Let us count the dead men: Johnny Guitar

October 26, 2013


Johnny Guitar (1954), Nicholas Ray.  Joan Crawford… Man, what else can I say?  This western is unlike any other I know.  Martin Scorsese calls it an opera, and he’s right.  That is the only way to make sense of it – the stagey-ness, the set-pieces, the slow paced emotional confrontations, the melodrama of killing, and the claustrophobic sense that there is no real world outside of what’s going on in the frame right in front of us.  Most of the action takes place in one location in town – Three Unities anyone?

You can read many analyses of this film’s political ‘symbolism’ of lynch mobs representing the contemporary HUAC activities. Or the sexual role reversal – all the men are weaklings:  the women do the heavy lifting.  Or the lesbian barely-subtext:  Vienna (Joan Crawford) as a powerful dominatrix, forcing men to cower, and engaging the adolescent love-hate of Emma Small (Mercedes McCambridge).  Vienna wears tight pants, leather, men’s brightly colored shirts and scarves with jeans, and, at one point, confronts the town’s menfolk bent on hanging her while playing a piano wearing a wedding gown – Emma, repressed harpie wears only black and grey.  Read about that elsewhere – I just want to count the men who die for this masculine femme fatale.

There’s Turkey, the young boy-outlaw who has a sort of crush on Vienna.  He gets caught by a the posse of men in black, and is terrorized into implicating Vienna in a bank robbery he was part of.  That’s cause to hang ’em both!  The men promise him if he just talks, tells the truth, he won’t hang.  He lies, and says Vienna was in on the heist,  They take them both out to hang, but only Turkey dies, screaming protests at his betrayal.  Ah, just a kid.  What does he know?  Johnny Guitar is in hiding and manages to cut the noose rope that’s around Vienna’s pretty neck:  he couldn’t save them both, could he?  It’s actually a pretty brutal portrayal of mob murder.

Then there’s Old Tom (John Carradine).  When Vienna pays off her staff and tells them to scram before the posse comes for them too, he hides and stays.  When he witnesses the mob trying to drag Vienna off to be lynched, he shoots and is shot.  Dying in her arms, Vienna asks him, “Why, why Tom – why didn’t you go like I told you?”  The men in black crowd around – “Look, everyone is looking at me now.  It’s the first time I ever felt important.”  Vienna has that effect on men.

Then there’s the Dancing Kid and his gang, of whom Turkey was one.  Bart tries to make a deal with Emma to turn in the gang, and he kills one of mates when the guy won’t go along with the plan.  After he plants a knife in the man’s back he says, “Some guys just won’t listen.”  Johnny Guitar, an ex-gunman, kills Bart, the only man he kills in the film.  He really is done with shooting – prefers to sing and play.  That leaves The Dancing Kid, leader of the gang, and Vienna’s main squeeze before Johnny blew into town.  Emma shoots him as he rushes to protect Vienna from Emma in the climactic scene.  He dies, a bullet in his forehead, his arms raised, seeking transcendence as he calls out Vienna’s name.

And then there’s Emma herself, shot by Vienna, but she is a woman, albeit one of confused sexual identity.

Vienna’s scheme is to hold onto her property until the railroad comes through, and then sell out for piles of cash.  She’s in good with the railroad management.  Her saloon is burned down, but she still owns the land, so I guess she and Johnny will have a comfortable retirement.


Wuthering Heights

October 20, 2013

Revisiting my high school days, I watched Wuthering Heights (1939) and read Emily Brontë’s novel again – better than I remembered!  Well, not entirely:  This bit was no less fantastic then than now.

How she does stare! It’s odd what a savage feeling I have to anything that seems afraid of me! Had I been born where laws are less strict and tastes less dainty, I should treat myself to a slow vivisection of those two, as an evening’s amusement.’

What is this book?!  It is unlike any other I know, and I have read a lot of 19th century gothic romances.  Wuthering Heights trades in some features of the gothic – the supernatural, the barren and forbidding setting, weird, demonic characters – but compared to it, stories such as Melmoth the Wanderer and the like are child’s play.  The horror and the fright in Wuthering Heights is all born out of psychology, twisted and implacable.  More likely, the book has provided the template for a host of latter-day gothic horror stories set in windy inhospitable places filled with creepy dangerous people, and houses filled with sadistic perversity.

