Wednesday, April 27, 2011
DICK TRACY (1990)
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *psychological, sociological*
"If deformity and disfigurement were not to be worn as stains, then what indeed was punishment?"-- Jay Maeder, DICK TRACY: THE OFFICIAL BIOGRAPHY, p. 57.
Warren Beatty's DICK TRACY, for which he wore two hats as star and director, makes an interesting study in contrasts.
For my AUM system the original Chester Gould comic strip is an important exemplar of two major tropes of the uncanny-metaphenomenal. In TRACY "outre outfits skills and weapons" usually comes down to unconventional but not-quite-marvelous weapons, sometimes used by police but more often by criminals. But the TRACY strip is far better known for the trope of "freakish flesh" in that Gould created a host of bizarre villains with all manner of peculiar deformities: Flat Top, the Brow, Little Face, the Mole, Pruneface, and even a man who apparently had no face at all: the Blank.
The Beatty film technically reproduces both tropes, though the only really weird weapon in the film is the Blank's method of dosing the hero into dreamland with sleep-gas flowers. As for the freaky villains-- well, they are there, though the script by writing-team Jim Cash and Jack Epps crams so many TRACY villains into the mix that hardly any of them score well on the strange-o-meter. The Brow, Pruneface, Littleface and others are often relegated to minor player-status, and aside from the Blank-- who merits special attention-- the only Gould villains who come off particularly well are Flat Top and Itchy, who are simply hired muscle for the chief villain, Big Boy Caprice. Caprice was TRACY's first major villain, but he like most of the early Gould-ghouls was not freakish in the least. Cash and Epps attempt to make him "fit in" by giving him a hunchback, but the film's Caprice is played by Al Pacino more for borscht-belt comedy than for grotesquerie.
In the comic strip the Blank was simply a contract killer who had a maimed, PHANTOM OF THE OPERA-style face and chose to make a new name for himself by covering that face with a cheesecloth mask. However, the film's Blank is revealed to be that femme fatale Breathless Mahoney (Madonna), a chanteuse who works for (and maybe under) Big Boy but who plans to usurp Big Boy's crime empire by setting him up for a fall. Breathless also plans to use Dick Tracy to accomplish her ends, but wants to seduce him to a life of crime as well. Ironically, in Warren Beatty's take on Chester Gould, the strongest villain is one of the "beautiful people." (It's also Madonnna's best film-performance-- which I know isn't saying much, but still.)
Jay Maeder comments that the element of physical deformity in DICK TRACY gives Chester Gould's world a note of savage cruelty, one which was often reflected in the (literally) hardnosed POV of the strip's protagonist. Beatty's TRACY reflects none of Gould's cruel rigor in either the film or the hero, though as it happens one year after TRACY Beatty would play Bugsy Malone with exactly the sort of noir nastiness one finds in the Gould Tracy. Beatty's version of the Gould-verse has clearly been influenced by the earlier success of Tim Burton's BATMAN. Hence, Beatty's Tracy is something of a tough but often bemused idealist not unlike Burton's Bruce Wayne, and Beatty's decision to emphasize brilliant pastels as a backdrop to Tracy's city, while enjoyable, is also more Burtonesque than Gould-esque. One need not even comment on Beatty enlisting Danny Elfman, hot off Burton's BATMAN, for TRACY's score.
The strongest myth-symbolism here is one seen in many allegorial Renaissance myths: the hero's struggle between Virtue and Vice. Tess Trueheart (Glenne Headley), Tracy's pretty but homespun girlfriend-- to whom he'd like to propose, but can't quite get there-- is obviously "Virtue," even if her demeanor sometimes suggests
she'd rather not become the de facto "mother figure" to "the Kid," a street kid who more or less "adopts" Tracy as his new dad. Madonna's Breathless musters all the glamors of "Vice," and though Tracy is too straight-arrow for her to manipulate him, Beatty at least shows the hero being sorely tempted.
I don't exactly dislike the Beatty TRACY. Still, I'd like to see the real world of Chester Gould come to cinema some day-- preferably with only one or two featured villains, the better to give the full effect of their freaky glory.
Monday, April 25, 2011
HAWK OF THE WILDERNESS (1938)
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *sociological*
SPOILERS alerts as the ending is discussed in detail.
