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    film club: the postman always rings twice

    The Postman Always Rings Twice is a novel that's been made into a movie not once, not twice, but four times. Clearly there's something in the story that continues to captivate the minds of audiences... or, at the very least, the minds of filmmakers. The makers of the 1981 version (which we watched this week for Film Club), however, seem unable to effectively locate whatever that compelling element might be—they end up chasing down a few different narrative paths, diluting their energy and losing momentum at every turn.

    The setup is certainly fecund enough: we open with shiftless drifter Frank Chambers, played here by Jack Nicholson.

    Chambers agrees to work at a service station that's owned by local entrepreneur / ethnic stereotype Nick Papadokis.

    It's pretty evident from the outset that Frank has taken this job not because he aspires to mechanichood as a career but because he wants to fuck Papadokis' wife, Cora, played here by Jessica Lange.

    Now, I'd argue that there's some miscasting here. Both Frank and Cora, we later learn, are impulsive, brutish, and more than a little bit dumb—so when Nicholson plays Frank as impish and Lange plays Cora as icily elegant, it doesn't, for my money, work. (If I were remaking the film today, I'd get Joaquin Phoenix and Rose McGowan—two dim-witted-looking actors who basically ooze erotic energy.) In any case, if we set aside these quibblings, we can see that we're left with a dramatic structure that's basically sound—it's a garden-variety love triangle. From a narrative perspective, it works. If you want to make an erotically-charged thriller—and it seems, at the outset, that this is what director Bob Rafelson and screenwriter David Mamet are out to do—then all you really have to do is lay out the promise of some forbidden fucking among charismatic protagonists and, as long as you delay the payoff for long enough to generate some dramatic tension, the script basically writes itself.

    David Mamet is a world-famous, award-winning screenwriter and playwright, so I know that he knows some basic methods for generating dramatic tension. And so I'm surprised to see him throw away a lot of opportunity by having them fuck within the first twenty minutes of the film:

    Hrm. OK—the film, at this early point in its development, has made only one promise to the audience, which is that we'll get to see Lange and Nicholson transgress on camera. When the filmmakers deploy this plot point so early, without a suitable period of tease and buildup, it feels, frankly, like the narrative equivalent of sex without foreplay.

    Granted, the buildup is only one half of the narrative arc of the romantic triangle—there's also all the drama inherent in dealing with the aftermath. Again a number of ready-made dramatic situations present themselves: one expects to see scenes wherein Papadokis grows suspicious, perhaps a scene where we get some sense of the risk involved in his reaction, eventually a big reveal... they're cliches, admittedly, but they're cliches because, frankly, they work. Maybe Mamet thinks they're too cheap. He must think something, because he eschews every one of these scenes, in favor of focusing on Frank and Cora's attempt to run away to Chicago.

    This plan is unclearly motivated—we're not sure, at this juncture, exactly what kind of future either Cora and Frank envision—and their decision to break the plan off and return to life at the motel is equally unclear. It's not long after that that they begin to plan to kill Nick, although in the absence of the scenes I talk about above—the ones that establish that Nick might be suspicious, and the ones that establish his suspicion as a threat—the decision to kill him seems effectively arbitrary. I'm willing to be sympathetic to characters who give in to selfish lust (if they're charismatic enough) and I'll even be sympathetic to them being forced to murder someone if there's a self-preservation angle—but take that angle away and they simply seem like utterly amoral figures, driven to kill out of simple nihilism. (Which is not to say that you can't make a film exploring that idea—take Badlands as perhaps the most successful example—but this film ain't Badlands.)

    So, anyway, yes, the film does away with all the setup and has Cora and Frank kill Nick, shortly before the halfway point in the film. Not long afterwards, they're tried and eventually acquitted. The film has thrown away enough narrative elements that it's managed to compress a pretty basic three-act story into 1:20 of run-time, leaving it with roughly another forty minutes to... do what, exactly?

    It's easy to view that final forty with something like hope, to believe that Mamet and Rafelson have telescoped the meat-and-potatoes of the murder plot because they something up their sleeve for the second half of the film. Whatever it has in mind, however, doesn't quite come off: the film never regains narrative momentum, and we're left with a series of odd little left-turns like Frank running off with the circus for a week and having a romance with Angelica Huston, who plays a sexy lion-tamer. No, seriously:

    It's a curious choice, and it's not the only curveball that the film throws us in its final third. It seems almost like the film does these things in order to not have to do something else. If we ask ourselves this question—what isn't the film doing?—it becomes evident that it almost never shows us are scenes of Cora and Frank happy in their post-Nick home, and in fact spends much of its narrative energy contriving reasons for one or the other of them to be away. This could be read as a failure of nerve: it's not too hard to imagine a squeamish filmmaker balking at the opportunity to show a pair of unrepentant killers happy and in love. One could also, of course, read it as a sort of moralizing critique: an indicator that neither Frank nor Cora have thought through a vision for a sustainable future together.

    There is, ultimately, something interesting about that read, which imagines that Rafelson and Mamet are attempting to set up a tension between the directed, criminal-minded lust of Frank and Cora's "courtship" and the ambient malaise of their post-trial "relationship." This read is aided, a smidge, by Rafelson's use of longtime Bergman collaborator Sven Nyquist as the film's director of photography: true to form, Nyquist shoots the film less as a noir and more as, well, a Bergman-esque European relationship drama:

    This read generates a certain degree of promise, but the film never figures out exactly what it wants to do with this tension (if in fact it is intending to present it at all), and it never confidently establishes a coherent stance towards Frank and Cora—even at the film's conclusion, it's still unclear whether we're meant to feel sympathy for them or hold them in judgment. It reaches the end of its run-time and allows a more-or-less chance event to simply wipe the questions off the table.

    So, in conclusion: a curious and frustrating film, but one that made me think about two things: 1) how an audience responds to a charismatic criminal couple— either by judging them, or by developing sympathy for them, and 2) how filmmakers approach the long-term success or failure of romantic relationships born in the heat of an impulsive moment. I do believe there are good films that deal with this exact pair of questions—Badlands (1973) is one, and my pick for next week, Bonnie and Clyde (1967) may be another. Stay tuned!

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    Saturday, January 24, 2009
    12:11 PM


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