2-For-1: Jacob's Ladder and Houseboat

Over the course of Thursday and Friday afternoons, I watched Jacob's Ladder (1990). Despite my admiration for its fine cast, it wasn't something I would've rented on my own-- I'm doing a private reading with a couple of students, and one of them suggested it as a follow-up to last week's pairing of Paul Auster's novel, City of Glass and Richard Rush's film, The Stunt Man. Like The Stunt Man, it deals with the difficulty of a Vietnam vet integrating back into the American homefront, and like Glass, it plays with our pereceptions of "reality," suggesting it's a fine line between sanity and madness-- and the only thing that keeps us balanced is genre conventions. Glass filters its commentary and character through the conventions of both detective fiction and the post-Robbe-Grillet/postmodern novel, while The Stunt Man has a lot of fun with the conventions of the "movie about movies" genre. Jacob's Ladder splits the difference: it's a detective tale of a sort, and also a horror film about the quest for identity; as a film from Adrian Lynne (whose best-known work includes Fatal Attraction, Flashdance and Indecent Proposal) it revels in its use of the tropes of late-80s advertising (smoke-as-filter, muted grays and dark shadows seen in long-shot, quick cuts and copious nudity), calling attention to its filmmaking strategies in as blatant a manner as Rush's film.

It's not as playful as Rush's work, though, and that heaviness in approach has its good and bad points. It does a superb job at establishing a deeply claustrophobic tone: extensive use of close-ups and zooms, rapid cutting, and a mise-en-scene heavy on diagonal and horizontal enclosures (staircases, subway tracks, overhead pipes and railings, cages, narrow alleyways) work hard to put us in the mindset of Jacob Singer (Tim Robbins) and his fellow vets, scarred by their wartime experiences and certain they are being pursued by demons both psychological and corporeal. I also liked the grittiness of the New York locations-- the trash, sleet, dirt and 70s fashions all combine to create a distinctly unglamorous look within Lynne's sleekly moving frames. There's an everyday ugliness to the characters, a real lived-in sense to their lives and relationships that gives depth and pathos to the various horror/war movie cliches the narrative plays with (oddly, that same year, the movie's screenwriter, Bruce Joel Rubin, would follow up Ladder with Ghost, which tackles some of the subject matter in a far more treacly manner). And the cast is superb: Danny Aeillo coming right off Do The RIght Thing, and not yet the hammy set of mannerisms he'd become in the 90s; soon-to-be-stars like Eriq La Salle and Ving Rhames; Macauly Culkin just before hitting it big with Home Alone, and well-cast as...well, that would spoil it; and Elizabeth Pena, taking the difficult and problematic role of Robbins' girlfriend and making it feel far more sympathetic and three-dimensional than it might in a less skillful actress's hands.

Robbins is the sad, strange heart of the film, and he's very effective, although I have to admit that his spooked-out expressions reminded me a bit of his dead-on, hilarious impression of Brian Wilson on Saturday Night Live. But the film would not be nearly as successful without his baby-fat cheeks, gentle smile and spacy eyes, and how he uses all of those child-like features to suddenly express rage or psychotic confusion. Like so many of the cast, Robbins had had some success in films like Bull Durham and Erik The Viking, but he hadn't yet solidified the persona that would emerge in The Player, Short Cuts and Bob Roberts-- the charming, manipulative, Wellesian bastard. He's still the slightly goofy Nuke LaLoosh here, and the film needs that sweet, doomed neediness to give humanity to its nihilistic core.

The timing of Jacob's Ladder is really interesting. It came at the tail end of a half-decade of pop culture texts that explored Vietnam in a much more explicit, surreal and sympathetic way-- Platoon, Full Metal Jacket, Hamburger Hill, Born on the Fourth of July, television's Tour of Duty, and novels like Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried. One year after its release, George H.W. Bush would declare that the first Gulf War had laid to rest the nation's "Vietnam Syndrome," even as his 1992 re-election campaign would try to use the war as a wedge issue against Bill Clinton.
With all of that context, baggage and possibly pop burn-out on the subject, one might imagine Jacob's Ladder wouldn't have much to add to the conversation, but I actually found it more effective than any of Oliver Stone's "Viet-wow!" visions. Lynne and Rubin's plays with the surreality of horror actually makes for a world that's incredibly disconcerting-- like Jacob, you never quite know where you are, or when (it took me awhile to realize the film was still in the 70s, even when Jacob returned from Vietnam). We float in and out of Jacob's nightmares, and because the cast is such a good, low-key ballast against Lynne's hyperreal backdrops, they create enormous sympathy for their characters. I don't know if that juxtaposition of the hyper-real and the minimalist makes it a more "realistic" vision of PTSD, only that I found it more affecting than Tom Cruise flailing in his wheelchair in the desert, or Charlie Sheen torn between two daddies in a Vietnam jungle.

