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Myth Happens

Date: 2016-04-11 17:59
Subject: Nothing lasts, but nearly everything lingers in life
Security: Public
Music:Parquet Courts, "Berlin Got Blurry"

1. So it sucks hard vacuum that Johnny D's closed, but I appreciate that at least they left an assortment of random CDs in a free box on the sidewalk, because I now own in some cases brand new copies of Hector Zazou's Chansons de Mers Froides/Songs from the Cold Seas (1994), Noe Venable's The World Is Bound by Secret Knots (2003), Jim Guttmann's Bessarabian Breakdown (2010), and Ken Waldman's Music Party: Alaskan Fiddling Poet Music from All Over (2003). I had never heard of either of the last two musicians, which is part of the reason I bought them. I was on my way over to see my cats. It has been quite hard to work with one of them insisting he should be the center of attention instead of my keyboard, but it is worth the purr.

2. Many of these poems are good (and a couple I don't like at all, because that happens sometimes), but I love Yvonne Reddick's "Ermine Street." John Foggin's "Norman" feels like one of nineweaving's characters.

3. I couldn't find Pauline Kael's 5001 Nights at the Movies (1982) anywhere around the house, but fortunately her review of Phaedra (1962) was readily available online:

Phaedra (1962)—Jules Dassin's glossy, novelettish version, set in modern Greece, of the classic story that was dramatized by Euripides, Seneca, Racine, and many others. Here, it's undermined by a lunatic piece of miscasting: when Melina Mercouri leaves her rich, powerful bull of a husband, Raf Vallone, to run away with his skinny young son, Anthony Perkins, the audience can't imagine why. She scoops him up in her arms, like a toy. With its snazzy cars and fabulous jewels that can be casually thrown into the sea, this is like a Joan Crawford picture, only more so. Dassin appears as Christo.

This is exactly what I meant when I talked about critics missing the point of the chemistry. Kael is quite right to notice the difference between Thanos and Alexis—and to draw the sexual implications from it that she does—but she's completely mistaken that it's a movie-wrecking oversight rather than a mythologically appropriate contrast. Hippolytos is the son of an Amazon, already a marginal figure from an Athenian point of view: an unnatural woman who hunts and fights. Taking after his mother does not make Hippolytos a normal young man, reversing her masculine characteristics onto a more societally appropriate actor, it just makes him feminine from strange angles. Like his barbarian mother, he is a hunter, a charioteer, and a breaker of horses, a kind of solitary male Amazon when he should be pursuing the expected social activities of his age and gender and Greek surroundings, Aphrodite included. He should be marrying, at least trying out sex. Instead he has dedicated himself to Artemis, the goddess of wild virgin girls. He enters the play offering her a garland of flowers he picked himself in an untouched meadow, and if that image doesn't shout Persephone—Kore, the Maiden—I haven't got a little cat on my lap trying to add his pawprints to my typing. He even says of himself that he has a παρθένον ψυχὴν, a maiden soul. Phaedra would fall apart if Alexis were a conventionally masculine type like his father. That Kael thinks he should have been tells me a lot more about her ideas of romance than about the success or failure of Perkins' performance.

(Phaedra does not ever literally pick up Alexis, but I like the image—it makes me think of the little Adonis-dolls dandled and mourned for at the Athenian Adonia or the statue of Eos with Tithonos that so frightens the narrator of Evangeline Walton's She Walks in Darkness (2013). The goddess with her mortal plaything. I believe it of Mercouri, larger-than-life irresistible force that she was. You try saying no to the Earth Mother, see where that gets you. Oh, man. I have to meet my parents for a movie, but that should be a poem when I get back.)

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

Date: 2016-04-10 04:48
Subject: Why do men dedicate all their crimes to women?
Security: Public
Music:Esben and the Witch, "Eumenides"

Last night's movie was one I had wanted to see since I was in graduate school and reading Sarah Kane and Seneca: Phaedra (1962), directed by Jules Dassin from a script by Margarita Lymberaki and ultimately Euripides. It's the only film version I've ever seen of the tragedy. It's one of the most direct adaptations that exists. It has a contemporary Greek setting, an international cast headed by Melina Mercouri and Anthony Perkins, black-and-white location photography in three countries, and a score by Mikis Theodorakis. It was a box-office failure in the U.S. I loved it unreservedly. I may or may not be able to explain why.

Part of it is simply the fun of retelling: seeing the classical story transposed in clever and even thought-provoking ways. No one in this movie is Greek royalty; they are something better, more glamorous and more personally powerful, the dynasties of shipping magnates like Stavros Niarchos and Aristotle Onassis, who would have been very much in the news at the time. Theseus is not just king of Athens; he is the kouros of Poseidon, cult hero and son of the god whose sea-curse he will call down on his own son at the climax of the tragedy. The jet-setting super-rich are explicitly the new demigods, recognized as such by the scornful wonder of an old woman watching the fireworks that spell out SS Phaedra on the cliff above the bay: "They are powerful, they speak many languages, and they celebrate with fire in the sky." The newly christened ship's namesake is Phaedra Kyrilis (Mercouri), the second wife of ambitious, toughly handsome Thanos (Raf Vallone), a rising star of the business world with a shipyard in Piraeus. Her father is a modern-day Minos with a fleet of freighters and tankers, his strength at sea so far still greater than that of his challenging son-in-law; his nickname is "the old sea monster." Thanos' first wife, as in Euripides, is long offstage. We never learn her name; she is always "the Englishwoman" or "the foreigner," just as the hero's barbarian mother in Hippolytos is always "the Amazon." She lives in Hong Kong now, the East that is utterly alien to the ancient Greek world. Thanos left her for Phaedra; perhaps in retaliation, she brought up their son (Perkins) without anything of his father's culture, not even his language. "She thinks all Greeks are savages." He isn't a devotee of Artemis, but he's dropped out of the London School of Economics to become a painter, which is just as bad. His name is Alexis, and as the story begins, Phaedra is delegated to retrieve him from England and reconcile him to his father and the family business. Her maid Anna (Olympia Papadouka) warns her against the trip: "In my dream, two boys were fighting with spears. One was your son. The other, the son of the foreigner . . . Your husband will put the son of the Englishwoman in the shipping. He's building an empire. He needs a prince." It's an appropriate concern in a world as dynastic as theirs, but mythologically speaking, it's not what Phaedra should be afraid of. There is no Chorus, exactly, but there are the black-clad women of the island of Hydra, whose husbands and sons work in Thanos' shipyard and aboard his ships. The gods exist in statues and metaphor.

The rest of it is the performances. Mercouri at the time of Phaedra was Dassin's collaborator, lover, and award-winning co-star in the international hit Never on Sunday (Ποτέ την Κυριακή, 1960); they would marry in 1966. She was a singer, a political activist, and a politician, with an astonishing face—broad-mouthed, lion-eyed—a mane of heavy, Helen-fair hair and a voice so deep and husky, it sounds like the earth itself growling when it drops even further with emotion. She is a force of nature and she has to be, because in the absence of gods who direct and possess the lives of mortals, all of this forbidden love among the rich and famous can come off as shallow, self-absorbed, or even farcical. These are aspects that can be used to devastating effect, as in Phaedra's Love (1996), the play which introduced me to Sarah Kane—cynical, depressed Hippolytus apathetically continuing to watch TV as a love-demented Phaedra blows him among the expensive squalor of his royal apartments, "one big happy family. The only popular royals ever." Dassin and Lymberaki are going for social criticism with their modern version, but also for genuine tragedy, and Mercouri with her strongly marked face and her theatrical intensity brings an overwhelming, elemental quality to Phaedra that makes the audience believe in love as a form of madness, as a thing so imperative and unmanageable that it must come from the gods, even if there are none to be found outside of museums these days. London is a clever setting for Phaedra's first encounter with her husband's half-English heir with his dismayingly aesthetic ways: they meet in the British Museum, among the marbles that should be in the Parthenon.1 He is sketching them. About five minutes later, I wrote to derspatchel, "GOD DAMN ANTHONY PERKINS IS AMAZING."

