Thursday, March 5, 2015

Sibling Assignment #159: Truffaut's *The Last Metro* and American Drama

For Sibling Assignment #159, Carol asked an intriguing question:

"Pick a movie you have watched recently, and talk about how that movie changed the way you look at the world."
Christy loved Into the Wild, here and Carol's piece is still to come.

For years, I've been aware of Francois Truffaut's 1980 movie, The Last Metro, and, for the life of me, I can't remember why it ever came to my attention.  Maybe I heard Siskel and Ebert review back when I started grad school; maybe, because it's a Truffaut movie, it was hip for graduate students to see it; I can't help but wonder if maybe, when I returned to Whitworth to teach in 1982, if maybe it was a movie Leonard Oakland talked about in our several conversations about movies.

I don't know.

But, last Saturday, when I went to the Greenbelt Public Library, I spotted it, checked it out, and yesterday I watched it.

Briefly, it's a movie about a theater in Paris that continues to mount plays during the Nazi occupation.The theater's owner, Lucas Steiner (Heinz Bennent) is a Jew and has disappeared into hiding and his wife, Marion, played by Catherine Deneuve, is not only a lead actor for the theater, but she takes over her husband's administrative duties. For the production of a play entitled, Disappearance, the theater hires an accomplished young actor, Bernard Granger, played by Gerard Depardieu.

Early on, we learn that Lucas Steiner has not disappeared to South America, as rumored, but is in hiding in the cellar of the theater where he listens to rehearsals, passes notes to the cast through his wife (it appears they are her notes), and continues his marital relationship with Marion in secret.

In the same way that Lucas Steiner hides in the cellar of the theater, the movie explores feelings and secrets characters have hidden in the cellars of their inner lives, feelings that can only remain repressed for so long before they come rushing out, sometimes in dark and violent ways and sometimes in expressions of unleashed passion.

In case anyone reading what I'm writing here sees this movie, I'm not going to get into the details of the movie about the secrets or hidden feelings different characters hold inside them or how those feelings get expressed.  Suffice it to say that I thought Truffaut turned the historical reality of Nazi oppression and how it forced characters into secret lives into a way of also understanding the ways human lives and human actions are also defined by the secrets we push down into our inward cellars and the how our repressed feelings -- whether of affection or of malice -- can come rushing out of us, violently sometimes, sometimes sexually.

Carol raises a good question:  How did this movie change the way I look at the world?

Mostly it changed what was on my mind yesterday.  I watched the movie to take my mind off of anxiety about money, whether I have good reason to feel anxious or not.  The Deke and I had a late afternoon appointment with a couple of financial planners and I was nervous.

So, instead of thinking so much about retirement accounts, the movie inspired my mind to travel back to teaching the Family in American Drama course at Whitworth in January of 1983 and 1984.

This idea of repressed memories, desires, and secrets is at the center of such 20th century American plays as Long Days Journey Into Night, Death of a Salesman, Streetcar Named Desire, and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

Memories of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof came rushing back to me because like The Last Metro, Cat on a Hot Tin Room featured a cellar (or a basement).  The basement was littered with relics, well, junk, that Big Mama has bought on hers and Big Daddy's world travels.  It's in the midst of this junk, in the cellar, that Brick and Big Daddy clear out the junk in their relationship and, in the cellar, get to the bottom of what's true in their lives.

In that course, we also worked with a metaphor we called the frozen pond.  The idea was that often the surface of our lives look placid and calm, like the surface of a frozen pond, but underneath that still surface is all kinds of swirling activity -- fish swimming, the food chain in action, and water currents moving,  This activity is hidden until something breaks through the surface.

It's not a perfect metaphor, but it applies really well to how we humans function.  We often hide what's going on inside, the truth, underneath an exterior much like the surface of the frozen pond. Then something happens -- say Brick confronts Big Daddy or Willy Loman's memories of his infidelity can no longer be pushed back or George breaks through Martha's drunken, shrewish exterior to the what's actually vulnerable and affectionate inside her.  This metaphor was a great help in our discussions of Ordinary People (remember when Berger [Judd Hirsch] breaks through the frozen surface of Conrad (Timothy Hutton)?].

There's a brief moment of such truth telling in the cellar in The Last Metro regarding Lucas' knowledge of Marion's feelings of love/desire for Bernard, swirling feelings she's tried to push down beneath the frozen surface of her professionalism and sense of propriety.  She's also found a way to displace her feelings when she lashes out at Bernard for physically attacking the movie's villain, a theater critic.

I won't give any more away.

I will say, though, that I welcomed this change of focus during my day.  I will always love to think back on that Family in American Drama class.  I also enjoy the self-examination that inevitably grows out of thinking about the frozen pond, about the cellar of secrets and repressed feelings that reside inside of me.  They don't have the power they did when I was younger.  I suppose I have come to grips with my understanding that not everything I think or feel or have done needs to be out in the open.  With that understanding, these things don't eat at me, but are, in fact, sources of happiness that are not violating, nor will they violate, any trust and that I don't care to share.  I assume that those I am close to have their secrets, too.

I hope so.

Pauline Kael called The Last Metro an embarrassment, a lukewarm nothing of a movie. I wouldn't go that far.  I enjoyed that the movie was made in a 1940s style, never pretending to a piece of realism, but always keeping before us the melodrama of the theater company's backstage life and the melodrama of keeping Lucas hidden.  Even though the movie opens in a documentary style, soon any idea that this is an historical look at Paris during the Nazi occupation dissolves and much more nostalgic and romantic feel takes over.  Nonetheless, within this nostalgic and melodramatic context, the movie explores the realities of human life I've already mentioned, keeping it from being, for me, neither lukewarm, embarrassing, nor a nothing of a movie.


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