Updike and Out!

November 27, 2012

I have just read what is considered one of John Updike’s best novels, Rabbit Redux, the second of four telling the story of Harry (Rabbit) Angstrom’s life.  I found it to border on revolting, almost claustrophobic in its ‘conservative’ resignation to…well, almost everything, misogynistic of course, smug and obtuse about race in America – I could go on.  Updike is obviously an extremely intelligent man, and he writes beautifully, but what is style without content?  What is intelligence without critical appreciation?  Writing a novel isn’t a practical matter, just laying it all out, like engineering!  If you really want a good take-down of the man’s work, you cannot do better than the Gore Vidal in this review of Updike’s memoir and (then) latest novel.

My first exposure to Updike was Roger’s Version, which seemed little more than trash to me, but I was assured by fans that it was the very worst of this prolific writer’s output.  I had read some of his literary reviews and found them sensitive and interesting:  I’d even liked a short story and poem or two that I’d run across.  Time to give him another chance I thought.  While Rabbit Redux is a world away from Roger’s Version, the themes and content are very similar, and I’m done with Mr. Updike.

I had to grit my teeth to finish Redux, it was so deeply boring.  Harry/Rabbit understands little, questions nothing, and acts on instinct, all the while claiming to feel guilt.  I think this is how Updike seeks to portray the beautiful ordinariness of peoples’ lives.  Harry also hits his wife and the eighteen-year old rich drug addict runaway whom he takes in after his wife leaves him.  He and a loony black radical, another house guest  the one pushing dope on the girl, use her as their sex slave while they read Frederick Douglas’ autobiography to one another.  Harry also has a kid who witnesses much of this, whom Harry give beer to drink, and before whom he swears profusely and smokes pot.  He also complains the world is going to hell and that hippies have no respect for their country – go figure.

It sounds melodramatic, and maybe even interesting, but it’s all so flat, so filled with descriptions of the material minutiae of the 1960s, and the people all seem on autopilot, that it is simply excruciating.  Updike is considered a giant of the realist tradition, but to me, none of it seems real: more like the fantasy of reality imagined by an overly literary and intellectual man who is for some reason preoccupied with religion and authority.  Consider:  Harry works as a linotype operator, and comes from a working class family.  His sister goes to Hollywood to become an actress but ends up as an expensive whore.  Everyone in the family seems fine with this:  not a peep about choices, lifestyle, disappointment, anger, whatever, when she breezes home for a few days.  She and Harry chat about fucking a lot.  Just like brothers and sisters everywhere, right?  Maybe I’m naïve…

I could go on a lot about everything in this book that I didn’t like, didn’t believe, or couldn’t fathom, it was so elaborately pointless – the extended descriptions of Harry’s masturbating for example.  The lame discussions of the politics of the Vietnam War.  The constant looming of sex as a instinctual drive that seems to give no one pleasure.  The fact that neither Harry nor anybody else seems to want to try to figure out a way to do something with their lives that satisfies them.  Harry’s love for his son that seems limited to his view of him as a biological extension of himself and that certainly does not involve any care for his welfare beyond asking the drug addicts he harbors not to shoot up in front of him.  And… oh, never mind.

He sure does write sentences well, though.


Big Combo Encore

November 15, 2012

I just watched The Big Combo (1955) again – one of my favorite film noirs.  (I talked about it earlier in this post).  Fantastic cinematography, and a great cast of characters.  It has a rich trove of noir themes, woven together with subtlety and skill.

One reason I like these old B-movies is that they work within a genre, with familiar situations and themes, and we usually aren’t very surprised by the plot developments. (Do we need surprise to enjoy something?)  We’ve seen it all before; we know how it will all end.  It’s familiar.  The repetition of stories and conclusions accumulates to give the latest one the force of myth.  No self-conscious striving after effect or novelty.  Not that the great ones didn’t innovate, but it was within the limits of the genre.

