Erich Kuersten's unhinged film criticism. Constantly in flux, tuned in, a day late and a dollars short ('where it counts')

Thursday, March 17, 2016

A Jet-lagged Hayride with Dracula










"As for fidelity, should one not be faithful to all those whom one loves?" - Robin Wood  
Watching the weird nocturne noir chemistry cohere like a ghost from the black and white celluloid mist of This Gun for Hire (1942) for the zillionth time, I'm still trying to nail down the lovesick ache I get from Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake's mystical lost ghost frequency. Blonde, small (ten feet between them) and unemotional, they're like a separated-from-birth version of Sharon Tate and David Hemmings in Eye of the Devil, or two alien-human hybrids who recognize each other from a past off-world life.

Neither fraternal nor sexual (as critic David Shipman notes, Ladd "never flirted nor even seemed interested, which is one of the reasons he and Lake were so effective together." [2]), their muted chemistry is so elusive, so void of frills and posturing, so unusual it resonates today as strongly as it resonated with wartime audiences. It's the speak-softly-because-you-don't-know-who's-listening wartime caution ("loose [or loud] lips sink ships"), the same shadowy skull reflection death drive cool low key savvy we find in Val Lewton's horror films and Sinatra's ghostly radio crooning from the same period (1941-45).

This was the era when every healthy able-bodied man was overseas facing death, and the women were expected to go into a kind of sexual deep freeze, working in munitions plants or driving cabs, and waiting for letters from the front, terrified of the arrival of an officer with an ominous telegram in the middle of the night. Ladd and Lake's chemistry was perfect for this deep freeze moment.

That kind of subtlety is never popular for long however. Sleazy studio heads--used to a steady supply of eager would-be starlets ("Mr. Smearcase!" as per Lake's ingenue in Sturges' Sullivan's Travels)-- don't understand that kind of love. They're like John Travolta's snickering entourage in Grease, they want to know 'did they or didn't they?' Sympathetic wavelength entrainment and platonic pair bonding are just synonyms for cowardice and hesitancy to these slavering troglodytes. But true auteurs know myths have never thrived with those kind of either/or dichotomies. That entourage is never leaving the Bronx, Vinnie! They're stuck there. But you! Oy, you can-a-dance-in-a-Manhattan, Vinny. All fornication will get you is VD or a kid, Vinnie. Do you want to wind up stuck in the reproductive amber, in Bushwick, for god's sake? One broken condom at the drive-in ("feelin' like a fool / wonderin' what the kids will say / next day at school" - indeed, no bigger fool than the one stuck with a paternity suit, child support, and diapers. Diapers, Vinnie!

Note: subliminal similarity to a multi-armed Hindu deity
That's the trick to staying cool in wartime and after, the core of platonic alien jet-lagged love: to relish the anguish of sexual longing and sublimate it into art rather than materialize it and therefore obliterate it. As I've written before on this site, in Visconti's The Leopard, Burt says "marriage is six months of fire, forty years of ashes," but with platonic love / friendship it's ten-to-twenty of slow-burning coal. Isn't that better, and way harder to find? Whether he's Fred from Night of the Iguana, an old wise film critic whose Cialis prescription ran out, a savvy Lacanian, or a sixty feet tall gorilla, the adroit, awakened lover is transported by beauty past the breakwaters of horniness and into accidental chivalry, into honor, the Hawksian code.

After all, she's got a boyfriend... over there... somewhere... it would be a kind of home front sabotage to take advantage of his absence.

The first scene of This Gun For Hire tells it all: Raven (Ladd) rips the sultry boarding house maid's dress, not to ravish her but because she was mean to his kitten. Raven makes only two 'moves' on Ellen (Lake), the first to steal five dollars from her purse and next to march her into an abandoned building, not for vile molesting, but to shoot her as a witness. She gets away only by the timely return of two construction workers back from their lunch break. Her friend later tells her she looks like she's been on a "hayride with Dracula," an analogy which works well, as Drac's motives aren't carnally impure either. He's just in it for the blood.

The few times Ladd and Lake did hook up in a movie, their kiss happened only at the end, or after fade-out. We seldom saw the actual kiss. The Blue Dahlia (1946) for example, fades out on William Bendix and Hugh Beaumont looking over at Ladd and Lake, who are by then presumably kissing. We've been longing for them to get together all through the film but now that there's nothing standing between them... well, who likes seeing their parents kiss, even if they're little blonde aliens? 


