Tag Archives: modernism

John Huston, Modernist and Anti-mythologist

What’s more fun than participating in a blogathon about a great director? Possibly a barrel of monkeys, but that’s beside the point. The point is that I’m participating in the John Huston Blogathon being hosted between today (Huston’s 104th birthday) and next Thursday by Adam at Icebox Movies. So definitely go there and read some other blogalicious, Huston-centric musings, and watch Adam’s John Huston impersonation video. Now, I’ve been uncertain about how best to approach Huston’s formidable career and larger-than-life personality. So first I want to give a brief overview of – dare I say – the man who would be John Huston.

  • At different times, Huston wasn a boxer, soldier, journalist, and painter.
  • More pertinently, he was an actor, writer, and director on countless films spanning from about 1930 to his death in 1987.
  • His films as a director ran from film noir to biopics to earnest literary adaptations to action-adventure and war movies to period dramas to a biblical epic to the musical Annie, and beyond. Whew.
  • He was the patriarch of a Hollywood dynasty that includes his father Walter, his daughter Anjelica, and his son Danny; he directed both father and daughter to Oscar-winning performances.

In short, he’s a pretty intimidating figure to write about. So I’m planning to spread out my analysis of his films across a few different posts. The basic question Adam’s asking with this blogathon is, Can we call Huston an auteur? Well, maybe I can answer that question indirectly by examining the cinematic commonalities and discrepancies across a small portion of his career. But first, I want to talk to about one of my favorite Huston appearances outside of his directorial oeuvre: as the consummate villain Noah Cross in Roman Polanski’s Chinatown. Starting in the 1960s, Huston acted in a lot of weird, bad movies (like Myra Breckinridge, eww!), but none of his performances even came close to the monster he created in Cross, who wore his aura of corrupted authority as if it were a halo. (Barring possibly the Lawgiver in the last Planet of the Apes movie; Huston was born to wear that ape makeup.)

In Chinatown, Huston gives an easygoing, paternal warmth to a grizzled industrialist who’s ravaged both the land around Los Angeles and his own daughter without suffering any legal consequences, let alone pangs of conscience. The sheer scope and certainty of Cross’s evil acts astound his nemesis, Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson), a small-time private eye who’s clearly out of his league. Cross is a depraved, unabashed behemoth of amorality, yet he’s so outwardly affable and grandfatherly, even during the film’s miserable climax. It’s an infuriating, understated, terrifying performance. And even though Chinatown isn’t a “Huston movie” per se, it’s still worth discussing in relation to his filmography. His presence in Chinatown‘s rotten core is an example of the cleverly meta-cinematic casting that Polanski excels at,1 a casting decision whose tendrils extend back through the decades into the heart of studio-era Hollywood and with it, film noir.

As James Naremore says in More Than Night: Film Noir in Its Contexts, Huston’s role in the movie is, in part, Polanski and producer Robert Towne “acknowledging [their] indebtedness to The Maltese Falcon” (205). Since Chinatown is at once a throwback to and a recontextualization of film noir conventions, what better way to forge a concrete link with the past than by casting the man who’d codified many of them with Falcon, Key Largo, and The Asphalt Jungle? In Chinatown, then, I see a kinship with classical film noir in general, and Huston’s earlier films in specific. In the film’s vision of 1930s Los Angeles, wealth trumps morality or the law; it’s a city where each individual must find their own meaning, whether in the unrestrained exercise of power (Cross) or the simple desire for the truth (Gittes). In some ways, Cross’s unbound ubermensch is a grotesque exaggeration of the vaguely existentialist ethos promoted by Huston’s own films.

Like much of film noir, after all, Huston’s films largely took place in that gray space between law and anarchy. His characters wander a world in which traditional authorities, whether in terms of morality, religion, or epistemological certainty, have been dethroned, forcing them to discover the right path on their own, according to their own self-determined values. Basically, I’m locating Huston as fundamentally modernist in his outlook and style. I’m also generalizing like crazy, of course, so I’ll be open about which sample of his output I’m using: I’ve recently watched The Maltese Falcon, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The Misfits, and Fat City, so my forthcoming arguments will be primarily concerned with those films. (I’ll probably make detours into Key Largo, The Asphalt Jungle, The African Queen, The Man Who Would Be King, and Under the Volcano as necessary.)

