Wednesday, April 23, 2008
Haunted by "Scandal"
I saw Scandal in 1989. It has stayed with me (haunted is perhaps a the more appropriate word) ever since. Clearly, as nearly twenty years later, I am compelled to write about it - the proof's in the pudding.
There are films that haunt us - for whatever reason - you just can't shake them; they linger for days, sometimes weeks. There's been a lot of these films for me, as a child, a teenager, an adult. I'm not referring to the type of impact Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, Horror of Dracula, Salem's Lot, The Exorcist, or other films I've written about manufacture. I'm referring to the sort of uneasy, lingering, queasy, haunting feelings that possess you in the wake of a profound cinematic experience. I'll come back to Scandal in a bit...
I think the first film that really did this to me was Sid and Nancy (1986) which I saw with a few friends at the local "art house" theater back in 86' (the same theater I saw Scandal in) and although it was one of the biggest downers I had ever seen, I was fascinated and blown away. Scenes replayed in my mind for days as I would try and drift off to bed, I'd try and think about something else, but the theme to Sid and Nancy (Taxi To Heaven by Pray for Rain) proved too grim a spectre (as a musical motif) and I just couldn't shake certain scenes - like the alley dumpster scene used for the poster, or the last, very haunting scene of the film. A few other examples? Well, I had a very hard time shaking Althea Flynt's death scene in The People Versus Larry Flynt (1996). Milos Forman does a masterful job orchestrating this scene. So masterful in fact that it unhinged me. It didn't help matters that he had Dvorák's Stabat Mater blaring - a very emotional piece. I'm still very moved by this film - I show it in 4 different classes that I teach.
Another film that took the tar outta me pretty good was Paul Thomas Anderson's Boogie Nights (1997). By about the time we start to intercut between Roller Girl getting her excessive revenge on that jack-ass from high-school and Dirk getting the shit kicked outta him for an assumption that he is a gay exhibitionist, I started to get a bit queasy. But, I'll tell ya, that was just the appetizer for the main course. By the time we get to the worst "drug deal gone bad" scenario probably ever committed to film - things got downright uncomfortable, and not just for Dirk, Todd and Reed. HOW uncomfortable Gene Rayburn? Well, not only was Dirk jumping with each and every firecracker Cosmo ("He's Chinese") threw, but I was too. And not only was I jumping, but almost everyone in the theater was jumping too. In fact, we were all, kinda sorta, leaning towards the rear exit theater doors. P.T. Anderson would have been PROUD. This is manipulation of the Hitchcock, Polanski order. I am in earnest readers - we were not only jumping but trying to get AWAY FROM THIS SCENE. If you didn't see it in the theater - you might have missed out on a serious cinematic experience. Have a look see:
And, eat your heart out LARA - P.T. Anderson's usage of Sister Christian, Jesse's Girl and 99 Red Balloons trumps anything I've seen Wes do (in my humble opinion, so nyaa!).
But, ya know, I've often said that for me the true heart of Boogie Nights is not Dirk, Reed, Rollergirl, Amber, Jack, or any other MAJOR character. The heart of the film is Don Cheadle's Buck Swope and Melora Walters' Jessie St. James. How wonderful their story is - I won't go into detail here, suffice it to say, for me they provide the heart and soul to this tale of societal misfits.
Now then, back to Scandal. This one bewitched me but good. And, the primary reason for this is this lovely lady:
Ah, The Lovely Joanne Whalley. Careful readers will note that my favorite gal of all time is Natalie Wood and that there is a strong resemblance between the two actresses. Well, in predictable fashion, I went (to quote Arthur Fonzerelli) Nutsy-Cuckoo over her and I still am nutsy for Joanne. I don't feel that she catapulted to a status that was commensurate with her talent. Joanne should have been huge - how rare a thing to have deep, dark beauty and serious acting chops. This combination is the most sought after prize in the industry - sad that it fails repeatedly at recognizing it (especially when it stares you in the face with large, dark, intelligent eyes). It's quite clear to me why Val Kilmer went crazy for her; their divorce after eight years and two children (those must be some good lookin' kids) was a sad affair.
Scandal was one of those rare, magical cinema experiences. Haunting? Yes. No question. Tense, dramatic, and potent. John Hurt's Dr. Stephen Ward is a particular highlight - he steals the film from everyone (except Joanne of course). His final scene is drenched in pathos - and his "love" for Christine (though unrequainted) is oddly "genuine." How odd their relationship is. They are as husband wife in many ways except for physical intimacy. There is an interesting tell - early in the film when Christine asks Stephen if he had ever been married, "Once, years ago, for about 20 minutes" he charmingly discloses. But, we see plainly that Stephen is not one for "ownership" - it is one of the oddest romances ever committed to film. How accurate it is - who can say? But I always get emotional when she admits that she loves Stephen, that he is the "only man she has ever loved" Beware men who think woman are playthings, your comeuppance will be fatal. But, it's Joanne's film and she turns in a star making performance, the one that shot her into international orbit. And how was she rewarded, after making the ten best lists of every major movie critic? I'll tell you how, two words... NAVY FUCKING SEALS! (right-o, that's three words). No offense to Michael Biehn or Charlie Sheen (two actors I admire), but Navy Seals is unbelievable horse-shit. I actually spent money to go see that film - - - FOR JOANNE. And she was relegated to a silly minor supporting role as a half-Lebanese, half-English reporter. Dear God... Okay, back to Scandal. I remember getting out of Scandal (I saw it alone) and driving around, havin' a few smokes and thinking (seriously!) "You gotta find this girl and make her yours!" Of course, 1) this was just a silly fantasy encouraged by Joanne's bewitching effect on me, and 2) she was already married to Val Kilmer. But, come on, what are fantasies for after all? I went back and saw the film again and was even more infatuated - she simply commands the gaze, gendered or otherwise (in a film that is all about the gaze). Joanne seduces and beguiles every man she meets in the film but she seduces the audience with her extreme physical beauty too - in the way that Ava Gardner brought men to their knees, or in the way Hitchcock worshiped at the altar of Tippi Hedren. It's no wonder Stephen spends a third of the film sketching and painting her. She is fetishized, objectified, punished, adored, and lastly, somewhat triumphant, but at what cost. The ending of the film is is very powerful. I'd rather avoid spoilers here, in case you haven't seen the film or are unaware of the Profumo scandal.
So, I finally got a copy of this DVD after years of keeping an eye on the Amazon marketplace - finally, I said "fuck it!" and ebayed a copy from South Korea. Like Matinee below - Scandal has been in moritorium for years. I've watched it twice in the past few days and am still hooked, I'm 19 years old all over again, falling for a celluloid lover, and yes, I'm still haunted. Haunted by the film, haunted by Joanne.