Saturday, January 06, 2007

"DON'T LOOK NOW" Reconsidered

A night or so ago I was sittiing reading when a red spot came through my window and traced around the room. My first impulse was to hit the floor. (The postmaster suggested that my second impulse should have been to wonder whether I could get back up again!) Then I realized that probably kids had gotten a laser of some sort for Christmas and were trying it out on the sparkly tinsel in my window. Or... it could have been laser sights on a gun someone got for Christmas.

In the end I decided I’d been watching too many scary movies in the evening, so I watched my “Anne of Green Gables” and “Tales of Avonlea” tapes to restore my sense of idyllic community. Today the DVD of “Don’t Look Now” came and I watched it. Those who have seen it will know that there is a sort of little red riding hood motif, extended into red blood, and it will probably take a few more nights of “Green Gables” to damp down my startle reactions again.

I wanted to see the movie because plainly “The Train Station Man” was meant to remind the viewer in some way of the 1973 rather notorious pairing of Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland. A choreographed scene of naked love-making between the actors was so intense that the rumor went around that they went “all the way,” as teens would say. Well, in 1973 they might have said that. (The actors claim they didn’t -- well, maybe technically. They are plainly aroused.) The naked shots are interleaved with scenes of the two people dressing separately afterwards, quite solitary though in the same hotel suite. Unexpectedly, the effect of dressing separately is to intensify the sexual entanglement. Strange that movies often almost ritualistically show lovers undressing each other, but I can’t remember any that show two people, even married people, dressing each other, much less as they do here, almost enrobing as they choose and enter their clothing.

A person has to fight to get sense out of this movie but in many other movies made since, one will have to push memories of it away. The writers and directors are clearly haunted: it has become a classic text. The key plot idea is simply that a couple has a little girl who drowns. They react in quite different ways. The rest of the story is a labyrinth of grace and dread. The Sutherland character is restoring a church, which he complains is itself partly faked. Two strange sisters appear, one of them blind but a “seer.” She “sees” the dead girl, much to the relief of the Julie Christie character. We are playing out here faith against reason in the context of a crumbling church overseen by a bishop who is compassionate but not very effective.

The movie, based on one of those spooky, “gas-lighting” stories by Daphne du Maurier, is packed with symbolic images, reiterations, echoes, irrelevancies. The main character, brilliantly exploited, is Venice, which one character describes as a “city preserved in aspic after a party when everyone has gone home.” In another place the same character says that because she is blind (albeit with second sight), the ancient canals, stairs, walkways, bridges are all safer than an ordinary place, because she can tell where she is by the echoes. Her sister cannot interpret them. Water and simulations of water abound.

The Julie Christie character is childish, all emotions and questions. The Bishop asks her if she is Christian and she says, “Well, I try to be kind to children and small animals.” She ain’t no thinker. The Bishop may be in sympathy. His tiny sleeping chamber has a sweet little painting of Jesus and lambs. But his work appears to have to do with the granting of divorces.

On the other hand, the Sutherland character is not that lovable either. The most appealing characters in the movie for me were the Italian workmen -- I think they are meant to be the “normal” background for what I interpret as an argument between faith and reason. When the “reason” figure, Sutherland, literally faces a huge heavy gargoyle figure being perilously replaced, we see the resemblance. The history of thought is not pretty.

Later the footing goes out from under him and he becomes a “dangling man.” It used to be that one went to college to learn such references, but nowadays Google is faster. The review below is from the Saul Bellow website:
“Baim, Joseph. "Escape from Intellection: Saul Bellow's Dangling Man." N University Review [Kansas City] 37 (Autumn 1970): 28–34.

"Sees Bellow is neither an intellectual nor a Jewish humanistic writer, but a mystical one who constantly encourages his heroes to escape history and "break the spirit's sleep" by refusing to see the Self as merely the product of its own historical past. In DM the hero finally rejects intellect and static definitions of the past as sole definitions of self. Joseph see-saws between reason and nihilism and finally experiences illumination through an intuitive experience that only comes when intellectual responses become impossible.”

So this is a highly intellectual “cinema as text” with Sutherland as the pivot. Maybe this is why Julie Christie, for all her attractions, strikes me as little more than a cocker spaniel in this story. And maybe “The Train Station Man”-- in which Sutherland plays a character mutilated, embittered, intent on a useless restoration of a train station when trains are obsolete -- restores Christie’s character's intuitive, sensuous, simple acceptance as a higher value. The background here is not the human church but the baptizing sea. Christie is not a neurotic and credulous onlooker, but an active creator herself.

But I doubt that more than a handful of people will see these movies on this “high concept” plane. More likely they just feel the spookiness and confusion of it all. The ability of a movie to juxtapose and otherwise manage timing, ambiguity, suggestiveness, is very powerful -- pushing the human brain’s deep need to see patterns and logical relationships by teasing and contradicting, then suddenly becoming explicit.

Don’t Look Now” is often compared to “The Exorcist” which I haven’t seen but which is horror movie involving the church and a little girl that was made about the same time. I was more interested to compare it with “The Village,” a recent film about what seems to be an idyllic small rural community, like a Mennonite community, where people who get out of step are mowed down by a red-caped lurker with huge claws. A blind girl and her cohort defy this creature out of a need to grow and explore. The real secret is finally revealed: this is not a village created by natural forces, but a deliberate avoidance of the real, modern, hustling world of the “outside.” I take this as a statement about religious community where people hide rather than addressing our often horrific times.

It is fascinating that a population that cannot discuss religious issues rationally or politically, will nevertheless accept being confronted with powerful and subtle arguments presented by image and character. Even the lovemaking, which has considerable beauty, is a short poem about how humans are at once bonded and alienated in an entwinement of flesh, a issue so deep that people pretend they don’t notice. “Don’t Look Now.” Ignore that red spot. It might be blood. Yours.

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