Monday, August 27, 2007
I am still somewhat dumbfounded and for that reason will not write the usual summary here. I don't know that I want to remember as much of it as I do. It being an older movie, the scenes of highest intensity are visibly artificial, but their gut-clenching Kubrick intensity is more affecting given the context; that is, the psychologically-damaged characters are more empathetic than those in, say, A Clockwork Orange. The damage is more real, more comprehensible, and all the more upsetting, particularly considering that our country is at war yet again.
Thursday, August 23, 2007
In the case that you don't know that Frankenstein's monster is an eloquent speaker, I will here synopsize the novel. It opens and closes with Captain Walton, who writes letters and a diary to his sister as he leads his ship to the North Pole (reading this at the beginning, one wonders how the story will ever come around to the fateful stormy night in a dank laboratory when Frankenstein woodenly sits up as lightning strikes). The captain picks up an extremely sick man he encounters on the ice floes a few days after seeing a great beast driving a pack of horses on a sledge across the ice; this man is Dr. Frankenstein, and he tells the captain his story. The story is one we all know—a curious young scientist, he worked on the project of bringing life to a body cobbled together from dead bodies' parts, but as soon as he was successful, he realized that he had created a monster, and fled. The monster, meanwhile, rampaged the countryside and killed Dr. Frankenstein's young brother, by strangling. An innocent girl goes to the gallows for the murder. Frankenstein tries to flee, but the monster follows him, finds him, and then tells him his own story.
The story is filled with existential pathos, that of a creature with no understanding of who he is, where he is, or what he ought to do, who encounters fear, horror, and therefore violence whenever he comes into contact with another person. He spends months secretly living in a hovel adjacent to a farmhouse, through which he observes the poor but tender family and, by listening to them and studying carefully, learns their language. He performs a variety of "secret Santa" tasks for them—bringing firewood daily, for example—but when he finally introduces himself to them in the flesh, they attack him and then flee. He is desperate for companionship, and has tracked the Doctor in order to ask him to create a female partner of his kind, so that he will not be alone. Frankenstein is horrified and conflicted, but after threats, he agrees. He does not have the wherewithal to complete the project, though, and he destroys his work, again fleeing. As punishment, the monster kills his best friend and traveling companion, and then his foster-sister/fiance (again by strangulation). Frankenstein's father dies from grief. Now as alone as his monster, the Doctor pursues the beast in order to put an end to his life, chasing him all the way into the Arctic, where the Captain found them. It is on the ship after this story is told that Frankenstein dies, sick and exhausted. The monster appears for a short discussion with the Captain, and the story is ended.
Dracula, of course, is much more dishy, although it isn't the first vampire book (that seems to be The Vampyre by John Polidori, conceived in the same contest as Shelley's Frankenstein, and which I haven't read). The narrative here is comprised from a series of documents—letters and journal entries—from a variety of key characters: Jonathan Harker, the solicitor who goes to Transylvania and first meets the Count, his fiance, Mina, the three suitors of Mina's friend Lucy—a doctor, Seward, a Texan, Quincey, and her fiance, Arthur—and Seward's mentor, Dr. Van Helsing. Things are thrilling from the start when Harker travels to the dreary castle and meets the Count, slowly observing that there is no domestic help, that the Count never eats, and that the Count is never to be seen in the daylight, but stays awake all night. One frightening thing after another happens, and Harker realizes that he's trapped; the Count is monitoring all of his correspondence, and has locked him into a small wing of the castle. By the time Harker escapes, we have had enough thrills for one novel already, but more are to come. Mina has been at Lucy's estate, where Lucy has been sleepwalking—she goes out to the graveyard one night, and though Mina finds her and brings her home, she is never the same again afterward, for she has been bitten, by the Count.
But we don't know that yet. Seward sends for Van Helsing, who seems to have an inkling of what is going on, although he doesn't tell anyone yet. He knows that Lucy is dying from lack of blood, and performs transfusions repeatedly, from Arthur, Seward, Quincey, and eventually himself, and does his utmost to ensure that she's watched through the night and protected with garlic blossoms and crucifixes. A combination of fate and cunning confound his efforts though, and not only does Lucy die, but she becomes a vampire. Van Helsing has by now met Mina and Jonathan Harker, and heard their stories; he explains the threat of the Count to his comrades and they band together to hunt him down. Lucy must be found in her grave, a stake thrust through her heart, and her head cut off and filled with garlic, in order to stop her from praying on the blood of local children. All this time, we have also been following the odd doings of one of Seward's patients, who has been an eater of flies, then spiders, and even small mammals; he is obsessed with consuming lives. He has interactions with the Count as well, at first longing for his arrival, but then fearing him; finally dying at his hands.
All of this work is so dangerous and gruesome that the men decide to do their utmost to protect Mina from it, isolating her alone in her home. This proves to be an unwise idea as, one day, they notice that she is not looking well, and find the twin tooth punctures at her throat. In a dramatic and highly-sexualized scene, the Count comes to her in her bedroom where she sleeps beside Jonathan and forces her to drink his own blood. From that point on, her teeth grow longer, her face grows paler, and a fragment of the holy host, which Van Helsing tries to touch to her forehead, burns a deep red scar into her skin. It is now more imperative than ever that the Count be found and killed; he has moved fifty boxes of earth from his Transylvanian estate to his new home in London, but is scattering them around the city so that he will have many places of refuge. Our scrappy coalition must find each box and make it uninhabitable for the Count by leaving a fragment of the host inside. They succeed, but now the Count decides to flee back home to Transylvania, and the group now chases him, by train, steamer, and horse and cart, with the assistance of a hypnotized Mina, who can channel the Count's whereabouts. At last, they come upon him, Mina becoming fainter by the moment; he is asleep in his casket, carried by the band of local gypsies that serve him. Van Helsing leads his small company in an attack, and they are able to pry open the coffin and drive a stake through the Count's heart. He crumbles to dust, Mina's features immediately flush with regained humanity, and the story is ended; a brief epilogue tells us that Mina and Jonathan are doing quite well.
In the recounting, Dracula provides much less in the way of philosophical/emotional/existential musing than Frankenstein, and yet Shelley's heavy prose and narrative structure strangle the raw pain of the Doctor's creation, and the lamentations (particularly effeminate) burden the reader such that he could not care less how anyone feels about anything. And so, the sexy fluff outperforms the weighty meditation.
Wednesday, August 22, 2007
Gargantua, an absurdly large baby, is born to parents Grandgousier and Gargamelle, and Rabelais catalogues carefully his various activities: eating (with long lists of large numbers, a meal might consist of six hogs' rumps, thirty-two chickens, fifty-eight blackbird pies, forty pounds of boiled potatoes, fourteen blood puddings, all washed down by eighty-nine casks of Spanish wine), drinking (as an infant, he requires the milk of 17,913 cows for daily sustenance alone), sleeping, and shitting. He is a filthy, flatulent child, but his grotesqueries are described in a high-flying tone full of the praise and the pride that his parents take in his grandiosity.
It is not until Grandgousier is introduced to a well-educated and well-mannered child that he sees that all is not well with his son. He hires a new tutor, who takes Gargantua to Paris, where he learns to engage in daily physical activity, groom himself with soap and water rather than shit and wine, eat and drink in moderation, and read and recite history and poetry.
Late into this reëducation, a small incident sparks a great war: on the road, some shepherds encounter a cake-maker's cart, and ask to buy some cakes. The cake-maker refuses, and words, and then blows, are exchanged, ending in the shepherds forcibly taking cakes, but also leaving payment in exchange. The cake-makers are from a neighboring kingdom, and their king declares war on the shepherds kingdom, that of Grandgousier. This generous king sends gifts and a formal apology, but his neighbor has already tasted the desire for an empire, and plans on taking over not only Grandgousier's kingdom, but all of the continent, and then likely more. Grandgousier cannot fight him sufficiently, but upon hearing the news, Gargantua returns on a great steed, and leads his kingdom to swift victory. At the novel's close, he establishes a hurly-burly "monastery" in which all the rules are the opposite of those typical to a monastery: there are no walls and everyone present is free to roam; the sexes are not divided, rather they must intermix; and leisure and pleasure are encouraged.
