Google+ Cinema Viewfinder: Scenes from the Class Struggle in the Criterion Collection

Monday, December 10, 2012

Scenes from the Class Struggle in the Criterion Collection

by Tony Dayoub

Multiple viewings of a movie can not only yield varied interpretations but, more importantly, whether the film itself can stand up to such readings. When I watch a movie as many times as I've seen Rosemary's Baby (1968) I like to imagine a richer backstory for its characters than Roman Polanski might have deliberately threaded into the text. In reassessing Rosemary's Baby via its recent Criterion Blu-ray (released in October), I decided to entertain myself by watching malevolent-looking John Cassavetes' sly performance as the often ignored Guy Woodhouse, Rosemary's husband. Just as a rudimentary reading of the Bible might cast the Virgin Mary's husband Joseph in a relatively thankless part, so might one measure Guy, who is essentially meant to stay out of the way as a maybe-witches' coven ushers in their horrifying answer to the Messiah, the son of Satan. But what would motivate Guy to sell out and collaborate with the group in the first place? We might find some clues in some of Criterion's other recent releases.

Up until the advent of the New Hollywood in the late sixties, the major studios rarely addressed class differences so overtly in their pictures. But I'm struck at how prominent a role socio-economic class plays in Criterion's more recent releases, many from in and around this period. French director René Clément heightens the class inequality of Patricia Highsmith's antihero Tom Ripley in his 1960 adaptation of Purple Noon (Plein soleil). Though seemingly having all but sewn up the successful social climber competition by virtue of being blessed with Alain Delon's genetic material, Ripley still loses out when up against Maurice Ronet's Philippe Greenleaf. Both tan and blue-eyed hunks, all things are equal between the two in a purely physical sense. (Okay, the cinematic suspension of disbelief comes handy in this part as you try to ignore Delon's blinding beauty next to Ronet's more conventional matinee-idol handsomeness.) The only things Ripley covets are the advantages Greenleaf was lucky to inherit simply by virtue of being born into the right family: disposable income, time to spare, and a gorgeous, doll-like girlfriend. When Ripley looks longingly into Greenleaf's eyes then, it is not so much with ardor as it is with envy. Ripley is as sexually disinterested with Greenleaf as he is with the man's fiancee, Marge (Marie Laforêt). Ripley simply views Marge as yet another trophy to attain in his quest to become like Greenleaf: comfortable, justifiably amoral because of the rich's automatic remove from the rest of society, and free of concern in having to prove his personal worth to those he encounters. With sycophants like Ripley, Greenleaf doesn't have to prove his integrity or indeed anything at all, nor does his sleazier, fat pal, Freddy (Bill Kearns). Oh, but all the trouble Ripley must go through in order to even see such wish-attainment on the horizon: murder, forgery, fraud, identity theft. It's as if even to protect his newly acquired status Ripley must continue to resort to his prole attributes in order to just skate by.

Even more overt in his examination of class differences vis-à-vis cinema itself is Jean-Luc Godard in Week End (1967). Here, Godard places a bourgeois couple on an apocalyptic weekend journey into the French countryside, first through a traffic jam caused by a fatal accident, then into increasingly abstract and ominous situations like a highway riddled with flaming automobiles. Roland (Jean Yanne) and Corinne (Mireille Darc) have set out in order to ensure her dying father's will is changed to benefit them before the old man passes away. Godard spotlights their greed against a backdrop of obtuse puzzles to demonstrate their complete vapidity. An encounter with some Lewis Carroll-type characters spouting philosophy provokes utter rage in the couple who look for straight answers to life in favor of more nuanced interpretations. When Roland survives a fiery auto wreck, Corinne's screaming turns out to be for the Hermes-brand purse destroyed in the crash, not for her injured husband. Using eye-catching genre conventions and production design, Godard subversively makes equivalency between the dull protagonists and the stagnant state of film itself.

