Silver Screens Are Larger Than Life

Recently I received as a gift ANDY WARHOL Polaroids 1958-1987, published by Taschen.  It is a marvelous presentation of Warhol’s work, quite fascinating when one begins to compare these original Polaroid portraits with the more famous paintings that were born from them.  However, given recent events this month I have been particularly drawn to a photograph Warhol took of David Bowie during his first visit to New York in 1971.

David Bowie, 1971

Polaroid of Bowie by Warhol, 1971

Bowie’s admiration for Warhol has been well publicized by Bowie himself during this period.  He did, after all, write a song for singer and actress Dana Gillespie about the Pope of Pop that he himself recorded for his own Velvet Underground inspired album Hunky Dory.  Similarly, Warhol’s dislike for Bowie’s song has been equally well publicized by Bowie biographers Tony Zanetta, Marc Spitz, and Warhol biographer Bob Colacello.

Despite these comic differences, Bowie and Warhol are both men of ideas.  Artists with the uncanny talent of taping into the zeitgeist, for surrounding themselves with fascinating, creative, and iconoclastic individuals.  Without these individuals, the productivity and innovation we have come to associate with Warhol and Bowie would look very different.  Bowie has credited a good deal of his glam rock persona to Andy Warhol’s Pork‘s London production, whilst Warhol very rarely ever credited anyone for giving him any ideas.  Though famously Warhol had his collaborators (Billy Name, Ondine, Paul Morrissey, Fred Hughes, etc) and so did Bowie (Tony Visconti, Mick Ronson, Luther Vandross, Iggy Pop, Brian Eno, Carlos Alomar, etc).

All of this considered, this tangled web of celebrity, the portrayal of Andy Warhol by David Bowie in Julian Schnabel’s Basquiat (1996) begins to be far more than it initially appeared to be on the surface.  In 1996, Bowie was Warhol, he had transformed, even if only on the screen, into one of his idols.  But if the Bowie of 1971 represented the absolute celebrity status of Warhol at that time, then Dennis Hopper must represent the beginning of the rise of Warhol’s star in 1963.

When Warhol had his second show in LA, it was Dennis Hopper who threw Warhol his first glamorous Hollywood reception (this reception began their lifelong friendship).  In Basquiat, Hopper plays Bruno Bischofberger, Warhol’s European art dealer.  When the film introduces us to Warhol, it is in the pairing of Hopper and Bowie, the “journey” and the “achievement”.  In Basquiat Warhol is more of an aura than a tangible character; other characters even talk about him as if he were somehow not of this world.  By 1996, this was undoubtedly true.  Warhol had been dead for nearly a decade.  His brand, his persona had since (as it very much continues to today) permeated our culture absolutely.  Warhol has become Mickey Mouse.

David Bowie as Andy Warhol, 1996

It’s as if no one can ever play Warhol, not even Crispin Glover.  Schnabel’s Basquiat does not rely on Bowie’s immense talents alone to give life to Warhol.  The film itself, through the script, through the performances, and through Hopper is coordinated to make Warhol this omnipresent being residing in the New York of Schnabel’s film, a New York that might as well be the entire country.  Schnabel wisely knows that this is the only effective tactic to give dimension to the unusual relationship Warhol had with the subject of his film, Jean-Michel Basquiat.

It is a clear instance of immortality.  If Warhol’s presence in our mass culture has flourished after his death, why not David Bowie?  Bowie’s decade long hiatus has already proved the staying power of his art, image, and persona.  He has become an icon for LGBT groups, a musical deity for musicians, an inspiration for fashion, etc over the course of his life.  His powers as an artist were even celebrated in his own times as a kind of myth by filmmaker Todd Haynes.  Bowie and Warhol have been such an integral part of the 20th century’s cultural identity that they have negated death.

-Robert Curry

 

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Lynch & Gifford’s American Dreams

Wednesday was David Lynch’s 70th birthday.  Popular culture’s favorite scary oddball is a senior citizen and hipper than ever.  Due to popular demand, more than anything else, Lynch and original co-creator Mark Frost will be reviving Twin Peaks as a new series in the 21st century.  This highly anticipated event, along with Lynch’s birthday last Wednesday, have spurred an abundance of write-ups about Lynch’s films, focusing predominantly upon the show Twin Peaks (1990-1991) and his films Eraserhead (1977), Blue Velvet (1986), and Mulholland Drive (2001).  But in all of this Lynchmania there has yet to be any considerable recognition of his collaboration with author Barry Gifford; a collaboration that, for David Lynch, dominated the mid-1990s.

