Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception since 2006, or earlater

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

International ScarJo: GHOST IN THE SHELL, LUCY, GHOST WORLD, Black Widow


Turn the cable on at any given time and there she is, chest deep in sci-fi weirdness: Scarlett Johansson as the KGB experimentally-augmented Black Widow in THE AVENGERS and related Marvel-verse franchises, or as a girl who becomes more than human with 100% brain usage in LUCY; or (voice only) as a sexy Siri Mach 2050 in HER, an alien in UNDER THE SKIN, an alienated Tokyo tourist in LOST IN TRANSLATION, an alienated high-school graduate in GHOST WORLD, and on an on she goes, her wry half-smile and husky voice transforming any ludicrous enterprise into something earthy and tangible while still being never quite of this world. Born in the Bronx, inheritor to all the tough chick rasp that implies, ever ready to use seduction or a mixture of the kind of martial arts (Muay Thai, Kali, etc) that involves swinging around people's necks like an ice ballet starlet, she has a great across the thug-filled room saunter, shoulders low and hunched for a sneak attack, and a unique way with sussing potential trouble out of the corner of her eye without breaking stride or cool. ScarJo seems always a notch above her material, yet at the same time she doesn't step on it as she climbs. Gingerly she brings it along behind her. No easy feat, to redeem and solidify shaky CGI realities. It's OK too if she can't quite pull off some of the more encompassing moments of grandeur, for she has the brains to underplay rather than ham it up. Hers is the same cool savvy we find in, say, 80s action stars like Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger. If she lacks their self-deprecating doofus undercarriage, she at least doesn't wink at the audience or start doing funky dances like Cameron Diaz. That shit doesn't age well, but Scarlett's shit is built to last.

Though adept at smaller scale comedies (she loves to dust off her Jersey-Bronx-LI accent), since becoming an A-lister, ScarJo hasn't labored for respectability in prestige pics the way others have (a few exceptions, like Girl with the Pearl Erring aside), becoming instead sci-fi royalty; the poster girl for a Tyrell Corporation-sponsored Time-Image sci-fi future, the first girl to hang glide all the way across the Uncanny Valley, she's part Hawksian 'one of the guys,' part-older sister's one cool friend who's nice to you, when we see strange new sci-fi worlds through her eyes, those worlds seem somehow absolved, their furrowed scalps gently but robustly tousled. Be they Seoul's skyways, the post-riot despair of 3 AM Glasgow, jet-lagged Tokyo, futuristic Tokyo, some other Tokyo, Paris, mall culture America, the empty rose-colored void, or the past of all mankind on the earth, from the first female ape to the last gasp, she can bring humanist warmth; turn on any channel and there she is, making the future seem not only real, but inviting, even survivable. 

Hair like Mary Elizabeth Winstead in the manga-esque Scott Pilgrim vs the World

GHOST IN THE SHELL


I'd heard the 'white-washing' accusations (1) before going to (open the Netflix envelope of) Ghost in the Shell but that only helped lower my expectations, which were low to begin with, for it seemed like Aeon Flux meets Ultraviolet x Resident Evil all over again. Maybe that helped in ways I can't foresee, or I'm racist, but I actually think Ghost in the Shell is actually a goddamn great film. For one thing, it's so rich in ambient futuristic detail --from the ingeniously animatronic reptilian geisha girl assassins to the visualized 3-D streams of bit data (they're so cool they make the green columns in The Matrix seem like the dos prompts in War Games --insert snorty nerd laugh)--that all its generic cop vs. corporate corruption clunkiness is forgivable (and certainly no more perfunctory than that in Ghost's most obvious template, Blade Runner).

In a role originally conveyed via an anime pixie, Johansson plays "The Major," an advanced cybernetic cop chick chassis (the shell) housing a Japanese girl's ghost. The point woman fronting an elite group of cops who investigate AI-related crimes, she regularly gets told not to rush into danger by her concerned chief (Takeshi Kitano!), which is almost as tired as M. Emmett Walsh tossing back whiskey and cigars while talking about "beauty and the beast - she's both." As in Blade Runner, some advanced robotics engineers are the target of a splinter group of amok replicants, or something - (shades of Shelley). Their next target seems to be Major's own creator, Juliette Binoche (which is funny if you've seem Clouds of Sils Maria).

The killer, Kuze, SPOILER ALERT turns out to be an evil mastermind earlier version of the Major herself, basically a kind of cyberterrorist robot-human melding 'early edition,' played by another gaijin, Michael Pitt. A marvelously intricate character, Kuze seems to be constantly reconstituting himself from surrounding bit rates, only half alive and half virtual at any given time, his tortured voice is wracked with auto-tune and static, his awareness of his past at odds with the Major's computer generated amnesia. Once they start talking, comparing notes on their mostly-erased human pasts, Major wakes up to her true human origins, eventually 'going rogue' while the evil robotics CEO turns the bullets their way. Luckily, the cool thing about being a robot, she can get shot to shit and still be ready to dive slow-mo backwards off the parapet and come crashing upside down through a skyscraper window with both automatics Woo-style blazing again by the next beat. The future is nothing to fear as long as hangdog toughies like Beat Kitano carry teflon briefcases and can shoot from the hip. It's an unusually update, even tidy resolution but it hardly matters - the greatness is in the details, the startling HD clarity that makes the film seem ready for a VR headset 2020 remastering.

But getting back to the race issue, the casting of Johansson and Pitt as formerly Japanese eco-terrorist twenty-something lovers (arrested and mind-wiped) presumes if any Japanese person could create their own ideal robot shell, they wouldn't look Japanese, or at any rate even if the ghost/soul was Japanese, the white (French) engineer would give her shell a white face, and she'd automatically speak English (the universal corporate language) rather than Japanese. This strange but sadly (if conveniently) conceivable decision reaches a peak subtextual moment in the one at top, when Kuze and Major, remembering their Japanese teenager past, take off each other's facial covers, revealing the circuitry beneath (but not showing the maze of sociopolitical awareness vs. box office second-guessing at work in their mask's lack of epicanthic folds). ENDSPOILERS

In her hirers defense, ScarJo has ample experience for the job, including that of being alienated in Tokyo (as 2003's Lost in Translation); having her face dissolve into bits of digital programming in Tokyo (in Luc Besson's Lucy); disappearing altogether and becoming just a SIRI-style AI (in Spike Jonze's Her); and as a clone raised for its organs in a Logan's Run style enclosed citadel in The Island). We should remember that though white-washing is a long and shameful cinematic practice, Boris Karloff and Christopher Lee didn't just play Fu Manchu because they were white, but because they'd played evil megalomaniacs successfully in the past. In the same way, ScarJo has a resume of successfully conveyed artificial intelligences, test tube babies, amnesiacs, assassins, and substantial fight training that keeps the obligatory hair in the face stunt doubling to a minimum. She's global. She's sanded her psyche down for mass appeal, ready to be on the cover of everything from Italian Vogue to Japanese iPhone keypad ads for fragrances based on the novelization of the German manga.

I don't know why I'm sticking up for the casting decision- except that I, like everyone else, needs to prove he's not racist, even if it's only to himself, and the filmmakers clearly went all out to out-imagine both their holy bible Blade Runner and the anime version, combining multiple viewings worth of layered space and evocatively wrought Black Mirror future shockiness, and I'd hate for all that to be lost like tears in rain just because they were scared Maggie Q. wasn't a household name. The level of artistry and detail on display is jaw-dropping, and for once it actually serves a narrative purpose. We're clued into not only the world of the future but the foreign/alien way that future will be perceived. I can hardly wait until it too is on FX or FXX and comes punctuated with commercials for the next word in high-definition television.

