Monday, September 30, 2013


At one time or another, everyone has had the experience of waking from a dream feeling, even if only for a second, as though the dream were real. Recently I had one of those dreams where you see yourself, as if in real-time, sleeping in bed, conscious of being asleep and dreaming, yet at the same time aware of being awake, outside of the body, and observing. The way these varied states of consciousness peel away only to reveal other, hidden states of consciousness, each with a psychological validity that crosses over into reality, is like the chimerical equivalent of a Russian nesting doll. It all happens very swiftly, fleetingly in fact, yet while it’s happening, you harbor a tiny fear in your heart that it’s a tossup as to which of these realities is authentic.
This inability to discern what is real and what is imagined is at the core of Robert Altman’s dreamy, trippy, intriguingly abstruse psychological thriller Images. A movie that takes the fluid dreamscape logic of 3 Women, crosses it with the volatile psychosexual menace of That Cold Day in the Park, and adds to it all the schizophrenic character-study subjectivity of Roman Polanski’s Repulsion.
Susannah York as Cathryn
As with Catherine Deneuve’s Carol in Repulsion, when we first meet Susannah York’s Cathryn, she is a woman already deep in the throes of mental illness. Cathryn is a schizophrenic, a fact she appears to be at least subtly aware of (or at least suspects) on some level. Married to her waggish businessman husband Hugh (Rene Auberjonois), the rather solemn Cathryn spends a great deal of her time isolated, as she is an author working on a children’s book.
Altman incorporated In Search of Unicorns, a children’s book Susannah York was writing at the time, into the screenplay of Images. Published in 1973, York’s somewhat euphuistic fairy tale so perfectly suits the dreamlike tone of Images, it’s hard to believe it wasn't written expressly for the film. Moreover, York’s melodious voiceover narration of passages from the book provides an appropriately cryptic counterpoint to the action.
As Cathryn endeavors to patch together the narrative fragments of her children’s fantasy, she engages in lengthy inner monologues that cull forth shadowy images of her past. A vague and disjointed puzzle of images, sounds, and memories from her past that intrude abruptly and randomly upon her present.
Rene Auberjonois as Hugh
Mirrors, lenses, and prisms are a motif Altman employs throughout Images to convey Cathryn's fractured reality 

Cathryn is a woman haunted. Haunted by past infidelities (lovers, both dead and alive, have a nagging way of reappearing, attempting to resume their dalliances); guilt (she vacillates between being both desirous and fearful of having a child); suspicion (she assigns her own deceitful behavior to her husband); and specifically, the unwelcome, ever-encroaching memories of a lonely childhood. Memories, for reasons left unexplained, she struggles to suppress. We’re never explicitly told what is ailing Cathryn, nor is it clear what has recently occurred to accelerate the frequency and intensity of her schizophrenic episodes. What is apparent is that her illnessone the film's subjective POV makes us privy to alonetakes the form of a mercurially shifting reality which, at times, appears to be conspiring to betray her.
Dream Lover
Cathryn's former lover, Rene (Marcel Bozzuffi of The French Connection), reappears after having died in a plane crash three years prior
Although I desperately wanted to see this when it was released in 1972, I was just 14 years old, and Images was an R-rated movie playing at one of San Francisco’s “art house” cinemas. A theater, I might add, whose policies regarding underage attendance were not as flexible as those of my trusty neighborhood moviehouse, thus necessitating many attempts on my part to persuade apathetic family members (or mature-looking friends) to accompany me. In spite of the thriller being promoted with a very eye-catching poster featuring dual Susannah Yorks reflected in the lens of a vintage bellows camera stabbed by a butcher knife (see below), I found not a single taker. So I only got around to seeing Images at a revival theater sometime in the '80s.
Happily, thanks to Susannah York’s brilliantly restless performance; Vilmos Zsigmond’s (Heaven’s Gate) lush and evocative cinematography; the unsettling musical score by John Williams (with Stomu Yamashta); and especially the film’s stylistic similarities to the work of Roman Polanski, Images became an instant favorite that was more than worth the wait.
Fans of Robert Altman will recognize actor Hugh Millais as the bounty hunter in McCabe & Mrs. Miller. Here he plays Cathryn's libidinous neighbor and former lover, Marcel

Few things are more dismal than watching a film that thoroughly explains, spells out, and underlines (with italics) each plot point and narrative twist that you’re left with nothing to ruminate or talk about afterward. While that's a point that can be made about many of the movies-by-market-research released these days, no one could ever say that about a Robert Altman film.
In Images, Altman takes the very intriguing tack of asking us to exclusively share the increasingly fragmented perspective of a schizophrenic. A choice whose not-unexpected effect on the viewer is a mounting sense of disorientation and unease as it dawns that the story's entirety is to be told by a disturbingly unreliable narrator.
Cathryn Harrison as Susannah (Marcel's daughter)
Images plays fast and loose with the audience's reality as well. Each of the characters in the film shares the real-life name of one of the actors (Susannah, Rene, Cathryn, Hugh, and Marcel)

