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Myth Happens

Date: 2017-04-10 14:14
Subject: And you can't find nothing at all if there was nothing there all along
Security: Public
Music:Death Cab for Cutie, "Crooked Teeth"

Being an LJ-only announcement.

All right. I have not yet deleted this journal, but I ceased to crosspost to it a week ago Monday and I am in the process of importing or otherwise transferring all necessary material to Dreamwidth. If you're still reading me on LJ and plan to have any presence on Dreamwidth, please follow me over. (There's been a round trip to New York and a new movie review since!) Sometime soon here, I'm turning out the lights. I want to lose as few people as possible in the process.

I liked last Monday much better when it was just Leslie Howard's birthday.

5 Performable Epics | Tell Me a Story | Share | Link

Date: 2017-04-03 05:24
Subject: Why, that four-eyed little pill-pusher
Security: Public
Music:Arcade Fire, "My Body Is a Cage"

Earlier in the week I was talking to derspatchel about definitions of film noir: how the hallmark of the genre for me really is not guns or girls or rain-wet city streets but the sense of destabilization I've mentioned before, the shape-shifting of the known and secure world into something much less predictable, much less safe, perhaps even much less real. It's the reason so many good noirs have the feel of a nightmare, where familiar objects take on new and terrible meanings; it's what makes noir such a good genre for social issues, where the American dream can undergo the same skeptical collapse as a happy marriage or the sunniness of suburbia. Everything from your faith in the system to your sense of self can drop out from underneath you in a film noir and all things being equal it probably will. It can be horrifying; it can be liberating; it can even pull out the occasional happy ending without feeling like a cheat precisely because a totally grimdark, crapsack world would be missing that element of uncertainty—nothing is really in question when everything ends in tears. Without that ability to estrange, to leave characters and audience unable to guess which way the cards will fall, a movie might be any number of genres, but increasingly I feel it's not noir. So it was very satisfying for me this past snowy Saturday to open up TCM and discover a movie which put this theme front and center and is definitely a film noir: Tension (1949), directed by John Berry and starring Richard Basehart in a nearly double role as an unassuming pharmacist with a cheating wife and the confident alter ego he adopts to establish his alibi for the murder of his wife's lover, which is where his troubles begin.

If you're feeling kindly toward Warren Quimby, night manager of the 24-hour Coast-to-Coast drugstore on the corner of St. Anne's and 13th Street, you might refer to him as mild-mannered. If you want to be accurate, he's a nebbish. He's nice enough looking, with a soft-mouthed, boyish face once you get past his Coke-bottle glasses and his rounded shoulders, but his tiny tough cookie of a wife (Audrey Totter, bright and harsh as peroxide) has been running around on him for years and all he can do is watch her walk out of the store all but on the arm of a different man every night, older men, generally, with fast cars and money to burn, while Warren stays dutifully behind the prescription counter, twelve hours a night and five nights a week so he can save up for the good life they must have promised each other once. If he can just give her what she wants, if he doesn't rock the boat, maybe it'll be enough to put things back the way they were. He can't imagine life without Claire, coming home every morning not knowing whether she'll be in their bed or just the blond-wigged, china-headed doll she leaves around their one-bedroom apartment like a sympathetic object of herself. Inevitably, one morning she's not. She and her china calling card have moved in with Barney Deager (Lloyd Gough, hirsute), a rugged, cigar-chewing liquor salesman with a big car to chauffeur her around in and a big bankroll to peel bills off and a big house to lounge around on the beach in Malibu, not the suburban development Warren was so painfully proud of getting a loan for and Claire wouldn't even get out of the car to survey. "It was different in San Diego," she snarls, stuffing clothes into a suitcase as if she were punching dough or her husband's face. "You were cute in your uniform. You were full of laughs then. Well, you're all laughed out now!"—though she'll get a last, nasty one at her husband's expense when he comes to win her back, a ridiculous Quixote sweating in his suit and hat and glasses, stumbling with the sand in his shoes as his lady in her neat black swimsuit curls her lip in disgust and her hero in Hawaiian-print swim trunks rises to his suntanned full six feet to whale the tar out of his shrimpy challenger as effortlessly as the "before" half of a Charles Atlas ad, complete with territorial bluster of "And don't come back, you four-eyed punk!" as Warren picks himself stiffly out of the sand, his nose bleeding, one lens of his glasses splintered like a star. So the thought of murder; so the idea of creating someone else, some dangerous stranger who might have a well-documented animus against Deager while there are witnesses that funny little Quimby, like a damn-fool knight-errant, actually shook the hand of the man who beat him up in front of his wife and wished them both well. "The trouble with you, Mr. Quimby," his friend and counterman Freddie (Tom D'Andrea) declares, "you keep turning that other cheek till you're dizzy." And indeed, the more time Warren spends planning his revenge, the more he realizes he doesn't need to go through with it. It helps that his roleplaying shows him there are other ways to live; it doesn't hurt that big-shot, he-man lover-boy is freaked the fuck out to wake up and find the "four-eyed punk" standing over him smiling like a hit man. But when Deager turns up dead anyway, the beautiful, obvious trail Warren has been laying to lead the police to the door of a man who doesn't exist starts to burn right back toward him—and it's on a quick fuse.

This is the substance of the first act; Rob pointed out when I described it to him that it could have furnished an entire movie and I love that for Tension it's just the starting point, the floundering collision of reality and fantasy that for all the strong California sunlight locates the story firmly in the world of noir. "Paul Sothern" may have been made up out of thin air and the cover of an issue of Screen Digest, but he's everything Warren Quimby would love to be. Where Warren switches dowdily between his druggist's coat for the customers and his drab suit for going home in, sharp-dressed Paul doesn't shrink from bold ties and assertively checked jackets; instead of mechanically filling prescriptions from a covert of aspirin, liniment, and Vicks, he hits the road each week as a commercial traveler for a cosmetics company. He strolls around in the sun while Warren toils away on the night shift. Thanks to the new miracle of contact lenses, he doesn't even wear glasses.1 Perhaps best of all, he has a girl interested in him—not a sulky, contemptuous wife who punishes her husband for his material failures without lifting a finger to help earn the money she longs to spend, but a hardworking neighbor who admits she's got a boring job and practices photography in her spare time, whose idea of a good date isn't cruising the city's hot spots in a flashy car but making a telescope out of a pipe cleaner box and building a shared fantasy about life on a desert island, which is closer to the truth than she knows. "It can be real, Paul," she tells him softly. "It can be real." With no strings attached, this is the life Warren would slip into for good, leaving the shed skin of his failed self behind as quick as shaving and packing a bag. But it's a dream, and any dream can turn on a dime to nightmare. Paul Sothern was created to murder a man and, rather golem-like, without Warren's desire or knowledge, he appears to have. Or at least there's no other clear suspect in view. And because this is California in 1949, because the homicide detective narrating the movie (in a fine pulp style: "You know, these stores have everything—raisins and radios, paregoric and phonographs, vitamin capsules and cap pistols. They'll serve you a cup of coffee, sell you a pack of cigarettes or a postage stamp—and in a pinch, they'll even fill a prescription for you") may be as corrupt as any other cop in the genre, because Warren is such a five-star shlimazl and this is a film noir, you can't tell if he's going to fry for something he only dreamed of doing. The horror of the mask is that it won't come off your face, no matter how hard you pull or what starts to tear away with it. The dream had a death built into it from the start.

I can't help seeing a kind of Superman echo in the role Warren's glasses play in his double life. His entire attitude changes when he's Paul, not just the self-confidence with which he squares his shoulders and tells a lot of trustworthy lies. He meets cute with Mary Chanler (Cyd Charisse, whom apparently I don't recognize when she's not dancing) when he accidentally crashes one of her photographs—and for his next trick, with his arms full of a suitcase and groceries, knocks over all her gear while trying to make amends—a first impression that would have reduced Warren to cringing embarrassment but which Paul meets with good humor, sincere apologies, and a willingness to talk shop as a fellow amateur photographer which leads first to friendly hanging-out and presently to dates by the nighttime sea. That's only on the weekends, of course; the rest of the time Paul's traveling for La Femme Beauty Preparations. The rest of the time Warren's working the Coast-to-Coast, the same polite but unimpressive person his staff and his customers are used to. Glasses on, shlemiel. Glasses off, regular guy. It is therefore both poignant and hilarious when it turns out that Warren is in point of fact one hundred percent recognizable to people who know him whether he's wearing his glasses or not. (Possibly Superman is not the best model for a secret identity after all.) I do not think it's an accident that only in the last scenes of the film, when Warren has a chance of integrating his real life with his dream one, do we see him wearing his ordinary clothes and his contact lenses. The regular shlemiel.

So it's an unstable world full of fantasies and anxieties threatening to break into three-dimensional form, but it's one real people live in, which makes it worse when it goes so badly off the rails. I like that the Los Angeles of Tension is casually multicultural: there are Black regular customers at the lunch counter and the pharmacy, Deager's Latino houseboy later turns up working as a ringside doctor at a boxing club, and when Warren earnestly checks with an East Asian-looking kid that his mother will be able to read the prescription directions in English, the kid scoffs all-Americanly, "You kidding?" I like the way the postwar setting plays into the story, with Claire disappointed in the kind of civilian her cute soldier turned out to be and Freddie reading the daily news with a kind of fatalism: "They're still at it, trying to find out who owns Germany, who owns the A-bombs—floods, cyclones, earthquakes, riots—they're loaded." I like that we don't know if we can trust Lieutenant Collier Bonnabel (Barry Sullivan) from his opening, pre-credits monologue because what he's talking about is the way to break people, not whether the people he breaks really committed the crimes. I love that I may finally have discovered a specimen of the elusive noir saxophone in the wild. I didn't think it existed—I believed it was an invention of neo-noir, which did much more than original flavor noir to associate jazz with the genre—but Claire's entrances are accompanied by a sinuous, sauntering theme that sure sounds like the swinging slide of an alto sax, as lazily and seamily sexual as the points of her breasts flaunting through her tight white sweater. And while I have technically enjoyed Richard Basehart in noir before, he's better here than anywhere I've seen that isn't La strada (1954), which may only mean that I need to see him in more noir.2 This was the sunlit kind. I like those. You only think the daylight makes things safe. This reinvention brought to you by my dreamy backers at Patreon.

1. I did not realize until I looked it up after the movie that corneal lenses—as opposed to the much larger, scleral kind—were newly introduced and expensive in 1949, cutting-edge technology on which the film hangs an important point of its plot. I always enjoy that sort of thing.

2. There is one place where his character lost me and I feel I should mention it because it is the scene in which Warren strikes his wife. Once across the face, at the conclusion of an argument, and she looks more startled than hurt—turning instantly to seething hostility as she realizes it means she won't be able to soft-soap him into being her doormat anymore—while he shoves his hands deep in his pockets, hunches his shoulders and turns his face away as though he's ashamed of himself, but it was only that last physical business that kept the character from losing my sympathy on the spot. The viewer is very clearly not intended to condemn Warren for it; this is not how the script signals that he's a bad guy. He was pushed too far, we're meant to interpret. He lost his temper. He crossed a line and he realized it. Perhaps we are even supposed to worry for him, knocked even farther out of himself by domestic frustration than he was by his murder plans: as much as he fantasized about killing Deager, all those weeks he was Paul Sothern, he never imagined harming his wife. Nonetheless, I watch that scene and think that it doesn't matter if your partner just lied to the police and entangled you in their alibi in such a way that you couldn't contradict them without incriminating yourself, if they followed up their cheating by berating you for spinelessness and stupidity, if their sudden reappearance in your life feels like some evil albatross you'll never escape, you still don't get to hit them. You just don't. It was a place where I could see suddenly how much some social norms have shifted since the '40's and I was glad of it.

5 Performable Epics | Tell Me a Story | Share | Link

Date: 2017-03-16 05:00
Subject: You are Bogart, he is George Raft, that leaves Cagney and me
Security: Public
Music:Kate Bush, "There Goes a Tenner"

1. Things I appreciate that modern technology allows me to do: at the end of an evening that included derspatchel spiking a scary fever, Hestia being dramatically ill under the bed, and me having to miss a film I had been looking forward to for weeks, cue up Josef von Sternberg's Underworld (1927) on YouTube and synch up the soundtrack by the Alloy Orchestra on iTunes and enjoy a silent movie I had not seen since 2008. I don't think I recognized then how much Clive Brook as Rolls Royce—at least once given a bath and a shave, though he's wonderfully unstarry in his scruffy phase—looks like a taller, thinner Richard Barthelmess. Part of it is the patent leather hair, but the neat cheekbones, the cleft chin, and the long, easily ironic eyebrows have something to do with it. They both have a trick of glancing watchfully upward; some of the same defensive shoulders, too. I can't tell if this speaks more to the types of leading men popular in the silent era or the possibility that I have developed a type after thinking for years I didn't have one. I've still never seen Brook in another role, despite his extensive filmography. I should give the one in the TCM buffer a try before it expires.

2. Speaking of gangsters, tonight I learned courtesy of a friend who is not on DW/LJ:

But there actually WAS a lesbian gangster in the 1950s in San Francisco, Eleanor (Tommy) Vasu. She dressed in men's clothing (gangster style), ran three lesbian bars, and was deep into rackets like parking lots, narcotics, and prostitution (she pimped her girlfriends out, as some butches did in those days). The Mob boys called her Tommy the Dyke. It's all true, I swear. That's Tommy below, on the far right.

This is the sort of thing that makes me happier to know. I mean, not that pimping out my girlfriends is a life goal, but you get the idea.

3. Speaking of marginalization, I understand that the credited sources for Ranald MacDougall's The World, the Flesh and the Devil (1959) are M. P. Shiel's The Purple Cloud (1901) and Ferdinand Reyher's "End of the World" (1951), but having just read Nisi Shawl on W.E.B. Du Bois' "The Comet" (1920), I am really left wondering if that story is in the film's DNA. I haven't read the Reyher, but I have read the Shiel and the film displays much less overlap with it than with the Du Bois, in both premise and theme. As I indicated while running my mouth off in Tor.com's comments, it's a really close likeness for a parallel evolution. Any opinions or leads would be appreciated.

Life is very difficult when it's five in the morning and you need to get to bed in time to wake up early and call a doctor and there is a small cat asleep on your lap in absolute boneless trust and the occasional purr.

14 Performable Epics | Tell Me a Story | Share | Link

Date: 2017-03-04 22:01
Subject: Whitebait and cockleshell washed up like a gift
Security: Public
Music:British Sea Power, "Victorian Ice"

I can't remember what I dreamed last night, but then I only slept two hours. I spent most of the afternoon on a major shopping run with derspatchel and fried myself a steak for dinner after he left for work. I have spent most of the evening staring vaguely at things, some on the internet, some off. The news remains outrageous, both in the sense of inspiring outrage and in the sense of WTF.

I wish I had managed to write down the previous night's dreams. I slept ten or eleven hours and distinctly remember waking enough to think that they would make a great seed for a story, but it was nine in the morning and bitterly cold (having had April in February, I see we are proceeding to have February in March) and I was pinned in place by two cats and instead I fell back asleep, actually overslept my alarm, and had a late-starting but very nice day with rushthatspeaks, Fox, a recipe for vadouvan-spiced vegetable fritters where we ended up making the vadouvan from scratch, and eventually gaudior. What's left of the dream is themes and images more than plot: a seaside tourist town in New England, off-season when the summer people have gone and the clam-shack-and-lobster-roll restaurant on the boardwalk has fastened down its storm windows for the winter; their chowder is at its best at this time of year, but nobody knows because the food writers don't come when there's ice glazing the beach and the sunset goes out very fast, like a flare behind the dunes before the stars come up out of the sea. I remember docks and lobster buoys and nets drying, children running past me—a scrabbly thumping on the weather-greyed planks like the cats bursting across the living room in the middle of the night—with their shirts off and sand on the bottoms of their bare feet even though there had been snow in the parking lot a week ago. I have the memory of great affection for a character with some supernatural importance in the town, but I can remember almost nothing of them except a kind of generous, rakish cynicism and very old shame, something they had promised and failed to do, something they had done and regretted, I didn't ask. I thought they were older than they looked, but I was getting the same idea about the town. It wasn't pulling a Brigadoon or an Innsmouth; the calendar year was the year I went to sleep in; almost everyone I met had a newer and smarter phone than me. But something about time was strange in it and it doesn't help that I have so few coherent memories of the place left, sliding around the edges where I want to say there was a fight or a performance, a whale watch or the rising of the Deep Ones, something important happening out on the water and I was not invited to it, I just saw who came back afterward. There was a community out on the wharves where the old commercial buildings had been broken up into residential spaces and small businesses and studios alongside fish markets and floating bars and it should have felt like death by gentrification, but I came to believe it was the oldest and best-preserved part of the town. I remember a stall hung with shells like a bottle tree, some of them far too tropical to have come out of the bay even in these days of global warming. There were flags of dried fishskin which clattered in the wind. We were talking a long walk around the curve of the harbor and I am worried that the subject of our conversations, which I cannot remember, was the substance of the plot.

I should make some kind of effort toward sleep. I have to get up just as early tomorrow: I am attending the Massachusetts Transgender Political Coalition's Rise Up! With Trans and Queer Students and the current forecast is bright, sunny, and below freezing all day. I may not be able to wear my genderqueer mer-person T-shirt after all. At the very least it might have to be under a sweater.

2 Performable Epics | Tell Me a Story | Share | Link

Date: 2017-02-28 07:27
Subject: Hypnotism is a bad thing in the hands of bad boys
Security: Public
Music:British Sea Power, "Something Wicked"

In which I attempt to make some dent in the backlog of unmentioned movies which accrues from being sick three out of the four weeks of an already short month. Not helped by the internet cutting out for a couple of hours tonight. RCN, we left Verizon for you. Don't make anybody regret it.

It should go without saying that when a film turns up on TCM with a circus setting and Ben Lyon in the cast, derspatchel and I need no further enticement to watch it, though in this case the one-line summary "A romantic triangle involving a hypnotist and two trapeze artists threatens to destroy a circus" was admittedly pretty attractive. I am pleased to report that it rewarded our benefit of the doubt: John Harlow's The Dark Tower (1943) is a neat little B-picture that gets an agreeable quotient of thrills and chills out of its modest budget and even managed to surprise both of us by the finale. Plus now I know that William Hartnell was shockingly beautiful when he was my age and I wasn't expecting that.

The film was a transatlantic co-production of the generation that followed quota quickies, produced by Warner Brothers at Teddington Studios with an American star and an otherwise British cast; theoretically adapted from the short-lived stage play of the same name by George S. Kaufman and Alexander Woollcott,1 it has pleasingly more in common with the pulp fiction of its time, tracking the seedy but not hopeless atmosphere of a traveling circus in tough straits and the unglamorous but not uninteresting lives of the performers going on around the edges of the plot. Brothers Phil (Lyon) and Tom (David Farrar) Danton are co-owners of Danton's Empire Circus, the former being the American-accented "guvnor" in charge of the practicalities while his more dashing younger brother works the high wire with longtime love interest Mary (Anne Crawford), but in wartime the crowds are thin and the takings thinner and the "feast of equine dexterity and acrobatic marvels" which opens the movie ends with Phil forced to admit to the company that the money's run out. He's taking a vote on whether they'd rather disband now and get it over with or soldier on to the next town when their fortunes are unexpectedly saved by the appearance of Stephen Torg (Herbert Lom), a penniless drifter whose dark eyes and deep, cold voice are the outward show of an extraordinary magnetism: he calms a fractious lion with nothing more than an unblinking gaze and a few masterful gestures. "What a good fellow is Pasha," he croons to the subdued big cat, before explaining coolly to his human audience, "It's very simple. I make them obey my eyes—I make them like my voice—and then they do what I want them to do." The suggestion that he hire the stranger as the new lion trainer gives Phil a brainwave. Could Torg repeat the same trick with a person rather than an animal—Mary, perhaps? Under hypnotic control, might she be serene and sure enough to perform a high-wire act without any of the customary props used for balance? If Mary's willing, of course. Mary is indeed willing, even a little intrigued by this shabby, saturnine young man whose reticence about his origins does not conceal his arrogance about his skills. The test run is encouraging. The act is a smash success. With the spellbinding assistance of the now-"Dr." Torg, Mary can perform the most death-defying of stunts without tremble or hesitation, the kind of nail-biting that really packs an audience in. Once word gets out, it's all the way to the Winter Palace with Danton's Empire Circus: except that Torg is rapidly alienating his new family with his work-shirking, his fancy spending, and his bruising disdain for every other act under the tent, and while everyone from the abrasive sharpshooter to the enthusiastic publicist can see for themselves that Mary and Torg are spending more and more time together, it's increasingly and upsettingly unclear if it's love or mesmerism. The night that Tom falls during a trapeze act with Mary and avoids death only by a narrow margin of broken bones, it's impossible for Phil to escape the conclusion that Torg had something to do with it, but he can't see or prove how. He can't even get rid of the man without endangering the entire circus—the hypnotist is a bigger attraction now than the trick riders, the ice skaters, the low-wire clown. "I'll go," Torg promises darkly, after Phil's misgivings boil over into a physical altercation at the center of the after-hours ring, "but in my own time." And when he leaves the big top, obediently, Mary follows.

