Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Hoffman (1970) — What fits in the middle

Until today my plan had been for Hoffman to be the fifth and final entry in this past week's impromptu Peter Sellers flavor assortment. But because this movie leaves me with a taste in my mouth as if I've been huffing a clogged shower drain, I'd rather not end on such a dour title. So instead I'll post one more after this to end on an up note. (And here it is.)

One of my few implicit protocols in this blog has been to focus chiefly on movies that I like. Why spend time scribbling about movies I don't enjoy (that is, unless I'm getting paid for it)? The few times I've gone against that guideline have been with films that I might not enjoy much, but that still contain items of interest. The previous Sellers post, The Magic Christian, is a case in point. (See also The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone, In Like Flint, and 2002's The Time Machine.)

As for Hoffman, I feel obliged to add it even though it's among the more unpleasant movies I've ever watched, and not even having Sellers at its center changes that fact.

Indeed, Sellers is so unnervingly convincing in the role of Benjamin Hoffman — in a movie that attempts to warm our hearts via a predatory, deflower-the-virgin, kidnapping/bondage power fantasy — that his performance contributes to the way Hoffman rubs me the wrong way like an unwelcome tongue.

Plus, Hoffman is a genuine oddity: it's one of Sellers' rare forays into straight drama, and a particularly hard-to-find title from his long career. And no wonder: on the heels of The Magic Christian, Hoffman is one of a cluster of bombs that sank Sellers' bankability until the sublime Being There in '79. The troubled, depressive actor begged to have Hoffman withdrawn and spoke publicly of how poor it was. He even tried to buy the negative and destroy it. He was successful, mostly. This low-key, peculiar curiosity received almost zero distribution, not reaching even a New York art house until 1982.

So here's one that's of automatic interest to those of us who find Sellers compellingly watchable even in his more ridiculous movies. Stoking that interest is something Roger Lewis, in his biography The Life and Death of Peter Sellers, notes about Sellers' presence in the film:
Contempt; fastidiousness; anger; humiliation; sullying and being sullied: the moods and nuances in the work make it less of a film than a confessional, as Sellers knew. "It's the first time that I've been called on to play what they—the producer, the director, the author—call myself."
By playing a haunted, lonely, dangerously double-natured cad, he may have played himself too closely for anyone's comfort, even his own.

Sellers is Benjamin Hoffman, a pale, unremarkable, middle-aged widower obsessed with his young, miniskirted typist, Miss Smith (Sinéad Cusack). A non-entity at the office, he can no longer suppress a leering, lecherous darker self. By blackmailing Miss Smith with evidence against her felonious fiancé, he forces her to spend a week alone with him in his spacious flat and bed.

His ostensibly sinister intentions are made clear to the chaste Miss Smith through smug aphorisms dripping with smarmy, misogynist urbanity: "Please make yourself look as though you want to be fertilized." ~ "You must never become a person, Miss Smith. That would be intolerable.'' ~ "Miss Smith, it's not only homosexuals who don't like women. Hardly anybody likes them." ~ "All over the world, simple pleasures of the flesh are being ruined by women screaming to be understood." ~ "I want to eat you. I want to consume you." ~ "Eat or be eaten." ~ "Women are always hungry for something. Fallopian tubes with teeth." (Hoffman takes food/sex metaphors to bold new levels of ho-hum.)

The talky screenplay is transparent and obvious throughout, offering neither itself nor Sellers much opportunity for nuance or subtly veiled revelations. Instead it delivers itself as a series of well-hewn but nonetheless lumpish Memorable Quotes. Such as when Hoffman bespeaks the duality between a man's outer shell and the demons quivering underneath driving his vampiric mind games. "For the first time in my life, the prisoner within me has escaped," he says. And in a restaurant over escargot: "There are two people in all of us — the child in the snapshot and the monster the child grows into."

For what it's worth, the film's one moment of brightness occurs during that same meal: "I remember the day my father introduced me to snails," Hoffman tells the girl. "'Hello, snails, how are you?', I said.'' (Escargot, of course, is purported to be an aphrodisiac. Snails, on the other hand, live within their tiny shells, exude slime, and ravage pretty growing things — much like Hoffman himself. I'm not convinced the screenwriter saw this comparison as a negative.)

Hoffman employs the threat of sex as a tool for manipulation the way a medieval jailer might wave a branding iron in his victim's face. He declares, with Sellers' remarkable silky purr, that "I do have full use, Miss Smith. Any man suffering massive sexual frustration would be out of his mind if, getting the girl of his dreams, he didn't put her to full use." He tells his frightened prisoner, "You are here to be two arms, two legs, a head, and what fits in the middle." What a charmer.

