Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Hughes in 4 Hues: CAUGHT, THE CARPETBAGGERS, THE AVIATOR, ICE STATION ZEBRA


A recent rare screening of Max Ophul's Hollywood film CAUGHT (1948) on TCM reveals a Howard Hughes stand-in who's just about the coolest, most terrifying version of them all! Let's look at the way Howard Hughes depictions evolved, or devolved, over the years:

CAUGHT 
1948 - ***1/2
No doubt that Max Ophuls was "a woman's director" and it's through a woman's eyes--an awkward good-girl fotune hunter mix of uncertainty and antithesis played by Barbara Bel Geddes--that we get a load of  Robert Ryan as a sociopathic captain of industry named Smith Ohlrig. Here's a guy with suits so sharply pressed and perfectly tailored he seems like he could smash through a wall without getting them rumpled.  I dug the film and thought he came across as the real hero, especially compared to his rival, James Mason's befuddled Lower East Side doctor. Bel Geddes takes a job as receptionist in Mason's LES poor folk clinic after she finds the life of a trophy dull. Meanwhile she's rich enough to set up a women's shelter all her own if she wasn't such an insufferable martyr.

Ohlrig's the only one who seems to have an inkling of what is best in life: crush your enemies, see them ruined financially before you, and hear the whiny bored sighs of der wimmen. Whether waiting in the car, or at home, all but whinnying over jigsaw puzzles by the cavernous empty fireplace, Ohlrig's women are meant to freeze in place like plastic dolls when he's not around, then spring to life as perfect hostesses when he pops in with subordinates and movie cannisters in the wee hours of the night. Despite its cliche'd soap opera girl torn between money and love narrative, CAUGHT is cool enough to almost turn me around on Ophuls, whom I've long considered insufferably bourgeois. CAUGHT shows me I better simmer down and go look again.

THE CARPETBAGGERS
1961- ***
Great Harold Robbins-bitchy camp dialogue, and the guy from The A-Team, George Peppard, as zillionaire aviator and womanizer Jonas Cord.  As I wrote in an earlier post, Cord and his hot stepmom (Caroll Baker) are like Tony and Cesca in the last reel of SCARFACE ("I can't tell whether I love you or hate you"/ "Both"), while his socialite wife rots at home. Meanwhile, Alan Ladd hangs onto his hat as western hero Nevada Smith, and Leif Erikson is Joanas Sr., who rants at his tomcat progeny: "A man's judged by what's in his head, not in his bed!"

Like Robert Ryan's Hughes in CAUGHT, Peppard's is a taciturn, ruthless businessman workaholic - but unlike CAUGHT he's also highly sexed, and suffused with daddy issues. Such a role might warrant over-playing in less capable hands, but Dmytryk and Peppard are smart enough to never let Jonas smile or betray a hint of emotion other than simmering hatred and  Peppard's voice is marvelously tinged with nasal reverb, like he's always either freshly buzzed or really hungover.

THE AVIATOR
2004 - **1/2
This was the second of the DiCaprio-Scorsese collaborations, and the character is actually supposed to be Hughes, and perhaps for that reason it's a lionization, a mythologizing, rather than a KANE-like expose of a man who owned the world but lost his girl, or something. Instead, we're supposed to swoon as Howard makes model airplanes and boffs chorus girls as his OCD blossoms over the course of a few hand-washing scenes. Also, the script cheats, such as showing Hughes, insane in his screening room, watching WINGS over and over (I guess they couldn't get the rights to ICE STAION ZEBRA!) and suddenly pulling it all together in time to head to D.C. and surmount the odds just by pointing out Alan Alda's investment in United Airlines. Cate Blanchett almost saves it as Hepburn, but the dialogue gives her little room to flourish as anything but a compendium of biography cliches now worn thin from overuse (the golf game, the night flying, the dinner with family, Spence).

For me it's all summed up in the opening scene showing Hughes as a child: his mom is washing him in an ole washtub, a stray light from a high window shining down, illuminating his little arms and chest. The orchestral score swells with import and we're clearly meant to see it as a kind of holy anointing, the boy and his female in pose of supplicated adoration. The scene 'reveals' nothing about the character other than he got spoiled early on with incestuous bathing rituals. Subtextually its an indication of artists like Marty and Leo, who've received way too much press and 'genius' labels, covering their insecurity in layers of money and period costumes and extras and a 'theme' that champions ego even as it seems to critique it (all these movies about the "one man"). Scorsese collides into a brick wall of closed-off persona in DiCaprio, and then tries to make a film around the idea of closed-off persona instead of opening Leo up like an unwilling oyster to the light of day. And so AVIATOR builds the kind of white elephant theme park that RAGING BULL used to kick down. What were the TAXI DRIVER termites for if not to collapse such weary bourgeois edifices?
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The myth of Hughes endures because he was a rich weirdo who shunned all aspects of the bourgeois elite. He was the Donald Trump of his day but less charismatic and more genuinely introverted. His later germophobia led to a solitary life spent in a screening room, pissing into jars and watching one special film over and over -- a film that's well-known now because of said repeat viewings by Hughes more than any actual quality:

ICE STATION ZEBRA
1968 - ***
Ever since I was a kid I've been fascinated by one aspect of the Hughes legend, his repeat round-the-clock viewings of ICE STATION ZEBRA. Why that movie? Why not the one I once did the same thing with, a similarly arctic adventure, 1951's THE THING? Maybe now I have the answer. A) he didn't have a copy since he probably had a falling out with Howard Hawks, and B) the THING has no submarine, and it has a girl in it.

