sovay: (PJ Harvey: crow)
Today was very pleasant but very tiring. It has been a sleepless week, most of yesterday was a migraine, and I feel exhausted to the point of stupidity. In lieu of a movie I really need my brain for, here's one I can talk about while wanting to pass out.

Last October I watched but never wrote about Norman Foster's Woman on the Run (1950), a famously near-lost noir painstakingly restored by the UCLA Film & Television Archive and the Film Noir Foundation and released last year onto home media as a double bill with Byron Haskin's Too Late for Tears (1949). Part of the delay is that I liked but did not love the former film as I did the latter with its stone cold antiheroine and uncompromising final shot; this one suffers more from the congealing sexism of the nascent Fifties and as a result its emotional resolution leaves a tacky taste on my teeth and an inchoate longing for the advent of no-fault divorce. If you can bear with its limitations, however, Woman on the Run is worth checking out as a thoughtfully layered mystery and a fantastic showcase for Ann Sheridan as an unapologetically bitchy, unsentimentally sympathetic protagonist, a rare combination in Hollywood even now.

The 1948 source short story by Sylvia Tate was titled "Man on the Run" and the film begins with one: late-night dog-walker Frank Johnson (Ross Elliott) who takes a powder on learning that the murder he conscientiously reported—and witnessed at close enough range to know the killer again—was connected to a high-profile mob trial. A failed artist with a bad heart and a marriage that's been on the rocks almost since it launched, he looks tailor-made for the dark city, a loser coming up on his final throw. The camera doesn't follow him into the night-maze of San Francisco, though, to face or keep running from his demons in the kind of psychomachia at which an expressionist genre like noir so excels; instead the point of view switches almost at once to his estranged wife Eleanor (Sheridan), wearily deflecting the inquiries of the hard-nosed Inspector Ferris (Robert Keith, who will always look like Lieutenant Brannigan to me) with flat sarcastic cracks and an indifference so apparently genuine and total, it can take the audience a beat to recognize the depths of anger and resignation that underlie lines like "No, sometimes he goes to sleep and I walk the dog." Ever since Max Ophüls' The Reckless Moment (1949), I have been wary of assuming the limits of women in noir, but Eleanor still stands out for me in her flippant, abrasive intelligence and her willingness to look bad—she knows it shocks the conservative inspector that she isn't all housewifely concern for her man and she needles him with it, referring to the dog as their "only mutual friend" and dismissing the bare kitchen with "He's not particular and I'm lazy, so we eat out." Faced with the possibility that Frank has taken his brush with the underworld as an excuse to run out on his marriage, she's more than half inclined to let him. But she's not inclined to let him get killed, especially not playing star witness for a police force whose last star witness got whacked while Frank was watching, and so in the best traditions of amateur detecting, complete with dubious Watson in the form of "Legget of the Graphic" (Dennis O'Keefe), the flirty tabloid reporter who offered his services plus a thousand-dollar sweetener in exchange for exclusive rights to Frank's story, Eleanor sets out to find her missing husband before either the killer or a duty-bound Ferris can. He's left her a clue to his whereabouts, a cryptic note promising to wait for her "in a place like the one where I first lost you." In a relationship full of quarrels and frustrations, that could be anywhere, from their favorite Chinese hangout to the wharves of his "social protest period" to the tower viewers at the top of Telegraph Hill. Let the investigations begin.

I like this setup, which gives us the city as memory palace after all: Eleanor's memories of her relationship with Frank, what it was like when it was good and where it failed and how it might be reclaimed again, if she can only find him alive. She is almost being asked to perform a spell. And while I suppose she could have done it on the sympathetic magic of a Hollywood backlot, it is much more satisfying to watch her revisit real statues and sidewalks, real crowds unaware of the private earthquake taking place in their midst. Hal Mohr's cinematography is a street-level document of San Francisco in 1950, with a cameo by our old friend Bunker Hill; he can organize shadows and angles as effectively as the next Oscar-winning DP when he needs to, but he keeps the majority of the action on the daylit side of noir, the lived-in, working-class city with Navy stores and department stores and parks and piers and diners and lots of California sun, which only looks like it shows you everything. The literal roller-coaster climax was filmed at Ocean Park Pier/Pacific Ocean Park, last seen on this blog in Curtis Harrington's Night Tide (1960). Back at the Johnsons' bleak, hotel-like apartment, Eleanor mocked Ferris for "snoop[ing] into the remains of our marriage," but increasingly it seems not to be as cold a case as she thought. Going back over old ground, she discovers new angles on her missing person; nondescript in his introductory scenes and ghostly in his own life, Frank Johnson becomes vivid in absence, hovering over the narrative like Harry Lime in Carol Reed's The Third Man (1949) or the title character of Otto Preminger's Laura (1944) until his wife begins to see a curiously attractive stranger in the place of a man whose familiarity had long since bred hopelessness. To fall in love with someone who might already be dead, to find someone in the process of losing them, these are the kinds of irony that noir thrives on and Woman on the Run derives as much tension from the audience's fear that irony will carry the day as it does from the actual unknowns of the plot, the killer's identity, Frank's status, Eleanor's own safety as her sleuthing calls for ever more active deception of the police and reliance on Legget, who keeps saying things like "I'm sorry I was so rude a moment ago, but it's always discouraging to hear a wife say that her husband loves her." He is another unexpected element, not without precedent but nicely handled. In most genres, his pushy charm and his genial stalking of Eleanor would mark him as the romantic hero, or at least an appealing alternative to a husband so avoidant he couldn't even tell his own wife when he was diagnosed with a serious heart condition. Here, with a triangle already established between Eleanor and the husband she knows and the husband she doesn't, the reporter is a fourth wheel at best and the audience hopes he accepts it. Without a reciprocating spark, it's not as cute as he thinks when he encourages Eleanor to call him "Danny Boy" ("People who like me call me Danny Boy") or leads her casually under the same wooden coaster where he used to bring dates, his contribution perhaps to the film's romantic psychogeography.

Honestly, I don't even dislike the resolution on the strict level of plot. By the time Eleanor realizes that the place where I first lost you isn't a bitter dig at a bad memory but a hopeful allusion to a good one, the audience is sufficiently invested in the reunion of these long-fractured lovers—despite the fact that we've never once seen them together, even in photographs or Frank's sketches and paintings—that to frustrate it would feel deliberately unfair, although of course in noir that never rules anything out. They're both taking chances, not just with their lives but their hearts. Frank who always runs away is standing his ground, risking being found by a gunman and a partner he's disappointed. Eleanor who has built such prickly defenses is lowering them, making herself reach out rather than preemptively rebuff. You want to see that kind of bravery rewarded, even when heart conditions and prowling killers aren't involved. What I dislike in the extreme is the film's attitude toward this conclusion. In its examination of the Johnsons' marriage, the facts of the script assign plenty of blame to Frank, an artist too scared of failure to try for success, a husband who retreated from his wife as soon as he felt that he'd let her down, a man who could talk about his feelings to everyone but the woman he was living with. The dialogue, however, insists repeatedly that the ultimate success or collapse of a marriage is the woman's responsibility—that it must be Eleanor's fault that her marriage went south, that she wasn't patient or understanding or supportive enough, that she has to be the one to change. It's implied in some of her encounters; in others it's stated outright. Inspector Ferris constantly judges her as a wife and a woman, even once asking "Didn't your husband ever beat you?" when she tells him to back off. He's the dry voice of authority, the hard-boiled but honest cop; I want to believe that Eleanor is decoying him when she apologizes for not believing his criticism sooner ("I guess I was the one who was mixed up—a lot of it's my fault anyway—I haven't been much of a wife"), but I fear we're meant to take her at face value. He's too active in the film's ending not to be right. Hence my wistful feelings toward California's Family Law Act of 1969. Sheridan's acting carries her change of heart from resolutely not caring to clear-eyed second chance, but I almost wish it didn't have to. At least she has a good rejoinder when Frank queries their future together, wry as any of her defensive cracks: "If this excitement hasn't killed you, I'm sure I can't."

The movies with which Woman on the Run links itself up in my head are Robert Siodmak's Phantom Lady (1944) and Roy William Neill's Black Angel (1946), both stories of investigating women with ambiguous allies and ghostly romantic patterns; Sheridan's Eleanor is a harder, less conventionally likeable protagonist than either Ella Raines' Kansas or June Vincent's Cathy, which may account for why the patriarchy comes down on her with such personified, decisive disapproval, or it may be the distance from wartime, or it may be some other idiosyncratic factor that still annoys me. The fact that I can read the ending as happy rather than rubber-stamped heteronormativity is due almost entirely to Sheridan, who never loses all of Eleanor's edges any more than she slips out of her angular plaid overcoat into something more comfortable, plus the final cutaway to the Laughing Sal on the lit-up midway, rocking back and forth as if a husband and wife embracing is some great joke. Maybe it is. What makes this couple, so fervently clinging to one another, so special? He writes a nice love-note. She climbs out a skylight like nobody's business. They named their dog Rembrandt. This reunion brought you by my particular backers at Patreon.

Woman on the Run
sovay: (Claude Rains)
Nothing Sacred (1937) may be the most cynical screwball comedy I have ever seen in my life. It is a delight.

For the record, we're talking A-picture. The film was directed by William Wellman and written by Ben Hecht until he fell out with producer David O. Selznick over not casting John Barrymore and the script was turned over to the divers hands of Dorothy Parker, Budd Schulberg, Ring Lardner Jr., George S. Kaufman, and other people it is actually not terrible to have to call in as last-minute script doctors; it stars Carole Lombard and Fredric March and I have my fingers crossed that the HFA has a decent print, because it was the first Technicolor film to incorporate effects like montage and rear projection and its location footage of New York City is top-notch. The score is by Oscar Levant and Raymond Scott, if you can believe it. And its romantic heroes are a small-town girl who scams her misdiagnosis of terminal illness into a free trip to the big city and the newspaperman who's more than cheerful to make her tragedy his meal ticket and the proof-of-love scene involves them trying to knock one another's blocks off and the happy ending finds him disparaging the attention span of her public and her defending the honor of her imposture and the tippling doctor who got the plot into this fix in the first place waking up still drunk, obviously having forgotten that they all fled incognito to the tropics, and bawling out the porthole of the steamer, "Run for your life! The hotel's flooded!" If you're looking for a moral, you've come to the wrong movie. The credits are decorated with caricatures of cast and crew alike. New York City is introduced in panorama as the "Skyscraper Champion of the World . . . where the Slickers and the Know-It-Alls peddle gold bricks to each other . . . and where Truth, crushed to earth, rises again more phony than a glass eye," but the fine rural citizens of Warsaw, Vermont wouldn't give George Washington any competition for that cherry tree. March's Wally Cook is so overjoyed to learn that his beloved isn't dying of radium poisoning after all that when Lombard's Hazel Flagg starts to pitch him an apology, he breezily promises to cheat on her for the next fifty years to make up for it. If it weren't for the release date, I would be tempted to wonder if this movie were some kind of late-breaking pre-Code. The showgirl who gives the camera the finger is just lagniappe.

I knew about Lombard and comedy: she was one of the luminaries of the screwball era and Nothing Sacred is her sole Technicolor film, for which alone it would be valuable. I had no idea about Fredric March. He did very well as one-third of a three-way with Gary Cooper and Miriam Hopkins in Lubitsch's Design for Living (1933), but Noël Coward is a different skill set than screwball. He's marvelous as a professional trickster who's a private sap, a cynic who falls in love without slush and switches gears seamlessly from grieving to spin: "Because I love you. Because I'm going to marry you. And I don't want to spend my honeymoon hanging around Sing Sing, blowing kisses to you in the exercise yard!" That's the pre-Code spirit: no guilt and no comeuppance. Wally doesn't for a second feel bad about exploiting a supposedly dying girl in order to boost the circulation of the Morning Star and get himself out of the doghouse with his tetchy editor, he just starts to mind the dying part once he's fallen in love with her. Hazel feels bad about her fakery only insofar as she worries it might blow up her romance; otherwise the real downside is the maudlin, preemptive, performative grief that the city schmaltzes all over "the bravest kid who ever lived" or, as she's immortalized by a visiting poet in a prime piece of fish-wrap, "Oh Laughing Girl Upon the Brink of Death / Oh Singing Heart Before the Door of Doom . . ." The city fathers don't miss a photo op presenting her with the key. Nightclub emcees dedicate floor shows to her frail, touching heroism. Delicatessens boast with their window displays that "Miss Hazel Flagg Lunched Here To-Day" (the camera pulls back to chase this last with the telling advertisement "All Kinds of Cheese and Bologna Our Specialty"). Wally's editor is so blithely ambulance-chasing that the revelation of Hazel's no longer impending demise from radiation plunges him into a depression from which he can be revived only by the report that she might have come down with galloping pneumonia instead. Even Howard Hawks' His Girl Friday (1940), otherwise a high-water mark for low morals in journalism, takes a moment of silence for the death of an innocent incurred in the callous pursuit of a good story. There's no such pause in Nothing Sacred. To be fair, in Nothing Sacred nobody dies, but when a main character lies to the rest of the cast for two acts out of three, the audience expects at least a beat of betrayal, recrimination, reconciliation. Instead it throws us a slapstick fistfight staged for the express purpose of getting Hazel exhausted and sweaty and panting enough to pass for sick in bed with pneumonia. (In another deft tweak of the Code, the dialogue leads the audience to wonder for a dizzy moment whether Wally is just going to sex her into the necessary state of pseudo-fever—of course he can't with Joseph Breen looking over his shoulder, but the image lingers.) The plot rackets from deception to discovery and on to the next deception. Being a romantic comedy insures it against too much of a downer ending, but it absolutely resists cheap or even expensive sentiment along the way. And it loves its lovers, which only heightens the effect. There is not a hint of tsk-tsking from the narrative, the kind of indulgent schadenfreude that would make it morally acceptable to enjoy the antics of the lead couple because we all know they are wrong; it doesn't present them as terrible people who deserve one another à la Twentieth Century (1934) or, again, His Girl Friday. Wally and Hazel are clever, silly, antiheroic, attractive, and really in love. That the film so consistently endorses them illustrates the virtue of screwball as romance: love in this genre can be breathtakingly amoral, but it's rarely mean-spirited. It's no disgrace to go head over heels for it—even literally. Settle for being a sucker for everything you read, though, and pal, you're on your own.

I have not read the source short story, published in Cosmopolitan in 1937, so I can't say whether James H. Street's "Letter to the Editor" is more or less satirical than its movie, more or less romantic, or even whether it follows the same arc. Certainly it wouldn't have Lombard's ability to look unbelievably beautiful and utterly goofy in the same gesture or the thousand-yard deadpan with which March wears a paper cup from the water bubbler like a feather in his fedora, grimly pounding out obituaries while feeling like one himself. I confess myself skeptical that any of its dialogue could be snappier than Hecht, Parker et al. ("For good, clean fun, there's nothing like a wake."–"Oh, please, let's not talk shop"). I would not be surprised if the film invented the Viennese radiation specialist and his heel-clicking coterie, not to mention the New England town so mean that when Wally walks by a picket-fenced yard, a toddler darts out and chomps him on the leg, and I don't see how a short story could reproduce the sardonic effect of a camera that shoots an emotionally tremulous moment with a tree limb blocking both characters' faces or circles a shipping crate while a love scene is going on inside. Except for a few moments of racial humor, which are at least mildly mitigated by the character played by Troy Brown being just as unashamedly out for himself as anyone else in the story, for better or worse I don't think the script has dated at all. But it is also caustically topical, especially in its indictment of the public's "trick tears and phony lamentations" that don't in any way translate to altering conditions at the Paragon Watch Factory so that girls before and after Hazel won't die of radium poisoning for real. There are some sharp, stealthy bones beneath the bright skin of this film. Six months after the release of Nothing Sacred, five of the infamous "Radium Girls" would finally win their decade-long suit against the Chicago watch-dial factory that had fatally and knowingly poisoned them. The article in which Wally first reads about Hazel includes mention of two previous deaths. Before she learned her diagnosis was a mistake, she dreamed wistfully of traveling on her factory bonus of "that two hundred dollars you get for dying in Warsaw." What can you do with a world like that, except take it for all you can get, love included? This sob story brought to you by my cynical backers at Patreon.
sovay: (I Claudius)
Rabbit, rabbit. As Bertie Owen, my faithful one-lunged laptop, is still having trouble with the idea of not cooking himself to death in half-hour installments, please find herein a short review of Joseph L. Mankiewicz's Cleopatra (1963).

The shortest version is that for all its reputation as a four-hour camp-fest, Cleopatra is not a bad film at all; it is in fact a good film, but it is doubtful that it could ever have been good enough to make up for nearly bankrupting 20th Century Fox. Its production woes are almost as legendary as its subject matter, encompassing two different shoots from scratch in as many countries and under as many directors (Rouben Mamoulian in London, Mankiewicz in Rome) with a revolving door of a cast and a shooting script that never existed as such, being written and rewritten, as if Penelope of Ithaka were in the movie business rather than textiles, each night for the next day's scenes. Elizabeth Taylor successfully negotiated for an unprecedented million-dollar contract and then almost died of pneumonia during the failed British shoot whose elaborate sets and costumes, abandoned by Hollywood, were presently, gloriously co-opted by Pinewood Studios for Carry on Cleo (1964). Her marriage did die, along with Richard Burton's, right on set before God and the paparazzi, and on some level I feel any film whose presiding deities are Isis and Venus should have seen that coming. The budget exploded. The studio imploded. Mankiewicz's original plan of two back-to-back movies—Caesar and Cleopatra and Antony and Cleopatra—was forcibly condensed in the cutting room into one 248-minute Cleopatra which was then further shortened for general release, although the premiere version has since been recovered and is what I saw on 70 mm on Thursday night. It was the highest-grossing film of its year. It did not make back its original costs. Considering those were $44 million in 1963 money, nobody should look surprised. I don't even want to get into its historical accuracy: Mankiewicz was the writer-director who put Latin graffiti on the sound stages of Julius Caesar (1953), so I don't believe his artistic choices were made in ignorance, but since it is recorded nowhere in Plutarch or Suetonius or Appian that the last spasm of the civil wars of the Roman Republic was inaugurated by Octavian personally shanking Sosigenes of Alexandria in the Forum of Rome, I think we can leave the historicity of the production somewhat permanently aside. I tend to associate the term film maudit with cult objects, experimental films, stuff that's so weird it risks your sanity to see it, but Cleopatra makes a good case for a mainstream application of the term.