HAWK OF THE WILDERNESS makes an interesting contrast with the earlier serial TARZAN THE TIGER in that it shows how the trope "outre outfits skills and weapons" can be rendered in a mundane fashion so it lacks the quality of strangeness-- even though HAWK is unquestionably patterned upon the success of the ERB Tarzan books, and even has one of the film-Tarzans essaying the role of the main hero.
Aside from one short story I've never read the William L. Chester novels on which the Republic serial is based. I don't imagine there are any serious divergences. Whereas ERB's Tarzan is raised by apes, the foundling Lincoln Rand Jr. is cast from a sinking ship (on which his parents perish) and ends up on an uncharted volcanic island inhabited by an Indian tribe that's never known white civilization. The Indians raise Lincoln as one of their own, naming him "Kioga" (Herman Brix). But though Kioga becomes a mighty hunter he makes some enemies, such as the war-crazed Yellow Weasel (frequent film-villain Monte Blue).
Then an American expedition travels to the island via a hired ship, seeking to learn what happened to the Rand party. The expedition members include middle-aged Doctor Munro, his pretty young daughter Jill, a black "comedy-relief" servant named George (Fred "Snowflake" Toones) and a somewhat upper-crust fellow named Allen. Unfortunately for the expedition, the crooked sailors manning their ship get the idea that the doctor and his friends are after treasure.
Kioga befriends the (mostly) white visitors. However, most of the serial concerns his efforts to defend them both against the warmongering people of his own tribe as well as the piratical sailors. As with many Republic serials this leads to a good number of well-staged fight-scenes. Brix's lean athleticism works to good effect throughout these scenes, though in less action-packed scenes he fails to convey the charisma of a Crabbe or Weismuller.
Apart from the sheer kinetics of the battles, HAWK is a sociological myth about an encounter between whites, Indians, and a white man who dresses and acts like an Indian. (Interestingly, ERB himself mined this trope in two "white Indian" novels written prior to the success of Tarzan.) Usually the serial doesn't dwell at all on the culture clash, though there's one amusing exception. Kioga, talking to one of his Indian friends, is perturbed to find himself attracted to Jill, in spite of the fact that she doesn't look strong enough to do the average women's chores. Clearly Kioga's Caucasian "nature" triumphs over the Indian tribe's "nurturing," so that he rejects their standards of attractiveness.
Toones' black servant "George" deserves a little attention. The best thing one can say about George is that he doesn't evince too many anti-black stereotypes, aside from the usual default of being scared to muck about with burial grounds, spooks and the like. George isn't particularly bright, but that in itself doesn't have to denote a racial characteristic; most comic servants are funny for being dim. However, in one chapter George, captured by hostile Indians, almost gets a chance to enjoy heroic action. Despite having had his hands bound behind his back, George seizes a chance to escape and head-butts not just one but two of his captors into dreamland. He then loses his chance at glory by mistaking a totem pole for a third adversary, and so knocks himself out.
The best sequence takes place as Kioga and his allies seek to repair a small plane to escape the island, even as they're being pursued by both bad Indians and greedy white men *and* while the local volcano is about to blow its stack. When Doctor Munro announces that the plane can't carry the whole expedition, plus Kioga, his two friends and his dog, the spirit of cooperation becomes strained. Jill staunchly determines that they will all leave together, but Allen-- hitherto a minor character-- suddenly decides to get rid of the dead weight. He makes an attempt to "accidentally" kill one of the Indians, and when Kioga catches him, he rants against "dirty Indians" even though Kioga is his own race. In the exciting wrapup both Allen and one of Kioga's allies are killed by the vengeful Yellow Weasel, whom Kioga then executes. Following this drastic reduction of the fugitives' party, the plane successfully takes off with all the heroes, and the volcano goes off, implicitly killing off all the villainous Indians and white men.
Though Kioga is a strong hero, he has none of Tarzan's unique skills, and even his going around without a shirt carries no strong associations beyond the notion that "that's how Indians dressed." In contrast to the exotic societies portrayed in both TARZAN THE TIGER and WILD WOMEN, the Indian tribe seen here is a pretty conventional one, and thus never realizes its potential for "strangeness" through the trope of exoticism.
