Sunday, May 06, 2007

187: The Friday Club 7*: Seven Beauties

The size and immediacy of a filmed image create an intimate bond between the image and the viewer's psyche that, given the proper circumstances, is all but involuntary. Without conscious intent--and with only minimal warning--the viewer is permitted--no: encouraged--to open all kinds of doors, and indulge in a helter-skelter of associations, impressions, conclusions, some clear and sharply defined, others shadowy, still others clean and soft or smudged and smeared, snapping like jaws or settling like a soft breath on one's cheek. And the mind unpacks every nasty little prejudice and vice, discovering with dismay--or is it, for some, relief?--that those little monsters have all this time lain alongside the yearning to love and be loved. And the mind, now viewing, holds this up like a light to the moving light of the image, until memory and judgment, anticipation and revulsion, deliberation and impulse evanesce, until there is only the all-but-unmitigated gaze.

I worry sometimes that this experience is too manifold in its passions to allow room for my moral sense to maneuver. The viewing occurs in a rushing freedom, so that I see the feeling form in my head just as the image does. It is an exercise in simultaneity I find irresistible, as often abashing as ennobling. And so I look again--

--this week at movies that play this game of reverse origami with what I will call "images of women." Freud-as-fraud notwithstanding, I have always understood Hitchcock's--I will be calm about it and call it "ambivalence"--toward the images of women as they move around in his films. The act of filming them--and of course then viewing them, especially in the kinds of last-extreme narratives he so often chose, allowed him--and us (OK, me) to commit certain, ah, sins, while still carving odd virtues, like a medieval woodcut whose exact subject is difficult to make out. We'll begin with one of Hitch's efforts--if I may call him that, indulging in the familiarities of the co-conspirator, guilty but bound (oh, the pitfalls of language in such a discussion!) to self-indulgence, returning to the screen my appalled grin. In the end, perhaps the ambivalencies of movie-viewing cancel out each other--if one views long enough, often enough, closely and openly--and, at least in this week's movies, with just enough Freudian tension to keep one alert--until the relationship between the movie and the viewer reconciles itself, and the viewer acquiesces just as the image does, both finally impartial, creatures of the moment, as moral as the instinct to be free.

In short: girls girls girls.

Monday Marnie (1964)
One year after she let him peck at her, little by little, until all that was left was a stare, wide-eyed and stricken, in The Birds, Tippi Hedron climbed once again into Hitchcock's deceptively comfortable butter-leather back seat. And whom did she find there but Sean Connery, no matter how kind, still letting his lip curl and keeping his eyes watchful. And they made her out to be the damaged one.

Tuesday Three Women (1977)
This may be Robert Altman's greatest film; if it is, it's because he seemed to stay out of the way of the women--Shelley Duvall, Sissy Spacek and Janice Rule--who dream this movie--or perhaps, like every other man in this film's world, he is in the way, and the movie is dreamed to dream away him and the rest. And watching it, I feel less than an intruder: I'm incidental, the act of viewing all on me, since the women pay me no mind--good thing: The dream moves better without me--or maybe I am only a part of the dream, the dreamer's incidental object.

Wednesday Nights of Cabiria (1957)
My favorite male dreams about women, though, are dreamed by Federico Fellini. Maybe it's because most of his cinema is a kind of dream anyway, or because he was so eager to tell us the truth about what he thought of women that anything he got wrong about them is forgiven by the truths I find out about him--and me, as always. And he seemed closest to the truth when he allowed Giulietta Masina to tell the dream. I suppose, if we are going to look for a woman emerging from a dream, we should be watching Masina in Juliet of the Spirits (1965); but her Maria in Nights of Cabiria does not so much live as dream herself into a reality. She is a prostitute, in other words already mostly an image/object--except to herself; and this is where I find her face, especially her eyes, moving me. She returns the viewer's gaze, and makes me ashamed for watching--and so the act of watching becomes ennobling in my shame, and I thank her for doing so much to herself for me. And more shame follows, for who am I to ask so much?

Thursday Killer Bait/Too Late for Tears (1949)
The indicted male returns, and the gag is that it's hard to tell who's the dame here: Lizabeth Scott, the woman who wants a little something for herself, Don DeFore, the sap of a husband who caves in, or--here he comes--Dan Duryea as the creep who wants what they get. Sorry, but Duryea fascinates me, a "feminized" tough guy--and is it just me, or is there something of this also in Richard Widmark, with their slight frames and weak chins--and especially their tendency to bluster and wheedle. You cannot have a noir without pretzel gender-logic; and to get to the heart of this post-vampire, post-War criss-cross-dress, the genre carves its women out of teak--and certain men out of soft soap--to simplify male and female to sharp-shadowed silhouettes, either spitting and yowling like cats in heat or caving in like a TB lung. Then the ol' switcheroo, as every wily Jane becomes her own John.

Friday Darling (1965)
Twenty years after noir's shell-shock, and we were still trying to keep smiling, grins fixed like bayonets, mod gear flaunted for mad love. And if you're not sick of the swingin' '60s by now, baby, maybe Julie Christie, Laurence Harvey, and Dirk Bogarde can help. A pitch-perfect movie--and that's it's undoing, as it basks in its own '60s-ness while interrogating the empty spaces inside the a-go-go molded-plastic souls on parade. The cast alone might be enough, sprightly and jaundiced, anxious and cool. And Christie's Darling, while she may seem free, in true big-studio fashion has to pay while she plays, because beneath the arms-wide romp lies a frown, and the man who wears it, wears her down. Sorry for the rhyme, but Darling after a while simply isn't--if it weren't for Christie herself, freaking out the jilted, jittery men who'd rather it were the '50s, fuming that they've gone from pillow-talk to pillow-biting in one uneasy decade.

Saturday Nurse Betty (2000)
And while we're on the subject of superfine casts--refined to perfection, sifting through the movie's fingers like granulated silk--watch how Renée Zellweger, Morgan Freeman, and Chris Rock refry the War Between the Sexes as post-traumatic stress, as funny as it is hair-raising (literally, but that you'll have to see for yourself). Zapped into parallel/alternate universes by the need for the ideal in a particularly seedy real, Betty and Charlie--with Chris Rock's changeling-child, Wesley, in incredulous tow--head West to sunshine and bliss--all on the inside, while blades and bullets bloody the outside, where they refuse to live. A love story with invisible lovers.

Sunday Seven Beauties (1975)
Given this Club's title, it was inevitable we'd end up with Lina Wertmuller--especially if this week's images of women tend toward discovery and deconstruction. This movie is disturbing, like psychosis--because, of course, it's about psychosis--in particular, the psychosis of masculinity, maleness as mental illness, and the body as sodden thing to be hoisted up and flopped on the deck like the catch of the day, stinking already. And for me, it's doubly disturbing because my father encouraged me to see it. Relentless, implacable movie-consuming machine that he was, Dad clutched at home videotaping like Thor his mighty hammer. And he knew, almost instinctively, that the best home video library would be a Hall of Curiosities, like the Things in bottles he loved to tell me about in the Mutter Museum in Philadelphia, various cloudy glimpses of conditions and deformities, the obscure and the recondite, preserved in decline. And his home-taped collection took this shape, with The Terror of Tiny Town (the first--and only--"midget" Western), and a silent film whose title escapes me, in which I remember seeing a topless Indian maiden--and Seven Beauties. As usual, my father wasn't expansive, merely telling me I'd like this one and leaving the tape lying there, waiting. And I watched it alone late at night, stunned and riveted. The movie world is like the world women have to live in: often pre-programmed and demarcated, life laid out before it's lived. Wertmuller rushes ahead of her audience and tears this world into chunks, and grinds it all down, even before we realize what's going on. And when we catch up with her, it's like a tabloid crime scene, and nothing stays down. Gee thanks, Dad. I'm just glad I was twenty-four or so when you showed it to me. But, like they say on Futurama, "You've watched it, you can't un-watch it!" Ladies first, indeed.

*Two days late, but I've always contended one makes one's Friday as one can.

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