Laura Dern & Nicolas Cage as Sailor and Lula

Laura Dern & Nicolas Cage as Sailor and Lula in Wild At Heart

Barry Gifford’s first forray into the “world” of David Lynch came when Lynch adapted Gifford’s novel Wild At Heart into a feature film in 1990.  Though Gifford did not participate in Lynch’s adaptation of Wild At Heart, there is a clear syncopation of preoccupations between these two artists.  If Lynch’s Blue Velvet is a synthesis of “coming-of-age” story with noir thriller then Gifford’s novel Wild At Heart similarly transplants the Romeo & Juliet archetypes into a post-modernist Beat context.  Lynch and Gifford’s works both thrive on their mutual insistence that their narratives take place in a timeless America; an America that is both All That Heaven Allows (1955) and the nihilist present, whilst neither being truly here nor there.   What is in my mind the most significant of the numerous similarities between these artists is their desire to subvert every expectation established by the genres from which they draw upon.  Blue Velvet clearly gives evidence to this, but in Gifford’s case I would site Night People or Sailor’s Holiday over Wild At Heart.

Oddly enough, the trends cited above as being the defining aesthetic concerns of Gifford and Lynch do not actually apply to Lynch’s version of the climax to Wild At Heart.  It has become one of those famous anecdotes about the director considering that it flies in the face of his usually morbid sadomasochistic sex operas that he should rewrite the ending as a happy one.  In Gifford’s novel Sailor and Lula do not come together in the end, rather they diverge paths, each too unfamiliar with the other to truly confront their would-be status as a family unit.  However Lynch’s “happy ending” is not derived from the filmmakers own personal desire for narrative closure or reassurance.  Instead it seems to originate in the film’s concern with the mythology of mid-twentieth century American popular culture and coinciding signifiers born out of Hollywood in the form of The Wizard of Oz (1939), Marilyn Monroe, and Elvis Presley (a pantheon of Gods and legends not dissimilar to that of Andy Warhol, Jack Smith or Jim Jarmusch’s Mystery Train).  This subtext of Lynch’s Wild At Heart exists in the novel, though the legends that formulate Gifford’s allusions are almost exclusively literary, born out of the works of Kerouac, Burroughs and Mailer.  For each artist this retrospective catalogue of America’s shared consciousness provides a historical context into which Sailor and Lula are thrust forward, sensual monoliths of late 80s culture.

This mutual desire to employ their aesthetics as a means of contextualizing a fictional interpretation of the present through the guise of mass culture American history is at the heart of Hotel Room, a three episode miniseries Lynch and Gifford collaborated on that aired on HBO in 1993 (in actuality Gifford only wrote two episodes, the same two Lynch directed).   The premise of the show is born out of No Exit, restricting all of the episodes to the confines of a single hotel room.  Gifford’s off the wall idea of narrative reflexivity as well as the premise’s inherent necessities of space all seem to have influenced Lynch’s much later web-series Rabbits (2002).   Like Hotel Room, Rabbits again finds Lynch jettisoning contextual signifiers into the “world” of his fantasy, though without the contemporary dressings of Hotel Room, preferring a Dadaist sensibility manifest in unorthodox lighting, blocking, and gigantic humanoid bunnies.  Gifford’s contribution is almost singular to his career if the influence of these teleplays weren’t to be found in his novel Perdita Durango.  As is often the case with self-aware stage/television writing (remember Paddy Chayefsky?) the author often finds themselves emboldened by the physical restrictions of the medium to explore more subtle, if not existential, qualities in human nature.  In turn, this direction in Gifford’s writing of Hotel Room returns Lynch to the singular “nightmare” spaces of his earlier The Alphabet (1968), The Amputee (1974), and Henry’s bedroom sequences in Eraserhead, though with an intentional coloring of post-modernist irony.

The personal artistic innovations of Hotel Room marks a departure for Gifford in that, unlike Sailor and Lula, these characters exist in a single space, abandoning Gifford’s Romantic metaphor of car travel along American highways.  In fact the forward motion of Hotel Room is one of time.  The presence at the heart of the series is one hotel room, but this room’s journey through time serves as the testament of a silent observer, an observer that remains within the confines of Gifford’s two episodes apparently objective.  This complicates things immeasurably for Lynch in terms of the histrionic signifiers discussed above which he employs so readily in his visual designs, whose very use is born out of the filmmaker’s highly stylized and subjective world view.  Remarkably it would be this particular anomaly that marks the “tormented genius” of Lost Highway (1997).

pornography and voyeurism in the hands of David Lynch

Lost Highway: pornography and voyeurism in the hands of David Lynch

Could it be more telling that Lost Highway should open with David Bowie’s ferociously schizophrenic song I’m Deranged?  Or that the song should be married to an image that is the absolute visual summation of Gifford’s literary stylings?  I think not.  Nor should it be surprising that Barry Gifford and David Lynch’s only outing as co-screenwriters should also be the most brazen celebration of American Film Noir’s hyper-hetero culture.

