sovay: (Sovay: David Owen)
sovay ([personal profile] sovay) wrote2019-04-10 08:31 pm
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You'll be sleeping on the skin of a nightmare for the rest of your life

The first thing that happens to you, the viewer, when you watch Samuel Fuller's The Naked Kiss (1964), is that you get hit in the face with a handbag. It is being wielded by a furiously angry woman, her tousled bouffant suddenly snatched from her head by the man she's grimly beating to his knees, revealing a skull as naked as a mannequin's. Half-undressed, huge-eyed, with the insectile body of a fashionably starved model, she could be an alien fallen to earth among bad company; she's a prostitute on her way out the door with the seventy-five dollars her drunken pimp owed her, contemptuously leaving the rest of his cash scattered with the seltzer water over his unconscious face. Her last act is to rip up her own photograph like a bad contract while the air slings with brassy fast jazz. And after that tabloid splash of an introduction, we get a movie which is sometimes as stripped down as a parable by Bertolt Brecht and sometimes as poetically expressive as a Gothic fairy tale and occasionally resembles a collaboration between Friedrich Dürrenmatt and David Lynch, though really I think Lars von Trier may have spent entire stages of his career trying to make this movie. In fairness to Fuller and his no-budget, I believe you could in fact shoot this story on a black box soundstage with a lot of chalk marks on the floor, but only so long as you kept Constance Towers' powerhouse performance as Kelly, the hooker with a heart of wounds hoping for regeneration in the white picket dream of Grantville, U.S.A. She and Fuller not only got here first, they got here feminist. I hope Angela Carter approved.

[personal profile] asakiyume once referred to daylight in film noir as "the gaslighting sun" and while The Naked Kiss is emphatically not noir or even neo-noir despite its traffic in archetypes, it shares the genre's skeptical attitude toward the quotidian, the well-lit, and the respectable. Conventionally, we are primed to fear for the innocent in the dark wood, not the magdalene in suburbia. Pretend you can still be shocked by reversals of patriarchal morality and see our heroine as Fuller shoved her in the face of 1964. From the moment Kelly steps down off the interstate bus, silk-sheathed slim gams first like some ring-a-ding-ding fatale, she's not the snake in Paradise but the blamed Eve, an object of simultaneous lust and mistrust from the first man she meets, who just happens to be the law. She walks with the trim switch of a woman looking for trade, but the sight of a child temporarily unattended in a perambulator softens her not at all ironically. She has a sad wry mouth and a trick of smiling as if she doesn't quite believe it, especially at men; she loves to run her fingers through the short thick silky fair hair she was missing in that violent pre-credits introduction, shaved as punishment for bucking her pimp. Making time with her first and only john in Grantville, she maintains a cool come-on through obvious double-entendres ("I'm pretty good at popping the cork if the vintage is right") and a tantalizing elusiveness in the act itself, imagining a poem of night lakes and autumn leaves out of the "Moonlight Sonata" as her preoccupied pickup mumbles into her neck, "I'm tone-deaf." When she decides to change her life, she does so without sentiment or self-flagellation, merely a long look in the mirror, one hand tracing the hard beautiful bones of cheek and eye. Thereafter she can be found working at the Grantville Orthopaedic Medical Center, unfazed by cleft palates, quirked spines, or missing limbs; she's not ministering to the lepers, she likes kids and she's uncloyingly good with them, a godsend to the doctors and a den mother to the younger nurses, and we could be facing a quick cheery fadeout if she were not dogged, not so much by her past as by the last man to be part of it. It's a fact of this movie that even if I could picture it with production values exceeding pocket change, I have trouble imagining it better cast, and Anthony Eisley's Griff is no exception. Kelly's tone-deaf trick and Grantville's chief of police, he has a clever, narrow face, not really handsome; he looks best sexually rumpled, his tie loose and his hat knocked forward over his eyes—it feels more honest than his defender-of-the-peace act, especially once we learn he's the kind of all-American moralist who'll pay a woman for sex and then run her out of town for accepting his money. In fact he has a habit of forwarding troublesome girls—or girls he thinks'll be trouble—to "Candy à la Carte," the tawdry, glittery bordello just across the state line where he can be found regularly patronizing the "bonbons." We want him to be Kelly's ally, with his cynical kindness and the funny, easy rapport they share when he's not leaning on his shield. He's not even her knight in scuffed-up armor, tilting at exactly the wrong windmill with his relentless suspicions that might be nothing more than an unexamined case of the friend zone. The man of the hour instead looks like Michael Dante's J.L. Grant, playboy philanthropist scion of the town's founding family, Griff's best friend and the man who saved his life in Korea, "society's most eligible bachelor." To Kelly who can quote Goethe on active ignorance, he's the answer to a Byronic prayer, impossibly, intoxicatingly sophisticated. He has all the up-to-date accoutrements of reel-to-reel hi-fi and leopard-skin living room sets in a mansion of baroque and neoclassical bronzes; he courts her with a gift of Venetian glass, shows her home movies of gondoliers on the Grand Canal, murmurs in eerie, erudite echo of her own fancies that the "Moonlight Sonata" makes him think of autumn on Lake Lucerne. His kiss is somber, troubling, spellbinding. Griff in shadow looks like cheap noir, Grant like Gothic royalty. There's a kind of heavy, plastic beauty in his face that the film pushes right to the edge of repellence, decadent as his quotations from Baudelaire—and there's a secret, too, of course, because in what self-respecting Gothic, what American parable, what fairy tale, film noir, tabloid shock scoop isn't there? All these influences run together the moment Kelly enters a room and the world flips. It's no consolation if we saw it coming. We have to live in this country, too.

