Written on the Wind

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A month ago a few people in Melbourne became members of the zoo – the major perk of membership being its ticket to unlimited visits. I personally keep finding myself in the butterfly enclosure. Given Melbourne’s current – but oh so still and lovely – cold snap, this is one of the warmest hangouts in town. Handy. Aside from the splendid butterflies themselves the most important aspect of the enclosure is the way its inhabitants draw attention to the air. The Cairns birdwing flutters so lazily you’d swear there were hidden wires – something – supporting it. The Ulysses can accelerate but often seems to hang above the action, as if there were another time up there. It seems that aerodynamics alone couldn’t allow this playful gravity defiance. But we forget the air is substantial enough.

When I watched Douglas Sirk’s Written on the Wind (1956) it was difficult to not think of David Lynch.

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As my good buddy said – there’s a huge well-spring to draw from.

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It’s a nice little piece about obsession, impotence, nymphomania, loving the wrong person and ridiculous wealth. I probably don’t really understand the quirks of melodrama enough to be right in there with the storytelling, which was pithy – in fact incredibly fast-paced. Lucy (Lauren Bacall) is whisked from her Madison Ave office to ’21’ to Miami in one afternoon. A bunch of other things happened and still I felt like the movie hadn’t really started. Is the uneven pacing between plot and character development one of the hallmarks of the genre?

Or is the hallmark this guy?

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I once owned a book called Hollywood Hunks which weirdly featured Spencer Tracy, accompanied by a still from Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? but not that film’s star (and obvious hottie) Sidney Poitier. I loved this book. Its chapter on De Niro, Pacino et al. was entitled ‘The New Ethnics.’ Hollywood Hunks is the only place I’d seen Rock Hudson before. This cultural blind-spot was revealed gloriously the other night as I watched Written on the Wind and ranted – ‘who the fuck is that guy? Why don’t people have faces like that anymore?’ Once I was told that Mitch Wayne was played by none other than one Rock Hudson it felt a bit like I’d said ‘who’s Marilyn Monroe?’ or ‘what’s the Cold War?’ Anyway, on further discussion about Hudson’s career (I’d totally forgotten his performance in Giant because that movie is a Jimmy Dean vehicle and also – it’s a very, very long movie) I discovered that he was a favourite of Douglas Sirk and thus appeared in many a Hollywood melodrama. If you haven’t seen much melodrama you might not pick Hudson out of a line-up either. Oh, wait –  if you’ve seen Dallas you’ll be fine.

Good buddy tells me the term ‘melodrama’ has an origin in ‘music + drama’  – certainly music seems to play an important extradiegetic role in WOTW. Many of the scenes would be utter physical comedy with any other soundtrack. But I remember a narratologist once drawing the distinction between melodrama and tragedy. In melodrama the source of misfortune is always external, where in tragedy the source of misfortune is often the choices made by the protagonists. There was something nice and refreshing about the strange inertia of the four main characters in Written on the Wind – each were resigned to what at first glance seemed to be a terrible move, and at last look was indeed a terrible move. Nothing they could have done would have made any difference – the choices and outcomes would have been the same.

The dialogue was excellent, with Mitch’s father, the town barkeep, delivering the zinger of the film to Kyle Hadley, the town millionaire and drunk. Referring to the bottle of whiskey he’s selling, he growls,  ‘Take your courage and leave me be.’

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Letters to Milena

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Kafka met Milena Jesenka in 1920 when she was translating his early work into Czech. Why wouldn’t you fall in love with your translator? There are your old thoughts now in their beautiful small hands, now in their beautiful new language. Yours is the shameful task of trust and the somewhat shameless task of ego display. Their’s is the sublime task of understanding you and making what you thought you knew entirely nuanced. I can’t think of a more thrilling form of mirroring.

