Friday, August 1, 2014

Notches’ Trace: John Ford’s Sex Hygiene & Your Penis by Chuck Stephens

Fordian economy is legendary. John Ford: in the cinema of this master filmmaker, a rustic doorway becomes an aperture onto eternity, a rowdy barn dance bears scars from Copernican epicycles, Monument Valley melts into night, a final burial ground for stars. (Yes, Bela Tarr’s sloshy cosmic swirls begin in Ford, just as Fassbinder’s Whity is a rethink of Sergeant Rutledge.) Ford knew from simple. He invented simple, put a shine on it, parked it on the corner and leaned against it all afternoon, occasionally polishing a spot with his spotless hankie. So simple he saw worlds that might have escaped us had he not composed them for us, using but a single eye.

This is Sex Hygiene from 1941, one of the master’s most sublime and disturbing works: his very own instantiation of Brakhage’s The Act of Seeing with One’s Own Eyes. Produced by Daryl Zanuck, the first in a series of films DZ made at Fox for inductees after the establishment of the Selective Service Act, Sex Hygiene concerns penises and the pernicious sores that sometimes appear on them. Oozing, nasty, pus-y sores, on johnsons long and small. There is nothing sexual, erotogenic, or uplifting about Sex Hygiene: it is austere, didactic, and wholly mortifying – and yet this single shot from the film’s first five minutes is as compact and robust, as specific and metaphysical, as satisfying as any Ford would ever make.

What are we looking at? A cigar smolders on a balustrade alongside blackened scars from previous ‘gars. Behind the banister, an apparently gilded statue of a dewy nude rises. She carries her skimpiest garment, draping it across some priapic shape unknown; she is relaxed, one knee forward, ready to move toward you, to comply. Economy is what we’re looking at, in registers both thematic and aesthetic. This, clearly, is a whorehouse, and we are, in particular, outside one apparently quite popular courtesan’s room: hence the numerous notches burned into the wood. She’s just inside, concluding another deal, quick business at that: her current trick has left his butt burning the latest notch while he’s busying himself. (Her we never see.) As the shot unfurls, he returns for the cigar, wipes his lips with a sneer, clamps the smoke between gritted teeth, buckles the belt around his uniform, and bolts. The camera barely moves, the frame edges essentially static. The quick entry and quick exit of the sated soldier are all we get, come and gone. But for him, there’s more, much more. Flank after flank of bloodthirsty germ warriors will be burrowing deep into his wilted valor before he can hail a cab. His dick is on the death march to Bataan, it just doesn’t know it yet. This is how the war comes home.
~ C.S.

Chuck Stephens is a noted film critic, whose work can normally be enjoyed in Film Comment & online at Cinema Scope.

Sea, Sex, Sun & Sadism: Robert Ryan Meets Herman Melville in BILLY BUDD (Peter Ustinov, 1962) by Frank Howard

About twenty years ago, I was on a Robert Ryan kick (he's still one of my all-time favorites).  After watching countless noirs and Westerns, I needed to get the smell of horse dung out of my nostrils and yearned for sunlight and sea air, so I rented Peter Ustinov's 1962 adaptation of Herman Melville's Billy Budd  Ustinov also stars as Captain Fairfax, along with Terence Stamp (in his film debut) as Billy and Ryan as Master-at-Arms Claggart.  As I watched I started to wonder why Ustinov cast Ryan in the film.  He was the best screen villain around, so the role of the evil and sadistic Claggart may have made sense, but Ryan sticks out like a sore thumb.  The boat is populated mostly by trained British actors and there is Ryan, with his flat and nasal Midwestern "A" sauntering through his part.  He is, as always, effortlessly brilliant in the movie, it's one of his major achievements, but surely there were a dozen fine English actors Ustinov could've chosen.  Perhaps Ustinov cast him because he's so different than the others in the film and wanted to emphasize the character's apartness?  I think something else may have been going through the director’s mind.  I'm betting he saw Sam Fuller's House of Bamboo (1955), where Ryan plays Sandy Dawson, a crime boss with homosexual tendencies.  Apparently Ustinov, confronted with Melville and all the gay subtext in the book, saw no one else but Ryan in the role, he was his first and only choice.

