Sunday, January 23, 2011

Movies, Movies, Movies -- And A Few Plays

When I was searching for a clip of the "Mendacity" scene from "Cat on A Hot Tin Roof" the other day on the YouTubes, of course I ran across all kinds of juicy, melodramatic interludes from movies of yore. I got to thinking about how immersed I must have been in movies when I was little (though at the time I didn't think so), and I got to thinking about which ones made a lasting impression on me -- even thought I might not have known it at the time.

"Cat on A Hot Tin Roof" (1958) is the first Tennessee Williams film I remember seeing, and it made a huge impression on me. Not that I understood it. Nope, not a bit. What I saw, though, was incredible, wild people just tearing each other apart, wreckage of lives scattered everywhere, all in glorious color and spoken in a language that was literally poetry. It left me breathless.

That same year, 1958, there was another Southern Gothic melodrama starring Paul Newman called "The Long Hot Summer" that was nearly overwhelming in scope and sweat and fire. It was in Cinemascope, and absolutely saturated color, and was another extraordinary emotional roller coaster. Watching the clip, I actually had a visceral negative reaction to the character played by Anthony Franciosa, just as I did when I saw the picture so many years ago, and the barn burning scene is still searing. I haven't seen the picture since 1958, and yet there are parts of the trailer that can still get a rise out of me. Who says movies don't influence people in ways they aren't even aware of.

The entire James Dean oeuvre (1955-56) left another big impression on me. I was very young when I saw "Rebel Without A Cause," no more than seven years old, and it was fascinating, not just for the pumped up melodramatic story, but because it was filmed in Los Angeles in locations I recognized, and the climactic scene at Griffith Park Observatory felt so strange. I had been there not long before I saw the picture, and I couldn't for the life of me imagine how these horrible events could be taking place at that site. One of the things that happens when you're very young is that it is difficult to separate truth from illusion, and what a kid sees on a movie or television screen is in some sense "real" even when the frame and the screen tell you it's "make believe." Yes, make believe, but...

So imagine how "East of Eden" must have struck me. What I recall is that I didn't understand it. It wasn't visceral enough for me. Too cerebral, and yet there are so many scenes that stuck with me for years and years afterwards, especially Cal's complete frustration in trying to please his father. I may not have understood the picture, but I sure understood the emotion -- when it was there.

Oh, but then there was "Giant." Another of those super-saturated, wide screen melodrama-epics that was overwhelming in scope and raw emotion. It was another one I couldn't understand -- except for the feeling of it all. What's stayed with me are the visuals, especially the oil gushing and the flat, empty plains of Texas. It was strange. I was familiar with "oil" as I'd lived my early childhood in Santa Barbara County oil country, and there were wells all over Los Angeles County when I lived there, though none of them I knew of were gushers. The flat, empty plain was something else again. That was something I don't recall ever seeing before, at least not as starkly as limned in the movie. And yet even now, I'm strangely drawn to that kind of landscape. Interesting.

Another one that made a lasting impression was "The High and the Mighty," (1954) which I saw for the first time again last year. I was struck by how much of it had stayed with me all these years. It was all very glamorous and exciting, scary and funny at the same time. At yet I was only six year old when I saw it the first -- and until last year -- the only time.

One of the first plays I produced independently was Tennessee Williams' "The Two-Character Play," one of his more obscure works, to be sure, and one that he wrote when he was pretty fucked up on drugs, but an astonishing piece of theater just the same, with absolutely compelling characters in conditions that raise them well above the ordinary.

Williams has a whole raft of "obscure" works, all of them astonishing in their own right. Try "The Red Devil Battery Sign" sometime. I dare you. Our production was not the best, but... boy! Something to remember.

I do like Williams, and I like him because he knows what real drama is and he knows how to create true-life characters that are way bigger than life, and thus he knows how to move an audience as deeply and cathartically as any modern playwright has ever been able to do. Even as he himself became consumed with sex and drugs and liquor, he could still bring to life iconic, believable and strangely sympathetic characters that stand as some of the highest achievements of dramatic art.

As I was trolling for the "Mendacity" scene from "Cat" the other day, I came across a long clip from a production of the play at a small, non-professional theater outside of Chicago (the Circle Theatre) in 2009 that I thought was just brilliant. To see these characters created so well and so fully on such a tiny stage by actors who clearly understood who these characters were and how to communicate the depth of feeling and power Williams imbued them with was thrilling. So I'll close this post with that clip.


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