Thursday, May 31, 2012

CinemArchetype 15: The Animal Familiar

"Animals emanate the breath of our lives by showing us certain qualities and behaviors that we should emulate somewhere in our daily lives. Our kinship with them teaches many things such as patience, endurance and the balance of our male/female aspect or sometimes called yin/yang energy or polarities. Subsequently, Carl Jung's concept of male/female in the "collective unconscious" concept is animus/anima respectively. Is it through the archetypal energy that we are able to communicate with this collective unconscious a gateway to our true selves. Animal wisdom emits these fundamental truths if we are willing to learn and understand their language. As humans we can learn and remember our connection to animals and the knowledge that inextricable links us with them. Nature is an amazing teacher that breathes new life into our spirit."- Finding your Animal Totem
1. Toto -The Wizard of Oz (1939)
The impetus and guidance for her success, is sparked by her devotion to Toto—or her strong instinctive responses to life’s circumstances. She protects Toto on two occasions and then he protects her. He plays a crucial part in each stage of Dorothy’s quest. Like Dorothy, he is small and fearful, but he insists on asserting himself. As a non-verbal animal he stands for her uncivilized part of herself who exposes the illusions and vulnerabilities of the coercive authority and propels the conforming child into adventures and actions that her social conscious would not consider or approve.

On page 91, in the book, "Mere Creatures, A Study of Modern Fantasy Tales for Children," Elliott Gose gives a comment from Max Luthi, “Man is in contact with nature, which accepts his assistance and in turn comes to his aid. But like Toto, the helping animal can also embody unconscious forces within.” He continues to say, “Helpful animals are ‘symbolic figures’ that embody and represent the instinctive forces of our nature, as distinguished from the higher human qualities of intellect, reason and power."" - Jeanne House, Wizard of Oz and the Path to Enlightenment

2. Pieawacket - Bell, Book and Candle (1958)

Their weird chemistry worked in their previous film, Vertigo, because Stewart was allowed to be kind of a creep, more in love with her ghost image than with the plain real girl behind it, and the tragedy came when Novak effectually spread herself between so thin between two images, neither of them her true character, that she almost became herself and thus had to die. But here in Bell, Book and Candle the chemistry flops under Stewart's grandpa-style American decency. A May December only works when the December is in some ways more liberated and decadent, immature, or 'younger' in at least some way or other, then than the May. And when Novak tries to tell him about her witchy ways Stewart proves he's none of those things by acting as condescending and dismissive as the Catholic stand-in villains in The Golden Compass. 

Still, the scene with Piewacket and Novak busting their magic spell on Stewart is one of the key hottest witch moments in all the world of cinema. Piewacket ends up bailing on her when she loses her powers, for love, ugh, who wouldn't? It's so forced, like a pre-arranged marriage orchestrated by a studio with an eye on Jimmy's box office clout estate. Piewacket's final gesture of humanity, if you'll forgive the expression, is to climb up to Stewart's office window and thus force Stewart to return him to Novak's shop. What a pal, even though she's all virginal in white and as boring as a mousy Cinderella....
"The term familiar in witch craft is some kind of animal, more often then not a cat because cats naturally live between worlds. Have you ever noticed a cat that seems to be mesmerized by something that YOU cannot see? Odds are likely that cat is seeing something that you can't. They are in tune with the Other-world. Throughout history cats have been suspected of living half in this world and half in the Other. Shifting between the two worlds to maintain elusiveness and power. A familiar for a witch, like Gillian in the film Bell Book and Candle, acts as an extension of power. Gillian's power embodied in animal form. The familiar can be assigned tasks to complete for the owner which in the film Pyewacket performs plenty. He is the most magical being in the film." - Hubpages
3. The Daemons of The Golden Compass (2007)
Everyone in this alternate reality has a familiar, and it's awesome. I dug this semi-ignored fantasy film and was pissed to learn there won't be a sequel. My guess? It stars a truly badass young woman (Dakota Blue Richards) named Lyra, with boys always in need of rescue instead of vice versa. Maybe in the sequel they could cut let the boys take all the glory? (Read the writer-director Chris Weitz's understandably peeved reaction here).

Co-star (he's got the Han Solo role) Sam Elliot (his familiar is a jackrabbit) blames the Catholic church who rained their sanctimonious venom on this film thus proving the film's anti-Catholic point more succinctly than the film itself ever could. I dug it myself, it imitates the feeling of reading the Narnia books as a kid better than the actual Narnia movies.  She slaps adults around, has a whiskey-slurping polar bear in her corner, and handles borderline Dickensian oppression with aplomb and rains fire over doughy doe-eyed softies like Harry Potter or Frodo. And the notion that the bad guys want to cut the power animal daemons from their children to help them grow up' is all to apropo of circumcision, Sunday school and Dr. Moreau exclaiming "this time I'll burn all the animal out of her!"

4. Johnny Cash (voice) - Space Coyote - The Simpsons - "La Viaje Mysterioso de Homer"
Could there be a better choice for a spirit animal voice than Cash's, wherein lightness shines over intense heaviness like an angel in 20 pound steel-tipped boots wading through the mud? Back in the late 90s when this episode came out it simply couldn't have been more timely. "Let 'em go Ralph, he knoows what he's doin'" - entered my ecstasy-popping clique's lexicon, especially as it reflected our favorite quote from the Poseidon Adventure, when Chico and the Man's Jack Albertson after Shelly Winters dives through the flooded porthole, "Let her go, she knooows what she's doing!" We lived by that code, my loungecore hussy posse and I, and now they're all dead or in advertising... or like me, which is worse, Space Coyote.

5.  Skippy as Asta - The Awful Truth, The Thin Man, Bringing up Baby
A good dog can make or break a film, and a relationship. When Cary Grant comes around for visiting rights over Mr. Smith (Skippy, "the pooch") we only partly think it's an excuse to visit Irene Dunne. A lot of us think it's really to see Mr. Smith. After all, a lot of us have perhaps stayed in a relationship because we like her cat, or his dog, or vice versa. It takes a special animal to have this power to 'complete' relationships sometimes. While cats and dogs elsewhere in this list are specific to one person, in Skippy's case the gift for being the magical talisman / familiar of couples is completely unique. So salute, Skippy.

6. Andy Serkis as King Kong (2005)

Kong was more of a dark animus/shadow to western civilization in the original, but in Jackson's lush remake he's clearly a besmitten familiar for Naomi Watts, his size and might granting her huge power and bringing her frail depression soul to life through his selfless service in the field of jungle navigation and T. Rex wrestling. His demise is therefore even more tragic than in the original. Too bad Jackson chooses to infuse the proceedings with egregious kiddie comedy in the portly form of Jack Black, over-acting like a silken-voiced Andy Devine, riding to the rear of the rescue; and Evan Parke straightfacedly shouting "Jimmmyyyy!" and "Jimmy, you got to be smarter than that!" and "Jimmy, you got to learn to read, you got to go to school!" All that though is just piffling shadows to the blinding white light of Serkis' genius, and Watts', who makes a great Fay Wray even if her dopey dance is always worth a cringe.

