Beautiful Decadence

September 9, 2010

click for video

Opinion on The Shanghai Gesture (1941) by Josef von Sternberg seems to be divided in the blogsphere.  Some see it as wonderfully camp, the perfect cult film, while others hail it as a masterpiece of decadent noir.  I enjoyed it mostly for its incredible sensuality, and atmosphere of erotic decadence, and for its outright oddness at times.  Of course, Gene Tierney, my newest cinema hearthrob, was fabulous as the petualnt, spoiled rich girl (alias Poppy Smith) doomed by her bad blood.

When she first comes to Mother Gin Sling’s casino (yes, that’s her name) she is overjoyed to be there.  She tells her nerdy companion that “Every place you’ve taken me before this was like kindergarten…It has such a delicious evil smell…I thought such a place could only exist in my dreams...”  Just watch the video linked to the top image; it’s all there.

The action is set in a casino that seems like a modern recreation of Dante’s circles of hell.  At the lowest point, there is the roulette well, around which people loose their fortunes, their virtue, and sometimes shoot themselves – usually on Saturday nights.

Poppy sets to gambling, saying she can stop anytime she wants, but she can’t.  It doesn’t take much for her to be sucked into the vortex of gambling, sex, and probably drugs.  Although it will seem tame to audiences used to seeing any sort of sex and violence on screen, the film was heavily censored, and still manages to convey a sense of sadism and utter debauchery as Mother Gin Sling manipulates Poppy for her own ends.  Victor Mature, as “Dr.” Omar, is happy to help out, picking up the sexual favors he craves along the way.

The pace of the film is slow, sometimes excruciating.  There are sequences that seem to go on two or three times as long as they need to.  When two old fogeys try to approach Poppy at the bar, they are shooed away by Omar.  The rotate about one another once, twice, three times before they make off…why?

Poppy plays hard to get…for a minute, and the falls hard for Omar, who has nothing to offer her except sexual charisma.  When she begs him for forgiveness after throwing a drink in his face in fit of jealousy, he enfolds her in his cape, looks both ways, and then dives in for the kiss.  (Kisses are simply lips to lips in this censored cinematic realm.)

Much is often made of Mother Gin’s outrageous hair, but I think it suits her.  She just dares anyone to gasp, “What the hell was she thinking..?”  She’s no-nonsense, and all about power and domination.  Her costumes and hair are part of the game, and it has worked well for her.  When she appears on the stage of her casino floor, the soundtrack swells with orchestral music.

Yes, the dialogue is often absurd, the Chinoiserie is ridiculous, but it reeks of opium and sex.  And I must say, the very ending did surprise me.  Mother Gin Sling is quite a gal.

She makes sure that all of her dinner guests have the dishes they need, and she includes an appetizer for the men – a view of girls in cages being bid for in the street during the New Year celebration.  By the time Polly is ushered into the room, disheveled and sullen, swaying a bit unsteadily in a dress that fits like her skin, we can only guess what she’s been through…

The culture clash between the Chinese and the West has its typical Hollywood silliness – Mother Gin Sling and many other Chinese characters are played by Americans and Brits – but a running gag of the film is the fatuous arrogance of the Westerners towards the ‘natives’ of Shanghai.  At one point, a young, handsome Chinese servant delivers a message in perfect English to a group, and one Brit cackles, “Listen to how these Asiatics attempt to imitate the language!”  No one around him is laughing.

And what about that title?  I didn’t hear a clue about its meaning in the film, except for the red herring of when Mother Gin Sling asks if a certain man used a certain gesture, raising his arm to the ceiling, when she was trying to be certain of his identity.  The movie is based on a play of the same name, and according to this book, it’s a very old phrase of uncertain meaning.  Perhaps it is related to the kookie sequence at the dinner from hell when Dixie, the American floozie who finds work at the casino, hams it up, thumbing her nose with a spoon.  This essay by an academic provides a new twist for the meaning of the phrase, and analyses the use of Chinese themes in noir along the way, but it doesn’t explain its original meaning.


Perfection: nowhere to go but down

March 19, 2010

In the Preface to Part II of The Lives of the Artists, Vasari presents his theory on the history of western art, an idea that we take for granted today, that the Italians of the 13th century (Cimabue and Giotto) revived the arts that were decrepit and moribund.  He says that they were reborn, a renaissance, and from that point onward to his own day, they continually improved until they reached a peak of accomplishment with the painting, sculpture, and architecture of Michelangelo and his contemporaries.  Today, we call that the High Renaissance.  But…then what?

