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August 21, 2010

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Kent Jones

Dennis, I walked out of LIZSTOMANIA when I was 15. I'm sure I'd like it more now. I regret missing it at the newly reinvigorated Film Society show. Big hit.

Have you, or anyone else here, seen the footage Hitchcock shot for KALEIDOSCOPE?

Dennis Cozzalio

No, but from all accounts I'd sure like to!

Kent, LISZTOMANIA was one of those big "gotta sees" that I never got around to until I was about 19 (1979). I liked it at the time, on the back of a certain Russell enthusiasm I was engaged in, but I can't say it made a lot of sense to me.

It made a LOT more sense last night, and you can take from THAT whatever you must! :) And Paul Nicholas struck me as the Tina Turner of that movie-- he throws himself into this wildly absurd portrait of Wagner without hesitation, and Russell must have loved him. I always wonder why he never became a movie star.

Tom Carson

"Aren't all works of art provisional in some way?" is a lovely and wonderful question. The older I get, the more convinced I am that the movies we truly love or truly hate -- as opposed to the mass of routine crud and mere stylistic curlicues -- speak to us so privately that it's a wonder we've evolved an only semi-spurious vocabulary to discuss them.

As for Leone, I admit that judging his work in moral terms at the "Does he approve of rape?" level never crossed my mind, and I don't believe that means I'm callous. I just never saw anyone in his movies as a human being in the first place. My hunch is that he's one of those filmmakers we love to argue about -- pro or con -- because the movies are pure artistic id, without intervention from ye olde superego. In other words, while I could argue that Noodles in OUATIA getting sentimental about the woman he's raped is an absolutely devastating indictment of male narcissism, I'd never claim Leone thought of it that way. He just put the stuff out there and let us make of it what we would.

Keith Uhlich

Perhaps it's no less offensive in the simplistic portrayal of women (depends on how one looks at it/takes it), but I find the "Jules and Jim"-like romantic flashbacks of "Duck, You Sucker" to be Leone's most complicated parsing of gender/gender politics, etc. Done in very broad strokes, of course, yet there's something deeply mysterious and, hell I'll say it, queer about the way Leone reveals the three-way love affair between James Coburn's John Mallory, his IRA compadre and the woman they both love. That Rod Steiger's Juan Miranda is then metaphysically brought into that coupling in the film's final scene adds additional resonance. I really don't know if I can adequately explain how that last passage perplexes me in the best way possible as to its motives/meanings.

"Duck, You Sucker" seems to me the missing, less-discussed link between "West" and "America" (one of its titles was, appropriately enough, "Once Upon a Time…The Revolution"). Both movies grew in my estimation upon watching them as a sequential trilogy.

Hollis Lime

Well, this is my first comment ever on this blog (I am a devoted reader) and I figure it's because "Once Upon A Time In America" is my favorite movie of all time that it's now I'm speaking up.

I agree with Lazarus about the scene after the rape scene. I've seen the film 5 times or so, and I certainly don't think it's meant to be "romantic". It's tragic (and yes, a rapist can be a tragic figure, as any human being can be). But, even if it were romantic, you have to realize that the film IS from Noodles' point of view, and how he views himself. He doesn't see himself as evil, nobody does. It's approaching the film the wrong way, I think, to expect objectivity from a film that is so inherently subjective, right up to it's (maybe) opium dream of the future (equipped with the satire of modern America turning out pretty much EXACTLY how a 1930's gangster envisions it).

The whole film is about, like what other Leone's films are about, life never being able to live up to the mythology we build (and subtextually, how this is tied to cinema). When Noodles comes out of jail, America has changed forever. He's now in a modern America where his best friend and the love of his life are moving up in the world and becoming capitalists basically, and all he wants is for it be like what it used to be. When Deborah doesn't live up to the myth he creates, he physically abuses her in a sickening fashion that is the culmination of the rage that's been slowly building inside him. It's the pivotal scene of the movie, in the same way the Billy Batts scene in Goodfellas is, and it must be shown for what it is.

But that gets me to another thing that interests me, which is the depiction of physical/sexual violence towards women in cinema, and people's reaction to it. I understand why it's so sensitive to so many people, but frankly, whenever I hear people raving about it (especially men, though not in this thread, of course), I can only think that it's, in a weird roundabout way, mildly sexist. Women aren't children, and I don't see why rape should get some special treatment in the same film that features the character of Fat Moe getting brutally beaten to the point of his eyeball nearly popping out of his skull, or a scene where James Woods blows a man's face off. Violence is violence, and dare I say it, I think that showing it all as it is without sentimentality or exception is rather moral.

