Tag Archives: melodrama

Color and Form

 At last, a film about the ultimate Minnelli concerns: about the spaces, physical and psychological, that humans inhabit; about the individual elements that enhance or impair our sense of self; the problems, in short, of adornment and décor.

That’s Keith Uhlich, in his really beautiful Sight & Sound article “Garlands and cobwebs: Vincente Minnelli’s ecstatic vision,” writing about Minnelli’s mental hospital melodrama The Cobweb (1955). Indeed, it’s a film more of surfaces than story, and it signposts this by being veritably obsessed with a set of drapes. Their fabric and pattern, debated across the whole of the movie, are the MacGuffins behind The Cobweb’s ornate plot, triggering all manner of love affair and power grab. This mere fact has overwhelmed many a viewer over the years, leading them to label the film instantly risible. But as Gloria Grahame says during the opening scene, in a line seized upon by critics like Uhlich and Dave Kehr, “Why do flowers have to be for anything? Isn’t it enough that they have color and form, and that they make you feel good?”

As an art-for-art’s-sake sentiment, this could (and should, I think) apply to cinema at large, but it feels especially apt with Minnelli, and especially here. Drape obsession or no, The Cobweb has color, form, wildness, and bombast, which make me feel good. It never shrinks away from the lurid or tawdry, but rather embraces them as legitimate means of expression. Between its all-star cast and sprawling CinemaScope frame, you’d expect a mid-’50s soap like this to be lurching, elephantine, yet it’s actually pretty fleet. It helps, I suppose, that Richard Widmark and Gloria Grahame play the doctor and wife at its creamy center, an offbeat leading man wed to a shrill sexpot. Their troubled marriage is where, as an opening title explains, “the trouble began…” and from whence it ripples out through a network of psychiatrists, administrators, and patients.

The most disturbed of these is Steven, who’s being treated by Widmark’s Dr. McIver. He’s played by John Kerr, who’d star the following year as another sensitive youth in another Minnelli movie, Tea and Sympathy. But he’s much more agitated here as an oedipal, sometimes suicidal young artist who gets out his resentment and self-loathing through loose, color-streaked paintings of hospital life. (In reality, they’re in the signature style of David Stone Martin, credited on the film as “graphic designer.”) In Steven, Minnelli fuses the film’s ideas about mental illness and the creative act, about the latter as both liberating and dangerous in its intensity. Pacing around the colorful ‘Scope boxes that make up the Castlehouse Clinic, Steven could be the more overtly sick brother to Jim Stark from Rebel Without a Cause, released just a few months later.

Like Rebel, The Cobweb uses melodrama to diagnose the soul sickness of 1950s America; both films also make prominent use of staircases as psychological symbols. (All this said, it should come as no surprise that producer John Houseman even pursued James Dean to play Steven, only for him to balk at the pay.) Stairs, rooms, drapes with floral patterns… it’s as if the characters and their mise-en-scène are, to paraphrase Oscar Wilde’s last words, fighting a duel to the death, and one or the other has to go. As if the clinic’s furnishings had become as sick as its patients. Minnelli always had such facility for smearing beauty across the screen, for shooting sets and actors just as Steven paints the clinic, and The Cobweb isn’t shy about the duality of these images: surfaces can be beautiful, but they can also devour you and never let you go.

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Missed Connections

The story of Waterloo Bridge (1940) has all the hallmarks of your archetypal romantic melodrama. We get the couple who meet by chance, who are then beset by bad timing and miscommunication, turning their courtship into a feature-length tragedy. They get occasional reprieves—e.g., reports of the soldier boyfriend’s death are greatly exaggerated—but that just makes their ultimate freefall so much more heartbreaking. This is efficient melodrama. It squeezed tears out of me like a fist around a sponge. It distills the pain of being madly in love, of believing that “love conquers all” when, in fact, pretty much anything can conquer love.

The female half of this equation is Myra, a would-be ballerina in WWI-era London, part of a troupe ruled by queen bitch Maria Ouspenskaya. She’s played by Vivien Leigh, fresh from Gone with the Wind, but her performance here is the opposite of her fickle, demonstrative Scarlett: it’s internal, concentrated in her eyes and delivered half in whisper. Myra’s a victim of her own inexperience, taking a single meet-cute as the signal to bank her whole life on this new relationship. The wartorn Real World, however, will not abide her lovesick impulsiveness, and therein lies the tragedy.

Her male counterpart is Roy (Robert Taylor), who endures a stint in a German POW camp, yet remains even more oblivious than Myra to the cruel realities of life. I’ve always found Taylor painfully bland, and here he’s like a puppy dog in uniform, with this blithe smile plastered on his face until the truth smacks him at the very last second. Taylor’s complacency befits a child of privilege, but he still feels miscast; he’s an earnest Nebraskan who’s ostensibly a scion of Scottish gentry and nephew to C. Aubrey Smith. (Smith, incidentally, was the face of British nobility. You can spot him wearing a suit of armor in my “One Hour Mark” image from Love Me Tonight.)

