Monthly Archives: August 2009

My Favorite Movies: The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp

A title that acknowledges England/Candy's royal history and modernized present

Now, to conclude my totally unintentional string of WWII-related posts, here’s the second installment of my series about my favorite movies. This is an underrecognized film by an underrated duo: Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943). (Viewable here, 163 minutes long.) I guess it’s not too surprising that it’s a relatively unheard-of film. It’s very distinctly British and, to an extent, pretty topical and specific, made to comment on the progress of the Allies’ war on Nazi Germany. But on another level, it’s a beautiful, universal film about the effect of historical events on individual lives and relationships, and about maintaining personal honor amidst of national dishonor. It recognizes human nature as repetitive and unchanging from decade to decade, yet also singles the Nazism out as a special case – “the most devilish idea ever created by a human brain.” It’s these many sides of this great film that I want to examine.

David Low's boorish, hypocritical Colonel Blimp

Colonel Blimp, first of all, is not the film’s main character. He was a satirical cartoon character created by David Low in the 1930s, an exaggerated representation of the jingoistic old English army officer. The film, meanwhile, centers around Major-General Clive Wynne-Candy (who goes by a number of other names and ranks throughout the film), a Blimp-like figure who is given a life and dynamic personality of his own. This genesis of the central character starts to show, I think, the film’s intent, and one of the reasons why its production was opposed by Churchill: in the midst of a worldwide struggle between good and evil, when one-dimensional political cartoons were the ideological currency in America, England, and Germany, it dared to take a cartoon and turn him into a human being, and dared to do the same with a German, of all people.

Colonel Blimp‘s plot is fairly epic, covering 3 hours and 40 years, and earning every second with its humane, sympathetic storytelling. It begins in 1943, as a group of young Home Guard soldiers decide to make their war games “like the real thing” by taking the elite old officers, resting in a Turkish bath, hostage 6 hours before the exercise was set to begin. The leader of the young men, Spud, is knocked into the water by the incensed Wynne-Candy (who is, at this juncture, intimidatingly walrus-like, identical to the Blimp caricature), who begins a memorable tirade against Spud’s youthful pride:

You laugh at my big belly, but you don’t know how I got it! You laugh at my moustache, but you don’t know why I grew it! How do you know what sort of man I was – when I was as young as you are – forty years ago…

At this point, the movie segues (without even so much as a cut) into 1903 at the very same bath, where the Major-General becomes the young Clive “Sugar” Candy, no mustache and a full head of hair, on leave from the Boer War. This initiates the film’s chronologically circular structure, told mostly in flashback, through which it’s able to connect three wars, along with England’s (and Candy’s) role in each of them. The story essentially involves Candy, his German friend Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff (of whom Candy at first says, “nobody could invent a name like that”), and three different women who come into their lives. All three are played by the very pretty, redheaded Deborah Kerr, whom Michael Powell described as “both the ideal and the flesh-and-blood woman whom I had been searching for.”

Deborah Kerr, a work of art in Technicolor's marvelous pallette

Roger Livesey and Anton Walbrook, who play Candy and Kretschmar-Schuldorff respectively, are the fire and ice, the enemies-turned-friends who keep the movie going, but it’s Kerr who’s the glue that holds it all together. She fills in the blank spaces in their lives (she’s married to each of them during much of the film’s temporal gaps) and is the locus of desire that both unintentionally brings them together in the first place and seals their bond of friendship. In Colonel Blimp, Kerr is a fiery woman in three eras and three wars, with her final role as Wynne-Candy’s driver, Angela “Johnny” Cannon, marking a change in women’s positions during the present war [WWII]. Kerr may be better-known for singing opposite Yul Brynner in The King and I, but I think she ought to be recognized for her triple role here; she’s the active force that sets just about every stage of the plot in motion, directly or indirectly, in war or peacetime.

Amidst the film’s cyclical plot are some great scenes, too, observing the backs and forths of international relations and their effects on human lives. There’s the duel between Clive and Theo that causes their friendship, set on a wintry morning in a gymnasium in Berlin; the camera pans away just as the fighting begins and lets us see the results from Ms. Hunter’s (Kerr) point of view. There are the montages illustrating Candy’s activities between wars by mounting one trophy after another on the walls of his home, exotic animals whose origins trace out a map of British colonial possessions in Africa and India. There is the desolate no-man’s-landscape of Flanders at the tail end of World War I, where Candy meets Scottish and American soldiers, in addition to a crafty South African officer named Van Zijl. He ominously tells a group of German POWs, “I assure you that I have means to get what I want,” an early example of the film’s interest in fair vs. unfair combat.

As Powell & Pressburger train their camera on England in the first half of the 20th century, they’re able to show one interesting character after another, each reacting differently to the difficulties history has thrust upon them. It’s hard to do justice to a story that wide and deep – it covers so much, yet never feels like it’s hurried or touching too briefly on any one time period. And the whole time the viewer’s receiving this crash course in the aftermath of English imperialism, they are also treated to the lush Technicolor reds and greens of the London surroundings that turn to oranges and yellows as Clive and Theo reach the autumns of their lives.

Roger Livesey gives a monumental performance as Clive Wynne-Candy

It’s impressive that a movie so much about the causes and effects of war can also say so much about the ebbs and tides of normal life – about youth, aging, and all the in-betweens. I think that’s largely because war – and the consequent destruction – necessitates rebuilding, which is what the characters spend much of the film doing. Rebuilding houses, friendships, memories, lives. The title mentions the “death” of Colonel Blimp, and I think this can be interpreted a number of ways; although Candy himself doesn’t die at the end, it’s the death of what he represents and the ideals to which he clings, the death of British military supremacy, the death of the Old Guard, and the death of that cartoonish blowhard Blimp. The tapestry that begins and ends the film has a motto that’s a play on an old Latin phrase: “Sic transit gloria Candy.” Thus passes the glory of Candy. It’s an epitaph for the old colonel (or Major-General, or whatever) whose old world has given way to a new one.

