Art reveals a great deal about the state of a culture. Could anyone deny it? There is, without question, a lot of trash produced today. But its proliferation is such that one can only write it off for what it is. It is far more revealing about a culture to look at what is considered the best.
Take movies, for example, which draw more audiences and more money and have a more immediate and lasting effect on our culture today than do any of the other arts (with the possible exception of music). What place do the best films have in our culture, and what do critics have to say about them? If this is the best our culture is able to produce, what does that say about our culture? In our irrational age—the protective euphemism for which is usually "our fast-moving, complex, iconoclastic times"—what is regarded as rational?
The recent thriller Last Embrace is supposed to be one of the best. It is "Hitchcock-ian" (Hitchcock having been a great film maker), insisted the promotional blurbs and reviews. And so it is interesting to compare Last Embrace (LE) and say, North by Northwest (NN), which is not only, in my estimation, Hitchcock's best film but also regarded by movie historians and critics as quintessential Hitchcock.
In NN, we are certain of everything except what the "macguffin" is; it is implied that the statuette possessed by James Mason contains microfilm of important American secrets and that James Mason may be a spy in the pay of the Soviet Union. These are the only two points in NN's story line that are never clarified—virtually its only fault. But then the object of the story is neither the secrets nor Mason's paymaster but Roger Thornhill's relationship with the spy's mistress, Eve Kendall. We know who Thornhill is; indeed, we know the identity of every character in the story.
There is a clear, logical sequence of events that begins in the lobby of a Manhattan office building and ends in the berth of a speeding train. Every motive, every line of dialogue, every shading of character, every action, is perfectly functional and not left to ambiguity. The story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. No normal person can walk away from NN feeling cheated or confused.
Further, we are allowed to establish empathy with Thornhill and with some of the other characters, and because this empathy exists we are interested in what happens and in what could happen. We are given values in the story, and when those values are threatened or destroyed or retained, we are involved in the threat, loss, or achievement, too. The ability to create this rapport in any story, written or performed, is an accomplishment deserving one's eternal gratitude.
Last Embrace might have been subtitled "The Age of Uncertainty." From the very beginning we are not certain of the identities of the leading characters, nor are we certain why things happen as they do. Ostensibly, Harry Hannon, played by Roy Scheider, is a government agent whom someone is trying to kill. Hannon may work for the FBI, the CIA, or some other agency. He carries a gun, which he uses when he and his wife are attacked (she is killed) in a cantina in Mexico by a government witness and two hoods. Why he is attacked we are not told. Hannon spends time in an insane asylum—because of the death of his wife? He is nearly pushed into the path of a moving train after his release; neither he nor we are certain that it was a murder attempt or that it has anything to do with the rest of the story. He goes through an elaborate, hokum ritual with a tube of lipstick to receive instructions from his superiors but then later is able to report to the office and speak with them in person. He returns to his apartment to find it occupied by a total stranger, Janet Margolin, the female lead. She gives him his back mail, a sealed envelope containing a hand-written death threat that he could not possibly read because it is in some ancient language that even the scholars he consults have trouble deciphering. He is followed menacingly by a fellow agent for unknown reasons; his murder is ordered by his superiors for unknown reasons; and the murderer, for unknown reasons, chooses the hard way of doing it by luring Hannon into the belltower of Princeton University. Hannon learns that five other men received the same kind of note and that they are all dead—a professor of theology at Princeton tells him so.
Here the story begins to take on partial focus, when Hannon further learns what he shares with the dead men: they are all descendants of a group of men who operated chains of brothels in New York near the turn of the century. This he establishes with the help of a grubby little old man who belongs to an unknown committee that is studying the murders. And it is here that Hannon should have started wondering what his employer might have to do with what may be a private vendetta. From all the evidence given about Janet Margolin, she should not have been in any position to have easy access to the family history of a secret agent, such as Harry Hannon appears to be. The apartment he finds her living in is nominally controlled by his employers, so mustn't there have been a conspiracy between Margolin and his employers to murder him? Shouldn't Hannon have realized this earlier? Apparently not, on both counts. Hannon doesn't wonder; he is as confused as we are and remains so. Fade back to the inexplicable.
Eventually we learn that perhaps the professor of theology and Margolin are responsible for the murders. In the professor's carrel at Princeton's library, Hannon discovers possible evidence linking the professor with Margolin and both of them with the murders, but this is not definitely established. We ask ourselves: If Hannon's employers and this possibly murderous pair are somehow connected, why the elaborate, brain-cracking plot to kill him when his employers presumably have at their disposal faster, more efficient means of killing him? And if they are not connected, why suggest an association at all? When Hannon kills the man who tried to murder him, his employers are no more heard of.