And yet I have trouble thinking of a filmed interpretation that I like better, even the 1934 pre-Code version with Claudette Colbert as Cleopatra and Henry Wilcoxon as Antony and a bargeful of catgirls as a hell of a thing to see after midnight on a big screen. Four hours gives a smart script a lot of time for characterization as well as pageantry and Mankiewicz's script is not dumb. Neither is its leading lady. Taylor's Cleopatra is the most political Cleopatra I have seen: a strategist as well as a survivor, ambitious and aware at every second of the effect she is making, the power that is hers and the power she has to leverage from the men around her; her body with its beauty and fertility is the obvious instrument, but her brain and her fearless showmanship are underestimated at her opponents' peril. Descendant of one of Alexander's generals, she sees herself as the inheritor of his dream of empire, Alexandria at the heart of the world. If she must ally with Rome to realize it, then "the cloak of Alexander cannot be too heavy for Rome and Egypt to carry together." And the script is on her side. The famous anecdote of the carpet makes a disarmingly goofy entrance, spilling a black-haired, violet-eyed girl with little in the way of royal paint or jewelry face-down at the feet of Rex Harrison's amused Caesar: within seconds she's sizing him up, challenging his colonial complacency, criticizing his maps. He speaks flippantly of her divine titles and she corrects him with a cool burn on the fabled ancestry of the gens Iulia: "I am Isis. I am worshipped by millions who believe it. You are not to confuse what I am with the so-called divine origin that every Roman general seems to acquire together with his shield." An early confrontation in her bath is carefully staged to play up to Roman expectations of Eastern decadence and yet to demonstrate that this young queen is no provincial—reclining among an Oriental fantasy of waving fans and diaphanous veils, she's listening to a musical recitation of the poetry of Catullus, who famously declared (among other invective that could never have been translated nicely enough for the screen in '63) nil nimium studeo, Caesar, tibi velle placere, / nec scire utrum sis albus an ater homo. In the aftermath of the siege of Alexandria and her brother's death offscreen in the Battle of the Nile, she meets Caesar's admission that he didn't trust her enough to tell her about the reinforcements coming from Pergamon with the reveal that she not only had him watched but spied on him herself, down to his most intimate secret of seizures and headaches: truth for truth.

To be very clear, I am not saying that Taylor's Cleopatra is never loving, or generous, or spontaneous, or afraid of loss; she can be all of these things and slyly funny besides. But she is Egypt's queen, and Egypt itself, and neither she nor the script forgets it. Her entrance into Rome is an eight-and-a-half-minute showcase of political theater: waves of dancers with silks and colored smokes, tribal regalias of Africa and Egyptian friezes come to life, archers and cavalry, a flight of live doves, and finally the daughter of the Ptolemies herself, drawn through the Arch of Constantine on an enormous sphinx as black as the Nile against the red-bannered dazzling whiteness of the Forum's marble.1 The crowd screams for her, exactly as they would for the modern celebrity she extra-diegetically is. She is clad like Isis herself in feathered gold, her young son by Caesar glittering as Horus at her side. Borne down to the Mars-red carpet on the shoulders of men as black and gold as her sphinx, she bows deeply before her lover, her husband in the Egyptian rite, the man who is all but king of Rome. And as she raises her eyes to triumphant Caesar, she winks. It is almost over the top, except it tells the audience unambiguously what is going on. The procession is a spectacle of submission for the punters: all the fabulous wealth of Egypt at Caesar's feet, all that exotic beauty and he knocked her up to boot. Let the Senate fume; the people of Rome are eating it up. And they have managed it all between the two of them, like a director and his star. (Fortunately this metaphor does not extend so far as to get Mankiewicz assassinated, although I'm sure Darryl F. Zanuck at least thought about it.)

You have a way of mixing politics and passion. Where does one begin and the other leave off? )

Okay, that wasn't short at all, but I had to write it in blocks and it took me days; it had all the frustrations of writing to wordcount while not actually being over any sooner. I don't understand Cleopatra's reputation as a flop or a trashy pleasure at best. I liked it a hell of a lot better than DeMille's The Ten Commandments (1956). It was almost enough to make me forgive Mankiewicz for the hack job he did on The Quiet American (1958). I know no one in their right mind would have given him money for it, but I came away genuinely, weirdly sorry that he never wrote or directed a version of the Pharsalia, because at times his script for Cleopatra has the anti-epic, black-comic edge that characterizes Lucan's poem: Octavian seasick at Actium, Antony's repeated attempts at a heroic death; in Shakespeare, he can get an ear for the best lines in the play, but when Burton addresses the crowd at Caesar's funeral, we can't even hear a word he says. And the film is, in fact, stunning on a big screen: the monumental architecture, the lavish set dressing, the hyper-real saturation of Technicolor which does half the immersive work of the cinematography. It was well received by its audience. Once or twice they snickered at some moment they thought melodramatic, but more often they laughed in appreciation or even cheered, which is a great thing to hear two thousand years after the fact. (When Antony returns to Cleopatra as an awkwardly married envoy of Rome and she puts him on his knees for it, both [personal profile] spatch and I heard an impressed "DAAAMN.") Expenses, editing, and ill health be damned, as far as I'm concerned the film is entirely worth its four hours and probably even its $44 million. This spectacle brought to you by my strategic backers at Patreon.

1. I know the Arch of Constantine wasn't built until three centuries after Cleopatra's death, and you know that Roman monuments and statues were as brightly painted as anything else in the ancient world, but I said I wasn't getting into historical accuracy because otherwise that'll be a review of its own and I'm sticking to it. Just for the record, however, let me note that Taylor's costumes are a gorgeous panoply of '60's fashions intermittently influenced by Greek and Egyptian styles, she looks great in all of them, and I hope no one ever tried to explain that leopardskin duffel coat she wears to the Battle of Actium.
sovay: (Claude Rains)
I met my father this afternoon for a matinée of Tony Gilroy's Michael Clayton (2007) at the Brattle Theatre. I had not seen the film since it was released and it really holds up. It's a character study interlocked into a tight ensemble drama; it has classic bones and no guarantees. I can't say it's the best acting George Clooney has ever done only because I love so much his perfect '30's leading-man turn in O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000), but he's human-sized here, bruised and ambiguous, a man whose finesse with dirty deals and laundry has never made him more than a "janitor" to the swanky law firm that declines to offer his blue collar a partnership, no matter how sharp his suits or sealed his lips. Tilda Swinton almost certainly deserved her Oscar just for ruthlessly suppressing her natural air of the numinous, substituting flop sweat and a queasy determination that would be admirable if it weren't in service of corporate exploitation that can't even be written off as cartoonish, it's so routine and successful. I first noticed Tom Wilkinson in this movie, having a spectacular version of Clooney's own moral jolt: a glittering manic break in the middle of a tricky class-action suit, precipitated by an inconvenient access of conscience, also going off his meds. Other character actors have made themselves visible in the decade since, each sketching in some angle of the title character's world and the aggression, anxiety, weariness, and anger that principally define it (hello, Denis O'Hare, Sean Cullen, Sydney Pollack, Bill Raymond, oh, good God, Ken Howard, that was you). Other ways of living swing elliptically through the story. Good luck getting hold of one of them.

Looking at the film now, I am not surprised that I fell in love with it ten years ago, because it is, in addition to a kind of chamber corporate thriller, an essentially noir narrative. Its chief concerns are people's prices and limits, how far they'll go and for whose sake, whether there is such a thing as redemption or whether some stains go too deep or whether it even matters so long as just here, just now, just a little, the damage stops. It assumes institutional corruption and personal complicity without making them anyone's excuse. It asks real ethical questions and proffers no pat answers. I've never seen it counted among modern neo-noir and I'm wondering if people miss it because it eschews the style: there are no cigarette contrails or Venetian blinds, but all the philosophy is there, the starkness with which the void can suddenly open beneath you. It's never didactic; it would be dead in the water if it preached. The longest speeches belong to Wilkinson and as his character says shruggingly, "I'm crazy, right?" But it makes its audience notice the inequalities, how being useful is not the same as belonging, how suffering in aggregate can be business as usual until a face turns it into personal crisis, how the woman in the boardroom is the one out on the branch that can be sawn off at need (which does not absolve her of the actions she takes to cling there), and without playing games with audience satisfaction it ends with a move into the appropriate total unknown. It's not grimdark, because good noir isn't. It just doesn't promise anyone they'll make it out—even metaphorically—alive.

I am being evasive about the plot because it's good: it knows that a car bomb and a photocopy can be equally explosive, but the renunciation of empathy is more killing than any chemical. I didn't realize the writer-director had also written four of the Bourne movies, although I feel I should have been able to guess from the scene with Clive Owen in The Bourne Identity (2002), or that he co-wrote the script for Rogue One (2016), which is less immediately obvious to me. I can't remember if I knew that cinematographer Robert Elswit had previously worked with Clooney on Good Night and Good Luck (2005), where I discovered David Strathairn, Frank Langella, Ray Wise, and Dianne Reeves, started to notice Robert Downey, Jr., and finally differentiated Jeff Daniels from Jeff Bridges; he gets some beautiful shots out of ordinary things and some horrifying ones out of the same, like a glossily deserted, fluorescent-lit office building late at night that seems to be waiting for J.G. Ballard. I wish Clooney had won the Best Actor he was nominated for; I don't still randomly think about Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood a decade later. I think the best compliment I can pay this movie is that even if I think of it as noir, I don't think it would have been better filmed in 1949 with John Garfield or Dan Duryea. This memo brought to you by my valuable backers at Patreon.
sovay: (Lord Peter Wimsey: passion)
[personal profile] ashlyme, I have seen your Pan of the brownfields. He was in Derek Jarman's The Last of England (1987), a bare-chested, leather-jacketed heroin punk atop a mound of ruined brick, the post-synched soundtrack playing a delicate melody in the midst of burning warehouses, fascist soldiers, forty-year-old home movies, Thatcherite apocalypse. He has a round-chinned face, an Elvis-black kiss-curl, tattoos on his arms; in the credits he is named "Spring." He shoots up, smokes, smashes things, has sex with a life-sized copy of Caravaggio's Amor Vincit Omnia while the cinematographer's shadow, maybe Jarman's own shadow, lies across them both. His scenes are all filmed in the slow-blurred, smokily tinted Super 8 grain of The Angelic Conversation (1987), of which he might be the darkening reflection: the angel in the fallen world, with no last trump to liberate him into the arms of his beloved. Everything in this film is apocalyptic, but very little of it is revelation. Maybe Tilda Swinton at the very end, rending with scissors and even biting her wedding gown to pieces as a pyre streams behind her on the sunset riverbank; she whirls in bridal ruins, fire and grief, I think of Shiva Nataraja, I have no idea if Jarman did. He wrote a book of the film, which is currently available under the title Kicking the Pricks (1987). I don't have it. I have this headful of images like stained glass windows, smashed and burning. Or channel-surfing on William Blake's MTV.

I was five minutes late to the theater, which I count as an achievement since at Downtown Crossing the Red Line had decided that it would prefer not to; [personal profile] rushthatspeaks and [personal profile] nineweaving had saved me a seat and I came in just as Nigel Terry doing his best BBC switched from Allen Ginsberg's "Howl" to T.S. Eliot's "The Waste Land." (My memory is that this produced the line "I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed not with a bang but with a whimper," but I don't actually think that happened.) It's even more of a cut-up film than Jubilee (1977), working with many of the same furious themes but even more abstracted here. It plays aggressively with time, slowing, skipping, echoing, blackout and shell-shock and dream. (We ran out of time when we ran out of history, here at the willed, sadistically avoidable end of things. If all time is eternally present / All time is unredeemable.) It flickers between scenes until the screen becomes its own double-exposure kinematoscope. Many of Jarman's movies are painterly; this one is staticky. It's like looking at a sparkler. And indeed, different characters carry these fizzing torches, white magnesium fire burning off the screen; they ward and threaten and signify, perhaps, at the last, hope. Of Jarman's work that I've seen, which at this point includes all the feature films except Sebastiane (1976), The Garden (1990), and Blue (1993), The Last of England reminds me most of the short The Art of Mirrors (1973) and the music videos he directed for the Smiths and for Marianne Faithfull, who appears via the soundtrack, singing the beginning of the "Skye Boat Song" over and over in her cracked bell of a voice as refugees or deportees huddle on the wharves of London, patrolled by balaclava'd soldiers with black boots and black guns and the confident stride of nationalists: there were white cliffs in Ford Madox Brown's painting, but here there's not even a boat. The other thing this film reminds me of is a nightmare. It contains the most frightening cauliflower I have ever seen. It contains a moon-crowned dancing androgyne, a wedding where the bridesmaids are pantomime dames and the baby is present in a pram full of tabloids, an execution in real time. A pair of soldiers waltz in a tire-littered alley, lit by a trash fire. The globe of the world spins as if out of control, between the hands of an actress who looks like (but I don't think is) Sycorax from The Tempest (1979). Its painted countries are probably out of date anyway. "Land of Hope and Glory" sails out over shots of the Albert Memorial and home footage of Empire-shadowed Pakistan from Jarman's childhood, but the violence of soldiers who are not on parade—the grandsons of Kipling's "sons o' the Widow," with all the latest overcompensating gear—stutters like bullet-flashes throughout. New York is a frenetic hallucination, a remembrance wreath the height of hypocrisy when exchanged for a submachine gun. Hitler's on the soundtrack, too.

I don't know why this movie isn't depressing. It should leave you feeling absolutely bludgeoned; I think it's so angry it's exhilarating. It mourns the loss of England that was or should have been, but it isn't conservative. In one of two scenes I had seen excerpted in photographs from the film—the other being Swinton between fire and water—a posh boy and a soldier fuck on top of a gigantic Union Jack, the former balls naked, the latter booted-gloved-masked to anonymity, in such a welter of cigarettes and empty wine bottles that you're amazed either of them is up for it, and maybe they aren't. It's vicious, but I also think it's funny. I'm not sure either the establishment or the jackboots got what they wanted out of that one. Elsewhere Jarman himself sits at his real desk, writing in his real journals, the nuclear power station at Dungeness overlooks Prospect Cottage to this day and the industrial desolation of London is a document as well as a vision. (Eyeless tower blocks, rag-and-bone quaysides, houses behind barbed wire. Nowhere is home here. Where are they setting out, that monkish, magician's boat at the end? All that's left is away.) The filmmaker's family appear as themselves thanks to at least two generations of home movies. The whole thing feels like something you could stumble across in the middle of the night but not discover in a museum. It feels more like the inside of another person's head than some self-portraits I've seen. Afterward, in the restroom, a total stranger with a German accent turned to me at the stall door and asked, "Did you just see the film? Did you like it?" Then she asked if I was German. I have to believe M. John Harrison saw this film.

You understand that this is not a review, but I hope you understand also why I had to say something. I love several films by Derek Jarman—Wittgenstein (1993) unreasonably—and when I walked out of the Brattle Theatre tonight I did not expect The Last of England to be one of them, but it may be that I do, not even because it's so beautiful, because often and pointedly it's not, but because it is so much itself. It's fragments against the ruins. It's on fire. (I could and would screen it to follow David Rudkin's Penda's Fen (1974): Jarman himself the ungovernable, dissonant flame.) This explosion brought to you by my visionary backers at Patreon.
sovay: (Claude Rains)
Even for a pre-Code comedy, MGM's Speak Easily (1932) is an oddity. It's a talkie starring Buster Keaton and Jimmy Durante, for whose sake [personal profile] spatch and I would have watched it even if the cast list hadn't also included Thelma Todd. It has the kind of plot that can be most charitably described as lackadaisical, half fish out of water and half backstage musical and slapstick throughout, with little concern for narrative tension or payoff. Most of its music is stolen from other shows, which at least turns out to be one of the gags. It proves its pre-Code credentials the minute Durante refers to Todd as "big-time sex appeal," which she then confirms by enthusiastically stripping off in Keaton's office to demonstrate her suitability for the chorus line and Keaton falls off a chair as only he can, like a shockwave just hit; later in the plot she will slip into something sufficiently more comfortable that the only opaque parts are the big fur-trimmed sleeves, although the volume of booze knocked back in the same scene would almost certainly have put it beyond the pale in the Breen era anyway. I would not necessarily call Keaton's style of comedy a natural pairing with Durante's and I'm not sure the film managed to convince me that it was. I'm also not sure I cared.

I know the '30's were a bad decade for Keaton, personally, professionally; the studio system was a creative straitjacket, his marriage was breaking up and his drinking was out of control, and a lot of Speak Easily is funny at the level of affectionate smiling rather than open laughter, but the fact remains that as Timoleon Zanders Post, a mild-mannered and literal-minded professor of classics turned loose on an unsuspecting world by a well-meaning porter who just wanted him to live a little, Buster Keaton is adorable. Owlish, serious, and nerdily articulate, on discovering that he has apparently inherited $750,000 from an unknown beneficiary, "Timsy" throws all his worldly belongings into a steamer trunk—or tries to; some of his belongings are things like a coatrack and a chaise longue, which don't pack well—and heads out to experience Life, which he finds in the form of a fifth-rate troupe of vaudevillians who can't even get a hand in the culture-starved whistle-stop of Fish's Switch. Durante's Jimmy dashes back and forth between banging on the upright piano that passes for an orchestra pit and baggy-pantsing his way through jokes that even dad jokes would be embarrassed to know socially. The already thin audience is bailing as the curtain comes down. But Post is enraptured by the sweetly mediocre dancing of Ruth Selwyn's Pansy Peets and flattered by the support of the loudmouthed comic whom he addresses at all times as "James" and before anyone including Post quite knows what is happening, they're all headed to Broadway on the strength of a fictitious inheritance and the professor's very sincere appreciation of an art form which he keeps comparing to Aristophanes. (He is crestfallen to be told that not everything in Greek comedy is suitable for the Great White Way. "But, James, it was done so in Athens!"–"Yeah, they might get away with it in Athens, that's a college town!") He doesn't get mixed up with the gold-digging prima donna that is Todd's Eleanor Espere so much as he gets steamrolled, but the audience knows he'll come out of it eventually, even if he does stagger around initially with lipstick prints like rouge on those beautiful cheekbones of his. The finale in which the straight-faced professor finds himself accidentally salvaging the show with physical comedy isn't quite worthy of Sempitern Walker, but then Keaton's wearing too much clothing for that.

