5.22.2017

In New Mexico with Billy Wilder


"The Mountain of the Seven Vultures"
 
This weekend I was moved to revisit Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole (1951), in which Kirk Douglas plays unscrupulous newspaper writer out to capitalize on the misfortune of a local man trapped in a cave in the middle of the New Mexico desert.  It’s an ingenious film, one of the wickedest that Wilder ever made—sharper and crueler than Double Indemnity, I think, and more scathing than Sunset Boulevard, great as both of those films are.  The sense of place in Ace in the Hole is particularly strong.  Most of the action occurs in the desert outside Albuquerque, where the vastness of the geography almost seems to mock the pettiness and hubris of the men and women moving around on the ground like ants.  The cave in which the local man is trapped is known by the locals as The Mountain of the Seven Vultures; the name both makes reference to scavengers like Douglas’ Charles Tatum and lends a supernatural dimension to the series of unfortunate events that transpire over the course of the film. 

"How!": Kirk Douglas with Iron Eyes Cody.

Tatum himself adopts a supernatural angle when writing his story (“the curse of the Mountain of the Seven Vultures…”), and as hackneyed as this sounds coming from him the film leaves itself open to a similar line of interpretation.  It’s possible to locate Ace in the Hole within a long tradition of films (The Shining, The Manitou, Poltergeist II) about white Americans being haunted by Native American spirits.  Racially, Ace in the Hole is one of Wilder’s most complex films.  Tatum sneers derisively at the Native member of the Albuquerque newspaper staff (played by veteran character actor Iron Eyes Cody), calling him “Geronimo” and reacting with disgust when he offers him a lunch of chicken tacos.  The Mexican mother (Frances Dominguez) of the trapped Leo Minosa moves through the film like a ghost; first seen crying and praying in Spanish, she is—along with Leo’s father—the only person in the film to show legitimate concern for her son’s survival.  In Wilder’s New Mexico, whites and Mexicans and Indians always seem to be orbiting each other nervously.  

Robert Arthur with Frances Dominguez as Mama Minosa.

Wilder’s satire is also attuned to the co-optation of Indian culture and its appeal to white tourists.  For the Federbers—a white family of four on vacation from Gallup—the Minosa saga is as consumable as the Indian headdresses worn by the two boys.  Leo gets trapped in the mountain while in search of Indian artifacts to be sold alongside the “curios” and Navajo blankets advertised at the motor inn.  (It reminds me of a passage from Nabokov, about Humbert and Lolita road-tripping across the American West: “If a roadside sign said VISIT OUR GIFT SHOP—we had to visit it, had to buy its Indian curios, dolls, copper jewelry, cactus candy.  The words ‘novelties and souvenirs’ simply entranced her by their trochaic lilt.”)  Wilder’s vision of the West, like Nabokov’s, is satirical and vaguely eerie, the gas stations and souvenir shops haunted by a people who cannot be owned and dwarfed by a landscape that cannot be known.

The Federber family--with Indian headdresses.

5.15.2017

Erich von Stroheim, kinkster



This past weekend I was fortunate enough to see Erich von Stroheim’s Greed (1924) projected in 35mm with live accompaniment at the Somerville Theatre, which is fast becoming one of the best repertory houses the greater Boston area.  (It is, I believe, one of the only theaters in the United States to sport a permanently installed 70mm projection system.)  I don’t think I had seen Greed since the four-hour reconstructed version aired to much fanfare on Turner Classic Movies in 1999.  The film is so obviously a masterpiece that even in its manifold, always-already-imperfect forms (the version screened at the Somerville was the two-hour MGM cut) it is never less than riveting to watch: there were moments during Sunday’s screening when I was so gripped by the sublime weirdness of this movie that I found myself grinning like an idiot.  It invokes the same giddy/crazed feeling that truly great horror movies like The Shining do, along with Paul Thomas Anderson’s better efforts, which I suppose is unsurprising when one considers that Greed is something of a horror movie in its own right, and that Anderson’s There Will Be Blood owes much to it.  


Greed combines the cute regionalism and local color of D. W. Griffith with the perverse fatalism of Lars von Trier (like von Stroheim, another filmmaker who reinvented his own name as an act of self-mythologizing) and the blithe kinkiness of Luis Buñuel.  This film is a vision of America as chock-a-block with grotesque, vicious, scheming, ugly people--outwardly “nice” folks who are all one moment of weakness away from violence and mendacity.  McTeague and Trina (Gibson Gowland and Zasu Pitts) slowly degenerate from gormless young lovers to haggard lowlifes, doubled against the minor characters Maria and Zerkow, who live in what might best be described as Gothic abjection.  (This subplot, which bears some resemblance to the Wegg/Venus/dust-heaps storyline in Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend, was regrettably cut from the two-hour version of the film.)  McTeague’s friend and Trina’s cousin Marcus (Jean Hersholt) is a small-minded nose-picker who wears tacky clothes.  At table, Trina's family members gorge themselves like animals (see below).  It’s significant that one of the film’s sweeter moments occurs when McTeague courts Trina by playing his concertina for her while they sit on a sewer tank.  (Von Stroheim’s Foolish Wives ends with the body of the villain being dumped in a cesspool.)  



Having not read Frank Norris’ McTeague (the novel on which Greed is based), it’s hard to say how much of that cynicism is his and how much is von Stroheim’s.  But it’s worth noting that von Stroheim’s other films are similarly despairing—not to mention similarly keyed in to routines of sadism, masochism, and all manner of kink.  The foot fetishism in The Merry Widow caused censorship problems; Greed itself contains an erotically charged scene in which Trina leans up to kiss McTeague by standing on his boots.  A cut scene from Foolish Wives depicts von Stroheim cross-dressed in stockings and a garter belt, biting Mae Busch’s fingers—a motif that recurs throughout Greed.  His films betray the fetishist’s obsession with uniforms, leather boots, gloves.  And let us not forget that Greed originally contained a scene in which a Trina rubs her hoard of gold coins all over her naked body.  Was the original cut of this film—in addition to being too long—simply too fucked up for MGM to give it its seal of approval?  Even in its butchered form, Greed remains one of the most delightfully nasty films ever to come out of the studio system. 

