Psychedelic film criticism for the woefully unprepared

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, that's why you forgive, respect and love it, like a terrible play put on by your children. 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.

Ahhh, perhcance to sleep, for 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.

Diggers of Brecht, Godard, Wood, Ulmer and Franco should know this movie by heart: it is the pure stuff, the 'stank, bra. 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.  It's poverty row's graveyard shift. 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's 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. At one point it might have been a good story: the mythic dissonance between the light and dark sides of the moon and right and left sides of the brain--the Moon/Women/Eros/Cats vs. Earth/Sun/Apollonian astronauts, and it all goes down with a quiet Zen emptiness thanks to renowned composer Elmer Bernstein's inexplicable but welcome score, particularly a low-key snake charmer flute score that puts it all at a whole other level. You end up not laughing but falling into a mythopoetic dream trance when that beatnik flute starts working, swaying within yourself like a cobra.

It's Bernstein's touch saves the film from utter disintegration into abstract off-off-off Broadway theater, but even then, disintegration is imminent. And wait, there's a few more touches. Look for example at the poverty of the dark side of the moon cat cavern lair below:

Simple. Poverty-stricken. Beautiful. 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? 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 not. That's their genius! 

On the intellectual side, if I understand Antonioni, Godard, and Bergman today, it's only because of movies like CAT WOMEN OF THE MOON, which taught me 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. Watching it I get the 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! 

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

This is true freedom. 

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, she's susceptible to the mind control of the cat women. She's the navigator and guides the men to the dark side, and then pits the humorless Victor Jory against the incompetent leader (Sonny Tufts) for her favor, so she can learn all the crewmen's secrets and telepath the data back to Alpha (Carol Brewster), the lead cat lady. But only Victor has the power to free her of cat women domination, just by twisting her arm (she likes it r-r-rough, like the Eartha Kitt Cat Woman carnation). And she likes to sleep... around!

I like that too, and I like that there's no exterior footage in CAT WOMEN. There are no daytime shots, mismatched day-for-night driving scenes that go on for two reels; 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 Victor Jory who never doubts his own moral rightness as he punches out women right and left (he'd be a great candidate for Summers' Isle)--or the nakedly greedy and self-serving Walt (Douglas Fowley) or the blank-as-candy Doug (William Phillips), who somehow earns the love of Lambda, ah sweet Lambda (Susan Morrow).

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. 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, 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.

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 (the moon is not your friend), but I took this film 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.'

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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