TO DIE FOR (Gus Van Sant, 1995)

Clear, elegant, complex, Gus Van Sant’s To Die For examines media’s hand in shaping the American psyche—in particular, television’s role in nurturing our aspiration to become “celebrities,” and in sealing our delusion that we have become so when all we have done is parade our aspiration before a slumming public. In this context, video camera recording is television’s populist extension, enabling us to do what media has convinced us we all want to do: get our face up on a screen.

America is all-TV, 24-hours-a-day now. If television began as a projection of our loneliness and of our shy reluctance to relate to one another instead, it has, since, magnified this loneliness by mirroring back and absorbing us into the ever expanding gulf between reality and its own reality-substitute. We are lost in space. What a vicious-cycle TV enrolls us in; for television assuages the loneliness it helped to create, at the same time expanding the loneliness so that there’s more to assuage, more to create, and so forth and so on. Television brings us together only to stretch us farther and farther apart. Its defense is that it numbs loneliness; but, first, it numbs us into loneliness.

Its fantasy images—its flat, make-believe “characters”—now populate our lives. Our deepening inability to keep reality and television-reality separate and distinct increases our inability to distinguish between them. People putting on an act for the camera dominate daytime talk shows as well as soap operas, not to mention evening “reality-based” programs. TV seems virtually real—and, undemanding, this becomes as close to reality as we often want to find ourselves. Thus television has enlarged the dehumanizing effect of the telephone, which persuaded humans to forsake exchanged letters and personal visits for the impersonal exchange of electric impulses. And, in embracing TV, we have increasingly reduced ourselves to its flat, fake dimensions and have lost the distinction between subject and object. Many believe, if unconsciously, that they “live” and function in a sort of TV show, that reality somehow is an extension of television. This allows them to act out—some, even homicidally—whatever they determine constitutes for them an advantageous “script.” Their wish becomes their justification to act as they choose, buttressed by a can-do mantra, a self-centered positiveness that fails to take into account the effect of their activities on others (unless, defensively, they insist instead on seeing these activities as beneficial to, even redeeming, others), since others’ reality the lost distinction between themselves and television—for them, for viewers—has dimmed and obscured. This psychotic belief—an exaggerated faith or confidence in oneself, as though one’s primacy had been sanctified by the electronic God of television—Suzanne Stone embodies. She is the central character of To Die For.

Suzanne, who works for a local cable station in Little Hope, New Hampshire, is what used to be called a weather girl—and, given the beauty pageant cheer she indefatigably projects on camera, the outdated term suits her. However, her self-description, “a member of the professional media,” better suggests her pretentiousness and ambition. For Suzanne, a small-fry celebrity, is no meteorologist; she reads the weather report as other “communications” personalities now read the news. Suzanne is a celebrity on the make, as her convoluted credo makes plain:

You’re not anybody in America unless you’re on TV. On TV is where we learn who we really are. Because what’s the point of doing anything worthwhile if nobody’s watching? And if people are watching, it makes you a better person.

The atrocious grammar shows that Suzanne is no serious journalist; plainly, accurate language is of no interest to her. And the content of her four utterances is even less reassuring. Sentence One (“You’re not anybody . . .”) reveals Suzanne’s desire to be somebody; to her, however, appearing on TV does more than confer status, it validates one’s whole existence—a mindset suggesting the core emptiness Suzanne is desperate to fill. Sentence Two shows the extent to which she relies on TV to achieve a sense of herself as real. Television, then, is the hub of her consciousness. Her career in it is supposed to shore up the sands of an insubstantial ego; for—the following syntax is meant to suggest the contour of her self-relation—Suzanne is nothing if not unsure of herself. Note how the show of self-certainty in Sentence Two is undone by Sentence Three’s fragmentary interrogative (“Because what’s the point . . . ?”), where—Suzanne is all the while recording herself—she reaches out, for self-confirmation, to some invisible, anonymous and, at the moment (except for us), even nonexistent audience. Moreover, hers is a skewed notion of “worth,” one reliant not on what one does but on whether what one does is seen by others. Suzanne may appear strong, independent (she says, “I always knew who I was and who I wanted to be”), but the appearance masks a void of personality; she is as needily attached to an audience—any audience—as an addict is to a fix. “Worth,” for her, is determined by what numbs her empty feeling, what keeps her going. Thus her statement of what “makes [one] a better person”—Sentence Four—is morally problematic; for here better refers only to career success and—to invoke the warped sense that the term took on in the ’70s—“personal growth.” Suzanne’s “better” has nothing to do with decency or golden rule-goodness, or with what benefits society as a whole—although she indistinctly shares with some media celebrities their rationalization that the ruthless pursuit of “personal goals,” and especially their “success,” make of them indispensable role models for others.

