I’m sure there were things I planned to do this weekend, like go to the grocery or buy gas or just go outside and look at the sun or something. Instead, I watched three epic (and epically long) classic movies between Friday afternoon and Sunday evening: Gone With the Wind and The Godfather (Parts I & II).
One so loud, the other relatively quiet. One with a protagonist so all over the place, so outward and emotional; the other so restrained, hiding everything behind his eyes because revealing too much of yourself is a death sentence. Both movies about inheritance, really. In Gone With the Wind it’s about land, in the Godfather it’s about family. Both are about kids trying to live up to their dad’s legacy.
We don’t see as much of Gerald O’Hara as we do of Vito Corleone–and most of what we see is past his prime, the decline of his life. In Part 1 of The Godfather, Vito is on the far side of his life, but still at the peak of his power. We know that Gerald is an immigrant from Ireland. This isn’t in the movie, I don’t think, but I asked my parents (who’ve read the book) and they said that he won the land that became Tara gambling. He built up this whole estate. He takes risks, loves horses, is kinda carefree. Gerald has basically won the American Dream. He has a big estate. He enslaves people. He’s respected by his neighbors (well, other than the ones he enslaved) and has beautiful daughters all ready for marrying off. He’s been accepted by other men of his age and station. But he loses it all because the core of the American Dream is rotten. It relies on the exploitation and abuse of people. And he doesn’t prepare Scarlett to live in a world that’s different than the one he created for them.
Vito Corleone is more reserved and calculating than Gerald O’Hara. He builds his empire slowly, step by step–not all at once in a fantastic, and fantastically risky, game of cards. In Part II, his story exudes warmth, with lots of camera shots of sunsets and growing babies. It takes place in a tenement neighborhood in 1920s New York City, but there’s nothing filthy or smelly about his story. Vito has also won the American Dream, sort of, but it’s hollow. Not because the American Dream (in the world of The Godfather) is hollow, but because Vito’s methods, the power behind his business, is bloody. The violence at the core of his life means he can never make the transition to being a straight businessman. That, and the fact that America isn’t ready to accept Italian Americans as “Americans” in the same way that Gerald’s neighbors were apparently ready to accept him. After a time, this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: the Corleones run into anti-Italian racism, sure, but there’s also plenty of people who know exactly what their business entails and are repelled. If Vito’s timeline is about winning the American dream, about creating and protecting his family, Michael’s timeline–with Tahoe in the winter, with 3-piece suits, with Cuban revolutions and gunshots and proper offices and hard edges and hotels– is about losing all of that.
Neither Michael nor Scarlett can truly live up to their parents’ legacy, can carry their parents’ dreams into the future, even though they are their parents’ best heirs. (Interestingly, both of these movies were made at a time when middle class parents could reasonably expect that their children would live better lives than they did. Perhaps part of the reason why I relate to both Scarlett and Michael is because I’m one of the first generation of Americans in 100 years that can expect to live more insecure, less prosperous lives than our parents did, and so I relate to the futility of their situation.) Scarlett’s first downfall is external, because her whole world catches on fire around her, and her own individual power can’t withstand that. Later on, she’s the manufacturer of her own doom and misery in a much more direct (and inevitable, and sad) way. The seeds of Michael’s failure can be found inside him, in his core where there’s something rotten. If his father hadn’t been shot, if he’d gone on to marry Kate and graduate Dartmouth and go into politics or become a college professor, maybe that core would have remained hidden for longer. But his family was threatened, and once Michael decided to keep it safe, he could never come off the battlements.
Both movies are about the transitions of those characters, the derailing of their lives into something else, and how they both surrender it (to a certain extent) and own it (in another sense). The transition moment in The Godfather is fast. I used to think it was when Michael was eating dinner with Sollazzo and McCluskey–that moment before he shoots them, when the camera does a slow push in on his face, and he’s not blinking and you can see everything coming forward for him, out of his eyes. And Sonny thinks it’s because McCluskey broke Mike’s jaw. But re-watching this weekend, I realized it was earlier than that. After the Don was shot, Michael spends one evening back at the family house, watching Sonny declare war and rage against the other four Families, watching Tom Hagen try to talk him down, watching nobody know what to do. Then he goes to the hospital to visit the Don and realizes that his dad’s about to be killed. Assassinated in the hospital. And he bends over his father and whispers (I think, I should have written it down), “It’s me, it’s Michael. I’m with you now.” He doesn’t say. “I’m here.” He says I’m with you. That’s the moment when Michael changes his entire life, steps in to save his family. The Don’s in danger. Fredo’s not up to it. Sonny’s not up to it. It’s up to him.
Scarlett’s journey is longer, which is something I really respected about the character’s portrayal in Gone With the Wind. She changes over the course of the movie, but also keeps the core of who she is. She doesn’t change enough to save herself by the end. At the beginning, she’s manipulative, doing things for approval, or because it’ll attract a man, and not out of loyalty or duty or friendship. She’s sort of kind of always…empty? When she gets back to Tara, after Atlanta burns, she becomes determined to save it, because it’s her home, it’s Tara. I don’t know if she truly felt bound to Tara before the war, maybe because (as a woman), she would have been expecting to leave her childhood home and join her husband’s plantation–not inherit her father’s. Tara is where she finds her core, and she realizes that it’s the most important thing in her world. She discovers that she’ll kill for it. That she’ll make other people hate and resent her and that’s fine as long as she gets to keep it. Where she starts telling people to do things because they need to be done, not because having power pleases her. Where she starts working herself as hard as she works everyone else. She and Michael both find out what they’re capable of, when their family legacies are threatened.
