Friday, June 19, 2009

10 Books From a Cinephile's Past: From Reverence to Rape

From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies, by Molly Haskell.

This book gets its own entry, in first person, and its own set of personal digressions.

The digressions begin with Mrs G., my favorite high-school teacher. She taught Psychology, a class available only to seniors and full of jocks convinced it was an easy way to boost your GPA. In truth Mrs. G. was not a hard grader; nose-to-the-grindstone was not her style and not what she was after. The discussions and the mental workout were the point of her class.

The big spring feature of Psychology was a senior project. You had half a class to present it and were supposed to spend most of a six-week unit working on it. One conservative, deeply religious girl did prison reform, I remember--asking the class to reconsider whether a purely punitive attitude towards corrections was good for the prisoners or good for society, talking about the effects of putting a low-level offender in with hardened cons. She had started her research with a "lock 'em up" attitude. That was Mrs. G.'s class for you, turning expectations on their head.

The project was loosely defined, and I found out just how loose when I got permission for my class project, an in-depth feminist analysis of movies focused on Molly Haskell's From Reverence to Rape. Psychology, you ask? Maybe not. More just Mrs. G.

I had discovered this book in the town library, and I probably took it off the shelf because the title struck me as promisingly salacious. I was only 18. But what I got between those baby-pink covers (the wit of that choice only struck me later) was a brain-rearranging look at the movies I had spent my childhood and adolescence watching while other kids were developing, well, a social life. Here was a fiercely intellectual critic who not only liked all the movies that I liked, but liked them for the same reasons. As much as I had been devouring Kael in the New Yorker, I couldn't say the same for her.

Haskell saw what I saw in the women's pictures:

...There is a third category, one to which the better women's films aspire: It is the fiction of the 'ordinary woman who becomes extraordinary,' the woman who begins as a victim of discriminatory circumstances and rises, through pain, obsession, or defiance, to become mistress of her fate. Between the suds of soap opera we watch her scale the heights of Stendhalian romance. [Haskell had me running to the Reader's Encyclopedia a great deal, too. -C.] Her ascent is given stature and conviction not through a discreet contempt for the female sensibility, but through an all-out belief in it, through the faith, expressed in directorial sympathy and style, that the swirling river of a woman's emotions is as important as anything on earth.

She understood why I disliked violence against women in modern films, why I rolled my eyes over women characters in action movies:

With the substitution of violence and sexuality (a poor second) for romance, there was less need for exciting and interesting women: any bouncing nymphet whose curves looked good in catsup would do.

She knew why I loved Bette Davis...

As Rosa Moline [in Beyond the Forest], Davis creates her own norms, and is driven by motives not likely to appeal to the average audience. She is ready and eager to give up husband, position, security, children (most easily, children), even lover; for what? Not for anything so noble as 'independence' in terms of a job, profession, or higher calling, but to be rich and fancy in Chicago! And here is Davis, not beautiful, not sexy, not even young, convincing us that she is all these things--by the vividness of her own self-image, by the vision of herself she projects so fiercely that we have no choice but to accept it...She says it for all smart dames when David Brian tells her he no longer loves her, that he's found the 'pure' woman of his dreams. 'She's a book with none of the pages cut,' he says. 'Yeah,' Davis replies, 'and nothing on them!'

and Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday...

Russell does not become an imitation male; she remains true to the two sides--feminine and professional--of her nature, and as such promises to exert a healthy influence on the hard-boiled, all-male world of criminal reporting. It is as a newspaper reporter, rather than as wife and mother, that she discovers her true 'womanliness,' which is to say, simply, herself.

and Stage Door...

[Andrea] Leeds is the actress of phenomenal talent, Hepburn the brash and thoughtless upstart, but neither, contrary to the usual convention, is pictured as neurotic simply because of her determination. Nor do the life choices of the others--marriage, an affair, return home, den mother--appear as compromises but rather logical steps in each girl's evolution.

and Haskell also understood why I could look past certain aspects of the old movies and still love them.

The fact that I consider myself a film critic first and a feminist second means that I feel an obligation to the wholeness and complexity of film history. It means that art will always take precedence over sociology, the unique over the general.

Andrew Sarris is a very great critic, but my heart belongs to Molly.