I think I’ve done a little bit of justice to Colonel Blimp‘s mixture of emotion, artistry, and grandeur. Once you get swept into the story – which, unlike many similarly epic stories, never degenerates into overly melodramatic plot twists and unearned sentiment – you find yourself won over by its enchanting characters and, by the time they’ve aged several decades, they’ve become old friends. Despite its deep roots in British colonialism and 1940s debates about fair play in warfare, it remains accessible (and, you’d think, very relevant in the light of current politics). I wish I’d had more of a chance to talk more about the careers of Powell & Pressburger, but please read for yourself; they were incredible but underappreciated filmmakers. Wikipedia quotes David Mamet as describing Colonel Blimp as his idea of perfection, and he has a point. With its personal, bittersweet narrative running through a whole colorful world of multinational, multidimensional characters, addressing the private and public costs of war, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is one of my favorite movies.

Clive and Theo meet during a duel framed with beauty and humor

Leave a comment

Filed under Cinema, Politics

Visions of wartime: Casablanca and Maus

So, continuing my unintentional theme of art involving WWII, I think I’ll now add more about Claude Rains’ performance in Casablanca, and possibly touch on Art Spiegelman’s comics masterpiece Maus.

So, back to Captain Renault: as I was saying, he’s an appropriate intermediate between the city of Casablanca and the rest of the world. Rains plays him as happily corrupt, amoral, and indifferent; while he may sympathize with Rick as a friend, ultimately he “blow[s] with the wind, and the prevailing wind happens to be from Vichy.” Renault takes Rick’s indifference and one-ups him by adding a layer of pleased detachment. While Rick may claim to stick his neck out for nobody, we know he has a soft heart, between his past underdog sympathies and his romantic fixation on Ilsa. But Renault really doesn’t stick his neck out – even with his famous line “Round up the usual suspects,” he’s not so much sacrificing himself (especially compared to Rick’s monumental self-sacrifice that immediately precedes it) as he is giving in to the prevailing wind, all with an air of absurd amusement.

The slippery, dissolute Captain Renault

While the “same old story / a fight for love and glory” may form the core of the film, it’s characters like Renault, hanging around in the periphery, who give it the bottomless appeal of a “classic” and make it the conventional epitome of classical Hollywood filmmaking. The film, after all, is titled after the city where it takes place, and with good reason: its denizens, corrupt or innocent, victims or villains, are its subject of inquiry, and Rick & Ilsa are only two out of many. As Rick tells her during the climax, “the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.” Casablanca is a city of in-betweens. It’s marginal: politically – stuck between Nazi-occupied France and Lisbon (the gateway to the free world) – and geographically, as it’s not quite Europe but not quite Africa.

In Casablanca, the baggage of the past is up for grabs as people can redefine their nationalities, political identities, and relationships with the law and other people. It’s also a cosmopolitan city, where refugees from all over Europe (and the world) pool their collective cultural and monetary resources. And in the middle of the middle is Rick, his status as a “drunkard” overwhelming any sense of national identity. My point is that, in the end, Casablanca is a story about people crossing borders, whether physical or political; whether of the law or of the heart. So it’s fitting that one of its funniest, most memorable characters should be Captain Renault, a perfect centrist, who blows with the wind between Vichy and Free France, shutting down Rick’s or covering up Major Strasser’s murder, and does it all with a knowing smile. I think this character is just one of those great mergers of writing and performance, where the right man is reading the right lines, in this case the multitalented Claude Rains.

So, that said, I now want to talk about one of the most-lauded works of graphic fiction ever written, Art Spiegelman’s Maus. The concept is surprisingly simple: Spiegelman’s father Vladek narrates the story of his life during the Holocaust, from the late ’30s until his transfer to Auschwitz (this is where volume I leaves off; Spiegelman published volume II five years later, but I have yet to read it). The book’s distinguishing conceit? The Jews are drawn as anthropomorphic mice; the Nazis are cats. (And Poles are pigs.) So the big question: why is Maus so great it became the first comic book to win a Pulitzer?

A feline Hitler presides over Jews in hiding

Where to start: Spiegelman’s storytelling techniques bring us deep into his and Vladek’s lives while the use of anthropomorphic animals creates the perfect amount of distance; it’s an amazingly achieved balancing trick. The story is simultaneously presented through Vladek’s voice and perspective as an old man who’s endured decades of pain and trauma (including the relatively recent suicide of his wife, who figures prominently both as a shadow cast over the present and a living person in the past) and also, through cross-hatched illustration, as an objective account of Jewish life under the Third Reich.

Maus is subtitled “A Survivor’s Tale,” and the first volume bears the additional title of “My Father Bleeds History.” I think the latter goes a long way toward introducing us to Maus‘s attitude toward the past. Spiegelman treats his parents’ stories as living things; volume I concludes with him castigating his father as a “murderer” for burning his mother’s old diaries. In addition to the storytelling sessions, we see Art and Vladek’s interactions in day to day life, and they’re constantly colored by the past. Art discusses Vladek’s miserliness with his stepmother Mala, another survivor, and the Holocaust is always lurking in the background.

The specter of anti-Semitism intrudes on Spiegelman's creative process

Any interaction with Vladek is like a puncture wound causing him to “bleed history”; writing Maus is like an attempt to let it run until the blood starts coagulating (i.e., the story is fully told). While Inglourious Basterds may ask nothing much deeper than “Wouldn’t it be cool if…?”, Maus instead confronts the question of “How do we cope with the fact that…?” In Spiegelman’s present, the past is alive and well, an elephant in a room full of mice (if you’ll indulge the mixed metaphors). And depicting the Holocaust in cat-and-mouse terms is, I think, as valid a coping device as any. To use the great opening line from L.P. Hartley’s The Go-Between, “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” And our understanding of how “differently” they do things in the past is entirely reliant on finding the right port through which to enter that country – and in Spiegelman’s case, it’s through the lens of mice.

Much of Maus‘s effectiveness, I think, comes from this contrast: the mice do not speak or act like mice; they act like Jewish human beings. But it’s the superficial appearance that alters our perception. I’d compare the effect to George Orwell’s Animal Farm – maybe it’s easier to understand Stalin when he oinks and has a squiggly tail. But the crucial difference is that Maus isn’t an allegory; it’s a direct memoir. We’re told the plain, real-life facts of Vladek’s life during the Holocaust. The only difference is that Spiegelman draws the characters as mice. It’s just a question of how, exactly, we can best perceive this atrocity, and in this case, it could be that it’s just easier to comprehend the story with the Jews as mice than it is to handle seeing human forms straight out.

Historical realism meets recontextualized propaganda imagery

A few months ago, I wrote a mini-essay for a publication at my school entitled “Anthropomorphic animals in animation”; among the points I made are these:

I think it’s legitimate to say that children at some level can gravitate toward anthropomorphic animals (and sure, plants & objects) because they sympathize their position…

[W]e like seeing things and animals triumph over the destruction humanity hath wrought because we sympathize with their peril…

Ultimately, it’s ironic for Spiegelman to present the Jews – villainized as “ratlike” in so much Nazi propaganda – as mice who innocently conduct their day-to-day lives, only to be systematically rounded up and victimized by the militaristic cats. But he’s not writing “a child’s guide to the Holocaust” – it’s a brutally honest, explicit, personal, and devastating book that I think conveys the true horrors even better than, say, Schindler’s List. Whereas Spielberg’s Holocaust is somberly excessive, with one larger-than-life hero and one demonic villain, Spiegelman’s is the story of one flawed man among many who just wants to save himself and his family – so basically, a normal human forced to cope with tragically abnormal circumstances. It’s the story of a mouse, not a Schindler (i.e., a movie star).

I think I’ve said most of what I’m able to say about Maus for the moment though of course a lot more has already been and has yet to be said. It’s an endlessly fascinating document, a brilliant approach to a very difficult subject, and it’s of vital importance in remembering and comprehending a past that still touches all of us, Jew or goy, American or European, whatever. It’s a great book and if you haven’t yet I strongly recommend reading it.

Real trauma distorted through art

I just want to make one last point: embedded in the middle of Maus, and also featured in Spiegelman’s Breakdowns: Portrait of the Artist as a Young %@&*!, is a short comic called “Prisoner on the Hell Planet.” It’s a stark, expressionistic tale of his reaction to his mother’s suicide, painful and depressing, but powerful and not easily forgotten. I think it can resonate with the part of anyone that recalls the sting of a sudden, life-changing revelation, and it’s very fitting for it to reside within the pages of Maus. Spiegelman is just an incredible, talented, influential artist and I’m happy to have the opportunity to read his work; his successful experiments have proven beyond any doubt the cathartic capabilities that exist in comics.

Leave a comment

Filed under art, Cinema, Media

The Ingloury of Basterdom

The baseball bat: an apt symbol for the level of subtlety in Inglourious Basterds

Well, my mind is newly filled with cultural jelly, and so I’m ready to talk about a few topics. Where to start? Well, for one, last night I went and saw Quentin Tarantino’s new film Inglourious Basterds. My attitude toward Tarantino is basically this: his films are hip (though actively, aggressively hip; not laid-back hip like Jarmusch), cool, fun, sexy (Uma), etc. They’re also fairly, albeit superficially, intelligent, self-reflexive, and knee-deep in homage (especially to his pet subjects – Godard, kung fu movies, blaxploitation, and spaghetti westerns). I think highly of him as a maker of funny, blatantly postmodern films; however, I don’t exactly think he’s breaking new ground. More like reshuffling old soil. As I read in Paul Schrader’s essay “Canon Fodder“:

It’s been said assemblage is the art form of the 20th century and Joseph Cornell its Godfather. If so, Tarantino is its Michael Corleone.

My point is that what I gathered from Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown, and the Kill Bill duology was further confirmed by Inglourious Basterds: these are cool, neatly stylized movies, but don’t go digging too deep. I think the phrase “all flash, no substance” becomes very appropriate. Just take the example of Basterds. We’ve got two parallel plots: one about a group of gung ho Nazi killers led by Brad Pitt whose main drive, ambition, and desire is to “kill [and scalp] Nazzies”; the other is about a Jewish escapee running a movie theater in Paris. The Nazi killers kill a lot of Nazis, the Jewish woman orchestrates a massive (and strangely undetected) revenge plot, and it all ends with lots & lots of fire, shooting, and Nazi deaths. Including gratuitous shots of Hitler’s face being machine-gunned.

