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

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Radium Girls Vs. the 1%: Eva Green in DARK SHADOWS, Carole Lombard in NOTHING SACRED

It's always a good idea to lay massive curses upon the rich --haven't they deserved it since the dawn of time? Haven't they, in a way, already cursed us? Their ancestors robbed ours and left no evidence of the crime, leaving our forefathers poor while theirs grew rich, for you need money to make money. So we fight back the only way the poor can, magical curses and chicanery. In two films made in wildly different but eerily similar decades, 1930s and 2010s, two downtrodden women lay down some nice curses on the rich, in cinema: Carole Lombard as Hazel Flagg in 1937's Nothing Sacred and Eva Green in 2012's Dark Shadows remake. Damn, are they twins? Or is it just that I saw them both in the same day?

So the big date 12/21/12 came and went with nary a tremor; I'd been hoping some major disaster would wipe out the uncouth and leave we chosen angels with a chance to start again from scratch. But the greed of the mega-rich is still strangling us too slowly to count as apocalypse: hypocritical politicians leave our east coast to suffer in the mud just because we ignored their own states' disasters. Australian moguls using patriotism against our own American yokel; dogs in the wind and casts of Cats living to--you know the drill, it's the same damn one, slog swamp, slog...

NOTHING SACRED recently released on a sparkling Blu-ray reminded me that my bitterness over the loss of the illusion that our half-strangled human culture was about to end makes me like Oliver Stone, furious that Hazel Flagg (Carole Lombard, top) is not really dying of radium poisoning. Nowadays it may be hard to imagine such a un-fact-checked farce playing out in the local papers, but it happened, I think, a lot, presumably, or Ben Hecht wouldn't have written this movie, nor Capra MEET JOHN DOE. At any rate, the media circus surrounding young girls dying of radium poisoning was no fantasy, even if old news by '37:
The Radium Girls were female factory workers who contracted radiation poisoning from painting watch dials with glow-in-the-dark paint at the United States Radium factory in Orange, New Jersey around 1917. The women, who had been told the paint was harmless, ingested deadly amounts of radium by licking their paintbrushes to sharpen them; some also painted their fingernails and teeth with the glowing substance.

Five of the women challenged their employer in a case that established the right of individual workers who contract occupational diseases to sue their employers. (WIKI)
 But the girls who won America's hearts as they shambled to the stand were hideously deformed (here) while Lombard comes to the city unmarred and super hot and in robust health so the German specialists called in at great expense are instantly, ow you say, zuss-PISH-iouss? Still, if Hazel was as sick as a real radium girl she'd be far too tragic to parade around New York City. The hooplah-spinning Morning Star reporter Frederic March falls in love with Hazel, and his own words praising her and what he reads into her wide blue eyes as courage in the face of death when it's just desperation to get out of her crappy homespun Americana New England town. He's mad but also thrilled to learn she's just faking to get out. And anyway, fake or not, her story is life-affirming just like my precious, lost apocalypse.

I've always felt that doomsday anticipation makes life post-Scrooge precious. It fills me with gallows' gratitude and Fight Club ("it's only after we've lost everything that we don't fear anything") euphoria. But as I recently learned ("cough") there is a downside: that sense of horrible disappointment when the world keeps turning after the expiration date. In the end you can use up all your pre-death euphoria credits and have nothing left for when they're truly needed. Hecht knows this all to well. His  TWENTIETH CENTURY (1934) found Lombard giving a tearful goodbye to her young college boy lover as she boards her train for New York, only to groan in annoyance when he decides to come along regardless of her tearful farewell scenes: "George, you bore me!" In NOTHING SACRED, the power brokers of New York all wince in despair when they learn Flagg's faking her radium poisoning. They've already used her 'plight' to advance their careers and don't want to give up the gains. Girls have been exposed to radiation poison for real for less (SILKWOOD).

A similar exploitation of a scheming harridan by the elite occurs in the Tim Burton DARK SHADOWS (2012), wherein the haute bourgeois Barnabas (Johnny Depp) sleeps with and then coldly spurns the housekeeper's daughter, Angelique (Eva Green). A spurn is bad enough in itself, but to spurn a woman who was born into the same house as you around the same time and yet is expected to live a life of servitude while you live it up, that's pretty piggish, Barnabas! For all we know, his dad might be Angelique's father, too, like with the Schwarzenegger family. So I couldn't really muster much sympathy for him even when Angelique kills his parents via her witchy spells, confines him to a coffin for 200 years, and reduces his estate to a crumbling relic for future generations to waft through. Hey, some of my great great great great great great great aunts were New England witches so naturally I'm on her side. And say what you like about Robert Stack in WRITTEN ON THE WIND, at least he knew he was a shit, you could see it in his desperate, rolling eyes. Depp doesn't even shift his arch posture a whit. His boorish snobbery and thoughtlessness are not even something either Burton or Depp seems to notice. They're too busy capturing the imperious posture and Gothic lingo, doing that old sly bag of 70s era art direction tricks first seen in ZODIAC and RON BURGUNDY. 

