For a long time now, I wanted to share some thoughts about Polly Perverse Strikes Again! (1986), the first feature film by Dan Sallitt, whose Honeymoon (1998) and All the Ships at Sea (2004) I admire greatly. I find Polly Perverse… an admirable work and I regret I wasn’t able to include it in the retrospective of Dan’s work I co-organized in October 2008.
Compared to Sallitt’s other two features – each crowded with characters able and willing to communicate their grievances as calmly as possible – Polly Perverse… flaunts an almost Fullerian opening: the yet-to-be-named Theresa (Dawn Wildsmith), all aflutter with uninhibited rage, kicks at a closed door and shouts insults to an unseen man (later credited as “Scumbag behind the door”). Therese’s rage isn’t rooted in anything but itself – and that powerful expression of emotion sets the main theme of the movie, which will have to do with repression, inhibition and denial (neither of them judged necessarily pejoratively).
The movie’s premise is shaped to resemble screwball comedies of 1930s and 1940s: it deals with a sexually overactive Theresa coming back into the life of a successful L.A. photographer, Nick (S.A. Griffin) – against his will (or in a perfect response to it, depending on how you look at the matter). Since Nick last knew Theresa, 10 years prior, he’s settled down with Arliss (Strawn Bovee), a paragon of quiet efficiency. He went domestic: when Theresa calls him up for the first time after her coming to L.A., he’s doing chores (chopping cabbage with a big knife: a neat metaphor for his self-imposed castration). With the extra stress of a possible promotion at work, he’s almost a copy of David (Cary Grant) from Howard Hawks’ Bringing Up Baby (1938). The main difference lies in that he’s not a virgin. In fact, it’s Theresa who says at one point he was too much for her to handle. Still, within the world of this movie, he’s the straight guy tempted by a kook to join her world of unrestrained id – and in those terms Polly Perverse… is as screwball as Lady Eve (1941).
Theresa is a kook, all right. She’s also a lowlife (she looks a little bit like Depardieu’s Loulou ) and a sexual predator who even chooses Nick’s girlfriend for her prey. Theresa is as inevitable part of Nick’s life as he’ll ever resent it. In fact, she seems less a force of nature per se, than a force of Nick’s sexual appetite unleashed – it’s funny that Jonathan Demme should make Something Wild (1986) the very same year Sallitt made his debut; the two movies correspond beautifully.
As far as the social status within Sallitt’s oeuvre goes, Theresa is closest to Edith Meeks’ Virginia as we see her at the end of All the Ships at Sea: wearing an unbuttoned leather jacket, she too is willing to get on the road by any means possible. (Theresa takes a bus, Virginia hitchhikes). She’s free, but she’s also restless – if Virginia was seeking consolation and order, Theresa resents them and she never says “sorry” or “thank you” (Virginia’s last act we saw her make towards her sister was thanking her for childhood companionship). She’s humbled only once, and even then not by a fellow human, but by an ATM machine (“It won’t give me more than two hundred dollars…”).
I think Polly…’s biggest area of success is the complex portrayal of Arliss, as played by the beautiful Strawn Bovee ( I met her last year; she hardly even aged!). It takes Sallitt less than two minutes of her initial screen presence to establish the notion of how many things she’s good at; of how many things she embodies, represents, and/or enacts. When we first see her, she’s composed in her pajamas, combing her hair and looking nothing short of a model in a bed sheet ad. Then she succeeds in coaxing Nick to have sex with her, even though he’s not particularly willing (she achieves her goal simply by looking at him). The next morning, she’s listening to some classical music as she prepares to jog – wearing a complete jogging gear that would make her fit to star in yet another ad, just as she is. Before she leaves the bedroom, she remembers to remind Nick of a leaking faucet.
All this is merely shown; Sallitt won’t draw our attention to any of it until late in the movie, when Nick complains that Arliss is great at anything she does at any given moment (as opposed to Theresa, who’s “sex all the time”). In fact, Nick’s profession makes it plausible for him to be with Arliss: she’s a perfect model for any “ad” thrown her way by everyday necessities (in the course of the film she types, cooks, reads books – while Nick stays comically impassive, almost in a torpor: at one point Arliss throws a book at him to get a reaction from him; she fails).
Arliss’s view of Theresa shifts more than ours: she goes from saying: “She has to be a kind of nut!” to openly resenting her and then, finally, she gives her a ride and (in the movie’s brilliant closing scene) invites her to play a game of cards with Nick and herself.
This is the only Sallitt movie in which he tries and succeeds in directing comedy: the scene where Theresa invites herself into Nick and Arliss’s place is a wonderful crossover of Mother and the Whore (1973) and The Awful Truth (1937). Arliss’s strain to remain civil is physically visible, and Nick’s even more of a slob in this scene than he was before: he’s the most comical presence in the movie and even though I had some reservations about S.A. Griffin performance when it was supposed to convey rage, here he is spot-on.
Since I mentioned Griffin: I have some other problems with the film, too. Some elements seem to me either misplaced or simply unnecessary: is Nick’s fervor in establishing whether a movie theater shows a film “in a proper ratio” all his own, or simply Sallitt’s…? (I couldn’t help but smile when I saw the auteurist opening credit, stating that the film was “Directed and Written by”, with the traditional order reversed.). Also, the first scene set at David’s workplace didn’t convey any real sense of locale to me: the characters seemed to be detached from it and it didn’t really relate to the way they moved around. In that respect, I think the workplace scenes in Honeymoon (and, as far as a church can be considered a workplace for a priest, in All the Ships at Sea) were much more successful.
Still, I like that movie a lot; wish it was shown more often.
Still, I like that movie a lot; wish it was shown more often.
NOTE: I wish I watched the movie from a better source material : the old VHS I own thanks to a friend John Surface has some dialogue utterly inaudible (the exchange I most regret not hearing in its entirety comes in the ATM scene: it has a cameo by no other than Blake Lucas and I wished I heard better what he says to Theresa).