But Taylor’s banality doesn’t impinge too heavily on the film’s power. It was directed by Mervyn LeRoy, the Warner Brothers journeyman behind some of my favorite Pre-Code classics (like I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang and Gold Diggers of 1933), and he knows well enough to rely on the situation’s innate unfairness, frequent close-ups of Leigh’s face, and resonant snippets from Swan Lake and “Auld Lang Syne.” The result is an elegant, suggestive movie that also works as a trusty emotional sledgehammer. Two kids in love, both bound to institutions that drag them apart. What could be sadder?

For me, the film hits its tearjerking zenith long before Myra descends into the demimonde around Waterloo Bridge. It’s when Roy learns that he’s shipping out a night early, and she insists on seeing him off at the plaform even though it’ll mean certain dismissal from the ballet. I expected to see a drawn-out goodbye, a kiss, anything. But instead Roy just wanders through the crowded station, glancing around for Myra until he’s forced to board. She gets there, sure, but with only enough time to wave and call his name as he chugs off for France. The moral here? No matter how bad circumstances will be, things can always get a little worse.

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Disney Revisited: Pinocchio

By Andreas

Some thoughts after rewatching Pinocchio (1940)…

  • The contrasts with Snow White are obvious: whereas Disney’s first feature film was streamlined, mythical, and monumental, Pinocchio is much more episodic, incidental, and detail-oriented. Snow White dealt in broad fairy tale archetypes; Pinocchio actually has quirky characters like Jiminy Cricket and Honest John who are more than just individual traits or moral signifiers.
  • It’s structured as a simple morality tale. Pinocchio takes place in a world of extreme moral clarity, where transgressions have immediate physical consequences (a growing nose, turning into a donkey). Pinocchio himself is only a day old, and new to the concepts of “right” and “wrong.” He succumbs to temptation twice in a row, then has a realization of sorts (spurred by Lampwick’s grotesque, painful transformation) and runs off to save Geppetto. These concessions and consequences guide Pinocchio’s narrative, again in contrast to the less moralistic Snow White.
  • Different styles of animation coexist onscreen. Within individual frames of Pinocchio, three art styles are strikingly juxtaposed: humanoid figures (Geppetto, Pinocchio, Jiminy Cricket) are drawn cartoonishly, with walled-off areas of solid color; animals (Figaro and Cleo) have softer edges and color gradation; and backgrounds, as in Snow White, are rendered with meticulous realism. Curiously, Honest John and Gideon are visual hybrids, with animal faces and humanoid bodies.
  • The film trades in racialized cultural anxieties. Promised the glamorous “actor’s life,” Pinocchio is instead enslaved by the swarthy, boisterous Stromboli, who speaks in an exaggerated Italian accent and is the film’s most “ethnic” character. This scenario unmistakably resembles turn-of-the-century white slavery myths, which vilified racial Others while discouraging white women from being promiscuous or leaving the home. (The latter moral will be loudly reiterated at the end of Pinocchio.)
  • Pleasure Island’s urban depravity prefigures film noir. The island’s excesses have a 1940s flavor to them: overeating, smoking, brawling, gambling, and playing pool. In its stylized representation of a hellish, decaying city center, Pinocchio taps into many of the same cultural currents as then-nascent film noir. (A similarly moralistic city of temptations would pop up in The Night of the Hunter.)
  • Monstro is Cthulhu. In fact, the climax is right out of H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Call of Cthulhu”: characters’ lives are endangered by a giant, non-anthropomorphized monster who’s indifferent to their existences, but gets aggravated when they cause it some minor harm. Like Cthulhu, Monstro is unsentimental, implacable, and terrifying.
  • Pinocchio’s near-death is emotionally identical to the end of Sunrise. Just as with Snow White, I’m noticing uncanny parallels to Murnau’s masterpiece. In Sunrise, the Wife (Janet Gaynor) is thought dead after a storm capsizes the couple’s boat; when she’s discovered alive, it leads to a tear-jerking bedside reunion. Pinocchio follows the same pattern, false watery death and all, for its satisfying resolution.
  • There’s no place like home. Pinocchio’s ending is decidedly conservative, reaffirming the status quo (family, home, tradition) at the expense of adventure or nonconformity. Jiminy Cricket even gets a line to underscore this point: “Well,” he laughs in the film’s final minutes, “this is practically where I came in!”

(This is part of “Disney Revisited,” my chronological film-by-film exploration of the Disney animated canon.)

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Lust, Duels, and Matadors

Pedro Almodóvar’s Matador (1986) is a film about erotic obsession. It’s about the lusts that lead men and women to fuck, and to murder. But since it’s Almodóvar, you know it’s done with a fairly light touch – a self-consciousness about just how campy and ridiculous this whole affair really is – even as he spreads on the color and sensuality like so much molasses. Matador is a well-crafted Hitchcockian thriller about Ángel, played by a young Antonio Banderas, who is neurotically consumed with mother-instilled Catholic guilt. One night, he attempts to rape his neighbor Eva, who is also the girlfriend of Diego, a retired bullfighter who’s been giving Ángel lessons.

