Friday, October 28, 2005

Jitsuko Yoshimura in Onibaba. She's wonderful, but the landscape may be the real star of the movie. Posted by Picasa

I'm including this still only because if you rent Witchfinder General, you really should know what you're in for. Posted by Picasa

Sally Ann Howes and Michael Allen in the Siren's favorite segment of her favorite ghost movie, Dead of Night. Posted by Picasa

Frightening the Siren

Halloween approaches, and the Siren is moved to contemplate which movies have frightened her over the years. Let us be clear: we're talking fright, not revulsion, pity, or "Cool-O! how'd they do that?"

The Siren has found movies to love in every category, but horror has never been one of her favorites. Old-fashioned horror movies play best with her. Recent ones too often devolve into the slasher genre, outside of science fiction easily the Siren's least favorite type of movie.

[While we are discussing this, may I call for a temporary moratorium on serial killer movies? Enough already, people, unless you can bring a fresh vision to it, and I don't mean "Let's play some Bach and forget about lighting the set," either.]

Here, with minimal plot details since surprise is of the essence, are four movies that genuinely frightened the Siren:

Dead of Night (1945) I've a weakness for anthology movies; Tales of Manhattan, The Story of Three Loves, even New York Stories. Dead of Night may be the best one ever. People seem generally to agree that the ventiloquist segment with Michael Redgrave is the strongest and most frightening, but I like them all. Yes, even the golf one. Most underrated, in my opinion, is the quiet but poignant "Christmas Party" sequence with a very young Sally Ann Howes and Michael Allen. Perhaps it works best if you see it as I did, knowing that Constance Kent was a real person. The ventriloquist and the Christmas party sequences had the same director, Alberto Calvacanti.

The Horror of Dracula (1958) Him again. Need I say more? Vampires have been done to death but the Siren always loved the Technicolor lushness of this Hammer version and parts of it give her some pleasant shivers. Bela Lugosi was a better Count than Christopher Lee, in my very humble non-horror-buff opinion, but the supporting cast here is much better than the one in Tod Browning's version.

Onibaba (1964) The Siren is very pleased to see that this Japanese film has gained a following. She is convinced that's because it was made widely available at video stores; even her local Blockbuster in Manhattan had a copy. (There is a lesson there, Mr. Studio Suit.) Director Kaneto Shindo and cinematographer Kiyomi Kuroda take an apparently featureless landscape--a large, marshy plain full of reeds--and show you how day and night, wind and shadow give it a thousand aspects, most of them terrifying. All this from something that, I suppose, is technically a serial killer movie.

Witchfinder General (1968). I saw this on American Movie Classics so long ago that benighted channel didn't even have commercials, under the name The Conqueror Worm. (The American distributor of this English film threw in some Edgar Allen Poe recitation to capitalize on the success of Roger Corman's Poe cycle.) Some debate whether this belongs in the horror category, but it certainly horrified the bejesus out of me. It was showing in the 10 am to noon slot and when bedtime rolled around that night I was still trying to calm my shattered nerves. Vincent Price plays the titular 17th century witchfinder, Matthew Hopkins, who was a real person, god help us. Price was never scarier. In fact, this is one of only a handful of Price performances entirely free from camp or humor of any kind. There's an old, possibly apocryphal anecdote associated with the making of this movie. Price and director Michael Reeves didn't get along. One day Price, trying to put Reeves in his place, said, "I have made 70 films. What have you done?" "I've made three good ones," snapped Reeves. Extremely funny, even if Reeves was forgetting The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, Laura, Leave Her to Heaven, The House of the Seven Gables and Dragonwyck.

So the Siren asks her patient audience: Which films frightened you?