There is so much to this novel:  the role of women of course; the place of servants; sexual perversity bordering on necrophilia; and psychopathology.  For the surrealists, it was a touchstone of l’amour fou, although the film adaptation by the master, Luis Bunuel, The Abyss of Passion (not to be confused with the current telenovella of the same name!) misses the mark widely.

The story involves two households and two families on the moors of northern England.  Local color is given by the deep Yorkshire dialect of Joseph, the insufferably pious hypocrite and loyal house servant.  There are no towns nearby – the action is all local, except when the characters charge out of the novel’s frame to elope, or emigrate to America to gain a fortune, and reports of their doings filter back by letter or word of mouth.  The family trees get tangled, and it’s a good idea to have a clear one before you when you read the story since there is Catherine Earnshaw, and Cathy Linton, and Healthcliff (no other name, as in Cher, or Sting) and Mr. Heathcliff, his despised son, and so forth.  Heathcliff wreaks havoc on them all.

The demonic Heathcliff is adopted informally to the family by Mr. Earnshaw who finds him homeless on the streets of Liverpool during a business trip.  His act of generosity is the undoing of his descendants and community:  is there a moral here?  Heathcliff and Cathy develop an intense bond as children – is this unhealthy? – and Cathy’s brother is jealous of his prerogatives as the heir to the manor.  When kindly Mr. Earnshaw dies, Heathcliff is banished to the stables.

The book is filled with servants, telling as it does the tale of local country gentry.  In fact, the main characters are surrounded by people, but most of them are never seen.  Stableboys, field hands, servant girls, all toiling to produce the wealth that sustains the Earnshaws and the Lintons.  Heathcliff runs away to escape the humiliation heaped upon him as one without a lineage or property, and he returns rich:  where did he get his money?  Nobody knows.  He seeks vengeance on the landed proprietors that cast him out.  No wonder this book was popular with Marxists literary critics!

In the end, Heathcliff appears to be successful in his quest:  He lost Cathy to an early death, but he is assured of being  buried next to her, an essential arrangement for him.  In fact, he can barely restrain himself from embracing her corpse that he has ordered exhumed in one of the more bizarre episodes of the book.  He has driven Cathy’s brother to ruin, pushed her husband into an early grave, financially and emotionally emasculated his former tormentor, the son of his benefactor, and is on the way to thoroughly degrading the  son of Cathy’s brother, who should be the heir to the Heights, but doesn’t even realize he’s being cheated of his birthright.  Oh, and Heathcliff has a son, whom he despises, born of Cathy’s sister, who was idiotically attracted to his dark, handsome prospect, and was quick to realize she had practically married Satan.  She, at least, had the good sense to flee.

But Heathcliff is undone by love.  His own obsessive love for the dead Cathy haunts him to distraction.  And the genuine love and affection that springs up between Cathy and Hareton, despite his best efforts to turn them against one another, irritates him beyond endurance.  Cathy has inherited the stubbornness and defiance of her mother, and turns it, with love, against Heathcliff.  He just dies…

And then there is Nellie, the servant who narrates most of the book.  She is often in the position of doing something that she doesn’t think is quite right, and that she would not do for her own family, but which her subservient position compels her to do.  And then, sometimes she just concludes that it’s not worth the effort to try and oppose the wishes of her masters:  after all, they are the masters, and she just a servant, even though she knows she is right and they are wrong.  I wonder if she is, after all, the voice of Emily in the book.

Man, what an imagination that woman had!

The 1939 adaptation with Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon is very fine in its Hollywood-romantic way, although it deals only with the first generation of pain in Wuthering Heights, ending with the death of Catherine Earnshaw.  Olivier is wonderful in embodying the dark attraction of the Heathcliff as well as his frenzied, obsessional love.  And his supercilious blank stares when he is playing cat and mouse with his gentry opponents is brilliant.


Behold the Lamb

October 15, 2013

Cloisters Apocalypse

Altered States: Ken Russell

 


Sacrifice of the Sun

September 9, 2013

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From the first part of Fritz Lang’s The Spiders (1919).  It’s an Indiana Jones kind of tale.

I find it incredible that I can watch moving figures captured almost 100 years ago.


Dandy on the Bounty

June 18, 2013

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Mutiny on the Bounty was released in 1962:  one of those monumental Hollywood debacles derailed by star-power, as with Heaven’s Gate, Ishtar, and Cleopatra.  In this case, the failure was due to vast cost overruns caused by Marlon Brando’s mutiny on the set, and the coast of location shooting in the South Seas.  Still, who cares if the film made money?  It’s worth seeing for the spectacular set pieces and Brando’s remarkable and unusual performance.

