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Coming soon!

Notes on E.A. Dupont’s Piccadilly (1929), with Anna May Wong, Powell and Pressburger’s The Small Back Room (1949), and Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat (1953), plus contemporary Italian cinema and the hegemony of neorealism vs. efforts to make films that differ.

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Lola Montes (1955)

(c) Therese Grisham, 2010. All rights reserved.

I remember reading that Max Ophuls said of Martine Carol, the actress who plays Lola Montes (she was known in France for acting in boudoir romances, and notorious for being a bad actress), that the more woodenly she acted, the better for the film. This makes perfect sense to me, because Lola Montes is about desire long after it has died, and before it even had a chance to come into being in the world in the first place. In one way or another, Ophuls’ heroines in Liebelei, Letter from an Unknown Woman, Caught, The Reckless Moment, and Madame De . . . all experience this death, but at the end, rather than the beginning, of the film.

This death has to do with a “fall,” and a “fallen woman.” I want to make this distinction, because so many critics have talked about Ophuls’ “fallen women.” Given his refreshing refusal to make moral judgments, which runs throughout these films, I don’t think Ophuls would agree with the term. That issue aside, not all of these films contain an adulterous woman or prostitute, in the first place. What do they share? The type of fall the protagonists experience is one in which a) their desire/pleasure is awakened at some point, through a fantasmatic image of a man “devoted to love,” who disappoints them because they finally realize that he is not the figure they believed he was; and b) their “fall,” as it were, is from pleasure and desire into reality, disappointment, and ensuing pain, and even death, whether psychic or physical, which often marks the end of the film.

However, that stated, the “fallen woman” is crucial to the diegetic dimension of many of Ophuls’ films, because this is how the woman is viewed by other characters, or how she will be viewed if her “fall” is made public; in addition, this is often how she views herself–through the constructs and mores of her era and society, which are, in these films, always strict, oppressive, and repressed. In Lola Montes, it’s a particularly important construct, because it’s the draw for Lola’s circus act—to see a fallen woman displayed in public, where it’s acceptable for an audience to stare at her without hiding, and to revel in every moment of her fall. The curtains, bars, irises, and other blocks that Ophuls sets in our way in the backstage arena, as well as in Lola’s memories, where we are made to spy, hidden from view, on her private life. Interestingly, though we are cast as Peeping Toms, we never gain knowledge of Lola’s interior life; we are kept resolutely outside it. This role is created for us early in the film, in Lola’s first memory, of the end of her relationship with Franz Liszt. We view her through a window of his carriage. Almost immediately, Liszt comes to the window and closes the curtain on our prying eyes.

Usually, the woman’s desire and pleasure set into motion Ophuls’ particular cinematic apparatus, which has to do with setting stasis into flow, stillness into movement, the known (patriarchy/man, literature) into the “untimely” (woman, film). (Here, I’m reminded of Donati’s letter-writing mania, and the fact that Madame De . . . shreds his letters and the letters she claims she has written to him, but never mailed, into confetti, which we watch drifting from the train window as falling snow . . .). Woman’s desire also suspends narrative, and makes time work elliptically, both contracting and expanding it.

Elsewhere, I will sharply distinguish Ophuls’ cinematic apparatus from both classical Hollywood film as discussed by Laura Mulvey and others, and also from the woman’s film, with which Ophuls’ films have been closely identified. For now, I want to state only that Lola begins where these the other protagonists end. In addition, this is the only Ophuls film I have seen in which he voluntarily chooses to use close-ups and a still camera (in the flashbacks and back-stage). This is significant.

Ophuls composes the action as a three-ring circus: Lola’s circus act; her memories; and the backstage circus-world. I’ll concentrate on Lola’s memories here, signaled to us as flashbacks, through dissolves, as she performs her circus act. Her act is the commodified spectacle of the story of her life. While it is obvious that the circus world is theatrical, with acrobatics and pantomime, there is no little reference to the influence of Hollywood movies and spectatorship, as well as the future of cinema (Ophuls had read Hitchcock on “refrigerator culture,” and grieved the vanishing “aesthetic patience” needed to watch a film that did not participate in commodity/consumer culture).