Italian communist filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini is only a bit less transparent in his Trilogy of Life, despite the outward classical literary trappings the three films conform to. Adapting three erotic (some might say bawdy) tales of considerable cultural importance, Pasolini finds easy excuses to inject social commentary favoring the naive, beautiful lower class he identifies with at the scatological expense of the conniving clergy and gentry that make up the ruling class. In The Decameron (1971), the first and grimiest of the three, Pasolini underlines the various ways the lower class is exploited by their rulers, whether its a priest fooling a man into allowing him to bugger his wife (by telling him it's a spell that will turn her into a work-horse) or a bit of entrapment in which a man is sent to burn at the stake (because he was caught with another man and couldn't pay the bribe required to free him). The Canterbury Tales (I racconti di Canterbury) (1972) is at once more fanciful and more judgemental, best exemplified in the film's final scene which depicts Hell as a place where defecating demons spew clergymen-turds from their buttocks before sodomizing them as punishment for years of promoting theistic myths that keep the lower classes at bay. The most simplistic in its beauty and its politics is Arabian Nights (Il fiore delle mille e una notte) (1974), which still manages to find something significant to say in its framing story about the slave, Zumurrud (Ines Pellegrini), that only allows herself to be sold to young Nur ed Din (Franco Merli), who she bankrolls. They fall in love but become separated when Nur ed Din gets outwitted by sneaky and egotistical merchants jealous that he ended up with the ravishing Zumurrud. Zumurrud ends up escaping her captors and hides in plain sight as a wealthy king, condemning all the men who came between her and her love. Eventually, it is Nur ed Din's unwillingness to conform to the rules governing the plebeian class that brings him for judgement before the king, reuniting him with his enchanting slave. Pasolini, like most European auteurs, puts class differences front and center in even his most innocuous film.

Is it any wonder then that it takes not only a European influence, but a European director himself working on his first American film to remind us of Hollywood's true aim in entertainment pre-American New Wave? Mainstream American films were meant to numb its audiences from the world outside, to entertain them past the clear signs of a breakdown in the establishment. As political figures were assassinated, civil rights figures slain, draft cards burned and alternate lifestyles began to gain greater prominence, it began more and more difficult to ignore such realities in modern American cinema. (Read Mark Harris' Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood for more on this.) So, like Godard, Polanski decided to highlight the consumerist America he now found himself in. In simply imagining Guy and Rosemary Woodhouse more in line with Cassavetes and Farrow themselves—him as a scrappy immigrant's son and her as a privileged bohemian daughter of professional artists—it becomes more apparent than ever how Polanski viewed the Woodhouses.

In subtext not out of line with what Rosemary's Baby presents, I imagine Guy having to change his ethnic name to something more generically WASP like Woodhouse in order to embark on his acting career. He marries up, to a blithe spirit like Rosemary. To appease Rosemary in the way someone from her circle is accustomed to, Guy feels like he must get the part in the big play; he must get Rosemary the apartment she wants in the upscale-on-the-outside, creepy-on-the-inside Bramford apartment building. When Guy comes home one day, he yells from another room, "I got that shirt from the New Yorker today" ...twice, in case her indifferent lack of a response means she didn't hear it. Guy feels like he must prove his worth to her and, indeed, all of their friends in order to keep her... artsy friends which he feels uncomfortable with as is apparent in the party they host midway through the film. Guy is much more at home snickering at the older, sephardic (they may be Catholic in the film, but Polanski cast most of the witches with Jewish actors) neighbors who host the film's New Year's Eve party, Roman and Minnie Castevet (Sidney Blackmer and Ruth Gordon). They might be cranks, but they're his kind of cranks. After Rosemary privately compliments the Castevets' beautiful silverware, Guy jokes, "If we're nice, maybe they'll will it to us." It's a joke that proves how susceptible Guy is to the deal that, in retrospect, it becomes apparent they offered him.

After having seen Rosemary's Baby so many times it is obvious where the demarcation point of Guy's betrayal sits. It's a brief moment, just after the Castevets have the Woodhouses over for dinner, and Guy and Rosemary briefly end up in separate rooms from each other with their respective older counterparts. Polanski stays with Rosemary, but when he returns to Guy one can see in his expression (pictured above) that he has just metaphorically sold his yet-to-be-conceived firstborn's soul to Roman in return for greater success as an actor. It's a moment of such blatant moral bankruptcy that one wonders whether Polanski or Cassavetes—as immigrant or son of immigrant, respectively—ever had to consider something comparable in their own climb up the American social ladder, where success speaks at a considerably higher volume than birthright.

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