The Misfits (1961)
THE SADDEST GIRL IN THE WORLD
by Letitia Trent
The Misfits is a chronicle of decline, a movie about four people whose lives have become strange to them in a West that is no longer a place of individualism and freedom but of commerce and commercialization. It’s about people who live in the twilight time of Reno and play at keeping house until the playing no longer works and they have to figure out how to live when they have no home and no instinct for everyday life. They don’t know how to be normal like women pushing strollers and going to the grocers and men in suits or even men in blue collar jobs, clocking out of factories to go home at night to their wives or children. Gay, the aging cowboy, when asked about his unreliable work, says it beats a wage, and you can hear in his voice the fear of becoming what he doesn’t understand. How do people live these everyday lives, how do they stand it? How do they make it hold together when the urge to remake, rebuild, and break free is so strong?
The Misfits is also, accidentally, about the deaths of icons. This was Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable’s last film, and a few years later, Montgomery Clift died, too, at 45, the longest suicide in the world, his former acting teacher said, as he drank himself to death after a car accident that left him with a stitched-together version of the beautiful face that had made him famous in the 50’s. The sadness of these three actors, their lives and their failures, permeates every scene in the movie—you can’t look at the character of Rosalynn without thinking of the circumstances of Monroe’s early death, and Clark Gable’s beaten-down Gay makes you think of how little he resembled the man who said Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.
Montgomery Clift—with those enormous, liquid eyes, lithe, androgynous body, and ruined face—plays Percy younger than his years and permanently distracted, his gaze always on something not quite in focus. The fourth main character, Guido, played by Eli Wallach, is the most alive, lusty, active member of the group, and the only actor out of them that lived long enough to have a long film career. Rosalyn, Gay, and Percy seem already gone—beyond everyday considerations and worries, dying people who’ve fixed their cares on larger concerns than feeding or supporting themselves. They are dreamy and rootless and wedded to abstractions like love and kindness and honor.
But even if they hadn’t died, even if Monroe had gone on to have a late-career renaissance and Clift had stopped drinking and if Gable had lived the good ten or fifteen years he should have had left, The Misfits would still be a deeply sad film. Arthur Miller wrote it as a valentine to Monroe, his wife at the time, but really, it is a valentine to the dying west and people who no longer fit in it.
The central action happens between the three men who love Rosalynn and the ways that they react to her. We first meet Rosalynn while she is on her way to her quickie Reno divorce, memorizing the lines she must say to get the divorce finalized by the courts. She must claim that her husband had harmed her, mentally if not physically, in order to get the separation. They lines aren’t true, she says—the problem really was that her husband just wasn’t there. But that isn’t good enough for a Reno divorce court.
Guido drives her to the courthouse, and his lust upon meeting her is clear on his face—he can’t seem to hide anything, and his doughy features register everything that he thinks. Later, he tells Gay that he’s met a real woman and that he wants Gay to meet her. This is curious. Why doesn’t Guido keep her to himself? He’s alternately aggressive and passive, willing to bring Rosalynn to the home he had made for his deceased wife (who died in childbirth along with the child) and let her live there with Gay, but petulant when Gay tries to dance with her. He wants her, but he doesn’t seem to want her outright—he wants to take her from somebody else, to look at her from afar and long for her and make her come to him.
Percy is a drifter, a rodeo rider and taker of odd jobs. Clift plays him like sleepwalker. He spends half of the movie confused and injured, his head wrapped in yards of gauze. He falls from a horse at the rodeo and then jumps on a bull, only to fall off and get a concussion. He seems to enjoy the pain and the attention it gives him, particularly from Rosalynn, who babies him because of his wounds. He tells her that he loves her when she holds his bloodied head in her lap. She’s his mother, the substitute for the woman on the other side of the telephone line who he asks are you proud of me yet?
Gay (Clark Gable) doesn’t seem like the obvious choice for a lover out of the three. He’s old enough to be Rosalynn’s father. He treats her gently, like a child. He tells her that she’s so beautiful, it’s kind of an honor to sit by her. He proudly doesn’t have a regular job, proudly lives his life by different rules. Unmoored from the life she knew, without anything to go back to or any reason to leave, Rosalynn stays with him, setting up house in the abandoned home that Guido had started to build for his wife before she died. Gay plants flowers under the windowsills, they make a garden, they hang up pictures, but there is always the sense of impermanence in the background. This can’t last.