7. The raven/crow in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) 

The witch's crow is the 'audience' surrogate in Disney's vision, which is awesome as she's usually alone in her castle, preening in front of the mirror, vowing vengeance and engaging in spookily rendered arcane magic spellcasting. The crow/raven never speaks but we see his eyes bulge out in shocked excitement as her ravings increase in venom. This raven is neither a spineless yes-man lackey nor voiced by a stunt celebrity cameo (no Gilbert Godfried or Cheech Marin). In fact the bird's silence enhances his connection to us in the audience, for we are also mute and awed by the witch's evil (there's a few great moments where the witch seems to stare dead in our eyes). And their relationship captures just what it's like to spend a lot of time with only an animal for company if you're a raging narcissist, babbling insanely half to yourself, half to your pet, who doesn't understand a word you're saying but is concerned by your discordant vibes you may be losing your mind to the point you forget to feed it.

8. Nissa the Leopard as Baby - Bringing up Baby (1938)

As in Shakespeare and his doubles, there are two leopards in Bringing up Baby, but the good one, Baby, is the true familiar to witchy Suzanne Vance (Katherine Hepburn). Baby arrives magically by mail to her swanky apartment, and since David, Grant's nervous paleontologist handles 'bones and things' Susan automatically assumes he'll know just what to do with it. (Read Stanley Cavell's Comedies of Remarriage to help in translating the layers of sophisticated double entendre in the dialogue). The parallel is clear. David likes his bones 'dead' and calcified hard, his fiancee frigid and repressed; Baby and Susan are as sleek and alive as you can be, buzzing around him like bees frightening an allergic picnicker. That Susan arranges so David has to join her in a merry chase around Connecticut only affirms the magnetic pull of her familiar. Baby is the familiar as wild animal, yet tamed, a complete impossibility yet there it is. And most crazy of all, Susan's imperious aunt is one minute dismissing the idea there could be a leopard in Connecticut with a wave of her hand, and mere moments later mentioning she's expecting a tame leopard to arrive any day now from Susan's brother, a big game hunter. Thus the leopard as familiar is always shifting and changing -- knowing the creature is tame, Grant and Hepburn are less afraid, but by then the beast has shifted yet again, replaced by a vicious leopard on his way to the gas chamber after 'giving that new trainer a going over.' Thus we see how a wild familiar may bring you love and adventure, but it also may crash you down to the more life-affirming rhythms of the earth like a giant brontosaurus skeleton, or eat you.

9.  Clyde - the Orangutan -Every Which Way But Loose (1978)
There was a time called the 70s when fads were rampant: Jaws spawned craze for anything related to sharks; Star Wars for anything related to space; there were also pet rocks, mood rings, Spencer's Gifts, EST, Evelyn Wood Reading Dynamics, Frampton Comes Alive, iron-on decals that read "Keep on Streaking," Bruce Lee, Farrah Fawcett-Majors, Jordache jeans, Cheryl Tiegs, wall-to-wall shag carpeting, and-- most importantly--Smokey and the Bandit (1976). This film was huge and launched a craze for Trans-Ams, brawls between truckers, stunt men and bikers; convoys;  road-blocks; CB radios (10-4, good buddy); truck stop waitresses smacking their gum as they poured coffee; hitchikers with cut-offs and names like Starla and Angel; portly sheriffs scrambling comically to get back into their vehicle and engage in hot pursuit; thick Burt Reynolds mustaches; snakeskin boots; amphetamines; gambling... Daisy Duke shorts and Daisy Duke inside them. What a time to be covered in axle grease with an oily bandana stuck in your back jeans pocket. Naturally Clint Eastwood got in on the act, and to spike the formula brought an orangutan along. Any Which Way But Loose was such a hit (second only to Superman in 1978 box office) that a sequel was rushed into production (Any Which Way You Can) and there was even a rip-off TV version called BJ and the Bear.

One of the cool things about Clint is that he always gives anyone or anything a fair shake. He meets love with love and violence with violence, unconditionally. So to him Clyde is no 'pet' but a genuine travelin' companion, a buddy with whom to spar, argue, mock wrestle, and philosophize. Clyde for his part is a friend in need ever ready with a rude noise or a pretty smile. The haunted-hot mess-sexy Sandra Locke may be around, as she always was in this era of Clint's filmmaking career, but it's Clyde who's the real bromantic love interest, and he gives Clint's fistfighting trucker a kind of St. Francis legitimacy.

10. Peter Lorre's pocket kitten in The Boogeyman will Get You (1942)
The kitten itself doesn't have much of a part, but is a great touch for Lorre's bizarre magistrate character in this early Arsenic and Old Lace-inspired murderous quirky comedy (paging Tim Burton - don't remake this classic and ruin it!). The kitten lives in one of Lorre's coat pockets and occasionally meows ("What do you want?" Lorre asks into his coat, "it isn't milk time."), to be let out as she sniffs some "crime and corruption." Maybe you think I should have put Lassie or Rin Tin Tin or Tigger or Trigger on this list instead, but their films ain't got no Boogeyman!

11. Blood (the Rover) in A Boy and his Dog (1975) / The dog in The Road Warrior (1981)
Ugh, as a young teen I was a huge fan of the Harlan Ellison post-apocalyptic short story "A Boy and His Dog," so naturally I thought the movie was a tragic waste of time --not at all how I imagined it. And they just had to one up the harsh twist ending with a nasty crack or two. And Don Johnson? and a little Benji-type dog instead of a mangy German shepherd like in my imagination? Actually, it wasn't even all that bad... but you know how it is.

A much better dog crops up in The Road Warrior, a movie I had to get my friend Alan's mom to buy us tickets for because it was rated R and the idiot box office taker wouldn't let us slide on our jaded 15 year-old expressions. And we expected, based on Richard Corliss's Time piece ("Apocalypse Pow!"), that it would be totally mind-blowing. 200 viewings later and we finally get it's rock-solid grace. And the dog is perfect. Max's last link to compassion and connection to some kind of anima mundi humanity, he knows when to strike, when to growl, and he dies to protect Max from Wes's mighty wrist rocket. It's not all the killing, raping and smashing of innocent oil rig commune dwellers that really tears it for us as far as wanting to see all these Humongous-following scuzzbags wiped out, it's the cold blooded killing of Max's beloved companion; it's what sets him over the edge, and sends that dog into our blistered, mangled, bullet-ridden hearts.

Either way, one of the things that always saddens me in real life is how dogs and cats seldom have a function, a job, a reason for living, other than supplying us with love and affection which, let's face it, we don't always have time for. When civilization crumbles and our lives depend on instincts and animal cunning once more, that sadness will be over.  Pets will once again become invaluable companions at the forefront of our consciousness, able to smell trouble and strangers miles away, providing a much better early warning system than any look-out in the dark and resuming their status as true archetypal spirit animals.

12. TIE:
The Cat in The Black Cat (1934)
and the Cat in The Tomb of Ligeia (1964)
In Bell, Book and Candle we saw an example of a fairly 'white magic' style familiar, so it wouldn't be fair not to end on two fine examples of the 'black magic' variety. In the 1934 Universal masterpiece The Black Cat, there's plenty of talk about how Satan emcee Karloff's black cat's spirit may have taken over, briefly, the body of narcotized houseguest Jacqueline Wells (after Lugosi kills it with a tossed butter knife). It's really more of an excuse for the Poe-tic title rather than a straight up plot device, but it's still cool, especially when Karloff lisps with rolled eyes that Bela, "is a victim of one of the commoner phobias. He has a complete and utter horror... of cat-ths." Karloff doesn't seem too worried after Lugosi offs the feline, but maybe it's because the pussy's not dead.... just transported to Miss Wells.

