Friday, August 26, 2011
Pre-Code Capsules 8: THE NARROW CORNER, WEST OF BROADWAY, HEADLINE SHOOTER, THE CROWD ROARS, TOP SPEED
Directed by Alfred E. Green - ****
Finding this on TCM (part of Ralph Bellamy day) cemented the proof that 1933, not 1939, was the best year for movies. You never know what classic authors are going to age like wine, and which turn to vinegar, but the South Seas commonwealth parables of W. Somerset Maugham have become wine and THE NARROW CORNER is the good stuff you keep for yourself late at night after weird news shakes your soul. Why is it so forgotten compared to, say, the self-absorbed forgotten man badgering of THE PETRIFIED FOREST? Where Leslie's maudlin rambling smacked of self-pity, Maugham's dead-eyed stare into the riptide, where life is wrest from us as a berry from a branch by a half asleep Mexican gardener in the waves of the South Seas, is admirable, heroic, and damned hilarious! Cheers!
The archetypal drunken or drug-addicted doctor was a staple of pre-code films, thanks largely to Maugham, who was very popular in his day, and I can think of ten movies with such a character without half trying --including a variation in ISLAND OF LOST SOULS. Dudley Digges is the doctor here and he's very droll and self-effacing and clear-eyed in his into-the-void stares; he's the type of character who no longer exists --cinema's too busy fighting and blowing things up to ever have time to address mortality head-on.
There's also Henry Kolker as a mean old Swedish sea captain, who boasts to Arthur Hohl that he used to pilot slavers, and that he wants to gut his son-in-law ( Reginald Owen) with a scaling knife. Patricia Ellis is the hot daughter, who's engaged to good-hearted Bellamy and it all makes Fairbanks feel the heel, but you can't argue with the beautiful scenery and sense that once upon a time it really was possible to buy passage on a boat from Sydney Toler pre-Chan and run out on your past, and then go repeat it.
Dir. Harry Beaumont - **1/2
Here's a curio starring former-matinee idol John Gilbert, caught like a fly in the amber of the sound era: when he tries to sound manly and tough he just sounds hung over, speech halting awkwardly like he's sending a morse code S.O.S. in the spaces between the words of his dialogue, hoping his buddies off-camera will translate and rush... to his aid. In the early sound equipment days they were taught to take long pauses and say words... clearly.
But it's worth seeing for the brave way Gilbert captures the art of the shaky rebound. His character comes home from the war with four bullets in him, to find Ann (Madge Evans), his sweetheart off with some slime ball and his hired rebound girl Dot (Lois Moran) merely a bit 'pretty in a trashy sort of way.' "Dot the I and cross the Ann," he says, while introducing them to each other at the swanky nightclub. "Double cross."
And it's worth it for the sly way the waiter says "your package sir," and slips Gilbert a fifth wrapped in a white towel, low under the table at the club, so the prohibition cops don't see it. We here in America don't have a scene like that anymore: we do our drugs at home, except for crack. The crack den is our modern speakeasy but the class of people you meet is so much less sparkling, wouldn't you say? Hmmm?
And it's worth seeing for the sleazy, no holds-barred details of life as a hired girl who's brave enough to refuse Gilbert's hand-out (her and her girlfriend owe ten days' back rent), even as she notes of Gilbert's party there were "hands all over me." as she gropes herself in a resigned way.
And Gilbert's a good enough actor to use his personal desperation in a scene: you can feel his desperate stiff upper lip trembling as he finds out Ann's moved on. She could be standing for his entire female silent film fan base, which was once substantial and just as suddenly nonexistent. Like Barrymore's drunken has-been in DINNER AT EIGHT, there's a feeling of being outdated and too drunk to care, and seeing the only way to go is to get drunker and plunge into the void like a cock-eyed W. Somerset Maughm kamikaze. All else is vanity.