And yet Lost Highway suggests the unorthodox narratives to come in Mulholland Drive and Inland Empire (2007).  It presages a subtlety of characterization, a sort of minimalism, that would flavor Gifford’s Night People.  But superficially, if one were to watch Lost Highway for the first time, one would invariably be struck by the film’s obvious preoccupation with other filmic devices, primarily those best represented by Brian DePalma and Jacques Rivette.  In the case of Brian DePalma one finds the duality of the film’s female protagonist, once brunette and then blonde, or should I say housewife and then femme fatale.  From Dressed To Kill (1980) to Snake Eyes (1998) DePalma has been dramatizing the incongruities and polarities of the female as signifier in his often Freudian world of masculinity in jeopardy.  This device is implemented by Gifford and Lynch within the Balthazar Getty portion of Lost Highway to color the audience’s reading of the Fred/Pete character and the duality it represents as opposed to dwelling on the female duality which, to DePalma, functions as a potential means for masculine castration.

Jacques Rivette’s influence is, like Depalma’s, entirely conceptual as well as totally focused again upon the duality of two psychoses in the process of a merger (Fred/Pete).  But where Rivette is concerned with the philosophical from a similar vein as Robert Bresson, Lynch and Gifford implement a strategy that moves the device into the reflexive world of heightened genre mechanics (Film Noir).  Where Celine & Julie Go Boating (1974) tackles the breadth of cinematic humanism in all of its potential Lost Highway prefers a harrowing journey into a genre familiar to mass audiences with the intention of exploring why it is audiences feel comfortable, if not fulfilled, by the sexual politics of Film Noir.

That is not to say that Lynch and Gifford are at all plagiarists, on the contrary, the addition of these motifs or concepts to the amalgamation of interests and devices that already compromise their recognizable style serve to better equip Lost Highway.  Consider Lost Highway as the polar opposite of Wild At Heart.  Wild At Heart championed a visual language of allusions that drew upon the Hollywood of Lynch and Gifford’s youth to articulate their own nightmare version of the American Dream.  Wild At Heart is akin to Norman Mailer’s An American Dream in this fashion.  But if this referential dialect represents a chic nihilism that has remained in constant vogue, then Lost Highway is most certainly a singular case for Lynch and Gifford.  The dialect of Lost Highway reprises the voyeurism of Blue Velvet, but thrusts it into the wider popular consumer context of the still taboo porn industry.  Wild At Heart had it’s yellow brick road, Lost Highway has its back room casting couch.

It is the porn industry that ultimately unites the dissimilar narratives and dual identities of Lost Highway.  Likewise, the pornographers are the villains (Mr. Eddy, a surrogate Frank Booth) as well as the whores with the heart of gold (femme fatale Alice Wakefield).  Here is perhaps where Lost Highway loses a good percent of its audience.  The cinema has proven time and again that an audience uncomfortable with the narrative environment cannot see the forest from the trees, so to speak.  For Lynch and Gifford this is clearly intentional.  Once the pornographic element of the narrative reaches its fever pitch the film breaks into a reprisal of the Fred narrative, a narrative that has, at this point, lost all tangible relation to how the audience understood it at the films outset.

Patricia Arquette in her dual roles

Patricia Arquette in her dual roles in Lost Highway

The sum of all of these disparate elements couched in the familiar facade of Film Noir bring a closure to Lynch’s recent work.  1992’s Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me sought in vain to define the paradox of a girl like Laura Palmer in a town like Twin Peaks.  However Lost Highway gives the worlds of Twin Peaks and Blue Velvet their antithesis which is no less than the dramatized duality of our ability to order and recognize images within a ready-made context whose aesthetic divisions are so intertwined, along with the narrative, that they contradict one another.  Lost Highway brings us the first Lynch film that works as a cycle, ending as it began.  This narrative trope clearly comes from Gifford’s early novels, offering audiences an ambiguous understanding of Film Noir precisely because Lost Highway contradicts every other mandate of the genre’s narrative conventions.  Therefore Lost Highway represents a maturity of the aesthetics that popularized Blue Velvet as well as a more sophisticated approach to surrealist narrative represented by Eraserhead and suggested by Hotel Room.

The first time I saw Lost Highway I was fourteen.  I had not read any of Gifford’s novels, but I had seen Wild At Heart, The Elephant Man (1980), Eraserhead, Dune (1984), Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks.  I remember being struck that Lost Highway did not feel very much like Lynch’s other works.  Upon reflection this is perhaps due to the fact that Lost Highway was photographed by Peter Deming and not Frederick Elmes or Freddie Francis.  Lost Highway, more than any other Lynch film in my mind, makes better use of wide tracking shots and blocking.  Overall the visuals are more formal, more like something by Michael Mann.  It was at a time that I was very much impressed by long takes with subtle camera moves, which explains my passion for Werner Herzog’s Woyzeck (1979).  The opposite was true about my interest in Barry Gifford.  It was two years later that I finally got around to reading him, and it wasn’t even Wild At Heart, it was Sailor’s Holiday.  The novel is composed of three parts, each moving quickly with a vicious gallows humor and a strong penchant for sexual violence.  Yet, for my angst ridden teenage self, Sailor’s Holiday was reassuring, if not hopeful.  In my mind Sailor and Lula represented a classical manifestation of “true love”.  And it was this love that they shared that saw them through the violence and sleaze that is Gifford’s American dream.

