Saturday, April 27, 2013


1934 - ***

Von Sternberg was a genius but one could argue whether he never quite 'got' narrative pacing or dialogue, preferring the language of symbols, small gestures, posed tableaux, whips, furs, clusters of oppressive goose symbolism, ambient noise and Wagnerian gesture, all of which nearly suffocates the first half of arguably his best and worst of the Dietrich collaborations, SCARLET EMPRESS. Taken from the then still-sizzling diaries of the sexually voracious Catherine II of Russia, the film begins in a flower-encrusted choke-hold as the stuffily regimented duty and sickeningly sweet yet brutally-regimented playtime of a young Austrian noble (Dietrich, in curls) is contrasted with overlapping montages of DeMille-level lurid tortures endured by the Proletariat at the hands of the fur-hatted Cossacks in frigid Russia. The handsome, brooding, impeccably-uniformed John Lodge suddenly materializes like the first ever tall black shadow (with sable cape highlights) in the stuffy otherwise treacle-and-posey-filled brightly-lit Prussian parlor of Catherine's mother, to claim her for Russia's inbred maniac Peter (Sam Jaffe). Sexual sizzle seems in the cards, but the pompously over-orchestrated Russian melodies and airless claustrophobia is a long time clearing. One of Austria's unbearable matriarchs pokes and prods Dietrich like a piece of meat at the butcher's until your feminist blood is curdling, and you want to go on a regicidal rampage; and it's only after Lodge has whisked her fully off to Moscow --and has her to himself, warming her up within all the en route lodges, between one controlling reptilian old broad and the another--that we feel we can start to soak up the glories of the snow and the richly photographed sable wraps without the worry we're going to get hit on the head with a fan. Louise Dresser overplays with vulgarly Americanized bossiness as the seated "dowager empress" trying to urge Peter to get into that marital bed and give this doe-eyed Austrian a go, but he prefers prowling through the Satanic art-bedecked corridors of the royal palace like a whispering Harpo Marx on meth crossed with MESA OF LOST WOMEN's Dr. Leland rather than the marital boudoir. Catherine's fine with that, but the dowager is ranting about needing a male heir to the throne, making Bette Davis' mom in Now Voyager seem a model of demure compassion. If Peter won't perform, surely there are good little soldiers who can get the job done --provided they can be discreet, let Peter claim paternity and let the real father ideally not be already one of the dowager's many lovers, which include-- ewww!-- John Lodge. That's earning your sable the hard way.

It should all be salacious fun, but there are too many symbols, the film is choked with them: endless horses marching tediously along by the hundreds past the camera (JVS digs filming his "1,000 extras"); dehumanizing intertitles ("Pushed like a brood mare into a marriage with a royal half-wit"); Vaseline-lensed nature shots; lockets falling gently down the length of vast fir trees; interminable liturgies droned in candle-lit churches (enough grand high Orthodox Christian processions to bore even Eisenstein); endless ringing bells; and strangely modern, rather overwrought Satanic sculptures at every turn. Sure, those sculptures are awesome but still, this may be the most staid, stuffy, boring film that ever included shots of topless women being flogged and branded. If not for Lodge's low-key, strangely modern performance in the handsome lover role we might never feel, for a second, a moment of human realness. He's like the first cool person we meet at a strange school.

I imagine one day, if the right restoration comes along (in Blu-ray remaster rather than the high-contrast Criterion DVD we currently have - nice as that is), all that fussy Von Sternberg lighting over those rippling swaths of sable will finally pay off. For now we can only get the occasional glimmers of highlight along the sheer black - elsewhere it's just a black dark blob. But I'm sure he put it there, Josef was crazy as Masoch over that shit.

Still, high contrast and a reliance on historical montage or no, if you're in the right frame of mind (the kind wherein you dig falling asleep to the molasses-slow poetic sex of Franco or Rollin, for example) you might forgive Von Sternberg being a little too obsessed with the sadomasochistic double bind of Marlene being forced to brood mare it up, and dig how Peter's drilling holes through his mom's walls so he can spy on any lesbian panky reflects  JVS' own predilection for the peeping camera. Then you can sponge up the aesthetic gloom overkill and just lean back and watch Dietrich the actress seem to age quicker than her character does over the course of the film thanks to (based on what Von Sternberg writes in his Notes from a Chinese Laundry) the cruelty he inflicted on his icy, incompetent star. She starts the film gorgeous as she was in the first films--Morocco, Shanghai Express--and ends with the hardness of feature we get in her subsequent films. Indeed. her face in the final shot--wild eyed and triumphant in white--clanging the bells after storming the palace (forever)--is terrifying--it should have been the last image in their collaboration, but instead there was The Devil is a Woman next, a film in which Dietrich overacts as a Spanish peasant gold-digger mining Lionel Atwill--it looks gorgeous but the oversize hair combs are horrid and with her fake tan and brassy overacting, she's almost 50s Crawford-level shrill. The old glowing Dietrich starts out broken in Devil - we have no idea what Atwill or Romero sees in her. Watching it today, you can tell it was Scarlet that broke her. Dietrich seems to age five years for every one of Catherine's.

Still, if you watch closely during the big wedding scene you can see the same painterly glistening and angles on the face of Dresser that Von Sternberg gave to Dietrich in certain scenes of Dishonored. But by the end of the film Dresser is dead and Dietrich isn't the wide-eyed super cool innocent hipster super-seductress anymore (and certainly not the overly wide-eyed hammy innocent, way too gorgeous and reverently-lit for an inexperienced ingenue), but a steely woman with the ability to freeze her face in a malevolent 'chaotic neutral' smile and a slowly-but-inexorably developing knack for a more raucous kind of comedy that would find its post-code place, finally, in Destry Rides Again. 

1933 - ***1/2

"Watch out for her. She likes to wrestle," notes convict Lillian Roth of a cigar-smoking lesbian who looks not unlike a boxier version of famed sewing circle ringleader Mercedes De Acosta (lover of Garbo, below right). It's only one quick shot during a long and engaging women's prison tour Roth gives new inmate Barbara Stanwyck and, though she never came out of the closet publicly, it's interesting to find Babs semi-mocking an alleged fellow sewing circle sister onscreen. But at least the gay/lesbian reality was represented at Warner Brothers, where butch masseuses and flaming tailors (such as a recently restored scene of one taking Cagney's measurements in PUBLIC ENEMY) were winked at and cajoled but never taunted or humiliated, which is at least more than they'd get after the code, when they'd have to just disappear even deeper back into the closet until Hollywood could peer over Fellini's shoulder to learn what to do with them.

Mercedes De Acosta - right / Dyke in LADIES - left
But were speaking of LADIES. The bulk of this snappy prison film deals with a love affair between gang moll Babs and moral crusader Dan Slade (Preston Foster), the kind where each has to continually top the other in self-sacrifice and scathing honesty. He gets her off after she's busted as a bank job accessory, so she confesses she was really guilty, to burn him. He sends her to the joint, so she gets even by tearing up all his pleas to let him help her get paroled. Dan's terminal earnestness is all but mocked openly by WB screenwriters, but they give Stanwyck full license for two-fisted shots at the chin of numb-nuts patriarchy, the same target Sharon Stone aimed for in Basic Instinct but never really shattered the jaw of with Babs' same level of affinity (Stone seemed to try to be what Babs just was). Coolest of all is how the huge gaggle of female convicts are (a few exceptions aside) all friends; the bull-ettes are nice if you behave. Hell, this women's jail seem almost like Vassar, but when Lillian Roth sings "One Hour with You" while mooning over a glossy of Joe E. Brown, you know that, after the lights go out, things have gotten pretty desperate.

1933 - **1/2

It’s one of those films that could only have been made in the pre-code era at MGM, the studio who had the hardest time being truly subversive and often wound up just kinky and vaguely racist instead. Egyptian guide Emil (Ramon Navarro) begins the film saying a tearful good-bye to a rich white European tourist lady on the outgoing Cairo train, and then affixes himself to an incoming British socialite played by Myrna Loy. She's contemptuous and somewhat bitchy/imperialist but nowhere near as bad as her future Brit mother-in-law. Naturally, it being MGM, miscegenation would be out of the question, totally unallowable. Unless... hmmm except that she has some Middle Eastern blood, like her mother's side, some eastern branch royalty with a "family tree a mile long" maybe that's okay (though even that would be out for the post-codes). This was to be the genealogy then, of a lot of (white) socialites visiting Egypt who catch the eye of skulking Arabs in the pre-code era. Here Loy has an Egyptian mother (or rather 'had' - they're always dead, saving any social awkwardness amongst the white side of the family). In Egypt to visit her indefatigably British fiancee (Reginald Denny), his unbearably controlling mater (Blanche Friderici) and--luckily for this slightly half-caste debutante--Metro's king of 'harrumph' C. Aubrey Smith (lower left) as a more understanding pater. Clearly MGM is nudging its caravan along the same path trod by a pair of 1932 miscegenation fantasy hits, Universal's THE MUMMY and Columbia's BITTER TEA OF GENERAL YEN. But it's still MGM and therefore falls woefully short of Universal's lurid expressionism or even Columbia's humanist handball. Still, the pyramids are superbly evoked and the whole scene is alive with rear screen magic.

The plot, on the other hand, is straight out of a bad romance novel and there's way too much Egyptian being spoken one presume phonetically once she's off the reservation as it were. First Emil first worms his way into her flower-choked hotel room via offers of service as a guide, enduring the casual cruelties he's subjected to at the hands of the lordly British, and then turning the tables once he abducts her into the desert (where it's revealed he's a slumming prince). If you imagine what it would be like if MUMMY star Zita Johan went off into the MOROCCO desert to endure SWEPT AWAY-style whipping and dominance head games at the hands of GENERAL YEN, well then you've seen a lot of these movies, so you'll have no problem realizing the erotic Myrna Loy bathing scene is slightly sexier than Claudette Colbert’s milk bath in SIGN OF THE CROSS, which if these things matter to you, is nowhere near as awesome as Maureen O’Sullivan's nude swimming in TARZAN AND HIS MATE. Frankly I’m ashamed of myself for knowing all this, and so is Ramon Navarro, or he will be, once he’s caught by Myrna’s coterie of harrumphing Enlganders. But he won't be, you knew that, right? He'll go on to half-heartedly croon through his pages of romantic moon-gazing nonsense. The desert moon beckons and one thing MGM does right here, is to let the prince win. "He'll kill her!" shouts the Brits when they realize Emil has spirited Diana off once again; "oh no he won't," says the more liberal aunt. If they weren't still laboring under the idea they could make Nararro another Valentino (or that anyone in the pre-code era even wanted one), he's surely have to die for love, for the sins of loving not wisely but too well, and always seeming like he realizes the best way to hide the fact he doesn't even believe his own sincerity is to go through the Egyptian moon poetry in a kind of half-asleep trance. Still, if you're a fan of stock types singing Arab songs in front of rear screen projection deserts and hazy flocks of camels wafting around the pyramids, then you'll love it, as I mostly do.  

Erich taunts his wife with Adolphe's love letters
1931 - **

British officer Laurence Olivier goes a bit bananas as the 'other man' who loves nymphomaniac Lily Damita in this stuffy, tangled FAREWELL TO ARMS-meets D.H. Lawrence-ish saga set partly in London, partly in Paris, partly in India, and always squarely on the MGM backlot. The best parts are in the beginning with porcelain collector Erich Von Stroheim as nymphomaniac Damita's aesthete husband, lolling languidly in the surf of her lover Adolphe Menjou's discomfort upon realizing his lame opera alibi won't wash (he got the title wrong). It turns out Erich's not mad; he's expecting these things. His habit is to blackmail his errant wife's many lovers, charging Menjou a whopping $10,000 because "porcelain is... expensive."

Though porcelain collecting seems a rather insipid hobby for a man like Von Strohieim, we root for him all the way, especially since Damita is such a wearying screen presence. Like Novarro was a Valentino MGM were hoping Damita could be a kind of earthy Garbo. She can be charming in the right lighting, but when she's not 'on' her A-game she radiates a restless peevishness, like she's been kept waiting on the hot set all day and is tired of being prodded and mussed by the make-up lady and it's the tenth take. Nice legs, though. And a nice racket for Erich. Too bad another of Damita's lovers (Lawrence Olivier) later tries to shoot Menjou in a fit of jealous pique (by this time Damita already has another fiancee in the wings). This all proves a sufficient climax for MGM and the ending abruptly dumps everyone out on the curb after weekending at beloved old character actor Frederick "Here's to the House of Frankenstein!" Kerr's estate, and though he's cool with underhanded business, eh wot? his shrewish wife boots the men out onto the street, for conformity's sake. In short, it's a lot of familiar (for the era) love triangle business that adds up to little more than the bros-before-hos credo 'tested' and broken on the rocks of Damita's scattered lips and alleged sex appeal. Better we should have followed Erich von Stroheim's porcelain, to the floor... in shards!

1932 - **1/2

Divorce--still scandalous, risque and oh-so progressive--was enough of a subject for entire films back in 1932, even at the already risque and progressive Warner Brothers. Here novelist Julian (George Brent) pesters newly-divorced (rich) socialite Ruth Chatterton into marriage. Ick! She wants to have a little fun in Paris first but secretly wants him to come out and pester her, presumably. Trouble is, Brent always presumes. In every role he's ever played, he ignores women's attempts to evade him, wading in to range, nose first.  I despise him on principle--his whole attitude reflects the gateway rationalization of many a stalker. If he likes you, you're his. Your opinion is decided for you. You're a girl - you like a man to take charge. After all, who are you to bust up a beautiful, inevitable romance? Meanwhile, as Chatterton talks on the phone from Paris, her kid sister-like college chum Bette Davis tries to steal Julian away, but in a Midge kind of semi-joking manner that never works in movies, until maybe the very end (unless the man you're stealing is Frank Sinatra).

What's so fascinating this time around is the idea that ex-married couples can still be friends and look out for each other. Ruth's middle-aged investment broker ex-husband starts losing his clients once he's seen snoozing the night away at the ritzy clibs he's regularly dragged out to by his energetic, younger Paris Hilton-esque trophy wife. Chatterton comes back to NYC and throws her weight around to keep his business afloat, rather than marrying the sappy and saccharine Brent, who's fond of purring bad lines like, "Will you think I've fallen out of love with you if I light a cigarette?" like it's the cleverest most sincerely romantic string of words ever uttered. Sister Bette Davis' dialogue is, on the other hand, pretty smart, and the issues of marriage and divorce are rather adultly presented. Alfred E. Green (BABY FACE) directs with plenty of that old WB pepper but there's only so much you can do with material this thin. No sooner has the bitchy new young wife announced she's pregnant but doesn't want to keep the baby (since it would ruin her figure), she's instantly killed in a car wreck, but at least she got to say what everyone's thinking. Julian would be better off with Davis, but that's not to say Chatterton doesn't have great ditzy appeal; she's the living hybrid stop between Carole Lombard and her mother in MY MAN GODFREY (1936), and I mean that as a compliment.

Monday, April 22, 2013

The (Rube) Goldberg Variations: The FINAL DESTINATION Quadrilogy (2000-2011)

The most effective teen horror films keep it close. They're smart enough to know closed-down gold mines or prom trains or the moon or other weird settings don't scare us half as much as our own neighborhood, i.e. the 'burbs, college, high school, anywhere we normally go. Carpenter just had to move the camera behind a big tree watching Laurie Strode and her friend walk to school down her suburban street, and our blood chilled. With flash-cut minutiae of hazardous modern life--a dozen nurse's office walls' worth of queasy safety warning poster moments--The FINAL DESTINATION series gets this. It wryly goes where no other horror franchise treads --straight over to your house, to poke amongst your over-worked outlets  spray paint cannisters stored too close to a space heater, extension cord patches melting over a hot stove while the toaster plugged into it frizzles, soda cup condensation too near a tanning bed outlet, a small crack in the window... these things are to Death like paints on a palette.

In this five film series James (X-Files) Wong and Glen Morgen make sure no single broken pilot light goes close-upped. This is what it sounds and looks like when you're briefly aware of all the sharp surfaces you open yourself up to day-by-day. The bad trip paranoid nightmare of 21st century living.

The stories all start the same: a group of teens or teens, young adults and some just plain 'adults' caught in the web, are at an event or about to board a plane, visit a race track, drive cross a bridge or board a roller coaster. A grisly event is played out as if real, and it's awesome! Everyone dies brutally ---but then we zoom out of the dreamer's eyeball, back to right before it starts; the dreamer starts freaking out, saving his or her immediate cronies, plus some random cross-section of other people, pissing off the unseen specter of Death in the process, and creating the need for its little Rube Golderg-style mouse traps to come. Showing flair both as a Young Person's Guide to Home Safety manual come to life, and as a series of unpretentious, witty junk horror films, the series prefers its blood to be a dark shiny CGI red, with plenty of gore, but no sick-in-the-gut feeling over suffering of the torture porn kind, no real dread to bum us out as such. Since the killer is Greek tragedy style Fate/Death it's what Pauline Kael would call a 'dirty kick' --recreating in the viewer, however briefly, the jouissance of childhood, of being keenly aware of all the sharp objects around, the bugs and stingers under every rock, the power of giant adults to squash us without noticing. It makes us suddenly feel alive. 

