SPIDER-MAN 2


With
Spider-Man 3 just around the corner, I find myself remembering with pleasure Spider-Man 2.  It was an astonishment — a Hollywood blockbuster that was decent, humane and morally complex . . . all the while delivering stupendous action sequences and state-of-the-art special effects.


Peter Parker’s superpowers didn’t solve his generation-next existential dilemmas involving being fatherless and then (in this second film of the series) even father-figureless. They didn’t even really help him on his voyage to manhood, since his very potency as a hero threatened the safety of those he loved and complicated his puzzlement about the love of his life. But Peter grew up in this film . . . not by accepting his destiny as a crime fighter but by accepting the autonomy of Mary Jane — letting her decide what kind of jeopardy she was willing to risk for true love. In the process they both became real superheroes — in the emotional and moral realm inhabited by all of us every day and which asks of us a kind of courage far beyond that required to swing recklessly through the vertiginous canyons of Spider-Man’s New York.

Tobey Maguire gave a wonderful, quirky, nuanced performance as the troubled Spidey, as did Alfred Molina as the equally troubled villain Doc Oc . . . and Kirsten Dunst was simply riveting, enchanting beyond words, with an honest, down-to-earth intelligence and sexiness that went way beyond the typical ingenue glamor of this degraded age.

Spider-Man 2 is a film that will be remembered and watched for generations and is a genuine paradox of our time — a mega-budget work of art.

LAUGH, CLOWN, LAUGH

Silent cinema is another country — there’s almost no one left alive who can
visit it except as a stranger. Its narrative language is to the
narrative language of modern films what ancient Greek is to modern
Greek — similar enough to be recognizable and sometimes
comprehensible, different enough to require translation for real
clarity.


As much as we know and read about the silent era, as many silent films as
we watch, entering that lost kingdom always requires an adjustment of
sensibility, a quickening of perception. The landscape retains its
ability to surprise, shock and bewilder.


In The Closing Of the American Mind Alan Bloom argues that we should
study the art of the past not merely for what we may find in it that’s
relevant to our own times, but also for what we may find in it that’s
not — for modes of thought and seeing that depart radically from our
own. This, he argues, gives us a better sense of the conditional nature
of artistic conventions, a deeper appreciation of the many and
strikingly different ways human experience can be processed.


Laugh, Clown, Laugh is a great and powerful film. It is also, by modern
standards, preposterous, over the top, extravagant in ways that can
seem crude to modern eyes. Traditional opera can seem crude in the same
ways to those unaccustomed to its conventions and dramatic methods.
Appreciating a silent film like Laugh, Clown, Laugh requires the same
sort of adjustment of sensibility that an appreciation of The Magic
Flute
, as dramatic theater, requires. As a culture, we are inclined to
make such an effort for the sublime music of Mozart — less inclined to
make it for the sublime pantomime of Lon Chaney, the sublime and
delicate imagery of Herbert Brenon.


Without comparing the music of Mozart to the art of Chaney and Brenon, it can still be said that appreciating the latter is worth a great deal of effort, indeed.

Almost everything about Laugh, Clown, Laugh is strange. It is derived from a
stage play and Brenon goes to some lengths to “open up” the play in the
beginning, but narrows the space of the film down to a theater and a
couple of rooms for the extended closing sequences that constitute the
heart of the work, dramatically and visually.


Brenon was considered a major film artist in the Twenties, but the loss of
many of his films makes it hard to evaluate him today, as Richard
Koszarski laments in his brief but intriguing treatment of Brenon in An Evening’s Entertainment. I would add that Brenon had a light
touch, a very subtle eye, which would make his art hard to analyze in
any case. He had the ability to frame shots of great and exaggerated
plastic power, but the real delight of his work, at least in this film,
lies in the simpler visual touches with which he can magically
transform a pictorially ordinary interior scene.


Chaney, with his mastery of pantomime, could effect such a transformation all
on his own, but Loretta Young, who was thirteen when she started
shooting Laugh, Clown, Laugh, had no such technique to draw on. Yet
she carried herself with extraordinary grace, and moved with a
precocious sensuality that is both seductive and disturbing — and
somehow Brenon has managed to capture this physical quality with great
economy and to use it as the basis for what becomes a wondrously
effective performance. From Nils Asther he teases a performance
grounded in an elegant but neurotic way of moving, which skirts the
edge of creepiness with fine calculation.


(It should be pointed out, of course, that the visual style of the film owes much to cinematographer James Wong Howe, with whom Brenon often collaborated.)

The film inhabits the genre of the grotesque — the afflictions of Flik and
the count are exaggerated far beyond naturalism, and Chaney’s
enactments of grief in full clown make-up are surreal and unsettling.
The development of the love triangle involves overtones of pedophilia
and incest, even if these are technically inaccurate terms for what is
going on. The plot tells us that Simonetta has grown up at the end —
but what we see plainly is a child incarnating the persona of a
sexually mature woman, and the spectacle resonates with delirious
perversity.


But as an example of the genre, this one is very mild. There is none of the Grand Guignol which characterizes the ending of He Who Gets Slapped and Chaney has no physical affliction beyond his obsessive weeping.

