Because the screen is the only well-lit mirror in town

Thursday, March 05, 2009


Catching 1930's ANNA CHRISTIE last night on a big screen for the first time, I began at last to understand the appeal of Garbo, sober. I used to love her when I was drinking because her mix of asexual bravado and tortured feminine emotion was the perfect amplification for my maudlin swamp moods... but seeing the film, whilst sober? To a sober 21st century mind unprepared, Garbo can be a whiny drag... at least for me, until last night when the link between Garbo and James Dean became clear... a link forged in the hell of pure art and insanity. 

Like Dean, Garbo alternates between being comfortable in her skin and trying to climb out of it; she sails on the giddy highs of some emotions and lets others defeat her. Every weary step of the way, her Anna pours forth with languor and measured early sound-second language enunciative speaking, like a leaky flour sack. There's a sense that she was good at mimicking her elders as a child, of making fun of her English teacher's pronunciation --her pronunciation and accented syllables covered with private little jokey post-it notes. In the long static scenes between her and her "Old Devil Sea"-hating Swedish tugboat captain father, Kris Kristofferson (!), Garbo wears big manly sweaters and slacks and when Kris pisses her off, her shoulders slump inwards as if she's trying to hide her lack of cleavage or keep someone from stealing her football. "Men! Men! Men!" is her lament. She hates them (like Kris hates the ocean) because her drunken father sent her to off to a farm, away from "no good sailor fellers" he says, not knowing--or choosing to be oblivious--that while there she was enslaved, belittled, abused, and eventually raped by her poor relations (we can imagine her a bit like Nicole Kidman's character in DOGVILLE).  She ran away after that, and--after starving on the street-- "worked in a house... yes, that kind of a house." Her restful idyll on the barge is surely well-deserved, and she's much more the worldly woman than her eventually received brutish but innocent sailor feller (played with amusing Irish bluster by the under-appreciated Charles Bickford --see him in my East of Borneo redux here) who is washed onto the barge and falls in love with her after she brings him a wee nip to warm his bones. Bickford wants to marry her, but first--due to her innate moral fibrosis--she has to tell him--and her father too--the truth about where she really worked in Saint Paul.

I've seen this movie a lot (via a self-duped VHS) during my drinking years, and always loved it both for Garbo's world-weary wit and Eugene O'Neill's knowing attention to alcoholic detail. We drunks know where every drop of liquor is around us within a mile radius, be it hidden in a flask pocket or behind six inches of lead; and we sense that Anna Christie does too, but is trapped by convention into the good girl strait-jacket. We know Anna likes to drink whiskey ("don't be stingy, baby..."), but she's given milk by her dad and the sailor fella who both believe she's virginal and "pure." We share her silent revulsion towards the white stuff and her unspoken desire for what the men are drinking. (When Bickford says "I ordered milk for the lady," you want to punch him.) Anna never actually drinks whiskey with the boys until the end--after shattering their illusions of her purity--and knowing O'Neill (he clearly loves both whiskey and women)--it's always clear whose side he's on. Anna's being able to finally knock 'em back with her men is her reward for dumping her abused past onto their laps, returning the full measure of their see-no-evil hypocrisy (plus interest), and smashing their imbecilic censor-sanctioned pipe dreams. The illusions of these sorts of sailor fellers is what makes old drunk tramps like Marie Dressler have to stagger the streets homeless rather then stay on in the house when the "good" woman returns. So they bring it on themselves and we're meant to root for Anna all the way - her every shot of whiskey is an unabashed triumph. She's a cooler kind of female Hickey in THE ICEMAN COMETH, or Eugene himself in LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT. She's back to try and get peace by shattering the pipe dreams of others and she does-- and her reward is now she doesn't have to keep drinking milk, and her future/older self --the cautionary tale of where she'll end up if she lets her past horrors go unspoken--Marie Dressler, can come in from the cold.

O'Neill is too good a playwright to spell anything out didactically; he just has Anna rear back and declare, "I'm my own master!" and in the process reduce the men in her life to sulking lions in the corner of the cage. Great art, like great therapy, leads you to the water then lets you decide how much to drink. In these simple scenarios, the horrific hypocrisy of the double standard--ala the film's first act examination of the old saloon "Ladies' Entrance" regulations--comes back to bite the men where it hurts most. Her sinful secret is the mirror of mens' sex drive: once she discharges it, the blame and burden is shifted; she has unsplit the difference between saint and whore, like a reverse atom bomb.

I always feel bad watching Garbo try to be conventionally sexy (MATA HARI) or zany (TWO-FACED WOMAN). She can be funny and sexy, but not 'directly', only in passing; her emotional gamut is run along every line of dialogue; her whole being is the definition of a one-woman termite art retrospective; she is artist / art/ and audience all in one weary chuckle. Go to see a Mae West film and you enter a jovial Xmas ball, enter a Garbo picture and you enter a deserted but fragrant church, empty but for a single crying widow and her dancing flower girl daughter. These two are in Garbo's face; the church is the rest of her body, it exists just to carry that face around. Her face is so expressive all else fades away --even her hair doesn't matter. In nearly every one of her sound films, her hair hangs Prince Valiant-flat and androgynous at her sides. It doesn't matter, it's the weird symmetry of her face that counts. It's the ultimate mix of Hindu temple deity and Stockholm guttersnipe; her face betrays every tremor of her empathic hypersensitivity. It is the hypersensitivity of great artists with susceptibilities to drug and alcohol addiction due to low affect tolerance (i.e. it's Swedish). Just as James Dean could vacillate between Marlboro poster boy and sweet, shy little nerd depending on the line of dialogue, or sometimes within the same phrase, so Garbo is always pulling herself together into an unsmiling Teutonic statue and then cracking up back into a wistful little girl. Some art is a reminder to move past the pain of maternal rejection, and some art just duplicates the exact moment of maternal rejection, so you can live it over and over again. Garbo's face is the mask of the Goddess who comes to comfort you when you finally recognize mom's not going to come fix your problem anymore; you are on your own - the only one sure to call when you cry is, inevitably, Death. See how it lurches over your shoulder and asks you for a quarter? Behind the mask she's just Marie Dressler; sans skin, sans eyes, sans everything, she'll be you too.

I used to worship at the feet of the Alice statue in Central Park; she was my thin mushroom-enthroned Buddha. The size difference between us was, I later realized, the approx. same as between a baby and a mom, or a movie screen medium shot and the average audience member distance. Isn't the first image we fixate on that of a giant female face looking down at us? Isn't that what big close-ups of women's faces in the movies are all about on that subliminal level of seduction and hypnosis that goes into good cinema?

They talk in pre-code books and in the movie DINNER AT EIGHT of the "Garbo widow" - women whose husbands prayed nightly to the giant divinity at the local theater place of worship and gave up the earthly pleasures of their workaday wives. Not that Garbo was nurturing or maternal, but that's part of the point. We love to re-enact that golden rejection - Garbo's face is the face of our mom kicking us out the door to our first day of school. It's a point David Lynch understands as evinced in his child's eye view shots of the depressed post-Club Silencio Betty/Diane in MULHOLLAND DRIVE. We don't really like big round nurturing mom faces; we "had" it already. We like her now to be aloof and mysterious and a little preoccupied, it gets our whole Lacanian phallic objet petit-a mechanism in motion.

It's a brilliant stroke of fate that ANNA CHRISTIE should be Garbo's first sound film, as it's all about the feminine ideal coming home to roost in the gutter; the return of the elevated as the return of the repressed in a surprise Louisiana flip. The silent giant woman we've adoring now speaks, and what she says is a confession: she's not adorable at all, she's "impure." As if the Alice in Wonderland statue started talking and the first thing it asked for was whiskey. Unlike Dean, Garbo wasn't granted a quick death but languished in retreat after being unable to move gracefully into the post-code era. And more power to her for resisting. ANNA CHRISTIE is, in addition to being many things, an indictment of the yet to be fully enforced code itself; how much worse it would get they could not know!

Now it comes to me in a flash. Old Captain Kris is the perfect stand-in for Joseph Breen and the Catholic Legion of Decency: in using every ounce of their power to prevent their Annas of America from learning about the lure of that old Devil Sea, they merely left a generation at the mercy of sleazy rapist farmboys. But worse, the code also made sure Anna no longer got to rub the Kris and Breen crowd's faces in their hypocrisy in the third act. Instead, we'd see frilly MGM yarns where sailor Kriss/Breen gags her, hobbles her, chains her to the stove and makes her smile about it because he got her a nice ring and some cherub-cheeked freckle-nosed tykes to scamper about at her feet. We'd have to ride out the rest of the 1930s up to our necks in frilly bland lies, until the post-WW 2 noirscape found a million ingenious ways to sneak a drink when father's back was turned. Men! Men! Men! How I hate every one of them!


  1. I don't often read around the pictures in blogs, but I'd seen AC sober myself lately and it stuck in my head like no other picture I've watched since I was a teenager, when everything sticks in your head. Thanks for the good words. They made a fine breakfast.

  2. Great post...and Garbo looks so hot in that first picture!

  3. bet long comment i've ever read connected to Garbo.

    Hope you have a good one!


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