I realize that the rest of the moviegoing public knew this already, but Anthony Perkins is one of the actors for whom I have historically had an incredible fondness despite never actually seeing them in what I would consider a major role. I caught him early on in Friendly Persuasion (1956); after that we're talking Catch-22 (1970), Murder on the Orient Express (1974), and bits and pieces of some whacked-out Disney sci-fi that years later turned out to be The Black Hole (1979).2 I had never seen him as a lead before. He's quicksilver: half the time a tormented homme fatale, deliberately shocking; the other half he's clownish, sarcastic, half-grown. On his first day with Phaedra in London, Alexis invites her to meet his "beautiful, miraculous girl"—a sporty Aston Martin DB4 with whom he does an incredible mime of romance, including trying to cop a lascivious feel of a headlight until interrupted by a sales clerk; he burlesques embarrassment, presses a chaste kiss to his beloved's bonnet, and exits to his stepmother's approving laughter. Because he hated her so as a child, the all-Greek trophy wife who usurped his foreign mother, as an adult he approaches her with exaggerated, ironic flirtation, not yet aware that he means it. He has the lean height of an archaic hero; his eyes are white and dark as a bronze statue's glass. He's not always beautiful, but when he is, the camera makes it count. Perkins is playing a character six years younger than himself, but that isn't the only reason Alexis' apparent age keeps flickering; so does his sexuality. He shows no real interest in women except for Phaedra.3 The film was criticized on release for its supposed lack of chemistry between Mercouri and Perkins; I can actually see where this complaint comes from, but I think it's missing the point. It's not that they don't have any: it's that it doesn't run along conventional gender lines. She is always the lover. He is always the beloved. Their first love scene is weird and fearless, full of gestures that shouldn't work: Alexis is building a fire when Phaedra declares her love for him, kneeling by the hearth as she stands at his back; the thin twist of flame gathers into a blaze as he reaches up one hand to her, his head still bowed; when her fingers slip suddenly between his, it's as intimate and possessive as a sexual act. They make love in a swooningly cheesecake setting—on the floor before a roaring fire as rain lashes the windows of an apartment in Paris—shot so elliptically that it becomes fragmented and elemental, fire between their mouths, the shadows of rain over their backs. Phaedra is a modern-day movie, but not quite a naturalistic one. People do not speak to one another like plain human beings. They have dreams. They talk to the air and the sea. Anna tells her mistress' fortune with a pack of playing cards; when a bystander at the harbor (Dassin himself, doing a Stan Lee cameo) remarks that the newly imported Aston Martin "looks like a big coffin" in its oversized crate, Thanos laughingly foreshadows, "It's the fastest coffin you ever saw—driven by hundreds of horses." It could feel too clever; at least for me it gets at some of the estranging effect of seeing a classical Greek tragedy performed in modern dress, people you might run into at the bus stop talking seriously about oracles and the burial of the dead.

Then again, I like that the film tells you its ending from the start. Euripides' audience would have known the bones of the story, so why not Dassin's? The title comes up in feverish scratches over the tearing sound of a jet engine and the steam whistle of a male voice screaming Phaedra's name; then the credits themselves play coolly over the white sculpted horses of the Elgin marbles, as clear an allusion as I can imagine to Hippolytos' association with horses and a presentiment of the final wreck to which that dreadful yell belongs. An Aston Martin with a 250-horsepower engine makes as good a stand-in for a chariot as a truck on a cliffside road does for a bull from the sea; both are the fulfillment of a father's curse.4 Hanging is a woman's death in classical tragedy, but these days we have pills and faithful maids who will place a sleep mask over your eyes like Mycenaean gold. The ship that bears Phaedra's name has already sunk off Norway, taking almost all hands with it; her husband knows about the loss to his business, but has yet to discover the losses to his family—the film closes on his recital of the names of the dead to the wives and mothers who wait outside his office, their grief a rising chorus that encompasses, unknowingly, Phaedra lying on her bed and the shrouded body in the courtyard that must be Alexis, brought home from the crash. It is the closest to reconciliation this version of the tragedy will get.

So I continue to like Jules Dassin, and I continue to like Melina Mercouri, and I will have to watch Psycho (1960) after all, because if it's the role that defined Anthony Perkins for the rest of his life, he's probably pretty memorable in it. I wish this film were out on better DVD than the burn-on-demand available through TCM, but at least somebody thought it deserved that much. I think it's one of the better contemporary revisitings of the ancient world I've seen. This ivy crown brought to you by my myth-minded backers at Patreon.

1. As Minister of Culture for Greece in the 1980's, Mercouri held the first international competition to design what would eventually become the Acropolis Museum.

2. I saw most of my Disney films at summer camp at the Arlington Boys & Girls Club. Technically, I read through most of them, which is why my strongest memory from Sleeping Beauty (1959) is Maleficent turning into a dragon and the only thing I can really sing from Cinderella (1950) is the talking mice's sped-up patter song. I really can't tell if The Black Hole is one of the ones I want to rewatch: everything I have read about the plot suggests that it suffers from a cheese sandwich ending. On the other hand, Roddy McDowall voices a robot. Anyone got an opinion?

3. Late in the film, betrothed to his step-cousin Herse (Elizabeth Ercy) in accordance with his father's plans to consolidate power against his father-in-law ("Separately, one by one, he can swallow us whole. If we get together—indigestible"), Alexis gets drunk at a party, wins an extempore discus throw for the honor of the English, and awards himself his first night with a woman who isn't Phaedra. It seems to be strictly to prove a point: "Why does everybody think they own me? Nobody owns me."

4. The scene in which Alexis speeds to his death, beaten and formally banished by his father and under his curse, is fantastic: he talks to his car, he talks to the radio, he shouts along to a fugue by Bach, his voice strained and wild; it is the same odd animism the film has observed throughout, only now in a terrible key, as if the Furies were riding shotgun with him. "Let's face it, John," he shouts to the dead composer, "she loved me. She loved me like they did in the good old days."

18 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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Date: 2016-01-26 04:06
Subject: When we got adopted by a bald guy, I thought this would be more like "Annie"
Security: Public
Music:Flogging Molly, "The Times They Are A-Changin'"

So my niece has a T-shirt with a Minion on it. This was a meaningless piece of pop culture to me until this weekend, when it turns out that Despicable Me (2010) is a startlingly charming children's movie of the kind that can be enjoyed by adults without excess of either irony or fart jokes.1

The title refers to the protagonist Gru, voiced by Steve Carrell with an outrageous Eurosmash accent that is mostly pseudo-Russian but honestly reminds me of nothing so much as the accent Peter Jurasik invented for Londo Mollari on Babylon 5 (1994–1998), in which case there's a healthy dose of the Borscht Belt in its DNA. His character design is equally fantastic: he looks like a cross between Alastair Sim and Uncle Fester, tall and bulky-shouldered with a piercing nose, stalky legs, and caterpillar brows with a toggle setting between glowering and plaintive. On a normal human body, his black drainpipe jeans and matching zip-up jacket would give him a middle-aged geek-chic look, his no-neck delineated by a charcoal-striped scarf; he will freeze-ray any customer who gets between him and his morning coffee. His house cranes over its neighbors like the Addams mansion; the basement is a cavernous space-age hangar occupied by the lab-coated Dr. Nefario (Russell Brand) and a nearly infinite number of knee-high, lemon-yellow Minions (mostly Pierre Coffin, occasionally Chris Renaud and Jermaine Clement) in their little boiler suits and welding goggles. I am not at all surprised that these creatures got their own spin-off. They are not exactly what would happen if you dropped Beaker and the Doozers in a blender, but they possess some of the same mad engineering charm. They chatter away at one another in their own dialect, out of which a recognizable non-English word will occasionally emerge, like a breezy "Da, da, da" after being given instructions; they look almost identical and about half a dozen differentiate themselves by personality over the course of the story, which genuinely impresses me in a digitally animated film. They have boundless enthusiasm and a problematic attention span. They'll build whatever nefarious invention Gru can design, but as the story opens, he's got a problem pure labor can't solve: unlike Goldfinger or Lex Luthor, Gru is not an independently wealthy supervillain. He was formerly responsible for some bold acts of theft and mayhem—and he's got the newspaper clippings to prove it—but these days he's in danger of being outcompeted by younger, flashier, meaner villains with sleeker tech and better PR. Some unknown baddie just replaced the Great Pyramid of Giza with an inflatable replica and it's making "all other villains look lame." Gru wants to prove he's still in the game, but he's taken out so many loans from the Bank of Evil that he can't even get funding for his world-defying plan to steal the moon unless he can convince the bank's pointy-haired president that he's a real threat to international security, not just another minor megalomaniac with a mortgage.