The opening titles contain the marvelous credit "Circus staged by Reco Brothers" and while I can't find much about this circus online beyond some mentions in Billboard, it is their participation which lends The Dark Tower its part-documentary feel, as the majority of the action takes place under the big top—performances and rehearsals—or in the ring of wagons where we observe the circus folk out of the spotlight, mending costumes, doing dishes, chatting with their neighbors, being entertained and slightly weirded out by the waxwork novelty their publicist brought home. When we watch the circus on the move or the big top being raised, I'm pretty sure it's just footage of Reco Brothers on the road for the season. The acts are good, too. There are precision cyclists, a standing bareback rider. The trio of ice skaters are astonishing: on a square of ice that can't be more than ten feet by ten, they perform high-speed, multiple-person spins, lifts, and spirals, a dizzying testament to the power of centripetal force. The best as far as I was concerned was the low-wire burlesque of Mary's act performed by Reco himself, a bald-pated tramp clown with a genius for entangling himself in the very tightrope he's trying to walk. He wears a mime's white gloves right up until the point where he steps on them while holding a pose more normally assumed by pretzels. I respect beyond words the degree of balance and grace it takes to wobble and flail that wildly while never actually falling. At the finale, of course, he looks the whole six feet down and panics and topples, Coyote over cartoon air. This ordinary realism is part of what keeps the story grounded even after it shifts gears into a kind of mystery-horror. It helps, too, that the stakes are never higher than the survival of the circus and Mary's health and happiness—which is plenty high for an invested viewer—and that Torg at his worst is never megalomaniacal or diabolical, just ambitious, frustrated, and unethical. At times he resembles a devil's bargain, appearing from nowhere with an offer too good to refuse, but despite his accent he's no Svengali.2 He was a bullied boy who came from nothing; now he's a man who has to have the best of everything if only so that he can rub it in other people's faces, whether that means a swanky car in a community that lives out of caravans, a girl whom everyone knew was in love with another man, or a controlling interest in a circus he despises. "It's a great thing, power. It makes you feel a king, especially if all your life you've been made to feel a beggar." Just once, he looks as young as he really is and not so sure of himself, confessing his love to Mary, but as soon as she gently rebuffs him, his face cools again. Anyone who knows Lom only as Peter Sellers' increasingly unhinged boss in the Pink Panther movies should check out Jules Dassin's Night and the City (1950) and Alexander Mackendrick's The Ladykillers (1956), but they should see him in this movie, too. It was his fourth English-language role and the star-making one.

And the rest of the cast look like they're having fun. Despite his top billing, Lyon is more of a high-profile supporting part than a lead in his next-to-last screen role (he didn't die, he just moved into radio), but at this point I'd enjoy him if he read me a want ad for soap flakes and the important thing is that he convinces as the kind of circus director who's sharp and generous enough to have earned the trust of his company even when no one's getting paid, but just slightly too much of a nice guy to believe that things are going to get as bad as they've gotten already; Josephine Wilson has to supply the cynicism he lacks as the tart-spoken, chain-smoking sharpshooter with a soft spot for her "guvnor" and no love for the mysterious Stephen Torg. I had good memories of Crawford as the snobbish but not stupid factory girl striking sparks with Eric Portman's working-class foreman in Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder's Millions Like Us (1943) and she certainly couldn't be replaced by a blender here, but she suffers from the usual problem with spending half a movie in a hypnotic state—Mary is most interesting in the early scenes when she's fully herself, her eagerness to run the experiment of the "Slide for Life" suggesting both a scientific curiosity in and an erotic response to Torg's powers. With his thick dark hair and his long jawline, Farrar makes a rugged, credibly acrobatic romantic lead in the first half of the film, then puts his physical weakness to bitterly sensitive use in the second half as his body knits itself back together while his heart takes its time; it is not the actor's fault that I don't find him at his most beautiful here, having been introduced to him at a pitch of outrageous sexiness in Powell and Pressburger's Black Narcissus (1947). Besides, I'm still trying to figure out how Hartnell—still credited here as "Bill"—got typed as cops and sergeants and other hard men when he's adorable as Jimmy Powers, the floppy-haired publicist with an excitable stammer that doesn't stop him talking a mile a minute when he wants to pitch an idea. He has one of those high-boned, clean-lined faces with very dark, very soft eyelashes and brows to match, a quick-cornered smile and sleek fair hair that keeps coming out of its brilliantine while he runs around the fairground like an eager art student in his pullovers and flat cap. I couldn't tell if it was saying something about his sexuality or just accurately reflecting carny talk in the wild, but he provides one of the few examples I've heard of pre-Round the Horne Polari when he calls a blustering but ineffectual ringmaster "a pompous pot-bellied palone." He has some plot significance, but his stammer doesn't.

I'm a little sorry there isn't a pulp novel of this film, really, because then Hard Case Crime could reprint it and I could shelve it next to Gypsy Rose Lee's The G-String Murders (1941). Also then maybe Warners would bring it out on DVD and I would not have to refer you to the questionable internet if you want to watch it between its periodic appearances on TCM. I never know why most of these movies are obscure. Director Harlow was unknown to me, but cinematographer Otto Heller would go on to do distinctive work on films as diverse as Thorold Dickinson's The Queen of Spades (1949), Michael Powell's Peeping Tom (1960), and Sidney J. Furie's The Ipcress File (1965),3 and the editor was just some guy named Terence Fisher. The title is absolutely meaningless to the finished film. Now I want to rewatch Millions Like Us and see if I can track down more films from William Hartnell's adorable period. This feat brought to you by my mesmerizing backers at Patreon.

1. As far as I can tell, the film retains only the title, the sense of romantic threat, and the key concept of an artist performing in an altered state of mind. What interests me most about this setup is that Warner Bros. had already filmed a more faithful adaptation in the U.S., about a year after the play's 57-performance Broadway run, under the title The Man with Two Faces (1934). It starred Edward G. Robinson and Mary Astor and I will almost certainly try to check it out sometime just for the cast and the comparison. I would love to know why the studio chose to sort-of-not-really remake it almost a decade later.

2. Herbert Lom was born Herbert Charles Angelo Kuchačevič ze Schluderpacheru in Prague in the next-to-last year that city could be located in Austria-Hungary and I actually like that while his accent suggests not one of us, the script itself makes no effort to mark him out as foreign, any more than it attempts to explain why one of the Danton brothers has a British accent and the other is American as the day is long, in slang as well as sound: "All the time you thought she was high-hatting you. That wasn't Mary—that was a dummy and Torg was her vent!"

3. I am retrospectively impressed with myself for recognizing some likeness between the latter two films in 2010, although it did not apparently then occur to me to check whether they shared any crew.

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Date: 2017-02-12 00:59
Subject: Everyone has a secret. It's not always written in the face
Security: Public
Music:ONSIND, "'I Could Carve a Better Man Out of a Banana'"

I finally managed to watch a movie for the first time in weeks. (It's been a bad few weeks.) I am coming to the conclusion that I really like the films of Joseph Losey. For some reason I had gotten the picture of him as an icy stylist—clever, symmetrical, but cold. I could almost see it with The Damned (1963), a deliberately off-kilter mash-up of biker pulp and pre-apocalyptic science fiction, but The Prowler (1951) isn't cold and neither is Time Without Pity (1957), which I watched last night. If anything, attempting to describe it to derspatchel, I kept coming back to the adjective hysterical, which is not the first state associated with most cinematic explorations of masculinity. But it suits the film. The plot is conventional; the transforms Losey runs on it are not.

To begin with, as if in a British B-noir Columbo, the audience witnesses the murder. We don't yet know who these people are in the darkened flat with modern art on the walls, but when the girl jolts back over the couch and her head rolls like a broken doll, we get a good look at the middle-aged man crouching over her, the fury that thickened his face slackening into panicky horror. He blunders out of the room and the titles come up over the nearest painting, a sort of Guernica-looking thing of a wild bull at bay. When we see him again, we'll recognize him. But when David Graham (Michael Redgrave) lurches into London clutching a suitcase and blinking in the early morning sun, jet-lagged, red-eyed, and newly sprung from the Montreal sanitarium where he was drying out from his latest fall off the wagon, he doesn't know who he's looking for: he just knows that his son Alec (Alec McCowen, R.I.P.) can't have committed the domestic murder for which he'll hang in twenty-four hours unless David can scrounge new evidence out of a case that opened and shut months ago. Redgrave got my attention some years ago with his almost subliminal acting in The Browning Version (1951) and here he shows the same naturalistic care for a difficult character. The parental fuck-up making a heroic effort for the life of their child is a pattern I've seen enough times now that I gather it's a popular anxiety,1 but David is an especially unprepossessing variation, a tall man in a trenchcoat and a suit that was cut when there was substantially more of him, his hair smeared stickily back from his face which looks shapeless under its flop sweat and five o'clock shadow. He blinks a lot, winces, wipes his hands over his face in a gesture that is half shame and half unabashed hiding. He is not stupid and he loves his son, even if his early promise as a novelist melted at the bottom of a glass and his very real affection for the boy snarled in the guilt-games of a messy divorce. But his social instincts misfire so reliably that the audience watches each interaction to see not whether he's going to screw it up, but how badly. He's pushy where he should be patient, hesitant where he should assert himself. He has trouble with the telephone, which is such a contemporary social anxiety that I was fascinated to see it captured on film in 1957. He has his greatest success as an amateur detective when he just keeps his mouth shut and lets people tell him the things they assume he already knows. As a result, the premise is a classic race against time, but the events of the narrative are a lot of stone walls and blind alleys; combined with the open secret of the murderer's identity, the effect on the audience is much more the don't-go-near-the-castle frustration of horror than the unfolding suspense of a procedural. The doctor tsk-tsks over the strange red marks on the throat of his fainting patient and the audience screams IT'S A VAMPIRE YOU DUMBASS, but the doctor doesn't know that he should be looking for supernatural explanations instead of medical ones and David doesn't know that he's asking the wrong questions. He doesn't know what kind of story he's in.

I'm not entirely sure myself. Five or ten years ago this scenario would have been unambiguously noir and it still could be, at the dissolving outer edge of the cycle that produced experiments like the sexual reversal of The Big Combo (1955) or the slapstick splatter of The Killing (1956). Screenwriter Ben Barzman had collaborated with Losey on the anti-war fantasy The Boy with the Green Hair (1948) before their respective blacklistings from Hollywood; working from Emlyn Williams' 1953 stage play Someone Waiting, he retained the basic constellation of characters but radically rewrote everything from the timeline to the mood. The glassy sense of nightmare agrees with film noir, as does some of the visual/verbal stylization; one of the reasons the tone can scale so successfully into melodrama without collapsing into camp is that it starts at least one high-strung degree out from realism,2 the cinematography and the often intrusive music as anxious and awkward as day-late-dollar-short David, who's still trying just to catch up on the facts of the case as he prepares to see his son for the first time in years. It has the moral ambiguity and the social critique. But so do many other genres that aren't noir and those are the ones that Time Without Pity, though I'm still working to pinpoint why, might belong more to. It's not as symbolic a universe, perhaps. In Roy William Neill's Black Angel (1946), it's a significant moment both personally and narratively when dry drunk Dan Duryea goes on his third-act bender; it signals the end of his ghost marriage with grass widow June Vincent, the resumption of the wastrel downward slide that will solve the mystery of his wife's death and her husband's guilt or innocence. Redgrave's David struggles to stay sober for the first half of Time Without Pity, but when he finally goes for the booze, the film is unemphatic about it. By this point he is being warily assisted in his quest by Honor Stanford (Ann Todd, playing about fifteen years younger than her age), the elegant, guarded mother of Alec's best friend from university; she briefly loses track of him after an upsetting interview and by the time she catches up to him in the nearest pub he's on his nth whisky double and already pretty blind. She tries to persuade him to stop drinking. He downs another and faceplants into the bar. A little while later he wakes up. And more or less sobers up. And he'll spend the rest of the film in sliding states of drunkenness, hangover, and strung-out sobriety, but he's been a functioning alcoholic for years, he can operate like this. It isn't the thing that will make or break his ability to clear his son's name. If there's redemption involved in this tale, that's not the key to it.

The social justice angle could be noir, too, though the decade that produced it had no shortage of message pictures. Much is made of the efficient machinery of the English justice system which has effectively railroaded Alec Graham without anyone involved in the process feeling very strongly about it one way or the other. Once I got over the shock of seeing Peter Cushing in a non-genre supporting role, I conceded that he provides a necessary perspective as Alec's lawyer, a polite, intelligent, colorless man who did the best he could for his client within the boundaries of the law but is now reluctant, his sympathy for both father and son notwithstanding, to push much further. He isn't heartless and he isn't a hypocrite. He just did his due diligence and he doesn't see what more there is for him to do. Neither does the Home Office, even after David pulls every string he can imagine to get an audience in hopes of obtaining a stay of execution; the support he gets from a reform-minded MP is superficial and strictly ideological, holding up Alec's case as a potential miscarriage of justice with no individual concern for the boy's guilt, innocence, or survival. Even the priest who will perform the last rites for the condemned turns his father away with some Teflon platitude about heavenly hands being kinder than the hands of earth. "All of you trying to make it look so humane and decent," David rages. "Well, you can't. I want my son to live. I'm not going to let you kill him!"

What was he to you? Someone to weep over when you were drunk?Collapse )

The ending is satisfying. I hadn't been sure it would be; the film is just enough of a noir and David's agency so marginal that it could have gone completely bleak and I wouldn't have been able to dispute it, just dislike. Instead the climactic confrontation comes down to the manipulation of narrative, a strategy any writer can approve of: the man who was always "about to write" his great novel has finally found a story worth telling and a means to make it stick. The final tableau is fantastic, deep-focus as a raked stage. The last line is the right one. I still don't think Time Without Pity is as complex a film as The Prowler or as flat-out weird as The Damned, but it was Losey's first British film under his own name and more than just a placeholder on the way to his work with Harold Pinter. If nothing else, it's got Michael Redgrave. He's sympathetic on the strength of little more than good intentions; he's less fragile than he looks, but that's not the same thing as effective. Especially in light of these last few bad weeks, I find it important that he never does turn into an action hero—at his bravest, he can still be rattled, still have to nerve himself up, still hates the telephone. This eleventh hour brought to you by my tenacious backers at Patreon.

1. Though I've seen it four or five times now with fathers and I'd really like to know where their female counterparts hang out. Pre-Code? Indie filmmaking? Foreign films? I'm taking suggestions.

2. I love the way clocks are used in this movie. They are the obvious symbol of devouring time, so the set design puts them so blatantly everywhere that they become surreal and start to get on the audience's nerves as much as they do the protagonist's. An important witness' mother (Renée Houston, a perfectly pitched grotesque) has filled her parlor with them. The aggressive, oppressive ticking unsettles David, already on edge with the nearness of the liquor she keeps offering him and liberally drinking herself; whenever an alarm goes off, she leaves it "just to hear it ring and know that you don't have to go anywhere—it's wonderful" while David tries and fails not to hear Alec's time running out with each new chime. He can't get away from mirrors, either. He's the last thing he wants to look at or think about—his past failures, his dwindling future, the fatalistic way that Alec, as sensitive as his father and already more bitter, claims to welcome his own hanging as an escape from "turn[ing] into something like you." He sees his own face reflected over his child's and would do anything to take that doom away.

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Date: 2017-02-04 06:35
Subject: Somewhere in this blood there's a seed
Security: Public
Music:Foolish Ida, "these arms are mermaids"

I have not slept; I do not have time to sleep before the Somerville sanctuary city rally. It has not been a good night for it. In the meantime—

1. [personal profile] skygiants sent me an archive of songs collected from Holocaust survivors. It's amazing stuff. You might expect the songs of resistance, grief, and Zionism, but I think it is very important to everyone's understanding of Jewish history that I just finished listening to a fragmentary parody of "Tumbalalaika" in which the boy gleefully answers the riddling girl that the German army is melting like clouds in the rain, the Germans are lying deeper in the earth than a well, and Hitler is spitting up gall with the Red Army coming to finish him off. I am also really fond of the song of the Warsaw thieves. It's half a minute long and very catchy and has a line about shaking down suckers on streetcars. I wish I'd written the song about the other world as the backstage of a theater, Jacob the director, Adam the costumer, Eve doing a snake act. "I think of these songs as voices from a lost world, like Atlantis." Then I found that another, similar archive—thought lost—had been recovered last year. My night has been very full of ghost voices in Yiddish, cut with One Night Stand in North Dakota thanks to a tip-off from ladymondegreen, because sometimes that happens to a person.

2. I did not manage to get any pictures from Thursday's vigil in support of Black Lives Matter at First Baptist Church in Jamaica Plain first because my camera went all smeary in the after-sunset light and then because I was using both hands to hold a sign which read "You Don't Have to Be Black to Be Outraged!", but there were at least three people with professional-looking cameras in the streets photographing the estimated 500 participants in the silent vigil, so there is a half-decent chance that gaudior and Fox or I will turn up on someone's Flickr account. People held candles in the night wind; people held signs. Some (like Fox's cardboard medallion reading simply "Black Lives Matter") were brought by participants and others (like mine) provided by the church. There were so many people on either side of Centre Street that we were recruited from a double line on the church side of the street and sent off to the corner of Green Street, where drivers waiting for the lights to change would see our presence. Three students passed a microphone to read a list of names like Freddie Gray and Michael Brown, memorial and synecdoche for all the dead of anti-Black violence; the silence of the vigil was for them. The vigil leaders sang "Ain't Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around" to call us back to the church afterward. Speaker Martin Henson minced no words about the fact that it is a great start to hold a sign and feel like part of a community, but what you do after you put the sign down is really essential. It is a monthly vigil; I plan to return next month. If Trump is gone by the second of March, that will be glorious and I'll make the "unpresidented" joke even if all the newspapers go with "You're fired!", but I expect that black lives will still mattter and I will still want to say so. And next time I'll remember to bring glove liners—in the twenty minutes of the vigil proper, my fingers in their rabbit-lined gloves went past normal Raynaud's-in-winter hurting into numb to the point that I had trouble keeping hold of my sign. Naturally, afterward, we got ice cream from the FōMū on the next block because despite their pretentious macrons, they make some of the best coconut ice cream I have ever eaten and it is winter in New England.