Aliens... I don't only mean extraterrestrial but also alienated. Foreigners in a strange land, unable to shake their dreamy disconnected jet lag ennui, when they finally meet a fellow traveler as alienated as themselves, like Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) and Bob Harris (Bill Murray) in Lost in Translation (2003) after so many lonely alienated hours, well, it's a special magic. Both unable to sleep in their ritzy Tokyo hotel, not speaking Japanese at all, or any other language, their initial reason for being there not taking up much of their time, their gaijin height and features contrasting them from the rest of the city as distinctly as giant Nephilim Nordic Vikings, they can either hang out together or with no one. They connect, but it's more about their sharing loneliness, as opposed to merging into couplehood --with all the associative baggage that implies.

I remember when I saw Translation at a Chelsea theater during its initial run on Thanksgiving in 2003 at with a cadre of AA people. I was in the throes of something so similar to the doomed May-December soul bonding of Bob and Charlotte, I felt like the film was a continuation of my own life, with Manhattan doubling for Tokyo and Brooklyn for the States. I recognized too the dangers of this intense bond leading anywhere other than disaster, largely from the cautionary example of Steve Buscemi and Thora Birch in Ghost World (left), in which Johansson also co-starred just two years earlier.  Birch initiates everything there and though Buscemi knows better he can't resist with much vigor. But the next morning the look on her face is such we realize he should have resisted just a little harder. Shouldn't he have?

We all in that AA posse recognized the same lost soul magnetism between Murray and Johansson in our own love for each other, the gorgeous ephemeral lost soul union known only to we who have heard the chimes at midnight fade into sirens and muffled EMT voices muffled across hurricanes of silence far over our heads as we leaned back against the flat bumpy pillow of the numb sidewalk and felt with our eyes half-open like we were standing, sitting up and lying down all at the same time: "Sir? Sir? Can you hear my voice? Have you had anything to drink or taken anything tonight?"

"Taken anything".. what a dumb expression, you think. No ossifer, everything's right where I found it.


Isolated in our space, cut off and adrift, our precious alcohol on the other side of a dangerous highway, when someone else comes along who gets that, someone also on that level--a sympathetic cute chick EMT rather than a suspicious cop eyeing your bulging gym bag--well, she's too precious to throw away by busting even some advanced playa move. You might rear back and think that's being scaredy-cat, but I know the follow-through too well. If it works, you have to make out for hours and blah blah, and if it doesn't and she bails, well, you die on the street, the average folks stepping over you like you're just another vagrant, and aren't you?

People say men and women don't know how to be friends but what they mean is they don't know how. Love can flourish more profoundly in a platonic friendship, irregardless of genders, or numbers. You needn't be monogamous or cockblock or judge or restrict or allow those things to be done to you. But first you need to have achieved a few of your life's most cherished desires, like crawling through the parched sand for days, finally making it to the far off mirage of a water fountain and seeing at last it's just a rock. Or in love's case, a goddamned diaper. Is anything more revolting than when love leads to a family? What's the use of being a hit man at all if they're just going to keep coming?

There needs to be some peace, a population evening-out! Otherwise no one even has a chance to experience the grand crushing emptiness of making to the water fountain-shaped rock. To paraphrase Jim Morrison--no earth-shattering orgasm or greaser high five will forgive you for the dawn you just wasted.


Breeder San Francisco homicide detective Michael Crane (Robert Preston - above) for example, wants to waste the dawn that is Lake's shimmering hair in This Gun for Hire by turning her into "a cop's wife": "I don't understand it," notes one of her fellow showgirls to him, "that girl is nuts about you," We don't understand it either.

Robert Preston? Whaaaat? Whyy? We can feel all the disembodied souls--swarming around Lake like masked figures at a sold-out Sleep No More--consider breaking off to haunt some other gorgeous blonde's womb, no point jostling with those other souls in the dark if you have to grow up half-this dunderheaded straight-edge who expects your gorgeous mom to cease chanteuse-ing, to perform instead for an audience of one, "darning his socks and cooking his (and eventually your) corned beef and cabbage." I love This Gun for Hire but when I hear that line I wince and want to shout, "all that horrid smelling steam will ruin her hair!" No offense meant to Preston, but his detective is a safety-first putz fit to warm the Catholic Legion of Decency's heart, but annoy everyone else's. When he sees lovely Lake slink onto the stage and do her number, he can only imagine getting her out of that shimmery gown and into an apron; he sees her gorgeous hair and imagines how much better it will look wilted from the steam, leaning over a pot of fucking boiled cabbage all day. As Bugs Bunny would say, what a maroon.

I can only presume we're supposed to feel that way, to situate him as some vile Non du père. In the shadowy option of the other side, Lacan's primal (or anal) father, is Laird Cregar, nimbly seeming both gay and straight, referring to his main vice as "backing leg shows" and by acknowledging the job's essential tawdriness, he brings it some counterintuitive class and legitimacy. He might be a lech, but at least he wants Ellen looking glamorous for everyone (who can buy, minimally, two drinks) rather than Crane's super-menial "cabbage-cooker for one" alternative.