Toward this end, for reasons that play logically in context, he adopts three small orphan girls so that he can steal a shrink ray.

The plot from here on is obvious: unless it's going to play against audience expectation to the point of cruelty, Gru's phony family will have to become the real thing; his reluctant acts of caretaking2 will become heartfelt and the three orphans—who are not exactly pushovers themselves—will find themselves bonding with this awkward, slippery, inadvertently endearing man. This is indeed the arc we get. But it's not saccharine. And just as importantly, neither is it winkingly ironic. The subversive approach works with Edith (Dana Gaier), a gap-toothed, blond-shocked hellion whose pink-striped sweater and pink woolly knit hat do not remotely disguise the fact that she's hit adolescent cynicism about five years ahead of schedule without losing an ounce of childhood bloodthirstiness. When Gru incinerates a rigged carnival game that was about to cheat five-year-old, unicorn-obsessed Agnes (Elsie Fisher) out of a fair and square win, Edith's eyes widen with hero worship. She was already impressed with the number of medieval torture devices and futuristic weapons left casually lying around her new home. But he earns Agnes' trust by finding her a new toy unicorn after her beloved scruffy original is accidentally disintegrated in his kitchen, which is the kind of gesture that can win a child for life even if meant mostly as an expedient remedy for her heartbroken crying, and cusp-of-puberty Margo (Miranda Cosgrove) with her glasses, her sensible plaid skirt, and her hand-me-down tweed jacket is too old and too used to fending for herself and her sisters3 to fall for anything other than real parental commitment. Dolls and explosions are nice, but they're not proof of safety or love or stability. She's the one who could get really hurt by Gru's thoughtless subterfuge; intelligent and defensively sarcastic, she's the one who's most like him. But they are all believable children, which means they are three young girls who aren't adorable tot plot counters—they can be, from moment to moment, any selection or combination of sweet, smart, suspicious, vulnerable, manipulative, imaginative, ungovernable, not constantly in agreement, not necessarily well-behaved, and always lovable. Gru can't figure out how he fetched up on the sidelines of ballet practice surrounded by beaming soccer moms with smartphones who really approve of a father who takes his daughters to dance class, but the viewer could see it coming for miles. They're fantastic kids and he's a supervillain, not an idiot. He has reasons to resist emotional attachment and reasons these particular children get tangled in his heartstrings. The story assumes sincerity when it comes to sentiment and it's stronger for it.

It's also a nice goofy romp through the tropes of supervillainy coupled with some contemporary critique—it doesn't lose time spelling out emotional issues whose implications the audience can already understand because it has to get on with staging a sky chase with a shrink ray or a heist scene with full props to Topkapi (1964) or a pulp sci-fi rocket launch which is also oddly and appropriately earnest. The real villain of the piece is self-monikered up-and-comer Vector (Jason Segal), a track-suited whiz kid with all the smarm and ego of Silicon Valley bro culture; all his inventions have the bland seamlessness of Apple products except where his Bondian fixations show through, like the giant shark circling under the glass floor of his TV room and his insistence on inventing a working piranha gun.4 He is magnetically charmless. He has catchphrases. He probably studies how to be a pick-up artist when he's not designing his own logo. Unfortunately, he's not stupid, just self-centered, entitled, and petty enough to be a real threat: "Now maybe you'll think twice before you freeze someone's head!" Gru can be flamboyantly callous and macabre, but he knows, even if he has to be reminded of it, that people can be hurt. He also knows about gravitation and ballistic trajectories and why it is never a good idea to wear smiley face boxers on a day on which you might plausibly find yourself hanging upside down, with or without a giant shark underneath you. Most scenes in the film are running on more than one level, but when the top layer is the stunts and the gags and the mad science, it is really, reliably funny.

I'd had no idea. Based on casual exposure to trailers and posters at the time, I'd expected Despicable Me to be extruded Pixar-lite product. As it is, I think it would appeal to fans of Noel Streatfeild as much as fans of Brad Bird. Julie Andrews has a small part, but I think she was cast on her ability to sound fantastically unimpressed and she delivers. There is a sequence in an amusement park that is basically an on-ride video for a fictitious roller coaster that I hope somebody had a lot of fun designing, because it starts with a more-than-ninety-degree drop and I would ride it. Also, I recognize that it was designed for 3-D, but I am charmed by the ending gag where two Minions compete to break the fourth wall, refereed by an increasingly exasperated third; when they finally succeed, the "film" smashes, catches, stutters, and melts, leaving a white screen with an immense projected shadow of a Minion who looks awkward for a minute and then starts doing shadow impressions. It's cute at home, but in a theater it would kill. I don't want a Minion T-shirt, but I am seriously considering taking my brother's advice and watching the prequel. This delightful surprise brought to you by my only slightly villainous backers at Patreon.

1. There is one fart joke in the script and it is hilarious. It is immediately lampshaded by an embarrassed mad scientist, trailing off in resignation: "I said dart gun, not . . ." His stalwart but hard-of-hearing research assistant, having just made one of the ubiquitous Muppet-like Minions pass out with a well-aimed shot of artificial intestinal gas, is visibly relieved: "I was wondering under what circumstances we would use this."

2. His first attempt at providing the girls with a nurturing environment is to furnish a corner of the kitchen with a bowl full of candy and some newspapers on the floor. In his defense, it probably worked with the bug-eyed, shark-toothed, bluish-hair-sprouting abomination of science he refers to as his dog. Alternately, it may be why the thing goes for his throat half the time they're alone.

3. I can't actually tell if the girls are meant to be related by blood—Agnes' character design looks East Asian, while Edith and Margo appear to be white. They function as a trio, however, and it is never suggested even by the orphanage's indifferent manager (Kristen Wiig, not quite in Miss Hannigan mode) that they be separated.

4. Later upgraded to a squid gun, with considerably more success.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Date: 2015-12-24 02:31
Subject: And once you lie to people, it's only one step more until you start lying to yourself
Security: Public
Music:The Underachievers, "I'll Be There for You"

Chicago Calling (1951) isn't a noir, either. Not every sufficiently downbeat movie with an urban setting and evocative black-and-white cinematography is a film noir. Quite a number which fit this description are Italian neorealism. Like this one, except it's taking place in Los Angeles.

It's one of the movies whose plot is really its premise: broke and feckless ex-photographer Bill Cannon (Dan Duryea) has a day and a night to come up with the $53 that will pay off his overdue phone bill so that he can receive a call from Chicago with news of his badly injured child. Does he scrape together the money? Are you the kind of person who reads the last page of a mystery first? Fortunately for you, although there is a dramatic payoff after some surprisingly tense developments, Chicago Calling is more interested in portraiture than plot twists; it is a brief window into its protagonist's life and a character study that stands or falls on the skills of its actor. If Duryea can't hold the audience's belief and sympathy, there's nothing here. I am pleased and not too surprised to report that he nails it. I am also unsurprised that I am completely fucking depressed.

For an actor best known for smiling with a sneer and slapping leading ladies around, Duryea possessed a convincing affinity for the sympathetic and fucked-up: wounded Marty Blair, embittered Fred Blake, and now first-class luftmentsh Bill, who only notices that his life has been falling in on his head for some time when it takes someone else with it. He's a mess, but a realistically proportioned one; he has less wrong with him than most antiheroes, but he doesn't have very much right. An amiable disposition, which gets him nowhere without some ambition and resolve. A knack for photography, but no ability to parlay it into a regular job. (His last few attempts at breadwinning spun off into get-rich-quick shortcuts that backfired in easily overlooked, nastily cascading ways, like the "crazy promotion scheme" that ran up the initial phone bill—it didn't get paid at the time because it was a daunting amount, now it's an amount that gets your phone disconnected.) He smiles easily, but all the lines in his face are anxious. He drinks too much. He's not a dramatic alcoholic, he doesn't wreck rooms or black out or afford his director any opportunity for expressionist montages; he's just an automatically apologetic, chronically unreliable, irrelevantly talented man who's let his wife down so often that she's taking their daughter and going to stay with her parents in Baltimore before she does anything she'll regret, like agree to give him yet another second chance, and Duryea plays him with the bewildered passivity of someone who has ceased to expect anything from himself and doesn't understand why other people still do. He loves his daughter dearly. That's never in doubt, from the first moment he ambles down the concrete steps of the slum his family's come to and a dark-haired nine-year-old with a dirty face (Melinda Plowman) runs to meet him; he's even a good father in the sense that he offers her unconditional affection and as much attention as he can muster and she loves him fiercely in return. But he's no use when it comes to the other, practical aspects of parenting and partnership and his wife (Mary Anderson) has the audience's support when she says directly, "I'm not leaving you because I don't love you. I still do. I think I always will . . . but I've lost faith in you, and that's the worst thing that can happen to a marriage." You want to be able to root for him. He always wants things to get better, he just doesn't know how. Ten minutes into the movie, you can already see where that kind of wishful thinking ends.

