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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: 2017-03-04 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: 2017-02-12 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.

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

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.

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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: 2016-10-11 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: 2016-09-02 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: 2016-05-31 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: 2016-03-29 23:58
Subject: Champs-Elysées? I wonder what they taste like
Security: Public
Music:Shearwater, "Red Sea, Black Sea"

Tonight derspatchel and I attended Black Cat Rescue Benefit Night at Flatbread. We did not adopt our cats through Black Cat Rescue, but we like supporting their brethren: we ordered pizza, bought raffle tickets, got my mother a magnet that reads "KEEP CALM AND LOVE CATS." I was handed a pair of dangly earrings with little black-and-silver pawprints. Then we came home and watched a delightful cartoon oddity off TCM.

Animated in a variety of styles drawn from French Impressionism, Gay Purr-ee (1962) is a classic romantic melodrama set during the Belle Époque—a beautiful, restless ingénue leaves her little town in Provence for the electric-lit, decadent gaiety of Paris, falls in with a slick-talking scoundrel who promises to make her the toast of Paris while really planning to sell her as a mail-order bride to a millionaire in Pittsburgh; her rustic but true-hearted lover follows her to the big city, crosses paths with the villain and gets shanghaied to Alaska, but by a stroke of luck makes a fortune in the gold fields and returns to Paris just in time to rescue the now disillusioned heroine and reunite with her in a whirl of high life and true love. It's a musical, with songs by Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg. Starring voices are provided by Judy Garland, Robert Goulet, Red Buttons, Paul Frees, and Hermione Gingold, with backup from Mel Blanc, Morey Amsterdam, and Thurl Ravenscroft and the Mellomen. Also, in case the title didn't give it away, everybody in this story is a cat. Garland's Mewsette is slender and white with an expressive plume of a tail and eyes as blue as butterflies, Goulet's Jaune Tom is a lanky green-eyed barn cat with sharpshooter mousing skills, Buttons' Robespierre is a little tuxedo kitten with a cynicism all out of proportion to his tadpole spike of a tail, Frees' Meowrice is a rakish tuxedo tom with devilish ears and whiskers that he waxes into points suitable for twirling, and Gingold's Madame Rubens-Chatte is a zaftig pink Persian whose so-called brother really should have known better than to try to cheat her with a bouncing check. Meowrice's henchmen are four spindly, yellow-eyed cat-shadows who slither and tapdance and occasionally stick together into one skinny eight-eyed supercat like the blocky-shouldered goons from Sylvain Chomet's Les Triplettes de Belleville (2003). I wouldn't have called the score immortal, but at least two of the songs—"Paris Is a Lonely Town" and "Little Drops of Rain"—made it into Garland's concert repertoire. It was her only animated film and Goulet's first appearance in the movies. Frees can't sing, but he talks his way through his villain number, "The Money Cat" (the money cat knows where the money tree grows), with such sepulchrally voiced smarm that nobody cares. The animation is genuinely beautiful and full of gonzo sight gags. Jaune Tom spies a mouse and his entire body turns into a ginger-furred targeting system fueled by a firecracker fuse of tail; the mouse squeaks and scrambles and finally resigns itself, whipping a tiny white blindfold out of nowhere before bravely presenting its chest to the firing squad of Jaune Tom's claws. (Jaune Tom then trots proudly back to Mewsette with the live mouse in his mouth because they are cats, after all. Mewsette's dreams of Paris include the beautiful food—the champignons, the Champs-Elysées. Champagne is obviously the sophisticated Parisian term for catnip. I appreciate these concessions to reality.) At one point the devious Meowrice decoys a homesick Mewsette by taking her to all the cafés of Paris, where there are ballet dancers à la Degas and cancan dancers à la Toulouse-Lautrec and there in fact in the front row sits an absinthe-green feline Toulouse-Lautrec sketching away on the tabletop. As Mewsette's Parisienne grooming nears completion, Meowrice has her painted by the leading artists of the day, providing a neat little lesson in the styles of Monet, Seurat, Rousseau, Modigliani, Renoir, Gauguin, Picasso . . . I have absolutely no idea who the target audience of this movie was, other than cat-lovers who also like French Impressionism and future generations of furries. I can only assume it was a passion project for Chuck Jones, since working on the script with Abe Levitow at UPA got him fired from Warner Bros. along with his entire unit; I think it paid off, if only in sheer purring WTF, but I'm not surprised it was a critical and commercial disappointment at the time. Nowadays, my husband informs me, it has a fandom. Autolycus stuck his head over the top of the screen during an action sequence and batted at the screen; he was helping. This pre-Aristocats peculiarity brought to you by my ailurophilic backers at Patreon.


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

Date: 2016-03-28 04:14
Subject: Wouldst thou like to live deliciously?
Security: Public
Music:A Hawk and a Hacksaw, "You Have Already Gone to the Other World"

I hope everyone for whom it is relevant had a good Easter. It is not in any capacity a religious holiday for my family, but we made our usual ham with pineapple, brown sugar, and mustard glaze and delivered the Easter baskets that we make for friends and family and my mother and I watched a movie that I need to write up before I start to forget the best lines, but not in this post. This post is about witchcraft. This past week, I saw two very good, very different witch movies in as many days. If I count Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (Тіні забутих предків, 1965), this month might have a theme.

It is not difficult to describe Belladonna of Sadness (哀しみのベラドンナ, 1973), which rushthatspeaks and I saw on the opening night of the Boston Underground Film Festival. It is an early foray into animation for an expressly adult audience; it was produced by the pioneering Japanese studio Mushi Production, under the auspices of manga god Osamu Tezuka; it is loosely based on Jules Michelet's La Sorcière (1862) and follows the travails of a woman in fifteenth-century France who accepts power from the Devil after finding none reliably available to her on earth, not from her peasant husband, her aristocratic rapists, or her fellow villagers caught between war and famine. The voice acting is very good, especially Jeanne and the Devil. The action is narrated over a panoply of animation styles, constantly shifting registers from the pencil-sketch realistic to the cartoonish to the abstract to a scrolling panorama of still watercolor images like paintings on a church wall. The music is jazzy psych-rock with interludes of pop ballads and a genuinely spooky folk-styled refrain. The heroine's hair changes color with nearly every new art style, but only in the last third of the movie is it narratively significant. The Devil is quite cute when he only resembles a skullcapped pink dick.

Here we start to hit the problem with describing Belladonna: the difficulty lies in making it sound accurately good as opposed to merely mind-bendingly weird. Rather like Mad Max: Fury Road (2015), it seems to call out from critics a kind of highly colored mash-up glossolalia: "Klimt, O'Keeffe, Op Art, Ralph Steadman and the higher class of Playboy illustration," "Yellow Submarine-meets-The Devils," "like if Egon Schiele drew an edition of The Dungeon Master's Guide." I think the best praise I can give it, aside from the attestation that it is visually marvelous to watch, is that it is the only film of its kind I have ever seen where the diabolical orgy is actually blasphemous. Nobody in Belladonna wastes time doing shocking things with a cross. We are talking sex like Hieronymus Bosch drew it, where people's genitals turn into trees or giraffes or spout forth fishes and there is a whole chain of naked human figures interlocked orgasmically (and floating, like you do) and then there are some snails and scallops and some more people and a dog. It's funny and horrifying and erotically portrayed and it made the audience uncomfortable; you could tell from the quality of the laughter. Of the heroine's three sex scenes with the Devil, the consensual one is the most disturbing. It's the one where she changes shape. What gets lost in this recommendation, of course, is that the film is not just a series of narratively significant sex scenes, although there are many and Belladonna is impossible to watch without a high comfort level with sexual violence and general female nudity (male nudity is contributed primarily by the Devil's character design), it is also a great depiction of medieval European witchcraft. The artistic fluidity means the narrative can play with metaphors and the audience's understanding of them—when the Black Death comes to town, its visual representation could be germ theory or gleeful demons and just as the audience is accustoming itself to seeing human figures starred with stylized blood-black like beauty patches, the entire landscape from cathedral steps to cottaged hillside graphically collapses into an apocalyptic tide and drains literally off the edge of the world, leaving in its wake a beach-wrack of skulls and ribcages and rotten harvest and a dead man whom the witch Jeanne awakens in a paradise of flowers because she feels like it. The story ends as most witch-hunts do, but with a terrific historical stinger.

I feel like Tanith Lee should have seen this movie before writing The Book of the Damned (1989), but I can't figure out when she would have had the opportunity. It was a commercial failure and a critical bewilderment, never officially released in the U.S. prior to the extensive digital restoration now touring North America, which I encourage anyone whom this account even faintly interests to catch if it comes through your city. Rush had seen it once ten years ago at a convention, sans subtitles and apparently semi-interpreted by a very enthusiastic fan at the front of the room; it made such an impression that I was able to recognize not only scenes but specific artistic techniques from their description. I thought it was fantastic. I am only sorry it has taken so many years for the critical mass of cult appreciation to equal popular availability.

I already raved about Robert Eggers' The Witch: A New-England Folktale (2015) to nineweaving, asakiyume, and handful_ofdust, but that doesn't mean I'm not still impressed. The title is truthful: in their subject matter, meticulous historical worldbuilding, and deeply alien sense of past, David Rudkin's The Ash Tree (1975) and Ben Wheatley's A Field in England (2013) are The Witch's closest equivalents, but this story is very definitely of New England rather than old. I think it is a combination of the landscape, the religion, and the specifics of the witchcraft that afflicts the protagonist's family that draws the distinction so clearly. The Devil in New England is a black man with a book. So he is, here.

The images are not the only important thing about this movie, but they are crucial to its success; they tell perhaps even more of the story than the stark, spiritually freighted dialogue. Everything is beautifully photographed in an aspect ratio now uncommon in the U.S. (1.66:1), in natural light that looks like paintings until all of a sudden it looks like the forest turning itself inside out to swallow the characters, the camera, the audience. The soundtrack is a mix of folk themes and the kind of eerie ambient score that often accompanies contemporary horror, but it is being performed on instruments like nyckelharpa and fiddle. That low, buzzing, agitated drone that comes up over a nightmare-slow zoom into the woods is not electronic. Some scenes were shot at Plimoth Plantation, others in north Ontario, which preserves the old-growth forests that Massachusetts has mostly clear-cut since the film's early seventeenth century. There is a witch in the shape of a hare. There is the Devil in the form of a goat. (There is the Devil in the form of a man; he is barely seen, a deep voice, a spurred boot, a dark face shadowed by a hat-brim, and he is magnificent. He does more of the diabolical with his three minutes than some actors do with two hours, Al Pacino.) There is human horror and there is a decent amount of gore, though it is only part of the folklore. Anya Taylor-Joy as the protagonist is astonishing. Her eyes are so wide-set, they look a little off true, as if she herself has some animal's vision, as if she is always looking past what she is supposed to see. She is the oldest child of an English Puritan family whose patriarch has taken them into self-exile from the Plymouth Colony, a second immigration to an even less promised land. The God-given sunlit field of their first encounter fades into a fall-starved farmstead, flint corn rotting in the husk, a lightless wind shivering constantly in the pines. Drawn into the labyrinth of the wilderness, the characters encounter figures like the oldest bones of a folk story: a low tumulus of a house with stone for the door and a roof of tree, a dark young woman with a sly smile emerging in a cloak so violently scarlet, it looks like the warning coloration of a poisonous creature; it is the same color as the spilled blood of a child. A grief-maddened mother in a dream or a hallucination or a bewitchment gives suck to her lost infant; only later do we see that it is a raven perched upon her breast, tearing blood from it instead of milk. When a tormented boy chokes up the cause of his affliction, it is a small, sour apple, artificially reddened with his own tongue-bitten blood. All of this is new and strange to the family; it is presented of such a piece with chores and prayer that it is made strange to the audience. The English language is antique and organic and partly drawn from documents of the period; it is never self-important or stilted, but it can be terribly constrained. I don't know what the non-English language is.

I love especially the direction in which the film chooses to set its ambiguity. In a setting as famously self-consuming as the Puritan isolation of New England that would, about a generation after this story, give rise to the Salem witch trials, The Witch could have gotten away with the obvious horror: is the supernatural real? Is the family tormented by a witch or only turning on themselves out of the expected advantage and paranoia, Arthur Miller's The Crucible in microcosm? Instead the script favors a much scarier question: the supernatural is real, but how much of it is the family correctly perceiving? Does it matter? Within their form of Christianity, witchcraft is the answer to all manner of natural and communal calamities; they are right this time, but will the knowledge help them? Can it help them? What does it mean—personally, theologically—if it can't? At the film's height of hysteria, two parents with their hands interlinked and outstretched pray fast and terrified above the body of their afflicted child as if warding it with the desperate angles of their bodies: if the exorcism works, it saves only the soul. Their faith tells them that should be enough. With agonizing clarity, it isn't. If the love of God is no longer a consolation, what does it matter whether the Devil is abroad in your cornfields or not? But that is a modern question, and no one in this film is modern: if the Devil has come among them, the cost to their souls is beyond reckoning. A mother fears that her vanished child is in hell, being unbaptized; a son fears that he may be a damned sinner for glimpsing his sister's budding breasts. A father loves his children, but cannot assure them of their entrance into heaven, which is as real to them and inaccessible as England. Taylor-Joy's Thomasin is not sure if heaven is what she desires after all, but does that make her, automatically, the lens through which her family's damnation is bent upon it? These are not abstract issues. We have to believe in them, because they are the life or death of the world. All the day scenes in this film are by Vermeer; all the night ones are Goya.

I saw the film on its last night at the Somerville; the ticket-taker told me as I went out that he's never seen anyone ambivalent about it—either people come out smiling like me or they come out swearing it was the worst movie they ever let themselves in for. A little less than halfway through the showing, in fact, a couple sitting a few rows ahead of me got up and left, already muttering to one another as they came up the aisle, ". . . so stupid . . ." So I can't guarantee that you will not feel the same way about The Witch, but I loved it. I had read things like the world it showed me. I had never before seen them onscreen. That novelty is not the only thing the film has going for it.

I must try to sleep; I have a doctor's appointment in the morning. This double feature brought to you by my spellbinding backers at Patreon.

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

Date: 2016-03-21 01:45
Subject: Blood is red. It keeps you alive. It doesn't tell you what you have to do
Security: Public
Music:Jerry's Diner, "Break Under Pressure"

Around this time last year, I streamed a pulpy little British noir called Five Days (U.S. Paid to Kill, 1954) off TCM and discovered Dane Clark. The film around him was fun but no classic; I wanted to know at once what else the actor had done. The internet indicated he was best remembered nowadays for a scene with Joan Crawford in Hollywood Canteen (1944) and the lead role in Frank Borzage's Moonrise (1948). The former was easy enough to find. I had to wait for the latter to come around at the HFA. It's a true cult object. I'm not surprised it was a formative influence on Guy Maddin. If you can find it, it's worth your time.

I understand why critics compare Moonrise to The Night of the Hunter (1955). Visually and atmospherically, it's certainly the closest thing I've seen to a film I thought had no immediate American relatives: an unusually and lyrically photographed cross between film noir and Southern Gothic with utterly artificial sets, highly stylized compositions, and a mix of psychological realism and deliberately folk-poetic dialogue that works almost despite itself to create a strong sense of place and a tense state of mind. After the fact, I realized that it reminded me strongly of Carlisle Floyd's Susannah (1955). Actually, in some ways this movie makes the most sense as an opera and not any more realist form of drama at all. Since I don't know if Dane Clark could sing, however, I'll be just as happy that the story exists in its current medium.

The plot is simple to the point of parable. An infant when his father was hanged for murder, Danny Hawkins (Clark) has grown up bullied by his peers and ostracized by their parents, branded "bad blood" until he's afraid he believes it himself; when he kills his worst tormenter in a fistfight that gets out of control, it feels like a curse coming home. He hides the body. The secret shadows his tentative romance with the new-to-town schoolteacher, his friendship with the deaf-mute age-mate he's always protected, his familial closeness with the well-educated recluse who partly raised him. Insofar as there's any suspense in this story, it's not so much whether Danny will be found out for the killing as what he will decide about himself when it happens. He's been waiting fatalistically his entire life to prove the worst of himself and simultaneously kicking hard against the town's opinion of him: what the viewer can't tell is whether he believes there's redemption for him any way he turns or only different ways of going to hell. Everything that works in the film is in service of making this sins-of-the-father psychodrama textured and strange. All around Danny's tormented self-image, Borzage builds a present ghosted by the past. Modern-day Woodville is a whistle-stop of a town in the midst of blackwater swamps and Virginian hills. Its citizens differentiate themselves sharply by class and modernity from "the mountains," which is another outsider's strike against Danny who wasn't sent to town until he was old enough for school, whose grandmother still lives in the cabin her son built for his wedding; the dance hall down by Brothers Pond swings with big-band jazz at night and the soda jerk talks self-conscious jive whether his customers want to hear it or not ("Heck, I ain't no square, you know?"), but on the outskirts of town a crumbling antebellum mansion overhangs the swamp like a bad memory, its grounds occupied only by the film's sole black character, a retired brakeman who raises hounds, reads books, and provides Danny with a refuge from the town and himself, as he always did.1 It's not quite a hermetic world, with the Tidewater freight coming and going, but it is insular. It would protect Danny if it thought he were part of it. It protected his bullies for years.

But we don't learn any of this information in a conventional dramatic manner, backfilling time in conversation. Instead the film hits us with a montage straight out of the gate, compressing Danny's childhood into a stunning overlay of expressionist, nightmarish images: a man marched to the gallows, his hanged shadow on the prison wall match-cut to a doll string-dangled over a crying child's crib. Again he marches to the gallows: shot from a vertiginous angle, children chant in the wet-lit schoolyard—"Danny Hawkins' dad was hanged, Danny Hawkins' dad was hanged!"—as a thin, dark child walks stoically through their games. Their fair-haired leader mimes a gruesome strangulation until Danny goes for him, is knocked down and beaten at the center of a jeering circle. The footsteps on the gallows once more: a few years older, the same children hunt Danny down a darkened street, mob him, laughing, hold his arms—"No better than his old man!"—while the same blond ringleader brands him a coward with a faceful of mud. The rope around the shadow-figure's neck: a man walks through bracken at the same drum-doomed pace and it's not until the scene keeps going that we realize the argument behind the dance hall is not just the latest episode but the present day. Lloyd Bridges more or less cameos as the grown Jerry Sykes, a rich man's blue-eyed boy in his snappy white jacket and smug air of entitlement, threatening Danny with another beating if he doesn't back off the girl Jerry thinks is too good for him and then taunting him when he rises to the bait: "The killer blood, eh? Your old man have time to tell you how it feels to drop six feet at the end of a rope?" Danny throws the first punch. It's a surprisingly brutal fight. They are adults now; they can really hurt each other. And once again, we're into it before there's any time to gather the usual orientation of narrative and character. But there's still the sense of being mired in the repeating images of the montage, in the nightmare that's the past—frames of Danny's childhood torment go off like flashbulbs over the contemporary action as each blow hits home. When the scene ends, he's killed a man. Everything we learn about him from here on will have to be added to that fact. It's a clever way of locating the audience in Danny's perspective, where the most important thing about him is his capacity for murder. The cinematography isn't going to let up, either. There's a virtuoso sequence on the Ferris wheel of a county fair where the camera swings and lurches as the cars go round and Danny's anxiety spikes, seeing the sheriff and his wife across the rotating frame of the wheel, his pursuer's face rising and falling against the black evening sky until recklessly, sickeningly, Danny jumps. But even ordinary interactions are framed and cropped at arresting, sometimes abstract angles, profiling two characters against one another in a severe combination of close-up and deep-focus, highlighting body language instead of facial expression or faces at the expense of the rest of the frame.2

Dane Clark's face is worth paying attention to. He has brushy dark hair, quick-drawn brows at a troubled tilt, a mouth that folds tightly over its own pain; the actor was about ten years older than his character at the time of filming, but the effect is poignant rather than artificial—at twenty-five, Danny Hawkins already looks bitter to the bone. Sympathetic though he may be, he's not just a sensitive, suffering soul. Everyone who looks at Danny sees his father's son: "All the beatings I took since I was a kid on account of him. Never could get a job unless there was nobody else left to hire. Girls walking away from me like I was poison. 'Hello, Hawkins,' they'd say—simple, ain't it? But every time they said it, I wanted to change my name." Sullen, hot-headed, and standoffish, he treats social encounters with a kind of fatalistic belligerence: if nothing good can be expected of him, why should he even try? On the bright side, it means he has nothing to lose, in a gossip-knit small Southern town, spending the majority of his time with a black man and sticking up for a character who gets treated otherwise as the village idiot. Less progressively, his initial moves with Gail Russell's Gilly Johnson are brusque to the point of coercion and nearly ruin both her reputation and her trust after he involves her in a car accident caused by his deliberately reckless speeding; they share an immediate combination of irresistible physical chemistry and fragile emotional rapport, but his mixed attempts at confession and concealment push her away as fast as the intensity of his attentions and his gauche, furtive tenderness can pull her in. It doesn't help that her previous romantic attachment was Jerry, whom she knew only as the charming banker's son who courted her for three months before disappearing suddenly. Danny can't ease her mind that dead men don't get jealous. Alone in the ruins of the mansion, under the chaperoning eye of a fireplace portrait, they consummate their relationship in silhouette, playing at elegant ghosts until the masks fall, at least from her side: "I've never seen you like this before, Gilly."–"I've never been like this before." She has a cat-eyed expressiveness that makes up for the shortcomings in her dialogue, wordless reactions shading in complexity that I'm not sure the script got around to. The beautiful modeling of his bones comes out at odd, painful moments: a look of mute unhappiness tightening his jaw, showing the beaten child through the angry adult. You can root for them only if Danny gets his head together. As he is, they're both right that he's not a good idea.

A man has to handle himself his own way.Collapse )

I suspect there are audiences this film will just not work for. It has zero irony, almost as little budget, the hyper-expressive style of a silent film, and a romantic, redemptive ending after ninety minutes of increasingly downbeat paranoia. Especially the first act has some awkward transitions and disjoints which are either an attempt to convey the shocky zigzags of a nightmare or the fossil record of an argument in the cutting room; the script gestures toward a couple of subplots that never pan out and I cannot tell if they were equally vestigial in Theodore Strauss' 1946 source novel or casualties of transference to the screen. If the dialogue registers as stagy or condescending, the regional mise-en-scène is sunk. It worked for me and I wish I could point to a legitimate DVD, but all I can find is a slightly fast runtime on YouTube. Dane Clark is terrific and anybody who called him the poor man's John Garfield was a dope. The calendar tells me I wrote this post through the equinox. This move into light brought to you by my insightful backers at Patreon.

1. Mose Jackson is played by the legendary Rex Ingram and I find it really interesting that nothing in the script directly indicates the character's race. Everything is implied, like the understood surprise in the town sheriff's remark that Mose "can read as good as anybody." ("Better," Danny counters. "Read about every book there is, I guess.") Teased by Danny about his habit of adding honorifics to ordinary nouns—"Mr. Dog"—Mose responds curtly, "Isn't enough dignity in the world." The closest we get to any comment on racism comes when Mose considers his own hermitage: "A man ought to live in a world with other folks. When I came here, I thought I'd be out of the way, with nobody shoving me around. What I did was resign from the human race." So he could be an early instance of non-traditional casting, except that I can't believe it's an accident that Danny's only allies in Woodville at the start of the film are an educated black man and the only white character more marginalized than he is, the deaf and apparently simple Billy Scripture, who I did not realize was TV-M*A*S*H's Harry Morgan until I got home.

