The Rear-View Mirror: The Dumb Waiter (1957)

Each Friday we travel back in time, one year at a time, for a look at some of the cultural goodies that may appear closer than they really are in The Rear-View Mirror. Join us on our weekly journey into the past!

GUS: What do we do if it’s a girl?
BEN: We do the same.
GUS: Exactly the same?
BEN: Exactly.

Pause.

GUS: We don’t do anything different?
BEN: We do exactly the same.
GUS: Oh.

GUS rises, and shivers.

Excuse me.

He exits through the door on the left. BEN remains sitting on the bed, still.
The lavatory chain is pulled once off left, but the lavatory does not flush.
Silence.

What a scorcher: bearing the brunt of Harold Pinter’s temper was one of life’s central experiences
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A tale of two movies

I like films that are cinematic, that show me images I wouldn’t see otherwise. I like directors who are audacious about their use of the camera and of editing. I like my movies not to look like TV fare. (I don’t like my TV fare to look like TV fare, for that matter.)

In spite of this, I very much like John Sayles’ movies. None of the ones I’ve seen so far are visually spectacular, although they’re definitely not drab. It’s more that Sayles clearly isn’t interested in David Lean-type filmmaking. As a matter of fact, his films don’t look like he’s trying to impress their audience. They seem, at first, unassuming little movies.

But, once you get into them, they pack a surprising punch. Much of this is down to the fact that they’re immensely political films, something not seen very often in American filmmaking. Certainly politics is often used as a backdrop for movies – how many thrillers or action movies get a kick out of putting the president in jeopardy? – but they’re not interested in politics, not really.

John Sayles

John Sayles’ films are, but they’re not of the finger-wagging, lecturing type. Clearly they’re mostly left-leaning in their politics – almost all of them are concerned with small communities being fundamentally changed by big business – but more than that, they don’t tell you what to think. They provide you with Sayles’ interpretation of facts, but you’re still the one who has to make up his or her mind.

Limbo, which we watched on Sunday, is a strange film. It starts very much like Sunshine State or Lone Star, depicting a small community undergoing changes, focusing on a small ensemble of characters… but about halfway into the movie, it turns into something else. There is a thriller element, just as there was to Lone Star, but what the second half of Limbo reminded me of more than anything else was Into the Wild (also see Roger Ebert’s comment on the movie). Sayles, whose focus on ensemble casts usually is almost as strong as Altman’s was, zooms in on the fate of three individuals in an exceptional situation. Yes, it ties in with earlier lines in the film about how Alaska is about to be turned into a themepark and how people want the illusion of danger – they want to feel at risk without actually being at risk -, turning these lines on their head, but in effect it feels like Sayles started making one film and decided half-way through that he’d rather make a very different film.

The net effect is strange but compelling. Ten minutes into the film, I thought I knew what to expect; one hour into the film I no longer knew where Sayles would take me, which was exciting and quite frightening. Anything, literally anything, could happen to these characters.

Limbo

And then came the ending. Absolutely fitting. And it felt like a punch in the stomach. Not because it was horrible or tragic or nasty. Because it was consistent to what had been set up. But, again, not the kind of thing you do if you want to impress or please your audience. I read that there’d been catcalls when the film was shown at festivals, and I understand why. But, the more I think about it, the more I feel that the “lady-or-the-tiger” ending was the only proper way to end the film.

But if I ever meet John Sayles, I’ll kick him in the shin.

 

P.S.: John Sayles is one of the consistently best writers for women, especially for middle-aged women, in American filmmaking. He should write for the stage…

A Prairie Home farewell

I’ve never quite warmed to Robert Altman, perhaps because 14 is too early an age to watch MASH, and I wasn’t enough of a film nerd (yet) when I saw The Player. Raymond Carver works better for me on the page than on the screen. Even if P.T. Anderson’s Magnolia was an adolescent Short Cuts on too much caffeine, it clicked for me. Altman’s films rarely did so. Yet I’ve always envied the old man his magnificent casts – you rarely get as many high-quality actors in the same film as in Altman’s ensemble pieces.

Robert Altman

When I heard of his latest – and, as it turned out, last – film, I was intrigued. I liked the cast, and what little I’d heard of Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion radio show (which the film was to be based on), I enjoyed for its whimsy and its gentle irony. (What is usually called irony these days is much closer to facile sarcasm, if you ask me.)

I wasn’t sure from the trailer, though: did this look like the sort of film I’d genuinely like, or was it rather the kind of movie that I felt I should like, and that I’d be too stubborn to admit to be somewhat boring, actually? As a well-meaning cinemaphile, I knew I was supposed to like Altman.

I ended up liking the film a lot. It’s impossible to watch A Prairie Home Companion and not think that Altman was close to death when he made it. Yet it’s not a sombre film. It’s melancholy and wistful, but it’s got a lightness that is quite fitting. Some critics felt it was too hokey and corny in its folksiness. I don’t think that’s quite fair. The film does express sorrow at the passing of a certain kind of radio variety show, and perhaps a certain kind of popular culture, but I think it’s quite aware that the culture it shows may be well past its sell-by date. If there is sorrow, it’s the sort of sorrow that comes with not wanting to let go, even if you know that you will have to. I think it should be permitted to an 81-year old to say: “I don’t want to go, not yet,” which is what the film felt like to me. It’s better to go out when things are still good than to fizzle and fade and vanish, yet bowing out when you wish you could do another show, and another, an eternal farewell, hurts. Altman conveys that pain with gentle, wry humour. I hope that his angel of death had “a smile so sweet you could have poured it on your pancakes.”