. . . Actress

. . .

Irony Watch: Cholly and his lovely chaffeuse spent their first night in Los Angeles at a Douglas Sirk double feature. This being L.A. and all, there was a Special Live Guest: a German actress who had studied with pre-cinema Sirk in the 1930s and who had appeared in Sirk's best-known theatrical production: The Silver Lake, by Georg Kaiser and Kurt Weill, which opened a month after the Nazis took power and closed after thirty noisy performances.

Wandering past the concession stand between shows, Cholly found the Special Live Guest engaged with a couple of audience members and quickly took pen and pad in hand. After all, how many chances do you get nowadays to talk to an actor from the Weimar Republic?

Alas, we all get plenty of chances nowadays to talk to boring blowhards, and the audience member who held the floor (fittingly, an architect by trade) was determined to keep it by demonstrating, over and over again, his astonishing command of film history and style. And alas again, Cholly was much too befuddled by fatigue to figure out a way to reposition the conversational spotlight, finally giving up and returning to Tarnished Angels when the architect informed the actress that Quentin Tarantino admired Douglas Sirk's style and then began explaining who Quentin Tarantino was.

Earlier, the architect had explained that Sirk's Universal pictures were worth watching because of their "irony," and graciously invited Cholly to agree with his opinion. A last alas, for, although the "happy ending" of All I Desire and the cold-blooded spiritual vampires of Magnificent Obsession positively glow with irony, irony is not the principal achievement of Sirk's weepies: Sirk doesn't exactly approve of movie romance, but neither does he keep his distance. What he finds of interest in romantic melodrama is its unique ability to diagram the inevitable misunderstandings and failures resulting from the human need to connect: the clashes of familial, social, and sexual duties; the unresolvable conflict between the abjection of neediness and the desire to be worthy of love; the cocoons that digest their inhabitants. And he diagrams those tangles full-out with every aspect of the film from narrative structure through set design to composition of individual frames -- although, OK, not so successfully with the soundtrack music, but that's always been the curse of post-1939 Hollywood production....

. . .

One of my favorite weblogs, metascene, recorded this all-too-typical reaction to our Douglas Sirk story:

I wish I had abducted that German actress and held her and that miserable pooch of hers for ransom in my seedy hotel room before barely escaping with my life down the fire escape, running as fast as I could away from the sound of shattering glass and angry gunfire...

. . .

100 Super Movies au maximum: Actress

Hsiao-yu tugged at me Director Stanley Kwan's film is a masterpiece, maybe the most intelligently self-aware historical melodrama ever made.

The Hong Kong producers' version, going under the title Centre Stage, thirty minutes shorter and completely restructured, is a Star-Is-Born-and-Then-Dies biopic with pretty cinematography and great acting.

Among the producers' cuts is the central scene of the movie:

After the protagonist's suicide, everyone is standing around her corpse, crying (or not). That's where Centre Stage ends.
Actress draws that shot out, and then interrupts it with Stanley Kwan's voice calling for a retake because he saw Maggie Cheung's chest move.
The scene is then played again, this time with the viewer aware of how much physical strain the perfectly still Cheung must be undergoing beneath and past the moving camera.
"Cut!", and Cheung comes surging up from her deathbed taking great racking gulps of air....

It's an extraordinarily moving collapse of film-as-documentation and film-as-artifice and film-as-immortality -- star as slain and resurrected sacrifice, perpetually reproducing the same....

Auntie Li, why don't you cry? A few prints of Actress have played a lot of film festivals over the years without ever finding a distributor. Despite Kwan's having produced the best entry in BFI's "Century of Cinema" series (going against the likes of Martin Scorsese and Jean-Luc Godard), his early ghost story Rouge remains pretty much the only work available to American audiences.

At this point Actress bids well to become the first great lost film of the 1990s.

. . .

Movie Comment: Prix de Beauté

Miss Europe   Louise Brooks's international career was effectively washed and summed up at age 22 by Prix de Beauté: exhilarating innocent and amoral vamp and tragic Typhoid Mary of lust ("The Girl Can't Help It so we'd better kill her") all in one variably bouncing package. Even the title manages to do some summing up: as world traveller Juliet Clark points out, it can be translated as either "Beauty Prize" or "Price of Beauty."

