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.

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Lady Audley’s Secret and the PRB

October 23, 2013

Lady Audley’s Secret (1862) by Elizabeth Braddon, is a pot-boiler that was fantastically popular among the Victorians.  (Thanks to that savage reading guy for pointing me to yet another good read.)  The book falls within the genre of “sensation novels,” dealing with explosive forbidden topics, e.g. incest (see A. S. Bayatt’s novella Morpho Eugenia, or its great film adaptation, Angels and Insects, for a modern take on this.), madness, murder, adultery, and the like.  I’m not giving much away by saying that Lady Audley’s secret involves madness and murder, sort of…

There’s nothing too surprising or shocking in the plot for a modern reader, except perhaps how anti-climactic the unmasking of Lady Audley turns out to be:  After she is confronted with her crimes, the novel carries on with a lengthy dénouement involving yet more not-too-surprising plot twists.  It was all by way of good fun, nevertheless!

It’s interesting to compare the novel to Wuthering Heights published about fifteen years before:  that could be seen as a sensation novel of a sort, if you accept the Heathcliff-Catherine incest Freudian interpretation.  All the tempestuousness of Lady Audley would barely muss the hair of the demonic and haunted inhabitants of Wuthering Heights!

Lady Audley is a nice example of the Pre-Raphaelite femme fatale.  Here is a passage from the novel that makes that explicit:

If Mr. Holman Hunt could have peeped into the pretty boudoir, I think the picture would have been photographed upon his brain to be reproduced by-and-by upon a bishop’s half-length for the glorification of the pre-Raphaelite brotherhood [PRB].  My lady in that half-recumbent attitude, with her elbow resting on one knee, and her perfect chin supported by her hand, the rich folds of drapery falling away in long undulating lines from the exquisite outline of her figure, and the luminous, rose-colored firelight enveloping her in a soft haze, only broken by the golden glitter of her yellow hair—beautiful in herself, but made bewilderingly beautiful by the gorgeous surroundings which adorn the shrine of her loveliness. Drinking-cups of gold and ivory, chiseled by Benvenuto Cellini; cabinets of buhl and porcelain, bearing the cipher of Austrian Marie-Antoinette, amid devices of rosebuds and true-lovers’ knots, birds and butterflies, cupidons and shepherdesses, goddesses, courtiers, cottagers, and milkmaids; statuettes of Parian marble and biscuit china; gilded baskets of hothouse flowers; fantastical caskets of Indian filigree-work; fragile tea-cups of turquoise china, adorned by medallion miniatures of Louis the Great and Louis the Well-beloved, Louise de la Valliere, Athenais de Montespan, and Marie Jeanne Gomard de Vaubernier: cabinet pictures and gilded mirrors, shimmering satin and diaphanous lace; all that gold can buy or art devise had been gathered together for the beautification of this quiet chamber in which my lady sat listening to the mourning of the shrill March wind, and the flapping of the ivy leaves against the casements, and looking into the red chasms in the burning coals.

Note the reference to PRB photo-realism, and the emphasis on how female allure is enhanced by the material abundance of the interior.  This is materialist kitsch-decadence at its finest, or worst, depending on your taste and morals.

Lady A feels cursed by her physical beauty because it gave her the means to work her will upon the world, giving rein to the “taint of madness” in her blood, inherited from her mother.  But she makes good use of it, turning it into a powerful witchcraft with which she bedazzles and ensnares her male (always rich, or so she thinks!) prey.  She has a horror of ordinary, pedestrian life, without the richness of ornament to confirm and reflect her splendid female charms.  Exiled to a posh maison de santé (bourgeois euphemism for madhouse) at the end, she shrivels up and dies without an audience with energy for her to feed upon.

Just a note on the authoress – she seems to have been a sympathizer with the South in the Civil War.  So much of the British elite was – that’s where they got their cheap cotton to keep their mills humming.

Let us hope that when Northern Yankeedom has decimated and been decimated, blustering Jonathan may fling himself upon his Southern brother’s breast, forgiving and forgiven.

 Keeping the UK from intervening to help the South was a major diplomatic initiative of the Lincoln administration.

Here’s a gallery of PRB images of women, including a few by William Holman Hunt.


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.


Finally…Allegory of Fortune by Salviati

January 25, 2013
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Allegory of Fortune – Francesco Salviati

I’ve been searching online for an image of this drawing that I saw at the Morgan Museum several years ago, and I finally found it.  I have attempted to (inexpertly) remove the watermarks on this large-size version of the digital image.

I’m not quite sure how Signora Fortuna is manageing to ride her wheel as if it were a unicycle.

Wheel of Fortuna!


White Hot

December 1, 2012

White Heat (1949), a gangster film starring James Cagney, gave us the ‘iconic’ finale of Jarrett shouting to his dead mother, “Made it Ma! Top of the world!” from inside a refinery about to explode.  Va va va voom! and he’s gone in a glowing plume of flame. Jarrett is a homicidal maniac prone to crippling headaches, and he has a too-strong attachment to his murderous demon of a mom. A volatile combination.