The Tuesday Weld "rape" scene isn't actually a forcible rape scene in the same vein as the Deborah one is. She's in on the robbery, as established with the Burt Young scene literally before the scene in question, and there's no exposition in the scene; it's played out purely in physical gestures and facial cues. She wants to make it "look like a rape". That, and she wants to get on the gangsters' good sides, which ties back to the themes of ambition and capitalism. She uses her sexuality to move up in the world, tired of her bank clerk job, which I don't think is some sort of sexist portrayal, because I don't think she's all that different than Max, really. They both use what they have, whether it be brutality or sex (speaking of which, I think Weld is extraordinary in the film and I don't she ever got enough credit for her performance).

Moreover, a lot of the unmitigated masculinity in the film is really used as subject for critique, since the movie is, amongst other things, a deconstruction of the gangster genre (of which misogyny has a long history). If you don't see the scene where Max forces Weld to leave his office by screaming at her until she finally obliges, just to impress his buddies, as satire, I just don't what to say to you.

Which is, of course, not to say Leone is a feminist, because he ain't. But does he have to be? To me, great art is about honesty and aesthetic value. I'd rather have a film that you can feel is truthful to the artist's perspective that I find morally problematic than a film that's politically and ethically "correct" that I find utterly fraudulent, like a good number of films that are up for Oscars every year. You learn more about people and the world around you from the honest film.

I apologize truly for the quite long post, but it's a film I feel awfully strongly about. It's the most "complete" film I've ever seen. It has the narrative freedom of a novel, but it's text is purely cinematic, and based in mise-en-scene. I knew as soon as I saw it that it was the best movie I've ever seen, though it took me several viewings to really crack it, and it still has mysteries that have yet to be solved for me, and I hope they never will.

Anyway, I'm just glad people are talking about it seriously. It doesn't seem to get a lot of talk compared to even something like "A Fistful Of Dollars". Terrific blog and I enjoy all you do here. Keep it up.

Glenn Kenny

@ Hollis Lime: Damn, that is an interesting, and tough, analysis, and it makes me want to rewatch "America" RIGHT NOW. Which of course I won't do on this damn 13-inch set that's my backup while I'm waiting for the plasma to get fixed. A lot to chew on there. Thank you.

D Cairns

Oh, that scene in Duck You Sucker is gross and vile too.

I think the problem in OUATIAmerica is twofold: it may be possible to preserve some fragment of sympathy for DeNiro's character, but not if the filmmaker asks for it explicitly with sad music and that Italian train station and air of, yes, romance... and not if the character is so insensitive as to show his stupid face at the station! Because for that to work both he and us would have to be completely indifferent to the heroine's emotions. Which means he doesn't really understand what he's done, can never process it in a dramatically meaningful way, and so maybe we didn't need to see it anyway?

I think the film is staggering on many levels, and flawed in many others. I find Peckinpah's misogyny more "rewarding" because I think we learn more about the filmmaker from it. Somehow Leone's seems more unexamined and therefore unproductive. It's just a blot on the films, which I otherwise enjoy and think rank very high on the list of cinematic achievements in self-conscious genre film-making.

Another filmmaker who showed a less appealing side once the Production Code was lifted was, to me, Joe Mankiewicz with There Was A Crooked Man. I have a hard time seeing that movie as coming from the same guy who made Letter to Three Wives.

Hollis Lime

I don't think the filmmaker who made "Ride The High Country", which features a story about a young woman and how she can't fit into an old west where her father and the man she marries do nothing but mistreat her, or "Bring Me The Head Of Alfredo Garcia", which is about how men degrade women and devalue their morals, could ever be a misogynist.

Glenn Kenny

@ Hollis: Or, for that matter, the criminally misinterpreted "Straw Dogs," which doesn't favor the rapists of Susan George's character but rather explicitly asks the viewer to identify with her anguish in a jarring flash-frame flashback to the act in a subsequent scene in the film. As I noted elsewhere, though, Peckinpah didn't do himself too many favors in his interviews, but if there was ever a trust-the-tale, not-the-teller guy, Sam was that man. The misogyny rap against Peckinpah, of course, comes in large part from the boisterous whorehouse scenes in some of his pictures, and the fact that the director himself liked to bluster about his predilections in this area. And there's also the fact that, like so many great modern artists, he refused to sanctify any of his characters, male or female, and felt quite at liberty to depict them in any number of extreme modes of behavior. I am moved by a great many of Peckinpah's women; Stella Stevens' Hildy in "Cable Hogue" and Katy Jurado's wife of Sheriff Baker in "Pat Garrett and Billy The Kid" in particular. One of the dumbest things I ever did was forget to ask Olivia de Havilland about working with Peckinpah on the splendid teleplay of Katherine Ann Porter's "Noon Wine." And then...Ida Lupino in "Junior Bonner?" Maureen O'Hara in "Deadly Companions? " Don't even get me started!