In the old days my friends--and their dads-- and I had a thing we called: 'waiting for mom to go to bed.' As soon as we heard that patter of feet stop as she boarded her bed, we could commence the real drinking. This cool captain of industry-type father of my friend developed a habit where--after the Mrs. retired-- he'd quietly drink cognac in a snifter and watch DAS BOOT, which is like ICE STATION ZEBRA (both are submarine war films with nary a woman in the cast) over and over. Hearing about this habit, I instantly thought of ZEBRA and Hughes, and the connection was made - submarines, the ocean. Over a long summer spent at their beach house the three of us watched MOBY DICK over six times!

The peculiar appeal of war movies for intelligent, successful men like Hughes and my friend's dad likely involves the fantasy of having clear cut goals, a uniformly competent workforce, a reliable chain of command, and freedom from the anxiety of being around women, of needing to shave or reign in your bad habits, freedom from the chaos of the public sphere (i.e. women) and the orbit of the earth around the sun (it's neither night nor day below the sea). It's comforting to think that, for all their influence and power, at the end of the day rich white dudes just want to get high and hang out somewhere that's flush with poker games, flasks, bonding,and no women to tell them what to do. DodoodooBumbumbum, oh what joy.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Mimsy Ballistico! PERFUME OF A LADY IN BLACK (1974) + The Giallo Checklist


With one of those typically ornate giallo titles that involves 'ladies,' animal names, sharp objects, or strange jewels comes Francisco Barilli's awesome and fragrant PERFUME OF A LADY IN BLACK (a better and more apt title in my mind would be CRACKED MIRROR OF THE BLUE HIPPO). Mimsy Farmer stars as a cross between MARNIE (hallucinating her dead mom having sex with a no-good taxidermist, smiting men who'd try and sex her) and Roman Polanski in THE TENANT (living in a weird old apartment building with enough psychics, elderly sculptors, and animal totems to give anyone the willies). For audiences familiar with other conspiracy-driven ROSEMARY'S BABY-inspired psychosexual horror headtrips like 1977's American (but Italian-influenced) THE SENTINEL (my review here), it's a case of dread by association as much as anything else.


One thing I notice in all these 1970s creepshows is an admirable (or is lazy?) focus on the crux of the mise-en-scene: long takes of a woman, beautiful and in her nightgown, slowly walking, or standing still in spooky, dark, monochromatic hallways, listening to faint scraping noises. These scenes are the giallo's raison d'etre and also great way to pad running time. If the girl is truly lovely and the gown fetching, then so much the better to work the weird dissonant art/fear/desire feedback loop--we watch her watch and hear her hearing.

With her short blonde hair and Nordic resemblance to my own mother, Farmer sticks out like a sore thumb in her ancient Italian surroundings (while on the continent she was also in Dario Argento's FOUR FLIES IN GREY VELVET [my review here] and something called AUTOPSY). Her button-nose androgyny never melts all the way into either Doris Day boi's club cleanliness nor Jodie Foster baby butch grubbiness, leaving us all kind of messed up in our identification, especially as her short hair accentuates her 12 year old boy buttonnosedness, ala Jean Seberg and ROSEMARY Mia. In her perpetual pre-gender assignment limbo, we want to protect her, seduce her, fear her, and fear for her but in the end can only watch her... dissolve.. as she waits in that hallway, listening to more of that infernal... scraping...

.

There's a lot of extraneous detail here that seems to be checking off some long lost giallo / Satan movie checklist rather than cohering into a narrative, so I thought for fun I'd include it here, along with the symbolic meaning of each. Note that I mean this list in only the best ways and it's not meant as disrespect to LADY IN BLACK or anything else. Gialli need these items, like old dark house movies need guys in ape suits, scheming heirs, secret panels, thunder cracks, and wheelchair-bound Egyptologists:

THE GIALLO CHECKLIST:
1. Old photos (descent into the past)
2. Taxidermy (necrophilia)

3. Winding Staircase (descent into the unconscious!
4. Music box (lost innocence)

5. Eccentric neighbor (red herring)


6. Chain lock (weak repressive mechanism)
7. Elderly doorman and Cat lady relating tragic news in foyer (exposition)

8. Abandoned building where a childhood trauma occurred. (readymade set)

9. Blind psychic (fatalism)
10. Mimsy Farmer, or facsimile (cute androgynous question mark)



Many giallo features usually on the checklist are unfortunately lacking in PERFUME OF A LADY IN BLACK, however, such as grisly murders. The one main murder here occurs offscreen! We hear about it second hand (see item 7) and that doesn't make a lick of sense! Also missing: a mustachioed, weary cop in a white trench coat, with piercing blue eyes. There are some giallo extra credit items: tennis club, Marlboro lights, graveyard, trippy architecture, VERTIGO flower shop, shadowy sects, graphic primal scene flashbacks, mysterious pasts, and a shock/twist ending.