3. Mostly reproduced from comments in Skygiants' journal because I completely failed to write about Anya Seton's Foxfire (1950) when I picked it up last winter in the basement of the Harvard Book Store despite really liking it:

I treasure Foxfire for being a Western mystery-romance between a white woman and a Native* man where their difficulties as a couple have nothing to do with a clash of cultures. Amanda Lawrence is twenty years old in the winter of 1932 when she meets Jonathan "Dart" Dartland on the steamer they're both taking from Cherbourg to New York; she's a well-bred Vassar ex-student returning from what would have been a school vacation if she had the money to finish her degree (the crash of '29 having taken out her family's fortunes, if not their social expectations for her), he's a mining engineer seven years old than herself on his way from one job in the Transvaal to another in Arizona, by New Year's Day of 1933 they are married on little more than the strength of their astonishing sexual chemistry and move immediately to Lodestone, the hardscrabble company town where he's engaged as foreman at the Shamrock Mine. To the reader's total unsurprise, it goes terribly. Amanda has no friends in Lodestone, no place beyond being Dart's wife, no experience of living in clapboard shack levels of poverty in a community where she has no obvious allies, and while she's willing to try her best to adapt, Dart appears to give her no praise or encouragement for it. It's not indifference or insensitivity on his part, but it is a particular kind of self-centeredness: he's so used to fending for himself that it doesn't occur to him that other people—like his previously class-sheltered, physically petite, actually rather shy wife—don't have the same resources or practice and he doesn't recognize that the same behavior which he believes is demonstrating an absolute trust in her self-reliance and capacity to handle whatever crises or inconveniences are thrown her way is in point of fact indistinguishable from totally fucking hanging her out to dry. This is not an insoluble relationship problem! But it is the kind that requires some dedicated talking to resolve and between Amanda having no idea how to initiate the conversation and Dart being terrified of revealing emotional vulnerability (patriarchal bullshit ahoy), their relationship continues to spin out until there are mistaken beliefs on both sides and people saying things they either don't mean or don't understand mean different things to the person hearing them and everybody haring off on a damn-fool hunt for legendary Anasazi gold in the Mazatzal Mountains which Dart and Amanda and the reader all know is likely to get them killed, but by then there are too many complicating factors like money and pride and jealousy and cutting off one's nose to spite one's face tangled into the argument for either of them to back down. That Seton pulls a plausible happy ending out of all of this plus a subplot concerning Dart's position with the mining company explains to me absolutely why she has the reputation she does as a historical novelist. Also I read Dragonwyck (1944) shortly afterward and that book is gonzo.

What I like about Foxfire, in addition to the obvious points like style, characterization, and the ability to contain both legendary Anasazi gold and realistic marital problems, is that it's very careful to represent Dart's stoic macho bullshit behavior as a problem he's having because of his particular issues intersecting with good old American patriarchy, not because Apache men are all naturally stoic and macho and this is a Tragic Cultural Divide, even when other (white) characters try to frame it this way. Seton is amazingly good about not exoticizing Dart or his mother. Any time a (white) character tries, Amanda included, the narrative shoots them down. Dart being mixed-race is not irrelevant to the novel, but it is relevant mostly in terms of the decisions he makes because of his image of himself and as a factor in the very kindly meant, but actually very racist attempts at support on the part of Amanda's family. The scenes on the reservation are a serious attempt by Seton to write about Native characters without falling off either side of the stereotype fence; for writing in 1950, being white, and never having lived in the Southwest, I think she does not do a terrible job. I also enjoy that the narrative takes a character who is usually a favorite archetype of mine and deliberately implodes him. Hugh Slater is the doctor in Lodestone, sandy-haired, sawed-off, and sarcastic, and after he's been a jerk to Amanda for almost his entire brief introductory scene she laughs at him: "I've read you in a hundred stories; the surly woman-hater, the embittered doctor, drowning his troubles in bad temper and drink. Underneath there beats a heart of gold." Later he drops by with a grudging gift for her, lampshading his own change of heart: "Peace offering . . . Embittered doctor demonstrates heart of gold." The thing is, he doesn't have one, really. He's actually just kind of a jerk. He's sympathetically drawn in that he's an intelligent, complicated, and unhappy character who can recognize if not change some of his own self-destructive behavior, but Seton cuts him no slack for his obsession with his actress ex-wife, his abusive treatment of his current girlfriend, or the misogyny which colors his interactions with Dart and Amanda even when he's trying to be nice. The reader, primed by the same literary familiarity as Amanda, keeps waiting for him to redeem himself. The reader is going to be waiting a long time.

I have not seen the 1955 film version, which stars Jane Russell and Jeff Chandler. As far as I can tell from reviews, it strips a lot of the weirdness out of the plot and reorients the central conflict into an actual cultural issue with Dart's respecting women and therefore despite the co-starring presence of Dan Duryea (as Hugh, naturally; Duryea could do attractive and corrosive with one hand tied behind his back) is not a movie I ever plan to watch. I am sorry, but mostly because of Duryea and because the novel's dedicated efforts toward not being full of racist stereotypes deserved the same consideration in a film treatment. Yeah, okay, I have trouble typing that with a straight face, but it would have been nice. Dart and Amanda are interesting, credible, not simple people. I liked them both. I cared that they solved their problems. This is unusual enough in my experience of traditional romances that I feel the book should get a shout-out on these grounds alone.

* His father was white; his mother is Apache. Strictly speaking she's also mixed-race, but she ignores it completely and passes for full-blood as far as the BIA is concerned. I respect her for actively dodging the tragic mulatto stereotype which her son sometimes seems determined to inflict on himself. There is a meaningful but also delightful—and deliberate—sequence where the hero and heroine visit the reservation he grew up on and his relatives and neighbors, while somber about the fact that he's there to see his dying mother, are uniformly talkative, cheerful, and welcoming toward his new wife. Anya Seton has seen the noble savage stereotype and is not interested.

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Date: 2016-12-28 07:44
Subject: Drink when you can in this job, that's my motto
Security: Public
Music:The Pogues, "Lorelei"

The Spy in Black (U.S. U-Boat 29, 1939) played on TCM recently, so I got to show it to derspatchel last night. It is the first collaboration of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, working as director and screenwriter respectively under the auspices of Alexander Korda; it was as good as I had remembered from five years ago; it is still not on DVD, which feels particularly inexcusable and bewildering since it appears on TCM courtesy of Criterion, who evidently can't be bothered to get off their tacks and give it a proper release rather than just streaming. I wrote briefly about it in 2011, by way of introduction to Powell and Pressburger's equally weird and worthy follow-up Contraband (U.S. Blackout, 1940):

Veidt and Hobson had starred together the previous year in The Spy in Black (1939), the film on which Powell and Pressburger met; it was a neat little World War I espionage flick, with Veidt as a U-boat captain come ashore in the Orkneys to lead a raid on Scapa Flow and Hobson as his apparent contact, a cool schoolmistress with more layers than he's prepared for, maddeningly attractive to him because of her ice-nerve professionalism, not in spite of it. Their chemistry is terrific; it's almost not possible to believe the sudden revelation that she's the wife of the supposedly disgraced and turncoat naval officer who's been feeding Veidt information about the disposition of the British fleet and that she was dragooned at the last minute into her role of double agent, because she seems so much more in her element with a small pistol in her hand and nothing to be read in her eyes at all.

Having spent most of my attention on Conrad Veidt and Valerie Hobson the first time around, this time I could spare some appreciation for second-billed Sebastian Shaw, who appears first to the audience and Veidt's Captain Hardt as the dissolute, disloyal Lieutenant Ashington, recently busted down from commander for losing his destroyer in a moment of drunken carelessness and resentful enough of it to offer aid and comfort to the enemy so long as they offer him plenty of liquor and Hobson's Fräulein Tiel in return. In later life Shaw apparently looked back on his pre-war acting as "rotten" and described himself dismissively as "a piece of cinema beefcake" who didn't start learning his trade instead of relying on his pretty face until after his stint in the RAF, but I hope he made an exception for Ashington. He is good-looking, but his rounded bones look insipid next to Veidt's intense, iconic angles and in any case the man's insolent, petulant manner ensures that the audience catches any unpleasant aspect of his features first: the thinness of his mouth that stretches a sneer more easily than any other expression, the wide curve of his cheek suggesting softness without youth; his fine dark lashes give his eyes a dreamy look that is belied instantly by the sarcastic pinch of his brows and the dissipated creases under his eyes. He isn't a mess, but he's sloppy—uniform jacket unbuttoned, dark hair a little tousled, always a glass in his hand. He smokes while his contacts silently refrain; when Hardt won't take a drink with him, he makes a point of knocking back the extra ration himself. He has a good voice, crisp, a little dry, but when he's not drawling his lines with deliberate hostility, he rattles them nervily out. Put him in another film and he might be the fuck-up with charisma, but the audience of The Spy in Black is not directed to find him charming: we have already been impressed with serious, seasoned Hardt and his dedication to a job he would rather not have been detailed for—he is a career navy man who follows his orders from Berlin with punctual invention but wears his captain's uniform whenever possible so that "if [he's] shot, it will be as an officer, not a spy"—and nothing about faithless Ashington inspires any competing affection, especially not his passive-aggressive attitude toward his beautiful handler, who may have bought his cooperation with her body but doesn't bother to pretend she's enjoying it. The best he might get from the viewer is a wince of sympathy when Hardt ditches him in the blowing sea-fog by the Old Man of Hoy to rendezvous with his crew aboard U-29 while Ashington with no coat on swears and shivers and paces and drinks and complains to Tiel as soon as they get back: "Damn fellow left me sitting in the heather!" (Hardt responds, grinning, "It's not our custom to entertain British naval officers during the war, however useful they may have been.") In his delicately sketched combination of weakness and cynicism, he reminds me oddly and strikingly of Denholm Elliott, who was sixteen at the time of filming and wouldn't essay these kinds of characters for another twenty-five years.

That was the worst ten minutes I've ever spent.Collapse ) I would not be surprised if at that point in his career Shaw had figured out how to play weakness but not yet strength—and the script didn't give him a saving assist. I still wouldn't call it rotten acting when two-thirds of it works for me, but I find the failure point fascinating.

In any case, while I know where to look for more Valerie Hobson and more Conrad Veidt, I will have to research what else Sebastian Shaw did on film or TV that might interest me. As far as I can tell, I have seen him otherwise only in Return of the Jedi (1983), at least before George Lucas went back and mostly swapped in Hayden Christiansen. Everything comes back to Star Wars eventually. There is at least one rip of The Spy in Black available on YouTube and others may lurk elsewhere on the internet. I do recommend chasing it with Contraband if you can. This thumbnail brought to you by my loyal backers at Patreon.

4 Performable Epics | Tell Me a Story | Share | Link

Date: 2016-12-21 02:11
Subject: Believe me, someday you're going to be glad you're rid of me
Security: Public
Music:Bastille, "Bloody Shirt (To Kill a King)"

Half an hour from the end of last night's movie, as the protagonist returned uneasily to the partly derelict lake house where she had once served as nurse to the fretful, jealous, invalid wife of the Canadian industrialist who was now her much older husband, I finally diagnosed the problem with Curtis Bernhardt's Possessed (1947). If you guessed from the previous sentence that this film's rightful genre is the Gothic, you would be correct. And if you suspect that no genre was ever improved less by the addition of state-of-the-art late-Forties psychobabble, then you know more than the screenwriters.

My feelings toward Possessed are more sorrow than anger. It could so easily have worked. The plot takes two classic Gothic tropes—the Byronic demon lover and the uncertain marriage, complete with haunted homes and a husband who may or may not be concealing a dreadful secret—and interweaves them into a racheting nightmare into which the sanity of Joan Crawford's Louise Howell progressively dissolves, quite realistically when it's not being explained in outmoded Freudian terms by the paternal, infallible psychiatrist interrogating a dissociative Louise in the Los Angeles psych ward of the frame story. The cinematography and often the action has the translucent, dreamlike quality of much film noir, with the mise-en-scène doubling for the protagonist's mental state, but it's wilder, lusher, more capital-R Romantic than the high-contrast expressionism of noir. I have yet to see Crawford in a role where I find her as interesting as some other actresses of her era, but I have enjoyed her acting in movies such as Jean Negulesco's Humoresque (1946) and David Miller's Sudden Fear (1952) even when I felt the writing let her characters down1 and she is wholly committed here, playing both madness at a high theatrical register and realistic disordered thinking with no more dramatic tells than sentences that don't seem quite congruent with the situation and a thousand-yard stare that returns whenever she doesn't have anything to distract her. Raymond Massey is cleverly cast as Dean Graham, Louise's wealthy employer who's barely closed the inquest on decades of grim marital fidelity before he's proposing out of nowhere to his late wife's beautiful but penniless and insecure caretaker: on the one hand he's touching and softer than usual as the older widower regarding his romantic chances with more than a little self-deprecation ("It isn't very easy for a man my age to kiss a woman with dignity—I'll need practice"), but on the other the audience will recognize him as Citizen Chauvelin and Black Michael and Jonathan Brewster and while you want him to be genuine, with that saturnine, cadaverous look you can never be quite sure. His daughter Carol (Geraldine Brooks in her screen debut) insinuates coldly that Louise's presence in the house is replacing not only mother but daughter. Was his wife's drowning death a suicide? With Raymond Massey, your options are basically Abe Lincoln or villain. Meanwhile Van Heflin is sly, sour, and loiteringly sexy as David Sutton, the womanizing engineer whose casual dismissal of Louise after sharing the first intense affair of her life knocks her into a decaying emotional orbit. "I've never had anything in the whole world I ever wanted, except you . . . I just can't go back to being on the outside of people's lives looking in," she protests, to which he gives a world-weary sigh: "Louise, we're all on the outside of other people's lives looking in. You wouldn't like being on the inside of my life, anyway—there's nothing there but a few mathematical equations and a lot of question marks. Darling, I honestly think we'd better not see each other for a while." A rake like they made them in Hogarth's day, he switches seamlessly from his fragile ex-lover to her college-aged stepdaughter, drinking steadily all the while; the more time the audience spends with him, the more his cynical charm is revealed as corrosion, his caustic wit as actual hostility. Technically he gets most of the script's best lines, but after a while they lose their playfulness and begin to sound like red flags: "My liver rushes in where angels fear to tread . . . Her money is an obstacle—so I intend spending it just as rapidly as possible . . . I seldom hit a woman, but if you don't leave me alone, I'll start kicking babies." Either man could furnish a Gothic narrative on his own, but merging their plotlines is what really sends Louise off the rails, as the anguish of not being "lovable" enough to make David stay finds its explanation in the conviction that she must have done something monstrous to forfeit his affections, something unforgivable, like murdering a lonely man's wife in order to take her place and make the man of her dreams jealous enough to come back to her as he swore he never would . . .

And then the psychobabble rolls back in. Possessed works hard to build a sumptuous, seasick mood of unreliable perception and unstable memory, in which Louise can hear the voice of the first Mrs. Graham calling to her from the electronic blare of an intercom or the cold, black, lapping waters of the lake and the audience shouldn't be able to guess which version of Carol coming upstairs after an evening at the opera is the real one until they're both done speaking, but every time we cut back to the white-clad hospital staff saying things like "Typical schizoid detachment" and "Do you notice the beginning of the persecution complex?" the whole thing just folds up and falls over like a broken deck chair. It even has the five-minute psychiatric monologue to wrap up all loose ends at the finale. I can't explain it. You want a Gothic, then you let people have their brooding and their tortured gestures and their psychotropic weather. You don't slap labels on the melodrama. It makes the characters look silly; it makes the film look like it doesn't trust itself. Constantly yanking the audience out of Louise's perspective into the critical, clinical reductions of her (badly dated) diagnosis breaks not only our immersion in the story but our identification with Louise, especially when the effect of these analyses is to diminish her further from an individual heroine to a type specimen, a "beautiful woman—intelligent, frustrated . . . It's always the same. A problem of some kind—simple, perhaps, but she was unable to cope with it. And now this," where this is near-catatonia from which only drugs and men's insistent voices can rouse her to tell her tale. I can imagine a movie which played with this effect deliberately: the protagonist envisions her life at a Gothic pitch of romance and suspense, the reality is that she's just ordinarily, mundanely overreacting and reading too much into things. I don't think the script for Possessed is that clever. I don't believe it's trying to anticipate The Snake Pit (1948), either: the music which accompanies the wrap-up monologue is too heroic. When Stanley Ridges' Dr. Willard delivers the sententious verdict that "this civilization of ours is a worse disease than heart trouble or tuberculosis," we are almost certainly expected to agree. I'm not saying the filmmakers did wrong in making a modern Gothic, but I couldn't help noticing that the plot could have withstood a period treatment with almost no alterations—Dean might have needed to make his money in steel or railways instead of oil, but David's ambition to build a bridge with a particular parabola is timeless and Louise's successive jobs as nurse and governess to the Graham family are almost retrograde in the film's contemporary, postwar setting. Her fear of being institutionalized by her husband would have translated naturally to the age of Bedlam and we might then have been spared the weirdly Christian and frankly horrifying characterization of psychiatric treatment presented by Dr. Willard to a worried Dean: "It was pain that made her this way. Only through greater pain and suffering beyond belief can she get well again." I don't care who the filmmakers consulted with, my grandfather got his PhD in psychology in 1947 and he never once tried to persuade me that getting mentally healthier had to be literal hell or it wouldn't work. Remind me to avoid your therapists like the plague, Los Angeles County Hospital.2

Maybe my feelings toward this movie are more anger after all. Everyone's behavior in Possessed is psychologically plausible, but you wouldn't know from the way the supposed experts discuss it. It makes a great framework for a woman to suffer within, but I maintain the protagonist was doing just fine on that front without professional help. So as with many badly flawed works of art, I end up treasuring fragments of this movie more than the movie itself. The way Van Heflin looks like a hot librarian in the nerd-heavy horn-rims that David wears at his drafting table; the way he gets one genuine moment of shock and empathy in his last confrontation with Louise and otherwise leaves the picture as he entered it, an A-1 asshole who really has no idea what he's taking lightly. Raymond Massey slouching in from a fishing expedition in a windbreaker and a hat fishhooked with fly lures, clumsier and gentler in his craggy body than I have ever seen him: because he proposes to her not five minutes after David has rejected her yet again, she laughs almost in Dean's face and he reacts with some embarrassment but without anger, which is perhaps why she decides to marry him after all. Joan Crawford's nearly-no-makeup in the frame story—intended to demonstrate how despairingly she has let herself go in her mad search for her demon lover—showed me instead what an interesting face she had: lean-boned, strong-jawed, her most expressive features her sensitive dark brows and her silently searching eyes. As soon as we flash back to happier days when she wore powder and lipstick and eyeshadow like every well-balanced woman, she looks much more like herself in photographs, which means much more conventionally attractive.3 I like the point-of-view shot with which Louise enters the hospital, sliding beneath signs and ceilings and reflecting lights and the nostril-first faces of a pair of ER nurses, who speak over her quickly and professionally—I believe them, even if the ward they abbreviate as "Psycho" stands for "Psychopathic." "One manic, three seniles, six alcoholics, and ten schizos." I like quite a lot of the flashback sequences until the psychobabble interrupts. I'm not sure I've ever seen a film blow its own kneecaps off in quite this fashion before. This curate's egg brought to you by my recovering backers at Patreon.

1. I have positive memories of her Flämmchen in Grand Hotel (1932), but I haven't seen the film since high school. It was my introduction to its entire cast. As a result I always think of Lionel Barrymore as a sympathetic character rather than Mr. Potter, but once I found out that Buster Keaton had been seriously considered for the part of Otto Kringelein, I wanted that branch of the universe so much more.

2. On top of everything else, this film squarely hits my MENTAL HEALTH DOESN'T WORK THAT WAY button.

3. My favorite photograph of Crawford was taken by George Hurrell and is the unretouched version of a portrait for Laughing Sinners (1931); it is the only reason I know she had freckles, which were otherwise hidden with cosmetics and the painstaking predecessors of Photoshop. I couldn't see them even in her washed-out scenes in Possessed, so I assume she was wearing minimal makeup after all. I hope her freckles featured at least once in a movie. I think they're great.