…and I may safely declare that its art has achieved everything which could possibly be permitted to an imitator of Nature, and that this period has risen so high that there is more reason to fear its decline than to expect further advances.

Nowhere to go but down.  Decline-ism!  The decadence.  The inevitable decay from the classic ideal…

This idea is so deeply ingrained in our thinking, and it fascinates me, but I don’t agree with it.  Perhaps in Vasari’s day it was a new twist on an old  notion, in that he felt the peak had been reached in his own day.  The Greeks had gone on about The Golden Age, sometime long before what we see as the classical apogee of ancient civilization, and felt that they were living in an age of iron.  That the best times, the most beautiful times are long behind us is such a common idea – when I was a kid, things were better…Nowadays, everything is going to the dogs!…People didn’t used to do that sort of thing… – but it is often little more than nostalgia and wishful thinking.  The Golden Age is one of the more serious historicist myths of The Fall:  we were good once, but since then, we have decayed.  With Vasari, it is more of an anxiety.

See how linear his thinking is too!  Picture a graph like this one, with time moving to the right, and artistic accomplishment going up and down.  One line, we move in one direction through time, in one place.  But what if instead of two dimensions, we had three or four, or N?  A peak in one sort of perfection at one time and place is not necessarily superior to a peak somewhere else, in some other context, of some other type.  Of course, Vasari didn’t think that way for a variety of reasons.

The idea of this “natural” cycle in the arts – birth, growth, maturity, decay, death,  and re-birth with luck, is obviously born of the universal experience of life and death that people have.  It’s useful to a point, but the problem is identifying just what’s the peak, and what’s the trough, and doing so in a way that is somewhat objective.  There is also the problem of scale, or temporal parochialism.  Some people, taking a very long view, might see western art as still developing towards some very arcane, ideal state that appeals to them.  Modernists at the turn of the 20th century did not so much worship the past golden age of the Renaissance as feel oppressed and exhausted by it.  Duchamp declared the end of retinal art.  In a way, they confirmed Vasari:  the Renaissance had gone as far as one could go in imitating Nature, so they stopped trying to do that!

The anxiety of being at the peak is common in geopolitical talk as well.  Decline-ism, defeatism. The Decline of the West by Spengler, and Kennedy’s much touted The Rise and Fall of Great Powers come to mind.  In Spengler’s case, it was metaphysical dry rot; in Kennedy, it is the relative decline of one power and the relative rise of another that matters.  Are we on our way up or on our way down?  The funny thing is we don’t know.  In the Middle Ages, everyone knew which way they were headed!  How’s that for progress!

I think this image brings it all together nicely:  modern circus fare in the form of Vanna White, hostess of the TV show, Wheel of Fortune; decadent art brought to you in the form of nudes by Sir Edward Burne-Jones; and High Renaissance art, nudes in the manner of Michelangelo.


Les Biches – Chabrol (1968)

March 4, 2010

Got to hand it to Chabrol, he knew how to keep politics and art separate when he wanted to.  1968, and what does he make, a jewel-like exercise in psychological storytelling.

Les Biches means, the does, or fawns, and also the girls, or chicks, with connotations of bad girls.  One is a street artist who draws fawns on the sidewalk, and is picked up by Stéphane Audran, a rich, bored, bi-sexual ice queen.  The other girl is a bit of cipher, and she becomes absorbed by, and obsessed with the identity of her keeper.  There’s a bit of Hitchcock’s Vertigo here - one woman being transformed into another, albeit from very different motives.  There’s not much suspense – the end is clearly foreshadowed early on – and the male character in this dysfunctional ménage is rather ambiguous:  what will he do at the end when he arrives to find that the double has killed his lover…accept her as a replacement?

The cool, precise aesthetic that is the draw of this film struck me forcibly during this brief sequence showing Frédéric rising from her bed, dressed in immaculate white pyjamas, in her rather spartan bedroom.  Look at how she gets up – she doesn’t bend her back at all!  Her posture is ramrod straight.  It looks as if she is sliding off the bed quite naturally, but every element of her movement is controlled and thought out, like a model, an actress, a creation.

This blogger gives an extended treatment in the same vein to the climactic murder scene, focusing on the precise camera work and editing of Chabrol.

 


Wild Abandon!