For all of its bawdiness, the book failed to meet my expectations. I revel aplenty in the piss and shit (reading in the subway station late one night, a young African man intently studying a textbook asked me what I was reading. He made the mistake of asking more and more until I simply read aloud the passage in which I was the midst: "I had a shit the other day/And realised how much I owe/To my dear arse, in every way/The smell was worse than that I know." He stopped me there and the conversation was ended. He is lucky that he missed out on the rest of it, even better in my opinion: "If only someone without more ado/Could've brought my gal to share my pooh/While shitting.//I'd have opened up wide her wee hole below/And shoved in my rain wand without any fear/While she with her fingers refused to allow/The shit to befoul my own dear rear/While shitting." This is something I've only since encountered in Pynchon (with relish), and the San Francisco Bay Guardian's alt.sex.column (with much less relish, it being no longer fiction)). And yet, for all of his wit, Rabelais' text is overcrowded with tedious lists, excessive detail (which could be humorous, but here is tedious), and, ultimately, a rather mainstream ethical standard. And so, I am thankful to John Kennedy Toole for improving on a mediocre thing, and will seek more of Rabelaisian writing than that of Rabelais' himself.
Tuesday, August 21, 2007
Ron O'Neal is the long haired, finely attired cocaine dealer (and addict, it appears) Priest, and as the film opens, he is getting dressed after bedding a white woman with fine, round buttocks encircled by a Wesselman tan line. He puts on his pimp hat and his pimp coat and walks out to his pimpmobile, remembering to zip up his fly halfway through the street. Then he rides out to find his partner, who's shooting crap with some other brothers, his fists full of dollars. Priest pulls him out for a private conversation: he wants to get out of the business, he wants to be free (free to do what? his friend asks; he doesn't know, he just has to be free). He wants to invest all of their savings ($300 Gs) into a final big buy of coke that they'll sell for $1 million. The problem is finding enough cocaine to buy. They go visit his old hookup, a bar owner who does his own short order cooking (Curtis Mayfield and his backup band are performing Pusher Man live to the thrill of all the afro-sporting extras), and even though he's gotten out of the business and doesn't want to get back in, he agrees to help Priest out by selling him the little coke he has left.
On the way home from the buy, Priest and his partner are stopped by some old white men in trench coats. At first they're afraid it's the cops, and it turns out it is, but these are crooked cops, and they're in on the action. They've heard that Priest has the biggest best network of dealers, and they're willing to hook him up with the 30 kilos he wants. They make the deal. A long sequence of music and still shots show Priest and his crew cutting and weighing the coke on a big party table, wrapping it up in little rectangles of aluminum foil. The montage continues with split screen stills of his dealers on the streets. Meanwhile, there is a long and nearly X-rated sequence of Priest in the bathtub with a different lover, a black woman with an unfortunately hairy upper lip but an ample ass off of which, one of my friends might say, "you could bounce a quarter." (Forgive me, I pay only as much attention to these woman's bare backsides as the camera does; far less, actually.) For a long, wet, bubbly time, we see unidentifiable body parts rubbing against other unidentifiable body parts, and try to decipher how her leg can be over here when the other half of her leg is over there.
Now all the coke is sold and Priest is ready to get out, but he knows (thanks to his short-order connection, who's been killed (!) that the man at the top isn't going to let him get out easily. Knowing this, he plans ahead, and takes out a $100,000 contract with the mob to kill the big man if anything should happen to him. This will come in handy, because when he goes to his partner's house to get the money, his partner rats him out to the big boss immediately. But Priest is no fool, and he's planned for this. His girlfriend (the black one) meets him in the elevator and takes the briefcase full of money, giving him another briefcase filled with empty laundry. When the crooked cops come pick him up, he's ready. They take him to the big boss, where he shows them the dirty laundry, kicks some ass, and tells the big boss all about the contract he made with the white killers. He is free to go, gets in his pimpmobile, and drives off to meet his African princess and be free.
All of this happens with extremely little dialogue, a lot of Curtis Mayfield (too bad there's only three or so songs that repeat throughout the entire 93 minutes), and a lot of snorting (every time, it seems, Priest meets up with someone else, they all take a snort up each nostril, often from Priest's own stash, which he serves up on the tip of his neckchain's gold crucifix). It's not a good movie, for all of its flash and 1970s aesthetic. I remember once reading a review that blamed the sorry state of contemporary movies made for black audiences on the barebones trash of the Blaxploitation era, and I can't help but agree. Then again, at the risk of saying something perhaps inappropriate, I never did see so many black people at Film Forum as I did this night.
They all left before The Warriors began, even though this movie featured many of, ahem, their kind as well, although in a completely less realistic setting. At the beginning of the film, nine members of an interracial Coney Island gang (as if there was ever an interracial gang) are discussing the nighttime trip they are about to take up to Pelham Park for a city-wide meeting, where nine representatives from each New York gang have been invited to come, unarmed, to hear Cyrus, the leader of the biggest gang in New York, make an announcement. If you are not familiar with New York, this means that the Warriors will have to take the subway from the end of the line in Brooklyn to the Northern-most part of the Bronx. This is established over the longest opening credit sequence ever, as the Warriors pummel through subway tunnels at high speed, and we see the delegates from other gangs getting onto subway cars all over the city. Each group is dressed in matching "colors," some tough, some weird, and some totally nerdy (it was, after all, 1979). At the meeting, Cyrus announces his plan: a truce between all the gangs so that they can unite against the police and rule the city. The truce doesn't last long though; a goony, spiral-permed, disturbingly womany member of the black leather gang—the Rogues—pulls out a gun and shoots Cyrus dead, causing a mad rush as hundreds of young thugs in matching outfits try to evacuate as the police drive up. The shooter sees one of the Warriors see him with the gun, and immediately shouts out that it was a Warrior who did the shooting. Now, the Warriors have to get all the way back to Coney with every member of every gang trying to get them: dead or alive. Eventually, they make it, but they lose a few on the way.
The pleasure in watching this movie is in the unsettling tone (not unlike the tone of the fight sequence in The Wanderers) and the sheer strangeness of the gangs' different costumes and attitudes. The Warriors have run-ins with the Orphans, who are poor and dirty and scared and wear dirty green t-shirts (picking up the big mouthed, pink leotarded Mercy (Deborah Van Valkenburgh), the film's femme fatale), then the BaseBall Furies, who wear Yankee uniforms, carry baseball bats, and have faces fainted à la Kiss, then the Lizzies, a neon pink (and conveniently bisexual, it seems) all-women outfit, then the Punks, an outfit with a rollerskating leader, whom they battle in a terrific row in the subway station bathroom, and finally, on their own home turf of the Coney Island beach, the Rogues, who wear black leather caps and vests, crossing the young Iggy Pop with Marlon Brando from On the Waterfront. Just as the Rogues pull out their guns (the Warriors are haphazardly armed with whatever broken bottles and lead pipes they could scrounge up from a nearby construction site), all the members of Cyrus' gang, the Grammercy Riffs (who are all black as can be) show up—they find out the truth, and they punish the Rogues accordingly. This movie is as camp as camp gets, with intermittent "updates" provided by a negress' set of heavily glossed, disembodied lips against a microphone at a radio station giving low-pitched updates to all the "boppers" out there and playing particular songs to cue their next action (e.g. Nowhere to Run, Nowhere to Hide). It's definitely a midnight movie.
Monday, August 20, 2007
Taxi Driver features, of course, Robert De Niro as Travis Bickle, a surprisingly Holden Caufield-like character who lives in a dirty one room apartment and sleeps on a cot. Suffering from insomnia, he takes a job driving a yellow cab during the night shift—sometimes for 12 hour stints—and spends the rest of his time watching dirty movies in Times Square and sitting at home, journaling with a stubby pencil. His life is simultaneously pulpy and precious. He nurses a disgust for the filth of the streets ('76 was a bad time for New York, and Scorsese shows us the pushers, pimps, and peepshows in all of their seedy glory) and a desire for the lofty Betsy (Cybill Shepherd), a blonde campaign manager working for a Senator running for President, who in her airy dresses and pearls constantly made me think of marshmallow fluff. Travis' diary is at its most tender and poignantly (embarrassingly?) real when he describes Betsy as she wafts down the street: "Out of this filthy mess, she is alone. They cannot touch her."
Unfortunately, Travis cannot touch her, either. He makes a valiant effort, taking her to the diner where he orders coffee and apple pie with a piece of melted cheese, remarking in his journal, "I thought it was a good choice," and that she had fruit salad, but "she could have had anything she wanted." These, I am certain, are the best lines of the movie, richly revealing in their arbitrary simplicity. For their next date, though, Travis, seeming to not know better, takes Betsy to a dirty movie, and she realizes that his oddity is as dangerous as it is charming. She refuses to see him again. With a newly developed rage, Travis buys a small collection of automatic weapons and begins doing push-ups and pull-ups in his dirty hovel. He also cuts his hair into a mohawk. He tapes a knife to his boot, builds a sliding apparatus that enables him to have his gun in his hand with the flick of his wrist, and straps two holsters over his chest, practicing the speed of his draw. We worry that his aim is to commit an act of murder, or perhaps an act of terror, when he shows up at a rally for Betsy's Senator and starts up a conversation with one of the secret service members. Perhaps that is his intention, but he gets a fright and runs away.