In the Mammoth Circus (what a great name for Hollywood–and with “Mammoth Midgets,” too!), we get all the movement we desire from Ophuls, renowned for his sweeping crane and tracking shots. Camera movement follows very closely the POV of the spectators at the circus, as well as our point of view, figured into the film, as film spectators and consumers. We await Ophuls performing as Ophuls the filmmaker, and that’s what we get, albeit this time with his critical observations about us factored in. We move to the very end of the line of spectators waiting to kiss Lola’s hand, through that intensely sad tracking shot at the end of the film. I can hardly think of a sadder ending to a film—a woman caged and on display, holding out her hands through the bars for us to kiss for a mere dollar. And if we are willing to pay more, she will take her robe off and we can touch one of her breasts, too.

Critics have said that Lola Montes is not as good as Madame De . . . because of its woodenness and lifelessness. For me, these attributes are precisely the point of the film. In Lola’s memories, she moves as if she were a puppet—dancing jerkily, leaning up against Ludwig’s chair like a puppet put away for the night, etc. Her death-in-life is figured this way. What gave rise to it?

Interestingly, Ophuls chose to have Martine Carol play Lola as a girl. Film writers have speculated that this is because in memory, we don’t see ourselves as we were, but as we are now, enacting memory as the present. This may be true, but I think it’s also because only through seeing the girl-Lola played by the adult Lola, which is actually a very small part of the film, and soon vanishes, can we see the differences–in movement and expression, as well as intent–between her memories of when she was a girl and those of when she is an adult. The rigid, nearly paralyzed movements of the adult Lola show us that she has not revived from, and in fact has barely survived, her heart having been broken as a vulnerable young girl–the only vivid moment she recalls. Lola is stuck in time, repeating this moment again and again.

In the scenes devoted to Lola as a girl, we discover the triangle that comprises the main action in Ophuls’ other films mentioned above, but only for the time of the flashback, which occurs near the beginning of the film. Lola recalls the ship voyage to Europe with her mother, who has misrepresented the nature of the voyage to Lola. Lola’s introduction to “love,” then, is founded on a lie. Her mother flirts and carries on, dancing with Lieutenant James. Lola discovers, through overhearing a conversation between an old Baron’s amanuensis and her mother, that her mother is also essentially her pimp, selling Lola to the Baron, who in return, at his death–which the mother assumes will be soon–will leave his estate to the mother. Lola escapes to the ship’s deck, only to find herself “at sea” with nothing to protect her but the night sky, stars, and a blanket of fog. Impulsively, but also as an act of revenge, she offers herself in marriage to her mother’s suitor, the Lieutenant, so she can flee her fate at the hands of the Baron and her mother. This is the definitive moment at which her desire, which has not had a chance to take root, let alone bloom, is halted. In a tableau vivant, we see her and the Baron begin to kiss, and an iris closes around them in embrace, as if they had become figures in a painting or a photograph, rather than a moving picture. This is Ophuls’ memorial, a shrine to mark the death of woman’s desire, how it is killed by patriarchal systems.

Lola’s narcissistic mother, thoroughly assimilated to “the way things work,” meaning to patriarchal codes and modes of operation, deeply betrays and exploits Lola. From here on, Lola is a puppet, acting out this drama/trauma, and the film becomes about her stasis. Ophuls does away with the triangle early on: we never even see the old Baron; the Lieutenant, cast as her rescuer, turns out to be a 19th-century Smith Ohlrig, an abusive alcoholic and womanizer (recalling Stefan Brand as well), from whom Lola flees.

The rest of the film, in the flashback ring, is about her flight. She flees from one lover to another, and even prepares for flight by having her own carriage follow her wherever she goes. There is no hint of desire or even spontaneity; Lola only acts as if she desires (becoming an expensive prostitute–a “courtesan”–ripping open her bodice in front of King Ludwig I, interrupting her puppet-like public dance to make a spectacle of her feigned indignation at being betrayed, etc.). This is how Lola has learned to “move” in the world, by becoming a certain kind of spectacular object, which in one sense, is Ophuls’ critique of the way women are figured in Hollywood film. In another, in color and wide-screen spectacle, Lola Montes is a critique of cinema in the era of the death of aesthetic patience. More often than not in Ophuls’ films, woman is cinema, nowhere more tragically disfigured than in Lola.