As a piece of evidence(?), we are shown a pornographic dream sequence—I think—in which Margolin is depicted having intercourse with a past victim in a bathtub in a hotel room overlooking Niagara Falls, during which she drowns him. But then we cannot be certain whether this is a dream sequence or the portrayal of an actual event. The abrupt change of locale to Margolin's New York apartment suggests that she was having a dream but does not anchor the action one way or the other in a logical chain of events. We are left wondering whether she is really a murderess.
Finally, Hannon, who both suspects her and is in love with her, inexplicably takes her to Niagara Falls. Margolin appears to try to run him over a cliff with a car but, for some unknown reason, cannot force herself to do what we think she wants to do. There follows a nonsensical chase on foot around the Falls. She tumbles to her death into the frothing water.
In effect, Last Embrace is a series of set pieces and scenes that, while they contain the same characters talking about the same things, are not connected to one another, neither in story line nor in sequence of events. I do not think this is the failing of the film editor; he could have spliced together what he left on the cutting-room floor and created the same nonstory. This movie is not a fantastic accident; what strikes one about it is its meticulousness of production. Nor do I think that its producers are engaging in a deliberate effort to scramble the epistemology of movie-going audiences. Nor do I believe that they are indulging in a personal attack on metaphysics, that is, attempting to undercut basic cause-effect premises. Professors of philosophy are more able and more likely to do that than anything produced in Hollywood.
No, my thrust here is that Last Embrace, regarded by critics and audiences alike as a gem of a thriller, as something that can stand on equal footing with the gems of the past, is the best that can be done by people who have been taught that reality is what you want it to be and that logic and reason are arbitrary contrivances of the mind that can be discarded from any field of human endeavor without consequence.
The minds that produced Last Embrace (or any other modern movie, for that matter) may or may not consciously subscribe to these anti-mind tenets; I doubt if they do subscribe to any philosophic notion or idea. Film producers have been notoriously nonintellectual and not very fastidious in what they regard as interesting or worthwhile subject material. They have the reputation of being witless practitioners of what others claim to be the norm, the important, the significant. Hollywood is not an originator, not a primary source; it merely supplies the mirrors and the masks for the Fun Park Laugh Palace that is the exclusive property of today's intellectuals, whose concept it is; who own it, operate it, and advertise it. If there is to be a return to romanticism in film, Hollywood must first switch accounts and retool its assembly lines.
It is apparent that the director of Last Embrace, Jonathan Demme, is a "fan" of Alfred Hitchcock. In fact, all the reviews and promotional blurbs insist on this. There are clear "echoes" of Hitchcock throughout the film. An assassination attempt takes place in a belltower (Vertigo). Janet Margolin contemplates using a pair of scissors on Roy Scheider as he seduces her (Dial M for Murder). Train rides are prodigious (you name it). A sea of yellow rain slicks confuses Scheider at Niagara Falls (Foreign Correspondent). Scheider surprises Margolin in the shower (Psycho). Margolin tries to comfort Scheider during one of his mental relapses (Spellbound). Scheider leans dangerously over a railing in an effort to pull back Margolin and save her from plunging into the Falls (North by Northwest). Did I miss anything?
If one respects or reveres a master, one at least tries to be original in one's own work and refuses to revert to the shoddy practice of using a master's materials or ideas to salvage what one should not have produced in the first place. So who ever put the idea in everybody's heads that Demme is an admirer of Hitchcock?
It may be conceded that there are similarities of event in Last Embrace and, for example, North by Northwest, but any similarity in content, story, or characterization in the two films is pure, wishfully desperate thinking. There is, to say the least, a philosophical gap between the two that serves to illustrate how much our culture has disintegrated in 20 years.
In the climax of NN, Thornhill pulls Eve Kendall to safety. In Last Embrace (in their last embrace, Margolin knees Scheider in the groin, because she loves him), Harry Hannon, in similar circumstances, fails to save her from certain death. It might have been more novel had he saved her so they could live happily ever after. Or it might have been more interesting if they had both gone over the Falls. But no matter what ending was tacked onto this piece of misery, the only thing we can be certain of is death, which is the price one pays for incoherency, in the name of art or anything else.
Edward Cline lives and works in New York City, where he haunts movie revival houses and writes novels.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Fade to Incoherency: A Case Study in Epistemology".