Killing is in the cards, though. Travis has had a few run-ins with a young prostitute (a surprisingly unimpressive Jodie Foster) who goes by the name of Easy. She is Sunny to his Holden, and he is bent on saving her. And, because it's 1976, he does. He goes to the flophouse where she works, and accosts her pimp/lover at the door; he gets a bullet in the belly. There's a lot more gunfire inside, as thugs previously seen and unseen come out of the rotting staircase like so many cockroaches, until everyone ends up in Easy's own room, where she's splattered with blood from numerous bodies. Travis has been shot, and he closes his eyes as the screen goes black, Easy cowering in the corner. The screen comes back up again to show a number of news clippings tacked up on a wall; the describe a valorous young taxi driver who has rescued a young girl from a ring of pimps and restored her to her loving parents. Scorsese then provides us with a long missive from said parents, thanking Travis and apologizing for not visiting him in the hospital.
De Niro's performance is generally touching (and his character's odd combination of awe and rage reminds me of someone I once knew, making it particularly poignant), but that aside, I am mostly uncertain as to the great praise the film has garnered over the years. There is no question that Bernard Hermann composed the perfect score for the yellow cab's lurch through dark, wet streets, streaked with the lights of lowbrow eateries and theatres, but those two talents aside, I am not moved. Shepherd is, for me, the epitome of the 1980s' fluff, and Foster's gravelly voice and tough, ugly charm has never charmed me. The scenes meander, and then suddenly shift. The ending is too soft, and feels tacked-on; the film should have closed with Travis' eyes, never telling us whether he lived, and never telling us what happened to his whore. That's what life is actually like, and for a film so intent on conveying the real grit of human existence, that's what I would expect.
If Taxi Driver's plot is random, Mean Street's is a disaster area. It seems Scorsese took a bunch of guys, threw them in a paper bag, shook them around for awhile to see what happened, and that was the movie. Basically, there's a group of some Italian mafia types that hang around this one bar and this one restaurant, and they are all either close friends or relatives. Harvey Keitel, the pimp from Taxi Driver, is Charlie, a young up-and-coming-type mobster, who is trying to keep things in order without getting any negative attention from his uncle, who seems to be the big boss. Unfortunately, he is also in love with his epileptic neighbor, which relationship, for reasons never disclosed, must be kept secret, as the family would be against it. His bigger trouble is her cousin, Johnny Boy (brilliantly portrayed by Robert De Niro), who owes a lot of people a lot of money and clearly has no intention of ever paying it back. Johnny Boy has more than a few screws loose, and he blows up a mailbox in the opening credits, starts a number of brawls throughout the middle of the film, and stands on a roof shooting a gun at random into the streets at the movie's climax. He is the only interesting character amongst a menagerie of small-potatoes Italians working the seamy underside of the city. I don't remember if the movie had an ending; it certainly didn't have much of a beginning or a middle. I just remember jumping up out of my seat as the credits began to roll, lusting after the subway ride home, which promised to be far more interesting than the 110 minutes to which I had just subjected myself.
Having seen The Departed, I can't doubt Scorsese's genius, but these early films have tweaked my opinion. It's odd that some filmmakers, like Woody Allen, seem to get worse as they go along, while others, like Scorsese, get better.
Friday, August 17, 2007
Now onto business. The NYC Noir fest drags on and I'm beginning to look forward to the end of August. I probably oughtn't have gone to the movies this night, but my esteemed movie-going buddy told me that Cat People was great; having seen it already, he failed to accompany me, and so I ended up suffering alone.
The Phantom Lady chronicles a young lady's search for the killer of her boss' wife. Why would she bother, you wonder? Because she is in love with her boss, and he's sitting on death row, wrongfully convicted of his wife's murder. Luckily, the D.A. (despite the fact that he put hubby on death row) believes that the murderer is still at large (he is), and he is helping the young lady to find him. Their only hope is to locate the "phantom lady;" the night that the murder occurred, our hero, having just been emasculated by his wife, went to a bar in a state of dejection. There, he met a strange woman wearing a dramatic feathered hat who refused to tell him her name or where she lived, but who had a drink with him, and we accompanied him to the theatre. Before his trial, he told the D.A. all about this woman, but none of the witnesses—the bartender, the taxi driver, the theatre performers—remember the woman; they all saw him, but no one saw this phantom lady. Now, our young miss moxie must track down these witnesses—the bartender, the theatre's drummer, and the theatre's singer—to find out the truth, and the truth is that they've all been bribed not to talk.
There is a smoky chase scene in which she first follows the bartender through the empty wet night, culminating in an argument after which he runs into the street and is killed by a moving car. Then, under the guise of fishnets and heavy lipstick, she goes to the theatre and easily seduces the lusty drummer (whom we had seen in earlier sequences trying to catch the eye of the phantom lady). The two of them go to a speakeasy for an excellent jazz sequence, and he then takes her home to his filthy one-room apartment, where he tries to put the moves on her. She cuddles up just close enough to find out that he was paid $500 not to talk about the woman in the big hat. Then, after a little skirmish, she skedaddles, and in comes a tall thin man with powerful hands, who strangles the drummer with a necktie—the very same way he strangled our hero's wife! Our young heroine has one more source: the Carmen Miranda-esque Broadway singer who had been wearing the exact same hat as the phantom lady, but she won't talk either. Luckily, though, our heroine has gumption, and she sees the performer's hat maker's insignia on a hatbox, and it's off to the next clue!
Meanwhile, our hero's best friend, a modernist sculptor who's been away since the day of the murder working on a project in South America, has returned, and is helping our young heroine and the D.A. in their search. Much to the audience's titillation, though, his is the same tall thin man whom we've seen strangle the drummer with his fine, strong hands, and it's clear that unless she stops snooping, our young heroine is next! At the hat maker's, they find out the name of the customer who has the matching hat, and they drive into the country to find her. It is the phantom lady! Unfortunately, she is extremely ill; her fiance died before they got married, and this is why she was in the bar that night, brimming with dejection. Her condition has worsened, but she produces the hat, and gives it to our young heroine. The tall thin man takes our unsuspecting miss and her new hat back to his studio, where they are to meet the D.A., but another one of his "dizzy spells" comes on, and he pulls off his necktie, preparing to strangle our young heroine. Luckily, the D.A. bursts in just in time to save her, although not in time to catch the murderer, who flings himself through the plate glass window to his death. Next thing you know, our hero is released from prison and back on the job, and his secretary is back at her desk as well. She's a bit disappointed that things are back to normal—that is, directions on the dictaphone without so much as a tender glance her way, until she turns on that morning's recording to hear his voice inviting her to dinner, that night, the next night, and the night after that, and all the nights thereafter. And then, "The End."
Cat People is as odd as as The Phantom Lady is typical, though not necessarily in a good way. This time, our young (anti-?) heroine is a pretty, petite Serbian, with a heavy kittenish accent, a beautiful brownstone apartment, and a strange obsession with the panther cage at the zoo. She's standing there, making sketches of the panther, when she meets a young man, a Joe America type, who is instantly fascinated by her. They have a few dates and then marry, without so much as exchanging a kiss. After the wedding, she locks herself in her room and refuses to spend the night with him, saying that she needs a bit of time. There seems to be some mystery relating to her home village involving evil "cat people," who, when embracing their lovers, turn into panthers and shred the unsuspecting limb from limb. Her husband sends her to a psychiatrist, who believes that he can treat her, but she doesn't show up for her second appointment.
Meanwhile, she becomes more and more obsessed with the panther cage, going there in the middle of the night, and one day stealing the key when the zookeeper isn't looking. All this time, too, her husband (probably because he isn't getting what he needs at home) begins spending more and more time at work, particularly with his female coworker, who knows all the details behind the sexless marriage. One night, she is followed home, and, when she gets there, is attacked in her swimming pool in the dark by what appears to be the shadow of a growling panther. When the lights are turned on, the only person there is the young Serbian, but after she leaves, we see that gal Friday's bathrobe has been "torn to ribbons," the way only a powerful set of paws n' claws could do. From here, the tension mounts, because we know that her psychiatrist is in the Serbian's apartment, waiting for her. She comes home and finds him, and he tries to seduce her. Taking her into his arms, we see their shadows on the wall and hear a good bit of growling and hissing. The shadow of a cat attacks the shadow of a man, and though he tries to defend himself with his cane, he is killed. Hubby and his new lover go to find the catty culprit at the zoo's panther cage—where else?—and find her there: a dead body, killed, it seems, by the escaped panther. It's a happy unhappy ending, though, because Joe America is now free to marry Jane America, and they can live their prosperous, hardworking, American lives together. As far as I'm concerned, it was a happy ending because it ended. Believe it or not, the movie then sprung not only a sequel two years later, but also a remake forty years later. That is the power of a good title.