In House of Bamboo Ryan is especially close with one of his henchmen, Griff.  He refers to Griff as his "ichiban" (number one boy) and their scenes together hint at something more than a platonic relationship.  This is mostly in Ryan's playing, not the script, which suggests this aspect of the character was the actor's creation, not Fuller's.  New gang member Eddie (Robert Stack) starts to get a little too much attention from Ryan and his "number one boy" gets crazy with jealousy.  Ryan murders his troublesome ichiban in the bathtub, cradles his head in his hands, and tenderly strokes his hair. 

The intermingling of sex and violence is in another great Robert Ryan film, Nicholas Ray's On Dangerous Ground (1952), where he plays Jim Wilson, a cop who also happens to be a sadist (fancy that).  There is a famous scene with Ryan in a hotel room questioning a suspect when the man instructs Ryan: "Hit me…HIT me." (Ryan enthusiastically complies with his request).  Later he's alone with some trampy snitch named Myrna and she shows him the bruises her boyfriend had given her.  She suggests Ryan would do the same to her.  He slowly leans in, his mask-like face an inch from hers and cloaked in shadow, and whispers "That's right, sister".  A slow fade out followed by a shot of Ryan descending her stairs and adjusting his clothes makes it implicit that some rather rough sex had occurred.   

By 1962 Robert Ryan (1911-1973) had already had a long and celebrated career filled with scenes like these.  When a script called for something more than a mere bad guy, filmmakers were on the phone with Ryan's agent.  The real Robert Ryan couldn't have been more different than the characters he played.  He was the most liberal man in Hollywood, a vocal supporter of gay rights (before the word "gay" was even in use) and civil rights -- he was best buds with Martin Luther King Jr. long before "I have a dream".  He was deeply Catholic and by all accounts seems to have been a loving father and husband.  He was also a serious drinker, but one who never stepped foot on a stage while under the influence. His alcoholism never got in the way of his acting.  He had "black moods" that when he didn't have the catharsis of work to dispel, he medicated with copious amounts of booze.  He'd lock himself in his study at The Dakota (the setting of Rosemary’s Baby) and would work through what he needed to work through with the help of friends like Jim Beam and Jack Daniels (Ryan sublet his apartment to John Lennon and Yoko Ono and, of course, Lennon was killed in front of that 19th Century beehive).  

What were his demons?  Was Ryan hinting at something buried in his person that he knew he'd only be able to reveal within the shelter of playing a fictional psychopath?  Something has always stuck with me about Ryan, he approached Richard Brooks about buying the film rights to The Brick Foxhole (1944), one of the first (if not the first) books about gay-bashing.  A film adaptation of the book was eventually made as Crossfire (1947), but much to Ryan's disappointment homophobia was replaced by the safer and more fashionable topic of anti-semitism (footage from the death camps was still fresh in moviegoers’ minds).  Ryan is in the film, in fact he received an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of the deplorable murderer Monty.  You view the scenes of Ryan's character picking up an innocent Jewish (gay) guy in a bar and taking him back to his place, and that horrifying moment when Monty turns from seducer to executioner, and it's clear Ryan is playing the Monty from the novel, not the screenplay.

Melville's Billy Budd is an incomplete novel and is mostly interpreted as a parable about absolute good (Budd) and absolute evil (Claggart).  The Budd character is Christ-like, someone who is punished for his kindness and sacrifices himself for the betterment of his shipmates.  It's also his most openly gay book, which is an achievement, for if you've read Moby Dick you know that book is awash in sperm.  Billy Budd's overtly homoerotic passages may be the reason why it was never published in Melville's lifetime.  That Claggart wants to destroy Budd simply because he must destroy anything that is good and pure is an interesting concept in itself.  However, if the bachelor Claggart wants to fuck Billy, or is deeply in love with him and cannot face his own sexual urges, his desire to kill him makes more sense and has higher dramatic stakes.  In a passage from the book, Billy accidentally spills some soup on a newly cleaned floor:

Claggart, the master-at-arms, official rattan in hand, happened to be passing along...Stepping over [the soup], he was proceeding on his way without comment, since the matter was nothing to take notice of under the circumstances, when he happened to observe who it was that had done the spilling...Pausing, he was about to ejaculate something hasty at the sailor, but checked himself, and pointing down to the streaming soup, playfully tapped him from behind with his rattan, saying in a low musical voice peculiar to him at times, “Handsomely done, my lad! And handsome is as handsome did it, too!"