As an anime, all Ghost's cyberpunk detail tended to get lost in the overwhelming rush of negative and positive space (ink can't be layered the way blacks shadows in HD can) and--let's face it--the internet was just getting rolling back then. A lot of all that future stuff was still just on the (printed pulp paper) page of Dick and Gibson novels. The anime had a lot of rotoscoping and confusingly conveyed overlap between future, past, reality vs. virtual, and--unless you were an anime devotee familiar with the narrative tics and traits, ahead of the curve on the dawn of AOL--it seemed a kind of over-the-top cartoonish reliance on animation shortcuts rather than segue/linking micro-movement (i.e breathing). That over-the-top literalness in this live action version lives on only in the 'tactical' eye adjustments of Batou (Major's right hand man, he loses his human eyes and opts for two telephoto / infrared lenses that make him look like Little Orphan Annie's jacked uncle). Aside from those eyes, nearly every image is sublime and best of all, at least semi-subtle and subdued. Since the actual actors and lighting provides some measure of corporeal relativity, the VR super-impositions stand out yet are so fully meshed it at times reminded me of last February when I had the DTs, watching Veronica Lake beckon to me from below the shining tiles of the ER waiting room. The slow-mo glass shattering and frozen water diving splashes while the camera careens were cliche minutes after The Matrix but here they actually fit the post-modern future on display; the differences between ancient past and far-flung future are dissolved almost as a side effect to the collapse of 3-D space and linear time.


The ultimate takeaway is that when the virtual world is as valid and 'real' as this one, (and the Uncanny Valley bridged), one of the side effect developments will be time travel, and the ability to replay our sensory recording of a single event, which can then be slowed down until the whole world stops on a fraction of a nanosecond for all eternity, and those watching/reviewing can wander into the middle of your 3D retinal projection display and see around corners and read the names of files left on the dresser. Weirder still, these memories could be hacked, so that around the corner too might be a VR assassin ready to--if not actually stop your heart and kill you--at least steal your mental capacity, leave you a stunned amnesiac while they make off with your internal hard drive. We see bits and pieces of this future in various Black Mirror episodes, but here it all fits together in a blast of subdued overwhelming elegance, like an atomic bomb inside an orchid.

There is one way to watch Ghost in the Machine and avoid any residual guilt over this issue, a way to amp up the subtextual resonance until it rings like freedom's bell: watch it with a Japanese dub language track. Hearing a Japanese actress speaking from inside ScarJo's shell as a Japanese woman trapped in a robot body will likely make all the difference.

If social-racial progress gets knocked back a peg by ScarJo's presence in this film, beauty parameters takes one step forward. ScarJo is a woman, and a warrior. She's no svelte anime pixie, or Vodka ad sexbot, though she's supposed to be the shell of an android, Johansson's body appears as it might an actual trained female fighter, i.e. solid, way heavier than any svelte anime assassin girl where you can tell they'd blow over in a stiff breeze. It's not so noticeable she's unattractive, but her lower center of gravity is solid evidence of her fight training that reminds of Cynthia Rothrock in her earlier films and of Gina Carano in her current ones. Like them, when she walks she has kind of a canny back and forth shoulders movement you see only with actually-trained female fighters, like Bruce Lee, a Thai boxer, and an alley cat melding together in one sultry, deeply present, fearless 'insolent' strut. Watching Rothrock throw down next to Michelle Yeoh for example in Yes Madam! is to see the difference between a dancer, lithe and fast (Yeoh) and a genuine kickass fighter (Rothrock); Johansson is the latter, and a big enough name she can steer the whole of our future's global beauty parameter to meet her changing silhouette.

At the same time, Johansson's modulated low-key acting (as demonstrated first in Lucy) fits both this fighter stance parameter and the role of a soul who's basically had her identity stripped away; her brain has been washed white and enhanced with micro-processors that record and play back memories that can be, as in the Tyrell corporations' most gifted Nexus edition, Rachel (Sean Young) artificially implanted or removed. Her whiteness and blank performance reflect cultural meaning in an era where the digital and analog are no longer separate, where humans can be hacked and turned into weapons just by visiting the wrong sight while doing live action interior chip role playing games. Her daringly 'real woman' body becomes a weird assertion of humanity against the machine its in and her micro-gestures of awakening vulnerability accomplish a gravitas Sean Young never could, while doing half as much business.

What makes Ghost in the Shell work for me, too is that, like Blade Runner it keeps its ambitions and goals for narrative and resolution low-- cliche'd, linear, resolved--to better focus on the visuals, mood, ambience and subtext. Compare with, say, the disastrous Matrix sequels where vast reels trudge across with abstract thesis dissertations on the collapse of space-time vs. the simple Wizard of Oz meets the Pusherman mythos of the first. Macking out between the cop show beats in Ghost are fascinating throwaways, such as a go-nowhere but still interesting scene where she touches the actual flesh(?) of an androgynous, only partially-human 'mixed race' freckled prostitute (above). In a very touching but not quite sexy scene their faces touch close enough the heat is there, but there's no need to go all the way into some gratuitous cyber-lesbianism; instead we have that curiosity with which a human might gaze into an animal's eyes (as in the cliche'd scenes with Batou's stray mutts) or vice versa, each fascinated by the mystery of a separate, never quite-knowable intelligence on the other side, as beautiful, as de LautrĂ©amont's saying goes, as the chance encounter between a sewing machine and an umbrella on the dissecting table. For Major it's the unknowability of what makes us human, metered out with the fascination of the machine for the human and vice versa; each enraptured, envious even, of the other: a human with artificial augmentation seen through the eyes of an artificial being with human augmentation. Watching Blade Runner now, on the ultimate edition cut, or whatever, I notice dozens of these little moments, the android equivalent of Hamlet looking into the skull sockets of pure Yorick; which is good because there's not much else to grasp, as the narrative is so wonky (and so ingrained in my consciousness I barely notice any suspense or momentum). But the monster looking for its reflection in the iris pond moments resonate long after the digital bullets and rain machines have sputtered to a stop.
--
As a privileged straight white male of course me sticking up for a movie other people are piggybacking a valid flashpoint off of should be suspect, yet here I am, wading inward. If we were all 100% aware of all our subconscious agendas, one way or another, would we ever say or do anything? Or would we just stand there paralyzed, realizing at last why the veil between unconsciousness and waking is so opaque. Even so, I hear most Japanese citizens think--if those who've read and summarized their tweets can be a reliable consensus--that we're (in the States) overreacting (to the white-washing accusations). So though this might be the 'flesh-colored crayon' du jour over here, in Japan but don't think of Shell as part of the Japanese cultural identity as they also know the whole genre comes via the novels of Phillip K. Dick and William Gibsonthe same authors who indirectly or otherwise spawned Blade Runner, their granddaddy bible, a film full of Asian characters and symbolism (albeit played up for culture shock effect). In other words, the deeper you go into analysis of what that weird divide is, between race difference vs. commonality, the 'we're all the same' vs. 'celebrate diversity' vs. using other cultures for shock effect (to reflect character's alienation vs. promoting distrust), etc, each division only divides again.