Even in a production that doesn't quite know what to do with him, it's a pleasure to watch Keaton do his thing. He's a silent comedian, a physical actor: he drops flat to the floor to read the inheritance letter, as if afraid it'll get away if he doesn't pin it in place; he has the stuffy, prissy posture of a man who can be identified a mile off by his pince-nez and his umbrella and his undertaker suits until he gets excited about something, at which point he bounces and flails and runs in and out of rooms like he's reenacting Marathon. He falls off trains, couches, catwalks, his own feet. When the calculating Eleanor tries to get the professor shikkered in order to compromise him (okay, I guess the PCA wouldn't have gone for that, either) and Post in the belief that a Tom Collins is a kind of lemonade mixes them both drinks stiff enough to cause spontaneous combustion, the results are one of the silliest drunk scenes I have ever encountered and gorgeously so, as a helium-voiced Todd loopily tries to put the moves on her oblivious prey and Keaton very seriously and very incompetently attempts to put his seductress to bed, at different points accidentally folding her in half and failing the fireman's carry and both of them slithering all over the furniture until Todd dressed in a negligée, a fox stole, and a very fancy hat takes a running faceplant onto one of the twin beds while Keaton who has managed to remove his shirt and his pants but forgotten about his sock garters carefully arranges himself on the other and passes out cold in a position that would give lesser mortals a crick in the ass. When he wakes up and comprehends where he is, he slips backward off the bed and blinks catlike over the rumpled bedclothes, a perfect silent short. If you're curious about Keaton's voice, by the way, it's not just fine, it's good. It's notably middle-American but not flat, with an edge that lends itself well to the meticulous diction and drypoint delivery of a character who absentmindedly hypercorrects "speakeasy" into "speak easily," but he can also sound shy, solicitous, flustered, and defiant, with the occasional Jimmy Stewart-like crack when events—or girls—really overtake him. I remain extremely annoyed that Mayer refused to take a chance on him for the serious, sympathetic role of Otto Kringelein in Grand Hotel (1932). He'd have been a revelation.

In the great reckoning of stories of nerds in show business, Stand-In (1937), Speak Easily is not. Probably the best way to consider the movie is as a series of extended sketches on a theme, of which the audience should enjoy whichever appeals to them and disregard the rest. Buster Keaton, even at a very rough patch in his life, remains both ridiculously beautiful and beautiful in motion, kinetic energy with umbrella in hand. I am aware that Jimmy Durante is something of a polarizing phenomenon, but I really enjoy him and his manic energy which never feels like it's gotten away from him. In the middle of the finale, he hauls a piano out in front of the curtain and does one of his nightclub routines and who cares if it makes sense in context, what we've seen of the show-within-a-show Speak Easily has been a sort of scantily clad revue mish-mosh anyway and Durante's sideways sequiturs are charming: "I know I'm not good-looking, but what's my opinion against thousands of others?" The problem with putting him and Keaton in the same routines is that neither of them is really a straight man—they're just different types of zany, Durante brash, Keaton mild—and I'm not sure the studio knew it. Too many of the jokes are set up as though one of them is supposed to hail from planet Earth and really they work best when the characters are operating at cross purposes (Post's inability to understand slang vs. Jimmy's inability to speak anything but) or unexpectedly on the same screwy wavelength. They were assigned two other films together, The Passionate Plumber (1932) and What! No Beer? (1933), and I am considering watching the latter only because it's in the TCM buffer and it's a Prohibition-era comedy about the repeal of Prohibition, which sounds historically intriguing if possibly not very well done. It does not, alas, appear to co-star Todd, who gets one of the best throwaway lines in the picture describing a costume she has in mind for her classically inspired dance: "There's not very much to it, you know, it's just right across here and a few beads—right, left." There's not very much to the film, either, but I regret nothing about giving it a try. The best of it is really funny; the worst of it won't hurt you. This variety brought to you by my Aristophanic backers at Patreon.
sovay: (I Claudius)
I did not see Stephen Sommers' The Mummy (1999) when it came out in the spring of my senior year of high school. At that point in my life I watched very few movies and when I did they were mostly social activities or taped off the television in black and white and this one looked big, loud, stupid, and above all not Boris Karloff. My then-boyfriend saw it without me; he reported a lot of computer-generated gore and scarabs. I didn't bother. Flash forward eighteen years and all of a sudden I'm seeing The Mummy and its first sequel namechecked everywhere as paramount examples of heroic female geekery and a het romance that actually works. Yesterday was characterized by exhaustion and eye-crossing headache and I needed a distraction, so I got a slightly scratched DVD out of the library and decided to see what I was missing.

The film is big, and it is loud, and the Orientalism goes up to eleven, but it knows it's not Boris Karloff and I don't think it's stupid. It's adventure pulp made by people who knew Spielberg was never going to come through with the further exploits of Indiana Jones—and must have felt smug when he finally did and they were The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)—and while the generation loss of making a homage to a homage could have left The Mummy insubstantial and ironic, instead it plays with the breezy fast pace and selectively sidestepped tropes of a blockbuster that looks like everyone who made it actually had fun. Rachel Weisz as Evie Carnahan is a one-woman screwball comedy, bespectacled as Cary Grant, chaos-making as Katharine Hepburn; still so young that she's curly-haired and kitten-faced, she's also the most accomplished Egyptologist in the story ("Take that, Bembridge scholars!") and I couldn't help noticing that while the climax does find her in need of rescue from your traditional lost-love resurrection ritual, the bulk of the plot on either side turns directly on her actions, from pursuing a childhood dream of the lost city of Hamunaptra to identifying a crucial hieroglyph by rather shaky description alone while dodging a priesthood's worth of murderous mummies. Opposite her, Brendan Fraser as soldier of fortune Rick O'Connell has to be good in order not to get wiped out of his own top billing and he is—he can do casual rugged heroism with tongue discreetly in cheek, he looks splendid in the Army-cut fashions of the '20's, and it gets funnier every time he reacts to the intimidating roar of something evil by screaming his face off right back at it. They fall in love like all the best adventurers, doing absurdly competent and foolhardy things while looking as though they can't believe their luck that the other person is right there alongside them. Kevin O'Connor is such an unapologetic weasel as Beni, ex-Legionnaire turned mummy's Renfield, that despite the script's explicit warning that "nasty little fellows such as yourself always get their comeuppance," I was still sorry to see him get his, and John Hannah's Jonathan Carnahan proves that I am incapable of not overthinking even summer blockbuster pulp, because when I see, in 1926, a young-ish Englishman that drunk, that flippant, and that good with firearms, I can't help wondering if his war was the Western Front or the Mesopotamian campaign. I am pretty sure that Odad Fehr's Ardeth Bay survives his heroic self-sacrifice by sheer force of beauty, but with that profile and those tattoos I'll buy it. And Arnold Vosloo makes a surprisingly effective Imhotep who resembles his 1932 incarnation only in his love for a woman three thousand years gone; he spends most of the movie in a partial state of motion capture, but whenever he's more or less human, he is as intense and solemn as if he's starring in a romantic tragedy, not a monster movie, which from his perspective is true enough.

From everyone else's, of course, it is a monster movie, with faces emerging hollow-mouthed from sandstorms and gem-like scarabs slithering under people's skin and skeletal mummies clashing swords like the return of Ray Harryhausen. The plot is the sort of thing you expect when no one in an ancient Egyptian royal court sees the potential blowback of deploying a curse whose object can, if exposed to the right incantations, come back as an immortal sand demon with the power to summon plagues from a different mythology entirely, and no one in the present day believes in the existence of such curses except for the hereditary caste of warriors who have become as mythical as the sand-drowned city they guard. There are seekers of knowledge versus hunters of treasure, the return of the repressed in sun-snuffing style. Everybody gets at least one moment of pure heroism and one moment of pure comedy and sometimes they're the same thing. Refreshingly, for all the prevailing goofiness, the script has few true moments of idiot plot and they are at least doozies when they arrive. (It's a nice gruesome touch when Imhotep begins to supplement his eviscerated body with living organs harvested from the disturbers of his tomb, but then he should spend the rest of the movie bumping into furniture, since those shiny new eyeballs of his came from a man who canonically had trouble finding his way down a hallway after his glasses were knocked off.) The CGI does not hold up, exactly, but for the most part it's not objectionable and even pulls off some nice effects that don't need to look naturalistic, like the spirit of Patricia Velásquez's Anck-su-namun boiling thickly out of a sacred pool with the weird purplish sheen of corona discharge, eddying over her vacant body without ever quite settling into recognizable human shape.

What really does not hold up, and honestly should not have even in 1999, is the racism. There is a redshirt in the form of a corrupt prison warden who accompanies our heroes to Hamunaptra; he is played by Omid Djalili and his purpose is to demonstrate how dangerous it is to go wandering off alone in a city haunted by an undead high priest and his cursed followers, but I feel this could have been accomplished without jokes that would not have been out of place in Girl of the Port (1930). I mean, I appreciate that the script tries to be even-handed with its stereotypes by making the rival team of treasure-hunting Americans a bunch of gung-ho literal cowboys, but the fact remains that trigger-happy Yankees are less flatly offensive than an Arab character hawking and spitting on cue of a British character's disgusted remark about the expectoratory habits of camels. I have less trouble with Beni because he is so generically Eurotrash, like a turbo-charged Peter Lorre caricature; after Erick Avari's indignant introduction, it's nice to discover that his obstructive curator of the Cairo Museum of Antiquities is more than he seemed when he was chewing Evie out for trashing his library before half-destroying Jonathan's tattered, ancient find of a map. I almost wish more had been made of the casual reveal that the Carnahan siblings are, despite their all-British names and received pronunciation, half-Egyptian—"You see, my father was a very, very famous explorer and he loved Egypt so much, he married my mother, who was an Egyptian and quite an adventurer herself"—although that would have raised even more strongly the question of appropriate casting. (Send help, I just pictured Siddig El Fadil as Jonathan and now I am wistful.) There are conventions of adventure pulp that simply no longer need to be observed and I am sorry The Mummy thought its period setting would gloss them. I prefer when it remembers to subvert all of its tropes, as with the fact that Ardeth Bay's Medjai know damn well where the lost city is, they just don't want anybody visiting.

I have been awake since seven o'clock this morning and spent the day traveling and write this review from a motel in Pennsylvania while [personal profile] spatch catches up on the news on the bed behind me; I don't know what else I can say about this movie except that it is on the whole a really adorable adventure with a couple of sour notes I wish it hadn't struck and the people who recommend it for its heroine were right. I don't know if I would have enjoyed it in high school. I had much less experience of pulp in any form and might have bounced off the three-way mash-up of horror, humor, and action, especially since I thought I disliked two of those genres for years. (I thought I disliked alcohol for years. It turned out what I disliked was the kinds of alcohol college students think is a good idea. So too with horror film and action movies.) I suspect I would have enjoyed Evie; nerd heroes are rare and female nerd heroes practically unicorns. I would have been very impressed by Anck-su-namun's costume, which I did not realize was primarily body paint until it smudged under Imhotep's hands. I would have liked Jonathan, but that is predictable: he is light-fingered and almost resolutely irresponsible, but not actually stupid; bashes his way through hieroglyphs decently enough for magic and picks a plot-relevant pocket not once but three times in the film, each time with aplomb. I remember picking up the novelization in the Waldenbooks where I worked in the late '90's and early 2000's, but I don't remember anything about it except one stray line that evidently changed between shooting script and final cut. I haven't been able to get hold of Michael Almereyda's Trance/The Eternal (1998) and I wanted something with mummies even if they didn't come out of a bog. This excavation brought to you by my library-loving backers at Patreon.
sovay: (PJ Harvey: crow)
I feel slightly as though I have been hammered into the ground: I watched just over twelve hours of vampire film, walked out into the grey morning and slept a couple of hours into the early afternoon. It has rained on and off all day, obfuscating the question of whether the sunlight would do anything exciting to my skin. I'd be surprised—I just ate some free gingersnaps around three in the morning, not any of my fellow audience members—but a movie marathon that programs itself to end with an apocalyptic sunrise wants you to wonder anyway. Let me see what I can say before I pass out again.

Considering its place in genre history as the first vampire movie to treat its subject with sympathy as well as horror, it is probably not inappropriate that I feel really conflicted about Dracula's Daughter (1936). It was conceived as an immediate sequel to Universal's Dracula (1931) incorporating elements of Stoker's "Dracula's Guest" (1914) and Le Fanu's "Carmilla" (1872). Its premise is full of innovations that would rapidly become tropes: the bisexual vampire, the vampire who wants to be human, the vampire turning to science for aid; its narrative descendants are as obvious and diverse as Theodore Sturgeon's Some of Your Blood (1961), CBS' Forever Knight (1992–96), and Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi's What We Do in the Shadows (2014), not to mention the full gamut of angst from Anne Rice to Stephenie Meyer. Gloria Holden as the Countess Marya Zaleska is somber and luminous, her long classical face a haunting and haunted mask. The script even knows there's something witty as well as Freudian in the idea of a vampire visiting a psychoanalyst in order to be cured of her compulsions, for which the language of drug addiction and sexual perversity is equally apropos. And all of this promising material just sort of exists in a not very taut 71-minute plot with a couple of murders and a lot of running back and forth between England and Transylvania and the especially frustrating kind of obligatory het couple where the only moment I believe their relationship is when she prank-calls him in a heavy fake German accent ("Please come right away . . . One of our elephants is seeing pink men!") and even then I dock it points because he's the ladykilling doctor who can't keep from mixing business with pleasure and she's his jealous secretary. It is impossible not to wonder what a director like James Whale could have brought to the material, instead of Lambert Hillyer whose career was mostly B-Westerns and the 1943 serial Batman. The queer content is not confined to the scene excerpted in The Celluloid Closet (1995), where the dark, gliding Countess, having previously solicited a handsome young man off the street, enthralls a beautiful young female model and the camera smashes upward on the girl's screams; on top of the psychoanalytic angle, which includes the Countess' conviction that the lingering spirit of her father compels her perverse lifestyle (following his staking by Van Helsing, she ritually exorcises Dracula's body with salt and fire and exults, "I can lead a normal life now—think normal things, play normal music!" but that night finds her cruising the foggy alleys of London again), it is notable that her final bid for the psychiatrist's attention involves kidnapping his beloved secretary and nearly turning her in a slow, spellbinding lean-in, interrupted right at the moment of the fatal kiss. But either Hillyer didn't know what he had or didn't know how to get it between the lines of the Code as effectively as other directors of transgressive horror, because the results are no Bride of Frankenstein (1935). The film has its own attractions, though, and I am not sorry to have had them looking out of the screen at me with the unblinking gaze of the woman who is a predator: "She was beautiful when she died—a hundred years ago."

I have written about Terence Fisher's Dracula (U.S. Horror of Dracula, 1958) before, in context of The Brides of Dracula (1960), and while I stand by my assertion that it's neither as weird nor as powerful as its sequel or possibly in some conventional senses very good, I don't care, I love it. I love its blithe disregard for its source material beyond a vampire named Dracula, a doctor named Van Helsing, and some people named Holmwood and Harker and Seward. I love what physical actors both Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing are, with their very different styles of movement and presence which dovetail so beautifully in their sole, justly climactic shared scene. I will never cease to be impressed by Lee's ability to project sexual charisma forty feet off the screen with blood in his teeth. Cushing has a wonderful voice, but I could look at him all day. Some of Lee's Dracula's most charged moments are stillness, but his vampire-hunting nemesis is constantly in motion, showing us more of his restlessness, his nerves and his determination, the cost of his work and its bittersweet payoff through small or sudden movements—the resolute resettling of his hands on a stake, a tired rub of the eyes that the next second flings the professor to his feet as a realization snaps into place—than really exists in the dialogue, from which we learn mostly what Van Helsing knows about vampires. Even the one direct personal statement he makes is by way of correcting another character's misapprehension: "The study of these creatures has been my life's work. I've carried out research with some of the greatest authorities in Europe and yet we've only just scratched the surface." Perhaps we know he's their adversary simply because he's so alive in his skin, even when he's only double-checking and correcting his own dictated notes. And yet he's their mirror, too, as mysterious for all his warmth as the nearly silent Count. We never even learn his first name. We don't need it. He can bring centuries of sunlight crashing into a long-haunted hall and tell a little girl, frightened of the dark and of vampires, that with his fur-trimmed coat snugged round her she looks like a teddy bear. I don't care if that's anachronistic, either.

