This is the second in a two-part series on a screening of Franco Zeffirelli’s Endless Love, to be presented by the Film on Film Foundation as part of its on-going series Film Maudit/Accursed Films, on Sunday, August 22nd at 4 p.m. at the Pacific Film Archive. Disclosure: this is a presentation in which I’m personally involved. Consider yourself warned and invited! Click here for Part 1. Click here for more information on this screening.
One of the great cinéphiliac ecstasies is being wrong. To enjoy, possibly even love, a picture towards which one has harbored prejudice is to experience locked doors thrown open, the universe expanding. Endless Love was released the summer I turned fifteen, and by its ads I determined it to be a slick piece of work for chicks. I’d been aware of Brooke Shields since the release of Louis Malle’s intriguing-sounding Pretty Baby in ’78, and paid close attention a couple years later when this slightly older “woman” intoned the teasing, intimate question in the TV ad for Calvin Klein jeans that made her famous: “You want to know what comes between me and my Calvins? Nothing.” On the basis of her other TV appearances, though, I decided she was vapid, or at least lacking complexity. How could one relate to this gorgeous mannequin? The Blue Lagoon came out the summer before I entered high school, and I spent my early weeks as a freshman in a state of nausea prompted by repeatedly encountering rapt discussions among girls of this sickeningly sweet-n’-innocent sounding movie. So by the time Endless Love rolled out, I was fully prepared to have no truck with it. The graphic design of its ads seemed to be based on the Calvin Klein campaign, and the whole affair appeared to be the kind of cheap and exploitive fodder for the mysterious opposite sex I assumed could be found in romance novels. It was the sort of thing I wished I could edit from consciousness, and before too long — were it not for the seeming omnipresence of Lionel Ritchie’s dreadful theme-song on the American air waves of the early 80’s — it would have been like the movie had never existed at all.
I’d imbibed the usual intellectual line on Melodrama in my adolescence, and I’d have to come to terms with this great genre before I’d be ready for Endless Love. Jack Kleinman, the manager of the first movie theatre I got a job at, the Aquarius in Palo Alto, had quite a bit of film knowledge, and he advised me to check out Nicholas Ray’s Bigger Than Life, playing on TV the next evening. The next time I worked, he asked what I’d thought of it. “Not much”, I said. “Too melodramatic for me.” Jack trained the full wrath of his cranky middle-age upon me: “Did you ever consider that it is a Melodrama? That’s what it’s supposed to be.” “Did you ever consider that I don’t like Melodramas?” was my game (lame) snappy teenage response, but his words hit home. I was seeing every Fassbinder I could, and it began to dawn on me the genius German auteur I loved made, er, uh — Melodramas. When I was able to see Bigger Than Life again a year or two later, this time in all its 35mm CinemaScope glory at a sparsely-attended show at the Castro, I was ready. Ray’s exploration/explosion of the American Nightmare, in which lower middle-class grade school teacher James Mason is driven to heights of grandiosity and psychosis after being prescribed Cortisone for a serious illness climaxes with his delusion that, like Abraham in the Old Testament, God is calling upon him to sacrifice his son. “But… God stopped Abraham”, pleads his understandably hysterical wife. Whereupon Mason, razor-sharp scissors gripped firmly in hand, intones one of the most chilling lines in American cinema: “God was wrong!” This time, Ray’s film left me astonished, drained, and shattered, and by the time “The End” flashed up on the screen, I was fully convinced of the aesthetic, emotional, and socially critical dynamic potential of the American film Melodrama.
More time passed, and now I was living in Austin, Tx, having a conversation with my friend and mentor George Morris, the auteurist film critic who’d written for Film Comment, among other publications in the 70’s, and who’d been fired as film critic of Texas Monthly for panning The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas against strong editorial “advice”. George could be tough. So I was a little surprised when he brought up Endless Love. “Franco Zeffirelli? Never liked him much.” “Right”, said George with a knowing smile. “But this one’s different.” A few minutes later, we were watching his VHS tape.
Endless Love begins semi-literally in the human heart. In its opening credit sequence, teenage lovers Jade Butterfield (Shields) and David Axelrod (Martin Hewitt) cozily stroll through a science exhibit mock-up of a giant heart, marveling at its inner workings. Moments later, high school senior David, an aspiring astronomer, has joined Jade’s sophomore science class for a planetarium show about the cold and lonely nature of a desolate cosmos. These conjoined archetypally existential images expressing the potentially (but often illusory) infinite warmth of human love, and the capacious depths of fortitude we are forced to draw on as we experience life’s sometimes devastating contingencies provide the thematic set-up for all to follow.
