|Even though I wrote a few paragraphs on Drugstore Cowboy and a comparison of Groucho in Monkey Business and Groucho in Horse Feathers, neither seemed quite right for my triumphant return to movie blogging. Inspiration hit only this weekend, when I had the misfortune of catching Fox’s stupid 1956 musical CAROUSEL. I have a lot of feelings on it, which I will now share in exhaustive detail.
My Facebook relationship status on musicals would be “It’s Complicated.”
There’s a few I unabashedly love – Cabaret (especially the stage version, that second act is a bruiser), Sound of Music (although watching this as an adult on blu-ray brings up two interesting observations – Christopher Plummer is starting to look a little long in the tooth and his contempt for this film is almost tangible), the Gene Kelly oeuvre, and, you know, White Christmas because it’s just not Christmas unless I pretend not to be crying during “Count Your Blessings Instead of Sheep”. However, usually it’ll occur to me in passing that I’d like to luxuriate Technicolor and Cinemascope, in frothy and unsatisfying narratives, and maybe enjoy some immaculately choreographed dance sequences. And then the musical will start, and I’ll remember that I don’t really like musicals, and then I’ll sit through it uncomfortably because I rarely turn off a film once I’ve started it, and leave the theatre two hours older.
I forgot about this on Sunday, when Carousel was playing for the Cineplex classic film series. I figured I’d catch it, knowing I’d probably end up sitting through Salo: 120 Days of Sodom again later that evening. I wanted to watch something blandly life affirming, and look at this poster – I really thought this would do it for me:
Friends, I was wrong. Salo may even been more life affirming (although I did skip over the feces breakfast scene – that’s been burned into my brain from the first time I saw it and there’s only so much shit eating you need to watch in your life). Carousel is abjectly terrible. It has approximately three things going for it: Shirley Jones (previously known to me only as Mom Partridge) is stunning, it contains some of Rogers and Hammerstein’s most evocative songs about seafood, and “What’s The Use Of Wond’rin” is the prettiest song you’ll ever hear about staying in your shitty dead end abusive relationship because you agreed to a long time ago when you were charmed by a charmless carousel operator who argued about starting a relationship with you and then tried to get you to buy him beer. I’m hesitant to call it a 1950’s musical theatre Springsteen song only because it’s way too goddamned depressing and at least guys in Springsteen songs make an effort to be gainfully employed.
I could write a review but really, merely telling you what happens in Carousel will say infinitely more about the film than any conclusions I could draw independent of it.
I will recount the plot to spare you the anguish of watching it yourself.
The movie opens with Billy Bigelow (Gordon MacRae,either a poor man’s Robert Mitchum with more energy or a bargain basement Kirk Douglas) in heaven or something. By the way, heaven looks kind of like a 90’s ad for Thierry Mugler’s Angel perfume. You can hear the tinkling sound of crystal stars and almost smell the dewy smell of chemical chocolate and the stink of patchouli, the scent of strippers from the midwest and that girl who went to everyone’s high school with clumpy Maybelline Great Lash eyelashes and demarcation on her jawline from wearing foundation two shades darker than her skin tone… (Sorry, overly personalized Thierry Mugler tangent.)
…Anyway, Billy’s in heaven or something, or at least at the administrative desk, where he is told that the bastard daughter of his surviving wife is having trouble. Although he has waived his right to go down to earth for a single day (this is something we allegedly get after dying, which seems anti-climactic and sadly mundane, like THE ACADEMY AWARDS followed directly by… The Barbara Walters Aftershow), he now wants the opportunity but first must tell his life story.
Don’t worry, this isn’t a Frank Capra-esque story of self sacrifice and the quiet strength of the human spirit. It’s a story about how Billy Bigelow was a total piece of shit to everyone around him for years and then died because he slipped on a pile of crates while trying to commit a robbery. This would never have happened to Mitchum or Douglas. At least they could’ve pulled off the robbery.
We then see Billy at the height of his power, as a carousel barker who yells at girls to ride the carousel. He puts his arm around Julie Jordan (Shirley Jones, who can do a lot better) who’s riding the carousel with her friend Carrie. Carrie is blonde and therefore stupid. The carousel, by the way, is owned by the middle-aged Mrs. Mullin, the only female in Carousel to command any kind of respect, even if she is tarted up like a Madam and portrayed not as a successful small business owner but as an insecure old crone, incurably infatuated with her employee.
Mrs. Mullin gets angry that Billy puts his arm around Julie and calls both girls sluts and bans them from the Carousel. I’m not shorthanding that at all – she actually calls them sluts and there’s just no room for slutty slut sluts on her carousel. Billy then quits his job to show the girls that he does what he wants and that no one puts Billy in a corner, and then hits them up to buy him beer. Carrie sings a song about how her beau is a nice guy even if he does smell like fish due to working on a herring boat.