And therein lies the beauty of this film for me. As it grows ever more apparent that Cathryn is losing her grip on sanity, Images becomes a thriller that actively engages and challenges you to piece together the puzzle of the character's life and the film's story. Reality and hallucination merge imperceptibly without benefit of the usual clichéd cinema vocabulary indicators of dissolves, soft focus, echoes, or slow-motion; so a great deal of the veracity of what occurs is continually called into question.
Altman understands that no two people see or experience life exactly the same way, so he doesn't waste time trying to explain his personal point of view in his movies. Instead, he tells his story, then leaves it to each of us to make of it what we will. Even his brilliant DVD commentaries fail to "explain" things for the moviegoer craving answers. Altman is a director who would rather you actively watch one of his films and fully misunderstand it, than to passively sit and be spoon-fed every detail and theme. 
Images is one of those films that reveal more details each time you watch it.
In this scene, Cathryn works on a puzzle with Susannah, the daughter of a former lover. The single POV shot shared by the two individuals - Cathryn's adult hand occupying the left of the frame, Susannah's smaller hand on the right -  hints at the possibility of Cathryn actually working the puzzle alone, sharing the moment with a hallucination of herself as a young girl. Even the subject of the puzzle is suspect, as Cathryn continually says that she has no idea what the image is, yet we know for a fact that it is a puzzle of the very house she is occupying...the house she spent a great deal of time alone in as a child.

To clarify, I’m no fan of the sort of studied incoherence that put David Lynch on the map (and removed him just as swiftly). But I do love movies that demand your attention on first viewing, offer plenty of food for thought after, and later reward repeat viewings with heretofore undiscovered pieces of the puzzle…all laid out for you to find at your leisure should you just care to look. Such films hold the potential for each revisit to feel like a fresh experience.

It’s been widely reported (and corroborated on the DVD commentary) that due to recent news of her pregnancy and concerns about the film’s script, Susannah York wasn’t all that keen on appearing in Images. But if York’s performance is the work of a woman ambivalent about the film she appears in, her years studying at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts were clearly well-spent. Without resorting to ostentatious tics, gestures, and histrionic displays of madness, York inhabits her character to a chilling degree. Never for a moment are you in doubt that you are watching a fully fleshed-out individual, a character comprised of intelligence, imagination, and inner life. All of these, under the circumstances of her character's internal disintegration, convey a certain sadness as we observe a personality slowly submerged by mental illness. 
Cathryn continually confronts images of herself, whether reflected, remembered, or hallucinatory 

Where York particularly excels is in conveying, without words, the vast array of emotions attendant to discovering one’s mind is operating independent of one’s will. Images compels in giving the distinct impression that something Cathryn has likely been successful in keeping a lid on for some time, is now starting to slip through her fingers. Susannah York shows the panic, confusion, danger, and even the humor in Cathryn’s loss of psychological ground. Small wonder that York won the Best Actress award at the 1972 Cannes Film Festival for her work in Images.

I'm not sure why, but for as long as I can remember, I have been fascinated by movies dealing with the concept of duality. From Vertigo, Dead Ringers, Don't Look Now, The Tenant, Persona, and of course, 3 Women; so many of my favorite films are psychological thrillers in which the duality of human nature and the fluid quality of reality play a part.  
I'm still one of those who find the inner workings of the human psyche to be a far more terrifying landscape than anything that can be dreamed up by the gore-mongers making horror films today, so I personally consider Altman's Images to be an excellent thriller that effectively packs on the atmospheric dread and character-based tension. The environment Altman designs for his film is one loaded with reflective surfaces, shadowy corners, and interiors comprised of a Caligari-like assemblage of stairs, railings, rooms, and angled archways. Add to this the near-constant tinkle of wind chimes and an eerily deceptive (subjective) soundtrack, and you've got a thriller worthy of both Roman Polanski and Alfred Hitchcock.
The best movies are journeys. Journeys that transport us to other lives, other times, other lands, and, in the case of Images, other states of consciousness. Because the written word can so perfectly capture the subtleties of thought and emotion, and music is ideal for the conveyance of mood and feeling, what I have always loved about movies is how they can make real the fantastic. To render in corporeal terms, the dream /nightmare phase of existence where reality and illusion converge in ways that are not always easy to put into words. 
Hidden Behind Her Back
The threat of violence, unexpected and sudden, runs throughout Images
One can describe, academically and emotionally, what schizophrenia must be like, but in Images, Robert Altman finds a visual language capable of conveying a psychological frame of mind. Miraculously, seamlessly, Altman captures a state most of us only know through dreaming: the helpless, floating feeling of reality and fantasy existing as one, with our inability to discern where reality ends, and fantasy begins. The nightmare, of course, would be to have this be our awake, conscious state. Images brings this nightmare to life in a way refreshingly naturalistic and devoid of melodrama.
Even if you're left unpersuaded by the film as a genre thriller, you can't help but admire Altman's ability to take you inside the consciousness of another person, allowing for the vicarious experiencing of the real world through an entirely alien perspective. Although not one of Robert Altman's most discussed films, Images is a favorite of mine. One that fits neatly into his catalog of character studies of women on the verge.  
Who's watching whom?

'TIS A PUZZLEMENT- Piecing together the fragments
The wind chimes signaling a schizophrenic episode.
Elements of Cathryn's life can be gleaned from the "monologues" she shares with hallucinated others.
Note the address of Hugh's liaison given to her by a well-meaning "friend."
Note the soundtrack whenever Cathryn is using the phone  (Dial tones? Busy signals? Voices?)
Susannah's history/Cathryn's history.
Archie, the dog.
Malevolence perceived in everyday objects.
Windows or mirrors? Any difference?
I think it was either Roger Ebert or Pauline Kael who suggested interpolating the word "You" during several conversations where Cathryn references her husband "Hugh."

Copyright © Ken Anderson   2009 - 2013

Tuesday, September 17, 2013


Diana Ross is one of a kind. No disrespect to the pop stars of today (well, that’s not entirely true. I have plenty of disrespect for the pop stars of today, but this isn't the forum), but take away their wigs, costumes, and multi-million dollar stage pyrotechnics, and Beyoncé, Jennifer Lopez, Lady Gaga, and even personal fave, Janet Jackson, all look like suitable candidates for the “&” half of any '60s girl group (à la, Martha & The Vandellas, Bob B. Soxx & The Blue Jeans).
Diana Ross, on the other hand, is nobody’s idea of a backup ANYTHING. She couldn't blend in if she wanted to—which, to hear childhood friend and former Supreme Mary Wilson tell it, is something Diana was incapable of even as a skinny teenager in Detroit’s Brewster projects. Take away Diana Ross’ wigs, makeup, and costumes (unimaginable, I know, but try), and you've still got yourself this thoroughly unique, almost bizarre little lightning rod of a woman with a thoroughly captivating, slightly nasal, honey-coated voice; that extraordinary, CinemaScope smile; enormous, Keane-size eyes; and a body I'd always likened to a satin-draped straight-razor.
In short; an original. Someone so unlike anyone else that she easily stands head-and-shoulders above the crowd…as is…without even trying. Add to all this a genuine talent and charisma capable of holding one’s attention without the need for a phalanx of dancers and laser beams behind her, and you've got yourself Grade A star-quality of the sort conspicuously absent in today’s breed of homogeneous pop music androids culled from TV “talent” competitions and assembly-line image-stylist laboratories.
As someone who grew up with the music of The Supremes and always thought Diana Ross looked and acted like a full-fledged movie star (read: Diva) long before she actually became one; I viewed the Academy Award nomination she received for her film debut in Lady Sings the Blues (1972) as the realization of a professional inevitability and harbinger of things to come in what looked to be an equally successful career as an actress. To some, Lady Sings the Blues was just the successful film debut of another singer/actress along the order of Barbra Streisand's breakout performance in Funny Girl. But to the Black community, Diana Ross making it as a movie star was recognized for the wholly auspicious, thoroughly inspirational landmark it was.
All Bow Down to the Goddess
I love how, in this screencap, she isn't flattered, flustered, or even embarrassed by the hand-kissing. Diana just accepts it as her due. Like the Pope. 

The '70s Black film explosion was a culturally polarizing era in which the gain of increased onscreen visibility for Black women was mitigated by the fact that all too often in these films—specifically those that fit the Blaxploitation paradigm—their participation was limited to that of sassy sexpots or badass kung-fu mamas.
The mainstream success of Lady Sings the Blues signaled a growth and evolution in Black cinema, while Diana Ross' natural crossover appeal (a classy, sophisticated soul that didn't alienate Black audiences; an exotic-yet-familiar Eurocentric glamour that appealed to whites) ushered in a new age for Black actresses in film. Hollywood, after having dropped the ball with Lena Horne, Dorothy Dandridge, Eartha Kitt, and Diahann Carroll, appeared at last ready to bestow upon a Black leading lady, the status of motion picture superstar.
Throwback Stunt Queen / Diana. Doing the Most. Always.
(Someone online described her in these hilarious terms, and I've never forgotten it)

