Sunday, July 30, 2006

118. The Altogether

Ever see something weird? How about Something Weird, the movie (1967)? Or Something Weird, the video distribution company? If you've seen the first, it was probably courtesy of the last, which named itself after the second. Weird.

Along with the sainted supergeeks of Rhino, SWV keeps alive the odd corners of cinematic delirium, where they save Hitler's brain and ask to be colored blood red, where jungle women and killer tomatoes--and shrews--attack, where one can enjoy not only a smell of honey but a swallow of brine; in short, a trashbin with aspirations to be an archive.

And every once in a while I admit I dive into this 16-millimeter dumpster, fulfilling long after midnight the hesitant, half-admitted, guiltiest pleasures of my life in movies. And unfortunately--and inevitably--the actual experience of watching one of them is not often as, ahem, satisfying as I'd hoped. This makes sense; after all, there is something quintessentially adolescent about the impulse to watch movies with titles like Orgy of the Dead (1965), Anatomy of a Psycho (1961), or The Rebel Set (1959)--"Today's Big Jolt about the Beatnik Jungle!"--let alone Primitive Love (1964), The Bizarre Ones (1967)--which promised exactly what I wanted, "A Change from the Normal Life"--or what may be my favorite title in all of exploitation cinema (not the least because two dear friends once gave me a postcard-book of movie posters with this title), Lost, Lonely and Vicious (1957). These movies capture the humid little soul of exploitation: All the entertainment you're going to get occurs before the movie actually starts--aside from the quasi-condescending fun of making fun of the damaged, defenseless thing itself.

But it is precisely the adolescent nature of the urge to watch such movies that drives me back to them, despite evidence to the contrary that this time things will be different, this time I'm going to be plunged into a grainy dreamworld of unselfconscious id-exposure, where "camp" and "kitsch" wilt in the high-contrast glare of the sudden lurching fulfillment of cinema's persistent promise of a glimpse of the First Image, in which society and self disappear, and all that's left in the secret garden are the tender shoots, almost emergent, but vague in their final, pure shape.

And some of these movies get close, at least in moments. But I so often get only stuff and nonsense that I am forced to remind myself that the people who actually made these movies were simply sticking their stubby little fingers into movie-marketing's shallower niches, and their dogged desire to cash in makes their films as empty of potential as their big-budget counterparts, both so cynical in their intents that their movies have no room for any persistent images.

Unless I make them persist. I watched The Monster That Killed Women (1965), working in a sub-genre--nudist camp--that is particularly unlikely to provide evidence of cinema's substrata, if only because of its self-imposed restriction to provide redundant nudity within set parameters, most of which involve activities that allow women to sit on the ground together, huddle in bunk beds together, or play endless games of volleyball--not to mention the, shall we say undulatory effects, of the physical actions attendant upon reaching for objects--beach towels, board games--inexplicably placed on high walls and shelves. And even more inhibiting are the demands of what we can call with Continental delicacy La promenade en deshabille, in which figures pass the unmoving camera so that the viewer can receive a flat, semi-unobstructed perspective as they saunter by.

But it was here, in the promenade, that I heard a whispered hint of exploitation cinema's hold on me, more than in all the campfire sing-alongs, changing-room confabs, and shuffleboard matches combined. The women* walk away from the camera and make their way over a small hill or behind some foliage, or toward the camera--but in this case filmed from the waist up, or at such an angle that we cannot visit the Netherlands, if I may be discreet. These shots are so nonchalant, and so often repeated, that the fact of voyeurism is absolutely exposed, so to speak. No metaphors remain to provide ironic--let alone erotic--distance, no membrane separates the watcher from the intent to watch. And watching this movie myself, I wondered at what point in my life I would not have been bored by these scenes. And that of course would be in adolescence. At fourteen, I would have found the promenade to be the center of these films--the kinetic dynamics of volleyball notwithstanding--and I can easily see myself disappointed when the movie reluctantly returned to its "plot."

Because, watching it now, the promenade of course is the plot, if "plot" equals "point." And, as I watched the individual promenades--three or four of them--of The Beast That Killed Women (and for now I will not discuss the self-evident, nasty connection in these movies between violence and nudity), I found myself passing beyond boredom and into a dimly lit quiet place, where my adolescent libidinal instincts looked up at me from the bottom of Time's hill to remind me that, as in the myth of Sisyphus (something I seem to get back to all the time), climbing that hill precipitates returning to the hollow, the shadowed low place where I can rest for a moment, but which I also know I need to climb back up. It is a promenade itself, beautiful and foolish, for me a necessary circuit--because I swear the hill gets higher every time I climb it; all I can hope is that I get stronger with every climb. After all, they say walking is the best exercise.

*And men--but they don't count; the men in these movies are often wearing swim trunks (which I would guess was a relief to the nervous, at the least slightly damaged males who were the target audience for these movies), and, given the frontal nudity restrictions that apply to both sexes--nothing below the belt--even nude they offer nothing more (boy, is this getting creepy) than Charlton Heston already had in Planet of the Apes (1968)--or, come to think of it, Cornel Wilde in The Naked Prey (1966) (by the way another movie that resides in my memory as a primordial film experience; I fear, though, that if I ever see it again it, too, will become a triviality).

Friday, July 28, 2006

117. This Time, Eyes Wide Open

In an effort to describe my reaction to Pride and Prejudice (2005), I will submit to convention and use the word "feminine"--and by that I suppose I mean exasperation mingled with anticipation, and hopes--some foolish, some practical, some so sharp they seem almost necessary for sanity or survival--mitigated by the frustration of curtailed thought, passion, and opportunity. My generalized description here is a simple attempt to avoid stereotyping--but that is impossible, if one is to make it through any movie, no matter how "enlightened" or "iconoclastic" it might be. A First Principle of movies is that they invite the receptive viewer to wear a mask--no, something less active: to watch what it's like to be interestingly fictional, and in doing so to invent a self, and not just for the characters--or monoliths, or penguins, or whatever--but for the viewing self, "in" the movie just as the eye is "in" any objects it views--but more intimately in moving pictures.

Such inventions of self--and self-inventions--are also by nature narrow, so as to fit any number of needs: those of the frame, of course, but also the need for a "dramatic arc" (even if it's just watching something like the Empire State Building, as Andy Warhol did, for eight hours, in Empire (1964); the act of filming it, even with a stationary camera, imposes a narrative). And the subtle but insistent needs of culture, gender, race, class, and so on shape the film and the response to it; but as narrow as the space may be, it is still inviting, as any life would be that is limited, yes, but also given a shape by the act of being filmed. As a result, as I watch P&P I can "become" the young girl, the thwarted lover, the pursued and irritated, the yielding or adamant woman--and yet not a woman, but a set of dramatic/cinematic causes and effects, drawing me into these invented lives so that I can take out the hanky and have a good cry, no matter how strange the changes are--of circumstance, culture, gender, class, and so on--that allow me to be someone else.

But this cuts both ways: The movie also becomes me--and I don't mean it looks good on me--although that might be a clever-clever turn worth exploring--but looks better because I'm the movie, if I'm lucky. So I'm not crying just for Jane Austen's characters, but myself.* It's like those mind-transference gizmos in assorted shorts, animated or otherwise, in which Bugs Bunny or Curley changes place with a chicken or an ape. (And I'm sorry I even brought up these allusions; they threaten to distract me with a picking-through of such plots, how they're played as farce, but as I watch them I want to be able to do it myself; and so it becomes deeply important, that decision to get lost in someone else. I just watched the X-Files two-parter in which Mulder gets zapped and changes place with Mickael McKean's Area 51 Man in Black. Suffice it to say, even Curley learns something from jumping ship. Back we go.)

