Death Becomes Her
With 1994’s Forrest Gump, Robert Zemeckis finally succumbed to the primary weakness of his Socrates, Steven Spielberg: trying to cleanse himself in the waters of dramatic absolution, falsely presuming that historical allusion and narrative heft side-winds into genuine complexity. A real artist – something Zemeckis had been, however intermittently, for the decade until that point – knows that art comes in all forms, nimble and dexterous or heavy and tortured. Craft in any form inspires depth; depth doesn’t have to be appended onto a film like a sledgehammer impacting the piece with the self-serious melodrama of a Schindler’s List or a Forrest Gump.
As a director Zemeckis has always presumed a penchant for cinematic magic over what might be called character complexity, but his elusive special effects were the rare ones gifted with genuine emotional weight and playful post-modernism. In a time when Hollywood was going big, Zemeckis (much like another Spielberg protégé with an eye for the demented, Joe Dante) was taking formal invention in a more slippery, smaller-scale direction, discovering wit and insight in the self-conscious amusement of, say, the catlike cunning of episodes of Tales from the Crypt he directed. Until Forrest Gump, he didn’t need historical heft or imposed grandeur; assuming such niceties will raise you up often leads to them weighing you down, sabotaging the buoyancy of your craft.
With Back to the Future, he scored a populist coup, and with Who Framed Roger Rabbit, he extended not only his genre homage but his filmic application of the fluid rules and regulations of causality and narrative found in cartoon and television logic. After taking two Future sequels to the bank to middling critical results, Death Becomes Her was to be something of a last gasp of his more flexible inner-monster – an ascent into high-camp and a perversion of the long-ignoble hag horror genre – before plummeting into the thickets of Respectable Middlebrow cinema with the dreary, milquetoast Forrest Gump.
While the results aren’t a patch on Zemeckis’ two prior pop fantasias, the director’s gift for upending the flashy with a twinge of subversion is in fine, twitchy form throughout Death Becomes Her, a film where post-giallo horror rubbernecks an accident between Hollywood camp and plastic, bon vivant acting of the most hyperbolic demeanors. It’s more a situation than a narrative as fading star Madeline Ashton (Meryl Streep in full on Norma Desmond on-her-way-to Blanche Hudson territory) and Helen Sharp (Goldie Hawn, radiating a demented, naïve charisma) subject themselves to increasingly outré punishments in their quest to out-do one another on the battlefield of passive, watery male Herman Melville’s (Bruce Willis) affection. Ultimately realizing that he isn’t worth a damn to either of them, Death is a more playful spin on the torrential gender dynamics of horror cinema.
“Subject themselves” I write, and in truth there’s a whisper of pop feminism to a film that is more about how women are coerced to force themselves to increasingly baroque forms of self-modification (the two women drink a potion of youth that leaves them alive but more pliable than usual) rather than living their lives in peace. Not that it’s a full-throated social screed, as Death’s proclamations are more comedic intimations semi-garbled out through the film’s earnest but loopy self-amusement. With its de rigueur disinterest in conventional storytelling form, it is a work that is more rambunctious at narrative than gender-analysis levels (it would be just as easy, for instance, to claim that the film is entirely reductionist from a gender viewpoint in its application and satire of the hag horror genre to begin with).
But it is most certainly rambunctious. Its effusive, endlessly floppy tempo endearingly drags scene into voluptuous sequence and sequence into baroquely outgrown exercise in macabre Termite Terrace physics with no regard for restraint or mediation from the higher-order brain. What emerges is a fully reptilian film prone to its basest impulses in outlandish, garish strokes, relying on an endless carousel of foregrounded mirrors to spin a yarn about the image consciousness in Hollywood society in a film that is so refreshingly impulse-driven that it barely has time to consider the image the audience will have of it (which might account for how tepid the public response was at first; this flamboyant, arrhythmic film is almost willfully alienating to those expecting adherence to any screenwriting guide).
The callous placement of the mirrors as trivial symbols of the film’s theme border on cloying, but the spirited obviousness with which they are placed ultimately doubles-back to critique the lack of subtlety with which films of this type cart out their own symbolic images to understudy when deeper stylistic experimentation was sick that day. What we have then is a film that ribs at image consciousness found not only among Hollywood people but within the Hollywood films that are too keen to outwardly please audiences by revealing their shallow secrets through superficial, surface-level visages and imagery in the frame – the cinematic equivalent of dressing yourself up to the nines to hide how little is actually ticking beneath your hollow symbols to begin with. The result for Death Becomes Her, hardly cohesive but refreshingly unmitigated in its sensory assault on good taste, is – in polar contrast to Forrest Gump – seemingly unpremeditated in its desire to enjoy itself on its own terms. While Gump always feels like it’s trying to please everyone, making conscious decisions according to populist appeal, Death Becomes Her – camp to the core – doesn’t play by anyone else’s rules; it wishes only to please itself.
