Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Better In Your Head?--THE DAY OF THE LOCUST

Nathanael West

"Few things are sadder than the truly monstrous."

SPOILER ALERT, everything in life is a metaphor. Unless it's a simile.

Behold, a Depression-era fiction that's lost none of its relevance in 68 years. Good for the author? Bad for the planet?

Tod Hackett would have probably shrugged at both questions, believing the concepts of "good" and "bad" doomed for the dustbin of history. A Yalie in Cali, designing sets for a studio not far from his crumbly stucco apartment in San Bernadino, Tod possesses a supreme radar for desolation and despair, and everyone in his range is scattering his signals. He senses a Civil War is brewing.* Hence, the young artist imagines his masterpiece, an apocalyptic canvas entitled "The Burning of Los Angeles" featuring the despondent imports who felt bamboozled by the image of California as the land of silk and money.

Tod's an odd duck; rather than send him sprinting for Canada, the thought of America's self-cannibalization cheers his spirit.

Even worse--he's infatuated with a neighbor, 17-year-old starlet-to-be Faye Greener. Problem is, everyone red of blood and male of gender, is infatuated by Faye. (Whether or not any of them share Tod's rape fantasies is besides the point.) Faye is consumed by her idea of success, which includes standing underneath bright lights and speaking the words of others. She is a selective young miss, to be fair; a conceited cunt, to be unfair. She longs for a man who can meaningfully assist her in the attainment of a chimerical goal. Tod is in the business, sure, but he's just a doodler. Thus his value as a boyfriend is nil, but as a hanger-on Faye figures she can get fifty cents a pound from the schmuck.

Another resident at the San Bernadino Arms who moved out west for the health benefits is a middle-aged bookkeeper named Homer Simpson. He works diligently and plays rarely.

But Homer isn't banging Faye either. That honor goes to Earle Shoop, a stud actor who can't bear not to bring work home. So he's the man in her life? No, that's daddy Harry, a con-man vaudevillian in declining health. After the sire Greener up and dies, Faye turns to prostitution for a spell, then moves in with Homer, who seems honored to help jump start a career, knowing he will be properly recompensed. Also, the companionship is kinda nice, even if Faye makes him feel like a one torn half of a paper dollar most days.

Their situation hits Tod like a spike to the center of his chest. That squirming, soft-mannered lunk with the beatific siren of San Bernadino Arms?

Both men are overeager to please, pathetic in their transparency. A woman of finer stock would take them aside, one at a time, and kindly inform them of their simp tendencies. Faye isn't even a woman yet.

Tod tries to forget her. Puts away all the drawings of her. Concentrates on the Battle of Waterloo movie being filmed at the studio. Visits local churches (for the rage rather than the rhetoric). For a few months, it works.

Faye is far from the only Arms resident waiting for a breakthrough role. There's Mrs. Loomis and her precocious son Adore. He's a star waiting to shine, to hear her tell it, and to prove it she encourages him to perform an uncomfortably erotic song and dance for Tod and Homer.

Poor Homie. Agreeing to be a slavish sugar daddy doesn't assure being treated with respect, he's discovering. Earle and his buddy Miguel have moved into the garage behind Homer's place (along with their roosters) and while he's none too happy with the arrangement, he decides to stay quiet.

Following a brutal cockfight, virtually every male character featured in the novel retires to Casa de Simpson, where the booze is plentiful and the lady of the house is ready to entertain by babbling words of pseudo-wisdom about "the business" that she herself scarcely believes before taking to the floor and shaking her heart-shaped booty. Homer leaves and Tod follows. After a protracted silence that remains unbroken despite Homer's clear intentions, Tod reminds the other man that he's being emasculated, which leads to Homer locking himself in his bedroom while the other men let their immature passions run away from them.

The next morning, Tod goes to visit the scene of the misdemeanor, finding Homer utterly alone, curled up all fetal-fi-fo-fum on the living room couch. He explains to Tod, with a lack of emotion that is as saddening as it is detestable, what happened overnight: Earle caught Faye in flagrante delicto with Miguel and more violence ensued. Both men left, cocks in tow, Faye following not long after.