So what do we take away from this? Is there much to discuss (as there is with the book I’m reading, Art Spiegelman’s Maus) about the conflict of good and evil in WWII, or the Nazi attitude toward and treatment of the Jews? Can we learn something about our perceptions of history – how it could have turned out vs. how it really did? Or is the most likely initial impression, “He carved a swastika into that guy’s forehead! Awesome!”? You want a high-class brand of mindless escapism that does some thrilling tricks with the hoary war movie genre? You got it. But I still don’t recommend Inglourious Basterds very highly. It’s just a question of what you want out of your movie. E.g., despite the often jarring presences of race- and gender-based conflict in his films, Tarantino never really seems obliged to say anything about them. He retools stereotypes, but at the end of the day it’s still because “the ass-kicking black chick is cool” or “Uma Thurman’s feet turn me on” (Basterds also has its fair share of QT foot fetishism).

There’s a sequence in Basterds that made me think maybe Tarantino had seen Ms. 45 a few too many times (though I can’t say for sure if it’s an actual influence on him, it wouldn’t surprise me), and I think this could be indicative of part of the problem: yes, exploitation can be cool and informative, as I indulge every time I watch Sex Madness or some other shitty opus. And so yes, it’s fun to make a self-conscious homage to exploitation. But at the end of the day, it’s still self-conscious exploitation, stuck in a netherworld between actual exploitation and an actually thoughtful, meaningful movie. So that’s, for now, what I have to say about Mr. Tarantino.

Out of the other subjects to address: a couple weeks ago I rewatched that great classic-among-classics, Casablanca (see, the title even sounds like the word “classic”). And one aspect of the film to which I paid especially close attention was Claude Rains’ performance as Captain Renault, a character who’s described as “amoral” even in the intro paragraph of Rains’ Wikipedia page. Now first, Rains himself: amazingly versatile, moved between leading and character parts in a huge number of films across decades.

He could be a great villain, or a great hero. He was the original invisible man (a part that showed off his voice, which was capable of rapidly going from dignified to menacing); he was the corrupted senior senator Paine in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (his attempted suicide at the end always brings a tear to my eye); and of course he was Sebastian, the mother-dependent but sympathetic Nazi villain of Hitchcock’s Notorious. He could be a supportive friend, as in Now, Voyager or an overbearing father like in The Wolf Man and Kings Row. Or he could be an ineffectual, sleazy, and easily amused officer of the law as he was in Casablanca.

Captain Renault (Claude Rains) opposite Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart)

I’m running out of time, so I’m afraid I can’t do justice to his performance and the beautiful balances and flourishes it adds to the movie. Rains has a very light touch here; his character’s snide quips give the film a levity it might have lacked if Bogart were left to brood alone. The city of Casablanca is, among other things, an absurd place, and Renault is a man who recognizes the absurdity and gives in to it. From his position of meager authority (a Vichy official being perpetually overruled by the Germans), he practically runs an industry of delightedly taking bribes from young ladies (with some undisclosed added benefits). One of my favorite parts is when a young woman tells Rick she’s about to give herself to Renault, and the following exchange ensues:

Woman: My husband is with me, too.

Rick: He is? Well, Captain Renault’s getting broadminded.

That’s right: even Casablanca has a pretty clear (yet still under the radar) reference to Renault’s bisexuality. And, after all, Casablanca is a mixed-up town full of people escaping from the brand of normality imposed by the Nazis. It only makes sense that the gatekeeper should be, well, “broadminded.”

I’m afraid my time’s up; hopefully I can explore this topic at greater length on another date. Here’s looking at you, kid.

1 Comment

Filed under Cinema

Creative droughts and the world of Jack Chick

It’s one of those days. Little ideas flit in and out, but on the whole, my mind is empty. The human mind is a strange, strange place; whole worlds can exist, then be demolished an instant later. Works of extraordinary genius can be dreamed up, then fall apart as if they never were. And it can be swarming with one thought after another yesterday, feel bone-dry today, and tomorrow be just as fertile as it ever was. But I wanted to write a short blog post, and here I am doing it. There must be something to say, after all. I think that’s a vital part of life: having something to say. Otherwise, if I didn’t believe I had that, I might as well sew up my mouth, pack up, and drift into oblivion.

I read a quote in the Sandman Companion that I really liked. It was from Steve Martin: “I think I did pretty well, considering I started out with nothing but a bunch of blank paper.” I think this applies to the act of creation in general. It’s a beautiful thing to be able to start with nothing but empty line after line and gradually fill in the blanks. It’s like solving an impossibly difficult puzzle with a lot of possible answers, only a few of which really work. It’s like giving birth, except you can scrap your baby, usually without much remorse, and you have free rein with genetic engineering. So that’s being creative. And I like to do that myself, and I also like to take a peek into the evidence that other people have been creative, as well. Like, say, reading poetry. Someone began with nothing and, using the resources of language in and outside their head, produced, for example, Shakespeare’s Sonnet 55.

Not marble, nor the gilded monuments ,

Of princes, shall outlive this powerful rhyme…

Or start with nothing but empty celluloid and produce Roy Andersson’s You, the Living, a dark Swedish comedy about coping with emptiness and solitude, told in a strictly stylized manner. I had the good fortune to see it last year at an illicit Film Society screening; one of our members had downloaded it because, naturally, it was unavailable to view anywhere in the country. Only three of us attended the screening on a Sunday afternoon (I had just returned, I think, from Dallas), and now I give thanks to illegal torrenting that I was able to see it. It’s poignant, it’s weird, and I very much recommend that you violate international law by downloading and watching it, unless you can go either to Sweden or to the one theater where it’s being shown in New York City. Creativity is beautiful, but works of art being unavailable for financial reasons is like taking that genetically-engineered baby and chaining them to a post.