After confessing it to the police, he also assumes the guilt for four unsolved murders – of which two were committed by Diego, and the other two by Ángel’s lawyer María. This creates a roundelay of desire and suspicion worthy of the Master of Suspense, as the two killers smell blood and draw gradually nearer to one another. And just like the finest tales in Hitchcock’s repertoire, it’s all totally preposterous – which couldn’t matter less, because this is Almodóvar, so it’s not about logic. It’s about María’s sinful allure and Diego’s unquenchable thirsts; it’s about melodrama and madness and orgasms at the brink of death.

Diego and María’s dance of death leads to a climax (pun intended) that’s about as extravagantly, disturbingly erotic as anything this side of In the Realm of the Senses (1976). The rest of the characters burst in and gaze, shocked, at the remnants of their two-person orgy. They may have died, but they get the romance and tradition of bullfighting, a pair of beautifully entangled corpses, and the satisfaction of finally fulfilling their passions. It’s excessive, it’s perverse, but that’s Almodóvar for you. His film’s endings are often hard to categorize, a mix of happy and sad, troubling and comforting. Matador follows the same enigmatic, convention-defying pattern in its own weirdly sexy way.

Hitchcock isn’t Matador‘s only inspiration. Almodóvar is a highly allusive filmmaker, and midway into Matador, María sneaks into a movie theater, with Diego in hot pursuit. The theater, naturally, is playing the steamy climax of David O. Selznick and King Vidor’s feverishly epic western Duel in the Sun (1946). Just like Matador, Duel in the Sun ends with its two obsessive, doomed lovers – Pearl (Selznick paramour Jennifer Jones) and Lewt (Gregory Peck) orgiastically destroying one another. It’s a bloody end for a saga of family, betrayal, and industrialization – but one that’s just as ridiculous as any scene in Matador, even if the film never admits it.

Duel in the Sun begins with the hanging of Pearl’s father (Herbert Marshall) for the murder of his wife and her lover. She’s sent off to live with distant relatives – the McCanles family, who live on a vast ranch called Spanish Bit. There’s the ornery, paraplegic Senator (Lionel Barrymore), his more sympathetic wife (Lillian Gish), and their two sons, the lusty Lewt and the more civilized Jesse (Joseph Cotten). As you can tell, this is a giant, expensive, all-star affair – even Walter Huston steps in for a tiny role as an itinerant, fire-and-brimstone preacher who lectures Pearl about her sinful nature: “Under that heathen blanket, there’s a full-blossomed woman built by the devil to drive men crazy!”

By men, of course, he means Lewt, who has a sinful nature of his own. This is an unusual character for Peck, who would go on to fight anti-Semitism shortly thereafter in Elia Kazan’s message movie Gentleman’s Agreement (1947); here, he’s a gun-toting rapist fixated on owning Pearl (and her sexuality) to the extent that he kills her kind-hearted fiancé in cold blood. However, the Senator’s racism makes Lewt refuse to marry her; Pearl, you see, is part-Native American. (As a result, the very white Jones’s skin is crudely slathered in brown makeup, just like Charlton Heston in Touch of Evil.) Through all of her trials, Jesse tries to help her, but he gives up once he believes that she’s actually interested in Lewt. So Pearl grows more and more attached to Lewt… and draws nearer to her own death.

This is not a racially or sexually progressive movie, at all. Its protagonist is essentially martyred from the start just because of her skin color and her mother’s affair, and she’s blamed for every bit of persecution she receives – whether by the Senator, the preacher, or the brothers she alternately loves. It’s none too surprising, either, since Duel in the Sun was basically intended as Selznick’s follow-up to his super-popular but similarly regressive magnum opus Gone with the Wind (1939). While it doesn’t match the earlier film’s romantic heights or historical scope (despite having three times as many uncredited co-directors), it still has plenty to recommend it – especially if you’re a junkie for torrid melodrama like Almodóvar clearly is.

Duel in the Sun‘s delights are more cultish and weird than its southern predecessor, especially as the film approaches its sun-burnt, homicidal finale, which borders on the surreal. The film’s oneiric qualities are aided by the dazzling Technicolor cinematography, shot by the team of Lee Garmes, Ray Rennahan, and Harold Rosson, which make the desert look distinctly unreal. Regardless of Selznick’s intentions, Duel in the Sun is definitely closer to Johnny Guitar than How the West Was Won – and it’s to the film’s credit. Jones isn’t exactly an acting dynamo, but thankfully she’s surrounded by a cast of legends, and Peck makes one hell of a sleazy, unapologetic villain.

Finally, Duel in the Sun is unabashedly erotic, as Jones’s heaving bosom is just as vital to the film’s success as any given line of dialogue. Much of the movie, especially the conflict between Jesse and the Senator, seems geared to make you think this is a movie about nationhood, the death of the west, and the taming of the land. But that’s an afterthought in relation to the film’s real and true subject matter, which is the kinky, violent, death-tinged relationship between Lewt and Pearl. As much as I wish that Jesse could’ve been the main character (ohh, Joseph Cotten…), it just wasn’t to be.