This is one of those films one might well watch in a mood of exasperation —
annoyed that the story and characters are so stereotyped, so extreme,
so obvious, annoyed that the clichés of the titles are so . . .
clichéd. (“Laugh, clown, laugh . . . even though your heart is
breaking,” reads one, in words that would find their way into the song
written for the film — but not included in the new score composed for
the TCM DVD.)

Yet by the end one might still find oneself seduced by the passionate
commitment of the artists to the tale, ravished by the beauty of the
images and the pantomime, moved by the tragedy — on more than one
level. When Flik asks, “Why should I spoil her youth with my tears?” he
is speaking not only as a man but as an artist. There is a physical,
aesthetic contrast between Flik and Simonetta when they pose as a
couple which the artist in Flik may well find as disturbing as we do.
In the lost kingdom of silent cinema, this is not a superficial
contrast — it conveys a dramatic, emotional, spiritual message,
through characters who, like the characters in a story ballet, move the
way they move because they are who they are, and are who they are
because they move the way they move.


The film is available on DVD as part of the Turner Classic Movies
set The Lon Chaney Collection. Michael F. Blake’s commentary is excellent, as is the original score by H. Scott Salinas. It emphasizes the sentiment of the story without apology but is lively and inventive and sensitive to the shifting moods of the film.

MERRY CHRISTMAS, KID


It's
startling to me to realize how many Christmas presents from childhood I
still remember. I'm speaking of the big ones, that Santa brought, that
were waiting unwrapped under the tree on Christmas morning. They are
memorable for many reasons, connected partly to the supernatural nature
of their appearance but also partly to the fact that they were the most
desirable objects one could imagine at any given age. They would have
been amazing no matter how they got under that tree.



When I
was six and seven I lived in a tiny town in North Carolina called Belhaven, the center
of an agricultural region. The feed store was the biggest establishment
in town, but there was also a small movie theater and a barbershop,
which doubled as a variety store, offering miscellaneous goods like
candy and toys.




That's a picture of the building it was in, above, now a beauty
parlor.  I photographed it on a visit I made to Belhaven last
summer.



In the
Fall of 1956 or 1957, when I was either six or seven, I was walking
home from school one day when I saw something astonishing in the front
window of the barbershop. It was a Roy Rogers Fix-It Chuck Wagon set,
by Ideal. I had never seen anything quite like it, in the intricacy of
its parts and accessories. I was already obsessed with toy soldiers,
and sometimes these came with forts and artillery pieces, but the Roy
Rogers Chuck Wagon was executed on a bigger scale than most toy soldier
sets and was more rigorously focussed. Here was a chuck wagon with
utensils and a trunk to store them in, horses with driving reins and a
whip . . . and here were Roy and Dale and Pat Brady and Bullet, Roy's
dog, and Pat's Jeep Nellybelle — all familiar from Roy's show on
television.



I really couldn't believe my eyes. I felt as though someone had entered my psyche and created the toy I'd most like to
play with — if only I could have imagined it in advance.



I
ran home and told my parents that I had beheld the present I would ask
Santa for at Christmas. I think I had some subconscious notion that
Santa might have to act quickly to secure this treasure before it was
bought out from under him from the barbershop/variety store. I'm not
sure I understood that the chuck wagon set was not a unique example of
the toy.



Of course it duly appeared under the tree that year and I can still remember carrying it into the dining room to unpack
it from its box and marvel at its various parts. It was pure magic.



The
set lost its component pieces over the years, until finally none of
them remained. I still have a few toys from that era but the chuck
wagon got played to pieces. The aura of it, though, has never left my
consciousness, and a few years ago I began to wonder if I might find
another set to replace it — as a kind of link to my first and second
grade self. Those were the years when movies became consciously
important to me as magical creations and central to my imaginative
life, and I always go back to them when I need inspiration.



A couple of years ago I found a Roy Rogers Chuck Wagon set in good condition on eBay and
bid for it and won it, and a few days later it arrived at my home here in
Las Vegas. When I unpacked it and set it up on my dining room table I
didn't feel especially excited or particularly sentimental or even
remotely nostalgic for times gone by. Those years in the middle Fifties
have not gone by — have not slipped into the past. I took up my
imaginative conversation with the Roy Rogers Chuck Wagon set as one
takes up a conversation with an old friend one hasn't seen in many years
— as though no time at all has intervened.



This tiny little plastic wagon is one of the vehicles that got me from there to here and it takes me back there any time
I ask it to. Its horses can pull the weight of dreams.


ROBERT MCGINNIS


Robert McGinnis did the covers for hundreds of pulp and higher-class paperbacks, as well as a number of movie posters, including some of the classics from the James Bond series.

His dynamic compositions can have an almost cinematic quality and his portraits of women can be very sexy, in a pulp-noir Vegas-showgirl kind of way.

Here’s an official web site devoted to his work:

Official McGinnis Web Site

And here’s a fan site with lots of his paperback covers on view:

McGinnis Fan Site

FASHION AND DEATH

Fashions in clothing, Walter Benjamin speculates, always involve a dialogue with
death. Fashion, with its mercurial shifts in style, its preoccupation with novelty, seems to thumb its nose at the eternal stasis of death, defiantly proclaiming life . . . but at the same time, by investing material things, articles of clothing, with the illusion of life, and especially with the illusion of erotic life — “the sex appeal of the inorganic” as Benjamin calls it — followers of fashion embrace death in a danse macabre, a merry whirl with a corpse. Even to thumb one’s nose at something means always staring it in the face.


