Monday, September 3, 2007

The Quality of the Rage is What Counts



Robert Creeley has a poem that could serve as an epigraph to "The Misfits:"

Self-Portrait

He wants to be
a brutal old man,
an aggressive old man
as dull, as brutal
as the emptiness around him,

He doesn't want compromise
nor to be ever nice
to anyone. Just mean,
and final in his brutal,
his total, rejection of it all.

He tried the sweet,
the gentle, the "oh,
let's hold hands together"
and it was awful,
dull, brutally inconsequential.

Now he'll stand on
his own dwindling legs.
His arms, his skin,
shrink daily. And
he loves, but hates equally.

“The Misfits” is a film that runs from start to finish on raw human emotion. Even in the opening scenes, when Marilyn sits before a mirror, reciting attorney-prepared lines she is supposed to memorize for a divorce proceeding, one feels that intensity. She can’t stand the fact that she has to tell stories of made-up physical cruelty in order to get a divorce. When she asks Isabella why she can’t just say her husband wasn’t there, “even when you touched him,” the effect is crushing. This is a film about individuals unwilling to “work for wages,” meaning they can’t live by the rules society has laid out for them. Unlike the many westerns of the era which lament the end of the western “individual man” ("The Wild Bunch," "The Searchers," et al), this one does not traffic solely in melancholy or suicidal despair. It’s primary emotion is rage. These characters are not resigned to their fates. They are not willing to admit defeat. They will not accept that there is no place for them to live outside society.

Monroe is the emotional center. There is no greater limit to her personal freedom than the attentions of men. Throughout the film Gable, Wallach and Clift (not to mention her ex-husband and several strangers) vie for Monroe's attention. Her bombshell persona is used brilliantly by John Ford to present the audience with the other side of being beautiful -- unwanted attention. Scene after scene, male libido presses against her voluptuous flesh in the form of arms blocking doorways, men cutting in on one another to dance with her, strangers patting her on the ass. It's never cute, and the audience is made to feel how uncomfortable these advances make her. Unable to understand why men don’t (or don't try) to make women happy, she empathizes with each suffering thing, be it a rabbit or a man or a horse, as if it were herself, and rages against those who she perceives as doing them harm.

In the final scenes, when Clift, Gable, & Wallach capture a small herd of wild mustangs, these emotions come screaming to the surface in the image of a bucking stallion being roped and dragged violently to the ground by the three men. At one point, Monroe stands away from them, shouting, screaming, calling them killers and murderers for catching a wild horse only to sell it for dog meat. We see her alone on the empty desert floor, and only from a great distance, no close-ups. Watching her rage one gets the feeling she is yelling at fate or God as much as she is yelling at the three men.

The quality of the rage in this film is what sets it apart from others I have seen. It's not hatred that drives these characters. It's love. None finds complete satisfaction, yet neither do any of them let up on the demand that life present them with the fullest intensity of human emotional experience. They rage for love in its purest form and they will keepon raging until they find it.

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