And Rosalynn. What’s to say about Rosalynn? She has all of the Monroe tics—her wobbly mouth, her baby-voice, her squeal, her wiggle. But all of these characteristics are made sad somehow in this performance, child-like actions that both draw and repel, weapons in her arsenal and her weaknesses. Rosalynn reminds me of one aspect of Monroe’s persona that is often ignored—her manipulation of men. I don’t mean this in a negative way, but as a simple fact: men are attracted to her, almost irresistibly, and she uses this to her advantage as a way to survive—she makes her sexuality and vulnerability a performance, a captivating one that is both completely calculated and seemingly innocent. As always with Monroe, you sometimes want to slap her to snap her out of her breathy innocence and other times want to protect her from everything harsh and prickly.
Rosalynn throws her arms around almost any man she meets. She asks for kindness, for attention, for fun. She flits from Gay to Guido, dancing with Guido and hanging on his shoulders, whispering to him that he is a good man, he should smile, until Gay drives her home and she is officially his girl. When Percy arrives, she holds him in her arms, babying him when he’s hurt and listening when he tells her that he loves her. She doesn’t rebuff male advances but is vague about them, never denying or affirming her own feelings.
When the four characters are together, the tension is thick and strange. Gay and Guido have a sexual rivalry, though Gay never expresses jealousy when Rosalyn touches other men (which she does often—notice where the actors put their hands in this film. They wander everywhere) or when Guido looks at her with a naked longing. Percy seems almost sexless—he doesn’t look at either the hyper-masculine Gay or the hyper-feminine Monroe with desire. He wants a mother to please, and everything he does later in the film comes out of a desire to gain Rosalynn’s approval, not to possess her sexually. The four get drunk, stumble around Guido’s house, and generally confuse and depress each other. It’s surprising how much of the movie involves the characters actually being inebriated—and of course, in real life, Monroe and Clift were both battling various addictions, which lends some slurry realism to the performances.
The saddest scene in a film full of sad scenes (Gay crying out for his grown children to come say hello to him, Rosalynn telling Guido that husband and wives should be teaching each other what they know, Guy saying they’ve ruined it, they’ve made it something wrong, so many more), and the most startling, is when Gay, Percy, and Guido rope and tie up a stallion to deliver to a dog food company for meat. The scene’s brutality is striking even now, in a time when all sorts of horrors now appear in great detail on movie screens. The scene is an extended, excruciating shot of an animal, free and terrified and black with sweat, being tied up, subdued, and forced to the ground, knees to his throat, its hooves and legs tied to together so the animal can only lay on its side.
As the characters slowly realize exactly what they are doing to these animals and what their lives have become, the viewer squirms, hoping that something will give, that the characters will admit that they can no longer go on. The scene is also a fairly obvious metaphor for what’s happening to the characters themselves—life is slowly tying them up and forcing them to the ground.
The Misfits doesn’t give the viewer an easy out—nothing much is resolved in the end. The horses go free temporarily, but there will be other cowboys to rope them and sell their meat. After the last, exhausting 20 minutes of the movie, the relationships have collapsed. Gay and Rosalyn will go their separate ways. Percy politely removes himself from the film, though we don’t know where he is going or how he will live. Guido, the survivor that he is, leaves disgusted at the sentimentality he believes has ruined Gay and the life he still believes in. We end with Rosalyn and Gay, holding each other, though they are already separate, driving back to their temporary home so she can gather her things and leave, though there is no clear future in sight and nowhere to go.
Letitia Trent is a writer, poet, and teacher living in Colorado. She tumbls here.
Can’t Hardly Wait (1998)
CLASS? OR SEX? WHAT SHALL I DO?
by Michelle Said
(editor’s note: we are republishing this essay, originally written in 2011, in honor of the 15th Anniversary of the film’s theatrical release, which is, literally, today.)
