Cleansing the lens of cinematic perception, for your aghast befuddlement

Friday, January 18, 2019

The cruel, cruel things we did to LAST SUMMER (1969)

There's ever so often I catch even a time out critic evincing he's not seen the movie he's capsulizing, as in the Time Out Britannia entry on LAST SUMMER (1969), which calls it "winsome," and notes 'typical lessons are learned"? Oopsy-daisy. Either he's one sick British puppy or he's hearing the title and painting a very different sort of beach idyll in his mind. Sure, there's lessons learned in Frank and Eleanor Perry's sneakily devastating adaptation of Evan Hunter's novel, but calling them typical is like calling Hitchcock's The Birds (which Hunter scripted), an 'ornithologist's bayside holiday.'

I don't blame that writer; he probably couldn't find a copy of the film when he was assigned it, as to my knowledge it's never been on DVD or tape, in fact I'm not even sure where Max got the copy I duped that we watched so religiously during one of our drunken LBI summers back in the early 90s.
I may not have a copy today for reference, but I can attest: there's nothing idyllic or remotely typical about Last Summer, unless Over the Edge and Don't Deliver us from Evil are to be filed next to Gidget and Beach Party. Can you imagine? That would be so awesome for a over-protective parent to rent by mistake, thinking Evil was the tale of two good Catholic BFFs and their summer journey of emotional maturity and talent show poetry recital, and Edge about a group of kid activists fighting to save their after-school arts program.

The tale of three (and then four) privileged youngsters left to their own devices on Fire Island (?) over the summer, Last Summer builds to its evil gradually, to the point where our own giddy love for Scorpio-Pisces mayhem is used against us. There's sexual assault, menage a trois cinema groping, evil-confessing, seagull sadism, and other typical--but far from the sort of typical coming-of-age beach summer movies you'd get from Disney or Rob Reiner-childhood nostalgia beach experiences, the kind kids grow up to either forget, or elaborate on once they join Skull and Bones when their 33rd degree Mason dads get them into Yale and out of all worries about legal consequences. The story of two blonde beach bum rich kids who meet and bond with a bad influence girl, who manages to keep them both turned on and that sex drive sublimated into evil decadence, and the fourth wheel downer who comes to stay, like an annoying kid brother.

I may have forgotten some of it, but the mood still haunts me. It stars Peter Norton and Richard Thomas (a long way from John Boy, not that, thank god, my parents ever watched that show) as a pair of beach-loafing buddies (no parents in sight) who find a wounded sea gull and Barbara Hershey all in the same day. What a break! Together the three generate what Max's mom once referred to me as, a "bad influence." As with Rohmer's Summer holiday idylls, sexual tension generates in real time over whole reels, until when it finally cracks open you feel weak in the knees. As with a more decadent European 'sexual idyll' swooner like Jean Rollin, a sense of impending doom, a naturalistic series of ambiguous omens, conspiratorial glances, and burst of random hostility amidst the hypnotic momentum, reminds us constantly that the ocean is a demonic bad influence friend itself; and unlike so many beach movies, it also rains some days. During a protracted, masterful sequence, the threesome stay indoors and wash each other's hair, smoke weed, and let the air of existential melancholy that a rainy afternoon on the beach can bring wash over them.

Max and I, during those LBI summers, had a few different girl partners in crime but our serial monogamous hetero chastity was ironclad. We were, in fact, musicians, and poets. And wasted. And too gallant to ever make predatory nuisances of ourselves. And also, far too used to shining off jonesers and wallies to let some buzzkill broad from down the way glom onto our game. At any rate, this movie was the perfect thing to watch on a rainy hungover Wednesday morning, drinking gin and Strawberry SlimFast while recovering from the previous night's long iguana of a night. The lagoon-side of the island gently lapping our brains into something like a parasympathetic rhythm, we loved this movie because we well knew the way the right girl could ignite all sorts of ballsy courage and decadent mischief in the right pair of unemployed but well-stocked bandmates. You could alienate all your (real) girl friends and most everyone else over a single weekend. And you'd just laugh evilly, a kind of Cruel Intentions' ghosts of Vicomte Valmont and the Marquise de Merteuil possession you were too drunk to fight (or too sober to remember)

Taken together, the right threesome can melt the rest of the world clean away in a haze of cigarettes, highballs, the psychedelics always wearing off or about to kick in. In that lifestyle one is always either coasting on the fumes or anticipating the next refill, but one is never completely sober. When someone else enters into that unholy threesome, and they cannot party? Pity them, lord, for they shall be doomed to rot in hell for their sobriety! Thou shalt not suffer a buzzkill to crash your acid test. Pity them but not to the point of inviting them.

