Monday, May 30, 2011

All About Eve (1950)

"Fasten your seat belts. It's going to be a bumpy night!"

I find it rather odd that this is the most famous line from Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s renowned drama about an ambitious, conniving ingĂ©nue who infiltrates the circle surrounding a famous actress and proceeds to back-stab her way to the top. Certainly no other line is delivered with such striking panache as this one: the character of Margo Channing, an aging actress played by Bette Davis, flings it fiercely over her shoulder to her crowd of edgy friends at the famous cocktail-party scene—in an atmosphere so tense one of them describes it as “Macbeth-ish.” But the screenplay is rife with a hundred other equally memorable lines. For instance, take the following:

"The theater is all the religions of the world rolled into one," says Margo to her director and boyfriend Bill Sampson, "And we are its gods and goddesses."

That one line can be used as the key to understanding the claustrophobic world of the theater which is the focus of All About Eve. It's a film about the errors and egos of people in the theater, the behind-the-curtain politics of rising stardom; and ultimately, it is about the difference between image and identity.

Young Eve Harrington (played by Ann Baxter) is, to all appearances, as sweet and innocent as they come. But she has a near-neurotic desire to get to the top of the acting world, and gives the performance of her life to do it, by ingratiating herself with the famous but 40-year-old Margo Channing and her friends, and quietly making herself completely indispensable. Although Margo and most of her friends initially fall for the facade, one by one they begin to see through Eve's disguise, but not before she has sent irreparable earthquakes through their world on her way to the top.

The surrounding characters are unforgettable members of the theater world: they all wear a sort of mask, either with each other or with themselves. They each either do not really know themselves or are lacking in true knowledge and judgment of others. Their relationships have the passion of a religion--loyalties and devotions to the theater or to each other--but they often are confused about what or who they are loving, or what the best way to love is. Margo is the prime example; she is fiercely jealous of Eve, as she sees the younger, better actress quickly usurping her position both on and off stage. Her jealousy eventually cools when she begins to recognize her own real problem: she is uncertain of her identity. At one point, she asks her friend Karen Richards (Celeste Holm) in a moment of soul-searching: "Who is Margo Channing?" The result of her insecurity is border-line alcoholism, petty jealousies and bitter arguments with those she loves best.

But she's a step ahead of the other characters in that she begins to see her problem. "Funny business, a woman's career," Margo remarks to Karen, "the things you drop on your way up the ladder so you can move faster. You forget you'll need them again when you get back to being a woman. That's one career all females have in common, whether we like it or not: being a woman. Sooner or later, we've got to work at it, no matter how many other careers we've had or wanted. "

Margo is a "goddess" of the theater, but she is not essentially a "body with a voice" that projects human emotion, concentrated and amplified, on a stage. She is essentially a human person, and she wants to be loved for who she is, not for the image of who she is--not for what people see on the stage or what she sees in the mirror. When we first see Margo, she is busying herself in front of a mirror; if Eve's conniving did one good thing, it was to draw Margo's eyes away from the mirror long enough to see herself for who she really is, and to realize what she really wants from life.

Of all the masks worn in the film, the most convincing is Eve's. Eve has sacrificed her real identity for a made-up name and image which she can use to get the glory and fame she so desires. She never lets this mask drop unless forced to--never lets a soul see the insatiable thirst for adulation and stardom underneath. Baxter's performance is strangely intense and perhaps deliberately melodramatic: her sweetness is almost too sweet, her overtures too poetic and emotional. The effect is to make her lies and back-stabbing and heartless ambition all the more of a contrast with her external character. And when her mask is finally ripped off, it is the same effect as that given when the final piece is slipped into place in a jigsaw puzzle. It fits. It all suddenly makes sense.

It is somehow all the more fitting because the character who rips away her mask is not a righteous character. It's another villain: Addison DeWitt, a theater critic, who is just as heartless and cynical and vicious as Eve. DeWitt's presence throughout the film, as a witty and laconic side-figure who helped boost Eve to the top, also suddenly falls into its proper place when he is the one to administer justice. He has his own mask, but in exposing Eve's, he lets his drop a little, too. He has a strange Mephistophelian charm, a cruel self-confidence; so when he blackmails Eve into doing his will, it feels as though the devil has just coolly demanded the payment of his contract--one soul in exchange for the world. At the same time, DeWitt is quite aware of his own vices and has no desire to change them. "That I should want you at all suddenly strikes me as the height of improbability," he tells Eve, "But that in itself is probably the reason: You're an improbable person, Eve, and so am I. We have that in common. Also our contempt for humanity and inability to love and be loved, insatiable ambition, and talent. We deserve each other."

