Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Hail Lizabeth Scott, Empress of the Uncanny Frisson!

I recently got a look at Lizabeth Scott for the first time watching DEAD RECKONING (1947), a classic film noir co-starring Bogart as a soldier home from WW2 who runs into intrigue while looking for a missing buddy in a small midwestern city. As the fine foxy femme (possible) fatale, Scott seems tailored to look and sound as much like Bacall as possible, and that's spooky, yo.

The uncanny frisson moment comes when Bogart first lays eyes on Scott; he's been a long time without a friend to lean on here in this unfriendly town and now in the ubiquitous swanky gambling joint wherein songs are sung in husky sorrowful sexy voices and incriminating letters hidden it doesn't seem he'll ever find one.  We first see her from behind, facing the bar as he approaches; her long wavy, Bacall-style hair is in her eyes when she turns and Bogie seems to be very confused. Is this is his wife, Lauren Bacall? 

Then, Humphrey hears the stranger's purring, low cat-like voice and he seems to relax, like one does when they finally find someone they know at a strange party. She may not be his real life wife, but she's close enough - any port in a storm.

Watching the film for the first time I, too, thought - whoa, it's Bacall in disguise. As Lizabeth Scott's face slowly appears out of the mist of lighting and hair, we share Bogart's bizarre frisson, an experience many of us have when-- for brief spans of time when tired or in a strange town-- everyone we see looks like composites of other people we know. When that 'lost and alone in a crowd' vibe starts to get you, the mind plays tricks, and people look like people you want them to be. 

This works for me too because I am always getting this film mixed up with DARK PASSAGE, which Bogie and Bacall made that same year, and which has a phonetically similar (and thematically ambiguous) title.

The duplicitous nature of the Scott's character works perfectly with this uncanny frisson and the film becomes an uneasily oscillating romance as Bogie repeatedly tests Scott's sincerity and pledges his love, only to have suspicion-raising events counter trust-raising events, keeping him forever uncertain.

In this way, the film is incredibly contemporary: the whole idea of "living happily ever after" or escaping the confines of the workaday world, leaving sins behind in a romantic rush becomes less and less imaginable the farther one gets away from the war. In a foxhole a soldier can dream of home and not have to be disappointed that home ain't what it used to be. Once home in normal old America the soldier must find a new fantasy to sustain him through the hard times. These characters want to roll the credits while they're in the chips, but the film keeps unspooling until not a single chip is left, just like in real fuckin' life.

It's a very odd film, derivative even, with whole stretches seemingly cribbed from MALTESE FALCON, THE BIG SLEEP and GILDA. The derivation is part of the paranoid deja vu that infuses Bogart's uncertain glances. Who hasn't fallen for someone just because they look and sound like another person we loved once long ago (or in Bogie's case, in his last two pictures?) Not only that, but who amongst us hasn't made promises to be loyal and trust a person forever only to realize a mere month later they're a rat. They don't measure up, but then again, neither do you, and it's all just a crazy mixed up world, ruled by icy chameleons like the fetching Scott, who can switch acting gears on a poisoned dime and leave even the hard-boiled likes of Bogart reeling like a drunk at twilight.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

American Cinema Anniversary: PAUL THOMAS ANDERSON - Put him in the Pantheon!


FILM: 1996-Hard Eight. 1997- Boogie Nights. 1999- Magnolia. 2002- Punch Drunk Love. 2007-There Will Be Blood

The giddy velocity of Paul Thomas Anderson's tracking shot cross-cutting montages makes him unique among the new generation of auteurs; his is a druggie cinema. His camera snakes through coke deals, oil fields, television studios, hotels, casinos, like a predatory animal stalking its prey, (his peers' just sit there). Anderson's is the cinema of the addict that's been running so long they've forgotten what's chasing them. In this way, Anderson is the D.W. Griffith of cinema's second century; a humanist and sadist rolled into one guilt-wracked intellect. Anderson uses cross-cutting with the same deft timing as Griffith, which is to say, he stops time altogether, for a purpose higher than suspense or hiding mismatched shots.

That he is the inheritor of the Altman throne of "actor's auteur" can't be argued either. Anderson displays his actors like a tipsy and proud party host; he loves them. Even cats who you think would never hang out with Anderson are embraced; an ego-driven persona like Tom Cruise is given an altruistic vein in his heart for MAGNOLIA, dishing out dating advice to the lovelorn nerds of Los Angeles. In PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE, that perennial frat boy Adam Sandler is held tight to the bosom of Emily Watson until all his solipsism melts off like baby fat. Anderson washes the dirty leers of Sandler and Cruise clean away, like Saint Francis washing the wounds of the lepers.

Anderson's cinema moves restlessly forward until it transcends duality and abstraction; he is painfully aware of the altrusim vs. ego battle and he punishes any character who fails to hear the cosmic message. Sometimes it takes a rain of frogs, and if that's what it takes, Anderson brings it. He's like all older brothers too hip to the cosmos to believe in their own redemption (nothing murders the spirit of art like becoming "devout.") but he still feels responsible for his younger sibling/s. In this way he is the Eugene O'Neill of modernism's second century, always taking a step back and apologizing for his sudden, terrifying lurches.

Anderson's cinema is the cinema of closing and awakening, sleeping and opening, caressing and punching, the relentless evolution of change; he loves to cut from young kid close-ups to old faces; life and death, joy and despair, all spot-welded to ELO songs. The momentum of his tracking montages--in MAGNOLIA particularly--creates a tangible sense that death is present, inescapable, and may have even already visited, and either way will be back around again once enough tocks have ticked.

Anderson pokes where people don't like to be poked, forcing the alchemical transfiguration every locked-down ego resists. Anderson imitates God in his use of synchronicity and coincidence and death and pain as tools to bring his hyper-orbiting characters to crashing standstills. No matter how bad the panic attack you're having while watching, Anderson will save you, his cinema runs up alongside the most terrified bucking bronco of a gaze and whispers it down to a gentle canter, like some Paul Bunyan rodeo clown.

So... Griffith, O'Neill, the Paul Bunyan rodeo clown. Three metaphors, unconnected yet all part of Anderson's cinema, one that lies outside the symbolic order that enslaves the elephantine productions usually considered Oscar-worthy. It is a cinema that breathes rapidly, hysterical, goes to vomit and comes back calmer, and then does it again, and you wind up holding its hair. You fall in love with this strange new cinema's hair, red and long; it's Julianne Moore's, and the clock is ticking, and every second of this three-hour movie you are watching seems like precious manna. Why would shots of Daniel Day Lewis hacking at rock feel so liberating? Anderson brings back John Henry the steel driving man, and we realize we've been gasping for him like mythic air, drowning in the stale sea of recycled market researched cinematic pap. Anderson's tracking shots lead us out of the cave of shadows, to the precious moment where every hour is your last hour on earth, and therefore the total enlightenment of the self is exposed; no repressed shadow shall survive his scythe.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Kim Novak: Bell Book Vertigo Stewart 1958 and above all the clothes...

What can one say about this weird sometimes amazing actress Kim Novak? She delivers four amazing performances in two movies made in 1958. She exudes a weird melancholy and could be a genius; her embodiment of Gillian the Witch in BELL, BOOK AND CANDLE is one of my favorite femme fatale performances, even when her character is a self-righteous sanctimonious bitch to rival Merle or browbeating cronies and longing to be normal and go to goddamned church. VERTIGO recently crested the AFI 100 ahead of KANE, and she's no small measure of its success, even if her love interest is Jimmy Stewart.

She didn't even need magic, all she needed was great clothes.

More than nearly any other actress, she knew how to let great clothes mold her performance--each dress conjures a whole new being. Contrast her assured beatnik grace as she slides around her boho apartment in the beginning with her frump-shouldered white dress shyness at the end in BELL, how we want to do what Scottie did to her in VERTIGO, get her out of the white and dress her back up in the oversize black sweater, bare feet, and tight slacks; or her elegant mannequin black dress against the red velvet restaurant in the beginning VERTIGO with that awful lime green thing she has on in her second incarnation, her brown-red hair pulled back to accentuate her weird nose like her whole head is pulled back from that nose, and the dress a size too big like its a reproachful mother. She was confident enough in her beauty to let it slide when it suited the moment, the clothes, the hair. No wonder she had a breakdown when Jimmy kept forcing her to dress like Madeline again, who would she have to be now that her past role was being exhumed, forcing her in a way to be jealous of herself or to have to live a character for an entire relationship. Beware the hot vain girl for when her mask finally comes off there's a naive person who's never been seen underneath, afraid and abashed by her absence of model pose armament, her magic.

Hence the above collage, positing her as a goddess in the flames of acolyte devotion, the Buddhist demon mask the middle persona between her beauty and the fear-inducing guardians of the gates as you pass beyond time and space. As all good goddesses and their flocks must go, clutching their memories of the hot first incarnation of her witch in BELL to see them through.

Rose Hobart, a name that is known to us... even in the wilds of Second Avenue.

Don't know why I'm obsessed with this whole EAST OF BORNEO / ROSE HOBART thing lately... maybe... maybe... no, that can't be it.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Rose Hobart Variations #4: The Mecha-Medusa Complex

Mecha Medusa!

Goddess of despair. She how sea weeps... crocodile tears
the carpet with her ice like smoke and her bad press.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

East of Borneo, Rose Hobart (1931) and Thou (2008)

Joseph Cornell did the first youtube video "remix" or "sweded" or whatever the kids are callin' it, back in the day (1931), and it's seeable here. Name of ROSE HOBART. Instead of remixing the Shining to be a cuddly comedy about "Jack" to cite a popular youtube example, American surrealist Joseph Cornell sweded a 1931 jungle romantic action film name of EAST OF BORNEO.

I actually found out about Cornell's HOBART by accident - wandering into the original EAST OF BORNEO at a showing in the Whitney during an Edward Hopper retrospective. I didn't get the whole ROSE HOBART thing and now I presume that was why EAST was being shown, with HOBART probably on afterwards, as Cornell was in the same curatorial rubric as Hopper, presumably.

I don't think its original director (George Melford) would be happy about how BORNEO got into the Whitney (i.e. you're only art when someone else uses you for paint) but at least it did, and before I was dragged from the theater by my impatiently hissing ex-girlfriend, I fell in love with BORNEO and became determined to find it on tape. The years dragged fruitlessly on, digital revolutions occured, and I finally found it on DVD... at a snazzy little joint called Sinister Cinema, and it's still available for order here. I'd recommend ordering it from these fine folks on DVD-R, rather than netflix the Alpha version (which was probably ripped from an old VHS tape of Sinister's version.)

The point is, you don't need Cornell to remaster BORNEO to get a sense of its outsider poetry brilliance. Godard would point it out for you. If he was in the room. Which he wont be. But you can still glean lots of weird juicy metatextual poetry off it, if you approach in the right frame of mind. To wit, as an artistic salute to Cornell's original cinema "remix" I made the above "collages" by smudging a still from BORNEO, which I ripped off someone else's site.

That begs an interesting question. In the case of BORNEO. Who owns what? How can Cornell copyright HOBART or how can an image or still that's scanned and put up on the internet suddenly "belong" to anyone? Surely, anyone can show it. BORNEO is apparently in the public domain, and anyone can take footage from an old dupe and make their own HOBART if they want. Or take a HOBART and make their own BORNEO. Can't they? So go ahead... cut up the precious lifestuff that is EAST OF BORNEO, and live... live to metatextualize another day.
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