This is what both David Lynch and Barry Gifford are about; the American dream.  They see its pitfalls, its contradictions and its ugliness for what it is (no matter in what genre it is expressed).  They know that the dream cannot survive without the good nor the bad.  The American dream is just a good narrative after all, with all of the grandeur, posturing and truth of fairy tales and myths.

-Robert Curry

 

 

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David Bowie

David Bowie’s passing has been a difficult one for fans, friends, and family.  It’s hard to appreciate the scope of an artist’s impact upon an audience when they are alive, but in death, it truly becomes clear, particularly with David Bowie, just how far reaching his art truly was.  The day after he died my friend Thomas wrote and drew a comic about his relationship with Bowie.  Though they had never met, Bowie’s music and image inspired my friend beyond words.  Even now, writing this, I am unsure how to articulate the nuances of Thomas’ comic.

iman4

Now it appears to be my turn to eulogize David Bowie in my own way.  At first I contemplated writing about how a specific film of his, either The Man Who Fell To Earth or Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence, had impacted me.  But this seemed an indirect method.  I would probably have just discussed the films rather than my personal relationship to Bowie the artist.  Then I thought I would write a piece praising Bowie’s abilities as an actor, contrasting his performance in The Linguini Incident with either of the films mentioned above.  Finally I settled on this approach since any other would be too painful for me.

When I made my first film on my own, without the assistance of Hank or Albert when I was in seventh grade shooting onto VHS I scored the film with two tracks from Bowie’s album “Heroes”.  This little twelve minute film was silent.  It followed an afternoon in the life of a boy whose best friend was his dog and whose gaurdian beat him.  It was not a remarkable nor original film by any means.  But the images found what power they could in their union with Bowie’s music.  For the main theme, the theme for the boy and his dog, I used Moss Garden.  No other piece of music has ever evoked for me the tension of summer as a youth, the feeling of a great escape destined to end.  The theme for the gaurdian of the boy was, by contrast, the dramatic Sense Of Doubt.

Funny enough I learned a great deal from this exercise, from joining music with image, that I still use today.  But it is more than that.  The sounds of Low and “Heroes” will always represent for me those dreadful years of adolescence where one struggles to find a medium in which to communicate.  You can find allusions to those albums not only in this first film, but in the paintings that I did at the time.  In fact, the influence of David Bowie so permeated who I became as an adult that I find now allusions to his lyrics in my scripts, lyrics and images of him in my own cinematography.

Now I’d like to attempt to restore some pretense of order to this undertaking.  My first deeply felt connection to Bowie came from my friend Ian’s dad.  I had just really begun to explore David Bowie’s music when I went to Ian’s sleepover party.  At the party, Ian’s dad and I discussed Bowie for a long time.  The next morning, before my mother came to collect me, he had given my three of his old Bowie LPs; Diamond Dogs, Aladdin Sane, and ChangesOne.

The second truly deep connection came some years later when I was twenty.  I had been friends with Lauren for years, since I was seventeen, and we were very close.  We were both going through some relationship turmoil when I put on Outside.  For whatever reason I began explaining the history of that album to her and she just started getting more and more invested in exploring all of my Bowie LPs.  Bowie was our out, and he brought us closer.

It’s very difficult on a blog like this that’s less personal than most to talk this way, and I apologize if it has been a scatter-brained undertaking.  But it’s important to me to say something about David Bowie.  It probably isn’t clear from what I have written, but David Bowie meant very much to me.

-Robert Curry

 

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2016, The Year Of Julie Lovely

2015 was a remarkable year for Zimbo Films, busier than ever.  This year saw more commissioned works than any other year, collaborating with Plant Me Here, Adair Arciero, and Hidden Lights.  Not to mention new productions written by K. Samuel Richardson and Annie R. Such.  In particular the last six months have been the most productive in all of Zimbo’s history, including 2012, which, until recently, had been the year with the most productions.

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Emma Arrick & Daniel Kelly

Now, for those of you who may not already know, 2016 will be the year of Julie Lovely.  Julie Lovely will be Zimbo’s fifth feature and most dynamic undertaking yet.  As this month saunters on, you are likely to see a number of posts on various websites pertaining to the fundraising campaign that will begin shortly.  But first, an explanation of Julie Lovely.

For the last three years Thomas Lampion has been laboring, with all the love and ambition an artist could ask for, writing and designing this film.  It’s a unique film, combining late sixties nostalgia with seventies trash cinema and the Baroque Romanticism of Cocteau into a existential coming of age narrative set in an all girls school.  In Lampion’s efforts to realize this project he has enlisted K. Samuel Richardson, a filmmaker in his own right, to produce Julie Lovely.

It would not be right to say much more right now, better to let any interested party just see for themselves what all of this is over the next few weeks.

