Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Who Is the Coolest?: Lee Marvin’s Shirttails in BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK (1955)

The geography for the stage of Bad Day at Black Rock (1955, set in 1945) is a massive barbell, choked in the middle by the single street of Black Rock, opening at either end into dusty orange desert vistas. John J. Macreedy (Spencer Tracy) arrives by ghost train at one end of the street, wanders back and forth to solve a mystery that resides somewhere in the wasteland at the other end. There is a story of the hard, bitter little city, the sins of all one-dozen-or-so residents, and the status of a missing Japanese farmer given the improbable name “Komoko”; this is the narrative meat proper, but the skeleton of Black Rock is filled out -- or picked away and revealed -- as the camera approaches each of these desert lizard-people as mysteries unto themselves. Macreedy is the town’s first visitor in four years, and the locals hate him before he steps into town, eyeing the slowing train with silent panic and confusion. Once they have to interact with him, every conversation is an exercise in concealing data, lying, talking circles around the topic. Getting information out of these people is like pulling teeth, and even the small talk is a particularly harsh enamel scraping.

So this is the shape of the Bad Day, Macreedy pacing and studying the land, everyone engaged in a game of Who Is the Coolest?, until all players crack and all secrets are outed. Each piece of character backstory or nugget of truth about their universe is hard won -- by Macreedy in most rounds, though sometimes he has to give some ground in the short view so an opponent will lower his guard. Who he is and what he wants, being the question actively playing on every set of lips in Black Rock, are the cards Macreedy won’t show until absolutely necessary. The allegorical wireframe about quiet, stoic heroism and insulated communities who poison their own wells is overlaid with the paper-mâché skin of its residents and weather-blasted buildings. The Bad Day is about a lot of things, macro and micro: the interment of Japanese-Americans during the second World War, the Hollywood blacklist, American racism, mob violence, the myth of the American West and various untenable molds of masculinity. The story in whole chews on these thoughts, the scenes are of people chewing on each other. So after a fashion, Bad Day’s scenes are driven by a question which is not “What Happened to Komoko?” but: “Who Is the Coolest?” This death match is determined through the gradual accumulation of curious details, actorly peculiarities; the Bad Day is the process of grit settling into grooves.

Macreedy keeps one -- presumably useless -- arm stiff at his side, fist shoved deep into jacket pocket. Unseasonable black off-the-rack suit adhering to his torso, Macreedy’s sweat soaks through the fabric as he ambles about in the blazing sun; Tracy looks like a baked potato seeping butter through aluminum foil wrapping as he rolls about on a very large grill. He makes some kind of point of remaining uncomfortable in the heat, ordering hot coffee at lunch to accompany a bowl of chili, and later claims he is the kind of man who has “never thought much” about lemonade. In that particular competition, Macreedy wins against a nerve-jangled telegraph operator in just a few moves, and the poor fellow is starry-eyed in terror that he has met a man who has never even thought about lemonade.

Pete Wirth (John Ericson who later teamed up with Anne Francis again for Honey West on TV), the dumbbell hotel clerk seems to want to deny Macreedy a room because he makes a visual rhyme with the “one-armed bandit” slot machine in the corner. In an entrancing bit of business, Tracy opens a fresh pack of cigarettes with one hand. There is dialogue, perhaps it is even plot-related, but the whole picture is suddenly about the tension and marvel of Macreedy popping the wrapper and biting off confetti strips of the inner foil, spitting the paper to the floor.

The back of Lee Marvin’s shirt refuses to stay tucked into his pants throughout the day. He fixes it at least twice, and it flaps around like a lazy flag. It is not really a wonder, since Marvin keeps covertly maneuvering his big log-limbed scarecrow body into contorted positions. Here his angry idiot ranch hand, called Hector, sprawls half-propped-up across Macreedy’s rented bed. James Dean strikes a similar pose in Giant, lazily stretching across the width of the screen, a little house on the horizon appearing to plop into his lap; Hector has climbed inside that building, legs poking out the windows like a cowpoke Alice in Wonderland, as Macreedy studies him, a sedated Bill the lizard. In another interesting shot, Hector leans his elbow against a wall some four feet away from his torso, surely providing more stress on his frame than relief. Hector picks postures for maximum silhouette impact. Hector has the moves and spirit of intimidation down flat, his signature feint being to act weird and simmer with vaguely motivated violence. But he gets flummoxed fast, mainly by Macreedy’s technique of questioning the literal logic of any insinuated threat. Long enough to look like he’s going to bow the hotel bed, boots surely ruining the bedspread, and glowering intently at his burning cigarette, Hector’s materialization in Macreedy’s room is a calculated intrusion of lanky non sequitur. In this match, Hector loses, unable to be more startling than an old man in a bathrobe who refuses to act the least bit surprised.