Despite the other man's obvious distress, Tod leaves for dinner. After exiting the restaurant, he follows the arcing lights in the sky to Kahn's Persian Pleasure Palace, where a sizable crowd's on hand for a movie premiere. Also present is Homer, all packed and ready to go back to Iowa, since nothing dilutes the taste of failure like distance.

The crowd is waiting impatiently. Contemptuously. Shouting, pushing--the dam is 'bout to burst. The perpetual observer is about to get yanked from the sidelines.

The riot's inevitability does not rob it of its horror.

Mindful of the pack of people mushrooming around them, Tod leads Homer to a nearby bench. Lesson learned, he decides to keep an eye on the pensive man rather than try to talk. Peace is short-lived; Adore Loomis, his mother nowhere to be found of course, is hiding behind a tree, trying to get Homer's goat with a prank. When that doesn't work, he comes out into the open and begins antagonizing the large, mute man. When that silliness gets no response, Adore straight up throws a stone at Homer, hitting him square in the face.

That gets him the attention he craves. Homer, a pushover no longer, pursues the young boy, who probably could have outrun the big lug if he hadn't tripped. Tod's blows do nothing to deter Homer from kicking the child to death right there on the street.

In the midst of the flesh-crush, Tod revises his notional masterpiece. The city burns while the horde pursue Tod and his acquaintances. Once away from the swarm, Tod can no longer communicate with words, instead aping the loudest sound he hears.

Stunningly, The Day of the Locust did not fly off the bookshelves, although the praise from peers and critics was immediate and glowing. Nathanael West was a writer of many gifts, including masterful foreshadowing and exceptional skill at crafting brilliantly absurd characters and cast them in a relatable milieu. Although the people we don't become acquainted with are every bit as crucial to the story as the ones we do. The ones with death wishes, the disgruntled bit players. The American Dream teased them, left a trail, then left them with an ever-expanding emptiness. They're special, so special. They've gotta have some of your attention, give it to them.

That ending. Wow. Wow.

Director-John Schlesinger
Writer-Waldo Scott

Unlike the novel, the movie starts with Tod's (William Atherton) arrival at his new apartment. From there, we see him meet his alluring neighbor Faye (Karen Black), a sexy little grasshopper of a woman, and land a set designing job at a nearby studio. Tod's work falls short of art, which suits the demands of his latest project (a movie about the Battle of Waterloo) just fine.

Tod wants Faye, quite badly, but cannot have her, quite clearly, so he simply stares at her unblemished joy of a face during many soliloquies on the ins and outs of the movie business that she yearns to one day dominate with her sass, class and cordiform ass. How can a dime-a-dozen chick inclined to let loose a "whoopsie-daisy" without a trace of shame effortlessly transform an adult man into a love-struck numbnuts? Coquettish machinations, baby, never fails.

After an hour, we meet Homer Simpson (the spellbinding Donald Sutherland), a gangly accountant with the charisma of a rotted log. That's no real bother, given that he only moved out to California from the Midwest to regain his overall health. As long as he feels better, what's a lack of social life matter?

Such a person as a Homer Simpson seems harmless enough. But it's that placidity that so irks a person such as Adore Loomis, a towheaded pest of a girlish boy who scampers 'round the Arms, a max pain to anyone unfortunate enough to cross his path. Adore's mother is gung-ho on living her squashed dreams of fame and fortune through her child, who'd really rather just scurry 'round the town causing trouble. Homer Simpson can depend on at least one intrusion a day.

After two hours of Tod wookin' pa nub in all the wrong places, Faye's inexplicable fits of jealousy, and Burgess Meredith trying his damnedest to ruin everything as Faye's pathetic failure of a father/performer, The Day of the Locust decides time's come to become a bleak satire!

Three cockfights in one night lead to Faye leaving behind a virtually catatonic Homer. I say "virtually" because he still manages to make it to Grauman's Chinese Theatre, where a rabid crowd is watching the well-paid and even better-dressed exit fancy cars. Tod's there, and so's Faye! Golly she didn't get very far!

