Friday, May 27, 2011

The Lost Weekend (1945)

by Brian “Straight, No Chaser” Roe

Black-and-white movies are the pure symbolism of my soul. When everything else fails, I put in any monochrome film and I get deep into it. There is an absolute purity to early films that all other movies strive to attain. Our minds work in black and white; color is just a subtle lie. A lie that distracts and misdirects. Reality is black-and-white my friends. And I must always delve deep into the past to find movies that speak with such blatant truth.

The Lost Weekend is truth and lies, real and fake, facade and core, all at once. This is one of those films that I’ve been told is “Great” for so fucking long that it’s become like the buzzing of gnats in my ears. Nobody watches Great movies unless they are forced to. And often once they do they become a part of the Church of Great and then start suppressing other poor bastards with their opinions. But I'll tell you this, boys and girls, The Lost Weekend is truly worth your consideration.

Ray Milland is Don Birnam, the “young man who drinks,” and a failed-because-of-never-really-having-tried writer who loves the hooch. If the guy would just write down the patter that he spews when he’s drinking, he’d never have a problem creating new work. When he drinks he becomes a verbose wordsmith of great magnitude. But when he faces the cold steel of his typewriter, he flounders like a fat kid in a pool. He’s always far too busy wanting to write and creating new reasons not to to ever actually create anything. This is the curse of so many of my most beloved friends. We will be wanting to start on some new project until the day we die. And by then the only things getting any work done will be the worms.

So Don gets a fine young Jane Wyman to fall for him and she defends him with the fierce love of a lioness mother. Don’s brother has tried and tried, blah blah, and can’t take it anymore. If Don is going to get help, he’s going to have to help himself.

And we all know how that little tune whistles don’t we?

Don tanks. He tanks hard. In the always perfect downward spiral of film noir, Don begins a decent that should take him four days. In that time, he will make those that love him to hate him and so on and so forth. The woman who refuses to let him go will do her damnedest to give up on him and his few friends will just walk away. Addicts sometimes take a sadistic if unaware pleasure in seeing how far they can push those that love them. And Don Birnam does his best to become his worst.

I’ll tell you no plot points with this movie. It’s obvious what’s going to happen from the first five minutes and the movie’s title for crying out loud. But I will point out the joys that you might find if you feel up to watching this little gem shine.

Millland is genius here. One minute petulant and childish, the next suave and heroic, he owns this film. The sudden and constant shifting that he pulls as this character is respectable and a great pleasure to watch. Like a well-trained athlete Milland does what needs done to tell us the story of this self-centered bastard and the damage that he does to those around him. And in the end you still give a shit about the guy. There is a silent-film style of facial acting that Milland employs to get his points across, and they work as dynamic spurts of jet fire to move things along. But Milland is not really the main actor in this story.

Professor Roe’s Film Frikkin’ Noir class lesson 12:
The protagonist of a noir has no control over his story path. He can only react to the situations around him, and usually he reacts quite badly.

Don Birnam has no real control over any of the moves he makes during the course of this story. Someone else will say something or do something and these act as triggers to set Birnam off in some new direction. The noir hero is a pinball that is constantly bumped and pinged around by the less mobile forces on the playing field. Yes, sometimes the protagonist can help things along in a particular direction, but normally when the downward spiral has begun, all he can do is hold on, act his part out, and pray.

The secondary characters in The Lost Weekend act as the gears and conveyor belts that feed little Birnam along his path. Like a freaked-out kid on a ghost ride, Birnam is pulled along until the next quandary presents itself. And that’s fine for a film like this. We don’t want to see him straighten up and stop drinking, the film would be far too short in that event. So we watch like we watch nature programs to see the prey make its misstep and get taken down.

Three actors besides Milland deserve your attention.

Jane Wyman as his girlfriend, Helen St. James. Cute, tough, and short, Wyman keeps her character from devolving into sappiness and she implies a fierce passion that attempts to keep Don in check. Too bad that at this time young Wyman was sleeping with fucking Ronald Reagan. She deserved better than that prick.

Howard Da Silva as Nat the bartender. Although he is ethically coerced to keep serving Birnam, he does so with lessons aplenty and a complete contempt for someone whom he sees as having been dealt a pretty good hand whom is also determined to throw it all way. Nat acts as Birnam’s conscience even though he is rarely heeded.

And finally my new crush, Doris Dowling as Gloria, an implied prostitute who takes a shine to Birnam and comes across as one of the most real characters in the movie. I want to punch Ray Milland in the jaw for the way that he plays with her.

So there you go. I’ve told you little about The Lost Weekend and you should appreciate that small kindness. Discover it for yourself. You know the plot already, whether you think you do or not, and the joy in this film is sitting back and finding the resonant moments. These will hit you hard and sweet if you let them in.

So Don Birnam is a failing writer who drinks because of his fear of being a failed writer. This is an eternal conundrum within those who attempt to create worlds and tell stories. Writing is sometimes as easy as writing down what we see; other times, we must become little gods who create and control all of the small lives on our pages. Although this seems like an act of enormous ego, it is actually a mechanism to try to understand the world around us. We don’t write because we want to become gods. We write in the same way that drowning people tread water. We are all afraid and alone all of the time and only by creation are we sometimes reminded that the world is truly a place of joy and not only of pain, loss, and disillusionment. And those of us, for whatever reason, who can’t get the words on the damned page, well, sometimes we drink. The perfumed temples along the banks of The Nile open to us and we find our way by not really trying. And we are so enthralled with the story that we forget to tell it.