The narrative is framed by two recitations of the quoted excerpt. Nearly opening the film is Suzanne’s recitation of it—and the dramatic context is grisly: Suzanne has had her teenaged lover murder her husband, whose uncharacteristic insistence that she at least consider giving up her floundering TV career, to join him in the family eatery business, struck her as posing a threat to her push for celebrity. (Buck Henry’s terrific script is based on Joyce Maynard’s novel To Die For, which based its teen-manipulating hubby-killer on Pam Smart.) The notoriety of the murder having sparked her potential for success, Suzanne now plans on pursuing full-guns her career in media; thus, facing the camera, which is to say, us, she videotapes her weird espousal of Ayn Randism mixed with Warholism.

A modification of the excerpted part of her recitation also nearly closes the film. Testifying to Suzanne’s Oprahatic self-promotion as role model is the fact that this second recitation is given by a former protégée of Suzanne’s: Lydia, a high school student whose class Suzanne involved in a media project—the camcording of candid student remarks on a range of topics. Although two of Lydia’s classmates were the ones who committed the fatal shooting, Lydia also was “in” on the crime. Since then, however, her undercover assistance to the police has led to Suzanne’s arrest. Out on bail, Suzanne has disappeared; for a man (Canadian filmmaker David Cronenberg) purporting to be a Hollywood TV studio head interested in signing her to a contract was in fact a hired gun contracted by the murder victim’s family to “cancel” Suzanne’s “show” permanently—which he has neatly done, burying her corpse in a pond that has nicely turned to winter ice. The corpse has been passed; for when, looking into the camera, Lydia quotes her mentor, she bemusedly notes that it is now she, not Suzanne, who will be “famous.” Lydia knows where she’s headed: Chicago, for an appearance on Oprah Winfrey’s syndicated show.

Working from someone else’s script, Gus Van Sant eschews his usual fragrant romanticism for an apposite chilly wit. To be sure, he brings to bear his trademark compassion in dealing with the young: in particular, Lydia and fragile James (Joaquin—formerly Leaf—Phoenix, touching), whom Suzanne takes as a lover solely to manipulate him into murdering her husband, Larry (Matt Dillon, salt-of-the-earth marvelous)—only, of course, the boy falls agonizingly in love with her. In the main, however, To Die For is frosty, withering satire, and Van Sant makes himself right at home. His is brilliant work, redeeming him from Even Cowgirls Get the Blues (1994) drearily before it and Good Will Hunting (1997) even more drearily after it. The compositional method—the intercutting of interview and flashback, sometimes moving from one character’s voice to another’s while sustaining a continuous text in consecutive shots (for instance, by shifting from a character who is quoting to the character being quoted)—bespeaks the film’s intricately edited form and analytical bent. And visually the film stuns. A nice touch: when Larry is killed, a closeup of one of his eyes seems to show it turning to ice. More than a touch: a camera (s)lowly sliding overhead uncovering a dead Suzanne buried under ice across which blows snow: this, a key image showing Suzanne’s death as mere extension of an empty life, with the sheet of ice encasing her the ultimate form of the TV screen on which her soulless face has appeared throughout the film. And Van Sant’s most complex passage sings: the night of her spouse’s murder, home from her telecast, Suzanne walks outside to the press to which she is drawn by her thirst for publicity and celebrity—a walk rendered by Van Sant in slow motion and coordinated with, in real time, the national anthem’s being played, at sign-off, on the living room TV. Here we face an utter confusion of fantasy and reality, where what runs on television seems more “real” than, because of the slow motion, the “reality” playing out around it: a visual encapsulation of one of the film’s major themes.