Then, on the other side of artistic creation, I want to touch on the subject of Jack T. Chick, someone whose work I find myself returning to again and again. Chick can’t draw well, his dialogue is nonsensical, and his storylines are, well, also nonsensical. Yet he’s one of the most visible comics artists in pretty much the whole world. Why? Because his (sincere) fans are very devoted and willing to go to extreme lengths to make his work seen, like passing them out during Halloween, putting them in public places, etc. Some stand on street corners handing out his comic pamphlets. And all this contributes to Chick being easily seen by those who wouldn’t seek his work out normally (i.e., most sane/intelligent people).

Chick, you see, is a fundamentalist Christian – one who not only alienates, but actively insults most of his prospective audience. The words “raving,” “lunatic,” and “frothing at the mouth” seem like understatements. Chick is, as some would say, a Grade-A, certified loony. Although I’ve heard that in person, he’s actually a pretty nice guy. If you’ve read any of his comics before, you know what I speak of; if not, a good sample of his unique brand of extremist incoherence is Fairy Tales?, the story of a young boy who turns into a serial killer because he’s told Santa doesn’t exist, or something.

The start of Harry's descent into sin, from "Fairy Tales?"

I’m afraid I have very little time today, so I’ll have to cut this particular post short. However, in the future, I’d like to delve a little more into why, exactly, I keep reading Chick’s bizarre, inept comics. Their value, after all, is almost entirely ironic; even if you agree with Chick’s self-contradictory dogmas and conspiracy theories, the comics are still poorly drawn and written. But they just have so much ironic value, and they’re so poorly thought out, that they gain a quality similar to the films of Ed Wood and enable you to read them over and over again. They take place in a Chick-created world incredibly far removed from this one where satanists roam free across the landscape, poisoning children’s bodies and minds, and where the most committed practicer of witchcraft will turn his/her life around with the slightest prodding from a Jack Chick enthusiast. (If the status and influence of Chick’s comics within the world of the comics is any indication of Chick’s ego… wow.) In some confusing, twisted way, I feel we have a lot to learn from Jack Chick. Just so long as we never, ever try to take him seriously.

Leave a comment

Filed under art, Cinema

My Favorite Movies: Freaks

Olga Baclanova becomes the "Feathered Hen"

I was recently inspired (largely by Roger Ebert’s “Great Movies” series) to start a weekly series of posts devoted to what constitute “my favorite movies.” This is a multi-purpose idea: to probe into why, exactly, I consider these movies my favorites; to explore the difference between personal taste and objective quality; and to just see how much I can extract meaningwise from the movies in question. I’ve jotted down a little list of possibilities to start from, but I plan it to be pretty fluid and, like Ebert’s series, a “collection” rather than an limited or exclusive list of any kind.

And so, I figured, what better movie to start out with than one that’s much-beloved by myself and others, but generally neglected in official “best ever” lists, Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932)? I first encountered the film maybe 5-6 years ago (on TCM, of course), launching me into an obsession with Browning’s work. I’d long been familiar with Dracula (1931), but soon watched collaborations with Lon Chaney, Sr. like The Unknown (1927) and West of Zanzibar (1928). While Freaks may not be as culturally omnipresent as Dracula nor as emotionally focused as The Unknown, it’s nonetheless a totally one of a kind film and probably, in the end, Browning’s most notorious.

Freaks occupies several interesting borderlands. It’s a mix of narrative (a romance/revenge storyline) and spectacle, tapping into the average viewer’s anthropological voyeurism. I’d compare it to Tabu, which was made one year earlier by master of melodrama F.W. Murnau and pioneering documentarian Robert J. Flaherty, in the way it drapes spectatorship into foreign lifestyles around a fairly simple plot. It also sits in the space between mainstream Hollywood productions and exploitation cinema: produced by MGM (and originally slated to star Myrna Loy and Jean Harlow), it nonetheless has more in common – in terms of subject matter and presentation with its low-budget, independent brethren than it does with, say, Grand Hotel. One sign of this affiliation is the fact that Freaks was exhibited nationwide by Dwain Esper (director of Sex Madness, among others) in the years after it was roundly condemned by mainstream authorities.

The title screen of Freaks

Indeed, when it came out, Freaks received as vicious a response as The Rite of Spring or L’Âge d’or: people fainted, shrieked, even miscarried, and Browning’s career was pretty much ended (though he did manage to direct two more horror classics, Mark of the Vampire and The Devil-Doll). All of this just added to its reputation when, 30 or so years later, Freaks was revived as one of the original, most-appreciated cult films, which is where it sits today. So why the uproar and outrage? Maybe the clearest reason is this: Freaks is nothing if not transgressive. The title itself suggests that everything about the movie is outside the norm, and vehemently different. It’s a movie intended to shock and surprise as much as anything out of exploitation or John Waters; you can see it even in the carnival barker’s introduction. Superficially, he’s referring to the deformed Cleopatra, but ultimately, he’s talking about the movie as a whole.

So what kinds of difference, transgression, and line-crossing do we have in Freaks? First, there’s Hans, the midget, who loves the “big woman,” Cleopatra, setting up the film’s main conflict. There’s the freak community existing within a world that rejects them. A Frenchman condemns a group of young freaks as “monsters” even as Madame Tetrallini, herself physically normal, defends and mothers them. Repeatedly, the film bumps up against a fear of physical abnormality, and a fear of compromising bodily integrity – a current that runs throughout pretty much of all of western horror fiction, from Frankenstein to Lon Chaney, from the career of David Cronenberg to a large number of urban legends, and more. It’s a fear that serves as Freaks‘ main subject, making the film both in your face and ahead of its time, a forefather of the body horror subgenre.

