Sunday, October 14, 2007

Rest in Peace

You know how celebrity deaths seem to come in threes? After the July 30 double whammy of international director greats Michelangelo Antonioni and Ingmar Bergman, the other shoe dropped for me with the September death of classic Hollywood actress Jane Wyman. Here in these three artists was a mid-century cluster of craftsmanship and humanity, emotion and intellect.
I discovered Wyman when I watched her star with Rock Hudson in two of Douglas Sirk’s great films, Magnificent Obsession and All That Heaven Allows This was last year when I was on a Sirk kick after falling in love with Far From Heaven, a film inspired by All that Heaven Allows.
Far From Heaven pays homage to the meticulous mise en scene of Sirk, especially in regards to its emotive use of rich color, the precise movement of the actors and the architectural arrangement of figures and lines in the frame. Julianne Moore is gifted enough to follow Wyman’s lead without irony and fully live in the tightly mannered acting style . . . . But if I start talking about Far From Heaven, I need to compare Julianne Moore’s performance with her turn in Hayne’s Safe and then go on to Boogie Nights and Magnolia and we’ll be here all night . . .

A German expatriate, Sirk was a master of elaborate mise-en-scene in the service of “women’s pictures,” as these purple family melodramas were often called. Sirk made beautiful and swooningly emotional films, but in their day they didn’t receive the respect of more muscular 1950’s offerings – hard boiled noirs, war pictures, social issue films like On the Waterfront, Gentleman’s Agreement.

In both the Sirk films, the Wyman and Hudson characters fall in love, but are kept apart – in Heaven, by social strictures against their age differences, their social status. Wyman plays a widow with two grown children who oppose her relationship with her younger gardener. In Obsession, incredible plot devices separate the two – Hudson not only accidentally kills Wyman’s husband, but blinds her as well. It is only his rapid transformation from n’ere-do-well playboy to savior eye surgeon that can win her love.

In All That Heaven Allows, Sirk’s transformation of a studio backlot into rural New England through the seasons is a sight to see, especially in the sunlit winter scene when Wyman decides to return to her young lover’s home. She fails to hear Hudson call desperately to her from the cliff above! Hudson slips and falls from the cliff! He nearly dies but is nursed by the health by his love!

I suspect that viewers have one of two reactions to this level of melodrama – you either gasp at the audacity of this kind of thing or roll your eyes and turn the channel. I’m won over by Wyman’s eyes. Her bangs. Intense emotion kept at bay but revealed in those trembling lips.

Jane Wyman, 5 January 1917 – 10 September 2007

In another life, I showed Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries to seniors taking a World Lit course at a Chicago all-boys parochial school. The film worked beautifully for our thematic unit on “Young and Old,” which also included Edward Albee’s short play The Sandbox. Nostalgia visits the film’s elderly protagonist, played by Victor Sjostrom, but also surreal dread of death and meaninglessness.

Bergman’s unexpected mixing of the sweet and the harsh in Wild Strawberries is fascinating to me, and reminiscent of Maugham. The story unwinds as an elderly professor drives to accept a lifetime achievement award, revisiting his childhood home. Scenes of light loveliness alternate with pitch black - in one scene, the professor picks up some hitchhikers, including Bibi Andersson as a teenage blonde who laughs, chatters and delights in the high-pitched lilting clucks and lows of Swedish syllables. Then the car nearly collides with that of a desolate couple whose shockingly bitter argument seems to have landed like a rock through the window from another film entirely.

I came across Bergman’s The Virgin Spring on cable a while back. Within a few minutes, even before I discovered who was the director, it was clear a master storyteller was in charge. Purity and innocence destroyed, then brutally avenged. A story as old as time. Academy Award, best foreign film, 1961.

Ingmar Bergman, 14 July 1918 – 30 July 2007

Antonioni’s Red Desert? I remember the sound of it the most – a thick aural stew of anonymous industrial droning and pounding as lovely Monica Vitti wanders through a luridly colored wasteland of modernity . . .

And ah, Blow-Up. Such silly pop pleasures from a usually non-commercial artist. The mimes, the eerie silence in the park as David Hemmings shoots a love scene – or is it a murder?, Vanessa Redgrave laughing with no shirt on, The Yardbirds in concert. London at its frothiest.

Michelangelo Antonioni, 29 September 1912 – 30 July 2007

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