And the DVD from Raro Video is gorgeous! Clearly a lot of time and effort was spent getting the colors deep and hallucinatory bold ala Argento's DEEP RED and SUSPIRIA. It's not quite as great as those films, but in its own private Roma way, it's awesome. So when you're out of Argento and early Polanski but still on that crazy dark color mod Euroinsane hottie kick, heighten your senses and learn to enjoy one of the more opaque of giallo-jewels, PERFUME OF A LADY IN BLACK, a nutty future classic, bound to appreciate on repeat Halloween viewings.


Friday, March 25, 2011

SUCKER PUNCH Capsules: ULTRAVIOLET, ELEKTRA, BLOODRAYNE, BITCH-SLAP, CIRCLE OF IRON, SO CLOSE, and AZUMI


Film is our ultimate escape, so when filmmakers decide they need to metatextualize all that by having characters dreaming alternate realities as if leaving you locked in a bathroom at the airport when you were hoping to travel to new destinations. Zak Snyder is to blame; the awesome failure of SUCKER PUNCH to deliver its titular promise is his Waterloo. Dude, film already is an alternate reality! Are you anxious to cover up plot holes and suffering from the compulsive need to cram as much GGI into every frame as you can? I'm sure George Lucas and Paul W.S. Anderson will think it's awesome but those of us who like narrative, momentum, character, energy, velocity ("in one word, emotion") are shut out and left feeling what pleasures might be there are too skeevy and dispiriting for words.

In the early days of horror there were producers, particularly at MGM, who felt the public wouldn't 'get' a horror film if you didn't bring it back down to logic at the end - the 'it was all a dream' or 'the vampire was a detective in disguise to catch a killer' or the monster is just a crook in an ape costume trying to frighten the next heir to the family fortune trope was used ad nausea. Gradually they realized no one goes to the movies--or books for that matter--wanting to be anchored to the real. Then again we also want our story to make logical sense within the context of itself, and to follow the adage: do not "show the monster in the first half-hour." If you want to have a giant samurai robot attack an orphanage, go ahead, we don't need it situated in a fantasy within a fantasy, but if you show it first thing in a movie, we'll assume we can keep talking and checking our cell phones while you get such nonsense out of your system.

THE WIZARD OF OZ (1939) knew how to do it right. Sure, there was an interconnection between Oz and Kansas and Dorothy's unconscious, but it it's still a potent myth. Oz is real because Dorothy sees it as real --it's more real than Kansas. Once you use 'the power of imagination' you run up against a vein of who gives a shit that takes genuine mythopoetic heft and Jungian savvy to transcend. Fail and you just bore us, and SUCKER does. As in Nick Shager's review from Slant below:
Sucker Punch follows Baby Doll as she's committed to a grimy mental institution by her stepfather (Gerard Plunkett). The old man has locked her away because she tried to prevent him from raping her younger sister (hey, he was mad about getting cut out of his dead wife's will!), and accidentally killed the young girl instead. Once inside the facility, skeezy supervisor Blue (Oscar Isaac) shows her a common area with a stage known as the Theater, which—when coupled with the intro sight of a curtain being pulled back to reveal the action proper—is Snyder's clumsy way of conveying how the locale of Baby Doll's adventure is really the theater of the mind. And as every other character seems to blurt out in one form or another, the mind affords people the power to shape their own destiny, and the world. It's a notion that also applies to a director and his films, though Snyder's self-reflexive instincts are blunt and lifeless, and his subsequent trip down the fantasies-within-fantasies rabbit hole, replete with a fem-rock cover of "White Rabbit" to boot, primarily speaks to his confusion over notions of actualization and empowerment. (cont.)

I was really hoping SUCKER would be awesome, but after I saw the extended preview during last night's Archer, I knew it was going to go the route of so much video game-based dreck that's come before--TOMB RAIDER, RESIDENT EVIL, BALLISTIC: ECKS VS. SERVER, MAX PAYNE: "To fulfill your destiny you must seek five items..." Why not get it over with and just show a bunch of girls playing Doom IV in their underwear? At least then maybe we can get Bazin on it, and have layers of meaning at your disposal.


The castrative/revengeful counter-misogynist avenger girl is one that's always been popular amongst sensitive comic book readers like me, who first found the gold vein of it in the early 1980s when Frank Miller rose to fame writing and penciling Daredevil character named Elektra, who captivated all our teenage virgin hearts. The way she wore her scarf, the way she kicked Bullseye in the face, and slashed scores of ninja with her sai, and died... tragically... Flash forward and lazy screenwriters are opening every single film with an elaborate break-in to a compound heavily guarded and usually presided over by a bald guy in an expensive suit and sunglasses, like Frank Miller cut five ways to Sunday with B-12 and sold direct to cable.  Let's meet some of SUCKER's relatives, and a mangy bunch they are to be certain:

ULTRAVIOLET 
2006 - *
Milla Jovovich as a vampiric hottie out to protect a kid everyone wants to-- yawn--kill. Worse than watching moms learn to play Duke Nukem on her Dell PC.
"It is worse than Plan 9 from outerspace. For the love of ALL that is holy, do NOT see it." - Batese -- Imdb:
ELEKTRA
2005 - ***
I actually paid full price for the director's cut on DVD and I'm glad I did. This picture grows on me, namely due to Garner's doe-eyed hotness as Elektra, who has to 'yawn' protect a child everyone wants to kill. Terence Stamp is 'Stick' - the stoic blind pool hall Zen master. Elektra's douchebag 'agent' (he call's her 'Lek' and keeps his cell phone and smarm ever at the ready) and a cliche'd 'likeable single dad next door' don't detract from the moody beauty of the Pacific Northwest imagery, Garner's amazing eyes and Garner's amazing bone structure. You'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll believe tattoos of animals can slither to life off an Asian assassin.
"This doesn't exactly set the world on fire, but I was charmed by its old-fashioned storytelling, which is refreshingly free of archness, self-consciousness, or Kill Bill-style wisecracks. Some of the effects recall vintage Ray Harryhausen, the villains all perish in puffs of green smoke, and Garner's sincere glumness suggests Buster Crabbe in Flash Gordon." -- Jonathan Rosenbaum
BLOODRAYNE 
2005 - *1/8
Uwe Boll's SPRINGTIME FOR HITLER (would he have gone to jail if this film ended up making money?) benefits from the presence of Michelle Rodriguez and Michael Madsen even though both are apparently hungover and in need of a script. Sir Ben Kingsley plays the head vampire, badly. With no one even noticing, the film is stolen by Billy Zane as a rival head vampire. Look at poor relation Kristanna Loken (above), basically wearing Elektra's hand-me-downs and dulled sai.
"The plot of "BloodRayne" is basically "Blade" with a white chick -- set just after the invention of gunpowder but long before the invention of humor. Kristanna Loken, who played the female cyborg in the last "Terminator" film, stars as a half-human, half-vampire who must avenge the death of her mother while stopping the evil vampire Lord Kagen (Ben Kingsley, slumming like few Oscar winners before him) from ruling the Earth." -- Peter Hartlaub - SF Gate
BITCH-SLAP
2009 - **
"More of an “Austin Powers” carnival of camp with YouTube production polish, “Bitch Slap” opens with a Joseph Conrad quote and ends in a hail of bullets, leaving the midsection fairly anticlimactic and insistently silly. It’s criminal to dismiss something so utterly consumed with ample feminine assets and cross-eyed ultraviolence, but the goofball pitch of this fluff grows tiresome early in the first round, rendering the picture a splendid 10-minute short film idea stretched intolerably to 100 minutes." -- Brian Orndorff
I only got ten minutes into BITCH-SLAP before I had a whopper headache and animosity towards every character, so I agree. Word to the wise: never show clips from better films in the opening credits. And I can only shudder at how bad SUCKER-PUNCH must be if Horror.com's Staci Layne sez: Let me put it this way: having seen Sucker Punch once, I'd rather watch Bitch Slap 10 times in a row.

CIRCLE OF IRON
1978 - **1/2
Basically a Zen video game "Nothing is real - and nothing to get hung over" movie before Zen video games and hangovers were invented. A wanderer on a mystic quest learns that's 'all in his mind' with the help of mystic guru David Carradine in multiple roles (just like Scott Glenn in SUCKER - the two actors even look alike). Based on a Bruce Lee storyline, with Christopher Lee merrily embodying the mystical guardian of the sacred book, Eli Wallach sleeping through his scenes in a cauldron (above), horses and Renaissance fair merriment, beaches, and wooden flutes all coax the film towards the pretty girl of meaning like friends of the shy boy at the dance. Does our shy kid film ever get up the nerve to traverse the nonsense distance of the floor to talk to her? Many questions, grasshopper!
The finished film sits about half way between the meaningful, but still sappy brand of 'Zen Buddhism' that Lee taught in life, and the daft, everything and the kitchen sink brand of martial arts films the United States put out after the master’s death. Like Lee’s unfinished Game of Death, Circle of Iron (aka The Silent Flute) anticipates fighting style video games, but also features the afterglow of the insistently pointed philosophical films of the late 1960s. On top of its ridiculous imagery, and shaky plotting, the film acts as an unintentional (or perhaps intentional?) parody of Confucianism and Taoism. It's even sub-Yoda at some points, but it's continuously charming and even intentionally funny on several occasions. - Gabriel Powers - DVD Active
SO CLOSE
2002 - ***
Surely Qi Shu is one of the most beautiful women in the world, and good with a gun.  She must avenge her sister's death! You die! Karen Mok (GOD OF COOKERY) is the cop rival with whom Qi forms a semi-lesbian grrl-power connection, all while they kick each other through expensive corporate building parking lots. Hizillarious, though the ending is weak... like all men!

AZUMI
2003 - ***1/2
She takes on so many guys in a big climactic sword fight it's insane--and she's cute as a lil' button! It's set in the rainy days of the shoguns so prepare for bulky stiff white robes, funny hats, and scrolls. Even with its video-ish tinge the film leaves one whirling and out of breath, though all the side plotting might confuse the very buzzed.
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There you go... if, like me, you were pumped for SUCKER PUNCH and then felt like you'd actually been sucker punched when you saw the 'it's all in your mind' previews and negative viewer comments, stay home and watch SO CLOSE, or DEATH-PROOF, or SIN CITY, or NAKED KILLER, or ELEKTRA and keep your expectations low to the ground. I mean low!! LOWER! You die!