Oh well, even if she didn't wind up as a blue collar cop's wife role in her subsequent films and even if Gun would be the last time we have to have a square boyfriend for her (just noble dimwits or blustery gangsters from now on), we know her real love is always that lost cause with a broken wrist who claws at everyone but her. She looks at sweaty little crumb bums like Ladd's Raven or amateur mendicant-disguised Sullivan with compassion of the same sort Raven has for the stray boarding house kitten, not with disgust or judgment the way the rest of the world does, and not sexual either --just one right guy to another, take it or leave it. The compassion in her eyes when she looks at Raven, especially on the train and when they're hiding out at the climax, provides one of the great transcendental healing gifts of the movies. We don't often see that look in movies. It's a look beyond sentiment, sympathy or some covertly judgmental altruism. It's a real feeling of empathy, one damaged but noble soul to another --it's lifted me out of many a post-bender shame spiral and made me, like Raven in the film, her loyal champion. She's the dream girl for all us broken mugs who need a friend more than a lover --her beauty acts like a healing opiated salve on our souls, and she's glad to radiate as long as we don't get touchy-feely, which we're too shaky to try, anyway. 


"You know, the nice thing about buying food for a man is that you don't have to listen to his jokes. Just think, if you were some big shot like a casting director or something, I'd be staring into your bridgework saying 'Yes, Mr. Smearcase. No, Mr. Smearcase. Not really, Mr. Smearcase! Oh, Mr. Smearcase, that's my knee!' - Veronica Lake's character, a struggling actress who spends her last dime on who she thinks is a bum but is a slumming director who knows Lubitsch - Sullivan's Travels 1941
The same beauty Ladd and Lake capture in Gun is here in this diner between Lake and McCrea, the Hawksian self-awareness that keeps one so aloof from the shallow world finally being rewarded in a union of equals, and she's free from Mr. Smearcase and his grabby hands (in 1951's The Thing, Margaret tells Pat how much she likes him only when his hands are safely tied - Hawks knew, too, the two are connected).

And then there's that hair. Gun for Hire is considered her big hair breakout, but if she owes her career to anyone it's not her hairdresser or Ladd or Raymond Chandler but Preston Sturges, for throwing her into a pool in Sullivan's Travels (1941), leading to the scene where she brushes her long hair out byt the pool in her sexy white robe. A complex post-modern masterpiece on the bourgeois need to tell the story of 'the little guy' to the little guy who'd rather not hear about it. (3)  

There's only one problem: there are only a few Lake-Ladd noirs, and only a few other films that know how to situate Lake's rare gifts --aand once you watch 'em all, where are you? A shivering alcoholic in the cold again, sifting through your stacks of DVDs like they're a bunch of empty bottles, wondering if there's anything left, anywhere, for that sense of Hawksian bonding or Lake-Ladd alien frequency, that golden healing opiated salve. It's only after enough time has passed you can watch them all again with relatively fresh eyes (for me it's about six to eight months--too long alone in the cold).


"It's really the repression of sex (think of old stories like Brief Encounter and Love Affair) and the acceptance of a carnal boundary that can't be crossed that becomes, in their eloquent silence-filled rapport, a form of love more life-altering than the sexual contortions now monotonously de rigueur." - Molly Haskell (2003) 
The tragedy with the couple in platonic love orbit in Lost in Translation, is that each party has already 'settled' for an approximation of what they considered 'normal' - the cop boyfriend with his fantasy realm extending no further than trusty monotonous corned beef and cabbage. Maybe though it's not a tragedy, as that obligation to be faithful frees them from needing to drag the carnal along into it. Courtly love which was never about breaking up the marriage. Sex was what triggered your disillusionment, not the other way around. It's the hesitant but undeniable attraction of doomed lovers in the lost moment, sharing their loneliness, as well as the pain of remembering that loving bond--the pain of anyone who's fallen in love from a distance--all too common in the internet age--the lack of earthly parameters freeing one to write acres of poetry and longing prose letters--vast forests of stanzas never needing to be printed out or even saved anymore than their yearning ugency needs to be concretized in the sack.

In AA we say 'think the drink through.' Instead of just thinking of the drink and the sweet sudden feeling of completeness, of joy and fearless brio, the surge of coherence, confidence, inspiration, and jubilant love it brings, we learn to think past that joy, to the need for the next one, twice as strong as the need for the first, but with only half the joy and completeness, and then the sodden depression when we're too drunk to do anything but drink more, and gradually we're too fucked up to do anything else but pour. And then... it's all gone, and we're too fucked up to get any more. We can't even find our goddamned pants, or even the phone.