No long black limousine door ever swung shut more solid than the final shot of Prix de Beauté, the eternally radiant Brooks trilling above her thrownaway husk in as definitively cinematic a moment as Maggie Cheung's resurrection in Actress or Buster Keaton's simiantographer in The Cameraman....

And, while laying Brooks to rest, Prix de Beauté premonitioned the decade to come: Miss Europe dreams of glitter, is shoved into grinding poverty, and is finally blown apart by resentment.

These reflections are occasioned by the recent restoration of the silent version of Prix de Beauté. Like in the early 1960s recording industry's mono-stereo transition, the late 1920s saw the movie industry making both silent and sound mixes, and like in the early 1960s, the old-style mix was almost always better.

Well, plus any restoration is gonna have hindsight and research and new prints on their side.

The point is you shouldn't run right out and look at the crummy semi-bootleg videotapes of the sound version, you should wait and support your local fancy-shmancy moviehouse when they show the silent version or wait till the silent version comes out on home video. Here's me to tell you why!

Thanks, me. Here's why:

  1. Like with a lot of "Continental style" silents, the characters are meant to be annoying and abrasive. OK, but having already pushed that envelope as far as it could stretch, the envelope busts like an overheated can of beans when annoying abrasive voices are added.

  2. In particular, Louise Brooks couldn't possibly play Miss Europe (née Miss France) with a Kansan accent ("New York Herald Tribune!"), so it's probably not her voice in the sound version, and she's the biggest star, so I feel ripped off.

  3. Like with a lot of "Continental style" silents, Prix de Beauté relies on clear crisp photography for much of its impact -- can't really appreciate all that grime and glimmer without clear crisp photography. Restorations tend to be clearer and crisper than crummy semi-bootleg videotapes.

  4. Most of all, the sound version blunders structurally in a big way. The second oomphiest sequence of the movie takes place in an urban carnival: crowded, obnoxious, irredeemably ugly, a fun time for Brooks's awful boyfriend but a headache for Brooks. I hate carnivals, I hate fairs, I hate parades, and I like this sequence.

    In the sound version, it's positioned before Brooks gets her crack at fame and fortune and seems pretty much inexplicable, although it's powerful enough that viewers are willing to work hard to explicate it.

    In the silent version, it's positioned after Brooks is dragged away from fame and fortune by "true love," and after "true love" proves so insanely insecure as to insist that she even stop fantasizing about fame and fortune. There, the sequence makes perfect sense: this is the reward that "true love" is willing to return her for her sacrifices: the honor of watching frantic clowns make assholes of themselves around a bunch of other frantic clowns.

    The old organization makes the movie front-heavy (where the front's the weakest part) and leaves Brooks unmotivated in the second half, where the new (and presumably older than old) organization builds logically and satisfyingly.

Close-ups of mute loudspeakers are a small price to pay.

. . .

Today we're proud and kinda sad to present the final episode of Juliet Clark's "The Dream Factory". Let's hope that her subject has infected Clark with a touch of sequelitis....


Hold Your Man (1933)

When I was an actress, in the early 1930s, I played a girl in love. In this movie I wanted to marry you, but social issues kept getting in the way. Labor struggles, for example: once we had a wedding, but the minister had to go out on strike before he could put the ring on my finger. We chased him through the halls of the apartment building and into the street, but lost him in the crowd of striking preachers. After that you got disillusioned about marriage and started dating other people, including a tall, dark and sullen girl who worked at the candy counter with me. (I used to be a lot smaller and blonder back then.) We all went out to dinner at a restaurant, and to teach you a lesson I decided to disguise myself as the waitress. I became even smaller and blonder, and more intriguing; everyone wanted to dance with me. But you kept getting distracted, and eventually I was so discouraged I turned into a piece of candy in a plastic box. Not a very appealing candy, either -- I was lumpy and misshapen, and my chocolate coating was a pale streaky brown. However, the minister eventually returned from the picket line and offered to finish the ceremony. We all met again at the restaurant and the preacher got ready to put the ring on my hand, but it was so huge it fell right off again. So the minister had to run to the restaurantís coal-burning stove, melt the ring down, and re-shape it to fit my dainty finger. I thought things might fall through again at any moment. I thought, "This wedding is even more suspenseful than the one in Hold Your Man!" (Although this movie was otherwise pretty dissimilar. I was less glamorous than Jean Harlow, and not in a reformatory.) But finally the wedding was complete, and we were both overcome with joy -- all our doubts and struggles were past. You gazed into my eyes and told me, "Now youíll be my lover forever. Though you might not realize it yet, youíre going to die soon. But youíll be a beautiful ghost, my beautiful lover from beyond the grave, so you see nothing will ever change." Thatís what I call a happy ending.

. . .

The disappearance of Stanley Kwan's Actress continues apace. Having had its time in international film festivals and American rep houses, Kwan's 150-minute masterpiece has been pulled completely out of distribution by the Chinese company that holds US rights. The studio's 120-minute "normalized" version, released commercially in HK theaters and on videotape (and soon DVD) as Centre Stage, is now the only one available in America, although the distributors have taken care to increase consumer befuddlement by repackaging that film as The Actress.

Ruan Ling-Yu died 67 years ago yesterday. According to Kwan's film, she had been scheduled to give a talk on International Women's Day to some students. "Nothing matters."

. . .

Movie Comment: Eric Rohmer: With Supporting Evidence

"Every possible decision entails some sacrifice, paradox or irony. But irony doesn't subvert morality; morality is about choosing the lesser of two ironies."
      -- Raymond Durgnat on Eric Rohmer
Godard was louder and funnier, but the best criticism in Cahiers du cinéma was written by Eric Rohmer, and it used to seem sad to me that he didn't, like Godard, keep it going as an occasional thing.

One of the rewards of sitting through this two-part TV interview-with-dumbass-arty-touches is that instead of sad it now seems inevitable, and louder, and funnier. Unlike Godard's too-cool-for-school improvs, Rohmer's criticism was labored over; it was never "occasional" prose. Even if it had been, there's no room for any occasion outside movie-making in Rohmer's post-Cahiers life: every strand, scrap, and moment of his existence is replete with movie-making, and the tools and souvenirs of movie-making threaten to bury him as we watch, cassettes, notebooks, videos, photos, lights, filters (colored tracing paper), reflectors (made in 1959 from tin foil and a portfolio), projectors, photos, and props piling on the desk like from Harpo's inexhaustible trench coat....

I've always been against destruction. I think that in order to build, we mustn't destroy.

In still photos, Rohmer always looks dignified and aristocratic. In action, he's an enthusiastic (if still very polite) goofball, fondly mimicked by Jean-Louis Trintignant in My Night at Maud's and by Hugues Quester in Tale of Springtime, more like a monomaniacal Roland Young than like cold-blue-blooded Antonioni.

Maybe most like Joseph H. Lewis: happy as a pig in low-budget slops.

I believe more and more what I wrote in my last article, that is, that cinema has more to fear from its own clichés than from those of the other arts. Right now, I despise, I hate, cinephile madness, cinephile culture. In "Le Celluloid et le marbre" I said that it was very good to be a pure cinephile, to have no culture, to be cultivated only by the cinema. Unfortunately, it has happened: There now are people whose culture is limited to the world of film, who think only through film, and when they make films, their films contain beings who exist only through film, whether the reminiscence of old films or the people in the profession. The number of short films by novices who in one way or another show only filmmakers is terrifying! I think that there are other things in the world besides film and, conversely, that film feeds on things that exist outside it. I would even say that film is the art that can feed on itself the least. It is certainly less dangerous for the other arts.

If movies are your entire life, life can't enter your movies except through the knotholes and the rust-streaking leaks and the breezy gaps between the amateurish joins. Hollywood can pay to seal itself in; Rohmer can't, and that's exactly what he enjoys about the process.

