Coda: Oklahoma!

I should have known this already, but it was obviously a bad idea to write my way through this movie without ever seeing “Oklahoma!” So, I watched it for the first time with friends last night. It’s a strange experience.

I’d argue that “Oklahoma!” is an even stranger film that “I’m Thinking of Ending Things.” To start out, there’s Curly. How is this supposed to be a likable protagonist? I can accept his teasing relationship style as a relic of that era, but the scene where he enters Jud’s room and begins suggesting how easy it would be to commit suicide and there and how many people would come to his funeral is beyond odd. Steiger adds to the weirdness by giving a performance straight out the Brando school of naturalistic film performances, which is fine, but it sticks out in a film where no one else is following this mode.

And then there’s the “smelling salts” hallucination scene, a lengthy and bizarre phantasm that includes a trip to a brothel and numerous burlesque girls. With the two main characters recast with dancers, it plays as a movie within the movie, with only Steiger’s Jud standing out as a carry over from the main film.

The title song to “Oklahoma!” is finally introduced after the wedding scene, but it’s almost a throwaway considering all of the drama that plays out after it. We still have a visually interesting but strategically questionable murder-arson attack from Jud and the most hard to understand accidental killing I ever seen on film. It’s all punctuated with a perfunctory “trial” that seems to wrap simply on the concept that Oklahoma is still just a territory, so who cares how justice is served.

Bear in mind that Iain Reid’s novel made no mention of “Oklahoma!” nor was there any reason to transpose his novel into the Sooner state. Kaufman dreamed up the parallel from Oklahoma! to Reid’s story on his own, and it’s a somewhat awkward fit, so much so that I wonder if Kaufman saw a recent production of “Oklahoma!” considered adapting it, then just decided to shoehorn whatever work he’d done into this project. That is pure speculation on my part and probably too specific to be true, but it seems nearly impossible to me that Kaufman hadn’t thought about using “Oklahoma!” as a backdrop to something else before this project came to light.

So where are the parallels? I have mentioned the songs already and don’t have much more to add here — except having seen the film, it’s now more clear to me that Jud is a legitimate villain of the musical and it seems completely strange to me that the triumvirate protagonist of the movie would latch onto that dark character as a model. Jud has moments of sympathy, especially early in the movie, but by the end he’s become fully worthy of the fear that’s been attached to him throughout.

Like the janitor, he also is something of a Peeping Tom, which I’m sure caught Kaufman’s eye. The janitor, having seen the play performed year after year and feeling the rejection of generations of young women no doubt feels some kinship with Jud. But it’s impossible to sit through the whole play and desire to be Jud — if anything, a kinship with him should be a sign that things are dramatically wrong in your life.

The janitor is a reflective person. Among his most admirable qualities is his ability to empathize with young women even after living through generations of rejection from them. All of this failure has led to him conjuring a young woman of remarkable intellectual and emotional depth, who by the end of the film has achieved her own Pinocchio like transformation from a symbol of a young man’s aspirations and desires to a flesh and blood character with the ability to walk away from him.

This brings me to the two fantasy dance sequences which stand as the strongest link between the two works. Kaufman does a fine job of whittling the scene down to its core essential elements — expression of love, impressionist marriage ceremony, followed by confrontation with the angry spurned suitor, culminating in Jake/Curly’s death. In Kaufman’s version, the dance does not serve as a warning to the young woman of how badly her life could go without Jake/Curly, it gives the relationship a Viking burial.

Kaufman, having killed off Curly in the dance instead of Jud, saves the menace for the final scene, where the unappreciated handyman is reborn as a Nobel laureate with a heart of gold, who will finally earn the love of not just the young woman, but every woman in his life by singing a song cut from the cinematic version of the Rogers and Hammerstein’s musical. Jud finally gets his song and Jake finally gets to own the janitor’s failures and his loneliness.

Kaufman ultimately gives us an adaptation of “Oklahoma!” even more than he gives us a film version of Reid’s book. He tweaks the novel of the same name in subtle ways, saving his most radical work for the classic musical. Can we accept a version of “Oklahoma!” where Jud is the hero? Kaufman gives it a try. Like much else in his movie, it doesn’t really work, but the effort is exhilarating.

That sums up much of my feelings about the movie — it fails on many levels, but always in very interesting ways. That makes it a movie worth talking and writing about. Often it is much harder to have interesting things to say about movies that work well, and I attribute this to a certain magic that tends to light up the best movies. It’s the movies that fall a little bit short that often contain the most fodder for interesting examination.

That’s what “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” turns out to be — not so much a movie as a conversation piece, something to puzzle over and wonder if you put it all together the way that Kaufman intended. And even if you didn’t, would he care or should you? Was it all planned but not thought out? Was that intentional? Is he happier that it left us baffled and sometimes exasperated? Who knows — the guy is a ball of interesting neuroses that play out on screen over and over. I just hope he keeps it up.

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