I will confess, if that cinematic someone else is a young Englishwoman a couple of centuries ago, I feel a bit selfconscious. But P&P knew what it was doing--and OK, I've read the novel, and so I was ready to let the film do it to me--but it was a pleasure to be done so thoroughly (all right, I'll stop now), and to fret over the restrictions of my gender and class. Then again, those restrictions do not necessarily seem so foreign. I will not presume to "know" anybody in the real world--at least for the sake of this argument--but literary/cinematic art invites me to give it a try--or provides a shorthand profile I can examine--no, a mask I can wear--no, no, more of a temporary pass, so that I can fret and fume, laugh and love, etc.--a vacation from me that also instructs me about me, at least in terms of what I'm willing to consider, where I'm willing to take my sympathies.

Which seems pretty far. P&P reminded me of my perfect willingness to get all worked up over domestic storms and the plight of the unmarried young woman torn between her insistence that she should find the person she should love and her desire to be rid of all the bother of doing so. I usually don't watch these kinds of movies--and it's a shame I don't, because when I do, more often than not I get my money's worth. Just a few days after P&P I watched again Little Women, the 1949 one directed by Mervyn LeRoy and sustained by that great cast: June Allyson, Margaret O'Brien, Elizabeth Taylor, Janet Leigh, Mary Astor, Peter Lawford. It was on Turner Classic Movies, and I was just surfing along, but I let it linger, all the way.

I had done the same less than a year ago--and then it was in a way an even odder experience, since I was home alone, and could not "excuse" my watching it by hiding behind the sexism of having my wife and teenage girls' present as the "primary audience." Which is silly; after all these years of watching any old thing, it's a bit late to have to draw myself up to my full height (and those who know me appreciate the joke) and get all manly and fist-clenching about it. Feh; I grew up with an older sister, so it was Shirley Temple Theater right before Dagwood and after The Bowery Boys on rainy Sundays. Lucky enough to have grown up in a watch-without-discernment household, I can work up a good cry with the best of them. Again, watching P&P so close after LW, I recalled watching the latter on my own last winter, and bawlin' my little eyes out over the March girls' tribulations.

It was a "good cry," too, again as much over myself as them--and as much for real people in all kinds of trouble as for the movie's clever constructs. And more than clever, because my feelings are real, even if the catalyst isn't. Now, my betters have covered this pretty thoroughly--Aristotle's mimesis, Coleridge's "suspension of disbelief," the Lacanian infant's jubilation at seeing himself in the mirror, Herman Noodicks and his theory of--sorry. And someday I simply must read their books. But for now I'm happy to report I can keep up with Margaret O'Brien's lachrymal marathons, if only because my own jubilation before the "special mirror" of the movies allows for every association, tearful and joyful, wolfish and seraphic. So get out your handkerchiefs, or laugh like an idiot, or scream in terror--just, at least this once, don't cover your eyes. It defeats the whole purpose.

*Of course, I cannot let this comment go by without mentioning G.M. Hopkins' poem, "Spring and Fall," in which he asks the child, "Margaret, are you gríeving / Over Goldengrove unleaving?" and ends with what we knew all along: "It is Margaret you mourn for." I will be getting to another Margaret in a few paragraphs. It is a happy coincidence.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

116. Blind Love

I was lucky to have Fr. Jack as a religion teacher in high school. This was in the early '70s, at an all-boys Catholic high school--OK, they called it a "preparatory" school--and OK again, I think they did prep us for college pretty well; but what I mostly remember was the charged atmosphere of the place, especially once you factored in a pretty strong contingent of rich Italian kids, little Sopranos whose fathers were building contractors and funeral home owners (yes of course), all of them sharp dressers who could curse like sailors--as we all did, but never in front of adults--and each mamma mia's son of 'em loaded for bear; the fights were fierce but quick. I cannot watch a movie fistfight without disapproval because in high school, when someone was hit real hard, they fell right down, fast, without ceremony, like dropping--no, throwing--a rock. And the teachers were physical creatures as well, tossing us around pretty easily, casual and businesslike as they threw us against our lockers or rapped us on the heads with ballpoint pens or yanked us from our seats by the hair on our temples to kneel at the blackboard in front of the classroom--where the crucifix was--to pray for forgiveness for talking during study hall. I was relieved when these things happened to me; such treatment raised one, no matter how temporarily, from the substratum where victims languished. I was not smart enough to be among the ultra-honor students, who were generally ignored, so being manhandled by teachers mimimized peer-handling. Watching Goodfellas the first time was a bit unsettling. Sixteen years after high school, and I still cringed as Henry Hill reminded me, "If we wanted something we just took it. If anyone complained twice they got hit so bad, believe me, they never complained again." Funny guys.

But this is not what I wanted to write about. I started with Fr. Jack--his last name escapes me--and I can say unselfconsciously he was a cool teacher, a laid-back post-Vatican II type who looked like Dean Martin--and acted like him, with his casual, head-tilting grin, his pompadour'd hair glistening, his eyes serene. I remember him proctoring an exam and letting kids go to the bathroom whom we all, Fr. Jack included, knew were going to look up answers. He'd just shake his head, half-smiling, and wave his hand after them. Their loss, I think he figured. He once held up his priestly keychain--not like Peter's, but crammed with the way in to every place on campus--and talked about how he wouldn't need them if we really were good Christians. And I'm happy to report he didn't say "man" at the end of such proclamations; he didn't need to, he was so cool.

Actually, the coolest: In religion class he showed us Pier Paolo Pasolini's The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964). This was, if I may use such language, a transfiguring experience. Remember, the original recording of Jesus Christ Superstar was released in 1970, so the "rocks and stones themselves" were singing all over the place--in fact, I can remember my class going to a weekend Retreat where at one point we simply sat around and listened to that boss album. But Fr. Jack de-commodified the Jesus Happening with Pasolini's docu-drama of a straight-faced Jesus Who was as much man as God--a true theologic achievement, the mathematically impossible doubling--100% one, 100% the Other--that the nuns told the truth about when they said it was a Mystery of the Church. And Pasolini seemed to accept this Mystery, whether it be Joyful or Sorrowful, so that he could forge ahead.

What I remembered for decades later--having only seen it that one time until just now--was the matter-of-fact way Pasolini's Jesus* expressed Matthew's words, even the hard ones--but I was especially struck by his scorn for the rich, his insistence on keeping children at his feet while he held up the eye of the needle, a taunting dismissal. In 1971 or so, when Fr. Jack screened the movie, this is exactly the Jesus I needed. At the time, I was ready to accept a secular, self-invented savior--you know, the great philosopher, the wise man, on whom I could depend for recognizable advice--because there I was, also reading Siddhartha, already yearning for any kind of righteous, selfless life. And I hoped I could manage it without the burden of Mystery.

Pasolini's film nudges along that hope--except he leaves in the miracles. And seeing the film again I saw how realistic they were as physical actions, as real as any of the words of Matthew's/Pasolini's poet-reformer. Roger Ebert points out that the "miracles are treated in a low key." For instance, when Jesus walks on the water, there is "[n]o triumphant music, no waving of hands and shouts of incredulity, no sensational camera angles -- just a long shot of a solitary figure walking on the water." Watching the film in high school, I was able to take advantage of this approach and focus on the social message, and in doing so hold on to some version of my faith for just enough years to keep it, wrestling partner and friend, always right there before me, as much lit by Fr. Jack's bright eyes as scolded by his rueful grin at my own trips to the liar's lavatory, where all employees must wash hands before leaving.

And watching it now, one more thing is added, something that took me completely by surprise, and froze me in my tracks once again: In high school I had not noticed that Pasolini used all kinds of music in his movie, including Bach, Mozart and Prokofiev, and also a recording of "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child"; but in addition--and here it is--Blind Willie Johnson's "Dark Was the Night--Cold Was the Ground" (and I should mention in the hymn the line ends, "on which the Lord was laid"). I'm sorry Willie Johnson's version seems to be passing into cliche, but as one of my college professors was fond of pointing out, cliches become so because they are so true we can't stop using them. And so it is with Blind Willie's song; Wikipedia reminds us, "Johnson's recording ... was included on the Voyager Golden Record, sent into space with the spacecraft in 1977, and ... [also] was used in [Carl Sagan's show] Cosmos." The site goes on to mention the song's appearance on The West Wing, Walk the Line, and The Devil's Rejects, and to point out that Ry Cooder, who "based his desolate soundtrack to Paris, Texas" on the song, "described it as 'the most soulful, transcendent piece in all American music.'"

Geez; that is a lot of weight to put on a three-minute, wordless "moaning song." But "Dark Was the Night--Cold Was the Ground" can take it--even if I almost can't. Pasolini uses it when the leper approaches Jesus to be cured. I found myself suddenly tearful. How did Pasolini know that, even as a doubting teenager, I was--and still am, despite my vacillations and fear of "God's Silence"--moved more than I can say by the curing miracles, especially those involving lepers, who always scared me when I was a little kid. They were always depicted like Karloff's Mummy--and worse, their disease was all about decay, which made them the original Living Dead, shambling horrors that could enlist you in their hopeless number with a mere touch, like Judas' kiss. And speaking of which: To hear about saints not only caring for but embracing, even kissing lepers, was terrible, because I knew it was expected of me, like being ready to endure Chinese Communist torture, just like those martyred nuns and priests who were getting it plenty while I was safe at home, with clean clothes and hot meals and parents who loved me. Oh, boy. These were heavy loads--and let me say I do not entirely regret them, as dank as they seem. The "problem of pain"--I will be getting to Shadowlands in another post--of course never goes away; it is as central as the problem of love--and so close they end up, at their human best, leading one to the other, completing each other.

And so hearing Johnson's song about Jesus' burial as He cured the leper was particularly moving. I suddenly imagined that Jesus' cures--all the way to poor Lazarus--were moments of poignant indulgence, opportunities to provide for others what He could not for Himself: rescue from the dark night and the cold ground. And more: Signifiers of the Promise. I will not handle this too much; it is fragile, and I need it. But I do love that song, and will not apologize for my tears. And I thank Fr. Jack for showing me Pasolini's movie, and giving me one more light. The last line of the hymn Willie simply moans--because his audience knew the words--enjoins us to "Awake to watch and pray." It is the least we can do; after all, the night is dark, the ground is cold, and we should not leave each other alone.

*He was played by a grad student named Enrique Irazoqui, who showed up one day to talk with Pasolini about his work--and thank goodness, because that mad Marxist was all set to cast Jack Kerouac or Allen Ginsberg as Jesus. (Annals 'o Civilization Narrow Escape No. 1,345,926!)

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

115. Slouching Toward Pittsburgh

Back in August of last year, before I started this maybe-ill-fated Year in Movies, I posted the following, on George Romero, dread, and the dubious pleasures of moviegoing without the movie. And it went something like this (and I do mean "something"; I've made a few editorial changes):

I know someone, a young man in his early twenties, who thinks about George Romero's zombies all the time. Whenever he enters a room, a little careful part of his brain has him scope out all entrances and exits. He doesn't like to be alone, and facing a door or ground-level window only makes it marginally better. Outdoors isn't so bad, but there needs to be a lot of open space; even then, he keeps in mind that Romero's first victims were in a big cemetery, and could see Doom coming a long way off. When he confessed this fear to me, no doubt during one of my ecstatic outpourings on movies, I probably wasn't even talking about Romero; but something in my wide-eyed rush of words provided him an opening to tell me of his fear. One madman to another.

At first, I almost congratulated him. After all, here we are in a time when we've slopped around in every evil, twice, and come up grinning, like those pretty young people I saw triumphantly clenching dead rats in their teeth on TV's Fear Factor; a time too Gonzo for Dr. Thompson--who stared down the slavering jaws of the Were-Nixon--too twisted for Bruno Bettelheim --who survived Buchenwald and Dachau and knew what the wolf dreamed of while waiting for Little Red Riding Hood to show up--and definitely too much for Karel Capek, the Czechoslovakian writer who gave us the word "robot," and who was perhaps the first casualty of the modern age, wasting away, his heart broken, when it was clear no one was going to stop Hitler in time. You'd assume that after all those affronts, nothing could faze anybody under thirty anymore. I thought it was good to see a little atavistic fear still tinkling the ivories of the spine. Of course, though, the more that young zombie-phobe talked, the worse I felt for him. This fear dogged him, silent in the underbrush of his life, always out of sight but never out of mind.

I have nothing new to say here, except to acknowledge how thoroughly George Romero understands the nature of the terror of evil, at least when he's making zombie movies. Some day I will write about something a friend once said off the cuff and long ago and far away in 1980, that The Shining was about the banality of evil. Note to self: I owe Hannah Arendt a posting.* For now, though, Romero: He knows dread, and how it is linked to the rooms we sit in and the scenery we move through, and how dread comes at us, its shambling, E.C. horror comics/Karloff as The Mummy gait laughably slow--but so darn inexorable, like plate tectonics, so that you cannot escape the object of dread: consumption. In Romero's Dead movies, evil may be silly or slimy, but it is always as close as the dinner table or the shopping center, the personal and social feeding grounds. So when that young man admitted he was always thinking of zombies, he was just seeing Romero's version of the Post-Everything Age. In Flannery O'Connor's Wise Blood--by the way, made into a 1979 movie that needs to be on DVD--Hazel Motes founds the "Church of Christ Without Christ," where "the blind don't see, the lame can't walk, and the dead stay that way." I wish someone would tell that to Romero; in the meantime, we'll keep our eye on the door.

*Still do.

The illustration is by Ralph Steadman; it's called "America," and makes me realize that if anyone at this late date wants to produce a Romero Dead graphic novel, he's the one. And re-reading--and fussing with--the post helps me sort out my latest viewing of Night of the Living Dead (1968), an event instigated by my son, who wants to see them in order. He may be a bit young--thirteen in a few weeks--but he saw a profile of Romero on G4, the video game network, so it's all right. (All together now, quoting Jack Torrance in The Shining responding to Danny's casual attitude to the story of the Donner Party: "He saw it on the television." Hoo-boy; once again, life imitates.) G4, eh? And here I thought it was my constant tutelage that had him interested in the ooky Romero oeuvre, my studied fascination with the history and theory of horror, augmented by an encyclopedic knowledge of the genre which--oh, right: G4 it is.

