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Film Review: Eros, the Bittersweet–“La La Land (2016)” and the Melancholy of What-Might-Have-Been

Warning: Spoilers follow.

In her remarkable book Eros: The Bittersweet, the classicist and poet Anne Carson eloquently argues that eros is fundamentally built on the power of lack, of the sweetness of being denied the very thing that we so desperately desire to possess. While this may seem antithetical to some–isn’t the whole point of erotic desire fulfillment?–I’ve always found this to be an extraordinarily apt way of describing the process by which we experience the ache of romantic desire, an ache that is all the more pleasurable and painful for its inability to ever truly be fulfilled.

The sense of love being something that is always tainted with the tang of bitterness is what, to me, makes La La Land, one of 2016’s most lauded films, such an extraordinary, and very timely, film. On the surface, it appears just another Hollywood product, something that is full of joy and exuberance and romance. Further, it is also one of those films that Hollywood loves to make, i.e. a film that is about (or at least seems to refer to) the history of Hollywood itself. Beneath the veneer of seeming happiness and saccharine satisfaction, however, there is something more profound at work, however, a painfully pleasurable awareness of the poignancy of thwarted love.

And indeed there is a great deal of exuberance and joy to be found in this film. Produced in CinemaScope–that venerable widescreen process that was such a godsend to the film industry in the 1950s–and shot in truly eye-popping colour, one gets the sense that this film expresses in a profound way the great pleasures that can be found in the transparent expression of feeling. Further, it appears to be a film that is in love with the practice of filmmaking. I don’t mean this to be dismissive, but instead to say that it recognizes both the rich and varied history of Hollywood filmmaking as well as the power of film to call to us and allow us to experience the world in all of its conflicted, contradictory joy and pleasure.

Yet it doesn’t take long for the reality of the world to begin to intrude into the utopian love story that burgeons between the two leads, Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and Mia (Emma Stone). Each of them has their own career aspirations, he to be a successful jazz musician and to open his own club in order to revitalize the dying genre (this opens up a white savior storyline that is, to put it mildly, problematic). She, on the other hand, wants to become an actress. Gradually, they both move toward the fulfillment of their desires, but it sets them on a collision course so that, despite how much they love one another, they know that they cannot be together.

It’s rather hard for me to explain in words how heartrending this realization can be in real life. There’s something…sweetly, terribly pleasant about that moment when you recognize that no matter how much you love someone, you know that the external forces of your life–your career aspirations, your desire to be yourself–preclude you being able to fulfill a future with them. This is something that the film brings to the fore in an intensely visceral way, precisely because it flies in the face of everything we’ve been led to expect from the Hollywood ending.

Indeed, the film ultimately reveals that both characters have attained their professional goals. Sebastian has finally opened his club, and Mia has become a successful actress with a husband and small daughter. Yet, despite the fact that they both have attained everything they want, the film remains haunted by a sweet sense of melancholy, of a love that is true yet unfulfilled. It is precisely because the moments of joy and innocence have been so exuberantly conveyed and expressed that this final moment of renunciation is all the more poignant.

The final montage of the film is one of the most exquisitely, beautifully orchestrated pieces of sound design that I have ever seen. As Seb plays, the camera treats us to a vision of a world that might-have-been, if only things had turned out somewhat differently, if only they each of them had been able to do pursue their dreams while also allowing their love to flourish, if only…If only this were the world as we would like it to be rather than the world as it is. We see Sebastian make one crucially different decision, and we see what their lives would have been like together. We are invited to experience two alternative ideas of time, the what-might-have-been and the what-is, the latter always tinging and limning the former with a despairing awareness that we know, we know, that this joyful life can never be.

While we have come to associate the genres of the musical and the romantic comedy with the sort of happy endings so common in romantic films produced in Hollywood, La La Land denies that element of closure that we have come to expect. They part ways, sharing just one glance, a look far more meaningful than any words could ever be. Yet despite the fact that the two leads do not end up together–and despite the fact that Mia is seemingly happy married and has quietly settled down into her life of fame, fortune, and family, something doesn’t ring quite right. We wonder if she is really as happy as she appears, or whether she will always remain haunted by the question: what if? And for Sebastian, the question is even more acute, as we are led to believe that he is romantically unattached, his heart no doubt still yearning for a woman he cannot have.

If ever there were a film that spoke to the tortured and pained zeitgeist of 2016–a year that saw so many beloved figures and dreams fall into oblivion–a year that saw an eminently qualified woman and a progressive future go down in flames and in its place rise up a terrifying regime seemingly intent on rolling back the last 8 years as if they had never been. Though this is of course a romance, it is also a distillation of the political and cultural milieu in which it was released, a reminder that, though we would like to believe the world is a uncomplicated place where loves are fulfilled and the world becomes a better place, the truth is very much the opposite.

