Because the screen is the only well-lit mirror in town

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Flo, the Great and Powerful: THE GREAT ZIEGFELD (1936) and the Ludovico Flu

I've been sick all week with a terrible flu--hallucinating, vomiting, sleeping round the clock-- and it all comes to a head and makes sense with THE GREAT ZIEGFELD (1936) which was the first thing I watched once I could finally stand up and get out of bed. I had been raging with fever, sleeping in torrid bursts of super dreamy weirdness for 16 or more hours at a crack, getting up long enough only to pee and shakily have a few sips of the only beverage/nourishment I could keep down, a mix of half and half ginger ale and water, before staggering back to bed to sleep another double shift, exhausted from my 20 minute ordeal. Sleeping that long every day/night for an entire week with no food, naturally, I dreamt some mighty intense, strange things. Since I'm writing about Ziegfeld, it's only fitting I should share:

I dreamt I was at the movies, of course, in a place that's where the Union Square theater is now (in NYC), but was no called 'the Martha Graham Dance Cinema Annex,' and was an extension of a huge dance studio / ballet academy. This meant there were young girls in tights smoking Virginia Slims everywhere in the lobby and on the long carpeted steps, while calling their stage moms and using the rail along the aisles as a balance bar, stretching and smoking, while collections of experimental dance shorts played in endless rotation over their heads, ignored by all but me. It was a kind of weird heaven, of course, my influenza virus remembering, in the process, its journey to me along the smudgy railings and student handshakes, like a second memorable dream, the passage of a Chilean joint through the harbor of a thousand hands and mouths, visiting with my Argentine ex-wife and enjoying this socialist utopia where people would light fat joints, pass them to the person on their right, and then just never see them again, each joint like a balloon released with a SASE attached in some elementary school science project.

Maybe all this is a preface as to why I didn't turn away in saccharine-phobic horror from THE GREAT ZIEGFELD when it showed up on TCM yesterday, the first movie I'd been able to get up and see in seven days, the first time I was even able to sit on the couch and turn the TV on and there it was, by special unconscious request, me too beaten and humbled to turn it off but also, it being as if I had dreamt it somewhere within my delirium (I missed the first 10 minutes so didn't even know what it was until I found the remote and could click 'info'). Straddling centuries and styles of musical theater, it provided a perfect halfway point between real cinema and the cloudy diamond-facet fractured dance hall unconsciousness of my sick bed visions, clinging to the balance bar railings of my attention with the tenacity of a flu germ barnacle as nymphets in a torrent of Degas-esque Village Voice articles spout-pounced in my head.

The two main things the serious flu bug going around does: a) tear you away from all abilities or concerns regarding employment, sexual desire and vices --you can't inhale smoke, you can't drink, can't make it out of your door or drink anything but room temperature ginger ale--and b) makes you humble. You can't stand up so you keep yourself buckled over as if bowed under the heel of some unseen titan, and all other trivialities except passing before getting back to bed are jettisoned. All hail, whatever laid me low... spare me another round of dry heaves. I now belong to the flu like Mongo belong to Sheriff Bart in BLAZING SADDLES.

Such a basic core of conscience is the ideal putty for theatrical drill instructors like Busby Berkeley and Oscar Jaffe (as well as torturers like Abu Nazir and the Symbionese Liberation Front). Such exhausted psyches are explosions from which new stars are born. The heat of the flu, or of systematic physical abuse at the hands of an authority figure, liquidate once frozen notions of self, of loyalty, allegiance, taste, and identity. Manchurian candidates can from this ground zero of consciousness be forged. Me, I forgot my original prejudices against long, bloated, period piece post-code MGM musical biopics, so whatever kept me from watching THE GREAT ZIEGFELD in the past was now liquid draining from the ice sculpture sink of my personal tastes.