So: John Huston’s films are, on a very basic level, concerned with the effects of modernity. Like existential seismometers, they detect a rupture in the circle of life; in The Misfits, for example, American family life has fallen prey to divorce, disease, war, and poverty. Roslyn (Marilyn Monroe) and the cowboy Gay (Clark Gable) try to piece together a relationship, but they’ve been so battered by the world – or in Gay’s case, rendered obsolete – that now they can’t even connect to other human beings. Even nature, one of Huston’s abiding interests, can’t stave off the encroachment of modernity. As Gay observes, the wild mustangs used to be given to children as presents, but now kids just ride motor scooters, so the mustangs must instead be ground into dog food. It’s a brutal metaphor that applies broadly to all of these Huston protagonists, displaced men searching for a new home or trying to return to a lost one, as with Dix’s dying pilgrimage at the end of The Asphalt Jungle.

The nature of “home” is also the subject of scrutiny in Huston’s work. In The Misfits, Pilot (Eli Wallach) has an unfinished house, abandoned after his wife’s death, which Roslyn and Gay appropriate as the site of their own domestic fantasies. But these efforts are doomed from the beginning, and the contrast between their reality and the “American dream” ideal proves the film’s bitter truths. In Fat City, washed-up boxer Billy (Stacy Keach) and barfly Oma (Susan Tyrrell) initially live together in a shrill burlesque of marriage. But inevitably they go their separate ways, and it’s because the American dream of marital bliss was not designed for a pair of alcoholics in desolate small-town California. Huston was intent on demolishing these myths on which much of American life was based, revealing the sickness and falsehoods underneath. And so, to come temporarily full circle, isn’t that what Huston was accomplishing by starring in Chinatown? He was at once Noah Cross, titan of industry, but also Noah Cross, the dirtiest of old men.

In that role and in many of his own films, Huston also undercut capitalist myths that underlie the “American way of life.” But I’ll get into that in my next post as I delve into The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.

1 See also Ruth Gordon in Rosemary’s Baby or Lionel Stander in Cul-de-Sac, who dragged their cinematic pasts into the roles with them.

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Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Lovecraft

The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents.

Lately, a surprising amount of people have been finding Pussy Goes Grrr by searching for the word “Cthulhu,” so I figured it was time to write about H.P. Lovecraft‘s Cthulhu Mythos. (Even more hits have come from “lady gaga hot,” but that’s neither here nor there.) Although he picked up from where others like Poe and Lord Dunsany left off, Lovecraft blazed new trails in “cosmic horror,” and his impact has been felt in many corners of popular culture. Of course, he was also an unabashed racist who apparently didn’t believe that fictional characters should have sexual desires.

He’s such a divisive, mammoth figure in horror history, one who led respected authors to write glorified fanfiction, one whose complex legacy has reached its ungodly tentacles into the 21st century — and beyond?? Lovecraft’s influence, both good and gruesome, is spread like glowing ichor all across weird and scary stories. So here’s some musings on Lovecraft or: how I learned to stop worrying and love the Great Old Ones.

1. Knowledge

As the quote above (the first line of “The Call of Cthulhu“) indicates, Lovecraft’s stories are implicitly opposed to any form of scientific rationalism. In his fictional universe, the scientific method or any other attempt to unearth the truth will inevitably lead to tragedy, and probably insanity too. Lovecraft’s narrators constantly blur the lines between truth and falsehood, sanity and madness, and “the real and the unreal,” as Jervas Dudley says at the beginning of “The Tomb.” Basically, when we try to discern the laws by which our universe functions, we’re asking the wrong questions, because things don’t necessarily make sense.

Lovecraft’s life span (1890-1937) puts him squarely in the midst of one of modern history’s greatest ruptures. He came of age just after the turn of the century, and really started publishing short stories during World War I. So it’s easy to read his grim work in the context of the early 20th century’s massive technological and political flux – like the deformed twin brother of literary modernism. Along with this symptomatic fear of the impending future is a tension between the old and the new: his stories are replete with mentions of antiquated tomes (most notably, the Necronomicon) and with stilted Victorian jargon and racial epithets. His characters often have long (sometimes cursed) bloodlines, and of course the evils that emerge are the oldest of all.