All About Eve

Screening Classic Hollywood: “All About Eve” (1950)

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This post is part of the “Try It, You’ll Like It!” Blogathon, hosted by Sister Celluloid and Movies Silently, where we write about “gateway films” that might bring non-classic-film lovers into the fold! For all the entries, click here!

All About Eve has long been one of my favourite films.  With its sharply written and snappy dialogue, its flawless casting, and its compelling and somewhat disturbing reflections on the nature of stardom and fandom in the Hollywood system, the film serves as a great entry point for those interested in classic Hollywood cinema (hence my focus on it for this blogathon).  If you are looking for a film that gives you insight into the workings of Hollywood in its golden age, look no further than All About Eve.

The film follows the fraught relationship between Margo Channing (Bette Davis), a strong-willed and successful Broadway actress and her protege and later replacement Eve (Anne Baxter).  While Eve begins the film as the starstruck fan of Margo, it becomes increasingly clear that she has designs on both the career of her idol and her husband.  While she ultimately succeeds in supplanting Margo in the eyes of the consuming public, she also becomes increasingly jaded and cynical, the victim of her own ambitions.  The film ends with Eve herself obtaining a young protege, one who might perpetuate the cycle.

The film, like others of the period (including Sunset Boulevard), remains interested in the contours and nature of female stardom.  Of course, given that this is 1950s Hollywood, it should come as no surprise that the thoroughly empowered and career-minded Margo eventually decides to largely withdraw from that aspect of her life in order to focus on her frayed marriage.  She realizes, as any “good” 1950s woman would, that she will gain much more satisfaction out of her domestic life than she will as an actress.   However, given that this is Bette Davis we’re talking about here, there is no small amount of ambiguity about how seriously we as viewers are supposed to take her supposed domestication (in my opinion, not very.  How can you domesticate Bette Davis, after all?)

In marked contrast, Eve is as rapacious as she is talented, striving to take everything that she wants, regardless of who she has to step on or who she has to hurt on her way to both career and sexual happiness.  What makes her sinister, of course, is that she appears to be so genuine.  Indeed, we are led to believe that, like so many fans in classical Hollywood films, she has allowed the boundary to dangerously blur between her own identity and that which she wants to become.

More insidiously, the film also seems to suggest that female friendship is either inherently toxic and catty or, alternatively, a slipper slope into the danger zone of desire.  It always remains slightly unclear whether Eve desires to be Margo, desires her (and thus attempts to to satisfy that desire by trying to seduce her husband), or some combination of the two.  And it is precisely this ambiguity that gives the film its bite.

Thus, the queer overtones in this film are hard to miss (see below for a couple of great books that discuss the film in some detail), and both Baxter and Sanders seem to relish their roles as the two devilishly queer characters.  Addison, not surprisingly, considers himself a Svengali and tries to mold Eve into the kind of woman that he wants to her to be and she, likewise, wants to do what she wants to do.  The ongoing tension between the two of them makes for one of the more compelling and deliciously corrupt parts of the entire story.

What really stands out, however, is the ending, in which a star-struck young fan manages to sneak into Eve’s room.  The last shot of the film is of this young woman, holding Eve’s trophy in front of a set of mirrors, her reflection stretching off infinitely into the future.  We are left in no doubt that the cycle of which Eve herself was a part will continue, that she will one day be replaced by a younger, more vivacious version of herself.  And unlike Margo, she probably will not have domestic bliss as a solace.

All About Eve is one of those splendid films that uses the conventions of classic Hollywood to cast a light on the ways in which the film industry is a cyclical monster, pulling in and spitting out its stars, particularly women.  However, it is also a relentlessly and bitingly enjoyable film, one of the great gems of old Hollywood.  Just as importantly, it highlights that one thing that makes the old films so much fun:  the dominance of women.  For all of its latent (and sometimes overt) misogyny, classical Hollywood was an industry and a system that relied on the glamour of its female stars.  And All About Eve shows why such a system worked so well for so long.

If you’d like to read more about queer readings of All About Eve, I recommend Robert Corber’s book Cold War Femme and Patricia White’s Uninvited as excellent starting points.

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Screening Classic Hollywood: “Sudden Fear” (1952)

Say what you will, but no one could play a victimized, melodramatic heroine like Joan Crawford.  Her talents in this area are certainly on conspicuous display in the 1952 film Sudden Fear, in which she plays a popular and successful playwright Myra, who falls for a moderately talented actor Lester (Jack Palance), only to discover that he, along with his former lover Irene (Gloria Grahame) have hatched a plot to kill her.  Fortunately, she’s quite a bit brighter than they are, and so she manages to escape from them.  In the end, Lester runs over Irene in the mistaken belief that she is Myra (they are wearing a similar scarf), killing both himself and her.

