Monday, February 19, 2007

The Strange Love of Martha Ivers

After hearing about this film for years, I finally ran off on a whim to see it at AFI Saturday. Later that evening, sweating through a really terrible play, I distracted myself by writing notes for an opera libretto for Martha Ivers on my program.
Scene breakdown:
Act I
1. Drawing room. Aunt, O'Neill, Walter - Word of Martha's escape and capture, O'Neill's attempt to ingratiate Water with Aunt. Martha enters and rejects Aunt, appeals to her father's memory.
(The boxcar scene could make a prelude--but in some ways, the set-up is more dramatic without it--the drama depends on Martha before she arrives--and on the invisible presence of her father. What clued me in that there was something great and operatic about the film was the resonance of Electra in Martha's entrance in this scene--so it works better without the conventional, naturalizing introduction in the boxcar. The opera can dispense with the Hollywood interest in the childhood romance in favor of myth and allegory. The thing is to highlight how Martha and her father stand for something repressed that drives capitalism and corrupts it, if that's not too trendy.)
2. Bedroom. Walter and Martha, Sammy enters through window.
What's great in this scene is the erotics of the triangle--Walter's blind loyalty and masochism, Martha's alternation of adult power and adolescent submission (she's a bit like Juliet, as she reads in the text and almost never is played), Sammy's clueless, masculine belief in his own rectitude.
3. The stairs. Aunt, Martha, Walter, then O'Neill (Sammy slipping out).
The darkness is a great opportunity for effects. The role of the cat is a problem. You can see how this is a great set-up for film--though it's actually handled kind of clumsily in the movie.

Act II
1. Sammy's return. Can be set in the car with hitch-hiking sailor, or in the garage--but it's not necessary to show both.
2. Stairs. Sammy and Toni. Lizabeth Scott manages to be both bizarre and uninteresting. Toni has to speak very little and be all about what she doesn't say.
3. Bar, hotel. Sammy and Toni. The bar scene need not be elaborate, it's there to set up the hotel scene. But the exchange of rooms is a nice detail. Again it is cinematic, though: it's set up by the shower each takes. On screen, it's a bit of a waste of time; on stage there ought to be a more economic way to establish their relationship (as based in their both looking for a fresh start, and Sammy's failure to understand Toni's passion) within a couple of brief scenes.
4. Bedroom. Sam, Officers.
5. Office. Sam, Walter, Martha. This way Martha does not appear as adult until about half-way through. This could be nice. The only way to avoid it is to collapse the Toni story, effectively into one scene, establishing first her relation to Sammy, then her violation of probation. Which would work pretty well.
6. Toni, Walter, detective. This is like the scene of Sammy and the detectives--it exists only to advance the plot. Unless it can tie into some other purpose, it'd be nice to collapse it.
7. Bar. Sammy, Toni, "Joe." Moving things along would get to Toni's betrayal sooner. It would be good to get Act II down from seven scenes to four.

1. Sammy's return. Sammy and Toni. Bus station or bar. Opening Act III this way has nice symmetry with Act II. Sammy's forgiving Toni establishes keynote in their relationship in contrast to Martha, and to Martha and Walter.
2. House or office. Sammy, Walter, Martha. Sammy's besting Walter opens opportunity for an understanding between the. Walter sees everything in terms of conquest and submission; Sammy in terms of a kind of moral code, or honor. Whereas Sammy begins to understand Walter through empathy, Walter adopts an ironic distance--he's already lost the battle and will watch to see how it plays out. (These are probably two of Klein's neurotic positions, if I thought it out.)
3. Hillside. Sammy and Martha. We have to not know whether Sammy is falling for it.
4. Hotel. Sammy and Toni.
5. House. Walter, Sammy, Martha. The real dramatic problem is getting the audience close enough to see what happens between Martha and Walter, then enlarging the perspective to Walter. Maybe it's enough to show him leave, then run back. Then some kind of coda with Toni.

The first thing that occurs to one to cut things down to size is to get rid of Toni, but that doesn't work because her presence motivates major plot points, but also because she provides contrast with Martha. A more interesting idea is to streamline the plot so it's clear Sammy is motivated by her, but cut down her lines so that the audience feels that Martha is a figure of more power and weight.
There must be a ton of gender criticism on this film--although the plot turns on a Freudian point of the damage done to Martha and Walter through repression, and a political one about class, the strange theme that pops up is the choices for women in their relation to men--the punishment of Martha for bucking the system, and of Toni for submitting to it. (The perfect material of melodrama--the inevitability of the sufferings of women.) So you don't want to lose sight of the Big Points--that Martha identifies with her father, not her mother (this also is very Greek, in the argument that Aeschylus makls in the Oresteia), that Martha wants to trade in Walter for Sammy, that Toni wants a husband, or more properly, wants to be a wife. The More that irony can come out, the better.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I have been obsessed with this movie since I was about 13. When I got interested in Opera in my 20s I thought back on "Strange Loves" and thought about how operatic the thing was.

It would make a great opera! And I like your treatment of it. Too bad we can't get somebody to write the music. I am ready to write the libretto myself!

Jerry Monaco