Thursday, May 19, 2011

Agnes of God (1985)

Norman Jewison’s Agnes of God (1985) was a profound work of bravery in the religiously-obsessed Hollywood of the 1980’s. The director of The Cincinnati Kid, In the Heat of the Night and A Soldier’s Story had alarmed studio executives when he came to Columbia Pictures in 1985 with a proposal for his next film: an adaptation of a Broadway play about a murderous nun. It was not the first time he had asked to adapt a religiously-themed play to the big screen; his Fiddler on the Roof (1971) was a masterfully-directed story about a threatened Jewish family. But Jewison, a Catholic, had not yet made a successful film with similar insights into Christianity. With Jesus Christ Superstar (1973) he had achieved a musical that was glossy and exuberant, but also astonishingly banal and impersonal—given the director’s Catholic roots. Agnes of God allowed Jewison to go back and try again.

In his 2005 autobiography, This Terrible Business Has Been Good to Me, Jewison devoted individual chapters to each of the films he made in his 40-year career, carefully explaining how they were made and how he was able to get studio executives to greenlight them. It was particularly challenging for him to convince Columbia president Guy McElwaine to greenlight a project as fundamentally disturbing as Agnes of God: where was the dramatic appeal? Could the story be as provocative on the big screen as it was on the stage? What could audiences possibly get out of the experience? Adamant that he could film a successful adaptation of the play, Jewison responded that the film would have the potential to “test our ability to believe in miracles.” That did the trick.

Other great filmmakers had made fantastic pictures about nuns before, particularly Michael Powell with Black Narcissus (1947) and Fred Zinnemann with The Nun’s Story (1959). But as Jewison explains in his autobiography, he had another plan entirely in developing an approach to the subject matter. “I think most people,” the director wrote, “regardless of their religion, regardless of logic, want to believe in something outside of their daily lives. Outside of themselves. Agnes of God gave me the opportunity to explore that timeless human conflict between believing what we can see, and believing what we can’t see or experience. It seemed to me then, as it does now, that the world is in dire need of angels.”

Nevertheless, Jewison realized that John Pielmeier’s play, which had starred Geraldine Page and Elizabeth Ashley on Broadway, would require a major do-over if it was going to make a successful transition to the screen. To do this, Jewison decided to recast the whole show: Ashley was replaced with Jane Fonda, and Page was replaced with Anne Bancroft—after Bancroft convinced that Jewison that she was no longer a sexy Mrs. Robinson and was now capable of playing older, harder characters. And Jewison armed himself with industry professionals: Pielmeier, whose screenplay was adapted from his own play; Georges Delarue, who composed an eerie musical score; and Bergman veteran Sven Nykvist, whose cinematography sets up the mysterious visual atmosphere almost immediately, as the movie opens with a shot of a chapel sitting peacefully out in the woodsy Canadian distance. In a haunting title sequence, a group of nuns roam around a crucifix, praying softly—before the lights go out and a scream is heard in the night. Nuns run frantically up stairs, a door is burst open, and there is a brief glimpse of someone’s hands wrapped in a bedsheet. Covered in blood.

A serious crime has been committed. One of the nuns, Sister Agnes (Meg Tilly), has strangled a newborn baby and has stuffed it into a wastebasket. The church calls for justice, Sister Agnes won’t talk, and Dr. Livingston (Jane Fonda), a psychiatrist, is appointed by the court to investigate. At first she protests, but the court is insistent: “They want a woman.” Nobody wants the case to go to trial or for Sister Agnes to go to jail, so Livingston is given a simple task: find out who fathered Agnes’ baby, and find out why she strangled it to death. On the first day she visits the convent, she is greeted by a smiling Mother Superior (Anne Bancroft), who allows Livingston to call her "Sister" because the term "Mother" “brings up the most unpleasant connotations in this day and age.” It is only a matter of seconds before the Mother Superior suddenly breaks character, warning Livingston not to corrupt Sister Agnes with her unpopular psychiatric methods. “I know what you are,” she hisses. “I don’t want that mind cut open.”

I’ve seen Agnes of God twice now, and on both viewings I’ve found that the movie works best during scenes of quiet, unsettling ambiguity. Consider the scene in which Livingston first meets Sister Agnes, who—like a child—always smiles, always reacts merrily to everyday situations, always claims innocence to occurrences that seem to be her fault. She is maddeningly unhelpful when Livingston inquires about the murdered baby, which Sister Agnes claims ignorance to: “I never saw the baby, so I can’t talk about the baby, because... I don’t believe in the baby.” The performance by Meg Tilly, which netted the film one of two richly-deserved Oscar nominations (the other for Bancroft), is one of the film’s strongest assets. Cleverly masking the dark secrets of the Sister Agnes character, Tilly finds a way of her own to make Jewison’s nightmare of depraved piety become a reality.

Another important factor in the movie’s narrative is the side-story of the character of Dr. Livingston, played by Jane Fonda as an atheist whose involvement with the case shines a light on her recent loss of faith, among other skeletons in her closet. Her personal life is in disarray, and we get the obligatory sequence of the lonely heroine going home alone on the night of her birthday, with nothing left to do except play out the endless string of messages on her answering machine. We learn that she once had a sister who became a nun and later died in a convent, and this is a predominant theme in the film: the consequences that arise when a family gives up one of its own to the church. There is a scene towards the end of the film in which Fonda watches another girl being inducted into the church as a nun, hugging her family goodbye.

What makes Agnes of God so remarkable is how it sets up a system in which the Catholic Church has both rewarded and ruined the families of all three of these women. The Mother Superior was married for 23 years, and admits that “my children won’t even see me anymore. That’s their revenge. I think they tell their friends that I’ve passed on.” The Fonda character had a falling out with her Catholic parents in the wake of a teenage abortion, and her senile mother now spends her days watching Spider-Man cartoons at a local nursing home. Sister Agnes, it is revealed, is the Mother Superior’s niece, rescued from an alcoholic mother who molested her as a child. She seems to have found salvation in the church, but her murdering of her baby may suggest otherwise.

Of course, the scenes focusing on the murky details of the murder case, as mentioned above, are the best scenes in Agnes of God; it is only when the movie goes off-topic and shows its stage origins that it begins to go wrong. A scene in which Fonda and Bancroft share a forbidden cigarette out in a gazebo, musing about whether “the saints would have smoked”, completely takes the viewer out of the movie. A subplot involving Fonda and her boyfriend, a district attorney, is boring, and reveals nothing more about her character that we don’t already know. These arbitrary scenes feel like they were concocted by John Piehlmeier during individual moments of writer’s block, and it’s a mistake for Jewison to keep them in the film.

There are sequences that feel inspired by elements of film noir, as when a discreet nun drops by Fonda’s door, gives her a helpful bit of advice about the convent records and then leaves without a trace. Or when Fonda, in trying to determine the father of Sister Agnes’ baby, discovers the location of a secret entrance to the convent’s attic: “That’s how he got in! Or how she got out!” Other sequences feel inspired by Hitchcock: there is a sly nod to Vertigo when Fonda and Sister Agnes climb a spiral staircase all the way to the top of a bell tower. And there is a flashback sequence in which Sister Agnes goes hysterical after her hands begin bleeding in a stigmata of sorts, and the blood is as nerve-racking as the blood which so terrified the innocent heroine in Marnie.