The twisted vortex of necrophilia and animistic reincarnation in Corman's final Poe film, Ligeia, is both more and less extreme. The cat here  begins the film already possessed by the spirit of Vincent Price's dead wife, a domineering Rebecca-like beauty who holds onto Price's gloomy Goth weirdo's imagination through deep hypnotic suggestion she planted in him before she died, and only her voice can release him. The cat in this film a kind of Mrs. Danvers in pussy form, always leaping out of nowhere at inopportune moments to attack Rowena, Price's smart, Mrs. Peel-style new lover. The essential familiar aspect of keeping its owner aligned with the forces of nature and away from the currents of delusional madness is reversed here, for it's not his anima, it's her familiar, like the Wells-cat possession from the 1934 film reversed. Like a dark version of Piewacket at the end of Bell, Book and Candle, the cat's final mission of service to her late witch owner is to lead her man away from the safe parameters of language, reason, and letters and home to the rarefied air of the silent dead.

Lastly I'd be remiss without a loving shout-out to my special animal familiar, the divine Miss sphynx, Olive. At left peeketh she forth, ready to absorb the unending stress I provide, and leave only a feeling of hypnotized calm. She's Xanax on four legs, more like a mellow dog than a peevish cat and enough like a grey alien in face that she's perhaps meant to prepare me for some future close encounter...and since she's hairless my usually crippling cat allergies are only partially present. Hurray for Olive!

Tuesday, May 22, 2012


A lot of us film lovers have mountains of DVDs at home which we never watch more than once, but there are some that we watch over and over, that we love to the point that soon we're bending the rules of our reality to incorporate their unique worldview. Our kinship with the characters becomes supernatural. One of these for me is THE LADY EVE (1941).

Then there are films we see often and sometimes love and are sometimes nonplussed by. We may screen one of these for friends and they get a headache and sigh in exasperation, and we too sigh, and turn it off, wondering what we ever saw in it, only to watch the rest of it by ourselves a few days later and fall back in mad love. Such a film for me is BRINGING UP BABY  (1938).

Then there are films we don't even have on DVD, but for some reason we keep seeing them, usually on TCM. Eventually we seem them so damned often they too bend reality and meld into our lives. We usually love many things about them, but a few jarring elements keep us from really swooning. Such a film for me is BELL, BOOK AND CANDLE (1958).

I've introduced all three this way because all three are mythic 'comedies of remarriage' (ala the book by Stanley Cavell), and that means they're confirmed reality warpers in that they are truly 'modern mythic,' reflecting our lives and relationships in and of the moment we're watching them like a funhouse mirror, like Tarot cards, like the I Ching. They are 'screwball comedies' with the screwball being no longer a baseball pitching term but a literal orgiastic ballroom term implying Crowley-esque sex magick abandon amongst a superior intellectual class, a ball we're never invited to, except via the movies. All three film involve magic of one sort or another, be it conjuring (BOOK), sleight of hand card tricks (EVE), or animistic shape-shifting (BABY).

But what's truly diabolical about all three of them is the way multiple viewings bring out a kind of subtextual unspoken paranoia that even the director or writer might not have known about, wherein 'accidental' meet ups and 'cute' romantic sabotage takes on a whole new conspiratorial light only after several years of viewings and musings. Maybe these aspects were in the original Colliers stories or off-Broadway plays or whatever, but-- in turnaround with censors or producers or stars or during shooting or editing--were shadowed out in favor of other emphases. These magical subtexts are still there, though---underneath--like incantations we only realize were insidious later, much later, after the ceremonial repetition of multiple viewings opens up vistas, the way yogic asanas or chants widen the consciousness.

What's revealed in all three, after many viewings, is that the insidious plotting of the romantic heroines is so total that even the writers may not have grasped each under-nuance. All three ladies--witch Novak, card sharp Stanwyck, and animist Hepburn--are very very slick, to the point we never catch on as to the real motivations below their seemingly random spur-of-the-moment surface actions until maybe decades later, if ever. Certainly their conscious machinations are never revealed in full to the audience (or hapless romantic hero) at all during the course of the film, maybe not even to filmmakers themselves. The romantic opposites to these women--dopey rich kid Fonda, near-sighted paleontologist Grant, and square older publisher Stewart--are oblivious to how deep down the rabbit hole these ladies go. Even the filmmaker, writer, censor, or actress herself might not notice their character's deeper agenda.

And so it finally dawned on me that, in BRINGING UP BABY, Kate Hepburn's Susan Vance is sabotaging David's (Cary Grant) meeting with Mr. Peabody at the golf course deliberately so Aunt Elizabeth will give her the million instead awarding it to David's museum. Susan never admits it to him, or maybe even to herself; she lets it slip a few times that she will get the million of David doesn't, it doesn't seem to mean too much to her. David doesn't glean the connection either, he is just not equipped for such advanced intrigue; he doesn't recognize her as his museum's rival for the million, or that he even has one. Instead he lets himself be distracted from the game, following her like the first butterfly that flutters past his net.

The surprise is in the end is that she gets the million but promises to fork it over for the museum at the end anyway, though not before one last act of sabotage--the one that's finally not deliberate--which at last destroys the old shell and breathes life into the new. From dinosaur skeleton to tame leopard to yapping schnauzer to wild leopard and then down into a skinny New England bachelorette, Susan is the last piece in the puzzle of the past that morphs all the incarnations and stages into a Venus de Brontosaurus, with leopard and terrier heads in addition to her snaky dinosaur mouth (above).

In BELL, BOOK... the suspicious coincidence is that Stewart just happens to have moved in above voodoo art store owned by witch Kim Novak, who just happens to have been the college rival of his hot, snotty fiancee (Janice Rule). Any astute scholar of feminine machination would already be smelling the incense from the spell that made him notice the 'apt. available' sign as he passed on the street, perhaps deciding to move in even though his own previous living space was rent stabilized and bigger. If that is what happened, the film never illuminates it, or picks up on it; here's no indication it's anything but total chance in that lazy writing sort of way. Maybe it's just her cat Piewacket's own little fate machination greater working. But like with Susan Vance in BABY, if you see it enough times you realize the truth (it probably just got edited out somewhere before the final draft): Stewart was surely lured to the apartment upstairs deliberately before the movie started, just so Gil (Novak) could steal him from his fiancee Janice Rule, who wrote poison pen letters in school, stole boyfriends and eventually got Gil kicked out for going to class barefoot! 

Consider for comparison, the witchy situation in ROSEMARY'S BABY, wherein--at the very end-- we find out that Rosemary and her lout husband were lured to the Dakota by a magical draw, that she was "chosen" by a spell, a spell that led to their noticing the availability of the apartment, its affordability, etc. Witches are like film producers, planning everything down to the smallest detail and then sitting back and watching fate click it all into place. For Gil, by the same token, everything just seems to come into place by "chance."  She seems faintly surprised at the coincidence, but is she really surprised, or just such a slick operator that the film itself never catches on to her machinations?  Similarly, in BABY, Susan just happens to be at the golf course when David is playing with Mr. Peabody ("Boopie") the lawyer for her aunt;. and then just happens to steal David's ball.... and then car.