One scene is very telling early on concerning the dirty class inequality lurking underneath the soapy gloss of Burton's film: after spurning Angelique's professed love, Barnabas starts showing up at the house with a doe-eyed Gothic Windswept Barbie (Bella Heathcote), pledging love to her while Angelique is scrubbing the floor down on her knees, in the same damned room. Even while alive Barnabas doesn't imagine her feelings might be hurt. Once he's dead, Barnabas is even more oblivious. Declaring himself a family man and reading his latest bland doe-eyed waif-carnation Jonathan Living Seagull (a good way to make her understand what 200 years in a box is like) and positing himself as somehow superior to Angelique, while slaughtering (blue collar) locals and passing hippies by the vanload, anyone that might be a threat to his vast fortune.  He sates his thirst like a camel, apparently, spending whole montages of cannery restoration as a kind of saintly captain of industry revitalizing the neighborhood, then wiping out a whole love child traveling hippie enclave after not even trying their joint. There's a kind of snobby cluelessness at work here that lets us know very little about the subject but a whole lot about how tons of money and artistic freedom can sometimes bring a star like Depp and an auteur like Burton way too far away from how reality really is, or was. They have much more in common with the clueless mega-rich than they maybe even realize. They think they're part of the disenfranchised barbers and street urchins, but they're the Marie Antoinette offering cake to the bloody starving throngs.

Victoria, the big-eyed waif reincarnation of his old love (also Heathcote), unwittingly sours the situation even more. For a 'true love' she's very one dimensional, passive, a valium Jane Eyre, the Audrey Long in TALL IN THE SADDLE rather than the Ella Raines. She seems dubbed-in by a different actress--one much more mature and self-assured-- a voiceover artist milking emotion from every syllable while Heathcote shyly peeps. Being the victim of icky mental institution flashbacks is no excuse, though she could be frickin' James Dean and it wouldn't matter: no mortal woman can compare when Green's voice gets deep and throaty in a Hawks heroin chain-smoker purr (or the very slight American twang snakes through her voice when talking to the locals). As Green noted in an interview:
"Angelique is a woman who has changed with the times. During the 18th century, Angelique was a dark-haired servant girl. As Angie, the CEO of Angel Bay, she’s a successful blonde businesswoman. “Tim wanted her to look like the American dream,” says Green. “Everything about her is perfect. Too perfect. Perfect makeup, red lips, platinum hair." (Inquirer)
Damn right. And Barnabas and Angelique even get in on again in their new incarnations as monsters, trashing her office in a fit of demon craziness set to some 70s hard rock song we all remember, or better remember since it surely cost a pretty farthing. This scheming witch and murderous vamp clearly belong to one another and so it's hard, very hard, to root for Barnabas in his endeavors to drive her from his ancestral town in favor of Heathcote's doe-eyed doormat, especially when Angelique is initially so thrilled to see him and races to his mansion for a reunion tryst, all grudges forgotten, his debt  paid, in her mind. But he, apparently, forgives nothing while demanding total sympathy with his hypocritical yen for banal family values.

In better films that's more or less what happens, the wild man and the wild woman find or settle for each other and eschew the staid mannered rivals, ala SHREK or KLONDIKE ANNIE or TALL IN THE SADDLE or BRINGING UP BABY. But this is more of a film like KISSING JESSICA STEIN or BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS or even STEPMOM or STEEL MAGNOLIAS, or JUNO, wherein the conventions of pro-dogma pro-life patriarchal conservatism are served on the sly. Man, 200 years of being locked in a coffin is a stiff price to pay just to preserve your social conservative trust fund dickheadedness.