Cornell Wilde plays Lt. Larry Diamond, a man with a mission.  He wants to rid his town of The Big Combo, but the outfit is really just one single man, Mr. Brown.  He’s obsessed with Brown, a cold, murderous accountant turned mob leader (Richard Conte) because Brown has quite a girl – Susan Lowell (Jean Wallace), a society chick who’s fallen pretty low down.  Diamond is in love with her, from afar; wants to save her, but she tells him there’s no saving her.  She’s lost in a maze, and all paths lead back to Mr. Brown.

She’s a bit of a masochist, this lady, but Mr. Brown also knows how to keep her satisfied.  Pretty explicit for 1955.

click to animate

This Diamond fellow, isn’t so pure either, despite his wish to be the knight to rescue Susan.  In fact, he has a problem with women in general.

While he longs for the cool blonde girl who loves classical music, he keeps his needs in check with Rita, a stripper at a club where he hangs out.  She loves him and will do anything for him, but she just ends up getting filled with lead by two thugs who think they’re knocking off Diamond when they break into his darkened apartment.  She was all dressed up and waiting for a big night with him after work… So, he wants the masochist who won’t have him because she represents something beautiful and pure to him even though she’s as deep in the mud as you can get.  And the girl who loves him with a heart of gold, he treats like a worn out bathrobe to throw away when he’s done with it.

But Susan is otherwise engaged.  Fante and Mingo, Brown’s thugs, always keep an eye on her comings and goings.  At least those two have a loving relationship:  they’d die for one another, but they end up double-crossed by Brown and dying together.  They aren’t effeminate like the flirty thug in Odds Against Tomorrow: their homoerotic bond is thoroughly masculine.  I think the filmmaker uses it to convince us that we really are in the underworld, where such deviant relationships are taken for granted.  Is this retrograde or progressive?  They are totally against the stereotype of homosexuals as weak and unmanly men.

The film makes use of the abuse of hearing aids as an instrument of torture.  Mr. Brown borrows the device from his No. 2 man and shouts and  plays loud music into it to show Diamond who’s boss. (He removes the aid from Mr. No.2’s ears when he kills him.  “I’ll do you a favor; you won’t hear the bullets.”  We see the shooting from the victim’s point of view, without sound.)

First is first, and second is nobody.”  That’s his slogan, and he has nothing but contempt for Diamond whom he describes as steady, intelligent, and with a hankering for a girl he just can’t have.  A nobody.

Yes, that girl.  She’s at a club when she meets her old piano teacher.  The man is delighted to see her again, and eagerly asks how she is progressing with her music.  She has to break the news to him that she has given it up…such a wasted talent!  She asks him to dance with him while Fante and Mingo look on, making sure there’s no funny business.  Suddenly, she starts to swoon.  “I’ve taken some pills…I think I’m going to die!”  There it is, Sex & Death, Eros & Thanatos.  In her attempted suicide she looks just as she did when Mr. Brown was bringing her to an orgasm.

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Eyes Opened

October 14, 2012

The New York Times reports today that Dominic Strauss Kahn is defending himself from charges involving a prostitution ring in France by claiming that he is in the tradition of French libertinage.

Commenting publicly on his history with “parties fines” as the decorous orgies are called, he said, “There are numerous parties that exist like this in Paris, and you would be surprised to encounter certain people.”  There it is again, that weird idea that Kubrick put into the mouth of Sydney Pollack at the end of Eyes Wide Shut – You wouldn’t believe it if I told you the people that go to these parties…

  ‘

I guess this is an example of the power-elite believing their own propaganda, that they are fine upstanding citizens of greater moral fiber than the rest of us.  Or should I say, it’s an example of them believing that everyone else believes it?

Am I wrong in thinking that SK looks like the main male character in the comic, Madwoman of the Sacred Heart, by Jodorowsky and Moebius, originally published in French?  The story is about a Sorbonne professor of philosophy, a figure among the cultural élite of Paris, who descends into a whirlpool of cultism and sex.


How real is real?

September 28, 2012

Bart: … It’s just that everything’s going so fast. It’s all in such high gear, and sometimes it doesn’t feel like me. Does that make sense?
Laurie:  When do you think all this?
Nights. I wake up sometimes. It’s as if none of it really happened, as if nothing were real anymore.
Next time you wake up, Bart, look over at me lying there beside you. I’m yours, and I’m real.
Yes, but you’re the only thing that is, Laurie. The rest is a nightmare.