In the LADY EVE the paranoia is more overt since we know from the beginning Jean (Barbara Stanwyck) is a sharpie out to fleece Henry Fonda's rich snake handler. Cards and gambling are her and her father's form of elemental magic and, as with the witches in BELL, the truth of their superiority to sucker sapiens must be kept secret. She and her father Harry (Charles Coburn) can only show off the full extent of their skill when alone together in the cabin, or in the presence of other con artists. When Hopsy tries to impress Harry with a clumsy card trick, for example, Harry feigns amazement, only to momentarily forget himself later and exhibit a piece of card shuffle virtuosity worthy of W.C. Fields, remembering where he is, and who he is playing, only in mid shuffle, quickly concealing it, just as the witches in BELL conceal their existence from the populace, for similar reasons (being burned, hung, or run out of town, i.e. exposed through incriminating photographs). Their power requires secrecy to be effective. 

The relative ethereal 'magical' nature of Eve/Jean/Eugenia and Charles Coburn/Col. Harrington/God/Handsome Harry in LADY EVE is established early on by their Olympian view down upon clumsy Adam/Hopsy/Henry Fonda as he climbs Jacob's ladder up onto the ship. Their relative celestial height is ascertained in a slow pan up from steerage, with its packed Preston Sturges grotesques, up to their clean white cloudy first class vantage. "I hope he's a wizard at cards!" Jean says, before dropping her apple on his head, from what seems like 100 feet, with flawless aim. As with Cary Grant in BABY and Stewart in BELL, Fonda is outwitted from the start, an exposed garden snake gazing nearsightedly up at a circling hawk. His only protection is through Mugsy's earthen suspicion and, eventually,  Stanwyck's own susceptibility to infatuation occasionally turning her honest and even un-capitalist.

The thing about true love in all three of these films is that, when it comes to these three sharpie sirens, it's not fun anymore. It's a drag. The film takes a downturn once it sneaks in. It snuffs out magic's elemental flame like a sharp draft. It's almost as if love is a curse inflicted by the censors, a de facto obligation to the production code and the human reproductive system. Abashed and ashamed, Jean even refuses a huge alimony settlement, and earlier tries to reform her father ("you'll go straight too, won't you, Harry?"), even berating him for winning a mere $30,000 from her new 'love.' In short, Jean becomes a sap. She plummets from her Olympian height.

And let's not even mention the drecky way Kim Novak's Gil rains on the other witches' parade when they want to put out a book, or how she eventually starts wearing ugly, unflattering virginal white, becoming the bland hausfrau the censors presume America needs to see, forcing her to lose her magical gifts in the process of entering, chained, into the patriarchal gulag. 

The dreaded moment when the lovers fall in love, in all three of these examples, happens off camera, tangled up with sex to the point only a slow dissolve can untangle them. Naturally we're resentful when the magical beatnik girl Gil falls in love with old codger Stewart, for we hate to see our trickster goddesses fall for the oldest con in the book, the genetic bait and switch of love, marriage and probably children with a square ("he's got integrity," as Sydney Falco would say, "acute.") In BABY we find out the the next day that Grant finally is suddenly ready to confess his love ("I've never had a better time!") though we're never sure when exactly he decided he loved her - unless it was in that very moment when, for the first time, she seems legitimately contrite and grown-up (offering him the million dollars for the museum - to which he seems barely thrilled). For Stanwyck in EVE, it's during an unseen stretch of time on the boat while Gerald and Harry suit up for action ("and I don't mean old maid!") and she's walking around with Hopsy on deck. In BELL BOOK AND CANDLE, the falling in love is bathed in magical poetic dialogue, spoken off camera over wintry Central Park B-roll, much of it from atop a high-up building overlooking the park, the kind of dreamy poetic shorthand new wave directors use to hide their post-sync sound. It never quite gels because Jimmy Stewart is just too old and too naive and contemptuous of anything remotely out of the ordinary to resonate as a hip Greenwich village denizen, or even a true New Yorker. We Manhattanites have usually seen everything; Stewart's publisher has, in a very tangible sense, seen nothing.

 They cast Stewart because his name was big box office, and they wanted maybe some of that old VERTIGO supernatural magic, but instead of the slightly dangerous Anthony Mann western psycho Stewart we get in BELL is the pipe-smoking old man humble decency flagpole. Sure he's still great at what he does, adept at comedy and sincerity in equal measure, but he's simply miscast, and even he knew it. He decided it would be his last romantic role.

I know from my own experience that sometimes while writing as a film and music critic you can write your way into new appreciation for something, literally fall for your own story. Are these three women doing that? Perhaps it's because the men are so pure. The "you  know me, Mack, nothing but reptiles!" focus outside of girls girls girls that turns so many man into boring animals. These three sucker sapiens embody what's lacking in these girls --the ingredient that they need in their lives to keep them from becoming permanently jaded or perennially infantile (providing the "marriage" portion to go with their "re-") but what's lacking is not cinematic. Fonda can sometimes leave me kind of irritated by his moral haughtiness, but he's so perfect in EVE because he plays it so straight. He shows he's savvy to the ridiculousness of his own sincerity. It takes a great level of humility to play such a perfect patsy - to seem not even in on your own joke. But does Eve fall in love with the idea of being married to someone rich and easy to fluster, having a permanent straight man in the house? What else is there about him?

Fonda gets harassed by the third wheel horse - LADY EVE
That's why artifice and illusion are cinema's--as well as woman's--stock and trade. Without all the smoke and mirrors no one would ever hook up of their own free will. The man wants to fuck and run and it's the woman's task to ensnare him like Venus flytrap luring the unwary fly. She mustn't betray her true feelings at first, mustn't tremble the leaves and tip off the prey; she must stay aloof in the same way the image mustn't include a boom mike shadow, otherwise the illusion won't be complete enough to draw the sucker into the dark theater/web.

In each of these three films the woman's grand illusion-making is continually threatened by a draggy patriarchal element that threatens from without: in EVE, it's the bulldog guardian William Demarest, (below) who 'knows a cold deck when he get his mitts on one.' We want him to suffer for cockblocking -- even if he's right. Even though we know just how manipulative Eve's plans are, we want to watch as she makes them come true, and when love conquers all and she's suddenly not very proud of herself, refusing even a cent of alimony, we applaud only in case a Demarest censor is taking down the names of those who don't. We understand he's right, blah blah, and that there wouldn't be a movie without the sharpie growing sentimental as much as the cluck gets wise. But if they get back together in their right ways - he as the sap and she as Jean the sharp, her recaptured innocence is no longer as offensive and 'other people's parade rainy' as it was and his 'clued-in' attitude less judgmental ("we should play cards! Lots of cards!")


In BRINGING UP BABY the draggy patriarchal elements are barely present (Hawks was clearly so anti-sucker sapiens he seldom included them even as foils beyond a single scene or two [Grant's fiancee isn't seen again after the first scene until the jail climax]). Mr. Peabody, Aunt Elizabeth, the shrink, and of course the sheriff, all are just eccentric New Englanders--it's Grant's own nervousness that attaches meaning to them, to the point Grant even has to remind the sheriff to lock the door to his own cell. He clings to the familiarity of his routine like a life vest even though he's nowhere near water. So Hepburn pours water down his pants, making him a veritable one-man band of cause-and-effect.