But it's the same for Bob as he's being drawn to Charlotte in Translation, that rapturous connection too delicate to risk with clumsy fumblings. In AA we also say "drink all you want, just don't drink the first one," i.e. if you don't have the first drink, you're free, and that's not a lot to ask, considering all the other drinks waiting. Same thing in the Bob-Charlotte or Lake-Ladd connections: if you don't make a first move you'll never lose her. Maybe she'll sleep with every single one of your friends while making eyes at you, but in 20 years you will be the only guy she remembers without anger and remorse when she's making her qualification in Sex Addicts Anonymous.

If that's not enough to justify your holding off, then you're a dirty dog who hasn't thought the drink through, who doesn't want to be a DILF but just some old lech who took advantage of a girl's loneliness instead of buying himself a Porsche for his big midlife crisis (as she Scarlett first suggests to Bill in LIT). If you're not strong enough to resist, sublimate, transfuse and diffuse that desire or you're not worthy of her. That's why the first sign of your love is to try to send her back on the first stage out of Presidio (ala Wayne in RIO BRAVO), or plane out of Vichy-occupied Martinique (like Bogie in TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT) then she has to get the ticket, sell it back, and stutter out an excuse why she didn't go, give you back the money, and then promise not to get in the way when the shit storm begins.

It's a Catch-22. It's like death, in fact, and like death you are officially permitted to laugh it off, to stand pat, sound in your Lacanian ideal and self knowledge, using her loveliness to fuel your art. There's no greater bond. If Death chooses you, if Death makes the first move, then okay. But you don't have to make it easy for her. Death loves a good challenge! Pedro, did you put the girl on the stage or not??

It's that death drive as a platonic ideal that is why Johansson was so well cast in Lost and later in Her and the underrated Lucy and why it was so important she wanted to fool around with Captain America in Winter Soldier and later Bruce Banner/Hulk in Age of Ultron, but they were the ones who held back. Natasha Romanov, sexy seductress super spy: it's great that she wants to fool around with you, it's bad if you allow it, because this is a girl so used to having men she wants, of using sex as a weapon, of being constantly ogled, seducing and destroying, that the only way to win her respect is to not be one of her countless conquests. You can't risk the Hulk coming out when she dumps you, trashing the city in a drunken rage. In this way art thou noble, chivalrous, and tortured enough that your soul is forge-hot, ready to be hammered by God or the Devil into brave new shapes.



And if you love her, you want her respect more than the crushing pain of thwarted desire if she doesn't call you back some rainy Sunday night. I mean, I'd hope you do! Think the drink through!
Take it from me, the pain's the same either way. Things are only valuable once they're lost. So lose yourself and watch your price shoot up until your smack center in the comic store window. So what if you're not in Near Mint condition?

On the other hand, if she moves in, goes for that first kiss, you may as well go along because it's even better if you help on the second. And it's rude to refuse a beautiful women such a request. And then that's probably going to be it, onscreen, so make it count. What you do after the fade out, or whether or not we pan to your buddies walking down the street, passing below the window, wondering if they'll ever get to be sheriff or mind their own business, or pull away from your conversation so we can't hear it ---that has to be your affair, private, for this all to work. There's only one solution to the bind Charlotte and Bob find themselves in at the end of Lost in Translation, for their final words together --Bob's whispering in the Tokyo throng while his car service sits in traffic--is to be unheard by our corrupting microphone ears. Like Schrödinger's cat, those unheard words thrive on the edge, the line that ties the fish of Pisces together, neither a promise nor a denial.

Only through my all-consuming absence am I yours alone. And we'll always have Facebook.

Here's looking at you/r kid/s.

NOTES
1. Robin Wood, Sexual Politics in Narrative Cinema, (p. 82)
2. Shipman, David. The Great Movie Stars: The Golden Years. New York: Hill & Wang, 1979.
3. I wish had a making-of documentary extra, so we could see all these rich characters with expensive filmmaking machinery filming a bunch of extras as hobos hopping a freight train in a movie about how dumb it is for rich guys to film hobos running onto a train instead of Ants in Your Plants.

3 comments:

  1. like Sharon Tate and David Hemmings in Eye of the Devil.

    Now there's an under-appreciated movie. David Niven in a horror flick!

    ReplyDelete
  2. Ouch... This one hurts so much that I have the biggest demented grin since probably 15 years ago. "Hurt me pretty girl. Hurt me dead".

    ReplyDelete

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