Thursday, September 29, 2011

New York Film Festival 2011: Four More

["Why is the Siren writing up new films?" a few of you have asked. Have the rebels taken over the radio station? Is someone threatening to torch the Siren’s Warner Archive discs unless she cooperates? No, it is far more prosaic: The New York Film Festival is having press screenings, and they said the Siren could come, as long as she sits up straight and doesn’t spill her coffee. And the Siren thought it would be fun to run a newspaper. But nobody asked her, so she decided that writing short takes on new films also would be fun. That’s it. The Siren is still watching TCM. These capsules are not being filed by a robot Siren in a long dress.]

Melancholia (2011) This latest from Lars von Trier, or Prince Motormouth as the Siren now calls him, was unexpectedly marvelous. Divided like Gaul into three parts: a magnificently surreal flash-forward to the apocalypse that is about to hit in the form of a planet colliding with our own; a midsection showing the slow-motion cataclysm that is the wedding of Justine (Kirsten Dunst) to Michael (Alexander Skarsgard); and a finale focusing on Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), Justine’s sister, as the end approaches and the extravagantly depressed Justine drifts around uttering downers like the bad fairy at a christening. Despite its plot and preoccupations, Melancholia merits adjectives that the Siren had not previously associated with von Trier: subtle, charming, sympathetic. Some subtlety shows early, as Dunst seems like a normal, albeit disorganized bride--but small things tell us something is terribly wrong with this beauty, until (this is von Trier, after all) the party goes south in a very, very big way. The charm is largely from Kiefer Sutherland as Gainsbourg’s husband, a deeply practical man trying to cope with situations in which practicality is of no use whatever. And the sympathy comes from Gainsbourg as Claire, a caretaker personality par excellence. Justine tells Claire, with ferocious relish, that the world is evil and no one will miss it, but Claire responds to doomsday with, “Where will my child grow up?” The liveliest movie about clinical depression that the Siren can imagine, and do not mistake that for faint praise.

The Turin Horse (2011), which Bela Tarr has said will be his final film, begins with a narrated anecdote about Friedrich Nietzsche's breakdown, which was occasioned by seeing the driver of a hansom cab beat his horse. After the story is told over a black screen, the film follows the elderly driver home. He and his daughter put the horse in the stable, and for days the two endure a windstorm as savage, and as exquisitely photographed, as that in Victor Seastrom's The Wind. The drudgery of their lives is shown in relentless detail, from the daughter dressing and undressing the old man, to the way they both eat boiled potatoes with their bare hands.

It is not boring, exactly, despite the long takes that show much of this in real time and despite the resolute lack of extended dialogue. There is plenty of opportunity to think about the despair of poverty, and matters such as: The absence of beauty or ornament in the house, save a glimpse of what could be a photograph of the woman's mother. The lack of books, until a band of gypsies brings one by. How mere cleanliness must seem a dream of luxury, as the daughter rinses the dishes and her face and never uses soap. Why showing kindness to your work animals might also be a luxury. Why a horse might want to commit suicide.

In the background plays the stringed dirge that constitutes the score, as mercilessly repetitive as a music box. The score does switch off from time to time, such as when a neighboring blowhard stomps in, asks for some local hooch, says the end may be nigh and delivers a rant about the debasement of modern society. At other times you hear the wind, whose shrieks and whistles reminded the Siren of the Apaches in Stagecoach. After a second or two spent forlornly hoping some equivalent of marauding Apaches might show up, the Siren began to contemplate why she felt so unmoved by this famed director's swan song, which is so far the only Tarr she has seen.

This high-styled, proudly austere movie presents its bullet points as plainly as many a melodrama--poverty, humanity, mortality, futility. In order to find The Turin Horse great, the Siren would have to believe that Tarr's refusal to give an inch to an audience's desire for characters and a story is a virtue in itself. And/or she would have to believe that through 146 minutes of well water, boiled potatoes and a horse on hunger strike, Tarr had given her insights about people, or behavior, or our place on this earth that are as valuable as those to be had, for instance, from some passengers on a stagecoach to Lordsburg. And the Siren believes neither.