And what did I see? something new? Not really, but the more I think about it, the more I realize I saw something worse: the film's absolute refusal to play by the rules, let alone offer any hope of a way out. I remember reading somewhere a critic who observed how the movie upends our expectations, giving us a Black hero, forcing the hysterical female to remain in shock far longer than she would in a conventional horror film--but this goes on and on, deeper and deeper, because the hero is wrong about everything: The weasely guy who wanted to stay in the cellar was right. He knew that every effort to escape was doomed, that staying in the house was a death sentence, that the cellar would withstand an attack by the massed zombies--no, "ghouls," as the pitch-perfect reporters refer to them in what may the film's greatest effect: on-air verisimilitude, with local anchors sounding like, well, local anchors, and hurried street-side press conferences loaded with stammering near-contradictions. Those radio and TV broadcasts make the holocaust ring truer than all the pig intestines tossed and torn. Again, though, it is all thwarted: every hope of heroic strength and savvy, every decision to survive. Poor Barbara: When she finally breaks free of her shock-stupor, it is only to fling herself into the grasping hands of the ghouls, with her brother, naturally, at the fore, his "They're coming to get you" joke altered in its pronoun to "I." Romero, I had written, knows dread. But of what? Of best-laid plans, good intentions--and good deeds, which become the central bitter old joke of the movie: None of them go unpunished.

I thought it would be fun to watch Romero's Dead movies in a row. But I've had a bad beginning. I'm afraid the satire of Dawn and the indictments of Day will be dimmed by blood--and not Tom Savini's Niagara of red red krovvy, but the tide that is loosed by the first film, drowning the ceremony of innocence, and leaving us on the wasted road to perdition. Well, that's that. All I'm left with right now in my head is Homer Simpson gravely advising, "If at first you don't succeed, give up." Thanks, George. I'll keep watching, but I know I shall hateth myself cometh the Dawn.

114. The Talented M. Clement

I think Patricia Highsmith's Hitchcockian villain, Tom Ripley, may have been circulating in the back of my head for a while--but that may have more to do with Ripley's slick/nervous pathology, sometimes hepped up and obvious, sometimes boyish and unassuming, as he wended his charming/nasty way. That covers a lot of ground, from Arch Hall Jr.'s Charlie Tibbs in The Sadist (1963) to Robert Walker's Bruno Anthony in Strangers on a Train (1951) (which makes sense, since it too is based on a Highsmith book)--not to mention every smooth operator to have bamboozled, grifted, and fleeced (then sometimes murdered) a variety of little old ladies, sweet young things, and assorted would-be partners and pals, on TV and at the movies, from Perry Mason to Law and Order. I do know I didn't read her books until seeing Matt Damon take a crack at the boy in 1999's The Talented Mr. Ripley. I think I remember some reviewers/fans of the books not entirely happy with Damon, but he was a good choice, a hybrid of the aforementioned Bruno Anthony and Farley Granger's sap in Hitchcock's movie, a halting fellow who manages decisive action when he really wants to--and out go the lights.

But Tom Ripley is such a cipher, an empty vessel always needing to fill itself, that you can build him with many mansions--or haunted houses. So I was looking forward to Rene Clement's take in 1960's Plein soleil. The English title is Purple Noon, but "high noon" is the closer translation, which conjures up an association with the Western's satisfying resolution of the conflict between Good and Evil--and even though Gary Cooper's Will Kane is a reluctant keeper of the peace, pushed by pride, 1952's High Noon asserts the possibility of and need for such gestures, if only for a split-second--the time it takes to draw and fire; but of course that gesture is thwarted by Tom Ripley, who is pleasant and ruthless, a charming Creature whose smile is as soft as its claws are ragged, and whose own "high noon" is as much a matter of circumstance as intention. So a fair fight on Main Street is out of the question. While Clement does not remain entirely true to the novel--as Roger Ebert not-so-subtly puts it, "Purple Noon ends as it does only because Clement doesn't have Highsmith's iron nerve"--he recognizes that this is Tom's entree to opportunistic murder, and is bound to make mistakes, but is so consumed with himself that he never sees the noon hour approach.

In the film, Ripley's error is not one in judgment, but a mere accident, literally as slim as a length of rope--shades of Hitchcock once again--and this makes its own kind of sense, especially given the film's mise-en-scene, a sun-washed, sparkly Mediterranean tour, leisurely, picturesque, baked by an inviting sun and buoyed by a disturbingly serene and cheerful Nino Rota score, as tall and cool as a poolside drink. It would seem in such surroundings that nothing but thoughtless chance could ruin things. In her novels, Highsmith enlists us into Ripley's endeavors; we are alarmed to find ourselves rooting for him. Alain Delon, though, invites scant allegiance--but not because he is overtly villainous; on the contrary, it is his flat good looks that warn us, his beautiful, unreadable eyes, never menacing, but never sympathetic. Ripley does not plan ahead, but calculates quickly as the need arises--well, as his needs arise. In Clement's film, it seems he does need blind accident to undo Delon's Ripley. And while I'd like to see Matt Damon play Tom again, I want him to try it in Clement's sunny climes, where sailboats and Vespas, sidewalk cafes and charming feste play the chorus to the dull thuds and final groans that mark Ripley's progress.

NOTE: Im leaving John Malkovich's Ripley out of the discussion for now. This is Ripley all grown up, and Malkovich addresses that possibility with appalling perfection. The relentless Ripley's Game (2002) deserves its own post. And I'm simply too tired right now even to consider Wim Wenders' The American Friend (1977). Basta!

BELOW: Robert Walker and Arch Hall, Jr. show how it's done.

Monday, July 24, 2006

113. A Humbling Viewing

Despite my Free Lifetime (of my daughter's job as an usher) Movie Pass, I still watch most of my movies at home. And even with the modest glories of my 36" TV and sound-system-in-a-box, I am always aware that viewing at home is the original humbling experience--particularly for the movie. I'm not saying anything new here about the losses incurred when one watches a movie on TV; it's just that yesterday I caught The Maltese Falcon on Turner Classic Movies: It was the first movie I grew up watching on TV that I saw in a real movie theater--in Philadelphia, I think. I'm not sure when; probably in the wake of the '40s nostalgia boomlet encouraged by Play It Again, Sam (1972), in which Woody Allen gets dating tips from Bogart. That seems right: somewhere in the middle of that decade, just when I was finishing high school and finding no other place to lose it than at the movies. (Apologies to Pauline Kael.)

I can still distinctly remember the lather I'd worked myself into, floored by the booming Warner Bros. intro., the sheer size of the faces--having always been so small and manageable on TV--and the sudden unfolding of the movie, so that I began to realize what really happens when you can see the ceilings of a room, and why a low-angle shot makes the viewer uneasy and the screen figures foolish in their grotesque assertions of self. And more than that: I realized there are no "oldies but goodies." John Huston's directorial debut seemed almost as fresh and compelling as anything I could see down there in the dark of the mid-'70s. I clutched at the movie like a greedy--no, a starving man--or one who until that moment had thought he had eaten, and slowly realized that all along he had only been dreaming of a feast. And every course, every morsel, was exactly what I craved--but was also a surprise. I noticed Huston's use of mirrors and shadows, and the arrangement of the characters in the frame. I puzzled over the small details of match-stands, the contents of Joel Cairo's pockets, the look of the glassware and guns. I was no longer primarily hearing the movie, but seeing it.

This was important to me because, as it is for everyone who loves it, The Maltese Falcon can primarily be a verbal experience. The script and performances are irresistible. It is eminently quotable, from Spade's toast--"Success to crime"--to his dismissal of Wilmer's "Keep on riding me and they're gonna be picking iron out of your liver": "The cheaper the crook, the gaudier the patter"; and the speeches, from Joel's reasonable explanations to Brigid's lies, and on to Spade's famous explanation of why he's going to send her over--and at the center of all this talk, of course, is Gutman's meta-speech about talking:

"I distrust a close-mouthed man. He generally picks the wrong time to talk and says the wrong things. Talking's something you can't do judiciously, unless you keep in practice. Now, sir, we'll talk if you like. I'll tell you right out, I'm a man who likes talking to a man who likes to talk."

