Deciphering the Code of Cinema From the Center of Los Feliz by Peter Avellino
Saturday, December 31, 2016
The Next Thing That Happens
If this hasn’t been a year about death, about the end of everything we’ve ever known, I don’t know what it is. But the question is what to do once the world ends. That’s something I’ve been wondering a lot, the past few months especially. “I wish I’d been here then,” goes a line in THE MISFITS, that legendary film directed by John Huston and written by Arthur Miller. It refers to another time when things were allegedly better, when there were more possibilities on the horizon of that desert as far as the eye could see. The thing is that much of THE MISFITS is made up of such key lines, maybe what you’d expect from this particular playwright, exposing all his demons in a screenplay written specifically for his emotionally troubled wife, fraught with all the meaning in the world and whatever you want to read into it. It plays as if this dialogue wasn’t meant to be spoken in a film at all but in some sort of theater-cinema hybrid written to play out on the biggest stage ever created in the history of the world. As great as some of it might be THE MISFITS is a problematic film, just as it’s an extremely problematic world, a film with a legacy that has made it bigger than it was, almost as if it was designed to become that in the first place. If THE MISFITS falters, if it feels like the film turns down the wrong road at a certain point, in some ways that almost feels right and it’s a reminder of how often we go down the wrong road ourselves, trapped on our own path of forever searching for the wrong thing. It makes the film feel all the more true somehow, becoming a dream of what we wish for even if we can never quite put it into words. So much is a dream anyway. And there are no easy answers.
Released in early 1961, if THE MISFITS is remembered at all these days much of the reason is the history which surrounds it, particularly involving the legendary stars above the title who as things turned out didn’t live for much longer afterwards, eerily fitting for a film focused so much on death. Clark Gable, in particular, died mere weeks after completing work on it and Marilyn Monroe was gone less than two years later so the film could almost be read as being about the end of the Golden Age of Hollywood and everything it represents as much as John Ford’s THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE was. But shot out on location away from Hollywood it’s also about the end of all sorts of things--stardom, legend, love, dreams, America, the world and the small matter of life itself. Reading up on the production is a reminder that any history of THE MISFITS might be more interesting than the film itself due to Gable’s health, the fragile nature of Monroe’s state and the larger-than-life personality of its director—maybe this is the one they should have made a movie about instead of THE PRINCE AND THE SHOWGIRL. Even certain photographs taken of the actors on location manage to enshroud the entire production on the level of Myth. THE MISFITS is set entirely in Nevada—Reno, specifically—among people who have arrived there because they don’t belong anywhere else, just as the jigsaw pieces of the main titles don’t connect. But I’m not even sure how much that matters since even though the film was shot out on location it’s almost set in another place altogether, a stark black & white dimension where the stars aren’t acting these roles but were instead reincarnated into this alternate world and these are the lives they’re now leading, with the unavoidable shroud of fate always before them. As a story THE MISFITS may not be about as much as it appears to be at first but as a movie it’s almost about everything.
In Reno to finalize her divorce, Roslyn Tabor (Marilyn Monroe) is staying with best friend Isabelle Steers (Thelma Ritter) when she meets cowboy Gay Langland (Clark Gable) and his best friend Guido (Eli Wallach). Even though Guido was the one who met her first, Roslyn is clearly drawn to Gay and the two of them move in to Guido’s never-finished house together. Gay soon has an idea to head out to round up wild mustangs and they recruit another cowboy, Pierce Howland (Montgomery Clift) to join in. But things begin to change when Roslyn learns the reason why they’re trying to capture these horses in the first place, sparking an unavoidable conflict between her and the three men.
