Tuesday, April 15, 2014

HOTELS, MOTELS & MELANCHOLY AT THE MOVIES

Original caricature by Jeff York of Ralph Fiennes in THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL. He's surrounded  by cast mates Willem Dafoe, Adrien Brody, Saoirse Ronan and Tony Revolori. (copyright 2014)
What is it about hotels and motels that lend themselves so easily to melancholy in Hollywood fiction? Is it because these places are a ‘foreign’ version of home without the comforts of familiarity? Or is it that such places having inherent drama at every corner what with so many rooms and a wide range of guests? Maybe it has something to do with the pressures that come with renting a room. (You’re on vacation so have fun, dammit! You have two days to close that deal, businessman, so you better do so!) No matter, hotels are rarely portrayed as places of positive lodging. Instead, more often than not, they’re presented as versions of a haunted house.

THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL on the big screen, and BATES MOTEL on the small screen, may seem to have little in common, but they are remarkably similar in that they both play into that haunted house motif. As destinations in their respective entertainments, they are not sanctuaries. Quite the opposite, as sorrow awaits those who visit their establishments.

Filmmaker Wes Anderson has always tinged his movies with strains of melancholy. In 1998’s RUSHMORE, his story of a schoolboy’s first big crush is less about idealized love and more about the war created with his betrothed’s other suitor. In 2012’s MOONRISE KINGDOM, Anderson tells a story about another first crush, this time between a boy and girl at summer camp, and he casts a doleful gaze upon their coupling as two American institutions try to tear them apart - the nuclear family and the Boy Scouts. And now, in THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL, Anderson serves up an opulent European hotel as a fading symbol of bygone elegance and decorum.

No matter how picture perfect Anderson’s gorgeously precise symmetrical framing is in his movies, he never paints a perfect picture of mankind. His characters and their actions are always far less attractive compared to his exquisite art direction. And in THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL there are many gorgeous shots of vast lobbies, impeccably detailed rooms, and sumptuous sweet treats that look more like Christmas ornaments than pastries. Yet, they are all doomed. In Anderson’s latest and greatest, such aesthetic beauty is roundly trampled by an ugly world that doesn’t value such things. And the characters in the movie mourn such losses. We should too.

Mr. Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham) narrates the story of what happened to this once great hotel. In the early 1930’s, he was the newly hired lobby boy named Zero (played by the deadpan Tony Revolori) who marveled at the splendor all around him. But the older Moustafa realizes that such splendor was as transient as the guests. And the lavishness masked the nefarious things going on just outside the hotel doors. Fascism was building and would soon engulf Europe and the world.


But before war explodes, Zero gets tutored by Monsieur Gustave H, the hotel’s concierge. Gustave is played by Ralph Fiennes in a career best performance, and this excessively mannered man schools the boy in the ways of elegance as administered by the hotel. He also manages to instruct Zero on the ugliness of the world outside too. They share an adventure where they are confronted by murder, greed, prison, and the burgeoning presence of a Fascist guard.

As he instructs Zero, Gustave waxes poetic one moment quoting authors or detailing the standards of the hotel. Then, turning on a dime, he’ll curse like a long shore man. Gustave is another example of Anderson’s wont to juxtapose the beautiful against the awful. He also represents the idea of Europe caught between the old world and its new regime. He speaks in almost foppish decorum, testifying for a world that puts art and civility at the forefront. Yet he can’t help but be undone by the uncouth all around him. He may have once been as proper as his waistcoat but now he's been besmirched by the dirtiness of the world.

And as Fascism takes hold in the film, the grand hotel and Gustave lose the war completely. The opulent inn is converted into the control center of the imposing regime with “Swastika” flags looming in the lobby. And even though Gustave wins vindication by proving he didn’t murder a hotel guest, the concierge’s victory is short-lived. The world no longer values a man with his principles and he realizes he is out of step with both the times and his nation. 

Every period piece comments on the present and Anderson is making some rather stinging political commentary here about imperialistic countries and how they run rough shod over the better instincts of a society. The movie may play as farce, borrowing heavily from the style of classic comedy directors Ernest Lubitsch and Blake Edwards, but THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL is truly heartbreaking when all is said and done. The cake here may be covered in frosting, but its core is anything but sweet.