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Date: 2016-12-10 01:17
Subject: We haven't got time to be sensible
Security: Public
Music:Alice Faye, "No Love, No Nothin'"

I am home from seeing Busby Berkeley's The Gang's All Here (1943) at the HFA with derspatchel, rushthatspeaks, and [personal profile] skygiants. I had remembered it fondly since 2012, but forgotten that it possesses the dreamlike quality of really weird film where remembering one outlandish sequence means you are forgetting three or four others, in my case including the children's chorus, the fake blackmail, and the entire wartime plot. Despite knowing perfectly well that the film was released in 1943, it had entirely slipped my mind that the pretext for the romance is the chance meeting between soldier James Ellison and showgirl Alice Faye right before he's shipped off to the Pacific to become a war hero, leaving a pining Faye and childhood sweetheart Sheila Ryan behind him. (How important is this love triangle? Berkeley settles it with a conversation half-overheard behind a hedge and the hero's father going off to clarify matters with him offscreen. No kisses, no clinches. No attempts even to shoehorn the romantic leads into the same shot. There are stranger things to spend that film stock on. "You can't keep the children waiting all night.") The fake blackmail is a glorious piece of melodrama staged by society wife Charlotte Greenwood and theatrical producer Phil Baker—old comrades from her "purple past" as a cabaret dancer in postwar Paris—in order to snooker her strait-laced husband Edward Everett Horton into letting daughter Ryan take a turn as a specialty dancer in Baker's new show, also co-starring Faye, which is going up at the homecoming party/war bonds rally in honor of the now-decorated Ellison, who I am afraid really is the least interesting person onscreen. The children's chorus are part of the finale, and it is true that their tiny polka-dotted bustles and bowties and overdubbing by an adult offstage chorus were very arresting in the moment, but I don't actually blame myself for blanking them out because the finale itself is "The Polka-Dot Polka," where Berkeley pulls out all the stops from neon to bluescreen to an actual kaleidoscope effect layered on top of his usual habit of choreographing women to look like one, and it sails right off the edge of Dada into the end titles and there's just not much to say about it except that I had failed to notice the first time around that the film is actually bookended with disembodied singing heads and I am delighted. Carmen Miranda is a joy throughout, even when she's just wearing spangly butterflies instead of the total fruit cargo of a steamship on her head. Benny Goodman looks consistently confused by the lyrics he is required to sing, which is fair, because "Minnie's in the Money" is forgettable and "Paducah" ("If you want to, you can rhyme it with bazooka / But don't pooh-pooh Paducah / It's another name for Paradise") is extremely confusing. Eugene Pallette gets to sing exactly one line in the finale and it is like somebody pulled out the organ stop for "bullfrog."

I love this movie so much and I find it essentially indescribable; none of the above statements are untrue, but they also make the film sound far more rational and conventional than it really is, even by the highly elastic standards of a 1940's movie musical, because the overwhelming impression left by The Gang's All Here is not a pleasant if ultimately disposable romance with good supporting characters and some socko numbers, it's wall-to-wall surrealism and metatheater and camp and above all Technicolor—it was Berkeley's first solo color film and he didn't just costume his actors to take eye-popping advantage, he turns fountains electric pink and argon violet just because he can. The realistic parts of this movie are not very real and they are not pretending to be. The fantastical parts of this movie gauge carefully where the top is and go over it every time. The theatricality of diegetic stage design and the theatricality of extra-diegetic movie sets parallax back and forth through each other like an optical illusion. A surprising number of punch lines are addressed to the fourth wall, as is almost all of Miranda's performance. The giant bananas, people. The giant bananas. The giant strawberries. Charlotte Greenwood's deadpan jitterbugging high kicks. Lipstick-plastered Edward Everett Horton experiencing sexual attraction to a woman ("Nobody's more surprised than I am!") for the first time in his life. Alice Faye's wry, yearning ballad about not getting any with her sweetheart away at war, performed on the most naturally dressed and realistically lit set in the entire movie, which naturally makes it a production number in rehearsal at the Club New Yorker. At one point Tony DeMarco—playing himself, like Goodman and Baker but not for whatever reason Miranda—fires off a volley of furious Italian and is sharply cautioned, "If you don't cut that out, the censors will!" I am amazed that the only actual censorship this movie seems to have suffered was a repositioning of the aforementioned giant bananas: once the scantily clad dancers held them a little higher than groin level, suddenly they weren't as Freudian as they look to everyone else? This movie is on beyond Minnelli. It renders me as incoherent as The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T (1953). I hope to God Wittgenstein saw it at least once in his life. I didn't know where to buy a cold pork pie in Boston, so Rob and I took the Orange Line to Chinatown in the late afternoon and bought a quantity of really fine, fluffy char siu bao from Eldo Cake House, plus some lotus paste with preserved egg for later; I ate my pork bun through "The Lady in the Tutti-Frutti Hat" and it made me feel better about almost everything. See it in a theater, on film if you can; if you can't, I hope a Blu-Ray with a decent color balance at least exists in your country and you have a very large TV. This shower bath brought to you by my tutti-frutti backers at Patreon.

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Date: 2016-11-25 00:57
Subject: Tell me that's not a heathen
Security: Public
Music:Martin & Eliza Carthy, "Queen Caraboo"

Every time I have tried to write about a movie lately, something else politically awful has happened and eaten my time and attention; then there has been life to deal with and no chance to catch up on sleep. On the assumption that this pattern is not likely to change any time soon, here's a movie anyway.

In the spring of 1817, a young woman was discovered wandering the village of Almondsbury in Gloucestershire. Her dress was outlandish, her manners graceful but obviously foreign. She was dark-haired, dark-eyed, attractive and expressive. She appeared neither disoriented nor unintelligent, but she did not react when addressed in English, except to the speaker's gestures and tones of voice. No one understood the language she spoke. She was briefly jailed in Bristol for vagrancy, retrieved by the wife of the same unimpressed magistrate who had sent her away. Eventually, through a combination of pantomime, interpretation, and the imaginative assistance of her listeners, the mysterious stranger made it understood that she was a daughter of the king of Javasu near Sumatra, stolen from her native island and sold into slavery by pirates; having been traded ship to ship across the oceans, she had finally escaped by jumping overboard while off the coast of England and made her way alone across the countryside, eventually fetching up in Almondsbury. She could write in her native language and demonstrated its characters, which looked a little like Chinese and a little like Greek and a lot like nothing ever before seen in England. She observed a vegetarian, teetotal diet and prayed daily to her monotheistic God, whom she addressed as "Alla-Tallah." She liked to practice archery, fence, and dance. From the start, she called herself by the name of "Caraboo." Residing for ten weeks with Samuel and Elizabeth Worrall at Knole Park, Princess Caraboo became something more than a nine days' wonder, especially after experts in the languages and culture of the East Indies were unable to break her story—the more she was studied, in fact, the more convincing her presentation became. She became the latest craze of fashionable society, receiving visitors in Bath, sitting for portraits in Bristol; articles about her were published and republished in the local papers, at which point her description was recognized and the exotic fantasia collapsed. In reality, "Princess Caraboo" was the confabulation of twenty-five-year-old Mary Baker from Witheridge in Devonshire, an itinerant serving girl with a quick ear for languages and a genius for theater. She had fabricated the customs of her country from sailors' tales, travel books, and free-floating Orientalism; her imperious, flowing foreign tongue was a mixture of Malay, English Romani, and her own invented language. She had taken everyone—scholars, adventurers, high society—in. Unpunished by the law despite the seriousness of her offence, still fêted by her public despite the reveal of her deception, the ex-princess took passage for America at the end of the summer. The fullest contemporary account of her imposture was written and published later that year by John Mathew Gutch of Bristol as Caraboo: A Narrative of a Singular Imposition, and almost two centuries later it formed the basis for the script of Michael Austin's Princess Caraboo (1994), which derspatchel and I watched over the weekend.

The film is a romanticized version of the story, but not, it turns out, in ways that I mind. Rather than relying on is-she-or-isn't-she ambiguity for its narrative pull, the script wisely opts for lightly observed social satire, treating Caraboo's effect on the surrounding cast as a kind of Rorschach of their characters and Regency England in general. Kind-hearted, discontented Mrs. Worrall (Wendy Hughes) is captivated by the romance and mystery of Caraboo's plight, adopting her guest's taste in brightly patterned calicos and sparking a fad for turbans and bangles among her social set; her efforts to make the princess feel at home include redecorating rooms in a lavish silken style and flying a homemade gold-and-crimson flag over Knole Park as if it were the Javasu embassy. Nouveau riche banker Mr. Worrall (Jim Broadbent) has less imagination than a radish and a lot higher alcohol content and can't believe the deference his wife is extending to some weird vagabond in breeches with her hair tied up in a scarf, but even he isn't too slow to cotton on to the lucrative business opportunities presented by close acquaintance with an authentic princess of the Spice Islands. To the sour magistrate Haythorne (Roger Lloyd-Pack), all foreigners are vagrants and wastrels and not understanding the language in which a trial is conducted is no object to receiving a sentence from the court; to the jaded Lord and Lady Apthorpe (Peter Eyre and Jacqueline Pearce), a foreigner this quaint and beautiful is a diversion worthy of presenting to the Prince Regent (John Sessions! We drove ourselves crazy trying to recognize him until the credits). Kevin Kline gets a chance to exercise both his Greek accent and his air of weary condescension as the snippy butler who has the newcomer judged as a fraud right up until the moment she bites him for trying to look up her skirts. John Lithgow briefly and piercingly steals his scenes as a supercilious philologist who comes from Oxford to debunk Caraboo and leaves with both his assumptions and his heart in pieces. At the center of all of their fascination is the princess herself, like a cipher of the Orient that none of them have ever seen but everyone knows when they see it. Here the film has a great asset in Phoebe Cates, who I understand is extremely famous for some teen movies I've never seen. As both Caraboo and her creator, she is almost never offscreen and for much of the runtime has the difficult job of holding the audience's interest and sympathy while being almost opaque to interpretation—the script is not constructed to tip its hand any sooner than history did. The actress' ability to look the part with her dark, delicate looks and her lightly folded eyes, her unapologetic carriage and her startling dazzle of a smile would count for nothing if she were actually a blank. Instead, in every interaction, we realize that behind the attentive gravity that is her most common expression we can always see her thinking; what we can't see is whether we're watching a fish out of privileged water working to comprehend an entire new culture on the fly or a con artist calculating her next strategic move. When she weeps at a performance of Schubert's Trio No. 1 in B-flat major, the emotion is naked and unfeigned and tells us nothing about the nature of the woman with tears on her cheeks except that she's got good taste in piano trios, even anachronistic ones. She can't be what she claims. No real person from the Indonesian archipelago would so match in every particular the English fancy of an "Oriental princess." So then what is she?

That's the line of inquiry pursued by the film's version of J. M. Gutch, played by Stephen Rea as narrator, adversary, and eventual co-protagonist of Caraboo's story. He's the script's greatest departure from history, although I can see how he evolved from the admiring tone of the real Gutch's narrative, which the film uses to bookend its action. An Irish printer and journalist for Felix Farley's Bristol Journal—"none too successful financially and, I will admit, none too fortunate in love, either"—he's taking notes in the gallery when Caraboo comes up before the assizes for vagrancy; he asks a snarky question, gets a prompt snub, and is left curiously touched and intrigued by a woman he's seen for all of five minutes, standing straight-backed despite her chains with all the poise of royalty waiting for some tiresome but requisite ceremony to be over. At first the Worralls want nothing to do with him, especially since his paper has been publishing what Mr. Worrall blusterously considers libels about his bank; presently an appeal to their Christian charity, not to mention his ability to publicize it, wins them over sufficiently for an audience with the princess. The viewer may recognize him as a danger. He's suspicious and he's smart. He cuts a nice ambiguous figure among the brightly dressed gentry, conspicuously out of fashion in his black coat that doesn't show the ink; his disheveled dark hair gives him the initially misleading air of a Romantic poet rather than the put-upon publisher Coleridge can't be bothered to pay. It's a good part for Rea's lanky slouch and wry deadpan—he's a bruised romantic in a cynic's trade, a boy who dreamed of far-off islands with names like poetry grown up into a man who makes his living from muckraking and monotony, disillusioned with himself and resigned to it. "As a journalist," he comments with stinging prescience, "I know people will believe two things—what they read in the newspapers and what they want to believe. And that's the way of the world." Predictably, he's soon as obsessed with the elusive Caraboo as the rest of the countryside, but with a lovely twist: surrounded by people who have staked their self-images, their social success, and even their financial futures on the truth of a stolen princess from the far side of the world, Gutch wants her to be a fraud, not because he resents her impersonation or even because it will make a better story for his paper, but because he's enchanted with the idea of "an ordinary girl with an extraordinary imagination," tricky and clever enough to reinvent herself as exotic royalty, take the ton by storm, and make her social betters pay through the nose for the privilege. He was never that brave himself. But he has to know, either way, and so we watch his investigations progress as Caraboo's star rises in society, culminating in an all-night fancy-dress ball at which she dances till dawn with the Prince Regent while Gutch, who wouldn't be invited dead to a party of this quality, gate-crashes recklessly in hopes of making her understand that what he can discover, others will soon learn, and rich people don't take well to being made fools of. He calls her by the name he believes she was born with. She gazes at him with wide, dark eyes and says nothing, in English or otherwise.

At times the performances are stronger than the script. It was co-written by the director with John Wells, who also contributes a supporting turn as the decent, credulous parson who first brings Caraboo to the Worralls' attention; it has some nonfatal but noticeable trouble finding its way to the right ending, and while its broad jabs at English hypocrisy generally land ("And as Christians, we are taught, 'Blessed are the merciful'"–"Rubbish!"), its attempts to highlight the harsh social conditions behind its narrative of glittering imposture meet with only partial success. The score doesn't help—pace Richard Hartley and his fine work with Richard O'Brien, it's Hollywood fairy tale where a more period sound might have grounded things better. Maybe I've just developed an allergy to the celesta. Fortunately, the movie fires on all cylinders exactly where it needs to, and that is its deft and steady skewering of Orientalism. I really need to read more postcolonial theory.

There you are; here I am.Collapse )

I am sorry that I missed this film in theaters; the only extant DVD has been formatted to fullscreen and in addition to all the spatial and character information that gets lost when that happens, there are some lovely shots that I suspect would have really benefited from 1.85:1 Technicolor, like a dockside view of Bristol Harbour that even on my computer looks like an early nineteenth century painting. Freddie Francis did the cinematography and it's not like The Elephant Man (1980) looked amazing or anything. It furthers my affection for Stephen Rea, whom I honestly think I encountered for the first time in the script of Brian Friel's Translations (1980); it makes me wonder what else Phoebe Cates might have done if she had not retired from acting after Princess Caraboo; it never loses its theme even when the plot occasionally wobbles. It would double-feature quite handily with Charles Sturridge's FairyTale: A True Story (1997), another sweetly pointed period piece about fakery and narrative and belief that I missed in its first run. At this point I have movies like Busby Berkeley's Bright Lights (1935), Edgar G. Ulmer's The Black Cat (1934), John Sturges' The Magnificent Seven (1960), Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack's The Most Dangerous Game (1932), and Denis Villeneuve's Arrival (2016) on my conscience and would really like to get around to them sometime soon. Between the news and Thanksgiving, this week really disappeared. I am thankful that I got this thing written at all. This imposition brought to you by my imaginative backers at Patreon.

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Date: 2016-11-18 23:10
Subject: What the hell can you do, my friend, in this place that you call your town?
Security: Public
Music:Gogol Bordello, "Tribal Connection"

Plans to watch Denis Villeneuve's Arrival (2016) with my parents at the Somerville Theatre tonight were foiled by the evening showtime having sold out and my parents not being up for the late night. We may try again next weekend. It's just as well: I am feeling like a freight train ran me over. I know I've slept since returning from New York, but I really don't feel like it.

In political news, I called Governor Baker's office again this afternoon to remind him that while his cautions against "prejudging" the incoming administration were tone-deaf enough coming after Trump's appointment of Bannon, who wants to model his "economic nationalist movement" after Andrew Jackson's populism (because the Panic of 1837 was so good for the economy) and likens Trump to William Jennings Bryan (I guess on the anti-Black, anti-science front, I can see it) and apparently fancies himself as the new Thomas Cromwell (all the way down to the bill of attainder and execution without trial? Oh, God, now I've envisioned Trump as the late Henry and I can't make it stop. He's still three wives down), they sound downright ostrich-like now that Trump's pick for attorney general is a man whose racist comments kept Congress in the time of Reagan from confirming him as a federal judge and his idea of a CIA chief is a man who transparently lied about the American Muslim response to the Boston Marathon bombing. Baker counseled his constituents to "judge people on the totality of their work, on what they say, and how they pursue what they're up to." That's fine. The opinion I hold of Donald Trump, I have formed based on his words and his actions. If my state governor cannot bring himself to review the evidence similarly and commit to a conclusion, roll on the artichoke. Meanwhile, I need to call Mayor Curtatone's office and thank him for his pledges of continuing support for Somerville's immigrants. Positive feedback is also important.

(I am listening to a lot of Gogol Bordello lately, which is not surprising, but the last couple of days have also left me with Florence Reese's "Which Side Are You On?", which like most people of my generation I learned from Pete Seeger. Especially the stanza about there are no neutrals there.)

In non-political news, or at least political news of a different kind, my afternoon also contained b/w (2010), the first collection from Niall McDevitt, Irish-born poet and psychogeographer of London. He's very good. If you want a comparison, in style, concerns, and allusion his poems most remind me of H.D. circa Trilogy (1946) and Iain Sinclair almost any time, although less so when they're in Bislama, which I take as a tribute to Ken Campbell, in whose memory the collection is dedicated. McDevitt's London is a demotic jumble of ghosts, anachronisms, and magic, inter- and undercut with sardonic, often self-interrogating political observation. When he goes wrong for me, it's because he makes nationality too much of a metonym for the nation. Otherwise, nineweaving might like his ideas about nettles, crows, and Shakespeare. Also, if you are interested in the reception and influence of Derek Jarman, you may want this book. The back cover includes—along with a thumbs-up from Patti Smith—a recommendation from Heathcote Williams, an activist and poet himself1 as well as an actor last seen by me as a near-definitive Prospero in Jarman's The Tempest (1976). The most formal poem in the book is a sestina entitled "Wittgenstein in Ireland," which at least for me was worth buying the collection to read; it is dedicated for Karl Johnson, I think conclusively proving that I was not the only viewer to get knocked sideways into obsession and poetry by Jarman's Wittgenstein (1993). The poem "Blue" is subtitled after Jarman and will probably mean more to me when I have seen the film, which I have been putting off because I expect it to hurt. There are other tips of the hat, to Michael Hartnett, Jan Žižka, Mahmoud Darwish, Tony Jackson, Morrissey, Rimbaud. He writes some not quite ghost poems—"George Orwell Is Following Me," "Parolles (A Sonnet)," "At the Yeats vs. Crowley Café." William Blake looks like his primary genius. He also riffs, successfully, on Baudelaire. I will probably track down his second collection Porterloo (2013) when I have not just impulse-bought another book off the internet. Anyway, paging ashlyme.

I need to write about movies again. I feel like my brain's been shut off.

1. Wait, he wrote a biographical poem for Alan Turing in 2011? Why did I not know about this? Why don't I own this? Fixing that problem right now.

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Date: 2016-10-11 04:15
Subject: Raymond Shaw is the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being I've ever known in my life
Security: Public
Music:Donald Swann, "Brave New Worldling"

So seeing John Frankenheimer's The Manchurian Candidate (1962) on a big screen was great. It was a digital projection, which still allowed me to perceive details and contrasts that had not been apparent from television or DVD; someday I'll see it in 35 mm and it'll be even better. It remains one of my favorite movies and the reason my feelings toward Lawrence Harvey gravitate in the direction of wanting to give him a hug, even though everything I have ever read about him as a person suggests that he was almost as difficult to get close to as Raymond Shaw. I like Sinatra in it, even if I like him more in the otherwise disposable Suddenly (1954). Angela Lansbury is iconic, immortal, and terrifying. Having seen Frankenheimer's Seconds (1964) and The Comedian (1957) since my last experience of The Manchurian Candidate, I paid a lot more attention to the cinematography this time around and it is a register-shifting blend of noirish deep focus, three-camera staging, handheld disorientation, and inclusions of live video feed overlapping, doubling, confounding the action. The tone is much the same: it adds up to a tight, touching, nightmarish movie I love.