Friday, October 21, 2005

Julie London welcomes fall in a "sweater girl" shot from the year The Red House was released. Speaking of smoking, check out this archeological find: a link to a Real Player file of Julie singing a Marlboro jingle. Posted by Picasa

Little House in the Big Woods

Autumn is the Siren's favorite season, by a mile. Perhaps that's because she grew up in the heat-soaked Deep South, where you look forward to the cooling breezes of fall the way those up North yearn for spring. But she would probably like this time of year anyway. She can put on a sweater, the sky turns a brilliant color, the wind picks up and so does her energy during the day. At night the Siren finds herself wanting to wrap up in a quilt on the couch, sip a soothing drink and watch something that will suit the mood, as the days rush on toward Halloween. So the other night she pulled out her unwatched copy of The Red House, Delmer Daves's thriller from 1947. 

The movie stars Edward G. Robinson, which was reason enough to buy it. Martin Scorsese discusses this movie in "A Journey Through American Film," but the Siren remembers nothing he said. Anyway, if it is autumnal atmosphere you are after, this movie is the business. 

The red house of the title is out in the woods, in a location so remote that the characters discuss it for a long while before anybody locates it. Allene Roberts is Meg Morgan, the sheltered teenage niece of Wisconsin farmer Pete Morgan (Robinson) and his sister Ellen (Judith Anderson, who apparently hadn't changed hairstyles since Rebecca). Nath Storm (Lon McAllister), comes to work at the Morgan farm as a part-time hired hand, and despite his ludicrous name Meg has a raging crush on him. Nath lingers too long at dinner one night, time comes for him to go home, and he decides on a shortcut through the woods. Pete, who obviously knows too much about the forest, tries to dissuade Nath, yelling "Did you ever run from a scream? You CAN'T!" 

What with the wind picking up, Robinson's bullfrog mouth stretching his face into a gargoyle and Miklos Rozsa's fantastic score building the menace, the Siren would have said, "You win, Pete. Let's call a cab." But this is a thriller, Nath insists he isn't afraid, and with Pete, the wind and Rozsa howling after him, off he goes into the woods. Nath's journey through the woods takes him through thick and threatening underbrush, snapping branches and leaves that seem actually to pursue him down the path. Eventually Nath, exhausted and terrified, runs right back to the Morgan farm and takes refuge in the barn. It's a gorgeous sequence. The next day, Nath and Meg decide to unravel the secret of the woods and the red house. 

The Siren found throughout the film that each time the camera entered the forest, the tension grew and the effect was beautiful and menacing indeed. Scenes outside the woods are sometimes equally interesting, but not always. Part of the fault lies with the Siren's fellow Alabamian, Roberts, who is what novelist Georgette Heyer used to call a "milk-and-water miss." Pete's interest in his niece seems unhealthy from the beginning, but Robinson has little to play off with Roberts since she has the appeal and personality of a plucked chicken. Robinson was an incredible talent, and he mostly gives a fine performance (I don't think he gave any other kind). But the part requires so many abrupt changes of mood and motivation it's a wonder the man didn't get whiplash. 

Judith Anderson as a Wisconsin farm frau just doesn't wash. Her queenly bearing kept giving her away, and every time she opened her mouth the Siren expected either iambic pentameter or something like "Why don't you leave Manderley? He doesn't need you." 

The Siren was most touched to see that the cast included Ona Munson in a brief part as Nath's mother. She made a vivid impression as Belle Watling in Gone with the Wind and Mother Gin Sling in The Shanghai Gesture, but she was in a typecasting straitjacket and this was her last role. She had major surgery in the early 1950s and suffered from depression afterward. In 1955 she committed suicide with an overdose of barbituates, leaving a note to her husband that read, "This is the only way I know to be free again." Munson looks wan here, and while she does a good job, her scenes make for sad viewing. 