Miss Bala (2011, Gerardo Naranjo) The Siren has been seeing some NYFF films as close to cold as one gets in the digital age. All she had read about this selection from Mexico was that it concerned a beauty-pageant contestant who gets caught up with drug gangs. That sounded as though it might be a thriller. Um, no. Miss Bala is an extraordinarily bleak social drama that happens to feature suspense and a great deal of violence. Stephanie Sigman plays Laura Guerrero, whose simple goal of winning a beauty pageant drags her into the drug wars. Visually and thematically the film recalls Traffic, but the indictment of global folly is even stronger in Miss Bala, which after the first quarter-hour shows not a single moment of social order. The U.S. DEA agents, when they appear, are as brutal to Laura as anyone else. While it has the propulsive drive that comes from outrage, Miss Bala is what they call a hard sit. Events wipe out the heroine’s courage and even her personality, until she focuses on survival and nothing more. This is what swathes of Mexico have become, the film says; and this is what we’ve all signed up for.

Carnage (2011, Roman Polanski) When the Siren watches Supernanny with her husband, he often winds up muttering, “It’s about the parents, this show. It’s always about the parents.” Carnage is a supercharged Supernanny episode, in which the kids have been sent to have lunch in the trailer, while the adults expose their warts via the cut-glass complete sentences of playwright and co-screenwriter Yasmina Reza. John C. Reilly and Jodie Foster play Michael and Penelope Longstreet, the parents of a boy who just had two teeth knocked out by a stick-wielding peer. The parents of the perpetrator, Nancy and Alan Cowan (Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz), visit Michael and Penelope’s boringly tasteful Brooklyn apartment to settle things in amicable fashion. How well that goes may be judged from the title. The fun--and the movie had the house rocking with laughter at many points--comes from watching four intrepid performers rage around the set like a wrecking crew sent to knock down the Actors’ Studio. The Siren was hanging on Waltz’s every smirk, and transfixed by Foster’s choice to have her character’s body language get tighter and tenser even as Penelope comes further unglued. The whole effect is highly artificial, but not stagey in the least. The Siren just read Glenn Kenny--"a potential masterclass in staging, blocking, camera angle, shot selection, shot length, pacing in terms of both rhythm of actual cutting and duration of shot”--and seconds the motion. Carnage is smart about class differences; the couples’ exchanges about careers and accomplishments are often more wounding than the open hostilities over the children. The film doesn’t offer much on the topic of parenting. But it’s clear why: The episodes that bracket Carnage tell us that children are acting in their own play. Mom and Dad may storm and stress, but they’re audience members, not directors.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Treasures 5: The West (1898-1938)

Yesterday marked the release of Treasures 5: The West, a three-DVD set of rarities from our pals at the National Film Preservation Foundation; it's marvel of care and restoration, with 40 shorts and features depicting sites all over the Western U.S. (and one in Canada). "None of the films has been available before in good-quality video. The 3 DVDs come with a book, interactive screens (some with historical maps), new music, and commentary by 23 historians, museum curators, and preservationists," writes the NFPF's Annette Melville.

And what makes Treasures 5 a solid-gold must for readers of this blog and many other film sites is that the set includes The Sergeant and The Better Man. These two one-reelers were restored with the money we--meaning you, me, Marilyn, Greg, and about 50 writers and bloggers--raised in the very first For the Love of Film blogathon. We’re credited in the wonderfully detailed book that comes in the set.

The Sergeant, from 1910, tells the story of how the title character pursues the colonel’s daughter, gets lost, gets rescued, gets demoted (offscreen) and gets her back, all in 16 minutes. The story is not the point, however; it’s essentially a travelogue through Yosemite, with jaw-dropping views of the park’s splendor. You see the forests, the mountain range, and above all the waterfalls and rapids, all so handsomely framed that the Siren would dearly love to see it projected. The director, Francis Boggs, was murdered one year after the film’s release. He directed about 200 films; The Sergeant is one of only nine surviving from him. We can be proud that our hard work and money preserved it.