Years after they happen you remember moments. Those little moments you shared with a person and even after they’ve decided how much they hate you those moments are impossible to forget in the middle of the night, keeping a stranglehold as you try to make it until the next morning. In the end those little things mean more than anything else that’s happened in your life. Just as every single moment in THE MISFITS is swirling with import through each gesture and line of dialogue. At times the film feels so overwhelmed by itself that it loses track of what it wants to be, which itself makes a certain amount of sense because it’s about pieces that don’t entirely fit together. It’s as if Arthur Miller always had a focus on what his theme was while writing the script, he knew who he wanted to write about, but while fighting his way through the complex emotions of the characters too often lost track of where he was going with the story, focusing on moments over the actual plot particularly during the final half hour when it feels like some beats are repeated a few times too many. One of the leads even drops out of the film around the halfway mark, never to be seen again, instead becoming attached to another group where they may be just as much an odd one out, another piece of a jigsaw puzzle that doesn’t quite fit. There’s a goal the film seems to have about coming to some sort of peace with what you’ve lost, even if you’re not sure that you believe it for more than a moment, and that people are going to drop out of your life no matter what. Maybe none of those things ever mattered anyway. “Maybe all there really is is the next thing. The next thing that happens. Maybe you’re not supposed to remember anyone’s promises,” Marilyn’s character muses to Pierce, to herself, to no one at all. There’s nothing to ever be gained from depending on others. People leave. They’re going to wind up hating you. Everything ends.
The black & white look is harsh and the film feels free, undeniably modern even if it’s about people willingly stuck in the past. It’s easy to imagine another director of the time shooting this in color and CinemaScope, framing everything like the play that Miller may have imagined it as, more interested in the gimmick of the stars and the spectacular nature of the climax. Instead Huston uses his frame to capture the small moments, the intimacy and awkwardness of the characters together in the frame. One imagines him standing there directing the film, staring coldly at these characters with every ounce of compassion he never reveals to anyone else. The filmmaking never feels bolted down as a result even if it sometimes becomes an allegiance of words and imagery that doesn’t always go together smoothly. You can almost feel the struggle of whether THE MISFITS wants to be a director’s film or a writer’s film and considering all the dialogue which sounds like it’s meant to be played out on a stage it’s as if the frame is continually searching for its own proscenium arch but slightly missing it. Another version of THE MISFITS by another director might have been more normal, maybe even more palatable but Huston continually gets in so close it’s as if you’re drinking right next to them, not sure if you want to stay there or flee.
Every scene makes an impression on its own but the story is also too vague at times maybe a few too many rambling monologues by the characters during general drunkenness; like Rosalyn’s divorce present, it’s a beautiful car with barely any miles on it and a few noticeable dents. THE MISFITS is a very good film that clearly wants to be the greatest film—producer Frank Taylor even told a reporter for Time Magazine that it was an attempt to make “the ultimate motion picture”—and maybe its biggest flaw is that it falls short of that impossible goal. But in some ways the messiness is essential as if it loses track of itself in a drunken reverie and that certain amount of unreality becomes haunting, a coldness which balances out the character’s lack of direction with the harsh reality that rears its head unexpectedly. Moments feel important but it’s not always clear exactly why, with that jangly Alex North score making me feel uneasy. Some of Huston’s best directorial moments seem to come out of nowhere shot in an offhand way, almost before we realize they’ve happened like when Montgomery Clift enters the film late and we hold outside a phone booth as his cowboy heartbreakingly calls his mother on the phone or Gable bluntly lecturing Monroe about the importance of death. Even the famous paddleball scene which may be an attempt to give this film its own version of Marilyn standing over the subway grate in THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH almost feels kind of sad the longer it goes on as if the real Marilyn Monroe has somehow wound up in this two-bit Reno bar and all she has left is men grabbing her ass.
“Here’s to your life, Roslyn. I hope it goes on forever,” toasts Guido, played by Eli Wallach who of course nearly did live forever, unlike Marilyn. Arthur Miller wrote this for her and their marriage fell apart. Much of the film is about the impossibility of ever understanding her, Miller seeming to represent each of these three men splintered off trying to connect with her and only sometimes coming close. A more straightforward plot might not have bothered with the Montgomery Clift character, focusing on a strict Rosalyn-Gay-Guido triangle, but Clift brings a heart to it, a vulnerability as if he’s going to fall apart at any moment but deep down he’s stronger than the other two, facing the truth of where their lives are. So much of the film is just about studying the actors in the frame, like how soft the focus sometimes goes on Monroe, whatever the real world reasons were for this. It’s possible that she never got to play a fully fleshed out human being as much as she does here unlike a few of those Twentieth Century-Fox star vehicles that I’ve never been crazy about, even if in the context of this film she’s supposed to be something none of the others can ever pin down. When she dances with Eli Wallach the effect she gives off is almost startling as if Monroe is trying to keep herself from suddenly having another nervous breakdown while in the middle of a take, her own demons always at the forefront of her mind. The film often feels transmitted to us from another dimension, there’s an intensity it has which goes beyond simply what the material is.