I guess it takes growing up alienated to relate. I would love to see a sequel where some super shy kid has one of these premonitions while, say, on a school bus to a field trip, and is too shy to freak out and cause a scene. As a result he dies anyway. That would have been me, during the early 80's slasher boom: too cool to pretend I wasn't terrified, frozen behind shades and a smirk, hoping at least that, when he got to me, the slasher would be quick about it. After all, I had places to be, i.e. in my room, on my beanbag chair, reading a DC war comic I had already read a dozen times, like THE UNKNOWN SOLDIER.

Dig, it's about a soldier with a bandaged face who can assume all sorts of disguises behind enemy lines, but who is he? Can he ever fall in love... with a face presumably so hideous? I had every issue, a full run. I was so proud, but who was impressed? Not girls, certainly--and if I had a face to show them, it wouldn't be the one that hides in his room reading comics.

I've lectured to enough stone-quiet college kids nowadays to know my brand of morose teenagerdom is both more and less relevant than ever. Luckily kids today have a chemical buffer, salve for their pain that stops them from being too sad, maybe, but also stops them rising up in those brief fiery manic releases that come from prolonged suffering, those moments of transformation that can only come when there's nothing left to lose, a feeling that then tends to dissolve as soon as we finally--through this new confidence--have something we want to keep. Is that why we were able to escape our sad ambivalence in the first place? Just so it could get the thrill of recapturing us?

That's just one reason why the Final Destination series wouldn't work as well if set outside the USA. Other nations, perhaps being so much older than ours, are less embarrassed about dying, less prone to demonize death and immolate the soothsayers in their midst, shoot-the-messenger-style. In the US we think of death like it's dandruff or an STD. We treat life like a banquet but we get indignant at the check. 

Was unprotected sex really worth all this death? If our ancestors used condoms we'd be forever incorporeal, free. That sticky flytrap substance rooted us to time/space! 

"The only way to survive is to look beneath the visible world"

 Either way, it's not death's fault your parents were sloppy.

Sure, this is just old-fashioned Puritan dread, the kind that--to use the Fosse vernacular--ensures after every Ben Vereen musical ascension into Jessica Lange's heavenly arms there shalt also be a zipped-up body bag and Ethel Merman. This is what Wong and Morgen understand, which is why the 'pre-cog' hero of each film is treated like a monster by at least a few of the saved and/or their parents. These resentful survivors are the 'normal,' Christian, white, NRA American types, the ones who are afraid of--and embarrassed by--death, yet also obsessed by its potential as a legitimate alternative to the sins of the flesh. These God-fearing Americans, death is dirty, sex is obscene, though they have ten kids and five guns, or the politician who hates gays so much he just has to cruise the bus stops. American heads are buried so ostrich deep in an assortment of desert dirt dogmas that these weird inconsistencies seem perfectly natural to them. Hating and fearing the person who saves their lives, voting for more war while rejecting health-care, wishing terrorists came to their town so they'd finally have a reason to use their assault rifles, while screaming against immigration. 

I get that --my teenage buddy Alan went that route in the 80s and I very nearly COULD have, if not for pot. Weed makes you immune to rage.... temporarily. It's why the older generation's so scared of it! Read my pamphlet, man... hey where you goin'?

'Touched by premonition in these movies, the accident survivors indirectly cause most of the killings they're trying to avert, barging into the their homes at odd hours, freaking out over some new gleaned kernel of intuition, triggering the sleeper's death. They even risk their own lives trying to protect the ones who treat them like a combination Snowden/alarm clock.  Instead of dying safe within their constrictive view of what it means to be Americans, these survivors resent the kids who force them into a state of cosmopolitan ennui, like a goddamned European existentialist. Thanks, "Omabo!"

But what makes these films 'fun' is that preconception and paranoia go hand-in-hand, and that's what makes us a nation of horror movie-quoting psychics. We've seen so many horror movies that we always know when something's about to happen. A perfect meta-textual William Castle gimmick, Death in these films can almost hear us shouting at the idiots onscreen and it's tickled to death to be a part of the action. It loves to fake us out and surprise us. And best of all, it doesn't traumatize or implicate us in its devious design. It stays invisible, a force in the fabric of the diegetic reality, that no single figure of malice presents itself to concretize our fear, so it's never scary, just fun in an amusement park ride kind a way. Without even a mask, Death's just a lovable, twisted, silent, invisible Rube Goldberg coincidence time-space serpent, occupying the same 'no space' omnipresence of we viewers.

Here they are in order:.

(2000) - **1/2

The plane crash opener is solid, but this film falls off from there. Devon Sawa is too solemn and sweaty and it makes no sense why he would still go out of his way to save the life of the main dick who torments him, or why the dopey fed who suspects him of foul play doesn't bother to research past premonition cases. And Sawa does himself no favors by racing into the houses of those he reckons are about to die, indirectly causing their deaths, getting their blood all over his clothes right before the cops arrive. I've known dumb kids like this in real life and one of the reasons I've never been arrested is I always just walk away when they start acting like this. Why should I stick around now?

On the plus side: the love interest, a girl with the great character name of Clear Rivers (Ali Larter), exudes fresh odd final girl Wednesday Adams-style resilience which makes up for Sawa's glum posturing. A highlight is their visit to a mysterious undertaker (Tony "Candyman" Todd) who dispenses cryptic advice and there's a great middle section with Devon alone in a cabin, 'death-proofing' every last corner and jagged edge of his one room fort, Death occasionally sending in a mysterious wind to try to blow over some jagged edge in a closet or something. 

Overall this first effort gets by more on originality and chutzpah than ingenuity. The series got a lot better once it limited death's palette to the freaky but possible, requiring much more Rube Goldbergian ingenuity on behalf of the writers, and scaling back the douche bag element.

(2003) - ***

A step up, with a great catastrophic highway accident opener --one of the best. This time the teenager gifted with grisly premonitions is female (A.J. Cook), and the return of Clear Rivers (Ali Larter) from part one adds extra final girl glory (the scenes in her padded cell are hilarious) and there is nice random assembly of highway commuters. including an obnoxious cokehead biker and a douche who just won the lottery. Your money's no good here, pal. Death works pro bono. So they best heed the useless sage-isms from Tony "Candyman" Todd, and realize Hollywood NEEDS a black Bela Lugosi or black Boris Karloff or black Rondo Hatton and Todd could maybe he all three, if we'd let him into our hearts with his gentle embalming catheter.

I like when the dwindling survivors all decide they have to move in together and start death-proofing a studio loft, as if preparing for a Big Brother-style reality show season where death acts like a mute host, voting contestants off with a vengeance for the slightest of careless mistakes. That said, the endless hostility between the bikers, hipsters and greedy yuppies as they try to cohabitate and agree on house rules does grate on the nerves. There's a good reason why these types shouldn't mix! 

(2006) ***1/2

The Citizen Kane of FD movies, this is the one that got me into the series because it's always on IFC. Chill indie hipster icon Mary Elizabeth Winstead is ideal as the survivor-psychic, this time of a roller coaster accident watched over by a giant amusement park Satan. It's perfect casting as "usually chill" people like her so hate to be suddenly the center of attention that when she freaks out in her seat before the ride starts, we realize we've nver seen the normally unflappable Winstead acting so undone, even in the sequel/remake of THE THING!  Her character asl he has a cute sister (Alexz Johnson), a decently repentant non-curly-haired boyfriend, and an unusually witty group of cliché stock teen peers instead of the usual larder of obnoxious douchebag bros and vapid hotties. Deaths are foretold in photos Winstead took while waiting in line for the coaster which is guarded at the front by a giant red demon statue (Tony "Black Rondo Lugosi" Todd supplied the mechanical voice).  It all adds up to a particularly wry entry, with tons of loving horror fan in-jokes (characters have last names like Romero, Freund, Dreyer, Ulmer, Wise, Halperin). Like a friend riding shotgun, Death even scans for relevant songs on the car radio ("There is someone / walking behind you") and the calamities are particularly spectacular, the roller coaster takes a long time to gradually go off the rails, vividly hitting every bump, sending small objects like cameras flying as projectiles. Car crashes, tanning bed accidents and Home Depot stockroom nail gun disasters follow and everything leads up to a clumsy but amusing fairground fireworks finale with a runaway white horse, and an amok goth wiseass mourning his hot girlfriend co-worker, and even a second climax in the NYC subway.

(2009)  - **

I have no idea why the powers that be decided to call this 'The Final Destination' -- is four a bad luck number in junk sequels? It would be forgivable if it didn't use 3-D as a crutch (I guess "Final Destination 4 in 3D was too numerical?). And the climax, set in a 3-D theater showing a movie with a big explosion that will happen literally at the same time unless the hero stops it blah blah, isn't nearly as 'the Tingler is in the theater!' meta if you're seeing it at home in 2-D. Nice idea though. William Castle would probably have arranged a lookalike actress freaking out in the audience right before the big boom. And there's a great but under-explored side bit with a recovering alcoholic security guard who tries to use being marked for death as an excuse to relapse, laying out his AA big book, one-year chip and big brandy snifter (see my review of 2012 - Day of a Million Relapses!) on his dining room table. It would have been great if he did relapse, instead of just forgetting all about his.... delicious..... snifter and trying to hang himself instead. Yo, drink your damn drink! It's less work. 

Let down by a tendency to switch to CGI  x-ray bone breaking animation (and unrealistic CGI blood) instead of straight-up gore, it's a step way down from the hipster glory of its predecessor, but it's still a dull moment-free (if small) blast. 

(2011) - ***1/2

This go-round kicks off on a suspension bridge with a busload of hot young or comic employees bound for a corporate retreat. The craziness that ensues looks good even in 2-D; the tacky X-ray bone-grind gore is gone and replaced with the tactile analog variety, and, while less casual than the third installment, it's still got a nice hint of indie hipness about it, like a big budget Roger Corman production directed by Joe Dante back in the 70s.

This time it's discerned that if you kill someone while on your borrowed time they can take your place in death's account book, so the ubiquitous distraught douche decides it's only fair he kills the hero's girlfriend since his died on the bridge, etc. The ending brings us all the way back around to the first film in the series for a nice surprise loop-de-loop, showing death's wicked sense of humor and maybe his whole raison d'etre for starting this whole catch-and-release mess to begin with. 

 Special mention to the most devastatingly hot girl in maybe the whole series, Olivia (Jaqueline MacInnes Wood) who is killed while strapped into a Lasik eye surgery machine. I predict big things for this lanky, at-ease-in-her-own-skin taller Elizabeth Hurley-Tanya Roberts-Sophie Marceau-ish beauty. I hear from Wikipedia she's already a 'fan favorite.' For what is' worth (which is nothing)back in the late-80s, I loved a girl who looked a little like her, back when I was a decadent  college rock star --and now she's old and looks like Anna Magnani. Don't let yourself go, Jacqueline! 

What, is that off-topic? Believe it or not, no-- for there's a good reason these films star and are marketed to young people. Death is still only real to them as accident or murder, not as the inescapable gravitational black hole that reveals the teflon 'family' chain around all our ankles connecting us--in order of seniority--to some anchor long vanished into the vortex. As the chain slowly unwinds we watch our grandparents disappear into the void first, the chain dragging them into the depths of nothingness, then--as we age--our parents are next--and soon it's only us... and maybe our kids after that--or, in some cases, like mine.... just the end of the line. Only 20-somethings seem to have that true jaw-dropping, youthful beauty --still fresh but no longer a child, in full flower as Shakespeare might say.  They can't even see the void yet, let alone notice the chain. Soon the passing of time and/or the hormonal ravages of giving birth will siphon the air out of Woods' loveliness and--in a mere 50 years she'll be just another old broad, and/or dead. 

Oh, Paula! Oh, Olivia! Oh Jacqueline! Lenore! Oh, Annabel Lee! Oh, To stop time for just a second, those precious minutes of Woods' radiance like grains of sand I hold in the waves... as Poe once wrote,

"how they creep
Through my fingers to the deep,
While I weep- while I weep!
O God! can I not grasp
Them with a tighter clasp?
O God! can I not save
One from the pitiless wave?"

No, Poe!
They all must go. 
Your hand that holds them too, 
crumbling and decomposing,
til all that's left, 
are words and images
depicting the death, 
you know was coming.  
Did the knowing help?
Did you know your words would?

Sunday, April 21, 2013

His Girl Friday vs. CNN: Boston Edition

The turbulent, tragic events in Boston this past week created a curious time ripple in our 24 hour news channels, and they may never recover. The internet has taken the lead now, and by the time CNN catches up, whatever they caught up to is old news. Watching TV at home now is like being a grandpa; your iPad's telling you some serious shit is going down and you turn to CNN, presuming they'll have up-to-the-minute details. You trust them to be on the ball, and they're still playing regularly scheduled programming, still playing the stuff they fill in time with while waiting for real news to break.

Some of this reticence might be explained by the ribbing they were getting by John Stewart, who pointed out how many times CNN had announced the terrorists had been identified and/or arrested, and so on, leading to boy who cried Blitzer confusion. For what it's worth, at least one CNN source who spoke with Business Insider seems to agree with Stewart. "As I think everyone knows, we really fucked up," the source is quoted as saying. "No way around it. "

I mean this as no disrespect to the survivors and victims and heroes of the hour, please believe me. This is a criticism solely of the newscasters, for whom babbling about the (very real) courage of Boston with a gleam over sad music in the background was the new black, to the point they couldn't stop doing it even when real shit was breaking.

Here's some REDDIT thread compilations from the same time period the TV newscasters were busy babbling and re-playing past moments of triumph and sadness and horror in Texas and Boston:

EDIT 12:41 EST: MIT updated their emergency site again. The shooter remains at large, police continue to search the campus. Please REMAIN INDOORS until further notice.
EDIT 12:49 EST: Shots fired in Cambridge. Shots and Explosions in Watertown.
EDIT 12:50 EST: Shots fired. Grenades spotted.
EDIT 12:51 EST: More shots, explosion. Grenade went off.
EDIT 12:55 EST: Officer down. Explosives at scene. 94 Spruce Street??
EDIT 12:56 EST: Reports of a stolen state police truck. Black, 4 door.
EDIT 12:57 EST: Second officer down. Hand Grenades...automatic weapons fired.
EDIT 12:58 EST: Spruce (sp?) and Lincoln
EDIT 1:00 EST: Dexter and Laural. Suspect injured. Explosives in the area.
EDIT 1:01 EST: Officers ordered back.  HYPERLINK ",+Watertown,+MA&hl=en&sll=42.367813,-71.171703&sspn=0.00352,0.004823&oq=94+spruce+street&t=h&hnear=94+Spruce+St,+Watertown,+Massachusetts+02472&z=16" Map of area thanks to  HYPERLINK "" /u/rm-rf_ 
EDIT 1:01 EST: Suspect is on foot.
EDIT 1:02 EST:  HYPERLINK "" /u/iBrave sent me another  HYPERLINK ",-71.170791&spn=0.004635,0.00655&sll=42.377822,-71.153287&sspn=0.004635,0.00655&t=h&gl=us&hnear=Spruce+St+%26+Lincoln+St,+Watertown,+Middlesex,+Massachusetts+02472&z=18&iwloc=A" map
EDIT 1:03 EST: Bomb Squad on their way.
EDIT 1:05 EST: Officers asked to power off phones/leave them in the car to prevent explosions.
EDIT 1:06 EST: 2 explosives confirmed. One near down officer. Robot in area to diffuse.
EDIT 1:09 EST: Suspect car still in the area.
EDIT 1:09 EST:  HYPERLINK "" Parameter from unnamed source.
EDIT 1:10 EST: Watertown not answering phones. Suspect in ambulance, one at gun point.
EDIT 1:11 EST: They are taking one of the suspects to Beth Israel (hospital). (Thanks  HYPERLINK "" /u/TheVacillate)
EDIT 1:12 EST: FBI on scene (thanks  HYPERLINK "" /u/bnjmn556)
EDIT 1:13 EST: Roll call to make sure everyone is okay/accounted for.
EDIT 1:17 EST: MIT updated their site: Suspect remains at large.
EDIT 1:19 EST: 2 in custody.
EDIT 1:19 EST: Another guy down?
EDIT 1:20 EST:  HYPERLINK "" Photos and Videos
EDIT 1:22 EST: Reports of suspect heavily armed in backyards.
EDIT 1:23 EST: MSP called for K9 unit.
EDIT 1:25 EST: May NOT have second suspect!!!
EDIT 1:26 EST: Reports of pressure cooker bombs!!!
EDIT 1:29 EST: Active shooter. audio noises
EDIT 1:29 EST: CNN has footage of suspect at gun point.
EDIT 1:30 EST: No report of an active shooter at this time. 40 police cars on their way to Watertown.
EDIT 1:32 EST: Second suspect reported to be in custody. No active shooters. No shots fired.

Being afraid of jumping the gun and confirming faulty information on air isn't really an excuse to let yourself be scooped by social media. I don't think it's the whole story, either, though they made it seem that way once they finally switched over to live coverage and immediately set about rationalizing their tardiness as concern for the facts, and not the false rumors and misdirection that the police can sometimes put out to convince the criminals to let down their guard, and so on.

