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

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Decadence Lost: DISHONORED, SONG OF SONGS

TCM has finally stepped on the D-train in a big way with their new pre-code Marlene Dietrich: Directed by Josef Von Sternberg DVD set, at last completing the R1 DVD representation for the Von Sternberg - Dietrich pre-code Paramount series by presenting the long unavailable Dishonored (1932) and Shanghai Express (1933). They are my two favorites! They're here, and the fine quality of DVD serves Von Sternberg's chiaroscuo lighting quite well. Blu-ray next for the whole seven? Black... market. Peeparounzacorna.

Whilst ordering it off the TCM site I grabbed their pre-code set of Song of Songs (1933) and This is the Night (1932,  reviewed here). And fine as these films are they are not half as sophisticated as the JVS. The Night's a fine example of pre-code Paramount fluffery: Cary Grant's in a minor role as a studly javelin thrower 'competing' (if that is the word) for Thelma Todd against Roland Young, who's brought Lili Damita along as a beard.  But Song of Songs, Paramount's first attempt to ween Dietrich away from JVS, is a bit too old-fashioned, with Dietrich's naive country virgin conveniently enamored by Solomon's poem "Song of Songs" which she recites under her breath like a mantra. Dig the kinky S/M aspects of this verse (he's basically saying he wants to make gold bit and bridle and ride his love around the room)

I have compared thee, o my love
to a steed in Pharaoh's chariots
Thy cheeks are comely with circlets, thy neck with beads
We will make thee circlets of gold with studs of silver.

In charge of making the circlets for this doll-faced horsey is a smug stud sculptor (Brian Aherne) who falls in love with her as she poses nude for him in his drafty garrett. We never even learn if she's getting paid for all this nude shivering or is just expected to die of pneumonia for him while he teases her about being cold. Whatever she may be earning it's certainly not enough for putting up with his Pygmalion-like impudence. Aherne berates her like a child, as does a conniving alcoholic aunt (Alison Skipworth) who pimps her out for sacks of Jamaican rum to Aherne's lecherous sponsor (Lionel Atwill) a rich baron / patron of the pornographic arts who commissions most of Aherne's nude woman sculptures. Atwill swoons over the unfinished "Song of Songs," his already-commissioned nude art deco sculpture of Marlene, and wants to own the 'real' thing.


Songs could have been a true pre-coder if it wasn't so firmly rooted in the bucolic / provincial morality play silent film era (as per above), with Vaseline trees and day-for-night skies, and virgins in white puffy dresses cavorting daintily amid the willows. A predictable mix of Svengali, Pygmalion, and Camille-style moral conventions straight out of the De Mille playbook, as Atwill convinces Aherne to abandon Marlene after first deflowering her so Atwill can step in, gamely marry her despite her fallen status and teach her to be a baroness. Aherne complies, not realizing he's in love - aww, or is he just now valuing her as he's losing her. Meanwhile it's straight up crazy Atwill would go to all this trouble and marry her, rather than just keeping her as a mistress, as if the production code - which still had some dignity in 1933 - insisted.

Meanwhile the statue is left in the garret; its erect nipples jut accusingly through the sack cloth dust cover. It doesn't matter anymore, for Atwill has spirited home the real thing, and begins the usual post-wedding 'preparation,' twirling his mustache in delight before the mirror, smiling and listening to her pitiful cries from the other room. Later she 'adjusts' to life at the chateau. She learns to speak French, play the piano, and sing! She falls! She rises! She almost dies in a fire. She's almost shot by Atwill in a fit of jealous pique over her half-pint riding instructor. She borrows masochistic tacks from JVS --but she forgets that-- for all his kinkiness--Von Sternberg wanted to memorialize the real, mature, fallen woman rather than the pie-faced innocent. This is Paramount, after all. Granted, Dietrich did the wide-eyed orphan bit before (or rather later) with Scarlet Empress but there she was meant, I think, to be insufferable, almost like a mockery of her character here, But in Songs we're supposed to feel for her lost innocence the way we'd feel if this was a Joan or Norma movie under MGM ---a prospect too odious to contemplate.


But despite the naive provincial indulgences, Dietrich surprises us all with some of her best singing ever: there's a genuinely touching and  tranquil version of "Heideroslein" and later a smoky "Johnny." And she acts, too. In her final scene she lets loose a really good cathartic cry, wherein you can feel all her skeeved trauma from working with Von Sternberg come pouring out at last. It's clear that Atwill is, meta-mirror-wise, the stand-in for JVS in the scheme of the film (the Aherne would probably be Gary Cooper, or Mercedes de Acosta). Here, suddenly, are sides of her you just don't find elsewhere. Songs is a poignant reminder that, in between her reinvention as a brassy saloon girl in westerns and her earlier aloof majesty, there are some weird but intriguing feints towards other personae that are as unique as anything anyone has ever done, and this in Songs we have a whole new Dietrich we won't see anywhere else again: a woman who doesn't just end up with the right guy at the end of all her travails, she actually seems to mature.