Later, a bitter Claggart is caught checking Billy out:

When Claggart’s unobserved glance happened to light on belted Billy...that glance would follow the cheerful sea Hypersion with a settled meditative and melancholy expression, his eyes strangely suffused with incipient feverish tears. Then would Claggart look like the man of sorrows. Yes, and sometimes the melancholy expression would have in it a touch of soft yearning, as if Claggart could even have loved Billy but for fate and ban. But this was evanescence, and quickly repented of, as it were, by an immitigable look, pinching and shriveling the visage into the momentary semblance of a wrinkled walnut.

 It is clear that homosexual desire is in play, but a film in 1962 could only hint at such things.  So Robert Ryan was the actor chosen to fill in the gaps.  Ustinov was convinced that Ryan could convey the neurotic homosexual undertones in the source material that the script wasn't allowed to, and to make sure that the HMS Avenger was the most miserable place on earth.  Everyone from the captain on down falls under the spell of Terence Stamp's Billy (Stamp is alarmingly beautiful in the film, the camera drools over him).  The meeting of cinema's most terrifying actor and cinema's most beautiful actor culminates in the film's most overtly homoerotic scene.  One evening, after a day of mentally and physically torturing the men on the boat, Claggart is on deck looking at the stars.  Billy approaches him softly:

Billy:  Would it be alright if I stayed topside a little bit to watch the water?

Claggart:  I suppose a handsome sailor may do many things forbidden to his mess-mates.

Billy:  I know some of the men are fearful of you, hate you. But I told them — you can't be as they think you are.

Claggart:  Why not, pray?

Billy:  No man can take pleasure in cruelty.

Claggart:  Tell me,  in all ignorance, do you dare understand me, then?

Billy:  I think so, sir.  I think that sometimes you hate yourself. I was thinking, sir, the nights are lonely. Perhaps I could talk with you between watches when you've nothing else to do.

Claggart:  Lonely. What do you know of loneliness?

Billy:  Them's alone that want to be.

Claggart:  Nights are long…conversation helps pass the time.

Billy:  Can I talk to you again, then? It would mean a lot to me.

Claggart:  Perhaps to me, too.

It is then that Ryan's expression changes and he realizes he's let his guard down.

Claggart:  Oh, no. You would charm me too, huh? Get away.

Billy:  Sir?

Claggart:  GET AWAY!

The softening of Ryan's face, then his bewildered and angry reaction, make this staggering moment explode in gay panic.  Again it seems clear that Ryan was playing the Claggart of the book and not the screenplay.  The dominant Claggart eventually prompts Budd, the object of his desire, to murder him.  Ryan's facial expression the moment before he dies is priceless.  An orgasmic smile comes across his face.  A smile of relief, or a smile that says to Billy, "now you're fucked".  Or both.   

Frank Howard is an actor & louche ranconteur of the first order. His early adolescent charm landed him roles in Sixteen Candles, Sister Act 2, One More Saturday Night, That Was Then...This is Now & Clockstoppers. Now he mainly luxuriates by the pool in much-too-short shorts & gives bourbon its due.

