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About Schmidt (2002)
Alienated from life
It is hard to recommend About Schmidt to anyone, without actually knowing that person. Not only does the story seem unconventionally uneventful to most of modern audiences, but it also moves with an unhurried patience that will let many viewers shift in their seats. It really depends on whether one can develop an interest to the film and its subject matter, which shows a retired man suddenly facing the void and meaninglessness of his existence.
About Schmidt moves slowly, but it moves with grace. The film's success is deeply in debt to Jack Nicholson, subordinating his personality to the character of Warren Schmidt. It must have been difficult for somebody like Nicholson to display the role's required lack of passion without letting Schmidt lose his human touch. Yet, his portrayal is excellent in its understatement, and his numerable supporting actors do not disappoint either. Fans of Nicholson will be assured in their belief, that their favourite is not only one of the best, but also one of the most versatile actors still working today.
Apart from the acting, director Alexander Payne's film is also well crafted. The somewhat saddened mood is only enhanced by documentary-like shots, constantly making us aware that what we witness is really an everyday-tragedy. The script shows intelligence, and although it contains many subtleties, most of them will not go unnoticed with attentive viewers. Even though About Schmidt is billed as a comedy, it really is a drama. Many of the humorous situations are more tragic than funny, and truly hilarious moments are rare occurrences.
I've often wondered whether the title of About Schmidt has been chosen with any clear intent. The German surname Schmidt equals Smith in English and is one of the most common. So about Schmidt could actually mean "About Everybody". Everybody can wake up one day and discover that everything he or she has devoted himself to, amounts to nothing. It's a frequent social phenomenon, that people suddenly wise up that their lives are almost over, without ever having fully lived them. Maybe that's how all the sea cruises and world tours of old pensioners can be accounted for. Like Schmidt, they are all making a desperate effort to catch up on a time that's long done and over with.
The film does not exactly give answers and, like in reality, does not end with any true revelations to escape all bleakness. But there is something it often likes to apply, namely the self explanatory power of irony. Like one time during the film, when Warren Schmidt decides to adopt a six-year old African foster child by mail. A cheque of twenty-two dollars, which he dutifully provides on a monthly basis, assures that little Ndugu can go to school, gets sheltered, fed and clothed. Yet, in one of his letters Warren writes to him: "What difference has my life made to anyone? None that I can think of. None...at all!"
Well, think again, Mr. Schmidt.
The Lost Weekend (1945)
"Before 'Weekend', alcoholism was treated as something funny. There were character actors who only played drunks, and always for laughs.There's nothing funny about a drunk."
The often stated belief that alcoholism is a mere bodily addiction does not do the truth any justice. Alcoholism is more. It's a state of mind. It's addictive escapism for those who feel cheated by life, a way of avoiding fears and unhappiness, an illusionary method to make up for ones failures. Maybe that's why most therapies do not succeed. They solely concentrate on the illness, rather than on the cause of it. Of course, in many cases the cause cannot be helped...
In The Lost Weekend we accompany the failed writer Don Birnam (Ray Milland) surrendering to the self-destructive nature of his addiction. Despite being good-looking and intelligent, Don is a hopeless alcoholic filled with self-loathing ("The reason is me. What I am. Or rather what I am not.") The brand doesn't matter, the cheaper the better to him it's all the same. Drinking seems to be his only way to escape from his misery and low self-esteem. "Suddenly I'm above the ordinary. I'm competent. I'm walking a tightrope over Niagara Falls. I'm one of the great ones. I'm Michaelangelo, molding the beard of Moses. I'm Van Gogh painting pure sunlight. [...]" That's what a drunk Don tells his favourite barkeeper Nat (Howard Da Silva).
Yet, in one aspect he is lucky. Unlike many of his fellow sufferers he is not alone. After years of abuse, his faithful girlfriend Helen (Jane Wyman) and his brother Wick (Phillip Terry) have still not deserted him. Compassionately they do their utmost to protect Don from himself by keeping him under close observation. With great effort they determined the most inventive hiding-places of his bottles and they even visited nearby liquor stores and bars, begging not to accept Don as a customer. There is nothing they haven't tried, but Don appears to be beyond salvation ("I am not a drinker. I'm a drunk." he tells them.). Just before the three of them are about to go on a weekend trip, Don devises a cunning plan to temporarily get rid of the two persons who care about him, giving him time to acquire the liquid he treasures the most. Soon he is stone drunk, staggering through the streets, always on the lookout for the next drink. For Don there will be no weekend trip. Only the bottle and the desperate humiliations connected with attaining it.
The Lost Weekend is a a drama of great emotional vehemence, lacking the light heartedness of Billy Wilder's later works. It gives unclouded insight into the darkest corners of alcoholism and depicts the powerlessness of the alcoholic over himself. Wilder created great controversy at that time by letting the lead actor succumb to his addiction. He didn't shy away from showing the addict's humiliations when begging for money or booze. Neither did he hesitate to point out the addict's loss of all self-respect when stealing and lying to pay for his one need. The horrifying hallucination scene only adds up to the disturbing decline of Don Birnam's humanity, proving that the greatest horrors lie within our imagination.
This is an excellent film of lasting relevance. It is technically brilliant and shines with great dialogue (which is typical for Wilder). Its storytelling (flashbacks) is superior. Furthermore Ray Millard (Dial M for Murder) gives a terrific and equally courageous performance as the the self-destructive alcoholic. You can see the desperate self-loathing and calculating slyness of a true addict written on his face.
In the end it comes down to two choices. Don can give in to alcoholism and thereby give up on life. Or he can try to overcome his addiction and face his fears and discontentment. Although sheer will-power may not be enough to achieve the latter, it is essential for succeeding. And the cause isn't lost, for there is Helen to help and care for him. Don is not alone. May someone have mercy on those who are...
The Apartment (1960)
I work on the 19th floor. Ordinary Policy Department, Premium Accounting Division, Section W, desk number 861
In the beginning of The Apartment we see C. C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon) being lost in a sea of desks within a gigantic office room. He works for a huge New York insurance company employing over thirty thousand souls spread over twenty-seven floors. Sometimes he is working overtime; "It's not like I was overly ambitious..." Baxter tells us defensively. "You see, I have this little problem with my apartment
I can't always get in when I want to."
The reason are several superiors, to whom he is lending his apartment for their extra-marital escapades. In exchange they promise to give his career a push by passing recommendations to the personnel manager, Mr. Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray). Although Buddy Boy (that's his disrespectful yet firmly established nickname) is daily surrounded by hundreds of people, he is drowning in lonesomeness. Apart from his mocking colleagues, there does not seem to be any family or close friends. In fact, the only decent person among his acquaintances is his neighbour, Dr. Dreyfuss (Jack Kruschen), ironically under the wrong impression that the man next door is a womanizing drunkard.
So Baxter meekly adapts to the mercilessness of corporate life, putting all hopes of happiness into his career. His free evenings consist of watching TV, preparing dinner or cleaning up after the occupants of his apartment. Yes, one could say that Baxter does not exactly lead a joyful life.
Yet, there is something, or rather somebody carrying light into the loner's gloominess when he falls in love with the pretty elevator girl Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine). Although Fran likes him for his decency and kindness, she does not quite share the feelings of her ardent admirer. But Buddy Boy refuses to notice any signs of unrequited love and eventually talks her into going out with him. You can imagine how Baxter feels when she fails to turn up, and how things get significantly worse when he finds out that she is actually having intimate meetings with the personnel manager Mr. Sheldrake in HIS apartment. The image of purity Baxter had of Fran is gone. On Christmas Eve, he decides to drown his broken heart in a bar while his apartment is occupied by the cause of his misery. But Fran doesn't feel any happier than Baxter, and with the depressing effect Christmas can have on the lonesome and desperate, the story threatens to take a turn into tragedy...