Still, there are a lot of reasons to see The Red House. There's Robinson, always fascinating even when the script demands the impossible. There is the gorgeous soundtrack, skillful building of atmosphere by Daves and the beautiful cinematography by Bert Glennon. And there's an actress whose future fame was much more as a singer, Julie London. As Tibby, the town bad girl, she is just luscious. Nath is going steady with Tibby, and when Meg is around it's rather like setting a rag doll next to Botticelli's Venus and asking who's gonna get the guy. London was a real eyeful, and in The Red House her seductive speaking voice and masses of tumbling hair do half the work. She walks off with every scene she's in.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Orphans of the Storm (1921)

The Siren wishes everyone could see D.W. Griffith's take on the French Revolution as she did, with a Parisian-bred movie fan at your elbow. She usually has one handy, having had the foresight to marry the gentleman. Consequently, she could look over and see his befuddlement at the intertitle calling Danton "the Abraham Lincoln of France." Even better was the expression on view when the Parisian mob were described as "Bolsheviks." Ah well, as they used to say in the Cold War days, all revolutions after 1776 were Marxist-Leninist anyway.

Griffith's politics in Orphans of the Storm are all over the place, but the film is certainly better in that regard than The Birth of a Nation. (Then again, barbed-wire bra straps are less painful than the politics of that 1915 opus.) Griffith was a superbly innovative 20th century director. But the artist Griffith also had his head and heart in the 19th century, for better, as in Broken Blossoms (the Siren's favorite Griffith), or for worse, as in Birth. Lillian Gish said this film was heavily influenced by Thomas Carlyle, as well as Charles Dickens, Griffith's favorite novelist. Some sequences are so melodramatic, you could believe you were watching the Crummles theatrical troupe from Nicholas Nickleby.

Orphans is gorgeous, though. Nobody did epic, teeming crowd scenes quite like Griffith, and there are precious few directors who ever conveyed the sweep of history with the same flair. Given Griffith's overwritten intertitles, the Gish sisters do remarkably well as the orphans of the title. Lillian, of course, was a peerless artist who could pull at your heart like no other. Dorothy, as a blind girl forced to beg in the streets, probably has the better role for once. The other performances vary wildly in quality, from Joseph Schildkraut as a rather effeminate hero (Dorothy remarked tartly that he was prettier than she was) to Monte Blue acquitting himself quite well as Danton.

While she is on the subject of silent movies, the Siren wants to point out two great Websites. Lately she has been losing herself in The Silent Movie Bookshelf, a set of eye-popping primary source material from the period, such as articles from 1927 and 1928 about how The Wedding March and The Crowd were revised after audience previews, and another series written by Charlie Chaplin about his triumphal return to England. She is also enjoying Gilda's Blue Book of the Screen, a fan site that lovingly compiles articles, pictures, links and a wonderful set of organ-music files.
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Sunday, October 16, 2005

Ed Harris and Viggo Mortenson in A History of Violence. The Siren wanted a still from the first sex scene, but movie studios are so stingy with those. Posted by Picasa

Now Playing. No, Seriously.

Lately the Siren sees new movies about once every vernal equinox. Thanks to Girish's enthusiasm, Thursday night the Siren hired a babysitter and saw A History of Violence. So here is a rare post about a movie that is still in theaters. If you haven't seen it, the Siren recommends that you do. Even if you dislike the movie, it is a major work by a serious filmmaker and deserves to be loathed on a big screen.

I did like it, however, liked it a lot, and not just for the many wonderful camera angles you get on Viggo Mortenson. The plot can be sussed from the trailers: Nice guy named Tom (Viggo), living in small farm town with lovely wife (Maria Bello) and two kids, saves some folks from a couple of vicious criminals. He becomes a hero, gets his face splashed all over the media. Suddenly, some seriously frightening underworld figures show up (including Ed Harris, terrific as always) and begin to menace him. Are they figures from Tom's past, or he is the victim of mistaken identity?

You can see this film as a straight genre flick, but the Siren thinks you will be disappointed if you do. The IMDB chat boards are full of people who went expecting a well-constructed thriller, and left wanting to wring the neck of Roger Ebert, Kenneth Turan and every other critic that gave the movie a good review. They say they have seen much better, and in terms of thrillers maybe they have.

