Sunday, January 16, 2011

Taxi Schwarzwald

Blonde Venus, 1932, dir. Josef von Sternberg

Suspiria, 1977, dir. Dario Argento

Two images of hired autos in the German wilderness, or, as Herbert Marshall says in just before the top image: "As I live and breathe, a taxicab in the middle of the Black Forest!"

Now, while Sternberg centers a light comedy scene around the parked taxi (that's a 27-year-old Sterling Holloway as a nerd in a goofy hat, pestering the brusque German driver), Argento's cab is on what I believe Wesley Willis might refer to as a "Hellride." These are not by any means the first shots in their respective films, but both are key mini-/sub-scenes in the films' opening sequences. Certainly they are very different scenes about taxis in the Black Forest, from very different films by very different (but secretly not-so-different) filmmakers, but they are also doing some similar duties, those odd parallels that concern us below.

As Tim Lucas points out in this fine little piece, a) Suspiria's cab ride is not the first interesting scene and b) the section in which the car passes through the Black Forest is all about these trees (also the music), one of which bears the lightning-thrown, inexplicable shadow of a knife-wielding hand just before the car slides out off screen. Incidentally, that sickle shadow is there not just because of its association with Cronus or as chibi version of the Grim Reaper's scythe; the curve-bladed boline is of the type used in actual ritual magic. In real life these are rarely, if ever, used for cutting up ballerinas.

The first scenes proper:
Blonde Venus begins with a group of young women bathing in a pool under the titles, then has a half-page scene of Joe (Holloway) bitching about the length of the hike and bumming a smoke from his companions before they stumble upon the taxi. Suspiria, of course, opens at the airport where Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper) "arrived in Germany at 10:40 p.m. local time." So Suspiria's car is carrying its heroine, after she has some difficulty hailing a cab in the thunderstorm. In Blonde Venus the scene is about how these boys are not able to hire the taxi because the group of actresses currently splashing in the pond has rented it for the day. One of those ladies is Helen (Marlene Dietrich) who will effectively become the heroine, even if we don't know it yet. Point being only that the taxis are hired by the respective female protagonists of each story.

Now, using both my entirely inept trip-planning skills and highly developed make-believe skills, it seems that the closest international airport to Freiburg is actually in France. Since Suzy clearly lands in Germany, the two closest candidates are Baden Airpark and Stuttgart (as Lucas points out, this was not shot at a real airport). Obviously we don't know exactly where the fictional Tanz Akademie is located in the geography of the city. However, just for laughs, let us pretend the school shares an address with the Haus zum Walfisch (House of the Whale) that provides its exterior and that Suzy arrives at one of the above airports. According to Google Maps, at best, she's an hour from Freiburg. Maybe we're only witness to part of this cab ride, then. But I don't think so...

As is communicated with some difficulty between Suzy and her cabbie, the Tanz Akademie is situated on Escher Straße: perhaps you can get there any way you choose, perhaps you can never quite get there. The taxi takes an infinite path, an impossible path. In later scenes characters are able to quickly move from the Akademie to perfectly urban parts of the city — first victim Pat and blind pianist Daniel both do so. As it happens, Haus zum Walfisch is only blocks from the forest. But the effect in this opening sequence, which transitions straight from the woods to a shot of the school framed to block out surrounding buildings, is that the Akademie is set deep inside the forest. Parallel to Blonde Venus, in which dialogue situates the action some ten miles from the next town: the taxis are conveyances into fairyland.

With color schemes inspired by Disney's Snow White, and more importantly a primal, cruel logic that makes no sense to the brain but too much sense to the guts, Suspiria's fairy tale underpinnings and overtones are fairly apparent to anyone wandering into its path. What with all the taxicabs and prog rock, it might be difficult to ascribe an Aarne-Thompson folktale index number to Suspiria (for those unfamiliar, that's nothing fancier than the industry standard for cataloging folktale themes and types. If you don't have a copy, er, don't worry about it). It is probably closest to an AT 327 variant ("Hansel and Gretel" being AT 327A, for example), with a slew of selections from the Motif Index. I think it is not entirely unrelated to those "neck riddle" stories found under AT 851 "The Princess Who Cannot Solve the Riddle": Suzy, as per Argento tradition, is offered a riddle in the beginning that she does not even recognize as a riddle until it is time to solve it at the end.

