Friday, April 27, 2012

Rogue's Gallery

You can find me geeking out over at Spinetingler Magazine with Eric Beetner and Cullen Gallagher for our regular feature Rogue's Gallery. This time around we're discussing noir literature-to-film adaptations. We knock some idols and praise some overlooked gems. Always fun to talk flicks with these two degenerates.

Go check it out and let us know if we missed any worth talking about.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Charlie Louvin: Still Rattlin' The Devil's Cage

Outside of maybe Danzig, I can't think of a singer more obsessed with Satan than Charlie Louvin. Of course, for Louvin the obsession had more to do with looking down the barrel at all the evil this world can throw at us. As one half of arguably the most influential duo in country music--maybe in all of American music--Charlie Louvin became famous singing gospel music with his brother Ira. Despite temperamental differences as stark as Cain and Abel, the Louvins had otherworldly harmonies. Their talent set them apart, of course, but so did their content. Their most famous album was the classic SATAN IS REAL. Throughout their career, the brothers sang dire warnings about the workings of the devil: "Satan Lied To Me" "Satan And the Saint" "If We Forget God" "Satan's Jeweled Crown". The music was steeped in a Baptist theology were evil had a name and a purpose. Satan, the brothers cautioned, was always looking to destroy the people of God. Ira, alcoholic and consumed with self-hatred and an almost sociopathic rage, seemed to be a poster boy for the damage the devil could inflict. Charlie, steady and calm, devoted to his god and his family, took heed of what had become of his brother. 

After Ira's untimely death in a car accident, Charlie pressed on, haunted by the memory of his tortured older brother. Though he amassed an impressive solo career, charting country hits like "I Don't Love You Anymore" he remained most associated with the music of the Louvin Brothers. It was a double-edged sword. On one hand, it must have been nice to be heralded as a genius, but on the other, he remained tied to the legacy. To make matters worse, Ira was the sexier half of the duo--a conflicted, wildly talented artist who overshadowed his dependable professional of a brother.

If Charlie never really got his due over the years, in the year since his death in 2011, he seems more popular than ever. His biography SATAN IS REAL: THE BALLAD OF THE LOUVIN BROTHERS was released to great acclaim. It's a magnificent book, starkly written and beautifully captures the voice of a born storyteller.

And now a new documentary is out called CHARLIE LOUVIN: STILL RATTLIN' THE DEVIL'S CAGE. Made with Louvin's help just before his death, the film is a wonderful tribute to the singer. It has interviews with longtime admirers such as George Jones, Emmylou Harris, Alison Krauss, Marty Stuart, and John McCrea, and it contains Louvin's last performance, a gig in front of an enthusiastic crowd at FooBar in Nashville in 2010. Best of all, it has interviews with the man himself. Louvin's soft spoken grace and country bluntness is almost hypnotic. What a singer, what a legend. What a man.

Check out the documentary, all the proceeds of which go to Louvin's wife, Betty.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Arkansas Literary Festival

I had a great time last weekend at the Arkansas Literary Festival. I read from HELL ON CHURCH STREET and participated in a panel with John Honor Jacobs and Brooks Blevins. There was a nice turn out, I sold some books, saw old friends, met new friends, and I even wound up on the local news. An all around great time.

I'll be at NoirCon in November, and I'll be scheduling some more readings in the near future. Check back for more details. 

Friday, April 13, 2012

The Hunchback Of Notre Dame (1939)

William Dieterle's THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME was the last film RKO released in the 1930s. It was a nice way to end the decade, an artistic triumph that also raked in the cash and paid off a huge gamble (the budget for the film was 1.8 million, big money in 1939). In a year widely considered to be Hollywood's high point--the year of GONE WITH THE WIND, THE WIZARD OF OZ, and STAGECOACH among many others--HUNCHBACK still stood out as a masterful achievement in filmmaking. The happy news is that the subsequent years have done little to diminish its beauty.

Adapted from Victor Hugo's doorstop of a novel, the film centers its plot on the heartbreaking figure of Quasimodo, the lonely hunchback of the title, who lives in the bell tower of Notre Dame Cathedral. When a gypsy girl named Esmeralda is framed for a murder she didn't commit, Quasimodo rescues her from the gallows and shelters her in the bell tower. In the streets of Paris below great events play out, as crowds of thousands battle over the rights of nobles and the sanctity of the church, all of them fighting to one degree or another over who will decide Esmeralda's fate.

Dieterle's handling of these scenes is impressive. This is how you shoot thousands of human beings at once. And the sets that RKO constructed are among the most gloriously realized in all of film. Dieterle started out in German Expressionism and would later make significant contributions to noir (THE ACCUSED, DARK CITY), but this may well be his most darkly beautiful film. Working with cinematographer Joseph H. August (who had done similarly magnificent work on John Ford's THE INFORMER), Dieterle created
a film of vast shadows, a gothic epic that melds its literary origins with a rich Expressionist style.