One of the most compelling things about this film is the way in which it plays with voice.  It is due to the inadvertent recording of his plot by a dictaphone that Lester and Irene utilize to hatch their scheme.  The disembodied voice continues haunts Myra, an ethereal reminder of the fact that the man she has (admittedly foolishly) fallen in love with has decided that she is to be dispensed with in favor of his own desire for wealth.

There is something intensely, almost viscerally satisfying, about the fact that Lester, in his desire to kill his well-meaning and benevolent wife, ends up killing both himself and his conspirator.  Myra may be somewhat of a foolish and impulsive heroine, falling in love with a man that she barely knows and rendering herself vulnerable by attempting to leave her money and wealth to him.  However, it is precisely her generousness of spirit that makes Lester’s betrayal of her all the more despicable.  What’s more, he is absolutely ruthless in his attempts to kill her, chasing her relentlessly through the streets of San Francisco, his face and eyes becoming increasingly crazed as she continues to elude him.  Not surprisingly, we in the audience continue to cheer her on, and we feel vindicated at the poetic justice of his own destruction.

Crawford and Palance make for a compelling and somewhat unusual screen couple.  Palance was not the most handsome of movie stars, and his near-skeletal features always rendered him more appropriate for villainous roles.  He manages here to tap into a powerful male rage, one engendered in both the film’s diegesis and the broader culture by the ever-present male fear of not being able to provide or earn a living on his own.  You can practically see it seething beneath the surface, those deep-set eyes betraying the fury ever-ready to burst into the world.  Crawford offers a nice balance to him, a woman who has built her own successful career as a writer and who possesses a fundamental strength of character that allows her to survive the attempts to kill her.  However, she also exudes a certain measure of vulnerability, a willingness to believe, however foolishly, that she can also have love and completion with the man (seemingly) of her dreams.

In many ways, this film feels a bit out of its time, combining as it does the heightened emotions and victimized womanhood of the women’s films of the 1930s and the darkness of the film noirs of the 1940s.  Somehow, though, it manages to bring all of these elements together into a compelling film, and that final image of Myra/Crawford striding into the camera, head flung back in triumph, really brings it all together.  It is a stunning and uplifting reminder of the power of the Crawford star persona.  Even decades after her death, this persona manages to combine female strength and vulnerability in one indelible image that retains its power.

Score:  9/10

Screening Classic Hollywood: “Ivanhoe” (1952)

Based on the famous novel by Sir Walter Scott, MGM’s film Ivanhoe is something of a generic hybrid, combining the boom and bluster of the traditional epic (the same studio had produced the Roman epic Quo Vadis the year before) and the swashbucklers that were such a notable part of studio production during the 1930s (such as The Adventures of Robin Hood and Captain Blood, both starring Errol Flynn).  However, the film is worth watching, as much for the beautiful production values (what film produced by MGM wasn’t exquisite?) as for the plot.

Set during the reign of King Richard, the film depicts the struggles within his kingdom between the native Saxons such as Cedric (Finlay Currie) and his disinherited son Ivanhoe (Robert Taylor) and the Normans, especially the knight De Blois-Guilbert (George Sanders).  Caught up in the conflict are the Jews of England, notably Isaac of York (Felix Aylmer) and his beautiful daughter Rebecca (Elizabeth Taylor),  the latter of whom finds herself pursued by De Blois-Guilbert, who falls desperately and somewhat hopelessly in love with her.  The cunning Prince John, however, attempts to thwart their union and puts Rebecca on trial for witchcraft.  The brave Ivanhoe enters a joust to save her, defeats and kills De Bois-Guilbert, and the film ends with the triumphant return of King Richard and the deposing of Prince John.

While the film follows the plot of the novel in its broader contours, there are some notable excisions, most of which make the film stronger and more economical in its storytelling.  However, some of the novel’s original historical purposes have also been effaced, for while the novel remains steadfastly interested in the ways in which England became England as a result of the gradual melding of Anglo-Saxon and Norman identities, the film seems more interested in the various love triangles that exist at the dramatic heart of the film.  Furthermore, Scott’s original work places a great deal more attention on the plight of the Jews of medieval England, while the film seems to see their ethnic identity as incidental to the main aspects of the plot.

Furthermore, Ivanhoe in the film becomes a much more powerful and active figure than he is in the original novel (in which he is largely laid low for the course of the novel, often a man to whom things happen rather than one who effects change on his own account).  In the hands of the always-stalwart Robert Taylor, he becomes a more traditional swashbuckling/chivalric hero, a true knight determined to protect those weaker than he is and to see the return of true honor and chivalry in the person of the imprisoned King Richard.  While I am not Taylor’s biggest fan (he is serviceable but lacks, in my opinion, a certain charisma that I usually respond to), he does bring a certain measure of honorable gravitas to his interpretation of Ivanhoe.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the film is not terribly interested in the roles of trials of women (this is in marked contrast to the novel, which consistently points out the ways in which women occupy a marginal and often exploited status within medieval culture).  However, Joan Fontaine delivers a creditable performance as the Saxon princess Rowena, bringing her usual grace to the role.  And while I often like Elizabeth Taylor, she doesn’t quite bring out the tragic pathos that is such a crucial part of Rebecca’s character in the novel (which may be due to the fact that she gets so much less narrative attention than her literary counterpart), and the script doesn’t quite seem to know what to do with her talents.  Quite a shame, really, as she could have really shined as Rowena.

One last note on casting.  I always love seeing Sanders in a film, largely because no other actor besides, perhaps Basil Rathbone and Vincent Price could so compellingly play a villain.  Somehow, though, Sanders manages to inflect De Bois-Guilbert with a greater complexity as a character than emerges in Scott’s novel, to such an extent that we almost feel sorry for him when he is eventually struck down.  It’s rare to see Sanders playing someone who actually has a sympathetic side, and so this film was refreshing in offering him a little more flexibility.

All in all, Ivanhoe is a fine film, with some compelling visuals and a strong score provided by the immensely talented Miklos Rozsa.  However, it doesn’t really ask the same sorts of historical questions as either the book upon which it is based, the other epics of the period, nor even other films set in a similar period.  This is not necessarily a bad thing all told, but as someone who really loves the novel, Scott’s original work casts a long shadow that the film does not (and possibly cannot) live up to.

Score:  7.5/10

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Screening Classic Hollywood: “Kiss Me Kate” (1953)

As a queer, I’ve always had a great appreciation for the musical (I know, I know, what a stereotype, blah blah blah).  There’s just something glorious about the midcentury musical, in particular those produced by MGM, the grand dame of the studio system, the one studio that one could count on (in its heyday, anyway), to produce a glossy, shiny, fabulous film.   Thus, when I was cruising about on TCM and saw that Kiss Me Kate was showing, I knew I had to watch it.

Despite being divorced, Fred and Lilli (Howard Keel and Kathryn Grayson), find themselves starring in an adaptation of Shakespeare’s play The Taming of the Shrew).  The bulk of the film follows the performance of the play, with several Cole Porter songs thrown into the mix (this probably helps to explain the film’s undeniable queer appeal).  Just as the mains of the play find themselves irresistibly drawn to each other, so do Lilli and Fred also become increasingly convinced that they should get back together which, in true Hollywood musical fashion, they ultimately do.

In terms of cinematography, the color serves as important a function as anything that happens in the narrative.  Not surprisingly, the Technicolor is almost lurid in its intensity, speaks in a language in excess of what is happening between the characters.  Thus, while the two leads are constantly squabbling with one another and trying to avoid speaking the words that they know would allow them to say how they really feel for each other, the colors of their outfits grow increasingly saturated, until the redness of their respective costumes is so glaring that you can’t possibly ignore it.  It speaks in a language that exceeds that of the narrative, the tempestuous and unruly law of desire that always threatens to overcome even the most resistant of people.

Howard Keel has always done something for me.  While I often find the patriarchal characters he plays utterly repugnant at an ideological level, I often find that it is precisely because he is so transparently misogynist that he is so attractive (and I strong suspect this might be why so many people found him attractive in the times in which he appeared).  Whether starring as the hirsute eldest brother in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers or the bellicose Hannibal in the divinely awful Jupiter’s Darling, or even as Wild Bill in Calamity Jane (costarring Doris Day), there is always something tremendously sexy (yes, I said it), about this paragon of masculinity.  And there is no one in classic Hollywood, and very few since then, who have managed to inflect their voices with such booming power (I’m a sucker for a great male voice).

Of course, I am also not blind to the almost toxic amount of patriarchy permeating this film.  I mean, it is based on one of Shakespeare’s most notoriously misogynistic plays, starring a man who almost inevitably performed in roles that required the subjugating (sometimes quite brutally and cruelly) of a woman who dared to resist his charms.  And, as in those other films, Keel’s hero remains largely unchanged by the end of the film and, I suspect, we are happy to see him so, for to tame him would be to remove those very aspects of his personality that make him so erotically appealing.  (As you can see, I like to think that my own queer readings of the film help to offset at least some of the more problematic and vexing aspects of its ideology).

All in all, Kiss Me Kate manages to combine the best of Shakespeare with the best of the midcentury MGM musical formula.  The Technicolor (not surprisingly) is as lurid as it is appealing, and the musical numbers are as spirited as one would expect from an MGM musical from the period of its greatest flowering.  As long as you’re able to bracket the gender problematics–and anyone who has learned to love classic Hollywood has probably developed that skill in ample measure), this is truly one musical you can sing along to.

If you want to read more about the MGM musical and the ways in which queer men in particular responded to them, I highly recommend the following books:

Cohan, Steven.  Incongruous Entertainment:  Camp, Cultural Value, and the MGM Musical.  Durham:  Duke University Press, 2005.

