09 August 2012

Bean: The Most Terrifying Thing

Some weeks ago, late at night, I was catching up on the news online.  As is my custom, I had a video going in the background - something light that I could safely ignore if necessary.  I had picked it on a whim - Bean: the Movie.  I had previously enjoyed the UK program Mr. Bean and its odd little protagonist, portrayed by Rowan Atkinson, who engages in a creative blend of childish and adult antics, bolstered by Atkinson's talent for physical comedy.  Even though I knew the movie was probably pretty terrible it seemed harmless.

I was so wrong.  So very, very, terrifyingly wrong.  Bean: the Movie is the scariest movie I have ever seen.

What follows is a lengthy explanation of why I think so, and how I survived.

I.  A Harmless Promise

The movie begins with Mr. Bean at home.  But - oh no! - he's late for work and he's broken his teacup!  In a pleasant moment, he indulges the viewer in some buffoonery: the silly man makes tea by pouring a mix of tea leaves, hot water, milk, and spoonfuls of sugar all into his mouth.  While not high comedy, it's a reassuring bit of humor.  We know where we're going, and we must be on safe ground.

Momentarily, Mr. Bean is on his way the prestigious art gallery at which he is employed.  And as we would expect, all is not entirely well at the gallery for Mr. Bean.  The governing board of the museum are plotting to fire him.  They all agree, and are very enthusiastic about the prospect.  It's easy to see why when cut-scenes show Mr. Bean slumping comically to sleep on the floor.

Unfortunately for the board, the chairman of the board sweeps into the room and cuts off their discussion, declaring that Mr. Bean would stay forever.  And here is the first wrong note, the harbinger of the discord to come, for we never find out why the chairman adores Mr. Bean.  We never learn why Mr. Bean is assured of - condemned to? - his place at the gallery.  Mr. Bean will remain, and that is that.

All the stranger, Mr. Bean will later mention that his job at the gallery is to "look at the pictures."  He has no function.  He serves no purpose, for he is a fool and has no ability to discern meaning in art.  The uselessness of Mr. Bean, previously left safely indefinite, has been starkly delineated: he has a job at a museum, forever, where he sits and looks at the pictures but cannot possibly understand them.  There is no end, there is no rhyme or reason, and there is no sense.  It is kafkaesque in its grim pointlessness, and the vision of dark-eyed Mr. Bean sitting on a bench, eyes hollow as he gazes eternally at a picture that holds no meaning, is horrifying.

But we, the audience, don't know all of this yet.  The realization of the terror welling up from behind this movie is still to come, still waiting to loom like a black sunset of madness.  For now, it is just strange.

The board decides to send Mr. Bean to America to rendezvous with a museum there and testify as an expert on the James McNeill Whistler painting, Whistler's Mother.  If they can't fire him, at least they can be rid of him for a few months.  This prompts a few minutes of backstory in Los Angeles, as the staff of the museum discuss the "expert" and prepare for his arrival.

Mr. Bean's journey to America flawlessly and subtly increases the quiet madness lurking behind the banal comedy.  On the plane, he engages in a lighthearted prank on the passenger in front of him: Mr. Bean has found a paper bag, that he's going to inflate and then pop loudly.  The joke is that the bag is actually filled with vomit from a nearby small boy who had been unfortunately airsick moments earlier.

Ordinarily, I'd call this just a bit too crude and a bit too tasteless, but not terribly out-of-bounds.  But in a masterpiece of horror like Bean: the Movie, it cannot be anything other than a careful ratcheting up of our unease, designed to be consciously forgotten even as it unsettles.

To soothe us back into complacency, this is followed by another joke.  Mr. Bean sees the airport police with their guns, and playfully mimics having a gun concealed under his jacket.  They witness this, and a chase ensues, ending only when the collected police of the airport surround the tweedy little man and command him to drop his weapon.  A ring of upraised guns, ready to kill, surround Bean as he mimes putting an imaginary gun on the ground.

After a brief interrogation scene, Mr. Bean is collected by his American compatriot, Dr. Langley.  Langley has been kind enough to offer his own nondescript home to Mr. Bean during the latter's stay in America, a gesture that seems gracious until we recollect that Bean will be in Los Angeles for two months.  Masterfully, it's another blue note of discord, and Langley's wife protests in a very reasonable way against such a lengthy intrusion.  After a fight, Langley agrees to take Mr. Bean to a hotel, instead.

Langley does not take Bean to a hotel.  He takes him back to his own home, as he had wanted and as his wife had refused.  The superficial cause for this is Mr. Bean's behavior on arrival at the museum and a warning that Langley is responsible for Bean.

Unsurprisingly, his incensed spouse takes the children and flees her own home.  So why this madness on Langley's part?  His employer had already offered to get Mr. Bean a hotel room, so it cannot be a financial concern.  And he's never even heard of "Dr. Bean" before, so it can't be a desire for prestige.  We cannot buy the idea that Langley's new responsibility could extend to boarding the man.  There's only one reasonable explanation for why he would insist on this plan, even after ceding to his wife's vigorous refusal: Langley is intent on destroying his marriage, whether he's conscious of it or not.  There is something dreadfully wrong with Langley.

