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

Tuesday, January 01, 2013

Virgin Queens and Smart Blondes: Shoshana Dreyfus, Torchy Blaine, Elizabeth I

"Oh Jerry, don't let's ask for the moon..."
- Bette Davis in NOW VOYAGER

The special power a lady of wit and intelligence has in a man's world hinges on a lot of things, but one is access to a right hand an muscle, a rock hard loyal soul to watch her back -- is it any different the other way around? This is natural... does a cowboy not have a horse? Or a king a queen? A man wields a sword, a woman wields a man with a sword. Part of power is the ability to delegate responsibility: if a woman is always cleaning and watching her own back and raising kids she has no time to kick ass. She needs Geoffrey Rush, Barton McLane or Jackie Ido to help her out, to cover her ass, as it were. Is this un-feminist? No, but it's interesting. To win power she must inspire loyalty. In delegating responsibilities she becomes greater than merely a woman in a man's world, but mythic.

The three women we'll be discussing here all do just that. They know how to use their wit and intelligence to inspire courage, loyalty, and love. Sexual wiles pay little part - rather each transcends sex, becoming fashion plate insects, courageous sleuths and the Giant Face of Jewish Vengeance. Instead of just dames in need of a rescue, they become true heroines; they move past being a supporting player in a man's movie; they reverse that paradigm, without alienating the men around them --no easy feat. Cuz we're sensitive. We break just like little a-girls.

TCM recently ran the first in the 1940s Torchy Blaine mystery series, SMART BLONDE. In it Glenda Ferrell is a crime-solving reporter who relies on her perennial detective boyfriend played by Sam Spade's chief abuser in MALTESE FALCON, Barton McLane. He paves the way, provides the muscle, authorizes and follows through. There are several film noirs and THIN MAN imitations where the woman continually has to to convince her man she's not an idiot, especially in post-code cinema where censors didn't much cotton to smart or independent women. But Torchy's twice as fast on her feet as the cops she swims with, and her man knows she's got more brains than he does and rides along in her wake, catching the accolades while she catches the headlines, at least in the first in the series, SMART BLONDE. This one is pretty pulpy and well-scripted if cheap and Ferrell takes the reins. We're so used to her riding shotgun and cracking wise and being stuck with beta male Frank McHugh, while Joans Bennett or Blondell got the alpha and the big brass ring, that to see her in alpha status is very rewarding.

One of the odd things about the Torchy series apparently is that she and Barton always promise to get married, and never do. I think that's worth mentioning in regard especially to the other women I'm discussing here, Shoshana in INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS (2009) and Elizabeth I in ELIZABETH: THE GOLDEN AGE (2007). Shoshana Dreyfus (Melanie Laurent) has a lover and confidente in the black Parisian projectionist Marcel (Jackie Ido) at the cinema she owns/runs in Paris. Shoshana can't really marry him because he's black (and the Nazis are in power). And Elizabeth can't marry either Raleigh or her own Barton Maclaine, Geoffrey Rush as Sir Francis Walsingham. We see Sir Walsingham deal with an entire plot by English Catholics loyal to Mary Queen of Scots, one that includes his own brother, and we never even know if she knows about it. She pulls strings so far behind the curtain half her maneuverings are unseen even by us.

The contrast between the ugly pock-marked Catholics in their black dirty robes and dingy lighting, their faces puffy and ill with sores vs. the golden patina of Elizabeth and her coteriet is remarkable and one of the reasons perhaps I'm so fond of this very anti-Catholic pro-Protestant movie. As Mary, Samantha Morton looks like she's been stricken with syphilis, rickets, and excessive carbs for her entire adult life (even imprisoned in Scotland she could surely get some sun once in awhile, atop some spire). For her part, game Elizabeth barely looks human at all--like she's morphing into something of pure legend, "the stuff of.... future memory" as Arthur puts it in John Boorman's EXCALIBUR. In fact all three films are perhaps about the stuff of future memory; for BASTERDS is really more about war films and propaganda having the power to rewrite history; ELIZABETH is about using cunning and natural magic to keep civilization out of the Dark Ages; and SMART BLONDE is about how Glenda Farrell never has to ask a man for anything, by the time he realizes he's given it to her he's already benefitted too immeasurably to demand it back.