With its great naturalistic dialogue, the success of Last Summer lies largely with the tight small ensemble cast keeping the peripheral squares at bay. It starts innocently enough, trying to save a seagull with a fishhook caught in its mouth. Their shared empathy with the bird will gradually be inverted by the stunning ending, but for now, their good deed gives them a kind of holy trifecta aura that evokes among other similar triads, like the trio dancing the Madison in Godard'sBand of Outsiders (1964).

Just mentioning rabies (if the wounded gull bites one of them), Sandy says "oh rabies my ass." Today the boys' shared smirk over her using the word "ass" might seem odd, as if they're already plotting something at the mere mention of a body part, but in the context of its era, children using this word (or any 'bad' word) in public was the equivalent of what in the 80s would have been mentioning she had weed (the anti-drug hysteria of the time was so insane that lighting up became an act of political solidarity). (1) It ends, well, no spoilers, but lets just say it ain't the 60s anymore. This isn't a horror movie, or a ponderous piece of 'art' either, it's neither surrealistic or weighty, like Over the Edge it fools you by slowly winning you over to its protagonist's perspective which, considering their youth and the absence of strong parental guidance, is a dangerous place to be. If you grew up watching 'After School Specials' and 'safety films' on 16mm (while in class), then you were accustomed to the feel of Last Summer, but it's a cautionary tale without a narrator, or a moral, it trusts we don't need one. Like the girls doing their Baudelaire routine in Don't Deliver us from Evil, it's because of all the movies we've seen that look like it that we're not ready for what it is. Knowing that, its propensity to get under our skin and deliver a powerful dose of recognition. If you're like me, especially, you were or are highly susceptible to the 'bad influence' of any intelligent, gorgeous young woman who falls into your circle. Even just as a friend they give you a kind of high-octane cache that can cause latent Mean Girls-cliquey kind of giddy moral blindness.

The cast is all set up for menaga-a-trouble, Design for Living-style. As Peter, Richard Thomas's sadistic demonic eyebrow arches convey a real, deep propensity for evil that runs deliciously counter to his Waltons good boy warmth. But it's more than stunt casting. He conveys a real sense of nurturing and warmth and natural leadership without ever seeming older than he is. But it's a warmth made all the more dangerous by the eerily self-confident sociopathy lurking below. The sweeter he is, the more you feel there's a reverse action building. We watch the demonic glint wax and wane in his eyes like a sinister but enticing moon.

As the smirkier blonde beta male, Dan (Norton) on the other hand, keeps his guile exposed and ever a bit sophomoric. While Peter is the type of character who won't strike until he's got the girl all but naked in his bed already, Dan plays the numbers game, so used to rejection he's built up a tolerance, to the point he wouldn't know what to do if he got one.

Lighting the fire is the new girl Sandy (Hershey), ever eager to seem more mature than she is through expressive "language," relishing the combined attention of these two blonde troublemakers. The love she shows to them, mainly to Peter, while they both lay on her lap, for example, listening to sitar music and getting high, creates a seductive bubble; the sound mixing gamely captures her whispered sutble breatthing almost in ASMR cocoon we can feel. We're smitten; we're there; there's no lumpen Catherine Burns to drag our locus of identification kicking and screaming back to the loser's table.

Together their sublimated sexual energy is a force first of good (rescuing the gull from the hook) and then, through misuse, the sublimation wanes and the fermented passions bubbles up like oil seeps. Using a kind of loose cycle incorporation of tricks perhaps gleaned from Miriam Hopkins in Design for Living, she avoids breaking up their friendship by never picking one or the other ("no sex!" - though in this case pretty close, constantly) or risking her own ostracization by coming between them nor rejecting them, rather the cycle of move-busting runs from Peter to Sandy to Dan in a continuous loop that garners intense energy as it goes. Naturally it has to find an outlet, like Sandy luring a slightly older hispanic man via personal ad on a date, tricking him into his doom at the hands of some local racist toughs.

