3.20.2019

"Frankenstein": The extended universe



Cloris Leachman as Frau Blücher in Young Frankenstein (dir. Mel Brooks, 1974); Una O'Connor as Minnie in Bride of Frankenstein (dir. James Whale, 1935); Celia Imrie as Mrs. Moritz in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (dir. Kenneth Branagh, 1994).

Frau Blücher (cue horse whinny) doesn’t exist in the original Frankenstein novel.  Nor do Ygor, Inga, and Inspector Kemp.  They’re the burlesque inventions of Mel Brooks, Gene Wilder, and cast (Cloris Leachman, Marty Feldman, Teri Garr, Kenneth Mars), as immortalized in the 1974 film Young Frankenstein, a parody that testifies to the elasticity and openness of popular texts.  In the two hundred years since Mary Shelley’s novel was first published the universe of Frankenstein has stretched to accommodate a wide spectrum of tones and themes and has perpetually reframed the relationships of its characters, much in the same way that long-running comic strips or TV shows inspire spin-offs and tie-ins, novelizations and fan fiction, web series and breakfast cereals.   

Blücher derives from a comic-relief character invented for the 1935 film Bride of Frankenstein, a village scold named Minnie played by the great Hollywood bit-player Una O’Connor.  With her thick Cockney accent and broad mug, Minnie seems to have wandered into the House of Frankenstein by way of an English panto.  Four decades later Leachman and Brooks would reimagine Minnie as a loyal family retainer still carrying a torch for the late Dr. Frankenstein, possessed of a hatchet face and a knack for playing the violin.  (Minnie’s Cockney accent gets passed to Ygor and is replaced with a German one, even though the film is set inexplicably neither in England nor Germany but in Transylvania—Dracula territory.)   

It’s possible to trace the origins of Frau Blücher/Minnie back to a cipher of a character from the Mary Shelley novel named Mrs. Moritz, an ill-tempered servant employed by the Frankenstein family and the mother of the doomed Justine, the latter of whom (in one of Shelley’s many heavy-handed ironies) is unjustly blamed for a murder committed by the monster.  The character of Mrs. Moritz gets much expanded in Kenneth Branagh’s 1994 film adaptation, in which her strained relationship with her daughter is used to elaborate the parent-child themes of the story.  In the world of Frankenstein the monster is hardly the only one getting cut up and put back together again.

3.16.2019

The Films of 2019: The Image Book



In Jean-Luc Godard’s The Image Book, history is written with cinema: the film, which finds Godard working in the same collage mode he employed so dazzlingly in Histoire(s) du Cinema (1988-98), is on some level a documentary, but one in which the events of the twenty-first century are illustrated and interpreted via the archive of the movies.  The Image Book is a dazzling piece of work in itself, assaultive and uncompromising in the way that so many of Godard’s late films are, and completely unpredictable in the way that each sequence detonates the next.  Coming as it does twenty years after the last installment of the Histoire(s), this is the latest chapter in Godard’s ongoing meditation on Western civilization, its legacies and its crimes, as seen through a glass darkly—or, more accurately, through a cracked video screen.  (Digital and analog video remain the dominant media of the filmmaker’s late phase.) 

3.11.2019

"4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days": That's what friends aren't for


The final shot: Gabita (Laura Vasiliu, left) and Otilia (Anamaria Marinca, right).

i. Gabita, the girl who gets the black-market abortion in 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days (dir. Christian Mungiu, 2008), is a terrible friend.  She bungles the plan, messes up the hotel reservation, lies to the abortionist, indirectly causing her accomplice Otilia to be coerced into having sex with him.  She doesn’t answer the phone when Otilia tries to call to check on her, causing her to worry.  She doesn’t tell Otilia that, while Otilia has been busy disposing of her aborted fetus, she has left the hotel room to go downstairs to the restaurant, causing Otilia to look for her in confusion until she finds her, composedly eating and drinking at a table.  When Otilia shouts her down Gabita has nothing to say for herself.  She can only offer up mewling little excuses.  She apologizes to Mr. Bebe, who says “you’re sorry but it’s my ID at the front desk” being held by the hotel concierge.  She apologizes to Otilia, who doesn’t say (but could have) “you’re sorry but I’m the one who just got raped.”  Except that of course Gabita just got raped, too.  

ii. Otilia, the girl who helps the other girl get the black-market abortion, maybe isn’t a good friend.  She’s definitely not a very good nurse.  While Gabita is lying on a drab hotel-room bed getting the black-market abortion Otilia’s manner is brusque, stoic.  Even though Gabita pleads for Mr. Bebe to spare Otilia (“I messed up; she shouldn’t have to pay,” she says tearfully), Otilia snaps at Gabita, blames her for the situation they’re both in, much as Mr. Bebe has previously blamed Gabita for getting herself pregnant.  Then Otilia leaves Gabita lying helpless on the bed (she was told to tend to her) to go to her boyfriend’s mother’s birthday party.  Gabita, hurt by this, turns away from her in anger.  “Are you going?” she says.     

iii.  Are Otilia and Gabita friends?  We don’t know much about their history.  We know they share a dorm room; they also pass themselves off, briefly, as sisters, which, though literally untrue, is perhaps the most accurate word for what they are—bonded by something beyond friendship, in which friendship may be absent, or at least something where friendship beside the point.  They’re both victims, jointly caught up in the same miserable structure of power that rapes and traumatizes both of them (the abortion is nothing if not an experience they endure together).  To assign blame to either one of them, to call them out for being “bad friends,” is to misplace emphasis.  The point is that Otilia helps Gabita not because she likes her or because they’re friends—like has nothing to do with it, friendship has nothing to do with it—but because she understands that women can only rely on each other within this structure.  Otilia’s bitterness toward Gabita is probably rooted in her anger at this truth.  Just because Gabita doesn’t throw this bitterness back at Gabita—she just sits at the table post-abortion, calmly eating her dinner of beef, pork fillet, liver, breaded brains, and marrow, the film’s hideous black punchline—doesn’t mean she doesn’t feel it too.