An easy way to discuss the film’s encounters with difference might be to look at all the heterosexual pairings that populate it: there’s Hans and Frieda, the midgets who are a romantic couple here, despite being played by Harry and Daisy Earles, real-life siblings. Hans loves Cleopatra, the beautiful acrobat, who is conspiring and making love behind Hans’ back with Hercules, the strongman. I see Cleopatra and Hercules, with their mythological namesakes, as being just as freakish as Hans and Frieda – but instead of having “not enough” (i.e., in terms of height), they have “too much”: they are the super- woman and man, on display because of their excess of feminine and masculine qualities. A third couple is seen in Phroso and Venus, both played by recognizable MGM character actors (Wallace Ford and Leila Hyams), who are the film’s representations of physical normality, yet tolerant of the abnormality that surrounds them.

"A loving cup!"

Other couples abound in the periphery: we see Angelo Rossitto (the dwarf) and Frances O’Connor (the armless girl) eating together in a trailer; the stuttering, emasculated Roscoe married to Daisy, a Siamese twin; and the bearded woman and the human skeleton, who have a child together. In a very interesting twist on this pattern, the film has Josephine Joseph, ostensibly half-man and half-woman, split right down the middle. S/he brings to my mind the theory espoused by Aristophanes in Plato’s Symposium of a world originally populated by four-legged, four-armed creatures who were broken apart into two-person heterosexual couples. In one of the film’s many perverse subplots, Josephine Joseph is a couple unto him/herself – s/he hits on Hercules, only to be rejected, and later gazes on in sexual frustration as Hercules embraces Cleopatra. It’s symptomatic of the film’s many ambivalences that one minor character finds him/herself inherently crossing gender boundaries.

Freaks, then, brings the viewer across one line after another through its characters, many of whom are uncategorizable both in physical and sexual terms. (Another example is Schlitze, a male pinhead who is dressed and referred to as female.) The prejudice they face from the “normal” world makes the film, I think, a very durable metaphor: the impossibility of a freak/normal marriage between Hans and Cleopatra echoes miscegenation fears, and on a broader level the film’s conflict can apply to anyone who has ever felt rejected or dehumanized for any reason, just as the film itself was rejected upon first release. Like the freak shows it depicts (although curiously, only fractions of any performances are ever seen) and like the exploitation cinema that claimed it, Freaks has always been sideshow (or underground) entertainment smelling of sawdust and spilled beer. This lack of respectability, coupled with the film’s insistence on transgression, gives it much of its cult credibility. (What’s cool about seeing a movie “they” are encouraging you to see? Incidentally, Freaks was banned for decades, like A Clockwork Orange, in England.)

Thus, Freaks itself as a film manages to match the “forbidden” qualities of its own subject matter – a depiction of taboo violations becomes a taboo in itself. I’m sure semiotics could have a field day with that. Just mentioning Freaks is a sign of outsider qualities, as with the Ramones’ “We accept her! We accept her!” in the song “Pinhead,” or Bill Griffith’s long-running, enigmatic comic strip “Zippy the Pinhead.” (There’s just something about being a pinhead, it appears, that succinctly signifies exclusion in a way that “dwarf” or “legless boy” doesn’t.) I think it’d be worthwhile to examine in some more depth the infamous “Wedding Feast” scene.

It’s strange that, although generally considered a horror film, Freaks contains little explicit horror beyond the physical identities of its actors. However, everything about the wedding feast is so bizarre and so foreign that it constitutes “horror” just as much as any violent assault or intrusion of the supernatural. While the human skeleton plays no particular tune on the harmonica (creating a strange but merrily circus-appropriate backdrop), two otherwise absent characters demonstrate sword-swallowing and fire-eating, which amounts to a pair of filmed circus performances. Then, under the leadership of Angeleno the dwarf, the freaks prepare Cleopatra “a loving cup”: an enormous goblet of champagne from which one freak after another drinks in succession; meanwhile, Josephine Joseph and others strike up a surreal refrain of “We accept her, gooble gobble, we accept her, one of us…” What makes this most effective as horror, I think, is how naturally the freaks join into the nonsense verse “gooble gobble.” Consider an earlier exchange between Angeleno and Frances O’Connor, the armless girl, with regard to Cleopatra:

Angeleno: Let her try it. Let her try doing anything to one of us.

Frances: You’re right. She don’t know us. But she’ll find out.

All of these subtle hints at the extremity of the freaks’ sense of togetherness are, of course, proven true in the grisly climax, and they suggest something the movie never shows us outright – the unwritten, unspoken code of the freaks and their concealed knowledge that an attack on one of them will be treated as an attack on all. In this regard, the wedding feast is an inversion of the climax; together, the two rituals show the family of freaks while at the heights of celebration and at the depths of revenge.

Freaks is a roughly-made movie, I admit. It stars professional performers, but they often fail as actors, as with the living torso Prince Randian’s single but inaudible line, “Is there anything I can do in the act, bro?” The editing is patchy, some scenes go on too long, and the movie’s been through so many versions in its storied history that it’s hard to identify a definitive version. (E.g., some have a tacked-on prologue, while others have a tacked-on ending.) But as with much of Browning’s career, the way the material is presented is subservient to what‘s being presented: an ensemble cast full of genuine physical abnormality. Freaks‘ sheer audacity is what lets it live on in infamy while most of the more-accepted films of 1932 have since been forgotten. Carefully treading the line between understanding and exploiting, it’s compelling and enjoyable in its violations of our basic beliefs about the human form. And the fear inspired by this violation makes it a horror classic. Positioned brazenly on the outside of everything, Freaks is one of my favorite movies.