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Pre-Code Capsules 2: CITY STREETS, BOMBSHELL, THE HALF-NAKED TRUTH, THEY CALL IT SIN, SAFE IN HELL, HOLD YOUR MAN

CITY STREETS
1931 - ****
It seems dimwitted to call this film CITY STREETS--it's the kind of title that wouldn't pass muster in a college lit class, too vague and generalized. One imagines treacly Chaplin Americana with the Dead End Kids and its plot device of an alcohol kingpin risking his whole operation in a play for Gary Cooper's girl seems kind of ridiculous, like no one would ever rise to power in the underworld if he was always playing prima noctae. But for all that this film is actually very beautiful, sleazy, unrepentant, and expressionistic as all art deco hell. Murders are talked over via close-ups of cat statues, and a very dirty fella named Blackie gets offed by Guy Kibee (as you've never seen him before!).

Shades of SCARFACE in Dashiell Hammett's gritty storyline fills the sails with snappy patter and keeps the coffers rich in minute detail that feels observed rather than imagined and, that hopelessly generic title aside, free of any remote chance of gangster cliche. It's like a molten crucible of gangster film-ism, without shape or form yet to calcify and re-do over and over in generations and remakes to come

That said, Sylvia Sidney's pleas to Gary Cooper not to go fight or whatever drag on and on: "Kid, don't go! Oh no Kid! No, Kid, please don't go if you love me, if you love me kid please don't go." Sylvia you were ten times cooler when you were in prison. Now you've gone soft, and the rackets got no place for soft. Pick a side, pick a gun, lay your money down otherwise go to bed.... and lock your door! Still, there's a super sexy scene of passion with Cooper across a wire screen in the ladies' prison visiting room, and once out of jail Sylvia has the coolest vanity mirror ever (a giant vulture/eagle over it, with wings outspread). Visceral expressionist photography (TCM restored with a loving hand), great dialogue (including hilariously curt rapport between thug Kibee and daughter Sydney) and Cooper is at his most ravishing.


BOMBSHELL
(1933) - ****
Playing a loose conglomerate of Clara Bow, Thelma Todd, and herself, Jean Harlow comes through in metatextual spades here as an overworked MGM starlet, earning her place at the top of the spitfire heap with  rapid fire slang-filled dialogue pouring in satin torrents from her tongue as she goes zipping, 8 1/2-style, through a carnival of  blustery studio heads, make-up artists, insurance fraud grifters, drunken joneser fathers (Frank Morgan, partying like it's 1899!), an accented gigolo lover, an infatuated director (Pat O'Brien), and Lee Tracy, as usual, an unscrupulous publicity agent.


There's something inherently unlikable (to me) about Tracy, but he sure can talk fast and believably think on his feet.  Even when he apologetically comes to tell Harlow he's been fired on account of her complaints you don't notice his emotions, you just stare at the ferocious meta-amphetamine insect anger in his sharply slicked-back hair. It forms--in the excellent TCM transfer--a weird bi-level triple side wave-part. Too much information!

In order to appease Harlow and get his job back, Tracy must pledge to cease sleazing her up in the tabloids and instead put her onto the 'Home and Garden' page, dressing her up in frilly aprons, with forked potato in hand, longing wistfully for the patter of little feet. In a hilarious interview with a matronly journalist, Harlow holds her hands clasped together and gazes into the heavens, imagining the baby to come, then sets off to adopt one, ala Angelina Jolie, picking them out by the bushel like puppies. Mythical Monkey writes:
 "The movie skewers every Hollywood type—the hangers-on, the rapacious press, the stalkers, the slicky boys, the fraudsters, the petty tyrants—and does so with a manic quality that would characterize the screwball comedies allegedly invented by Howard Hawks and Frank Capra in 1934, but which, as I mentioned in my review of Design For Living, seems to have developed full-blown sometime earlier. Fleming spared no one, including himself—he's caricatured as director Jim Brogan (Pat O'Brien), alternately described in the movie as a "piano mover" and "a smooth-tongued bluebeard." (here)


Irregardless of any future screwballing, the damage has been done and the post-1934 serious code enforcement look for women has already been dreamt up, right here in front of the matron and Ladies Home photographer, in an act of parody. As Harlow assumes this pose of born again maternal sanctity, we briefly--or did I hallucinate--see her smile to herself--a subliminal wink to the audience--as she gets all pious and starry-eyed at the thought of a woman's 'ultimate duty to the continuance of the species.'

Phony or not, she never lets up in it - she either decides this sugary drivel is the only way to beat the system at its own game of hypocritical posturing or she genuinely believes such a dull code of ethics barefoot/pregnant line. That we'll never know if she was just bullshitting or not is what the code is all about: for every 'you know I'm just kidding' there shalt be an accompanying teardrop of sincerity, sayeth the Breen.

THE HALF-NAKED TRUTH
(1932) - **1/2

Secretary: "Imagine anyone daring to question your veracity."
Tracy: "Such language!"