Homer makes his way to a bench. He sits and waits, but what for? Pretty sure it wasn't the appearance of Adore Loomis. Where's Mama Loomis? Probably among the gawkers. She really should have taken some time out from being a stage mother to teach her child how to recognize the signs of a human being on the verge of going atomic. Christ, I get it must be hard to resist making fun of a guy who looks like a cross between Frankenstein's monster and the fourth son of Alois and Klara, but there's a difference between pulling a face and throwing a rock at a face.

It's worth noting that the throng is actually no worse than loudly enthralled by the parade of success until one among them catches sight of Homer going all "Why you little!" on Adore. At that moment, the fleas decide to light on the dog's eyes, fly up into its nostrils and ear canals, and let that SOB bark.

The riot goes on for an agonizing length. Men fight. Women are overpowered and abused. Fires rage and glass shatters. Tod begins to imagine his nightmarish canvas-to-be has come to life right there, in front of Grauman's. Meanwhile, the bodies of Adore Loomis and Homer Simpson lie on the street like so much ordinary litter.

In order to make The Day of the Locust anything close to a successful adaptation, it had to get the ending. The sights are easy--point the camera and turn that bastard on. To capture the smells and sounds of forfeited dreams, a far trickier accomplishment.

Well, Schlesinger and crew excelled at the ending, which is one of the most disturbing things you've probably never seen.

Shame 'bout every other section of the film.

The acting is frustratingly adequate. Again, Burgess Meredith is thunderingly vexatious. The daddy/daughter dynamic, wherein he laughs like a horny schizophrenic while she sings all throat-no chest, is a prime example of "better read than seen." See, warring grating sounds is how Harry and Faye Greener argued. And I can't explain precisely how I imagined Harry's laughter, but I promise you it didn't make me want to begin cutting my wrists with the corner of the page I was reading.

Meredith spent one-third of his screen time dancing and hawking polish, the remaining two-thirds on the brink of heart stoppage--and got a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination!

William Atherton speaks the dialogue with all the vim of King Sun on codeine, while looking like Christian Laettner if he'd gone to college for art instead of athletics. Not exactly a hot Toddy, y'all. Karen Black is about two decades too late to properly play Fay, but if all you're judging her by is the ability to portray a blonde bombshell reeking of artificial flavors (and resentment over Peg Entwistle stealing her idea), age ain't squat but a number.

The one single superlative acting performance comes from Donald Sutherland. He deserved some Oscar respect. Homer Simpson is a basic block, a simpleton in suspenders, frightened of his own feelings which tend to bubble, gather, crest…then die out. His hands'll go haywire till he soaks them into submission, and then it's back to the books, or the patio chair, any space besides his head. Catastrophe averted! Until the night it isn't. Jesus, the virtually orgasmic noises Sutherland expels while kicking a young boy bloodless. (Also, Sutherland has the only memorable face in the movie, and Nathanael West was big on describing faces, usually with amusing inventiveness.)

The Day of the Locust has its defenders, hell it has champions, and that's fine.. The clock faces in Grand Central Terminal are made of opalescent glass, but lots of folks believe they're made of opal.

This is awful pretty framing for a pretty awful portrait. Nathanael West did not live to see his most famed work of fiction made into a Hollywood production, dying at the obscene age of 37 just one year after the book's publication. Perhaps West would have appreciated the irony in the film's bloat.


The movie gets a few things right. Battles that are lost before the first blow is struck? Check. Movie set negligence? Check. Bellicose dwarf? And mate.

Gordon Hall received Oscar recognition for his cinematography, which lovingly leads hideous people through a gorgeous filter. I never did. Seeing golden reds and burnt oranges where I expected dried blood and wet mud seemed…artificial. The movie wants me to believe that darkness and light co-exist in the milieu--but I read the book, though, and thus know better. Trying to inject humanity into these assholes is like punching the water to keep from drowning.
Tod isn't likable. He's a hack doodle-boy. He wants to rape a teenage girl because he resents her "egg-like self-sufficiency." He taunts a big dolt that wouldn't harm a ladybug. He keeps returning to his personal vomit-pile, over and over, sticking his nose down in it and wondering why it doesn't smell like honeysuckle chunks.

The book references various members of the animal kingdom, with the dog being the most popular. Fitting, since the canine so resembles the wolf. Forget the loyalty, fidelity and protection. These are the incessant barkers, the floor-stainers, the toilet paper destroyers. Each mention of the beast in man reminded me I was reading a fully-realized story.