Meanwhile, Ernest Borgnine as Coley chortles and bounces about like a fleshy rubber ball with a grinning, google-eyed goblin face painted on it. He is giggly with delight over the opportunity to bully anyone, as if he has been deprived of opportunity for years. Macreedy stares at Coley, memorizes his opponent’s malevolent hop-about, until Coley dances to the end of his chain, and lashes out in a vehicular attack on a desert road, and in a perhaps even greater violation, dumps a whole bunch of ketchup all over Macreedy's chili. Macreedy seems to endure the outbursts only to gather facts and figures, place the violence in a diagram of Coley’s attack pattern. Next time the issue is raised, Macreedy swats Coley out of the way like a slow-pitch softball. It's one-armed judo precision against an inept berserker telegraphing his moves.

John J. Macreedy makes his way to the outskirts of Black Rock, to the ruins of Komoko’s farm at Adobe Flats. He paces. He crouches. He studies the depth of a well, the composition of the dirt, the flora of the area. It takes three minutes, and he has sized up the situation. Adobe Flats gives up all the backstory that the citizens will not; the dirt and plants and rocks and holes do not care who is coolest.

“I believe a man is as big as what'll make him mad,” Reno Smith tells Macreedy. The town heavy is Robert Ryan, whose career-long refinement of tough-souled goodies and baddies suppressing a psychotic streak is distilled into this pared-away Big Boss tyrant. Reno holds the town in hand by virtue of a few more IQ points, and at least understands the game they are playing. Do not flinch, do not back away, do not break eye contact first: Who is the Coolest? He is actually “mad” all the time, constantly fuming at flunkies Coley and Hector, and the entire colony of Black Rock. What he really means, though, is that man-size is determined by what makes a fellow completely lose his shit. For Reno, and by his own account, it took Pearl Harbor. So he’s at least as big a man as the entire country. And what’s bigger than that? For Macreedy, it takes the whole of the species’ fears, cowardice, inhumanity and intolerance.

Both men have already erupted in loud preaching, but only one lost an arm fighting for the country; the other incited a mob to murder. Reno gives a flame-eyed speech about desire to protect the Western country he knows, while Macreedy’s righteous rant is truly about personal bravery and individuality, his breaking point breached when the nitwit hotel clerk is too chickenshit to stand up for himself. When these symbolmen finally duke it out, it’s Reno the enraged, irrational, indignant going nuts with a gun, while Macreedy, beleaguered and persecuted, defends himself with methodical Molotov cocktails. All speechifying becomes irrelevant. Everything they mean and stand for is observable in how they fight, defined by their combat in the last round of Who is the Coolest? If Reno is the Big Boss of Black Rock, Macreedy has him beat. He’s bigger than the whole damned town.

Meanwhile, Hector’s shirttails flop out again, and billow in the hot breeze.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Ghost Train: The Lost Pauline Kael Review of PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE (1959)

This post is in participation with Cinemastyles’ Spirit of Ed Wood Blog-A-Thon, organized in celebration of the 50th anniversary of Plan 9 From Outer Space, but covering any and everything remotely related to Mr. Wood... or that exudes that rare Ed Wood Feeling. Put a bookmark in your copy of Death of a Transvestite, pour a glass of Imperial whiskey and get busy reading! Most of the articles are along the lines of re-(re)-evaluating Wood’s life and work, but Exploding Kinetoscope offers a special history-making report.

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Pauline Kael’s I Lost It at the Movies, the 1965 book spanning her pre-New Yorker work from 1954-1965, is generally understood to be the critic’s first collected volume. Following Kael’s death in 2001, references were found in personal papers to a small press volume predating the publication of I Lost It, though no copy was located in Kael’s personal collection. After several years of scrambling and red herring sniffing by film historians, Kael obsessives, and rare book collectors, only a handful of copies (three in total, two complete, none in better than VG condition) have surfaced. Going Down On the Movies, (according to indicia) published by Trap Street Press, 1960, collects various Kael juvenilia, scattered previously published reviews from KPFA radio broadcasts and pieces from magazines (City Lights, Holiday, McCall's, etc.) not represented in I Lost It – even a small collection of screening notes and capsule reviews handed out to patrons of the Berkeley Cinema Guild in the late ‘50s.