More Lee Tracy doing what he does best, motormouth speed-talking as an unscrupulous press agent: first as a carny barker hawking Lupe Velez's uninhibited fan dancer from the tropics; second hawking a blonde hotel maid who partners with Eugene Palette as wild, untamed nudists. Frank Morgan is the Broadway impresario who eventually winds up with Velez, who by then has let fame go to her harridan head. And it all caves back down to where it started, in the gutter. Tracy is successful in PR, sure, but meanwhile his girl and his pal (Eugene Palette) are back in the carnival racket, where they all started out.

Tracy's got the rapid fire patter, but he lacks Jimmy Cagney's agility, and humility -- a scene where he smacks up Morgan with blackmail photos is just irritating. Some rare moments of real connection exist, though, like at the end, like the cool bro-to-bro reunion of Pallette, Tracy, and a handful of sawdust which Tracy pours through his fingers asking "can you imagine this stuff running though your veins?" We can, thanks to the 21st century advent of torture porn, and suddenly we realize Tracy's own painful awareness of the cliches by which he's bound. Methinks he was amphetamine-headed. Gentle Ben tells us after he was fired and sued by the studio for always being late and often drunk to set. That's why, perhaps, Cagney is immortal and Tracy just a curious footnote. Both played incorrigible scammers, but Cagney was just playing.

THEY CALL IT SIN
1932 - **1/2
Hot as she was, by 1932 Loretta Young's persona was that of a nobly young woman who looks around at the newfangled crazes --divorce, premarital sex, drugs, prohibition liquor-- and quickly calls her matron at the convent for emotional support. The devoutly Catholic Young often used her acetylene hotness like an Olympic torch of morality in any dark, dank pre-code films she finds herself in, such as this one. Always first in line to confess to a crime or sacrifice her happiness to save someone else, anyone else, her characters are martyrs like only a self-righteous hottie can play them. Here her sleazy ex-boss is accidentally killed and she races like a Chariots of Fire sprinter to be the first person to confess and save her true lovezzzz... Before that she's dicked around by David Manners, rescued by George Brent, and ripped-off by Louis Calhern (the guy who would go on to hire Chicolini and Harpo in DUCK SOUP the following year). His excellency's car!

SAFE IN HELL
1931 - ***
One of many pre-code films made about women of ill repute lamming out to the tropics or the Orient after skipping bail or being wanted for murder: Joan Crawford did it in RAIN the following year (32); Marlene Dietrich in SHANGHAI EXPRESS the following year, and Kay Francis did in MANDALAY the year after that 1934, then came the code. They stopped doing it. But back in 1931 it was anybody's game and SAFE IN HELL happens to be one of the  more lurid exhibits of the pre-code era: Gilda (Dorothy Mackaill) is a dissolute prostitute who winds up accidentally burning down a building with a drunk john in it. Her innocent sailor fella (Donald Cook, unbearable) returns home and-- hey! He's earned a first mate stripe so now they can finally get married. Oh, Donald! He gives her a ship in a bottle and a fan from Japan as presents from abroad - but she lets him know the score and before you can say "Jake" he's smuggling her off to a remote island with no extradition laws and a cadre of debauched expats waiting to slaver, dark-eyed, over their gin-fizzes, at her hotel room door.

Clarence Muse (THE INVISIBLE GHOST) as the bellhop brings as much dignity as ten ordinary men into the role; at the front desk and tending bar is Nina Mae McKinny (THE GREEN PASTURES) who sings "When It's Sleepy time Down South" right in time for Gilda to drop the airs and come down and make nice with the seven dwarfy sleazes. Director William Wellman (as usual) packs the film with earthy detail and weird characterizations: Charles B. Middleton,  Gustav Von Seffeyrtitz, and Morgan Wallace are three of the leering fellow outlaw guests. Noble Johnson (the zombie in GHOST BREAKERS) is a guard.

With her droopy skin and lumpy posture, Mackail is not your ordinary heroine but she's perfect as a depression-era fallen woman who's genuinely no good, not just a good girl fallen low through circumstance and cheating gigolos. No, she's an authentic lowlife, a cranky snob for whom the woman's picture conceit of romantic self-sacrifice is less a noble deed than a kind of Antigone-style fuck you to the world of sin (unlike so many heroines who fall just to rise, she starts out fallen, and rises and falls again erratically throughout the film). When she finally gives up her sainthood and starts drinking with the riffraff you get a real sense that she's smoked and drank before, and often. You don't ever get that with Loretta Young.

HOLD YOUR MAN
1933 - ***1/2
Jean Harlow gets pregnant via hood Clark Gable, but she's in jail and a martyr so doesn't tell him. Stu Erwin wants to marry her and move her to some bo-hunk town when she gets out of stir but no way. See, there's only one guy for her - and he can't visit her in the clink as he's wanted himself, see, for a crime he did commit! See? George Reed (THE GREEN PASTURES) is the black preacher father of fellow inmate Theresa Harris (Alma in I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE) who sings "Saint Louis Blues" while the girls relax after a hard day steam-pressing shirts.