And then there's the weirdest, most strangely vivid and human--portion of Ghost in the Shell: Kaori Momoi as her Major's mom. It's clear English is not Momoi's first language but she attacks it with a stunning, raw innocence- as if in forming these strange words she's creating some new kind of polyurethane fiber: even across the divides of language and digital artificial shell recombination, and even race, she recognizes her long lost daughter. Maybe we can all learn a lesson from that. Probably not.

Either way, the net has spoken, public opinion has crashed the white-washing festival's invisible omnipresence. It's almost done. Maybe we can finally learn who are Asians really anyway, beyond being Asian, or what that even is, and if they can ever be anything but foreign to us, or when cultural admiration and adoption and approximation and co-opting begin and end relative to standard racism, and how racism affect non-white racists vs. white racists. Or if everyone sees other races this way relative to their own alienation from themselves, or who the hell coded all our damned genetic racist neural programming. I mean, if it wasn't the admiralty, or the reptilians. Or like, whatever. 1982 called, it wants my wanting to go back to it back, but now it's too late even for wanting. The days of loading computer games into the TI99 from a phone modem via cassette tape, that's when it was real. A true north to set the magnets by, "man."

IRON MAN 2 / AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON / CAPT. AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER

A nurturing friend to the Comic-Con geek, ScarJo likes to get right up close to the Hulk and rub his fingers or invade his puny Banner's personal space, or fall on top of him in a sexy silk dress behind the bar, telling him "don't turn green, ok?" She ends up trying to help Capt. America find a girlfriend even while the unfurl a dastardly Fourth Reich Paperclip conspiracy deep within the CIA (I mean HYDRA within SHIELD) and trying the direct approach with Banner, who ends up running away instead. The smart move, that, because Black Widow is single for a reason - Marvel 'gets it' - she's who we, the lovelorn teenage male demographic, imagines for ourself. We know she wouldn't be turned off by our living in mom's basement and spending our disposable income on mint condition action figures. Were Marvel to saddle her up with some dude like Luke Wilson bringing her flowers and making hangdog eyes, that, sir, would be a major miscalculation in how fantasy works to allay and soothe the hormone-tortured adolescent mind. Marvel's too smart for that. DC, on the other hand, gives superheroes sidekicks ('boy wonder') showing a too-literal interpretation of adolescent 'identification' psychology. We don't mind Wonder Woman goes out with Capt. Kirk as he's a badass. It's the smarmy hipsters we hate -- they're too close to us. That's the difference between smart attempts at playing into audience identification and bad. Luke Wilson is too close to us; we need to be able to slot the boyfriend of our love interest into either the 'soon to be arrested' bad guy category or the cool older brother category. 

Marvel gets it, and clearly posits Black Widow (it's in the name) as the girl we can imagine ourselves with (lord knows I did, back in the days of her character's large-size black and white comics). That said, I wonder just how many young boys and lesbians imagine themselves with Scarlett Johansson. Maybe it's her Bronx upbringing, but Scarlett's one weakness is that she can't do 'weakness.' She can never quite tap the accessible vulnerability (emblematic in, say Heather Graham or Patricia Arquette) that brings out the lusty aggressor in a man so essential to his sex drive (and detrimental if he can't control it). Instead, we love her at a respectful distance, and she boosts our ego without having to get awkward about it.

There's a scene early in the first Avengers where she's tied up getting slapped around by a cadre of Russian mobsters in an abandoned warehouse and her cell phone rings, it's Fury who wants her to come in, and she says something like Hold on, I'm almost done interrogating these guys. In the calm collected way she says it, the men realize she's never not been in control of the situation like they thought. She easily escapes her bonds and beats the shit out of them all with pieces of the broken chair, then sashays away. That scene to me illustrates the breadth of Scarlett's range, for she is not the most giving and exhibitionist of actresses, yet this scene she works, and it plays to her strengths, the way Neil Young works his limitations on guitar, i.e into strengths, through a kind of advanced depth primitivism. We can buy her as vulnerable only if it comes packaged with the idea it might be a ruse.

On the other extreme of the acting intensity range, for example, we might consider Noomi Rapace, who acts her pain and anger so vividly in films like Prometheus and Girl with the Dragon Tattoo that she leaves any concept of 'fun' far behind her. In her hands, that scene in the Russian warehouse would be a grueling drag. She'd make the pain and trauma of her slapping brutally real - she'd make it our problem, the post-call thrashing would be cathartic but we'd still be left irritable and clammy. She forgets we come to movies to be entertained, especially movies about space monsters and girl avengers. We don't need to feel traumatized, or to hate ourselves worse than we already do. The only thing tempering our pain at her automated C-section in Prometheus is that her character has been such a self-righteous bitch we're happy to see her suffer. She makes her own pregnancy issues everyone else's problem, then gets pissy when the ship's crew don't drop everything they're doing to ram an alien space craft on her command even if it will kill them all. Why she's so good at big international productions is that Scarlett implicitly understands the parameters of a scene in ways beyond mere chops and intensity; she's her generation's Angie Dickinson. 

Dig the way her shoulders hunch and move with her eyesight like a canny
low-center boxer snaking through the crowded disco as the ecstasy kicks in.
In Lucy (2014) there's a great bit where, after spending the first 1/4 of the movie crying and pleading, one of her captors kicks her in the stomach, breaking open the package she's carrying sewed inside, a kilo of high end brain boosting Limitless-style super drugs. Peaking on these blue crystals, she ably escapes, kills an array of bad guys, gets shot, goes to the hospital and--while a doctor removes the bullet at gunpoint--she calls her mom to explain she remembers being in her womb and the taste of her milk and how much she loves her Delivered by Johansson in a flat whispery monotone, Lucy's monologue to mom will bring uncomfortable recognition from anyone who's ever had a mind-opening drug trip / manic high and decided to call their mom out of the blue to 'connect' and show off, and explain they've cracked it wide open, broken the code, that they 'get it now' and can see past the limitations of time and space and realize all the interconnected love etc. etc. I know I've had a few of those back in the 80s-90s, and was always grateful for my mom's sense of denial, for I'd never hear about it later and forgot most of what I said/promised. Even if she did look at me kind of funny for a few weeks. Since then, I've had the experience of younger generations doing the same thing to me or in front of me, and I've been privy to how crazy these sorts of phone calls and explanations sound, both pretentious and deluded, egotistical and full of fragility masked in bravado, as if in convincing me of their discovery their discovery becomes real. It's like they try to etch these fleeting feelings into the consciousness of those around them, rather than where they should go- onto paper, magnetic tape, and hard drives- but just sound crazy--it doesn't translate, just like hearing about someone else's dream never has the same dizzy power as our own.

It's perhaps the sadder truth of enlightenment, especially via the poison path that the more brilliantly the ideas cascade inside your mind, the more the tongue can barely keep pace. Ideas as they flow out into brush strokes on canvas, words on the screen, words from the mouth - but try to talk normal to a friend or parent and--unless you really practice the art of doing it as an act in your down time--you don't quite sound like someone who's cracked it wide open and broke on through to the other side, you sound like an amok egotistical maniac, a frothing lack-of-sleep meth-addled grandiose version of James Mason in Bigger than Life and maybe, a little bit, like Scarlett Johansson in Lucy would if she didn't wisely underplay to such a dry extent. She can back it up with remote controlling all media, gravity, and telekinesis and shit in ways that make her more than a match for Neo in The Matrix, but she does it all without leather and dark glasses.