We think of Scarlett’s transition as the moment when she pulls the carrot or turnip or whatever out of the ground. “I will never be hungry again!” And that’s the turning point, the moment, maybe. But after that–when she sticks to it, when she starts working, when she finds the steel in her spine–that’s a whole process. And she owns it. The war changes her involuntarily, but this is the moment when she chooses to change herself. She could have stayed the same, and in the process, lost everything. Instead she chose to change, in that moment, and while it didn’t fix everything for her–far from it–it gave her enough to get through that particular time.
These movies are obviously about a lot of other things. I haven’t talked about Michael’s abuse of his wife, or the racism and historical revisionism in Gone With the Wind. We haven’t talked about iconic movie lines or Rhett Butler. I haven’t really talked about the books at all, or how both of these movies are better than they have any right to be. Gone With the Wind was made by a director who had never been to the South (and didn’t go to the South until after the movie was completed and he attended the premiere in Atlanta). The Godfather is a story of an immigrant family made by a guy from Michigan. And yet both movies manage to capture something both universally human, and something particular to the times and people whose stories they tell. They’re both movies about bad people that the audience ends up loving and rooting for. But now I’m sitting here thinking about Scarlett O’Hara and Michael Corleone crossing space and time and fictional realities to sit down and have dinner together, and wondering what they would say to each other–if they would know how alike they are.
I don’t remember where I saw the comment. It was probably a tweet. I don’t even remember what the wording was, exactly, but the substance was something like: why, just before the climax in X-Men: Days of Future Past, are all the characters of color standing sentry (and then dying) outside, while the white dudes (and white lady) stay inside and save the world? How had this comic book franchise, of all the franchises out there, fallen into the same white-centered tropes and patterns of so many other Hollywood movies?
Well, shit, I thought. I love the X-Men comics precisely because they’re diverse and tell stories of othering and oppression, but the Forgotten Commentator was right. The X-Men movies (which, let’s face it, have been pretty white from the beginning) duplicate the tropes that have gotten so common and so tiresome over the decades: White people save the world, people of color are expendable. White people are the leads, people of color are the supporting cast.
I’ve been mulling this essay over in my head for months, and have been hellishly blocked on it, but also unable to forget about it or move on. I watched all the movies again, taking notes, trying to make some kind of quasi-objective evaluation that didn’t feel right. I wrote a bunch of it and it was boring to read, even for me. And I could also write a whole thing on how if people of color don’t have any substantive parts in the X-Men movies, well, that’s totally natural, right? When you have actors as good as Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan, and a character as popular as Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine, of course there aren’t any prominent characters of color who last for more than half a movie. There just isn’t space in the story, you see. It’s a perfectly natural narrative/money-making decision. Why would they make a movie about Storm, who was perfectly terrible in the first movie, when they could make one about Wolverine, who was amazing?
Well. Let’s think about Storm for a second.
On the one hand, the X-Men franchise does a reasonable job of avoiding some of the most common racist tropes in cinema (Sassy Black Woman, Black Best Friend, Black Guy Dies First, etc). They avoid these pitfalls by…not having any Black people in the movies other than Storm until Days of Future Past. And Storm has basically no lines, especially in the first movie, where almost all of the ones she does have simply provide exposition (she asks how the adamantium got bonded to Wolverine’s skeleton, for example).
Storm also has these conversational moments (in both the first movie, talking with Senator Kelly, and in the second movie, with Nightcrawler) where she sort of…stands in to speak to where prejudice comes from? Which is a little bit of a weird choice, from a character point of view. When she’s alone with Senator Human Purity, he asks if she’s afraid of “normal” people, and she says, “Sometimes. I think…I think I’m afraid.” She’s a member of a persecuted minority, being afraid isn’t a prejudice, it’s a reaction to her life experiences. The power dynamics are never addressed, it’s just fear=prejudice=bad. The Senator never reflects out loud where he thinks his prejudice came from.
That said, the emotion behind this line worked fine with the late-90s/early-00’s. Conventional wisdom back then was that bigotry stems from lack of understanding. But I don’t like that line anymore. I can see why Singer (a gay man who definitely saw mutaphobia more as a metaphor for homophobia/gay panic than anything else) included it, but hatred of a thing isn’t always because of fear of that thing. Sometimes hatred is a cynical power grab, because if you can convince other people to fear the thing, you have power over them. If Senator No Education For Mutants had more air time, I bet he would be the second. He doesn’t fear mutants. He thinks he can control and exploit other people’s fear of them.
