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!

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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!

several thoughts on “suspicion” to support film preservation

This post serves as my contribution to the 3rd annual For the Love of Film: A Film Preservation Blogathon.  This year we are attempting to raise funds to digitize and record an original score for the recently rediscovered The White Shadow, the earliest film the young Alfred Hitchcock was known to work on.  You can read all about the mission of this blogathon here.  And as this is the final day of our fundraising efforts and we have a long way to go to make our goal, please consider clicking on the banner to the right and making a donation in support of The White Shadow and film preservation in general.

…..

Given the chance to write about something connected to the celebrated Hitchcock filmography and mythology, I decided to take the opportunity to revisit a film of his I hadn’t seen in years, the early Hollywood effort Suspicion (1941).  I first saw the film during the first bloom of my cinephilia and I was trying to get my hands on anything Hitchcock-related, and like most people I found it pretty underwhelming.  But it’s a film that stuck with me, vaguely, and it rather inexplicably began to move up in my estimation over the years, particularly as I began to be more intrigued by the rare films that seemed to elude the master director’s iron grip (as opposed to his much more than his much-loved–and much discussed–masterpieces).  Returning to the film a decade or so down the line, I was curious how my memories would hold up.

Within the context of the Hitchcock canon, Suspicion is a film with an odd reputation.  It is almost unanimously considered second tier, but rarely characterized as an outright failure.  The film as a whole is seldom discussed, but individual elements and scenes–most particularly the illuminated milk glass–are among the most discussed of Hitchcock’s career.  And somehow it just doesn’t seem to inspire partisan reappraisals like some of Hitch’s other flawed films, such as the much-later Marnie (a film with a surprising number of similarities to Suspicion).

And how did I find Suspicion this time around?  In short, it’s both a better and less interesting film than I remembered.  But let me explain.

01)  Unfortunately, the moments I most remembered from the film were the atypical ones.  Most particularly, the image that stuck with me over the years was of two figures–Lina (Joan Fontaine) and Johnnie (Cary Grant)–compositionally stranded on a barren, wind-blown hillside as the wind whips savagely around them.  It’s actually an even better sequence than I had remembered, part of one of the two truly masterful moments in the film.  The scene opens after Johnnie convinces Lina to join him and several busybody neighbors for a church service, but at the last moment entices the reluctant Lina to skip the service and take a walk within him instead.  As they are about to enter the church the neighbors finally notice Lina and Johnnie’s absence and spin around to face an idyllic, Thomas Kinkade-esque–and distinctly empty–rural scene.  Then an abrupt, disorienting cut brings the viewer to the lonely hillside, in the midst of what at first seems to be an attempted murder, but in typical Hitchcockian fashion, the scenes quickly turns out to be something quite different altogether.  It’s a tactic employed throughout the entire film.

I said that it was “unfortunate” that this was the image immediately above that lingered because it led me to (mis)remember the film as being a bit more spare and much more abstract than the film actually is.  To be quite honest, I was rather hoping for Suspicion to turn out to be Hitch’s equivalent to Renoir’s Woman on the Beach (the film I wrote about at length for last year’s Film Preservation Blogathon), a film I’ve come to love dearly because of its flawed, studio-mishandled nature.  Which leads me directly to:

02)  Hitchcock’s later statements came to define the film, but they’re largely not true.  In his celebrated interview with François Truffaut, Hitchcock speaks at length about what he characterizes as an unequivocally botched conclusion:

Truffaut: “…you referred to Suspicion and said that the producers would have objected to Cary Grant being the killer.  If I understand correctly, you’d have preferred that he be the guilty one.”

Hitchcock:  “Well, I’m not to pleased with the way Suspicion ends.  I had something else in mind.”

Hitchcock then goes into great detail about the ending he had originally imagined: that Johnnie would indeed murder Lina, with the twist that his wife is well aware of the fact, and willingly drinks the poisoned milk he gives her.  And in a characteristically witty Hitchcockian twist, the film would conclude with a shot of Johnnie mailing a letter Lina had earlier asked him to post, unaware that its content details all of her suspicions about the murder, and justifying her reasons for allowing herself to be killed.

There’s hardly anything written about Suspicion that doesn’t relate this tale, and his daughter Patricia dutifully repeats the story for the featurette included on the film’s DVD release.  But as Rick Worland has written about in great detail in the essay Before and After the Fact: Writing and Reading Hitchcock’s Suspicion,” the anecdote doesn’t hold up when scrutinized through the surviving archival material.  While there were certainly doubts about how to conclude the film well into production–something rather atypical for Hitchcock–and there were indeed objections to Grant playing a murderer, there is no trace in any draft of the scripts of the conclusion Hitchcock related decades later.  Which is not to say that the Hitchcock later projected isn’t far superior to the abrupt, unconvincing conclusion the film ended up with, because it certainly is.