(More soon).

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The Reckless Moment

I recently watched The Reckless Moment (Max Ophuls, 1949) for the first time, and need to watch it again. For now, I’m writing down my initial impressions. My first thought is that the film is very uncomfortable to watch and listen to. It is the one Ophuls film I’ve seen that is a real domestic melodrama, in the sense that it’s about a woman and her home. Lucia Harper lives in Balboa Beach, one of the affluent beach cities south of Los Angeles, in a large, suburban/small town house, complete with a big yard and shutters on the windows. The Harpers also have a beach house and a boat. They have two children, Bea and Tom, and a maid, Sybil (acted magnificently by Francis E. Williams, who is uncredited in the film!). Lucia’s loquacious father-in-law also lives with them. Mr. Harper is absent, on business in Europe, which is the prelude to the drama. Lucia can’t confide in him, get his advice, and he can’t step in to solve her problems with her 17-year-old daughter, an art-school student, who has fallen in love with a sleazy con-artist, Ted Darby (Shepperd Strudwick) posing as an art dealer.

The world in the film is divided into the domestic sphere where Lucia is authoritative and decisive in managing the household and her children, and the world outside, where she is vulnerable and powerless, potential prey a) to the townspeople’s gossip and scandal-mongering, and b) to a world of male predators in L.A. Joan Bennet, as Lucia, switches back and forth between being tentative and frightened in the outside world and the ultimate authority at home. Through a “reckless moment,” the two worlds merge; she unwittingly invites predators into her home, and so the catastrophes that befall her multiply. Her recklessness consists of underestimating the world outside her doors and believing that it is much the same as the world inside. She makes the mistake of attempting to tell Darby, whom she makes an appointment to meet at a bar in L.A., to stay away from her daughter. He tries to extort money from her, then shows up in secret at the boat house to do the same with her daughter, who hits him over the head and runs back to the house. As he groggily leaves the boat house, he has an accident, falls from the second floor and lands on the anchor for the Harpers’ boat, which kills him. (I love the fact that he falls on their anchor!)

Without recounting more of the plot, there are a few things I want to note. The first is that life inside the Harpers’ home is no Frank Capra-esque model of a happy, boisterous family life. Rather, it is excruciatingly loud—everyone yells, including Lucia, chaos threatens, the grandfather dodders around aimlessly. Filmic space is restricted by architectural objects, Ophuls uses high and low angles, and sometimes canted angles, and life seems to revolve around the staircase to the second floor, the children either on their way up or down, or yelling up or down. Throughout the film, Lucia issues directives to her children and to her maid, and staves off the grandfather’s inane questions about what’s bothering her.

The outside world is equally uncomfortable; at Balboa’s post office, we view everything over the shoulder of the clerk, through the bars on his cage, and listen to the townspeople gossip about a body the police just found, a murdered man who was dumped in a nearby swamp. At the pharmacy/dry goods store, an unusual purchase is noted by the clerk, who knows what the Harpers buy, and is curious about the man accompanying Lucia (Martin Donnelly, played by James Mason), one of her blackmailers. In L.A., the streets are filled with potential predators, sizing Lucia up for whatever they might be able to get out of her. In L.A., too, she is turned down for a loan she wants to take out to pay off her blackmailer by using her expensive jewelry as collateral, because the loan office (“No Questions Asked” reads their sign) won’t take her application seriously without her husband’s approval. The only thing she has to threaten her blackmailers with is to tell them she will call the police, and she threatens to do so at at least 3 different points in the film. They completely dismiss her. So, even invoking a masculine authority doesn’t shore up her power in the world outside her home.