Anyway. Back to Storm. Goddammit, old white dudes, still distracting me from talking about Storm. In the comics, Storm is amazing. Her mother is Kenyan, her father American. Born in America, she grew up in Cairo, and as a young girl, survived a terrorist attack that killed both her parents and left her an orphan. She survived by learning to pickpocket, and eventually traveled south to the African plains and lived with a tribe there, where she learned how to master her mutant powers. She was already a powerful mutant in control of her abilities before Xavier ever found her and brought her back to New York (and yet somehow, later on we’re to believe that Jean is the true badass here? Pffft). She was the bedrock center of the X-Men team for a long time, taking over leadership of the team when Cyclops couldn’t do it. She eventually became the Headmaster at Xavier School for the Gifted. She always prefers negotiation and preserving life to fighting, but when she decides to fight, she is one of the most formidable opponents you could ever imagine. She beat Cyclops in battle. Storm is a fucking badass. She is amazing. Also, Bryan Singer had Halle Berry, an Oscar-caliber actress, in his cast! So what does he do? “Do you know what happens to a Toad when it gets struck by lightning?” Goddamit, Singer. Just…goddammit.
To be fair (?) to Singer, his problem may not be black women, but just women, as I also have serious problems with how Rogue is portrayed (Rogue is not some frightened, delicate flower who hides in her shell. Rogue is also a fucking badass. She is sassy Southern, not demure Southern). Mystique doesn’t have any lines, but she spends much of the climax fighting Wolverine, so you know she’s tough. Jean is powerful but there’s hints that she has powers that she doesn’t use because they are uncontrolled and “dangerous.” But Rogue seems lost, and Storm does nothing. It’s infuriating.
So in this movie, which is establishing the universe for future movies, there’s one character of color, and that character of color has almost no lines or character establishment. The white actors (who are great! Ian McKellan and Patrick Stewart and Hugh Jackman are all amazing) dominate the movie, and fans and movie-goers responded accordingly. With everyone responding positively to Wolverine and nobody responding to Storm at all, it becomes that much easier for the screenwriters to give Wolverine screen precedence on the next outing.
The racism we have here might be called where the fuck is everybody, because we are supposed to accept that just outside of the most diverse city on earth, in a school devoted to serving a population that are the result of random genetic mutations, most of the faculty of the school, and even most of the students that we see, are all white. Except for Storm. And that just carries on for another 5 movies and 13 years (including two solo Wolverine movies), until we get to Days of Future Past, where it turns out that the PoC characters who have been established are expendable. No setting up a multi-movie arc for Bishop or Warpath here.
Days of Future Past isn’t even where the expendable PoC tropes begin. In X-Men: The Last Stand (the third movie), a bunch of new characters are introduced when Magneto recruits new followers. Lots of these folks are PoC, which is cool (I really like Arclight, for the record), but we never get to know them, and a bunch of them die at the end of the movie. None of Magneto’s new recruits survive to have an impact on subsequent movies in the franchise. As far as I remember, none of them even appear in any of the subsequent movies.
And look, I realize that this is maybe not on purpose. The studio can certainly make an argument that there’s a finite amount of marketing space, a finite amount of space in a story, a finite amount of space in merchandizing, and that Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellan, and Hugh Jackman just take up a damn lot of space. And a lot of folks will see that argument as having merit. But racism isn’t always on purpose, and impact doesn’t equal intent. And it creates a self-fulfilling prophecy: Storm doesn’t have enough of a following to get toys made in her likeness or a movie made about her, so kids going to see the X-Men movies never learn enough about her to get curious, so they don’t demand more Storm, so the studio doesn’t make a movie that it doesn’t think people would be interested in. And we can all talk ourselves into never having people of color on screen and make it never about race at all.
So, no more Storm. No more Bishop, or Blink, or Warpath. No Sunspot. No Jubilation Lee. We had Lady Deathstrike, for a hot minute, but she’s gone. And whatever reasons you or the studio wants to give for why we had three Wolverine movies and no movies about Storm, I think that sucks.
Random Tangent #1: I know that Magneto often plays the role of the villain in the comics, but can we just take a minute and sit with the fact that all the villains in these movies who hold systemic power and influence (Senator Kelly, Colonel Stryker, Bolivar Trask) are tertiary villains, passing fads, while the primary, unkillable nemesis is…Magneto? The Jewish war refugee who lost his family (twice!), whose anger and grief is deep and cold and bottomless, and whose reaction to oppression may be summarized as, “You killed my family and there is no justice for that so come on, just try it, try anything, because I have been looking for an excuse to drop a football stadium on your heads”? That’s…not how oppression works at all, actually. Ian McKellan and Michael Fassbender are both great. And it’s really hard to make a compelling narrative about fighting a power system (see also: the Captain America: Civil War movie, which took all the thematic conversations in the comics about freedom vs oversight and made it into a personal beef between Captain America and Iron Man). But also, making the survivor of a genocide into a perpetrator of terror while white villains disappear in between movies is not a politically neutral decision.