What was not so great was the lengthy introduction by the series programmer in which, presumably taking attendance at tonight's showing to equal having already seen the movie, she described the entire plot. I'm not just talking about the premise, although I wouldn't have been pleased if she had given it and nothing else away. Major points of revelation, scenes with shocking emotional impact. She read out passages of dialogue. I was suddenly and furiously reminded of the reasons we never renewed our membership to the Coolidge Corner Theatre. "What if someone had come to see it for the first time?" I text-fumed at derspatchel. "This is the kind of analysis you do after the fact!" It was not even very analytical. I appreciated her situating the film in context of other political thrillers like Otto Preminger's Advise & Consent (1962), Sidney Lumet's Fail Safe (1964), Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove (1964), and Frankenheimer's Seven Days in May (1964), all with some paranoid, chaotic spirit and all at least loosely based on novels of the time; I was glad she talked a little about the 1959 novel by Richard Condon, although not about the part where Condon plagiarized passages from Robert Graves' I, Claudius (1934).1 Otherwise she was mostly, merely narrating the film in advance. She made one very good point that I hadn't noticed for myself: she finds The Manchurian Candidate an incredibly weird film and thinks it's because no matter how perverse, preposterous, or bleak the action becomes, the film always presents it straight-faced, never winking to the audience or offering a reassuring check-in with reality as we believe we know it. That makes sense to me. It's how nightmares work. A perfectly ordinary interaction, object, landscape can be charged with unspeakable dread. Ladies showing off their prize hydrangeas at a meeting of a garden club in New Jersey. A game of solitaire. A man taking a long walk off a short pier. The sequences the film presents as the craziest, scariest, and most out of control are expressions of the American political process: a televised press conference that turns into Red-baiting pandemonium, the confetti-and-flashbulbs frenzy of a political party's nominating convention at Madison Square Garden. The fight scenes in this movie inflict less damage than quiet, measured conversation. And then, because the film doesn't push its weirdness stylistically, it can offer a surreal image like a heart-shot man appearing to bleed milk from the carton he was holding when the bullet drilled both it and him—a gouting, visceral moment without a drop of gore—and it lands with the force of the other side of nightmares, the things that in waking or dreaming life are just wrong. The speaker did not offer examples like these in support of an argument, where I would have considered them more fair game, if still kind of premature. She just made the observation and moved on to another plot description. That is not the way to do it for people who have never seen the film.

Look: I am indifferent to spoilers. I enjoy discovering books and movies cold and it can be very rewarding, but I have never lost enjoyment in a work because someone told me something about it in advance. Traditionally I chalk it up to a background in classics—nobody goes to see Oedipus for the shocking twist ending—but more realistically I imagine it is something about the ways in which I process narrative and which elements of it I prioritize. Suspense is rarely the top of the list. I am much less interested in shows that hang their audience investment on some central mystery than in shows that work out the nth-order consequences of their premise all the way down. I don't want to be told some climactic revelation just to spoil it for me, but that's an objection on the grounds of jerkassery, not information. In general, I really don't care. I am not the norm in our current media culture. There were people in that audience who hadn't seen The Manchurian Candidate before; I heard a couple of them enthusing on their way out of the theater and I wondered if others stuck their fingers in their ears and hummed through the introduction or if they were just faintly sorry that they watched the pre-credits sequence for the first time already knowing not just the first-act bombshell but the third-act twist. I think it annoys me not just because it's unkind to viewers who might have wanted to discover the story on their own terms, but because it's unnecessary. You don't need to lay out a story's entire plot in order to prime an audience's interest. You can truthfully say that The Manchurian Candidate is a movie which warped its topical references to such a pitch of hallucinogeny that it inspired conspiracy theories about its script and urban legends about its release; you can suggest its destabilizing spell by noting that flirting in this movie sounds like numbers station shortwave while its most fervent gesture of parental devotion is the one that will make most of the audience's skin crawl. You can talk about the ways in which it sensitizes its audience to suspect even normal social conditioning, like the soldier who can't refuse friendly advice when it's restated as performative speech—"What I've just told you is not a suggestion, Major. It's an order"—and the absurd respect with which everyone holds in place for the national anthem even in the middle of a suspected assassination attempt. You probably should mention that it's funny, in both the outrageousness of its ultimate conceit and the patriotic satire that is almost too raw to laugh at, especially this election year, but the ketchup joke got a huge laugh tonight and it deserves to. You may appreciate how constantly the very modern questions of media spin and manufactured identity are at the center of the story. I already said something about the painful sympathy this film draws out for a character initially and accurately encapsulated with the line "It isn't as if [he's] hard to like—he's impossible to like!" so you don't have to bring it up. If you want to talk about the deliberate genre-slippage, though, go for it. That The Manchurian Candidate is both a satire and a tragedy is a neat, jagged trick. It may be one of the movies I find so interesting that I am not as emotionally upset by it in toto as I am by some of its separate scenes. Your mileage and your audience's may vary. I hope I have communicated a little of the interest it holds for me, however, and if I have done this at all successfully, I have done so while saying almost jack about the plot.

I may write what I consider an actual review of The Manchurian Candidate at some later date. Right now, I'm going to read more Le Guin and go to bed. This exercise in apophasis brought to you by my loveable backers at Patreon.

1. Mostly pertaining to the relationship between Eleanor Shaw Iselin and her second husband Johnny; Condon adapted it from Claudius' assessment of Livia and Augustus' marriage. I have no trouble seeing how Graves' Livia would inspire Condon's Eleanor; it makes me a little wistful for a Lansbury Livia. You want to rewrite Roman history with American senators, I can think of worse ideas. Just don't steal immediately recognizable chunks of phrasing from the British writer who already did the retelling. Your audiences aren't so divergent that someone won't notice someday.

7 Performable Epics | Tell Me a Story | Share | Link

Date: 2016-09-12 05:10
Subject: The jerk's right here
Security: Public
Music:Car Seat Headrest, "Dreams Fall Hard"

I worry that it's taken me forever to write about Stanley Kubrick's The Killing (1956) and Robert Wise's Born to Kill (1947) because talking about Elisha Cook, Jr. is such a stereotypical noir-fancying thing to do. I myself called him an "underworld shlimazl extraordinaire" on his first appearance in this Patreon and it's true, but a great part of what interested me about both of these films was the opportunity they afforded Cook to demonstrate a wider range than fall guys with +10 mortal fear. I know I'm overstating even some of his famous roles; Harry Jones in The Big Sleep (1946) may be a "funny little guy" who drinks poison for the sake of a woman who wouldn't have done the same for him, but he knows what he's doing and chooses to protect her anyway and Bogart's Marlowe respects him for it ("You did all right, Jonesy"). I'm still willing to bet that when most people think of him, he looks like the gunsel Wilmer.

I went into The Killing curious about the combination of late noir and early Kubrick, but otherwise knowing almost nothing about the story.1 The title was ambiguous: a big score? A slaughter? Well, yes, but also the funniest movie by Kubrick I've ever seen. I'm including Dr. Strangelove (1964) in that statement. The Killing is not precisely a comedy by genre, although it could be quite credibly double-featured with the endearingly slow-motion trainwreck of Big Deal on Madonna Street (1958), but it runs a tight, tense, loopingly nonlinear plot on a steady deadpan diet of the ironies, absurdities, and inevitable crack-ups that occur when reality gets into the gears of a frictionless theory. Straight lines turn into punch lines with foreknowledge. At least one violent act comes out pure slapstick because it's so shocking and so stupid. The narrator may have been a late-stage studio addition, but he subverts his own orderly function—clarifying a timeline that repeatedly re-runs the same span of days through different characters' eyes until the whole exploded jigsaw comes together for the audience as it never does for any of the cast save Sterling Hayden's Johnny Clay, the meticulous overseer of this highly compartmentalized crime—with misinformation and minutiae, announcing with the same breaking-news gravity when one character can't fall sleep or another is running fifteen minutes late. Even when the beautiful Rube Goldberg machine of Johnny's plan begins to go off the rails, its failure doesn't cascade from an inevitable fatal flaw, it goes kablooey in about three different directions at once and none of them foreseeable except in head-smacking hindsight. (Incidentally, I have seen exactly two movies by Quentin Tarantino—Pulp Fiction (1994) and The Hateful Eight (2015)—and even I can tell that he imprinted screamingly on this movie.) The cinematography strikes a smoothly shifting balance between the emphatic shadows of noir and a more realistic, daylit style that is not yet as echoingly codified as Kubrick's later compositions. Jim Thompson wrote the script, so it really is hard-boiled as hell. But it's still essentially a heist film, and a darkly comedic one at that. It takes Elisha Cook, Jr. and Marie Windsor to turn it into noir.

As George and Sherry Peatty, Cook and Windsor twist the familiar coupling of a pliable husband and a chiseling wife past parody into nightmare—every frame they share looks like the cover of a hardboiled novel, a bad scene that's about to get even worse. He's thin, creased, his face a tragicomic mask of preternatural anxiety and preemptive conciliation, a soft-spoken racetrack cashier abjectly in love with a woman who uses him to practice her contempt like some people take up skeet shooting. Her face is a mask, too, but a carefully painted one, all polished cheekbones and rolled blonde hair and black false eyelashes, her mouth a cartoon heart of invitation, her eyebrows angled to disdain. He can't compete with that greasepaint armor; he's a romantic. In return for the plain-spoken yearning with which he tries to describe the intimacy of an older couple he saw on the train, all he gets is flashy scorn, his wife's big beautiful body sprawled lazily on the bed with an indifference that tells him hands off even more unarguably than the jeering cut of her mouth. She treats his devotion like an embarrassing ailment, his sincerity like the feed line for a standing joke. She has four inches on him in stocking feet and in heels starts to look like a bored Aphrodite with the saddest Anchises in the world. (Windsor, who got Kubrick's attention with her take-no-prisoners performance in The Narrow Margin (1952), is even billed above Cook in the opening credits.) It is impossible to imagine what misalliance of idealization and opportunism stuck them together in the first place, but after five years they're parasitically inseparable, though Sherry has designs to the contrary. Her trouble is that she's not as clever as she is cruel: she knows what she wants, but she shouldn't trust men to get it for her. She would call her boyfriend a handsome brute. The audience sizes him up within two sentences as a meathead and wouldn't hand him a lighter for his own cigarettes, let alone the inside dope on a $2,000,000 heist. Put their sex-fueled double-dealing together with George's skittish desperation and what you've got is a film noir in miniature, the kind of material that could have been a feature of its own and instead goes off like a bomb among the larger coils of the heist plot. I have seen a lot of bad things happen to Elisha Cook, Jr. since my first encounter with The Maltese Falcon (1941), but I am not sure that I had seen him play an honest-to-Aristotle tragic character until The Killing.2 He's good at it—he hurts to watch. For maximum irony, of course, mild-mannered George Peatty who looks as though he'd crumple if he accidentally hurt a fly racks up the highest body count in the film, even more than the professional hired killer whose inability to resist a gratuitous racist crack throws another wrench into the precision timing of the scheme. "You jerk," one of George's teammates berates him early in the film, when his pathetic attempts to laugh off the accusation only confirm that he's given the game away to his treacherous, adored wife—"you clown! Come on, clown, sing us a chorus from Pagliacci!" It's not often that you hear characters so explicitly called out by archetype. Someone really should have remembered how that opera ends.

Like many people who grew up on Hollywood musicals and '50's sci-fi, I saw any number of movies directed by Robert Wise before suddenly taking note of him, in my case a few years ago with The Desert Rats (1953); if that hadn't worked, I can say that Born to Kill would definitely have gotten my attention. It's a pulpy, amorally entertaining B-noir starring Claire Trevor and Lawrence Tierney as two of the nastiest screen lovers I've seen since Scarlet Street (1945). She's a hot-blooded, cold-hearted divorcée silkily coasting through other people's damage on adopted wealth and pasted-on morality, he's an alpha bruiser with a volcanic temper and the impulse control of a wrecking ball; nobody in this film fights crime. Esther Howard's booze-soaked landlady gives it an extrajudicial try, after Tierney's Sam Wilde leaves his latest girlfriend dead on her kitchen floor for interrupting his territory-staking murder of her other man. Walter Slezak's philosophizing private eye will play on the side of the angels if the price is right, but he's just as happy to extract a bonus fifteen thousand from Trevor's Helen Brent in exchange for a convenient lapse of memory. There are a few innocents on the bewildered verges of this story, but mostly it's a hot, toxic spiral around Helen and Sam and their escalating criminal and sexual one-upsmanship, a game of chicken that can end only in bed and/or the gas chamber. "There's a kind of corruptness inside you," she marvels, her fingers tightening on his back. He gives her the tough guy's ultimate compliment: "You have guts." They murmur breathlessly over the details of a murder scene—his doing, her discovery—until their mouths meet hungrily again. The audience doesn't need the seal of the Production Code to know that their romance will end as badly as it began; the question is just whether they'll be the deaths of one another sequentially or simultaneously and how many of the supporting cast they'll take with them when they go.

Cook's reputation preceding him as it does, he seems like a shoo-in for collateral damage, especially given his closeness to Born to Kill's ground zero. His Mart Waterman is Sam's partner in at the very least crime—he's waiting up in bed with the day's paper when Sam comes home from his unplanned double slaying to the Reno hotel room they share, absently quizzing the bigger man about his day and then looking over ironically when Sam in reply stretches out full-length on the mattress beside him and stonily smokes a cigarette: "If we're going to carry on a conversation, it'd help for you to talk." He could be a fascinated sidekick or a self-protective hanger-on à la Dr. Einstein, but he's the brains of the outfit and no pushover despite his size and his easily worried face. Even if his instructions are couched in plenty of Gaston-strength ego-soothing,3 Mart's still the one with the getaway plan, double-checking that Sam has enough cash for the first train out of town and then staying behind to cover their tracks with the last stern caution, "In the meantime, no dames, understand?" He's dismayed, but not shocked. He's done this before. Sam's violent whims may be the driving factor in their lives, but Mart's wearily practiced quick thinking is the reason they're not behind bars or worse. In a film whose primary relationships are based on deception, convenience, or mutually ruthless chemistry, it's a curiously touching testament not just to Sam's equal-opportunity fatal charms but to simple human affection, the same thing driving Howard's Mrs. Kraft to seek justice for a pretty, promiscuous woman whose murder she knows the police feel no responsibility to solve.

Of course, the thing I love best about Mart is that he's not a nice guy. He just looks like one by comparison with a hair-trigger psychopath. "You can't just go around killing people whenever the notion strikes you," he chides Sam. "It's not feasible!" Note that he never says it's wrong. Invited to stay at the townhouse of Helen's wealthy foster-sister, he makes an unexpected but unobtrusive guest who does nothing weird or larcenous at all. He tries to warn Helen about her volatile lover, speaking from five years' experience living with "the sort of guy that punches first and asks questions later"; told icily to butt out of an affair that doesn't concern him, he responds frankly, "You think it doesn't. It concerns me, all right, if it concerns Sam." By this point there are four people involved in the protagonists' poisonous pas de deux and Mart sounds reasonably concerned for all of them. He doesn't want to clear out of San Francisco as precipitously as Reno and he's seen what happens to Sam's girls, not to mention the boys who hang around them. He's not much of a moral compass, but he sounds like the voice of nonviolence at least. Then we get his meeting with Mrs. Kraft. He charms her socks off. Bright-eyed as a door-to-door salesman, ingenuous as the juvenile lead Cook once was, he flirts with her outrageously, in exactly the right key of shared and teasing play to appeal to her sense of humor where a straighter approach would have put up her guard. He calls her "glamour girl," himself a "bad boy," sympathizes enough and cajoles the rest of the way that the gravel-voiced, glass-eyed, beer-swigging matron finds herself agreeing to trade a C-note for a lead on the killer of her late, beloved Laurie Palmer. His parting shot is the final hook, delivered with impossibly transparent coyness: "I'll do this on just one condition . . . that you don't make any passes at me when you get me out there. I'm a very shy kid!" She laughs appreciatively and dirtily, not taken in for a moment but just as delighted as if she had been. Who knew Elisha Cook, Jr. had serious game? Get Mrs. Kraft alone on the dunes, though, and all of a sudden he looks like a plausible serial killer of his own, a disarming Bluebeard with a line in lonely hearts and shallow graves. "You can depend on me, glamour girl," he promises, one hand in his pocket with the flick-knife. It's creepily endearing. Inevitably he's overborne by Tierney's blunt-force apex predator, but then he should have known the rules would be no different for Sam's boys. Helen doesn't take the lesson.

Not surprisingly for an actor who originated the sixteen-year-old hero of Eugene O'Neill's Ah, Wilderness! the year he turned thirty, Cook looked barely old enough to buy his own drinks well into middle age, a trick of physiognomy he could use to pathetic effect, underlining the small-time nature of characters who either don't know or won't admit how out of their depth they are until it's too late—Wilmer is a kid, whatever his calendar age, killing-dangerous but still playing gangster dress-up with his double-breasted trenchcoat and his hidden pistols and his self-penned hard-boiled dialogue, none of which he knows how to use as well as an amused Sam Spade or even an impatient Brigid O'Shaughnessy. One of the reasons I enjoy Mart Waterman so much is that he's an adult who only puts on the boyish look to deceive, playing the nice (or the naughty) young man for the character who's susceptible to it while swapping straight talk with the rest; he's been too many years around the block with Sam Wilde for anything else. George Peatty doesn't work as a character unless he's older than his wife and knocked enough around by his life to think of a fifth-share of a robbery as a long-owed recompense, but an illusion of youth still flickers in and out of his face from unpredictable angles, the naïveté of imagining that he can impress his wife enough to make her love him, maybe, or the phantom of the young man he used to be before the decades of passing lucky strangers their winnings while neither the money nor the luck inclined toward him. I like seeing a character actor given enough screen time to suggest these pasts, whether criminal or simply disappointed, and enough room in the dialogue to take up a person's space rather than just a definitive archetype or an indelible cameo. Not bad for a guy who really did not survive to the ends of most of his movies. I just heard some bells ring for five in the morning and I'm not even sure where the closest church is. This preliminary sketch brought to you by my versatile backers at Patreon.

1. I thought until I started writing this post that I had seen only a couple of Kubrick's films; the ratio actually turned out to be eight out of thirteen features. I have not seen Fear and Desire (1953), Killer's Kiss (1955), Barry Lyndon (1975), Full Metal Jacket (1987), or Eyes Wide Shut (1999), and I've always been under the impression that A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001) is considered essentially a Spielberg film. The rest, surprisingly, yes. I think I keep forgetting some of his movies are his. This happened to me with Hitchcock once.

2. Until The Killing, I did not realize either that Elisha Cook, Jr. had beautiful hands. He uses them like a mime and the part of George Peatty really shows them off. His most characteristic pose facing either his co-conspirators or his wife has his chin cupped in his palm, his elbow on the table; sometimes half his face is hidden by his hand or his fingernails tap nervously on his teeth, concentric and self-effacing gestures. They give him away as much as his defenseless face. I was unexpectedly reminded of Edward Petherbridge. I have to remember that Cook started as a stage actor; he may have been Hollywood's "lightest heavy," but he was all sorts of people on Broadway, light comedy and protagonists included.

3. It's not quite as bad as Madame Bovary (1949), but I do have some difficulty not hearing the line "Why, he must've been crazy thinking he stood a chance with a dame after she'd got a load of you!" in LeFou's voice. While we're on the subject: all together, everyone, for Tropical Storm Gaston.

4 Performable Epics | Tell Me a Story | Share | Link

Date: 2016-09-05 05:10
Subject: This is the night mail crossing the border
Security: Public
Music:Nathan Bowles, "Gadarene Fugue"

I am returned from the HFA's all-night train-themed marathon with derspatchel and rushthatspeaks. I did not expect to wind up my night by walking home from Harvard Square through Arlington Heights, but then I didn't realize that on Sundays there is no public transit in Boston until six-thirty in the morning and at five o'clock the taxis are scarce on the street. On the bright side, Rob walked with me as far as Arlington Center (where he caught the first 80 of the morning home), I got to eat a spinach croissant and a chocolate cruller along the way, I watched the sun rise, and there were two swans on the Arlington Reservoir. The cats were awake on the futon in identical poses, round little black loaves with tails wrapped around their paws; my mother sent word in the night that she saw them sleeping after being fed, but they looked at me as if to indicate that they had waited up all night for me. I should write about some movies. I may have to sleep first.