The two copies of Going Down to enter the marketplace were snatched up at four-figure prices (on AbeBooks for $1200 and a tense eBay auction closing at $3650). Luckily, one fell into the hands of a rare bookseller in Los Angeles, who has graciously allowed a digital scan of the cover, and photocopying of the following excerpt. Special thanks to Blue Room Books of Los Angeles.

The Exploding Kinetoscope proudly presents Pauline Kael’s review of Plan 9 From Outer Space, reprinted for the first time since 1960.

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With the unfancy plainness of a nightmare being reported by The March of Time, anything goes in "Plan 9 From Outer Space", so long as it is weird, shuddery, sexed-up and antisocial. Martians [sic] with a taste for the sensual (they wear satin pajamas, their space-aircraft carrier shaped like a mammary gland... one is named “Eros”) and distaste for Earthly violence, resolve to end the arms race. Along for the ride, and part of that Ninth Plan, are marching ghouls who handle the dirty work – they’re freak-cartoon parodies of lives no one ever lived: a vampy wastrel beatnikess, a rasping butterball Swede cop, and Bela Lugosi.

“Plan 9 From Outer Space” is set and shot in the corners of Los Angeles where most movies would not be caught dead — the far-ends of choked boulevards where traffic wears out, the dollhouse suburbs of Burbank, and subterranean studios which house pateboard sets, painted cloth backdrops indicating skies and lumpy rugs serving as grass. The matter-of-fact presentational style of director Edward Wood is so honest and unglamorous that the homemade anonymity of the sets seems to be a point unto itself. Wood also wrote the swozzled script, which keeps throwing out corkers until they finally pile up into something like thematic unity. There’s a satirist’s glee in the movie’s conundrum about violence and military secrets, and before you know it the American heroes and the hostile spacemen have swapped places; the visitors have come to halt the progress of advanced weapons before we blow ourselves away, but their deadly Plan 9 is like beating a dog for chasing squirrels. Everybody’s wrong, but it’s hard to hate them for it. It’s an evolutionary and political stalemate. A little scaredy-cat cop rolls up his sleeves, climbs into a grave and groans “why do I always get hooked up with these spook details?” — Hamlet, gravedigger, and Stan Laurel rolled into one. The human scale is always dragged back into it. A compassionate colonel tells us “Then they attacked a town. A small town, I’ll admit, but nevertheless a town of people. People who died.” We're all eventually hooked up on spook detail. One hopes that future doomsday comedies will have the guts not to hammer the jokes to the wall, the sophistication not to drown the horror in cynicism or sheer scale. Whenever the movie paints itself into a political corner it drops the brush and levitates over the wet floor: a square-jaw reacts to a (hypocritical) pacifistic alien’s speech by popping his opponent in the mouth.

The kitsch has handily been drained out of the material in advance thanks to the spare, rawboned style. In a brainstorm of flying saucers, misty cemeteries, walking corpses, plastic skeletons, and cadaverous vampires, Wood keeps piling up the spook show gimmicks until they achieve a kind of loony grandeur. The picture isn’t overly fat (and it runs 79 minutes), but it’s maybe a little crazy. Wood is like a carnival barker doing a last push before closing time, but when you climb into this ghost train, the insides aren’t all hype, but crisp, chilly, and fresh. The spirit of Nouvelle Vague hangs about this spookhouse. Though the camerawork offers no pyrotechnics, Wood slices Lugosi’s death scene short — when the old fellow is splattered by a speeding auto, the shot cuts off with his consciousness, a life compacted into ten seconds of smelling a flower and being creamed by an unseen Packard. In the middle of languid scenes, the jump cuts bounce us to unexpected perspectives. With clever miniatures and a bizarre but striking eye for stock footage, Wood places his spaceships over freeways and television studios. Nowhere particularly photogenic, just someplace real.

“Plan 9” also merges the threadbare, daily life reality of Hollywood (the neighborhood, not the fairyland) and Burbank with the wooziest, spookiest dreamworld since “The Mummy”. In that film, Karl Freund’s camera caressed every crease in Boris Karloff’s makeup, as if his cadaverous cheeks were dusted with fragments of ancient broken hearts. Edward Wood slides into a similar thick, fever-dream pool for all the spook stuff. His ghouls shuffle toward us out of a black velvet void, or appear in their weird Gothic glory in the middle of tatty suburban bedrooms. And like in so many very bad dreams, everyone screams and flinches and motions to escape, but doesn’t seem able to run. The way the young lady playing Lugosi’s wife (“Vampira” the film hostess from television, and a sex kitten, sure, but with a dead rat in her mouth) moves her body, we can’t be sure she was alive in the first place. In the clammiest scene, a rotund police detective rises from his grave, and the darkness swirling around the hole makes his whitened visage into a morbid, grimacing moon.