"Offend one, and you offend them all."


Filed under Body, Cinema, Meta

Sand, film, and comics: representing the oppressed

So, first things first.

Pussy Goes Grrr in the best of WordPress

This is a screenshot from Tuesday of an earlier post, “Asking and Telling,” being featured in “Freshly Pressed: The best of…” Which is, to put it bluntly, awesome. It led to a scad of views (a whole scad!) and was a pleasure to learn about. I have no idea who selects this list, or how it’s determined, but whatever; it’s a point of pride, and I take it as an indication that this blog is going in the right direction. Whatever that direction may be (possibly drilling diagonally into the mantle of the earth?).

So, with that out of the way, there is much to discuss. Thing #1: following up on Ashley’s recent post, I watched the beautiful, moving video and decided to look up Kseniya Simonova. She’s a 24-year-old Ukrainian artist who is currently enjoying a wave of worldwide popularity for winning Ukraine’s Got Talent. Her art is both aesthetically striking and highly unusual – it’s a visual performance, not something we frequently see. It reminds me of a movie I haven’t actually seen, Henri-Georges Clouzot’s The Mystery of Picasso, which similarly films an artist creating in real time, as well as one that I have seen, Lotte Reiniger’s dazzling The Adventures of Prince Achmed, the first extant feature-lenghth animated film (take that, Disney!), which uses shadows in a way similar to how Kseniya uses sand.

I think what I like best about Kseniya is that she’s such a heroic anomaly: artistically, for creating and destroying images (with sand, no less) right in front of an audience, and geographically – well, when was the last time the global Internet community paid attention to anyone from eastern Europe, let alone the Ukraine? (Likely but disappointing answer: when the Moldovan band O-Zone’s song “Dragostea din tei” was popularized as the “Numa Numa” song.) And better yet, she’s not just an artist who happens to be from eastern Europe; it’s wonderfully integral to her art, which concentrates on the wartime atrocities suffered by the Ukraine, a nation with the misfortune to lie right between Germany and Russia.

Ukraine's location, courtesy of Wikipedia

It’s fascinating, too, how Kseniya’s performance really is a performance: she’s not just drawing in sand and letting the pictures telling the story. She tells it as much with her hands and with the music, whose pace is synched up with hers. It’s so appropriate that a piece of art about how war changes the shape of a country – in terms of people, buildings, connections, identity – should be done in such a temporary, rapidly shifting medium where each hand movement looks arbitrary but ends up producing a precise, recognizable image. And the final status of the sand, with what appears to be a family torn apart and the words, “You are with us always” (alternately translated as “You are always near”), makes a bittersweet conclusion to a uniquely told tale of a human landscape, savagely altered by sand and bombs. Even if Kseniya fades away like most foreign Internet sensations, hopefully everyone will still be just a tiny bit more thoughtful and more open-minded. And maybe we’ll eventually get a show called “America’s Got Genuinely Interesting Talent” (but I doubt it).

[It’s worth noting that Ashley discovered the video of Kseniya when it was linked by Neil Gaiman on Twitter with the words, “If you are an ad executive planning to rip off this Ukrainian Sand animation for Coke or Sony, please die first.” Which means he’ll be indirectly responsible for like 2/3 of the content of this blog – pretty amazing.]

Other topics need exploring: one is Senegalese filmmaker Ousmane Sembène’s Mooladé (2004) which I watched recently, one of the few African films I’ve seen. It deals with the subject of female genital mutilation, placing it within the context of the greater battle between tradition and modernity in western Africa. On one side of the conflict are a group of women, led by the buoyant, defiant matriarch Collé Gallo Ardo Sy. When a group of young girls fight against the “purification” rite and opt to remain “bilakoro” (i.e., uncut), they receive mooladé, or sanctuary, in Collé’s home, signified by a rope stretched across the doorway. As the film progresses, other groups – the male leaders, who include Collé’s husband, and the Salidana, the female elders who administer the cutting – take more and more desperate measures to curb Collé’s rebellion, but the ending is nonetheless triumphant and inspirational.

The Salidana and their would-be victims

Mooladé lets its audience see the initial attitude toward female circumcision as the status quo, a religious rite that signifies a coming of age, and then the traumatic personal consequences that lead to a wellspring of activism and solidarity from the village’s women. We see how one person’s disobedience, even when prompted by children’s fears, can help overturn firmly entrenched mores (interestingly, bilakoros are denigrated and considered unfit for marriage, which at first reinforces the cutting as normal). Mooladé both strikes a blow for human rights and tells a powerful story; it also makes me want to watch more African movies.

This is kind of a laid-back post, trying to get across some random thoughts about various art I’ve been experiencing. One of the most sublime experiences I’ve recently had has been finishing Neil Gaiman’s comics epic The Sandman after 10 volumes and, I’ve been told, about 2,000 pages. So you can expect to hear a lot about it in the coming days. Especially because there’s so damn much to look at! The Sandman is, simultaneously, a great, beautiful tragedy; a compendium of horror and fantasy stories; a series of character studies; a re-examination of mankind’s myths and folk tales; its own elaborate mythology; and a masterful juxtaposition of words and pictures. Much has been written already about the series, but as with most great literature and art, there are still, I’m sure, rich veins of gold lying just under the surface, still waiting to be tapped. And what that ornate metaphor means is that with such an ambitious, expansive (and recent) work, there’s sure to be some layer of meaning nobody’s dived headfirst into quite yet.

