Thursday, May 31, 2012

CinemArchetype 15: The Animal Familiar

"Animals emanate the breath of our lives by showing us certain qualities and behaviors that we should emulate somewhere in our daily lives. Our kinship with them teaches many things such as patience, endurance and the balance of our male/female aspect or sometimes called yin/yang energy or polarities. Subsequently, Carl Jung's concept of male/female in the "collective unconscious" concept is animus/anima respectively. Is it through the archetypal energy that we are able to communicate with this collective unconscious a gateway to our true selves. Animal wisdom emits these fundamental truths if we are willing to learn and understand their language. As humans we can learn and remember our connection to animals and the knowledge that inextricable links us with them. Nature is an amazing teacher that breathes new life into our spirit."- Finding your Animal Totem
1. Toto -The Wizard of Oz (1939)
The impetus and guidance for her success, is sparked by her devotion to Toto—or her strong instinctive responses to life’s circumstances. She protects Toto on two occasions and then he protects her. He plays a crucial part in each stage of Dorothy’s quest. Like Dorothy, he is small and fearful, but he insists on asserting himself. As a non-verbal animal he stands for her uncivilized part of herself who exposes the illusions and vulnerabilities of the coercive authority and propels the conforming child into adventures and actions that her social conscious would not consider or approve.

On page 91, in the book, "Mere Creatures, A Study of Modern Fantasy Tales for Children," Elliott Gose gives a comment from Max Luthi, “Man is in contact with nature, which accepts his assistance and in turn comes to his aid. But like Toto, the helping animal can also embody unconscious forces within.” He continues to say, “Helpful animals are ‘symbolic figures’ that embody and represent the instinctive forces of our nature, as distinguished from the higher human qualities of intellect, reason and power."" - Jeanne House, Wizard of Oz and the Path to Enlightenment

2. Pieawacket - Bell, Book and Candle (1958)

Their weird chemistry worked in their previous film, Vertigo, because Stewart was allowed to be kind of a creep, more in love with her ghost image than with the plain real girl behind it, and the tragedy came when Novak effectually spread herself between so thin between two images, neither of them her true character, that she almost became herself and thus had to die. But here in Bell, Book and Candle the chemistry flops under Stewart's grandpa-style American decency. A May December only works when the December is in some ways more liberated and decadent, immature, or 'younger' in at least some way or other, then than the May. And when Novak tries to tell him about her witchy ways Stewart proves he's none of those things by acting as condescending and dismissive as the Catholic stand-in villains in The Golden Compass. 



Still, the scene with Piewacket and Novak busting their magic spell on Stewart is one of the key hottest witch moments in all the world of cinema. Piewacket ends up bailing on her when she loses her powers, for love, ugh, who wouldn't? It's so forced, like a pre-arranged marriage orchestrated by a studio with an eye on Jimmy's box office clout estate. Piewacket's final gesture of humanity, if you'll forgive the expression, is to climb up to Stewart's office window and thus force Stewart to return him to Novak's shop. What a pal, even though she's all virginal in white and as boring as a mousy Cinderella....
"The term familiar in witch craft is some kind of animal, more often then not a cat because cats naturally live between worlds. Have you ever noticed a cat that seems to be mesmerized by something that YOU cannot see? Odds are likely that cat is seeing something that you can't. They are in tune with the Other-world. Throughout history cats have been suspected of living half in this world and half in the Other. Shifting between the two worlds to maintain elusiveness and power. A familiar for a witch, like Gillian in the film Bell Book and Candle, acts as an extension of power. Gillian's power embodied in animal form. The familiar can be assigned tasks to complete for the owner which in the film Pyewacket performs plenty. He is the most magical being in the film." - Hubpages
3. The Daemons of The Golden Compass (2007)
Everyone in this alternate reality has a familiar, and it's awesome. I dug this semi-ignored fantasy film and was pissed to learn there won't be a sequel. My guess? It stars a truly badass young woman (Dakota Blue Richards) named Lyra, with boys always in need of rescue instead of vice versa. Maybe in the sequel they could cut let the boys take all the glory? (Read the writer-director Chris Weitz's understandably peeved reaction here).

Co-star (he's got the Han Solo role) Sam Elliot (his familiar is a jackrabbit) blames the Catholic church who rained their sanctimonious venom on this film thus proving the film's anti-Catholic point more succinctly than the film itself ever could. I dug it myself, it imitates the feeling of reading the Narnia books as a kid better than the actual Narnia movies.  She slaps adults around, has a whiskey-slurping polar bear in her corner, and handles borderline Dickensian oppression with aplomb and rains fire over doughy doe-eyed softies like Harry Potter or Frodo. And the notion that the bad guys want to cut the power animal daemons from their children to help them grow up' is all to apropo of circumcision, Sunday school and Dr. Moreau exclaiming "this time I'll burn all the animal out of her!"

4. Johnny Cash (voice) - Space Coyote - The Simpsons - "La Viaje Mysterioso de Homer"
Could there be a better choice for a spirit animal voice than Cash's, wherein lightness shines over intense heaviness like an angel in 20 pound steel-tipped boots wading through the mud? Back in the late 90s when this episode came out it simply couldn't have been more timely. "Let 'em go Ralph, he knoows what he's doin'" - entered my ecstasy-popping clique's lexicon, especially as it reflected our favorite quote from the Poseidon Adventure, when Chico and the Man's Jack Albertson after Shelly Winters dives through the flooded porthole, "Let her go, she knooows what she's doing!" We lived by that code, my loungecore hussy posse and I, and now they're all dead or in advertising... or like me, which is worse, Space Coyote.

5.  Skippy as Asta - The Awful Truth, The Thin Man, Bringing up Baby
A good dog can make or break a film, and a relationship. When Cary Grant comes around for visiting rights over Mr. Smith (Skippy, "the pooch") we only partly think it's an excuse to visit Irene Dunne. A lot of us think it's really to see Mr. Smith. After all, a lot of us have perhaps stayed in a relationship because we like her cat, or his dog, or vice versa. It takes a special animal to have this power to 'complete' relationships sometimes. While cats and dogs elsewhere in this list are specific to one person, in Skippy's case the gift for being the magical talisman / familiar of couples is completely unique. So salute, Skippy.