5.08.2017

Wherefore art thou Robin Hood?



Pictured: Olivia de Havilland and Errol Flynn in The Adventures of Robin Hood (dir. Michael Curtiz, 1938).  The opening credits ambiguously state that the film is “based upon ancient Robin Hood legends” (though it most closely draws on the interpretation of those legends by the nineteenth-century writer Howard Pyle); in classic Hollywood fashion, the film also cribs indiscriminately from various other sources, such as Romeo and Juliet, with Flynn and de Havilland doing their own variation on that play’s famous balcony scene.  There’s also a strong Juliet/Nurse dynamic to De Havilland’s scenes with Una O’Connor, the latter playing Bess, Maid Marian’s sharp-tongued but coquettish lady-in-waiting, a comic relief figure with shades of the Wife of Bath (below). 


It’s typical of Hollywood cinema from this period to raid British literature’s back catalog, as it were, for character types and plot devices, inflecting them with a Victorian-era sentimentality and then running them through the wringer of mass culture—to absolutely delightful effect.  Is there a 1930s adventure film more fun than Robin Hood?  Between Flynn’s lascivious eyebrow-waggling and Basil Rathbone’s moustache-twirling and O’Connor’s simpering, mischievous smile the thing is 101 minutes of sheer pleasure.  It sports a veritable feast of character actors: in addition to O’Connor you have Claude Rains as Prince John, Eugene Pallette as Friar Tuck, and Melville Cooper as the Sheriff of Nottingham.  But what’s most appealing about the film is its zippy pacing, sprightly tone and rakish humor.  “He speaks treason!” cries de Havilland, to which Flynn replies, in a voice dripping with insinuation, “Fluently.”  We, and she, are immediately made to think about what other things that artful tongue can do.  (At the time of the film’s release Flynn’s reputation as a notorious womanizer, booze-hound and sex fiend would have been well known to any lucid moviegoer over the age of twelve.)  Pauline Kael once wrote that Jack Nicholson could suggest oral sex just by cocking an eyebrow; watching Errol Flynn in Robin Hood I think I know what she means.

 

5.01.2017

Listening to "Do the Right Thing"


Spike Lee, Richard Edson, and Samuel L. Jackson in the radio station.

Writing about Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing in 1989, Armond White noted that Lee “takes his tone from the populist mode of airwave entertainment” and “constructs the film in flowing, start-stop rhythms that match the flux of radio […] Do the Right Thing is tuned in to the ongoing primacy of pop experience.  Its person-on-the-street multiplicity suggests the surreal dissonance of dial spinning.”  Radios and popular music are key to the style of this noisiest and most raucous of Lee’s films.  Do the Right Thing is narrated (hosted?) by superfly radio deejay Mister Señor Love Daddy (Samuel L. Jackson); it’s awash with pop songs by everyone from Ruben Blades to Al Jarreau; and one of its main characters, Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn), is so attached to his massive boom box that it functions symbolically as an extension of his body.  (The destruction of that boom box with a baseball bat precipitates Radio Raheem’s death by chokehold at the hands of the NYPD moments later.)  At one point, Love Daddy rattles off a list of names of iconic black musicians, a litany that recognizes black music as holding spiritual meaning.     

Radio Raheem with boom box.

Music and radios act as cultural weapons and phallic symbols: earlier in the film Radio and a Latino neighbor have a street duel with their stereos, each turning theirs up louder and louder in an attempt to drown out the other (Radio eventually blasts his opponent into submission).  And Radio’s anthem, Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power,” doubles as the unofficial theme song of Do the Right Thing, to the extent that Lee makes it the subject of an entire dance number.  Like Lee’s previous film School Daze (1988), Do the Right Thing is something of a musical—but, as White notes, one built around the clashing textures and quick-changing rhythms of the street rather than the polished choreography of Broadway and Hollywood.  That the opening beats of "Fight the Power" follow Brandford Marsalis' solo rendition of "Lift Every Voice and Sing" establish both songs as part of a tradition of black music as a source of grass-roots resistance.     
Rosie Perez in the opening dance number.

Do the Right Thing also finds Lee tuning into other kinds of music: the hodgepodge vernacular of Bed-Stuy, where black folks and Italians rub elbows, however uneasily, with Latinos and Koreans.  The film is an aural mishmash of voices, dialects, ethnic flavors.  Lee uses actors the way a composer uses vocalists, setting Giancarlo Esposito’s rat-a-tat jive talk and Rosie Perez’s sharp-tongued chatter against Ruby Dee’s haughty drawl and Samuel L. Jackson’s devilish purr. 

Lee’s attention to cross-talk—to the mixing of voices, sounds, and musical styles—is also reflective of his ethos as an artist.  Lee has always been one of the most dialectical of filmmakers; his films are “diverse” not because they foreground the experiences of people of color but because there are so many competing ideas in them.  Nearly every scene in Do the Right Thing is structured by some sort of personal or ideological conflict between two characters, culminating in the conflicting/complementary perspectives of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X.  It would be a misrepresentation to say that the plurality of voices in Do the Right Thing is about validating multiple viewpoints (“everyone’s entitled to their opinion”); rather, it’s about acknowledging the complexity of experience, and about the importance of listening to everything and everyone around us.   

Martin Luther King and Malcolm X: A dialectical ending.