For Lost in Translation (see A Jet-Lagged Hayride with Dracula)
Ghost World
It was in 2001's Ghost World, Scarlett J. first showed the world a most endearing smirk that set her in a class somewhere off from/ above the hipster anarchy of her self-destructive friend Enid (Thora Birch); Scarlett would look upon Enid with the same kind of bemused indulgence Enid looked upon Steve Buscemi; the kind of halfway grin that can--in the wrong face-can smack of snide dismissal--when hers finally did, turning against Enid and moving in favor of a job and independence, we felt a chill in our guts like mom had just kicked us out of the house. Not that we blamed her, for we'd realized too that Enid's rebellion was a dead end. Sure her options were all soul-sucking drone work, but she needed to knuckle down and do it, to let her soul die just a bit, to reign in her wild mare in basement art, like some John Cheever country husband, instead of being all smarmier than thou straight into the isolated drifter bin. Scarlett J. was right to do dump her. Enid's world view and attitude is in the end, not self-sustaining. There's nowhere to go, and that--I think--was the film's big flaw, it didn't know how to end itself- to find the right note. It should have zapped the title up to a blast of punk anarchy when the old man gets on the bus that wasn't supposed to come and leaves Enid alone on the bench. Bam! She looks out at camera, Bam! Ghost World title card and punk rock credits music. A Winner. They probably tried that ending, but test audience asked what happened to Seymour, so the film checks in with Seymour again, letting us know--not that we cared--he's doing just fine, getting professional help, as if we needed that rather than to experience the zero sum game of his arc and Enid's both in that one bus stop moment. The utter pointlessness of rebelling against life outside the beef jerky and numb chucks of prefab American reality while still living within in it, Scarlett mutes it all down and gets excited about a fold-down ironing board in the apartment she's rending with Enid (if Enid gets the money), and that's really the film's one emotional payoff. The terror that flits across Enid's face as she suddenly realizes she truly is alone in the universe.

Scarlett's never really given us that ironing board moment gaze since, thank goodness, and has become instead a global scale avatar of a kind of mirror reverse nerd gaze - reflecting the geeky adoration of the Comic-Con Cos-play Kid back upon itself, with a wry half-smile that says "I know you would run in terror if I came onto you in real life, and I'm not going to, because then when you saw me onscreen again you'd jut get the sting of shame at the memory of when you ran away, plus I can believably kick your ass, and if that's a turn-off to your male instincts, watch me bat my eyes and feign vulnerability, but if you're not a chump, don't buy into it." This is the gaze that boys want to see mirrored back at them, for it acknowledges their gaze as something other than a toad-like imposition; even as it gently rejects, it flatters; the male gaze is returned without the Medusa stone surcharge so usually associated with 'real' women. The fanboy's gaze is not judged sexist, misogynist, evil, gross or all the other judgments breathing mammalian women make on men who leer way out of their league, nor is it returned with a come-on directness like a prostitute meeting their gaze across an Uncanny Valley casino bar, the type where you look away in fear instantly, before you consciously even realize what just happened. Even if you've never seen a high end prostitute in the wild, you still instinctively don't kick yourself for being chicken: a beautiful girl's sudden reciprocal stare is terrifying anyway, the gaze can't help but flinch if it's not used to being gazed back at the same way. Next time your gaze screenwards is met with an insolent stare, this time maybe you won't flinch like a drugged Sampson in the barber chair, maybe it will be the stare of ScarJo.. The rest of your boty may belong to Sony, but you get to keep your hair. That's the promise in those living human eyes.





Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Death Drivin' America - Part 3: DEATHSPORT, CANNONBALL!


Corman fans like myself are finding--in golden hindsight and reverence for all things 35mm--that many of Roger Corman's New World produced ALIEN / STAR WARS / JAWS-imitations (the one that launched Joe Dante, James Cameron, and Lewis Teague) have held up and improved with age, and even the 'period-period', the post-BONNIE AND CLYDE wave (BLOODY MAMA, BIG BAD MAMA, LADY IN RED, BOXCAR BERTHA, etc) still pack a wry punch. But we do ourselves, not the man, a disservice by forgetting Corman too wrote the original FAST AND THE FURIOUS, launched the biker subgenre with THE WILD ANGELS and helped craft the parameters of the wacky outlaw race movie with DEATH RACE 2000 and EAT MY DUST.

In the best of them, like TEXAS DYNAMITE CHASE, there are sultry glimmers of greatness, and the worst, like SMOKEY BITES THE DUST (1981), there are at least some good crashes. BUT -- remember a few miles back we talked about DEATH RACE 2050 ("the only movie that matters in 2017" - April Wolfe), and talked about how no film could match the original. Well, maybe I missed something - probably not, but there are two movies that explore different aspects of DEATH RACE 2000, a kind of Dougie/Cooper split if you will. Thanks to Shout Factory, whose New World DVD output is one of the great boons to any serious trash collector, we can shuffle back and find out which one has the real juice, if either.

The Paul Bartel-directed 1973 original DEATH RACE hypothesized that in 2000 we'd be living under the thumb of a crazy president (hey!) with a fun old-school (like Roman gladiator) sense of entertainment and population control. In the process all the tenets of 70s life were commented upon: road rage, gas crises, Carter and OPEC; America's big cathartic fuck-you to the next four days of work, Monday Night Football; Detroit demonology, the grease pit grimoire with groovy names like Gran Turino, Corvette, Trans-Am, Mitzy Bishu Gallant, Suzy Bannon the Buick; CB radios (as discussed in the earlier piece on CONVOY)

It's perhaps understandable why one who was a child in that time would return now to the auto wreck bloodsport satire genre as if some rumbling unleaded Rosebud. For our crazy prez, for our crazy country, for the Civil War that turned so cold we grew more Russian the more we tried not to be, and lo! hear the mighty engines roaring for America? Komrade, we need to rev it. Only by blazing fast and furious do we finally not stand stagnant swampish.


CANNONBALL!
(1976) Dir. Paul Bartel
**

There was the drag race juvenile 50s, the biker 60s, and then the New World team jumped lanes and drafted over behind a speeding slew of now semi-forgotten drag racing /moonshiner movies, and cross-country 'rallies,' rooted to actual events, such as the now-forgotten real-life Cannonball Dash, a cross-country race that was set up to protest the 55 mph highway law (set up in 1974) and caught the popular cinematic imagination where it congealed with the once-popular all-star cast ramshackle race-arounds like GUMBALL RALLY, VANISHING POINT and eventually SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT. In all of them, the issue of prize money, a bet, the importance of an honor system and all in the game camaraderie is easier to understand (a gum ball machine, for example, is a relatively worthless prize; a truckload of beer doesn't seem worth risking jail and doing all sorts of public damage, etc.). For $100,000. prize in CANNONBALL!, well, that's real money, and it's just too damn easy to cheat if all you need is an LA parking lot stamp at the NYC finish line.  One canny little guy flies his car in a big jumbo jet across country; others sabotage rival cars (with racers too dumb to watch their vehicle or check under the hood); and so forth.