I cannot underestimate the power of this revelation, that The Maltese Falcon was as much a visual as a "dramatic" experience. There it was, this riveting, talking picture, suddenly a picture before it could talk, a squared-off-yet-tilting space, growing smaller and smaller, until the bar-shadowed elevator takes Brigid down down down. The stuff that dreams are made of, and how: After The Maltese Falcon on the big screen, looming up there, wide open and heavy with its own gravity, I could never fully separate a movie's story from its images, its manipulation of space and sequence. For better or worse, for me every good movie--and some of the almost-indifferent ones--shares in the solidity of 2001's monolith, a flat surface that you gaze at, and that gazes back at you. And this time no apologies, least of all to Nietzsche.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

112. Pre-Empted Strike

Even in 1976, I watched Network with a slightly jaundiced eye: It seemed a bit too pleased with itself--but let me interject: I did enjoy its attack on TV, being just enough of a gadfly myself to admire its impertinence. On the other hand, satirizing TV isn't that hard to do--indeed, by 1976 TV itself had done so itself any number of times--Sid Caesar and Steve Allen, Get Smart and The Addams Family, not to mention Rocky and Bullwinkle and the hijinks of Soupy Sales and Batman--and was on the verge of self-vivisection almost all the way down to the bone with Saturday Night Live. Still, at the time I was usually mad as hell all on my own; and, for about fifteen minutes in its second act, Network allowed me to imagine I wasn't going to take it anymore.

But there was another movie in Network, one that I was too young to get into: The creepy bond between Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway, a real live wire once more, neurotic and angular, a woman you could cut yourself on if you weren't careful) and Max Schumacher (William Holden, whom at the time I was only dimly aware of as an old-time actor; I probably would have remembered him from Stalag 17, but way up here in the present I can't say for certain whether I'd have made the connection to Born Yesterday, Bridge on the River Kwai, or even The Wild Bunch, let alone the role that most resembled Max, Joe Gillis in Sunset Blvd. If I had to make a guess, though, I'll bet I had a clear image of him on I Love Lucy, stunned by Lucy's fake nose catching on fire.) At twenty, I had no idea why their relationship made sense.

And even now at forty-nine, I'm still at a bit of a loss. Of course, these two could easily get together because, as a friend of mine blandly observes whenever something implausible happens in a movie, they're fictional. And more than that, I completely understand the urge toward the stuntwork required to tackle Faye Dunaway; but watching Network for the first time in many years, I heard both movies--the TV savage satire and the desperate-hours love affair--creak more than a little. The past thirty years have not been kind to pop culture. Network does get right the movement toward "reality" TV and the use of unstable personalities to anchor programs; but from our vantage point it is too meek in its assault on TV and the personalities who sledgehammer it together. I suppose that is a compliment to the film: It gets it right, while imagining that some consciences remain on both sides of the screen--but its that second assumption, the one about consciences, that doesn't ring true. OK, Max walks away--but not before a long drink at the sludgy TV well.

On actual TV, no one really leaves, not even Geraldo. They just grow back their singed mustaches and jump back into the fire. And Spike Lee's Bamboozled (2000) merely repeats Network by way of The Producers (1968). Not to be overly cynical, but as I watch My Super Sweet 16 or The Joe Schmo Show or The Simple Life--or on and on--I see the new demographic emerging, one that is not simply post-moral but hungry--and not for mere consumerism or escapism but with a kind of Romero-esque voracity, in which the old earth is eaten up and the new one disgorged in a pimped ride with a "mission accomplished" banner--

I'll calm down. I suppose, given my tirade, I'll have to admit that Network, watched from the post-millenial perch, is almost quaint in its reassurance that one can walk away, as Max does. The problem, though, is where? I mean, it's not as if the West--let alone the present--has a particular monopoly on venal behavior. There are, of course, no safe havens or good old days. And if I had to be honest, I do think it's simple crass materialism I'm most worried about--as our old friend Karl M. tells us, all freedoms are sacrificed for one: Free Trade. Naturally, everyone likes an all-you-can-eat buffet; but again, conspicuous consumerism without limits leads ultimately to cannibalism. I'll stop now, having realized that, whenever one follows this line long enough, it leads to Soylent Green. Take what you like, but eat what you take.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

111. "He's a baby man." -- Helen Webber

Blast from the Past (1999) is one of those movies that permeates basic cable--and that I have yet to tire of. It's instructive of the importance of fundamentals: good cast, good production design and set decoration, good costumes--and a script that manages to be both sentimental and satirical, just off-balance enough to teeter toward its own center of gravity, not firm but still standing. We end up with the movie equivalent of one of Helen Webber's (Sissy Spacek) home-cooked meals: It may not be good for you, but who doesn't like gravy?

At the center of the movie, though, is Brendan Fraser--and was it David Thompson who called him "Cary Grant’s goofy nephew"? This pretty much captures his charm. And it's not in the movie's later scenes, when he becomes a "good man" as Troy (Dave Foley) advises, and is able to look Eve (Alicia Silverstone) in the eye and compel her to admit she loves him. No, what we remember is the fallout shelter scenes, and the babe-in-the-L.A.-woods moments as he delights in children and the sky and "Oh my lucky stars! A Negro!" and thanks people for calling him on the telephone. That is, the closer Adam is to his parents (Spacek and Christopher Walken--and I need to jump up and down about both of them some day) and the closer the script pays attention to his smooth-skinned innocence--this thirty-five-year-old man who looks twenty-five, God bless filtered air and pot roast--the funnier and sweeter--and, in its way, more complex--the film becomes.

Again, the script asks us to laugh at the hermetically sealed and preserved values Adam holds out to the world--then, little by little, to become attracted to them, and not in any overtly sentimental way. There's a scene in which Troy and Eve discuss Adam. Troy recounts Adam's definition of good manners: "a way of showing other people we have respect for them." And he muses, "See, I didn't know that, I thought it was just a way of acting all superior." It is a small moment, as when Eve gives in to Adam's need to pray over their diner lunch, or when Adam punches Eve's best boyfriend with a series of apologetic but expertly timed jabs whose only function is to keep the other man at bay. We do not even need to indulge in the broader strokes, the sudden encounters with contemporary sexuality and misguided religious ecstasy in the presence of the last nuclear (ha ha) family. It's enough to note that Blast from the Past works as a script--but is completed by its performances. Fraser can tilt his head exactly like a puppy, and is not averse to splay-footed Jerry Lewis shtick if need be. Again, like Cary Grant, he is willing to look silly for the sake of his character, filling in the blanks left by hunk-dom and giving us enough character-layers to keep us guessing.

In Blast from the Past, Fraser re-establishes the ability of wide eyes and an honest smile to enlist the audience to his cause; I would suggest this is also the mark of great silent actors, like Chaplin, but Fraser has yet to take control of his career enough to decide what variety of Little Tramp he's meant to be. He has offered hints, in Gods and Monsters (1998) and Crash (2004), and we might see him more clearly opposite another actor of left-field charm, Michael Keaton, in the upcoming The Last Time, but in the meantime I will depend on Blast from the Past to convey to me Fraser's honest intentions.

