Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception since 2006, or earlater

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Anti-Authority Nowhere Land: CONVOY (1978)

America needs a hero again, c'mon back Rubber Ducky 10-4 and remember that song "Convoy" by ole Cash McCall. Sure, now that the trucker craze is decades gone and it just sounds like some grizzled old Marlboro man babbling into his receiver while a Curtis Mayfield instrumental plays behind him on the FM dial, but in 1975-6 we had a great big Convoy haulin' ass up the charts until it became the hood ornament on a full-on cross-country trucker fad. It was the kind of thing we all heard on the radio in our parents' car nonstop and either loved or ignored (we didn't really 'hate' things in the 70s). If we ever take moment from the daily din of 'Civil War Mach 2' perhaps we can all, regardless of the color of our state, listen to old McCall warn fellow drivers about the bears, and remember how, a mere 40-ish odd years ago, we all loved the same song, hated the same thing (the highway patrol), dreamt the same dreams, and drank the same beer while watching the same sunset, and then one last thing we did together: we avoided the 1978 movie version of McCall's song, Convoy when it finally came out. Because when a craze dies down in America, we become kind of ashamed and remorseful for letting ourselves get so carried away. We pack it up in a basement-bound box to wait until bored Williamsburg college students unearth it while smoking pot down there when you're at work. The fuzzy dice hood ornament might be too dusty to use, and they don't have a car, but they like the hat, and the PBR belt buckle, and the bandanna. But the CB's busted, I think. Let me go and check....

(comes back ten minutes later:) Well, I don't know where it is, or the fuzzbuster, but if we're ever going to get ourselves together again we need to remember we once had them and not let alarmist hysteric news cycle warmongers and shadowy Russian puppets tear us asunder. The Rooskies and a billionaire Aussie are using our own patriotism, educational system, and freedom of speech against us, c'mon back! We're gonna need to use our CBs and that old trucker code to stop them, as they're listening in on our phones, man. For their handles let's call Putin Big Red and Trump the Orange Capo.

But yeah, c'mon back, good buddy, to the movie CONVOY---get your ears on. For songs could get so big in the 70s they'd make a movie around it. was another big thing in the 70s, movie versions of goddamn songs were commissioned. We loved some songs so much we needed, producers guesses (wrong), to see someone's film version, the novelization not far behind.  But the more we pull a song to us the harder we push it away later, so the movie inevitably bombs and today only a few of us remember they even existed. Take the more northern state-style 'softie' radio obsession that came upon as after McCall's song had died away, Debbie Boone's 1977 hit "You Light Up My Life." Whole families would pull over when "Light" came on the car radio, and cry in unison, mine included, when that damn song came on. A Light up my Life movie was immediately commissioned, producers ill-advisedly presuming America wouldn't be long sick of the emotional hit by the time the film came out later in the year.

We were. And to this day no one has ever seen You Light Up My Life.

But Convoy (1978) had more than a feelin', by which I mean Peckinpah directing, which meant slow-mo bar fights. It came out three years after the song had been forgotten. Emotion didn't enter into it, not the sappy kind anyway, only a comforting feeling of strength and solidarity with the truckers of the open road. It sat in our minds next to Burt Reynolds' middle finger and our ability to get truckers to honk real loud if we turned around and made a 'toot-toot' gesture as we passed them. The real appeal for those of us too young to drive, though, was the novelty of the CB radio and all its crazy code words: You could get on there and play talk radio DJ, and more importantly tip off the reverse going traffic if you spotted a 'bear in the woods' i.e. a speed trap waiting for traffic on the other side. The idea of a kind of anonymous fame (anyone, could be listening in - a kind of early Twitter). Once in awhile we got rides in the older kids' cool Trans-Ams or Firebirds and it hooked us. The automotive store became a kind of secondary Spencer Gifts. We eyed the Playboy bunny mud flaps and bought novelty rearview ornaments to hang over our beds like dreamcatchers. We'd sit in our sixth grade class wearing black driving gloves, just in case. Meanwhile at the movies, the masses clamored in love of the motorized outlaw. Sugarland Express (1974) and Vanishing Point (1971) paved the way for the whole "mass of Americans rallying 'round one outlaw car'" cause thing. By the time Convoy rolled off the line that thing was quite overdone. It rolled alongside High-Ballin' and Every Which Way But Loose, choking on the dust of Smokey, Handle with Care, Breaker Breaker, High-Ballin', White Line Fever... on TV, the genre devolved into Nielsen scavengers like BJ and the Bear, Dukes of Hazzard and TV movies like The Great Smokey Road Block and Flatbed Annie and Sweetie Pie. If your curious, the junkyard in the back of Amazon Prime streaming is laden with them. Most look like shit but some still got the gleam in their grille.

I never really had more than a fleeting yen for the trucker life back, myself, as a grade schooler in the 70s and was horrified by that cropped afro look rocked by Ali McGraw in the Convoy commercials, not that there were many, but they played here and there during Saturday morning cartoons. The trucker craze was ending by then, and so the movie seemed like that straggler who shows up at your party after it's already over and you're in bed, but he's drunk and laughing at his own jokes and brought whiskey so you wake up and entertain him for five minutes, then chase him out warning him not to wake the neighbors but two hours later you wake up again and there he is... on your couch watching Mr. Green Jeans and smoking cigarettes, or worse, arrested out on the front lawn after neighbors had to call the cops. Typical.

Still, Pauline Kael defended it, and 38 odd years later, that was enough:
"Peckinpah uses the big rigs anthropomorphically, and while watching this picture, you recover the feelings you had as a child about the power and size and noise of trucks, and their bright, distinctive colors. Graeme Clifford's editing provides fast, hypnotic rhythms, and sequences with the trucks low in the frame and most of the image given over to skies with brilliant white clouds are poetic gestures, like passages in Dovzhenko. As a horny trucker, Kris Kristofferson lacks the common touch that might have given the movie some centrifugal force, though he's as majestic-looking as the big trucks. 
Hell, forget it. As Kristofferson might say, "Dovzhenko, my ass!" But I am a Pauline Kael disciple and thanks her odd associations and my man crush on Kristofferson, for better or worse, I have joined the Convoy. Wanna ride with the Duck, come on back?

Burt Young - the king of country
Kristofferson's handle is 'the Duck' and despite the name, he looks, talks and acts like real live trucker might, and is the only member of the main cast who does. Peckinpah clearly doesn't know much about the trucker red state mystique, so for casting didn't look farther than the NY Actor's Studio: Queens-born Burt Young (handle: "Love Machine") is about as cowboy as a Nathan's egg cream. When he delivers lines like "Long highways sure grind the souls off us cowfolks," you wonder if it's supposed to be a joke --if it is, it's flat, man. Couldn't Peckinpah find real country boys to ride these rigs instead of a bunch of NYC character actors? Other local boys include Brooklyn's own Franklin Ajaye (he played Maya Rudolph's Quincy Jones-esque dad in Bridesmaids (handle of Spider Mike) and--as the bullying highway patrol creep entrapping Duck, Machine and their Spider Mike via trucker code on the CB in order to  then shake them all down--Ernest "Fatso Jetson" Borgnine ("Cottonmouth"). He's so greedy for bribe money, old Cottonmouth shows up an hour later to shake down Spider Mike a second time, not even an hour later, at a crowded diner, everyone watching, which is beyond idiotic, like getting away with stealing someone's wallet, then following him into a crowd and shooting him in broad daylight for not having a second wallet.

In sum, Peckinpah ain't thinking things through. Is he even reading his own rewrites? Maybe he can't. Maybe it's the booze. Hell yeah, it's the booze. Sam likes a drinker two. And the truckers need a reason to be chased by the law of course, just as Burt Reynolds was chased by Jackie Gleeson for the shadiest of reasons in Smokey and the Bandit -(but Gleeson had such a grand time that the fat and sassy Southern sheriff became a comic foil for every subsequent picture ever made that has a fast car in it. The Fat Sheriff archetype even made his way into Bond films, a mere four years earlier. (1)

Life sure happens fast if you don't think twice: the truckers all become outlaws automatically, never bothering to question any plot device that helps them finally escape that tedious truck stop molasses fight. Duck picks up this close-cropped perm-fro'd Ali McGraw on the way out (she jumps ship from her previous ride) and she becomes his chronicler with her fancy camera or something. She's still gorgeous, but seeing her close cropped permed hair is one of those majorly churlish directorial 'bad hair' decisions (not unlike Orson's cropping Rita in Lady from Shanghai) by which an auteur unwittingly reveals his misogyny. As Vincent Canby wrote at the time: "to transform a naturally beautiful woman into a figure of such androgyny seems, at best, short-sighted; at worst, it's mean-spirited."

Don't mean to shit on this otherwise interesting flick but considering the amount of shitting on our collective hats (without even doing us the courtesy of telling it's raining), old Sam does, well, it's a pretty good spot for it. Some stretches of his signature rapid editing (1970s midwestern small town American faces and sights) help undo the damage. All them old faces all drinking and smoking in the proximity of flags feels authentic - but without Easy Rider's redneck-demonizing or Altman's tacky mummery, or Smokey and the Bandit's lecherous bouncing and guileless harmonic score.

Then again, it also lack Rider's truly revolutionary spirit, Nashville's sense moveable feast community, and Smokey and the Bandit's star power, momentum, and casting. In the latter, for example, Jerry Reed, Burt Reynolds, and Sally Field bring out a special something in each other hard to duplicate: Reynolds might come off macho for the press, but he loves (and is not threatened by) strong women like Fields; and Jerry Reed well, he loves Fred, his hound dawg. All four of them look authentic, like they could have driven straight up from Florida or Texas. The only authentic looking 'red state American' main character in Convoy on the other hand is Kristofferson, but even he feels out of place. He's too cool to behave logically, too pointlessly iconoclastic to even try to save himself from 20 years in the pen. The whole mess of issues Bobby "ain't so good at stringin' words together as you are" creates for his self through his stubborn insistence on not being this and not being that, gradually he starts to feel like of Munchausen-by-proxy, like the guy too dumb to hide his weed going through customs, then bitches and moans when he gets busted. He likes to drink "Everclear" and listen to "we don't smoke marijuana and we don't take LSD" like there's no hypocrisy there. Again--a joke? The alcoholic Peckinpah has no right to get anti-anti-establishment. That said, Duck's not afraid to have a few big rigs get together to smash open a police station where Spider Mike's been violated, rights-wise. Shit gets smashed up for real in these films and that's why they endure. If you see a cop car go flying off the interstate and through a billboard, better believe some stunt man did just that. And it just feels real good, that metal crunch.

Alas, when not crashing cars, the Peckinpah signature over-editing and slow-mo fight thing does not always work: a haphazard brawl in a rest stop cafe isn't quite the same ode to violence as the opening or closing of The Wild Bunch. With all its slow motion and quick cuts it becomes abstract and unseemly: cutting back and forth to about eight different characters in various states of falling, rolling, punching, ducking or running - all in a very close quarters diner environment--it's a fight that would have blown our minds in the hands of a tight-editing Walter Hill (as in the bathroom fight in The Warriors) but Peckinpah infamously wasted weeks filming and it's clear that about 100 different takes are all used for one single movement to create a bewildering sense of time and relative space (a character might start falling off a stool at one end of the counter and land behind a table on the other, his eyes indicating he somehow has aged 20 years in frustration with his director in between the two angles). Then there's the big events and demonstrations as the convoy the Duck's leading gets longer and longer as his struggle goes viral through the CB network of little people and the people tired of getting pushed around; shitty cops like Borgnine come to the fore from all walks of 'yawn' life. One can argue that these rapid montages of images from these populist organizations is almost Sam's version of Nashville. It works at times, in others, it's just a lot of nowhere shorthand for 'everyday' America. I guess it's inspiring, but man, these trucks must be driving mighty slow. What about them poor pigs back of Love Machine's rig? What about their freedom? The sooner I can stop associating Burt Young's harsh face with actual pigs and the tang of sulphur and asphalt, the better. Son, dump them pigs loose upon the plain, and get thee to a ROCKY pinball machine, stat!


So why'd the trucker craze leave before Convoy could recoup? The 70s was a great time for fast turn-over fads -- they swept the nation and then were gone like phantoms, only to have feature films like this come out months after the craze had dwindled off, mainly because they just took damn long to finish thanks to their big budgets subjecting even the smallest decision to overthink and second-guessing. These came out after the TV movie knock-offs, which turned the tropes so many different ways we couldn't help but lose interest. I vividly remember watching some trucker adventure, I think it was Flatbed Annie and Sweetie-Pie on network TV with our babysitter back in 1979 and thinking dear god, why are we still caring about big rigs on the run from corrupt local law? I mean, on a pop culture terms, the Dukes of Hazzard had premiered the night before. BJ and the Bear was going strong into its second year. Enough was too damn much.

The result is like a rich giant little brother trailing after sleeker meaner trend setter B-movie older sibling, and then TV movies after that, leaving a big, sprawling gloriously trashy messes like Convoy in the middle of the road for the middle states to absorb through half-asleep drive-in eyes.

But if a year found big movies actually setting mega-trends the result was electric. Sharks in '75, for example. 1977 set a new benchmark, as we saw three major motion pictures all swirling around in our collective consciousness (and unconscious): The Spy Who Love Me (we dreamt of owning underwater cars) Smokey and the Bandit, and of course Star Wars, and to a lesser extent, Semi-Tough. This was a time before VHS, Cable and Betmax, when, for example, one never in a thousand years would hear cursing on television or see gore or nudity (unless it whisked by an artsy PBS-BBC show like I Clavdivs) anywhere but a theater or drive-in.  This gave the 'R' rated films a holy power to us kids who couldn't see them. If you watched something like Semi-Tough or Smokey today, and pay attention to the comedic rhythms, you hear the pause after each expletive, the way comedies pause for laughs after punchlines, so the audience could whoop in delight at the utterance of these verboten syllables. This makes them hang in the air in a weird way: For all his swagger, every expletive Reynolds utters in both films comes with quotation marks --there's a sense of 'oooh I'm saying something naughty!" in ways totally foreign to us today where 'shit' and 'goddamn' are so common as to be unnoticed even on prime time.

Another thing new to us was, of course, nature. Seeing the Drapers leave their picnic trash behind in Mad Men made my generation lurch back to life and remember the old family habit of throwing our McDonald's trash out the window as we drove home, until the crying Native American by the dirty highway got us to stop.  Another thing is just general animal rights awareness. I remember of course feeling kind of guilty at zoos with jungle cats in tiny concrete cages, prowling endlessly back and forth, but I never imagined it was wrong. Now I have to run to change the channel when ASPCA commercials come on. I'm sensitized to the point I see a cowboy tie up his horse by a bar in a western and I wonder, what about the horse? You gonna leave him out there in the wind with no water or food? These things bother me now. Convoys are all well and good, Love Machine, but what about those pigs left for days back of the rig? And when do you all stop for gas? And don't you got somewhere to be with those truckloads? Was the script wroted by a drunk illiterate six year-old? War his name Sam?

I mention this, as I have in the past, to preserve it for future generations who may see something like Smokey or Convoy and wonder what the fuck we in the 70s were thinking. In this case well, it was freedom and a crossover between the shit-kicking conservative and the blue state suburban swinger we can only dream of today. It's the money earned by car chase pictures from the Corman canon like 1975's White Line Fever giving way to good old boy Burt Reynolds and the invasion of country singers like Linda Ronstadt, Dolly Parton, and Glenn Campbell into the mainstream Top 40. And the rise of the CB and the 'Fuzzbuster' into the mainstream Spencer Gift 70s lexicon. One thing follows the next because, and that's why I'm taking time to chronicle it all, pop culture was a much smaller tent. The three channels (not including local stations and PBS), made water cooler breeze-shooting much easier. But if you were watching Flatbed Annie (above) on a Saturday night, or as we thought of it then, Laverne and Shirley as Truckers, then you were stuck at home with a babysitter and the only alternative was The Love Boat. 

Animules from top: Clint and Clyde - Every Which Way But Loose;
Jerry Reed and Fred - Smokey and the Bandit;
BJ and the Bear
(them pigs? couldn't find a good pic - they're all dead to me now)

It was--on a lot of levels--a kind of reverse class-envy, a grass-is-greener longing by middle class suburbia to live on the open road and be among the beer-guzzlin, speed-takin', Marlboro-smokin' common man who didn't take no shit about drinking and driving or smoking in elevators. Some of this of course survives today 00s Williamsburg hipster thing with PBR, ironic belt buckles, fuzzy dice rearview mirror ornaments, and big ass mustaches. But these are generally uber-fey poseurs with tinny little voices that bespeak their unfamiliarity with tobacco and shouting at neighbors. Real men have voices you can feel in your bones, the ground trembles in anticipation of their Frye boot heel.
Sure, they're all dead or dying of throat or lung cancer now, but you damn well gotta die of something. Who's to say smokers don't have an extra special first class seat in heaven, shortening their life spans so that Earth's natural resources don't need to buckle under the weight of one more greedy mouth? (2) Maybe that's not tomorrow's America, but it was damn well yesterdays. Depeneding

America's current identity crisis is not borne of ideology and belief I think but of fear and TV ratings. We need to find common ground again, as we once did with Burt Reynolds, CB radio / trucker crazes, speeding, drunken tavern brawls (the kind where stuntmen go flying through the front window in slow mo without spilling their beer, then everyone shakes hands, laughs off the bruises and goes fishing). Convoy is out on Blu-ray, where the picture is pretty --trucks shine real fine. So git it and fall in love with fossil fuels and fists. I would, but living in Soft Hands NY has made me so sensitive I can smell the asphalt tar tang and the weird bodily exhalation smell of gasoline and sulphur in the hot desert air just writing these gridlocking symbols of rootsy solidarity and it makes me quite ill. See, I'm no longer in touch enough to root for the Little Guy. I'm just ashen thinking 'bout his squealing cargo, those poor pigs. Damn I hate... fucking... awareness.  

1. J.W. Pepper in Live and Let Die (1971) and Man with the Golden Gun (1974)
2. This coming weekend I'll be one-year quit -- not being able to absorb any oxygen in your burnt lungs - that'll do 'er.
3. As in Rocky II made the following year (1979)

Friday, May 12, 2017

Burnt Persona Jessica Drives Again (to Death, Sister): SWEET, SWEET LONELY GIRL (2016)

Rolling through the ghostly corridors of a lonely girl's small town 70s American mind, via director A.D. Calvo, rides a retro-homage to the young girl-sunk-to-madness horror films of auld. SWEET, SWEET LONELY GIRL (2016) exudes such a confidently lyrical, intertextual, and retro-pastorale poetry over its nicely brief running time (78 minutes) that one can forgive it not really having anything new or even coherent to say. It builds up and works and delivers its scares and moments of quiet beauty, with cinematography that masterfully evokes the 70s work of early Vilmos Zsigmond and captivating performances by its two leads, Erin Wilhelmi and Quinn Shepherd. SWEET is a 'Shudder Exclusive' and worth the $4.99 a month if that's what it takes, as Shudder is like a benchmark of cool horror -- it's curated, not just a single company's catalogue, and you can tell its lovingly curated by fans in the know by their selection. Not to be pluggy, but it's relevant to the casket hand - by which I mean the easy death of 'currency,' that is to say any movie made today can choose to look older, like a tween at Forever 21. No one from 20 years ago would want to deliberately evoke bygone eras of filmmaking, but I'm glad they finally do now. The past is perhaps the one place we can still escape the washed out look of HD video, even if the past is shot on it. For old 35mm film stock now makes even yesterday's crap look better than today's zillion dollar opuses. Everything is topsy. If it will ever turvy again, well.... there's always the movies.

Sent by her weary mother to work as a helper for a secretive (and wealthy) shut-in aunt in her big, eerie Victorian house (above), bookworm Adele (Wilhelmi) tries to reconnect but the bitchy aunt insists on merely leaving demanding notes slid under her door. Is she even her aunt or some creepy monster hiding itself in there? If you've seen any movie made in the 70s, you'll naturally be suspicious. The house is big and very still and lonesome and the Gothic gloom of Adele's situation begins to get to us almost immediately. But Adele, Bronte-esque as she is, bops along listening to lit FM pop songs on her possibly slightly anachronistic walkman. And... wait, who's that chick?

It's Beth (Quinn Shepherd), rocking a delectable 70s midriff at the local grocery store and holding an apple and the gaze of a shop clerk; later, in a gloomy bar, the two girls strike up a friendship and soon Beth is dropping by the Victorian  mansion and bad influencing Adele into all sorts of things, until it's too late to extract her persona from the vortex. Not that we want her to, but what's the deal? Don't think about it, just enjoy the eerie vibe Calvo generates using little more than deep shadow--such as the dark, empty nearly Edward Hopper-esque chasm space of the local watering hole.

The 'two opposite female personas melting into one another' artsy subgenre of the 60s-70s, the 'wild free spirit helps alienated young wallflower open' lesbian after-school 70s special episode; and the horror 'is this all a dream of Jane Eyre's crazy attic dweller post-Lewton Victorian Gothic' and the REPULSION-ish "distortedly loud ambient sound" genre--they're all here. Fans of 60s-70s feminine psyche horror mind-fuckery like LET'S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH and BURNT OFFERINGS will love, as I did, mostly, the dallying through the graveyard with their brass rubbing materials, having long sapphic gazes, trying on Victorian attic clothes, and trying to get a peek at the agoraphobic invalid behind the door at the top of the stairs, or the child's corpse in the graveyard. Just because loving these films you'll also spot foreshadowing and predict future scares doesn't make them less enjoyable when they come, especially as Calvo makes no attempt to hide them or reference their sources. The erotic story of a beach tryst Beth tells Adele during their getaway is lifted wholesale from PERSONA (1966), which is then seen, briefly, very very briefly, on TV, and further checked via some 'was their lesbian tryst / psychic merge a dream or real?' facial merging. Things start to get really real when... well, I've said too much.

Beth in bed at the cabin (Note Pazuzu on night table at left)

All in all SWEET isn't necessarily a game-changer but it's beautifully filmed and does strike the kind of deep mythic chord even quoting directly--from split-female psyche films like Bergman's PERSONA (1966), GO ASK ALICE, Lynch's TWIN PEAKS and MULHOLLAND DRIVE (2001), cracker factory girl bombs like REPULSION (1965)CARNIVAL OF SOULS (1968), LET'S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH (1972), BURNT OFFERINGS (1976), the "A Drop of Water" segment from Bava's BLACK SABBATH (1963), and of course the 1970-72 lesbian vampire 'Carmilla-wave.' Just seeing any movie that uses JESSICA as a blueprint for itself (right down to the brass rubbings in the graveyard, the attic antique dress-up/down and the weird ghostly whispers of her name) has to be doing something right. While these references are really all it has under its sleeve, SWEET fits nicely next to recent work discussed elsewhere in this site, like AMER, THE DUKE OF BURGUNDY, HOUSE OF THE DEVIL and IT FOLLOWSKISS OF THE DAMNED, THE STRANGE COLOR OF YOUR BODY'S TEARS, and Ann Biller's THE LOVE WITCH. The emerging retro-modernists (pastiche-ists?) operate on the principle you've already seen the movies they love, and rather than remaking them or working around them, they incorporate their direct thematic tropes like colors on a palette or burglar tools to spring through the vents along the smaller, horror fronts that uses retro-analog stylistics to intensify the melancholy of half-remembered small town isolation and approach things from a more dreamy mixture of after-school special and women's lib horror with sapphic awakening pastorales.

The trying on old clothes in the Victorian attic with a possibly ageless vampire lesbian bit was, I thought, basically over in indie film since all that great Victorian stuff finally fell apart (it lasted much longer than our modern pre-fab shit, which is why there was so much of it still around in the 70s when it would surface in films like Let's Scare Jessica to Dea
If there's not a lot else going on other than the trope-checking and excellent cinematography by Ryan Parker, who cares? You'd think was a cinematographer branching out into film, a kind of Terence Malick of horror, rather than vice versa due to the continued emphasis on gorgeous composition and fading light indoors lit by a single multi-colored lamp, or a rotting pomegranate on a table at night in a thunderstorm, all twisty and alive like a rotting old Dutch master's still-life.

Those who recognize all the quotes should have no problem respecting all this as homage as, for the most part, Calvo quotes his sources like a man, a man who's not afraid of dipping his unmoored eye down into the split-feminine psyche (even the tale of the beach tryst lifted wholesale from PERSONA has an echo--in Godard's lifting Batailles' Story of the Eye for a similar part of WEEKEND). People can argue about men doing split-subject female movies but I think it's natural, and too bad more women don't do the same with men, as Kathryn Bigelow, whose HURT LOCKER is still probably the most profound movie about the masculine psyche since RED RIVER. From a Jungian archetypal perspective, our creative soul in dreams very seldom appears to us in the same guise twice; the subconscious ego/anima of every sane man is an insane woman; all demons are haunted by their inner angel or vice versa. The nature of the universe is in gravitational pulls spinning everything madly around on both sub-atomic and macro-galaxial reality level, everything interlocked and reflected so that every Rochester has a madwoman in the attic. As the enigmatic Beth, Shepherd is both alive/seductive and zombie-like her motives stay shadowy, she's a composite; she not only lifts that sexy beach narrative in PERSONA but notes the Jane Eyre reference herself. Don't ask questions or you become guilty of listening, but to whom? If you get your anima to even talk to you at all, you must be either crazy or lucky. Lock her away behind thick Victorian wood and she still passes you notes and whispers. The gay or lesbian pair-bond confounds traditional Jungian dialectics, of course, and the result is like electric guitar feedback, the creative inner voice looping on itself and drowning out the male ego altogether. It's a kind of death-drive freedom to imagine our complete lack of our own presence.

But it's the truly unnerving work by Wilhelmi that lingers in the mind--with a face that seems at times very old and others like a child, she has a homeschool Heather Graham-ish vulnerable good cheer in the face of utter ambivalence from both mom and aunt. We wonder how quickly we'd lapse into morose depression in similar circumstances (or maybe already have) so her ability to keep trying wins us over and then--when she gets slightly bonkers--we realize we're already in too deep to escape. We thought we were escaping via this movie, escaping maybe from other less captivating retro-genre pastiches, like THE VOID.

The only drawbacks to my mind are 1) yet another in the decade's apparently inexhaustible joyless HBO-brand rutting smash-cuts to signify a kind of depressed ambivalence (you know the kind, a girl and guy meet for the first time and we smash cut to the girl's expressionless face as the dude mechanically ruts at her from behind like some spastic dog). and 2) the Lite FM 70s hits by the likes of Classic IV, Bread (cover), Lobo, and the unfortunately-named Starbuck ("Moonlight Feels Right") which feels kind of like a missed opportunity. Music is so integral to doing these retro films right, and one dreads to imagine similar music choices burdening the amazing analog synth scores of Disasterpiece (IT FOLLOWS), Tom Raybould (THE MACHINE), Dixon and Stein (STRANGER THINGS), Sinoa Caves (BEYOND THE BLACK RAINBOW), The Gifted (SOUTHBOUND) and so forth, and I get all weak in the knees. Joe Carrano' relies instead high overly familiar eerie string sustains and scales, bongos and rattles making one wonder if they weren't secretly culled from some 70s PD cue library. Sound mixing is sometimes totally psychedelic, but the tinkling bell outside the aunt's room should have been a big shock (since she's dead) is buried under a cascade of piano mashes and stuttering drums and Beth whispering her name close into the mike, "Adele..."

But I'll forgive it a lack of point or logic or analog synthesizer with the same generosity as I appreciate the lack of torture porn, imprisonment, MISERY-style sadism, progressive isolation (i.e abuse) or moping, and I do love it's short and the photography and the way the theme of doubling and splitting of the feminine psyche fits the pastiche nature. Linear 'sense' is a linear phallic male construct and it ain't artsy. It's not like we learn at the end of VERTIGO if Jimmy Stewart has been dead all this time from a great fall-it's the difference between a 'twist' like in THE SIXTH SENSE and 'art' like in POINT-BLANK --if you need an answer as to whether Walker is alive or dead then man you're a square! Who complains is not artsy - and he who is artsy, um... man, listen, man. I don't mind, man, that even unto the last frame we're never quite sure--anymore--what is real, and at the very end, one more final reference, CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE (1944, below) brings the Val Lewton savvy full fore.

Shudder being worth getting at $4.99 a month is thus affirmed. One wonders just where GIRL might have wound up without it. So often these films get either ignored at the festivals (by distributors who aren't quite sure how to market them), or bought up and then relegated to the shelves for years or changed by studios who demand it make sense or have a point before sinking advertising into it. Shudder is there to do a rare and important job in unearthing the near-gems from the vast fields of shiite, not to say there ain't a shair fare of that at Shudder too. But I take odd comfort in them, for in our loneliness and despair, the devil sent classic horror fans a friend. Whether or not this Sweet, Sweet Lonely Girl is real or just a homicidal amalgam of past images, reflections and hazy memories, riffs on photos both still and in motion, we'll take her.

1. for my curated list of cool retro-analog synth scores from 2015-16, have Spotify and go here.

Tuesday, May 02, 2017

14 Must-tapes in May on TCM

May, a magical month on TCM, rich with Clark Gable pre-codes, surreal anti-war parables (all the rage before Pearl Harbor) and war celebrations (for Memorial Day). As Richard Dix says in ACE OF ACES, it's a wonderful war and I'm having a grand time!

And if war and Gable didn't send you, TCM has stacked the month with giant monster movies (the perfect summer afternoon haze-inducers).

 May 3rd
4:30 PM
 (1933) Dir. Clarence Brown

Long unseen due to a rights dispute with author Antoine de Saint Exupéry's estate, Night Flight (1933) turns out to be quite the dreamy-poetic and modern meditation, full of little captivating midnight moments in the lives of a few pilots, wives, and airport officials as they begin the dangerous operation of night flying over the Andes. After nearly dying in the downwind between two lonely peaks, pilot Robert Montgomery shares a smoke and discusses the feeling of some unseen but palpable enigmatic intelligence and watching the breathtaking footage, we can feel it. If you crashed down in these nowhere lands it might be weeks until you see another living soul, but you'd never feel alone. This film is kind of best seen while half asleep in pajamas, if you will, capturing a vibe of what it's like to be awake when everyone else around you is sound asleep. Clark Gable--isolated in his pilot seat--a radio operator down below him passing up notes up on weather and direction--clears the fog and emerges into a clear night sky. A full moon above, he loosens up on the wheel, leans back in his seat, tunes in a radio station of tango orchestra music on his operator's headphones, and looks up at the moon and stars like they're a girl he's about to kiss for the first time. His smile is so wide and the moment is precious and so pure you understand the appeal of risking one's life in a rickety biplane just to deliver mail. But that's no guarantee he or any other pilot in this film is going to survive the night. Just our luck if anyone dies it won't be dopey William Gargan. All I can do when I hear him is remember how he goes on and on about how great "Babs" is (Mary Astor) while she's off shagging Clark Gable in Red Dust (also on this month) . Here he's got the divine Myrna Loy, and he leaves her for a week to ten days without so much as a radio. Meanwhile Helen Hayes is talking to Clark Gable over a late supper, but he's not there, is he? Her maudlin insanity is worrying to the maid and any viewer averse to overly theatrical acting.  Don't let her stop you, though. Night Flying MUST go on. (Full Review)

Weds May 10
11:45 AM 
(1939) Dir. Clarence Brown

A ne plus ultra-Brechtian howl against the machinery of both peace and war, this adaptation of Robert Sherwood's play starts out rough and cliche'd -- a big string of jobs-jobs-jobs from hungry song-and-dance man Harry Van (Gable) after the first war--but at last comes to roost in a Swiss frontier hotel on the eve of some great new global conflict, and reserves the bulk of its preachiness for one little guy mouthpiece (Burgess Meredith) who's whisked away by der soldaten almost at once (and there was  much rejoicing). Like The Lady Vanishes if the train never left, Delight is set in around Alpine hotel with great views overlooking the peaks, but this time also near the airfield where bombers begin to take off to bomb some remote village, only to come back and be surprised by a retaliation. Stranded there during the escalation of events: entertainment tour manager Clark Gable and his gaggle of singing/dancing beauties, who quickly attract the lions' share of stationed and/or visiting officers. In grand American tradition, Harry Van wants to stay neutral, but then who should walk in but Edward Arnold as a stout capon-lined arms merchant tycoon and Norma Shearer rocking an awful blonde wig and worse Greta Garbo impression as his arm candy. She won't even profess to be the same dame Gable "knew" in America, where and when she talked all normal and tried to help him in the fortune telling racket. They eventually try and come together as the bombs begin to fall even as their masks finally do too. Together they sing a song that would make Solomon Guggenheim proud to share a last drink with him at the Titanic bar. If existential gloom ain't enough for you, it's worth seeing just to witness Clark Gable's goofy Groucho Marx face while singin' "Puttin' on the Ritz" and to rejoice in watching the realities of war finally smack up against his obnoxious American "see no evil" bluster and fellow traveler's asinine self-importance (it's as satisfying as watching the line of self-important business types trying to puff and huff their way out of jury duty in you've ever been). Makes a great double bill with DUCK SOUP. (Full)

Thurs. May 11
2:45 Am
(1977) Dir. Bert I. Gordon 

Shore-swept toxic sludge down in Florida mutates the local ants. They get big of course, but a prologue makes sure we know their queen's pheromones are "a mind-bending substance that forces obedience." What do mind-controlling sexual pheromones have to do with a slumming Joan Collins trying not to break a nail while rooking time share commitments out of a boatload of retired and/or attractive freeloaders? With her endless berating and bitching at all her underlings and potential customers, it's clear she doesn't know either.  I'll defend the Joan Collins oversexed bitch in the boardroom capitalist icon to the end--she's one of the sexiest decade's most sexually uninhibited yet always powerful/on-top icons--and I'm glad, for example, old Bert didn't try to suss out the subtextual links between her and the queen ant.  In omitting all subtlety and nuance he creates a grand framework for our own projections. Not a single subtext can leak through such air-tight porousness. Still, this movie has gone all the places most giant bug movies go in its first half, and then comes a series of WTF moments that will leave you guessing (how many giant bug movies can say the same?) And the ants--with their little silver eyes and grass-covered heads (closer to the ground and scarier for being relatively smaller) and jagged mandibles--have a real grim dirty angry menace about them that's far more convincing than the big mechanical googly-eyed monsters of the more widely-praised big bug masterpiece, Them!  (Full review)

(1957) Dir. Sam Katzman

The perfect movie for 4:30 in the morning because if you're up to see it you're either an insomniac, bombed out of your mind, or a child getting up early to enjoy the weird 'dregs' offered in between late night movies and early morning cartoons. This one's really bad, but I remember how my love of bad movies forming around it's 5 AM showings while I waited for Saturday morning cartoons to start, quiet to not wake the parents. The bird materializing into being as if magically lifted out of the dumpster behind some deranged, evicted puppeteer's workshop. As a kid regularly lost trying to follow adult conversation, a kid who would pretend to read, would hold up a book of Mark Twain or something and flip the pages to impress some foxy babysitter, here was a chance to laugh at the adults for a change.

To enjoy the film without that inherited lack of good judgment you would need to have a special yen to see Mara Corday in a red-eye passenger (propellor-driven) plane delivering an uncalled-for and condescending rant against Jeff Morrow. Under a shared blanket of comfy twin engine roar and everyone else on the plane dead asleep--she starts shouting at him for showing her his giant space bird orbiting patten spiral drawing. If you ask why Corday is shouting and picking a fight with our Morrow in the dead of night on a red-eye, when her own non-intergalactic bird theories don't add up at all, then you're probably not ready for this level of high concept science. Sherlock Holmes said that when you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, however implausible, is the truth. Corday would shout into your ear that Holmes is a fictional character and therefore his theories are worthless.

But smart women scientists know they too are fictional characters because animus-dominated women 'scientists' lack self-awareness, and Katzman should know. He's cribbing from the best, relatively speaking. (more)
Sat May 13
(1962) Dir. Tim Carey

If you don't know about it, imagine Kazan's A FACE IN THE CROWD if it was edited with a sling blade by the cross-eyed stepchild of John Cassavetes and Ed Wood, with a soundtrack by a pre-famous Frank Zappa and narration by Paul Frees (as the devil). It was the great Carey's labor of love. He plays an insurance salesman who has an off-camera spiritual awakening and becomes convinced he's God and everyone is immortal or will be if they follow him. He shoots up the ladder of success by becoming a rock star and the blasphemy escalates until his ultimate cosmic comeuppance, or doesn't it? Either way, Carey is hilarious and even touching as a sort of a slovenly Brooklyn-accented mumbler gone messianic. The method beatnik lummox-ishness of the great Carey fits the slovenly picture so that he seems like some big dumb Fredo/Lenny-style brother to the young Brando/James Deans of better-made films. You can imagine him trailing behind them, screaming look Mikey, I made me a pitcha too, right? Not as pretty and fancy as yours Mikey, but Mikey! Mikey, it's fa ME! FAH ME!

Truly disjointed and cacophonous, SINNER has no connecting tissue between the studio set-bound "sound-engineered" scenes and the MOS hand-held outdoors (with the Frees' narration) and badly-miked crowd shots, making it herk and jerk around like so much indie drive in cinema of the age (i.e. H.G. Lewis). Whatever, we're here not for connective narrative tissue but to see Carey shake and rattle like a Santeria serpent god swallowing an electrocuted Elvis, and that's what he does. He's also sweet and fatherly at times, nervously maniacal at others. His truck with deviltry has the same desperate ring as it does for Harvey Keitel in BAD LIEUTENANT or Captain Cutshaw in THE NINTH CONFIGURATION, men who rant and rage against God because they desperately need a sign. For that to work, you need an actor of titanic scope, who can be the whole show, an evangelist still ranting even as the tent catches on fire and collapses atop him.

That said, carrying the whole tent on his shoulders is clearly a strain. A weird-talking method maniac in general, Carey in SINNER has the weary look of someone who's running himself ragged. Directing and staring in a low budget film at the same time is much more difficult than you would think. He appears exhausted in some scenes and exhausted to the point of manic elation in others; but the rest of the time-- gamboling into brilliant oration ala Willie Stark in ALL THE KINGS MEN--he's sublime. Joy aboundeth in these scenes, as does surprise bits of tenderness: he loves his horse and regards all humans with a sleepy naturalistic affection. I especially like how he calls everybody "deah"--as in "No, my deah, you don't need insurance"--and there's plenty of time for him to nuzzle with his wife, a snake, and a big Marmaduke of a dog, in between 'talking points' which helps the whole thing drift towards family album status, as if to make it to feature length, Carey had to use every scrap of film in his attic.

Doesn't matter - it's all priceless. Why it is, maybe, illuminates the difference between the real nuts and those who just pursue nuttiness the way a man with no mouth pursues a glass of water. It all boils down to love. It's the difference between those who love you and those who want you to love them. Tim Carey loves you. If he had his way he'd pull you into the celluloid and start making out with you, no matter who or what you are. I think he French kisses just about everyone and everything in this movie, but he does it out of love not sex, not desire or conquest but just love, and so it's pure. Do you hear me, Kevins?? PURE!!!!! Those who want to live forever must do so through othehs. As Carey puts it in the film "you are all Gods, and ya gonna live foreva..."

I can't watch the whole mess in one sitting, but I believe he means it. (Full Review)

Monday May 15
8:45 AM 
1931 - dir. Alfred E. Green
Deep in the sweltering tropics, a small colony of overdressed Brit prudes gossip about homewrecker Hugh Daltrey (William Powell), the bounder who ran off with one of the colonist wives a year earlier and has just returned... alone. Phillipa (Doris Kenyon), the newly imported wife of a different colonist (Louis Calhern)--a doctor who isn't a man and a lover but "a machine of cold steel, as cold as the instruments you use to probe the bodies of unconscious patients on operating tables... "--is next on the menu. And now that her cold husband has her more or less marooned down in the tropics, old Hugh doesn't need to waste time with superfluous woo. Needless to say, this is NOT the Hope-Crosby picture of the same name. Instead this is pre-code scandalizing in the vein of the then-hugely popular W. Somerset Maugham style commonwealth scandal dramas (ala RAIN, THE PAINTED VEIL, THE LETTER), wherein a cold British husband, jungle heat, monsoons, and native drums combine to leave a bored colonist's wife ripe for infidelity, and the racist censors are so relieved the lover she takes is white they're willing to tolerate just about anything. With nothing to do but play bridge and gossip while their men treat cholera patients and tap rubber plants, it's no wonder, as Calhern notes, that a fever that overtakes women down there, the heat activates their sexual hormones. A real surprise as the cold fish husband, rather than a stereotype Calhern plays him as a man too intelligent to really buy into his own inflexible moral prudishness, trying to mask his sexual terror by bashing on Daltrey. We have to smile when Calhern gets all excited about some new tumor he finds (his excuse for missing the dance). We smile too, when Phillipa's sullen agitation clears like a fever during a scene dissolve (we know what that means) during her lengthy night together with Hugh after Calhern has supposedly left for the interior. 

Powell is great in a complex role where, a real rarity in his filmography, he's not entirely sympathetic. We find him charming but we're made aware of the damage charm like his can wreak, and--for the first time maybe--so is he. And, man, he's a drunk. As Calhern's younger sister, the lovely Marian Marsh does wonders even with very unflattering riding breeches, but holy shit she's so fuckin' luminous  in her negligee the whole film gets weak in the knees. The intricate shadows of the fronds, the panama hats glowing in the blazing light, the age of the celluloid and the slow, measured speech pattern (needed--they thought--for the crude early sound microphones) creates the uncanny familiarity of a kind of abstract dream, and she's everything worth sleeping for. (MORE)

11:30 AM
(1932) Dir Alfred E. Green

The best thing about the early First National-Warner's stuff is, you just never know--up to a point--what's going to happen next, especially when the focus is on an array of things going on in a train station, a scene so crowded with extras, all of them so good at seeming like they're hustling for trains we can't tell if it's not a documentary. We're treated to an array of comings and goings and bag checks, all centered around two genial vagrants on the make, one of whom (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.) magically winds up with a drunken Frank McHugh's bag, which happens to have a suit in it that fits Fairbanks perfectly, and a wad of bills in the pocket, and the only reason he got that was because he had lifted a train conductor's coat, literally, via a stick through the men's room window. So a chain of events is underway and neither he nor we know where it's leading.

So now Fairbanks Jr. and his pal Guy Kibbee are doing pretty well, to the point Doug attracts a chippie, then shines her off while eating a nice steak dinner, which we really feel since he's been so hungry a few beats ago. Anyway, circumstance all coheres around a counterfeiting plot and a nice violin case MacGuffin, and there's a white knuckle finale train yard brawl, Fairbanks leaping down on his quarry from atop train cars, and men being continually judged on their clothes and wallet instead of what's in their heart and fist. There's also some pre-code slams, especially when Blondell goes with Fairbanks to a private room, ready to sleep with him for train fare even though it's her first such transaction. Her fluttering mix of fear, desperation, and feigned élan is like nothing you've ever seen before or since. She also has a pretend-blind stalker pawing his way along after her, and that plus the counterfeiter getting his wallet lifted make it nail-baiting enough I shouted curtly at my girl when she tried to talk about bacon preparation right at a key moment. And I love bacon. (source)

12:45 PM
(1933) Dir. by Alfred E. Green

The story of a wan Brit who has to take it on the lam to the South Seas after he kills... ahem... the lady's husband, fits its star, Douglas Fairbanks Jr. to a double-crossed tee. We can see in him the natural actor who's absorbed everything he saw and heard as a spoiled child in the thick of his famed father's silent era decadence and brought it to bear on his caustic character. As a peevish spoiled bounder who hates the women who fight over him because then he has to kill their jealous husbands and fiancees--which here include Ralph Bellamy as a naive Dutch plantation owner--Fairbanks reflects his own perspective as a man who more or less had fame and women handed to him on a platter because of his name and--rather than become utterly spoiled--has lost faith in the inescapably shallow world that fawns over him, no matter how surly he behaves. Meanwhile a debauched doctor (Dudley Digges) also aboard ship tells his trusting Chinese servant how many (opium) pipefuls he'll have that night, to 'ahem' unwind, "seven pipes tonight... no more, no less," rendering him useless at critical junctures but leaving him always self-effacing, droll and unblinking as he stares into the void, his opiated brain alight with the zonked poetry of a Eugene O'Neill or Tennessee Williams drunkard mixed with Lewis Stone in Grand Hotel: "Regret nothing. Life is short, nature is hostile, and man... is ridiculous." He's the type of character who no longer exists outside of classic modern plays, one borne of the WWI trenches and dogfight skies, the 'drink a prayer for the dead all ready, hurrah for the next who dies' mentality. It's a mentality we've lost in today's climate, and frankly I blame nanny state morals and the turn away from manly gravitas that is the result. 

There's also William Mong as a mean old Swedish sea captain, boasting to fellow salty dog Arthur Hohl that he used to pilot slavers, and that he wants to gut his son-in-law (Reginald Owen as a professor, idling for years with a translation of some obscure Portuguese poem), Sidney Toler as the steamer captain; and Patricia Ellis as the lovely daughter engaged to lunkhead Ralph Bellamy, who's such a good soul that Fairbanks decides to go decent, and that just makes things worse! Still, you can't argue with the beautiful Hollywood scenery and sense that once upon a time it really was possible to buy illicit passage away from the long arm of the law, even if you immediately found the same old troubles when you got outside its reach. There are very few movies that really sympathize with what it's like to be irresistible to women, how you wind up like a battered chewy toy fought over in the dog run more than a swanky playa, and discarded by the pack as soon as you've been passed around and broken. There's Night of the Iguana, and this. Come to think of it, with the old man taking forever on a poem, supported by daughter, etc. winding up outside on tropical nights with wind and fronts, it's all very much like a dry run for Iguana. Eight pipes tonight, no more, no less! (More)

Weds May 17
9:30 AM 
(1931) Dir. George W. Hill

Wallace Beery gets top billing in this protean MGM gangster drama set in gritty downtown Chicago (there's some chilling stockyard tracking shots). Hard to believe Beery was once a huge box office draw, playing burly ruffians opposite Jackie Cooper or Marie Dressler; he had a certain gruff charm sure, but when he left, he took the hopes of big ugly lugs to make A-list money with him. Here he plays a ruffian stockyard worker nicknamed "Slaughterhouse" who leaves off hog killing to become a gangster (prohibition made it a sound career move), eventually running for mayor on the "pig-sticker" ticket, with the stockyards howling and mooing away behind his podium.

Andre Bazin would approve of this film since it operates on a loose semi-documentary style: lots of interiors packed with extras and activity and a sense of real time via long uninterrupted takes in medium frame. Everyone speaks slowly and carefully for the early sound equipment. If nothing else it makes for an invaluable record of Chicago in the actual prohibition era: press rooms, stockyards, nightclubs, bottling plants, breweries, various ways to stash and distribute (putting bottles inside other things for delivery, etc.) money changing hands, receipt tallying, shakedowns, political rallies, checks being written, highjacking, and blackmail. Lewis Stone is his bitter Irish rival, Jean Harlow a sexy nightclub hatcheck girl whose real job is to hook reporters so they glorify the gangsters in the press, and Clark Gable a two-timing no good rat finkwhyIoughtta.... who tips off her latest patsy. (more)

Thurs May 18th
12:15 PM
(1934) Dir. Victor Fleming

A stock of top shelf eccentric character actors, a real ship on real seas, Beery hobbling masterfully about like he's seldom been t'land, Nigel Bruce huffing hither and yon, and cabins so thick with gunpowder you have to take the fight outside--- it all combines with lovingly-salted pirate talk ("this molasses is sweeter than serpent sedative!") to make TREASURE a personal favorite. When old scalawag Long John rows away at the end, there's a strange elegiac tone almost akin to the end of THE MISFITS or WILD BUNCH. We're saying goodbye to charming rogues who could advise and guide wide eyed innocents in the ways of social scheming, all the things the code was worried that kids would learn. After this, no Long Johns, certainly, could plunder happily ever after, and certainly not be around as a sage to children. Too damn bad. Certain it is..

Another plus: its ingeniousness in shucking all romance (it sticks to the book and doesn’t tack on any pointless love interests, a rarity for MGM) and total absence of morality. After all, the plot involves young Jim Hawkins going after loot stolen by pirates from murdered Spanish men and women who fell victim to the marauders of the high seas. Talk about gray areas! It aint like they’re gonna return it to the rightful owners…which I guess would be the Aztecs if you want to get all provenance-y. No sir. You root for Hawkins and his bewigged parent figures because–to quote from the scriptures of the Holy Grail--“they ‘aven’t got shit all over ‘em." The sight of this young boy shooting a pirate he knows by name and killing him dead with no moral hand-wringing, it resonates in me old heart, it does. There's also Chic Sale, crazy as castaway loon Ben Gunn, Charles McNaughton as Black Dog ("and God bless King George!") proving the blind can be terrifying as well as hilarious, and Lionel Barrymore as Billy Bones, staving off the horrors with his near-end alcoholism, and drunkenly bullying all the folks at the Admiral Benbow into singing “Yo Ho Ho and a Bottle of Rum.” My favorite movie to convulse to back in my drinking days. Lots of great wind effects make it great to watch with the AC blasting, to soothe a becalmed dipsomaniacal bloodstream.

5:45 AM
(1932) Dir. William A. Wellman

Shown as part of a special day of films with the great Frances Dee (needless to say you should also tape I Walked with a Zombie at 11:30 PM if you don't already have it), this has Douglas Fairbanks Jr. fares well in Clark Gable hair and soul as Jimmy the gossip hound in this ultra-typical (in the best of ways) WB film of the era. As a columnist who tangles over Francis Dee with generic gangster Lyle Talbot, Fairbanks races around and seeks counsel from fellow reporters Lee Tracy and Ann Dvorak who are hep enough to know their boy's getting taken to the cleaners by slumming Dee, but keep their yaps shut like a true pal.

There's nothing quite like this film's ambitiously cynical ending, the sort of loose-ended defiance of the crime-must-pay adage only possible in pre-code conditions. Dialogue is pitched at such a darkly cynical height that censors ears weren't young enough to hear it: "Looks like you been up at Sing Sing looking at a burning!" Sex is everywhere, as when Tracy and Dvorak are out at a nightclub eating dinner and she says "if you loved me half as much as you love that steak I'd break down out of self-pity" (meaning throw him a sympathy fuck, yo!) Fairbanks describes Dee--to her face!--as having "a beautiful can." and that she's "as pretty as a little red wagon." Lots of phone calls are made and received. The TCM print looks real nice. Can't go wrong with a mug on a rooftop in the rain, witnessing a murder he was about to commit himself. That's pre-code ethical quandary gold, cold and sold!

 Thus, May 25

4 AM 
(1957) Dir. Ray Kellogg

Casual fans may wonder, but for those of us of a certain age, the SHREWS was one of the better afternoon creature feature offerings on local TV-- we weren't particularly scared by the monsters - easy enough to tell they were shaggy dogs with wigs and false teeth, but they're terrifying because--as the doctor explained--their digestive juices are so corrosive that even a tiny prick from their fangs is fatal. It's fun to see Gunsmoke regular Ken Curtis as a drunken owl-hoot pining for research assistant Ingrid Goude and trying to off his chief rival, laconic charter captain James Best, especially since we've seen him tangle with so many John Ford characters in similar circumstances (i.e. The Searchers). And the big climactic use of overturned oil drums lashed together and used as protection for the survivors' escape to the coast was something no kid who saw it in the 70s ever forgot. It was the kind of thing we would do and imagine ourselves doing, and it wasn't until Tremors with its savvy incorporation of the 'carpet is lava' furniture-hopping game we'd see our exact type of imaginative invention so vividly expressed.

Friday May 26
4:30 AM
(1930) Dir. Edgar Selwyn

Coming from MGM at the dinny-dawn of the sound era, War Nurse is of a piece with--in case you can't tell by the image above--All Quiet on the Western Front, Hell's Angels, and The Dawn Patrol, all from the same year, 1930, when America and Europe were still just beginning to unpack the trauma of the First World War, even as the Depression was hitting in full and the New Deal still three years away. Hemingway's Farewell to Arms was the 'front line army nurses locked into triangles with older officers and young handsome privates' boilerplate (seen also in Hawks' Road to Glory). The pacifist message under the romantic triangle angst and the 'hurrah for the next man who dies' grim drunken bravery was almost inescapable until around 1934 when unease about Hitler began to make further olive branch-rattling seem unwise.

War Nurse doesn't have the reckless trench war tracking shots, arial dogfights, or hotties like Jean Hawlow. Nurse co-stars Anita Page and June Walker are the stars instead and well, one wonders what the hell the casting people were thinking. Walker--who somehow winds up with Robert Montgomery---resembles a half-inflated Shelly Winters. These girls have that pale look like they've been eating too much bad food and not making their rounds in a timely manner. Co-star Robert Ames was dead from DTs the following year, and let me tell you, a good nurse could have really helped with that. Lord knows the ones I had this past Feb. were angels. Shout out to NY Presbyterian!

What I really do love about this film though, is the way it captures the terrible suddenness of obliteration that soldiers talk about from major battles but the cinema seldom adequately captures, the way you can be talking to someone as you walk along down the road and then BANG all that's left of them is a boot or bloody helmet, they're just there and then not there and you didn't even finish your sentence. How do you ever unpack shit like that? And what happens to the poor saps who die that way? Are their ghosts still wandering around Europe and Okinawa, wondering where their regiment went? When the nurses get blasted like this--unarmed and female and benevolent to both sides as the Red Cross was (the German hospitals too, let's not forget)--it's especially sudden, painful and utterly void of heroism. There's not even a corpse to mourn, nor a moment to grieve, we just see them walking along and then BAM, they're gone in a puff of smoke, and in conveying that so powerfully, War Nurse earns its wings, even if what it really needs is an air pump.

Sunday May 28
(1933) Dir J. Walter Ruben

Sculptor Rocky (Richard Dix) and his wealthy fiancee, Nancy (Elizabeth Allan) begin the film in an idyllic upper class garden guarded by a strangely disagreeable ceramic gnome. Someone runs over with alarming news. It's war! Rocky immediately declares that signing up to go fight is for chumps, and in a subsequent scene up in Rocky's second floor sculpture studio, he and Nancy have an argument of principles while parade footage unfurls outside the window below his work in progress, a winged angel. She dumps him for his 'cowardice.' Which leads to the next scene, Dix entering his new barracks to meet his fellow fliers, while a guitarist sings "Ten thousand dollars for the folks back home / ten thousand dollars / for the family," while they roll up the possessions of the latest killed flier, whose bunk Rocky's taking. We get the message, your family gets ten grand if you die in the air.

It's a startlingly modern scene, these pilots seem like they stepped out of a 50s Corman film. They're far too beat for 1933. They jive like they should be swindling Tony Curtis out of his sax or chasing James Dean around an abandoned swimming pool. Each of the pilots has a mascot and a nickname: "This is Tombstone Terry, the Tennessee Terror, otherwise known as Dracula!" The man leans forward to eye Rocky's neck, "Welcome to the ranks of the undead!" The next day in battle, Rocky realizes his artistic understanding of perception and natural light benefits him in dogfights. The boys celebrate his kill and Dix realizes that he may never make the grade as a sculptor, but this new bloody brand of performance art has a nice adrenalin kicker.

But what is the 'meaning' behind this art? When Dix smacks a kid in the face with an ammo belt because he loaded it wrong, we know we're not supposed to be buying war bonds in the lobby. This shit is personal and wants every bit of glamorous combat offset  by guilt and abashed horror.

When, upon his initial coward-branding by nurse Nancy, Rocky decries war as a chance to duck out on your wife, and work, and responsibility, you know he's right, and he gets to say I told you so after she's become a nurse and personally dealt with being shelled and overrun. When they meet in Paris on a furlough she says she regrets goading him into enlisting, but he'll have none of it: "This is a great war and I'm having a grand time; every minute is grand!" He's high on the cleanness of the war up where he is, the feeling of life and death so close and all that separates them the movements of his plane and firing of his guns: "Yes, it's a great war. I hope the next one is half as good!" Don't worry Rocky, it will be.  (see: Full Review at John Monk Saunders' Flying Death Drive Circus)

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