6. Andy Serkis as King Kong (2005)

Kong was more of a dark animus/shadow to western civilization in the original, but in Jackson's lush remake he's clearly a besmitten familiar for Naomi Watts, his size and might granting her huge power and bringing her frail depression soul to life through his selfless service in the field of jungle navigation and T. Rex wrestling. His demise is therefore even more tragic than in the original. Too bad Jackson chooses to infuse the proceedings with egregious kiddie comedy in the portly form of Jack Black, over-acting like a silken-voiced Andy Devine, riding to the rear of the rescue; and Evan Parke straightfacedly shouting "Jimmmyyyy!" and "Jimmy, you got to be smarter than that!" and "Jimmy, you got to learn to read, you got to go to school!" All that though is just piffling shadows to the blinding white light of Serkis' genius, and Watts', who makes a great Fay Wray even if her dopey dance is always worth a cringe.

7. The raven/crow in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) 

The witch's crow is the 'audience' surrogate in Disney's vision, which is awesome as she's usually alone in her castle, preening in front of the mirror, vowing vengeance and engaging in spookily rendered arcane magic spellcasting. The crow/raven never speaks but we see his eyes bulge out in shocked excitement as her ravings increase in venom. This raven is neither a spineless yes-man lackey nor voiced by a stunt celebrity cameo (no Gilbert Godfried or Cheech Marin). In fact the bird's silence enhances his connection to us in the audience, for we are also mute and awed by the witch's evil (there's a few great moments where the witch seems to stare dead in our eyes). And their relationship captures just what it's like to spend a lot of time with only an animal for company if you're a raging narcissist, babbling insanely half to yourself, half to your pet, who doesn't understand a word you're saying but is concerned by your discordant vibes you may be losing your mind to the point you forget to feed it.

8. Nissa the Leopard as Baby - Bringing up Baby (1938)

As in Shakespeare and his doubles, there are two leopards in Bringing up Baby, but the good one, Baby, is the true familiar to witchy Suzanne Vance (Katherine Hepburn). Baby arrives magically by mail to her swanky apartment, and since David, Grant's nervous paleontologist handles 'bones and things' Susan automatically assumes he'll know just what to do with it. (Read Stanley Cavell's Comedies of Remarriage to help in translating the layers of sophisticated double entendre in the dialogue). The parallel is clear. David likes his bones 'dead' and calcified hard, his fiancee frigid and repressed; Baby and Susan are as sleek and alive as you can be, buzzing around him like bees frightening an allergic picnicker. That Susan arranges so David has to join her in a merry chase around Connecticut only affirms the magnetic pull of her familiar. Baby is the familiar as wild animal, yet tamed, a complete impossibility yet there it is. And most crazy of all, Susan's imperious aunt is one minute dismissing the idea there could be a leopard in Connecticut with a wave of her hand, and mere moments later mentioning she's expecting a tame leopard to arrive any day now from Susan's brother, a big game hunter. Thus the leopard as familiar is always shifting and changing -- knowing the creature is tame, Grant and Hepburn are less afraid, but by then the beast has shifted yet again, replaced by a vicious leopard on his way to the gas chamber after 'giving that new trainer a going over.' Thus we see how a wild familiar may bring you love and adventure, but it also may crash you down to the more life-affirming rhythms of the earth like a giant brontosaurus skeleton, or eat you.

9.  Clyde - the Orangutan -Every Which Way But Loose (1978)
There was a time called the 70s when fads were rampant: Jaws spawned craze for anything related to sharks; Star Wars for anything related to space; there were also pet rocks, mood rings, Spencer's Gifts, EST, Evelyn Wood Reading Dynamics, Frampton Comes Alive, iron-on decals that read "Keep on Streaking," Bruce Lee, Farrah Fawcett-Majors, Jordache jeans, Cheryl Tiegs, wall-to-wall shag carpeting, and-- most importantly--Smokey and the Bandit (1976). This film was huge and launched a craze for Trans-Ams, brawls between truckers, stunt men and bikers; convoys;  road-blocks; CB radios (10-4, good buddy); truck stop waitresses smacking their gum as they poured coffee; hitchikers with cut-offs and names like Starla and Angel; portly sheriffs scrambling comically to get back into their vehicle and engage in hot pursuit; thick Burt Reynolds mustaches; snakeskin boots; amphetamines; gambling... Daisy Duke shorts and Daisy Duke inside them. What a time to be covered in axle grease with an oily bandana stuck in your back jeans pocket. Naturally Clint Eastwood got in on the act, and to spike the formula brought an orangutan along. Any Which Way But Loose was such a hit (second only to Superman in 1978 box office) that a sequel was rushed into production (Any Which Way You Can) and there was even a rip-off TV version called BJ and the Bear.


One of the cool things about Clint is that he always gives anyone or anything a fair shake. He meets love with love and violence with violence, unconditionally. So to him Clyde is no 'pet' but a genuine travelin' companion, a buddy with whom to spar, argue, mock wrestle, and philosophize. Clyde for his part is a friend in need ever ready with a rude noise or a pretty smile. The haunted-hot mess-sexy Sandra Locke may be around, as she always was in this era of Clint's filmmaking career, but it's Clyde who's the real bromantic love interest, and he gives Clint's fistfighting trucker a kind of St. Francis legitimacy.

10. Peter Lorre's pocket kitten in The Boogeyman will Get You (1942)
The kitten itself doesn't have much of a part, but is a great touch for Lorre's bizarre magistrate character in this early Arsenic and Old Lace-inspired murderous quirky comedy (paging Tim Burton - don't remake this classic and ruin it!). The kitten lives in one of Lorre's coat pockets and occasionally meows ("What do you want?" Lorre asks into his coat, "it isn't milk time."), to be let out as she sniffs some "crime and corruption." Maybe you think I should have put Lassie or Rin Tin Tin or Tigger or Trigger on this list instead, but their films ain't got no Boogeyman!

