Saturday, February 12, 2011

Nomadic Existence: Excerpts from Nomad Widescreen's Retro Fit Column

The Siren’s Retro Fit column at Nomad Widescreen, the weekly online magazine edited by the estimable Glenn Kenny, continues apace. Nomad is pursuing a subscription-based model that it hopes will lead to the holy of holies, a Web-only outlet where writers are paid, fairly, for what they write.

That’s a way of saying that the Siren can’t link directly to her Nomad pieces, as that isn’t what Nomad is about. Free three-month trials are available here.; sign up and you can read the issues referenced here. The quarterly subscription rate is $6 for 12 issues, which doesn’t seem like a huge amount to pay for content that includes Karl Rozemeyer, Tony Dayoub of Cinema Viewfinder, Simon Abrams of Slant and elsewhere, and Vadim Rizov of Infinite Philistinism, Greencine and the most dryly humorous Twitter feed on the planet.

Still, the Siren thought her patient readers might like to see what she’s been up to, so excerpts from her last four columns follow.

From the Feb. 9 cover story, “God Save the Queens,” about The King’s Speech and royalty in the movies:

No sooner does someone make a narrative movie about historical events and people than someone else lines up to point out the omissions and errors in it. And so it has been with The King’s Speech, the movie about royalty that seems to have usurped The Social Network’s Oscar frontrunner status. Tom Hooper’s film concerns Britain’s George VI and his struggle to overcome a stutter that made public speaking an agony for him. And that subject matter has been a problem for those who believe that the movie should have been concerned with something else.

Christopher Hitchens, for example, wrote a piece for Slate that seemed to indicate a better movie would have attacked the cult of Churchill, because if you've read a lot of Hitchens, it's plain he thinks attacking the cult of Churchill would make just about anything better, possibly even True Grit. A better movie would also have brought up the king’s support for arch-appeaser Neville Chamberlain and slammed Edward VIII even harder than it did.

Hitchens’s argument stems from the sincere, and laudable, belief that history matters, that what people believe to be history matters, and that movies that propagate comfortable lies can be pernicious. Movies about royalty present a particularly irksome problem for an anti-royalist like Hitchens. Down the decades, these films take much of their appeal from humanizing royals, making them more like us, or what we imagine we might be if we held the reins of power and recognized everyone by the backs of their heads, because they were constantly bowing to us.

From the Feb. 2 Retro Fit column, “The Ballad of Linda Darnell”:

...There is something girlish to the way Darnell played all her bad-dame parts. My Darling Clementine (1946) cast her as lovelorn Chihuahua, who wasn’t bad at all, not really even misunderstood. John Ford reportedly didn’t want Darnell for the part, but his lingering close-up of her dying face is as tender as anything in the movie. In Summer Storm (Douglas Sirk, 1944), she plays the character’s grasping nature as a petulant yearning for the shiny toys that Father Christmas never brought her. When all at once she behave in an unselfish manner, it seems the sort of whim this childlike temptress might indulge. She comes as close to pure evil as she ever did in Hangover Square (John Brahm, 1945), in a movie that would make an interesting double bill with Fritz Lang’s Scarlet Street, Darnell’s venomous Netta up against Joan Bennett as Lazy Legs. But Bennett doesn’t understand the danger from the men she’s playing and getting played by; Darnell looks at Laird Cregar with a nagging suspicion of his madness. On the other hand, she’s a completely clueless good girl in Preston Sturges’ great Unfaithfully Yours (1948); Daphne de Carter is a study in flummoxed, wounded sincerity. Any nagging doubts about Daphne are there only because, well, can woman who looks like that be trusted to remain faithful, particularly to a conductor who’s an almighty pain in the neck?

It was 1949’s A Letter to Three Wives that marked her pinnacle. The character of Lora May fit her like no other, and given Joseph Mankiewicz’s writing and facility with directing actors, Darnell shone, the sharpest, funniest thing in a very funny movie. (She may have gotten some extra help, as she was having an affair with Mankiewicz during and after filming.) Many people call Lora May a gold-digger, but that she is not. Lora May wants out of the “Finney mansion on the tracks,” sure, but what the character wants even more is respect, and respectability. Porter Hollingsway (Paul Douglas, never better) honks his car horn for her to come out of the house, like he’s delivering Chinese take-out, and Darnell stands by the sink without so much as shifting her legs, until he comes to the door to escort her. Porter pulls up the car to the house after their date, and Darnell gives one micro-glance at the door, her face cool and lovely though you know she’s counting out the beats that will force him to get out and open it for her. She cares about manners, she cares about form, because they will signal that Porter knows she has what he really wants: class.

From the Jan. 26 column, “Snowbound: Great Vintage Movie Depictions of the Dead of Winter”:

1. Way Down East (D.W. Griffith, 1920). There are plenty of sun-dappled meadows and flowers when poor Lillian Gish is being seduced by Lowell Sherman, but the last twenty minutes or so of D.W. Griffith’s movie may constitute the greatest winter sequence of all time. The snow swirling as Gish is cast out by the Squire, her hopeless, heartbroken wanderings in the storm--the Idiot With a Tripod short was lovely, but this blizzard is the real, life-threatening deal. When icicles formed on Gish’s eyelashes, Griffith ordered cinematographer Billy Bitzer to move in for a closeup. Bitzer responded, “I will, if the oil doesn’t freeze in the camera!” The scene where Gish’s hand trails in the water of the frozen river was her own idea, and she ruefully admitted that her hand ached in cold weather for the rest of her life.