In BELL BOOK AND CANDLE it's Gil herself who is the draggy patriarchal element. Her own fear of 'repercussions' to her magic cause her to bully her aunt into swearing off spells, even as, ever the sexist, she allows cousin Nicky to continue, although then seeing his book go unpublished (only after letting him waste time writing it). Though she tortured Jimmy Stewart's fiancee all through college she doesn't openly admit it to him, so projects her guilt.

It's recently begun to dawn on me after many years of repeat viewings that Janice Rule's Ms. Kittridge is actually a sane, rational adult, a professional working artist and--if openly contemptuous of the Zodiac club--so what? She wasn't heckling the band or anything. To use the vernacular of THE CRAFT, Gil isn't really Robin Tunney -  she's Faruza Balk! So why put her in the Tunny position? Why give her Tunny delusions? Why make her such a hypocrite she's blind to her own motivations?

In all three cases, 'love' descends like a magic spell -- 'happily ever' for everyone but us, for it means the sameness of a return-to-DVD menu. Thus by 'falling in love' the woman in each earns a bit of contempt from us - we're excluded from further involvement (as one might be when one stays unmarried and childless while their now-married, reproducing friends disappear into playdates and PTA). Has anyone ever sighed in relief when Gil gives up her primitive masks for sea shell flowers and starts dressing like a virgin? Of course not. She looks dumpy and disheveled in that awful white dress. Is it all just to appease an old fuddy duddy like Stewart, a 'decent American' square, who seems to draw the hottest most beguiling young ladies in Hollywood (Kelly in REAR WINDOW as well as Novak in VERTIGO) only to want to drain them of their mystery, their class and allure, and dress them in Stepford aprons (or khakis)?

 Love is death to a witch, so why suck the magic from the world ("who's to say what magic is?" he says at the end - but WE say, Jimmy - magic was what existed until you pointed out it's not real). One can only imagine what a four-star rapture BELL would have been with Cary Grant instead. Note that in BABY Grant never tries to reign in Susan, he just holds on to the door handle and shuts his eyes.

Hopsy (Fonda) at least learns his lesson: that "the good aren't nearly as good as people think and the bad aren't nearly as bad." And though he says "we seem to go way back" to both Jean and Eve, he means it; indeed, the seeming to go way back through time, and repeat the same scenes with different lovers, is the echo through all three films. It's that glimmer of reincarnation, or recognizing a past soulmate in someone new, that we're all (hopefully) familiar with. The trickster female is able to embody more than one of these at once, to keep her persona liquid in the flames. So to keep Hopsy ever bewildered, Eve has been everyone from his first schoolgirl crush to the island he found Emma on. For Grant, Susan is a crazy fire burning his whole life up around him. She's the brontosaurus come to life, with familiars that include a dog, a leopard, another leopard... and more,

Everyone is everything else eventually: sometimes I hear a person whispering my name under the desk as I write, like a beckoning ghost, or inside the creaking of my chair. To an artist or a writer there's no such thing as just an hallucination; it all means something, if you let it. Sometimes at night I feel a presence over me and I wake like I just leaped out of Hell. Once I stop shaking I shrug it off and go back to sleep...if I let it mean something I could wind up in the looney bin. I could start screaming and never stop. As I remember from my bad trip days, you can't escape your own skin. Best just distract yourself and roll over and go back to bed. Don't take a single thing seriously, unless it doesn't seem serious to do so.

But love is an even worse thing to take seriously. If you let it mean something it destroys you utterly, leaving only a tuxedo or white dressing gown-wearing stranger in your wake... then that stranger fades too... in a hazy spray of handshakes and corsages rising in rainbows from the soggy gutter, but soon enough descending along the crusted barnacle hull of biology's yar craft, the True Love III.

But as long as we ignore these strange churning magicks --dismiss them as just the creaking of a chair or a little flash of sleep apnea--we're immortal, lost in the dream, then the grim black sea recedes, dinosaurlessly back, along its sullen shoreline, counting the minutes on your life's Netflix label like a patient fisherman. 

You still have some time. 

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

CinemArchetype 14: Puella Aeterna and the Cougar

 This is a very important and strange archetype for our generation and under. This is perhaps where we have been since the 80s finally eradicated all traces of profitable maturity.
Puella aeterna is Latin for eternal girl. The puella is a very important archetype in today's youth oriented, image driven world.... Today the very heart and soul of the adolescent girl/young woman is under siege. Media pressure through television, magazines and movies run the same basic message 24 hours a day: get beautiful. As we shall see below, getting beautiful is according to our cultural value of what beauty is, namely the Barbie Doll, Super Model, Movie Star look - (The Archetypal Connection)
Disney did a number: L-R:  Hillary Duff, Britney Spears, Lindsay Lohan

There's nothing more tragic than the fleeting beauty of Hollywood's youth royalty, and I mean 'tragic' in the grand actorly sense, not the real sense. Life's real tragedies--genocide, class warfare, state-sanctioned torture, political chicanery--are a real drag, and Hollywood and Madison Avenue have long ago learned that real drags are not profitable. That is why there is no new Spencer Tracy or James Stewart or some other de-facto paragon of old guard legal 'decency' with which to anchor or heaving collective vessel. The Tracy/Stewart archetype (too boring to get their own listing here) used to patiently waste spools of film telling us about real tragedies like people starving in China so eat your carrots and when he--with paternal self-importance--vouchsafes Sydney Poitier's son-in-law status you have no choice but to lay down your racist arms.

Some girls try for gravitas and importance: As Gia she tried to hold that authority, but Lisa (from Girl, Interrupted) won the Oscar but Lisa was legit crazy, and so she became Angelina Jolie again, and--at least in her conveyed cinematic persona--remains a stone drag forever (we steer clear of films like Beyond Borders as if they had leprosy). Would we accept a new Spencer, even if he came back as hot babe named Angelina? Not yet, but no one asked for a new male Spencer, either. Society breaks the old mold and creates the new; some actors just melt down faster than others. Whomever fills that new mold, juuust right, gets to keep that new persona, forever, until we break it yet again. But the only new mold being struck right now, the only one hot and new enough that girls will melt to fill it, is the post-Disney blonde pouty princess with a slight drug problem mold. The girls who fit that glass slipper are the new princesses. And like Saddam or Qaddafi they cling to that royal title, however destructive its effect on themselves and those around. But without 'stoutness of character' or 'good values' they are like wax molds unable to keep their slender foot sizes for long under the blazing kliegs; late night parties; constant poking, primping, touching and retouching of their face and hair by their make-up and hair people; and the relentless paparazzi flashing. Gradually, it wears them down; the fixative spray hardens their faces, paralyzing their upper lip with biotoxins and puffing up the lower with lumpy collagen; killing all wrinkles and stretching back every new sag until they become as plasticine duck gargoyles looking grimly down from their billboard battlements for any sign of a threat their mirror-mirror might be too covered up with White Snow to spot.

And we on the street only worship them until it's time they be sacrificed, either by the slow scythe swipe of drugs and age, or else--even more dastardly--our sudden collective indifference.

