by Ernest Larsen
Cut, no. 20, May 1979, pp. 1, 12
Like his earlier sitting duck, WELCOME TO L.A., Alan Rudolph's new REMEMBER MY NAME issues from Hollywood's sparsely feathered art-house wing under the aegis of producer Robert Altman. Unlike most arty movies, Hollywood or not, REMEMBER MY NAME does not succumb to introspection. Rudolph manages to glide his narrative to a coherent conclusion. Since coherence is not currently standard commercial practice REMEMBER MY NAME is memorable on this count alone, quite apart from the related fact that it is visually intelligent (as opposed, for instance, to the purely technoid wizardry displayed by most of its competitors).
But to be honest this particular bird interests me more for other than purely formal reasons. It sustains the viewpoint of a particularly isolated and exploited woman character to examine concretely the isolation, be-numbed terror, and de-cultured blandness of U.S. life. This subject, while not without a lineage in U.S. films, is most often sentimentalized — whether into the suffocating condescensions of MARTY (1955) and COME BACK, LITTLE SHEBA (1952) or into the glib cynicism of FUN WITH DICK AND JANE (1977). Rudolph lacks the nerve to make explicit connections between social and economic factors to explain the predicament of his characters. This is well-behaved art. Even so, especially in its details, his attempt to delineate the territory of U.S. alienation is rich enough to sustain attention. A somewhat Antonioniesque art-movie, REMEMBER MY NAME can only gradually let us know exactly what kind of story it's te1ling in the accumulation of those details. Keeping us guessing may not be the worst narrative strategy but neither does it make for apt paraphrase.
Sun rising on a typical southern California highway. Emily (Geraldine Chaplin) in her rusted-out compact is tailing carpenter Neil Curry (Tony Perkins) on his way to work in his pickup. In the film's first dialogue at the construction site his foreman barks out, "You're fifteen minutes late, Curry," and Neil hurls back, "I had fifteen minutes of personal problems to settle." He's sipping coffee at the coffee-wagon when Emily's car barrels past, horn blaring. It's just the first skirmish in Emily's malicious campaign against him and his wife Barbara (Berry Berenson). Emily rips out their flowerbed, tampers with Barbara's car so that it will stall, phones anonymously, etc.. These scenes are shot so obliquely, without announcement or preparation, that a pervading atmosphere of menace slowly envelopes the couple's supposedly insulated world.
Normally such harassment would play as opening moves in a revenge story. But Rudolph does two things to forestall this simple interpretation. First he deliberately withholds Emily's motivation. The tactic of withholding information about a character, aside from creating suspense, has the effect of generalizing the character's action and its results, since we are blocked from perceiving its cause. Not free to psychologize Emily, we are liberated to speculate on what she is doing. How would it feel if I dumped somebody's marigolds? Or alternatively (depending on my psychology) how would it feel if somebody wrenched a cable out of my Dodge Dart? Both questions, limited as they are, have some subversive qualities.
They point to the vulnerability of an unprotected class, in this case the U.S. working class, whose faulty sense of stability is constructed from random bits of painfully accumulated property. Though Neil is economically working class and Barbara also works partime in an unspecified but clearly working-class job, they suffer a generalized U.S. loss of consciousness about what it might mean to be working class. Given this lack of class identity and resultant vulnerability, Emily's attacks completely unnerve Barbara and allow Tony Perkins as Neil ample room to exhibit his patented nervous look over his shoulder as life gains on him. Emily, apparently disturbed and certainly erratic, increasingly becomes mistress of their psychology. Her attacks continue, menacing but inexplicable — rocks through the picture window, Neil's pickup sideswiped.
Emily corrodes the normalcy of daily life, walking silently into the Currys' house while Barbara is preparing dinner. She picks up the nearest kitchen knife when Barbara approaches her — merely to threaten, not to draw real blood. Shot mostly through open doorways, this scene gains resonance moments later as Neil returns from work. Barbara is now in the bathroom, door closed in the sole domestic bastion of privacy. Neil senses her alarm and timidly allows the closed door to remain between them. Yet Emily's continuing prowling violation of the domestic scene demonstrates in the clearest possible sense how fraudulent and self-damaging such good manners are.