2. Track of the Cat (1954). William Wellman’s eccentric thriller, with Robert Mitchum and the ever-marvelous Teresa Wright. Wellman complained that he had made the movie as an experiment in filming color to look like black and white, with the snowy landscapes leeched of all but the smallest splashes of brightness--and no one appreciated it. Perhaps that was true at the time of release, but viewing this movie more than 60 years later, the beauty of the palette is the first thing you notice. Appearances by the killer panther of the title are handled in a way that’s reminiscent of Cat People. A boldly austere movie that well deserves a revisit.

From the Jan. 5 column, “Check It and See,” about Nicholas Ray’s fevered, fascinating Hot Blood:

So Wilde and Russell can’t dance, and they don’t look like they can dance, and yet the plot hinges on their dancing, and it is a problem, and yet not a problem. One of the most memorable scenes in Hot Blood consists of a whip dance Wilde and Russell perform at their arranged-yet-unplanned wedding, in which Wilde literally whips off pieces Russell’s clothing. Except, in full-length shots the dancers are obviously neither Wilde nor Russell, and the skirt-down close-ups of Russell’s whirling legs reveal gams that look nothing like hers. And it’s typical of the way the movie sometimes turns weirdness into a virtue that the obvious doubles sort of fit. The world created is so bizarre that it’s a plausible notion, this concept that at Gypsy weddings and other festive occasions, dancing doppelgangers appear from nowhere to do all the hard stuff.

When Hot Blood was screened in 1985 at a retrospective honoring her, Jane Russell described it (affectionately) as one of those “Gypsy stories where the characters have passionate, boiling blood and there's scratching and clawing and grabbing and a lot of shouting.” Loudest of all is the color scheme. It is difficult to think of another movie that contains so many variations on red and its offspring--salmon, fuschia, orange. The palette is exhausting, like a meal that’s all variations on chili pepper, but also quite beautiful. And then about fifteen minutes in, Wilde pulls up with his blonde girlfriend in a convertible so blaringly turquoise it’s the visual equivalent of the cannons in the 1812 Overture.


Arthur S. said...

I am actually in the midst of my free trial of nomad and I read the full article on royalty-themed films.

For me the ultimate movie about royalty is Roberto Rossellini's LA PRISE DE POUVOIR PAR LOUIS XIV which is historically accurate and as entertaining as an Alexandre Dumas story. It's about how Le Roi Soleil, in reaction to the beheading of the English King Charles I(and his uncle) decides to "take power" and reform French polity around his image and command. He decides to invent consumerism and bourgeois values so as to maintain his aristocratic power.

It was made for French TV but was such a ratings success that it was released theatrically(where it belonged) and it broke box-office records playing in one theatre for nearly two months straight.

The Siren said...

Ever since it came out on DVD everyone has been talking about that Rossellini, and I *knew* it would be brought up--but alas, I have not gotten around to it yet.

DavidEhrenstein said...

It's quite wonderful, Siren -- Rossellini's last truly great work.

Darnell and Dougklas in A Letter To Three Wives enact one of the most mature and sensitive male-female coupling sin all of cinema. There's something quite profound about post-WWII America in the bargain that they make to marry -- which ends up being actual love. I suspect this is why Gore Vidal rate ALTTW ahead of All About Eve.

A late addition to your snowbound list: I reccomend Skolimowski's Essential Killing. It's a remakrable film abotu a Taliban figher struggling to survive in the frozen hills starring my least favorite actor, Vincent Gallo. There's also a cameo toward the end by Mrs. Polanski

Yojimboen said...

Swell writin’, lady! Scrumptious, fantabulous; gnarly, spiffy, all wool and a yard wide!

If this country was remotely civilized, you’d be on the short list for National Treasure-hood!

A minor quibble: when choosing a glamour shot of Ms. Darnell, I would’ve looked for one where she didn’t have a cigarette lit.
But that’s just me.

Peter Nellhaus said...

After reading your description of Hot Blood, I would hope you had the time and inclination to check out the last two films by Thai filmmaker Rattana Pestonji, even if it's online at Asia Pacific Films. I'll be posting on them soon, Monday in fact for Black Silk, but the guy had a very unusual usage of color. If possible, add a Pestonji inspired film, Citizen Dog on the Netflix queue, by the guy who made Tears of the Black Tiger.

The Siren said...

Ah, Yojimboen, many thanks. I confess, I barely noticed Darnell's cigarette, let alone thought through the grim foreshadowing. I just loved the picture for showing her in natural light in the kind of makeup she probably wore a lot in daily life.

Dan Callahan said...

That photo of Darnell is so, so beautiful. It catches a more natural kind of beauty; I usually don't think of her as having such big eyes. I don't think any other actress uses her body so eloquently on screen, especially in "Summer Storm."

wwwww said...

safari cannot verify .please fix .

The Siren said...


I'm sorry wwww, but I'm on Safari and I don't have that problem? I am no techie anyway, hence the Retro part...Perhaps you could drop them a line?