Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Poker, "this party of apes"

I recently watched Elia Kazan's 1951 film, "A Streetcar Named Desire" (based on the Tennessee WIlliams play) for the first time in, well, a couple of decades anyway. I decided to do so after reading my friend Shamus's insightful essay for Epic Poker about the film's poker scenes. (See here.)

I had completely forgotten that poker even made an appearance in the movie. But as Martin points out, the game forms a crucial part of some of the film's themes, especially the separate roles and realms of men and women, and the dangers that lurk when the barriers between them are breached.

A couple of days ago I posted as a "Poker Gem" Karl Malden's line as Mitch: "Poker should not be played in a house with women." I put that up before the scene had even finished playing, pausing the DVD long enough to post it. I meant it mostly as a joke, a wry reminder of how things used to be. But as the movie continues, we learn that it is, in fact, a stern foreshadowing.

Poker, it is suggested, is a males-only activity, first, because of the vices that come associated with it: drinking, smoking cigars, swearing, lewd storytelling, fighting--vulgarity of every variety. But a second and perhaps more important reason is that the game brings out the raw, brute passions of earthy men, and when they are so aroused, they are not easily controlled or contained. Women who happen to be in the environs are in danger. For these reasons, the ladies are, as Stella wryly phrases it, "cordially not invited."

In case we are too dense to make the associations between poker and men's baser passions by observation alone, the screenplay won't let us miss them. Blanche DuBois confides her opinion of Stanley to her sister (Stanley's wife), Stella:
If you'll forgive me, he's common... He's like an animal. He has an animal's habits. There's even something subhuman about him. Thousands of years have passed him right by, and there he is. Stanley Kowalski, survivor of the Stone Age, bearing the raw meat home from the kill in the jungle. And you - you here waiting for him. Maybe he'll strike you or maybe grunt and kiss you, that's if kisses have been discovered yet. His poker night you call it. This party of apes.
Gentle Mitch is no ape. He leaves the game to chat with Blanche, who he immediately finds charming. He actually appears more comfortable in the side room with the women than in the main room with the men. This very fact (even ignoring his schoolboy mannerisms) suggests that he is, in some sense, not fully a man--an idea further suggested later by the revelation that he still lives with his mother and is to be presumed to be a virgin. (Apparently in the stage play on which the film is based, Blanche's husband committed suicide after being exposed as having had a homosexual affair, so the fact that Mitch is deemed appropriate to fill those shoes is perhaps further innuendo.)

A drunk, angry Stanley bolts from the poker game to invade the women's space in a manner entirely different from Mitch's: angrily, violently, wreaking havoc. He hurls a radio through a window and beats his wife. Near the end of the film, he will again penetrate this same space when Blanche is there alone, again doing so in a way that the mild-mannered Mitch never would: set on violation. What happens between Stanley and Blanche could not be portrayed or perhaps even spoken explicitly, due to censorship standards of the day, but we are not left in much doubt.

That unfinished scene is followed immediately by a second poker game, which functions as the setting for the film's denouement: Blanche has been tipped all the way into frank madness. She is briefly restrained, but then allowed to walk--with assistance from a man--into the forbidden territory, past the poker table and into the car waiting to take her to an asylum. Stella, conversely, takes her newborn baby and flees to an upstairs neighbor, vowing never to return. Her apartment has been irredeemably marked--contaminated, even--as a place in which the ugliest male instincts are allowed to play out. This sadly permanent "no women allowed" status is symbolized by the poker game, which, we presume, continues after its brief interruption.

I've seen poker serve a lot of different functions in movies, but I don't recall anything like this. In "Streetcar" it is simultaneously an emblem of, arena for, and a inflamer of men's coarse, animalistic tendencies. The game has never felt that way to me, but the fact that Williams and Kazan can make it serve such roles so effortlessly in this movie has left me feeling disturbed, unsettled, contemplative. If I come to any brilliant conclusions along those lines, I'll let you know.

The image above is Thomas Hart Benton's painting Poker Night (From "A Streetcar Named Desire"), 1948. It hangs in the Whitney Museum in New York City. You can hear the museum's audio guide about it here.

ADDENDUM, March 1, 2013

Martin's excellent essay disappeared from the web for quite a while following the collapse of the Epic Poker League, along with its web site. But today he reposted it on his own blog, here.


DavidCF said...

In "Streetcar" it is simultaneously an emblem of, arena for, and a inflamer of men's coarse, animalistic tendencies. The game has never felt that way to me....

It is rare indeed to have poker feel this way in casino games. It is all too common in home games, however.

NT (aka Cardgrrl) said...

I really enjoyed this post. And I agree with reader DavidCF's comment.