The Siren does not have much patience for those complaining about the violence. It's David Cronenberg, folks, and he was thoughtful enough to keep the title of the graphic novel the script is based on. He didn't change it to "Fluffy Bunny Ears" and then spring a couple of cross-country serial killers on you. Complaints about the pace puzzled the Siren too. The movie lasts 98 minutes and tells its story with great clarity. Not every thriller has to have a thumping, propulsive, MTV-Cuisinart-editing style.

Other complaints are accurate, so far as they go. There are some cliches and fallacies that pop up, like the Talking Killer, the Seriously Wounded Guy Still Able to Take Out Lots of Scary Dudes, and the Point Blank Shots That Miss. The characters are sharply drawn and extremely well played, but they are mostly archetypes familiar from dozens of other movies: the smart and still sexy wife, the nerdy picked-on son, the bullying jock, the china-doll daughter, the villain who is still royally pissed off about his disfigured face.

The Siren, however, thinks the seeming infelicities are deliberate. The familiar set-ups and characters give a feeling of timelessness and myth. The bizarre humor that some complain about keeps you off-balance. You're shown something horrifying, but it's so deliberately incongruous that the audience giggles. Someone takes an absurd line and gives it a serious reading--not the wink-wink deadpan of Leslie Nielsen, but the grim earnestness of a social worker on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.

Some call the violence very true to life. A few close-ups would fit nicely in a forensics textbook. But the Siren thinks an early sex scene, with some awkward, on-and-off role-playing and an unlovely rendition of soixante-neuf, is probably the most "realistic" sequence in the movie. The violence, on the other hand, comes in manic bursts. And as Girish notes, each confrontation evokes a different audience reaction, from pity to anger to horror to, more than once, total disbelief.

So why subvert your own material this way? In this case, if realism is being stretched and slapped around and sometimes flat-out ignored, it's because you're being invited--hell, you're being pushed--to take a look at everything the story implies.

I want to discuss those implications, but I can't do that without bringing in some plot points. So if you haven't seen the movie, STOP RIGHT NOW, don't spoil it for yourself.

If you're still here, I am going to assume that either you saw it, or are one of those people who peeks ahead in a mystery novel because suspense is an overrated narrative device.

It is pretty obvious from the get-go that Tom is not the purely perfect father figure he seems to be. The amazing efficiency with which he dispatches those criminals tips you off, for one thing. Tom Stall, the salt-of-earth diner proprietor, is the new identity of Joey Cusack, a mobster whose mania for bloodshed went too far even for the underworld when he took out Ed Harris' eye with barbed wire. (You are never told what prompted that, and it's implied that Joey might have done it for any old reason at all.) Joey hid away for three years in some sort of desert purgatory, eventually got a new identity, and wound up in Millbrook, Indiana, with a perfect blonde wife and two kids and a house with a front porch and a mailbox that jauntily proclaims "The Stalls."

So that first encounter in the diner, as Tom dispatches two psychopaths, doesn't draw an essential stalwart and upstanding guy into a situation he would never have chosen. It unleashes a carefully nurtured but long-suppressed ability to kill, fast and efficiently.

Remind you of anyone? anywhere? The Siren thinks it should.

Fundamental to most Americans' perception of themselves is the story we tell about our peacefulness and amiability. Historians may demur, but our movies tell us that we don't go around seeking out fights, no sir. From Shane to Sergeant York to even The Godfather, we see hero after hero who, whatever his past, would be pursuing a peaceful life of farming or turkey-hunting or fooling around with Diane Keaton, were it not for the corrupt and heinous outside world picking a fight with him. But once somebody picks a fight, by golly, the hero's gonna finish it--and so is this country.