But the cool tone that Van Sant sustains is no less decisive for the success of this fine comedy. Indeed, so detailed is Suzanne’s relentless manipulation of James that, absent this tone and other distancing strategies such as the analytical cutting, its enactment would be intolerable. Evil is not pretty, nor does gorgeous Nicole Kidman make it so. Guided by Van Sant, Kidman dazzles, managing the daunting feat of wittily showing a witless Suzanne without lending the character any of her own (Nicole Kidman’s) wit. In short, Kidman’s performance, coolly walking a tightrope, is of a piece with the filmmaker’s intent. It’s a nonportrait: a young woman without personality or human sympathy—only pizzazz, as Suzanne goes after her hollow dream of celebrity in an hysterical attempt to locate an ego. Three other characters in this film are also close to being egoless: James, who lacks the ability to construct a tough façade to protect his sore vulnerability—the kind of front behind which adolescents, especially boys, often go about the painstaking work of ego formation; family-loving Larry, who wants only to accommodate a beautiful wife, and who is hugely proud of her very small career—until, pricking his masculine pride, his sister, Janice, badgers him into saying no to Suzanne just once; and Lydia, who is desperate to believe Suzanne and to absorb whatever Suzanne has to offer. Suzanne exploits them all. Because it is about exploitation (including self-exploitation), this material is itself highly exploitable; therefore, we are fortunate that scenarist Henry, director Van Sant, star Kidman and the cutter, Van Sant’s loyal, miraculously sensitive Curtiss Clayton, opting for cool distancing, all adamantly refuse to exploit any of it. This is the humane and artistic advantage that To Die For holds over Oliver Stone’s in-your-face Natural Born Killers (1994), which touches on similar themes. To Die For thus emerges as a satire of fine integrity; even its refusal to condescend to its characters, some of whom churlish we might want to take to task, allows the film to grow calmly, rationally, coherently into a series of kaleidoscopic turns in which we are able to see, and note, recognizable contours of the America in which we live.

Two other performances here are of note. Illeana Douglas, Helen (Gahagan) and Melvyn’s granddaughter, is a knockout as Janice, who despises her brother’s wife from the start and gleefully ends the film by ice-skating over her slick grave. (Consider how alert Henry and Van Sant are with Janice: Precisely to purge of all incestuous hint her adoration of Larry, we are allowed to glimpse her life apart from her biological family.) And, at near-end, Alison Folland is shrewdly ambiguous as Lydia, the ambitious embodiment of Suzanne’s unchartable legacy.

Lydia, headed for Oprah, opens up the end of the film, suggesting a continual replay of the Suzanne-thing; at the very least, Lydia will be able to renew her Warholian fifteen minutes of fame. (One is reminded of “Phoebe,” the embodiment of Eve’s legacy, at the conclusion of Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s All About Eve, 1950.) But Lydia isn’t the only evidence afoot of Suzanne’s imprint. Taking time from their grieving, both sets of parents—Suzanne’s, Larry’s—have already appeared jointly on a TV talk show. As the cultural wastebasket of the Suzanne phenomenon, these shows illustrate the fact that some people will say or do anything, including degrading themselves and others, just to “get on TV.”

A now-retired radio and TV talk-show host, Sally Jessy Raphaël, once argued that, by allowing Americans socially below the level of the elite to speak their minds, talk shows such as hers contribute to the nation’s health. I wonder. I worry that their “speaking out,” a kind of acting-out for the camera, doesn’t in fact confirm them in the status quo—for these discontents and malcontents, an inadequate lot in life. For one thing, their brief shot of “celebrity” is no more than a quick fix; what about the rest of their largely anonymous lives? But something else is even more worrisome. For talk shows provide no more than a self-reflexive forum that shortcircuits group activism, that is, community and other-level efforts at real progress in areas relevant to these participants (economic equity; social and political justice), by giving them the comforting illusion that they have found an empowering public “voice” when in fact they are, finally, only being confirmed in their isolation. Of course, Raphaël’s statement mostly referred, not to her show’s guests, but to the audience members who are free to respond to the onstage guests and to one another. This also points up, however, the limited nature of the forums that these programs provide. Audience members may extend sympathy to those with whom (on some basis) they identify, or they may verbally assault some instant opponent, with the result being, in the first instance, a wash of self-pity or onanistic self-confirmation or, in the second, an uncivil quarrel based in self-righteous superiority and indignation. Either way, the encounter remains insulated, without recourse to an active, or activist, arena that might make a real difference for these persons, hence their nation, hence the world.

Politically, the Suzanne phenomenon is, therefore, apolitical. Socially, though, it’s capable of extreme behavior; it’s capable of spilling over into mayhem, even murder—from which, of course, political consequences might result. To Die For is almost exclusively a social and pop-cultural satire; it addresses the political apathy, complacency and reactionism that Suzanne Stone represents only remotely, and some naïve viewers, because Suzanne pursues career at the expense of marriage, may even project onto her, misguidedly, a progressive message of emancipation. But there’s nothing progressive about Suzanne. She fascinates with a false allure that distracts us from a task that rarely confers celebrity: bettering our lives and the lives of those around us.

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