The investment of clothing and other material objects with erotic life, a
kind of fetishism that serves the marketing of commodities in modern
capitalism, extends its pathology, for men, to the female body itself,
which becomes a commodity, becomes essentially inorganic. If an old man
can sleep with a young woman, he can deny death — since he is not
sleeping with an individual human being who will age and die, but
with the image of her youth. She must be interchangeable as a partner,
lest her individuality, her subjection to time, rob her of her
commodity value as an elixir of immortality.


Always the corpse haunts the male vision of the female — and this, as
Benjamin points out, finds expression in the tendency to dissect the
female form and worship its component but severed parts. “I’m a breast
man,” you will hear men say, or, “I’m a leg man,” or, “I’m an ass man.”
But breast men and leg men and ass men are all butchers.


So in movies you have the phenomenon of body doubles — offering dislocated parts of themselves in close-up to stand in for the naked being of a modest star. The use of body doubles is, I think, one of the few phenomena in our culture which can be designated as indisputably obscene.

We worship the exposed female body in our culture, but in a sick way — a
way that robs it of life. Now might be a good time to turn our eyes
backwards to another culture that worshiped the naked human body, both
male and female — that of the ancient Greeks. There was idealization
in the Greek nude, but no gross exaggeration of component body parts.
Its models were real youths not radically endowed in any particular way
but pleasing in toto as images of the beauty of the human body. Almost
any of us can look at them and think, “With a little exercise, even I .
. .” or “When I was twenty, I . . .”

As obesity, a kind of spasmodic surrender to somatic despair, claims more and more of us, and breast enhancement seduces more and more young girls, it should become clear that the image of the “genetic celebrity”, of the “perfect” body, as the fashion of the day sees it,
is a demonic phantasm, the shadow of a corpse, very specifically designed to lure us into a dance with death — with the only incarnation of death which is truly terrifying . . . the kind that happens before we die.


Note that the Venus de Milo at the head of this post and the woman at her bath below are
both images of Aphrodite, the goddess of erotic love. In our society, many might consider both to be candidates for cosmetic surgery — breast enlargement in the case of the first, liposuction in the case of the second. But both show that there was an age when men expended extravagant amounts of time and discipline and genius on the loving memorializing and exaltation of their “deficient” forms.

TWO DEMILLES


Cecil B. had a brother William who also directed films.  There's a
recent DVD release which pairs two films by the brothers —
Why Change
Your Wife?
(from 1920) by C. B. and Miss Lulu Bett (from 1921) by
William.  The first is a bit of star-powered fluff, the second is a
small masterpiece.




The story of Why Change Your Wife? is a trifle, a domestic comedy that
lurches disconcertingly into melodrama at its climax.  It retails the
sort of platitudes about marriage that are familiar from second-rate
comic strips and sit-coms.  A wife turns into a nag after marriage —
her judgmental and prudish ways send her husband into the arms of
another woman.  Divorce ensues, the man marries the other woman and
discovers that she's just as annoying in her own way as his first wife,
who meanwhile has developed a more lighthearted attitude to life.  The
ex's meet again, realize they've made a mistake — whereupon the new
wife conveniently proves her moral unworthiness in a crisis, justifying
a second divorce and the remarriage of the original couple, now grown wise.






There's nothing felt or carefully observed in the whole film, but it has
something that makes all of that irrelevant — wonderfully appealing
lead actors . . . Thomas Meighan, underplaying the long-suffering
husband with a good deal of charm, Gloria Swanson (above,) impossibly young and
girlish, impersonating the buttoned-up first wife, and Bebe Daniels (below,)
fresh and casual and funny as the second wife.






The film becomes an exercise in simply presenting the actors, the women
especially, as creatures to marvel at — their relationship to the
camera, to the medium of movies, is far more important than their
relationship to each other as characters in a story.  Swanson and
Daniels incarnate movie glamor in a sweet and enchanting way and it
has an intoxicating effect.  The effect wears off moments after the
movie ends but leaves you wanting more.








Lois Wilson, who plays the title character in William's film, is
something more and something less than a star.  Her transformation from
drudge to romantic ingenue is far more complex and convincing than
Swanson's transformation from prude to vamp in Cecil's movie, requiring
a lot more art, and it's very moving.  But it's anchored in the story —
you can't imagine her redeeming sheer fluff the way Swanson could, just
on the strength of her screen persona.




The domestic landscape of William's film also has a generic comic-book
air, but it's much more insightful about the real dynamics of a
dysfunctional family and therefore much more unsettling.  There's
genuine sentiment and compassion in William's film, the sort of serious
regard for the importance and profundity of the domestic realm that you
find in Griffith's work, but it's entirely free of Griffith's
melodramatic clichés.