Everyone is excellent in their naughty conspiratorial whirlwind of sexual sublimation-amped mischief; but then Catherine Burns comes loping along the lonely beach, appointing herself the ugly duckling fourth wheel. It's only during that rainy afternoon after the three of them lost in pot and hair washing that they're ready to actually pay attention to her. With a single long monologue (that led to an Oscar-nomination), recounting the last hours of seeing her mom alive --at a cocktail party that's been raging at their house for days--Burns hypnotizes us and them so completely that by the time she's done you can smell the liquor on the adult's breath, the reek of sand, alcoholic pores, cologne, sexual heat, and ocean brine, the stale cigarettes, and--finally--a fatal misjudgment of impaired motor skills. And it's this tale (notably of mom's decadence rather than her own), set to the melancholy ominousness of the rain outside, that's just enough to get her just far into the threesome's evil club, that they don't know any other way to either shake her off or get her to loosen up and stop cramping their style than what they inevitably do. Because even though they thought, after their dope-enhanced empathy with her plight, that they might turn her bad like them she just wont quit her glum whininess. Like a draggy string pulling down a trio of seagulls, her refusal to either leave them alone or participate spurns the evil trio into their final desperate action.

if you're an alcoholic, the first thing you notice is the upper left Heineken

No matter how many jump cuts from the trio's galavanting around Fire Island, the slow simmer hypnotic Baudelaire-ian budding evil of Last Summer never jumps its languid beach rhythm to become some kind of lurid horror film. That's one of the reasons I love it, and maybe why it confuses Time Out critic so much -- it pulls off the seduction into irrevocable evil better than any other film that comes to mind, yet without ever jumping the groove of its languid beach rhythm: you can hear the waves--or if not, the faint sound of rain--in every scene. The ocean becomes like "Trevor" in The Wild Boys! a demonic possessor (the young and beautiful being highly desired by demonic reptilian 4th dimensional forces) and rather than point fingers, or spread feel bad trauma, it points out we hold onto the 'magic' of childhood at our own peril. As long as we're too small to do any real damage, nature's sociopathy flows unchecked; carry it over into adulthood, and we're going to jail. It all makes me wonder--as I wonder with other genuinely subversive films and TV shows--if that's the reason it's unavailable (there's not even a thumbnail of it on Amazon!). Rather than rant and fume against frat boys I am forced to examine past behavior that--at the time--seemed wholly justified and awesome--especially with a Cruel Intentions marquise in my corner urging me on--but which--of late, especially--hang in my conscience. A douche bag is a douche bag, regardless of mutual consent and vehemence of one's momentary delusion that it's ever "just" sex.

Wherever the licensing or a good copy is now hiding, no matter how much it looks 'winsome' on the surface, it's a film every young punk should see, for the "lessons learned" are vital. The film itself lulls us into a rhythm we're seduced by, so that when the slow erratic buzzkillery of Burns enters, we're almost privy to the wild demon (Trevor!) that rises in us to try and make her wake up and walk with the fire so we can back to our dirty little round robin thrills.

At the end there's still no adult in sight to shame them, but it's clear they don't even need one. These
are 'good' people, usually. But they drank "truth serum" together - they fell in love as one person, and lost their connection to the consequence-ridden world. As the poster says, this summer was "too beautiful to forget... and to painful to remember." Like the first sudden gust of evening hitting your sunburned skin after a day on the beach, a sickly early fall chill runs through all concerned. The leaves can't cover their bodies fast enough.

1.In the 60s and early 70s (I remember when the word 'suck' was first being used as a negative, i.e. 'you suck' - in fact I think I was in first grade with the girl who started it, referring to someone so immature they still sucked their thumb - in fact it was associated with the word "still" as in latency - ala "that girl Lisa, I bet she still sucks" It wasn't "you suck" but "you probably still suck" as in get the thumb out of your mouth. This was a time when 'bad words' were genuinely bad. We'd whisper them under our breath to shock each other, and then only with people who wouldn't tell on us. If you doubt, just watch Burt Reynolds movies from the mid-70s and listen for the pause (for audiences gasps and hoots and howls) at the end of every four-letter word. Just saying "Shit!" would bring the house down (one of the reasons people fainted at the Exorcist)

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Angels of Death IX: GOLD DIGGERS of 1935 ("Lullaby of Broadway")

It's a fairly ubiquitous tune today, but when this movie came out, it was brand new, written for this very film, GOLD DIGGERS OF 1935, and if you see it, as I recently did, shorn of the preceding hour of shrill comedy (scheming social climber bellboys and their manager, greedy for a percentage of their tips; White Russian impresarios wheedling money from a miserly matron; her seducible offspring finding love and scam artists), the two climactic Busby Berkeley-directed numbers bend reality all the better. The first is forgettable musically but eventually erupts in some dazzlingly precise trippy fractal choreography. The second, however, "Lullaby" transcends even that.