It's pretty strange that if you look at the reviews for GOLDEN AGE it draws a shaky 35% positive (vs. the first film's 85%, which I liked a lot less) with top critical dissent noting:
"This is romantic fantasy, not history, and much of the time you fully expect Kapur, here making his third post-Bollywood feature, to turn his cast loose in song and dance." - Jonathan F. Richards. 
Well, Richards, what the hell is wrong with Bollywood? I'd bet you gave SLUMDOG an A+, but then again that was directed by a white guy not a brown guy and starred a boy and not a smart woman. For some critics, even without them consciously realizing it, that makes a difference. Since GOLDEN AGE is an ostensible sequel to the first film, which was much more historical and straight-faced. then this new one is to be measured by that criteria, according perhaps to critics like Richards. If it was called BOLLYWOOD HEROINE and had some R.D. Burman tracks on it, this Richards guy wouldn't dare give it low marks, lest he be called racist. Why can't Bollywood do an ELIZABETH? Is there some aspect of modern life that will be damaged by giving this old queen the Baz Luhrmann treatment? O Protestant God o'mine, release that ole devil Kraken!

I would argue that anyone who decides GOLDEN AGE is historically inaccurate simply just wasn't there at the time. Unless they were a personal witness, well what do they really know?
Maybe Kapur is in fact the reincarnation of Elizabeth herself, and so knows all the dirt. Richards argues elsewhere in his review that the real Elizabeth was around 50 when she met Raleigh and Cate don't look 50. Well, you know who did? Bette Davis in those old John Ford movies. She was great and probably as unattractive as the real life Elizabeth but I don't really want to revisit those films as the pain of watching her get all vain and insecure? I'd rather see Cate struggle with and then accept her virigin queen status, rising into the realms of pure archetypal resonation and shedding the last husk last of her cicada humanity to become a kind or proto-uber dragonfly.

I don't single out Richards' blurb just for the fun of it, but to indicate how deep run the roots of unconscious racism and sexism in so many critics, especially in America where our own refusal to admit we're sexist and racist and classicist is our own worst enemy. If we admitted it more freely maybe we could make some of it conscious and critics like Richards could realize that you can still have a knee-jerk need to pan a film for being too much like a Derek Jarman drag queen pageant as imagined by an Indian guy about a strong fashion plate female eunuch, and not make the connection there's anything homophobic in your condemnation. But I would argue that whenever you have a crazy fashion icon in colorful pageantwear and garish wigs being threatened by religious intolerance then you have a campy dissolution of the Stonewall between political and social history, the encouragement of free speech and the right to rock vs. the narrow-minded, sweaty syphiliptic hate of the mainstream... and to the rescue, Cate Blanchett is there.

Yes, Cate Blanchett did after all play Bob Dylan in the 1960s (in I'M NOT THERE, bottom image), at a time when fellow rockers the Stones were under fire for Redlands (below)! If you also compare the trial of Oscar Wilde, now you're getting the picture of what GOLDEN AGE is really about. Gentlemen of the Old Bailey, Jonathan Richards, this is not about getting the facts straight, this is about the continuing bloody war of Christian fundamentalists on obscenity, or drugs, or sodomy, or historical inaccuracy, this is a war against the fabulous wrought by the dismal, those who have equated their positions of power with powdered wigs and black robe straitjackets bristling at the thought of beautiful people dressed up like butterflies stealing the hearts of our youths and literate. "Why break a butterfly on a wheel?" ran a pungent headline in the Stones' favor after enough woe and misery had been generated. In Elizabeth's reign, she may have just sunk those dowdy wig-wearing prudes in the channel like she done that armada.


