Friday, April 4, 2008

Movies: The Misfits

Arthur Miller gives Marilyn Monroe room to flex her existential muscles in the beauty's penultimate film; a brooding look at loneliness and detachment in rootless modern society with a tacked-on Hollywood ending that reifies traditional gender roles and undoes most of the work of the film.

That's a tightly-packed sentence. Let's back up a bit. The movie opens in Reno, with a meet-cute when a mechanic comes to pick up a car with a bent fender; it belongs to Roslyn (Marilyn Monroe), a dance teacher from out of town, and is badly dented because, according to Isabelle, the old landlady (Thelma Ritter), Roslyn's so beautiful that men keep driving into her in order to start up a conversation. (That's the first and last innocent laugh we'll have, and there is danger lurking behind even that innocence: the "attack" of appreciation that aims to disable and thereby possess.) Roslyn appears and the mechanic, Guido (Eli Wallach) is instantly smitten himself, and offers to drive the two women to court; Roslyn is in Reno to finalize a divorce. Isabelle came to Reno when she was Roslyn's age for the same reason, never remarrying and never leaving, and instead renting rooms to young divorcees and serving as their witnesses in court.

After the proceedings are finalized, Roslyn and Isabelle go out for a drink, where they run into Guido and his friend Gay (an old and weather-beaten Clark Gable, whom I've always found more boorish than debonair), a cowboy who's hoping to go out mustanging in the next few days, and who also now has his eye on the luscious Roslyn. The four share a few drinks and decide to drive out to Guido's country house, since Roslyn has no plans. There, in a half-constructed ranch house surrounded by empty desert with a view of distant mountains, the four get drunk as skunks, and we watch the rivalry between Guido and Gay mounting. Roslyn both excites and embarrasses us as she kicks off her shoes after dancing with both men and runs out into the grass, spinning around with her arms in the air, the straps of her dress falling off her shoulders. Her sensuality bubbles dangerously close to the surface, reacting strangely with her childlike naivete; simultaneously turning us on and frightening us (who will protect her from two ravenous men, out in the middle of nowhere? Certainly Isabelle won't be strong enough. . .)*

Advantage isn't taken. . . or is it? Roslyn wakes up in a bed and she appears to be nude between the white sheets (at least her pendulous upper half, poorly disguised by those white sheets, is), and Gay comes in to invite her out for breakfast in front of the dining room's picture window; he's fried her an egg. The two lonely people converse in the promise of morning sun and make a kind of "connection;" it's clear when they decide to permanently move into the house together (Guido's house, might I remind you, where he lived with his now-dead wife before abandoning it mid-construction and moving into the city), it's as lovers, and they exuberantly play at housekeeping, planting flowers and a vegetable garden, and rearranging the furniture.

But this can't be more than a game (and dare I say farce?) They have their first little quarrel (and Roslyn shows her proto-PETA stripes) over a rabbit wrecking havoc on the vegetable garden; Gay pulls out a shotgun to kill it and Roslyn kicks up a fuss—he doesn't like to see his labor going to "waste" and she doesn't think that his labor warrants the death of an innocent animal. That storm blows over and the whole gang of four (Guido and Isabelle have come for a visit) decides to drive into town and find a third cowboy for that mustanging expedition (is Gay already tired of the married life?) Along the way, they run into Perce (Montgomery Clift), a young cowboy trying to scare up the entrance fee for the rodeo, who's talking to his mom from a phone booth. Gay promises to pay Perce's fee if Perce agrees to go along on the mustang expedition afterward, and a deal is made; he jumps into the car and they drive out to the rodeo.

Things now start to get a bit ugly. In town, they stop in a bar, and Roslyn innocently gets herself into a paddle-ball wager and proves herself to be an expert; here she performs an unintentional grotesque burlesque, rhythmically swinging her entire body to whack the ball again and again as the onlookers gawk and count out loud. People pull out money and wave it around, supposedly entering the wager, but instead invoking the strip club (Gay will later, when things get even uglier, charge Roslyn with having been the sort of dancer that dances in bars, in a less than innocent way). The camera, like every eye in the bar, focuses on her rollicking bosom and bottom. Soon, a hand reaches out and starts rhythmically slapping that bottom, and soon Gay's fist lands on the face belonging to that man. The group grabs up the money and runs out of the bar, heading for the rodeo.

This is Roslyn's first rodeo, and she's horrified to see Perce being thrown first from a bucking bronco and then from a bull. His second fall is bad, and he has to be rescued, unconscious, from the dirt and the charging bull by Gay. A doctor bandages his head and nose, and the five go to another bar to celebrate. Perce feels woozy and goes out back for some air; Roslyn goes with him. Here, he tells her his story, his bandaged head cradled in her lap while she sits on the floor in a garbage heap: he left home because his father died a few years ago and his mother remarried a man who stole the family's ranch, his rightful inheritance, out from under him, and tried to make him into a paid laborer; he doesn't much like cowboying, but he doesn't have much choice. His despondency highlights Roslyn's own; she doesn't seem to have a family either, or even a home, only an ex-husband we never saw, and whatever relationship she's currently engaged in with Gay. Speaking of which, he soon adds his own isolation and despondency to the mix; he comes out, asking Roslyn to come back into the bar and meet his kids (whom he had mentioned briefly before, while playing house; he told Roslyn that he only sees them once in a while, at rodeos, but that they love him, and they love seeing him perform). When they go back into the bar, though, the kids are gone, and Gay starts shouting their names, hollering for them to come back. They go out into the street, Gay shouting all the while, more and more desperately, but his kids are nowhere in sight. He, too, is alone.