Tuesday, April 12, 2011
CHARLIE CHAN IN EGYPT (1935) and BLACK MAGIC (1944)
MYTHICITY: (1) *fair,* (2) *poor*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *sociological*
Mystery SPOILERS ahead.
In contrast to my earlier review of CHARLIE CHAN IN HONOLULU, which I judged to be "atypical," here are two Chan-flicks-- one starring Warner Oland, the other Sidney Toler-- which fall into my category of "the uncanny."
EGYPT, one of Oland's films for 20th-Century Fox, is one of the better films involving a detective investigating a death supposedly caused by a curse-- in this case, an archaeologist who may have died due to the curse of the Goddess Sekhmet, after the man profanes an Egyptian tomb. Twice Chan and the archeaological party witness odd manifestations of the goddess: a beam of light from a mummy-coffin, or a strange glittering figure in darkness. The archeologist's son puts it down to the fact that Egypt is a land of "decay and death," but Chan naturally ferrets out a very human murderer. In addition to impersonating Sekhmet, the murderer also knocks off his victim with a complicated device: an ampule of poison gas, placed within the victim's violin in such a way that it will shatter when the violin hits a certain note. I should note that even if the film included no impersonations of a supernatural figure, this complicated device would move the film into the realm of "the uncanny" just by virtue of its farfetched nature.
The sociological mythology of the Earl Derr Biggers books comes through a little more in EGYPT, especially in the sequences that involved the son and daughter of the deceased archeaologist. Both seem upper-class types who are affronted at their father's having dragged them to this primitive land, which is a good correlate for European attitudes toward North Africa in that time. Naturally in 1935 no one would have questioned the right of Europeans to take away the treasures of ancient Egypt, but perhaps one can read a certain Euro-guilt in the fear of Egyptian curses as a whole. Interestingly, though Steppin Fetchit appears in his usual role of comedy relief, the script establishes that he came to Egypt because a fortuneteller told him that his ancestor came from Egypt-- a concept which a later generation of African-Americans would pursue in more earnest. And though Fetchit also must conform to the stereotype of the "black scaredycat," always concerned with "hants" and the like, one sequence does give Fetchit a little more heft, albeit still in terms of stereotypes. At one point the lights go off, and Fetchit finds himself struggling with what he thinks is some "hant," though it's only one of the white guys in the archeological mission. The lights come on, and Fetchit is at least poised to defend himself with a huge straight-razor! Again, the scene is still comic and plays with a routine stereotype, but it's a slight improvement over dozens of more demeaning "scaredycat black" schticks.
BLACK MAGIC is for the most part an average Monogram Chan, and in contrast to EGYPT its black comedy relief, the redoubtable Mantan Moreland, doesn't come across so well, lacking the wit he shows in other Chan outings. But MAGIC has one distinction in that it's one of the few films to seriously put Chan's life at peril. The film's "uncanny" motif centers around the power of a mysterious hypnotist-- later revealed to have been a stage magician in the past-- to cause people to walk off the tops of buildings. In the film's best scene Toler's Chan is victimized by the hypnotist, who puts Charlie under by shining two beams of light around the detective's eyes-- a much more visual concept than swinging a watch, to be sure. Chan comes very close to taking the big plunge himself, but squeaks out of it at the proverbial last minute.
As a side-note, this time out Chan is accompanied by a "number one" daughter instead of a son, played by an actress who shares the same name as her character, Frances Chan. Sadly, though she's just as determined as any Chan-son to emulate her famous pop, the young girl doesn't really do anything of note. (Frances appeared two years before in CHARLIE CHAN'S GREATEST CASE, where she was billed as "youngest Chan daughter.")
Monday, April 11, 2011
HOP (2011) and RANGO (2011)
MYTHICITY: (1) *poor,* (2) *good*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *comedy*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *sociological*
These two animated films make a perfect diptych. Neither could be said to be exceptional enough to “break the mold,” and in comparison with even a work that hits on all cylinders, like Pixar’s THE INCREDIBLES, one might call both of them somewhat “average.” Yet there’s a line of quality between the two, in which the first of them is “depressingly average” while the second is “pleasingly average.”