Also, Gilbert's shakes are incredible. The morning after he marries the hired girl, he's got the Saint Vitus dance. And for her part it's great when she gets all furious, racistly barking at the Chinese cook, or settling down into a chair to shoot the shit about Jerry with his high class friends who come calling. And when he tries to quit drinking the cowboys are singing outside and suddenly you tap into RIO BRAVO's scene where Dean Martin almost takes a shot of whiskey while the Mariachi death song plays down the street from the jail. Moran is a little firecracker but her pal is no Joan Blondell, and when we see Gilbert ponder whether or not to keep her after their marriage's been annulled you may tap into that ambivalence Frank Sinatra had with Shirley MacLaine in SOME CAME RUNNING. But Gilbert, he was almost all the way tapped out, and it shows. Those shakes are something else.
dir. Otto Brauer - ***
Frances Dee is a swell little half-pint, nearly a decade away from becoming the woman we all fell in love with in I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE (1942). How can any girl ever make sobriety sexy? Dee can. She exhibits some serious chemistry with the main, taller star of this 1933 'press corp.' action-comedy, the briefly beloved Will Gargan as a newsreel cameraman. Lee Tracy is relegated to wingman and wryly notes: "They want you to chase 'em, and once you catch 'em they hang on ya like a ton of bricks." Then he gets crushed by a ton of actual bricks while filming a warehouse fire. Ralph Bellamy is again the jilted fiancee who's really a swell guy hoping to lure Dee home, where the heart is.
This is an early example of tough-ass Warner Brothers action, with an obligatory climactic gangster shoot-out and a quite a few real-time floods, fires, and even some 'collateral value' shots lensed during the Santa Monica earthquake. It's startling how at ease the actors are around these real-time calamities, with reporter Dee offering comfort to shaken witnesses as she makes sure to get the signature on the release statement, showing that solid mix of sexy warmth and maternal compassion that would in 10 years make zombies walk with her through whispering cane fields of admiration.
dir. Howard Hawks - ***
The cars are game and Cagney's explosive, but it's kind of tough to care because he's also such a shit to his women. I know how it is from being in a band: the self-disgust side effect of being adored by people who don't know you; you come to hate them the way Dean Martin hates his girl in SOME CAME RUNNING, or Clark Gable hates Jean Harlow in RED DUST, or Cagney hates Mae Clarke in PUBLIC ENEMY.
He flips; he leaves. Ann Dvorak chases him down to the Indy 500, and we get some great scenes of Cagney asking for jobs and being turned down by various outfits, because he's lost his nerve. Lost his nerve? Cagney? A laconic, very interesting parade of Hawks-types has to say no to him, and it's here more than anywhere else you can feel the Hawksian touch in its infancy, and when Cagney finally tells Ann about the crash and the smell of McHugh's burning corpse, he cracks up in her arms, from then on it's racing with style and you know it's not just Cagney's macho racer that has to learn women are ten times wiser than men, it's Hawks too. And he does, and maybe Dvorak and Blondell are the ones that taught him, like they teach Cagney. Maybe? Maybe nothin'!
dir. Mervyn Leroy - ***
An early sound comedy-musical (with most of the music numbers cut) starring the rubber-mouthed comedian (willing to 'adopt some' with Jack Lemmon in SOME LIKE IT HOT), and a daring chronicle of the years before the Depression, a last gasp of college letters and class resentment, all this, and more, is TOP SPEED. The passing era of sexual repression lingers lines like, "I'm so modest I won't allow lamb chops on the table, unless they have those paper pants on." Both suggestively lewd and comically moralist, the film sums up the only sane response to the draconian, near fundamentalist level of sexual repression endured under the watchful eye of hotel detectives, chaperones, and social reform-minded wives. Herein we also learn the origins of now forgotten phrases like "over a barrel" (it's a protean kind of CPR) and "counting sheep" (apparently it was a big fad like Atkins is today, and Brown explains it complete with hand gestures). And since 1930 was such a ' scandalous' time, well, it was very easy to be scandalous. Just being caught in a hotel room with a woman not your wife could earn you a public flogging, and from thence we get those boudoir comedies of sneaking around fire escapes in one's underwear, hiding under beds while the house dick peers through the doorcrack. It's hard to get that kind of naughty steam going in our more permissive age, but here's a world where men can't show their torsos on the beach and have to wear full body swim suits (arms are allowed to be bare via a t-top.) It explains a lot... about Saudi Arabia today.
Wednesday, August 24, 2011
Spousal abuse is so demonized these days that not a single redeeming characteristic is allowed to remain in our violent men of drama. Gone are the magnetic brutes like Stanley Kowalski, gone deep but abusive artists like Dix Steele in IN A LONELY PLACE (1950). It's not surprising then that we're unprepared for how hard it has become to adapt to these characters and their sudden brutal displays. We've become accustomed to not having to think about violent men in any way other than as cardboard action targets, as objects first for derision, then hate, then vengeance, and lastly more derision. No more can they seem sexy, or have good qualities.