But while Mamoulian's conception of debauchery seems much more compassionate than Von Sternberg's it's also more superficial and exploitative. Provincial morality is, per JVS, the last refuge of hypocrite snivelers, but at the same time he's not exploitative. Mamoulian may evince real compassion--as in the heartrending pleas of Hopkins' prostitute for protection from Hyde in his quintessential 1933 version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde--but he's still winking and leering and making a huge deal of Marlene disrobing. On the plus side of Mamoulian's obsessive sexual wariness is the way the romance of Chevalier and MacDonald in  his Love Me Tonight fades to the dreamy remembrances of the morning, or the gender-bent stay at the inn in Queen Christina, which despite Garbo being a girl, still seemed like the very first gay romance on the big screen.

I can imagine if Von Sternberg directed Queen Christina (1933, above) that Garbo would stay in drag while making out with Gilbert, right in front of the innkeeper, just for shock value, the camera taking in his discomfort with a wry smile. For JVS, if there is actual love it's always a renouncement, a sacrifice, done more for the dramatic spectacle of masochistic suffering than the actual object of affection. Dietrich never even gets a single coded night of bliss--not one!-- with Gary Cooper in Morocco! The pair keep getting interrupted by interlopers or their own refusal to admit their feelings. She barely knows him, yet she kicks off her shoes and follows him into the Sahara anyway, and then chooses a similar fate in Dishonored and all for a no-good Russian spy and played by Victor McLaglen. Her grand gestures are like suicidal whims made extra potent by the sheer folly of them, their undeserving target making our masochistic frustration as spectators boil over, which is their whole performative point ("happily ever after" in a Sternberg-Dietrich film would be an oxymoron)

As Dietrich famously said "in Europe sex is a fact. In America, an obsession." For real Germans like Dietrich sex is just an extension of taking off a glove or blowing a noisemaker. Concurrent with this 'fact' is the failure of desire to further thrive, the fact of sex snuffs desire out like nitro on oil fire, thus for desire to thrive it must exist primarily as an absence, a dream that can't come true by its own definition. This is far different than the pent up horniness of American obsession, which--not having the sex--values it to the point performance is hampered. Sex with Mamoulian isn't so ephemeral and abstract, but a real trauma--instead of a delicious absence it's a suffocating presence. Just compare the gang-imploding whim of lust that gets everyone killed in Mamoulian's City Streets or Song's big scenes of renouncement and horror vs. the cool of Sternberg lines like "it took more than one man... to change my name to Shanghai... Lily."


Sternberg's sex-death equation is most clearly displayed in his ubiquitous cabal of lounging courtesan extras. Sooner or later, Dietrich's ingenues always share a dressing room with them, or run into a few by the bar. For Mamoulian, a Russian, these fallen women are to be pitied and rescued, victims of a corrupt system (though they still lounge impressively in their one scene, below). Which view is the most 'compassionate'? I would argue Von Sternberg's since he gives the ladies credit and allows them to revel in their persona of mystery and allure. Mamoulian would drag them out to the street and admonish them like Annie dragging the 'trying to pass' Sarah Jane out of the club in Imitation of Life.



Worlds away from Mamoulian's sexophobic compassion, Von Sternberg cheerfully ignores the bucolic in Dishonored, preferring to focus all his style and shadow on decadent gambling dens and brothels. His exteriors are inevitably fogged-in or rain-soaked, snow-covered or bomb-blasted- there is never nature. His style is truly decadent as opposed to bowing towards any trite and tedious 'moral center.' JVS hates moral centers! His contempt for Herbert Marshall in Blonde Venus makes that otherwise fleet-footed film limp lopsided, but when considered as a pre-code critique of the Way Down East- type silent era morality play it becomes more understandable. One might even say that without films like Song of Songs the Blonde Venuses seem rather cold and negative. But with the bucolic small- town morality plays to look good against, the JVS cynicism sparkles.


And better still, when there is no moral center at all, JVS really shines, and Dishonored is one of his best in that regard, with one of the best endings in all cinema. It's on Godard's ten favorite American film list... and that's of all time! And a big part of that appeal is probably the end, a harsh but poetic scene that plays out like Kubrick's Paths of Glory trench diggers accidentally tunneled into a high class Austrian brothel.