These things bother me; and the film is choked up with actors too much alike to tell apart with your glasses off, all made even similar-er-er for no real reason. Rather than tweak cliches to archetypal amok wresling-style comic book lunacy, here Bartel just delivers them, flat: A smiling polite black dude (Stanley Bennett Clay) racing some nice Goy couples car to NY for them (we know they're deserving of a smashed caddy because they tell him not to drive at night or faster than 55 mph); Gerrit Graham (PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE's 'Meat') is wasted as a cowboy singer riding with his mobbed-up manager Mr. Redmond, who's hoping this event will boost his profile (how, exactly?) David Carradine is a 'legend' named Cannonball (so original!) whose breaking parole by driving out of California-- one speeding ticket and he's back in jail with the key thrown away!--is the height of folly, the sort of self-sabotage that dirtbags often confuse with bad luck. Luckily for him, his parole officer (Veronica Hamel) is his navigator/lover. But if you remember her from HILL STREET BLUES than it may not be so lucky for you: her character there was far too professional and competent in that show to throw away her career following such a three-strikes idiot, and so though it's nice to see her wipe the floor with a cadre of good old boys (while Cannonball watches from the sidelines), it's sad that she also seems dubbed... from far away. Faring better in our esteem is the great Mary Woronov who pilots a van carrying two horny blondes in the back (Diane Lee Hart, Glynn Rubin) and David's little brother Robert and Brenda Belaski as young newlyweds. They seem genuinely in love, young and sweet (they brought an acoustic guitar) plus the race makes sense in the terms of their character arc (elopement, money, youth, horniness).

In short, ladies, the 'Trans-America Grand Prix Auto Race" is on! Just ignore the obvious nagging questions about logic and practicality (like how gas guzzling town cars are bad at cross country races, running out of gas way more often out in the cornfields at night), the contradictory rules (does Bartel [and his co-writer Don TOP GUN Simpson] even know how races or gambling work?), and the idiocy of "Cannonball", hiss sycophantic copycat (so annoying), and Dick Miller as his bookmaking older brother, who sabotages other fast cars in the race but then, confusingly, seems to be out to sabotage his brother too (did he become someone else's brother in one of Simpson's rewrites?). He needn't bother in any case, for Cannonball is an easy mark. Never thinking to follow his enemies when they walk or crawl past his car on their way out of the parking lot, he's stunned when his jack later turns up missing or his lights don't work or his gas tanks been ice-picked. When he finally falls asleep at the wheel, you're like fuck, I'm rooting for the wrong guy.

I've barely scratched the surface with how purely stupid and incompetent Carradine's Cannonball (the driver) is, I can only presume crafty Bartel was going somewhere with the idea, some black comic joke between the 'lines' done with Simpson... lost in the nasal cavity of time.

If you can ignore all that, well, go for it: the car stunts are amazing (there's also an awesome jump across an unfinished stretch of highway overpass and plenty of wild spin-outs and crashes - all from back in the day they did that shit for real) and there's a plethora of insider cameos: Corman himself is the Los Angeles D.A.; Don Simpson is his assistant DA; Bartel is a shady fey mobster in the then-popular fey mobster vein (the type who play piano while their thugs (here Martin Scorsese and Sly Stallone) kick the shit out of someone (Dick Miller) for not holding up their this or betraying their that. Joe Dante and Allan Arkush are tow-truck drivers who help out Cannonball with a new car (though I wouldn't trust him with my Big Wheel).


That's okay though, we decided we would let that all go, man. Remember? What matters is that the good guys win, even if the good guys aren't always who you think, or something. And there's a great, grim gruesome freeway pile-up so out of step with what came before it chokes off even the most jadedly sardonic of laughter. Despite the whole sexy van thing there's no puerile snickering or silicone (Fred Olen Ray was still too young, thank god), and there's a big charnel house freeway pile-up that's not to be missed. Bloody, savage, out of place, it's like if Burt Reynolds wound up decapitating some old lady in his effort to Yee-Haw over the sheriff's patrol car and the bouncy harmonica just kept a-boinging. The ever reliable Tak Fujimoto does a good job capturing the stonewashed pink of Cannonball's open shirt and the haze of the open road. In short, America.

Even so, Simpson stopped writing and turned to producing after this, smart move. He died in 1996 and Bartel died in 2000, so there you go. Hell, there we all go...

DEATHSPORT
(1978) Dir. Allan Arkush, Nicholas Niciphor
**1/2

A film for the dirt bike-riding 16 year-old arsonist in all of us, DEATHSPORT was meant to be a DEATH RACE 2000 sequel but instead gives us moody crypto-poetry, blazing fireballs, matte paintings of futuristic dystopian cities, and that old LA desert scrub being ground underfoot by tricked-out dirt bikes and hosses. So many dirt bikes blow up in this film it's almost a pyrotechnic's demo reel. The game, like the Statham DEATH RACE remake or THE RUNNING MAN, helps prisoners win freedom via  motor cross / Rollerball / gladiator mash-up, with no sense of humor about its own absurdity. So you get tired of shots wherein a row of three to five tricked-out 'death bikes' whizz past the camera in single file to a 'zzzzzzzap' sound effect (that's just the same effect loop over and over) but I like the guns, which are like big Pringles can mini bazookas that fire huge laser bolts that vaporize opponents; and the thrift-shop dumpster dive approach to the costumes is never short of astounding. The dirt bikes are all tricked up with white paint and shoot lots of fireballs. I'm glad the film never bothers to explain rules. We're too high from huffing rush and snorting evaporated Nyquil. Just blow shit up! Hell yeah, all the teachers and short Italian burnouts who wronged you in middle school can get theirs by flaming proxy. And girls who disobey the sleazy leader get thrown naked into the room of dangling light strips, or zapped on the color filter table of abstract woe. It would be misogynist if it wasn't hilarious. Girls kind of half-heartedly pretending to get mind-probed by red gel lights is always fun. I never understood this habit some movies have of making the pain and fear of a woman so vivid and realistic it leaves you with a traumatic stomach for weeks, it's why I can't stand Noomi Rapace. Corman and company get the way fake violence is cathartic, a release, a transfigurative way of making the unconscious desires and fears visible and absurdist so they lose their power and we can breathe again. So the electro-lightshow shock treatments given to Claudia Jennings don't leave a scar on our psyche but harken the whole mess back a few years to AIP's DUNWICH HORROR (1971) and Hazel Court's initiation scene in MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH (1968). The weird lighting and enigmatic presence of David McLean's 'Lord Zirpola' as the sick spectator / torturer gives these scenes a weird vibe reminiscent of the conditioning scenes in CLOCKWORK ORANGE or the performances in CAFE FLESH. In this future it's hard to tell where the reality and the diegetic performances separate. Even in their weird cells, Carradine and Jennings are on display, the all-seeing eye of Zirpola a combination of paranoid despot and louche peeping tom.


So the evil empire catches two wandering warriors called in this post-whatever-scape, the 'range guides' (because they lead wagon-train-style herds through the wilderness); they bike their way to freedom through the indomitable skills and have some great soul meld sort of spirit sex even separated by a door so badly drippy white-washed you worry Carradine will get white paint on his chest hair. Later on there's bargain mutants with yellow ping-pong-ball-eyes and camouflage-netting dashikis. It all works because the cast is led by three New World champions: David Carradine plays an amalgam of Kane from ABC's 1972-5 KUNG FU series and of course Frankenstein in DEATH RACE 2000 (he must have had a multi-picture contract with New World, like Vincent Price had with AIP); feral playmate Claudia Jennings (similar contract; see THE GREAT TEXAS DYNAMITE CHASE) is a fellow guide and warrior (as in the best Corman stealth-feminism, she's as tough and wise and able as any of the men - and prettier too, without being trashy or even overtly feminine). Real-life burn survivor Richard Lynch (GOD TOLD ME TO) is the bad guy but he's cool because he's not afraid of death and seeks only the field of honor for a final sword fight.


And it's always amazing the way Lynch seems to wind up in films full of fire effects, considering his history (3). In fact, I'm literally in awe of his fearlessness (2). Burn scars cover almost entire body, yet there he is, striding amidst the fireballs like it's no big deal. I'm in awe. I guess, in the words of the Hephaestus-like blacksmith in MOBY DICK, "thou canst not scorch a scar." (1) And great as Jennings and Carradine are at keeping straight faces, Lynch, as the bad guy / master henchman gets all the best lines, purred in a mellow emotionless forceful calm: "You call me animal?" he declares, "after all I tried to do to make you feel at peace?" Whatever his fall from grace, he's openly admirable towards the memory of Carradine's warrior mother (whom he killed in battle), giving Carradine the ultimate warrior greeting: "Salute your mother for me"



Andrew Stein's score provides a great minimalist mess of wind sound, endless 'zap' effects as dirt bikes speed past the camera in single file and sustained notes somewhere between the Bebe's FORBIDDEN PLANET and faux John Carpenter. When he gets down to melodic refrains on keyboard proper, however Stein can get downright terrible. Jerry Garcia even noodles forth, emerging at the darndest times in and around in the mix, and as anyone who ever sat through a Dead Show more than thrice can tell you, depend on Jerry to lead you out of the caves of aimless noodling and you're going to be in there a long while. That said, all encores end at last eventually and at times the Jerry gets damned surreal as does the comically sloppy (or obnoxiously arty -like with Godard, it can be hard to tell the difference) editing.

Some of the writing is interesting with the whole samurai aspect folded into the stilted dialogue like stealing someone else's clean underwear at the laundromat; the narrator stresses the sacredness of combat, noting the range guides "ow(e) allegiance only to their foes," whom are called "statesmen." And that the greeting between range guides is "Our union is limited." In other words it's Groucho's "Hello, I must be going" all over again, but siphoned of all but the deadest deadpan winks. Another keeper, delivered with the solmemnity through which Carradine won the heart chakras of a generation of strip mall karate kids via TV's KUNG FU: "No one can touch myself," oh man, how true. I wanted to write them all down, but they got away from me. I could no more capture their fleeting beauty without that deep-set eye roll couched in Carradine's intonation than a moon capture the dragon fly's wallet.

In case you can't tell, despite my staggering levels of artsy cosmopolitan breeding and literacy, I got mad love for this terrible movie and all the deadpan jokes Carradine, editor Larry Bock, and replacement director Arkush sneak little into the crevasses, like the way Carradine every so often casts a wry glance at the camera, or the non-sequitur editing. I love the way the mutants hide their faces so we don't linger on the awful yellow ping boll eyes and the way camouflage netting that is both their clothes and their mutations (their shame over being mutated covers the shame of the make-up dept). I love how Jenning's unusual fox-like features are complimented by her white fur collar. I'm not a fan of the grating replaying of the same sound effect over and over as the pursuing bikers whizz past the camera in line along the dirt paths, but hey. Our union is limited. Noodle on, Big Jerry. Noodle on.

The Shout DVD includes the fun Bock and Arkush commentary. a kid fresh out of UCLA Nicholas Niciphor, whose THX13 style sci-fi short senior project won enough acclaim to get Corman's attention. Whatever Niciphor was intending with his initial version, it didn't work; he wasn't asked back, and Arkush was called in to direct new footage, with fireballs, nudity and enough action to make the high concept artsy parts less obtuse and stilted, which he did in spades. Perhaps the best in the world at capturing the giddy anarchic spirit of a truly great rock concert on film Arkush pours anarchic pyromaniac anarchy onto the staid sci-fi conceptualism like the Ramones crashing Vince Lombardi High in his ROCK AND ROLL HIGH SCHOOL. (that Arkush's gonzo masterpiece GET CRAZY isn't on DVD is one of the great crimes of the 21st century). DEATHSPORT is like the cool dude who hands you a one-hit of kind bud right right before you go into juvenile court. Maybe you would have been better off without it, your bloodshot eyes won't impress the judge, but on the other hand joke 'em if they can't take a fuck - rock and roll! Pickle Rick! Meep-Morp.

With the scorched featured and measured tone of the fearless fire elemental Richard Lynch, the always lovely and grounded yet gutsy, literally foxy Jennings, the cracking wry fourth wall eye rolling Carradine, the copious fireballs sending tricked-out bikes flying into the air, and the Arkush commentary, you're guaranteed a good time with the Shout DVD,  as long as you don't watch the second feature, BATTLETRUCK, even if it does have Swan (Michael Beck) from THE WARRIORS in the Mad Max role. He's a long way from XANADU...  Aren't we all? Sandahl Bergman played one of the dancing disco muses in XANADU. We couldn't have known then who she'd inspire next... one newly licensed car-driving Cimmerian who can rent XXX movies at the video store, but still needs mom to buy him R-rated movie tickets, because the Somerville Circle Cinema lady is a total bitch. Mom, Salut! 


SEE ALSO
NOTES:
1. Lynch also played a cult leader who encourages his flock to burn themselves up in BAD DREAMS, and an alien hybrid cult leader who burns himself up in a tenement basement in GOD TOLD ME TO. 
2-3. The scarred skin of Lynch's face is real --he poured gas on himself and lit a match while under the influence of too much LSD in the 1960s. I think youtube has some clips of him talking about it.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Cat Class: THE CAT CREATURE, CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE




Julie Newmar in the old BATMAN TV show--her lithe playful grace, her tender malevolence with her dopey underlings, her black spangly bodysuit and languorous ease in her own alluring body, the languorous stretching way she'd climb up and dismount the boxes and thrones in her secret lair--even as a seven or eight year old I could feel my still-slumbering hormones stir within me like a sleepy behemoth whenever she appeared (it was a regular after-school rerun throughout the 70s). And so, because of her, we all began to worship cats. Bast, the ancient Egyptian cat goddess, was invoked around playground pentagrams; Cat Woman to boys what My Pretty Pony, or National Velvet was to girls, and nowadays Jacob the wolf boy. Animal-human hybrids are a pop culture-raised nations' adolescent sexual surrogates. America the parent sits on our bed, fidgets in its after-work tie, glances at our weird posters, and says "this has been a good talk," then runs from the room confident its role has been passably completed. The TV smiles, rolls its eye and returns to regular cat channel.  We may not know the mystery behind that impassive mask, but that's why it's there - and as a result it's a real relief.



Alas, Cat Woman fell down a well (see Kitty Kali). Other ladies took the role. None the same; what cat can compare to luminous Newmar? Genres change, boys become men, men become wolves, graven images are smashed by heretics' hacking hammers, the beat goes on, and cats come back / the very next day. As Boris says in THE BLACK CAT (1934), "Cats do not die." So can we deny that the crazy old lady with the ton of cats is within us all?

Lately two film ambled forth and struck my gong in this department. Timeless, strange, evocative, ephemeral, mysterious, kind of goofy, and short. What can we do but cherish them, and never try to put them in little cardboard boxes? You heard me, Ollie, in CAT PEOPLE (1942).

THE CAT CREATURE
(TVM - 1974) Dir. Curtis Harrington
***

The story of a strange necklace stolen off of a mummy and the curse that follows it (everyone who handles the piece gets mauled to death by Bast, a mummy cat god), THE CAT CREATURE is solid as far as 70s TV horror movies go--and there were a lot of them. If you were a kid in the 70s (this post is heavily nostalgic, because cats are outside space and time), now you may find you love them, despite their shallow depth slow-amble cop show vibe, their general avoidance of anything like sex or gore, their low budget and clear reliance on commercial breaks for pacing (which makes their video and digital versions seem strangely incomplete, as if 'the good parts' are missing). In their gentle nostalgia-evoking haze they provide a kind of comfort food opiate quality. And when done right, as by Curtis Harrington, they're great sources for bits of classic Hollywood, a way to keep fading B-list characters visible, and evoke the bygone classics while following cop show rhythms and doling out just enough scares and suspense to keep you from changing the channel at the next commercial break, but not enough to give you a panic attack, rob you of your very-70s faith in humanity, or even bum you out. They trade on ambiguity, which is something that Curtis Harrington proved himself a master of straight out the gate with his first film, NIGHT TIDE (1962). Harrington is a true fan of the classic horror era; he single-handedly rescued OLD DARK HOUSE from the edge of the abyss and here he salvages the gloriously sinister Gale Sondergaard from her decades on the black list, giving her ample room to flash her evil smile and dish out tarot fortunes (guess what card is drawn for the nosy archaeologist?). The cast also includes Keye Luke, John Carradine, Milton Pearson (he played the escaped lunatic in THE HIDDEN HAND) and John Abbott (THE VAMPIRE'S GHOST). CAT PEOPLE's Kent Smith kicks it off as an appraiser archiving the collection of a recently murdered Egyptologist. Smith is soon murdered himself; the investigating detective Marco (Stuart Whitman) follows the trail of a missing cat amulet and the trail leads to 'The Sorcerer's Shop," run with Mephistophelean relish and coded lesbian vibery by Sondergaard


Harrington deftly uses that mellow 70s TV rhythm to parcel out the ambiguous details in the intimate relationship that develops between archaeologist named Roger Edmonds (David Heddison) who Marco enlists to help him ID the stolen medallion, and shy cute newcomer 'Rena' (Meredith Baxter), the new hire at Gayle Sondergaard's occult bookstore (jammed with great skulls, Satanic tapestries and assorted items much darker than you'll find in any new age bookshop today). Roger and Marco make the scene at the downtown pawn shops and flops in search of the amulet and/or perps. I know this is hard to believe, lieutenant, but the murders seem to have been done by a cat. And then Roger brings up the subject of Bast-- the cat goddess worshipped through human sacrifice by ancient Egyptians--a goddess who was then locked away for all eternity because of her blood-drinking and evil.

Suspiria-prfiguring exterior shot set to eerie percussion and yowling
I confess I liked the teaming of Heddison and Whitman, each with a voice deeper than the other's, and manly gravitas long vanished, sadly, from our post-MTV generations. I also found myself drawn to Baxter's shy new store worker Rena --there is a profound sadness to this character that makes her almost like Amy in CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE, grown up and out on her own for the first time, history all set to repeat itself. (Rena being clearly taken from 'Irina').


One of Harrington's great skills is in using the commercial break to muddle the "did they or didn't they" fade-out into an actual supernatural asset. The issue of sex with a cat creature (or mermaid) pales in importance next to the emotional involvement, so that one coffee by the shore can evolve into a devotion beyond death through a hazy reincarnation style memory without ever getting to first base - that feeling of "I feel like we go way way way back" spread along the axis of THE MUMMY and SHE and the endless slog of epochs, all without any clear sense of 'how far' things  have gotten. We never learn how far around the bases he got since hooking up with her, and neither-one suspects--does he. Their romance sheathed as it is almost in paternal warmth vs. sexual heat is very 70s--in well-laid LA especially--since once it's had with some regularity, sex becomes just a facet of a relationship, not the be-all end-all; that plus the inherent censorship of prime time equals sex as just a thing that may have happened --this is as it should be. An archaeologist never kisses and tells, and so their romance stays fairy tale abstract and perfect for children, who want to have a girlfriend or boyfriend but who neither know about nor want to know nor should have to know about sex yet. That's the 70s prime time TV movie in a nutshell. Now I sound old, and PG, safe and neutered, but even the dirtiest of the oldest men are soon washed clean by time's scavenging sponge.

Dig some of Harrington's 'uncanny' extras - the lesbians at the Sorcerer's shop,
waiter at the hippie-ish restaruant, "Maybelle" at the hotel, etc.

What's so haunting is that eventually she turns into a monster being devoured by stray cats, sort of - a scene that was clearly difficult to pull off (a hard day those cats put in - god only knows how their wrangler got them to all attack that poor stunt man) and looks like one of those guys in INVADERS FROM MARS if he fell in the mud and was wearing a big clay cat head (the bandages are all very loose). It's odd as its twice the size of little Meredith and adds a whole extra level of frisson. Roger has been hooking up with this monster? Either way, it's still sad - we feel for this poor creature, trapped in darkness for thousands of lonely years- I would have liked this better if Roger was at least tempted by her offer of immortality, but the cops are closing in by then anyway, and so there's more than a hint of the kiss-off in both VERTIGO and MALTESE FALCON.


Robert Bloch wrote the script; there's a solid Leonard Rosenman score (some meowing violins, pensive percussion, slow sustains and yowling gongs). I even dig the creepy credits with the jagged horror font and the chanting. And at a brisk 75 minutes of so it's over quite promptly, leaving me, at least, wanting more, from the plaster Egyptian 'artifacts' to the autumnal color scheme, Harrington ensures every frame is a-drip with classic horror fan / 70s childhood manna (it's streaming through Shudder).

CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE
(1944) Dir. Robert Wise
***1/2

Just as CAT CREATURE's low-key success hinges on hazy classic B-movie nostalgia, CURSE's success hinges on the Lewton cinematic language, that low-key visual poetry and gift with extended dialogue-free scenes of young girls making their way through a strange night landscapes, the quiet and sudden rush of trains, zombies, busses or (here) snow tires in deep quiet punctuated by sudden shock scares. What do we remember about I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE? The whistle of the cane stalks in the dry wind. What in LEOPARD MAN? The blood under the door. CAT PEOPLE, the shadows in the pool room, and so on. Each is, in its way, a transient event, ephemeral; the supernatural is always ready to dissolve in the salty brine of rational overhead lighting. Often the story itself is rather inconsequential compared to the marvelous little 'touches'.

Famously, Lewton was given his lurid titles by the studio brass and had to make films to match; luckily for us he made sure to honor them even while doing his own thing. For CURSE he bucks the RKO brass-mandate of the title to eke out a weird but quietly beguiling fable that moves through THE SECRET GARDEN and NIGHT OF THE HUNTER-style mytho-poeticism and builds to a weird climax of faith and wind effects. It's a film with may more women than men (the war was on); but there are no shrill gadflies here (unlike THE WOMEN, for example), just low-key confident professionals, including a cool teacher whose authority on child psychology is delivered in the same calm-assertive manner of Nancy Davis in the Lewton-esque SHADOW ON THE WALL (and sadly can be seen almost nowhere else). Though it's often avoided in principle by classic horror fans (there's no actual cat people, too many kids), there's much more to this sequel than the casual viewer of the first ten minutes will suspect. The story is unique among sequels in that is very faithful to its predecessor as far as cast and continuation, rather than repeat the same formula, as RKO no doubt hoped (but Irina's virginity in the previous film made a literal child impossible, so they had to improvise).