[Catch-up work first. Then falling over with cats. Autolycus arranged himself in a long, afternoon-sun-catching coil against my side. Hestia burrowed. Later in the night I comforted Autolycus against the cry of an owl, at which he leapt onto my chest and purred for reassurance. I did not actually sleep.]

I am in wholehearted agreement that a night of train film really ought to kick off with Auguste and Louis Lumière's L'Arrivée d'un train en gare de La Ciotat (1896), but it was nice that the HFA screened it in company with other short films from the Lumières' debut at the Grand Café, including La Sortie de l'usine Lumière à Lyon (1895), Le Débarquement du congrès de photographie à Lyon (1895), the pioneering slapstick Le Jardinier or L'Arroseur arrosé (1895), and Repas de bébé (1895), which I did not realize until I had access to the internet was a home movie of Auguste, Marguerite, and their daughter Andrée Lumière. She's a cute kid. One of her parents hands her a biscuit, she takes a bite, and then she breaks the fourth wall by trying to offer it to whoever she sees on the other side of the camera. I can't yet vouch for animals, but that 41-second clip proves that at the birth of cinema it was already possible to be totally upstaged by a baby.

Hands down, Howard Hawks' Twentieth Century (1934) gives better train than any other movie of its genre. My problem with it as a screwball comedy has to do with the balance of its central couple. If the audience is to believe that Broadway impresario and egomaniac-in-residence Oscar Jaffe (John Barrymore1) and his Trilbyish ex-protégé turned Hollywood fame monster Lily Garland (Carole Lombard) actually deserve each another, then they need to be equally terrible, temperamental people who really are happiest when pitching melodramatic lines and grand gestures at one another, preposterous suicide attempts and drop-of-the-hat hysterics and the kitchen sink—if it survived the chewing of the scenery—included. Lily suggests as much in one of her quieter moments: "That's the trouble with you, Oscar. With both of us. We're not people, we're lithographs . . . We're only real in between curtains." Unfortunately, Oscar's opening behavior is so jealously controlling and Lily's flight to Hollywood so understandable that I have trouble rooting for their reunion even when the script shows Lily, alone in her streamlined compartment on the 20th Century Limited, cherishing the hatpin with which Oscar discreetly stuck her to produce her first professional scream. Hawks is usually better with romance than that. He got a similar dynamic right in His Girl Friday (1940). Fortunately, I don't have to care about this romance in order to enjoy the sound of Lombard racketing from queenly disdain to paint-stripping invective in fifteen seconds flat or the sight of Barrymore, having been obliged to disguise himself in order to evade his creditors, discoursing melancholically on the state of his fortunes while picking putty out of his nose. I continue to adore Roscoe Karns' Owen O'Malley as he wanders in and out of scenes with his indefatigable allusions ("Save your dough, Sire—I yield the lamp of learning to no one") and his cockeyed equilibrium; he is never entirely sober, but even being tanked to the gills doesn't help where Oscar and Lily are concerned. He's only in two and a half scenes, but I also enjoy Charles Lane as Oscar's long-suffering stage manager who finally bails to become a successful Broadway producer in his own right; in 1934, the actor was still appearing under his original name of Charles Levison, which now makes a meta-joke out of Oscar's line about "this creature who came to me as an office boy as Max Mandelbaum—and who is now Max Jacobs for some mysterious reason—" He is the only person in the story with their head screwed on straight, which is probably why he spends most of it offstage. For the record, Twentieth Century came out in the late spring of 1934, just under the wire of the Production Code. It shows in the dialogue. Also the lingerie.

I should have recognized Harry Watt and Basil Wright's Night Mail (1936) as soon as I saw the names "Auden" and "Britten" credited along with Alberto Cavalcanti for "Sound Direction," but I couldn't see what Auden had to do with the documentary narration or the post-dubbed dialogue of the postal workers aboard the L.M.S. Royal Scot 6115 Scots Guardsman on her nightly run from Euston to Glasgow until we hit the quatrains. This is the night mail crossing the border, bringing the cheque and the postal order, letters for the rich, letters for the poor, the shop at the corner, the girl next door . . . By then the music was very recognizably Britten's, with the slightly dissonant short strokes of strings leaning on and off one another and the jags and flights of woodwinds, never exactly imitating the quickening train. The photography is fantastic, even if I'm sorry that I cannot hear the real voices of the employees aboard the train as they sort letters and switch off shifts and train the newbies and joke with one another and occasionally discover that an unfamiliar Scottish address is really a place in Wales ("Makes a nice change for you"). It's an impressive, intimate piece of propaganda and an evocative record of a postal service that no longer exists, so I'm not surprised it's a classic of its field. It is not anyone's fault but my brain's that the sound direction got the "Scherzo (Dance of Death)" from Britten's Ballad of Heroes (1939) stuck in my head.

It turns out that I enjoy Carol Reed's Night Train to Munich (1940) significantly more when I am not expecting it to be a real World War II movie. Written and filmed during the "phony war" when hostilities had been declared but mostly confined to Eastern and Northern Europe—before the fall of France, before Dunkirk—it has a weird hindsight air of unreality, almost alt-history despite its insistence on taking place in Czechoslovakia, England, Germany, Switzerland rather than Bandrika or one of its Ruritanian neighbors and deploying a notable amount of newsreel footage in its early scenes. Nothing in the script is as bad as history proved, not concentration camps, not the Gestapo, not the Nazi ethos itself. German efficiency and rigor is no match for English decency and whimsy. A stiff salute and a monocle will get you anywhere in life, or at least in Hitler's Berlin. The Gestapo agent played by Paul Henreid, then a recent enough emigré from Austria that he's credited as "Paul von Hernried," is three-dimensional enough to pose a threat: intelligent and attractive, neither a sadist nor a fool, and so unquestioningly loyal to the new Germany that he'll befriend a woman on orders from his government and betray her unforgivably on the same, though he never ceases to eye her afterward with an odd, unexamined twinge, as if he has just enough self-reflection to wish that things were different, but not enough to change so that they might be. Very little else in the picture is real enough to hurt. It wasn't made to be. Mostly for this reason, I bounced off it somewhat when I first saw it in 2011; I appreciated its cleverness more than I liked it, rather the way Margaret Lockwood's Anna feels about Rex Harrison's shape-changing hero. The second time around, I found the whole thing a lot more fun, especially the doppelgänger-contrasts of Harrison and Henreid. Charters and Caldicott are the other highlight of the film for me, making a welcome return engagement after their success in The Lady Vanishes (1938); I noticed this time that while Basil Radford's Charters harrumphs about the whole idea until he's out of alternatives, Naunton Wayne's Caldicott sees through the impostures of Harrison's character at once, probably because he's always slightly out of phase with practical reality and therefore right in tune with the quick-change polytropy of pier-end ballad-hawker and part-time safe-house-keeper Gus Bennett, now swaggering his way across the Third Reich as the imperious and irresistible Major Ulrich Herzoff, who might after all be plain Dicky Randall from Balliol who once bowled for the Gentlemen and used to have doughnuts—or was it rock cakes?—sent up to his rooms for tea. I just wish he were a trickster I felt affection for, as opposed to one whose style I can admire. I think what I'm trying to say here is that I still prefer Pimpernel Smith (1941). But Night Train to Munich is less of a hot mess than I thought.

About five minutes into the second short of the night, I leaned over to Rob and whispered, "It's like Bugsy Malone meets The Great Train Robbery." Lo and behold, I got home and it turns out that when you throw "short silent children train robbery" into a search engine, what you get back is The Little Train Robbery (1905), an all-child parody of The Great Train Robbery (1903) done by the same director, Edwin S. Porter. So that's a thing.

I'm surprised that Richard Fleischer's The Narrow Margin (1952) didn't come up in the noir marathon three years ago: it's not a lost masterpiece, but it's good. The first scene primes the audience to watch its assumptions, as Charles McGraw's hard-jawed detective Walter Brown, on his way to meet the mobster's widow he's supposed to escort safely from Chicago to Los Angeles so that she can testify before a grand jury, boasts to his partner that he already knows what she's going to be like: "A dish . . . The sixty-cent special. Cheap. Flashy. Strictly poison under the gravy." His older partner cocks him a skeptical eye, but Marie Windsor's Mrs. Frankie Neall certainly appears to fit the bill when she answers her flophouse door, a slinkily high-heeled, barbed-tongued brunette wearing artificial pearls and an unimpressed moue, chain-smoking while she blasts honky-tonk jazz on her portable record player; she demands to see the DA's signature before she goes anywhere with strangers, then all but hip-checks her Chicago minder out of the way with a withering "So long, mother." She cuts her eyes at Brown, laughs at him when he bridles: "Relax, Percy. Your shield's untarnished. I've changed my mind. I wouldn't want any of that nobility to rub off on me." (I can't decide if that's a classical or an Arthurian reference, by the way, but either way I wasn't expecting it.) He makes no bones about letting her know that if he wasn't an honest cop, he wouldn't think twice about leaving her for the hit men who drilled his partner on her stairs. Once aboard the Southern Pacific's Golden State, his distasteful job only complicates as he has to balance the demands of his cynical, needling charge and his lookout for the unknown hit men with the normal stresses of second-class train travel and the unforeseen factor of Mrs. Ann Sinclair (Jacqueline White), an attractive, self-possessed blonde who always seems to catch him, discomfitingly for a tough cop, at his most jittery or awkward moments, and whom he may have inadvertently endangered in return. At times the plot has a feel of Hitchcock, with an enigmatic blonde amidst a whirl of uncertain identities, while the handheld cinematography and the absence of any soundtrack beyond diegetic music and the rattling, sliding, swaying noises of the train itself give the action scenes a modern immediacy. A knock-down, drag-out fight in the lurching, confined space of an in-motion men's room points forward to From Russia with Love (1963). A night-lit window provides a crucial double exposure as expressionist as anything shot by Nicholas Musuraca or John Alton. The best scenes belong to McGraw and Windsor, whose hardboiled bickering ranks them among the great poisonous couples of film noir: "You make me sick to my stomach."–"Well, use your own sink!" Without spoilers, I really think one of the reasons I can't rate The Narrow Margin as a top-shelf noir has to do with its handling of a crucial character, who once they disappear from the narrative might as well have never been there in a way that suggests either a missing scene or priorities I don't agree with. The title is kind of irrelevant, but that happens to movies sometimes.

I'm guessing the brief shot of Marcello Mastroianni on a train was enough to qualify the trailer for Federico Fellini's City of Women (La città delle donne, 1980) for inclusion in this program, but wow, that looked even more like ricocheting around in Fellini's id than the usual.

I had seen nothing by Satyajit Ray before seeing Nayak (1966). It's a complex character study with a simple structure, it reminded me of Fellini's (1963) and Bergman's Wild Strawberries (Smultronstället, 1957), and I don't know if I can make it sound as good as it was, partly because the story is so low-key. The title means The Hero. Uttam Kumar stars as Arindam Mukherjee, a matinée idol of Bengali film traveling to Delhi to receive a national award for his acting; we meet him first as a moving abstract beneath the bars of the credits, combing his hair, coiling the cord of an electric shaver, shrugging on a white shirt, slinging on a studded tie. We don't see his face until he's folded a wad of bills into his pocket, tied the laces of his two-toned shoes, been asked a sudden, revealing question by his agent: what's so good about his latest film that audiences should go see it? The camera flips to the agent's perspective, the slight inquiring challenge on the actor's face. "I'm in it," Arindam answers mildly. "Isn't that enough?" The internet tells me that Kumar was himself a Bengali superstar and Nayak is a showcase not just for his charisma but his subtlety. Not quite forty at the time of filming, he has a quizzical, sensual, boyish face that closes automatically beneath a pair of dark glasses, a thick wave of dark hair and the kind of eyelashes that can be seen from the back row of the theater; he blows smoke rings in his compartment to entertain a silently staring, feverish girl, provocatively introduces himself to an elderly journalist with famously negative opinions about the film industry, signs an autograph with courtesy but no especial interest. It's not headline news yet, but the latest paper contains a story about a drunken altercation he got into the other night. He has a sense of humor and a disarming, slightly rueful smile, but it only reveals so much. Enter Sharmila Tagore's Aditi Sengupta, editor and publisher of a fledgling magazine staffed and written by women only. Initially she approaches him for an interview, which he smilingly rebuffs because film stars "live in a world of shadows—so it's best not to show the public too much of our flesh and blood"; later he returns to her because she's the only person on the train who seems indifferent to his stardom, who might see him as himself and not as a symbol, a stand-in, a "modern Krishna." Quick-minded, dryly spoken, her own wry beauty neither camouflaged nor contradicted by the heavy black frames of her glasses (except insofar as she puts them back on when Arindam compliments her, because that is not why she took them off), she starts taking notes. The journey goes on overnight, with side stories of the other passengers moving alongside Aditi and Arindam's unfolding relationship, intersecting, commenting. Almost nothing changes, which I really like. There are no shocking revelations in his past; there is no redemptive romance in his future. He's talented, but almost certainly not working at a level that challenges him; not as intellectual or as analytical as the woman he's talking to, but intelligent; he drinks too much and he regrets too many things, but he's not a human trash fire or even in danger of doing anything worse than going on as he is, which since it sometimes leaves him drunkenly staring through the half-open door of a passenger car at the way light slides faster and faster along the steel rails of the track might be bad enough. He tells his story to someone who understands him. She is not there to absolve or save him. He'll have to do that himself; by her own choice, her part in the story is finished. "You'll write your notes up from memory?"–"I'll keep them in my memory." The dialogue is a mix of Bengali and English, often within the same sentence; the cinematography is black-and-white and mostly realistic, the major exception being Arindam's nightmares, which are doozies. I can't decide if I think the wasteland of money spiked with skeletal arms holding out loudly jangling telephones is creepier than the nightclub which is also a nighttime forest in which everybody wears sunglasses and nobody looks at Arindam until all of a sudden they won't look away. I have no idea if Ray ever made any genre films, but if so I imagine they were amazing. My mother has a book of his short stories; I'll see if I can find them tonight.

I just want to point out that the ephemera screened throughout this marathon were a quite decent assortment of '60's-era advertisements for theater concessions and local businesses, but when you back an animated circus of drive-in snacks with Marlene Dietrich singing "Lili Marlene," surrealism is achieved.

Calling Joseph Sargent's The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974) a love letter to New York City in the '70's is an overstatement, unless it's a love letter that's about half exuberantly affectionate profanity and the other half just the regular kind of profanity, read in a graffiti-snarled subway car amid the teeth-cracking crush of rush hour or the glassy-eyed fluorescence of an end-of-shift morning, the kind where just tearing off the postmark releases a personal time capsule of chain-smoked nicotine and anyway it was delivered two weeks late because of the strike. The plot is the plot, a solid hijacking-cum-heist race against time calibrated to the quirks and loopholes of the New York City Subway; the local color is everything. I always forget the script was written by 1776's Peter Stone, who's very good at the genre of "men who get on each other's nerves expressing it catchily and pungently while nonetheless having to deal with each other long enough to get anything done," though the transit workers, police, hijackers, politicians, and random passers-by of Pelham's New York are a lot swearier than the Continental Congress. If Stephen Hopkins had handed out any of those time-saving cards that read "Dear sir: You are without any doubt a rogue, a rascal, a villain, a thief, a scoundrel, and a mean, dirty, stinking, sniveling, sneaking, pimping, pocket-picking, thrice double-damned no-good son of a bitch" to the cast of this movie, they would have been gone within the first five minutes. Nobody in the film is having a good day. Okay, maybe one of the hijackers, but the man who organized the crime in the first place (Robert Shaw, meticulous and so stone cold that he does crosswords in the cab of the hijacked train while waiting for the transit police to get back to him) calmly states that he believes the man in question to be "mad. Why do you think they threw him out of the Mafia?" Everyone else is underslept or overworked or fighting with their coworkers or lost their wedding ring down the john or is eating more antacids than medically advisable or has the flu or has to lead a tour group or has just been taken hostage by four heavily armed men with fake mustaches and an unknown agenda. And yet somehow most of this movie is hilarious as well as nail-biting and more grounded than most thrillers, because for the most part everyone actually does what needs doing—even the otherwise useless Mayor (Lee Wallace), after enough arm-twisting—they just bitch ceaselessly about it. Walter Matthau is nobody's idea of an action hero as Lieutenant Zach Garber of the New York City Transit Police and in fact, though at one point he holds a gun on another man, his superpower is basically, crankily getting shit done (and definitely not looking good while doing it. If the cinematography is a paean to grimy, run-down '70's New York, the costumes are a record of a regrettable time in American fashions. Garber's flat yellow tie is objectionable enough, but when combined with his test-pattern plaid shirt it becomes the kind of public offense he explains transit cops have to deal with daily: "robbery, assault, murder, drunkenness, illness, vandalism, mishegos . . ."). I keep meaning to track down the score with its funky, brassy, edgy theme that can sound like a threat or a punch line, depending on which end of the movie you're at. The more I write about it, the more I think The Taking of Pelham One Two Three may be the most bad-tempered feel-good movie I know.

I had planned to stay through Bong Joon-ho's Snowpiercer (2013) after all, but sitting in the dark, staring at moving images, I found my brain sliding glassily off a narrative I had seen twice before and should have been able to track; I didn't want to fall asleep in my seat because I knew it would wreck my already hurting neck and shoulder (I saw a physical therapist last week, it turns out I did something really unpleasant to my left trapezius, I have exercises and restrictions and a bunch of appointments now) and I couldn't accept Rush's very kind offer of a car to nap in for the same reason, so at a quarter to five I decided to leave the theater and take the next 77 home. See the start of this story. Anyway, I got home, had a day, wrote this. It's five in the morning again. I don't even want to calculate how many hours I've been awake. This night's journey brought to you by my fellow travelers at Patreon.

1. I don't normally footnote marathon reviews because then we'd be here all week, but about halfway through Twentieth Century it finally dawned on me that Oscar Jaffe's vocal theatrics sounded familiar—right down to the growl, the soft articulation, and the falsetto break—not so much because I'd seen the movie before, but because when Hans Conried put on his mid-Atlantic Shakespearean, he was doing John Barrymore, quite possibly John Barrymore as Oscar Jaffe. I bounced the idea off Rob, who agreed that he could hear it, but I am much more familiar with Conried's sound than with Barrymore's and I wanted to know if there was any evidence for a deliberate likeness. My copy of Suzanne Gargiulo's Hans Conried: A Biography (2002) is in a box with the rest, but I found what I needed through Google Books: "In 1937, NBC's Streamlined Shakespeare provided Conried with the opportunity to meet and work with the great John Barrymore. The legendary actor was well past his prime by now, but still a commanding presence. Barrymore was deeply impressed with Conried's natural affinity for acting. The elder actor would select Conried as his double to take over for him when he was 'indisposed' for one reason or another . . . In 1939, [Rudy] Vallee decided to try a new format that incorporated live dramatic readings to create a unique diversion for the guests of the [Victor Hugo supper] club, as well as the listeners at home. According to Vallee: 'It was simply a reading by some of the best Hollywood radio personalities of some of our Barrymore Sealtest scripts. We put long, low portable foot lights on the floor, and read the radio scripts just as we would in the radio studio. At the time, Hans Conried was more than willing to perform for me, and since he did an excellent imitation of John Barrymore, we had much fun with these beautifully written scripts in addition to several other acts of the typical nightclub genre. Barrymore came in one night and seemed to enjoy Hans Conried's characterization of the "Great Profile".'" I have to say, I feel pretty smug about this.

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Date: 2016-09-02 19:37
Subject: And you are going to get yourself together now, aren't you?
Security: Public
Music:Robyn Hitchcock, "Sometimes a Blonde"

Back from doctor's appointments. I don't know if it was an orientation event or if the plaza outside Harvard's science center just spontaneously generates these things, but on my return trip I discovered a live musical performance [edit: Grace Morrison], a game of human chess, and a small petting zoo. I stopped for five minutes and spent some time with a small white kid which liked to be scritched around its ex-horns and left my hands smelling strongly of goat. The nearby potbellied pig was also receiving a lot of love.

I detoured briefly from catching the bus into Raven Used Books, where I checked in with a couple of books I have been considering for the last month and left with an unexpected free copy of Robert D. Ballard's Mystery of the Ancient Seafarers: Early Maritime Civilizations (2004). I spotted it on my way out, an oversized National Geographic companion volume to a PBS special of the same name; it was on the two-dollar shelf and the bookseller just waved me out the door with it. I am delighted. It has a fresco from Akrotiri on the cover—the terracotta-skinned young fisherman with a string of mahi-mahi in either hand, their backs and sides the same Egyptian blue as the shaved scalp of his head—and full-page photographs everywhere. It's a little of the sea in a summer I didn't get enough in.

[The remainder of this post substantially delayed by Autolycus climbing into my lap, then onto my chest—purring insistently all the while—and falling asleep for something upward of an hour. Previously he had been prowling the sills of the summer kitchen, tempted by the sound of birds in the trees outside; Hestia was the small breathing croissant-lump in the blankets beside me, having burrowed her way in for an afternoon nap. I gave up, put aside the computer, and napped with cats. I regret nothing.]

On the bus I finished Jonathan D. Sarna's When General Grant Expelled the Jews (2012), which I bought last week from the basement of the Harvard Book Store—the last book-purchase of my month on the outskirts of Harvard Square—because my reaction to the title was when what happened where now? I recommend it highly; it's a compact and fascinating study of a wartime event I had never heard of and its repercussions for both the American Jewish community of the mid-nineteenth century and Ulysses S. Grant during and following his two terms as President of the United States, as well as a book about intersectionality. The title refers to Grant's infamous 1862 "General Orders No. 11," a military measure intended to combat the black-market cotton trade in the Department of the Tennessee but leveled directly and explicitly at "Jews as a class," who were given en masse twenty-four hours to lekh-l'kha it out of Union-controlled Mississippi, Kentucky, and Tennessee. Sarna has some ideas about what Grant was thinking when he wrote the order, but it very obviously did not include foreseeing the firestorm that promply hit the public sphere. There were letters, telegrams, newspapers taking sides, a delegation to the White House led by Cesar Kaskel, a Jewish merchant from Paducah who had left Prussia to get away from exactly this kind of anti-Semitic nonsense. By personal command of President Lincoln, the order was revoked within a month. Grant's reputation with the Jews of America plunged straight into the toilet—you don't get called "Haman" for being a great ally to Jews—and he spent quite possibly the rest of his life trying to get it back. The degree to which he succeeded, the choices he made toward reparation and his expressed or inferred feelings about his behavior, make up the majority of the book and are actually more interesting than the fact of the order itself. Sarna is very good at the nuances of identity, politics, and the ways that ethnic groups are complex within themselves and complicated in their interactions with other groups, here meaning primarily Jewish, Black, and Native Americans; he knows that no one is monolithic, not even individuals. I never took any classes with him at Brandeis, but he was the advisor of friends of mine: I like knowing, even more than a dozen years later, that they were studying with someone good. The same press has published a biography of Emma Lazarus, so I will be looking for that.

I know Gene Wilder died on Monday and I haven't had a chance to write about him. I saw him last in The Frisco Kid at the HFA. It's an uneven film, but a favorite of mine, and I think one of Wilder's best characters. I'll see what I can do.

19 Performable Epics | Tell Me a Story | Share | Link

Date: 2016-08-06 05:13
Subject: You know, you are not a person, Mr. Burns, you are an experience
Security: Public
Music:Rhyton, "D.D. Damage"

The absence of internet from my life for the last five days has, among other issues, made it difficult for me to post about the movies I've seen recently. Let's start with Herb Gardner's A Thousand Clowns (1965).

I've seen this movie three times now; I don't know if I would call it a favorite of mine in the same way that I can point to The Long Voyage Home (1940) or A Canterbury Tale (1944) or Wittgenstein (1993) and see how something in them resonates deeply with me, but I seem to jump at every chance I get to see it and I recommend you at least once do the same. It's a small story, sharply and subtly written; it was adapted by the author from a play I've never seen or read. Jason Robards stars as Murray Burns, a committed iconoclast proudly unemployed after walking out on a three-year stint as head writer for Leo Herman's stultifying kids' show Chuckles the Chipmunk.1 He celebrates invented holidays like Irving R. Feldman's Birthday, which honors "the proprietor of perhaps the most distinguished kosher delicatessen in our neighborhood," and starts each day by addressing the shuttered apartments of his neighbors like an officer at parade, exhorting them to put out "a better class of garbage—more empty champagne bottles and caviar cans!" He has conversations with the public-access weather forecast. His apartment is one of the great clutter collections of the century, proving his oft-repeated point that "you can never have too many eagles." He carries a pair of binoculars for people-watching and takes seriously the project of teaching his twelve-year-old nephew "the subtle, sneaky, important reason he was born a human being and not a chair." He's a charmer, a wiseass, a weirdo, and he has some very good points to make about the soul-killing conformity of consumer society; he is also, the longer the film goes on and the more the audience observes the effect he has on the people around him, a painfully prescient rebuke to the valorization of the American man-child, the hero who's so unconventional and so brilliant that he gets a pass from the universe for all his immature hijinks while the rest of the ordinary people are left to flounder along behind him, picking up after the workaday world. To wit, while Murray's joyous nonconformism may well be saving his beloved Nick (Barry Gordon in a great portrayal of a serious, intelligent child who really is a child, never mind that for most of the runtime he looks like the resigned, responsible one in this partnership; he has one of those elastic crescent faces that fold into their smiles and he does a not bad impression of Peter Lorre, although his Alexander Hamilton impression is even better) from growing up into "a list-maker . . . one of the nice dead people," it's also placed the kid in danger of being removed from his uncle's custody by the New York Bureau of Child Welfare because of his unstable home circumstances. Six months of willful unemployment plus three months of dodging the Welfare Board's letters and phone calls is no recommendation for fit guardianship. Or as Nick puts it in his slightly Runyonesque syntax, "An unemployed person like you are for so many months is bad for you as the person involved and it's definitely bad for me who he lives with in the same house where the rent isn't paid up for months sometimes. And I wish you'd get a job, Murray. Please." We get that line within the first ten minutes of the movie. The other hundred and six minutes determine what dealing or not dealing with it is worth to Murray Burns.

That angle alone is reason enough for me to care about A Thousand Clowns, but there is a very real possibility that I actually love the film for the character of Albert Amundson, the social worker played by William Daniels in a reprise of his 1962 Broadway role.2 I imprinted on Daniels, of course, with 1776's John Adams, and certainly Albert trends toward the "obnoxious and disliked" end of the actor's range. He introduces himself and Barbara Harris' Sandra Markowitz as "a carefully planned balance of social case worker such as myself and psychological social worker such as Miss Markowitz" and if her earnest Freudian concern looks like one negative stereotype of social work, then his punctilious paper-pushing looks like the other—bureaucracy incarnate with the briefcase to prove it, all file folders and the latest model of jargon, a professional cold fish. He has one-piece dark hair, a pale owlish face rendered almost a cartoon by heavy horn-rimmed glasses that leave his eyebrows nowhere to go but up. His clothes are business anonymous, his speech self-consciously depersonalized except when his hasty conferences with Sandra—conducted in mutters in Murray's kitchen alcove, as if there's any privacy in a one-room apartment—slide revealingly into the cracks of their personal as well as professional relationship. "He's really a very nice person when he's not on cases," she'll defend him after the fact, adding with damning sincerity, "Last month I fell asleep on him twice while he was talking." For social courtesies, he has a polite little tic of a smile that the audience quickly identifies as a tell for embarrassment rather than pleasure and is otherwise prone to a curiously compressed expression, not quite as though he has a lemon in his mouth, but as though there might be a lemon in his future any second now.3 Pushed to the limit of his patience, he delivers the psychological assessment "maladjusted" like a professional judgment from God. It does not have its intended effect. Murray flusters him and puts him off his script, distracts, double-talks, and generally demolishes him. He is an authority figure, so he is meant to be defied; he is humorless, so he'll be a fine figure of fun; he is an expert, so he is meant to be confounded. He exits the scene in a discombobulated state of all of the above, leaving behind a laughing, crying, liberated Sandra admitting to Murray that "there is a kind of relief that it's gone—the job, and even Albert . . . and I don't have the vaguest idea who I am." So far, so free-spirited. When her erstwhile partner returns the next morning, both the audience and Murray are prepared for more of the same. At first it is more of the same, as a cautious but hapless Albert finds himself once more playing straight man to Murray's unerring absurdism, saying in all sobriety sentences like "That's a very silly thing for her to be in, that closet" and, a pull quote if I ever heard one, the title of this post. But he also has something very real to say, whether Murray wants to hear it or not, and presently, still talking like a textbook and just as square as Flatland, he fires the first and best shot over the bows of Murray's countercultural complacency.

Who writes your material for you, Charles Dickens?Collapse )

It's a rewarding movie to pay attention to. Arthur J. Ornitz's cinematography is gorgeous, a gelatin silver panorama of New York City in the days when my father lived off St. Mark's Place and my mother visited Brooklyn from Bard College; Ralph Rosenblum's editing plays the kinds of tricks with time that you see in good prose, compressing the crowds of rush hour into a sprightly brass chorus of "The Battle Cry of Freedom" or drawing out a moment of confetti and exuberant farewell to an ocean liner into a real consideration of a relationship, examined from all directions like the recurring theme of "Yes Sir, That's My Baby," which can be Murray and Nick's vaudevillian party piece or a quietly strummed meditation, floating through one perfect afternoon: Oh, by the way, oh, by the way, when we meet somebody we'll say . . . The opening credits establish marching band music as the leitmotiv of that "horrible thing . . . people going to work" so that the film can later show Murray making the job-hunting rounds to a loose-jointed ragtime arrangement of "The Stars and Stripes Forever," signaling at once his attitude toward the whole business. Enough references to pastrami go by in the script that I always leave the theater wanting a sandwich and never being anywhere near a deli in time. It's a very New York movie. It's a very New York Jewish movie. Jason Robards was neither, but he makes Murray Burns work, sympathetically and sardonically, where I can easily see the character's determined anarchy simplifying in the hands of a less complicated actor to standard-issue whimsy or just being an asshole.

Of the uniformly excellent cast of A Thousand Clowns, the only one who walked away with an Oscar was Martin Balsam, primarily on the strength of his eleven o'clock scene in which he describes his philosophy of being "the best possible Arnold Burns." It's true that it's a memorable piece of acting, for once giving the last word to a man who has always lived conventionally in his outlandish brother's shadow. I'm not sure that it sticks with me more than Daniels' two scenes, or even just the way Albert Amundson pushes his glasses up his nose with the emotional effect of a rueful shake of the head. Autolycus has spent the last five minutes purringly and insistently trying to climb between my hands and the keyboard, so I should wrap things up before he succeeds. In the course of writing this post, it has become obvious to me that if anyone had wanted to make a movie of Madeleine L'Engle's A Wind in the Door when it was published in 1973, William Daniels would have made an ideal Mr. Jenkins. This casting brought to you by my complex backers at Patreon.

1. As he soberly explains to a pair of social workers, "Six months ago, a perfectly adult bartender asked me if I wanted an onion in my martini and I said, 'Gosh and gollies, you betcha!' Well, I knew it was time to quit."

2. The entire cast transferred from Broadway with the exception of Larry Haines, who originated the part of Arnold Burns, and Tony-winning female lead Sandy Dennis, who was replaced by Barbara Harris for reasons unknown to me but demonstrably the right ones, since I can't imagine anyone other than Harris in the part. "Miss Markowitz, or, actually, Dr. Markowitz" looks at first like as much of a stock type as her partner, the professional woman who needs to be loosened up by the hero—freed from her clipboard, her checklists, and her engagement to Albert, she turns out to be goofy, warmhearted, and unreservedly disorganized, taking readily to Murray's habits of visiting the city's landmarks like a tourist and waving off cruise ships he doesn't know. Her inability to keep a dispassionate distance from her cases is fervently encouraged by her new partner, who cites it as evidence of her undamaged humanity: "You are a lover of things and of people, so you took up work where you could get at as many of them as possible—and it just turned out there were too many of them and too much that moves you." In keeping with the play's insistence on three dimensions for all of its characters, however, her degree in psychology is more than just a handicap for her awakening sense of eccentricity to overcome. Her second-act parting words to Murray are gently spoken and as piercing as a much longer speech: "I can see why Nick likes it here. I would like it too if I was twelve years old."

3. To be fair to Albert, it's a lemon a minute being on the receiving end of Murray's wit.

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Date: 2016-07-22 04:37
Subject: That was not six months
Security: Public
Music:Anna & Elizabeth, "Little Black Train"

[Begun on the regional Amtrak back to Boston, completed much, much later when the internet was reliable enough to allow me to finish my day's work first.]

The last time I caught an evening train out of Penn Station, it was early April and the sky at eight o'clock was already dark. Now I'm looking at railyards and construction scaffolding and cranes by that smoky peach-blue light for which there should be an English adjective, but I've never heard one. It's a wonderful color for seeing a city at a distance. The river looks like folded metal; the skyline looks like a set behind a scrim. I'm pretty sure I learned how to describe cities from Tanith Lee's Paradys. From a height, I glanced behind me once, and saw the river, a scimitar of pure metal, white-hot, as the City lapsed in the shallows of the dying afternoon.

I was not expecting to love Anaïs Mitchell and Rachel Chavkin's Hadestown even better than the original album, but I am not entirely surprised. It is not just that the ellipses of the original songs are fleshed out into a full through-composed score which allows even its gods the depth of tragedy or that at least a third of the music is new since the original recording, although the new music is half of the show's power. The haunting opener "Any Way the Wind Blows" explicitly strengthens the Dust Bowl, Depression echoes of the original setting, pointing up the harshness of the world and the stakes for Eurydike who has already known what it is to starve: in the fever of a world in flames, in the season of the hurricanes, flood'll get you if the fire don't . . . in the valley of the exodus, in the belly of a bowl of dust . . . Sisters gone, gone the gypsy route. Brothers gone, gone for a job down south. Gone the same way as the shantytown and the traveling show—any way the wind blows. Where we were originally introduced to the lovers with the playfully combative call-and-response "Wedding Song," the show first gives them a courtship between Eurydike's experienced wariness and Orpheus' dreamy arrogance, to be echoed devastatingly when they meet again in the underworld: it is called "Come Home with Me." When steel-hard, coin-cold Hades is softened in the second act by Orpheus' simple retelling of his love for Persephone when it was awestruck and new, the Fates' "Word to the Wise" recalls him to his responsibilities as the unforgiving king of walls and floodlights, to the very same self-doubt and mistrust and anxiety that will in turn, inexorably, cause the poet to look back. It's not even just the sprechstimme narration of Hermes, the cardsharp of the gods with his hip flask and his rolled-up sleeves and his nattily feathered fedora, although his scratchy confidence man's storytelling ensures that the only moments of dialogue in the show without some kind of rhyme or musical support are the ones that land like blows. Blessed among epic traditions, it's the reperformance and the recontextualization.

I can explain this best with two songs that I happen to love, because they're katabatic. "Way Down Hadestown" is the third track on the original album, after Orpheus and Eurydike's "Wedding Song" and Orpheus' "Epic I," the first version of the song with which he will turn a god's heart. It is our introduction to Hermes, bawling "All aboard!" before the music kicks off; it is our introduction to Persephone, as if she just stepped onto the platform with a suitcase in her hand, waiting for the god of the railway depot to conduct her to the other world. In the show, Hermes has been our master of ceremonies for six or eight songs already; we have watched Orpheus and Eurydike fall in love in the blossoming days of spring and summer, "living it up on top" with Persephone who makes the most of her half-year in the light, patron of fruit and wine and flowers and things that grow, like love. Now it is autumn and all of a sudden the song takes on a specific and immediate importance: it is a New Orleans jazz funeral for Persephone, a trombone-wailing, fiddle-slanging processional—second line umbrella not excluded—accompanying her to her annual death. Winter's nigh and summer's over—I hear that high and lonesome sound of my husband coming for to bring me home to Hadestown. Way down Hadestown, way down under the ground. A train whistle wails twice, blown by Hermes; a dry white light makes a blinding tunnel between the audience's seats, the headlights of Hades' oncoming train.1 The god who should not be seen steps out of its nothing-colored glare, silhouetted in the haze like three-dimensional film noir. "You're early," his wife spits, her carpetbag full of flowers and a flask and even a little morphine—those multi-purpose poppies—against the worst of winter. His voice is dark and amused, deep as a seam of coal: "I missed you." And she's gone. Which brings me to "Wait for Me." In the original recording, it is the duet of Orpheus guided by Hades: the god whispering the perils and tricks of the underworld, the poet following, calling over and over to his lost love, Wait for me, I'm coming . . . Onstage, it is explicit that the "long way down" is the roundabout route that the living must take with no coin to cross the Styx—he's some kind of poet and he's penniless—but it is not a solitary journey. The Fates prepare the way, transforming the open sky of the upper world into the industrial ceiling of Hadestown with its fan-grilled electric lights instead of moon or sun or stars: set them swinging in time with Orpheus' singing, slow as the drag of a nightmare. The rest of the cast join in with him, the gods and the Moirai and the dead, Eurydike with her hood pulled up like Persephone, her light snuffed out, not knowing that anyone is coming for her. Wait for me, I'm coming with you, I'm coming, too . . . She will sing the same words to Orpheus as he begins the long walk out of the underworld and she follows with the same dreamlike slow motion, an insubstantial shade struggling against the event horizon of death. The expanded script of Hadestown parallels Hades/Persephone and Orpheus/Eurydike throughout, down to the casting of two white men and two women of color. Take it from an old man, Hades cynically counseled Orpheus, just as Persephone encouraged Eurydike to take the advice of a woman of my age, both of them speaking of the inevitable breaking of love. When Orpheus turns back at the threshold of the upper air with the light behind him, it is the same pattern, fixed and repeating as figures moving around the curve of a vase. "You're early," Eurydike breathes, the last thing she will ever say to her husband. Orpheus' voice is caught in his throat, small as the snapped stem of a flower: "I missed you." And she's gone. I loved both "Way Down Hadestown" and "Wait for Me" when I heard them for the first time six years ago; now they are a significant part of the reason I want a recording of this cast. ("Any Way the Wind Blows" is also incompletely stuck in my head.)

The set is simple. The theater looks like it would be a black box in its natural habitat; this show built it into an amphitheatre. The seven-piece orchestra occupies a section of bleachers opposite the audience's entrance, beneath the catwalk and the door in the blank brick wall that leads to the upper world. A tree grows out of the bandstand, twisting its branches like the tines of antlers up into the stage lighting; it sheds paper blossoms in spring for Persephone's return and autumn leaves the color of iron rust for her departure in the fall. The cast carry on a handful of props at best—kerosene lanterns for the Fates, Persephone's carpetbag, Orpheus' guitar. Eurydike's winter coat that is not heavy enough to keep the road-weary cold from her back. A coin. There are two or three old-time-radio-style microphones2 that can be moved from the bandstand to the circle of center stage; Hades commands one to seduce Eurydike with the deep black river of "Hey, Little Songbird" or catechize the denizens of Hadestown in the anti-revival "Why We Build the Wall," while another is reserved for intimate duets between mortal lovers or gods. The costumes suggest the 1930's and are full of little touches, entirely extratextual nods to the myth. The Fates are never named, but the tall lynx-slim blonde one must be Atropos because she wears a pair of shears in a holster at her side; the pendant on the breast of dark-skinned Lachesis with her tightly cropped crimson hair is a folded slide ruler in its leather sheath; sharp-smiling Klotho with her dark hair braided atop her head wears three cords of undyed yarn across her chest like a bandolier. Persephone is dressed in slinky, summery green wrapped ankle to shoulder with a trellis of blooming vines; the lacy edge of a poppy-red slip just peeks out from beneath its hem. There are flowers in her hair, but their petals are as split and red as pomegranates. Hades wears dark glasses—the signature of anonymity, as good in the movies as a helm of invisibility—which he removes only once safely under the earth and even then his eyes are narrowed in a skeptical sneer, except for one vulnerable, precisely timed moment when he is reminded of something he thought forever lost: the smell of the flowers she held in her hand and the pollen that fell from her fingertips . . . a man with a taste of nectar upon his lips. Hermes with the step-right-up showmanship of a carnival talker captions the first meeting of Eurydike with Hades as "Songbird vs. Rattlesnake," shivering a matchbox's rattle to signal that the god himself is the serpent that caused her death. And the Fates are not malevolent, but they are the immutable way the world goes: they do not drive the story to tragedy; it always was—was going to be, has been—one. There is a fragile hope in the parting of Hades and Persephone, the gods who have eternity to get it right. We who are human have one shot and sometimes we get it wrong. We try. Goodnight, brothers, goodnight.