The plot of the film is pretty dull, involving Fallon (Edmund O’Brien) as an undercover cop who gets close to Jarrett in prison to try to learn the identity of the currency fence who launders Jarrett’s loot. Fallon is too cool, too efficient, and dull, but Cagney and his co-star Virginia Mayo as his wife, Verne, keep the movie crackling. According to Wikipedia, it was said that she “looked like a pin-up painting come to life,” and she plays it for all it’s worth in this flick.

The film has many scenes that are classic sequences, including the mess hall bit when Cody passes word along the tables that he wants to hear how his mother is doing on the outside.  When word is returned that she is dead, he goes wild, flailing away at the guards who try to restrain him until he is carried out horizontally, bawling like a little boy.

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Earlier, while hiding out from the cops in a drive-in movie theater, Verne, Ma, and Cody share the front seat of their sedan, with Ma in the middle in more ways than one.  The kisses that Cody gives his wife and the ones he gives his mother aren’t all that different. He seems to have more feeling for Ma, and not much heat when it comes to his luscious wife.

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Cody hatches a plan to ‘confess’ to a lesser crime in another state, and do a short stretch in stir to get the heat off him for a massive and bloody heist he has just committed.  This gives Verne some ideas about making the separation permanent.

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As these thoughts move through Verne’s head, the WWII movie reels on, and we get a  prefiguration of Cody’s destiny.  Could that torpedo have other significance as well?

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While Jarrett’s away, Verne and Big Ed get to spend more time together.  Big Ed has a lot of moxie, but his plans to get Cody bumped off in jail don’t pan out.  Instead, Cody breaks out and is headed back to the gang, with some scores to settle.  Verne is all for fleeing, but Big Ed wants to stand and face down Cody.  To keep Verne around, and who wouldn’t want to keep her?, he threatens to tell Cody how his ma died, shot, in the back, by Verne.  Yep, they’ll face Cody together…

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Well, things don’t go so well for Big Ed, and Verne and Cody are back together.  Maybe there is some chemistry between them after all?

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Fallon rigs Cody’s car with a tracking device, a primitive GPS setup, to foil his last heist.  I always enjoy the use of maps in these old movies, shown here as the cops demonstrate their newfangled toys for following Jarrett’s car remotely.

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Fallon is still undercover with the gang, right up to the end when he’s found out after the heist goes bad.  Cody wants to use him as a hostage to get out, but Fallon tells him the obvious, it won’t work.  With the gang armed, dangerous, but surrounded, Verne shows up to try to make a deal with the cops, claiming that she can coax Jarrett to give up.  No deal – her charms fall flat on the copper.

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The last gang member tries to give up, but Cody shoots him down in cold blood.  No deals for anyone!

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Those tanks are ready to blow!

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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.


Nellie has a sense of humour.

October 7, 2012

Nellie McKay is a fantastic performer.  I saw her last night in Montclair, NJ, where she did more or less the same sets as when I saw her at a free concert in NYC over the summer.  This time, however, she was alone onstage (without her marvelous jazz band) and I was in the second row in a small venue.  In this setting, her fabulous piano skill was highlighted with high-energy playing and inventiveness.  As always, her singing is great.

She prefaced “Why am I so Black and Blue?” by recalling that as a child she wondered if she’d be a better pianist if she were blind:  She played it with her eyes closed for a while just to try it, and turned it from a bluesy lament into jazz romp.  In her version of South Pacific’s “Wonderful Guy,” she kept the sunny, optimistic tone in her vocals, but transformed the tune into a slightly jangling dissonance with the singing, providing an ironic undermining of the words.  That sort of multiple point of view in a single song comes up a lot in her shows.

When Nellie picks up her ukulele, she can be marvelously dreamy with Jobim’s Meditation, or rockin’ (yes, with a uke!) with the Beatles’ “I’m So Tired.”  But when she does one of her signature songs, “Feminists Don’t Have Sense of Humour” she deploys the full range of her sharp, and a little bit weird, intelligence.  She smiles and adopts the pose of a grown-up Shirley Temple, signing sweetly the anti-feminist clichés of…who?  Men?  She’s the one signing it like Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm.  The voices of men appear in the lyrics as raspy, vulgar interjections – Yeah, honey.  Take it off! – and she flirts with them, lifting her skirt and cooing.  Just who is speaking here?  Fodder for meta-textual feminist theorizing abounds, but just go see her instead. [She concluded the song with the announcement, “I’m Anne Romney, and we work for a living.”]

My favorite song of hers is “I Want to Get Married,” a beautiful, soulful tune with lyrics expressing a woman’s complete nullity without a man to serve and please – I want to get marriedthat’s why I was born.   If you believe she feels that way, you’re on a different planet, but the very funny thing about it is that the song could have been sung in the 1950s, perhaps in a film with her beloved Doris Day, without a single change.  And she sings it with real sadness, longing and tenderness.  Her mastery of tone is tremendous…I can only think of Flaubert.