Irina dreams in CAT PEOPLE (1942)
Kent Smith as Ollie the amiable square ship builder, whose pawing drove his late wife--the coded lesbian/feline Serbian Irina (Simone Simon) to murder--has remarried Alice (Jane Randolph), the girl who Irina chased into the pool in the first film and they've had a kid, Amy (Ann Carter),--a dreamy girl more like Irina than Alice. Sir Lancelot (the calypso singer from the previous year's I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE) is there as the housekeeper/cook and they only have one child. Clearly they're affluent in this upscale Sleepy Hollow bucolic idyll --their normal happy life includes bridge games with the neighbors and drinks and songs with the carolers and the compassion is clear in Lewton's and screenwriter Dewitt Bodeen's treatment of their romantic evolution. (We wonder what Alice does all day since Sir Lancelot cooks and cleans and looks after Amy). All should be well. There's even (rare for Lewton) exterior shots filmed outdoors in the sun, full of that insufferably bucolic small town post-code 'charm'. But psychic and inward daughter Amy doesn't quite fit Ollie's uber-generic idea of what kids should be. Irina's ghost shows up to help Amy in her loneliness, as a kind of psychic apology (since Ollie's irrational fury towards Amy's flights of imagination are due to Irina's 'madness')-- in other words, Ollie has become Irina's shadow rather than vice versa. In a way he becomes the villain of the piece - he spanks Amy for sayings she has an imaginary friend, which is kind of horrible, punishing her for imagination, since he considers it Irina's imagination that she was a cat that led to her death. We cheer her running off into the night, utterly abandoned as even her imaginary friend decides to leave her (since she broke the cardinal rule and mentioned her existence to dogmatic Ollie).


We who were kids who came home alone to watch Batman after school and crush on Cat Woman--can certainly relate. Maybe we didn't have a dad who punished us for imagining things, but it felt like that; we related to Amy's desolation the same way we related to Irina's frigidity in CAT PEOPLE. Whether or not she was coded closet queer (the lesbian 'sister' greeting of Elizabeth Russell at the cozy restaurant), her dislike of being touched (pawed, mauled) made her cinematically self-aware. She knew that the only thing keeping her human was the safety of the camera, our gaze, director Jacques Tourneur's simple but elegant daytime shots of her apartment, the restaurant, and the zoo. When darkness comes and the camera is elsewhere or off, i.e. inside the fade-out when sex happens-- the demons take possession; the animated cats dance in her head. We kids knew this from being brave all day in the sun with our parents around, and then huddling in bed at night, aware of every little sound. Without our parents to name and diffuse them, they took on monstrous life. Imagination is--in the land of children and Lewton--not merely some Spielbergian whimsy, but also a source of unfathomable danger and dread. Irina's fear of sex was like our fear of the dark, a ruptured vein of mythic alchemical change. Since we didn't understand it, sex became an important part of a marriage due to its subtextual absence (it's the thing we don't see - at least in older movies), in other words, the darkened portion of human knowledge, all the things we kids were afraid to find out but were nonetheless drawn to like a magnet, lay behind the wedding veil.

The Women: reflecting the wartime shortage of men by having a strong mostly female cast,
where everyone, even Amy, is more or less a mature adult.
As in SHADOW ON THE WALL, the world of children is one where women carry absolute authority.
Amy's teacher, Ms. Callahan (Eve March), even corrects Ollie's intolerant
behavior; Ollie sends Amy upstairs but he's the brat;
Ms. Callahan sends Ollie up after her, but far more maturely.
Either way, Amy herself is the product of piercing that veil. the evidence of Ollie finally getting laid. But she's dreamy and otherworldly- ignoring her friends to chase butterflies (the sort of thing that clearly inspired PAN'S LABYRINTH); mailing her birthday invitations to magic trees, and calling Irina (Simone Simon) into being. By day Amy goes chasing butterflies and walking past the gloomy old 'haunted house.' Amy's not afraid, an old lady in the window throws her a magic ring wrapped in a kerchief and soon Amy finds herself swept into the drama inside the crumbling Gothic mansion, and swept into a maternal drama between super-creepy Elizabeth Russell (the 'sister' in the first film), whose elderly mom, who an old stage actress (Julia Dean) refuses to recognize as her own daughter (not unlike Ollie with Amy in a less decayed orbit). The maternal triangle, the elder lady lavishing affection on young Amy while her older ignored flesh and blood watches in envy, is almost exactly like MARNIE and one is compelled to realize the rarity of it since these are the only two instances (though it shows up on a more sexual note in, say, Von Sternberg's Dietrich films).

On the other hand, why is this weird daughter hanging around, taking care of her mom and not, seemingly, having a life of her own?



Ann Carter is a very unique actress, with something of Veronica Lake's blonde otherworldliness (she even plays Lake's daughter in the last scene of I MARRIED A WITCH). Hers is a heightened cinematic reality: any fantasy or paranoid hallucination is just as real and vivid as the reality itself.  One of the scarier parts of the film is one level just an old lady telling the tale of the Headless Horseman, but it's the way it's filmed, Dean's commitment to the role, the wide-eyed way she stares directly into the camera while delivering the oration (and in we hear, through Amy's mind presumably, the thunder of approaching hoofbeats), the nervous fretting of Lancelot who's come to fetch her home, all create a uniquely weird and original mood that won't be duplicated again until the big climax.


Though there's no immanent threat, and it's the afternoon, and Edward (Sir Lancelot) is right there to whisk her away, the mood--one imaginative woman's mind to another's--lingers. Sir Lancelot's discomfort can't compete with that kind of wild imaginative prowess, so he fears it. For Lewton fans it's an ironic counterpoint: the last time we saw Lancelot in a Lewton film he was slowly advancing towards Frances Dee in I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE (below, 2nd down), singing a creepy ballad about the 'trouble' at the plantation, staring into the camera in the same way. Now, a year later, he's shifting with the same unease he generated in Dee; and he's sort of playing the Dee role here, a caregiver to a blonde with far-away eyes - just a touched and wayward girl instead of a zombie.

Don't stare into the camera, lest the camera stare back
Directed with some of Tourneur's visual poetry by Robert Wise, once we leave the daytime shots for the surreal studio snowdrifts and spooky mansion with its rattling shudders and snow tracking into the foyer, the film finally lets go of its central theme of imagination to focus on something like Christian transmutation. We come away wondering if Amy's found a new friend, a babysitter, maybe, or at lest a friendly neighbor, in the form of the formerly murderous Elizabeth Russell. And dad comes around at last at which point Irina can safely disappear. THE END flashes in an ominous touch, just as it does in Curtis Harrington's CAT CREATURE, with the feeling the film is still going on, even after the house lights come up. It might be over, but the cats do not die, anymore than darkness.


RELATED: 

America of Ghosts: Why Lana Del Rey is the New Val Lewton
At Long Last, Lost Lewtons: FALCON AND THE CO-EDS, ZOMBIES ON BROADWAY
CinemArchetype 2; The Anima
CinemArchetype 15: The Animal Familiar
A Moon, Cat Women, and Thou: CAT WOMEN OF THE MOON
“What It Takes to Make a Softie”: Breaking Noir Tradition in THE LEOPARD MAN

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