Random Tangent #2: Speaking of evil-doers, in X2: X-Men United, the most queer-coded movie of the entire franchise, the baddie is Col. William Stryker, who enslaves mutants as part of his master plan to eradicate them. Near the climax, it’s made clear that his son is also a mutant. Stryker declares that he “has no son,” rather than accept the fact that a) his son is a mutant; b) he has subjected his son to brutal scientific experimentation to control him because he can’t accept him; and c) he is sitting right there. (Perhaps it wasn’t intended to refer to this at the time, but when I watch it now that line makes me think of the ex-gay movement that holds gay kids captive and brainwashes them into trying to be straight). There’s adults out there who haven’t talked to their parents since they came out in the late 90s, because their parents disowned them. There’s kids out there right now living on the street because they can’t safely live with their parents, because their parents are homophobes. William Stryker declaring that he has no son is perhaps the most pedestrian, believably evil line in that entire movie.
Carrie Fisher’s death is hitting me way harder than I thought it would. I keep tearing up at random moments, thinking about her and her legacy, which I don’t think I’ve done with any other celebrity death this year. Not that I thought about this in advance, but on the surface, Richard Adams’ death should have way more of an effect on me: Watership Down is one of my favorite books of all time. I’ve read it countless times since middle school. Bigwig is one of my all-time favorite fictional characters. (“My Chief Rabbit has told me to defend this run and until he says otherwise I shall stay here.”) Harper Lee, another one of my favorite authors, also died this year. Maybe the difference with them is that they were both in their 90s, had both “finished” their contributions (at least insofar as their formative influence on my life, which I realize is 100% secondary to the loss and sorrow that their families must be feeling, because they loved Adams and Lee as people, and not as authors.) But Carrie Fisher? She wasn’t done yet. Not with life, not with work, not with her effect on me or all the rest of us.
I basically missed Star Wars growing up. Neither of my parents were into it (they were slightly older than the target audience, being newlyweds in 1977, and if they saw it in the theaters it didn’t grab them the way it grabbed so many others), so we never had it on VHS around the house. We never had cable television either, so I never saw the movies until the special editions were re-released in theaters when I was in high school in 1997 or whenever that was. It took me even longer to appreciate the effect that Star Wars had on culture and fandom and science fiction. And in 1997, I had not yet reached the point in my life where I needed role models and fangirl objects that were specifically girls. I was still doing fine with my music collection that was 97% male. I was doing fine with Watership Down, whose rabbit cast is probably 85% male. My favorite movie was The Princess Bride, and don’t get me wrong, it is still one of my favorites, but there’s two female characters in the whole thing (Buttercup counts as one character; the mom and the queen combine to be the other). I hadn’t discovered Patti Smith, or riot grrrl, or bell hooks, or the need for diverse and powerful women in my life. So Leia the Princess slipped right by me.
But General Leia Organa?
I saw The Force Awakens last year (age 33, for context), and the movie, the characters, all were great. I like the story, the dialogue, the music. It’s not my favorite movie ever, but it’s a solid, enjoyable flick and I wouldn’t mind seeing it for a third time. I didn’t think about it until this week, but it’s also a movie that is filled with active characters. Rey, Finn, Chewie, Han, even Kylo, all are constantly doing stuff. Reacting to stuff. Running away from explosions. They don’t really have time to stop and reflect on what’s happening and why.
But Leia? And to a lesser extent, Maz Kanata? In some ways, they’re the heart of the story, because they’re removed enough from the action that they can think about how they got to where they are and why they’re doing what they’re doing. They’re the calm at the center of the storm. Leia looks at Han and holds their entire history together—good and bad—in her heart. Leia can see how lonely Rey is, how hungry for family. General and Senator Leia Organa knows the weight of responsibility and power, she’s held it her whole life.
And as much as I need and enjoy Rey, badass female character who fights with a bo staff and survives basically on instinct?
I need Leia too, in a way I didn’t know that I needed her before this week, when suddenly she was gone. I need that calm female leader, the one who’s accomplished greatness, the military and political professional, the one who’s made mistakes but who keeps going forward anyway, the one who takes time to both lead and nurture.
We still don’t have enough female heroes that we can afford to lose this one. Who is my badass female hero leader now? It’s not like when we lost Obi-Wan, because his role then got filled by Yoda. It’s not like when we lost Dumbledore, who stepped aside because Harry could stand without him. And it’s not like losing a Batman actor, because there’s literally seven other Batman actors. There’s nobody else like Leia. Maybe it’s just because I’m sad and full of feelings, but I can’t think of another character who fills the same archtype who could stand into the gap that’s suddenly in my sad little nerd heart. There’s just her. And now she’s gone.
And look, it’s not even that I need Leia as a badass female to look up to. It turns out I needed Carrie Fisher. Who else is so perfectly imperfect? Who else owns her experiences—good and bad—with the aplomb and humor that she does? Who else is so likable precisely because she doesn’t give a shit if you like her? She had a tempest of a life. She fell down and got up and kept moving forward by any means necessary. Like Leia (or maybe Leia was like Carrie), she made mistakes, but kept going forward anyway. I don’t mean to idolize her in any way, because it was the public difficulties she had (living with bipolar disorder and being a recovering addict; and living those experiences in the public eye had to be so much more difficult than just living them on their own) that made her strength so powerful to me. She let us see her weaknesses, and that shone a light on how truly strong she was. She let us meet Gary, she was open about his role as one of her coping mechanisms. She was not ashamed. I think that’s the thing that breaks my heart open, just how blunt and unashamed she was, and how rare that is to see in a woman, and how brave that makes her.