What was most mind-boggling is at the same time all this was happening, TCM's was showing one of my all-time favorite movies, HIS GIRL FRIDAY (1940), introduced by Robert Osborne and Cher. The tale of two reporters going all-out to scoop the other papers on an escaped prisoner, meek homeless killer Earle Williams, in a high profile capital punishment case. So we were watching my girls' choice: CNN while "Hallelujah" kept playing over slow-mo montages of survivors as big news broke on Twitter, and mine: Rosalind Russell hiding Williams in a roll-top desk and keeping him quiet so they can get an exclusive extra out exposing the current sheriff and mayor as self-serving imbeciles was a perfect analog synchronistic mirror to what was going on over on mainstream news channels right that very second, which was enough to make any newscaster a star, but once they finally woke back up these reporters didn't snap into the spirit of the thing, but rather resumed treading water with a nonstop freestyle extemporaneous blather.

Of course there are major differences in the film and the coverage, but synchronicity is God's way of showing you that things bear scrutiny. Take this HIS GIRL FRIDAY moment of overlapping contradictory reports from the reporters all gathered in the press room, phones to their ears, watching the drama unfold as cops surround the rolltop desk with drawn guns. In the real event, the roll top is rolled up and Earl Williams weakly shouts "Go ahead, shoot me!" and he's hauled, exhausted and half-dragging his feet, from the room.

Reporter 1: Williams was unconscious when they opened the desk!
Reporter 2: Williams put up a desperate struggle but the police overpowered him!
Reporter 3: He offered no resistance!
Reporter 4: Tried to bust through a cordon of police
Cary Grant: - Duffy, the Morning Post turned Earl Williams over to the sheriff!
(sheriff slams down phone on Grant, cuffs him)
Reporter 2:  The sheriff is tracing a mysterious phone call which led to Williams' hiding place!

 This all happens so fast it takes several viewings to soak all the way in, but I mention it to point out the remarkable way ain't a damn thing changed. Why else was I confronted with such a monstrous coincidence as the film playing on TCM at the exact same time all this was breaking? What's awesome is that if the TV news couldn't wise up to the power of social media, the cops could. Instrumental, perhaps, in cornering him, was the cops announcing at a press conference that they would be pulling out of the Watertown neighborhood the killer was last seen in, knowing the media would leak it back to the suspect, from every possible direction, over and over again, and result in the hiding killers letting down their guards.

Getting news faster, and from a variety of simultaneous sources, and letting the public see it all as it happens and draw their own conclusions, not just rambling about whatever comes into your should be the number one goal of any TV broadcaster at this time. In 1940 breaking news had to be sent in via phone from a reporter, typeset and rushed through the printer to beat out another paper in an extra edition; even if they only had an hour or so ahead of their rivals, it was a major victory. Reporters were made or broken by such scoops. And on this past Thursday night, cable news channels got scooped. Outclassed. Turned into dinosaurs. Until CNN wises up and gets an intern to monitor cop radios and Twitter feeds, or scrolls tweets from a pool of on-the-spot names constantly onscreen, then instead of giving attention-hungry reporters enough on-air rope to hang themselves, then HIS GIRL FRIDAY will have the real news, and Earl Williams will go to die and in the process a light will go out in the eyes of Molly Malloy, as she loses the one friend she ever had, and all the while good people at CNN will be running another episode of Anthony Bourdain's Parts Unknown, and quietly working on their resumes.


Monday, April 15, 2013

The Blackened Face of the Glory-Bound Golem: WONDER BAR (1934)

Playing like a midnight car accident between the Warner's Gold Digger series and a sleazy Dostoevsky-ish existential comedy, Wonder Bar was one of the last films to sneak by the Joe Breen production code and it all but dares the censors to cross the line backwards in pursuit, like a bunch of ball-snipping nihilists after the Dude. Occurring almost in real time, over one evening at the titular Parisian nightspot owned and emceed by Al Wonder (Al Jolson), the movie aims for a 'cavalcade of stars' vibe ala Grand Hotel, Dinner at Eight, or Paramount's  International House but it lands on a roof all its own. Onstage: Busby Berkeley-directed dance numbers including one spectacularly offensive cavalcade of black stereotypes savaging the folksy decency of the (then still just a hit play) The Green Pastures. Offstage, a savagery of future Breen no-nos: unpunished murders, endorsed suicide, gambling, unpunished extramarital trysts, and even homosexuality. If there's no W.C. Fields autogyro to lift you out of this dark madness, well, just walk home as nonchalantly as you can. It's Paris, after all --even the forbidden is permitted.. for now... but Nazism im der Winde kommt! 

There are several interwoven stories and emotions too strange not to unweave and examine separately:

1. The chilling exhilaration displayed by the Russian gambler who lost his fortune gambling the night before, so is planning to to kill himself tonight. Clearly hoping someone will talk him out of it since he can't shut up about the ways he might do it, his merriment in the face of being broke nonetheless recalls Dostoevsky's famous line, "a real gentleman, even if he loses everything he owns, must show no emotion." As he gives away his watch and remaining rubles to the scantily-clad chorus girls, they don't bat a single eyelash over his suicide threats (if they took him seriously, after all, they might feel obligated to give him his stuff back).

2. The love quintanglement between the ballroom dancing couple of 'The Gigolo' (this is how Jolson introduces him- at the time it still meant one of the professional male dance partners that used to be for rent at upscale ballrooms) played by Ricardo Cortez, his partner Dolores del Rio, and a whole slew of their former lovers, past, present, and future angling for a spin. There's the rich married woman (Kay Francis) after Cortez; and after Dolores, the bandstand crooner Dick Powell and, most masochistically self-abasing of them all, emcee Jolson (Powell 'knew' her first). But no one is going home happy tonight because Dolores is way to obsessive over her Gigolo. To the point, perhaps, of murder. A crime which Jolson is all too eager to cover up in a bid to win her over. 

Seriously, the way these people crawl and scrape shamelessly after each other is almost Carson McCullers-level degrading; Jolson's level of bootlick self-pity, especially, is just way too adult for the future era of the code and too self-pitying for our jaded age.

3.  Gold Digger regulars Guy Kibbee and Hugh Herbert as randy old duffers trying to score on the sly with two 'party' girls while their matronly spouses look on in shocked disapproval (Guy laments: "there out to be a law against bringing your wife to Paris"). But-- in the dreariest, stalest sub-plot of the evening--the ladies too find matches in younger, jewelry-hungry gigolos. There's some amusingly drunk interplay of old pros Kibbee and Herbert, but it's dispiriting to see the weird Gold Digger three-way romance of the 1933 film reduced to slovenly old midwesterners drunkenly drooling over mercenary French hustlers. 

4. Busby Berkeley's usually dazzling choreography and surreal camera movements seems somewhat flea-bitten this go-round. Showing perhaps a less Gold Diggers-level budget, forced to rely too heavily on angled mirrors and a spinning circular stage to create most of the effects. And more than in the past, Berkeley brings us to the edge of anthropomorphism: our eye is continually shifting from seeing his overhead patterns first as people and then as abstract patterns, then back again, in a way that's truly relevant to the film's uneasy sense of self-loathing and dehumanized alienation. 

5. The cast's freaky 'otherness' is played up even as they are meant to be identifiable as certain types, i.e. the foolishly-smitten with her young gigolo trophy wife, the jealous Latina firebrand, The hood-eyed Latin playa, the bug-eyed Jewish golem, the hick tourists from Indiana, etc. There's no sense of connection or belonging, just humanity slipping in and out dehumanized abstraction. Only the suicidal Russian seems to be all the way human --no Wonder this Bar is making him suicidal.

5.  Al Jolson singing "Going to Heaven on Mule," in blackface.
Yikes, here we go...

Grinning and strutting like a spastic jackanapes through an array of offensive stereotype postures, cavorting and twisting his blackened face into hideous leering grimaces, Jolson's blackface is truly a shocking sight to see. Meant as a homage-cloaked xenophobic satire of the then-popular stage play, Green Pastures, one "wonders" how this or any aspect of Al Jolson was ever popular. He does grow on one in a forgotten curio sort of way over the course of the film, but then this number kind of dispels any good vibes he might have generated. The shock of stumbling on this, buried deep in the rest of the film, is like overturning a rock in the the Museum of Radio and Television and finding a nest of hideous vermin.

Notes the Museum of Family History site, almost by way of apology-cum-rationalization:
Back in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, actors performing in blackface were more accepted by the general public, though Jolson was the first comedian to use blackface. He did this with a great deal of energy and spirit; he felt freer and more spontaneous behind the burnt cork than he ever did in 'whiteface.' As time went on, though others may have used burnt cork, it was obvious that no one could do blackface like Jolson.
In his book Dangerous Men, Mick LaSalle describes Jolson as the 'troll king' of early sound film, the golem who segued between evoking the lovesick deformed circus masochists of Lon Chaney-Tod Browning silents and the fast-talking toughs of the pre-code gangster boom. Unlike the Chaney freaks Jolson's was an inner deformity in his own mind, leading him to project a level of insecurity and self-loathing so intense it became its own grandstanding narcissistic opposite. A kind of slow motion downward death spiral down a Vitaphone crackle-and-hiss drain, it was if being the first person to speak and sing on film had left him permanently self-conscious, yet tickled to a childlike fit of jouissance over the attention it got him. "In film after film, Jolson not only watches himself, he watches you watch him," notes LaSalle. He's a "borscht belt Pagliachi... a monster as masochistic as Chaney, but needier, more self-pitying, and, of course, louder." (18-19)

Now there are some who think two wrongs don't make a right, but this ground zero of semitic self-loathing coupled to black-face racism has a train-wreck pull for others, such as myself. Does it help that Jolson was a big supporter of black entertainers and possibly felt a kinship with oppressed African Americans? (i.e. slave race ancestry?) A Jew who played up his own Jewishness, Jolson had to struggle with stereotypes himself in an age where clubs were openly 'restricted' and long before Gregory Peck made his Gentlemen's Agreement. Jews and blacks alike had to play humble, decent submissives who understood and respected Jim Crow and social restrictions as being for their own benefit, helping them hide their inferiority from their WASP overlords. 

As if cementing the similarity, behold the above picture: the archaic Yiddish characters on the newspaper providing a reverse under-halo to the sunrise of loose straw from Jolson's hat, framing a blackface golem beamed here through a stray TV signal from some uncanny nightmare dimension. 

The Green Pastures satire aspect is eerily soothing in this bizarro world context: the opiate promise of heading into the sunshine of eternal glory (anywhere but here) on a mule, just like the code had planned for us immediately following this last moment of a wanderin' in the pre-code valley of the shadow of libidinal freedom.

 Here's Jolson fan Glenn Kenny on the many questions surrounding Jolson's 'right' to blacken up:
"For "Mule," Jolson's in full blackface, with overalls and a straw hat, talking to his little girl (a white child, also in blackface) of his dying intentions. What follows is a thoroughly outrageous parade of racial stereotypes and caricatures of the afterlife—an orchard from which pork chops hang from trees! giant watermelons! non-stop crap games! in all-singing, all-dancing glory, accompanied by one of Harry Warren's least infectious tunes... But in a way, the hands-down most bizarre image of the entire sequence is a weird double-joke on ethnic identity, which see's Jolson's blackfaced share-cropper getting a shoe-shine while engrossed in the Hebrew-language newspaper The Forward."
One of the comments on the post, from 'Karen':
"And the part of the film that has always horrified me the most is just what you've emphasized: the moment that Jolson's grinning face rises over the edge of The Forvert, like the White Queen's face rising up nightmarishly over the edge of the soup tureen in the closing chapters of Alice Through the Looking Glass. Perhaps it's because I'm a Jew myself--or maybe just because I'm a human being--his expression of knowing exemption is about as heinous as it gets. As far as blackface goes, it's well-nigh impossible for a 21st-century viewer to have an adequate grasp of how objectionable it may or may not have been at the time, but that grin while reading the Yiddish news, putting paid to any sense of homage to the race he's aping, just seems like it could never have been anything but vile."
I like her comparison to the White Queen, yet Karen scratches out any notion of context, noting that the 'grin' puts paid to anything but vileness. She's right that we'll never have an adequate grasp of the overall frequency of such a negative interpretation. 

B ut perhaps we can glean a rough idea from the post-WWI, pre-WWII Parisian setting.  

Paris had become a black musician expat refuge for two very good reasons: Parisians revered jazz and weren't as racist. There were no Jim Crow laws, or other humiliations (like not even being allowed to sit with the white folks at Harlem's Cotton Club). That treatment was more reserved for the French equivalent of the black person, the Arab. 

And yet (or maybe because of the lack of racism towards ex-pat African Americans) Paris nightclubs celebrated and overindulged in the spectacle of blackness, of difference, amplifying perceived traits to a state of almost avant garde shock value. The 'jungle music' aspect of, say, Duke Ellington, was played up in posters and set decor, band members changing from their usual tuxedoes into leopard skin for the film short. 

The exotica of Josephine Baker (left) made her a huge star (left), and let's not even go there with Sarah Baartman (i.e. 'the Black Venus).

And the connection between Jews and black musicians had always been vibrant, loving and reciprocal. During the Nazi occupation 'Zionists' were suspected of underwriting jazz's hypnotic rhythms, as Screen Deco's Mathew C. Hoffman notes:
Jolson was a Russian Jew and knew something about discrimination and could draw a parallel between the suffering of blacks and his own people. He grew up in the minstrel tradition of vaudeville and used his blackface as a way of bringing black music to white audiences. It was also a way for him to immerse himself in the characterization. It’s been said Jolson used the technique as a metaphor for human suffering.

In an excellent From the Barrelhouse piece on Django Reinhardt comes this excerpt from a tract on 'Nazifying Jazz' -
“Strictly prohibited is the use of instruments alien to the German spirit – so-called cowbells, flexatone, brushes, etc – as well as all mutes which turn the noble sound of wind and brass instruments into a Jewish-Freemasonic yowl – so-called wa-wa, hat, etc.”               -- Step 5 in Nazifing Jazz, as recalled in Josef Skvorecky’s Bass Saxophone
None of this forgives the litany of stereotypes, even to me who grew up gazing with a five year-old's pre-racial mistrust at the cover Little Black Sambo (on thick 78s I inherited from a relative) and watching blackface cartoons like Coal Black and the Sebbin Dwarfs on local television, even seeing Song of the South in the theater, and never thinking anything was wrong about it except that it was boring as fuck and I wanted to get on to Treasure of the Matacumbe, which came on after Song in a 1976 double feature revival, though that sucked too. I ended up throwing up in the lobby, while my mom and an usher hovered over me in deep concern. It wasn't because of the racism, it was just too boring.

More than anything now, in today's light, minstrelry is our shame, not Jolson's or anyone else's. It's a sad example of the white compulsion to smite or mock all difference, a need still prevalent underneath the skin of so much news channel rhetoric. And yet, at the same time... exaggeration and performed accentuation of difference is sometimes the gateway to tolerance.

Speaking of difference, a few words on the seemingly altered face of Dolores Del Rio (above) as the dancer who has Jolson and Dick Powell mooning over her, but who loves only disinterested Cortez. I know she's beautiful or whatever but her face creeps me out. The sunken skull eyes, tiny bump of a nose, razor cheekbones, etc. She's like death incarnate... at least in this film. When the blunt cops in L.A. CONFIDENTIAL use the vile phrase 'cut' to describe plastic surgery (Kim Basinger plays a girl "cut to look like Veronica Lake"), I think of Del Rio, and vice versa.

In fact, and I hope the photo above bears me out, she's halfway to looking like Allida Valli in Les yeux sans visage (below). And the very fact that Jolson is still clinging to this hoary old Lon Chaney-style masochist cinema, where the ugly deformed performer sacrifices himself (so the plasticine dish can run away with the callow spoon) shows a terminal example of self-directed racism that's an illuminating mirror into the self-hatred of one's own image as 'other' even as one clings to it like a life raft. In a way he'd be ideal as the evil plastic surgeon in visage... slowly reducing his love's face to a featureless taut skin skull... "this time I'll burn all the animal out of her!"

This aspect, apologizing for one's unforgivable ethnicity and imperfections--bad teeth or big nose or wrinkles or thin lips--is mostly gone now. If someone wants surgery they have it, but we're intolerant of all hate crimes, even self-hate crimes... the bleaching and 'cutting' of Michael Jackson being a very public cautionary tale.

And the freak otherness doesn't even begin to end there: as the socialite craving the Gigolo, Kay Francis is at her most eerily caricature-like: that alabaster skin, triangle mouth and round fleshy head make her seem like 1930s Warner Brothers cartoon of herself or some drawing on the cover of a cigar box. I don't mean that as a jab either (I'm a huge Francis fan), but just trying to corral all the jarring elements of this extraordinarily bizarre art deco cubist face, and the way it seems to signify all the amorphous wrongness floating through the film, the International House anti-matter, the feeling that the foundations of Hollywood personae are crumbling right and left as Breen's brown-shirt inquisitors are kicking down the door.

But it's all okay, all bizarro world substitutes are welcome, because it's still Paris, in every sense of the word, and so there's a tolerance for both aberration and finger-pointing, for both freaks and gawkers, all races and some racists. When we see a pair of men dancing together, Jolson makes a bug-eyed effeminate exclamation of feigned surprise (below), the way he might whistle at an older matron like she's still got it ("Oh you kid!")  Jolson is, above all, a caricature himself, running around from table to table while emceeing and joking, his hands floating in front of him as if he's being lifted on a Nerf ball through the deep end of a pool, he's a freak among freaks. A user review on imdb sums his character up as a cross between Rufus T. Firefly and an early blueprint for Bogart's Rick in CASABLANCA (he owns a club, he fixes everybody's problems, he's hopelessly in love with a woman (del Rio) who's attached to somebody else...) I would add a metatextual furtherance to his comparison--just replace Major Strasser with Joseph Breen and Vichy with his army of toady censors.