Farmer, Brett.  Spectacular Passions:  Cinema, Fantasy, Gay Male Spectatorships.  Durham:  Duke University Press, 2000.

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Screening History: “The Bible: In the Beginning”

Today’s entry in “Screening History” is John Huston’s The Bible:  In the Beginning, the last of the truly-great biblical epics that were such a part of the midcentury film landscape.  It’s very easy to mock the historico-biblical epic. Often, even the most devout of epic films can slip easily into the ridiculous, but somehow this film manages to avoid that trap, deftly straddling the sacred and the savage, pointing out how our deepest myths also express our darkest fears and most destructive tendencies.

The film covers several of the most important moments in the book of Genesis:  the Creation and expulsion from Eden; Noah and the Great Flood; the construction of the Tower of Babel; the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah; and the saga of Abraham, Isaac, and Ishmael.  In fact, the film ends with this last, particularly God’s sparing of Isaac’s life on the altar.

The expulsion from Eden is a truly evocative moment in the film, one that brings out many of the apocalyptic undertones that seem to always hover at the edge of the biblical epic.  One can feel the terror pulsing through the veins of the first humans, as they face the rage of the God they have disobeyed.  The conflict between Cain and Abel is also suitably disconcerting, in large part because of Richard Harris’s strangled, inarticulate portrayal of the first murderer, who is ultimately branded for the slaying of his brother.

George C. Scott, scenery-chewer that he is, nevertheless conveys a great deal of the tortured and tormented patriarch that Abraham undoubtedly was, pulled in multiple directions by both the women in his life and by the many tasks and tribulations visited upon him by the God that has, allegedly, taken him under His wing.  We can also see the ways in which the years weigh heavenly upon him, until by the end of the film he appears as more of a skeleton than the proud and overbearing patriarch that we normally associate with his countenance in biblical illustration.  And his partner in crime, Ava Gardner, simmers as the embittered Sarai/Sarah, her faith tested just as much as her husband’s by God’s ongoing delay in providing them the son they so desperately need.

Abraham's wasted visage bears witness to the bodily consequence of serving his God.

Abraham’s wasted visage bears witness to the bodily consequence of serving his God.

The scenes involving Lot and the ultimate destruction of Sodom are shockingly visually compelling while also intensely problematic and repugnant.  Whereas the feature-length film Sodom and Gomorrah preferred to depict the sins of Sodom as being centered around the (admittedly rather generic) cruelty and sadism of the queen and her cronies, this film certainly buys into the idea that it was the sins of homosexuality and gender deviance that led to God’s wrath and the ultimate destruction upon the cities on the plain.

There are a few points of slight ridiculousness, particularly the part of the film dealing with Noah and the destruction of the world by water.  Surprisingly, this part is openly played for comedy, with Noah becoming more of a buffoon than an Old Testament patriarch.  There is also the unfortunate fact that Huston is also the voice of God and the narrator, which results in a doubling that it is sometimes difficult to take entirely seriously.  Equally silly is the portion dealing with the construction of the Tower of Babel, which features a heavily-made-up Stephen Boyd as the King Nimrod.  While visually intriguing, it remains something of a mystery why exactly this portion of the film appears as it does.

The overwrought (and overly made-up) Stephen Boyd as Nimrod.

The overwrought (and overly made-up) Stephen Boyd as Nimrod.

For all that it is a “biblical” film and thus suspect to charges of ahistoricity, the film does seem to want to address, if in a metaphysical way, the beginnings of man and the questions and crises that continue to haunt us, even in our supposedly more rational and explicable world of modernity.  Why do men continue to seek out knowledge, with no thought to its brutal consequences?  Why do people suffer?  What is (or should be) the nature of our relationship to the animal world?  Why do humans continue to destroy one another, even though it will bring about his own destruction?  And why does he continue to hope, even in the face of all of this, for a world beyond his own temporal and embodied existence?

The film raises these questions, but ultimately it does not have the language to answer them, for the God of the Old Testament is a terrifying and capricious entity, raining down his wrath on the unsuspecting humans who serve him.  What’s more, the world that The Bible depicts is one full of brutality and human sacrifice, of animality and cruelty, and the God that reigns over it all does little to actually provide the answers that his human servants seek.  While the film ends optimistically with the binding and saving of Isaac, even this bears with it the inscrutability of God’s desire to see Abraham sacrifice the son for which he has hoped.  The film suggests that there might be an answer, somewhere in our collective psyche, but it’s a fool errand to attempt to find that answer in the book from which the film takes its name.