There was nobody else. Just her. And now she’s gone.
At the curvy road sign, I’m told, I’ll see a driveway, and I should turn left there. When I climb out of the car, I’m greeted with cool mountain smells, cricket chirps, and hugs. I’m handed a hamburger with swiss cheese melted on it, held between two English muffins, and pointed toward avocado, homemade basil pesto, and roasted onions to dress it up with. Still munching, I’m shuffled back into my shoes and taken for a stroll down near the river, handed St John’s Wort and tangy, minty weeds to taste. We go by a homemade trebuchet, but don’t fire it. I go across a pond on a log, stiff and cautious, and I have to crouch halfway across and take deep, relaxing breaths. My friend waits patiently on the other side, saying nothing, but waiting to make sure I get across okay.
Back at the house–safe and dry, and really, if I’d fallen, it would’ve been my own stiff clumsy fault, and not the log’s–I’m given another burger, this one lamb, and a beer, and a piece of yucca, which tastes kind of like dehydrated cucumber. Like if NASA wanted to make cucumber-flavored astronaut ice cream. The house is big, I suppose, but it’s hard to tell, because the floor plan is defined by the hill on which the house sits, so everything is around corners and up steps and through Jack-and-Jill bathrooms. There’s no cell service.
We dish up bowls of ice cream and go downstairs in stocking feet, spreading out on a couch and a bed. Sherlock, the BBC version, is projected onto a blank wall. There’s an electrical outlet on the wall that keeps wandering across my attention at odd moments.
I’ve seen “The Hounds of Baskerville,” but never watched it with people, and the funny moments are funnier, the startling moments are more startling because the person next to me is jumping in surprise. There’s conversation afterward. Explanation. Discussion of this episode vs Doyle’s originals. Plans for next time.
Outside afterward, on my way to my car, it’s gotten a bit cooler but not as much as you’d think, really. The canyon had already started to cool off when I arrived. I look up at the stars running riot across the sky, unobscured by city lights.
So this is one of the things that Sherlock–the stories in their entirety, not just the BBC version–has given me. Besides the amusement and the reassurance. It gives me moments like these. Hamburgers and hugs and good conversation. Comfortable faces. Moments away from life. This lonely man, Sherlock, who doesn’t have friends. Just one. Gives me nights like this.
One of my favorite movies of all time is Clue. I think it’s hilarious and clever and I’ve seen it Idontknowhowmany times. I first saw it as a kid, too young to get most of the jokes, but my brother (who’s four years older) watched it at home one day and I happened to see most of it. I quote it a lot. Often around people who haven’t seen it themselves. I’m sure this makes conversation with me interesting.
That said, as I’ve gotten older, and more stuff about it makes sense, there’s still some things that don’t work for me. That I can’t resolve. So, here I am. I’m currently watching the movie, waiting for the incongruous stuff to happen.
Do I really have to clarify a spoiler alert for a movie that was released twenty years ago?
Clue is based on the premise of six strangers getting together for a dinner party. They have been invited to dinner and assembled together for reasons of which they know nothing. There’s also the butler, the maid, the cook, the 7th guest Mr. Boddy, and various and sundry random people who show up throughout the movie, but since most of them die pretty quickly, you don’t need to know any more about them.
So first of all, Small Tim Curry, you are so cute and British in your tuxedo. Also, I gotta say, when I was 8, the running gag with the dog poo amused me a lot. On the other hand, the total perviness of Christopher Lloyd’s character went right over my head.
Professor Plum (not yet outed as a total perv) picks up Miss Scarlet on his way to dinner, her car having broken down. They are following their written directions when Professor Plum catches sight of the house for the first time and stops the car.
Back at the house, the guests all arrive, Wadsworth brings them all into the dining room to get to know each other, and it turns out there’s one extra chair.
Random aside: I didn’t realize until like last year that Col. Mustard and Leon, Roseanne’s boss in the old sitcom Roseanne, are the same person.
Col. Mustard: Is this place for you?
Wadsworth: Not me, sir, I am merely a humble butler.
Col. Mustard: What exactly do you do?
Wadsworth: I buttle, sir.
That might be my favorite line of the whole movie.
Okay, so, all the guests have arrived, are brought to the dining room, start to get to know each other.
Dinner is interrupted by the arrival of Mr. Boddy, who you can tell is sinister because of the music that accompanies his entrance.
And here we have my first niggling issue. As is ultimately revealed, Mr. Boddy and his butler have switched places—that is, Wadsworth is the mastermind, and Mr. Boddy is the patsy. How did Wadsworth (who is actually Mr. Boddy) convince Mr. Boddy (actually the butler) to take on the identity of someone who would, upon being revealed, be an almost immediate target for violence (if not murder)? Surely the butler knew he was looking at a fight, and possibly bodily harm, masquerading as a blackmailer? Whose idea were the weapons, the butler’s or Wadsworth’s? Did the butler actually think that the distribution of weapons would keep him safe? Who wrote on the envelope that Wadsworth opens? Was it Wadsworth, writing to himself to throw off the trail? What was the actual plan here?