2. If you want a prose equivalent to John L. Russell's photography, it's Ray Bradbury in black and white—Dandelion Wine (1957), Something Wicked This Way Comes (1962). The county fair is small and tinny to the cinema-going eye, but to Danny and Gilly it's a pocket of magic with its netted electric lights and spun sugar, twenty-five-cent bottle stands and gum-chewing dancers undulating under the painted advertisement "GIRLS WITHOUT—?" Until the Ferris wheel becomes a site of danger, it lifts them out of the everyday.

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

Date: 2016-03-16 03:23
Subject: No law says you got to be happy
Security: Public
Music:Tom Waits, "Innocent When You Dream (Barroom)"

The Brattle showed its double feature in the wrong order on Monday night. Or maybe we just came in at the wrong point in the bill. Either way, the second film sent out us out cheerfully snarking, but the opener is the one I'm still thinking about more than twenty-four hours later. I appear to have spent 2600 words attempting to articulate why.

Crack-Up (1946) is fun, but it gets silly in the second half despite a promising start—Pat O'Brien as a former art historian with the MFAA, now a free lecturer at the Met Manhattan Museum, who suffers some kind of dissociative episode and believes he was in a train accident on a commuter line out of Grand Central when in fact he was smashing around the classical wing like a bull in a shop full of Samian ware; he realizes quickly enough that he was set up to be discredited, but why? What's going on at the museum that a man of his expertise shouldn't find out? Claire Trevor gets a break from molls and fatales playing O'Brien's elegant and independently employed girlfriend, Herbert Marshall has an urbane hand in the proceedings as a man of no apparent position who yet has the authority to get the police to back off; Wallace Ford as the police backs off and does a skeptical slow burn. The cinematography is decent except when it flashes back to O'Brien's perception of the crash and then it's great. If the film had played straight with its material, it would have been a solid entry in the disbelieved protagonist mystery genre—The Lady Vanishes (1938), Foreign Correspondent (1940), eventually Bunny Lake Is Missing (1965)—but instead it decoys and red-herrings and ends up explaining itself with drugs and hypnosis, which is just dumb, while relegating the payoff of the legitimately compelling art/insurance fraud plot to the literal background. I was seeing the double feature with [personal profile] skygiants and we enjoyed Crack-Up all the way through, but it really is like watching two slightly grating halves of different movies and the second is a lot stupider. We walked out wanting the third option where the protagonist actually talks to the obviously trustworthy confidante halfway through.

Act of Violence (1948) has its clunky moments, but all together it's a knockout. Robert Ryan is simultaneously a horror-show monster and a sympathetic member of the walking wounded, Van Heflin's hollow hero is the best I've ever seen him, and Mary Astor slams her supporting part out of the park as an aging prostitute who draws the protagonist into a Dickensian underworld in the middle of Los Angeles. The picture opens with no credits, just an echt-noir sequence of a man in a trenchcoat and a fedora taking a gun from a dresser, packing a bag, catching a bus from shadow-spiked New York City to sun-drenched California while the title card comes up like a promise. This is Ryan, his face craggy and corrugated, expressionless except for its tightened eyes. He's six foot four and the camera shoots him like he's eight feet tall. He drags one leg with an audible rasp, a snakelike signature. Disembarking in idyllic Santa Lisa, he halts briefly at a crosswalk while a Memorial Day parade passes by, all proud brass and flags; he is the war's unwelcome shadow, cutting through the celebratory ranks at his own disruptive, disabled pace. We saw the name of his quarry in a phone book: "Enley, Frank R." Now we meet the man himself (Heflin), a successful building contractor with an adoring young wife and towheaded toddler being cheered by his community for his war record and his work on the new housing development, one of those pre-fab model layouts that mushroomed all over the country after World War II. He's liked and respected, competent and loving. He's able-bodied and he has a nice smile. He's about to take a fishing trip with his next door neighbor, for God's sake—what could be more ordinary and decent than that? Heflin has a boyish, densely angled face; it can look quite different from different angles, a trick of expression and asymmetry that the camera will exploit in scenes to come. It's all playful affection with his wife as he packs for the weekend, a teasing game over whether he'll take his old bomber jacket for the weather. It's all carefree holiday up at Redwood Lake, where the still-nameless gunman stalks him as silently and efficiently as a Terminator among fantastically sculpted granite boulders, the oarlocks of his boat creaking with the tell-tale rhythm of his lame step. It's all spoilers from here or I can't talk about anything that makes this film interesting.

You don't know what made him the way he is. I do.Collapse )

As of this post, Act of Violence appears to be available on DVD only as part of a collection, backed with the worthy, Boston-shot Mystery Street (1950). If you run into Crack-Up some late night on TV, you won't lose too many IQ points by it. What else can I say? I saw both of these movies with a half-blinding headache and I regret nothing. My immediate plans involve sleep. This haunting brought to you by my complicated backers at Patreon.


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

Date: 2016-03-13 05:37
Subject: Will we be a couple?
Security: Public
Music:A Hawk and a Hacksaw, "Oh, Lord, Saint George, Bewitch Ivan, Make Him Mine"

I am feeling very much lately as though it is physically difficult to think. I need to do something major with my brain soon. Like write about Alan Ladd in This Gun for Hire (1942). Read on for three movies I've seen recently that weren't that one.

1. I can't believe it took me until tonight to realize how great a debt all the Death Star scenes in Star Wars (1977) and Return of the Jedi (1983) owe The Guns of Navarone (1961). We get to the climactic deployment of the guns themselves, as the British convoy approaches Keros in the trust that the "great, newly designed, radar-controlled guns" have been successfully neutralized by our heroes: they are immense as monuments, their cave-carved bunker legendarily impregnable to assault by sea or air; the gunners in white protective gear and goggles load the massive bores while the commander of the fortress stands over his charts and seated technicians with screen-reflecting faces monitor radio traffic and radar sweeps and I don't just mean that the stop-the-superweapon scenario is familiar, I'm expecting to see Peter Cushing or Michael Pennington somewhere among the straight-backed German officers in their grey uniforms. The place looks like a volcano erupting when it blows. I haven't seen The Guns of Navarone as many times as The Great Escape (1963), but I have lost track of how many times that is; I just don't think I had ever before seen it in a year in which I rewatched Star Wars. That movie really is an amazing grab-bag of personally remixed pop culture. No wonder nothing else feels quite like it, not even its original sequels.

2. On Friday night, rushthatspeaks and I saw Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (Тіні забутих предків, 1965) at the HFA. It was part of a series curated by Guy Maddin; he wrote the blurb I've just linked to. I think the HFA should let him write all their film descriptions from now on. We actually own this movie on DVD; four or five years ago we found it in the half-off discard bin at Hollywood Express, thought they were crazy for letting it go, bought it on the spot because we had recently seen and fallen in love with Parajanov's The Color of Pomegranates (Նռան գույնը, 1969) and then never got around to watching it, perhaps out of fear that it wouldn't be as good. It is in some ways a very different kind of movie. Watching The Color of Pomegranates is like being inside someone else's head, or their poetry, or the icons of their art. Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors films a meticulously naturalistic recreation of a culture in an emphatically non-naturalistic style, leaving an effect that is simultaneously stylized and documentary. It is beautifully shot, intensely musical, and when its folk-culture sense of ritual or epic breaks into the supernatural as the characters would recognize it, the realizations are powerful and plausible and demonstrate once again that digital special effects are nothing when compared with a tree bursting into flames or an actress with a thin dusting of birch-grey paint across her face. This is a movie in which a neglected wife becomes a witch and the sorcerer she summons falls out of the sky as a raven and changes to a man at her feet. A drowned woman appears at a window of a house that has been ritually barred to her, flattens her hand against the window and does not look dead in any conventional way except that time goes strange around her. Her soul browses as a deer around her grave. In between there is a lot of sheep herding, forestry, axe fighting, harvesting, Christianity. There is a holy fool, charcoal-faced, a mute storyteller. I would love to be able to evaluate the film's ethnography, because it leaves the impression that watching its protagonist's life gives a pretty good idea of the wheel of the year in his time and place, but I know nothing about the Hutsuls that I did not gain from the movie or from resorting to the internet when we got home. I was reminded of Pasolini's Medea (1969) and Kaoru Mori's A Bride's Story (2011–); Rush-That-Speaks thought of Ulrike Ottinger's Taiga (1992). The subtitles were terrible and gave us about every second or third sentence. Sometimes it was one in four. Parajanov's sense of time and narrative is legitimately elliptical, but we might still rewatch on DVD just to see what we were missing. I expect it to reward multiple viewings and wish a decent transfer of The Color of Pomegranates existed. Discovering that A Hawk and a Hacksaw had written an entire album of music inspired by Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors led me to the Sayat Nova Project's Mountains of Tongues: Musical Dialects of the Caucasus (2013), which I recommend.

