31 August 2007

Something Wild (1961)

Written by: Jack Garfein & Alex Karmel
Directed by: Jack Garfein

Grade: C+

Something Wild, a bizarre love story—and not really in an interesting way—doesn't quite provide what its title or trailer promises; it's more like Something Weird and Too Long. It opens with New York tableaus characterized by (often symmetrical) patterns, whether it's traipsing pedestrians, soaring pigeon flocks, moving traffic or the schematic arrangement of high-rise windows. But the safety implied by the appearance of order is a deceptive facade, which Caroll Baker, a fresh-faced baby doll, learns the hard way; disembarking from the elevated Kingsbridge subway station near her home with a blithe skip and a jump, she enters a quiet park where she is pulled into the bushes and raped, her chain with a small Protestant cross, in a nice touch, torn from her neck.

A long, wordless portrait of the aftermath follows, as Baker saunters home, creeps through the door and up the stairs to the safety of her bedroom, before breaking into tears and passing out on the floor; when she awakens, she bathes and cuts up the clothes she was wearing when attacked, flushing the small squares of fabric down the toilet. It's all very affecting, especially as the film goes on and Baker gradually loses her mind, freaking out whenever anyone tries to touch her, including even her mother. Leaving her school books on a bench, in a symbol of defiance, she drops out of high school and runs away from home, getting a job at the Woolsworth sales counter and a tenement apartment about the size of an airplane's bathroom. (Jean "Edith Bunker" Stapleton turns up in a bit part as, against type, or before type, her garishly kooky neighbor.)

Before she runs away, Baker's mother delivers a grand, mildly racist speech about the changing condition of their community; "some more dirty people have moved onto the next block," she complains, adding that "this used to be such a nice neighborhood," full of polite, well-dressed churchgoers. When Baker hits the streets, she sees only sweltering New York streets teeming with strangers, hoboes and empty lots; Something Wild seems an allegory for the transformation, the decline, of the American city, specifically the Bronx, with increasing diversity leading to crime that's not only drives away the old residents but turns a nice kid naughty, a sweet kid nasty.

But the story is thin and moves along rather clumsily, like that rather clumsy political statement—somewhat qualified when Baker barks back, "everyone's dirty!"—serving only as a vehicle for the always exceptional Baker to unravel within psychologically, against the backdrop of an unravelling town. (Well, that and to create images to accompany Aaron Copland's brash score.) Finally, she walks onto the Manhattan Bridge with the intent of hopping off, but she is pulled down by Ralph Meeker, the Henry Travers to her Jimmy Stewart. Meeker is just about the only kind, generous or normal person who's appeared hitherto, but it's too good to be true; he takes her to his apartment on the Lower East Side, another cramped apartment, ground-level with the requisite bars on the windows, giving it the character of a dungeon; and that's a fitting characterization, since he effectively kidnaps Baker, holding her captive and forbidding her to leave, the compensation for having saved her life. The ransom? Marriage.

If the Meeker section of the film had been kept to about fifteen minutes, Something Wild would be a curiosity; instead, at about an hour, it's a chore. While the film manages, at least, to muster up a comedic scene here in which Meeker keeps jumping up to help while Baker eats dinner, for the most part this section of the film—its entire second half—is way too long, visually and narratively dull and repetitive. In a way, that reflects the character of the defacto marriage, loveless and literally imprisoning, that Baker finds herself involved in; the point is well taken, but it doesn't make the film any less insufferable, Meeker's performance notwithstanding. Played as dumbly sweet but with an unfortunate temper, he remains achingly sympathetic throughout—"you're my last chance," he pitifully confesses—despite the cruelty he displays towards Baker, not least of all in a scene in which, drunken, he goes at her on all fours like a dog. (Garfein was a member, like much of the cast, Meeker included, of the prestigious Actors' Studio; he was also an assistant director on the tour-de-force Baby Doll, where he obviously learned a bit from Kazan, such as working with actors, but not, unfortunately, for effective pacing and visual puissance.)

Minor Spoilers Follow
In the end, Something Wild is a study of the institution of marriage, ultimately affirming the traditional belief that habit breeds real emotion, that cohabitation, if engaged in long enough, will lead to love. Baker overcomes the incapacitation caused by her rape by falling in love with her subsequent abductor. It's Stockholm Syndrome, ad absurdum. But Something Wild could also be speculatively (over)read on a more personal level; Garfein survived a stint in Auschwitz as a child, and I think it's fair to suppose that such an experience would leave one in a state analogous to Baker's post-rape devastation. The film, then, is a statement about how love can be enough to turn someone around, heal the wounds caused by the horrors to which they were once subjected. Baker, his wife at the time, then plays the Garfein part and the film is a Valentine to her, both as a starring vehicle but also as a testament to the strength she gave him to overcome the dark place that time in a Nazi concentration camp would put anyone in, especially a child.


Adela Rogers said...

Nice insights on an interesting yet problematic film. Baker still remains criminally underrated.

Unknown said...

I'm floored by the scene that has Meeker making sure She has enough to eat.