After dinner (which takes like four minutes), Wadsworth brings them all to the study and tells them why he’s brought them here: They are all being blackmailed. What follows is a systematic and comical outing of each of the dinner guests and their dirty secret. Halfway through the scene, Wadsworth admits that he’s tape recording the conversation (thus rather freaking everyone out, since avoiding a scandal and/or jailtime is why they’re paying blackmail in the first place).
Wadsworth: Professor Plum, you were once a professor of psychiatry specializing in helping paranoid and homicidal lunatics suffering from delusions of grandeur.
Prof. Plum: Yes, but now I work for the United Nations.
Wadsworth: So your work has not changed.
Yes. I am merely transcribing jokes that I find funny. Deal with it.
Point of order: Mr. Green says that “tape recordings are not admissible evidence.” Maybe they weren’t in 1985 (when the movie was made), or in the 1950s (when the movie is set), but tape recordings certainly are admissible evidence now, provided that all the voices present on the recording can be identified with certainty.
Mr. Boddy now introduces a twist of his own, and Wadsworth’s plan starts to go off the rails, though I honestly don’t know by how much. He gives each guest a weapon, wrapped in purple ribbon. I wonder if he knows which weapons are going to which guests? Or is he just handing the weapons out randomly? This is probably another thing I’m not supposed to be thinking about.
Okay, so. Each guest has a weapon. Mr. Boddy suggests that somebody use their weapon to kill Wadsworth, turning off the lights for murdering privacy (like it can be done anonymously when each guest has a different weapon? I guess the guests with bludgeoning instruments have plausible deniability, but it’s not like Mrs. White can strangle Mr. Boddy and then claim somebody else did it). Wadsworth, incredibly, did not see this coming. Lights go off. Thunk, chunk, groan, gunfire, shattering, screaming noise, lights come back on.
Several of the people in this room are thinking remarkably quickly. Mr. Boddy is on the floor, playing dead (as we find out later). Professor Plum bends over to check on him, and though Mr. Boddy is clearly alive, Plum thinks fast and doesn’t give away the sham (why? So he can have a clear shot at him later?). Mr. Boddy and Professor Plum aren’t coordinating their actions, so it’s pretty remarkable to me that they engage in precisely the same course of action to achieve (I’m assuming) very different ends. I guess Professor Plum doesn’t see the point in outing Mr. Boddy as still alive, since at that point Mr. Boddy will say, “Yeah, and you’re the one who tried to shoot me. Ass.”
Immediately after this (and after pulling a screaming Yvette from the billiard room), the guests find that the cook has been murdered, carry her body back to the study, and realize that Mr. Boddy’s body has disappeared while they were in the kitchen. Scarlet uncovers the negatives that incriminate Col. Mustard, and it occurs to me here that Scarlet and Yvette know each other, but unlike Yvette and Mrs. White, this mutual acquaintanceship isn’t acknowledged at by either person. Just another instance of people behaving in a way that is either prearranged, baffling, or thinking really fast and trusting the other person to play along.
And now, as Mrs. Peacock enters the bathroom, Mr. Boddy staggers out. At this point, from a narrative perspective, it’s random and threatening (because we don’t know that Mr. Boddy was playing dead in the study). Mr. Boddy’s dead, but he definitely didn’t just fall out of the toilet he’d been stuffed in; he’s stalking towards Mrs. Peacock. From a later perspective, why did Wadsworth and/or Yvette and/or Professor Plum (because those were the people missing in the kitchen when they found the cook) stuff him in the toilet? How’d they get him in there? Did they really think that nobody would need to use the bathroom all night? How did they know Mr. Boddy needed to be bashed over the head again? Did they see him get up?
Mr. Green has blood on his hands? This is never explained. And how did the candlestick get over the door?
And here we have the line which is not my favorite, but is probably the one I quote most:
Okay, so. We bring Mr. Boddy back to the study again. We bring the cook to the study.
The group starts trying to figure out how might have killed Mr. Boddy, and Wadsworth suggests locking up all the weapons so that the homicidal maniac that’s somewhere in the group can’t kill anybody (people don’t kill people! Lead pipes kill people!). He goes to put the key to the cupboard in his pocket, which freaks out the rest of the guests, so he suggests throwing the key out the front door so nobody can get to it. Brilliant! That’ll do it! But there’s somebody at the door.
The motorist! Who has been invited by Wadsworth, and has presumably been given a story about his car breaking down and needing to use the phone (what did Wadsworth tell the guy the real game was?). No idea on whether the Motorist has been told that his old boss will be there, but either way, neither of them give even a flicker of recognition. Also, the Motorist’s cover story is thorough enough to attract a cop to his abandoned vehicle (but not to Scarlet’s abandoned vehicle?). This is pretty much repeated for each visitor: visitor arrives and knows enough to not admit that they know anybody at the party. The guest who knows the random arrival also never admits they know the arrival (so that they might have the chance to kill them). Presumably, the two murders that have taken place up to this point have derailed whatever Wadsworth’s original plan was. But he was hoping for his accomplices to get murdered, right? So is he genuinely unnerved at their arrival (since they can further derail things if they discover the bodies, instead of getting murdered as planned), or is he just locking them into separate rooms to isolate them so that they’re vulnerable to attack? I should just stop thinking about this, because I am confused.