03)  Not only is Suspicion not abstract in the way I had remembered it, stylistically it’s a surprisingly fussy film.  Because of the presence of Joan Fontaine, Suspicion is usually thought of as a failed retread/follow-up to Rebecca, made the year before to great acclaim (and an Oscar for Best Picture).  In fact, many say that Fontaine’s Oscar win for her performance in Suspicion was actually intended compensation for her loss to Ginger Rogers the year before.  And there are indeed many parallels that can be drawn between Rebecca and Suspicion–Fontaine plays similar, spinsterish characters in both, both films deal with innocent wives oppressed by charismatic (and wrongfully accused) husbands, very British in atmosphere (despite their Hollywood productions), and melodramatic in a way that make them, quite frankly, probably the closest thing Hitchcock ever got to making so-called “women’s pictures.”

The difference is that Rebecca had an underlying sense of menace and potential violence–to say nothing of one of the most memorable villains in the Hitchcock canon in the figure of Mrs. Danvers–that constantly punctures the delicately dream-like quality of the film; Suspicion instead relies on moments of intense psychological cruelty that are rather excruciating to watch (particularly as Fontaine meekly bears each humiliation), as well Nigel Bruce’s tittering, screwball-ish attempt at comic relief that just never quite finds a rhythm that works within the overall context of the film.  And to make matters worse, the score by the (usually magnificent) Franz Waxman is frilly in a way that contributes to a cluttered style that seems distinctly un-Hitchcockian.

04)  On the other hand, there’s a luminescent quality to stretches of the film that are visually stunning.  From the satin upholstery of the bedroom to the glitter of sequins on Lina’s gowns to the couple’s matching silk bedclothes–I bet watching a good 35mm print of this film can be downright magical at moments.

05) And on second thought, the intricate lighting–compliments of Harry Stradling Sr.–occasionally make the combined gorgeousness of Fontaine and Grant reach heights of nearly inhuman beauty.

06)  I have to agree with George Cukor’s assessment, recorded many decades later, that “Joan Fontaine g[ives]the most extraordinary performance” in the film.  And of all people, Cukor should be qualified to tell such things.

07)  But Cary Grant, unfortunately, is not so good.  It’s a role in the same vein as Notorious, but where that later role brilliantly mixes passion, cruelty, and an implacable aloofness, Johnnie is manic in a way that is downright disturbing (and in turn undermines the film’s final revelations).  In many ways, Grant seems to be attempting to shoehorn one of his much-admired comedic performances into the character of a possible murderer, and his trademark charm turns rancid in a disquieting way.

08)  The “big” scene is as memorable as everybody says it is.  If the unexpected cut described earlier constitutes Suspicion‘s first great moment, the sequence where Grant ascends the circular staircase with an incandescent glass of milk, with the shadows evocatively criss-cross into a chilling web and the camera elegantly careening to keep page with Grant’s ascent, is among the great moments in the Hitchcock canon.

As I noted earlier, Suspicion is one of the rare flawed Hitchcock films that doesn’t seem to inspire the occasional passionate defense; I was rather hoping I was going to be compelled to compose one myself.  But that’s not the way things worked out, which means that for now I Confess maintains its spot as my personal pick for the master director’s most underrated film.

And once again, please consider making a contribution to support film preservation.

announcement

vertigo film preservation blogathon banner

…and it’s an expensive one as well.  Which is why I’m excited to participate again in the annual For the Love of Film: The Film Preservation Blogathon, slated this year for May 13 – 18.  Describing this year’s project, the Self Styled Siren says that “we are working to get a piece of film history out there for everyone to see, with a score that’s worthy of its importance.”  That bit of film history is no less than getting a score recorded for and digitizing The White Shadow, the silent film that a young Alfred Hitchcock worked extensively on that caused quite a stir when it was rediscovered in New Zealand the year before last. Details of the entire project are spelled out in detail over at This Island Rod, and while I wish we were doing something that directly involved celluloid preservation, film preservation in general is an endlessly worthy topic that always needs a higher profile.  That, and I had a great time composing my contributions last year, which can be read here and here.

So with that, see you in May!

White Shadow Hitchcock
Still from “The White Shadow”

boarding school erotics: “olivia” and “mädchen in uniform”

This post is a contribution to the Queer Film Blogathon, hosted by Garbo Laughs.