I once worked for a rich crazy person like Flo Ziegfeld, so I know the way they swim in debt, and depend on an indulgent, super-rich backer's foreclosure threats as motivation for their genius. They spend beyond their limits and never pay back debts, all while buying bigger and more opulent gifts for everyone around them (except employees like me, of course, whose checks bounce regularly). They built this whole country by trying to mortgage their way out of poverty, to become too big to collect from. A rich person by definition amasses wealth, stores and saves it, builds on it; the Flo Z or my old boss-type merely spends wealth, regardless of if he has it or not. Without such men, alas, capitalism can't succeed. And with such men, stock market crashes are inevitable, like the end of a game of hot potato that leaves everyone badly burned except the monster who first threw it.

Some wise tribes of Native Americans had a thing called the potlatch: at the end of each year, the richest person in the tribe gave away all their possessions to other tribe members. It was a great honor but at the same time it encouraged a constant flow of generosity in the tribe. No one wanted to get too rich lest they have to give up something they wanted, so they gave everything away they didn't actually need or use as they went. Indeed, what is opulence for if not to dazzle the public eye, rather than one's own? To create magic for others instead of 'security' for oneself? And what is it called when a man's ego transcends his sense of security, and his drive to create show-stopping brilliance overrides self-preservation? Baby, that's entertainment. And the wheel of capitalism moves one spoke on your ticket stub blood. Doo Do Doo Do Dooo Dooo. The girls stretch past the point where it's even a masochistic thrill, to lure their black swan prince from the shadows (he appears only when they're falling off cliffs or torturing their toes and hamstrings in the name of Tchaikovsky). Their performances might be brilliant but are quickly lost to time, evoked only in old Times clippings and the memories of aging sponsors. But the eye is dazzled. And that's the thing we've lost in our modern era which prizes big moments of emotional catharsis centered around love and yearning, rather than the older arts which treat the eye the way opium treats dopamine receptors. He cements the balsa wood bridge between the age when high art came to the wild west (like Edwin Booth doing one man best-of Shakespeare shows in the mining camps, and finding a be-raptured audience), the striptease, Vaudeville, and our modern Broadway spectacle.

That's Ray Bolger down there
It's this latter form which William Powell's Flo-Z is always working towards, to bring it higher, to outdo all past versions of his Jenga-style opulent towering until the eye cups runneth over, and that's why MGM gives him a 3 1/2 hour bio. He personified the age of indulgence and is now a giant sugar daddy mountebank link across the generations of the Depression back to the bigger, higher, wider school of Americana. He's one of a Mount Rushmore of the 20th century's initial salty entertainment icons including Walt Disney, Cecil B. De Mille, and D.W. Griffith. And like them he understood you could get away with showing all sorts of naughty bits as long as you wrapped them in so much lace and fashion show piety, high art and high fashion, that the old ladies were too awash in sentimental sighs to complain when the bare thighs flashed. So the crazy headdresses went wider and higher in some pagan mummery glorification of grandiosity, all to keep the world rolling forward, and straight up and trailing clouds of glory "for anybody willing to climb." A whole style of opulence became synonymous with his name, putting him in the same ranks as presidents, kings, Martha Graham, Rockefeller and, at the same time, carny shadiness, ala P.T. Barnum, Madame Tussaud, and Ripley. He was an early titan of titan-ism, and his like has not come again.

"when you say Spud
So--he sounds like a square--why praise him in an Acidemic post? Well, I love William Powell, but the real psychedelic gold comes in the centerpiece musical number, as surreal and strange as anything by pre-code Paramount of Warner's prime Busby Berkeley. David Lynch taught us that if you push normality to its extreme it becomes more surreal than your wildest imagined lurid tableaux, and the "Pretty Girl is Like a Melody" sequence of this film finally illuminates the appeal of frills and fancy MGM foppery even to a jaded-faded junky lace Americana-hater (like me) by pushing it to an impossible extreme. The cumulative effect is beyond the usual sense of claustrophobia, of being like Sullivan sandwiched between the portly matrons at the treacly triple feature during the first of his Travels, and instead breaking through the roof in a mythopoetic splume of transcendental connection with the screen, something even Willie Wonka, trapped by his mom at a 1906 fashion show and looking up the skirts of the passing models, couldn't imagine. He'd have to be reading Little Nemo at the same time, and strung out on Demerol.

