Other Dashiell Writings:

Flicks - April 2008
Applause (1929)
Daughters of the Dust
The Nun (1966)
When a Woman
Ascends the Stairs
Alibi (1929)

Blood Brothers
Shotgun Stories
My Brother is an Only Child

Paranoid Park

 

 

MY OWN PRIVATE IDAHO
(Gus Van Sant, 1991).

Mike Waters (River Phoenix), a young street hustler wandering through the Pacific Northwest, is subject to fits of narcolepsy. He tends to conk out whenever things get too difficult and stressful, and in his dream states we see images of his childhood and long-lost mother. He gets picked up by a Portland woman who takes him to her house, where it turns out there are already two other male prostitutes. Mike has one of his sleeping fits there, and is carried out in his helpless state by Scott Favor (Keanu Reeves), one of the hustlers. They become friends, and Scott introduces him to other denizens of Portland’s skid row.

Van Sant is interested in evoking feeling states through visual style, and only secondarily in narrative. This film is about what it feels like to be a drifter, surviving from day to day, hanging out in diners and flophouses, talking aimlessly. Narcolepsy, which has its own drifting quality, is a perfect thematic device for this picture. The travels of the two main characters are punctuated with large, unexplained gaps: they just show up in places somehow. There’s a constant sense of sadness and disconnection here, but also a sort of devil-may-care sense of humor, the humor of young adventurers with nothing to lose.

We discover eventually, in the casual and elliptical fashion by which Van Sant allows us to discover anything, that Scott actually comes from a rich family. Here is injected the motif, from Shakespeare’s Henry IV, of the profligate young Prince Hal (Scott) and the older man Falstaff, both mentor and victim—in this case an old, overweight gay drifter named Bob (William Reichert), proud in his way but perpetually in need of money, the hope for which forms part of his attachment to Scott. Van Sant even incorporates some of the actual lines from Shakespeare’s play, and he’s in such control here that this doesn’t seem awkward at all. Throughout the picture, he aims for stylized poetic expression rather than realism, so the Prince Hal theme ends up fitting right in.

Reeves is required to play a self-centered character who resists vulnerability, and since that’s within his range, he does well. Phoenix’s character, however, is really the heart of the film—it’s impossible to imagine another actor who could portray this figure of lost, wounded innocence and make it convincing. Among the film’s scattered journeys, the quest for Mike’s mother carries the most meaning. The child’s overpowering need for love and home is the one underlying fact, the key thread in this wistful, ragged tapestry of a movie.

LET’S GET LOST (Bruce Weber, 1988).

A portrait of Chet Baker, the jazz trumpeter and singer who was one of the pioneers of the “cool” West Coast jazz sound. The film opens with Baker near the end of his life (he died a year later), hanging out on the beach with his current partner and another young woman, musing about his life in a stoned, dreamy reverie. Although he’s only 57, his face looks ravaged with age, evidently from years of drug use and living in the fast lane. But the eyes still radiate an intense kind of beauty.

Then the film goes back in time, to the years when Baker exploded on the scene, the peak years in the 1950s and early 60s, when he was most popular. The voice and the playing were wonderful, and he was a strikingly handsome man then, for sure. Weber, who made his name in fashion advertising, shot the film in black-and-white, which matches the old footage and perfectly evokes the smoky, laid-back jazz atmosphere of the time.

The film features interviews with people who knew him well, but the talking heads don’t break the spell. They do, however, reveal Baker’s darker sides, the drug problems and the bad marriages and the failure to honor commitments. The ex-wives and girlfriends are brutally frank; we get the lows as well as the highs. The movie starts to be more meaningful than perhaps Weber himself intended—more than just a film about a talented train-wreck of a man, it becomes a study in the tragic effects of a certain kind of careless approach to life. The music, of course, permeates the film and lends a romantic, melancholy hue to everything. Weber’s fidelity to mood transcends the conventions of biopic, turning Let’s Get Lost into a beautiful, albeit minor, cinematic gem.

INAUGURATION OF THE PLEASURE DOME
(Kenneth Anger, 1954).

The work of avant-garde filmmaker Kenneth Anger stands apart even within the world of American experimental cinema. It is hard to believe that this 38-minute film, with its hallucinatory imagery and homoerotic overtones, was made in the middle of the repressed 1950s. However, the version I saw appears to have been recut for a 1966 release.

Against the sonic background of Leo Janácek’s “Glagolitic Mass,” we witness a succession of strangely costumed figures enacting symbolic, ritualistic scenes. The opening scene shows a man of imposing figure handling a beautiful gold chain which he eventually seems to drop into his mouth, swallowing it bit by bit. After he gazes into some mirrors, there appears a clawed, ape-like creature. Then a series of female figures in various costumes appear carrying different symbolic objects. Sometimes they hand these objects to a male figure. In one sequence, a woman in Egyptian garb puts a talisman in the mouth of an entombed Pharaoh.