So that's it, last call. Tomorrow Breen marches into Warners, but it's still tonight here at the Wonder Bar, and like people getting as sloshed as possible the night before Prohibition goes into effect, all the soon-to-be-verboten tropes are assembled for one last hurrah. The most glaring example to even the pre-code novice will ben seeing SPOILER ALERT Jolson get away with covering up his lover's crime of passion by letting another man make good on his suicide threat, a bit of opportunist sleight-of-hand so unconscionable it's shocking even for a pre-code, so shocking he mentions it to no one, as if he's getting away with something he doesn't want anyone even in the movie audience to notice, Was it someone's idea of a sick joke, the last one they'd be able to play for almost 30 years? Even the name of the bar, a play on the German word 'wunderbar' seems to foreshadow a draconian end to what used to be relatively harmless decadence--the Weimar era and the jazz age--and the arrival of corrupt, racist, sexist, colonialist  'morality' of the both the Nazis and The Production Code. Some joke, like when the bartender flicks the lights on at closing time and you realize you've been kissing an empty skull. If you're the type who can still laugh after that, get this movie.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Hunter S. Thompson reads Kafka, Dissolves

The animators at Buck made this long-form, award-winning, lovely and deeply hallucinatory riff on Hunter S. Thompson for an all-for-charity online book outlet called One of the best things about it is the way it breaks free from the Ralph Steadman aesthetic - there's almost no ink splotches and chaotic shattered charkas; instead it digs deep into the heady peak mushroom moments where everything is always in the middle of turning into everything else and tea made from bong water is always a 'good' idea.

Sunday, April 07, 2013

CinemArchetype 24: Death

The memorable last image of ROMAN SPRING OF MRS. STONE (1961)
It's death, not space, that's the final frontier. Do we have anything, really, to fear--death may be far less terrifying than whatever space has in store. Maybe it's even benevolent, or at very least, neutral. As the kids all say just before being Rube Goldbergianly sliced to ribbons in the FINAL DESTINATION movies, 'it's a part of life; if it happens, it happens... but it's not an intelligent, scheming force - that's ridiculous!'

But Death has always been personified in films, plays, novels. And who's to say those diced kids don't wake up in a better place, or get reincarnated back into the game on the samsara carousel, or better yet, get to sleep forever and never return to this archon-wardened jail we call the material plane?

Destiny - 1921 - dir. Fritz Lang
PS - this is the second time I've written this list. Last time it deleted itself and I had a nervous breakdown. Then again, nervous breakdowns are the fertilizer of the soul; the breaking, the destruction of old mores and self-conceptions allows genuine change to occur, they're death in miniature. That's what tarot card readers will tell you should you draw the death card. But are they just kidding you so you don't panic and rip their table cloth?

When death comes in his/her figurative onscreen representation, it's guaranteed to be a wee bit trite unless said figure manages to harness both this 'significant change is scary but there's nothing to fear' aspect and the terrifyingly ambivalent finality. Death is not cruel or unkind, but merciful! Yet also, terrifying. Without the latter, the former has no function --  there can't be mercy without suffering --and once one is no longer afraid, death is beautiful. But unless the terror is there, overcoming fear of death has no chachet, anymore than we feel the terror of a five year-old afraid of getting a booster shot. Because, in the end, unless you're talking about a snuff film, cinematic death is hardly permanent. It's just a dramatic twitching agony then lying still and trying not to blink-- like children play in the backyard. Anyone can return from the dead for a sequel, or at the very least, hop up from the ground after the director yells, cut! All life and death fades with the waking up from the 'reality' of the film to the future memory of the viewers as they set about gathering coats and empties, moseying out the theater, looking for car keys in rumpled pockets and maybe gazing up in suspicion at the far-off moon, all the while heedless of the tiny whirlwind at their feet, and the unmanned tractor trailer rolling ominously a-toward.

1. Jessica Lange - All that Jazz (1977)

One "Bye Bye Life" finale later and I, a small alienated lad of 15, was death's true champion. Factor in a strutting Ben Vereen, glittery glam creatures cavorting in blue and red-veined body suits, and middle-aged chain-smoking choreographer Jake Gideon (Roy Scheider), dying on one level of reality while issuing out his creamy smooth sure-am-blueness to the glittering ceiling of the next, and by the third climactic chorus the hairs stood on my neck's rough back as the sleeping cock crowing at the rise of Apollo's electric guitar solo womb.

Leading up to this, Gideon (Roy Scheider) shares mostly one way conversations with his personal angel of death, played by a teasingly Mona Lisa-esque Jessica Lange. I love how relaxed, even flirty, Gideon is in these scenes, even when he's heart attacking his way along empty hospital corridors he's not going to stop reaching towards his own silver-lined black cloud future. Mortality's crossing guards--the hospital staff and surgeons-- are ignored like some needlessly nervous mom afraid to let you cross against the light even though there's no car or cop for miles. And since Jake's psychopomp is such a glowing, white-clad hottie, what's to fear? The last shot may be painfully abrupt, throwing us out the door to the far-less sexy Ethel Mermen's belting "There's No Business (Like Show Business)" while Gideon's pale husk is tossed, like your Exit sign soda cup, into the Hefty bag, but when I die, it's this film I want as the last thing I see.

2. Frederic March as Death in Death Takes a Holiday (1933)
Death has been an inspiration for art since art's inception, but in years after the Great War he was a superstar. Surrealism, Dada, and avant garde metaphysical probing was all the rage at the nationally-sponsored theaters thanks to a plethora of PSTD and grim memories. Here Death poses as a living count for a weekend getaway with a skittish group of wealthy Italian revelers, and there meets a far-away-eyed debutante (Evelyn Venable) who likes him way better than her living suitor. She's death-obsessed enough to make Bella from TWILIGHT seem like Mary Poppins. Love + Death = a cry-in-your-whiskey highball for your dead gunner and hurrah for the next man who dies. Frederic March is a touch mellifluous but deadpan where it counts. Alas, it's unavailable on DVD, except as an extra on the two-disc, Meet Joe Black (Ultimate Edition), which since you can pick it up for under two dollars used is worth getting even if you avoid JOE BLACK itself, like the proverbial plague.

3.Cedric Hardwicke as Mr. Brink - On Borrowed Time (1939)
"...On Borrowed Time could have been expanded from out of one of the ideas that featured in the background of Death Takes a Holiday – the idea that while Death is present on Earth all mortality is held in suspension. Both films also portray Death as a rather decent figure – here Death waits for people to finish what they’re doing before claiming them, something you can’t help but compare to various accounts of less than dignified death in real life. It’s worth comparing both films to the afterlife fantasies of the 1940s that emerged following the US entry into WWII – the likes of Here Comes Mr Jordan (1941) and A Guy Named Joe (1943). Death Takes a Holiday and On Borrowed Time seem to hold the view that Death is a matter of people genteelly learning to accept the natural processes of life, whereas the films of the 1940s by comparison seem almost hysteric in the need to prove to people the existence of an afterlife in defiance of true (Wartime) tragedy." - Richard Schieb

4. Bengt Ekerot as Death - The Seventh Seal (1957)
When it comes to personifications of the big D, no one plays it like Ekerot in Bergman's most recognized and satirized of gloomfests. With his skull-tight cowl, pale face and big reptilian eyes, Ekerot is both scary and civilized, sexless yet charismatic. He relishes the chance to hang with a cool dude like this weary knight Max von Sydow, before the inevitable reaping. A true nobleman is hard to find in amidst Death's daily haul.

We can't even imagine now, all smug in our finery, that once upon a time there was 'the arthouse' and titans like Kurosawa and Bergman were dropping genius groundbreakers all up in there, and something like Seventh Seal was gobbled up, digested, and then transformed into Woody Allen homages before it could even leave the theater. Now indies and imports are neo-realist downers or twee quirkfests, and lofty art draws chuckles proportionate only to its reach. This Death chess game alone lives to tell the tale.

5. The Red Death - The Masque of the Red Death. (1964)
One of the sillier aspects of this film is that not only is there a guy in a red robe to be the 'red death' but there's a whole rainbow of robed figures at the end, sewing plague like Skittles throughout the Middle Ages. And our main red robed figure doesn't play chess with Prospero (Vincent Price) the Satanic figure who locks up his gates in a futile attempt to keep the plague at bay, he plays cards with a little peasant girl from the village Price has earlier--half out of sadistic whim out of plague-times necessity--burned to the ground.

Poe would never be so populist in rooting against such a charismatic monster and usually screenwriter Charles Beaumont likes him too, but it doesn't matter, for when this weird death in his robe with a mask that makes him look like a fuller brush come to life gets to deliver the comeuppance Price's Prospero has been secretly longing for all along, the now dripping red paint Prospero leads the cast in a wild interpretive dance!