How is Barnabas conservative? He holds a grudge and he takes the moral high ground no matter what sordid things he does on the sly, just like the Republicans. Barnabas can't help himself, you see, she cursed him by draining his precious... bodily fluids. Even though she doesn't kill anywhere near the amount of innocent people that he does (those construction workers he killed probably had children! families!), it is she who must be burnt at the stake for this to be a proper happening. The true Neo-conservative doesn't care about the dead workers, after all, unless they're in his direct family. Drinking the lifeblood of labor and youth while presuming we'll root for him anyway since he has such good family values is sooooo 1%. Meanwhile he's so eager to become a man again and cleanse his soul he seems a bit like Gomez Addams dreaming of becoming Herman Muenster, i.e. a rich eccentric longing to be a suburban nuclear family patriarch. Ick. Meanwhile Victoria flashes back to her sweet banal childhood ruined by parents quick to label her psychic ability as mental illness and shuttle her off to institutions so even there, Burton feels somehow apologetic for his own tastes... like he's ashamed of his need to be scary, in other words he's making a goddamned MGM horror movie rather than a Universal.

This kind of belief system, if left unfucked with, inevitably leads to a people's revolution! Barnabas shouldn't be reading Erich Segal's Love Story but rather Howard Zinn's The People's History of the United States!

Me, I'd take the lusty strong, slightly crazy fallen woman, be she fair in looks and enterprising in drive, over some waif who look like a Nina Friday or Jasmine Becket-Griffith painting come to life but has nothing else really to offer. Rejecting a badass babe with the power to destroy him and his loved ones is not only short-sighted, it's why--when push comes to shove--this film will never quite becomes an enduring classic like GHOSTBUSTERS or the TV show version of THE ADDAMS FAMILY. At least those had the courage to ride to the end of the subversive road they started on. DARK SHADOWS makes a hard U-turn and heads to a different world, one where Mitt Romney won and women are still expected to faint at the sight of blood, even if here she does at last wind up in a kind of very special place - the Barbara Steele-ish crossroads between the endings of every Corman Poe film ever made, and her surrounding art direction is always stunning, putting the best 70s romantic-Gothic paperback covers to shame.

from top: Bella Heathcote; Jasmine Beckett-Griffith; Lombard
But 2012 is over, man. Barnabas Collins' attitude of mystified old world 'ruling class' entitlement resembles Mitt Romney's, and Romney lost. There's a new kid in town, Barnabas, they're called the minority collective, and their blonde sorceress Hillary Clinton aims to unbuckle you from the throne. Victoria's passive dullness meanwhile is reminiscent of past Victorian (get it?) heroines who study how to be completely vacant so as to not alienate their shallow man, and stand straight up to hide the fact they've become addicted to morphine. Preferring her to a real 3-D hussy like Angelique would be like if March preferred a dead but honest Hazel Flagg to a live, lying, laughing, punching, slugging Carole Lombard.

The ending of NOTHING SACRED though has no intention of doing any Burton-Disney pussying out. Instead of Hazel granting New York the grand tragedy of her funeral she leaves a note saying she's off to die alone, and the end finds her incognito on a boat with March. Isn't that just what all the doomsday soothsayers are doing right now, myself included? Instead of a raging Eva Green Kali whirlwind solar storm apocalypse of human sacrifice on the altar of populist journalism we face yet another 200 years or more of the same damn bloodsuckers we've always had.

SHADOWS is still pretty entertaining, fast-moving, and there's slew of strong, beautiful women in hot 70s clothes and pale white skin to ease your suffering over Barnabas' unrepentant tea party douche baggery and Victoria's wan torpor. The ubiquitous Danny Elfman's score is, for once, inspired, with those willowing woodwinds so indicative of 70s supernatural TV shows (I never saw the original DARK SHADOWS soap, but I played the board game) reminding me of everything from the original Charlie's Angels to Night Gallery and Satan's School for Girls (though once more Hendrix's "All Along the Watchtower" shows up to indicate hippie freedom - see "WATCHMEN Dig my Earth"). 

But fun as it is to watch, DARK SHADOWS leaves me very dissatisfied. I don't mind rooting for the villain if he knows he's the villain. But here Barnabas is the most entitled, snobby psychopath who thinks he's the good guy since Dustin Hoffman in the original STRAW DOGS.  He's like those slimy male scientists who wore lead aprons and goggles while insisting the buckets of radium paint they were giving the girls to paint watch hands with was completely harmless. Compared to this kind of villainy Angelique and Hazel Flagg are bastions of blonde decency --at least they know they're evil. The real tragedy is that 200 years of entombment did nothing whatever to wise Barnabas up to others' suffering.  Ah well, the apocalypse may not have happened in real life but at least civilization's descent into moldy decay is still visible onscreen... if you care to blast for it.

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