Tuesday, March 29, 2011


A recent rare screening of Max Ophul's Hollywood film CAUGHT (1948) on TCM reveals a Howard Hughes stand-in who's just about the coolest, most terrifying version of them all! Let's look at the way Howard Hughes depictions evolved, or devolved, over the years:

1948 - ***1/2
No doubt that Max Ophuls was "a woman's director" and it's through a woman's eyes--an awkward good-girl fotune hunter mix of uncertainty and antithesis played by Barbara Bel Geddes--that we get a load of  Robert Ryan as a sociopathic captain of industry named Smith Ohlrig. Here's a guy with suits so sharply pressed and perfectly tailored he seems like he could smash through a wall without getting them rumpled.  I dug the film and thought he came across as the real hero, especially compared to his rival, James Mason's befuddled Lower East Side doctor. Bel Geddes takes a job as receptionist in Mason's LES poor folk clinic after she finds the life of a trophy dull. Meanwhile she's rich enough to set up a women's shelter all her own if she wasn't such an insufferable martyr.

Ohlrig's the only one who seems to have an inkling of what is best in life: crush your enemies, see them ruined financially before you, and hear the whiny bored sighs of der wimmen. Whether waiting in the car, or at home, all but whinnying over jigsaw puzzles by the cavernous empty fireplace, Ohlrig's women are meant to freeze in place like plastic dolls when he's not around, then spring to life as perfect hostesses when he pops in with subordinates and movie cannisters in the wee hours of the night. Despite its cliche'd soap opera girl torn between money and love narrative, CAUGHT is cool enough to almost turn me around on Ophuls, whom I've long considered insufferably bourgeois. CAUGHT shows me I better simmer down and go look again.

1961- ***
Great Harold Robbins-bitchy camp dialogue, and the guy from The A-Team, George Peppard, as zillionaire aviator and womanizer Jonas Cord.  As I wrote in an earlier post, Cord and his hot stepmom (Caroll Baker) are like Tony and Cesca in the last reel of SCARFACE ("I can't tell whether I love you or hate you"/ "Both"), while his socialite wife rots at home. Meanwhile, Alan Ladd hangs onto his hat as western hero Nevada Smith, and Leif Erikson is Joanas Sr., who rants at his tomcat progeny: "A man's judged by what's in his head, not in his bed!"

Like Robert Ryan's Hughes in CAUGHT, Peppard's is a taciturn, ruthless businessman workaholic - but unlike CAUGHT he's also highly sexed, and suffused with daddy issues. Such a role might warrant over-playing in less capable hands, but Dmytryk and Peppard are smart enough to never let Jonas smile or betray a hint of emotion other than simmering hatred and  Peppard's voice is marvelously tinged with nasal reverb, like he's always either freshly buzzed or really hungover.

2004 - **1/2
This was the second of the DiCaprio-Scorsese collaborations, and the character is actually supposed to be Hughes, and perhaps for that reason it's a lionization, a mythologizing, rather than a KANE-like expose of a man who owned the world but lost his girl, or something. Instead, we're supposed to swoon as Howard makes model airplanes and boffs chorus girls as his OCD blossoms over the course of a few hand-washing scenes. Also, the script cheats, such as showing Hughes, insane in his screening room, watching WINGS over and over (I guess they couldn't get the rights to ICE STAION ZEBRA!) and suddenly pulling it all together in time to head to D.C. and surmount the odds just by pointing out Alan Alda's investment in United Airlines. Cate Blanchett almost saves it as Hepburn, but the dialogue gives her little room to flourish as anything but a compendium of biography cliches now worn thin from overuse (the golf game, the night flying, the dinner with family, Spence).

For me it's all summed up in the opening scene showing Hughes as a child: his mom is washing him in an ole washtub, a stray light from a high window shining down, illuminating his little arms and chest. The orchestral score swells with import and we're clearly meant to see it as a kind of holy anointing, the boy and his female in pose of supplicated adoration. The scene 'reveals' nothing about the character other than he got spoiled early on with incestuous bathing rituals. Subtextually its an indication of artists like Marty and Leo, who've received way too much press and 'genius' labels, covering their insecurity in layers of money and period costumes and extras and a 'theme' that champions ego even as it seems to critique it (all these movies about the "one man"). Scorsese collides into a brick wall of closed-off persona in DiCaprio, and then tries to make a film around the idea of closed-off persona instead of opening Leo up like an unwilling oyster to the light of day. And so AVIATOR builds the kind of white elephant theme park that RAGING BULL used to kick down. What were the TAXI DRIVER termites for if not to collapse such weary bourgeois edifices?
The myth of Hughes endures because he was a rich weirdo who shunned all aspects of the bourgeois elite. He was the Donald Trump of his day but less charismatic and more genuinely introverted. His later germophobia led to a solitary life spent in a screening room, pissing into jars and watching one special film over and over -- a film that's well-known now because of said repeat viewings by Hughes more than any actual quality:

1968 - ***
Ever since I was a kid I've been fascinated by one aspect of the Hughes legend, his repeat round-the-clock viewings of ICE STATION ZEBRA. Why that movie? Why not the one I once did the same thing with, a similarly arctic adventure, 1951's THE THING? Maybe now I have the answer. A) he didn't have a copy since he probably had a falling out with Howard Hawks, and B) the THING has no submarine, and it has a girl in it.

In the old days my friends--and their dads-- and I had a thing we called: 'waiting for mom to go to bed.' As soon as we heard that patter of feet stop as she boarded her bed, we could commence the real drinking. This cool captain of industry-type father of my friend developed a habit where--after the Mrs. retired-- he'd quietly drink cognac in a snifter and watch DAS BOOT, which is like ICE STATION ZEBRA (both are submarine war films with nary a woman in the cast) over and over. Hearing about this habit, I instantly thought of ZEBRA and Hughes, and the connection was made - submarines, the ocean. Over a long summer spent at their beach house the three of us watched MOBY DICK over six times!

The peculiar appeal of war movies for intelligent, successful men like Hughes and my friend's dad likely involves the fantasy of having clear cut goals, a uniformly competent workforce, a reliable chain of command, and freedom from the anxiety of being around women, of needing to shave or reign in your bad habits, freedom from the chaos of the public sphere (i.e. women) and the orbit of the earth around the sun (it's neither night nor day below the sea). It's comforting to think that, for all their influence and power, at the end of the day rich white dudes just want to get high and hang out somewhere that's flush with poker games, flasks, bonding,and no women to tell them what to do. DodoodooBumbumbum, oh what joy.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Mimsy Ballistico! PERFUME OF A LADY IN BLACK (1974) + The Giallo Checklist

With one of those typically ornate giallo titles that involves 'ladies,' animal names, sharp objects, or strange jewels comes Francisco Barilli's fragrant, even pungent PERFUME OF A LADY IN BLACK (a better and more apt title in my mind would be CRACKED MIRROR OF THE BLUE HIPPO). American ex-pat Mimsy Farmer stars as a cross between MARNIE (hallucinating her dead mom having sex with a no-good taxidermist, smiting men who'd try and sex her) and Roman Polanski in THE TENANT (living in a weird old apartment building with enough psychics, elderly sculptors, and animal totems to give anyone the willies). For audiences familiar with other conspiracy-driven ROSEMARY'S BABY-inspired psychosexual horror head trips like 1977's American (but Italian-influenced) THE SENTINEL (my review here), it's a case of dread by association as much as anything else.

One thing I notice in all these 1970s creepshows is an admirable (or lazy?) use of very long sequences of a pretty woman slowly walking, or standing still in spooky, dark, monochromatic hallways, listening to faint scraping noises in the dead of night. A cheap way to pad running time, these long stretches constitute the heart and soul of horror, the basics: vulnerability + darkness = primordial fear and in the giallo's Argento-inspired eye towards self-reflexivity, much the better to work the weird dissonant art/fear/desire feedback loop--we watch her watch and hear her hearing, but what is she hearing, and who is she, really? Hello?

With her short blonde hair giving her a spooky boyish androgyny and her Nordic resemblance to my own mother (I feel blessed with extra Oedipal dimensions), Farmer was a natural for psychosexual Freudian 'dread-of-indistinct-gender' 70s Italian horror (and sublime in Dario Argento's FOUR FLIES IN GREY VELVET -my review here). Not exactly sexy or strange exactly (her button-nose pixie-cuteness never melts all the way into either Doris Day boi's club cleanliness nor Jodie Foster baby butch grubbiness), elusive even in androgyny, we want to protect her, seduce her, fear her, and fear for her. But in the end can only watch her... as she listens.... to more... of that... infernal... scraping...

In addition to the hallway standing, there is a lot of extraneous detail here that seems to be checking off some long lost giallo checklist rather than cohering into a narrative, so I thought I'd include a list of these tropes, along with the symbolic meaning of each... if any. Note that I mean this list in only the best ways and it's not meant as disrespect to LADY IN BLACK or anything else. Gialli need these items, like old dark house movies need guys in ape suits, scheming heirs, secret panels, thunder cracks, and wheelchair-bound Egyptologists:

1. Old family photos (descent into the past)
2. Taxidermy (necrophilia)

3. Winding Staircase (descent into the unconscious)
4. Music box (childhood trauma masked by cover memories or amnesia)

5. Eccentric neighbor (red herring?)

6. Chain lock (weak repressive mechanism)
7. Elderly doorman and Cat lady relating tragic news in foyer (exposition)

8. Abandoned building where a hidden crime occurred. (readymade set)

9. Blind psychic (noir fatalism)
10. Mimsy Farmer, or facsimile (androgynous question mark)

Some giallo features usually on the checklist are unfortunately lacking in PERFUME OF A LADY IN BLACK, however, mainly any grisly murders. The one main murder here occurs offscreen! We hear about it second hand (see item 7) and that doesn't make a lick of sense! Also missing: a mustachioed, weary cop with a shaggy mustache in a white or dun colored raincoat. There are some giallo extra credit items: tennis club, Marlboro lights, graveyard, trippy architecture, VERTIGO flower shop, shadowy sects, graphic primal scene flashbacks, and a shock/twist ending.

And the DVD from Raro Video is gorgeous! Clearly a lot of time and effort was spent getting the colors deep and hallucinatory bold ala Argento's DEEP RED and SUSPIRIA. It's not quite as great as those films, but it's only a rung down, so when you've made the year's run through Argento and early Polanski but still can't quit that swinging modern insane blonde kick, heighten your senses with any inhalant handy and learn to enjoy one of the more opaque giallo-jewels, PERFUME OF A LADY IN BLACK!

Friday, March 25, 2011


Film is our ultimate escape, so when filmmakers decide they need to having characters dreaming alternate realities instead of living them, then it's as if they think being locked in a bathroom at the airport is the same as travelling to new destinations. Zak Snyder is to blame and SUCKER PUNCH to deliver its titular promise is his Waterloo. Dude, film already is an alternate reality! Are you anxious to cover up plot holes and suffering from the compulsive need to cram as much GGI into every frame as you can? Make it all the desperate allegedly feminist hallucination of a tortured girl in her underwear. What pleasures might be found amidst the steampunk trimmings here are too skeevy and dispiriting for words.

In the early days of horror there were producers, particularly at MGM, who felt the public wouldn't 'get' a horror film if you didn't bring it back down to logic at the end - the 'it was all a dream' or 'the vampire was a detective in disguise to catch a killer' or the monster is just a crook in an ape costume trying to frighten the next heir to the family fortune. Gradually they realized no one goes to the movies--or books for that matter--wanting to be anchored to the real--you can get weird, and we won't riot or have a nervous breakdown. Then again we also want our story to make logical sense within the context of itself, and to follow the adage: do not "show the monster in the first half-hour." If you want to have a giant samurai robot attack an orphanage, go ahead, we don't need it situated in a fantasy within a fantasy, but if you show it first thing in a movie, we'll assume we can keep talking and checking our cell phones while you get such nonsense out of your system.

THE WIZARD OF OZ (1939) knew how to do it right. Sure, there it was 'a dream' but there was an interconnection between Oz and Kansas and Dorothy's unconscious, so it's a potent myth. Oz is real because Dorothy sees it as real --it's more real than Kansas. Once you use 'the power of imagination' you run up against a vein of who gives a shit that takes genuine mythopoetic heft and Jungian savvy to transcend. Fail and you just bore us, and SUCKER does. As in Nick Shager's review from Slant below:
Sucker Punch follows Baby Doll as she's committed to a grimy mental institution by her stepfather (Gerard Plunkett). The old man has locked her away because she tried to prevent him from raping her younger sister (hey, he was mad about getting cut out of his dead wife's will!), and accidentally killed the young girl instead. Once inside the facility, skeezy supervisor Blue (Oscar Isaac) shows her a common area with a stage known as the Theater, which—when coupled with the intro sight of a curtain being pulled back to reveal the action proper—is Snyder's clumsy way of conveying how the locale of Baby Doll's adventure is really the theater of the mind. And as every other character seems to blurt out in one form or another, the mind affords people the power to shape their own destiny, and the world. It's a notion that also applies to a director and his films, though Snyder's self-reflexive instincts are blunt and lifeless, and his subsequent trip down the fantasies-within-fantasies rabbit hole, replete with a fem-rock cover of "White Rabbit" to boot, primarily speaks to his confusion over notions of actualization and empowerment. (cont.)

I was really hoping SUCKER would be awesome, but after I saw the extended preview during last night's Archer, I knew it was going to go the route of so much video game-based dreck that's come before--TOMB RAIDER, RESIDENT EVIL, BALLISTIC: ECKS VS. SERVER, MAX PAYNE: "To fulfill your destiny you must seek five items..." Why not get it over with and just show a bunch of girls playing Doom IV in their underwear?

The castrative/revengeful counter-misogynist avenger girl is one that's always been popular amongst sensitive comic book readers like me, who first found the gold vein of it in the early 1980s when Frank Miller rose to fame writing and penciling a Daredevil character named Elektra. The way she wore her scarf, the way she kicked Bullseye in the face, and slashed scores of ninja with her sai, and died... tragically... we fell hard, the way we did for the Bionic Woman as kids, prompting her to come back again and again in prequels and ghost tales.

Flash forward and lazy screenwriters are opening every single film with an elaborate break-in to a compound heavily guarded and usually presided over by a bald guy in an expensive suit and sunglasses, like Frank Miller cut five ways to Sunday with B-12 and talc and sold direct to cable.  Let's meet some of SUCKER's relatives, and a mangy bunch they are to be certain:

2006 - *
Milla Jovovich as a vampiric hottie out to protect a kid everyone wants to-- yawn--kill. Worse than watching mom learn to play Duke Nukem on her Dell PC.
"For the love of ALL that is holy, do NOT see it." - Batese -- Imdb:
2005 - ***
I actually paid full price for the director's cut on DVD and I'm glad I did. This picture grows on me, namely due to Garner's doe-eyed hotness as Elektra, who has to 'yawn' protect a child everyone wants to kill. Terence Stamp is 'Stick' - the stoic blind pool hall Zen master. Elektra's douchebag 'agent' (he call's her 'Lek' and keeps his cell phone and smarm ever at the ready) and a cliche'd 'likeable single dad next door' don't detract from the moody beauty of the Pacific Northwest imagery, Garner's amazing eyes and Garner's amazing bone structure. You'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll believe tattoos of animals can slither to life off an Asian assassin.
"This doesn't exactly set the world on fire, but I was charmed by its old-fashioned storytelling, which is refreshingly free of archness, self-consciousness, or Kill Bill-style wisecracks. Some of the effects recall vintage Ray Harryhausen, the villains all perish in puffs of green smoke, and Garner's sincere glumness suggests Buster Crabbe in Flash Gordon." -- Jonathan Rosenbaum
2005 - *1/8
Uwe Boll's SPRINGTIME FOR HITLER (would he have gone to jail if this film ended up making money?) benefits from the presence of Michelle Rodriguez and Michael Madsen even though both are apparently hungover and in need of a script. Sir Ben Kingsley plays the head vampire, badly. With no one even noticing, the film is stolen by Billy Zane as a rival head vampire. Look at poor relation Kristanna Loken (above), basically wearing Elektra's hand-me-downs and dulled sai.
"The plot of "BloodRayne" is basically "Blade" with a white chick -- set just after the invention of gunpowder but long before the invention of humor. Kristanna Loken, who played the female cyborg in the last "Terminator" film, stars as a half-human, half-vampire who must avenge the death of her mother while stopping the evil vampire Lord Kagen (Ben Kingsley, slumming like few Oscar winners before him) from ruling the Earth." -- Peter Hartlaub - SF Gate
2009 - **
"More of an “Austin Powers” carnival of camp with YouTube production polish, “Bitch Slap” opens with a Joseph Conrad quote and ends in a hail of bullets, leaving the midsection fairly anticlimactic and insistently silly. It’s criminal to dismiss something so utterly consumed with ample feminine assets and cross-eyed ultraviolence, but the goofball pitch of this fluff grows tiresome early in the first round, rendering the picture a splendid 10-minute short film idea stretched intolerably to 100 minutes." -- Brian Orndorff
I only got ten minutes into BITCH-SLAP before I had a whopper headache and animosity towards every character, so I agree. Word to the wise: never show clips from better films in the opening credits. And I can only shudder at how bad SUCKER-PUNCH must be if Horror.com's Staci Layne sez: Let me put it this way: having seen Sucker Punch once, I'd rather watch Bitch Slap 10 times in a row.

1978 - **1/2
Basically a Zen video game "Nothing is real - and nothing to get hung over" movie before Zen video games and hangovers were invented. A wanderer on a mystic quest learns that's 'all in his mind' with the help of mystic guru David Carradine in multiple roles (just like Scott Glenn in SUCKER - the two actors even look alike). Based on a Bruce Lee storyline, with Christopher Lee merrily embodying the mystical guardian of the sacred book, Eli Wallach sleeping through his scenes in a cauldron (above), horses and Renaissance fair merriment, beaches, and wooden flutes all coax the film towards the pretty girl of meaning like friends of the shy boy at the dance. Does our shy kid film ever get up the nerve to traverse the nonsense distance of the floor to talk to her? Many questions, grasshopper!
The finished film sits about half way between the meaningful, but still sappy brand of 'Zen Buddhism' that Lee taught in life, and the daft, everything and the kitchen sink brand of martial arts films the United States put out after the master’s death. Like Lee’s unfinished Game of Death, Circle of Iron (aka The Silent Flute) anticipates fighting style video games, but also features the afterglow of the insistently pointed philosophical films of the late 1960s. On top of its ridiculous imagery, and shaky plotting, the film acts as an unintentional (or perhaps intentional?) parody of Confucianism and Taoism. It's even sub-Yoda at some points, but it's continuously charming and even intentionally funny on several occasions. - Gabriel Powers - DVD Active
2002 - ***
Surely Qi Shu is one of the most beautiful women in the world, and good with a gun.  She must avenge her sister's death! You die! Karen Mok (GOD OF COOKERY) is the cop rival with whom Qi forms a semi-lesbian grrl-power connection, all while they kick each other through expensive corporate building parking lots. Hizillarious, though the ending is weak... like all men!

2003 - ***1/2
She takes on so many guys in a big climactic sword fight it's insane--and she's cute as a lil' button! It's set in the rainy days of the shoguns so prepare for bulky stiff white robes, funny hats, and scrolls. Even with its video-ish tinge the film leaves one whirling and out of breath, though all the side plotting might confuse the very buzzed.
There you go... if, like me, you were pumped for SUCKER PUNCH and then felt like you'd actually been sucker punched when you saw the 'it's all in your mind' previews and negative viewer comments, stay home and watch SO CLOSE, or DEATH-PROOF, or SIN CITY, or NAKED KILLER, or ELEKTRA and keep your expectations low to the ground. I mean low!! LOWER! You die!

Wednesday, March 23, 2011


1931 - Dir Robert Mamoulian

It seems dimwitted to call this film CITY STREETS--it's the kind of title that wouldn't pass muster in a college lit class, too vague and generalized. One imagines treacly Chaplin Americana with the Dead End Kids. Also, its central plot device: an alcohol kingpin (Paul Lukas) risks his whole operation in a play for underling Gary Cooper's girlfriend, seems kind of ridiculous, like no one would ever rise to power in the underworld if he went in for prima nocta. (the Mafia--as we learn from Joe Pesci's fate in CASINO--understood how bad it was for business). But such things aside, STREETS is actually very beautiful, sleazy, unrepentant, and expressionistic as all art deco hell. Full of all the weird termite tricks that made Mamoulian a kind of early sound forerunner of the New Wave, here murders are talked over via close-ups of cat statues, and a very dirty fella named Blackie gets offed by Guy Kibbee (as you've never seen him before, needless to say).

Dashiell Hammett's grit-filled eye of detail fills the sails with snappy patter (including hilariously curt rapport between Kibee and daughter Sydney) and keeps the Mamoulian coffers rich in minute detail that feels observed rather than imagined, thanks especially TCM'-restored Lee Garmes' visceral expressionist photography. That title and the inevitable (for the time) romantic triangle plot are rote, but the rest is stunningly free of any remote chance of gangster cliche. It's like a molten crucible of gangster film-ism, without a shape or form, yet mythic enough to re-do over and over in generations and remakes to come.

That said, convict Sylvia Sidney's jailhouse pleas to her pinball wizard romeo Kid (Cooper) not to go fight or whatever drag on and on: "Kid, don't go! Oh no Kid! No, Kid, please don'tgoifyouloveme, kid oh kid oh kid, if you love me kid please don't go." Sylvia, you were ten times cooler before you went to prison. Now you've gone soft and the rackets got no place for soft. Still there's a super sexy scene of passion with Cooper across a wire screen in the ladies' prison visiting room, and she has the coolest vanity mirror ever (a giant vulture/eagle over it, with wings outspread) and Cooper is at his most youthfully ravishing. Look fast for Paulette Goddard at a nightclub!

(1933) Dir Victor Fleming
Playing a loose conglomerate of Clara Bow, Thelma Todd, and herself, Jean Harlow comes through in metatextual spades here as an overworked MGM starlet, earning her place at the top of the spitfire heap with  rapid fire slang-filled dialogue pouring in satin torrents from her tongue as she goes zipping, 8 1/2-style, through a carnival of  blustery studio heads, make-up artists, insurance fraud grifters, drunken joneser fathers (Frank Morgan, partying like it's 1899!), an accented gigolo lover, an infatuated director (Pat O'Brien), and Lee Tracy, as usual, an unscrupulous publicity agent.

There's something inherently unlikable (to me) about Tracy, but he sure can talk fast and believably think on his feet.  Even when he apologetically comes to tell Harlow he's been fired on account of her complaints you don't notice his emotions, you just stare at the ferocious meta-amphetamine insect anger in his sharply slicked-back hair. It forms--in the excellent TCM transfer--a weird bi-level triple side wave-part. Too much information!

In order to appease Harlow and get his job back, Tracy must pledge to cease sleazing her up in the tabloids and instead put her onto the 'Home and Garden' page, dressing her up in frilly aprons, with forked potato in hand, longing wistfully for the patter of little feet. In a hilarious interview with a matronly journalist, Harlow holds her hands clasped together and gazes into the heavens, imagining the baby to come, then sets off to adopt one, ala Angelina Jolie, picking them out by the bushel like puppies. Mythical Monkey writes:
 "The movie skewers every Hollywood type—the hangers-on, the rapacious press, the stalkers, the slicky boys, the fraudsters, the petty tyrants—and does so with a manic quality that would characterize the screwball comedies allegedly invented by Howard Hawks and Frank Capra in 1934, but which, as I mentioned in my review of Design For Living, seems to have developed full-blown sometime earlier. Fleming spared no one, including himself—he's caricatured as director Jim Brogan (Pat O'Brien), alternately described in the movie as a "piano mover" and "a smooth-tongued bluebeard." (here)

Irregardless of any future screwballing, the damage has been done and the post-1934 serious code enforcement look for women has already been dreamt up, right here in front of the matron and Ladies Home photographer, in an act of parody. As Harlow assumes this pose of born again maternal sanctity, we briefly--or did I hallucinate--see her smile to herself--a subliminal wink to the audience--as she gets all pious and starry-eyed at the thought of a woman's 'ultimate duty to the continuance of the species.'

Phony or not, she never lets up in it - she either decides this sugary drivel is the only way to beat the system at its own game of hypocritical posturing or she genuinely believes such a dull code of ethics barefoot/pregnant line. That we'll never know if she was just bullshitting or not is what the code is all about: for every 'you know I'm just kidding' there shalt be an accompanying teardrop of sincerity, sayeth the Breen.

(1932) - **1/2

Secretary: "Imagine anyone daring to question your veracity."
Tracy: "Such language!"

More Lee Tracy doing what he does best, motormouth speed-talking as an unscrupulous press agent: first as a carny barker hawking Lupe Velez's uninhibited fan dancer from the tropics to the Ziegfield-ish Frank Morgan as an exotic princess rescued from a Turkish harm (this would make a hilarious second feature to The Great Ziegfeld in which Morgan plays the friend/rival/backer). After that scheme winds down, he starts a new bent hawking a blonde hotel maid who partners with Tracy's right hand man Eugene Palette as the leaders of a cult of wild, untamed nudists. Naturally he splashes a few front pages ("what the public wants is good, clean entertainment," he counsels Morgan after Velez leaves him, "they're all washed up on these hooch dancers"). Naturally, it all caves back down to where they started, in the carnival midway gutter, where they all started out (the scene where the noises of the city and the office start resembling the sound of the carnival calliope luring him back is a highlight).

Tracy's got Cagney's gift for speedy patter, but he lacks Jimmy Cagney's agility, and humility -- a scene where he smacks up Morgan with enlarged blackmail photos is just irritating. Some rare moments of real connection exist, though, like at the end, like the cool bro-to-bro reunion of Pallette, Tracy, and a handful of sawdust which Tracy pours through his fingers asking "can you imagine this stuff running though your veins?" He finally seems to have run out of hot air, and as the sand falls to the ground, we kind of love the poor sap at last, his own painful awareness of the cliches by which he's bound  make him human; then the sound of Lupe Velez singing her bawdy hot jazz "Carpenter" song comes down the midway and suddenly what was once kind of shrill warms the heart like a shot of good whiskey. Gentle Ben tells us in real life he was fired and sued by the studio for always being late and often drunk to set. That's why, perhaps, Cagney is immortal and Tracy just a curious footnote. Both played incorrigible scammers, but Cagney was just playing. Tracy was playing for keeps. Now that we're being honest, I think I like Tracy better, even with that adenoidal crackle in his voice and those long arms always moving like a dozen spider legs in all directions.

1932 - **1/2

Hot as she was, by 1932 Loretta Young's persona was that of a nobly young woman who looks around at the newfangled crazes --divorce, premarital sex, drugs, prohibition liquor-- and bristles up her moral feathers, does three hail Marys and calls her priest. The devoutly Catholic Young often used her acetylene hotness like an Olympic torch of morality in any dark, dank pre-code films she found herself in, such as this one. Always first in line to confess to a crime or sacrifice her happiness to save someone else, anyone else, her characters are martyrs like only a self-righteous hottie can play them. Here her sleazy ex-boss is accidentally killed and she races like a Chariots of Fire sprinter to be the first person to confess and save her true lovezzzz... Before that she's dicked around by David Manners, rescued by George Brent, and ripped-off by Louis Calhern (the guy who would go on to hire Chicolini and Harpo in DUCK SOUP the following year). His excellency's car! At any rate, she gets some good digs in at a speakeasy when she runs into Brent, and Manners' double standard (he's getting married but still expects her to keep a holding pattern) is depicted as rather vile, although at least he admits it. Both agree working for Calhern is not the thing for her, but "she does what she pleases when she pleases." Finally! At any rate, Una Merkel is a champ as Loretta's hoofer pal who puts her wise, and there's the usual top notch trimmings all First National-Vitaphone pics had in the glorious year of 1932, so don't waste your time not seeing it next time it cartwheels its way onto TCM!

1931 - Dir William Wellman

One of many pre-code films made about women of ill repute lamming out to the tropics or the Orient after skipping bail or being wanted for murder: Joan Crawford did it in RAIN the following year (32); Marlene Dietrich in SHANGHAI EXPRESS the following year, and Kay Francis did in MANDALAY the year after that 1934, then came the code. They stopped doing it. But back in 1931 it was anybody's game and SAFE IN HELL happens to be one of the  more lurid exhibits of the pre-code era: Gilda (Dorothy Mackaill) is a dissolute prostitute who winds up accidentally burning down a building with a drunk john in it. Her innocent sailor fella (Donald Cook, unbearable) returns home and-- hey! He's earned a first mate stripe so now they can finally get married. Oh, Donald! He gives her a ship in a bottle and a fan from Japan as presents from abroad - but she lets him know the score and before you can say "Jake" he's smuggling her off to a remote island with no extradition laws and a cadre of debauched expats waiting to slaver, dark-eyed, over their gin-fizzes, at her hotel room door.

Clarence Muse (THE INVISIBLE GHOST) as the bellhop brings as much dignity as ten ordinary men into the role; at the front desk and tending bar is Nina Mae McKinny (THE GREEN PASTURES) who sings "When It's Sleepy time Down South" right in time for Gilda to drop the airs and come down and make nice with the seven dwarfy sleazes. Director William Wellman (as usual) packs the film with earthy detail and weird characterizations: Charles B. Middleton,  Gustav Von Seffeyrtitz, and Morgan Wallace are three of the leering fellow outlaw guests. Noble Johnson (the zombie in GHOST BREAKERS) is a guard.

With her droopy skin and lumpy posture, Mackail is not your ordinary heroine but she's perfect as a Depression-era fallen woman who's genuinely no good, not just a Loretta Young-style good girl fallen low through circumstance and cheating gigolos. No, she's an authentic lowlife, a cranky snob for whom the woman's picture conceit of romantic self-sacrifice is less a noble deed than a kind of Antigone-style fuck you to the world of sin (unlike so many heroines who fall just to rise, she starts out fallen, and rises and falls again erratically throughout the film). When she finally gives up her sainthood and starts drinking with the riffraff you get a real sense that she's smoked and drank before, and often. You don't ever get that with Loretta Young.

1933 - Dir Sam Wood

Jean Harlow gets pregnant via hood Clark Gable, but she's in jail and a martyr so doesn't tell him. Stu Erwin wants to marry her and move her to some bo-hunk town when she gets out of stir but no way. See, there's only one guy for her - and he can't visit her in the clink as he's wanted himself, see, for a crime he did commit! See? George Reed (THE GREEN PASTURES) is the black preacher father of fellow inmate Theresa Harris (Alma in I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE) who sings "Saint Louis Blues" while the girls relax after a hard day steam-pressing shirts.

HOLD YOUR MAN gets me deep in the gut because everyone is redeemed at the end--even the romantic rivals and prison warden--and not in a humorlessness Loretta Young kind of way, but in a genuine caring, cliche-defying way.  When Gable cries to Reed in the chapel, I feel redeemed --every time - and mister, I'm a hell of a sinner. That HOLD YOUR MAN was written by a girl (Anita Loos) doesn't fully explain the incredible compassion this film offers, but it's a part of it. How often do you come away from a tough pre-code women's prison picture feeling optimistic about humanity? Just this once, baby.

Long Live Liz

Can it be true? Has the living legend Elizabeth Taylor finally merged back into the godhead from which she came? I guess it is. I guess we'll be seeing a lot of her image in the next few days, but we don't really need to be reminded how awesome she was. She never left her throne on Hollywood's Mount Olympus, and its doubtful she ever will. Burton's probably ecstatic right now, showing her all around the spacious grounds of her new mansion on the hill.

Look at the above picture - have you ever seen a woman's eyes so aware of her sexiness yet not at all like a kitten's? How is she able to project so much knowing intellect alongside so much hotness and not have 'conflict of interest'? Her brain wattage doesn't spook us away like it did with Marilyn Monroe, say, who maybe lacked Taylor's grounding sanity and unrelenting self confidence without being egotistical, nor condescending to the man who drools at her from behind time and space. She accepts not only her own sexuality as a given, but ours. She was the most generous, in that and many other senses, of icons. Her beneficence has left an indelible mark on a grateful planet.

Acidemic is laden with past tributes to her grace, and here's a few:

Liz Taylor--a titanic, stunningly alive character with worldwide impact herself, seems to have been a kind of protean cine-muse to Williams, and one much more magnetic than Magnani, and much more opinionated and loud about it than most of the screen goddesses in her league. Totally unafraid to get in there and shake it in all senses of the word, from root to crown chakra (with a long pause at the hips), Liz's characters clash with patriarchy and then withdraw to fight again, like Sung Tzu says to do in ART OF WAR! Take GIANT, for example, where she maneuvers around the end zones at her newfound homeland Texas' narrow-minded patriarchal ways, and everyone of the old guard just has to put up with it. None of their usual patronizing crap works, even when she's way out of line they can't rope her in. She lets them win a hand or two, but never stops wearing them down, until they surrender like aggressive dogs to Cesar Milan in the Dog Whisperer. Like said dogs, these Texans realize they love her for her ability to be assertive without being aggressive, and she becomes the social mother conscience for all of Rich Oil Texas. She creates a new respect and admiration for the voice of dissent. It's okay to walk away having lost a fight with Liz Taylor. She'll let you win the next one.

Piper doesn't even have to be good when the chemistry between this pair is in full flow the way it wasn't in The VIPs and The Comedians. There's a great scene where Dick and Liz are gazing into each other's eyes, emoting and talking, and the wounded sandpiper that Liz saved earlier in the film comes flying in for a landing... right atop her head! She doesn't even flinch; she just keeps staring into Dick's eyes, and for his part, even with that sandpiper there he doesn't freak out, just stays in the scene, fixed on her gaze like a hypnotist. Then after they kiss, she reaches up and cups the bird in her hand without even looking at it, and then lets it loose, saying, "Fly away, baby," in that husky afterthought half-motherly/half-loverly, tender but not coddling, queenly-but not imperious style of hers. 
Was this something they shot twenty takes of, just to get that damned bird to land on her head, or was it just a lucky accident that these two pro thespians seized on? I spent the whole rest of the film just admiring the perfect nonchalant stillness with which these two lovers acted out their scene with this bird standing in Liz's wild hair. Then, when she later chases her old sugar daddy-cum-rapist out of the house with a hatchet, my heart was sealed... Here's one chick I wouldn't worry about even in the hairiest of haunted houses. 

The Case of the Disappearing Accent: THE COMEDIANS
Liz and Dick: Acidemic's Coolest Couples #2
Hotter Little Sister Effect: GIANT

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Vadim's Cold-Blooded Pimpin' - BLOOD AND ROSES (1960)


Based on an 1876 lesbian Gothic French story by Fanu, Carmilla, BLOOD AND ROSES (1960) is a film that's been mostly unseen since the early days of VHS in this country (it's now on Netflix streaming), but even on the faded and duped on the DVD-R I saw it on recently, Vadim's ease with the jet set world of expensive balls, crumbling ancestral villas, heavy breathing, quickened heartbeats, beautiful flowing gowns, incest, casual sex and acceptance of inter-dimensional weirdness shows through.

I mention Vadim because to me--and I assume at least a few other Americans-- his is the ideal of what we would want our lives to be like. And even-- if like me-- you don't go in for many of Vadim's other films, like Barbarella or ...And God Created Woman, you might find something cool hovering in the margins of Blood and Roses.

As an ex-libertine myself, I recognize that Vadim's conveying an atmosphere of socially sanctioned decadence with the relaxed confidence of someone who's been there, the way Fuller's films convey war, without feeling the need to overcompensate for one's secondhand vision, or to necessarily create in us the feeling of being there. Vadim succeeds in getting just right the swanky jetset masquerade party out on the lawn of the ancient Kuersten / Karnstein / Karstein estate, with fireworks and the emotionally vacant Carmilla (Annette Stroyberg, i.e. Anette Vadim) wandering off to the family crypt on her brother's wedding night, her dress trailing off behind her, into a the tomb of her ancient (female) relative; heart beating like mad on the soundtrack...eyes widening in terror!! Ah... but then fadeout and in the next scene it's dawn and she's taking a long stroll across the estate back to the party, where the guests are just now leaving!

You just don't see people leaving parties, or coming back to them, at dawn in American movies, at least not very often (I can think of only a few offhand: Dazed and Confused, The Anniversary Party, Who's Afraid of Virginia WoolfThe Warriors). No one in the USA dares stay up all night anymore. I mean my god, they have kids! They have jobs! They have to go to church, or the golf course / firing range. Besides, in the post-Goodfellas world, filmmakers seldom bother to hang around anyone place long enough to make it to the dawn, or maybe because of our ban on smoking and bad behavior Americans just don't know what it's like to stay up that late anymore here--it's too transgressive for them, too outside the box (NYC our one exception). In America we've even dubbed such a walking home at dawn journey 'the walk of shame, as if we should be ashamed of living like a vampire lesbian in a Vadim film!

French Sex issue

The key thing with Vadim--both his power and his impotence--is that the opaque glamor and complete lack of urgency or importance in his films is what jet set languor is really all about. An easygoing member of Parisian cafe society, Vadim's films are notoriously inert, and it's clear why: he's just too satisfied. As I wrote in AJFM #5's Pimps: The Devil's Subjects: You can't create tension if you've never been tense. Vadim's got no obsession because he already has or has had everything, including at least three of the most beautiful women who ever graced a movie screen (four if you count Annette, and you should). His amiable social butterfly nature has allowed him to enjoy life without excess drama. He was a Jew who had to hide from the Nazis, but it wasn't too bad (he hid in Switzerland, with the cows). It was just bad enough, it would seem, to lend him a steely courage in the face of a level of feminine beauty so overwhelming that ordinary men might faint or--like me--get literally weak at the knees. But it wasn't bad enough that he knows anything about crafting suspense, or narrative drive, alas.

I don't think Americans are afraid of beauty and sex, we're afraid of losing our desire for them, for what desire can survive its fulfillment? This is humanity's curse, and Vadim is a victim to it. If as Americans we ever gave into that awful moment of surrender, which as T.S. Eliot notes, an age of prudence can never retract then we'd have nothing to get us out of bed in the morning, nothing to make us run to the airport at the very last minute to catch Drew Barrymore before her flight takes off, nothing to keep us buying DVDs and shoes. If we lost our rabid consumerism we'd in effect cease to be Americans. Everyone would tell us "you have a very European attitude." This is because America hinges on the command to enjoy, and the one essential commodity that can (legally) have no price tag is sex, and so it has us hypnotized. Yes, we may have sex in 'real life' but I'm talking mainly about real life mirrored in movies, wherein we chase after sex like zee comically stumbling Jerry Lewis. Nowadays we've stopped prizing the Cary Grant and have lionized the Ralph Bellamy.

We Americans don't like Jerry Lewis and we don't like that the French like Jerry Lewis, and that's perhaps the reason we let our rich wives drag us to the pretentious art cinema, so that we can get cultured and distance ourselves from the Lewisness inside us, the Lewisness the French recognize as distinctly, ow you say? eh... Américain? We hope the international art cinema will broaden our continental minds, exorcise the Lewis out of us, and though we're dreading all the subtitles and bad dubbing, the pretentious poverty and class friction as we stand in line at NYC's Paris Theater with our minky wives, Vadim whispers in our ear like a sly apache: "Don't worry bout being bored, monsieur... the girl in this film... she is ...so beautiful."

Sometimes beauty can not only be enough, it can drain the soul faster than any vampire ever could, and BLOOD AND ROSES is emblematic of this dissolute, drained, beauty-saturated ennui that can result. While unlaid sleaze merchants around the world try to capture sex in an orgasmic blend of flesh and music, Vadim captures post-orgasmic depression, the feeling someone's siphoned off your precious... bodily fluids. 


Some of this entry originally appeared in Acidemic Journal of Film and Media #6, August 2010 

Read my take on Vadim as a pimp alongside Sport in Taxi Driver and John Derek, here.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Isolde Beware: TRISTANA (1970) + Special Bonus: Erich in Park Slope (video)

A recent showing of Bunuel's rare TRISTANA (1970) as part of a Catherin Deneuve festival at the Brooklyn Academy of Music was a cause for celebration and concern. The film's lone surviving print looked great but was in Spanish with French subtitles, but BAM made some English ones and projected them separately, and there were no problems! And the show was sold out! I was amazed frankly, at those subtitles smoothness. Kudos to the BAM Deneuve fest crew!

As an old reprobate with a beard similar to Fernando Rey's, it was both diconcerting and disheartening for me to see his character, Don Lope's libertine philosophy come back to haunt him as he ages from a stern dueling fanatic into a wussy old penitent. Catherine Deneuve is his young ward the way Dick Grayson is Bruce Wayne's, make of it what you will, but know this: Batman is sworn to protect the innocent and Don Lope, for all is socialist leanings, is not.

Deneuve is marvelous in a role that requires her to grow an unknown amount of years and lose her leg to a tumor.  Franco Nero is her younger artist lover and he smolders passionately and winds up confused and tangled in the sick Lolita-like web like a Clare Quilty with no chameleonic ability, only foolish Spanish fly pride. The film has no music and is very formalist -- we get lots of fine Toledo architecture, and only a few flashes of Rey's severed head as the clapper inside the local church bell as far as surrealism.  Catholic guilt hangs over everything, but the highlight is just watching the way Deneuve gradually grows hard and cynical. She changes believably as a character, and the film really picks up right around the time it ends... too bad, suckers!

But hey, my voyage down to the BAM to see the film has been chronicled by my own ward, M. Wright. Come and join me on an edulaxing, incantlightful and deformative journey:

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