Thursday, April 26, 2012

Ghosts of Presents Past

There actually are such things as professional historians. I don’t happen to be one of them despite a degree in history from George Washington University. Nevertheless, my interest persists and sometimes leaks into other activities. The project mentioned in an earlier blog of working through the DVDs that have been collecting dust on my shelves (see On Dust and Disks) experienced just such a leak. The value of these movies for a historian is hard to miss.

Historians specializing in the 20th and 21st centuries have a huge advantage over those studying earlier eras, and it’s not just that first-hand witnesses are still alive. Even after all those witnesses have died, the movies will continue provide vivid images of past everyday life down to very small details. The movies sometimes reveal just as much by what they leave out, such as diversity in early-60s beach party movies or kisses longer than three seconds (a Hays Code limit) in movies of the 1940s.

Below are the most recently viewed baker’s dozen of dusted-off DVDs. Each film is very much of its time, yet each also is in some way timeless – and it is the latter way that makes them more than archaeological artifacts.

The Plastic Age (1925) – In this 1920s college drama, innocent young athlete Hugh starts off well at the fictional Prescott College, but soon is corrupted by party girl Cynthia (Clara Bow). Realizing that she is destroying him, she gives him up for his own good. He gets back on his feet and plays as quarterback in a big football game which Cynthia, of course, watches anonymously from the stands. (Speaking of football, the nasty rumors still repeated about Clara Bow and the USC team are untrue; she was a fan and did invite the team among other guests to her house for a party, but that’s all there was to it.) Hugh and Cynthia reconcile on graduation day.

Wings (1927) – More Clara Bow in the first film to win a Best Picture Oscar. Clara joins the Women’s Motor Corps in World War 1 so she can be closer to her sweetheart pilot who barely knows she exists. There is remarkable aerial footage for the day, plus a melodramatic backstory of romance and friendship in war.

The Asphalt Jungle (1950) – Moderately good noir, though no more than moderately good. It has an undeservedly outsized reputation mostly due to the presence of Marilyn Monroe. She does successfully deliver the very tough line, “Haven’t you bothered me enough, you big banana-head?” without laughing. I’m sure that in a remake, the Coen brothers would change the vocabulary.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) – Wonderfully creepy low-budget sf/horror movie, which I prefer to any of the remakes.

Scarface (1932) – Despite the backdrop of Miami and cocaine instead of Chicago and Prohibition, the 1983 version with Al Pacino owes plenty to this Howard Hughes original starring Paul Muni, right down to the incestuous undertones of Tony’s relationship to his sister.

Match Point (2005) – Woody Allen’s movie of murder and intrigue in which luck, not karma, determines the outcome. This is very much Woody’s sense of reality, and it is a postmodern one with which I don’t argue.

Heavy Metal (1981) – Several clever animated science fiction tales are tied together by an overarching story, and all are replete with adolescent sexuality: that’s not an insult, just a description. This film inspired The Fifth Element.

Something Wild (1986) – An apparent romantic comedy takes an unexpected midway turn to danger and violence. This suspense film with Jeff Daniels and Melanie Griffith should be better known than it is. In the 80s and 90s I used to date women like Melanie’s character. This film reminds me why I stopped.

Diary of a Lost Girl (1929) – This silent was filmed in Weimar Republic Germany, though it stars Kansas-born Louise Brooks. Unmarried teen Thymian has a child, so Thymian’s hypocritical father sends her to a girls’ reformatory while handing the baby to a midwife. The reformatory is run by a cruel and perverse sadomasochistic couple, so she escapes with another girl who takes a plainly sexual interest in her. She finds out the baby has died in the midwife’s care. She then goes to work in a brothel for a kindly old madam and marries a Count. Yes, 1929.

American Psycho 2 (2002) – This is not a cult classic like American Psycho, but it has enough twisted humor to be enjoyable. Mila Kunis is a psychopath pursuing a college path so she can join the FBI and catch psychopaths.

Malibu High (1979) – In the 1970s, home video players still were uncommon and cable offerings were fairly limited. In the niche currently occupied by straight-to-video (STV) movies was a distinctive type of low-budget film with sexual content just on the R side of X (presently NR-17); the primary target audience was late teens. It came to be called “the drive-in movie.” Drive-ins had been around for 40 years by that time, of course, and hadn’t been associated previously with any one kind of film, but in the 70s, as a way of competing with the new multiplexes, the outdoor screens were dominated by these cheap semi-erotic movies. Most were dreadful. A few weren’t so bad. Malibu High is one of the not-so-bads, though that by no means should be mistaken to mean “good.” It means not so bad. A high school senior facing failing grades and a dead end future turns her life around by seducing teachers, moonlighting as a hooker, and then becoming a contract killer. Then she goes too far.

Red Dust (1932) – This steamy precode is set on a rubber plantation in French colonial Indochina. Clark Gable, Jean Harlow, Mary Astor, and Gene Raymond act up with each other in various combinations. One reviewer at the time grumbled, “The title is off by one letter.”

Tough Guys Don’t Dance (1987) – The late Norman Mailer is an exasperating author who mixes brilliance with tripe on the same page – sometimes in the same sentence. (Ancient Evenings is my favorite of his novels, by the way.) That makes the tripe worse than it otherwise would be, because it always seems he could do better – that may be unfair, but pick up one of his books and see if you don’t have the same response. Or, just pick up this movie which Norman Mailer wrote and directed. It, too, is a jarring mix of high drama/comedy and bad soap opera: the dialogue is alternately brilliant and stupid; credible characters intermingle with impossible ones; human insights are inseparable from obtuseness. Interweaved with it all, there is an inexplicable and utterly irrelevant homophobia.

I played most of these films plus/minus the midnight hour, and every one of them is an entertaining way to end a day. Each also leaves me free to deny such frivolity of purpose, and instead to insist haughtily, “I’m studying cultural history.”

Gable to Harlow in Red Dust: “Don’t you know we drink that water?”

Norman Acknowledges His Duality in Trailer to Tough Guys Don’t Dance


  1. I haven't seen too many on this list. "Heavy Metal" is a classic of American animation, mostly because it was so different from much of the other animation around at the time (with the exception of Bakshi's work). I'm sure I'll get to reviewing it sooner or later.

    I haven't seen "Something Wild" in years, but I remember being very surprised by it. It was advertised as a wacky comedy, but it is really a very different beast. Once you know what you're in for, it's entertaining, but I remember lots of folks being annoyed and confused by it.

    Last but not least is "Invasion of the Body Snatchers". I hadn't seen this until fairly recently and really enjoyed it. The first version I saw was the early '90s one that happened on a military base and stared Gabrielle Anwar. I remember not thinking much about it, other than seeing Anwar semi-nude in a tub. I hear the '70s version is pretty good and has some disturbing scenes and some corny ones.

    Stephen King goes into great detail about the novel these movies were based on in his book "Dance Macabre". He makes it sound pretty interesting, and that the '50s film version is very close to the novel with the exception of the ending.

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