110. Fallen

I decided to watch Fallen Angel (1945) because I wanted to see Otto Preminger's follow-up to Laura (1944). I had no idea Linda Darnell was in it. I think I've seen her in other pictures--wait; I know I have: Victor Mature's love in My Darling Clementine. But I had to check the IMDb to be sure, so I will treat Fallen Angel as my first encounter with her.

I'll admit it is a meeting I have kind of put off. My father used to say my mother reminded him of Darnell. When I was a kid, I had no idea who she was; but I had seen pictures of my mother in her late teens, photos she said were taken by an admirer when she was in Cuba. They were glamour shots, all right, with her face implacable, almost in profile, chin tilted up, black hair flowing. These are images whose effect on me changed over the years. When I was a little kid, I liked how pretty she looked. As I grew up, I was eager to imagine my parents as real people--especially ones for whom everything for a space had turned out fine--and so in my adolescence I enjoyed such images as signs that they enjoyed their early adulthood--these were highly posed photos, accentuating the positive, so to speak; the effect was of a serene, full adulthood. It made me hopeful. Eventually, though, these images darkened, as her health disappeared and the past seemed a lost thing, and those were perhaps photos of someone else--or, if of her, there was almost a reproach in the image, a feeling that something wasn't so much lost as taken away. I didn't much care to look at them.

And so it was with Linda Darnell. The associations were sad, all but bitter. I loved and pitied my mother, but I think I also pitied myself, the one who had to help her haul around the past while obliterating it. I have been reconciled to this--a simple thing we all do, yes? A necessary shift to sustain one's worth and one's portion of happiness. So when I saw the opening credits of Fallen Angel I hit the Pause button, thought for a moment, and decided it was time to see Linda Darnell.

I do not have much to say here. She did look a lot like my mother in her youth. Both were womanly at an early age, both were dark and full. Standing at this far remove, all but only residual Freudian anxiety gone, I can understand why the moment he saw her my father told a buddy that this was the woman he was going to marry. And in the film, I could understand why Dana Andrews and every other male in the movie fell--not for her so much as after or toward her. Jeez-o-Pete, she stood there in the movie like the last male reality.

I'll stop there; one can tread these waters only so long without sounding maudlin or weird--then again, I'm not sure I haven't sounded so all along. But that's OK: I'm glad to have seen Linda Darnell--and am intrigued by the venue, a movie in which she attracts men so much she's killed for it--and by Darnell herself, a life cut short--at 41 in a house fire, according to the IMDb. And I'm also glad I think I've reached a point in my life where I can gaze without too much flinching at the intersection of my life and all these movies, with familiar faces making up stories, some of them true, sad or otherwise.

109. Travels with Bruce

As long as I'm confessing ironclad attractions to certain actors, let's get Bruce Willis out of the way--and I want that to be taken in the best possible light. I didn't like him in Moonlighting--his performance struck me as too close to Bill Murray's working-class cool-jerk--but I was suckered in with Die Hard in 1988--and how odd that in the same year he was in Sunset, playing Tom Mix; I only mention it in comparison to John McClane's identification with Roy Rogers. Since then, I've enjoyed about every third Willis performance; in the cleansing spirit of confession, I will indulge in a list:

Mortal Thoughts (1991)
The Last Boy Scout (1991)
Billy Bathgate (1991)
Death Becomes Her (1992)
Pulp Fiction (1994)
Twelve Monkeys (1995)
Last Man Standing (1996)
The Fifth Element (1998)
The Sixth Sense (1999)
Unbreakable (2000)
The Whole Nine Yards (2000)
Sin City (2005)
Hostage (2005)

I'll admit some of these pleasures are guiltier than others, but even in the misfires--The Last Boy Scout, Unbreakable, and Hostage come to mind--Willis allows his other performances to lap onto these rockier shores, reminding us of the power of those weary eyes and mocking smile. And even the conspicuous absence of Armageddon is simply the result of its overbearing cynicism as it measures audience response in cold teaspoons--but I would argue that even its calculation to kill Willis' character is overriden by how well he dies.

Well, now you've been duly warned: My Bruce Willis appreciation is an awkwardly assembled thing, held together more by hope than structural integrity. But I just saw 16 Blocks (2006), and Jack Mosley's character is to Willis' career what The Straight Story for me is to David Lynch's. I think Lynch was always making that movie--or that his other movies were in The Straight Story's cosmos. It's just that the others were depictions of the loss of The Straight Story's heaven amid the pains of Eraserhead's hell. Conversely, Mosely is the damned soul lurking beneath the swagger and bounce of so many Willis characters. He's shown pieces of himself here and there, often in the movies I've noted above. It's just that Jack Mosely has to be in an action picture against his will, a final tilt and shove that lays Die Hard's vertical chase on its side and spills it across those 16 blocks like black oil.

I knew I was in for The Last Bruce Willis Movie when I saw Mosely: paunchy, wrinkled, with a mustache that I think has not made an appearance since Dr. Ernest Menville, the sap from Death Becomes Her. Now, Willis can play the fall guy, but we usually like him for it. After all, how bad off can one be if one is being suckered by Milla Jovovich? In 16 Blocks, he is so reluctant, so hard to read, that at last we are allowed to wonder how much we can trust a Bruce Willis hero. Add to that Mos Def's completely surprising--and also difficult to get a handle on--Eddie Bunker as the prisoner who needs transporting across the all-too-soon-bullet-ridden blocks, and Willis gets to simultaneously surprise us as well as show us what he's been up to all along. Allow me to quote the final paragraph of Roger Ebert's review:

"The bedrock of the plot is the dogged determination of the Bruce Willis character. Jack may be middle-aged, he may be tired, he may be balding, he may be a drunk, but if he's played by Bruce Willis you don't want to bet against him. He gets that look in his eye that says: It's going to be a pain in the ass for me to do this, but I couldn't live with myself if I didn't. I always I believe that more easily than the look that merely says: I will prevail because this is an action picture and I play the hero."

Because in the end, of course we can trust Bruce Willis. This is why I put the godawful Last Boy Scout on my list: for that Philip Marlowe wearniess that drags him to his feet once more. (On a related note, watch the famous scene in which Nicholson's Jake Gittes finally gets to put on his pajamas and crawl into bed--only to have the insistent telephone draw him back to Chinatown: the hero as insomniac.) Again, I will admit the reluctant hero is my favorite kind, one whose code makes him put one foot in front of the other. OK, so it is a simple morality: not what I want, but what I should, not my will, but etc. Still, what good is an action picture without a moral center (again, I direct your attention to Armageddon)? And what good is an action hero unless the hero earns heroism? Watching 16 Blocks, I was as (self-)satisfied as could be; here at last is the shuffling, dogged heart of goodness, willing to accept authority--both in and outside of the self--just to be able to say it is accomplished. I will not go too far here; let me simply say I'm happy that Bruce "gets that look," and gives me the vicarious pleasure that comes with doing something about it.

Monday, July 17, 2006

108. Travels with Anthony

When I was a senior in college, I was certain American film culture was going to be destroyed by dilettantes who didn't really love cinema, just the sound of their ringing disapproval of "movies." I knew nothing of Cahiers du Cinema and the French effort to uplift American movies of the 1940s and '50s, from John Ford to John Garfield. All I saw--or felt, or something--was a cartoonish uplifted snoot, an overly theorized, agenda-ridden disregard for good movies. And they turned even the living body of "art," that is, foreign, films, into an embalmed corpse, coldly worshipped under glass, like Snow White or Lenin. And while all I knew of international cinema was two or three each of Felinni, Truffaut, and Kurosawa--with Grand Illusion, Beauty and the Beast, and King of Hearts off in the distance--I believed they were in danger of deadening enshrinement.