There was a real mutiny on a ship called Bounty, and a film treatment from the 30s with Laughton and Gable, and the makers of this film wanted to set the record straight.  Instead of a simple good guy vs. evil guy plot, they wanted to show Captain Bly as he was, good and bad together.  Some thought that would make for a poor story that wouldn’t sell, and anyway, Marlon Brando, the reigning supernova of cinema acting during the 1950s, hijacked the picture, effectively sacking a director and taking over himself, subjecting the script to endless rewrites, sometimes the night before shooting.

For those who are interested, there are plenty of insider memoir narrations to read, filled with Brando’s pouting, sulking, arrogance, narcissism, arbitrariness, and the reactions of the infuriated cast who had to deal with him.  It wasn’t pretty.  In the end, Bligh comes off as a man tormented by his lowly origins, constantly suffering slights, real and imagined, of his ‘betters’, driven to cruelty by insecurity and a lack of imagination, and sexually uptight to boot.

Brando’s portrayal of Fletcher Christian, Mr. Christian, is remarkable, surprising, and a bit odd.  We must assume that it was wholly a characterization of  his own:  no one else takes credit for it.  It is willful, and a bit perverse, but, in the end, brilliant.  As Stanley Crouch observed in this DVD review:

…Brando’s Fletcher Christian in Mutiny on the Bounty (1962), a character he interprets as a high-toned British fop who is more than mildly reluctant to face the sadistic inclinations of Trevor Howard’s finely drawn Capt. Bligh—a leader who mistakes sadism as a substitute for firm but inspirational command. Brando has a superb understanding of how much it takes for a witty, charming, and insubstantial man to stand up against the very order that guarantees his position in the world.

Indeed, our first view of Fletcher is of him climbing out of an ornate carriage, in the company of two elegant women.  He walks on board in a bright red cloak, and we see him only from the back, surrounded by the bustle of the grungy crew at work preparing to sail.
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He introduces himself to the captain; all manners, grace, smiles, and suave superiority.  He glances around contemptuously at the miserable excuse for the ship he is to sail on, and uses his verbal facility to make clear to Bligh that though he is the captain, and he, Christian, will obey him, their relative worth as men is clearly the reverse of that hierarchy.
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And there is that voice!  He speaks in what sounds at first like a parody of an upper-class-twit of the late 18th century.  Slightly nasal, a whiff of effeminacy.  That, in those days, was attractive to women of court:  it went with the clothes.  He is always decked out in pure white linen, and while in his cabin, he sits propped up by fluffy pillows.  He is a ladies man and a dandy.

Crouch’s remarks point to the political dilemma of Mr. Christian’s position:  he will not rock the boat if he can avoid it, despite his contempt for the vulgarian Bligh, a man who has no sense of how a gentleman should lead the common sort.  But he is a rebel in his soul, as are all the great dandies.  I wonder if Brando was familiar with Beau Brummel, and the critical writings about dandyism by Balzac and others:  if not, he instinctively grasped their essence.  Ultimately, Christian rebels against Bligh because he cannot stomach being commanded by such a brute:  it’s just too vulgar.

In the end, he tries to convince the men to return to England, face court-martial, and tell their story.  He’s convinced that they will be vindicated, but the men are not:  They burn the ship, and Christian dies of burns trying to put it out.  You have to wonder if he felt his exile on Pitcairn Island would be an insupportable burden because he would be cut off from society, forever branded as a criminal, or if he just could not exist without an audience for his preening and witty repartee.

Some views:

Christian the gentleman, refuses to adjudicate between the word of a gardener and a seaman.  What’s the point?
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Fabulous wide-screen shots of the Tahitians welcoming the Bounty, a complete replica of a ship of that day.
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Captain Bligh is compelled to dance with the island princess to avoid offending the local chief.  He is humiliated at having his crew watch him attempt the feat.  Anglo Saxon commanders can’t dance.
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Bligh won’t go ashore, and refers to the local women as sluts.  But he orders Christian to do his duty and make love to the chief’s daughter.  Brando makes the scene into a cruel and funny one:  mocking the captain’s sexual anxiety, mocking patriotism, mocking duty, and feigning resignation at what he must do.
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Fletcher in love, or at least, satisfying his lust, as commanded by the Captian.  (The chief will be offended if the princess is spurned.)
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The last straw with Bligh comes when he rations the water to feed the plants they are ferrying to Jamaica, where it is hoped they will provide a reliable food supply for the slaves toiling in the sugar plantations.
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Bligh kicks the cup from Christians hand, and Christian strikes him, saying, “You’ll not put your foot on me again, you bastard!”

