great illusionary delusions

There’s precious little I can say about La grande illusion (Renoir, France, 1936) that hasn’t been said before and likely many times over, so I won’t even try. Like the other Renoir masterpiece Le règle de jeu from a few years later, Illusion is a one of those films perennially at play at the “best ever made” cinephile games; both are films I ended up liking/appreciating more upon reviewings but have yet to genuinely warm up to (this is more or less the case with Renoir in general, unfortunately).

Not that I wasn’t immune to the magisterial depiction of the slow crack-up of the European class system(s) under the weight of the First World War–the film remains the benchmark of how to elegantly delineate the intricate intersections of class status, language, patriotism, illusions (and the inevitable, accompanying disillusions), sacrifice, friendship, and fraternité in a manner that is lucid but never lacks in complexity.  The wary pas de deux between Maréchal and Boleidieu, together lamenting the passing of a centuries-old way of life and their privileged place within it, remain the highlight of the film, so much so that it’s rather impressive Renoir avoided the impulse in making the entire film into some kind of poignant, nostalgic elegy.

But at the same time Renoir also resists turning Jean Gabin (& co.) into idealistic symbols of emerging European populism–even as they trek across shimmering expanses of untrodden snow that seem to beckon a bright new future, it is disquieting how the tensions that occasionally emerge between Gabin (of the French/European working class) and Marcel Dalio (of the prosperous Jewish merchant class) seem to prophetically hint at dark chapters of history soon to unfold.

And while it might be an early depiction of such a situation, from a contemporary standpoint the appearance of haloed Dita Parlo as the shy but sympathetic German hausfrau can’t help but feel a bit like a musty cliché (such was my boyfriend’s criticism), but for me it did end up taking the film to a different dimension of emotional engagement it never quite manages to reach otherwise. Also of note: Rialto’s 75th anniversary restoration is gorgeous–it’s traveling across the country all summer; prioritize it if it’s going to being crossing your path.

[Seen at the Castro Theatre, 06/01/12]

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week in review – 06/18 – 06/24/12

Slow cinematic week, or, more precisely, other priorities.  All first viewings.

Theatrical Viewing

Keep the Lights On (Sachs, USA, 2012) – Frameline at the Castro

The Films of Nathaniel Dorsky: Recent Films Program (USA, 2010–12) – PFA, all 16mm

      • The Visitation (Dorsky, 2002)
      • Threnody (Dorsky, 2004)
      • Song and Solitude (Dorsky, 2006)

Upcoming Possibilities

My Gun is Quick (White, USA, 1957) and The Girl Hunters (Rowland, UK, 1963 – PFA, 06/28

Barbarella (Vadim, Frane/Italy, 1968) – Castro, 06/28

Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (Jires, Czechoslovakia, 1969) – PFA, 06/29

The Connection (Clarke, USA, 1962) – Roxie, 06/29 – 07/01

Roman Holiday (Wyler, USA, 1953) and Sabrina (Wilder, USA, 1954) – Stanford, 06/30 – 07/03

his kind of… man?

“Because, as gays, we grew up isolated not only from our heterosexual peers but also from each other, we turned to the mass media for information and ideas about ourselves… we could use the film–especially those not directly offering us images of ourselves–as we chose.” -Richard Dyer, “Introduction to Gays and Film

As a young queer cinephile, I consider myself lucky to live in a time when it is not particularly difficult to find representations of my own experiences and desires depicted within films, television, and other types of media.  Just last night I had the opportunity to attend a screening at San Francisco’s Frameline Film Festival, the oldest LGBT film festival in existence, and beyond the (excellent) films itself, just the fact of taking part in watching a cinematic depiction of gay lives and relationships along with some 1,400 other individuals was itself an incredibly powerful and moving experience.

But on the other hand, I remain endlessly intrigued about times in the not-so-distant past when this type of situation could hardly be imagined, to say nothing about it actually being a reality. One of my favorite things is to sit and gab with two of my “uncles”–a gay couple now in their late 80’s and early 90’s respectively–and listen to their memories of films and stars from the Hollywood studio era, and, most especially, all the juicy gossip that circulated in gay circles (who cares if it was ever true or not?).  It always fascinates me how vibrant many of these stories and perceptions remain for them, and what shape that they take.  For me, these conversations serve as a vivid demonstration of what queer scholars have been writing about for decades–what Dyer describes in the groundbreaking collection of essays he edited Gays and Film as a kind of “queer bricolage.”  Taking the term directly from French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, he defines “bricolage” as “playing around with the elements available to us in such a way as to bend their meanings to our own purposes.”  Through this process “we could pilfer from straight society’s images on the screen such that would help us build up a subculture, or what Jack Babuscio calls a ‘gay sensibility.'”