 

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Spectre & The Legacy Of 007

I’ll admit it, I enjoy the James Bond films.  It’s a guilty pleasure, and I would not defend them if anyone said they are bad, I know that.  But I enjoy them nonetheless.  I have since I was a kid and first saw Goldfinger (1964) at a sleepover in fourth grade.  My friend Jason and I watched every Bond movie that year (at least all of the ones that had come out at that point).  In recent years, my tastes have developed and changed of course, light years beyond that of my fourth grade self.  In fact, I hadn’t seen a Bond film in a long time till I revisited the Roger Moore titles this last summer.  And I have to say that The Man With The Golden Gun (1974) is now my favorite Bond film (and it’s not just because I am an avid fan of classic British Horror films either).

golden-gun-1

Christopher Lee & Roger Moore in The Man With The Golden Gun

The James Bond franchise has a lot of problems, but the overriding one that plagues every incarnation of the character is how to blend the campy aspects of Ian Fleming’s novels with the pulpy grit that also exists in Fleming’s writing.  The Daniel Craig titles Casino Royale (2006) and Quantum Of Solace (2008) lean toward the grittier side of thing, only acknowledging the camp aspects of the franchise when the filmmakers feel obligated to interject familiar characters like M and Q to create a unifying sense of continuity.  Whereas the Timothy Dalton and Pierce Brosnan Bond films worked toward, and once or twice, succeeded at achieving this precious balance.  Yet, these contemporary incarnations strove so hard to keep the character relevant by way of transporting the narratives into a vein of hot-button issues that they managed to move away from the book.  The first Bonds, Connery, Moore and I suppose George Lazenby embraced the Camp aesthetic more than anything, most likely because, in the sixties particularly, that brand of humor was so chic.  And the Bond films handled their camp so well that it wasn’t till the mid-eighties that audiences grew tired of it.

This gets to why The Man With The Golden Gun is my favorite Bond film.  Directed by veteran British filmmaker Guy Hamilton, whose background had been in comedy features before joining the Bond Franchise, the film benefits from an excellent sense of timing.  Moments of pulp are undercut with moments of camp, and vice versa.  This balance is extraordinary and allows the film to, at times, transcend the genre of “sixties spy film”.  However, it is that The Man With The Golden Gun‘s brand of camp is that same sixties chic that permeates all of the Connery and Moore films that, when balanced, gives the film the authenticity of Fleming that Dalton, Brosnan and Craig all lacked.  In fact, the campy side of the late-eighties Bond through to Daniel Craig is much more like that of the Stallone and Schwarzenegger blockbusters of the same time period.

Luckily, it looks like history is about to repeat itself in a good way.  Sam Mendes’ two Bond films, Skyfall (2012) and the new Spectre (2015) each show signs of returning to the classic formula, away from the over-the-top “realist” posturings of Craig’s first two Bond outings.  Javier Bardem and Christoph Waltz as Blofeld are two of the campiest and outrageous Bond villains since Jonathan Pryce in Tomorrow Never Dies (1997).  The dialogue and theatricality of these performances is right out of the Roger Moore era, albeit with a hipper sense of irony now trending in all espionage thrillers and detective films courtesy of Sherlock.  The only problem remaining, and it is a waning problem, is that these villans don’t really seem to fit in with the darker sensibility of the Craig films.  Javier Bardem’s performance was, unfortunately, left out in the cold by a negation of the classic gadget and girls formula that has managed to seep into Spectre.

bond-girl

It is, unfortunately, still too early to tell if this will be a permanent shift in the aesthetics of the franchise.  It would be nice to see the James Bond films begin to lighten up and not take themselves so seriously again, but when contrasted with the trends of the Marvel and DC blockbusters, Spectre begins to look like an anomaly.

-Robert Curry

 

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LILI

for my friend Thomas

Lili (lobby card)

Lili is one of those anomalous films that was ostensibly made for children or at least young adults, like The 5,000 Fingers Of Dr.T (1953), during the latter days of the Hollywood system that manages to be suitable neither for children nor adults exclusively.  The film deviates consistently from the whimsy of the Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland films to the darker themes of Powell & Pressburger’s spectacles of dance.  It is therefore likely to assume that on a younger audience member the effect of the film, as well as the overall experience in general, would resemble my personal relationship to it.  Seeing Lili as a boy was an uncomfortable experience.  The puppets, in their “human form” as costumes worn by dancers in the film’s closing dream sequence, frightened me, particularly the moments each dancer transformed into Mel Ferrer.  Apart from this moment, few other images of Lili remained in tact for me over the years until I revisited the film earlier this week.