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They say their goodbyes:  Bligh is set adrift in a boat with some supplies and loyal crew.  The film soft pedals the fact that Bligh executed a stunning feat of seamanship, piloting the boat over thousands of miles and losing only one man.  He returned to England quickly to report the mutiny.
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Almost immediately, he starts to mull on what he has done.  Unlike the common sailors, he had a lot to lose, and now it’s gone.

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He’s left with only common sailors and one officer to command, but he looks the part of captain.
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The final scene, with Christian dying of his burns is tremendous.  We see the man, no longer able to face the world with the stance of a dandy, shocked at being told that he is dying.  There is nothing left.  He tries to sum up, but death cuts him off.
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Lilith Eternal

March 5, 2013


First there was the novel, Nightmare Alley, now available in a new printing from the NYRB.  Then the film, with Helen Walker playing Lilith Ritter, the female psychiatrist with ice water in her veins.  She sucks the life out of Stanton Carlisle, played by Tyrone Power, and throws away his deflated husk of a body.  He descends back into the muck from which he came and finishes as a geek, biting the heads off chickens for a living. It’s a faithful adaptation of the book.
   
Then there was Lilith, the uptight dominatrix of the TV sitcom Cheers, played by Bebe Neuwirth.  She has to be channelling Helen Walker!
Neuwirth as Lilith
After that, came the comic book adaptation of Nightmare Alley by Spain Rodriguez, published by Fantagraphics.

Lilith has Bebe’s dark hair…


… and is up-front about her needs…  The toe nail painting is a nice noir reference to Scarlett Street, by Fritz Lang.

And finally, we have the nifty neo-noir, Side Effects, in which Catherine Zeta-Jones , as Victoria Seibert, is definitely channelling all of the above.


Is the war over?

January 20, 2013

LA-GUERRE-EST-FINIE-1966
Yves Montand stars in the Alain Resnais film, La guerre est finie, from 1966.  It takes place a year or two before that, and is a portrait of a professional revolutionary who is getting worn out by it all.  Montand is Carlos, or Domingo, or any one of a bunch of different alias, a dedicated communist in the anti-Franco resistance.  He’s been hiding his own Spanish identity for so long, moving back and forth across the border with Spain, that he says he sometimes he forgets himself that he is a Spaniard.

Spain was a fascist state in those days – Franco didn’t die for another ten years or so.  People resisting his rule are killed, imprisoned, and harassed. Meanwhile, millions of Europeans and Americans see Spain as the perfect summer vacation spot.  Carlos is wondering if times have changed so much that the old strategies need an update.

Unfortunately, being a member of a communist underground means he has to discuss, theorize, and justify everything in terms of the approved catechism of The Party.  In the image above, he is learning that his controlling committee no longer trusts his judgement: how could he doubt that organizing, yet again, for a general strike is the correct strategy?  He has been in Madrid too long, too close to the day to day struggles.  He has lost site of the bigger picture, the true state of ‘historical conditions.’  He needs a rest for six months, or longer.  Time to reacquaint himself with the timeless truths of Lenin and The Party.  Of course, when the man picked to replace him in Madrid has a heart attack, Carlos is suddenly suitable for work ‘on the ground’ and is told to return immediately.

While all this is going on, Carlos meets Nadine, a young student who with quick thinking, gets him out of a fix with the authorities.  She’s in the anti-Franco movement too, and she involves him in a meeting with her committee.  They are all very young, and they are scornful of the fuddy-duddy Marxists in Carlos’ group who continually use the same old tactics.  He has to admit, they have a point – exactly his criticisms.  But what do they plan to do?  Detonate plastic explosives in a terrorist action to disrupt tourism in Spain.  Carlos walks out in disgust.

What’s a thinking man to do?  He follows orders, and returns to Spain, but Nadine finds out at the last minute that he will be trapped.  The committee taps Carlos’ lover to rush to Spain to try to head him off and warn him.  The film ends without us knowing if she succeeds.  Seems either way, the war is over for him.

Resnais uses his signature editing techniques to disrupt the viewers normal sense of narrative.  It effectively raises the level of suspense while allowing us to follow Carlos’ plight with intense interest.


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