3. I have been describing Hail, Caesar! (2016) as "insubstantial but fun." As a series of sketches on different genres of mid-century Hollywood blockbuster, it's utterly delightful: I started laughing the moment a road-weary centurion in the time of Tiberius invoked the Baths of Caracalla and may actually have applauded the lonely-sailor dance number "No Dames," which starts somewhere between On the Town and South Pacific and ends up closer to Provincetown and Fire Island. (Seriously, I knew Channing Tatum could dance, but I didn't know he could tap-dance on tabletops while an exasperated waiter whisked the tablecloths out from under his feet. He's not Gene Kelly or Donald O'Connor, but he's not bad, either.) The parodies are just the right envelope-push past plausibility to be really funny while still retaining the nostalgic affection that the film is apparently relying on, if its thesis really is that cinema is a kind of transcendence and that enabling the creation of foolish, fluffy, Technicolor dreams, even if sometimes that involves paying off the world's most inefficient Communist cell and slapping Capitol Pictures' biggest star across the chops, is work worthy of the world's redeemer. As a movie in its own right, though, it never really coheres. It doesn't add up to anything more than itself, which is a problem for a deliberately miscellaneous plot that switches between threads as if pointing toward some unexpected resonance, and if the anticlimax is purposeful, it is nowhere near as effective as the same maneuver in The Big Lebowski (1998). I would have liked the whole thing better if everyone in it had been even half a dimension more real. I think we are supposed to take Josh Brolin's crisis of job-related faith as the moral center of the action, but the scene in which I turned out to have the most emotional investment was the studio-arranged date between Alden Ehrenreich's Hobie Doyle and Verónica Osorio's Carlotta Valdez—respectively, an acrobatic singing cowboy who has just been dropped into a mid-Atlantic drawing-room comedy and a Carmen Miranda-esque performer of hip shimmys under tutti-frutti hats—which has been staged as a photo op for the gossip columnists, but which turns almost immediately into the real thing as the two young people hit it off and bond over their weird entertainment skills. I also feel a bit sorry for the Communists, who failed to script their kidnapping plot as tightly as any of their prizewinning pictures. Otherwise the movie mostly looks like George Clooney, Tilda Swinton, Ralph Fiennes, and Scarlett Johansson having fun, which is fine, but I can get it for better value by rewatching O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) or The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014). That said, everything we see of the epically Biblical trainwreck Hail, Caesar: A Tale of the Christ (1951) is pitch-perfect and hilarious and we wouldn't have it without Hail, Caesar! the minor comedy by the Coen Brothers, so, you know, see it if you get the chance. I may also have applauded the anecdote about Danny Kaye. [edit] Alex von Tunzelmann has a theory about the meta nature of the film which, if accurate, at least gives it some intellectual substance.

I seem to have written through the changeover to Daylight Savings. I didn't think I had gotten quite so slow as to misplace an actual hour. Excuse me while I see if I can sleep. These notes brought to you by my forgiving backers at Patreon.

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

Date: 2016-02-11 21:05
Subject: The safest thing that could happen to you right now is a case of lockjaw
Security: Public
Music:Demetrios Halkias, "Selfos (Nightingale)"

I had a flu shot today. And a Tdap. And the rest of the yearly physical, which generally concluded that most of my systems were go, just very run down and currently dealing with high volumes of pain and a viral sinus infection. I feel about as fantastic as you might guess from this description; I walked over from the doctor's and collapsed with my cats. In the respective filmographies of Clark Gable and Marion Davies, Cain and Mabel (1936) isn't going to make any best-of lists, but it gave me ninety mostly diverting minutes to stare at while my brain felt like a squeegee and it contained bonus Roscoe Karns, so I won't exactly kick it off of TCM for eating crackers.

Roscoe Karns is one of the character actors I have never written about and reliably enjoy whenever he appears. I must have seen him in half a dozen movies before I knew his name; I could recognize him by his birdlike brows, his sharp light voice, and the lines on his slightly elfin face that could go either way, anxious or cynical and sometimes both by turns. His career ran from 1915 until 1964, but his heyday was the 1930's and early '40's, when his rapid-fire delivery kept natural pace with the screwball comedies he thrived in; he very rarely got top billing, but he built a reputation on memorable character turns like mile-a-minute creeper Oscar Shapeley in It Happened One Night (1934),1 philosophically tipsy publicist Owen O'Malley in Twentieth Century (1934), or opportunistic reporter McCue in His Girl Friday (1940).2 For years the most screentime I'd seen him get belonged to the slow-burn police lieutenant in the so-so mystery A Tragedy at Midnight (1942), always one step behind the dashing radio detective and his wife and understandably annoyed about it. Last fall, I finally caught him in a strong secondary role as the Hollywood press agent who lights a fire under the plot of Dancing Co-Ed (1939) and then has to run around frantically putting it out after the aspiring starlet he rigged to win a national college dance-off decides she'd rather play it straight—a professional fast talker with the ulcer to prove it. He's an even faster one in I Sell Anything (1934), playing the faithful accomplice of a crooked auctioneer who sets his sights on high society instead of Second Avenue. You get the idea. His characters could be dubiously honest, but they were rarely the heavies; they were gadflies and kibitzers, drummers, newspapermen, small-time crooks, professions that involved quick introductions and quicker exits. Sometimes they had no first names, sometimes they had no last names, sometimes they barely had names at all.3 More often than not, you could trust them with your heart—even his embittered ex-con in You and Me (1938) turned out a soft touch when it came to romance—but you might still want to keep a weather eye on your wallet, or at least your private life.

The latter is the mode in which Cain and Mabel finds him, playing a former reporter with a Fflewddur-like tendency to let his narrative flair run away with him: "I can cover a bonfire and make it sound like the Chicago Fire, but do they call me the Emerson of the press? No, they call me that lying Reilly." When we meet him, he's broke and jobless and glumly emptying a salt shaker onto the tabletop in hopes of attracting enough bad luck to "wreck the Empire State Building. Having it fall on me is the only thing that hasn't happened to me this week. But this'll fix it up!" Waitress Mabel O'Dare (Davies) feels sorry for him and sneaks him a meal, in return for which he inadvertently gets them both the bum's rush from the restaurant; in order to make it up to her, Reilly in his new guise as publicity man appoints himself her agent and determines to make her a star. He's quite human, there's not a supernatural thing about him, but at this juncture the plot began to remind me faintly of those folktales where the hero gets some kind of trickster figure in their debt and its efforts to make good cause even more chaos than if it were trying to do them wrong. "Are you sure you know this man?" Mabel presses in the waiting room of a talent agency, referring to the person Reilly has just pointed out as a famous theater impresario and an old personal friend. At once he reassures her, "I said so, didn't I?" She gives him a narrow look: "That's what makes me nervous."

