Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception, for a better yesterday

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 (purely by chance, it just happened to be on - I missed the first five or six minutes only) and had never seen before. What a perfect marriage of set and setting - for I turns out a three hour movie about an eccentric showman with a habit of creating vast surreal set pieces full of billowing clouds was just about perfect for someone just beginning to come out of a raging flu/fever. I'd sleeping in torrid bursts of super dreamy weirdness for 16 or more hours at a crack for a solid week, getting up long enough only to pee and shakily have a few sips of the only beverage/nourishment I could keep down: a lukewarm mix of ginger ale and water, before staggering back to bed to sleep another 8-16 hour tour.

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 some of them:

I dreamt I was at the movies, of course, at the Union Square theater (in East Village, NYC), but it was 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 up to the theaters. Most of them were calling their stage moms on their cells while stretching and using the rails along the aisles of the theater as a balance bar, stretching and smoking, the lights only half-down, while collections of experimental dance shorts played in endless rotation over their heads, ignored by all but me. It was a kind of weird Degas heaven.

The second most vivid dream - the passage of a long skinny joint passed around- hand-to-hand - all along a small town as it went about its business - the hippie giving it to the mailman as he got the mail, the mailman giving it to a driver he walks past at a stop sign, him giving it to the cop at the light, the cop giving it to someone passing by -- all without even commenting on it, like it was just a free-floating thing that passed through hands and mouths (was this the flu remembering its long visit across the world into my system?). I had been visiting with my Argentine ex-wife --now in Chile for some reason -- 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 like I normally would, and like I have a hundred times before. It was 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. I was too beaten and humbled to turn it off but also, it being as if I had dreamt it somewhere within my delirium, just perfect, especially since I knew it was three hours so I'd have time to soak into it and not worry about what to watch next, not have to deal with suspense or distrust in some noir subplot.

Instead, 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, all still 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 trying no to pass out on the floor before getting back to bed are jettisoned. All hail, Moloch! Or whatever evil archon 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. "There's nothing more life affirming than having the shit kicked out of you," as Matt Dillon says in DRUGSTORE COWBOY.

Such a basic core of conscience, ego constructs all bulldozed away, provides the ideal putty for theatrical drill instructors like Busby Berkeley and Oscar Jaffe (as well as Stockholm syndrome-cultivators 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, after that week of starved madness and raging delusion, 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 being.

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, also alas, 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, because he's already off heating up another.

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 clank forward, powered by the fuel your ticket stub attention span. Doo Do Doo Do Dooo Dooo.

The girls at the Martha Graham Film Academy stretch their limbs past the point where it's even a masochistic itch, in a vain effort to lure their black swan prince from the shadows (I, the dreamer - appear only when they're falling off cliffs or torturing their toes and hamstrings in the name of Tchaikovsky - one ticket please and good night ladies). Their performances might be brilliant but are quickly lost to time, the stage tells no secrets, the brilliance of their work now only expressed by writers in old Times clippings, and moth-like flutterings in the hazy memories of aging box seat sponsors.

But the eye was 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, fear and desire. The older shows, like Flo's, 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), the smoker striptease, Vaudeville, and our modern Broadway spectacle. It's all just a short jaunt along a cloud.

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, alongside 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, but with the clear understanding that fleecy celestial opulence didn't preclude a huge underbelly carny-style sizzle, ala P.T. Barnum, Earl Carroll, Madame Tussaud, and Ripley. He was an early titan of titan-ism, and his like has not come again.

"when you say Spud
Still - he sounds like a square--why praise him in an Acidemic post? Well, cuz I love William Powell, and because some real psychedelic gold comes in the centerpiece musical number - a twisting carousel of bizarre interplay 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 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 crown atop the cake. Slowly revealing it all as the giant marble column cake, 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--really helped me to understand the mindset that led to all the ruffles and bows of turn of the century theater and costumery (a style I used to find insufferably stuffy and claustrophobic, the turn-of-the-century equivalent of burkas). This one weird dream musical number alone shows what both decades (the 1890s and 1900s) 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 pillowy pre-Edenic river of cloud 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.

This is especially clear in another surreal number, where 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 live and 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. Theatergoers can dream while awake, and share their dream with everyone around them..

In the post-Depression era, 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. We've become the invisible spectator. No one looks us in the eye anymore. It used to be that we could take our infantile fondness for the cloud mobile above our crib and adapt it for the adult world. In MGM's massive film, Flo Z is the one who dares dream the biggest cloud mobile of all, to bankrupt his backers and himself just to reach new heights in revolving stage staircases, 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. Or maybe that's just me, or 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 Vicodin-powered row of beautiful naked / naked / 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.

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