@ Kent: Oh, I quite enjoy reading nice things about the Coens. And Wilder. And even Huston, within limits. ;-)

Kent Jones

Dennis, regarding Paul Nicholas, I have a feeling that you're too young to have even heard of his 1977 top 40 disco hit "Heaven On the 7th Floor." Oy... And isn't Wagner dressed in an SS uniform and goose-stepping in LISZTOMANIA? Well, I'll give it another try...he said, with a sigh.

Tom, "speaking privately" - yeah. I get wary of language that places films in some kind of socio-political Olympics, rating them them for gold, silver or bronze in terms that have nothing to do with what they are, how they move and pulse and engage. The kind of language I used to use, I guess - at least I wasn't alone. True of music too, right?

Glenn - "even Huston?" "...within limits?" "..:-)?"

Dennis Cozzalio

God bless you, Mr. Jones, for your presumption of my youngish age. In reality, I just turned 50 this past Wednesday and am waaaaaay old enough to remember "Heaven On The 7th Floor," which haunted my days as a freshman in college. Nicholas was in the Robert Stigwood/RSO stable, as I recall, which may explain his presence in TOMMY. That was also the label that released the aforementioned Top 40 hit. I do remember him also for his role in the Mia Farrow thriller SEE NO EVIL.

Yes, Russell has Wagner resurrected after his death as a kind of Frankenstein monster crossed with Hitler who marches through a cobblestone village murdering Jews with an automatic weapon dressed up as an electric guitar (or is it the other way around?) But that's after we've already seen him dressed in a Superman cape and tights singing a plaintive ballad about the virtues of restoring Teutonic godhead, and after we've seen him sink his vampire fangs into Liszt's neck in an attempt to win the composer over to his methods of musical revolution. History it ain't, at least in any kind of literal sense!

And if I may, "speaking privately"-- most definitely true of music too, I would think.

The Siren

With Once Upon a Time in America, the train scene didn't come in a vacuum; it came well after the Tuesday Weld scene, which also repelled me, and the nipple-in-the-gun-barrel scene, and I can't remember whether it came before or after but the scene where Weld picks a gangster out of a lineup after getting them all to drop their trousers also had me rubbing my temples. So it wasn't so much moral dudgeon, as Kent says, although I won't deny that was part of it; it was also this fetid atmosphere not just of disrespect for women, but the attempts to wring both laughter and pathos from it.

I spend most of my time watching movies from an era that can dish out oh-jesus-god-that's-bad moments quite, quite often. Before we get all mushy about the Production Code, let me interject that the Code never prevented, say, Preston Sturges from putting some knees-knocking eye-rolling ghastly black stereotype into a comic scene. Ultimately it is about whether the aesthetic and thematic rewards outweigh whatever qualms you may have about what the director is showing you of his worldview. I get plenty out of Sturges that outweighs, say, Snowflake. I don't get much from Leone. I don't find his movies all that beautiful (in fact, a good many shots in his Westerns strike me as deliberately ugly) and his characters move me not at all, despite what I see as operatic attempts to sentimentalize them.

All that said, I am enjoying the hell out of the defenses here, Lazarus, Kent and especially Hollis Lime. Holy heck, Mr. (Ms?) Lime, when you de-lurk you do it in style. I almost kind of want to revisit the Leone now. Not enough to actually do it, but that was a superb post.

One more thing about this Code discussion aspect--I hope we aren't attributing late-work infelicities entirely or even primarily to the newfound post-Code freedom. I'd argue that what we see in Frenzy (for example) is also the souring of attitudes and sympathies that often comes with the onset of curmudgeonly old age.

The Siren

Oh, and Dennis, let me reiterate from my old Siren post that I do enjoy Robards in OUATITW very much, despite his head-scratching final appearance, as you so aptly put it.

D Cairns

My feeling with Peckinpah is that yes, of course he made scenes and entire films that flatly contradict his reputation as misogynist. But Peckinpah was a walking contradiction, and his sympathetic, at times sentimental portrayal of Stella Stevens does not wholly cancel out his abhorrent treatment of Sally Struthers. And that's just on "s".

