Archive for Edgar Ulmer

LATE IT WAS, HOW LATE

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Politics, Radio, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 5, 2017 by dcairns

Regular Late Show participant Matthew David Wilder is a screenwriter (Paul Schrader’s DOG EAT DOG) and director, but I first became aware of him as one of the few people using reviews on the early IMDb as vehicles for actual ideas. Here he is on the way we live now, in these late days ~

HOW LATE IT WAS, HOW LATE

by Matthew Wilder

I’ve noticed a little nervous squinch—that tiny pulse at the far left side of my left eyeball—that usually comes from too much caffeine. It starts annoying me because I shuttle in a most annoyed way from close-up-vision glasses to far-off-distance glasses. Right now, as I feel the squinch, I am shifting from close-up glasses to far-off glasses as the monitor I am looking at is now a little bit farther than it is close. The picture I am staring at is Regarding the Case of Joan of Arc, a movie I shot in July that features, in almost every frame, a great but only moderately well-known actress named Nicole LaLiberte, best known as the femme fatale we assumed would be around for a long time in Twin Peaks: The Return, but who was dispatched with terrifying swiftness by the Bad Agent Cooper.

The genius of the scene is that David Lynch and Mark Frost have Nicole’s character repeatedly ask, within the same scene, “Are you gonna kill me?” to which Bad Coop says “Yes…” There is something terrifyingly childlike about that notion of re-asking a terrifying question and hoping to get a different answer. Eventually Bad Coop makes good on his yeses.

The squinch keeps pulsing as I look at a scene of Nicole’s character being waterboarded.

In our picture, Nicole is Joan of Arc, an alt-right Christian militia terrorist who blows up federal buildings because her voices have told her to take back America for Jesus Christ. As a result of her purity of purpose and her virginal character, she has the same kind of supporters Trump has, but more. She owns a good fifty percent of the populace. Even people who disagree with her politics respect her self-sacrificing and rigidly uncompromising vision.

In the scene, Joan says “I don’t, and can’t, know what is in their hearts.” We have dropped in a version of the line that sounds more Middle American and less precise, like “I doand, and cand, know what is in their hearts.”

As the doand and cand are about to go in, a little ting, like a coin falling in a cup, lands on my phone, and I see an email has arrived. It’s from a film festival in Texas, asking “a number of people who think a lot about movies” to answer the question “Is cinema over?”

A few moments before “Is cinema over?” landed in my lap, some other events came to me by phone. The Republicans passed a tax bill generally considered a wild looting of the Treasury by many sane, centrist people, a giant redistribution of money upward that involved such gleeful moments as lobbyists writing in special dispensations for special friends in pen during the sleepover party at which the Senate passed the bill.

In the same moment I discover that a host of National Public Radio, someone I’ve never heard of before, is being fired for “inappropriate behavior,” one of which is signing an email “xoxo.” The portrait of this gentleman depicts him looking somewhat enfeebled in a wheelchair, which somehow—is this intentional or just my interpretation?—scores as “See? We’re gettin’ ‘em ALL!” rather than “Isn’t this just too sad?”

Joan’s head is seen on a sort of dentist’s-chair-cum-surgical-table-cum-torture-device. Her head is down low and her feet, out of frame, are up high, as if she were lying on an upended seesaw. Are you gonna kill me? ……Yes.. I look at the phone again, which gives me evidence from a friend of people piling on Richard Brody’s attack on Woody Allen’s character in a review of Wonder Wheel. The Texas question sticks with me: Is cinema over?

Immediately there is an attempt to evade the question. Over what? is one way. What difference would it make if it were over or not? is another. But the intention is clear. We know what the guy who wrote this question was thinking. Is “cinema”—that thing where people gather in an operahouse-like setting (which runs the gamut all the way from majestic to degraded) to see moving pictures, together, historically on celluloid, in a communal experience of laughing or crying or being bored together—over? As in dead.

I pull out my notebook. The page I am about to write on is full of little mispronouncements in our picture’s dialogue. You said you wanted to meet with a spiritual advisuh. Some of them are crossed out, done, some of them persist. Next to them, on the next page, I write Is cinema done? and under that EXAMPLES OF NOT DONE.

Here is a pause.

I think of all the things I have enjoyed in recent times in that big room with people I don’t know in it, and most of them are rather effete, culturally anodyne art objects. Frederick Wiseman reflecting on the good deeds done by idealistic public servants. Bruno Dumont making a kind of comedy so broad it becomes a meditation on the nature of comedy itself.

