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My Favorite Movies: The Treasure of the Sierra Madre

Jumping off from Friday’s post for the Icebox Movies John Huston blogathon, I’d like to talk about gold and the havoc it can wreak in a man’s soul. Yes, it’s Huston’s masterpiece The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) starring Humphrey Bogart, Tim Holt (of Magnificent Ambersons fame), and Huston’s father Walter. I’m going to keep discussing the themes that pervaded Huston’s work, but today I’ll be narrowing myself down pretty tightly to Sierra Madre because, well, I have a lot to say about this movie. It’s probably my favorite of Huston’s (though The Maltese Falcon is a close second); it’s just a gritty, intense piece of genius. (And yes, this post is going under the long-dormant banner of “My Favorite Movies”; you can read all previous MFM posts here.) The plot is simple and familiar: three down-and-out gringos in Mexico City decide to give gold prospecting a shot. They set up camp, evade banditos and a nosy Texan, and make a going concern of it… but then Fred C. Dobbs (Bogart) starts fearing that his comrades are plotting against him.

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is based on a novel by the enigmatic author B. Traven, who was probably an anarchist from Germany. These origins alone should suggest that this is not your average 1940s Warner Bros. production. It’s offbeat, misanthropic, violent, and falls in a curious nether region of genre – it’s neither a western nor a film noir, but has traces of both. Huston’s Mexico isn’t like, say, John Ford’s Wild West, which was still America, and still retained the same cultural norms and values as the fully civilized east. In Mexico, the three prospectors are foreigners and must fend for themselves without a civic community to depend on. When Dobbs repeatedly approaches a well-dressed tourist (John Huston) and begs for money on the basis of being “a fellow American,” the tourist grows weary and insists that he’ll have to make do on his own from then on. Mexico is a place where relationships must be born anew, regardless of shared nationality.

Mexico, for the purposes of the film, is a wilderness.1 When Dobbs and Curtin (Holt) are scammed out of their pay by Pat McCormick (Barton Maclane), they don’t turn to the government; they beat the shit out of him themselves, and then take what they’re owed. The film’s premise is that three men develop a small community out of a mutual interest. But this community only functions at all because of all their safeguards and compromises. When they’re figuring out who should guard the gold, Howard (the elder Huston), the old man, declares himself “the most trustworthy” – not because he’s honest, but because he couldn’t possibly get away without the two younger men catching him. Compare this to the deals made between Peachy and Dravot in The Man Who Would Be King. Whether in central Asia or Mexico, there’s no higher power to enforce the terms of their compacts. Once an individual stops following the self-instituted rules of the group, everything – be it a bizarrely mystical monarchy or a prospecting operation – quickly falls apart.

In this case, what triggers the group’s collapse is Dobbs’ pathological paranoia. Although it only explicitly manifests itself about halfway through, we get subtle hints about his unstable, immature personality early in the film. He’s eager to gloat about whatever he can, be it a winning lottery ticket or killing more banditos than either of his compatriots. Howard quietly takes not of these little displays, and they give way directly into Dobbs’ all-encompassing mistrust as the film progresses. It’s most obvious when he first sees gold: with lust in his eyes, he says, “It don’t glitter. I thought it would glitter?” It’s only a matter of time before he grows so protective that he’ll resort to murder. His interactions with Cody, the intrusive Texan, reveal this steady decline; while Curtin and Howard sit and listen to Cody, Dobbs circles around him, babbling about how they want him to leave. As Dobbs slowly cracks up, the audience’s identification with him bleeds away, and as the role of protagonist shifts from him to Curtin, Dobbs becomes at once something darker and greater.

Bogart’s performance really is incredible, especially because of how radically different Dobbs is from iconic characters like Rick Blaine or Philip Marlowe. Those men were self-assured, discreet, and experienced; Dobbs is a greenhorn2 who needs to prove himself in terms of skill and intelligence. And although he exhibits his tragic flaws from the start – just look at his treatment of Pat McCormick as anticipating his ultimate breakdown – he’s still easy to like, since he’s just a poverty-stricken everyguy who just wants to eat. But for all Bogart’s finesse and fluidity, it’s Walter Huston who drives the movie. When he first appears in the Oso Negro (which is basically a homeless shelter), he’s like a feisty leprechaun talking about a rainbow he’s got stashed away. He’s fast-talking but sincere, with an edge of diabolical charm left over from The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941). He could be a former con man, or a street preacher gone apostate.