Five Reasons to Live by Charles Lieurance

1. Freddie Bauer Would Very Much Like to Quit/Force of Evil (Abraham Polonsky, 1948)

Picture Robert Crumb acting as the catalyst of doom in a pinko film noir penned by Franz Kafka & that's Freddie Bauer, as embodied by character actor Howland Chamberlain. In a world where the "good guys" only exist on the other end of phone conversations & in newspaper headlines where an invisible District Attorney crusades to eradicate the numbers racket, nebbish accountant Freddie Bauer is the feeble conscience. When the ostensibly benevolent numbers parlor for which he tallies is taken over by a syndicate, Freddie wants to quit. He only wants to be the bookkeeper for an illegal organization if there are no police raids & the boss -- in this case, the 40s version of Zero Mostel, Thomas Gomez -- seems like a nice guy. In other words, he'll only act dishonestly if he can completely overlook it on a day-to-day basis. Otherwise, forget it. Unfortunately, the syndicate can't really let a parlor's main accountant quit, so Freddie begs, asks some potent philosophical questions (imagine Kafka's Man Before the Law as a chronic pesterer) & finally brings the whole shebang down around his (and everyone else's) ears. All because Freddie wants to quit his job. He just wants to quit. And he wants to quit in that kind of jostled Bowery poetry popularized by pinko playwright Clifford Odets:

Bauer: Just like Doris, Mr. Morse, I'm quitting. I just wanted to tell you so you could get somebody else for tomorrow. This place makes me sick...Mr. Morse, what did you put me into? Did you put me into this without me knowing or saying, did you do a thing like this to me?

Joe Morse (John Garfield): Mr. Bauer, I'd like to straighten out whatever trouble there seems to be here, if I can.
Bauer: There's no trouble, I just want to quit. 
Morse: Is that fair?
Bauer: Maybe it isn't, but that's what I want to do.
Morse: But why go out of your way to make trouble for yourself?
Bauer: What do you mean?
Morse: Well, we're reorganizing the whole business now. We need every man's loyalty at this time.
Bauer: You can't make me stay. You can't. How can you make me? What are you gonna do?
Morse: I want to be friends with all you people. I'm looking ahead to where we can work on a nice friendly basis. I don't believe in an employer who has to say to his people, 'You've GOT to'. I like an employer whose people do things by themselves, because they like to, because they're loyal to the business.
Bauer: If I go now & walk out of here, how're you gonna stop me? How -- if I say I won't stay & walk out of here -- how are going to stop me?

Numbers Parlor Clerk: Well, I'm gonna quit just the same. It frightens me to work here.
Bauer: What are you talking about? We can't quit, they won't let us. You heard them, they said they'd kill me if I quit.
Clerk: They said they'd kill you, Mr. Bauer. You're the head bookkeeper here, they need you. They don't need us.

Waiter: Your friend didn't show yet.
Bauer: What's the matter, are you in a hurry for the table? There's no one here, you're not losing any tips letting me sit!

Leo Morse (Thomas Gomez): I'm glad you called me Freddie. I'm glad you thought it over to listen to me, to calm down & listen to me, so I can help you. I know how bad you feel Freddie. It was a wicked, foolish thing to do to put a gun in my brother's hand for him to kill you. That's what you wanted to do, that's what it was. I know how it feels to try to find someone to kill you, to finish you off, to take the crimes of your life on his head, in his hands...
Bauer: Please, Mr. Morse, all I want is to quit. That's all, nothing else. They won't let me quit & I want to quit. I'll die if I don't quit.

2. Captain Hauptmann Koenig & the Leipzig Suicides/Edge of Darkness (Lewis Milestone, 1943)

With its odd casting of Errol Flynn & Ann Sheridan as Norwegian freedom fighters, Milestone's Edge of Darkness occasional suffers from an undertow of ridiculousness, but in the end the film is too brutal & well-mounted not to be taken seriously. The opening prologue, in which Nazi soldiers arrive at the fishing village of Trollness after the bloody battle detailed in the movie proper, is so tragic, cold & littered with corpses that it turns the battle of wits between the townsfolk and the Nazis into a kind of sacred Dreyer-esque Passion Play. The use of miniatures &  iconic tableaux enhance the feeling that we're watching a story whispered down from generation to generation, about an innocent Nordic fairyland corrupted by incomprehensible evil. 