11. Blood (the Rover) in A Boy and his Dog (1975) / The dog in The Road Warrior (1981)
Ugh, as a young teen I was a huge fan of the Harlan Ellison post-apocalyptic short story "A Boy and His Dog," so naturally I thought the movie was a tragic waste of time --not at all how I imagined it. And they just had to one up the harsh twist ending with a nasty crack or two. And Don Johnson? and a little Benji-type dog instead of a mangy German shepherd like in my imagination? Actually, it wasn't even all that bad... but you know how it is.

A much better dog crops up in The Road Warrior, a movie I had to get my friend Alan's mom to buy us tickets for because it was rated R and the idiot box office taker wouldn't let us slide on our jaded 15 year-old expressions. And we expected, based on Richard Corliss's Time piece ("Apocalypse Pow!"), that it would be totally mind-blowing. 200 viewings later and we finally get it's rock-solid grace. And the dog is perfect. Max's last link to compassion and connection to some kind of anima mundi humanity, he knows when to strike, when to growl, and he dies to protect Max from Wes's mighty wrist rocket. It's not all the killing, raping and smashing of innocent oil rig commune dwellers that really tears it for us as far as wanting to see all these Humongous-following scuzzbags wiped out, it's the cold blooded killing of Max's beloved companion; it's what sets him over the edge, and sends that dog into our blistered, mangled, bullet-ridden hearts.

Either way, one of the things that always saddens me in real life is how dogs and cats seldom have a function, a job, a reason for living, other than supplying us with love and affection which, let's face it, we don't always have time for. When civilization crumbles and our lives depend on instincts and animal cunning once more, that sadness will be over.  Pets will once again become invaluable companions at the forefront of our consciousness, able to smell trouble and strangers miles away, providing a much better early warning system than any look-out in the dark and resuming their status as true archetypal spirit animals.

 
12. TIE:
The Cat in The Black Cat (1934)
and the Cat in The Tomb of Ligeia (1964)
In Bell, Book and Candle we saw an example of a fairly 'white magic' style familiar, so it wouldn't be fair not to end on two fine examples of the 'black magic' variety. In the 1934 Universal masterpiece The Black Cat, there's plenty of talk about how Satan emcee Karloff's black cat's spirit may have taken over, briefly, the body of narcotized houseguest Jacqueline Wells (after Lugosi kills it with a tossed butter knife). It's really more of an excuse for the Poe-tic title rather than a straight up plot device, but it's still cool, especially when Karloff lisps with rolled eyes of Bela's harsh act, "he is a victim of one of the commoner phobias; he has a complete and utter horror... of cat-ths." Karloff doesn't seem too worried after Lugosi offs the feline, but maybe it's because the pussy's not dead.... just transported.


The twisted vortex of necrophilia and animistic reincarnation in Corman's final Poe film, Ligeia, is both more and less extreme. The cat here  begins the film already possessed by the spirit of Vincent Price's dead wife--a domineering Rebecca-like beauty who holds onto Price's gloomy Goth weirdo's imagination;  the cat in this film a kind of Mrs. Danvers in pussy form, always leaping out of nowhere at inopportune moments to attack Rowena, Price's smart, Mrs. Peel-style new lover. The essential familiar aspect of keeping its owner aligned with the forces of nature and away from the currents of delusional madness is reversed for this kitty. Like a dark mirror opposite version of Piewacket at the end of Bell, Book and Candle, the cat's final mission of service to her late witch owner is to lead her man away from the safe parameters of language, reason, and letters and home to the rarefied air of the silent dead.

-----------
Lastly I'd be remiss without a loving shout-out to my special animal familiar, the divine Miss sphynx, Olive. At left peeketh she forth, ready to absorb the unending stress I provide, and leave only a feeling of hypnotized calm. She's Xanax on four legs, more like a mellow dog than a peevish cat and enough like a grey alien in face that she's perhaps meant to prepare me for some future close encounter...and since she's hairless my usually crippling cat allergies are only partially present. Hurray for Olive!

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

We seem to go way back... THE LADY EVE, BELL BOOK AND CANDLE, BRINGING UP BABY


A lot of us film lovers have mountains of DVDs at home which we never watch more than once, but there are some that we watch over and over, that we love to the point that soon we're bending the rules of our reality to incorporate their unique worldview. Our kinship with the characters becomes supernatural. One of these for me is THE LADY EVE (1941).


Then there are films we see often and sometimes love and are sometimes nonplussed by. We may screen one of these for friends and they get a headache and sigh in exasperation, and we too sigh, and turn it off, wondering what we ever saw in it, only to watch the rest of it by ourselves a few days later and fall back in mad love. Such a film for me is BRINGING UP BABY  (1938).

Then there are films we don't even have on DVD, but for some reason we keep seeing them, usually on TCM. Eventually we seem them so damned often they too bend reality and meld into our lives. We usually love many things about them, but a few jarring elements keep us from really swooning, such a film for me is BELL, BOOK AND CANDLE (1958).

I've introduced all three this way because all three are mythic 'comedies of remarriage' (ala the book by Stanley Cavell), and that means they're confirmed reality warpers in that they are truly 'modern mythic,' reflecting our lives and relationships in and of the moment we're watching them like a funhouse mirror, like Tarot cards, like I Ching. They are 'screwball comedies' with the screwball being no longer a baseball pitching term, but an orgiastic ballroom term implying Crowley-esque sex magick abandon --all three film involve magic of one sort or another, be it conjuring (BOOK), sleight of hand card tricks (EVE), or animistic shape-shifting (BABY).

But what's truly diabolical about them is the way multiple viewings bring out a kind of subtextual unspoken paranoia wherein 'accidental' meet ups and romantic sabotage take on a whole new conspiratorial light. Maybe these aspects were in the original story, but in turnaround became a comedy and the darkness--the 'point'--weeded out. Years later, we watch them again and again, like incantations seen and heard instead of spoken and the deeper meanings are at last discerned, the insidious plotting of girls way more sophisticated than we doltish dupes can ever be is recognized too late to change it! Even the filmmaker has forgotten her original intention thanks to her quicksilver cleverness!