Indeed they do; suffering with the reality of their own ugly identity is the self-imposed wages of their sins. That is why both Eve and DeWitt are present again at the ominous final scene of the film, when a young and pretty high-schooler with the pseudonym Phoebe quietly ingratiates herself with a now-apathetic Eve by offering the weary actress assistance. In a perfectly brilliant moment of cinematography, the girl sneaks into Eve's bedroom, tries on her fancy coat, and stands before Eve's tri-paneled mirror holding an acting award. The camera zooms in to see it from the girl's perspective--a thousand images of herself triple-reflected in the mirror, extending into dim infinity. This one shot encapsulates the whole point of All About Eve, and its message is clear: she too is a devotee of the religion of the theater, and to become someday one of its "goddesses," she will not think twice about sacrificing her real identity to a "graven image" of herself.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

John Wayne (and why we love movies)

May 26th was the birthday of one of the greatest stars that ever graced the silver or Technicolor screen: John Wayne, the Duke, the quintessential cowboy, who was once every little boy’s idol. The Duke was one of the last of the generation of actors who had risen from obscurity to stardom at the same time that cinema was still developing its place in the heart of American entertainment, and morphing from a comparatively low-budget business into a lucrative multi-million dollar enterprise. He acted in over 100 films, mostly westerns and war films; some were mediocre, some downright bad, and some cinematic masterpieces crafted by director John Ford: Stagecoach, She Wore A Yellow Ribbon, The Quiet Man, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. To this day, more than 30 years after his death of cancer, John Wayne has an enduring fan-base of movie-lovers who crowd around the TV on his birthday to watch different networks pay their tribute to the legendary icon of American film by playing his movies.

What makes actors like John Wayne so beloved of American audiences? Why do people with vocations that are arguably far more important to the community—policemen, cooks, airplane pilots, engineers, waitresses, manual laborers—tend to admire and even idolize someone who spent his life . . . well, pretending to be other people, people like them? This phenomenon has only mushroomed with the passing of time; Johnny Depp, for instance, could easily be considered more popular and well-known than any politician, writer, or any other public figure of our day.

Sometimes the reason for all this may be attributed to complicated social factors, but it really boils down to this: good actors are beloved by ordinary folks for the simple reason that they satisfy a deep-seated longing in the human psyche to be or do certain things they never can. Aristotle once said that the reason we love the theater—to watch other peoples’ tragedies and comedies acted out before us—is because seeing such dramas “purges”—or relieves—us of the emotions of pity and fear. A recent study showed that Botox, which paralyzes the muscles of the face to prevent wrinkles, can inhibit a person’s ability to read and respond to the emotions of others, because part of the way a person’s brain discerns and empathizes with the emotions on the face of another is by mirroring those emotions on its own face. This is why the faces of an audience of a movie or stage play will often bear the same facial expression as the actor they are watching—will frown, or look sorrowful or frightened, or smile roguishly when he does.

When we watch an actor with a common man persona, like John Wayne, do something good and honorable and admirable, we feel as though we could do it, too—we feel as if we almost are doing it. At the same time, when an actor gives a good performance in a tragedy, we can see—and interiorize—what it feels like to do something horrible or have something horrible done to us. Through the actor, we vicariously can out-shoot a villain in a dusty Western town, or fall madly in love in the hills of Ireland, or have adventures on the high seas, or die fighting for our country. Somehow, if he can do it, so can we. We can live a thousand lives, make a lifetime’s worth of mistakes, be satisfied with a surfeit of happy endings—and learn a thousand lessons. And that’s why John Wayne is still popular, still loved and admired by people like you and I, who can settle down in front of our televisions to watch the Duke at his best, pretending to do the things we all wish we could do.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

The Bonfire

The road to the professor’s farmhouse looked much different in the soft, bright twilight of late spring than it had in the chill darkness of mid-December. The first wild bursts of spring had past, and the landscape had calmed down into the quiet existence of a mild summer: the trees were full of thick, green foliage and there were bright spots of wildflowers along the twisting road. We were so distracted by the lovely scenery we nearly missed our turn “before the brown fence posts,” as the directions said.