Thursday, August 16, 2007
AtW is a slim, quickly-paced volume packed with action and adventure. Okay. Well, if you're accustomed to reading books written prior to the Twentieth Century, it's packed with action and adventure. If you read the Bourne books, it might be a bit dull. If you don't read books, but you watch the Bourne movies, it's certain to be quite dull. But I don't read those books, and I haven't seen those movies (although I do like a bit of Die Hard now and then), so I found it to be quite the thrilling page turner.
The story is that of one Phileas Fogg (was there ever a better named character, even in a Pynchon novel?), an anal-retentive sort of Englishman who, at his London club one night, remarks to his friends over an article in the paper that a trip around the entire world can now be made in eighty days. A small quibble ensues over whether or not it is actually possible, and, perhaps because he has little else to entertain him (no family, no job, no passion other than to be certain that the clocks in his home are all synchronized, and that his servant brings his breakfast of tea and toast at twenty-three minutes past eight), Fogg places a bet for £20,000, or exactly half of his entire fortune. He has hired a new servant that very morning, a Frenchman named Passepartout, because his old servant brought his shaving water at 84˚F instead of 86˚F. Imagine Passepartout's surprise when his master comes home from the club hours ahead of schedule and asks him to pack a carpet bag, as they are going on a journey around the world.
They set off and indeed traverse the entire world, by such standard means as train and steamer, and some more odd methods, as they race to beat the clock, including sailboat, elephant, and a sort of sleigh with sails that glides across the windswept prairie. Along the way, they are pursued by a detective, one Monsieur Fix, who is certain that Fogg is the culprit of a recent bank robbery in London (committed, in fact, the very day Fogg left in such haste). Fix is certain that Fogg is planning to escape, and we, knowing that Fogg is innocent, and hoping that he will win his wager, pray that Fix will not receive his warrant for arrest in time, as he chases Fogg through the colonies of Bombay, Calcutta, and Hong Kong. We breathe a sigh of relief as they make it to Yokohama, then San Francisco, then New York; Fix's warrant is no good in these foreign lands without a clumsy extradition.
Along the way, there are hair-raising adventures. In Bombay, Fogg and Passepartout are thrown in jail because the servant entered a temple without removing his shoes. Fogg pays an exorbitant bail in order to get them back on the road. Riding an elephant between Bombay and Calcutta, the party encounters a suttee: a beautiful young woman, drugged, is being taken to her death on her husband's funeral pyre. Fogg, Passapartout, Fix (who has joined their party under a false identity), and their guide decide to save her, and after quite a bit of excitement, she joins their party. Later, in Hong Kong, Fix takes Passapartout to an Opium bar, hoping to delay the party in the English territory in time for his warrant to arrive; luckily, he makes it to Yokohama and reunites with his party. In San Francisco, a band of Indians attacks their train and a two-way slaughter ensues, in which Passepartout is taken captive and Fogg must lead a band of local men to rescue him. All of these adventures serve to delay the journey, and we worry whether Fogg will indeed win his wager.
Fix, however, means trouble; as soon as the party lands on British soil (in Liverpool), Fix produces his warrant and arrests Fogg. After a few hours, they find out that the actual robber has been caught, and Fogg is free to finish his journey, but the damage has been done; he misses his train to London by five minutes, and loses the wager. He returns home dejectedly, and begins to put his affairs in order; he has lost half his fortune in the wager, and nearly all of the other half in making the journey. He will not be able to give any money to the beautiful Aouda he rescued from India, and he will not be able to maintain his lifestyle any longer. The next day, Passepartout rushes home and insists that his master leave immediately for his club; it is Saturday, not Sunday, and he has won the wager thanks to the International Date Line! Thanks to this boon, Fogg's fortune is restored, and he and Aouda marry.
The story is plenty old-fashioned, but I like it anyway. A happy ending isn't so bad, now and then.
Wednesday, August 15, 2007
That aside, I liked Lady Chatterley's Lover a lot better than The Hunchback of Notre Dame and a lot better than Women in Love, too. WiL follows two artsy sisters as they have philosophical conversations, glory in the loveliness of colored stockings (I'm serious), and ride around in boats with young men. It's very fey. LC'sL, on the other hand, is very raw. Lady Constance Chatterley is a hearty Scottish wench who's been married, unfortunately, to an obnoxious English fellow by the name of Clifford, a cloying little brat of a man, who's paralyzed from the waist down and therefore unable to perform his husbandly duties. Instead, he writes gossipy novels full of thinly veiled characters copied after his friends; his books are very popular. After a few attempts at taking lovers amongst her class, she begins a liaison with one Oliver Mellors, the gamekeeper (read: rustic servant) of her husband's estate. Their lover affair is fuckin' raw, dude. It includes such things as the word "fuck," the word "cunt," and a discourse on simultaneous orgasms. I definitely got an education, just not the kind I expected.
Hey! You have a dirty mind, reader! The education that I got was in writing in dialect. Mellors is actually much more educated than he lets on, and one of Constance's frustrations (which, I would argue, helps to turn her on) is the way he insists on speaking in dialect, even though he can speak proper English. It's this baser form of language that brings him to say "cunt" in one of the best exchanges in literature ever: Mellors: "Tha'rt good cunt, though, aren't ter? Best bit o' cunt left on earth. When ter likes! When tha'rt willin'!" Constance: "What is cunt?" Mellors: "And doesn't ter know? Cunt! It's thee down theer! An' what I get when I'm i'side thee, and what tha gets when I'm i'side thee; it's a' as it is, all on't. " Constance: "Cunt! It's like fuck then." Mellors: "Nay nay! Fuck's only what you do! Animal's fuck. But cunt's a lot more than that. It's thee, dost see: an' tha'art a lot besides an animal, aren't ter?—even ter fuck? Cunt! Eh that's the beauty o' thee, lass?" This, "obscenity" aside, is brilliant dialogue, and brilliant dialect, and probably the most tender use of the word "cunt" (which is personally one of my favorite words) ever. It's brilliant.
Of course, Constance is married, and Mellors, too, has a wife from the past whom he hasn't divorced when the two become lovers. Soon enough, Constance becomes pregnant, and the secret of their affair becomes public. They decide to divorce their respective spouses and marry, and their ending is much happier than that of the young couple in Jude the Obscure. They both get to live (rare for a 19th Century woman who has sex out of wedlock), and though they don't marry at the book's end, they remain lovers who likely have marriage in their future. This, I'll bet, is what made this book more obscene than any other of its day. Lots of sin, little punishment. And that wasn't legalized until the 1960s, along with this novel.
Tuesday, August 14, 2007
Mia Farrow is Rosemary; she is the perky young bride of Cassavetes' Guy, an actor who hasn't been able to land much besides a few television commercials. Like all good young brides, though, Rosemary has the utmost faith in Guy, and she talks him up to their realtor as they look at an apartment in the Dakota (shown in grand disrepair, not unlike the rotting gables of Udolpho). The apartment they see is a cut-up (if you, like me, have worked in New York real estate, you will know that the grand ten and eleven room apartments of yore in all the good buildings (think Park Avenue, etc.) are useless at that size, and have been divided into five and six room apartments for saleability) whose master bedroom shares a thin wall with the neighboring apartment, but it has enough luscious pre-war detail (eleven foot ceilings, wood burning fireplace, original crown moldings and plaster work, etc.) that, despite the dingy decor (the octogenarian tenant died whilst living there), Rosemary falls in love and insists that they take the apartment. Guy, sporting young husband that he is, says okay. They move in, make love on the bare floor over their "picnic" dinner the night before the furniture arrives (breasts!), and, like all good young brides, Rosemary redecorates in white and yellow, from the velvet couch to the new drapes to the contact paper on the closet shelves, all while wearing the cutest babydoll dresses (with no bra!).
Rosemary wants to have a baby, and even though Guy isn't getting any good news about the parts he's auditioning for, he agrees that they should. Unfortunately, after a few cocktails, their romantic dinner is interrupted by the neighbors—again! These neighbors, Roman and Minnie Castevet, are a childless, elderly couple who live in the other half of the split apartment; they are the ones whose voices Rosemary keeps hearing through the bedroom walls. Minnie dresses and makes up like a plastic pink flamingo, only sometimes in teal instead of rose. Rome has traveled the world and is full of interesting stories. Guy thinks Rome is fascinating, and has spent the past few evenings next door, listening to old travel stories. Rosemary thinks Minnie is nosy, tacky, and a terrible cook, and tries, like a good young bride, to walk the thin line between politess and evasion. Luckily, the neighbors aren't here to spoil the romantic evening—only to bring over some extra chocolate mousse for the happy couple to have after dinner. Back at the table, Rosemary doesn't much like it, complaining that it has an odd undertaste. Guy, in perfect three martini ad salesman fashion, denies the presence of any undertaste and insists that Rosemary chow down, which she does, for a bit, until she can't stand it any longer.
