Sunday, January 31, 2016

The Mirrors Crack like a Web

She's lived in places all over the world--some of the worst places, she says. But Orson Welles' 1947 film is called The Lady from Shanghai, one of the many films Welles made that was butchered by the studio and yet even in its resultant form the film is considered a film noir masterpiece. It deserves this reputation, using the standard noir framework of a man caught up in something big and sinister to create a story of instinct versus machination.

Welles stars as an Irish seaman named Michael who describes his poverty as "sanitary". The rich lawyer who hires him to work his yacht, Arthur Bannister (Everett Sloane), mounts a counterargument by telling Michael about his maid who has to earn money to support her family. Michael seems connected to nature and the sea, but for all that, Bannister is probably right that Michael will be living a wretched existence five years down the line of not making money.

Michael meets Arthur's wife, Elsa (Rita Hayworth), before he meets Arthur. She's in a little horse drawn coach in New York and Michael punches out a bunch of guys who appear to be mugging her after they've met. There's something funny about it and Michael's instincts warn him right away that Elsa has manipulated the situation somehow. He knows he oughtn't accept the job she offers him but Arthur gets drunk in a bar by the employment office, Michael feels obligated to take him back to his ship, and one thing leads to another.

The fourth player is Grisby (Glenn Anders) who always seems like an element of chaos. Welles uses extreme close-ups on the wide eyed man who also has a habit of standing very close to Michael when he speaks.

Welles uses off-putting angles, too, for Grisby, high angle shots that emphasise precariousness and lack of control. Michael's view of "sanitary" poverty may seem unwise, but Grisby's mad, compulsive behaviour seems genuinely insane. And yet, Michael can't seem to avoid that web, either.

In one of the most memorable scenes, Michael tells the other three a story about having seen sharks devour each other in a frenzy, pointedly comparing the sharks to his three current companions. As a defence lawyer known for getting dangerous criminals off the hook, Arthur is a fellow who uses his intellect at the sacrifice of his ethics but his love for Elsa somehow makes him seem slightly more grounded than the other two. Nevertheless, the film earns its famous hall of mirrors finale, a set of visuals where the thematic world of illusion in which Michael is caught becomes a visual reality and Michael is the only one who's not a shark.

Elsa does speak fluent Chinese and San Francisco's Chinatown seems to be the seat of her power. It feels like a foreshadowing of Roman Polanski's Chinatown--it's not unreasonable to suppose Polanski was influenced by Lady from Shanghai. But Chinatown doesn't feature the rather strikingly authentic glimpses of Chinese culture The Lady from Shanghai does, all the more amazing for the film having come out of 1940s Hollywood. But then, Orson Welles was a marvellous anachronism always.

Twitter Sonnet #836

A fortune's waffle fell between the squares.
The kids of imitation muppet towns
Forget the rugs of carpet canning cares.
The drinking politicians don their gowns.
A threat arose from cutting boards in arms.
The blunted tips of steak knives too timid
Relentlessly repent and rue the yarns,
The woven hats, the cloche or pyramid.
Leftover hangover tick blather churns.
Unused the tree rebukes its frond for greens.
The meadow's mint was petals stamped in worms.
Mail boxes melted over roasted beans.
A plastic carrot ruled with gasoline.
The drunken bank has broke the trampoline.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Name that Mind Worm on the Submarine

Well, ever since I decided to make Saturday "Doctor Who Day" on my blog, I've found sometimes I had to really scrape the barrel for anything Doctor Who to talk about. To-day all I have is the Eighth Doctor audio play "Something Inside" from 2006 which I listened to last night. It's not much to talk about being perhaps the most unremarkable audio play I've heard. It's not particular bad or good. It's one of the many audio plays that deals largely with telepathy and things occurring in the mind, scenes of people standing or sitting while talking in agonising tones about this "thing inside my head!" Something that would be hard to make work on television but the sort of thing lacking in visual information perfect for the audio format. This time it's a "mind worm" attacking genetically engineered telepaths in some kind of cube maze. It is nice the Eighth Doctor stories always sound like the actors have read the script at least once before recording.

I listened while colouring comic pages and then while playing Fallout 4 last night. I'm enjoying Fallout 4 although I haven't had much more time than four hours a week to play it. I have three characters now mostly just because I love playing around with the face sculpting in the character creation. This is the character I've used the most, I named her Delilah:

Seen here on the Chinese submarine I found a few nights ago. It was night and a little kid on the wharf was yelling about an eye that kept popping out of the water. It turned out to be a periscope when I swam out to it.