David’s in love not only with Jade, but her whole family. His own parents are caring, but distant, occupied by their political activism, while in Jade’s home he finds the close-knit emotional involvement for which he’s always yearned. Her father exerts the patriarchal authority he wishes his own would, his dealings with her mother have an erotic charge, and in her brother Keith, this only child’s desires for a best friend and brother are embodied. Jade’s family evinces organic marks of having interacted with the bohemian cultures of the 60’s and 70’s — they throw wild, marijuana-laced parties for their kids’ teenage friends, and espouse liberated views on adolescent sexuality. They’re everything David thinks he wants, but his awkward attempts to integrate himself into this family backfire, and his and Jade’s developing erotic and romantic obsession within her room, smack in the middle of the Butterfield’s ramshackle three-story abode, forces a viper’s nest of incestuous tension to the surface. When Jade’s attempt to steal a sleeping pill from her physician father’s supply is discovered, her parents call a thirty day time-out on the young lovers. Jade and David honor this, even at school, but desperate to get back into the Butterfield home, David seizes on a story related by a goofus Tom Cruise of how he became the hero of his family by putting out a fire they didn’t know he’d started. David’s attempt to replicate this sends the Butterfield house up in flames, and the naive arsonist to a psychiatric facility. Confined against his will, Jade’s father and brother now consumed by overt hatred for him, David has entered a nightmare world in which his only access to Jade is via dreams in which she appears as a cold and distant succubus. In danger of losing his mind, forced into a confrontation with the darkest realms of self, he hopes against hope to somehow get out and reunite with his beloved…
More than any classical Melodrama I can think of, Endless Love‘s narrative unspools with an almost Surrealist dream-logic, and probably represents the supreme American cinematic embodiment of Andre Breton’s concept of l’amour fou, which Robert Hughes has described as “obsessional… the kind of love that deranges the senses and tips those who feel it into a helpless vortex of appetite and feeling.” It’s the sort of stuff that might fly in a foreign art film — Oshima’s In the Realm of the Senses and Carax’s Les Amants du Pont-Neuf come to mind — but, to Anglo critics dealing with an American “women’s picture”, had that special nails-on-chalkboard appeal. There is an overwhelming “toomuchness” about this film suspiciously suggestive of art. Zeffirelli and his brilliant cinematographer, David Watkin (both of whom are/were openly gay), brought a foreign, distinctly Queer mix of English and Italianate lushness and hyper-realism, sensitivity and Operatic emotionalism to bear on a project concerning perverse American Oedipal dynamics and young heterosexual passion. Arguably worst of the film’s sins is its ultimately being an almost ecstatic celebration of a Taboo subject — a heterosexual male driven close to madness by a seemingly hopeless love. Recent evolutionary biological theory suggests that while the “woman-in-distress” archetype has virtually universal appeal — for women to unconsciously exploit, and which men find attractive, therefore serving as a bonding agent to potential mothers of their offspring — the archetype of the attractive “man out on a limb”, faithful to one inaccessible woman, hasn’t had much erotic charge/mating allure since the Age of Chivalry, and is therefore of little interest today, aside to those whom made Endless Love a modest hit: teenage girls, older women, and gay men. There is a place in the hearts of those not ready, able, or willing to reproduce for a handsome, sweet and innocent Jonah-type who just can’t help bringing pain into the lives of all whom he loves.
Despite my enthusiasm, I’d hardly maintain Endless Love‘s a perfect film. But whatever flaws it contains, its strengths are overwhelming. Zeffirelli’s efforts are bolstered by a sensitive, precise script by Judith Rascoe, the brilliant screenwriter of Who’ll Stop the Rain, and a terrific cast of stage and screen stalwarts: Beatrice Straight, Don Murray, Richard Kiley, and the ever-charming and still-beautiful Shirley Knight. James Spader, in his second screen role, is a mercurial, sometimes fierce Keith Butterfield. The fifteen-year-old Brooke Shields, aside from one scene beyond her maturity level, is really quite good. But the now forgotten Martin Hewitt as David is the revelation of the film. It’s a fragile, sensitive, daring performance, constantly in danger of not quite coming off, but ultimately revelatory. It’s possible that on his shoulders the reputation of this film, reevaluated, might become truly Endless.