He overflows with charisma, energy, wisdom, and the sardonic humor that fills so many of his son’s films. He’s also weirdly self-aware, sometimes overacting in a calculated way, as if Howard is intentionally giving a performance – just look at his famously manic jig for an example. And toward the end of the film, while he’s being cared for by a Mexican woman, Howard glances up at the camera for a moment. It’s an unexpected nod to the fourth wall, perhaps signaling the character’s overarching comprehension of how the universe works.3 Howard knows about greed, fate, and the absurdity of life. In the end, as he tells Curtin, it’s best just to laugh at the cosmic joke that’s been played on them. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre abounds with noir-like fatalism, but this reaction – laughing at the caprices of God or destiny or whoever – is unusual, and the sheer abandon with which Howard laughs makes the ending even more disturbingly bleak.

Still, this laughter is a mark of wisdom in John Huston’s Mexico. At least it’s preferable to the futile rebellion of Roslyn at the end of The Misfits, or the alcoholic silence that clouds the end of Fat City. It’s comparable, though, to the plucky resignation of Caspar Gutman when he realizes the falcon is a fake, or that of Doc Riedenschneider in The Asphalt Jungle as he’s quietly recaptured. In John Huston’s films, you can’t win. But you might as well join in the fun that fate’s having at your expense. After partaking in a long, hearty laugh, Curtin and Howard decide to make their own futures, independent of their past suffering and loss. Howard has a cozy position as witch doctor; Curtin’s off to Cody’s widow in Dallas. In Huston’s films, the past is an anchor that keeps you from moving ahead. The Misfits‘ Pilot and his dead wife or Fat City‘s Billy with his lost dreams of greatness are just two examples. Sure, Sam Spade could’ve dwelt on his partner’s death, but he knew it would be of no consequence. Curtin and Howard don’t brood on their failure; they just walk away. In Huston’s films, that’s the best you can do.

As a final note, let me comment on the intriguing relationship between man and nature in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. This is one of Huston’s great obsessions; he was, after all, an avid outdoorsman. After Dobbs thinks he’s killed Curtin, we get this great moment where he’s searching for Curtin’s body, and it’s not there. He concludes that a tiger must’ve dragged it away, and then remarks with awe, “Done as if by order!” In this film, it’s always uncertain whether nature is working in tandem with the men, against them, or just randomly. The dust storm that consumes the gold would imply an antagonistic relationship, but it also recalls the conversation when the men are leaving the Sierra Madre itself. “You talk about that mountain as if she was a real woman,” says Curtin, and Howard replies, “She’s been a lot better to me than any woman I ever knew.”

I love this exchange, because it lays out the connection between these men and their environment in humanized and gendered terms. The men thank the mountain for its bounty, but, as Howard admits, “we wounded this mountain,” just so they could mine its resources. The mountain clearly has no ability to consent in the matter, yet they show gratitude. When you consider that Sierra Madre means “mother range,” a darkly oedipal reading of the scene emerges. In a film with no women, the process of extracting the gold itself is a displacement of the prospectors’ sex drives. In Fat City, the manager Ruben complains that his boxers waste their energy through, among other pursuits, marriage; similarly, Howard warns his associates, “if I were you boys, I wouldn’t talk or even think about women,” when metaphorically, that’s just what they’ve been doing the entire time. Thus, Dobbs’ excessive lust for gold is on some level a redirection of other excessive lusts. It’s an elided sexual dysfunction that’s just perfect for the Production Code era.

In adapting Traven’s novel, Huston loaded up the image of the gold prospector – a Horatio Alger get-rich-quick myth of the American west – with distinctly modern perversions, confusions, and absurdities. He told a story of three men who must make their own laws and mores, even if it means collectively killing an intruder,4 and are locked together in mutual dependence until they can trade in the gold. It’s also a story about self-definition. After Cody is shot by banditos, the men rush over and Howard says, “I wonder who he is?” This question can be applied to all the characters in Huston’s films. And tragically, Dobbs identifies himself only in relation to the treasure he so desperately desires. With its small but powerful cast, its immersion in the “uncivilized” strangeness of Mexico, and its revelations of how thoroughly gold can change a man, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is one of my favorite movies.

1 Huston’s use of Mexico clearly influenced Sam Peckinpah films like The Wild Bunch (1969) and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1975). In the latter film, the money-hungry protagonist even uses the pseudonym “Fred C. Dobbs.”

2 Just look at the scene where Dobbs wastes plenty of water on what is actually fool’s gold.

3 And, for that matter, a Shadow-like knowledge of what evil lurks in the hearts of men.

4 Their attempt to simultaneously shoot Cody is just a microcosmic example of capital punishment – murder by the state.

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My Favorite Movies: Glen or Glenda

Favorite movies don’t always overlap with the canon of great movies. Sometimes they’re not even good. I wouldn’t call this selection a “guilty pleasure,” really; instead, it’s a movie made with so little talent and so much enthusiasm that I can spend hours pondering its mysteries. It’s Glen or Glenda (1953), the first feature film directed the infamous Edward D. Wood, Jr. I don’t remember when I first learned of this film. It’s hidden deep within the recesses of my childhood.

Coming from a family of devoted B movie fans, Ed Wood was of course in our pantheon along with Roger Corman, William Castle, and Inoshiro Honda of Godzilla fame. I saw Plan 9 at any early age (and many, many times since), as well as Tim Burton’s Ed Wood. (I think my father was disconcerted by how many times Martin Landau says “fuck.”) And somewhere along the line, I learned that Wood, the reputed “worst director of all time,” had made a movie about crossdressers. Some years ago, I turned up a DVD copy at the public library; my initial response was a mix of amazement, shock, and some third adjective involving surprise at the film’s low quality. Plenty more viewings would follow.

Glen or Glenda is a curious animal. On the one hand, it follows in the long tradition of classical exploitation filmmaking: movies made starting after WWI that pretend to educate while attempting to titillate. Glenda producer George Weiss had already attached his name to such movies as Test Tube Babies and Racket Girls, the latter of which has been in MST3K, and is probably the least sexy movie about female wrestling. Glen or Glenda was intended follow in this long-standing mold by ostensibly telling the public about sex-change operations while actually providing a teasing glimpse of taboo sexuality. All the trappings are visible, but with Wood at the helm, the film took off in several very strange directions at once.

Initially, Glen or Glenda looks like your usual exploitation movie. It has a topic, its selling point, and it’s even got what Eric Schaefer (writing in Bold! Daring! Shocking! True!: A History of Exploitation Films) calls the “square up”: the title card at the beginning justifying its existence, and warning that “this is a picture of stark realism”—generally code for “There might be some stock footage of a woman giving birth that shows her vagina.” However, for reasons unknown to anyone, the film then jumps to an aged, morphine-addicted Bela Lugosi sitting in a room full of skeletons and holding a book. His incomprehensible, long-winded monologue, all delivered in Lugosi’s inimitable Hungarian drawl, sets up the unpredictable, inexplicable structure of what is to come.

As Lugosi’s monologue demonstrates, it’s largely Wood’s script which keeps this from being just another bad exploitation movie. His dialogue is often redundant, usually stilted, and never good, yet grows increasingly strange, as if Wood had been drifting in and out of touch with reality (and the art of writing) while creating it. Similarly, the narrative as a whole makes stabs at being conventional, but consistently misses its mark, as if Wood’s internal compass were driving him toward the avant-garde.

Sure, a story starts up: a transvestite named Patrick commits suicide, a dim-witted police inspector goes to talk with a psychiatrist, and the psychiatrist launches into the usual “Let me tell you a story…” spiel that frames many exploitation films, Reefer Madness being a well-known example. But no sooner does he attempt to narrate the life of Glen/Glenda than Bela interrupts, signaled (as always) by a flash of stock footage lightning, and begins commenting on the psychiatrist in the vaguest terms possible: “There is no mistaking the thoughts in man’s mind… the story is begun…”

Lugosi’s presence is one of the film’s true mysteries. The obvious answer is that Wood was friends with Lugosi, and wanted to give the ailing veteran some work. Furthermore, Lugosi’s (somewhat faded) star power could potentially lend the movie some slight mainstream credibility; hell, he gets top billing. Even so, why locate him so undecipherably within the movie, intruding on the actual narrative, and generally making the entire film inaccessible to ordinary moviegoers? Both his dialogue and milieu feel drawn from another, even weirder movie, perhaps some uneasy mesh of fatalism, mysticism, and mad science.

Even without Lugosi, Glen or Glenda would be an outlier among exploitation films. Not only does it deviate heavily from its intended sex-change subject matter, but at times it feels uncertain what its subject matter is. Transvestites, or modern man’s inability to overcome destiny (albeit phrased much less coherently)? While most exploitation films let their morality tale plots flow unhindered, the psychiatrist frequently stops his own story to meditate on sexuality and tolerance. At one point, Glen visits his friend Johnny for advice, and Johnny tells his story, within a story, within a story.

All of this is exacerbated by the production values, which are even lower than those in Bride of the Monster and Plan 9. During the psychiatrist’s digressions, the film resorts to merely suggesting the existence of a set: a sign reading “BUS STOP” indicates a bus stop, and a water cooler evokes an office. Wood’s extreme dependence on stock footage also has its consequences: many scenes are reduced to voiceovers underscored by the same few seconds of cars on a freeway, or people on a busy sidewalk, and over a minute and a half of the Alan/Anne story consists of WWII battle footage (this, in a film that’s barely an hour long). Other uses are total non sequiturs, most infamously the buffalo herd stampeding while Lugosi chants, “Pull the string!”

Granted, pointing out badness in an Ed Wood movie may be like shooting poorly executed scenes in a barrel, but I think these examples help show why this movie is worth all the attention I give it. Many of these creative choices weren’t just bad, but unnecessary, and not really justifiable. I’d say this willingness to do the wrong thing, even if the only effect is undercutting traditional narrative cinema, sets Wood apart from the bulk of exploitation craftsmen, who were content merely to film their hackneyed story and maybe inject it with a few minutes of burlesque shows.

Glen or Glenda does have the requisite burlesque padding—inserted, may I add, right in the middle of the movie, with no narrative context whatsoever—but it has so much more going on that the drawn-out stripteases and softcore bondage porn feel like an interruption from the normal outside world of ’50s sleaze, in opposition to the ascended gibberish Wood’s been serving up. This padding is also sandwiched inside Glen/Glenda’s nightmare, the point in the movie where the main narrative (the psychiatrist’s story) intersects with the oneiric horror movie atmosphere of the Lugosi interludes.

This is a movie that takes its subconscious’s noctural soliloquies and puts them on the surface for the audience for the audience to puzzle over. During the nightmare sequence, both the visuals and the sinister, cackling dialogue become completely opaque, and you wonder, if this was transcribed and psychoanalyzed, would some new truth about gender identity be revealed? Or is there no meaning, just intimations toward one? Also, is that guy the devil?

It really is a movie brimming with mysteries, possibly wrapped in additional riddles and enigmas. Its incessantly tangential structure doesn’t help, as the movie repeatedly doubles back on itself, leading the viewer down stories and lines of argument that look eerily familiar. A few salient points can be gleaned from these many approaches, however, and the clearest of these is a plea for tolerance. Ultimately, this is a movie rooted in autobiography and personal interest—Wood’s own transvestism. And it’s remarkably progressive, in its own surreal way, asking (sometimes) for an acceptance of all gender and sexual identities.

Admittedly, the film does make more than a few self-contradictory statements and engages in some obviously false reasoning, but what emerges from the majority of the viewpoints presented is an internal consensus: if a man feels more comfortable in woman’s clothes (or a woman’s body) then those options should be available to him. (Unsurprisingly, female transvestites and transsexuals aren’t even considered.) The film’s one mention of homosexuals comes when the psychiatrist specifies that Glen is not one, but it’s not a condemnation by any means, itself a minor triumph for an era when the word “homosexual” was verboten in mainstream cinema.

Of course, Glen or Glenda doesn’t even come close to being a systematic or intelligible defense of transvestism, but that’s hardly its purpose. Instead, I see it as Ed Wood personally expressing, under the only circumstances he could, his feelings about crossdressing and gender identity. And amid a flurry of hysterical expressionism, he manages to say that people should accept ideas even if they seem strange at first. If Ed Wood had had a shred of talent or artistry, he might’ve been Jack Smith or Kenneth Anger. But he didn’t, thank God, and thus he was Ed Wood. With its indecisively multifaceted narrative, its manic mix of genres and messages, and its wildly idiosyncratic take on human sexuality, Glen or Glenda is one of my favorite movies.

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My Favorite Movies: Sherlock Jr.

When I first learned about Sherlock Jr. (1924, viewable here), my expectations weren’t that high. I knew little about Buster Keaton, and still wondered how anyone could challenge Chaplin’s mastery of silent pathos and comedy. (Little did I know then that Keaton and Chaplin aren’t comparable so much in form or content, but in the levels of innovation they brought to their work.) The idea of a projectionist entering into a film seemed appealing enough, but nothing too radical. Then I finally saw the film, let it stew around my head, saw it again, and again, and realized that it’s a work of concentrated comic perfection.

I grant that Sherlock Jr. doesn’t quite have the well-developed, back-and-forth narrative of The General, which sustains Keaton’s audacious acrobatics for longer and to greater purpose, but I still feel it’s probably the best showcase for his talents. Buster Keaton’s trademark stunts put every other example of choreographed mayhem to shame; they’re comparable to Busby Berkeley’s dance routines of the ’30s in their uniqueness, surreal logic, and aestheticization of human physicality, but they substitute hilarity for eroticism. And nowhere in Keaton’s body of work are they crammed together as effectively and syllogistically as in Sherlock Jr., where the entire film unfolds like the best-constructed line of dominoes in film history.

The plot’s pretty simple: Keaton plays his usual nameless, stolid sad sack character, trying to win a girl’s love. He works as a projectionist, but aspires to be a detective (hence the title). However, through a series of unfortuitous clues, his scuzzy rival frames him for the theft of a watch, and he retires to the projection booth, defeated. While the girl discovers his innocence, he daydreams himself into the film-within-a-film, and a parallel secondary story takes place. Eventually he awakes, and finds the girl has realized her mistake, leading to one of Keaton’s great, ironic happy endings.

Within this framework, Keaton unleashes his bottomless bag of tricks – bottomless because his resources are the physical laws of the universe. Anyone can take a fall, but Keaton takes falls that defy our beliefs and expectations. He also roots his physical comedy in a romantic plot filled with its own pitfalls, whether they’re jokes at the expense of his protagonist, the girl, her idle rich father, or the rival, who’s depicted as a mustache-twirling cad.

I view the romances in Keaton’s films as somewhat cynical, as flat and unsentimental as the look on his face. In this film, for example, the girl seems willing to be bought off with fancy gifts, and a similar love-for-sale ethic pervades his earlier film Three Ages, which sees competition for mates – and the subsequent mating – as a constant of human nature. Maybe an argument could be made that the romantic urges of his protagonists are as obligatory as their obedience to gravity; after all, romances are omnipresent in his films, but they’re never really dwelled upon for their own sakes. It’s one more curious aspect of his filmography that shows how different he was, and how much he enjoyed sticking a little satirical thorn into the side of formula.

But really, the subtly offbeat romance is just the springboard off which Keaton launches all kinds of verbal, visual, and situational humor: his attempt to scrounge up a few dollars in the movie theater’s rubbish pile, and later his investigation into the watch’s disappearance, when his ultraliteral interpretation of a guidebook’s injunction to “Shadow your man closely” leads to a sequence of prolonged absurdity. This scene, in which Keaton tails his rival very closely, lets him toy with our perception of film, and question whether they’re seeing it in two or three dimensions. (He returns to this trick with even greater effect during the film’s climactic chase.) It also justifies some of his beloved train-based physical comedy (again, see The General).

This segment constitutes a good demonstration of Keaton’s prowess at staging and executing barely believable chains of cause and effect, yet in reality, it’s just a precursor to the meat of the film, which takes place in its protagonist’s imagination. As he projects himself into a stereotypical Perils of Pauline-esque silent melodrama, Keaton engages in some meta-cinematic playfulness; it doesn’t really have a spot in the film’s narrative, but it’s so cleverly staged that it ceases to matter. It rewrites the film’s ground rules: henceforth, this is not a normal comedy. Things will work the way Buster wants them to.

The protagonist takes up his place as “the crime-crushing criminologist – SHERLOCK JR.,” idealizing himself as suave and authoritative, effortlessly outsmarting a villainous pair of pearl thieves. After a pool game that riffs on the very concept of suspense, the film cuts to the next morning, and the remainder is pretty much one long, brilliant, loving exercise in concrete physics. This is the substance of Buster’s greatness, whether we’re talking about this film, or his other masterpieces like The General or Cops: his ability as a filmmaker to construct ridiculous master plans that would make Rube Goldberg balk, and then as an actor to endure them without flinching.

Watching the last third of Sherlock Jr. is both totally enjoyable on visceral and intellectual levels: you’re overwhelmed both by what you see happening, and by any attempt to fully process it, leading inevitably to the question, “How did he do that?” Ashley and I (and anyone else we’ve asked about it) are still completely baffled by a scene in which Keaton appears to leap through his assistant, into a wall. Sources suggest it’s accomplished via something called a “vampire trap” (from its use in a play version of Polidori’s The Vampire), but this doesn’t explain anything.

Kubrick once said that “if it can be written, or thought, it can be filmed”; I’m not sure where Buster Keaton falls on that spectrum. I’m not sure whether his art is closer to trompe l’oeil painting, or to poetry, or to architecture. He’s a beautiful anomaly. The chase scene in Sherlock Jr. seems to espouse a belief in overarching fate, in Newtonian determinism, in the happy conjunction of man’s actions and the physical laws. In the amusement of the gods, to whom we are “like flies to wanton boys,” as Shakespeare’s Gloucester would put it.

I’m not sure which of these viewpoints Keaton would actually agree with, but some blind faith must be in his unexpressive face as he careens along on the handlebars of a motorcycle without a driver – some willingness to leap before he looks. He injured himself countless times, risked life and limb, put himself in severe physical jeopardy in order to produce visual art with the power to make us laugh. To me, that’s saintly – putting yourself on the chopping block to benefit the rest of humanity.

When I watch the climax to Sherlock Jr., my mind keeps coming back to geometry: the circles, the lines, the angles that come together so flawlessly to yield these movements, where Buster is just one little piece in a huge, dynamic system. His influence has been felt everywhere in physical comedy (perhaps most resonantly in Roadrunner and Coyote), but never equaled. He just had his peerless skill, precision, and the bravura necessary to pull it all off. I’ve seen Sherlock Jr. several times (after all, it’s less than an hour long), and I hope to see it many, many more. With its ageless humor, tightly-packed inventiveness, and near-perfect execution, Sherlock Jr. is one of my favorite movies.

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My Favorite Movies: Night of the Living Dead

The ghouls march together in George Romero's influential classic

I first saw George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968, viewable here) on Halloween morning during my freshman year of college, but the gruesome image you see above had already been in my head for years, since it adorned the empty VHS case my family once possessed. This illustrates the staying power and the measured gore of Romero’s imagery: shot in grainy black and white, it’s not shocking enough to make you jump (at least, not most of the time). But it can creep into the back of your head like a zombie encroaching on your personal space, until next thing you know you’re waking up in a cold sweat from nightmares of those infected teeth clamping down on your naked shoulder. The lasting fear its visuals create is but one side of this scary, clever film.

The plot of Night of the Living Dead is as simple and as bold as its title: the dead rise to eat the living. News reports peppered throughout the film (giving the crisis an air of authenticity) suggest that the problem is regional and spreading; however, the movie’s own little microcosm is a house in rural Pennsylvania whose occupants (seven, and dwindling) are besieged by a ghoulish horde – at first only one lumbering cannibal, but more and more as night falls upon them, growing into a hungry swarm. Under this set-up, Romero tells of human altruism (and selfishness) under extreme pressures, and the horrors of facing an enemy with a human face who doesn’t think or feel.

The first 5-10 minutes of Night focus on two characters, Barbra and Johnny, a brother and sister who visit their father’s grave site out in the country once a year to lay down flowers. The reason, then, for the film’s first action is death, and its remembrance. This theme continues throughout the film – while Johnny speaks dismissively of his father’s memory, it’s the memory of Johnny that paralyzes Barbra through the remaining hour and a half. And inherent in the film’s governing conceit is the fact that the dead are not buried and forgotten; they’re up and about, ready to terrorize the still-living. This casts some irony on Johnny’s arrogance toward the dead, as well as toward his sister’s (vindicated) fear.

The silent figure of destruction looming over Barbra

The opening scene, right up to the introduction of the film’s driving conflict (who appears as a tiny figure stumbling through the background), also goes from a mundane family outing full of sibling patter – albeit an outing to a cemetery, a location marked for horror – to a scene of sudden, blunt danger, where the normal world is intruded upon by violence and chaos.

It’s especially effective because all extraneous elements are discarded until we’re down to brother, sister, graveyard, ghoul. After some brief foreshadowing – Johnny’s oft-repeated line “They’re coming to get you, Barbra!”, delivered in a haunting voice worthy of Karloff – the ghoul attacks, Barbra flees, Johnny is killed, and it all happens quickly and unmomentously, an initial volley out of nowhere in a war that will expand over the course of the film.

In this way, Night of the Living Dead is a horror movie that’s also kind of a rural war movie – a Battle of the Alamo or Custer’s Last Stand against an unexplained, inhuman Other. Humanity, embodied in three men, three women, and a sick young girl, is pitted against a remorseless, single-minded foe it does not understand, and its back is quite literally against the wall. Herein lies much of the situation’s horror: we have the fact that the monsters are superficially human, yet fundamentally different; they are unwilling to reason and seek only to destroy.

The iconically terrifying Karen Cooper: dehumanization and pubescent aggression

Then there’s the gradually implied apocalyptic scale of the disaster which, although somewhat remedied in the end, still throws a pall over hopes for escape by suggesting maybe there is no escape when our own dead can turn on us. It’s a surprisingly bleak movie that throws open the flood gates of mortality and doesn’t really leave a ray of hope, regardless of whether or not the ghouls are eventually exterminated.

This all-consuming fear and hopelessness is especially stark in light of the fact that Night was originally plotted to be a “horror comedy,” in addition to the satirical elements in Romero’s subsequent work, and the spoofs the film has inspired (including a whole series from co-writer John Russo).

But there’s no mistaking the lack of humor, the characters’ increasing levels of panic and anxiety, and the somber aftertaste left by the finale. This is a horror film that embraces the fundamentals of a nightmare: an internal world where agonizing changes can come swiftly and irrevocably, upheaving the previous sociocultural and even physical landscape.

Wartime disaster amidst supernatural horror

And so, like many great horror premises, Night‘s undead onslaught can be read on numerous levels. The film’s low budget and unrefined aesthetic have frequently led it to be compared to Vietnam War reportage, forming an analogy with the aggressive self-preservation and similarly brutal tactics (napalm, guerilla warfare?) present in the human/zombie conflict. And the beauty of the film is that this reading is pretty legitimate, but the viewer can also dip into several other moral and political cross-currents.