I've seen the Botulinum toxin and the damage done: Left to Right: Meg Ryan, Brittany Murphy, Cameron Diaz, Courtney Cox

We better think twice about encouraging this to continue: somewhere along the way even our own wives starting serving Heineken at dinner parties (1), so to speak, and the young actors we our are kids mistook for role models wind up deformed dwarfs suffering the long-term effects of the age-retarding drugs their stage moms gaveth and the celebrity rehab tooketh away. But without other stars to guide us, it's likely we'll follow the fading ones, like saber-toothed lemmings slouching dolefully into the Wilshire tar pits. We watch on E! news as--like the condemned prisoner who hangs herself to escape the chair--our lovely puellas disfigure their precious faces a priori of age, spot-welding Vogue cover grimaces to their skulls, a high-fashion deck of Jokers, they think only of jamming the wheel of time with any sharp implement they can find.

I'm not saying anything new, just saying it prettier. Beauty surgeries are old hat in Hollywood. The issue is, of course, that a lot of the surgeries done in the past just made the women more regal, cutting out molars to accentuate cheekbones, maybe nose jobs, amphetamines for weight loss and maximum twitch factor. The ideal wasn't to aim for looking like a pouty adolescent, or a Baby Jane Hudson deranged dolly, but a sophisticated woman of class and haunting anima allure not the 18 year-old Lolita look craved today, the shaving of the pubic hair, the widening and expanding of the lips, none of that makes a lady more regal only tragic, bizarre... 

Luckily, most of us will never know the giddy high of mass adoration, so we're spared the certainty that such adoration is fleeting, an addictive drug of which we can keep no stash or ever own for ourselves, only mooch off other people. If we were to know that kind of mass adoration, never pay for anything or wait in line or suffer a single consequence, meet nothing but adoring faces, we too would know that terrible withdrawal when it stops as suddenly as it started (2). We too would have to undergo withdrawal, those ever-escalating 'mirror mirror on the wall' moments that slowly turns us into, not Snow White, or even the old crone witch, but some duck-lipped monstrosity, a caricature, desperate for yesterday's approval. 

On the other hand, there is a less traumatic and all-around ballsier trend borne of this puella aeterna stampede... the rise of the cougar!  For ladies looking to feel young rather than disfigure themselves trying to look young, it's irresistible. Ideally your choice of young paramour won't be an actual child like it was for cougardom's premier lady in red:

There's a great bit in the NBC TV show 30 Rock I think explains the appeal and its inevitable downside: Tina Fey is dating a young lad (above) who delivers her coffee in the morning. Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin), her boss, tells her it's "the ultimate status symbol." She only bails when she notices he still lives with his mom - who looks just like her! Jack then reminds her that these affairs "always end in humiliation." How can dating a younger person be both the ultimate status symbol and yet always end in humiliiation?

 Though not explored in depth this is a fascinating paradox to examine. Taken to conclusion he is saying that humiliation is the ultimate status symbol. Maybe that's the crux of the whole youth obsession. Like fame withdrawal, it is this end-game humiliation that promotes real growth, which is the ultimate in real status, shaming the ego into backing away after indulging it allows a stray moment of grace. Status symbols, by definition, reinforce ego-driven self-perception, a negative as far as any kind of wisdom-based psychic or spiritual growth. Ergo, status symbols arrest human evolution unless they are the 'ultimate' (in Latin meaning 'the end or last') status symbol, which then eradicates the self-deception lesser status symbols encourage, a final binge of egoic vanity before the ultimate renouncement of youth and humble acceptance of middle age. Like the final piece in a puzzle, it arrives with both glory and tragedy, for unless you want to shellac the puzzle and hang it on the wall it's time to break the whole thing up and put it back in the box to either give to a niece or Goodwill. And then...

And then nothing... you have to find something else to do. There's no going back; the old symbols are meaningless now. 

Then again -- not everyone is so lucky. Maybe you were just too famous too fast at too young. Now you're froze, stuck.... a cautionary tale to keep the rest of the herd from falling in to the same tar.

In the cases below, which I have set up in order, from still fairly young to old-old, it's generally hotness and adoration received while a young person that leads to chronic narcissism and then the La Brea tar pit (above) of the puella aeterna, from which arises, finally, at last, a tar-covered saber-tooth cougar from the black gold phoenix oil slick flames! It's no accident that those tar pits are right on Wilshire Boulevard... right across the street from the plastic surgeon.

1. Charlize Theron as Mavis-  Young Adult (2011)

This film is so perceptive about aging but still-hot narcissists that I felt like it was written about at least three of my drinking and AA buddies over the years, one in particular (you know who you are - so vain you probably agree with me). A writer locked into a ghost job for a once hot-selling young adult book series, her arrested development helps her keep a pulse on the young, as does her bad eating and drinking habits (she eats at fast food joints, jotting down the drivel she overhears from the endless parade of teenagers coming through). Disgruntled and trapped within herself, she heads to her hometown to rekindle an old flame, but the flame has grown up, and is married to a granola chick, and they've got a kid, and he's a loyal father blah blah. A whiskeyhead accomplice forms from the mist of the bar she once again haunts. It's Patton Oswalt! She's safe with him because of their hotness divide and his crippled member but...
"Like the princess in the Grimm fairy tale The Frog King, today's young woman must be willing to accept and embrace the frog, symbol for her human imperfections. Putting this into psychological language, she must come to recognize and accept her own shadow."

So yeah, draw your own grueling conclusions.

 2. Nicole Kidman in Birth (2004)

When Kidman plans to escape with Sean (the young boy who claims to be her reincarnated dead husband) and just drive, escape, get out, it reads wrong even to the swooning, half-asleep audience; a mid-life crisis of such outrĂ© proportions looks obscene even while we half want it to happen, just for the lurid charge, just to piss off her controlling fiance (Danny Huston). Even the kid can't quite grasp the possibility of such a thing coming true with any sort of realism or grace. And Canada is not an option. The touch of a lover your own age, whose very presence makes you suffocate, the comfort of belonging to a faceless, fascist mass, maybe a pill to help it all fit together...that's the best you can hope for… everything else is just a frozen north fantasia, wheels spinning in the slush… even death brings only another wet, screaming birth..." (more - 2004 - Acidemic). 
3. Betty Draper in Mad Men
"The paradox is that the puella is driven by desires to be seen, to excel, and to be loved but not to be known intimately.  Her fantasy is that one day she will become this ideal self that she cannot achieve now because she flees from reality.  There is always a "but" preventing development or commitment because each situation is for the short term, and relationships are with others of similar bent.  She becomes bored easily and feels trapped, unaware of her own lack of self-knowledge.  Thus, her potential withers before it can ripen, because she has preferred the fantasy of perpetual youth to the reality of painful development.

The sense of fraudulence as an adult creates tension and dissatisfaction.  She exudes brittle, crystalline quality and an aura of aloofness behind which she exists in her own untouchable domain.  She is vulnerable, a terrified child for whom physical existence is a trial because bodily sensations are denied or ignored in order to avoid feeling and to protect from anything that is not part of her carefully constructed world.  (-Susan E. Schwartz-Little Girl Lost: Sylvia Plath and the Puella Aeterna)
This description fits half the girls I've known in the rooms of AA and out, and so many of our best artists (like Plath). Betty Draper has a lot in common with the previous puella on this list, Nicole in Birth, as Betty too winds up in a strange Mary Kate La Tourneau-style relationship with a young boy who comes onto her in the first season of Mad Men. Jones' 'vulnerable, terrified child' is drawn to the boy  the way a sexy babysitter at a vulnerable age might encourage the worship of her young charges (as mine did in the swingin' 70s) -- even engaging in games of crypto-post office, lap-sitting, horsey riding and leashes and other things that carbonize prepubescent boy hormones.

