Moonstruck (1987)

16 Nov

Hand in glove/ The sun shines out of our behinds/ No, it’s not like any other love/ This one is different – because it’s us

I have never been assaulted by the moon, but this lack of familiarity with lunar pugilism did not stop me from enjoying Moonstruck; a film we at Cage Wisdom offer up to you like a fatted calf to Diana at the Festival of Torches! No more shall our blogging prowess wane sunken in the sky like an anaemic disc of that skin that forms on milk, but instead shall rise engorged like a giant white mosquito, ready to buzz its way back into your affections.

Moonstruck is a dreaming; its plot a wispy, fleeting shadow play of semi-articulated nigglings, that moves between scenes of varying import without nay a care in the world! While my dreams dramatize David Bowie’s hit 1990s come-back single “I’m Addicted to Paracetamol” (Euro-pop crossed with bursts of Prince style funk guitar with Bowie at Ashes to Ashes baritone range) Moonstruck focuses not on Bowie (Labyrinth, 1986) but Cher; that long-legged, long-faced, arch and slinky Priestess of Inscrutable Allure. Cher plays Loretta Castorini, who IMDB informs me is a book-keeper, although I don’t personally recall any book-keeping montages. That said, even the wikipedia page for book-keeping has an embedded excel spreadsheet, so I assume that any montage sequence was so intensely boring that I filed it away along with Ceefax and all the other sludge that sits at the bottom of my brain stem (admittedly, Ceefax does have its sedentary charms). Loretta has been recently widowed and this is played delicately by Cher, with a guarded confidence that makes her seem vulnerable. She very open in bantering with friends and family, but plays her Queen of Hearts close to her chest (I mean she is not forthcoming about love). Her boyfriend, Johnny “The Calamari” Cammareri is not a bad man, but neither is he an interesting one. Now, it might be said that Cher should do as Fanny Price in Mansfield Park and choose moral conventionality over more enticing derelict fare… however, when the man who is proclaiming the counter argument that, “We are here to ruin ourselves and to break our hearts and love the wrong people and die” is Nicolas Cage… well old Johnny Calamari is going to be rolling snake eyes.

I haven’t seen much in the way of romantic comedies so I went into this like a lamb in a newly-pressed sailor suit, but what I got the impression of from this film, is that romantic comedies is all about opposites. Am I on the right tracks? Well, Moonstruck seems to me to be primarily about two differing conceptions of romance – romance as a means of discourse and romance as passion. Loretta and much of her family and indeed her boyfriend Johnny are stuck within the mode of discourse. They talk things through and express their affection for family through ritualistic gestures, like cooking oatmeal. This is sturdy and reliable and helps to strengthen the family unit, but talk can also lead to miscommunication and rituals can become empty and formulaic. The most repeated refrain within the film, especially within Loretta’s Italian-American family, is “I don’t want to talk about it.” When Johnny proposes to Loretta near the start of the film he grumbles about dirtying his suit and then reveals he hasn’t bought a ring… and there is nothing more unappealing than a man getting dirty without his ring on display. This is what Cage Wisdom endorses! (it might be noted that, I, Adam am writing this review without Jay).

Like poorly judged innuendo, these romantic gestures are inarticulate without passion, yet passion on its own without a mode of appropriate discourse, is equally emasculated. After Johnny proposes to Loretta he jets off to his mother’s death bed (ah! The maternal bed instead of the marital bed! Oh romantic comedies, what are you like?), requesting before he does so that Lorreta contact his estranged brother Ronny and make peace. Yet Ronnie works in the basement of a pizzeria (I really hope it was a pizzeria and I’m not just a horrible racist) where he is employed as a dough shovelin’ man. My understanding of how this is portrayed is that it is the 80s Brooklyn equivalent of working as a navvy on the Victorian railroads. It is hot, doughy, manly work that has a similarly high fatality rate. Ronnie got lucky and got away easy, with just a hand gone, but some guys… well let’s just say that the incident was only resolved through involvement of the Neapolitan police.