Later that evening, Billy and Julie are talking and Julie runs into her boss at the mill who threatens to fire her if she’s not back soon, because as we now know from five minutes ago, Julie’s propriety and chastity is seriously questionable because she rode a carousel and is now talking to a man when it’s dark. Not twenty minutes into the film, and we’ve marginalized women for being jealous and condemned them for being harlots, because they’re merely existing while being desirable.
It should be noted that I am no great champion for political correctness in art and media. As a rule, I don’t believe art is responsible for promoting a social agenda. If we’re watching critically, I think we can all tell the difference between content and intent, and hey, you’re a big lady – I think we can trust the viewer with the power of deciding whether or not art has merit, and whether or not it aligns with your personal morals and values is of varying importance for everyone. All of that being said, Carousel is some misogynistic shit, folks. This is well above its status as a mid-50’s relic, where we might encounter some routine misogynistic characters. No, Carousel is deeply misogynistic in the fabric of its very construction. For me, this makes it merit-less for first being poorly-written tripe and second for being offensive and demeaning to women, men, and people who work on herring boats.
And, back to the film. Billy and Julie sing a song arguing about their desire for each other and whether they’re in love. This is pretty standard musical stuff – people meet, are instantly in love, but in Carousel, we have no honeymoon period with these characters. Like Miley Cyrus circa 2010, Billy can’t be tamed, he’s just not the marryin’ kind, he’s more into being surly and unemployed. Still, Billy and Julie end up married and living off of Julie’s cousin.
Billy is bitter that he can’t get a job (and by the way, he does have offers, he’s just to good to work on a herring boat because as we know from earlier, he’s highly qualified due to carny work). Oh, and the town is all a twitter about Billy because he beat Julie during an argument because he is full of testosterone and ignorance and is insecure about having small equipment. (The last part I inferred but I think it goes without saying.) The town is also all a twitter about June, which I can totally get behind, and the whole company sings “June Is Busting Out All Over” and for a moment I feel like I’m watching a blandly life affirming musical, and I, too, feel excited for spring which momentarily alleviates the depression I’m feeling from watching this film.
Mrs. Mullin offers Billy his job back if he leaves Julie, and Billy is momentarily swayed by recapturing his former glory as a guy who yells at girls at a carnival, before his full time job became beating Julie and waiting for her to bring him dinner. But then, Julie comes back with (his dinner), and the news we’ve all privately been dreading… SHE’S PREGNANT!
Billy’s totally stoked on this, drunk on the knowledge that his super awesome genes will be continuing in the world, and sings a song on the beach about how his son (who he will name after himself, obvs), will be THE BEST and he’ll be strong and tough and he won’t let his Mom make the boy a sissy and he might be president or a heavyweight champ and then it occurs to him that it might be a girl… No matter, she’ll be pretty and all the boys will want to get with her (this is the jist of the real song by the way. I can’t make this stuff up.) However, Billy realizes that if it is a girl, he’ll have to provide for her, because no one wants to get with girls who are poor and she can’t provide for herself. Everyone knows that. OH, the song also has super creepy lyrics about how dozens of men will pursue her but no one woos her away from her Dad and when she gets hungry every night she’ll come home to her Dad because whatthefuckseriouslywhyamiwatchingthis.
So Billy, who suddenly cares about being male provider guy and his jailbird friend, the awesomely named Jigger Craigin decide to rob Julie’s old boss at the mill (remember from a few paragraphs ago? The boss who fired her for seeing her talking to a man after dark?) during a big ol’ town clambake. I don’t know Billy, wouldn’t it just be easier to just get a goddamned job? Like, say, the one you were offered by Carrie’s fiancee not ten minutes ago in the film’s running time?
There’s a song about how great it is to eat seafood – which I can totally get behind, and then a scene where we can all laugh at Carrie for being stupid and gullible, and then a song about how nice guys make terrible partners and everyone should date abusive macho men – THIS IS REAL YOU GUYS I’M NOT MAKING THIS UP – and then the aforementioned song “What’s The Use of Wond’rin”, where Julie contemplates the futility of her life and relationship while all the townswomen look on, presumably in similar relationships. Except for Carrie, of course, who’s fiancee is homely and probably bad in bed and a source of ridicule for having a great job and being nice, but he still shames her for being stupid and gullible when men antagonize her. Such is the world of Carousel.