So naturally the film takes this directionless character and gives him a situation which demands action: he learns via telegram that a road accident outside of Chicago has left Nancy hospitalized in critical condition; the surgery is scheduled overnight and Mary will call the next morning with an update. Bill is frantic. This plan only works if he has a working phone, and the friendly but law-abiding lineman just shut it off. He can't get an extension from the phone company because customers are always pleading with them not to shut off service for one emergency or another. He can't get a loan from the bank without collateral—he already pawned his camera to pay for the trip to Baltimore; his wife was prepared to hock her wedding ring—and charities don't pay out on the spot. He pleads with his closest drinking buddy, a short-order cook whose wife is tired of finding Bill passed out on their couch: "This is an emergency! I'm good for twenty-five bucks!" The man looks him in the eye and replies evenly, "You're a good guy and all that, but you're not good for twenty-five bucks." This is how a life falls apart, imperceptibly until the landslide. The poverty line funnels like a fish trap, Avernus' easy descent. Institutions are indifferent; person-to-person goodwill is easily burned. Any helping hand can make a difference, but Bill's only known allies in L.A. are the family dog and the ten-year-old boy (Gordon Gebert) who ran him over slightly with his bike and tagged along out of loneliness afterward. Even the expected desperate race against the clock never quite materializes, because after the initial galvanizing burst of panic, Bill in a crisis can't actually get his shit together any faster than Bill on any other day of the last five years. He gets a dishonest chance and goes back on it, but not fast enough to prevent spiraling consequences; he gets a last-minute honest opportunity and throws himself into it with a tenacity that surprises the audience, but it might not be enough. He is heartbreakingly affectionate with Bobby, a neglected stray of a kid who reminds him of his daughter: takes him to a baseball game, tries to impart some painfully admitted moral lessons, even tucks him in at the end of the day, which doesn't raise an eyebrow from Bobby's adult sister; she's already made clear her intentions to offload the kid on a foster home as soon as she's married. In response to Bill's well-meant parenting advice, she challenges, "Well, how would you like the job of bringing him up?" Bill being serious sounds like sarcasm in Duryea's light voice, unless you're listening for it: "I wouldn't mind." Here at least is something he's good at. Here's someone he can take care of. He can't do a thing for his daughter except hope. If he was going to do anything else, it needed to happen a long time ago.

The cinematography matches the unsentimental story. John Reinhardt and Robert De Grasse's L.A. isn't the glittering, dangerous City of Angels, city of gumshoes and torch singers, of wrongful convictions and criminal rackets. It's a city with construction sites and freeways, traffic jams and food trucks; it is filmed on overcast mornings and flat, washed-out afternoons, deliberately eschewing dramatic chiaroscuro even in night scenes, where a demolition site looks like a science-fiction wasteland, but not like Venetian blinds. The location shooting is practically a documentary of Bunker Hill before the redevelopment. Bill and Mary live in one of the rickety, craning, chopped-up apartments that cling to the slope of the hill like stilt houses at low tide; their daughter plays in an Escher-maze of tenement stairs and back porches, hopscotching on steep concrete and scrapping in fights for her father's honor, which he is all the more poignant to him because he's given up on it himself. The film's major departure from realism comes before the credits in quick, charged shots of telephone poles and wires, a chattering babble of voices that resolves itself into an operator's neutral tones: "Chicago calling, Chicago calling . . ."1 I might as well mention here that the ending is a little whiplashy. I can see what it's doing in the story—and I can see that it's meant to provide a fragile reason for going on with, not a consolation prize—but the film at 75 minutes is already a tightly wound little programmer and the speed with which it snaps through the climax to the end titles left me blinking a little at the screen. It's not the wrong last line, but I don't know if it needed to be spoken. It simplifies things.

No prizes for guessing the movie was a box-office failure. Depending on the socioeconomics of the audience, I suspect Bill was either an unsympathetic protagonist or a painful one. The latter, I understand. Since October, I've been living in my cousins' guest room. Technically it might be rushthatspeaks' office, but at the point when I moved in it was occupied by a futon, a bookshelf, a desk made out of packing boxes, and a large quantity of still-boxed manga. I moved in my mattress, my desk, my dresser, and the green basket chair in which I have a perpetual pile of jackets because the closet is full. Everything else is in storage. My husband and our cats are living with a different set of friends. He was out of work for a full year and employed part-time for three-quarters of another and my part-time jobs and freelancing didn't make enough money to support two people and two cats in an apartment rented when our finances were very different. You can see a crash coming from a long way off, but that's different from being able to avert it. And I am damn sure that I did not drink myself out of my marriage (I stopped by the Somerville Theatre's Christmas party at Hong Kong last night, I watched my husband participate in a scorpion bowl drinking contest, David the projectionist offered me a soothing lead pipe to the skull,2 everything's jake) and I am more fortunate in my friends than Bill Cannon, but the melodramatic suspense of the plot is less painful to me than the accurate reproduction of that bottomless cold-sweat, fast-sliding feeling where suddenly there are no options ahead but bad ones. I've asked people for any work they could give me and I've known it wouldn't cover the bills. I ran my health into the ground and we're still not living on Leonard Street. I respect Chicago Calling immensely for not being the kind of Hollywood story where hard work guarantees redemption, as if the demonstration of willingness were sufficient to get a break from the universe,3 and I am not at all sorry to have seen it, because Duryea is just as good as I had hoped after reading that he thought Bill his best role, but I also finished the movie and dialed up seaQuest on Netflix and stared at Ted Raimi until I felt better. My adrenaline levels went down sometime after that. I don't get that tense with actual noirs. This encounter brought to you by my compassionate backers at Patreon.


1. I am ambivalent about the film's opening sequence proper: I like the device of seeing the secondary characters about their daily lives before we know their importance to the protagonist—even before we know who the protagonist is—but the voiceover is more suited to an episode of The Twilight Zone than a feature film. I'm also not sure I believe that this movie is about "test[ing] a man's faith in his fellow man." The faith tested in Chicago Calling is Bill's in himself. Just the fact that he doesn't collapse in a paralysis of despair at the premise is a point in his favor, but he's failed for so long at most of the things he cares about, why should he have any confidence about this one?

2. With the exception of the night I spent in Providence last week, I have averaged three to four hours of sleep a night since sometime in November at least. Most nights I don't fall asleep until well after dawn. This is neither pleasant nor sustainable. Quite honestly, I'd be delighted if the Benadryl knocked me out. It doesn't seem to have happened yet.

3. For a Catholic innovation, there's a lot of Protestant work ethic in the Production Code.

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

Date: 2015-12-23 04:23
Subject: It's an older code, sir, but it checks out
Security: Public
Music:The Future Kings of England, "IX. Spectacle of a Scarecrow"

Tonight I had vague thoughts of writing about Die Hard (1988), which rushthatspeaks and I saw earlier this evening at the Brattle, and I really need to get Chicago Calling (1951) out of my brain because it upset me, but at the moment I am just going to marvel that Admiral Piett fandom has finally gone mainstream. I realized in 2006 that it wasn't just me, but I hadn't realized it was also The Atlantic. I think it's the shadows under Kenneth Colley's eyes. The character as written is part of a plot device, a demonstration of the power and cruelty of Darth Vader. He gets maybe thirty lines of dialogue across two movies; he doesn't have to be anyone. Imperial officers don't have a great track record for personality. He might be as ruthless as Tarkin's cohort in the first movie or as stupidly arrogant as his late superior, a true believer or an opportunist or just wallpaper. Colley's tight face and wary eyes make him sympathetic. He doesn't have to say anything to look slightly haunted even before his promotion, like someone who isn't sure if today's agenda includes Force-choking or not; he only gets sharper-faced and more sleepless as he goes. "So goes life in the Empire: There's plenty of upward mobility, but job turnover is high, and workplace safety truly abysmal." It doesn't matter that we never see him do anything other than behave with the expected efficiency regarding his duties and his crew and an understandably petrified politeness around Vader, he complicates the dystopia just by not being faceless. (And not dying, even when he expects to—moments after he assured Vader its hyperdrive was deactivated, the Millennium Falcon streaks into stars and the expression on Colley's face as his spooky commander sweeps out of the room isn't so much the expected relief as blank bafflement at still breathing.) I note that even The Atlantic wants to give him more time in the story: "It's fun to imagine a strange Rosencrantz and Guildenstern-like saga playing out in the background as Piett manages the vast civil service of a galactic dictatorship while fielding orders from Vader and his Emperor." I am basically delighted.