While heroism & comic swashbuckling abound in Edge of Darkness, it's the morose scenes that really grab you & the one in which Nazi Captain Koenig (a strikingly handsome & not inordinately despicable Helmut Dantine) is cornered by the rebels into taking his own life reminded us instantly of the classic photographs of Nazi suicides in Leipzig taken by Lee Miller & Margaret Bourke-White in 1945. There's a sinister, almost Catholic, morbid ecstasy & stillness to these photographs & the ritualistic details of Dantine's death in Edge of Darkness serve as the mystery moments on either side of those famous Life Magazine pictures. Dantine is driven into his office by the resistance & stands expressionless before an overbearing portrait of Hitler. He sits at his desk & pens an absurd note to his brother which begins as a patriotic manifesto, the degenerates into a sarcastic raspberry to all he's held dear. He unholsters his luger, pushes back his luxurious dark forelocks with the barrel & stares into the void. The hair falls back across his forehead & that is death. During the film's prologue, when he's found still sitting up in his chair by his fellow soldiers, they unceremoniously shove him onto the floor & compose a memo to headquarters. One comrade taps his black boot distractedly on the Captain's wrist, making the luger locked in his dead hand bounce just a little. 

Photographs of actual Nazi suicides by Lee Miller & Margaret Bourke-White

3. The Bad Lieutenant's Day Off/The Prowler (Joseph Losey, 1951)

To be accurate, he's only a beat cop, but the reference was irresistible. 

And, before you know it, the vacation's over & it's back to blurting out entirely inappropriate double entendres to lonely Bel-Air housewives. 

4. Oversized Novelty Booze Bottles/Private Hell 36 (Don Siegel, 1964)

It would surprise me a little if James Ellroy hadn't used LA detectives Cal Bruner (Steve Cochran, a bit of a revelation here) & Jack Farnham (Howard Duff) as inspirations for his corrupt, but strangely vigilant LA Quartet detectives Bucky Bleichert, Lee Blanchard, Buzz Meeks, Danny Upshaw, etc. Don Siegel's dank, soulless (in a great way) Private Hell 36 is the very model of moral  atrophy. You get the feeling Bruner & Farnham would really like to solve crimes but have no goddamn idea why it's even in their blood. To them it's just a virus they can't shake & it has nothing to do with high concepts like good or evil. In their minds, the detour they take into corruption & violence has nothing at all to do with their worth as cops. And they are relatively effective cops, in that LAPD Who Gives A Shit? way. They can do police work in their sleep, but getting some trim, tucking away some cash & actually enjoying life seems like rocket science to them. So, of course, they take a stab at it & fail in a dingy, humiliating fashion. But what can you expect from two guys whose idea of a swell place to bring a street-smart doll like Ida Lupino is a bar cleverly decorated with oversize liquor bottles? Who wouldn't want to be flirted with by two unbelievably cynical cops in the shadow of a huge Pabst Blue Ribbon bottle?

5. Edward Arnold Trims His Nose Hair/Three on a Match (Mervyn LeRoy, 1932)

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Kiddie Pool by Frank Howard

The entertainment industry is dependent on adorable child actors to sweeten lame wisecracks from lazy writers, sell Pampers and pudding pops, and cry on cue. The child actor casts a suspicious eye on the entire "craft" of acting, it's so easy even a baby can do it. All that time wasted with Lee Strasberg when you could've been out there getting paid for making faces without thinking about it (actors aren't well served by actual thinking). If you were cute, you were on your way. Success is fleeting of course, especially once those growth hormones kick in. Gary Coleman and Emmanuel Lewis had the good fortune of having disorders that kept them pocket-size and extended their careers. The rest had to endure that period when the voice and testicles drop, the blossoming of acne, and that awkward transition where the facial features are still traveling and have yet to come to their final adult resting positions. Girls have it a little easier, for though there may be a brief bloom of acne, they still look like little girls except they suddenly have big boobs. A perfect combo it seems (innocent and sexual), there have been a plethora of underage bimbos in recent times. For male child actors, this is when careers evaporate, or at best disappear for a few years. Something I know firsthand, for I was a once a child actor (my first encounter with an illicit substance wasn't a sip of beer or a puff of mary jane, it was doing lines of coke all night long at age thirteen with the script girl at a wrap party…hooray for Hollywood!). Somewhere around my twentieth birthday the phone stopped ringing.