You might be
able to guess from watching these two films which of the DeMille
brothers would go on to the greatest commercial success in Hollywood as
it evolved in the Twenties, increasingly corporate and
star-oriented.  Stars who can sell fluff are ultimately more
reliable, as a business proposition, than actors who can shine in fine
material expertly directed.  Directors who understood and accepted
this basic economic truth were indispensable to the studio
system.  Eighty-odd years on, when different fashions hold sway in
the marketplace, things look a bit different.  Why Change Your Wife? is a delightful curiosity
Miss Lulu Bett is a living work of art that can still touch the heart.

JEAN-LEON GEROME: A VICTORIAN PAINTER YOU SHOULD KNOW

The spooky, wonderful image above, Duel After A Masked Ball, was painted by Jean-Léon Gérôme, one of the great masters of Victorian academic art.  To me, his work aspires to the condition of cinema and can be studied in that regard with great profit.  I think one finds in it, both formally and in terms of subject matter, the reflection of many concerns that would help shape the emerging art of movies.

Gérôme used a photo-authoritative style to make his visions of Oriental scenes and his recreations of historical periods alive and true to viewers who were beginning to process the visual world more and more through the medium of photography.  He was concerned with narrative images and used the illusion of depth to draw the viewer into those images — the drama of space obsessed him.  He was so concerned with stereometric forms that he also worked regularly
as a sculptor.


Though he died in 1904, before movies came into their own as a plastic and narrative medium, he would have thrilled, I think, at their capacity to carry his aesthetic methods into new realms and elaborate them fantastically.

Gérôme‘s Technicolor über-photographs can seem like frame-grabs from imaginary movies.  You can see the compositional style of Lawrence Of Arabia (and John Ford) in his desert scenes . . .


. . . foreshadowings of Intolerance in his 18th-Century tableaux . . .


. . . the epic visions of De Mille in his Biblical scenes . . .


Griffith, De Mille and Ford would have been familiar with Gérôme directly — his work was wildly popular and widely reproduced in the time of their youth.  Lean may have echoed Gérôme simply by sharing his formal concerns, though it wouldn’t surprise me at all if Lean knew and admired his paintings.  In any case, the profound connection between Victorian academic art and the cinema is nowhere more evident than in the work of this great painter.

To me, the image below of Pygmalion’s sculpture Galatea coming to life can serve as a metaphor for the advent of movies, when the aesthetic aspirations of the Victorian academic painter came into fuller life through motion itself.

SEARCHERS


Perhaps
it's not surprising that the rapidly urbanizing culture of China has
produced filmmakers making deep and profound work about urban
loneliness.  Urban and suburban loneliness in America has been
treated by pop sociologists like Robert D. Putnam, in his book
Bowling Alone . . . and in TV sit-coms we see models of coping strategies in shows like Friends and Sex In the City,
where sex and gossip about sex among a circle of acquaintances try to
fill up the void that's clearly felt both by the characters and by the
vast numbers of people attracted to these series.




But Chinese
filmmakers like Wong Kar-Wai and Tsai Ming-Liang are intent on looking
at the phenomenon head-on, as something existential and not susceptible
to easy or trivial consolations.  The criss-crossing lives in Wong
Kar-Wai's films, that touch each other without ever making meaningful
contact, exist in a landscape of exciting visual stimulation, which
adds to the irony.  Tsai Ming-Liang has a different strategy.




In What Time Is It There?
he holds his camera steady on urban spaces until they yield up the full
measure of their sterility — he gives us time to enter them and feel
their emptiness, and this creates a strong sense of identification with
the stranded, cut-off souls who inhabit them.  Tsai Ming-Liang
doesn't tell us much about these characters, they don't voice their
hopelessness, but we can see it in everything they do, lovingly and
devastatingly observed.





What Time Is It There? is set in motion by the briefest of encounters on a public sidewalk, between a
street vendor of cheap watches and a woman who buys a watch for her
upcoming solo visit to Paris.  Before she goes, she gives the
vendor a small cake, to thank him for selling her a special watch she
wants, his own.  This tiny, infinitesimal exchange of regard fills
up the rest of the film.  It leads nowhere in purely narrative
terms but we feel how it haunts the two people involved, sharpening
their sense of distance from other human beings.




As I say, none
of this is ever voiced.  We are allowed the time and space to
enter into the existential estrangement of the characters, and
ultimately to experience it as our own — in much the same way that
John Ford gives us the time and space to enter into the existential
estrangement of Ethan Edwards in The Searchers, something that is never explained, never put into words, but can still be deeply felt.




We are so far
in these films from the thought-balloon dialogue of modern American
films, where the characters tell us exactly what they feel, exactly why
they're doing what they're doing, and so give us a chance to categorize
and dismiss it.




John Ford's The Searchers, Wong Kar-Wai's masterpiece In the Mood For Love, and Tsai Ming-Liang's
What Time Is It There?,
a small masterpiece in its own right, all offer in their endings images
of an almost mystical redemption — but they don't offer resolutions,
or solutions.  They set off chain reactions in our hearts — they send us on journeys . . . they make us searchers.




[The frame-grab above is from a wonderful site called DVD Beaver,
which offers in-depth reviews, with lots of technical information,
about
international DVD releases.  Check it out and make a donation if
you can to support its valuable work.  Sadly, the DVD version of What Time Is It There? available in the U. S. is not enhanced
for 16:9 sets -- it's a good transfer but this film, with it many long-held
master shots, cries out for as much screen space as possible.]


