MMR No. 3: Dysfunctional Families

Again somewhat without realizing it, I chose two films for this raid that have a certain thematic commonality–each of these two films, forty years apart, deals with families falling apart, although for very different reasons and to very different ends.

The Bigamist was released in 1953 and concerns one Harry Graham (Edmond O’Brien), a traveling salesman based in San Francisco. As the film opens, he is seeking to adopt a child with his wife Eve (Joan Fontaine), a process that requires him to submit to a background investigation conducted by the diligent Mr Jordan (Edmund Gwenn). In the course of his investigation, Jordan discovers that Harry has been leading a double life–he has a second wife in Los Angeles named Phyllis (Ida Lupino) who already has a newborn baby. Confounded, Jordan sits down with Harry to learn what kind of circumstances could drive a man to betray both women and flout the laws of society in such a way.

In addition to starring as the aloof-but-vulnerable Phyllis, Ida Lupino also directed The Bigamist. It was her seventh film as a director, beginning with an uncredited turn on 1949’s Not Wanted, making her one of the first female actor/directors in Hollywood. Interestingly, it was written (and co-produced) by Collier Young–perhaps most famous as the creator of the TV series Ironside, and at the time both Lupino’s ex-husband and currently married to Fontaine.

Maybe the real-life relationships involved go a way toward explaining the gentle and emotionally complex tone of the film. Although firmly within the genre of 1950s melodrama, the story isn’t as interested in moral hand-wringing or sordid gossip as one might expect based on the time and premise. Instead we get a difficult portrait of the way three personalities intersect. At the center, Harry is genuinely well-meaning but insecure, unable or unwilling to engage with his own needs until they become obstacles. Eve is smart enough to recognize something’s off but has a foundational faith in the life she’s worked hard to help build. Phyllis is blinded the mask she wears on her pain; she rejects the idea of being too needy or interrogating, making her more susceptible to Harry’s white-knight complexes.

It’s hard not to watch a film like this at a certain remove–melodramatic conventions and shifting acting styles aside, social mores and behaviors have changed pretty dramatically (in ways both fundamental and superficial) over the course of 64 years. The ending reads as ambiguous–Harry is neither excused nor damned, exactly, by either of his wives or society as a whole (represented by a pontificating criminal judge [John Maxwell])–but is that ambiguity more progressive or regressive? I’m honestly not sure, but either way it feels like an unusual film and its tone is impressively sensitive and warm for something so potentially lurid.

The Bed You Sleep In, however, is not what I would call a warm film. Released in 1993, it’s a middle-era work from independent filmmaker Jon Jost, an artist with whom I am not very familiar, but in whom I am now very interested.

The film follows a somewhat indeterminate period in the life of a man named Ray (Tom Blair), operator of a struggling lumber mill in a rural Oregon coastal town. For the first half, we are given a slowly unfolding sense of Ray’s complex relationship with the environment around him; his livelihood depends on the destruction of the very thing that sustains him spiritually. Then comes a turn. Ray’s wife Jean (Ellen McLaughlin) receives a letter from the couple’s daughter, off attending college in Seattle, accusing her father of inappropriate behavior. The second half of the film follows through on the impact of this accusation.

In case that plot description didn’t tip you off, although fundamentally a narrative film, The Bed You Sleep In works better from a more abstract perspective. Which, to be clear, is not to fault the story; the writing and acting are both sometimes painfully raw (with all the multiple connotations of that word), but they’re nerve-shreddingly engaging in part because they feel so unpolished. But between that rawness and the withering intensity of the slow pace, it can be an exhausting film to watch. Long stretches of machinery footage and/or industrial noise punctuate the film throughout. It takes a long time for any narrative momentum to occur, and even when it does it lingers for uncomfortable lengths on the repressed, often inarticulate people it follows. And it ends without really resolving any of its major questions.

But at the same time, that exhaustion and frustration is key to understanding the world the film presents us with, a suffocating small town where conflicting realities are increasingly unable to coexist. And it is the wider world the film is interested in as much as Ray’s inner one, reveling in the natural and social rhythms that surround him. Nowhere is this more apparent than in an extended tracking shot in the center of the film that slowly wheels around a busy cafe at lunch. It goes on for several minutes and adds nothing to the plot, yet nonetheless feels essential; its the only real reference we’re given to the sense of community that so informs the characters mindsets and the gutting sadness that permeates the work.

Granted, it takes a certain kind of patience meet a film like this on its own flawed and individualistic terms. And even if one has the patience, its not exactly an entertaining or pleasant experience, so I don’t know that I can really recommend it, exactly. But it hangs together well enough that I found it to have a pretty visceral impact and I’m intrigued about exploring more of the director’s work.

Next time, though, a pioneering(ly violent) film-noir docudrama and a Takashi Miike movie I really should’ve seen by now.