Tuesday, June 19, 2012

William Burroughs the man remains hidden within A Man Within

William S. Burroughs was gay. His decision to marry a woman may have been an attempt to cover his homosexuality, deny it, or overcome it. A Man Within, Yony Leyser’s documentary about the writer who influenced both the Beat Generation and the punk movement, gives no clue to Burroughs’ motives, only that a marriage took place and a son resulted from the union. The marriage ended tragically when Burroughs, in imitation of William Tell, tried to shoot a glass off his wife’s head and failed. He shot her, fatally, but never faced criminal charges. Leyser’s film doesn’t explain how he managed that either. Maybe it’s because he was an American in Mexico, or perhaps it had to do with his being heir to the Burroughs Adding Machine Company. Money talks, it’s true, but it also buys silence and inaction.

The tragedy was later cited as Burroughs’ inspiration to become a writer. Trauma and tragedy often light the spark of creativity. When life backs you into a corner, art is a way to fight your way out and exert some sense of control over your environment. Art gives power, or at least the illusion of power, to life’s helpless victims. As both a drug addict and a homosexual whose books include those titled Junky and Queer, Burroughs could qualify as a victim. He wasn’t a mainstream writer, although he was acknowledged by some who were, such as Norman Mailer who called Burroughs “the only American novelist living today who may conceivably be possessed by genius.” Of course, Mailer was a bit of an ass who also praised Jack Henry Abbott, the convict who fatally stabbed a waiter after his release from prison which Mailer helped engineer. Having once stabbed his wife, though not fatally, Mailer was no stranger to sharp utensils himself. The fact that Burroughs and Abbott carried their acts of violence to such an extreme may be what inspired Mailer’s admiration.

Burroughs’ status as a “great writer” owes more to his subject matter than the quality of his prose. Phrases like “Steely Dan,” “Soft Machine,” and “Blade Runner” made their way into popular culture via rock bands and movies, but did Donald Fagen read Burroughs or merely a review of a book in which “Steely Dan” was mentioned? Patti Smith, who appears in the film, may have read Burroughs, but it was the subject matter, its emphasis on the dark side of life that appealed to her. The punk rockers who adopted Burroughs as their spiritual godfather almost certainly didn’t read his books because most can’t read. They are poseurs. Give them a well-written piece of prose by a writer who isn’t decadent and they wouldn’t know what to make of it. Their interest is in the decadence, not the art that it may have inspired. Decadence is also the real subject of A Man Within. Burroughs is simply the filmmaker’s tour guide.

© 2012 Brian W. Fairbanks


Sunday, June 17, 2012

The Bad Seed: A good "bad" movie

The Bad Seed was one of the first movies aimed at an adult audience that I remember seeing and being impressed by before I reached adulthood myself. The 1956 drama about a heartless little girl who gets what she wants through murder frequently played on local television during the mid-‘60s when various early and late shows were ubiquitous around the dial. Rediscovering the film years later, I find that I still “like” it, but thanks to my sharper, more mature critical faculties, I am less impressed. The film was based on a stage play which itself was based on a book, and its Broadway origins are apparent under Mervyn LeRoy’s direction, but not in the way that typically hampers films adapted from the theater. The filmmaker’s most common mistake when transferring a play from stage to screen is to either “open it up,” an option that frequently dilutes the intimacy that makes a stage play effective, or to translate the work so faithfully that it fails to work as cinema. LeRoy avoids both mistakes, but makes another in directing his performers. He lets excellent players emote as if they’re still on stage, overemphasizing gestures and emotions to reach the audience in the balcony and at the back of the theater.

And some of those performers needed more guidance than they probably received. Patty McCormack as Rhoda conveys evil quite believably, as well as determination, but never conveys much of anything else, certainly not sincerity or even an attempt at it when hoodwinking the adults, all but one of whom too easily accepts that she’s a perfectly adorable little girl. She is nothing of the sort and anything adorable about her is so obviously contrived, so clearly meant for show, that the adults simply look stupid for accepting it.

Nancy Kelly as her mother, however, is quite convincing once she realizes her suspicions concerning this “bad seed” are warranted. She loses her composure effectively when, hearing the screams of the handyman whom Rhoda has casually set aflame, she prattles on incoherently, slams her hand on the table, portraying the woman’s mix of confusion, anger, and terror. She overdoes it a bit, and her performance is borderline annoying, but the blame probably belongs to LeRoy rather than Kelly.

Eileen Heckart, the great stage and film actress who was, like Kelly and McCormack, Oscar nominated for her work (and later won a golden guy for 1973's Butterflies are Free), does her best as the mother of a boy that Rhoda killed who has a drunken confrontation with Kelly, but her performance belongs on the stage, not the screen, and it suffers from a lack of restraint. Joan Croydon as the principal at Rhoda’s school, is as prim and proper as Margaret Hamilton in the Kansas prologue to The Wizard of Oz. She’s a caricature, not a character.

The only performance not hampered by LeRoy’s weak hand is Henry Jones whose leering custodian makes a perfect foil for Rhoda. He knows she’s not the sweet innocent that others believe her to be, but is genuinely shocked to discover she’s as evil as he teasingly tells her she is.

LeRoy may or may not be to blame for the preposterous finale. In the play, Rhoda’s mother gives her child a potentially fatal dose of sleeping pills just before placing a gun barrel to her head. The mother dies, but the child is saved to kill again. In the morally stultifying climate of 1956 Hollywood, Warner Bros. and the other major studios had to accommodate the censors who refused to approve a film in which a murderer does not pay for her crimes. Therefore, LeRoy tacked on an unbelievable climax in which nasty little Rhoda is blasted into eternity by a lightning bolt. Such a violent end for a little girl, even one as evil as Rhoda, was as disturbing to the movie industry’s mother hens as letting her off scot-free, so LeRoy made yet another foolish decision. Acknowledging the story’s theatrical roots, he brings the cast out to take their bows, then has a smiling Kelly administer a spanking to a laughing McCormack. “Anything for a howl,” sneered an unimpressed Bosley Crowther in The New York Times.

In modern times, The Bad Seed plays very much like camp. It’s entertaining, but it fails to be anything but a horror flick rather than the complex depiction of evil that I suspect its makers intended. The scene in the hospital toward the end in which Paul Fix (yes, that Paul Fix, who seems to have played either a doctor or a sheriff in every western ever made) asks the doctor if his daughter - the mother of the demon child - muttered anything while unconscious, plays like a sketch on Saturday Night Live mocking just such a cliched Hollywood moment. The doctor offers Fix a cigarette, and as they puff away the doctor’s pompous manner of speaking is matched by his equally pompous pronouncement that the “bad seed” theory is “pretty specious. . .”

© 2012 Brian W. Fairbanks