In addition to withholding motivation, Rudolph also slyly supplies Emily with a typically demeaning woman's job at a shopping center discount store near the Currys' little house and installs her in a tawdry transient rooming house. (Emily only lasts a few days on the job; she's caught apparently dipping into the till.) With these downbeat tactics, Rudolph effectively translates Emily's unspecified attacks into the purely destructive rage of a near-lumpen against her immediate neighbor in the class structure. Most of us can now understand and even to a certain extent sympathize with Emily's malice, even while it goes unexplained. The Currys' banal aspiration for "a cabin near the lake" congeals in smug absurdity against the class background of Emily's depredations. Emily all too easily drives a wedge between this low-temperature couple, more likely to turn the TV on than each other. Neil hangs out at the local bar while Barbara moons about her parents as they play gin at the dining-room table.
Rudolph highlights this class paradigm of separation and decultured alienation when Neil picks up Barbara later that evening. Camera in the back seat of the car, she asks if there's something wrong between them. Neil momentarily faces the camera to back out of the driveway. His haunted look is far more eloquent than his verbal attempt to reassure Barbara, using a pet name "Shortcut." Camera still in the back seat, they drive down the residential street illuminated only by their headlights. Startlingly the camera moves through the rear window and onto the roof. Then they drive away, moving from their cosy enclosure to isolation in a dark mechanical world. This threatening camera movement, flashily Antonioniesque, provides the essential dramatic movement of the film.
When we learn Emily's motivation we also realize that the film's controlling imagery is based on the contradiction between the safety of enclosure and the fear of isolation. Emily has "done time," and the notion of doing time is typical of the strata the film portrays. While the already-quoted construction site dialogue prompts this interpretation of Neil's job, Rudolph consistently shoots him at work, through the horizontal frame of two-by-four studs. Similarly Emily's rooming house is repeatedly shot through a fence grid. More subtly, both the rooming house and the discount store evoke the psychology of imprisonment. Both have uniformed security guards, long empty corridors, and the feel of anonymous institutions. Using an altered soundtrack and a subjective tracking shot of Emily carrying a brown grocery bag down a hallway, Rudolph describes the nightmarish existence of both prison and rooming house. A brief dreamlike dissolve (repeated later) of Emily's bed as she falls asleep in the single outfit she'd bought at Joseph Magnins transforms the bars of the headboard and the reflected window blinds into hallucinated prison bars — lockup sounds eerily reverberating on the soundtrack.
Such stylistic flourishes and Rudolph's taste for metaphor give the film considerable psychological density but hardly qualify it as a social document. There is an undeniable moral logic to disciplined use of metaphor, however. By allowing Emily to export her prison experience to the outside world, Rudolph is demonstrating the parallelism, particularly since her endeavors (given their idiosyncratic limits) are almost a complete success. Her prison-smarts help her negotiate through each of her problems, whether it's manipulating Pike (Moses Gunn), the black superintendent of her rooming house (who moonlights as a security guard), or psychologically intimidating her boss, Mr. Nudd (Jeff Goldblum); or physically intimidating the black assistant manager or, with the aid of a handy pencil, jauntily puncturing the gut of an obnoxious male. Without underplaying his heroine's nasty obsessions, Rudolph does demonstrate that her combativeness, her limited use of violence, and her privateness are not inappropriate as almost all conventional ex-con movies are quick to do. Quite the reverse, he shows how Emily and her chosen milieu dovetail to make her a success in 1978 southern California. That the film's narrative logic is so plausible must be (at least partially) due to the fact that this milieu — in essence, if not in fact, our milieu — is very like a prison, the same architecture, the same discipline, the same repression. Even so, the assimilation of the accustomed opposition between prison and American society is hardly novel.