Unfortunately for all but lovers of soap opera, camp, drag queen aesthetics, bad acting, risible dialog, and above all, haute couture excess (i.e., yours truly); Diana Ross’ follow-up to her promising debut film was Mahogany: a problem-plagued production of a creaky "suffering in mink" romantic melodrama that's a virtual 1975 soul-food gumbo of every “women’s picture” cliché of the '30s, '40s, and '50s.
Diana Ross as Tracy Chambers
Anthony Perkins as Sean McAvoy
Billy Dee Williams as Brian Walker
Jean-Pierre Aumont as Christian Rosetti
Mahogany tells the story of Tracy Chambers, an aspiring fashion designer from the slums of Chicago who finds fame and fortune, but not much in the way of happiness, as Mahogany, an international supermodel. Or, as the ads proclaimed, “The woman every woman wants to be—and every man wants to have!” 
Were this a rags-to-riches tale about a male, the predominant conflicts would undoubtedly be of the professional sort…the dramatization of the obstacles impeding the hero’s achievement of his goals. As Mahogany is a film with a female protagonist, it falls into the usual trap of a great many "career woman" movies: it filters all of her professional struggles through the prism of her personal relationships with the men in her life. In Mahogany, Tracy inadequately juggles a trio of suitors, each progressively creepier than the last.
Let’s see what she has to choose from: there’s Brian, the hip Chicago politician who's an old-school chauvinist who thinks everything he is about is the shit, while everything that means anything to Tracy is ethically suspect. There’s controlling, sexually-confused photographer/Svengali, Sean, who resents any attempt by Tracy to achieve independence from him. And last, there’s 60-something Christian, a rather sweetly smarmy Italian Count who financially supports Tracy’s goals so long as she is open to a little hanky-panky payback. She can really pick 'em.
Tracy to Brian: "Something tells me there's more to you than that."
I wish the writers of Mahogany' had felt the same about their title character. In lieu of fleshing out Tracy Chambers' story (what happened to her parents?) or providing deeper insight into what makes her tick, Mahogany is all surface gloss. The film is satisfied with merely presenting Diana Ross as a glamour icon.  

On paper, the casting of Diana Ross as a top fashion model must have seemed like a cinematic slam dunk. Ross had long ago established herself as a thoroughbred clothes-horse whose beauty and flamboyant stage persona had launched a thousand drag shows (and a poorly-made doll by Ideal in 1969). And indeed, had Mahogany been designed as a Vogue photoshoot, all might have gone swimmingly, for when we're asked to gaze upon the luminous Miss Ross, all is right with the world. Lamentably, this being a motion picture and all, it's only when people start to walk and talk that things start to fall apart.
Calgon, Take Me Away
Mahogany, clearly enjoying Sean's fumbling, stranger-in-paradise, amorous attentions

For starters, the script is a disaster. The dialog is tin-eared, and it's hard to fathom the presence of so many post-Valley of the Dolls / The Best of Everything career-girl cliches stockpiled in a film not intentionally conceived as parody or satire. 
Secondly, the performances are all over the map. No two people seem to be appearing in the same film at the same time. The clashing acting styles of Ross (over-modulated), Williams (laid-back), and Perkins (twitchy), have the feel of one of those international productions where each member of the cast speaks in their native language, only to be dubbed later.
This fluctuation in tone is perhaps due to the film's original director, Tony Richardson (A Taste of Honey, Look Back in Anger), abandoning the project—fired or quit, depending on the source—and directing neophyte/veteran control freak Berry Gordy taking over the reins. Ross and Gordy, former lovers, apparently clashed frequently on the set, resulting in Ross staging a walkout of her own.
Everybody's a Critic
Mahogany, here debuting one of her "originals," gets a taste of the kind of
critical drubbing Diana Ross would later receive upon the film's release.

Most grievously, Mahogany fails to make good on any of the opportunities posed by Tracy being an African-American woman daring to dream outside of the narrow social confines of poverty, sexism, and racism with little to rely on but her determination and drive (successful Black models were still rare in 1975). While there are a couple of token scenes broaching the complex and controversial issues of racial authenticity, selling-out, and the European acceptance/eroticization of Black women, the film clearly prefers to spend its time fueling the Diana Ross success myth.
At every juncture, Mahogany invites us to subconsciously blend Tracy's life with that of Diana Ross. Sometimes intentionally: Ross studied fashion design as a teen and grew up in a poor neighborhood. Sometimes unintentionally: Tracy's relationship with the psychotically possessive and controlling Sean McAvoy hits awfully close to home with what's been written about the Ross/Gordy pairing. In its determination to give Diana Ross fans the Diana they love and want to see, Mahogany ultimately avoids being about anything in particular and winds up just being another diva vanity production on par with Streisand's The Mirror Has Two Faces and A Star is Born.
Get used to Diana's throat. You're gonna see a lot of it in this film.

While Mahogany’s somewhat sour subtext will always prevent it from being one of my top favorites (handsome or not, Billy Dee Williams’ Brian is a genuine jerk. And I can’t get past the film’s “Men are allowed to be passionate about their jobs; women are only allowed to be passionate about men” ideology), I do confess to having grown extremely fond of this movie over the years. For all the wrong reasons, of course, but fond of it, nonetheless.
As movies grow increasingly dumber, blander, and more market-researched, good camp is becoming increasingly hard to find. Most bad movies today are bad because they are unimaginative and lazy. Give me an old-school trash movie that jumps the track because it’s carrying a full cargo of ego, pretension, hubris, and delusion. Mahogany has plenty of the aforementioned to spare, plus the added bonus of a lead actress who never really knows when to tone it down, and a parade of ghastly, gaudy, gorgeous fashions. 
A few of my favorite Mahogany moments-
The Kabuki Finale
Mahogany's "stressed out" face
The homoerotic gun battle
These Extras
The Nip Slip
The Interview