The production runs through the end of the month, which means next Sunday; I strongly encourage anyone in the New York area and even some people who aren't to see about tickets if they can. I am told that there will be a recording of the NYTW cast, and I am just waiting until I can throw money at it, but some of the more piercing moments will not be audible, like the transformation of the instrumental "Lovers' Desire" into a dance between Persephone and Hades, their first moment of affectionate connection in millennia, or the way that Hades' token of promised wealth and luxury, folded into Eurydike's hand as he leaves her, is the same coin with which she pays Hermes for her own death. I saw all of the original cast except for Hermes and Atropos and I have to say that they were as iconic and indelible in their roles as everyone else onstage. The whole thing was eminently worth the exhaustion and flurry of travel, even if I seem to have paid for my own descent-and-return in the time-honored fashion, leaving behind part of my pants and an unexpected amount of blood.3 I will describe the rest of the trip tomorrow. It was also lovely. Right now I'm going to see about sleeping before dawn.

1. I realized then that I was hearing a different song inside my head, conjured by nothing more than the stagecraft and the slant chime of the folk tradition. Go tell the ballroom lady, dressed all in worldly pride, that death's dark train is coming—prepare to take a ride. There's a little black train a-coming . . . I can't prove it's intentional as opposed to a side effect of drawing on the same symbol-set as the relevant folk songs, because there are no lyrical or musical allusions that I was able to detect, but I found it extremely resonant either way. I always heard the owe my soul to the company store of Merle Travis' "Sixteen Tons" behind Mitchell's Hades who rules over miners of mines, diggers of graves, they bowed down to Hades who gave them work and they bowed down to Hades who made them sweat, who paid them their wages and set them about digging and dredging and dragging the depths of the earth to turn its insides out yet whose realm is inescapable because Mr. Hades is a mean old boss with a silver whistle and a golden scale—an eye for an eye and he weighs the cost, a lie for a lie and your soul for sale, sold to the king on the chromium throne, thrown to the bottom of a Sing Sing cell, but the likeness leaps out even more strongly when Eurydike, newly arrived in Hadestown, literally signs her life away behind the closed doors of Hades' office. The show is scattered with moments like these, intermingled with the classical ones: two oral traditions in tandem.

2. derspatchel, if it turns out there's video of this show, I will play it for you and you will tell me exactly what make and model the microphones were, because I can describe them if you give me time but not so technically that the internet will cough up the documentation I want.

3. Due to wholly unrelated incidents, I hasten to add! I pay weird travel prices with New York. In April, my hat broke (and was resurrected thanks to the good offices of Salmagundi, but still). This time, the zipper on the fly of my corduroys rather startlingly disintegrated—tiny metal teeth went flying—requiring me to purchase some safety pins from a drugstore in order to go among decent people without comment and all I'm going to say about the blister on my heel is that my pain thresholds must have come back up in the last ten years, because I wasn't expecting to walk down Broadway from 31st Street to 12th and then from East 4th Street to the World Trade Center in perceptible but otherwise manageable discomfort and then take my shoes off to find that my sock looked like it belonged to one of Cinderella's older sisters according to Grimm. I just looked at my original statement and realized it sounded like Theseus, that one time he quite literally left his ass in Hades.

13 Performable Epics | Tell Me a Story | Share | Link

Date: 2016-05-31 23:55
Subject: A terrifying capacity for pursuing the impossible
Security: Public
Music:Michael Flanders & Donald Swann, "Good Literature"

And now we reach the review where I feel that my idiosyncratic exposure to the Western canon has finally caught up with me. I can tell you with no qualms at all that Vincente Minnelli's Madame Bovary (1949) is a surprisingly good movie. What I can't tell you is whether it's a good Madame Bovary.

I don't expect it to surprise anyone that the only Flaubert I've read is Salammbô (1862). In college, right after the relevant portions of Polybios. It's exotic, romantic, and Orientalist to the max, but it's the closest I've ever gotten to the Carthaginian novel I wish Tanith Lee had written. Madame Bovary is a masterpiece of realism and irony and if I ever tried it on my own time, I must have bounced like ping-pong, because I had only a cultural osmosis knowledge of the plot going into the movie. Full disclosure: I expected it to be terrible. Not that my expectations of Minnelli are ordinarily low, but I couldn't imagine how anyone could hope to film a story with that much poshlost and adultery in the days of the studio system, especially a studio as generally glossy as MGM. As far as I can tell from conversations with rushthatspeaks and derspatchel, they got away with as much as they did by a combination of narrative redirection and judicious rearrangement of plot, jettisoning a lot of the more explicit moments, introducing more symbolic ones in their place, but retaining the essential theme of a protagonist who self-destructs trying to live inside a romantic novel despite ever more banal evidence to the contrary. I'm not sure it preserves all the irony or the shifting registers of Flaubert's style, but the result is a very good anti-romance, photographed in the elegant black and white of the historical genre it undercuts and sympathetically framed by James Mason as a fictionalized but eloquent Gustave Flaubert, defending his scandalous novel before the small-minded courts of Paris. His arguments are meant not for his skeptical judges, but for the spectators beyond the screen: "I do deny that I have made any attack upon public morality . . . There are thousands of Emma Bovarys—I only had to draw from life. And there are hundreds and thousands of women who wish they were Emma Bovary, and have been saved from her fate not by virtue, but simply by lack of determination." As a preemptive strike against film censorship, it's a little disingenuous, seeing as the novel had already been heavily reworked for the approval of the Breen Office before getting anywhere near corrupting the impressionable audiences of America, but as groundwork for the film's attitude toward its antiheroine, it's essential.

Even without having seen anything like Minnelli's entire filmography, I find it very difficult not to read Madame Bovary as a bleaker, more caustic companion piece to the director's previous film, the Technicolor musical The Pirate (1948), better known around here as "Gene Kelly in hot pants." In the hothouse setting of a semi-historical Caribbean, Judy Garland's Manuela fantasizes about the beautiful, brutal pirate who will "swoop down upon [her] like a chicken hawk and carry [her] away," but when faced with a choice between Gene Kelly's Serafin, the traveling player who has been flamboyantly impersonating Manuela's impossible romantic ideal, and the actual former pirate Macoco, the corpulent, bullying mayor played by Walter Slezak, she wisely recognizes the virtues of fantasy as fantasy and chooses the actor. Reconciling with reality is never an option for Jennifer Jones' Emma Bovary. The film is structured as a series of ever more desperate attempts to realize her fantasies, a different one each time, all doomed to failure by the simple fact that life does not behave like the popular novels, romantic engravings, and magazine advertisements with which the young Emma Rouault filled her spare time and collaged the walls of her bedroom in the imaginative insulation instantly recognizable to any teenager. "We had taught her . . . to believe in Cinderella," Mason's Flaubert ruefully observes.

Her very first scenes attest to her capacity for story-making. Called out in the drenching rain to see to a broken leg on an isolated farm, Charles Bovary (Van Heflin) is so busy getting out of his soaked coat and boots and fending off the nosy criticism of visiting neighbors—"A doctor should have a beard!"—that he doesn't even register the existence of his patient's daughter. We barely see her ourselves, a slight dark girl-shape in peasant skirts and a hastily tied kerchief who quickly makes herself scarce after hearing the young doctor introduce himself with what then seems like charming modesty: "Madame, I share your doubts. May I say that my only qualifications are these, that it's a very stormy night; that I have no wife; that I am the doctor who came." Taking his leave of the Rouault household the next morning, however, he's stunned by a vision in a white flounced dress neatly finishing an omelet in a skillet over a rustic stove. She's put a checked cloth on the table that was bare the night before and set it with a vase of irises, a bowl of apples, a bottle of wine. Among the strings of garlic and drying bunches of herbs, she stands out like a fashion plate. Her dark hair is drawn back from the round, clean lines of her face and she has a rose pinned to the bodice of her dress. Charles promptly forgets about his boots and walks into a lamp. It's as gratifying a reaction as a romantic heroine could hope to produce and she presses her advantage—she's even donned perfume for the occasion and shyly asks the doctor if he likes it. His response is gauche and heartfelt, which we will come to learn are the defining characteristics of Charles Bovary: "Mademoiselle, I've come into many a farmhouse kitchen at dawn, I've smelled many smells—sour milk, children's vomit—I've never smelled perfume before." When he agrees to return the next day—to check on her father, of course—she watches him go with radiant happiness, in love already with the tall, tired stranger with his husky voice and his transparent face, in love with the act of loving. By sheer force of will and planning, she wrestled her life out of its dreary workaday into a moment of sweetness and romance. She dressed for the part, she staged the scene, and it worked perfectly. It is the first and last time reality will conform to Emma's desires.

It's not so much that the rest of the story is automatically downhill from here, although I might as well warn people with even less cultural osmosis than me that it doesn't end prettily. It's that the rest of the story is more real and from Emma's perspective that's the same thing. She could live inside her head when she was a lonely, dreamy student at the convent school, feeding her fantasies on the tropes of forbidden novels, "love, lovers, sweethearts, persecuted ladies fainting in lonely pavilions, horses ridden to death on every page, gentlemen brave as lions, gentle as lambs, always well-dressed and weeping like fountains." She could control her environment when it was a farmhouse kitchen and a lovestruck, not exactly sophisticated suitor. Once she enters the wider world, reality insists on getting its way. Images of beauty that never existed. These things she loved.Collapse )

I still can't tell if it's good Flaubert, but I am extraordinarily impressed with Minnelli for dressing this story like a melodramatic A-picture and nonetheless leaving, instead of three-hanky sentiment, an overwhelming impression of messiness and futility. It's a tragedy, of course, but the sad, stupid kind rather than the downfall of the glamorously doomed. Minnelli's first choice for the part of Emma Bovary was Lana Turner, but David O. Selznick insisted on Jennifer Jones—whom he would marry in the same year as the film's release—as part of a deal which included the casting of Louis Jourdan as Rodolphe and Christopher Kent as Léon. I had seen her previously only in Portrait of Jennie (1948), which I suppose I should rewatch because I can remember only that two of the supporting cast came from the original Broadway production of Finian's Rainbow; it gave me little idea of the intensity she could bring to a part, so that we don't for a second imagine that Emma is exaggerating when she cries out, in a rare address to her neglected young daughter, "Oh, Berthe, are you filled with madness, too? Are all women?" The script is beautifully symmetrical in its alternation between Emma's fantasies and their relentless frustration; despite the usual interference of the PCA, it sneaks in some touches worthy of its original author, as when Rodolphe's practiced, poetic love-talk is undercut by the rustic platitudes of a city father droning on about "the welfare of the seaman . . . sowing his seed, reaping his harvest . . . and now, we ask for manure." I have not yet worked out why I don't find this film devastating. It touches on some of the same themes as Ophüls' The Reckless Moment (1949), which wrecked me for days afterward. Maybe some of Flaubert's irony came through after all. Anyway, somebody who's actually read the book should let me know.

I slept four hours last night, which was not enough. This downward spiral brought to you by my romantic backers at Patreon.

1. "Monsieur Homais is opening his shutters. It must be one minute to nine. Monsieur Guillaumin the notary will now come out of the Lion d'Or, scratch himself, and spit . . . The town clock will now strike nine. The Hirondelle will leave for Rouen. Hippolyte will sweep the steps. Léon Dupuis will come running over the bridge, late to work again." If your brain promptly supplied the line "There goes the baker with his tray like always," join the club. I hadn't realized I needed to look for Flaubert in the DNA of Disney's Beauty and the Beast (1991), in which a bookish misfit's love of fairytale romance and dissatisfaction with "this provincial life" are lavishly rewarded with the happily-ever-after of true love, "daring swordfights, magic spells, and a prince in disguise" included along the way. That's probably irony.

2. He's out of shot when he starts to read his speech, but it's painfully obvious that he's reading it—a brilliant little vocal mime by Heflin, who sounds in the moment as though he's never performed convincingly script-in-hand in his life. I feel for Charles and his social anxiety; I expect we're meant to. He's the kind of person who takes his wife to the opera to cheer her out of her depression, is dispatched between acts to get her a glass of wine for her nerves, and doesn't get two steps from the bar before he spills it down a stranger's cleavage. He always drinks too much socially, even though he doesn't much on his own time; he thinks it's expected of him. He never knows the right thing to say.

3. Van Heflin's screen persona fascinates me. Even among actors who specialized in weak-willed or weirdo parts, I can't think of another leading man whom I have so often seen in tears. I'm looking forward to Joseph Losey's The Prowler (1951) in part because I've never seen him play an out-and-out heavy—he's good at isolating a character's weak spots without playing for excuses, drawing audience empathy from the simple fact of vulnerability. It took me this entire post to realize that he does exactly the same thing with Charles Bovary that Michael Emerson did with George Tesman, making a sympathetic character out of an obstacle in the plot. I know he had assistance from the screenwriters, but I can easily imagine other readings of the same lines where Emma's husband is more of a drip or a boor; where the audience doesn't care so much that he's hurt. Here, though he's sensitive enough to register his wife's unhappiness, he doesn't have the imagination to know what to do about it. From an audience perspective, it's a worse combination than if he never noticed at all.

20 Performable Epics | Tell Me a Story | Share | Link

Date: 2016-05-22 01:30
Subject: And by twenty-one all that he knew was the power of the gun
Security: Public
Music:Lowdenjim, "Slip Jigs and Reels"

I just finished re-reading Jack Schaefer's Shane (1949) for the first time in more than twenty years. I found a critical edition—the restored "words that might offend" are about a dozen incidences of "hell" and "damn," edited out when the novel was reprinted in 1954 and kept bowdlerized in school editions since. Which is almost certainly how I first encountered it, since it was assigned reading in my seventh-grade English class. I can't remember what we were intended to learn from it.1 Mostly I remember that my mother showed me the 1953 film afterward and the only actor whose memory stayed with me was Alan Ladd even though he didn't look at all like the dark, wiry, dangerously black-clad Shane of the book. But I'd liked the story and I wasn't at all sure how it was going to have held up, being an archetypal Western written in the first half of the twentieth century. I am pleased to report that not only has Shane not been visited by the suck fairy, it's a lot more interesting than I was able to appreciate in seventh grade or really have the attention to analyze at the end of this very sleepless week. Stylistically, I didn't expect the language to remind me of Le Guin. I think it's the deliberate simplicity that handles details and abstractions with the same degree of significance; the first-person narrative looks back on a life-changing summer of the narrator's childhood with all the experience of the decades since, but reports only what he understood at the time and lets the adult reader infer the more complex connections that were only starting to become visible to eight- or nine-year-old Bob Starrett in 1889. I have the same kind of double vision, coming back to the story all these years later. At the age of eleven or twelve, I responded most strongly to the supernatural overtones of Shane. He's human, he bleeds, he loves, he's good with children, he has to learn about farming to stay with the Starretts, he has a sense of humor and a lot of believably written damage, but he's also the stranger who comes out nowhere to perform a heroic deed at his own cost and vanish when his work is done—the man in black, the man with no name, an apparition of a mythically violent world already passing away. He appears out of the clarity of sunlight on the road and disappears when a cloud crosses the moon. It was easy for me to imagine him as some aspect of the land, a mythago of the American West if I'd known the word then. The original serial published in Argosy in 1946 went by the title Rider from Nowhere. As an adult, I'm left struck by the intimacy between the three adults in the narrator's life, a state of affairs which the boy who loves and idolizes the mysterious, competent, self-contained stranger finds so natural, it doesn't even rate remarking on: how easily his parents accommodate Shane as an integral part of the household, a tacit third parent to Bob and a kind of shadow partner to each of them; he is easier in their company than he's been with himself in a long time, healing into someone who isn't always combat-scanning his environment for danger even if he will never take a seat with his back to the door, and in return they are inspired to be the best versions of their already brave and affectionate selves around him, recognizing his trust for the rarity it is and not wanting to let it down. The attraction between Shane and Marian Starrett is a binding between all three of them, not a source of rivalry or tension. "Did ever a woman have two such men?" she exults and laments after Shane and Joe have taken down a barful of bullies in tandem; her husband's response is the notably non-territorial, "Don't fret yourself, Marian. I'm man enough to know a better when his trail meets mine. Whatever happens will be all right." He carried Shane out of the bar after the fight, gathering the smaller, more badly battered man gently into his arms like, the narrator thinks, "he did me when I stayed up too late and got all drowsy and had to be carried to bed." Later in the novel, after a close brush with a hired killer whose provocatively crude remarks about Marian almost led to violence on the part of both men, Bob watches all three of his parents worry about one another:

It was only then that I realized mother was gripping my shoulders so that they hurt. She dropped on a chair and held me to her. We could hear father and Shane on the porch.

"He'd have drilled you, Joe, before you could have brought the gun up and pumped in a shell."

"But you, you crazy fool!" Father was covering his feelings with a show of exasperation. "You'd have made him plug you just so I'd have a chance to get him."

Mother jumped up. She pushed me aside. She flared at them from the doorway. "And both of you would have acted like fools just because he said that about me. I'll have you two know that if it's got to be done, I can take being insulted just as much as you can."

Peering around her, I saw them gaping at her in astonishment. "But, Marian," father objected mildly, coming to her. "What better reason could a man have?"

"Yes," said Shane gently. "What better reason?" He was not looking just at mother. He was looking at the two of them.

Shane leaves behind a lot more than the chance of a life without violence when he rides away the novel's end. It's a much more muted ending than the film's, too, underscoring the Starretts' decision to stay on the farm that Shane sacrificed his best self for as a form of keeping faith with him—"So you'd run out on Shane just when he's really here to stay!"—and finally shifting the narrative into the tangle of stories that grew up around the stranger after his departure, each more outlandish than the last, none of which bother Bob because he knows none of them get anywhere near the truth. "He belonged to me, to father and mother and me, and nothing could ever spoil that." That interests me now because I can think of at least two other novels I read early which close with this same kind of dissolve into myth that the reader knows to recognize as a normal human tendency, but also not trust as the final word. I just can't remember if I identified it as such at the time. It should not surprise me that Shane the novel is in part a story about stories, though, because so many of the narratives I love are. I'm not sure the film is. I should probably rewatch it to be sure. I should get some sleep first.

1. It was my first year in a public school rather than the alternative private school I'd spent my first six grades in; I was nonplussed by a lot of the curriculum. We read at least one awesomely depressing short Steinbeck novel—either The Red Pony (1933) or The Pearl (1947), which in combination with Of Mice and Men (1937) the next year convinced me that I hated Steinbeck until I discovered Cannery Row (1945) and Sweet Thursday (1954) in college—and some short fiction it's difficult for me to recall because I always read the rest of the anthologies around the assigned stories, so Nathaniel Hawthorne's "Dr. Heidegger's Experiment" and Ray Bradbury's "Fever Dream" might have been required reading or they might just have been adjacent to O. Henry's "A Retrieved Reformation." I think we must have read Theodore Taylor's The Cay (1969) because I have vague memories of making a map of the island. Without going through boxes in my parents' house, I have no idea what else. In the middle school library on my own time I read Jean M. Auel's The Clan of the Cave Bear (1980), which almost certainly influenced me more than anything I read for school that year, God help me.

11 Performable Epics | Tell Me a Story | Share | Link

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