The Better Man (1912, Rollin S. Sturgeon) also has great rewards, in that it up-ends the prejudiced attitudes towards Mexicans frequently shown in movies. (The notes tell the story of what those attitudes were at the time with just a couple of titles: The Greaser’s Gauntlet and Broncho Billy and the Greaser). The 12-minute Vitagraph film was filmed near the company’s headquarters in downtown Santa Monica; the Siren isn’t familiar with Santa Monica, but she strongly suspects it doesn’t much look like beachfront Wild West any more. In The Better Man, a neglectful husband and father goes out to blow his salary on a poker game while his child lies gravely ill. A Mexican horse thief who’s searching for food happens upon the wife and child, and he is persuaded to seek out a doctor. The ending packs a great deal of emotional satisfaction.

There are more details in the reviews from Dave Kehr and Lou Lumenick, both friends of the blogathon and film preservation in general. The Siren is still making her way through the set and hasn’t yet seen Womanhandled, the near-complete Gregory La Cava that was Lou’s favorite. But she watched Mantrap, from 1926, the Victor Fleming movie that made Clara Bow a star, and oh it is marvelous. Imagine the Siren’s crowing over the DP credit: “James Howe.” Yes, that James Howe. Eugene Pallette, as young and relatively svelte as he was in Chicago, plays a stocking salesman who persuades a wealthy divorce attorney (Percy Marmont) to take a trip to the backwoods. There Marmont encounters Alverna, a former manicurist who has married the lummox (Ernest Torrance) who tends the local general store, and is giving him merry hell in the bargain.

Clara Bow was an enthralling, utterly natural screen actress; even Louise Brooks, that toughest of tough articles, adored her. She takes over the movie from the instant she steps out of a man’s car and gives him the air with such cheery ease the guy may not even realize he’s history. The Siren loves Bow’s complete transparency, the way you feel as though you see her brain working every minute, even when (as here) the character has way more animal instinct than smarts. Watch her throw her arms around her husband and stuff a bonbon in the attorney’s mouth--and man, will Bow ever make your wish women still used fluffy powder puffs. She had one of the saddest lives of any major star; “her private miseries allowed easy access to her volatile emotions,” remarks the Movie Diva, in a terrific post. Mantrap was Bow’s own favorite among her movies, and this DVD of it looks great.

One last note: net proceeds from the sales of Treasures 5 go to the NFPF to further its good work. Need the Siren say more?

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

New York Film Festival 2011 (Plus 1)

The Siren writes up her brief impressions of five movies she has seen so far at the New York Film Festival 2011. In the order viewed:

Woman With Red Hair (1979, Tatsumi Kumashiro). A so-called pink film; the Siren had seen some of these before but hadn't been aware that they constituted a genre, still less that this genre was what she was going to be confronted with on Day 1, Film 1 of the New York Film Festival's press screenings. You could say the Siren was ill-prepared; the last Japanese film she watched was 24 Eyes. Woman With Red Hair isn't something the Siren particularly wants to analyze at great length, or even short length, but it reminded her a bit of The Devil in Miss Jones, only with much less nudity and much better framing. The lead actress (Junko Miyashita) is gorgeous.

The Loneliest Planet (2011, Julia Loktev). Contempt Goes Backpacking. We spend a long while watching the well-scrubbed couple (Hani Furstenberg and Gael Garcia Bernal) have well-scrubbed sex, in between trekking the wild spaces of the Republic of Georgia, and we await an Event. Then the Event happens and…All right, no spoilers here, so the Siren puts it this way. Martin Amis, in his 1984 article on Brian De Palma, remarks that Body Double (which the Siren loves) "could be exploded by a telephone call." This movie explodes if one character turns to the other on one of many arduous hikes and says, "What the hell…?" Has definite rewards, like the lovely score by Richard Skelton, and some enthralling moments, like a long-distance look at the couple and their guide walking along a riverbank after the Event, and a graceful, deeply emotional shot that zooms in on Furstenberg's hair coiled at her neck. But overall, a frustrating travelogue.