But Rosemary literally cannot stand; in the kitchen, trying to clean up, she falters, and would have fallen to the floor if Guy hadn't caught her. He tells her that she had too much to drink (wine and cocktails rather than either/or), and has to carry her to the bedroom. Here, she quickly passes out before they can make their baby. Rosemary quickly begins to have a strange dream in which she is being undressed; she is on a mattress in the water; she is on a boat; she is naked; she is wearing a bikini. There is a black man at the helm (he looks like the elevator operator) and he tells her to go down below into the boat's belly. There, she sees a bed; she lies down; she is suddenly surrounded by elderly naked people, including the Castevets, and Guy is there too. People begin to paint her naked body with red symbols, and then they tie her down. Then a beast with glowing eyes, sharp claws, and brown feather-like scales mounts her; her eyes bulge and she shouts "This isn't a dream this is really happening!"
When Rosemary wakes up safe in her own bed, she notices bloody scratches on her sides and back. Guy apologizes for having his way with her while she slept; having found it arousing in "a sort of necrophiliac kind of way." This isn't the first and certainly won't be the last unsettling thing to come out of his mouth; Rosemary is very offended, but in these pre-woman's lib days, she swallows her discomfort (this isn't the first and certainly won't be the last time).
Time passes. Rosemary finds out that she's pregnant, and is thoroughly excited. Of course, it's a bit unsettling that Guy is so eager to immediately tell the Castevets, but they do so anyway. The elderly couple immediately comes over with a bottle of wine, which they all drink (AFS, anyone?), and they talk Rosemary into dumping her OBGYN for their friend Dr. Sapirstein, the best in the business. The doctor sets up a regimen for Rosemary to drink daily nutritional herbal shakes prepared by none other than Minnie Castevet, and furthermore tells Rosemary to ignore the sharp pains in her womb that last month after month. He also isn't worried that Rosemary is losing weight rather than gaining it, or that she has large dark circles under her eyes and never leaves the house. Her old friend Hutch is concerned, though, and he goes home to do some research on some of the odd things going on between the Castevets and Rosemary's pregnancy, in which they seem to be over-involved.
Late that night, Hutch calls with urgency and asks Rosemary to meet him the next day for lunch; he won't tell her why. She never finds out why, though; Hutch stands her up. . . because he's fallen into a coma, from which he'll die after three months! This isn't the only odd thing that's happened recently; Guy has just gotten a great part in a big play, all because the original lead who was cast in his stead has suddenly become blind. These suspicious activities are all pieced together after Hutch's death, when his friend passes a book called "All Them Witches" to Rosemary at his funeral; the last thing he did before he lost consciousness was make a note to give her that book. With his notes and a bit of anagrammatic sleuthing, Rosemary discovers something horrible: the Castevets are Satanic witches, running an entire coven out of their apartment. Rosemary is certain that they are to blame for the actor's blindness and Hutch's death; worse, she is certain that they have made a bargain with her husband, giving him fame and success in exchange for her baby, which they will use in their Satanic rituals.
The terror begins to accelerate now as Rosemary realizes that she is trapped and must flee for safety, particularly now that Guy has found her book and thrown it away; she confronted him about her suspicions, but he has shrugged them off. She packs her maternity suitcase and tries desperately to contact Dr. Hill, her original OBGYN before Sapirstein took over (after discovering that he, too, is part of the plot); too bad that Dr. Hill, upon hearing her complete story, is certain that she has lost her mind, and, promising to call the hospital so that she can check into the maternity ward early, instead calls Sapirstein and Guy, who come to take her back home, forcibly. She fights, but they give her injections. Back home, she fights more, and they give her more injections, and she goes into labor.
When Rosemary wakes from her sickness, she asks for the baby. Sapirstein and Guy come into the room and tell her the bad news; there were complications, but she will be able to try again. Rosemary becomes hysterical and they drug her again; for days they hold her this way, feeding her pills and pumping her for breast milk. As she regains awareness, however, and hears the sound of a baby crying, Rosemary knows that her baby is still alive. Armed with a kitchen knife, she breaks into the Castevets' apartment, where she finds the entire coven of old folks holding court in the grand living room around a black-shrouded cradle; her baby is inside, crying. She peers into the cradle with horror; she asks what is wrong with the baby's eyes. The Castevets tell her that the baby has his father's eyes, but she replies that they don't look like Guy's eyes at all. And then—terror!—Mr. Castevet tells her that Guy isn't her baby's father; the baby's father is Satan! Terror!
That is basically the end; Rosemary is at first horrified to hear that she was Satan's chosen bride, but her maternal instincts very quickly bring her back cradleside, where she rocks the baby to keep him from crying. She begins to sing the haunting lullaby—the one that graces the opening credits—and the closing credits roll. We are terrified, and delighted, and terrified.
Rosemary's Baby departs from the traditional gothic novel because there is no gallant hero and no happy ending (the difference, of course, between 1768* and 1968), but dear esperanza aside, the terrors are the same: the spunky but virginal young heroine whose physical honor is at stake, the crumbling beauty of the abode which quickly becomes her prison, the evil relatives with a hidden agenda, and the dark threat of the supernatural (this time real rather than solved by science). What keeps this movie relevant is the relationship between Rosemary and Guy; it's easy for an audience to see a horror movie and shrug it off with "I don't believe in ghosts," but it's harder to trust that one's spouse wouldn't sell one out for fame and fortune, or that one's neighbors wouldn't be sick and twisted, or that one's doctor wouldn't believe one's fears. The intense frustration at having nowhere to turn is, literally, terrifying, but since this is only a movie, it is deliciously so.
*Actual publication date of The Mysteries of Udolpho is 1794
Monday, August 13, 2007
The academy is particular in that most of the boys, the narrator especially, are mad about writers and writing. Every semester, a famous writer comes to the school to give a talk and have a private one-hour audience with one boy, whom he or she chooses based on the students' submitted short stories or poems (depending on whether the author is a poet or a novelist). Over the duration of the novel, the narrator prepares for the visits of three writers: Robert Frost, Ayn Rand, and Ernest Hemingway.
What Wolff does so beautifully is convey the rising excitement and obsession that his narrator (like, I think, all young readers and writers) feels with the approach of each author, the nervous anxiety of writing his submissions for judgement, and the disillusionment that comes with the actual meeting. Frost, for example, chooses for his audience a boy who wrote a fawning, sycophantic piece that the poet interpreted as a sly and ironic jab. The boy is embarrassed that Frost has misinterpreted his piece, but goes to his audience nevertheless.
When Ayn Rand is announced to be the next visiting author, the news is met mostly by shock and derision (mind you, she does have a rather odd reputation). Nevertheless, there is fierce competition between the boys for an audience with her. The narrator picks up a copy of The Fountainhead in order, he says, to laugh at it, but then, he also says, forgetting entirely to laugh. He reads it to the end and begins it over, reading it again and again until he becomes suddenly feverish and, sent to the infirmary, misses the deadline to turn in his own story, which, in his imagination, had grown to great proportions, but of which he never actually writes one word. He regains his health in time to attend Rand's lecture, but he is so disgusted by her person (torn stockings and brash lipstick) and her personality (rude, crude, overbearing, vitriolic) that he notices for the first time how far from real her characters are, and, when he tries to read Atlas Shrugged, he can't get past the first fifty pages, with its same flat characters and same lengthy speeches, only longer. (Interestingly enough, I feel as though this is the quintessential progression felt by readers of Ayn Rand; although I've yet to get to Atlas Shrugged, I've heard similar opinions from many readers. Perhaps all this means, though, is that The Fountainhead is a better book than Atlas Shrugged.)
What the narrator deems missing in Rand's work is the truthful admission of human suffering, and Hemingway is the perfect antidote to that. Once again, the narrator's excitement and obsession leads to writer's block; this time he tries to overcome it by typing out copies of Hemingway's stories, a technique he imagines will accustom him to writing honestly painful sentences. He gets, though, too comfortable with this technique; the night before entries are due, he is in the office of the literary magazine he edits, reading through old copies of literary magazines from other schools. He finds a story entitled "Summer Dance" (almost as poorly titled as Old School!) and, identifying immediately with the low-income, sick parent, Jewish protagonist, masking her identity at a dance at the local country club, re-types the story, changing the protagonist from female to male, and adding his name on the byline. He keeps the title. A few days later, he is announced the winner, and, somehow unaware that he has committed plagiarism, looks forward to his meeting with Hemingway as he collects accolades from his peers and instructors. A few days before the big day, though, he is called into the headmaster's office and expelled; his fraud has been found out.
