Saturday, February 16, 2013

Flo, the Great and Powerful: THE GREAT ZIEGFELD (1936) and the Ludovico Flu


I've been sick all week with a terrible flu--hallucinating, vomiting, sleeping round the clock-- and it all comes to a head and makes sense with THE GREAT ZIEGFELD (1936). I was raging with fever, sleeping in torrid bursts of super dreamy weirdness.  I wound up at the movies, of course, in 'the Martha Graham Dance Cinema Annex,' with girls smoking Virginia Slims everywhere while calling their moms and using the rail up to the aisle seats as a balance bar while collections of experimental dance shorts played in endless rotation over their heads, ignored by all but me, my influenza virus remembering, through my tortured brain, its journey to me along the smudgy railings and student handshakes, like the passage of a Chilean joint through the harbor of a thousand hands and mouths, and my own mind barely noticing the difference having spent so many hours lost in screens. Maybe that's why I didn't turn away in saccharine-phobic horror from THE GREAT ZIEGFELD when it showed up on TCM yesterday and I was for the first time all week able to even sit on the couch and turn the TV on and there it was, by special unconscious request, as if I had dreamt a perfect halfway point between real cinema and the cloudy diamond-facet fractured dance hall unconsciousness, clinging to the balance bar railings with the tenacity of a flu germ barnacle as nymphets in a torrent of Degas-esque Village Voice articles spout-pounced in my head.


The two main things the serious flu bug going around does: a) lift you up and away from all abilities or concerns regarding sexual desire and vices --you can't inhale smoke, you can't drink anything but room temperature ginger ale mixed with water without gagging and dry heaving--And b) make you humble. You can't stand up so you keep yourself buckled over as if bowed under the heel of some unseen titan, and all other trivialities except not soiling yourself or passing out in public are jettisoned.

Such a basic core of conscience is the ideal putty for theatrical drill instructors like Busby Berkeley and Oscar Jaffee (as well as torturers like Abu Nazir and the Symbionese Liberation Front). Such exhausted psyches are explosions from which new stars are born. The heat of the flu, or of systematic physical abuse at the hands of an authority figure, liquidate once frozen notions of self, of loyalty, allegiance, and identity. Me, I forgot my original prejudices against long, dull MGM musical biopics and so whatever kept me from watching THE GREAT ZIEGFELD in the past was now liquid draining from the ice sculpture sink of my personal tastes.

I once worked for a rich crazy person like Flo Ziegfeld, so I know the way they depend on an indulgent, super-rich backer's foreclosure threats as motivation for genius. They spend beyond their limits and never pay back debts, all while buying bigger and more opulent gifts for everyone around them. They built this whole country by trying to mortgage their way out of poverty, to become too big to collect from. A rich person by definition amasses wealth, stores and saves it, builds on it; the Flo Z-type merely spends it, regardless of if he has it or not. Without such men, alas, capitalism can't succeed. And with such men, stock market crashes are inevitable, like the end of a game of hot potato that leaves everyone badly burned.

The Native Americans had a thing called the potlatch: at the end of each year, the richest person in the tribe gave away all their possessions to other tribe members. It was a great honor but at the same time it encouraged a constant flow of generosity in the tribe. No one wanted to get too rich lest they have to give up something they wanted, so they gave everything away they didn't actually need or use as they went. Indeed, what is opulence for if not to dazzle the public eye, rather than one's own? To create magic for others instead of 'security' for oneself? And when a man's ego transcends his sense of security, and his drive to create show-stopping brilliance overrides self-preservation? Baby, that's entertainment. And the wheel of capitalism moves one spoke on your ticket blood. Doo Do Doo Do Dooo Dooo.

That's a Ray Bolger down there
But Flo-Z is always working to bring it higher, to outdo all past versions of his Jenga-style opulent towering, and that's why MGM gives him a 3 1/2 hour bio. He personified the age of indulgence and is now--especially in NYC--is so ingrained in the texture of the city. He's a giant sugar daddy mountebank link across the generations of the depression back to the bigger, higher, wider school of Americana. He's one of a Mount Rushmore of salty icons including Walt Disney, Cecil B. De Mille, and D.W. Griffith. And like them he understood you could get away with anything as long as you wrapped it in so much lace and fashion show piety that the old ladies were too awash in sentimental sighs to complain when the bare thighs flashed. So the crazy headdresses went wider and wider in some pagan mummery glorification of grandiosity, all to keep the world rolling forward and trailing clouds of glory "for anybody willing to climb." A whole style of opulence became synonymous with his name, putting him in the same ranks as presidents, kings, Martha Graham, Rockefeller and, at the same time, carny shadiness, ala P.T. Barnum, Madame Tussaud's, and Ripley.