Yet his stories, by and large, take place in the present he knew, namely the 1920s-’30s. And although the evils may have been ancient and buried away, the stories are often about archaeology, exploration, and vanishing frontiers. The scientist or adventurer of the modern day will dig up the secrets of history, and it’s this desire for knowledge that unleashes the irrational destruction. This was a time when science was, more than ever, intent on mapping out and naming everything – all the world’s places, peoples, animals, and phenomena. In Lovecraft, a wrench gets thrown in the works. Knowledge is not purely good; in fact, exactly the opposite. In many ways, then, although he died 8 years before the invention of the atomic bomb, Lovecraft anticipated the course that science fiction and horror would take in the 1950s. (Now think about John Carpenter’s remake of the 1951 Thing from Another World from this perspective. Maybe a little Lovecraft was present in the story all along? “Keep watching the skies…”)

2. The Mythos

Lovecraft was one of those rare artists who constructed vast, terrifying worlds from the sheer force of his imagination. In the disturbed universe of the Cthulhu Mythos, he implemented the ideas above (fear of knowledge, the past erupting into the present) as the concrete material of his fiction. To the human characters of the Mythos, these aren’t just abstract intellectual crises; they’re perceptible (if indescribable) and usually life-threatening realities. Their universe has its own elaborate cosmology, built up through tiny details scattered here and there across dozens of stories, through subjective glimpses into its remote corners. At its core is a basic premise, tying together the sci-fi, fantasy, and horror aspects of Lovecraft’s work: mankind is not alone, and what’s out there doesn’t really care about us.

Going back to the connection between Lovecraft and modernism, the Mythos certainly engages in a very modernist project, namely displacing humanity from the center of consciousness and power. It’s a very cold, bleak project as well, since unlike most ancient myths or other sci-fi, Lovecraft’s alien gods are primarily nonanthropomorphic. They’re hard to communicate or fight with, and they’re totally unsympathetic to any of our desires or dislikes. Their physical natures inspire terror in human beings unlucky enough to perceive them. They’re also incredibly powerful, and when you add that to a lack of common ground with humans, that makes for horror. They preceded us and they will outlast us, so human pride and the importance of human affairs are suddenly reduced to the smallest of footnotes on the universe’s history.

So: Cthulhu. The most iconic, well-remembered character in all of Lovecraft. Somehow he (she? it?) was seized upon as a representative of everything Lovecraftian, but Cthulhu is an effective envoy of cosmic terror. (And easier to spell/pronounce than Yog-Sothoth or Nyarlathotep.) Introduced in “The Call of Cthulhu,” s/he’s relatively approachable as Great Old Ones go. Dwells in the sunken city of R’Lyeh, has cults spread across the world, and awaits the moment the stars are right so s/he can burst forth and start a new era of life on earth. Cthulhu is also a great demonstration of how Lovecraft is so effective: s/he is revealed through fragments, never seen for long, and never speaks. Yet through hints and suggestions, the reader receives a giant, terrifying impression. Despite being so distant and inscrutable, we still somehow feel like we know Cthulhu.

3. Lovecraftian

And now Lovecraft and Cthulhu are part of pop culture. And naturally, they’ve become subject to endless appropriation and parody. His stories are so delightfully morbid and well-realized, brimming with imaginative realms and creatures, yet also so unrelenting and self-serious. It makes perfect sense for an artist who admires Lovecraft to imitate him while deflating the grandiosity of his writing. So we have examples like the filk love song “Hey There Cthulhu” by Eben Brooks, or the musical “A Shoggoth on the Roof.” Or the 1980s resurgence of Cormanesque horror-comedies, where Lovecraftian tropes were used in over-the-top, gory classics like Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead and Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator.