No, Duel in the Sun‘s heart belongs with Lewt, his phallic guns, and his frequent, contentious trysts with Pearl. Their behavior together makes Rhett and Scarlett look like a model of chastity – as well as a model of respectful consent and female self-determination. Gender equity and healthy sexuality are tossed out the window, and the same goes for any conception of subtlety or restraint – Selznick really wanted to paint the landscape with his character’s outsize emotions. So you can see why Pedro Almodóvar (or Martin Scorsese, for that matter) loves this movie. It’s ambitious, audacious, opulent, unhesitatingly melodramatic, and it charts the inevitable path from erotic obsession to stylized death.

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Oscar Grouching #4: Precious & The Blind Side

Time is rapidly running out. The Oscars are tomorrow night. So I’ve decided to condense my discussions of the nominated films somewhat. And since race is apparently a favorite topic this year – so far as I can tell, only Up and Up in the Air are all about white goys – I opted to go for two radically different films, both of which put issues of race and racism on the forefront. These are Lee Daniels’ Precious: Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire and John Lee Hancock’s The Blind Side. Here’s what I wrote about the two of them in the Carl:

“Another cheap, dirty film to be nominated this year, buoyed mostly a slew of fiery performances, is Lee Daniels’ Precious: Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire. (And if you don’t add the subtitle, you’re not doing it right.) It’s a blistering tale of poverty and abuse, anchored by Gabourey Sidibe’s performance as the spat-upon title character. I could run down her laundry list of suffering, but that would give a false impression of the film, which is more about Precious coping with, and eventually escaping from, an environment where illiteracy and negligence are the norm. Daniels’ storytelling is hypermelodramatic and sometimes nauseating, as the stench of pigs feet permeates the screen. But it’s necessary to handle the story’s excesses, and is only appropriate for filming likely Oscar-winner Mo’Nique playing Precious’s violent, self-obsessed, and manipulative mother. Precious is hard to stomach, but far more satisfying than the sugary pap served up by another Oscar nominee…

That film, naturally, is the barely watchable The Blind Side. Granted, I’m not the audience for this film: I’m bored by football, can’t stand hyperactive little children, and don’t believe the South should rise again. This makes me a poor match for a movie that glorifies – nay, Jesusifies – the Tuohy family, led by brassy matriarch Sandra Bullock. Based on (a highly fictionalized version of) a true story, it follows the Tuohys’ valiant sacrifices as they take in and nurture a homeless 17-year-old black boy named Michael whose previously unexploited athletic prowess eventually makes him a sought-after property amongst college football teams. The Blind Side shamelessly incorporates every cliché from the feel-good sports movie playbook, right down to the giddy preadolescent mascot “S.J.,” whose every high-pitched word cut through my skull like a power drill. So bland and condescending to its protagonist that not even the underused Kathy Bates could save it, The Blind Side is just the kind of treacly, mediocre shite that the Academy loves to vote for, just to show that they’re ordinary folks, too. However, it’s not a good movie.”

On first glance, the movies seem strangely similar: both involve black teenagers (Precious is 16; The Blind Side‘s Michael “Big Mike” Oher is 17) who start out in the midst of poverty, abuse, and illiteracy. Then well-educated non-black folk take interest in their futures, and the receive educations that enable them to pursue their dreams. Yet despite this shared general storyline, the two could hardly be more different, both in how they’re told and what they communicate to the viewer.

Precious, frankly, is hard to talk about. It’s loaded, it’s controversial, and I go back and forth in deciding how to look at it. Is it sleazy ghetto porn, sensationalistic and exploitative, creating a picture of life in Harlem as a violent, disgusting freak show? (See Armond White’s review.) Or is it an original approach to a very real type of tragedy that leads to a satisfactory conclusion without denying its brutal truths? I tend toward the latter. Admittedly, I was at first pretty skeptical about Precious; ads kept mentioning the names Tyler Perry and Oprah Winfrey, neither of whom are really known for putting out quality products. (OK, maybe Oprah can endorse Faulkner and Middlesex after the fact, but she also unleashed Dr. Phil on the world…)

I was also dubious because inner-city dramas like Precious are frequently formulaic and obvious. If its creators had been less talented, I can easily imagine Precious becoming routine and gratuitous. Instead, through the combined expertise of Lee Daniels and his ensemble, including newcomer Gabourey Sidibe and the fiery Mo’Nique, Precious is a firecracker of a movie, mixing volatile music video aesthetics with the gaudy extremes of Douglas Sirk. It’s this coupling of directorial style and volcanic acting that makes the movie so effective, right up to the open-ended catharsis of its final moments. Racial politics aside (although fully setting them aside is impossible), it’s loud and hyperbolic, yet at the same time sincerely emotional. It’s a rare balance of spectacle and personality.

Precious‘s racial politics are tricky to fully figure out. Daniels and screenwriter Geoffrey Fletcher don’t use as many clever dodges and fake resolutions to questions of racial identity as Tarantino or Cameron do; they tell their story and stick to it. But there’s still a lot going on this movie, some of it subtly manipulative. Precious envisions herself in her fantasies as thin and light-skinned and has to be taught to love her appearance, while the only people who support her are thin and light-skinned. Sidibe as Precious is described by Armond White as an “animal-like stereotype,” while Sam Wasson at Forced Perspective says that “[h]er size is not acting; it’s a directorial idea, and a particularly facile one at that.”