During the last few months I have had the opportunity to see two films rather striking in their many similarities.  Both Mädchen in Uniform (Leontine Sagan, Germany, 1931) and Olivia (The Pit of Loneliness) (Jacqueline Audry, France, 1951) are films set in the all-female world of exclusive boarding schools and feature emotionally charged teacher/student pairings with unmistakable erotic dimensions.  Also notable is that both are directed by female directors, a rarity in both Germany and France at the time.  And, unfortunately, they have also suffered similar fates: both have been difficult to find on home viewing formats in the United States, as those who have held the American rights to both films have resisted the lesbian element of the films and for many years refused to allow them to be shown in the context of female and/or queer film festivals. Aside from making what are interesting and important films difficult to see, the historical repression of both of these films have the lamentable effect of making the cinematic representation of lesbianism and lesbian desire in the past appear even more marginal than it already does.

 

Of the two films, Mädchen is the more recognizable, remaining a generally well-known film despite being relatively little-seen—no history of queer film is complete without establishing the influence of Sagan’s ground-breaking film.  Helping matters is that it is a cinematic masterpiece and has generally been considered from the very beginning (the film is included, for example, in Lotte Eisner’s seminal The Haunted Screen: Expressionism in the German Cinema).  As such, I will primarily focus the rest of this post on Audry’s Olivia, and use Mädchen as a more well-known point of reference and comparison (for those interested in reading more on the film, I recommend two other posts on the film that have been included in this Blogathon—see them here and here).

I got the opportunity to see Olivia, released in America under the inexplicable title The Pit of Loneliness recently as part of a series hosted by San Francisco’s Frameline Film Festival, the longest running and largest LGBT film festival in the world (it concluded its 35th festival yesterday).  Sponsored by the library system, it featured free screenings of several films from the organization’s archives.  It was, unfortunately, a less-than-ideal circumstance: though Frameline owns a supposedly gorgeous 35mm print of the film that was acquired when it was given a retrospective screening at the festival a number of years ago, what we saw was a DVD dupe made from a VHS dupe of the film, and it did the sumptuous black and white cinematography no favors.  And between the sparse white-on-white subtitles, less-than-ideal audio quality and my elementary grasp on conversational French I’m sure that I missed a number of nuances and subtleties (especially as it’s one of those French chamber pieces where everyone talks and talks and talks…).

That said, a rare screening of a rare film is always something to treasure, and I’ll just hope I get to see the film again someday under more ideal circumstances.  Because what I did see and was able to catch was fascinating, not only in its similarities to Mädchen, which it very much resembles in a very general sense, but in the many differences between the two films.  In some ways the two films could be considered the flipside of the same coin, each serving as a counterpoint of sorts for the other.  It is this dynamic I’d like to tease out in the rest of this post.

As previously mentioned, director Jacqueline Audry is probably the most well-known of the several female directors who made films in France after the heady avant-garde years of the 1920’s and Agnès Varda appeared on the film scene in the late 50’s.  She is most remembered for the three Colette adaptations she directed in the 1940’s and 50’s, particularly the non-musical first version of Gigi (1949).  Though it is commonly assumed that Olivia is also Colette adaptation, as pointed out by queer film historian and Frameline’s curator Jenni Olson, the film is actually an adaptation of a novel by Audry’s sister Colette Audry, a well-known writer in her own right, and the enterprising American distributor simply lopped off the author’s last name to try and capitalize on the director’s previous association with the eminent French Modernist writer (ingenious from a marketing standpoint, but confusing!).  The story, which is believed to have some autobiographical resonances, revolves around the titular character arriving at a French all-girls finishing school run by two elegant headmistresses, Mlle. Julie (played by celebrated French stage actress Edwige Feuillère) and Mlle. Clara (Simone Simon, famous for films made on both sides of the Atlantic, particularly Cat People).  As Olivia is almost immediately informed by one of her classmates, the student body is divided into two camps: those devoted to Mlle. Julie  and those to Mlle. Clara.

Olivia at first becomes enamored with the former after aiding in a number of nighttime rituals including combing her hair, fanning her tenderly, etc (“keep making a fuss of me, I love it!” she purrs to the clearly adoring young girls).

The seductive if playful undertone to Mlle. Clara’s voice is the first indication of what exactly the affection of the student body might entail.  But after being moved by one of the nightly recitations of a Racine play, Olivia catches her instructor’s eye and she quickly establishes herself as Mlle. Julie’s favorite pupil.  The admiration quickly begins to take on a more amorous dimension, which becomes obvious after Laura, Julie’s past favorite, reappears at the school.  Despite befriending Laura, Olivia can’t help but feel competitive for their teacher’s attention, and Olivia even attempts to ask Laura to help her define her feelings for Mlle. Julie.  “Do you love her?” she asks Laura, who doesn’t seem to catch the true nature of the question, and responds that she owes everything to the headmistress.  Olivia tries again: “doesn’t your heart beat when she’s with you, or stand still when she touches your hand?”  Laura, seeming now to comprehend, definitively says no, stating “I just love her.  There is nothing else,” and promptly leaves the room.