Even with increased queer visibility and representation in contemporary cinema and culture, this process hasn’t entirely disappeared, but has now largely takes the form of looking back and attempting to decipher and read the queer coding embedded in the films of the past, often wittily recasting these films in our own image.  Christianne over at Krell Labs provided one of my favorite examples of this in her thoughts regarding the last shots of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, stating that she prefers to think that Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell aren’t in fact marrying their rather dull male suitors, but each other.  Posting an image where Monroe and Russell exchange a meaningful glance as visual demonstration, it’s a marvelous re-reading–and queering–of these image(s).

In this spirit, I wish to offer up my own bricolaged interpretation of a classic film I dearly love.  And funny enough, it also stars Jane Russell–the 1951 pseudo-noir His Kind of Woman (John Farrow, USA, 1951).  Russell co-stars with Robert Mitchum, and this is the first of two films in which she was paired with Mitchum, with the second, Joseph von Sternberg’s Macao from the following year the one most usually remembered (despite being overall the lesser film).  I had never heard of His Kind of Woman before when I checked out the DVD from my local library on a whim, and was immediately charmed by it–Russell and Mitchum make one of my very favorite screen pairings (now there’s a man that’s Russell’s equal!), their banter is bright and witty, the mood and black and white photography is appropriately atmospheric, and there’s the’s one amazing, bravura tracking shot through a vintage 1950’s resort lounge that ranks with the best of Ophüls.  People often cite Vincent Price’s comic relief as one of the film’s chief attributes as well, but I can’t say I’m not particularly fond of it myself.

I had also been disappointed with the unexpected tonal shift the film takes in the final third, with the sly detective yarn transforming into a rather serious action film, involving a villainous Raymond Burr.  But upon writing about the film in honor of Jane Russell’s passing last year, what I had found is that memories of the film had taken a weird turn.  While I couldn’t recall any of the plot details, what had stuck with me was the fact that Mitchum had been captured by a group of thugs, stripped of his shirt, brutally tied up in various positions and whipped, and then the rest of the film involving a barechested Mitchum running around a boat with a gun.  In other words, in my memory the last third of His Kind of Woman became something akin to a gay S&M video.  And judging from some of the original promotional material, I might not be the only one:

[It can’t just be me–there is something a bit visually odd about an exclamatory “His Kind of Woman!” seeming to caption an image of a shirtless and supine Mitchum, right?]

For this blogathon I decided to revisit the film to see if my memories held up; I’m not sure if I’m exactly surprised to find it’s ever gayer than I remembered.  So what I present below is a series of images that represents the queerly bricolaged memory version of His Kind of Woman–an aggressively heterosexual title that methinks doth protest a bit too much!

His Kind of… Man? 

Starring:

Jane: “Do you have something to tell me?”

Robert: …

Cut.

Jane: “How about now?”

Robert: …

Cut.

Vincent: “This coat?  Yes, isn’t it fabulous?  By the way, I have some friends you should meet.”

Cut.

Robert: “Err, this isn’t exactly the type of party I had in mind.”

Raymond: “Can’t I at least get a kiss?”

Mitchum: …

Robert: “That’s a big… gun you have.”

“This isn’t exactly what I signed up for.”

Fade out.

Jane: “So did you have a good time last night?

Robert: “You don’t even want to know.”

Swelling music and final fadeout.

THE END.

Make sure to check out Garbo Laughs and Pussy Goes Grrr for all of the other blogathon posts–there’s lots of great stuff to read!

pretending on a precipice

[This film played in the Roxie Theater‘s film noir festival “I Wake Up Dreaming: The French Have a Name for It.”  It played in a triple bill with Detour and Une si jolie petite plage.]

The Pretender (USA, 1947), directed by W. Lee Wilder–Billy’s older brother–is a rather nasty piece of work, as thematically uncomfortable as it is visually ravishing. The film involves a slimy financier (Albert Dekker) who embezzles money from a beautiful heiress (Catherine Craig) who trusts him unquestioningly; as personal financial losses quickly pile up for Dekker’s character he scrambles to cover his tracks with a desperation that becomes closer and closer to outright hysteria.  Along the way he implicates himself in a series of shady underworld dealings and, most insidiously, attempts to marry the unsuspecting Craig for her money.

When a mafia deal goes awry, Dekker finds himself inadvertently caught up in a potentially deadly trap of his own devising, and the film embarks on a perilous balancing act,
negotiating the audience’s desire to have him get his comeuppance for his generally villainous actions with the impulse of wanting him to escape punishment for a crime he didn’t actually commit.  Once again, what distinguishes this Republic production is the gorgeous and complex lighting schemes and visual effects provided by John Alton; the score also heavily features the theramin–apparently among the first to do so–which is used to creepy, nightmarish effect.  Another nifty demonstration of what can be accomplished on a tight budget and a bit (a lot?) of creativity.

week(s) in review – 06/04 – 06/17/12

I didn’t realize I had forgotten to post an update last week!  Busy viewing weeks too.  All first viewings unless otherwise noted.

Theatrical

The Color Wheel (Perry, USA, 2012) – Roxie Theater, 35mm

Daisies (Chytilová, Czechoslovakia, 1966) – PFA, 35mm; 3rd viewing

Nightwatching (Greenaway,UK/Netherlands/ Poland/Canada, 2007) – PFA, 35mm

Moonrise Kingdom (W. Anderson, USA, 2012) – Metreon, Digital

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (Hawks, USA, 1953) – Stanford, 35mm; 5th(?) viewing

The Films of Nathaniel Dorsky: Recent Films Program – PFA, all 16mm:

  • August and After (Dorsky, 2012)
  • The Return (Dorksy, 2011)
  • Pastourelle (Dorsky, 2010)
  • Compline (Dorsky, 2010)
  • Aubade (Dorsky, 2010)
  • Sarabande (Dorsky, 2009)
  • Winter (Dorsky, 2008)

Home Viewing

The Thin Red Line (Malick, USA, 1998) – Projected Blu-ray

Let Me Die a Woman (Wishman, USA, 1978) –  Projected Digital Streaming (Fandor)

The Silver Screen: Color Me Lavender (Rappaport, USA, 1997) – Projected Digital Streaming (Fandor)

John Garfield (short) (Rappaport, USA, 2002) – Projected Digital Streaming (Fandor)

The Secret of Wendel Samson (short) (M. Kuchar, USA, 1966) – Projected Digital Streaming (Fandor)

The Color of Love (short) (Ahwesh, 1994) – Projected Digital Streaming (Fandor

The Soul of Things (short) (Angerame, 2010) – Projected Digital Streaming (Fandor

Upcoming Possibilities

Keep the Lights On (Sachs, USA, 2012) – Frameline at the Castro, 06/20

Rio Bravo (Hawks, USA, 1959) – Stanford Theatre, 06/20 – 24

The Fallen Sparrow (Wallace, USA, 1943) – PFA, 06/23

The Films of Nathaniel Dorsky: Recent Films (USA, 2010–12) – PFA, 06/24


shadowy terrors on a budget

[Shadow of Terror played in the Roxie Theater‘s film noir festival “I Wake Up Dreaming: The French Have a Name for It.”  It played in a double bill with Storm Over Lisbon (1944).]

Affable enough and at a briskly-paced 60 minutes not long enough to ever outstay its welcome, Shadow of Terror (Lew Landers, USA, 1945) is an ultra-cheapie PRC production clearly made on a non-existent budget, and features a convoluted mess of a plot that involves amnesia (that old chestnut), government secrets, a tortured romance, and mistaken identities.  Once again, this isn’t really noir per se, but rather a gritty little black and white production that fits unobtrusively into a larger overview of the historical and stylistic movement.  However, rather contrary to traditional noir associations it prominently features Emmett Lynn as a folksy, knee-slapping prospector type (he plays a rancher here), and, more memorably, the action largely takes place in expansive rural spaces, and a sweltering, desolate desert is effectively used as a tool for physical and emotional torture by the main villain and his sadistic henchmen.

But the film primarily remains notable today for one reason: because of its quick filming schedule–a mere seven days or so–it was able to insert at the very last minute government footage of atomic test blasts in New Mexico was spliced into the ending, and get the film into theaters just days after the bombing of Japan which brought World War II to a swift close.  It must have seemed ultra prescient at the time of its release with its “ripped from the headlines!”quality, but today this otherwise generic little espionage flick boasts of a climax that brings to mind both the harrowing implications of the last moments of Kiss Me Deadly and–because it is so abruptly and strangely integrated into the overall film–the darkly surrealistic humor of Dr. Strangelove.

june is queer cinema month!

Who needs Pride when June is shaping up to be a non-stop celebration of all things queer cinema?  Not only is there an LGBT blogathon happening now over at YAM Magazine, but one starts next week over at Garbo Laughs, and as of today Fandor is hosting its own LGBT “festival” that I put together!

Frameline Film Festival, the longest running LGBT film festival kicks off today here in San Francisco, and to coincide I was asked by Keyframe: the Fandor Blog to curate my own queer film “festival” out of films from their archive.  I specifically set the goal of seeking out films beyond the site’s genre tag and of finding ways to include not only a wide variety of film types (features, shorts, documentaries, etc) but to demonstrate my firm belief that “queer cinema” can and does involve much more than the simple inclusion of a prominent LGBT character or storyline.  It turned out to be an intensely pleasurable experience, and I’m very happy with how it all came out.  It gave me a both chance to revisit some old favorites (Happy Together, And Then There Were None) and make some really wonderful new discoveries (Mike Kuchar’s The Secret of Wendel Samson, Doris Wishman’s Let Me Die a Woman).  Please check it out!  And if you’re not already familiar with Fandor and its streaming services, you can try it out a no-obligations free trial for two weeks.  But don’t just take my word for it–let Roger Ebert tell you what a great service it is!

And as my submission to the YAM Magazine LGBT Blogathon, I include (and expand upon) the notes of a Mark Rappaport double bill that ended up getting cut from the Keyframe article.

RE-ROUTE OF THE PAST: A MARK RAPPAPORT DOUBLE BILL

In an insightful interview with filmmaker and scholar Mark Rappaport, Jonathan Rosenbaum claims that Rappaport “virtually invented a new form of film criticism” with his witty and erudite documentaries Rock Hudson’s Home Movies (USA, 1992) and The Silver Screen: Color Me Lavender (USA, 1997).  Indeed, both films serve as wickedly clever and irreverent re-readings of orthodox–and resolutely heteronormative–film histories.  The aim of these two films is to reveal the queer resonances subtly (or often not-so-subtly) embedded within classic cinema.  In the wake of Rock Hudson’s very public coming out and death from AIDs in 1985, Rappaport scans back through the actor’s extensive filmography, and begins to reveal that far from being some unknown secret, Hudson’s closeted sexuality seems to manifest itself in countless ways throughout his decades-spanning filmography.  “It’s not like it wasn’t up there on the screen,” narrator Eric Farr intones in the introduction of the film, “if you watched the films carefully.”  The was vividly re-confirmed for me at a screening of Sirk’s glorious Written on the Wind at the Castro Theatre just last week: early on in the film, Hudson sullenly looks on Robert Stack courts Lauren Bacall, and Stack suddenly commands “go look in the closet!”  The audience spontaneously erupted in affectionate laughter and applause.  The situation reoccurred several times throughout the evening.

The Silver Screen: Color Me Lavender is more ambitious in its scope, unmasking the queerness in a diverse array of Hollywood and European films made before 1970 or so (I’ll always love it for introducing me to the whacky little gem Desert Fury–as I wrote, the film has to be seen to be believed!).  The film also details the sexually ambiguous screen personas of a diverse array of actors, ranging from matinee idols–and rumored lovers–Cary Grant and Randolph Scott to comedians like Bob Hope, Jerry Lewis, and Danny Kaye, and on to supporting characters such as Walter Brennan and the “sissies” of 1930’s Hollywood cinema such as Eric Blore and Edward Everett Horton.  Of course there’s quite a bit of taking clips and quips out of context, and much of the effect comes from the narrator’s coy lead-ons that color the viewer’s perception, but that’s a great part of the charm and campy fun of it all.  But it’s Rappaport’s consistent daring to go there is what makes his films so illuminating and, sometimes, truly profound.

Rappaport’s presentation of the material has proved to be a stumbling block for some–the flat, uncharismatic Farr featured in Home Movies is widely reviled, and I’ve read dismissals of the lo-fi, home video aspect films.  But the lo-fi quality is exactly what I find most endearing about Rappaport’s entire enterprise–it’s like partaking in the obsessions of a slightly mad but brilliant cinephile nestled in their darkened bedroom, poring over stacks of VHS and dupes taped off of TCM (or AMC, back in the day) and then scanning and rescanning through beloved old films until they seem to be revealing their long-held secrets.  As a queer viewer myself, I view these films as dazzling displays of queer bricolage, of cobbling together disparite elements that reveal and/or create new narratives to serve our own purposes, and manipulate them until they begin tell our own stories and mirror our own desires and dreams.  And as Rappaport reveals, it wasn’t all that difficult to do–the latent queer impulses were always there, we just had to be on the lookout for them.
 
Make sure to click on the banner above to check out a number of posts on a wide, fascinating array of queer-related topics!

tempest in a portuguese teacup

[Storm Over Lisbon played in the Roxie Theater‘s film noir festival “I Wake Up Dreaming: The French Have a Name for It.”  It played in a double bill with Shadow of Terror (1945).]