Rather than returning home and facing shame (his full scholarship to Columbia, of course, is revoked), he goes to New York and spends years on odd jobs, often in restaurants, writing, he alludes, all the while. The narration unravels a bit at this point as the novel comes to a close; we do find out a few small secrets about the headmaster, as well as the fact that Hemingway never did show up for his lecture and audience (pleading poor health; his godhood is dashed as well, and he is shown to be a sick and sad alcoholic, a pompous windbag, and no great prize of a man). There isn't any closure, per se, because the expulsion itself is the closure, and everything afterward is merely epilogue and would be, in the days of black and white movies, unnecessary.
Though never so lucky as to attend a boarding school in which famous authors visited regularly, and not so unlucky as to be poor and motherless, or so unlucky to be embarrassed about my Jewish heritage (there is less of a stigma, I think, these days, or perhaps only because I was schooled amongst Catholics rather than Protestants), and never so careless as to plagiarize, my identification with the narrator is intense. Perhaps only a writer reads with this intensity, or perhaps there is simply something endemic to obsessive readers, whether they write or not, but the crest of emotion, with its attending rise of elation and belly-drop of disappointment, both in the obsession and hero-worship of an author, and in the crafting of one's own work, is very real for me, and Wolff catalogs it in the realest of ways. I'm not at my most eloquent here, but that is precisely what Wolff shows us happens in the face of the work of the best writers; we are rendered wordless, desperate and scrambling to put something, anything, down.
Wait, wait, wait, I am so confused. Why would anyone want credit for Bushspeak? If I were a Bush speechwriter, I would do my utmost to take that secret to the grave.
Friday, August 10, 2007
After these precious opening pages, though, the author shifts. As the protagonist grows older, in and out of boarding schools, politics and religion and long speeches force their way into the narration (not unlike the way these things push their way into the otherwise "innocent" minds of children becoming young adults). Long pages are given over to a preacher's monologue on sin and its attending punishment of hellfire, after only the briefest respite from these containing the act of sin itself: two warm paragraphs in which the protagonist gives over to the hot mouth of a prostitute. The lengthy discourse on sin drives the young man to confession, where he tells all and is absolved. Lengthy discourses continue: political and religious conversations between the protagonist and his peers, petering out as the young man grows out of earlier religious convictions, but, rather than turning back to the warmth of sin, merely wallows in the chill of intellectual isolation. The pretensions of the developing intellect's thoughts are captured well, but it's no good reading. I would prefer an entire volume of "When you wet the bed first it is warm then it gets cold," which comes from page one.
Thursday, August 9, 2007
The story is simple: Gustav von Aschenbach is an late-middle-aged gentleman, a writer of some fame, who prides himself on his coldness, sterility, and reserve. The summertime does stir up a bit of wanderlust in his blood, though, and he decides that he must have a vacation. On the steamboat, he notices a gentleman older than he with a group of vibrant young men; this septuagenarian wears rouge, a toupee, and clothes and a hat far too loud for his age—worse, he's been drinking at the same rate as his compatriots, and clearly cannot hold his liquor. Aschenbach curls his lip in distaste, revolted by the man's lack of decorum (this, my friends, is foreshadowing).
At the beach, Aschenbach is taken almost immediately by a svelte and muscled teenaged boy, a Pole on holiday with his family. With more and more zeal each day, the author pursues this boy with a passive-aggressive passion, staring at him endlessly from his balcony, from his beach chair, and from his table in the hotel's restaurant every evening at dinner. The days the family goes into the city, Aschenbach, too, goes into the city, following them, waiting for what he imagines is a shy, complicit glance—eventually even a smile—from this nymphetor.
Meanwhile, the weather, what with the sirocco, is becoming oppressive; more and more people are leaving the hotel (although, thank God, the Poles remain), and Aschenbach notices the sickly sweet smell of medicines and disinfectants when he goes into the city. Furthermore, he hears more and more whispering about illness—an epidemic—although whenever he asks a Venetian, he is told that the medicine is a mere precaution against the sickness that can be brought by the sirocco, and that there is nothing to fear. The newspapers say nothing to the contrary. When Aschenbach asks at the Consulate, however, he discovers the truth: there is a horrible cholera epidemic ravaging the Venetian population. Aschenbach decides to stay, though, unable to separate himself from his new raison d'être. Not feeling well, he has the local barber doll him up, dying his hair, powdering his face, adding waxy rouge to his lips; he has unwittingly become like that sorry septuagenarian he so loathed.
The morning that the Polish family has packed their things to leave, Aschenbach is feeling even less well. Nevertheless, he takes his usual seat on the beach, and watches the attractive boy playing in the waves for the last time: moments later, he passes out completely. He has died.
I haven't much to say about this. Certainly I've seen nymphetors (they are more numerous, I think, than nymphets), and I have been chastised by my company for looking (I recall a beach in Seattle, where three slender, suntanned boys, probably brothers, ran in the sand with a red wagon, while I stared, fascinated, from my picnic lunch). The kind of obsessive affection, however, displayed by Aschenbach only demonstrates that to live decorously is to, necessarily, oppress oneself, and that to oppress oneself results in the wayward manifestation of passion. This is not new news, nor does Mann handle it with a poignancy to render it beautiful. Perhaps I am too harsh a critic, but I hope that when I do get my hands on Magic Mountain, it's better.
Wednesday, August 8, 2007
"Absolutely" Vital - A.O. Scott
The misplaced quotation mark has probably gone unnoticed by everyone but me. Amusingly enough, the first time I saw it, I thought that the quote referred to the New York City Noir series which, my movie-going pal agreed, is indeed absolutely vital. No End In Sight? Not so much, so long as you've been carefully reading the news these past few years.
I had big hopes for this documentary on the failing Iraqi reconstruction project, featuring such big players as Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, Ambassador Barbara Bodine, Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson (Colin Powell's former Chief-of-Staff), and General Jay Garner discussing their roles in the reconstruction and their interactions with Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rice, and Wolfowitz beginning with the U.S. military "victory" in 2003. The trailer, which I had seen a few times, depicted a variety of internal people admitting guilt, lack of competence, and frustration with the current administration, and what young, over-educated, upper middle class, urban liberal like myself doesn't lick her chops at the prospect of such a display?
This is Prof. Charles Ferguson's first movie, and it's an impressive first effort, but I was still disappointed, considering how inflated my hopes were by the critical acclaim. I don't doubt that obtaining such candid interviews with such big names as Dick Armitage is a great feat, or that walking up to Iraqi citizens with a camera and recording their honest opinions takes cojones, and I won't even criticize the Philip Glass-rip off soundtrack pulsing with deadly serious rhythmic strings.
So what was great? The historical background provided for people like me, who were babies barely born when the U.S. was giving military aid to Saddam Hussein in hopes of protecting ourselves against the greater threat of Iran. The opportunity of seeing an Iraqi explain that, unless liberal democracy provides for the people, the people will say, "To hell with liberal democracy, we want a strong man," which is true, and speaks not just of Iraqis, but of humans in general, who demand food, water, and safety before higher political ideals. The interview with U.S. Marines Lieutenant Seth Moulton, who maintains pride in America and the Marines while intelligently criticizing a wide variety of logistical mistakes, from having no armored humvees to hiring American contractors to do projects that the Marines and Iraqi citizens could do (and did do, in tandem) for less than one-fifth of the cost and in far less time (specific examples are given). The interview with Colonel Paul Hughes, who appears to be one of the very few competent people sent to Iraq (along with Ambassador Barbara Bodine).
The film lays much blame on Rumsfeld removing the competent (as competent as was possible, given the situation) General Jay Garner for Paul Bremer, who had no reconstruction experience, no military experience, and no Middle East experience. This man was the source of of the program that the film claims led to Iraq's current situation (de-Ba'athification and disbanding of the Iraqi army ensured massive unemployment for both the Intelligentsia and the army, which led to the despair that then drove these people to take matters into their own hands, assisted by the availability of weapons in unprotected munition dumps all around the country. This is particularly infuriating when we see that Colonel Hughes had been investing all his time and energy in negotiating with Iraqi generals who were recollecting their troops to assist the U.S. team in restoring order in the streets and beginning reconstruction (after the massive looting that U.S. soldiers, on order from the Pentagon, had stood by and watched without firing so much as one rubber bullet), a strategy to which the administration had given the green light in a February 2003 meeting).