My high school years were not all that special. I fell into a group of girls on the first day of school that would be my friends for the following four years. Two of those girls were my best friends for three years and then my worst enemies for one year, for reasons that are too complicated to go into here (we are still not friends). So, I was kind of stuck in a rut. I wasn’t cool, but I wasn’t a geek. I was a Quiet Girl, who was in a group of Quiet Girls, placed in the smart kid classes who tended to monitor classmates with a scowl. (I would later come to realize this was a product of the chronic bitchface that was partially a result of my natural, unabashed skepticism and partially a result of bitchface genes, passed down from generations of bitchfaced Saids.)
I didn’t like most people in my high school. And yet, I wanted to be part of something bigger than myself. I wanted to put my mark on the school. And, most importantly, I wanted to have something on my college application that was more accomplished than, “Can recite in order every TRL #1 hit from the year 1998,” or “Has seen every episode of Daria more than five times,” or “Obscene knowledge of the Back to the Future trilogy.”
And so, bizarrely, I became editor of my high school yearbook.
This did not make me beloved, or recognized at all, actually. When I would interview people for the yearbook, they would often squint at me before saying, “Oh, we have Spanish together, right?” However, it did allow me to become prematurely nostalgic for the ‘90s, a trait that has now fully evolved into my current obsession.
When you are the editor of your high school yearbook, it is, at the very least, your responsibility to include every single one of the two thousand odd people who have gone to your high school over the past school year. Every face should shine from glossy pages; every team, every club, every teacher must be featured. If you are somewhat more ambitious, you might be creative and try to distill every memory into an easily digestible form. You might condense personalities into superlatives, make sure there are enough pages at the end of the book for people to autograph, dab in a joke or two to make people laugh, but be prescient enough to make them not so obscure that you will know what they mean when you are in your middle age and can’t see your toes.
So when I rewatched Can’t Hardly Wait for this essay, the heavens opened up, I gazed up into the space above and I came upon an epiphany, which was, “Can’t Hardly Wait is better than any yearbook I could have ever made.” Maybe people who went to high school in the ’80s felt that way about John Hughes movies, or maybe that’s just the thing about Can’t Hardly Wait because everything is time-capsuled so perfectly for me, personally, as a person who went to high school in the late 1990s. The fashions (chunky black heels, baby tees, fitted leather jackets, Seth Green’s entire wannabe boy band get-up), the music (I counted two Eve 6 songs in the first 15 minutes), the actors themselves (Jennifer Love Hewitt is the hottest girl in school, because of course she is, it’s the ‘90s).
The movie came and went pretty innocuously. Critics who couldn’t relate didn’t give it much of a second glance. It was sandwiched between a whole bunch of teen horror movies (Scream, I Know What You Did Last Summer) and updated Shakespearean classics (which was really a thing in the ‘90s: Romeo + Juliet, 10 Things I Hate About You). But it held a special place in my heart for its inclusiveness: if American Pie was for the dudes and She’s All That was for the chicks, Can’t Hardly Wait was for everybody.
Like The Breakfast Club, the movie deals in stereotypes. There’s the lovable, bookish nerd Preston (Ethan Embry, who has those puppy dog eyes that just kill me every time), who has the unrequited crush on high school princess Amanda (Jennifer Love Hewitt), who just got dumped by the school football star Mike Dexter (Peter Facinelli), a douche so powerful that he goes by two names all the time. Preston whines to his best friend, Denise (Lauren Ambrose), the Daria of the film, that he has gone four whole years without declaring his love for the object of his affection and then staunchly declares that it will all change! That night! So of course it will!
Oh, and there’s also a Revenge of the Nerds plot headed by the school valedictorian. And we can’t forget the irrepressible Kenny (Seth Green) whose sole mission is to get laid before he starts college at UCLA in the fall:
"They say here ninety-two percent of the honeys at UCLA are sexually active. Ninety-two percent of the women in Los Angeles at UCLA walking around going, "Class… or sex? What shall I do?" Ninety-two percent, yo! Hey, you know what that means? It means I gots a ninety-two percent chance of embarrassing myself. I roll up on that shorty be like, “What’s up yo?” she be like, “You don’t know 20 different ways to make me call you Big Poppa” cuz I don’t yo.”
Kenny’s subplot basically became a movie of its own a year later, co-starring a warm apple pie.