But Bogart is Bogart, he could play a serial killer and we'd have to like him, and since he's playing a famous Hollywood screenwriter his tantrums and blinding rage white-outs (1) go unchecked save for police intervention which his studio then works to keep out of the papers. This is the kind of guy you should just get away from, the minute you meet him, but can't since he's famous, witty and charming in a bleak sort of way --he's Bogart! He's inescapable. His fist has a gravitic drag. Thus a brute is allowed to stay brutish as a side effect of his Hollywood success, when he should be in jail, or the ring: "I've had hundreds of fights," he says to Gloria Grahame as his concerned neighbor, as if that's some sort of mark of the martyr, some mark of courage. Many other successful men in Hollywood must go through their whole adult life without throwing a real punch, especially with the proximity of lawyers never in doubt.
While Bogart looms like an electric golem gone to gray suits, Grahame flexes her beautiful face into a Hollywood glamor death mask as she tosses and turns in bed, worrying that she's sleeping with a raging egotist who could fly into a homicidal rage over the slightest thing she does wrong; this keeps her awake and she starts taking pills to sleep. He might not like that, so she worries more: "This one's not going to let you go that easy," snaps her masseuse, who it is implied has given her more than one happy ending over the years. Grahame's sad eyes show that for all his violence and bossiness, Dix is the last non-loser she's likely to run into before her happiness clock expires. But he's worse than a loser, he's a thug with an expensive tux and a case of the eternal shakes.
Bogart doesn't even allow us the comfort of falling back on his Bogart charm. Instead he lets himself get creepy, and his dark self-effacing wit seems strained. The Bogie we know is too sharp not to know when those around him are turned off, but Dix has no clue. Bogart is brave enough to show the angles by which even his actorly charisma can be exposed as vain antipathy. Even Dix's "A simple yes or no will do very well" proposal of marriage comes off like a threat. He sees marriage as providing any lady her luckiest break (or fracture) like signing a deal with a confused white tiger, or an arm-rending chimp, temporarily cute and calm but... really, the rest of your life with this thing? The only way out is to cultivate a penchant for servile masochism. As if to illustrate, Dix's battered agent exclaims to Gloria in the least coded of gay double entendres: "He's Dix Steel, and if you want him you've got to take it all" Rationalizing the hurt, he notes: "People like him can afford to be temperamental."
PS - any respecting woman would have left Dix the moment he first snapped, just as Krasner should have left Pollock when he made his first embarrassing scene at the dinner table. But such are those few unlucky moths that are so blind enough they can only see the most brilliant light, the light of charismatic madness, and so become stuck on the bulb of an ego that has swollen mercilessly with the pumping eternal handshake current of exploding pockets and the bloody war-like business of making pictures.
I'll admit the first few times watching IN A LONELY PLACE I got a headache, partially from the unpleasant frisson of seeing Bogart so messed up, but mainly from all those ringing phones! The road to Hollywood heaven must be paved with nonstop telephone calls. I guess in L.A. they are like music. The best phone calls I ever had were from a girl in L.A. They went on for hours, for days! It's the very breathing of the biz, and you can tell Dix's never stops ringing. Ding Dong, indeed, the dead witches are in the making. The infernal bells are enough to drive anyone mad.
Director Nicholas Ray loved his insane abusive geniuses, and the link between Dixon and James Mason's tyrannical father in BIGGER THAN LIFE is clear: Hollywood is (or was) the place where white rage fights, shooting, drugs and casual sex are wantonly indulged in, thought about, and depicted for the enjoyment of the world. Certainly Ray indulged in these things, but his love makes him different than the poseurs of violence and despair. His forgiveness of his fucked up protags is his way, perhaps, of trying to forgive his own trespasses. Like Sal Mineo's tortured puppy killer in REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE, or Mason's most unsexy madness in BIGGER THAN LIFE, Bogart's illness has a groovy poetry. Both BIGGER and IN A LONELY PLACE show a man who thinks you are watching a different movie than one he's in, and that you are swooning at his brilliance and fearless spending instead of cringing in embarrassment.
Perhaps only natural bullies can make it in Hollywood, can climb the chain of intimidation. Or maybe all these are just excuses. Of course it would be damn nerve-wracking living with someone so violent, but Bogart was always a little menacing anyway, that's what gave his heroes their punch, the sudden eruptions, the "that means one of you is gonna get a beating for nothing!" climax of TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT, or that cruel mirth in his eyes when he knocks out Joel Cairo in MALTESE FALCON.
