Hide & Seek

‘J. EDGAR’ & ‘THE SKIN I LIVE IN’

The first thing to be said about J. Edgar, the biopic about the late FBI director, is that it is an unexpectedly forbearing, even pitying look at J. Edgar Hoover. The second: With pity like this, who needs calumny?

Written by Dustin Lance Black and directed by Clint Eastwood, this movie turns out to be the negative complement of another biopic, Milk, also written by Black. That 2008 film was fairly good, but it was marred by sentimentality and a strong tendency toward hagiography. In it, Harvey Milk, a San Francisco city supervisor, ascended to cinematic sainthood by coming out of the closet and urging other homosexuals to do the same, thereby attaining psychic health and full citizenship. Milk benefited from its panoramic, often witty view of the Bay Area gay community, a shrewd sense of urban politics, and a remarkable performance by Sean Penn.

For Eastwood, Black has conjured a Hoover who does the opposite of Milk: he flees recognition of his homosexuality and channels his psychic and erotic energy into a control freak’s dream, gathering information not only on those he perceives as America’s enemies, but on anyone in the government who gets in the way of his career or who objects to his methods. It’s not a bad notion for a political black comedy: little, pug-faced, anal-retentive, mother-dominated Edgar undermines democracy because he can’t give in to his desire to go to bed with a man.

And that comic possibility is fulfilled in one shrewdly written and directed scene in which Hoover, accompanied by his platonic paramour, Clyde Tolsen (well played by Armie Hammer until old-age makeup does in his performance), sits down at a nightclub table with several Hollywood actresses who are obviously turned on by the power Hoover wields. Flattered, Hoover blithely prattles about his triumphs until, realizing that at least one of the lovelies is propositioning him, he falls into his childhood stammer and starts looking around in panic for the exit. As soon as he’s gone, the actresses burst into laughter. They know exactly what he is, and their hilarity mixes scorn with pity, a pity that the movie continually reinforces in order to cut Hoover down to pygmy size.

Black’s script is almost Victorian in its didactic sentimentality. Scene after scene cries out for the sort of captions the Pre-Raphaelite paintings employed, like “Love Betrayed” or “On the Altar of Ambition.” Because Edgar won’t fess up to his desires, he must turn himself into a clockwork tyrant barking at subordinates, issuing hyperbolic news flashes, and kvetching about investigating committees. Near the conclusion, the embittered and love-starved Tolson tries to force his friend to admit to himself that the FBI’s few authentic achievements were entirely the work of other men. If you listen closely to the dialogue, Tolson is saying Hoover is a fraud because he wasn’t physically present at such events as Dillinger’s demise. But weren’t Hoover’s achievements organizational? It’s OK for a movie to show up a braggart, but why does this screenplay deny J. Edgar any effectiveness whatsoever? Hoover was the sort of man I despise, but I walked out of this film wanting to rescue him from its cloying, forgiving, contemptuous embrace.

Eastwood’s bustling, nuance-free direction keeps the narrative chugging along but can’t overcome a certain monotony engendered by Black’s approach. America marches on, Hoover keeps barking and whining, radicals set off bombs, Hoover snarls and snipes, the Lindbergh baby is kidnapped, Hoover bullies and yaps, the civil-rights movement gets underway and Hoover has tantrums. If only he would kiss Clyde and simmer down!

The monotony seeps into Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance. The characterization’s externals are impressive, with make-up and wardrobe lending the actor a convincing blockishness. But a real human being peeps out from the prostheses and padding only in the early scenes, when the neurotic eager-beaver boasts to his secretary about his card-cataloging system.

Ideally, a J. Edgar Hoover biopic should have been written by James Ellroy and directed by Pedro Almodóvar. Ellroy would have served up a feast of paranoia and Almodóvar would have tilted it toward comic monstrosity. The Hoover that Black and Eastwood give us is a wee little monster whom we can pat on the head, pity, and easily dismiss. Imagine if Shakespeare had treated Richard III that way.

But what about the actual Almodóvar film that’s just come out, The Skin I Live In? It is trash. It is poetry. It is poetry wrested from trash. It is, by turns but sometimes simultaneously, morbid and humane, creepy and utterly moral even when it edges toward pornography. Its plot is pulp horror, yet the characters remain recognizably human.

As the story begins, we are presented with a gorgeous young woman in a skin-tight leotard keeping herself in shape with yoga while being kept prisoner as some sort of laboratory animal by a mad plastic surgeon of genius. Evidently he is giving her a series of skin transplants. But why? Is he turning this beauty into something more beautiful or is he transforming her into a monster? A man dressed in a ridiculous tiger suit shows up while the doctor is off on an errand and has no trouble wheedling his way into the house, because the housekeeper (who is also the girl’s jailer) is his mother.

The tiger suit is easily explained: it’s carnival time in Spain, and the intruder, a bank robber fleeing the police, is taking advantage of the holiday to disguise himself. Once he finds out about the girl’s presence, all hell breaks loose, and our preconceptions about who is doing what to whom are exploded, reconstituted, and exploded again. Suffice it to say that the mad doctor turns out to have poignant reasons for his crazy experiment; that the captive is being punished for a horrible crime, but the punishment is too bizarre to be just; and that several parents lose their children for a while, then get them back in astonishing ways. It’s a farrago, all right, yet, as rendered by Almodóvar, not an artistic mess. Why?

First, cinematic clarity. The visuals dispense with Gothic shadows, surrealistic dislocations, and startling camera angles. Everything is seen in solidly composed medium shots with close-ups conventionally inserted. The colors are crisp, bright, often lustrous—the sort of enhanced, hyperbolic realism that glitzy TV soaps like Dallas and Dynasty should have employed. The editing keeps the pace unrelenting yet strangely unhurried. And the acting, led by the glowering Antonio Banderas as the surgeon and the stunning Elena Anaya as his patient/victim, is suitably intense but never pitched at the last row of the second balcony. The events on screen may seem hysterical but the mind conjuring it up is firm. Almodóvar seems to be whispering to us, “You think this is a fantasy?  But this world is mine and I feel it as real. And now, you must feel this way too.”

Second, Almodóvar unpacks his narrative by zigzagging through time in a way reminiscent of Quentin Tarantino. But, whereas the American director uses this method mostly to ratchet up tension, the Spaniard employs it to make us constantly change our minds about the characters. For instance, the surgeon first seems a megalomaniac; then we learn that he’s a bereaved husband, then that he’s a bereaved father, an avenger, a lover of the very person he’s been trying to punish, and, finally, a fool for love. And the girl he holds captive tests our sympathies even more radically as we find out more about her past.

Melodrama usually works by simplifying and amplifying our emotions: we weep for Little Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop; we hiss her tormentor Quilp and want to see him viciously destroyed. The book’s characters function within the limits of the little personality boxes to which Dickens has confined them. Almodóvar is a rogue melodramatist because he breaks those boxes.

J. Edgar turns history into sentimental trash. The Skin I Live In turns horror-movie junk into art.

Published in the 2011-12-16 issue: 
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Richard Alleva has been reviewing movies for Commonweal since 1990.

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