Those crazy kids from Gun Crazy (1949).

She only shoots people when she gets really scared, but I think she likes it more than she says.


Eve, Satan, and Sewers…

September 20, 2012

In discussing his fine illustrated version of The Old Testament, R. Crumb said he always thought that Adam and Eve had more fun in Eden than The Bible lets on.  In Paradise Lost, Milton takes the same view, emphasizing just how much our first parents enjoy one another’s company, all without sinful lust, of course.

This all changes of course.  I was very taken by the passage in which Milton describes Satan, in the guise of the serpent, spying on Eve in the garden.  So beautiful is she, that he is briefly transported out of his evil self, almost becoming good, until he comes back down to earth!  Milton uses the simile of a city-dweller, oppressed by the smell of sewer fumes, feeling transported on leaving the town for the country, and viewing the green prospect, smelling that pure air.

Yeah, well, just pointing it out, the sewer bit, that is… (emphasis added to make my tedious point, etc.)

 As one who long in populous City pent,
       Where Houses thick and Sewers annoy the Aire,
       Forth issuing on a Summers Morn, to breathe
       Among the pleasant Villages and Farmes
       Adjoynd, from each thing met conceaves delight,
       The smell of Grain, or tedded Grass, or Kine,
       Or Dairie, each rural sight, each rural sound;
       If chance with Nymphlike step fair Virgin pass,
       What pleasing seemd, for her now pleases more,
       She most, and in her look summs all Delight.
       Such Pleasure took the Serpent to behold
       This Flourie Plat, the sweet recess of EVE
       Thus earlie, thus alone; her Heav’nly forme
       Angelic, but more soft, and Feminine,
       Her graceful Innocence, her every Aire
       Of gesture or lest action overawd
       His Malice, and with rapine sweet bereav’d
       His fierceness of the fierce intent it brought 

       That space the Evil one abstracted stood
       From his own evil, and for the time remaind
       Stupidly good, of enmitie disarm’d,
       Of guile, of hate, of envie, of revenge;
       But the hot Hell that alwayes in him burnes,
       Though in mid Heav’n, soon ended his delight,
       And tortures him now more, the more he sees
       Of pleasure not for him ordain’d   then soon
       Fierce hate he recollects, and all his thoughts
       Of mischief, gratulating, thus excites.

       Thoughts, whither have he led me, with what sweet
       Compulsion thus transported to forget
       What hither brought us, hate, not love, nor hope
       Of Paradise for Hell, hope here to taste
       Of pleasure, but all pleasure to destroy,
       Save what is in destroying, other joy
       To me is lost. Then let me not let pass
       Occasion which now smiles, behold alone
       The Woman, opportune to all attempts,
       Her Husband, for I view far round, not nigh,
       Whose higher intellectual more I shun,
       And strength, of courage hautie, and of limb
       Heroic built, though of terrestrial mould,
       Foe not informidable, exempt from wound,
       I not; so much hath Hell debas’d, and paine
       Infeebl’d me, to what I was in Heav’n.
       Shee fair, divinely fair, fit Love for Gods,
       Not terrible, though terrour be in Love
       And beautie, not approacht by stronger hate,
       Hate stronger, under shew of Love well feign’d,
       The way which to her ruin now I tend.


Big Eyes, Black Hair, and Out of Her Mind

September 12, 2012

This is a post about one film, Where Danger Lives (1950), and by extension, all those  femme fatale sisters to Margo Lannington (Faith Domergue) that prey on weak, flawed, emotionally impotent young men.  Oh, and they’re nuts too.  I am thinking of  Ann Savage in Detour, Barbara Stanwyck in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, and Ann Byth as Veda, the helium voiced neurotic daughter of Mildred Pierce (Joan Crawford).