Although George Stevens’s The Greatest Story Ever Told is usually accorded the dubious honor of killing the biblical epic once and for all, and for being the last cinematic production of its kind until Gladiator reignited the genre for the new millennium, I actually think The Bible deserves the latter distinction (though not, I think, the former).  It is, all told, a quite uneven film, but it is not quite as ponderously reverent as The Greatest Story, and it seems that American audiences liked it well enough.  It is a truly haunting and in many ways bleak film, a sign perhaps of the growing sense that the old ways of making sense of the world, so proudly trumpeted by the earlier iterations of the genre, no longer held the same sort of authority.  For those interested in the ways in which the epic film responds to the pressures of its time, The Bible:  In the Beginning serves as a fascinating case study

Score:  8.5/10

In Memoriam: Maureen O’Hara

Today we learned of the sad passing of actress Maureen O’Hara, one of the finest of the blazing stars of classical Hollywood. Known for her portrayals of competent and fiercely independent women, she was also known for co-starring with John Wayne in a number of hilarious comedies, including McLintock! 

I’ve long had a deeply personal relationship with the O’Hara. Both my mother and grandmother have long been fans of hers, and I have spent many hours enjoying her finest films with two of the strongest and most amazing women I have been privileged to know. I can still remember watching Disney’sThe Parent Trap and finding Maureen utterly compelling, her independent spirit shining through in all of its radiant glory. Perhaps it was because Maureen reminded me so much of my mother and grandmother–they were both of Irish descent with red hair and independent spirits–that I felt such a strong connection to her.

While her work in classical Hollywood has certainly defined her legacy (and rightly so), I happen to be one of those people who also remembers one of O’Hara’s last films, the TV specialThe Christmas Box, in which she managed to convey that signature blend of steely toughness and caring gentleness, lending her powerful screen persona to a sweet little Christmas story.

Unfortunately, I have not been blind to this formidable actress’s struggles as she has grown older, including both her health struggles and squabbles among her various family members. However, I comfort myself with the knowledge that she carried on despite everything, a pillar of strength even during these incredibly trying times.

As I’ve grown older and my feminist reading skills have developed, I’ve come to both appreciate O’Hara’s feminist works and also to see the full range of the ways in which her star text embodied many of the tensions surrounding female stars. While she embodied everything that is best about female independence, the films she starred in often worked overtime to tame the very aspects of her star text that made her so compelling in the first place. There’s the infamous spanking in McLintock!, the taming of the shrew plot in The Parent Trap, and the softening efforts of Miracle on 34th Street. None, however, manage to fully tame that fiery Irish spirit. Perhaps my favorite role of hers is one I only recently discovered: that of Judy O’Brien in Dance, Girl, Dance, in which she castigates her burlesque show audience.

Maureen O’Hara was truly a magnificent talent, and the film world will certainly be a great deal poorer without her.

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Screening History: “Barabbas” (1962)

Every so often, a genre manages to produce a film that exceeds its generic restrictions, that rises above the worst tendencies of its predecessors and becomes a work of transcendent and powerful beauty.  Barabbas, the 1962 film, is just one of those entries.  Emerging out of the midcentury cycle of historico-biblical epics that had already produced some truly fine films (such as Ben-Hur and Spartacus), Barabbas continued to demonstrate the ways in which the epic could tackle the pressing questions faced by a world coming to terms with its place in the greater temporal scheme of history.

Taking as its subject the minor biblical figure of Barabbas–the man pardoned and released while Christ was crucified–the film follows Barabbas as he struggles to make sense of the world in the aftermath of Jesus’s death.  Denied his own ability to die, he can only watch powerlessly as his lover is stoned to death by an angry mob and he is eventually sent to prison and hard labor in the sulfur mines of Sicily.  He is eventually freed from the mines by a collapse, but is then taken to Rome to fight in the arena.  There, he witnesses the death of his friend (and Christian) Sahak (Vittorio Gassman) and, after burying him with appropriate solemnity in the catacombs, he partakes in a great fire.  Convicted of treason by Rome, he is crucified with numerous other Christians, and the film ends with his death.

A film like Barabbas could only have been produced in the 1960s, when the genre of the historical epic had not only begun to fray, but when the religious and political culture that had given birth to it had also begun to crumble under the onslaught of the changes of the era.  While certainly many of the conflicts and contradictions of the 1950s roiled beneath the surface of many earlier epics (as I have argued elsewhere), the end of the cycle saw them exploding onto the surface of the film itself.  Thus, Barabbas stages the fundamental conflict between embodiment and transcendence, a binary and a tension that it never entirely resolves to its own (or the viewer’s) satisfaction.

Quinn’s Barabbas is a man who struggles to think of any world outside of the body.  He grunts and groans and sweats across the screen (to paraphrase one review of the film), every aspect of his manner an indicator of his embodied-ness and his rootedness in his own world.  Quinn’s strangled vocalizations only heighten this sense of his own untranscendent nature, his own inability to find satisfaction beyond his own limited views of the world.

