Monthly Archives: January 2013

Empress Marlene

I’m not really sure if I can handle how much I love The Scarlet Empress, which I wrote about over at Movie Mezzanine. I love how the film spits venom all over Russian royalty and has so much fun doing it. I love von Sternberg’s weird visual strategies; how the director coils Marlene Dietrich’s screen image around his fingers. And most of all I love Dietrich’s performance, composed of light and translucent fabric, with a face that calcifies from a virgin’s awe into power-mad maturity. The supporting players—sexy John Lodge, shrewish Louise Dresser, daffy Sam Jaffe—all get scenes to steal, but Marlene is the star (the fetish object) here. And my, does she light up Moscow’s night sky.

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Link Dump: #87

This week’s kitty is from the prestige drama Notes on a Scandal, which has some terrific work by Judi Dench (and her poor sick kitty) but left a bad taste in my mouth with its aggressive homophobia. Anyway, kitty. And now links:

Two weird, bestiality-themed search terms this week: first the relatively prosaic “beautiful boy fuck sheep” and then the “Whaaaat?”-inducing “pussy girls fucking horse monkey zebra camel etc.” Whaaaat? indeed.

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Chaucer Redux

Six centuries elided by a single cut

FYI: I’m now a writer at the brand new site Movie Mezzanine, and I’ve started an annals-of-film-history column there called “Looking Back.” The first movie under discussion? Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s A Canterbury Tale (1944), which deals sensitively with love and land and locating yourself in history. You can read about it here.

Had I more time, I would’ve delved into a few other aspects of the film. (It’s so rich and digressive; I’ll be revisiting it for years hence.) For example: Eric Portman’s performance as local authority Colpeper, which demonstrates much of the same ambiguous, low-key villainy that Portman brought to Powell and Pressburger’s 49th Parallel a few years earlier. He creates a fascinating character in Colpeper and seriously complicates the film’s relationship with England’s distant past.

Further points of interest: the film’s visual style, which makes special use of both the undulating landscape and the faces of its stars shot in mesmerizing close-up. And then the ending, in which a soldier from London gets to play some “Toccata and Fugue” on the organ of Canterbury Cathedral and feel music, religion, and war converge along his fingertips. It’s an unconventional climax, but a powerful one, which I suppose could double as a description of the whole film.

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Link Dump: #86

Upper-crust telephone KITTY!

Our first fluffy kitty of 2013 is from Busby Berkeley’s The Gang’s All Here, which I wrote about yesterday. Aww, it looks like it’s waiting for a phone call! Aren’t cats just the cutest? And now, links:

Two pornographic search terms this week, and I don’t want to know what either sentence means: “making love videos of loving blacks and white cuckold” and “real hidden camera in a restaurant bathrooms and pussy the advent of the menstrual cycle.” Yikes.

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Fruit Salad

Alice Faye performs "Journey to a Star"

Alice Faye doesn’t demonstrate much dramatic range in Busby Berkeley’s The Gang’s All Here (1943). But then, she’s not asked to: Faye is here mostly for her songbird’s voice, and between numbers her starring role is reduced to romantic white noise. She falls for a soldier, then misses her soldier, then (through a series of transparently contrived misunderstandings) perceives a betrayal and feels stung by it. Of course this is all patched up with ungodly speed during the film’s climax, but in the meantime Faye wrings some teary pathos out of it all. She’s really good at that, too. Her drama may be strictly interstitial, but she nails every last note of homefront yearning.

Miranda and her infinite Tutti Frutti Hat

The film’s true star, second-billed though she may be, is Brazil’s own Carmen Miranda. Whether she’s dancing the samba or stealing scenes, everything about her is exaggerated: her fruit drag, her comic mugging, her accent. Women of color were nearly nonexistent in the films of 1940s Hollywood, but Miranda’s flamboyance and exoticism make her a one-woman spectacle; an excessive mise-en-scène unto herself. Her performance is a racialized manifestation of Berkeley’s own over-the-top visual style, and as such it eclipses the work of the white leads. It taps into the seeming obsession with Brazil that seized the country in wartime—in fact, Miranda’s “Dorita” could be the distaff counterpart to José Carioca, the fast-talking parrot introduced in Disney’s Saludos Amigos (1942). (Like Dorita, José is tightly associated with the song “Aquarela do Brasil.”)

The film's bizarre "floating head" climax

Miranda acts as the centerpiece for Berkeley’s Technicolor circus, a world that contracts and expands, that drifts between physicality and abstraction. His camera amplifies the already expansive choreography, often beggaring belief with the fluidity and duration of its crane shots. (Only a pair of cuts in the film’s first seven minutes!) As always with Busby Berkeley, the dance routines start out implausible and quickly ditch narrative altogether for the joys of pure geometry. They become macrocosms, sometimes literal kaleidoscopes, lacking purpose or explanation but still so weird, so ambitious, so beautiful. The Gang’s All Here may acknowledge the realities of war—the rationing, the heartbreak—but these impossible dances let the viewer disappear into the unreality of art.

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