Where Danger Lives was directed by John Farrow, married to Maureen O’Sullivan, who has a small and awful part in the flick, and father to Mia.  The story seems too slow at times, and it almost veers into comedy on a few bits.  What stays with you is Margo’s character, her looks,  and the fantastic scenes with noirish lighting.

Robert Mitchum is Dr. Jeff Cameron, a fine young man who lives to help his patients.  The film starts with his tender ministering to a girl in an iron lung, and a young boy with a neck brace.  His girlfriend Julie (Sullivan) helps, and looks on approvingly. We hardly see her out of her mask.  A young woman is rushed in, an attempted suicide, and Cameron is put on the case.  The big hunk saves the helpless beauty’s life, but who is the strong one?

As she wakes from her stupor, Margo notices the big handsome guy taking her pulse, and she  instantly takes his, so to speak. Clasping his hand, she whispers sultry nonsense while nurse Julie gives Cameron the eye.  She takes off for home before Doc can look in on her next morning, and sends him a telegram, begging him to visit her:  she owes him an explanation.

That cat on the doorstep will be important later on…and not in a good way.  She looks healthy enough; so much so, Cameron forgets all about Julie.    Still, for the moment, he’s just being the doctor, trying to make sure she doesn’t try to kill herself again.  She’s so weak, needs his protection, his help…

Margo refuses to submit to proper care, so Cameron goes for the phone, and grabs her wrist when she tries to interfere.  You can tell by the look on her face that she’s thrilled to have her arm twisted by him.  “You’re hurting me!”  She says it like an invitation to sex.  The good doctor still has a few wits about him, and he’s thinking, “What’s with this dame?

We learn later that Cameron is not, repeat not a psychiatrist, so how could he tell that Margo is totally crazy?  Perhaps her eyes distracted him?  He’s a man who is easily diverted from the straight and narrow, a classic noir type.

Next thing we know, Cameron is walking through a club in a very long tracking shot filled with extras coming and going.

He sees Margo’s back, waiting for him in a booth.  Lots of shots with windows and mirrors in this one.  He bends over behind her to greet her…

She turns, and begins to slip the mink stole from her shoulders…

This action, as the mink drops away, is as close to stripping as you can get without actually doing it.

We learn that they have been seeing each other for a week.  She says her father insists that she leave that night for the Bahamas:  she must obey, or she’ll be cut from his will and have nothing!  He only wants her, of course.  Oh, it’s not to be. After a last kiss, he gets drunk, and gets an idea.

A totally drunk Cameron takes a cab to the house to retrieve Margo.  Claude Rains has one scene in this film, and he makes the most of it.  He’s Frederick Lannington, father…er…the husband of Margo, and he wants to tell Cameron what a “long road” he’ll be going down, with “no turning back,” if he runs off with her.  He sees right through Cameron, saying “her clinging vine act makes you want to protect her.”  Margo pulls out the stops, pretending that he bloodied her by ripping an earring off her.  Cameron responds on cue.

A fight ensues, and Lannington beats Cameron with a poker before he’s knocked out with a fist.  Cameron goes to get some water to revive him, but he’s suffering from a concussion.  He’ll be in and out of lucidity for the rest of the picture, a damaged, weakened male, in thrall to la belle dame sans merci.  While Cameron’s out of the room, Margo finishes off  hubby with a pillow

Only in his concussed and lust-besotted state would an intelligent doctor with a thing for helpless people listen to Margo’s pleas and decide to flee with her to the Bahamas.  She’s convinced him that he killed Lannington with his punch, accidentally, of course.

Their escape has several vignettes that border on screwball, and includes a lot of sharp characters and ironic misunderstandings. They flee the airport at the sight of some cops looking for Lannington (Cameron poses as him.) but they are only trying to deliver a bon voyage message.  Later, they narrowly avoid a police blockade, supposedly set up to catch them, but it’s just the agriculture department looking for contraband vegetable imports. They end up in a scruffy border town where they are ‘arrested’ by a bunch of cowboy types who inform them that because they are not wearing whiskers, they must make a donation to the local fire department…or get married.  They choose the latter.

