Death Goes to the Movies
Her lips were red, her looks were free
Her locks were yellow as gold;
Her skin was as white as leprosy,
The Nightmare, Life-In-Death was she,
Who thicks man’s blood with cold.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge
The Rime of the Ancient Mariner
There are many notable cinematic representations of death, the best remembered being the scythe carrying man in black that plays chess with the medieval knight in Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1957). This durable representation also makes his way into the comedies of Woody Allen (Love and Death, 1975) and the Monty Python troupe (The Meaning of Life, 1983). Another comedic example is George Coe and Anthony Lover’s short film De Düva (1968), featuring the first film performance by Madeline Kahn. Death has always lurked in the silver screen shadows from the silent days and into the sound era. In Death Takes a Holiday (1934), Death takes time off from collecting souls to see how the other half lives.
The Disney version of death is vividly illustrated in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), Fantasia (1940), and Bambi (1942). In the Disney universe, death is a powerful force of nature, a storm that takes on human characteristics. Taken as a whole, the films Disney made during his lifetime reflect an almost Pagan point of view towards death. According to Douglas Brode, in From Walt to Woodstock: How Disney Created the Counterculture, “Disney films constantly undermine the Judeo-Christian version of death, ingrained into the American psyche from the Puritan era to the twentieth century.”
Death is often personified in art and literature as a woman; a unique example of this is found in Cocteau’s Orpheus (1950), a film that relies on traditional myth and the mythos of its maker to reframe the story of Orpheus. According to Cocteau, the film has these three basic themes:
- The successive deaths through which a poet must pass before he becomes…changed into himself at last by eternity.
- The theme of immortality; the person who represents Orphéé’s Death sacrifices herself and abolishes herself to make the poet immortal.
- Mirror; we watch ourselves grow old in mirrors. They bring us closer to death.
According to Leilah Wendell’s Historical Personifications, “In many Slavic and Baltic lands, Death appears simply as a woman dressed in white who carried souls to “Vela”, a world shrouded in grey mist and cold.” The “Woman in White” played by Jessica Lang in Fosse’s All That Jazz (1979) and the “Dangerous Woman” played by Virginia Madsen in Altman’s A Prairie Home Companion (2006) are fair-haired angels of death much like those personified by the Slavic tribes. Angels of death can be found in both the original Wim Wender’s film Wings of Desire (1987) and the American remake, City of Angels (1998).
A Prairie Home Companion is the creation of Garrison Keillor, but the cinematic approach to the material is pure Altman. Altman helps Keillor to breathe life into his cast of radio characters and gives them a double life in the process. In front of the microphone, they perform to please a faceless audience. Backstage, they live a life apart. We are allowed to observe and try to put together the pieces of each person’s life through a series of backstage vignettes that unfold in counterpoint to the onstage presentation of an old fashioned radio variety show.
An angel, who calls herself Asphodel, has come to comfort and collect Chuck Akers, an elderly performer who is much loved by audiences and his fellow performers. Asphodel is a flower. According to Wikipedia, “The Asphodel Meadows is where the souls of people who lived lives of near equal good and evil rested. It essentially was a plain of asphodel flowers which were the favorite food of the Greek dead.” Also, the name sounds a lot like Azrael, who is the Angel of Death. Azrael, while not mentioned in the Bible, does appear in other Jewish, Islamic, and Christian texts.
In the film, Ashodel was once human and died while listening to a joke told on the Prairie Home Companion radio show. Apparently, it wasn’t a very funny joke, but her laughter distracted her from her driving. She went off the road, killing herself.
There are many characters in the film that can see Asphodel and suspect her true identity. There is the possibility that she is present to collect additional souls. Guy Noir, the security guard, tries to focus Asphodel’s powers towards the threat of a corporate axe man, named Axeman, who has come to put an end to the show. Out of some attachment to the disembodied radio voices she once listened to as a human, she obliges.
In the end, Asphodel comes to collect another from the cast of characters. Who she will take is left to the imagination. It is obvious that each of the characters fears that their number has come up. Oddly enough, A Prairie Home Companion was the final feature film made by Robert Altman and a somewhat prophetic swan song to a fine film career.
Master of Hommage
Ready Player One’s moral is that it’s okay to play games as long as you take time out for the real world and real people. It’s one hell of a ride, but I couldn’t help noticing that the male protagonist, Wade, got over the death of his aunt lickety-split and got right back to the game.
I guess life in the “Stacks” turns you into a good little soldier, making it easier to internalize life’s little tragedies and move on quickly. As a viewer, I too am willing to brush aside the loss of a familial character and get onto what’s important, looking for clues, and playing the game.
The game for any pop culture fanatic is picking up on all the film references. With this entry to the Spielberg oeuvre, he may have out done George Lucas, Joe Dante, John Landis, Brian De Palma, and Woody Allen. Does this make Spielberg the Master of Hommage?
Not So Ordinary
When you listen to Sissy Spacek read Stephen King’s Carrie, you can’t help noticing that her narrative voice is very different from the whimpering title character that she played in Brian DePalma’s film version. It is very pleasing to the ear. Spacek speaks with authority and gets to play all the parts this time around.
