Wednesday, March 23, 2011

A Trip to Illusion.

"They told me to take a streetcar named Desire, and then transfer to once called Cemeteries and ride six blocks and get off at Elysian Fields"
- Blanche DuBois

True story: when I visited New Orleans in 2001, I spent an entire afternoon looking for the place where A Streetcar Named Desire takes place.
Deep inside I knew that I would never find the exact same house where Blanche DuBois loses her mind. I knew it was a set.
Yet the illusion of finding a place I cherished in my mind, defied my better judgment and I ended up circling and circling the city - Williams' play in hand- until I arrived at the exact destination pointed out in the play.
Not so surprisingly I reached a dead end, Elysian Fields after all, was the resting place of the gods. The address in the book led me to a place filled with square grey buildings, devoid of any personality and most definitely not the place where Stanley Kowalski screamed his legendary "Hey Stella!".

Reflecting on the experience, I'd taken the trip Blanche DuBois (Vivien Leigh) took. She arrived to an unknown place, carrying nothing but hope and left filled with disappointment and loss of illusion.
This doesn't stop her, however, from taking on this very journey each and every time the play is performed, or whenever the movie is played somewhere.
Blanche's is condemned to try and find her world of enchantment .

This is beautifully expressed in Elia Kazan's film through the use of mirrors. When we first meet Blanche, she's quite keen on looking glasses.

The camera often catches her near a mirror in Stella's house, and said object takes on a significant role whenever the heroine has to confront herself.

Yet as the movie unfolds, Blanche's reflection is seen less and less. Other characters are framed on the mirror while Blanche loses her mind and stops looking at herself.

During one of the film's crucial scenes, her lover Mitch (Karl Malden), arrives drunk at her house asking for explanations to the stories he'e heard about her.
Before opening the door, Blanche takes a look in the mirror, but we are not allowed to see what she sees. Perhaps her reflection has become too distorted for us to watch.

When Mitch confronts her and demands to see her face up close, we are given that "privilege", but Blanche isn't. Mitch grabs her and throws her, but the mirror is now beside her.
She closes her eyes in horror. She refuses to see what she's become and she's also afarid to see what Mitch sees- the eyes being a mirror of sorts.

This leads us to my favorite shot in the movie.
Here Blanche has completely lost her mind. She dresses up in her best clothes and pretends she's at one of the balls she used to attend during her prime.
Blanche never looks more lovely than in this scene and through the composition, Kazan lets us know what will become of the tragic heroine.
Notice how Blanche looks lovingly to the right, convinced that she's in the presence of something divine (she even asks this space if she can rest her head on its shoulder).
In western spirituality, the right symbolizes the power of God, and more than that: his authority.
We understand then why Blanche declares "suddenly there is God" (in that scene she's in the right, Mitch stands to the left). The left then would come to symbolize, the antithesis of God.
Even in Buddhism, the right represents compassion, the left embodies emptiness.
The mirror to the left tells us that Blanche has let go of the earthly influence and has surrendered to the power of her own version of god. The one that shall grant her happiness and kindness, in the midst of chaos.

This illusion is lost when Stanley enters the scene and turns on the light.
In the bible, eating from the tree of knowledge sent Eve spiraling towards perdition. In Streetcar, the light makes Blanche aware of her insanity.

Next time the mirror comes up she's in the middle of a quarrel with her brother in law. She holds a white handkerchief in front of the mirror, as if asking for a truce.

The mirror refuses her and as Stanley attacks her, even turns its back on Blanche. She turned her back to reality and now reality is making its own justice.

As Blanche falls victim to Stanley's attack, the mirror shatters.
Reality is no longer an option for Blanche.


The last time we see the mirror, we see it behind a curtain that serves as a filter between the camera and the reality of the film.
We understand now that Blanche isn't part of our world at all, the mirror-which has conspicuously been put back together-reflects Blanche's split personalities. Now there's two of her: the one in the physical world and the one that has gone to the actual limbo of Elysian Fields.
Notice how neither has a complete face.
She no longer knows who she is and neither do we.
Illusion has prevailed, even as hope has completely vanished.


7 comments:

Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

Oooh, where to start. Hmmm, as a prelude I just want to say I sort of love how Tennessee keeps his themes reverberating through all his plays. The image of the mirror is so significant in SWEET BIRD OF YOUTH.

Okay, on to this post...that shattered mirror was actually a shot I considered. The amount of subtext, symbolism wrapped up in that is astounding. I don’t LOVE Vivien here (like her very much, though) but I always feel she doesn’t get as good a rep as she deserves. I don’t think it’s Tennessee’s best written role, but it’s sort of exasperating in the way that it’s so “foggy”. I love her most opposite Malden, and that final scene with the two is lovely.

(ps. Love the writeup, naturally.)

NATHANIEL R said...

great write up. Love that it's so personal.

You know I went to New Orleans in 2000. But I didn't think to do that and now I wish I had because even if the experience was disappointing, I'm sure it enriches the movie even further for you now.

and the movie is so damn rich already.

Jose said...

Andrew...you don't LOVE her here? You just broke my heart a bit... *sobs*

Nat: thanks! Ah well, the beignettes that came after the failed tour made up for the disappointment.

Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

My entire relationship with it is sort of complicated. I always loved Brando more, but this last time around Vivien seems so obviously the best in show for me. (Still don't LOVE her, but yeah.)

I've been known to say, to the ire of MANY a cinephile that I wish Bogart swapped his Oscar with Brando and Vivien swapped hers with Kate...okay, now I'm running for cover.)

Jose said...

What have I done for you to hurt me like this? *sobs*
I'm kidding...Kate had way too many Oscars anyway...hahaha.
I think this is the only movie that should've swept the four acting awards. Brando losing to hammy Bogie was insane. Damn you "career Oscars"...

Runs Like A Gay said...

Fascinating look at the symbolism of the film, next time I watch it I'll definitely be looking out for the points you make.

And what a beautiful sequence of shots.

escort palma said...

The writer is totally fair, and there's no doubt.