Cleansing the lens of cinematic perception... for a view so clear it would scare Dr. Xavier to blind himself

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

"We seem to go way back..." THE LADY EVE, BELL BOOK AND CANDLE, BRINGING UP BABY


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 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 between the lines. Later, much later, after the ceremonial repetition viewings opening up vistas like yogic asanas or chants widen the consciousness, deeper meanings--like bonus footage stereograms--are at last discerned. What's revealed is that the insidious plotting of the romantic heroine in each film is very very slick, to the point we never catch on until all this time later. Certainly their conscious machinations are never revealed in full to the audience (or romantic hero) at all during the course of the film, maybe not even to themselves. Their romantic focuses, the guys, are dopey and obvious, but girls are so subtle even the filmmaker, writer, censor, or actress herself might not notice their deeper agenda.


And so it finally dawned on me that in BRINGING UP BABY, Kate Hepburn is sabotaging David's (Cary Grant) meeting with Mr. Peabody at the golf course deliberately so Aunt Elizabeth will give her the million instead of Grant and his damned brontosaurus. David is just not equipped for such advanced intrigue, he doesn't recognize her or that she might be competition (he lets himself be distracted from the game, following the first butterfly that steals his ball). The surprise is--as it is in all three films--even though he's a dope she falls for him. 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: the miraculous shrinking from collapsing dinosaur skeleton to wild leopard to tame leopard to 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 dinosaur mouth (above).

In BELL, BOOK the suspicious coincidence is that Stewart just happens to have moved in above the voodoo art store owned by the old girls's school arch enemy 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. If that is what happened, or if it's just Piewacket's own little fate machination, it's never mentioned in the script. But like with Susan Vance in BABY, if you see it enough times you really mull it over, 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, so Gil (Novak) could steal his love and wreak further revenge on Janice, who wrote poison pen letters in school, stole boyfriends and got Novak kicked out for going to class barefoot.

Consider for comparison, the witchy situation in ROSEMARY'S BABY, at the end when we find out that Rosemary 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 Mr. Peabody ("Boopie") the lawyer for her aunt, to steal David's car and ball, and then keep undermining David's credibility ("Be with you in a minute, Mr. Peabody!")

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, 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/God/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, 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 perched hawk. His only chance is through Mugsy's earthen suspicion and care (he regularly makes sure Hopsy's reptile coterie is fed) or 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, it's not fun. It's a drag, snuffing out magic's elemental flame like a sharp draft, almost as if love is a curse inflicted by the censors, as a de facto obligation to the production code and the human reproductive system. Jean refuses a huge alimony settlement, and earlier tries to reform her father, 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 in BELL - becoming the bland hausfrau the censors presume America needs to see. 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 ("he's got integrity," as Sydney Falco would say, "acute.") 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 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!"). 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 (how did they get up there on Xmas morning?); 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 of that film we revert to the pipe-smoking old man 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 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-"). 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?

Fonda gets harassed by the third wheel horse - LADY EVE
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 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 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, (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. He's like the poor people who vote Republican or the guy who goes to the movies and has to constantly point out that it's just bunk and no way it could happen in real life. But even if it's real life we're talking about, no one wants to bring such a mug to the movies; the real rich despise such bulldog loyalty in their mug underlings; we all want the illusion - damned be anyone who acts as reality's alarm clock. 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]). They only figure in the story since Cary 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, 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. 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's recently begun to dawn on me 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. To use the vernacular of THE CRAFT, Gil isn't really Robin Tunney -  she's Faruza Balk! Which is better, so why put her in the Tunny position? Why give her Tunny delusions


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 in the more playdate-and-PTA centered activities of their once cool friends now gone to parenting). Has anyone ever sighed in joy 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?

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 having a monster... 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, 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 and thus made it so). One can only imagine what a four star rapture BELL would have been with Cary Grant instead. 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 it a few times we believe he means it: "we seem to go way back" he says to both Jean and Eve; indeed, the seeming to go way back through time, and repeat the same scenes with different lovers, is the echo through all three films. 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, but also a brontosaurus, a dog, a leopard, another leopard...

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 (like just now). 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 when trapped within your own skin. Best just distract yourself and roll over and go back to bed. Don't take a single thing seriously.

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

5 comments:

  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

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  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.

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  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.

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  4. Thank god I found this site.

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  5. You, sir, are an inspiration.

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