And yet Hoffman never touches her. Aha! He's not really a rapist, we discover. He's just a pathetic sociopath who rationalizes his actions by his loneliness and insecurity and some universal sense of male right and rite. So, hey, it's all okay then! What girl could resist?

Because escape (to the extent that she tries) proves to be impossible, she is forced to occupy his flat with him, drowning in his pathos as surely as if he were holding her head underwater in the bathtub.

Thus follows one of the more unpalatable character turns I've ever been asked to swallow in a straight drama: As Miss Smith gradually sees that the pitiable little man is more child than monster, she falls in love with him. (That her fiancé Tom is revealed to be a louse unworthy of one ounce of her attention or affection ameliorates the dynamic not at all. If this screenplay had been written by a woman, any kneejerk accusations of misandry would not go unvindicated.)

Worse, in the "uplifting" climax we witness her smiling submission to his terms of domestic bondage in a new house for them both, surrendering her own self-will and, by my lights, any currency of self-worth or interest as a character. I'm not talking about casual Dom/Sub scene-playing here, which is an altogether different thing. Rather, Hoffman posits that it's justifiable, even heartening, for a woman to be beaten down and reduced to a mere possession, a grown man's dress-up doll, and be happy for the privilege. Miss Smith's emotional transformation, which we're presumably expected to mirror, comes across more as a Stockholm Syndrome breakdown than a tender opening of her eyes and heart.

We're asked to stretch the definition of "romance" to fit a shape that's not just ugly and misogynistic, but one that drains any amount of respect we (at least I) might have for Miss Smith. "Love" in this case becomes just another word for willing victimhood. Now let's add the subtext that Hoffman the perpetrator is excused for his behavior and earns his rightful prize in the natural gamesmanship between men and women.

There's that unwelcome tongue against my skin again. Bleah.

It's an odd and discomforting movie occupied by two odd and discomforting characters. And yet I can't fault either the production or the performances, both of which are better than the blithely creepy screenplay deserved.

Sellers is somberly fascinating in a role that may have revealed the real man — without the masks of a funny voice or comic characterization or facial appliances — more successfully than the roles that made him famous. He makes Benjamin Hoffman a domineering, psychologically warped abuser not through grand gestures or swooping-cape theatrics, but through stillness and solemnity and a restrained quietude, which makes the portrayal all the more effective.

For her part, Cusack is such a blue-eyed Irish wonder that it's a shame she devoted her talents more to the Royal Shakespeare Company than to a screen career.

Alvin Rakoff's directing starts well as the opening titles, over Matt Monro's "If There Ever Is a Next Time," follow Miss Smith on her trek across London to Hoffman's flat. After that his work is attractive and doesn't try to overcompensate for the restrictions built into what feels like a filmed stage play. It's clear that he's letting this be Sellers' and Cusack's show. But that leads to directorial choices that come off as staid and hemmed-in, and that fail to sustain the needed momentum from start to finish.

I'm apparently in the minority by finding Ron Grainer's musical score insipid and off-putting. That's okay. He earned his place in screen heaven by originally composing the title theme to Doctor Who.

Ernest Gébler adapted his own novel into the screenplay. While he seems to have loved the sound of his own typing, Hoffman's epigrammatic script is occasionally striking:
"Every girl is a flower garden with a compost heap at the bottom. And many a noble man has had to drown his dwarf wife in a zinc bath or strangle an idiot girl on a muddy common in order to draw attention to himself."

"Girls all over the world are afraid of men with my expression. Plain, sad-faced men. Mature, sexually starved men. In offices, busses, and trains. Men who've missed the boat. Their day is coming. Their revolution is almost upon you."
It's like being forced to lick the seat on a city bus, but I can't deny that it makes an impression.


When Hoffman gets talked about at all, the conversation typically orbits the question of the uncomfortable truths the film reveals about Sellers. I wonder instead how much of a self-portrait we're getting of the writer who created Sellers' character in the first place.

Granted, I shouldn't even begin to speculate on how much — if at all — either Hoffman or Hoffman reveals Gébler's own personality, self-loathing, or attitudes toward women and men. Trying to discern the writer via the material is often a mug's game.

Nonetheless, I have to work hard to restrain an impulse from my gut and from my experiences among writers — the impulse that prods me to imagine Gébler as one broken, deeply unpleasant son of a bitch.

Unfair, I know, and an impulse that doesn't shine well on me. Yet I find the material here so repugnant, while simultaneously so well polished, that I can't help but wonder, What kind of "plain, sad-faced" man, who believes he has "missed the boat" and fantasizes that his "revolution" is coming, could invest himself so fully in expressing sentiments like this? Or does the question answer itself?

I don't know, and here I'll leave that question, and the movie, for good. I don't need to revisit this one again.

Next up, as a palate cleanser: one more Sellers movie that I do enjoy revisiting every few years.