Looking back, I simply cannot pinpoint why I felt this way. I must've read something, maybe in Esquire, which could be pretty smarmy--I still rankle at the "overrated literary works" list I came across at that time: A Clockwork Orange and Slaughterhouse-Five were on it. Or someone might have said something--I had some friends who seemed to me a bit snobbish in their tastes--about Star Wars or Jaws. I honestly can't say. But in the late '70s I developed a kind of defensiveness, one for which I compensated by upholding certain movies, genres, and actors as the Truth and the Light. I can distinctly remember talking about The Fury (1978) as one should about Citizen Kane, and anyone polite enough to listen was subjected to my description of the death of some bad guys in a Tilt-a-Whirl as though it were Welles' breakfast montage. Horror films in general were my mainstay--and, given my lifelong tastes, this makes awful sense--but I also could work up a lather over actors. I remember seeing Brad Davis* in a Baretta episode (and you do not want to hear me wax rhapsodic about Robert Blake; it gives even me the creeps), and announcing he was as good as De Niro-- and then comes Midnight Express--and isn't this weird: I've just realized that both examples of American movies I've come up with in this post--and each off the top of my head--were released the year I graduated from college, 1978. It's particularly odd because of the destination for all of this:

Anthony Hopkins, whom I first noticed in the third 1978 film of the day: Magic, another genre picture I couldn't stop talking about. And it is a pretty good movie, featuring one of those post-kitten Ann-Margret performances that make my head swim--even as I write, and think of her in those baked beans in Tommy (1975), I must take the Pause That (Sort of) Refreshes. Maybe I defended a movie like Magic because it was a latter version of two animate-doll pictures of fairytale-changeling grotesquerie and shrunken-self dread I had seen in childhood: Devil Doll (1964) and Dead of Night (1945), both of which contained evil ventriloquist dummies (and both named Hugo). And I was still reeling from Karen Black's 1975 encounters with not only a Zuni fetish doll (Trilogy of Terror) but also Donald Sutherland--another actor I couldn't stop praising--as the child-stomping Homer Simpson (yikes) in The Day of the Locust. (I must watch that one again, just to resurrect those morally conflicted feelings from my first encounter with it.) So by the time I got to Magic I have both Ann-Margret and Karen Black to wrestle with--so to speak--as well as a long, dark history with the little people--perhaps, at least in movies, starting long ago and far away with Dr. Pretorius' homunculi in Bride of Frankenstein (1935). A guy I knew when I was little still remembers that I cried when Boris Karloff died; I didn't think he would ever take himself seriously when at the end of Bride he announced, "We belong dead," before pulling the switch. I can still recall the drawing I rendered of that moment, with the Monster's send-off line as voice-balloon.

And Hopkins brought a sense of Karloffian pathos to Magic--but added a manic pressure-cooker whistle and whine to his sad monster. I was riveted, because both Corky and Fats, ventriloquist and dummy, seemed not only disturbing and frightening, but plausible, in a coked-up-for-doom kind of way. And after that like many of us I could not stop watching Hopkins, whether as Bligh or Hannibal--or, most recently for me, as Burt Munro in The World's Fastest Indian (2005); not a great picture, but I noticed how deeply committed Hopkins made me feel toward Munro. He was a man I would have liked to have grown up next door to--or to have helped out along the long way from New Zealand to Bonneville. And Burt does need help, despite his raucous individualism--Hopkins beautifully exploits those times when Burt is high and dry, allowing us to see our lesser selves in him, despite the heights of his right-stuff cool. The result is one of those characters in movies that transcends the Hollywood urge toward demographic placation, cross-indexing until there's no one left for the audience to recognize, except some well-worn tics and the trace of a smile. Burt Munro could easily fall into this trap; he seems self-consciously eager to be the carefree Casanova with an Indian-dream. Hopkins, though, won't let that happen; not only does the script give us endearingly comic moments that keep Burt human (watch the matter-of-fact way Hopkins has Burt trim his "oyster-shell" toenails with a grinding wheel, or Burt's varied reactions--from panic to bemusement--to his many confrontations with his cardio-urinary weaknesses); in a more subtle light, Hopkins' shimmering eyes keep us wondering whether Burt in the end really cares about anything except those land speed records. And even if in the end he doesn't, Hopkins never makes Burt cold or distant, but instead uses his ambition as an opportunity to see something else than glory in Burt's eyes, but a window into a slightly lost, somewhat clueless codger who still can clamp down on an idea better than most of us--and without making us feel we need to eat his dust. Hopkins takes us right with him, sharing the mad zeal--this time for speed, but ever since I can remember for whatever his best characters desire, from Ann-Margret to Dracula-on-a-stick, from 200+ MPH to a good Kee-AUNT-ee. And since 1978 or thereabouts I've been happy to let him make his run.

*Rest him. He died of AIDS fifteen years ago (according to the IMDb, as a result of a one-time cocaine addiction), and never had the career he deserved. But all of us who loved him in Midnight Express knew his worth as an actor.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

107. Also, I See It Not Always

I guess I should've known all along, but Film Comment just indirectly informed me--and let me apologize in advance to Vivian Sobchack--that I'm an old lady afraid of having her body violated. Sobchack writes about seeing "contemporary horror films" and states that explicit gore and shock make her turn away from the screen in a "literally biased physical position in relation to cinephilic spectatorship." She arrives at what is for me sickeningly familiar territory: a "fierce love," an "'unpleasure'" that is compelling but "awe-filled (awful?)." Terror, then, can be sublime, Sobchack notes,* and to feel such terror--of death, naturally, but more pervasively of the body's fragility--is a kind of pleasure: that of being "alive," as she italicizes.

But Sobchack also insists that she had a stronger stomach for this kind of thing when she was younger, that her dread has increased as her "body has become increasingly sensitive to visceral images of its imminent potential for violation." So, more precisely, it seems I have been an old lady since I was a child, losing my fear-dotage for a while in my 30s, but regaining it in my late 40s. As I've written elsewhere on this site (back in February), "as a little kid [a horror film] was 'entertainment' only in the Sadean sense, as I rubbed my own nose in my primal fears. I can recall even later, as a high schooler 'watching' The Exorcist, that I focused mostly on the lower-right-hand corner of the screen, the only bit of the frame that was not piled high with a steaming helping of doom. This was 1973; was I really that terrified at sixteen?" Yes, I was; and am growing so again, as I realize "with some sad relief [that] I still know, as our good but scary friend Hannah Arendt tells us, that 'Fear is an emotion indispensable for survival.'"

I'm a bit uneasy that, now 49, I have resumed looking away from the gruesome and the grotesque; it hints that I, too, am feeling the "imminent potential for violation," which I suppose will only increase as I grow older. But I'm more concerned for that little kid I once was, even that halting teenager, both of them as frightened as a senior citizen feeling a sharp pain at 3 A.M., certain that eruptions are inevitable, knowing that the freshly ploughed field and newly dug grave have the same smell--"man's smell," as G. M. Hopkins called it. He should have been stronger, that little kid, that frail teen. He should have waited a while before fearing that smell.

