sovay: (Sovay: David Owen)
sovay ([personal profile] sovay) wrote2016-10-11 04:15 am
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Raymond Shaw is the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being I've ever known in my life

So seeing John Frankenheimer's The Manchurian Candidate (1962) on a big screen was great. It was a digital projection, which still allowed me to perceive details and contrasts that had not been apparent from television or DVD; someday I'll see it in 35 mm and it'll be even better. It remains one of my favorite movies and the reason my feelings toward Lawrence Harvey gravitate in the direction of wanting to give him a hug, even though everything I have ever read about him as a person suggests that he was almost as difficult to get close to as Raymond Shaw. I like Sinatra in it, even if I like him more in the otherwise disposable Suddenly (1954). Angela Lansbury is iconic, immortal, and terrifying. Having seen Frankenheimer's Seconds (1964) and The Comedian (1957) since my last experience of The Manchurian Candidate, I paid a lot more attention to the cinematography this time around and it is a register-shifting blend of noirish deep focus, three-camera staging, handheld disorientation, and inclusions of live video feed overlapping, doubling, confounding the action. The tone is much the same: it adds up to a tight, touching, nightmarish movie I love.

What was not so great was the lengthy introduction by the series programmer in which, presumably taking attendance at tonight's showing to equal having already seen the movie, she described the entire plot. I'm not just talking about the premise, although I wouldn't have been pleased if she had given it and nothing else away. Major points of revelation, scenes with shocking emotional impact. She read out passages of dialogue. I was suddenly and furiously reminded of the reasons we never renewed our membership to the Coolidge Corner Theatre. "What if someone had come to see it for the first time?" I text-fumed at [ profile] derspatchel. "This is the kind of analysis you do after the fact!" It was not even very analytical. I appreciated her situating the film in context of other political thrillers like Otto Preminger's Advise & Consent (1962), Sidney Lumet's Fail Safe (1964), Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove (1964), and Frankenheimer's Seven Days in May (1964), all with some paranoid, chaotic spirit and all at least loosely based on novels of the time; I was glad she talked a little about the 1959 novel by Richard Condon, although not about the part where Condon plagiarized passages from Robert Graves' I, Claudius (1934).1 Otherwise she was mostly, merely narrating the film in advance. She made one very good point that I hadn't noticed for myself: she finds The Manchurian Candidate an incredibly weird film and thinks it's because no matter how perverse, preposterous, or bleak the action becomes, the film always presents it straight-faced, never winking to the audience or offering a reassuring check-in with reality as we believe we know it. That makes sense to me. It's how nightmares work. A perfectly ordinary interaction, object, landscape can be charged with unspeakable dread. Ladies showing off their prize hydrangeas at a meeting of a garden club in New Jersey. A game of solitaire. A man taking a long walk off a short pier. The sequences the film presents as the craziest, scariest, and most out of control are expressions of the American political process: a televised press conference that turns into Red-baiting pandemonium, the confetti-and-flashbulbs frenzy of a political party's nominating convention at Madison Square Garden. The fight scenes in this movie inflict less damage than quiet, measured conversation. And then, because the film doesn't push its weirdness stylistically, it can offer a surreal image like a heart-shot man appearing to bleed milk from the carton he was holding when the bullet drilled both it and him—a gouting, visceral moment without a drop of gore—and it lands with the force of the other side of nightmares, the things that in waking or dreaming life are just wrong. The speaker did not offer examples like these in support of an argument, where I would have considered them more fair game, if still kind of premature. She just made the observation and moved on to another plot description. That is not the way to do it for people who have never seen the film.

Look: I am indifferent to spoilers. I enjoy discovering books and movies cold and it can be very rewarding, but I have never lost enjoyment in a work because someone told me something about it in advance. Traditionally I chalk it up to a background in classics—nobody goes to see Oedipus for the shocking twist ending—but more realistically I imagine it is something about the ways in which I process narrative and which elements of it I prioritize. Suspense is rarely the top of the list. I am much less interested in shows that hang their audience investment on some central mystery than in shows that work out the nth-order consequences of their premise all the way down. I don't want to be told some climactic revelation just to spoil it for me, but that's an objection on the grounds of jerkassery, not information. In general, I really don't care. I am not the norm in our current media culture. There were people in that audience who hadn't seen The Manchurian Candidate before; I heard a couple of them enthusing on their way out of the theater and I wondered if others stuck their fingers in their ears and hummed through the introduction or if they were just faintly sorry that they watched the pre-credits sequence for the first time already knowing not just the first-act bombshell but the third-act twist. I think it annoys me not just because it's unkind to viewers who might have wanted to discover the story on their own terms, but because it's unnecessary. You don't need to lay out a story's entire plot in order to prime an audience's interest. You can truthfully say that The Manchurian Candidate is a movie which warped its topical references to such a pitch of hallucinogeny that it inspired conspiracy theories about its script and urban legends about its release; you can suggest its destabilizing spell by noting that flirting in this movie sounds like numbers station shortwave while its most fervent gesture of parental devotion is the one that will make most of the audience's skin crawl. You can talk about the ways in which it sensitizes its audience to suspect even normal social conditioning, like the soldier who can't refuse friendly advice when it's restated as performative speech—"What I've just told you is not a suggestion, Major. It's an order"—and the absurd respect with which everyone holds in place for the national anthem even in the middle of a suspected assassination attempt. You probably should mention that it's funny, in both the outrageousness of its ultimate conceit and the patriotic satire that is almost too raw to laugh at, especially this election year, but the ketchup joke got a huge laugh tonight and it deserves to. You may appreciate how constantly the very modern questions of media spin and manufactured identity are at the center of the story. I already said something about the painful sympathy this film draws out for a character initially and accurately encapsulated with the line "It isn't as if [he's] hard to like—he's impossible to like!" so you don't have to bring it up. If you want to talk about the deliberate genre-slippage, though, go for it. That The Manchurian Candidate is both a satire and a tragedy is a neat, jagged trick. It may be one of the movies I find so interesting that I am not as emotionally upset by it in toto as I am by some of its separate scenes. Your mileage and your audience's may vary. I hope I have communicated a little of the interest it holds for me, however, and if I have done this at all successfully, I have done so while saying almost jack about the plot.

