Psychedelic Film Criticism for the Already Deranged

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 I Ching. They are 'screwball comedies' with the screwball being no longer a baseball pitching term, but an orgiastic ballroom term implying Crowley-esque sex magick abandon --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 them is the way multiple viewings bring out a kind of subtextual unspoken paranoia that even the director or writer might not know about, wherein 'accidental' meet ups and romantic sabotage take on a whole new conspiratorial light only after several years and go-rounds. Maybe these aspects were in the original story, but in turnaround with censors or producers or stars or during shooting or editing were weeded out in favor of other emphases. These tropes are still there, underneath, like incantations read between the lines. Later, much later, after the ceremonial repetitions, like yogic asanas or chants, deeper meanings--like bonus footage stereograms--are at last discerned, and what's revealed is that the insidious plotting of the romantic heroine in each film is very very slick, never revealed in full to the audience (or romantic hero) at all during the course of the film. Guys are dopey and obvious, but girls are so subtle even the filmmaker, writer, or actress herself might not notice. And certainly not the censor.

And so it finally dawned on me that in BRINGING UP BABY, Kate Hepburn is sabotaging David's (Cary Grant) meeting with Mr. Peabody deliberately so Aunt Elizabeth will give her the million instead of Grant and his museum. David just not equipped for such advanced intrigue, but she falls for him anyway and promises to fork it over for the museum at the end, 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, miraculously shrinking the huge dinosaur skeleton from wild to tame leopard and yapping dog and then down into a skinny New England bachelorette. The last piece in the puzzle of the past morphs all the incarnations and stages into a Venus de Brontosaurus, with leopard and terrier heads in addition to her snaky brontosaurus mouth (above).

In BELL, BOOK the suspicious coincidence is that Stewart just happens to live above the voodoo art store owned by an old  college enemy of his 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, but it's never mentioned in the film. Think it over and realize the truth: Gil (Novak) lured Stewart to the apartment upstairs deliberately in order to wreak further revenge on Janice, who wrote poison pen letters in school, stole boyfriends and got Novak kicked out for going around barefoot (or something). Consider the witchy situation in ROSEMARY'S BABY, at the end when we find out that Mia Farrow and her lout husband were lured to the Dakota by a magical draw, that she was "chosen." Witches are like film producers, planning everything down to the smallest detail and then sitting back and hoping fate deals them a winner. For Gil, everything just seems to come into place by chance, she seems faintly surprised, but is she really or just such a slick operator that the film never catches up to her... In BABY, Susan just happens to be at the golf course when David is playing with the lawyer for her aunt (who's going to decide where the million goes), to steal David's car and ball, and then keep going slowly undermining David's credibility.

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, Hopsy. 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, or in the presence of other sharpies. When Hopsy tries to impress Harry with a clumsy card trick 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 only in mid shuffle, quickly concealing it, just as the witches in BELL conceal their existence from the populace, for the most part. 

The relative ethereal 'magical' nature of Eve/Jean/Eugenia and Charles Coburn/Col. Harrington/Handsome Harry in 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 (the scarcity of passengers on their upper deck with them, their all white clothing) is ascertained in a slow pan up from steerage, with its packed Preston Sturges grotesques. "I hope he's a wizard at cards!" Jean says, before dropping her apple on his head, from what seems like 100 feet at least, with flawless aim. As with Cary Grant in BABY and Stewart in BELL, Fonda never has a chance. He's outwitted from the start, a mortal mouse gazing nearsightedly up at a perched hawk.

The thing about true love in all three of these films is that, when it comes, it's not fun. It's a drag, snuffing out magic's elemental flame like a sharp draft, almost as if it's put there by the producers to appease censors, as a de facto obligation to the production code and the human reproductive system. We'd like to see Gil keep doing her sexy bohemian witch routine and to see Jean/Eve become a veritable Maya of illusion. Instead she refuses a huge alimony settlement, and earlier tries to reform her father, even yelling at 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 rains on the other witches' parade and eventually starts wearing ugly, unflattering virginal white in BELL. It makes on shudder.

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 dissolve can untangle them. Naturally we're resentful when the magical beatnik girl falls in love with the nerd, for we hate to see our goddesses fall for the oldest con in the book, the genetic bait and switch sinker of love, marriage and probably children to some schmuck in a bow tie. In BABY we find out the the next day that Grant finally is 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, the way Gil puts a shell flower sculpture in his trash can he carried Piewacket back in. 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!"); in BELL BOOK AND CANDLE the falling in love is bathed in magical  poetic dialogue, spoken off camera over wintry Central Park B-roll, 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.

