Monday, February 28, 2011

Isolated man

We all know people who can't survive a week or two without getting into a relationship. With Up In The Air last year and now The American (2010), George Clooney seems predisposed to portray men who can't get into any relationship, and are not sure if they want to. Aside from the sexless Western heroes of the 1930s and 1940s, I can't think of a leading man who spends more time avoiding getting entangled with women than the purportedly sexy Clooney. Director Anton Corbijn is best known for his still photos of celebrities, and perhaps it was his intention to simply capitalize on his strengths, because The American often feels more like a slideshow than a movie.

The one-man movie is well-established, perhaps even a mini-genre. There is even a book entitled Cinema of Loneliness. In the last decade we've had I Am Legend, Cast Away, 127 Hours, One Hour Photo and A Single Man. Going back we have Taxi Driver, Blast of Silence and countless Westerns and detective movies. That's not counting all the movies in which only one person in the world, perhaps a child or other outcast, befriends the protagonist.

In the case of The American, Clooney's character goes through the motions of a romance as if he knew it was doomed, and proceeds to (presumably unwittingly) engineer his own destruction. But even if he knew what was coming, it's hard to argue he would do any differently. Like his character in Up In The Air, this man seems to have forgotten to have a life, and to have something--anything, really that he wants to do. It's hard to believe that he wants to get out of his current life and get away, because we're never convinced of his passion of whatever it is he wants to get to. It's an interesting literary idea, but it's a tough pull for cinema, because the central character seems to be without passion of any kind.

A similar issue dogs the cult classic Seconds (1966) directed by John Frankenheimer as an existential horror film. Arthur Hamilton, who has himself transformed into the handsome Tony Wilson (played by Rock Hudson) is isolated from everyone, including himself.

He is given the identity of an artist without the talent, the passion or the network of influences, teachers, friends, supporters and other persons that most artists need to sustain them. The man starts the story empty and simply inventing an identity for him as an artist (especially an artist who is already successful and has a fancy Malibu home) is a recipe for disaster. This scene illustrates the disaster unfolding, and contains some of Rock Hudson's best work, not that Hudson has a large body of great work. But he seems to respond to this idea of being placed into a hollowed-out shell of a person that he is expected to fill out and respond to it.

Note also the splendid wide-angle hand-held photography of James Wong Howe, who is most celebrated these days for the icy brilliance of his work on Sweet Smell of Success -- both impressive credits for a man in his 60s who had begun as a cameraman in the silent era.

Jack Nicholson's character, Jonathan, in Carnal Knowledge (1971) thinks he wants someone around, preferably someone with female genitalia, but his contempt for other people and especially for other people, which never changes throughout his life, dooms him to a life of solitude. His idea of a relationship seems to be merely a complex form of masturbation. Here he is describing his ideal woman as an inventory of physical attributes. He barely seems human himself:

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(Note: The language in this clip may be NSFW or for school.)

As I revisit films of the 70s, films that were first released in my high school and college days that were highly influential on me, my generation and the next generation of filmmakers, so many of them are no longer as shocking and transgressive as they seemed at first. But although Carnal Knowledge shocked many for its graphic language and simulated sex, I don't recall people being as appalled with Jonathan's sociopathology as they should have been and as I am now. The character has the cruelty of a Neil LaBute script, made doubly cruel by the fact that almost no one in the film expresses the horror we feel for this monster, with the exception of Carol Kane in the penultimate slide-show sequence. His only "punishment" for 25 or 30 years of appalling behavior are some transitory bouts of impotence, which might be exactly what he needs to take a time out from his satyrism and get a clear-eyed view of himself. Jonathan is isolated by his own doing, and likely to forever remain so.

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