Stuff someone could write a long, thoughtful article about. But how about cinema itself, invader of the unconscious ¹. Something that hits us on a gut level, as Woody Allen once said, the thing that appeals not to our ideas but to our emotions and senses. Is that still around? I searched the hard drive of my brain for recent examples and could only find one.

I scratched on the page:

guardians vol. 2

It is a commonplace in Los Angeles that everything in movies is story story story, but, as anyone who has seen studio movies in the last 20-odd years knows, that’s not really the case. The story is pro forma, usually a somewhat banged-up and disfigured version of a very generic story (the Boston critic Sean Burns made a delightful case for JUSTICE LEAGUE as an almost exact reworking of THE AVENGERS, somewhat like Gus Van Sant’s PSYCHO, a reworking that got away scot-free because no one could remember the plot of THE AVENGERS enough to see the similarities). The picture that stands out as the most cinematic, in the old-fashioned sense of “pure cinema,” a perfect storm of camera movement, staging, editing, color, sound and score, is James Gunn’s GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 2, and it’s maybe six months since I’ve seen the picture and I can barely remember what it’s about—except that Kurt Russell is a godlike figure who wants Chris Pratt to join the family business, to accept a bear hug from him, to shape up and start doing things like his old man…Except, of course, we discover that the ever-lovable Kurt is not, in fact, an example of lovable old-school manhood but turns out to be a diabolical villain.

Turns out to be. I look at a text from yesterday. I asked a girl who used to work with Garrison Keillor, “Did he ever do anything to you?” I recall her never having a bad word to say about him. She was the only cutie under 50 in his vicinity during the tapings of the show; if he did something, she must’ve known about it. The response I get to the text is “Do I know u? Think u got the wrong #, ”

I write underneath GUARDIANS the following phrases: SHANG-A-LANG + LAKE SHORE DRIVE.

What’s cinematic in GUARDIANS is that the director, James Gunn, somehow got the global commercial juggernaut of Marvel to sign on to a movie about a motley crew of humans and creatures whose universe is lit up in the fluorescent psychedelia of a Gaspar Noe movie, and whose whiz-bang action set pieces are all scored to…nearly forgotten AM-radio hits.

Here is the key to what’s powerful here. It is tiresome, albeit sometimes funny, to repurpose overfamiliar pop songs—see John Lithgow coming down the escalator to some cheesy Barry Manilow in DADDY’S HOME 2. But what is truly powerful—what is the excavation—is when something you’ve almost entirely forgotten comes zooming back in the form of a physically exhilarating set piece: see the tour of alien worlds scored to Aliotta Haynes Jeremiah’s “Lake Shore Drive” in GUARDIANS 2.

Hold on a second—the words don’t fit the mouth. I doand. And cand. Know what is in their hearts. I ask the editor to hit pause. He was born in 1993. “Can I ask you something? Do you remember the song ‘Lake Shore Drive’ in GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY 2?” This chap loves STAR WARS movies—I think he wears a different hoodie with a Sith on it every day—but second to that really digs Marvel movies. He doesn’t, so I play it:

“Ring a bell?”

“Nah, not really.”

“Does it work, though?”

“Oh my God! It’s genius!”

I find this often. Young kids respond to Led Zeppelin or Stevie Nicks as if it had just come out yesterday. No baggage attached to it—they just like it more than the Autotuned things they are offered today. I think there is a certain extra something, however, that comes from being aware of the craziness of that admixture of Liberace twinkling piano, folk-rock shuck ‘n’ jive, and reference to “comin’ on by on LSD” that makes its placement in a 2017 corporate product all the more endearingly insane.

I stare at the notebook. Guardians 2 SHANG-A-LANG + LAKE SHORE DRIVE. Well, there must be something more to it, right? That is “cinema.” It’s just a bunch of ricocheting, highly digitized, extremely artificial-looking set pieces scored to earwormy ditties that remind me of grade school in the Gerald Ford era?

“Can’t we get one of these ‘doand’s to fit with where her mouth opens?”

“I’ve tried all of them,” the PHANTOM MENACE fan says, “but they’re all too late. She’s slower on the ‘doand’ version than when she’s saying ‘don’t.’”

We go back to the earlier, cleaner, nicer, hard-T sound of don’t.

I try to find more reasons for this movie I vividly but only partially remember, reasons other than fleeting euphoric moments in which all the elements of cinema harmonize to make something that crashes into every one of your pleasure centers—but I can’t find any more.