There is no beautiful scene in the film, though the shots are incredible and dense—not of Balboa, the beach, the hills, not of L.A. Everything is uncomfortable and anxiety-producing. The reason for this is not just that Ophuls made this film as a film noir, but because it is a woman’s film, more precisely a maternal melodrama, and Ophuls’ take on the woman’s film is that the woman can’t be comfortable in any environment. There is no peace in any setting of the film. Even dialogue is shot by filming the back of the speaker’s head, while the character listening is shot along a diagonal in a long shot, silent and watching the speaker. This technique emphasizes, for example, Lucia’s reactions to what her blackmailer says to her, but not in the usual way (shot-reverse shot). Rather, the stillness of her body is like paralysis, and we never get the satisfaction of a close-up in which we can “read” her expression. But, her body says it all. In a crucial scene near the end of the film, as she moves back and forth between the house and the boat house, the exterior of the boat house is illuminated by one overhead lamp swinging back and forth in the wind, which measures the agitation in the scene.

The last thing I want to write for now is that in woman’s films, the woman is trapped in some way. Here, Lucia is trapped on every level, not just by multiple blackmailers and extortionists. She is trapped by motherhood and the domestic management allotted to a married woman. The absence of her husband is made superficially to seem as if it’s crucial: he would be her saving grace if he were present, preventing catastrophe. This is substantiated at the very end of the film, when over the phone, Lucia tells her husband that she can’t wait until he returns. The film details for us exactly why she “can’t wait”—not because she isn’t decisive, clear, strong, etc., but because she is trapped in these patriarchal structures as wife and mother—as woman, period—in which she is ignored, dismissed, invaded, preyed upon, and finally made to pay a price she hadn’t bargained for at all. So, there is no little irony in her statement. He won’t solve her problems; he’ll just compound them, not to mention the fact that she can never tell him what has happened in the first place. (In fact, I don’t remember if Donnelly takes the Harpers’ car to commit his final act of “love”/revenge. If so, that makes things even worse for her!)

Add to this that she is trapped in American suburbia, with its prying eyes and nose for scandal, in which everything is taken as a succession of surfaces. She is trapped by mothering—protecting her children—which leads to her first and second reckless moments, on the one hand, and triggers James Mason’s fantasmatic image of her as a/his mother, on the other, which leads to her downfall at his hands (Mason plays, not for nothing, an Irish Catholic, who idealizes-hates his own mother, and can’t live with his guilt about having killed a man in self-defense—after all, what would his mother think?). He exacts his revenge, and Lucia is his victim.

(More after my next viewing).

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Some Thoughts on Liebelei and Letter from an Unknown Woman

In Liebelei (1933), one of the motifs that undercuts the idea that this is simply a tearjerker is that of the key. Until Fritz (Wolfgang Liebeneiner) finally leaves the Baroness von Eggersdorf (Olga Tschechowa), the Baroness holds the key to his apartment. In the reality of turn-of-the-century Vienna, this fact would have barred both Fritz and his roommate, Theo (George Rigaud), from entering their own apartment without summoning the porter, who therefore makes appearances often in the film. Quite aside from verisimilitude, however, this emphasis on the key indicates how much power the Baroness holds over Fritz, a power from which he wants to be released. When he finally leaves the Baroness, the key is once again emphasized, showing that Fritz is finally his own master. In a stunning scene in the film, the Baron von Eggersdorf (Gustaf Grundgens), who has discovered that Fritz and his wife have had an affair, goes to Fritz’s apartment to challenge him to a duel. He does not allow Fritz to let him out of the apartment (keys also locked apartments from the inside), however; instead, he twists the key four or five times, off-screen, the grating of the key in the lock amplified, and then throws the key on the floor. This is his official challenge, the key substituting for the more traditional glove. The key is clearly a phallic image here and throughout the film. The Baroness is a phallic woman, who has castrated Fritz, and for this reason, quite aside from being married, is the “wrong” woman for him. Christine (Magda Schneider), a woman devoted to Fritz’s well-being, is the “right” woman. Fritz falls in love with Christine, though he has no intention of doing so, on their long walk back to her apartment. He has a headache, and Christine pours 4711 cologne on his handkerchief for him to hold against his forehead to soothe his pain. They utter few words, yet it is clear that he has fallen for her. The Baron claims ultimate phallic power by twisting Fritz’s key violently and disposing of it, foreshadowing Fritz’s death, which also takes place off-screen. We hear one gun-shot and know that Fritz is dead.