For example, while watching it tonight, I started pondering the zombie: driven but uncreative, ignorant of change, prioritizing its hunger over all logic or ethics, it demolishes whatever’s in its path and breaks down human constructions, but can be warded off through well-crafted barriers or especially crafty killing techniques, like Ben’s Molotov cocktails. The zombies do not appear to communicate, feel, or remember – they all simply share a common goal, namely to eat living humans. They’re an enemy without any real ideology, without any strategy, with nothing but an unstoppable desire to break into the house and kill those inside.

One question that repeatedly popped into my head was the relationship between zombies and fascism. They appear to be entropic creatures, with their bodies as well as any organizational structures around them perpetually falling apart. The zombie threat tears into any kinship between their human opponents, splintering what could have been a cooperative team into a group of (mostly) frightened individuals staring down the amorphous menace outside. But they move as one, with dozens of necrotic hands groping at Barbra through the window as if they belonged to one giant organism. In any case, perhaps this could be compared to my deep fear of swarming insects – locusts, flies, etc. – which are motivated more by biological pre-programming than by conscious solidarity.

A militia, humanity's televised organizational reaction to the epidemic

Regardless of how you view the zombies – as a politicized enemy or cultural/biological foreigner – they not only act as the obvious threat, but also instigate the pressures and anxieties within the human group. A majority of screen time, after all, is devoted not to the zombies, but to the humans. And while the zombies act as one, they are split across several axes: racially, Ben (the most proactive of them) is visibly different, although this tension goes entirely unspoken; in terms of gender, Judy and Helen are largely nonfactors (outside of Helen’s role as a mother), while Barbra’s presence is significant mostly due to her inaction and emotional collapse. Harry, the elder of the white males, asserts himself as the patriarch of the cellar, and is incensed by Tom’s (ultimately fatal) decision to follow Ben outside.

Maybe the easiest moral to draw from this situation is the absurdity of division along petty differences when a much more relevant difference (human vs. zombie) is available; this is akin to the Earth vs. the Flying Saucers-type science fiction films of the ’50s, where national boundaries grow blurry when an extraterrestrial threat appears. But the film is far from moralistic, couching its story in the morally ambiguous iconography of Vietnam-era current events (not just war footage, but school and religious protests, assassinations earlier in 1968, etc.).

So this is the genius of Romero’s film: on the surface, it’s just a cheap monster movie, but dig around and it becomes a multivalent hotbed of political and social discourses. And I think the cheapness contributes to its appeal and influence. With just over $100,000, a few guys with some experience making commercials managed to put together a very scary movie with a compelling story. The zombies don’t have Jack Pierce makeup or anything, but they’re nonetheless genuinely frightening, and their ripped shirts and pustule-ridden faces photograph well in black and white.

Race and systems of power in the face of a zombie apocalypse

Zombies (as a number of films have shown) innately lie on the edge between horror and comedy – the gaping faces and moaning probably contribute – but Romero places his securely in the domain of horror. He never studied under Roger Corman, and his lack of Hollywood roots do significantly differentiate his style from the Corman grads’ early films, but nonetheless there is a shared fondness for fear at minimal cost. In Romero, though, it’s married to a penchant for social observation which I think is lacking in Corman’s grandstanding, happily schlocky films (just compare the acting style of Vincent Price to Duane Jones to John Amplas).

In case my discussion has left any doubt, Night of the Living Dead is never really overtly political. It sticks to its title’s drive-in horror roots. But it’s never dumb, nor does it allow its conflict to overwhelm its characters or ideas. I see it as a great Halloween movie, potent at inspiring fear both from its monsters and from its ambiguities. So lie back, watch it, get sucked into the nervous tension, and remember: they’re coming to get you… Barbra. With its gritty, quasi-realistic style, its frightening end-of-days scenario, and its bottomless pool of ideas about humanity and violence, Night of the Living Dead is one of my favorite movies.

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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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