Please, go on, take a bet as to whether Aloysius K. Reilly really grew up next door to Jake Sherman (Walter Catlett), who on being told that he "could sell iceboxes in Siberia" responds equably, "You're telling me? That's how I earned my passage money to this country." Fortunately for Mabel, she is a Davies protagonist, so she has star quality on her side even if she also has Reilly. The story that follows is flimsy but cute: just as Mabel blooms overnight from a hash slinger into a Broadway star, prizefighter Larry Cain (Gable) has an equally humble background as an auto mechanic "who happened to have a sock, that's all." Their first encounter is so antagonistic, it must pave the way to romance, but first there's a protracted period of Much Ado About Nothing-lite wangling during which the indefatigable Reilly and Cain's manager Pop Walters (William Collier, Sr.) fix up a phony romance between their respective properties in order to give them "glamour" and boost sales—dressing-room flowers, front-page interviews, photo ops, the works, everything except the ability of America's newest sweethearts to stand each other. As kayfabe goes, it's a hit. The public loves the all-American pairing of the sophisticated showgirl and the handsome bruiser. The box office returns are great. But Larry remembers how he got no sleep the night before a big match because some hoofer was tap-dancing to "Coney Island" all night over his head and Mabel remembers how some swell-headed pug almost loused up her opening night by repeatedly barging into her hotel room during an emergency rehearsal and every time they meet, even with Reilly, Pop, and Mabel's co-star Ronny (Robert Paige) running interference, they cut one another dead with zingers like "You may be a champ to somebody, but you're just a punching bag with ears on it to me" and "If she's a lady, Diamond Lil could get by as Whistler's mother."4 Inevitably they bond over frying pork chops in a hotel kitchenette as an escape from the nightly whirlwind of supper clubs and autograph sessions; they confess their blue-collar backgrounds and they fall in love for real. Their respective entourages find this adorable until they realize that the happy couple's matrimonial plans include mutually retiring from the limelight, at which point everybody panics and Reilly goes into public relations crisis mode, cue narrowly averted disaster. He's not a malicious character—he's always in line with his promise to make her a star—but neither is he exactly the hero of the hour, which is why he ends the film with a damp sponge in the kisser instead of a headline photo of the reunited lovebirds. I find myself hoping they'll collect him for the wedding anyway. The thought of turning him loose again on the undeserving waitstaff of New York City is too dangerous to be borne.

I should mention lastly that Cain and Mabel is not quite a backstage musical, but it does take time out for two major production numbers that have to be seen to be disbelieved. There's one called "Coney Island" whose lyrics actually rival the inimitable "Paducah" ("If you want to, you can rhyme it with bazooka") from The Gang's All Here (1943) for rhymes I didn't know professional adult songwriters were allowed to take money for:

I can't forget the night I met you down at Coney Island
Gee, I was proud you picked me from the crowd at Coney Island
And very soon, I proved to you that my intentions weren't phony
It ended in matrimony
And now we're eating caviar instead of macaroni
But I recall those picnic lunches of baloney with a smile
I guess I'm still a hick
'Cause I still get a kick
Just loving you, a-shoving through the crowd at Coney Isle

Then Marion Davies and Sammy White get razzed by the wax museum. Busby Berkeley isn't even directing this thing. That's even harder to tell by the second number, an eight-minute extravaganza of black mirrored floors and luminous white costuming whose sets include Versailles, Venice, and an enormous pipe organ made out of nuns. Neither of these sequences has a bearing on the plot except to show off Davies in a variety of costumes and demonstrate what kind of show Mabel is starring in, but they're kind of astonishing in their own right. I can't apply the same critical evaluation to the championship fight in which Gable participates at the climax of the film, but it looks like a boxing match to me. Davies had legendarily rejected Gable as a sophisticated co-star in Five and Ten (1931) because he looked "like Jack Dempsey," preferring the more visibly intellectual Leslie Howard instead; by the time Gable got around to playing a boxer, of course, the critical consensus was that he was miscast. I have to say that I'm not sure how much changing the leads could have made a classic out of this pleasant but slightly shapeless comedy, but it's true that after the first five minutes I wasn't in it for the leads. My brain still feels like a squeegee. This diversion brought to you by my persuasive backers at Patreon.

1. The enduring relevance of this character is a thing of wonder and a depression forever. If you have ever been on a bus (or equivalent public transit; he sometimes exists on planes), you have met Oscar Shapeley. I have met Oscar Shapeley. He is the dude who does not shut up. If you cold-shoulder him, he takes your silence as interest and keeps talking; if you respond, however negatively, he takes your interaction as interest and keeps talking. If he decides to hit on you, your best bets are departing the bus at the next stop or faking your own death. I disengaged him once in Arlington Center in 2012 by judicious use of the phrase my girlfriend and that was ridiculous.

2. I can only assume his running gag snuck past the Breen Office because it wasn't in the shooting script. During most of the scenes in the press room, McCue can be seen drifting off to the desk by the window and peering out at the women going up and down the stairs in their calf-length skirts, craning his neck for the best possible view. Evening comes on and one of his fellow reporters, having failed to get his attention by normal modes of address, calls out, "Hey, Mac! Hey, Stairway Sam!" at which McCue jerks his head around, obediently goes to the doorway to flip the light switch, and, seeing in that moment a woman walking by, like Exhibit A by Pavlov tips his hat, gives her a little wave, and tries to get a look at her legs despite being at entirely the wrong angle for it. At a low moment of morale in the newsroom, he wanders disconsolately to the window and looks out for a distraction, but the stairs are empty and he returns his attention reluctantly to the soul-searching at hand. There's no payoff; he never gets lucky. It's a pure bit of business. It never upstages the main action, but is it ever not Code-rated.

3. I know I'm burning my footnotes on this paragraph, but I don't know where else to mention that I can't read the cast list for Gambling Ship (1933) without cracking up because, alongside Cary Grant as Ace Corbin and Benita Hume as Eleanor La Velle, Karns is credited simply as "Blooey."

4. Whatever the script's other failings, the dialogue is great. Nobody uses plain English when there's hyperbole to be had. I like a lot of lines in this movie, including everybody's verbal sparring and the title of this post—addressed to Reilly, of course—but there's something about Dodo (Allen Jenkins) earnestly explaining the concept of the breath-freshening cough drop: "If you've been eating onions, all you got to do is pop one in your clapper and you blow out like a violet."

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Date: 2016-01-02 03:21
Subject: You're quite a gal, Mrs. Palmer
Security: Public
Music:John Fahey, "The Death of the Clayton Peacock"

Technically my first review of 2016 belongs to the last movie of 2015, because this really was the kind of year a person sees out with film noir. I watched it on New Year's Eve, partly because I had missed it this summer when the restored version screened for the first time on TCM. [personal profile] skygiants, I've found our third housewife noir, or whatever we want to call the genre formerly theorized from the existence of Black Angel (1946) and The Reckless Moment (1949). It's called Too Late for Tears (1949), it stars Lizabeth Scott, and it's a doozy. Right up until the inevitable moral payback, it's rather like the origin story of a femme fatale.

Meet Jane Palmer, played by Scott in what is now considered her career-defining role—TCM ran it in memoriam of her death in January 2015. I'd never seen her before. I should like to see her again. The actress has a look of Lauren Bacall, but harder cut, with prominent cheekbones and a heavy mouth; the character keeps her eyes always a little narrowed, disdainful, difficult to see into. She can put on the persuasion with her husky voice, but it sounds truest when she's issuing flat, cold directives like "People saw me come onto this boat with my husband and they'll see me get off with him" to a man who isn't her husband and is just now beginning to realize where that leaves him, alone at night with a woman who stands no higher than his shoulder and holds a pistol with a lot more steel. He will nickname her "Tiger," hardly joking at all. "I didn't know they made them as beautiful as you are," he marvels, "and as smart—or as hard." But we don't meet her from his perspective, as usually happens with beautiful, deadly women and outclassed men. We open the movie with Jane herself, the night her bland suburban life is sideswiped by the underworld, more or less literally when a stranger in a passing car suddenly hurls a suitcase containing $100,000 in unmarked bills into the back seat of the Palmers' convertible. Very obviously, these are not kosher C-notes. So what would you do if someone else's payoff landed in your lap? For Jane, it's the once-in-a-lifetime windfall that answers all of their prayers, or hers at least. All her life, she's been striving to afford the lifestyle she never had the chance to get accustomed to: "We were white-collar poor, middle-class poor, the kind of people who can't keep up with the Joneses and die a little every day because they can't." For her husband Alan (Arthur Kennedy), who's reconciled himself to the fact that "there'll always be Joneses with a little more," the money is nothing but "a blind alley with a big barred gate at the end." He's right, of course, with the title there like cautionary neon from the start, but what's impressive is the run the movie gives Jane first.