Consider this revolving cake tableau below, in one of the coolest curtain effects ever (it turns as it rises, spiraling around the spiral): we start with the singer and his girl and revolve slowly to see 18th century noblemen, then Chinese rural moon beam guitar pixies, then it revolves to find Pagliachi belting out his pain before a giant drum, a beautiful flame goddess mocking him from above, then a row of pianists working out an early version of Rhapsody in Blue, a sea of vampire women in black shimmering Dragon Lady dresses, a giant mummer sun crown headgear crown angel, and finally the curtain goes up all the way to unveil a magic femme fatale to crown the cake. Slowly revealing it all as the giant marble column cake as it revolves, the crazy spiral curtain then lowers back down.

 It's a very psychedelic centerpiece to this gargantuan film, with billowing ruffles and angelic choirs that for the first time help me to understand the mindset that led to all the ruffles and bows of turn of the century theater and costumery. This one weird dream musical number alone shows what both turn of the century decades were aiming at. Of course there's some real drivel elsewhere in the film, such as the unsettling sight and sound of an imitation Eddie Cantor in black face and Popeye glasses square-prancing around the stage like a politically incorrect robot singing "If you Knew Suzie" in front of a giant shower curtain. (Oh! Oh! Oh what a gal!) and now I understand the big Carnegie Hall performance of Andy Kaufman in MAN ON THE MOON with the human Xmas tower.

Like Kaufman's comedy, the follies may leer but they predate sexuality and embrace an infant-eyed humanism, a dreamy pillowy magic, a pre-Edenic gorgeous flowing white river of energy where women are done up like beautiful Weird Tales covers brought to life and the men are all in tuxes and standing very still. Peter Max, Bouguereau, Hans Christian Anderson and The Yellow Submarine artistic designer Heinz Edelmann are all heirs, it turns out, of old Flo Z. In another surreal number we see legions of white and silver balloons flying out towards the screen, towards the camera eye, opening a middle field of depth that leads us farther and farther back, duplicating the effects of 3-D decades before it was invented. You can't help but be transported through the looking glass into a Little Nemo of Berkley w├╝nderland, the kind that the Wall Street crash of 1929 would put an end to until the mid-60s. That's the thing, when we watch a Busby Berkeley musical number we move inside the proscenium arch and out the stage door; the stage and the camera swirls and eddies and snakes around the dancers to form geometric kaleidoscope perfection. But it all had to be from the stage, for Flo. So he uses all three of audience member's eyes and proceeds to aim his balloons and ostrich feathers right at them, trailing big confetti streamers behind to create a long pipeline back to the stage.

In the era between 3-D and Ziegfeld's balloons, tapping into the limits of the eye as a way to change viewer mindsets was forgotten in favor of the recognized patina of cinema fantasy as we know it today --the 2-D proscenium arch style of middle range shot, the 'you are there' but-not-there ghost presence amidst the action provided by film and TV vs. the stage, i.e. we've become the invisible spectator. No one looks us in the eye anymore. It used to be that we could take our infantile delight in the cloud mobile above our crib and bring it into the adult world if we had the right guide. Ziegfeld is seen as the one who dares dream the biggest, to bankrupt the world to reach new heights in revolving stage staircases, all just so the stage can reach out like two pairs of big mommy hands into our infant crib of an orchestra seat.

Maybe back at the time audiences knew what those hands were reaching for, but in 2013 it's pretty clear we need to be half-dead from killer flus just to see what Flo's billowing dreamscape eye seduction fuss is about. Maybe it's all merely an appeasement, a Nazca line to the giant Kathy Bates in the sky. Her sledge-hammer of withdrawal and phantom limb pain in one hand, a bottle of Vicodin in the other, she's the Kali of the flu-wracked MISERY arts. It's how she wants it, so Flo Z--her captive writer--gave it to her, just so he could have his row of beautiful naked thighzzzz... Nemo, you've been sleeping again! More feathers!

1 comment:

  1. Yet another great piece. Watching things while under the blanket of illness can give you an amazing perspective on things. Kudos, again.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...