Sunday, May 16, 2004

The Loved One

I have been wanting to see this movie for about thirty years--see it again, that is. This is another movie that my parents took me to when I was in primary school (yes, and that's why I turned out as demented as I am today). I had this mixed up in my mind with another one they took me to, called Home for the Holidays, which is actually brilliant, and I wish I could find it on DVD or video. That one is the one I remember that is a combination comedy/suspense-thriller, where there are scenes like the one where the guy gets in the shower and the walls close in on him, ultimately crushing him to death. When you're eight years old, it doesn't occur to you how stupid it is that the character doesn't just step out of the shower stall when he sees the walls begin to come at him. All I know is that to this day, thanks to Home for the Holidays, I get a little panicky in a small stall shower. That is enough, though, of my childhood drama. Can we all have a group hug?

The Loved One is probably somewhat less inappropriate for a small child, though I remember some playmate of mine explaining that her parents had disapproved of my having gone to it. Oh--before you do the math and calculate me to be much older than I already am, I saw this movie in a theater in the mid-seventies, even though it had been released ten years before, in 1965. Remember, young'uns, that at the time there was no such thing as a videocassette (much less a DVD), so movie theaters commonly ran old movies that had been popular just for the hell of it.

Anyway, The Loved One would be a perfect movie to show either right before or right after The Trouble With Harry because both of them deal with the same issue, disrespect for death. Both cause us to consider the way Americans treat death in contrast with the way the Brits do. So in discussing The Trouble With Harry, the class would consider the fact that the movie did poorly in the U.S., whereas it played for months and years in some European theaters, proving, as one reviewer said, that dragging around a dead body is more funny to the English than it is to the Americans. I mentioned before that The Trouble With Harry was written by an Englishman, and Hitchcock changed the setting from England to America. Well, The Loved One has a continental genesis as
well. The movie is adapted from a book by Evelyn Waugh, who was inspired to write it after he was horrified by the experience of attending his Uncle's funeral in Los Angeles. For this one, the class would talk about the social commentary.

The two diverge when we get to the topic of social commentary. Hitchcock wasn't interested in that at all; he's more psychological, all in the mind. The Loved One is all about being a scathing satire of the American entrepreneurial greed and disregard for ceremony, social stature, and so on. It goes like this: Amid brassy, patriotic (American) music, Dennis Barlow disembarks the airplane at LAX to visit his uncle (played by Jon Gielgud, who was even old back in 1965!). When Dennis goes through customs, the agent is immediately suspicious of his "Beatles haircut" and his vocation (first he says "A.I.D., that is, artificial insemination donor" and then he says "poet"). The scene is funny because we find out a few things: first, that Dennis is a shady character, and second, that right away, Americans are just not as polite as this English character expects them to be. Just to be fair, the English characters are not much better. Dennis's uncle takes him to a social event with his English ex-pat friends, all of whom are pompous and very much about how things will look to everyone.

We soon find out, though, that Americans are far worse. We see Dennis's uncle, a painter, go to work at a movie studio where he has worked for many years, only to find out that he has been replaced by an appointment based on nepotism. Not only has he been replaced, but his boss is too busy to tell him; he finds out by finding another name on his door. The uncle goes home and hangs himself. His English friends, true to form, are most concerned with his being buried in the place where it will "look" the best, so they encourage nephew Dennis to go to the Whispering Glades cemetery and mortuary. Of course, hijinx ensue. It proceeds from bizarre to ridiculous, beginning with the mortuary intake interview, when the mortuary hostess, the aptly named Miss Thanatogenous, asks to be sure that the deceased is Caucasian (Dennis replies, "No, he's English.").

The cemetery and mortuary operation turn out to be a scam operated by a cultish religious figure and his disciples. By falling in love with Miss Thanatogenous, Dennis accidentally discovers and exposes the scam, which ultimately leads to a plan to fire the bodies into perpetual orbit around the earth (in "eternal grace") so that the cemetery land can be used more profitably. It's all very crass and American, and very funny. I imagined that this might be funniest to students who grew up in countries other than the U.S., because I think they would understand the commentary on American culture better than those of us who grew up here.

I have one more thing to say about The Loved One but it would probably also apply just as well to The Trouble With Harry and a few of the others. When I see these movies that are 30 or more years old, I am struck by the pacing, or rather the way the pacing has changed since then. There's so much story that would be omitted these days. Modern films leave a lot to the imagination, have many gaps in time and allow us to fill in parts of the stories in our own minds. These earlier films spend LOTS of time giving us background information or showing us the tiny details of how a relationship develops. To me they are sometimes ungodly slow. I prefer the quick, modern pacing to this plodding along. It would be interesting to see what students think. What does that say about us, about present-day society?

No comments: