howard Beale desperately tried to warn regular citizens of the danger that modern-day media represent. In short, satire has been with us for an extremely long time, yet for a while, most notably post 9/11, cinema preferred to remain silent and let facts do the talking (e.g. Michael Moore’s documentaries and 60 minutes) after such a great, unspeakable tragedy took place in the land of the free and home of the brave. It looked like Hollywood and the rest of the world were dried out, nothing was going for them as audiences went back to blockbusters and scary movies. Everyone was afraid to laugh. What followed next is up to interpretation. I like to think that Martin Scorsese’s Wolf of Wall Street shook things up, introduced a fresh initiative and led to the emergence of a multitude of satires based on real life events, such as The Big Short and War Dogs. Thus finally, people rediscovered the fun and the tragicomic truth that lies at the core of such kind of satire, where everything is exaggerated for storytelling purposes, anything goes and yet everything makes sense, because life is just like the movies, isn’t it?

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Martin Scorsese’s movie that rediscovered satire was funny, accurate and thought-provoking.

Obviously, once Hollywood discovers a certain formula, they like to stick to it, and satire, unlike so many other genres, such as action, thriller, horror, cannot be subjected to a formula, because the fun and the wit of satire is the juice of its execution, the unpredictability of it, the swagger and the bravado a filmmaker possesses in the face of the cruel reality from which a certain story is drawn. And here’s why I intend to pick two recent satires, one of them being very good, the other one being a poor, mishandled, misjudged collection of vignettes, because satire is a genre that is too smart to become formulaic, too important to become just another box office attraction. Enter the excellent The Death of Stalin from 2017, and the not-so-excellent Vice from last year.

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The all-powerful Dick Cheney staring right at you.

When Donald Trump was elected US President, Hollywood decided that now is the big chance to rediscover itself, and that everything that would come out of its vaults, be it 2016’s Get Out, 2017’s The Shape of Water and, in fact, last year’s Vice, is to be considered meaningful and looked upon as a critique on a broader scale. Get Out‘s horror tropes were meant to represent the beneath-the-surface racism that plagues America; The Shape of Water toyed with the idea of modern-day xenophobia and chauvinism; and finally Vice was to be analyzed as a big statement about how America’s past is a thing of the present. While Vice made millions, Armando Ianucci’s The Death of Stalin struggled box-office-wise, its appeal lost due to the simple fact that it told a story of many, many, many decades ago in the far, unreachable territory of what was once referred to as the Soviet Union. And yet, while Vice struggled to depict a coherent, complete and humorous retelling of America’s most infamous vice-president aka Dick Cheney, The Death of Stalin succeeded in telling the story of the days following Stalin’s death, encapsulating absolute truths about politics, power and populism. Here’s how and why.

First of all, time frames matter in satire. Most satires do not cross a time frame of a day or two, a week or two, sometimes reaching a maximum of a month or so (Wolf of Wall Street being one of the few exceptions). To go beyond that means risking everything for the benefit of reality. But satire is not about reality, right? Satire is about a twisted version of reality.
Well, this is where Vice fails.  McKay’s previous effort from 2015, the innovative The Big Short, a fun roller-coaster ride that made the most of the financial crisis of 2008, presented us with two time frames; days leading up to the crisis, and the days following the crisis. It worked because instead of focusing on a general story, it focused on certain key, real life characters and their involvement in the world of finance at the time when the world froze and exploded into a million pieces. Vice, unfortunately and most importantly, approaches the subject matter of Dick Cheney in the wrong fashion. See, McKay instead of, for example, focusing solely on Cheney’s actions post 9/11, decided to make a biopic on the man, which means he decided to compress a man’s personal as well as political life spanning over 50 years into a two-hour satire. This results in a humongous amount of unnecessary information that is neither truthful, funny or provocative. Who cares if Dick Cheney drank as a student? Who cares if he was arrested multiple times drunk-driving at the of 21? Who cares if he was not popular in college? What audiences care about is seeing the juice of the action, in other words, why the hell was this man given so much power at an advanced stage in his career? Why was he so special following one of the darkest days in the war on terror?

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Young Cheney’s road to political glory could not have been duller.

Meanwhile, The Death of Stalin knows exactly how utilize its time frame of the day leading up to Stalin’s sudden death and the days following the great leader’s passing and the chaotic re-distribution of power amongst Soviet Union’s Central Committee.
Ianucci, an expert in modern-day satire with the likes of In the Loop and Veep under his belt, uses such a limited time frame to its full effect, making every single day that passes weigh double. We, the audience, begin to feel the pressure that our protagonists feel as the mourning nation awaits a new leader and a functioning state of things. In this case, time-related pressure leads our political protagonists such as Beria, Khrushchev and Malenkov to the most hilarious and extreme situations in order to gain advantage over one another. And while he’s at it, Ianucci does not deviate from historical accuracy; Beria’s reign of terror following Stalin’s death as he sided with the new interim Premier, Malenkov, and the coup that resulted in Beria’s trial are all in here, but instead of stretching the time frame to realistic proportions, Ianucci compresses it to increase the unpredictability of our characters’ actions.