Tony Scott's The Hunger (1983) shouldn't work. It has dreamy and violent erotic scenes of various sexualities, a science-edged and nearly subliminal take on vampirism, a plot which often appears to operate on correspondences rather than cause and effect, and a visual style which carries lushness to the point of nonlinearity, including symbolic doves and blowing curtains galore—there is an honest-to-God art department credit strictly for "Drapes." It scores its opening incidence of vampirism to a Goth club performance of Bauhaus' "Bela Lugosi's Dead" and employs the "Flower Duet" from Delibes' Lakmé as prelude to two women making love. Its glamorous, eerily depersonalized New York City was mostly played by London. The film should have been, at best, a glossily enjoyable piece of softcore '80's cheese. Instead it's not just a perfectly cromulent revision of the vampire mythos for the age of MTV and nascent AIDS, it actually uses its head-swimming style for substance. The way that time in this film is confusing, for example: either it passes in a vague lacuna that could be hours or weeks or the narrative is intensely aware of the seconds ticking by and in either case it reflects the experience of the nonhuman characters, either the original who hasn't aged an elegant day since she tore out a man's throat in ancient Egypt or her consort whose two hundred years of youthful companionship—the latest in a long, long Tithonos-line—are running out fast. Everything the audience is offered to look at, from the faces of the principal cast to an arc of blood splatter, is meticulously, self-consciously beautiful, which only points out the skull beneath the skin all the more keenly when it starts to show; it is a stroke of cruel brilliance to use David Bowie, rather than any of the film's female actors, as the memento mori specter of beauty overtaken by age and decay. I did not disbelieve Susan Sarandon when she said in The Celluloid Closet that under no circumstances would her character have needed to be drunk to go to bed with Catherine Deneuve (and she got her way in the finished film: most of that glass of sherry goes to a conveniently shirt-removing spill), but I appreciate how ambiguous she herself looks here, distractedly raking one hand through her short red hair exactly as Bowie did. Her boyfriend might as well have been captioned "Emergency Lunch," but I felt for Dan Hedaya's two-scene police lieutenant, who's just in the wrong genre for his street smarts to make a difference. Looking over Scott's filmography, I can't see that he ever directed anything else in which I was even interested, but I'm glad he managed this movie: I could have done with at least a third less blowing curtains and it took me a scene to get used to the strobe-cut flashforwards, but I can see why it's lasted beyond the aesthetic of its time. I am aware it derives from a 1981 novel by Whitley Strieber, but frankly the only way I can imagine it working on the page is if it was written by Tanith Lee. I'm not sure it didn't get into her Scarabae novels as it is. I like that no one in this story, not even Deneuve, has fangs.

I might have stopped Near Dark (1987) a spontaneous combustion or two sooner than Kathryn Bigelow does, but otherwise I had wanted to see this movie for years on the recommendations of [personal profile] lesser_celery and [personal profile] handful_ofdust and it delivered. It can be legitimately described as a vampire Western, right down to the perfect inversion of a high noon showdown; other applicable adjectives might include cowpunk, rockabilly, crime pulp, and whatever peculiarly American genre encompasses outlaw found family, into which our semi-hero unintentionally invites himself when he takes a waifish stranger out for a nighttime spin. Adrian Pasdar's Caleb is not entirely innocent prey, of course: if he hadn't pulled over to cajole a kiss out of Jenny Wright's Mae before dawn, she'd have made it home before her hunger sharpened enough to bite him. But he's soon surrounded by greater and far more casual predators, played by half the cast of Aliens (1986) as feral archetypes that strip the Gothic aristocracy off American vampirism and replace it with the strip malls and roadhouses and trailer parks and oil derricks and bus stations and motels of Reagan's heartland, where it might be a bitter joke that their almost post-apocalyptic levels of hardscrabble rootlessness do not actually attract attention until Lance Henriksen's blade-faced Jesse starts talking wryly about the Civil War ("I fought for the South . . . We lost") or Bill Paxton's Severen, all black leather swagger and chiming boot-spurs, kicks a bartender's throat in. Jenette Goldstein's Diamondback with her two-toned hair and her dance hall girl's bustier unfolds a straight razor for her mate to fill her a beer glass of blood with. Joshua John Miller's Homer is perhaps the oldest and eeriest of them all, perpetually and hatingly twelve years old. They're an extreme realization of the American dream, accountable to no one but their guns and their hunger; they have been abandoned by it and they exact their due in blood. Its violence alternates between the lyrical and the grotesque, nowhere better fused than in the roadhouse sequence where the Cramps' spare, snaky cover of "Fever" shivers off the jukebox while the bodies hit the floor. The danger of a shootout in a motel flips as soon as the audience realizes that the police bullets drilling the daytime walls are temporary inconveniences, but the shafts of light spearing in from their passage are causing the family to smoke. The film is noir, too, in politics as well as time of day—if it wouldn't have sounded like a remake, it could just as accurately have been titled They Live by Night. I wish the ending were better; it would be a stone classic if so. Maybe it still is, flawed as any other nightmare of this country. "Normal folks, they don't spit out bullets when you shoot them, no sir."

I had no idea what to expect from Michael Almereyda's Nadja (1995). I knew it was considered a partial remake of Dracula's Daughter; I had loved Almereyda's Experimenter (2015), but was uncertain how much I could reasonably generalize from a flamboyantly metafictional, self-interrogating biopic of Stanley Milgram. I don't know if I can make this film sound as good, and as haunting, and as fun as it was. Romanian-born Elina Löwensohn stars as Nadja, a stylish, imperious wanderer of the streets and bars of nighttime New York whose "family money" comes from stranger sources than the trust funds of the beautiful, jaded socialites she resembles; an impulsive decision in the wake of her father's death entangles her in the lives of Lucy and Jim (Galaxy Craze and Martin Donovan), the first of whom becomes her lover and inadvertent thrall, the second of whom turns out to have a direct connection to the man who staked Dracula. The family complications thicken with the introduction of Nadja's long-estranged twin Edgar (Jared Harris) and his live-in nurse Cassandra (Suzy Amis), herself another unforeseen relative; the Gothic aspects heighten with the kidnapping of a human character and a flight to the ancestral castle "by the Black Sea, under the shadow of the Carpathian Mountains" where both Nadja and Edgar were born two hundred years ago to the only woman Count Dracula ever loved. So far, so Universal. Now please imagine that everything I have described is filmed in high-contrast, lo-fi black-and-white that abstracts itself into Pixelvision at the most traditionally vampiric moments and played with such serious deadpan by the entire cast that absurdities become poignant and everything else is randomly hilarious. When we meet Van Helsing, he is played by Peter Fonda and he is the kind of tweedy, long-haired, embarrassing burnout uncle who has to be bailed out of jail for confessing to impossible murders and forgets that you can't order vodka in a coffee shop. About half of what he says, about anything, although most of the time he just talks about vampires, is dead on and the other half is totally disconnected: Lucy relaying the news of his arrest to her husband admits that "it didn't make sense, but it didn't sound too surprising, either. You know how he gets." This is the kind of movie that can close with real philosophical questions but also include phrases like "psychic fax" and two incredibly awkward reunions in the same family. Dracula at the end of his life is compared to late-stage Elvis. There's dying and then there's dying for a cigarette. It's not parody; it's irony done right. What with the trends of the last decade, I hadn't realized that I missed irony at all. It works because it's not all a hall of mirrors, even when executive producer David Lynch cameos as a tousle-haired morgue guard nonplussed by the appearance of a black-cloaked Nadja and her solemn, baby-faced Renfield. Music is by Simon Fisher Turner, Portishead, My Bloody Valentine, and Spacehog, which explains why I have just played "In the Meantime" eighteen times in a row. A pixellated lesbian/bi vampire love scene can be extremely hot.

I may have to come back to Claire Denis' Trouble Every Day (2001), because I suspect I would have enjoyed it much more if I had had any idea what it was doing. [personal profile] rushthatspeaks (who joined me in time for the second feature) suggests that it may have been examining the different gender expressions of the vampire mythos, but if so I'm not sure why it took the form it did. There is a plot, although at first it looks like driftingly intercut scenes of gruesome murder and banal honeymooning; eventually it emerges that the narrative is tracking two parallel couples, three-quarters of whom were involved some number of years ago in neuroscientific research that went horribly wrong. Brilliant Léo Semenau (Alex Descas) now works as a GP in Paris, his former colleagues aware that he quit higher-profile work to take care of his sick wife; they do not seem to know that the beautiful, wolfish Coré (Béatrice Dalle) has a habit of escaping their house, seducing roadside strangers, and then eating as much of them as she can before her husband wearily tracks her down again, brings her home on his motorcycle, cleans her up, and puts her to bed, although does not ever take her there, however much she croons and reaches for him. Like a maenad or an especially grisly change on Cat People (1942), she cannot be safely aroused. Pharmaceutical rep Shane Brown (Vincent Gallo) has flown to Paris with his new wife June (Tricia Vessey), ostensibly for the usual romantic reasons, really to try to reconnect with Léo, whose basement researches—a contemporary mad science homebrew of potted seedlings, pills and test tubes, and refrigerated slices of brain—might hold a feverish hope of quieting whatever Lustmord keeps Shane dreaming of his bride's pixie-like body naked in a bed of blood, eyeing the fragile back of her neck as though at any second he might sink his teeth through it. He watches the chambermaid with an appetite that she mistakes for the familiar roving eye of men away from home; with a soft-eared, new-bought puppy in his arms, he grinds up against an older woman on the Métro while other passengers stare at him in open disgust. "I would never hurt you," he reassures June, then wrenches himself away from her mid-coitus to finish all over the sink while she cries at the door. Maybe this is vampirism (if it is vampirism: by the time you're tearing flesh off with your teeth, I think the metaphor is slightly different) as emotional consumption, the exhaustion and danger of intimacy. Again, then I've seen that dilemma worked out with less cold and graphic nastiness. Coré and Shane are obviously foils, but I don't know what it means—mythologically, philosophically—that her cannibalistic encounters are opportunistic and, once triggered, apparently beyond her control while eventually we watch him knowingly seek out a substitute rape/food object so that he can return to his hotel room, step out of the shower down whose curtains a woman's diluted blood is still rolling, and for the first time embrace his wife without fear. I do not think of myself as having a low tolerance for sexual violence, incidentally, but I would call the rape scene in this film objectively rough, not least because it is so callously initiated. I have to assume it is part of the exercise for the audience to get a good look in both cases so as to determine whether they judge the characters differently, because there's no chance that anyone who has been paying attention to this plot will find Shane's turn to cannibalism shocking. To be honest, I expected the film to end with mutual devouring, but that might actually have closed the circle in a way I could understand. I hate not being able to read a film properly. Maybe I'll just go rewatch Antonia Bird's Ravenous (1999).

There were no short films this year, but trailers screened throughout the night included Shadow of the Vampire (2000), Taste the Blood of Dracula (1970), the glorious double feature of Planet of the Vampires (1965) and Lifeforce (1985), Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992), and Count Dracula and His Vampire Bride (The Satanic Rites of Dracula, 1973). I had been going to write that I would in all honesty watch all of these except Lifeforce, but then I saw that Lifeforce was a Golan and Globus production, so really, I'd watch all of them.

Park Chan-wook's Thirst (박쥐, 2009) is the most adorable faithless priest vampire romantic comedy I have ever seen. I did not know it was any of those things when it started and definitely not that it was a loose version of Zola's Thérèse Raquin (1867), although after the fact I can see it: the illicit lovers, the sickly husband, the overbearing and then incapacitated mother-in-law, the drowning murder, the guilt, the inevitable tragic resolution. Only it turns out that when you add Catholicism, vampirism, and one of the funniest, most awful ghosts I have encountered on film to the love affair of Song Kang-ho's Sang-hyun and Kim Ok-bin's Tae-ju, the whole thing goes pleasantly, operatically sideways, passing through film noir, domestic comedy, several flavors of body horror, and non-anvillicious moral quandaries before concluding on a sea-cliff as the rising sun turns the ocean suitably to blood. I don't remember any of that in Zola and I think it's an improvement. Song is a remarkably beautiful man with his round priest's glasses or without them, reacting so often to the catch-22s of his new life with a kind of silent clown's stoicism that it shocks the story every time he flares with appetite or anger instead. As the stifled young wife, Kim has a slippery, live-wire intensity that twists right around any archetype she might embody, so that she never reduces to a statement about female victims or monsters. Park's version of vampirism is splattery and visceral without losing the capacity for beauty or humor, not infrequently at the same time; the film itself went on at least three twists longer than I was expecting, but see previous about not knowing to expect Thérèse Raquin. If it is at all representative of Park's work, I should see a lot more of him than just The Handmaiden (2016). If it's not representative, it was still the perfect choice to close this marathon.

And then Rush-That-Speaks gave me a ride home and neither of us burst into flame and I had the day previously described, plus work and cats and eating a real meal for the first time since Friday night. Now the dawn is coming around again and I should get back to bed. I like living in a city where the movies run dusk till dawn. This night life brought to you by my immortal backers at Patreon.
sovay: (Haruspex: Autumn War)
If John Bowen's Robin Redbreast (1970) is not the missing link between A Canterbury Tale (1944) and The Wicker Man (1973), I will buy a new hat expressly so that I can put it between two slices of bread and eat it.

I am being unfair to my future hat. A Canterbury Tale was not encouragingly reviewed or widely seen on its initial release; it was re-edited for the American market in 1945 and not restored until the late 1970's, meaning that as much as I feel that I can see its fossil traces in the field of British folk horror, I'm not sure how many people of the relevant generation could actually have watched it for themselves. In the same way, despite the vividly shared theme of outsiders drawn into the ancient ritual patterns of isolated rural communities, I have no proof that Robin Hardy or Anthony Shaffer ever saw Robin Redbreast, which thanks to the far-sighted offices of the BBC survives only in the lightly fuzzed monochrome of a 16 mm telerecording, the original color elements having been junked. Teasing out the phylogenetics of this period is beginning to interest me, but I'd rather not end up with a wall of conspiracy theory. Sometimes there's a pattern under the plough, sometimes it's just frost cracks. I just look at the character played in Robin Redbreast by Bernard Hepton, an amateur archaeologist and figure of local authority with an unsettling affinity for comparative religion and Frazer in particular, and I did not expect to find the Venn diagram of Thomas Colpeper and Lord Summerisle wearing Coke-bottle glasses and that particularly dorky tweed hat.

I had never heard of Robin Redbreast until the beginning of this week, when I kept finding it mentioned in conjunction with Penda's Fen (1974); it was another Play for Today (1970–84), partly adapted by Bowen from his novel The Birdcage (1962) and directed by James MacTaggart. In plot and atmosphere, it really does play like a genderflipped anticipation of The Wicker Man, which in turn looks an awful lot like the pagan version of Rosemary's Baby (1968). Following the wreck of an eight-year relationship, London-based script editor Norah Palmer (Anna Cropper) moves impulsively to the fixer-upper cottage in the Vale of Evesham where she and her partner always planned to make time together and never, like so many other things in their life, got around to. She needs the time alone; her friends in the city don't seem to understand, in their almost satirically sophisticated comfort with casual affairs and passes and one-night stands, how "soft and exposed" she feels, newly single in her mid-thirties and out of practice at being "fair game." But from the moment she moves into Flaneathan Farm, Norah can hardly get a breath to herself; even when the locals aren't stopping by to say hello, they always seem to have heard where she is, how she's doing, whether she needs a hand around the house . . . They are not unfriendly, which gives her limited grounds for demurral; she wonders early on whether elderly, obsessively wood-chopping handyman Peter (Cyril Cross) is "mental," but she can hardly say the same of the apparently well-named Mr. Wellbeloved (Robin Wentworth), the village's combination butcher and mechanic. Few things trap a woman more seamlessly than the expectation of politeness, especially when she's new in a place, especially when she's alone. Brisk Mrs. Vigo (Freda Bamford) behaves toward Norah more like a nurse than a housekeeper, chivvying her to church, permitting no secrets, never quite openly disapproving of the younger woman's decisions, but it's amazing how fast her homely patter darkens when she hears something she doesn't like. Most unsettling of all is the enigmatic Fisher (Hepton), who introduces himself from out of shot with the courtly, oddly personal question, "I wonder if I might hunt for sherds in your garden?" With his Norfolk jacket, his ashplant, and his battered walking hat, he looks like the kind of rustic anorak who can lecture on local history until his audience chews its arm off, and he is, but Norah is still thrown off her stride when he begins to discourse obliquely on the etymologies of the "old tongue," the habits of birds when frightened, and the techniques of traditional clam fishing, the latter of which he likens to his own dowser's sense for "old things generally . . . Roman pottery, coins, sherds of all sorts—I have that instinct." The viewer cannot totally blame her for asking, not altogether joking, "Is he off his head?" Mrs. Vigo is shocked: "No, he works for council over to Evesham!"

At night she listens to the wind, the birds in the trees. She finds the sliced half of a marble winking on her windowsill like an eye, takes it indoors in a bemused but not displeased way, as if her new home has given her a present. She even makes what looks like a spontaneous, if somewhat self-conscious connection with the fair-haired gamekeeper (Andy Bradford) whom the villagers call Rob or Robin, though his given name is the much less pastoral Edgar. "There's always one young man answers to the name of Robin in these parts," Mrs. Vigo remarks in her declarative yet maddeningly vague fashion. "Has to be." He's young and fit and duly appreciated by Norah when she discovers him practicing karate nearly naked in the woods, but in person he doesn't seem quite all there—proud and earnest, curiously sheltered. An orphan never officially adopted but raised by "Auntie Vigo," he was the first boy sent to the local grammar school in eight years and still resents the agricultural college for failing him in his final exams, thwarting his plans of emigrating to Canada. His job is practically a sinecure. He's not a virgin, but sheepishly describes his previous experiences as "like being collected." Invited for drinks, he babbles nervously about Nazis until Norah in an agony of boredom puts him out like a cat only to find him charging heroically back into the cottage at her scream—a bird got down the chimney and banged panickedly off the walls exactly as Fisher had warned her they did, but something in its blind, thumping flight is so strangely horrible to her that she collapses weeping into Rob's arms and presently, hungrily, takes him upstairs to bed. She can't find her diaphragm, but it's all right. Who gets one-shot pregnant, anyway?

