Psychedelic Film Criticism for the Already Deranged

Friday, January 23, 2009

The First David Lynch Movie? The Story of Temple Drake (1933)


Faulkner's dank laudanum-spiked mint julep writing style suffuses the rare 1933 pre-code STORY OF TEMPLE DRAKE with Southern Gothic ambiance (it's based on his novella, "Sanctuary") hovering like a gnat cloud over its cheap perfume and bathtub mix of "Old Dark Hothouse"-style creepiness and avant-garde "dream theater" alienation effects, it just might be the ideal choice for a double bill with ERASERHEAD. Think Polanski's REPULSION crossed with James Whale's OLD DARK HOUSE and Kazan's BABY DOLL, all filtered through a Federal Theater Project-style dream modernism lens until the Lynchianism begins to seep from the edges like a creeping, tasty fungus, or a half-coagulated melange of blood and tree sap.


Miriam Hopkins, queen of the pre-code menage-a-trois (ala the same year's DESIGN FOR LIVING) plays Temple Drake, the pleasure-seeking debutante granddaughter of a respected southern judge (her dad was killed in "the World War"). With only the distant patriarch around, she's grown up wild and free-spirited, but a little screwy, a lot like Miriam Hopkins herself, or at least her other roles of the pre-code era.

Poor Temple's problems begin when her date for a country club party gets drunk and crashes the car near his bootlegger's old creepy house in the woods, so they need to hang out there until the rain stops. Irving Pichel and his wife, Ruby (Florence Eldridge), live there with their baby (whom Ruby keeps in a box so "the rats don't get it") and the requisite Faulknerian "idiot manchild," Tommy (James Eagles). Staying at the house, playing cards, also 'til the storm stops, are some creepy gangsters from the city (no doubt there for a moonshine pick-up) including the greasy and virile Trigger (Jack La Rue). The moment Drake's eyes lock with Trigger's, it's on. Her pure breeding can never suppress the animal attraction-repulsion for this oily, leering mutt, no matter how hard she tries. Trigger takes this as his excuse to take what he wants, regardless of her screaming and terror. A candle in his hand supplies the phallic violation/authority symbolism. When the manchild steps in to defend her honor, Trigger presses his namesake and the kid goes down.

Before then, though, every guy hits on her, even Pichel who slaps his wife when she intervenes. The presence of the baby meanwhile is a sad reminder of just where Temple's headed: the baby's helplessness mirrors hers own (she too wants protection from 'the rats' and is essentially trapped) and also shows the end game of desire's genetic con job, a baby as the ultimate tool of repression, imprisoning Ruby to a life of squalor more effectively than any bars or chains... and now Trigger wants to plant one in our virgin Temple.


Meanwhile the handsome hero, Stephen Benbow (William Gargan) is the people's attorney fighting for truth in a court system where judges like Temple's grandfather (Sir Guy Standing) thinks it's better to hang innocent white trash than tarnish the reputation of any of the local landed gentry who may have committed a major felony. Naturally the shooting of the manchild becomes a case that ends up in court, with Pichel on trial and too scared of Trigger to tell the truth. His innocence rests with Temple's confession of just where she was that night, but if she tells the truth--no matter how involuntary her initiation may have been--her reputation will be ruined.

The middle segment of the film, the long dark and stormy night at the creepy old bootlegger's, leading up to the rape, is easily the best part. While fascinatingly lurid, it's also slow, cheap and just plain surreal. Shots alternate endlessly around a ring of ominous faces and figures: close-ups of leering male faces; her passed-out date; more leering faces; bugs crawling on the passed out date; and Drake's eyes alight with terror and carnal fascination. The budget seems to rise and fall with her every terrified breath, and shots are clearly spliced together from several different prints. Probably some honorable film restorer found a few lost reels floating around in the deep storage vaults and spliced the undamaged parts and restored material cut by uptight southern district judges. (PS - 3/5/16 - The recent viewing of a sparklingly restored TCM print proves either I remember wrong or right - as the slowed down time-image cuts back and forth between Temple and the leering faces and the flies on her drunk date seem to be missing in this version, as is the dropped candlestick- as if the print they restored is the one some nervous bucolic censor snipped long ago).

Rape or not, from a Freudian-Lacanian model, this is pure myth, a surreally rendered portrait of one woman's initial encounter with the traumatic "real" dimension of fantasmatic sexual initiation, and one is instantly reminded of similar nonlocal realms in the Lynch universe: Dean Stockwell's house in BLUE VELVET; One-Eyed Jack's in TWIN PEAKS; the sleazy porn guy's pad in LOST HIGHWAY, and so on. These places aren't just dirty or obscene, they are soo obscene, so 'other,' they create a sort of feedback loop, opening a transdimensional gateway where juvenile fantasy finds its traumatic expression in heightened reality, the crazy lightning and storm outside driving Temple indoors despite all her premonitions, the date's craving for a drink making him blind to her pleas. The bootlegger's ramshackle, dripping-roofed house is what a child might imagine in their nightmares, a transfiguration of the primal scene deliberately exaggerated, presented in a stilted, somnambulistic and theatrical manner in which the actors speak and move as if underwater, the action proceeding slower and slower the closer Temple gets to her violent deflowering. Long close-ups of Trigger's face, his eyes glowering and never blinking; huge cigarette in the corner of his mouth; begin to resemble an African mask fertility demon; his oily sweat like rain, or worse. Her male escort's drunken uselessness in the situation carries a NIGHT OF THE HUNTER vibe, as when little John Harper tries to wake the old drunk at the dock while Mitchum closes in singing his infernal songs (and mirroring, in a child's worst fears, trying to wake up their parents after a horrible nightmare, and the parents not waking up).


It all might be construed as bad theater but in the context of the era was probably a deliberate distancing effect, to equate the sequence more with dreams than reality (i.e. Lynch's room with the dancing dwarf where everyone talks backwards), thus sparing the naive viewer from going home traumatized and complaining to the local pastor (for viewers of that era, this was probably the equivalent of I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE). The constant cutting to Drake's horrified reactions smacks of cheap exploitation after awhile (it's an old editing trick to cover up mismatched footage) but as a result the sleazy poverty and tape splices (at least on the print I saw/have) conjure up the pungent aftertaste of those old Dwain Esper road show pictures like MANIAC, or our associations of bad video dupes and poverty row dinginess with sleazy violence and adulthood (the way British teens passed around 10th generation dupes of 'video nasties' back in the 80s) and we get a real sense of Temple's extended panic attack in this squalor, as we remember feeling trapped in our parent's houses as kids, watching these old movies on video over and over to pass the time, anxious to escape the tedium of our parents' house, yet terrified by the wildness waiting in the big city. All through childhood we've craved total autonomy and felt stifled by rules, now we're terrified by the lack of structure that accompanies freedom, like eggs finally hatching only to find the birds waiting to swoop down and devour us while we stumble towards the protecting ocean and Sebastian Venable looks down from the mizzenmast is agog horror. 

How better to explain what happens the next morning, when Drake allows herself to be driven off by La Rue to some fleabag brothel/hotel in the city, where she becomes his PTSD-stunned love slave? We never get a feeling of how Drake reacts during her sexual violations once the initial screaming is done-- if she fights back, plays dead or involuntarily climaxes--and that opens a very interesting can of worms. The "every woman adores a fascist" / "throw me up against the wall and ravage me" Stockholm Syndrome worms crawl out with Paglian disregard for PC morality on the one side of the can and the socially instilled loathing for all predatory sexual violence on the other. We "know" she was raped, but to paraphrase Angelina Jolie in GIRL, INTERRUPTED, only a few of us "know" that she liked it, or we dare to entertain the horrific idea at any rate. We'll never 'really' know, and of course that's part of the point, part of what keeps her honor intact, in our eyes if not the court's.

I'm thinking also of Laura Dern in SMOOTH TALK (1985) where we're in danger of being lured into a trance of commingled fear and desire instead of just fear for survival. This time we're dealing with the trauma of transmutation, by which so many girls have survived and been absorbed into the tribal units of their old tribe's killers. Instead of vowing revenge or overcoming the odds through combat or trickery, these girls survive by Stockholm Syndrome. It's all written so deep in their basic reptilian cortex programming they don't even recognize it when it comes slithering up from the depths, but as humans we have millennia of it stored in our DNA and it's all over the animal kingdom (as with lion prides).

That it opens itself to all these interpretations is just another reason why THE STORY OF TEMPLE DRAKE fits so well in the Lynchian universe. This is as mythic and archetypal a tale of the maturing female psyche as you are likely to find outside of his work.. aside from European films like VALERIE AND HER WEEK OF WONDERS or those rare and precious American indies that are genuinely subversive--like LEMORA, FREEWAY and the under-appreciated BRIAR PATCH (AKA PLAIN DIRTY)--instead of quirky "Sundance"-style emptiness like JUNO and HOUNDDOG.

In short, THE STORY OF TEMPLE DRAKE is a fine example of what cinema could have provided in the way of sexually aware mythic narratives had the Catholic Legion of Decency not come along in 1934 and relegated stories of woman's sexual awakening to the shadows (and made the Beauty and the Beast myth choose between being a Disney movie or an adults-only sex farce, with no room in between). But for four years or so there was room for real Jungian/Freudian weirdness to accrue, and Hollywood delivered the goods. I try to remember to thank God everyday for TCM, and Martin Scorsese, and Criterion, and all the people who do so much to dredge up and restore these old gems. Let's hope some enterprising studio head puts THE STORY OF TEMPLE DRAKE out with the next batch of Forbidden Hollywood titles, cleaning up the image so we can see more of the sordidness (and the candle!) In the meantime it would be a damn good double bill with BLUE VELVET... but first you have to find it, and get yourself ready to head into the squalid crack house of your unconscious and free the monster you've got chained up down there, name of Temple Trigger.

AND-- check out more weird David Lynch stuff from OUT 1 and their DAVID LYNCH WEEK.

3 comments:

  1. ...please where can I buy a unicorn?

    ReplyDelete
  2. The proffered cup o'joe in the car says it all!!

    ReplyDelete

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