“Matthew, I think I’ve run out of don’ts.”

Someone texts me that there was supposedly a mass shooting at a “You Will Not Replace Us” rally near Roy Moore’s home in Alabama, but it was some fake news.

I find out that a grad-school professor of mine has nine women complaining against him. It’s always nine.

I’d try to make the words fit again, but it’s too late.

You may press me to know what my people are planning, but I can tell you I have no answer. I don’t and can’t know what is in their hearts.

(1). The night after this encounter with “Is cinema done?” I saw Edgar Ulmer’s THE AMAZING TRANSPARENT MAN at the Echo Park Film Center, a room filled with seemingly flammable stacks of super-8 film. An abject, Skid Row invisible-man movie, with one interesting exception. The scientist in it—not a mad one, but the other archetypal kind, the kindly Mitteleuropa Einstein-accented genius who is extorted by evil men to do evil things—we discover cracked, spiritually, because he was forced to do experiments in an Auschwitz-like camp on women with masks on their faces; and, of course, he discovered that one of them was his own wife. At the end, he tells the no-account roughneck whom he has invisibilized that he is to be “a sacrifice,” a Judas goat for the atomic age. Somehow it is as if, in the script form, the real concerns of the artist Ulmer leaked onto the screen. In other words, it’s as if Ulmer’s movie excavated his own unconscious without his being aware of it—a kind of naïve Lynch-ism. (While watching TRANSPARENT I was also at all moments half thinking of the stormy exit from the theatre of a recent ex-friend, at one time the about-to-be editor of JOAN, who came to watch a series of tortured shorts by international arthouse directors, then left in a huff when the tawdry TRANSPARENT come on.)

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A Solo for Three Voices

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on March 15, 2016 by dcairns

Just when everything seemed bleak and colourless like a sepia Kansas farmyard, David Melville Wingrove returns after a too-long absence to continue his series Forbidden Divas ~

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FORBIDDEN DIVAS

A Solo for Three Voices 

“To love oneself is the beginning of a lifelong romance.” ~ Oscar Wilde

No, The Love of Three Queens (1954) is not a movie about a gay ménage a trois. It’s a lavish and multi-stranded folly that showcases Hedy Lamarr – its star and its producer – as three of the Great Women of History. She plays the saintly Genevieve of Brabant in the Middle Ages, the flighty Empress Josephine in the Napoleonic Wars and the sultry Helen of Troy in Ancient Greece. Just in case that is not enough, she also appears in a framing story…as a fresh-faced ingénue (Hedy was forty at the time) who embodies all three women for a wandering Italian theatre troupe.

The term ‘vanity project’ might have been coined specially to describe this film. A sophisticated lady with a famously high IQ (she dabbled in scientific research between movies) Hedy Lamarr rapidly grew tired of the decorative roles foisted on her by Hollywood. Meanwhile, she took little if any responsibility for her own disastrous choices – allegedly turning down Casablanca (1943) and Gaslight (1944), but saying yes to The Conspirators (1944) and Experiment Perilous (1944)! Like any other bored but ambitious leading lady, she took to producing her own films.

She tried this first in Hollywood, with a degree of success. The Strange Woman (1946) was the torrid tale of a scheming backwoods vixen, with George Sanders memorably miscast as a lumberjack. Dishonored Lady (1947) – about a fashion editor with an overactive libido – was a flop, as the clothes were not stunning enough to compensate for the lady’s lack of morals. Hedy’s career, briefly, looked doomed. But then Cecil B DeMille cast her as the Biblical temptress in Samson and Delilah (1949). Nobody, before or since, had worn peacock feathers with such aplomb! Hedy clearly felt it was her destiny to play the legendary sirens of the ages…

1949  Hollywood screen goddess, Hedy Lamarr stars in "Samson and Delilah" directed by Cecil B. De Mille.

Hollywood, as usual, did not see it her way. So Hedy packed her bags, moved to Italy and sank most of her fortune into a production company all her own. Its one and only product, The Love of Three Queens, exists under such a baffling array of titles (Eterna Femmina, L’Amante di Paride, The Knights of Illusion) and in such a bewildering diversity of cuts (from three hours to under 90 minutes) that it is actually quite hard to describe it as a film at all. It has far more the aura of an open-ended and ongoing project, like Walt Disney’s Fantasia or Matthew Barney’s Cremaster Cycle, only with a shade more artistic self-indulgence thrown in.

