. . . Lady from Shanghai

. . .

Strange, that in a work of amusement, this severe fidelity to real life should be exacted by any one, who, by taking up such a work, sufficiently shows that he is not unwilling to drop real life, and turn, for a time, to something different. Yes, it is, indeed, strange that any one should clamor for the thing he is weary of; that any one, who, for any cause, finds real life dull, should yet demand of him who is to divert his attention from it, that he should be true to that dullness.

There is another class, and with this class we side, who sit down to a work of amusement tolerantly as they sit at a play, and with much the same expectations and feelings. They look that fancy shall evoke scenes different from those of the same old crowd round the custom-house counter, and same old dishes on the boarding-house table, with characters unlike those of the same old acquaintances they meet in the same old way every day in the same old street. And as, in real life, the proprieties will not allow people to act out themselves with that unreserve permitted to the stage; so, in books of fiction, they look not only for more entertainment, but, at bottom, even for more reality, than real life itself can show. Thus, though they want novelty, they want nature, too; but nature unfettered, exhilarated, in effect transformed. In this way of thinking, the people in a fiction, like the people in a play, must dress as nobody exactly dresses, talk as nobody exactly talks, act as nobody exactly acts. It is with fiction as with religion: it should present another world, and yet one to which we feel the tie.

If, then, something is to be pardoned to well-meant endeavor, surely a little is to be allowed to that writer who, in all his scenes, does but seek to minister to what, as he understands it, is the implied wish of the more indulgent lovers of entertainment, before whom harlequin can never appear in a coat too parti-colored, or cut capers too fantastic.

-- Herman Melville, The Confidence-Man, His Masquerade

    Pierre, in POLA X

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Movie Comment: POLA X

Canons is the crrrrraziest people! I mean, I love Melville, but what could be nuttier than assigning a book like Moby Dick to a bunch of kids?

Beats me, but doing a big film adaptation of Pierre, or, The Ambiguities has got to come close.

And POLA X is a pretty close adaptation, given that the story's been bumped forward 150 years. Leos Carax even improved the original by explaining the dark sister as a refugee from the Balkans, which takes care of Melvillean mysteries like her lack of education, her fear of authority, and why in the world a false marriage would be more useful than a firmly stated fraternity. And should Herman Melville have developed a time machine, and travelled into the present day, he would almost certainly watch the Carax version, perhaps on a DVD, would he not? And then it seems clear that the incandescent metal coil of competition would drive deep into his heart, and heat and stir his blood, turning him into a lava lamp of nineteenth century American fiction -- is that not also true? And so it would follow that upon returning to his own time, Melville would modify his novel to make Isabel an escaped slave, which would match Carax's explanations point for point and up the ante by explaining the mysterious weightiness of the paternal sin and Pierre's resultingly mysterious compulsion to atone. And then Carax, in despair, would fold.

Which would be just as well, because the movie doesn't work.

As long as I'm rewriting history, would there have been any way to make it work? First, a true film adaptation of Pierre would have to be about a spoiled kid squandering all of his fortune and then some on making a film, a film upon which he would be desperately staking the fate of himself and all his loved ones, a film which would ultimately not be accepted by any festivals, which would, at best, go straight to video. Next, the film itself -- the film which told the story of this sad indie director -- would have to be equally utterly disastrous for the career of its maker, a contemptuous and self-loathing disaster much bigger than, for example, Les Amants du Pont-Neuf, a disaster on the level of The Lady from Shanghai or Marnie. But then also the look of the film must be fevered and murky rather than slick and glamorous.... Oh, perhaps if George Kuchar had married Geena Davis, we'd be approaching the necessary conditions -- but what are the odds? Slim; very slim.

. . .

"When I start out to make a fool of myself, there's very little can stop me. If I'd known where it would end, I'd've never let anything start. If I'd been in my right mind, that is."

Touchez pas au Grisbi
"Silly, isn't it?"
The 100 Super Movies au maximum: The Lady from Shanghai

Roger Gathman responds to our POLA X dreams:

The Lady from Shanghai a disaster? Yes, Columbia Pictures and that little Mussolini-loving weasel, Harry Cohn, couldn't find a picture in it - but we are not talking Marnie or Heaven's Gate here. This flick definitely has had more influence on the way we look at mirrors than any production since Versailles.
Ah, but who mentioned Heaven's Gate? Or The Towering Inferno, for that matter? Disastrous expressions of pure overindulged incompetence or disastrous depictions coldly manipulated to please the ravening mob -- what are those to us? Those are like a newspaper calling an airplane crash "tragic." No, when I belly up to the bar, I want my disaster served as good old-fashioned classical tragedy: a disaster simultaneously determined by insurmountable hostile forces (e.g., Hollywood) and strenuously self-willed.

Pierre is one of my favorite novels and The Lady from Shanghai is one of my favorite movies because they're so inherently, inescapably, and beautifully disastrous. Neither work can be treated in isolation any more than Metallic K.O. could be imagined outside the context of a live audience; even with no prior knowledge of their authors' careers, a reader of one or viewer of the other would divine that something terribly wrongheaded is going on -- "terribly" like in tragedy.

The work Welles originally had in mind -- cheap pulp made "queer" and "strange," as if taking place in a horrible dream -- he would achieve much later (so late as to be in fact posthumous) in the resorted Touch of Evil. But the addition of Rita Hayworth made his first attempt at the dish into very expensive strange flavor chicken, and the ensuing struggle of cook and kitchen could not be redeemed or masked by the studio's corny music and funhouse cuts: every meddle only added a newly suggestive disruption to the surface. (The shipboard song, with its cigarette passing, for example -- that disturbing miracle of camera move and composition -- wouldn't have existed without executive whim: Rita Hayworth must sing, and therefore Orson Welles must undercut the number.)

Only if we quit   Plenty of viewers have noticed the suicidal tinge to Welles's narcissism, the way in which, from Citizen Kane to The Immortal Story, he repeatedly asserted control over his own chaotic existence by maneuvering and surviving his on-screen avatars' ends.

The Lady from Shanghai is the only Welles vehicle which doesn't include his character's death. Instead, the self-destructive impulse becomes so sincere as to be pushed off-screen entirely. At the film's finish, what "Michael O'Hara" casually strolls away from is his creator's fatally wounded career.

"It's true. I made a lot of mistakes."


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.