Original caricature by Jeff York of Freddie Highmore and Vera Farmiga in BATES MOTEL. (copyright 2014)
If Anderson’s film catalogs the sorrow stemming from the demise of sanctuary, the television series BATES MOTEL illustrates how the individual cannot find sanctuary anywhere if they travel with emotional baggage. In this clever and serpentine reimagining of the classic Alfred Hitchcock thriller PSYCHO, Norman Bates and his mom open a cozy motel with the hopes that it means a fresh start for them. Norma, Norman’s namesake mother, is running from a bad family history and a failed marriage. She dreams a new town and a new business (running a motel) will bring the happiness she desires. Instead, they magnify the nightmare she’s already living.

The seaside town where she and Norman relocate to may seem like a peaceful place, but it’s more like a Peyton Place. The town has more dirty secrets than TWIN PEAKS, and everything and everyone is corrupted by the drug trade that provides the ‘burg its primary income. Even the 12-room motel that the Bates have taken ownership of used to be a den of inequity for transients swinging by for some primo weed and hot & heavy orgies.

Poor Norma (Vera Farmiga, brilliantly brittle here) keeps looking for the good in this new environment but she’s drowning in its swamp, just like Janet Leigh’s automobile did in the original 1960 thriller. She thinks her new vocation is a practically a vacation from her previous hell, but it’s an illusion just like the civility in THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL was. She and Norman are doomed as they slowly realize that the bad town is bringing out their worst.
And Norman Bates (Freddie Highmore) is a troubled youth already. His relationship with his mother is complicated. He both worships and resents her. Her smothering nature is so overwhelming that at times he thinks he’s her. The screwed up wiring in his brain also causes blackouts and outbursts of rage. Add to this potent mix the power of Norman’s burgeoning hormones and the town’s corruption poisoning everything and you start to see the boy more as victim than the victimizer we know from the movie.

Highmore does such a good job of creating sympathy for Norman’s plight that it adds a layer of unexpected melancholy to this revisionist origins story. He stammers and stumbles as he tries to be a good kid but there's so much working against him. We feel every pain he experiences as he tries to fit it and its as heartbreaking as THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL. His Norman may very well be the most sympathetic 'beast' since King Kong. It's an extraordinary achievement for the role and the show.

BATES MOTEL is a wildly entertaining series and A & E ensures it has an eminently watchable, lurid soap opera vibe that isn't that much different from ABC's SCANDAL or REVENGE. But it’s utterly heartbreaking to watch the Bates mother and child get crushed under a cruel world. And it makes this horror tale so much more than typical genre fare.

And the Bates Motel is no more sanctuary than the Budapest Hotel is. Norman can’t even clean a room without discovering dirty comic books, drug paraphernalia, or bags of money left behind by the sinful clientele. The Bates home may have been the haunted house in the movie version but here in the TV series, it’s the motel. Little good is found in it. It’s certainly no vacation destination. And even if the sheets are changed daily, their stains cannot be expunged.  

THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL and BATES MOTEL join a long and storied tradition of hotels and motels personifying anything but an escape. The grand granddaddy of them all was GRAND HOTEL in 1932 and it attracted guests and their dark secrets too. Incurable diseases, pornographic pasts, and resumes filled with grand larceny all checked in. The hotel may have looked luxurious but its story was well, quite another story.


In the movie version of Arthur Hailey’s 60’s bestselling book HOTEL (1967), the St. Gregory is filled with corruption too. And it’s haunted as well. It’s haunted by its days of grandeur that are now ancient memories due to its dilapidated condition. And a seriously unstable elevator looms over the lobby like a sword of Damocles. There are lots of similar stories in film. LOST IN TRANSLATION (2003) and FORGETTING SARAH MARSHALL (2008) presented their vacation destinations as anything but that. And of course the most vivid 'hotel as hell' metaphor of all is the Overlook Hotel in 1980’s THE SHINING. 'Red rum' indeed.

The hotels and motels in such tales are never the 'homes away from home' they're intended to be. They rarely offer the rest and the revitalization promised. Instead, they are traps really. And one's troubles seem to close in more than ever in such small, suffocating places. THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL and BATES MOTEL are two destinations that offer their inhabitants precious little escape. On the contrary, what they mostly resemble are prisons.

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