Tag Archives: sunset blvd.

Ready for her close-up

She’s the woman who gave one of my favorite performances of all time, in one of my favorite movies of all time. (I also liked her in DeMille’s Male and Female.) She is big. It’s the pictures that got small. She’s Gloria Swanson, and she was born 112 years ago today! Happy birthday!

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Horror is everywhere (2)

Jumping off from last week’s post about horror’s influence across genres, national boundaries, and levels of respectability, I’m going to look at a very specific subset of horror-related images. If you saw my special announcement last night, you’ll know that I have a personal interest in the connection between femininity and monstrosity. And that’s just what I’ve got for you! Culled from the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They? list of the 1,000 most critically acclaimed films, here are female monsters in established classics from around the globe…

Rashomon (1950) – TSPDT ranking: #18

OK, so maybe the medium from Rashomon isn’t technically a “monster,” but this is still a terrifying moment. In order to extract testimony from a dead samurai, the court interviews a medium channeling his spirit, and his voice emanates from her like Mercedes McCambridge speaking through Linda Blair. The way she writhes and contorts just compounds the creepiness. As you’ll see later in this list, 1950s jidai-geki (samurai movies) are often informed by medieval Japanese mythology; witches and ghosts frequently intrude on secular affairs. And, although it was inspired by Shakespeare’s very scary Macbeth, similar horror motifs also show up in Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood (1957).

Sunset Blvd. (1950) – TSPDT ranking: #31

Besides being easily one of the greatest films ever made, Billy Wilder’s bitter paean to tinseltown is also a brilliant genre hybrid, mixing black comedy, film noir, and horror. All three are visible in the image above, as faded movie star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) sinks deeper into delusion. By the end of the film, her tics and grandiose gestures have consumed her, and she looks grotesquely vampiric as she gazes into that mirror – teeth bared, nostrils flared, and face tilted upward. Swanson’s makeup exaggerates her facial features, turning her visage into a monstrous mask, and she completes the transformation with her unhinged, incomparable performance. Earlier in the film, Cecil B. DeMille (playing himself) remarks, “A dozen press agents working overtime can do terrible things to the human spirit.” Norma is the monster; Hollywood’s publicity machine (aided by Erich von Stroheim as Max, the servant/ex-lover) is Dr. Frankenstein.

(For the “Sunset Blvd. as horror” argument, it’s worth remembering that the film contains a monkey in a casket.)

Persona (1966) – TSPDT ranking: #42

Let me put it this way: in Ingmar Bergman’s Persona, Elisabet (Liv Ullmanm) is a fucking vampire. OK, maybe she doesn’t literally suck the blood of her nurse Alma (Bibi Andersson), but she’s still an emotional vampire. She listens to Alma pour her heart out about past affairs, insecurities, etc., and says absolutely nothing, pretty much draining her of identity. With such an ambiguous, atmospheric movie, it’s hard to put it all into concrete terms, but believe me: she’s a vampire. During this scene, she sneaks into Alma’s room while she’s sleeping and they have a very weird, sensual, late-night interlude together. It’s never clear exactly what Elisabet’s doing, but in his own artful way, Bergman is definitely borrowing from the visual language of horror movies. He may have only made one or two “real” horror movies in his career, but the genre was always lurking right under the surface of his austere, spiritual experiments.

Ugetsu Monogatari – TSPDT ranking: #47

To be blunt about it, Kenji Mizoguchi’s lyrical masterpiece is one long ghost story, complete with a twist ending (and emotional sucker punch) that anticipated The Sixth Sense by half a century. Like Rashomon and Onibaba, it takes place against a backdrop of warfare and its collateral damage in medieval Japan. Here, an ambitious potter forgets his wife and son when he’s entranced by a beautiful noblewoman, Lady Wakasa (Machiko Kyo, the wife from Rashomon). Granted, she’s a conniving, undead femme fatale with her fair share of ulterior motives, but Kyo also imbues her with a slightly tragic, pathetic quality. Also, note how the Buddhist prayers scrawled on the potter’s body would be repeated a decade later in the Citizen Kane of Japanese horror movies, Masaki Kobayashi’s Kwaidan (1964).

The Wizard of Oz (1939) – TSPDT ranking: #66

This is perhaps the classic example of kindertrauma-inflicting nightmare fuel. Every little kid is told about Dorothy and Toto and the Emerald City, and how they’re going to love this fun, cute movie… and then this green-faced harridan lunges out of a cloud of smoke, and the little kids start wetting themselves. This isn’t the worst of it, either; just wait till later on, when she’s flinging balls of flame and ordering around an army of flying monkeys. Margaret Hamilton is perfectly cast as the pointy-nosed old lady everybody loves to hate. She’s just so evil – and garish, and histrionic, and anti-fun – and she wields black magic to enforce her dictatorial reign over Oz. She’s many a child’s first worst nightmare.

Vampires, ghosts, and witches are all over the place, in Hollywood classics and art film masterpieces. I’ll be back with more “Horror is everywhere” next week!

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Opening Pandora’s Box

In honor of The Film Experience’s most recent entry in its “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” series, I’m finally going to talk about the woman whose visage graces the Pussy Goes Grrr banner. That’s right: we’re going to look at the quintessential flapper Louise Brooks and her best-remembered role – as Lulu in G.W. Pabst’s Pandora’s Box (1929), or Die Büchse der Pandora if you know German. The challenge of the “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” series is, fittingly, to pick your favorite shot from the film in question. Therefore, I’ve picked a single image to summarize how I feel about this movie. I decided to go minimalist.

This shot comes midway through the film, as Lulu lingers around the home of her now-dead lover Dr. Schön. She hears his son, Alwa, in the next room, and sneaks in on him, dressed only in her bathrobe. But before she does her sneaking, she peeks her head into the doorway and glances in. Her expression slowly changes from one of carefree curiosity to the seductive grin you see above. I just love how she’s occupying this in-between space, getting her act ready (Lulu’s always performing), about to descend upon Alwa.

Pabst’s complex, shifting mise-en-scène does such a great job of visualizing the terms of the film’s conflicts. Here, for example, we’ve got a single vertical line splitting the frame, concealing Lulu’s all-too-desirable body. It’s like a curtain about to rise. This image has other metaphorical implications that I like: 1) the opening door is obviously reminiscent of a certain mythical, evil-releasing act associated with Lulu, and 2) it’s a sign of how easily Lulu is able to navigate the confines of Pabst’s frame. This is a movie about an unstoppable force (Lulu) bypassing one immovable object after another. Lulu’s ease of movement reminds me of Chaplin in Modern Times; they’re both surprisingly capable of moving through crowds, social entanglements, and geopolitical boundaries.

I really enjoyed this shot from early in the film because it demonstrates the sheer energy and the unmatchable vivacity that Brooks brought to this role. Like other great silent actors/actresses, she could express herself visually as clearly as if she’d used her mouth. No words are necessary when you’ve got body language like Louise Brooks. Her physicality, her audacity, and her eroticism all bypass verbal self-expression entirely; throughout the film, she communicates strictly on a visual level.

This facet of her performance, in concert with Günther Krampf’s textured, gorgeous photography, make Pandora’s Box a supremely sensual film. Many of the male characters self-righteously complain about Lulu’s promiscuity, but ultimately everyone wants her to open that box. All their hypocrisies are proven false by the raw, beautiful power of Brooks’ performance. It’s a performance with so many subtexts; it’s one that encapsulates so many of the moral and sexual dilemmas of the 1920s, both in Germany and the United States. Brooks as Lulu takes every option into consideration.

This image looks almost like a religious ceremony in progress, as the Countess’s fixation on Lulu makes the rest of the party recede into the background. This moment, like so many in Pandora’s Box, is all about desire, and Pabst shows this with silence in ways that wouldn’t work with sound. If it had been made a couple years later, so many of the film’s subtleties would’ve been crushed under torrents of crackly dialogue and ambient noise. But, working at the tail end of the silent era, Pabst and his team turned out one of the most profoundly sensual, sexual films of that or any time.

Louise Brooks’ performance as Lulu calls to mind Norma Desmond’s famous battle cry: “We didn’t need dialogue. We had faces!” And what a face! Pandora’s Box is great erotic melodrama and social commentary, but above all it’s a triumph of iconography. Lulu is a mystery to the men around her, a fluctuating set of behaviors and whims, and since she’s a consummate silent actress, it’s all made manifest in her face. I’ll end with an image of an image; it suggests that no matter how often Lulu is treated as an object of the male gaze, they can never truly know her. She’s just unknowable. She’s Lulu. And she’s Louise Brooks.


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