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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Date: 2016-03-29 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: 2016-03-25 17:45
Subject: My tenses are balled up, but my heart's in the right place
Security: Public
Music:The Crookes, "I Wanna Waste My Time on You"

I have been trying to put this post together since January. I hope somebody reads it before the weekend.

So over Christmas when derspatchel and I were staying at my parents' house, I needed something to read as always and right there on the window seat was Otto Penzler's The Black Lizard Big Book of Black Mask Stories (2010). The title is not exaggerating. The paperback is about the size of a healthy volume of the OED and almost as slangy. I enjoyed the original serialized version of Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon (1929) and Ramon Decolta's Rainbow Diamonds (1931), but I was really struck by a short story called "Doors in the Dark" (1933) by Frederick Nebel. I'd heard of the series it belonged to. I decided to see how many of the stories were available these days.

Over the last weekend of the old year and the first weekend of the new one, I read my way through all thirty-seven novelettes about John X. Kennedy of the Free Press and Captain Stephen J. MacBride of Richmond City, originally published in the legendary pulp magazine Black Mask between 1928 and 1936 and recently collected in four sequential volumes: Raw Law: The Complete Cases of MacBride & Kennedy Volume 1, 1928–30 (2013), Shake-Down: The Complete Cases of MacBride & Kennedy Volume 2, 1930–33 (2013), Too Young to Die: The Complete Cases of MacBride & Kennedy Volume 3, 1933–35 (2014), and Winter Kill: The Complete Cases of MacBride & Kennedy Volume 4, 1935–36 (2014). The first volume was an experiment; when the remaining three came in to Porter Square Books, I read them straight through in two nights. Immediately afterward I tried to write about the stories, got a couple of thousand words in, and imploded in a puff of citation. This time around I've tried to cut down on the parentheses. Fictional and dysfunctional as he may be, Kennedy had better appreciate the lengths I go to for him and really interesting pulp.

To be fair, the first volume—roughly the first two years of the series—is only good pulp. The first five stories are sometimes grouped under the title "The Crimes of Richmond City" and that's exactly what you get. You have honest cops and crooked cops and political bosses and bootleggers and raids and murders and punches and graft and guns. Most of the characters are hardboiled types, ethnic stereotypes included. The plots are violent and fast-moving and tend to solve their crimes at the last minute, often by convenience rather than sleuthwork; the prose is chunky and vivid and occasionally difficult to parse. I found the stories compulsively readable, but that didn't stop me from wanting to edit them. There were three recurring elements that I noted as unusual and all of them were characterizations.

First, the setting. We get more detail on Richmond City as the series progresses, but it's a character from the first story on. It's on the East Coast ("New Guns for Old," 1929) and we know it's northerly because it demonstrates the inimitably cruddy winter weather found from New York to Maine. It has a port and a river and suburbs and a theater district. It's not an analogue of Boston or New York City, because both of these cities exist within the world of Nebel's stories and can be easily reached by trains leaving from Richmond City's Union Station ("Backwash," May 1932)—New York in two hours—which really makes me think of the Northeast Corridor, although the only line mentioned by name is the usefully vague "Great Eastern & Central Railway" ("Tough Treatment," January 1930). There is also a train to Montreal. My best-guess mental map locates it somewhere in Connecticut. Without a prominent university, I can't think of Richmond City as New Haven, but I can envision it where we have Bridgeport. It's heavy on industry and, since the advent of Prohibition, crime. If it had magic, it would probably be Felport. We get the names of streets, neighborhoods, wards, trucking companies, telephone exchanges, politicians, entertainers, public libraries, fences, snitches, license plates, shipping lines, all the usual minutiae of urban worldbuilding; seeing it applied outside of a secondary-world context, however, is really fun. As written, the city comes off as slightly too two-fisted to make a good vacation spot, but it's also true that prolonged exposure to film noir leaves the impression that nobody lives in Los Angeles but crooks, dopes, and the occasional bemused carhop. The theater scene is probably a credit to its arts council.1