So I'd agree that "misogynist" shouldn't be used as an argument-finishing blanket statement with him: but I think "marked misogynist tendencies" would be fair comment. Part of the reason I think he's interesting is the complexity of his tortured relations with women, and indeed men, as evidenced in his work. He's grappling with something, and it isn't always pretty. Leone isn't so much grappling, I feel. Maybe bear-hugging.

Glenn Kenny

@ Kent: Another attempt at humor, as they say. What can I tell you, I'm re-finding my footing here...

Kent Jones

Reading Hollis Lime's comments again, I see a very good evocation of what's so special about the film. I know it much better than any other Leone, and I've always found it shattering. The core idea of "life never living up to the mythology we build" is powerfully conveyed throughout - in the incredible scene where the kid eats the pastry on the staircase, for instance - and I do agree that the tone is extremely layered and complicated and never merely romantic or celebratory. But I don't think that the reservations raised by The Siren and D. Cairns and others can be argued down on those terms. It's true, there is a lot of violence against men in the movie as well. But then, as James Brown said, it's a man's world, and in Leone's case it would still be something without a woman or a girl. I just don't think that the women in the movie have inner lives (not true of Peckinpah). I'm sure someone can mount a spirited argument about no one in the movie having an inner life, how they're all equivalent to the figures in the Chinese shadowplay, playthings of capitalism, etc. But I don't have a problem with finding it shattering AND imperfect. And, like all of Leone's movies, a little bit on the fussy side.

Interestingly enough, I read an interview with Leone where Noel Simsolo asked him whether his favorite young American director was Coppola or Bogdanovich, or whoever else. His answer: John Cassavetes.

Dennis, I see that Paul Nicholas has one of those strangely long Wikipedia entries that looks like it was submitted by a publicist ("In the summer of 2006, he was a celebrity showjumper in the BBC's Sport Relief event Only Fools on Horses..."). He is now in a South African touring production of GREASE. Book your tickets now.

The Siren raises a provocative point about FRENZY. Toward whom did Hitchcock's attitudes and sympathies sour? Women? A possible clue. Michel Subor told me that he was invited to Hitchcock's house for Sunday dinner when he was in TOPAZ. Everyone had to come smartly attired. When the guests arrived, Hitchcock took them on a tour of the house. "This is the kitchen...this is the living room...this is the den..." Then he opened a door to reveal Mrs. Hitchcock sitting on the edge of a bed in her nightgown. "This is the bedroom," he said as he closed the door, "where nothing ever happens."

Glenn, I find that certain Huston films mean more and more to me as the years pass. THE MISFITS, which we just took another look at, is NOT one of those films. But that's an Arthur Miller problem, I think.

La Faustin

Hollis Lime, that’s an interesting point about reaction to sexual violence towards women in the movies (among many others in your wonderful post). I think some of it could be explained by the fact that audiences are expected to be horrified, rather than titillated, by a man getting his face beaten in or shot off, whereas rape in the movies has often been used as the expression of stormy romance or simply a way to get the heroine’s clothes off. I remember being enraged, when I was little, by what seemed to be an unspoken assumption that regardless of her feelings a nice girl wouldn’t, so making her (or tricking her into it, in early 60’s sex comedies) was really only the gentlemanly thing to do.

For me the only two genuinely horrifying movie rapes, without a hint either of romanticism or cheesecake, are the flashback in Scorsese’s WHO’S THAT KNOCKING and the Noodles-Deborah scene in OUaTIA.

The disturbing male-female thing for me in OUaTIA (which I loved in both versions) isn’t so much the casual violence (pistol-nipple frottage is mild compared to the carnage of the scenes sandwiching it) or the instant sexual compliance, but the assumption that women find it a turn-on. Miss Nipple seems aroused; all the whores love their work; etc. But that could very well be interpreted as Noodles’ worldview, with only Deborah breaking through.

I’d go a little further with the Weld character in OUaTIA. Her “rape” during the robbery isn’t a rape at all, it’s a staged fantasy on a Neronian scale (so a few men get beaten, robbed or killed – she’s gotten her jollies). She’s the one who sets up the robbery, it’s established, and you’re wondering what’s in it for her – then you see her eyes as she lets the gang in. The greatest nympho eyes since Loretta Young in MIDNIGHT MARY. She’s fluttering around, panting, “Make it look real,” while the boys are trying to rob the joint around her (Noodles even mutters “Hey lady, straighten up and fly right,” if I’m not mistaken). The wonderful running joke is that she treats these demonstrably murderous hoods like bachelorette party strippers with tearaway pinstripe G-strings.