6.a)  María Casares as the Princess / Death - Orpheus (1950)
Jean Cocteau's dreamy allegory finds a brooding cafe poet Orpheus (Jean Marais) haunted by regal Spanish actress María Casares, who reaches out to him from the reflective pool / mirror. Orpheus' clueless wife, Eurydice (Marie Déa) would prefer her husband stop listening to his muse's sweet words, which are coming over his car radio like a ghost transmission from WW2, the days when broadcasts regularly included long strings of seemingly jumbled code words meant to confuse the eavesdropping Nazis. I had a strong yen for Cesares seeing this the first time as she reminded me a lot of my then wife, an Argentine socialist intellectual filmmaker. Now I think avoid the film como de proverbial plaga.

6.b) Death - Black Orpheus (1959)
A spurned lover gone homicidal puts on a theatrical skeleton mask and stalks his ex through carnivale in this entrancing, uber-rhythmic festival of color, movement, and amour. The film electrified art house crowds and put bossa nova on the map. And the death figure here is genuinely scary. We know what's going to happen: Eurydice will die and Orpheus will make his deal (here with some voodoo practitioners hanging out in an empty theater) and so forth, but knowing what's going to happen just makes it that much more tragic, as if death was an inexorable magnetic force that all the dancing in the world can't keep at bay for long. Sooner or later, even carnivale ends.

"C'mon Billy..."

7. Billy Mahoney - Flatliners (1990)
Keifer Sutherland's 'return of the repressed' is the worst of all the others in his bratty pack of med students who've been experimenting with NDEs: a mysterious incarnation of a bully who used to torment him in grammar school named Billy Mahoney. Dressed in Halloween hoodie and toy scythe, Billy beats the crap out of grown-up Sutherland with the force of a Scorsese bouncer. Later, Sutherland has grown used to the assaults and every night develops a new strategy to deal with it, like trying to get rid of the hiccups through sheer will power-- which sometimes works... with hiccups, not with Billy Mahoney. In a great scene we see Kief's become a kind of death junkie: he rocks back and forth, chanting, "Come on, Billy Mahoney! Come on Billy!" daring him, invoking him. (I like to think PJ Harvey's song "C'mon Billy" is based on that scene). Anyway, a chill enters the room, and his skin gets paler and skulls are superimposed everywhere, not in the cheap EXORCIST THE VERSION YOU'VE NEVER SEEN way, but in the barely noticeable way... the way you can only detect if you're very sick or otherwise open to hallucinations (for what are hallucinations but the ability to see all of life as it really is, alive with dying?) -more

8. Robert Redford as Harold Belden - Twilight Zone (1962 - "Nothing in the Dark")
There are certain TZ episodes we all remember - Burgess with his glasses, Shatner with his gremlin, and Robert Redford as a wounded cop who's really death personified, come to claim some old broad scared who's been locking her door to all visitors for she knows old death is comin' soon.

Redford was just a kitten at the time, but he's perfectly cast - who could resist his gentle beauty? When he comes for you, a feeling of flattered grace subsumes all dread. Look at him, that unwrinkled brow and eyes used to charming girls of all ages without strain; why, he wouldn't even hurt a fly.

9. The Rube Goldberg Variations - Final Destination (series)
What makes these films fascinating as artifacts of modern horror cinema is the personification of death isn't anthropomorphic but rather the entire environment: electrical current, turning wheels, weather patterns, freight, breezes, asphalt, airplanes, roller coasters, horses, and even a 3-D multiplex theater itself. The concept that somehow a premonition of death 'shouldn't' have happened, forcing death to work overtime in claiming the lives of those who escaped their scheduled demise suggests, in a sense, that certain agents inherent in our DNA are at war with the inescapable force of mortality, that death has a regimented schedule which our premonitory powers are forever trying to disrupt.

What makes these films effective as 'fun' stems from the very easy way we can recognize death's movements in random events; there is no single figure of malice but just as we as viewers effectively occupy a 'no space' omnipresence in the films we watch, we have no trouble recognizing the work of this invisible Goldberg coincidence time-space serpent.

We're there, after all, to see it 'perform' its repossessions. The temporary escape from fate provided by the protagonist's vision might even be a 'head start' kind of approach on death's part. And, in a sense, by making Death appear vulnerable to being even temporarily escaped, and making it resemble us as invisible, omniscient viewers, the Final Destination films ally us with Death in a temporary partnership, making us feel immortal.  As long as we see what death sees, as long as we remain invisible within the narrative frame, we're safe from being seen, and therefore 'taken'.

10. TV monitors - Scrooged (1997)
As the maker of the medium (the executive producer of a major network), Bill Murray's Scrooge is a new kind of miser, hogging the time his employees would spend with their families to force them into making a live Xmas eve broadcast. When the Ghost of Xmas Future finally arrives it's ingeniously through the one place this Scrooge feels safe - the TV, ala Samara in THE RING, trashing all sense of immortality, which a life spent as a free-floating ghost inside the televisual image tends to instill. There's no arguing for mercy with a TV monitor showing a metallic skull shouting down at you in a howl of white noise. The program has begun. When it turns its eyeless sockets towards thee... oh man, there's no off button that can save you. You've grown so used to the simulacrum there's no way out; it's like the very air you swim in suddenly becomes cognizant of your presence, and hunts you down. Turns out you were never a friendly invited ghost - just a mouse that, once discovered, warrants immediate extermination.

11. Charlotte Rampling - Vanishing Point (1971)
Here lies the blurry mile marker between the couple on the run in a car across the expanse of the American dream (see Cinemarchetype 22, the Outlaw Pair-Bond) and the driver alone who has already, in a sense, broken free. How many victory laps does he need before Charlotte Rampling appears? Or is she the signpost for Nirvana? I loaned my DVD to some dirtbag who got it dirty, and she's only in the British side, (a dual sided disc), she was cut out of the American print -- too Bergman-esque for them, I guess. But right as they're getting it on my dirty disc stops and artifacts and it starts back at the beginning but after the opening credits, just enough you think the elliptical nature of the film's two-day span is just snaking up on itself. On the other side it does the same, after a different ending.

Either way, the next time we see our speed freak hero after his Rampling experience, he's jumping for Sunday morning gospel joy, suddenly clad in a white shirt, eyes and smile suggesting a profound peace, headed for the flowery grace of the steam shovel gates. Once you have found the Rampling - you just know that Death has kindly stopped for you. You don't need no ticket, you just thank the Lord and unbuckle up. 

My advice, videotape yourself when at the height of your being in love and totally happy. Ten years later after the bloom has faded you can watch it and realize yes, you were in love, you were happy, even if  you don't remember it. That's the trade-off. To paraphrase Tolstoy, that's why truly happy people are invariably uninteresting writers. That's why all the best couples need to die at the end, or else escape to Mexico, beyond the reach of cameras, because who wants to see them fat and middle-aged and yelling at their kids? With heroism always rides death. That's why even if you're all alone and speeding across the country, you will receive a lovely hitchhiker just before you make it through the Monte Hellman celluloid burn. But if you avoid the burn and marry her instead, prepare for the Hell of Slow Mortal-Starter-Coils.

12. Marius Goring as Conductor 71 - A Matter of Life and Death (1946)

He lost his head "in the second germinal of the so-called French revolution." and so, being French, Goring's fey psychopomp is secretly on the side of the British WW2 bombardier (David Niven), whom he was supposed to collect after he he plummeted sans parachute into your so-called English Channel. It's that British fog! In the meantime Niven hs fallen in love with radio operator Kim Hunter, a Yank! So he should get a pass! Along with the great Roger Livesy as Hunter's platonic pal, a brain surgeon, they form a kind of allied foursome front in arguing against the necessity of Niven's going at his appointed time. The French may be many things, but when it comes to l'amor hey are always on its side - prizing it even above death. A big trial begins in heaven, and Goring's mix of having a duty to perform and being won over, as we all are by Niven's (he's never been better) and Hunter's (always great) romance, as his case is argued on up the heavenly stairs, and he receives life-or-death brain surgery down below.

His horror movie eyes alight with merriment, Goring hardly seems at all like the self-centered composer romantic interest in THE RED SHOES. The Archers's heaven is a an impersonal black and white indoctrination center with lots of elbow room and industrial/Roman architecture; Great Britain is the Jack Cardiff Technicolor reverie (reversing the OZ equation). Each scene of stout-hearted wartime life along the shore is so beautiful it seems like heaven. So Conductor 71, while embarrassed by his failure to bring Niven in on schedule, secretly appreciates being compelled to linger. He even jokes "Do you play chess? We could play.... every day," as if riffing on a film still eleven years from being made.

Bonus! Death as PCP hallucination, Disco Godfather - been there, bro

Putcha weight on it!
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