DIXIE


My sister Lee sends this interesting meditation on the song
Dixie:


In
1985 I went to see Doc Watson perform at Thalian Hall in Wilmington,
North Carolina.  When summoned for his encore, he announced, “Now
I’m going to sing America’s second national anthem.”  And he began
to play
Dixie.  The
audience went insanely wild, feet stomping, hysterical cheers.  It
was thrilling.  I was totally swept away.

And for years after, it continued to bother me.  Why was it so
thrilling?  What did it mean?  I just couldn't figure it
out.  The Civil War seemed to be so simple for Northerners, and
still so complicated for the rest of us.  So I forgot about Doc
Watson and
Dixie,
felt embarrassed by it, and rather guilty too, and chalked it up to
another mysterious, uncharted connection to my “country.” Then, last
summer, after leaving the Civil War battlefield of Chancellorsville with Lloyd, my mom and my two
kids, with my head full of ghosts, and a vision of Robert E. Lee
swinging his hat over his head, his eyes gleaming with victory, I asked
Lloyd if his miraculous i-pod contained within it the song
Dixie, and if so, to play it.  It did, and he did . . .

Read the rest here . . .



DIXIE


From my sister Lee:


In
1985, I went to see Doc Watson perform at Thalian Hall in Wilmington,
North Carolina.  When summoned for his encore, he announced, “Now
I’m going to sing America’s second national anthem.”  And he began
to play
Dixie.  The
audience went insanely wild, feet stomping, hysterical cheers.  It
was thrilling.  I was totally swept away.

And for years after, it continued to bother me.  Why was it so
thrilling?  What did it mean?  I just couldn't figure it
out.  The Civil War seemed to be so simple for Northerners, and
still so complicated for the rest of us.  So I forgot about Doc
Watson and
Dixie,
felt embarrassed by it, and rather guilty too, and chalked it up to
another mysterious, uncharted connection to my “country.” Then, last
summer, after leaving the Civil War battlefield of Chancellorsville with Lloyd, my mom and my two
kids, with my head full of ghosts, and a vision of Robert E. Lee
swinging his hat over his head, his eyes gleaming with victory, I asked
Lloyd if his miraculous i-pod contained within it the song
Dixie, and if so, to play it.  It did, and he did.


Since then, I have located Bob Dylan’s version of
Dixie
And I play it a lot.  But I’m careful to close all of my windows,
so that no one can hear it.  My neighbors are
African-American.  I like them, and I’m worried they will think it
is racist to listen to this song.  I pause it when the mail man is
close to the house.  It’s like a dirty secret.  And this
gnaws at me.



So I did some research into the history of the song
Dixie,
and, like the song itself, I found it both comforting and
disturbing.  The authorship is generally attributed to Daniel
Decatur Emmett, of Turkey in the Straw
fame, an Ohioan who allegedly wrote the song in 1859 while living in New
York City.  A competing account tells us that the song was really
an old African-American tune revived by the black musician brothers Ben
and Lou Snowden, whose joint tombstone proudly declares “They taught
Dixie to Dan Emmett.”  Either way, the song was a smash hit, particularly in the North.  


When Abraham Lincoln first heard the song in Chicago, he shouted “Let’s
have it again!  Let’s have it again!”  By all accounts, it
remained one of his favorite songs, before, during, and after the Civil
War.  “I just feel like marching, always, when that tune is
played,” he said.  When the war was over, he made a special point
of requesting it at public events.  “That tune is now Federal
property and it is good to show the rebels that, with us in power, they
will be free to hear it again…I insisted yesterday that we fairly
captured it..and that it is our lawful prize.”



It is unconscionable that almost a hundred years later, psycho white supremacists used the song as a sparring partner for We Shall Overcome
during the Civil Rights Movement,  associating it (really, I
believe, for the first time) with institutionalized racism.  It
was a despicable and cowardly answer to Lincoln’s generosity.  But
if “possible use by psychos” is a litmus test for a thing’s viability,
then we shall have to throw out a good many things, the Christian
church and our own government for starters.



In my research, I stumbled on this quote from Howard Sacks, and despite
the fact that he is an academic, I quite liked it.  He says, “What
[
Dixie]
tells us is that black, white, male, female, southern, northern, slave,
free, urban, rural–these aren’t separate realms.  The story of
the American experience is the story of the movement between these
realms.” 

Which, naturally, brings Elvis Presley to mind.  Clearly, it was
no accident that Lloyd’s astoundingly brilliant Navigator preceded our
tour of Chancellorsville with a visit to Graceland.  Elvis sang
Dixie,
and if there was ever any American who was not a racist, it was
Elvis.  His heart and his instincts on that score were pretty near
perfect.  



So here’s what I’m wondering:  If Abraham Lincoln claimed
Dixie
as his prize of war, why can’t we reclaim it as a prize for our
heartbreak?  Heartbreak that we ever tolerated slavery in our
country for even a nanosecond,  heartbreak that we ever took up
arms against each other and heartbreak that all too often we let
Lincoln down.  I don’t see why we can’t do that.



Dylan's version of Dixie can be found on the Masked and Anonymous soundtrack album.