After the visual intensity of the Mustang hunt, Monroe’s big speech near the end where she lets loose all of her fury on the three men is played with the actress far away from the camera, almost as if the film is keeping its own theme out of reach, never to be fully understood. Maybe Huston simply decided the moment didn’t play well in close-up, maybe it’s about how all these men are keeping this woman at a distance. “She’s crazy. They’re all crazy,” Guido says to dismiss her after she’s rejected him and that’s the easiest thing in the world to do, after all, to stop trying to understand them while waiting for them to understand you. Instead it’s easy to go after a phantom, like the mustangs they try to capture for dog food, so few horses there that it barely seems worth it, that the only thing they seem to know how to do barely even exists anymore. “Better than wages” is the phrase Gay repeats like a mantra as if he’s trying to convince himself, that it’s the only way to “just live”. In Reno you can eat whenever you want, own a bunch of clocks that don’t work and live in an unfinished house where you can live an unfinished life unlike the real world where you recite the way things never really were, like Rosalyn has to do at her divorce hearing. That’s the place where every man who meets Roslyn, who as far as we know is just Marilyn Monroe, instantly falls for her placing all their dreams and regrets on her face. Clift’s Pierce unloads the story of his life on her lying near a pile of empty beer cans and says he loves her only hours after the meet, something he may not remember the next day anyway. Guido, desperately trying to impress her, asks for her to say his name ultimately unable to hide his bitterness. Only Gay seems to know how to crack the code of her sadness while also challenging it with his own beliefs but it’s still tough to know how he’s going to hold onto her after the film ends.
The very last moment of the film is as famous as anything about it, feeling a little like it was always designed to end at this point but maybe rewrites of the scenes leading up to it causes the dialogue to play like the scene is reaching for a transcendent feel it doesn’t quite achieve. Of course it turned out to be the final screen moment of the two stars onscreen so in some way THE MISFITS was able to become what it wanted to be. It may not be the ultimate motion picture but even when the story loses track there’s not very much like it. The film is a code which can’t quite be cracked, just like Marilyn can’t quite be cracked and never will. It makes me question what matters and how we can connect with another person, if we ever really can. And how we go on living knowing what there is to come. It’s not about whether THE MISFITS is good or not but it is a film that I could watch five times this year, then five times next year and it will have a totally different effect on me, whether I’ve changed or not. I wonder if I will. The film, meanwhile, will still be a work of art. It just lives.
The performances are a reminder of how it’s a film deliberately trapped between eras, Clark Gable’s old school MGM experience up against the Actors Studio training of the other stars. Gable is phenomenal, his strength and vulnerability coming through in every line reading. Up against him, up against everyone, Monroe is otherworldly in displaying her innocent trust of everyone, smarter than any of them think but still lost and never thinking beyond the next thirty seconds. It matches perfectly with the sensitivity displayed by Montgomery Clift and the growing anger of Eli Wallach. Thelma Ritter brings a healthy dose of pragmatism, gladly seeing through everyone and enjoying herself. Kevin McCarthy briefly appears as Monroe’s husband with a fair amount of his miniscule screentime played looking at his back. It still gives us the idea that there could be a whole movie around that marriage and how he probably never understood her any more than anyone ever does.
“What if he died?” Rosalyn asks Gay right after Pierce is hurt at the rodeo. Well, we all know the answer to that already. THE MISFITS is a movie about death, one that seems to be all too aware of the inevitability deep down. So maybe there’s no happy ending here. Maybe there’s no happy ending anywhere as much as we can sometimes pretend otherwise. And if the film doesn’t always connect and if it doesn’t feel very satisfying after that last moment just like when you reach the end of a year you dwell on all those missed chances and all the times you found yourself staring at the wall, asking for help in a world where there’s no one around to listen. For me this has been a year of picking up shards of broken glass with my bare hands. And I think they’re going to get sharper next year. Until then, I’ll have to find another way to be alive once the world ends. If that’s possible.