Wednesday, November 22, 2017

12 (Very Old) Movies for 'Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries' Fans

The Australian series, Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries, has just about everything I look for in a television show: a period setting - the Roaring 20s, Melbourne-style - and a liberated, confident heroine, a jazzy score and gorgeous costumes, vintage cars and airplanes, zippy dialogue, a to-die-for cast of characters that we laugh with and not at, homages to silent movies and Erté, and clue-strewn mysteries. In short, the show is a hoot. Though there are other television series one might recommend, like Poirot and The Bletchley Circle, the show's creators, not to mention the author of the original novels, Kerry Greenwood, have clearly watched their share of old movies and there are dozens that friends of the fabulous Phryne Fisher would love. Here are twelve that I particularly recommend:

Les vampires (1915)
This serial by Louis Feuillade is jaw-dropping. The titular Vampires are the members of an underground criminal organization, their crimes both brutal (the first episode is entitled "The Severed Head") and fiendishly clever (a pen with deadly poison in place of ink plays a key role), their style both ethereal and reminiscent of Edvard Munch's agonized, satanically inflected paintings, especially Vampire: the Vampires and their pursuers race up and down the sides of buildings, scamper across rooftops, up chimneys, and down wells, clad in black catsuits and balaclavas. Les vampires is high art pulp, anticipating Fritz Lang's Dr. Mabuse the Gambler.

The Marriage Circle (1924)
Ernst Lubitsch would later remake this silent film as a musical with Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald with One Hour with You; this first version, starring an especially waxily moustached Adolphe Menjou, is a treat for several reasons, even if the remake is better. For one thing, it's a supreme example of how utterly superfluous dialogue can be, even for Lubitsch, who came to be known for his frothy, sparkling wit. Menjou spices his portrayal of the dashing, but put-upon doctor with a soupçon of vileness, while his wife Mitzi, the feral Marie Prevost, wrapped in slinky nothings edged in lace, is an explosive, extravagant eruption of sex. Lubitsch managed to laugh at the censors in every film; in this one, he's fairly roaring. 

Pandora's Box (1929)
Phryne Fisher's look, especially her sleek, black bob, was obviously inspired by Louise Brooks, who gave her most iconic performance in this magnificent melodrama directed by G.W. Pabst. Brooks plays Lulu, a sexually insatiable flapper who inspires satyr-like obsessions in men and women alike, obsessions that revolve around possessing her, a supremely liberated being. Violence punctuates Lulu's life, driven as much by the logic of economic need (and greed) in an imploding capitalist society as by desire for her body. Pandora's Box is a gorgeous phantasmagoria of Weimar-era cabaret-ready fashion, experimental sexuality, and the moral chaos unleashed by innocence and thoughtlessness.

Piccadilly (1929)
Happily restored in 2004, Piccadilly is an atmospheric melodrama that picks at the wounds at the intersections of class, gender, and race. Though she didn't receive top billing, the stand-out star is Anna May Wong, as Shosho, a Chinese dishwasher whose erotic dancing tosses her into the spotlight of the Piccadilly Circus, a London nightclub leaking money after its main act, a dancing partnership, breaks up. There are surprisingly subversive layers in the otherwise conventional thriller plot, in large part thanks to the subtle performance of Wong, who injects a tacit, but crystal-clear narrative of ambition, fury at being demeaned because of her race and gender, and pain at the costs of getting the accouterments of a luxurious life, knowing she'll never be more than an exotic object in the world she lives in. Look for Charles Laughton, in an odd cameo as a dissatisfied diner, and Cyril Ritchard as a seedy hoofer.

Diary of a Lost Girl (1929)
Another collaboration between G.W. Pabst and Louise Brooks, Diary of a Lost Girl is a crime drama from the point of view of a rape victim, set in a world that sees her as sinful and wanton. Too sophisticated to be a straightforward morality tale and mesmerizing from the first frame, the film follows Thymian (Brooks), a coddled bourgeois innocent whose untroubled life is shattered by her father's smarmy assistant. Remarkably, the film succeeds in positing a moral that, in a less lucid and unromantic film, might cloy, but that works precisely because Pabst has depicted the world in all its colors, its brutalities and its beauties.

Night Nurse (1931)
Night Nurse is insane. It contains everything - and I really do mean everything - that we assume was simply never depicted in a film before the '70s: sex, drugs, nudity, unrepentant criminal activity, child abuse, swearing... you name it, it's here. Pre-code darling Barbara Stanwyck stars as the titular nurse, tough, yet tender-hearted, supported by a wise-cracking, often scantily clad Joan Blondell, and a sinister, moustache-less Clark Gable, cast very much against his expected type at the beginning of his career. The plot is a tad absurd, but this is grade-A pulp, a thrilling, ridiculous ride into a world where doctors and gangsters unite to defeat a nefarious scheme involving trust fund babies.