That is not a question to ask when myth is in the air. Seven months later, Norah is pregnant, sequestered, and paranoid, convinced that she is being deliberately manipulated, detained in the village for some purpose so terrible, she is afraid to name it even to herself. Coincidences of car trouble, bus schedules, unanswered letters, staticky phones all seem to form a pattern that fell into place long before she let herself see it. She had a nightmare in the fall, even before she slept with her pretty ploughing boy, a compressed, disturbing shuffle of images: Peter chopping wood by night, muttering excitedly as the axe thunks again into the well-worn stump; Rob with a knife in his hand, making karate passes through her darkened yard; Fisher with his hand on the gate, turning to her with half-marbles for the lenses of his glasses, blind and all-seeing. She woke when one fell, as suddenly as a scale from his eye. "It's mad, the whole thing," she protests, but mad is not the same as not happening. "Here am your place, miss," Mrs. Vigo says firmly, as if coaxing a disobedient child. "Come the winter, the dark days, you'll go where you will and then no objection, no effort made to keep you, but now, come Easter, here am your place." Norah saw the church at harvest time, the bounty of the season laid out on its altar—not just corn sheaves and "pumpkins big as your arse," but the bloodier offerings of dead pheasants and rabbits. She watched Mrs. Vigo butcher a chicken, her farmer's pragmatism suddenly full of ominous parallels: "Ah, she'm broody. No use for laying. Wring her neck, slit her throat, hang her up, that's all she'm good for." Her cottage is Flaneathan, the Place of Birds. Women have always lived there, Fisher told her on their first meeting. Birds have always blundered down the chimney. His non sequiturs have a habit of sounding like parables or warnings or private jokes: "They should have known they had a way out, but being birds, they didn't."

It happens in the country. )

My affection for Bernard Hepton is all out of proportion to my experience of his work. I've seen him most as the definitive Toby Esterhaze in the BBC's Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1979) and Smiley's People (1982) and after that in a random assortment of film and television, such as Get Carter (1971), I, Claudius (1976), and Bleak House (1985), where I believe he spontaneously combusted. He played the same part as [personal profile] spatch in a 1987 TV version of The Lady's Not for Burning and I admit that I would like sometime to see him wishing to be alone with his convictions. He's tremendous as Fisher. As with that other antiquarian, there is an absurd quality to the character's amateurism and the seriousness with which he undertakes his mission as well as the power that comes from holding the line to the past; he's respected as a lay reader and a man of many interests, but he's not handy with modernity—he can't drive a car—and Mrs. Vigo somewhat deflatingly sums him up when she observes, "He'm a learned fellow, Fisher. You can't tell what he means." It does nothing to defuse the faint sense of the uncanny which attends him from his first appearance and only strengthens as the plot thickens and the pattern builds, even when for 76 out of the play's 77 minutes he does nothing technically stranger than walk uninvited into Norah's kitchen and announce that there's nothing in her garden "earlier than seventeenth century—Civil War trash." His gravity is double-edged; it's easy to tease him, but difficult to tell if he's laughing at you. After a while, all of his dialogue sounds like double-speaking. "Must have been a very large bird, Miss Palmer, to have dislodged your drainpipe." Considering the historical orchards of the Vale of Evesham, I am almost surprised he never holds forth about apples.

In a genre that is all about the haunting persistence of the past into the present, I suppose it's appropriate to have a program survive only as a black-and-white phantom of itself, but I would like to have seen Robin Redbreast in color: I suspect it would have been used thematically and also that it would have been a lot easier to tell what time of year any of the scenes were supposed to be taking place. I should find out if Shaffer and Hardy knew about it, or if they and Bowen—and David Pinner, whose novel Ritual (1967) is the credited inspiration for The Wicker Man—were just drawing on similar folk material. I feel I will never able to prove the Archers, but I keep seeing the same themes with the emotions just a little tilted, whether the unending echo of history in time should be treasured or terrifying. I guess I should hold off on buying that hat. Incidentally, I don't know what it is about Worcestershire that attracts the Dionysian, but if you want sparagmos on film, as far as I can tell it's either this teleplay or Pasolini's Medea (1969). This rite brought to you by my learned backers at Patreon.

sovay: (Lord Peter Wimsey: passion)
On the one hand, I feel that the most appropriate response to David Rudkin's Penda's Fen (1974) would have been a day in the Malverns and some cloud-watching à la Thomas Colpeper, JP. On the other, I was in Providence when I saw it, and I wasn't sure of the ancestral relationship of Edward Elgar to College Hill. I spent a lot of NecronomiCon walking. That will have to suffice.

Penda's Fen is a 90-minute television play originally commissioned and broadcast as part of the BBC's Play for Today (1970–84); it was directed by Alan Clarke and I have wanted to see it ever since I discovered it somehow in the archives of the BFI in grad school. I finally got my chance Thursday afternoon in the auditorium of the Providence Public Library. It was screened on one of those small classroom projectors; there were about a dozen people in the audience besides me and some of them left or arrived partway through. What I could hear of the introduction seemed to be trying to champion it as a Lovecraftian film—I don't want to misrepresent someone who was mostly less audible than the air conditioning, but while I grant that it is a gloriously weird piece of cinema, if anything I think it's anti-Lovecraftian. Lovecraft's universe is fragile and deceptive, contaminable and contagious. The world that can be perceived is a shell over the world that is, one crack away from collapse into barbarism or madness or the abyss of time itself. Knowledge is a virus and you may well die of it. Your bloodline was compromised before you were born. The Other is always looking for a way in, and it finds one, and down into the dark we all go, unless we turn out to be the Other, in which case the dark is where we should have been all along. I don't have to alter the premise of Penda's Fen to make it resemble this template: a sheltered young man discovers that his ideas of both himself and his nation, from race and sexuality to family and religion, are soul-shakingly wrong. He is "mixed, mixed . . . nothing special, nothing pure." But where that revelation might have sent one of Lovecraft's protagonists careening into the void, Rudkin and Clarke offer an alternate path. Openly political, unashamedly Romantic, their vision affirms queerness, hybridity, and ambiguity as the true heart of England, the small, stubborn fire that the clear-cut forces of oppression—patriarchy, white supremacy, Christian supremacy—are always trying to snuff out. Salvation lies in the liminal spaces, the mixed and marginalized. This is a really cheering thesis to see so forcefully and hauntingly stated, especially since the film itself is less a pamphlet than a dark-and-bright dream of nuclear anxiety, sexual confusion, and folk almost-horror. Its language is Christian and pre-Christian, angels and demons and the echo of William Blake, but it is actually a lot like watching a version of the Bacchae where Pentheus, instead of breaking and being torn apart, shifts shape as suddenly as his cousin into the strange thing he was always meant to be. There is also psychogeography. And sympathetic magic. And Elgar. Anglophile Lovecraft may have longingly written "God Save the King!" but I don't know that he would have endorsed or even recognized the Englishness of Penda's Fen.

Stephen be secret, child be strange. )

I did not manage to catch any of the rest of the film programming at NecronomiCon, but Penda's Fen made the entire schedule worth it. I'm not even sorry I saw it in a library rather than a movie theater, since I am fairly confident its influence extends to the archival, hauntological music of Ghost Box. The real trouble with describing a narrative that treats its otherworld so matter-of-factly and this world with such an eye for the surreal is that even the attempt makes both of these modes sound much more normal than the experience: I have to stress that while Penda's Fen is not in any plot sense difficult to follow, its constant shifting and eventual merging of registers is a lot like having someone else's hallucinations for an hour and a half. I suspect this was part of the reason for the walkouts, although I kind of feel that if you show up for a film at a weird fiction convention, you should be prepared for something out of the ordinary to get into your head; I certainly expect what I saw in that noontime auditorium to stay in mine. It was messy, liberating, ambitious, and very beautiful. It left me hungry for sunsets on hills I've never climbed. It made me contemplate the sacred fires of my own country and who guards them now against the dark. Who is secret, strange, holy, and ungovernable. This dream brought to you by my mixed backers at Patreon.
sovay: (Otachi: Pacific Rim)
I just finished watching Moana (2016) with my mother and [personal profile] spatch. I can't believe that music lost out to La La Land. Also, Zootopia better have been some kind of artistic landmark, because I'm willing to bet it didn't have hand-drawn animated tattoos, a bedazzled neon monster crab, or a sea I wanted to swim in.

I had seen Auliʻi Cravalho perform "How Far I'll Go" at the Oscars in February; I knew surprisingly little about the film otherwise, although that had not prevented me from being impressed by Philip Odango's Maui cosplay. I'm sorry I missed it in theaters. I am normally a hard sell on computer-generated rather than traditional animation, but the super/natural world of Moana is beautifully done, the star-thick skies, the curl and shatter of the waves, a green and flowering goddess settling herself to an island's sleep again. I'm not in a position to comment on the accuracy of the film's mythological representation, although I recognized most of the stories Maui tells about himself (the eel into coconuts one was new to me), but I really enjoyed seeing a movie whose trickster figure is a real trickster, not just the malevolent side of chaos. I like Moana as a protagonist—her sea-longing, her sense of humor, her stubbornness and her occasional incredulity that her life now involves having to fight tiny spiky sentient pirate coconuts over the world's most clueless chicken; I like that her conflicts with her family and with Maui are not gendered. Her return to Motunui with her grandmother's necklace around her throat and an outrigger canoe gifted her by a goddess, a wayfinder, a hero, makes me think someone else read Armstrong Sperry's Call It Courage (1940) as a child and wanted a better ending. The bond between her and her grandmother is the sort of thing that causes me to cry through a movie. I have also heard much worse reincarnation ideas than a manta ray. My mother made the connection between Te Kā and Te Fiti even before the film revealed it: once you remove the ability of a Pacific island to flower into life, of course all that's left is the volcanic rock, the earth cracking into the sea. The writers of Moana handle it a little differently than Lloyd Alexander, but I realized after the fact that Maui's final willingness to sacrifice his fishhook—his magic, the only thing he thinks makes the difference between a shape-changing culture hero and an unwanted child—called out the same response in me as Fflewddur's sacrifice of his harp. I had somehow missed that Dwayne Johnson can sing.

Is the film an authentic depiction of pre-colonial Polynesia? I don't see how it could be; first of all, there's a whole lot of cultures bracketed in that description, and despite the credited participation of the Oceanic Story Trust, which I appreciated seeing, both directors Ron Clements and John Musker and screenwriter Jared Bush were white and not as far as I can tell from anywhere in the relevant regions themselves. It's a Disney movie. They're adapting to the concept of diverse creators slightly faster than the subduction of the Pacific Plate. But its attention to material culture is notable, it does seem to have taken care with some traditions, and I'm still amused that the only actor in the main voice cast who is not of Polynesian descent is Alan Tudyk, voicing the above-mentioned chicken. (I'm also weirdly pleased that I have apparently heard enough Flight of the Conchords to recognize Jermaine Clement by his Bowie impression.) I hadn't heard of Opetaia Foa’i or Te Vaka before tonight, which may mark the first time a Disney musical has actually introduced me to musicians I plan to pursue beyond the soundtrack; I don't speak Samoan, Tokelauan, or Tuvaluan, so I am not the intended audience for some of Foa’i's lyrics and that's all right. I am glad they are in the languages they are in and I can appreciate the ones written by Lin-Manuel Miranda, since I'm pretty sure he's the best English-language lyricist Disney's had since Howard Ashman. Also, I realize that snappy, poppy, intermittently immature dialogue is a necessary component of a modern Disney film, but in the persistent wake of Girl of the Port (1930) and the convention of confining indigenous characters to pseudo-pidgin or formal speech, I am cool with a cast composed entirely of Pasifika characters who get lines as lofty as "Nope!", "Fish pee in you! All day!" and "Really? Blowdart in my butt cheek?" I mean, there are also serious conversations about responsibility, apology, healing the world, growing up. There are powerful, wordless sequences between human characters, nonhuman characters, elements of the natural world. There's a shot of a conch shell that speaks volumes. But also an accidentally half-shark trickster glumly describing his chances of beating a lava spirit with a well-deserved grudge as "bupkes."

I have had a migraine for about three days now and correspondingly haven't slept except for a couple of hours this afternoon, so I know this post is more notes than extended consideration, but I liked Moana so much, I wanted at least to mention it. It's funny, it's numinous, it celebrates traditional Polynesian navigation, it has no villain in the usual sense and I love its idea of a heroic happy ending, horizon, spray, steering by the swell and the stars. My mother tells me that my niece has imprinted to the point of going around randomly quoting the dialogue, so between Gramma Tala and "Shark head!" I'm wondering if she might like to visit the aquarium to pet the sharks and rays. [personal profile] handful_ofdust, thanks for the DVD! I will acquire the soundtrack on my own time. This voyage brought to you by my sea-called backers at Patreon.
sovay: (Rotwang)
And now for something completely different: a movie that's still playing in theaters as we speak. I didn't manage to get it written up in July, but the movie I dashed out to catch after writing up Way Out West (1930) was Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk (2017). The Somerville not only has a 70 mm print and the Philips Norelco DP70s to screen it on, it has David the projectionist who learned his trade on the format and handles it beautifully, so I figured I would not have a better chance to see it however Nolan intended. His films have a very mixed track record with me, so I was not sure what to expect.

The very short version: while I did not love the film as I had hoped I would, I don't think it fails its history and I liked it. It's visually striking, elegantly structured, and often curiously, intentionally anti-epic even while it's staging cast-of-thousands setpieces with a sweeping, elemental approach to historical fact. It's a war movie in which the first event on the fabled beach of Dunkirk is a combat-stunned young Tommy, thin, dark-haired, looking like a scarecrow in the heavy folds of his uniform greatcoat and whatever kit survived his scrambling, lucky escape from enemy fire in the falling city, wandering around the dunes looking for a place to take a shit because he damn near just had it scared out of him and instead finds another equally young, equally silent soldier burying a corpse, one cold, crusted foot just poking out of the sand. So he can't actually use that dune as a latrine because you don't crap on graves, especially not when you suspect they belong to other people's mates; he rebuckles his trousers and goes to help with the burial. That's a whole cross-section of a war in a few wordless minutes, black-humored, elegiac, still heart-hammering adrenaline from the soldier's race through deserted streets inhabited only by the eerie snowfall of propaganda fliers and machine-gun fire out of nowhere, splattering the men he was running alongside a moment ago. His name is Tommy, although neither my mother nor I picked that up until the credits; he's played by Fionn Whitehead in his screen debut and except for a few key scenes he is almost, like several other roles in this film, a silent part, anchoring the story with his wiry body and his dark-freckled, truculent face. Because he's one of our metonyms for the stranded soldiers of the British Expeditionary Force, it would have been easy to cast him pretty, innocent. He has the vulnerability of extreme youth, but he's also a little feral, something of a scrounger—a clever bit player, maybe, in a different kind of war film. This one shifts him and his fellow extras to center stage, displacing the more familiar heroism of steadfast warriors or brilliant strategists. The closest we get to the former are Tom Hardy's Farrier and Jack Lowden's Collins, Spitfire pilots aloft for one crucial hour to provide air cover for the most exposed phase of the evacuation; the closest we get to the latter is Kenneth Branagh's Commander Bolton, the tireless, anxious pier-master with a host of unenviable decisions to make. The much-mythologized decency of the ordinary Briton is represented by Mark Rylance's Dawson, the mildly spoken, cardigan-wearing civilian whose motor yacht the Moonstone is one of the shallow-draft "little ships" that can get safely to the beach where destroyers would founder, but even he has odd cracks and ripples that come late to light. The most important thing about the film, I think, whatever its faults, is that it recognizes the violence and the chaos and the terror and the failure without capsizing into grimdark or overcompensating into triumphalism. The ships did come. They never should have had to, but they did. And that was the end of the phony war and just the beginning of the real one.

That's enough. )

I don't know what most people of my nationality and generation know about Dunkirk. I don't know what they'll take away from this movie. It plays like it was meant to be the last cinematic word on the history, but so was Leslie Norman's Dunkirk (1958) and that had John Mills and Richard Attenborough going for it; I'm sure we can expect a new hot take in another sixty years. Personally I don't think it will displace The Prestige (2006) as my favorite Christopher Nolan, but there's a lot in it I'm still thinking about. My mother liked it and the history is important to her. The last image is as powerfully open-ended as it needed to be. I feel stupidly proud of myself for recognizing Michael Caine's uncredited cameo by voice. I guess I have opinions about cinematography. This homecoming brought to you by my fiery backers at Patreon.
sovay: (Jonathan & Dr. Einstein)
Today was my brother's birthday observed, so I gave him an IOU for a set of automatic transmission brackets and levers that are on their way in the mail. (He's doing some car restoration.) My niece kept dragging me by the hand to come and look at her Brio trains until she decided it was more fun to have me sit on the couch with my feet up on the glass-topped table and provide a bridge for her to drive the trains beneath. I would take her to see the construction on the Comm. Ave. Bridge except that, if all goes well, the major replacements of this phase will be done in the next couple of days and then my brother and his family are going out of town. I might just have to go by myself. I don't think of it as being a very distinctive bridge, but it's been there all my life. Also, I like cranes.

1. Paul Harfleet's Pansy Project plants the flowers as memorials of and resistance against instances of homophobia and transphobia. The artist started his work in the UK, but it's an open-source, international project; he just asks that you follow the guidelines if planting a pansy for yourself or someone close to you. I don't have need of it myself right now—the last time someone harassed me in the street was based strictly on appearing female in public—but I really like the idea, both as art and ritual.

2. I know I'm in the wrong country, but maybe I'll get lucky and BBC America will show Queers (2017) and I can ask someone to tape the series; the actual BBC's streaming service just apologizes to me. This looks like the most interesting thing I've seen Mark Gatiss do since the time I watched The Cicerones (2002) and The Tractate Middoth (2013) in the same month.

3. The official video for "Stronger Than You" involves Estelle and a plaza full of Steven Universe fans and it's wonderful.