The next day, the three men, plus Roslyn, head out to the mountains to go mustanging. Roslyn, in peg-leg jeans and windblown hair, is out of place in front of the campfire, and worried about Gay's dog, who's clearly spooked. We wonder why he brought her out there at all. He takes her back to the truck and puts her to sleep there, away from the men, even though she's far from tired and trying to have a conversation with him about the animals. The sun rises with a threat the next day, and the movie becomes brutal. Guido flies a small plane, which he has brought out for the mission; their standard procedure is that he scares the wild horses down out of the mountains by flying low above them, and when they come out into the open, Gay and his helpers, this time just Perce, tie up the horses.

It's upsetting enough to watch the horses running away from the whirring flying machine, but when they come out into the open plain, Guido lands, fires up the truck, and starts chasing them around again, this time with the two cowboys hanging off the back, lassoing up the horses with ropes tied to big tires, which keep them in one place. Then, systematically, once each of the horses has been caught (one stallion, four mares (one old) and a foal. . . only six when Gay had said he'd spotted eleven, and when they had once gone out to catch hundreds at a time. . . there just aren't any left), they approach it and break it down, fighting to pull it to the ground, bend its legs, and tie it all up. It's basically horrifying to the layperson, and Roslyn channels that point of view, screaming and crying, fighting between the simultaneous desire to look and not to see. We have since found out, along with Roslyn, that these horses are not being caught for riding or ranching, but. . . to be killed, and processed into. . . wait for it. . . dog food. When they are all tied up, Gay and Guido calculate how much money they'll get; the take will total less than the amount Roslyn collected in the bar with the paddle-ball. Screaming, crying, she offers them all of her money in exchange for letting the horses go, but Gay won't concede. Alone with her in the cab of the truck, Guido confesses his love to her, but quickly sours when she doesn't respond the way she wants. Perse, too, seems affected by her anxiety, and, without making similar demands on her affection, runs out and cuts the horses loose.

Gay is incensed and, already sweating from the first round, grabs a rope and takes up a fight against the stag. The battle is long, grueling, sweaty, bloody, brutal. For a few tense moments, the horse runs, dragging Gay along the ground behind him, who refuses to let go of the rope, until the cowboy struggles to his feet and continues the battle, eventually bringing the huge animal to its knees in sheer exhaustion, and then completely to the ground. There, where it lies on its side, Gay throws his body across its big belly, confirming his victory. And then, after a few panting breaths, he cuts the horse loose again, and watches it run away. Guido, furious and sputtering, gets in the plane and flies off, taking Perse with him, and carping that all women are the same, all of them crazy, he had thought Roslyn was different, but she's just like his wife, crazy—revealing an ugly side of his character we had never seen nor expected, inspired by not only rejection, but the loss of his friend, and the invalidation of what he thought were shared values. Perse listens in silence. The camera cuts to the cab of the truck, where Roslyn scoots into Gay's arm around her shoulders, as they drive home (wherever that is), to their happy Hollywood ending.

And we, in the audience, feel sick. Why should Gay win the prize of Perse's actions, but only after displaying his masculinity, his dominance, his power? And why should Roslyn be the prize, inevitably to be won by one of these three men, whom she's only encountered by happenstance? And what does it mean to reveal such ugliness in a man like Guido, to nullify everything kind he ever said about his wife? And what will happen to Perse, who seems to be the only worthy man in the bunch, even if he is a bit lost (and wouldn't that make him a better match for Roslyn, who is something of the same). And how are we to really believe that Gay and Roslyn will have any happy life together, when we know that his time is passed? In the middle of the drama over the mustanging, he explains that "it just got turned around;" he used to catch the horses for a more noble cause (at least more noble than sudden death), but society changed around him, making him a relic who could only continue to do the same actions, even if for a different outcome (the means justifying the ends in a weird anti-Machivellian twist, for equally ugly results). It is at this time that he accuses Roslyn of having danced in bars, with innocent intentions, for men who "turned it around" into something less noble and free, and we see that what Miller is really grappling with here is the taught interplay between something positive, like freedom, and something damaging, like loneliness, and what rootlessness might have meant "then," (nobility) and what it means "now" (isolation, desperation, farce). And so how, knowing that, can we accept this red ribbon, this snuggling couple driving off into the sunset? It's too unsettling; we can't accept it, but a movie has to end.


*There is something strangely layered about Marilyn; she has the jaded core inherent in any woman who knows she's beautiful, and who has been taken advantage of because of it, but nevertheless maintains a surface effervescent innocence, and her irrepressible sexuality bubbles up through both of these.

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