Sean playing "Dunk the Diva"

What makes Mahogany so enjoyable for me is, first and foremost, Diana Ross, who I'd be happy to watch if all she was doing was a crossword puzzle. And it's a good thing I feel that way, because, for whatever reason, the sensitive, compellingly natural actress from Lady Sings the Blues (or The Wiz, for that matter) is nowhere to be seen in Mahogany. In its place are scenes of self-conscious, Great Lady suffering and moments that feel as though she's lampooning her own image by behaving like a Diana Ross impersonator. There are a few moments where Ross is actually very good (she has a good, relaxed rapport with Williams in their scenes), but for the most part, I get the impression she's creating her own performance without a lot of directorial guidance.
Always a favorite is the late-great actress and Oscar nominee (Guess Who's Coming to Dinner) Beah Richards, who appears oh-so-briefly as Tracy's Aunt Florence

When it first came out, I was just disappointed in Mahogany and its waste of a one-of-a-kind natural resource like Ross. Now, given that she has made so very few films, I find myself grateful that there exists at least one film where Diana Ross gets to delve into Joan Crawford/Faye Dunaway territory and give her fans exactly the kind of excessive, camp-tastic drag show her recording artist persona has always played upon.
Miss Ross  - Killin' it.
Beyonce, JLo, Lady Gaga, Katy Perry...the whole lot. They should be thankful as hell that young Diana isn't around.  They'd all be eating her dust and chilling in her shade.

Anthony Perkins, playing to type (once again), gives the second most enjoyable performance in the film. As the psycho photographer Sean McAvoy, I think he's supposed to suggest Francesco Scavullo, but he's more Z-Man Barzell from Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. His scenes are fun because they have a suitably electric, edgy, unpredictability to them. And though he sometimes comes off hammy as hell, in this corny and cheesy cinema casserole chronicle, he's just the spice this film needs. 

There are two bits of perfection in Mahogany beyond 8th Wonder of the World, Diana Ross: The Oscar-nominated theme song, "Do You Know Where You're Going To?" and the amazing, much-imitated fashion montage sequence that accompanies the instrumental rendition. The montage is credited to Jack Cole, and it's literally the most striking bit of filmmaking ingenuity in the entire movie. It could have been released as a stand-alone film or music video. It's brilliant, it's exhilarating, and I just love everything about it. (Maybe Jack Cole should have directed the whole film!)
Because the full title of the song is Theme from Mahogany (Do You Know Where You're Going To?) I always assumed it was composed for the film. While researching this post, I found out that Thelma Houston actually recorded the song first (with slightly different lyrics) back in 1973! You can listen to it HERE

Diana Ross in Mahogany (top left) and Barbra Streisand in Funny Lady (bottom left) channel Modern Dance legend Martha Graham's 1930 dance piece, "Lamentation" (right).

Representation matters. And if a film as seriously flawed and inherently silly as Mahogany matters at all (and it does), it's as an alternative vision of African-Americans onscreen. I always like thinking back on how powerful and inspiring the glamorous images in Mahogany must have appeared to young people in the '70s, young Black girls in particular, who rarely got the opportunity to see someone who looked like them onscreen revered for their beauty.  That's why I always give this movie a great deal of credit even while not considering it to be very good. 
And yet, while I greatly admire Diana Ross as a role model, Mahogany has never earned any points for the double-sided message it sends to young women. 
In the '70s, feminism in the movies liked to talk a good game, but when it came to love stories, a great many films ended with the female characters doing all the adapting, while the males pretty much retained the lives they led when we first met them. In 1974s Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore, Ellen Burstyn’s character makes a very good point when she declares, “It’s my life!  It’s not some man’s life that I’m here to help him out with!” Yet by fade-out, Kris Kristofferson still has his ranch and horses and no immediate plans to move to Monterey, while Alice, on the other hand, doesn't necessarily table her dream of becoming a professional singer, but not in Monterey, her goal throughout the film. The not-so-subtle implication being that her dreams of Monterey were the fantasy of a young girl; her relationship with Kristofferson is the real (grown-up) thing. 
That's comedy writer Bruce Vilanch under all that hair

In Mahogany, Tracy Chambers dreams of being a fashion designer. Although her behavior in every sequence suggests a professional ambition backed by considerable drive (she devotes every free moment to working on her designs, attends night classes, and takes her sketches to dress manufacturers), the screenplay seizes every opportunity to minimize her goals, subtly characterizing them as the superficial dreams of a socially unenlightened woman. 
Especially when compared to the lofty, “uplift the race” ambitions of smug, self-satisfied defender of the downtrodden, small-time politician Brian Walker. A man who, when not reproaching Tracy for actually having thoughts and ideas that are not specifically his own, spends his time using one arm to pat himself on the back for his altruistic impulses, the other to start brawls with political hecklers. Instead of Brian and his dismissal of her dreams representing the kind of narrow-minded people Tracy needs to get away from, Brian is presented as the savior of her literal and figurative "soul." And so, at the film's fade-out, Tracy, having left behind Rome and her successful career, is (I can only assume) to be applauded for being mature enough to choose love over a job, and for taking Brian’s Curse of the Cat People proclamation: “Success is nothing without someone you love to share it with!” to heart. 
Despite the fact that Brian has experienced, by film's end, nothing in his own career that comes close to the level of success Tracy has achieved, everything ends on a note of things being "righted" when Tracy returns to his side, vowing to " put her imagination to work” for the cause both she and her man believe in. The message is clear: Women have fantasies and dreams that are self-centered and superficial, while men have ambitions that are righteous and benevolent.