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The framing story (at least in the version now on DVD) opens with a bunch of gypsy-style caravans trundling through a scenic Italian landscape. A nameless and faceless narrator follows by horse-drawn carriage. He is, he explains, “compelled by beauty beyond a poet’s words, by mystic loveliness that bore the name Leala.” As his voice speaks these words, the shutters on one caravan swing open – and Hedy gazes out languidly at the passing scene. Might she not overhear this narration? Perhaps, be embarrassed by it? Then it strikes us that Hedy – in her role as producer – must have given her full approval to the script and instructed Marc Allégret (the credited director) to shoot it in this way and no other.

Well, nobody ever got to the top in movies by being modest. Hedy/Leala is the star attraction of the otherwise shabby Teatro Romani. We and the narrator follow to the nearest town, where the troupe is playing that night. By using a tawdry theatrical framework for its flights of artistic and historical fancy, The Love of Three Queens anticipates a far more famous film maudit of the 50s, the doomed Max Ophüls extravaganza Lola Montès (1955). Both films were mangled and recut to the brink of incoherence and neither, at the time, was given a wide release. The difference is that Hedy’s film never became a cause célèbre with critics, has never been revived or restored and remains unavailable in anything like its original form.

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As her character on that first night, Genevieve of Brabant, Hedy looks fetching but incongruous in a blonde wig. This episode – unlike most of the film – was directed by Edgar G Ulmer, who helped her play a sizzling femme fatale in The Strange Woman. Her role here is a character of unimpeachable (and well-nigh insufferable) moral virtue – a pious medieval lady who tends the fields with the peasants, while her husband is away fighting the Moors. A lascivious nobleman tries to seduce her. After she refuses, the rotter accuses her of “unchastity” to her husband on his return. The husband, inexplicably, believes the man over his wife and promptly condemns her to death. “This cannot be happening,” says Hedy, looking mildly perplexed. We in the audience know exactly how she feels.

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Faced with this unwieldy and unbelievable plot, Hedy and Ulmer soon fell out. He walked off the picture (or was fired) and is grudgingly listed as ‘Associate Director’ in the end credits. Indeed – judging from her performance – it seems Ulmer could control his star only by keeping her in a state of permanent hypnosis. Visually, though, his work brilliantly evokes the art of the Middle Ages; the stylised colour schemes and flat or foreshortened perspectives seem to recall a Brueghel painting. Oh, and poor wronged Genevieve does not die. She escapes into the wild and gives birth to an adorable blonde son. Her erring husband finds them, years later, living in a cave and weaving garlands of flowers to adorn their herd of tame deer.

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The next episode (made after Allégret took over) is a shorter and livelier affair. Hedy looks wickedly stylish as the promiscuous Empress Josephine – in a red-white-and-blue outfit of military cut, her bonnet festooned with white plumes and tricolore ribbons. Travelling the back roads during her husband’s Italian campaign, she dismisses one lover from her carriage (“I suppose in war these things happen”) and invites the next available solder to take his place. But she is not a heartless floozy, just a vulnerable and tender-hearted woman baffled by Naploeon’s manic desire to conquer all of Europe. In the end, he forsakes her for an Austrian princess who gives him a male heir. Standing at her window, she listens to each cannon in the 21-gun salute. Her face grows, subliminally, more tragic and resigned with every shot.

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It seems Hedy was a lot happier under Allégret’s direction. Her portrayal of Josephine is as heart-rending as her portrayal of Genevieve is becalmed. Her third role, as Helen of Troy, is in a more languid mode. But that’s only right for this version of the story, which makes Helen the bait in a ‘honey trap’ – designed by wily Odysseus to trick the Trojans into war. Realising the sordid way she has been used, Helen does not so much fall in love with Paris (Massimo Serato) as leave her husband Menelaus in disgust. Of her fabled beauty, she says: “What has it brought me save sorrow? Desired, not for myself, but that men might envy the one who had me.” We are tempted to wonder if Hedy wrote this dialogue herself.

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The Trojan War, when it happens, is quite bereft of heroism of any sort. Troy falls in a surprisingly graphic orgy of slaughter and rape; guffawing Greek soldiers suffocate a helpless man under a shower of grain. When Menelaus comes to strike Helen dead with his sword, she throws open her black mourning robes to reveal a lining of bright crimson. As if, knowing the savagery of the world, she had already draped herself in blood. “May the gods forbid that any mortal woman be as desolate as I!” He spares her, but we get the distinct feeling she would rather be dead.