When the opportunity came to listen to Spacek read her autobiography aloud, I thought it would be a pleasant trip down memory lane. Spacek starred in some of my favorite films of the 1970s and her husband, Jack Fisk, was the production designer on a few more. And, I do enjoy a good behind the scenes story.
After a brief movie related teaser, Spacek spends the early chapters of her book talking about her family, growing up in Texas, and her time in New York trying to make it as a singer/songwriter. Related to actor, Rip Torn, who was married to actress, Geraldine Page, she was exposed to the best Broadway had to offer, but her dream was to write and sing country music, not to be a movie star.
There are great behind the scenes stories from Prime Cut, Badlands, Carrie, and The Coal Miner’s Daughter, but some of the best stories in the book have nothing to do with making movies.
My Extraordinary Ordinary Life is at times poetic and philosophical, well worth the read, but readers will miss out, Sissy Spacek is a fine storyteller. Having the author read their book isn’t always the best choice, but Spacek knows how to engage her listeners and delivers a punch line with southern style. I look forward to hearing her read To Kill a Mockingbird, another audiobook title that she has recorded.
All That Homage: La La Land
Damien Chazelle’s La La Land doesn’t really take place in the city of Los Angeles. The story is set in the mythic Hollywood of cinephiles and hopeless romantics. Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling are likeable and give the impression that anyone can sing and dance, but the real star of the movie is the city.
Shot in a mash-up of cinematic style from Minnelli to Cukor, Demy to Donan, the film tell its tale of an aspiring actress and a jazz pianist in a purely visual way. If you took away the dialogue and set the movie to an instrumental score, it would be pretty clear what was going on inside and outside the minds of Stone and Gosling’s star crossed lovers.
A jazz score might not be your cup of tea, unless its background music for a detective story, and the limited use of the supporting cast, relegated to a Busby Berkeley showgirl sort of purgatory, may appear to be a missed opportunity, but the focus is on two self possessed people in an Antonioni landscape. If a young Jean-Luc Goddard made a musical in LA, this is what it might look like.
Squiggle! Squiggle! Splat! Splat!
The Citizen Kane structure worked for me. As did the cast of Vincent Van Gogh characters brought to life by Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman in Loving Vincent. The establishing shots, locations recognizable to any Van Gogh fan, were perfect, but when scenes were played out, I sometimes wished the actors weren’t so obscured by brush strokes. There is too much going on in the shot during the color sequences. Squiggle! Squiggle! Splat! Splat! The black and white flashbacks are more focused dramatically. Time to re-watch Minnelli’s Lust for Life and Kurosawa’s Dreams.
The Rites to Remain Silent
The Artist (2011) and Hugo (2011) are fictional depictions of important moments in film history. In the case of Hugo, the characters are based on real people, but the story telling is on such a grand scale that the truth is buried deep beneath the surface. The Artist is a good imitation of a silent film even when the characters are verge of breaking the sound barrier. Both films serve as gateway drugs designed to entertain audiences and to introduce a new generation of moviegoers to the pioneer days of motion pictures. Martin Scorsese’s efforts to preserve our film heritage are at the root of Hugo, but this doesn’t detract from a story well told by a gifted story teller.
There were some nice attempts back in the 1970s to romanticize and revitalize the public’s interest in silent films including Howard Zieff’s Hearts of the West (1975), Peter Bogdanovich’s Nickelodeon (1976), and Mel Brooks’ anachronistic Silent Movie (1976). In the 1980s, Francis Ford Coppola brought Abel Gance’s Napoleon out of moth balls and took it on the road with a full orchestra. It was back again this year under the auspices of its archival evangelist, Kevin Brownlow, with additional footage and a full orchestra conducted by Carl Davis.
Fritz Lang’s Metropolis also made some noise back in the 1980s with a rock and roll score produced by Georgio Moroder. It was recently resurrected with additional footage found in Argentina and given the full orchestra treatment before making its way back to DVD and Blu-Ray.
In the 1990s, Richard Attenborough brought Charlie Chaplin back to life with the help of Robert Downey Jr. Chaplin (1992) probably did more for Robert Downey Jr.than it did for Chaplin. Chaplin was slow to embrace sound beyond providing syncronized musical scores and sound effects to his films. He created great silent movies well into the sound era, notably City Lights (1931) and Modern Times (1936).
In Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1950), Joe Gillis (William Holden), a screenwriter who becomes the gigolo of silent film star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) refers to a group of card playing silent stars as “the waxworks”. Sixty-two years later, silent film stars might as well be mummies to a teenager buying a ticket for Men In Black 3. After all, the first Men In Black movie was made somewhere between their birth and Kindergarten making it “an old movie”. Silent films are now ancient history.
If you’re just discovering the magic of Méliés and the devastating thud heard by silent stars who couldn’t, or wouldn’t, talk when the sound era arrived, previously illustrated in Singin’ In the Rain (1952), you can take a side trip to most of the films that I’ve listed above on DVD, Blu-Ray, digital download or by using a film streaming service like Netflix or Hulu. When you have completed your initial research, take some time to see some of the hundreds of real silent films that have survived. You might be pleasantly surprised. Many silent films are as entertaining as The Artist.