4. Courtesy of [personal profile] gaudior: "Judeo-Christian." Yep.

5. Does anyone know how far back the idea of ghosts as recordings on time actually goes? I think the earliest I've encountered it in fiction is Margaret Oliphant's "The Open Door" (1882), with the key conceit of a ghost—unlike the self-aware kind with unfinished business—trapped in endless reenactment of a moment of its life until it can be known and named and someone break the pattern. "Lord, let that woman there draw him inower! Let her draw him inower!" This question brought to mind earlier tonight by watching William Castle's House on Haunted Hill (1959), where Elisha Cook, Jr. believes firmly in the exact opposite kind of ghost: conscious, malevolent, and increasing in number with each death that occurs within the Mayan exteriors of the Ennis House, which [personal profile] spatch recognized at once from The Rocketeer (1991). He's the spooked host of the film, the house's reluctant owner who claims that spending one night inside left him "almost dead" and agrees to a rematch only because there's $10,000 in it, though he doesn't expect to survive to collect—he closes out the evening like a macabre Eeyore, sighing, "What's the use of saying goodnight?" He may be in worse shape than Roddy McDowall in The Legend of Hell House (1973), which is saying something. To the other four guests, invited for a Halloween-scare party that rapidly complicates into something more authentically lethal, he gives a lugubrious tour of the corridor where a girl's stabbing still bleeds through the dry ceiling, the basement where a husband dissolved his wife in acid that still burbles under the floor. He tells the story of his own brother's murder while holding the carving knife it was done with and keeps a drunken, self-appointed vigil over the body of the house's latest apparent victim, insisting to her incensed husband that he "didn't want them to take her away—they will if you don't watch her!" We are meant, I think, to suspect him as a pint-size psycho killer as much as trust him as a guide to the house's gruesome history, but there's such real panic in his voice when he cries, "Your wife isn't there anymore! She's already joined them!" that for a moment we expect the body to have vanished when the camera—along with Vincent Price, who was distracted by choking Cook—glances back. The real supernatural potential of the film runs on his unwavering, terrified conviction, not on the jump scares, although there are several good ones. I'm not sure it all pays off in the end in a way that doesn't leave plot holes even ghosts can't plug, but it's a great showcase for Price's barbed, silky, never quite parodic style as the playboy millionaire with $50,000 to burn and motives that are so obviously ulterior, they're successfully opaque, and its low-budget combination of gross-out and suggestion ("Funny thing is, the heads have never been found . . . You can hear them at night. They whisper to each other, and then cry") is actually at points disturbing. Human plotting and violence is one thing, but unappeasable ghosts seeping out unstoppably from the epicenter of whatever started the haunting in the first place is a much more modern horror motif than I was expecting from a movie with dripping ceilings and acid baths, especially when there's not the least implication that knowing what happened in the house could put an end to it. Cook seems to know all the stories: all it does for him is provide more reasons to drink. Even when the last act pivots through almost as many genres as plot twists, there's something unsettling left over. And the rest of it's fun. I might have to check out more of Castle's gimmick horror now. A plastic skeleton did not fly out over our heads at the climax, as in selected theaters during the original run, but I don't hold that against anything I watch off my laptop. This really haunted house brought to you by my restless backers at Patreon.
sovay: (Cho Hakkai: intelligence)
On my list of things to post about, I am approximately a zillion movies behind, but I have to make a note of Way Out West (1930), a Western comedy-romance directed by Fred Niblo for MGM, because I have finally seen William Haines in a talkie and I was not expecting the way it turned out to be pre-Code. I wish I had some kind of seminar about Hollywood treatments of queerness to screen it in. I should just watch The Celluloid Closet (1996) already, shouldn't I?

I discovered Haines a couple of years ago with King Vidor's Show People (1928), a delightful piece of late silent Hollywood meta starring Marion Davies as a natural comedienne who gets derailed by her studio into becoming a phony tragedienne and has to be rescued by a stiff spritz of seltzer in the face and the down-to-earth fellow-feeling of true love; Haines plays her baggy-pants co-star and was one of the more lively, naturalistic, and charming actors I'd seen from the silent period. He has great playful chemistry with Davies, a clown's limber body and the kind of fresh face that can flip from good-looking to goofy—or vice versa—with a grin. Van Heflin can mime fish-catching like nobody's business, but Haines remains the only actor I have ever seen loop-the-loop a bite of spaghetti or make his eyes pop like a Tex Avery wolf with a pair of hot dog rolls and it's sweet. He plays what Mary Renault calls "the standard boy-meets-girl manœuvres" with tongue lightly in cheek, as if inviting the heroine to join him in the masquerade; he plays the emotional connection for real. I left the Somerville desperately curious to know what he was like with sound. When one of his talkies came around on TCM, I seized my chance.

Way Out West is a classically pre-Code combination of not much to write home about and unfiltered id. Most of Haines' starring features revolved around a wisecracking anti-hero who needed to be taken down a peg before he could get the girl; here that's "Windy" Windermere, a sideshow talker slick enough to fleece the crowd of heavy-breathing cowboys he enticed backstage for a few minutes of private time with cooch dancer "La Belle Rosa" ("She's too hot to handle with bare hands and it's against the law for her to sleep in a frame building") and too full of his own cleverness to twig when La Belle pockets the take herself and skips town. With no way to repay the $200 when his suspicious marks circle back and catch him packing up his rigged roulette gear, Windy finds himself shanghaied to the ranch to work off his theft through a regimen of menial and mocking tasks, as the different hands take their turns "riding herd" on their tenderfoot toy. I'm sorry, this premise comes with kink goggles built in. As the weeks go by, the hard-rode Windy begins to pick up the responsibilities of ranch life despite his best intentions; he falls in love with spirited boss Molly Rankin (Leila Hyams, one of Haines' silent co-stars) almost the same way. Initially as unimpressed as her men, she's the first to notice that their captive con man is "taking his medicine without a whole lot of kicking" even when it almost actually kills him. The knockabout slapstick of the early scenes eases off in favor of the real possibility of Windy proving himself—not to the still-sore cowboys, Molly's protective brother (Charles Middleton) and would-be boyfriend (Francis X. Bushman Jr.) included, but to himself, with the challenging encouragement of Molly who believes he's better than chiseling and weaseling and running away all the time. Of course, dramatic tension being what it is, he chisels, weasels, and runs away at least once each before the heroic denouement, but anyone who thinks he won't come through in the clinch has not been paying attention to Hollywood. All throughout, Haines is as charming as I'd hoped from Show People, his breezy, boisterous voice translating as easily from intertitles as his physical expressiveness from silent comedy. He is also playing with masculinity in ways that I find fascinating even while I feel I can only parse about half of them. Put it this way: I had sort of gotten the idea that the major exponent of camp in pre-Code Hollywood was Mae West. On the strength of Way Out West, it may have been Billy Haines.

It is not quite the same phenomenon as Edward Everett Horton in RKO's Roar of the Dragon (1932), although it's in the ballpark. The difference is that Horton is a character actor, a supporting player with the latitude to depart from the conventional virtues of his gender and station, so that while we can be treated to the extraordinary sight of his maiden-auntish hotel clerk courageously manning a machine gun while wearing more eyeliner than a Cure concert, the A-plot still presents Richard Dix as the actual hero, a two-fisted riverboat captain with a rugged jaw and one of those macho drinking problems to overcome. There's no actual hero in Way Out West. Or there is; it's Haines, with the looks and voice of a leading man, convincingly playing a late-breaking mensch with more spine than he thought and depths he's a little embarrassed to admit to. He saves the life of the woman he loves at the risk of his own, he holds his own with his fists against a man he previously lost a fight to, he stages a shootout and braves a sandstorm with the best of them. His specialty at the start is the quick grift and the quicker fade; by the credits there's no doubt that he can face all comers head-on. That's heroism by the book. And it's performed by a hero who is snarky, slippery, and frequently, deliberately, camp. Actual lines spoken by Windy include "No, sir! I ain't flirting with no bull's wife" and "Well, I'm the wildest pansy you ever picked," not to mention the subject header, spoken in reference to Bushman's six foot four of well-built cowpuncher. He cuts his eyes sardonically at the ranch hands, who whistle at him and call him beautiful when he appears dandily modeling his carnival duds, cane and boutonnière and crisp straw boater and all (right before they send him to muck out a stable). A similar catwalk ensues when he turns up to dinner in the full Western rig he swindled out of Cliff Edwards' doleful Trilby, announcing that he doesn't just have the clothes—ten-gallon hat, dudely neckerchief, and woolly chaps out to here—he has "the figure to wear them" (right before they send him to scrub out the kitchen). Reluctantly facing a corral of surly longhorns with a milk pail in his hand, Windy gives his tormentor of the day a dirty look and then sallies forth with saccharine daintiness: "'A-milking, sir,' she said." Flirting with Molly over breakfast, he sticks an unpeeled banana in his mouth like a stogie and then tells a racy joke with it, just in case you thought it was maybe just a cigar.

It's all diegetic. This is what keeps the movie from turning into a 71-minute pansy joke: Windy uses camp exactly as it is used in the offscreen world, for self-defense, for subversion, burlesquing his position as citified sissy among the butch cowpokes, for self-assertion and survival. Narrowly escaped from the lynching that was the cowboys' first inspiration for dealing with their "thieving galoot," he coughs off his near-death experience with bravado petulance: "I don't want to play with you kids—you're too rough!" That provocative line about inhaling another man comes out when Windy's facing a fight that he knows he's going to lose, so he might as well get pasted saying something that was worth it. Even his silent responses are eloquently theatrical: realizing that he's dressed in his best for the benefit of a pile of horseshit, he checks his cuffs and tie as meticulously as if he's about to step in front of an audience and starts shoveling; when Molly rolls up in her jalopy to see how he's getting on, he makes a production of arranging the last wisps of hay on top of the heap like a prize entry in a flower show. He always does the work—he doesn't have a choice about it—and increasingly he does it well. Damned if he's going to do it on their terms, though.

It's not the only note in the character's repertoire, either. He has serious moments and some of them are startling. We don't see him lose his fight with Bushman's Steve when they step outside at the eve-of-roundup party; we watch an unruffled Steve come back afterward, dismissing the incident as "one wallop and he was through." Cut to Windy outside in the darkened yard, looking rather more grazed and bruised than one wallop would seem to account for. It feels like a pre-Code touch that he has the kind of busted nosebleed that makes a mask of his face; he's trying to clean himself up and stop the bleeding with the same overmatched handkerchief when he sees figures emerging from the house and takes cover in the brush, from which vantage point he observes and misinterprets Molly's gentle but firm letdown of Steve—complete with platonic parting hug—for its exact opposite. The camera closes on his face after the other two have gone. He looks hurt and he looks cynical with himself for being hurt. Molly's the boss; Steve's her best friend since childhood, not to mention her best hand. Windy's as weightless as his name, the "coyote" who clowns his way through the scut work, the flim-flam man who got caught. He helped Molly decorate for the party, but was informed by her brother in no uncertain terms that his "kind" weren't welcome among the guests (carnies, con artists, Easterners, queer men, whatever: this means you). Getting knocked down by a bigger, tougher man doesn't surprise him. Losing out romantically because of it shouldn't. But it still hurts. And his nose is still bleeding. And I hate misunderstanding as a plot device almost as much as I hate love triangles, but Haines' wordless acting makes this one work. The one that drives most of the climactic action, I'm sorry, not so much. The last lines are still cute.

These days, Haines is almost certainly less famous for his pictures than his place in Hollywood history as the never-closeted gay silent star whose career snapped off short in 1933 when he refused to trade his longtime boyfriend for a beard at the express request of Louis B. Mayer; he never made another movie after 1934 and he lived openly with Jimmie Shields until his death in 1973, the two of them making a name for themselves as successful interior designers and "the happiest married couple in Hollywood." This was the only thing I knew about Haines going into Show People, where it's enlightening but not vital information; it's impossible for me not to see it in Way Out West. On the one hand, this is a movie about a swishy city slicker who builds character through hazing and finally comes out on top by doing a bunch of manly stuff even better than the manly men. On the other, it's a movie in which the hero's bravest act is to walk into a party with the person he loves on his arm and start waltzing together in full view of a crowd of very straight, very hostile men who have promised to beat him up for it—one of whom actually will. "I don't stand a Chinaman's chance around here and you know it. But that ain't saying I'm yellow. Do you want to dance?" Sure, Windy's asking a woman. But Billy and Jimmie were inseparable from the moment they met in New York City until long after Mayer's cold feet about Depression finances and impending Code enforcement had kicked them both off the red carpet and it's not difficult to draw a line from one kind of courage to the other: they must have walked together into similar rooms many times. On the third hand, even if you take the plot at face value, I find it pleasantly anti-heteronormative to watch a leading man flame through a movie and still get the girl in the end, never quite straightening out along the way.

I have plans to meet my mother for a different movie entirely, so I should put this post to bed before I start doing research. The fact that Way Out West exists still kind of amazes me. It can't be the gayest thing I've seen from the pre-Code era, but it's up there. The use of camp and the relatively open in-jokes make it feel as though it must have been linked to the short-lived but nationwide "pansy craze" of the early '30's, when drag performers were trendy and flamboyant queerness was a box-office draw rather than a bridge too far, but it was a bust financially, which is fair, because I'm not actually sure that aside from Haines (and Hyams, with whom he has real chemistry when the script stays out of their way) it's much good. Cliff Edwards has a nice musical number with his ukulele, after which [personal profile] spatch pointed out that I'd have recognized him immediately if he looked like Jiminy Cricket. The opening scenes in the sideshow are glittery, seedy, and just business as usual for the performers. I'm not sure how the Hopi village got into the third act, but at least the stereotyping was kept to a minimum. If you want to track this one down, do it strictly for Billy "The boys wouldn't let me go if I wanted to" Haines, but I can tell you that at least for me he was worth it. This crack brought to you by my wise backers at Patreon.

sovay: (Lord Peter Wimsey)
Van Heflin's first starring role and the feature debut of director Fred Zinnemann, MGM's Kid Glove Killer is not a lost classic of crime cinema, but it is a fun little procedural of a B-picture with some sharp dialogue and more forensic detail than I've seen in this era until John Sturges' Mystery Street (1950); its technical tickyboxes include ballistic fingerprinting, fiber analysis, spectrography, endlessly labeled slides, and the first-rate chemistry in-joke of mocking up a reaction with dry ice so that the flask looks like it's got something really fancy going on inside it. The film's heroes are a pair of underpaid scientists working for the crime lab of the Chicago-ish city of Chatsburg, which has lately suffered the shocking double loss of both its crusading DA and its sincerely incorruptible mayor, neither of natural causes unless ropes, ponds, and car bombs can be filed under acts of God; despite the necessarily painstaking nature of their work, Heflin's Gordon McKay and Marsha Hunt's Jane Mitchell find themselves expected to deliver miracles on command, conjuring a killer's name out of the stray threads and burnt matches and dog hairs that might as well be so many oracle bones as far as the impatient police, press, and public are concerned. No one outright suggests railroading the small business owner seen loitering around the mayor's house the night before the explosion—furious that the new DA's vaunted crackdown on crime didn't extend to the hoods shaking him and his wife down for protection—but there's a lot of official pressure to connect the dots to Eddie Quillan's hot-headed innocent. In the meantime a sort of love triangle is progressing between the two scientists and one ambitious lawyer, although the viewer can't invest too much in the romantic suspense since our privileged information includes the identity of the murderer. I confess I'm not sure where the kid gloves came into it.

It is rare for me not to like Heflin in a film, even when he's playing kind of a dick, and he makes an engaging proto-nerd here, a slouchy, grouchy smart-ass in a lab coat who has managed to figure out that he's in love with his educated, attractive coworker but not yet that flirting by insult only works for Oscar Levant. (His eventual apology is legitimately adorable.) Hunt as Mitchell is nicely, unequivocally competent and has little time for her colleague's negging even as it's clear from space that she'd reciprocate his interest if he were only a little less schoolyard about it, but her character feels like a conservative compromise when she insists repeatedly—despite sufficient aptitude for chemistry that she has a master's degree in it—that forensics is "no career for a woman." I do appreciate that heteronormativity is defused at least once by McKay conceding wryly that it's "not much of a career for a man, either. No prestige, no glamour, no money. People holler at you when there are no miracles." I suppose it is also sociologically interesting that the script's anxiety about science and gender runs both ways—unless it's to prove that spending nine-tenths of your life behind a microscope doesn't make you less of a man, I have no idea why McKay is apparently incapable of confronting a suspect without a fight scene. He is otherwise not very macho, which I am fine with. He can't throw a dart straight to save his life. If the human heart were located in the right elbow, though, that firing-range target would have totally had it.

The extremely spoilery original trailer suggests that Kid Glove Killer was intended as the start of a series and I'm almost surprised it didn't happen—if Thin Man stand-ins Joel and Garda Sloane could get a trilogy, I don't see why we couldn't have enjoyed more McKay and Mitchell. As it is, the one film is all we've got. It runs 72 minutes and they are worth it all for the scene in which Heflin performs a precise, self-annotated mime of catching, cleaning, preparing, and then jettisoning a trout, all with the serious concentration of the slightly sloshed. He handles plain air so confidently, you can see the glint of the butter knife he's cleaning on the tablecloth and want to hand him one of those modern-day rubber grips for the ketchup bottle with the sticky cap. I have no idea if it was part of the original script or improvised on set or what on earth, but now I want to know where I can find more Van Heflin doing mime. He and Zinnemann would later reteam to superb and less comic effect in Act of Violence (1948). I appear to have seen Hunt as the Broadway-bent eldest of Frank Borzage's Seven Sweethearts (1942), but I don't hold it against her. Ava Gardner cameos as a cute married carhop. I hope to God mineral oil salad dressing is as much a thing of the past as the constant chain-smoking in chemically sensitive laboratory conditions. [edit: WHAT THE HELL IT'S NOT.] This investigation brought to you by my scientific backers at Patreon.
sovay: (Rotwang)
Being sick of not writing about movies, I appear to be writing about TV instead. Some weeks ago, [personal profile] lost_spook recommended me Chris Boucher's The Robots of Death (1977) on the grounds of David Collings and Tom Baker-era Doctor Who generally. The last time I'd seen the Fourth Doctor was "The Day of the Doctor" in high school when a friend who liked Douglas Adams rented The Pirate Planet (1978) with me. All I seem to remember of that one is a cyborg parrot. The Robots of Death delivers all round.