In other words, Bogart seen after IN A LONELY PLACE is a monster no matter who he's playing. He's a Universal horror monster figure who escaped to Warner's to be a gangster and then fought his way up to stardom and romantic protagonists. He and his first wife were known as "the battling Bogarts." This was never a man to fuck with. Such a man is maybe too quick to violence even in WW2 approved locales, but Ray is able to locate the monster underneath all the heroism and the hero underneath the monster. Once the war is over and there's no one left to legally kill, the monster in the Bogart persona starts to crack through the detective/war hero/romantic lead mask, right along the crow's feet, and the Frankenstein monster starts trying to reach out to crush someone.
The fourth time through PLACE, gone was my headache over the phones, and to the floor was my jaw at the sheer intense brilliance of Bogart's slow burns and sudden lashings. When something doesn't go his way, the anger begins, and then every attempt to quiet him is regarded through progressively more paranoid eyes. In the end the murder mystery is solved and yet Dix has almost started a whole new one. Dix's ego is such that he shouldn't be allowed to be in a movie. Nicholas Ray never gives up on any character, even when they're so foul we recoil in shock that we're seeing them at all, let alone as protagonists. His love for dangerous maniacs is contagious; their lives are his downfall, and our redemption.
NOTES: 1. I had a rage white-out once, and I can tell you it's exactly what it sounds like - you literally go blind; a kind of dissolving white noise signal clouds your vision, and you start lumbering towards your prey like a drunk Frankenstein.
Sunday, August 21, 2011
LIMITLESS, or AMERICAN PSYCHO-PHARMACOLOGICAL, is about that drug so popular amongst investment bankers, Adderall, disguised as a wonder pill that turns its taker into a super genius, based on the idea that we only use 10% of our brains, so what if we could use all of it? And have total recall of even the most mundane moments in memory? Such is the gift of the magic pill, which then our hero sleepy sad sack novelist Bradley Cooper gets hooked on and needs more of, and so do a lot of other (bad) people. The chase is on and the hangovers begin, paranoia steps up, loose ends are tied behind people's backs, and sheer stupidity rears its head.
The problem here is that Bradley Cooper and the filmmakers are afraid to go full AMERICAN PSYCHO, so a hinted at black-out murder is just a plotline dropped in time for the big climax of battling the usual baldheads. So instead of some bitter downward spiral wherein Cooper -- who plays a self-absorbed novelist initially too stupid to take an offered pill from his ex-brother-in-law--goes insane, we have him become a Tom Cruise-style action star. Once he does make the grade, so far so good, but on his big day presenting his portfolio to Robert De Niro's power-talking tycoon, he decides not to take a pill, like dumbass, so he's sick from withdrawal, and almost throws up on De Niro's thousand dollar loafers. Turns out he has a stash of pills at his girlfriend's house, but of course never dreams of getting it, because that would be too easy. Instead she (Abbie Cornish) has to get it, on her lunch hour, while he shivers like a crackhead in her office.
Trust me, no addict is that unprepared.
Don't doubt that I personally am similar and as we say in AA, had a lot of identification with Cooper's rise and fall. I was once a horribly blocked writer, tortured with longing, until my shrink put me on Effexor, and now I'm super-human on the keypad, writing so damn much my fingers fall off, smoking Camel Lights and guzzling diet coke and staying otherwise sober, for the kids, but always riding that low throbbing train of chemically-enhanced motivation and focus. Drugs have been overcoming writer's block since the dawn of pencils, of course, but that's not Bradley's problem. What sinks him and what is most unbelievable is that his girlfriend could be so dismayed that his newfound confidence isn't 'real,' since it was boosted by a substance. Listen lady, substances are the core of existence! We wouldn't even have civilization if not for coffee. We'd still be asleep, and cranky, in our thatched huts, hoping and dreaming that someone else will bring us some breakfast. But Cooper's refusal to remember he has pills around until it's time to try to take them to fight Russians is just not believable.
Imagine Popeye spending hours trying to open a can of spinach, his hands shaking, finally needing Olive to do it while he stammers through his teeth, an empty pipe in the corner of his clenched mouth. Not good. Popeye needs an open can ever at the ready, and so he has it. Has Bradley ever tried spinach? From a can? No, too cool for that; his spinach is fresh from Balducci's - all he needs is a little pill, and he's such a genius he can't even remember he's dead in the water without one.
I won't give away the ending, but I will tell you its needlessly happy, a validation of Hollywood's fetish for solipsism's comely victims. What the story cries out for is a finale reflecting the terrifying loss of control and sanity that comes from tampering too long with your brain chem--as in the endings of, say, AMERICAN PSYCHO (2000, top, bottom), where the feeling is one of both return/victory and of a trap snapping shut all around you that you are powerless to prevent. In the vapid clutches of deb Reese Weatherspoon, Bale comes to the realization that he has absolutely no idea if he's been dreaming or actually living all his murders. Instead of that kind of ambiguity, LIMITLESS bears out the creepy douche bag feeling you hanging out an AA meeting with financial market people (in AA you know these meetings, they're on the Upper East Side) that think they deserve humanity's gratitude and admiration for making themselves hugely rich. Why doesn't our super-enlightened Bradley figure out a cure for AIDS, or how to levitate, or remote view alien worlds, or make some draconian decision to wipe out half the population in a plague he's designed, carefully by hand, in order to make the world less crowded, ala LATHE OF HEAVEN? No, he goes for politics, and the position of state senator. What a tool.
In the end, this drug just kind of turns you into Tom Cruise, and for the Los Angeles power worshippers, assertive narcissism and total fearless confidence is everything. We love that trait like we love gangster movies, or mad scientists, or Hannibal Lecter, but you can't have your face and eat it too; you can't expect that Bradley alone is rising in the ranks in the realm of pill abuse. Where are all the others struggling for their angry fix? In reality, pills like this come along all the time, but trouble is, everyone finds out about them and within a year taking it doesn't give you a leg up on the competition so much as barely keep you in it.
Fact is, Cooper's character seems pretty stupid to begin with, but he loves his drugs and we're supposed to be in awe of him irregardless of Abbie Cornish's disappointment. In the end we come away angry at our own trapped potential, but there's a reason we shuttered the upper rooms of our brain mansion: there be monsters locked away up thar. Tread lightly, and bring a good therapist, and a sword, or suffer the consequences. Unless, of course, you're Bradley Cooper, for not even the darkest demon can compete with the gravitic drag of such black hole vanity.
Thursday, August 18, 2011
As part of the Richard Kelly blogathon on Exodus 8.2 I'm revising and re-posting my initial fractured skewed take on SOUTHLAND TALES which is heavily influenced by Steven Shaviro's highly recommended book, Post Cinematic Affect
"It is the business of the future to be dangerous."
----Alfred N. Whitehead (1925)
"Scientists are saying the future is going to be far more
futuristic than they originally predicted."
--- Krista Now (Sara Michell Gellar), Southland Tales
"Can you prove it didn't happen?"
-- Criswell, Plan 9 From Outer Space
After the cult explosion around Kelly's big debut, DONNIE DARKO, it was inevitable his follow-up would be needlessly obtuse. With a bit of post-modern affect discussion under your belt, or on a double feature with BOARDING GATE however, it might tighten up. Might not. There is an annoying buzz of self-indulgent confidence at work in the film which you'd never find in the much more serious Assayas. He would never share the naivete that since one film of his is a cult item, the next one will be too, and in presuming its weirdness will find a cult it's right there with BUCKAROO BANZAI as far as 'another think coming'. With its ceaseless frisson and funky breaks meant to dazzle fans of a certain age but it's a film made up of dead hypertext links and little text. At least BUCKAROO had Peter Weller's taciturn deadpan perfection to carry it along. The closest SOUTHLAND gets is The Rock, and though he makes some brave choices (Bob Hope-style faux cowardice), Rock's no Weller. Can you imagine the Rock as Bill Burroughs?
Kelly's presumption that we'll watch SOUTHLAND over and over and compare obscure references and symbolic meaning on the internet comes from an understandable-for-the-young miasma about changing viewing habits and--interestingly enough since Assayas is French but not Kelly and only Europeans (and South Americans) love their auteurs unconditionally--that newer generations of internet kids will think he's cutting edge if he just explores their virtual worlds. But the Darko days movie watching was limited to cable and DVD and midnight screenings. There were no youtubes and Netflixes the type of things that make just watching one film one time a daunting improbability for newer generations. When BUCKAROO came out we didn't think it was great but we still taped it off cable and watched it 100 times, because it wasn't bad. Do you want to know why DONNIE DARKO was such a hit, and screened at midnight showings for years in my old East Village neighborhood? Because chicks loved the doomed, moody romance and Jake G's stoner stare; his battles with schizophrenia mirrored their own issues with existential expressions like cutting, anorexia, drugs, and (at least based on the girls I knew, at the time), grudge sex. It was a hand into their darkness, a friend who knew the score and who had great eyelashes. And it was lyrical and poetic without being close to corny; it was there for you. And since girls went, guys went right after them. You could go to the midnight show in your pajamas and no one would bat an eye, or a ball, very far. In other words, it was a date movie for the midnight hipster set. They could go after hooking up, meet back up with their friends, and then not have to see each other on the way out.
|"Quantum teleportation, teen horniness, and war."|
DARKO was about the apocalypse immolation of the individual but SOUTHLAND presumes there is no individual to sacrifice, no time left to travel anywhere but across a single moment. DARKO was elliptical but had momentum. SOUTHLAND has only the stasis of 2-D checkerboard movement, like the way time slows and matter mirror shatters close to the black hole of ground and time zero which is fine for me, but boys are more pro-apocalypse than girls, which is another reason this film didn't connect with them. The nonstop parade of documentaries about 2012, Nostradamus, and the Ice Age on Discovery and the History Channel proves what Kelly's SOUTHLAND TALES hints at: some of us, self included, are excited for the apocalypse. It's a chance to stop receiving paper bank statements in a whole new way. I'd even argue that we're apocalypse-dependent, some of us. Without the fantasy of a global reset button, we'd be stuck with the guilt, hangover, and debt of seven generations. Aren't you always tempted to just blow up the house rather than have to clean up your messes or look that crying Indian in his eye?
In the new century, if we heard the world was gonna end 'exactly' five hundred years from now, would we care? The game of it all becomes what the Buddha calls "joyful participation in the sorrows of the world. When the world finally adapts that marvelous strategy, owning up to amnesia is the same as pressing the button because even Def-Con 5 needs love.
Even the bad guys who monitor everything from afar in SOUTHLAND are secretly enthralled by the notion of the end, and are all rebelling from one program or another to ensure that end arrives. Good guys and bad all want the same thing in an age when amnesia is inducible via an easily acquired drug. Anyone can be abducted and turned loose without being able to identify one's abductees. The Rock (Boxer Santeros), starts the film with amnesia and the first thing his wife (Mandy Moore) notes when seeing him--as if it was the reek of stale booze and cigarettes or stale perfume on his collar-is that he'd been kidnapped and mind-erased. He denies his amnesia on instinct as if its something to be ashamed of. It's a weird choice, but if you've ever come home from a party with a mind full of weird drugs you promised your ball-and-chain you wouldn't do, and can barely remember doing, then you'll know the feeling.
What Kelly also understands is the nature of drugs and the weird habit alcoholics and drug addicts have of watching the same movie over and over again because... I forget why. They're too wasted to change the channel? Or dredge up another DVD? Or for that matter, the endless repeat seasons of reality TV shows, where our knowledge of what is going to happen, who will win, who will die, is granted us like benign rulers, or our own inner Pilot Abilenes. Revelation 6.8 and behold a pale horse and the name that sat on it was repeat business; if you've ever edited footage on Final Cut until it loses all meaning... or if you've ever conducted experiments on soldiers or sniffed paint fumes from a spray can, or had amnesia, then you know what I mean, and if you're happy and you know it, hit the squib, and act shocked when you die. Snivel as you swivel your electric high chair, so the Dead End Kids won't want to start no trouble in the rubble. Just leave them a DVD of SOUTHLAND TALES, and they'll think you were one muthufuggin' lost-ass generation. Weren't you, Perfect Tommy?
Wednesday, August 17, 2011
"I've spent years inflating the balloon that is Welles. Please do not puncture it."
- Orson Welles (to Mary Livingston on The Jack Benny Show)
Orson Welles has his hair and beard like a rolling Van Gogh storm cloud for MR ARKADIN (1955), recently screened on TCM and at least trippy enough with its mismatched sound rhythms that you can feel Orson Welles playing around all through post-production, having a high old time. It's too bad it's couched in a luxuriant 3-DVD + novel set on Criterion and not floating in on the late late night UHF movie after PLAN NINE or THE CREEPING TERROR, because its Brecht/Godardian deconstruction is all in your face from the get go, it begs to be reconsidered as a Monogram horror film that's gone off the rails and run off to Europe, rather than 'Art.'
The cheap budget means most of the action is just discussed rather than seen, in rooms where people lurch about as if in the stateroom of a heaving yacht, or drink champagne or method act in waves and the plot also circles around like a bizarre combination of two old radio shows playing at once in perfect synchronicity and the connections with narcotics, Nazi money laundering, captain of industry psychedelia, and the feeling that maybe poor Orson's just been masking his lonesome all along, as the past comes catching up with him; you can smell the wine and cigar smoke and gentle Ibiza perfume and suntan lotion and ghost laughter of passing mistresses; whiskey spills along the strips of celluloid; snatches of great dialogue that seems to be a kind of journal of witty things Welles has said and heard in his European exile.
Do you remember me?
No. I can never remember a pretty woman, it's so expensive!
Like internet dating, this film is the story of trying to unmask someone while keeping your own mask on, trying to open up a dangerous candy egg as it in turn is trying opening you, for you are also a candy egg. Inside the normal, competent, witty candy shell could be anything, from a saintly cream to the bitter pills of maniac psycho yawning void with sharp can opener fingers or more of the same candy shell, waiting to leak out into your mouth, venomously or no. The girl who came off so polished and nice becomes bossy and mirthless as the night moves on and you struggle to make sobriety appear effortless while a churlish demon sulks within your egg, scratching at your insides like they were his dream journal until your tongue slips and reveals a screaming multitude of convicted hellions writhing (and writing) below your smooth surface.
It takes a great director to tap into that hellish core energy but an even greater to tap in a whole layer further to find the black comic heart of that inner core, for evil too has an inner yolk, a deep, well-earned sense of wit and good humor. Such a yolk is Welles, who rules in the Hell of his own continental editing suite rather than serve in Hollywood's jazz heaven.
To get back to the internet date analogy, consider the date is a success and they are married and even then, for a few months, the candy shells are undamaged by the demon yolks within. But now the stress of daily grind, of each others' messes have made hairline fractures and the yolk demons have figured out how to short wave radio to each other with special code words that crack shells like high pitched arias. This fighting is the great expression of love between demons. It is something foreign, alas, to someone like Welles, a towering genius who preferred women at a distance, to be loomed over as they cringe with their jigsaw puzzles, or lurch drunkenly around tilting pleasure yachts (MR ARKADIN); or to be seen only in passing, in the shadows of sharks ala LADY FROM SHANGHAI. But this evasion tactic will not stall them forever. Rather than show his true core demon to his daughter (played by his much younger fiancee at the time) Arkadin, so it turns out, would prefer to just disappear into the ether.
So a 'towering' genius like Welles must inevitable embrace loneliness like he embraces alcohol, tobacco, and hashish, and all other eggshell removers, until the last vestige of phony candy shell is gone, and the whole social sphere wherein friends bring friends over who bring people who amused them on the boat now seem dull and inane... but hey, maybe Orson will put you in his film. He's been working on it for years! He'd rather be alone with that film than and an editing scissors and dubbing mic than at a party or in bed with a gorgeous blonde. In proto-nouvelle vague fashion there's the sense that while you're watching an ARKADIN scene, Welles is giving you his notes on it, fusing his commentary track half a century early into the essence of the dialogue, overdubbed by himself for nearly every male character. You get the sense meanwhile that the female actresses could be dubbed by whomever wakes up first in Welles' chateau, before whiskey and sycophants render her incoherent and him indulged and besmitten by self adoration's shiny but worthless baubles.
Note that Welles has never made a movie about an actor or artist struggling with their art, tending rather towards murderers, rogues, and captains of industry (Arkadin is all three). Not for him the sanctimonious glum piety of something like QUILLS, which mistakes the addiction of writing flagellant smut for a holy purpose; or the classical polish of actors like Laurence Olivier and Patrick Stewart, who mistake Shakespeare for great art as opposed to merely the pinnacle of charlatanism. Welles made a career laughing at his own absurdity, especially as a guest on radio shows like Jack Benny and Fred Allen, but he always preferred to play the devil rather than the angel, and the one time he wasn't the heavy--in LADY FROM SHANGHAI--he showed why he wasn't much good at it. He couldn't even make eye contact with his own ex-wife, turning away to pontificate in his high whispered Irish brogue while Mr. Bernstein ran away with the best role, the one clearly meant for Welles to play, the loathsome ogre lawyer showman.
To Welles, and to Don Birnim, and to Ben in LEAVING LAS VEGAS, and to myself of course, whiskey is a far more noble addiction than writing. We'd rather be remembered as being able to hold our liquor rather than holding a Pulitzer. Drinking leaves only empty bottles, and maybe broken glass, while writing leaves ugly thoughts that can gestate for centuries until your original meaning has been torn out and the zombie husk of your words used to champion any old egg-crushing cause.
Or worse, it can forgotten altogether.
I know from my own work that how seductive it is when you're the star and love to edit and look at yourself on screen. There's something quite magical about it, the chance to study how you look to other people, frame by frame. Welles never lived long enough to see the age of affordable digital video, and I wish he'd made a dozen Arkadin sequels instead of making just one three times. Such is the life of a vagabond obsessive. Indecisive reigns, but at least glum sanctimony has been kicked out the window. He makes any other egotistical tyrant genius look shabby by comparison, and he makes himself perhaps shabbiest and most tyrannical of all.That is why we love him: he's cinema's one true prodigal, and his own best company.
Friday, August 12, 2011
Fritz Lang films can move like molasses at times, but this silent two-part event is never dull with the random counterpoint of your ipod. If you trust in the process you're bound to get at least a few songs worth of real, eerie synchro-connect through this random collage process. I had the theme from John Carpenter's Escape from New York: Main Theme start right as the action shifted to a big night club where a crazy woman was dancing on top of two giant wooden noses. It became Lynchian, this Lang-Carpenter synthesis, like two rights canceling each other out and leaving only 'Silencio'. Meanwhile hypnosis and staring eyes and disguises pervade the film - paranoia and shiftiness, the mad rush to get rich obscuring all instincts for self-preservation. You know how those Germans were, and how we are... driving over a cliff as we argue over whether or not seat belts are important.
The big day trader moment comes early: Mabuse's agent looming like a spectre over the Berlin stock exchange, kidnapping briefcases to drive stocks down and then releasing them to drive them back up. The timeliness is never far off, but now, more than ever, it's hauntingly relevant. America's credit rating has plummeted! Mein Gott! We're not far off from that Expressionist moment of post-WW1 Weimar Berlin when the mark was devalued and Americans went over to celebrate how far their dollar could get them thus birthing the era of Weimar decadence. Don't forget that the Great Depression was years way, partying was in high effect and blonde prostitutes cheaper by the dozen.
The recent bouncing of our national worth along the stock exchanges of the world has a lot to do, in my opinion, with the day traders who think they're actually doing something important with their lives by their slot machine-like hunkering over the E*Trade accounts, guys who wear khakis and high five a lot, so their beer ads claim. They must still be out there, but they're not the true Mabuses. They got took by the master behind the scenes, the sneaky pete conservatives who deliberately shorted the market for their own sinister agenda. They sold out their own country in a lemming stampede. The less self awareness they have, the easier they are fleeced, according to Mabuse's supernatural theology. It's in clinging to the illusion that you are normal, a 'regular guy' that you befoul the world by funneling the treasure you never knew you had into the pockets of criminal cartels.
Mabuse would return under Lang in 1932 with TESTAMENT OF DR. MABUSE, albeit confined to a mental ward and using his fierce Teutonic will alone to control sabotage. Like The Gambler, the film mirrors its dire political present very well -- Hitler wrote Mein Kampf in jail, after all, and European nations grossly misunderstood Germany's ability to sneak around the post-WW1 economic and military constrictions.
Lang hated the common man as much as anyone and you can see him siding with the sinister cash-hungry Mabuse during this stock sequence. You could probably stop watching, for awhile, right after the poker game that follows (scored by my ipod to Jacques Brel and Serge Gainsbourg's La Chanson de Prevert) as I did, and then watch again later, in 20 minute chapters of your ipod's choosing, but even as strictly a random collage of great expressionist images Mabuse is awesome. Weimar evil had seldom looked so inviting, so artsy, so terrifyingly expressionist, and Lang never seemed to be having as much fun as he is here, venting cobra venom with the mechanical cool of a cuckoo stock ticker.
Thanks to Lolita Kane's awesome blog post.