"Make mine Spud" 
So why praise him in an Acidemic post? Well, I love William Powell but the real psychedelic gold comes in the centerpiece musical number, as surreal and strange as anything by Busby Berkeley. David Lynch taught us that if you push normality to its extreme it becomes more surreal than your wildest imagination, and the "Pretty Girl is Like a Melody" sequence of this film finally illuminates the appeal of frills and fancy MGM foppery to a jaded, faded, junky nurse like myself by pushing it to an impossible extreme. The cumulative effect is beyond the usual sense of claustrophobia, of being like Sullivan sandwiched between the portly matrons at the movies during the first of his travels, and instead breaking through the roof and achieving a mythopoetic splume of transcendental connection, something even Willie Wonka as a child, trapped by his mom at a 1906 fashion show and looking up the skirts of the passing models could never imagine. He'd have to be reading Little Nemo at the same time, and strung out on Demerol.


Consider this revolving cake tableau: we start with the singer and his girl and revolve slowly to see:18th century noblemen, Chinese rural moon beam guitar pixies; Pagliachi belting out his pain before a giant drum; a beautiful flame goddess mocking him from above; a row of pianists working out Rhapsody in Blue, a sea of vampire women in black shimmering Dragon Lady dresses; a giant mummer sun crown headgear crown angel, and a magic femme fatale to crown the cake. best of all is the crazy spiral curtain, the slowly rolls up as the cake turns and then lowers back down. It's a very psychedelic center to the film, with billowing ruffles and angelic choirs that for the first time help me to understand the mindset that led to all the ruffles and bows of turn of the century theater and costumery. This number alone shows what all the others were aiming at, and just coming off stuffy and overbaked. Of course there's some of that, too, such as the ungratifying sight of an imitation Eddie Cantor in black face and popeye glasses square-prancing around like a politically incorrect robot singing "If you Knew Suzie" in front of a giant shower curtain. Oh! Oh! Oh what a gal and now I understand the big Carnegie Hall performance of Andy Kaufman in MAN ON THE MOON with the Santa Claus tower.


Like Kaufman's comedy, the follies predate sexuality and embrace a fully non-gender-specific humanism, a dreamy pillowy magic, a pre-Edenic gorgeous flowing white river of energy, where women are done up like beautiful Weird Tales covers brought to life and the men are all in tuxes and standing very still. Peter Max, Bouguereau, and Christian Anderson and The Yellow Submarine artistic designer Heinz Edelmann are all the heirs of this man. In another surreal number, we see legions of white and silver balloons flying out towards the screen, towards the camera eye, opening a middle field of depth that leads us farther and farther back, what Flo basically does is attempt to duplicate the effects of 3-D decades before it was invented. You can't help but be transported through the looking glass into a Little Nemo of Berkley wünderland, the kind that the Wall Street crash of 1929 would put an end to. That's the thing, when we watch a Busby Berkeley musical number we move inside the stage and the camera swirls and eddies and snakes around the dancers to form geometric kaleidoscope perfection; Ziegfeld didn't have the cameras so he uses each audience member's eye and proceeds to aim his balloons and ostrich feathers right at it, trailing big confetti streamers behind them.

In the era between 3-D and Ziegfeld's balloons, tapping into the limits of the eye as a way to change viewer mindsets was forgotten in favor of the recognized patina of cinema fantasy as we know it today - the 2-D proscenium arch style of middle range shot, the 'you are there' but-not-there ghost presence amidst the action we're used to today, i.e. we've become the invisible spectator. No one looks us in the eye anymore. It used to be that we could take our infantile delight in the cloud mobile above our crib and bring it into the adult world if we had the right guide. Ziegfeld is seen as the one who dares dream the biggest, to bankrupt the world to reach new heights in revolving stage staircases, all just so the stage can reach out like two pairs of big mommy hands into our infant crib of an orchestra seat.

Maybe back at the time audiences knew what those hands were reaching for, but in 2013 it's pretty clear we need to be half-dead from killer flus just to see what all the billowing dreamscape eye seduction fuss is about. Maybe it's all merely an appeasement, a Nazca line offering to the giant Kathy Bates in the sky--sledge-hammer in one hand, Vicodin in the other--the Kali of the flu-wracked MISERY arts. It's how She wants it, so Flo Z gave it to her, just so he could have his row of beautiful naked thighs... zzzz



1 comment:

  1. Yet another great piece. Watching things while under the blanket of illness can give you an amazing perspective on things. Kudos, again.

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