Monday, November 1, 2010

Friday Night Films: Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966)

My sister and I have begun a new tradition in our apartment. Every Friday night we resist the temptation to visit some over crowded, smelly bar and instead we watch a Classic movie. I’m not exactly an expert on what classifies a Classic film so forgive me if our selections aren’t quite classic enough for you. Just know that these films are typically seen and adored by people who call themselves film fans and for one reason or another I have suspiciously avoided seeing them. Whether this is due to my non-stop horror movie watching or because I detest really long movies, remains to be seen. But know this, every week you’ll be getting a fancy review of the latest movie watched at the Dumas household and oh how lucky you are.

Last week we settled in to watch Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966). I admit to having avoided it simply because I had heard of its dark and depressing themes and how “heavy” it was. In fact we had plans to watch it the week before, only to switch it at the last minute for something more light hearted. When I was reminded by the synopsis on Netflix that our two main characters were George and Martha, I was immediately brought back to my childhood.

The George and Martha series by James Marshall was a staple of my literary repertoire growing up. Due to this, I could never listen to excerpts from the play or read anything about the film without picturing two very fat hippos trying to outdo one another. As it so happens, James Marshall came up with the idea for the series while his mother was watching Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. This of course means that he based his lovable characters on the dastardly and at times disturbing duo. After seeing the film, I couldn’t imagine that Marshall would want to use these two as models for a children’s book largely based around teaching morality lessons. I emailed my Mom and asked her to send me one of the George and Martha books for research.

What I found was that I was continuously raising my eyebrows during any moments that suggested George was less of a man. One story in particular depicts George as boasting about diving off the high dive. Once at the top however, George starts to panic. Martha than proceeds to climb the high dive and jumps off, while George sneaks off the ladder while everyone is distracted by Martha’s giant splash. Despite the book obviously catering towards a more light hearted level of fun and games, I can’t help but be secretly put off by George and Martha. Were their constant games in the book just warm up for when they bashed each others faults relentlessly in front of strangers? Was Martha secretly an alcoholic who had a soft spot for younger men? I had so many concerns about the two lovable hippos now that I had been exposed to their inspiration.

Watching Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf is like renting Showgirls with your grandmother by accident. You just feel embarrassed, and you feel trapped--but also it’s very difficult to look away. It’s the very embodiment of watching a gruesome wreckage after a car accident. It’s a film that takes you on one of the wildest rides in emotional roller coaster history, causing laughter and fits of silliness one minute then plunging you down into a state of depression the next. What is that we can take away from a film as heavy as this? To be honest I’m not entirely sure. I had misgivings about even writing on Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf because I wasn’t even sure that I did understand it.

I understood that much of it was beautifully shot, and that Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor were simply amazing in their roles. I understood the implications that Martha may have been barren, and how cruel George’s last game really was. But then I also understood how continuously cruel Martha was to George. Through all that she had done, the second that the “child” gets brought up, means that George is immediately seen as the bad guy? Or perhaps that’s just what I felt although that may not have been what it meant. Nevertheless, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf is an extremely difficult film to watch. It stands miles apart from the likes of “torture porn” movies and causes you to understand what the term “disturbing” truly means.

I’m glad that I finally got to see it, but still find that I’m grappling with what it all really means. Does it have a larger meaning? Or are we meant to simply stare at its level of sheer horror while we unsuccessfully try to wipe its horror from our minds? I think I’ll stick to children’s books.


Unknown said...

What an excellent opening contribution to Cinema-Geek, Andre! Great stuff.

Andre said...

Heh thanks Nate! Friday night movie nights will hopefully be a regular occurrence. Can't wait to start watching more things I should have seen years ago...!

Jose Cruz said...

Really great essay, Andre! I especially enjoyed your surprising comparison of the children's books to the film. We always seem to notice those things as we get older. I've always been fascinated by "Who's Afraid..." for its dark content, ironically. You've definitely prompted me to move it up on my list.

Andre Dumas said...

It's an awesome film Joe! But definitely takes a lot out of you once all is said and done. It also makes you drunk by association.

Pax Romano said...

One of my fave films. Deeply disturbing and superbly acted.

Great post! Now, GET ME A DRINK, SWAMPY!