Mata Hari (1931)
This highly fictionalized biopic of the notorious exotic dancer who spied for Germany stars Greta Garbo, who elevates a pedestrian script with the lazy assurance of a cat batting a bit of hanging yarn. Opposite her Ramon Navarro preens, but has the glamorous looks to get away with it. The real reason to watch Mata Hari, though, is the parade of dazzling costumes draped on Garbo's alluring frame: her gowns and hats drip with metallic beading, sparkling gems, glittering brocade, her negligée is trimmed with fur, silks and satins shimmer in glossy, dreamily lit nitrate. One might crook a satiric eyebrow at certain bends in the plot, but the fashion is ravishing. 

Shanghai Express (1932)
Revered by cinema buffs for its astonishingly gorgeous chiaroscuro cinematography by Lee Garmes and James Wong Howe, Josef von Sternberg's erotic drama set in civil war-ravaged China is a showcase for Marlene Dietrich and Anna May Wong, ravishing in costumes by Travis Banton. The murky plot involves the sex trade, gambling, espionage, opium addiction, and racial politics (plus, some very veiled, but quite alluring suggestions of lesbianism), but the plot, tangled and fascinating as it proves on a first viewing, recedes in importance compared to the sheer glory of the light on Dietrich's cheekbones, shimmering behind black tulle, feathers, and satin.

Trouble in Paradise (1932)
A superlative masterpiece by Ernst Lubitsch, Trouble in Paradise features another of his famously steamy love triangles and stars Miriam Hopkins as a glam pickpocket, Herbert Marshall as an elegant con man, and Kay Francis (in her very best role) as a chic - and very rich - perfumière. Thievery, it turns out, pays very handsomely, though a startlingly moustached Edward Everett Horton does his best to get in the way. Impossibly witty, this is a film to watch with a champagne flute in one hand and a diamond bracelet adorning the other. 

Me and My Gal (1932)
This delicious, but unfortunately very difficult to find, movie stars Spencer Tracy as a cocky policeman whose heart has been captivated by saucy, street-smart waitress Joan Bennett. A rare gangster film of the era with a straight cop as the protagonist, Me and My Gal nevertheless cultivates an anarchic, effervescent sense of humor, reminiscent of everything amusing and nothing irritating in French farce. It was a huge flop when it was released in 1932, but the years have been very kind to it and it deserves a prominent place in director Raoul Walsh's filmography.

Pépé le Moko (1937)
The ruggedly sexy Jean Gabin stars as the titular criminal mastermind in this proto-noir set in the Algerian Casbah, where director Julien Duvivier proves that blinding sunshine in twisting, narrow alleys can be as tensely atmospheric as fog, mist, and cloud-strewn skies. Pépé lurks in the labyrinth of the Casbah, knowing that Inspector Slimane (Lucas Gridoux) can never sniff him out, but the wily inspector espies an opportunity in Gaby (Mireille Balin), a lovely but slightly seedy woman, mistress to a wealthy man, and intrigued by the elusive Pépé. Pépé le Moko is Duvivier's masterpiece, a thrillingly suspenseful romance and a dreamily romantic crime thriller. 

The Lady Vanishes (1938)
The last film Alfred Hitchcock directed in Great Britain before he moved to Hollywood, The Lady Vanishes is an Agatha Christie-esque mystery set on a train, with a veddy English sense of humor. The lady who vanishes is the cozy, constantly knitting Miss Froy, played by Dame May Whitty, who, incidentally, would have made a truly spiffing Miss Marple, while the vivacious Margaret Lockwood, a wide-eyed English tourist, searches ever more frantically for her. The cast is terrific, the standouts being Naunton Wayne and Basil Radford as oblivious cricket enthusiasts, and the plot snaps to like a mousetrap.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

'Strong Women' Will Not Be the Answer

The past year has been a painful one, a year in which powerful men proved that the gains made by women are capable of being eroded, undermined, ignored, or reversed. The most prominent industries have been studded with high-profile cases of serial sexual assault, both state and federal courts have taken steps to eviscerate a woman's right to choose, and the world, globally, must daily face orange-tinted evidence of the worst of American prejudices.

Though the rhetoric is not new to this year, the call for art and entertainment featuring 'strong women' has intensified as the occasional sprinkle of salt in the wound has become a veritable saline flood. It would be lovely if an answer to sexism and misogyny could be unearthed in privileging one quality in fictional characters, or fictionalized depictions of real people, but if it were that easy, we wouldn't still be living in the world we live in.

On the one hand, strength is a very useful quality for any human being, and that's been true since the first australopithecus conked a saber-toothed tiger on its noggin. It's especially useful for women, who consistently face greater violence, merely by virtue of existing as women, than men do. Fantasies of strength enable an illusion that systemic violence can be overcome, one poke in a domestic abuser's eye and kick to a rapist's groin at a time, but these are fantasies that ignore the reality of the imperfectable human body. They trade the facts of the body, its vulnerabilities and weaknesses, for the dream of a body in flawless mechanical order.