So for half an hour I talked about this book, and the movies, in Mrs. G.'s class, and I can still remember the expressions on the faces of my fellow students when I began with a discussion of the virgin/whore dichotomy. I was loud, confident and well-prepared so I don't think they were bored. They just had no idea what the hell I was talking about. One football player (actually a nice guy) explained patiently to me that it was unreasonable to expect, for example, Indiana Jones to untie Karen Allen in Raiders of the Lost Ark because she was going to get hurt. I don't remember what he said when I responded that Allen had taken quite good care of herself to that point, and that in the old movies, women got hurt all the time--but in different ways.

Another football player (not such a nice guy) announced during discussion time, with a pointed look at me, that the only women espousing this kind of stuff were ugly ones who couldn't get a date. And my favorite part of the whole presentation was the look on his face when I held up the book to reveal the back-jacket photo of glowing, blonde, gorgeous Molly. Take that, Greg. Bet you're paunchy now. Haskell is still gorgeous.

Anyway, my stubborn decision to go with this subject matter goes some way toward explaining why I did not date in Alabama, but instead had to wait to land in New York, where some men looked at a fair-skinned feminist with a copy of the New Yorker under her arm and, when she brightly announced that Double Indemnity was at Theatre 80 St. Marks, said "Cool. What time?"

But Mrs. G. (who gave me an A, by the way) saw different things in me. The last day of school, just for fun, she went around the class giving predictions of where we would be in five years. She looked at me and said, to the sound of suppressed giggles, "C. will be in New York City living with a rock musician." And you know what? She was right.

Here's to Molly Haskell, Mrs. G., and all the other women, and men, who see things that others don't.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

10 Books From a Cinephile's Past (Part 1)

The Siren has been tagged several times, but (she believes) first by Tony Dayoub, for a meme about books that have influenced her view of the cinema. At first, the Siren thought, that's been done. Sheila O'Malley's shelf-by-shelf descent through her enormous film-book library is a hard act to follow. Still, the Siren went over to her own haphazardly organized shelves and began to get quite nostalgic over the books she read years ago. So she decided to attempt to reconstruct a small part of her early film-book reading pattern, where she went from just watching movies to wanting to read about who made them, and how, and when, and why. This is not a heavyweight list. It is more akin to stopping into a children's bookstore and saying, "I remember that! I even remember what I was doing when I read it!" But the Siren has always found that the books you read as a youngster stay with you the longest.

So then, roughly in the order that the Siren encountered them, 10 books that shaped my view of the cinema. Herer are the first five books, with the next five to come:

Vanity Fair: Selections from America's Most Memorable Magazine, ed. Cleveland Amory and Frederick Bradlee.This wonderful book, firmly out of print but available on the Web for little more than the price of postage, is full of beautiful images from the magazine's first incarnation, which ran from 1914 to 1936. The Siren spent hours decoding the witty articles like messages from a lost ship--which, in a way, they were. Since this was well before the Internet, it sometimes took years to find out what they were talking about. Who, for example, was Doris Keane?

Long before Graydon Carter or Twitter ever came on the scene, the magazine was in the habit of handing notepads to celebrities and asking them to come up with thoughts, for example, on The Ideal Woman. And, further to our digression on Ruby Keeler, perhaps my readers would like to see what Al Jolson had to say on that matter. Read it and see if you don't appreciate Ruby a little more for sticking it out for 12 years:

1. The gift of stretching a can of sardines into a banquet.
2. A thorough dislike of all actors--save one.
3. An appreciation of the fact that, in all the important affairs of life, and in the trivial ones as well, I am, for some curious reason, invariably RIGHT.
4. A disinclination to be taken out--unless she had bid 'one club.'
5. A hearty laugh for all my jokes, including the very old ones.
6. A loathing for crossword puzzles.
7. An inability to block a straight left. [!!!! -The Siren.]
8. Complete ignorance of the existence of the Lucy Stone League.
9. A million dollars.
10. A cough.

Many were the photographs that filled the Siren with desire to see the subject's movies. Like this one, which along with Queen Christina sparked a lifelong love for Garbo:

Or this one, which prompted the Siren to pick up Sunshine and Shadow, Mary Pickford's autobiography.