December 24, 2009

Zola as prefiguring film noir – now there’s a thought.  And if you think his writing is limited to depressing catalogues of social realities, remember, he can be damn funny too, in a dark, satiric way:

He was a man of superb stature, with the white, pensive face of a great statesman,  and since he was a marvelously good listener, with a deep gaze and a  majestic calm in his expression, it was possible to believe that he was engaged in a prodigious inner labor of comprehension and deduction.  Of course, his mind was completely empty.  Yet he had a disturbing effect on people, who had no idea whether they were dealing with a superior man or an imbecile.  [One of the fellows madly on the make, in The Kill]

And the city as one giant bubbling pot of money and flesh:  what does The Naked City have that Zola lacks?

Meanwhile, the Saccards’ fortune seemed to have reached its apogee.  It blazed like a gigantic bonfire in the middle of Paris.  It was the hour when the hounds were ardently devouring their share of the spoils [La curée, translated as The Kill] …The appetites that had been unleashed at last found contentment in the impudence of triumph, in the din of crumbling neighborhoods, and fortunes built in six months.  The city had become a orgy of millions and women.  Vice, come from on high, flowed through the gutters, spread across ornamental basins, and spurted skyward in public fountains, only to fall again upon the roofs in a fine driving rain.  And at night, when one crossed the bridges, the Seine seemed to carry off all the refuse of the sleeping city: crumbs fallen from tables, lace bows left lying on divans, hairpieces forgotten in cabs, banknotes slipped out of bodices – everything that brutal desire and immediate gratification of instinct shattered and soiled and then tossed into the street.  Then in the capital’s feverish sleep, better even than its breathless daylight quest, one sensed the mental derangement, the gilded voluptuous nightmare of a city driven mad by its gold and its flesh. Violins sang until midnight.  The windows went dark, and shadows fell upon the city.  It was a like a colossal alcove in which the last candle had been blown out, the last vestige of modesty extinguished.  In the depths of the darkness, there was now only a great gurgle of frenetic and weary love, while the Tuileries, at the water’s edge, reached out its arms as if to embrace the vast blackness.

Not quite a new story for Paris.


When did Paris become romantic?

December 22, 2009

When did Paris get to be the city of romance and of young lovers?  No doubt, the photographs of Robert Doisneau had something to do with it.  Is it a post WWII phenomenon?  I think of Paris for the period before that as being the city of loose women, artists, intellectuals, free-wheeling nightlife, but not exactly romance.  As the WWI song went,

How ya’ going to keep them down on the farm,
after they’ve seen Gay Pa-ree?

This referred to all those rural American doughboy soldiers who’d gotten a taste of Sodom’s delights while on leave in the big city.  And before that, during the Second Empire and the fin de siècle, Paris was the city of sin, lust, greed, wild financial wheeler-dealing, whores and nightclubs, drugs and absinthe, “ballet” dancers for purchase by rich sybarites, and plunging décolletage.  Not exactly the stuff of…romance.

And then there’s the Paris of brutality and political insurrection.  The bloody suppression of the Commune, the revolutions in the streets of 1830 and 1848, with barricades and hand-to-hand fighting.  Looming over it all, the Big One, The French Revolution of 1789, and the ensuing Terror.  Again, not too much romance there.

People talk about how beautiful Paris is, as if the urban plan and the regular facades of the streets exude loveliness and, of course, romance.  More and more, when I think of Paris, I think of its reconstruction under Napoleon III and Hausmann, the ruthless demolition of neighborhoods, the eviction of thousands, the fraud, the corruption, and the waste incurred during the pell mell rebuilding of the city in Napoleon’s image until his ignominious exit in 1871.  The long avenues and the open circles seem to me the marks of authoritarian planning, a dictatorial City Beautiful [in America, urban renewal was called by some negro removal; in Paris, it would have been worker removal] all of which has been imitated by dictators of various intellectual calibers since, from Romania to the Ivory Coast.