These criticisms may have some credence to them, but I disagree with their overall judgments of Precious. This is decidedly larger-than-life filmmaking, with Sidibe and Mo’Nique giving performances to match. I read a fascinating article by Jim Emerson about how Daniels takes cues from the drag queens and camp cinema of John Waters (also Robert Aldrich, Pasolini, and a little Gus Van Sant), and I think that taking queer sensibilities into account is important when evaluating Precious. You can’t possibly accuse Daniels of stark realism; his film, his style, and his leading ladies are all enormous, yet open to moments of frightening intimacy.

On paper, Precious looks like a catalog of Dickensian traumas made flesh. On screen, however, you see just Sidibe’s numbed, swollen visage, surviving through indifference, her head full of competing memories and daydreams. And it’s the voiceover that, for me, confirms Precious not as the Other, but as an objectified victim fighting for her own self-determined identity. This is the war she has to win, on her own, and the ending makes it unclear whether she has, but hopes that she will. Being HIV-positive is only another lost battle. Compare this to the incredibly superficial level on which every conflict in The Blind Side functions. Precious, however gross it becomes (in every sense of the word), however questionable its little details may be, is at least the story of an marginalized, animalized human being pushing for her own subjectivity.

In The Blind Side, there is only one point of view, and that belongs to miracle-working do-gooder Leigh Anne Tuohy, played effervescently by Sandra Bullock. As opposed to Precious, there’s not a whole lot to talk about with The Blind Side. It’s an oppressively boring movie. It starts out with Michael, lost and homeless, being enrolled in school; before long, he’s noticed by the Tuohys, and Leigh Anne sharply insists that he stay with them.

The Tuohy clan, as the film sees them, are one big, self-sufficient, endlessly generous family unit. The father, played by good-ol’-boy country singer Tim McGraw, doesn’t do much other than own the Taco Bells that provide his family with a stream of income, watch football, and agree with his wife. Their children are Collins, a dead-eyed cheerleader, and S.J., the beloved child who never shuts up. Together, they can do no wrong, and if you don’t totally agree, this movie wants nothing to do with you.

What follows is a series of predictable training montages and “tough” personal decisions, as Leigh Anne stands up for Michael against his football coach, against her own bourgeois friends, and against the gang members in his old neighborhood. Because what else is she going to do? Have a single shade of nuance to her behavior? If Bullock wins that Oscar in a couple hours, I won’t be surprised, but I will be disappointed; her emotional range goes from high-strung enthusiasm to high-strung indignance. Either she’s yelling at someone for mistreating Michael, or she’s congratulating herself for protecting Michael. This is a 2+-hour-long celebration of the kindness of rednecks, a mundanely shot exercise in self-approval.

I’ll be shortly off for work, and then off to watch the Oscars. It’s been fun to blog about, even if as Armond White points out, the red carpet drama often supersedes any appreciation of actual art. (Granted, that article also praises ET and This Is It, but it’s Armond White, what do you expect?) The Academy Awards are an institution shallow and pandering enough to give The Blind Side two nominations, yet one which sometimes recognizes and encourages greatness. (As when they gave the Coen Bros. enough raw Oscar power back in 2007 that they could go on to make the sublime A Serious Man.) They’re not quite meaningless, but not all that meaningful. They’re also something we as film lovers and writers have to deal with.

So let’s go watch the Oscars tonight, and see what happens. Roger Ebert, who’s awards-obsessed, tweets that “something about the Oscars this year gives me the eerie feeling there will be big surprises.” Hey, what can you do? Awards ceremonies are an obligatory part of having show business in the first place. And maybe The White Ribbon will get Best Foreign Language Film, and we’ll get to see Michael Haneke disapprovingly stare down the entire crowd.

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While Johnny Guitar Gently Weeps

Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar (1954) is technically a western, but it distorts many elements of the genre until they’re barely recognizable. It’s a very strange, fascinating, and beautiful film. Basically, it’s about the conflict between two unyielding women, Vienna (Joan Crawford) and Emma Small (Mercedes McCambridge). Between them are a number of men, from wealthy landowner McIvers (Ward Bond), to an outlaw named the Dancin’ Kid (Scott Brady), to the title gunslinger, played by the easygoing, laconic Sterling Hayden. But make no mistake about it: this movie belongs to these women. And it’s not big enough for the two of them.

The film begins with Johnny riding into town, guitar slung across his back. First he encounters some men from the railroad dynamiting mountains to make for tracks; next he witnesses a hold-up in the valley that will motivate much of the ensuing action. Johnny is established as an observer figure, reacting to the events around him, and in this way, he’s cast somewhat in the mold of Dashiell Hammett’s Continental Op, or the anti-heroes of the yet-to-be-made Yojimbo and A Fistful of Dollars – entering into a volatile situation and carefully engineering a profitable outcome. However, Johnny substitutes wry commentary and absurdist inner peace for Mifune or Eastwood’s self-interest. He’s anything but the proactive, take-charge western lawman or renegade of John Wayne or Gary Cooper. Hayden’s Johnny Guitar, né Logan, is a whole new kind of protagonist.