Pauline Kael in the New Yorker. I could cheat here and cite 5001 Nights at the Movies, but in truth I didn't get that book until much later and I have been missing my copy for years--probably wound up with an ex-boyfriend. My father subscribed to The New Yorker and my favorite section was the front, where I could get all manner of intriguing capsules about movies I had already seen and movies I wanted to see. I didn't agree with Kael all the time (who does?) but she opened my eyes to so many directors and so many movies. Like this one below, chosen just because the title leaped out at me at this site:

Paths of Glory. Just after he made his racetrack robbery picture THE KILLING, Stanley Kubrick directed this version of Humphrey Cobb's novel, photographed in Germany. It is not so much an anti-war film as an attack on the military mind. Some of the press went all out for it ("searing in its intensity," and that sort of thing), but it wasn't popular. The movie has a fascinating jittery quality, especially when Timothy Carey, who's like a precursor of the hipster druggies of the 60s, is on the screen, and the strong, liberal-intellectual pitch makes it genuinely controversial, though it was certainly easier to be anti-militaristic in a film (made in peacetime) set during the First World War than it would have been in a film set during the Second World War. The story is about the class structure within the French army--the aristocratic generals in their spacious, sunlit châteaux and the proletarian soldiers in the dark trenches; trapped between them is Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas), who commiserates with the men but is powerless--he carries out the orders of the high command. When the soldiers refuse to fight in a battle that is almost certain death, three of them are selected to be tried for cowardice; Dax has the task of defending them. The film's rhythm is startling--you can feel the director's temperament. And there's an element of relentlessness in the way he sets out to demonstrate the hopeless cruelty of the "system." (The film was banned in France for some years.) It's an angry film that seems meant to apply to all armies. Watching it is very frustrating: Kubrick, who wrote the script with Calder Willingham and Jim Thompson, doesn't leave you with anything. He must have felt this, because he tacks on a scene at a cabaret, with a German girl (Susanne Christian) singing and the soldiers singing along, as they weep. (It just makes you uncomfortable.)

The Siren most emphatically does not agree with everything in that capsule--for one thing, I couldn't disagree more about the film's ending. Other parts engender the same "Yes, BUT..." reaction that I often have to Kael's criticism. But Kael made me want to see the movie, and she made me want to think about the movie, and she made me yearn for an intelligent conversation about the movie. And that's just one of thousands. Years later I can still remember phrases from both her capsules and her long reviews. Not many critics can expect their writing to be that fresh, that provocative, that memorable long after they have died.

Scarlett Fever by William Pratt, including the collection of Herb Bridges. This picture-packed (but alas, entirely black-and-white) book about Gone with the Wind helped spark the Siren's interest in movie-making, as opposed to just movie-watching. It could be a model for other fan books. There is a long section about Margaret Mitchell, the writing of the book and its stupendous success, but the Siren liked the movie sections the best. Pratt goes back through the filming records and shows almost day by day how GWTW was shot. He details the alterations made during filming, and the rationales for them. There are many on-set photographs, a whole series of test stills of Walter Plunkett's costumes, sketches from William Cameron Menzies, pictures of Ernest Haller at work, and many other details on the movie, from rights purchase to Atlanta premiere, all the way up through re-releases. You get all the directors, including a rundown on which bits George Cukor did, which scenes were shot by Victor Fleming and which were shot by Sam Wood. Pratt even introduced the Siren to such cinephile controversies as aspect ratio, describing misbegotten re-releases in widescreen that cut out part of the image. There's also a huge (maybe too huge) section on Herb Bridges' collection of GWTW memorabilia. Pratt eschews gossip; you will find none of the rumors about Cukor's departure, just a rundown on his "script differences" with David O. Selznick (which appear to have been real enough). But since reading this book, the Siren has read a lot more about Selznick, Vivien Leigh and all the others involved in Gone with the Wind, and has found very little to criticize in terms of Pratt's accuracy. In fact the book politely sets the record straight on a number of matters, Pratt shaking his head gently over such howlers as Bosley Crowther asserting in The Great Films that Victor Fleming died during production. Interpretation is another matter, and the book's most serious flaw is that it barely touches upon the controversies that surrounded GWTW from the moment of the book's publication. Still, this was one of the best Christmas presents my parents ever got me.