Victor Morton

"Then he opened a door to reveal Mrs. Hitchcock sitting on the edge of a bed in her nightgown. "This is the bedroom," he said as he closed the door, "where nothing ever happens"."

But see, the implicitly-explicit subject matter aside, that seems to me to be exactly the same Hitchcock sense of humor he had as a much younger man. We also see it in his trailers, the Annie Ondra sound test, his interviews and correspondence, and the opening segments to his eponymous TV shows. And it's also consistent with things long known about his taste for practical jokes.

I can think of two occasions in my own life when someone made more-or-less that exact joke to me. One was when I was crashing on an out-of-town friend's couch at 2am. We had just gone to a topless bar after he had a quarrel with his live-in girlfriend. He gave me pillows and a blanket and as he was retiring to their bedroom, he said "if you need anything else, don't hesitate to knock. You won't be interrupting anything."

Victor Morton

Here's the Anny (CQ) Ondra sound test I was referring to.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zl6SMOSXa7A

Kent Jones

Gee, and I thought I'd found the smoking gun. I guess it's back to the drawing board in my search for ultimate proof of Hitchcock's misogyny. I know it's out there. If I could just find the key...

Victor Morton

Actually Kent, a younger friend of mine watched THE LODGER for the first time at the weekend and we were IM'ing each other about it. He was amazed by how "Hitchcock-y' it seemed despite its being made as early as 1927. I remembered the scene of all the blondes' photos on the wall, and popped him back "you think this film proves he had an unhealthy obsession with blondes before ever meeting Grace Kelly et al" (I'd forgotten about Margaret Lockwood)

Tom Block

A few years ago a bunch of us wrote up a pile of Peckinpah movies for The High Hat, and probably the most useful contribution was Dana Knowles' long but crunchy notes about Straw Dogs' sexual politics:

http://thehighhat.com/Nitrate/002/straw_dogs.html

Jean-Pierre Coursodon

Kent, Hitchcock loved to tell people that he never had sex (he made it perfectly clear to Truffaut among others). It's arguably a better option than claiming you have sex when you don't. It was Hitch's sly way of avoiding the embarrassment of being suspected of being sexually inactive by humorously announcing it. I don't think it is the key to his misogyny though, but there are plenty of keys in his films, so some of them at least might provide "the ultimate proof."

I sometimes wonder if he masturbated and if so what kind of fantasies he had. That might provide a key...

Jean-Pierre Coursodon

Glenn, thanks for the clarification! Maybe trolls haven't found their way to Dave's blog yet. Recently there was a lot of posting about Kim Novak, a so-called "Goddess of love" the mere mention of whom seems to cause most posters to swoon or salivate (or both). But even those highfalutin cinephilic discussions have failed to attract any trolls. I'll keep a vigilant watch though.

Kent Jones

Just to be absolutely clear, I offered the story only as a related anecdote. I'm really not searching for evidence of Alfred Hitchcock's misogyny. And if I were, I don't think I'd be prepared to go to the lengths (or depths) suggested by Jean-Pierre in the final sentence of his 6:22 post.

Jean-Pierre, please note that Glenn himself is an unqualified Novakian. I myself am on the fence. Although I certainly can't agree with that poseur William Goldman, who wrote that VERTIGO couldn't possibly be a good movie because Kim Novak was in it.

Tom Carson

I do worry about lowering the tone after expressing my gratitude for SCR once again becoming a haven of cinephilia, but the image of Hitchcock masturbating is either too disturbing for words or the definition of coals to Newcastle. As for Peckinpah, what links his sympathetic and crude views of women is pretty simple: they're both effed up beyond belief. The point is who's gazing, not the object(s) of the gaze. And that's a guy who loves his movies talking, for better or worse.

Bob Westal

Re: Hitch and the Hithcock bedroom. It's been a VERY long time since I read the John Russell Taylor authorized biography, but as I recall it very bluntly stated that the Hitchcock marriage had been an entirely chaste affair since the birth of Pat Hitchcock in 1928. I found that to be a kind of strange revelation for an authorized bio -- especially since it was mentioned on the book jacket copy, if I remember right.

haice

1. Robert Aldrich
2. Abel Gance
3. Montgomery Tully

Alternates to proposed study above.

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