presenting ms. kenyon

So for a while I thought that Daisy Kenyon (Otto Preminger, USA, 1947) was just kinda dull, but upon reaching the halfway mark I began to become more and more impressed with what I started vaguely perceiving as a rather sophisticated dissection of romantic politics—this is the rare kind of film that genuinely seems to have an adult audience in mind in regards to the narrative elements it opts to focus on and explicate. There’s something that struck me as almost proto-Antonionian in the ways its central romantic triangle (Joan Crawford, Dana Andrews and Henry Fonda) thrash about emotionally under elegant and seemingly placid surfaces. The film is ostensibly concerned with that evergreen “woman’s picture” dilemma—hard-fought independence or domestic security?—which is complicated by a subtle but haunting realization that this narrative is less about the titular character deciding which man will give her true love than a depiction of three people desperately trying to pull themselves out of deadened emotional states—and fully willing to sacrifice each other to do so. It seems universally accepted that Crawford was to old for this role and fans have waged elaborate apologias to justify her casting, but I thought she was genuinely well suited for the role of Daisy—sure, a luscious ingénue-type would have helped explain what is now the inexplicable sexual attraction of the two male leads, but it would have completely altered the underlying dynamic of the film, which seems less to me about mere sex or even love than finding a way to avoid the ache of loneliness and stasis and ennui. Anyway, since its recent release on DVD—which I believe makes it widely available for the first time—internet critics have desperately fallen all over themselves hailing this as a forgotten masterpiece of classic Hollywood melodrama, but I can’t help but feel it might be undergoing the canonization process for the wrong reasons, though I’m admittedly unable to articulate what those reasons exactly are. Still, whatever the underlying motivations, this is certainly a weird and weirdly admirable film, well deserving of the reevaluation it has seemed to have recently sparked.


things that go bump in the night

I’ve realized recently that sometimes the value of watching so-called “canonical” films has less to do with watching a great film than the exhilaration of witnessing seeds be planted that will only fully flower in later, sometimes much better films. Or at least that was how I felt while watching both Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (Robert Wiene, Germany, 1920) and Nosferatu (F.W. Murnau, Germany, 1922) in quick succession, neither which are particularly great shakes as modern movie experiences. But both were and continue to remain important films simply because in them one sees some of the great, enduring images and myths of cinema tentatively but decisively taking shape as the flickering, soundless images of each film unspools. Of the two I would probably call Caligari the “better” film, if only for the angular, now-iconic labyrinth of German Expressionism the film’s creaky plot loses itself in, and also because I was shocked to find how the unexpected “twist” ending managed to throw this supposedly “sophisticated” modern viewer for a complete loop, forcing an immediate reevaluation of what I had written off as a largely inconsequential plot. Murnau’s shameless and wholesale appropriation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula unfortunately and rather unfairly suffered severely in comparison to Dreyer’s Vampyr which I fell in love with last year—Murnau’s reputation had led me to expect more poetry, and alas there was very little to be found among the extremely broad characterizations and rather perfunctory ticking-off of the plot (there are a few dazzling moments however—the macabre beauty of the procession of coffins being slowly carried through the street of the plagued city sent a shiver down my spine). But what is great, what is still so very important about both of these films is of course its “monsters,” the horrible, the pitiful Cesare and Nosferatu respectively. Young Conrad Veidt’s Cesare, all long, lithe lines of the male body clad in black and shadows, who despite being in a somnambulistic state stalks his victims with a breathtaking, ballet-like grace, is revealed to be less a monster than a victim in sad-clown makeup; despite the misshapen, practically mummified body that seems to render him staid and encumbered, I was shocked how the stasis of Max Shreck’s Nosferatu made him shockingly elegant, his sinuous claws slowly unfurling with the languid grace of a sea anemone in water.  Today neither of these iconic screen phantoms are frightening per se, but ensconced in their silent, flickery cinematic states, they remain deeply, almost indescribably eerie, even uncanny, their influence undeniably continues to drip quietly, unceasingly into the modern consciousness…