Lulu in Hollywood by Louise Brooks. Another Christmas present, and my introduction to Louise Brooks, whom I met as a writer long before I met her as Lulu. Brooks could really write, and this is another book that still has phrases rattling around in the Siren's head. The Siren recommends reading this slim volume of essays alongside Barry Paris's biography of Brooks, because some of her writing bent the facts to her particular viewpoint--the most notable example, according to Paris, being the "Gish and Garbo" essay. Which lends a whole different layer to beautifully executed passages like this one, from her essay on W.C. Fields:

The tragedy of film history is that it is fabricated, falsified, by the very people who make film history. It is understandable that in the early years of film production, when nobody believed there was going to be any film history, most film magazines and books printed trash, aimed only at fulfilling the public's wish to share a fairy-tale existence with its movie idols. But since about 1950 film has been established as an art, and its history recognized as a serious matter. Yet film celebrities continue to cast themselves as stock types--nice or naughty girls, good or bad boys--whom their chroniclers spray with a shower of anecdotes.

The Great Romantic Films by Lawrence J. Quirk. This one I bought for myself with babysitting money on the strength of a cover shot from Wuthering Heights, with which I was slightly obsessed at the time. Lawrence J. Quirk, nephew of the legendary Photoplay editor James Quirk, has written some 30 Hollywood books but the Siren loves this one for two reasons. One, the romantic melodramas it covers are often given short shrift by "Great Film" tomes. And the films that do get a fair bit of serious critical attention (Letter from an Unknown Woman, All That Heaven Allows) are often analyzed from an angle that assumes the romantic and emotional trappings are fripperies to be stripped away to reveal the "real" themes underneath. Quirk passionately believes that the sentiment in these films is part of what recommends them, and needs no apology. The Siren agrees with him. Second, the Siren loved this book for the huge variety of films the writer chose, everything from the obscure (speak up--who here has seen The Life of Vergie Winters?) to the eternally popular (Now, Voyager) to the head-scratcher (the Siren is still trying to figure out what Teorema was doing in this book, although Quirk gives it a thorough write-up). The Siren has spent years trying to see all of the films discussed here; she has about eight left, including Vergie Winters, Only Yesterday, Lydia, the 1932 Smilin' Through and The Music Lovers.

Quirk's definition of romance is a broad one, encompassing mother love and friendship as well. Here is Quirk describing No Greater Glory, the intensely moving Frank Borzage film that the Siren finally saw this year. Quirk sees no need to justify, or indeed even take note of, those things a modern audience might find hokey. He takes the movie on its own lyrical terms:

Young [George] Breakstone's Nemecsek tags after a gang of boys who wear uniforms and run their lumberyard playground like a military post. Heading the gang is Boka (Jimmy Butler), a handsome, stalwart little fellow who is idolized by Nemecsek and whose approval he constantly seeks. But Nemecsek is an outcast; he is frail and delicate, inept at the assorted skills the others regard as mandatory. The impatient, barely tolerant Boka is forever consigning him to his black book for shortcomings and minor ineptitudes. The only "private" in an army of "officers," Nemecsek is held in contempt and condescension for his failure to cope in physical and coordinational terms, although in the actualities of his soul he is a martyr and visionary in the making, the one pure soul of the lot.

(Part 2 to follow...)

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

The Verdict (1946), With Thoughts on the Eternal Nature of Greenstreet & Lorre

So last week the Siren finally caught up with The Verdict. (Warm thanks to the fellow blogger who sent it.) No, not the Paul Newman film, although that one is great, but rather Don Siegel's debut movie, the last costarring outing of Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet. The stars and director alone would recommend it, but it's also a good mystery-thriller with an ending that the Siren didn't see coming. (That doesn't necessarily mean you won't, however. The Siren has great suspension of disbelief and she falls so hard for red herrings you'd think she was a cartoon cat.)