Secondly, MacBride. He's a classic pulp hero in that he's an incorruptible force of law in a city where even the Mayor is on the take ("Law Without Law," April 1929), but he's also a middle-aged family man with a wife with whom he is very much in love, a college-age daughter about whom he worries with the crime rate the way it is, and a house in the suburbs with a mortgage on it ("Dog Eat Dog," October 1928). Being an honest cop has done his salary no favors ("Graft," May 1929), so he carries heavy insurance to take care of his family when he dies in the line of duty ("The Law Laughs Last," November 1928). He exists in a milieu where shootouts take place as often as arrests and it is considered good policing to bring suspects in with bruises, but he's not a vigilante cop: one of the engines of his character is the tension of anger and restraint, of trying to play by the rules when the rules keep changing hands for cash. Even when it's personal and he regrets his forbearance afterward, he's not a jury or an executioner, he's a captain of police. Sometimes he wishes he'd been a plumber like his father.

Lastly, Kennedy, though he really gets interesting under the cut. At this stage he's a supporting player who's stealing his way into the spotlight; he slopes into scenes with his hands in his pockets and a cigarette in the corner of his mouth, helps himself to drinks from the bottle in MacBride's desk and cigars from the box on top of it, advises and annoys the police in equal measure and turns it all into front-page news. He always looks tired; sometimes he looks exhausted. His knowledge of the city's rigged politics is casually encyclopedic and he has a cynical bon mot for every level of it. In the opening story of the series ("Raw Law," September 1928), he describes himself as "hard-boiled as hell" and he's right—although MacBride is the professionally tougher character, the reporter is the one whom nothing can shock. Like most characters of his type, he gets the best lines in the story, whichever story it is. "In the Spring—tra-la—a young man's fancy and all that crap. Which has nothing to do with the case" ("Hell-Smoke," November 1929).

If slam-bang, trash-talking action were all the MacBride and Kennedy stories had to recommend them, I wouldn't be writing this post. Raw Law was a sufficiently distracting read that I ordered the rest of the series, but I wouldn't call its nine novelettes masterpieces of the genre so much as really solid type species. The more time Nebel spends on these characters and their world, however, the more something happens that is never guaranteed in a long-running series, though it's always a victory for art when it occurs. The stories get better. The style improves until it's almost graceful, even achieving at times a curt, rhythmic poetry. The plotting becomes more complex. The ethnic slurs and stereotypes start to recede.2 Minor characters take on personalities beyond their necessity to the plot. Recurring characters deepen and gain side plots of their own. The city becomes less flagrantly corrupt and therefore more ethically complicated. And it turns out that if you take the archetype of the hardboiled, wisecracking, perpetually tight reporter and drop it into three dimensions, what you get is a real person with a severe drinking problem whose friends really worry about him, because no human being can actually drink as much as a fictional character in this genre and stay healthy and/or employed.

There is a Providence . . . that watches over fools, drunks, and bum reporters.Collapse )

I am actively surprised that Nebel never wrote a novel about MacBride and Kennedy. It feels like a natural progression; the last couple years of the series tend increasingly toward the literary, as opposed to pulp, as the crime action becomes less important than the relationships of the characters and the milieu through which they move. The characters are still growing. Richmond City has moved out of Prohibition and into the Depression. I would have loved to be able to track MacBride and Kennedy in real time through the decades, much as Margery Allingham did with Albert Campion—Nebel kept writing until his death in 1967. He even wrote novels. I am curious about all three of them. Just none of them, as far as I can tell, were linked to any of his series characters.3

I am somehow not entirely surprised that when the MacBride and Kennedy stories finally hit the screen courtesy of Warner Bros. in 1937, the Kennedy role went to a woman: the eponymous Smart Blonde Torchy Blane, played in seven out of nine films by Glenda Farrell, who had made a hit earlier in the decade as the plucky but more importantly fast-talking and not infrequently hungover girl reporter of Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933); Steve MacBride became her fiancé, played most of the time by Barton MacLane with a slightly re-spelled last name and dialed-back competence to allow for more pointed agency on Torchy's part. Please conclude from these facts whatever you would like about the slash potential of the series. Someday TCM will show one or more of these movies and I will probably enjoy them and experience slight cognitive dissonance.4 God knows how the Production Code will handle the drinking.