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Beria whispering sweet nothings into the dead leader’s ear.

Second point: well-crafted characters go a long way in satire. Even if the cast of characters is big, their depth matters, a lot. Think of Dr. Strangelove and the characters that inhabit the Cold-War inspired cartoonish universe of Kubrick’s imagination. Although there’s plenty of clichés within each one of them, Kubrick’s characters are lively and recognizable, be it the bomber crew lead by the Southern major King Kong, or the war room’s team composed of the vulgar and patriotic General Buck Turgidson, the vulnerable and confused President Muffley and the neurotic and sociopathic Dr. Strangelove. The key element of these characters is that they are unique and memorable. Obviously, when you are dealing with real life characters, things get tougher for a writer and filmmaker. But satire is meant to take life by its horns, and tame it, twisting it around as anything goes and rules can be broken. The Death of Stalin does exactly this. With little to no evidence of the personality of the likes of Beria, Khrushchev, Malenkov, Molotov or Stalin’s children, Vasily and Svetlana, Ianucci has a free range of possibilities, a writer’s dream-induced playground. Beria becomes a savage, power-hungry monster, Malenkov is a blabbering idiotic yes-man, Khrushchev a rational, ambitious leader, Molotov a naive, indoctrinated child, the little Stalins spoiled, terrified brats that will do anything to keep their family name alive. The cast of characters is much larger, but the point stays; the audience is aware of each character’s traits, and therefore, has a vague idea of what to expect, especially in a race of who’s going to be the next Soviet leader.

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The hilarious Central Committee of power-hungry idiots.

What does Vice do instead? Nothing. McKay limits himself to paper-thin, Wikipedia information about real life characters, including Cheney himself, his wife, Bush Jr., Donald Rumsfeld, and more of the American crème de la crème.
And here’s also where time frames and character depth collide. By extending the time frame, stretching it over 40-50 years, McKay is forced to introduce an endless number of minor characters along the way, preventing our most relevant ones to make any sort of progress in the viewer’s eye, limiting them to their physical presence. And that’s the main problem. Christian Bale’s depiction of Cheney never goes beyond its physical characteristics put forth by some excellent make-up. His beer belly, the balding scalp, the imposing, towering figure are the only memorable elements of an otherwise undercooked protagonist. Look, we get it: Cheney was a mysterious, heavily scrutinized political actor who for the most part of his life tried to stay away from the cameras, sticking to the more ‘undercover’ side of American politics. But so were Beria, Malenkov, Khruschev. Instead of going all out and actually having some fun with his protagonists, McKay seems intimidated by the stained legacy of the Cheneys and Bushes. However, satire, dear McKay, is supposed to tear these legacies apart.
Did Chaplin hesitate when he made fun of Mussolini and Hitler as the bloodiest conflict of the century was reaching its second year? 

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Bale’s Cheney and Rockwell’s Bush Jr. reduced to cartoonish proportions.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, satire is all about critique and provoking the audience. Just as the Truman Show did with its final scene that included a clear breaking of the fourth-wall as Jim Carrey stared into the camera and said; ”In case I don’t see you, good afternoon, good evening and good night,” laughing in the face of the all-powerful eye, satire, at the end of the day, is about making a statement that speaks to us, so that we, the audience members, can go home, think about it, and come to the conclusion, that yes, indeed, we have learned something, something valuable and relevant for our time. In the case of The Death of Stalin we are left with a shot of Khrushchev sitting in a theater audience as the main leader of the Soviet Union, with Brezhnev sitting a couple of rows behind looking on and smiling, as if to say that this vicious cycle of power struggle is going to continue, that the war between egos is endless and the victims of it are always the poorest members in the audience, the civilians that shed blood, the ones that have to sacrifice their livelihoods for these ego wars to continue. Meanwhile, after two-hours of chaotic editing, intertwining story-lines, odd freeze frames and misplaced voice-overs, Vice comes to a point where the only solution to end this mess is to have Bale’s Cheney address the audience face-to-face, have him staring into the camera, justifying his own actions in the name of America’s safety and common good. To what effect? Here’s a movie that tells the story of this monstrous villain, responsible for the US involvement in Iraq, for bombing millions of innocent people, for torturing and keeping these torture practices secret in Guantanamo, for signing deals that benefited the elite instead of regular citizens, and somehow manages to end in such a way that allows this man to justify himself, thus going against its own initiative.

While The Death of Stalin shows the repercussions of evil, Vice shows the glamor of it. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is not only bad satire. That is bad filmmaking.

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Laugh in the face of evil.