The plot thickens as it becomes clear that beneath the antagonism of the two headmistresses is a once-intimate relationship of an unspecified nature between the two that at some point soured.  It all comes to a head during the annual Christmas party—complete with Mädchen-style male drag by the students—that Mlle. Julie promises to stop by her room later that night(!).  At this point it is made explicit that this is not merely some one-sided schoolgirl infatuation of Olivia’s but that there are some kind of mutual feelings involved, which is emphasized by Mlle. Julie’s unexpected decision to leave the school, as it is the “best thing to do.”

This underscores one of the major differences between Olivia and Mädchen: though there are many parallels to draw between the relationship that springs up between student and teacher, there’s a very profound difference in the fact that it is not just one of the teachers, but the headmistress—that is, the person in charge—that is experiencing these feelings.  Instead of the antagonistic dynamic of Mädchen which creates a “they just don’t understand the nature of our love!,” us-versus-them storyline, Olivia becomes more about the walls of the boarding school potentially functioning as a haven-like space for lesbian feelings and desires apart from the world, something Mlle. Julie sternly warns Olivia of in the climatic sequence.  Mlle. Julie seems aware that there might be potential for sustaining a lesbian relationships in this cloistered, isolated setting—as it might have indeed done for Mlles. Julie and Clara at one point—but the reality is that the world outside brutally refuses such things (“and what if you are defeated, Olivia?” Mlle. Julie evocatively but elusively muses at the end of the film, not specifying as to what exactly she is speaking of).

The entire mise-en-scène of the film seems to underline this crucial different between Olivia and Mädchen—where the boarding school of the latter is composed of harsh, hard angles to visually emphasize the militaristic, almost tyrannical nature of the school, the boarding school of the former is soft, embracing and marked by graceful curves echoed by the languid camera pans.  This is seen most prominently in the staircases that feature prominently in both films: where Mädchen‘s central staircase is composed of sharp right angles and tightly tiered like the nightmarish staircase straight out of Vertigo, the central staircase in Olivia serves not only as a central meeting place for the school, but the showcase for its elegant headmistress, who is introduced in the film as ascending from upstairs into a twittering nest of fawning students.

Clearly, both Olivia and Mädchen in Uniform are incredibly important films that deserve to be more widely released and seen, and taken together, function as two complimentary but in many ways different takes on the possibility of love and desire between women in pre-Stonewall cinema.

This post is in contribution to the Queer Film Blogathon, June 2011.

RIP jane russell

Just recently I was remarking to a friend that there are two films that drive grad students in my program crazy, as they get taught (and so then we ourselves have to teach them) every semester. The two films? Citizen Kane and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.

And honestly, I can only take so much Kane. But Gentlemen? Somehow, I never mind rewatching it—in fact, I even look forward to its expected showing every semester.  It is Marilyn Monroe’s finest hour, and an excellent example of the glories of Technicolor, to say nothing of the way it so delightfully illustrates and subverts—often simultaneously—issues of the male gaze, female social roles, sexuality, and class, without losing for a moment its sense of raucous fun. But the main reason I love Gentlemen Prefer Blondes?

Why, Jane Russell, of course.

As Dorothy Shaw, Russell is one of those rarest of entities in 1950’s Hollywood cinema—a beautiful woman brashly confident about her sexuality, who always makes quite clear that she has little use for Lorelei’s diamonds and would much prefer “a beautiful hunk o’ man.” And yet, despite the normally unforgiving judgment of the Production Code which insisted that even the slightest whiff of sexual immorality be punished tenfold (usually involving some kind of creative combination of searing heartbreak and a spectacular death scenes), Dorothy somehow manages to ends up with her selected man at the alter right in time for a happy ending.

[I love her breathy version of “Bye Bye Baby,” and listen to it regularly]

Of course, the film’s now-infamous musical sequence “Ain’t There Anyone Here For Love?,” with Russell jauntily trapezing through the barely-clad bodies of the Olympic team in a black jumpsuit and matching heels, is more than enough to ensure her an immortality of a certain type…

But just as much as her role in Gentlemen, Russell will be remembered for the manner that her career was launched, namely the barely-there décolleté that so fixated Howard Hughes during the making of The Outlaw, sparking a public furor that marked one of the first, legitimate blows to the Production Code when the film was eventually released in 1946 (too bad all of the hullabaloo still resulted in a rather dull film).  But the films that I have special affection for the two films that Russell made at the beginning of the 1950’s paired with Robert Mitchum: His Kind of Woman (Farrow, USA, 1951), and to a slightly lesser extent, Macao (von Sternberg, USA, 1952). Ludicrous but atmospheric, neither of the films are particularly good, but Russell always seemed game for each and every absurd plot development that’s thrown her way, and her sly vivacity pairs nicely with Mitchum’s perpetual sleepy-eyed bemusement.

