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

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!" While in actuality the trip to the moon could brook no moonlighters here we've got a moony kid, a hypnotized babe, a mercenary capitalist scammer who seems to conflict of interest be spec-working deals right and left with moon oil companies, and as their 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. He's the main reason I don't love this film like I do the more uptempo giddy numbers by, say, Ed Wood or Ron Ormond. But it's still great. It's like a terrible play put on by your children, but they cast your dick neighbor and he thought he was going to star in a major production not your kid's basement spookshow, and he 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. 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. 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. It's things like that. Things like Marie Windsor's screaming and the complete breakdown on the fronts with two dudes trying to get with Helen and the whole company falling apart as a result! That's why semen and women don't mix sir. A woman on ship's bad luck. But we needed a shit classic like CWOTM to show us the way.

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 is the same actor who played the wiseass crime reporter with the dizzy dame in 1948's SCARED TO DEATH. A film that I, Ken Hanke, and one-teen other people recognizes as a modern shitass classic of surreal nigh-Bunuelian disconnect. This however, between the sickly jallopy sincerity of rube -----; the sweaty hostility of Victor Jory, the idiocy of Laird, and the duplicity of masochistic Marie Windsor. "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 ----- greedheaded capitalist or the greaser rube, they're all despicable - as if America's doucheness is divided up. 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, and the rube as--well--the canon fodder, which is why we fight.

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 an easter's wicked son through with 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!"). "Helen look at me!' Lambda says. "My will is as strong as their's! Stand firm!" But then --what we don't see the standing.

Simple. Poverty-stricken. Beautiful. Faces on the wall that only eventually turn into flowers. A psychic palm reading 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:

Marie (NARROW MARGIN) Windsor plays Helen (everyone in the cast has to shout her name for some reason: "Helen! HELEN!!"): the one woman on the ship, susceptible to the mind control of the cat women, and a masochist - an extreme masochist. She's the navigator and guides the men to the dark side, and then pits the humorless Victor Jory against incompetent dimwit (Sonny Tufts) to better telepath geometrical flight data back to Alpha (Carol Brewster), the lead cat lady. 

She sleeps good, too. 

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), but the nakedly greedy and self-serving Walt (Douglas Fowley), and the pop culture void that is Doug (William Phillips), who somehow earns the love of Lambda, ah sweet Lambda (Susan Morrow), are such blights upon the scene... well that maybe Walt could sell space blight to the suckers on earth for a hundred bucks a blight, whaddaya say? And Lambda would like to try, how you say it on Earth, a crisp clean Coke? 

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. 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 (what Tina Fey calls "the bubble"). Then for years after, I watched CAT WOMEN 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. 

It's been a long time since I was in Seattle, and New York has no room 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 maybe 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?

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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