February 28, 2007

M.I.A. on D.V.D.: "Two for the Seesaw"

Now that I've finally received my boarding pass to the 21st century (i.e., the Canadian bastardization of TiVo), I find myself habitually trolling the airwaves for anything noteworthy that hasn't been released on DVD in North America. Hoping to make this the first of many mini-reviews of absentee films, but we all know how that usually turns out.

*1/2 (out of four)

st. Robert Mitchum, Shirley MacLaine, Edmon Ryan, Elisabeth Fraser
sc. Isobel Lennart, based on the play by William Gibson
dir. Robert Wise

Less a movie than the connective tissue between Robert Wise's West Side Story and his The Haunting, Two for the Seesaw begins like the former, with baroque urban vistas that diminish the normally imposing Robert Mitchum against Manhattan skyscrapers and various Modern Art monstrosities. The city is curiously ghostly, almost post-apocalyptic, and from this we extrapolate the Mitchum character's lonesomeness--though maybe, just maybe, Wise has an ulterior motive for all that negative space, since the movie permanently headquarters itself inside suffocating tenement buildings thereafter. (It does grimly feel, in retrospect, like one last stroll around the courtyard before a stay in solitary.) Based on a William "Not the Guy Who Coined the Term Cyberspace" Gibson play that's allegedly a comedy, Two for the Seesaw eventually pairs off square Jerry (a self-consciously miscast Mitchum)--a lawyer, we come to learn, from Nebraska--with archetypal Greenwich Village pixie Gittel (Shirley MacLaine, who exacerbates comparisons to The Apartment, especially once Gittel falls ill). They bond over a tentative phone call Wise shoots in splitscreen by sandwiching the two sets together and dollying out--a visual that, however clever (it probably cinched veteran cinematographer Ted McCord's Academy Award nomination, as it really exploits 'scope's potential in a world increasingly inhospitable to roadshow spectaculars), unfortunately clamps the material to its stage roots, albeit while foreshadowing the parlour tricks of The Haunting.

Despite overtures, though, I don't think you can call the ensuing relationship a romantic one: for starters, Jerry and Gittel never, to my recollection, kiss; for another thing, Jerry is less a lover than an overprotective father, infantilizing Gittel so much that you half expect him to burp her. (According to MacLaine's autobiography, her dynamic with Mitchum was just the opposite offscreen.) The obvious age gap between the two actors doesn't help, nor does the natural polarity between bureaucrats and bohemians, nor does our newly-conditioned sensitivity to the stalkerish manner in which Jerry conducts himself (he makes a habit of spying on her and even backhands her when she attempts to stoke his jealousy), which retroactively transforms Two for the Seesaw from ersatz Billy Wilder into a primordial New York, New York. If anything definitively sinks the movie, however, it's the tediousness of Jerry and Gittel's club-footed pirouettes around their True Feelings, which seem disingenuous to begin with. Two for the Seesaw is, quite frankly, one for the cinematic dustbin.

Next time: The Private War of Major Benson


Seattle Jeff said...

Wow Bill...this post has generated massive feedback!

The Onion AV CLub recently had a list of TV SHows that should be preserved on DVD.

The inclusion of "Spaced" warmed my heart.

Bill C said...

At this frantic pace, I won't have enough time to read all the comments.

Remind me to deep-six this feature.

O'JohnLandis said...

Don't assume that the lack of comments has anything to do with the utility of the feature, Bill. If nothing else, I've now heard of "Two for the Seasaw"...

People aren't likely to respond if:
a) they can't feel smart by engaging in vehement disagreement
b) they can't feel smart by having their views corroborated by a generally decent critic who nonetheless refuses to omit the superfluous "u" from colo(u)r.

But just for you, Bill, I'll start some shit:

1 1/2 stars for a Robert Wise film starring Shirley MacLaine? Fuck you, you Canadian pseudo-intellectual. Consider yourself on notice from my club, The Trouble with Charity. We believe that the insects and plant life that come into contact with Shirley MacLaine are reincarnated as dancing Puerto Rican street gangs.

For what it's worth, I like the MIA on DVD feature.

Anonymous said...

Speaking of MIA titles--"Night of the Comet" finally gets released next Tuesday--yippie, Ki, yay

Seattle Jeff said...


The feature is good...I do like it. It will help us learn about stuff we normally hadn't heard of.

nana said...

it was an unlikely match, that's PART of the story...and YES they did kiss..but were both afraid of that intimacy..so whether or not they went further is a bit sketchy, but that bond/pull/hesitation thing is central to this romance about fear, love and second chances. Not a perfect movie, but a decent script; so much more compelling than most of today fare having anything to do with a passionate relationship. may be too many boys on this blog ;)

David Jenkins said...

Hi Bill... love your site.

I just watched Two for the Seesaw on TCM and I have to admit I was blown away by it, so I find your review of it a bit odd... but as I've noticed that this widescreen film has been butchered into full screen only in DVD release, and these DVD's are only available in Region 2 unless it's from Amazon, which they record on DVD-R for you upon order... and it seems they tried to market it as somewhat of a comedy when in fact it's a pretty heavy drama...it occurs to me that you haven't seen an original version of the film as TCM has aired, through no fault of your own. I sense you may have seen something heavily edited.

What makes me think this are two of your comments... one that you don't remember seeing the two main characters kiss, when in fact they kiss often and quite passionately, and two that you don't know whether they went farther than a kiss, when it's made VERY clear that they did, and repeatedly.

I'm not criticizing you. I think you're possibly the victim of some commercial mishandling of what I think is a truly great film.