[It’s almost worth watching His Kind of Woman solely for a stunning, extended tracking shot through a hotel bar that ends, if my memory serves correctly, with Mitchum unexpectedly arriving at Russell’s character. Not that that is the film’s only charm—far from it.]

[Being a von Sternberg film (with more than a bit of uncredited help from that other poet of cinema, Nick Ray), Macao is almost an inevitably beautiful film, even if the story doesn’t quite live up to it.]

Back when I collected autographs, I sent away a photograph to Ms. Russell, of which she graciously returned.  It has always been one of my favorites of the entire collection.

RIP, Jane Russell.

support film preservation! (part II)

This post represents my second (and final) contribution to For the Love of Film (Noir): A Film Preservation Blog-a-thon, which is raising money for the preservation of The Sound of Fury (1950).

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Of the four films that Bogart and Bacall made together, the third, Dark Passage (Delmer Daves, USA, 1947) is generally considered the least of them. And it’s not particularly hard to see why—Bacall’s character never allows her to display any of the spark that made her so magnificent in To Have and Have Not and The Big Sleep, and there’s an inherent weakness with a film that stars Humphrey Bogart but doesn’t show his iconic face for the entire first third of the film. And for a film with a plot so heavily reliant on the psychological motivations of the various characters, it doesn’t help that characters motivations for the most part range from murky to straining credulity to patently absurd.

And yet, Dark Passage is a film that I have a great affection for (and I certainly prefer it to the inexplicably well-liked Key Largo). The main reason is that through its extensive use of location work, it serves as a magnificent showcase for the city of San Francisco. Vertigo, for good reason, is the film that has made San Francisco a pilgrimage spot for all good cinephiles, but Dark Passage serves as the gritty, black-and-white flipside to Hitchcock’s luscious, dream-like rendering of the city. With the exception of Scotty’s trailing of Madeleine that has him driving through the streets of the city, Hitchcock generally has little interest in maintaining any kind of spacial continuity in regards to the depiction of the city, with the various depicted landmarks dreamily disconnected not only from each other but from their context within the city itself (which is why I suspect that most people are often surprised, like I was, to find a place like Mission Dolores shoehorned snugly into a bustling residential area, and not in some forlorn, abandoned city quarter).

I love Dark Passage for its utilization of the San Francisco that citizens of the city—both then and now—are familiar with: the labyrinthine series of staircases threading together Telegraph Hill, the steep sidewalks that fracture into stairs halfway up the hill, cable cars, the the long taxi rides down Market, and, of course, the drive across the Golden Gate Bridge. It also captures one of my personal favorite qualities of living in this city: because of the hills, a turn around even the most nondescript corner can unexpectedly coldcock you with a gorgeous vista view of the city that is quite literally breathtaking. Dark Passage uses this to excellent effect, and many otherwise unexceptional expositional sequences are elevated through the stunning backdrops naturally afforded through the location work.

I rewatched Dark Passage shortly upon moving to the city a year and a half ago, and it was one of the key things that really kicked off my love affair with this city (that and the always-dazzling cinematic and photographic cataloguing of the city by a fellow San Franciscian over at Six Martinis and the Seventh Art—see specifically the San Francisco-related section here). In many ways the film serves as a wonderful time capsule of the city in the immediate post-War period, and it was pleasurably shocking to see how familiar many of these locations already seemed to me.

And considering that film is essentially unique in providing this type of wholly-immersive synchronicity, the preservation of such experiences should be a foremost priority on every cinephile’s mind.  As the screen captures should amply attest, Dark Passage is, fortunately, for the most part a beautifully preserved film.  But without stars on the magnitude of Bogie and Bacall, would this necessarily be the case?  The answer, unfortunately, is a resounding no.  And for that reason I ask you to consider making a donation to For the Love of Film (Noir): A Film Preservation Blogathon. This is the last day of this terrific blogathon, and as such, also your last opportunity to contribute to this most worthy of causes.

Memories of a Movie:

Scenes of the City


Bogart’s character tells the taxi driver a specific address on Sutter Street to get here; one of these days I’m going to go to that location myself and see what’s there now! 

Back before this was probably the single most touristy spot in the entire city (how few people there are!).  Owl Drug Co. is now the location of a large Gap, which isn’t nearly as exciting, but I do frequent it fairly regularly.