3.07.2019

Code-breaking/code-making



Common wisdom holds that pre-code Hollywood cinema was, and is, de facto transgressive and radical simply by virtue of the fact that it dealt with sex and vice.  It's rather that in pre-code films we find a mix of the salacious and the conventionally moralistic, where scenes of sin bump up against others of cliché banality.  Take The Divorcee (dir. Robert Z. Leonard, 1930), starring Mrs. Irving Thalberg herself (Norma Shearer, pictured) as a coquette who entertains a series of lovers both during and after her marriage.  It is, in one sense, a portrait of a sexually liberated “modern” woman meant to be shocking; in another sense it hews to the same ideological bulwarks as any other Hollywood product.  (Pre-code Hollywood was still Hollywood, after all.)  Jerry (Shearer) goes unpunished, but she reforms voluntarily; she sees the error of her ways just as she's about to run off with the husband of a college friend and decides to reconcile with her ex.  The moral order is not so much destabilized as it is tiptoed outside of and then safely returned to.  A better title would have been The Awakening Conscience. 

William Holman Hunt, The Awakening Conscience, 1853.
 

3.04.2019

Seeing double


 
Pictured: Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr), holding bible, seated opposite Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron), holding lipstick and compact mirror, in Powell and Pressburger’s Black Narcissus (1947).  A longtime personal favorite film, its first two thirds belong to the colonial adventure genre while its final third steers into Gothic horror territory, with the mad, mean, hot-and-bothered Sister Ruth acting as the dark doppelganger to the prim, repressed, though no less hot-and-bothered Sister Clodagh.  The two women act as mirror images for each other throughout the film, both vying as they do for the attentions of the sexy local yeoman (David Farrar) who goes around shirtless and wears a lot of short shorts and is prone to making smirking insinuations with his tongue in his cheek.  The women even look like one another, so that when Ruth throws off her nun’s habit and renounces her vows and goes to Mr. Dean’s house he initially seems to think (seeing her from behind) that it’s Clodagh.  Both of them, it turns out, have fiery red hair in addition to sharing the same patrician features.  Ruth does and says the things that Clodagh thinks but can’t do or say, so that when the two women face off against one another from opposite sides of Clodagh’s desk—both of them accusing the other of “thinking too much” of Mr. Dean—the reverse shots have an uncanny, disorienting effect, as if we’re watching a single woman have a conversation with another part of herself.


 

3.03.2019

Anomaly

Emiko Yagumo aims a gun at the police detective (Togo Yamamoto) who has come to arrest her husband in That Night's Wife (dir. Yasujiro Ozu, 1930).
 
Ozu hadn’t really gotten started on his bittersweet domestic dramas when he made That Night’s Wife in 1930.  (Only three of his previous feature films—Days of Youth, Walk Cheerfully, and I Flunked, But...—survive.)  The title of That Night’s Wife makes it sound like the story of a prostitute, something by Ozu’s countryman Mizoguchi perhaps; it’s actually a somewhat stagy suspense thriller about a man who commits a robbery to get money for his ailing daughter, the detective who’s out to arrest him, and the man’s wife, who tries to help him get away with the crime.  Its sixty-five minutes run slow but they’re leavened by a number of remarkable tracking shots, the likes of which aren’t seen in Ozu’s later work.

2.28.2019

Guilty pleasures

 
I’ll confess to having a special weakness for silent films like William Beaudine’s Sparrows (1926), a piece of sentimental pabulum starring Mary Pickford as a plucky waif who must defend a brood of orphans against a predatory “baby farmer” in an American South lifted straight from a Gothic novel, right down to the alligators and the quicksand.  Such films represent silent cinema at its cheapest and most emotionally manipulative, relying as they do on the conventions of Victorian melodrama—imperiled women and children trying to escape the clutches of moustache-twirling villains; lots of tears and corny humor of the “kids say the darndest things” variety; much quoting of Scripture.  (In Sparrows the death of an infant is conveyed by a scene in which Jesus takes the child out of Pickford’s arms and carries it off into a dreamy pastoral landscape.)  Why is it that Sparrows is so shamelessly entertaining, while a modern-day equivalent—something like Lenny Abrahamson’s Room, perhaps—feels merely grim and miserable and exploitative?  Sparrows—or Way Down East or True-Heart Susie or The Wind or Foolish Wives—feels somehow innocent of the sentimental clichés that it deploys with abandon.  It would be a fallacy to argue that silent movies were that way because “people were more innocent back then”; of course they weren’t.  And yet the corn-pone emotions in which such films indulge have an antique purity to them that movies today can’t imitate without looking calculated.