NOSFERATU (1922)

Max Schreck’s Count Orlock shares a distinction with Lon Chaney’s Phantom,
Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Rudolph Valentino — he’s an icon
from the silent era that’s still alive in the popular imagination. Kids
who couldn’t tell you the difference between John Barrymore and Lillian
Gish know Nosferatu.


Partly this is because Orlock is such a powerful icon, visually, and partly
it’s because anyone who has ever seen even the shortest clip of the
vampire in “Nosferatu” simply cannot forget it, so powerfully is Orlock
presented cinematically in the film. Orlock is the heart and soul of
the film — the part of it that inspired Murnau’s genius. Scenes
without him can be visually conventional, and the storytelling in
general can be clunky. (Murnau was still feeling his way as a
storyteller in 1922.)


The acting is very exaggerated, which suits the tale, but runs the usual
risk of highly stylized performance — if it isn’t executed brilliantly
it can seem silly. (But that’s the thrill of it, too — it’s the
thespian equivalent of trapeze flying without a net.) The young
protagonists of the tale are not terribly skillful here, and don’t seem
to have interested Murnau very much, so their expressions of marital
bliss, and later angst, can seem unconvincing, even icky. The actor who
plays Knock, however, a borderline nut-case who travels a long way
across that border in the course of the film, is sublime — he’s like a
genuinely insane person imitating a silent film actor and the result is
thrilling, funny and ghastly all at once.


The only featured player who doesn’t go over the top in the film is Max
Schreck. He moves in an exaggerated (sometimes supernatural) way, of
course, but it all seems organic — this is just Nosferatu, an
admittedly strange creature, being natural, being himself. He never
leers or threatens or grimaces — he just kills, like the Venus flytrap
or the carnivorous polyp he’s compared to visually in the film. And
there is a softness in his eyes suggesting loneliness, even shame —
qualities which Klaus Kinski exaggerated pointedly and too crudely in
Herzog’s remake of the film, to engage our sympathy. But Schreck’s
inhuman humanness wouldn’t be affecting, wouldn’t be terrifying, if he
used it to appeal to us. He’d just be a character, an actor in some
great make-up. It’s no wonder people have imagined that Schreck was a
real vampire — that’s how great and subtle his performance is.

Nosferatu incarnates the poetry of death, its cool, elegant efficiency and power,
which has a kind of awesome beauty. His face is the face we most fear
— an image of anyone, of ourselves, as a corpse — yet can’t resist
looking at. It is Murnau’s genius, and Schreck’s instinct or craft,
which let us experience the deep fascination of that face and remind us
of its familiarity. It’s one we will all have someday — and perhaps
that is why a little part of the human heart goes out to Nosferatu.

WAR OF THE WORLDS


Hollywood
has now managed to absorb on a conscious level that the failure of
fatherhood is a central issue of our culture, and that people are
desperate for stories which address this issue and offer images of
fatherhood redeemed.



It's a
subject that has always attracted Spielberg, at least on an intuitive
level. He's always said that
E. T. was about divorce — about the
ways a child scarred by divorce and an absent father can use fantasy to
survive. The knowledge came from his own personal experience with the
phenomenon as a youth.



In War Of the Worlds he takes on the subject from the father's, not the
child's perspective — and that may reflect his own maturity and
experience as a father. It also takes us closer to the crux of the
crisis.



Phenomenally
successful films like
The Lion King and The Sixth Sense dealt with
the effect of fatherlessness on sons and, like
E. T., offered coping
mechanisms, images of transcendence.
War Of the Worlds deals with the
source of the pathology — the emotionally self-indulgent and
incompetent father himself.



As I
say, Hollywood knows the appeal of the subject — one finds it
“layered” into otherwise conventional spectacles like
The Day After
Tomorrow
, where it has the feel of a perfunctory marketing ploy.
Spielberg, as usual, goes deeper.



Taking
as his model the 50s-era sci-fi film, which exploited our fears of
nuclear holocaust and alien (i. e. Communist) invasion, Spielberg taps
the post-9/11 malaise for the subliminal terror of his tale. Alien
sleeper-cell creatures erupt from within to devastate our civilization,
and in the crisis our assumptions about everything are tested.



For
Spielberg's protagonist, Ray Ferrier, a self-centered lifestyle, in
which he has neglected the children of a failed marriage, who now live
with their mother and her new husband, is shattered when he's forced by
unimaginable disasters to step up to the plate and protect them. And to
protect them, he needs to know them — something he's failed so far to
do.



It's a brilliant scheme, which places Ray's failure as a father center stage, and makes it far more unnerving and devastating
than the lethal space invaders and their horrifying acts.



The
greatness of the film is that it doesn't posit absolute redemption for
Ray — he has lost more through his failure as a father, and his
children have lost more, than his last-minute heroics can ever restore.
But he has come face to face with his failure, and has grown up in the
process — and that is more affecting, more real, than any contrived
feel-good catharsis could ever be.



Ray
remains a tragic figure, a reminder that the true lost souls of
post-WWII America are not the children betrayed by feckless fathers,
but the fathers themselves, who surrendered the deepest meaning of
their lives for a transitory, an illusory freedom.