Lili opens with the film’s title character, played by Leslie Caron, arriving in Paris to seek employment with a baker who had been a friend of her recently deceased father.  The Paris Lili arrives at in the film resembles remarkably the Paris of An American In Paris (1951).  Immediately the picturesque and the fantastic elements of Vincente Minnelli and Arthur Freed’s film are conjured up in one’s expectations.  And, as with any good fairytale, the possibilities for Lili’s adventures seem boundless.  However, Lili has very little to do with An American In Paris aside from Leslie Caron and a similar set design.  In fact, Lili immediately charts a much darker narrative course.  At age sixteen and an orphan, Lili, rather naively, allows herself to be taken in by a shopkeeper who has informed her that her father’s friend, the baker, has also died.  After luring Lili into the back of his shop with the promise of food, the shopkeeper attempts to rape Lili.  Keep in mind that the film has sold itself as a musical coming of age story framed around the relationship a young girl forms with the puppets at a carnival.  For the film to turn in the all too real direction of innocence and virtue exploited for sexual gratification is unfathomable.   Luckily for Lili the filmmakers cannot permit Lili’s virtue and innocence to escape her so early on in the film, so she is saved by a carnival magician named Marc (Jean-Pierre Aumont) who happens to have wandered into the shopkeeper’s business.  It is from here that the film launches its narrative.  Lili follows Marc and his friends to their carnival where she seeks employment so that she can remain close to Marc whom she has idolized since the moment of her rescue from the hands of the shopkeeper.

Before exploring the dynamics of the love triangle that will form the axis of Lili‘s narrative structure it seems prudent to better contextualize what sort of film Lili was in its moment of release.  An explanation of the film’s production and its values may help to pin-point the effect the film manages to resonate today, far beyond the times of the Hollywood studio era.

Lili's first day in Paris with Marc

Lili’s first day in Paris with Marc

In 1953 MGM produced its film adaptation of Paul Gallico’s novel Love Of Seven Dolls.  MGM contracted Helen Deutsch to write the screenplay after her success with adapting Golden Earrings (1947).  To head the production, the studio assigned the picture to producer Edwin H. Knopf, a capable producer trusted to churn out quick commercial pictures on budget.  MGM’s film of Love Of Seven Dolls was intended to be one of their smaller pictures designed to fill out the studio’s program as well as to meet the demand for musical fantasies.  More prestigious productions with greater star-power of this genre would have inevitably fallen to the Arthur Freed unit.  To ensure the efficiency of the film’s production, Knopf and MGM selected director Charles Walters, a veteran of the musical genre whose best-known credit as a director is for Easter Parade (1948).

The film of Love Of Seven Dolls was re-titled Lili, after the film’s protagonist, and was incorporated into the lyrics of Deutsch’s The Song Of Love.  Lili also made use of Walton & O’Rourke’s renowned puppeteering act, allegedly the only time these puppeteer’s talents were ever committed to film.  To round out the human players in the film were Mel Ferrer as Paul Berthalet (appearing as King Arthur that same year in Richard Thorpe’s Knights Of The Round Table), Jean-Pierre Aumont as Marc, Zsa Zsa Gabor as Marc’s wife Rosalie, and Leslie Caron as Lili.  Lili was, in many respects, MGM testing the waters to determine if audiences would flock to see Caron in her own vehicle after the success of her previous film An American In Paris (1951).

As with most “test” films, MGM chose a narrative that had been proven time and again to please audiences; the love-triangle.  In the case of Lili that triangle is formed by Caron’s Lili, Aumont’s philandering magician Marc, and Ferrer’s lame dancer turned puppeteer Paul.  Going with convention it is no surprise that much of the conflicts in the film derive from the archetypes assigned each character comprising this love-triangle.  Lili, in all of her doe-eyed innocence loves Marc so intensely that it borders upon obsession and helps explain why she is so ignorant of his true character.  Paul represents the inverse of the Lili character.  After wounding his leg in WWII Paul had been forced to give up his promising dance career and pursue a living as a puppeteer, growing more bitter and distant with every passing day to the point where he can only express his affections for Lili through the puppets in his act.  This alignment primarily brings Paul into conflict with Marc, distancing Lili from Paul and drawing her closer to Marc; a case of the “right man” versus the “wrong man”.

The first truly memorable sequence that is born out of this ongoing conflict comes after Lili loses her job as a server in the carnival’s cafe.  Lili is so distraught that she cannot work or live around Marc anymore that she has resolved to kill herself by throwing herself off of a tall ladder.  It is in this moment that a shrill voice calls out to her, essentially talking her off the ledge, so to speak.  In this moment Lili begins to form her tight bond with Paul’s puppets, a mere extension of himself.  Lili, however, accepts each puppet as an individual, partly out of her own naive innocence but also partly due to her emotional desperation.  This scene climaxes with the song Hi-Lili, Hi-Lo, as well as with Lili procuring a job in Paul’s act, which ensures Lili’s proximity to Marc.  The unbelievable camp of this sequence is balanced primarily due to Leslie Caron’s genuine performance, the authenticity with which she gives her heart to Paul’s puppets.  In so many similar films sequences of this sort have failed in the absence of a performer capable of sustaining a rapport with non-human characters (an issue in many of Jim Henson’s feature films).  The attributes of Caron’s performance in this scene colored much of her characters in her subsequent films at MGM, culminating with Gigi in 1958.