It is hard to pin The Apartment on a single genre. The sharp, witty dialogue as well as Jack Lemmon's hilarious mimic would hint at a romantic comedy. Yet, one cannot overlook the tragic elements which let us dive into thoughtfulness, but never too deeply. Then again the film works on a satiric level, operating as cynical social commentary on corporate culture in the sixties (which is not very unlike today's business life). The remarkable thing about this film is that these three qualities merge perfectly into each other without ever losing the balance. The Apartment is a most entertaining picture, sometimes rushing from one hilarity to the next, and then suddenly slowing down to leave room for contemplation. Sometimes uplifting, sometimes depressing, sometimes both at the same time. Billy Wilder mixed these contrary moods, and most amazingly, it worked out just fine.
First and foremost The Apartment deals with loneliness and the everlasting search for unaccomplished love. "I used to live like Robinson Crusoe. I mean shipwrecked among 8 million people. And then one day I saw a footprint in the sand and there you were." Baxter tells Ms Kubelik. Does any relationship ever work out the way one dreamed it would? Additionally the film points out how people let themselves be treated badly out of total lack of self-esteem. Standing up for oneself and saying the simple word "no" can sometimes be an art of its own.
As an able filmmaker and scriptwriter (together with I. A. L. Diamond, "Some like it Hot"), Billy Wilder once again produced a film classic of outstanding quality. I have yet to see another picture, equally consistent at providing such humorous and well-timed dialogues. The amount of memorable quotes is remarkable and the entire cast did a terrific job at delivering them. Moreover, Wilder chose to shoot in black and white widescreen, shining with beautiful cinematography, and thereby gave the film a very special melancholy mood.
Maybe the greatest strength of The Apartment is its honesty. It doesn't lie to us by painting images of perfect love or of perfect people. Neither does it create scenarios of utter hopelessness. However, it shows us that although life can be unfair on default, everyone is responsible for oneself to work up the courage to achieve happiness. With the director's cynical, yet comic approach to life, the film takes itself serious and it doesn't. It lets us taste the bitter and the sweet, thereby lending itself a tone of reality. For that reason alone I don't feel cheated by The Apartment and its story never failed to cheer me up. Then again, I may be too much of a pessimistic optimist.
Jeunet and Caro paint a dark world of hilarity
Envision a post-apocalyptic world where all but a few sunbeams are blocked out by thick clouds. Most animals and plants have either perished or were claimed by the upper part of the food chain. All currencies have lost their value; after all, you'd spoil you stomach eating them. Instead, the status of money has been replaced by small sacks of corn. Meanwhile, the poor are starving.
In a French suburb, a butcher (Jean-Claude Dreyfus) has made a merit of the people's necessity. Zealously he accumulates hoards of treasures by providing his tenants with meat. Human meat, that is. Under the pretence of offering a janitor's job, he slyly lures strangers into his house until finally turning them into profitable delicatessen. His next victim is already under way, Louison (Dominique Pinon), a former circus performer, arrives shortly after his predecessor has ultimately "moved out". Little does he know of the neighbours' cannibalistic intentions and his grave danger! Luckily, he forms a tender friendship with Julie (Marie-Laure Dougnac), the murderous butcher's rebellious (vegetarian) daughter. When she is trying to save good-hearted Louison's life matters get out of hand and, not unexpectedly, resort to total chaos.
Sounds gloomy, doesn't it? But "Delicatessen" is neither a horrific dystopia nor a social experiment. In fact Marc Caro has created a dark futuristic environment for portraying tremendously comic characters surrounded by the most amusing of oddities. In one scene a tenant tries to pay his debts by offering the landlord a rat-attracting whistle and gets gruffly refused because the bothersome rodents are already extinct. The droll idea itself that an immensely survivable species such as rats (whose uncontrollable numbers could not even be reduced by the most drastic of measures) has been eradicated by sheer human appetite put a grin on my face. There are dozens of similar hilarities of unmatched creativity, both big and small, at which I couldn't help but smile at.
The film is filled to the brim with originality and black-humoured knowingness about life and (what else?) love. Jean-Pierre Jeunet adds his touch with quirky cinematography, setting a surrealistic mood which is charmingly emphasized by a fitting score. Being a comedy, "Delicatessen" provides little of philosophical value and does hardly preach on the deficiencies of human nature. Only sympathetic Louison offers an optimistic theory, something like: "There are no bad people just bad circumstances. Or they just don't know what they are doing."
Of course they know perfectly well. Hence all the fun.