In honor of the occasion, please enjoy cucumberseed's "The Love Song of Admiral Piett." It's still the best film criticism/T.S. Eliot parody I know. Character actors forever.

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

Date: 2015-12-20 03:15
Subject: The last king lies in a secret grave
Security: Public
Music:The Mountain Goats, "Night Light"

I meant to post this last night, but it didn't go with the perving on classic Hollywood actors: R.I.P. Peter Dickinson.

If asked casually, I would not have said that he was one of the writers I followed, as I followed Diana Wynne Jones or Tanith Lee. As an adult, I learned that my mother had his mysteries in the house—A Pride of Heroes (1969, U.S. The Old English Peep-Show), Death of a Unicorn (1984), Some Deaths Before Dying (1999). A couple of his YA novels came to me as presents in high school and college. I almost wrote about King and Joker (1976) earlier this year after discovering Emlyn Williams' Headlong (1980), another alternate history of the British monarchy. I enjoyed his elemental stories of water and fire, collected in collaboration with Robin McKinley. His bibliography is formidable and I still haven't read most of the rest. But he wrote three books of great importance to me, none of which I can illustrate properly because my library is once again in storage, so you will have to take my word that they are worth it.

I associate it with my elementary school, but I think I must already have been in seventh grade when I read Time and the Clock Mice, Etcetera (1993), an illustrated short novel with a whimsical premise, an unequalled assortment of eccentric relatives—including the narrator, though naturally he thinks of himself as the normal one—and a wonderful slantwise, poignant view of time and the universe. The ninety-nine-year-old Branton Town Hall Clock is a marvel of timekeeping, famous for its tableaux in which seasonal figures process through the quarter-hours from Lady Spring attended by lambs through Lady Winter in her cloak of green leaves until "Time comes out again and hunts them all into the dark." When it breaks down on the eve of its centenary, its inventor's not-youthful grandson is called in to repair it and in the process discovers a colony of intelligent, telepathic mice who live in all of the figures except Lady Winter. This happens in the first chapter; it's the part of the plot he put in up front to hook the reader straight off. He tells you so. Then he talks about clocks. The effect of reading the book is very much like being told a story by someone who is determined to get all his facts in order—the narrative is organized into "First Essay on Mice," "Second Essay on People," "Second Essay on Bells," and so forth—but can't resist darting off on tangents, everything from the science of clockmaking to the secret history of cats as set forth by the narrator's cat-worshipping Cousin Angel. (Cousin Minnie is the one who's into bell magic and Cousin Cyrus is the one who's crazy about trees. He's fond of all of them, but thinks they have a screw or two loose regarding their chosen fields. It is obvious to everyone but the narrator that when his relatives talk about him, he's the one who's nuts about clocks.) Plotwise, it's one of those stories where someone discovers something secret and special, endangers it through accident or folly, and then has to scramble to keep it safe, but the plot really is there for the tangents and the essays to anchor to, although I can still quote the narrator's rueful image of himself "with [his] heart in [his] boots, swigging strong Darjeeling and trying to sober up" while he gets up the nerve to face the mice. It's funny and numinous and I don't know what Peter Dickinson sounded like to talk to, but I love the clockmaker's voice. I went back to it for years to see how he got the disorganized effect while still creating a perfectly comprehensible narrative. Then I tried to see how he did the humor. Anyway, it contains one of my favorite parentheses ever published. "We'd not been on speaking terms most of our lives," the narrator explains about Cousin Cyrus, "due to a disagreement about homemade marmalade when we were both young and hot-headed, but we'd made it up a couple of years back while we were letting off the fireworks at Cousin Dennis's funeral. (That was a party!)" If that doesn't encourage you to read a book, I'm out of ideas.

City of Gold and Other Stories from the Old Testament (1980) is exactly what it sounds like, except that part of the point of the book is how many different ways it sounds. All of its retellings are in different times and voices, not just styles but structures. A Jewish storyteller runs the Flood story by his Babylonian counterpart, comparing professional notes during the Exile. Samson and Delilah are a Child ballad. David and Goliath is a cautionary tale from a Babylonian drill sergeant on the surprising military effectiveness of the sling. An Alexandrian doctor gives a case history of demonic possession as illustrated by the jealous madness of Saul; a Hebrew mother tells her children the story of the prophet Elisha and the boys who were torn to pieces by bears in order to make them apologize to their aunt "before Elisha's bears come and get you!" Not all of Dickinson's reinterpretations work equally for me, but the ones that have stayed with me over the years, really stayed. I can track exactly when they entered my awareness as a writer because I tried to experiment with monologues, which is the mode in which most of the stories could be performed. The book won a Carnegie Medal; I am a little surprised that no one ever tried to adapt it for radio or the stage. Much later I read that Dickinson's model for City of Gold was the polyphony of Kipling's Puck of Pook's Hill (1906) and Rewards and Fairies (1910), which I believe.

Merlin Dreams (1988) is the book I have trouble talking about. I read it the year it came out; I was seven years old and it was part of the library of the Atrium School, in the same bookcase as the rest of the myths and folktales that I would spend my recess time reading unless the teachers gently encouraged me outdoors. It's illustrated by Alan Lee, who I didn't yet realize was famous, though I would recognize his art a few years later in Joan Aiken's The Moon's Revenge (1990) and years later still in The Lord of the Rings. There are nine stories, each of them themed around a trope of medieval legend: "Damsel," "King," "Unicorn," "Sword," and "Enchantress" are some of the titles I can remember; the seeming outlier "Sciopod" comes from T.H. White. The frame-story is the image of the title, old and immortal Merlin dreaming under the stone where Nimue left him, not tricked for the sake of stealing his power, but given refuge from the magic that drained and buffeted him like a storm. The stories rise and break from his dreams, rippling and transmuting—the boy-king with the ritual axe Iscal in his hand, long thought lost in the black ooze of the bog after the slaughter of the royal house, now presented to the tribes as proof of his kingship at the hill of the white horse is a prehistoric forerunner of Arthur as we know him, but the story twists into a very different tale of royalty before we can get anything more familiar. A joust between two knights in a dragon-haunted wood has its roots in the "killer-priest" of the ancient well, with a sword at his belt and a garland of mistletoe, who will yield his sacred role only to the man who kills him. This book gave me year-kings. It didn't do so alone—I was reading about Tezcatlipoca in a book of collected world mythologies right around the same time—but Dickinson's description of the rite struck me like an eyewitness account: the young man who is the old king in his harvest robes and his millet crown, his successor who stands among the stones with the "strange weapon" of the bronze-headed axe in his hands, the chanting of the priests and the wailing of the tribes as the king comes to the sacrifice at the dawn of the equinox. "In the silence the Axe falls." His hair is knotted in the bronze hooks, his severed head hoisted for the mourning tribes to see, like the heads on the doorposts of the killer-priest's shrine. This is Robert Holdstock, Golden Bough stuff, myth with clay in its hair and blood under its nails. I can't begin to estimate how it affected me, except that it was one of my first impressions of Merlin and, as happened to me with so many other forms of fantasy, it hit me with the imploded tropes of chivalry before I knew what the actual thing was supposed to look like. I was in grad school by the time I tracked down a copy of my own. It was just as wild and haunting as I remembered, like Lee's illustrations, which always have something half-seen about them. Some of the stories are sly, some adventurous; a couple are weirdly heartwarming and there is a piece of sheer fucking body horror in another that still disturbs me, by image and implication both. The collection is capped by a poem called ". . . Dreams," which I have quoted for the title of this post. I've just found the illustrations online, but it's the words I wish I remembered more of now.