Roderick Heath at Ferdy on Film has a great write-up of this movie, in which he astutely points out that it straddles two traditions, the "crisp, quaint" detective stories of the late 30s and early 40s, and noir. He also does a bang-up job discussing Siegel's visual style, which was well-formed already, with lots of shots angled from above and below. The opening, as the bell tolls for a prisoner being executed at Newgate, is particularly striking. There is enough fog around to supply a whole season of Dark Shadows and what were probably cramped, low-end sets are used to great effect to suggest the narrow streets and close quarters of 19th-century London. It isn't so much an Old Dark House movie as an Old Dark Neighborhood movie. It is similar to John Brahm's Hangover Square in that much of the action takes place in a single house of flats, and the square it faces. Greenstreet's apartment is on the ground floor and the Siren took great pleasure in several shots where someone raps on his window and he sticks his head out to see what fresh crime summons him now. That's the kind of actor Greenstreet was--so damn entrancing he gives a thrill just opening a sash window and talking to someone.

In The Verdict, Lorre is cast somewhat against type as louche playboy Victor, best friend to Greenstreet's Inspector Grodman of Scotland Yard. The inspector views the execution that opens the movie with wintry detachment, but that soon changes when he returns to the Yard only to find that his rival has uncovered an unshakeable alibi witness, a clergyman no less. Grodman's policework has sent an innocent man to the gallows. Not only that, but the victim was the aunt of a neighbor and friend. He's forced into retirement, with nothing but memoir-writing and Victor's champagne and bonhomie to while away the days. No matter though--there is soon another murder to occupy Grodman, and naturally this is where he sees a chance for redemption.

Roderick complains about the musical number shoved in at one point, but this is one of those old-movie things the Siren usually digs, like big florid scores, the hiss of the soundtrack, intertitles and nice lengthy establishing shots. In The Verdict, the music-hall number is about one-third of the way through. It serves to give some relief from tension and also to soften Joan Lorring's trampy character, who up to that point had seemed hard as nails, admittedly in part because it was Joan Lorring. (Lorring usually did play tramps. Her turn as Bessie in The Corn is Green always gives the Siren a little shiver of delight. She has one scene in that movie that she almost steals from Davis, and how many actresses could claim that?) It also goes to the character development for Greenstreet and Lorre. Up to that point Greenstreet has seemed rather formal and stuffy, but it is clear that he isn't perturbed by what passes for London lowlife entertainment, in 1890 anyway. And Victor is half-aroused, half-bored, as Lorre balances the ambiguities of his character to the end.

How well these two always managed to flesh out relationships that were somewhat superficial on paper. In The Maltese Falcon their more-than-business association is startlingly plain, but it's all in the playing. When Lorre attacks Greenstreet, yelling "You, you imbecile! You bloated idiot! You stupid fathead!" we hear not just a criminal sidekick but also a frustrated ex-lover. If it weren't for the year it was made, you would expect Lorre to follow with recriminations about Greenstreet's lack of libido or how he got too flirtatious with last night's waiter. Three Strangers has them playing two characters who, for once, have no history as a couple nor any potential in that way, but the wary way they size each other up suggests all manner of unspoken perceptions. In The Mask of Dimitrios, where Lorre plays a Holly Martins-type writer drawn into Greenstreet's intrigues, Lorre gives hints that his fascination with Greenstreet may have to do with aspects of the big man's lifestyle that aren't being spelled out on screen. "He was my friend!" Lorre protests at the end of the movie. "Well, he wasn't my friend, but he was a nice man. Compared to you he was..." It could be the epigraph for their whole eight-movie association.

They had very different approaches to acting, as Don Siegel once noted. Lorre was modern, seemingly casual (although no actor as good as Lorre is ever truly that), prone to be dismissive of his parts and (this is the Siren guessing) an actor who strove to keep things fresh in part by doing his preparation on the fly. Greenstreet, born in 1879, was a man of the theatre for many years before making his astonishing debut as Kaspar Gutman. His preparation was meticulous, his adherence to the script absolute. Both of them made a career primarily playing villains, but such was their charisma that, with the mind-blowing exception of M, their characters worm their way into our affections, sometimes more so than the hero.

You frequently find Lorre to one side of a scene, but you always find him and stay with him. Is he chewing on his cane, watching the bubbles in his drink, sizing up the dance-hall girl? Whatever it is, Lorre sidles up to an audience from the margins, he doesn't push himself forward. Lorre understood that the mouse in the center may turn frantic somersaults, but the audience will be watching the cat, because that's where the drama is coming from, sooner or later. Like George Sanders, Lorre had that European knack for seeming too smart for the situation even when he is the lowest player in the game. Unlike Sanders, Lorre's air is not of princely detachment, but proletarian resignation.