Thirty years on, Clue is little more than a pop-culture punchline in search of a second-life in revival houses weaned on the playful gamesmanship of the triple-ending gimmick that remains the only thing most people actually remember about this film today. Gimmick, perhaps, but Clue’s ending, where two separate consecutive denouements are carted out and then vitriolically dismissed, only for a third ending to shuttle-cock the film into a manic, unhinged conclusion, is in fact the lens through which the entire film functions as a deliberately alienating, self-immolating enterprise about the artifice of all cinema and storytelling more broadly. Somewhat cloyingly post-modern though it may be, Clue works – spectacularly so, in fact – because of how deviously deliberate it is in cultivating an air of arbitrary happenstance. The ending implodes the presumption of the carefully-calibrated mystery, one with all its ropes knotted into the perfectly satisfying conclusion. Instead, this film knots itself up until it’s running around in circles, admitting that no conclusion could meaningfully make sense of the torrential pandemonium that has unfolded before our eyes.
The sincerity with which the film evokes a literalist nightmare of the Clue boardgame given a Frankensteinian cinematic life becomes an alienating, barbed critique of the inanity of the film’s very existence. Trotting out, in almost baroquely ceremonial fashion, characters bearing the loose visage and nomenclature of the board game, and coaxing out its narrative through ruthless bouts of exposition and repetition, Clue is a boardgame film singularly aware of the herky-jerky nature of adapting a film from a boardgame. Playing out like a bald pastiche/satire of the screwball comedy genre, it might be more accurate to describe the ensuing creation as a tableau of cliché and deliberately tortured, over-bearing storytelling mechanics.
Take the film’s butler, Wadsworth (played with a manic anti-screwball edge and a twist of foppish flamboyance by the always magnetic Tim Curry) who gallantly reduces himself to fits and spurts of expository flagellation as he almost single-handedly deconstructs the very idea of narrative storytelling by breaking the audience’s patience time and time again. Letting no sleeping dog lie, he astringently refuses to allow the narrative to move at anything resembling a natural pace, dethroning the succession of scenes by slipping back into monologues when no one wishes, reorienting conversations toward prior discussions, whipping information ahead or behind in a maelstrom of cascading repetition that contorts sentence logic into its own arrhythmic cadence. Like an invasive player corrupting the narrative more than serving as catalyst for it, his presence delegitimizes the idea that anything in Clue resembles a narrative order.
Entertainingly kinetic though it may be, the real coup of Clue the film is the way this logorrhea encases the film in a penitentiary of anti-narrative matter, actively reworking through the mystery time and time again, the characters playing perversions of audience members or game players testing hypotheses until the film throws up its hands in willful disbelief upon arriving at the conclusion that it’s all just screenwriting pixie dust. It is completely, deliberately arbitrary, with new guests arriving as if on cue to be unceremoniously bumped off in a whirlwind of escalation where the central comic conceit of the film is how stunningly clueless the film is about its own structure. The mystery becomes a sort of dialectic with itself, a conversation the film is sputtering toward in order to unlock its own secrets, only for the conclusion to realize that the writers, as it be, can artificially rig the game by switching up the rules whenever they want. The ending, as it is, can never be singular, because it is fundamentally an artificial construct praying for the audience to lend it the illusion of believability.
Like a populist F for Fake, the whole affair is an uncloaking mechanism that can’t but conclude that the entirety of filmic language – or at least classical Hollywood filmic language, where causality and cohesion reign supreme – is a cloak designed to assume cinematic volition and command the audience’s attention. Clue isn’t perfect; director Jonathan Lynn isn’t especially achieving anything of note behind the camera, but then the film’s relentlessly square failure to visually accentuate its own mystery is part and parcel with its sly undercurrent of self-critique. This seemingly closed-casket funeral for the Old Dark House genre is actually an excavation of the genre, an opening up of its faults and, in particular, the smoothed-over-by-style narrative circumstance it wields as the pillar of its very existence.