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Tropic of Cancer (DVD Review)

25 Oct, 2010 By: Mike Clark

Street 10/28/10
$24.95 DVD
Rated ‘NC-17.’
Stars Rip Torn, Phil Brown, James Callahan, Ellen Burstyn, David Bauer.

Unless we’re looking at the aftermath of someone’s domestic argument gone terribly wrong here, those disorienting frame-filling shots of tanks in the streets of Paris look suspiciously like holdovers from the political protests of 1968. As such, they’re woefully out of character showing up in a movie of Henry Miller’s world-famous (except, presumably, in Taliban communities) 1934 novel, which is still a fabulous read but firmly anchored in a milieu that had not yet even seen World War II.

Even so, the book’s life-affirming raunch kept Cancer from being published in the U.S. until 1961 — and even then, not without a court fight. What’s more, when Joseph Strick filmed this adaptation, the new MPAA ratings system had only been in effect for two years. Like Midnight Cowboy, which would win the best picture Oscar about five weeks after this film’s release, Cancer got slapped with an ‘X’ before the porn industry co-opted the once well-intentioned rating as its own promotional device. And even as we speak, it still carries an ‘NC-17,’ due less to its frequent nudity than star/narrator Rip Torn’s quotations of Miller’s earthy prose, which includes learned discussion of at least one noun not often heard on screen these days.

As such, the picture is a curio and even gets off to a most promising start when American expatriate Henry (Torn) is paid a too-brief Parisian visit by wife Mona (Ellen Burstyn, still going by Ellen McRae but just on the brink of belated stardom). Seen here a year before she got an Oscar nomination for playing Cybill Shepherd’s mother in the The Last Picture Show and just four years before her Oscar performance in Martin Scorsese’s Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, Burstyn was a knockout at 38. Very much in the spirit of Miller is her somewhat startling full-frontal bedroom scene and a clingy dress that she seems to be wearing without benefit of underwear.

Burstyn’s characterization is wired and perhaps even a little neurotic — a warm-up for her unforgettable turn as the aging party girl in 1972’s cult movie extraordinaire The King of Marvin Gardens. But maybe these behavioral traits are just a normal reaction to what Mona discovers in the dive she initially shares with Henry upon her arrival: bedbugs crawling over her back. Even a move to a better hotel can’t keep her from flying the coop and forcing Henry to coerce a stable of friends (or suckers that he calls friends) to let him sponge as the perennial dinner mate and houseguest.

Though the Torn voiceovers of Miller’s writings don’t hit with anything like full force, the actor’s fitfully entertaining performance is a snug fit with this “wastrel” period of his career — which also included, but was hardly restricted to, lead roles in Coming Apart and Payday. His Henry is the kind of guy who not only lives on handouts but also lets his host’s wife fondle him under the table. It’s a sad turn of events that Torn’s more recent real-life problems with the law synch in the mind with these debauched roles (think The Man Who Fell to Earth for another one) when we re-watch the films today. The tendency is to say, “Well, that’s just Rip being ripped.”

Writer/director Strick developed a kind of cottage industry in his later career trying to adapt unfilmmable novels, including taken ganders with James Joyce’s Ulysses (pre-Cancer) and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (post-). Both are more talk than cinema, though the first got him some exploitable controversy over the screen use of Joyce’s language in those pre-MPAA days. When Ulysses originally played my hometown at a theater I later managed, there was considerable concern that it actually might get busted. This was two years before the city fathers mandated a public vice squad screening for I Am Curious (Yellow) to determine whether its exhibition would be allowed — prompting future comedy writer Bruce Vilanch (my college newspaper colleague at the time) to lament that the movie he really wanted to see was I Am Curious (Mauve).
By the time Cancer’s language, nudity and situations came to the screen (including a scene where some naive dim-bulb defecates in a brothel’s bidet), things had relaxed a little, and a major distributor (Paramount) even gave the movie its logo. At a wisely modest 87 minutes, the result is just titillating enough to make it as a curio, and I’m surprised (especially given its VHS availability in the old days) that it has taken so long for a movie this ornery and with recognizable actors to make it to DVD. Whatever its undeniable limitations, it’s a must for fans of Torn and Burstyn.

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