Once Johnny arrives in town, he finds the woman who’s hired him: Vienna, who’s a whole new kind of love interest. She runs a gambling and liquor joint on the edge of town, employing a group of men who live to serve her, intimidated by the authority she wields from atop a flight of stairs. “I’ve never seen a woman who was more a man,” notes one of them, initiating the film’s flagrant gender-bending, which is encoded in both the dialogue and mise-en-scène. The staircase and upper room (Vienna’s private quarters) are quickly established as architectural representations of her power, similar to how Ray would use a staircase as a manifestation of psychic discontent in Rebel Without a Cause (1956). And Crawford’s acting is a mesmerizing blend of butchiness and neurotic femininity, as if her paranoid housewife in Sudden Fear (1952) had become an entrepreneur in the Wild West. You can really see the unusual charisma that led her to be such a star, yet at the same time a cult figure.

Yet somehow, Crawford is outdone by Mercedes McCambridge, who brings all her demon-eyed intensity to bear on the role of Emma. No reservoir of emotional imbalance is left untapped by her performance as she reigns over the town’s men folk with a tight jaw and an iron fist. During her first confrontation with Vienna in the saloon, she stands at the front of a row of men, each of them indistinguishable in their drab coats and hats while she wears a blazing green that matches the felt of Vienna’s pool tables. She is perpetually the ringleader: the men may try to assert their power – like the marshal’s legal authority or McIvers financial might – but in the end, they’re just figureheads. It’s Emma’s psychotic ferocity, her mix of lust, jealousy, greed, and hatred, that really drives the mob’s actions and the course of the town’s future.

McCambridge, it’s worth noting, was a massively talented and tragically underused actress. She won an Oscar for her first film performance (having earlier been a radio actress) as Sadie, an opportunistic politico in All the King’s Men (1949); other films enlivened by her appearances, however brief, include Giant (1956), Touch of Evil (1958 – “I wanna watch.”), and of course The Exorcist (1973), where she supplied the raspy, eternally angry voice of the demon possessing Linda Blair. Who else could’ve screamed “Your mother sucks cocks in hell, Karras!” with such gusto?

And voicing Pazuzu isn’t too far removed from playing Emma, who almost burns through the screen with her raw hatred. The film’s simplistic psychoanalyzing – that she wants the Dancin’ Kid dead because he “makes her feel like a woman” – is satisfactory on the surface, but it can hardly account for the Ahab-like devotion of her vendetta against Vienna. (This point leads easily into a queer reading of the film, which is reasonable; in fact, you’d be hard pressed to make a totally non-queer reading of it.)

I think the best demonstration of this, and possibly the best moment in the entire film, takes place just after the last showdown in Vienna’s saloon; as Vienna is brought away on a horse alongside Turkey, her gallant young would-be protector, Emma doubles back and re-enters the empty saloon, rifle in hand. She takes aim and fires at the chandelier hanging from the ceiling, which falls, instantly setting the building ablaze. I just love McCambridge’s body language as the fire spreads: she raises her arms as if conducting it, gazing on it with both awe and pride, as if she can’t believe what she’s done and is rapturous about it. By the time she dances out through the swinging doors, pressing her hand to her mouth in disbelief, and turns to face the camera, she looks orgasmic with the thrill of destruction.

I could probably go on for quite some time about McCambridge’s madly, gleefully over-the-top performance, but that wouldn’t leave much space for the rest of the film. Let me simply say that I’ve decided Emma to be one of the most terrifying, yet compelling villains in all of film. Yet thankfully, Johnny Guitar doesn’t single her out as a force of malice in contrast to a pure and righteous set of heroes. Vienna is selfish and unstable, fighting Emma with her sheer, indomitable will power; Johnny is largely unconcerned with the strife around him; and the Dancin’ Kid is desperate and inclined toward poor decisions. And it’s this general lack of virtue amidst the film’s cast of characters that makes its political, moral, and sexual implications even more potent.

Johnny Guitar exudes meanings; they grow like fungus out of each strange, new scene. On my most recent viewing, it wasn’t until I saw Turkey being coerced into naming Vienna as an accomplice that I remembered that, in addition to its radical gender politics, the film also serves as a savage metaphor for HUAC and the Hollywood blacklist. But it’s hardly dated, since it’s relevant to any situation where people would rather sell their comrades out than face death or bankruptcy. It matter-of-factly catalogues human vice and egocentrism as they spur the action, leading to a happy ending that feels like a parody, similar to Johnny and Vienna’s jaded caricature of old lovers reuniting:

Johnny: Tell me you’d a-died if I hadn’t come back.

Vienna: I woulda died if you hadn’t come back.

Johnny: Tell me you still love me like I love you.

Vienna: I still love you like you love me.

Johnny: Thanks. Thanks a lot.