Ronny “could never love anybody since he lost his hand and his girl.” He blames the bad hand he got in life on his bulky yet well-meaning brother; claiming that Johnny distracted him with his mouth and tongue and blasted vocal chords and the next thing you know, his hand was trapped in the machine. Effect follows cause. Now, Loretta quite reasonably points out that this wasn’t really Johnny’s fault and that really not speaking to your brother for 5 years because he spoke to you at an inopportune time, might be construed as a little grouchy. Well, Ronnie, like many great early Cage characters, ain’t a man of much sense! He proclaims as much; “I ain’t no freakin’ monument to justice! I lost my hand! I lost my bride! Johnny has his hand! Johnny has his bride!” Of course, by the end of the film Johnny will no longer have his bride, but I’ll leave it a mystery as to whether he’ll still have his hand…

As this enraged, though admittedly factual outburst reveals, Ronnie is the first character we encounter who doesn’t like jabbering on, unless it’s underlined by a good angry point at something or there is a table nearby to be knocked over as punctuation. Cage has stated in interview that he wanted to play Ronnie like the Beast in Jean Cocteau’s adaptation of Beauty and the Beast (La Belle et la Bête, 1946). Cage is clearly not talking about hairiness, but about the grace within the beast and a strength that must be tempered by love. As first, Ronnie is all resolve and no gentleness, like a Lion Bar, but by the end of the film he’s become a Snickers – still retaining some of his previous bite, but with a less demanding nougat base to traverse. The peanuts might still get stuck in the teeth on occasions, but importantly it’s not a bar that looks out of place within the family home (it might even make it as far as the child’s lunch box, on a parent-teacher day, for instance). By the end of the film this unkempt dough chucker, who I believed upon seeing a screenshot before the film to be a werewolf, has settled down to a bowl of oatmeal with the family.

Due, I suspect, to a genuine fondness on the part of screenwriter John Patrick Shanley for the stereotype of the Italian-American who lives with their squabbling but affectionate extended family, Loretta’s paternal home is the hub for much of the film’s main action and where we meet the eccentrics, romantics and melancholics who comprise her family. An interesting facet of the film, which contributes to its pleasant tone of inconsequentiality, is a tendency to cut from the main storyline and our heroes Cage and Cher, to the romantic tribulations of family and friends. While the main thrust of the plot is predictable, it would be remiss for me to reveal the plot developments concerning these other character, which often caught me more by surprise. Particularly moving was the plot concerning Loretta’s mother Rose, played by Olympia Dukakis in a role that justifiably earnt her an Acadamy Award, Bafta and a Golden Globe (OK, so only Nic’s performance in Vampire’s Kiss really deserves all three, but nonetheless it is a very fine performance). She is a woman who has given up her dreams for her family and in doing so repressed a personality far richer and deeper than that of her husband. This weariness doesn’t swamp her tenderness for her family, but somehow they hold each other in place – as though neither could quite exist without the other. There are also moments in which she seems very beautiful and I think the film succeeds in wanting you to see her sexually and emotionally satisfied, which is a worthy feat considering that she’s a secondary, not primary character. What is made clear by the film, is that mature love is no less turbulent or fascinating than young love. Cher’s character herself is already into her late 30s at the time of the film. Thus, while the film may be breezy, is doesn’t feel fickle or insidiously superficial. Loretta’s elderly grandfather (Louis Guss) who trots around the film with a legion of dogs, remarks that there is no-one to hold affection for him, reminding us that the old still lust and desire (one of the unsung verses from The Flaming Lips’ Do You Realise?, concerned this perhaps; a song that reminds us of things that seem banal when merely known, but meaningful when truly realised. The Flaming Lips clearly considered themselves too cool to include a verse about the romances of the old. Shame on them).

In mentioning the song I realise a useful segue because one of Wayne Coyne’s most remembered lines from that song is “Do you realise that everyone you know some day will die?” Literally, everyone! EVEN CHER! This is the kind of sentiment that the film reminds us of in its ruminations. The film of course starts on a bereavement and death never wholly leaves the picture. One of the repeated pieces of wisdom is that men chase women in order to escape death. Embodying this is a schmucky lecturer who I was going to write looks like Marty from Fraiser, until I discovered that he is Marty from Fraiser (John Mahoney) but with different inflections and characteristics! Having sufficiently grasped the concept of acting, I turned my attention once more to Cage.

As said, Ronnie is not one of them ‘word-speaking’ men, until his mad, exemplary little monologue at the end of the film that woos Loretta. When Loretta first means him, he cuts her off and his speech is punchy and tumbles out of him like meaty acrobats. He speaks in awkward proverbs and slicks back his hair. Surrounded by the incantatory Italian language, Ronnie’s broader, more Americanized accent makes him sound grounded in a fundamentally different way to the other characters. While the other characters are tied to the family home through conversation, ritual and exchange, Ronnie is cut-off in his subterranean furnace room, like the Phantom of the Opera. As ever with Cage, the devil in the woodpile is emasculation and Ronnie starts the film with a wooden hand that caused (or so he believes) his fiancé to leave him. Whether the loss of a hand should stand as a true signifier for lost manhood, Ronnie proclaims and menaces and kicks out in the first half of the film in the pre-emptive knowledge that this is precisely how the loss of his hand is going to be read. Behind this bravado we know there’s a soft heart though because while Cage’s body is all muscles and gesture, his eyes are always soft and apologetic, even at his most raging. It may sound glib, but I was genuinely impressed by Nic’s ability to maintain his eyes like this across the film… I feel his ability to continue an expression or an action across a film, like a heraldic tag that follows a character, is what helps him create such strong archetypes.