You Are Not I (1981, Sara Driver). Based on a Paul Bowles short story; the film's negative was destroyed in a warehouse flood and recently restored from a print discovered in the writer's own collection. It is the pleasingly spooky tale of a woman incarcerated in an insane asylum, who uses a fiery car accident outside the asylum's gates to escape and return to her sister's house. The Siren loved the black-and-white, bare-trees-in-late-fall ambience, via Jim Jarmusch as cinematographer. Very much of its 1980s New Wave time, including the humor. "Just don't let her get excited," is the advice proffered on how to handle the patient (Suzanne Fletcher), who scarcely moves and is given to thousand-yard stares that would scare the wits out of Nurse Ratched. Didn't seem to be much of an audience favorite, but this is the Siren's kind of Halloween movie.

Le Havre (2011, Aki Kaurismaki) Marcel, a shoeshine man (André Wilms) in the port city of the title, has scant income and a devoted but ailing wife, Arletty (Kati Outinen). He winds up sheltering a Gabonese refugee boy (Blondin Miguel), with the help of a bottomless supply of kindhearted neighbors, one seriously lovable dog, and one cop (Jean-Pierre Daroussin) who says "I don't much like people," but doesn't mean it. A fairy tale about real-world problems that is blissfully unmoored to reality of any kind. Contains a Mickey-and-Judy plot twist, a shot that echoes a Susan Hayward movie (you'll know it when you see it), and a deplorable French pun. The squarest movie the Siren has seen all year, and she's including her TCM viewing here. She was crazy about it, and would have been even if the main couple weren't named Marcel and Arletty.

We Can't Go Home Again (1976, Nicholas Ray). A major restoration of the director's last film, a labor of love by his widow, Susan, and an important piece of film history. The Siren is grateful that it's available, and grateful to have seen it. She only wishes she had actually liked it. Many of the images have power, but the movie itself does not, weighed down as it is by dorm-room philosophizing and students who are painfully unnatural on screen, even though they are evidently playing variations on themselves. Ray's beautiful voice provides the narration, and the movie perks up when he's in the frame. At times it resembles an oddball, self-valorizing version of To Sir With Love, only this "Sir" is preaching psychosexual and political liberation instead of clean clothes and good manners. It's an opportunity to see a celebrated auteur wrestling his demons to the end, but in terms of cinema, the Siren got a lot more out of Born to Be Bad.

And the plus one, such as it is:

I Don't Know How She Does It (2011, Douglas McGrath). The Siren has loathed few novels to the degree that she loathed Allison Pearson's 2002 book about the problems of a hedge-fund manager trying to balance work and the demands of her husband and two kids. The character of Kate Reddy was so spoiled and abrasive that even when she voiced a complaint the Siren has made herself, the Siren's response was, "Oh, go soak your head." The good news is that Sarah Jessica Parker gives Kate some urgently needed warmth, and Aline Brosh Mckenna once again turns in a screenplay that's much better than the book it's based on (the other being The Devil Wears Prada). The bad news is that the movie is slackly plotted, offers nothing to much to look at except Christina Hendricks and Pierce Brosnan (who are wasted with prodigal carelessness), and despite the occasional wry chuckle (mostly via Olivia Munn's Momo), the film has no actual wit. The actors all deserved better, but this is probably the best job that could have been done with the source material.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Drive (2011)

(Please note: A movie like Drive is best seen cold. The Siren doesn’t discuss the ending, but when she writes up a movie she does so in detail. If you plan to see Drive, she suggests you come back and read this later, if you are so inclined. It will still be here.)

Sometime around May 19 the Siren's Twitter feed started filling up with ordinarily temperate movie writers made dancing machines by the Cannes screening of Drive, the new heist thriller from Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn. Three months later, the word of mouth is more like a bellow, so the Siren was happy to go see for herself, through the kindness of Danny Bowes of Movies by Bowes.

It all begins so well, with Gosling's voice providing what seems like film noir narrative, until you realize he's on the phone setting up a heist. He visits his crusty sidekick, Shannon (Bryan Cranston) to get his souped-up Impala, and waits outside a grim warehouse for two robbers he's never met, like a limo driver picking up some slumming clients. The pursuit sequence that follows made the Siren almost weepy with gratitude for a director who lets her get good and comfortable with a shot, who's got rhythm, damn it, and the nerve to lace the frantic motion of a car chase with pauses that play out just long enough.

Then Gosling meets Carey Mulligan, and suspense strips its gears. Thus the Siren is in the somewhat unexpected position of stating that Drive would be a fine genre picture, if it weren't for all that gooey girl stuff.

We’ll have to call Gosling's character Driver, because he has no name, just like Joan Fontaine in Rebecca. (Wait--isn't that what all the guys at the press screenings said? No? Damn.) He drives getaway cars for a living, when he isn't risking his neck as a stunt driver. Down the hall from him lives Irene (Carey Mulligan) and her son Benicio (Kaden Leos, utterly natural and unirritating). Benicio's father (Oscar Isaac) is in prison just long enough for Driver to form a bond with Irene and yearn for All the Things He Will Never Have, and yes, that's the goo the Siren is complaining about. Then the father is sprung from jail, but he owes money to men he met inside. To protect Irene, Driver agrees to help out her husband in a pawnshop robbery. And of course that goes the way of all heists, and flesh…

Gosling is handsome, in his senior-class-ring sort of way; CGI him into the crowd of overage teens in Rebel Without a Cause and nobody'd know the difference. His perfectly muscled body seems made for intimidating the shit out of people. Oddly, however, especially given his recent Youtube exploit, he's not that impressive until he starts whaling away. Take a moment when a former client proposes another heist. Driver growls, "Shut your mouth or I'll kick your teeth down your throat." Two problems, aside from the line's being a bit flavorless, as action-movie threats go; one is that Gosling's voice sounds more breathy than vicious. It could be that the instrument's just too naturally thin and boyish, but his register is in the same neighborhood as Clint Eastwood's, and the voice still isn't doing the job. Second, his exaggerated demeanor is that of a small-time tough, not someone confident he can kick ass wherever, whenever. (***)

And this driver has to remember all the 100,000 roads of Los Angeles, but Gosling shows only one thing at one time. When he's mooning after Irene, that's all he's doing. His blue eyes swim and whatever ruthlessness, torment, demons or scorpions he'd been trying to show are drowned. That's a big problem for a movie that depends on its main character's capacity for violence. Where there's no coil, you don't believe the spring.

Albert Brooks, whose performance as a producer gone psychopath is as good as you’ve heard, gets that in a way Gosling doesn't. He's scary just ordering Chinese food. The waiter forgets the fortune cookies, for a fractional instant all emotion flees Brooks' face, and the Siren feared the waiter might face the same fate as Spider in Goodfellas. It's that instant that shows how dangerous the character is, and not his "Where are my fucking cookies?"

But Brooks isn't around much until the final act. Instead, the movie spends an ungodly amount of time with an unconsummated love story between Driver and Irene. The Siren doesn't begrudge Refn this classic conceit: the interlude where it's established what the hero is fighting for. It's deeply unfortunate, however, that Gosling is fighting for the tapioca presence of Carey Mulligan, diligently overacting her underacting. She plays one note, that note being wounded innocence: eyes wide and slightly damp, lips pouted and slightly bruised. Gosling does his best to convince us that this constitutes irresistible allure, but that's a tall order, asking an actor to play convincing romance with a woman who's avoiding charm like the Spanish flu. Far more arresting are Gosling's scenes with the little boy, who manages a variety of emotion and reaction that Mulligan does not. Infuriating as the Siren found Mulligan's performance, she hesitates to blame the actress entirely; this may well be the way she was told to play it. When Irene lets out a laugh during a nature ramble with Driver, Refn cuts away like she just flashed us.

The critics who loved Drive either seem to find wounded innocence as endlessly fascinating as Refn does, or they shrug it off. But this isn’t something brief enough to ignore, like the Roberta Flack forest-sex in Play Misty for Me. Driver's scenes with Irene make up a good chunk of the movie, and she's around a lot even later. One lengthy shot has Irene at a mirror, in profile, putting a baby clip in her hair, then staring at her reflection. Is she afraid for herself, for her son? Is she melancholy at the thought of a man she can't have? Is she thinking, "Goddamn it, why can't I just hook up with a nice dentist for once?" The Siren can't tell you. Mulligan just looks mad at her hair. And when Driver's true nature is finally revealed to her, she lets fly with a slap that's the least believable moment in the movie, and that's saying something considering that we also see Christina Hendricks rob a pawnshop in five-inch stilettos.

By the end of the Irene section, the Siren was ready to inform Drive's partisans that they've got some nerve promising the return of Bullitt when after the opening credits roll most of what you get is a listless-white-people riff on In the Mood for Love. Then Hendricks showed up in those stilettos, and the goo was gone. (Good god, why couldn't she play Irene?) And from here on out the Siren was much happier, despite her occasional yelps. Once Gosling started acting deranged, the Siren starting believing the tough act a lot more. It's hard not to, when he stalks into a strip joint's dressing room carrying a hammer. Which he proceeds to use. Enthusiastically. While the strippers sit immobile and, I don't know, let their breasts air out. It's a great way to spice up the evergreen tough-guy-busts-up-a-massage-parlor episode, like setting a kneecapping in the Musée Rodin.

Brooks returns to show he had plenty of leftover pathology after Out of Sight, Ron Perlman hulks around complaining about anti-Semitism in the Mob, and Gosling stomps the everloving bejesus out of a bad guy in an elevator, in a scene the Siren found as effective as everyone else did. (Well, almost as effective. The kiss Gosling gives Mulligan just before going Full Metal Joe Pesci on the henchman's face lasts a lot longer than it would from the 4th floor down to the basement.)

Other niggles include the music which, while contemporary, sounds so 80s the Siren was mouthing at her notebook, "And people say I'm retro." The synth-soaked instrumentals aren't bad, and they certainly fit with Drive's dogged determination to cite everything from Thief to To Live and Die in L.A. to, according to Refn himself, Sixteen Candles. But there's also songs playing under some scenes with lyrics like "a real human being and a real hero" and "oh my love, look and see the sun rising through the river." Maybe it's supposed to be ironic counterpoint, but put that kind of stuff in a woman's picture and they'd call it camp.

Speaking of memories--the Siren has seldom encountered a movie so jam-packed with references, and she supposes part of the fun for filmheads is spotting them all, and trying to determine which are intentional and which are inadvertent. The Siren herself is still trying to figure out whether a scene of Driver entertaining Irene and her son by zipping down a freeway culvert was actually supposed to remind anyone of the drag race in Grease. But overall she wishes Refn had either studied the thematically freighted heroines of movies like Shane and Witness a little more, or stuck with what Danny Bowes calls “the ownage.”

(***) Corrected 9/18/11, per Mat and Tony Dayoub. Thanks for following my blog!

Thursday, September 08, 2011

Born to Be Bad (1950)

The Siren has been wondering what it would have been like to kiss Nicholas Ray in 1950. 

From this you should not deduce that the Siren has a crush on the man. She likes her sex symbols on the louche side, but not quite that louche. Still, as she watched Robert Ryan lay one on Joan Fontaine for the sixth or seventh time in Born to Be Bad, the Siren found the thought crowding out all attempts at more formal analysis. Back goes Fontaine’s head, way back, so far back Ryan could undoubtedly have told us whether she still had her wisdom teeth. Up go Fontaine’s arms as Ryan embraces some part of her that the camera is tactfully cutting off. Down comes Ryan’s mouth on hers, until you can see that he doesn’t part his hair. Just before the Siren started in on her Ray-kissing reverie, she was reminded of the morning that she was watching a backyard bird-feeder and saw a hawk close its talons on a chickadee, then fly off to have its own breakfast elsewhere. 

Perhaps you're wondering about why the Siren was wondering about Ray's kissing, instead of Ryan. OK, she wondered about Ryan too, but that's nothing new. The Siren thought about Ray because this is how actors kiss all the time in his early black-and-white films, with a few variations. Sometimes it's decorated with a small spin or swivel, or commenced with a feint at the neck, or flipped with (oh yeah) the woman on top. 

Forget framing. This is the sort of auteurist signature that the Siren lives to point out to people. You can’t say she doesn’t try to add value. 

Born to Be Bad occupies a low rung in the Ray canon, perhaps because it was made for RKO under Howard Hughes (oh god, not him again), and of course he meddled in it quite a bit. The Siren will tell you, though, that she liked a lot more than the kissing. She had a great time with this one. And Dave Kehr likes it, too: "lively, vicious and daring," he says. Yes, just so. Maybe the problem is that it’s tagged “film noir” (as it is in the IMDB database), and if you watch this movie expecting On Dangerous Ground or even In a Lonely Place, you will be sorely disappointed. 

Joan Leslie plays Donna, a fetching young publishing assistant in San Francisco (subject of some breathtaking establishing shots). Her mildly bohemian milieu includes Curtis Carey (Zachary Scott), her filthy rich fiance; a bon-mot-slinging painter nicknamed Gobby (Mel Ferrer); Nick, a he-man novelist (Ryan, who else); and a staircase cunningly placed in the middle of her apartment so that all these people can be filmed drifting up and down it, calling, “Donna, darling, are you there?”. 

Into this halcyon environment comes Christabel Caine (Joan Fontaine), a delicate blonde attired in tasteful Hattie Carnegie. She’s Donna’s cousin, and she appears in the apartment like the sorceress in the Coleridge poem: “a damsel bright/Dressed in a silken robe of white.” (Except the damsel in the poem is named Geraldine; Coleridge's "Christabel" is the innocent victim. Oh well, the Siren loves the poem, so she still loved the half-baked reference.)

Almost immediately we’re shown that Christabel has an arm’s length relationship with the truth; only a scene or two later it becomes obvious that she’s a magnficently passive-aggressive bitch. Christabel, like Eve Harrington or Uriah Heep for that matter, uses a facade of humility to mask her conniving. She wants Donna’s fiance--or rather, his money and prestige--for herself, and she soon is able to trick Curtis into marrying her. The trouble is Nick, who has a powerful yen for her, a way with words and a kissing technique that she’s loath to give up. So Christabel decides she’ll have both men--and for a while, she almost does. 

It’s a women’s picture, in other words, and a good one, too, with the actors in high gear (even Joan Leslie gives Donna a sharp intelligence). Kehr talks about Ray cutting into action; the Siren became obsessed, when she wasn’t concentrating on the kissing, with all the shots of Joan Fontaine crossing rooms. She skitters away from Zachary Scott's embraces because she has to scheme a bit more, he’s breaking her concentration and she doesn't want to sleep with her husband anyway, how dull. She traipses across a gallery hunching her shoulders and pushing back her arms like a schoolgirl, as she tries to persuade Scott to make a move she knows will doom his engagement. In the apartment, she glides away from Leslie with a smile of self-satisfaction as her schemes take root. 

Again and again Ray shows Fontaine on the move, until her endless to-and-fro becomes of a piece with all the double-crosses she’s trying to pull. And there’s Ray’s close-ups, often jarringly placed where they aren’t expected, and emphasizing something that had been going unnoticed. In this brittle movie about people and their facades, there’s a striking moment where Christabel is bouncing her Aunt Clara (Virginia Farmer) out of the house. And Ray puts the camera on the old woman’s face, leaving it there as confusion, hurt and abject fear of the future play across it. It establishes Christabel’s villainy far more than kicking around Joan Leslie ever could. 

How does Fontaine play Christabel? Think back to a fabulous bit of dialogue from Rebecca, when the odious Mrs. Van Hopper accuses the nameless protagonist of manipulating Maxim de Winter into marrying her: “I suppose I have to hand it to you for a fast worker. How did you manage it? Still waters certainly run deep. Tell me, have you been doing anything you shouldn't?” Fontaine responds with wounded innocence, “I don't know what you mean.” Let’s suppose Fontaine’s character knew exactly what Mrs. van Hopper meant, and had been playing those “tennis lessons” with Maxim for all they were worth. Voila, you’d have Fontaine’s performance in Born to Be Bad. Every bit of Rebecca, now with scheming calculation, not to mention a headlong sexual union with Robert Ryan that would have scared the second Mrs. de Winter to death.


The similarities with that same year's All About Eve are obvious, even if the script isn’t nearly as good. Take the painter character, a rough parallel to George Sanders in Eve. The Siren was deeply amused by one online reviewer’s reference to Gobby as “codedly gay.” He’s codedly gay in the way that Paul Robeson is codedly black. Gobby is the gay-est pre-1960 character you will ever encounter this side of Franklin Pangborn. Not to belabor this, but even the Siren’s sainted Aunt Doris, the kind of woman who would wonder aloud why Liberace hadn’t found himself a nice girl, would have twigged to Gobby. Ferrer is handsome in his beanpole way, and he has witty lines and well-timed double-takes, but despite her admiration for the actor’s natural, dry, unexaggerated performance, the Siren wasn’t as charmed by Gobby as the script seemed to want to her to be. He acts wise to Christabel early on, and yet he never breathes a word. Gobby lacks, as Addison DeWitt would have said, the killer instinct. Hell, Addison could have disposed of Gobby with one flared nostril.

Ryan was a different matter. Phwoar. His roughed-up handsomeness was at its height, and the Siren could have happily spent half the movie just watching him lean against a kitchen counter. He’s very much secondary to Fontaine, and it isn’t a role to gladden the heart of those who worship Ryan in The Wild Bunch, necessarily, but he seems to be enjoying this rare chance at a romantic lead. And romantic it is; he's got the Rhett Butler part. Like Rhett, Nick has offstage derring-do (he is writing a novel about dangerous times in China, Rhett is running guns), Nick knows that the love of his life is a scheming tramp with the soul of an abacus, and Nick doesn’t care that much because she’s so damn sexy. 

 All in all, given the fun she had with this movie, and adding it to On Dangerous Ground, In a Lonely Place and They Live by Night, the Siren has to say that with the exception of the brilliant Bigger Than Life, she prefers her Nicholas Ray in black and white. 

 (One of the best film blogs around is run by the Siren's friend Tony Dayoub, and this post is a belated offering for his splendid Nicholas Ray Blogathon, which just wrapped up. A complete list of Nicholas Ray posts, for the blogathon and elsewhere around the Web, is here. Tony's own take on Born to Be Bad (he liked it, but not quite as much as the Siren) is here. Another Born to Be Bad writeup that focuses intently on the movie's considerable aesthetics, from Jake Cole at Not Just Movies, is here. )

Saturday, September 03, 2011

Anecdote of the Week: "The Crisp Tang of Frying Writers"

The Siren has been offline, mostly, for this past week, due to technical circumstances beyond her control. She won't describe the circs (they're boring) except to note that "That's the darndest thing" is not a phrase you ever want to hear from the nice man at Tekserve. All fixed now. So the Siren has been visiting some old friends on her bookshelf, one of them being S.J. Perelman. The Siren assumes many of her readers know "Strictly From Hunger," but it is worth the revisit. Full text available here (click through the links marked "Part One" and "Conclusion"). Better yet, buy some Perelman—the Siren thinks his best years were the 1930s and early 40s. Yeah, yeah, yeah, like everybody else's best years... Also, for the record, if the Siren ever adopts a new nom de blog, she's going with Violet Hush.
The violet hush of twilight was descending over Los Angeles as my hostess, Violet Hush, and I left its suburbs headed toward Hollywood. In the distance a glow of huge piles of burning motion-picture scripts lit up the sky. The crisp tang of frying writers and directors whetted my appetite. How good it was to be alive, I thought, inhaling deep lungfuls of carbon monoxide. Suddenly our powerful Gatti-Cazazza slid to a stop in the traffic. "What is it, Jenkin?" Violet called anxiously through the speaking-tube to the chaffeur (played by Lyle Talbot). A suttee was in progress by the roadside, he said—did we wish to see it? Quickly, Violet and I elbowed our way out through the crowd. An enormous funeral pyre composed of thousands of feet of film and scripts, drenched with Chanel Number Five, awaited the touch of Jack Holt, who was to act as master of ceremonies. In a few terse words Violet explained this unusual custom borrowed from the Hindus and never paid for. The worst disgrace that can befall a producer is an unkind notice from a New York reviewer. When this happens, the producer becomes a pariah in Hollywood. He is shunned by his friends, throw into bankruptcy, and like a Japanese electing hara-kiri, he commits suttee. A great bonfire is made of the film, and the luckless producer, followed by directors, actors, technicians, and the producer's wives, immolate themselves. Only the scenario writers are exempt. These are tied between the tails of two spirited Caucasian ponies, which are then driven off in opposite directions. This custom is called "a conference."