And so it dawned on me lately that in BRINGING UP BABY, Kate Hepburn is sabotaging Cary Grant's life deliberately so Aunt Elizabeth will give her the million dollars instead of Grant's stuffy museum; she does get it, but in the end falls for him and promises to fork it over, not before wrecking his life's work up to that point (trashing his brontosaurus), of course. It's as if her final act of sabotage--the one that's finally not deliberate-- both destroys the old shell and breathes life into the new, miraculously shrinking the huge dinosaur skeleton down into a skinny New England bachelorette... like the last piece in the puzzle of the past morphs the final completed image, the Venus de Brontosaurus, with leopard and terrier heads in addition to her snaky brontosaurus mouth.

In BELL, BOOK the suspicious coincidence is that Stewart just happens to live above the voodoo art store owned by an old enemy of his fiancee (Janice Rule). Any smart witch expert would already be smelling a trap--a spell that made him notice the apt. available sign as he passed perhaps-- but it's never mentioned in the film. Think it over and of course she's lured him to live there deliberately in order to wreak further revenge.  Consider the witchy situation in ROSEMARY'S BABY, we sure found out that Mia Farrow and her lout husband were lured to the Dakota by a magical draw, didn't we? Nothing is left to chance! Witches are like film producers, planning everything down to the smallest detail.

In the LADY EVE the paranoia is more overt since we know from the beginning Jean (Barbara Stanwyck) is a sharpie out to fleece Henry Fonda's rich snake handler. Kim Novak in BELL is only out to use Jimmy Stewart as a tool for revenge; Katherine Hepburn just wants her aunt to give her a million dollars, they have a set goal, but Jean does this stuff all the time. Cards and gambling are her and her father's form of elemental magic. And as with the witches in BELL, the truth of their superiority must be kept secret. She and her father can only show off their skill only when alone together. When Fonda tries to impress her father with a clumsy card trick the old man feigns amazement, only to momentarily forget himself later and exhibit a piece of card shuffle virtuosity worthy of W.C. Fields, remembering where he is only in mid shuffle and quickly concealing it, lest he be burnt at the stake for a sharpie warlock. 


The relative ethereal 'magical' nature of Eve/Jean (short for Eugenia) and Charles Coburn/Col. Harrington in EVE is established early on by their Olympian view down upon clumsy Adam/Hopsy/Henry Fonda as he climbs Jacob's ladder up onto the ship. Their relative celestial height is ascertained in a slow pan up from steerage, with its packed Preston Sturges grotesques, accentuating Jean and her father's relative rarefied air of awesomeness. "I hope he's a wizard at cards!" Jean says, before dropping her apple on his head with flawless aim. As with Cary Grant in BABY and Stewart in BELL, Fonda never has a chance. He's outwitted from the start, a mortal mouse in betwixt the sphynx paws of immortal Woman.

The thing about true love in all these films is that when it comes it's not fun. It's a drag, snuffing out magic's elemental flame like a sharp draft;  put there by the producers to appease censors; a de facto obligation to the production code and the human reproductive system. We'd like to see Gil keep doing her sexy witch routine and to see Jean/Eve become a veritable Maya of illusion. Instead she refuses a huge alimony settlement, tries to reform her father, even yelling at him for winning a mere $30,000 from her new 'love' - and we're not happy about it. Jean becomes a sap. She plummets from her Olympian height. And let's not even mention the drecky way Kim Novak rains on the other witches' parade and eventually starts wearing...gasp... virginal white in BELL.

The dreaded moment when the lovers fall in love in all three of these examples happens off camera, like sex, and the happily ever after. Naturally we're resentful, for we hate to see our goddesses fall for the oldest con in the book, the genetic sinker of marriage and probably children to some lummox in a bow tie. In BABY we find out the the next day that Grant finally is ready to confess his love ("I've never had a better time!") though we're never sure when exactly he decided he loved her; for Stanwyck in EVE it's during an unseen stretch of time on the boat while Gerald and Harry suit up for action ("and I don't mean old maid!"); in BELL BOOK AND CANDLE the falling in love bathed in magical Off-camera poetic dialogue set to Central Park b-roll on Xmas morning and frankly it never quite gels because Jimmy Stewart is just too old and too naive and contemptuous of anything remotely out of the ordinary to resonate as a hip Greenwich village denizen, or even a true New Yorker.
 They cast Stewart because his name was big box office, and they wanted maybe some of that old VERTIGO supernatural magic --- the spellbinding effect Novak and Scotty conjured up in the bell tower-- but instead they got a pipe-smoking old man type, as dull and decent as a flagpole. Sure he's great in his way, adept at comedy and sincerity in equal measure, but he's simply miscast, and even he knew it.


Sometimes as a critic you can write your way into new appreciation for something, literally fall for your own story. Is Eve doing that, because Adam is the best rib she ever ate? Perhaps it's because he's so pure. The "you  know me, Mack, nothing but reptiles!" Fonda can leave me kind of ambivalent, but he's so perfect in EVE because he plays it so straight. He's the perfect patsy; she falls in love with the idea of being married to someone rich and easy to fluster.


That's why in the end artifice and illusion are cinema's--as well as woman's--stock and trade. Without all the smoke and mirrors no one would ever hook up of their own free will. The man wants to fuck and run and it's the woman's task to devour him like Venus flytrap luring the unvary fly. She mustn't betray her true feelings at first, mustn't tremble the leaves and tip off the prey; she must stay aloof in the same way the image mustn't include a boom mike shadow.


In each of these three films the woman's grand illusion is continually threatened by a draggy patriarchal element that threatens from without - in EVE, it's the bulldog guardian William Demarest, who 'knows a cold deck when he sees one' and that 'that's the same dame'. We want him to suffer for breaking these kids up just because he's suspicious; he's right. But why should he care? He's like the poor people who vote republican. But here's a secret: the real rich despise such bulldog loyalty in their mug underlings, and it's for that same reason we despise Demarest's cockblocking. Even though we know just how evil her plans are, we want them to come true, and when love conquers all, we applaud by rote, as we must, our own social castration.