Things don’t go well when they share a room.  Margo rips the power cord out of the radio:  she doesn’t want Jeff to hear the news – he’ll learn that she has a long history of hospitalization for mental illness.  She doesn’t like to be pitied!

When they finally make it to a seedy border town, they are tricked into giving up their last valuables to pay to be smuggled across the border.  Jeff begins to have his doubts, about her, and about whether he’ll survive his head injury.

He tries to talk sense to her after she finally admits that she killed Lannington.  He’s too weak to restrain her as she follows her own ideas, and decides to smother him the way she did hubby.

Margo thinks Jeff is dead, and she goes out to cross the border on her own.  She didn’t do the job right, though, and he follows her. She shoots at him, and is shot by the police.  Cameron gazes pitiably at her dying figure while the cops say he’s the accomplice.

Ha!  A final dollop of scorn from the dangerous woman as she informs the police that he could never kill anyone!  Didn’t even have the sense to know that she had done it!  (Ah…Jeff is in the clear now!)  No way he could ever have given her what she wanted, what she needed.  She loathes him. “Nobody pities me!”  She dies…

Steve recovers from his concussion, and in the last scene, Julie returns to him.  Uh…why?  Because somebody said they needed a happy ending.

I never posted about Mildred Pierce, so here are two images of Veda the Destroyer in all her glory.

Click for the action!


Coketown Liebestod

June 17, 2012

The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946) is generally classed as a noir, but it certainly did not seem like one for the first thirty or forty minutes: so much so, that I almost gave up on it. Instead, we are presented with a pretty standard melodrama of class, childhood oppression, and murder most foul hushed up in exchange for climbing the social ladder. At Film Noir of the Week, the reviewer says it sometimes seems like Grand Opera. (Its conclusion is close to Wagnerian.)  Despite its slow start, after the set up is over, the story takes a dive into pure, blackest noir, thematically, if not stylistically.  That is, the lighting, music, narration, and the like don’t have much to do with film noir, but the characters and the story…Yes!

The plot has many complications, but it is rooted in the lives of three youngsters in Iverstown, a mill-town, presided over by Martha’s mean aunt, who has made Martha her heir.  Martha is not grateful, because the aunt despises Martha’s dead parents: her father, a former mill worker, and her mother who was fool enough to marry him. Walter is the “scared kid with glasses,” desperately in love with Martha, and Sam is the rough kid from the poor side of town for whom Martha feels a magnetic attraction.  And so, one fatal night, Martha lets her Aunt have it, Walter sees all, Walter’s father hushes it all up so his son can grow up to marry Martha and finally bring some wealth and class into the struggling petty bourgeois O’Neil family.  Just one thing:  the kids think Sam saw it all before he hightailed it out of town, but he didn’t see anything in fact.

Walter does grow up to marry Martha, but he remains the scared kid with glasses, even as he is running for attorney general and getting tough on crime.  Martha calls all the shots – what she says in town goes, while Walter spends his free time in a melancholic, drunken stupor.  His election is a sure thing – no point in taking odds on it.

What makes this movie go is the characters, and the great actors who create them.  Van Heflin is Sam Masterson, the kid who skipped town, and ends up coming back after seventeen years, purely by accident.  He’s an interesting character:  sterling war record; wandering gambler; heart of gold, but he beat a wrap for manslaughter.  He’s no goody two-shoes.  He frequently twirls his fingers in an odd way when he’s conversing, which emphasizes his observing, somewhat aloof, outsider nature.  He’s not afraid to take a rough revenge on a private dick who tried to scare him out of town on O’Neil’s orders.  And he seems to be irresistible to women:  O’Neil’s secretary just melts under his gaze.

Toni (Lizabeth Scott playing an innocent this time) is one of the girls drawn to him.  He meets her coming out of the building where he grew up.  She’s not quite as pure as she seems, but a nice kid, and he’s the perfect gentleman, it seems.  She has parole conditions to meet – he helps her out by getting her a room at his hotel.  Their rooms share a bath.  He recommends reading Gideon’s Bible, and he loves to quote the story of Lot’s wife:  a nice noir theme – don’t look back.  To me, this all seems pretty racy for 1946:  adjoining rooms after a cozy dinner, Toni rapturously showering, washing away her not so pleasant past and being reborn into a new future…with Sam.  Were they just reading, or like Paolo and Francesca in Dante’s poem did they read no more that evening..? Then Sam is awakened by two sleazy police detectives who are obviously working on O’Neil’s orders.  They’ve jailed Toni on phony charges – a bid to dig us some dirt on Sam.