I may write what I consider an actual review of The Manchurian Candidate at some later date. Right now, I'm going to read more Le Guin and go to bed. This exercise in apophasis brought to you by my loveable backers at Patreon.

1. Mostly pertaining to the relationship between Eleanor Shaw Iselin and her second husband Johnny; Condon adapted it from Claudius' assessment of Livia and Augustus' marriage. I have no trouble seeing how Graves' Livia would inspire Condon's Eleanor; it makes me a little wistful for a Lansbury Livia. You want to rewrite Roman history with American senators, I can think of worse ideas. Just don't steal immediately recognizable chunks of phrasing from the British writer who already did the retelling. Your audiences aren't so divergent that someone won't notice someday.
davidgillon: A pair of crutches, hanging from coat hooks, reflected in a mirror (Default)

[personal profile] davidgillon 2016-10-11 10:29 am (UTC)(link)
I remember standing in a cinema queue and hearing two people complaining that someone near them had just given the ending away.

It was Titanic.
thistleingrey: (Default)

[personal profile] thistleingrey 2016-10-11 07:00 pm (UTC)(link)
she described the entire plot

Wait, what? :( Certainly it's possible to enjoy that film knowing what happens, but one should have the option of seeing it for the first time while unspoiled. No love for the series programmer.
dhampyresa: (Default)

[personal profile] dhampyresa 2016-10-11 09:03 pm (UTC)(link)
she described the entire plot


[identity profile] 2016-10-11 01:27 pm (UTC)(link)
My son had a girlfriend with zero cultural background. She'd seen some anime and played some computer games... but she was dyslexic and had spent time the class were spending on lit on learning basic reading and writing skills, which hadn't given her enough reading skills that she had read very much. She was very smart, but she was in many ways as close to a blank slate as anyone gets to be.

Taking her to films and theatre gave me the delightful experience of having a totally naive viewer for things everyone is spoiled for. She also had no cultural genuflection -- she wasn't intimidated by high culture because she didn't know some things were supposed to be revered. This started when I had an extra ticket for a The Tempest and I asked her if she wanted to come with us. "What's it about?" "There's a wizard on an island --" "I'm in!" So her reaction to the end of Oedipus Rex was shock and tears and a catharsis I've never been able to have. Also the end of King Lear. This kind of experience has made me feel much more negative towards forced spoilers. You can re-read, re-watch, read things about things endlessly, but the first time is only once. I never saw King Lear not knowing how it comes out, and I wish I had.

(Example of how smart she was. Obligingly coming along to some Bach with me because E was sick and the ticket wasn't returnable, she figured out what a fugue was -- "I do like the thing where the instruments pass the tune around!")

[identity profile] 2016-10-13 04:52 pm (UTC)(link)
Wow, that's very cool, to have an experience with someone who's so much of a blank slate. (Also, can I just say I like the phrase "cultural genuflection.")

[identity profile] 2016-10-11 04:42 pm (UTC)(link)
David Amram composed the score for The Manchurian Candidate.
I had the opportunity to photograph him.

[identity profile] 2016-10-13 04:50 pm (UTC)(link)
Wow, I am wishing SO HARD that you could have given the intro to the movie. Even a good intro would be unlikely to be as good as this--this is fabulous. Makes me want to rewatch the movie (and, incidentally, to see those other films you mention at the top--any of those you particularly recommend?)

The person who gave the intro seems both out of touch with contemporary norms regarding spoilers (because, as you say, many people do mind them, and it's the sort of thing that's even joked about in everyday discourse--nobody can claim to be unaware of the fact that spoiling things is a thing) and also just very unskilled at talking about film (or any narrative). Recapping the plot is the sort of book-report thing that people are supposed to get away from in elementary school.