Blonde Venus is also a fairy tale. Or at least that might be an instructive way of looking at it. It is not unusual for Sternberg's singular way with ornate mise en scène and Old World grotesquery to lend a certain storybook quality to his films anyway, and Venus takes as a motif the retelling of its own narrative as a bedtime story.

The plot here goes that on that fateful hike, American student Ned Faraday (Marshall) discovers music hall star Helen bathing in that pond. They marry and domestic bliss ensues until Ned discovers he is slowly dying, having been poisoned by his laboratory work with radium. Naturally he needs an Expensive Medical Procedure, and Helen is forced back into nightclub singing. With swift inevitability, she finds the fastest way to procure the cash is to sell herself to well-heeled cad Nick Townsend (Cary Grant), and long story short, ends up a Fallen Woman and takes off cross-country, with Ned in pursuit of his abducted son. During those early scenes of the Faradays' happy home life, a family tradition is depicted in which the parents jointly recount their cutely met romance to put their son to sleep, reframing the events in fairy tale terms (e.g. — Helen is a "princess" and the surly cabbie a "dragon in an automobile"). This storytelling is, eventually, also the means by which the couple reconciles. Within the story, then, Blonde Venus is explicitly tied to fairy tales and variant retellings.

I recount the plot as a frame of reference, because it seems to me a vague variation on the "Swan Maiden" tale (Aarne-Thompson type 400) with a focus on the story from the Swan Maiden's point of view. In skeletal form, that goes: Hunter (a king, often) enters the woods, finds an enchanted lake wherein swims a magical swan. She turns into a woman — this often happens as the hunter swipes her feathered robe while she swims, and he will not return it — they marry and reproduce. Through some means — usually the playing children reveal the secret hiding place, or a Gypsy pulls some maniacal Gypsy stunt (I know, I know) — the swan maiden gets her feather robe back, and flies away. An impossible pursuit is required should the husband wish to reclaim the Swan bride. Sometimes he embarks on the quest, sometimes not, but if so, it often ends with the task of identifying the Maiden among a group.

Taking it from the top, in the Black Forest Ned threatens Helen with the very prank that nets the Swan Maiden. Her Swan-ness here is, on the level of surface transposition, her nightclub singing — so read: her association with that glamorous but debauched world and identity as an artist. One level down, this is tied up with sexual freedom, but on the deepest level, down where the Swan has always been paddling, this is about freedom from male control. Sternberg's complicated relationship with Dietrich is one of cinema's great living kōans, where universes are built and destroyed, gods created and desecrated in the course of single shots. In his hands/in her thrall, he makes her/she is a figure of identification, an effigy of contemplation, an ideal and a demon-goddess. The Sternberg-Dietrich dialectic is beyond love-hate. In Blonde Venus, all sympathies are with Helen as men try to define her, buy her, own her, push her out of society, pursue her, but ultimately cannot live without her. When a detective tracking Helen questions her devotion to her child's welfare, in one of those chilling defining moments she casually scoffs "What does a man know about mother love?" Don't need you, don't need your world! Times like this, it seems Helen ought to head back to that magic pond and leave this mess behind.

She doesn't, quite, not physically, but returns metaphorically to where she began, reuniting her family mainly through that mythologized version of their shared history in which she is a princess and her son springs forth from a kiss; she resurrects — or retreats back into — the folktale. If this is uneasy, a cop-out, a betrayal of character, triumph or a tragedy, well, why pick one? Meanwhile, at the dance school across the way, Suzy Bannion faces down the nightmare, stabs it in the neck, and burns it to the ground. This closes as she staggers in the direction where there once was a forest, in one of those patented Argento closing shots of someone who just went through Hell and just may have snapped in the process. So both Blonde Venus and Suspiria, like any mysteriously powerful folktale, end with all the definitiveness of a Thematic Apperception Test, which is to say none at all.

As Suzy leaves the Akademie, it has begun to rain once more, and though we seem to have driven for miles on Escher St., we are back where we came in.

Once upon a time
two taxis drove into the Black Forest
where they dropped off two women
and then the trouble began.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

As is usually the case, skillfully written and an interesting read. Thank you.