 The Stones were attacked for being too flamboyant, and it's perhaps part of the reason these power women work best hidden inside series rather than straight ahead in stand-alones where their behavior and triumphs might perhaps draw the notice of censors easier. Since it's a sequel with less to prove, somehow Kapur finds his groove in GOLDEN AGE by finally not by reigning in his eye towards turning every shot into an expensive Vogue Italian ad from the 1980s and letting the slope drop until the horse plows into mystical Max Reinhart river of archetypal haute couture with a little Derek Jarman Sally Potter post-drag David Bowie space captain reptilian alien faerie of the forest pixie dust thrown in. Cate Blanchett is letter perfect and her features are incorporated into her colorful costumes so well she becomes a living archetypal tarot card. Decked out in a dazzlingly frumpy liquid hornet back green-blue outfit Clive Owen as Raleigh tells tales of exploring the new world and does a great job with a monologue about how America first appears, after weeks of nothing but blue sea, as a thin grey haze on the horizon line.

The editing is in places so rapid as individual shots of various ambassadors at court with their proffered portraits of royal suitors flick by so fast and strange that in spots GOLDEN AGE almost becomes an experimental abstraction. At times the images are stunning and the film stops to admire itself like a princess in her favorite department store mirror and it should. There's a feeling of finally understanding the link between psychedelic outside time-space vision, dreams, the rabbit hole, the collective unconscious, and the 15-1600s and Britain's intellectually fertile and prosperous 'golden age' -- the idea that our history is long enough that peaceful empires have blossomed for century-length runs in the past, even as with Egypt, India, China, Greece, Atlantis... And that maybe God is looking out for England -- here it did wipe out the Spanish armada of flagellant egomaniac in god-scraping clothing King Phillip (Jordi MollĂ ) and his creepy sister Infanta (Aimee King) in a fit of fire-ship bearing wind and stormy seas that trashed the vast armada of God and made it pretty clear to those dirty Spaniards just whose side God was on.

But working behind the scenes on Liz's side, like a tired-eyed consigliere, is Geoffrey Rush, ably but rather limitedly acting out dark scenes as Sir Francis Walthingham. And buxom vision Abbie Cornish as "Young" Bess Throckmorton who conceives a son with husband Raleigh, which outrages, then later calms our Elizabeth, and changes her ornate lighting spots from silver and burnished blue to glowing reds and golds.

Having just seen INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS beforehand I was reminded of the "Putting out Fire (With Gasoline") Soshana getting ready to fry the German high command at the sight of ELizabeth prepping for apocalypse. Only a talented male director could perhaps figure out how to imbue a woman's putting on make-up with archetypal warrior power. This is the action of a filmmaker with deep admiration for a strong mother figure, an admiration has successfully been projected outwards and so no unhealthy affinity is formed. The daily facing death, either from assassins or as one, the importance of being a queen before a woman with needs and as such remaining a virgin and moving more and more into tarot card abstraction as a ruler and angel-insect fashion plate, by choice, these are all heroic gestures of renouncement by which the pain of weening is understood and put to a positive alchemically transubstantiated use.

The queen's parting friends with Raleigh rather is a parallel to the son's self-expulsion from the court of his mother, the stoicism with which both sides part in order to prevent the unhealthy attachment from forming. Similarly Shoshana realizes she needs to destroy herself and thus her own verboten (as far as the Germans are concerned) love with Marcel in order to avenge her family, and all Jews. In becoming 'the giant face' --tellingly it appears onscreen at the moment of her death up in the projection room--she is like a female wizard of Oz going back behind the curtain, now and forever. When the legend becomes real print the legend; or in this case, why be a flesh and blood woman, hung up by earthly limits and the counterweights of hot air balloons and the need to put out for any passing scarecrow, when you can be the great and powerful giant face, or the Queen of the Golden Age, or in Torchy's case, the actual printer of the legend, the arbiter of truth and exposure via her lead reporter job.