So nice to think that this is what can happen to a fine analytical critic. Loving the pre-decadent days of cinema, Rohmer, almost uniquely, understands and follows its percepts, that is, its precepts -- that is, its restrictions, which is to say its freedoms. As the man says, it's better to have fifty films made by crews of ten than to have one film made by a crew of five hundred. You can't have a healthy art form without excess production.

It is also because that when you see a "movie" being shot in the streets you usually see 5 production trucks, and an army of assistants running around or standing around, and bright lamps in the middle of a sunny day, and traffic being blocked off, etc etc etc. So nobody takes notice of a professor-looking-type with his young women holding small cameras/equipment (and Pascal, big burley guy who looks like an eternal student), even if some of Rendezvous in Paris was actually shot with Diane Baratier (the camerawoman) sitting in a wheelchair (our idea of a dolly) with Rohmer pushing it.

Rohmer not only takes inspiration around him but is deeply affected by the lives of his immediate entourage. It is not by accident that Winter's Tale told the story of a young woman raising a child single-handedly while sorting out her sentimental webs, it was around that time that Rohmer's immediate entourage turned from young carefree girls into young women freshly divorced or separated with a young child.

Taking the responsibility of adaptation as seriously as any other responsibility, Rohmer didn't go through the same improvisational process with the three movies he's based on existing texts. Instead, as if to fill up any time gained by starting with a finished script, all three laboriously emphasized technical demands and formal experimentation -- and stumbled (sometimes with a triumphant lurching leap) over anti-realistic (or stiff, or inappropriate) acting, or even (in the latest, anyway) horrendous structural problems in the script.

Rohmer is a great moviemaker, and so his experiments are interesting. But one reason he's a great moviemaker is that his rote way of making movies works reliably.

His latest 100-super-movie-au-maximum, Tale of Springtime, I figured was planned from the start as a wiser and more gynocentric answer to My Night at Maud's. It turns out the philosophical discussions that connect the two films were only constructed after long negotiations with the actress who had been cast as the lead. She was a philosophy scholar, the sketchy teacher of Rohmer's original plan was, at her request, realized as a philo prof, and the bare branch blossomed from there.

That's the routine that works, like the seasons. Rohmer quietly worries for decades at vague ideas, suspending their resolution until they can opportunistically latch onto the particulars of setting and collaborator. He films in vacation spots because that's where his friends' empty houses are; he picks amateur actors because they're unyielding enough to propagate story and grateful enough to do it again and because he can afford them; his shots are dictated by his cheap bundle of equipment, and he loves it like a muse. New life is born of abundant wish and a lack of choice.

. . .

The Fiend by Margaret Millar

Millar's muse wanted to horrify us with suburban life c. 1960. Millar's job wanted a suspense plot with a revelatory twist. Their relationship ended in divorce.

American Hustle (2013)

A well-constructed comedy with sparks of recorded life in the 1940s it would've been just another picture; in 2013 it's a fucking miracle. Period points for a leading actress who actually looks like a '70s leading actress.

Her (2013)

I could accept Joaquin Phoenix as a Thorne Smith hero, an all-rich all-white Urbanland as Spike Jonze's social experience, and porn ELIZA as contemporary Hollywood's sincerest conception of soulfulness. But when a content-shoveler's work-for-hire was pitched and published as his own writing under his own name without legal intervention, disbelief dropped to the floor. And disbelief landed mad.

. . .

Movie Comment : All I Desire (1953)

In a post I persistently remember as "Dawn Powell for President," Roger Gathman noted Hillary Clinton's roots in conservative Chicago and asked, "But how about the Midwesterner who returns from the East Coast?"

For me, the question triggered a resurgence of survivor's guilt, resolving into the usual hysterical paralysis. But even as the Drama Queen express barreled away, another train of thought launched towards Hollywood's most peculiar specialist in Midwestern You-Can't-Go-Home-Again-or-Can-You parts: Brooklyn orphaned-and-abusively-bred Barbara Stanwyck.