A loose re-telling of the popular Mata Hari tale (see also 1968's Fraulein Doctor) In Dishonored we have Dietrich as a weary Austrian war widow living at a Viennese brothel where despair and gas-powered suicide is so common the cops barely shake off their war-weary ennui long enough to shake their heads. But Dietrich won't say die, anymore than she'll say live, but her unflappable cool and loyalty leads her to be recruited as special agent X-27. First she uncovers the treachery of military bigwig Warner Oland and later gets information that sends 'thousands of Russians to their deaths.' She becomes quite an asset.

The role of female James Bond fits Marlene well.  She and her Russian op counterpart Victor McLaglen are like advanced serpentine predators in a world of clueless prey. They are keen observers and always five moves ahead of the pack, yet Dietrich is dumb enough to keep her spying orders (uncoded) in her coat pocket where McLaglen can find them, read them, replace them, and promptly head off to try and catch her in the act on the front line hotel where she's headed. He could easily have killed her on the spot instead so it's clear that, while not exactly collaborating, McLaglen and Dietrich make it pretty for the other to escape should either fall into the others' clutches, like Adam West's Batman and Julie Newmar's Catwoman! Apparently, that's how the KGB and CIA were with each other back in the day - rather than keep killing each other, they'd swap enough secrets to make their bosses happy then lean back and get drunk together. I mean, that's the smart play, after all - and they're smart.


And that's partly the problem for Dishonored detractors, of which I used to be one: we were appalled that this sensitive seductress would deliberately sabotage her own sworn duty by letting someone as leering and one-dimensional as McLaglen's Russkie escape and not even deign to answer the charges of collaboration against her during the military tribunal. They desperately want to cut her a break but she won't help. The best she can do is say "I've lead an inglorious life, it might be my good fortune to have a glorious death." So she never got far from that Viennese gas jet asphyxiation suicide state of mind after all. I always imagine her adding the word 'scene' at the end of that sentence, to have "a glorious death scene," for it's always clear in JVS land that there's no such thing as a happy ever after so it's all about how you die or behave at the end. She knows her masks are all there is and through acting she devours the firing squad with the ambivalent curiosity of a cat playing with a box of regimented mice. Dietrich in the JVS movies knows she has only 90 minutes in which to exist so she may as well go out impaled-butterfly-pin high than preserve herself in some uncertain happy ever-after of old age make-up and bucolic leaf-eating caterpillar drudgery. Her Dishonored death becomes the equivalent of the walk into the sand at the end of Morocco, another chance to shed all mortal coils and comforts for some barely spoken maybe-not-even-love and send the patriarchy into masochistic fits. In the beginning of the film, we first see her watching the morgue wagon parked in the pouring rain in front of the building, seeing it perhaps as a kind of nihilist prom limo and in the end she gets picked up at last. Her ethical code doesn't permit suicide, so she must wait until her death scene can be proper and glorious, with a weeping audience of young soldiers to perform it for.

By contrast, Song of Songs-brand Marlene cries and grows up and ends the film smashing her likeness--the statue Aherne made of her--undoing all those shivering hours of nude posing in order to breathe free as a real emotional woman, but is that really as satisfying? Becoming an adult instead of dying as a wild child is less cinematic than that firing squad send-off. It's like the actresses who step away from their career in its height to have a flock of children and expect our applause and adoration anyway, cuz she's a mom now. Aww. But why should we prize the child who took you away from us! That child robbed us of our sprite, our elvin anima, and turned you into...just another mom --the audience is like a suddenly-ignored older child, forced to watch the ooohs and ahhs from a distance. When these actresses return to the screen, they are, let's face it, changed. The spark is gone from their eyes, transferred to their child. In Dishonored Dietrich is savvy enough to sidestep all that --she just plays waltzes on an imported-by-last-request piano right up until the moment she's called to the her demise. And if she has to grow up, at least Marlene has her Song of Songs:

O my dove, that art in the clefts of the rock, in the covert of the cliff, 
let me see thy countenance, let me hear thy voice; 
for sweet is thy voice, and thy countenance is comely. 
'Take us the foxes, the little foxes, that spoil the vineyards; 
for our vineyards are in blossom.' 

Until the day breathes, and the shadows flee away, 
turn, my beloved, 
and be thou like a gazelle or a young hart 
upon the mountains of spices.(more)

Comely countenances have nothing to do with it, dovey. When one makes the clefts and coverts into moral lessons they are as the blight that spoils the vineyards. Let the foxes take what grapes they may no matter how high on the vine. Give little fox Bette Davis a box on which to jump that she may the grapes devour. Let the image breathe like a nitrate fire, freed from moral weight to bleed the wine of massive proof.  Through senseless spilling, the cup remains full / the nitrate deep and lasting in its transient grace, not burning at all / except in focused flickering / on the wall. Take your maidens and your Vaseline lens and exeunt; I'll stay here in the dark and foxy box the shadow of your scornful wince.

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