It’s really no wonder that finds it so difficult to attain the sense of transcendence that the Christians around him do.  As a poor man in the stews of Jerusalem, his only distraction is in engaging in drinking and whoring, and then the Romans force him to first work in the sulfur mines and finally in the arena.  Again and again, the film denies him the possibility of transcending or even understanding; he is only ever a body that manages to survive rather than actually live.  Even as the film nears its end, he finds that he cannot entirely conceive of the world beyond the flesh that the Christians constantly espouse.  After seeing that the city has been set aflame, he decides that it must indeed (as the Romans assert) be the Christians that have set it, and so he joins in the fray.  Unfortunately, he does not realize that the Christians have no set the fire, the emperor has, and he has thus inadvertently sentenced all of them to death.  Like so many other epic heroes of the midcentury cycle, he seems powerless to change the course of events that surround him, even when it is his actions, unintended as they are, that set them in motion.

The film favors a darker, more somber colour palette than one sees in many of the other Technicolor epics of the period, in keeping with the darkness and bleakness of the worldview.  And no discussion of the film would be complete without mentioning Jack Palance, who as always brings his own particular brand of skeletal psychopathy to the role of one of the arena’s premier players.  His death, while immensely satisfying, is also yet another sign of the fact that Barabbas cannot quite escape the cycle of death and mortality that keeps him mired in the world in which he finds himself.

Barabbas is an intensely evocative and haunting film, one that is sure to stay with you long after the credits roll.  In many ways, the ending is even bleaker and more pessimistic than Spartacus (to which it can be compared).  Even at the end, it remains ambiguous whether Barabbas has truly understood the message preached by Christ, of the possibility of a world beyond that of the body.  And indeed the last shot we get is of Barabbas’ abjected body hanging on the cross, having finally achieved the death that has eluded him since his fateful exchange with Jesus, a fatal reminder of the futility of embodied human agency.

Score:  10/10

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Screening Classic Hollywood: “The Postman Always Rings Twice” (1946)

Perhaps no genre is as synonymous with the 1940s as the film noir, that dark and seedy body of films that peeled away the veneer of respectability that other genres such as the musical presented to reveal the rottenness beneath American culture.  This is certainly the case with the 1946 film The Postman Always Rings Twice, one of the most iconic and justly famous noirs.

The film follows Frank Chambers (John Garfield) as a drifter who ends up working at a diner for its chubby but likable owner Nick (Cecil Kellaway) and his beautiful (and much younger) wife Cora (Lana Turner).  Cora and Frank immediately become attracted to one another, and they soon hatch a plan to murder Nick and run away together.  While they succeed and manage to elude the law, they soon begin quarreling with one another, and after an unfortunate accident claims Cora’s life, Frank becomes ensnared in the legal system once again, though this time death is his sure reward.

As always, the femme fatale emerges as the film’s most compelling and most contradictory figure. As always, one cannot entirely blame her for her decision to run away with another man.  Her husband is hardly am interesting man, and while the film never says so explicitly, one can guess that an even younger Cora probably married Nick in order to gain a small measure of financial and domestic security.  Frank, on the other hand, represents all that is dangerous and exciting in the world (and thus everything her husband is not), even if he is also substantially less respectable.

While there are some who deride Lana Turner as one of the Hollywood stars who had more looks than talent (and there’s no denying that the camera does love her), she does bring a peculiar sort of dynamism and emotional volatility to Cora.  This is a woman who is clearly a great deal brighter and ambitious than her husband, and who has grown frustrated with the domestic life that has entrapped her.  All of this is ample material for Turner to utilize, and she does so to full effect.  Just as importantly, Lana is also infinitely more interesting than her co-star John Garfield, who is a serviceable but also rather bland hero.

Thus, for the sophisticated and resistant viewer, the fiction that Frank spins around his motivations reads as just a little too pat, a little too assured to be entirely true.  The film never wants us to see this, of course, content to grant him the status of a morally dubious male antihero.  Yet Garfield does not have the same sort of authorial and narrational assurance of a Humphrey Bogart, for example, with the effect that we (or at least I), don’t find him to be all that convincing when he consistently takes such pains to paint himself as the victim of someone else’s manipulation.  Like so many other noirs, the entire film is told from his point of view, but that doesn’t mean that we, as the audience, necessarily have to believe everything that he says.

And then, of course, there is the disconcerting fact that Nick is one of film noir’s most boring and plodding husbands, even worse than Phyllis’s husband in Double Indemnity (who was more angry and seething).  Like those other husbands, however, he does not seem to know, or care, that Cora may have desires of her own that exist beyond the confines of the domestic world in which she is currently entrapped.  He is amiable enough, but we’re not invited to feel particularly sorry for him when he is struck down.  In the film’s representational scheme, he is the outward sign of the internal emptiness that always seems to afflict the post-war world’s sense of itself.