No-one in the game calls my character Delilah but that's actually a bit unusual. For some reason, Bethesda decided to have one of the actors record an enormous list of possible names so that at least one character, a robotic servant, is able to say whatever random name you choose. Apparently they recorded over a thousand names. I hope the voice actor didn't have to do them all in one day. Considering the number of bizarre and unusual names they recorded, I was a little surprised Delilah wasn't among them. Here's a video where someone tested a long list of names:

Delilah has slept with a singer at a little bar in some makeshift town called Good Neighbour so I can confirm the game has same sex relationships. It's still pretty chaste compared to the shenanigans you could get up to in Fallout 2, though. I can only imagine the outcry that would result if you could work as a prostitute as you could in that game.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Islands in the Lava

When people talk about childhood trauma, they generally refer to things that happened to the child rather than things the child was guilty of. There may be trauma involved with a sense of guilt impressed on a child by an abuser but the trauma connected to issues where the child has grown into an adult to find they've done something wrong even from the perspective of maturity is quite distinct. In 2010's The Solitude of Prime Numbers (La solitudine dei numeri primi), we meet two young people, one a victim of trauma caused by others, the other a victim of his own thoughtless actions. The film is effective in its establishment of character and a little eerie, there being the suggestion of supernatural forces at work. Some might argue the film's ending is a little too simplistic, but the film at that point for me took on a rather sweet, fairy tale quality.

There's a nice exercise in intentional disorientation in the first part of the film as we're introduced to three children in a non-linear narrative but it seems at first that we're being introduced to two. One of the characters slowly becomes distinct from another. This storytelling decision later ties two of the characters together and simultaneously gives the story some of the spookiness of a ghost story while also putting one character in a unique position to forgive the third.

I want to avoid going into too many explicit details specifically because of how effective this disorientation is for the narrative. By the end of the film, though, I will say we're dealing with a man named Mattia (Luca Marinelli) and a woman named Alice (Alba Rohrwacher). The film is Italian, making her English name all the more interesting and I think it was intended as a reference to Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, especially for one remarkable scene where we see Alice intruding on the memories of another character by finding her way through a hedge corridor in a dream.

The non-linear narrative helps us see the difference between the personality of the guilty child before the crucial event and after. And we can see how the experience has fundamentally changed the child and held influence over their decisions for the rest of their life. To the point where the previously bright and relatively normal kid thinks nothing of slicing open an arm when dared--but refuses to do the same to someone else.

The film is shot with a lot of creative dissolves and sort of dreamy lighting choices. There's always the sense of being inside someone's head, either the shut off, self hating party or the obsessively in love, almost codependent party. Both are caught up in their own heads and in those unbreakable solitudes they are oddly united.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

The Vinyl Rebellion

And now it's Leia; Star Wars: Rebels continued with its Special Guest of the Week format when it resumed its second season last week, though Carrie Fisher's voice has changed too much to reprise the role the way Billy Dee Williams and James Earl Jones have done for Lando Calrission and Darth Vader, respectively. I rather wish they'd gotten someone who sounded a little like young Carrie Fisher. Julie Dolan, although she apparently voiced Leia in other projects before Disney owned Star Wars, sounds like the understudy of a Disney princess, bland and perky. Not unlike Sabine, really, who was the focus of this week's episode.

Obviously they had these episodes in the can before The Force Awakens was released, which makes me wonder how calculated Disney is. They seemed to be dragging their heels in focusing on female characters, now after the main protagonist of Force Awakens has been revealed to be a woman, suddenly we have two episodes of Rebels focused on women. And they're two of the best episodes of the series.

Although, again, it doesn't much sound like her, it at least makes sense that Leia would be in an episode and the show gives what feels like a pretty credible portrayal of what the character might have been doing five years before A New Hope. She's secretly delivering cruisers to the Rebellion, all the while pretending to be a loyal Imperial senator. It jives with Vader at the beginning of the movie insisting, "You weren't on any 'mercy mission' this time." She'd been flying under the radar for some time and suspicions were slowly accumulating.

We still don't know much about Sabine beyond the fact that she's evidently colour blind. This week's episode (in which the Guest Star of the Week is Kevin McKidd of Grey's Anatomy and Trainspotting) concentrates on the other established part of her personality, that she's a Mandelorian. In an episode that very naturally flows from the old Clone Wars series, we pick up with a group of Mandelorian fighters as the Rebels try and make an alliance with them. The episode's nicely put together and Sabine's thirst for revenge and awkwardness trying to bomb the Mandelorian ships were the first things that really made her feel like she could be more than just Ezra's Potential Girlfriend.

The generic performance for Leia made me reflect on what a unique performance Carrie Fisher gave as Leia. There's no woman like Leia in the prequels starring somnambulant Natalie Portman--whose performance is kind of appropriate as the living doll Queen in Phantom Menace but gets pretty dull when she's a plain-clothes senator. Carrie Fisher, on the other hand, was messy. All three of the young leads were. It may have to do with coming out of the 70s. Something about the way her face looks slightly too big for the tight hair with the buns, and her wide eyes, give her feistiness a real undercurrent of insecurity and anger I just don't sense from anyone else.

Anyway, Asohka Tano's still being annoyingly underused on Rebels. I do hope they didn't bring her back just to give her a spectacular death.

Twitter Sonnet #835

The bangs we've left uncut have dipped to toes.
And let no-one say we've unwrapped the duck.
Resort again to fowl for sense in woes
Or joy for we the dinosaur won't pluck.
A magnet pulled the Hood's arrow to left.
An anvil fell just to the right of Snoke.
The true and passionate of cakes bereft.
Both good and ill turned out convincing smoke.
A desk decides for chairs the place of knees.
No fan of paper, steel, or wood remained.
If wasps condemn the future world of bees
The yellow jacket volcano must reign.
The nations pass beneath the snowless bronze.
The pink pullover's not for just the blondes.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

All This in the Royal Navy

Ships may sink, spouses may die, but there'll always be Britain. And that's more than a small thing says 1942's In Which We Serve, a rather effective propaganda film from team Noel Coward and David Lean--but mostly Noel Coward as the opening credits make clear, telling us it's a Noel Coward film, written by Noel Coward, starring Noel Coward, and with music by Noel Coward. Lean's presence is certainly felt, though, and for all its obvious manipulation this film has real heart.

"This is the story of a ship!" we're informed first thing by the narrator and then we watch some fascinating actual footage of a British warship being assembled: molten rivets pounded into place as they cool, bulkheads lowered by crane.

The story follows the crew and families of the crew of the HMS Torrin and very early on we see her being sunk in the Mediterranean. As the crew cling to the life raft, the story is told through flashbacks marked by watery dissolves.

Coward plays the captain, of course, named Kinross. It's a decent but not great performance. Coward talks fast and seems self assured but there's not much life in it; he's easily overshadowed by his wife, Alix, played by Celia Johnson.

Here the two relax while he's on leave and their children idly speculate on the kinds of planes dogfighting overhead. The message is clear--don't worry so much about imminent peril. What if you do get killed? It's all for Britain, after all! Don't be like young Richard Attenborough, who appears in his first (uncredited) screen role as a crewman who flees his post in the heat of battle.

But even he has a chance to redeem himself. Other standouts in the crew are John Mills and Michael Wilding and everyone comes across as impressively earnest and innocent. I imagine it did quite a lot for audiences at the time putting such faces on the lads at sea. I certainly came away feeling they deserve our support.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Starring Oscar

Sometimes discretion is kind of ugly. Discretion is sweet when a young lady isn't wearing underwear and you act like you don't notice when a gust of wind informs you of the fact. It's ugly when it's the old man at a family gathering most people know committed sexual assault but now preserving the peace is deemed more important than stirring up trouble. It's not just to protect him but the general sense of well-being at the party. The Academy Awards is a fiction in the discretion genre--a big budget, high stakes example of discretion fiction, sure. But nonetheless it is, like possibly all awards ceremonies, more about the idea of a meritocracy attractive to its participants than an actual celebration of merit. Remember this if you're tempted to wonder why Charlotte Rampling could say something as colossally stupid as branding complaints over the lack of racial diversity in this year's list of nominees as "racist to whites." The Academy Awards are very old and part of the continuing fiction the Academy Awards presents is that white, heterosexual people excel where others do not. The racism in Rampling's statement is stupid, the seeming naivete is carefully calculated. Charlotte Rampling is a very good actress and she's trying to improvise in the hopes of winning the role of Oscar Winner. She's read the script and thinks she's got the gist.

But just two years ago 12 Years a Slave won best picture, last year Selma was nominated. Of course, 12 Years a Slave won the Oscar that Django Unchained earned. Django Unchained told the Academy why the film industry should be ashamed of ignoring slavery. 12 Years a Slave was the conservative movie voters felt more comfortable with than they felt towards the more audacious Django Unchained. It wasn't 12 Years a Slave that won but the idea of 12 Years a Slave winning. That would be good for the continuing narrative. It's the instinct of story telling naturally manifesting from an Academy of story tellers. Jack Palance should win for City Slickers instead of newcomer Leonardo DiCaprio for What's Eating Gilbert Grape. It would be too sad if old Palance lost to some kid. Now there's talk of DiCaprio getting his due. It might seem unfair if Idris Elba were nominated and he wasn't.

I don't think Academy voters consciously exclude people for the colour of their skin, I think what we see in action are subliminal mechanisms handed down. It's often remarked that many Academy voters are of an older generation so even if they intellectually realise that there's no such thing as one race being intrinsically superior to the other, old habits die hard. They might not seek movies starring black actors simply as a matter of habit. Certainly the majority of the public rarely does. So the Oscar chief's decision to change the voting membership to include younger and more diverse members makes sense. The show needed a new team of writers, now a new theory of what the Oscars are supposed to be can take up the narrative.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Let's See, Files on Xanadu, Xavier, Xenomorph, Xenon, Xerox, Xylophone . . .

If one were to reduce The X-Files to something more superficial than it is, you could say it's about a man, Mulder (David Duchocny), who follows his heart and a woman, Scully (Gillian Anderson), who follows her mind. That's sort of the big pitch from the series' conception but like any good show it became more complicated than that. The show relaunched last night and it hit the ground running, like it hadn't missed a beat. There are some "ta da" shots when familiar characters are reintroduced but one thing I liked about it is it didn't waste time waxing nostalgic.

For being the heart guy, Mulder is pretty rational. He wants to believe but that doesn't mean he does as he explains to a Fox News libertarian type played by Joel McHale. Mulder will work with this guy if he has an alien craft to show him but writer director Chris Carter takes pains to make it clear The X-Files isn't about jumping on an ideological band wagon.

Of the two of them, it's Scully, the sceptic, who's religious. We last saw her in 2008's I Want to Believe working in a Catholic hospital and she still seems to work in a Catholic institution of some kind, now treating kids born without ears. Scully's faith is in a way purer than Mulder's because she never gets the rock solid evidence he gets, even if she and other people don't believe him, and this at times makes her story more effective. The two are sort of duelling rationales of belief with Mulder's method marrying belief with practice and Scully's keeping them in separate spheres. But that's again an oversimplification. Scully would probably tell you her faith plays an integral part in her career and Mulder might tell you believing in alien technology is as rational as believing in microwave ovens. He's seen a lot by now, after all.

Duchovny and Anderson are every bit the actors they were back in the old series. Although there was a lot I liked about I Want to Believe I like that the new series no longer has the two romantically linked. A lot of people say the sexual tension was part of the appeal of the show but for me it was always irrelevant and it felt like things were getting sidetracked whenever it seemed like Mulder and Scully were about to have sex. With everything else the show was dealing with, their sex lives just weren't that interesting to me and I didn't see how them having sex pertained at all to their philosophical dichotomy.

I liked that they decided to return to Vancouver for the new show instead of actually shooting in Washington D.C. The imagery of Vancouver is so linked to the show that actual Washington D.C. might have been jarring. For me, The X-Files takes place in an alternate universe where the U.S. capital looks like that Canadian city. Though I wish something more of the old show's vibe had been revisited, I felt like there were more overcast skies and high contrast back then.

My only real complaint about this new episode is that Chris Carter seems to have forgotten how to direct. Almost the whole episode is talking heads and it feels a little stifling. Otherwise, I'm happy to be spending time with these two Feds again.

Twitter Sonnet #834

Unquestioned specials rode the boar's captains.
A plea submitted Tuesday stops the Third.
Blank calendars wear forged cheque kaftans.
If only hats could blind the baldest bird.
A soaking inch repulsed the peanut snake.
Hitchcock's preferred neat purse was snatched by men.
A cleaning box was also used to bake.
Her favourite rabbit stocks the bar with gin.
A shining digit soon presented facts.
Ten volumes dropped of cloak have spoken loud.
Discretion lost as youth advises tacts.
The pictured bird has set a paper cloud.
The blonde did not believe the alien.
Brunettes and agents know the Skull's stayin'.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Taking the Gloves Off

Well, Criterion certainly had the right idea with its insert for their new edition of 1946's Gilda on Blu-Ray and DVD. Though it may not be big enough for Andy Dufresne's purposes--mind you, I think The Shawshank Redemption is possibly the most overrated film of the past thirty years, though I do like the Stephen King story on which it's based. But no subject was ever more deserving of a pin-up than Rita Hayworth in Gilda. And she was always a beautiful pin-up, one of the most famous pin-ups of World War II in fact. Richard Schickel provides the commentary on the new Criterion release and it's as disappointing as all his other commentaries I've heard, filled with long silences and redundant observations. But I found his perspective on Hayworth in this film interesting in that he claims to find her too sweet to believe she's really sleeping with all the men she leaves the nightclub with. I couldn't disagree with him more on that point and, anyway, even if she seems decent, there's no reason to think she actually is. She regards the idea as a joke in her famous opening shot, after all.

The way she always uses her teeth like she's ready to bite something, I'd never describe her as too sweet or innocent. The reason I think this movie works so well for her is it's the first time she seemed warm at all. Ballin, George Macready's character, says hate is the only thing that "warms" him. The love triangle in this film between Gilda, Ballin, and Johnny (Glenn Ford) is certainly in equal measure a hate triangle. In Cover Girl and Blood and Sand and other movies she appeared in before and after Gilda there always seemed something reptilian about her to me, I never felt she was attracted to her costars. But she's different in Gilda and maybe it's the excitement of that hatred that casts her mannerisms in another light.

On the flipside of the poster insert is an essay on the film by Sheila O'Malley. Schickel, despite talking about Hayworth's sweetness, still describes Gilda as the ultimate femme fatale while O'Malley denies that she is anything but a victim, asserting she's not a femme fatale at all but fighting to survive between the malevolent forces of two men, Ballin and Johnny. Both Schickel and O'Malley comment on the homoerotic quality of Ballin and Johnny's relationship. Ballin saving Johnny with his "little friend", an unmistakably phallic trick cane with a spring locked blade, would in itself suggest something more than friendly between the two, as does Johnny's immediate assessment of Ballin as a "gay" fellow--yes, the word "gay" used to only mean "happy" and probably got past the censors for that reason but as Cary Grant's line in Bringing Up Baby demonstrates the word already had the connotation of "homosexual". But Johnny's constant, feverish protectiveness of Ballin and Ballin's oddly gentle manners towards Johnny makes it all crystal clear. We never find out why Gilda and Johnny broke up before the events of the film--Gilda says at one point she was true to Johnny and it never got her anywhere. So Johnny doesn't hate her because she cheated on him. So why? Does he hate her for not being a man?

Well, there's certainly a lot more to these characters than their sexual orientations. Schickel observes that Ford's performance doesn't suggest how thoroughly psychotic Johnny's actions are. I don't think Ford's performance is bad or inappropriate but the last scene of the film is certainly bizarre, the idea that the two could reconcile after a few kind words after Johnny has paid a lawyer to seduce her, trick her into coming back to Buenos Ares under the promise of getting an annulment of her marriage with Johnny only to lock her back in the hotel room where she'd been kept prisoner . . . That's more than being a jerk, that's intricately premeditated batfuckery. I've always felt quite sure the ending of the film was required by the censors, not only for that but for the weirdly two dimensional wrap up with Balllin and the cop showing up to pronounce moral propriety on everything.

The Blu-Ray also comes with surprisingly brief interviews with Baz Luhrmann and Martin Scorsese, Luhrmann doing most of the talking with Scorsese having little to say for once. What Luhrmann says is mostly of little substance but he does usefully observe how incredibly expensive and carefully constructed Hollywood movies were at the time Gilda came out, he talks about how he consciously imitated Gilda's hair with Nichole Kidman's character in his Moulin Rouge and had to use wigs to do so simply because he hadn't the resources to carefully compose the actress' hair between shots as Hayworth's had been.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Moffat Moves

There was big news in Doctor Who yesterday with the announcement that Steven Moffat is leaving the show after the upcoming season. Moffat has been showrunner since taking over from Russell T. Davies in 2010, he'll be replaced by Chris Chibnall after 2017.

It feels time, to me, Moffat's work has felt increasingly stretched thin. It makes Peter Capaldi leaving the show seem more probable--though it already seemed likely because Capaldi is an actor with a lot of other opportunities for projects and, of course, there's the "Troughton Rule". Patrick Troughton, who played the Second Doctor, made a conscious decision to stay for only three seasons and since then three seasons has been kind of the standard number. Peter Davison left after three seasons consciously following Troughton's example, Sylvester McCoy ended up having only three seasons, though I suspect he'd have stayed longer if he'd had a choice, when the show was cancelled in 1989. Both David Tennant and Matt Smith had three seasons though Tennant did so many specials he practically had a fourth.

Moffat has said more than once recently that he feels the next Doctor ought to be a woman and his past couple of seasons have featured many strong hints that he wants this to be the case. I wonder if the higher ups at the BBC unequivocally forbade this and Moffat is leaving under protest. It would be hard to imagine him leaving if the opportunity to write the first female Doctor was coming up.

I'm told Moffat's replacement, Chris Chibnall, wrote very bad episodes of Torchwood, the Doctor Who spin-off. I've never seen Torchwood so I can only judge by Chibnall's Doctor Who episodes and from the writing on Broadchurch, the detective series Chibnall created and wrote or co-wrote every episode for. I liked Broadchurch. Very obviously influenced by Twin Peaks it did a better job of exploring the sense of personal grief and horror in the pilot episode of Twin Peaks than other Twin Peaks imitators have done. Later episodes of Broadchurch weren't quite as strong but I never thought the show was thoroughly bad.

Chibnall's first episode of Doctor Who was the Tenth Doctor episode "42" which I thought was one of the more solid episodes of the Davies era. I didn't mind Chibnall's Silurian two-parter in the Eleventh Doctor's first season, his episodes in Amy and Rory's final season were pretty lacklustre but I wonder how much that has to do with general Amy and Rory fatigue.

It is a contrast to Moffat's early episodes from before he was showrunner which deservedly have reputations as some of the best episodes of the series, particularly "Blink". But who has had a comparable impact? Maybe Neil Gaiman but Gaiman obviously has plenty on his plate. Anyway, I'm willing to keep an open mind for Chibnall.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Dekpa Learns Possession is Only for the Right People

Another chapter of my comic The Devils Dekpa and Deborah is online. It goes to show, no matter how accepting the people around you may seem of spiritual or demonic possession, it's always possible to commit a faux pas.

My usual practice is to make a 24 page issue which I sell on DriveThru comics in PDF format for one dollar and then release for free in eight chapter segments every two weeks over the course of six weeks. Basically, you'll get to read it all for free eventually but if you give me a dollar you get to read it a lot sooner. It's basically an incentive for a donation.

I don't know whether the next issue will be available two weeks from now, though, because I'm just in the beginning stages of moving to a new apartment and I just started school. I sure wish I had a lot more time. Anyway, enjoy the first twenty four pages to your heart's content.

Happy birthday, Walter Raleigh, Francis Bacon, Captain Kidd, Lord Byron, Conrad Veidt, Sergei Eisenstein, Sonny Chiba, and John Hurt. Twitter Sonnet #833

The Great Went tabled all discussions related
To hamburgers from great cities too old
To be decently ugly, sharp, fated
For level planes and muffin stars now cold
Long left on plates deactivated pig
Iron and miner coins which rain from weeds;
Abandoned wash, a coat or dusty wig
A mannequin's or Auton's silent needs
Too much of paraffin for finless sharks
Unborn in gaslamped minnow dreams accrued
By mental manipulators, the sharps
Of cards concealed in love's oil yet crude
Invested coils, unfathomed serpents
In froth of massy whales like frost repents.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

To Survive and More

The boundless affection that leads Yvette to sleep with so many men is one of the very qualities that draws Andre to her but it's also what puts their relationship in constant peril. Claude Autant-Lara's 1958 comedy noir film En cas de malheur ("In Case of Adversity", also known as Love is My Profession) stars Brigitte Bardot and Jean Gabin and is one of Bardot's most successful and popular films though it has yet to be released on DVD in the U.S. It's a shame because she's in top form here in a well written film that's funny, tragic, and insightful.

Two prostitutes--Yvette (Bardot) and a friend are out of money and decide to rob a jeweller. They buy a toy gun and don't plan on anyone getting hurt but an old woman intervenes and in confusion and panic Yvette cracks her over the head with a tire iron. The old woman is injured but not killed.

Shortly afterwards we see her in the lavish office of one of the most powerful lawyers in town, Andre (Jean Gabin), coolly explaining to him how she knows a barman who'll lie for her and give her an alibi and it'll be easy to defend her. She still doesn't have any money so she lifts her skirt and sits on his desk, spreading her legs. He just stands there watching her without expression.

Gabin is pretty subtle in this film, the women around him having most of the expressions, both in dialogue and in their faces. He doesn't accept her payment but takes the case for free, claiming it's for the challenge. His wife, Vivianne (Edwige Feuillere), not knowing what Yvette offered him, confidently assures Andre he wants to sleep with Yvette even if he doesn't realise it himself. She even drives him to Yvette's building, tells him to get out of the car, and drives away.

Would Andre have eventually slept with Yvette if his wife hadn't done this? Maybe Vivianne really did know him better than he knew himself and maybe she was taking control of the situation by claiming the initiative. Maybe it was a self fulfilling prophesy. In any case, everyone tries to be very liberal. Vivianne doesn't like Andre sleeping with Yvette but openly tolerates it, Andre doesn't forbid Yvette from sleeping with anyone else but Yvette is cagey enough not to bring a trumpeter she's partied with upstairs when she sees Andre is waiting for her.

In an effort to pay him back, Yvette takes to dealing drugs but Andre is mortified when he finds out and forbids her from continuing. Yvette seems to like having sex with Andre but if that's true why is she trying to find another way to pay him? In addition to the various guys she sleeps with, she also has another lover, a young, volatile man named Mazzetti (Franco Interlenghi). He's fiercely jealous about her relationship with Andre, accuses her of being a kept woman. He steals her keys and goes to her apartment where he tears up all her clothes. Yvette calls Andre to come home with her because she's frightened of Mazzetti. When they arrive, they find the remains of Yvette's clothes. Andre thinks it's funny but Yvette is so scared she's sick to her stomach.

But she still clearly loves Mazzetti. It's a movie about people who can't control themselves and who continually break promises while hoping to land in a situation where the natural course of things takes over. These qualities, especially in Bardot's character, are loveable and successfully make you afraid for them.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Sex and Death

Are the dead evil? Ash Williams might say so though the larger ramifications are never explored in the Evil Dead trilogy--Evil Dead, Evil Dead 2, and Army of Darkness, all of which I watched last week for the first time since high school (the 90s). There were many things I'd forgotten or probably didn't notice the first time, most notably that the whole thing seems to be about puberty. Or male adolescent anxiety about sex. By the third film it blessedly starts to get away from this and the television series, Ash vs. Evil Dead, seems to've junked this entirely which is good because the movies succeed rather in spite of this allegory than because of it.

It's the third film, Army of Darkness, that really solidifies the Ash persona that's so popular now and has had such a big influence on other stories. I noticed half of the things Ash says in Army of Darkness became catch phrases for Duke Nukem 3D, a game I think I would have enjoyed a lot less had I known it at the time. But in a way, Ash in Army of Darkness becomes the filmmakers of the first two films. It's as though director Sam Raimi looked back at these young men crafting stories about how frightening women are and felt simultaneous embarrassment and affection, giving rise to an Ash who is both embarrassing and loveable. Maybe that's why he's been trying so hard to pass the torch on this franchise rather than keep directing them himself.

The first film may be the least self-conscious and has some charm for that. Ash barely has any personality, just one of a group of standard horror movie teens spending a night in a cabin. The film distinguishes itself with its unrelenting pace and a menace that doesn't seem to play by any particular rules. The camera races through the woods in those trademark shots, indicating a searching and powerful presence. Despite the title, there's no direct indication that this is the spirit of someone dead. People are possessed regardless of whether or not they're dead, the only consistent factor is that women seem to get possessed first. Crucially, Ash's sister, Cheryl (Ellen Sandweiss), is the first to be possessed--after she's raped by the forest, the scene featuring the only nudity in the entire Raimi directed franchise.

What could be more threatening and confusing for a teenage boy than his hot sister? So his lust is both realised by the evil spirits and his hatred for her is justified when she's possessed by the spirits--she's possessed before she's dead, an interesting ground rule that seems to be a little different on the television series. Kelly is possessed once on the show under very specific circumstances but in the first two movies the spirits seem able to take possession at any time. It seems like it might be connected to sex and injury but it's never really clear. Even Ash is possessed more than once in the second film.

The second film used to be my favourite. Each film begins with a slight rewriting of the previous and Evil Dead 2 opens with a quick, more solid version of the first film. The centrepiece of the second film is Ash's battle with his hand, seemingly a clear metaphor for masturbation, or Ash dealing with his libido now that all the women are dead.

The best moment in the movie for me now is when the battle with the hand concludes but the spirits take possession of the whole house and Ash really starts to go out of his gourd, doing a funny little dance with the lamp.

Now the third movie is my favourite, embracing straight fantasy with an Ash that becomes almost a parody of the first two films. He's also just a regular guy dealing with some really fucked up shit, a wonderfully flawed guy. Also I love the skeleton warriors. Though from the first two films I miss the Lovecraft influence, the madness, and the feeling of a threat that manifests with no consistency and no sure way of being contained.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Paint by the Penny

History is filled with artists who became successful after death. Rembrandt van Rijn, although he died in poverty, wasn't quite one of them, but Alexander Korda's 1936 film Rembrandt focuses on the lack of appreciation for Rembrandt and his works in his latter years. At times simplistic in its moralising, the film is for the most part a very good depiction of the artist and his world with absolutely wonderful performances from Charles Laughton and Elsa Lanchester.

This is the thinnest I've ever seen Laughton who bears a pretty good resemblance to the painter's self portraits. Korda seems to have been well aware of the acting powerhouse on his hands and Laughton's Rembrandt casts a spell with his voice, musing beautifully on his love for his first wife, Saskia, silencing a crowded tavern with his display of reverence, or humbling a sarcastic beggar (played by Roger Livesey) with an earnest and sober oration on King Saul.

The film begins at the height of Rembrandt's good fortune. He has a large home and three servants. Then two misfortunes befall him--his beloved wife, Saskia (whom we never see), dies and the début of what is to-day considered one of his greatest paintings, commonly called The Night Watch, is met with ridicule that begins a popular dislike of Rembrandt and his style.

According to Wikipedia, the idea that The Night Watch was considered a failure when it was first shown is not true though the story has been around for centuries. But it's true that Rembrandt's career went into decline as his paintings became less fashionable. Getting drunk with his servants after the painting's début, he gives a speech in this film I rather liked:

"What is success? A soldier can reckon his success in victories. A merchant in money. But my world is insubstantial. I live in a beautiful, blinding, swirling mist."

Legal complications surrounding a fortune belonging to his wife--which he never received--being required to be divided between himself and his son if he remarries prevents him from marrying again--he can't divide the fortune he doesn't have and his son can't renounce the claim because he's not of age. So he takes a lover, his servant Geertje (Gertrude Lawrence), who ends up being an opportunist who treats him badly. He runs away from her and tries living in the country with his father and brother where he grew up but finds the life just isn't for him. He returns to Amsterdam and falls in love with Hendrickje, played by Laughton's real life wife Elsa Lanchester.

She's a servant employed by Geertje and he immediately wants her to pose for him. Unlike Geertje, she has a genuine love for him and his work and figures out a way to use the tangled laws to their advantage when debtors won't allow Rembrandt to sell his own paintings. Since she can't become his wife, she becomes his employer and takes legal possession of all the paintings her employee produces. Watching Else Lanchester's face light up as she gets the idea from an analogy about a fish monger is one of the film's great delights.

Seeing her and Laughton together is another and it's a shame they didn't appear in films together more often.

Twitter Sonnet #832

A knowledgeable slice of cheese went by
Unnoticed, crossing dairy lines to stick
Forever, bound to lunch like wheat or rye,
Or quesadilla clouds adrift and quick
For what won't freeze a pastry robs the jam
Of doughnuts past and bear claws yet to come
Directly plucked from fixed finger ham
The reddened digits hold to grab the sum
The lot of endless dripping faucets hot,
Redacted plumbing jobs that keep the Feds
In files strangely vexed by absent rot,
Organic matter kept from flower beds
In view of rivers under golf courses
And beetles under plastic pink horses.