Friday, September 23, 2011

When Autumn Leaves Start to Gab

Werth: Dear God, I am happy to see you, Wise!

Wise: Did I win the lottery and no one told me?

Werth: No, I'm just feeling reborn with the coming of autumn!

Wise: I thought fall was about things dying.

Werth: It is, but I just feel so much better when the air cools and I stop sweating and people stop wearing filthy flip-flops on the streets of NYC.

Wise: Fall is also a great setting for movies.  Used effectively, the seasonal explosion of color before the inevitable tumble into winter can greatly enhance the tone of a film.  And few filmmakers have used the brittle, polychromatic perfection of Autumn better than M. Night Shyamalan in The Village (2004).  

Werth: I make it simple and just refer to all of his films as The Twist.

Wise: Set in a 19th century Pennsylvania town, the film dramatizes the the inhabitants' reluctance to interact with the outside world.  Only when Lucius (Joaquin Phoenix) is stabbed by the developmentally disabled Noah (Adrian Brody) over their competing affections for Ivy Walker (Bryce Dallas Howard) do the elders of the town consider allowing Ivy to set off on a journey to procure medical supplies.  

Werth: Where she encounters... The Twist!  

Wise: The film does suffer from Shyamalan's previous success with The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable, and suffered even more when an early draft of the script was leaked online revealing the ending and causing re-shoots of a rejiggered finale.  

Werth: Even The Twist had a Twist.

Wise: But I have to say, despite the slap-dash preposterousness of the climax, this film—moment by moment—is one of my all-time favorites.  Beautifully photographed by Roger Deakins, the costumes and sets are bathed in the ochre, amber and umber of Autumn while the mysterious creatures lurking in the forest are swathed in crimson.  
And the performances are great, too, especially William Hurt as Ivy's father Elder Walker—played to the hilt in full-throttled phlegmatic portentousness—and Sigourney Weaver as Lucius' ferocious mother Alice.  
What I like best, however, about Shyamalan's direction is the intimacy he creates onscreen.  His characters interact in believable ways, and even small moments—like two girls sweeping a porch and making a game of twirling their long, golden skirts—feel effortlessly real.  

Werth: Unlike the mechanical Twist at the end.  

Wise: Sometimes plot just gets in the way of a good film.  

Werth: My favorite fall movie is autumnal in name only. Named solely for the popular Nat King Cole song that opens the movie, Autumn Leaves (1956) is the story of single, Hollywood typist Millie Wetherby who, although she is in the autumn of her years, meets and falls in love with a much younger man who is equally desirous of her.

Wise: Sounds like a charming love story.

Werth: It's directed by Robert Aldrich and stars Joan Crawford.

Wise: I stand corrected.

Werth: Not long after the wedding, Millie discovers that her new, exciting husband Burt (played by the recently passed Cliff Robertson) is a schizophrenic and soon he is terrorizing her with mood swings and typewriters. Burt's ex-wife (Vera Miles) and his father (Lorne Greene) show up to add some oily grift to the proceedings, pushing Millie to the edge. 
Crawford as a terrorized woman is in very comfortable territory here, but Aldrich does something with her that he would later do with Bette Davis in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane (1962). He makes Crawford embrace her age. Crawford was 51 when she shot Autumn Leaves and while she was still a vibrant-looking figure, she captured a sense of loneliness and resignation that comes with realizing that perhaps your best years are behind you which makes the hope presented by Burt all the more thrilling—and then horrifying—when it's snatched away.

Wise: I would be terrified to snatch anything from Joan. 

Werth: But it's not all shattered love and straitjackets, Aldrich still has a flair for camp, and the scene where Millie confronts Burt's ex-wife and father is an all-time quotable. It's not out on DVD, but look for it on Turner Classic Movies, or get a VHS copy and dust-off your VCR. It's perfect for an afternoon spent under a fleece blanket with a cup of warmed apple cider... and your typewriter.

Wise: I'll stick to my computer, which we'll use to post more cinematic insanity next week on Film Gab!

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