This isn't to say that the film--for all its style and grace--is perfect. It occasionally falls prey to one of the main pitfalls of the historical epic, the tendency to flaunt a retroactive political correctness. In this case, we are given frequent scenes of the wise and kindly Louis XI immediately recognizing the universal good of such things as the printing press. It should suffice to say that the real Louie was less wise and kindly than his representation here.

Yet those scenes stand in sharp contrast to the rest of the film, in particular to the scenes of Quasimodo himself, played in a heroic performance by the incomparable Charles Laughton. While Laughton wasn't the first actor to tackle the role, he nailed it with such specific humanity and empathy that it seems unlikely his achievement will be surpassed. Watch the scene of his whipping. After a misunderstanding lands him on the whipping post, he is stripped and brutally flogged by a hulking torturer. Left to roast in the sun for an hour, he calls out for water. The scene has obvious parallels to the scourging of Christ, but it doesn't feel heavy-handed. When Esmeralda takes pity on him and gives him something to drink, Laughton is so fully realized--terrified and dignified at the same time--that scene can work on both a literal and symbolic level.

This kind of thing is hard to do right. Underplay it and you make the hunchback a bloodless symbol. Overdo it and you make him a mawkish figure of pity. Laughton is simply perfect, embracing the character's startling deformity of body as well as his beautiful deformity of spirit. He grasps the essential truth of the kindly bellringer, that in the cold and selfish world of "normal" people, Quasimodo's great deformity is that he is a truly good man.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Sex, Death and Jean Arthur

Jean Arthur has been on my mind today. I'm not sure why, except that she is one of those movie people (Lizabeth Scott, Robert Mitchum, Gary Cooper, Ingrid Bergman) who seems to have staked a claim to a certain portion of my mind. So, in a way, I'm always thinking about Jean Arthur.

She was a huge star in her day, but over the years the luster of her fame has dimmed considerably. I guess that's the way of things. It's only our own solipsism and narrow focus that allows us to talk about the "immortality" of movie stars. That kind of talk in nice for Oscar speeches and TCM intros, but the truth is that Jean Arthur was world famous at one point and since her death her fame has shrunk and shrunk with each passing year. She will be all but forgotten one day. Movies are still a young art form. In just another hundred years will anyone know who Jean Arthur is? Or will she exist only as a shadow on a data file in a computer somewhere, accessed once every few years by some bleary-eyed film student writing a master's thesis on Subtextual Transfiguration in the Works of Frank Capra--or whatever the hell they'll be writing about in the year 2112? What about 2212? Keep adding on increments of 100 years. Immortality becomes less achievable the more you think about it.

So this is a lament then. I hadn't planned it that way, I assure you. Someone mentioned Iowa today and it made me think of my favorite Jean Arthur moment, the scene in FOREIGN AFFAIR when she strikes up the Iowa state song in a dirty little Berlin nightclub. The thought, as it always does, made me happy.

Yet here I am talking about--well, if not her passing, then about her absence, about the fact that she is gone and has been gone a long time. Yet I know her, or I know that flickering shadow. I saw that movie for the first time in a theater, saw it for the first time in the dark with her face high and wide and silver on a wall.

I've long thought that cinema is an intrinsically erotic art form. We are allowed to stare at people without them staring back, without them telling us to stop. This is one reason why movie stars tend to be beautiful. But this is also why movie stars tend to be a little odd. Millions of gorgeous people are turned away from Hollywood every day. Beauty is not enough. There has to be something worth looking at besides tan skin and muscles.

Jean was beautiful and odd. She had a tomboy quality. Pretty and scrappy, capable but halting, she was a movie star because she was just so damn interesting. Looking at her is indeed a happily erotic occupation. Classic movie geeks often talk about being "in love" with certain actors and actresses. This is more than a crush, more than simple lust, more than the usual projection of erotic fixation one has for a contemporary celebrity. It's closer to necrophilia.

That's a gruesome way to put it, isn't it? But if being an "old movie buff" is largely the matter of being obsessed with women many years dead, then this obsession touches that bizarre intersection of sex and death, eros and thanos, which is not the creation of cinema but is its essential creator. Life, after all, is largely a matter of sex and death. Movie stars are no more immune to these forces than the rest of us. We may regard them as sexual objects, but they are people and people die. When they die, then, what becomes of the sexual object left flickering on the wall? It becomes an object, oddly, of both sex and death.

All this from the Iowa corn song.

See Jean singing here. For my review of the glorious FOREIGN AFFAIR read here.