HOP concerns the adventures of E.B., a young talking rabbit who is both the son of the current Easter Bunny and the destined inheritor of the Easter Bunny tradition. But though his name pretty well reinforces his destiny, he flees the hidden “Easter Bunny workshop” where Daddy Bunny and his assorted assistants (a handful of other rabbits and dozens of baby chicks) prepare the eggs for Easter morning. E.B. seeks out the human world in order to gain fame as a drummer. He latches on to Fred (James Marsden), a young guy who not only lacks a job but any sense as to what his destiny might be. While E.B. tries to pursue his dream, his father sends a trio of ninja bunnies to bring him back, while Carlos, the rebellious, Spanish-accented leader of the chicks, plots to take over Easter from all the bunnies.
The animation in HOP is pleasing enough, and James Marsden does yeoman service in countless reaction shots to assorted cartoon wonders. But HOP is too pleased with its high-concept idea to bother crafting even half-decent jokes. In one sequence E.B., fleeing the ninja bunnies, tried to get help from Fred while Fred is being interviewed at an office for a job. One expects E.B. to bring about some major chaos so that Fred gets kicked out, but all that happens is that E.B.’s presence makes Fred so nervous that he blows the interview—offcamera! But the visit to the office does serve a clunky plot-point: while there, E.B. finds out how he can audition at a talent-contest supervised by David Hasselhoff—which leads to even more egregiously unfunny shenanigans.
HOP’s near-jokelessness may pale before the fact that its high concept is really no concept. The United States inherited the tradition of the Easter Rabbit and his eggs from Europe, where it seems to have descended from archaic pagan rituals. But whatever deeper meanings the Easter Bunny may have for Europe, in the States the Easter-egg ritual is little more than a ritualized game. The filmmakers try to give the Easter Bunny tradition a semi-sacred resonance by borrowing tropes from Christmas, including having the Bunny deliver eggs in an “egg-sleigh.” But the resonance simply isn’t there. It’s true that both Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny are extra-Christian traditions that became associated with Christian religious occasions. But Santa really does incarnate a quasi-sacred quality that makes his raison d’etre credible even in the worst Santa movies. It might not be impossible to rethink the superficial tradition of the Easter Bunny so that it took on a deeper symbolism. But HOP can’t even begin to jump up to that challenge.
RANGO is the story of a city-boy lizard who must take on the persona of a fearless gunfighter to save a town full of Western talking animals. But though RANGO is a comic take on the Western genre, it comes far closer to imparting to its genre that “semi-sacred resonance,” even though the Western descends not from archaic myth and religion but from relatively modern history and literature. Yet despite these secular origins, the Western has often attained the stature of archaic legend for contemporaries, though less so in this century than in the previous one.
RANGO, in addition to having a fair quantity of good jokes and exciting action-sequences (no live-action tedium here), does seem to understand the psychological tone of the Western better than most live-action Westerns of the last twenty years. The lizard-- who’s never given any other name than “Rango,” his made-up name --becomes the archetypal “stranger in town” who becomes the town’s secular savior. In a trope possibly borrowed more from CHINATOWN than from any western, the town is dying due to the stranglehold that the evil turtle, the Mayor, has on the available water-resources. Even though the film is funny, the seriousness of the water-shortage is never played for comedy. Thus Rango’s transformation from fake hero to real hero becomes real as well, even to the point of his undergoing a sort of Campbellian “hero’s death,” in which he “dies” and is borne away on a catafalque made of beetles.
The filmmakers populate the town with assorted funny-animal takes on Western character-types, with emphasis on Rango’s destined girlfriend, feisty Miss Beans. True, not all of the characters are, strictly speaking, necessary to the plot. Still, the filmmakers seem to have taken an effusive joy in coming up with as many weird frontier-types as they could. If they err, it’s on the side of doing too much, in contrast to HOP, which does too little. And the film’s secondary villain, “Rattlesnake Jake,” may go down in history as one of Western animation’s best villains.
Both are in essence sociological myths, in that they deal with heroes who realize their destinies in order to maintain the social order.