Of course, this vision of America, where we are never the aggressor, is a polite, elaborate and ahistorical lie, one that continues right up through our latest exercise in selective umbrage-taking. A History of Violence says we're frauds, and the Siren can't help wondering if some people have a very hard time with that. Cronenberg looks not merely at violence itself, nor even at what prompts it, but at what we must tell ourselves in order to preserve our self-image. "When you dream, do you dream you're Joey?" Ed Harris asks Viggo.

Maybe he does, maybe he doesn't. Not many of us dream of Sand Creek. Our country was founded on violence, it is our original sin and in our DNA. Bloodshed is always there under the surface, as is in Tom.

And violence perpetuates itself, as we see Tom's son able to beat someone nearly senseless, and as one war begets another on our evening news. But Cronenberg is no moralist, and he's willing to acknowledge the Darwinian advantages of being able to kill when necessary. As Roger Ebert pointed out, if Tom/Joey were really the nice guy he seemed to be, he would have died right there on the restaurant floor. The violence is what enables him to survive.

In the end, Joey returns to his family table, and in the silent, tentative offer of food and truce you see the possibility of reconciliation. Joey yearns to go back to Tom, his family wants to let him come back. But looking at the last shots of his wife's haunted face, the Siren wondered how another cherished American ideal--starting over--was going to work out this time.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

The Siren Gets Tagged

The Siren has been tagged by the fabulous Annieytown of the New York Times-touted Blogdorf Goodman. She must now post 20 random facts about herself. All right, here goes:

1. The Siren's first stage disappointment was when, as a fourth-grader, she tried out for a German-language version of The Pied Piper of Hamelin. She wanted to play the Piper. She was cast as a rat.

2. Her first line ever spoken on stage: "Ja, der rattenfanger."

3. Her first cat was named "Little Red Riding Hood Magnolia Blossom," showing a flair for ridiculous names at a young age.

4. Hearing that, it will not surprise you to hear that the Siren's real name is not Campaspe.

5. The Siren doesn't drive, another reason to feel a deep kinship with Annie.

6. She was married in southern Lebanon.

7. Her husband is a French citizen, but her French is absolutely atrocious.

8. The Siren almost had her handbag pickpocketed because she was trying to get a good look at Catherine Deneuve, who had walked into the store and was back at the dressing rooms trying on vintage blouses.

9. One of my favorite fantasies involves telling Catherine Deneuve about this incident, and her being so charmed that we wind up fast friends.

10. The Siren is literally, physically allergic to cold. She breaks out in hives if her skin is exposed to low temperatures for too long.

11. The Siren has two cats despite being allergic to both of them.

12. The Siren loves snakes, and at age 10 had her picture in the local paper with a boa constrictor wrapped around her neck.

13. The Siren is distantly related to Clyde Barrow.

14. The Siren can't whistle.

15. At age 4, the Siren refused to answer anyone unless addressed as "Cinderella."

16. At age 5, the Siren became fed up with a particularly perfect girl at kindergarten. The child was always clean, never shouted out answers, always colored inside the lines. The Siren decided to write this girl's name down in the teacher's bad conduct book, and was deeply chagrined when the forgery was discovered, possibly because the Siren had printed in crayon with block capitals.

17. The Siren has never read The DaVinci Code or The Lovely Bones.

18. She has never seen a single episode of Sex and the City.

19. She worked for three professors who had been involved with the Manhattan Project.

20. The Siren is still homesick for New York.

Now for my revenge. I am tagging Katiedid at Seldom Nice Nowadays, dear D. at An Alabaster Brow, Koneko at Koneko's Mostly Beauty Diary, Mireille at C'est Chic, and Liz at This Bananafish Smells Like Leaves.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

The Siren has had it up to here with comment spam. It would be one thing if only her current posts were affected, but now the dirty so-and-sos are attacking her archives. The limit was reached when she realized someone had spammed the comments thread on her little memorial post for the late George Fasel. Alas, she must turn on her word verification. Please accept her apologies. Posted by Picasa