In BRINGING UP BABY the draggy patriachal elements are more than useless, except that Grant places so much import in them -- Mr. Peabody (aka Boopy), Aunt Elizabeth, and of course the sheriff, but all are just blurs along the roadside --it's Grant's own nervousness that attaches meaning to them, to the point Grant even has to remind the sheriff to lock the door to his own cell. He clings to the familiarity of his routine like a life vest even though he's nowhere near water. So Hepburn floods him.


In BELL BOOK AND CANDLE it's Gil herself who is the draggy patriarchal element. Her own fear of 'repercussions' to her past magic cause her to bully her aunt into swearing off spells, even as, ever the sexist, she allows cousin Nicky to continue; though she tortured Jimmy Stewart's fiancee, Miss Kittridge, all through college she doesn't openly admit it, so projects her guilt. It begins to dawn after many years of repeat viewings that Ms. Kittridge is actually a sane, rational adult, a professional working artist and if openly contemptuous of the Zodiac club, so what? She wasn't heckling the band or anything overtly common. To use the vernacular of THE CRAFT, Gil isn't really Rachel True.. she's Faruza Balk! Which is better, so why put her in the True position?

In all cases 'love' descends like a magic spell -- 'happily ever' for everyone but us, for it means the film is at an end and all the unique characters vanish into the sameness of a blue screen or ad for TCM products. Thus by 'falling in love' the woman in each earns a bit of contempt from us. Has anyone ever sighed in joy when Gil gives up her primitive masks for sea shell flowers and starts dressing like a virgin? Is it all just to appease an old fuddy duddy who inexplicably seems to draw the hottest young things in Hollywood (ala Kelly in REAR WINDOW as well as Novak in VERTIGO) only to want to drain their allure and mystery and dress them in Stepford aprons? It's like those old crappy Monogram monster movies where instead of a monster there's a smartass explaining how monster movies are stupid so they're not going to bother... that's Jimmy Stewart in BELL; at least form then on he refused to do play another romantic lead and focused on westerns. He was smart -- stay out of it. Love is death. One can only imagine what a four star rapture it would have been with Cary Grant instead.


Hopsy at least learns his lesson: that "the good aren't nearly as good as people think and the bad aren't nearly as bad." And the lucky among us have felt that feeling he describes, of knowing one's future mate long before this: "we seem to go way back" is the echo through all three films. Eve has been everyone from his first schoolgirl crush to the island he found Emma on. As Stewart finally admits at the end of BELL, who's to say what's real?

For example, sometimes I hear a person whispering 'hey Erich' under the desk, like a beckoning ghost, inside the creaking of my chair (like just now). To an artist or a writer there's no such thing as just auditory hallucinosis; it means something, if you let it. Sometimes at night I feel a presence over me and I wake like I just leaped out of hell. I shrug it off and go back to sleep...if I let it mean something I could wind up in the looney bin.

But love is an even worse hallucination to take seriously. If you let it mean something it destroys you utterly, leaving only a tuxedo or white dressing gown-wearing stranger in your wake... even him now fading in a hazy blur of handshakes and corsages, like a dinosaur into the crusted foam of time's salty limousine. As long as we ignore these strange magicks -- just the creaking of a chair to some tired ears, or a little flash of sleep apnea, not a demon or a ghostly amour--we're immortal, and the foam recedes dinosaurlessly back along it's sullen shoreline, counting the minutes printed on the Netflix label, like a patient fisherman.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

CinemArchetype 14: Puella Aeterna and the Cougar


 This is a very important and strange archetype for our generation and under. This is perhaps where we have been since the 80s finally eradicated all traces of profitable maturity.
Puella aeterna is Latin for eternal girl. The puella is a very important archetype in today's youth oriented, image driven world.... Today the very heart and soul of the adolescent girl/young woman is under siege. Media pressure through television, magazines and movies run the same basic message 24 hours a day: get beautiful. As we shall see below, getting beautiful is according to our cultural value of what beauty is, namely the Barbie Doll, Super Model, Movie Star look - (The Archetypal Connection)
Disney did a number: L-R:  Hillary Duff, Britney Spears, Lindsay Lohan
There's nothing more tragic than the fleeting beauty of Hollywood's youth royalty, and I mean 'tragic' in the grand actorly sense, not the real sense. The real tragedy--genocide, class warfare, torture--is a drag, and drags are something Hollywood and Madison Avenue have long ago learned is not profitable. That is why there is no new Spencer Tracy or James Stewart, just bland posers. The Tracys would patiently waste spools of film telling us about real tragedies like people starving in China so eat your carrots and when he vouchsafes Sydney Poitier's son-in-law status you have no choice but to respect that, and must lay down your neo-con racist ass arms. Brave Gia tried to hold that authority, and died, and so became Angelina Jolie, but what's the result? We shy away from films like that one she made called Beyond Borders. Would we even accept a new Spencer if he came? God no... the hot young things are the new authority, and like Saddam or Qaddafi they cling to that authority even at the expense of their lives, gradually hardening their faces, blowing out their lips, until they become plastic gargoyles looking grimly down from their billboard battlements.

And we on the street only worship them until its time they be sacrificed, either by the slow scythe swipe of advancing age or indifference. But somewhere along the way even our own wives starting serving Heineken at dinner parties and we grew up mistaking the kids in the ads for ourselves, and we tried to become them and followed like sabre-toothed lemmings as they slunk home to their Wilshire Boulevard tar pits. Like the condemned prisoner who hangs herself to escape the chair, our lovely puellas disfigure their precious faces, spot-welding Vogue cover grimaces to their skulls until they're like Ahab with his wound, where soul and flesh bleed together, a high fashion Joker, beyond fear and the trivial difference between life and death.

 Left to Right: Meg Ryan, Brittany Murphy, Cameron Diaz, Courtney Cox
Beauty surgeries of one sort or another are old hat in Hollywood. The issue is, of course, that a lot of the surgeries done in the past just made the women more regal, cutting out molars to accentuate cheekbones, nose jobs... the ideal wasn't to aim for looking like a pouty adolescent, or sad clown-mode Lon Chaney. The widening and expanding of the lips is tragic, and bizarre, and maybe even heroic. Most of us will never know the giddy high of mass adoration, so we're spared the certainty that adoration will one day slip. If we had such a high, too many 'mirror mirror on the wall' moments would one day turn us into not Snow White but Howard the Duck.