And in literature? Suffice it to say that Lovecraft doesn’t just have a legacy; he has a subgenre. As a sample of the endless homages, I’d point you toward the anthology Shadows Over Baker Street, which introduces Sherlock Holmes to the eerie world of the Cthulhu Mythos. (I especially recommend Neil Gaiman’s “A Study in Emerald” and Paul Finch’s “The Mystery of the Hanged Man’s Puzzle.”) With his huge collection of stories, Lovecraft provided a potential framework for the writers who followed him, between the fictional world he created, the dark angle from which he confronted his themes, and his mastery of ornate diction and tense pacing. These fantastic tools can also be used by authors from different backgrounds, thereby producing Lovecraftian fiction that isn’t so aristocratic, racist, and sex-phobic.

This is a pretty broad view of Lovecraft’s career and effect on horror fiction. Since his legacy is so colossal, he’s pretty much a one-man field of study, so far more specific and in-depth analyses are available all over the Internet. For the curious, I’d recommend the AV Club’s Gateway to Geekery for Lovecraft, or just going over to Wikisource’s collection and diving in. But if you dare to delve into these untold horrors, do not be surprised when you find yourself thrust head-first into a ghastly, unspeakable fate worse than death. I mean, it’s always possible.

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One Hour Mark: Blowup

Understanding Antonioni has always been difficult for me. So maybe I can get some insights into his style by pondering this image from 1:00:00 into his 1966 masterpiece Blowup. As in most Antonioni films, the plot is incidental: an unnamed photographer (David Hemmings) goes about his life – spending the night with bums, buying a propeller, aggressively shooting models, etc. During a jaunt in the park with his camera, he snaps several photos of a couple enjoying themselves. However, the images he captures contain more than initially meets the eye. What, exactly, do they contain? It’s never made clear. Possibly a corpse, possibly nothing, and in the end the photographer metaphorically contents himself with illusions. [Ashley reminds me that, on the more literal side, he does go and see the corpse in the park. But soon after, it’s gone, and the questions resurface.]

This may all sound extremely self-referential, since it’s a film about the nature of images, and it is. As Wikipedia puts it, Antonioni was an “Italian modernist film director,” and you pretty much have to understand his work within the context of cinematic modernism. In his films, characters aren’t just uncertain of what the truth is; they’re also unsure whether there is truth in the first place. (And the kinds of truth he addresses are manifold: aesthetic, epistemological, social, religious, moral, sexual, etc.) For example, in his first real hit, L’avventura (1960), a woman goes missing on an island. Her family and friends look for her, can’t find her, and eventually give up. Her best friend and boyfriend have an affair out of nothing so much as uncertainty.

That’s the sort of structure Antonioni’s movies have. The surface questions most movies would go after – where’s the woman? Why is there a dead body? – are abandoned because answering them, Antonioni seems to say, won’t really solve anything. The real questions are much harder, and the films get at them not through dialogue or narrative but visual style. With that in mind, let’s turn to this image from Blowup, which is actually the photographer about to blow up an image. He’s just had an encounter with the woman from the photos (Vanessa Redgrave), who wanted the negatives, and now he’s driven to look closer at the photo’s he’s taken. This little action says so much when framed within the wider film.

The title, after all, is Blowup. It’s a curious phrase, especially since it can refer to an explosion or to the creation of something larger. There’s also an implication that, since the film is superficially a mystery, blowing up a photo is a method for reaching a deeper truth. Photographs are supposedly objective reproductions of the physical world, so to look closer is to gain new insight into the world itself. To solve the mystery. (Cf. Bazin’s “The Ontology of the Photographic Image.”) But scene after scene, Antonioni undermines all of these assumptions, throwing the photographer out into a modern wasteland of subjectivity.

A lot of the photographer’s artistic hubris is present in this particular image. He thinks that with his technology and his grid, he can master and map out reality. But Antonioni shows that reality is much more slippery than he thought. Ironically, with the way he’s framed here, the photographer himself is one who’s been mapped out. In a film that frequently equates the photographer’s camera with sexual power, this is possibly an indication that now he’s the one who’s been fucked. I’m still not sure how highly I personally regard Antonioni’s work, especially since it’s full of unlikeable, emotionally distant characters. But he was definitely a master at incorporating his ideas into every frame of his films, both in form and content.

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