First, it's the blackness that grabs you, coming hot on the heels of the preceding number with its geometric infinity; the single white light illuminating a far-off face, like a distant single star; a shadowed young female face that seems to be slowly moving towards us like a flying saucer or moon in a starless sky; as she becomes clearer and larger, a cold chill comes down our spine. That cold look in her eyes is both compassionate and ambivalent, remorseless, witty, brazen but never tacky, haughty but not loud or shrewish; her glare right into the camera bespeaks a dazzling familiarity with strangers; her shadowed teeth give her a cadaverous lupine edge; her cheeks shadowed by coiled hair give her the vague association of a skull, or the contours of Manhattan. She calmly looks the world dead in the eye while singing, like she's tough talking a rival gang, the city itself standing behind her, ready. She knows that NYC has her back, that she is the city, what it's proudest of.
The song, presented in this island of death and dance in the center of it all, is no longer a jingle, but a dirge, suddenly shorn of its decades-long association with TV commercials for Times Square hotels, Thanksgiving's day parades, floats, shows, and tourist stops which make it seem less like a lullaby and more like a wake-up revelry to pep grandma into finding her purse. The lyrics suddenly make an eerie sense: this tune is meant as a real lullaby for the Broadway baby--soothing the still-giddy but pleasantly danced (and whatever else)-out party girl to sleep even if it's also a wake-up call for the rest of the city.
When a Broadway baby says good night
It's early in the morning
Manhattan babies don't sleep tight
Until the dawn
As much a symbol as the Statue of Liberty, The Empire State building or Grant's tomb, this all-night party girl is a metonym for the Capitol of the World during its dark climb out of the Depression, Roosevelt's lifting of prohibition carrying her aloft as suddenly booze's affordability allows the high-rollers to give bigger tips at the night clubs.

NYC never sleeps - and for the all-night girls the jackhammer and traffic jam bleeping is the sound of the comforting arms of blissful unconsciousness, the pleasure of a body that's gone through the exhilaration of dancing and drinking all night, now slinking into cold sheets, alone, free of pawing, there to stash whatever cash or jewelry one's acquired and admire the sparkle in the morning sun. Underwriting the melody's jubilance is this giddy ecstasy that comes from hearing the clang and bustle of the 9-5 crowd grind the gearshift of the giant NYC business world back into life, and letting the rush of trains, honking horns, and murmur of crowds and hawking paperboys lull you to sleep.

This is no fantasy though, you can tell the songwriters know of what they speak. I know it well myself --I lived the dance all-night walk of shame life in the city from 1991-1998, vividly. If you're going to be out dancing and drinking til the dawn every night of the week (except Sunday), there's only one city that can accommodate you without effort. This number lets the rest of America know that same thrill, even as it staggers out into ever wilder parties with ever more regimented lines of dancers, and rich faceless chumps in tuxedoes brandishing jewelry and top hats.

But what of this goddess? Whose face, laying down in bed (?) with cigarette in mouth, becomes the lower half of the island Manhattan? She's neither alive nor dead but many and none. Played by Wini Shaw, a nearly-star in the Warners musical pantheon, she's already halfway to being a psychopomp, halfway to being some killer from a film noir or horror film. With her beguiling, chilling stare right into camera we are forced to consider death in a whole new light - and to see the frivlous professional reveler as Orpheus and Persephone rolled into one. Hades as both the Underworld and its smitten ruler.

 This is not a death to run from, or towards. It's a stare with its own inexorable tractor beam pull - from the distance, like a tunnel at the end of the road in reverse; her face is the void, the city is the 'next step' that lurks beyond the illusory split between dreaming and waking. Her sultry but cold stare lingers long after the movie fades, the look that bores right into me every time I see it, no matter how long ago it was made or old I've become between viewings.

