A film by Monte P.
Response by Michael Robert Murphy
Head, Graduate Digital Filmmaking
The University of Montana, Missoula
American culture of the 1950’s and early 1960’s has long been a target for dramatists and filmmakers, sometimes satirizing and sometimes laying bare through melodrama the repression and hypocrisy of America’s post WWII generation. This was true during the time in the plays of William Inge, a closeted homosexual, whose work (Picnic, Come Back Little Sheba) channeled his inner turmoil, and films like The Graduate, and The Swimmer, which skewered the aspirations and arrogance of the upwardly mobile. Since then, the level of irony in films dealing with this era has grown in its self-reflexivity and post-modernism, leaving behind satire in favor of self-conciousness. Among these later films, one that is particularly relevant to this discussion is Todd Hayne’s Far From Heaven (2002). Set in the 1950’s, borrowing heavily from Douglas Sirk’s, All That Heaven Allows (1955), it presents a seemingly perfect marriage being torn apart by the repressed homosexuality of the husband and the racist attitudes of the white middle class community in which the film is set. The style of that filmplays a vital role in setting up the overwrought melodramatic zeitgeist, and helps give a sense of post-modern dramatic irony to the proceedings. “Yes,” we are told, “this is the world of Father Knows Best, Leave it to Beaver and Peyton Place, but you will be surprised to know that in that time there were gay men, living a lie.” This allows the audience (at least those of us old enough to remember the era), to view the world as though through an emotional stereopticon—one image (idealized) layered over the other (the shadow of that ideal), creating a schism between life observed from a distance and life lived at that time. It is nostalgia for those “in the know.”
Monte Patterson, director of Caught, is, as it were, caught between two worlds—the ironically idealized, mentioned above, and a simple, but compelling narrative he gives us a realistic view of the shadow life of a homosexual man in 1962. The film is based on research into a surveillance/sting operation conducted by police in a men’s room in a park near Mansfield, Ohio, in 1962. This documentary base from which Patterson draws his inspiration is important, and when he follows this lead his film works quite well. It’s difficulties come in its use of formalist, ironic scoring that opens the film, accompanied by archival footage of the era and some under-developed production design.
If the world of the story floats with some uncertainly at times, the story itself is well conceived. A young man drives to a park and leaves his car to enter a restroom area. As he walks toward the building he passes a gauntlet of men, sizing him up. Once inside he is immediately confronted with two more, already engaged in sex. We begin to feel uncomfortable watching this, and only grow more drawn into our uneasy voyeurism as we discover that these men are being watched through a two-way mirror. By whom, we don’t know yet, but we are guessing correctly soon enough. The tension and revelation that accompanies these sequences in the film are beautifully conceived and rendered. The images have the innate power of the Real, and some shots have the unique quality of having “randomly” capture a perfect emotional composition. I found particularly arresting a long shot in the trees of our hero exiting the rest room, coming into the light after his first sexual encounter. This image, liminal, floating, brings us his emotional state in clean, cinematic language.
Now we learn this man is a husband, and we move into what might be the realistic version of the idealized home from one of the sit-coms intimated by the opening scoring, but the quality of realism doesn’t hold up. The shot construction and production design make some movement toward the nature of these people, but the touches of period design are only enough to point out how much is missing, and therefore these sequences play too much toward the ironic, with Andy Griffith playing on the television in the background, and a transistor radio sitting on a table. We never feel the ownership of the space that you find in a film, for instance, by Mike Leigh, and which would be helpful here. The wife pulls on a pair of white gloves, says that she and the son are going to church. These gestures point toward the event, but the camera doesn’t capture, nor does the acting, the ownership of a life being lived. In order to have such a short exchange pass for the larger meaning or meaninglessness of their life, the work required with the actors and production designer requires more depth and layering than we have here.
Note: the audio and scoring could help in this quest. There are two types of scoring in the film. The first is the period music used ironically (“My heart belongs to only you”) or the electronic scoring in the rest room sequences that feels pulled from another genre altogether. With careful work on a diagetic audio score Patterson could unify these worlds and make more powerful the sounds that are there already—the film camera running, the film projector, the nature sounds in the park and finally some period music that comes from a car or transistor radio.
Back to the story.
Whenever we return to the “scene of the crimes” the film feels in capable hands. Tension builds as decision time for the husband nears. The revelation as to whether or not he will be caught is done masterfully with an intercut series of shots moving between the police viewing the “sting” film and the arrests made. In the best use of dramatic irony in the film, the audiences learns that he will not be arrested, but watch him, without that information, in a moment of fear, guilt and shame, attempt to make love to his wife. He cannot. Finally, he leaves her looking out their bedroom window as he, in the last image of the film sits in his car at the empty parking lot on the edge of the park. Is he hoping to be arrested? To have something, anything, change? The men in prison for this crime are perhaps freer than he. He won’t be caught in the literal sense, but is more fundamentally trapped in a life that cannot move forward or back. The success of the final image, and Patterson’s film as a whole lies in the compelling nature of its leading character’s struggle and the clean narrative structure he employs.
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