But the movie’s highpoint, it must be said, is the climatic sequence in which the Mother Superior and the Fonda character interrogate Sister Agnes and force her to reveal the true identity of the man who fathered her child. This sequence has Agnes flailing around the room and smearing bloody handprints all across the white walls; it’s by far the goriest sequence in Jewison’s career, even in comparison to the cyberpunk violence of Rollerball (1975). In a speech that shares an uncanny resemblance to Harriet Andersson’s speech in Bergman’s Through A Glass Darkly (1961)—in which God rapes the heroine in the form of a spider—Agnes claims that God raped her in the convent attic after taking the form of owls and doves. This can only suggest one thing: that God, not Agnes, is the one who is truly responsible for the death of Agnes’ baby.

It was this incendiary plot point of the film that so infuriated Roger Ebert, who launched a vicious attack against Agnes of God in a thought-provoking 1-star review during the movie’s initial release. In the review, Ebert lambastated the film for disguising a theological morality play in the form of a murder mystery. “This is a very badly confused movie,” he wrote. “If God indeed conceived the child in Sister Agnes' womb, then why did he in his omnipotence allow her to kill it? But of course (you argue), God also gave Sister Agnes free will, so she was free to kill the child no matter what the details of its conception. True, and yet then, we must ask, why did God create a baby to be killed? Here we enter, of course, into the still larger question of why God has created all of us and placed us in this life where we will most assuredly all die.”

Ebert’s criticisms are valid, and, unhappily, I am unable to produce a convincing counterargument. It’s certainly an element against the movie’s favor that Agnes of God leaves some important questions unanswered: why did God want a baby to be killed in the first place? On what grounds does the judge finally rule that Agnes “was in no way responsible for her actions”? Who is the movie blaming, exactly, for the baby’s death? The movie provides no straight answers. And while some of those questions are best left unanswered, others feel like they were left unanswered simply because the filmmakers took the day off.

Perhaps some of those answers lie in the last scene of the film, in which the Fonda character declares, over an ambiguous voiceover, that she wants to believe that Agnes may have been a saint after all. That there’s room in the world for miracles. That, in the unforgettable final shot of the film—in which Agnes catches and releases a dove into the wintry distance—another miracle is being released into the world once more, ready to be used again. As Jewison writes in his autobiography, perhaps this is what Agnes of God is really about: a Lamb of God who takes away sins and, through her own personal sacrifice, helps bring a doubtful psychiatrist back into the church. The comparison isn't a coincidence, either—because “Agnes”, in Latin, means “lamb”.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

High Noon (1952): Fred Zinnemann and the Hawks/Wayne Backlash

It had been twelve years since the release of High Noon, and Fred Zinnemann was getting fed up. For over a decade now, he had had to stand by and watch helplessly as his masterpiece was subjected to one of the harshest backlashes in the history of film criticism. Francois Truffaut had called it "facetious". Manny Farber had dismissed it as "white elephant art". Then, director Howard Hawks, upon finishing Rio Bravo in 1959, raised eyebrows after proudly stating, "I made Rio Bravo because I didn't like High Noon… I didn't think a good town marshal was going to run around town like a chicken with his head cut off asking everyone to help. And who saves him? His Quaker wife. That isn't my idea of a good Western."

Finally, Zinnemann could not take it anymore. In an interview with James R. Silke in 1964, Zinnemann responded to Hawks’ criticisms: “I admire Hawks very much. I only wish he’d leave my films ALONE!” Zinnemann was puzzled as to why so many critics over the years were starting to complain that High Noon centered on a protagonist—Marshall Will Kane—who behaved more like a human everyman than a traditional, all-powerful Western icon. “If you say this is not a Western character,” Zinnemann retorted, “it’s true. I wasn’t there in 1860. Neither was Mr. Hawks.”

Zinnemann would spend his whole career defending High Noon as a film that stressed a universal theme: a simple story about the individual pitted against an overwhelming majority. As he later described the film in his 1992 autobiography, “It is a story that still happens everywhere, every day.” Indeed, this was the kind of theme that dominated all of Zinnemann’s greatest films, from the paranoid POW escapees of Act of Violence (1949) to the impoverished pioneers of The Sundowners (1960); from Thomas More’s hopeless fight for justice in A Man for All Seasons (1966) to a love triangle tested by the icy crevices of the Alps in Five Days One Summer (1982). It was an overlooked filmmaking career, founded on an underlying sympathy for the underdog; after High Noon, everyone in Hollywood would remember Fred Zinnemann’s name.