The story is straight science fiction, which I think of as rare for Doctor Who; visible influences include Isaac Asimov, Frank Herbert, Karel Čapek, Thea von Harbou and Fritz Lang, Art Deco, and Agatha Christie, so we're talking a murder mystery in a remote outpost of a decadent civilization sustained entirely by the labor of artificially intelligent but strictly constrained robots, with sumptuous retro-futurist costuming (Morojo would be proud) and the elegant aerodynamics of streamline moderne everywhere. The robots themselves are sculpted in black and green and silver metal according to their grade and function, their classical features planed into perpetual smiles, their inlaid eyes as serenely empty as a Tiffany shade. As if flirting with the man/machine boundaries that they otherwise take such pains to reinforce, humans on this unnamed planet make up their own faces in the same contoured patterns, though much more delicately, mostly some linear accents around the eyes and nose. I got a slight glam rock vibe off the whole mise-en-scène, although it might just be this future's idea of reasonable hats. Everyone in the guest cast lives and works aboard Storm Mine 4, a vast mineral-harvesting ship on a world of sandstorm-swept deserts staffed by a small human crew and dozens more robots of all three classes. We get a few hints of wider worldbuilding—the Twenty Founding Families, Kaldor City, the Company—but the touchy dynamics among this small group are front and center, as is only appropriate when one of them is about to turn up dead. Strangled, so there's no chance of an accident, with a curious red disc stuck to his hand—a "corpse marker," which we shortly learn are used in technical contexts to identify irreparably damaged or permanently deactivated robots. Suspicion at once explodes in all directions among the already bickering crew, though there is one possibility no one raises until the arrival of the Doctor and Leela (Louise Jameson), the one the title portends. And should the mysterious serial strangler turn out to be a robot, a voiceless Dum, a reliable Voc, an autonomous Super-Voc with all the "million multi-level constrainers in its circuitry" somehow switched off and the ability to contravene the universal "prime directive" against harm to humans switched on? The Doctor's seen it before: "Oh, I should think it's the end of this civilization." We won't get to see that apocalypse, but we will witness the personal equivalent.

Collings plays Chief Mover Poul, a kind of engineering officer, and between this serial, Sapphire & Steel (1979–82), and the casting of ITV's Midnight Is a Place (1977–78), I'm close to concluding it is his life's work to play the characters I would naturally gravitate toward in any narrative where he appears. He has a trickster look here, too, sharp-faced, copper-haired, a dryly spoken observer with a gift for throwaway sarcasm—asked if a body was like that when he found it, his reply is, "Just a little fresher." The audience may guess that he's hiding something even before Leela observes that he "move[s] like a hunter, watch[es] all the time," but it's not obvious what, except that he feels the least likely of the human suspects. He sees more than he says, distracts when tensions escalate, laughs to himself but says nothing when the mine's commander repurposes one of Poul's own ripostes. He has a nervous habit of fiddling with the communicator that hangs like a medal from the breast of his sharp-shouldered tabard. Sometimes when no one's looking his face flickers apprehensively and he sputters with excessive denial at the Doctor's suggestion of killer robots, but his crewmates are dropping like flies with no solution in sight, who wouldn't be afraid? He smiles and talks easily and cynically with Leela about the money to be made sandmining, the only reason he claims he signed on to a two-year tour in this refrigerated, mechanized sluice box when he'd "rather live with people than robots, that's all." Between one scene and the next, very suddenly, he cracks.

We've all got something to hide. Don't you think so, Commander? )

In short, this is one of the reviews where I come in late to a classic, but at least I came in. I am not surprised that it's a fan favorite; I don't even know that I can call myself a fan, but I think it's terrific. It's a good science fiction mystery. It has characters as well as cleverly interlocked ideas. It definitely gives good David Collings. This mental thing brought to you by my important backers at Patreon.

Poul


1. For maximum irony of the sort that comes to pass if a person does enough science fiction, Collings played 51st-century robot detective Daneel in a 1969 BBC adaptation of The Naked Sun (1957), which I assume like its source novel came down to the terrifying concept of positronic brains not bound by the Three Laws of Robotics—robots that could harm humans, even without knowing it—and which the internet helpfully tells me does not survive in any form barring some of Delia Derbyshire's sound work. Damn it, BBC. [edit] In fact, it looks as though the BFI did a reconstruction from the surviving soundtrack and stills, further details of which can be found at WikiDelia. I'm still side-eying the BBC.

2. I appreciate that he survives the story, though I mind a little that it leaves him at loose ends, catatonic on the bridge of the sandminer without even third-party dialogue to point toward his fate. My preferred headcanon would involve him getting offplanet somewhere he doesn't have to be around robots all the time, but it looks as though radio canon has him reappearing full bore loony some years later. Maybe I will ignore radio canon. Opinions? Everyone is just lucky I did not see this serial in high school instead of The Pirate Planet, because I wouldn't have written Poul fix-it fic—I didn't start writing fanfiction until I was out of grad school—but I am pretty sure hopelessly derivative original fiction would have been guaranteed.

3. I would love to know if there is believed to be any link between The Robots of Death and Dan O'Bannon and Ridley Scott's Alien (1979), because I have to say that one looks a lot like a direct forerunner of the other, not just in the isolated, claustrophobic and-then-there-were-none premise, but elements of plot and atmosphere like company agents embedded in regular crews and futuristic long-haul work being just as tiresome as the twentieth-century kind. Ian Holm's Ash pretty much is what you would get if you combined Poul with D84 and turned the sympathy way down on both sides.
sovay: (Viktor & Mordecai)
I am going through one of the stretches where I feel like everything I do is wasting people's time, not helped by the fact that I am behind on everything except my literal paying job obligations due to essentially ceasing to sleep in June. It is exhausting. I don't see any way through it except to write things and accustom myself to the idea that they will be whatever they are, however I feel about it. So—

Thanks to [personal profile] nineweaving and her access to Harvard's libraries, I have gotten hold of John Russell's Far Wandering Men (1929) and can report with some amazement that both the best and the worst elements of Bert Glennon's Girl of the Port (1930) appear to be Hollywood's responsibility. I am having trouble settling on an appropriate emotional response. Sending flowers seems overly forgiving as well as pointless, what with both of the screenwriters being dead, and sending ghosts a bag of flaming dog poop seems unwise.

For better or worse, "The Fire-Walker" is much slighter than Girl of the Port—it's of a piece with the rest of the collection, whose stories are in a mode that might best be described as strange anecdotes. They are told in a pulpy raconteur's style, with a strong sense of place, frequent outcroppings of eye dialect, and characters that on the whole are drawn more vividly than deeply; there is not always a direct narrator, although there is a consistent narrative voice and I guessed the author's nationality wrong because of it. (Russell was American. According to his obituary, he spent time in Panama, Peru, and the unspecified "South Pacific," but he was born in Iowa and died in California and either way was definitely not any kind of British, writerly diction and recurring origins of his white characters notwithstanding.) The portrayal of non-white characters is completely unpredictable, anywhere from teeth-numbingly racist to thoughtfully sympathetic. Only the last story in the book is supernatural, although irony plays a principal part in a number of them. If you read any of Russell's earlier collection Where the Pavement Ends (1919), you'll get the idea. I enjoyed the stories, but I would not call them a threat to Kipling, Conrad, or Richard Hughes. It was immediately obvious, however, why a good half-dozen of them were adapted for film: it is unfair to call them sketches or scenarios, but they are great id-hooks of characters at transformative moments in their lives or passing comet-like through the lives of others and their anecdotal nature makes them an ideal length for B- or even A-pictures in the age before two and a half hours became an ordinary runtime. They don't require condensing. If anything, they invite elaboration, which is where RKO ran into trouble with Girl of the Port.

Remember when I said that I thought this story would work just fine with the villain as a wealthy white planter? Yeah. McEwen in "The Fire-Walker" is "T. V. McEwen," known locally as "Tavua" and otherwise no more native than either the drunken young derelict he enjoys tormenting or the "Sydney-side bar-maid" who stands up to him; the narrative compares him more than once to Simon Legree, a hearty, red-faced, "big, jovial and hateful man" who carries a riding crop like a swagger stick and dresses at all times as though he's just come in from the fields, hands-on, self-made, and proud of it. His motives are exactly what I thought they would be without the race-baiting of the screenplay, bruised ego and smiling malice and the need to throw his weight around. There's no suggested hypocrisy or irony in his frequent expression of racist sentiments, just common or garden colonialism. The copra-and-sugar planters of Fiji are described early in the story as "generally large, loose and broad-minded individuals whose only prejudice is in favor of allowing the native races to carry the white man as a burden" and the reader understands that McEwen differs only in that he's willing to let his fellow white people bear the costs of his temper and humors, too. When he finds himself on the wrong end of a thrashing, it's simple turnabout for his treatment of others, native workers included. Speaking of whom, the short story is terrific about Kalita. He's significantly less hampered with cod-pidgin than his film counterpart and more importantly he's a viewpoint character, Tui-qalita the hereditary chief of Beqa Island who "served proudly and honorably from Taranto to Flanders" with the Fiji Contingent in World War I. He has his own opinions, his own reasons for helping or hindering or doing nothing at all about the white characters. Russell does call the sulu "the proper dress of his race," but he's a serious character even wearing the "old woolen uniform" of his army days with "the impassive, bronze eagle face and something of the wire-drawn, wire-limbed quality of a Roman legionary." When this Josie calls him "Corporal," it's not a joke. He does her the favor of taking Jamison over to Beqa—out of McEwen's reach, she hopes, though she's wrong—because of it. Similarly, when McEwen calls him a "dam' black loafer . . . a blasted liar . . . shirking again," it's just another strike against the planter because the reader already knows that Kalita is smart, well-traveled, self-respecting, and totally unimpressed with white people. His confrontation with Jamison over Josie, McEwen, and the symbolism of firewalking is considerably more eloquently argued in "The Fire-Walker." I'm not saying the story is the apotheosis of anti-racism for 1929, you understand, but it is sure the hell better on this front than the film.

Which is a shame, because it turns out that the entire hurt/comfort angle—Johnny's experiences in World War I and consequent struggles with PTSD, self-loathing, and drink—was also invented whole-cloth for the film and "The Fire-Walker" is weaker for its absence. The equivalent character in Russell is Jamison, a vague, gentle, not especially mysterious beachcomber who has spent the last five months earnestly trying to drink himself to death in "McDougal's Hotel, in the town of Suva, in the Fiji Islands" because of a love affair gone wrong. Like his film descendant, he can be persuaded to sing "Whiskey Johnny" in return for free booze, but it's not a nickname and the disputed niceness of the last verse has nothing to do with the fight he has with McEwen, which in any case he doesn't remember the next morning. He does, later that day, in a rare moment of lucidity, try to persuade Josie not to endanger herself with McEwen for his sake: "The poorest possible reason!" And she does her best not to, though the one brief glimmer she gets of what a sober, focused Jamison would look like—"grave and kindly, with the potential of tempered steel"—encourages her enough to confide in him the reasons she fled Sydney, which involve questionable taste in boyfriends and a murder. The narrative views them with complementary tenderness and irony, sitting hand-in-hand in the billiard room at the back of McDougal's with the sun shafting through the inappropriately clerestory windows: "Neither of them was more than twenty-three years old . . ." That's the most characterization we get for either of them, really, beyond physical descriptions like Jamison being "a tall young man—but a battered tramp of the far spaces if ever there was one" or Josie's "funny little voice" possessing "the same tinkling clarity of a small bell rung out." I am a little sorry the film dropped the idea of her having a past she's running from as much as Jamison/Johnny from his, but all things being equal I am significantly less interested in men brung low by women than I am in men who are fucked up for just about any other reason and the story's tighter, choppier timeline forces me to take most of their relationship and pretty much all of his regeneration on faith. Girl of the Port's Johnny and Josie live together for two months; they are not in love to begin with and the audience can track how it evolves between them, through conversations and housework and affection and trust coming in place of pity and gratitude. Jamison and Josie in "The Fire-Walker" have three significant interactions over the course of a week and walk off into the sunset together. Even the stakes of the climactic firewalk are simpler as originally written—for Jamison, it's the inspired, reckless gesture of a man with nothing to lose, not a facing-down of personal demons as it is for Johnny. I do like the story's low-key ending, in which the known particulars of the affair dissolve into myth as the narrator shrugs and steps away:

But later when Josie and Jamison stood apart on the green sward of Beqa Island in the Fijis, under its blue skies, near its rippled shore: what happened between these two afterward was surely the essence of a shilling romance—the Beachcomber and the Bar-maid: The Duke and the Damsel in Distress—fact, fancy and fantasy all alike, and all quite true.

I can't see that flying in Hollywood, though. I mean, it didn't. For the record, I think it is just as stupid that Jamison's woman who done him wrong, the "mistress of hearts" known as "the Contessa, the Lady Cleo," should drop by Fiji just in time for the finale of "The Fire-Walker" as it is that Johnny in the last five minutes of Girl of the Port should turn out to be aristocracy with a yacht, but I suppose these things happen in the countries of melodrama.

The screenwriting credits for Girl of the Port are interestingly split: Beulah Marie Dix is credited with the screenplay and Frank Reicher with the dialogue, with a notice in a November 1929 issue of Variety explaining that the latter was loaned to RKO by Pathé "to write and direct dialog" for the production, which was then going by the title of The Firewalker. [personal profile] spatch has suggested that while neither writer can have been blameless, I may be able to blame Dix specifically for making McEwen a "half-caste" and Reicher for the casually high levels of racist language. That seems plausible to me, based on their respective jobs. I just wish I didn't have to choose quite so obviously between the blander, more racially reasonable version of this narrative and the version where the protagonists are complex and personable enough to care about and also repeatedly racist douchecanoes. I wish the screenwriters had thought to introduce the war trauma and left all the bonus racism out. If they had been going to transfer anything from page to screen with perfect fidelity, I wish it had been Russell's Kalita, whom Duke Kahanamoku really deserved. Instead we get this strangely amplified version, with higher peaks and lower troughs, and I don't know why I expected any aspect of this movie, even the relationship of source material to adaptation, not to be confusing. I'd love to read studio notes on the process, but I'd be surprised if there are any outside of archives—my curiosity notwithstanding, I don't think there's much call for scholarship on Girl of the Port. Four online reviews do not exactly a cult reputation make.

So, that happened. I got some decent adventure reading out of it. I remain impressed and frustrated by everything about this film. Tagged for Patreon as a follow-up to the review.
sovay: (Viktor & Mordecai)
Happy solstice! I was indeed awake all night. I'm still awake. Sleep or no sleep, however, sometimes a person has to yell about a movie on the internet.

Girl of the Port (1930), directed for RKO by Bert Glennon, is a pre-Code curiosity if ever I encountered one: a hopelessly confused adventure-melodrama-romance between a tough-cookie showgirl and a shell-shocked veteran set in the South Seas islands, which is part of its problem. Its title is technically relevant in that the heroine is the only female character of any prominence, but thematically it would have done much better to be released under its production title of The Fire-Walker, after the original short story by John Russell. Story elements include World War I, half a dozen nervous breakdowns, British tourists, mixology, untranslated Chinese, institutional racism, surprise aristocracy, the climactic if no longer eponymous firewalk, and the whole thing's over in 65 minutes, so it gets the plot in with a crowbar. There are really interesting things in it and there are really frustrating things in it and they are not arranged in any separable fashion. I am not sorry to have seen it, but I do not expect anyone else to feel the same.

It opens with title cards, setting the zeitgeist of the Lost Generation: "Not all the casualties of war are in hospital cots. There are wounds of the spirit as lasting as those of the flesh, but less pitied, and little understood. Few know the dark fears brought back from the battlefront. Even fewer know that those fears may be cast out . . . but only by the mind that harbors them." The sequence that follows startled me; I keep forgetting that while the Production Code did its best to reduce the realities of sex, race, and gender to cartoons, it also did a lasting disservice to violence—not the two-fisted pantomime kind where bullets leave no marks and people's eyes close gently when they die, but the kind people should be scared of. We see it in the barbed wire trenches of World War I, where a battalion of British soldiers is getting ready to go over the top. It's cold, dark, ghostly. A young officer is trying to reassure an enlisted man even younger than himself, a hollow-eyed boy whose head is already bandaged bloodily under his tin hat. Five in the morning is zero hour; he re-checks his watch, takes a deep breath, and blows the signal. All together, his men call out their watchword, "God and the right!" and scramble up over the sandbags into no man's land. Their German counterparts affirm, "Gott mit uns!" and do the same. There's little sense of strategy on the British side, just a loose line of men ordered into hell with rifles and nerve.1 They walk into a nest of German flamethrowers. It's horrifying. At first they don't see the danger, decoyed by the smoke and the disorienting concussions of the mortar barrage covering the German advance; then it's too late to get out of range. There is something uncanny and inhuman in the flamethrower troops with their deep-sea gear and the long, long streams of fire they send snaking out before them, licking and curling as if they were living and hungry things. The young officer stands his ground with his service pistol, trying to take the flamethrowers out, but soon he's dry-firing and then a stutter of enemy machine-guns takes him in the leg and the arm; he tumbles into a shell-hole alongside the feebly flailing body of a fellow soldier with some obliquely shot but grisly makeup effects on his face—burned, blinded. He keeps crying about the fire, about his eyes. With his helmet knocked off, we can see the officer's face under its stiff tousle of dark hair, terrified and suddenly, desperately young. "Stick close to me," he said confidently, just a few minutes ago in the safety of the trench, "and don't forget—those Fritzes are nothing but men." But fire is more than men, fire can eat men alive, and it's doing just that all around him. Everywhere he looks, the white-hot hissing light of the flamethrowers coming on and the bodies of men he knew burning, or worse, stumbling through the inferno, screaming. He's trapped. He can't get out. Suddenly he's screaming, too, high and hoarse and raw: "Oh, God, don't let the fire get me—don't let the fire get me—oh, God!" And scene.