The subject header of this post is something that Kennedy says in "Die-Hard" (August 1935) after automatically reporting the address of a murder victim as if the man were still in residence. Who says self-annotating dialogue started with Joss Whedon? Clever, self-deprecating, facetious, true, it's such characteristic Kennedy, I might as well leave it as an exit line. I can't recommend everything about this series, but I can recommend its eventual defining character, the genius loci of Richmond City. I like to think he'd take it philosophically.

1. The theater scene of Richmond City in fact provides one of the funniest lines in the entire series, or at least funniest if you live in the city I do. In "New Guns for Old," Richmond City acquires an honest mayor who proceeds to cause just as much trouble as his corrupt predecessor by cracking down on liquor and vice with such suddenness and severity that it does nothing to disrupt crime in the city except in the sense that displacing it from its usual haunts causes a tidal wave elsewhere. "Then he closed a popular burlesque house and banned presentation of three plays which he considered slightly off-color. The Post-Express screamed at this, because two of the plays had had successful runs in Boston."

2. Nebel never gets over his use of eye dialect to represent accents, which I find very difficult, but I'll take it in return for the decrease in the number of times per page I have to read a whole bunch of period-accurate ethnic/racial epithets. It never quite goes to zero—and I never got used to the narrative use of "white" to mean regular, stand-up, honorable, any more than I accept "Christian" as a natural synonym for decency, generosity, being a mensch—but by the end of Shake-Down it's no longer face-smacking. Nebel's politics also get what I would consider better as the series goes on. In the early entry "Hell-Smoke," the police have to break a labor strike and I get the story's point that the strike leader is a self-serving demagogue who'll sell his men out to the bosses in exchange for "a nice slice of graft" after raising the hopes of desperate workers with legitimate complaints, but I still listen to the way Nebel's police talk about unions and I watch them break up protests and violently protect strike-breakers and you know that gif of the coconut octopus noping its way offscreen? That's me, reading "Hell-Smoke." There is such a thing as being on the wrong side of history and it happened to that story. It's a shame; self-serving demagogues have become topical again.

3. The reprints' introduction by Evan Lewis is invaluable for biographical information and I have relied it on it for most of my knowledge of Frederick Nebel and his other work; I disagree with it frequently on issues of interpretation. Far from being "the most comedic of the entire saga," for example, the Kennedy-starring "Bad News" is a miniature family tragedy with a quietly existential ending. There's a surface misdirection of humor as Kennedy engages to track down an old friend's hot-headed son despite slushy weather, importunate cabbies, and a steadily rising level of blood alcohol, but the prevailing tone is bleak and cavernous, unglamorous as a railway station's waiting room on a chilly, sleety night. Kennedy snarks his way through the plot with his usual motormouth, but he can't talk it into a happy ending. You can't even call the girl at fault a femme fatale; she's just a self-centered, spiteful, attractive kid who makes bank on her looks and almost certainly won't come to a bad end. The sole bright spot is a middle-aged romance which Kennedy furthers to his own loss. "Joe Marino may get married soon . . . There's a dame might have straightened me out." He ends the story so drunk, the barman has to put him to bed. I am very fond of "Bad News." I think it's one of the best stories in the entire nine-year series. It would have made a fantastic little movie in the '30's or '40's, exactly the kind of bittersweet B-list oddity I love running across. A comedy, however, unless you mean it in the strictly Elizabethan sense of ending with a marriage, it is not.