On the other hand, there is a less traumatic and all-around ballsier trend borne of this puella aeterna stampede... the rise of the cougar!  For ladies looking to avoid disfigurement while not snapping into Bellevue level delusion, it's all but irresistible. Ideally your choice of young paramour won't be an actual child like it was for cougardom's premier lady in red:



There's a great bit in the show 30 Rock where Tina Fey is dating a young lad (above) who delivers her coffee in the morning. Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin), her boss, tells her to go for it and that dating someone younger is "the ultimate status symbol." After hilarity and hooking up has had time to ensue, Jack admits that these affairs "always end in humiliation." It's a fascinating paradox to examine: the 'ultimate status symbol' is also, invariably, a 'humiliation,' ergo humiliation is the ultimate status symbol. Maybe that's the crux of the whole youth obsession, for it is this end game humiliation--of growing too old to 'pass' for young--that promotes real growth, shaming the ego into backing away, allowing a stray moment of grace. Status symbols, by definition, reinforce ego-driven self-perception, which is a negative as far as spiritual growth; status symbols arrest human evolution unless they are 'ultimate' -- in Latin meaning 'the end or last'-- status symbol, which eradicates the self-deception lesser status symbols encourage. Like the final piece in a puzzle, it arrives with both glory and tragedy, for unless you want to shellac the puzzle and hang it on the wall it's time to break the whole thing up and put it back in the box. And then.... you have to find something else to do.


In the cases below, which I have set up in order, from still fairly young to old-old, it's generally hotness and adoration received while a young person that leads to chronic narcissism and then the La Brea tar pit of the puella aeterna, from which arises, finally, at last, a tar-covered Sabre-tooth cougar from the black gold phoenix oil slick flames! It's no accident that those tar pits are right on Wilshire Boulevard... right next door to the museum, and the plastic surgeon.

1. Charlize Theron as Mavis-  Young Adult (2011)

This film is so perceptive about aging, still-hot narcissists that I felt like it could have been about at least three of my drinking and AA buddies over the years. Theron's Mavis writes anonymously for a once hot-selling young adult book series, her arrested development helps her keep a pulse on the young, as does her bad eating and drinking habits. She heads to her hometown to rekindle an old flame but he's married to a granola chick and they've got a kid and he's all loyal father blah blah. A whiskeyhead accomplice forms from the mist of the bar she haunts. It's Patton Oswalt! She's safe with him because of their hotness divide and his crippled member but...
"Like the princess in the Grimm fairy tale The Frog King, today's young woman must be willing to accept and embrace the frog, symbol for her human imperfections. Putting this into psychological language, she must come to recognize and accept her own shadow."


So yeah, draw your own grueling conclusions.

 2. Nicole Kidman in Birth (2004)
"When Kidman plans to escape with Sean (the young boy who claims to be her reincarnated dead husband) and just drive, escape, get out, it reads wrong even to the swooning, half-asleep audience; a mid-life crisis of such outrĂ© proportions looks obscene even while we half want it to happen, just for the lurid charge. Even the kid can't quite grasp the possibility of such a thing coming true with any sort of realism or grace. And Canada is not an option. The touch of a lover your own age whose very presence makes you suffocate, the comfort of belonging to a faceless, fascist mass, maybe a pill to help it all fit together...that's the best you can hope for… everything else is just a frozen north fantasia… even death brings only another wet, screaming birth..." (2004 - Acidemic). 
2004)
3. Betsy Draper in Mad Men
"The paradox is that the puella is driven by desires to be seen, to excel, and to be loved but not to be known intimately.  Her fantasy is that one day she will become this ideal self that she cannot achieve now because she flees from reality.  There is always a "but" preventing development or commitment because each situation is for the short term, and relationships are with others of similar bent.  She becomes bored easily and feels trapped, unaware of her own lack of self-knowledge.  Thus, her potential withers before it can ripen, because she has preferred the fantasy of perpetual youth to the reality of painful development.

The sense of fraudulence as an adult creates tension and dissatisfaction.  She exudes brittle, crystalline quality and an aura of aloofness behind which she exists in her own untouchable domain.  She is vulnerable, a terrified child for whom physical existence is a trial because bodily sensations are denied or ignored in order to avoid feeling and to protect from anything that is not part of her carefully constructed world.  (-Susan E. Schwartz-Little Girl Lost: Sylvia Plath and the Puella Aeterna)
This description fits half the girls I've known in the rooms of AA and out, and so many of our best artists (like Plath). Betty Draper has a lot in common with the previous puella on this list, Nicole in Birth, as Betty too winds up in a strange Mary Kate La Tourneau-style relationship with a young boy who comes onto her in the first season of Mad Men. Jones' 'vulnerable, terrified child' is drawn to the boys the way a sexy babysitter at a vulnerable age might encourage the worship of her young charges (as mine did in the swingin' 70s) -- even engaging in games of crypto-post office, lap sitting, horsey riding and leashes and other things that carbonize prepubescent boy hormones. Betty's problems are much different than forthcoming examples of this archetype, who revel in a childhood toybox perpetual twilight --she's like the older sister who one day decides to never smile or laugh again because she's decided she's grown up now and thus performs a burlesque almost of adulthood. And like Kidman's character she lives in a society that infantilizes young women, especially if they're hot, blonde, and have mastered the art of looking vacant.

4. Natalie Portman as Nina - The Black Swan (2010)

Every girl growing up wants a pony and to be a ballerina, at least at some point and the frustration of these goals helps them mature... BUT what if they do actually get a pony and/or become a ballerina? Is maturity halted, stunted? Certainly with becoming a ballerina a state of exhaustion (long hours of grueling practice) and starvation (to keep the body light and youthful) must arrest the messy onset of womanhood. Smoking, anorexia, bulimia, exotic growth-stunting drugs that evil stage moms procure in shady Mexican pharmacies--it's all in play. When Nina's stage mom (Barbara Hershey) brings home a hideously over-detailed cake to celebrate Nina's getting the lead, the whole scene is laid out - Barbara Hershey is trying to turn her daughter into a little spinning ballerina on the top of this cake, and devour her!