The characters interact over the course of the film in separate but equal plotlines, with a single thread—Preston’s crush on Amanda—to lead us through. It’s like if Dubliners were placed in some generic American suburb and then also dumbed down a whole heckuva lot.
Did I just compare Can’t Hardly Wait to Dubliners?
These are the stereotypes that come naturally to the viewer because they’ve been pounded into our head for decades. Which came first? John Hughes movies or the “nerd, outcast, rebel, princess, jock” quintet? It’s a chicken-or-the-egg debate that would take a lot of research on my part to solve finally and forever once-and-for-all—and so I won’t. Let’s just agree that we’ve been dealing with these characters for ages now.
Watching Can’t Hardly Wait is like reliving my own final night of high school all over again. Well, kind of. Actually, not at all. I had nothing that equaled that kind of party, mainly because I didn’t go to a party at all. My family was moving a few days after I graduated, so I had to go home to pack up my room. Unlike Preston, there was no Vonnegut class for me to take, no train to hop onto, no Yaz soundtrack or blossoming romance, only a six hour drive away to a new home and a new town due to my dad’s new job. I don’t remember anything about the night of graduation. I don’t remember anything at all.
For a former Keeper of Memories (read: yearbook editor), my memory is obscenely weak and ineffectual. I am notorious for receiving Facebook friend requests from profiles that tell me that we have 23 mutual friends in common and graduated from the same high school in the same year and drawing a blank. (I get updates from a dude named TJ that I am pretty much convinced is fooling everybody else in my high school but I’m too embarrassed to ask any of my friends.) High school now comes to me as a blur; I only remember snapshots. I remember climbing into the back of my friend’s truck and going off-roading in the hills by our high school, clinging on to the sides of the bed. I remember ditching class for the first time ever my senior year to go to the beach and digging my toes into the sand as I sipped a cherry lemonade from Hot Dog on a Stick. I remember playing Never Have I Ever on ten fingers and struggling to defeat my equally prudish friend. The cool air on our cheeks as we walked up and down the green suburban hills. I remember these moments of my past, but only briefly, like a whisper in my ear.
In comparison to my hazy memories, watching Can’t Hardly Wait is akin to entering a time machine. The weird thing is, the movie utilizes actors that sparked feelings of nostalgia even for audiences who saw it in theaters when it was released. Ethan Embry, our lead, was the wide-eyed kid in Empire Records, Melissa Joan Hart in her cameo as Yearbook Girl had everybody gasping that Clarissa, Explainer of it All was being shoved around at a drunken party, Jerry O’Connell, who at that point was known simply as being the fat kid from Stand By Me (and also Sliders, if you’re a sci-fi geek like me), is plopped down as a has-been jock, and Donald Faison embodies Clueless just by standing there and grinning. Can’t Hardly Wait was a film released in 1998 that was already nostalgic for the ‘90s.
Does this make it a “good” movie? No. I guess not. It’s not a “good” movie — there’s no message to take away, there’s no deeper meaning. There’s no symbolism and the stories are kind of mushed up in a haze. The good guy gets the girl, the jock and the nerd find a drunken truce together, the two misfits “work out their differences” (read: bone).
So if someone were to ask me what Can’t Hardly Wait is about, I would say, “It’s a movie about a party on the last night of high school.” But that’s not what it’s really about. It’s really about me. Or it’s about what I didn’t have. To this day, I remember Can’t Hardly Wait more clearly than I remember any party I went to in high school. I could start a whole other essay on how pop culture is ruining us, obfuscating our memories and killing our brain cells, but, truth be told, I like it better this way.
Michelle Said did not write “Denise Fleming is a tampon” on your locker.
Spirited Away (2001)
GROWING UP AS ANTI-ADULTHOOD
by Mike Rowe
If you’re an adult, you probably don’t sit in the backseat much anymore. When you drive you probably drive alone. Occasionally there’s a passenger. If you or someone else actually ends up in the backseat, the impromptu conversation becomes vaguely medical: “How are your knees, are they okay? Too cramped?” You’re too young to be discussing orthopedic surgery, but get into the backseat of a car as an adult and you’re roughly halfway to your first consultation.