I guess, in a way, it's kind of good that Mahogany isn't a better film. Were it a movie people took seriously, they might actually have paid attention to its message. As it stands, Mahogany is much like a great many real-life fashion models: exciting, beautiful, stylish, a tad overdressed, but without too much to say that's of substance. 

A fun and informative review of Mahogany can be found here at Poseidon's Underworld

Diana Ross plays a haughty, arrogant nightclub performer (surprise!) harboring a dark secret in the 1971 Danny Thomas sitcom, Make Room for Grand-Daddy. (She's very good.)

Mahogany lip reading: There are a couple of re-dubbed scenes in Mahogany that, thanks to the wonders of HD TV, one can now easily make out. In the big argument scene between Tracy and Brian (in which Brian subtly tells her that she needs to face the fact that she has no career and is unlikely ever to have one) Diana Ross's voice says, "Forget You, Brian!" while her lips reveal "Fuck you, Brian!" (My thoughts, exactly.) This allowed the film to get a PG rating instead of an R.

Similarly, in a scene set in Rome where Tracy buys Brian a snug-fitting Italian suit, Brian can be heard complaining (in long shot), "I feel like an old sissy in these clothes!" Moments later when Brian mimics Tracy's high-pitched voice, Diana Ross can be heard saying, "Now, you sound like a sissy!" but a look at her mouth reveals she is actually saying, "Now, you sound like a faggot!" Clearly repeating the word Billy Dee Williams said (and later re-dubbed) in long shot.
Shame on you, Mahogany!

Ever the professional, Diana practices her dialog from The Wiz...three years early

When Mahogany was released wide, the original poster art got a Linda Blair head-turning makeover. The aloof, "Get a load of this" Diana was now (after the reviews had come in) all smiles and even more over-emphatic with the self-aggrandizing accolades

Mahogany opened in San Francisco on Wednesday, October 22, 1975, at the Alhambra 1 Theater on Polk Street. I was in high school and worked there as an usher, so I saw this movie a lot. I was in heaven!

Copyright © Ken Anderson  2009 - 2013

Friday, September 6, 2013


“If you take material and filter it through me like a sieve, it’s gonna vaguely have my shape. I can’t hide that ‘signature’ any more than I can create it. It’s something that occurs. It’s DNA.”        
Robert Altman on the topic of directors subconsciously leaving their personal imprint on a film.

When Roman Polanski’s controversial film adaptation of Macbeth, William Shakespeare’s famously “unlucky” play (theater superstition has it that the play is cursed), flopped unceremoniously at the boxoffice, the director salved his wounded ego by complaining to any and all that the film’s poor reception was due to the public failing to believe his blood-soaked, graphically violent approach to Shakespeare's tale of a nobleman brought low by ambition and waning conscience, was in any way influenced by the Manson killings. Polanski felt his film was never given a fair chance because misguided critics and Freud-obsessed American audiences insisted on reading allusions to the brutal August, 1969 slaying of his wife (actress Sharon Tate) and unborn child into all those explicitly rendered, Shakespeare-mandated, stabbings, dismemberments, ambushes, beheadings, and infants from their mother's wombs untimely ripp'd. silly of us.
"It makes 'The Wild Bunch" look like 'Brigadoon'"
Or so one critic thought upon the film's release. Most of the bloodshed that traditionally occurs offstage in Macbeth is placed front and center in Polanski's adaptation. 

Polanski was right of course. Audiences at the time most definitely reacted to Macbeth as a film made by a director exercising questionable taste in drawing upon an unspeakable personal tragedy for artistic inspiration. But how could they not? His first film in almost three years, Macbeth was Polanski's follow-up to Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and his first film since the cultural shockwave of the Tate/LaBianca Murders. I think it would be fair to say that at this point in his career, Polanski could have adapted The Bobbsey Twins at the Seashore and audiences would still have scoured every frame looking for traces of what affect such a profound loss and personal trauma might have had on his work.