Back in 1939, Remember the Night had dragged Stanwyck back to Indiana in the custody of killjoy D.A. Fred MacMurray (but this is a Mitchell Leisen picture so at least he's an attractive killjoy). There she's rejected by a shockingly real representative of the Heartland's evil-hearted 30%, meets warm welcomes from not-so-realistic representatives of the open-hearted 20%, sinks gratefully into the embrace of family and community, and is then rejected by them. Big romantic finish while the Breen Office chants "Lock Her Up!"

In All I Desire, Stanwyck's Naomi returns to Wisconsin under her own steam. This makes for a very different story, directed by a very different storyteller.

For some reason, The Film Dictionary of Received Ideas is considered particularly authoritative on "Sirk, Douglas," but Sirk was not a simplistic thinker. Instead of Sturges's-and-Leisen's rigid segregation of good and evil souls, here they're so thoroughly intermingled with the middling majority that, well, sometimes we almost can't tell them apart.

And embodiments of Naomi's original disgrace continue to walk the mean streets of Riverdale, although they seem to have slipped her mind during her busy years on the road: her extramarital lover remains a pillar of good ol' boy society and has assumed a pointedly paternal role towards her son the family's youngest child, born long after his two sisters and so closely to Naomi's escape that he may have precipitated it.

So Juliet Clark is certainly right to predict that "we can only feel relieved to be on the outside looking in" at this all-American home. But consider (as Stanwyck's character must) the alternative.

After ten years Naomi Murdoch's theatrical career has skidded midway down the music hall bill, with sour prospects ahead. (We'll never know how much talent she started with; she'd already borne three children, so she would have been trying to enter the profession at, let's say, age 28 or so?) Ostensibly, at least, she's seizing an opportunity to give her kid a thrill and pick up a little egoboo by way of a little fraudulence, after which she'll shed the pretense of stardom and return to her grind. But from the moment she struts off the train, she seems, so to speak, at home, which is to say on the stage, facing challenges, hitting her marks, sparking glee at each new win. She may not have been able to conquer Paris and London but this audience she can handle, and she'll surely find more opportunities to recite Shakespeare here than in burlesque.

The hometown hoaxer of Sturges's Hail the Conquering Hero is scabied by guilt; for the con-maiden of Sturges's The Lady Eve, the allure of sincerity goes foot-in-hand with the similarly vulnerable intimacy of full-frontal lust. In Riverdale, though, all self-expression is strictly utilitarian (albeit with none-too-well-thought-out motives); Naomi's just best at it.

The unrepentant criminal of Sturges's Remember the Night and the tempted ladies of Sirk's There's Always Tomorrow and All That Heaven Allows gladly lose their burden of selves in Good Clean Fun. But at no moment in All I Desire does Stanwyck convey pleasure untinted by performance. In Double Indemnity, what men mistake for sensuality is simply Mrs. Dietrichson's delight in manipulation; Mrs. Murdoch may have encountered similar confusion and may still.

(A few critics even predict that lechery will send Naomi back to the creep she nearly killed. I can't see it. Stanwyck was a magnificently wide-ranging movie star but one thing she could never play convincingly on-screen was being pushed around. If Naomi strays again, it'll be with someone of more practical use; Colonel Underwood, maybe.)

All I Desire's' "unhappy happy ending" is not all tragic and not all sacrifice. It's the role of a lifetime.

From which I conclude that if the Democratic party had shown the good sense to nominate a HUAC-supporting union-attacking self-martyring workaholic for president and relocated her to Illinois, she might have drawn a plurality of the state's votes.

(On the other hand, the original novel, screenplay, and directorial intent had Naomi opting again for self-exile, possibly after a bridge-burning public self-exposure, presumably to expiate her sins by someday dying in the traditional gutter. So maybe it really is just a crapshoot.)

Naomi's got the situation well in hand


Josh Lukin reflects on 1952:

Your HUAC reference got me thinkin' —the candidate who was uncritical of McCarthy (see Howe, Irving, Steady Work) managed to lose in his native Illinois during the McCarthy era. To be fair, he seems to have lost everywhere except in a handful of states where his running-mate was popular. And thank Heaven he did, 'cause where would we be without the four civil libertarians Ike put on the Court, right?