As she's only the second instance of an unequivocal femme fatale I've seen in the wild,1 it's difficult for me to gauge whether Jane behaves entirely according to the rules of her archetype, but I found it striking that while she does use her sexuality to get what she needs from men, she also uses—quite effectively—violence. The first killing really looks like an accident, but she doesn't hesitate to turn it to her advantage. The second is no mistake. Two other attempts are averted by the vagaries of the plot, not by the intervention of conscience or feminine weakness. The latter makes an excellent ruse, though, and it almost never fails. Men are always ready to help out or take advantage, or think they're doing one or the other of these things. In this department the film benefits cleverly from its casting of Dan Duryea. His first appearance in Too Late for Tears feels deliberately reminiscent of his star-making entrance in Fritz Lang's The Woman in the Window (1944). There he was a crooked ex-cop turned blackmailer, searching Joan Bennett's rooms with insouciant creepiness, as if he were frisking her body instead of her liquor cabinet, her perfume table, her dresser drawers; the sense of menace he offers is lazy rather than volatile, a lanky figure in a straw boater and a double-breasted dark suit who talks extortion with such a drawling smile that the careless quickness with which he hits Bennett in the face is actually shocking, snake-strike nasty.2 As Danny Fuller, supposed P.I. in search of the missing cash, he investigates the Palmers' apartment with similarly invasive efficiency; he even offers Jane a few sharp smacks when she disclaims the whereabouts of his "dough." The familiar half-smirk is in place, as is the malicious air of knowing the game and amusing himself watching an amateur try to play it. But Danny's an opportunistic crook, not a stone killer, and therefore he's boxing out of his class trying to intimidate a woman who isn't even surprised to discover her cold-blooded gift for murder and manipulation. They meet in public parks, dark street corners, his own dingy apartment; he takes her in his arms with cynical coercion, exacting the heavy's traditional fee: "I think probably someday you will kill me. And I wouldn't want that to happen unless we were good friends." Not so many scenes later, he's wrecked by his own complicity in her crimes, staring at her with unsteady, appalled awe: "Don't ever change, Tiger. I don't think I'd like you with a heart." In the dark cities of film noir, a woman who can go through Dan Duryea like Kleenex is a force to be reckoned with.

Especially because she dominates the film, then, it interests me that Jane is not the only woman onscreen. Starting in the second act, the film devotes a secondary plot to the parallel relationship developing between Alan's skeptical sister Kathy (Kristine Miller) and the genial stranger who calls himself Don Blake (Don DeFore) and claims to have flown with Alan during the war. He's eventually crucial to the denouement, but her role is less clear-cut. She's the good girl of the story, reassuring the male portion of the audience that not all women will shoot their way out of the patriarchy if given half a chance,3 but she's also an active investigator of her sister-in-law's stories and suspicious movements, so strongly refusing to go along with Jane's narrative that she risks her own life. At their first meeting, she pulls Don brusquely into her apartment to keep him out of earshot of Jane. He's the first character who does not dismiss her concerns as some kind of natural feminine jealousy. I am a little sorry that she plays no direct role in the climax, but I find I am glad that she exists at all. She contributes to the plot rather than just decorating it, which is more than can be said for some women in movies.

You could tell the story from her point of view, of course. It would be a sort of domestic detective story, piecing together the truth of her brother's disappearance and the existence of the money and the man who wants it back in the face of official indifference and blossoming romance. With a little withholding of information, you could tell it from Don's perspective, and from Danny's it would be the most stereotypical noir plot of all, the man whose criminal impulses lead to his downfall at the hands of a woman even worse than he is. It's much more interesting following Jane. She's a hard protagonist to get close to. The film doesn't care. She's not glamorous, she doesn't scheme with style; she's chilly and quick-thinking, improvising from crime to crime with unemphatic ruthlessness. We watch her graduate from theft to manslaughter to premeditated murder—greased with plenty of fibs and misdirection—finding at every stage that she can get away with it and so seeing no reason to stop. The script offers no hint of prior misbehavior, but her lack of conscience seems to disturb her as little as a hitherto unknown capacity for perfect pitch or calculating digits of pi. And the money is important in itself, but after a certain point it's holding on to the money that matters more than whatever she does with it. It's a symbol, like her husband's Colt M1911A1, and she knows it; it's power and she has no reason to give it up.

He's lying—the money's mine.Collapse )

So, basically, I celebrated the turn of the year in a benevolent frame of mind, reassured of the essential decency of my fellow human beings. Really, I watched the ball drop in Times Square with derspatchel after making our traditional New Year's Eve fondue. It's hard to get less cynical than that. This resolution brought to you by my festive backers at Patreon.

1. I disqualify Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity (1944) for the reasons detailed here and my memories of Lana Turner in The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) suggest a folie à deux rather than cold-blooded exploitation. Joan Bennett in Scarlet Street (1945), scornfully stringing along a lovelorn Edward G. Robinson for money he doesn't actually have, seems much closer to the classical description. I'll report further when I've seen Leave Her to Heaven (1945), Gilda (1946), and Out of the Past (1947).

2. Audiences who liked to see Duryea raise a hand to his leading ladies didn't even have to wait in Scarlet Street—he's introduced beating Bennett on a street corner in what looks like an unambiguous instance of pimp-on-prostitute violence and is only half-satisfactorily retconned by the script as a tawdry, sex-driven bad romance. That said, it is a knockout of the species. The sleaze quotient in the atmosphere triples whenever the film returns to Duryea's Johnny and Bennett's Kitty in their natural habitat, a well-rumpled bed in a messy apartment, the floor strewn with a progression of discarded clothes leading to Johnny faceplanted in the pillows—shoes still on, suspenders half off, slick hair mussed to hell and gone—while Kitty in her slip with her housecoat falling open freshens her powder in the other room. They're terrible people. She's an indolent chiseler who's mistaken great sex for true love while he's a flashy good-for-nothing who slaps his girlfriend around, encourages her to make nice to rich men and then rifles her purse for the take, and draws fine moral distinctions like "It's only blackmail, baby, when you're dumb enough to get caught." Their sexual chemistry is the most appealing thing about them, because it's real and mutual, the kind where they can't keep their hands off each other; when Edward G. Robinson's Chris torments himself with thoughts of their ghosts locked forever in an endless sexual loop, it's hard to argue he'd be wrong. As far as I can tell, Lang dodged the Code on this movie by making sure to observe the suitably crime-deterrent downer ending and then flat-out ignoring the rest. I did not expect to come out mourning that Duryea and Bennett were never cast in a production of The Threepenny Opera. They'd have done Brecht's "Tango-Ballad" proud.

3. In one respect, however, she's more subversive than Jane. Prior to the advent of Danny's ill-gotten gains, Jane's only financial leverage has come through the men in her life, her first husband whom she explicitly married for his money, well-meaning Alan whom she laments gave her "a dozen down payments and installments for the rest of our lives!" Kathy has a job. "How are things at the office?" Jane asks in their first scene together. "Well, they gave my boss a promotion the other day," Kathy sighs. "Maybe they'll get around to giving me a raise later." Jane raises an eyebrow: "You sound as though you're going to make a life's work of it." I suppose we are meant to assume she'll cut out all that independent stuff when she marries Don after all, but in the meantime it gives her, legitimately, a degree of the same freedom that Jane can obtain only through theft and violence. I do not think it is an accident that after a certain point in her criminal career, Jane reverts to her maiden name.

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Date: 2015-12-04 03:19
Subject: You haven't exactly kicked me in the face, you know
Security: Public
Music:Thea Gilmore, "The Wrong Side"

All right. Black Angel (1946). This is the L.A. noir, the gem of Sunday's double feature of female protagonists from novels by Cornell Woolrich. I can't understand how I could have run into noir oddities like Lured (1947) or Mystery Street (1950) and yet never heard of this movie. Like Phantom Lady (1944), it follows the travails of a woman determined to clear a man's name; unlike Phantom Lady, it doesn't fall apart in the third act and features one of the most interesting male-female relationships I've seen in this genre since The Reckless Moment (1949). Peter Lorre doesn't play the most compelling character in it and that's saying something.