Greenstreet always played a man who enjoys every minute spent acquiring his heft and finds it an advantage, not a hindrance. In theatrical parlance, he takes the stage. Watch Greenstreet in The Verdict, gliding to stand near his rival (George Colouris) when first informed of his horrible mistake, letting his bigness speak for the character's imposing career and experience. He is the furthest thing from an apologetic or buffoonish fat man imaginable. Even in Three Strangers, where Greenstreet's role is that of a lonely, venal Monsieur Verdoux manqué, his character is ready to go upstairs with Geraldine Fitzgerald and follow the events wherever they may lead. His villains are never so blackhearted that you recoil, because they have the spirit of romance and adventure in them, even some vestigial chivalry: "I am moved to make one more suggestion. Why, I do not know, because it cannot possibly profit me." (Lorre and Greenstreet have no scenes together in Casablanca, but the Siren always assumed Ugarte and Ferrari did, shall we say, comfortable business together.)

Greenstreet and Lorre are deeply loved, actors who can bring the Siren together with old sparring partners--a while back John Nolte named them as one of the five all-time great screen teams. (I can't find the link, just trust me, I remember it well.) The Siren agrees completely, but here's the thing. She has now seen three of their best outings together; in order of preference, The Mask of Dimitrios, Three Strangers, and The Verdict. The Siren's preference for one over another is not huge--they are all entertaining. The Mask of Dimitrios could even be called great. Not one is on DVD. The Siren offers a marketing suggestion to whoever the hell owns the rights: Put out a boxed set of those three movies. Add The Woman in White, in which Greenstreet plays the Count Fosco of your dreams, and the Lorre vehicle The Face Behind the Mask, a grippingly dark B-thriller directed by the unjustly forgotten Robert Florey. That set would surely sell to a great deal more than the nostalgia market, which seems to be where many worthy old movies get pastured.

Greenstreet retired in 1952. He suffered from kidney disease and had spent eight years making 24 movies, beginning at an age when many healthy men contemplate slowing down. Still, he yearned to play full-out comedy and hadn't had many chances to do it, aside from his delightful boss in Christmas in Connecticut and Pillow to Post with Ida Lupino, which the Siren hasn't seen. (Karen?) According to David Shipman, Greenstreet hinted that he might re-emerge if someone offered a good funny part, but none came, and he died in 1954. Lorre, as Dan Callahan has written, suffered from a career that went from Brecht to all-purpose bogeyman. (Dan relates that when asked how he got through the Mr. Moto series, Lorre replied, "I took dope.") There were some bright spots, certainly, but Hollywood offered precious little worthwhile for this intelligent man after about the mid-50s, until a stroke finally killed him in 1964.

Both Lorre and Greenstreet remain two of the truest pleasures an old-movie lover can have, so much so that when she clicks off the TV the Siren always has to remind herself that they're both dead. So too does David Thomson. Of Greenstreet, Thomson writes: "It is difficult not to believe that he is still in search of the Falcon -- 'Ah yes, sir, the falcon!'" And of Lorre: "He hardly seems dead, just as it is difficult to believe he was ever clinically alive...He must be somewhere still, pattering around Sydney Greenstreet and doing what he can to dodge Bogart's laughter."

Monday, June 01, 2009

The Siren Has Wondered About This a Long Time.

Is Marilyn Monroe the most photographed woman in history? Every time I turn around there's another picture of her I've never seen before. She must have Princess Diana beat by a mile. I swear someday they will turn up unpublished photographs of her trimming her toenails, boiling an egg and picking lint off her sweater.

P.S. The Siren fears that this post makes her sound like she dislikes Monroe, and she doesn't, certainly not as an actress. Monroe was quite good in a lot of movies and at her best she was superbly funny. The best was Some Like It Hot; in terms of her performances alone the Siren loves How to Marry a Millionaire. As an offscreen personality, though, the Siren has no take on her whatsoever. There is this iron curtain of Death Cult Worship that prevents getting any bead on what she was like. Way too much information out there.