Psychedelic Film Criticism for the Already Deranged

Friday, January 30, 2009

Marnie, Diane Baker, Dracula, Lucy & Me: a Memoir out of Time

As I said in my previous post (below) it's hard to be objective about Tippi Hedren when she looks so much like my beautiful, brilliant friend, Lucy Blodgett (check out Lucy's blog, Florence Feathers, here). In the above photo you can see a side-by-side analysis. Lucy moved back to LA this year and I miss her very much!

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The Cooler Younger Sister Effect #2: Diane Baker in MARNIE


Before she had her nipples toughened feeding "roomy" daughter Katherine in SILENCE OF THE LAMBS (and stole my heart as one officially hot post-MILF powerbroker), Diane Baker managed to sneak into a Hitchcock movie and steal it right out from under Tippi Hedren, nipples perked and alert under burgundy turtleneck as she sits on a green couch. As widower Sean Connery's young sister-in-law, Baker instantly sizes up the shady but classy Marnie (Hedren) as a fraud, and suffuses the tense psychodrama with drollery and acid bon mots all while staying airy, savvy, sexy and gloriously "amoral." And a good thing too, since by then in the narrative things have become somewhat dreary. Feminists who've lost their sense of humor should study this character: she flourishes in the midst of oppressive patriarchy by playing on its weaknesses. She's a true, fun, cool, sexy trickster.

I've always found the elements of Marnie pleading for love from her mom rather drab and distasteful, not "lived in" - it's as if this is the third or fourth time Marnie and her mom have met; and mom's a liability. I presume Hitchcock was already beginning to fall into the latter stage of his career, when certain scenes and parts of his films begin to interest him more than the films as a whole, so he leaves chunks of MARNIE under-nourished and fluffs up other parts (such as all the suspense surrounding Marnie's routine of seduction - job- trust- safe combination acquisition - theft - disappearance - hair color change - horseback riding) and part of the trouble seems to be with Hedren herself. I recall reading that Hitchcock wanted her to stay icy, but she kept wanting "to act"-- thus her face wrinkles and pinches and her eyes roll around. It's disconcerting! Better she stayed icy!

But whatever stuffy airlessness the film might generate is dispelled instantly when we open up the door to "dad's" study and see Lil (Baker) posed languidly on a dark green couch in the burgundy sweater. This is one of my favorite color combinations in all of cinema, and Lil seems to know it, luxuriating under my masculine gaze... I'm always rooting for her to trash Marnie and take the Scotsman for herself. Alas...

While Hitch's alpha blondes carry the brunt of his coded misogyny, the "second female" characters quite often get to escape - flitting and flirting free of the pressures of adult sexuality. Such is the case with Lil who is clearly in love with her big moneybags brother-in-law, though he steadfastly refuses to acknowledge it, but she's able to sublimate her desire into concern for his happiness. She's not even really over-jealous of Marnie, just mischievous, spying and so forth to help him figure her out. She offers her services to Mark, assuring him she has "no scruples" and is willing to be his guerrilla in espionage. A girl after my own heart! She's even able to let Mark's condescension and insults roll off her back, recognizing the psychological insecurity beneath. When she tries to tip off Mark that Marnie's mom is alive he belittles her savagely, "She was having you on, Lil." It's a classic moment in feminist studies in that Connery brings all his James Bond male authority to bear on this desperate retort, a last ditch patriarchal effort to reclaim his superior stature against the lying of Marnie and the sleuthing of Lil (who finds out more in a few minutes than Mark's coterie of [male] detectives find after weeks of research). A close reading shows neither Marnie or Lil have any delusion that Mark knows what the hell he's doing, and Connery expertly mixes his tone of authority with passing waves of doubt and insecurity rolling across his eyes.

My problems with MARNIE as a film stem from the long scenes of Tippi freaking out and acting frigid, squirming under Mark's attempts to help her and/or seduce her. It might be good melodrama, but it's rather shrill and unpleasant. Hedren and Hitch seem to forget why cinema exists, that we go to the movies to get away from tantrums and unpleasant behavior. The trick of a great actor isn't realism or sex goddesshood, but both - can you be believable as someone trying to be as unsexy as possible and STILL be sexy? Hedren cannot and thus her ice queens are always outsexed by the less iced-up chicks (Baker here, Suzanne Pleshette in The Birds). Baker's stealth sexiness benefits from purposely playing off Marnie's weaknesses; Lil is very comfortable in her skin, and around men--as with Emmy Kockenlocker, there's something very cool about a girl who can luxuriate in the close proximity of her fearsome dad, the way Naomi Watts luxuriates in Kong's paw, if you will.

Presuming we're not supposed to find Lil's rich girl guerrilla espionage that much sexier than Marnie's blonde ice-cum-warm dirty puddle queen, one wonders if Baker just ran with the ball here, while Hedren got held up by Hithcock's control freakishness, as all through this film I'm always thinking "Jesus, Sean, dump her already and grab that little sister-in-law" Ah well, the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence, the screen, or the hair color divide.


P.S. Just to disclose my personal prejudices: it's hard for me to relate calmly to this movie, since Hedren looks a lot like my dear friend and co-guerrilla-in-espionage, Lucy, and my mom looks a little like Marnie's mom (Louise Latham), and as for me, let me jest say "Senator, love your suit."

(Note: Special thanks to the amazing site, 1000 Frames of Hitchcock.)

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.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

2008 - ACIDEMIC YEAR ROUND-UP

If it wasn't for the last minute WRESTLER, I'd have been really bummed about 2008, movie-wise. Luckily, I finally got cable; TCM stepped in for me as the big DVD companies all started re-releasing the Same Old Crap on blu-ray rather than digging out the missing essentials we're still waiting for. There were exceptions of course (like MOONTIDE and ROADHOUSE with Kim Morgan commentary!) but in general the pickins have been slim as far as movies that actually break a mold or two, instead of just delivering the same old sermons... Next time, o lord, Don't deliver us from evil. Let the Joker win, just to see what happens.

In the tradition of the excellent Dancing Image, here are Erich's Ten Best Essays of 2008*:

1. The Foxy, the Dead and the Foxier: Bright Lights Film Journal
2. Barbara Stanwyck in Ten Cents a Dance: Acidemic
3. American Cinema Pantheon - Paul Thomas Anderson: Acidemic
4. Replicanting Bladerunner: Bright Lights Film Journal
5. The Passion and the Prurience: Water Lilies - review (pictured top): Nathan R's Film Experience Blog (as guest blogger)
6. Succubus and the Moebius Strip: Acidemic Journal of Film & Media
7. Kim Morgan, Moontide & Remorae: Bright Lights After Dark
8. Miriam Hopkins and the Pre-Code Menage a Trois: Bright Lights After Dark
9. Naomi Watts: Cinema's Post-Modern Mother of Mirrors: Bright Lights Film Journal
10. There Will Be Blood and Brutus Jones: Bright Lights After Dark

RUNNER UP: TAKE THIS UNBORN CHILD AND SHOVE IT! and If you don't like MARGOT AT THE WEDDING, I'll get you in YOUR SLEEP!

* - (Selected by a handpicked panel of the finest imitation wood.)

Monday, January 12, 2009

Free Fu! (and Fah Lo Suee)

There's a slew of color Fu Manchu films coming out on DVD, starring Christopher Lee and directed by that bargain basement Bunuel, Jess Franco, amongst others. I've been a Fu fan since childhood, when I went through a polymorphously perverse sado-masochistic phase around 4th grade, with my ideal being Fu's sadistic daughter, Fah Lo Suee. I was almost afraid to read the Sax Rohmer books because they were just so full of danger and dread that my nine-year old heart could hardly stand it, and Fah Lo Suee was always there, somewhere, the perfect daughter. The only thing more relentlessly suspenseful for me at the time was the Danger Island serial on the old Bannana Splits TV show.

Of course there is a deep xenophobic thing running through all this, and for sure, the "Yellow Peril" concept is some seriously racist shit. But there were usually some good Asians around to balance things, and you really got a hold of that in the excellent Marvel comic book, Masters of Kung Fu, in which the Fu Manchu mythos mixed beautifully with the story of Shang Chi, a combination Bruce Lee and British agent working for Nayland Smith (and he turns out to be Fu's son!) I wish I still had those comics. I had to sell them to get back into Manhattan. Damn you, Fu!!

I've got my doubts about all those fun Franco Fus coming out on DVD twofers (or Two Fu One, or however they're calling it), but I do love to read online reviews of them, by qualified names I trust. Tenebrous Kate from the Tenebrous Empire writes well of CASTLE OF FU MANCHU (1962)::
The movie is unrepentantly escapist, weaving its complicated tale of action and treachery using creaky models, rubber weapons, and shamelessly-snagged-from-elsewhere footage (the ship that gets sunk is pretty clearly from a movie based on the Titanic and the dam Fu Manchu destroys is from a movie set in America, not Turkey). However, Franco incorporates beautiful scenery, striking interiors, and gorgeously saturated colors along with the aforementioned awesome costumes. The titular castle that Fu Manchu occupies during the majority of the film is the Park Guell in Barcelona, Spain, designed by Modernist architect Antoni Gaudi. Franco makes the most of this exotic set, making a character of the curving, mosaic surfaces of the building.
(read rest of piece here)

The best and hottest of the Fah Lo Suees will always be Myrna Loy in the MGM pre-code MASK OF FU MANCHU, starring Boris Karloff as Fu. Karloff is clearly having a great time in the role, but he can't hold a candle to Myrna Loy, who creeps over the hunky form of her latest victim like a vampire (after ordering him whipped to a pulp).

The fact remains, why haven't more "good" films been made about this great character and his sexy sadist daughter? Why must we let political correctness and fear of controversy stop the flow of first-class Fu? What about releasing those early Anna May Wong and Warner Oland Fus in a big boxed set, so we don't have to crawl around gray markets on our hands? I'd rather die than crawl before anyone.... except Fah Lo Suee and maybe Tenebrous Kate. What the PC thugs and the disapproving Chinese Government don't understand is that in our post-colonial worldview, Fu Manchu has become the GOOD GUY!! He's James Bond in reverse, fighting to restore the third world's riches back to its own people.

That's right. I always secretly want Fu to win. He's got all the good lines and gadgets, crazy taste in clothes and architecture. He makes ironic little jokes while describing how he's going to torture you and the tortures he picks are always more psychological and slow than the typical waterboard and beating variety. His foe, Nayland Smith is just a worrying hothead for the forces of colonialism and stoic blandness. He's dull and proper and would insist you go to bed on time if he were your babysitter (as opposed to Fah Lo Suee, who would play the "leash game" with you and let you stay up to watch horror movies). Fu and Fah Lo Suee represent the stuff Steven Spielberg has managed to deny us - kids are EVIL! We kids want to destroy the world because it makes us eat vegetables and clean our rooms and do our homework. And while the Nayland Smiths of the world work to uphold the unfair system, glorious celestial Fu is out there making his own rules and going for the gold, torturing and killing and throwing the anguished young males to his daughter for "her pleasure." What traits could be more admirable in a future father-in-law? Aren't movies the place we go to get away from the tired bonds of "order" and "civilization"? Can't Fu Manchu ever get a break? Free Fu and Fah Lo!
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