Friday, November 04, 2005

Picked Flick #81: A Streetcar Named Desire

Is there a more poignant character arc in American drama, in American literature, than the disintegration of Blanche DuBois? Throughout A Streetcar Named Desire, her wounds and anxieties, even her dreams, are those of Gothic fiction: frittered estates, fabled suicides, eleventh-hour suitors, secret histories. Meanwhile, Stella and Stanley Kowalski, her sister and brother-in-law, united by consonance, alliteration, and carnality, have more tangible concerns, like a pregnancy Stella doesn't mention, a ritual poker night Stanley means to safeguard, and, bien sur, the Napoleonic Code. Tennessee Williams' play, among its multiple and ingenious geometries, positions Blanche and Stanley as nearly parallel vectors, moving nonetheless in opposite directions. It is somehow heroic that Blanche, with Williams' help, sustains her romanticism, her "enchantment," as long as she does—even with a paramour as stolid as Karl Malden's Mitch, a walking sack of flour. It is similarly heroic, for quite a long time, that Stanley manages to insist on the proud vulgarity of his petty fiefdom, even as his cohorts offer to stand for the ladies and dance to their radio, as the sisters DuBois share a laugh and later a derogatory confidence at his expense, as prospective parenthood dares to soften him into a stabler companion-provider. Williams is brave to venture these two as complementary egos, each creating worlds within worlds, as Blanche's steamy baths and Stanley's stinking shirt carve a two-room apartment into separate universes.

But A Streetcar Named Desire is not, finally, a relativist play. It stands fully behind Blanche when she names deliberate cruelty as the one truly unforgivable thing, and as her inventions and self-insulations grow more threadbare—who but a desperate woman could even imagine a figure like Shep Huntleigh?—her cold fate is sealed. Elia Kazan films her lowest moment so that we hover over Blanche, her face and body upside down in the shot, rolling back her eyes in high-angle so as to acquire some sense of whom she's talking to. Blanche, as she herself might put it, is utterly boulversée, her blazing imagination finally bereft of all billows. With more severe lighting, it would be a Bergman shot, but it is better for being a Harry Stradling shot: as in the rest of the movie, the low-contrast grayscale here is the color of cobwebs while still assessing incredible visual detail in every frame.

Streetcar is to me what The Wizard of Oz or The Ten Commandments or It's a Wonderful Life or Top Gun are to others: a movie and a story that have always been there, past which it's difficult to remember. I read the play in 7th grade and simply never stopped, and Kazan's version has become such an iconic counterpart to the play that it's hard to separate the two, despite their overt differences. In fact, these disparities are interesting: something as simple as following Blanche immediately to the bowling alley to find Stella, instead of letting her nip her liquor and calm her nerves alone for a few beats in the Kowalskis' tenement, changes the whole energy of the character. She doesn't even have her little spat with the upstairs neighbor Eunice, which is especially surprising because Kazan is noticeably preoccupied with Eunice and her husband Sam as an implied parallel narrative. We even cut upstairs to their apartment a few times, once when Eunice is alone, and she is the last character we see in the movie. That I had forgotten these and other variations entirely speaks, I'm sure, to the memory-filling power of the headline performances and the uncanny perfection of the play. Vivien Leigh gives probably the best performance to ever win the Best Actress Oscar, somehow making Blanche "work" even within Kazan's aggressively realist screen poetics. It doesn't hurt her work at all, and in fact it probably helps, that we do have a sense of watching Leigh construct the performance as she goes—the odd accent, the stiff turns of the neck, the ingenious acting she does with all of her outfits and props. Watching Blanche create herself for such a long span is an ideal lead-in to watching Stanley, Mitch, New Orleans, modernity, the world take her apart. Brando only improves as I get older, reacting no longer to the notoriety of the performance but to its exorbitantly confident, lived-in quality, the hyperfamiliarity with the part that allows him to muffle key lines with no loss to Stanley or to the piece. Hunter and Malden never entirely win me, but the production is so grounded in its superior qualities that what's merely good in it becomes elevated by extension. There's nothing rattle-trap about this Streetcar. (Click here for the full list of Nick's Picked Flicks.)

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Blogger tim r said...

Agreed agreed agreed. And it sounds as though it has an extra-special place in your heart. So I'm intrigued - why isn't this earmarked for your actual top 100? Are there really 180 films you love more? How tantalising!

10:56 AM, November 04, 2005  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

It actually was on my Top 100 in its most recent, still-posted tally, up at #70, but it was one of the last handful I cut in planning my revisions. Maybe because the achievement is so much Williams', and I don't think the film is quite as ingenious in reimagining the script for film as, say, Sidney Lumet's Long Day's Journey into Night, which remains on the Top 100.

As for why it's not higher on this list...yep, I love this many movies! And maybe the fact that Streetcar has been such a longtime constant in my life makes it less exciting to revisit or speculate about than some of the newer discoveries. A lot of this current list derives from what am I most excited to sit down and watch at any given moment, or what movies does my mind drift to when I'm just sitting around somewhere, and by those measures, beloved as it is, this is where Streetcar fits.

It'd certainly be Top 5 material if I were making a list of my most beloved plays, up there with Mother Courage and that lot.

12:22 PM, November 04, 2005  
Blogger Dr. S said...

Have I told you lately that I heart you? (Not because of this choice, just because!) I watched Possessed last night and thought it was crazy. Joan Crawford's eyebrows should get their own billing in her movies. The slide/fall down the stairs is amazing. (I find myself wondering whether we'll see Suddenly, Last Summer on this list...I'm not asking!)

11:40 PM, November 04, 2005  

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