Our heroines, the ones that get praised as signs of political progressiveness, better reflect our fear and terror  that we're not making progress than genuine progressive movement forward. Wonder Woman is the quintessential example, but 'strong women' as a trope has become so reified that it's a searchable genre on Netflix. The problem with using strength as a signifier of feminist progress is that it places all responsibility on individuals, while paying no heed to systemic injustice except as a purveyor of traumas that are overcome. 'Strong women' are survivors of their traumas, they 'kick ass,' they're 'fierce' and 'badass' and 'frickin' awesome.' 'Strong women' don't need to be rescued, despite the fact that real women (like real men) do, regardless of their strength, often need rescuing.

The Manichean logic of a feminism of strength is to simply oppose patriarchally mandated feminine weakness with a feminist mandated feminine strength. And in so doing, most women are either forced to conform to a feminist set of standards, or be excluded entirely. By focusing on exceptions, the Wonder Women who, by whatever combination of luck, natural gifts, and determination, succeed where most fail, the standards of patriarchy are not annihilated, but simply put upside down.

Fictional characters can't be equated, one-to-one, with living, breathing women, but our critical treatment of fictional characters reflects one prismatic facet of our general attitudes towards the female. Feminist culture, no less than the larger, uglier, dog-eat-dog patriarchy that surrounds it, won't listen to the voices of those women who betray a weakness. Hillary Clinton lost the election and now we can't seem to stop telling her to shut up. The silencing of women who fail to live up to the Wonder Woman standard has become a salient feature of feminist discourse and activism, fueled by this rhetoric of 'strong women.' I can think of no more alarming sign of the movement's deterioration. As long as a sick woman, a fat woman, a woman who cries easily, a woman who can't get past her traumas, a woman who loses, a woman who needs, a woman who fails, can't be feminist by definition, feminism is just another face for patriarchy. As long as we insist that only 'strong women' can be our heroines, only 'strong women' our icons, feminism fails.

Monday, November 6, 2017

Can the Epistolary Novel Survive?

What will happen to the epistolary novel in the age of email? Will it slip into the past, just as letters have? Or will it find new life? The novel in emails is not an epistolary novel, for emails are to letters what 300 is to The Aeneid: comparable in only the most superficial sense. The heroes and heroines of the new epistolary novel will be eccentrics, characters uninterested in conforming to the usual customs, or to be more contemporarily customary, trends, and unable to adjust to the hyper-evolution of technological change.

More than once I've come across a 'witty' article, listing off all the novels that would end on the first page if the characters had access to the technology that we have today. Jane Austen heroines discover their potential suitors' misdeeds on social media, Dickens's Pip finds out just who has destined him to great expectations before he's so much as bought his new London suit, Hamlet gets prescribed anti-depressants, and so on. Aside from the joke being rather obvious - haha, the past was different than the present - what these sorts of critiques, if I may deign to call them so, miss is the forest for the decidedly trite trees. The limitations and freedoms of any particular age are not simply tending to the now. What the epistolary novel accomplishes that no other form can is the relaying of specific relationships of specific characters with the illusion that the author has disappeared entirely. The characters speak, unmediated - though of course that lack of mediation is a trick, a sleight of pen, and conscious of their own speaking, shaping their discourse according to their interlocutor.

What we mean today by technology - mostly the internet and devices that connect to the internet and collect and store data - connects us more closely, but only in a superficial sense. Modernity has given rise to tools of immense communicative power and has equally created a culture of alienated, atomized individuals. The person who sits down and writes a letter, dares to write a letter, refuses to be deluded by the promises of instant connectivity, refuses to leap straight to the destination without making the journey. The person who writes a letter is not taken in the delusion of living in the future, in a pious superiority over the past.

The epistolary novel, then, if it is to survive into the twenty-first century and beyond, must be the medium of the few, the stubborn, the introspective, those who are unafraid of being out of the gaze of the many in order to seek communion with the few. The epistolary novel, once the province of blistering social satire, sentimental agony, the busy comings and goings of being in the world, must retreat to a new realm, that of the misanthrope, the cynic, the skeptic, but also the kindred spirit, the bosom friend, the rebel who genuinely doesn't care about appearing rebellious. This genre that exposed the hypocrisy, greed, and lasciviousness of a doomed class (Les liaisons dangereuses), that cleaved through snobbery, racism, and misogyny to deal the first blows of the feminist cause (Letters from a Peruvian Woman), turned over the seamy underbelly of sadomasochistic desire and terror (Dracula), shrieked the agony of an impossible love (The Sorrows of Young Werther), ran shivers up and down our spines and set detectives on our trail (The Woman in White), this revolutionary genre must seek its defiant course away from the mainstream, away from the proliferation of thoughtless, split-second exchange, and find its own, strange, singular way forward and into the unfamiliar future.