Burly Tor Johnson plays Inspector Clay as a giant in body and spirit. He’s one of those fellows that was built for underlings to scurry beneath and hang by their fingernails from his every word. The big man gives off erotic energy like an oil drum on fire, even when no women are around. When he laughs off danger, chuckling to a pal “I’m a big boy now, Johnny!,” we half expect Johnny to sigh “don’t I know it!” Johnson looks so fierce among a cast of scrawny beat cops that we imagine no force in the rest of the movie could tangle with him: this guy could eat two of those flying saucers for breakfast. So when the most magnetic character in the picture does, in fact, meet his match, nothing could be tenser. Maybe no death on the screen has had such emotional wallop since “The Passion of Joan of Arc”. Thankfully, Johnson isn’t entirely out of the picture after this — his white-eyed creep is a walking case of the heebie-jeebies.

“Plan 9” never loses that sexiness, though it admittedly decreases once Inspector Clay goes mute (he becomes less a villain than a beautiful, melancholy bear, befuddled and forced by captors to maim enemies). When appealing hero Jeff Trent (Gregory Walcott, who shone for a brief moment as an MP in the dismal “Mister Roberts”) heads off on military mission and says goodbye to his wife, Paula. We start to roll our eyes, because it’s the sappiest of scenarios, lovers parted, the warrior going off to battle. We’re expecting fake feelings, false nobility, unwarranted nobility, maybe all three. But the music starts purring strange lazy draubs of Martin Denny style jazz, Paula coos to Jeff that she’s intending to maul his pillow as a substitute lover. It’s very probably the wiggiest, earthiest expression of libidinal heat between married people ever put on screen. The Trents job in any other movie would be as bloodless good citizens; Wood and his actors make Jeff burn at his center with righteous indignation (at anyone, everything), and Paula is flush with good humor. Between the Trents, Insepctor Clay and the shouty little monkey cop, the Earthlings are a rowdy, worthy crew to go up against the wacked out spacemen and, for that matter, their haunted, soulless dead slaves. The movie is a whole funfair midway full of interesting folks. Among the aliens, Dudley Manlove plays the funniest, Eros, as a big soft baby, always raging, petulant, or sleepy. When he rants about the logical conclusion of the human arms race— a hair-raising vision of a sun-exploding bomb — Manlove's apoplexy blows off the screen, making the whole idea of 3D movies look superfluous. As Eros' boss, John Breckenridge marshals a queenly regality — he’s somehow swishy and sinister and a lot of fun. As he explains the science of how the dead will be animated, the details are authentic sounding, but The Ruler yawns through it like the caterpillar in “Alice in Wonderland”.

Presiding over the other characters, famous TV personality Criswell narrates, sometimes on screen, and he sounds mournful and despairing, his eyes look off into the netherworld distance. He warns of Death the Proud Brother, of time and fate and doom locked in confusing dance, and even insinuates that some of these screen devils may follow us out of the theater. "Perhaps, on your way home, someone will pass you in the dark, and you will never know it... for they will be from outer space,” he says, the perfect parody embodiment of this age’s anxieties — Space Race, invisible agents, privacy violation. Almost all of Cris’s speeches have some knockout idea buried in the poetry. Wood the screenwriter uses him like a Biblical prophet coming down from Mount Lee, to articulate his most lyrical themes.

“Plan 9”’s greatest trick is one I don’t think we’ve ever seen on a movie screen. Edward Wood turns hokey kid’s Poverty Row stuff into something freaky; he doesn’t try for glitz and fail, neither does he wallow. It’s easier to say what “Plan 9” is not than what it is. The movie spins like a Hula Hoop, gyrating between slightly stoned slice-of-life skits, the inspired blood-curdling stuff, grungy reality and, we may as well go ahead and say it, the strangest dreams expressed on film since Dreyer, or maybe Méliès. Waking up from a dream — and so with “Plan 9 From Outer Space” — we’re stupefied for a second. What just happened? Criswell asks us the impossible question: “Can you prove it didn’t happen?”