Contrariwise from castration, Ronnie’s wooden hand also shows that he has suffered for passion, unlike his brother. The other testament to Ronnie’s alignment with passion over discourse is a prime piece of character development: “I love two things. I love you and opera.” This passion leads to the most compelling romantic sequence in the movie in which Ronnie and Loretta attend the opera together to watch a performance of La Bohème. Waiting outside for Loretta in his suit and tie, Ronnie looks suddenly very young. Though there is still a toughness about him, his excitement for the opera makes him child-like – both husky and goofy. At the opera we see that Ronnie is able to conduct himself as a Prince, not the Beast, and so is able to enter into the world of discourse through the world of passion. For Loretta, who has been a fast-talker throughout the film who calls the shots, this position is now reversed, as she attends opera for the first time and struggles to comprehend what is being sung. Through being forced into a state of inarticulacy she can now engage with the opera on a purely passionate level and by the time the arias draw to a close, there is a close-up of her face as the tears run down her cheeks – the most interest the camera has shown in Cher’s face up to this point (a shame, as I felt it should have better honoured her face’s immutable slightly confrontational quality… Cher is like an inverted Shelley duVall). The scene also reminds us that the film itself is  an opera – passion and music. In the backdrop on the stage is a fake painted moon; though as the inimitable Lula of Cage-a-lot Castle raised in an online discussion, perhaps the moon on stage is the real moon and the romance of Loretta and Ronnie the opera.

The camera is suitably gentle for a film like this – choosing long-takes and unobtrusive pans and cuts that lead us quite softly and sometimes poetically from scene to scene. My favourite cut in the film was from the moon seen from one perspective, to the moon seen from another perspective, from another part of town. This large moon often forebodes the action of Moonstruck, as though the moon were drawing these characters apart and together upon romantic tides. Characters talk about the moon a lot during the film. It is described as being “the size of a house”, which seems absurd until you remember that a house can be much larger than its bricks and mortar and the families in Moonstruck feel very expansive. It is also described as “white as a snowball”, in evocation of the purity of the moon. Indeed, the moon is very white after Ronnie and Loretta’s first night together. Despite the amount of discourse that goes on about the moon, it seems to rule through passion. Stories are told about amorous encounters under the full moon, that seemed fated and are fated to happen again. We see various colours of the moon – red, white, pink, orange, cream – all boding perhaps different things. The moon and the home (or together as captured in the moon “the size of a house”) become the narrative nexus of the film, that return us to and connect members of the family. The use of That’s Amore on the soundtrack makes this seem like a specifically Italian (American) phenomenon. This is the “luna belle” that Loretta’s grandfather speaks of, getting his dogs to howl at the moon.

Flannery O’Connor, who surely puts the ‘wisdom’ in Cage Wisdom, has no place amongst all this softness (forcing her into this review would be like trying to cram a crow into a dress), but I have another 50s American short story writer who does, John Cheever. Those magical nights where the moon is white and fat in the sky and lovers are tugged towards each other as in A Midsummer Nights Dream, are the nights Moonstruck wishes to capture. Since this is an elegantly written film, tactfully directed, with two great leading performances, there are moments in the film that succeed in transporting us to such a night; “a night where kings in golden suits ride elephants over the mountains.” Thanks John.

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2 Responses to “Moonstruck (1987)”

  1. cagewisdom November 16, 2011 at 3:05 pm #

    I didn’t want to clutter the article with burdensome academia, but interestingly before seeing ‘Moonstruck’ I had recently read Rob Lapsley and Michael Westlake’s ‘From ‘Casablanca’ to ‘Pretty Woman’: the Politics of Romance’ which argues that romance films tends to be structured around a Lacanian narrative of the man seeking to compensate his lack through the female Other… I scoffed. However, ‘Moonstruck’ foregrounds all of this with its line: “Maybe a man isn’t complete as a man without a woman” and the drama of Cage’s lost hand! So it goes.

  2. gre practice math November 27, 2011 at 6:17 pm #

    After reading this blog post I was instantly reminded of “When defeat comes, accept it as a signal that your plans are not sound, rebuild those plans, and set sail once more toward your coveted goal.” — Napoleon Hill

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