I will pause to speak of the queer incident that disconcerts the museum staff: at his new L.A. gallery place of employment, Mr. Bean stops to use the restroom, and accidentally gets his pants wet.  At the end of a string of contortions he performs to try to dry them, he concludes spread-eagled against the wall, thrusting into the hand-dryer and making soft, soft noises.  Unable to dry himself after being caught by another restroomer, Bean goes to a meeting of the museum staff, but winds up hiding behind a plant and then hunching against the walls.  Mr. Bean splays his legs out and plasters himself to the wall, sliding along it and making soft, soft noises.  Such soft noises.

At Langley's home, he has managed to drive away his family with Mr. Bean.  They have gone, so Langley shows Bean the town.  Naturally, Mr. Bean disdains the high culture and chooses a theme park.  There's a wacky moment at the park where Bean tampers with a ride and throws it into dangerously high gear - only the second bit of pure and innocent levity in the movie.  It's a reminder of that initial scene with the tea, harmless and childlike in its humor.  The police arrest Mr. Bean again and release him again because he's so very wacky.

This is what you're missing, says this moment of the movie.  This is what you're not watching.  This is a taste of what you won't see.

II.  All Is Lost

Skipping past a few inconsequential scenes, we arrive at the anticipated moment at the museum.  They are going to show the painting, Whistler's Mother, to Bean.  Bean will have to display the knowledge of art that he does not actually possess.  Langley now knows that Bean is not a doctor of art, so he despairs of the deception.

It's a classic set-up, and not really very sinister.  Our terror at the earlier parts of the movie has abated, and so we're ready to enjoy this old joke.  Mr. Bean will look at the painting and say something vague that will be interpreted as profound, as with Peter Sellers' character in Being There.  We'll have a good laugh.  Everything will be okay.  Everything will be okay.

But weirdly, the punchline doesn't arrive.  Instead, the museum staff and Bean stand before the painting as it is revealed privately to them for the first time, so they can appreciate it while they prepare for the big unveiling.  They stand there as the cover slides away and Whistler's Mother comes into view.  But there is no request for comment and no expected humor.  There's only a long and reverent pause as the camera pulls in on the masterwork.  It is an period of veneration.  This is Art.  The museum staff are humbled.  Mr. Bean makes an odd face.  And then they leave him to appreciate it alone.

Here.  This is the moment.  Mr. Bean stares at the painting.  He leans in, snuffling and squinting.  It's some physical comedy from a man with a rubber face, and he burbles his sounds as he examines this odd object.  He does not know the painting.  He does not know why it is good.  He is an unfeeling stone or incurious insect: Mr. Bean looks but the world is alien.

And then he sneezes.  And the entire movie is summed up in this instant, as he goofily sneezes and his face contorts, and it's so funny the way his lips ripple in his amusingly exaggerated sneeze, and he's sneezing on the painting which is funny because it's very valuable, but it's not actually that funny because it's not just valuable it's priceless, and he reaches up with his handkerchief and wipes away the face of Whistler's mother.

As I recount them to you, I can only shudder as I relive these minutes of agony.  Mr. Bean scrubs and musses the painting, then snatches it away and tries to clean it.  It's a parody of comedy now as he goes through the motions of sneaking past guards, all the while carrying a piece of art that just seconds ago had been the subject of awed reflection.  The choice of the filmmakers to use a real and astonishing work of art, rather than an imaginary one without cultural implications, is extremely gutsy.  It turns a piece of lowbrow madcappery into a defacement of the very face of art itself.  Mr. Bean's sneeze has smudged our souls.

In the end, Mr. Bean repairs the painting with a crude pen drawing in place of the exquisite strokes of paint.  He is forced to show it to Langley.  And we can see Langley die a little inside as he is crushed.  It's a purposeful reveal.  Langley had feared for his career and been disgusted with his marriage in some strange way, but now those concerns must seem petty.  His career and family are still in jeopardy, but the looming threat that hangs over them is much worse of itself than the loss of his mere life could ever be.  Because of him, a priceless and groundbreaking and astonishing piece of art is gone.  It is as though Mr. Bean had revealed a secret murder: that which has been done is so much worse than what it threatens to do.  It reveals Langley as a petty and small man.  He is done.

The fact that this terrible thing has been done to a real work of art, rather than a fictitious one, is again what creates the tone of the movie.  That night, after a despairing Langley drinks himself into sleep, Mr. Bean breaks into the museum and replaces the painting with a poster recreation of itself.  He distracts the guard by dosing him with a huge amount of laxative and then locking the bathroom door.  As the guard screams and shrieks and wails and throws himself against the door, Mr. Bean replaces true art with a commercial replica.

The world shits itself as Mr. Bean kills creation.

Naturally, because this is ostensibly a children's movie and not a terrifying voyage into the darkness of men's souls, Mr. Bean's ploy succeeds.  He replaces the painting and no one knows and the next day he gives a vague speech - the Being There speech - that we had expected.  Everyone is happy and everything is okay.  Mr. Bean and Langley are the only ones who know the truth.  But Mr. Bean doesn't understand or care about what has been done.  It is all the worse, then, that Langley must stare at the painting and marvel and smile cringingly about being able to retain his job.  But we know that he cannot really forget.

And nor can I.

No comments:

Post a Comment