Monday, November 17, 2008

Femme Fatales

306. After the election, I felt a certain obligation to watch Frank Capra's Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), which used to be one of my favorite movies when I was a teenager. It hasn't aged well for me as an adult. I still like it a lot, though some of that is residual affection from my youth, but I see the glaring flaws in it today, thrown into stark contrast by an adult life engaged with the political process (I've been an activist for the last eight years, in one capacity or another). In that light, the sheer naivete of Jefferson Smith and his national boy's camp seems ridiculous on the face of it. Oh, the film slants the dam project that Claude Rains's corrupt senator wants to ram through by telling us at the outset that it's a boondoggle for the benefit of the political machine pulling his strings, but, hell, a hydro-electric dam sounds to me to be a lot more useful than a boy's camp, even if it does enrich the bosses. I mean, we're talking about a country that was still only barely electrified at this point in time. Of course, I'm well aware of the fact that the details are beside the point, that the boys camp and the dam and all are McGuffins of the highest order, and that the point of the film is the injection of integrity into the political process, but the sentimentality tends to undo this for me anymore. Sentiment, as anyone who makes serious art can tell you, is pure poison.

307. I'm much more in love with Capra's It Happened One Night (1933), which not only put Capra on the map of "great" directors, it also put Columbia Pictures on the map after years of a marginal existence on poverty row. Studio boss Harry Cohn was fabled as the cheapest man in Hollywood, after all, but he gave Capra his head, and Capra made stars of the first magnitude out of his actors: Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert. Colbert set the standard for spoiled heiresses that persists in one degree or another to this very day, and Gable suddenly ruled the 1930s as the King of Hollywood. Although there isn't anything as salacious in this movie as one finds in other pre-code movies, there's a sexual friskiness in this movie that vanishes from the screwball comedies that use it as a template. This is especially manifest in the "walls of Jericho" scene. This adds seasoning to a film that could wind up too sweet. As it is, it's just right.

308. Chinese director Jin Xie died last month, so in his honor, I watched Stage Sisters (1965). A story of two actresses caught up in the revolution, this is one of the most cunning bits of misdirection in the history of movies. On the surface, it seems to be a stock piece of upright communist propaganda--and Jin Xie knew that it had better damned well pass that particular test if he didn't want to end up in a re-education camp--but what the movie REALLY is is a bittersweet lesbian love story. I mean, it's hard to miss it these days, after years of decoding queer subtexts in films, but I presume that the Red Chinese censors of the day were as literal-minded as censors always are and they couldn't see what's right in front of their faces. Some of the dialogue near the end, with its whiff of sloganeering, is hard to take, but on the whole it's a beautiful film to watch.

309. As childhood nightmare fuel goes, it would be hard to beat the late Paul Berry's deranged short film, "The Sandman" (1991). Very much in the Tim Burton mold (Berry made models for Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas), this is a horror story through and through, one that delves deep into childhood fears, and which features a gruesome denouement. Then it caps it with a haunting final image after the credits. Highly recommended. You can see it here:

310. My partner wanted to watch a comedy this weekend, so we got Get Smart (2008, directed by Peter Segal), which I gave a pass when it was in theaters. I liked Anne Hathaway as Agent 99. Steve Carrell doesn't erase memories of Don Adams, unfortunately. The dastardly plot is pretty transparent from the get-go. I was happy to see Patrick Warburton show up at the end, but I'm always happy to see him in a movie. It's mostly harmless and intermittently amusing. I'm glad I rented, though, because I doubt I'll ever watch it again. 311. There are two sequences in Abel Ferrara's Ms. 45 (1981) that show the director's hand. While there are tons of elements in the movie that suggest that it's a pure exploitation film (the old "head in the freezer trick," anyone?), Ferrara's ambitions towards art manifest themselves. The first: Thana, our mute heroine, out on her first real rampage, is surrounded by gang bangers who circle her like sharks. Ferrara shoots this from above, and the movies is temporarily transformed into the equivalent of a Busby Berkely musical. This sequence is pure choreography, violence in the abstract. The second: Thana picks up a prospective victim in a bar and they make their way to the waterfront, where her victim recounts how he found himself cuckolded by his wife. Thana's gun misfires and he takes it away. Then points it at his own head and pulls the trigger. This sequence seems like a predecessor to Ferrara's later "Madmen in New Yawk" films like Bad Lieutenant and delves more deeply into an existential abyss than any Death Wish knock-off has any right. Also, it's interesting how Ferrara resists the urge to turn Thana into a gun-toting fetish figure. Oh, sure, she winds up decked out as such, but Ferrara intercuts these depictions with the fate of Thana's first "victim," which acts as a kind of subversion. We can't entirely embrace Thana as an angel of vengeance, because Ferrara shows us how profoundly damaged she really is. This movie is still waters. There are hidden depths. 312. Our local art house has been showing films from Weimar Germany this fall, and this weekend, they got to a doozie. G. W. Pabst's Pandora's Box (1929) is a portrait of the decadence one thinks of when one thinks of Weimar Germany, but it goes deeper than that. The arc of this film is a downward spiral into degradation, ending with the knife of Jack the Ripper (or, at least, his nearest cousin). At the center of it all is Louise Brooks as Lulu, who is part femme fatale, part naive innocent, and who is the walking, talking incarnation of the Golden Apple of Discord. She destroys everyone she touches. When I first saw Pandora's Box (mumble, mumble) years ago, I was awed by Brooks, and deeply impressed by the queer subtexts presented by the Alice Roberts character, one of the screen's first overtly lesbian characters, two elements I fixated on at the expense of every other element of the film. This is understandable, I guess, given that the image of Louise Brooks has left an indelible mark on everyone who's seen the film. Beyond these two elements, though, is a bitches brew of subtexts. It's easy to enter the film from a feminist point of view. Brooks is a free spirit, whose freedom is an affront. The film must destroy her, and it does. But a contrary viewpoint is that the film is an indictment of forces that destroy her, and the film must destroy them. And it does. It's possible to see the film as deeply cynical about the motivations of human beings: every relationship in the film is defined by a transaction. Relationships are commodities in this film. And when, at the end, Lulu forgoes a transaction and extends the hand of kindness, there's a knife waiting for her.

And in spite of all of that, there is still the image of Lulu, with her short bob and her impossibly lustrous bangs. However brutal the film becomes, it comes dazzlingly alive whenever Louise Brooks smiles at the camera. Frankly, the film would not work without her. With her, it's a stunner.

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