Of course I never wrote to him and told him that his dreaming Merlin changed my life, or his seen-it-all drill sergeant, or his susceptible clockmaker ("with getting on a gallon of tea sloshing round inside me and my ears ringing with the tannin, but still pretty woozy from the champagne") going staunchly off to apologize to a bunch of telepathic mice. You'd think I would have learned after Tanith Lee. I don't have a moral, except that eighty-eight years old is a reasonable age for dying and I will still miss his presence, because the voice behind all of those voices is now out of the world. Go read the books; keep them speaking. Keep listening to the stories from under the stone. Don't underestimate shepherds. Learn something about clocks.

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

Date: 2015-12-16 03:29
Subject: He had the brains all right, your father
Security: Public
Music:Anaïs Mitchell, "Young Man in America"

It struck me as I was beginning this post that Storm Fear (1955) is technically a Christmas movie—there's not much in the way of holiday spirit in it, but it takes place at the right season and briefly features a tree. Certainly it's not a film noir, although I first heard it described as one. Talking about it with rushthatspeaks and other people, I've mostly gone with the labels "Northern Gothic" or "traumatizing Bildungsroman," although "fascinating and unexpected demolition of mid-century models of masculinity" also works. Cornel Wilde produces and stars in his triple-threat directing debut.1 I hope the title meant something to the original novel by Clinton Seeley, because it is completely irrelevant to the film.

Twelve-year-old Davey Blake (David Stollery) lives with his parents on a remote farmhouse somewhere in the Midwest, an ordinary, representative white American kid of the mid-1950's. It's winter, there are mountains, there are eight-foot snowdrifts everywhere. The family moved out to the middle of nowhere so that Davey's father could write his second novel in peace, but it's going badly: Fred (Dan Duryea, even farther from type than the last time I saw him) is distant, peevish, and poorly, emerging scarf-wrapped from his study only to snap at everyone and break up in coughing fits,2 and while his guilt about isolating his family for the dubious sake of his art is apparent from orbit, no one's going anywhere until the spring. Their only regular human contact comes in the form of Hank (Dennis Weaver), the earnest hired hand whose unrequited crush on Davey's mother, the lovely but frayed Elizabeth (Jean Wallace), is equally visible from space. He pays attention to Davey when no one else will, buys the kid a .22 for Christmas, promises to take him hunting like a '50's father-figure should. He is not the inciting event of the story, however much he might like to be. That's the arrival of fugitive robber Charlie (Wilde) with boozy, brittle moll Edna (Lee Grant) and trigger-happy hoodlum Benjie (Steven Hill, forty-five years in advance of Law & Order) in tow, looking to use the Blakes' farm as a safe house until the manhunt following a botched bank job blows over.

Charlie's no outlaw come by chance à la The Petrified Forest (1936), though. He's Fred's estranged younger brother, the prodigal presuming as always on the upright son's better nature, although by this point in his life Fred doesn't look like he has much of that left. Charlie has a bullet in his leg, Benjie has a chip on his shoulder, Edna has a mink coat that she shows off to Davey with flirtatious pride. Elizabeth has a tight, silent anger in the line of her mouth that opens as soon as she's alone with Charlie, prying the lead out of him as he twists and arches on the old spring-shot bed. Much sooner than this set-up suggests, the history of the two brothers and the woman who married one of them unravels under the tension of the snowed-in house, tightly kept secrets spilling over with confinement and jealousy and desire. Twelve years ago, Elizabeth was in love with Charlie: she fell pregnant by him, he refused to marry her, and Fred, the older, shyer brother who had always been sweet on her, made the noble gesture of offering his name, which just goes to show that "noble gesture" is frequently synonymous with "bad idea," because twelve years later the two of them are trapped in this fruitless parody of a nuclear family with a child who isn't getting the affection he needs from either of his parents. It's not that they don't love him, but he's the emblem of everything they cannot speak about. Now here's Charlie back again, the same forceful, volatile combination of vulnerability and danger that knocked Elizabeth for a loop when she was a girl, but she's grown now, a wife and mother, and she actually slaps him when he pulls her down on the bed, murmuring that it's the same between them as always—"when all I had to do was whistle." Fred doesn't see her fight his brother off; all he sees is the sexual current between them and his own humiliation when his efforts to assert himself as defender of his home are contemptuously smacked down by vicious little Benjie and his limping no-good of a brother needs to step in. His failures don't tell him anything he didn't know already, but it hurts all the same and he doesn't handle it well.3

Your father sent you the dog, David.Collapse )

I worry that I am making the movie sound neater than it is. It twists at its own pace, gives away information that another film would withhold until a more suitably dramatic moment and watches the characters tangle in the consequences; it's full of unfinished conversations. From one angle, the story is a fraternal tragedy. Growing up together, Fred and Charlie had a close relationship, born out of a troubled home. Charlie tells Davey, "Your father was always the smart guy. I always had to look out for him, though—I was the younger, but I was tougher. I never let anybody pick on Fred. He'd always sit around the house reading, learning something. I just about worshiped Fred when we were kids. Mama did, too." Fred's first impulse on seeing his wounded brother is to call a doctor, but after Benjie's beaten him in front of his son, he screams at his brother who brought this thug into their house, "You're nothing but a bum, Charlie! You'll end up in the gutter just like Papa—a thieving, murdering bum! You'll end up just like I told Mama you would!"4 Nothing is ever solved between them, no more than it is between either of them and Davey. I really appreciate, however, that the script takes the time to acknowledge that the tragedy belongs equally to Elizabeth, who married a man she never promised to love for the sake of the child she was having by the man she knew was no good for her and hoped it would all turn out for the best—and when it didn't, accepted her unhappiness like the penance that even a film made in a conservative year knows she doesn't deserve. And there's the effect on Davey, the real protagonist of the picture for all that it doesn't shift to his perspective until the final act, when the abrasive intimacy of the storm-bound farmhouse gives way to the chill, clear danger of the outdoors. Early in the film, he played with a rifle; now he has to use a gun for real. It's not manly, it's awful, and he should never have been placed in a position where it was necessary. The adult world has failed him. There isn't a father-figure left standing. The film's final scene restores temporary harmony, but it's hard not to feel it's a bandage rather than a healing.

I have seen very few movies which reminded me simultaneously of Dodie Smith's I Capture the Castle (1948) and Ronald Neame's Tunes of Glory (1960), but that's as accurate a summary of Storm Fear as any. I am guessing it gets classified as a noir because of its bleak, violent tone, but I'm not seeing it—with its claustrophobic setting, its flawed and darkly colorful characters, and its imploding family unit, it really feels like a northerly variant of the Southern Gothic to me. If the rest of Wilde's movies are this tight and complicated, I will probably enjoy his catalogue. If this is a one-off, it's a pretty good one. The script was Horton Foote's first screenplay; his next was To Kill a Mockingbird (1962). Dan Duryea appears to have my permanent interest. I don't believe the term "toxic masculinity" existed in the '50's, but Cornel Wilde knew the thing when he put it onscreen. This assessment brought to you by my sensitive backers at Patreon.

1. He had previously produced The Big Combo (1955), a true noir directed by Joseph H. Lewis and starring Wilde himself alongside Richard Conte and Jean Wallace, then his wife and his co-star here as well. Music by David Raksin and I wish it were commercially available. Just listen to the title theme.

2. The traditional writer's complaint in these cases is TB, which in '55 feels like a melodramatic stretch. I have no disbelief when it comes to chronic poor health and nasty winter colds, however. [edit] See comments; it's probably TB.

3. The physical casting in this movie is great. Wilde is dark, compact, muscular, with the kind of blunt, immediate presence that used to get described as "animal vitality"; Duryea uses his height and his lankiness to his character's disadvantage, all awkward angles, a stick figure ready to snap. Fred is the writer; he can talk a mile a minute, cuttingly if he wants to. Charlie has a stammer. It worsens under strain, but it's apparent even in normal conversation; it gives an impression of vulnerability that his actions may or may not bear out. Fred is the fair-haired brother; Elizabeth is also blonde. Davey is as dark as his "uncle."