GET BEHIND ME, SATAN

Amazon’s resident critic says that Get Behind Me, Satan
is the White Stripes’s strangest and least focused
album but also their finest — and that’s not a bad summary. As with a
lot of great Bob Dylan albums it gives the impression of someone
rummaging around in the attic of American music and American culture
looking for answers to some desperate personal problems — and even if
the answers aren’t always forthcoming, there’s still the consolation of
realizing that there are a lot of cool and scary things up there.

Jack White on this album bumps into a lot of ghosts and has a disturbing
encounter with Rita Hayworth as he deconstructs his garage band style
and inflects it with deranged pop and country interpolations. He’s
always done this sort of thing musically, tying it all together with
his strong blues-based guitar — but this time nothing gets tied
together too neatly. It’s almost as though he’s thinking out loud in
the studio and letting us eavesdrop on the session.


The result is raw and silly and powerful and eloquent by turns, defying the slick sound and off-the-rack attitude that homogenizes most bands these days, even those in the neo-rock movement the Stripes have spearheaded.

Jack and Meg are simply continuing their conversation with every tradition of
American popular music — powered by the blues but ranging
far beyond them . . . on a spiritual and anguished search for the soul
of the times. In his liner notes to the album Jack rails against the
sarcasm and irony of pop posturing today — he wants us to face the
terror squarely. The White Stripes, like the great bluesmen that
inspired them, are taking on the devil himself — determined to get at
least a few steps ahead of him before it’s too late.


Here’s a link to the music video of one of the album’s best songs:

Blue Orchid

THE DOMESTIC THRILLER

Eyes Wide Shut has never been far from my mind since I saw it, twice, on its first release.

I was kind of astonished by it then.  Not at all what I expected, a very small film, a chamber piece you could say.  So much of it is about the experience of being in rooms, and the intimacy of New York streets at night . . . something I’ve never really seen captured on film before.  Even Scorsese’s claustrophobic streets have an epic quality by comparison.


It’s also the best movie about marriage I’ve ever seen.  It makes Bergman’s Scenes From A Marriage seem like the platitudes of a first-year psychology student.  It makes Woody Allen’s musings on marriage seem like the delusions of a child molester.  In fact, I kept wondering what someone who hasn’t been married, for a long time, would make of this film.

And, yes, Nicole Kidman naked is irrefutable proof, in itself, of the existence of God.  But what an odd, self-involved sexuality she has — you get a feeling she could be having sex with Tom Cruise, a donkey, a broom handle, and it would all be just the same.  And how wonderfully Kubrick uses this quality in the film.  She’s so “fuckable” and yet so impenetrable.

But part of the subversion of Eyes Wide Shut is that it always makes you pay for your voyeuristic pleasures — there’s always a twist that makes you self-aware and uncomfortable.  There is something intrinsically misogynistic (or at least dehumanizing) about male arousal through purely visual means, and Kubrick draws painful attention to this in the film.



He toys with visual arousal but always undercuts it (shockingly, sometimes, as in the scene above) — because pure, impersonal, meaningless arousal, the goal of most visual pornography, is the threat to the marriage from Cruise’s side of things.




It’s very important that there are no flashbacks to the Naval officer scene when Kidman describes the incident, because her temptation there is more elemental.  She feels that Cruise is taking her power as a woman lightly, so she wants to use that power to destroy everything.  The flashbacks come only when Cruise thinks about the incident — he reduces it to a visual image of intercourse, of a “one night stand”, whereas what Kidman had in mind was more like Armaggedon.



Several things struck me even more deeply me on a second viewing of the film.  One is how brief the Kidman nudity is, contrasted to what I remembered.  It’s still startling, mainly I think because you see the whole woman at once.  There is no teasing involved.  This is very
unusual in a modern film.  I have always believed that any nudity which can be done by a body double is by definition pornographic and degrading — it’s about women as body parts.


Kidman is also shot from slightly below, from behind, in very soft light, and her hair is always up.  There is an iconic connection to several nudes by Watteau, who was the poet of women’s backs and necks, and to the great nude Venus by Velasquez, at the National Gallery in London, also seen from behind, her face visible only in a mirror.




These shots are contrasted to the Naval officer flashbacks in Cruise’s mind, where you get flashes of nudity, as in a modern movie sex scene.



The Christmas tree motif got clearer.  Always warm light, the big old-fashioned colored bulbs . . .

We see the tree in the first scene, when Cruise and Kidman venture out of the home.  Thereafter we see it everywhere Cruise goes.  At the Zigler’s party, the Sonata nightclub, the coffee shop, the hooker’s apartment, his office at night.  And whenever he comes home there is the long tracking shot through the apartment until the tree is revealed.  But the last time he comes home, when we see the mask on the pillow, Cruise turns the tree lights off.  And in the aftermath of his confession, the unlighted tree is behind him in the living room.



The tree is like a beacon of home, an unheeded reminder everywhere he goes, connected to the daughter — locus of the gifts of home, and symbol, at least theoretically, of the celebration of the birth of a child.


Not an accident that the final reconciliation takes place in a world of Christmas presents, which the child has led them to.  “Old fashioned,” says Kidman about one of the “presents”, a baby stroller, which their daughter admires.  Yep.