They split up into pairs to search the house, and at this point, pretty much everybody starts slipping away from their partner to murder somebody. The first to go is the motorist, who is got to by way of a secret passage into the lounge (how does Col. Mustard know about the secret passage, again?). Mustard and Scarlet find the secret passage and “find” the body, and Scarlet genuinely freaks out, while Mustard, presumably, fakes it. They’re yelling and pounding on the door, everyone comes running, Yvette shoots the door and the chandelier, and the World War II veteran pleads with the rest of the guests that he “can’t take any more scares.” I guess he might have PTSD, but still. Come on dude. You were in a war. Get it together.
And the doorbell rings again! It is a police officer. And Mr. Green, who moments ago “had nothing to hide,” suddenly has things to hide and slams the door in the cop’s face. He inexplicably remains in this “must not tell the cop about the bodies even though the cop is the MOST APPROPRIATE PERSON TO TELL” for the rest of this sequence. The cop presumably recognizes Scarlet, but neither of them say anything (again with people recognizing people, or knowing that something fishy is going on, and yet not announcing it to the group).
The house phone rings, and the cop answers it. It’s J. Edgar Hoover. This is strange. One of the guests is undercover (either Wadsworth or Mr. Green, depending on the ending). This surveillance operation is important enough to get J. Edgar Hoover involved, but for some reason Mr. Hoover thinks it’s appropriate to totally blow his employee’s cover by straight up calling the house and introducing himself. What? J. Edgar Hoover, I am disappoint. You should know more about paranoia and surveillance than this. And most undercover operations fall apart once something like a murder happens, because a cop can’t commit crimes or let certain kinds of crime be committed if they are in the vicinity. So there’s an undercover operative that just lets murder after murder happen? What?
And now Mr. Green shows the cop around, still not taking advantage of the opportunity to get the fucking cops involved, and we find ourselves in one of the funniest and yet totally squeakiest sequences of the movie: making out with corpses. That’s right folks. WHAT IS GOING ON HERE.
I just want to emphasize that with most movies, I would be annoyed by the plot holes by now, but in Clue, I’m not. I’m loving the hell out of this. Better than most movies (I think it’s the pace, either of the movie itself or of the dialogue, which is rapid), Clue sets up falling dominos of ridiculousness that compound into….well, six dead bodies for one thing, but until I start actually looking for plot holes, at no time do I start yelling at the characters to simply take the sensible way out like I do with most slapstick comedies. The characters are so completely not in control of events that I actually kind of buy them letting the situation get out of hand. You have to wonder how long it would have gone on for had the cops not shown up when they did, because none of the characters show the slightest success towards actually altering the course of the evening. They spend all their time exhibiting coping mechanisms and directing courses of action that make no difference (like searching the house for someone who isn’t there). Oh, and killing each other.
Cop: You’re too late, I’ve seen it all.
Wadsworth: You have? …I can explain everything!
Cop: You don’t have to.
Wadsworth: I don’t?
Cop: Don’t worry, there’s nothing illegal about any of this!
Wadsworth: Are you sure?
Cop: Of course! This is America!
Wadsworth: I see.
Cop: It’s a free country, don’t you know that?
Wadsworth: I didn’t know it was that free.
Mr. Green: *maniacally nervous smile*
Also, sometimes Wadsworth is really good at coming up with lies off the cuff (“Yes sir, it was the chandelier. Fell down, almost killed us. Would you like to step this way?”) and sometimes he’s totally shitty at it. (“Yes, you could use the phone in the—noo. You could use the one in the st—no. Would you please wait in the, um, the, um, the lounge?” NO THAT DOESN’T SOUND SUSPICIOUS AT ALL, WADSWORTH. YOU ARE TOTALLY NOT HIDING ANYTHING.)
Search of house resumes, someone throws the switch to turn off the house’s electricity, and now we’re at the movie’s biggest WTF moment for me. Yvette sneaks downstairs, into a darkened room, and is murdered. What?
Murderer (whispering): Shut the door. Did anyone recognize you?
Yvette: They must have. And not just my face. They know every inch of my body. And they’re not the only ones.
Murderer: *throws a noose around Yvette’s neck*
Yvette: IT’S YOU! *dies*
WHAT THE HELL. Okay, first of all, how did Yvette set up a clandestine meeting with anyone in the house? If she set up a meeting, how the a third party find out about it and get to the meeting instead (Yvette was surprised when she saw who she was talking to, after all). Okay, so maybe Yvette slipped downstairs hoping simply to meet somebody that she needed to have a private word with, but hadn’t actually set up a time and place to meet anyone. That’s more likely. (And it’s likely that she was looking for her employer, Miss Scarlet, since she went to the ground floor, where Scarlet was searching with Mustard.) But then she creeps into a dark room and is TOTALLY UNSURPRISED to hear a voice talking to her. But then why does it sound like Yvette and the murderer are resuming a conversation that they’ve previously started? “They must have, and not just my face.”? Seriously? What does that even mean? Also, Yvette, what happened to your French accent? Apparently you were faking it, but why? If people recognized you (and it seems clear that at least three guests knew Yvette prior to this evening), why did they not call you out on your ridiculous new accent when they first walked in the door? WHY IS EVERYONE PRETENDING TO NOT KNOW EACH OTHER.