Today, it is fashionable to think of High Noon as dated and worthless—a film that still has the AFI and the Academy Awards on its side, but not much else. Jonathan Rosenbaum once called it “vastly overrated,” and Roger Ebert confessed as recently as 2007 that it’s a film he “doesn’t like very much.” Much of the recent dislike for the film appears to stem from a bizarre insistence by critics to cite Howard Hawks and John Wayne’s own criticisms of the film. In his Great Movies essay on Rio Bravo, Ebert had attempted to pan High Noon by quoting from his 1972 interview with Wayne, who sputtered, "What a piece of you-know-what that was! Here’s a town full of people who have ridden in covered wagons all the way across the plains... and then when three no-good bad guys walk into town and the marshal asks for a little help, everybody in town gets shy. If I’d been the marshal, I would have been so goddamned disgusted with those chicken-livered yellow sons of bitches that I would have just taken my wife and saddled up and rode out of there.”

What Ebert seems not to have realized is that John Wayne actually had a more personal reason for disliking High Noon, a reason which he rarely expressed in public: the fact that the film's screenplay was written by Carl Foreman, a former Communist who had been blacklisted by the House Un-American Activities Committee, which Wayne had proudly supported. Foreman made it no secret that High Noon was basically his allegorical slap at McCarthyism; Wayne was reportedly so outraged by Foreman’s intentions that he criticized High Noon as “the most un-American thing I've ever seen in my whole life!” Both Wayne and Howard Hawks felt that the movie violated their macho code of honor; they believed there was something fundamentally wrong with making a Western about a hero who was capable of feeling fear. Here was Gary Cooper playing a decidedly anti-Gary Cooper character: Will Kane, frightened town marshal, ostracized authority figure, humiliated husband. Something was happening here. Something about the Western was about to change forever.

Another problem with Wayne’s criticism of High Noon was his charge that Kane could simply leave town, rather than staying and facing the evil Frank Miller and his gang. But the thing is, Kane can’t just get out of town. He and his wife, Amy (Grace Kelly), are planning on opening up a general store once they find a place to settle, and they can’t risk the possibility of Miller’s gang tracking them down. “We’d never be able to keep that store, Amy,” Kane reminds his wife. “They’d come after us, and we’d have to run again—as long as we live.” The fact that Kane will also have to turn in his badge and guns if he leaves town poses another problem: how could he possibly fight Miller outside of town without his authority? Or without guns? The whole point of Foreman's screenplay is that it's designed specifically to ensure that Kane has no alternatives. He’s got to stay.

Nobody in town is willing to help him. Everybody has some kind of excuse. Martin (Lon Chaney Jr.), the retired town marshal, says he can’t assist Kane because of his arthritis and complains, “People got to talk themselves into law and order before they do anything about it, maybe because deep down they don’t care. They just don’t care.” Harv Pell (Lloyd Bridges) won’t help him because of a jealous intuition that Kane has feelings for his girlfriend, Helen Ramirez (Katy Jurado), and vice versa. The town judge (Otto Kruger), who sent Miller to prison, hurriedly leaves town and takes the city hall American flag with him, thus stripping the town of all its democracy. Mayor Henderson (Thomas Mitchell) deprives Kane of any possible allies by seducing an audience of churchgoers with a speech about how blood in the streets might do significant damage to the town’s economy and tourism. Even Amy turns her back on Kane; both her father and her brother were casualties of gun violence and, as a Quaker, she refuses to stand by her husband as long as he continues to fight.