Roman Polanski is perhaps my favorite director of all time, but for him to have assumed it would be otherwise is not only naive, but smacks more than a little of a disingenuousness on his part. As one of the breed of filmmakers who greatly benefited from the “film director as star” cult that sprang out of the '70s "auteur movement," Polanski became the darling of both mainstream and avant-garde film by promoting his films as the creative end-result of his singular artistic vision. Whose fault is it then when audiences seek to detect traces of the director's DNA on the celluloid?
Jon Finch as Macbeth
Francesca Annis as Lady Macbeth
Martin Shaw as Banquo
Terence Bayler as Macduff
John Stride as Ross
Both Polanski and co-collaborator Kenneth Tynan (the noted theater critic and literary manager of the National Theater Company) are terrifically faithful to Shakespeare's original text of The Tragedy of Macbeth, but make no mistake, this IS Polanski’s Macbeth. Good or bad, whether he likes it or not, Roman Polanski's cinematic fingerprints (not to mention copious amounts of blood) are all over this adaptation. Instead of denying it, perhaps it's time for Polanski to embrace it; for it is the infusion of one man's real-life fixations into the fictional story of another that wrests this Macbeth from its theatrical confines and brings it to vibrant, intensely compelling life. 
All the trademark Polanski templates and obsessions are in attendance: the bleak, empty vistas under ominous skies recall Cul-De-SacRepulsion's hallucinatory dream sequences are echoed in Macbeth's haunted nightmares; there's the coven of nude, elderly witches that hearken to Rosemary's Baby; and the coiled, masculinity-baiting tensions that exist between Lord and Lady Macbeth are not dissimilar to Knife in the Water's aggrieved married couple.
The Three Witches
Chaos, Darkness, & Conflict
So many familiar themes and motifs that later came to punctuate the entire Roman Polanski film oeuvre are present in fevered abundanceblunt, unsentimentalized violence; pessimism; a distrust of human nature; guilt; impotence in the face of destiny; black humorone might be forgiven for forgetting that Macbeth was indeed written by William Shakespeare in the 17th Century and not Mr. Polanski in the 20th.
Nicholas Selby as King Duncan

I’m not much on Shakespeare. The language is beautiful, I’ll grant you that, but the image I have of Shakespeare on film is one of lugubrious dramas with British actors in love with the sound of their own voices staring off into the distance delivering speeches. In tights, yet.
There are exceptions of course. I'm fond of Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet – (1996), Titus (Andronicus) - (1999), and this, Polanski’s Macbethwhich is my favorite screen adaptation of a Shakespeare work. Macbeth, with its exceedingly high body count and concern with such relatable, base emotions as guilt, envy, and revenge, is a particularly impressive translation to film, not only because Polanski is a perfect ideological match for a tale about the poisonous imprint of ambition (Lord Macbeth and Rosemary’s Baby’s Guy Woodhouse would have a lot to say to one another), but as one of cinema’s great visual storytellers, Polanski’s command of the language of cinema enlivens the story by creating images as poetic and dramatically evocative as the words that accompany them.
As though summoned by Macbeth's own brooding temperament, dark clouds
 gather in the skies above Inverness castle as King Duncan approaches to meet his fate

Polanski takes the naturalistic approach to Shakespeare’s play, an approach that forges a psychological intimacy to the story, making the characters life-size and rendering their faults not ones born of evil natures, but of human weaknesses. The tragedy of Macbeth is that the darkness within him is only unearthed after his fortunes have taken an upturn and his future success ordained. Lord and Lady Macbeth are only truly unhappy with their lot after it has been prophesized that it is to be improved. It’s like the “entitlement” sickness that grips Americans today. People seem to have lost the knack of being happy with what they've got because everywhere you look they're being told that they should want more, that they deserve better…and worse…as citizens in the “land of plenty”, are entitled to it. Ambition for ambition's sake is the madness that grips Macbeth.
Lord and Lady Macbeth: Thwarted by vaulting ambition
Polanski, who knows all too well the corruptive allure of ambition and its close kinship to guilt, makes Macbeth’s conflict of conscience one disturbingly personal and frighteningly real.

In spite of Polanski's well-documented technique of micromanaging the hell out of his actors (which, given the level of performances he gets out of his actors, may well speak to the efficiency of the technique overall), naturalism dominates. His actors appear liberated and unfettered, their performances effortlessly lifting Shakespeare's characters from the printed page.
Macbeth’s boxoffice prospects were greatly diminished by the lack of star names attached to it (beyond Polanski’s, of course), but in Jon Finch (the late actor who starred in Hitchcock’s Frenzy) Polanski has an actor capable of tapping into the man behind the monster. Finch, whose dark, anxious eyes reveal more about the demons plaguing his character’s mind than any monologue can adequately capture, makes for a persuasively vulnerable, down-to-earth Macbeth. A performance refreshingly devoid of theatrical posturing and the arch striking of surface attitudes, Finch’s Macbeth is a man driven to malicious madness by weaknesses within him that he allows himself to be convinced are strengths.
Jon Finch's Macbeth is no speechifying protagonist. He's a man suffering
the disintegration of his soul in pursuit of ambition he scarcely knew he harbored.