Still it is an idea rather than a trend and ideas in Hollywood can't even get food stamps. Moreover, Rudolph doesn't leave the threads of his narrative dangling à la Antonioni (or producer Altman) in the tattered egotistic glory of significance. He allows us a glimpse of another opposition, another antagonism, poised behind that of classes, of fear and security, of prison and society — the opposition of male and female. He makes some ironic sense of his choice to give us a heroine instead of a hero for his revenge story.
After a series of intensified confrontations that culminate with Emily briefly back in jail, where she finally does speak to Neil, we learn that he caused her imprisonment. During their reunion (the one directly emotional scene in an otherwise coldly ironic film) she appeals in her own somewhat manipulative way for his love, which he studiously withholds. Then, however, in a single day Neil loses the security of both his job — his earlier wisecrack paying off — and his wife. The long-awaited exposition scene — after three-quarters of the film we still don't know the score — comes not during the passionate scene in jail but during the subsequent mop-up with Barbara. Rudolph's ability to shuffle the elements of his narrative finally enables him to hook the squirming fish, the lying husband. (That the dramatic revelation should come from the fish's mouth is a cardinal point in narrative construction.)
Once married — a dozen years earlier — to Emily, Neil, "like all the other guys in the office," was having an affair with a secretary. Emily "accidentally" ran her over and went to the slammer for murder. Perkins plays this scene to the hilt with the result that the humor of the "accident" is beautifully skewed with his pain. Rudolph gets a mixed mood here that throws his heroine's crazy combativeness and passion into high relief. With the Currys' tightly wound security at last detonated, it becomes clear how easily Rudolph could have pointed his narration to turn Emily into another sexist exemplar of the woman scorned. Instead she emerges in totally unexemplay ways as the victor over standard male oppressiveness. In a nicely underplayed sex-role reversal, she seduces Neil while he's drunk in her room. With that much gratification, she lifts his credit cards, buys out Joseph Magnins, and gives her keys to the super Pike, telling him to lock her room — though Neil is still inside. Clearly Neil is not going to stay "imprisoned" in her cell — he could easily kick the door in.
So this last touch is purely gestural in the Antonionesque vein of now-you-see-it-now-you-don't endings, but it does complete the film's sustained logic of social imprisonment. During her impassioned jailhouse appeal to Neil, Emily says that she thought he'd been "doing his own time" in the last dozen years. This last gesture shows that she's freed herself from her delusion of his suffering.
The film's emphasis on bondage (even to details like a handcuff dangling from a mannequin's wrist and Emily's amused highway glimpse of the billboard reading "Get a gun — go to prison") adumbrates a theory of social relations whose psychological base is sadomasochism. This grim possibility becomes most evident in Rudolph's erratic but extensive use of blacks. Two black men, members of the most oppressed and most imprisoned group in society, play roles on the lowest rung of the social order as security guards. A black woman is Mr. Nudd's assistant manager; her chief task to police the checkers. Rudolph accurately observes social contradictions and harsh realities more often skated over in commercial films. At the same time, he tries to offset the potential implication of racist stereotyping by providing extensive soundtrack music by the 82-year-old Alberta Hunter, a black woman. This works psychologically since the music is often the only spirited counter to the dreariness of the decor and the ingrained timidity of the whites in the film except for Emily. But on a material level there's still something patronizing about the lifeless use of blacks as visual markers in a white man's story. Rudolph aggravates this problem by sadistically emphasizing scenes in which Emily plays Pike for a patsy.
Pike's malleability is in fact symptomatic of the greatest defect of the film. REMEMBER MY NAME's carefully shaded sadomasochistic psychology, for all its artful chiaroscuro, is more than faintly deadening. Emily's apparent flight from this psychology at the very end of the film — after donning her new Joseph Magnin duds at the edge of a hilltop highway — suggests that flight is a plausible recourse. Especially when that means decorating the flight with the off-the-rack garments of the well-to-do. After Rudolph's proven manipulative ability, this precipitous return to narrative convention — fadeout on the now-happy heroine accelerating toward the horizon — snaps the brittle contours of the revenge story. The remaining shards, however glittery, reflect how much more Rudolph appreciates Emily's malice than her passion. Never having swerved from its art-house irony, the film ends quite literally on a precipice.