Dummies Will Call The Deep End Hitchcockian

Written by Armond White on . Posted in Miscellaneous, Posts.

It won’t
take long for dummies to call The Deep End Hitchcockian. It presses the
audience’s moral reflex buttons and is photographed ostentatiously enough
for suckers to feel it’s profound. But a bit of thinking uncovers its gimmickry.

As vacantly
stylish as Body Heat–a movie no one talks about anymore–The
Deep End
is also a contemporary attempt at sensationalizing film noir. Directing
team Scott McGehee and David Siegel aren’t interested in ringing film buff
memories (in fact their source, Max Ophuls’ 1949 The Reckless Moment,
is nowhere mentioned in the film’s presskit). They’re more committed
to pulling a p.c. switcheroo. McGehee and Siegel extend the original film’s
feminist argument (The Reckless Moment, like Ophuls’ Letter from
an Unknown Woman
and Caught, has become a key text of postmodern
film scholarship) into an ambivalent plea for homophilia. Margaret Hall (played
by Tilda Swinton) confronts the older male "friend" of her teenage
son Beau, a protective act that leads to Margaret discovering and hiding a dead
man’s body, then dealing with blackmailers to prevent her son from being
charged with murder. Ophuls concentrated on the social and emotional webs that
entrap women–a critique of middle-class repression–but McGehee and
Siegel have changed the plot (from a dallying daughter to a dallying son) in
order to show the commonality of the sexual constraint felt by women and gay
men. Instead of the mother acting out of primal parental instinct, she now expresses
the empathy of the oppressed. So what if it’s too obvious, the filmmakers
brazen; it’s trendy.

McGehee and
Siegel prefer contrived acting and super-stylized presentation–including
the annoying use of dissociated sound (or is it just badly post-dubbed foley
work?). This is meant to alienate conventional, sentimental responses and cue
viewers to the film’s blatant signifying. Beneath McGehee and Siegel’s
thin surface (as shimmery slick as the story’s Lake Tahoe setting), you
can practically see the ideological mechanics: meddling parent seeks control
of children’s lives. Lone woman carries the household burdens while her
husband is away in the military preserving the patriarchy. The underworld of
gay subculture threatens family stability. Mother and son shyly commiserate
about each one’s desperate search for affection. It’s all calculated–certainly
without Hitchcock’s emotional intensity and not remotely as effective as
Ophuls’ rich social vision. What we have here is a deluxe Sundance movie,
meaning that it hews to middlebrow ideas of nifty filmmaking (every confrontation
scene is interrupted by a delaying shock cut) and proper political attitudes.
But other than suggesting that parent-child fealty can be unshakable, the filmmakers’
smartass premise is unsound.

Trying to score
points with a slick, gayish thriller, McGehee and Siegel jumble erotic provocation
and sexual advocacy. Tilda Swinton and Jonathan Tucker as Beau share pale skin
and hollow cheeks–both sensitive victims, emotionally stifled yet drawn
to dangerous, illicit interactions. Margaret’s involvement with the blackmailer
Alek (Goran Visnjic, an immigrant wearing flashy jewelry and a dice tattoo on
his neck) adds to the story’s strange, sinister sexual suspicion without
deepening the characters’ emotional connections. It almost becomes an academic
demonstration of a transgressive thesis, though it never firmly suggests what
it is about the family institution that needs to be violated. Merely suggesting
the need for subversion isn’t sufficient, especially since this particular
family is ghoulishly lifeless.

Swinton, the
sterling art-movie figurehead, is always fine-drawn and spectacular, but she
hardly suggests motherly warmth (although she was Earth Mother extraordinaire
in Tim Roth’s The War Zone). She gives art filmmakers like her mentor
Derek Jarman exactly what they need: a striking, translucent figure who can
shift antinomies–being iconographic one minute and elocutionary (or at
least British and rhetorical) the next. Swinton moved convincingly through the
gender cavalcade of Sally Potter’s Orlando, but her finest screen
moments have been as the tragic bride buffeted by a tempest in Jarman’s
The Last of England (she was a Blakean vision, a friend said) and as
the empathetic robot in Peter Wollen’s Friendship’s Death,
where she approximated Deborah Kerr’s plangent gentility. McGehee and Siegel
don’t tap her best qualities; for the first time Swinton, the great artist’s
model, is opaque, not expressive. (She’s as bland as Tucker, the wan teenager
who doesn’t exactly fit the older man’s address as "lover,"
"precious," "beauty," "tiger.") Swinton’s
capable, but she’s badly directed. When Margaret looks at Beau after learning
his sexuality, her face is colorless–not nuanced, complicated, dismayed
or shocked. In fact, there’s no readable emotion. Like the film itself,
this soccer mom is freakishly cool.

Despite The
Deep End
’s arrogant knowingness about how women and gay men struggle
in society, Margaret’s expression at that crucial moment is distancing.
She reflects the filmmakers, who are so presumptuous about their clever thesis
that they make a ruinous miscalculation when intending to heighten Margaret’s
predicament. Alek blackmails her by threatening to circulate a videotape of
Beau getting porked. (This, too, is a deliberate semiotic transgression–a
reverse of the Freudian Primal Scene.) But it moves everything in the movie
to a different, troubling plateau of psychological and emotional impropriety.

