Friday, November 02, 2007

and nowhere shines but desolate

Immediately after watching Suddenly, Last Summer on Monday, I was struck by the amount of vitriolic hatred it seemed to espouse toward homosexuals, and that I didn't think I'd ever seen such a gratuitous manifestation of the gay man as sexual predator in any film before, ever. Which I found particularly interesting, seeing as how it was based on a stage play by Tennessee Williams, and the screenplay was written by Gore vidal (both of whom, as everyone knows, are very Famous Homosexuals). Another interesting piece of trivia that I wasn't aware of was that Montgomery Clift, who plays the doctor, was also gay, and was apparently treated very badly by the director for this reason.

Despite my 5-star rating on Netflix, because it was so much fun to watch and marvel at, I kind of consider it a film beyond rating, or even beyond criticism. Not because it's so transcendantly good, or stands out as some kind of untouchable artifact from its era, but simply because it's so god-awful. The movie is essentially a geek show, an unbelievably overwrought 2-hour shriek from the very depths of Williams' twisted and tortured psyche, a piece of work rumored to have been written as therapy for himself, which means it probably should have stayed hidden somewhere, locked away in a box.

I am being a little unfair, since I've neither seen nor read the play, which is apparently just 2 long monologues, and it might be quite different. Vidal claims in Vito Russell's The Celluloid Closet that the studios made the screenwriter drop every overt reference to homosexuality in the script, and made the director turn the homosexual himself into a faceless, voiceless shadow (if you've seen the film, you know what I'm talking about). This dehumanizing element of the film is probably most responsible for turning it into the unsettling creepshow that it is.

Over the last few days, though, I've come to start thinking of the film a little differently. (I also can't help but wonder how differently it would have turned out had the studios not imposed such strict censorship.) The film, I think, is basically about a man who is literally consumed by his own unquenchable desires, but rather than blaming the victim (which I did after viewing the film, and which I think is an inherent psychological factor the film exploits) perhaps it could be taken as a parable of what repression can do to a person. Taken less literally and more of a metaphor might be a more balanced interpretation, but nevertheless, the histrionics and melodrama pretty much kill any kind of serious reading of the film. Whether this was simply a product of 1950's movie-making, where lots of shouting and over-emoting was kind of the order of the day, or a deeper symptom of pervasive homophobia and mysogyny is impossible for me to discern.

Nuance and subtlety are not hallmarks of any of Tennessee Williams' plays (at least in the film versions), but they do all contain deeper and more interesting undercurrents than does Suddenly, Last Summer at first glance. A Streetcar Named Desire has a real broken heart at its center (or, more appropriately, 3 broken hearts), and Paul Newman showed incredible depth in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof as a man completely broken, both physically and emotionally, on the verge of total collapse. Despite the hysterics and shouting. Suddenly, Last Summer comes off more like a right-winger's fantasy of the moral deprivation of gay men and their lustful, predatory nature. But all the Freudian elements are there for display if one cares to look, and judging by the rash of today's headlines, it doesn't seem too off the mark to concede that perhaps Williams was really onto something in this one. Grotesque though it may be.

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