Gender, sexual politics, and women as possessors of the only true power, have been recurring themes in a great many of Polanski's films (Cul-De-Sac, The Ghost Writer, Bitter Moon, Knife in the Water, Carnage, and his forthcoming Venus in Fur). Shakespeare's Lady Macbeth is tailor-made for Polanski's usual upending of gender roles in the service of dramatizing the subtle gynophobia that lies behind the uneasy alliance known as sexual relations in his films. 
In Francesca Annis, Polanski happily departs from the usual depiction of Lady Macbeth as natural femininity perverted by the "masculine" pursuit of power, and presents her as something of an intellectual barbarian equal to the physical barbarism displayed by the men. She is no better nor worse than those around her who plot and scheme, but hampered by the medieval limitations placed upon her gender, she operates within the only sphere allowed her: covert puppetmaster to her husband's implicit will.
Few critics in 1971 were able to get past her nude-sleepwalking scene, but Francesca Annis gives a very fine, understated performance as Lady Macbeth, both her fevered desire for the crown and eventual decline into madness are quite affecting.
"What, will these hands ne'er be clean?"
From his childhood eluding the Nazis in his native Poland, to the loss of his family to the Manson madness, one attribute of Polanski's real-life acquaintance with the naked face of horror has been his inability to see the need to paint evil as anything more than human, and anything less than something that resides within each of us.

Perhaps because I've never been partial to medieval costume dramas full of derring-do, pageantry, and heroic swordplay; I’m crazy about the squalid, gloomy look of Macbeth. Polanski gives us one of Shakespeare’s most unrelentingly bleak and depressing plays and serves it up with extra dollops of rain, murk, and medieval filth. There’s nothing romantic or even remotely cheery about it, and the effect is to ground Shakespeare’s larger-than-life themes of wrongs corrected and order restored into a cynically circular tale where suffering is as ceaseless and bleak as the horizon.
The graceful, romanticized fencing duels of the typical Shakespearean film are replaced by clumsily brutal bouts that highlight the awkwardness of the armor and the sense that what we are witnessing are not heroic battles, but lowly brawls and acts of aggression.

Although I dearly wanted to, I wasn't allowed to see Macbeth when it was opened. Not because my parents thought it was too violent for my tender age (I was 14), but because of all the pre-release publicity surrounding Lady Macbeth’s nude sleepwalking scene (so tame by today’s standards, the film could be shown in high school English classes) and the guilt-by-association tarnish of Macbeth being the premiere entry from Playboy’s newly-formed film division. (It’s reported that Polanski’s somber film got off to a bad start at press screenings when the title card, “A Playboy Production” was greeted with snorts of derisive laughter.)
The Macbeths find their nights plagued by sleeplessness
In any event, I’m grateful for having been spared seeing this film at a time when the horrors of the Manson case would have still been too fresh in my mind. As Manson's trial had only ended that same year, seeing the film just would have been too painful and depressing an experience. Now, with neither its nudity nor violence the incendiary focus they once were, it's possible to see Macbeth as one of the screen's more successful Shakespeare adaptations. A fact that remains even though time has yet to fully eradicate the cloud of sadness hovering over the violent events it recalls.
Polanski's Macbeth was released the same year as Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange and Ken Russell's The Devils. As you can imagine, the entertainment world was up in arms over what it perceived at the time to be the "new permissiveness" in films gone completely out of control. 
Both in interviews and in his memoirs, Polanski has spoken of how happy he was during the making of Rosemary's Baby; a fact easily attested to by Polanski delivering an ingeniously dark thriller that is nonetheless buoyed by a delicate black humor and obvious love of moviemaking. By comparison, Macbeth, as riveting a dramatization as it is, has an unshakable air of sadness about it (the real reason I think the film fared to score well with audiences), and feels at times like an act of hostility directed towards the audience. It's as if—in choosing to make the violence so graphic, gruesome, and in-your-facePolanski is enacting revenge on those who blamed him and his films for attracting the violence of the Manson crimes.
Critics like Roger Ebert took issue with Macbeth's wanton barbarism and the unfortunate resemblance of many of the knights to Charles Manson and his minions
Armed with the rejoinder that all of the violence depicted in Macbeth is Shakespeare’s, not his own, Polanski, subconsciously or not, decides to rub our faces in it. Outdoing any film he’s done before or since in terms of the depiction of savagery (even going so far as to provide a startling view of jeering crowds from the point of view of the already beheaded Macbeth), Polanski, perhaps feeling he would be damned by the public no matter what he did, opts for showing us a vision of a world the press had claimed he'd inhabited all along. A world of unremitting bleakness and hopelessness.

"When you tell a story of a guy who’s beheaded, you have to show how they cut off the head. If you don’t, it’s like telling a dirty joke and leaving out the punch line."
                                                                                                 Roman Polanski 

The suggestion that artists cannot help but leave behind a patina of some aspect of themselves on their work is a concept to which I strongly adhere. And in the case of an artist as gifted as Roman Polanski, such a belief only stands to further enrich the viewing experience. For me, his Macbeth, a film of haunting images both beautiful and horrificstands as a towering achievement in terms of one artist adapting the work of another (in this instance, a story ofttimes told) and fashioning it into something uniquely, exclusively...and to Polanski's regret...revealingly, his own.

Copyright © Ken Anderson    2009 - 2013