In being forced to tap into her dark side to 'become the Black Swan' Nina's repression and missed chances for bad influence friends, drugs, sex, sticky fumblings, and lesbian experimentation come roaring up from the depths, creating opportunities for them to manifest almost out of thin air. In the end it's a choice: adulthood or artistry. Heroically, Nina makes her choice for the latter. Adulthood can mean compromise and 'giving up' perfection; artistry means giving up all the other things - life, children, adulthood, and rushing towards death's curtain call, devouring your own cake, mom. and world in a single stab.

5. a TIE: Zooey Deschanel
I'm all for weird girls, but Zooey's just a bit too twee and quirky to not be chronically puella.

5.b Sarah Silverman
While she explores the same arrested development 'boop boop de boop I'm a girl' terrain as Deschanel, Sarah Silverman gets a free pass because she's beyond a mere 'appealing to shy indie boys' aesthetic and instead delves into the realm of gleeful id, stalking guys because they look like Saddam, for example. And her songs are better than Zoey's. Look at her above with her castrating Antichrist scissors, a wistful look on her face as she wonders what she'll cut off next. You can believe she would cut something important off, all while sighing and going 'awwww' as you scream in pain. If Zooey was in a picture holding scissors the only thing you'd imagine her cutting would be some fabric to make an Appalachian pot holder... no offense meant! Pot holders are nice, but quirks without a homicidal edge may just as well be Romper Room.

THE PUELLA-COUGAR BRIDGE:
6. Audrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly + Patricia Neal as 2-E  in Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961)
+ Nina Foch as Milo - An American in Paris (1951)

Everyone loves Audrey Hepburn Holly Golightly. In the late 90s, The Tribeca Film Center used to screen Breakfast every Sunday afternoon and it would be packed with hung-over crowds of post or pre-brunch hipsters and ragers, all swooning to the sophistication, booze fumes hanging in the air and terrified to go home and face the crushing Sunday loneliness, meeting people and going off to the brunch room after for mimosas and weary flirting. But if you look at the film closely (and compare it with An American in Paris if you're of the mind), its true, seedy, perennial puella aeternal escape pod comes crashing through. And it's similarity to the Gene Kelly film makes it clear- the big thing is, Breakfast at least seems to realize it, while American seems largely unconscious of what a complete shit Kelly is.


 As someone who enjoyed a wealthy Parisian sponsor for many years, I abhor Kelly's self-sabotaging 'too good for anyone who would want a loser like him' passive aggression to a rich patroness (Nina Foch) who could make him happy and famous and the toast of Paris.

Instead he's bored at the cafe she takes him to since he can't keep up with adult conversation (he's more of a banal landscape artist, the kind whose work sells for cheap at small town art galleries) and spies a similarly bored 'protege' at another table (Leslie Caron) and decides its love at first sight, regardless of her pleas for him to stop stalking her.  The big final ballet is gorgeous and Kelly's a helluva dancer but his self-righteous American snobbery is disconcerting (especially as he gets no comeuppance). A similar thing happens in BREAKFAST, wherein kept man George Peppard and glorified escort Holly G. have some good times but then he decides they should live together in poverty regardless of her own wanton choice in the matter. As his patroness, Patricia Neal surely deserves more respect! Of course, I say that now, but my own French paramour patroness is still four years gone (for all the same damned Peppard-ish reasons).


7. Joan Collins 
With a husband 32 years her junior and a loathing for all things associated with older age (such as 'doting' on grandchildren), Joan Collins is the premiere modern 'cougar'  Just look at that sexy, decadent photo above, which you can instantly associate with a lot of the gender-bent 70s badass "Jackie is just speedin' away" Warhol era Manhattan / London /Berlin druggy cabaret of Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, Warhol, Jackie Superstar and the New York Dolls. As a kid in the 1970s all this stuff was really dangerous and intimidating and Joan was huge! She was part of a whole 'older woman enjoying uninhibited casual sex' trip inspired by the book Fear of Flying, written by Joan's buddy, Erica Jong. It seemed like all the big cities were just reeking with the smell of sex, the smell of suicide, the smell of asphalt, cigarettes, whiskey, smog, urine, freebase, hash, perfume, sweat, blood, and burnt gun powder --all rolled into one the fleabag room where Joan Collins comes in to change for her next number while you cower in the corner like a five year-old Emil Jannings.

8. Vivien Leigh in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)
and The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone (1961)
As Tennessee Williams fans well know, being obsessed with youth and beauty is more than just empty vanity and fear of age and death, it's a very real and genuinely (at times) subversive refusal to follow the dopey trail to the slaughterhouse set up up by mainstream 'straight' conservative America. Like Douglas Sirk, Williams applauds widows with the moxie to shucker loose from the perfumed prison of their age bracket. If you love a young stud then you should go for it, even if it means you buy him gold trinkets and sports cars and end up heartbroken or shot or stabbed.

In these two films, Leigh is clearly playing a sort of stand-in for Williams himself, the older alcoholic southern gay gentleman, scarred by redneck homophobia and a yen for les boys. Leigh adds a weary desperation in her twinkly eyes and seems a bit bewildered by the weird ride her beauty and talent took her on in earlier decades. Her characters are still getting used to the fact that the ride has stopped and there's no date waiting at the Exit with an ice cream. Karl Malden basically tells her in Streetcar that her cougar-behavior (seducing the newspaper boy) and age and past wouldn't have mattered if she didn't come on so phony and regal, staying in the shadows like a drag queen trying to pass as long as possible before the big reveal.