Fritz, part of a new order of man believing in romantic love—in short, a feminized man–cannot survive the established patriarchal order of arranged marriages, codes, and sets of rules, in which “love” does not, and cannot, enter in.

In Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948), the incommensurable worlds and incompossible desires of man and woman are shown often through details of mise en scene. There are many delightful visual motifs, but one major one is St. Stefan’s cathedral, which looms in the background near–yes–Stefan’s (Louis Jourdan) apartment, where Lisa (Joan Fontaine) has waited faithfully, night after night, for Stefan to emerge, his emergence quickening her desire, like that of a groupie waiting outside a stage door. The outsized model of St. Stefan’s is hard to miss, a gigantic phallus looming on the horizon of this setting, the place where Lisa worships. If this movie were re-made today, it would be about women’s adulation of rock stars, and rock stars’ addiction to one-night stands with a multitude of nameless women. In fact, when Lisa realizes that Stefan has stopped playing music (he has long locked his piano and doesn’t know where the key is), the “scales fall from her eyes,” and she sees Stefan for what he is, a seedy womanizer/seducer who has lost any possible allure. As she flees his apartment, she bumps into his double, a drunken gentleman who wants to pick her up. She realizes that she has devoted her life–taking dancing lessons, reading up on composers’ lives and memorizing their musical scores, attending Stefan’s concerts, following Stefan and hoping to meet him again after their one-night stand–to an image that is not commensurate with his reality. Without his music, he loses his star-aura, and becomes a shabby, dissipated figure. Lisa’s horror is simply realizing that this figure is the one to which she has devoted her whole life.

In anatomizing gendered passion and desire in Letter, Ophuls forces us to examine the fantasms we create when we say we are “in love” with another human being.

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Caught and Blue Steel

Caught (1948) remains one of my favorite films. The first time I watched it, I burst out crying when Larry Quinada (James Mason) chastises Leonora Eames (Barbara Bel Geddes) for drawing a mole on her face, wearing a mink coat, and styling her hair too sophisticatedly for a receptionist in his slum medical practice. These scenes showed me definitively that Quinada is no better than Smith Ohlrig (Robert Ryan), an abusive narcissist who thinks of Leonora as just another piece of his property.

Although Maud changes her name to “Leonora” when she enrolls in Miss Dale’s Charm School (a hideous reminder that such institutions flourished for women, and are still with us under other names), naming her fundamentally belongs to Ohlrig and Quinada. Ohlrig sneeringly calls her “Leonora,” adopting her new name as a form of deriding her methods and dreams. Quinada calls her “Lee,” which fits with his practically-minded world view and the way women should fit into it. Maud clearly wants to divorce herself from her past and life with her mother, which her name change indicates, while at the same time living up to her mother’s—and America’s—idea of success for a woman, which is to marry a rich man who will rescue her from her subsistence-level job and from a life lived according to the attributes of her body. A former car-hop, Leonora models expensive clothing in the hope of finding a rich man. Her naivete is touching, since she conceives of her rescuer as a Prince Charming to her Cinderella. Interestingly, this part of the film mirrors the post-WW II backlash against women in the workforce, independent entrepreneurs who are generally cast doubly, as damsel in distress who masks the femme fatale beneath. These women have to be punished, in order to reinstate the masculine order that war-time jobs for women eroded. Women are tossed back into domestic life. Here, we can see this type of narrative take shape, as Maud—not yet Leonora—in the shabby apartment she shares with a roommate, dreams out loud of taking two mink coats back with her to her mother’s home, one for her and one for her mother. As she dreams of her future, she slaps a fly-swatter idly against her knee. In another film, this act would signify that she will be the femme fatale of the piece, catching her man. But it can also indicate her own status, which, through her dream, will catch her and squash her in the end. This is in fact what happens in the film, and I find it to be the stuff of tragedy.