Predictably, because Billy hasn’t displayed any aptitude for anything other than being a total piece of shit, the robbery goes bad and Billy accidentally stabs himself with his own knife after slipping on crates. Where’s his virile manly aggression and focus now? Julie cries because she was always too afraid to say she loved Billy and now she’d never have the chance. I contemplate leaving the theatre but I’ve spent $6.99 and want to see how much worse this will get.
Answer: a lot worse.
Fifteen years later, Billy has birthed the attractive blonde daughter who all the boys wanna mouth kiss just like he had always dreamed. However, everyone makes fun of her for being fatherless and poor. Oh no! Just like he feared! Billy goes back to earth to “make amends” and discovers that the land of the living will only see them if he wants them too. For a moment, I wish we were in a reverse “It’s A Wonderful Life” parallel universe where Billy gets to see that everyone would be better off without ever knowing him.
It should be noted that Billy’s daughter Louise is “just like him”, which means she is defiant and rebellious, she’s going to run off and live a wild life as an actress! However, Louise is still a woman and this is Carousel, so the moment a fifteen year old neighbor mentions marriage, she’s totally into that idea too.
The way Billy “makes amends” is by talking to Louise, about himself. Louise says her mother has lied to her about her father being an awesome carousel barker with good intentions who died honorably, and that the townspeople have set her straight. However, they agree he was handsome, and Billy feels good about himself. Then he offers Louise a crystal star from heaven because everyone knows that’s how you make things right with women. Bitches love dinky plastic stars.
If you’re still with me, it is very important you read the following, because this is it! This is the big moment! Billy is going to make amends with his abandoned daughter, finally proving to his family that he’s changed, that he cares, that the 90-some minutes I personally have spent watching this awful movie is all worth it and… he gets angry and slaps her hand.
That’s all you’ve got for me, Carousel? That he has fifteen years up in Thierry Mugler heaven for self reflection and personal growth and he did FUCK NOTHING with it? He’s the same abusive jackass from earlier?
But wait, there’s more. Louise tells her Mom that a strange man hit her but… it didn’t feel like a slap… it felt… like a KISS. (Was Phil Spector super into this movie or something?) And, isn’t that strange? Julie looks off into the reflective distance and says knows exactly how that feels, apparently reliving the memory, both misty and water-coloured, of when her beloved husband Billy beat her while she carried his child.
There are no words. We can just sit and share the moment of a mother and daughter getting all moony eyed about being hit by a husband and father.
Billy shows up at Louise’s graduation and while the kindly town doctor drones on about how you are not the mistakes of your parents and you can hold your head up high and not be afraid of the dark and a bunch of other platitudes, and Billy then tells Louise that she should believe the doctor. However, Louise can’t hear him because he’s invisible and mute, so as a character and in the story arc, Billy is affecting NOTHING. Literally all he did to make amends was agree that he was handsome, try to give his daughter a star and then hit her. Him agreeing with advice being given by a townsperson in front of his daughter means ABSOLUTELY NOTHING. It has no effect whatsoever.
Except Carousel doesn’t know this. Carousel plays this moment seriously. This is Billy’s big redemption, but the story doesn’t realize that in its very design, we are seeing that fifteen years of afterlife growth has changed nothing about this character. He stands to the side and his ‘loved ones’ figure things out themselves, alone, making Carousel somewhat more depressing and nihilistic than Salo, which I inevitably did end up watching later that day. At least Salo comes by its nihilism honestly, instead of Carousel which is blissfully oblivious of how rotten it is, Trojan-horsing an insidious ode to male machismo and domestic violence on an unsuspecting audience who expected a bunch of singing and dancing at a carnival.
Oh, and in this scene we see widow Julie, wearing her hair in a bun to show that time has passed, all glassy eyed and sentimental, in the afterglow of the knowledge that the ghost of her husband hit her daughter earlier that day, because angels really do walk among us, and when we go to the great Thierry Mugler ad in the sky, we may have the opportunity for one special day back on earth to take care of our unfinished business. So that our fatherless daughter may experience that very special rite of passage in every girl’s life, when your father hits you for not being grateful for all he’s done for you. Namely, fertilize your mother’s egg, then die, leaving your Mother penniless and alone.
Then the end title comes up.
The fuck did I just watch, 20th Century Fox?
How weird was it then, to end up watching Salo later that evening, forever tying the two films together in my mind? Salo was just as nauseating and horrifying as I remembered, but at least Salo is intelligent in its obscenity, sincere in its intention to provoke. Carousel demeans its audience with inanity and champions sexism and domestic violence under a thin veil of choregraphy and DeLuxe Cinemascope 55, hurting the audience more with its unctuous pandering than Salo does with its high-minded filth. Either way, you’re consuming shit.