Barbara Stanwyck is Martha, who is revealed during the film as a full-blown femme fatale, but one who plays it classy.  She doesn’t usually need to go for the throaty, seductive talk – she has the power and the money to get what she wants.  But she is also a prey to her own desires, and they are pretty strong.  She wants what she wants.

She builds her inheritance up into a gigantic financial empire.  She transforms the mansion into a place of white and pink instead of gloomy brown and black.  She holds her own against Sam’s attractions at first.  Later, she comes to Sam’s hotel to pick him up for a “business dinner,” and it’s like the scene in The Ten Commandments when Pharaoh’s wife visits Moses in his slave hut:  Oh, the furniture, the bottle of scotch!  Just how I imagined such an ordinary hotel room would be!

Kirk Douglas is marvelous as Walter, a man consumed by self-loathing and his hopeless love for Martha, whose love, if not her body, is unattainable.  She plays him like a fiddle:  alcohol is his solace.  Their relationship is one of submission, domination, and perversion.

The only romantic coupling (only implied, of course) that is wholesome, is that of Toni and Sam.  The violent sexual nature of the bond between Sam and Martha is displayed when they revisit the woods where they used to hideout as kids.  They find a campfire, which ignites old memories.  The conversation that ensues reveals to Martha that Sam knows more than she thought about a lot.  She isn’t happy.  Her passion aflame, she tries to follow through on it.

She’s no match for Sam, physically, sexually, or morally.  But he just can’t resist her.  A real film noir pickle.

As their combat becomes sexual conflict, then submission, her hand relaxes, and drops the fiery brand into the fire.  The flames rise up violently: the next shot shows the smoky ashes.  The deed is done, the battle over, for now.  The movement of her hand will be echoed in the Love-Death finale.

In this complicated story, things take a while to come to a head, but the three kids find themselves together again, at the head of those fateful stairs.  Drunken Walter falls, and Martha sees a chance to rearrange her living arrangements, if she can just convince Sam to go along.  It worked once before, long ago.

No dice.  Sam is essentially decent, and he leaves, intending to never return to Iverstown.  And he leaves Walter and Martha to their private hell.  Walter knows the score now:  he sees that Martha is really a sicko, but he loves her.  “Kiss me, Martha.

He knows there is only way way to end this for both of them.  She feels the gun in her gut…and she does not fight it.  It feels right.  She pulls the trigger herself.

A puff of smoke.  She is done with this awful life.  She looks up, to the beyond, almost ecstatic.  The music swells.  It’s Tristan und Isolde in Coketown.

Sam hears the shot, turns to look back, sees the murder-suicide run to its conclusion.  He is sick.  Best to leave town, and not look back.


Family Gig

June 10, 2012

Hawaii Five-O continues to surprise.  Every character actor who ever was appears on the show, and here we see James Hong, frequently cast, and Melody Patterson, wife of Danno!, engaging in some interesting low-life, trans-racial, sex play – not at all the norm for 1969 TV.  Besides the nice legs, she was interesting in this role as a girl who is pleased as can be to be in the thick of racketeering and money laundering.

(The Devil and Mr. Frog – Season 2).


Dark Passage

April 24, 2012

Vincent Parry is on the lam after escaping from San Quentin where he was doing time for the murder of his wife.  Irene Jensen knows he didn’t do it, just as her father didn’t kill his wife, and she just happens to drive by during his escape from prison.  They become close.  He gets his face rearranged.  He goes to her house to recuperate.

The doc says he has to sleep on his back, with his arms tied to the bed to make certain he doesn’t turn over.  Good morning, Vince. Guess you’re feeling like you’d like to be untied now.