If your parents were kind enough, as mine were, not to pilfer your earnings, once you reached this stage you could walk away from it and live a happy life. Those who continued to crave the spotlight were in for a rude disillusionment. We've all heard the sad stories, so I'll try to keep the misery and indignities down to a minimum (I'll try but I'm not promising anything).

Today I'm in the mood for Carl Switzer (1927-1959), known to millions as Alfalfa from the "Our Gang" series (Alfalfa, Bologna, Buckwheat, Farina -- apparently Hal Roach did most of his writing at mealtime). Carl and his older brother Harold were amateur performers who headed West with their parents to visit relatives. They innocently decided to have lunch at Hal Roach's cafeteria (no one innocently decides to have lunch at an eatery called "Roach's") and, wouldn't you know it, they just so happened to have their musical instruments and gave an impromptu performance! They were both put under contract that day, with Roach giving Carl the name "Alfalfa" while his brother Harold was christened "Deadpan". They made their debut in the 1935 Our Gang short "Beginner's Luck" and it was quickly apparent that Roach had a star on his hands with Carl. While Harold receded into the background, Carl was becoming the main attraction. According to certain sites, Carl was a trained singer, but was required to sing off-key in film after film in order to project endearing amateurism. With a tiny phallus of hair projecting from his skull, he was constantly trying to woo that cruel little slut Darla whose sole pleasure in life was to humiliate poor Alfalfa. After five years and nearly fifty Our Gang shorts, Alfalfa was put out to pasture in 1940.

He kept at it, but couldn't live Alfalfa down, he was just too recognizable. As he matured, he played affable and harmless teenagers in smaller parts and smaller films. I watched the Our Gang shorts a lot when I was a child, a local station ran them constantly. It never occurred to me that there was life after Alfalfa until I saw It's a Wonderful Life, and there he was, age eighteen, as Mary's date to the dance. After getting rejected (once again) he has his revenge by opening up the dance floor and depositing Donna Reed and Jimmy Stewart into the swimming pool below. The zeal with which he turns the key, possibly seriously injuring the girl he came to the dance with, has all the malice and glee of Alfalfa finally tossing Darla into a cement mixer (what if they had slipped through the crack before the pool was safely exposed? A broken limb or concussion seems likely).

He eventually reprised his Alfalfa character, eating shit and singing off-key in the "Gas House Boys" series, a cheap knock-off of The Bowery Boys. Small parts in some high-profile films like Track of the Cat and The Defiant Ones led to nothing. One of his final appearances was as a slave in Cecil B. DeMille's The Ten Commandments. To make ends meet he tended bar and bred and trained hunting dogs. One night he was shot in the arm outside the bar he worked at. Shortly thereafter he was arrested and sentenced to a year's probation for a bizarre incident where he singlehandedly felled over a dozen trees in Sequoia National Park, his reasons for doing so remain unclear.

Carl Switzer & George McFarland in Arbor Day, 1936

He married a wealthy heiress, Diantha Colingwood, and for a wedding present received a large farm in Kansas from her father. He was not suited to working the land and soon after the birth of their son the couple divorced. He was back in Hollywood training dogs when one ran off chasing after a bear. To compensate the dog's owner Moses Stiltz, Swizer paid him thirty-five bucks and treated him to fifteen dollars worth of drinks at the bar he worked at. Some days later, a drunk and belligerent Switzer, feeling that he'd been taken and that he didn't owe Stiltz shit, paid a visit to Stiltz's home one night, angrily demanding his money back. Stiltz fatally shot Switzer, claiming it was self-defense and that the actor had pulled a hunting knife on him. Nothing but a pen knife, still in Switzer's pocket and with the blade retracted, was found at the scene. He died on the same day as DeMille, so news of his murder was largely moved to the back pages. He was thirty-one.

Frank Howard is an actor & louche ranconteur of the first order. His early adolescent charm landed him roles in Sixteen Candles, Sister Act 2, One More Saturday Night, That Was Then...This is Now & Clockstoppers. Now he mainly luxuriates by the pool in much-too-short shorts & gives bourbon its due.