So, why did I feel like I needed to take a shower when I finally finished the movie? Why did it take me two days to get through the damn thing (it's only 116 minutes long)? In part, it's the disturbing subject matter, in part it's precisely the slick skill with which Lynne transforms PTSD into a horror thrill ride, but I also think it's the film's vision of a fatalistic world that we only escape from through death. Like Raging Bull a decade earlier, it expends an enormous amount of skill and heart at the service of a kind of brutish entropy-- even as it explores one man's trauma, it displays its own stylistic addiction to the same trauma. I honestly don't know-- I can't deny its effectiveness (or sadly, its continuing contemporary relevance), and I think in many ways it's an effective piece of work; at the same time, I can't help but feel angry at its manipulations and addiction to ceasless darkness (maybe it's a once-a-decade thing: I had a similiar response to Requiem for a Dream, released in 2000, an obnoxiously reactionary piece of snuff-film garbage that dresses up its conservatism in a plethora of color and hipster cutting). Do we need to confuse cinematic "seriousness" with fatalism?

When I finished watching Ladder, I needed a palate cleanser, which might explain my positive reaction to Houseboat, a film I might have read as tripe under any other circumstances. Co-written and directed by Melville Shavelson-- a former gag writer for Bob Hope who would inflictYours, Mine and Ours on audiences a decade later-- it's precisely the kind of movie Pauline Kael criticized Grant for making in her famous essay, "The Man From Dream City" (she believed that only Hitchcock's films saved Grant's postwar career from being a total, sentimental wash). You can see what she means. Here's a list of potentially deadly elements Houseboat includes (remember, Shavelson was a master of the gag):

--Not one, not two, but three 'adorable,' towheaded children;
--A Wacky Trick Setting (a leaky floating houseboat! And his best friend is a talking pie!);
--A weak romantic triangle, with only one potential lover really well-developed;
--A moralistic plot about the importance of family;
--What I like to think of as "la la laaa" musical scoring, the kind of flutes-and-humming-children's-choirs, hippie-dippy, "Up Up and Away In My Beautiful Balloon"-style music that would mar many a Hollywood film in the 60s in their erroneous attempts to signify love and laughter;
--Sophia Loren;
--Bad slapstick. Not good slapstick, like Keaton, but bad (like, well, Bob Hope).

Actually, it wouldn't be hard to see this film as a vehicle for Bob Hope, perhaps with Lucille Ball or Anita Ekberg in tow (and I mean the 50s/60s movie-and-tv-special Hope, not the brilliantly funny Hope of the Road pictures); he might actually have brought to it an appealing sliminess-- his very desire to please and always be the center of the joke would've worked well for the character played by Cary Grant, a self-absorbed jerk who must learn to love. Sure, Hope's persona is so artificial and fraudulent that he wouldn't be at all believable in the post-conversion, "loving dad" parts of the film, but perhaps that would've made it more fun, would've cut right to the story's tinsel heart.

In the end, though, the film is lucky to have Cary Grant, the greatest movie actor in American film history, as its lead. Grant is no stranger to playing bastards, thieves, sharpies and frauds-- last month, I watched him in the fascinatingly odd Once Upon A Time, where he plays a Ziegfeld-type theatrical producer who tries to coax an emotionally unstable boy into giving up a magical catepillar that dances when said boy plays his harmonica (Grant's character thinks it's a show business goldmine). Read that sentence again, and then imagine any actor selling that story (good lord, imagine someone like Robin Williams in the role). Grant, however, is the driest actor in the world, at least when he's at his best, and with his constantly tilted head, darting eyes and smooth patter of a voice, he makes that producer a convincing anti-hero without sacrificing his charm. (George Clooney-- a very Grant-like performer-- does something similar in the underrated romcom, One Fine Day; what makes both actors good with kids is precisely the fact that they don't try to ingratiate themselves-- it's their quizzical response to the vagaries of children that makes the situations funny).

In Houseboat, Grant plays a divorced man, a charming empty suit of a goverment bureaucrat who tries to take in his three children when their mother dies. The bratty children (one of whom, strangely, also has a harmonica as a major character trait) don't like him, he can barely tolerate them-- but luckily, there's charmingly child-like Loren there to save the day, as the family's new maid (and Grant's love interest)! I listed Loren above as a deficit, which is an unfair joke-- I actually like her quite a bit, and she's good in the film, but she's saddled with such a dopey role as the near-magical enabler of familial happiness, like an Italian Mary Poppins (she even sings songs), that even her strong chemistry with Grant (who apparently was madly in love with her in real life) and her own dry wit and physical comedy skills can't quite salvage the character.

It's sappy, it's manipulative, it's even a bit too long, and takes far too long to really get started (they don't even get to the titular boat until 35 minutes in)-- but dammit, I kind of enjoyed it. The film takes on a pleasantly rambling, vaguely anecdotal form once they move onto the boat. The kids settle down and stop telegraphing their character tics, and Shavelson does a good job using the cramped trick set of the boat, staging some good gags and getting some evocative night shots of the water (in fact, credit where it's due-- there are some lovely visual images in the film, with good use of lanterns and trees, and one shot towards the end that almost feels likes something out of To Kill A Mockingbird). The film has a real heart underneath all its trickery, a belief in the basic decency of its characters, and Grant's insistence on grounding everything within his persona-- at once cynical and romantic-- gives an ironic spin to some of the later father-child scenes without canceling out their warmth. If Jacob's Ladder creates a world you long to escape, I'd kind of like to see Houseboat's actors and their characters again, but in a different film, one whose narrative wasn't so insistently plugging away at its schematic patterns. I'm not sure that makes it less manipulative than Jacob's Ladder-- probably just a different set of tropes that are manipulating me. But I'll take humanism over nihilism any day.


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