So far I suspect I have made this film sound myth-minded and socially conscious; now I have to explain how weird it is. It kites from exploitation to compassion without batting an eye, hip-checks its way through melodrama and new wave and poetic realism and a couple of genres that don't have names, just fevers. The dialogue can and often does reflect the psychology of its characters, but just as often it goes straight for the pulp ("That's enough to make a bulldog bust its chain," "I'll never strike at your past, not even with a flower," "Last week I realized the President was right and Charlie was dead and I'd never get married") and in any case it's spoken in a stylized vacuum of false-front streets and interiors so expediently redressed, they take on the unmoored here now nowhere of ritual or dream. Short scenes dissolve elliptically into one another, fading up the interchangeable passage of months or minutes until it feels like a waking jolt to see at last, as in our introduction to Grantville, an ordinary actual date on the banner hung out over Main Street. DP Stanley Cortez luckily had a knack for American dreamscapes and he photographs this one lyrically and angularly, crisp slants of shadow and the luminosity of white skin enhancing rather than papering over the theatricality of the staging. Only once does the film break into outright expressionism, when a 16 mm reverie of Venice launches a sofa like a gondola into a black soundstage void of falling leaves and a full-throated tenor aria of "Santa Lucia," but its smaller moments can be equally, boldly unreal, like the sight of a beaten madam with her mouth crammed full of money or a wedding veil settled like a shroud over a still profile. A seamstress lives with the dummy she named and decorated after her fiancé lost in WWII. A stragglingly sweet children's song curdles in the reprise. If the literary references of the screenplay hint at monsters of the Romantic imagination—vampires, Erlkönig—its pop culture is strictly from Fuller, with Shock Corridor (1963) on the local marquee and a paperback of The Dark Page (1944) Kelly's preferred park-bench reading. But this cracked hall of mirrors turns back on the protagonist, too: nearly every female role in this film refracts out somehow from Kelly's hopes, fears, and history, disparities in age, class, or sexual status immaterial. How often do you see a thirtysomething former sex worker as Everywoman? This seems a reasonable place to mention that while The Naked Kiss tells, with remarkable frankness, far more than it ever shows, it does assume an audience capable of thinking about sexual violence, toward adults and children, defined both precisely and pervasively. In its unsensationalized recognition of normative heterosexual behavior as something trivially, almost absently perverted into inequality and abuse, it's a worthy successor to Ida Lupino's Outrage (1950); I was reminded even more strongly of some pre-Codes, that being the last major era of Hollywood film when a prostitute could be the most emotionally mature and moral character onscreen. It feels important to me that the film sees nothing saintly or superheroic in Kelly's fierce solidarity with other women in trouble, whether she uses her savings or the heel of her shoe to help them out; she is merely treating them like people, which is more than their local police can be bothered to do. The real provocation is the assertion that as a conventionally "bad" woman she may be better equipped to detect the rottenness in Grantville to which its more innocently sheltered—or willfully ignorant—citizens are blind, not because she has an affinity for it, but because she's survived its like. "Once before, a man's kiss tasted like that . . ." The man she's telling the story to thinks it's so much eyewash, but any viewer who has ever met someone whose signals are all just slightly off will know better. Viewers inclined to doubt the word of a tall, hard, lanky ex-hooker on principle, well, there may be a reason this film started with someone getting smacked upside the head.

Last night when I was talking to [personal profile] rushthatspeaks, they mentioned the genre of horror where the monster is patriarchy, and how sometimes the movies seem to know it and sometimes they don't; this one knows it. In the fictional film series I keep at the back of my head, I am inclined to class it with Mervyn LeRoy's Heat Lightning (1934), Karyn Kusama's Jennifer's Body (2009), and even Noel Black's Pretty Poison (1968), another presciently Lynchian small-town genre-blender; regarding von Trier, all I'm going to say is that the second half of The Naked Kiss makes the contracting determinism of Dancer in the Dark (2000) even less interesting to me. I must thank [personal profile] gwynnega, who encouraged me to give Fuller's films a try: I can only hope the rest of them are as weird, wise, and unapologetic. The film is currently streaming on Kanopy and available on Blu-Ray/DVD from Criterion if you would like to test this claim for yourself, but I loved it. It's even got Patsy Kelly. The last shot is as exactly right as a sentence by Le Guin. This satisfaction brought to you by my strong backers at Patreon.
gwynnega: (Leslie Howard mswyrr)

[personal profile] gwynnega 2019-04-11 01:48 am (UTC)(link)
Yes! When you'd mentioned being curious about Fuller, this was the film I most hoped you'd watch. Now I want to watch it again (and also the Fuller documentary The Typewriter, the Rifle, and the Movie Camera). Constance Towers is great; for years (in the 1990s until a few years ago) she played murderous matriarch Helena Cassadine on General Hospital.
gwynnega: (Default)

[personal profile] gwynnega 2019-04-11 02:20 am (UTC)(link)
Is it much like his other work?

Yes, at least the other films of his I've seen. His work has a very distinctive look and voice.
Edited 2019-04-11 02:20 (UTC)
jesse_the_k: Baby wearing huge black glasses (eyeglasses baby)

Another breathtaking review brought to you

[personal profile] jesse_the_k 2019-04-11 09:19 pm (UTC)(link)
by your limber mind, silver tongue and nimble fingers. Lucky me to have Kanopy.
asakiyume: created by the ninja girl (Default)

[personal profile] asakiyume 2019-04-15 04:05 am (UTC)(link)
....and a couple of genres that don't have names, just fevers. --That's an arrestingly good line, and super evocative.

The film sounds good. I'm noticing that you don't give the game away about what happens, and from what you *do* say, I sense menace. But it also sounds as if our heroine is capable, so I'm guessing she handles it.