The Malloch Building, 1360 Montgomery Street

Okay, I have to share a memory about this specific site, as it is the location one of my favorite cinematic San Francisco moments.  This Art Deco apartment building is justifiably famous, and it serves as the location of swanky (and enormous) apartment that Bacall’s character lives in, and where she subsequently holes up the fugitive Bogart in grand style.  I was on a first date in the North Beach area, and after dinner we spontaneously decided to walk up to Coit Tower.  Suddenly I burst out “there’s the Dark Passage house!” (a reference my date unfortunately did not get)—something I was extremely proud of, because 01) I’m usually not very good at recognizing these type of things, and 02) I still was able to do this even though I was suffering from food poisoning and all of my attention was focused on hiding this fact from my date. :)

I always get a kick out of how she had a portrait of herself (and one of her most famous!) on such prominent display.

And really, it’s an extremely stylishly shot and designed film

Sidney Hickox (cinematography) and Charles H. Clarke (art direction)


To say nothing of the ever-stylish Ms. Bacall herself, of course!

[Screen captures taken by Jesse Ataide.  Feel free to use the images, but please provide a link back!]

support film preservation!

This post represents my contribution to For the Love of Film (Noir): A Film Preservation Blog-a-thon.

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A Film I Would Not Like to See Restored: Renoir’s The Woman on the Beach

Several weeks ago I had the pleasure of seeing Jean Renoir’s The Woman on the Beach (1947, USA) at Noir City 9, the San Francisco Film Noir Festival held annually at the Castro Theater here in San Francisco. Of the twenty or so films that were programmed, it was the film I had prioritized for reasons that I’m not even exactly sure of (I’ve yet to really warm up to Renoir, truth be told). I didn’t know anything specific about it, though as I told a friend as we waited for the lights to go down, Pauline Kael’s review—where she cites Rivette’s proclamation of the film as a masterpiece before wittily undermining such a claim—had always intrigued me.

The Woman on the Beach is one of those films that can’t get mentioned without a big footnote being attached to it, as it is one of those films where extratextual material and circumstances almost overshadows the film itself. In this case it’s the turgid story of the film’s ill-fated production, which Eddie Muller nicely encapsulated for the audience in his introduction to the film: an initial preview screening of the film was so disastrous that in an attempt to salvage its commercial possibilities, Renoir subsequently re-edited, and then reshot a large portion of the film. The resulting version that was finally released, clocking in at a mere 70 minutes or so, remained disappointing, with Renoir himself eventually conceding that in the revisions the film had “lost its raison d’être” and was “neither flesh nor fish.”1 As it turns out, it was an unhappy note that ended Renoir’s Hollywood career—he never made another film in America.

Under such circumstances, it is perhaps inevitable that that initial, unlucky cut of the film shown at the first preview has swelled over the decades into a near-mythic “should-have-been” story a la Welles’s The Magnificent Ambersons, the type all good cineastes relish hypothesizing about. “If only someone could get ahold of that original version, and really see what Renoir was trying to do…”

But defaced or not, I was intrigued by The Woman on the Beach. I didn’t think it was necessarily a great film, or even a very good one, truth be told. It’s an exceedingly odd film, cumbersome despite its brief running time, and, all-in-all, quite unsympathetic and unlovable (even by noir standards).  But almost immediately I could tell it was one of those films. There’s just no other way to describe it: I was immediately beguiled by this awkward bête noire of a film. Those gaps, those absences caused by an obviously truncated narrative, those silences caused by motivations, backstories and emotions systematically denied to the viewer—they haunted me. And one couldn’t help but wonder: were the answers to the questions I had among what was lost in the ribbons of films Renoir frantically severed from his film?

Much like that hulking shipwreck that serves as such a bizarre setpiece for the film, the plot of The Woman on the Beach feels like a number of damaged fragments of narrative that have inexplicably washed up on the titular beach.  It embodies some sparsely populated, nightmarish crystallization of post-War realities, and feels uneasily perched on the remotest edges of the word.

For this reason, it is a bit uncomfortable attaching the “film noir” label to Renoir’s film, with its complete disavowal of the urban spaces and comforting shadows typically associated with noir. I’m certainly not the first to utilize the adjective “abstracted” to describe the film, which doesn’t just apply to the oblique plot, but in the rendering of empty spaces that after a while begin to feel positively post-apocalyptic. Few and far between are the familiar shadows and darkness of noir with their usual significations menace and dread.  But sometimes too those same shadows provide shelter, obscurity, even comfort (“I like the dark. It’s comforting to me” insists Blanche du Bois in the noir-ly rendered A Streetcar Named Desire), and The Woman on the Beach‘s soft gradient of grays offer no such Expressionistic obfuscation or chance of shadowy escape, instead stranding its characters in an uninterrupted twilight state. There are rainstorms, banks of fogs, and crashing waves, but with the exception of the final climactic scene, remarkably little of the film—not even the romantic rendezvouses—occur at night, and in the few nocturnal scenes there are, the camera cloisters itself in brightly lit interior spaces. Not even in sleep does the night provide solace, for as Robert Ryan finds out in the film’s remarkably surrealistic opening sequence, the night merely casts one into a dusky, oceanic dreamstate.2