Betty's problems are much different than forthcoming examples of this archetype--those who revel in a childhood toy box perpetual twilight--instead she's like the older sister who one day decides to never smile or laugh again because she's decided she's grown up now and grown-ups don't do that, they just forbid their children to have any fun and then sit around acting important. Not doing the actual maturing, Betty performs an anti-burlesque of adulthood. And like Kidman's character in Birth she lives in an upper middle class society that infantilizes young women, especially those who are blonde, pretty, and have mastered the art of looking vacant.

4. Natalie Portman as Nina - The Black Swan (2010)

It's a well-known cliche that every girl growing up wants a pony and to be a ballerina, and the frustration of these goals helps them mature... BUT what if they do actually get a pony and/or become a professional ballerina? Is their maturity stunted? Certainly, at least in films, becoming a grown-up ballerina entails a state of exhaustion (long hours of grueling practice), starvation (to keep the body light and youthful), and any trick one can find to arrest the messy onset of womanhood: smoking, anorexia, bulimia, exotic growth-stunting drugs that evil stage moms procure in shady Mexican pharmacies--it's all in play. When Nina's stage mom (Barbara Hershey) brings home a hideously over-detailed cake--like some dusty cupid-drenched rococo antique--to celebrate Nina's getting the lead in the title ballet, the whole scene is laid out - Barbara Hershey is trying to turn her daughter into a little spinning ballerina on the top of this cake, and devour her!

In being forced to tap into her dark side to 'become the Black Swan' Nina's repression and her freedom from bad influences (thanks to maternal suffocation) are finally--for the sake of her role, for her big time ascension--overcome. Drugs, sex, sticky backseat fumbling, and lesbian experimentation come roaring up from the depths. In the end, it's a choice: adulthood or artistry. Heroically, Nina makes her choice for the latter. Adulthood can mean compromise and 'giving up' perfection; artistry means giving up all the other things --life, children, adulthood-- and rushing towards death's curtain call, devouring your own cake before mom can get her hooks into it, healing all your wounds with a single self-inflicted stab. The only other artists this beautifully brave are Jake Gideon in All that Jazz and M. Rourke in Aronofsky's previous film, The Wrestler.

5. a TIE: Zooey Deschanel
I'm all for weird girls, but Zooey's just a bit too twee and quirky to not be chronically puella, at least in persona. God bless her for it.

5.b Sarah Silverman
While she explores the same arrested development 'boop boop de boop I'm a girl' terrain as Deschanel, Sarah Silverman gets a free pass because she's beyond a mere 'appealing to shy indie boys' aesthetic and instead she delves into the realm of gleeful id, and her songs are better than Zoey's. Look at her above with her castrating Antichrist scissors, a wistful look on her face as she wonders what she'll cut off next. You can believe she would cut something important off, all while sighing and going 'awwww' as you scream in pain. If Zooey was in a picture holding scissors the only thing you'd imagine her cutting would be some fabric to make an Appalachian pot holder... no offense meant, Zooey! Pot holders are nice, but quirks without a homicidal edge may just as well be Romper Room.

6. Audrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly + Patricia Neal as 2-E  in Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961)
+ Nina Foch as Milo - An American in Paris (1951)

Everyone loves Audrey Hepburn Holly Golightly. In the late 90s, Tribeca Film Center used to screen Breakfast every Sunday afternoon and the small theater would be packed with hung-over crowds of post or pre-brunch hipsters and ragers, all swooning to the sophistication, booze fumes hanging in the air. All of us still buzzed, still dreading having to go home and face the crushing Sunday loneliness; then we'd all go off to the brunch in the other room for our one free mimosa, six more paid for, and weary punch-drunk 15th round boxer-style flirting. Though I too clung and dreaded, I never quite liked the film, for reasons which by now should be clear: if you compare it with An American in Paris, which also has two broke young artists with rich older sponsors and a brash stuck-up young gigolo who decides to harpoon both their lives so he can live destitute with the gamin, and she doesn't get a say in the matter (and that's supposed to be romantic!), then the seedy, perennial puella aeterna epiphany comes crashing through. Breakfast at least seems to realize it, while American seems largely unconscious of what a complete shit Kelly is.

As someone who enjoyed a wealthy Parisian sponsor for many years, I abhor Kelly's self-sabotaging of his good thing with the rich patroness (Nina Foch) who could make him happy and famous and the toast of Paris.

Instead he's bored at the cafe she takes him to since he can't keep up with adult conversation (he's more of a banal landscape artist, the kind whose work sells for cheap at small town art galleries) where he spies a similarly bored 'protege' at another table (Leslie Caron) and decides it's love at first sight, regardless of her pleas for him to stop stalking her.  The big final ballet is gorgeous and Kelly's a helluva dancer but his self-righteous American snobbery is disconcerting (especially as he ends up getting everything he want). A similar thing happens in BREAKFAST, wherein kept man George Peppard and glorified escort Holly G. have some good times but then he decides they should live together in poverty regardless of her own more practical choice in the matter. As his patroness, Patricia Neal surely deserves more respect! Of course, I say that now, but my own French paramour patroness is four years gone (for all the same damned Peppard-ish reasons) .

7. Joan Collins 

With a husband 32 years her junior and a loathing for all things associated with older age (such as 'doting' on grandchildren), Joan Collins is the premiere modern 'cougar'  Just look at that sexy, decadent photo above, which you can instantly associate with a lot of the gender-bent 70s badass "Jackie is just speedin' away" Warhol era Manhattan / London /Berlin druggy cabaret of Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, Warhol, Jackie Superstar and the New York Dolls. As a kid in the 1970s all this stuff scanned as  really dangerous and intimidating and Joan was a huge icon of the scene, I remember, way more recognizable to a child in the suburbs than, say, Lou Reed or Bowie! She was part of a whole 'older woman enjoying uninhibited casual sex' trip inspired by the book Fear of Flying, written by Joan's buddy, Erica Jong. It seemed like all the big cities were just reeking with the smell of sex, cigarettes, whiskey, smog, urine, freebase, hash, perfume, sweat, blood, and burnt gun powder --all rolled into one the fleabag room where Joan Collins comes in to change for her next number while you cower in the corner like a five year-old Emil Jannings.

8. Vivien Leigh in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) and The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone (1961)

As Tennessee Williams fans well know, being obsessed with youth and beauty is more than just empty vanity and fear of age and death, it's a very real and genuinely (at times) subversive refusal to follow the dopey trail to the reproductive slaughterhouse set up up by mainstream 'straight' conservative America. Like Douglas Sirk, Williams applauds widows with the moxie to shucker loose from the perfumed prison of their age bracket. If you love a young stud then you should go for it, even if it means you buy him gold trinkets and sports cars and end up heartbroken or shot or stabbed.