What Makes Jasmine So Blue?
Inspired by Tennessee William’s Blanche DuBois, but much better kept, Jasmine may not be at the end of her rope. Perhaps, like Ingmar Bergman, who provided a sequel to Scenes From a Marriage, Woody Allen will revisit Jasmine at some future date.
As Hal’s trophy wife, Jasmine thrives. Giving parties, supporting causes, and lunching with other trophy wives, she is at home and in her element, usually dressed to the nines, with a drink in her hand. As long as she ignores the rumors that Hal is up to financial monkey business and keeps her blinders on when it comes to his infidelity, everything is just fine. New York’s upper set is her oyster and she is a shiny pearl.
Jasmine despises the working class. She was raised to believe that she is better than other people by the family that adopted her. Her adopted sib, Ginger, got out as quickly as she could recognizing that Jeanette, who renamed herself, Jasmine French, was the favorite child. Ginger is a good person and content with a working class life, but deep down inside, she agrees with Jasmine’s assessment that she has poor judgment when it comes to men. The evidence supports Jasmine’s appraisal.
Jasmine could be the poster child for Narcissistic Personality Disorder. She also shows some signs of Schizoaffective Disorder. Jasmine’s pervasive pattern of grandiosity is introduced early in the film when she tells Ginger that she has no money, but she has still managed to fly first class to San Francisco with her Louis Vuitton luggage.
When Jasmine meets Dwight at a party, she exaggerates her Interior Design resume, perhaps to get a job, but more likely to wrangle a new husband with money and potential. Dwight is someone who knows something about fashion. She identifies Dwight as a person of high status, one of her people. He might understand her because he comes from a higher place than Ginger and low life friends.
Jasmine is an alien in Ginger’s South Van Ness working class world. Menial work, school, and Ginger’s friends drive her to excessive drink and Xanax. It’s only when she is invited to a party in Marin, where she meets Dwight, a man of wealth, and charm, that she appears to be on the road to recovery. So what if she has to over sold herself with lies about her past and a false resume. A counterfeit pedigree might just get her back in the game.
Jasmine’s sense of entitlement is all pervasive, about the only time she isn’t waiting for someone to get her a drink, or helping herself to one, is when she is forced by circumstance to take a position as a receptionist. Jasmine’s expressions of disgust and exhaustion, when waiting on people, reveals a total lack of empathy. Jasmine’s holier than thou attitude attracts the attention of her employer, the aptly named, Dr. Flicker. Sexual harassment is the last straw for Jasmine, but it does give her a socially acceptable reason to quit her low class job.
Besides being a total narcissist, Jasmine’s behavior shows signs of Schizoaffective Disorder. Jasmine is prone to mood swings. She is quick to criticize when triggered. She has delusions of grandeur. She likes expensive things and believes she should have them. Jasmine has hallucinations in the form of flashbacks. Her speech is disorganized and so is her thinking. She talks to herself. She has difficulty in goal-directed behavior. Her problems studying for school are a good example of avolition.
When Jasmine experiences an affective flattening of emotional expression in a restaurant, Chili and his friend, Eddie both recognize that something isn’t right. Eddie even comments on it, bringing Jasmine out of her stupor.
If Jasmine remains stuck in the working class world her bounce back potential is nil without some major behavior modification. Ginger can’t help her because Jasmine doesn’t respect her. In Ginger’s world, Jasmine would have to lower herself to accepting charity from Social Services to get back on her feet. If she can get back to New York, she might be able to find shelter and support from one of her old friends who are part of the social elite.
If someone, preferably someone rich, were to come along and take care of Jasmine – give her a nice house, feed her, provide her with servants – her confidence would return and she might once again take an interest in life. She might even cut down on the drugs and booze.
Jasmine is more at home with her New York City friends, having lunch out or playing hostess, than she is anywhere else in her life. The social status and buying power afforded by being Hal’s wife is her greater reality, perhaps more real than her affection for Danny, Hal’s son from a previous marriage. Unfortunately, her expectations for Danny are that he becomes a Little Hal, a sanitized version of Big Hal. Jasmine is more devastated by Danny’s loss of social status, when she visits the music shop where he works, than she is with his anger that she betrayed his father by snitching to the FBI. Besides, it’s obvious he is in no position to take care of Jasmine, even if he shared her affection. Jasmine needs a friend more than she needs any member of her family. Unfortunately, she wants a new Hal. Dwight might have fit the bill if she were honest with him, but foolish pride got in the way.
Jasmine is a delicate flower. If she isn’t treated in the manner she has come to expect, she might wither away on a park bench somewhere in San Francisco. She has a low threshold for adversity. If she doesn’t get what she wants she gets stressed. Stress leads to Xanax and alcohol. She copes by getting numb and shutting off or shutting down the world around her. The life going on in her head is a better place and she shares that world through one-sided conversations. You never quite know who she is talking too and you are a lucky soul, if you can get a word in edgewise.