On one level, The Love of Three Queens is a silly and overproduced costumed charade. Yet running through it – and holding it together, if anything does – is an intelligent woman’s baffled outrage at the male fondness for brutality, conquest and war. Hedy’s first husband (married when she was just 18) had been the Viennese arms tycoon Fritz Mandl, who sold bombs to both Mussolini and Franco. (If he had no links with Hitler, it was only because he was Jewish.)  He also tried to destroy all prints of Hedy’s landmark film Ecstasy (1933) because she appeared in a very discreet sex scene and, later, swam in the nude. Her efforts to escape this marriage led Hedy to America and, eventually, a Hollywood career. In this return to Europe, she was not just making a movie; she was, perhaps, settling a few old scores.

The scores, alas, did not settle in her favour. The Love of Three Queens sank into an oblivion from which it still has yet to surface. Hedy married again (for the fifth time) to Texan oil tycoon Howard Lee, who insisted they settle in Houston. “How anyone who has seen anything of the world can live in Texas is beyond me,” said Hedy after the divorce. She made only a few more films and died in poverty in Florida in 2000. The Love of Three Queens survives, in much-mutilated form, as the most fascinating of flops. Try to imagine Intolerance remade as a glossy high-fashion chick flick. It could never have worked. And who but Hedy would have had the nerve to try?

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David Melville

Wicked World

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on September 10, 2014 by dcairns

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Husband-and-wife team Guy Maddin and Kim Morgan have programmed WICKED WOMAN (1953) as part of their mini-season at telluride this year, and their comments comparing it to Ulmer’s DETOUR (a favourite of both Errol Morris and Lucio Fulci) made it sound pretty damn intriguing. I tracked it down.

The comparison led me to expect too much, probably, but the film is at least as interesting as it is dull. It’s the work of writer-director Russell Rouse, who made some OK stuff before he made THE OSCAR (a gloriously wretched multi-car-crash of an all-star epic), with the wordless Ray Milland vehicle THE THIEF as a particular stand-out. Rouse created a sort of silent movie simply by having his leading man alone, at night, with no one to speak to. It creates a particularly bleak, lonely atmosphere.

While DETOUR derives a lot of its impact from forcing shots to extend until they become striking — who was it who said, “There’s nothing in it but genius, because they couldn’t afford anything else?”, WICKED WOMAN has a normal B-movie number of set-ups, and they aren’t particularly inventive. The speed of production didn’t compel Rouse to come up with crazy ideas, it just meant the lighting couldn’t be very elaborate and the camera couldn’t move much. The effect is televisual, with only the griminess of everything and everybody in shot to distinguish it from small screen fare. Apart from the very occasional moment —

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As far as thrills go, the movie is somewhat lacking. It’s kind of a noir, but the biggest crime contemplated is fraud, and the worst violence is when the titular W.W., Beverley Michaels, gets repeatedly shoved to the floor and bed by Richard Egan. But there IS Percy Helton, hump-backed orangutoad from KISS Me DEADLY, blackmailing Michaels into, ahem, being nice to him. If he were George Clooney, this would be distasteful, but he’s Percy Helton, so it’s intolerably skeezy. You have to rapidly assembled a firewall in your frontal lobes to disbar any images of that lipless, foam rubber face contorting in the throes of carnal ecstasy. Quick! Do it! Do it now!

Too late.

My favourite Percy Helton role is in the notorious Mandom commercial, where his fleeting appearance may be intended to remind us of the deleterious effects of not buying Mandom.

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What WICKED WOMAN does have is Michaels herself, a curious presence, six-foot plus and languorous like a moon-walking astronaut (though far less buoyant), her line readings alternating between depressive monotone and venom-spitting fury. Until she speaks, it always feels like the camera is running at 30fps. Just watching her cross a room is like Valium for the eyes.

And then there’s the movie’s vision, in which everybody, almost without exception, is crummy. Michaels, who commits fraud and adultery and sleeps with another guy and chisels and bullies, is just about the nicest person in it. The bar’s co-owner is an abrasive alcoholic, but I guess she’s basically OK. The short-order cook is a loud complainer, but decent. But Egan is a louse, all the bar customers are chubby sex pests, Michaels’ landlady and fellow boarders are vicious, braying jackasses, and Percy goes from being a seedy, needy dweeb for Michaels to exploit, to a blackmailing molester. The sex goblin versus the giantess. We kind of wanted Michaels to go on a killing spree at the end — she looks more than capable for throwing little Percy through the greasy rice-paper walls of her rooming house.