“Forging On” or Forging Happiness?
(Soundtrack: Fastbacks — The Day That Didn’t Exist)
So what do you think–is every passport out of hell a mnemonic forgery? And are the people we knew back in the “old country” the only customs officers we can count on to catch us for our own good? I guess it’s pretty clear from the way I’ve phrased this where I stand.
In Demo #6, we meet a man who seems to have gotten off scot-free. He slaughters his entire neighborhood and somehow manages to look back on the incident as if it were a triumph of personal restraint! This is what Hawthorne would call “turning the affair into a ballad”. How does he manage that? Well, he’s “starting a new life” with a woman who doesn’t know anything about his past, and he aims to keep things that way. It’s easy to build a paradise upon even the most hellish foundations, if you don’t share the groundplan with anyone. But the thing is–“paradise” is always a place of solitary confinement. You just build the walls high against “the structure”/”fate”/”evil”/whatever and you rejoice in your own sainthood. Of course, I’m not sure how much good it does anyone to be a landlocked Swaziland of love surrounded by a sickening world of hate. You haven’t really “come to terms” with the world’s imperfection until you’ve declared yourself a citizen of hell by accepting the fact that you are just as responsible for its horrors as anyone else. Darkling I Listen is (partly) about a guy who takes an inordinately long time to realize that, when you make a person you love cry, it’s not “society’s” fault, it’s yours. I would assume that goes at least double for mass-murder! And man, if you aren’t willing to look your past victims in the eye–just don’t bother looking at all, because the objects back there are much farther away than they seem, unless you have the benefit of another person’s perspective to help you find the range.
So. Why is there a picture of Barbara Stanwyck up there? Well, apart from the fact that I just like to post pictures of Barbara Stanwyck, there’s the fact that Demo #6 reminded me a lot of Lewis Milestone’s The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (the script is by Robert Rossen, one of my favourite screenwriters and a pretty great director in his own right). It’s the story of a young girl condemned to live with a horrific caricature of an aunt played by Judith Anderson (think “Mrs. Danvers” squared!) and her desire to break away from this monster’s stifling influence. But the town is called “Iverstown” and Mrs. Ivers’ word is law within its bounds. Martha has two male friends: Sam, whom she loves, is a born rebel and feeds her desire for freedom, and Walter (played, as an adult, by Kirk Douglas–it’s probably his best performance), her tutor’s son, who does whatever he’s told, and loves her with a mousy ferocity. One night, after she is snatched off a freight-train by policemen and brought back home to her aunt’s mansion, all hell breaks loose when Mrs. Ivers canes Martha’s kitten to death. This gives the teenaged girl the incentive to do what she’s been dreaming about since she was born–kill her aunt. Both of the boys are present for at least the beginning of the scene–Sam runs away, while Walter watches it all and agrees to corroborate the lie Martha concocts.
Flash forward to the adult versions of these characters. It’s 17 years later and Sam, now a gambler and adventurer, passes back through Iverstown for the first time since that night. He decides to look up his old friends and discovers that they’re married–and its the most horrific mockery of a marriage ever put on film. The only basis for the union is their shared knowledge of this murder. Walter asks: “Tell me Martha, what shall I do about my love for you?” She pours him another drink and wanders off to her bedroom. Martha is a successful businesswoman. Walter is due for re-election to the D.A.’s office–thanks to her influence. Sam throws a wrench into everything. These poisoned souls assume that Sam has returned to take them for everything they’ve got. And they take steps to preempt a blackmail attempt. But Sam is unbelievably tough and poised, in that forties noir way, and he’s more than a match for Walter’s machinations. And here’s the catch: he didn’t know Martha had killed her aunt! He had run off the moment the screaming started, not wanting to be caught on the premises by a woman who had sworn to have him locked up for exerting an evil influence upon her niece. When Martha realizes this, and finally looks at herself as Sam now sees her, well, the little paradise she has built for herself is pretty much toast!
To get back to the Demo analogy –Martha is obviously in a similar position, at the beginning of the film, to Ken after he stops at the gardener’s suggestion–but there are so many more options here! Walter represents Martha’s urge to get comfortable with what she’s done–Sam represents the desire to just put it all behind her (his motto is–“remember Lot’s Wife?”) Finally! A film in which the men stand in for aspects of a female protagonist! The drama is not in this splintering of her consciousness–it comes 17 years later when Sam’s return (and his shock upon learning that the spirited woman he has loved since his childhood is a murderess!) forces Stanwyck to re-integrate these divergent (and, ultimately, irreconcilable) forms of self-love. It’s no drive in the country, I’ll tell ya that!
Wow–I’d better go now!
Have a good weekend friends!