Renoir himself alludes to this sort of spacial and thematic abstraction with his comment that “The Woman on the Beach was the sort of avant-garde film which would have found its niche a quarter of a century earlier, between Nosferatu and Caligari”.3 An extremely evocative, but also rather curious description of the film, as The Woman on the Beach did not bring to mind the early European avant-garde (and certainly not the German Expressionist tradition), but instead feels prescient, uncannily anticipating that great flowering of European art film in the subsequent two decades. Specifically, the gritty, underpopulated, eerily abstract emotional and physical spaces brought to mind Antonioni’s 1950’s films, Cronaca di un amore (Story of a Love Affair) most particularly, along with Il grido and the brief beach scene from Le amiche.

Beach scene from Antonioni’s Le Amiche (1955)

As per usual when a film catches my interest, I spent a good chunk of time dutifully researching The Woman on the Beach. An offhand reference Jonathan Rosenbaum makes on Glenn Kenny’s review of the film’s R2 DVD release over at MUBI subsequently led me to Janet Bergstrom’s utterly fascinating article “Oneiric Cinema: The Woman on the Beach,” written in 1999.4 Tracing the film’s production history in minute detail, through Bergstrom’s meticulous research in the RKO archives a fascinating counternarrative to Renoir’s stated opinions—which have long since established themselves as the authoritative position to take in regards to the film—quickly begins to emerge. Bergstrom poses a rather startling thesis: that The Woman on the Beach “benefited from [Renoir’s] tendency towards abstraction, but the fact that it did so (or, to be accurate, that it ended up doing so), represents an interesting paradox”.5

Bergstrom devotes a great deal of space reconstructing the film’s development, starting before Renoir was even attached to the project and details the entire filmmaking process until the final cut of the film finally emerged. She recounts with painstaking detail a great deal more information than I can provide here, and needless to say, I highly recommend anybody interested to give it a read. But in reading about the film’s chaotic history, it became increasingly clear to me, as it did to Bergstrom, that there’s a very good chance The Woman on the Beach turned out to be a better film than it would have been if that infamous Santa Barbara preview had never occurred.

One of the points that intrigued me most was how many rewrites the script of the film underwent, both before the first camera started rolling until the reshooting commenced months later. Drastic rewrites. Some of the narrative trajectories that the film’s early script drafts included:

  • Tod had been able to see for months (his blindness was caused by hysteria)
  • Both Peggy and Tod’s doctor were aware of this fact
  • Peggy was having an affair with this doctor
  • Peggy was planning on stealing Tod’s paintings to run away with the doctor
  • At the insistence of the Production Code, the adultery would be suitably punished: Tod brutally attacks his wife and his doctor. Bergstrom quotes these grisly descriptions from a draft of the script: “the doctor’s crumpled body in a corner, Peggy’s battered body near a wall”6

Renoir almost immediately cut out the the robbery subplot, the entire character of the doctor and necessarily toned down the adultery, but the story still went through a number of significant revisions, both “to satisfy the studio and the Production Code Administration” as well as “to try and make the story more cohesive.”7 The central role of Robert Ryan’s hunky but psychologically disturbed Coast Guard was built up, at the expense of the colorful character of the artist, played by Charles Bickford.

But perhaps more crucially, the motivations for sullenly sexy Joan Bennett’s Peggy was in constant flux. Post-preview, one of the film’s central scenes—the showdown between Ryan and Bickford on the rowboat during the storm—was completely altered: what was initially intended to be a suicide scene shifts to its more murderous intentions in the final cut. Renoir also considered utilizing extensive flashbacks to Peggy and Tod’s colorful life in New York City to flesh out both characters. Even during the reshooting Renoir was still trying to decide if Peggy was supposed to be a heartless virago or a misunderstood–and thus more sympathetic–woman.  The result of all this indecision?  One of the most ambiguous femme fatales I’ve ever encountered.

I summarize these unwieldy developments in such detail to merely illustrate how the film Renoir at various points wanted to make is remarkably unlike the film that it ended up being and we know today. Particularly interesting to me was Bergstrom’s comment that “Renoir’s script for the ‘preview version’ was full of secondary characters who filled out the story, helping to convey a specific milieu that was very far from the abstraction we see in the release print of The Woman on the Beach.8

In other words, almost everything that I was most drawn to about the film was not part of the original version.