The film’s narrative is perfectly triangulated, with Leonora in the middle between Ohlrig and Quinada. Ohlrig grew up in a rich family, but boasts that by dint of his hard work, he managed to increase his inheritance 14 times. He is a masked Howard Hughes. Hughes, at the time the owner of RKO, and a very hands-on producer who had fired Ophuls from directing Vendetta (production 1946-50) and even directed some scenes himself, reviewed Ophuls’ script for Caught, and, unpredictably, did not object to his portrait as Ohlrig. He lent out Barbara Bel Geddes anyway, demanding only that Ophuls change the manner of Ohlrig’s dress so that it wasn’t “rumpled,” and eliminate any reference to his oil interests. Thus, scenes involving oil rigs and derricks were changed to take place in warehouses. Ophuls added to Ohlrig’s character a touch of Preston Sturges, who was evidently known for abusing his wife. Quinada, on the other hand, comes from a family posing as rich. Neither of his parents worked, but always found the material accoutrements that signaled wealth. There is a scene in Ohlrig’s garage, one of the confrontations between the two men, in which they both put pressure on Leonora to choose one of them and the ridiculous life that he offers her. The men face the camera with a ladder separating them, while Maud paces in profile between them. As if that ladder poses the only escape from a situation that will be determined wholly by the men. Of course, it isn’t meant as any viable escape, just a further, darkly comic, indication of how Leonora is trapped.

The seemingly abrupt ending, in which all appears to be resolved by Leonora’s miscarriage (“Now you can have a new life,” Quniada tells her in the ambulance) and the requirements that the film have a happy ending fulfilled, twists my stomach because of Barbara Bel Geddes’ at once despairing and hopeful expression, the latter designed to please Quniada when he asks, “Do you hear me?” The last line of the film is, “I hear you,” which she utters in a near-whisper, with a fake smile plastered on her face. What comes through clearly in this scene is the erasure of her desires, and in fact, the erasure of her existence as a discrete, separate person from the fantasy worlds created by men and forced into actuality. Ohlrig and Quinada (Oil-rig and Nothing) appear to oppose each other, but in fact, reiterate each other in different keys. Quinada is the more insidious of the two, because Leonora is grateful to him for rescuing her from Ohlrig, and does not see through his benign facade, made more attractive by his altruism and apparent renunciation of material values. Yet, those material values remain, if in nothing else, then in the way he wants “Lee” to appear. Thus, Caught presents the skewed, internalized values women have to combat in post-War America.

A more contemporary film that reminds me of Caught is Kathryn Bigelow’s 1989 Blue Steel, with Jamie Lee Curtis as Megan Turner. Though Turner steps out of the world in which Leonora Eames is trapped through measuring her success by marriage, the story is fundamentally the same. Bigelow shifts the discourse of what it is to live in a man’s world to the arena of work. The film is filled with spaces belonging to men, just as Caught is. Instead of Ohlrig’s mansion, his garage, his warehouse, his car, or Quinada’s office, we see the New York Stock Exchange trading floor, Eugene’s lavish apartment, the police department and various offices inside it belonging to men. We see nothing of Megan’s living space except bars on her bed frame, a bit of her bed, and the floor of her bathroom. Space itself crowds out women. In fact, in Caught, one of the most harrowing scenes takes place in Quinada’s office—a conversation about Leonora between Quinada and his colleague, Hoffman. The two men discuss Leonora as the camera, endlessly mobile (which is what Ophuls is of course known for), sweeps back and forth between the two men over Leonora’s empty desk. The soundtrack, aside from dialogue, emphasizes the noise of Hoffman’s electric razor as he shaves while talking to Quinada. Throughout the film, Leonora is continuously shaved down to nothing, a cipher “castrated” by men. In Blue Steel, Turner is castrated at every “turn” of the plot. What she says goes unregistered by the men surrounding her; her image is constructed and re-constructed by her father, by Eugene, by her boss, by Nick. The ending of Blue Steel exactly mirrors the ending of Caught: after having endured it all, and after having triumphed over Eugene, a compendium of mental disorders figured threateningly throughout the history of American cinema, she is raised from her car, limp, like a dead baby, by the strong arms of a male police officer. Thus begins her “new life.”

For all their other wild, and beautifully constructed, elements, both Caught and Blue Steel situate themselves as “woman’s films.”

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