Maybe it's a dream, a warning, real or a metaphor - one look in her deep ambivalent eyes and you know the score. Life and death are the same - the city never sleeps. Here the grim reaper and baby new year share the same stairwell. She greets the milkman on his way out, pours some milk (!) for a kitten, just out there in the common hallway, looking up expectantly.  Like this errant kitty, she coasts along like a leaf in the wind, trusting that--in the city that never sleeps--there's always a mug somewhere.

Even in the film itself she is separate from the rest of the characters. There's no curtain raising or fourth wall jump-off point for this number like there are in so many others. The film doesn't find her - she just appears out of the darkness, a star in the distance coming closer with a steady, relentless momentum, staring us dead in the eye, the way a beautiful woman giving you a haughty beckoning stare across a room can muffle the party around you to a dry West Side Story school dance blur, beguile, excite and terrify you where you stand.

After her tragic fall, we see the poor kitten has no one to pour it some milk and the bed is unslept in - no one is maybe there to miss her.  She resumes her star status, back into the skyline - it's a very eerie ending to the number but with that eerie opening we're not surprised. This is a real Broadway Angel of Death - she's hardly fazed by her own demise. She becomes Ms. Death in a way that's unique to the city, which is the reason we all fall in love with it and her. She and NYC strip death of all the skull and bones posturing. She and NYC put death put on the spot, they make it stand up and stop slouching.

I certainly relate to this girl's odyssey. No NYC youth is complete without a period of walks of shame, NYC being so clearly where the phrase was invented. Where else can you even walk home from some new lover's bed on a regular basis but NYC? You get out at dawn, the smell of your lover or the dance club still all over you, with cigarettes fresh and warmly beguiling in the air, newsstands and awnings groaning open like the maws of giant friendly dragons; trucks, garbage men who should have finished up hours ago now rushing against the onslaught of rush hour. You dance home--or it feels like it though it comes off more as staggering, in torn stockings or borrowed sweatshirts. Maybe you hope your roommate is still there since you lost your keys. Well-laid and content, still high, the music you were dancing to throbbing in your blood still, the commuters going to work are still sleepy or freshly perked from their early AM jogs or coffees. Either way, it's nice to see them without being one yourself -  you're headed off to bed, and you remember being one of them and remember how badly you wanted to turn around and go back to bed, so you are kind of doing just that for them. Your destination is their fantasy. But there's no animosity between you - in face you and the commuters share a conspiratorial smile - each's presence takes the other out of themselves, for the gap in consciousness between the danced/laid reveler staggering or sauntering home to bed and the freshly woke commuter off to work, is so vast that there is no uncanny valley - no resentment any more than a dog might resent a goat.

Good night, babyGood night, the milkman's on his waySleep tight, babySleep tight, let's call it a day

1935 marked a Hollywood well into the code, but Perhaps it's because there's no dialogue, but it's also remarkably risque. Maybe they got to keep it as there's almost a moral (she dies), the way wanton harlots weren't yet barricaded from ye olde folks at home by steel shudders.
Thanks to the Grand Old Movie blog ("In the End, she Dies")

Still - the code may be in effect, but the "walk of shame" carries no stigma for this Broadway baby, anymore than any of us slumping home from our day job. The men she meets on her way upstairs glare not, neither do they scold, neither do they leer. This isn't Hicksville. This is NYC and everyone knows she works as hard for the money as they do. But the working man and the milkman's familiarity with her coming in at the crack of dawn bodes ill. One can't keep this up forever. All of us who've tried have fallen. The dancing and the partying whirl and whirl until she's accidentally thrown off a 30th floor balcony (2) or winds up in Bellevue, loaded with digitalis, screaming her head off.

On the other hand, when everyone around you is screaming too, you begin to realize at last just what 'hitting bottom' really means. It's so terrible it's kind of grand. Even after the splat, you're still dancing. Sleep tight, baby. The Milkman Cometh...

1. There's no brief of small town morality to guide our understanding of what's going on here - what the original purpose of an 'engagement ring' was for, or promissory notes of marriage being valid tools to sue for breach of promise, as in taking of virginity = $$. If you want to have sex before marriage, an engagement ring says at least you'll have something to pawn when it's time to pay the midwife. The ideal state was divorced or a widow and with the Great War slaughters, widowhood was not uncommon. 
2. For me, the balcony itself crashed (from 1997-9/11 our Thurs. haunt was Windows on the World on the top floor of Tower A.) 

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