Or not; as I write, I begin to suspect that such aversion is not merely a response to encroaching fragility. Sobchack asserts that she didn't used to be so squeamish (read: aware of the terrible seismic capabilities of the sublime) around horror films, but I doubt her as she writes, "in my youth ... I felt my body and psyche invulnerable and could watch anything (well, almost)"--because there it is: that "well, almost." What couldn't she face, even wearing the armor of youth? In her essay, "The Leech Woman's Revenge" (1994), she writes about watching horror films in the 1950s: "I never found those early horror films all that horrible or really scary, although I did find them incredibly poetic, and I almost always identified with the monsters, whatever their gender (assuming they had one)." In this earlier piece, she focuses on an image that conveys for her a great deal of autobiographical power: "the middle-aged woman who is both scared and scary," the Baby Jane, the Norma Desmond, the parody of youth combined with the agony of aging, an "excess woman" who, like the Wasp Woman, is "prepared to die but not to look lousy for the next forty years." Sobchack tells us, "There was a period in my middle age when I felt dried up and experienced an aridity that had nothing to do with a postmenopausal lack of vaginal lubrication. Rather, the phenomenological truth of this sense of desiccation ... was grounded in what seemed a forced exclusion from the sexual economy, from the sensual, a deprivation of the caresses from another that make one sensitive to one's own skin." Her 1994 essay culminates with the Leech Woman herself: "The story here is about aging, desire and the body, and its moral charge is derived from the double standard ... that elicits a complex of engendered emotions from both the women and the men who bear it: fear, humiliation, abjection, shame, power, rage, and guilt." In passing, she mentions Death Becomes Her as a latter-day sign that such concerns persist; again, though, I'm drawn to the (for me) disturbing confluence of my own childhood responses and her middle-aged ones. She asserts that young people are disgusted by the thought of adults indulging in youthful behavior: Baby Jane's rouged cheeks are simply obscene indicators of sexual desire slouching into decrepitude, raw and jeering. But, although she makes no mention of it--and I assume she would have had no opportunity to have seen it at the time of its release--I (hesitantly) offer as a film that bridges her brave assertions of youthful (near-)invulnerability and my admissions of youthful craven terror: Les yeux sans visage (1959), which I also did not see when I was young, but that may best explain why I turned away from horror films when I was a child and why Sobchack turns away in middle age. It literally superimposes the ideal of beauty--with medically horrific detail--on the grotesque damage done to beauty--and done not by age, but happenstance: the girl is disfigured in an accident caused by her plastic-surgeon father, who peels away the faces of other young women to restore his daughter. It is not simply age or ugliness, but life and beauty, that threaten us in horror films--and worse, the randomness of catastrophe, and the subsequent ironclad logic leading inevitably to The End. And when we watch, we see that threat, and we turn away--again, as Arendt argues, as a survival impulse--despite our intent to gaze.

But can one turn away completely and still "watch a movie"? Sobchack in Film Comment writes about looking at her lap, at other spaces in the theater aside from the screen. But she also mentions the aural cues, the throb of light--and we are back to the problem--OK, my problem--of reconciling her adult-onset aversion with my childhood strain of the affliction. So to "solve" the problem--or maybe just exacerbate it, as horror tends to do--I will move one year after Franju's film, to 1960 and Peeping Tom, its howl of outrage at voyeurism practiced askance worse than Norman Bates' returned gaze in the same year, because Michael Powell refused to exhibit Hitchcock's taste; no, he perched his Raven of a movie somewhere between William Castle and Herschell Gordon Lewis, a seedy little creep as sublime in its terror as a tell-tale heart--and as telling, in its expose of the dread of the direct gaze that Sobchack feels--and I'll wager always has: her current resistance may be merely to the CGI verisimilitude horror films can manage, straight out of the operating room. But this marks the simple drawing away from the visceral--which splatter-fans do not experience, I think because either they do not work hard enough to suspend disbelief (that is, they lack actual imaginations) or--closer yet to the faulty heart of sublime terror--they cave in and revel in the masochism of watching and, in a safe remove from direct sadism, enjoy watching others' bodies sacrificed to protect their own.

And so maybe in the end it is not a generational issue, but, as Sobchack has often written, a gender one--Sobchack begins her FC piece by recounting her experience of seeing two "cool" "female" horror films with a fan-boy who assures her she will love them, with their imagery of wombs and "'extreme motherhood.'" (Of course, it sounds like the guy simply was luring her with gender-studies-speak.) Sobchack rejects the female-ness of the movies she obliquely watched--Isolation and Descent--but I think there is still a gender issue going on here, in the distinction between the "male" amour fou of the gore-fest and Sobchack's "female" dread of "body violation."

This, though, leaves me literally odd man out. Whence my own "female dread"? Why do I shrink from the cinema of the grotesque? And again, to misappropriate Wordsworth, let's recall that I have done so as child, and now as a man, and so it shall be when I grow old, or let me die. And that last--my need to "live until I die," despite all terror--may be the clue: While men stereotypically enjoy a good dismemberment--so often themselves pitching rather than catching, so to speak, in the act of rending (pardon the imagery)--women stereotypically choose life, wholeness with possibility. And, as slippery as this slope might be, I can use such stereotypes to define as well as deconstruct the proper response--at least for me--to horror films: "male" attraction combined with "female" repulsion, a kind of indulgence that, as Shun liang-Chow--discussed in the note below--argues, is "playful" but grotesque, and illuminative of our yearnings for generation, for what will be; it is a wish-fulfillment dream of eventual completeness. The central horror film image, then, is not simply one of birth blasphemed, but of growth sustained, as awful/awe-filled as that growth might be. (I leave to another day a discussion of David Cronenberg's The Brood/1979.) Shun deals with grotesques in art, those man-woman-plant-animal hybrids one can see in paintings and engravings, in architectural details and decorations, the epitomes of the "incongruous." And I think horror films share the impulse to make their own hybrids of the mundane and the extreme. So maybe it is not merely a cookie-cutter solution, a young/old, female/male concern, but a bit of both, and woe to the man who cannot turn away from--or the woman who gazes too cooly at--the outer limits of visual grotesquerie. I know it sounds like I'm trying to weasel out of the image of myself as a frightened old woman, but I hope that instead, with the help of writers like Vivian Sobchack and Shun liang-Chow--and with every effort to gaze directly at the grotesque--I'm getting closer to the truth, as multifold as it may be. I'll have to think about this. Preferably at 3:00 AM, but with the light on.

*While Sobchack does not in FC need to cite sources--perhaps if only for the sake of space, for these literary fish swim far and deep--the academic in me is compelled to mention, via a rewarding article by Shun liang-Chow of University College, London, that the linkage of the sublime--a "stunning burst of passion," as Shun puts it, paraphrasing Longinus in the first century C.E.--and the terrible--for Shun, the "grotesque"--was made by the early Romantics. Shun mentions the seventeenth century English poet-critic John Dennis, who asserts, "no Passion is attended with greater Joy than Enthusiastick Terror, which proceeds from our reflecting that we are out of danger at the very time that we see it before us." And Shun's article does not, of course, forget Edmund Burke, who argues that terror "is in all cases, either openly or more latently the ruling principle of the sublime." And Kant as well, who notes that "the sublime moves"--the beautiful, on the other hand, merely "charms." So, if terror rules the sublime, and is more moving than the beautiful, then Poe has been right all along, as he encloses us in that narrowest space, again and again, where terror bears down on us, nose to nose, and we are moved as we both fall into and stand apart from terror in the sublime space of the cinema; except when little old ladies like Sobchack and me look away--as we must, since how much sublimity can one take? It's the "Stendahl Syndrome" as applied to horror films.

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