It’s a shame then that my current pillow book, Kafka’s Letters to Milena, doesn’t contain the letters by Jesenka – sadly these were destroyed or lost in 20th century debris. One can only infer from Kafka’s correspondence that she was a pretty nice lady with a sexy brain. To be honest I’ve found Letters kind of slow-going, but boring can often mean great. The major themes of the affair (Jesenka was married, Kafka sort-of engaged) seem to be procrastination, irritation and hypochondria; the general content a loose reading list, vague plans, perpetual distance, loneliness and excuses. In Kafka’s letters banal circumstances and weakness of heart are the basis for a profound intimacy. This is how he signed off a relatively early note:

‘To begin with, in any case, lie down in a garden and extract from the disease, especially if it’s not a real one, as much sweetness as possible. There’s a lot of sweetness in it.’

This reminds me of why I love Faulkner. Laying in the garden in the cool dirt, we get the mess of illness, delusion, nature and sexuality. Kafka’s casual acknowledgement that Jesenka’s disease may be imaginary, but nonetheless still cause for great concern, is one of the most devastating and romantic moments in the letters.

It’s horrid to say things like, ‘Kafka is the most dangerously honest writer of the 20th century,’ but this sign off, later in the correspondence, makes me want to…

‘Yesterday I advised you not to write to me every day, this is still my opinion today and it would be very good for us both and I suggest it once more today, and even more urgently, – only please, Milena, don’t act upon it, but write me daily all the same, it can be quite short, shorter than today’s letters, just two lines, just one, just a word, but to be deprived of this word would mean terrible suffering.’

Spring Breakers

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I saw The Great Gatsby on Monday night and woke up on Tuesday thinking – ‘wow, I really remember nothing about that movie.’ Given the prevalent backlash against Luhrman’s interpretation of the novel, I thought I’d at least be somewhat moved to either share the sense of ritual indignation (yes, I love the book) or revel in a perverse, counter-intuitive appreciation of the film. I didn’t expect to feel lukewarm, but that’s exactly how I find myself. I wouldn’t recommend TGG, but I don’t really care about the problems of the execution enough to give it it’s own review.

On Tuesday night I saw Spring Breakers, and while I know this is not an original sentiment, seeing the films back to back really strengthened the argument that SB is the more effective adaptation of Gatsby. James Franco’s Alien, showing off his ‘shorts in every colour’ and CK colognes is a much more convincing play for the Gatsby story than TGG‘s  hyper-literal rendition of the Gatsby’s beautiful shirts. The orgy of Brooks Brothers shirts in 3D reminded me of those ads for factory clearance sales (‘Shirts, shirts, shirts!! You want blue shirts?! We’ve got blue shirts!! Shirts, shirts! Pink shirts, yellow shirts, white shirts, purple shirts. Out they go…’) and really rammed home how wrong the tone of the movie was.

I don’t want to say that either film is a critique of excess, or the moral vacuum in which late capitalism conducts its daily business. I just can’t be bothered… Anyway, I paid my ticket price for both viewings – here’s what I got: 

Spring Breakers is an unironic and beautifully pagan study in fertility ritual, set in a sparse atemporal world that only vaguely recalls the one we live in. It’s a melancholic tribute to the one burst of transcendent power a young woman comes, or breaks into – the intermezzo moment between childhood and, at least in pre-modern times, child rearing. In life this power is subject to duration and may quickly fade but through the duration of the cinematic medium this moment can be made to last. Watching the film you feel very aware that Korine is very aware of this magical paradox of his medium – but this knowingness is somehow refreshing and never derivative. The use of Britney Spears – who in her prime was the exemplar of sinless sexuality – is, and I’m not being unserious – elevating and unlike TGG, totally unforgettable. Watching the piano scene in which Franco plays Spears’ ‘Everytime’ while the girls dance around wearing pink balaclavas and bearing uzis, I thought of Cassavetes’ Opening Night, where Myrtle, the brilliant but aging and troubled star of the theatre remarks in voiceover, ‘When I was 17, I could do anything.’  It’s a credit to Spring Breakers that we never see the girls waver in the shadow of consequence; the viewer is permitted to see, undiluted, what being a young woman, and the omnipotent sense being able to do anything, looks like. It is terrifying and very, very beautiful.