Because the movie questions pacifism as an alternative, High Noon is sometimes dismissed as an apologia for violence, but a deeper reading indicates that the film’s violence doesn’t come easy. For one thing, Foreman’s screenplay offers an insightful (if often-missed) critique of the death penalty. At first, Kane is bitter about Frank Miller going to prison instead of the gallows, but then considers the possibility of Miller returning to town nonviolently: “Sometimes prison changes a man...” In another scene, when the local bartender (Larry J. Blake) cracks jokes about Miller shooting Kane dead, an enraged Kane knocks the bartender to the ground, then feels bad about it and tries to help him up. This scene critiques the myth of the marshal as a slap-happy, vigilante Western hero. And out of all the people refusing to help Kane, the local minister (Morgan Farley) is perhaps the only man in town with a good excuse: “If you’re asking me to tell my people to go out and kill, and maybe get themselves killed… I’m sorry. I don’t know what to say. I’m sorry.”

The film’s long-awaited finale, in which Kane prepares anxiously for Miller’s arrival, is developed by Zinnemann with a montage defined by three lingering visual elements.

The first element is the sense of urgency, symbolized by obsessive close-ups of the many clocks in town, all of which seem to get ominously larger as the noon train approaches.

The second element is the film’s victim, Kane, walking helplessly through the streets before stopping and being regarded in a rising crane-shot of the entire town; Zinnemann achieved this complex shot through the use of a long Chapman crane.

The third and final integral element to the film’s visual style is the railroad tracks themselves. They are always static, always threatening, always waiting patiently for Miller’s train. When the train finally does arrive, it chugs black smoke and blows a loud whistle, reminding us of the train in the finale of Zinnemann’s Act of Violence. And when we finally see Frank Miller (Ian MacDonald), he has the face of a Tin Man and the burning revenge fantasies of your typical Zinnemann-esque villain. He is flanked by three bad guys: Pierce (Robert J. Wilke), the second-in-command; Colby (Lee Van Cleef), silent but deadly; and Ben Miller (Sheb Wooley), who is loud, horny and reckless—and, naturally, is the first one to die.

Zinnemann did not agree with Carl Foreman that that the story was an allegory for McCarthyism. “With all due respect, I felt this to be a narrow point of view,” the director wrote in his autobiography. “To me it was the story of a man who must make a decision according to his conscience.” Nevertheless, Zinnemann, like Foreman, became embroiled in the controversies surrounding the film. During a disastrous screening in July 1952, Zinnemann's son, Tim, overheard an executive in the bathroom muttering, “What does a European Jew know about making Westerns, anyway?” And the debate over the film’s allegorical subtext has always refused to go away. Although some conservatives—indeed, the film’s own star, Gary Cooper—admired Carl Foreman’s insights into violence, patriotism and human weakness, other conservatives cried foul. Howard Hawks and John Wayne took their hatred of the film to their graves. There is a still a temptation today to compare High Noon to Rio Bravo and determine whether or not one film is better than the other.

Why do we have to choose between the two films? Rio Bravo is one kind of Western. High Noon is another. Rio Bravo is a triumph of invisible style; High Noon is a triumph of real-time, documentary style. Hawks specialized in films about professionals; Zinnemann specialized in films about characters suffering a crisis of conscience. One film was a love letter to Westerns as they used to be; another film marked an attempt to bring Westerns into strange, unfamiliar territory. A marshal like John T. Chance knew exactly what he was doing. A marshal like Will Kane makes it all up as he goes along.

High Noon is one of the best movies ever made. That much must be said, right now, in case it isn’t clear. In the end, Fred Zinnemann delivered a film that was meditative, innovative, and just as American as apple pie. It was true to the complex feelings that all gunslingers have ever shared in the Old West (and beyond). It still has relevance for all parties—whether you’re liberal or conservative, Democrat or Republican, Green or Libertarian. One way or another, you’re guaranteed to find something to love about this story. Take your pick and choose your villains. This is a movie for everyone.