Storm Over Lisbon (1944, USA, George Sherman) is often billed as Poverty Row’s remake of Casablanca, and it’s an apt characterization.  This time around the wide array of desperate individuals attempting to procure papers to escape World War are stranded in neutral Portugal, but if the iconic Curtiz film was indeed the original point of reference, its tendency is towards the film’s melodramatic impulses rather than the Epstein Brothers’s elegant wit.  Eric von Stroheim imperiously presides over a labyrinthine Art Deco-ish hotel/nightclub that also covertly functions as a broker house for international war secrets and negotiations, setting the stage the criss-crossing fates of such “colorful” eccentrics such as Richard Arlen, Robert Livingston, Otto Kruger, and, most memorably,
the film’s spectacularly awkward leading lady, former champion ice skater Vera Hruba Ralston.  Her ice queen character is supposed to be one of the best dancers in Europe,  which is supposed to justify a lengthy nightclub dance sequence where she performs a routine featuring bizarrely spastic Orientalism-meets-Martha-Graham choreography, and as it goes on and on and on–it must have been some ten minutes or so–it starts to become rather entrancing in its surrealistic awfulness (when the routine threatens to occur yet again at the end of the film the entire theater simultaneously erupted in laughter, the most inadvertently memorable moment of the screening).

The film’s chief attribute, as the Roxie’s series proved again and again, is John Alton’s characteristically lovely and expressive black and white photography, and it is Alton’s noir credentials that merited its inclusion in this festival at all–otherwise there’s hardly a noir-ish thing about it.  Also of note is the striking set, which is very shrewdly utilized–the chaotic plots entanglements involving an overwhelmingly dense array of minor characters creates a series of complex spacial arrangements that brought to mind the (vastly superior, of course) La Règle de jeu, with its constantly shifting planes of physical and social interaction in cavernous hallways and on staircases; Storm also includes a hidden elevator, which is strikingly utilized at several key moments of the film. But in the end it unfortunately doesn’t amount to a whole lot–the actors playing the “good guys” aren’t nearly good enough to compensate for thinly written characters, and it’s impossible not to react to the big reveal and send-off at the end with more than an indifferent shrug.  “Merely a tempest in a teacup” the The New York Times‘s anonymous reviewer claimed at the time of its release, and that about sums everything up, even if it quite fails to convey the minor pleasures the film offers along the way.

don’t mess with ms. crawford’s jewels

What The Last of Mrs. Cheyney (Boleslawski and Arzner, USA, 1937) has going for it is Joan Crawford, still in the stage of her career when she was sleek and rather sexy in an overly stylized, Art Deco kind of way.  The story itself–a remake of a popular Norma Shearer vehicle from less than a decade earlier and would be remade once again in the 1950’s with Greer Garson–is ridiculous, forgettable nonsense, involving Crawford as an ambitious American girl pulling herself up by her boostraps via less-than-legal means (she’s a jewel thief, in league with William Powell), using her sex appeal and charisma to charm her way into the homes of the British aristocracy.  In a completely unsurprising twist Crawford is revealed to be a “bad” girl with a heart of gold, which all leads up to a climactic breakfast-table showdown that allows her to unveil the inherent hypocrisy of her newly adopted, moneyed set (the moral of the story: everyone has a sordid little secret to hide!).  Indeed.

There’s one really great, memorable scene at about the midway point where Crawford’s true identity is wordlessly revealed, and Mrs. Cheyney’s household turns out to be quite different than it originally seemed.  It’s a rare clever moment in a film clearly striving for the sparkling, witty hijinks-among-jewel-thieves joie de vivre exemplified by Lubitsch’s Trouble in Paradise.  The grand MGM luxe treatment, however, gives the glossiness a lumbering heaviness that prevents it from ever quite getting off the ground; it’s also burdened by the necessity of instilling a neat moral lesson.  But it’s overall a painless experience, and often quite enjoyable in its own minor way.

visions of a city: the maltese falcon

The great irony, of course, is that even though The Maltese Falcon (John Huston, USA, 1941) remains one of the most iconic depictions of San Francisco in all of cinema, none of it was actually shot in the city.  Rather, the depiction of the city was constructed through stock footage and sophisticated studio shooting in and around Los Angeles (it has been widely noted, for example, that in the scene of the pier “LAFD” can be clearly seen on the firemen’s helmets).

But what Huston’s film lacks in authenticity is compensated through what Nathaniel Rich characterizes as an “extraordinary, even obsessive, attention to the city’s geography,” and indeed, the film goes to great lengths to always remind the viewer of the narrative’s intimate involvement within the labyrinthine streets, alleyways, and shadowy corners of the city.