I also realized, and felt really dense not to have spotted it the first time, the significance of the password.  The title of a Beethoven opera, but also derived from the Latin word for fidelity.  The test at the orgy scene thus becomes very suggestive.  Dr. Harford knows the “password for entrance”, but he doesn’t know the “password for the house”.  Except that he does, he just doesn’t realize it.  Fidelity — the entrance (into marriage) but also the only way of safety for the house, the home.


My friend Andrew Schroeder, then a graduate student in film at NYU, wrote to me about the film:


“What is Cruise’s impulse, when they pull off to the side in FAO Schwartz to talk hushed between themselves?  The promise of forever, that he’s learned his lesson, that he’s a changed man and he’ll never go back.  Most films would accept that.  They’d let him off the hook and say that the ‘happy ever after’ we thought we’d glimpsed in the film’s opening sequences might be waiting just beyond the celluloid lip.  Not Kubrick, and not Kidman either.  She refuses to talk about ‘forever.’  She refuses to let Cruise off the hook.  It’s as if she’s telling him, without saying it in so many words, that the Other must be re-encountered at every turn.  The second you think it’s over, and you can just cruise on your expectations and your memories, is the second that you approach Armageddon at top speed.”


That’s an excellent summary of the denouement, I think, and it’s connected to a sense of some absolute limit to intimacy that haunts Kubrick’s film.  No matter how many barriers you bust through, and you bust through a lot in a long marriage, there is always one more, and it’s always different from the last one, and bewildering, and apparently insoluble.  It’s not just about the Otherness of the opposite sex, it’s about the Otherness of any other human being, and when you get right down to it, the Otherness of yourself, the insubstantiality of the self.


We need the illusion of a substantial self in order to function, but it is an illusion, as life keeps proving, so how do we keep on functioning?  In part it’s by accepting a certain loss of control over our own identity, and in part this is made bearable by submission to a “higher” order, the social context, the family context.


The child in the film is very important, though it’s wonderful and courageous that Kubrick makes no overt appeal to this aspect of things.  The closest he comes is when the child asks for a dog for Christmas.  “He could be a watch-dog,” she argues.  She feels the threat to the home that is happening, but her terror is beyond articulation.


Marriage, existential marriage with a perpetual Other, thus becomes an avenue for the survival of identity — the larger identity that can be sustained because it is not rooted in the chaos of personality, but in an idea, of fidelity, and in the flesh of a child that somehow shares the identity of the Other.


It is one way of addressing Nietzsche’s notion that the ability to make and keep a promise is the only thing that makes us human.  But it has to be a transcendent promise, unto death  — like the sacrifice of life for a cause, the sacrifice of sexual freedom, of autonomous identity, for a child.  Nietzsche would argue, of course, that such servitude is the only freedom there is, such as it is.



Kubrick doesn’t draw any simple moral from his tale.  Kidman won’t say “forever”, since “no single night, much less a single life, can be the whole truth about anything”.  Like Nietzsche, Kubrick looks at the actual forces at play, describes the stakes unflinchingly, and leaves us to our terror at it all — though perhaps a little better equipped to play the game.


Kidman’s last line may be deeper than it seems.  In fucking, the metaphor of blurred, surrendered identity is constantly reestablished, the consolation and the terror of it constantly renewed.


All of Eyes Wide Shut, from the title onwards, echoes with such suggestive ambiguity.  For example, the soundtrack of the film is interesting to play on its own — it really captures the creepiness and off-centered mood of the whole film.  It occurred to me that, for all the visual references to Christmas in the film, there is no Christmas music at all until the last scene — a Muzak version of Jingle Bells.  Another of those subliminal calculations that keep us, and the
world of the film, off balance.


Most of Kubrick’s work has always left me cold.  It strikes me as exhibiting a sort of puerile moral nihilism.  There is little at stake in Kubrick’s films — unless he is being funny — except a passing frisson, and maybe some self-pity.



Paths Of Glory is a partial exception to this rule.  It’s worth remembering that the actress at the end of that film, in the scene (above) which is offered as a kind of counterbalance to the moral abyss we’ve just been gazing into, the single note of humanity and hope, is the woman Kubrick would marry soon afterwards . . . and whose subsequent life with him must have inspired, or at least informed, his last film.

Below is Kubrick’s wife to be, Christiane, on the set of Paths Of Glory, with Kubrick and Kirk Douglas:



Eyes Wide Shut
is the only film he made based on something he had first-hand experience of — a 40 year marriage.  His reclusiveness, and this film, suggest to me that this marriage, his family, were the only things he ever found meaning in.  (And by meaning I don’t mean happiness.)  This is an idea he was far too skeptical to state lightly or prematurely, and there is something exquisite in the fact that he died the day after he delivered the film.  He had to, in a way.



Kubrick’s will, and life, and actual life’s blood are on the screen here.  He killed himself making the film — he cared himself to death.  That is the only absolute conclusion we can draw from it, and that is the resonance in it we respond to.  Let a better filmmaker put something better in its place, make something with more resonance — more “meaning” — on the subject of men and women and marriage.

Certainly, up until now, no one ever has.

I’m still in shock that Kubrick made a movie like this — one of the few from my lifetime which will survive far into the 21st century.  What a way to go out.

Below is a painting by Kubrick’s wife, called Remembering Stanley: