Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception since 2006, or earlater

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Death's Lost Stinger - NEVER GIVE A SUCKER AN EVEN BREAK

"last time it was pink elephants..."
What makes booze, the scourge of human civilization--Homer's "cause of, and cure for, all life's problems"--so irresistibly funny even when unrepentantly horrible? Find out by examining the last film of W.C. Fields', the ground-patchingly surreal, meta-bizarro masterpiece Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (1941). As Fields says in Poppy, "Without purple bark sarsaparilla this mundane sphere of ours would be barren, bleak, and dank." And yet who made it so, Bill? Drunks, 'at's who

"Oh, Uncle Bill... but I still love him."
When I was getting sober I vowed never to lose my affinity for Fields and never to judge those who could still get plastered. Fields too tried sobriety, especially during a drying out period in the late 30s that saw the end of his Paramount days and the beginning of his Universal period. The new studio gave him free reign, he needed to tangle only with the censor, and thanks to appearances on the Charlie McCarthy Show where he traded wood alcohol-based jokes with Charlie ("go away or I'll sic a beaver onto ya") until his boozing had become a cornerstone of his schtick, which made it all the easier to cloak a relapse. Hard drinking only figured in a handful of his earlier Paramount films. He barely got to drink at all in fan favorite It's a Gift. Some flask sneaking around a fire, another swig or three during the big final deal. Drank nothing at all in The Old Fashioned Way or Poppy (in both of which he wore a ridiculous, Ziegfeld-style clown costume), nothing in Tillie and Gus, and only had a few evening apple jack nightcaps in Man on the Flying Trapeze. Just being mean to children, slickering rubes and never paying his boarding house tabs was enough to be a rogue in those days, apparently. But starting with Universal's You Can't Cheat an Honest Man Fields had full script control, the kid gloves were off and the madness begun, and it warsth chasherlesh.

Over the years I've grown comfortable with the idea of never being able to drink again (it's been 15 misera--I mean beautiful years). The sorrows of life are the joys of art, in the words of immortal drinker Ben Hecht. If you're an artist or writer then you know there is no better sorrow than strong spirits, the beautiful, wild demoness of drink. My body was just too weak in the end to keep up with her demands. I had to let her go. I still see her, sometimes, in liquor store windows, and if the song in my iPod is sad enough, (last time it was Sarah McLachlan), I stop and trace the outline of her bottle against my heart. I will remember you / will you remember me?

Fields, slowly dying of alcoholism by the time of NEVER GIVE A SUCKER AN EVEN BREAK (1941), could never shake her from his system the way I did (knock on wood). He tried. But trying isn't comedy and the eternal thirst becomes funny even at its most tragic level, the ultimate in heartbreak, through Fields' blearily-focused lens. I've used the metaphor for a life spent focused on one's marriage, work, responsibility, chores, mortgages, sobriety as climbing up a rocky, snowy mountain--too focused and tired to wonder if you're happy--and then, when you're 3/4 of the way up the snowy mountain suddenly a beautiful young free spirit, the type you were dreaming of all through your teenage years and early twenties but never met--comes sledding past, racing down the slope in the direction you just came, shouting "jump on!" You have only a split second to decide, if you had more you might have chickened out. But maybe you've had enough bickering and enduring backseat screaming matches and even though a part of you has vowed to never cheat or jeopardize your home, you just jump onto the back of her toboggan, clamp your hands around her waist and hold on.

Down you plunge! You hear your wife's angry cries fading into the background winds, replaced your wild--if strained--laughter. She's such a reckless driver, this girl, and there are so many rocks and trees around, you might easily end up with a broken neck.

Then you get to the bottom of the mountain. You wipe out and when you finally stand up, you find her boyfriend is waiting to punch you in the nose. The girl laughs, grabs her toboggan and takes the next chairlift, boyfriend at her side, while you lie there, your blood spilling all over the snow.

What do you shout to yourself, if you're me or Fields? Again! Set 'em up again.


Again... no quarter given to thy foe, thyself, that barren, bleak dank sarsaparilla -less sphere, that mountain of barren rock you were scaling called marriage, family, work, gutter and lawn maintenance. Fields' love for booze reflects a very clear need to escape all this 'obligation,' to vamoose, to disappear into the mist, down the mountain on booze's reckless sled, and thus to let the vicious roundelay of sleeping, waking, eating, shitting, working, dying, recede like the fading cries of "Harrrr--Rold!" from an outraged shrew wife.  Even if the disappearance is only temporary, just time eased from its wearying consistency for half a tick, it's worth any price, any toll on health, wealth, or sanity. As Eliot wrote "the awful daring of a moment's surrender / for this and this alone have we existed."

Civilization has, in it's way, never been able to shake this wild demoness. Prohibition just drove the price up, and heightened the camaraderie, the shared joke, with the speakeasy passwords. Part of the charm of setting a film like International House in China was the lack of prohibition; Americans came out there to get away from the madness of sanity. Once prohibition was repealed, things went back to normal, like it does today a few months after you turn 21 and the thrill of unlimited access without need of a fake license wears off. So being sober means understanding the reality of booze, which is that it never measures up to the warm glow anticipation. The buzz is like music, ephemeral, but in trying to maintain that buzz through continued consumption one invites the fallout of hangover, sloppiness, missed deadlines, illness, depression, anxiety, amnesia, and... eventually... the 'missed launch' wherein you're so drunk you can't stand up and yet remain horribly sober, miserably conscious of how un-enraptured you are,  no matter how drunk you get. (For a great description of this horror, read the last chunk of Kerouac's Big Sur).

To down in a vat of whiskey... death where is thy sting?
Now there are people who aren't alcoholics, so they don't know the true joy of the terror of addiction, the horror of convulsions and D.T.s or the giddy ecstasy of waking up feeling like death, pouring a 50/50 gin and grapefruit juice highball, pounding it down in a single gulp, pouring another one, and sitting down to watch your favorite bender movie, SPECIES or APOCALYPSE NOW, and realizing it's only six AM on a Sunday, not six PM, like you feared when you first opened your eye. You have the whole day, hours left to try and taper off! The agony and ache of your morning hangover vanishes and is replaced by ecstasy in a matter of minutes.

Next thing it's six AM on a Monday, and you're thinking of reasons you can't come into work, putting that scratch in your voice for when you call your boss.  Godfrey Daniel!

The best way I've learned to explain it is on a scale to measure one's mood / feeling of well being / joy and contentment. Let's say a 1-10 scale: ten = ecstasy; one = being grimly depressed/ suicidal; five = the average mood of the average human on an average day.

So the average person stays in the middle, bouncing around between 4-6
Getting drunk brings them to a 7-8, then back down to a 4 for the next morning, then up to 5 again.

But alcoholics like W.C. Fields and me have an average of 2-3. And when we drink we catapult to a perfect 10, hit the bell and go sailing downwards, arriving at 1-2, one way or the other, eventually.

If we keep a steady buzz throughout the day, we can manage an extended wobble between 7-9, but the longer we keep that up the more harrowing, miserable, and lengthy our stay down at 1-2, over that toilet, beholding our skull reflection in the water, too sick to choke down the booze needed to stop being too sick to drink.

My friends, when that happens, take a break from your six hour stint hyperventilating over the toilet and lean back on the cold tiles and think, "Erich and Fields were here!" And bask in the comfort that there's literally nowhere else to go but up -- or down to zero. And zero means you're off the scale - unconscious, dead, or having a massive orgasm --neither way, salut!


Fields made it to zero, as we all must, and hasn't worked a day since, but everyone of us still bouncing up this scale and back down longs to escape it, not just to return to the dubious joy of sobriety or alcohol but to transcend the scale altogether, to die, to be really drowned in a vat of whiskey.... that must be... glorious. But since it's too hard to kill yourself, or become a vampire, drink's a fine second, a temporary respite from the abyss of addiction, which it itself engenders (to paraphrase Nicholas St. John).

"I was in love with a beautiful blonde once dear, she drove me to drink. That's the one thing I'm indebted to her for," says Fields. It's one of Sucker's more indelible lines, and probably true and it's packed with Lacanian paradox: in ruining his life, this blonde set him free. She was coming by on that sled. She brought him down to the 1 or the 2, allowing for more velocity on the bounce back up to 10 again. And that's what we alcoholics really love, the velocity. To push up from the bottom, to shoot from a 1 to a 10 is way more awesome than going from 5-9. In fact you don't even really make 10 unless you get a good velocity going. To savor the rush of the climb you need the bungee-style chance to press your face against the mortal coil Boiinnng, even sneer at it as it almost grabs you in its skeletal claws, and then suddenly you're bouncing back up again, the skeletal hands close below you, the skull grumbles in defeat, and all one's minor problems--debt, bad marriages, legal troubles, unemployment, bad reviews--recede-- DING! A winna!



In that moment, just being alive and relatively uninjured is the cherry on a grand cake; all real life problems are as minor little mosquito bites on a man running for his life from wild boars.

I loved Never Give a Sucker an Even Break even before I had my first drink. It aired at four AM on a local TV station one early Saturday morning in 1983, when I was 16, the morning before I had to go to my very first-ever day of work. I was tired, of course, having gotten up so early on a Saturday (our VCR timer was unreliable, so I'd get up early and sneak downstairs while my parents still slept, to edit out commercials and musical numbers, purist that I was). All that day I had to operate a creaky, noxious-fume spewing (pre-Xerox) copier... nonstop for six hours, my chain-smoking boss lady stapling next to me, leaping down my throat at the first pause in the clanking of that old machine. I was way too shy to ever ask for my breaks, presuming she would just tell me to go on them at the appropriate time. She didn't. Just kept stapling and smoking and I got hungrier, dizzier, and wearier, though the coffee was always free.

But Fields had prepared me for just such a baptism of misery. All through the day his magic song echoed through my mind...

Chickens have pretty legs in Kans-assss.

I started smoking that very day.

When you're falling, dive.


Thinking about the cozy airplane in SUCKER and Fields' comforting song through that noxious Sunday afternoon created a soft warm feeling that resisted the crushing dehumanization of the copier. It was my happy place, that open air rear observation compartment. Looking back, that whole sequence and its frame-within-a framework meta groundedness couches that airplane in layers of comforting safety. Let's examine the layers:

"couldn't stand the noise..."
 LEVEL ONE: 
The Magic Drunk (oblivion) - altitude of cozy ecstasy

It's no coincidence that my two favorite films of Fields involve copious drinking and air travel of a uniquely Fieldsian character: the autogyro (in International House) and a giant airliner with an open air rear observation compartment and berths like a sleeper car in Sucker. For being 'up in the air' offers its own unique freedom - high in the clouds, free of all responsibility (the same with being deep deep down, as in a secret underground lair- another happy place of mine). One is essentially in heaven, that '10' bell I spoke of, Eden, free to drink into oblivion while surrounded by clouds which "look just as fleecy as... clouds" and being waited on by beautiful adoring women, a kind of second infancy.

Chickens have pretty legs in Kansas.... (2x)

Chickens lay eggs
big as nutmegs

Oh chickens they lay eggs in Kansas

Fields sings this awesome song while still in his berth after being woken by the stewardess, a vision of wartime loveliness if ever there was one. We see his niece, Gloria Jean, and a random blonde in earshot in another berth, smiling wistfully at his song, as though he's Frank Sinatra, with the rush of the airplane in the background it becomes a scene of prenatal bliss, a mirror to the earlier scene of Gloria Jean's gypsy folk song with reaction shots of adoring lambs and donkeys.

 LEVEL 2: 
The Plummet (after a bottle of golden nectar)

This thirst for freedom, the ferocity of chasing your dreams, even if the dream is destruction, even if it pulls you from the forward movement of time into a vertical plunge, this is the definition of America being pulled out of its isolationist stance into the war in Europe. Here, Fields jumps out the window and is taking a chance, that's the point, as he tells Og Oggilby in his previous film, The Bank Dick (1940): "My uncle, a balloon ascensionist, Effingham Hoofnagle, took a chance. He was three miles and a half up in the air. He jumped out of the basket of the balloon and took a chance of landing on a load of hay."

"Golly! Did he make it?" Oggilby asks.

"Ah, no... no he didn't, Og. Had he been a younger man he probably would have made it. That's the point. Don't wait too long in life."

 LEVEL THREE: 
The Aerie - The Buzzard's Nest

The nest is the ideal halfway point between the uninhibited surrealism of International House and the average family man yarns of Fields' earlier Paramount days - Margaret Dumont is much cooler and more fun as a foil than either Jan Duggan (whose nonetheless pretty great) and Kathleen Howard, whose one-note shrillness can turn off potential fans of Man on the Flying Trapeze and It's a Gift. Dumont connects it to the Marx Brothers and has her own weird sense of gravitas. As Molly Haskell says "the poise and unruffled splendor with which (Dumont) graces (the Marx) films is ample testimony to her place in their hearts and in film history." (67) After Ouilatta looks over his shoulder smiling innocently, "why, mother!" Fields beholds a giant, fanged Great Dane, implying that her mother is in fact the dog --like in The Omen!! "Romulus and Remus!" 


The normal act of the 'old reprobate' is to make moves on the young daughter while making a feint at wooing her mother (The Graduate in reverse) and here in this surreal 'nest' there's nowhere else to go on the mesa but down so it's not like mom goes to the salon or church all that often. There's no time to be free of Mrs. Hemoglobin and her fanged great dane. The mesa top is small and we can see the whole thing in detail (above), the round bed on which Ouilatta Hemoglobin (Susan Miller) reclines, looking up in calm astonishment. But just as there's no man around, there's no escape from her mother, "a buzzard if ever there was one," as he later explains to visiting engineers Charles Lang and Emmett Vogan (below). So down again he plunges.

On a subtextual level, the daughter and mother (and dog) are inescapably joined. Just as Sue Lyon in Lolita inevitably turns into Shelly Winters (see Lyon in Winters) there's no freezing Ouilatta in time. She will become a great dane-Hemoglobin hybrid. His best bet is celibacy, to avoid the Humbert Humbert trap and stay in the 'good uncle' role with Gloria Jean. It's his one redeeming trait.

LEVEL FOUR:
The Russian Village 

Director Cline and Fields incorporate one of Gloria Jean's Russian peasant songs via a miraculous scene in the Russian village bar. Fields is told that the buzzard who lives on the mountain top is rich, causing him to immediately have a moment of clarity about his undying love for her. As the music swells slow and mysterieux in the background, he notes, eyes a-twinkle, "she seems to have a good heart, too... in fact she seems like an awfully nice woman to me.... now that I come to think of it." The romantic music of the gypsy chorale underwrites his change of approach, and next we see Gloria Jean joining in the peasant song as her wagon rides up to the gypsy camp ("How do I get to the Russian village?" - as if there's only one, like going to someone in New York and saying how to I get to the American town?). Gypsies walk alongside her wagon, keeping up the unearthly but achingly gorgeous vibe of their song, Gloria Jean now wailing over the top in long sustained filling-rattling notes like a theremin, or a Duke Ellington lead cornet.


LEVEL FIVE:
Esoteric Studios - Mr. Pangborn's Office (Reality)

It's always a bit of a wrankler when Pangborn slams the script down because we never get to learn what happens next (after Fields and Gloria Jean go  up to the aerie and she kaboshes the idea of marriage - "but she'll be with us!" indicating Ms. Hemoglobin; it continues the fantasy result of Fields self-induced chastity, as he doesn't need to be possessive of Gloria Jean, as she is of him, wanting it to be just the two of them, forever, singing to and hiding drinks from, one another. Even her mother, a stunt double, seems just an extra in their lives. So Pangborn's slapping down of the script is an affront to her as well as him (she kicks him in the shin after he disparages Fields in her presence). 

Certainly the binding clauses of Hollywood and censorship seem to plague Fields in this earthly realm, to the point he's expected to hide his drinking from the camera as well as the neice: "This scene was supposed to be in a saloon but the censor cut it out" he says while popping into an ice cream shop for a drink. It is allegedly true, but the only real gag in the whole thing is basically just Fields trying to get a scoop of ice cream into his mouth while his straw keeps wilting at the last possible second and the ice cream vendor guy tries to swat a fly. "It's killers like you that give the west a bad name." One wonders what the original gag was like. Was Fields playing with an olive, or trying to get a drink to his lips but his hands were shaking so bad he kept spilling the shot? Man, that would have been hilarious. I've had to lower my lips down around a Martini glass, sipping off the top until my shakes wore off, but oh what a glorious feeling when they did (that rocket up to 10).  


Part of the earthly realm is Carlotta Monti (above) as Pangborn's receptionist (and Fields' real-life long time paramour --author of WC Fields and Me) who's speaking to presumably her boyfriend on the telephone when she says "You big hotty-doddy... you smoke vile cigars all day and drink whiskey half the night," which Fields presumes is about him--and metatextually really is (since he is her boyfriend, more or less). We know he does do the things she surely griped about in real life. Typical then, that Fields would include copious post-modern witticism understood perhaps only by himself and people who know him, something I try to do in this blog! She's semi-cute with little Norma Shearer arms, but it's sad that she wound up an eternal mistress helper to the man and all she got was this part, which only enabled her to complain through the wire-bars of a metatextual prism. I've not read her book or seen the movie with Rod Steiger as Fields as I'm afraid of losing even a gram of my love for the man. As you know from my 'first day ever of work' story, I need him.

And I still love him.


CODA:
HIS LITTLE NIECE, GLORIA JEAN 

In the end, despite being all about the pursuit and abandonment of illusion, Never Give a Sucker an Even Break remains extraordinarily clear-eyed about the moment-by-moment inevitability of mortality. There's no delusion of a happy ending, except that Fields and his niece are going down south for awhile (maybe to Brazil like Orson Welles, on a 'good will' tour). The whole film occurs basically over a day at the studio, from the mom and niece separating for the day's work and talking about Uncle Bill. "Your uncle Bill is too good," the mom says and ending in a car wreck in front of the emergency room, dropping off a woman he's mistakenly assumed is pregnant.


Of course Bill's had cute girl daughters and charges before: Poppy, Sally of the Sawdust, It's a Gift, You're Telling Me,  Man on the Flying Trapeze and You Can't Cheat an Honest Man, a less loyal one in The Bank Dick. But this is the first time they haven't been of marriageable age. Mostly (Una Merkel in Bank Dick aside) they've always been 'good' to him, whereas very young girls and boys, such as Buddy and Butch, Gloria Jean's stand-up bass and accordion accompanists, are little shits.


But she's also there to add something no comedy could escape in the 40s: songs. What idiot decided comedy needed long musical breaks? Whomever he was, Fields thought he was an idiot too. That said, Cline and Fields refuse to just waste comedic or metatextual opportunities during the numbers. One of the songs, presented as a lengthy rehearsal on a busy under-construction set, is targeted by everyone but Pangborn for being insufferably bourgeois, even within the film itself, as all concerned groan about the corniness of the lengthy, tediousness of the song. Hollywood's desire for respectability is here in full flower, what Shaw calls the Englishman's "mistaking virtue for being merely uncomfortable," going to see classical music concerts because they like the idea of themselves liking classical music. That kind of stuffed shirt petit-bourgeois squareness was usually the purview of MGM but Universal wanted to at least go through the motions. Nuts to that. Fields and Cline are way too hip for any such airs, reflected in shots of Gloria Jean's, the pianist's, and Buddy and Butch's boredom, and their revenge via spat out cherry pits in Pangborn's general direction as he conducts, after squashing the boogie woogie song "Uncle Bill wanted me to sing." In other words, Fields may not be able to get the songs he wants for Gloria Jean, or be allowed to go singer-less, but he can damn sure express his contempt for Universal's bourgeois aspirations. And he invites all concerned in on the conspiracy against the Pangborn effigy, even the singer herself joins against the song.


But there's some genuine human affection there, too: Fields may resent her studio-enforced presence but nonetheless loves Gloria Jean anyway, or certainly doesn't hold her accountable, and loves Carlotta Monti, and even, still, the beautiful blonde who drove him to drink, and doesn't even bear ill will to them or even to Pangborn's uptight head of Esoteric Pictures. In fact, he hasn't an enemy in the world (in his eyes at least) and at least none that cause him undue concern no matter how hostile, ugly, annoying, and sickeningly faux-homespun they are ("there's something awfully big about you, too"). Life's too short.

But he's still going down fast, like a plummeting anchor, to that final and eternal level, to the base of the mountain with the waiting boyfriend's fist, the kitten stocking, where 10 and 1 are just as fleecy as... clouds, where there is no longer a difference between sky, buzzard nest, mountain, village, movie, reality, all roils down to the noxious huff of copier fumes and menthol Virginia Slims as a 16 year-old kid begins his first day of work, dreaming of some future vat of whiskey drowning, a paycheck oblivion depth bomb fit for a king, a scoundrel, or a punk poseur muddling through a Sunday at H&R Block in Somerville, NJ, 1983. The sorrows of life are the joys of art, and the misery of work fuels the giddy roadster of happy hour inebriation. Alcohol almost killed me a dozen times over...

But I still love him.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Self-Sabotage for Success - CASINO


Summer is a time for living dangerously and nowhere is life more dangerous than in the movies about gambling.  Moviemaking is a recklessly expensive venture to begin with (CASINO cost $50 million, enough to build a casino in itself) and no investor/producer ever knows for sure that the film won't bomb and they'll lose it all, baby. It's a roll of the dice. And the mob's been associated one way or another with Hollywood since the beginning, from Al Capone's boys acting as technical advisors on the 1932 original SCARFACE to "this is the girl" in MULHOLLAND DR. Wherever there's big money and trade unions, the mob is there, and Hollywood has both, so rolling the dice on a film about the mob rolling dice on a plan to lure ducats out of America's pockets is so meta it can't fail... it's a sure thing baby, a hot tip, a combo blackjack table and funhouse room of mirrors. 

And thanks to the internet, gambling isn't just limited to Vegas, as online poker lets you live the giddy rush of Vegas from your own home. Things are changing, and the criminal element can't keep up, which is why Scorsese's film looks back to the mobster version of Vegas' heyday, a tangent moment to the Rat Pack's OCEAN'S ELEVEN, which played up the glamour, drunkenness and class, but kept it light. Robbery of a casino meant as a lark is far less, somehow, evil than the actual operation of one. But Scorsese knows that to be a big winner in gambling is to  keep your tells in check and your sense of the odds present without resorting to card counting or cheating; in other words, you must be unlucky at love--for love makes those things impossible. It's just the karmic law of averages, baby. So what in the end, is a priority for a wise guy? The career gambler may unconsciously sabotage his chances at a happy love life, as Robert De Niro's character does in CASINO, in order to preserve his luck at cards. One hopes it's not just that he's too blind to his own lack of self-awareness, or compassion for others. One hopes in vain.

I've already covered the delights of the here-and-gone beauty that is Robert Altman's 1974 underseen CALIFORNIA SPLIT (here). But what about 1995's overseen CASINO? A fine metaphor for the allure of gambling and the danger and exaltation of living in a 'paradise' designed by shady guys in suits smoking big cigars who think comped cocktails, air conditioning, prostitutes in tail feathers, and Sinatra appearances are the height of elegance. For them, Vegas is a playground where a regular guy can live the gangster arc of winning the world only to lose one's shirt, or life, or freedom. Who wouldn't want that kind of rush, even if it's on a scale suited to their small potatoes lifestyle? Why else do we watch films about gangsters, if not for the vicarious thrills, the vicarious paranoia and the final dislodging from vicariousness--when the gangster dies, the credits roll, and we go scurrying out into the light and back to our daily grinds, grateful to not be lucky at cards after all?

Giddy rushes aside, CASINO is fraught with problems, none more glaring than the shadow of its predecessor, GOODFELLAS. From the punchy wiseguy narration to the long tracking shots packed with period rock music and beautifully ugly old Italian faces, the Scorsese aesthetic we all fell in love with is back, but there's been so many imitations in the interim it seems like Scorsese is just imitating them rather than being himself.  Joe Pesci is now so typecast the only way he can outdo his legendary role as Joey (see one of my very first-ever posts on Acidemic, 'That Joey, he's a wild one) is to up the ante. He doesn't drop the ball here so much as hold it so tight it deflates. He looks older and stockier, his make-up more orange (to indicate a desert tan?), his belly paunchier, his sneer flash frozen. When he throws his massive tantrums he's not scary-fun like he was in GOODFELLAS, just alarming. He's as trapped by the irresistible momentum of Scorsese's period gangster rhythm as a fly on an express train, the gravity seems to weigh him down, broaden him around the edges as he sinks into self parody's disheartening mire.

The Orangeman
Sharon Stone, critics dutifully if joylessly adoring her all the while, falls into the same hole in the desert, turning a sad vixen's marriage into a brilliant if overly shrill and humorless bid for Oscar respectability. Do you think Barbara Stanwyck ever 'tried' to blow us away with her raw force? She merely released what was always inside her, the tigress. Stanwyck knew that before you get to the raw tigeress force you need modulation, dynamics, some wit and warmth and lightness. Stone just wants us to see how Joan Crawfordianly hard she's trying. But hardness without softness, darkness without lightness, what is that?

Whatever it is, it doesn't deserve the acres of tantrum space Scorsese carves out for it in the final act of CASINO. Verhoeven in BASIC INSTINCT and TOTAL RECALL knew how to use Stone's Bette Davis imperiousness and Jane Fonda insecurity combo as part of a comic book tapestry. He knew she was a delicious villainess rather than an 'identifiable' heroine. A director like Sidney Lumet or Nicholas Ray, or George Cukor might have helped Stone to reign in some of her less successful ideas and enable her to win an Oscar, but without a genius who loves and can direct powerful women and knows how to get them to retract their claws and let down their hair (and Scorsese surely does not), Stone falls into the same morass that snared Annette Bening in AMERICAN BEAUTY, the morass wherein female rage against the patriarchal machine comes out as abrasive, ineffectual spite, all while the infantile, unconsciously misogynistic director smiles and nods.

But everyone knows romance and female characters (ALICE aside) aren't Scorsese's strong point. He lives and breathes cigar smoke from the boys in the back room. His films about dangerous hoods work because he truly 'feels' the threat of violence, knows the texture of the mean streets, hires actual Little Italy characters (including his own mother) and makes effective, occasionally sickening, use of cattle prods, spittle, baseball bats and beatings over owed vigs. Don Rickles, for example, as the pit boss, is like a bouncer from hell, his insult comic genius held in check like a pit bull on a tight leash. In the lengthy kinetic montage wherein De Niro's narration takes us through the process of the skim we're off into the blissful realm of pure cinema, and a solid hour of running time evaporates like crack. So who cares if he don't know women?

But by the home stretch of the film, the woman has landed. And the tantrums of Sharon Stone in her Big Oscar Bid bogs it all down. Try as I might I can never really give a shit about the fate of her marriage with De Niro's obsessive casino boss, so I spend these scenes admiring the elaborately gaudy outfits she wears, the fringe jacket and smoky blonde hair cuts as she angrily packs her suitcase and calls her old pimp (James Woods, 'lighting up' the screen). We only see the happy Sharon Stone in an initial slow mo montage of her strolling through the casino, tossing chips and duking parking attendants. The rest of the film she's moping by the phone, sobbing hysterically or otherwise chewing all available scenery in coke/booze-amped despair. Scorsese might have allowed us to see her happy and jubilant within the marriage itself once or twice, as opposed to merely doing her job posing like a trophy in public before collapsing into tantrums at home. De Niro wouldn't seem such an unmitigated fool then. Instead he doesn't even get the wan smile a legitimate john might earn, i.e. she won't even fake liking him. As one who makes a living on gambling, it's kind of odd that--even knowing the outcome from the start--he bets everything he has on Ginger to change her mind, and seems genuinely shocked when she doesn't, even after having a kid. The only explanation for putting all his eggs in such a shitty basket might be that De Niro unconsciously figures being unlucky in love means being lucky at cards, so deliberately sabotaging any chance at happiness in his personal life ensures continued winning streaks.


While Scorsese too is on a winning streak, for that great opening hour or two, in the end it's his do-no-wrong reputation that brings him low. Like the master gunfighter in the western where every hotshot snotnose with an iron on his hip wants to challenge him in order to build their own legends, every young punk out there imitates Scorsese, and as a result he's as insecure and second-guessing about his own genius as Malick or Kubrick, slowly losing touch with his nitty gritty acumen through  the thick fog of his adoring legions, none of whom would dare point out when a scene is going to hell.


That's why CASINO is De Niro's last brilliant film, as well as the first of his bad ones. You can feel the gambler's luck turning halfway through, right around the time De Niro fires Joe Bob Briggs, nephew of a Nevada gaming commission bigwig, and refuses to even hire him back "somewhere farther down the trough," though the politician makes it clear De Niro's going to wind up losing his license if he doesn't comply.  How did someone so smart get suddenly so stupid... twice? Why would De Niro fuck up a good thing with the gaming commission just by insisting on firing a dopey relative of a high end Nevada politician? De Niro then seems surprised when he loses his license appeal, just as he's surprised when Ginger tries to run away. It just doesn't fit that a schmuck this dumb would be smart enough to get so far in the first half of the film. He been takin' stoopid pills? He go to Vega to get stupid? 

By the same token, why did Marty think his next project after GOODFELLAS (and before CASINO) should be AGE OF INNOCENCE (1993)? I'm not saying one should never wander from one's own back yard, but if you can't find anything new to talk about within it, maybe your just not looking hard enough. If a man can find Shakespeare within the language of a Brooklyn gangster movie, does he really need to do actual Shakespeare to prove himself? It's like with 'these' you don't know how to kill the bunny! 


For a director who suddenly could do any project he wanted to decide to film some creaky Edith Wharton tale in a Merchant Ivory-just-with-more-elaborate-tracking-shots style is telling of Marty's deep-rooted insecurity and doomed drive for bourgeois respectability. Sure the film is great in its way, Daniel Day Lewis rocks it, but why not let the Brits do that posh shit?  What made the clans of mobsters in early Scorsese so fun was their mix of boorish blue collar philistinism version of wealth and power. Imagine if the first thing Henry Hill did with his newfound success was buy a box at the opera, a polo pony, and a subscription to The New York Times? Yuck. Sometimes the worst thing that can happen to an artist of the streets is success amongst the hoi polloi, resulting in the sudden ill-advised need to break into the one class of people who momentarily welcome you into their inner circle the way gangsters might a flush gambling addict chump to their backroom poker game. Like Sinatra angling for the slumming rich girl virgin instead of the adoring floozy in SOME CAME RUNNING, his grass-is-greener class envy is showing.

Sometimes the worst that can happen to a gambler is to win so big that no future jackpot can ever measure up. Surrounded by imitators trying to duplicate your winning formula, you eventually wind up imitating them and your comfort zone shrinks around you like a soaking wet straitjacket. Soon even the moon looks like just another cracked poker chip, and the electric pop style you invented through hard work and termite art genius seems as derivative as hell. CASINO is the proof Marty can't go home again. His old house is packed with freeloader wannabes making pitchers like BLOW, MASTER OF WAR, TRAINSPOTTING, AMERICAN GANGSTER, CHARLIE WILSON'S WAR, MIDDLE MEN (see "Gotta get the papez, get the papez" or Johnny Two TImes, Because He Said Everything Twice), and everything by Guy Ritchie.

And that's that.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Favorite Critic Series - Molly Haskell


Molly Haskell is one of those brazenly feminist cultural critics who prefer to dazzle, excite, and thrill rather than deflate, demoralize, and despair. She's from the generation of women who came to prominence in the 70s, a time when feminism did not preclude casual heterosexual intercourse in an airport bathroom, and one felt one could do without condoms (or last names) as long as one was on the pill. Haskell's grand, seminal book, From Reverence to Rape, was a first of its kind, displaying an exhaustive (but never exhausting) knowledge of film history from the 1930s up through the then current 70s, evincing--in an era before home video--a familiarity with pre-code film, enough to know what few of the time could, that before 1934's huge step back, women ruled Hollywood. Competent female doctors, CEOs, aviators, and ambitious gold-digging social climbers abounded, making it all the harder to endure when, after 1934, they had to give all that up and do whatever their doltish husbands said. It was the cinematic equivalent of, say, taking back a woman's right to vote. But of course, it didn't stay that way, and after WW2 many women refused to return to their housewife-second class citizen status after working men's jobs, and Hollywood was right there with them. With her clear-eyed grasp of the whole spectrum of this struggle, Haskell locked onto the dark heart of feminist oppression and began to squeeze until its black blood ran across the page.

With the pain and despair of the post-code Handmaid's Tale-style reversal of social progress so present in her work, Haskell shouldn't be so fun to read, but her irrepressible love of movies never makes her half-full glass runneth over. Her book isn't just well-written and a stunning defense of the women's film, it's a point of no return --there can be no going back to your blissful state of patriarchal ignorance once you've read it, no way to dismiss the casual misogyny that runs deep through film history. One's perceptions are eternally expanded, but Haskell never even wakes the baby as the bathwater drains away --that is her miracle.

To say Haskell is one of my literary idols isn't doing her justice; her late husband Andrew Sarris is also an idol, the man who brought the auteur concept to America, but it's to Haskell I turn to get jazzed on wanting to see movies. Sarris can be very wrong (how can a man so smart and knowing about film be so wrong about Von Sternberg?) while Haskell's opinions have never forked from my own. Like Camille Paglia, she eschews banging her head against the patriarchal walls in favor of daring to walk around it, like Hitler through Belgium around the Maginot Line. Rather than whine for a man to come unlock the door, Haskell liberates herself. She was from that generation, the ones who didn't begrudge man his fiefdoms, just went and made their own, better verions. You can't even get mad at the dumb male fantasies that passed for art after reading Haskell because she shows you the way to still enjoy them despite your new knowledge. She deflates the Stanley Kubrick mystique within a few sentences, not because of his misogyny per se but because it's not "a visceral explosion of deep Swiftian disgust [which she has no truck with] but a fashionable and fastidious distaste," then lets him go, like a fish that's under the limit, and you find she hasn't spoiled your appreciation of his work. She's not nitpicking, she's merely pointing out how much better, how broader and more of an enduring classic a film could have been if its maker hadn't been afraid of women.

In addition to their focus on the male proprietary gaze, many academic feminist film critics seem to feel obligated to push for a democratization of cinema. They want more races and classes and most of all, more plain-looking people in films so all of us can feel represented. These critics may be right from a certain standpoint, but who would wants to pay to see themselves after a hard day's work? No one imagines themselves in the movies as plain; in the dark we're all gods and goddesses, changing back to trolls and trogs only when the house lights rise, and Haskell gets that. She sees that glamor isn't a realm for females to waste valuable time looking pretty for the male gaze, but rather a tool with which to court androgyny. She points out that the big female stars of the 1930s and 40s all had a certain drag queen essence. She also defends actresses you'd think she'd be against: she points out the fallacy inherent in labeling Doris Day as some icon of 1950s bland hausfrauization, as if her tomboy aura masks her fear of sex. Haskell sees way, way past that but at the same time gestures towards the insufferably phony innocence of husband 'trap,' Debbie Reynolds -- "where Marilyn was false to her sexuality in the most innocent way, Debbie Reynolds was false to her innocence in the most calculating way," notes Haskell. Reynolds was "the professional virgin, and the final retribution for the polarization of women into good girls and bad... the sweetheart as purview of the wife, the justification of misogamy before the fact." (263)

Her spirited 70s 'lib' acumen illuminates the deep misunderstanding of film's ultimate function in so many of her contemporaries' writing, and how the 'no social group left behind' aesthetic robs everything it touches of resonant power even more so than the past moral codes once did. For Haskell, a film is better if its misogyny is overt, passionately-felt, instead of passive-aggressively engaging in virgin/whore dichotomies, turning a whole woman into separate neurotic factions so her man can feel wondrously whole by comparison. I work at an art school and I've seen how over time actual free-thinking 'subversive' art has become more and more oppressed in favor of a 'safe' egalitarian aesthetic, and I always stress to students how the 'women's lib' voice of the 70s was never about stripping sparkling surface glamor and beauty from art, lest some dull, plain person feel left out. It was about the right to enjoy sexual pleasure, art and artifice, free from the suffocation of 'baby peer pressure' or prudish disgust.

And one can always just bask in Haskell's brilliant sentences, her use of beautiful, strange words, as in From Reverence's chapter on "The Woman's Film," when she writes about Michael Curtiz's acclaimed soaper Mildred Pierce:
 "Mildred's ambitions are from a "higher purpose" than self-fulfillment. Her words to Pierce, her first husband, elided into one sesquipedalian word, might stand as the motto of the woman's film: "I'lldoanythingforthosekidsdoyouundersandanything," she says, packing another homemade pie into a box for delivery." (The Woman's Film)
I read the book awhile ago and forgot just how refreshingly against Hollywood's nuclear family-worship it is. I always have to take a step or two back from film bloggers (who shall be nameless) who gravitate towards the empty-headed all-white, all-straight, kid-ridden post-code style embodied by, say, MGM. No offense against them, it's just to me too emblematic of all that's wrong in popular culture. Haskell sees just how passive-aggressively anti-woman this style is, with the wife or fiancee always determined to end the male's fun, to get him to settle down and to stop risking his life, to stop doing all the things we want to see him do. Woman as buzzkill with no other idea in her head but getting her man to and settle down (which of course is not what we came to the film to see), "is a hoary Anglo-Saxon idea." (157):
 "Marriage becomes the heavy. The implication is clear: All the excitement of life--the passion, the risk--occurs outside of marriage rather than within it. Marriage is a deadly bore, made to play the role of spoilsport, the ugly cousin one has to dance with at the ball. " (The Woman's Film, 156)
In her follow-up to Reverence, Holding My Own in No Man’s Land: Women and Men and Films and Feminists, Haskell discusses some of the female icons of the era, including Mae West:
"Her image, complete with body language and voice, lifts buoyantly out of celluloid into space, like the inflatable life preserver that was named after her in World War II. She's a pneumatic floozy presiding over an army of panting camp followers, a Catherine the Great from Brooklyn, a Salome who adds on the layers instead of subtracting them, a Cleopatra whose infinite variety is debatable. [...] Looking at her now, we can't but applaud this middle-aged woman (she was forty when she made her first film), undisguisedly rotund, flaunting an unliposcuted, unsiliconed body, and demanding her sexual privileges (72-3)
Haskell's book includes the word 'Rape' which I had to blacken out on my copy as even the word has become toxic to the point to me and the world, to the point I was drawing stares in the subway while reading it, as if it was some unholy primer. And of course it's anything but that. Haskell's ire isn't directed against sex, or even violence but the dangers of 're-telling' and Hollywood's misreading of the romance novel 'rape fantasy', noting that :
"The minute you describe a sexual encounter to another person it is transformed by the listener or reader into something else, in accordance with his or her fantasy life. I have become aware, in the process of telling of my being "felt up" in the movie theater or rubbed against in the subway, of that person's excitement. The odor and ugliness, the hostility of the actual experience, disappear in the re-telling; the episode is filtered through the imagination of the listener and turned into a sexual fantasy. To describe a sexual act is to launch a balloon whose destiny one can't control." (130)
She also deals with another vile symptom of this strange anti-feminist advocation: the 'sensitive men raising children alone while their wives are bitches, missing, or dead' fantasy (Kramer Vs. Kramer, Mr. Mom, Author! Author!, Table for Five, etc.):
"Run these fantasies through the data processor and what do we get? The best woman is a dead woman, especially a dead independent woman! Next best is one who pulls a disappearing act in a manner that reflects badly on her character rather than the husband's. Third preference (where the woman is determined to hang in there and stay married) is an all-forgiving mother-wife, who looks the other way at her mate's peccadilloes and embraces the fruit of his waywardness afterward. Although the women's magazines like to tell us we can "have it all," the message of these movies is that we can't have much of anything... Presumably a great many women are paying good money to choke back tears over a doting Dudley Moore or a fumbling Al Pacino or a misty-eyed Jon Voight. We ought to instead be laughing these male mothers off the screen (126)
Lastly, a measure of her continued brilliance is found here and there in magazines and collections. She's appeared as a talking head on some TCM documentaries, curated some pre-codes, and so forth. She's the only critic I've read who understood the same thing I saw and liked about Lost in Translation, the understanding between Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson that their budding love affair hinges on staying platonic, and the beauty and subliminal creative power that might be harnessed therein:
"It's really the repression of sex (think of old stories like Brief Encounter and Love Affair) and the acceptance of a carnal boundary that can't be crossed that becomes, in their eloquent silence-filled rapport, a form of love more life-altering than the sexual contortions now monotonously de rigueur." (2003)
In the end it's not just that Molly Haskell is a genius with a staggering knowledge of film history and canny insights into the sexual politics of film that are miraculously free of malice, but that she creates a sense of excitement and hope that incorporates even feminist anger into its giddy breadth. In reminding us that 'our' ideas of sex and marriage were fostered by racist, sexist censors from the mid 1930s, Haskell vindicates actresses like Marlene Dietrich, Mae West, Shirley MacLaine, and Doris Day, and shows us that film needn't have any correlation with reality, because reality is too busy trying to correlate to film as it is. If we can weed the censor's meddling out of our psyches, maybe sex--even one night stands--will no longer be a source of shame and regret, and marriage won't need to be defined by jealousy and suffocation. Maybe if everyone interested in film reads From Reverence to Rape we can be as cool as we were in the 70s and like Europe still is. Instead of being a nation bemoaning its lack of sex while persecuting 'loose' women as whores, never getting the irony, let us collectively come to the realm Haskell, where irony shall set you free for a million lays to come.

Saturday, June 08, 2013

Cuspidor of Greatness: DIPLOMANIACS (1933)

The red man was the big man
and then came the great big white man 
a white man? / that's the right man.
The whites got the reds and the reds got the blues, 
and the red white and blue was born. 

The above is a snatch of song sung by Wheeler and Woolsey, with dancing Native American maids all in rows, and while sardonic as fuckall it's rather callous, as if casting a bloody stain on America's conscience is the same as patriotism, and no one really seems to care, because now Native Americans have oil wells and gambling and educated spokespersons. But where exactly do Wheeler and Woolsey fit in? In DIPLOMANIACS (1933),  Woolsey can best be imagined by picturing a lipless George Burns aiming for Groucho Marx's arrogance and way with a cigar; Wheeler is like Nathan Lane pureed together with Frank McHugh, and slid under Charlie Chaplin hair oil. Always, always there's the sense that these guys are really stage show vaudevillians more than film stars.

Some great comics like W.C. Fields, Mae West (pre-code) and the Marx Brothers (at least pre-DAY AT THE RACES) have stood the test of time. They are eternal. Others, popular in the early dirty turn-of-sound 30s---Eddie Cantor, Jolson, Wheeler and Woolsey--have not been so lucky. They have faded into niches were only freaks like me do scrounge. But thanks to the Warner Bro. Archives, a horde of their surreal pre-codes are finally available on DVD, and man you can learn a lot about the era's social stigmas and stigmatisms and all the things the code would wipe away. I've already written about one such eye-opener, WONDER BAR (1934). Why? How do I know? I follow my bliss, and online reviews: my hunger for pre-code surrealism is, however, always accompanied by my liberal PC brainwash afterburn.

Open the closet door!
DIPLOMANIACS (1933) came out the same year as, and is very similar to, the Marx Brothers' DUCK SOUP, and was co-written by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, who wrote W.C. Fields' MILLION DOLLAR LEGS the year before, and that it can be compared to them is an honor, for Wheeler and Woolsey have not aged as well as Fields or the Marxes. Unless you like both the Marx Brothers and Laurel and Hardy you might find yourself put off by the freaky squareness of these boys, even if only in some uncanny way you can't explain. Me, I don't care for the grotesque infantile tantrums of Laurel and Hardy. Something about them creeps me out. And there's something similarly sticky about Wheeler and Woolsey, some uncanny quality that makes their resemblance to other comedians of the day most disturbing.

And man do they love to play dress up. Wheeler and Woolsey share the same sense of infantile queerness as Laurel and Hardy --is that why they creep me out? They lack the amok heterosexuality of the Marxes, or the singleminded pursuit of oblivion that elevates Fields. Woolsey does get drunk in one scene but he's really more interested in..... ugh.... soup. By the second time he asks for more soup in the first class dining room I'm feeling the polar opposite of watching Fields grab all the table service bottles on his way off the roof of INTERNATIONAL HOUSE (1933). Booze = funny. Soup= yuck! Why? Because food, like life, is gross. Drunkenness, divine. And as someone with near fifteen years sobriety, I should know!


That said, if DIPLOMANIACS landed on the college revival circuit the way the Marx Bros. and Fields films did back in the late 60s-80s, it too might have garnered a hipster cult. The pair do, after all, go for the weird with unhesitating brio, as in the still above where they're sent aloft by being tossed up in a Native American blanket (from here on in I'm switching to 'Indian' for reasons that will be made clear) en route to the Lausanne peace conference or when they battle a tribble-like crawling scalp. Fans of Broadway shows like THE PRODUCERS, or revivals like ANYTHING GOES (which I saw in London in 04) will probably feel themselves on very familiar ground here. Some of the numbers have a lived-in, well-rehearsed feel, especially the big shipboard number where Wheeler tries to shake a lovestruck vamp named Dolores (Marjorie White).  A definite scene stealer, she arrives in villain Louis Calhern's stateroom wrapped in plastic after the following bizarre and racist exchange between him and Hugh Herbert as Calhern's Fu Manchu sidekick, trying to pass Yiddish off as Chinese:


Calhern: I need a vamp
Herbert: What kind?
Calhern: ...a female vamp!
Herbert: What color?
(...)
Calhern: A white one.
Herbert: White ones get dirty much too quickly
Calhern: Well, for this job she'll have to get dirty.

It's funny thanks to Calhern's robust delivery of the phrase "have to get dirty." But of course they make a mistake in presuming the boys are straight rather than ensconced in an infantile, closeted misogyny, which renders any vamp's come-ones powerless to sway them. They have the closeted queer's malice towards straight sex, presuming brusque burlesques of hetero courtship will satisfy doubters as to their manliness. The boys sleep in the same bed, and Woosley is clearly the top, you can tell by his big erect cigar and Wheeler's BIRDCAGE-y nightgown (below). And then rather than getting their morning drink on like real men they're more concerned with mani-pedis. "If we can get away with wearing these pants we can get away with anything," notes Woolsey, and when someone overhears him whispering that something's a secret, he asks "What's a secret?" and he replies "A secret is something you tell everybody, confidentially," you know he means the celluloid closet! (1)


Working in the film's favor is the feeling that the filmmakers just saw the amazing LOVE ME TONIGHT (1932) and presume the audience has too. The song sung during the boys' first Parisian morning clearly apes the famous opening montage of Parisian noises that ends with Chevalier saying "Pariee / you are too loud / for me," and shutting his window. Here the lyrics include, "from the taxi honks/ it might be the Bronx but no / this is Paris." (also Wheeler sings a bar of "Isn't it Romantic" while rushing through a montage of lyrics). Another favorite moment occurs after the bulk of first class passengers leave the dining room, and the captain of the Geneva-bound ocean liner gravely addresses the remaining gentlemen at his table: "As we are men of the world, let us consume alcohol." I knew that if I was seeing this with my fellow Fieldsian Max while splitting a 1.75 of Ten High, we'd have looked at each other in stunned delight, but he's married now with a kid, I'm long sober, and these guys are lightweights. Where's my Sean Regan?

That all works maybe, though, in the context of the film, which I saw by myself at three AM high only on herbal tea and cigarettes, after finishing my big previous post on isolationist themes in the films of John Monk Saunders. For if nothing else this film, like MILLION DOLLAR LEGS is really about America's post-WWI contempt for Europe, and the buffoonery of defeated nations still bristling against the post-WWI border alterations and expecting us to give a shit.

What is being satirized in short, is the world political scene immediately prior to the Nazi's re-mobilization, a build-up contingent on that very same weary unwillingness of the allies to step in again. So these films provide an illuminating time capsule look at something that no longer exists, a sense of out-of-touch posturing in Europe that American comics saw as a great chance for satirization, and Hitler saw as a perfect chance to defy restrictions. When a bomb goes off at the Geneva conference in DIPLOMANIACS it just turns into an excuse for a crazy blackface musical number, one of the reasons maybe this doesn't get screened very often, and an insight into the idea of 'deathlessness' in comedy, ala Laurel and Hardy and the Three Stooges, wherein explosions and accidents that would kill or cripple or kill a normal man just leave one with blackface and maybe an exploded cigar. Wishful thinking like that kept us neutral!


The second vamp is named Fifi and her kisses make men literally smoke under their collars and fall to earth a burned-out mess. We're supposed to believe that one kiss from the lipless Woolsey's makes her smoke and fall to the ground, too. More believable is the concept that a mincing French attendant is considered too oafish when the boys get their hair and nails done in Paris, and overall there hangs some horror movie oddness to the caricatures, reminding us that an element of the grotesque was alaways assumed in pre-code comics. For an example just dig the monstrousness of below poster, the eyes of all of them bugged maniacally or shadowed with lewd conspiracy. DUCK SOUP also satirized war, but it bombed; by then, apparently, the ominous tom-tom of a second world war wasn't comical.

Then there are the other odd reminders of the pre-WWII sense of anything goes, As Dreamland Cafe (from where I lifted these images) points out:
"One of the unnerving aspects of the film for a modern viewer is that there are several swastikas in the Indian costumes. Apparently swastikas were actually common in Southwest Indian design work until WWII. The Nazis had come to power in Germany by 1933, but it doesn’t appear that the film-makers were associating swastikas with them, even if the threat to world peace was on everybody’s mind."
World peace was on everyone's mind, and it's important to note that swastikas weren't just Native American (and Buddhist) symbols, but universal good luck charms (in 1931 Joan Blondell sells swastika key chains in BLONDE CRAZY).

The strange thing about the celluloid closet is that by hiding in plain sight and 'passing' their racist, misogynist mincing off as American straight, gay Hollywood broadened the scope of what 'straight' was. Now such business--prancing, mincing, jumping into one another's arms, avoiding women like the plague but presuming they could get one to fall for them no problem if they cared to-- seems pretty queer - when we see that behavior in contemporary film and TV (ala Sal in MAD MEN) we spot it right off and it causes a shudder of realization about the parameters of 'masculinity'. These characters/actors might be unconscious even of their own closetedness; it happens, and probably happened an awful lot back then. But there's a side effect of the recent decades of positive social change: men still afraid of seeming gay can't do half the things they used to do, like mince and sleep in a negligee in the same bed as their best buddy. They also can't be racist, sexist, or crude without catching instant PC flak. Everything is, in short, reversed. Depending on what state you're in, of course.

It's not that I'm PC myself, just trained like a bird dog to sniff and point. Thus Wheeler and Woolsey linger on the lip of the cuspidor of greatness, alongside Al Jolson and Eddie Cantor, defeated in the end from draining down into the pot of cine-hipster rediscovery by their own propensity for blackface and closeted mincing.


Well, thanks probably to Mankiewicz, at least their politics are hilariously bleak, the script sharp, lyrics clever,  the men very old, the women warm, the champagne cold, but over all lingers the presumption that hetero masculinity will continue to encompass this kind of infantile feyness in the century to come instead of delineating certain attitudes and actions as either gay or straight, and either choice preferable to the double blind sneer of the unconscious closet. And so it has come to pass that what was once a good luck charm is now a symbol of racism so vile it's permanently stained the fabric of our conscience, and our PC evolution has rightly rendered blackface and 'red man' tomfoolery accessible only via Warner's DV-R archive by those brave few willing to shell out for the strange and dubious privilege. But there is justice in popularization: The Marx Brothers (2), Mae West, and Fields deservedly endure in the mass produced DVDs and if that's in part from avoiding racism, closeted queerness, fascism, and misogynist objectification through most of if not all their films, well, I'll drink to that any day... So Oooga Booga to you too, you upstart! And if there is such a thing as a tartuffle, then you are just that thing!

NOTES:
1. I should say at this point that I find an out gay person is a thing of joy and beauty, but a closeted 'lover' unaware of the vile misogyny underwriting his straight burlesque is most dispiriting (see also: MONTE CARLO)
2. Since posting I've been thinking about the moments of blackface in Marx Brothers films but they are brief and serve the story: in DAY AT THE RACES they cork up to hide from the cops, but it's after a big dance number that basically expands the "All God's chillun got guns" section of SOUP's "Going to War" number, where are all the black people come to the rescue of the brothers, and sing and dance wondrously and are at least legitimately black. Racist or not it gives work to a vast stock of blazingly talented and legitimately black singers and dancers and one senses throughout a kinship between the black cast and the Jewish Marxes --a well documented simpatico extending even to Al Jolson. And one need only watch the sassy black maids sashaying after Mae West as she struts around her apartment in I'M NO ANGEL, and hear her rich bluesy voice to know that in other circumstances West could be their maid, and not feel at all chagrined by the reversal. W.C. Fields splits a bottle of whiskey with an Indian, appears in blackface only to hide from a constable (in a scene edited from TV prints), and means Native Americans when he talks about carving through this wall of human flesh, carrying his canoe behind him. None of it seems 'unconsciously' racist --it is indirect, and more to paint Fields as a scalawag and mountebank full of nosegay, than as a tool for enhancing one's sense of Aryan superiority. Amen. 

ADDENDUM. Don't let this rant stop you from seeing DIPLOMANIACS! Woolsey might be a lipless freak but Manckiewicz wouldn't let you down. I'll even sell you mine! xo
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