What was not so great? Ultimately, the sense of hopelessness. Unlike the bright ending to An Inconvenient Truth which offered a long list of what we can do to help, No End In Sight left me feeling disgusted and miserable and sickened that people aren't more mindful. I'm sickened by American profiteering, I'm sickened by poor leadership, and I'm sickened by humanity's recourse to violence, again and again throughout history, when met with adversity. And this sickness is paralyzing.
Tuesday, August 7, 2007
What a dreadful pair of weird, bleak movies. In A Double Life, a famous stage actor becomes obsessed with his Othello role and not only almost kills his ex-wife/current lover/co-star on stage mid-performance, but he then goes into a trance and actually does kill (with a strangulating "kiss of death") a blonde floozy who waited on him once at an Italian restaurant, in her bed, in the middle of the night. When he realizes, again mid-performance, that he's been found out, he kills himself on stage, rather than merely pretending to do so.
In The Seventh Victim, a teenage orphan finds out from her boarding school's headmistress that her older sister has failed to pay her tuition for the past sixth months, and has gone missing. The girl heads to New York to unravel the mystery of her sister's disappearance, discovering a variety of nasty surprises: sis had sold her cosmetics business to the older, lesbianic plant manager, had secretly married her lawyer (with whom our heroine will soon be having a love affair), and had rented a room in which she had hung a noose (which she hasn't (yet!) used). The nastiest secret yet? Her sister has joined a cult of devil worshipers who want to kill her as punishment for having spoken about the cult to her therapist. When we finally see this sister, we can't help but think of Emily the Strange; she is the proto-goth, with jet black bangs, snow white skin, and a blank and childish expression. After a frightening chase scene in the middle of the night, she does indeed kill herself: we see her go into the rented noose room and close the door, and then we hear the sound of the chair toppling to the ground as she kicks it over. Then the screen goes black and reads "The End." My jaw literally dropped, and hung there awhile as I looked at my grinning movie-going partner (he liked it better than I did).
After this, I decided to take some time off from the festival.
Monday, August 6, 2007
My never-ending noirfest continued with a night of Richard Widmark, first as a not-so-likable bad guy and then as a likable not-so-bad bad guy.
Kiss of Death doesn't deserve too much analysis. Victor Mature plays Nick Bianco, a hardened thief who refuses to rat out his colleagues after he's caught in a small jewel heist (featuring a scene from the same office building elevator bank used in Woman in the Window!). A few months into his prison sentence, he finds out that his wife has killed herself (head in the oven) and left their two daugters to the orphanage. Our thief quickly decides to play ball with the D.A., who gets him out on parole in exchange for setting up an evidence-gathering meeting with Widmark's crazy, cackling Tommy Udo—the kind of criminal who punishes "rats" by pushing their wheelchair-bound mothers down staircases. All goes according to plan, and Bianco, who has now married the girl who used to babysit for his children (believe it!) testifies against Udo in court. Too bad Udo's lawyers beat the D.A.; now Bianco knows that Udo will come after his family. To protect them, he sends them off to the country and puts himself directly in the line of fire, hunting out Udo at his Harlem Italian restaurant hangout and baiting him to shoot. The police, as planned, show up right in time to catch Udo in the act, and luckily, Bianco's wounds aren't fatal. He gets to live happily ever after with the babies and the babysitter. It's a combination of cloying and creepy, but not in a noir way: maybe more of a romantico-gothic kind of way, overbearing in any case. Also, there is no kiss of death, which led me to confuse the title with the movie I saw the next night, which does feature a kiss of death (A Double Life).
Widmark is much more interesting in Pickup on South Street, which is a much more interesting movie in and of itself, perhaps because it features a Long Island type "muffin" in the female lead (Jean Peters) rather than the I've-always-loved-you goodie goodie in Kiss of Death (Coleen Gray, whose surname sums up her excitement factor). Widmark is Skip McCoy, a pick-pocket "third-time loser" (caught three times in the act) living in a one-room shack on a South Ferry dock. He picks the muffin's pocketbook on the subway one day while she's being trailed by plainclothes cops—and he gets away with the goods, completely unaware that he's been seen and also unaware of what he has. It turns out that the girl has been passing government secrets to the reds, although even she doesn't know it; she's just doing as her boyfriend tells her, and is ignorant as to the contents of the envelopes and the parties to whom they are going. But now McCoy has a very valuable strip of film, and everyone wants it: the muffin's boyfriend, the police, and the reds, and McCoy wants ten grand for it. In trying to romance him into giving it back, the muffin falls for McCoy (she's got a thing, it seems, for low-life, abusive men. . . although Skip is occasionally rather charming, at least moreso than her current, with whom she has clearly been trying to break). McCoy, who wasn't born yesterday, smacks her around a bit, takes all of the money she has with her, and sends her back to her boss to get the ten grand. Back at the bf's apartment, Mr. Macho decides that he'll just go over to Skip's place with a gun and get the film himself, but muffin, insistent on protecting Skip, refuses to cough up the address, so the boyfriend smacks her around a bit as well. Eventually, after the life of a ragamuffin stoolie is sacrificed at the boyfriend's gun point (she, it turns out, won't cough up Skip's address either—what a ladies' man he must be!), the police get the film, McCoy gets his record wiped clean, and the muffin gets McCoy. The commies, of course, get nuthin but trouble, because in 1953, that's what we gave commies.
This night was kind of a low point in the series, but tomorrow's post will describe movies that are worse, and wackier. Get ready.
Friday, August 3, 2007
It's getting to the point that these movies are starting to blur together a bit (mind you, my blog is three days behind my viewing, so by today I've actually seen ten cigarette-studded black and white movies over the past five days. That's a lot of fedoras, a lot of lipstick, a lot of gunshots, and a lot of wisecracks. Sorry, Wrong Number stands apart; I Wake Up Screaming doesn't.
Sorry Wrong Number, set to a sometimes thrilling, sometimes grating Franz Waxman score (oh, the scraping violin crescendo of impending doom!), opens with a display of Barbara Stanwyck, a neurotic, JAP-type daddy's girl, sitting up in bed in her Sutton Place apartment. With a white princess phone on one nightstand and a veritable drugstore of pills on the other, we quickly see that this is her command center; a quick pan to a Victorian-looking wheelchair in the corner of the room confirms it: she's an invalid. The bedroom's casement window is open out to a beautiful nighttime view of the river and the Queensborough bridge, and she's all alone; her husband was supposed to be home hours ago and her nurse has taken the night off. She calls the operator to connect her to her husband's office, but through what seems to be crossed wires, she overhears two thugs planning a murder for that very night. Little does she imagine that the murder they are planning is her own.
The movie progresses with mounting tension as we find out more about her past, her father's wealth (he's a self-made drugstore mogul), her husband's destitution (he was a nobody from the wrong side of the tracks when she fell in love with him for no apparent reason, other than the fact that her college roommate was in love with him as well), the state of their relationship (she has the money and she wears the pants; she keeps him on a short leash and he's been struggling against it since the wedding), and his illegal activities (he's made a partnership with one of the chemists at Daddy's company and the two of them are skimming a percentage of drugs and selling them to some unsavory business colleagues, who turn out to be the big trouble makers). We don't like little miss—her illness is psychosomatic, she wears lipstick in bed, and she's basically the most spoiled brat you've ever encountered—but as the plot unfolds and we see that her husband had a hand in planning her death (he had the squeeze put on him by the unsavories), we feel a good dose of shock and (delicious) horror when we see the killer's shadow approach her bed. As she crumples dead against the pillow, the phone rings, and the killer, with the best Brooklyn Noir Gangster voice ever, picks it up and says, "Sorry—Wrong numba."
I Wake Up Screaming has a less literal title; no one wakes up screaming in this movie and in fact, I don't think anyone actually screams either. It's a much more sneaky kind of scary, less frenetic than Sorry, Wrong Number, but more sick and eerie. This is largely thanks to the very disturbing Laird Cregar, a detective looking for the murderer of a sparkling (and again, bratty) wanna-be starlet (played to the nines by Carol Landis). The detective wants nothing better than to pin the rap on suave-as-silk sports promoter Frankie Christopher (what a name!), played, again to the nines, by Victor Mature (what a name!), who discovered the little celebrity when she was nothing but a "hash-slinger" (diner waitress). Now that she's dead, Christopher is free to pursue his real infatuation: the starlet's more subtle stenographer sister (Betty Grable, who, next to Carol Landis, looks dull as dishwater).