Like the best noirs, The Postman Always Rings Twice allows us to indulge our own worst natures, the things about ourselves, both individually and collectively, that we would like the world to believe either don’t exist or remain in control.  While the film ultimately punishes its evil doers–the law being, ultimately, the postman of the title–the inexorability of the law remains cold comfort.  But then again, what did you expect from a film noir?

Score:  9/10

David_and_Bathsheba_(1951)

Screening History: “David and Bathsheba” (1951)

Not long ago, I had the joy of rewatching Henry King’s subdued yet powerful David and Bathsheba, a biblical epic that is more thoughtful than most and that has yet to receive the credit it deserves.  It is unfortunate that it came before the era of widescreen and the masterpieces that emerged in the latter part of the 1950s and early 1960s:  The Ten Commandments (1956), Ben-Hur (1959), Spartacus (1960), and even some films that were only recognized as classics after the fact, such as Nicholas Ray’s Christ biopic King of Kings (1961).  Nevertheless, as a rather anomalous entry in a genre that is often either critically neglected or regarded with camp humour and derision, David and Bathsheba is a fascinating glimpse into what a genre can do when it is still taking shape.

The film stars Gregory Peck and Susan Hayward as the title pair of star-crossed biblical lovers, David and Bathsheba.  David is the tormented and contradictory king of Israel, while Bathsheba is the lusty and desirable wife of Uriah, one of David’s faithful (if rather dense and often unfeeling) soldiers.  When David sees Bathsheba bathing (not realizing that she has rendered herself visible to him, knowing that he will see her), he falls head over heels in lust/love with her, setting off a chain of events that will lead to the premeditated death of Uriah and the divine, prophetic wrath of the scold Nathan (Raymond Massey in all of his biblical, patriarchal glory).  Eventually the two lovers are forgiven by God, and the film ends happily, if somewhat unsettlingly, ever after.

When I first watched this film several years ago, I was stunned by how sensitive the film was to the experiences of biblical women.  The historico-biblical epic, after all, is not known for being a genre especially concerned with the female experience (or the experience of many minorities, for that matter), but this film is part of that very small subset of epics that actually give any amount of attention to women (others include DeMille’s Samson and Delilah and the much later The Story of Ruth).  Bathsheba is a woman frustrated with the way in which her society denies her any power and control over her destiny and especially angered by her husband Uriah’s refusal to either satisfy her own sexual needs or indeed grant her any agency whatsoever (or even to acknowledge that she would want it).  Uriah is the biblical patriarchal figure distilled into its finest essence, utterly unconcerned with women except inasmuch as they serve the needs of men.

While I am not Susan Hayward’s biggest fan, she does manage to convey a measure of the enigmatic female beauty that no doubt drew David down the path of self-destruction.  Yet despite the fact that she emerges as the film’s femme fatale figure (the film reads as much as a noir as it does an epic).  What’s more, she also admirably captures the frustrations that Bathsheba experiences in a world designed to oppress women.  That being the case, she uses the only weapons this world has given her:  her body and her sexuality.  While the film stops just short of valorizing this, it does offer a sympathetic view of the ways in which a set of social institutions can imprison a woman so that she feels she has no other way out except her body.

Peck, likewise, brings to the role of David a great measure of conflicted and tortured masculinity.  With his deep, powerful voice and handsome features, one can easily understand ow why and how Bathsheba would have risked everything to be with this truly kingly figure.  As with so many of his finest roles, Peck manages to convey sensitivity without abrogating the masculine persona that makes him such an erotically appealing hero.  Beneath that breathtakingly handsome face there roils the sexually and spiritually haunted man, haunted by the death of his childhood friend (and something more?) Jonathan, and by the fact that he has given up his connection with his God in order to pursue the woman whom he truly loves.

Massey’s Nathan is a perfect counterpart to Peck’s David, a truly patriarchal figure, his stentorian voice and granite-like features fitting the part of the punishing prophet of the Old Testament.  His thunderous condemnations of David’s adultery is a perpetual reminder of the fundamentally repressive nature of this ancient world, where sexual desire is always wedded to the possibility of death.  The Old Testament God is a wrathful entity, determined to reign in and keep in check the powers of the flesh and the unruliness of sexual desire.

The film’s subdued yet seething aesthetic may have something to do with the studio that produced it.  Fox, after all, was a studio that was quite famous for its social problem films, and indeed studio head Zanuck was always obsessed with creating a story that had compelling and conflicted characters at its heart.  While not as grand in scope as some of its successors and contemporaries (it is interesting to note that MGM’s lush, sumptuous, and decadent Quo Vadis premiered the same year as this film), David and Bathsheba is nevertheless a compelling and thoughtful meditation on the role of sexual desire and the damage that it can inflect upon those who experience and encounter it.

Score:  10/10