. . .

Hollywood Lesbians by Boze Hadleigh (1994 edition)

Surprisingly compelling, not so much for the scanty haul of sketchy anecdotes as for a debate which builds coherency over the course of the book.

It begins with Hadleigh's two most concordant interviews, with Marjorie Main and Patsy Kelly: raucous in-your-face dykes dishing the dirt in the comfortably intimate fashion Hadleigh prefers.

The other eight interviewees resist his prompts or his terms with varying levels of agreeableness, demurral, bounds-setting, or outrage, but on grounds of enlightening solidarity.

Hadleigh attempts to explain (and his subjects generally refuse to acknowledge) the notion that coming out of the closet will be both a relief and (more importantly) provide support to their repressed fellows now and in the future.

His subjects react by insisting on the difference between love and sexual acts, the difference between work and love, and the disproportional importance of work in their life as they experienced it and as they'd prefer to be remembered by others. Most pointedly they note (and Hadleigh refuses to acknowledge) the similarity (or equivalence) of his examination to other exploitations they've fought: unwelcome and exhausting presumptions of intimacy, prying and public shaming by journalists, the humiliating shams forced on them by the studios, the denial of any right to unobserved life, the careers brutally truncated by sexist stereotyping.

And some objections resist any summary:

Boze Hadleigh: Off the record? I can turn off the tape recorder.

Agnes Moorehead: Leave it on, leave it on. [Sighs.] You apparently have your own informants. I don’t know what you've heard, and I don't want to hear, and some of it may even be true.

BH: The truth gets around.

AM: ...Somehow.

BH: Would the truth hurt you professionally, now?

AM: Now? Probably not. But I don’t want anyone misinterpreting what was beautiful and even spiritual. I haven't penned my memoirs and doubt that there will be I hope there won’t be a book purporting to represent my life. My work, anyone can see. I never really cared to share anything with the public, or very many people, besides my work.

BH: As a supporting actress, you'll be a part of many books and biographies of major Hollywood stars.

AM: That was rude, too.

BH: I meant that having been in so many famous movies, with so many legendary stars, your name and face in movie stills will be in so many books yet to come.

AM: You’ve just presented my case, in a way. Let's suppose a biography is written of... Jean Arthur. She had her life, her work, a husband or two, no children, and different people thought different things about her. She was emotionally intricate. Most women are. Actresses, more so. An entire book could put much of Jean Arthur, and what she did and who she loved, into perspective. It would take an entire book, at least.

No such book is forthcoming for me. If I make a statement to you now, it will be used and misinterpreted, and one way or another will represent me, if it’s controversial or shocking enough, in who knows how many future books? On the screen or in a book, even a famous supporting actress never receives the same in-depth... the amount of time that any star, great or indifferent, always receives.

As an actress. I’m used to this. I have no option. As a person, I do. My life has been as long as any. I’ve had to struggle more than most people in my very privileged profession, and although my career might be described or capsulized in a few paragraphs by some writers, I won’t let that happen to my life. Certainly not to my own private life... having others try to understand or illuminate me, all in the space of one or two pages or less in a book about someone else!

BH: The solution is to write or collaborate on your own book.

AM: It’s one solution. The other is to do nothing, and inertia is the result of most of our struggles, my boy.

The contrast feels painfully sharp to both parties of the dialogue, but both sides seem ethically valid, and (as shown by later events) they don't necessarily conflict. To a broad (if still precarious) extent, acknowledgment of not-strictly-heterosexual leanings or practice is no longer guaranteed to end (or even necessarily define) a career. And without the lure of ruination, there's no reason to favor gossipy headlines about smallfry celebrities like John Gielgud or Agnes Moorehead over gossipy headlines about Brad Pitt or Beyonce.

As for eliminating gossipy headlines altogether, no dice. That would be bad for business.


Copyright to contributed work and quoted correspondence remains with the original authors.
Public domain work remains in the public domain.
All other material: Copyright 2015 Ray Davis.