Lili (dream sequence)

The next major sequence in the film highlights the attributes of Caron as a performer within the context of her role in An American In Paris where most of her scenes are played out in a kind of ballet with Gene Kelly.  In Lili this sequence is the first of two ballet dream sequences that highlight Caron’s abilities as a dancer.  Unlike other dancing beauties employed by MGM, specifically Anne Miller, Caron’s style is less sexualized and leans more toward the expressionism of the European schools of dance.  With Lili, this first ballet is highly sexualized more by its choreography, the presence of Zsa Zsa Gabor as a sex symbol, as well as with the narrative trajectory of the scene.  The contrast of the context of Lili with Caron’s portrayal of the character makes the scene more and more intense as the two styles square off.  In the scene, Marc is alone onstage while Lili, in a revealing waitress costume, mimes serving drinks to patrons at the carnival cafe.  Marc is entranced by Lili, abandoning his stage to pursue her only for Gabor to appear between them.  With the art of dance as a weapon the two women compete for Marc’s sexual attention (signified by the postures as well as by Aumont’s gaze).  When Lili wins, Marc rips a piece of her costume off (repeating a gag from his actual stage show seen earlier with Gabor).  At that moment the camera moves into Lili’s face whose expression is pure pleasure.  The scene, in this way, very abruptly interjects sex as a component to the otherwise innocent character of Lili.  In following scenes Lili’s gradual maturity will be commented upon, eventually prompting Paul to confront his own sexual desires for Lili.

The first ballet sequence is troubling in its glorification of female submissiveness but also for the very violent nature of human sexuality that it suggests as the ideal.  It seems out-of-place for a character such as Lili to delight in the sadistic sexual attitudes of Marc.  That Lili also preserves her role as a woman to being subservient to men contradicts the independence she hinted at when she first appeared in Paris at the start of the film.  However, both of these threads will come to bear as a sort if subtext running throughout the rest of the film, showing themselves again in abrupt and explicit spurts, making up the most memorable and unsettling scenes in the film.

The next major scene comes at a turning point.  By now Paul has realized his love for Lili and that Marc is standing in his way just as much as his own sense of unfulfillment as a dancer.  Marc, on the other hand, has gotten a booking as a headlining act at a famous hotel.  This scene takes place immediately after Marc informs Lili that his days of traveling with the carnival are over.  Sobbing, Lili happens upon Paul, who inquires as to why it should be that she is crying.  Once Lili explains, Paul hits Lili across the face, prompting Lili to quit the carnival and the puppet act.  Paul’s masochistic behavior suddenly becomes sadistic, then reverts back to a now more intensified kind of psychological self-torture.  What’s most disturbing is that Lili eventually returns to Paul and the puppets after considering why it is that he hit her, concluding that it must be because he loves her.  The relation of this scene to what follows clearly suggests a cycle of abuse in a relationship destined to end badly, evoking, in my mind, Goffin and King’s He Hit Me & It Felt Like A Kiss.

Lili’s decision to return to Paul comes after the second ballet dream sequence.  But before getting into this particular sequence it will be important to note that between hitting Lili and her dream, Paul finds himself again and is released from his masochistic behavior with a prestigious booking and some high praise for his puppet show.  Again the film reinforces the notion that men are shallow, emotional opportunists with a barbaric approach to sexuality.  With that conveyed, Lili embarks on another dream ballet.

the puppets come to life

the puppets come to life

This scene was mentioned earlier as being the only one I could remember, and seeing it now the masks that the dancers wear to look like the puppets remind me of the masks of animals the townspeople wear in Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man (1973).  I am also struck by the recurrence of transformation borrowed from Powell and Pressburger’s The Red Shoes (1948).  Just as in The Red Shoes, the transformations in this sequence of Lili are from fantasy to reality, giving a visual representation to the transition from Lili’s girlhood to womanhood, a love for Marc to a love for Paul.  The setting of this dream is also of interest given that it is the only scene in the film with a deep perspective.  This illusion of depth and space created on an MGM soundstage lends a ominence to the scene, as if the potential aimlessness of Lili were to be her undoing.  Again, the film strikes at female independence.  Just when all of the puppet dancers have transformed into Paul then vanished, Lili awakes, turns, and goes running to her true love, the man behind the curtain.

In the context of post-war America these kinds of fantasy films, for they are neither strictly musical nor drama, clearly have their function.  The illusions of these films, the fantasies they summon all offer a simultaneous hope and an escape from our reality.  Lili gets neither herself, but her story, and in a sense her martyrdom, grants the audience these two precious commodities of the cinema.

-Robert Curry

 

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Two Short Reviews

Given that it is the holiday season and that post-production is just now concluding on four productions simultaneously there just has not been very much time to dedicate to writing.  However, I have recently seen two films, one new and one slightly older, that I would like to discuss to some measure.  That said, I believe I should note that neither film is meant to really be discussed in conjunction with the other.  The grouping of these two films is circumstantial, though if one sheds some light onto the other through these brief critical appraisals so much the better.