We had both been in eager anticipation, all afternoon, to join the “little end-of-the-year bonfire” to which our professor had invited us. On my part, I confess I was a little too proud of being on the guest list; he had said that it was not a party for the whole campus, which made me feel privileged for being invited. “It will be,” I thought to myself, “a delightful, quiet evening with just those students he wanted to invite.” In a way, I was right; but it was not exactly as I expected.

Although we were technically ten minutes late, according to the time he had specified, we were the first pair to arrive; so with distinctive Southern courtesy he seated us on his front porch and let us chat with his mischievous little daughter. Then, he came out and spoke with us for a short time; but it was not long before the other guests began to arrive, and we soon moved to the backyard to gather wood for a bonfire, play on his rope swing, toss bean bags, or just talk with one another.

I had, as I have said, anticipated a certain group of people coming—the sort of students I admired and knew fairly well. Yet, as car after car pulled up the gravel drive, I was surprised—at first mildly, gradually more so—at who else had been invited. There were very many of those whom I had expected would come; there were also many whom I had not anticipated seeing: misfits, outgoing personalities and shy folks—both alumni and students, those successful and those less so, those I had expected and those I had not all mingling together around our professor. Throughout the evening, as more people gradually arrived, it invariably gave me pause to see who joined the steadily-growing ring around the fire the professor was stirring into a strong and steady flame.

As the cool shades of the evening slowly descended round about us, we settled in with treats—s’mores, popcorn, pie, cookie-bars—and began to sing in rounds. “O how lovely is the evening . . . Jubilate Deo . . . Away, away . . . Dominus tecum . . . yet will I be merry . . . ” Then, we listened to his reading of “On the Mowing of a Field,” by Hilaire Belloc. It was incredibly peaceful, to sit beside a roaring bonfire, a few diamond-point stars overhead, and the night breezes gently stirring the trees around us, and simply listen to the pastoral scene painted by that writer, who always seems to speak of tradition, of eternity, of what is lasting and what is passing, and the steady, solid, common things that—thank God—fill most of the journey of our days, between milestones of tragedy and joy.

When the story was finished, there was the sweetest, most beautiful pause, a marvelous silence. Then we entered a long and passionate discussion, involving all of us, ringed round the blaze: about joy and suffering, active and contemplative prayer, plans for the future, God’s presence in scripture, and the mysterious workings of His providence. The professor asked the graduating seniors to share a brief insight and all of them—even those of whom I least expected it—had something profound and poignant to share.

In both that sweet moment of silence and in the subsequent discussion, I suddenly perceived the strange miracle of that gathering. We were of all sorts; not merely of different classes, but of different opinions, personalities, and vocations. There were people round that fire who seldom would be together in the course of ordinary life; even those whom I knew disliked each other, or who generally avoided social gatherings, were all united that evening. He had specifically asked each person; had seen something in each one of us, even when we couldn’t see it ourselves, that made our presence there wanted and somehow fitting. It reminded me of nothing so much as the similar gathering around Christ—Pharisees, tax collectors, fishermen, and prostitutes. We were gathered around something eternal: communion. It was not just our teacher himself that drew us, it was what he represented and what he sought for us—the pursuit of God; because of that, the goodness in him truly drew out the best in each one of us. He can see Christ in all of us, and enables us to see it, too.

There may be some symbolic providence in the fact that often, when I have seen the philosophy professor in his “natural setting,” at home, outside the classroom or the office, he always seems to be lighting fires. It isn’t a simple task; it is a craft, one he seems to have mastered, which takes a special knowledge and a kind of skill. What he does with a few sparks and a little kindling, he seems to do with the people he gathers around him. He is lighting sparks, blowing on the embers, encouraging the little flames to rise and burn, planting seeds of fire that may someday burst into flame. We can’t be in college forever; we have a few short years here and then we step out into the great, grand world and will face the drudgery of the workplace or the household. But hopefully, by the time we leave, we will be like a “brand snatched from the burning,” (Zech. 3:2)—on fire, and fervent enough, wise and willing enough, to light sparks of our own, and live zealously for the Lord.