Monday, September 27, 2010

The World According to Garp

For better or worse, 1982's THE WORLD ACCORDING TO GARP forever changed my moviegoing point of view. It was the first genuinely adult movie I would see on the big screen. "Adult" in terms of the story's themes and the bluntness in which they were presented. It would prove to be one of several unsettling film experiences I had that year. Then and now, I consider director George Roy Hill's adaptation of John Irving's celebrated novel a uniquely disturbing drama, one that would leave a messy imprint on my 13 year old psyche, possibly damaging me for life.

Many would consider that a negative thing. From the point of view of art appreciation, it may well be one of the highest compliments I can offer. This damned movie invaded my dreams and consciousness alike for months after my first viewing. Even THE SHINING, seen on cable the year before, hadn't affected me for such a sustained amount of time. That might be because GARP's horrors were more literal, real-seeming, even if there was an absurdist, surrealistic bent to this fractured story. We see Garp from boyhood onward, experiencing many of the same rites of passage we may have gone through ourselves. What separates Irving's writings from others' are the distinctive voices, the attitudes. The detached yet intensely personal point of view. Sometimes it comes off as smug and cruel. Accurate. But fascinating......

T.S. Garp (Robin Williams) is born to one Jenny Fields, a nurse, (a remarkable Glenn Close in her screen debut) in a scandalous way; she climbed atop a brain damaged, yet fully potent, soldier on his deathbed. This ensured Garp's status as "bastard" for life, and perhaps set a most bizarre course. His lack of a father will shape his sensibilities, allowing him to embrace feminimity, yet not prompt him to deny his masculinity-he becomes a wrestler, for example.

Early on, he discovers an interest and talent for writing. Even as a child he conjures vivid worlds, seemingly happy but always tinged with darkness and filled with despair (note his crayon sketches come to life as he dreams of his dead father, a fighter pilot fighting Hitler's airmen). Perhaps Garp is only reacting to the odd events around him, such as the neighbor's dog that bites off his ear, or that renegade truck driver who scarily races down Garp's suburban streets where the neighborhood kids play. There's also Pooh, his neighbor, a strange girl who will be a catalyst in this story quite significantly.

As I've watched this film over the years, it seemed to me that Garp is achieving some degree of salvation through art, his writing. Or at least exorcising his demons that way. Life is a slaughterhouse; the pen provides a coping mechanism, again and again. A reconciliation of the seeming randomness of it all. The novel will elucidate this point even further. The movie, in my opinion, quite successfully presents the traffic jam that is Garp's stream of consciousness in his attempts to deal with the undealable. One unforgettable sequence, a visualization of one of Garp's short stories, involves a suicidal man playing a piano outside a high story window. Both he and the instrument are supported by ropes. It is coldly funny and (like Garp himself, by admission) Terribly Sad.

"Life is a slaughterhouse"? Forgetting the atrocities that occur by the second throughout the world, in seemingly lawless faraway less developed places, we have seen a rise in violence within our own borders over the decades. As in GARP, sometimes that violence occurs behind picket fences and on manicured lawns. Or in collegiate ivory towers. Garp's life will be marked by tragedies that take away family members and friends. Some are accidents, others are perhaps the results of bad choices or consequences for being yourself. Jenny Fields, always an individualist, has a most interesting dynamic through this story. She observes how women continue to be degraded, humiliated and oppressed in a so-called civilized land. She'll wonder aloud why it is wrong for a prostitute to make a living with her own body (but meanwhile condemn it all as lust, something she sees as a weakness). She'll provide a shelter in her own home for those women who've suffered indignations. Eventually, she'll become a famous author and activist; roles that will seal her fate.

Garp watches, always dwarfed by his mother's audaciousness. He spends his life composing serious writings with little fanfare. His mother writes one incindiary tome and she's an instant celebrity. His literary agent says as much. Garp's journey will largely influenced by his mother's behavior.

THE WORLD ACCORDING TO GARP is just so unique. The unconventional plotline owes to Irving (and a fine adaptation by Steve Tesich). The direction by Hill is matter of fact, and should be. The events themselves are colorful enough. The story flows nicely, with nuance, even. Never slammed ahead crudely. This film easily could have been a collection of odd scenes rather than a movie. Here and there, a scene does feel out of place: one of the ladies in the halfway house has a hasty exit when her boyfriend comes to retrieve her, for example. Feels like a scene that should have been deleted. Mostly though, the portentious narrative makes the most of every moment.

And then there's the acting. Superb. Williams is restrained and never tries to destroy the character with his patented ad-libs and manic humor. Close is simply great, conveying a confidence not often seen in a debut. She really gets Jenny Fields; forthright but still vulnerable under layers of stone. Watch her during the multiple scenes around her house of refuge, reacting to various tragedies. John Lithgow plays Bertha, a former Philadelphia Eagle who had a sex-change operation, and one of Fields' charges. The part is never played for cheap laughs (except maybe when he gets to tackle someone), but rather a funny/sad amalgamation of hesitation and fear. Lithgow plays it beautifully. Mary Beth Hurt, a veteran of Robert Altman and Alan Rudolph ensembles, undergoes her own changes as Garp's wife. She's studious and mature and also a person capable of crippling heartbreak. Her performance grows richer which each scene, as life gets harsher.

As much as I admire this movie, I don't rank GARP with the all-time classics, with films like ALL ABOUT EVE or SUNSET BOULEVARD, but I feel it is an unjustly neglected and highly underrated work. Hill, of course, directed great films like THE STING and BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID, and GARP is a worthy addition to his resume. I recognize the sentimental value it has for me, how it will always shock me the way it did during its original release. So new and different, so grown-up seeming. Impossible to separate my feelings from some of the more sharpened criticism I tend to wield. Even so, THE WORLD ACCORDING TO GARP will always be the thorny, frustrating, exhilarating, trippy, and flat out excellent film that haunted my adolescent days (and nights).
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