Spotlight

spotlight

from left to right: Rachel McAdams, Michael Keaton, & Mark Ruffalo in Spotlight

Spotlight (2015), despite all of the hype, is not the first film to deal with the sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests and the institution that protects them, nor is it the first film to dramatize the actual events surrounding the story as it broke at the Boston Globe.  In anticipation of Spotlight I watched Dan Curtis’ (best known as the man behind the show Dark Shadows) film Our Fathers (2005), a Showtime original movie.  Each film represents a different approach to the same story and coincidentally both are rather effective ensemble pieces.  The primary difference is actually quite simple, and that is that Our Fathers focuses on characters within the church and Spotlight restricts itself exclusively to the perspective of the journalists who first broke the story.  Considering how that sounds, one may be surprised that each film remains relatively objective in its treatment of characters (each film does, in one manner or another, condemn the Catholic Church).  McCarthy’s Spotlight redeems characters complacent to the cover-ups just as it also allows protagonist Michael Keaton to be subject to very human errors and mis-judgements.  Likewise, Curtis’ Our Fathers goes to great lengths to humanize Cardinal Law’s (Christopher Plummer) crisis of faith as the cover-ups become public.  This is even more astounding to a degree due to the fact that Our Fathers, unlike Spotlight, was aired only four years after the Boston Globe exposed the Catholic Church.

The traits that make Spotlight at worst an “interesting” viewing experience are clearly the product of Tom McCarthy’s talents.  Tom McCarthy who has written (with Josh Singer) and directed Spotlight seems to have been groomed to tackle this material.  His background as an actor on The Wire and Law & Order has certainly colored his approach to recreating the story, bringing recognizable narrative arcs and character types of the “true crime” genre into the film.  McCarthy’s recent work as a director on a series of character driven independent films is also certainly at work in Spotlight, particularly when one considers the strong performances of the film’s ensemble cast.

This leads us to what is the most impressive aspect of Spotlight; its lack of a proper villain.  Yes, the Catholic Church and its lawyers represent the obstacle to the journalists’ justice, yet is left, as it would be to the journalists’ perspective, a vast and faceless entity.  Faceless in that the multitude responsible for the cover-ups of child molestation by priests is too great to be summed up by one character (a component that is not shared by Our Fathers).  This gives Spotlight a kind of ambiguity that is effective in persuading viewers that are of the thinking that these cover-ups are the result of a few “bad apples”.  The audience must make the journey, with the journalists, to uncover the facts of the case and thus come to a moral conclusion.  In most films an alternative perspective to that of the protagonists would be manifest in a single character representative of this alternate perspective who would be given scenes that demonstrate the immorality of this conflicting position.  Singer and McCarthy’s script has none of this, opting instead to repackage the prestigious “message film” as an effective and engaging piece of persuasion.

Serena

o-SERENA-facebook

Bradley Cooper & Jennifer Lawrence as the Pembertons in Serena

Lumber barons have, believe it or not, been a staple in American cinema for a long time.  I am prompted to say this because I have heard a number of people react to the premise of Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence starring in a lumber drama as if it were a quaint novelty.  Granted, it is a sub-genre that is not often employed in this day and age, with the exception of Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood (2007), so is the genre of the oil baron drama.  Yet each sub-genre shares a singular conceptual thread; the disillusion of morality in the face of capitalist gain.  This is the very crux of Written On The Wind (dir. Douglas Sirk, 1956), Giant (dir. George Stevens, 1956), The Strange Woman (dir. Edgar G. Ulmer, 1946) and Come & Get It (dirs. Howard Hawks & William Wyler, 1936).

But unlike the dramas of oil barons and their industry, the lumber baron drama has a visual allegiance to an entirely unrelated film genre, the western.  Like westerns, these films about logging in the wilderness are so rooted in the visual textures of nature that they adorn, intentionally or not, the romanticism of the western genre, the idealistic certainty of the Westward expansion.  With Serena (2014) director Susanne Bier wisely embraces this element of the genre, utilizing a number of cutaways and establishing shots of the North Carolina mountain ranges to give an expressionistic reflection of the protagonists’ psychological and emotional states at any given time.  The manner in which these nature shots linger owe a debt to films by Werner Herzog and Terrence Malick, though Bier appears to have some difficulty wedding this aesthetic with the performances of her lead actors.

Cooper and Lawrence’s portrayals of the Pembertons are melodramatic to the point of camp, a fact that isn’t at all odd when one considers the supernatural (second sight) and all together gothic elements of the narrative.  This union of camp with the gothic can also be seen in Ulmer’s lumber baron drama The Strange Woman, supporting the relative success this combination of filmic elements is capable of.  However the style in which Bier captures her characters, an intensely realist approach to the visual language of these scenes, does much to undermine both the camp and the gothic elements entreanched in the films material.  Ulmer, representing the opposition to social realism and therefore Bier’s aesthetic, preferred The Strange Woman to be theatrical in its visual language, capturing the performances of Heddy Lamarr and George Sanders through a gloss of obvious artifice indebted to the theories of Bertolt Brecht.  Bier, on the other hand, is rooted in the contemporary trends of realism best exemplified in the films of Steve McQueen and Andrea Arnold.

-Robert Curry

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Filed under Autumn 2015, Winter 2012