This renouncement can be seen as a detriment but only in a limited view, the view that sees, for example, the same detriment in the chaste aspect of Bella and Edward's romance in the TWILIGHT series, that we can't have our girls going around being chaste because then comes the issue of promise rings and linked to that one ring to bind them all is the Lord Sauron of fundamentalist Christianity. First comes the ring then the veil then the burka and you wind up barefoot in some Utah compound with a dozen or so 'sisters.' Thus abstinence becomes in their eyes a gateway anti-drug and not what it should be.

When it is as it should be this abstinence becomes a renouncement of sex, desire, reproduction. The same renouncement occurs with Torchy Blaine and her big ox of a boyfriend in that they are always about to become engaged, or engaged, but over the series nine film run they never actually do get married. If they did then by code standards she must settle down. If it means marriage it means sex and so according to the code it also means children and so good-bye m'lady -- you have to hand over the reigns to your gorilla. It's a sad core moment perhaps, the one Torchy faces knowing she'll never quite get her man no matter how many of his cases she cracks, but marriage to Barton seems a dreary affair aside from the brusque blue-collar charm.

In these three examples of womanhood we see how good female leaders are able to delegate responsibility to their second-in-command men without said men getting ornery about it. sends the man to go make the money, but that doesn't mean she's not in charge. Torchy has Barton, Shoshana has Marcel, Elizabeth has Sir Halsingham... These are their weapons. So why shouldn't the woman equate putting on make-up with acquiring heavy power? Why is it different, somehow less honest, then of men putting on the armor and wrist-spring-revolvers? Shoshana wouldn't have been able to kill Hitler if she was not attractive and single. Elizabeth wouldn't have had mystic powers of the weather and sunk the armada were she not a virgin. And Torchy would be home with the kids under the edicts of the code so all those mysteries would go unsolved and Barton Maclane would sink into a mire of boozy traffic cop cliche.

I'm not saying you can't have it all, I'm saying you can't become powerful by trying warp the laws of nature to conform to some outmoded feminist agenda. You need to renounce nature to succeed outside of it, and then you can return as its spearhead. Like all women, nature loves a rebel. If you want to break the mold of flesh and space and time and enter the pantheon of archetypes then you must be like Frank Morgan doffing his Kansas duffer trapped-in-linear-space-time body and step back behind the green curtain to become the immortal and giant head, the archetype in golden robes; you must become the costume, the mask, the curtain, you must become the thing of future memory... otherwise you wind up like Arthur stabbing Merlin's heart with Excalibur just because the queen is off with Lancelot, and your land falls into the hands of the fascists or the Inquisition. You become Elizabeth having a tantrum because Raleigh prefers Bess, and you become Shoshana, letting her momentary sympathy for the lad from Good-bye Lenin and Nation's Pride (The German Sgt. York) get her shot.

I guess as someone in recovery I'm especially aware of this sacrifice - I can't ever be with my one true love again yet I walk past her everyday, gleaming out from liquor store windows, beckoning like one of Dr. Pretorious' little queens from inside a toasted brown sea of Jack Daniels in a square, ugly bottle on my brother's kitchen counter, knowing she's going to be at parties, just waiting for me to come over and say hi. It is so painful I seldom leave my hobbit hole anymore and thus I become merely an image, a Facebook page and an 'About the Author' blurb. What becomes a legend most? Garbo and Dietrich knew it well--exile from the eyes of mortals--as does Lt. Archie Hicox and Major Helstrom: "Say goodbye to your nuts!" Wouldn't you rather have the stars than that fat, flashy moon, ever-tugging at your monthly tubes?  Then don your shades, eyeliner and war paint, and follow me, once more into the castrating teeth of victory,  for England! 

No comments:

Post a Comment

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...