When you’re a child, though, you sit in the backseat nearly every time you get into a car, and everyone assumes your joints are fully functional. When you vacation, you “take a drive,” not a plane. Two-hour car trips are interminable. Life seems long and endless because it nearly is. All you want to do is get out the door you came in. Run wild or, conversely, just cease. When you’re a kid, a long car ride is the rotten totem of never-ending life.
Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away opens with a child in the backseat. She leans between her parents in the front. She objects to the notion that she has to move away from her friends, her school, and her home. Then her father takes a wrong turn, and his grin waxes possessed as they speed down an unknown forest road, arriving at an enigmatic gate. They pass through it on foot. Soon enough, Chihiro’s mother seems possessed as well. She and Chihiro’s father ravenously consume the food that seems abandoned, piping hot, in the apparently vacant—what, fairground? There are no rides, only some barren alleyways, tents with food, and then an enormous house, flared in reds and blues, across a footbridge. This is Yubaba’s bathhouse, a spa for gods and monsters.
One of the more miraculous aspects of Spirited Away is the fashion in which its whimsical details also seem threatening—but only to Chihiro. For the viewer, the world of ghosts and gods and witches into which Chihiro has been flung seems charming even when a large, semi-transparent monster sprays gold from his palms to entice the greedy employees of the bathhouse before proceeding to swallow them whole, salivating and grunting like one of the pigs into which Chihiro’s parents have been transformed. In part, this effect is due to the soundtrack, which manages to scale back the weird in just the right way, with either light tones or bright, orchestral swells. Nevertheless, monsters and impossible distance clot Chihiro’s escape route. Yubaba, who reluctantly hires Chihiro, has stolen her name and keeps her parents ensconced with their trough.
Even trickier, smell, which is usually an underplayed sense in film, tends to erupt starkly in Spirited Away. The movie concentrates maniacally on the effects of stench and registers them vividly, facially. Whether it’s the contorted expressions of Chihiro’s parents as they consume the food that will transfigure them, or the wind-tunnel-skewed faces of those who direct an unstoppable Stink God to his bath, smell casts a physical shadow on the eyes, mouths, and twitching noses of characters throughout the movie.
But in a film colonized by clever details, the most convincing and wrenching one comes, I think, when Chihiro is given a scrap of food that will “give you your strength back,” and then musters the energy to weep. The timing seems perfect. The restorative food permits a cresting of grief. It even strikes me as basically true, because maybe comfort fills you up and prepares you for release. Catharsis may literally be a purging, but Chihiro’s jag of tears suggests that crying’s corrective is about redistributing energy. She can only go on if she can spit out this bubble of misery, those lovingly animated tears that wash her face and chin. It seems ludicrous to call her tears cartoonish, but they are drawn in a distinct way, glassier like baubles and more outsized than other aspects of the film’s story. They seem a gift somehow.
And the narrative itself revises that cherished bildungsroman theme: Chihiro matures, yet Spirited Away effects this transformation by revealing her virtue to be an anti-adult one. She resists all indulgence. She alone refuses the slavering monster’s gold, she begs off the enchanted food her parents can’t deny, and most crucially, she doesn’t look back when a single peek might seem the most innocent satisfaction of curiosity. In a world that is literally animated (for the viewer) by an accumulation of smart wonders, Chihiro proves herself by throwing off distraction and obsessive observation. She is not enchanted in the same way the film’s viewers are, but rather measured and shrewd about her presence in this alternate world.
In a story as dedicatedly straightforward—for all its wit—as Spirited Away is, the real joy of the film lies in the way it honors both Chihiro’s initial reluctance to be in the backseat, moved against her will, and her later desire to return to her new, unloved destination. She is ready for the endless backseat. By learning how to arrive in Yubaba’s kingdom, to inhabit it and its rules, Chihiro unfolds a “where” that, if it accustoms her to arrival, also becomes a place she can leave. Thus the beauty of Spirited Away’s sidestep into a fantasy world is that it allows its own story to mingle escape with homecoming, to deploy them simultaneously. And in the end, the movie bestows Chihiro with the kind of experience only magic or maybe the movies give us: She gets to go back out the door she came in. After all, home is the place we have to be most at peace with leaving.
Michael Rowe lives, studies, and teaches in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He tumbls here.