June Vincent stars as Cathy Bennett, a self-effacing housewife whose husband was recently convicted of a sensational killing—the strangling of bombshell torch singer Mavis Marlowe (Constance Dowling) with her own monogrammed scarf while her signature song "Heartbreak" played over and over in the next room. His wife believes in his innocence. No one else does. Kirk Bennett (John Phillips) was one of Marlowe's many lovers; he was also one of her many blackmail victims. The singer's own maid can place him at the scene of the crime. Even the tolerant police captain has no more time for Cathy after her husband's verdict comes in: "We're three months behind on unsolved homicides now . . . The case is closed, out of my hands. And unless new evidence is discovered, it's going to stay closed." A gossipy insinuation overheard in a studio canteen sends her in the direction of Marlowe's estranged husband Martin Blair, the man who wrote "Heartbreak" for his spellbinding, sultry wife, then crashed into alcoholic obscurity after she left him; he's played by Dan Duryea in a departure from his usual heels and heavies and he really looks like six months straight of lost weekends when he rolls over on his flophouse bed to squint at the woman hovering over him in a flat straw hat, an unflattering plaid jacket, and an expression of daunted determination. Between his hangover and defensiveness, and her eagerness and pity, their first meeting is a mutually wounding disaster. By their second, however, their awkward rapport has begun to move toward active alliance, as Marty puts a corrected assumption together with a monogrammed matchbook, and before long the two of them are posing as a cabaret duo to gain the confidence of mysterious nightclub owner Marko (Peter Lorre) who might be in possession of some important evidence.1 As an investigative tactic, this imposture could obviously use some work. As a dramatic opportunity for the characters to spend time with another, it pays off for the story big time.

There must be a word for the motif seen in romances or narratives with a strong romantic element where two people who are not yet a couple have to play at marriage for purposes of subterfuge and inevitably it foreshadows the real thing. I think of it as one of the standard screwball progressions; it gets its most famous airing in It Happened One Night (1934), although I think I saw it first in The 39 Steps (1935). When one or both parties are married for real, though—to other people—the outcome becomes less predictable. It's not just the potential for infidelity, although that layers the tension in narratives where monogamy is the assumed and cherished default. There's a real sense of substitution, of doubling. You can see more clearly who isn't there by who is. Cathy and Marty present themselves as business partners rather than a couple, but the echoes are there all the same. They ghost marriage with one another, linked to their absent spouses by familiar patterns and new variations. As "Carver and Martin," held over as headliners at Rio's for the third week in a row, they perform the same roles of singer and accompanist that Mavis adopted professionally with Marty and Cathy for fun with Kirk. It is associated in both cases with an earlier, happier stage of the marriage, when Marty was still sober and successful and Cathy's husband had not yet started cheating. Marty even writes a signature tune for Cathy, just as he wrote one for Mavis; both feature as significant motifs in the soundtrack. Notably, although the songs are voiced from a female perspective, the first accurately reflects the eventual state of Marty's relationship with its singer ("I've much to regret / Finding your arms so thrilling / And finding myself too willing / So what do I get?") while the second makes a more cautious, wistful declaration ("And while I'm in your spell / Will I love wisely or too well? / Who can say? / Time will tell"). Whatever this uncertain intimacy can be called, it's not simply going through the same motions. Cathy and Marty thrive in each other's company, apparently more so than they did with their actual spouses. Despite her initial demurrals, Cathy turns out to have a smoky, low-throated way of putting a song over that blossoms unexpectedly from her self-image as a drab homemaker; as her star rises with Marko, she begins to dress more confidently and flatteringly, her gowns off the shoulder, her hairstyles softened, a square-cut glitter of gems at her wrists and throat. In the meantime, it escapes neither the audience nor Cathy that a sober, conscientious Marty is an attractive prospect, despite being nothing to look at conventionally.2 They dance together, they rehearse, they plan the next stage of their investigation. He brings her flowers and she is never surprised to see him around the house. She takes risks and he worries about her. After a show, they always share a Coca-Cola at the bar.

They double one another, too. As the cheated-on wife, Cathy was an object of pity, but not so much sympathy: her husband was the one who strayed, but she was the one who couldn't hold him, the dowdy housewife outcompeted by the glamour girl.3 Marty wasn't just the cheated-on husband, he was the husband who got kicked out by his wife and collapsed into a bourbon-soaked punch line and kept pining for her anyway while she balled half the guys in Hollywood, earning him the inevitable nickname of "Heartbreak"—he used to play the song in dive bars until he passed out on the keys. Mavis and Kirk are the hardboiled archetypes at the heart of the story, the manipulative mistress and the two-timing man who loved and—allegedly—killed her. Marty and Cathy are the halves left out of this charmed/poisoned circle, the ordinary people on the outside, the ones who weren't loved enough. A romance would put these wounded characters together, let them find wholeness in one another. Black Angel does, but not equally and not for long.

Proceed at your own risk from here on. The stuff that really interests me requires the rest of the plot. I thought your association was strictly professional.Collapse )

I have little interest in reading the Woolrich novel on which it's based, The Black Angel (1943), because by all accounts it sounds about four times more misogynist than the movie: the protagonist is the eponymous black angel, destroying each man she meets in her desperate, oblivious efforts to save her husband. The film's bittersweet ending does make it possible to read in this fashion, but because the collateral damage of Cathy's quest is greatly decreased from the book—and the responsibility crucially redistributed—it is just as persuasive to consider Marty in this deceptively attractive light, or even beautiful, blackmailing Mavis. The screenwriter responsible was Roy Chanslor, none of whose other movies look familiar to me, although he wrote the novels later adapted into Johnny Guitar (1954) and Cat Ballou (1965). The film itself was the last project of Roy William Neill, best known for directing all but one of Universal's Sherlock Holmes series. It's tight at 81 minutes without feeling crammed; stylistically, it mostly confines itself to realistic compositions with the occasional slatted shadow or plate-glass reversal, but its expressionist breakout packs a punch when it arrives. The songs are convincing and catchy. Lorre is delightful. Vincent and Duryea and their mismatched chemistry anchor the picture.4 Woolrich famously hated it and I am delighted to report that it appears to be readily available on DVD. This flashback brought to you by my musically minded backers at Patreon.

1. The key to the murder is a heart-shaped ruby brooch, a spurned gift from Marty that Kirk swore he saw pinned on Mavis' breast when he discovered her body, conspicuously missing a few moments later. Finding it on any other person will link them to the crime scene and earn him a reprieve from the gas chamber.

2. He really isn't, although it doesn't stop him from being great to look at. Duryea has one of those lanky, flat-angled faces, with a mulish set to the jaw; he sneers easily, which means that watching Marty's gentleness emerge from his bruised, hungover cynicism is as nice a surprise as Cathy's hitherto undiscovered facility for siren song. The character brilliantines his hair severely, which in his drunk scenes gives him a look I haven't seen much outside of manga: disheveled and bed-headed, he looks like a sardonic dandelion.

3. Even Marty makes a crack about it, right after she's woken him up that first inopportune morning: "Mrs. Kirk Bennett. So you're the one he left sitting at home." The fact that he apologizes for it almost as soon as they see each other again is one of his first signs of sensitivity. I feel it may also be relevant that the first Carver and Martin song, performed in full at their audition for Marko, is an arch number called "I Want to Be Talked About" in which the narrator breezily boasts, "Sticks and stones won't break my bones and names will bring me fame / A man in the hand is worth two in the arms of some other dame." The Mavis Marlowe murder case was a front-page spectacle; nobody's private lives stayed that way. Putting a jaunty spin on it—as they perform incognito—might well do both of them good.

4. I had never seen Vincent before, although I note that two of her early roles are in musicals. I thought I hadn't seen Duryea, either, but IMDb informs me that it's just that I've seen him in two other roles against type: a wry tank gunner in Sahara (1943), making endless trivial bets with Humphrey Bogart to cover the stress of the North African war, and the mild-mannered company accountant who names the eponymous aircraft in The Flight of the Phoenix (1965). IMDb also seems to believe that he did his own piano playing in Black Angel, which if true is pretty cool.

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