All movements are very slow and deliberate. Combined with the extremely grave and dramatic Janácek music, this creates a hypnotizing effect. Often a figure, in elaborate mythical costume and makeup, will appear almost still as in a tableau, with colored light or flame playing about the face, or sometimes with superimpositions of other figures. Towards the end of the film, the imagery becomes more intense, evoking some kind of ecstatic transformation.

In addition to the sense of watching a mythological ritual, there is a marked element of homoeroticism in the appearance of the actors, and what we might now call a certain level of “camp.” This was new territory for film in the 50s, and no doubt influenced the much later, more sophisticated efforts of Derek Jarman. Viewing the movie without any background information, it was impossible for me to make more than these general observations. Later I discovered that the symbolism was based on the writings of the decadent occult writer Aleister Crowley, of which Anger was an enthusiastic devotee.

As often happens with the avant-garde, the pioneer work has been stripped somewhat of its novelty by its successors and imitators. This is a film that seems more likely to be appreciated while under the influence of psychedelics, and I understand that was just how most audiences saw it in the 60s. Since I’m not especially sympathetic to this sort of ritualistic world-view, I found myself weary after the film’s first half. There’s no denying, however, that the picture has a weird, haunting flavor all its own.

VIDAS SECAS
(Nelson Pereira dos Santos, 1963).

In 1940, a poverty-stricken family—parents and two young sons—trudge across Brazil’s drought-plagued northeast in search of work. The youngest boy almost dies from heat stroke. Eventually the father finds work as a cowhand at a ranch. Although the stingy ranch owner doesn’t provide adequate pay, the mother hopes to save enough to eventually buy a good bed. But the family’s trip to the local village on payday confronts the father with the lures of alcohol and a card game.

The film represented a break with the previous romantic, imitative trends in Brazilian cinema. It was one of the opening salvos in what became known as the “Cinema Novo” movement. Based on a 1938 novel by Graciliano Ramos, Vidas Secas (“Barren Lives”) is more stylistically inventive than the plot summary might indicate. The black-and-white cinematography is stunning—the slightly overexposed lighting style makes the impoverished desert setting almost palpable. Point-of-view shots predominate: the director does not hesitate to present the action from the vantage point of a young child, or even—in one brilliant sequence—the family dog, who plays a key role in the story. The use of hand-held shots is somewhat unusual for the time. Dialogue is kept to a minimum, with a lot of the story told through the gestures and facial expressions of the actors.

One of the picture’s central insights is that conditions of poverty make it difficult for people to resist immediate temptations of pleasure by planning for the future, since there is so little joy or fulfillment in the present. The injustice of the system is portrayed matter-of-factly, as if part of the landscape, rather than a matter of personal good and evil. Although the sociopolitical implications are overt, Perreira de Santos’ brilliant style ultimately strikes deeper. This is a portrait of both suffering and endurance, a film of great humanism, in which the experience of each member of the family is honored and given its due. It fathered an entire tradition of realism in Brazilian cinema.

THE BODY SNATCHER (Robert Wise, 1945).

Young medical student Donald Fettes (Russell Wade) is taken under the wing of the distinguished Edinburgh doctor Wolfe MacFarlane (Henry Daniell). Dedicated to finding cures for suffering patients, MacFarlane needs more cadavers for his research than can be obtained legally, so he employs a shady cabman named John Gray (Boris Karloff) to do some grave robbing. Fettes suspects that Gray also resorts to murder, but the sinister cabman knows incriminating secrets that keeps MacFarlane in his grip.

This is one of the interesting series of horror movies created by the talented writer-producer Val Lewton in the 1940s. The film is adapted from a Robert Louis Stevenson story, and Wise (still in his apprenticeship as a director) creates a marvelously gloomy period feeling, full of fog and shadow. This is not really a very scary film, though; it’s more of a portrait of the dark side of human nature, with Karloff and Daniell representing a kind of mirror-image example of moral degradation.

Karloff is perfect for this part. Gray is not just some horror villain, but a fascinating and complex figure, whose macabre behavior springs from an understandable inner source. Daniell, in a central role for once in his career, is fine as the doctor with a tortured conscience. The weak point is the young Wade, who is evidently meant to be the audience’s point of identification, but is too shallow a performer to bring the conflicted Fettes to life. Bela Lugosi appears in a minor role as a foolish blackmailer, and Karloff acts rings around him.

This is not one of Lewton’s best pictures. It’s a modest piece of work, memorable mostly for its atmosphere, a nice slam-bang ending, and Karloff. Still, there’s a ripe sense of evil that places The Body Snatcher a notch above the average studio product and makes it worth a look.


©2008 Chris Dashiell
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