Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception, for a better yesterday

Monday, January 24, 2011

The Moon, Cat Women, and Thou


One of the 'Golden Turkey' classics (Medved wrote of it in awe), CAT WOMEN OF THE MOON (1953) begs little but indulgence. It doesn't ask for respect, forgiveness or love, it's crankier about its own existence even than you are. "This is a space expedition," rants leader Sonny Tufts once we're out of Earth orbit, "not some stunt!" The crew couldn't be more professional, as if the rocket was a kind of co-ed B-17: a moony radio operator, a mercenary capitalist whose every line of dialogue is as greed-centric as Russ Tamblyn's in THE HAUNTING; a hypnotized middle aged space babe and the two alpha males squabbling over her, and command, their cranky leady Sunny Tufts, who's like the cranky mean dick boss who tries to cover up his own hangover by treating everyone else like they're shiftless vagrants if they don't seem as miserable and confused as he is; and Victory Jory, the natural leader who sulks all the while for one reason or the other, passive-aggressively passing the reins back to hesitant, befuddled Sonny.

The result: something like a terrible play put on by your children in the basement you watch during cocktails with the neighbors, but they cast some once-famous vagrant who thought he was going to star in a major production, and at any rate was promised a fifth of Old Turkey, and still hasn't gotten it. "We came over this far because we did it by the book," Windsor tells Jory. Like oh yeah, the manual for being the first people on the moon? The great thing about, say, PLAN NINE, was that Ed Wood really believed in his bullshit - he never missed a chance to convey his adoration of angora, but this, oh man.... Shot in 3-D in the middle of the night on cheap sets by the most depth-perception-challenged director in history (Arthur Hilton), CWOTM features cat dancing; spacesuit donning and doffing; a giant spider; mystic trances; plotting; hypnosis; and lots of sleeping and literal arm-pulling. Take it or leave it.

I'll take it, because there is no 'late' sleeping on the dark side of the moon. There is no sunshine day for your mom to complain you're wasting. There are just stars, and those B-list actors starring the Z-list square in the face with stout discombobulation. See how they doze on lounge chairs in their aluminum siding-walled space ship! See how they doze amidst the columns and splendor of the secret cat lair! Shhhh! They waken and overhear a conversation. Shhhh... The two alpha human males fight over Helen... if you can call it fighting, aside from a few climactic fists. Shhh! I just saw something new - this zillionth viewing - the giant spider has a huge horn on its head!! You can see numerous eyes too.

Helen, wakes up screaming!
"Helen what's the matter!?" Tufts screams.
"Nothing," Helen says. "I just opened my eyes and missed you!"

It ain't Gene Krupa, but the greedhead, Walt, is Douglas Fowley who played the wiseass crime reporter with the dizzy dame in 1948's SCARED TO DEATH. A film that I, Ken Hanke, and one other people recognize as a modern shitass classic of surreal nigh-Bunuelian frisson. CAT WOMEN, however, between the sickly jallopy sincerity of the rube sparks (William Phipps), the sweaty hostility of Victor Jory, the idiocy of Tufts, and the duplicity of masochistic Marie Windsor, has even more of it than ever. "They can, Kip! They control me! Laird knew more and they wanted me with him!" - the problem is of course we don't like Jory's stick-in-the-mud dickhead or Fowley's greedheaded capitalist or the greaser rube, they're all comically broad, but you can't deny it's an effective Colonialism memtaphor - Walt as the East India Trading Company ("You're too smart, baby -- I like 'em stupid"); Jory as the sweaty military strategists and paranoid Tories; Laird as the stick-upper-lapsed Colonel Blimp, Marie Windsor as the future generations hearts and minds, Phipps as--well--the canon fodder. He'd like to take one of the cat girls, Lambda, to the beach and have, what do you call it? A Coke. That's what he likes best.


Irresistible in its graceless charm and missing--thankfully--any sense of self-awareness or wit, MOON manages to forget more about male-female relationships than the entire rom-com genre will ever remember. Whether convulsing in alcohol withdrawal, or fuzzily fading in and out of stoned consciousness, CAT WOMEN is like some strange oxygen-enriched air magically adhering to the dark side of the moon for only you and your asleep, annoyed lover next to you to breathe. If someone else enters the room, its magic vanishes. It can't even hold up in a review like this. I don't know why I always defend it. I mean I love Lambda, and I love the dreamy flute passages by Elmer Bernstein. My favorite Bernstein? Ya, because I'll cry to WEST SIDE but I'll laugh without end at ROBOT MONSTER and the CAT.


CAT WOMEN, a movie so cheap that half its action scenes occur off-camera, described secondhand by actors who've just entered the room, whichever room the action's not in. The presence of a giant spider on strings pops up to wake you with Helen's screams if you were about to fall asleep. You could laugh at the spider's strings, but why? There's something poetic in the film that comes from somewhere far deeper, where Victor Jory is so beside himself with love over Marie Windsor he reacts with the news the Cat Women are bad like a surly schoolboy, but then only remembers at the last minute that literally twisting her thumb makes her his sleeve ("don't ever stop hurting me!") and gets her to confess--far more important than any news about Alpha's (Carol Brewster) grand plan to kill them all--that Helen really loves him and not Laird- that her being with Laird was Alpha's ESP-programmed wish, since (though this is never obvious) Laird knew more about ship operations. When she admits it thanks to his hurting her (which she loves - macho domination breaks the sisterhood qua-lesbian spell -- I can only imagine the excited spit-takes if this film is ever shown in a feminist film studies class), he uses the opportunity to make out with Helen passionately right in front of Laird, as if determined to make his humiliation complete. Even Bunuel, or Vons Stroheim or Sternberg would never be so cruel, taunting him into a fight - the cat girls making a dash for the ship with the suits now relegated to an off-camera 'Bang! Bang! They're dead!' ending. The heterosexual Jory hierarchy restored, like even flames couldn't make it in THE FUGITIVE KIND.


Simple. Poverty-stricken. Beautiful. Faces on the wall that only eventually turn into flowers. A psychic palm reading (they mark Helen as one of them with a glowing moon orb palm stamp) in some terrible alternate reality, here no one washes their hair and the future is unwritten, just improvised off the back of the screenwriter's cocktail napkins. And UFO enthusiasts should dig that thing on the wall in the upper left. It looks just like a primitive sculpture of the face of a reptilian grey. An accident? Intentional? Just some weird trinket rummaged from the discarded prop bin in the alley behind the sound stage? Are those eyes just fronds, leaves on a forehead rose? Baby, there are no accidents in bad 1950s science fiction. I can imagine that face being added in the dead of the night by covert military disinformation specialists to throw paranoid fans off the scent... or onto it. In erasing the difference they earn their wings, or stripes. To consider the seams of the simulacrum as the message, the glue on the aluminum siding spaceship as the meta link that breaks narrative hypnosis; the lounge chair beds right by the instrument panels as a genius kind of sketch shorthand, is to consider myth at its most basic reptilian cortex-convex subterranean function. Saving it for special occasions (after travel-related trauma), I sink into it with the cozy feeling as if space is a giant slumber party where someone is always awake and someone is always asleep, keeping the crew rooted in a place neither unconscious nor conscious. 

Cinema and viewing, especially late night semi-conscious viewing, is just like that.. I figure this, if I enjoy CAT WOMEN OF THE MOON, I know I am too drunk to drive. Or at the very least, don't need to go out. 

And in watching the characters throwing themselves into the path of the (now horned) spider, positioning themselves so they can struggle gamely with it (since it clearly can't move on its own, save vertically) you feel unmoored from the limits of narrative and into the 4th wall freedom of post-modern awareness. 

This is true freedom. Death is but a dull dream of soggy claws in contrast to such shallow depth, such groundless hysteria. 


Above is another cool shot of some people sleeping. Doesn't it just make you want to sack out on a cold night like this? And of course, Helen. She sleeps like a champ:


I'm picky. I like that there's no exterior footage in CAT WOMEN. Not one daytime exterior establishing shot, no mismatched day-for-night driving scenes, no sense of grass or earthy values. It's soothing to my Swedish blood to imagine a world where the sun never comes up and the planet is populated only by cat girls who--for all their guile--are much more sympathetic than the brain-dead Tufts or the reptilian Jory. Sure, Jory never doubts his own moral rightness as he punches out women right and left (he'd be a great candidate for Summers' Isle); I love sweet Lambda (Susan Morrow), and the hypnotic dancing.


In case you can't tell, I first got into this movie while drunk in Seattle living with a girlfriend who was beautiful and already fed up with my sloth and debauchery after three months of unemployed cohabitation. Lambda could have been her sister, same kind of deer-in-the-headlights sweet clueless brunette cool and aquiline profile, and soft vaguely clueless voice. Man oh man. I was so in love and all I could do was treat her mean and contemptuous until she left me, because god she was dumb. I didn't know then just how often beautiful people get away with never developing wit or acumen (they live in what Tina Fey calls "the bubble" no one ever tells them they suck at anything). Then for years after, I watched CAT WOMEN constantly to remind me of her.... "Lambda...." Seattle may as well have been the moon now that I was an east-coaster forever. The perfect Pacific Northwestern pre-Twilight fantasia was born. 

Like Seattle itself, CAT WOMEN OF THE MOON has no sunshine but does come with sparse and mismatched garage sale decor, a beatnik coffee house aesthetic gone wrong, a sense of smug sanctimony clouding its once-beautiful blankness, and the realization, as I had moving back east, that once you leave you can never go back. Not that you'd want to. But your lungs miss it. And so much of your heart is near the lungs. Seriously, the Puget Sound air is so good your lungs cry at the airport, either with sadness to leave or gratitude to arrive. Luckily, lungs aint the boss of me. I'm too wise and rich with acumen and wit to let air be the boss of me. Sigh. Coming into New York we have to take our helmets off one at a time, just to make sure the oxygen contact is livable...


It's been a long time since I was in Seattle, and New York has no time for CAT WOMEN OF THE MOON. In my personal constellation, Lambda's archetypal resonance has dimmed over the decades, and thanks to David Icke I recently learned  the truth about the moon (psst - the moon is not your friend - either that or Icke is crazy, or more likely, both), but I took the DVD of CAT  to PA earlier this month and it got me through a rough patch (reading Icke by day, watching CAT by night). It's the kind of film that can get you through almost anything, except... maybe... itself. But isn't life a lot like that... in PA? or WA? or NY? or anywhere on this stupid 3-D earth? Cheer up, pal, and press 'play from beginning.' Breathe deep. You depart for NYC in 20 minutes. Maybe you can bottle Washington air and sell it over in NYC for a dollar an inhale, whaddaya say? Don't be too smart in your answer baby, because I may be a cynic now, but I can still fantasize that somewhere, somehow, I ever liked 'em stupid.

1 comment:

  1. Nothing in particular to add, but what an astounding review - thanks as ever for writing it!

    For some reason, I've never seen this one (actually BUYING a movie like this rather than randomly catching on TV would seem weird and wrong to me, and I guess they never show it on TV in this country, so there ya go). But it sounds like my kinda thing and then some, so I think I should make the effort.

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