It's a harsh opening and the viewer may be forgiven for feeling a little whiplashed when the action jumps years and genres to the rainy night in Suva, Fiji when footloose, all-American Josie (Sally O'Neil, a mostly silent actress new to me) blows out of the storm and into MacDougal's Bamboo Bar. Late of Coney Island, she fast-talks her way into a bartending job with theatrical sass, booting the current barman and introducing herself to the appreciative all-male clientele like the carnival talker of her own attraction: "I don't need no assistance, thanks. My father was a bouncer in the Tenth Ward. My mother was a lion tamer with Ringling. I was weaned on raw meat and red pepper. Boo!" She's petite and kitten-faced, brash and blonde as an undercranked Joan Blondell; her dialogue is a glorious compendium of pop culture and pure, nasal Brooklyn slang. She refers to her pet canary alternately as "John McCormack" and "Jenny Lind," derides a hoary pick-up line as "old when Fanny was a girl's name," and deflects an incipient attack of sentiment with the admonition not "to go . . . getting all Jolson about it." A handsy customer gets the brush-off "What are you, a chiropractor? You rub me the wrong way." When she finds another new patron passed out face-first on a table, their exchange as he groggily props himself up gives a good idea of the script's overall mix of the snappy and the sententious:

"Who in blazes are you?"
"Lon Chaney."
"I'm coming up to date. Usually at this stage I'm seeing Jonah's whale."
"Snap out of it, bozo. Ain't you glad you don't see pink elephants?"
"Lassie, I drink so's I
can see them. They crowd out other things. Four fingers, please."

Asked for the color of his money, the man produces a military decoration: thin and scruffy in an old collarless shirt, no longer quite so boyish with the haunted lines in his face, it's the young officer of the opening scenes (Reginald Sharland, also new to me; he had an eleven-film career between 1927 and 1934 and by turns he reminded me of Richard Barthelmess, Peter Capaldi, and Dick Van Dyke, which is a hell of a thing to say about anyone). He has shell-shock you can see from space. When the bar pianist starts tinkling a jaunty improv on "Tipperary," he recites the chorus in a kind of bitter trance, tellingly omitting the last line about his heart. Josie tries to break in by guessing his rank; when she reaches "Captain," he jolts to his feet like a snapped elastic, giving an instinctive salute and then a haggard smile: "Clever, don't you think yourself?" In a welcome gesture toward nuance, he's fucked up, but not totally pathetic. He's known as Whiskey Johnny, after the stuff he drinks more thirstily than water and the song he'll perform in exchange for free glasses of it, especially when egged on by white-suited local bully McEwen (Mitchell Lewis, wait for it). This sort of setup is usually the cue for public humiliation, but Johnny can actually sing and he grins round at the room while he does it, a slight, shabby, definitely not sober man, drawing his audience in all the same. I had a girl and her name was Lize. Whiskey, Johnny! Oh, she put whiskey in her pies. Whiskey for my Johnny! He balks only when McEwen presses him to sing the last verse, the one that Johnny nervously protests "isn't done amongst gentlemen, is it? Not when ladies are present."2 In response, McEwen insults Josie, Johnny insults McEwen, words escalate to fists escalate to McEwen pulling a knife, Johnny grabbing a chair, and Josie throwing a bottle that smashes the nearest lamp. The oil ignites as soon as it hits the floor, a quick mushroom of flame spurting up right in Johnny's face. He was unsteady but combative a moment ago; in the face of the fire, he screams like a child. "Oh, God, the fire! Don't let the fire get me! Oh, God, let me out of here!" A few voices call after him as he blunders jaggedly away through the crowd, plainly seeing nothing but Flanders and flames, but most dismiss him as a "ruddy coward . . . not worth stopping, with his tail between his legs." The next morning, flinchingly hungover on the beat-up chaise longue in the back room of the bar, he tells Josie the story of how he won his medal, the sole survivor of his company decorated for bravery for cowering in a shell-hole "watching the others crisp up and die—hearing them die—seeing the fire draw nearer, nearer, seeing it all round me—oh, God, don't let the fire get me! Don't let the fire get me!" He can recover a wry self-possession in quieter moments, but he "can't face fire" or even the memory of it: the terror is always just below the surface. McEwen has only to flick a cigarette into a bucket of gasoline to bust him back down to a shuddering wreck, trying to hide in the furniture, chokingly gulping the drink he just swore he wouldn't touch.

Josie's solution is unorthodox but unhesitating: she has him move into her cabin. McEwen can't get at him there. House rules are they don't sleep together and Johnny doesn't drink. As the intermittent intertitles tell us, "Half her time she saw that men got liquor at Macdougal's . . . the other half, she saw that one man didn't!" After eight weeks, their relationship is a comfortable but charged mixture of emotional intimacy and unacknowledged sexual tension and I think accidentally sort of kinky. Each night when she leaves for work at the bar, she locks Johnny in—by now at his own request—so that he can't wander off in search of booze despite his best intentions. He refers to her as his "doctor, nurse, pal, and jailor—and savior, you know. That is, if a chap who didn't deserve it ever had one." His hands shake badly when he kneels to put her shoes on for her, but he insists on doing it anyway, just as he insists on helping with the washing-up even when they lose more plates that way. She treats him practically, not like something broken or breakable; she calls him "Bozo" because she doesn't like "Whiskey Johnny" and he doesn't like "Captain." Eventually, diffidently, he introduces himself as "Jameson," at which Josie shoots him a skeptical look: "I've seen that name on bottles." She's fallen for him by now, which the audience could see coming from the moment she deflated his romantic sob story of a contemptuous fiancée who betrayed him with his best friend with the tartly dismissive "What a dim bulb she turned out to be," but she keeps a self-protective distance, correctly recognizing that she's given him a breather, not a miracle, and in the meantime he's imprinted on her like a battle-fatigued duckling. When he declares his love, she warns him, "Now don't go mixing up love and gratitude, 'cause they ain't no more alike than champagne and Ovaltine." They end up in a clinch, of course, and a jubilant Johnny promises that they're going to "lick that fear—together," waving her off to work like a happy husband already. The viewer with a better idea of dramatic structure vs. runtime waits for the third-act crisis to come home to roost.

All of this is an amazing demonstration of the durability of hurt/comfort over the decades and to be honest it's pretty great of its type, even if occasionally over the top even by the standards of idfic. Both O'Neil and Sharland's acting styles are mixed somewhere between early sound naturalism and the full-body expression of silent film—O'Neil acquires a vocal quaver in moments of emotion and Sharland employs some highly stylized gestures in his breakdowns, though there's nothing old-fashioned or stagy about his screams—but since they are generally in the same register at the same time, it works fine. They make a sympathetically matching couple with their respective fears of being unlovable, Josie who bluntly admits that she "ain't a nice girl," Johnny convinced he's a coward and a failure, "finished." Some of their best romantic moments are not declarative passion but shy happiness, the actors just glowing at one another. The trouble is that what I have been describing is the best version of the film, the one without the radioactive levels of racism that start at surprisingly upsettingly high and escalate to Jesus, was D.W. Griffith ghosting this thing? and essentially make it impossible for me to recommend this movie to anyone without qualifiers galore.

Perhaps you have a little something yet to learn about native blood, milord. )

I do not know how closely Girl of the Port resembles its source story, which can be found in Russell's Far Wandering Men (1929). Since he seems to have specialized in South Seas adventures, I assume some of the racism is baked in; I also wouldn't be surprised if some of it was introduced in the process of adaptation. I can get his earlier collection Where the Pavement Ends (1919) on Project Gutenberg, but Far Wandering Men isn't even in the local library system, so it may take me a little while to find out. Until then, I don't know what else I can tell you. "Frustrating" may have been an understatement. I don't want Sharland, O'Neil, and lines like "There you go, full of ambition. You have your youth, your health, and now you want shelves" to have been wasted on this film, but I fear that they may. Duke Kahanamoku certainly was. Mitchell Lewis, by the way, is most famous these days for his uncredited three-line role as the Captain of the Winkie Guard in The Wizard of Oz (1939)—I didn't recognize him as such in Girl of the Port, but once I made the connection, the deep voice and the strongly marked brows were unmistakable. I like him a lot better when he's green. This damaged recovery brought to you by my stronger backers at Patreon.

1. And kilts, which means they must be one of the Highland regiments, but in the chaos of battle I did not get a good look at the tartan.

2. Seriously? I've got like five versions of "Whiskey Johnny"/"Whiskey Is the Life of Man"/"John Rise Her Up" on my iTunes and I wouldn't call any of them racy. It's a halyard chantey. What have I been missing all these years?

3. Once safely outside MacDougal's, Kalita spits on the coin in disgust and then throws it away in the rain. I really think the script is trying its best with him, but because even his positive scenes rely on stereotypes, I credit most of his extant dimensions to Kahanamoku.

4. With a slur I've never heard before: "That little tabby over there . . . T-A-B-B-Y, tabby. The girl that's trying to make you!" From this context I assume it means a gold digger or a tart, but if it's real slang rather than minced for purposes of the Hays Code, I don't think it widely survived.

5. We are also, presumably, supposed to cheer plucky Josie for finding a way to turn the villain's heritage against him: before she agrees to his blackmail, she makes him swear to keep his end of the bargain on something he won't be able to cheat, not God or his honor, but the carved shell charm from his Fijian mother that he wears beneath his European shirts and suits, the hidden and telltale truth of him. "Swear on this Hindu hocus-pocus," she challenges, gripping it in her white hand. "Go on. That'll hold a Malay." Native superstition out of nowhere wins the day. Looking suddenly shaken, he swears.
sovay: (Cho Hakkai: intelligence)
I have now seen the first three serials of P.J. Hammond's Sapphire & Steel (1979–82) and while I have not gotten the sleep I wanted, I am tired of not writing about things. Preliminary notes.

Sapphire & Steel is weird stuff. I mean that as both description and taxonomy. I can trace a common lineage with other genre-mixing, time-crossing British TV like Doctor Who (1963–), The Stone Tape (1972), and Children of the Stones (1977), but I can't remember the last anything I ran into that reminded me simultaneously of Robert Aickman, John le Carré, and Diana Wynne Jones. There's not even that much of it. Six serials aired on ITV over a span of four years, irregularly spaced and eventually canceled; all but one were written by Hammond and none of them have official titles, which is why I have been watching them on YouTube under the designations "Assignment 1" and so forth. It is glacially paced and nearly no-budget. And it is so far some of the most haunting, liminal, minimalist TV I have ever encountered in my life. It's full of ghosts and echoes, ambiguities and unanswered questions. Its worldbuilding hangs in implication behind its characters; its characters know each other so well, they don't need to talk about themselves. It gets more out of explaining less than any science fiction until Shane Carruth's Primer (2004). To match the single sets that give each serial the atmosphere of a filmed play,1 most of the show's best effects are practical and theatrical: changes of light, juxtapositions of costume, and suggestive, spooky sound work on a par with the heyday of the Radiophonic Workshop. The plots run on something more patterned than dream logic, but like nightmares they can take perfectly ordinary objects and charge them with unspeakable danger and dread—a child's nursery rhyme, a marching song, a swansdown pillow. Time itself is a source of horror; it cracks, frays, gives way beneath the pressure of aeons and the entities that prowl endlessly outside the "corridor of Time," looking for a way in. History deforms its fabric like gravity. Heirlooms and memory can become a black hole. Ghosts come out, if you're lucky. Other things if you're not. This is classic cosmic horror, but it's not, except in the introductory scenes, played from the viewer's accustomed perspective of humanity. Whatever Joanna Lumley's Sapphire and David McCallum's Steel may be—and I don't ever really expect to find out—human is definitely not it.

All irregularities will be handled by the forces controlling each dimension. Transuranic heavy elements may not be used where there is life. Medium atomic weights are available: Gold, Lead, Copper, Jet, Diamond, Radium, Sapphire, Silver, and Steel. Sapphire and Steel have been assigned. )

That was a lot of notes for a preliminary. In conclusion, the following dialogue just took place between me and Rob—

"Hey, I think the worst possible thing happened that could happen while a person is talking about Sapphire & Steel."

"Did they go off of YouTube?"

"No, my watch stopped."

—so I think I should perhaps get out of here before something comes out of the music I'm listening to. It was Belbury Poly for a while, which is very much in the same hauntological tradition. Maybe an album drawn from recordings of Ganzeld experiments was not the best alternative. So long, it's been good to know you. I'm not sure I can count half a TV series for Patreon.

1. The third serial includes some cutaway scenes on a roof which [personal profile] ashlyme tells me belonged to the ATV offices themselves.

2. The subject is slightly lampshaded in Assignment 3, when Steel gives a rare laugh at the thought of "Silver having any kind of beginning, any kind of childhood" and Sapphire responds that she was just thinking the same about Steel. He's indignant: "I have very positive origins! Inexpressible, maybe, but positive." A scene or two later, he's still mentally muttering, "I have impeccable origins."

3. At this point in the process my brain completely jumped its tracks and I thought of Silver in the role of Puck, Steel as Oberon, and Sapphire as Titania, and Ashlyme didn't help by calling the thought of a production of A Midsummer Night's Dream possessed by Time "mouthwatering." I just don't want to have to write it.

4. You know what I'm genuinely surprised doesn't exist? Crossover fic for this series with A Tale of Time City (1987). Otherwise the ways in which it reminds me of Diana Wynne Jones are more tonal and thematic: ordinary-looking people of strange domains and powers, magic-like science (or science-like magic) that works sideways in ripples and allusions, not explaining things. I find myself thinking of the luminaries of Dogsbody (1975), the Reigners of Hexwood (1983), the families of Archer's Goon (1984) and The Game (2007). So far there is slightly less of a tendency in Sapphire & Steel for people not to know who they are, but I'm willing to wait.
sovay: (Claude Rains)
I knew I would have trouble with Joseph L. Mankiewicz's The Quiet American (1958). I had known about it for years: it was the bad movie version of a book my parents liked. When a more faithful adaptation was released in 2002, directed by Philip Noyce and starring Michael Caine, it was received with such relief by my mother that I got her the DVD as soon as it came out. When a Mankiewicz retrospective came through the HFA a few years ago, we saw People Will Talk (1951) and Escape (1948) and 5 Fingers (1952) instead. I had already guessed there was no way that a close version of Graham Greene's 1955 novel—a prescient indictment of American involvement in Vietnam—could have made it unscathed through the Hollywood machine in the days of the Red Scare, not to mention imminent U.S. escalation in Vietnam. But it came around a few nights ago on TCM and I thought, all right, let's see how bad this gets.

In its favor, the film is beautifully photographed and cleverly cast. Otherwise it is a deliberate and insulting inversion of Greene's novel and a criminal fucking waste of Michael Redgrave. Spoilers everywhere because otherwise I'll just keep on swearing where the cats can hear me.

I'm a reporter. I'm not involved. )

But of course what Mankiewicz didn't have was the cultural or political permission to film a definitive adaptation of The Quiet American in the late 1950's. Trying to find out what the hell besides McCarthyism had happened to a director I had always considered basically lefty, I ran into the stranger-than-fiction fact that Lansdale—you know, the guy who ran General Thế for the CIA, so popularly if incorrectly associated with the character of Alden Pyle that his authorized biography was titled The Unquiet American (1988)—actually consulted on the film, where by "consulted" I mean "among other input sent Mankiewicz a three-page letter detailing the true history of the bombings at the Place Garnier and encouraging the writer-director to disregard it completely and blame the Communists." Okay, then. The end credits are dedicated "To the people of the Republic of Vietnam—to their chosen President and administrators—our appreciation for their help and kindness," which I doubt Mankiewicz as producer would have been able to secure without assurance of a positive spin on the present state of South Vietnam, five years in the film's future. Both Greene and his novel were banned by Diệm's government. Allen Dulles signed off on the script treatment. I have no idea if I can or should recommend this film to anyone. Certainly it is historically significant, attractive to look at, and it is a truth at least semi-universally acknowledged that Michael Redgrave distraught and disheveled is pretty hot, but as I shouted to [personal profile] spatch, "No amount of hot Michael Redgrave is worth intellectual dishonesty!" Your mileage, I guess. This betrayal brought to you by my engagé backers at Patreon.



1. Murphy had starred as himself in the 1955 screen adaptation of his 1949 autobiography, To Hell and Back.

2. I'd love to be able read her gesture postcolonially, as independent Vietnam rejecting both naïve America and paternal Empire, but I am pretty sure it's just your standard Code-mandated reminder that only heroes get the girl in the end. Either way, casting Phuong's relationship with the American in the light of tragically lost true love romanticizes and retroactively legitimizes his complete failure to see her as a person rather than a symbolic object to be saved.

3. In the 2002 film, she is played by the actually Vietnamese Đỗ Thị Hải Yến and, while she gets very little dialogue compared to her male co-stars, appears to possess an interior life in consonance with the novel, which several times suggests that she sees more than either of the men she lives with. Fowler likens her to a bird, to opium, to her namesake phoenix, to her own country, but he has at least the grace to recognize the existence of her independent self, of which she shares only so much with him: "But even while I made my speech and watched her turn the page . . . I knew I was inventing a character just as much as Pyle was. One never knows another human being; for all I could tell, she was as scared as the rest of us." Quite seriously, if anyone knows of literature or nonfiction revisiting the events of The Quiet American from Phuong's perspective à la Jean Rhys' Wide Sargasso Sea (1966) or Lauren Wilford's "Possessed: Vertigo Through Her Eyes" (2015), I'd be fascinated.

4. He filmed a similarly liminal Belfast for Reed's Odd Man Out (1947): he had a talent for showing cities as both their documentary selves and their expressionist reflections. I am charmed that his first solo credit as director of photography was Leslie Howard's The Gentle Sex (1943).

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