Like Charlize with her Patton Oswalt frog, in Stone Leigh ends up throwing her door key down to a disheveled pretty boy / probable murderer who's been silently following her for the bulk of the film. It's a tragic, desperate gesture of supreme loneliness and it's strange way, heroic, like those crazy collagen / botox injections, for what is heroism but the to let an abstract idea like God, country, or beauty trump our fear of death and ruin? Who knows how many times you and I have played out similar scenes and just not remembered them? We never do seem to remember dying, so how can we possibly recall anything about ourselves, unless we're immortal? And how can we find out for sure unless we invite the blade in? Williams knows that you can't judge any experience as good or bad and still be a true genius writer. You have to find God and compassion even in the horror of baby turtles being picked off by millions of hungry birds as they rush to the sea, or the slow, inexorable advance of that final curtain switchblade beach boy.


9. Geraldine Page - Sweet Bird of Youth (1961)
 As a movie star cougar of dwindling years she's slightly more together than, say, the delusional 'chicken hawk' (Lotte Lenya's words), played by Vivien Leigh, in Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone--even though she's on the run from the bad reviews of her latest film, we like her moxy, her wounded druggie vanity, which even allows her to treat Newman, God's own true Adonis hustler, with the same entitled disregard with which she uses her oxygen tank, Acapulco Gold, cigarettes, vodka and sleep mask. 


I love this film because it's one of the few that really capture the feeling of arriving at a hotel after driving all night, then settling in a room, procuring a bottle and some ice, and relaxing finally and deeply, like it's only possible to do in motels after driving all night. In her way, Page's narcissist cougar reminds me a bit of Frank Sinatra in Some Came Running, or Maxine in Night of the Iguana and poor stud Newman starts out the film little more than a maraca-shaking beach boy or bus ride floozy.


10. Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond - Sunset Boulevard (1950)
Of course not all our aging Hollywood cougars end up wizened to their puella aeterna ways, or get to be already dead and worshipped as some flash frozen eternal youth. Some come running home and stay hidden in the mansions, phantoms of their own private opera houses, the opera in their haunted minds a most functional distraction as the world burbles outside.

Swanson, herself a former puella aeterna from the silent era, plays what was undoubtedly her own fucked up shadow self in Sunset Boulevard. Her Norma Desmond is a Venus flytrap slowly digesting the clueless meat-like screenwriter Joe Gillis (William Holden) while he's wrapped tight in the teeth of a spoken contract to edit her screenplay of Salome (apt since decapitation's got such castrative resonance), and eventually guilt trips him into spending New Years as her lover when he'd rather be with kids his own age.

Wilder's film is one of the key Hollywood-on-Hollywood classics of the 1950s and is still the funhouse mirror boiler plate of the elliptical Hollywood experience, and its fame is a blessing to the trade: who knows how many aging stars have been steered away from the delusional recluse path because they don't want to become a 'Norma Desmond'? And here's another thing - time's been kind to Norma and her big haunted palace is great. Ff she'd have fixed the pool sooner maybe she could have done without the Gillis. He only drags her down.


11. Ruth Gordon - Harold and Maude (1971)
I wanted to stick Maude in here because although she's all life affirming and quirky one must ask if--and when--quirkiness becomes a burden to others. One can trace a direct line from this film to Zooey Deschanel's pixie-ism, and for that alone I'm no fan. Maude's attendance of other people's funerals, her motorcycle riding, it all struck me even 20 years ago (which is when I last saw it) as terminally whimsical and whimsy has become toxic in our puer/puella culture. It's not Hal Ashby's fault... we took his whimsy but left the crushing black humor behind when we looted his corpse and now it's we who blew it. We let both these characters down.

12. Bette Davis - Whatever Happened to Baby Jane (1967)
If there's a single person who embodies the puer aeternus in contemporary pop culture, it's Michael Jackson, so it's fitting that his favorite book was The Little Prince (which Maria Von Franz analyzed extensively), and favorite movie was Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? We're all, if we live long enough, bound to experience that Baby Jane's big tragicomic moment of being lost in her childhood past, traipsing around her mansion, then looking in the mirror and being confronted by a hideous, aged demon looking back. Michael tried to carve it away with plastic surgery but it was always there, waiting. If we're "lucky" enough to live long enough, we come to know it well, which is why Davis' scene is so hilarious, terrifying and tragic. Somewhere along the hours leading up to our own Baby Jane moment we had forgotten we too were old, and in a rush it comes back to hit us, square in the hideous demon face.

Baby Jane's not really a cougar; she's from a different generation. The girls idolized in her time weren't hot bronzed 18 year-old navel-ring-wearing girls in bleached blonde dreads, but pale eight year-old moppets in frilly white skirts and golden ringlets. But this is a fitting wrap-up icon with which to end this list-- the final note of warning about the danger of not overcoming your inner puer before growing too old to change, the Benjamina Button-terna!

It's one thing to have an inner child who's free to come and go in your thoughts and who keeps your sense of humor light and airy, another to use that inner child as a crowbar with which to jam the gears of time, to stave off maturity and death and cling instead to the tattered, windless sail of past glories. If we don't learn the lesson from Norma Desmond, the Baby Jane lesson is our last stop before the bughouse.... as Sunset Gun's Kim Morgan points out (read her stunning Davis birthday tribute here), the key difference between the much more vain Joan Crawford and Bette Davis was that Davis was a cool old bat, smoking and joking and keeping a devil-may-care attitude on set, throwing herself into the madness while never losing a sense o fun, and making Baby Jane one of the most terrifying, tragic female characters in all horror. Joan, as the victimized sister, still struggled to maintain her puella poise and delusional dignity. She's great too, but she just looks pained, there's none of the maniacal desperation she brought to Homicidal, for example.

The Winner!
Having already battled with and triumphed over the puella aeterna dimension in All About Eve (1950) and The Star (1952), Davis was old hat at aging with grace while pretending to take it rather badly, which is the trick of acting the Baby Jane rather then being the Baby Jane. If she were still enthralled by her inner little prince then the joke would still be on her and she'd never 'get' the paradox-punchline of the cosmic joke, which is that Jack Donaghy adage once more, that the ultimate in youthful status symbols is the abject humiliation of old age. Once you accept you'll never be young again, and that you will never get that 'old magic' back, then, amazingly, you finally know why. You never valued your youth when you were young. Why start now?