There are other suspects in the case, but the detective ignores them, hulking around in the dark, prowling the streets and sneaking into Christopher's apartment to watch him sleeping (hence the title, I guess, although Mature's too tough to play a man who screams). In a climax that renders all of Hitchcock's creepizoids completely impotent by comparison (I wouldn't be surprised to learn that Hitchcock learned much of his art from this movie), Christopher breaks into the detective's apartment, finding that the entire thing is a shrine dedicated to his dead starlet: there is an altar with fresh flowers and candles beneath her headshot, and the walls are lining with newspaper cuttings and all of the advertisements in which she had modeled. It turns out that our detective/stalker had been stalking our starlet back when she was just a mere hash-slinger, but since Christopher got it into her head that she could be a star, she would have nothing to do with him. He knows that the real murderer was the doorman of her building, but he let him off and willfully intended Christopher to get back at him. Before Christopher can bring him to justice, the detective has swallowed a draught of poison, leaving Christopher and Dull as Dishwater to live happily ever after. Hitchcock, on the other hand, would never have left his audience feeling so comfortable at the very end.
Thursday, August 2, 2007
These two great silents from 1928 are part of Film Forum's NYC Noir festival. One of the reviews on FF's website proclaims that Cameraman is "worth going out of your way for!" which seems like an odd plug, but New York boasts enough old movie fans that I did, in fact, need to go a bit out of my way to see this movie, waiting in line for forty minutes in the sweaty summer street. But the review was right; Speedy wasn't much worth going out of my way for, but I didn't have to; by the time it started, I was already in my seat, armed with a large popcorn, and still reeling from the awesomeness of Cameraman.
Buster Keaton is just bloody awesome. There is a wealth of expression in the tiniest of his tics, and he need only shift his eyes from one side to the other, or from up to down, to move us from bust-a-gut laughter to quiet, teary, empathy. In Cameraman, Keaton is a down-on-his-luck tintype photographer who takes ten cent portraits in the street when he sees a beautiful girl (the lovely and expressive Marceline Day). He finds out that she works for the news, and, desperate to win her affections, pawns his still camera for an old, broken-down movie camera so that he can compete with the other cameramen she works with. He undergoes one charming disaster after another: breaking the glass door of the newsroom with his camera's tripod again and again, making accidental double and triple exposures, and cranking his camera improperly so that his movies move forward and backward. He goes to Yankee Stadium to film a game only to find out that there's no game that day, and instead takes to the pitcher's mound himself, vamping up a hilarious mime of a game. The pretty girl has a sweet spot for him, though, and they go out on a date, walking through the streets and then going to the public swimming pool, where much hilarity ensues as Keaton and a brawnier fellow fight over a changing room and Keaton ends up in a swimsuit far too big for him, which he then, to even more riotous laughter, looses when he jumps off the diving board.
The pretty girl has a good heart, and,much to the chagrin of the top-dog cameraman at the office (who clearly has the hots for her) keeps trying to help Keaton get a good reel of film. She sneaks him a secret tip about a gang war to go down in Chinatown, and he goes down there to film it in one of the best riot scenes of all movie history. He even picks up a darling, mischievous monkey on the way, who makes mischief, but later saves the day, filming Keaton as he rows a boat out to save his sweetheart from drowning when she falls of off his rival's speedboat. This is one of the best silent movies ever made.
Speedy isn't as good, even if it does have a theoretically better plot. Speedy is a young man who doesn't have the dedication to hold any job down for more than a week; mostly, he's only interested in the Yankees. When we first see him (this is the movie's best scene), he's working as a soda jerk, making phone calls to his connection at Yankee Stadium between orders to find out the score, which he then spells out for the guys in the kitchen by lining up donuts (0), eclairs (1) and a half-eaten pretzel (3) in the two-tiered pastry window. He quickly loses that job and takes another, driving a cab, but can't seem to have any luck finding a passenger, until he picks up Babe Ruth, drives him to Yankee Stadium, and abandons his cab in the middle of the street to watch the game. Unfortunately, his seat is right behind that of his boss, and he loses that job, too.
Meanwhile, his girlfriend's grandpa runs the very last horse-drawn train in the city, and the railroad company has been trying to buy him out so that they can take over his track. That car is his life, and it performs double-duty as the clubhouse for all of the neighborhood workers, so he refuses to give it up without a fight, turning down their offers for piddly sums and holding out for a bigger payment of $10,000. Speedy, seeing in the paper that without grandpa's track, the railroad merger will never go through, changes grandpa's request to $70,000. Outraged, the railroad boss decides to engage in a bit of foul play, stealing the car so that it won't be able to operate for 24 hours, thereby causing gramps to lose his right to the track. Speedy saves the day, locating the cart and racing it against the clock back to the track.
This movie features another great riot scene, in which the local tradesmen (some of them old enough that they have their Civil War uniforms) battle the bad guys in the street, and it also features an awesome long Coney Island sequence earlier on, when Speedy takes his girl out for a date and they eat their way along the boardwalk, win more prizes than they can carry home, and are adopted by a tenaciously cute dog who will end up helping Speedy save grandpa's train.
Coney Island, Yankee Stadium, Chinatown; pools, taxis, horses, dogs, soda fountains, and the subway: new New York isn't so different than old New York, although it seems less romantic these days. Although I'm certain that if Buster Keaton were around right now, it would be just as romantic as it was.
Wednesday, August 1, 2007
Film Forum is having the most awesome New York City Noir festival right now, and it's all I can do to keep from holing up there every night of the month. Even the "bad" movies are good in that bad way.
Fritz Lang's The Woman in the Window is one of those great bad ones. Mush-mouthed Edward G. Robinson plays a completely defanged professor-type who, through an unlikely turn of events, kills a wealthy man with a pair of scissors in the apartment of a mysterious and beautiful woman (Joan Bennett), in self-defense of course. Stunned, but still somewhat level-headed, he decides to dump the body in the country, hoping that the entire episode will be put behind him. Unluckily, the wealthy man had had a bad-news bodyguard who is now hot to collect the $10,000 reward, and since the bodyguard is the only one who knows that the mysterious woman was the wealthy man's mistress, he shows up to blackmail her. Meanwhile, our professor is getting more and more nervous because his good friend, the District Attorney, keeps talking about the case, and he's certain that he will be caught. The final scenes in particular are fraught with nervous tension as the bodyguard puts the squeeze on the mysterious lady and the professor, despairing, takes a lethal dose of medication, dying in his chair and unable to answer the ringing phone beside him; the call comes from the mysterious beauty, telling him that the bodyguard has been shot by the police outside her home, and that they are going to get off scot-free. Luckily, the professor begins to stir, and awakes in the smoking room of his club, his unfinished brandy sitting next to him, his book in his lap, and his waiter shaking his shoulder. It was all just a dream!
Otto Preminger's Laura is a much better film with a much stronger plot (even more twists and turns!), quirkier characters, and a brilliant screenplay. Young, beautiful, and successful Laura's (Gene Tierney) body has been found in the doorway of her apartment, riddled with buckshot, only a week before she is to marry the awkward and needy Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price). Suspects include both Shelby and Laura's older gentleman friend, the uber-wealthy, uber-witty, and uber-eccentric radio host and columnist Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb), who regularly writes his columns on a typewriter he has mounted on a swinging stand over his baroque bathtub. Lydecker and Carpenter do a good bit of entertaining verbal sparring in the presence of Detective McPherson (Dana Andrews), whom they follow around as he tries to collect clues.
Then late one night, as McPherson is napping in Laura's living room chair, drunk from Laura's whisky, Laura comes home. She isn't dead at all! She's only been resting all weekend at her country house, reconsidering her impending marriage! But, then, who does the dead body belong to? A poor, unsuspecting model who worked for the ad agency where Laura was a top executive (a few choice scenes depict her as the only woman in a boardroom full of men), a model who, it turns out, was having an affair with Laura's fiance! But why was she in Laura's apartment, wearing Laura's dressing gown and slippers? It seems that Carpenter, knowing Laura was out of town, stole Laura's keys from her desk drawer and brought the little trollop to her home, where he was having a "conversation" with her when the doorbell rang. It must have been the mysterious visitor who killed her! But who could that have been?
McPherson has been smitten with Laura since he got deeply involved in the case, and now it seems she is returning his affection, since she's taken to calling him by his Christian name, Mark, and has cancelled her engagement with Carpenter. Lydecker isn't one bit happy about this, after all, Laura is a well-bred lady, yet she continually falls for handsome, meaty, low-brow men. Lydecker fusses to her that McPherson calls all women dames, but Laura doesn't care one bit. It's after this supreme insult that Lydecker shows his true colors, sneaking in to kill Laura in her apartment with the very same shotgun he used on the unsuspecting model. Luckily, McPherson catches him before any harm is done, Lydecker is arrested, and the detective and victim are free to live happily ever after.
It's all delightfully unlikely, and it's all done with such panache, that one would be mad not revel in the gorgeous absurdity of these movies. The professor is a putz, and Laura isn't much deeper than the mysterious beauty, but Lydecker is work of art, taking his type to a new level. Laura, in particular, is not to be missed.