Forcing Margaret
to watch sodomy makes me wonder: Why do "enlightened" filmmakers still
play the game of making gayness seem heinous? The Deep End confuses a
radical agenda with commercial luridness. It’s not so intelligent as the
Dirk Bogarde film Victim, which excoriated gay blackmail back in 1961.
McGehee and Siegel have opportunistically latched onto a Hollywood classic without
thinking through their transformation. They bowdlerize everything that made
Ophuls’ The Reckless Moment wonderful and advanced. Now recognized
as a superior film noir melodrama, The Reckless Moment was made by an
artist who knew that by exploring women’s emotions he could provide moral
insight into society. Perhaps Margaret’s tears seem hollow at the climax
because these filmmakers don’t know how to show emotion. (More work went
into shooting a reflection in a water drop from a leaky faucet than in making
the family crisis felt.)

A moment of
genius occurred in the Ophuls film when the mother Lucia (Joan Bennett) was
joined in the clandestine effort to save her family by their black maid. As
early as 1949, this display of sisterhood crossed racial and class lines. Knowingly
named Sybil, the maid (played by Frances Williams) bore witness to the covert
workings of American domestic life. That alone was a cultural breakthrough.
It presented white and black women’s unacknowledged capacities for passion,
crime, deception, ingenuity, defense. Transferring that insight today to the
fashionable ploy of a mother knowing and keeping her gay son’s secret may
seem hip, but is fatuous; it deprives what at first was a prescient American
story of any convincing social truth. Apparently Sundance middlebrows need the
false incentives of suspense and transgression to justify their concentration
on the political mysteries of gender. Ophuls transcended that narrow focus by
also scrutinizing class and race secrets. The Reckless Moment offered
a post-WWII view of the tensions beneath American prosperity. The mother’s
relationship with her blackmailer (Donnelly, a seedy immigrant played by James
Mason) communicated a distinct malaise in the troubled suburban setting. Modernism
was coming home to roost. It contrasted the U.S.’s pretense of stability
with the rest of the world’s moral exhaustion. That’s how Ophuls’
"woman’s picture" incidentally became a film noir. Bennett and
Mason–two dark-haired, dark-eyed malcontents–flirted unconsciously,
taking on Oedipal overtones. When he admired her rare tenacity, she responded,
"Everybody has a mother like me"–an assertion of principle and
strength that the women’s movement 20 years later barely admitted. Seeing
Lucia place her fur coat on her daughter’s shoulder–suggesting the
middle-class’ mantle and animal protection–makes The Reckless Moment
seem a modern, timeless story.

Giving the
new gay generation a glib view of itself–but in the disenfranchised social
position formerly held by blacks–is specious. Alek and his associates are,
after all, socially privileged white men–another paradox McGehee and Siegel
haven’t thought out. There’s additional gay subtext in Margaret’s
father-in-law (Peter Donat) puttering around the house, suspiciously denying
his grandson’s memory of his own male friend ("You and a tall guy
who took us flying") that furthers the film’s p.c. agenda. When Alek
fights his criminal boss Nagle, Margaret views the treacherous combat–a
beast-with-two-backs murder–as if in flagrante delicto. Gayness
in The Deep End is, decidedly, an appalling spectacle. But there’s
more propagandizing here than drama. Alek’s character is barely defined
(Visnjic seems a darkly dull performer). The scenes where Margaret comes face
to face with him, their lips almost kissing, makes empathetic sexual politics
almost ludicrous. Alek’s whispered last words "I think I’m not…"
could be his too-late discovery of his own bisexuality.

Those final
scenes carry other meanings, too. Swinton’s weirdly detached but insistent
presence is often framed so that she commands that semiotician privilege, The
Gaze. She’s the witness to the homosexual secret spectacle. Crying over
Alek’s expiring body, she emblematizes her legendary relation to Derek
Jarman. That’s an understandable tribute. But the damnedest question remains:
How dare anyone think they could tell this story better than Ophuls already


Thomas Bezucha’s
Big Eden has a surfeit of the emotionalism The Deep End lacks.
So overly sentimental it might as well be set in Sundance, it’s a bizarre,
multiculti sudser in which a gay man (Arye Gross) returns to his Montana hometown
to care for his ailing grandfather and discovers an unbelievably tolerant all-American
community. If you’ve been waiting for a film that combines Soho with Mayberry,
this is for you. While shivering at McGehee and Siegel’s frigid contrivance,
I fancied going to an editing room and splicing together scenes of Bezucha’s
warm homespun multiculturalism and McGehee and Siegel’s chilly postmodernism.
Maybe it’d produce some steam. That’s one way to solve the apparent
gay indie film crisis.

The Reckless
closes the American Museum of the Moving Image’s "Hollywood
on the Home Front" series Sept. 9.