4. Around this point I realized that I read the brothers as Jewish based strictly on their speech patterns, including features like the use of Mama/Papa rather than Davey's middle-American Mommy/Daddy. Accused of selfishness, Charlie flares, "Who was I thinking about when I plunked down the payment for this farm so that Fred could have a nice healthy climate and write his books and become a bigshot genius and pay me back maybe? I suppose I was thinking about myself, huh?" It's a headcanon. Regardless of whatever Charlie's syntax may imply about his ethnicity, in any case, the fact that it's not the most convincing argument is characteristic.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Date: 2015-12-01 05:29
Subject: Stick with me, snooks, and I'll stake you to a carload of hats
Security: Public
Music:Saint Eve, "While the City Sleeps"

Rabbit, rabbit. Let's talk about Phantom Lady (1944).

This is the flawed B-picture, the New York noir with two indelible scenes, a female protagonist with unusual agency, and some maddening script problems. It is almost a very good movie. It was directed by Robert Siodmak from Cornell Woolrich's 1942 novel of the same name and produced by Joan Harrison, a former Hitchcock screenwriter and one of Hollywood's few female producers of the time. The cast is A-list to B-plus and the cinematography takes high-contrast advantage of the nascent noir genre to create evocative, artificial tableaux of a city everyone seems to haunt and hardly anyone seems to live in. The sound work is equally expressionistic, frequently conveying key points from offscreen with dialogue or sound effects alone. We spent most of the intermission trying to figure out how we could have fixed the plot.

The premise is crackerjack. On the outs with his wife, engineer Scott Henderson (Alan Curtis) spends the evening at a Broadway revue with a melancholy stranger in a memorable hat (Fay Helm; the hat is credited to Kenneth Hopkins as "Phantom Hat Creator") before returning home to find that his wife has been strangled with one of his own ties. He should have an ironclad alibi. He has an existential nightmare. He doesn't know his date's name; he met her at a bar and she insisted on anonymity. Everyone the police interview, from the bartender who served them to the cabbie who drove them to the theater to the star of the revue who gave the stranger the stink-eye from the stage—they were wearing the same hat—either can't recall her positively enough for an identification or outright denies there was a woman with him at all. His trial is a formality. He's convicted in a montage of jeering cross-examination and silently furious reaction shots of his devoted secretary, played by the excellent Ella Raines. Her name is Carol, but everyone calls her "Kansas" after the home state whose accent she has long left behind; she has a curious, dark-browed, deerlike face whose quiet, scary intensity the film will make much of. Without resources or assistance, she decides to clear the name of the man she loves by finding his mysterious alibi, the "phantom lady" whose absent presence already dominates the film. Eventually she will acquire an ally in the inspector who closed the case against her boss (Thomas Gomez, whom I like wherever I find him), but she never yields center stage to him; the focus remains on her resolve, her courage, her sometimes foolhardiness, and her downright ruthlessness at times. Even when the story starts to disintegrate around her, Raines never melts like a heroine who's ready for her man to step in.

Besides Raines' performance, the film's strength lies in two early excursions into the nighttime underworld of New York where Scott and the phantom lady so briefly crossed paths. In the first, Kansas sets her sights on the bartender who knows more than he told the police. Night after night, she buys a whiskey and water and sits at the far end of his bar, not drinking, not speaking, staring at him until closing time, passionless and terrifying as a Fury. "She's been sitting there all night," he protests to his boss with a nervous strain in his voice, but the man sees only a regular customer, an unaccompanied girl trying to catch the barman's eye for a refill, not the petrifying head of the Gorgon. The night she follows him home, through rain-silvered streets and a deserted elevated station where circles of streetlight isolate hunter and prey like spotlights, her heels clicking inexorably behind his quickening footsteps, she begins to frighten the audience: we can't tell what she wants from him, if it's information or purely vengeance for his part in the framing of the man she loves. She corners him for the first, but she gets the second as lagniappe. Tell me how many seventy-one-year-old movies you've seen where the most dangerous thing on the city's streets is a woman alone and unarmed. Stranger on the Third Floor (1940) pointed in this direction with Margaret Tallichet's pursuit of Peter Lorre, but didn't go as far: Jane could be menaced by her quarry when his true nature was revealed. Kansas' never has a chance.

The second setpiece is even stronger. Because Scott remembered the phantom lady catching the eye of the drummer at the revue, Kansas gets the man's information from Inspector Burgess and makes herself over into musician bait, a "hep kitten" in tawdry, slinky black—fishnet stockings, stiletto heels, cheap jewelry, a beauty mark and a mouth full of cracking gum—slung into a front-row seat with one shapely ankle tapping out the time, heavily darkened eyes come-hithering at the grinning little tomcat behind the kit. He turns out to be Cliff Milburn (Elisha Cook, Jr.), a sharp-suited firecracker of a trap drummer with the sexual confidence of a man six inches taller and less prone to ironic character death. He talks a mile a minute and mostly jive; he takes her to a private cellar room where a wild jam session is underway and shows off for her with a sexually charged drum solo that I am amazed got past the censors in '44. Seriously, they can't have been looking at the screen. The jazz quintet whose rhythmic shadows crowd the room even closer and smokier than its cinderblock walls are very hot and very good. Cliff starts with a cocky, promising grin, flashing the sticks like an obvious metaphor; as he picks up the pace, his grin tightens, his face sweats, his eyes widen. Kansas stands over him, laughing, but we cannot hear the sound over Cliff's pyrotechnic frenzy. It is a bravura display. He's as good a drummer as he thinks he is1 and he's building to a climax in every sense of the word. She jerks her head, slides her eyes toward the door. He throws away his sticks, grabs his coat and hat, and follows her swiftly out of the room, pausing only at the door to doff his hat to his fellow musicians as the piano skitters and the bass thrums on. The audience may now smoke their cigarettes if they've brought them.

I regret to report that the film pretty much collapses after this scene. There are two substantial problems with the remainder of Phantom Lady and they are, unfortunately, the identities of the murderer and the eponymous lady herself. The former is glaringly obvious from the moment the character is mentioned in absentia; he's confirmed as soon as he appears, making every succeeding scene a superfluous cat-and-mouse between Kansas and a character whom every law of detective fiction screams that she should know better than to trust. I believe the film wrote itself into this corner, whereas the novel concealed the killer's identity until the climax, but I don't know what the scriptwriter thought he would gain by tipping his hand. It does nothing for the tension and in fact rather undercuts Kansas, whose bullshit detectors have been surprisingly sensitive up to now. I'm not sure who to blame for the film's efforts at criminal psychology, a box of pseudo-psychiatric jargon that leaves Franchot Tone striving manfully with a mixed assortment of facial tics and gazing reverently at his hands as though someone slipped him 'shrooms between takes. The phantom lady herself is built up to such a pitch of nearly supernatural mystery that almost any explanation would underwhelm, but it really doesn't help that the one we get comes so far out of left field that it appears to belong to another genre and, more fatally, bears no thematic relevance to the rest of the plot. The haunted stranger who won't tell anyone their name is as potent a figure of noir as the cynic with a bruised past or the morally ambiguous lover. I'm not saying she should have turned out a femme fatale, but rushthatspeaks and I both independently formed the idea that she was on the run from a noir plot of her own, which seemed such an appropriate doubling of Kansas' quest that it jarred all the more when the script effectively reduced the phantom to a red herring. Lastly, and I realize this is more of a personal preference than a structural complaint, it disappointed me that after two knockout mini-investigations of suborned witnesses, we never got another. I would have paid good money for a real scene between Raines and Aurora Miranda,2 the temperamental revue star who denies ever owning the same hat as anyone else. Instead Tone's Marlow (no relation) comes to dominate the proceedings and he is, frankly, the least interesting character in the picture. I saw better psychopaths last week.

All of this said, the film is worth seeing if you can find it. Kansas is a striking heroine in a genre that tends to allow its bad girls more agency than its good ones, and it is especially entertaining from a contemporary perspective that she is rewarded for her efforts with the plot candy of her love object—Scott is not without personality, but after the first twenty minutes his primary narrative function is to motivate Kansas' heroism. Ella Raines has gone on my list of actresses to pay attention to and Elisha Cook, Jr. is a standout. The basement jazz scene is justly famous and worth the ticket price alone.3 Naturally, to the best of my knowledge, Phantom Lady is not available on DVD in this country. Somebody pester Universal.