Monday, April 4, 2011
SECRET CEREMONY (1968)
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *irony*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *psychological*
In the last couple of weeks, I've been minded to review one of the few metaphenomenal films from the oeuvre of the late Liz Taylor-- who did better films in this category than her husband Richard "Medusa Touch" Burton. Taylor, whatever her limitations as an actress, usually seemed to give her all when doing bizarre or unusual films. She might have even done well in the stodgy DOCTOR FAUSTUS if her characters had been given any lines.
Fortunately for me, TCM recently broadcast a restored version of SECRET CEREMONY-- which I assume is the most complete version available of the oft-scissored Joseph Losey film. Wikipedia remarks that often cuts were imposed to remove the film's intimations of potential lesbianism, as the above photo should illustrate.
However, it would be a misreading to think that Losey is simply stumping for camp effects, as some reviewers have claimed. The embrace above is not free of possible polymorphous perversity, but it fits the context of Jungian more than Freudian psychology. The embrace, at once somewhat erotic and smothering, calls to mind the image of the Ouroboros, the serpent biting its own tail. Jung called attention to the feminine undertones of the image:
The ouroboros is a dramatic symbol for the integration and assimilation of the opposite, i.e. of the shadow self. This feed back process is at the same time a symbol of immortality, since it is said of the ouroboros that he slays himself and brings himself t life again, fertilizes himself and gives birth to himself. This is much like the cycle of the Phoenix, the feminine archetype.
In addition, though I've been unable to track down an exact quote, Jungian Erich Neumann has been quoted as having related the ouroboros to the "undifferentiated infancy experience."
CEREMONY is about nothing less than the pyrrhic relationship between mother and daughter-- though here the mother and daughter are not literally related. Taylor's character Leonora, having lost a female child years ago, is drifting through a life of prostitution when she meets the waifish girl Cenci (Mia Farrow). Cenci, a rich heiress who lives in a fantasy-world, conceives that Leonora is her dead mother, and persuades Leonora to go back and live with Cenci at her posh but servantless estate. Leonora never completely loses her awareness that Cenci is not her lost daughter, but clearly she wants to believe in the fantasy as much as Cenci does.
The fly in their ouroboric ointment, of course, is a man: Cenci's stepfather Albert (Robert Mitchum), who is the first to ferret out the peculiar relationship Leonora has with his stepdaughter. However, Albert is hardly one to cast stones, as he's had a quasi-incestuous relationship with Cenci. As if to take a leaf from Nabokov's LOLITA, Albert asserts that Cenci was the aggressor in the relationship, which further appalls Leonora insofar as she does not wish to think of Cenci as anything but her own lost child "reborn."
Yet director Losey validates Albert's self-serving account far more than Nabokov validates Humbert Humbert. Early in the film, following the scene in which Cenci first seeks to share Leonora's bed (and thus long before Albert shows up), tetchy Cenci goes off by herself to a secluded room and starts making suggestive remarks to "Albert," whom she imagined sitting before her in an empty chair. Clearly, despite the extremity with which Cenci is bound to the *imago* of her mother, she rebels against her mother's influence as well. From this and other scenes it's clear that it doesn't really matter whether Cenci or Albert was the sexual aggressor: either way, Cenci quite clearly enjoyed poaching on her mother's territory. Guilt certainly informs her fantasy that her mother has returned, and yet Losey avoids the gimcrack reductivism of Freudian analysis. Even after Leonora has learned all she can of Cenci's checkered history, she wants to remain a part of Cenci's life-- a testimony to the power of Cenci's delusion, in part supported by the wildly unlikely coincidence of two mutually bereaved people meeting as they do.
This is the first film I've treated here that fits the Fryean category "irony." In brief, the irony describes a world of "all passion spent," as Milton had it. Whether the characters are treated tragically or comically, there is generally a sense of the futility of purposeful activity. The ouroboros finally ends when Cenci takes her own life, and the film concludes with Leonora reciting an old fable:
There were two mice fell in a bucket of milk, one yelled for
help and drowned, the other kept pedaling around until, in the
morning, he found himself on top of butter.
In the context of CEREMONY, Cenci can only be the mouse that called for help, and perished, while Leonora has survived. But she survives in a world where she has lost her daughter twice, and so it seems unlikely that the mere fact of survival holds much value for Leonora.
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