“Heights”, an Indie movie (albeit Merchant/Ivory) about young people trying to get to the top in the arts in Manhattan, was developed and shot by young people actually in the struggle. Originally it was a one-act play about interaction among three people: a young woman photographer who is getting married but has doubts, a young male lawyer who is marrying the young woman in order to have a “normal” life (he’s gay and evidently doesn’t think that’s normal), but also loves a young male actor who is gay and that’s his norm. The triangle confronts, realizes, and resolves in one scene on the roof of their apartment building.
This kernel was lifted out of the hands of Amy Fox, the playwright, and expanded into a movie by the director, Chris Terrio, with participation by the actors through discussion and improvisation, particularly from Glenn Close, cast as the mother of the photographer. She takes the show away from the youngsters without excluding them. Many of the actors were from the same circles (two young men had been Close’s “sons” in “The Lion in Winter”) and all the places were familiar to them. In essence, this is a movie about their own lives as presented by themselves reflecting on their lives. They are extremely privileged, emotionally stripped in order to do their work, mostly held together by circumstances: work, friends, social pressure, and -- with luck -- mutually cherishing relationships. The young ones are very beautiful, not particularly expressive, reactors, unformed. There are a lot of potential dark shadows here that are not explored: go read about Mapplethorpe.
This is a world that I’ve revolved around at a distance, first as a classmate (these are mostly college-educated characters) and later as one of the older onlookers -- always outside -- sometimes a rescuer, a consoler, simply continuity, or sometimes I’m thrown out. It seems to me that when my “crowd” was young -- so voluntarily ecorchée, supersensitive to everything -- we weren’t so skinny. Those were the days of early Marilyn Monroe when a little flesh was valued. Of course, we also over-reacted and over-acted a lot more. It was the style, though we were deep into all the same mostly foreign movies that influenced Terrio. He talks “craft jargon” a lot: camera on sticks, bounce lighting, the uses of split screen, the French film implications of one door closing jump-cutting to a second one opening and so on. In the voice-over he identifies scene after scene as an homage or in-joke. I got most of them, thanks to NU and Netflix.
In the Northwestern days we talked intensely all the time about what-is-talent, the need for self-discipline, who was truly great. No one lived as well as these people in the movie. I don’t mean the supposed Glenn Close apartment in the Richard Meier glass skyscraper. Few of us had enough resources to live as couples or alone. We were more like the contemporary dance films where the corps de ballet bivouac on each other’s floors.
When I got to Browning in 1961, the talk -- now about Western art -- was not so different, but at ground level. No one was at the social (or architectural) heights of the people in this film story. The glamour on the rez is quite different -- the shadows more obvious -- but people who came through from the Broadway or Hollywood worlds never really saw it. We were just ethnic novelties to them.
On the other hand, “Heights” hints that one source of reality and an escape from this hermetic, compressed little world is social action, taking one’s camera into dangerous foreign territories, rather than just flying over. As I listened to the director talk on the voice-over (Glenn Close was there but didn’t get to say much), I wondered how much of the actual content was pretty unconscious even to Terrio. Towards the end of the film the outsider character from Wales kicks in a roof door and discovers an ancient wooden water tank that supplies the building, still dripping in a cathedral vault of brick. Any Jungian would smile, but the director claims it was just there and interesting.
Many of the shots are on rooftops with people balanced precariously on the parapets or even at the top of high staircases, perched on bannisters, but no one falls. No one worries about falling. No one threatens to jump. When I went google-hunting for acting classmates at NU at the turn of the Fifties into the Sixties, I found one -- Ron Dobrin -- who evidently went off the top of a tall building. Possibly on purpose. Just a terse obit. My most vivid memory of him was when a group of us went down to Rush Street to see Jean Cocteau’s “La Belle et le Beast” and were so moved that we walked home along the lake. (Miles!) Much of the time we were shadowed by the police. Some of the time we were jumping along discarded tombstones used for riprap. Without drinking, we were all high on fantasy and singing. This movie is pretty controlled by comparison. Very urban. The shots of Manhattan are gorgeously luminous. No hint of danger until the end.
At some point in the last year or so I wrote a little riff about being onstage in an empty theatre with only one cleaning lady out there working among the rows of red seats. The point was that writing from a literary context (which someone suggests is mostly journalism, history, and analysis) is quite different from writing from theatre training, whether film or stage. One risk is over-reflexivity, where the mirror shows you watching yourself and behind you another mirror shows you watching yourself again until the infolding replications suck you down your own navel. The other risk is dissociation, schitzy splitting off into parts -- all quite authentic but dispersed. Both dangers affect not just the actors but also the directors and tech crews until reality -- always a little iffy anyhow -- is lost somewhere in the costume racks.
Pushing back against all the fabrication and rummaging is the Shakespearean “passion” that Glenn Close’s character advocates in the beginning of the film. The driving force of human aspiration can go wrong (“Macbeth”), but it is essential both to a play and to a real life. When that is captured by whatever art form, it will not become outdated. It is worth the pain of being ecorchée,