Also, three murders happen in like the space of a minute, and nobody sees anyone else in the hallway. The cop dies even though him getting hit over the head is never actually shown, just the menacing lead pipe.
AND WHERE DID THE GLOVES COME FROM. EVERYONE’S WEARING GLOVES WHEN THEY KILL PEOPLE. WHERE DID THEY FIND THEM.
“Dada da da da da! I, am, your singing telegram!” *gunshot* *door slam*. That sequence CRACKED ME UP when I was a pre-teen. I may or may not have been a slightly demented child.
Oh, Wadsworth in the shower. Heeheehee. I enjoy that little sequence too.
So, Wadsworth runs downstairs and turns on the lights, and the characters all reassemble in the hall. We can take a moment to tell where they’re coming from: Wadsworth is standing in the cellar door, where the circuit box is. Mrs. White and Mr. Green are coming downstairs (Mr. Green coming from the attic, Mrs. White apparently having booked it back upstairs after killing Yvette.) Miss Scarlet is at the far end of the hall where the bathroom and the kitchen are. Col. Mustard comes out of the door at the foot of the stairs, which I think is the dining room. Professor Plum and Mrs. Peacock both emerge from the cellar. They find the bodies of the cop and Yvette.
Mr. Green: Two murders.
Prof. Plum: Neither of them shot. I thought I heard a gun.
Everyone: So did I.
Scarlet: I thought I heard the front door slam.
Mustard: Oh God. The murderer must have run out.
KNFKLJNSDFKLJANSFKJLANFKLJAN YOU GUYS LEFT THE FRONT DOOR UNLOCKED?!
So they open the front door, and find the singing telegram girl.
Wadsworth: Three murders.
Mr. Green: Six, altogether.
Wadsworth: This is getting serious.
Aaaaand they just close the front door, leaving the dead girl on the porch. Hilarious.
Wadsworth: Very well, I know who did it.
Everyone: YOU DO?!
Wadsworth: And furthermore, I will tell you how it was all done.
And now we’re to the best part of the movie. THE BEST PART. I seriously love Tim Curry so fucking much because most of the remaining half hour is Tim Curry monologuing/reenacting the entire preceding hour at top speed. Which I won’t try to summarize or quote because it wouldn’t translate. And the three endings. “That’s how it could have happened. But how about this?” Lulz.
Aaaaaaand then there’s this:
He explains that none of the random arrivals at the door were random, that all the murder victims were accomplices in Mr. Boddy’s blackmail. “It wasn’t luck [that the Motorist arrived]. I invited him!” “You did?!” YOU DID?!? WHY DID YOU PRETEND TO BE SURPRISED? WHY DID HE PRETEND TO BE STRANDED? WHAT WAS THE PLAN THAT WAS SUPPOSED TO HAPPEN?!?!
Also I do not notice Professor Plum taking off his bow tie. When did that happen?
Wadsworth’s friends own this house? This is one class-transcending butler. Except he’s not actually the butler, I keep forgetting. But he was willing to stack the bodies in the cellar? How is that a good method of body disposal?
“Why should the police come? Nobody’s called them.” Wait, what? You lied about that? Why? Why did you tell everyone the cops were coming when they aren’t? What were you hoping would happen? Did you really hope that everyone would just kill each other if you got them all in the same house and set them on a time limit? I DO NOT UNDERSTAND ABOUT LYING ABOUT THE POLICE. I feel like the whole movie is a plot of Wadsworth’s that got derailed, and part of that plan was lying about the police, but I don’t understand what lying about the police (but yet gathering evidence for them, as the tape recording of the conversation shows) was supposed to get him. And why would people start killing other people if they think the cops are on the way?
In the “Wadsworth is the evil genius” ending, everything goes exactly according to his plan, I think. Somehow the ideas of “everything going according to plan” and “everything in the master plan going horribly awry” peacefully co-exist in this movie.
Luckily, the actual, third ending makes the most sense. Mr. Green turning out to be an FBI agent is genuinely surprising and satisfying, except for the whole “That phone call from J. Edgar Hoover was for me” line. Seriously? Again, J. Edgar Hoover, why are you TRYING to blow your operative’s cover? “I’m going to go home and sleep with my wife!” Wink wink.
By all standards, Clue should not work as a movie. There’s plot holes galore. It’s based on a board game. It’s silly and ridiculous. It’s a comedy about murder, and it’s not even a dark comedy. But…it works. All the actors play their parts with such earnestness–and the comedic timing is down to a fine art–that you never stop to think to yourself, “What is this shittery?” Which is the mark of a good story, really. The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.