Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception... for a better now

Monday, February 18, 2008

Brokeback Lubitsch

I'm digging the Lubitsch musicals DVD set while home for president's day! What could be less American? Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald are the peak Pekingese of pre-WW1 Europe; they have nothing to do with the America we've become, some alien never-was alternate history where the atomic age was gingerly sidestepped. Decadent and divine, the singing pair look even weirder and more menacingly sexy than they ever have--thanks to the skilled Criterion restorers sussing out all the intricate facial and costume lighting.

It's thrilling to see this last gasp of the old order so brilliantly alive. As in Renoir's RULES OF THE GAME, Lubitsch's musicals dance and play even as the Titanic sinks all around them, so to speak. Merry as the scene is, you can feel the end here like you could feel it in the desert dust on John Wayne's shoulders at the end of THE SEARCHERS. All the royal gallantry and guffaws, the servant systems and serfdoms, would reach their zenith in the Lubitsch froth and then recede gently backwards under the rushing tide of the onrushing world-wide wars. Before all that though, we have time to laugh and sing and thus Lubitsch enters the age of sound with high European style. The wittiest and most decadent traits of silent cinema are brought along: grand castles, marching soldiers, attending maidens and matrons, sexy yet abundant costumes; but with sound comes Eugene Pallette's marvelous croak, singing dogs and their bitches, and booming canons!

And yet, even without modernism looming uber alles, something's amiss here, hidden in the closeted gayness of 1931's MONTE CARLO (included in the Criterion Eclips box) is the perpetually grinning British stage crooner (a Chevalier replacement) Jack Buchanan.

While Chevalier coasts into the sound age on his instinctive sense of absurdity, the by-the-numbers Noel Cowardice of Buchanan comes off as BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN-style denial. He is sooo gay, in other words that he doesn't seem to be believably taken by the girls in the film. Instead it just seems like he channels his frustrated desire for men into the aggressive pursuit of Jeanette MacDonald and what's the fun in that? When Chevalier leers at MacDonald in her negligee it comes with the sense of his being much-laid and genuinely into her as a gal. By contrast, to see the way Buchanan looks at her--his ghoulsih smile plastered on as if permanently painted--is to see lavender burlesque leering at its creepiest.

To a 21st century audience with some idea of gay culture, it's fairly easy to see he's taking out his closeted frustrations in an absurd acting-out; he's playing the straight with all the bitter sarcasm he can muster, all to prove himself "a man" to his fellow closeted queer pals (Tyler Brooke and a doe-eyed hairdresser hunk played by John Roche). When this gay threesome sings "Trimmin' the Women" the double entendres become triples, and the fun dissipates. Instead of a delightfully sophisticated froth, Buchanan's tenacity as MacDonald's wooer stagnates like the obsessive stalker's toad-like algae-covered mental swamp, like when Robert Stack talks too close to Bacall in WRITTEN ON THE WIND, staring at her moving lips like a bad actor, seeming as if he might suddenly pounce, Renfeild-like, at a fly on her lower lip. Imagine Edward Everett Horton crossed with Nosferatu and there's Buchanan --fine in a horror film but not so much as a romantic lead. We in the audience might titter occasionally, but we can't relax, anymore than the families of the repressed cowboys in BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN can.

I  offer this observation more as a flashlight on the invisible elephant rather than a condemnation. The films in this Criterion Eclipse set are still an unmitigated delight, even if  MONTE CARLO is a wash-out. Jeanette MacDonald, for example, regularly shines with Criterion-cleaned, Klieg-lit goddessliciousness even in MONTE; Lubitsch never lets a shot of her go to waste - she's always framed, Mouscha-like, around long drapes and ornate bedposts. So regardless, here's some kudos to Criterion for including MONTE CARLO in this set, and letting us peer in at some of the old pre-war closets.

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