And really, this makes sense. I’m embarrassed to admit that I haven’t seen the many of Renoir’s films beyond the canonical, but one thing I immediately noticed was how far removed Woman on the Beach‘s lonesome threesome (or foursome, if one wishes to include the underdeveloped fiancée) is so utterly unlike the complex, highly nuanced interactions between an extensive cast of characters that are so celebrated in films like La règle du jeu and La grande illusione. While I associate Renoir’s characters with talk, talk, and more talk, in Woman on the Beach they stay stubbornly silent. And as a direct result of this, all of the things that I was most intrigued about in Renoir’s film are also all of the elements—the silences, the narrative ellipses, the static figures suspended in vast spaces, the relentless opacity—that I don’t associate with Renoir at all, but rather a number of my favorite directors and films: Antonioni, Marienbad, Vampyr, Duras, Denis, Wong.

After reading Bergstrom’s article, suddenly the film was vibrating with endlessly resonating echoes. The narrative gaps, silences and ellipses seemed no longer puzzling as much as brimming with possibilities, richly embedded with traces of countless other possible narrative variations and the distinct possibility that the narrative trajectory might spiral in countless other directions at any given moment. Quite unexpectedly Renoir’s film reminded me, of all things, 2046, a film that because of a similarly tumultuous production history I almost expect with every rewatch to have somehow rearranged its evocative, fragmented pieces into beautiful new permutations and variations since my last viewing. This in itself distances The Woman on the Beach from the film noir tradition in yet another way. Expressionistic fatalism is nowhere to be seen—one merely needs to compare Renoir’s film to another Joan Bennet from just a few years before, Lang’s Scarlet Street, for an idea of the exhilarating Open-ness9 of The Woman on the Beach.

Exhilarating, but in many senses, unintentional. I must wholeheartedly agree with Bergstrom’s final assessment that “paradoxically, The Woman on the Beach (the release version) benefitted from all this interference… [it] became more and more abstract and all the things that could not be shown for reasons of censorship were cut and confusing character motivations left from the original novel or the innumerable, tediously similar variants of the script were removed.”10 While the final cut of The Woman on the Beach is no masterpiece, from all indications it’s a much more intriguing film that it was going to be (and/or originally was in the preview version).

That said, would I welcome the sudden unearthing of a print of the preview version in some vault or archive? Of course—I’m as curious as anyone else. And also not without serious misgivings, considering what would likely occur in such a situation: a celebratory, much trumpeted re-release of the restored “Original Director’s Cut” on the festival circuit, perhaps even a full-blown theatrical rerelease compliments of Rialto or the like, and then, at long last, a R1 DVD release. But the original release version—the version Jacques Rivette unapologetically declared a masterpiece and everyone else has spent the last decades trying to get some kind of a handle one—would quickly disappear from sight and memory, at best resurfacing as a DVD extra for the now-definitive “original version” (that is, if we were lucky enough for a company like Criterion, NoShame or VCI to get the rights to release it). And for reasons I hope I’ve managed to make clear at this point, I think this would be an entirely regrettable situation.

Of course, this isn’t exactly the type of restoration that is motivating this blog-a-thon, which is more concerned that we get to see these types of films at all, and even better if it’s on beautiful prints like I got an opportunity to see at Film Noir 9. Because that’s the type of restoration—with its emphasis on preservation and availability—I wholeheartedly support, and as such I ask you to join me in donating to For the Love of Film (Noir): The Film Preservation Blog-a-thon.

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Notes:

1Via Raymond Durgnat, Jean Renoir, 1976. Page 261.

2Apologies for an overtly academic aside: after writing the first draft of this post, I happened to reread the description of the different schools of montage in Deleuze’s Cinema 1: The Movement-Image, and was a bit startled at how neatly the description of the French and German schools lined up with my analysis: Deleuze characterizes pre-War French cinema, embodied by Renoir, with the gray caused by movement, as opposed to the black and white stratification of of Expressionist German cinema, exemplified in Lang and Murnau.

3Jean Renoir, My Life and My Films, 1974. Pages 246-7.

4Originally published in Film History, Vol. 11, No. 1, “Film Technology” pp. 114-125. Unfortunately, this article does not currently seem available online, but only through JSTOR and other academic outlets. Let me know if you’re interested in it.

5Bergstrom, 115.

6Bergstrom, 118.

7Ibid.

8Ibid, 120.

9Invoking, hazily, both Eco and Deleuze

10Bergstrom, 121.

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Memories of a Movie:


[Screen captures taken by Jesse Ataide.  Feel free to use the images, but please provide a link back!]