The movie is a collection of scenes someone already wrote far better. Take the campfire sequence, which goes from a nerve-racking display of men wrestling with their vulnerabilities to a series of close-ups as subtle as an exploding neon sign.

While West's novel is a relatively brisk read--right alongside They Shoot Horses, Don't They? in the "Soul-Destroying Fiction For Your Lazy Weekend" category--Schlesinger's film feels every single one of its 144 minutes (the church sequence made me an atheist for about eighteen hours). Maybe if screenwriter Waldo Salt bothered to give the viewer some sense of Tod's longing to deface Faye's exquisite facade, but no, the temptation to be weird for the sake of weird proved too persuasive. As it is, Tod just stares. And no offense to William Atherton, but his expressive majesty has its limits, and they are reached very early on in the proceedings. 

I like the decision to increase Adore's presence in the film. He's the obnoxious octave pop in the bass line. Less a fan of putting Faye in the action after the fight at Homer's crib. The epilogue wants us to believe she gives a damn about Tod, which completely misses the point of the book.

Is it weird I miss the claustrophobia? Exhaustion or exhilaration, oh the line is mighty and fine. I hate emotional distances in my day-to-day life, but its depiction in fiction makes me feel grateful and excitable.

(It's definitely weird that I miss the claustrophobia. "Dying in a crowd" is in my "Top 5 Ways I Don't Want To Go Out," ahead of "shark attack" and behind "choking.")

I've already proclaimed my affection for the moment the onlookers simultaneously unlearn their bite inhibitions and plunge their teeth into Homer. Tod's hallucination really is better outside the head, since I was too caught up in the issue of his survival to imagine what he "saw."

Another big change: the presence of the celebrities at the premiere. This makes even more blatant the separation between the famous and the detritus. Do you get it now? Celebrity worship will destroy civilization!

The author can give just an inch, while the director at his or her clumsiest will dot every foot of a mile with path lights and pylons. The reader can hear the trill of a birdsong, or the tone and texture of a person's laughter, and the sound belongs to them alone, no matter how descriptive a writer gets. There's always room, even in the most suffocating of spaces.

"What's a Homer Simpson?"

In one way, Homer Simpson represents the cheated people. In another way, he doesn't. They're ravenous, corrupted, unthinking. Homer is self-aware, insecure and fumbling in his quest to keep his baser instincts at bay. When he takes a life, it is a decision he reaches of his own volition, far from the madding crowd.

Per this interview from 2012, Matt Groening claims to have taken the name of the world's most famous nuclear power plant employee from The Day of the Locust-"Homer" also being his father's name just cinched it. Due to that very fact alone, the novel must be considered a classic of the English language, and one of the most important books ever written.

Life ain't figurable. One day you're complimenting some brat's toy sailboat, the next day you're crushing him fifty feet way from an unruly crowd of salivating rubes.

Hard lesson about hard work: it does not always pay off.

As far as irritating "Faye"'s in fiction go, Miss Greener doesn't approach Captain Furillo's ex-wife.

"Tod" is the German word for "death." Death is what the young set designer envisioned, death is what he helped facilitate. What happens to him after the riot, when the cop car whisks him away? Nothing good, I can assure you. He is cursed. He is the locust. Wherever Tod Hackett goes, he brings calamity. 

Oh, the days when abortions only cost forty bucks.

During the riot, Tod (temporarily) saves a young girl from sexual assault. There is your FDA-recommended dose of irony for the entire week.

"I'd like to direct your attention now to this imposing erection."

Advice time. You start having rape fantasies about a chick who knocks back tequila from a peanut butter jar, you walk up to that young lady and you apologize. You don't tell her why, 'cause your nuts ain't made of steel. Just make it very clear that you are very sorry. Do not break eye contact, but do remember to blink.

Are we supposed to hate Homer for making the world one shithead short? Just kidding, guys, clearly his crime was very great (in the pejorative sense).

(Hey, I wonder if this scene was inspired by…nah.)

Tod calls Homer "Homie" in both book and film. I giggled each time (and I'm not an especially giggly gal).

*He was only 80 years off.

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