The film’s sour attitudes toward human nature are echoed in its frenzied style, which mirrors the dysfunctional relationships of its characters. Just before it’s burned, for example, Vienna’s saloon looks like a recreation of her interior state, as she sits in a wedding dress playing piano to an empty house while framed against a cavelike wall. Images like these approach surrealism, yet fit right in with the characters’ melodramatic behaviors (it’s no surprise one of Ray’s subsequent films would be entitled Bigger Than Life). This is not a subtle film: this is a film that brandishes its stylistic idiosyncrasies like a whip, from the nonnatural colors – unusual for a western, bright reds, blues, and yellows recur throughout – to the psychological geography of the tunnels underneath Vienna’s saloon and the waterfall guarding the Dancin’ Kid’s mountain hideout. Every erratic filmmaking choice flashes itself in the viewer’s face.

And through a combination of Ray’s directorial genius and the actors’ talents, it all works. It’s different, it’s campy, it’s anything but typical, and it’s a great, innovative film – also, it’s difficult to imagine how Ray was able to make it in 1954. (I can’t say, but I’d guess that making it at the Poverty Row studio Republic helped.) Johnny Guitar has also had a huge influence, with its daring combination of bizarre artsiness and genre filmmaking. It was adored by the French New Wave, especially Godard, and my film professor Carol noted of it, “Much beloved by feminist critics of a certain era, as you might imagine.” Directors who’ve either paid homage or been influenced by it range from Wim Wenders to Jim Jarmusch (both Ray acolytes), from Bertolucci to Scorsese to Almodóvar, and beyond.

So I guess those are my thoughts on Johnny Guitar, which I had to express sooner or later. It’s a pretty audacious film, and I especially love its complex uses of androgyny and gender roles, playing a sexual joke on the entire history of westerns. It’s so improbable, yet manages to be so well-made at every turn, as it realizes the mammoth egos of these two fierce women in the infernos and explosions that streak the Arizona landscape. I’ll mention at the last minute two especially notable members of the supporting cast: John Carradine, who sacrifices his life for unrequited admiration, and Ernest Borgnine, who’s as much of a violent prick as his character Fatso in From Here to Eternity. They’re just two fascinating little details in the giant canvas that is Johnny Guitar.

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My Favorite Movies: The Saddest Music in the World

Beer, music, and the interplay of emotions

So, I haven’t done one of these posts in a while what with starting classes and all, but here’s a movie that demands to be written about: Guy Maddin’s quasi-musical comedy melodrama The Saddest Music in the World (2003, watchable here). Maddin, whom I saw giving a live director’s commentary this past June at the Heights Theater, is one of my favorite still-working directors; hailing from Winnipeg, he’s as much of an international envoy for Canadian cinema as David Cronenberg, and about as blatantly weird. But instead of expressing sexual hang-ups and Freudian confusion through gory physical displays like Cronenberg does, Maddin’s neuroses manifest themselves in explosive tributes to Hollywood films of the 1920s-’30s, full of absurdly overemotional characters and editing that could best be described as hysterical.

And out of Maddin’s films (though I have yet to see Careful or My Winnipeg), I’d say that Saddest Music hits all the right notes, emotionally and musically, bringing his style into a precise balance with the subject matter. It’s not quite as amnesiacally muddled as Archangel, and it expands impressively on the psychosexually tangled love triangles of earlier films like Tales from the Gimli Hospital. Fantastically entertaining, visually unique, and very strange – this could be Maddin’s masterpiece, lying deep in his fictionalized historical Winnipeg and yet relatively accessible to mainstream audiences (at least more so than, say, his silent ballet version of Dracula). So, where to start discussing it?

The plot of Saddest Music is fittingly complicated, with baroque psychological twists crawling out of the floorboards. It tells of a very dysfunctional family, the Kents: patriotically Canadian father Fyodor, sociopathic American showman Chester, and the melancholic hypochondriac Roderick, who’s taken on the Serbian national identity after the death of his child and the disappearance of his wife. The story’s background is that of the Great Depression, when legless beer baroness (the three words that really sell the movie) Helen Port-Huntley (Isabella Rossellini) is holding a contest to find the titular saddest music, pitting the Siamese against the Mexicans, the Germans against the Poles, and so on. It’s a concept from an old screenplay by Kazuo Ishiguro (author of Remains of the Day) that found itself somehow in Maddin’s hands. Processed through his feverishly inventive mind, it becomes a perverse catalog of classical Hollywood cliches lovingly made ironic by Maddin and his writing collaborator George Toles.

Lady Port-Huntley's legs: a Chaney-esque allegory of disability

Amidst the Kents’ emotional chaos is the film’s wild card character, Narcissa, played by Portuguese beauty Maria de Medeiros (of Pulp Fiction fame, though Maddin knew her from Henry & June). Roderick’s amnesiac wife and now Chester’s “kept woman,” she wanders hazily through the film speaking of attractive ears, telepathic tapeworms, and claiming to be not an American, but a nymphomaniac. She also triggers Roderick’s hysterical hypersensitivity, which points out one of the ways I view the film – as a battle royale between contrasting emotional viewpoints. I don’t think Maddin intended the film to be any grand statement about the wide palette of emotions, although I do believe he knew he was making a family melodrama that went over the top and back again. But, while last viewing the film, I found a way to reconcile this emotion-based vision of the film with its apparent lack of seriousness: by comparison with Amanda Palmer’s also highly ironic song “Oasis,” discussed many times on this very same blog. Just as Amanda Palmer has described “Oasis” as showing an alternative way to cope with trauma, Saddest Music‘s feuding central characters can represent happiness and sadness, glass half full or half empty. (As Chester says, “Sadness is just happiness turned on its ass.”)