Next up, Black Angel (1946). This gig courtesy of my hep backers at Patreon.


1. Credit for Cliff's drumming goes either to Dave Coleman or Buddy Rich, according to IMDb or the rest of the internet. The point is that it's world-class. Five foot five he may be, with a face like a dissipated choirboy, but Cliff is the real thing. Most of Cook's characters only wish they were. It's a nice change, even if it's a short-lived triumph. Rush-That-Speaks and I almost brought an Elisha Cook, Jr. bingo card to the theater on the assumption that whoever he played was going to meet a sticky end—shot, poisoned, sexually demeaned, set up, sent up, probably knifed sometime . . . We'd neglected to include "strangled" on the list of possible fates, but we'd still have been right.

2. Carmen's younger sister. She gets a flamboyantly Hollywood-Latin number called "Chick-ee-Chick" about which probably the less said the better, except that she puts it over like a pro and the ability to carry off ridiculous hats plainly runs in the family. She has a vibrant voice, an expressive face, and I was depressed to come home and find that her most notable appearance on film was Disney's The Three Caballeros (1944).

3. I didn't realize until I was done with this review that it is apparently impossible to mention Phantom Lady in any critical context without discussing the basement jazz scene. I cannot argue with this convention. It was a hell of a thing to see. In the same way that Eli Wallach has been known to serve as a life-changing experience, I recommend the experience of viewing Elisha Cook, Jr. as a dynamo of raw sexual energy. I do not expect it to happen again any time soon. Also, considered as a five-minute musical interlude, it's just some really good hot jazz.

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Date: 2015-11-29 18:29
Subject: My theory is that everyone is a potential murderer
Security: Public
Music:Timber Timbre, "No Bold Villain"

[I was writing this post at four in the morning and my brain fell over. I finished it just now. Please enjoy several thousand words on film noir. I don't know why I bothered setting myself a minimum wordcount with this project.]

My sleep schedule is a disaster. Tonight rushthatspeaks and I reorganized half the kitchen shelves and then went out for dinner. I am very tired, but I am also very tired of not talking about movies.

The great thing about seeing Strangers on a Train (1951) on the same bill with Double Indemnity (1944), as I did last night at the Brattle with jinian and Rush-That-Speaks, is that as a double feature they deliver two complementary portraits of very different modes of sociopathy. I am not talking about Barbara Stanwyck.

And now I suppose I get the big speech, the one with all the two-dollar words in it.Collapse )

I am afraid this is the somewhat cut-down version of the compare-and-contrast I wanted, but Phantom Lady (1944) and Black Angel (1946) are playing at the Brattle in about an hour and I can't guarantee I won't be thinking about them by the time I come home. I had never seen Strangers on a Train and I thought it was terrific; I had seen Double Indemnity once about eight years ago and I was delighted to see it again. I did not expect the thematic link between the movies, so good job there, Brattle programmer. This dual review brought to you by my perfectly stable backers at Patreon.

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Date: 2015-11-24 03:08
Subject: I stole those books for him and I expect to get paid
Security: Public
Music:Krauka, "Norden for Tronhjem"

Pleasant surprise of the evening: Dwight Frye in an otherwise undistinguished B-movie I was watching for the curiosity value. teenybuffalo and gwynnega, take note.

Although I recognize that they sound from their titles as though they should feature turbo-charged cars, splendidly diverse casts, and slash potential that goes up to eleven, Fast Company (1938), Fast and Loose (1939), and Fast and Furious (1939) are a weird little trio of light mysteries that exist for a reason so bizarrely specific, I waited a week of interlibrary loan just to see what they were like: they were made by MGM explicitly to provide a fix of married, witty amateur detectives during the three-year hiatus between the second and third Thin Man pictures. Melvyn Douglas and Florence Rice star as Joel and Garda Sloane, married rare book dealers who run a sideline in recovering stolen rare books for insurance agencies.1 They're no William Powell and Myrna Loy, which they must have known, but to be fair their material's not exactly Dashiell Hammett. Their bantering chemistry works about half the time—they seem to get a charge out of playing boss and secretary, including in front of a visibly uncomfortable insurance investigator—but the remainder gets closer to sniping than I enjoy, even when repeatedly assured by the script that the characters love one another to distraction. The plot revolves around the murder of Otto Brockler (George Zucco), a miserly but prominent dealer who almost certainly framed his daughter's suitor for theft two years earlier; newly released from jail, Ned Morgan (Shepperd Strudwick) is the obvious suspect, but the dead man's daughter believes in his innocence and so does Joel Sloane, who sets out to clear his friend's name by finding first the real murderer and secondly the supposedly stolen books. Glamorous secretary Julia Thorne (Claire Dodd) plainly knows more than she's saying, deflecting Joel's questions with cool shutdowns like "Pardon me, do you take dope?" Smooth-talking, well-tailored Eli Bannerman (Louis Calhern) has a broad, confident smile and no qualms about cheating one of his criminal associates, setting up the man up for murder, and then killing him anyway. The police are exasperated by the constantly teasing Sloanes, but seem to need them for leads; Ned's lawyer doesn't believe his story of drunkenly stumbling onto the murder scene and then bolting in a panic; a pair of thugs are hired to take Joel out of the picture and Garda envies the latest fashions. There are some nice one-liners and some surprisingly suggestive exchanges, but further developments are best described as "machinations." This film runs less than an hour and a half and I was wondering by the fifty-minute mark how it even lasted that long.

Fortunately for my attention span, Fast Company supplies one real redeeming feature in the presence of Dwight Frye as one of the supporting criminals, a counterfeiter of rare books who is justifiably proud of his first-edition Leaves of Grass. With his octagonal glasses and his sideways-falling hair, Sidney Wheeler has a clerkish, geeky look, but he cleans up nicely to threaten his contemptuous partner with a gun he wasn't supposed to be carrying ("Put down that bottle and get your hands up—quick! Sit down. Rest yourself. Why don't you hit me now?") and take a girl out on the town with a wallet of stolen money, knocking back his nth shot of the night while the wide-eyed blonde breathes admiringly, "Boy, can you take it!" Especially in light of Frye's horror-maniac typecasting, it's fun to see him in a role that only calls for ordinarily bad judgment, like getting into the rare book racket with sharks like Bannerman and Brockler in the first place. Sidney is high-strung but not hysterical, happiest when disheveled and underslept, showing off his handiwork at the end of a long night; he grips the unfamiliar gun so tightly that his hand jitters, but at point-blank range it won't matter. He takes a fall like pantomime, toppling out of shot for seconds before he drops. I'm not sure he looks good in a bowtie, but it's cute on him. He gets four scenes before the plot catches up with him and I am profoundly grateful he was in the picture at all; Frye wasn't credited on the back of the box or in the opening titles, so it wasn't until the dramatis personae that I realized I had him to look forward to. I might well have bailed otherwise. Not surprisingly, I lost interest somewhat after he exited the script. Douglas and Rice are trying their best, but the failure mode of sparkling wit is a vague feeling of embarrassment for all concerned. Claire Dodd fares better by virtue of being the bad girl; her cold-blooded calculation makes her one of the more intelligent figures in the plot, since she at least can plan for the future. I suppose it's unfair to Shepperd Strudwick that I expected him to turn out crooked in some kind of twist. The selection of films in which I have previously seen Louis Calhern is peculiar.

So I had three quite good movies to write about, including the silent war epic I saw on Sunday, but I seem to have devoted this space instead to a 75-minute oddity created with only the most mercenary motives in mind. I may even subject myself to the sequels, although I do not expect them to contain surprise Dwight Frye.2 This distraction sponsored by my indulgent backers at Patreon.

1. In future outings, the characters will be played first by Robert Montgomery and Rosalind Russell, then by Franchot Tone and Ann Sothern, which is one of the reasons these films have fascinated me since I ran across mention of them. The writer in all three cases is the same, Harry Kurnitz, who had also written the original novel Fast Company under the name of Marco Page. The directors vary again, however, with the last being Busby Berkeley. I freely admit I want to know how that went down.

2. They don't. I checked IMDb. Alas. I would be tremendously entertained by a series of movies in which Dwight Frye appeared in small roles and met a different bad end each time.

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