4. It is irresistible to speculate about the casting without the genderswap. I wondered at the time about Roscoe Karns—cynical newspapermen were one of his specialties, boozing optional and fast talk guaranteed. There's a rather nice portrait of Burgess Meredith from Street of Chance (1942) that has the right whimsical smile, albeit Meredith looks a lot more alert than Kennedy is usually described. The character's small size and ironical attitude would have suited Richard Barthelmess, although the actor wouldn't develop the right shadows under his eyes until the late '30's. I'm not sure what a hardboiled Leslie Howard would have looked like—and as much as I love him, he was never plausibly American—but he'd certainly have had the fey self-destructive angle covered. I'm happy to hear suggestions in comments. I'd love to see him drawn by the artist of Tanglefoot.

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

Date: 2016-03-22 05:44
Subject: What if there's no better word than just not saying anything?
Security: Public
Music:Worriers, "They/Them/Theirs"

I'm not writing about my life much these days; that's because it's not going very well. My physical health is on probation until the end of April. My emotional default is best characterized by that raspberry noise Bill the Cat used to make in Bloom County. Outside of the requirements of not losing my job and making sure that I get to my cats on a regular basis, I am putting most of my resources into Patreon reviews and other forms of thinking out loud because responding to other people's art feels like the last reliable thing my brain has to offer—and, to be fair, because it interests me and I enjoy it. I didn't pour all those words into Act of Violence (1948) or Moonrise (1948) to meet a quota. But I am not surprised that my predominant genre for some months now has been either noir or tonally adjacent. A lot of those drowning outsiders feel very familiar to me.

1. I understand this portrait is titled "Gustav Klimt," but despite the gold it makes me think more of Parajanov. Maybe it's the way the gold is deployed. Maybe the pose. The color palette is totally different, but I end up thinking of Sofiko Chiaureli in The Color of Pomegranates (1969), the poet's face screened behind red and white lace.

2. I have no idea why Criterion decided to come out with discs of Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941) rather than any other obscure or influential film, but it's one of my childhood favorite movies, so I pretty much don't care. At this distance I have only the dimmest recollection of the A-plot with Robert Montgomery's plane-crashing prizefighter prematurely translated to the next world by an overzealous angel and bodyswapped back to Earth by his eponymous urbane superior, where he wakes to a noir-suitable mix of murder, infidelity, and crooked financial dealing and turns it all into a screwball romance. He is able to prove his identity by playing the saxophone very badly. There's a girl who he ends up with, but I can't remember how they meet or who plays her; I remember the boxer's excitable manager only because I've seen James Gleason in multiple character roles since. What stuck with me was the heavenly bureaucracy, of which I think Mr. Jordan must have been the cinematic template—it predates Powell and Pressburger's more deliberately numinous A Matter of Life and Death (1946) and even Jack Benny's apocalyptically goofy The Horn Blows at Midnight (1945). There are rafts of cloud, clipboards, streamlined modern airplanes instead of pearly gates. Edward Everett Horton's dithery Messenger 7013 dresses like a commercial pilot and mournfully requests a transfer from New Jersey. First I saw Claude Rains as the endlessly ambiguous Captain Renault, then I saw him as God. Calm, wry, benevolently enigmatic, nothing surprises Mr. Jordan, but he hasn't seen it all yet. He has pilots' wings on his dark suit jacket and a silver streak in his hair. It took me until just now, this very moment, to realize that he must be named after the river as it figures in hymns: the crossing between worlds. I'd have backed the film with Angel on My Shoulder (1946), but maybe they're saving it for a future release. I don't understand their schedule. It's only taken them forever to get around to—no relation—Only Angels Have Wings (1939).

3. I knew someone on the internet would inevitably generate fanart of William Daniels' John Adams and Lin-Manuel Miranda's Alexander Hamilton. I just didn't expect it to be the New York City Center.

17 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

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