So in Chester we have the embodiment of perpetual positivity, the quintessential Ugly American with a can-do, go-go spirit of rugged individualism. He manages to co-opt the other performers’ cultures, but only by offering to pay their way home. Chester – incidentally, named for and partially based on the character played by James Cagney in Footlight Parade (1933) – begins and ends the film by denying the sadness that’s filled his life, from his mother’s premature death to his own. “I ask you,” he says, always with a Cohan-esque lilt to his voice, “is there anybody here as happy as I am?” I don’t think it’d be too extreme to compare Chester to Amanda’s blithe protagonist in “Oasis.”

But turn Chester on his ass, and you’ve got Roderick, aka Gavrilo the Great, who proclaims, “In the jar, preserved in my own tears, is my son’s heart.” Whereas Chester appears impervious to emotional pain, Roderick’s life is nothing but. His behavior in the movie consists of one breakdown after another, puncuated by frantic pleas not to trouble his overly acute senses of touch, hearing, and smell. Roderick is the psychological hiccups and excessive reactions of melodrama incarnate in a character and played splendidly by Ross McMillan with a plaintive accent to match. So, as the title indicates, the film is largely on some level about emotions: Roderick fighting (but failing) to assert his genuine tearfulness against Chester’s “razzle dazzle showmanship” pretending to be sadness.

The hysterical Roderick, unable to cope with his sensory input or the trauma of betrayal

And always present alongside the characters’ escalating (and comedic) emotional intensity is Maddin’s far-flung visual style, which incorporates anything and everything to evoke the director’s madly oneiric vision of 1930s film. We have thick film grain, a coloring technique resembling two-strip Technicolor (used mostly for funeral scenes), nonstop rear projection, and manic montage for the film’s climax. Maddin is in love with the fakery and illusions of the cinema, and this love propels his film into violent visual and narrative fragmentation. The Kents’ house, as well as downtown Winnipeg, is constructed with claustrophobically expressionistic architecture, and the entire film was shot in a giant, freezing Winnipeg warehouse. You could go so far as to call it anti-location shooting.

This is one of Maddin’s bizarre triumphs, his view of the unconscious mind in relation to perceiving cinema. I think he referred to his brilliant short film The Heart of the World as the world’s first “subliminal” film, and on some level this applies to much of his other work as well. Realism is set aside, because old movies aren’t perceived as reality, and there’s nothing realistic – from a narrative or emotional angle – about the contortions and exaggerations of melodrama. In Brand Upon the Brain! (2006), the character of Guy Maddin is said to suffer from “brain fever,” and this is akin to the sensibility that informs all of the director’s work: the human brain is consumed with fever, every impulse or emotion heightened, every reaction doubled, every moment of the plot fractured via editing.

As he’s divulged in various interviews, Guy Maddin’s life has been fairly traumatic – a brother committed suicide, his father died young – and it’s definitely plausible to see his films as, in some ways, melodramatically dealing with the real pains of life. At the same time, he’s creating these insane but beautiful vistas of unreal cinematic worlds, retooling the materials of the past and our collective fictional memories, accelerating recollections of Cagney and Kirk Douglas, of Chaney/Browning collaborations, of Eisenstein and von Stroheim, Busby Berkeley, Astaire & Rogers. And all of this comes to dreamlike fruition in The Saddest Music in the World, where emotions and sexuality run like wild horses through a labyrinth of madness and memory. As usual, I want to highlight one particular scene that stands out, here being the fullest realization of the film’s musical side. It’s the part where Narcissa sings “The Song Is You,” an actual pop standard written in 1932 by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein. From Chester’s opening reminiscences, the song permeates the film’s atmosphere, whether on cello, piano, or played by a flashy big band as it is here. Maddin attributed this scene’s inspiration to Rouben Mamoulian’s Love Me Tonight (also 1932), where Maurice Chevalier’s singing of “Isn’t It Romantic?” turns out to be contagious.

Few films are able to engage the past so sincerely and with such frenzied passion as The Saddest Music in the World. It’s by turns dazzling, perverse, ironically tragic, very funny, and always mesmerizingly melodramatic. Whether you’re new to the chilly, phantasmagoric world of Guy Maddin or if you’ve seen a number of his films, it’s always worth rewatching, for Isabella’s dancing with glass legs, for the kneeling performance of “Red Maple Leaves,” for the surreal behavior of Winnipeg citizens in an age long forgotten, if it ever existed at all. With its spectacular blend of excessive emotion, hysterical past, and life uninhabited – all with plenty of musical fizz – The Saddest Music in the World is on of my favorite movies.

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