 They cast Stewart because his name was big box office, and they wanted maybe some of that old VERTIGO supernatural magic --- the spellbinding effect Novak and Scotty conjured up in the bell tower-- but instead the Anthony Mann western psycho Stewart we revert to the pipe-smoking old man flagpole. Sure he's still great in his way, adept at comedy and sincerity in equal measure, but he's simply miscast, and even he knew it.

Sometimes as a 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!" they embody what's lacking in these girls --the ingredient that keeps them from becoming permanently jaded or perennially infantile (providing the "marriage" portion to go with their "re"). Fonda can leave me kind of ambivalent, but he's so perfect in EVE because he plays it sooo straight. He's the perfect patsy; she falls in love with the idea of being married to someone rich and easy to fluster.

That's why in the end 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 unvary 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 them in.

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, who 'knows a cold deck when he sees one' and that 'that's the same dame'. We want him to suffer for narcking even if he's right. He's like the poor people who vote Republican. But here's a secret: the real rich despise such bulldog loyalty in their mug underlings, and it's for that same reason we despise Demarest's cockblocking. Even though we know just how manipulative Eve's plans are, we want them to come true, and when love conquers all, we applaud by rote, as we must, the gangster's bloody death, or our own social castration... and the end credits. Of course though, by that time the love is earned. There wouldn't be a movie without it, and without both sucker and sharpie growing some too, her recaptured innocence no longer as offensively 'other people's parade rainy', and his 'clued-in' attitude less judgmental and sour.

In BRINGING UP BABY the draggy patriarchal elements are more than useless, except that Grant places so much import in them -- Mr. Peabody, Aunt Elizabeth, the shrink, and of course the sheriff, all are just blurs along the roadside --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.

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. Though she tortured Jimmy Stewart's fiancee, Miss Kittridge, all through college she doesn't openly admit it to him, so projects her guilt. It begins to dawn after many years of repeat viewings that 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 overtly common. To use the vernacular of THE CRAFT, Gil isn't really Rachel True.. she's Faruza Balk! Which is better, so why put her in the True position?

In all 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. Has anyone ever sighed in joy when Gil gives up her primitive masks for sea shell flowers and starts dressing like a virgin? Is it all just to appease an old fuddy duddy who inexplicably seems to draw the hottest young things in Hollywood (Kelly in REAR WINDOW as well as Novak in VERTIGO) only to want to drain their allure and mystery and dress them in Stepford aprons? It's like those old crappy Monogram monster movies where instead of a monster there's a smartass explaining how monster movies are stupid so they're not going to bother... that's Jimmy Stewart in BELL; at least from then on he refused to do play another romantic lead and focused on westerns. He was smart -- stay out of it. Love is death to a witch. One can only imagine what a four star rapture it would have been with Cary Grant instead.

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 the lucky among us have felt that feeling he describes, of knowing one's future mate long before this: "we seem to go way back" is the echo through all three films. Eve has been everyone from his first schoolgirl crush to the island he found Emma on. As Stewart finally admits at the end of BELL, who's to say what's real?

For example, 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 (like just now). To an artist or a writer there's no such thing as just auditory hallucinosis; 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. I shrug it off and go back to sleep...if I let it mean something I could wind up in the looney bin.

But love is an even worse hallucination 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... that stranger fades too... in a hazy spray of handshakes and corsages, rising in rainbows but soon enough descending along the crusted barnacle hull of biology's yar craft.

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, and the grim black sea recedes dinosaurlessly back along it's sullen shoreline, counting the minutes printed on the Netflix label, like a patient fisherman.


  1. Kim Novak. I would happily be hoodooed by the Kim Novak in Bell, Book and Candle, or kick heroin for her or take the Rango route and eat pop tarts with her in heaven. I was devastated to read somewhere that she was the inspiration for The Fat Blonde Actress, for the first time I felt that Lou and I just didn't click on something so basic as Kim Novak. She and I have the same birthday, alas, too many years apart. Anot

  2. D'Oh! Another excellent essay. I never got the Jimmy Stewart thing either, but I never got the Darren Stevens thing either. He worked for Larry Tate/Roger Sterling and looked like Dick York and he wouldn't let his amazing wife use her natural abilities to be nice? If that's the definition of the Greatest Generation, I'm happy to be a Slacker.

  3. Damn right. Thanks Johnny. I didn't know that about Kim Novak, that she was in Paths of Pain or Jewels of Glory, and how dare Lou?? Then again, loving Lou is like being an abusive relationship, where he's cruel and petty and insecure over and over but we keep taking him back, cuz we're idiots, and anyway, we hate divorces.

  4. Thank god I found this site.

  5. You, sir, are an inspiration.


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