I guess I’ve been reading too much Zola.  I was surprised to find how many of his novels deal with precisely this topic, the rebuilding of the city.  The Belly of Paris and The Kill are two that come to mind immediately.  And as for décolletage, he documents it in several texts, most tellingly here where he is describing not a prostitute or courtesan, but a society lady:

When Renée entered the room, a murmur of admiration greeted her.  She was truly divine…her head and bodice were done up adorably.   Her breasts exposed, almost to the nipples…the young woman seemed to emerge stark naked from her sheath of tulle and salin… [more here]

Does the objectification of woman get any more explicit?  Romance?..  A few images from now and then…

   

    

In the realm of myth…

November 5, 2009

…we are everywhere at home.

lastest from Salzburg Viennese by von Stuck

Still riffing…

sphinx collage

Modern sphinx pose sells clothes.… on the sphinx…


I can’t hear you…

September 23, 2009

Final_1 Final_2

Lots of commentaries on Fellini’s 1960 film, La Dolce Vita, make much of the fact that it contains many allusions to Dante.  Is this surprising, that an Italian artist should do this?  No more than that an English speaking writer would quote Shakespeare or the King James Bible.

A long film, a rich film, a simple story.  A man searching for…a way out of the shallowness, ennui, and spiritual desolation of his life.  A beautiful woman loves him, but maybe she’s the wrong one for him.  She would need a little more sophistication to wrestle him to the ground, so he grinds her up and spits her out.  He is disgusted by his “friends,” but who else does he have?  The man he seems to admire commits a grisly suicide.  His father?  He hardly knows him, and genuine article that he is, he has a few of his own illusions to deal with.  Maybe Marcello is just too handsome for his own good.

At the end, he encounters again the beautiful young girl from a little cafe he met earlier.  A profile like an angel.  She beckons to him, but he can’t hear her across the waves.  He goes back to his degenerate orgiasts who are leaving the beach where they were gawking at an enormous “sea monster” the fishermen brought in.  Might there be a shred of hope left for him?

The most famous sequence features Anita Ekberg and the Trevi Fountain in Rome.  Another beckoning blonde, but this is no angel from an Umbrian frescoe.  It’s a Swedish-American pagan goddess offering erotic transcendence.  At least until the municipal authorities turn off the fountain’s water supply…

Sylvia in the Trevi trevi3 ecstasy


Discomfort of Strangers

January 1, 2009

venice11

Time on my hands again, and I’m watching more films I’ve had on my list.  The Comfort of Strangers, with a screenplay by Pinter, is one. Is this title a reference to “The Glass Menagerie,” the kindness of strangers..?  And why is Venice so popular a setting for ominous, creepy stories?  I’m thinking of Mann’s Death in Venice, Roeg’s film, Don’t Look Now, as well as this one.  I’m sure there are others.  Is it a northern European thing?  The seedy useless relic of a defunct empire as symbol of the hollowness and decay of all that is orderly and civilized?  I don’t buy it.

Comfort was, I think, a ridiculous film, saved only by the scenery and the sheer over-the-top quality of Christopher Walken’s performance.  It relies on the old standby of modern entertainment that lacks character motivation, the psychopath.  Any soap opera or TV movie can be made dramatic as long as there’s a killer maniac on the loose, especially if he’s charming.  We don’t deal with Satan anymore, so we have to make do with people twisted by their sadistic upbringing in our dramas.

This film reminds me of Straw Dogs by Peckinpah, another story of male softness and civilized courtesy overwhelmed by the brutal “reality” of life beneath the veneer of culture.  It’s a pretty tired idea, and I wonder why it appeals to writers.  My guess is that it says more about the insecurities of the artist than about the cultural standards it seeks to upset and question.  Showing a wily and unstoppable murderer preying upon innocent tourists brings a frisson, but I found Colin’s character totally unbelievable.  I would expect that any man who appears as he did in the film would not have let Robert punch him in the stomach, and then go to dinner with him.  Are we supposed to believe that he was such a wimp that he wouldn’t even demand of his girfriend that they leave immediately?  I don’t think so…


Drainage of the Psyche

November 11, 2007

sewer302.jpg

Joris Karl Huysmans, author of A Rebours, called the “breviary of decadence,” and La Bas, a novelistic account of satanism, become concerned about the state of his soul in his later years. He considered looking for a suitable confessor to whom he could unburden his conscience. Here is how he phrased it in a letter to a friend:

But what phenic acids, what copper solutions could cleanse the great sewage tank into which my carnal iniquities are still pouring? It would need casks of carbolic, barrels of disinfectant – and then what Milleriot could handle a pump powerful enough to draw the residual waters from the old sewers? The breed of divine pumpmen who rejoiced in such labors is extinct. And so there seems no reason, brother, why things should not go on as before. Though it’s true that when they are as bad as this..!

Truly, The Drainage is the central metaphor of civilized man.


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