In these two films, Leigh is clearly playing a sort of stand-in for Williams himself, the older alcoholic southern gay gentleman, scarred by redneck homophobia and a yen for les boys. Leigh adds a weary desperation in her twinkly eyes and seems a bit bewildered by the weird ride her beauty and talent took her on in earlier decades. Her characters are still getting used to the fact that the ride has stopped and there's no date waiting at the Exit with an ice cream and roses. Karl Malden basically tells her in Streetcar that her cougar-behavior (seducing the newspaper boy) and age and past wouldn't have mattered if she didn't come on so phony and regal, staying in the shadows like a drag queen trying to pass as long as possible before the big reveal.

Like Charlize with her Patton Oswalt frog, in Stone Leigh ends up throwing her door key down to a disheveled pretty boy / probable murderer who's been silently following her for the bulk of the film. It's a tragic, desperate gesture of supreme loneliness and--in its strange way--heroic, like those crazy collagen / Botox injections. What is heroism, after all,  but the ability to let an abstract idea like God, country, brotherhood, or beauty trump our fear of death and ruin? Who knows how many times you and I have played out similar scenes and just not remembered them? We never do seem to remember dying, so how can we possibly recall anything about ourselves, unless we're immortal? And how can we find out for sure unless we invite the blade in? Williams knows that you can't judge any experience as good or bad and still be a true genius writer. You have to find God and compassion even in the horror of baby turtles being picked off by millions of hungry birds as they rush to the sea, or the slow, inexorable advance of that final curtain switchblade beach boy.

8.b. Geraldine Page - Sweet Bird of Youth (1961)
 As a movie star cougar of dwindling years she's slightly more together than, say, the delusional 'chicken hawk' (Lotte Lenya's words), played by Vivien Leigh, in Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone; even though she's on the run from the bad reviews of her latest film, we like her moxy, her wounded druggie vanity, which even allows her to treat Newman, God's own true Adonis hustler, with the same entitled disregard with which she uses her oxygen tank, Mexican dirt weed, cigarettes, vodka and sleep mask. 

I love this film because it's one of the few that really capture the feeling of arriving at a hotel after driving all night, then settling in a room, procuring a bottle and some ice, and relaxing finally and deeply, like it's only possible to do in motels after a long drive that crests the dawn, with whiskey ginger ale and ice. Few films or moments compare --maybe Frank Sinatra in the first reel or two of Some Came Running, or Maxine in Night of the Iguana-- and poor stud Newman starts out the film little more than a maraca-shaking beach boy or bus ride floozy.

9. Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond - Sunset Boulevard (1950)

Of course not all our aging Hollywood cougars end up wizened to their puella aeterna ways, or get to be already dead and worshipped as some flash frozen eternal youth. Some come running home and stay hidden in the mansions, phantoms of their own private opera houses, the production in their haunted minds a most functional distraction as the world burbles outside.

Swanson, herself a former puella aeterna from the silent era, plays what was undoubtedly her own fucked up shadow self in Sunset Boulevard. Her Norma Desmond is a Venus flytrap slowly digesting the clueless meat-headed screenwriter Joe Gillis (William Holden) while he's wrapped tight in the teeth of a spoken contract to edit her screenplay of Salome (apt since decapitation's got such castrative resonance), and eventually guilt trips him into spending New Years as her lover when he'd rather be with kids his own age.

Wilder's film is one of the key Hollywood-on-Hollywood classics of the 1950s and is still the funhouse mirror boiler plate of the elliptical Hollywood experience, and its fame is a blessing to the trade: who knows how many aging stars have been steered away from the delusional recluse path because they don't want to become a 'Norma Desmond'? And here's another thing - time's been kind to Norma and her big haunted palace is great. If she'd have fixed the pool sooner maybe she could have done without the Gillis. He only drags her down.

0 Ruth Gordon - Harold and Maude (1971)
I wanted to stick Maude in here because although she's all life affirming and quirky one must ask if--and when--quirkiness becomes a burden to others. One can trace a direct line from this film to Zooey Deschanel's pixie-ism, and for that alone I'm no fan. Maude's attendance of other people's funerals, her motorcycle riding, it all struck me even 20 years ago (which is when I last saw it) as terminally whimsical and whimsy has become toxic in our puer/puella culture. It's not Hal Ashby's fault that we took his whimsy but left the crushing black humor behind when we looted his corpse and now it's we who blew it. We let both these characters down.

11. Bette Davis - Whatever Happened to Baby Jane (1967)
If there's a single person who embodies the puer aeternus in contemporary pop culture, it's Michael Jackson, so it's fitting that his favorite book was The Little Prince (which Maria Von Franz analyzed extensively in her definitive book Puer Aeternus), and favorite movie was Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? We're all, if we live long enough, bound to experience that Baby Jane's big tragicomic moment of being lost in her childhood past, traipsing around our mansion and then suddenly looking in the hallway mirror and being confronted by a hideous, aged demon looking back. Michael tried to carve it away with plastic surgery but it was always there, waiting. If we're "lucky" and live long enough, we come to know it well, which is why Davis' scene is so hilarious, terrifying and tragic. Somewhere, along the hours leading up to our own Baby Jane moment, we had forgotten we too were old, and in a rush it comes back to hit us, square in the hideous demon face.

Baby Jane's not really a cougar; she's from a different generation. The girls idolized in her time weren't hot bronzed 18 year-old navel-ring-wearing girls in bleached blonde dreads, but pale eight year-old moppets in frilly white skirts and golden ringlets. But this is a fitting wrap-up icon with which to end this list-- the final note of warning about the danger of not overcoming your inner puer before growing too old to change, the Benjamina Button-terna!

It's one thing to have an inner child who's free to come and go in your thoughts and who keeps your sense of humor light and airy, another to use that inner child as an axe handle with which to jam the gears of time, to stave off maturity and death and cling instead to the tattered, windless sail of past glories. If we don't learn the lesson from Norma Desmond, the Baby Jane lesson is our last stop before the bughouse.... as Sunset Gun's Kim Morgan points out (read her stunning Davis birthday tribute here), the key difference between the much more vain Joan Crawford and Bette Davis was that Davis was a cool old bat, smoking and joking and keeping a devil-may-care attitude on set, throwing herself into the madness while never losing a sense of wry fun, and making Baby Jane one of the most terrifying, tragic female characters in all horror. Joan, as the victimized sister, still struggled to maintain her puella poise and delusional dignity. She's great too, but she just looks pained, there's none of the maniacal desperation she brought to Homicidal, for example. It was Davis Aldrich wanted to work with again (in the follow-up Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte) not Joan, after all, and considering the diva claws rumored to be on set, what does that tell you?

The Winner!
Having already battled with and triumphed over the puella aeterna dimension in All About Eve (1950) and The Star (1952), Davis was old hat at aging with grace while pretending to take it rather badly, which is the trick of acting the Baby Jane rather then being the Baby Jane. If she were still enthralled by her inner little prince then the joke would still be on her and she'd never 'get' the paradox-punchline of the cosmic joke (as Joan seemed to miss), which is that Jack Donaghy adage once more, that the ultimate in youthful status symbols is the abject humiliation of old age. Once you accept you'll never be young again, and that you will never get that 'old magic' back, then, amazingly, you finally get the new kind. After all, you never valued your youth when you were young. Why start now?

1. Mad Men reference, season 1
2. I know whereof I speak (see: My Long Day's Journey into Night of the Iguana)
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