Sunday, November 21, 2004

Heavy Weightlessness

John Huston’s The Misfits (1961) was the last film Marilyn Monroe ever made. She starred alongside Clark Gable(his last film as well- he died just weeks after its completion) and an intense Montgomery Clift in a film haunted by the turmoil and real-life demise of its stars.

The film, written by Arthur Miller, is (quite possibly) a suspended meditation on isolation - or at least people people going whacky because of it. The characters all inhabit the same geographic space but they never entirely connect either. They move around each other seeking something none of them can give to the other- though what it is they're seeking is never really all that clear. They're all drifters- either running away from something or desperately trying to find something they lost long ago.

It’s hard to disengage from the strong undercurrents of cultural mythology these actors still exhibit. (Clift, it’s true, is oddly ignored when it comes to the pantheon of great actors-even though his dramatic gifts were just as good, if not better, then that of a peer like Marlon Brando.) These cultural traces (or wakes) act alongside what we know about the films own history in the trajectory of its stars lives (Monroe’s marriage to Miller falling apart, her own suicide less then two years away, Gable to die just weeks after the films completion, Clift to die just a few years later of a heart attack at 45) to create an elegiac strain it probably didn’t possess when originally released in 1961.

It’s an uneven film, burdened at times by Miller’s compulsion to shade everything with meaning (everybody has Willy Loman baggage), but Huston was a terribly competent director, and with the caveat of knowing little about him and his methods, or having seen anywhere near his entire body of work, what films I have seen reveal a director with an acute sense of realism- starker, grittier and more organic then most of the Hollywood fare being produced in his heyday throughout the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s. There is nothing escapist about this film- it’s a brooding reflection on human interaction and our abilities and failings to connect or disengage, feel compassion for or contempt- and Huston keeps things from being lacquered on too thickly but, and here’s the catch- Miller’s script can’t keep up. Huston does a swell job keeping things humming along, and it’s fun watching Monroe (whose bordering chubby but still looking amazing) and wondering what drug she was on when she filmed a particular scene- and Clift is acting on another level altogether- all method acting intensity- while Gable is stately and crisp- but after a while you think- “Well, so what?"

The last half hour or so, with everybody up in the mountains hunting down wild horses for the glue factory is supposed to bring it all home for us. Monroe’s character, realizing that the freedom loving wild horses are being tied down and left to be slaughtered, freaks out. Really. She runs through the desert and screams and shouts and we see horses tied up, tipped over and left behind like useless clumps. And somehow this transforms the men. But why? Bosley Crowther, reviewing the film for the New York Times, wrote, “It has something to do with her sense of freedom. What, we wouldn’t know.” Huston’s direction is never any less then assured and frequently stunning. It’s Miller’s script that keeps grinding the gears.

It’s a paradox- so heavy it’s weightless.

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