In conjunction with earlier posts, then, I want to look into the fascinating subject of LGBT characters and issues in The Sandman. Glancing over some information on the subject, it’s interesting to see how slow comics as a whole and mainstream/superhero comics especially have been to incorporate diverse sexualities into their stories. Fredric Wertham speculated about Batman and Robin’s relationship in Seduction of the Innocent, the Comics Code banned homosexuality, and reportedly Marvel Comics in the ’80s had a “No Gays” policy; Marvel’s first outed character, North Star, became so in 1992. Sandman #6 (“24 Hours”), meanwhile, was published in 1989 and features Judy, a visibly lesbian character (who, like everyone else, sadly comes to a very unfortunate end).

Judy in "24 Hours"

My point is not just that Gaiman was ahead of his time in writing these characters, but that they’re written sincerely; they don’t feel like he’s filling a diversity quota by randomly making a character gay. They feel, as is so vital to Sandman‘s literary power, like real people, or barring that, at least like convincing characters. One of the big reasons for this is, naturally, that Gaiman (as he’s disclosed in interviews) gathered a lot of his details from real life. The behavior of a character dying from AIDS in The Kindly Ones, for example, comes from his own knowledge of friends who died from AIDS. Another reason, I think, is that the characters’ sexuality isn’t foisted upon them as a superficial, obvious trait, let alone their single attribute, as with so many stereotypical gay characters in the past. It grows organically as part of their character as a whole, just as naturally as the sexualities of anyone else in the series. Gaiman clearly likes his characters, and I really think this helps.

Chantal and Zelda sleeping

On the other end of the spectrum, The Doll’s House contains one memorable character Gaiman describes as gay because he only eats the eyes of little boys: The Corinthian. The strange boarding house Rose Walker stays at also introduces some new and varied queer characters: there’s Hal, a drag queen, and Chantal & Zelda, the spider women, who share an ambiguous relationship (clarified slightly by Rose in The Kindly Ones when she says, “Their only drug was each other”). One of the beauties of these characters is that they’re so fleshed out, yet understated – Gaiman says the spider women are based to a degree on a couple he knew, and they’re certainly very remarkable, unsettling characters. But ultimately they’re just another very satisfying side dish to the main narrative, one of many secondary characters who populate the series’ bizarre yet believable world. They’re introduced and developed, but not lingered upon.

Hazel McNamara with Barbie (The Sandman #33, "Lullabies of Broadway")

This changes somewhat in A Game of You, the fifth volume in the series. One of The Sandman‘s “female” stories (along with The Doll’s House and The Kindly Ones), it draws a group of women from New York into a Narnia-derived fantasy world, including the very cute, friendly Hazel and Foxglove (the latter of whom, under the name Donna, was the ex-lover of Judy from “24 Hours”). This story also establishes a character who, I’m guessing, must be one of the most lovably portrayed transgender characters in all of comics, Wanda Mann (formerly Alvin). Wanda is brassy, maternal, loyal, and ultimately sacrifices herself for another character, who in return makes a sweet gesture with “Tacky Flamingo,” Wanda’s favorite shade of lipstick. Wanda’s death comes largely as a result of the cosmic forces of the moon regarding her as chromosomally male, but as she retorts:

Well, that’s something the gods can take and stuff up their sacred recta. I know what I am.

This forceful self-determination, regardless of what the gods of nature may think, is backed up twice in the final pages of A Game of You, both by friendship and by one of Sandman‘s most beloved characters, Death. Overall this story arc, like the series as a whole, comes down on the side of individual concerns, decisions, and interpersonal relationships over any lofty, world-shaking forces. The characters are defined by their decisions, and Wanda’s decision is to be female; she takes this self-definition to her grave, and beyond.

The motherly transsexual Wanda (The Sandman #34, "Bad Moon Rising")

The series contains a few other LGBT characters – I couldn’t forget Alex Burgess and Paul McGuire, who appear briefly in both Preludes and Nocturnes and The Kindly Ones, the latter of whom quotes Quentin Crisp in describing himself as “one of the stately homos of England” – but I think I’ve gone over the most significant ones. The Sandman is a series that emphasizes the kinship of all beings: gay or straight, fairy or 16th century English actor, talking raven or nightmare incarnate, immortal Greek witch or living concept. And, through Gaiman’s incredible storytelling abilities, the series introduces a number of likeable, well-defined characters allowing for the representation of queer people in a medium that has historically shut them out.

So that’s about all I have to say on that topic for today. I think the three works this blog touches on just show, very well, that art and beauty are alive and well in the world today. And God, am I thankful for that.

1 Comment

Filed under art, Cinema, Media, Meta, Sexuality

Art and sand

This is so beautiful, I’ve never seen anything quite like it.

I don’t have too much to say about it, the video pretty much speaks for itself, I just really wanted to share it. These are the kinds of things I’m talking about when I talk about that life of art and creativity; I’m glad I can continually soak up beautiful things like this. One thing that struck me while watching was the fact that it’s one of those talent shows; you would never see anything like this on an American talent TV show. In fact, it’s always bothered me that “talent shows” always seem to include nothing but singers, dancers and musicians. Not that I don’t love people who sing, dance and make music it’s just that, as we can plainly see here, that is not the only kind of talent out there and it’s definitely not the only kind of talent that can be performed on a stage.

And also, I’m not entirely sure but according to someone in the comments the message she writes at the end says ‘You’re always with me’. Just so you know.

1 Comment

Filed under art