HOLD YOUR MAN gets me deep in the gut because everyone is redeemed at the end--even the romantic rivals and prison warden--and not in a humorlessness Loretta Young kind of way, but in a genuine caring, cliche-defying way.  When Gable cries to Reed in the chapel, I feel redeemed --every time - and mister, I'm a hell of a sinner. That HOLD YOUR MAN was written by a girl (Anita Loos) doesn't fully explain the incredible compassion this film offers, but it's a part of it. How often do you come away from a tough pre-code women's prison picture feeling optimistic about humanity? Just this once, baby.

Long Live Liz


Can it be true? Has the living legend Elizabeth Taylor finally merged back into the godhead from which she came? I guess it is. I guess we'll be seeing a lot of her image in the next few days, but we don't really need to be reminded how awesome she was. She never left her throne on Hollywood's Mount Olympus, and its doubtful she ever will. Burton's probably ecstatic right now, showing her all around the spacious grounds of her new mansion on the hill.

Look at the above picture - have you ever seen a woman's eyes so aware of her sexiness yet not at all like a kitten's? How is she able to project so much knowing intellect alongside so much hotness and not have 'conflict of interest'? Her brain wattage doesn't spook us away like it might with some other actresses, neither is she being egotistical, nor condescending to the man who drools at her from behind time and space. She accepts not only her own sexuality, but ours. She was the most generous, in that and many other senses, of icons. 

Acidemic is laden with past tributes to her grace, and here's a few:

SUDDENLY LAST SUMMER:
Liz Taylor--a titanic, stunningly alive character with worldwide impact herself, seems to have been a kind of protean cine-muse to Williams, and one much more magnetic than Magnani, and much more opinionated and loud about it than most of the screen goddesses in her league. Totally unafraid to get in there and shake it in all senses of the word, from root to crown chakra (with a long pause at the hips), Liz's characters clash with patriarchy and then withdraw to fight again, like Sung Tzu says to do in ART OF WAR! Take GIANT, for example, where she maneuvers around the end zones at her newfound homeland Texas' narrow-minded patriarchal ways, and everyone of the old guard just has to put up with it. None of their usual patronizing crap works, even when she's way out of line they can't rope her in. She lets them win a hand or two, but never stops wearing them down, until they surrender like aggressive dogs to Cesar Milan in the Dog Whisperer. Like said dogs, these Texans realize they love her for her ability to be assertive without being aggressive, and she becomes the social mother conscience for all of Rich Oil Texas. She creates a new respect and admiration for the voice of dissent. It's okay to walk away having lost a fight with Liz Taylor. She'll let you win the next one.

On THE SANDPIPER:
Piper doesn't even have to be good when the chemistry between this pair is in full flow the way it wasn't in The VIPs and The Comedians. There's a great scene where Dick and Liz are gazing into each other's eyes, emoting and talking, and the wounded sandpiper that Liz saved earlier in the film comes flying in for a landing right on her head! She doesn't even flinch; she just keeps staring into Dick's eyes, and for his part, even with that sandpiper there he doesn't freak out, just stays in the scene, fixed on her gaze like a hypnotist. Then after they kiss, she reaches up and cups the bird in her hand without even looking at it, and then lets it loose, saying, "Fly away, baby," in that husky afterthought style of hers.  Was this something they shot twenty takes of, just to get that damned bird to land on her head, or was it just a lucky accident that the pro thesps seized on? I spent the whole rest of the film just admiring the perfect nonchalant stillness with which these two lovers acted out their scene with this bird standing in Liz's wild hair. Then, when she later chases her old sugar daddy-cum-rapist out of the house with a hatchet, my heart was sealed...

The Case of the Disappearing Accent: THE COMEDIANS
Liz and Dick: Acidemic's Coolest Couples #2
Hotter Little Sister Effect: GIANT

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Vadim's Cold-Blooded Pimpin' - BLOOD AND ROSES (1960)

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Based on an 1876 lesbian Gothic French story by Fanu, Carmilla, BLOOD AND ROSES is a film that's been mostly unseen since the early days of VHS in this country (it's now on netflix streaming), but even on the faded and duped on the DVD-R I saw it on recently, Vadim's ease with the jet set world of expensive balls, crumbling ancestral villas, heavy breathing, heartbeats, beautiful gowns, incest, casual sex and acceptance of inter-dimensional weirdness shows through.

I mention Vadim because to me--and I assume at least a few other Americans-- his is the ideal of what we would want our lives to be like, were we French. And even-- if like me-- you can't stand many of Vadim's other films, like Barbarella or ...And God Created Woman, you might find something cool hovering in the margins of Blood and Roses.

As an ex-libertine myself, I recognize that Vadim's conveying an atmosphere of socially sanctioned decadence with the relaxed confidence of someone who's been there. Vadim succeeds here in getting details just right, such as a swanky jetset masquerade party out on the lawn of the ancient Karstein estate, with fireworks and the emotionally vacant Carmilla (Annette Stroyberg, i.e. Anette Vadim) wandering off to the family crypt on her brother's wedding night, her dress trailing off behind her, into a the tomb of her ancient (female) Karstein relative; heart beating like mad on the soundtrack...eyes widening in terror!! Ah... but then fadeout and in the next scene it's dawn and she's taking a long stroll across the estate back to the party, where the guests are just now leaving!


You just don't see people leaving parties at dawn in American movies, at least not very often (I can think of only a few offhand: Dazed and Confused, The Anniversary Party, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, The Warriors). Nowadays no one in the USA dares stay up all night, they have kids! They have jobs! They have to go to church, or the firing range. Besides, in the post-Goodfellas world, filmmakers seldom bother to hang around anyone place long enough to make it to the dawn, or maybe because of our ban on smoking and bad behavior American  just don't know what it's like to stay up that late anymore here, now, it's too transgressive for them, too outside the box ( NYC of course, never sleeps, but is an exception). In America we've even dubbed such a walking home at dawn journey 'the walk of  'shame,' as if we should be ashamed of living like a vampire lesbian in a Vadim film!

French Sex issue

The key thing with Vadim--both his power and his impotence as a director--is that the opaque glamor and complete lack of urgency or importance in his films is what the jet set languor is really all about. An easygoing member of Parisian cafe society, Vadim's films are notoriously inert, and it's clear why: he's just too satisfied. As I wrote in AJFM #5's Pimps: The Devil's Subjects: "You can't create tension if you've never been tense." Vadim's got no obsession because he already has or has had everything, including at least three of the most beautiful women who ever graced a movie screen (four if you count Annette, and you should). His amiable social butterfly nature has allowed him to enjoy life without excess drama. He was a Jew who had to hide from the Nazis, but it wasn't too bad (he hid in Switzerland, with the cows). It was just bad enough, it would seem, to lend him a steely courage in the face of beauty so overwhelming that ordinary men might faint. Not bad enough that he knows anything about crafting suspense, or narrative drive.


I don't think Americans are afraid of beauty and sex, we're afraid of losing our desire for beauty and sex, for what obsession can survive its fulfillment? If we gave into that awful moment of surrender, which (as T.S. Eliot notes) an age of prudence can never retract, we'd have nothing to get us out of bed in the morning, nothing to make us run to the airport at the very last minute to catch Drew Barrymore before her flight takes off, nothing to keep us buying DVDs and sublimating, nothing to bring us urgency. We'd in effect cease to be Americans. Everyone would tell us "you have a very European attitude." This is because America hinges on the command to enjoy, and the one essential commodity that can legally have no price tag is sex, and so it has us hypnotized. Yes, we may have sex in 'real life' but I'm talking mainly about real life mirrored in movies, wherein we go running after sex and dollars like the stumbling Jerry Lewis or, nowadays, the coveted nuclear family. Nowadays we've stopped prizing the Cary Grant and have lionized the Ralph Bellamy.


Americans don't like that the French like Jerry Lewis and that's perhaps the reason our rich wives drag us to the bourgeoisie 'naughty sex comedies at the Paris Theater, so that we can get cultured and distance ourselves from the Lewisness inside us. And though we're dreading all the subtitles or bad dubbing, Vadim whispers in our ear like a sly apache as we stand in the ticket line: "Don't worry, monsieur, the girl in this film... she is ...so beautiful."

Sometimes, beauty can not only be enough, it can drain the soul faster than any vampire ever could, and BLOOD AND ROSES is emblematic of this dissolute, drained, beauty-saturated ennui. While sleaze merchants around the world try to capture sex in an orgasmic blend of flesh and music, Vadim captures post-orgasmic depression, the feeling someone's siphoned off your precious... bodily fluids. 

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Some of this entry originally appeared in Acidemic Journal of Film and Media #6, August 2010 

Read my take on Vadim as a pimp alongside Sport in Taxi Driver and John Derek, here.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Isolde Beware: TRISTANA (1970) + Special Bonus: Erich in Park Slope (video)


A recent showing of Bunuel's rare TRISTANA (1970) as part of a Catherin Deneuve festival at the Brooklyn Academy of Music was a cause for celebration and concern. The film's lone surviving print looked great but was in Spanish with French subtitles, but BAM made some English ones and projected them separately, and there were no problems! And the show was sold out! I was amazed frankly, at those subtitles smoothness. Kudos to the BAM Deneuve fest crew!


As an old reprobate with a beard similar to Fernando Rey's, it was both diconcerting and disheartening for me to see his character, Don Lope's libertine philosophy come back to haunt him as he ages from a stern dueling fanatic into a wussy old penitent. Catherine Deneuve is his young ward the way Dick Grayson is Bruce Wayne's, make of it what you will, but know this: Batman is sworn to protect the innocent and Don Lope, for all is socialist leanings, is not.


Deneuve is marvelous in a role that requires her to grow an unknown amount of years and lose her leg to a tumor.  Franco Nero is her younger artist lover and he smolders passionately and winds up confused and tangled in the sick Lolita-like web like a Clare Quilty with no chameleonic ability, only foolish Spanish fly pride. The film has no music and is very formalist -- we get lots of fine Toledo architecture, and only a few flashes of Rey's severed head as the clapper inside the local church bell as far as surrealism.  Catholic guilt hangs over everything, but the highlight is just watching the way Deneuve gradually grows hard and cynical. She changes believably as a character, and the film really picks up right around the time it ends... too bad, suckers!


But hey, my voyage down to the BAM to see the film has been chronicled by my own ward, M. Wright. Come and join me on an edulaxing, incantlightful and deformative journey: