Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception... for a better now

Tuesday, January 03, 2012

If I was a TCM guest programmer / and you were a (cobra) lady: FREUD, COBRA WOMAN, DISHONORED, CEILING ZERO

Don't you hate when TCM guest programmers pick titles from the same old classic safety list TCM shows constantly? Here's their big chance and they pick Lawrence of Arabia, Casablanca and, um, maybe you've never heard of it, Citizen Kane! Yeah, right... over and over.

I love those films too, but we need guest programmers like me, who are keenly aware of all the films TCM hasn't shown in at least 100 years, if ever. These four are classics that should be ubiquitous but instead are never aired... why? Why, Nat?

(aka "The Secret Passion")
1962, dir. John Huston

Why don't they exhume Huston's Freud to tie in with Cronenberg's A Dangerous Method? Are Freud's theories of infantile sexuality still too shocking? Any John Huston film starring Montgomery Clift and filmed in expressionist-Victorian hothouse black-and-white should be a mainstay anywhere. It's not perfect--it's very brainy and theoretical as we follow Freud's life from a young intern at a psychiatric hospital challenging the status quo, up through studies of hypnosis in Paris, and still pushing to find the secret of the unconscious mind and how to release it from its airless tomb and thus cure hysteria. We see Freud continuing his discourse via a series of conversations in and out of Austrian carriages and walking through hallowed halls. But then, the gas lights dim a bit and Huston eases back on his narration. Slowly a kind of mist coheres and it becomes an expressionist nightmare horror film, leading inexorably to Freud's big 'ah-hah!' moment, the witnessing the belly of the beast slide open to reveal its secrets. We're being shown the first 'meta'-dream, the tools for analyzing all itself being forged right there, onscreen. Damnit, I had this on an old dupe but now it's long gone and I want to see once more Klaus Kinski =making love to a mannequin leg while the visibly uncomfortable, drug-addicted, partially paralyzed, perfectly cast Clift looks on, agape, theories coagulating from the murk of his patient's hysteria and crawling half-formed into his mind. Imagine a prequel to Suddenly Last Summer, with Clift's shrink dreaming (or rather nightmaring) his way back to being the world's first psychoanalyst, embattled by the accredited establishment and clinging to what shreds of Tuinal-induced hallucinatory calm he can while while he treats his Venable patients --that's truth, that's Freud! We need it now more than ever. God helps us if we don't get it.

PS -8/19- I have seen it again, I got a Korean import dupe from ebay, though I fear it's somewhat cut from a fuller frame to fit a widescreen TV. The image is good, but I realize Kinski isn't even in the film. Did I hallucinate him? I saw this movie only a few times while deep in the throes of alcoholic hallucinatory madness (the pefect way to see any movie) so maybe I saw a different film?)

1944 - dir. Robert Siodmak

Technicolor is king and shapely Maria Montez is queen here on the Island of the Cobra as well as her identical twin, good and pure and rightful queen, engaged to Ramu (Hall) who swims to her rescue after she's kidnapped right before the marriage ceremony. Bold crazy greens pulse all through the inspired costumes and there's tarot card-level archetypal juice drizzled over a plot that's strictly serial: See the evil Montez ordering virgins into the volcano by the hundo at the height of her ecstatic and sexy snake dance! See her letting a man she doesn't even know kiss her under the water. Realize that 1944 was the height of the war, and censorship made sure all the skin had to be in pools (would a genre like Esther Williams pool musicals ever be needed once censorship relaxed?) or on ice in short skirts (Sonia Henie?), i.e. folded into the story naturally via displays of athletic prowess. Luckily we're liberated! Not just from the Axis (who also loved 'clean' displays of athletic prowess) but from the Catholic legion of 'Decency.' I digress...

As for the cast, Montez is good/bad and awesome; Sabu is annoying; Huntz Hall forgettable, Chaney silent, the score awesome with timpani, the language pidgined. The king cobra Montez dances for is pretty floppy (though it does have a good tongue). It's no accident that right before I popped this DVD in something also from the WW2 era was on TCM, about an officer who had to ship out before his marriage could be consummated, the sexual tension there ran cold and coded, as was the style of the time, the censors claimed. The interrupted wedding at the start of Cobra Woman plays on, maybe even satirizes that idea. Religion and its ability to make people act against their own best interest is satirized mercilessly in the witty script. When Ramu asks why the people of the island willingly go to their deaths in the volcano, the queen (Maria Nash) notes that "the ceremony appeals to their emotions... fear has made them religious fanatics!" Sound familiar?

Luckily when the boys finally came home from the war, they were too used to fighting to let some pious control freaks tell them what do do, and censorship began to collapse into the shadows of film noir.

Exploded with fairy tale picture book gone wild flair by the great Robert Siodmak, Cobra Woman is more about the shot and the image than the story, which is strictly from Flash Gordon-ville, but the presence of an evil princess (ala Aura in Flash) is really refreshing and cool. Such a figure is archetypal but sorely lacking in the Lord of the Rings and Star Wars franchises, both of which are ubiquitous while Cobra is available only from the Universal Vault Collection, though their DV-R is pretty badass. And you can find it here! The colors look gorgeous, with lots of dark serpent greens and dusky blood reds.

1931 - dir. Josef von Sternberg

Dietrich and Joe made seven lovely films together - most are on DVD--Blue Angel, Morocco, Blonde Venus, Scarlet Empress, Devil is a Woman, but two--Shanghai Express and Dishonored--are not. Thanks to savvy guest programmers, Scarlet's become a mainstay on TCM lately, but Dishonored remains MIA and it's a damned shame. The (true-ish) story's been better told by Fraulein Doktor but this is better than Garbo's Mata Hari. Here Dietrich plays a Prussian spy who seduces men and steals their military secrets. But she weakens and aids the enemy, though why she should choose a creepy, leering Victor McLaglen to give up her life for is beyond me. What a waste! But it's Sternberg so we never get the sense she loves him so much as she set him free because it twists the masochistic knife in us, and says fuck you to the world. Anyway, she is victorious in an earlier maneuver against Warner Oland; a New Years masquerade shows off Sternberg's penchant for crowd scene bacchanals and there's a great final firing squad scene that should be embraced by self-destructive hipsters everywhere.

1936 - dir. Howard Hawks

I might have missed this over the years because of the bland title and I dislike Pat O'Brien, but it's by Howard Hawks and also stars Jimmy Cagney, and say what you want about Pat and I will but he talks fast and Hawks needs rapid patter overlapping dialogue men and I'll tell you something else there's nothing like Hawks when he has two good actors who can talk like machine guns and aren't afraid to display motormouths we usually associate only with speed freaks which isn't to say Dexedrine is bad at least not in Hollywood where 18 hour workdays are normal and a man like Hawks wants you looking wired and ready, so where the hell is it? The film I mean? Sure there's parts of it that show Hawks was still perfecting his formula, there's bad vibes with Cagney's bad habit of poaching women and getting Stu Erwin in trouble with the missus, and everyone's cockblocking each other, and the encroaching regulations (delivered by Barton Maclane) and safety violation up-to-code authority browbeating... just imagine how much less fun ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS would be if there were regulations and burdensome officials and nagging, worrying wives, instead of no regulations at all and only cool officials down to get down and party hearty and the only non-local girls to worry about are either Jean Arthur, on her best behavior, and Rita Hayworth, at her hotness prime? Luckily there's something here that film doesn't have, a cute young girl pilot-in-training named Tommy, of course, and played by June Travis like she's to the Hawksian woman manor born.


  1. Brilliant shortlist. I've been itching to see Huston's FREUD since my oral stage and pacify myself by listening to the Jerry Goldsmith score on Spotify. DISHONORED was one of Fassbinder's top ten ever, arbitrary and off-the-cuff as his list may have been.

  2. You ought to be programming for TCM, then. definitely.

    I might have to search "Freud" out. Been wanting to check out some John Huston films, and I was only just introduced to Klaus Kinski stuff thanks to (surprise, surprise) Werner Herzog.


  3. Erich has done it again, panning TCM for lame gimmicks like having guest programmers. I've met several actors about Winona Ryder's age who've really never looked at vintage movies much, but usually have an old favorite like "It's a Wonderful Life." So we get bored with that. TCM should be a finders paradise, not a theme driven debacle. As for EK's look at zombies, how brilliant! Romero took them from shuffling, silent bunglers (King of the Zombies) to symbols of our most loathsome dread. More broadly, the post Romero zombie may be a teeming Third World pressing relentlessly against complacent white rich folks. Did not Lara Logan experience the horror of being consumed by a frothing mob? Was it not a zombie-like attack? Romero identified our fears indelibly.

  4. Right! Mob violence is fucked up, take it from a boy who got caught in the middle of three riots, all in the late 1980s, just by being too drunk to get out of the way and too inherently decent and repulsed by mob mentality to participate. A truly terrifying and well crafted depiction of third world mob violence can be seen in the otherwise dismal La Cronicas, starting John Leguzamo, by the way. It's worth seeing just for that scene, which still terrifies me to recollect.


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